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Blog - Torah Insights

Cities of Refuge

c.jpegCities of Refuge

Humanity’s capacity to build is spectacular. We have built towers, cities and  civilizations. Yet the greatest construction projects often came at a high cost. Historically, the drive to create came at the expense of the the rights and well-being of individuals. An estimated 20,000 people died, mostly due to disease, in the effort to construct the Panama Canal. Hundreds of thousands of people are estimated to have died building the great wall of China.

When people pooled their efforts to advance a great cause, when they came together to achieve a great project, they often focused on the collective at the expense of the individual. They felt that in comparison to the collective, the individual was insignificant. Societies celebrated the great achievement, but, often, would ignore the individuals who may have been sacrificed for the sake of the collective.

Thus, as the Jews were about to enter the land of Israel, Moses addressed this very issue: the relationship between the individual and the communal in the land they were about to build.

In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses reminded the people of their history and the fundamentals of Torah. in this week’s portion, the portion of Shoftim, Moses discussed institutions they would create in the land of Israel, the priesthood, the monarchy, judiciary and the supreme court. And then, Moses repeated the commandant of the cities of refuge. This commandment was written twice in the first four books of the Torah and repeated twice more by Moses in the fifth book, because the cities of refuge represent the founding principle of the country the Jewish people were about to establish.

Moses tells us:

you shall separate three cities for yourself in the midst of your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving you to possess.

Prepare the road for yourself and divide into three parts the boundary of your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving you as an inheritance, and it will be for every killer to flee there…

As when a man goes with his fellow into the forest to chop wood, and his hand swings the ax to cut down the tree, and the iron flies off the handle, and it reaches his fellow, and he dies he shall flee to one of these cities, and live.

The Torah describes a “work accident”. Somebody was chopping wood in the forest and accidentally a bystander was killed. The Torah tells us that we cannot ignore the tragedy. We cannot allow life to go on as usual just because the person chopping the wood was doing so in the service of the community. The Torah tells us that the accidental murderer needs atonement, he needs to flee to exile in the city of refuge.

This commandment captures the foundation of the Jewish state. An individual cannot be sacrificed for the building of the collective. In fact the opposite is true. The state, the collective has legitimacy only to the extent that it is devoted to protecting the life and dignity of the individual. The Mitzvah of the cities of refuge is a reminder, that in the land of Israel,  an individual is never sacrificed on the altar of the collective. The society which the Jewish people built in the land of Israel, represented the truth that every human being is created in the image of G-d.

* * *  

The city of refuge exists not only in the realm of space but also in the realm of time. The month of Elul, which precedes the Jewish New Year, is a metaphorical “city of refuge”. It is a time when we seek refuge from the distractions of the broader world, we engage in self reflection, introspection and self betterment.

When we think about the passing year, we will inevitably discover a discrepancy between the life we are living vs. the life we know we want to live. We have lofty goals and ideals, we want to live a life full of accomplishment and meaning, we want deep and rewarding relationships, we want to live by the values we believe in and cherish. Yet, the trouble begins with individual moments.

Somehow, sometimes, the general ideals and aspirations of our life do not infuse and inspire the individual moments, when we have to choose between investing in a meaningful relationship or  pursuing something of no lasting value.

The “cities of refuge” remind us, that a collective is only as strong as the individuals who comprise it, and life is only as meaningful as daily, seemingly inconsequential, moments and decisions.

The month of Elul is the time we resolve, and we practice, to be mindful of the individual moments of our life. For the life we live, it’s joy and fulfillment, meaning and accomplishments, are determined by individual moments.  



Eating in Jerusalem

J.jpgEating in Jerusalem

At the bank of the Jordan River, after the forty year journey in the desert, Moses spoke

to the people as they were about to enter the land of Israel. Up until this point, in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses spoke about the history of the forty year journey through the desert, as well as words of rebuke warning the people to remain loyal to G-d even after they achieve success in the land of Israel. In the fourth portion of the book, the portion of Reeh, Moses is ready to describe the apex of the entire journey, life at its greatest in the holy land of Israel.

Moses told the people that when they would enter the land they would no longer be permitted to bring offerings to G-d in the place of their choice, but rather there would only be one place that  G-d would choose to bring their offerings.

Contemplating on the way Moses described the “place that G-d will choose” is critical to understanding Judaism’s approach to spirituality, holiness and life itself.

When we think of religious pilgrimage we often think of people bowing in prayer, submission and awe. Contrast that with Moses’s description:

But only to the place which the Lord your G-d shall choose from all your tribes, to set His Name there; you shall inquire after His dwelling and come there.

And there you shall bring your burnt offerings, and your sacrifices, and your tithes, and the separation by your hand, and your vows and your donations, and the firstborn of your cattle and of your sheep.

And there you shall eat before the Lord, your G-d, and you shall rejoice in all your endeavors you and your households, as the Lord, your G-d, has blessed you. (Deuteronomy 12:5-7)

What is the scene Moses paints? After hundreds of years of Jewish history, what do we do when we finally come to the place that G-d will choose?

We eat. (“And there you shall eat before the Lord, your G-d”.)

We rejoice. (“you shall rejoice in all your endeavors”.)

When a Jew travels to Jerusalem to become close to G-d, he is not escaping his daily life. The Jew brings the tithings of his crop along with him to Jerusalem. All the effort he invested in agriculture, in growing his produce comes along with him to Jerusalem. The Jew is commanded to “eat before the Lord, your G-d, and you shall rejoice in all your endeavors”, because the material labor and success is in itself part of the service of G-d. The purpose of creation is to sanctify the material world, to elevate it and to use it, as well as the joy it creates, in the service of holiness.  

