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Blog - Torah Insights

Freedom Through Speech - בא

Freedom Through Speech

“Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech."

― Benjamin Franklin

From the perspective of the Kabbalah, spiritual liberation and freedom cannot exist without speech. 

When the Torah describes the suffering of the Jewish people in Egyptian slavery, the Torah states: 

Now it came to pass in those many days that the king of Egypt died, and the children of Israel sighed from the labor, and they cried out, and their cry ascended to God from the labor. (Exodus 2:23)

The Jewish people experienced terrible suffering. The verse describes the pain, the sighs, the crying, but the one thing the Jews could not do was speak. The people were enslaved not only physically but also psychologically. Not only was their body subjugated, but so was their soul; and when the soul is in bondage, one cannot speak. 

Speech is an essential component of the exodus. In the opening verses of this week's portion, the Torah emphasizes that as a result of the exodus, we will have the ability to speak to our children:

so that you tell into the ears of your son and your son's son how I made a mockery of the Egyptians, and My signs that I placed in them, and you will know that I am the Lord." (Exodus 10:2)

Indeed, the telling of stories is one of the most important commandments of the night of Passover. The Torah mandates: "And you shall tell your son". "Vihigadita", (and you shall tell), is the source of the word Haggadah, the story of the exodus read on Passover night. According to the Kabbalists, the word Pesach (Passover) consists of two words Peh Sach, a speaking mouth. Passover, the holiday of freedom, is the holiday of speech.  

The world was created through Divine speech, G-d spoke, and the world came into being. Divine speech is a metaphor for expression and revelation. An idea may exist in the mind, but until  it is expressed through speech, nobody can benefit from it, it is confined within its source (the mind). The same is true regarding G-d's creative energy. As long as the energy remains in a state of potentiality, it is concealed and confined. Divine speech indicates that G-d revealed his creative power from the state of potential into actuality. 

When a person senses the Divine speech, the G-dly energy within himself and within each creation, he is spiritually free. Exile begins when he no longer senses the Divine energy within creation; when he sees nothing other than random natural phenomenon; when he cannot tap into the spark of infinity within himself. If he no longer senses the Divine presence within his soul and within the world, he will submit to the confines of what he perceives to be all powerful laws of physical might, nature, and habit. 

Spiritual redemption begins when we perceive Divine speech, when we hear nature's song, when we sense our soul surging upward. When we sense the universe singing, we experience Pesach (Passover), Peh Sach, the talking mouth, unleashing creativity, joy, and optimism, which is the stuff of true freedom.  

Similarly, our soul is a reservoir of untold potential, a never-ending fountain of love, kindness, ideas, and creativity. Yet, often, our soul is in confinement. We feel empty, stone-like, irritated, or angry. The Kabbalah teaches that the way to free the soul's potential is through speech. Regardless of how we feel, we can speak words of kindness, love, and compassion. Words are liberating. The spoken word will draw the soul from concealment to revelation, from bondage to liberation.   

Next time you feel confined,next time you feel trapped, free yourself through speech. Take control of the narrative of your life. Speak words of gratitude, joy, and love. You will discover that words unlock the feelings trapped within your soul. 

Adapted from Ohr Hatorah, Vayikra 3, p. 736.  

How Many Plagues Were There? - וארא

How Many Plagues Were There? 

You may have heard that ten plagues struck Egypt; in fact, that is the story told in the Torah in the portions of Vaera and Bo (the portions read this week and next). According to the Talmudic sages, however, it is more complicated. Rabbi Eliezer says that each plague consisted of four plagues, for a total of forty plagues, whereas Rabbi Akiva maintains that each plague consisted of five plagues, totaling fifty plagues. As we read in the Passover Haggadah:  

Rabbi Eliezer said: How do we know that each individual plague which the Holy One, blessed be He, brought upon the Egyptians in Egypt consisted of four plagues?

For it is said: "He sent against them His fierce anger, fury, and indignation, and trouble, a discharge of messengers of evil": `Fury,' is one; `Indignation,' makes two; `Trouble,' makes three; `Discharge of messengers of evil,' makes four. Thus you must now say that in Egypt, they were struck by forty plagues.

Rabbi Akiva said: How do we know that each individual plague which the Holy One, blessed be He, brought upon the Egyptians in Egypt consisted of five plagues?

For it is said: "He sent against them his fierce anger, fury, and indignation, and trouble, a discharge of messengers of evil": "His fierce anger," is one; "fury," makes two; "indignation," makes three; "trouble," makes four; "discharge of messengers of evil," makes five. Thus you must now say that in Egypt, they were struck by fifty plagues.

The ancient philosophers classified four building blocks of matter: fire, wind, water, and earth. In addition, they understood that there is a "fifth element", the quintessential {from the Latin Quintus, meaning "fifth"}, the undefined essence, the potentiality, and source of the four elements. The purpose of the plagues was to break the impurity and negativity of Egypt. Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva debated on how deep the impurity and, consequently, the plague penetrated the physical matter of the object being smitten. Rabbi Eliezer believed that each plague consisted of four plagues, for the plague affected all four elements in which the unholiness penetrated. However, Rabbi Akiva classified each plague as consisting of five plagues, for Rabbi Akiva believed that the unholiness of Egypt penetrated the essence of the matter as well. 

The abstract philosophical dispute, whether Egypt's unholiness penetrated only as far as the four elements or whether it reached the quintessential core, has practical and mystical ramifications. 

The Mishnah records a dispute regarding the obligation to obliterate Chametz (leavened bread) from our possession before Passover: 

Rabbi Yehuda says: The removal of leavened bread is to be accomplished only through burning. And the Rabbis say: Burning is not required, as one may even crumble it and throw it into the wind or cast it into the sea.

