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Blog - Torah Insights

In the Midst of the Sea - בשלח

Sea.jpgIn the Midst of the Sea

The splitting of the sea is one of the great miracles in the Bible. When the Talmud describes something that is unnatural, and “difficult” for G-d to achieve, the Talmud uses the phrase “it is as difficult as the splitting of the sea”.

If we want to understand the concept of a miracle, what it is, how and why it happens, we must first think about nature.

As human beings began contemplating the incredible universe they began to seek explanations and look for patterns to explain the natural phenomenon they observed. Collectively we label the explanations as “nature”. Why does light travel at the speed of 186,282 miles per second? Well, that's because that is its nature. Why do cells in the human body act the way they do? Why does the human DNA replicate the way it does? Well, that is its nature. Why does gravity operate in the precise way that it does? Again, that’s nature.

If we think about it, we will notice that much of what we call nature is a description not an explanation. We have made incredible strides in understanding the way the universe operates, in observing, and predicting some of its amazing patterns. Yet, understanding how the natural forces operate is not necessarily the same as understanding why it works precisely this way and not slightly, or vastly, differently.   

This idea is alluded to in the Hebrew word for nature, which is “Teva”. The etymology of “Teva” is the word “Tuvuh” which means “drowned”. Nature is just as mysterious as a miracle, but because nature is constant, its mystery is “drowned” and concealed. And it appears to be unremarkable. The truth, however, is that the rising sun is as miraculous as the splitting of the sea. The only difference is that the rising sun is a continuous miracle while the splitting of the sea was a one time event.

When a miracle occurs we are reminded that there is a creator who is involved in creation and who has the power to change the usual patterns of the universe, and to give room for the unexpected. But the purpose of the miracle is to help us discover the miracle of nature. When we witness the awesome power of G-d at the splitting of the sea we are reminded that, indeed, all of creation is an expression of the greatness of G-d.   

In the Torah’s description of the splitting of the sea we read:

Then the children of Israel came into the midst of the sea on dry land, and the waters were to them as a wall from their right and from their left. (Exodus 14:22)

Israel “came into the midst of the sea on dry land”. Yet just a few verses later the Torah reiterates the miracle, this time it changes the order of “Sea” and “dry land”:

But the children of Israel went on dry land in the midst of the sea, and the water was to them like a wall from their right and from their left. (Ibid. 14:29)

So which one is it? Did we enter “the sea on dry land” or was it “dry land in the midst of the sea”? The Chassidic masters explain: at first the Jewish people entered the sea and experienced the great miracle of “dry land”. Once they experienced the miracle they reached a deeper understanding that even when they are on “dry land”, where there is nothing unnatural to their existence, they are indeed “within the sea” surrounded by G-d’s “constant miracles”, providence, and loving care.

The Great Escape - בא

The Great Escape

Let’s be honest about it, the Jewish people were not completely transparent and honest with Pharaoh. While they intended to leave Egypt forever and return to their homeland of Canaan, that is not what they told Pharaoh. In all Moses’s talks with Pharaoh never once did he mention that the Jewish people demanded to be free from their slavery and liberated from Egyptian bondage. According to what Moses told Pharaoh, all the Jewish people wanted was a three day break so that they could serve their G-d in the desert:  

Moses and Aaron came and said to Pharaoh, "So said the Lord God of Israel, 'Send out My people, and let them sacrifice to Me in the desert.'"

And Pharaoh said, "Who is the Lord that I should heed His voice to let Israel out? I do not know the Lord, neither will I let Israel out."

And they said, "The God of the Hebrews has happened upon us. Now let us go on a three day journey in the desert and sacrifice to the Lord our God, lest He strike us with a plague or with the sword." (Exodus 5:1-3)

Granted, Moses did not say an explicit lie. He never said that the people would return to Egypt after the three day journey and festival to G-d. But why was he not  open and demand that it is the right of the Jewish people to be free for good? By the time the tenth plague came around Pharaoh’s resistance was completely broken. Being a first born himself, Pharaoh was frightened that he too would die in the plague of the first born, if, at that point, Moses would have asked that the Jewish people be completely freed, never to return to Egypt again, Pharaoh would have had no choice but to agree. Why then did the Jewish people  claim that they were only leaving for three days when in fact they intended to escape for good?

The Jewish people did not ask Pharaoh to free them, because, by definition, an oppressor can never free the oppressed. The oppressed must take the freedom for himself. If the slaves leave Egypt only because the Pharaoh allowed them to do so, then they are still subject to Pharaoh’s rule. The only change is that at first Pharaoh commanded them to be enslaved and noe Pharaoh commands them to leave. To be free, the oppressed must defy the oppressor. He must escape the oppression against the will of the oppressor.

The Exodus from Egypt is also a story of inner liberation. Before we can break free from Egypt we must break free from our internal constraints and limitations which hold us captive and prevent us from escaping the grip of our negative behavioral patterns.  

The Jewish people were not escaping from Pharaoh, mighty king of  Egypt. They were actually escaping from the negativity, from the constraints, within themselves. They were not fleeing from an  external Pharaoh but rather from the Pharaoh that was within themselves.

What does it mean to be internally free?

Some assume that in order to be free one must be liberated from negativity, tension, and struggle. They assume that to be emancipated is to live a life of internal tranquility, free of negative impulses. Thus, when they experience the pull of negativity they conclude that they are trapped by its seductive force, believing they have no choice but to succumb to their negative habits and desires. They long for liberation, but don't see a way to achieve it.

The story of the Exodus teaches us the road to true freedom. Freedom doesn't mean that there is no Pharaoh. Nor does freedom  mean that Pharaoh decides to release you. We cannot achieve freedom by waiting for the oppressor to leave us alone. We must take our own freedom by defying our oppressor and escaping. Freedom doesn't mean the cessation of temptation and negativity. Freedom is the ability to escape. Freedom is the recognition that despite the great force of Pharaoh, we can pick up and leave. That despite the raging temptation, we are free to “run away” and  take the right action despite internal struggle and hesitation.

