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Count on Family

B.jpgCount on Family

The book of Numbers describes the journey of the Jewish people, from Mount Sinai to the Jordan River. More than just a geographical journey, the book of Numbers is the story of the psychological odyssey which formed a nation, spiritually mature, able and ready to enter the land of Israel.  

Creating a cohesive enterprise, or a unified nation, is no easy task. In order to reach its full potential, the group needed to unleash the unique personality and strength of each individual. Any effort to suppress the spirit of the individual would stifle all ambition and creativity. On the other hand, nurturing individuality presented its own set of challenges. People are often divided and fragmented. People have trouble communicating effectively with each other and at times seem more interested in using others to advance their own agenda rather than being concerned for their well-being. 

In the book of Numbers, the Torah lays out the secret to creating a healthy society: the formula is the model of the family. 

In the opening portion of the book we read about Moses and Aaron being commanded to count the Israelites:

The Lord spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert, in the Tent of Meeting on the first day of the second month, in the second year after the exodus from the land of Egypt, saying. Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by families following their fathers' houses; a head count of every male according to the number of their names.[1]

The key to understanding the significance of the census is the phrase “by families”.  

Although this was not the first time the Jewish people were counted[2], this census was unique in that the people were counted by their families. They counted the members of each family which led to the total number of each individual tribe, and then they combined the numbers of each tribe and arrived at the total number of all the people. Thus, the family was the foundation of this census.

What is a family?

The first family described in the Torah was the family of Adam and Eve. The Torah tells us:

On the day that God created man, in the likeness of God He created him. Male and female He created them, and He blessed them, and He named them “Adam” (person) on the day they were created.[3]

A family is comprised of individuals who are unique, who have intellectual and emotional qualities that are different from each other. Yet, the individuals realize that in order for each of them to reach their fullest potential they must come together as a family unit, not in order to dilute their individuality, but rather in order to receive from and give to one another, for only thus are they able grow to their fullest potential.

“Male and female he created them... and named them “Adam” (person)”. The Torah is teaching us that to be a complete person, to be an Adam, a “Mentch”, one must understand that male alone or female alone, is not a complete ”Adam”. In order to be complete one must be part of a literal or figurative family, where one can be fully himself and, at the same time, transcend the confines of self. 

The secret to the survival of the Jewish people is the secret of family. We have learned that in order for the individual to fully thrive he must be willing to connect and give of himself to others. We have learned that the individual can reach his or her greatest heights, specifically when he or she is part of a greater family.

In time all the world will take the lesson of family to heart, ushering in an era of brotherhood and peace.[4]



[1] Numbers 1:1-2.

[2] The Jewish people were counted when they left Egypt, and again, just a few months later, after the sin of the golden calf.  

[3] Genesis 5:2-3.

[4] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, 28 Iyar 5731. 

Holy Farmer!

Behar.jpgHoly Farmer!

Every seventh year, the Jewish farmer living in Israel was commanded to cease working the land, to separate from the earth and to designate a sabbatical year for matters of the spirit. The Sabbatical year, the Shmittah, was to be dedicated as a “Shabbat to G-d”, as this week’s Torah portion begins:

Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them: When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land shall rest a Sabbath to the Lord. 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 year of rest followed the six years of working the land, why then does the Torah state: “When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land shall rest a Sabbath to the Lord”, implying that immediately upon entering the land they were to designate a sabbatical year? 

Entering the Land of Israel was the opening of a new chapter in the Jewish story. Up until that point the Jews were not in the agriculture business. The Patriarchs and their children were shepherds; an occupation which did not take much effort and which left them plenty of time to be out in nature, separated from the distractions of civilizations, an occupation conducive to leading a spiritual life. Upon entering the land, the descendants of Abraham and the bearers of his legacy, were, for the first time, called upon to take possession of a land, to work it and to reap its bounty. For the first time, the people were focusing their time and attention on the earth.

To ensure that the people of Israel would maintain their spiritual identity, and elevate the earth rather than be consumed by it, the Torah tells us that as soon as they entered the land they must know that eventually the land would rest and experience the Sabbatical year. The Torah begins with the mention of the Sabbatical year, although it would not come to pass until after the six years of work, in order to remind us of the goal of the entire enterprise. Why are we in business? Why do we spend six long years working the land? Not merely because we desire the produce. The goal of all our work, the purpose of all our efforts, is to connect to G-d during the Sabbatical year.[2]

The Mitzvah of the Sabbatical, has an unusual introduction:

And the Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying:[3]

The phrase “and the Lord spoke to Moses saying” appears many times in the Torah, yet the addition “on Mount Sinai” appears only once in the entire Torah. It appears only regarding the commandments of the Sabbatical year.

What is the connection between the commandment of the Sabbatical year and Mount Sinai? 

The Torah is telling the Jewish farmer: make no mistake about your identity, and about how you self define. You may be plowing the field or harvesting its fruit, you may be on the trading floor or in a meeting with investors, but that does not define you. The true you, is at Mount Sinai yearning for a connection to G-d and his wisdom. The true you understands that the purpose of all your efforts is for the spiritual Sabbatical.

Studying the Torah portion of the Sabbatical year reminds us to create sacred space in our life, in which we allow ourselves to re-experience Mount Sinai. We remind ourselves that it is on the weekly Shabbat, as well as the daily moments we devote to holiness, where we express our true identity. Those moments, in turn, empower us to carry the holiness to all areas of our life.

 



[1] Leviticus 25:2-4.

[2] See talk of the Rebbe, Behar 5741.

[3] Leviticus 25:1. 

The Non Anniversary

Sukkah.jpgThe Non Anniversary  

The Jewish year is filled with holidays that commemorate past events: Passover is celebrated on the day we were liberated from Egypt, Shavuot on the day we received the Torah, Rosh Hashanah, the day of judgement, the day Adam and Eve were judged for the sin of eating from the tree of knowledge; and on the day the Jewish people received the second set of tablets, which represented the atonement for the sin of the golden calf, we celebrate Yom Kippur. 

