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Blog - Torah Insights

Does G-d Create on Shabbat? - יתרו

Does G-d Create on Shabbat?

The fourth commandment of the ten commandments seems straightforward, we are commanded to rest on the seventh day of the week, just as G-d rested on the seventh day of creation: 

Six days may you work and perform all your labor,

but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord, your God; you shall perform no labor, neither you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, your beast, nor your stranger who is in your cities.

For [in] six days the Lord made the heaven and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it. (Exodus 20:8-10)

Chassidic philosophy teaches that creation is not an event that happened in the distant past, but rather creation is perpetual. The word of G-d that created the universe must continuously breath life into the creation. If the vivifying energy would cease to create for even one moment, the universe would cease to exist. This deeper understanding of the meaning of creation raises a fascinating question: how does the universe exist on Shabbat? If G-d rests from creating the world on Shabbat, if the flow of life is turned off, the world should cease to exist on the seventh day! 

In the book of Genesis, the Torah tells us that the universe was created with words: “G-d said let there be light, and there was light”, “And God said, "Let the water that is beneath the heavens gather into one place, and let the dry land appear, and it was so.” Speech was chosen to be the metaphor for G-d’s creative power, because speech is the tool that allows one to communicate with someone who is outside oneself. When one is thinking deep thoughts the idea remains within himself, speech is the tool which allows him to communicate with someone who has a distinct and separate personality and perspective. Speech, therefore, is the perfect metaphor for creation. Before creation the Divine energy was included within G-d’s “thought”, absorbed within the infinite light, and did not express itself in a reality outside of G-d. When G-d spoke, the energy within G-d was projected outward, creating a reality which felt separate and apart from the creator. 

On Shabbat, G-d ceases to speak. The words, the divine energy, return back to their source within G-d himself.

How then does creation exist on Shabbat? On Shabbat the world is sustained not by Divine speech but rather by Divine thought. On Shabbat the energy of the world, and the world itself, is elevated and reconnected to its source within the Divine. The Kabbalists  refer to it as “the elevation of the worlds”: on Shabbat we can escape the awareness of Divine speech, where we feel separate and apart form G-d, and we can enter the awareness of Divine thought, where we feel surrounded and enveloped within the Divine presence. We can enter the state of Divine thought where we are not a separate entity but rather included in the Divine holiness. 

This Kabbalistic insight has practical ramifications as well. During the six days of creation the energy flows outward, on Shabbat the Divine energy returns to its source and flows inward. We too follow the same pattern: during the six days of the week we are in the mode of “speech”, focused on achieving and accomplishing in the world outside of us. We tackle our tasks and to-do lists and strive to impact the world around us. We strive to succeed in the surrounding environment. On Shabbat we turn inward. We enter the space of thought. We occupy ourselves with the things that are important to our internal self. We stop working on improving our circumstances and we return to our inner core. During the sacred twenty four hours of Shabbat we spend our time and attention on our inner core, reconnecting to our soul, our family and our relationship with G-d. 

(Adapted from Lekutei Torah, Devarim 66:3 )  

What is Your Craft? - בשלח

What is Your Craft?

People tend to define themselves by their craft, as they introduce themselves they will tell you: I am a doctor, a lawyer, an artist. What they are telling you is that their craft is something they engage in constantly, to the extent that  they identify fully with that craft. 

As the Jewish people were facing the red sea on one side and the pursuing Egyptian army on the other the verse tells us: 

Pharaoh drew near, and the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold! the Egyptians were advancing after them. They were very frightened, and the children of Israel cried out to the Lord.

Rashi explains: 

Cried out: They seized the craft of their ancestors [i.e., they prayed]. Regarding Abraham the verse states: ‘Abraham rose early in the morning to the place where he had stood before G-d.’ Regarding Issac it states: “...to speak in the field’. Regarding Jacob it states: ‘and he arrived at the place’. (Rashi indicates that the terms “stood”, “to speak” and “arrived” all allude to prayer).

Rashi’s commentary presents many difficulties, to name a few: 1: why does Rashi define prayer as a craft, instead of the conventional interpretation that prayer is a request from G-d. 2: the verses which Rashi quotes are verses which merely allude to prayer. Why doesn’t Rashi quote verses which state clearly that the patriarchs prayed and requested that G-d help them? 

The revolutionary idea that Rashi introduces here, is that prayer is not something we do to achieve a specific purpose or in response to a specific need, but rather, it is our craft. The words of prayer and Torah study are our craft, we constantly engage in them, not for a specific goal, to express a need, or to acquire knowledge, but rather because our relationship with G-d touches us at our core and defines our identity. 

This explains why Rashi quotes the verses that merely allude to prayer. The verses that state explicitly that the patriarchs prayed, are referring to prayer for a specific need, while the verses quoted by Rashi allude to prayer without identifying the specific purpose of the prayer. These verses demonstrate that the Patriarchs prayed not for a need but because it was their “craft”. 

You may spend your day as a merchant or a banker; as a volunteer, teacher or philosopher. But, as a descendant of our Patriarchs, your true craft is expressing your relationship with G-d by speaking the holy words of prayer and Torah. Don’t wait for an opportunity or reason to connect, do so today. Express your craft. Express your true core.    

