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Blog - Torah Insights

Value Thy Possessions - וישלח

Value Thy Possessions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Chassidic answer is yes. Indeed, both these interpretations are true, simultaneously. The Talmud (Chulin 91a) states “from here

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

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

 

Why Did Jacob Pour Oil on a Stone? - ויצא

Why Did Jacob Pour Oil on a Stone?

It is a strange name to name a child.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adapted from Vishavti Bishalom, Torah Or, Parshas Vayetze. 

 

The Double Blessing - תולדות

The Double Blessing

Isaac assumed that the person standing before him was Esau, his eldest son, who he intended to bless before his passing. Unbeknownst to him it was actually Jacob, his younger son, disguised as Esau. Isaac began the blessing with an unusual choice of words, which offer insight into the nature of this particular blessing which was intended for Esau. 

 

The opening phrase of the blessing is: ‘May Elokim {G-d} grant you”. Elokim is the name of G-d which expresses concealment, judgment, and withholding. It is an unusual name to be used in association with a blessing. In fact, most blessings in the Torah are associated with the name Hashem, which represents benevolence and revelation. 

 

The first word of the blessing is “and”, which implies that the statement is a continuation of a previous statement, when in fact, the word “and” is the beginning of the blessing. Rashi explains that the “and” represents a double giving: “May He {G-d} give and repeatedly give ”. This explanation, however, prompts another question: why the need for an additional blessing? What is lacking in the first blessing that requires a second blessing? 

 

The conventional meaning of a blessing is the bestowal of a gift which does not require effort on the part of the recipient. Yet, Isaac’s blessings differed considerably. Unlike Abraham, who embodied loving kindness and giving, Isaac embodied the attributes of discipline and restraint. Isaac's idea of blessing was empowering the recipient to achieve through his or her own effort. Isaac did not suffice with the blessing from above, for he wanted his son to acquire the blessing through his own effort. This can be compared to a student who not only receives information, knowledge  and enlightenment from his teacher, but rather he also learns how to innovate and create new ideas. Isaac blessed his son that he should receive blessing from G-d, {“may He give”}, additionally, his son should tread his own path and create his own blessing {“and return and give”}.

 

Generally speaking there are two ways of serving G-d: The first is the path of the righteous who follow G-d's directives as spelled out in the Torah. They seek to receive direction and inspiration from above.  Yet, often we are confronted with challenges and confusion, finding ourselves in a state of spiritual darkness, feeling disconnected from the gift of the Torah. At those times we are unable to appreciate the inspiration from above.  When that happens we have no choice but to engage in the second, more profound, form of Divine service: the service of Teshuvah, return to G-d, motivated by the inspiration generated from within the person himself. The service of Teshuvah is a true human innovation for it has the power to elevate negativity by transforming unholy, destructive experiences into fuel for good, motivating a deep longing and yearning for G-d. 

 

Isaac knew that his son Esau was out of touch with his spiritual source and the Divine potential gifted to him from above. He therefore began the blessing with the name Elokim, which represents G-d’s ability to conceal his awesome presence. Isaac was telling his son that the greatest blessing is the ability to transform the state of
concealment {which can occur as a result of the name Elokim} through one’s own effort. The greatest blessing is not the one given from above {“may he give”}, but rather the one created by man {“and repeatedly give”}. 

 

Rebekah, however, understood that Jacob was the one who must receive the blessing intended for Esau. For only the righteous Jacob can harness the profound energy and passion generated by returning to G-d from a place of darkness. In the final analysis, Jacob was the one who could cultivate both qualities, the quality of the righteous as well as the quality of the returnee, thus granting each and every one of his descendants the ability to experience both forms of the divine blessing. 


Based on Lekutei Sichos Toldos, vol. 10 sicha 2.  

 

The Double Cave - חיי שרה

The Double Cave 

Mearat Hamachpela, “the double cave”, was the place Abraham chose to purchase for the burial of his wife Sarah. The Torah describes how Abraham negotiated and ultimately purchased the cave, yet the Torah does not explain why Abraham chose that particular spot, which ultimately became the burial spot of our patriarchs and matriarchs (excluding Rachel). 

In order to discover the mystical and spiritual significance of the cave we must first explore why the cave was called “the double cave”. The Talmud relates:  

With regard to the Machpelah Cave, in which the patriarchs and matriarchs are buried, Rav and Shmuel disagreed. One said: The cave consists of two rooms, one further in than the other. And one said: It consists of a room and a second story above it.

