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Blog - Torah Insights

Ingredients of Joy - כי תבוא

Ingredients of Joy

The ceremony seems disproportionate to the actual gift. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Betrothal - כי תצא

Betrothal  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

 

Holy Witnesses - שופטים

Holy Witnesses 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Multi Layered Festivals - ראה

Multi Layered Festivals

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

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

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

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

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

(Adapted from Lekutei Sichos. Beracha vol. 29)

Meaning of a Meal - עקב

Meaning of a Meal 

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

Rav Naḥman said: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Adapted from Olas R’iyah). 

 

When You Go on the Road - ואתחנן

When You Go on the Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Nishmas Hamishnah)

 

 

Transformative Words - דברים

Transformative Words 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Chassidic commentary offers deeper insight. 

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

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

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

 

The Women of Menashe - מטות מסעי

The Women of Menashe

At the conclusion of the fourth book of the Torah the Jewish people were camped at the eastern bank of the Jordan River ready to cross into the promised land. We have reached the conclusion of the story of the five books of Moses. (The fifth book consists of Moses’ repetition of the first four books, there are, however, no new episodes in the fifth book).

We would expect the final verses of the fourth book to capture an important story, idea  or lesson that would express the culmination of the story of our people. Yet, the concluding story seems trivial, and inconsequential for us today. 

At the conclusion of the fourth book we read about how the members of the tribe of Menashe approached Moses, concerned about the possibility of the five daughters of Tezelafchad marrying members of another tribe. Earlier in the story, in response to their request, the daughters of Tzelafchod were granted the right to inherit their deceased father’s portion of the land of Israel. If the daughters of Tzelafchad would marry members of another tribe, they would then ultimately pass the inherited land to their own children, the land would then be transferred from their tribe to the tribe of their husbands (as the tribal division is patriarchal), depriving the tribe of Menashe of tribal land. Moses agreed with the members of Menashe, and instructed the daughters to marry within their tribe. The book concludes by telling us that the women did just that:

Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah married their cousins.

They married into the families of the sons of Manasseh the son of Joseph, and their inheritance remained with the tribe of their father's family. (Numbers 36:11-12)

Upon deeper analysis, this episode does, in fact, capture a central theme of the Torah; the story of these five women symbolize the purpose of the Jewish people on this earth.

The backstory is as follows: two of the tribes, Reuven and Gad, requested that they be granted land east of the Jordan, outside the borders of the land of Israel. After some discussion, Moses reluctantly conceded to their request and allocated the land east of the Jordan to them. Surprisingly, although they did not request it, Moses also decided to settle half the tribe of Menashe east of the Jordan. 

Why did Moses split the tribe of Menashe and place half the tribe outside the land of Israel? 

Moses, explains the Rebbe, was teaching us that our mission is not merely to live a holy and wholesome life in Israel, but rather our task is to spread the holiness of Israel to the rest of the world, to infuse all lands with the holiness of the land of Israel. While Reuben and Gad did not want to enter Israel, Menashe, divided between both banks of the Jordan, had a foot in both worlds. Half the tribe was in Israel, and half the tribe was tasked with expanding the holiness of Israel to foreign soil. 

More than anyone else in the tribe, The five sisters embodied this message. For while the collective tribe of Menashe lived on both sides of the Jordan, every individual member of the tribe lived either in Israel or outside of Israel. The five daughters of Tzelafchad, however, married their cousins who lived on the other side of the Jordan. Thus they  inherited land and settled on both sides of the Jordan, they optimized the Torah’s central purpose: first to create a holy environment in Israel and then to spread that holiness all throughout the earth. 

We who live outside of Israel must look to these remarkable women for inspiration. Our presence in the diaspora should not be a rejection of the holiness of Israel, as was the attitude of Reuben and Gad, but rather, like the five sisters of the tribe of Menashe, we are tasked with spreading the wholeness of Israel wherever we may be. We too, like Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah live, figuratively, with a foot on either side of the Jordan River. May we succeed in ushering in the era when “G-d will expand your boundaries” (Deuteronomy 12:20) and “the (holiness of) land of Israel is destined to spread to all lands” (Sifri, Devarim).