The Rabbis believed that the prohibition of leavened bread (which, on Passover, represents Egypt's unholiness) does not penetrate the bread's essence. Therefore one can destroy the Chametz by altering its form to the point where it can no longer provide a benefit ("crumble it and throw it into the wind or cast it into the sea"). Rabbi Yehuda, however, believed that the prohibition of Chametz penetrates down to its essence; thus, the only way to destroy the Chametz is by burning it, obliterating not only its form but its essence as well. 

The debate is relevant to each one of us in our quest to liberate our spiritual selves from negativity and destructive energy. The liberation must reach as deep as the negativity. Rabbi Eliezer maintained that the spiritual freedom and purification must extend to each of the four elements of our soul (1) the external "garments" of the soul; thought, speech, and action (2) Emotion (3) Intelligence (4) commitment and devotion. Rabbi Akiva, who was a descendant of converts, possessed an intense passion for serving G-d, he therefore maintained that the exodus must reach an even deeper level. Our deepest core must also experience the spiritual liberation from the shackles of the ego. True spiritual freedom is the ability to be subsumed in the oneness of G-d, losing any sense of being a distinct entity, separate and detached from the infinite source of reality.    

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Likutei Sichos Vaera 16:5

The Kabbalah of Shoes - שמות

The Kabbalah of Shoes 

As Moses approached to see the intriguing sight of a bush burning and not being consumed, G-d spoke to him for the first time. G-d instructed Moses to take off his shoes: 

The Lord saw that he had turned to see, and G-d called to him from within the thorn bush, and He said, "Moses, Moses!" And he said, "Here I am!"

And He said, "Do not draw near here. Take your shoes off your feet, because the place upon which you stand is holy soil." (Exodus 3:4-5)

"Remove your shoes from your feet" indicates that shoes don't belong on holy soil. Yet, there are many references in Judaism where shoes are highlighted in the context of holiness. One example is in the Song of Songs, which portrays the love between G-d and the Jewish people through a metaphor of the love between man and woman. Amongst the many praises the man uses to describe the beauty of his beloved, the verse states:  

How fair are your steps in shoes, O daughter of nobles! The curves of your thighs are like jewels, the handiwork of a craftsman. (Song of Songs 7:2)

The Talmud explains that the verse is a metaphor describing the beauty of the Jewish people as they would travel to Jerusalem to celebrate the three pilgrimage holidays of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot:  

Rava taught: What is the meaning of that which is written: "How beautiful are your steps in shoes, O prince's daughter" (Song of Songs 7:2)? How beautiful are the feet of the Jewish people at the time when they ascend to Jerusalem for the Festival. 

Every physical phenomenon originates from its spiritual equivalent, which is its source. What is the spiritual root of the "shoe"? The Kabbalists explain that the attribute of Malchut, Divine speech, which is the lowest of the ten divine attributes, is the only attribute which can be expressed within creation. The energy of the higher attributes is too powerful to be contained within creation. The verse states: "So says the Lord, "The heavens are My throne, and the earth is My footstool (Isaiah 66:1)". Malchut is likened to the "foot", the lowest part of the body, which "descends" in order to give life to the lower worlds. If the Divine energy of Malchut constantly vitalizes the entire universe, why is the Divine presence concealed? Why is it so difficult to sense G-d's presence on earth? This is, explain the Kabbalists, because of the "shoe" which conceals the "foot".   

Chassidic writings explain that the metaphorical "shoe" exists within every Jew. The name of our third patriarch, Yaakov, Jacob (which becomes a name of the collective Jewish people) consists of two parts: the letter yud, and the word akev, which means heel. Another name for Jacob is the name Israel, which represents the soul's essence, which hovers above the person remaining in the subconscious (or, more accurately, in the supra conscious). The name Yaakov represents the yud, wisdom, which is invested in the akev, heel; the dimension of the soul, which is clothed within the body. 

If the heel represents the soul, the spark of G-d within us, then the shoe, which conceals the heel, symbolizes the animal soul, the self-oriented drive which seeks nothing more than physical survival and material pleasure. 

Shoes have two characteristics (1) they are generally made of leather, the hide of animals (2) the primary purpose of shoes is to allow the person to walk, and they are especially beneficial when traveling long distances. The animal soul, our metaphorical shoes, has these two characteristics as well: (1) the substance of the self-oriented soul is animalistic, it doesn't see beyond the mundane and the tangible (2) the animal soul, the shoe, allows the G-dly soul, the foot, to travel on this earth, reaching landscapes and horizons it could not reach without the shoes. For just as an animal has more physical force than a human, so too, the animal soul possesses greater passion and excitement than does the G-dly soul. If we channel its energy toward love of G-d, if we can tan the hide, then we have successfully created a figurative pair of shoes: animal energy strengthening and intensifying our love of G-d.

On the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, we remove our leather shoes. When Moses stood on the sacred soil at the burning bush, G-d commanded him to remove his shoes. Because in the presence of holiness, we focus on our G-dly soul. Yet, the Song of Songs teaches that a truly beautiful sight is the climb to Jerusalem with our shoes. The ultimate spiritual beauty is achieved by transforming the animal soul's passion into fuel that propels us on our ascent to the holy city of Jerusalem. 

Adapted from Lekutei Torah Shir Hashirim 43:4 

Devouring Wolf - ויחי

Devouring Wolf

Before his passing, Jacob gathered his children and blessed each of them with a unique blessing. Some of those blessings are poetically beautiful: 

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

[He is] red eyed from wine and white toothed from milk.

Zebulun will dwell on the coast of the seas.

From Asher will come rich food, and he will yield regal delicacies.

Naphtali is a swift gazelle; [he is one] who utters beautiful words.

After blessing eleven of his children, Jacob turned to Benjamin, his youngest son, and spoke the following blessing: 

Benjamin is a wolf, he will prey; in the morning he will devour plunder, and in the evening he will divide the spoil." (Genesis 49:27)

Why is Benjamin likened to a devouring wolf?