(Adapted from Likutei Sichos Bishalach 11.1)

Why Celebrate the New Moon? - בא

Why Celebrate the New Moon?

The spiritual definition of Egypt is stagnation. The feeling that we are defined by our past experiences and negative habits. Exodus from Egypt can happen only when we recognize the potential for renewal and capacity for growth. Freedom is the recognition that the person we were yesterday does not define the person we want to be today. 

Which explains why, before they were told to prepare for the exodus, the Israelites were first commanded to establish the new Hebrew month with the sighting of the new moon:

The Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying,

This month shall be to you the head of the months; to you it shall be the first of the months of the year.

The Hebrew word for “month” (Chodesh) comes from the word “new” (Chadash). Thus, explains Rashi, the verse means (not “this month” but) “this renewal”: 

This renewal. He [God] showed him [Moses] the moon in its renewal and said to him, “When the moon renews itself, you will have a new month”

The Israelites were commanded to count time based on the renewal of the moon, because the theme of renewal is key to redemption and freedom. Looking up at the night sky and seeing the moon recreating itself, inspires us to internalize the message of freedom, the possibility of renewal invested within our soul.

The renewal of the moon has a deeper dimension as well. 

Perhaps one of the most significant teachings of Chassidic philosophy, is the idea that creation is ongoing and continuous. The Divine energy that brings the universe into existence must continually be invested in the creation, breathing it into existence. If, G-d forbid, the Divine energy would cease to create the world for a single moment, the world would immediately revert back to its original state of nothingness. 

The reason we don’t see the creation as continuous, the reason we don’t always sense the presence of G-d  around us, is because we are in a state of spiritual exile, which is defined as the concealment of the creative power invested in every creation. Spiritual redemption, is the recognition that when we look at a stone, a flower, the sky, or a blade of grass, we are seeing the continuous creative power of G-d.  

The commandment to celebrate the new moon empowers us to recognize the Divine energy renewing the creation at every moment, allowing us to feel the exciting potential in every moment of life, to sense the presence of G-d in every creation, and to believe in our power to renew ourselves. 

 

From Seed to Fruit Tree - וארא

From Seed to Fruit Tree 

There was once a seed who felt pretty good about himself. He was good looking, quite tasty, had a healthy self esteem, and overall  had a wonderful and pleasant existence. 

Then, one day, the good times came to an end. 

He was taken to the field and buried in the earth. As he began to  germinate he was frightened of losing his identity and sense of self. Indeed overtime he was left dormant, cold and covered in earth. All growth and life seemed frozen. Over time however, a miracle occurred, the seed germinated and eventually grew far beyond its wildest imagination. From a seed it was transformed into a fruit bearing tree. 

The story of the seed is the story of the exile in Egypt. Referring to the experience of the Israelites, the prophet Isaiah proclaims: 

Those who came, whom Jacob caused to take root, Israel flourished and blossomed and they filled the face of the world with fruitage. (Isaiah 27:6 )

The difficulties, the pain, the numbness of exile were, in reality, a process which allowed us to let go of our limited identity, and connect to the infinity of G-d within our soul, and blossom exponentially. 

This truth can be observed in many areas of life. The greatest innovations, the most profound flashes of creativity, usually occur after a period of deep frustration with the status quo. When the scholar is truly frustrated and in pain because of an intellectual problem, when the artist experiences creative block, they are frustrated by the confines of their current perspective. The writer may think that the writer’s block is the problem, however, the reality is that the problem is the writer himself, for he is trapped by his limited perspective. The frustration produced by the block is the solution. The pain of frustration, breaks the shell, allowing the artist to touch the infinite reservoir of potential within their subconscious soul.   

This explains the conversation between Moses and G-d at the opening of this week’s portion.

Moses’s first attempt to convince the Pharaoh to free the Israelites ended in disaster. Not only did Pharaoh ignore his plea, but Pharaoh intensified the harshness of the slavery. Moses returned to G-d and protested in pain: 

Moses returned to the Lord and said, "O Lord! Why have You harmed this people? Why have You sent me?

Since I have come to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has harmed this people, and You have not saved Your people." (Exodus 5:22-23)    

In the opening verses of this week’s Parsha. G-d responds to Moses: 

God spoke to Moses, and He said to him, "I am the Lord.

I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob with [the name] Almighty God, but [with] My name Hashem, I did not become known to them.” (ibid. 6:2-3)

How do G-d’s words answer Moses’ question?

Moses wanted to know why the difficulties had intensified. G-d explained that the patriarchs connected to a limited expression of G-dliness, as G-d expresses himself within the natural world, but they were not able to connect to the true infinity of G-d, to the name Hashem, which transcends time and space and limitation itself. Yet through the pain of the slavery the Israelites were able to break through to connect to the true infinity of G-d. Like the seed, they too lost their previous identity, yet precisely because they were forced out of their old, limited, self, they were able to grow into something far greater. They were able to transcend their limitations and connect to the true infinity of G-d. 

What about us? Do we too need to experience suffering in order to connect to the infinity of G-d? 