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe Lekutei Sichos, Matos Masei vol. 28

 

Selecting the Successor - פנחס

Selecting the Successor

Toward the end of the forty year journey in the desert, Moses turned to G-d and asked that a leader be appointed to succeed him, as we read in this week’s portion: 

Moses spoke to the Lord, saying:

Let the Lord, the God of spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation 

who will go forth before them and come before them, who will lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord will not be like sheep without a shepherd." (Numbers 27:16) 

In these few words Moses described the task of the leader (“who will go forth before them and come before them, who will lead them out and bring them in”), but does Moses provide any insight into the perspective and mindset necessary to lead? 

The great Chassidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, known as the “defender of Israel” because of his inability to see anything negative in his fellow Jew, offered a powerful insight. Moses referred to G-d with an unusual title: “G-d of spirits of all flesh”. With these words Moses was alluding to the quality required of a true leader. A leader must understand that a human being is a composite of both body and soul, both “spirit” and “flesh”. A great leader who seeks to inspire his people to get in touch with their inner soul, their spirit, and soar to great heights, may sometimes forget that a human being is also “flesh”, plagued with challenges, weaknesses and deficiencies. A great leader, explained Rabbi Levi Yitzchok, must accept and love his people despite their shortcomings, he must defend them even when they make mistakes, because he must remember that people are imperfect by design. They are not angels. For G-d himself created the hybrid of spirit and flesh otherwise known as the human being.    

Perhaps we can build on Rabbi Levi Yitzchok’s insight. 

Every person is a mix of spirit and flesh, a mix of the self centered and the transcendent, a combination of desire for the fleeting material pleasures and longing for spiritual connection. A proper spiritual leader understands that the spirit and the matter do not have to be at war with each other. The spirit can be found within the flesh and the flesh can serve as an expression of the spirit. The leader who will be chosen to lead the people of Israel, helping them to apply the Torah study of the desert to material life in Israel, must teach them that, (material life does not have to be a contradiction to a life of holiness. Our material pleasures can be a tool in the service of G-d, enhancing our ability to fulfill the purpose of our creation. 

Living a wholesome life is experiencing the Divine not only in the spiritual but also in the material. Discovering that indeed G-d is the spirits of all flesh.  

 

What Kind of Prophet Will You Be? - בלק

What Kind of Prophet Will You Be?

Billam, the gentile prophet hired by the king of Moab to curse the Jews, was as great a prophet as Moses. He, too, possessed the ability to see the mystical energies that lay beneath the surface, hidden in the subconscious. Despite G-d’s reiterating to Billam that the Jews are blessed and must not be cursed, he nevertheless traveled to the plains of Moab with the intention of cursing the Jews. Billam knew that he would be unable to curse the Jews without G-d’s permission, but Billam was confident in his own ability to persuade G-d to allow the Jews to be cursed. 

Billam’s plan was to draw attention to the negativity and sins of the Jewish people. He would evoke their shortcomings by looking toward the desert, gazing at the places where they had committed sins. Billam was sure that by focusing on the negativity within the Jews, G-d’s attribute of judgement would be awakened, allowing him to use that moment to curse them.

Billam’s plan failed. Instead of cursing the Jews, he offered the most beautiful blessings. He tried to get G-d to focus on their negativity, yet G-d would not pay attention: 

He does not look at evil in Jacob, and has seen no perversity in Israel; the Lord, his God, is with him, and he has the King's friendship.