In truth, Judaism does not believe in an anniversary as merely a celebration of the past. According to the teachings of Chasisdisim, the same energy that occurred in the past is, once again, available and more easily accessible on the anniversary of that event. Thus, a wedding anniversary, for example, is not just a commemoration of the time that a couple experienced a moment of profound meaning and deep love all those years ago, but rather it is a day when the commitment, devotion, love and friendship they experienced in the past can be readily reawakened. By the same token, on Passover the energy of freedom is once again in the air, and on Yom Kippur we access the energy of atonement, because the events of the past come alive and are reawakened on their anniversary.

Which leads us to the one exception: the holiday of Sukkot.

In this week’s portion the G-d commands Moshe:

Speak to the children of Israel, saying: On the fifteenth day of this seventh month, is the Festival of Succoth, a seven day period to the Lord… In order that your [ensuing] generations should know that I had the children of Israel live in booths when I took them out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God.[1]

We sit in the Sukkah to commemorate the exodus, to remind ourselves that when we left Egypt G-d had us live in Sukkah huts. But why do we celebrate the holiday on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, six months after the exodus, on a day that is not the anniversary of any profound historic event? 

Why is Sukkot celebrated on a non anniversary date?

Sukkot is most joyous of all the holidays: while on Passover there is no explicit commandment to rejoice, and regarding Shavuos the Torah mentions the word joy only once, on Sukkot the Torah instructs us to rejoice no less than three times. Sukkot is the most joyous holiday specifically because it does not occur on an anniversary. Sukkot teaches us that we don’t need to wait for times when a unique energy shines from above. Instead, through building the Sukkah, we have the power to sanctify an otherwise mundane day. Sukkot teaches us that while, ordinarily, the inspiration and joy associated with the holidays comes from above specifically at designated holy times, we are, however, able to produce an even greater inspiration through our own actions.    

This explains why the Mitzvah of Sukkah is unique in that it encompasses our entire being. The holiness is not reserved for a specific action, such as eating Matzah or hearing the Shofar, but rather it is all encompassing. Anything we do in the Sukkah, whether it be eating, drinking, reading the paper or just relaxing, is a holy spiritual act that connects us to the Divine. Because such is the power of the Jew: to sanctify mundane time and to imbue daily activities with spirituality and holiness. 

On Sukkot our joy reaches its climactic peak because Sukkot represents the ability to feel the closeness and love to our beloved even on the days that are not our wedding anniversary.[2]

 


[1] Leviticus, 23: 34-43.

[2] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Likutey Sichos vol. 22 Emor Sicha 2. 

Marshmallows and the Tree of Knowledge

images.jpgMarshmallows and the Tree of Knowledge

One of the most famous studies in the field of psychology is the Marshmallow Test.

In a series of famous experiments in the 1960s and ’70s conducted by the Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel, preschoolers were invited to sit alone in a room furnished only with a small desk. On the desk sat two marshmallows (or equivalently tempting treats) and a bell. The researcher told each child that he had to leave, but that when he returned, she could eat both marshmallows. If she wanted one marshmallow before then, however, she could ring the bell and eat one, but not both. Then the researcher shut the door, leaving the child alone with the forbidden marshmallows:

Some children gobbled a marshmallow the minute the door was closed, while others distracted themselves by covering their eyes, singing and kicking the desk. One resourceful child somehow managed to take a nap. But here’s the part that made the experiment famous: In follow-up studies, children who had resisted temptation turned out years later to be not only... better socially adapted, but they also scored as much as 210 points higher on their SATs than the most impatient children in the studies did.[1]

Without getting into the debate about the merits of this fascinating experiment, the experiment brings to mind a commandment in this week’s Torah portion:

When you come to the Land and you plant any food tree, you shall surely block its fruit [from use]; it shall be blocked from you [from use] for three years, not to be eaten.

And in the fourth year, all its fruit shall be holy, a praise to the Lord.

And in the fifth year, you may eat its fruit; [do this, in order] to increase its produce for you. I am the Lord, your God.[2]  

The same fruit tree, year one to year three the fruit is forbidden, year four the fruit becomes holy and must be eaten in Jerusalem. The fruit of the fifth year may be eaten anywhere. It seems that the Torah wants us to wait before we consume our marshmallows.  

Indeed the commentators[3] explain that by refraining from eating the fruit of a tree for three years, we are rectifying the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, who consumed the fruit of the tree of knowledge. According to the Midrash, the prohibition against the fruit of the tree of knowledge was supposed to extend for only three hours of the day. At the fourth hour, when the holy day of Shabbat commenced, they were to squeeze the fruit of the tree, the grape, and use the wine to sanctify the day of Shabbat with the Kiddush blessing. Adam and Eve were not able to wait the three hours. They ate of the fruit early which led to tragic results. We, the descendants of Adam and Eve wait three years in order to rectify Adam and Eve’s choice to not to wait for three hours.

Buy why the need to wait?

If the grape eaten at the fourth hour would have been a positive and holy experience, why is eating it a few hours early so spiritually devastating?  

Every time we interact with the world around us there can be one of two possibilities. When we interact with food, with technology, with our vacation home, or any other phenomenon, either we are serving it or it is serving us. Either we are in control of it or it is in control if us. Some people are in control. Their smartphone serves them, they indulge in pleasure when they know it will be conducive to their overall well being. Others are controlled. Their possessions provide not peace of mind but rather anxiety and worry. They are enslaved to food, technology, or other forms of pleasure, they engage even when they know that the interaction is detrimental to their well being.

The deep insight we receive from the Mitzvah to refrain from eating the fruit for three years, is that before we can use the material to our advantage, we must demonstrate restraint. By doing so we exercise control and ensure that we are in the driver’s seat. That it is serving us, not the other way around.

If I can say no when necessary, then when I say yes, I do so in a healthy and wholesome manner.   

What is true regarding the fruit of the land of Israel is also true in our daily life.

