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Blog - Torah Insights

Heaven and Earth - Haazinu - האזינו

h.jpgHeaven and Earth

It contains only forty-three verses, yet the song Moses taught the Jews on the last day of his life, spans all of Jewish history, from the very beginning when “He found them in a desert land”, all the way to the future redemption when the nations will praise G-d “For He will... appease His land (and) His people.”

In the opening phrase of the song Moses calls for the heaven and earth to bear witness to the words he is about to speak:

Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak! And let the earth hear the words of my mouth! (Deuteronomy 32:1).

Because Jewish law requires that any legal matter be established on the basis of two witnesses, Moses called upon both heaven and earth to bear witness that he indeed had conveyed this song to the people.

The testimony of heaven and earth is more than merely a poetic metaphor to introduce the song. Rather Moses was conveying a profound message, namely, that in order for the message to endure, the Jew must evoke both heaven and earth.

The purpose of the Jewish people, the objective of all Jewish history, is the marriage of heaven and earth. While many spiritual seekers, and virtually all religions, seek to escape the confines of the flesh and climb heavenward, the Jew is charged with a far more profound calling. The Jew’s task is more ambitious and revolutionary. It is first to create peace, then to build a bridge and finally a marriage between heaven and earth.    

Moses uses different words to address the heavens and the earth. He says: “Give ear, O heavens,  (“Haazinu”), “let the earth hear” (“Vi’Tishma”). The Hebrew word “Haazinu”, Give ear, is used specifically when the listener is in close proximity to the speaker, while the word “Tishma”, “hear”, applies to hearing something that is a distance away. Indeed, the Midrash explains that since Moses was “close to the heavens”, since to him spirituality was the reality of existence, he employed the word “Give ear” when addressing the heavens. And being that the material world was insignificant to Moses, because he was “distant from the earth”, he used the word “hear” when addressing the earth.

Moses was close to the heavens, but since the purpose of Judaism is to connect both matter and spirit, Moses must evoke not only heaven but earth as well.

The words of Moses were spoken to each of us. We each have a “heaven” and an “earth” within ourselves. Part of us seeks the transcendent and the spiritual, while part of us seeks the earthly and the physical. In his song Moses tells us how, despite a terrible exile, the Jewish people would emerge with a strengthened bond with G-d. The song tells how the Jewish people and their mission would endure. Perhaps more than any other part of the song, the opening words, “Give ear O heavens” and “Let the earth hear”, capture the mission of the Jew.

The song is read on Shabbat in close proximity to the holidays of Yom Kippur and Sukkot, for Yom Kippur and Sukkot are the embodiment of the song. On Yom Kippur we reach to the heavens, we connect to the core of our soul which is “close to the heavens” and feels one with G-d. Yet, as we reach the climax of the holiness of Yom Kippur we transition to the preparation for the holiday of Sukkot, which is a celebration of the ingathering of the harvest, when we celebrate the bounty we were blessed with. As the verse states:

You shall make yourself the Festival of Sukkot for seven days, when you gather in [the produce] from your threshing floor and your vat… Seven days you shall celebrate the Festival to the Lord, your God, in the place which the Lord shall choose, because the Lord, your God, will bless you in all your produce, and in all the work of your hands, and you will only be happy. (Deuteronomy 16:13-15).

The combination of Yom Kippur and Sukkot represents the life of the Jew. We are “close to heaven”, we connect to our angelic, spiritual and pure soul on Yom Kippur, and then we connect the “heaven”, spiritual awareness, to the field, to sanctify and uplift the blessings of everyday life.   

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Haazinu vol. 2)

 

In Hiding - Vayelech - וילך

v.jpgIn Hiding 

Our history has not always been rosy. We have experienced tranquility, peace and spiritual greatness, yet we have also experienced terrible exile, destruction and persecution. Indeed, on the last day of the life of Moses, G-d tells Moses what will befall the people when they abandon G-d:

And the Lord said to Moses: Behold, you are [about to] lie with your forefathers, and this nation will rise up and stray after the deities of the nations of the land, into which they are coming. And they will forsake Me and violate My covenant which I made with them.

And My fury will rage against them on that day, and I will abandon them and hide My face from them, and they will be consumed, and many evils and troubles will befall them, and they will say on that day, 'Is it not because our God is no longer among us, that these evils have befallen us?'

The purpose of these harsh words was not merely to warn the Jewish people of the consequence of abandoning their destiny. Perhaps more importantly, the purpose was to ensure that the people correctly interpret, and as a result, correctly respond to, the difficult exile. The natural response to the “many evils and troubles” is for the people to believe that G-d “is no longer among us” - that G-d had abandoned them. Yet, as G-d told Moses, that conclusion would be categorically wrong.  

G-d told Moses:

And I will hide My face on that day, because of all the evil they have committed, when they turned to other deities.

Only because of these words, conveyed to the Jewish people by Moses, were they able to survive until this day. If we are here as Jews today it is because generations of Jews understood this truth. That the exile is not the absence of G-d’s love and presence, but rather the exile is merely a concealment of G-d’s grace. “I will hide My face on that day”, says G-d. The Jewish people understood that hiding is by no means an abandonment. They felt G-d’s presence even in the most difficult circumstances.  

And then came the mystics.