When the Jewish people were commanded to offer the Passover sacrifice, celebrating the imminent liberation, while still in Egypt, the Torah provides precise instructions as to how the offering should be eaten:

And this is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste it is a Passover sacrifice to the Lord. (ibid 12:11)

We cannot wait until we desire to follow the right path with all our heart. We must be ready with our walking stick in hand, and we must proceed in haste. We must be prepared to escape the parts of ourselves that hold us back and take a step that will begin the journey to freedom. A journey that will ultimately lead to complete redemption, when there will be no need to escape the negativity inside of us in haste, for the negativity will be completely transformed to good. As the prophet Isaiah foretells of  a future when “not with haste shall you go forth and not in a flurry of flight shall you go”. (Isaiah 52:12).

(Adapted from Tanya Chapter 31)

Who Created These? - וארא

s.jpgWho Created These?

When you look at a beautiful painting, do you only see the art or does the art lead you to think about the artist? When you see a beautifully prepared feast, do you see the food exclusively or does the aroma and taste lead you to think about the chef?   

When you look at a sunset, at ocean waves crashing onto the shore or at a brilliant night sky, what do you see? Some see mother nature in all her glory: the predictable, unchanging patterns of the natural order. Seeing the beauty and mystery of the universe intrigues one to study the earth’s secrets, to discover the laws by which it operates, and to harness its awesome strength.

Others see more than a natural world.

The prophet Isaiah tells us: “Lift up your eyes on high and see, who created these”. (Isaiah 40:26). Pondering the magnificent and awesome universe, says Isaiah, will lead us to ask the question: “who created these”. By asking “who created these” the creation itself leads us to the know and to experience the creator.

Egypt, or Mitzrayim in Hebrew, was the most advanced society of the ancient world, their understanding of science was unparalleled in that era. They were the experts in harnessing the power of nature to their advantage. But they were in spiritual constraint. They studied the universe, they worshiped nature, but did not ask the most important question: “who created these?”. This is the question that is the path to discovery of meaning, morals and ethics, for the “who created these?” leads to asking “why did He create?”. “What does the creator expect of us?”.

The Kabbalists explain that Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt, is comprised of the words “Meitzar Yam”. “Meitzar”- means constraints, and the letters “Yud” and “Mem” create the word “Mi”  which means, “who”. In other words, Egypt, Mitzrayim, is a culture where constraints are able to ask the question “who?” The Egyptian culture encouraged asking all sorts of questions about the universe, except for the question that would  lead to freedom from the constraints of the material world, the question that would lead toward the liberating connection with the creator. Egypt, Mitzraim, constrains the “who?”, it distracts  from Isaiah's plea “Lift up your eyes on high and see, who created these”.

Being in Egypt means to look at nature and see a set of laws that rule supreme. Trapping man in its grip, enslaving him to his natural habits, temptations and shortcomings.The Torah tells us that we must remember the exodus from  Egypt all the days of our life, for each and every day we are called upon to break free of our limitations, of the constraints that hold us back from being the person we want to be and from living the life we are capable of living. We are liberated from Egypt when looking at nature brings us to the recognize the creator who gifts us of his infinity, allowing us to break free of the confines of the natural and predictable order, and to create change in our own society and in our personal life.

Thus, twice a day we cover our eyes and say the most important Jewish prayer: “Hear O  Israel, Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One”. The word “hear”, “Shema”, is an acronym for the words, “Siuh Marom Einichem” “lift up your eyes on high”. Saying the Shema allows us to look at nature and experience the creator of the universe. Saying the Shema, lifting our eyes heavenward, empowers us to transcend the confines of the limited reality by connecting to His transcendent existence.

(Adapted from Shabos hagadol 5679)

 

 

In the Face of Suffering - שמות

Bbush.jpegIn the Face of Suffering

At the burning bush G-d called upon Moses to accept the incredible task of leading the Jewish people, from slavery to liberation. Moses hesitated to accept the task, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” he said to G-d. G-d replied: “For I will be with you”, Moses, would not go alone. G-d would be with him every step of the way.  

Moses understood that before he could seek to influence Pharaoh to let the Jewish people go, he first had to influence the Jewish people. He had to impress upon them that G-d, the G-d of their fathers, was about to take them out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. Moses sensed that Influencing the Jews, inspiring them to believe in the imminent redemption, would not be easy.  

And Moses said to God, "Behold I come to the children of Israel, and I say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they say to me, 'What is His name?' what shall I say to them?" (Exodus 3:13)

Moses understood that the first question the Jewish people would ask immediately upon hearing that the G-d of their fathers was about to redeem them, was what is His name? The various names of G-d represent the various ways G-d expresses Himself; kindness, judgement, compassion, etc. Moses, understood that the Jews would immediately ask “what is His name?”. How did G-d behave in a way that  caused the Jewish people to suffer so terribly for so many decades? What is His name? What is the “name”, the attribute, the justification, for G-d to be silent in the face of such terrible human suffering? Moses understood that before the Jews could accept G-d’s promise for redemption, they must first understand how and why G-d allowed this suffering.

God said to Moses, "Ehyeh asher ehyeh (I will be what I will be)," and He said, "So shall you say to the children of Israel, 'Ehyeh (I will be) has sent me to you.'"

What is the meaning of the name “I will be what I will be”? And how does this name address Moses’s question of what name would allow for so much Jewish suffering?

Rashi explains:

“Ehyeh asher ehyeh (I will be what I will be)”: “I will be” with them in this predicament “what I will be” I will be with them in their subjugation by other kingdoms.

According to Rashi, G-d told Moses that the question of how G-d allows so much suffering, is indeed the most powerful question that can be asked. Yet, to be a Moses, to bring a message of hope to the people, to lead them to physical and spiritual liberation, one does not need to know the answer to the question. Moses must convey to the Jewish people, not an explanation for the suffering, but rather a far more powerful insight: that G-d is with us in our suffering. That he has not abandoned us. That he is present with us even when his presence is hidden.

