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Blog - Torah Insights

The Human Hybrid - ויקרא

The Human Hybrid

The first commandment of the third book of the Torah begins with the word Adam.  

Adam, which means Man or human being, is a complicated creature with conflicting and extreme drives. The word Adam itself captures the tension between these opposite extremes. In the book of Genesis the Torah tells us that “Adam” (man) was formed from the “Adamah” (earth):    

And the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life, and man became a living soul. (Genesis 2:7).  

The implication is that the human being is essentially an earthly existence, who is drawn to his source, the earth, and whose aspirations and desires are physical and earthly.    

The Kabbalists, however, teach us to look deeper than what appears at the surface and discover the often hidden reality. The word Adam has another meaning as well. Adam comes from the word “Adameh”, which means “similar”, based on the verse “I will be similar to the One above”. According to this meaning Adam’s essential quality is that, at his core, he is a spiritual being, a reflection of the Divine.   

Indeed man is a hybrid of heaven and earth. Adam possesses two souls, two essential drives. Part of man is similar to earth, self-oriented, concerned exclusively with physical well being and comfort. Yet that does not capture the full story of the human being, for man is also an Adam, “similar to the Divine”. Part of man seeks to transcend the confines of self and, like a flame surging upward, seeks to reconnect to his source in heaven. 

The opening portion of the third book of the Torah, the book of Vayikra, offers the roadmap to resolving the built-in tension within man. The opening commandment of the third book presents the laws of the offerings. G-d tells Moses:  

Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When a man [Adam] from [among] you brings a sacrifice to the Lord; from animals, from cattle or from the flock you shall bring your sacrifice. (Leviticus 1:2) 

To create harmony within the human being man must seek, not only to come close to G-d but also to draw the animalistic, self-oriented, side of self to appreciate and value holiness and spirituality. The beginning of the verse addresses the G-dly soul within the person: “when a man [Adam] from among you brings a sacrifice to the Lord”. The second half of the verse “from animals, from cattle or from the flock you shall bring your sacrifice”, refers to the animal soul within man. The Hebrew word for sacrifice is “Karban” which means to draw close. G-d tells us that if the Divine soul within us desires to come close to heaven, we must resist the urge to forget about the animal side of self. Instead we must bring along the animal with us. We must channel the passion and desire of the animal soul to desire and connect to the spiritual. We must teach our animal, that the most pleasurable thing in life, is to connect to something greater than ourselves.    

Man is a hybrid of heaven and earth, Adam is both from the earth and similar to the Divine. The third book of the Torah, which focuses on the laws of the offerings, teaches us to manage the tension within our soul, to strive that not only our G-dly soul but also our animal soul, be drawn to the Divine. 

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

 

Learning From the Temple’s Vessels - ויקהל פקודי

Learning From the Temple’s Vessels  

The Torah devotes no less than four portions to the details of the temple constructed by the Jewish people in the desert. Our sages teach that G-d dwells, not only in the physical temple but also in the temple each of us creates within our own heart. We must, therefore, read these portions with a careful eye on the details, for hidden within the details lies insight on how to build a temple for G-d in our life. How to fill our own environment with holiness and inspiration. 

If we look carefully we will see that the three vessels of the temple, the ark, the table and the alter, differ in their dimensions in the following way. 

All the dimensions of the ark were half cubits:

They shall make an ark of acacia wood, two and a half cubits its length, a cubit and a half its width, and a cubit and a half its height. (Exodus 25:10)

The table’s dimensions were mixed, some of the cubists were complete, and some were half cubits: 

And you shall make a table of acacia wood, two cubits its length, one cubit its width, and a cubit and a half its height. (25:23)

Unlike the ark and the table, all the dimensions of the altar were complete: 

You shall make an altar for bringing incense up in smoke; you shall make it out of acacia wood.

It shall be one cubit long and one cubit wide, a square, and two cubits high; its horns shall be [one piece] with it. (30:1-2)

The dimensions of the vessels contain a powerful and transformative lesson for our own life. 

The ark, which contained the Torah, represents wisdom. The only way to acquire wisdom is to realize that we are “half”. Our knowledge, our perspective, is incomplete. Possessing much information makes one knowledgeable, but not wise, for wisdom is the capacity to appreciate the mystery of infinite knowledge. The Hebrew word for wisdom, “Chochmah”, consists of two words: “Koach Mah”, which means “the ability to ask, what?”. In order to attain wisdom, the dimensions of the ark teach us, one must always see himself as “half”, as incomplete. This will inspire the person to seek to grow and increase in wisdom.   

The table with its bread represents the blessings of material possessions, for Judaism teaches that we can serve G-d not only when we study Torah but also when we enjoy physical blessing. The dimensions of the table, however, were complete. The lesson is that in order for a person to enjoy material blessing he must follow the teaching of the Mishnah: “Who is wealthy? One who is satisfied with his lot”. In order for a person to benefit from material wealth one must feel as if he has everything he needs in order to fulfill his purpose on earth. 