Rashi offers two interpretations as to what the devouring wolf represents: 

He is a wolf for he will prey. He prophesied: {1} that they were destined to be “grabbers” : “and you shall grab for yourselves each man his wife”, in the episode of the concubine in Gibeah. 

{2} and he prophesied about Saul , that he would be victorious over his enemies all around.

The second interpretation is indeed a profound blessing, addressing the most glorious period of the tribe of Benjamin: Saul, of the tribe of Benjamin, would be the first king of Israel and would devour his enemies. 

The first interpretation, however, is baffling. 

The “concubine of Gibeah” and its aftermath were one of the most horrific events in the Jewish people's history in the land of Israel. A mob in Gibeah, a town in the tribal portion of Benjamin, violated a Levite's concubine, leading to her death. To demonstrate his outrage, the Levite dismembered her corpse and sent her remains to each of the tribes. After the Benjaminites refused to hand over the perpetrators, the other tribes waged war and decimated the tribe of Benjamin, of whom only 600 men survived. Before the battle, The other tribes had taken an oath not to allow their daughters to marry men from Benjamin. After the war, the other tribes felt remorse at having doomed Binjamin to extinction. To circumvent their oath, the other tribes allowed the Benjaminites to “grab” wives from Shiloh. 

Of all the blessings Jacob could have blessed his beloved child Benjamin, why did he begin with the most tragic event in Benjamin's future? What kind of a blessing is it that after the tribe was nearly wiped out, they had to “grab” “devour” girls of other tribes to avert extinction? 

While, on the surface, “devouring wolf” does not appear to be an appropriate blessing, Chassidic philosophy explains that, in reality, the blessing to Benjamin is perhaps the greatest blessing of all. The blessing to Benjamin, the final blessing Jacob gave to his children, is also the most profound. The devouring wolf represents the ability to turn around after moral and physical failure. Despite being, in the aftermath of the war, in the absolute lowest abyss, physically, spiritually, and morally, the Benjaminites were able to change course. They were able to forcibly “devour” and pull themselves away from the negative behavior and attitudes that led to their downfall and seek to rehabilitate and refine. The devouring wolf represents the inner force, strength, and courage necessary to pull one away from one’s habits and character and begin a new path. 

When the tribes saw the transformation in Benjamin's surviving members, they too sought to help Benjamin rehabilitate and take their place amongst the tribes of Israel once again. 

The blessing to Benjamin, the ability to gather the courage, to transform negativity into growth and rehabilitation, reflects the theme of the second half of the book of Genesis. As Joseph reiterates to his brothers after the passing of his father: “Indeed, you intended evil against me, but G-d designed it for good, in order to bring about what is at present to keep a great populace alive.” The entire episode of Joseph, spanning the last four portions of Genesis, expresses this truth: while there is evil in this world, while the brothers sought to do evil to Joseph, G-d blesses us, as he blessed Joseph, with the ability to transform the evil into an opportunity for growth and life. 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Vayechi 25:2 


Judah the Guarantor - ויגש

 Judah the Guarantor

The Torah has two facets: both a body, law, and a soul, inner meaning, philosophy, and spirituality. By examining the detailed Talmudic analysis, the body, of a given topic, we can gain insight into the inner spiritual dimension.


The Talmud offers two opinions for the scriptural source of the legal liability of a guarantor, the person who agrees to assume the liability to repay a loan given to a third person. Rav Huna states that the scriptural source is from the story of Judah, who committed to his father to become a guarantor to return Benjamin safely home from Egypt: 

Rav Huna said: From where is it derived that a guarantor becomes obligated to repay a loan he has guaranteed? As it is written that Judah reassured his father concerning the young Benjamin: “I will be his guarantor; of my hand shall you request him” (Genesis 43:9). This teaches that it is possible for one to act as a guarantor that an item will be returned to the giver.

This source, however, is somewhat problematic, because Judah’s offer to be a “guarantor” was not referring to the obligation to repay a debt. Since Judah’s commitment does not conform to the scenario of a financial guarantor, the Talmud offers another opinion:

Rabbi Yitzḥak said that the source is from here: “Take his garment that is surety for a stranger; and hold him in pledge that is surety for an alien woman” (Proverbs 20:16). 

And it is stated: “My son, if you have become guarantor for your neighbor, if you have shaken your hands for a stranger, you have become ensnared by the words of your mouth”.

While it seems that the two opinions in the Talmud are debating a technical point, the scriptural source for the legal obligation of a guarantor, in reality, they are debating a deeper philosophical question: what is the nature of the obligation of the guarantor? 

It is clear that according to the second opinion, the relationship between the guarantor and the borrower is limited to a financial obligation. The quoted verses from Proverbs clearly define the borrower as a “stranger”, a separate and distinct entity. 

However, according to the first opinion, the relationship is a far deeper one. When Judah states that he will “guarantee” the return of Benjamin, he is not referring to a financial obligation; instead, he is stating that he is bound to Benjamin as though they were one entity, and he would therefore ensure Benjamin's return. If Judah’s commitment to Benjamin is the scriptural source for the laws of the guarantor of a debt, this indicates that the philosophical underpinnings of the guarantor’s responsibility to repay, is not because he agrees to repay the loan of a “stranger”, but rather it is as if the guarantor himself borrowed the money, because he and the borrower have become one entity.  

The Hebrew word for guarantor {arev} derives from the word blended {meurav}. The guarantor can be considered one entity with the borrower because, in our spiritual source, we are all part of one whole, interconnected and interrelated. This explains why, in Jewish Law, one can recite a blessing on behalf of a fellow who is obligated to recite the blessing, although the reciter himself is not obligated. The reason is because all Jewish people are considered one entity, if one person has not fulfilled his obligation, then his fellow is also “obligated”. 