The Chassidic masters explain that the configuration of the cave explained in the Talmud is a physical representation of a spiritual reality. The patriarchs and matriarchs embodied the concept of “the double cave” in their lifetime, they therefore merited to be buried in that holy spot, which, as explained in the Zohar, is the “opening of Eden”, it is the place on earth that represents the entrance to heaven. This is the meaning of “the double cave”, the space of the cave is “double”, it possesses a dual reality, it is the place where dimensions of both earth and heaven, of physical and spiritual, are present. 

The Chassidic masters elaborate: one opinion in the Talmud is that the word “double” refers to the cave consisting of two stories, one above the other. This represents the awareness that every person possesses two dimensions, one above the other; the first level represents ordinary material life, in which we are preoccupied primarily with the needs of our body, and “above” the physical reality is the domain of the soul, the higher more spiritual side of self. The patriarchs and matriarchs teach us to live in both these dimensions simultaneously, not to be satisfied with a materialistic definition of self, but rather to seek and experience our heavenly dimension, to feel the yearning of our soul to ascend to its source within G-d himself. 

Once we are in touch with the “higher story” dimension of life we can appreciate the other interpretation in the Talmud, which is that the cave was called “double” because it consisted of an outer chamber and an inner chamber. The symbolism of “two rooms, one further in than the other” is that in every person we meet, and every experience we encounter, we have a choice to focus exclusively on the externality of the person or experience, or we can look deeper and see the “inner room”, the inner soul and spark of G-d that  lies hidden within every person we meet and every experience we encounter. 

The double cave represents the legacy our patriarchs and matriarchs pass on to us. We should live to its fullest, not being satisfied with the shallow and superficial dimension of existence. We must seek to experience both the “room and a second story above it”, both our physical awareness as well as the heavenly source of our soul. The awareness of both dimensions of self will allow us to see, not only the outer chamber, the external, but also the inner chamber, the deepest holy core of every person and of every experience. 

(Adapted from the Sfas Emes)

 

Relationships Require Two Wings - וירא

Relationships Require Two Wings 

A bird cannot fly with one wing alone, and relationships cannot survive on love alone. To escape the pull of gravity, a relationship requires both the passion of love and the discipline of devotion and commitment. 

The story of Abraham is told primarily in two portions of the Torah, Lech Lecha and Vayera. Lech Lecha tells of Abraham’s life up until his circumcision at age ninety nine. Vayera opens with the scene of Abraham, experiencing the pain of circumcision, sitting at the opening of his tent and seeking guests to invite: 

And he lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, three men were standing beside him, and he saw and he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent, and he prostrated himself to the ground. (Genesis, 18:2).

The sages explain that the three people were in fact three angels, each assigned with a specific task. The Zohar, however, states that the three people appearing at Abraham’s tent represent the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What is the significance of the three angels representing the three patriarchs? 

Each of the Patriarchs embodied one of the three primary emotional attributes: Abraham embodied love (or giving), Isaac embodied awe (or discipline), and Jacob embodied compassion. [Kindness seeks to give to everyone, because it sees good in everyone; discipline, the opposite extreme, seeks to restrict the giving to those who deserve it. Compassion blends the two, on the one hand it acknowledges that not everyone is deserving, on the other hand, it is prepared to give to someone who is in need, even if undeserving].   

Abraham was the embodiment of love, his entire life was about kindness, inviting guests, feeding travelers, and seeking to enlighten the people around him. Yet, love alone is not enough for a meaningful relationship. Ultimately all love is motivated by self love. A person loves someone or something because of how the person or the experience makes them feel. To transcend the self and connect to someone else, one needs commitment and devotion, or, in the language of the Torah, awe. The ability  to put oneself  aside and to do what the other person wants, despite it not being something one wants to do. 

Indeed, the circumcision begins the process of Abraham being called upon to sacrifice for G-d (indeed, while the first portion of Abraham’s life primarily depicts Abraham’s love for G-d, the second portion, culminating in the ultimate sacrifice, the binding of Isaac, expresses how Abraham was called upon to express, not love, but disciplined commitment).  