There are moments when we are engaged in study or prayer, at which time we refrain from all fruit of the world and focus on our inner spiritual identity. This gives us the power to then use the fruit of the world in a holy, productive and healthy manner.[4]

 


[1]https://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/12/magazine/we-didnt-eat-the-marshmallow-the-marshmallow-ate-us.html?_r=0

[2] 19:23-25. 

[3] See Sifsy Cohen on the verse.

[4] Adapted from, the teachings of the Rebbe, 10 Shvat 5714.  

Creative Speech

s.jpgCreative Speech 

In recent years social scientists began to observe that the choice of words used to frame the dissection determine the outcome. Here is one example regarding health:

 A patient has just been told that he has a terminal illness. However, he is informed that there is an operation that might save his life. If he is told that there is a 90 percent survival rate for the operation, he will respond one way. If he is told that there is a 10 percent chance of dying during the operation, he will respond differently. When he is told that he has a 10 percent chance of dying, rather than a 90 percent chance of surviving, he is about three times less likely to have the operation.

If the subject is framed as a loss — 10 percent chance of dying — as opposed to  a gain — 90 percent chance of living — people respond entirely differently. They make a different decision.[1]

This should come as no surprise to students of Judaism.

In the middle of the book of Leviticus, between the discussion of the most intensely holy times in Judaism; between the story of the first day the Divine presence rested in the temple and the commandments regarding Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the calendar, the Torah introduces a seemingly unrelated set of laws. The Torah devotes no less than 116 verses to discuss the laws of Tzaraat, the supernatural from of leprosy, which, our sages explain, would miraculously appear as a punishment for the sin of speaking evil about others. Why does the Torah devote so much space and an unusual amount of details, to the subject of the impurity and the following purification process of Tzaraat?

In some ways, the Torah considers the impurity of Tzaraat to be the most severe form of impurity. The person afflicted with Tzaraat, alone amongst all forms of impurity, had to leave the city, was isolated from others and dwelt alone.

This implies that, in some ways, evil speech is worse than any other form of sin.

Indeed, the commentators explain, that the foundation of a healthy society is a relationship of friendship and trust. Thus, a person speaking slander is sowing distrust and created division in society which hampers economic and social well being. Thus, to preserve itself, society has no choice but to expel the speaker of evil tongue until he is rehabilitated to the point where he appreciates the benefits of a healthy society.   

Yet there is much more to the story.

The Torah has a deep respect for speech. As early as in the third verse of Torah, we read that G-d created the world with speech, “And G-d said let there be light and there was light”. The Torah understands that speech is tremendously potent, that just as G-d created the universe with speech, we too shape our own universe through speech. 

A child misbehaves in the class, the teacher cannot seem to grab the child’s attention. If the teacher tells the child ”you are the worst trouble maker who ever stepped foot into this classroom”, then indeed, right then and there a trouble maker is created. If the teacher tells the child “you have so much energy! If we learn to channel your energy you will accomplish great things” then right then and there greatness is born.

The Torah spends 116 verses on the subject of Tzaraat in order to teach us that holiness depends on the words we use. The words we use create our reality. A productive and holy society can only be created through positive speech.

For just as G-d created the universe with speech, we too shape our own universe through speech.



[1]http://www.npr.org/2016/12/06/504577235/are-you-of-two-minds-michael-lewis-new-book-explores-how-we-make-decisions  

Family Harmony

n.jpgFamily Harmony  

After an act of deep betrayal, the children were about to reconcile with their father. They gathered together for what was to be the culmination of a month long effort to rehabilitate their loving relationship.

All were gathered in great anticipation of the arrival of their father. Yet, one important question remained: could the children reunite with their father before they healed the division between themselves?

The opening verse of this week’s Parsha, Shimini, describes, how after months of tremendous devotion and effort, the Jewish people finally completed the construction of the Mishkan, the tabernacle, in the desert. The Mishkan was the place where the divine presence would dwell. It was the place where the people would see that the terrible betrayal, the sin of the golden calf, was forgiven, and that G-d would once again dwell in their midst, as He did at Sinai.    

On that day, the Torah tells us:

And it was on the eighth day, that Moses summoned Aaron and his sons and the elders of Israel. And he said to Aaron, "Take for yourself a bull calf as a sin offering”.[1]

Moses told Aaron to offer a calf for atonement. Why a calf? While we need to turn to Rashi, the primary Biblical commentator, to inform us of the reason for offering a calf specifically, it was certainly clear to the people of Israel at the time: the calf was to represent the atonement of the sin of the golden calf. It was obvious to all that the Divine presence could not return to the Jewish people before the betrayal was finally and completely healed.     

But then Moses continued: 

And to the children of Israel, you shall speak, saying, 'Take a he-goat as a sin offering…”[2]

What now? Why a goat? What other “unfinished business” did the people have to attend to before the glory of G-d would appear before them?

While the” calf” immediately evoked the story of the golden calf, finding the meaning of the “goat” is a bit harder. We must turn back to the book of Genesis to discover that indeed the goat played an important role in the most terrible tragic sin of the family of Israel: the sale of Joseph.[3] After the brothers tore their family unity to shreds by selling Joseph to slavery in Egypt, a sale which eventually led to the entire family relocating to Egypt and eventually descending into slavery, instead of showing any remorse they used a goat for their cover up:

And they took Joseph's coat, and they slaughtered a he-goat, and they dipped the coat in the blood. And they sent the fine woolen coat, and they brought [it] to their father, and they said, "We have found this; now recognize whether it is your son's coat or not." He recognized it, and he said, "[It is] my son's coat; a wild beast has devoured him; Joseph has surely been torn up."[4]

As the people gathered at the temple waiting to see a sign of the Divine presence that would heal the tear between the Children of Israel and their father in heaven, Moses taught them that in order to heal the relationship with their father, the children must first heal the relationship with each other. Moses explained that the jealousy and division that led to the sale of Joseph, was, in fact, the precise character trait that led to the division and separation from G-d at the golden calf and must be eradicated from their midst if they were to find harmony with G-d.