The Zohar explains that we can achieve exponential growth through spiritual challenge and effort. The spiritual equivalent of the slavery in Egypt is the challenge of engaging in Torah study, struggling to understand its depth and breath and laboring to reach the correct decision from the sea of discussion, debate, and opinions. The Zohar tells us that the challenge and difficulty that will force us to let go, and, like the germinating seed, break free of the confines of our finite existence, can be self imposed. When we challenge ourselves to grow in our study of Torah and commitment to Judaism, we hit the boundaries of our finite existence. The difficulty, the frustration, the pain, are the growing pains of the germinating seed. We must let go of our limited identity before we can experience infinity.    

(Adapted from Torah Or Shmos, and Lekutei Sichos Vaera vol. 21 sicha 2) 

What were Moses’ Credentials? - שמות

What Were Moses’ Credentials?

Why was Moses chosen to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt, and be their most important leader in history? Was it because he was smart? Charismatic? Handsome? Humble? Persuasive? He may or may not have had the above qualities, but the Torah does not allude to any of these qualities, as the reason he was chosen to lead. 

Before G-d appeared to him at the burning bush, all the Torah tells us about Moses is three short episodes. It is therefore logical to assume that, perhaps, those stories give a clue as to the reason he was chosen. Indeed, all three stories share a common theme: Moses could not stand by silently while others were being oppressed. Moses consistently protected the oppressed from the oppressor. 

The first story reads as follows:   

Now it came to pass in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brothers and looked at their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man of his brothers.

He turned this way and that way, and he saw that there was no man; so he struck the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. (Exodus 2:11-12)

Moses was raised in the Egyptian palace as the adopted son of Pharaoh's daughter. When seeing the Egyptian hit the Jew, he could have looked the other way and returned to his comfortable life in the palace. But Moses could not ignore the suffering of his Jewish brother. He intervened at great risk to himself (when Pharaoh  heard the story he tried to have Moses killed and Moses was forced to flee to Midian).   

The second episode  occurred the following day:

He went out on the second day, and behold, two Hebrew men were quarreling, and he said to the wicked one, "Why are you going to strike your friend?" (ibid. 13)

It is natural to protect a member of one’s own group against an outsider (as when Moses protected a Jew from an Egyptian), yet in the second story Moses intervened to protect a Jew from a member of his own group. When the oppressor is a member of one’s own group, the natural instinct to rally in support of one’s own group in the face of a challenge from the outside, is not in play, and thus it is easier to ignore. But Moses did not hesitate to intervene. 

The third episode: 

Moses fled from before Pharaoh. He stayed in the land of Midian, and he sat down by a well.

Now the chief of Midian had seven daughters, and they came and drew [water], and they filled the troughs to water their father's flocks.

But the shepherds came and drove them away; so Moses arose and rescued them and watered their flocks. (ibid. 15-17)

Moses had just arrived as a refugee in a foreign land. He saw how the shepherds of Midian harassed the female shepherds. Both parties in the dispute were strangers. The natural tendency would be to lie low and mind one’s own business. 

Moses intervened. 

All we know about Moses before he was chosen is that he could not ignore the cruelty of oppression. Moses stood with the oppressed not only when an outsider oppressed his brother, not only when one of his brothers was oppressed by his fellow brother, but also  when a stranger was oppressed by a complete stranger.

 

Why Would Judah Dip His Shirt in Wine? - ויחי

Why would Judah Dip his Shirt in Wine?

Jacob gathered his children before he passed away and gave each one a unique blessing. Judah, the fourth son received the greatest blessing, a blessing for leadership as well as a blessing that his land should be blessed with abundant fertility. In beautifully poetic language Jacob states:

He binds his donkey to a vine, and to a tendril [he binds] his young donkey. [He launders] his garment with wine, and with the blood of grapes his cloak.

He is red eyed from wine and white toothed from milk. (Genesis 49:11-12).

In addition to the literal blessing for an abundance of wine and milk, the blessings contain a figurative, spiritual, meaning as well. 

Wine represents passion and love. Wine awakens emotion within a person, bringing to the fore emotions that are sometimes hidden within the heart. Jacob made two references to wine, “wine” and “blood of grapes”, because, generally speaking, there are two forms of love. Love as a feeling of closeness, is referred to as “wine that brings joy”. When one feels the love of closeness he is filled with a feeling of closeness, pleasantness and tranquility. Yet there is another form of love, referred to as “intoxicating wine”, which is a love that comes from a feeling of distance. When one feels apart from the beloved the heart is filled with a sense of yearning, of longing to be connected. This wine is intoxicating. Rather than pleasantness one feels the pain of distance, which fuels the lover to draw closer to the beloved with a renewed sense of dedication and passion.   

The first three brothers were blessed with spiritual awareness. According to the Kabbalah, Reuben, Shimon and Levi respectively embodied the attributes of  love, awe and closeness to G-d. Judah was chosen to be the leader because he represented action. Judah was blessed with leadership specifically because he had the humility and dedication to take responsibility for his actions, although this caused him great embarrassment. 

