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Blog - Torah Insights

Fire From Flintstone - כי תשא

Fire From Flintstone 


It seems that all hope is lost; the fire has been extinguished. 


Fire needs suitable conditions to survive, it needs fuel to burn, and water can wash it away. But what if the fuel was spent, and the diminishing coal is thrown into the water? 


In that case, you can create a new fire from a flintstone. The beauty of the flintstone is that its fire yielding potential can lie dormant for many years, the stone can be immersed at the bottom of the sea for decades, yet, when steel hits the rock with force, it can produce a spark that will once again ignite a fire.  


The verse says: "the L-rd your G-d is a consuming fire." The Divine energy, like fire, surges upward, seeking to escape the confines of this world and return to its source. In order for the Divine holiness to be present in our life, we must produce the fuel that keeps the fire grounded. The fuel is thought, speech, and action of Torah and Mitzvot. Every time we engage in a holy thought, speech or action, we produce the fuel that keeps the Divine fire alive in our world and in our life. 


In this week's portion, we read about how the people betrayed G-d and created the golden calf. Like the tablets Moses shattered, the fire of love and passion to G-d was destroyed. Lacking fuel, the flame of romance escaped and ascended into thin air.  


As the story unfolds, we realize that it is, in fact, a story of healing and reconnection. G-d forgives the people and gives them the second set of tablets. And Moses, amazed, asked to see G-d's glory, to understand the essence of G-d, the source of forgiveness.


In what are perhaps the most cryptic mystical verses in all of the Torah we read: 


And the L-rd said: "Behold, there is a place with Me, and you shall stand on the rock.

And it shall be that when My glory passes, I will place you into the cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with My hand until I have passed by. (Exodus 33:21-22)


What is the meaning of these words and images? G-d's glory? The rock? The cleft of the rock? 


While there are multiple interpretations, one Kabbalistic interpretation is that the rock alludes to the imagery of the fire-producing flintstone. For indeed, the passionate fire of the relationship between G-d and His people is no longer seen or felt. "My glory has passed", the light and the warmth are gone. Yet G-d tells Moses that the core of the Jew, the cleft of the rock, can still produce fire. Even when the stone, the core of the Jew, is immersed in water, nothing can rob it of its ability to once again produce a spark. The forceful pull to return to G-d, motivated by the pain of distance from G-d, creates the spark that will ignite into a fire, healing the pain, and recreating the love. 


In our own lives, we sometimes feel that hope is lost; the fire has been extinguished. Like Moses, we must remember the image of the flintstone lying in the water. And remember that our soul, like the flintstone, always retains the ability to create warmth, holiness, and fiery passion. 


Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Ki Tisa 5722

Hadassah or Esther? - פורים

 

Hadassah or Esther? 


Esther, the hero of the Purim story, had two different names. The verse (Esther 2:7) states: "And he {Mordechai} raised Hadassah, that is Esther, his uncle's daughter." She had two names because she had a double identity. She was called Hadassah, which means myrtle because she was righteous (and the myrtle is a metaphor for righteousness). Her Hebrew name was Esther, which means concealment because she concealed her Jewish identity while in the palace of Achashverush. Others say that Esther is a Persian name Istahar, which means (Venus). The name Esther represents the ability to blend into Persian society and live the life of a Persian queen, yet simultaneously live a secret life as a Jewess loyal to her people.


A fundamental Kabalsitic principle is that every phenomenon on this earth reflects the spiritual reality on high. The Kabbalists explain that Esther represents the attribute of Malchut, kingship, of the Divine world of Atzilut (the world of Emanation), which is the energy that descends to give life to the three lower worlds (creation, formation, and action). Like Esther, Malchut, the final attribute of Atzilut lives a double life. While in Atzilut it is in an environment of absolute Divine reality, where it senses that G-dliness is the only existence, and there is no other independent reality. However, Malchut, while in Atzilut, is the source of all miracles. Yet, like Esther, Malchut conceals its identity, hides its awareness, and descends to create the lower worlds, where the truth of Atzilut is disguised. The three lower worlds, while receiving their energy and life flow from Malchut of Atzilut, are oblivious to the reality of Atzilut, because Malchut conceals the Hadassah, and expresses the Esther. 