They understood that all existence is dependent on G-d and that there is no place void of Him. When they looked at darkness, when they saw no obvious light, they understood that although G-d’s presence is not revealed in a given space his essence is present there. They understood that the most powerful message in the verse ““And I will hide My face on that day” is not that G-d will hide but rather that even within the concealment, even within the difficulty, G-d is very much present.

They understood that for a parent to withhold the expression of love in order to give the child space for trial and error, the parent must reach deep within him or herself, the parent must access a deeper level of love. Indeed when the verse says “and I will hide my face” it uses the the Hebrew word “Anochi”, which means more than “I” (“I” is “Ani”). “Anochi” means “my essence”.

Every year this portion is read in proximity to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when we engage in introspection, seek atonement and spiritual betterment, when we look back at the past year we see moments of joy and inspiration, but also moments of darkness, hurt and despair. The Torah teaches us that specifically in the moments of concealment lies the potential to reach the deepest part of ourselves. When we feel no inspiration, no excitement, no enthusiasm, we must understand that the concealment is a tool to encourage us to reach deeper within ourselves, to get in touch with our own core, our own “Anochi”. Doing so will allow us to discover that within the concealment we can access the deepest Divine strength, and, ultimately, transform the darkness to light.   

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Vayelech vol. 9 sicha 1).

 

Layers of Will - Nitzavim - נצבים

s.jpgLayers of Will 

As the year comes to a close and Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, approaches, it is a time to reflect on the past year and to look ahead toward the upcoming year.

Before we can hope to grow and advance, before we can decide on specific resolutions to help us reach our goals, perhaps the most important question to ask ourselves is what to aspire for? What life do we want for ourselves and with what do we want to fill our minutes, hours and days during the upcoming year?

The power of will is the strongest of all the souls powers. Yet, it is also the most complex and is comprised of multiple layers. As the Kabbalists put it, there is “external will” and “inner will”. “External will” is a will that serves a deeper will, while “inner will” is a will that does not serve a goal but rather it is the goal itself.

[To illustrate: Say a person wakes up in the morning and wants to catch the train. She wants to get to the office. She wants to earn money. She wants to spend the money on the purchase of a house. She wants to make the house into a home, a place where she and her family can live a deep and meaningful life. The desires listed earlier are external, as she doesn't necessarily want them for their own sake (if she can get to work without riding the train, she would not object, nor would she object if she earned the money without the work), the “inner will”, in this illustration, is the will to create a home for family, it is the “inner will” because it is the will for its own sake].

Both our “external will” and “inner will” crave to express themselves free of any outside coercion. Yet the free will we crave is different for the “external will” and for the “internal will”. Our “external will” wants the freedom to choose between options. Yet our “inner will” seeks, not the luxury to decide between two possibilities that are outside of ourselves but rather it seeks to express the core of who we really are.

More often than not, we function at the level of “external will”, expressing our free will by identifying the good and the bad, the positive and negative, the productive and the destructive, the selfish and the selfless. Indeed, this Shabbat, the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, we read the words Moses spoke to the Jewish people on the final day of his life. He tells them: Behold, I have set before you today life and good, and death and evil. (Deuteronomy 30:15). On the level of our “external will”, there is indeed a great choice to be made. Both paths are appealing and exercising the right choice, requires discipline and effort.

Just a few verses later Moses says: “You shall choose life”. The statement seems self contradictory, the commandment implies that we have no choice, so how can there be a commandment to choose? The answer is that “You shall choose life” refers to the “inner will”. Moses is telling us that if we dig deep enough within ourselves, if we excavate deep within our soul, we will discover our “inner will” we will discover that indeed the negativity has no appeal at all. That our deeper self yearns only good. A parent in touch with her “inner will”, does not need to choose to be devoted to her child, for connection to her child is part of her core and, for the “inner will”, no other option exists. The same is true for the connection between our “inner will” and our Father in heaven.     

On Rosh Hashanah we seek to peel away the layers and allow our inner will to express itself. Just before we sound the Shofar we recite the verse “He chooses our heritage for us, the glory of Jacob whom He loves eternally (Psalms 47:5)”. We ask G-d to choose us. We ask him to express His will toward us, to have a relationship with us and to bless us. To illicit G-d’s deepest will and blessing we must first reveal our inner will. We must discover the part of us which yearns to transcend. We listen to the part of our heart whose voice is often overshadowed by the voice of the “external will”. As we hear the Shofar’s cry, we express the longing and yearning of our inner soul. The part of our soul that desires all that is wholesome and good.

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Nitzavim vol. 19 sicha 3).

 

Fruit in the Basket - - Ki Savo - כי תבוא

b.jpgFruit in the Basket 

Standing at the bank of the Jordan River, days before he was to pass way, Moses spoke to his beloved people, and, just as they had done forty years earlier at the foot of Mount Sinai, Moses once again instructed them that they were about to reaffirm their covenant with G-d. Moses proceeded to present the people with the blessing for the fulfillment of the Torah and the terrible curses, and exile that would occur if they abandoned the Torah.  

Indeed, The theme of this week’s portion, Ki Tavo, is the covenant that Moses made with the Jewish people:

These are the words of the covenant, which the Lord commanded Moses to make with the children of Israel in the land of Moab, besides the covenant which he made with them in Horeb. (Deuteronomy 28:69)

Why then does the Parash open with the specific commandment of Beekurim, the obligation of the Jewish farmer to bring his first fruit to Jerusalem as a gift to G-d? What is the connection between this specific commandment and the rest of the portion which discusses the acceptance of the covenant, a general acceptance of the entire Torah?

