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Blog - Torah Insights

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)   

Noah's Ark - the Key to Marriage - נח

Noah's Ark - The Key to Marriage

Toward the end of the portion of Bireishit, the first portion of the Torah, we read about how the downfall of society began with immoral relationships between men and women:   

That the sons of the nobles saw the daughters of man when they were beautifying themselves, and they took for themselves wives from whomever they chose. (6:2)

Rashi explains that this verse represents the breakdown of morality: 

“from whomever they chose: even a married woman” 

Noah’s ark was more than a mere tool through which Noach, his family and future mankind were saved from the flood. The floating ark would rehabilitate humanity by embodying the key to a wholesome and holy relationships, which is the bedrock of a healthy, moral, and holy society. 

The Kli Yakar, The sixteenth century commentator and Kabbalist, points our attention to  the numbers, dimensions and dates mentioned in the story of the flood. Interestingly many of the figures are related to the number fifteen:  

Fifteen cubits above did the waters prevail, and the mountains were covered up. (7:20)

“And the water prevailed upon the earth a hundred and fifty days. (7:24)”. One hundred rand fifty is fifteen times ten. 

“And this [is the size] you shall make it: three hundred cubits the length of the ark, fifty cubits its breadth, and thirty cubits its height. (6:15)”. Each of the three flours of the ark were fifteen thousand square cubits. 

According to the Kabbalah the number fifteen is alluded to within the dimensions of the ark because the ark represents the ability to create a holy reality which would correct the spiritual corruption that led to the flood.The first two letters of the name of G-d are “Yud” and “Hey”. “Yud” has the numerical value of ten and “Hey” of five, the number fifteen represents the connection between  the “Yud” and the “Hey”. 

The Talmud (Sotah 17a) explains that the letters “Yud” and “Hey” are the way one can build a blessed relationship. The Hebrew word for man, “Ish”, and women, “Isha”, are both comprised of the letters “Alef” and “Shin” which create the word “Aish”, which  means fire. In addition to the letters of the word fire, the word “ish”, man, contains the letter “Yud”, and “Isha”, woman, contains the letter ”Hey”. “If a man [ish] and woman [isha] merit”, says the Talmud, when man and woman unite, the letters of G-d’s name, the Yud and Hey in their names, unite as well, and “ the Divine Presence rests between them”. If however the letters of G-d’s name are absent from the relationship, if all they have is the fire, then “fire consumes them.” 

Man and woman have within them passionate fire. This can be a tremendously powerful positive force. It can bring people together in love and create a deep bond between man and woman. Fire, however, also has destructive properties. If man and woman define their relationship on the basis of  passionate fire alone, it can become destructive. For the fire seeks to break all boundaries and shatter all discipline and its quest is to consume the fuel which sustains it. The people in the generation of the flood followed their inner fire, leading them to destroy respect for wholesome relationships. 

The key to creating harmony between man and woman is to introduce a higher dimension to the relationship. When man and woman introduce the letters of G-d's name into their relationship, when both the male and female fire are experienced in the context of a spiritual purpose, then, the positive fire in the relationship will last. The letters of G-d’s name, the “Yud” and the “Hey”merge as one, and the relationship becomes the protective ark of Noah. 


The Broken Vessels - בראשית

The Broken Vessels 

In describing the early stages of creation, we read what is perhaps one of the most cryptic verses in all of the Torah: 

Now the earth was astonishingly empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water. (Genesis 2:2)

The first half of the verse describes a scene of emptiness and chaos (The Hebrew word “Tohu”, means both emptiness and chaos ), while the second half of the verse describes a scene of tranquility and serenity. The Midrash explains that “the spirit of G-d hovering over the face of the water“ refers to the spirit of the Missianic era, a time when peace and serenity will reign throughout the world. The verse, then, is confusing. What was the state of creation in its earliest stages, was it darkness and chaos or peace and holiness? 

The Kabbalists explain that this verse alludes to the Kabbalsitic doctrine of the “breaking of the vessels”, which lies at the heart of the story of creation and its purpose. 

When we read a book or look at a completed puzzle we are looking at a “vessel”, a container, a physical phenomenon which contains a spiritual idea or concept. All of creation is a vessel, a tool which expresses the awesome power and unfathomable wisdom of its creator. Yet, in order for the purpose of creation to play out, the presence of G-d must be hidden. The vessels must break, the puzzle broken up into pieces, the words of the book  rearranged and scrambled. Once the vessels are shattered, the content and ideas of the book are gone, what is left is chaos and confusion. Not only do the letters cease to tell the story, they actually contribute to the confusion. 