For indeed, the only way for children to be in complete harmony with a parent is when they are in complete harmony with each other.[5]

 

 


[1] Leviticus 9:1-2.

[2] Ibid. 9:3.

[3] See Midrash Toras Kohamim.

[4] Genesis 37:31-33.

[5] Based on the Kli Yakar on Parshas Shmini. 

The Road to Gratitude

so.jpgThe Road to Gratitude

Unique among the various types of offerings discussed in the book of Leviticus is the thanksgiving offering. It was brought when an individual wanted to offer thanks to G-d for being saved from a danger -

as Rashi explains:

“if [he is bringing the offering] to give thanks for a miracle that had happened to him, for instance, those who made a sea-voyage [and returned safely] or journeyed in the desert, or those who had been imprisoned [and were subsequently released]”[1]

- he would bring an offering to the temple.  

The thanksgiving offering was unique in that along with the animal it was required to bring no less than forty loaves of bread. In addition, the thanksgiving offering together with the forty loaves of bread, had to be eaten the day the offering was offered up until midnight, unlike similar offerings which were allowed to be eaten for two days.

Why does the Torah obligate the person offering thanks to bring so much food and eat it in so short a time? How can one person possibly eat an entire sheep and forty loaves of bread in one day?

The answer, of course, is that it is indeed impossible to eat all that food alone, yet the Torah requires all that food to be consumed in so short a time, specifically in order to ensure that the person does not eat alone.[2] The Torah is teaching that in order to offer thanks to G-d one must celebrate with family, friends and strangers. In order for the thanksgiving to be genuine, the celebration must be shared.

Gratitude is not always an easy feeling to experience. Gratitude requires humility. An arrogant person feels that he is the center of the universe, that he is entitled to all the blessings in his life, and that anything anyone does for him is not enough for he deserves even more. An arrogant person cannot feel grateful. 

To experience the joy of feeling grateful, one must escape the self centered ego. Thus the Torah instructs that no thanksgiving offering may be offered without the key ingredient which is the celebrating and connecting with others. Thus the Torah commands that a sheep and forty loaves of bread must be eaten in one day, in order that the person who was redeemed from a difficult circumstance in the physical sense,  should now liberate himself in the spiritual sense. As an expression of gratitude to G-d for redeeming him from a sorrow, he must reciprocate by freeing himself from the confines of the the self and seeking to connect and share with others.

At the Passover Seder we see how these three themes, humility, sharing and gratitude, are bound together and reinforce each other. During the Seder, as soon as we break the middle Matzah, feeling its texture and internalizing its message of humility, we proceed to tell the story of the Exodus. Yet, we begin not with the story but with an invitation and a declaration that are home is open to the needy:

This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat; whoever is in need, let him come and conduct the Seder of Passover. 

For as soon as we touch the Matzah we begin to experience its liberating energy, allowing us to transcend the self and feel the pain and need of others.[3]

At the culmination of the story is the powerful Dayenu song, the song of detailed thanksgiving and gratitude for the kindness that has been bestowed upon us.

At the Seder table we experience humility, sharing and gratitude. For spiritual liberty is transcending the self, which allows us to connect to others, and to feel gratitude.

 

 


[1] Leviticus 7:12.

[2] See Abarbenel’s commentary.

[3] See the Rebbe’s talks, Passover 5728. 

Don't Sacrifice!

3.jpgDon't Sacrifice! 

As we embark on the journey through the third book of the Torah, the book of Leviticus, we read, in the English translation of the Bible, about many forms of sacrifices: from sacrifices offered by the individual, as atonement or thanksgiving, to the communal sacrifices. Reading about all the sacrifices, we must remember that often the translation misses the essence of the idea it seeks to translate.

Let’s state it loud and clear: Judaism does not advocate, command, or believe in sacrifices.

The Merriam-Webster’s definition of “sacrifice” is as follows:  

1:  an act of offering to a deity something precious; especially:  the killing of a victim on an altar 2:  something offered in sacrifice. 3 a:  destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else b:  something given up or lost, the sacrifices made by parents. 

The word sacrifice, as well as offering, represents the idea that one must sacrifice and give up of him or herself for a cause. The word sacrifice implies that G-d would like to see us take something that is precious to us, something that we would very much like to keep for ourselves, and give it to G-d. 

Judaism, however, does not believe in sacrifice. The Hebrew word for sacrifice-offering is “Karban” which means to draw close [the root of “Karban” is “Karov” which means close][1]. 

What does draw close mean?

There are various forms of pleasures in this world, on a spectrum from the tangible to the spiritual and abstract. The more concrete the pleasure, the more tangible it is, the easier it is to experience without any training. A child does not have to develop a taste for sweets; the first time the child tastes candy the child knows that candy is good and pleasurable. But then there are more abstract forms of pleasure, great music, art, wisdom. It takes time and practice to enjoy them, one must invest in developing a taste for them, they may not be as easy to experience in the beginning, but the pleasure they provide, while not as tangible as candy, can be far more enjoyable. 

When a mother takes her child to a concert for the first time, the child may be thinking that this is a major sacrifice. After all, why waste the time listening to music when there is fun to be had and toys to be played with? Mother, however, is not demanding a sacrifice from her child. What she is doing is introducing him or her to a higher, deeper, form of pleasure.

In the book of Exodus great things are accomplished. G-d takes the people out of physical and spiritual bondage in Egypt, gives them the Torah, and gives them precise instructions on how to construct a temple, a place where one can become close to the Divine.

And then comes the book of Leviticus. G-d introduces the “Karban”, the drawing close. Nachmanides[2] explains that the purpose of offering an animal was to elicit within the person the feeling that in truth he should be the one offered, and the animal is an exchange for himself. All offerings had two things in common: the blood was extracted and placed on the altar, and some of the fats were burnt on the alter. This symbolizes, not the destruction of the passion and pleasure, but rather it symbolizes devoting the passion and pleasure to the holy and Divine. [3]

In the book of Exodus G-d acts like the mother who took her child from the sandbox to the concert hall. In the book of Leviticus it is the child’s turn to act.[4] It is the child who is called upon to do what no one else can do for him: to draw himself close to the music and experience a deeper pleasure; to draw himself close and experience the pleasure and joy of a relationship with G-d.  

