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Blog - Torah Insights

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.


Lion, Donkey or Wolf?

L.jpgLion, Donkey or Wolf? 

At the end of his life, Jacob gathered his children to impart his final words and blessings.

Time and again in the book of Genesis, we read about the challenge of succession, the challenge of conveying an intangible, fragile, idea, to the next generation. Indeed, all through the book of Genesis it is only one son who is chosen to be entrusted with the spiritual legacy; the selection of the successor was usually surrounded by tension and conflict.

For the first time in Jewish history, all the twelve sons of Jacob received the blessing and responsibility for carrying the legacy of Abraham. Each of them had a unique personality, a specific quality; the particular contribution of each of them would be critical to the Jewish story.

Jacob refers to many of his children using a metaphor of animals:

“A cub, a grown lion is Judah… He crouched, rested like a lion, and like a lion, who will rouse him?”

“Issachar is a bony donkey, lying between the boundaries.”

“Dan will be a serpent on the road, a viper on the path, which bites the horse's heels, so its rider falls backwards.”

“Naphtali is a swift gazelle, who utters beautiful words.”

“Benjamin is a wolf, he will prey; in the morning he will devour plunder, and in the evening he will divide the spoil."[1]

Amongst the blessings both wild animals of prey as well as domesticated animals are used to describe the tribes. The wild animals represent passionate love to G-d, while the domesticated animals, who are tamed and who easily submit to human beings, represent submission and commitment to the Divine will.

In the terminology of the Kabbalah, the pulse of spiritual life is both “running” and ”returning”. ”Running” is the yearning to escape the confines of one’s own existence. “Running” is the feeling of passionate love to G-d. “Running”, is the feeling of inspiration. But inspiration alone is like a flame without fuel. Inspiration alone will evaporate unless it is followed by “return”, unless the inspiration and passion are channeled into specific, tangible, concrete action. The flame of inspiration will not last unless it is channeled into “vessels”, into day to day life.

The two qualities of “running” and “returning” are both necessary for any human endeavor. A successful business requires vision and inspiration - the passionate energy that keeps the place “running”, as well as a commitment to the, sometimes, tedious tasks necessary for running the business, the “returning”.

The same is true about relationships. Without emotion there is no energy, no fire, no inspiration. Yet “running” alone is not enough. For a relationship to endure, there must be a commitment to the other, one must submit and invest in the relationship regardless of whether he or she feels inspiration at the moment.

The same is true for our relationship with G-d. The Torah seeks to inspire us with love and awe. We begin the day with an effort to “run”, to escape the mundane, to transcend the material and to connect to the heavens. Yet Judaism teaches that we must “return” to the earth to sanctify it. We must “return” with the inspiration and commit to fulfilling the Divine will on this earth.

Jacob gathered his children and reminds them that each of their qualities is critical to the Jewish story. We must “run”, be passionate, like the lion, but also “return”, be committed and dependable, like the donkey.[2]  

[1] Genesis Chapter 49.

[2] Based on Or Hatorah, Bireyshis (vol. 5) page 1984.  

Inspiration vs. Action

J.jpgInspiration vs. Action   

Judah approaches Joseph.

He did not know it at that moment, but when Judah approached the viceroy of Egypt, to demand that his brother Benjamin be released, he was approaching his long lost brother Joseph.

The Kabbalists explain, that the rivalry between the brothers and Joseph, which led to the brothers selling Joseph as a slave, was no ordinary rivalry motivated by a dispute over their father's attention and love. In fact, the dispute between Joseph and his brothers was about something much deeper and more spiritual in nature: it was about which brother should be their leader? Which brother would be their king, the one who exemplified the qualities critical for the Jewish faith to survive? Whose model of spirituality should the family adopt?  

The brothers chose Judah. They believed that he was to be their leader, for he personified the qualities necessary for their values to flourish. The word Judah means acknowledgment and submission. Judah was a man of action. Very often his motives were less than exemplary, yet, consistently, in moments of crises, regardless of his own personal feelings and state of mind, he rose to the occasion and made the right choice.

Judah personifies the Jew who is committed to what he knows is correct despite tremendous persecution and pressure. In fact, the word Jew comes from the word Judah, and was first used to describe all the children of Israel in the book of Esther, when the people remained loyal to their faith despite the persecution of Haman, thus exhibiting Judah like - Jewish - qualities.    