Jacob blessed Judah “He launders his garment with wine”. Garments represent action,  they are not the person himself but rather they are tools through which he interacts with the world around him. Thus, after Judah is blessed for having the strength of character to take the proper action, Jacob blessed him that he launder the action with wine; that the deed be immersed and infused with love and a sense of closeness. “And with the blood of grapes his cloak”. However, in the moments when Judah is not able to feel the pleasantness of the joyous wine of closeness, he can still feel the blood of grapes. The distance can create a passionate longing love, creating a deep yearning that will overcome the obstacles and, once again, unite the lover with the beloved. 

Next time you take an action to help another person or to connect to G-d, dip it in wine or blood of grapes, imbue it with the pleasant joy of closeness or the profound passion of yearning love. 

(Adapted from Torah Ohr, Vayechi) 

 

Which Speech Would you Give? - ויגש

Which Speech Would you Give?

Joseph just dropped the bomb. He revealed his identity to his brothers. The Egyptian prime minister they were standing before, was, in fact, their own brother Joseph who they sold into Egyptian slavery twenty two years earlier. 

They were stunned. 

Joseph spoke. 

Here is the speech Joseph did not deliver:

Brothers, while it is true that I have attained success, greatness and power, please do not take any credit for that. For while your actions ultimately led to my rise to power, you had nothing but evil in your hearts and minds. Your intention was to sell me as a slave. 

Here is the speech Joseph delivered: 

Brothers, do not feel bad that you intended to sell me as a slave. For G-d arranged that the result of your terrible act was that I can save our family and reign over all of Egypt. 

[“Do not be sad, and let it not trouble you that you sold me here, for it was to preserve life that God sent me before you... And now, you did not send me here, but God, and He made me a father to Pharaoh, a lord over all his household, and a ruler over the entire land of Egypt. Genesis 45:5-8].  

Instead of spending emotional energy on feeling resentment and anger against his brothers, Joseph was able to see only the positive, the hand of G-d that led him to success. Joseph saw only the good that came from his brothers cruel act, not their evil intention. 

Incredibly, Joseph was able to see past the negativity and focus only on the good. He was able to do so because of his unique philosophy in life. Joseph understood that wherever he may be he was an emissary of God to carry out the Divine will. In his words to his brothers he used the word  “sent”. To Joseph, the important questions were not, who harmed me? Who can I blame for my real or imagined difficulties?In every situation, Joseph asked himself: why am I here? For what purpose did G-d send me here? What is my mission in this place?

Every time we encounter a challenge or difficulty in our lives, we too have a choice. We can respond with resentment and anger or we can follow Joseph's example. We too are G-d’s emissaries not only to survive the challenge, but rather, like Joseph, to “rule over it”, to transform the obstacle into an experience of life and growth.

Next time you face a challenge, which speech will you give?  

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, 5 Teves 5747)

Why Joseph Framed Benjamin - מקץ

Why Joseph Framed Benjamin

The terrible famine brought ten of Jacob’s sons before the Viceroy of Egypt to purchase bread. The viceroy, who, unbeknownst to them, was their brother Joseph who they sold as a slave, accused them of being spies and demanded that they bring their brother Benjamin to Egypt. Before Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers, he framed Benjamin by planting his silver goblet in Benjamin’s bag and charging  Benjamin with stealing. Judah stood up for Benjamin, requesting that Judah himself be punished instead of Benjamin. Joseph then revealed his identity to his brothers, and the extended family was reunited with Joseph and they all settled in Egypt.   

The conventional understanding is that the entire plot of Joseph and his brothers serves to explain how the Jewish people came to live in Egypt and how they eventually became enslaved to the Egyptians.The Kabbalistic reading is precisely the opposite. Every step that Joseph took was, in reality, paving the way not for the eventual enslavement but rather for the spiritual fortification of the Jews in exile, which would ultimately lead to the redemption.

From the mystical perspective, in order for their descendants to survive the harsh exile, the brothers of Joseph, who were the heads of the tribes of Israel, had to experience the oppression and accusations of the Egyptian monarch, who was, in truth, their brother in disguise. When the Jewish people, like their ancestors before them, would feel subjected to the Egyptian monarch, they would remember the story of Joseph and realize that there was a deeper reality in play. The hidden reality is one where the oppressive monarch, was their “brother”, who would ultimately bring benefit to them. The exile was a process that would refine them and lead them to great material and spiritual wealth.

In addition to physical subjection, exile also has a spiritual dimension. When we are in exile we are not in our natural environment. In exile we are living a life that is not consistent with our inner core. Our natural, inherent, awareness of G-d and connection to the spirituality of our inner soul is compromised, as our emotions and aspirations are directed exclusively to our physical survival.

Joseph empowered the Jewish people  to overcome the spiritual numbness that is exile.  

The Torah describes how Joseph had Benjamin framed:

Then he commanded the overseer of his house, saying, "Fill the men's sacks with food, as much as they can carry, and put each man's money into the mouth of his sack.