Many people harbor the illusion that if they would have more wealth they would be happy. If they could only afford a vacation, car, private jet, or if they could only get into the next tax bracket, they would, they tell themselves, finally be happy. Yet the dimensions of the table, as well as human nature, tell us otherwise. Only the dimension of the height of the table was incomplete: one and a half cubits, . The lesson is that unless one learns to be satisfied with their lot, one will never be happy and always feel as if he is lacking and incomplete. 

The altar is the only vessel whose dimensions were complete: one cubit, by one cubit, by one cubit. The altar represents serving G-d through prayer and the performance of good deeds. Only through devotion and service to G-d can man become complete. A person by definition is finite and flawed, only by connecting to his source in heaven, can man escape the state of incompleteness and reconnect to infinity.

(Adapted from the Kli Yakar, Parshas Terumah).

Are Jews Stubborn? - כי תשא

Are Jews Stubborn?

It’s a tragic story. The Jewish people betrayed G-d on their honeymoon. Just forty days after they heard the Ten Commandments in G-d’s voice, while still camped at Mount Sinai, the Jewish people served the golden calf. 

Moses turns out to be the hero of the story. G-d wanted to destroy the people, yet Moses using multiple arguments, persuaded G-d to not only forgive the people, but also to give them the second set of tablets (since Moses smashed the first set of tablets), and to reaffirm his covenant with the people. 

Among the arguments that Moses put forth to evoke forgiveness, we read: 

"If I have now found favor in Your eyes, O Lord, let the Lord go now in our midst because they are a stiff-necked people, and You shall forgive our iniquity and our sin and thus secure us as Your possession." (Exodus 34:9)

This verse is seemingly strange: Moses asks G-d to forgive the people “because they are a stiff-necked people”, but why is being “stiff-necked” a reason to forgive? It would make sense for Moses to ask that they should be forgiven despite being a stiff-necked people. But why is being  “stiff-necked” a reason to forgive? 

The truth is that almost every force and energy in the world is neither good nor bad, but rather neutral. Stubbornness is a case in point. The stubbornness of the Jews caused them to sin and harm their relationship with G-d. Moses, however, put forth a brilliantly novel argument: stubbornness is a cause for forgiveness because that quality would allow the Jewish people to cleave to G-d despite all the persecution and difficulties they experienced. Moses makes the point that the only way the Jewish people would survive throughout history, when mighty empires come and go, is because of their steadfast, stubborn, faith and devotion to G-d and his Torah. 

Moses teaches us how to look at the seemingly negative aspects of our personality, and inspires us to realize that every part of our character can indeed be used to enhance our relationship with G-d and holiness. The “stubbornness”, when channeled correctly, is a cause for forgiveness, and will reveal the best within ourselves. 

 

Make Some Noise - תצוה

Make Some Noise

The high priest wore eight garments as he performed the service in the sanctuary. The garments were designed for “honor and beauty”. One critical component of the garments was the bells at the hem of the robe. As the Torah commands:  

And on its bottom hem you shall make pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson wool, on its bottom hem all around, and golden bells in their midst all around...

It shall be on Aaron when he performs the service, and its sound shall be heard when he enters the Holy before the Lord and when he leaves, so that he will not die. (Exodus 28:33-35)

Why was the noise so important? Why was it so critical that “his sound shall be heard”, to the extent that if the sound was not heard he would die? It is even more surprising when we consider that the garments the high priest wore when he entered the holy of holies on Yom Kippur did not have bells and did not produce noise!  

Noise is a symbol of passion. When a person experiences the extraordinary or unusual the person becomes excited and enthused. This is reflected in the spiritual service of a Jew. There are moments when a Jew is in a spiritual state of tranquility, when he or she feels close to G-d, in touch with his or her soul, and in harmony with his mission and purpose. When experiencing this state of harmony a Jew is in a state of “righteousness”. There are however moments when a Jew feels chaos and tension within himself. He feels pulled away from his spiritual purpose and source and pulled towards his destructive impulses. In these moments, life is more of a battlefield than a vacation resort. In  these moments, a Jew must cultivate a sense of strength and must passionately “escape” the forces of negativity just as one would run to escape danger. 

Ironically, the interaction with negativity creates passion and “noise” which surpasses the energy of the “righteous”, tranquil, individual. For the passion of the escape from negativity can create a more profound yearning and desire to connect to G-d. 

The Torah tells the high priest that when entering the temple he must appreciate and represent not just the people who naturally feel connected to holiness, but rather Aharon must appreciate that G-d values the passion and noise produced by the struggle. 

On Yom Kippur, the day of the year, when the essence of every Jew is revealed, there were no bells on the garments of the high priest. On Yom Kippur, every Jew is in a state of “righteousness”. There is no struggle because every soul feels at home with G-d. The rest of the year, however, the Torah teaches us to celebrate the struggle. For the noise produced by transforming the negativity is precisely the noise that G-d is waiting to hear. 