The brothers crowned Judah as their king. They understood, correctly, that he must lead. That his commitment to action in the face of challenge was the secret ingredient to their survival.    

Then, along came Joseph and his dreams. Joseph told the brothers, that in his dreams, the brothers bow to him, that he must be their leader. That they must acknowledge the superiority of inspiration, wisdom and learning. The word Joseph means “to add”. Joseph was like a fountain of wisdom who continuously would come up with new insights, adding layers  of understanding to the previously acquired wisdom.  

The brothers decided to get rid of Joseph. They mistakenly thought that they were correct in doing so because Joseph rebelled against Judah the king who they had appointed, and because he threatened their survival by undercutting the importance of action based commitment to the correct path.

In this week's Parsha, Judah approached Joseph, Joseph was the powerful ruler of Egypt and Judah was subordinate to him. In what is perhaps one of the most emotional scenes in the Torah, Judah revealed his identity to his brothers, and then, explain the Kabbalists, Joseph revealed a deep truth. He told them “G-d has sent me here before you”. Joseph explained that indeed, ultimately, Judah would  rule. That indeed the tribe of Judah would be the tribe of kingship. That indeed action, the quality of Judah, is superior. Yet “G-d sent me (Joseph) before you”. That before you acquire a leader who is Judah you require a leader who is Joseph. There must be a recognition of the role of study and personal growth in the life of a Jew.

Just as it was in the history of the Jewish people, so it is in the life of every Jew. At first our inner Joseph is meant to rule. We are called upon to “add”, to grow our understanding and our emotional bond to the teachings of Judaism. Yet once we reach the limit of where our heart and mind can take us, we appoint Judah as our king. We realize that our wisdom, our Joseph, cannot touch the infinite light of G-d. To touch the infinity we must achieve a Judah like commitment and dedication to G-d’s will. We must take action.[1]

[1] Adapted from the Shalah Parshas Mikets, and on Torah Or Parsahs Vayigash. 

Joseph the Charmer

668.jpgJoseph the Charmer

Woven into the story of Joseph are dreams and their interpretations. Joseph’s terrible hardships, beginning with being sold as a slave by his own brothers, were caused by his dreams that his brothers would bow to him. His rise to the height of power was also brought about by Joseph's skillful interpretation of dreams.

Indeed, in this week’s portion we read about Pharaoh summoning Joseph from prison, in order to interpret his dreams:

And Pharaoh said to Joseph, "I have dreamed a dream, and there is no interpreter for it, but I have heard it said of you [that] you understand a dream, to interpret it."[1]  

Dream interpretation turned out to be central to Joseph’s story, because, according to the Kabbalists, it represents Joseph's spiritual makeup and his unique divine mission.

Life is like a dream.

A dream is a state of mind where there is no orderly thinking, a place where opposing forces can co-exist. A consciousness where chaos reigns free. A dream is a place where one can move between opposite extremes very quickly, one moment the dreamer is in grave danger, and a moment later he is safe and sound.

Life is like a dream. 

This world we live in is a world of fragmentation. In a single day we experience opposite feelings, highs and lows, the pull to transcend and the opposing gravitational pull of the earth. We experience moments of meaning and mindfulness, as well as moments of distraction, pain and confusion.  

Joseph's experience was like a dream, one moment he was a slave in prison, a moment later he was the leader of Egypt.

If life is similar to a dream, then the key to success in life is to be a dream interpreter.    

The Hebrew word for “(dream) interpreter” is “Poter” (פתר), (which means to solve, as in solving a riddle). The same letters rearranged spell the word “Tofer” (תפר) which means to sew.

Joseph was able to solve the dreams as well as solve the challenges of life, by realizing that he must serve as the needle that would sew together all of the fragments and create unity. To Joseph every experience, both positive and negative, was part of the tapestry of a single story. The negative moments in life, the challenges one faces, are confusing until one sews them all together to achieve the big picture. The ability to solve and “interpret” the dream comes from infusing every moment and every experience with meaning. No matter where a person is, he is always able to ask: what can I accomplish this moment? Who can I help? How can I advance the cause of goodness and kindness?

Which is precisely what Joseph told Pharaoh. Pharaoh saw many details. In the first dream he saw seven fat cows and then seven skinny cows. In the second dream he saw seven healthy ears of grain and seven thin ears of grain. 