And my goblet, the silver goblet, put into the mouth of the sack of the youngest, and his purchase money." And he did according to Joseph's word, which he had spoken. (Genesis 44:1-2)

According to the mystics, the silver goblet represents passionate love and joy. The Hebrew word for silver (kesef) is the same word that means yearning and longing. The goblet contains wine which, as the verse says, brings joy to the heart of man.

Joseph’s planting the goblet in Benjamin’s sack empowers us to realize that hidden within us is a goblet that has the capacity to experience the love and joy which a relationship with G-d embodies. Joseph planted the goblet in the sack of Benjamin to remind us that we can dispel the darkness of exile by searching for the hidden reservoirs of positive emotions planted within us. When we discover the goblet and taste the wine, the spiritual exile dissolves paving the way for the physical redemption as well.

(Adapted from Or Hatorah Bireyshis 6, page 2206)

How to Climb Out of the Pit - וישב

How to Climb Out of the Pit 

If you happen to live on planet earth it is likely that occasionally you will feel trapped. You may feel something holding you back, keeping your spirits down and depleting your joy and passion for life. What is the secret to redemption, to escaping the confines and trappings of negativity?

In this week’s Torah portion we begin to read about the turbulent life of Joseph. We read of his going from being his father’s favored child, to being sold as a slave in Egypt. If that was not bad enough, he was then placed in prison on false charges. We read about how Joseph descended to the lowest state of society. In the coming weeks we read about the dramatic and abrupt reversal of his fortunes. Joseph was taken directly from prison to become the leader of Egypt.

What was the moment that triggered the redemption for Joseph? What was the turning point that ultimately led to Joseph’s freedom and ascent to power? 

With Joseph in prison were two of Pharaoh’s ministers. Each of them dreamed a mysterious dream on the same night and in the morning they were troubled by the dream. Joseph’s interaction with them is what ultimately brought salvation to Joseph (and by extension, to his family and to the entire Egyptian economy): 

And Joseph came to them in the morning, and he saw them and behold, they were troubled.

And he asked Pharaoh's chamberlains who were with him in the prison of his master's house, saying, "Why are your faces sad today?" (Genesis 40:6-7)

This seemingly simple question “why are your faces sad today?” is what led to Joseph’s redemption. If Joseph was indifferent to their mood, if he had not inquired about what was troubling them he would not have had the opportunity to interpret their dreams and subsequently he would not have been recommended  to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams which led him to royalty. 

What is remarkable about the exchange is that Joseph himself had all the reasons in the world to be sad and bitter. He was in prison based on false charges and there was no realistic hope for him to be freed. Yet Joseph was able to break free from the constant focus and concern for self. Joseph transcended his own perspective and was concerned for the wellbeing of others. And indeed, this internal liberation, eventually brought salvation to Joseph and ultimately  to his entire family.  

Each of us has two souls within ourselves, The natural soul, which is self oriented, and the G-dly soul, which seeks to transcend the confines of self and connect to G-d and to the Divine spark within each and every person. When we feel confined and limited by difficulties or internal shortcomings and challenges, when we sense that we need to free ourselves from negativity, we should follow Joseph's lead. The best path to redemption is tapping in to our G-dly soul, reaching out and connecting to others. For the liberation from the confines of focusing exclusively on the self, will ultimately unleash broader liberation, freeing us to reach our fullest potential. 

(Adapted from Sichos Kodesh, Miketz 5734)

Can you Really Have Everything? - וישלח

Can you Really Have Everything? 

After twenty years of separation the twin brothers were reunited. 

Upon hearing that Esau was traveling toward him with four hundred men, Jacob prepared for their meeting by preparing for war, praying, and sending large gifts of livestock to appease his brother. 

In one of the most emotionally charged scenes in the Torah, Jacob and Esau reunite and embrace. Esau tells Jacob that he does not need his gift while Jacob implores  Esau to accept it. As the Torah describes: 

But Esau said, "I have plenty, my brother; let what you have remain yours." 

Thereupon Jacob said, "Please no! If indeed I have found favor in your eyes, then you shall take my gift from my hand, because I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of an angel, and you have accepted me.

Now take my gift, which has been brought to you, for God has favored me [with it], and [because] I have everything." He prevailed upon him, and he took [it](Genesis 33:9-11)

Esau and Jacob seem to saying the same thing. They both have an abundance of possessions and they don’t need the gift of cattle. Yet upon careful analysis we discover a slight difference in the way the brothers describe their possessions. Esau says “I have plenty”, while Jacob says “I have everything”.  

Esau’s perspective is the perspective of the natural soul and is the reason that, so often, accumulating possessions does not lead to a feeling of joy. Esau says “I have plenty”, but having a lot does not mean that he does not want more. The Talmud says that human nature is such that “one who has one hundred wants two hundred, and one who has two hundred wants four hundred. Having a lot is no guarantee for happiness, in fact, it can actually make happiness more elusive because the more one has the greater is his appetite for more.  

By contrast, Jacob’s attitude toward his wealth is “I have everything”. Jacob does not need more. He has everything he needs to be able to live his life and fulfill his purpose with meaning. If he does not have something, than he is certain that that is not necessary for him to be able to achieve the purpose of his creation. As the Ethics of our Fathers teach: “Who is wealthy? One who is happy with his lot”. Jacob is joyous because he has everything. 