The physical world could have been a vessel revealing its inner content, the Divine creative energy. But the vessels were shattered. It is a physical world that no longer directs our attention to its maker and  its purpose. Instead the myriad creations and experiences leave us in a perpetual state of confusion and aimlessness. The breaking of the vessels is alluded to in the first half of the verse. The earth is now filled with darkness and chaos.

The second half of the verse, however, clarifies the purpose of creation. True, the  scrambled letters and the pieces of the puzzle, no longer reveal their inner content, however, the meaning, the purpose, the story, hovers above, waiting for us to unscramble the letters and piece together the puzzle. The universe is waiting for us to discover that the “spirit of G-d”, the serenity and holiness, was hidden within creation all along.

The same is true in the microcosm, within every man and woman. Our life seems to be a collection of unrelated, or worse, conflicting, forces, urges, experiences, emotions and drives. We often don't see the  purpose and meaning of it all. We experience the tension between the physical and the spiritual, between the destructive and constructive parts of our personality. We are experiencing the shattered vessels, “chaos upon the face of the darkness”. However, the story of our life, like the story of creation, is inherently optimistic. It is our task to fix the shattered vessels. To rearrange the letters of our life. To understand which letter goes first and which follows second. We must rearrange our priorities, understanding that the physical aspects of life are here to serve the spiritual dimension of life. Like every story, our story too has a protagonist and a villain, experiences which must be cultivated and others which must be rejected.  

Life is the process of organizing all its various aspects into an organic whole. From a collection of random moments to a meaningful story. The purpose of life is to move from chaos and darkness to the serenity of the spirit of G-d upon the waters. 

(Adapted from Totah Or Parshas Vayeshev and Parshas Bireyshis 5712)

Business Can Make You Happy - וזאת הברכה

Business Can Make You Happy 

On the final day of his life, in the final portion of the Torah, Moses blesses each of the twelve tribes of Israel. After blessing the first three tribes with positions of leadership, he blesses the tribe of Joseph with a fertile portion in the land of Israel, which will produce sweet produce. 

Moses, then turns to the tribe of Zevulun, who were destined to be merchants, and blesses them, evoking the word joy: 

And to Zebulun he said: "Rejoice, Zebulun, in your departure, and Issachar, in your tents.

They will call peoples to the mountain; there, they will offer up righteous sacrifices. For they will be nourished by the abundance of the seas, and by the treasures hidden in the sand." Deuteronomy 33:18-19

Why is the blessing to the tribe of Zebulun the only one that mentions the word joy?

There is a Talmudic saying that states: a man would prefer one Kav (a measurement) of grain that he produces rather than nine Kav given to him by a friend. The Talmud teaches that deep within a person’s psyche lies the desire to create something on his own. No matter how much he has been given, that deep desire has not been met. Only when a person creates something by the fruit of his own labor, does he feel a deep sense of satisfaction and joy. 

All the tribes of Israel were blessed with gifts from above. Leadership was bestowed upon the tribes of Reuben, Levi, Judah. The other tribes were blessed with various portions of the land of Israel. Zebulun, alone, was blessed with the opportunity to sail forth from the land of Israel and engage in commerce, buying and selling and create wealth and prosperity by their own effort. Therefore it is Zebulun alone that experiences the truest sense of joy. 

Every phenomenon in the physical world is a mirror of the same phenomenon in the spiritual reality. The same is true about the joy of Zebulun’s commercial efforts. 

Rashi quotes the Midrash’s description of how Zebulun would use their business relationships to spread the light of Judaism: 

Through Zebulun’s commerce, merchants of the world’s nations will come to his land. Now Zebulun is located at the border, so these merchants will say, “Since we have taken so much trouble to reach here, let us go to Jerusalem and see what the God of this nation is like and what they do.” And they see all Israel worshipping one God and eating one kind of food [i.e., only what is permissible to them, and they will be astonished], because [among] the nations, the deity of one is not like the deity of another, and the food of one is not like the food of another. So they will say, “There is no nation as worthy as this one!” Consequently, they will convert to Judaism there, as our verse says,“there, they will offer up righteous sacrifices” [and all of this will be due to Zebulun’s commerce]. 

While all other tribes lived in the holy environment of the land of Israel, the tribe of Zebulun, alone amongst the tribes, spent their time, talent and creativity, outside the borders of the land of Israel. While all other tribes worked the sacred soil of the land of Israel, the tribe of Zebulun was engaged with mundane, physical objects. While all other tribes focused their attention on building their own society, Zebulun was tasked with interacting with and ultimately influencing the countries, people and lifestyles that were foreign to holiness. When Zebulun engaged in commerce, they also spread the light and values of Judaism. Zebulun, therefore, experienced the truest sense of joy for, by their effort, they were able to imbue the most unlikely of places with holiness.

