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Blog - Torah Insights

Three Dimensional Sabbatical - בהר

Three Dimensional Sabbatical

The third book of the Torah, the book of Vayikra, is also called “Torat Kohanim”, “the law of the priests” (hence the name Leviticus, as the priests were from the tribe of Levi).

Indeed, the beginning of the book focuses on the offerings in the temple offered, on behalf of the people of Israel, by the priests. Yet, the purpose of the Torah is to teach us to spread the holiness outward, and sanctify all areas of life. Thus, as the book progresses, the focus of the book shifts. From the laws directed primarily to a specific segment of Jews, the priests, and a specific place, the temple, the book shifts to discuss the holiness as it applies to all the people of Israel, and to all of the land of Israel.   

In this week’s Parsha, the Torah tells us the laws of the Sabbatical year: every seventh year agricultural activity would cease and the land would rest. As G-d told Moses:

Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them: When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land shall rest a Sabbath to the Lord. (Leviticus 25:2)

The Law of the Sabbatical was designed to remind the Jew that holiness can be experienced not only by the priests in the temple, but rather, perhaps more importantly, by the the Jew on his farm. When the Jew celebrated the Sabbatical year he recognized that holiness is not relegated to the theoretical, the abstract, and the spiritual but rather the holiness can affect the land itself. The land itself is sanctified. The material world itself expresses the holiness of G-d.  

After introducing the general concept of the Sabbatical, the Torah elaborates on the three elements which the commandment addresses: (1) the person (2) the land (3) the produce.

At first the Torah tells us the commandment is directed to the person. The person is prohibited from doing any labor on the land: “you shall not sow your field, nor shall you prune your vineyard”. The Torah then continues to tell that the Mitzvah applies to the land: “ it shall be a year of rest for the land. the land shall have a complete rest a Sabbath to the Lord” (25:5). And finally the Torah discusses the produce that grows on its own in the seventh year. The Torah commands that the produce should be available to everyone equally. The owner of the field may enjoy the fruit just as any other worker or resident: “And [the produce of] the Sabbath of the land shall be yours to eat for you, for your male and female slaves, and for your hired worker and resident who live with you” (25:6).

Experiencing the laws of the Sabbatical year helps the Jew internalize that all aspects of his reality are affected by his relationship with G-d. (1) The holiness affects himself(as he may not perform work on the land) (2) the holiness affects his natural environment, (the land must rest). (3) the holiness affects his possessions and wealth (the produce of the land must be available to all).  

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Likkutei Sichos Vayelech, vol. 24 Sicha 1)


Show Me the Dough! - אמור

Show Me the Dough!

Judaism’s relationship with bread is complex.

The prohibition against bread on Passover is far more extensive than all other prohibitions. Not only are we not allowed to eat bread, we are also prohibited to own bread. Immediately after Passover, however, bread makes a comeback. The bread that was so terrible yesterday, somehow becomes acceptable today.

There was no leavened bread in the holy temple all year long. All grain offerings were made of dough that was not leavened. The verse states clearly: “No meal offering that you sacrifice to the Lord shall be made out of anything leavened. For you shall not cause to go up in smoke any leavening or any honey, as a fire offering to the Lord.” (Leviticus 2:11) Yet, once a year, after counting forty nine days from the second day of Passover, there was a commandment to offer leavened bread. As the Torah states in this week’s portion:

And you shall count for yourselves, from the morrow of the rest day from the day you bring the omer as a wave offering seven weeks...

From your dwelling places, you shall bring bread, set aside, two loaves made from two tenths of an ephah; they shall be of fine flour, [and] they shall be baked leavened, the first offering to the Lord. (Leviticus 23:15-17)

What is the spiritual nature of bread? Is bread completely prohibited (as it is on Passover, and,  year round in the temple), is it a neutral substance (as it is all year outside the temple), or is it a Mitzvah (as it is in the temple after counting the seven weeks)?

Leavened bread represents the inflated ego. As such, in the beginning of our relationship with G-d, as we seek to establish a connection to the spiritual side of ourselves, we must reject our  pleasure seeking ego. For if we allow our inflated sense of self to dictate how we live our life we will not be able to transcend the self and create a relationship with that which is beyond our self. Thus, on Passover, at the beginning of our spiritual journey, we separate completely from bread.

The purpose of life, and the ultimate goal of Judaism, however, is not to escape the self, but rather the goal is to elevate the self. Therefore, Immediately after Passover, as we count the seven weeks, we work to refine our seven primary character traits, elevating the animalistic side of ourselves. At the conclusion of the seven weeks, the bread, the sense of self, is no longer a distraction from spirituality. On the contrary - the sense of self has been refined to the point that the pleasure seeking self now directs its intense animalistic passion and drive to spirituality, to the love of others and to the love of G-d. At this point the bread, the self, is not only neutral it is a constructive and essential part of our relationship with the spiritual. Thus, after the seven weeks, on the holiday of Shavuot, the bread becomes a Mitzvah.