It is safe to assume that, somehow, the commandment to take the “first fruit”, place it in a “basket” and bring it to “the place that G-d will choose” is, in addition to the conventional meaning, also a general mystical lesson for the way we are to live, for the way we are to follow the Torah, and, ultimately, for the purpose of all of the Torah.

The Torah tells us:

And it will be, when you come into the land which the Lord, your God, gives you for an inheritance, and you possess it and settle in it,

that you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you will bring from your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving you. And you shall put [them] into a basket and go to the place which the Lord, your God, will choose to have His Name dwell there. (Deuteronomy 26:12).

The Hebrew word for “land” “Eretz” is related to the Hebrew word  “Ratzon”, will. [The Midrash says “why is she (Israel) called (“Eretz”) land? Because she desired (“Ratzah”) to do the will of her creator”.] Both “land” and “will” are related to the Hebrew word for ”running”, for such is the nature of strong will, it forces us to get up and “run” toward that which we desire.   

The Kabbalists explain that “Ratzon”, will and desire, is the most powerful force within the human being. The will has the power to control the other faculties and unleash the dormant potential. Awakening the desire to feel or to understand, will, in fact, awaken the heart and mind, [which is why the most effective teachers are not the ones who understand the subject matter the best, nor the ones who can articulate and explain the best, but rather it is the ones who are gifted with the ability to instill a love for the subject, which will inspire the student to want to grasp the subject].

Like the farmer who tills the earth to plant, sow, irrigate and reap fruit, a Jew must also seek to cultivate the “first fruit”. The first and most important thing a Jew should seek to cultivate is, what the Kabbalists call, “Ratzon” (“will”), a desire, a longing and a yearning to transcend the confines of the material and reconnect to the source of all, the infinite light of G-d. Indeed, the purpose of all of Torah is to elevate us, to instill within us a desire to grow and to climb ever higher.

Yet the the desire to “run”, to escape the mundane, to transcend the physical and to cleave to the source of life is only the first step.

Judaism demands much more. Judaism teaches that we need to capture the desire, the urge to run, and direct it to a “vessel” that will be able to contain and preserve the inspiration in daily life. “Take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you will bring from your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving you. And you shall put [them] into a basket”. Placing the “fruit” in the “basket” means applying the inspiration, the desire to transcend, and investing it into our daily life, into our daily activities.

And as the Torah continues, the purpose of placing the fruit in the basket is to “go to the place which the Lord, your God, will choose to have His Name dwell there” . Where is that “place”? Well, the answer is different for each person. For G-d places each of us in a unique place where it is our mission to “have His Name dwell there”, to fill that place with the inspiration, kindness and joy of Judaism.

So yes, the heart of the covenant, the heart of all the Torah is to take “your first fruit”, place in in a “basket”, and bring to “the place that G-d chose”.

[Adapted from Hayom Yom 18 Elul (Based on the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chasidic movement, whose birthday is the 18th of Elul].

 

The Mystical Marriage - Ki Teitze - כי תצא

r.jpegThe Mystical Marriage

Many of the laws of Jewish marriage are derived from this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitze. Just a few words in this parsha are the basis for an entire Talmudic tractate packed with the legalities of Jewish marriage, from its major legal principles down to specific intricate details of its laws.

All aspects of Torah, the law, morality, mysticism and instructions for life, are part of one whole, the legal part of Torah is the body of Torah while the mystical part of Torah is the soul. By examining the body, the legal “mechanism” of the marriage, we can discover the Torah’s perspective on the “soul” of marriage.

“Kiddushin” (betrothal) is the Hebrew word for the legal status of marriage. While there are three ways to affect a “Kiddushin”, the most common one is when a man gives a woman something of monetary value for the sake of  “Kiddushin”, and the woman accepts the object of monetary value for the purpose of becoming betrothed.

A close analysis will show that “Kiddushin” contains two components. The first is “Kesef”, which is the Hebrew word for money (or its value), which the woman receives. The second component is the “Kiddushin” itself, the woman is betrothed “consecrated” to this marriage, and she is prohibited from marrying anyone else.

The Talmudic commentators ask an interesting question: which of these components takes effect first and triggers the other? Is the money the trigger, meaning is the woman betrothed as a result of the acquisition of the money or does it work the other way around, the woman acquires the money only as a result of the onset of the marriage.

A careful examination of the Talmudic sources will reveal that this is not merely a theoretical discussion, but rather there are practical legal ramifications to this question.

These two components, “Kesef”, the money and “kiddushin” the betrothal, represent two spiritual ideas which are necessary in order to create a marriage, without either one of them no marriage can survive and thrive.

The Hebrew word for Money, “Kesef”, comes from the Hebrew word “Kosef” meaning love and yearning. The word “Kiddushin” comes from the word “kodesh” which means “designated”, representing that marriage is about exclusive commitment. Marriage is created and nourished by both love and commitment.

These are very different, perhaps even contradictory, emotions. Love is passionate and exciting, it is where the person who loves  expresses him or her self. When I love something or someone I do so because of how it makes me feel. Commitment, on the other hand, is not about what I want and how I feel at the given moment. Commitment is the ability to place my will aside and create space for someone else’s needs and perspective. Commitment is the ability to be there for someone on their terms. Commitment is the ability to connect even when one does not feel the passionate love; in fact, commitment is the oxygen which allows the passionate love to reignite.