After the Jew celebrates in Jerusalem, when the Jew experiences how the earth's bounty can be sanctified and celebrates in the context of holiness, he is ready to extend the holiness even farther. The Torah continues:    

When the Lord, your God, expands your boundary, as He has spoken to you, and you say, "I will eat meat," because your soul desires to eat meat, you may eat meat, according to every desire of your soul. (Ibid. 12:20)

In the desert, as Rashi explains, eating meat was permitted only in the context of an offering. Only if the animal was offered in the tabernacle as an offering to G-d would some of the meat be given to the person offering the offering, who would then fulfill the Mitzvah of eating the sacrificial meat. Once the Jewish people entered Israel, however, they were permitted to eat meat that was not a sacrifice, even when they were distant from the temple. While on the surface this may seem as though the people were stepping down from their holy state of being as they began to indulge their cravings. The truth, however, is that this  represents a far greater level of holiness. Once the people entered Israel they reached greater spiritual heights, they were now able to bring holiness not only to the celebration in Jerusalem but also to their daily “mundane” life, throughout Israel. In the desert only an act of a Divine commandment, a Mitzvah, was holy. Once we entered Israel, once we experienced the holiness of the temple affecting our produce and our festivals, we could then carry the holiness over to daily life itself. 

In the desert only the Tabernacle was holy. When we ascended to Jerusalem we elevated our physical reality to the point where our eating and drinking was an expression of connection to G-d. And then, descending from the mountains of Jerusalem and returning home, we were empowered to sanctify all of our existence, our body and its cravings, as well as all aspects of society, by using them in the service of holiness; thus expanding the holiness of Jerusalem throughout the entire world.


Bread from the Earth

bread.jpgBread from the Earth


Almost all the blessings in the Jewish prayer book - blessings within the various prayers, blessings of praise or request, blessings celebrating the Shabbat and holidays - were instituted by our sages, and are not biblically mandated. The only exception is the biblical commandment to bless G-d after eating bread, as Moses tells us in this week’s Torah portion:


And you will eat and be sated, and you shall bless the Lord, your God, for the good land He has given you.


Over time the blessing after the meal evolved and is now a series of four blessings composed over more than a Millennium. The Talmud tells us when and who composed these blessings. We will focus on the first two blessings:   


With regard to the origins of the four blessings of Grace after Meals, Rav Naḥman said: Moses instituted for Israel the first blessing of “Who feeds all”, when the manna descended for them and they needed to thank God. Joshua instituted the blessing of the land when they entered Eretz Yisrael.

(Talmud, Brachot 48a)


Why on earth do we thank G-d with a blessing about bread from the heavens? The bread we eat, bread grown from the ground with a great investment of toil and time, is categorically different than, the manna, the bread that the Jewish people ate in the desert, which miraculously descended from the heavens each morning of the forty year journey through the desert. Why then do we say the first blessing, composed by Moses for the miraculous Manna and not begin directly with the blessing composed by Joshua as he and the Jews entered Israel and ate natural bread, bread grown from the land?     


Perhaps the sages included the blessing composed by Moses because it captures the essence of the purpose for the blessing.


While much of the previous Torah portion is dedicated to reminding the Jewish people never to forget the awesome experience at Sinai, much of this week’s portion, the portion of Eikev, is focused on the spiritual dangers of entering the land of Israel. The miracles of the exodus from Egypt and of the journey through the wilderness were about to end. Moses cautioned the people that there would be a great temptation to attribute the success in the land of Israel to one's own power and wisdom. In the land of Israel, where the Jew must grow bread by the sweat of his own brow, he might forget about G-d and attribute his success to his ability to navigate and channel nature’s force. Moses therefore reminds us that when we eat natural bread, when we are satiated, when we enjoy blessing, we must recognize G-d the source of the blessing.


Perhaps this is why the Sages included Moses’s blessings for the Manna, the bread from the heavens, together with Joshua’s blessings for the bread of the land of Israel, the bread of the earth. For the purpose of the grace after meals is to recognize that the natural bread is a blessing from G-d no less than the bread from the heavens. Both Moses and Joshua teach us to recognize the truth, that G-d is manifest not only in miracles but also in nature, not only in the bread from the heavens but also in the bread from the earth.

Cover Your Eyes

Shema.jpegCover Your Eyes

Two spouses don’t seem to be able to relate to each other. Their perspectives are very different, they don’t see the world the same way. Their underlying values, what they consider significant, meaningful and worthy of pursuing, differ considerably between them.

Is their relationship doomed to failure? Is there anything they can do to strengthen the bond, to enhance their closeness?

Even before they can communicate, deliberate, negotiate and compromise, there is a more fundamental exercise that they must first engage in, in order for the relationship to survive and then thrive. The most important step, the one that will allow all further growth to occur, is that they each need to accept that the other person has a legitimate perspective. Each of them must practice “closing their eyes” to their own perspective, and, at least for a moment, learn how to see reality from the other person’s perspective.

This does not mean that anybody needs to abandon their own point of view, values, attitudes, and mindset. But they each attempt to put their perspective aside, to “cover their eyes” on their own point of view, in order to appreciate and give legitimacy to the other perspective. Then they can, once again “open their eyes”, get in touch with their own mind and heart, and, overtime, learn how the different, and occasionally, opposing perspectives, can not only co-exist, but, in fact, can complement each other, leading to a far more interesting and far deeper experience.

This, precisely, is what we do when we recite the “Shema” every morning, when we awake, and every evening, as we prepare go to sleep.

We are in a relationship with G-d. He is the groom and we are the bride. But make no mistake, the honeymoon is over. There are differences between us, and those differences run deep, and they touch the essential definitions of reality. From G-d’s perspective, He is the all pervading reality. After all, all of the universe is dependent on G-d’s vitality for its very existence. From G-d perspective, the only significant thing, the only thing worth pursuing is connecting to G-dliness. Our perspective is different. From our point of view, reality is the physical world, pleasure and joy are derived from the material world.

In this week’s portion, Vaetchanan, Moses retells the history of the relationship. At first we fell in love with G-d’s perspective. At our wedding, at Sinai, G-d gave us a glimpse at his perspective. As Moses relates: “You have been shown, in order to know that the Lord He is God; there is none else besides Him. (Deuteronomy 4:35)” . At that awesome moment we felt that there was nothing else significant in the universe other than G-d.