This, explains the Chassidic Masters, is the significance of the three men, representing the three patriarchs, who appeared at Abraham’s tent after the circumcision. They represent a combination of all three attributes. By not being satisfied with love alone, but rather, by exhibiting disciplined commitment, Abraham reached the level of true service of G-d; embodying the ability to blend the two opposite emotions of love (Abraham) and awe (Isaac), blended together through compassion (Jacob).

The stories of the Patriarchs are relevant to each of our lives. In our relationship with G-d, as well as in our relationship with other people, we must cultivate both “wings” to allow the relationship to soar. We must cultivate both  love and commitment, the desire to become one and the discipline to respect our differences. Both wings are held together with the compassionate ability to balance the two.   

(Adapted from Kedushas Levi)


The Turbulent Journey - לך לך

The Turbulent Journey 

Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, set out on a journey that would, eventually,  change the world. He left Charan, heeding G-d’s call to "Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1). Abraham must have been full of optimism, he was armed with an incredible Divine promise, for G-d had told him: “And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will aggrandize your name, and [you shall] be a blessing.”

Yet, Abraham’s journey seemed to be a disaster and a colossal disappointment. As soon as he reached the land of Cannan, a famine broke out and he was forced to descend to Egypt where his wife was abducted and brought to Pharaoh the king. This was not only a personal challenge, but it was also a terrible blow to Abraham’s mission of spreading the awareness of the one G-d. The pagan inhabitants of Cannan took note of the fact that the terrible famine broke out as soon as Abraham arrived. They must have thought that the famine was a sign from above that Abraham’s faith would bring nothing but trouble. 

Why was Abraham’s journey so complicated and full of frustration? Why wasn't Abraham rewarded for his loyalty with a tranquil existence in Canaan?  The same question applies to the Jewish people, the descendants of Abraham, who carry Abraham’s legacy of teaching the world about the one G-d. Why has our historical journey been so full of disappointment, challenge, and tragedy? 

The Answer can be found in the name of our Torah portion: Lech Licha, which means “go to you ”. The name of the entire portion, including the parts of the story that seem to be a retreat from Abraham’s destination and purpose, are all critical to the journey of growth. The most important message to Abraham, as well as to his descendants, is that what looks like a devastating setback is, in reality, an opportunity for more meaningful growth. Yes, even the descent into Egypt, with all its negative ramifications, would ultimately lead to Abraham and Sarah emerging stronger, and better able to achieve their purpose and mission. The descent into Egypt, was part of the mission of ascent  to Israel. 

This is true in the life of each and every Jew. The first, and perhaps, primary message from the life of Abraham is that every disappointment can be an opportunity for reaching deeper joy, every setback can become a springboard, and every challenge can motivate profound growth. 

This is the essence of the life of Abraham, the essence of the Jewish story, and of the teachings of the Torah: no matter the circumstances, no matter the pain, every experience is part of the journey to discover our essence. Within every challenging experience is a spark of G-dliness waiting to be elevated and channeled to fuel us further on our journey of reaching our promised land. 

(Adapted from Likutei Sichos 5, Lech Licha 1) 

 

Master of the Soil - נח

Master of the Soil

Noah found favor in the eyes of G-d, he was saved from the flood and tasked with repopulating the earth, G-d extended His covenant to Noah and promised never again to wipe out all the creatures from the face of the earth. G-d’s love to Noah was palpable. 

Noah himself seemed not to share G-d’s optimistic view of the future. Before the flood we read that “Noah did, according to all that the Lord had commanded him (Genesis 7:5)”. Yet, after the flood Noah did not seem to live up to his greatness. He planted a vineyard, got drunk and lost his dignity - “he uncovered himself within his tent”. 

As the Torah relates: 

And Noah, master of the soil, began and planted a vineyard. And he drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father's nakedness, and he told his two brothers outside. And Shem and Japheth took the garment, and they placed [it] on both of their shoulders, and they walked backwards, and they covered their father's nakedness, and their faces were turned backwards, so that they did not see their father's nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine and he knew what his small son had done to him. And he said, "Cursed be Canaan; he shall be a slave among slaves to his brethren." May God expand Japheth, and may He dwell in the tents of Shem, and may Canaan be a slave to them (Genesis 9:20-27)”.

The Torah tells us “And Noah, master of the soil, began and planted a vineyard.”. The Hebrew word for “began”, “Vayachel”, also means “Mundane”. Rashi tells us: “he made himself profane, for he should have first engaged in planting something different.”