Indeed, the Jewish people have survived so much pain and suffering not because they had a philosophical explanation to how G-d allows so much suffering. We have survived because we knew, because we sensed, that we are not alone. G-d is always with us.

Each of us is a Moses. We will each experience a time in life when we are called upon to offer comfort and encouragement to someone who is suffering. Perhaps the lesson from G-d’s words to Moses is that when when a child, a spouse, a stranger or friend is suffering, we should not  seek to rationalize, explain, justify, philosophize or blame. The most important thing we can do is, just like G-d Himself, to be present. To help the person in pain feel that he or she is not alone. To help them appreciate that G-d is with them. And, that, we too, seek to emulate G-d, and do the best we can to be present with them.

 

The Book of Creation - ויחי

book.jpegThe Book of Creation

We are about to conclude the reading of the book of Genesis, the first book of the five books of Moses. We have traveled through the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah and the flood, the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, Joseph and his brothers, and we finally read of how the family of Jacob settles in Egypt. Jacob passes away and Joseph reaffirms his commitment to forgive and sustain his brothers. We have arrived at the climax, we are waiting for a verse that will capture the heart of all we have learned from our patriarchs and matriarchs.

Yet the book concludes with a somber tone:

And Joseph died at the age of one hundred ten years, and they embalmed him and he was placed into the coffin in Egypt.

Why end the book with this mournful verse? By simply switching the order of the last two verses in the book, the Torah could have concluded the book with a powerful message of hope:

And Joseph adjured the children of Israel, saying, "God will surely remember you, and you shall take up my bones out of here."

What better way to end the book of Genesis that the promise of redemption that would sustain the faith and hope of the Jewish people through the bitter slavery? Why then, does the Torah choose to conclude the book with Joseph's death in Egypt?

To understand the conclusion of the book we must first examine what is the theme of the first book of the Torah, what message is the entire book conveying, what is the overarching theme of the book?

In one word, the book of Genesis is about creation.

The book of Genesis is the story of creation. It begins with the G-d creating a physical world to be a home for the human being, and then, continues with the stories of human beings striving to reciprocate by sanctifying the world and creating a home for G-d. Genesis tells the story of a family who understands that the heaven and earth and all therein were created for the purpose of being sanctified, that the world in all its diversity yearns to be connected with the Divine oneness its source.

Story leads to story until we reach the climax of the book’s message. In its final verses Genesis tells of the creation of a spiritual haven, of a home to holiness, not in Israel but in Egypt. Not only during Joseph's lifetime, when he ruled the land, but also after his death.

Even in Egypt, at the time considered the most morally debased location on earth, the Jew has the power to be like Joseph, to rule over Egypt, to resist its temptations and eventually transform its environment.

Thus the Torah concludes with the passing of Joseph and his placement in a coffin in Egypt, teaching us, that even while being away from the land of Israel, Joseph’s bones, his essence, power and inspiration is with us.

This is the core message of the book: from the description of the magnificent creation, to the story of Joseph ruling the mighty Egypt, all of the book of Genesis carries the same message: no land too dark, no culture too distant,, no circumstance too foreign, for the holiness. By their example, the Patriarchs and Matriarchs demonstrate to the future Jewish people that they too can create holiness within the mundane, imbuing the material with meaning and spirituality. 

 

Jacob's Distress - ויגש

p.jpgJacob's Distress

After twenty two years of mourning the loss of his beloved son, Jacob received the news that Joseph was alive and well, and was the ruler of Egypt. Jacob wasted no time and together with his family, he began the journey to Egypt. Jacob was filled with conflicting emotions. On one hand he was about to spend the best years of life, in peace and tranquility, reunited with his beloved son, Joseph. On the other hand, the journey to Egypt was the beginning of what, decades later, would become the terrible enslavement of the Jews in Egypt.

The Torah relates:

And God said to Israel in visions of the night, and He said, "Jacob, Jacob!" And he said, "Here I am."

And He said, "I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid of going down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation.

Rashi explains that G-d’s reassuring words to Jacob were in response to Jacob’s concern about traveling to Egypt:

Do not be afraid of going down to Egypt: [God encouraged him] because he was distressed at being compelled to leave the Holy Land.

A careful read of Rashi reveals a discrepancy in the emotion described; while the Torah describes the emotion as fear (“do not be afraid to go down to Egypt”) Rashi describes the feeling as one of distress (“he was distressed”). According to Rashi, then, Jacob was feeling distress and G-d told him  not to fear. Yet G-d did not tell Jacob not to be distressed.

Rashi teaches a powerful lesson on how Jacob was to approach the onset of the exile, as well as how we should approach our own exile; we must not fear the exile and it’s difficulties, we must, however, be distressed about it. We must never make peace with the exile and it’s spiritual and physical challenges. We must always remember that the exile and it’s challenges are not our natural state of being.. In fact, these two components, not fearing the exile and experiencing distress from exile, are interdependent: the only way we can immunize ourselves against the negative effect of exile and its challenges (“do not fear”), is if we understand that our true identity is at home only in our own homeland.

The same is true when we experience a figurative “exile”, when we feel trapped by internal or external challenge, when we are frightened by our current state of being and wish we could improve ourselves. We must remember that the challenge and difficulty are but temporary.  The negativity we are experiencing does not define us. The most important tool of spiritual survival is to remember that we will overcome and return to our true selves, to our soul, to our homeland.

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos vol. 30 Vayigash 3)

 

Dreams of Hope - מקץ

J.jpgDreams of Hope 

Joseph was appointed to be the viceroy of Egypt because he alone was able to interpret Pharaoh's dreams. Joseph explained that the dreams foretold that seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine were to come. Joseph suggested that Pharaoh appoint officers to collect food during the years of plenty in order to sustain the land of Egypt during the seven years of famine.

Pharaoh was so taken by the interpretation of the dreams that he appointed Joseph, an unknown prisoner from a foreign land, to be the ruler of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself:   

Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, "Since God has let you know all this, there is no one as understanding and wise as you.