 

 


[1] There are other, less common, names for “Karban” in the Torah, one example is “Zevach”. The word “Zavach” does not imply taking life per se; rather it implies a positive creation of food, specifically food which brings family together in celebration. See commentary by Rabbi S.R. Hirsh on Exodus 20:20. 

[2] Commentary on Leviticus 1:9.

[3] See Lekutey Sichos volume 1 Vayikra.

[4] See Lekutey Sichos volume 16 Pikudey 3 (p. 479).  

Furniture First?

f.jpgFurniture First? 

Furniture is an important part of our home. How we furnish our home; the colors, designs and art that we choose, says a lot about the people we are and, perhaps more importantly, about the people we strive to be.

Despite its importance, furniture is rarely the first thing we purchase when we decide to acquire a home. First we build a home and then we fill it with furniture.

Indeed, when the Jewish people built a home for G-d in the desert, Betzalel, the chief architect made this very point to Moses.

For Moses commanded Bezalel to first make the furnishings and afterwards the Mishkan… Betzalel responded, “It is common practice to first make a house and then to put furniture into it.” [1]

Moses agreed with Betzalel, and indeed, first the Tabernacle was constructed and only later did they build the furniture.

This leaves us with a question: why did Moses initially command Betzalel to make the furniture first and only later to build the home? Moses surely knew that doing so is indeed unusual. 

The home with its walls and its roof provide shelter from the outside environment, the home allows the person to take control of and shape his or her environment. The furniture represents specific actions that fill our day. The furniture facilitates specific things like eating, sleeping, studying, etc. Betzalel’s perspective was that it is pointless to focus on performing a given action before one is in control of his environment. Betzalel argued that taking one positive action before there is a holy environment is like having a couch but no home. Betzalel argued that “the common practice”, the logical approach, is to first ensure a protective environment, secured from the rain, the cold and the outside elements; to first create a spiritual environment in which we are protected from the chaos and confusion of the material world. We must begin by creating a tranquil and holy environment, by removing all negative influences from our surroundings. Only then should we focus on doing a positive action. After all, what would be the purpose of one single positive action, if the rest of one’s day is full of unholiness?

Thus, argued Betzalel, first comes the home and then comes the furniture.         

Moses agreed with Betzalel that under normal circumstances one should build a home and then bring in the furniture. Moses agreed that in principle one should first transform one’s environment before focusing on a specific action.

Yet, initially, Moses told Betzalel to first build the furniture and then build the home. Why? 

Because Moses knew that unusual times would be coming.[2] There would be times when a person would feel that the darkness is too great, that the unholy is too dominant and that he or she is too weak to build a home, too weak to shelter oneself from the storm. Moses taught us that in those times we should first create the furniture - the action. Moses taught us to choose just one moment of our day and use it for a holy purpose. Moses taught us that even if we don't have a protective home, we should and could engage in holy actions.  

Moses told us to fill our life with specific positive moments of holiness.

The energy produced from these moments will ultimately empower us to build a beautiful home, full of material and spiritual blessings.

 


[1] Rashi Exodus 38:22.

[2] See Lekutey Sichos Pikudey vol. 31. 

Shattering Perfection

Shattering PerfectionM.jpg

Parents often ask: “I do everything for my children, so why are they so disrespectful to me?” The answer may just be right there in the question: it may just be because “I do everything for my children”.

To allow children to mature, we must give them the space to take the initiative. If we tell them all the answers they may receive a perfect grade but they still will not know how to solve the problem. We must step aside and give them responsibility. They may make mistakes, they will certainly not be perfect, but they will grow, they will change and, eventually, they will be transformed. The same is true for students and colleagues as well. The more you give them space to invest their own effort, to “make the call” themselves, the more they will internalize the goals and vision you are seeking to impart to them.  

There is no better illustration of this truth than the dramatic story of the creation of the golden calf and its aftermath.

Just forty days after the revelation at Sinai, where the people heard the Ten Commandments directly from G-d, who quite literally had done everything for them, the people abandoned everything they had been taught and served the golden calf.

Moses descended from the mountain holding the most perfect set of tablets; the Torah tells us that both the words engraved on the stone as well as the stone itself were “G-d’s work”:

Now the tablets were God's work, and the inscription was God's inscription, engraved on the tablets.[1]

Our sages explain that if the Jews would have received the first set of tablets they would have achieved perfection in their Torah study, there would be no forgetfulness[2], no questions, no confusion, because the first set of tablets were Divine and would bestow perfection on the people receiving them.

Moses descended from the mountain, holding the tablets, and saw the most terrible scene imaginable: his beloved people who had experienced the miracles of the exodus were dancing around a golden calf. He must have asked himself a version of this question: “If G-d did everything for his children, how could they do this to him?”

Moses knew the answer. He understood that he was literally holding the answer to the question in his hands. The tablets, the handiwork of G-d, represented the problem. Everything was being giving to the people, they were experiencing greatness without any effort. And the tablets were about to impart within them wisdom that they did not have to struggle to achieve.

Having just seen the terrible results of a people who were not required to invest effort, Moses did the unthinkable. He shattered the tablets. He shattered the perfection. He understood that the people would not mature and internalize the truth without struggle and human effort.

G-d agreed and thanked Moses for shattering of the tablets. And then, commanded Moses to prepare a second set of tablets. This time, however, only the words were inscribed by G-d, while Moses was the one who prepared the stones:

And the Lord said to Moses: "Hew for yourself two stone tablets like the first ones. And I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke.[3]

This time, the study of the Divine words of the Torah would be accompanied by the human stones, and human shortcomings. This time around the study of Torah entailed struggle, questions and disagreements. To grasp the clarity of Torah requires human effort to overcome forgetfulness and drill through obstacles.