Our relationship with bread is the model for our interaction with all aspects of the world around us. To ensure that we are using physical objects and experiences, such as the smartphone, food, or any other worldly pleasure, for a good purpose, and that these objects are not controlling us, we must first ensure that we have the ability to separate from them; to turn off the phone, to say no to a given pleasure. Once we establish that we are in control, we can introduce the material object into our life and use it in a healthy way Ultimately, we take it a step further, and the material object or experience can become a positive influence in our life, making us happier, kinder, and more spiritually aware.  It can become like the bread offered to G-d in the temple.

As Yourself? - קדושים

As Yourself?

According to Rabbi Akiva, “love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) is “a great principal of the Torah”, yet, it is a commandment easier said than done. How can we love every person as our self? People possess the full gamut of negative traits, shortcomings and failings. Often, the closer we become to someone the more we see their personality flaws. How then can we be expected to love every person? Must we ignore their negativity?

The most seemingly problematic part of the statement is “as yourself”. Even if, somehow, we learn to love our fellow, can the Torah expect the love to rise to the level of self love?

Chassidic philosophy explains that the words “as yourself” are the key to the ability to love our fellow. When a person loves himself or herself, he is not ignorant of his own personality flaws. On the contrary, no one is as aware of his  flaws as he is himself. Despite the knowledge of his own shortcomings, somehow, the awareness of his own flaws does not contradict or destroy his self love. That is because a person does not see his own flaws in isolation, he sees his own flaws against the backdrop of self love. Thus looking at himself, the flaws don't bother him because they are overwhelmed by the self love.

The person who is aware of his own flaws will work very hard to conceal those flaws from others. Because he fears, often correctly, that the other person’s focus will zero in on the fault alone, and the other person will define him by his flaws.

The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) relates that a gentile who sought to convert asked the great sage Hillel to teach him all of the Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel told him “what is hateful to you don’t do to others”. “What is hateful to you”: you hate when others define you by your shortcomings, therefore: “don’t do to others”: never look at the shortcomings in isolation, see them only against the backdrop of love.  

How can you “love your fellow”? “As yourself”. Your own faults don't define the way you see yourself. They are insignificant because the self love is so powerful.

Apply that same formula to your child, to your spouse, to your neighbor and to your fellow.

(Adapted from Derech Mitzvosecha, Ahvas Yisrael)


Heading Home - אחרי

Heading Home

Life on this earth is complex. We are a hybrid of body and soul. We have both material as well as spiritual needs and desires. To survive on this earth, our soul must engage and embrace material life, it must spend much time and energy to succeed in a realm foreign to its values and its natural environment. Once a year, however, we separate ourselves from the mundane and the earthly and we seek to get in touch with our inner core. We refrain from food and drink, we separate from our material needs, and we seek to embrace our essence, which, while may be hidden throughout the year, always remains loyal to our spiritual source.    

The day of Yom Kippur, which we read about in this week’s Torah portion, is designed to allow us to return to our inner core. Thus, when the temple stood in Jerusalem, once a year, on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, the high priest, the holiest man on earth, would enter the inner chamber of the temple, the holy of holies, which is the  holiest space on earth.

The spiritual journey to our core, to peel away the layers of our external desires and distractions and to reconnect to our inner purity, takes time and effort. The Mishnah describes that seven days before Yom Kippur the high priest would depart from his home and enter his chamber in the holy temple to prepare for the service of the holiest day. As the Mishnah describes:  

Seven days prior to Yom Kippur the Sages would remove the High Priest, who performs the entire Yom Kippur service, from his house to the Chamber of Parhedrin, a room in the Temple designated specifically for the High Priest during that period. (Yoma 1:1)

The Mishnah then proceeds to elaborate on all the details of the service of Yom Kippur. Finally, toward the end of the tractate we read about the conclusion of the day of Yom Kippur:

They then brought his personal garments. He got dressed, and they would go with him to his residence. And he would make a feast for those close to him, for having exited the Holy of Holies in peace. (Yoma 7:4)

No gradual transition.

No seven day period to internalize the awesome experience before he would head back home to ordinary life. No rest at the chamber, where he spent seven days transitioning from ordinary life to the holiness of Yom Kippur.

The high priest would proceed directly from the sanctity of the holy of holies to his home. Because, Judaism teaches, the purpose of entering the temple to begin with is to experience the holiness of the temple in our daily life. After seven days of preparation, after experiencing the profound holiness of Yom Kippur, the high priest was able to reach true spiritual heights: he was able to experience the holiness of the holy of holies while  in his own home.

This idea is relevant to each one of us. In our lives we experience moments of inspiration and clarity, moments when we are in touch with our inner feelings and aspirations. Judaism teaches us to be bold. To aspire to spread those holy moments to all of our life. To realize, if we were truly affected by the experience of holiness,  we will now feel that same intensity of holiness in our home.

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Parshas Re’eh 5746

Personal Liberation - פסח

Personal Liberation

We are seated at the table and well into the order of the Passover Seder: we drank the first cup of wine, washed our hands, dipped the vegetable into salt water, and broke the middle Matzah into two. We proceed to prepare for the telling of the Passover story and the reciting the four questions with the following declaration:

This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat; whoever is in need, let him come and conduct the Seder of Passover. This year [we are] here; next year in the land of Israel. This year [we are] slaves; next year [we will be] free people.