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, second night of Sukkos 5742)


Conflict Between Material and Spiritual - האזינו

Conflict Between Material and Spiritual

The song of Haazinu, the song Moses sung to the Jewish People on the final day of his life, describes how the great blessings of the land of Israel, the involvement with material pursuits, would ultimately cause the Jewish people to abandon G-d, and ignore their spiritual calling. They would then experience the horrors of exile. Yet, as the song continues, ultimately the people would be healed, and G-d would bring them back to their land. 

At the precise point where the song transitions from describing the terrible calamity of the exile to the eventual reconciliation between G-d and the people, the song alludes to the spiritual insight that would correct the underlying problem that led to the spiritual downfall in the first place. The song states: 

See now that it is I! I am the One, and there is no G-d like Me! I cause death and grant life. I strike, but I heal, and no one can rescue from My Hand!

The words “I strike and I heal” capture the secret of the transformation. The Midrash points out that the Hebrew word “strike”, “Machatzti”, is the same root as the word “partition”, “Mechitzah”. Thus, the verse can be read, “I created a division and I will heal the division”. Chasidic philosophy explains that the source of all pain, darkness and frustration is the  partition between materialism and spirituality. Creation represents the separation of the material from its spiritual source. When we look at the physical reality we don’t sense its soul, its spiritual core. The material creation distracts us from the spiritual energy that continually brings it into existence. The created being is a partition, concealing the inner, mystical, reality. 

The purpose of creation, however, is to heal the divide, to heal the separation between creation and creator. The partition is necessary, without it there is no independent creation, only the infinite light of G-d. Yet the partition can be healed when the created being reveals that its purpose is to express the Divine truth. 

The Song of Haazinu, then, tracks the story of our interaction with the material world we live in. We are the products of the partition, we experience the divide, we sense the conflict. We interact with the physical reality and material pleasures and we sense that it has the potential to distract us from our higher selves. We then continue reading the song and our understanding deepens. The partition does not have to be a source of conflict. When we discover the soul and the purpose of the material, the partition will be healed. The purpose of the divide, like the purpose of creation, is to find the unity and harmony in the midst of conflict and tension; to heal the divide between the physical and spiritual.

While the entirety of Judaism is about bridging heaven and earth, no Mitzvah does so as powerfully as the Mitzvah of Sukkah. The Sukkah encompasses the entirety of our physical body as well as our physical possessions and experiences. The Sukkah represents the capacity of bringing every aspect of our life into the holy embrace of the Sukkah, imbuing our material life with holiness. 

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Simcha beis Hashoeva 5716)

Awesome Joy - וילך

Awesome Joy 

The Hebrew month of Tishrei, the month of the high holidays, is packed with a wide spectrum of intense emotions. It begins with the ten days of awe, beginning with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and then shifts to the holiday of Sukkot, which is called “the season of our rejoicing", culminating with the intense joy of Simchat Torah.  The transition between the two extreme emotions occurs in the final moments of Yom Kippur. The Neilah, the final prayer of Yom Kippur, is the climax of awe, and then, with the blast of the Shofar, the intense energy bursts into joy and excitement. 

Why are these holidays so close together?  How are we to move so quickly between these extreme emotions, awe and joy? 

The truth is that awe and  joy are two sides of the same coin, two expressions of the same reality. 

On Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, we focus on our core self, our soul, which is a spark of the Divine. When we focus on our own core, on the part of us which is connected to G-d unconditionally,  we elicit the revelation of G-d’s unconditional bond and love for us. G-d’s unconditional love brings about the atonement from sins and the cleansing of spiritually toxic experiences.

On Yom Kippur,  we experience our essential bond with G-d, and on Sukkot we celebrate that connection.

Which is why the theme of unity is essential to the holiday of Sukkot. The Sukkah is a place where many people can unite. On Sukkot we shake the Lulav, the four species of vegetation which represent the unity between all Jews. The celebration of the unconditional bond between G-d and the Jewish soul, will include all Souls, for all souls are united as one. 

On the final day of his life Moses relays the commandment that, once in seven years, all the Jewish People should assemble to hear the Torah read in unity. This event, referred to as Hakhel, assembly, occurs on the festival of Sukkot. In order for the people of Israel to truly feel united as one we must experience the part of us which is indeed integrated with all other Jews. We must experience our soul. The unity of Hakhel can occur only after the introspection of Yom Kippur is expressed in the joy of Sukkot.