But the wedding concluded, the music stopped playing, the excitement faded. Suddenly we realized that the perspective of G-d is very different from our own. We wonder is this relationship viable? Can we connect to a G-d whose perspective is so different from our own?

Moses has the answer. He tells us that twice a day we should recite the “Shema”. We cover our eyes with our right hand and we say:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God; the Lord is one.

We close our eyes, because we need to put our perspective aside. We need to acknowledge that although from our perspective we see not oneness but plurality, not one divine truth but a multiplicity of material needs and desires, nevertheless there is another perspective. We acknowledge and try to appreciate that we are able to close our eyes, remove ourselves, albeit momentarily, from our interpretation of reality and appreciate that from the perspective of G-d there is nothing but Divine unity, and all of the universe is but an expression of that truth.

And then we open our eyes, we once again accept our perspective. But at this point we are able to create a relationship that does not negate either of the perspectives, rather it fuses and enhances both perspectives. As Moses continues in the Shema prayer:

And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart. And you shall teach them to your sons and speak of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk on the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up. And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for ornaments between your eyes. And you shall inscribe them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.

Despite our different perspectives, in fact, specifically because of our differences, we can experience a deep and meaningful relationship. We are able to connect the words of the Torah, the unity and love of G-d, to our daily life. Our material pursuits are sanctified because we use them as a conduit for holiness. Our daily life -  when we walk on the road, lay down in the evening or rise in the morning, in the cities we create and the homes which we build - our homes and our gates - are imbued with spiritual meaning and Divine holiness.


In Your Own Voice

D.jpgIn Your Own Voice

The fifth book of the five books of Moses,“Devarim”, Which means words, is named for the opening statement in the book:

“These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on that side of the Jordan”.

The Torah continues:

It came to pass in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month, on the first of the month, that Moses spoke to the children of Israel according to all that the Lord had commanded him regarding them;

Toward the end of Moses’s life, as the Jews were about to cross the Jordan and enter the promised land, Moses spoke to his beloved people. He repeated all the commandments written in the first four books and he retold  the stories of their sins and shortcomings of the past forty years, in hopes that his words would help them learn and grow from their negative experiences.

While the first four books, are written in third person narrative, (as in the very common verse “And G-d spoke to Moses”), the fifth book,  is written in first person narrative, in the voice of Moses himself. This difference is significant. It represents a change in the role of Moses, and a change in the way we are to understand the Torah.

Moses received the Torah from G-d and transmitted it to us. Moses’s role was to be a loyal conduit who would convey the words of the Torah precisely as they were given to him. In the fifth book, however, Moses was no longer a mere transmitter, in the fifth book, the words, ideas and teachings were internalized within Moses, he therefore spoke them in his own voice.

This explains how both themes of the book of Devarim, the repetition of the Torah in Moses’s own voice and the words of rebuke, are interrelated. The purpose of rebuke was to inspire the Jewish people to return to G-d. What was the inspiration to return? How would a person who rejected the voice of morality, and the will of G-d, be inspired to return?  Returning to G-d, then, comes not from heeding the voice from above, but rather from listening to the voice that emanates from within ourselves. The inspiration, commitment and courage to return to G-d comes from the teachings and values of the Torah that have become part of the Jew. Returning to G-d means listening to the words of Torah, not as they are communicated from heaven, but rather as they emanate from deep within the heart of the Jew.

Like Moses, we too, in our own study of the Torah, experience both these steps. At first we listen and learn. We seek to hear and understand that which the Torah is teaching us. This is the first stage, the stage represented by the first four books, in which we seek to receive the divine words handed down to us.

And then we arrive at the fifth book. It may not happen overnight, it may take forty years of wandering, but over time we began to discover the ideas of the Torah presented within our deepest self. Over time, the words of the Torah become our own. We identify with them, and they express our own point of view. In the second stage of study, in the fifth book, we speak the words of Torah in our own voice.

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei sichos vol. 19 Divarim Sicha 2.)


East of the Jordan

j.jpgEast of the Jordan

How are we to know what our life’s mission is? How are we to go about considering which path we should follow, which avenue to pursue? What clues can direct us to follow the road leading to the very purpose of our own creation?  

The tribes of Reuben and Gad had an insight.

They felt that one must look at the specific gifts and opportunities that one was blessed with. They sensed that with the specific blessings they were gifted with G-d was directing them on the path that was their true calling.

Which is why the tribes of Reuben and Gad did not want to cross the Jordan River and enter the land of Israel.

They looked around and saw the lands which the Jewish people had conquered east of the Jordan River, and they immediately sensed that their destiny was tied to the land which was outside the borders of the holy land, outside the land that G-d promised to give the Jewish people. They saw that the land east of the Jordan was a land perfect for pasture. They turned to Moses and said:

“The land that the Lord struck down before the congregation of Israel is a land for livestock, and your servants have livestock." (Numbers 32:4)

They argued that if G-d blessed them with an abundance of livestock, if “your servants have livestock”, then surely their divine mission was to embrace their individual blessing and settle in the land best suited to raising livestock, even if that land was not the land of Israel.   

At first Moses was furious. Moses feared that, just like the episode of the spies almost forty years earlier, he was once again witnessing a rebellion of the people who were rejecting the land of Israel out of fear of conquering and living in the land.

Ultimately, however, Moses granted their request, for they explained that, in fact, they could not be more different then the spies. For the tribes of Reuben and Gad sought not to reject Israel, but to expand its holiness and its influence outside its borders.

Gad and Reuben understood that if G-d was directing them to find their calling outside the land of Israel it was not because they were disconnected from Israel’s story and mission, but rather because they were charged with the mission to expand the holiness of Israel beyond its borders; demonstrating that the morality and light of the Jewish people is able to transform foreign territory.