The same is true about the Jewish soul (rooted in Malchut of Atzilut). When the soul descends to this world, its true identity, its passion for G-d and perspective on reality is concealed. Like Esther in the Persian palace, like Malchus of Atzilut in the three lower worlds, the soul hides the Hadasah, her core, and expresses only the Esther. 


Purim is the time when we learn to see beneath the mask and beyond the concealment. The story of Purim demonstrates that the person we thought was Esther was Hadassh all along. While it seemed that G-d's presence was gone, in reality, G-d was present all along, orchestrating the events leading to salvation. The Divine energy of Atzilut descended into the lower worlds, yet retained its connection to Atzilut. Thus, the Purim miracle was a miracle clothed within nature.


Similarly, Purim, is the time when we unmask our own personal inner Esther. On Purim we realize the double reality of our soul, not only the Esther part which we feel in our conscious mind, which comes through the mask's concealment, but Hadassah, the essence of our soul, whose love to G-d is boundless. On Purim we experience the core of our soul, which leads to unlimited joy.


(Adapted from Lekutei Sichos 16 Purim sicha 1)



The Traveling Ark - תרומה

The Traveling Ark 

The first item which G-d commanded Moses to create for the sanctuary was the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the ten commandments engraved on the two tablets. The Torah provides detailed instructions on constructing the Ark, its material, dimensions, rings, and poles. As the Torah describes: 

And you shall make poles of acacia wood and you shall overlay them with gold.

And you shall bring the poles into the rings on the sides of the Ark, to carry the Ark with them.

The Torah then commands that the poles should never be removed from the Ark: 

The poles of the Ark shall be in the rings; they shall not be removed from it. (Exodus 25:13-25)

Sefer Hachinuch, which suggests explanations for each of the Torah's commandments, explains why the prohibition of removing the poles from the Ark: 

We were instructed not to remove the Ark's poles from the Ark in case the need arose to travel somewhere with the Ark quickly. Perhaps due to the travail and haste we would neglect to ensure that the poles were tightly inserted.… But if the poles remained ready at all times and were never removed from the Ark, they would remain firm. (Chinuch, Mitzvah 96).

The explanation describes why the poles had to remain tightly inserted in the Ark during the forty-year journey in the desert. However, what about the centuries when the Ark remained in one place, as was the case in Shiloh and then in the Temple in Jerusalem? Why was it so important that the poles never be removed from the Ark?  

When one engages in the study of Torah, delighting in its sweetness, there is a danger that a person might be tempted to remain in the ivory tower of the study hall, separate and removed from the rest of society. The Torah, therefore, commands that even while the Ark is in its natural place, in the holy of holies, the poles must always be inserted within the Ark, symbolizing that poles, mobility, is critical for the Torah. The poles on the Ark remind us that while solitude may be beneficial for study and contemplation, we are charged with the responsibility of carrying the Torah, its lessons and its wisdom, to every corner of this earth. Doing so will usher in the era of world peace and prosperity when, as the prophet Isaiah declared, "the earth will be filled with the knowledge of G-d as the water covers the sea".   

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos vol. 16 Sicha 2)

The Party at Sinai - משפטים

The Party at Sinai 

When we think about spiritual experiences, we picture prayer, meditation, or perhaps a solitary walk in nature. Yet that is not how the Torah describes the Jewish people’s experience at the greatest Divine revelation in history, the giving of the Torah at Sinai. 


… and they perceived the G-d of Israel, and beneath His feet was like the forming of a sapphire brick and like the appearance of the heavens for clarity.


And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He did not lay His hand, and they perceived G-d, and they ate and drank. (Exodus 24:10-11)


It seems almost inconceivable. “They perceived the G-d of Israel,” and how did they respond? They ate and drank!


In explaining this incident, Biblical commentators are divided. Some maintain that eating and drinking was indeed a sin, evidenced by the words, “And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He did not lay His hand.” i.e., the nobles should have been punished for eating, but G-d refrained. Others, however, explain that it was not only permitted, but the right thing to do, since the food and drink were not a distraction from the Divine revelation, rather a celebration of it.