Rashi offers two interpretations as to why G-d would not see evil in the Jewish people despite their being far from perfect. The first interpretation, from Onkelos the translator, says that the sin that G-d did not see, was the sin of idol worship; while the Jewish people may have had other sins, at that point they were free of idol worship.The second interpretation is far more profound, and Rashi himself refers to it as a “beautiful” interpretation: 

Another explanation: According to its plain sense it can receive a beautiful exposition:  He does not see — i. e., the Holy One, blessed be He, does not see the iniquity which is in Jacob: when they transgress His words He does not deal so strictly with them as to pay regard to their iniquitous doings and their transgression by which they infringe His law. 

According to the second interpretation, G-d does not focus on the negativity, because He sees their core and essence. To his loving eyes, their shortcomings do not define them.  Their frailties and imperfections are but an opportunity for transformation and elevation.

The western world’s notion of love is that people fall in love because they are blinded to  the shortcomings of the other. Once the intoxicating effect of love wears off, the shortcomings emerge and challenge the love. The Jewish idea of love is radically different. When one experiences love one is not blind to the other’s shortcomings,  they simply don’t have any effect on the love because they are seen against the backdrop of love. The shortcoming does not define the person and is therefore not a contradiction to the love.   

There are generally two perspectives one can have in life. The first is the path of Billam who had the trait  of finding fault in every circumstance and person. Anticipating the negativity became a self fulfilling prophecy. The second perspective is the G-dly one. “He sees no iniquity in Jacob”, for He focuses on the positive within every experience and within every person. This perspective, too, becomes a self fulfilling prophecy, allowing the negativity to be channeled and transformed to goodness and beauty. 

What Kind of Prophet Will You Be?

 

Serpent, Symbol of Life? - חוקת

Serpent, Symbol of Life?  

The Jews complained, yet again, against G-d and Moses. G-d sent serpents who bit the Jewish people. When Moses prayed, G-d instructed Moses on a means to heal the Jews who were affected: 

The Lord said to Moses, "Make yourself a serpent and put it on a pole, and let whoever is bitten look at it and live.

Moses made a copper snake and put it on a pole, and whenever a snake bit a man, he would gaze upon the copper snake and live. (Numbers 21:8-9)

What was the purpose and function of the copper serpent? Did this not suggest that the serpent had mystical healing powers? Did this not seem idolatrous? 

Rashi, quoting the sages of the Mishnah, explains that indeed the serpent itself was not the source of the healing. The serpent placed on the pole caused the people to look heavenward and that would focus their attention upon G-d, the source of healing:  

Our Rabbis said, Does a snake cause death or life? However, when Israel looked heavenward and subjected their hearts to their Father in heaven, they would be healed, but if not, they would waste away.

According to the rabbis, the healing was a result of looking toward heaven. The question, however, still remains: why, of all things, should Moses raise a copper serpent? Why not have Moses raise his hands heavenward (as he did in the battle with Amalek)?

The serpent represents any challenge in our life that distracts or prevents us from living a wholesome, meaningful and joyous life. The serpent's bite represents the debilitating challenges which stand in our way. G-d told Moses that the way to overcome challenge, the way to heal pain, is to raise the serpent itself on a poll. To look at the serpent, at the challenge, as it exists in its heavenly source. For in its source the purpose of the challenge is not to obstruct, but rather the objective is to offer an opportunity for growth, an opening to conquer new frontiers and experience a deeper part of the self. The Hebrew word for pole, (Nes), is also the root of the word test (Nisayon). What appears as an insurmountable challenge is, in truth, a means to be elevated to a higher state of consciousness. 

Each of us, explains the Zohar, has a spark of Moses within ourselves. We too are able to elevate the serpent. We too can “put it on a pole”. When we come face to face with the serpent, we can ask ourselves: how can this encounter make me a better person? We can “gaze upon the copper snake and live”, viewing it from the perspective of its heavenly source. When we do so, we allow the challenging experience to be transformed into a source of life, passion and vitality. 

Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, 13 Tamuz 5729. 