Yet there was one condition that the children of Gad and Reuben had to meet before they were given the lands they requested. They had to commit to be in the front lines of the conquest of the land of Israel. As Moses told them:

Moses said to them, "If you do this thing, if you arm yourselves for battle before the Lord, and your armed force crosses the Jordan before the Lord until He has driven out His enemies before Him, and the Land will be conquered before the Lord, afterwards you may return, and you shall be freed [of your obligation] from the Lord and from Israel, and this land will become your heritage before the Lord. (Numbers 32:22)

To be able to extend the holiness of Israel to a foreign land, one must be even more committed to Israel than if he were living in Israel. To be able to sanctify land that is not holy one needs to be even more committed to holiness than his brethren who are living in a land permeated with holiness.

The children of Gad and Reuben teach the Jew living outside of Israel that his purpose is to expand the holiness and inspiration of the land of Israel to all four corners of the earth.


(Based on the teaching of the Rebbe, Reshimos booklet 51.)


Appointed Time

ca.jpegAppointed Time

The Biblical word for holiday is “Moed”, which means “appointed time” as well as “meeting”. Holidays are “appointed times” set aside for us to “meet”, for on the holiday, we have the space to meet with G-d, and with the parts of ourselves which we sometimes overlook due to the demands and distractions of everyday life.

Each of the holidays has a unique theme and energy. Each holiday gives us the opportunity to experience and internalize the inspiration of the extraordinary, each is an “appointed time” to celebrate the blessings we are blessed with: exodus and freedom on Passover, Torah and spiritual enlightenment on Shavuot, holiness and atonement on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and joy on Sukkot.

Our weekly portion, Pinchas, lists the offerings we are commanded to offer at the holy temple on each of these “Moadim” - “appointed times”. Yet, in what seems to be a departure from the overall theme, the Torah reiterates the commandment to offer the daily communal offerings. The daily offerings were mentioned earlier in the Torah, why are they reiterated here, and, more specifically, why were the ordinary daily offerings, reiterated in the context of the extraordinary holidays?

We tend to view our lives as divided between the ordinary and extraordinary, between the usual routine and the excitement of the novel experience, between habit and inspiration.

Indeed there are times that feel like holidays. We feel that the hand of G-d that took our ancestors out of Egypt is once again present in our life. We feel the light from above shining brightly upon us, the wind of inspiration in our wings and the energy in the air which fills our entire body with enthusiasm for life. Yet there are also days which feel unremarkable and monotonous, times when we feel sapped of energy, devoid of excitement and purpose.   

The Torah seeks to teach us that, in truth, every moment is a miracle and every day a holiday. There is no such thing as an ordinary day. The magnificent sunrise, the beautiful sunset, is no less an expression of the Divine power than the exodus from Egypt.

When referring to the daily offerings the Torah says:

The Lord spoke to: Moses, saying:

Command the children of Israel and say to them: My offering, My food for My fire offerings, a spirit of satisfaction for Me, you shall take care to offer to Me at its appointed time.

The one lamb you shall offer up in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer up in the afternoon. (Numbers 28:1-3)

The Torah refers to each and every day as a “Moed”, a unique appointed time. As Rashi puts it:

at its appointed time: Each day is the appointed time prescribed for the continual offerings.  

Rashi is telling us that each and every ordinary day can indeed become a “Moed”, a holiday, a day filled with enthusiasm, holiness and joy. If we take the time to experience the blessing of life G-d gifted us with, if we make time in every day to serve the purpose of our creation, then, indeed, each and every day is a Moed, a holiday, a day in which we enjoy the blessing of life and the joy of a meaningful day. [1]


[1] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutey Sichos Pinchas vol. 28 Sicha 2.

Saddle the Donkey

d.jpgSaddle the Donkey

There are two towering figures in the Torah that originate from the city of Aram in Mesopotamia. The first one is Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish people, the second is Bilaam, the gentile prophet who is the protagonist of this week’s Torah portion.

While Abraham and Billam were both great prophets who hailed from Aram they could not be more different from each other. Abraham was a man whose heart was filled with kindness, a man who spent his life teaching love for G-d and every one of G-d’s creations.Even in the wicked people of Sodom, Abraham looked for goodness. Abraham journeyed, to what would eventually become the land of Israel, on a mission to spread the awareness of G-d and morality. Billam could not have been more different than Abraham. Billam was a man full of hate, he possessed an “evil eye”, the unfortunate “skill” of seeing bad within people. Billam journeyed toward Israel by request of Balak, the king of Moab, who hired Billam to curse the Jews.

Billam’s journey to the hills of Moab is one of the most fascinating and unusual stories in the Torah; a journey which included multiple encounters with an angel of G-d, and a talking donkey. At the start of the Journey the Torah tells us:   

In the morning Balaam arose, saddled his she-donkey and went with the Moabite dignitaries. (Numbers 22:21)

When Billam was called to Moab, so anxious was he to perform the service which promised to be the highlight of his career, that he didn't rely on his lads or servants.  He saddled his donkey all by himself.  

On the journey to the binding of Isaac, the climax of his devotion and love to G-d, Abraham too saddled his donkey by himself, as the Torah tells us:  

And Abraham arose early in the morning, and he saddled his donkey, and he took his two young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for a burnt offering, and he arose and went to the place of which God had told him. (Genesis 22:3)

Rashi comments on this striking similarity of saddling  the donkey in these very different journeys:

[Billam] saddled his she-donkey: From here [we learn] that hate causes a disregard for the standard [of dignified conduct], for he saddled it himself. The Holy One, blessed is He, said, “Wicked one, their father Abraham has already preceded you, as it says, 'Abraham arose in the morning and saddled his donkey’”.