There is a deeper dimension to Jacob’s statement. To understand this, we must first ask the question, how can Jacob state that he has everything? He can say that he has all he needs, but how can he say that he has everything if, in reality, he does not have everything? The Sfas Emes, the 19th century Chassidic commentary, explains that Jacob does indeed have everything, because Jacob is connected to G-d who is the source of all existence. When Jacob looks at a physical object he sees its soul, the divine spark which continuously brings it into existence. When Jacob connects to the soul of the object he is indeed connecting to the soul of all of the world. When he connects to the soul of a given object, by using it in a manner that is consistent with its inner purpose, he indeed has everything. For he is connected to the Divine source of all existence which permeates everything and encompasses  all of existence. 

 

Rachel or Leah, Serenity or Struggle - ויצא

Rachel or Leah, Serenity or Struggle  

Would you prefer a life of serenity and peace of mind, or a life of hardship, emotional crises and inner turmoil? 

When Jacob fled to Charan to escape his brother Esau, he arrived at the well. He saw Rachel, the daughter of his uncle Laban. It was  love at first sight. 

Laban had two daughters. As the Torah describes:

Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel.

Leah's eyes were tender, but Rachel had beautiful features and a beautiful complexion. (Genesis 29:16:17). 

Jacob wanted to marry Rachel but he was tricked into marrying her sister Leah. While Jacob’s love for  Rachel was greater, Leah became the most important of his four wives. She bore six of his twelve sons, and while Rachel was buried on the side of the road on the way to Efrat, Leah was laid to rest together with Jacob in the cave of Machpelah. As Jacob commanded his children before his passing:

Bury me with my fathers, in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite… 

There they buried Abraham and his wife Sarah, there they buried Isaac and his wife Rebecca, and there I buried Leah.

Rachel was beautiful. She was righteous and spirituality wholesome. Jacob, who the Torah describes as “an innocent man, dwelling in tents” was immediately drawn to Rachel’s purity and innocence. Leah, on the other hand, had a complex personality, she experienced inner tension and frustration and had to struggle  to live the life she desired and to achieve her spiritual goals.

The children of Rachel and Leah personified the character traits of their mothers. Rachel’s children, Joseph and Benjamin, were naturally righteous, while Leah’s children had to struggle with their moral integrity. They sold their brother as a slave, Judah went to Tamar, who he thought was a harlot. They were far from perfect. Yet Leah’s children learned to overcome their moral shortcomings, they learned to correct their mistakes and grow from the negative experiences. 

Jacob loved Rachel. Jacob was attracted to a woman who had inner peace and serenity. Yet it turns out that Leah, who triumphed over  hardships and challenges, became the matriarch who bore six of the twelve tribes, and who was buried with Jacob in his eternal resting place. 

We often yearn for “Rachel”, for a life filled with tranquility and inner beauty. The story of Jacob teaches us that we should embrace the “Leah” in our life. The challenges we face in our lives are opportunities for us to discover the deepest and most profound part of ourselves.  The true potential for growth lies in the experience of facing a challenge and persevering. 

Adapted from Lekutei Sichos Vayishlach, vol. 35 Sicha 3.

 

How to Bless a Rebellious Child - תולדת

How to Bless a Rebellious Child

The aging Isaac decided to bless his eldest son Esau, but, strangely, Isaac would not bless Esau until Esau  would prepare food for Isaac, as the Torah relates: 

It came to pass when Isaac was old, and his eyes were too dim to see, that he called Esau his elder son, and he said to him, "My son," and he said to him, "Here I am." 

And he said, "Behold now, I have grown old; I do not know the day of my death.

So, now, sharpen your implements, your sword [and take] your bow, and go forth to the field, and hunt game for me.

And make for me tasty foods as I like, and bring them to me, and I will eat, in order that my soul will bless you before I die."  (Genesis 27:1-3)

How is it possible that Isaac, the quintessential spiritual person, who was prepared to offer himself as a sacrifice to G-d, refused to bless his child until his child would offer him a piece of meat?  

In order to understand Isaac’s request for Esau to prepare delicacies, we must first explore the broader question: why would Isaac love Esau the hunter more than Jacob the tent dweller? We would expect that Isaac would appreciate Jacob’s spiritual pursuits more than Esau’s hunting. 

Isaac loved Esau because Isaac saw the potential within Esau’s chaotic passion. Isaac recognized that if Esau would channel his energy to constructive and holy pursuits, he would, with the power of his intense passion, be able to achieve far greater heights than Jacob.

Isaac told Esau “So, now, sharpen your tools, your sword [and take] your bow”. The Hebrew word for Sharpen (“Sa”) also means “raise up”. Isaac told Esau that he would be worthy of blessing if he would elevate his talents and passions. Instead of directing his passion to a destructive goal, he should channel his talents and passions toward the transcendent and holy, toward helping feed another. Isaac was not looking for lunch, he was looking to help Esau discover the pleasure of channeling his energy toward a constructive goal. He was looking to give Esau a model for how to live his life. A model of how to navigate the intense energy within his soul. Isaac was teaching Esau not to suppress his nature  but rather to elevate it. Not to fight it but to channel it. 