(Adapted from Lekutei Sichos 16 Tizaveh 2). 

 

Three Dimensions of a Wholesome Relationship - תרומה

Three Dimensions of a Wholesome Relationship 

Every Jewish home has the potential of becoming a home for G-d, similar to the tabernacle which we read about in this week’s portion. Our sages teach that “when man and woman merit, the Divine presence dwells among them”, for  human relationships are a reflection of the relationship between the supernal bride and groom, the Jewish people and G-d. 

The tabernacle had three sections: (1) the innermost chamber, the holy of holies, which contained nothing but the ark of covenant (2) the outer chamber, the holy, which contained the Menorah, the table for the showbread, and the incense altar (3) the courtyard which contained the outer alter upon which the offerings were offered. These sections, and the vessels they contain, represent  three dimensions in our relationship with G-d, as well as three dimensions in the human relationship between husband and wife.

The outer chamber (2) represents the emotional bond. The three vessels within the outer chamber represent the three primary emotions necessary for a wholesome relationship. The Menorah represents the attribute of Chesed (love, kindness, giving), the desire to become one, the yearning to connect. Love alone is insufficient. Because love is an expression of self. In order to truly relate to someone else, one needs the figurative table of bread, which represents Gevurah (respect, discipline). Respect is just as critical as love. Respect is the ability to understand that our partner has  their own identity with a perspective, and needs, different from our own. If love is the drive to become one, respect is making space for the other’s individuality.  Respect allows one to reach the third, and deepest emotion. The incense altar symbolizes Tiferet, (compassion and empathy). Tiferet is the ability to feel connected to someone who is distinct, to sense the harmony in two distinct voices uniting. 

The courtyard (3) is where offerings were brought on the altar, representing the ability to use the physical aspects of the world in the service of G-d. When one uses a physical object to do a good deed he is “elevating” the object and connecting it to holiness. The same is true in human relationships. The outer courtyard represents the ability to use experiences to enhance the relationship. Any experience can cause tension and separation or it can be used to enhance a bond. For example, when eating together, the food could be a distraction, where each person is chiefly concerned about their food, or it could be an experience that brings a couple closer to each other.     

While the courtyard represents how physical objects and experiences can enhance the relationship, and the outer chamber represents the emotional relationship, the inner chamber, the holy of holies, represents a deeper truth. The Cherubim covering the ark,  in the shape of a male and female, emerged from a single piece of gold. At the core of our identity our soul is one with G-d. We are not two separate entities seeking to connect  but rather, the soul is a part of G-d. The same is true regarding human relationships: the inner chamber is the intimate union which expresses the mystical truth that man and woman are one entity; two halves of one soul.    

 

The Sapphire Brick - משפטים

The Sapphire Brick 

One of the most mysterious verses in all the five books of Moses appears in this week’s Parsha describing the vision of the elders of the Jewish people at Mount Sinai: 

and they perceived the God of Israel, and beneath His feet was like the forming of a sapphire brick and like the appearance of the heavens for clarity. (Exodus 24:10). 

What are we to make of this vision? Brick? Sapphire? Clarity of the heavens? This is obviously a metaphor, but what  message is embedded in this description of the vision?

Rashi explains that although G-d is infinite and transcendent, He is not removed from the experiences, the pain and the joy of the Jewish people. In Rash’si words: 

like the forming of a sapphire brick: that was before Him at the time of the bondage, to remember Israel’s straits [i.e.,] that they were enslaved in the making of bricks. 

and like the appearance of the heavens for clarity: Since they were [finally] redeemed, there was light and joy before Him. 

According to Rashi, there are two clauses in the verse which refer to two distinct times. The first is the brick, which refers to the time when the Jewish people were suffering in Egyptian slavery, when their primary labor was the creation of bricks. The second clause, the appearance of the heavens for clarity, represents the joy that G-d experienced when the Jewish people were finally redeemed from slavery. 

The most important message at the greatest Divine revelation in our history, was that our G-d is a personal G-d, who is aware of, and emotionally involved in, our challenges, suffering and triumphs.

The Kabbalists see another message hidden within this vision, a message which captures the core of what Judaism is all about. According to the Kabbalistic interpretation it is but one vision: a sapphire brick that is as pure and as transparent as the heavens”. A brick, in contrast to a stone, is a human invention. In the book of Genesis we read how people decided to create the tower of Babel in a valley, where there were no stones: And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks and fire them thoroughly"; so the bricks were to them for stones”. Bricks are man made, while stones are excavated from mountains, which are part of nature created by G-d. 

Bricks are made from earth. The farthest thing from heaven is earth. Yet this vision tells us that the brick, the earth, is as pure as the heavens! This vision captures the essence of Judaism. Many spiritual seekers seek to flee earthly life and try to escape to the heavens by immersing themselves in spirituality. Yet Judaism’s essential message is that G-d places us upon earth in order to create bricks that are as pure as the heavens. 