Love is self centered. When I feel love, I am in the center of the relationship. When I feel, and practice, commitment, the other person is in the center. Both love and commitment, both “money” and “betrothal” are critical to a healthy relationship.    

Marriage between man and woman is a reflection of the the spiritual “marriage” between G-d and the Jewish people. Our “marriage” with G-d is also centered on the two ideas of “Kesef” money, which, as explained earlier, represents love, and “kiddushin”, betrothal, which represents exclusive commitment, which in the context of our marriage with G-d represents the commitment to separate form negativity and unholiness.

The question is, which of these elements comes first and triggers the other? Should we first seek to love, to feel inspired and connected to holiness before we work on ridding negativity and distraction from our life, or, alternatively, should we first focus on being committed to G-d, on separating from negativity, before we can hope to experience the bliss of love and enthusiasm in our relationship with G-d?

In our spiritual marriage, either of the elements will trigger the other. Both paths will lead to success, for each of these two components will trigger the other, the commitment will inevitably trigger love and the love will solidify the commitment.

This is a profound lesson in our service of G-d. We don't need to wait until we rid ourselves of negativity, we don't need to wait until our relationship with G-d is exclusive and all encompassing. Instead we should focus on the good, creating moments of inspiration and love in our life, which, ultimately, will trigger the “kddushin”, the betrothal, the complete, exclusive, committed, relationship with G-d.  

 

Cities of Refuge

c.jpegCities of Refuge

Humanity’s capacity to build is spectacular. We have built towers, cities and  civilizations. Yet the greatest construction projects often came at a high cost. Historically, the drive to create came at the expense of the the rights and well-being of individuals. An estimated 20,000 people died, mostly due to disease, in the effort to construct the Panama Canal. Hundreds of thousands of people are estimated to have died building the great wall of China.

When people pooled their efforts to advance a great cause, when they came together to achieve a great project, they often focused on the collective at the expense of the individual. They felt that in comparison to the collective, the individual was insignificant. Societies celebrated the great achievement, but, often, would ignore the individuals who may have been sacrificed for the sake of the collective.

Thus, as the Jews were about to enter the land of Israel, Moses addressed this very issue: the relationship between the individual and the communal in the land they were about to build.

In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses reminded the people of their history and the fundamentals of Torah. in this week’s portion, the portion of Shoftim, Moses discussed institutions they would create in the land of Israel, the priesthood, the monarchy, judiciary and the supreme court. And then, Moses repeated the commandant of the cities of refuge. This commandment was written twice in the first four books of the Torah and repeated twice more by Moses in the fifth book, because the cities of refuge represent the founding principle of the country the Jewish people were about to establish.

Moses tells us:

you shall separate three cities for yourself in the midst of your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving you to possess.

Prepare the road for yourself and divide into three parts the boundary of your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving you as an inheritance, and it will be for every killer to flee there…

As when a man goes with his fellow into the forest to chop wood, and his hand swings the ax to cut down the tree, and the iron flies off the handle, and it reaches his fellow, and he dies he shall flee to one of these cities, and live.

The Torah describes a “work accident”. Somebody was chopping wood in the forest and accidentally a bystander was killed. The Torah tells us that we cannot ignore the tragedy. We cannot allow life to go on as usual just because the person chopping the wood was doing so in the service of the community. The Torah tells us that the accidental murderer needs atonement, he needs to flee to exile in the city of refuge.

This commandment captures the foundation of the Jewish state. An individual cannot be sacrificed for the building of the collective. In fact the opposite is true. The state, the collective has legitimacy only to the extent that it is devoted to protecting the life and dignity of the individual. The Mitzvah of the cities of refuge is a reminder, that in the land of Israel,  an individual is never sacrificed on the altar of the collective. The society which the Jewish people built in the land of Israel, represented the truth that every human being is created in the image of G-d.

* * *  

The city of refuge exists not only in the realm of space but also in the realm of time. The month of Elul, which precedes the Jewish New Year, is a metaphorical “city of refuge”. It is a time when we seek refuge from the distractions of the broader world, we engage in self reflection, introspection and self betterment.

When we think about the passing year, we will inevitably discover a discrepancy between the life we are living vs. the life we know we want to live. We have lofty goals and ideals, we want to live a life full of accomplishment and meaning, we want deep and rewarding relationships, we want to live by the values we believe in and cherish. Yet, the trouble begins with individual moments.

Somehow, sometimes, the general ideals and aspirations of our life do not infuse and inspire the individual moments, when we have to choose between investing in a meaningful relationship or  pursuing something of no lasting value.

The “cities of refuge” remind us, that a collective is only as strong as the individuals who comprise it, and life is only as meaningful as daily, seemingly inconsequential, moments and decisions.

The month of Elul is the time we resolve, and we practice, to be mindful of the individual moments of our life. For the life we live, it’s joy and fulfillment, meaning and accomplishments, are determined by individual moments.  

 

 

Eating in Jerusalem

J.jpgEating in Jerusalem

At the bank of the Jordan River, after the forty year journey in the desert, Moses spoke

to the people as they were about to enter the land of Israel. Up until this point, in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses spoke about the history of the forty year journey through the desert, as well as words of rebuke warning the people to remain loyal to G-d even after they achieve success in the land of Israel. In the fourth portion of the book, the portion of Reeh, Moses is ready to describe the apex of the entire journey, life at its greatest in the holy land of Israel.