The first words that Joseph said to Pharaoh are the clue to how Joseph cracked the code of the dream and it represents Joseph's attitude towards life in general:

And Joseph said to Pharaoh, "Pharaoh's dream is one; what God is doing He has told Pharaoh.[2]   

Both dreams are one dream. Both the good years and the bad years are part of one story.[3] Both give us the opportunity to bring G-dliness into the world and to work to help others.

This was Joseph’s key insight.

From Joseph we learn that every soul is like a sewing needle.[4] Like the needle's point, we possess the ability to penetrate the fabric and sew things together. We have the ability to penetrate the material and connect it to the divine, to pierce through the outer shell and discover that all of creation is but an expression of the one G-d. 

As Jacob was about to pass away he blessed each of his children. He turned to Joseph and said:  “Ben Porat Yoseph”, “A charming son is Joseph”. The word Jacob used for charm and beauty is “Porat” (פרת), the same letters as the letters of the word Interpreter, “Poter” (פתר), and the same letters as the word for sewing, “Tofer”.

When one learns to (פתר) interpret their life by (תפר) sewing all details of life into one story, then life, every part of life, becomes (פרת) beautiful and charming.[5]

[1] Genesis 41:15.

[2] Genesis 41:25.

[3] See Ben Ish Chai, Drasot Miletz.

[4] Sicha of 20 Av 5749.

[5] Adapted from Torah Or, Vayeshev, and Toras Chaim, Vayechi. 

Double Dream, Single Reality

download.jpgDouble Dream, Single Reality  

There is only one person in all of the five Books of Moses that the Torah refers to as being “successful”, that person is Joseph. Joseph's extraordinary gift was his ability to rise to the top of any situation he was placed in. When his brothers sold him into slavery he became the leader of his master’s home; when he was thrown into prison he became the administrator of the prison; and finally, the epitome of his success, he rose from the lowest rung in society to the highest rung: he rose from a slave in prison to the acting leader of Egypt, the ancient world’s superpower. 

What was the secret to his success? How did he remain focused, optimistic and upbeat despite all the difficulties that he had to endure?

Joseph brothers would mock him by referring to him as “the dreamer”. Indeed, to understand Jospeh, his story and his success, we must understand the unique nature of his dreams.

In the beginning of this week’s Torah portion we read about the two dreams Joseph dreamed, both with the same theme, namely, that Joseph was destined to be the leader over his brothers who would bow to him, as the Torah relates:

And Joseph dreamed a dream and told his brothers, and they continued to hate him.

And he said to them, "Listen now to this dream, which I have dreamed:

Behold, we were binding sheaves in the midst of the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and also stood upright, and behold, your sheaves encircled [it] and prostrated themselves to my sheaf."...

And he again dreamed another dream, and he related it to his brothers, and he said, "Behold, I have dreamed another dream, and behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were prostrating themselves to me."[1]

What is unique about the dreams of Joseph, as opposed to the dreams of Pharaoh and the dreams of Pharaoh's butler and baker recorded later in the story? It is that Joseph first dreamed about the earthly, the grain in the field, and then continued to dream about the heavens, the celestial bodies, the sun, the moon and the stars.

Joseph understood that the dreams were conveying that the material and the spiritual are not two separate entities, but rather they are two layers of the same reality. Joseph understood that if he would indeed become a leader in the physical sense, if his brothers’ “wheat” would bow to his “wheat”, if he would be the leader who would provide them with bread, then that is but the first dream and the outer layer of the story. The deeper layer, the spiritual counterpart, is found in the second dream; it is that Joseph must bestow upon his brothers not just material bounty but also spiritual insight. While his brothers thought they had to retreat from society and become shepherds in order to maintain a connection to holiness, he must share with them his unique ability to remain loyal to sanctity and holiness, even while being involved in the heart of the Egyptian economy and culture.

Joseph’s double dream taught him that one could simultaneously be in a field with the grain, and in heaven with the stars. That one can exist on two planes at the same time. That within every earthly scenario one must seek and find the inner layer, the spark of heaven, that is the purpose of the experience.[2]

Thus, Joseph’s spirit could not be crushed. No matter the circumstance, Joseph understood that there is a hidden piece of spirituality, there is celestial energy amidst what might appear to be the bleak, earthy reality of the field. Whether he was a slave in his master's home, or worse yet, confined to prison, his spirit remained high as he understood that reality is layered, that beneath the first dream lay the second dream, that there must be a deeper purpose in the physical existence.