(Adapted from Lekutei Sichos, Sukos vol 19, and Kli Yakar on Hakhel). 

Whose Birthday is it Anyway? - ראש השנה

Whose Birthday is it Anyway? 

Going as far back as preschool we were told that Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world. That sounded so beautiful, we loved celebrating our own birthday and it filled our little hearts with joy to know that the world has a birthday celebration as well. 

We got a bit older and we discovered that the birthday celebration theme of Rosh Hashanah is confirmed in the Machzor, the Rosh Hashanah prayer book. There we read: “this is the day of the (anniversary of the) beginning of your creation.” 

When you do the math, however, you discover that Rosh Hashanah does not occur on the “beginning of your creation” at all. In fact, Rosh Hashanah is celebrated on the sixth day of creation. By the time Rosh Hashanah came around the heavens and earth, the stars and planets, the oceans and dry land, the birds and the fish were already  created. Rosh Hashanah is actually the birthday of Adam and Eve, of humanity, not the birthday of the world. If that is the case why do we keep saying that it is the anniversary of the “beginning of your creations”, the birthday of the universe?  

The process of creation expresses the awesome power of G-d. As King David put it in the book of Psalms: “How manifold are Your works, O L-rd! You have made them all with wisdom”. An untold number of galaxies and stars, millions of forms of life, endless diversity of creations, yet until the creation of man, the creation of the universe is not complete. For while the first day of creation represents the multiplicity, diversity, and fragmentation of existence, the sixth day, the day of the creation of Adam and Eve, represents the ability of the human being to create unity and harmony amongst the diversity. The Zohar describes that when Adam was created he turned to the creations and said: “Come, let us prostrate ourselves and bow; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker.” For human beings alone possess the capacity to heal the fragmentation of existence by recognizing that all of creation is part of a greater whole, that all of existence is an expression of one infinite creator.  

The birthday of humanity is therefore also the birthday the entire world and its creations. For the creation of the world has not been completed until man reveals the unifying purpose in all the earth, stringing together the multiplicity of creation into a single unified organism. 

Judaism teaches that every individual person in a microcosm of the entire world. Initially, when we look inside ourselves, on the figurative “first day of creation”, we see chaos and conflict. We have multiple, often contradictory, desires, thoughts, and aspirations. We often lead a fragmented life, being pulled in different directions. Part of us seeks material well being and pleasure while part of us seeks transcendence. Part of us is concerned only with the self while part of us wants to connect to others. We have big dreams, goals, and aspirations but spend much of our day engaged in mundane tedious tasks that deflate our excitement, energy, and passion. 

Rosh Hashanah, the day when humanity discovers the purpose and meaning within all of creation, is the day we heal the division and create a unified holistic life. Rosh Hashanah is the day when we internalize the perception that the drive for materialism can be elevated to serve our spiritual soul. That every detail of our day is part of the greater purpose for which we were created. There is no such thing as a meaningless moment and mundane task. For every moment, every encounter can be a moment that expresses, and is critical to, our purpose on this earth.    

(Adapted from the Rebbe’s letter, 25 Elul 5747)

Ingredients of Joy - כי תבוא

Ingredients of Joy

The ceremony seems disproportionate to the actual gift. 

The Jewish farmer was commanded to give various forms of tithings and donations of produce that amounted to about twenty percent of his yearly yield of produce. The Bikurim, the commandment to bring a basket of the first fruit that grow in one’s orchard to Jerusalem, and donate them to the priest, is a very small gift in comparison. Yet the Torah devotes a great deal of attention to the ceremony accompanying the donation of the Bikurim. The Torah describes the specifics of the ceremony and the precise formula and wording the Jewish farmer uses to thank G-d. When presenting the Bikurim the Jew would thank G-d not only for that year’s crop but also for all of Jewish history going back to the days of Jacob our patriarch. Which leads the commentators to ask: why does the Torah make a “big deal” about the small gift of the first fruit?

The concluding verse of the portion of the Bikurim is: Then, you shall rejoice with all the good that the Lord, your God, has granted you and your household. (Deuteronomy 26:11). The Torah is telling us that the two most important ingredients of joy are right here in this commandment. Bring the first fruit announce the declaration and you will experience happiness.    