Rashi is offering insight that is relevant to each one of us. We look at the world around us, as well as within our own selves, and we sometimes see intense negativity, similar to the hate of Billam, which causes people, and sometimes ourselves, to “disregard the standard”, the selfish, destructive forces within ourselves can sometimes propel us to do things that we ourselves understand is “below the standard”, it is below the standard that we set for ourselves, it is below the person we want to be. We feel helpless in the face of the intense urge “to saddle our donkey”, in the service of the negative energy.

Rashi is telling us that Abraham saddled his donkey with intense passion to fulfill the will of G-d. That the Intensity of the Abrahamic love that is within each of us “precedes” the hate of Billam. Although we each have both forces within ourselves, the positive energy of Abraham is our essence, while the negativity of Billam is just an externality which does not define our identity.

By emphasizing that both Abraham and Billam saddled their donkeys by themselves, the Torah teaches us that the way to overcome the negativity of Billam is to awaken and reveal the Abrahamic passion that is within us. The passion and commitment of the Abraham within us will absorb the negative passion, and transform it to fuel which will intensify our commitment to holiness and positivity.  Just as described so poetically in the Biblical story, Billam’s curses were transformed to magnificent and beautiful blessings.



(Adapted from the teaching of the Rebbe, Chukas Balak 1982 - Leku”s Balak vol. 28 sicha 1).

Confronting the Heifer

r.jpgConfronting the Heifer

The law of the red heifer is the most mysterious law of the Torah. Somehow the red heifer would provide purity for the most severe form of ritual impurity, that of coming in contact with a human corpse.

Life is synonymous with holiness, for G-d is the source of life. The red heifer represents the power to purify even the most severe form of ritual impurity, represented by death, the antithesis of holiness and life.  

Indeed, Chassidic philosophy explains that the red heifer captures the secret of the uniquely Jewish approach to purifying the negativity within each of us; the key to dealing with our inner passions, which overwhelm us with the force of their energy.

What were the key requirements for the red heifer? The Torah[1] tells us:

The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying:

This is the statute of the Torah which the Lord commanded, saying, Speak to the children of Israel and have them take for you a perfectly red unblemished cow, upon which no yoke was laid.

The heifer must be red, it must be unblemished, and it must never have been burdened by a yoke. Red is the color of passion. The heifer represents the animalistic emotions within the human heart. A yoke represents the taming of the animal. At times we look inside ourselves and we experience the emotional intensity of our animalistic urges and cravings.

We look at our inner red heifer and we fear that its animalistic raw energy is too powerful for us to control; we look at our inner red heifer and we see nothing but impurity. 

The Torah’s insight into the red heifer is as profound as it is revolutionary. After the priest would slaughter the heifer the Torah[2] tells us: 

The cow shall then be burned in his presence; its hide, its flesh, its blood, with its dung he shall burn it…

They shall take for that unclean person from the ashes of the burnt purification offering, and it shall be placed in a vessel [filled] with spring water…

A ritually clean person shall take the hyssop and dip it into the water and sprinkle it on the tent, on all the vessels, and on the people who were in it, and on anyone who touched the bone, the slain person, the corpse, or the grave.

Purity is not achieved by suppressing or waging war against desire. The Torah teaches us to look right at the passionate, forceful red heifer. Look at its core and understand that, the red heifer is not negative, nor is it spiritually neutral. The Torah wants us to understand that the heifer can be the most powerful agent of purity in our life. The power of desire, its incredible force and energy, is not evil. For while the external expression of the desire may be negative and must be burned, the ashes of the heifer, its inner essence, the power of desire, is the source of purity. Mixed into the “living waters”, when the power of desire is directed toward a positive goal, the heifer itself will be an unbridled force which will provide spiritual and emotional purity.[3]


[1] Numbers 19:1-2.

[2] Ibid 19:5-18.

[3] Adapted from Lekutei Torah Parsahs Chukas.

The Gift of Individuality

K.jpgThe Gift of Individuality 

Korach, a prominent member of the tribe of Levi and a cousin of Moses and Aaron, led a rebellion against Moses.

He instigated others and together they claimed that the Jewish people were all holy and therefore there was no need for Moses and Aaron to lead the people, as the Torah tells us:

They assembled against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, "You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above the Lord's assembly?"[1]  

The rebellion had a tragic ending. G-d intervened, punished Korach and his camp, and reiterated that G-d himself was the one who chose Moses and Aaron as leaders.

Perhaps the part of the story which is most difficult to understand is, not why Korach rebelled or why he was punished so severely, but rather, what was wrong with his claim? Korach put forth a convincing argument; all Jews are holy. The entire Jewish nation heard G-d speak to them at Sinai. All Jews have a soul that is part of G-d. So why are there differences between people? Korach argued that if indeed we all have the same source, if we are all part of the same G-d, then why is the priesthood reserved for only a small group of Jews? Why can’t all Jews be equal?

Rashi quotes the Midrash which refers to Korach as an astute, wise person (as the Midrash asks: “But what did Korah, who was astute, see to commit this folly?”). The wise person has the ability to see not just the reality as it presents itself but also the source and energy of the phenomenon. Thus, when Korach looked at the Jewish people he saw them as they were within their source above, complete oneness with no distinctions between them.     

Yet Korach was wrong. His desire to blur the differences between them, his claim that all Jews are equally holy and therefore there is no need for a leader, is misguided and dangerous. We live in a world of limitations, definitions and distinctions. This world cannot be a vessel to receive the full potency of Divine unity. In this world, the Divine unity is revealed  when the multiplicity of creation joins together to express unity. Divine unity is expressed, not by eradicating the differences between people but rather by each individual celebrating their own individuality, recognizing that specifically because he or she is unique, different and distinct from the billions of human beings living on the planet, he or she is indispensable to G-d. Only when each individual expresses their own unique perspective and talents, contributing a critical, vital  detail to the overall purpose of creation, is a true and lasting unity achieved.