Why do we wait until we are well into the Seder before we invite the needy to join us at the table? Would it not be appropriate to invite the guests when we are at the synagogue, before the beginning of the Seder, when we can actually meet people who are in need? Why do we wait until we get home, close the doors behind us, begin the Seder and only then remember to declare that the needy are invited?

Passover is the holiday of freedom. The holiday when we are able to tap into the divine energy of freedom and break out of our personal Egypt, our personal limitations. Passover is more than a commemoration of the past,  Passover allows us to experience personal redemption from our own challenges, difficulties and limitations, in the present.

The most important limitation to overcome in order to achieve true freedom is the limitation imposed by one’s own ego. From the perspective of the person's own ego, he alone is the center of existence, and other people, to the extent that they have any significance at all, are there just to enhance his existence. A person trapped in his own perspective, will not be able to achieve meaningful relationships, and will not allow others to expand the horizons of his own perspective and experience.

As our ancestors before us, we too achieve liberation through eating the Matzah. Bread, made of dough that rises, represents the inflated ego, while Matzah, the flat bread, represents the humility that allows us to escape the confines of our own personality and identity, and appreciate other people and other perspectives.

We invited guests. They are seated at the table. But we cannot truly empathize with another person unless we free ourselves from the confines of our own perspective. Touching the Matzah, breaking it into two pieces, is the first step of internalizing the Matzah’s message of freedom. Thus, only after we break the Matzah are we able to feel the plight of the needy and identify with their pain. Only after touching the Matzah are we able to transcend ourselves and connect to another.

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Second night of Passover 1968).


Cedar and Hyssop - מצורע

Cain and Abel - Cedar and Hyssop

Two brothers, born to the same parents, yet they could not have been more different from one another. Kayin and Hevel, the children of Adam and Eve, each embodied a fundamentally different attitude toward life.

The Torah describes the birth of Kayin:  

Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Kayin (Cain), and she said, "I have acquired a man with the Lord."

The name Kayin comes from the word “acquired”. Eve named her son Kayin and hoped he would embody her own aspirations to acquire, to possess, to succeed in self preservation. The human being has a deep need to feel independent, strong, and materially successful’ to experience self worth and to feel pride on his or her own self.

Eve had another son, she named him Hevel (Abel):

and she continued to bear his brother Hevel, and Hevel was a shepherd of flocks, and Cain was a tiller of the soil.

The word Hevel means “emptiness”, “futility”. Eve names her son Hevel, because she sensed that he was a deeply spiritual person to whom materialism, and physical existence, was insignificant and futile. The brothers were very different  but they were born into the same family because G-d hoped that they would affect one another; that Kayin would ground Hevel by teaching him the importance of physical existence, while Hevel’s spiritual attitude would protect Kayin’s sense of self from becoming egotistical and narcissistic.

Sadly, the brothers never learned to communicate and interact with each other. Kayin, unchecked, had an out-of-control sense of self, cared about no one other than himself, and thus descended to murdering his own brother. Hevel also sinned. His sin was that he did not engage in self defense. To him, material life was futile, and insignificant, thus he did not engage in protecting the sanctity of his own life. Both brothers sinned because they did not learn to integrate their individual qualities. They did not learn that the sense of self that wants to exist and acquire (Kayin), must be cultivated, sanctified, and balanced by the humility that comes from sensing the transcendent (Hevel).

The story of brothers who failed to harmonize their qualities can shed light onto an obscure law in the book of Leviticus. The Torah tells us of the process of the purification for the person afflicted with Tzaraat (skin discoloration):

Then the Kohen shall order, and the person to be cleansed shall take two live, clean birds, a cedar stick, a strip of crimson [wool], and hyssop. (Leviticus 14:4) 

Rashi explains the significance of the cedar and hyssop used in the purification process:  

a cedar stick: Because lesions of tzara’ath come because of haughtiness [symbolized by the tall cedar].

and hyssop: What is the remedy that he may be healed [of his tzara’ath]? He must humble himself from his haughtiness.

According to Rashi, the cedar’s height represents haughtiness while the lowly hyssop grass represents  humility. But if that is the case then why is the cedar a part of the purification process, does the cedar not represent the cause of the spiritual malady which the person needs to correct?

The cedar and hyssop teach us that in order to be pure and holy one must not declare war on the sense of self. Rather, holiness, in Judaism, is to harmonize the tall cedar, the feeling of self, the desire to possess, acquire and succeed, with the humble hyssop. To achieve purity we must sanctify the desire to acquire, and the sense of self,  utilizing our possessions, our talents and our strength in the service of G-d, spreading goodness and kindness in the world. The humble hyssop, too, must cultivate the feeling of the tall cedar, a sense of confidence and pride in order to embrace the world and transform it.

Purity is about harmonizing the cedar and the hyssop, the Kain and the Hevel, the desire to possess and the futility of materialism. Holiness is when the feeling of self is cultivated and dedicated to the service of that which is greater than the self.