You shall be [appointed] over my household, and through your command all my people shall be nourished; only [with] the throne will I be greater than you." (Genesis 41:40)

The story seems strange. Why would Pharaoh appoint Joseph as leader, instead of Pharaoh’s government ministers and agencies? Even if Pharaoh liked Joseph’s interpretation, why could he not have accepted Joseph's advice while instructing his own government agents to implement the policy?

Egypt was a pagan society which believed that everything on earth was controlled by the pagan gods. According to Egyptian philosophy, the human being was bound to the will of the gods, trapped by destiny and had no power over his own future and moral choices. In Egyptian culture, the circumstances to which one born, was where he would forever remain, bound by the gods of the natural forces. Thus, Egypt did not allow for social mobility, freedom or moral free choice.

From the perspective of the Egyptian professional dream interpreters, if the gods were planning seven years of famine there was nothing the human being could do to save society. If the gods of nature were about to bring hardship and pain then the people would have no choice but to accept the suffering.

Which is why Pharaoh was so taken by Joseph.

Joseph explained to Pharaoh that G-d informing him of the seven years of famine was a Divine call to action. G-d wanted the people to take action, make the right choices and prepare for the future. Joseph received the promotion because Pharaoh understood  that Joseph’s interpretation and his policy suggestion were so foreign to Egyptian culture that only a Hebrew, foreign to Egyptian philosophy and culture, could succeed in preparing for the seven years of famine. Pharaoh understood that there was no one in all his kingdom that could embrace the optimism and proactive approach that came from Joseph’s perspective. Only Joseph could infuse the Egyptians with the spirit of hope and the commitment to action.

Pharaoh's dreams served a more profound purpose than just to help the Egyptians  survive the economic downturn. The dreams and their interpretations were supposed to be the first step in changing Egypt’s perspective. Human choice matters. G-d gives us the freedom to choose the path we take. Without the gift of free choice there can be no freedom and no morality.

***

Each year the story of Joseph, the quintessential optimist, the dreamer who never loses hope for a better future, is read on Chanukah. It is the spirit of Joseph which inspired the Maccabees to take action, to be hopeful and to persevere in their efforts to fight for their religious freedom.

May the flames of the Chanukah candles inspire hope and optimism, which, in turn, fuel our actions, to fill the earth with the light of goodness and kindness.  

 

Joseph - וישב

j.jpg

Joseph

His brothers misunderstood him.

Joseph's spiritual composition, attitude and skills were different than their own, different than their father’s and grandfather’s. If anything, Joseph seemed similar to their uncle Esau.

The Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob lived in a spiritual realm. To them, the only true reality was G-d; the world did not present a challenge to their spiritual pursuits, for, to them, the worldly temptations were meaningless and had no appeal. The Talmud refers to them as the “chariot of G-d”, meaning that they had no desire other than to serve as a vehicle and a conduit to fulfill the will of G-d on this earth.

The children of Jacob, however, experienced the earthly reality. To them, the world was full of challenges and temptations. For them, the world around them, with its material pleasures and temptations, was seductive. For them to remain loyal to the teachings and lifestyle of their forefathers, they had to retreat from society and surround themselves with the tranquility of the shepherd's lifestyle.

Joseph was different than his father and grandfather in that, to Joseph, the world presented a spiritual challenge. Joseph appreciated the perspective of the contemporary culture and was not oblivious to its appeal. Joseph was also different than his brothers, in that he could not see himself as a shepherd removed from city life. Joseph aspired to engage in agriculture and commerce, and to embrace the world around him.

The brothers could not connect to Joseph’s approach, they viewed him as a foreigner in  the family, and when they saw that their father favored him, they kidnapped him and sold him as a slave to Egypt. From their perspective they were engaged in an act of spiritual greatness, removing the threat that Joseph’s path and aspirations presented to the family legacy.  

His brothers misunderstood him.

Joseph was blazing a new path, superior to those of his father and brothers. Joseph did not remain aloof from the worldly, as his father did, nor was his spiritual life threatened by engaging the world, as were his brothers. Joseph perfected the art of entering the world and transforming it. Instead of being influenced by the values of contemporary society, Joseph was successful in influencing society while remaining loyal to his own inner identity.

Jacob understood his son Joseph. He looked forward to the fruition of Joseph's dreams that foretold how the brothers would bow to Joseph, symbolizing that they would accept the superiority of Joseph’s approach. Jacob favored Joseph's path for he understood that for the world to reach its purpose, each of us will have to follow Joseph’s leadership. We must not remain aloof, unaffected by the world and it’s challenges. We must not retreat from facing the temptations of the material world.  Like Joseph who descended into Egypt as a slave yet ultimately ruled over and influenced all of Egypt we must engage and transform. We too descend into this world in order to engage it and transform it so that it too will express the truth of the creator.

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Vayeshev 19 Kislev vol. 25.

 

The Kiss - וישׁלח

Jacob-and-Esau.jpgThe Kiss

Twenty years after fleeing to Charan, escaping the wrath of his brother Esau, Jacob headed back to Israel; with much trepidation, preparing to meet his brother Esau. The Torah describes, in great detail, how Jacob prepared for the meeting: he sent gifts to his brother, he prayed, and he prepared for battle.

There was a lot at stake at this meeting. Jacob and Esau, as we have read earlier in the story, had very different personalities, and embodied very different energies. Esau was the man of the field, the energetic hunter, who loved the challenge and thrill of trapping game, and craved sensual pleasures. Jacob, on the other hand, was a man who strived to “dwell in tents”, one immersed in study and in quest for enlightenment, far removed from the chaos of the natural world.   

Isaac hoped to elevate Esau’s energy and passion by blessing Esau. Rebecca understood that blessing Esau with abundant material success would not elevate him to a higher spiritual plane, but rather, it would cement Esau’s investment in a materialistic lifestyle. Rebecca understood that only if Jacob would receive the blessing of material success would Esau be elevated and influenced. For only Jacob’s intense spirituality would have the ability to educate and inspire Esau, by demonstrating how the material blessings could serve the spiritual and the transcendent.