We each have both an Isaac and an Esau within our own heart. The Jacob within us seeks the transcendent and the holy, but it lacks the intensity and passion with which the Esau within us pursues its destructive desires. Isaac teaches us that ultimately our purpose is to harmonize the Jacob and the Esau within ourselves. The passion of Esau is should be channeled and focused on the goals of Jacob. 

 

The Journey Toward Joy - חיי שרה

The Journey Toward Joy

From the dawn of history people have been searching for a sense of joy which is as elusive as it is desirable. 

When Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden in a state of tranquility and spiritual enlightenment, free of worry and hardship, they were unsatisfied, and therefore susceptible to the temptation of the forbidden fruit: 

And the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was a delight to the eyes, and the tree was desirable to make one wise; so she took of its fruit, and she ate, and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate. (Genesis 3:6)

According to the Kabbalah, what Eve wanted more than anything, was not the fruit per se but rather she was seeking  a feeling of the subjective self. In Eden there was no feeling of self, only an awareness of the Divine presence. The serpent showed Eve that one could experience a sense of self which created  desire. Fulfilling one’s own desire and pleasure, argued the serpent, is the way joy can be achieved. Unfortunately, experiencing the sense of ego resulted in tragic consequences. In a matter of a few generations humanity had deteriorated, the world was filled with moral corruption, and G-d brought the flood upon the earth.   

As soon as Noah disembarked from the ark, we read: 

And Noah began to be a master of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. And he drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent. (ibid. 9:21)

Noah was no simple drunk who was finally able to get back the bottle after a full year in the ark. Drinking wine was Noah’s attempt to correct the spiritual effect of the sin of the tree of knowledge which brought about the moral depravity which ultimately led to the flood. Noah understood that ever since Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden mankind  possessed the feeling of self, which among other things, focused their attention on their own needs. This led to selfishness which robbed them of happiness. For the ego is never satisfied with what it has, however much it has it always desires more. 

Noah wanted to reverse the course of human psychology, he desired to break free of the confines of the ego, and, at least temporarily  escape the feeling of self. He hoped that getting drunk would suspend the sense of self and would bring about bliss and joy. 

Very quickly, however, Noah learned that the route to joy is not the suspension of consciousness through consuming alcohol. That episode did not end well.

And then came Sarah our matriarch. According to the Kabbalists Sarah was the first person to achieve the wholesome experience of a joyous life. She was the first to “correct” the negative behavior of Eve and Noah. Sarah understood that the path to joy does not run through the experience of self, like the pleasure of the fruit of the tree of knowledge; nor can it be achieved by escaping self awareness as Noah attempted to do. Sarah understood that while we cannot go back in time and return to Eden,while we cannot liberate ourselves from the sense of self, we can achieve joy by devoting ourselves to something greater than ourselves. When our sense of self is part of a transcendent experience, we are able to escape the ego without destroying awareness.

As a consequence of the sin of the tree of knowledge, G-d told Eve “in sadness you shall bear children. (ibid. 3:16)”.  For in a world where people perceive themselves, there is pleasure but also sadness. Yet, many generations later, Sarah understood that devoting oneself to raising a child, devoting oneself to a purpose beyond one's own self, is a model for becoming holy and achieving joy. Indeed when Sarah gave birth she named her son Isaac, which means joy and laughter. She modeled the transformation from pain to joy not only for herself but also for everyone around her, as the Torah relates,And Sarah said, "God has made joy for me; whoever hears will rejoice over me." (ibid. 20:6)

Sarah teaches us that in order to transcend the ego which stifles joy, one must transcend oneself by being part of a greater story and a greater mission; a mission to make the world a better place by carrying out the Divine purpose of creation.  

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Vayihiyu Chayey Sarah 5741).

Feeling Connected Throughout the Day - וירא

Feeling Connected Throughout the Day

The story of Abraham spans two portions in the book of Genesis: Lech Licha, which concludes with the story of Abraham circumcising himself, and Vayera, which begins with the story of G-d visiting Abraham when he was in the process of healing from the circumcision. 

Why do the portions divide in a seemingly unnatural place? Why separate between the circumcision and the healing? The story divides at this point because after the circumcision Abraham was a completely transformed person. After the circumcision his experiences were radically different from before the circumcision.

G-d is the infinite creator who created a finite universe. Conventional wisdom would argue that in order to connect to the infinite G-d one must separate from the physical, escape the trappings of day to day life, and meditate on the infinite. Indeed, that was the experience of Abraham himself. When he would experience prophecy he would fall on his face and lose touch with physical reality for the duration of the prophetic experience. 

Circumcision however, ushered in a new stage in Abraham’s connection to G-d. Circumcision embodies the purpose of all the Torah: to sanctify the material world, to the extent that the holiness permeates the flesh, and the bond with G-d is seen and felt in the physical world. Circumcision represents the true infinity of G-d. It expresses that G-d is not confined to the infinite but rather He can be found in the finite as well. 

