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Blog - Torah Insights

Keep Laughing - תולדות

I.jpgKeep Laughing

It’s a strange name to give a child.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is why Isaac loved Esau.

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

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

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

Adapted from Torah Or Parshas Toldos (Mayim Rabim).

 

The Genesis of Liberty - חיי שרה

download.jpgThe Genesis of Liberty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Heat of the Day - וירא

The Heat of the Day

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

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

Now the Lord appeared to him in the plains of Mamre, and he was sitting at the entrance of the tent when the day was hot.

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

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

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

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

______________

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

[2] See commentary of the Kli Yakar.

Focused Love - לך לך

s.jpgFocused Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Adapted from Torah Or, Anochi Magen Lach.)

 

Waves of Change - נח

Noah.jpgWaves of Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Memo to Cain - בראשית

h.jpgA Memo to Cain

If you had Cain’s ear moments before he killed his brother Abel, what would you tell him? If you had to condense everything you know about justice, morality, and decency into a few short phrases what would you say?

G-d had a chance to do just that. Cain was terribly angry at his brother, so angry that just a little while later he murdered his brother in cold blood. G-d sensed Cain’s anger and He addressed him with just two short verses. Understood correctly, these verses capture all Cain needed to know in order to help him overcome his anger, and, understood correctly, these verses are all we need to know in order for us to make the correct choice in the face of raging negative emotions in our heart.  

Here are the cryptic words that G-d spoke to Cain:

And the Lord said to Cain, "Why are you annoyed, and why has your countenance fallen?

Is it not so that if you improve, it will be forgiven you? If you do not improve, however, at the entrance, sin is lying, and to you is its longing, but you can rule over it." (Genesis 4:6-7).

Cain, unfortunately, did not take this message to heart and chose to act on his emotional impulses. But these words were written in the Torah so that we can learn their critical, life changing, message.

Cain felt terrible anger toward Abel. Cain innovated the idea of offering a gift to G-d. “Cain brought of the fruit of the soil an offering to the Lord.”. Cain watched as Abel copied his idea and received the credit and recognition for it: “And Abel he too brought of the firstborn of his flocks and of their fattest, and the Lord turned to Abel and to his offering. But to Cain and to his offering He did not turn, and it annoyed Cain exceedingly, and his countenance fell.”

When the rage against his brother was threatening to take control of him, the most important thing Cain needed to hear was this: the rage is not you. The anger is not you. The evil inclination is something you have inside of you but it does not define you and it is not you. G-d told Cain that although there is a powerful force inside you, you must understand that “to you is its longing”. “It” the evil inclination, the negative passion, “longs” “to you”, but, understand, it is not you.

That leads to the next point: “you can rule over it.” The negative passion is not your true self. You can take control over the passion. The common translation of the verse is “if you improve, it will be forgiven you”. Yet the literal translation is “if you improve, lift up”. G-d explained to Cain that the negative passion in his heart could not only be controlled, but it could and should be elevated. When channeled to positivity the awesome strength of the passion will direct the person to greater heights.

This is an essential lesson for each of us. This one verse contains all we need to know about the inner turmoil of our emotions:

1) The negative passion is not who we are. (“its longing is to you”)

2) it can be controlled (“you can rule over it”).

3) its awesome might is, in fact, a great blessing for us (“if you improve, uplift”). Channeled correctly it can propel us to achieve unimaginable greatness.       

 

Back to the Beginning - וזאת הברכה

Simchas Torah.jpgBack to the Beginning

On the holiday of Simchat Torah we read the final chapter of the five books of Moses. After journeying through the stories, characters and lessons of the Torah,  e anticipate reaching the culmination of our journey, the Torah’s climatic message and its deepest insight.

Yet, there seems to be no clear end to the odyssey. For on the same day we conclude the Torah we once again begin to read it anew. Doing so, represents the depth of the Torah, no matter how much we have understood there is still an infinite amount of wisdom waiting to be discovered. Moving directly from the conclusion to the beginning, tells us that in order to understand the finale of the five books of Moses, we must look at the connection between the final verse of the Torah and the opening words of the Torah.