Twenty years after Jacob stole the blessing, he was about to meet Esau once more.  There was a lot at stake at that moment of meeting, not only for Jacob and his family but for all of the cosmos. Would the brothers embrace? Would Esau’s energy and materialistic desires reconcile with Jacob’s spirituality? Or would Esau and Jacob, matter and spirit, be at war forever?

The moment finally arrived. The Torah describes the fateful meeting between the brothers:

And Esau ran toward him and embraced him, and he fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. (Genesis 33:4)

To our great surprise, and perhaps to the great surprise of the brothers themselves, both Jacob and Esau understood their need for one another. They discovered deep feelings toward one another. They realized that they shared the same source and the same father.

The brothers then parted ways. The bond of love and compassion that had been established between them was still fragile. They realized that in order for them to be able to settle together in harmony, more work would be required. They therefore temporarily parted ways. Only in the Messianic era will the world experience the wholesomeness of the restored relationship between Esau and Jacob, between matter and spirit, between body and soul.

Until then, it is up to us, to foster this relationship, to nurture and to allow it to prosper and grow.  

Looking back at Esau’s fateful kiss, the one that reestablished the bond with Jacob Rashi, quoting the Midrash comments:

and kissed him: Heb. וֹיֹשֹקֹהֹוּ. There are dots over the word. There is controversy concerning this matter in a Baraitha... Some interpret the dots to mean that he did not kiss him wholeheartedly. Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai said: It is a well known tradition that Esau hated Jacob, but his compassion was moved at that time, and he kissed him wholeheartedly.

The two opinion of whether or not Esau’s kiss was wholeheartedly sincere, represent two stages in the fusion of the material and spiritual. At first, the bond is not wholehearted. The materialistic side of the person would prefer to live a life unburdened by the discipline of spirituality and meaning. At first, the selfish side of the person would prefer to push back and reject the search for meaning. The first step is to create a kiss, an embrace, that is not yet wholehearted. Eventually, over time and with practice, the bond, the kiss, will become wholehearted. For the material itself will come to realize the beauty of harmony.

Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Vayishlach 5743.    

 

Jacob’s Ladder - ויצא

Jacob’s Ladder

l.jpeg

While Jacob was on his way to Charan, fleeing his brother Esau, he went to sleep and dreamed of G-d reassuring him that he would eventually return to Israel in safety. His dream, began with the famous vision of the ladder, as the verse states:

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.

There are various interpretations of the symbolism of the ladder. Some say the ladder represents prayer. Jacob slept on the temple mount, the place where all Jewish prayers ascend to G-d, and G-d was showing Jacob the awesome power of prayer, it’s ability to connect heaven and earth.

Others explain that the ladder is a metaphor for Mount Sinai, the mountain on which the Torah was given, and the message to Jacob was that the Torah, the Divine will and wisdom, is the ladder that connects the person heavenward.

But why did Jacob need to see the image of the ladder specifically at this point in his life, on his way out of Israel while fleeing to the morally debased Charan?

Rabbi Mordechai Hakohen, a 17th century kabbalist of Safed, Israel, explains that the ladder represents Jacob himself.

Jacob was leaving the comfort and holiness of the land of Israel and was heading to a land that was spiritually foreign to his way of life. On his way G-d showed Jacob the vision of a ladder in order to impart to him that he himself had the ability to connect the lowest parts of the earth to heaven. While his father Isaac lived in Israel all his life, and while his grandfather Abraham was commanded to leave Charan and migrate to Israel, Jacob would make the opposite journey. Jacob’s life’s mission was not to flee the negativity but rather to face it and challenge it head on. Jacob, as well as all his descendants, are compared to a ladder. No matter where he might be, no matter how foreign the environment might seem, he was capable of erecting a ladder that would connect heaven and earth, he was able to build a bridge that would allow the epitome  of holiness to affect even the most distant of places.

There is another dimension to the comparison of Jacob and the ladder.

The Kabbalah explains that each of the three patriarchs embodied one of the three primary emotions; Abraham represented the attribute of love, Isaac the attribute of awe and reverence and Jacob represented the attribute of compassion.

The attribute of compassion, even more than love, is the ultimate bridge builder. Love is a very powerful emotion, yet its reach is limited to a specific audience. A person loves that which is attractive to him or her. A person does not love everybody and everything, love is selective, it is awakened and attracted to specific people or objects that, for whatever reason, touch the heart in a specific way.

Compassion, on the other hand, can reach anybody. It may be a person who you never met, whose language you don't understand, yet the moment you sense that the person is suffering, something in your heart will connect to the person with empathy and compassion.

In fact, compassion has the power to unleash love. You may have known someone for many years, and felt no connection to him or her. Yet as soon as tragedy strikes and you feel compassion for the person, suddenly, you begin to see how wonderful the person is. You begin to feel a feeling of closeness and love to the person. How does that happen? The love flows over the bridge created by compassion.

We each have a Jacob within ourselves, a Jacob that allows us to empathize with people who may seem very different from ourselves. The Jacob within us is able to connect people with each other because the Jacob within us knows is able to see the soul within each person. Our soul is the bridge that connects us to other people, and which connects heaven and earth. 

Keep Laughing - תולדות

I.jpgKeep Laughing

It’s a strange name to give a child.

The child of Abraham and Sarah, the first child to be born to a Jewish family, was named Yitzchok, or Isaac, which means laughter.

Why would Abraham and Sarah chose the name laughter for their child who was destined to be a deeply spiritual person and a patriarch of the Jewish people?

The name Isaac is even more ironic when we consider that the nature and character of Isaac seems to be the precise opposite of laughter and joy. While Abraham was an outgoing extrovert, Isaac kept to himself; while Abraham is characterized in the Torah as the lover of G-d, Isaac is characterized as being in awe of G-d. While Abraham represents the attribute of kindness and giving, Isaac embodies the attributes of strength and discipline. The name Isaac - Joy and laughter - seems out of character with his identity and spiritual path.     