Why did Noah, immediately after the flood, plant a vine, which is a symbol of mundane pleasure? The Chassidic Masters explain that after seeing the corruption of the earth Noah wanted to engage with the soil in order to protect it from future spiritual corruption. Noah felt that his responsibility was to be “master of the soil”, he must engage with the most material pleasure and demonstrate how it could, in fact, be used for holiness. 

Yet, Noah was mistaken. And his mistake was that - “Vayachel” - “he began”. The mistake was that he began with material pleasure. The material will intoxicate one’s spiritual senses unless the person is first saturated in holiness. Had Noah began his day with intensifying his connection to spirituality and only then proceeded to plant, he would have elevated the vine rather than having the vine pull him down.    

When Noah awoke from his wine and recognized his mistake he proceeded to bless Shem and Yafet, the two sons who had treated him with dignity and covered his nakedness. Noah said: 

May God expand Yafet, and may He dwell in the tents of Shem…

Noah, who “uncovered himself within his tent”, saw within his son Shem the potential for the correction of his own negative experience in his tent, an experience of pleasure disconnected from a holy context. Noah proclaimed “may He (G-d) dwell in the tents of Shem”, emphasising that Shem and his descendants would bring G-d into their homes, they would infuse their homes with holiness, which, in turn, would allow them to proceed and elevate the mundane. They begin with prayer, study and good deeds ensuring that their tent is a place where G-d will dwell, and only then do they proceed to plant the vine. 

(Adapted from the Maor Vashemesh)

What’s Wrong with Knowledge? - בראשית

What’s Wrong with Knowledge?

When Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden life was simple. G-d had only one request. They were permitted to eat from any tree in the garden, except for one. The tree which they were prohibited from consuming, which therefore symbolized the most negative thing in the garden, was, of course, the tree of knowledge of good and evil. 

This raises many questions, among them: 1) What is wrong with knowledge? Would G-d prefer that Adam and Eve remain  ignorant? 2) The question which Maimonides, in his philosophical work The Guide to the Perplexed, refers to as an “astonishing question” raised by a “learned man”: How can it be that because Adam and Eve violated the commandment of G-d they were rewarded with knowledge, which is the greatest gift man can possess? How is it possible that violating G-d’s will elevated man to the state of enlightenment? 

The answer, according to Maimonides, lies in the words good and evil, which imply subjective good and evil. Before the sin Adam and Eve would think in terms of truth or falsehood; if something was objectively positive it was true, if something was objectively negative it was false. The result of the consumption of the fruit of the tree of knowledge was the introduction of a heightened awareness of self. The human being began to think primarily in terms of self. How does this experience make me feel? If the experience feels good subjectively, it is then desirable. When G-d did not want Adam and Eve to know good and evil he was not trying to keep them ignorant of knowledge, on the contrary, G-d hoped that humanity could hold on to objective knowledge. The “opening of the eyes” that Adam and Eve experienced by consuming the fruit, was not an upgrade that was awarded, but rather on the contrary, it was a downgrade. They traded-in superior objective knowledge for inferior subjective knowledge.  

The consequence of developing a subjective sense of good and evil is that we were expelled from the tranquility of Eden. Each person evaluated good based on their own self interest, which inevitably led to a chaotic clash of egos. In the short term, the fruit of the tree of knowledge moved us away from G-d.

The story of the tree of knowledge is not an all out tragedy. The subjective perspective introduced passion, enthusiasm, and excitement. If I am attracted to something because I feel that it is good for me, that will intensify my longing and desire for it. So while initially the introduction of the subjective idea of good may have turned us away from the truth of G-d, toward the pursuit of our own temptations, in the long run the subjective perspective could, in fact, enhance our relationship with G-d, intensifying the yearning, deepening the love, and stoking the passion to reconnect to G-d and transforming the world back into Eden. 

"He Dwells Between his Shoulders" - וזאת הברכה

"He Dwells Between his Shoulders"

On the last day of his life Moses blessed each of the twelve tribes of Israel, tailoring the blessing to each tribe's unique contribution to the collective Jewish people. In his blessing to the tribe of Benjamin Moses refers to the temple which was destined to be built In the portion of Benjamin, blessing them that the Divine presence shall always dwell in the temple:

And of Benjamin he said, "The Lord's beloved one shall dwell securely beside Him; He protects him all day long, and He dwells between his shoulders." (Deuteronomy 33:12)

Rashi addresses the question of why, when describing the dwelling of the Divine presence in the temple, Moses uses the words “between his shoulders”, and explains that the expression refers to the location of the Temple Mount. It was a bit lower than the “head”, the highest point in the land of Benjamin, it was therefore referred to as “between the shoulders”, just as the shoulders are a bit lower than the head.