When we live life here on earth, when we engage in eating, business, raising a family or any other activity, we are creating man made spirituality. We are using earthly material yet we are placing the earth into a fire to create a brick. The passion and love for holiness is the fire that transforms the earthy into the spiritual. We do not escape to the heavens to become pure instead we transform the earth to be like the heavens. The essential message of Judaism is that, yes, the brick, earthly material, when used with  fiery passion for G-d, can be just as shiny as sapphire, and just as pure as the heavens.  

Adapted from Torah Or, Mishpatim, discourse “Vetachas Raglav”. 

Does G-d Create on Shabbat? - יתרו

Does G-d Create on Shabbat?

The fourth commandment of the ten commandments seems straightforward, we are commanded to rest on the seventh day of the week, just as G-d rested on the seventh day of creation: 

Six days may you work and perform all your labor,

but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord, your God; you shall perform no labor, neither you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, your beast, nor your stranger who is in your cities.

For [in] six days the Lord made the heaven and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it. (Exodus 20:8-10)

Chassidic philosophy teaches that creation is not an event that happened in the distant past, but rather creation is perpetual. The word of G-d that created the universe must continuously breath life into the creation. If the vivifying energy would cease to create for even one moment, the universe would cease to exist. This deeper understanding of the meaning of creation raises a fascinating question: how does the universe exist on Shabbat? If G-d rests from creating the world on Shabbat, if the flow of life is turned off, the world should cease to exist on the seventh day! 

In the book of Genesis, the Torah tells us that the universe was created with words: “G-d said let there be light, and there was light”, “And God said, "Let the water that is beneath the heavens gather into one place, and let the dry land appear, and it was so.” Speech was chosen to be the metaphor for G-d’s creative power, because speech is the tool that allows one to communicate with someone who is outside oneself. When one is thinking deep thoughts the idea remains within himself, speech is the tool which allows him to communicate with someone who has a distinct and separate personality and perspective. Speech, therefore, is the perfect metaphor for creation. Before creation the Divine energy was included within G-d’s “thought”, absorbed within the infinite light, and did not express itself in a reality outside of G-d. When G-d spoke, the energy within G-d was projected outward, creating a reality which felt separate and apart from the creator. 

On Shabbat, G-d ceases to speak. The words, the divine energy, return back to their source within G-d himself.

How then does creation exist on Shabbat? On Shabbat the world is sustained not by Divine speech but rather by Divine thought. On Shabbat the energy of the world, and the world itself, is elevated and reconnected to its source within the Divine. The Kabbalists  refer to it as “the elevation of the worlds”: on Shabbat we can escape the awareness of Divine speech, where we feel separate and apart form G-d, and we can enter the awareness of Divine thought, where we feel surrounded and enveloped within the Divine presence. We can enter the state of Divine thought where we are not a separate entity but rather included in the Divine holiness. 

This Kabbalistic insight has practical ramifications as well. During the six days of creation the energy flows outward, on Shabbat the Divine energy returns to its source and flows inward. We too follow the same pattern: during the six days of the week we are in the mode of “speech”, focused on achieving and accomplishing in the world outside of us. We tackle our tasks and to-do lists and strive to impact the world around us. We strive to succeed in the surrounding environment. On Shabbat we turn inward. We enter the space of thought. We occupy ourselves with the things that are important to our internal self. We stop working on improving our circumstances and we return to our inner core. During the sacred twenty four hours of Shabbat we spend our time and attention on our inner core, reconnecting to our soul, our family and our relationship with G-d. 

(Adapted from Lekutei Torah, Devarim 66:3 )  

What is Your Craft? - בשלח

What is Your Craft?

People tend to define themselves by their craft, as they introduce themselves they will tell you: I am a doctor, a lawyer, an artist. What they are telling you is that their craft is something they engage in constantly, to the extent that  they identify fully with that craft. 

As the Jewish people were facing the red sea on one side and the pursuing Egyptian army on the other the verse tells us: 

Pharaoh drew near, and the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold! the Egyptians were advancing after them. They were very frightened, and the children of Israel cried out to the Lord.

Rashi explains: 

Cried out: They seized the craft of their ancestors [i.e., they prayed]. Regarding Abraham the verse states: ‘Abraham rose early in the morning to the place where he had stood before G-d.’ Regarding Issac it states: “...to speak in the field’. Regarding Jacob it states: ‘and he arrived at the place’. (Rashi indicates that the terms “stood”, “to speak” and “arrived” all allude to prayer).

Rashi’s commentary presents many difficulties, to name a few: 1: why does Rashi define prayer as a craft, instead of the conventional interpretation that prayer is a request from G-d. 2: the verses which Rashi quotes are verses which merely allude to prayer. Why doesn’t Rashi quote verses which state clearly that the patriarchs prayed and requested that G-d help them? 