Judaism teaches that our task is to heal the rift between physical and spiritual, to the point where the physical is sanctified by enhancing the spiritual experience.  

Chassidic philosophy explains that before the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the divide between physical and spiritual was unbridgeable. At Sinai the separation was broken; G-d descended upon Mount Sinai, enabling us, for the first time in the history of the cosmos, to elevate the physical world and connect it to holiness.


There is, however, another point that requires exploration. 


What is the meaning of the verse, “And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He did not lay His hand”? To those who maintain that the Jews sinned by eating and drinking at the Revelation, the meaning is clear: although they were deserving of punishment, G-d refrained. But what is the meaning to those who believe that eating and drinking at Sinai (elevating the physical world we live in) was, in fact, the purpose of the entire spiritual experience?


The Hebrew word for “nobles”, atzilei, shares the same root as the word etzel, which means “near”. The Alter Rebbe, the founder of Chabad, explains: “He did not lay His hand” means that G-d did not place paralyzing fear within their hearts. Many of the Jewish people at Sinai were overwhelmed by the intensity of the experience and were unable to eat. It was specifically the nobles, those close to G-d, who were not awe-stricken, and were able to engage in elevating the food and drink. The lesson, says the Alter Rebbe, is that the more we connect to the sacred, the more we are able to fulfill the task of elevating the physical world. 


This explains a Talmudic debate regarding the purpose of Shabbat. Some argue that Shabbat was given so that the Jewish people would have time to study Torah (since labor is prohibited), while others say that Shabbat was given for the Jewish people to enjoy food and drink (as there is an obligation to honor the Shabbat with delicacies). These two opinions do not contradict one another; they address two distinct situations: if we spend the six days of the week completely engaged in material business and we do not dedicate time to holiness, then Shabbat is the time to dedicate to spirituality. 


If, however, we create moments of closeness to G-d during the week, then on Shabbat we enjoy the pleasures of food and drink, because the spiritual experiences empower us to be able to sanctify the food and drink.


The more we connect to spirituality and holiness, the more we can elevate the material world. 


(Adapted from Mamorei Admu”r Hazaken Haktzarim, p. 378)


The Wedding Day - יתרו

The Wedding Day

As we prepare to read the story of the great revelation at Sinai, where the Jewish people received the ten commandments, the Torah inserts a story that does not fit the chronological order. 


The Torah tells us that "on the next morning" Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, saw how Moses was judging the people alone. Jethro said: "The thing you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out both you and these people who are with you for the matter is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone (18:17-18)". Instead, Jethro suggested: "You shall choose out of the entire nation men of substance, G-d-fearers, men of truth, who hate monetary gain, and you shall appoint over them [Israel] leaders over thousands, leaders over hundreds, leaders over fifties, and leaders over tens. (18:21)". Moses indeed implemented Jethro's suggestion. 


When did this story occur? The verse says: "it came about the next day". Which day is this referring to? Rashi explains that "the next day" does not refer to the previous story, the day after Jethro came to the Jewish camp, but rather it refers to the day after Yom Kippur (Yom Kippur is the day the Jewish people received the second tablets), which occurred over four months later. 


Why is the story that occurred many months later inserted at this point before the giving of the Torah?      


The giving of the Torah at Sinai was not only a time when the Jewish people accepted G-d's commandments and agreed to submit His word. The Mishnah teaches that the day the Torah was given was the wedding day of G-d, the groom, and the Jewish people, the bride. The Torah therefore represents not the submission to G-d, but rather it represents the marriage and union between the Jewish people and G-d. 


This explains the uniqueness of the Torah. The Torah is not only the word of G-d, but rather it is a partnership between the word of G-d, conveyed in the written Torah, and the understanding of the people, the application of the Torah which is found in the Oral Torah (the Mishnah, the Talmud, and its commentaries). In Judaism, the question "what is the will of G-d?" is addressed not only by G-d in the written Torah, but also in the Talmud, which is the human application and understanding of the Divine word. 


Moses represents the written Torah, as he was the conduit to deliver the word of G-d to the Jewish people. Jethro, on the other hand, represents the contribution of the oral Torah, the human input. Therefore, Jethro insisted that the people had to be involved in the judicial system, applying the word of G-d to their lives. 