Thus, immediately after the circumcision, in the opening phrase of this week’s portion, a new stage in Abraham’s life begins. The Torah relates: 

Now the Lord appeared to him in the plains of Mamre, and he was sitting at the entrance of the tent when the day was hot. (Genesis 18:1)

The extraordinary novelty of this verse is not that, for the first time, G-d appeared to Abraham in the middle of the day, while sitting at the door of his tent waiting for guests. In fact, what was exceptional was that Abraham experienced the revelation while simultaneously receiving his guests. As a result of the circumcision, physical reality was no longer a distraction from the Divine. The seemingly impassable gulf between heaven and earth, between material and spiritual, was bridged. Abraham could now experience G-d’s revelation while interacting with other human beings. 

Only after the circumcision was Abraham capable of fathering Isaac. It was Isaac’s descendants who would accept the Torah at Sinai, and who would be tasked with the responsibility of connecting heaven and earth, infusing the physical reality with holiness through performing the commandments of the Torah.

The Torah relates that while experiencing the Divine revelation Abraham saw three people. Abraham ran toward them to invite them into his home. Abraham said: 

"My lord, if only I have found favor in your eyes, please do not pass on from beside your servant.” (ibid. 18:3)

One interpretation is that Abraham was talking to the leader of the three guests, asking the guests to enter his tent. Another interpretation is that Abraham was talking to G-d; asking G-d to stand by and not leave Abraham’s presence while Abraham tended to his guests. 

Contemporary commentators suggest that when Abraham said to G-d, “do not pass on from beside your servant”, do not leave me while I interact with  people, Abraham was requesting that he be allowed to experience this newfound spiritual awareness. He was asking G-d for the ability to feel connected to G-d not only while engaging in spiritual pursuits but also while interacting with people. Abraham desired  to feel the connection to G-d in every activity he engaged in, thus sanctifying every aspect of life. 

(Adapted from Likutey Sichos Lech Licha vol. 1, Abarbenel, and commentary by Sivan Rahav Meir). 

The Journey of Your Soul - לך לך

The Journey of Your Soul

Expressing abstract wisdom in simple language is difficult and could be painful. To do so, the scholar must leave the comfort of his  knowledge and expertise and descend into the world, where the audience is not be on the same level as he is. Expressing abstract wisdom in simple language requires limiting the light, masking some of the beauty of the wisdom and expressing it in simple terms in order that the listener can understand. 

This decent, however, will ultimately lead the scholar to a deeper appreciation of the wisdom. Because when one is forced to explain an abstract idea in concrete terms, when one is forced to create an analogy to help people grasp an intangible idea, one will attain a deeper level of understanding. To be able to communicate a lofty concept in simple terms the wise person has to reach the essence and soul of the idea, only then will he succeed in condensing the concept and expressing it with an appropriate analogy.

The explain the Kabbalists, is the deeper meaning of the G-d’s first communication with Abram (Abraham’s original name): 

"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) 

This commandment contains multiple layers of meaning. Yes, Abram was to leave Mesopotamia and travel to what would become the land of Israel, but there is a mystical meaning to the verse as well. Abram, represents abstract wisdom. The word Abram is comprised of two words “Av”, father, which in Kabbalistic terminology is a metaphor for wisdom, and “Ram” which means elevated. Abram is exalted wisdom. [At the time Abram was living in Charan, which Kabbalisticly, represents the “neck” which blocks the abstract wisdom from expressing itself in terms that would allow it to descend into concrete language that could inspire emotions in the heart]. 

Abram’s physical journey was a symbol of his spiritual journey. The journey meant leaving the comfort of his own thoughts and expressing his abstract ideas of monotheism and morality to people who were on a far lower spiritual and intellectual level than himself. Yet, this downward journey, this descent, led Abram to greater heights. As G-d promised Abram, that as a result of his journey: 

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. 

Abram’s journey was far from challenge free. He was faced with many physical and spiritual challenges. He was forced to descend to Egypt where his wife was abducted. His close relationships with his nephew Lot and Concubine Hagar were tested. G-d informed him that his descendants would be enslaved for four hundred years. Yet Abraham understood that the more challenging the journey, the greater the spiritual gain. Abram understood that a descent is critical to, and, therefore, part and parcel of, the journey upward.  

The story of Abram is the story of every soul. 

The soul originates in the spiritual worlds, surrounded by Divine wisdom and awareness. The soul is then called upon to begin the journey we call life. This journey, from the spiritual worlds to life in this physical world seems to be a descent for the soul. No longer can it bask in the glow of spiritual enlightenment and closeness to the infinite light. No longer can it remain in the realm of abstract ideas. On this earth the soul must attend to the concrete needs of the body; food, shelter and comfort. The soul is no longer in the world of “Av” “Ram”, the world of abstract knowledge and enlightenment. The soul is right here on planet earth.

Yet, like Abram our patriarch, like the wise teacher forced to condense his wisdom into a parable, the soul must now express its relationship to G-d in a concrete way. By using physical objects to fulfill the Divine will, by developing an awareness of the Divine on this earth, the soul reaches greater heights than if it had never  embarked on the journey. 

(Adapted form Torah Or, Parshas Lech Licha)   

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