Moses told the people that when they would enter the land they would no longer be permitted to bring offerings to G-d in the place of their choice, but rather there would only be one place that  G-d would choose to bring their offerings.

Contemplating on the way Moses described the “place that G-d will choose” is critical to understanding Judaism’s approach to spirituality, holiness and life itself.

When we think of religious pilgrimage we often think of people bowing in prayer, submission and awe. Contrast that with Moses’s description:

But only to the place which the Lord your G-d shall choose from all your tribes, to set His Name there; you shall inquire after His dwelling and come there.

And there you shall bring your burnt offerings, and your sacrifices, and your tithes, and the separation by your hand, and your vows and your donations, and the firstborn of your cattle and of your sheep.

And there you shall eat before the Lord, your G-d, and you shall rejoice in all your endeavors you and your households, as the Lord, your G-d, has blessed you. (Deuteronomy 12:5-7)

What is the scene Moses paints? After hundreds of years of Jewish history, what do we do when we finally come to the place that G-d will choose?

We eat. (“And there you shall eat before the Lord, your G-d”.)

We rejoice. (“you shall rejoice in all your endeavors”.)

When a Jew travels to Jerusalem to become close to G-d, he is not escaping his daily life. The Jew brings the tithings of his crop along with him to Jerusalem. All the effort he invested in agriculture, in growing his produce comes along with him to Jerusalem. The Jew is commanded to “eat before the Lord, your G-d, and you shall rejoice in all your endeavors”, because the material labor and success is in itself part of the service of G-d. The purpose of creation is to sanctify the material world, to elevate it and to use it, as well as the joy it creates, in the service of holiness.  

After the Jew celebrates in Jerusalem, when the Jew experiences how the earth's bounty can be sanctified and celebrates in the context of holiness, he is ready to extend the holiness even farther. The Torah continues:    

When the Lord, your God, expands your boundary, as He has spoken to you, and you say, "I will eat meat," because your soul desires to eat meat, you may eat meat, according to every desire of your soul. (Ibid. 12:20)

In the desert, as Rashi explains, eating meat was permitted only in the context of an offering. Only if the animal was offered in the tabernacle as an offering to G-d would some of the meat be given to the person offering the offering, who would then fulfill the Mitzvah of eating the sacrificial meat. Once the Jewish people entered Israel, however, they were permitted to eat meat that was not a sacrifice, even when they were distant from the temple. While on the surface this may seem as though the people were stepping down from their holy state of being as they began to indulge their cravings. The truth, however, is that this  represents a far greater level of holiness. Once the people entered Israel they reached greater spiritual heights, they were now able to bring holiness not only to the celebration in Jerusalem but also to their daily “mundane” life, throughout Israel. In the desert only an act of a Divine commandment, a Mitzvah, was holy. Once we entered Israel, once we experienced the holiness of the temple affecting our produce and our festivals, we could then carry the holiness over to daily life itself. 

In the desert only the Tabernacle was holy. When we ascended to Jerusalem we elevated our physical reality to the point where our eating and drinking was an expression of connection to G-d. And then, descending from the mountains of Jerusalem and returning home, we were empowered to sanctify all of our existence, our body and its cravings, as well as all aspects of society, by using them in the service of holiness; thus expanding the holiness of Jerusalem throughout the entire world.

 

Bread from the Earth

bread.jpgBread from the Earth

 

Almost all the blessings in the Jewish prayer book - blessings within the various prayers, blessings of praise or request, blessings celebrating the Shabbat and holidays - were instituted by our sages, and are not biblically mandated. The only exception is the biblical commandment to bless G-d after eating bread, as Moses tells us in this week’s Torah portion:

 

And you will eat and be sated, and you shall bless the Lord, your God, for the good land He has given you.

 

Over time the blessing after the meal evolved and is now a series of four blessings composed over more than a Millennium. The Talmud tells us when and who composed these blessings. We will focus on the first two blessings:   

 

With regard to the origins of the four blessings of Grace after Meals, Rav Naḥman said: Moses instituted for Israel the first blessing of “Who feeds all”, when the manna descended for them and they needed to thank God. Joshua instituted the blessing of the land when they entered Eretz Yisrael.

(Talmud, Brachot 48a)

 

Why on earth do we thank G-d with a blessing about bread from the heavens? The bread we eat, bread grown from the ground with a great investment of toil and time, is categorically different than, the manna, the bread that the Jewish people ate in the desert, which miraculously descended from the heavens each morning of the forty year journey through the desert. Why then do we say the first blessing, composed by Moses for the miraculous Manna and not begin directly with the blessing composed by Joshua as he and the Jews entered Israel and ate natural bread, bread grown from the land?     

 

Perhaps the sages included the blessing composed by Moses because it captures the essence of the purpose for the blessing.

 

While much of the previous Torah portion is dedicated to reminding the Jewish people never to forget the awesome experience at Sinai, much of this week’s portion, the portion of Eikev, is focused on the spiritual dangers of entering the land of Israel. The miracles of the exodus from Egypt and of the journey through the wilderness were about to end. Moses cautioned the people that there would be a great temptation to attribute the success in the land of Israel to one's own power and wisdom. In the land of Israel, where the Jew must grow bread by the sweat of his own brow, he might forget about G-d and attribute his success to his ability to navigate and channel nature’s force. Moses therefore reminds us that when we eat natural bread, when we are satiated, when we enjoy blessing, we must recognize G-d the source of the blessing.