The interconnectivity between all Jewish people is because of our shared spiritual identity. Therefore, all agree that we are considered one entity in spiritual matters, such as the recitation of a blessing. The Talmudic debate is whether our spiritual connection can play itself out in physical matters as well, expressing itself in financial matters. If, while engaged in the material world, we are unable to see ourselves as one entity, then the commitment to repay a fellow’s debt can only be considered a financial obligation to a fellow. Rav Huna, however, believes that our spiritual core can express itself even in the marketplace. He therefore says that the financial obligation on behalf of derives from the understanding that we are one entity. 

Judah’s family was traumatized by terrible division, when the brothers kidnapped Joseph and sold him as a slave. The healing, the reunion between Joseph and his brothers, could only have occurred once Judah expressed true brotherhood, demonstrating that a family is, in fact, one entity. 

Judah, and his descendants, became the leaders of the Jewish people precisely because a true leader senses that he is one with the people he leads. A true leader helps us all feel that we are part of one whole, part of one family. We are not complete until we are all complete.    

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 30 Vayigash 1)

Finding the "Opening of the House" - מקץ

Finding the "Opening of the House"

The brothers were frightened. 

The viceroy of Egypt, who unbeknownst to them was their brother Joseph whom they sold into slavery, accused them of being spies. When they returned home from purchasing grain to sustain their families during the terrible famine, they found that the money they spent was mysteriously returned to their bags. When they returned to Egypt with Benjamin to purchase additional garin they were immediately brought to the house of Joseph. 

They were afraid to enter Joseph's house. 

The Torah describes that they approached the steward of Joseph’s house, trying to convince him of their innocence. As the Torah describes: 

so they went up to Joseph’s house steward and spoke to him at the entrance of the house.

And they said, "Please, my lord, we came down at first to purchase food.

And it came to pass when we came to the lodging place that we opened our sacks, and behold! each man's money was in the mouth of his sack, our money in full weight; and we returned it in our hands.

And we brought down other money in our hand[s] to purchase food. We do not know who put our money into our sacks." (Genesis 43:19-22)

The Torah describes how they were reassured: 

He replied, “All is well with you; do not be afraid. Your God, the God of your father, must have put treasure in your bags for you. I got your payment.” And he brought out Simeon to them. 43-23

Every detail in the Torah is precise. Why does the Torah emphasize that the exchange happened “at the entrance of the house“?

The Chasidic Masters explain the mystical meaning of the story and its relevance to each of our lives. The Baal Shem Tov taught that everything that happens in this world happens by Divine providence. When a person experiences fear caused by physical concerns, it is in order to help the person reach a higher state of fear, the awe of G-d. The spiritual fear then causes all other fears, which are debilitating and paralyzing, to dissipate. This, in fact, is what happened to Joseph’s brothers. When they were accused of being spies (and later, when Benjamin was accused of stealing Joseph’s goblet), they were frightened. Yet the fear of the viceroy led them to a deeper awe, it led them to realize the severity of their terrible sin of selling their brother. The “external fear”, the fear of the human king, led them to “an inner fear”, the fear of their creator, which led to their ultimate repentance and transformation. 

This is the mystical significance of the “opening of the house”. Every challenge is, in reality, an opening to a deeper and more elevated space. When the brothers were faced with a profound fear, they realized that it was an “opening of a house”, an opportunity to get to a deeper awe. They were able to use the external fear as an opportunity to introspect and reach a deeper level of awe.    

The same is true for each of us. Every experience in our life could become “an opening of the house”, an opportunity for spiritual growth, deeper awareness. Next time you face a challenge, or encounter an obstacle, ask yourself: how do I use this challenge as an opening to a new “house”, to a space of deeper meaning and spiritual connection? 

Based on the Degel Machane Ephrayim.

The Wedding Ring - וישב

The Wedding Ring 

Perhaps one of the most puzzling stories in the Torah is the story of Judah and Tamar. Judah promised Tamar, his twice widowed daughter-in-law, that he would give her his third son in marriage. When Tamar realized that Judah had no intention of doing so, she disguised herself as a harlot and became pregnant from Judah, giving birth to twins, one of whom became the ancestor of King David, as well as the ancestor of Moshiach, who will bring the world to perfection. 

Every detail in the Torah is layered with significance. Tamar asked Judah for security for payment. As the Torah describes: 

So he said, "What is the pledge that I should give you?" And she said, "Your signet, your cloak, and the staff that is in your hand." So he gave them to her, and he came to her, and she conceived his likeness. (Genesis 38:18)

Rashi emphasizes that the signet was set in a ring: “Your ring, with which you seal”.  

The Story of Judah and Tamar affects an essential aspect of every Jewish marriage. While the Jewish Law teaches that a woman is betrothed by receiving any object of monetary value, it has become the universal Jewish custom to betroth a woman by giving her a ring. The commentators explain that the biblical source for betrothal by a ring is Judah, who gave Tamar his signet set in a ring. 

What is the mystical meaning of the ring? Why do we evoke the, seemingly immodest, union of Judah and Tamar in every jewish marriage?

Regarding the day of Shabbat, the Midrash employs the following parable: “This is compared to a king who made a ring. What was the ring missing? It was missing a signet . So too, what was the world missing? The world was missing Shabbat.  

A ring represents nature. The Hebrew word ring consists of the same letters as the Hebrew word for nature . Like a ring, nature is cyclical, like a ring, nature does not necessarily have an identifying mark expressing its owner. What nature, the ring, is missing is a signet, identifying its owner, it’s meaning, and its purpose. Shabbat is the signet. Shabbat is our declaration that G-d created the world in six days and rested in the seventh. While nature is a ring that tells you nothing about its owner or its purpose, Shabbat is the signet of the ring which infuses nature with awareness of the holiness and transcendence of G-d. 