The Torah concludes with the description of the passing of Moses, and of his unique role in history:

And there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face,

as manifested by all the signs and wonders, which the Lord had sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and all his servants, and to all his land,

and all the strong hand, and all the great awe, which Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel.  

The final words of the Torah are “before the eyes of all Israel”. The unity of “all of Israel” is the purpose of all of Torah. Achieving unity is no simple task. We were each created as a distinct entity, and, naturally, we are concerned primarily with ourselves and our own well being. True unity, therefore, can only be achieved through internalizing the teachings of the Torah, which teaches us to look deep within ourselves and discover our true self. While from the perspective of the body we are different and distinct from one another, Torah teaches us to self define primarily as our soul. We are to appreciate the soul’s perspective, and tune in to its understanding of reality; we are to see our body merely as a vessel and conduit for our soul. From the perspective of our soul, the Jewish people are one, because all of our souls are part of the one G-d.

Once we learn to see the soul within every person, we can them learn to see the soul of all the universe. The soul of the universe is addressed in the first verse of the Torah:     

In the beginning of G-d's creation of the heavens and the earth.

The conventional interpretation of the verse is that G-d created a world in which his existence is concealed. When we look around, we see heaven and earth but not G-d. In fact, the name of G-d used in the story of creation (“Elokim”) is the name that refers to G-d’s power of concealment. According to Chassidic interpretation, “in the beginning”, the first and primary purpose of creation is to “create”, to express and reveal that G-d created the heavens and the earth. When we look around us we see a vast universe consisting of an untold number of distinct creations, stars and galaxies, it is our task to reveal the hidden truth, that all the multiplicity in creation is an expression of the awesome greatness of the one G-d.  

As we conclude the reading of the Torah, we think about how the Torah teaches us to identify with our soul which feels bound up with “all of Israel”. Upon concluding the reading of the Torah and feeling its impact on our life, we can once again re-read the story of creation and see, not multiplicity but unity. Wherever we look, throughout the heavens and earth, we see  the oneness of G-d, we feel the embrace of His unifying presence. It is our task to reveal this unity in every moment of our day, in every part of our life, and in every corner of heaven and earth.

(Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos, Simchas Torah vol. 2).

 

Heaven and Earth - האזינו

h.jpgHeaven and Earth

It contains only forty-three verses, yet the song Moses taught the Jews on the last day of his life, spans all of Jewish history, from the very beginning when “He found them in a desert land”, all the way to the future redemption when the nations will praise G-d “For He will... appease His land (and) His people.”

In the opening phrase of the song Moses calls for the heaven and earth to bear witness to the words he is about to speak:

Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak! And let the earth hear the words of my mouth! (Deuteronomy 32:1).

Because Jewish law requires that any legal matter be established on the basis of two witnesses, Moses called upon both heaven and earth to bear witness that he indeed had conveyed this song to the people.

The testimony of heaven and earth is more than merely a poetic metaphor to introduce the song. Rather Moses was conveying a profound message, namely, that in order for the message to endure, the Jew must evoke both heaven and earth.

The purpose of the Jewish people, the objective of all Jewish history, is the marriage of heaven and earth. While many spiritual seekers, and virtually all religions, seek to escape the confines of the flesh and climb heavenward, the Jew is charged with a far more profound calling. The Jew’s task is more ambitious and revolutionary. It is first to create peace, then to build a bridge and finally a marriage between heaven and earth.    

Moses uses different words to address the heavens and the earth. He says: “Give ear, O heavens,  (“Haazinu”), “let the earth hear” (“Vi’Tishma”). The Hebrew word “Haazinu”, Give ear, is used specifically when the listener is in close proximity to the speaker, while the word “Tishma”, “hear”, applies to hearing something that is a distance away. Indeed, the Midrash explains that since Moses was “close to the heavens”, since to him spirituality was the reality of existence, he employed the word “Give ear” when addressing the heavens. And being that the material world was insignificant to Moses, because he was “distant from the earth”, he used the word “hear” when addressing the earth.

Moses was close to the heavens, but since the purpose of Judaism is to connect both matter and spirit, Moses must evoke not only heaven but earth as well.