An important ingredient in humor is that in order to be funny the situation has to be unpredictable and unexpected.  The same is true about the broader meaning of the word laughter: a person experiencing a measure of goodness will feel happiness in his heart, yet in order for the happiness to overflow from his heart and express itself in laughter he must experience more than the expected measure of joy. Happiness becomes laughter when the joyous event surpasses all expectations.

The Torah tells us that when Sarah gave birth to her son she said:

And Sarah said, "God has made joy for me; whoever hears will rejoice over me." And she said, "Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children, for I have borne a son to his old age!" [Genesis 21:6-7]

Sarah’s giving birth to a child in her old age was more than just a happy event, it was an event that defied all expectations. Every time Sarah held her son in her arms she was overwhelmed with joy. The overwhelming joy caused her to name her son Isaac/laughter.

As Sarah held her son in her arms she knew that just as his birth was an event that defied expectations, so too the people he would  father would be a people whose destiny would not be defined by predictions and expectations. Their very survival would be a miracle. Sarah understood that while Isaac might not be the most charismatic of the patriarchs, he  would possess the ability to create an unpredictable transformation. He would have the unique ability to defy expectations by finding goodness in the most unlikely of places.

Indeed, this was a central theme of Isaac's life. While the Torah tells us precious little about the life of Isaac, the Torah does elaborate on Isaac's success as a well digger. The Kabbalists explain that Isaac's wells represent a departure from his father Abraham's approach. Abraham influenced people by “bringing the water to them”. Abraham was a superb teacher and a charismatic communicator. He showered his listeners with love and, by the force of his character, compelled them to be influenced by his message of G-d and morality. Isaac, by contrast, did not bring the water to the people. Instead he helped people find the well within themselves. He helped them realize that they have a wellspring of G-dliness and holiness within themselves. Abraham would teach through sharing the enlightening, Abraham was like a teacher eager to share the answer with the student. Isaac, by contrast, displayed discipline. He would withhold the answer and allow the student to search for the answer on his own. Isaac empowered the student to believe in his own ability to dig within himself, to remove the psychological barriers, and discover the truth on his own.

Which is why Isaac loved Esau.

Esau was the child who seemed completely uninterested in the ideas of his father and grandfather. He loved the thrill of hunting more than the excitement of ideas. On the surface he seemed to be in a spiritual desert, devoid of spiritual water. Yet Isaac understood that every creation has a spark within it,that every child has a reservoir of pure water within themselves. The job of the parent and educator is to drill the well, remove the dirt and discover the water.

Thus Isaac embodied laughter. Isaac mastered the skill of seeing the good in unexpected places. He had the ability to mine the holiness that lay in the heart of every person and in the soul of every activity.  

As the children of our patriarchs and matriarchs we are heirs to the qualities and characteristics they embodied. From Isaac we inherited the ability to be joyous in the face of great challenge. From Isaac we learn to expect the unexpected; to believe in ourselves and in the people around us. From Isaac we inherit the power to create laughter, to discover the deeper truth of reality that is not always noticeable to the naked eye. From Isaac we learn to drill beneath the surface and find the holiness in every person and the good in every experience.

Adapted from Torah Or Parshas Toldos (Mayim Rabim).

 

The Genesis of Liberty - חיי שרה

download.jpgThe Genesis of Liberty

Liberty and freedom are fundamental to the Torah’s values, teachings and stories. The struggle for liberty and freedom plays out dramatically and powerfully in the second book of the five books of Moses. Yet a careful read of the first book, the book of Genesis shows that liberty is embedded from very beginning, early on in the life and teachings of Abraham our first patriarch.

Let us begin with this week’s portion, the portion of Chayey Sarah. Most of the portion is dedicated to the story of how Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, was dispatched to Charan to find a wife for Isaac, Abraham's son. The Torah relates how Abraham requested that Isaac only marry someone from Abraham’s own birthplace.

[This pattern continued in the next generation. Rebecca, Isaac's wife, insisted that her son Jacob not marry a woman from the land of Canaan but rather she instructed her son to go back to Charan, her birth place, and marry from amongst her own family].

Why not marry someone from the land of Canaan? Wasn't the land of Canaan the place where G-d instructed Abraham to travel to, “go to yourself”, “to the land that I will show you”?

To understand the nature of Canaan we must try to figure out who Canaan was, what his value system, culture and belief system were. When we journey back in the story we read about Noah and his three sons who were saved from the flood. The youngest of the children was Ham the father of Canaan.

After the flood, the first thing Noah did was plant a vineyard. The Torah tells us:

And Noah began to be a master of the soil, and he planted a vineyard.

And he drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent.

And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father's nakedness, and he told his two brothers outside. And Shem and Japheth took the garment, and they placed [it] on both of their shoulders, and they walked backwards, and they covered their father's nakedness, and their faces were turned backwards, so that they did not see their father's nakedness.”

Noah awoke from his wine, and he knew what his small son had done to him. And he said, "Cursed be Canaan; he shall be a slave among slaves to his brethren." [Genesis 9:20-25].

What is the meaning of the curse “he will be a slave”? Does it mean, that the Torah condones slavery? More specifically, does it mean that the Torah approved of the descendants of Shem and Japheth enslaving the children of Ham?

The descendants of Ham believed that the best way to create a successful civilization was through hierarchy; each class submitting to the class above it and ultimately at the top of the pyramid  rests the king to who all must submit. They believed that in order for society to reach its full economic potential, and for society to be strong and protected, the individual must submit to the hierarchy, he must give up a significant portion of his freedom in exchange for the prosperity and security he would receive in return.

No surprise then that the first king recorded in the Torah was Nimrod, a descendant of Ham. ["Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord.” And the beginning of his kingdom was Babylon and Erech and Accad and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. Ibid. 10:9-10] Nimrod was also the one who conceived of the idea to build the tower of Babel, “a tower whose head reaches the heavens”. Nimrod surely understood that no tower can reach the heavens, but this was a political ploy to get the people to submit to a building project that would never be completed.