(Adapted from Shem Mishmuel)


The Gift of Pleasure - תזריע

The Gift of Pleasure

The Hebrew language, “the holy tongue”, is a language of profound depth. Just by looking at its words one can discover the deepest truths of life. One example is the word Nega, affliction, used in this week’s portion to describe Tzaraat, the skin ailment that creates ritual impurity. The book of formation, perhaps the earliest Kabbalistic work, teaches that the Hebrew word for affliction, נגע, consists of the same letters as the word for pleasure, ענג.

“Affliction” and “pleasure” are, in fact, opposite extremes. The affliction of the Tzaraat is considered, in some ways, to be the most severe of impurities. It is the only impurity in which the person must leave the camp and sit in solitude. Pleasure, explains the Kabbalah, is the deepest capacity of the soul. Yet, the Hebrew language teaches us, that there is a relationship between that which we think of as most negative and that which is most positive.

The inner meaning of the laws of the Tzaraat affliction demonstrate this principle. The Torah tells us that when someone is afflicted with specific forms of skin discoloration they are brought to the priest, who will determine whether or not the affliction is ritually impure or ritually pure. There is, however, a deeper, figurative, interpretation, which contains a broader message for the life of the Jew.   

The Torah tells us:

If a man has a Se'eith, a sappachath, or a bahereth on the skin of his flesh, and it forms an affliction of Tzara'ath on the skin of his flesh, he shall be brought to Aaron the Kohen, or to one of his sons, the Kohanim. (Leviticus 13:2).

The Hebrew names for the shades of the Tzaraat discolorings, “Se’eith”, “Sappachat” and “Baheret”, are translated literally as “uplifted”, “additional”, and “clear”. According to the inner spiritual interpretation, the Torah is referring to someone who is gifted with a positive quality; wisdom, beauty, wealth, charisma, creativity, insight. This “additional” quality has the ability to “uplift”, to “add”, and to “purify”. Yet, in this case, the person chose to express that quality in a destructive way. Thus the positive quality designed to uplift and purify, now “forms an affliction of Tzara'ath on the skin of his flesh”. The divine gift becomes a spiritual affliction because the person chose to express the gift to advance his own selfish desires, arrogance and narcissism.  

The spiritual solution, one would think, is that the person seeking purity, must abandon the path which led to the spiritual affliction. He must walk away from the attribute that led to his spiritual downfall.   

The Torah, however, teaches otherwise: “he shall be brought to Aaron the Kohen, or to one of his sons, the Kohanim.” The very quality that led to the spiritual challenge, must be “brought to the Priest”, must be used for the sake of holiness and positivity. The Kohen who would perform the service in the temple teaches us that the gifts we have; beauty, wealth, musical talent, artistic creativity, etc., were given to us in order that we use them for holiness.  

Everything in our life can be a spiritual affliction or a source of great pleasure. Everything in our life can be “brought to the priest”. Everything we possess can be used in the service of G-d to advance the purpose of our creation: to transform a world afflicted with challenge and suffering into a place of pleasure and holiness.

(Adapted from Be’er Mayim Chayim)   


The Passion of Youth - שמיני

The Passion of Youth

It was the day the Jewish people had been waiting for. The day G-d would dwell in the tabernacle which they had built. Yet, on the very day of great joy, a great tragedy occurred. Two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, entered the temple and died while offering incense unsanctioned by G-d. As the Torah relates:

And Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his pan, put fire in them, and placed incense upon it, and they brought before the Lord foreign fire, which He had not commanded them. And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. (Leviticus 10:1-2)

There are many explanations as to the nature of the sin and punishment of the sons of Aaron. Perhaps the strangest of them all is that the children of Aaron were punished for secretly hoping that Moses and Aaron would die and that they would assume the leadership of the Jewish people. As the Talmud tells us:

And it had already happened that Moses and Aaron were walking on their way, and Nadav and Avihu were walking behind them, and the entire Jewish people were walking behind them. Nadav said to Avihu: When will it happen that these two old men will die and you and I will lead the generation, as we are their heirs? The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to them: We shall see who buries whom. (Talmud, Sanhedrin 52a)

This strange Talmudic interpretation must contain a deeper meaning. For it is unfathomable that great men such as Nadav and Avihu, who were selected by G-d to perform the service in the temple, would hope for the death of Moses and Aaron, their own uncle and father.  

Indeed, the Chassidic commentators explain that Nadav and Avihu were full of intensely passionate love for G-d. The incense they offered, and coming close to G-d in a manner in which they were not commanded, was an expression of their desire to come as close to G-d as possible, to quench the powerful thirst and longing they felt toward G-d. Nadav and Avihu looked to Moses and Aaron and they saw two great leaders, but they did not see a passion and love that matched their own. Nadav and Avihu said to each other, “when will it happen that these two old men will die and you and I will lead the generation?”. Nadav and Avihu felt that Moses and Aaron were too old to experience the intense passion of youth. Thus they thought that if only they could lead the people and teach them how to experience true love and desire for G-d.

Love is beautiful. But love alone is not sufficient to create a healthy relationship. Love and passion will get one close to the beloved, but once close, too much love and not enough respect may destroy a relationship. Love is an expression of self. Love is the desire to cleave to that which one feels is good for him. But just as critical to the relationship is respect. Respect is the recognition of the other in the relationship, one who has their own perspective, personality and identity. While love and longing is critical in order to come close to the beloved, once  close, respect and awe are essential.