 

Moses and the Mezuzah - קורח

Moses and the Mezuzah 

Korach set out to spark a rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. He gathered his followers and presented the following question to Moses: If there are Torah scrolls inside a home, does the home require a Mezuzah (which contains merely two paragraphs from the Torah) on the door? Korach was sure that Moses would respond that the home is exempt from the obligation of Mezuzah since the home possesses the far greater holiness of the entire Torah. Korach planned to argue that the people of Israel, like the home which contains the Torah scroll, are holy and therefore they don’t need Moses and Aaron to lead and be the figurative Mezuzah. 

The Midrash describes how Moses’ answer surprised Korach, and how Korach proceeded to mock Moses: 

Korach asked Moses, “If a house is full of Torah scrolls, what is the law? Should it be exempt from the obligation of having a mezuzah?” Moses replied, “It is still under the obligation of having a mezuzah.” Korach retorted, “The entire Torah cannot exempt a house, but the two sections [of the Torah] in a mezuzah can?”  

It turns out that Korach had a philosophical disagreement with Moses. Korach felt that if the home was full of books the inhabitant was holy, while Moses believed that the key to holiness was the Mezuzah on the door. 

Our home is our personal space, we create walls to insulate us from the outside environment, to protect us from the elements, as well as from the influence of the masses. A home is a place where we can live as we please and create an environment based on the ideals and values that we choose. Korach said if your inner home possesses the sacred scrolls then you are holy. That is all you need. 

Moses taught that having a Torah scroll in the home is not sufficient. 

The Mezuzah is placed “on the posts of your home and on your gates”. The Mezuzah is placed at the contact point between the personal home and the outside world. When a Jew sees the Mezuzah he is reminded that not only is his home, his personal environment, sacred, but rather the Mezuzah calls for him to carry the message of the Mezuzah - the Shma Yisrael, the holiness and unity of G-d, which is written in the mezuzah - with him as he leaves the gates of his home and sets out to engage the outside world.

Korach opposed the Mezuzah because he sensed that the Mezuzah captures the essence of the teachings of Moses: the teachings of the Torah are not abstract ideas delegated to books, but rather they are the very purpose of creation.The goal of Judaism is to spread the ideas of the Torah from the mind to the heart and then to action, from the home to the outside world, until the entirety of the earth will be filled with the awareness of G-d, filling the earth with peace and harmony. 

(Adapted from the Rebbe’s teachings, 26 Sivan 5723)

***

The Rebbe spoke these words to the 1963 graduating class of the Beis Rivkah girls school in Brooklyn, NY. The Rebbe encouraged the young women to personify the message of the Mezuzah; to spread the teachings and inspiration they received from studying Torah and carry it as they walk through the gates of their personal life and into the tumultuous world.

As we commemorate the Rebbe's twenty fifth Yahrtzeit tonight, may we merit to carry the Rebbe’s legacy, embodying  the Mezuzah, and transforming the earth into a place of goodness and kindness. 

 

Battling Self Doubt - שלח

Battling Self Doubt 

Do you ever wish you would have more faith in yourself? Do you ever wish that you would be confident in achieving your goals? Do you ever tell yourself that if only you believed in your ability you would be able to reach greater heights? 

When a person believes he can achieve a goal, commit to a challenge, or sell a product, it seems that the true believer will succeed simply because of the confidence he has in his own success. This benefit of belief, it seems, cannot be achieved by the skeptic. Because merely imitating the actions of the believer will not suffice, because, often, a critical factor to success, is the belief that success is possible.

When the Biblical spies returned from scouting the land of Canaan (Israel), they proceeded to persuade the Jews that conquering the land of Canaan would be impossible. The inhabitants were too powerful and the cities too fortified. The spies employed many subtle but effective tactics in their persuasion of the people. Perhaps one of the more powerful points they argued was that the people would not be able to conquer the land because, by dispatching spies in the first place to assess the strength of the inhabitants and evaluate a plan on their own, the people demonstrated a lack of faith in G-d’s promise that they would take the land. The lack of faith, argued the spies, would undermine the motivation, morale, and ability to achieve their goal.