The revolutionary idea that Rashi introduces here, is that prayer is not something we do to achieve a specific purpose or in response to a specific need, but rather, it is our craft. The words of prayer and Torah study are our craft, we constantly engage in them, not for a specific goal, to express a need, or to acquire knowledge, but rather because our relationship with G-d touches us at our core and defines our identity. 

This explains why Rashi quotes the verses that merely allude to prayer. The verses that state explicitly that the patriarchs prayed, are referring to prayer for a specific need, while the verses quoted by Rashi allude to prayer without identifying the specific purpose of the prayer. These verses demonstrate that the Patriarchs prayed not for a need but because it was their “craft”. 

You may spend your day as a merchant or a banker; as a volunteer, teacher or philosopher. But, as a descendant of our Patriarchs, your true craft is expressing your relationship with G-d by speaking the holy words of prayer and Torah. Don’t wait for an opportunity or reason to connect, do so today. Express your craft. Express your true core.    

(Adapted from Likutei Sichos Bishalach 11.1)

Why Celebrate the New Moon? - בא

Why Celebrate the New Moon?

The spiritual definition of Egypt is stagnation. The feeling that we are defined by our past experiences and negative habits. Exodus from Egypt can happen only when we recognize the potential for renewal and capacity for growth. Freedom is the recognition that the person we were yesterday does not define the person we want to be today. 

Which explains why, before they were told to prepare for the exodus, the Israelites were first commanded to establish the new Hebrew month with the sighting of the new moon:

The Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying,

This month shall be to you the head of the months; to you it shall be the first of the months of the year.

The Hebrew word for “month” (Chodesh) comes from the word “new” (Chadash). Thus, explains Rashi, the verse means (not “this month” but) “this renewal”: 

This renewal. He [God] showed him [Moses] the moon in its renewal and said to him, “When the moon renews itself, you will have a new month”

The Israelites were commanded to count time based on the renewal of the moon, because the theme of renewal is key to redemption and freedom. Looking up at the night sky and seeing the moon recreating itself, inspires us to internalize the message of freedom, the possibility of renewal invested within our soul.

The renewal of the moon has a deeper dimension as well. 

Perhaps one of the most significant teachings of Chassidic philosophy, is the idea that creation is ongoing and continuous. The Divine energy that brings the universe into existence must continually be invested in the creation, breathing it into existence. If, G-d forbid, the Divine energy would cease to create the world for a single moment, the world would immediately revert back to its original state of nothingness. 

The reason we don’t see the creation as continuous, the reason we don’t always sense the presence of G-d  around us, is because we are in a state of spiritual exile, which is defined as the concealment of the creative power invested in every creation. Spiritual redemption, is the recognition that when we look at a stone, a flower, the sky, or a blade of grass, we are seeing the continuous creative power of G-d.  

The commandment to celebrate the new moon empowers us to recognize the Divine energy renewing the creation at every moment, allowing us to feel the exciting potential in every moment of life, to sense the presence of G-d in every creation, and to believe in our power to renew ourselves. 

 

From Seed to Fruit Tree - וארא

From Seed to Fruit Tree 

There was once a seed who felt pretty good about himself. He was good looking, quite tasty, had a healthy self esteem, and overall  had a wonderful and pleasant existence. 

Then, one day, the good times came to an end. 

He was taken to the field and buried in the earth. As he began to  germinate he was frightened of losing his identity and sense of self. Indeed overtime he was left dormant, cold and covered in earth. All growth and life seemed frozen. Over time however, a miracle occurred, the seed germinated and eventually grew far beyond its wildest imagination. From a seed it was transformed into a fruit bearing tree. 

The story of the seed is the story of the exile in Egypt. Referring to the experience of the Israelites, the prophet Isaiah proclaims: 

Those who came, whom Jacob caused to take root, Israel flourished and blossomed and they filled the face of the world with fruitage. (Isaiah 27:6 )

The difficulties, the pain, the numbness of exile were, in reality, a process which allowed us to let go of our limited identity, and connect to the infinity of G-d within our soul, and blossom exponentially. 

This truth can be observed in many areas of life. The greatest innovations, the most profound flashes of creativity, usually occur after a period of deep frustration with the status quo. When the scholar is truly frustrated and in pain because of an intellectual problem, when the artist experiences creative block, they are frustrated by the confines of their current perspective. The writer may think that the writer’s block is the problem, however, the reality is that the problem is the writer himself, for he is trapped by his limited perspective. The frustration produced by the block is the solution. The pain of frustration, breaks the shell, allowing the artist to touch the infinite reservoir of potential within their subconscious soul.   

This explains the conversation between Moses and G-d at the opening of this week’s portion.