By placing the details of Jethro's advice before the revelation at Sinai, the Torah implies that the day we stood at Sinai was not the day we became subjects of G-d. It was our wedding day. 


Adapted from the Pri Tzadik

You Are Not Free Until You Can Sing - בשלח

You Are Not Free Until You Can Sing

Egypt is more than a geographical location where our ancestors were once enslaved. Egypt represents the boundaries that confine and limit each one of us. We are commanded to "remember the day you left Egypt every day of your life", because, each day, we are empowered to escape our own personal Egypt, to escape the stagnation and confinement of our habits, nature, and circumstances. 


But even after we escaped Egypt, we are not yet entirely free. Just as the Jewish people were frightened of the Egyptians until the Red Sea was split, we too are under threat from our confining limitations until we cross the metaphorical sea within ourselves. Only then are we fully liberated, capable of singing, as our ancestors sang, the "Song of the Sea". 


The sea, explains the Kabbalah, represents the barrier between the conscious mind and the soul's hidden deeper recesses. When our experience is limited to our conscious self,  then, even if we are free, we are susceptible to sadness, melancholy, and boredom, which drains us of passion and excitement. 


To experience the joy of life, we have to split the sea. We must tear the barrier between the conscious mind and the core of our soul. For our soul never gets bored of life, it is never drained of excitement. Like a torch continuously surging upward, our soul is in constant motion, continually yearning to transcend and reunite with its source. The soul's yearning is what fills it with joy every time it can act on its desire to transcend. Every connection with another person, every Mitzvah it performs, is as exhilarating to the soul as cold water is to the person in an arid desert. 


Since the conscious mind is oblivious to the thirst and yearning of the soul, it is therefore indifferent to the passion of the soul's never-ending dance between longing and joy. 


Just as we are commanded to remember the exodus of Egypt every day, the Midrash explains, so are we commanded to mention the splitting of the sea each day, which is why we include the "Song of the Sea" in our morning prayers.


The key to connecting to the passion of our soul is music. For unlike almost any other pleasure, we don't get bored of music. When learning, inquiring, or reading, enjoyment is associated with novelty. We enjoy the new idea the moment we hear about it, and from then on, the "return", the pleasure, diminishes. The same is true about eating delicious food or any other pleasure. The second piece of chocolate cake is never as enjoyable as the first. Music is an exception. Generally speaking, the music we love most is the music we heard many times over. In fact, the more we listen to a piece of music, the more we enjoy it. That is because music touches the core of our soul, which feels the intensity of the continuous dance of life, the yearning, and the joy. 


Each morning, as we sing the Song of the Sea, we participate in the dance. We sing together with our soul, feel its yearning, and rejoice in its pleasure of connecting to G-d. 


Ohr Hatorah Shmos, vol. 2 page 397.

Freedom Through Speech - בא

Freedom Through Speech

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

― Benjamin Franklin


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


How Many Plagues Were There? - וארא

How Many Plagues Were There? 

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


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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



The Kabbalah of Shoes - שמות

The Kabbalah of Shoes 

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Adapted from Lekutei Torah Shir Hashirim 43:4 




Devouring Wolf - ויחי

Devouring Wolf

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

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

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

Zebulun will dwell on the coast of the seas.

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

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

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

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

Why is Benjamin likened to a devouring wolf?

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

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

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

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

The first interpretation, however, is baffling. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Judah the Guarantor - ויגש

 Judah the Guarantor

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

 

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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Finding the "Opening of the House" - מקץ

Finding the "Opening of the House"


The brothers were frightened. 


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


They were afraid to enter Joseph's house. 


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

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

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

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

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


The Torah describes how they were reassured: 

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

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

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

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

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

Based on the Degel Machane Ephrayim.


The Wedding Ring - וישב

The Wedding Ring 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Value Thy Possessions - וישלח

Value Thy Possessions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Why Did Jacob Pour Oil on a Stone? - ויצא

Why Did Jacob Pour Oil on a Stone?

It is a strange name to name a child.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adapted from Vishavti Bishalom, Torah Or, Parshas Vayetze. 

 

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