This is the significance of the wedding ring, which represents Judah’s signet. When man and woman seek to unite in marriage, they seek more than a natural, and therefore temporary, bond, they seek to draw holiness and transcendence into their relationship.  Marriage is the sacred bond which infuses the natural connection between man and woman, with the energy of the infinite light of G-d, thus creating an everlasting edifice, expressed in the Divine power of procreation. 

And finally, the Messianic era, whose seeds were planted by the union of Judah and Tamar, represents the ultimate fusion between the ring and the signet, between the natural order, and the infinite light of G-d. Indeed, the Messianic era represents the culmination of the marriage between G-d and the Jewish people, When “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of G-d as the waters fill the sea.”

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos, Vayeshev, vol. 15 sicha 4. 

Value Thy Possessions - וישלח

Value Thy Possessions

It was a tense night for Jacob, as he prepared to meet his brother Esau after twenty years of separation. Jacob was afraid. Would Esau accept his gifts and his friendship, or would Esau seek confrontation and conflict?

The night before Jacob was to meet Esau he crossed the stream of Jabok with his wives, children and possessions, enroute to the land of Israel. Jacob returned to the other side of the Jabok alone, where he met a mysterious man and they wrestled until morning. As the Torah relates: 

And he arose during that night, and he took his two wives and his two maidservants and his eleven children, and he crossed the Jabbok stream.

And he took them and brought them across the stream, and he took across what was his.

And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn (Genesis 32:23-25)

What was Jacob’s state of mind on that fateful night as he stood alone in the dark, on the other side of the Jabok stream? The sages offer two seemingly contradictory possibilities. Rashi explains that Jacob crossed the Jabok seeking to retrieve a few small jugs: 

And Jacob was left: He had forgotten small bottles and returned for them.

Jacob was alone, not for any spiritual purpose, but rather because despite his great wealth, he was seeking to recover something of very little value. On the other hand, the Midrash reads this verse in an entirely different fashion. The verse states that Jacob was alone, the word alone, is used by the prophet Isaiah to describe G-d’s presence in the Messianc era, when G-d will be “alone”, because all will recognize that all existence is dependent on, and therefore insignificant to, his presence. As the Midrash states:  

Just as, regarding the Holy Blessed One, it is written, "None but the G-d shall be Exalted on that day" (Isaiah 2:17), so too regarding Jacob it is written: "Jacob was left alone." (Breishis Rabbah chapter 77)

So which one is it? Was Jacob alone because he was trying to save a few dollars or was he alone because he was experiencing the oneness of G-d? Can these opposite interpretations coexist in the same verse? 

The Chassidic answer is yes. Indeed, both these interpretations are true, simultaneously. The Talmud (Chulin 91a) states “from here {Jacob’s concern for the jugs} we derive that the righteous value their money more than their body”. The Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, explains this startling statement as follows: every creation possesses a spark of holiness in a dormant state, waiting to be released back to its source. This can be accomplished by elevating the object, using it for a higher purpose. The righteous, explains the Baal Shem Tov, sense the sparks of G-dliness, the holy potential waiting to be unleashed, within their possessions. Thus, when Jacob crossed the stream to collect his possessions, he sensed, not the physical worth of his possessions, but rather, the spark of G-d within the material. Within the material world, Jacob sensed that indeed G-d is “alone”, the true and ultimate existence.

The meeting of Jacob and Esau represents the unity between body and soul, between physical and spiritual. Before Jacob could meet, unite, and elevate Esau, he must first experience oneness within himself. Thus, the night before the meeting Jacob was alone, introspecting, seeing the Divine unity within each creation.  

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 15 Vayishlach sicha 3. 


Why Did Jacob Pour Oil on a Stone? - ויצא

Why Did Jacob Pour Oil on a Stone?

It is a strange name to name a child.

The name Jacob, a derivative of the Hebrew word for “heel”, was given because when Jacob emerged from his mother's womb he was holding the heel of his twin brother. Why would anyone name a child, heel? Why would we want him to consistently remember that he emerged grasping his brother's heel? 

Chassidic philosophy explains the mystical meaning of the name Jacob, and how the name captures Jacob life’s purpose and calling. The Hebrew word for Jacob, Yaakov, consists of two parts, the Hebrew letter “Yud”  and the word “Eikev” which means heel. Jacob’s spiritual task was to engage with the hebrew letter “Yud” which represents wisdom, enlightenment and vision and bring it to every area of the person including the heel, which is the part of the body with the least vitality, the part of the body with the least inspiration. Jacob's skill was to take this vision and bring it to the everyday mundane tasks of life. Jacob's skill was his ability to see within every moment, within every activity, within every chore, a larger vision, one of an inspired and meaningful life. 

This theme plays out in the story of Jacob’s reaction to his dream: as the Torah describes: 

And he arrived at the place and lodged there because the sun had set, and he took some of the stones of the place and placed [them] at his head, and he lay down in that place.

And he dreamed, and behold! a ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven; and behold, angels of God were ascending and descending upon it.…

And Jacob arose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had placed at his head, and he set it up as a monument, and he poured oil on top of it.

The commentators point out that before he went to sleep he put stones, plural, around his head. When he woke up he took the stone, singular, that was around his head and poured oil on it. Was it one stone or was it many stones? Rashi, quoting the Talmud, explains: 

and placed [them] at his head: He arranged them in the form of a drainpipe around his head because he feared the wild beasts. They [the stones] started quarreling with one another. One said, “Let the righteous man lay his head on me,” and another one said, “Let him lay [his head] on me.” Immediately, the Holy One, blessed be He, made them into one stone. This is why it is stated: “and he took the stone [in the singular] that he had placed at his head.” 