 

Perhaps this is why the Sages included Moses’s blessings for the Manna, the bread from the heavens, together with Joshua’s blessings for the bread of the land of Israel, the bread of the earth. For the purpose of the grace after meals is to recognize that the natural bread is a blessing from G-d no less than the bread from the heavens. Both Moses and Joshua teach us to recognize the truth, that G-d is manifest not only in miracles but also in nature, not only in the bread from the heavens but also in the bread from the earth.

Cover Your Eyes

Shema.jpegCover Your Eyes

Two spouses don’t seem to be able to relate to each other. Their perspectives are very different, they don’t see the world the same way. Their underlying values, what they consider significant, meaningful and worthy of pursuing, differ considerably between them.

Is their relationship doomed to failure? Is there anything they can do to strengthen the bond, to enhance their closeness?

Even before they can communicate, deliberate, negotiate and compromise, there is a more fundamental exercise that they must first engage in, in order for the relationship to survive and then thrive. The most important step, the one that will allow all further growth to occur, is that they each need to accept that the other person has a legitimate perspective. Each of them must practice “closing their eyes” to their own perspective, and, at least for a moment, learn how to see reality from the other person’s perspective.

This does not mean that anybody needs to abandon their own point of view, values, attitudes, and mindset. But they each attempt to put their perspective aside, to “cover their eyes” on their own point of view, in order to appreciate and give legitimacy to the other perspective. Then they can, once again “open their eyes”, get in touch with their own mind and heart, and, overtime, learn how the different, and occasionally, opposing perspectives, can not only co-exist, but, in fact, can complement each other, leading to a far more interesting and far deeper experience.

This, precisely, is what we do when we recite the “Shema” every morning, when we awake, and every evening, as we prepare go to sleep.

We are in a relationship with G-d. He is the groom and we are the bride. But make no mistake, the honeymoon is over. There are differences between us, and those differences run deep, and they touch the essential definitions of reality. From G-d’s perspective, He is the all pervading reality. After all, all of the universe is dependent on G-d’s vitality for its very existence. From G-d perspective, the only significant thing, the only thing worth pursuing is connecting to G-dliness. Our perspective is different. From our point of view, reality is the physical world, pleasure and joy are derived from the material world.

In this week’s portion, Vaetchanan, Moses retells the history of the relationship. At first we fell in love with G-d’s perspective. At our wedding, at Sinai, G-d gave us a glimpse at his perspective. As Moses relates: “You have been shown, in order to know that the Lord He is God; there is none else besides Him. (Deuteronomy 4:35)” . At that awesome moment we felt that there was nothing else significant in the universe other than G-d.

But the wedding concluded, the music stopped playing, the excitement faded. Suddenly we realized that the perspective of G-d is very different from our own. We wonder is this relationship viable? Can we connect to a G-d whose perspective is so different from our own?

Moses has the answer. He tells us that twice a day we should recite the “Shema”. We cover our eyes with our right hand and we say:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God; the Lord is one.

We close our eyes, because we need to put our perspective aside. We need to acknowledge that although from our perspective we see not oneness but plurality, not one divine truth but a multiplicity of material needs and desires, nevertheless there is another perspective. We acknowledge and try to appreciate that we are able to close our eyes, remove ourselves, albeit momentarily, from our interpretation of reality and appreciate that from the perspective of G-d there is nothing but Divine unity, and all of the universe is but an expression of that truth.

And then we open our eyes, we once again accept our perspective. But at this point we are able to create a relationship that does not negate either of the perspectives, rather it fuses and enhances both perspectives. As Moses continues in the Shema prayer:

And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart. And you shall teach them to your sons and speak of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk on the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up. And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for ornaments between your eyes. And you shall inscribe them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.

Despite our different perspectives, in fact, specifically because of our differences, we can experience a deep and meaningful relationship. We are able to connect the words of the Torah, the unity and love of G-d, to our daily life. Our material pursuits are sanctified because we use them as a conduit for holiness. Our daily life -  when we walk on the road, lay down in the evening or rise in the morning, in the cities we create and the homes which we build - our homes and our gates - are imbued with spiritual meaning and Divine holiness.

 

In Your Own Voice

D.jpgIn Your Own Voice

The fifth book of the five books of Moses,“Devarim”, Which means words, is named for the opening statement in the book:

“These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on that side of the Jordan”.

The Torah continues:

It came to pass in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month, on the first of the month, that Moses spoke to the children of Israel according to all that the Lord had commanded him regarding them;

Toward the end of Moses’s life, as the Jews were about to cross the Jordan and enter the promised land, Moses spoke to his beloved people. He repeated all the commandments written in the first four books and he retold  the stories of their sins and shortcomings of the past forty years, in hopes that his words would help them learn and grow from their negative experiences.

While the first four books, are written in third person narrative, (as in the very common verse “And G-d spoke to Moses”), the fifth book,  is written in first person narrative, in the voice of Moses himself. This difference is significant. It represents a change in the role of Moses, and a change in the way we are to understand the Torah.

Moses received the Torah from G-d and transmitted it to us. Moses’s role was to be a loyal conduit who would convey the words of the Torah precisely as they were given to him. In the fifth book, however, Moses was no longer a mere transmitter, in the fifth book, the words, ideas and teachings were internalized within Moses, he therefore spoke them in his own voice.