The first ingredient is gratitude. Despite popular belief, the amount of blessing we receive has no impact on our state of joy. The chief ingredient of joy is gratitude. If we take time to be mindful of the blessings we have in our life, we will be joyful. Thus, Moses tells us that in order to achieve joy we need to experience and express our gratitude. The Torah therefore attributes great significance to the gift of the first fruit, not because the fruit themselves are so valuable but because the fruit represent the gratitude which is the basis  of joy. The Torah composes the declaration recited by the Jew offering the Bikurim. The declaration of thanksgiving allowing us to focus on the blessings that we, as a people and as individuals, are blessed with. 

The second ingredient to happiness is meaning. When the Jew offers the first fruit in the temple he declares that he is part of a broader story which begins with our patriarchs, through the slavery and exodus from Egypt. He too, living in Israel and enjoying its produce continues to contribute his own page to the story. While bringing the fruit the Jew cultivates the art of storytelling, the art of finding meaning in what initially seems to be unrelated, random events. A Jew who sees his life not as a collection of meaningless random moments but instead realizes that there is an overarching purpose to his existence will experience joy in good times and in challenging times. For he senses that the challenging times too add meaning and significance to his life. 

In our times, when there is no Holy temple in Jerusalem, we do not fulfill the commandment of Bikurim in the literal sense, however, we do have an opportunity to experience the Mitzvah of Bikurim in the figurative sense. Every morning we donate our “first fruits” to G-d. We dedicate the first few moments of the day, to thank G-d, be mindful of his blessings and focus on our purpose. When we say  Modeh Ani, recite the Shema, pray and study a portion of the Torah, we are acknowledging the gift of life and its blessings. We realize that G-d gifted us with life and blessing in order for us to fulfill our purpose and mission on earth. Being grateful and mindful of our purpose will inevitably lead to experiencing deep joy. As the Toarh concludes: 

Then, you shall rejoice with all the good that the Lord, your God, has granted you and your household you, the Levite, and the stranger who is among you. (Deuteronomy 26:11)    

Betrothal - כי תצא


The Biblical source for the laws of marriage are derived from this week’s Torah portion. The Talmud explains that there are three ways to betroth a woman: 

A woman is acquired by, i.e., becomes betrothed to, a man to be his wife in three ways, and she acquires herself, i.e., she terminates her marriage, in two ways. She is acquired through money, through a document, and through marital relations.

Jewish law may appear to be technical and legalistic, yet,  upon deeper reflection we discover that the nuances of the law express Judaism’s philosophical and spiritual perspective on a given subject. Judaism’s perspective and insight into the profound meaning, beauty, romance and mystery of marriage can be discovered by exploring the meaning behind the seemingly technical details of the law. 

There are three ways to betroth a woman, not merely because the Torah would like to give us more options on how to create the legal state of marriage, but rather because marriage has three dimensions or layers. Each of the three methods of betrothal express one of the three dimensions of the relationship.  

[To be sure, one of the methods of betrothal suffice to usher in all three dimensions of the marriage. In fact, the rabbis prohibited betrothal through intimacy, and it has become the universal custom  to betroth through a form of money. Yet, the law offers three forms of betrothal to teach us to be aware of all three dimensions that can be initiated by any one of these three forms of betrothal.]

The first form of betrothal is betrothal through money, where the groom gives the bride something of monetary value. Money is tangible and physical. Money represents the physical aspects of the relationship. The couple will live under the same roof, eat dinner together, have a joint bank account and file a joint tax return. They will spend time together and enjoy each other's company. Yet, whilst it is important, the physical aspect of the relationship is not all there is to marriage.  

The second form of betrothal is through writing a legal document. The document itself does not have to have any monetary value. The document’s value is abstract and intangible. The document represents the spiritual aspect of the marriage. The relationship is not merely an arrangement encompassing the physical aspects of life, but rather the relationship includes the spiritual dimension as well. They will share ideas with each other, enjoy each others wit, wisdom and point of view. 

Betrothal by document reminds us that marriage is more than just sharing together, marriage is about creating a bond between two souls (or, as the mystics say: reuniting two halves of the same soul).The document represents the soul connection that is established (or reestablished) through marriage.  

The third form of betrothal, marital intimacy, represents the ultimate goal of marriage. In Judaism, intimacy in the context of a sacred marriage is considered a holy experience for it is a fusion of both body and soul. It is when the first two dimensions of marriage, the physical unity and the spiritual unity merge. The physical union expresses the deepest spiritual bond. 