This is the essence of Jacob’s spiritual skill. By pouring oil, which represents light, wisdom, and Divine awareness, Jacob could transform many stones into a single stone; within the multiple, seemingly mundane and monotonous details of existence and daily life, Jacob could experience a unifying light and purpose.

Jacob fled to the city of Charan. The word Charan is related to the word “Nichar”, as in the verse “my throat became dry ”. In Charan, G-d’s speech invested within creation was not apparent. The universe did not tell a unified story, the story of the greatness of G-d. Instead  randomness and chaos reigned. Jacob's task was to transform the “Nichar”, the silence, to “Rina”, joyous song, by revealing the myriads of details within creation, each singing their own song, all part of a unified orchestra, proclaiming the beauty and greatness of the creator.  

Jacob is the patriarch of each and every Jew. We each possess Jacob’s ability to infuse the specific details of everyday life with overarching, unifying, meaning. We each have the ability to experience a connection to G-d in every mundane act, because every individual moment is a detail of a unified song, the song which connects us  to our creator.

Adapted from Vishavti Bishalom, Torah Or, Parshas Vayetze. 


The Double Blessing - תולדות

The Double Blessing

Isaac assumed that the person standing before him was Esau, his eldest son, who he intended to bless before his passing. Unbeknownst to him it was actually Jacob, his younger son, disguised as Esau. Isaac began the blessing with an unusual choice of words, which offer insight into the nature of this particular blessing which was intended for Esau. 


The opening phrase of the blessing is: ‘May Elokim {G-d} grant you”. Elokim is the name of G-d which expresses concealment, judgment, and withholding. It is an unusual name to be used in association with a blessing. In fact, most blessings in the Torah are associated with the name Hashem, which represents benevolence and revelation. 


The first word of the blessing is “and”, which implies that the statement is a continuation of a previous statement, when in fact, the word “and” is the beginning of the blessing. Rashi explains that the “and” represents a double giving: “May He {G-d} give and repeatedly give ”. This explanation, however, prompts another question: why the need for an additional blessing? What is lacking in the first blessing that requires a second blessing? 


The conventional meaning of a blessing is the bestowal of a gift which does not require effort on the part of the recipient. Yet, Isaac’s blessings differed considerably. Unlike Abraham, who embodied loving kindness and giving, Isaac embodied the attributes of discipline and restraint. Isaac's idea of blessing was empowering the recipient to achieve through his or her own effort. Isaac did not suffice with the blessing from above, for he wanted his son to acquire the blessing through his own effort. This can be compared to a student who not only receives information, knowledge  and enlightenment from his teacher, but rather he also learns how to innovate and create new ideas. Isaac blessed his son that he should receive blessing from G-d, {“may He give”}, additionally, his son should tread his own path and create his own blessing {“and return and give”}.


Generally speaking there are two ways of serving G-d: The first is the path of the righteous who follow G-d's directives as spelled out in the Torah. They seek to receive direction and inspiration from above.  Yet, often we are confronted with challenges and confusion, finding ourselves in a state of spiritual darkness, feeling disconnected from the gift of the Torah. At those times we are unable to appreciate the inspiration from above.  When that happens we have no choice but to engage in the second, more profound, form of Divine service: the service of Teshuvah, return to G-d, motivated by the inspiration generated from within the person himself. The service of Teshuvah is a true human innovation for it has the power to elevate negativity by transforming unholy, destructive experiences into fuel for good, motivating a deep longing and yearning for G-d. 


Isaac knew that his son Esau was out of touch with his spiritual source and the Divine potential gifted to him from above. He therefore began the blessing with the name Elokim, which represents G-d’s ability to conceal his awesome presence. Isaac was telling his son that the greatest blessing is the ability to transform the state of
concealment {which can occur as a result of the name Elokim} through one’s own effort. The greatest blessing is not the one given from above {“may he give”}, but rather the one created by man {“and repeatedly give”}. 


Rebekah, however, understood that Jacob was the one who must receive the blessing intended for Esau. For only the righteous Jacob can harness the profound energy and passion generated by returning to G-d from a place of darkness. In the final analysis, Jacob was the one who could cultivate both qualities, the quality of the righteous as well as the quality of the returnee, thus granting each and every one of his descendants the ability to experience both forms of the divine blessing. 

Based on Lekutei Sichos Toldos, vol. 10 sicha 2.  


The Double Cave - חיי שרה

The Double Cave 

Mearat Hamachpela, “the double cave”, was the place Abraham chose to purchase for the burial of his wife Sarah. The Torah describes how Abraham negotiated and ultimately purchased the cave, yet the Torah does not explain why Abraham chose that particular spot, which ultimately became the burial spot of our patriarchs and matriarchs (excluding Rachel). 

In order to discover the mystical and spiritual significance of the cave we must first explore why the cave was called “the double cave”. The Talmud relates:  

With regard to the Machpelah Cave, in which the patriarchs and matriarchs are buried, Rav and Shmuel disagreed. One said: The cave consists of two rooms, one further in than the other. And one said: It consists of a room and a second story above it.

The Chassidic masters explain that the configuration of the cave explained in the Talmud is a physical representation of a spiritual reality. The patriarchs and matriarchs embodied the concept of “the double cave” in their lifetime, they therefore merited to be buried in that holy spot, which, as explained in the Zohar, is the “opening of Eden”, it is the place on earth that represents the entrance to heaven. This is the meaning of “the double cave”, the space of the cave is “double”, it possesses a dual reality, it is the place where dimensions of both earth and heaven, of physical and spiritual, are present. 