What Nadav and Avihu misunderstood about Moses and Aaron was that precisely because Moses and Aaron were so intimately close to G-d, they experienced awe in addition to love. As long as Nadav and Avihu were “outside the tabernacle”, as long as they were distant from G-d, their passionate love was holy and desirable. The moment they “drew near before the Lord”, their love, which was not balanced with awe, was unholy.

The spiritual path of the Jew is one of “run and return”. First we “run”, we experience the soul’s desire to break free of the body, to escape the material, and seek to cleave to G-d in passionate love. But once we experience the love, once we draw near, we experience respect and awe. “We return” to the material world, to sanctify it and elevate it; because that is the desire of our beloved.

(Adapted from Yismach Moshe, Parshas Shmini).

Holy Leftovers - צו

Holy Leftovers

Thinking about how we live our lives most people will realize that most of our day is not spent on the things we value most. We work all week in order to enjoy time off on the weekend. We spend all day working in order to provide for our family, which, in many cases, leaves us with few waking moments to actually spend time with our loved ones.

This is even more so when we look at the spiritual side of life. Most of our day is dedicated to providing for our material needs of eating, drinking, earning a living, sleeping, exercising, relaxing, etc., which leaves us with, at best, but a few moments each day for the needs of our soul. Our soul, too, desires to be nourished; our soul, too, needs moments of self expression. Our soul desires to transcend, to engage in holiness, to pray, to study Torah and to engage in good deeds. Yet, we spend most of our day, and most of our life, feeding the body instead of feeding the soul.

For some spiritual seekers this is too painful of an existence. Thus, they seek a life of asceticism. They seek to minimize the time they spend on the needs of the body and maximize the time spent on feeding the desires of their soul. And even during the time they use to attend to the needs of the body they do so with a sense of pain, as they would prefer to spend even those moments on the needs of their soul.

Judaism, however, has a completely different outlook, resulting in a vastly different approach to life.    

Judaism teaches that if we begin the day with a moment of holiness, if we offer even a small portion of our time to G-d in the morning then that experience will affect the rest of the day, infusing it with significance and holiness. The rest of the day, when we tend to our material activities and needs, is a continuation of the spiritual experience and is considered holy, for it is  infused with the holiness of the moments we offered to G-d.

This is the inner meaning of the description of the meal offering that we read about in this week's Torah portion. When the Jew offers an offering of grain, which symbolizes all of his material needs, only a handful of the flour is offered on the altar to be burned in fire. Only a few moments of our day are completely dedicated to the spiritual service of G-d. Yet, the Torah assures us, that the remainder of the flour, which is most of the flour, while it is eaten by the priests and not offered in the fire to G-d, is nevertheless holy, as it is considered the remainder of the offering.

The Torah tells us:

And this is the law of the meal offering: that Aaron's sons shall bring it before the Lord, to the front of the altar.

And he shall lift out of it in his fist, from the fine flour of the meal offering and from its oil and all the frankincense that is on the meal offering, and he shall cause its reminder to [go up in] smoke on the altar as a pleasing fragrance to the Lord.

The fist full of flour represents the moments which we dedicate to G-d. The Torah then continues to describe the leftover flour:  

And Aaron and his sons shall eat whatever is left over from it. It shall be eaten as unleavened bread in a holy place; they shall eat it in the courtyard of the Tent of Meeting.

It shall not be baked leavened. [As] their portion, I have given it to them from My fire offerings. It is a holy of holies, like the sin offering and like the guilt offering.

The leftovers, the remainder of the day which we spend on our own needs, is also holy. For the holiness of the morning Mitzvah, reciting the Modeh Ani, reciting the Shema, laying Tefillin, spills over to the rest of the day, impacting the rest of our pursuits. which reminding us that our material needs, too, serve a holy and spiritual purpose.  

Based on the teaching of the Rebbe, Reshimos 134.


Pass the Salt - ויקרא

Pass the Salt

The beginning of the third book of the Torah, the book of Leviticus, discusses many categories of offerings, elaborating on the details of each of the various offerings. One law that applies equally to all offerings is that every offering must be offered with salt, as emphasized in the verse:

And you shall salt every one of your meal offering sacrifices with salt, and you shall not omit the salt of your God's covenant from [being placed] upon your meal offerings. You shall offer salt on all your sacrifices. (Leviticus 2:13)

This verse is also the source of the custom to dip our bread in salt, as explained in the code of law:

it is customary to place salt on the table [before the recitation of the blessing HaMotzi, even when the bread does not require it. The rationale is that] the table is comparable to the altar [of the Beis HaMikdash] and our food, to a sacrifice, and it is written: “On all your sacrifices offer salt.” (Shulchan Aruch Harav, Orach Chaim chapter 167)

Why salt?