Just like Joseph himself, each of us is empowered to connect the wheat and the stars, the heaven and the earth, the spiritual and the mundane. The Torah gifts us with the ability to find the good in every situation, to find the spark of opportunity in every challenge. We can connect heaven and earth by elevating the earthly experience and discovering that even in the field, we are living a transcendent, heavenly, experience.   


[1] Genesis 37:5-9.

[2] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos, Vayeshev Vol. 3.  

Jacob or Israel?

Israel.jpgJacob or Israel?

In what is perhaps one of the most dramatic and emotional scenes in the Torah, Jacob meets his brother Esau after twenty years of rift and separation. Jacob fled his father’s home, after stealing the blessings which his father Isaac intended for his older son Esau. In this week’s portion we read about the heartfelt reunion between the brothers.


Prior to the reunion, we read that “Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn”, and finally, when the man saw that he could not overpower Jacob, he asked to be allowed to go, Jacob refused to allow him to go until he would bless him:


So he said to him, "What is your name?" and he said, "Jacob." And he said, "Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have commanding power with [an angel of] God and with men, and you have prevailed."


Who was this mysterious man? One interpretation[1] is that the man who wrestled with Jacob while Jacob was alone (which seems to be an inherent contradiction, if a man wrestled with him, than by definition Jacob  was not alone) was none other than Jacob himself. The struggle between Jacob and the man (who the sages refer to as the angel, or energy of Esau) represents an internal struggle between the force of good and the negative within Jacob himself. Before Jacob could reconcile with his brother Esau, he was first compelled to wrestle with his internal Esau. He was compelled to settle the internal struggles and contradictions within himself before he could find peace within himself.  


The struggle lasted all night. Jacob asks for a blessing. Instead of a blessing “the man” got into a discussion about names, the conversation went as follows:

So he said to him (to Jacob), "What is your name?":


“the man” asked Jacob: What is your name? What is your identity? How do you self define?


and he said, "Jacob."


The name Jacob denotes struggle. The name Jacob, which also means heel, was given to Jacob because as he emerged from the womb he was holding on to the heel of his  twin brother Esau. The name Jacob represents the constant battle between the internal Jacob and Esau, the spirit and the matter, the sensual and the transcendent. Jacob told the angel that his name was Jacob. He explained that he was constantly being drawn between the holy and the mundane, between the physical and the spiritual.


And he (“the man”) said, "Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel (which means to rule), because you have commanding power with [an angel of] God and with men, and you have prevailed.


He told Jacob, that there is a place within himself where there is no struggle at all. At his core, which is pure holiness, there is a state of consciousness where there is no struggle to begin with. When the core of the soul is felt in the conscious mind, then evil, temptation and negativity lose all appeal and are not enticing to begin with.


Each of us has both a Jacob and an Israel within ourselves. There is a place in our heart where we have to struggle to be the person we know we want to be. We have to struggle to be kind, joyful, patient and considerate. There is a place within ourselves where it takes a struggle to delay gratification and invest in a relationship over immediate pleasure. There are times, when we are Jacob. 

Yet, when we look deeply within ourselves, we discover that there is a part of us that is Israel, where we reign over the negativity even without a battle. There are times when there is no struggle.


Jacob is compared to a Jew as he is during the six days of the week, when he is involved in the business of daily life; while Israel is compared to a Jew as he or she exists on Shabbat, when they tune out the mundane and touch the spiritual side of existence.[2]


As Jacob prepared to face his brother Esau, he first spent the night in introspection, experiencing the wrestling within his soul. As the sun rose  Jacob realized, that from that point on his primary name was Israel. While we experience Jacob, we are Israel. Living on this earth presents us with challenge, difficulty and struggle, yet our identity is not Jacob. The struggle with evil and selfishness does not define who we are. We engage in Jacob but we are Israel. Our truest self is the part of us which sees the material, not as a contradiction to, but rather as a vehicle for holiness. Our truest self is the Israel within us, the part of us which intuitively feels connected to G-d.

[1] See Malbim.
[2]  See Lekutey Torah, Mammar Lo Hibit Aven Biyaakov (Sefer Bamidbar  70:3 

The Thanksgiving Jew

thank you.jpgThe Thanksgiving Jew

You may be surprised to hear that the word Jew does not appear in the five books of Moses. The Torah refers to our people as the Children of Israel, for we are the children of our patriarch Jacob who was given the additional name of Israel. Israel fathered twelve children who became the twelve tribes of Israel.