Abraham himself [according to some opinions, (see Iben Ezra)] was enthusiastically involved in the building of the tower. The young idealistic Abraham must have been excited by Nimrod’s great vision of transcending the individual and submitting to the collective. Yet, in time, Abraham became disillusioned with Nimrod, Abraham rejected Nimrod and his vision of a society built upon the individual submitting and relinquishing his own freedom in return for economic security.

Abraham’s spiritual search eventually led him to discover the truth of Monotheism: there is only one source of power in the universe and no other angel, force of nature, or human being has any control.  

Then, in the third portion of the Torah, we read about how G-d appeared  to Abraham telling him to go to the land of Canaan. The Torah then goes into very specific details about the geo-political state of Canaan at the time:

Now it came to pass in the days of Amraphel the king of Shinar, Arioch the king of Ellasar, Chedorlaomer the king of Elam, and Tidal the king of Goyim.

That they waged war with Bera the king of Sodom and with Birsha the king of Gomorrah, Shineab the king of Admah, and Shemeber the king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela, which is Zoar.

All these joined in the valley of Siddim, which is the Dead Sea.

For twelve years they served Chedorlaomer, and for thirteen years they rebelled.

And in the fourteenth year, Chedorlaomer came, and the kings who were with him, and they smote the Rephaim in Ashteroth Karnaim and the Zuzim in Ham, and the Emim in Shaveh Kiriathaim. [ibid. 14:1-5].

Why so many kings? Because they were the descendants of Ham and Canaan who believed in submitting to the stronger party in order to gain security. Which is why the five kings, in turn submitted to the four kings, each class submitted to the class above it in the hierarchy. But as soon as Abraham arrived on the scene preaching monotheism , things began to change. We read about Lot, Abraham’s nephew, moving to Sedom. What happens next? The king of Sedom, and the five kings rebel against the four kings. Hard not to see the influence of Abraham’s idea of freedom beginning to affect the five kings.

The four kings, including Nimrod who was mentioned earlier, the first to create a form of an empire, joined the other three kings and crushed the rebellion. Who do they take captive? Who is their true enemy? Not the king of Sedom who rebelled against them, but rather Lot the nephew of Abraham, the one spreading dangerous ideas of freedom.

Abraham then launched a surprise gorilla attack and defeated the four kings. He risked his life in order to save his nephew, but also to free the land of the oppressive ideology of the four kings, the suppressive ideology of the children of Cham and Canaan.

The attitude of submission to hierarchy prevalent in the political realm, affected their spiritual beliefs as well. They understood the universe to be a hierarchy of power, with the human being controlled by forces outside of himself. Thus morality, which is based on personal choice, on the freedom to make the right choice, was virtually non existent. For if one is controlled by the gods and powers of nature, then one cannot be asked to fight his own instincts and commit to a moral choice.

Underlying the stories of the book of Genesis is a culture clash between the philosophy of Cham, which seeks to submit to and serve any power stronger than himself, which denies that the human beings greatest gift is the gift of moral freedom; and the teachings of monotheism as embodied by Abraham who taught that the one G-d endows us with the freedom to choose moralistically. The human being is not controlled by the forces of nature, not by a group of Gods battling with each other over authority, not by instinct and not by astrology. For the only authority in the universe is the one G-d.   

Thus, when Abraham began to search for a wife for his son Isaac, for a matriarch of the future people of Israel, and when Rebecca wanted her son to marry and build the nation that would teach the world about monotheism and the freedom and liberty it inspires, they understood that the culture of Canaan, a culture that believed that the human being is enslaved by his instincts to the forces of nature, must be rejected.

Thus Abraham turned to his own family, the descendant of Shem son of Noah. For they were open and ready to accept the responsibilities of freedom, the dedication to morality, inspired by the belief in the one G-d.

 

The Heat of the Day - וירא

The Heat of the Day

The story of Abraham’s life is primarily told in two portions of the Torah. Lech Licha and Vayera. In the first portion of Abraham's story, Abraham comes across as a deeply spiritual person. The Torah tells how he traveled the land and of the altars he built for  G-d in every place that he went. Toward the end of the first portion, G-d introduced a new idea to Abraham. No longer would it suffice for Abraham to be a spiritual person. From now on, Abraham task was to connect the spiritual with the physical. Abraham was commanded to circumcise himself, fulfilling G-d's commandment “my covenant will be in your flesh”. From here on Abraham’s mission was to teach how the spiritual covenant must express itself in the tangible physical world.

The second portion, Vayera, opens with Abraham, on the third day after his circumcision, sitting at the opening of his tent seeking guests. It was an exceedingly hot day and there was no one in sight, yet Abraham sat there, waiting and hoping to find someone to invite into his home. As the Torah tells us:

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.

And he lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, three men were standing beside him, and he saw and he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent, and he prostrated himself to the ground.

The opening phrase is “the Lord appeared to him”. As a result of this Divine revelation Abraham reached a greater expression of kindness to others. Typically a kind person will express kindness when he or she sees someone in need, or at least someone who can receive the kindness. In this scene Abraham reaches a new level of kindness. Abraham was sitting at the opening of his tent looking to express kindness even when there was no one in sight who was in need of kindness. Abraham’s heart was overflowing with love. For The more Abraham experienced the presence of G-d the more he sought to share with others, the more he transcended himself and sought to connect and to share with other people.[1] 

The verse continues “and he was sitting at the entrance of the tent when the day was hot.” the literal translation of the verse is that “and he was sitting  at the entrance of the tent like the heat of the day”. The verse does not read “in the heat of the day”, but rather it says “like the heat of the day”.The verse implies that Abraham himself was like the “heat of the day”.[2] Abraham himself was like the sun spreading warmth, love and enlightenment.

Many spiritual seekers seek to escape worldly distractions and seek enlightenment in solitude. The more enlightenment they experience the more removed they become from the rest of society. But Abraham taught us to realize that the closer one comes to spirituality, holiness and transcendence, the more the person will “sit at the opening of the tent”, seeking to express kindness even when the need is not immediately present before him or her. The closer one become to G-d the the more he or she  will be “like the heat of the day”, like the sun, expressing warmth and friendship to all.