The marriage of man and woman is a reflection and mirror image of the spiritual marriage between G-d, the groom, and the Jewish people, the bride. Perhaps we can add that our relationship with G-d is also expressed in these three forms of betrothal: 1) betrothal by money: G-d blesses us with our physical life, health, and necessities, allowing us to enjoy our physical life on earth 2) betrothal by document: we enjoy a spiritual connection with G-d, by studying his document, his Torah, which contains the mysteries of his deepest thoughts 3) betrothal by intimacy: the ultimate expression of our connection with G-d is through performing a Mitzvah. For the physical act of the commandment is an act of intimacy with G-d, whereby our body and soul become one with his infinity.  

(Adapted from Binyan Adei Ad, by Rabbi Yosef Karasik)


Holy Witnesses - שופטים

Holy Witnesses 

Witnesses are an important part of every Judicial system. Yet, as is often the case, Judaism presents a deeper dimension and perspective of the function and purpose of witnesses. 

The conventional definition of witnesses is "clarifying witnesses”. Witnesses observe an event and later testify to confirm that the event indeed occurred; for example, witnesses can testify that a man borrowed one hundred dollars from his friend. The witnesses, however, are not part of the transaction and have no part in the  obligation to repay. The borrower is morally obligated to repay the loan whether or not the witness testifies. The witnesses are necessary in order to prevent the borrower from avoiding his moral obligation to repay by denying that he borrowed the money. The witnesses themselves, however, are merely observers, the moral obligation to pay is created by the act of the loan not by the witnesses.   

Jewish law introduces a second category of witnesses: “witnesses who establish”. According to Jewish law there are events that have no legal significance unless there are witnesses present. For example, the witnesses at a wedding ceremony are a critical part of the onset of the marriage. Marriage witnesses serve not only to clarify in the case where there is a question as to whether a wedding took place, but rather they serve as the ones who actually establish the marriage (in Jewish law, a marriage without proper witnesses has no legal significance). 

Torah is comprised of body and soul. These two categories of witnesses are relevant to the inner, spiritual dimension of the Torah. 

The prophet Isaiah tells us: “‘You are My witnesses,’ says the Lord (Isaiah 43:10)”. We are the witnesses charged with the responsibility to “testify” and reveal the truth of G-d  throughout the earth. Our spiritual task as witnesses contains both dimensions of witnesses, the “clarifying witnesses” who do not create but only reveal, the legal reality, and the “witnesses who establish” who actively participate in creating a legal reality.    

We serve as “clarifying witnesses” when we recognize the presence of G-d in the magnificent universe he created. We serve as “clarifying witnesses” when we remind ourselves and others of the good inherent in the world and within people. 

Yet merely observing, appreciating, and sharing does not capture the full potential and greatness of the Jew, for the Jew is a witness to a marriage, the marriage between creator and creation, between the groom, G-d, and the bride, the Jewish people, between heaven and earth. As previously explained, the witnesses of a marriage are “witnesses who establish”, part of the creation and establishment of the marriage. 

To be a witness to the marriage of heaven and earth the Jew must do more than appreciate and focus on the inherent G-dliness found on earth. The Jew must partner with G-d in creation. The Jew actively improves and elevates the world around him. He transforms the mundane by imbuing it with meaning and holiness. The Jew doesn't just tell a story, the Jew seeks to actively create it.

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Reshimos booklet 160). 



Multi Layered Festivals - ראה

Multi Layered Festivals

Virtually all ancient cultures had festivals celebrating the agricultural harvest, paying tribute to the bounty of mother nature. Judaism’s ’s three pilgrimage festivals, discussed in this week's Torah portion, capture a far deeper perspective. On the one hand the festivals coincide with the natural agricultural cycle: Passover is a celebration of the spring, Shavuot of the harvest, and Sukkot the completion of the ingathering of the produce. Yet these same agricultural festivals also celebrate historic events that celebrate not nature but rather the  miraculous relationship between the Jewish people and G-d. Passover is the commemoration of the miraculous exodus, Shavuot is a commemoration of the Divine revelation at Sinai, and Sukkot is a celebration that follows the Divine atonement of Yom Kippur. 

To Judaism the natural and the miraculous are not a dichotomy. For nature is not an independent force, but rather it is an expression of the Divine creative power.

The Chassidic teachings further elaborate on this idea. The Kabbalah teaches that the physical reality is a mirror of the spiritual reality. Earthly  reality is a reflection of heavenly energy. Thus the Jewish agricultural festivals are a multi layered commemoration. They come to celebrate the material bounty of the harvest, but they also celebrate a spiritual harvest, the reaping of the spiritual produce. 