Caleb, one of the two spies who remained loyal to the land of Israel, pushed back forcefully. The Torah tells us:  

Caleb silenced the people to [hear about] Moses, and he said, "We can surely go up and take possession of it, for we can indeed overcome it." (13:30)

Rashi offers the back story. Caleb acted as if he was about to speak against Moses. The people, who by that point were disillusioned of their hope of following Moses into Israel, were eager to hear what they thought would be Caleb’s disparaging words against Moses:

He (Caleb) cried out, “Is this the only thing the son of Amram has done to us?” Anyone listening might have thought that he intended to disparage him, and since there was [resentment] in their hearts against Moses because of the spies’ report, they all became silent so they could hear his defamation. But he said, “Didn’t he split the sea for us, bring down the manna for us and cause the quails to fly down to us?” 

Caleb was strategic about the examples of the miracles he employed. Caleb left out the most obvious examples, the exodus from Egypt and the ten plagues, because Caleb was specifically addressing the fears that the spies planted in the hearts of the Jews. We will focus on Caleb’s last example: “cause the quails to fly down to us”. The quail came to the Jewish camp in response to the complaints against the manna. The people were tired of the manna and wanted meat. They complained and bemoaned “who will give us meat?” By evoking the story of the quail Caleb demonstrated that G-d would help even if their trust was not complete.

*******

Just as the Jewish people were tasked with entering the land of Israel and transforming it to a holy land, each of us is tasked with the transformation of our surroundings and environment into a “holy land”, a place hospitable to G-dliness. We often despair and doubt our own ability to stay focused, upbeat and achieve our purpose. We question ourselves: are we able to battle distraction, despair, cynicism, apathy, and create an environment of holiness, joy and harmony? We sometimes doubt ourselves, and then use the self doubt as proof that we cannot succeed. 

The lesson Caleb teaches us, explains the Rebbe, is that we will succeed in facing our challenges and fulfilling our purpose. Even if we are unsure, even if we experience self doubt, G-d will help us succeed. Because G-d believes in us. 

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos vol. 8 Shlach 1)    

 

Raise the Flame - בהעלותך

Raise the Flame

Nearly a year after they arrived at Mount Sinai the Jewish people began their journey toward the promised land. Before our portion describes the tumultuous journey, which, ultimately, lasted forty years, the Torah reiterates the commandment to light the Menorah:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say to him: "When you light the lamps, the seven lamps shall cast their light toward the face of the Menorah." (Numbers 8:1-2)

The Menorah is a symbol of the mission statement of the Jewish people. Our task is to illuminate ourselves and the world around us with the warmth, enlightenment and inspiration of the Torah. As we depart from Sinai to implement the teachings of the Torah, we are reminded that each of us is heir to the legacy of Aaron, who would kindle the lights of the Menorah, symbolizing Aaron’s effort to inspire and illuminate each and every soul.

The word the Torah uses to describe the lighting of the Menorah, (“Behaalotcha”), means to lift up, which is an unusual word to describe kindling a flame. Rashi offers two explanations on why the word “lift up” is used in the context of kindling the flame:

He is required to kindle the lamp until the flame rises by itself. Our Sages further expounded from here that there was a step in front of the menorah, on which the Kohen stood to prepare [the lamps].

These two explanations apply to the figurative kindling of the flames as well. The first interpretation explains that the word “rise up” is used because the flame rises up independently and no longer needs the influence of the candle that ignited it. This teaches us that when we seek to inspire others, be it a child, a student or a friend, it is not enough to bring our flame close to theirs and allow them to be affected by our excitement and passion. To “lift up” the flame is to “kindle the lamp until the flame rises by itself” by sharing the fire until the recipient of the inspiration no longer needs the teacher in order to receive inspiration. For the child is inspired and passionate on her own, even without the continued presence of the teacher.