 As Rashi explains:

and dwells between his shoulders: The Holy Temple was built on the highest point of his [Benjamin’s] land, except that it was twenty-three cubits below the Eitam Well. Now, it was David’s intention to build it there [at the level of the Eitam Well], [However,] they said to David: “Let us build it a little lower, for Scripture states, ‘and He dwells between his shoulders’ [which are lower than the head] - and there is no part of an ox more beautiful than its shoulders.”

The topography on the temple mountain, lower than the “head”, was not an accident. The Rebbe explained that the metaphor of the “neck” captures the essence of the temple. Conventional wisdom is that the temple is a “head”, the most spiritual and lofty place, a place where we experience and are intune with the Divine presence. That is why David sought to build the temple on the highest peak in the region to symbolize that the temple is the place where we ascend to the highest place within the world. 

Moses, in his blessing to Benjamin teaches us that the purpose and function of the temple is to serve as the metaphoric “neck”, connecting the “head”, the holy and the spiritual with the figurative body which is the rest of the world. 

The same is true within each of our lives. We each possess a spiritual “head”, the part of our self that is spiritual, idealistic and pure. Yet the Torah teaches that the Divine presence dwells not in the “head“, but rather in the “neck”, which connects our spiritual and holy self with the rest of the body, allowing our spiritual, lofty soul to permeate every part of our existence.   

The topography of the temple mount symbolizes to us that the mission of the temple, is not to retreat to a spiritual haven, but rather to connect “head” the core of holiness within the world and within each of our souls, with the “body”, every part of the world and every part of our life.  

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos, Vayigash vol. 10 sicha 1.  

How to Find a Sense of Security - סוכות

How to Find a Sense of Security

The three biblical pilgrimage holidays follow the agricultural cycle. Passover, which commemorates the exodus from Egypt, must take place in the month of spring. The Hebrew word for spring, Aviv, means the ripening of the first grain. Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah, is referred to in the Torah as the holiday of the harvest, and Sukkot, which commemorates  G-d establishing us in huts when he took us out of Egypt, is referred to as the holiday of the ingathering, as the Torah tells us:   

But on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you gather in the produce of the land, you shall celebrate the festival of the Lord for a seven day period; the first day shall be a rest day, and the eighth day shall be a rest day (Leviticus 23:39)

For a seven day period you shall live in booths. Every resident among the Israelites shall live in booths (ibid. 23:42)

The first two holidays find the farmer out in the field, inspecting the ripening produce, and engaging in the harvest. By the time the third holiday comes around, the farmer is comfortably in his home, with all his produce stored away indoors. This is the time when the farmer feels most secure, knowing that his home contains the produce that will sustain him and his family throughout the long winter. 

Yet, ironically, specifically when the farmer feels most secure in his home, the Torah tells him to go out of his home and find shelter in a temporary structure. The Torah uses the term “every resident among the Israelites shall live in booths” emphasizing that the Israelites are residents, they have homes, their homes are full of produce, yet they should dwell outside. 

And this is the message the Sukkah conveys to the Jew: every person needs a sense of security in order to experience peace of mind and a sense of joy. Yet the Torah tells us that, specifically when we are tempted to find our security in the walls we have build and the produce we have gathered, we must abandon the home and seek refuge in the sukkah, internalizing the awareness that our security comes not from the power of our achievements but rather from G-d’s protection. 

And here the Torah offers us a profound insight: The Torah emphasizes that, more than the other holidays, Sukkot is the holiday of joy. This seems counterintuitive, after all if the person is to experience joy shouldn't he be allowed to dwell in his home  where he can enjoy the wealth which he  gathered with much effort? The Torah says no. Joy cannot come from one’s wealth and one’s achievements alone. If one puts his trust and joy in the produce alone, it can only lead to greater anxiety. He will question if the produce will suffice. Will it rot? Will he be able to recreate this degree of success next year? Joy, the Torah tells us can only come from a sense of connection to G-d. Joy comes when we step out of our home, away from the produce we gathered, and realize that our shelter, our security, and our meaning and purpose in life comes not from the produce which we have gathered but rather from connecting to the infinite G-d. 