Passover, celebration of the Exodus, is in  the spring. The spring is the time when the wheat begins to ripen, yet it has not matured to the point that it can be harvested and taken home. This holiday is a celebration of  potentiality. It is a celebration in anticipation of the ripening produce. The same is true regarding the spiritual growth process. The ten plagues, the exodus, the splitting of the sea, occurred not because the Jewish people were deserving of these incredible miracles; but rather it was in anticipation of the spiritual heights they would achieve in the future, by receiving the Torah and implementing its teachings in their life. The Shavuot holiday, is the celebration of the harvest. Although the wheat is not yet in our home, we nevertheless  celebrate the tangible gift of the produce we have been blessed with, which we can now hold in our hands. Likewise, Shavuot is the time when we receive the Torah. While we did not “bring the Torah home” by internalizing its teachings, we have the gift in our hands. We can begin the process of internalizing its teachings and inspiration. 

And finally, on the holiday of Sukkot, our joy is complete, because the produce has been gathered into  our home. It is now ours to enjoy. Just as it is with the produce of the field so too it is with the produce of our spiritual toil and effort. Sukkot is the celebration of the internalization of the Torah. During the months between the giving of the Torah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish people betrayed the Torah by creating the golden calf. Then, on Yom Kippur, G-d forgave them and gave them the second tablets. We realize that our relationship with G-d is unconditional.  Even if we stumble we are able to reconnect to the Torah; for at our core, the Torah, our soul and G-d are all one. We realize that the “produce”, the relationship we are creating with G-d, is “in our home”. It has been internalized to the point that it can survive any challenge and overcome any distraction. The produce has been “gathered in”.

(Adapted from Lekutei Sichos. Beracha vol. 29)

Meaning of a Meal - עקב

Meaning of a Meal 

“And you will eat and be sated, and you shall bless the Lord, your God, for the good land He has given you”. (Deuteronomy 7:11). Based on the biblical commandment to thank G-d for the food we eat, the sages instituted that we recite four blessings after every meal (at which we eat bread). In these four blessings we cover several themes: in the first blessing we thank G-d for the food. In the second, we give thanks for the land of Israel, the Torah and the covenant of circumcision. In the third blessing we mention Jerusalem, the kings of the house of David and the holy temple, and in the fourth blessing  we thank G-d for the kindness he showed us during one of the darkest periods of our history, under Roman rule. As explained in the Talmud:

Rav Naḥman said: 

Moses instituted for Israel the first blessing of: Who feeds all, when the manna descended for them and they needed to thank God.

Joshua instituted the blessing of the land when they entered Eretz Yisrael.

David and Solomon instituted the third blessing: Who builds Jerusalem, in the following manner: David instituted “…on Israel Your people and on Jerusalem Your city…” as he conquered the city, and Solomon instituted “…on the great and Holy Temple…” as he was the one who built the Temple. 

They instituted the blessing: Who is good and does good, at Yavne in reference to the slain Jews of the city of Beitar at the culmination of the Bar Kochva  rebellion. They were ultimately brought to burial after a period during which Hadrian refused to permit their burial. (Brachot, 48b)

Why do we need to mention all this every time we simply want to eat a piece of bread?  Why the need to mention so many events in Jewish history, and cover so many themes? Why is it not enough to simply say “”thank you for the piece of bread”?

When we eat we are focused on our own needs, on our biological and physical needs. When we eat we are feeding the material, zeroing in on the self-oriented side of self. Therefore, as we conclude the meal we seek to elevate the activity of eating by expanding our perspective. We remind ourselves that we eat not just because we need to survive, not merely because it provides us pleasure and comfort,but rather because the energy and vitality we receive from eating becomes fuel to elevate us to greater spiritual heights. We eat not only for biological survival. Yes, we eat in order to live, but the life we live is part of a greater spiritual calling. We are part of a people who are charged with a mission and purpose, symbolized by Israel and Jerusalem. We are part of a people who have learned to seek out and find the hand of G-d even in the midst of terrible darkness. 

Specifically when we are focused on the physical aspect of life, when we are engaged in eating our meal, we remind ourselves that we feed our body for the sake of our soul. We remind ourselves that the bread we eat is  part of the story of Israel and Jerusalem; part of the mission to transform the earth into a dwelling place for the creator.

(Adapted from Olas R’iyah). 


When You Go on the Road - ואתחנן

When You Go on the Road

The Shema, the prayer that captures the essence of Judaism, is said by Moses in this week’s Torah portion. Moses commanded the Jewish people to recite the Shema twice every day, “when you lie down'' which is interpreted by the sages to mean in the evening, “and when you get up” which is interpreted to mean in the morning. 