The Chassidic masters elaborate: one opinion in the Talmud is that the word “double” refers to the cave consisting of two stories, one above the other. This represents the awareness that every person possesses two dimensions, one above the other; the first level represents ordinary material life, in which we are preoccupied primarily with the needs of our body, and “above” the physical reality is the domain of the soul, the higher more spiritual side of self. The patriarchs and matriarchs teach us to live in both these dimensions simultaneously, not to be satisfied with a materialistic definition of self, but rather to seek and experience our heavenly dimension, to feel the yearning of our soul to ascend to its source within G-d himself. 

Once we are in touch with the “higher story” dimension of life we can appreciate the other interpretation in the Talmud, which is that the cave was called “double” because it consisted of an outer chamber and an inner chamber. The symbolism of “two rooms, one further in than the other” is that in every person we meet, and every experience we encounter, we have a choice to focus exclusively on the externality of the person or experience, or we can look deeper and see the “inner room”, the inner soul and spark of G-d that  lies hidden within every person we meet and every experience we encounter. 

The double cave represents the legacy our patriarchs and matriarchs pass on to us. We should live to its fullest, not being satisfied with the shallow and superficial dimension of existence. We must seek to experience both the “room and a second story above it”, both our physical awareness as well as the heavenly source of our soul. The awareness of both dimensions of self will allow us to see, not only the outer chamber, the external, but also the inner chamber, the deepest holy core of every person and of every experience. 

(Adapted from the Sfas Emes)


Relationships Require Two Wings - וירא

Relationships Require Two Wings 

A bird cannot fly with one wing alone, and relationships cannot survive on love alone. To escape the pull of gravity, a relationship requires both the passion of love and the discipline of devotion and commitment. 

The story of Abraham is told primarily in two portions of the Torah, Lech Lecha and Vayera. Lech Lecha tells of Abraham’s life up until his circumcision at age ninety nine. Vayera opens with the scene of Abraham, experiencing the pain of circumcision, sitting at the opening of his tent and seeking guests to invite: 

And he lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, three men were standing beside him, and he saw and he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent, and he prostrated himself to the ground. (Genesis, 18:2).

The sages explain that the three people were in fact three angels, each assigned with a specific task. The Zohar, however, states that the three people appearing at Abraham’s tent represent the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What is the significance of the three angels representing the three patriarchs? 

Each of the Patriarchs embodied one of the three primary emotional attributes: Abraham embodied love (or giving), Isaac embodied awe (or discipline), and Jacob embodied compassion. [Kindness seeks to give to everyone, because it sees good in everyone; discipline, the opposite extreme, seeks to restrict the giving to those who deserve it. Compassion blends the two, on the one hand it acknowledges that not everyone is deserving, on the other hand, it is prepared to give to someone who is in need, even if undeserving].   

Abraham was the embodiment of love, his entire life was about kindness, inviting guests, feeding travelers, and seeking to enlighten the people around him. Yet, love alone is not enough for a meaningful relationship. Ultimately all love is motivated by self love. A person loves someone or something because of how the person or the experience makes them feel. To transcend the self and connect to someone else, one needs commitment and devotion, or, in the language of the Torah, awe. The ability  to put oneself  aside and to do what the other person wants, despite it not being something one wants to do. 

Indeed, the circumcision begins the process of Abraham being called upon to sacrifice for G-d (indeed, while the first portion of Abraham’s life primarily depicts Abraham’s love for G-d, the second portion, culminating in the ultimate sacrifice, the binding of Isaac, expresses how Abraham was called upon to express, not love, but disciplined commitment).  

This, explains the Chassidic Masters, is the significance of the three men, representing the three patriarchs, who appeared at Abraham’s tent after the circumcision. They represent a combination of all three attributes. By not being satisfied with love alone, but rather, by exhibiting disciplined commitment, Abraham reached the level of true service of G-d; embodying the ability to blend the two opposite emotions of love (Abraham) and awe (Isaac), blended together through compassion (Jacob).

The stories of the Patriarchs are relevant to each of our lives. In our relationship with G-d, as well as in our relationship with other people, we must cultivate both “wings” to allow the relationship to soar. We must cultivate both  love and commitment, the desire to become one and the discipline to respect our differences. Both wings are held together with the compassionate ability to balance the two.   

(Adapted from Kedushas Levi)

The Turbulent Journey - לך לך

The Turbulent Journey 

Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, set out on a journey that would, eventually,  change the world. He left Charan, heeding G-d’s call to "Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1). Abraham must have been full of optimism, he was armed with an incredible Divine promise, for G-d had told him: “And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will aggrandize your name, and [you shall] be a blessing.”

Yet, Abraham’s journey seemed to be a disaster and a colossal disappointment. As soon as he reached the land of Cannan, a famine broke out and he was forced to descend to Egypt where his wife was abducted and brought to Pharaoh the king. This was not only a personal challenge, but it was also a terrible blow to Abraham’s mission of spreading the awareness of the one G-d. The pagan inhabitants of Cannan took note of the fact that the terrible famine broke out as soon as Abraham arrived. They must have thought that the famine was a sign from above that Abraham’s faith would bring nothing but trouble. 

Why was Abraham’s journey so complicated and full of frustration? Why wasn't Abraham rewarded for his loyalty with a tranquil existence in Canaan?  The same question applies to the Jewish people, the descendants of Abraham, who carry Abraham’s legacy of teaching the world about the one G-d. Why has our historical journey been so full of disappointment, challenge, and tragedy? 

The Answer can be found in the name of our Torah portion: Lech Licha, which means “go to you ”. The name of the entire portion, including the parts of the story that seem to be a retreat from Abraham’s destination and purpose, are all critical to the journey of growth. The most important message to Abraham, as well as to his descendants, is that what looks like a devastating setback is, in reality, an opportunity for more meaningful growth. Yes, even the descent into Egypt, with all its negative ramifications, would ultimately lead to Abraham and Sarah emerging stronger, and better able to achieve their purpose and mission. The descent into Egypt, was part of the mission of ascent  to Israel. 