The second interpretation explains that the words “when you rise up” refers not to the flame but to Aaron who kindles the flame, because Aaron would rise up on a step in order to light the Menorah. This interpretation too contains a lesson for each of us. The Torah is telling is that the surest path to elevate oneself is to seek to inspire others. While the natural tendency of someone who seeks to grow spiritually may be to seclude himself and focus inward, the Torah teaches us that by preparing to ignite someone else’s flame, you too will rise up, you too will be inspired.   

This double message - that we must seek to inspire others until they shine on their own, and that the surest way to grow ourselves is by inspiring others - is at the heart of what the Rebbe constantly taught us, and is the message the Rebbe imparted to Rabbi and Rebbetzin Yisrael and Vivi Deren before they got married and set out to establish Chabad in our region.

In the words of Rabbi Deren (Derher magazine, Tamuz 5778):

Before our wedding, we went into yechidus (a private audience), and the Rebbe told us something very powerful, which continues to guide us until today. The Rebbe said, “Ir vet machen lichtig un varem ba andere, un der Aibershter vet machen lichtig un varem ba eich — you shall bring light and warmth to others, and G-d will bring light and warmth to you.” That blessing and assurance is what keeps us going until today.

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Behaalotcha 5748 and 5749)

 

Transporting the Temple - נשא

Transporting the Temple

After describing the order in which the twelve tribes of Israel traveled through the desert, the Torah tells of the census of the tribe of Levi, the tribe tasked with transporting and building the tabernacle (the temple) which was in the center of the Jewish camp.

Like everything in the Torah, the details of the story of the Levites are relevant to our lives just as they were relevant to our ancestors in the desert. For we too are tasked with the mission of the Levites, to erect a home for G-d, in the figurative, spiritual desert, the world we live in. In order to create the temple we rely on the spiritual part of ourselves, on the Levites within our soul.     

The tribe of Levi was divided into three families.

The families of Gershon and Merori were tasked with transporting the curtains that covered the temple and the wooden planks of the temple walls. As the Torah tells us:

This is the service of the Gershonite families to serve and to carry.

They shall carry the curtains of the Mishkan and the Tent of Meeting, its covering and the Tachash skin covering overlaid upon it, and the screen for the entrance to the Tent of Meeting….

[As for] the sons of Merari...

This is the charge of their burden for all their service in the Tent of Meeting: the planks of the Mishkan, its bars, its pillars, and its sockets (4:24-31)

To create a temple in our lives, to build a haven of spirituality in the midst of a spiritual desert, we too employ the skills of the Levite families. To create holy space in our life, we too, like the families of Gershon and Merari, must create walls and a roof in order to take control of our environment. We must cultivate the capacity to say no, to reject, negative influences, temptations and distractions.

Yet saying no, rejecting the distractions and negativity is not enough. The third family of Levites, the family of Kehot, was tasked with transporting the vessels of the temple, the ark, menorah, table and alters.

Aaron and his sons shall finish covering the Holy and all the vessels of the Holy when the camp is set to travel, and following that, the sons of Kohath shall come to carry [them], but they shall not touch the sacred objects for [then] they will die. These are the burden of the sons of Kohath for the Tent of Meeting. (4:15)

Like the family of Kehot, we too must fill our space with the holy vessels, with holy positive experiences.  

The spiritual mission of each of the Levite families are alluded to in their names. Gershon is derived from the word Garesh, which means to chase away, to divorce. Merori comes from the word Mar, which means bitter. They represented the difficult task of learning to say no to That which seeks to pull us away from our commitment to holiness. Kehot, on the other hand, is derived from the biblical word Yikhat which means to gather. Kehot teaches us to cultivate positive experiences; to collect all of our daily experiences and gather them in to our temple, to use them as furniture for the home of G-d, to use  them as a conduit to fulfill the purpose of our creation.

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 13 Naso 1).

 

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