The name Jew comes from the name Judah, which means thanksgiving. Judah was the fourth son of Jacob and his wife Leah. As we read in this week’s Parsha:  

And she conceived again and bore a son, and she said, "This time, I will thank the Lord! Therefore, she named him Judah. [1]

Why then are all Jews called the by the name of just of one of the sons? Why are all the tribes referred to by the name of the tribe of Judah? What is it about thanksgiving that captures the essence of the children of Israel?

Thanksgiving is easier said than done.

We often look around and wonder why some of the people around us are so ungrateful? Why don't our children appreciate all that we do for them? Why does our spouse not show gratitude? Why do our co-workers take us for granted?

To understand why the feeling of gratitude is so elusive we must examine the Hebrew word for gratitude.

The Hebrew word for thanksgiving, “Hoddah”, also means to acknowledge, as in two people who have two different opinions yet one acknowledges that the other’s opinion is correct.

Why do these two seemingly distinct ideas, thanksgiving and acknowledgement, share the same word? What possible connection do they share?

The answer is that the key to being thankful is acknowledging the other's perspective. To illustrate: a mother does so much for her child. The greatest obstacle to the child feeling gratitude, is the child’s perspective that whatever mother does for him is because, as a mother, this is what she is required to do. After all, argues the child, isn't this her job? The only way the child can genuinely feel grateful is if he adopts her perspective; if he appreciates all of her sacrifices and all the time she lovingly dedicates to him. The same is true of a spouse. We can say thank you for the act of kindness. But to truly feel grateful we need to see the picture from the perspective of our spouse. We need to appreciate all the thought, feeling and energy that was invested in this one act. Only when we acknowledge and appreciate the other’s point of view - "Hodaah" - can I say - "Todah" - thank you.

To be a Jew, then, is to posses the ability see beyond the obvious, to acknowledge the other’s perspective and go beyond the limitations of one’s own perception To be a Jew is the ability to experience someone else’s pain as well as to rejoice in their happiness as if it were our own. To be a Jew is to acknowledge and accept the perspective of hope and joy even in the midst of great hardship.   

There is an ongoing and long standing dispute between the creation and the creator. Our perspective is that our life, health and success is due to our independent efforts, and that the only one we need to thank is ourselves. From G-d's perspective, however, the entire universe is being brought into existence every moment by the word of G-d. From his perspective the only true reality is the G-dly vitality within every created being.

The Jew has the ability to see the world from G-d’s perspective. To cultivate the point of view that focuses on the spiritual rather than on the physical. The Jew possess the gift of acknowledgement, which is why he or she can experience genuine thanksgiving. [2]



[1] Genesis 29:35

[2] Adapted from Lekutey Torah, Devarim 1a. 

Happiness vs. Ambition


Happiness vs. Ambition

The art of living a good life is the art of maintaining a balance between happiness and ambition. 

Happiness and ambition, while they are both important to our physical and mental well being, are contradictory feelings that, in some cases, can undermine each other. To be happy is to be content with one’s lot, while to be ambitious one must feel that what one has is not enough. To be happy one must feel satisfied while to be ambitious one must feel hungry. To feel happiness is to feel that there is no gap between what you have and what you want, while ambition is motivated by seeing the great gap between what you have already achieved and what remains to be achieved.  

The tension between happiness and ambition, between feeling close to one’s goals and distant from them, expresses itself in many other areas of life; one example is in the realm of education.

Say I want to motivate my daughter to tackle a new subject, study a new course of learning and take a test on advanced material. There are two methods I can use to inspire her. I can tell her that the test will not be too hard for her. I can remind her of her gift of intelligence and tell her that if she puts herself to it she will be able to achieve success. What I am doing for her is narrowing the gap between the way she perceives her abilities and the goal. I am telling her that the goal is closer to her than she realizes.

Another method of inspiration would be to do the exact opposite. The second option would be to widen the gap. I would emphasize to her that the subject material is more difficult and challenging than anything she has experienced in the past. I am cautioning her not to underestimate the daunting task ahead. I am reminding her of the awesomeness of the challenge at hand. I am doing so not in order to scare her away, on the contrary, I am emphasizing the distance of the task in order to inspire her to grow beyond her comfort zone and to outperform the effort she is used to investing. I am emphasizing the distance in order to encourage her to do what it takes to grow into the person who can undertake this challenge.  