(Adapted from the Kli Yakar, Leviticus 23:42)    

When Rosh Hashanah Collides with Shabbat

When Rosh Hashanah Collides with Shabbat 

You may not notice it, but on the evening of the last day of the year  fatigue sets in. The Kabbalah explains that the Divine desire and pleasure which motivates the creation of the universe returns to its source at the end of the year, leaving the world bereft of inner vitality and spiritual enthusiasm. G-d desired to create the world, but every year that desire evaporates back to its source, when G-d asks Himself whether  the project called existence is worth the investment. When the Jewish people gather and sound the Shofar, when they call out to G-d and display their deep desire to connect, that desire elicits  and draws down the Divine desire to once again invest in the universe, unleashing energy that was never before accessible, creating the potential for unprecedented  growth and achievement in the new year. 

When we realize the power of the Shofar to recreate the Divine desire, accessing  new energy for the new year, we wonder about a year when Rosh Hashanah falls out on Shabbat and we therefore do not sound the Shofar. Does that mean that the upcoming year will lack Divine pleasure,energy and potential?  

Chassidic philosophy explains that the energy of Shabbat achieves the same result as the sounding of the Shofar. What is Shabbat? G-d created the world in six days. During creation one is occupied with the process of creating and one cannot focus on the purpose of the project nor can one derive pleasure from the end result since it is not yet available. When building a home, for example, one is occupied with the design, architecture, and construction. It is only when the project is complete that one can experience the purpose of the construction, a home which one can derive pleasure from. The same is true about Shabbat. At the conclusion of  creation, the purpose of creation can unfold, offering immense pleasure to G-d. Therefore, just like the Shofar, the energy of Shabbat elicits Divine pleasure within creation.   

The same is true in our own experience. During the six days of the week we, each in our own way, seek to create, achieve, and succeed. On Shabbat, the Talmud teaches, “one should consider all of his work achieved”. On Shabbat we have the freedom to let go of the drive to achieve and get in touch with the purpose of all our efforts. On Shabbat we experience pleasure and delight when we dedicate ourselves to the spiritual side of life, which is the purpose of everything we have built and achieved during the six days. 

May this upcoming year be a year in which we rededicate ourselves to the gift of Shabbat, by observing its sanctity and delighting in its pleasure. 

The Story of Return - נצבים וילך

The Story of Return

After all the rebuke, in which we are told of the terrible calamities that will befall  the Jewish people during the exile, the Torah offers profound words of comfort and hope:  

And it will be, when all these things come upon you the blessing and the curse which I have set before you that you will consider in your heart, among all the nations where the Lord your God has banished you,

and you will return to the Lord, your God, with all your heart and with all your soul, and you will listen to His voice according to all that I am commanding you this day you and your children,

then, the Lord, your God, will bring back your exiles, and He will have mercy upon you. He will once again gather you from all the nations, where the Lord, your God, has dispersed you.

(Deuteronomy 30:1-3)

The Torah tells us that at the end of the long and bitter exile we will return to G-d with all our heart and soul and G-d will then bring us back to the land of Israel. This is the only time the Torah explicitly tells us about the concept of Teshuva, return to G-d. 

While Teshuva, the notion that a person can always return to G-d and correct his ways even after straying from the path of goodness, is an important theme in Judaism, the Torah does not explicitly state that there is a commandment to return to G-d. The Torah tells us that it will occur, “and it will be… and you will return to the Lord, your G-d, with all your heart and with all your soul”, but there is no commandment to return. That is why some of the great codifiers do not list Teshuva as one of the six hundred and thirteen commandments. 

How is it possible that something as fundamental as Teshuva is not classified as a commandment? 

Chasidic philosophy explains that Teshuva is not a commandment because it expresses a bond with G-d which is more profound than a commandment.  A commandment implies that the person being commanded must negate his own will and desire and fulfill the will of G-d. Teshuva however stems from the place in the soul of a Jew which wants nothing other than to cleave to its divine source. The Torah does not command Teshuva, for Teshuva can not be a commandment, after all the person in need of Teshuvah disregarded the commandment. The Torah tells us that Teshuva will inevitably occur. How can the Torah be so certain? It is because the Torah knows that within every Jew there is a soul which is a part of G-d. Sooner or later it will motivate the person to return, not because it is  commanded. For the soul does not need to be commanded. It senses that it is one with G-d and it wants nothing more than to reconnect. 