When a Jew would be inspired to ascend to Jerusalem, come to the house of G-d and offer a sacrifice as a symbol of his bringing himself closer to G-d, the Torah instructs him to pour salt on the offering. In the ancient world salt was the primary preservative agent. Salt, therefore, is a symbol of preservation. Before the era of modern refrigeration, the symbolism of salt was clear. With the commandment that no offering be brought without salt, the Torah is teaching a Jew that there is no value to a fleeting moment of inspiration. When one is inspired to come close, to offer an offering, one must seize the flash of inspiration, and preserve it by sprinkling it, figuratively speaking, with a measure of salt. One must seek to internalize the inspiration, the desire to change and improve, to the point that it is integrated within one’s identity.   

There is more to the symbolism of salt.

Everything physical is, by definition, temporary and fleeting. Every experience, everything we work so hard for, is but temporary. The only thing that is eternal is the spiritual aspect of life. Say you go out for dinner or you take a family vacation. The physical aspects of the experience are fleeting and will be gone before you know it. But there is a way to make the experiences everlasting. If the dinner deepens your connection to your spouse, if the vacation allows you to bond with your child, if the experience helps you get in touch with your soul, then you preserved it for eternity.

This is the symbolism of the salt on the sacrifices.

The Torah is teaching us that we can take a physical object, temporary and fleeting and make it lasting and immortal. We can and should salt our offerings, infuse them with spirituality which is the true preservative. When we eat a meal, and the same is true of any other physical experience, we can either engage in the material, temporary, aspect of the experience, or we can dip our bread in salt. We can transform the experience and make it one that is spiritual, holy, and everlasting.


Linen Curtains - פקודי

Linen Curtains

The second half of the book of Exodus, with its detailed description of the tabernacle and its furniture, teaches us how to create a tabernacle for G-d in our life. Each of the many components of the tabernacle represents an aspect of our life.

The tabernacle had three sections, the courtyard, the holy and the holy of holies. The Torah tells us that the courtyard of the tabernacle was surrounded by a fence made of linen hangings.

The length of the courtyard [shall be] one hundred cubits and the width fifty by fifty [cubits]. The height [of the hangings] shall be five cubits of twisted fine linen, and their sockets [shall be of] copper. (Exodus 27:18).

What is the nature and symbolism of the walls of the courtyard? What are the boundaries within which a Jew should live his life? What are the perimeters which the Jew must enter in order to fulfill his purpose of creation and make a home for G-d?

In a written correspondence between the Rebbe and his father, the great Kabbalist Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneersohn, they discuss two possible interpretations of the spiritual significance and meaning of the linen curtains.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak explains that according to the Kabbalah linen represents the attribute of discipline, the ability to judge and reject that which does not live up to the desired standard.  

The secret to success in any field or endeavor is the ability to be disciplined enough to say no to distraction. No one ever mastered a musical instrument, graduated medical school, or ran a marathon, without cultivating the skill of saying no to distraction. The same is true for creating a spiritual life. The linen curtains represent the ability of the Jew to reject negative influences. According to this approach, the first and most important skill necessary in order to be able to create a space for holiness is the skill of disciplined commitment. The strength to say no to destructive influences of the outside world as well as within the person himself.

The Rebbe offered a different interpretation. The Rebbe taught that the linen does not represent the ability to reject, but rather the ability to embrace.   

The Talmud explains that the Biblical word for linen, “Bad”, means single and alone, because flax, from which linen is made, grows a single stalk from each kernel. Linen, then, represents singularity. The singularity of linen represents the oneness of G-d, and the linen curtains represent the purpose of the Jew: to infuse all aspects of life with a connection to the one G-d.

Life is fragmented and fractured, our attention is constantly being pulled in multiple directions. Any given day we have to navigate between different, often opposing, situations and tasks. Often, the multiplicity of details distract us from the excitement and passion of our overarching goals. We want to be a devoted parent, a loving spouse. We want to be motivated to achieve our professional, recreational or spiritual goals. Yet often, while involved in a specific task, playing with our child, dealing with a frustrating client, or trying to check off an item on our to-do list, we are distracted from the big picture. We lose our passion and commitment because, somehow, this specific moment, this specific task, is disconnected from our overarching purpose.

The Linen material which was used as the outer walls of the tabernacle represent the unique spiritual ability and calling of the Jew. The Jew’s task is to live within the boundaries of the oneness of G-d. The Jew’s purpose is to infuse every detail of life, every specific interaction with the multiplicity of the fragmented world, with a connection to the overarching oneness. To build a sanctuary for G-d is to live a life in which one feels how every detail of life contributes to the overall purpose. To build a home for G-d we must surround ourselves with the embrace of the oneness, experiencing, every detail as just another opportunity for goodness and kindness, healing the fragmentation by infusing it with Divine unity.

Adapted from Reshimos 107.


Kindle the Fire - ויקהל

f.jpegKindle the Fire

When Moses assembled the Jewish people to relate to them about the construction of the tabernacle, the sanctuary they were to build in the desert, he first reiterated the the Mitzvah of resting on Shabbat:

Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have sanctity, a day of complete rest to the Lord. (Exodus 35:2)

Of all the thirty nine prohibited categories of labor, the Torah proceeds to name only one specific example of a prohibition. The Torah states:

You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwelling places on the Sabbath day." (Ibid. 35:3)

Why does the Torah emphasize that the commandment about not kindling fire applies to “all your dwelling places”? Why would we assume that the prohibition is limited to a specific place?