Moses’s first attempt to convince the Pharaoh to free the Israelites ended in disaster. Not only did Pharaoh ignore his plea, but Pharaoh intensified the harshness of the slavery. Moses returned to G-d and protested in pain: 

Moses returned to the Lord and said, "O Lord! Why have You harmed this people? Why have You sent me?

Since I have come to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has harmed this people, and You have not saved Your people." (Exodus 5:22-23)    

In the opening verses of this week’s Parsha. G-d responds to Moses: 

God spoke to Moses, and He said to him, "I am the Lord.

I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob with [the name] Almighty God, but [with] My name Hashem, I did not become known to them.” (ibid. 6:2-3)

How do G-d’s words answer Moses’ question?

Moses wanted to know why the difficulties had intensified. G-d explained that the patriarchs connected to a limited expression of G-dliness, as G-d expresses himself within the natural world, but they were not able to connect to the true infinity of G-d, to the name Hashem, which transcends time and space and limitation itself. Yet through the pain of the slavery the Israelites were able to break through to connect to the true infinity of G-d. Like the seed, they too lost their previous identity, yet precisely because they were forced out of their old, limited, self, they were able to grow into something far greater. They were able to transcend their limitations and connect to the true infinity of G-d. 

What about us? Do we too need to experience suffering in order to connect to the infinity of G-d? 

The Zohar explains that we can achieve exponential growth through spiritual challenge and effort. The spiritual equivalent of the slavery in Egypt is the challenge of engaging in Torah study, struggling to understand its depth and breath and laboring to reach the correct decision from the sea of discussion, debate, and opinions. The Zohar tells us that the challenge and difficulty that will force us to let go, and, like the germinating seed, break free of the confines of our finite existence, can be self imposed. When we challenge ourselves to grow in our study of Torah and commitment to Judaism, we hit the boundaries of our finite existence. The difficulty, the frustration, the pain, are the growing pains of the germinating seed. We must let go of our limited identity before we can experience infinity.    

(Adapted from Torah Or Shmos, and Lekutei Sichos Vaera vol. 21 sicha 2) 

What were Moses’ Credentials? - שמות

What Were Moses’ Credentials?

Why was Moses chosen to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt, and be their most important leader in history? Was it because he was smart? Charismatic? Handsome? Humble? Persuasive? He may or may not have had the above qualities, but the Torah does not allude to any of these qualities, as the reason he was chosen to lead. 

Before G-d appeared to him at the burning bush, all the Torah tells us about Moses is three short episodes. It is therefore logical to assume that, perhaps, those stories give a clue as to the reason he was chosen. Indeed, all three stories share a common theme: Moses could not stand by silently while others were being oppressed. Moses consistently protected the oppressed from the oppressor. 

The first story reads as follows:   

Now it came to pass in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brothers and looked at their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man of his brothers.

He turned this way and that way, and he saw that there was no man; so he struck the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. (Exodus 2:11-12)

Moses was raised in the Egyptian palace as the adopted son of Pharaoh's daughter. When seeing the Egyptian hit the Jew, he could have looked the other way and returned to his comfortable life in the palace. But Moses could not ignore the suffering of his Jewish brother. He intervened at great risk to himself (when Pharaoh  heard the story he tried to have Moses killed and Moses was forced to flee to Midian).   

The second episode  occurred the following day:

He went out on the second day, and behold, two Hebrew men were quarreling, and he said to the wicked one, "Why are you going to strike your friend?" (ibid. 13)

It is natural to protect a member of one’s own group against an outsider (as when Moses protected a Jew from an Egyptian), yet in the second story Moses intervened to protect a Jew from a member of his own group. When the oppressor is a member of one’s own group, the natural instinct to rally in support of one’s own group in the face of a challenge from the outside, is not in play, and thus it is easier to ignore. But Moses did not hesitate to intervene. 

The third episode: 

Moses fled from before Pharaoh. He stayed in the land of Midian, and he sat down by a well.

Now the chief of Midian had seven daughters, and they came and drew [water], and they filled the troughs to water their father's flocks.

But the shepherds came and drove them away; so Moses arose and rescued them and watered their flocks. (ibid. 15-17)

Moses had just arrived as a refugee in a foreign land. He saw how the shepherds of Midian harassed the female shepherds. Both parties in the dispute were strangers. The natural tendency would be to lie low and mind one’s own business. 

Moses intervened. 

All we know about Moses before he was chosen is that he could not ignore the cruelty of oppression. Moses stood with the oppressed not only when an outsider oppressed his brother, not only when one of his brothers was oppressed by his fellow brother, but also  when a stranger was oppressed by a complete stranger.

 

Why Would Judah Dip His Shirt in Wine? - ויחי

Why would Judah Dip his Shirt in Wine?

Jacob gathered his children before he passed away and gave each one a unique blessing. Judah, the fourth son received the greatest blessing, a blessing for leadership as well as a blessing that his land should be blessed with abundant fertility. In beautifully poetic language Jacob states:

He binds his donkey to a vine, and to a tendril [he binds] his young donkey. [He launders] his garment with wine, and with the blood of grapes his cloak.