The exercise of Teshuva then, is to remove the layers of distraction and reveal our innate desire to be connected to  G-d.

Your connection to G-d is much more than a commandment. It is who you are. It is your story.  

(Adapted from the teachings if the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos, 38 Naso 1)

How Do You Spend Your Money? - כי תבוא

How Do You Spend Your Money?

How you spend your money reflects what you value and the life you strive to create for yourself. What does the Torah tell us about what we should strive to create with our money? 

The farmer in the land of Israel is commanded to give three forms of tithings: 

The first tithing: six years of the seven year Sabbatical cycle the farmer was commanded to give ten percent of his produce to the Levites, who did not receive a portion of the land, and were dedicated to serving G-d, teaching Torah, and supporting the priests in their service in the Temple.  

The second tithing: in the first, second, fourth and fifth year of the Sabbatical cycle, the farmer was commanded to designate ten percent of the produce and eat it, or its value, In Jerusalem, in celebration with his family and with others. 

The tithing of the poor: in the third and sixth year of the Sabbatical year the farmer was commanded to give ten percent of the produce to the poor. 

These three forms of tithing are not merely a list of the causes we are commanded to support, they represent the values we strive to create in our lives. Our efforts, the money we spend, the possessions and experiences we accumulate, should all serve one of these categories of tithing. 

In order to live a healthy and wholesome life we must first create moments and experiences of spirituality, moments of prayer, study and meditation. We take some of our money, which is the produce of our efforts, creativity and energy and invest it in  the holy. That money, that investment of time and effort, is the figurative “first tithing” which is designated to support the “Levite”. For in those moments of spirituality we are experiencing the lifestyle of the Levite. 

The ultimate purpose of creation, however, is not to escape the physical world and retreat to spirituality, but rather to sanctify and elevate the material world. This is represented by the second tithing, when the Jew was commanded to eat and enjoy food, the benefit from the material world, but to do so in Jerusalem. Figuratively, this represents benefiting from the material blessings in our life but doing so in a holy context, for a spiritual purpose. 

While the second tithing is the actual purpose of creation it cannot be achieved before we experience the first tithing. In order to ensure that we are using the bounty of the physical world for a spiritual purpose we must first experience the first tithing, the spiritual experience. Only when we begin our day with a moment of study and prayer can we ensure that the experiences of rest of the day will be elevated and sanctified.

If the first tithing prepares us to be able to experience the second tithing then the tithing of the poor is the gauge that indicates to us whether we are indeed experiencing the second tithing. The indicator that our physical possessions and experiences are not making us more self centered and materialistic, but, on the contrary, are enhancing our service of G-d, is that we are able to transcend ourselves and help our fellow.   

To live a balanced life, every dollar you spend should be included in one of three categories: (1) The first tithing: serving a spiritual purpose. (2) The second tithing: a physical need or pleasure that is sanctified because it enhances a spiritual purpose. (3) the tithing of the poor: to transcend the self and contribute for the benefit of others. 

(Based on the commentary of Rabbi S.R. Hirsh). 


Song of the Angels - כי תצא

Song of the Angels 

The songs sung by the angels occupy a central part of the Jew’s daily prayers: 

“Whose ministering angels all stand at the height of the Universe, and proclaim with reverence...  they all open their mouths in holiness and purity, with song and music, and they bless, and praise, and glorify, and revere, and sanctify, and proclaim... Holy, holy, holy is Adonoy of Hosts, the fullness of all the earth is His glory. And the Ofanim and the holy Chayos, with a mighty sound rise toward the Serafim. Facing them, they offer praise and say: Blessed is the glory of Adonoy from His place.

The question begs to be asked: why do we plagiarize from the angels? Could we not have commissioned a writer to create man-made, original material to use in praise of G-d? Why couldn't our great sages and poets collaborate to produce a few pieces of good writing? 

Each of us possess not one but two souls. The animal soul which is self oriented, and the G-dly soul, which is a spark of G-d yearning to reconnect with its source in heaven. We pray with the totality of ourselves, we therefore address both the G-dly soul as well as the animal soul.   