At the conclusion of the story of Korach’s rebellion the Torah tells us that Moses collected one staff from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, the staff of the tribe of Levi was inscribed with Aaron’s name. Miraculously Aaron’s staff blossomed and produced almonds, which was a sign that G-d chose Aaron as the high priest. As the Torah[2] describes:

Moses spoke to the children of Israel, and all their chieftains gave him a staff for each chieftain according to their fathers' houses, [a total of] twelve staffs, and Aaron's staff was amidst their staffs.

Moses placed the staffs before the Lord in the Tent of the Testimony.

And on the following day Moses came to the Tent of Testimony, and behold, Aaron's staff for the house of Levi had blossomed! It gave forth blossoms, sprouted buds, and produced ripe almonds.

When the Staff of Aaron blossomed, the story continues:

Moses took out all the staffs from before the Lord, to the children of Israel; they saw and they took, each man his staff.

The Torah emphasizes that, after Aaron’s staff blossomed, the leader of each tribe took his own staff back. This captures the purpose of the story. You may not be a Kohen, you may not have the gifts that someone else has, yet you must know that you do have your own staff, your own path, your own mission, your own gifts. Moses teaches each of us, that after our staff is placed next to Aaron’s staff, after we are inspired by Aaron’s leadership, we must each take our own staff and pursue that which we alone can achieve.


This Shabbat, the third of Tammuz, is the twenty fourth Yohrtzeit of the Rebbe. The Rebbe saw the unique beauty within every person. The Rebbe inspired each person he met to express the Divine soul that is within them, by illuminating their surroundings with the light of Torah and Mitzvot. May we each continue to live the Rebbe’s legacy until we merit the coming of Moshiach, speedily in our days.[3]


[1] Numbers 16:13. 

[2] Ibid. 17:21-24 

[3] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Korch vol. 18 sicha 3, and Parshas Korach 5749.


Scouting a New Path

s.jpgScouting a New Path  

For the first time in his career Moses did not receive a direct instruction from G-d. The Jewish people requested of Moses to send spies to scout the promised land. G-d told Moses:

Send out for yourself men who will scout the Land of Canaan, which I am giving to the children of Israel.

Rashi, the primary commentary on the Torah, clarifies and explains that the words “for yourself” are not a commandment to dispatch spies, in the words of Rashi:

Send for yourself: According to your own understanding. I am not commanding you, but if you wish, you may send.

The spies brought calamity upon the Jewish people. When they returned from scouting the land they reported that the Jewish people were incapable of conquering the land. The Jewish people wept and called for the appointment of a new leader who would l bring them back to Egypt. In response to their rejection of the promised land, G-d decreed that the Jewish people would wander in the desert for forty years, the generation of people that was liberated from Egypt would die in the desert. Only the next generation would merit to enter the promised land of Israel.

Why did Moses decide to send the spies? Until that point Moses did not make a move without an explicit instruction from above. Why did Moses not consider that, by emphasizing that He was not commanding Moses to dispatch the spies, G-d may have been signaling to Moses to hold back and not send the spies? Why did Moses miss the red flag?

When he heard the words “if you wish, you may send” Moses was filled with joy. Moses understood that the Jewish people were being asked to climb to greater spiritual heights and exercise free choice. They were now developed to the point where they were capable of performing the will of G-d, not because they were commanded to do so, but because of their own will and desire. G-d was opening a new path in the service of G-d, no longer would there be a direct commandment from above, specifically because the goal of the Torah is not to superimpose its will from above, but rather it is for people to discover that they themselves want to do the right thing.   

Until now, the people were shown which path to take, G-d led them out of Egypt took them to Sinai, and led them through the desert toward the land of Israel. Once they entered Israel, they would no longer experience Divine revelation leading their every step. The sending of the spies, represented the critically important ability of the Jewish people to decide that they wanted to enter the land, not because of a commandment alone, but because their own will and desire directed them to do so.    

This explains why forty years after Moses sent the first group of spies, Joshua, the student and successor of Moses, once again sent spies, as we read in the Haftorah:

And Joshua the son of Nun sent two men out of Shittim to spy secretly, saying, Go see the land and Jericho.

The mission of Joshua’s spies was successful. Joshua, despite witnessing the calamity brought on by the spies sent by Moses, took a risk and sent spies. Joshua understood that they could not enter the land without first sending spies. Because we cannot truly transform the earth, we cannot imbue the earth with lasting holiness, unless we do so because of our own desire.

(Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Parshas Shlach 5749.)


Who will Give us Meat?

m.jpegWho will Give us Meat?

Only three days had  passed since the Jewish people left Mount Sinai, beginning their journey toward the Land of Israel, and already there was a stunning setback. The people who experienced Divine revelation, the people who merited to see the cloud of glory rest upon the tabernacle they built for G-d, began complaining. They cried out that they wanted meat!

As the Torah[1] tells us:

But the multitude among cultivated a craving. Then even the children of Israel once again began to cry, and they said, "Who will feed us meat?

How is it possible that the people so quickly abandoned the spirituality which they had cultivated at Sinai and demanded meat?

Every story in the Torah is multi layered, and can be understood on many levels. According to the Chassidic interpretation, the people’s desire for meat was, in fact, a positive desire. Upon closer reading of the story we discover that the people complained not because they wanted meat, but because they wanted a  desire for meat (the literal translation of the verse is “they desired a desire”, meaning they desired to experience desire). After almost a year of intense spiritual experience, they departed from Sinai and  realized that they had ceased to feel any craving for materialism. The lack of desire troubled them because they felt that the purpose of life is to experience challenge. They craved the challenge of overcoming temptation. They said:

We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now, our bodies are dried out, for there is nothing at all; we have nothing but manna to look at.

They wanted fish, cucumbers and watermelons, because they wanted to experience desire, to be challenged by passion, and then channel the desire. They desired  to feel the natural craving for delicious food and transform that desire to a craving for G-d. At Sinai, they did not experience passionate love to G-d, which is predicated on feeling the self and feeling how the self desires to cleave to G-d. At Sinai they experienced complete devotion and humility before G-d. The humble person does not focus on himself, instead he is devoted to and focused on someone or something outside of himself.