He is red eyed from wine and white toothed from milk. (Genesis 49:11-12).

In addition to the literal blessing for an abundance of wine and milk, the blessings contain a figurative, spiritual, meaning as well. 

Wine represents passion and love. Wine awakens emotion within a person, bringing to the fore emotions that are sometimes hidden within the heart. Jacob made two references to wine, “wine” and “blood of grapes”, because, generally speaking, there are two forms of love. Love as a feeling of closeness, is referred to as “wine that brings joy”. When one feels the love of closeness he is filled with a feeling of closeness, pleasantness and tranquility. Yet there is another form of love, referred to as “intoxicating wine”, which is a love that comes from a feeling of distance. When one feels apart from the beloved the heart is filled with a sense of yearning, of longing to be connected. This wine is intoxicating. Rather than pleasantness one feels the pain of distance, which fuels the lover to draw closer to the beloved with a renewed sense of dedication and passion.   

The first three brothers were blessed with spiritual awareness. According to the Kabbalah, Reuben, Shimon and Levi respectively embodied the attributes of  love, awe and closeness to G-d. Judah was chosen to be the leader because he represented action. Judah was blessed with leadership specifically because he had the humility and dedication to take responsibility for his actions, although this caused him great embarrassment. 

Jacob blessed Judah “He launders his garment with wine”. Garments represent action,  they are not the person himself but rather they are tools through which he interacts with the world around him. Thus, after Judah is blessed for having the strength of character to take the proper action, Jacob blessed him that he launder the action with wine; that the deed be immersed and infused with love and a sense of closeness. “And with the blood of grapes his cloak”. However, in the moments when Judah is not able to feel the pleasantness of the joyous wine of closeness, he can still feel the blood of grapes. The distance can create a passionate longing love, creating a deep yearning that will overcome the obstacles and, once again, unite the lover with the beloved. 

Next time you take an action to help another person or to connect to G-d, dip it in wine or blood of grapes, imbue it with the pleasant joy of closeness or the profound passion of yearning love. 

(Adapted from Torah Ohr, Vayechi) 

 

Which Speech Would you Give? - ויגש

Which Speech Would you Give?

Joseph just dropped the bomb. He revealed his identity to his brothers. The Egyptian prime minister they were standing before, was, in fact, their own brother Joseph who they sold into Egyptian slavery twenty two years earlier. 

They were stunned. 

Joseph spoke. 

Here is the speech Joseph did not deliver:

Brothers, while it is true that I have attained success, greatness and power, please do not take any credit for that. For while your actions ultimately led to my rise to power, you had nothing but evil in your hearts and minds. Your intention was to sell me as a slave. 

Here is the speech Joseph delivered: 

Brothers, do not feel bad that you intended to sell me as a slave. For G-d arranged that the result of your terrible act was that I can save our family and reign over all of Egypt. 

[“Do not be sad, and let it not trouble you that you sold me here, for it was to preserve life that God sent me before you... And now, you did not send me here, but God, and He made me a father to Pharaoh, a lord over all his household, and a ruler over the entire land of Egypt. Genesis 45:5-8].  

Instead of spending emotional energy on feeling resentment and anger against his brothers, Joseph was able to see only the positive, the hand of G-d that led him to success. Joseph saw only the good that came from his brothers cruel act, not their evil intention. 

Incredibly, Joseph was able to see past the negativity and focus only on the good. He was able to do so because of his unique philosophy in life. Joseph understood that wherever he may be he was an emissary of God to carry out the Divine will. In his words to his brothers he used the word  “sent”. To Joseph, the important questions were not, who harmed me? Who can I blame for my real or imagined difficulties?In every situation, Joseph asked himself: why am I here? For what purpose did G-d send me here? What is my mission in this place?

Every time we encounter a challenge or difficulty in our lives, we too have a choice. We can respond with resentment and anger or we can follow Joseph's example. We too are G-d’s emissaries not only to survive the challenge, but rather, like Joseph, to “rule over it”, to transform the obstacle into an experience of life and growth.

Next time you face a challenge, which speech will you give?  

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, 5 Teves 5747)

Why Joseph Framed Benjamin - מקץ

Why Joseph Framed Benjamin

The terrible famine brought ten of Jacob’s sons before the Viceroy of Egypt to purchase bread. The viceroy, who, unbeknownst to them, was their brother Joseph who they sold as a slave, accused them of being spies and demanded that they bring their brother Benjamin to Egypt. Before Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers, he framed Benjamin by planting his silver goblet in Benjamin’s bag and charging  Benjamin with stealing. Judah stood up for Benjamin, requesting that Judah himself be punished instead of Benjamin. Joseph then revealed his identity to his brothers, and the extended family was reunited with Joseph and they all settled in Egypt.   