These two paths, emphasizing the closeness and emphasizing the distance, were the two paths of our patriarchs, Abraham and Isaac.

Abraham embodied love. He taught people to develop a love for G-d. Love is only possible when someone feels a degree of closeness to the beloved. Abraham taught people to see that G-d loves them, to feel his closeness and to be inspired by the bond between the creator and his creation. Abraham taught people to rejoice and celebrate in their relationship with G-d.

Isaac embodied the attribute of awe. Isaac felt the intense unbridgeable gap between the finite creation and the infinite G-d. Isaac felt acutely that no matter how much one achieves, no matter how high one climbs on the ladder of holiness, he is still insignificant compared to the infinite. Isaac perceived the distance that exists between man and his creator. Yet the perception of distance encouraged not a feeling of sadness but rather a feeling of ambition. Feeling the distance encouraged the person to keep evolving and growing in their spiritual journey.

Which path is the right path?

To survive in this world we need both happiness and ambition. To enjoy a healthy relationship with G-d we need to experience both love and awe. We need to feel the comfort of G-d’s embrace as well as the ambition to keep climbing, to escape the finite and cling to the infinite.

To be a healthy Jew we must embody both the attribute of Abraham as well as the attribute of Isaac. We need to be spiritually happy and at the same time spiritually ambitious. 

Abraham the Landowner

Chevron.jpgAbraham the Landowner 

The first recorded real estate deal negotiated by a Jew appears in this week’s Torah portion, when Abraham sought to purchase a piece of land in order to bury his beloved wife Sarah.

What emerges from the transcript of the conversation between Abraham and the sellers, the children of Chet, is that the children of Chet had enormous respect for Abraham, they refer to him as “a prince of G-d”, they were happy to allow him to bury Sarah anywhere he would chose, including in the “the choicest of our graves”. Yet, while they were happy to gift the land to Abraham they were reluctant to sell any real estate to him. As the Torah relates:

And the sons of Chet answered Abraham, saying to him, "Listen to us, my lord; you are a prince of God in our midst; in the choicest of our graves bury your dead. None of us will withhold his grave from you to bury your dead."

Indeed, when Abraham identified the piece of land he wanted to purchase, the cave of Machpela, situated in the field of a man by the name of Ephron, the same attitude prevailed: Ephron did not want to sell the land, instead he offered to gift the field to Abraham free of charge. Only after Abraham insisted that he wanted to pay the full price did Ephron agree to sell the land for an astronomical sum.  

Why were the children of Chet and Ephron reluctant to sell to Abraham? Was it just a negotiating tactic to extract a higher price for the desired field?

Nachmanides, the great 13th century Biblical commentary, explains that the sale of the land to Abraham was a political statement, because, in that culture, owning a plot of land for burial was a symbol of permanent residence. The children of Chet considered owning a plot for burial to be a symbol of deep rooted connection to the land, they therefore would grant any sojourner an individual place for burial, but would only sell a burial plot to members of their own tribe. Thus selling land to Abraham for burial was an acknowledgement that the connection of Abraham and his family to the land was deep as well as eternal.

Like every story in the Torah, this story too has multiple layers. In addition to the political interpretation offered by Nachmanides there is also a philosophical interpretation which explains the reluctance of the children of Chet to sell land to Abraham, specifically because of the high esteem in which they held Abraham. 

The children of Chet had great respect for Abraham, and understood that he was a deeply spiritual person, who believed in, and was completely devoted to, an intangible, infinite G-d. They referred to him as “prince of G-d”, they were privileged to honor him and allow him to use any piece of land he desired. Yet they did not think it befitting for Abraham to actually own the land, because a title holder was granted the right to voice an opinion and have a vote on matters relevant to the local economy and everyday life. The children of Chet strongly believed that someone as intensely spiritual as Abraham should remain in the world of abstract ideas and not get involved in the tangible details of daily life and the local economy.   

Abraham insisted otherwise and he eventually persuaded the children of Chet to agree with him. Abraham explained to them that the sacred is not reserved for the house of worship, that holiness is not exclusive to the realm of ideas. Abraham taught that the calling of a Jew is to bring heaven down to earth, to infuse every aspect of life with spirituality. Abraham taught that a Jew must be a “landowner”. He or she must take ownership of the tangible earth and sanctify it with holiness and meaning. 

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