This explains how both themes of the book of Devarim, the repetition of the Torah in Moses’s own voice and the words of rebuke, are interrelated. The purpose of rebuke was to inspire the Jewish people to return to G-d. What was the inspiration to return? How would a person who rejected the voice of morality, and the will of G-d, be inspired to return?  Returning to G-d, then, comes not from heeding the voice from above, but rather from listening to the voice that emanates from within ourselves. The inspiration, commitment and courage to return to G-d comes from the teachings and values of the Torah that have become part of the Jew. Returning to G-d means listening to the words of Torah, not as they are communicated from heaven, but rather as they emanate from deep within the heart of the Jew.

Like Moses, we too, in our own study of the Torah, experience both these steps. At first we listen and learn. We seek to hear and understand that which the Torah is teaching us. This is the first stage, the stage represented by the first four books, in which we seek to receive the divine words handed down to us.

And then we arrive at the fifth book. It may not happen overnight, it may take forty years of wandering, but over time we began to discover the ideas of the Torah presented within our deepest self. Over time, the words of the Torah become our own. We identify with them, and they express our own point of view. In the second stage of study, in the fifth book, we speak the words of Torah in our own voice.

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei sichos vol. 19 Divarim Sicha 2.)

 

East of the Jordan

j.jpgEast of the Jordan

How are we to know what our life’s mission is? How are we to go about considering which path we should follow, which avenue to pursue? What clues can direct us to follow the road leading to the very purpose of our own creation?  

The tribes of Reuben and Gad had an insight.

They felt that one must look at the specific gifts and opportunities that one was blessed with. They sensed that with the specific blessings they were gifted with G-d was directing them on the path that was their true calling.

Which is why the tribes of Reuben and Gad did not want to cross the Jordan River and enter the land of Israel.

They looked around and saw the lands which the Jewish people had conquered east of the Jordan River, and they immediately sensed that their destiny was tied to the land which was outside the borders of the holy land, outside the land that G-d promised to give the Jewish people. They saw that the land east of the Jordan was a land perfect for pasture. They turned to Moses and said:

“The land that the Lord struck down before the congregation of Israel is a land for livestock, and your servants have livestock." (Numbers 32:4)

They argued that if G-d blessed them with an abundance of livestock, if “your servants have livestock”, then surely their divine mission was to embrace their individual blessing and settle in the land best suited to raising livestock, even if that land was not the land of Israel.   

At first Moses was furious. Moses feared that, just like the episode of the spies almost forty years earlier, he was once again witnessing a rebellion of the people who were rejecting the land of Israel out of fear of conquering and living in the land.

Ultimately, however, Moses granted their request, for they explained that, in fact, they could not be more different then the spies. For the tribes of Reuben and Gad sought not to reject Israel, but to expand its holiness and its influence outside its borders.

Gad and Reuben understood that if G-d was directing them to find their calling outside the land of Israel it was not because they were disconnected from Israel’s story and mission, but rather because they were charged with the mission to expand the holiness of Israel beyond its borders; demonstrating that the morality and light of the Jewish people is able to transform foreign territory.

Yet there was one condition that the children of Gad and Reuben had to meet before they were given the lands they requested. They had to commit to be in the front lines of the conquest of the land of Israel. As Moses told them:

Moses said to them, "If you do this thing, if you arm yourselves for battle before the Lord, and your armed force crosses the Jordan before the Lord until He has driven out His enemies before Him, and the Land will be conquered before the Lord, afterwards you may return, and you shall be freed [of your obligation] from the Lord and from Israel, and this land will become your heritage before the Lord. (Numbers 32:22)

To be able to extend the holiness of Israel to a foreign land, one must be even more committed to Israel than if he were living in Israel. To be able to sanctify land that is not holy one needs to be even more committed to holiness than his brethren who are living in a land permeated with holiness.

The children of Gad and Reuben teach the Jew living outside of Israel that his purpose is to expand the holiness and inspiration of the land of Israel to all four corners of the earth.

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(Based on the teaching of the Rebbe, Reshimos booklet 51.)

 

Appointed Time

ca.jpegAppointed Time

The Biblical word for holiday is “Moed”, which means “appointed time” as well as “meeting”. Holidays are “appointed times” set aside for us to “meet”, for on the holiday, we have the space to meet with G-d, and with the parts of ourselves which we sometimes overlook due to the demands and distractions of everyday life.

Each of the holidays has a unique theme and energy. Each holiday gives us the opportunity to experience and internalize the inspiration of the extraordinary, each is an “appointed time” to celebrate the blessings we are blessed with: exodus and freedom on Passover, Torah and spiritual enlightenment on Shavuot, holiness and atonement on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and joy on Sukkot.

Our weekly portion, Pinchas, lists the offerings we are commanded to offer at the holy temple on each of these “Moadim” - “appointed times”. Yet, in what seems to be a departure from the overall theme, the Torah reiterates the commandment to offer the daily communal offerings. The daily offerings were mentioned earlier in the Torah, why are they reiterated here, and, more specifically, why were the ordinary daily offerings, reiterated in the context of the extraordinary holidays?

We tend to view our lives as divided between the ordinary and extraordinary, between the usual routine and the excitement of the novel experience, between habit and inspiration.