The conventional understanding is that the entire plot of Joseph and his brothers serves to explain how the Jewish people came to live in Egypt and how they eventually became enslaved to the Egyptians.The Kabbalistic reading is precisely the opposite. Every step that Joseph took was, in reality, paving the way not for the eventual enslavement but rather for the spiritual fortification of the Jews in exile, which would ultimately lead to the redemption.

From the mystical perspective, in order for their descendants to survive the harsh exile, the brothers of Joseph, who were the heads of the tribes of Israel, had to experience the oppression and accusations of the Egyptian monarch, who was, in truth, their brother in disguise. When the Jewish people, like their ancestors before them, would feel subjected to the Egyptian monarch, they would remember the story of Joseph and realize that there was a deeper reality in play. The hidden reality is one where the oppressive monarch, was their “brother”, who would ultimately bring benefit to them. The exile was a process that would refine them and lead them to great material and spiritual wealth.

In addition to physical subjection, exile also has a spiritual dimension. When we are in exile we are not in our natural environment. In exile we are living a life that is not consistent with our inner core. Our natural, inherent, awareness of G-d and connection to the spirituality of our inner soul is compromised, as our emotions and aspirations are directed exclusively to our physical survival.

Joseph empowered the Jewish people  to overcome the spiritual numbness that is exile.  

The Torah describes how Joseph had Benjamin framed:

Then he commanded the overseer of his house, saying, "Fill the men's sacks with food, as much as they can carry, and put each man's money into the mouth of his sack.

And my goblet, the silver goblet, put into the mouth of the sack of the youngest, and his purchase money." And he did according to Joseph's word, which he had spoken. (Genesis 44:1-2)

According to the mystics, the silver goblet represents passionate love and joy. The Hebrew word for silver (kesef) is the same word that means yearning and longing. The goblet contains wine which, as the verse says, brings joy to the heart of man.

Joseph’s planting the goblet in Benjamin’s sack empowers us to realize that hidden within us is a goblet that has the capacity to experience the love and joy which a relationship with G-d embodies. Joseph planted the goblet in the sack of Benjamin to remind us that we can dispel the darkness of exile by searching for the hidden reservoirs of positive emotions planted within us. When we discover the goblet and taste the wine, the spiritual exile dissolves paving the way for the physical redemption as well.

(Adapted from Or Hatorah Bireyshis 6, page 2206)

How to Climb Out of the Pit - וישב

How to Climb Out of the Pit 

If you happen to live on planet earth it is likely that occasionally you will feel trapped. You may feel something holding you back, keeping your spirits down and depleting your joy and passion for life. What is the secret to redemption, to escaping the confines and trappings of negativity?

In this week’s Torah portion we begin to read about the turbulent life of Joseph. We read of his going from being his father’s favored child, to being sold as a slave in Egypt. If that was not bad enough, he was then placed in prison on false charges. We read about how Joseph descended to the lowest state of society. In the coming weeks we read about the dramatic and abrupt reversal of his fortunes. Joseph was taken directly from prison to become the leader of Egypt.

What was the moment that triggered the redemption for Joseph? What was the turning point that ultimately led to Joseph’s freedom and ascent to power? 

With Joseph in prison were two of Pharaoh’s ministers. Each of them dreamed a mysterious dream on the same night and in the morning they were troubled by the dream. Joseph’s interaction with them is what ultimately brought salvation to Joseph (and by extension, to his family and to the entire Egyptian economy): 

And Joseph came to them in the morning, and he saw them and behold, they were troubled.

And he asked Pharaoh's chamberlains who were with him in the prison of his master's house, saying, "Why are your faces sad today?" (Genesis 40:6-7)

This seemingly simple question “why are your faces sad today?” is what led to Joseph’s redemption. If Joseph was indifferent to their mood, if he had not inquired about what was troubling them he would not have had the opportunity to interpret their dreams and subsequently he would not have been recommended  to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams which led him to royalty. 

What is remarkable about the exchange is that Joseph himself had all the reasons in the world to be sad and bitter. He was in prison based on false charges and there was no realistic hope for him to be freed. Yet Joseph was able to break free from the constant focus and concern for self. Joseph transcended his own perspective and was concerned for the wellbeing of others. And indeed, this internal liberation, eventually brought salvation to Joseph and ultimately  to his entire family.  

Each of us has two souls within ourselves, The natural soul, which is self oriented, and the G-dly soul, which seeks to transcend the confines of self and connect to G-d and to the Divine spark within each and every person. When we feel confined and limited by difficulties or internal shortcomings and challenges, when we sense that we need to free ourselves from negativity, we should follow Joseph's lead. The best path to redemption is tapping in to our G-dly soul, reaching out and connecting to others. For the liberation from the confines of focusing exclusively on the self, will ultimately unleash broader liberation, freeing us to reach our fullest potential. 

(Adapted from Sichos Kodesh, Miketz 5734)

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