The Midrash explains that the words “in all your dwelling places” teach us that we may not kindle fire in all our dwelling places, we may, however, kindle fire in the temple. Elsewhere the Torah commands “A continuous fire shall burn upon the altar; it shall not go out.” We may have thought that the prohibition of kindling fire on Shabbat supersedes the commandment to continuously maintain the fire on the altar, and we would therefore conclude that the commandment to continuously kindle fire on the alter applies to the six days of the week but not to Shabbat. The Torah therefore states that the commandment against kindling fire applies specifically to “all your dwelling places” but does not apply to the temple (which is not our dwelling place, it is the dwelling place for G-d).

Every teaching in the Torah has both a body and a soul. In addition to the legal interpretation there is also a spiritual interpretation of the same legal concept. Here too the “fire”, the “dwelling places” and the “temple”, have a spiritual interpretation as well.

Fire represents passion. Fire represents the joy, the excitement, and the vitality that energizes us and keeps us motivated and imbues our actions with spirit and feeling. During the six days of the week, our passion is invested in the world outside of us. We seek to build, to accomplish and to succeed in the material world. And then Shabbat arrives. Shabbat is far more than a day of rest in the conventional sense. On Shabbat we stop working so that we can pause from the specific details of our life and focus on the big picture. On Shabbat we have time to focus on the purpose of the rest of the week: What is the point of all our work? What are we seeking to accomplish? What is the meaning of our life? Are we living the life we want to live? Are we spending our time and attention with the people that mean most to us?

On Shabbat we may not kindle fire in “our dwelling places”. Our “dwelling places”, as opposed to the temple, represent our physical needs and activities. Shabbat is the day when we redirect our passion, to the “temple”, to the holy aspects of our life. Shabbat is the day that we redirect our passion to G-d, to our family, and to our spiritual life.  

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Shabbat Ki Tisa 5717).


Defining Work - כי תשא

c.jpegDefining Work

One of the most important practices in Judaism, the fourth of the ten commandments, is to refrain from work on the seventh day, to sanctify it and make it holy. Yet, the exact definition of rest, and the forms of labor prohibited on Shabbat are not stated explicitly in the Torah.

The Sages of the Talmud explain that the Torah alludes to there being thirty nine categories of prohibited labor. Whenever the Torah discusses the commandment to build the tabernacle, the sanctuary constructed in the desert, the Torah also reiterates the commandment of Shabbat. Case in point is this week’s Torah portion. After more than two full portions dedicated to the intricate details of the sanctuary, the Torah concludes with the theme of Shabbat:

“..the children of Israel observe the Sabbath, to make the Sabbath throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant. Between Me and the children of Israel, it is forever a sign that [in] six days The Lord created the heaven and the earth, and on the seventh day He ceased and rested."

From the juxtaposition of Shabbat and the commandment to build the the tabernacle we derive that the tabernacle may not be constructed on Shabbat. This implies that any labor that was needed for the construction of the tabernacle is considered labor and is therefore prohibited on Shabbat.

This derivation may seem far from straight forward. Why does the Torah communicate its definition of labor through the seemingly unrelated tabernacle? Why is the definition of labor determined based on the labor necessary to construct the sanctuary?

The Torah is teaching us a profound lesson about the purpose of labor. The conventional understanding is that we spend six days of the week working, pursuing our physical needs, and on the seventh day we rest from the pursuit of the physical and we  dedicate a day to our family, our soul and to our spiritual life. Yet the Torah is signaling to us that we should think about labor in the context of the work necessary to construct the sanctuary. That is because, indeed, the purpose of all our work is to create a metaphorical sanctuary, a spiritual home for G-d.

The legal definition of labor is defined by the labor used for the construction of the sanctuary, because the spiritual purpose of all our labor is to create a home for G-d.  We do so by using our physical possessions and experiences to enhance our soul and to advance the purpose for which we were created, namely to transform this earth to a vessel for G-dliness, by filling the world with goodness and kindness.

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Vayakhekl vol. 1)


The Kabbalah of Fashion - תצוה

f.jpgThe Kabbalah of Fashion

What is Judaism's perspective on the multi billion dollar garment industry?

The Hebrew word for garment is “Beged” which contain the same letters as the word for betrayal - “Bagad”. The connection between garments and betrayal is multi layered. Starting from the beginning of history the garment is intertwined with betrayal. The Torah tells us that garments became necessary only after the sin of the tree of knowledge, when Adam and Eve betrayed their G-d, themselves and their innocence.  

In addition to their emergence as a result of betrayal, the function of garments is also a form of betrayal and dishonesty. The very purpose of a garment is to conceal the inner core and portray an external facade. In fact, a rich person can dress as a pauper, and the pauper can dress as a rich person, a person who feels sad can dress in celebratory garments, and a happy person can don a mourner’s garments, thus betraying the truth, betraying one’s inner feelings and projecting an external image inconsistent with one’s inner feelings and reality.

The soul, Just like the body, also has “garments”. The Kabbalah teaches that the soul has an inner “personality”, its emotional and intellectual composition, as well as “garments” its ability to act, to speak, and to think a given thought. Thought, speech and action are called garments because they are not the soul itself and, like the body’s garments, they can betray the inner makeup of the soul. A person can act, speek or think in ways that are inconsistent with and betray his own inner self.