Indeed there are times that feel like holidays. We feel that the hand of G-d that took our ancestors out of Egypt is once again present in our life. We feel the light from above shining brightly upon us, the wind of inspiration in our wings and the energy in the air which fills our entire body with enthusiasm for life. Yet there are also days which feel unremarkable and monotonous, times when we feel sapped of energy, devoid of excitement and purpose.   

The Torah seeks to teach us that, in truth, every moment is a miracle and every day a holiday. There is no such thing as an ordinary day. The magnificent sunrise, the beautiful sunset, is no less an expression of the Divine power than the exodus from Egypt.

When referring to the daily offerings the Torah says:

The Lord spoke to: Moses, saying:

Command the children of Israel and say to them: My offering, My food for My fire offerings, a spirit of satisfaction for Me, you shall take care to offer to Me at its appointed time.

The one lamb you shall offer up in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer up in the afternoon. (Numbers 28:1-3)

The Torah refers to each and every day as a “Moed”, a unique appointed time. As Rashi puts it:

at its appointed time: Each day is the appointed time prescribed for the continual offerings.  

Rashi is telling us that each and every ordinary day can indeed become a “Moed”, a holiday, a day filled with enthusiasm, holiness and joy. If we take the time to experience the blessing of life G-d gifted us with, if we make time in every day to serve the purpose of our creation, then, indeed, each and every day is a Moed, a holiday, a day in which we enjoy the blessing of life and the joy of a meaningful day. [1]

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[1] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutey Sichos Pinchas vol. 28 Sicha 2.

Saddle the Donkey

d.jpgSaddle the Donkey

There are two towering figures in the Torah that originate from the city of Aram in Mesopotamia. The first one is Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish people, the second is Bilaam, the gentile prophet who is the protagonist of this week’s Torah portion.

While Abraham and Billam were both great prophets who hailed from Aram they could not be more different from each other. Abraham was a man whose heart was filled with kindness, a man who spent his life teaching love for G-d and every one of G-d’s creations.Even in the wicked people of Sodom, Abraham looked for goodness. Abraham journeyed, to what would eventually become the land of Israel, on a mission to spread the awareness of G-d and morality. Billam could not have been more different than Abraham. Billam was a man full of hate, he possessed an “evil eye”, the unfortunate “skill” of seeing bad within people. Billam journeyed toward Israel by request of Balak, the king of Moab, who hired Billam to curse the Jews.

Billam’s journey to the hills of Moab is one of the most fascinating and unusual stories in the Torah; a journey which included multiple encounters with an angel of G-d, and a talking donkey. At the start of the Journey the Torah tells us:   

In the morning Balaam arose, saddled his she-donkey and went with the Moabite dignitaries. (Numbers 22:21)

When Billam was called to Moab, so anxious was he to perform the service which promised to be the highlight of his career, that he didn't rely on his lads or servants.  He saddled his donkey all by himself.  

On the journey to the binding of Isaac, the climax of his devotion and love to G-d, Abraham too saddled his donkey by himself, as the Torah tells us:  

And Abraham arose early in the morning, and he saddled his donkey, and he took his two young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for a burnt offering, and he arose and went to the place of which God had told him. (Genesis 22:3)

Rashi comments on this striking similarity of saddling  the donkey in these very different journeys:

[Billam] saddled his she-donkey: From here [we learn] that hate causes a disregard for the standard [of dignified conduct], for he saddled it himself. The Holy One, blessed is He, said, “Wicked one, their father Abraham has already preceded you, as it says, 'Abraham arose in the morning and saddled his donkey’”.

Rashi is offering insight that is relevant to each one of us. We look at the world around us, as well as within our own selves, and we sometimes see intense negativity, similar to the hate of Billam, which causes people, and sometimes ourselves, to “disregard the standard”, the selfish, destructive forces within ourselves can sometimes propel us to do things that we ourselves understand is “below the standard”, it is below the standard that we set for ourselves, it is below the person we want to be. We feel helpless in the face of the intense urge “to saddle our donkey”, in the service of the negative energy.

Rashi is telling us that Abraham saddled his donkey with intense passion to fulfill the will of G-d. That the Intensity of the Abrahamic love that is within each of us “precedes” the hate of Billam. Although we each have both forces within ourselves, the positive energy of Abraham is our essence, while the negativity of Billam is just an externality which does not define our identity.

By emphasizing that both Abraham and Billam saddled their donkeys by themselves, the Torah teaches us that the way to overcome the negativity of Billam is to awaken and reveal the Abrahamic passion that is within us. The passion and commitment of the Abraham within us will absorb the negative passion, and transform it to fuel which will intensify our commitment to holiness and positivity.  Just as described so poetically in the Biblical story, Billam’s curses were transformed to magnificent and beautiful blessings.

 

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(Adapted from the teaching of the Rebbe, Chukas Balak 1982 - Leku”s Balak vol. 28 sicha 1).

Confronting the Heifer

r.jpgConfronting the Heifer

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

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

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

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

The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying:

This is the statute of the Torah which the Lord commanded, saying, Speak to the children of Israel and have them take for you a perfectly red unblemished cow, upon which no yoke was laid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 



[1] Numbers 19:1-2.

[2] Ibid 19:5-18.

[3] Adapted from Lekutei Torah Parsahs Chukas.

The Gift of Individuality

K.jpgThe Gift of Individuality 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the Staff of Aaron blossomed, the story continues:

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

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

***

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

___________________

[1] Numbers 16:13. 

[2] Ibid. 17:21-24 

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

 

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