This is true in the life of each and every Jew. The first, and perhaps, primary message from the life of Abraham is that every disappointment can be an opportunity for reaching deeper joy, every setback can become a springboard, and every challenge can motivate profound growth. 

This is the essence of the life of Abraham, the essence of the Jewish story, and of the teachings of the Torah: no matter the circumstances, no matter the pain, every experience is part of the journey to discover our essence. Within every challenging experience is a spark of G-dliness waiting to be elevated and channeled to fuel us further on our journey of reaching our promised land. 

(Adapted from Likutei Sichos 5, Lech Licha 1) 


Master of the Soil - נח

Master of the Soil

Noah found favor in the eyes of G-d, he was saved from the flood and tasked with repopulating the earth, G-d extended His covenant to Noah and promised never again to wipe out all the creatures from the face of the earth. G-d’s love to Noah was palpable. 

Noah himself seemed not to share G-d’s optimistic view of the future. Before the flood we read that “Noah did, according to all that the Lord had commanded him (Genesis 7:5)”. Yet, after the flood Noah did not seem to live up to his greatness. He planted a vineyard, got drunk and lost his dignity - “he uncovered himself within his tent”. 

As the Torah relates: 

And Noah, master of the soil, began and planted a vineyard. And he drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father's nakedness, and he told his two brothers outside. And Shem and Japheth took the garment, and they placed [it] on both of their shoulders, and they walked backwards, and they covered their father's nakedness, and their faces were turned backwards, so that they did not see their father's nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine and he knew what his small son had done to him. And he said, "Cursed be Canaan; he shall be a slave among slaves to his brethren." May God expand Japheth, and may He dwell in the tents of Shem, and may Canaan be a slave to them (Genesis 9:20-27)”.

The Torah tells us “And Noah, master of the soil, began and planted a vineyard.”. The Hebrew word for “began”, “Vayachel”, also means “Mundane”. Rashi tells us: “he made himself profane, for he should have first engaged in planting something different.”

Why did Noah, immediately after the flood, plant a vine, which is a symbol of mundane pleasure? The Chassidic Masters explain that after seeing the corruption of the earth Noah wanted to engage with the soil in order to protect it from future spiritual corruption. Noah felt that his responsibility was to be “master of the soil”, he must engage with the most material pleasure and demonstrate how it could, in fact, be used for holiness. 

Yet, Noah was mistaken. And his mistake was that - “Vayachel” - “he began”. The mistake was that he began with material pleasure. The material will intoxicate one’s spiritual senses unless the person is first saturated in holiness. Had Noah began his day with intensifying his connection to spirituality and only then proceeded to plant, he would have elevated the vine rather than having the vine pull him down.    

When Noah awoke from his wine and recognized his mistake he proceeded to bless Shem and Yafet, the two sons who had treated him with dignity and covered his nakedness. Noah said: 

May God expand Yafet, and may He dwell in the tents of Shem…

Noah, who “uncovered himself within his tent”, saw within his son Shem the potential for the correction of his own negative experience in his tent, an experience of pleasure disconnected from a holy context. Noah proclaimed “may He (G-d) dwell in the tents of Shem”, emphasising that Shem and his descendants would bring G-d into their homes, they would infuse their homes with holiness, which, in turn, would allow them to proceed and elevate the mundane. They begin with prayer, study and good deeds ensuring that their tent is a place where G-d will dwell, and only then do they proceed to plant the vine. 

(Adapted from the Maor Vashemesh)

What’s Wrong with Knowledge? - בראשית

What’s Wrong with Knowledge?

When Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden life was simple. G-d had only one request. They were permitted to eat from any tree in the garden, except for one. The tree which they were prohibited from consuming, which therefore symbolized the most negative thing in the garden, was, of course, the tree of knowledge of good and evil. 

This raises many questions, among them: 1) What is wrong with knowledge? Would G-d prefer that Adam and Eve remain  ignorant? 2) The question which Maimonides, in his philosophical work The Guide to the Perplexed, refers to as an “astonishing question” raised by a “learned man”: How can it be that because Adam and Eve violated the commandment of G-d they were rewarded with knowledge, which is the greatest gift man can possess? How is it possible that violating G-d’s will elevated man to the state of enlightenment? 

The answer, according to Maimonides, lies in the words good and evil, which imply subjective good and evil. Before the sin Adam and Eve would think in terms of truth or falsehood; if something was objectively positive it was true, if something was objectively negative it was false. The result of the consumption of the fruit of the tree of knowledge was the introduction of a heightened awareness of self. The human being began to think primarily in terms of self. How does this experience make me feel? If the experience feels good subjectively, it is then desirable. When G-d did not want Adam and Eve to know good and evil he was not trying to keep them ignorant of knowledge, on the contrary, G-d hoped that humanity could hold on to objective knowledge. The “opening of the eyes” that Adam and Eve experienced by consuming the fruit, was not an upgrade that was awarded, but rather on the contrary, it was a downgrade. They traded-in superior objective knowledge for inferior subjective knowledge.  

The consequence of developing a subjective sense of good and evil is that we were expelled from the tranquility of Eden. Each person evaluated good based on their own self interest, which inevitably led to a chaotic clash of egos. In the short term, the fruit of the tree of knowledge moved us away from G-d.

The story of the tree of knowledge is not an all out tragedy. The subjective perspective introduced passion, enthusiasm, and excitement. If I am attracted to something because I feel that it is good for me, that will intensify my longing and desire for it. So while initially the introduction of the subjective idea of good may have turned us away from the truth of G-d, toward the pursuit of our own temptations, in the long run the subjective perspective could, in fact, enhance our relationship with G-d, intensifying the yearning, deepening the love, and stoking the passion to reconnect to G-d and transforming the world back into Eden. 

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