Yet, garments, and the betrayal they represent, are not all bad. In fact, another word for garment in Hebrew is “Sal-mah” which is the same word as “Sh-lay-mah” which means complete. The Hebrew language is conveying a deep truth: the garment, the ability to betray one’s inner feelings and perspective, can and should lead a person to be wholesome and complete. That’s because garments have an influence on how we feel on the inside. The reason people spend so much on clothing is because clothing have an affect. Although initially donning clothing is an external act, the garment has the power to influence one’s mood and feelings.  

The same is true regarding the garments of the soul. A person can feel cruel yet he can don a garment of kindness by taking a kind action. A person can feel sad yet he can smile and act happy. Initially, that action is a betrayal of the inner feeling, but, over time, the betrayal leads to completion, the external action will affect the inner feeling.

This explains why the Torah commands that the high priest wear eight beautiful garments when he performs the service in the temple. As G-d commands Moses in this week’s portion:  

You shall make holy garments for your brother Aaron, for honor and glory (Exodus 28:2).

One may wonder why garments are critical to the service. Aren’t beautiful garments superficial and a symbol of vanity? Why doesn't G-d focus on the priests internal, emotional and spiritual state rather than on the external garments? The answer is that the garments represent, thought, speech and action, the garments of the soul. The Torah is teaching us that if we want to come close to G-d we should don beautiful garments. We should focus on positive garments, on positive action, even if those garments are a betrayal of our internal feelings. Because, ultimately, the beautiful garments, the positive action, will bring wholesomeness and completion to the internal soul, and our heart will be transformed by the garments.


The Structure of the Soul - תרומה

k.jpgThe Structure of the Soul

The second half of the book of Exodus presents a dramatic shift from the first half of the book. Until this point, G-d was the active member in the relationship between G-d and the Jewish people. While G-d brought the ten plagues, liberated the Jews from Egypt, split the sea, spoke the ten commandments and dictated Jewish civil law, the Jews were passive recipients of all that G-d was doing. Finally, in the second half of the book, the Jewish people were called upon to take the initiative and build a home for G-d.

The sages teach that the commandment to construct a home for G-d includes the idea of constructing a figurative home for G-d within every person. Each of us are called upon to create a home for G-d within ourselves. From this perspective, the detailed descriptions of the temple and its furniture, which comprise almost five portions in the Torah, have an equivalent spiritual meaning within every person.    

The sanctuary was built of three components. The walls were made of beams of wood ten cubits tall, the beams were supported by silver sockets, and the roof was comprised of coverings made of wool and animal skins. Each of us is called upon to build the figurative temple within ourselves. To do so, we need to find the beams, coverings and sockets, within our soul, and dedicate them to the service of G-d.

The Kabbalists explain that the ten cubit beams, which stood vertically, represent the ten faculties, three intellectual and seven emotional, within every human soul.

The foundation of the entire structure were the silver sockets which were the base for the beams. The spiritual equivalent of the sockets, the foundation of the souls structure, is the capacity to be committed and devoted to someone or something.     

The curtains that served as the roof of the tabernacle, covering the entire structure, represent a person’s will and capacity of pleasure, referred to by the Kabbalists as the “encompassing powers of the soul”.

[The curtains which covered the entire structure of the sanctuary represent the powers of will and pleasure which effect and inspire all of the faculties. When a person desires something the specific soul power will be awakened and invigorated. When a person has no desire to study and master a specific topic it will be difficult for him to understand. The sages teach us that “a person should always study where his heart desires”, because when the will power is invested in understanding the subject the mind will comprehend, because the encompassing will power will trigger and awaken the specific power of understanding].

Understanding that the temple is a symbol for the human soul, explains the commandments that the Jewish people donate the materials necessary to construct the sanctuary. In this week’s Parsha the Torah tells us that each individual donated both to the construction of the walls and to the covering of the sanctuary in the amount they chose according to their heart’s desire:

"The Lord spoke to Moses saying:"Speak to the children of Israel, and have them take for Me an offering; from every person whose heart inspires him to generosity, you shall take My offering. (Exodus 25:1-2).

Yet, there was another form of donations, specifically designated for the silver sockets which were the base of the structure, where everybody was required to donate an equal amount:

This they shall give, everyone who goes through the counting: half a shekel… The rich shall give no more, and the poor shall give no less than half a shekel (ibid 30:13-15).

There were two forms of donations, one with an equal, set amount for each person to donate, and another which was open ended, each person donated according to their heart’s desire. This is because there are aspects where all are equal and other aspects where each person is unique, and has a distinctive contribution to make. When it comes to the specific faculties of the soul; intelligence, emotion, wisdom, kindness, will power, each of us is unique. Thus the contribution to create the structure is individualized. Yet the foundation of the structure, the foundation of the relationship with G-d, the power of devotion and commitment is the same for everyone. For we all are equal in our capacity to devote ourselves to G-d, yet the nature of our devotion and relationship is based on our own specific personality, and is therefore unique to each  individual.

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Terumah vol. 1).



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