Moses taught us that in order to influence ourselves, our children or our colleagues, we too must seek the gift of responsibility, to invest our own efforts and allow ourselves to struggle and ultimately to conquer our challenges through our own achievement.[4] We must shatter the notion of perfection.

We must give others the space to fail and rise again, we must give others the space to internalize the vision.

We must give others the gift of the second tablets. 

 


 [1] Exodus 32:16.

[2] Talmud Eiruvin 54a. See Mammar Viyten Licha 5666. 

[3] Exodus 34:1. 

[4] See Sichas Shabbos Ki Tisa 5752. 

High Fashion

High Fashion

Moses was commanded to appoint his brother as the High Priest, who would perform the service in the Temple. Much of this week’s Torah portion, the Portion of Tetzaveh, is dedicated to the detailed description of the eight garments of the High Priest, as G-d commanded Moses: “You shall make holy garments for your brother Aaron, for honor and glory.”[1]   

Aaron’s service was not on behalf of himself but rather it was on behalf of all the people of Israel. Therefore, Aaron would “carry the names of the children of Israel” on his heart and on his shoulders, in order to remind himself and to remind the people, that everything he would do was on behalf of the people.

But why would Aaron carry the names of the tribes not once but twice?

The names of the tribes of Israel were engraved in the garments of the high priest in two places: 1) on the Choshen, the plate worn on the chest which contained twelve precious stones inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel:

four rows of stones… And the stones shall be for the names of the sons of Israel twelve, corresponding to their names; [similar to] the engravings of a seal, every one according to his name shall they be, for the twelve tribes.[2]

- 2) on the Efod, the apron-like garment which was worn on the back of the priest, its straps reached the shoulders, the shoulder straps contained two stones upon which, once again, the names of the children of Israel were engraved. But instead of twelves stones there were only two stones:  

And you shall take two shoham stones and engrave upon them the names of the sons of Israel. Six of their names on one stone and the names of the remaining six on the second stone, according to their births.[3]

Why the need to engrave the names twice? And why the change in form - on the Choshen each tribe had its own stone, while on the shoulders of the Efod all tribes shared two stones?

The Choshen, sat on the heart of the high priest, and represented the Jewish people who lead a healthy spiritual life, one imbued with passion and feeling. The names placed upon the heart represent a life where one does not only take the right action but one does so with a heart full of love, excitement as well as a reverence for the holiness of the act. While every Jew follows the same commandments, we each do so with our own unique personality, this truth is expressed in the fact that each tribe had its own stone. No two tribes are exactly the same, just as no two people perform one Mitzvah with the same feeling and intention. When looking at the emotions of the heart, each tribe and each Jew is unique, the individuality of each tribe is celebrated and cherished.

Yet, the names engraved on the Choshen were not sufficient. For the leadership of the high priest was not solely reserved for those who were already inspired. A Jewish leader cannot be satisfied with leading those who already have established an emotional bond with the cause.

Aaron, therefore, also had a Efod, an apron, worn on the back, which represents the Jewish person who may take the right action, but does so devoid of heart, without a feeling of connection. The Efod represents the Jew who may show up to the Seder, but his heart never arrived, for he would much rather have been elsewhere. In the action devoid of emotion, all of the Jewish people are equal, as we are all required to do the same action. Therefore there was no unique stone for each tribe on the Efod.

Thus, the High Priest represents and inspires all Jews.

The Torah commands that the Choshen and the Efod, the breastplate and the apron, must  be attached to each other[4]. This is a message to the Jew who does not feel connected to the practices of Judaism. He may feel that he is on the Efod apron, disconnected from the feeling to Judaism, symbolized by the stones on the Choshen. The  Efod and the Choshen always being connected expresses that ultimately, the heart will follow the action, taking the right action will eventually fill the heart with inspiration.[5]



________________

1. Exodus 28:2.

2. Ibid. 28:17-21.

3. Ibid. 28:9-10.

4. Maimonides book of Mitzvot, negative Mitzvah 87: “we are forbidden from separating the breastplate from the ephod. The source of this prohibition is G‑d's statement "Do not separate the breastplate from the ephod" — instead, leave it attached.”

5. Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Lihavin Inyan Hachoshen 5726.

 

The Cherubim

Cherubim.jpgThe Cherubim

After reading the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah at Sinai we arrive at the final theme of the book of Exodus: the story of the construction of the Mishkan, the temple, which the Jewish people built in the desert.

The first article which the Torah commands us to build is the “ark of the testimony”, which would contain the tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were engraved. The Torah then commands us to build the “Kaporet”, commonly translated as “cover”, with two golden Cherubim emerging from the two ends of the “Kaporet”, which would be placed upon the ark. As the Torah states: 

And you shall make an ark cover of pure gold, two and a half cubits its length and a cubit and a half its width. And you shall make two golden cherubim; you shall make them of hammered work, from the two ends of the ark cover. And make one cherub from the one end and the other cherub from the other end; from the ark cover you shall make the cherubim on its two ends.[1]

What was the purpose of the ark covering and it’s the mysterious Cherubim? If the ark contained the essence of the Torah, what could possibly be so important as to be placed on top of the Torah?

Nachmanides, the great 12the century commentator, explains that the Kaporet and its Cherubim symbolize that the Divine presence rests upon the ark and the Torah.

According to Nachmanides, the ark and its covering symbolize the continuation of the experience at Sinai, where G-d revealed himself to the Jewish people and gave us the Torah. The Angelic Cherubim remind us that G-d dwells within the Torah, and that by studying the Torah we can experience a glimpse of the awesome revelation at Sinai.[2]  

Rashi, the primary commentator of the Torah, offers another explanation for the Kaporet (ark cover). He implies that the ark and the Kaporet are two distinct vessels, which hold separate and distinct symbolism.

To Rashi, the ark represents the bond between the Jewish people and G-d that is achieved through the study and commitment to the Torah. Yet, as we recognize the awesome power of the Torah, we wonder, what happens to a person who fails to live up to the Torah’s teachings and values? What happens if, like our ancestors who constructed the golden calf, we betray the teachings of the Torah? Is our connection to G-d destroyed? Is there a path of rehabilitation?  