A central part of the daily prayer is the Shema prayer, in which we meditate on the oneness of G-d, and seek to awaken a love to G-d. In the opening phrase of the Shema, “Hear O Israel”, we are talking to our inner Israel, to the divine spark within us. We seek to feel its perspective and connect to its feeling of yearning to G-d. 

But before we can focus on the G-dly soul we must first address the more dominant and aggressive force within ourselves, the animal soul, whose self oriented passion is often directed to materialism and superficiality, and directed away from the transcendent and meaningful. 

Yet Jewish mysticism teaches that everything on this earth has a source in heaven, what appears to be a negative phenomenon is, in truth, a distortion of a holy energy rooted in the spiritual source. It is our task to realign the phenomenon with its source, by channeling its inner spark in a positive direction. Doing so heals the distortion and corrects and perfects the earthly phenomenon. 

When we look at the animalistic passion in our heart and seek to direct it to positivity, we cannot inspire it with songs written by a human being, because the animalistic passion is  not influenced by rational thinking and is not affected by the music of humanity. Instead we sing the songs of the angels. The Kabbalaists explain that the intense love, awe, and passion that the angels experience, is the spiritual source for animalistic passion here on earth. The angel's passion to G-d is supra rational, and when that energy descends into this earth it is distorted into irrationality.

Thus, every morning, before we talk to our G-dly soul we take a few minutes to sing to our animal soul. We talk to it in the language it understands, the language of unbridled passion, love and desire. We tell the animal soul that the source of its intense passion is the powerful yearning and intense desire to G-d experienced by the angels and expressed in the angelic songs of praise.

This, explain the mystics, is the meaning of the opening verse of our Parsha: “when you go out to war upon (literally: on, or above) your enemy and the L-rd your G-d will place him in your hand” The intense passion of the animal soul is the spiritual  “enemy” that seeks to destroy our connection to holiness. The battle we are engaged in is the battle to transform the animalistic passion to a passion for holiness. To achieve victory in this battle, we must tap into that which is “above” the enemy. We allow it to experience its spiritual source, by letting it hear the songs of the angels.

Adapted from Likutei Torah, Ki Teitse.

Is Man a Tree of the Field? - שופטים

Is Man a Tree of the Field?

“Man is the tree of the field” says the Torah in order to explain why we should not cut down a fruit bearing tree. But does a tree capture the essence of man? 

The Midrash states that man is a microcosm of the entire world. The Kabbalah explains that human emotions are likened to trees and human intelligence is likened to the animal kingdom. Just as a seed grows into a full grown majestic tree, so too, human emotions grow and mature over time. A child loves things that are small and immature, as the child grows, his love grows too. He desires things that are more expensive and more valuable. 

A tree is stationary. While it grows upward it is rooted in one place and cannot uproot itself and implant itself elsewhere. Human emotions are similar, while one’e emotions evolve, the basic emotional makeup of a person remains the same. Some people are more inclined to love, others to anger, some to compassion, others to jealousy. 

The human mind, however, is likened to a living animal. The animal is not planted in one place. An animal can travel great distances and explore great expanses. The human mind, too, can travel great expanses. The human mind is objective and can explore perspectives very different from its own. The emotions are centered in one place, they are chiefly concerned with how the self feels, and all stimuli is filtered through the lens of the question: “how does this make me feel”. The mind, by contrast, is able to escape the trappings of self, transcend the familiar perspective of one’e own inclinations and explore ideas foreign to his native environment. 

If the tree represents subjective emotion and the animal represents the objective mind, why does the Torah tell us that man is a tree of the field, implying that the uniqueness of man is something other than his intelligence? 

The ability to think abstractly is unique to the human being. Yet abstract thought per se is not the superiority of man. Yes, humanity has made great leaps forward in developing advanced sciences, culture and philosophy. We have uncovered distant galaxies and subatomic particles. We have landed man on the moon and a rover on mars. Impressive indeed. But does abstract intelligence alone make us better, kinder, more compassionate people?

The Torah is telling us that the greatest achievement of man is when abstract thinking affects his emotions, When his capacity to be objective allows him to see the needs of others and to relate to them with human emotion. Man is the tree of the field, because abstract knowledge is valuable only to the extent that it affects the person we are. A man is a tree, because the greatest achievement of a person is when his knowledge makes him into a mentch.   

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos,  Shoftim vol. 4.  

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