Moses responded with  despair. Moses turned to G-d and cried:

Where can I get meat to give all these people? For they are crying on me, saying, 'Give us meat to eat.' Alone I cannot carry this entire people for it is too hard for me.

Moses, was  the humblest of men. Moses is referred to as Moses our  teacher. According to Kabbalah wisdom is synonymous with humility, for wisdom is the ability to separate oneself from his or her own subjective emotions and point of view, and focus on the objective reality that is greater than the self. Moses, therefore told  G-d that he, Moses, was incapable of leading the people who craved a desire. He had no common language with people who wanted to experience passionate love. As the Torah continues:

Moses said, "Six hundred thousand people on foot are the people in whose midst I am, and You say, 'I will give them meat, and they will eat it for a full month'?

Moses said “these are the people in whose midst I am”. Moses said to G-d, that he, Moses had invested much time and effort in order to impart within the people a spark of Moses, a glimpse of his own selfless humility and devotion to G-d. Now that they wished to experience desire, argued Moses, they were disconnecting themselves from Moses and his unique spiritual lifestyle!  

G-d, however, did  not share Moses’s concern. He told Moses:  

"Is My power limited? Now you will see if My word comes true for you or not!"

G-d gave the Jewish people meat. He allowed them to experience desire and to transform the desire and passion for meat to a passionate love to G-d. Because, as G-ds told Moses, “is my power limited?” The message of Judaism is that G-d can be found not only in the humility of Moses, but, perhaps even more importantly, in elevating our craving and channeling our passion to bring us closer to G-d.[2]



[1] Numbers 11.

[2] Adapted from Arvi Nachal and Lekutey Torah Bihaaloscha 31:3.


The Blessing of Peace

BK.jpgThe Blessing of Peace

Finally, it was time to bless the children of Israel.

After the exodus from Egypt, the receiving of the Torah, the construction of the tabernacle and the tribes organizing themselves into four camps, as the Jewish people were preparing to depart from Mount Sinai and travel toward the land of Israel, they were ready to receive the Divine blessing. At that point G-d commanded the priests, Aaron and his sons, to bless the Jewish people with the words dictated by G-d. Until this very day, the priests use these holy words when they bless the Jewish people.

What is the nature of a blessing?

If a blessing is just a form of prayer, asking G-d to bless the people, and if the people are merely passive recipients of the blessing, then the blessing should be said to G-d and not to the people. In fact, the Torah commands the priests to say the blessing to the Jewish people because the purpose of the blessing is not merely to receive without exertion but rather it is in order to inspire the recipient to strive to achieve the blessing, and make the blessing a reality in his life. The priestly blessing, then, represents the totality of all that the Jewish people should aspire to achieve.[2]

The blessing reads as follows:

"May the Lord bless you and watch over you. May the Lord cause His countenance to shine to you and favor you. May the Lord raise His countenance toward you and grant you peace."[2]

Each of the three verses represents another dimension in the life of the Jew. The first verse, “"May the Lord bless you and watch over you”, is a blessing for material prosperity. Rashi explains “your possessions shall be blessed” and “no thieves shall attack you and steal your money.” The Torah does not shy away from material blessing, the Torah teaches us that we should strive for success and blessing in the material world.

Material success, however, brings with it a challenge. Materialism can present a threat to, and a distraction from, spiritual pursuits. The second verse of the blessing, therefore, addresses this concern. The Torah continues “May the Lord cause His countenance to shine to you and favor you”. The “Lord's countenance” is a metaphor for spirituality. The second step of the blessing is that despite our material blessing we should be successful in cultivating a spiritual life. G-d’s spirit should shine upon us.  

The ultimate level of blessing is expressed in the third verse, which concludes with the words “and grant you peace.” The peace in this blessing is not only peace between the people of Israel and the surrounding nations, not only peace among the Jewish people themselves, but also peace within every individual. The third blessing, inner peace, is the ultimate goal of Judaism. Judaism teaches that the material and spiritual do not need to be at war with each other. Instead, the blessing in the first and second verses, the material and spiritual blessings, should complement and enhance each other. The spiritual experiences give meaning to the material possessions and the material possessions serve to enhance the spiritual life.[3]

Throughout the continuation of the fourth book of the Torah we read about the natural tension between physical and spiritual aspirations. We read about some of the Jews descending to pure materialism, which is why they demanded meat, and, on the other hand, we read about the spies who did not want to enter the land of Israel because they wished to remain in the desert, retreat from the material, and remain in a completely spiritual environment. The fourth book represents the struggle to reach the promised land, to reach the ultimate purpose of existence. In the beginning of the book the Torah reminds us of our mission: to succeed in both the material realm as well as the spiritual realm, and, most importantly, to make peace with them both.    

[1] See the commentary of the Alshich.

[2] Numbers 5:24-26

[3] See commentary of the Malbim.

In the Desert

B.jpgIn the Desert

As we begin to study the fourth book of the five books of Moses, the book of Numbers, it is an opportunity to get a birds eye view of the objective the Torah is striving to achieve with all of its stories, lessons and teachings. 

Looking at the book of Numbers in isolation it appears to be a collection of challenging circumstances and negative outcomes. The book begins with the description of the orderly Jewish camp, the temple in its center and the tribes of Israel organized in four camps each on their respective side of the temple; before long, the order and structure turned into chaos. We read about the calamity brought about by the spies, the rebellion of Korach, Miriam speaking about Moses, and the Jewish people constantly complaining that they wanted to go back to Egypt. Moses and Aaron lost control, hitting the stone instead of speaking to it, and as a result, they were not permitted to enter the land. In short, it appears that the fourth book, whose Hebrew name is Bamidbar which means “in the desert”, describes the descent into a spiritual desert, where order, organization and civilization was severely compromised. 

When we take a deeper look, however, we discover that the fourth book represents the ultimate purpose of the Torah. For the desert is the arena in which the creation of the world as well as its divine purpose, is completed. The fourth book then, is the climax of the Torah (the fifth book is a repetition and restatement of the first four books). 