This precisely is the message of the Kaporet and its Cherubim. The word Kaporet, (as well as the word “Kippur”), is derived from the Hebrew word Kaparah, which means atonement. The Cherubim, according to Rashi, had the shape of the face of young children, symbolizing the essential and unbreakable love between parent and young child. Love shown to older children is, often, colored by reason; we love our children because we love the people they have become, we love their wisdom, their talents and their character. By contrast, love to very young children, is an essential love, not defined by the specific achievements of the child.

The Cherubim, then, are placed above the ark because they are a symbol of the unconditional love and unbreakable bond between G-d and the Jewish people. The Cherubim remind us that no matter how far we think we have strayed from the Torah, we can always return and experience atonement. We can always return and rediscover that G-d’s love to us is unconditional.[3]



[1] Exodus, 25:17-22. 

[2]  As the verse describing the Cherubim continues: “I will arrange My meetings with you there, and I will speak with you from atop the ark cover from between the two cherubim that are upon the Ark of the Testimony, all that I will command you unto the children of Israel.”

[3] Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Likutey Sichos Terumah vol. 26 Sicha 2. 

Tunneling into the Castle

c.jpgTunneling into the Castle  

Immediately after the great revelation at Sinai, the Torah continues with the portion of Mishpatim, the logical laws which govern the dealings between people. The Mishpatim differ from the Chukim, the commandments which are categorized as decrees.

Yet, the Mishpatim are part of the Torah. While they may seem similar to laws in other systems of law, upon deeper examination we find the Torah’s values embedded within them.

We will examine one law in the portion of Mishpatim, and compare and contrast the Torah’s approach with the legal system in the United States.

Suppose I am lying in bed, in the middle of the night, and wake up in terror to see an intruder trying to burglarize my home. Suppose I have the option to escape my home unnoticed, am I allowed, instead, to use deadly force to prevent the theft?

Do I have to retreat, if I am safely able to do so, or may I kill the intruder to protect my home?

In most states, including Connecticut, the homeowner may use deadly force to protect his home, the legal basis for this is called the Castle Doctrine: 

The Castle Doctrine is a common law doctrine stating that an individual has no duty to retreat when in his or her home, or “castle,” and may use reasonable force, including deadly force, to defend his or her property, person, or another. Outside of the “castle,” however, an individual has a duty to retreat, if able to do so, before using reasonable force…

Forty-six states, including Connecticut, have incorporated the Castle Doctrine into law. Connecticut law justifies the use of reasonable physical force, including deadly force, in defense of premises. Connecticut courts have recognized the common law privilege to challenge an unlawful entry into one's home, to the extent that a person's conduct does not rise to the level of a crime. Deadly force is justified in defense of one's property by a person who is privileged to be on the premises and who reasonably believes such force is necessary to prevent an attempt by the criminal trespasser to commit any crime of violence.[1]

The law, obviously, permits one to kill in self defense. The Castle Doctrine, however, goes much further: it allows one to kill in order to prevent an intruder from entering and damaging his home. The homeowner does not have to believe that his life is at risk to be protected by the Castle Defense; as long as the homeowner reasonably believes that the intruder wants to commit arson or burglary, he would be protected by the castle Doctrine if he kills the intruder. 

What would the Torah say about the Castle Doctrine? Would the Torah allow for defending property at the expense of the intruder's life? In this week’s Parsha the Torah states:

If the thief is discovered while tunneling (breaking in), and he is struck and dies, (it is as if) he has no blood[2]. 

Like most laws in the Torah, this law is written in concise language, the details and explanations are elaborated on in the Talmud. Rava, the great Talmudic sage, poses the question[3]: what is the reason for the law of the intruder who tunnels? He then offers the following explanation: the intruder enters the home, despite knowing that a person will try to protect his own property. This is ample evidence that the intruder is prepared to use force against the homeowner. Therefore, says the Torah, the homeowner has the right to kill the intruder; as the Torah's position is "if someone comes to kill you anticipate ("get up early" to) him and kill him first".

Rava explains that the law has nothing to do with the right to protect one's property, but has everything to do with the right of self defense.

Rava’s great innovation is that we consider the intruder a threat to life even if it seems that all he wants is jewelry, and he has not yet shown any sign of wanting to attack the homeowner. We don’t have to wait for the escalation of violence, as we are permitted to assume that the intruder will in fact use deadly force, when the homeowner will try to stop him from stealing; the homeowner, therefore, may use deadly force first to protect his life.

In other words, merely entering a home in order to steal, with the expectation that the homeowner is home, is in itself the greatest act of aggression that permits the homeowner to kill in self defense.

[Jewish Law offers important exceptions to the right to kill an intruder: for example, Maimonides rules:Different rules apply with regard to a thief who stole and departed, or one who did not steal, but was caught leaving the tunnel through which he entered the home. Since he turned his back on the house and is no longer intent on killing its owner, he may not be slain.”[4]]

In summary: although the Torah’s approach seems similar to the Common Law’s Castle doctrine, there is a fundamental difference between them. Namely, the Castle Doctrine claims that in some cases one may protect his own property at the expense of the intruder's life, the Torah, on the other hand, says no such thing. Although the Torah would allow one to kill an intruder, the rationale has nothing to do with protecting property. Rather, since we know the intruder is prepared to threaten your life, therefore, you may protect your life at the expense of the intruder's life.

 


[1] https://www.cga.ct.gov/2012/rpt/2012-R-0172.htm

[2] Exodus 22, 1.

[3] Talmud Tractate Sanhedrin 72a: “Rava said: what is the reason for the law of breaking in? Because it is certain that no man is inactive where his property is concerned; therefore this one [the thief] must have reasoned, ‘If I go there, he [the owner] will oppose me and prevent me; but if he does I will kill him.’ Hence the Torah decreed, ‘If someone comes to kill you, anticipate him and kill him first’.”

[4] Maimonides, Laws of Theft, Chapter 9 Halacha 11. See Chapter 9 for additional important exceptions.  