______________

[1] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Vayera 5725.

[2] See commentary of the Kli Yakar.

Focused Love - לך לך

s.jpgFocused Love

Abraham embodied love and kindness as an expression of the one G-d, creator of the entire universe. Abraham, spent his career teaching people about monotheism, the belief in the one, all omnipresent G-d, and fought against the idea of idol worship, teaching that the human being should serve no force of nature and no other human being, only G-d himself. 

Abraham felt a deep closeness to his eldest son Yishmael, the son of Hagar Sarah’s maidservant. Yishmael embodied his teachings. As a result of the time spent in his father’s home, Yishmael refused to submit to any person but to the one G-d.

Indeed, even before Yishmael’s birth the angel of G-d told Hagar that her son would be a free spirited person:

And the angel of the Lord said to her, "Behold, you will conceive and bear a son, and you shall name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard your affliction.

And he will be a wild man; his hand will be upon all, and everyone's hand upon him, and before all his brothers he will dwell." (Genesis 16:11-12)

Despite the influence of Abraham’s ideas and beliefs, Yishmael  would not be the one to receive the Divine covenant, and bear the eternal legacy of Abraham. Indeed, while Abraham was content in having Yishmael be his only heir, G-d insisted that the Abrahamic covenant would continue through the son that would be born to Sarah:  

And G-d said, "Indeed, your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac, and I will establish My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his seed after him. (ibid. 17:19)

That is because the Jewish nation could only be established through the union of Abraham and Sarah. Abraham’s love was not sufficient to father the nation that would have an eternal covenant with G-d. Abraham's love was unlimited, he spread his love to all. But Sarah understood, that love must be focused and disciplined. To love properly, one must be willing to exclude influences that would undermine the love. The potent force of love must be focused and directed. Just as a mother protects her child, Sarah’s love motivated her to expel negative influence from her home environment. Abraham without Sarah, love without discipline and focus, is like freedom without commitment, which is but a distorted expression of freedom.  

Abraham and Sarah did not always share the same perspective. They disagreed strongly about important issues. Abraham’s love spread to everybody, while Sarah’s love expressed strength and discipline. Only the marriage of Abraham and Sarah could produce the holy nation.

The healthy tension between Abraham and Sarah teaches us that both love and discipline are necessary in our own life. When we read the stories of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs, we are also reading our own personal story. Ensuring that the “marriage” between the Abraham and Sarah within ourselves is harmonious and balanced, will allow us to continue the mission of Abraham and Sarah: filling this earth with goodness and kindness motivated by the awareness of G-d.

(Adapted from Torah Or, Anochi Magen Lach.)

 

Waves of Change - נח

Noah.jpgWaves of Change

There are extreme fluctuations in the creator’s attitude toward his creation in the first two portions of the book of Genesis.

At first G-d is in love with the world. He created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. Each day of creation G-d looked at the creation of that day and “saw that it was good”. And upon the conclusion of the sixth day G-d saw that  all that He created was not only good, but “exceedingly good”:

And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was exceedingly good (Genesis, 1:31).

Yet, very quickly things turned in the opposite direction. Toward the end of the first portion we read that G-d decided to take the drastic measure of destroying all that He had created on earth.

We then read, in the second portion of the Torah, about the terrible flood. After which, G-d seemed to, once again, take the opposite approach. Somehow, he again fell in love with  creation and promised never again to bring flood the earth.

Why was G-d’s response to the evil of man so dramatically different before and after the flood? If G-d could somehow tolerate the evil after the flood, why could he not have done the same before the flood? Why was it necessary to destroy all the creations of earth?

The generations from Adam to Noah are compared to a student who is close to a most inspirational teacher. As long as the student is in close proximity to the teacher, he will be uplifted and filled with the wisdom and enlightenment flowing from the teacher. But the student himself did not yet learn to innovate, he did not yet cultivate the skills needed in order to discover wisdom on his own. If, for whatever reason, he departs from his teacher's presence, he will be unable to innovate and discover wisdom from within.  

In the beginning of creation, the world was solely an expression of the creator. He created the human being who had the potential to choose to do good. But at that point in history, “good” meant the ability to receive intuition  from the creator, to “see” G-d’s vision for humanity.

This explains why the generations chronicled in the first book of the Torah, lived exceptionally long lives, although they were not deserving of the blessing they received. Because in that period the flow of energy descending from above was an expression of G-d’s “giving”. It was not inspired by, nor dependent on, the actions of man.

On the sixth day of creation “Everything He made was exceedingly good”, because it was created and was inspired from above by the almighty G-d.

Then the people sinned, they filled the earth with corruption and separated themselves from their Divine source..

G-d therefore flooded the earth, because the people lost the spiritual sensitivity that was required to hear the voice from above. At that point in history there was no hope that they would find the calling to goodness and morality from within themselves. At that point there was no hope for correction, because they did not yet have the ability to self inspire, self refine, and self transform.  

When Noach emerged from the ark, the spiritual vitality that was previously available was no longer present. No longer did people live exceptionally long lives. The divine vitality was hidden, leaving people in a weakened state.

But something else happened as well; the waters of the flood were waves of purification.  

While the people were no longer able to receive the “goodness” that flowed from above, they were able to create “man-made” inspiration. The potential for their spiritual enlightenment was not as great, but they were refined enough to be able to find the voice of goodness within themselves. After the flood, humanity is likened to a student who learns how to cultivate wisdom on his own. The wisdom may not be as lofty as that which he received from his teacher, but it is wisdom he can generate no matter where he is.

The waters of the flood have created a world that is no longer solely dependent on inspiration from above. No matter how low they fall, even when the figurative clouds block the rays of Divine consciousness, ultimately people have the ability to transform themselves; to transform, the concealment into a magnificent work of art. They can now, using the very cloud of concealment, reflect the light of the sun and generate a rainbow.    

(Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Noach vol. 15 Sicha 3).

 

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