The words “and when you lie down and when you get up” are subject to a debate in the Mishnah. The sages of the House of Shammai believed that the verse addresses the position of one’s body when one recites the Shema. They explain that one is required to lay down during the recitation of the evening Shema, and stand up during the recitation of the morning Shema. While the sages of the House of Hillel believe that the Shema should be read in any position. As the Mishna explains: 

Bet Shammai say: in the evening every man should recline and recite the Shema, and in the morning he should stand, as it says, “And when you lie down and when you get up”. Bet Hillel say that every man should recite in his own way, as it says, “And when you walk on the way”. Why then is it said, “And when you lie down and when you get up?” At the time when people lie down and at the time when people rise up. Rabbi Tarfon said: I was once walking by the way and I reclined to recite the Shema according to the words of Bet Shammai, and I incurred danger from robbers. They said to him: you deserved to come to harm, because you acted against the words of Bet Hillel. (Brachot 1:3)

This dispute is more than a specific debate about the meaning of the words “when you lie down and when you wake up”. The schools of Shammai and Hillel are debating a fundamental point about the nature and meaning of our relationship with G-d. 

When reciting the words of the Shema, “Hear O Israel, the L-rd is our G-d the L-ord is one”, we focus on the existence of G-d and our relationship to Him. The House of Shammai believe that in order to experience a connection with G-d we have to cease “walking on our way”, and we have to align our bodies in the position spelled out in the Torah. The Shema, argue the House of Shammai is a time to cease our mundane activities and focus on G-d.   

The House of Hillel disagree. The House of Hillel believe that the essence of our relationship with G-d is for our connection to permeate all areas of life. If the recitation of the Shema requires aligning the body in a specific way, that would mean that our connection to G-d is reserved for the specific times when we cease from our activities and focus exclusively on G-d. The House of Hillel teach that the Shema should be read “when you walk on the way”, in any position you may be in, without disengaging completely from natural life, while you are engaged in your activities. For the purpose of Judaism, and the calling of the Shema, is to allow the oneness of G-d to affect, inform and sanctify every aspect of our life.   

(Nishmas Hamishnah)



Transformative Words - דברים

Transformative Words 

The fifth book of the Torah opens with no less than nine descriptions of the precise location from where Moses began to speak to the people thirty six days before his passing. As the opening verse of the book tells us:   

These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on that side of the Jordan in the desert, in the plain opposite the Red Sea, between Paran and Tofel and Lavan and Hazeroth and Di Zahav. 

The problem with the verse however, is that some of these locations do not exist and some of them that do exist were nowhere near where the Jews were at that time! Rashi addresses this problem and explains that this verse is an example of Moses’s sensitivity and love for the people. Moses intended to rebuke the people for their sins over the previous forty years, yet he did not want to embarrass them, so he concealed the sin and alluded to it by evoking the name of the place which referenced the specific sin. 

Since these are words of rebuke and he [Moses] enumerates here all the places where they angered the Omnipresent, therefore it makes no explicit mention of the incidents [in which they transgressed], but rather merely alludes to them, [by mentioning the names of the places] out of respect for Israel.

But if Moses was concerned about respecting the people of Israel, why then does he, later in the portion, describe some of their sins explicitly and with great detail? If Moses began with a veiled rebuke to protect the dignity of the people, why does he then proceed to speak about the sins directly? 

One interpretation is straightforward: Moses feared that if he began with an explicit rebuke the people would refuse to continue listening, he therefore began with a veiled rebuke. When he saw that the Jewish people were accepting his words, he realized that he could speak directly and the people would still listen, he therefore continued the speech discussing the sins directly. 

The Chassidic commentary offers deeper insight. 

Sin and betrayal is cause for pain and negativity. Yet when a person corrects the sin and heals the betrayal, the experience is transformed. The pain caused by the sin can become a powerful motivator to correct the mistake and strengthen the relationship, fueling a greater bond and passion. Once corrected, the sin is no longer negative and shameful, for it has been transformed into fuel for positivity and growth.   

Moses began speaking to the Jewish people with veiled rebuke. Those words penetrated their hearts and caused them to return to G-d. At that point there was no need to hide the negative experiences because they had become engines of growth, and a source of tremendous passion and enthusiasm in their relationship with G-d. 

The first portion of the fifth book is always read just before the ninth of Av, the day of mourning for the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. We can either experience the sadness and pain of the day, or we can transform the pain into motivation and fuel to bring us closer to G-d and to each other. The choice is ours. 


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