The Torah of Peace

MS.jpgThe Torah of Peace

The number one is an important number in Judaism. G-d is one. The messianic era, when the world will reach perfection, is described by the Prophet as a time when “the Lord will be one and his name will be one”.[1]

Yet, in the story of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, the number that we keep hearing about is not the number one, but rather the number three:

In the third month of the children of Israel's departure from Egypt, on this day they arrived in the desert of Sinai.[2]

Indeed the Talmud draws our attention to many aspects of the story that are associated with the number three:

“Blessed is G-d who has given us a Torah of three [Scripture, Prophets and Writings], to a nation of three [The Jewish people who are comprised of Kohanim, Levites, and Israelites], through [a man] who is third [Moses was the third child to be born in his family], on the third day [of preparation for the giving of the Torah], in the third month”.

It seems then, that the purpose of the Torah is expressed in the number three. The number one represents singularity, the number two represents division, and the number three represents peace and harmony.

To Illustrate:

Scenario number one: Person A is giving a lecture; he is feeling great about himself, for after all it seems that his opinion is uncontested. Nobody is calling out and objecting. He therefore is sure that his opinion must be correct. The problem, however, is that person A happens to be giving his lecture to an empty room with no one else present. Person A represents the state of number one, he is alone in his environment. There may not be war but it is not peace, for peace requires two entities coming together, while person A is only a single individual.  

Scenario number two: And then it happens. Person B enters the lecture hall and before long he is arguing with person A. They are disagreeing about everything. They seem to have opposing perspectives on every issue. They are divided.

Scenario number three: Person C enters the lecture hall and observes persons A and B arguing. After listening for a while he cries: “hey! the two of you are saying the same thing in different words! if you just stop to listen for a moment you will discover that, in fact, there is no disagreement at all!”. Person C then is the third person bringing the other two together. They are finally united.

This is the story of creation.

G-d was the only existence. There was nothing else aside from him. He was one. There was only one perspective, but that was only because there was no one else to disagree. 

Sensing the inherent problem with this form of unity, G-d created the universe. As expected, as soon as the universe was created, disagreement erupted. From G-d’s perspective, he is the definition of reality, after all he is the creator of the universe. The people walking the earth, however, disagree. The human consciousness feels that he or she is at the center of the universe, that the ultimate reality is the physical one, and that spirituality, while an interesting idea, is an abstract intellectual idea that has no bearing on the concrete reality.

These are two very different perspectives; thus the dispute lives on.

Ant then, at last, the time for the third perspective has arrived. The Torah given at Sinai teaches us to listen carefully to the universe around us, to peel away the layers of existence and to discover that the dueling voices of reality are, in fact, in no dispute at all. That the universe, albeit in its own way, declares the greatness of its creator.

Thus in the third month we discover the third perspective.

Through the Torah we discover that true peace is found in the number three, in the third perspective which understands that the seemingly contradictory perspectives of G-d and the world are in no dispute at all. That, in truth, at its core, the universe wants nothing more than to reconnect with its divine source.[3]

 

 


[1] Zechariah 14:9.

[2] Exodus 19:1.

[3] Bases on the teachings of the Rebbe, Emor 5749. 

The Road to Freedom

The Road to Freedom

Clearly the Jewish people were looking for trouble.

After decades of slavery Pharaoh was finally forced to set the Jewish people free. In last week’s Parsha we read about how Pharaoh literally chased them out of Egypt:

“And Pharaoh arose at night… he called for Moses and Aaron at night, and he said, "Get up and get out from among my people, both you, as well as the children of Israel…  the Egyptians took hold of the people to hasten to send them out of the land”.  

One would expect the Jews to be overjoyed, to move as fast as they could towards their homeland, to the land of their dreams. Yet, the people were in no rush to leave. In fact, after traveling three days, fulfilling G-d’s commandment to Moshe, they actually turned back towards Egypt, thus inviting Pharaoh to chase them.

The Jews were free. They should have moved on. Why are they heading back? Why were they looking for trouble?  

When Pharaoh sent the Jews out of Egypt, had they proceeded on their way, and traveled to Israel, they would never have been free. Because freedom means to be the master of one’s destiny, while the Jews were in fact attaining their freedom on account of Pharaoh. Their oppressor left them no choice and cast them out of his land and into freedom. They were still passively following Pharaoh's orders. The orders may have changed, previously they were commanded to build cities and now they were commanded to exit the land, but the psychological state of the people was still the same: they were following orders.

Freedom cannot be granted. Freedom must be taken.

Freedom cannot be granted by an oppressor. If you are free only because your oppressor ordered you free, then, in truth, you are not free at all.

To be free one must defy the oppressor. The courage that generates the act of defiance is the stuff of true freedom. The courage needed to defy, is in fact what is psychologically liberating.

In last week’s Parsha, the people left Egypt as a result of Pharaoh's command. In this week’s Parsha the people caused Pharaoh to have a change a heart. They travel back towards Egypt, affording Pharaoh the encouragement and the opportunity to order the Jews back into Egypt. Only now, when the people defy Pharaoh, when they are free not on account of Pharaoh, but rather despite Pharaoh, are they truly free.

We each have an inner Pharaoh who seeks to enslave us to our negative habits and tendencies. We are commanded to remember the Exodus every day of our life, in order to remind ourselves that we can be free of our inner Pharaoh. Often, however, the image of freedom we picture in our minds is one of our inner Pharaoh leaving us alone. We wish we were free. We wish we would just wake up one morning, and the Pharaoh would have released us from his grip. We wish our Pharaoh would grant us freedom.

Yet, as we have seen, freedom cannot be granted.

To be free means to have the courage to defy the oppressor. To stand up and say no. To do the right thing despite the command of our inner Pharaoh. To be free is to have the courage to say no to our inner tyrant.

The Jews turned back to defy Pharaoh, not because they were looking for trouble, but rather because they were looking for freedom.

For freedom cannot be granted. Freedom must be taken.  

 

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