The first book of the five books of Moses, the book of Genesis (“Bereishit”), describes the creation of the world. It describes the relationships and experiences of the people as they were living within the parameters of nature. Genesis is the story of the people and of civilization prior to the Divine revelation of the giving of the Torah.

The second book, Exodus (“Shmot”), describes how G-d revealed his greatness to the people of Israel. He freed them from Egyptian bondage, gave them his Torah and instructed them to create a tabernacle, a home for Him, so that He would dwell in their midst. In the second book of the Torah, we advance beyond the natural and we experience holiness which transcends nature.

The third book, Leviticus (“Vayikra”), is a collection of laws and instructions, procedures and rules, which teach us when and how we can come close to the Divine. We offer offerings, purify ourselves, and then, on unique occasions, we enter the temple, the home of God, the realm of holiness. The third book teaches us how to elevate ourselves and become close to G-d.

Unlike the third book, which teaches us the appropriate way to enter the tabernacle, the fourth book flows in the opposite direction. The fourth book, the book of Numbers (“Bamidbar”), teaches how to bring the holiness into the desert. In the fourth book we are taught that our object is not we cannot to remain in the confines of the temple awash in holiness, but rather we are empowered to bring the teachings of the Torah to every corner of the world, even to its most inhospitable spiritual desert.   

No question, the desert is a challenging place. We experience constant struggle between our inner soul and the world around us. We have our share of “ups” and “downs”, “highs” and “lows”. We face confusion, doubt and delay. We suffer setbacks and disappointment. Yet, despite the setbacks, along the way we experience spiritual triumph, commitment and dedication.

Along the way, we advance to the point where we are able to do more than merely retreat to the house of G-d. Over time, we fulfill the purpose of creation, which is to carry the light through the desert and transform the earth, all of the earth, to the holiness of the promised land.[1]     


[1] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutey sichos Pekudey vol. 16 Sicha 3.

Proclaim Freedom

Y.jpgProclaim Freedom

In Biblical Israel life vibrated to a rhythm of cycles of seven. We are commanded to work six days and rest on the seventh; to work the land for six years and to let it lay fallow on the seventh. We would then count seven cycles of seven years and proclaim the fiftieth year as the year of the jubilee, a year of freedom, when all slaves were set free and any land that was sold would return to its original owner.  

While the laws of the jubilee year don’t apply today, and while the laws of the sabbatical year only apply in the land of Israel, the message and spiritual lesson of the sabbatical and jubilee years are relevant for all of time they are the roadmap for the journey to achieve spiritual freedom.  

When the Jewish people entered the land of Israel they devoted themselves to agriculture; their days were dedicated to plowing, planting, harvesting and working the land, work which required a tremendous amount of devotion. Left unchecked, this devotion could, over time, enslave the person to the land. Left unchecked the earth could rob a person of his or her higher, more spiritual pursuits.   

The Torah therefore commands that every seventh year we refrain from working the land and dedicate the year to matters of the spirit:  

You may sow your field for six years, and for six years you may prune your vineyard, and gather in its produce, But in the seventh year, the land shall have a complete rest a Sabbath to the Lord; you shall not sow your field, nor shall you prune your vineyard.[1]

The sabbatical year is described as a rest for the land; the person rests only as a result of the obligation for the land to rest. In other words, the sabbatical year does not transform the Jew. During the Sabbatical year, a person might still prefer to be in the field, and, even while refraining from work, might worry about what he would eat.[2] The land achieved its freedom, but the Jew was still only on his journey to freedom.

In the spiritual service of the Jew, the sabbatical year represents the service of “Bitul Hayesh”, subjugating the self to a higher purpose. The person has not yet reached a place of inner peace and tranquility. At this point in his spiritual development, there is challenge and struggle. He overcomes the part of his inner self which only values the material, he separates from the mundane “work of the field” and designates time in which he devotes himself to the service of G-d.   

After seven cycles of the Sabbatical we reach the fiftieth year. The year of freedom:

And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim freedom throughout the land for all who live on it. It shall be a Jubilee for you, and you shall return, each man to his property, and you shall return, each man to his family.[3]

The fiftieth year is described as the year of freedom for the person, “It shall be a Jubilee for you”, because by the time we reach the jubilee year, we are transformed. We are in touch with our true identity, our soul, we therefore are happy to experience a reset to the economy, allowing land we may have purchased to return to its original owner and slaves to return to their freedom.

The jubilee, in the spiritual sense, signifies a time when there is no longer any inner conflict and strife. The jubilee represents the Jew who, at least at this moment, understands and internalizes the vision of the Torah. The Jew’s mind and heart are aligned with his core inner self.

Each year we experience a taste of the jubilee cycle. Beginning on the second night of Passover we are commanded to count forty nine days, seven cycles of seven, and sanctify the fiftieth day as the holiday of Shavuot.

Each year as we escape our inner Egypt, we begin the journey to attain freedom. At first we encounter seven sabbaticals, during which we sometimes must overcome temptation, confusion and negativity. The sabbatical is a time when we overcome negative habits by simply abstaining from them and directing our attention to the good and positive, despite our internal struggle.

On the fiftieth day, the holiday of Shavuot, the day we received the ten commandments engraved on the tablets of stone, there is no longer a need for struggle. On the fiftieth day, we achieve a taste of the jubilee and experience a taste of freedom. The words of Torah are engraved upon our hearts, we identify with its teachings, and internalize its message.[4]


[1] Leviticus 25:3-4. 

[2] As the Torah describe: “And if you should say, "What will we eat in the seventh year? We will not sow, and we will not gather in our produce!" [Know then, that] I will command My blessing for you in the sixth year, and it will yield produce for three years.” (Leviticus: 25:20-21)

[3] Leviticus 25:9.

[4] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Behar, vol.7 sicha 1. 

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