The words of Moses were spoken to each of us. We each have a “heaven” and an “earth” within ourselves. Part of us seeks the transcendent and the spiritual, while part of us seeks the earthly and the physical. In his song Moses tells us how, despite a terrible exile, the Jewish people would emerge with a strengthened bond with G-d. The song tells how the Jewish people and their mission would endure. Perhaps more than any other part of the song, the opening words, “Give ear O heavens” and “Let the earth hear”, capture the mission of the Jew.

The song is read on Shabbat in close proximity to the holidays of Yom Kippur and Sukkot, for Yom Kippur and Sukkot are the embodiment of the song. On Yom Kippur we reach to the heavens, we connect to the core of our soul which is “close to the heavens” and feels one with G-d. Yet, as we reach the climax of the holiness of Yom Kippur we transition to the preparation for the holiday of Sukkot, which is a celebration of the ingathering of the harvest, when we celebrate the bounty we were blessed with. As the verse states:

You shall make yourself the Festival of Sukkot for seven days, when you gather in [the produce] from your threshing floor and your vat… Seven days you shall celebrate the Festival to the Lord, your God, in the place which the Lord shall choose, because the Lord, your God, will bless you in all your produce, and in all the work of your hands, and you will only be happy. (Deuteronomy 16:13-15).

The combination of Yom Kippur and Sukkot represents the life of the Jew. We are “close to heaven”, we connect to our angelic, spiritual and pure soul on Yom Kippur, and then we connect the “heaven”, spiritual awareness, to the field, to sanctify and uplift the blessings of everyday life.   

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Haazinu vol. 2)

 

In Hiding - וילך

v.jpgIn Hiding 

Our history has not always been rosy. We have experienced tranquility, peace and spiritual greatness, yet we have also experienced terrible exile, destruction and persecution. Indeed, on the last day of the life of Moses, G-d tells Moses what will befall the people when they abandon G-d:

And the Lord said to Moses: Behold, you are [about to] lie with your forefathers, and this nation will rise up and stray after the deities of the nations of the land, into which they are coming. And they will forsake Me and violate My covenant which I made with them.

And My fury will rage against them on that day, and I will abandon them and hide My face from them, and they will be consumed, and many evils and troubles will befall them, and they will say on that day, 'Is it not because our God is no longer among us, that these evils have befallen us?'

The purpose of these harsh words was not merely to warn the Jewish people of the consequence of abandoning their destiny. Perhaps more importantly, the purpose was to ensure that the people correctly interpret, and as a result, correctly respond to, the difficult exile. The natural response to the “many evils and troubles” is for the people to believe that G-d “is no longer among us” - that G-d had abandoned them. Yet, as G-d told Moses, that conclusion would be categorically wrong.  

G-d told Moses:

And I will hide My face on that day, because of all the evil they have committed, when they turned to other deities.

Only because of these words, conveyed to the Jewish people by Moses, were they able to survive until this day. If we are here as Jews today it is because generations of Jews understood this truth. That the exile is not the absence of G-d’s love and presence, but rather the exile is merely a concealment of G-d’s grace. “I will hide My face on that day”, says G-d. The Jewish people understood that hiding is by no means an abandonment. They felt G-d’s presence even in the most difficult circumstances.  

And then came the mystics.

They understood that all existence is dependent on G-d and that there is no place void of Him. When they looked at darkness, when they saw no obvious light, they understood that although G-d’s presence is not revealed in a given space his essence is present there. They understood that the most powerful message in the verse ““And I will hide My face on that day” is not that G-d will hide but rather that even within the concealment, even within the difficulty, G-d is very much present.

They understood that for a parent to withhold the expression of love in order to give the child space for trial and error, the parent must reach deep within him or herself, the parent must access a deeper level of love. Indeed when the verse says “and I will hide my face” it uses the the Hebrew word “Anochi”, which means more than “I” (“I” is “Ani”). “Anochi” means “my essence”.

Every year this portion is read in proximity to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when we engage in introspection, seek atonement and spiritual betterment, when we look back at the past year we see moments of joy and inspiration, but also moments of darkness, hurt and despair. The Torah teaches us that specifically in the moments of concealment lies the potential to reach the deepest part of ourselves. When we feel no inspiration, no excitement, no enthusiasm, we must understand that the concealment is a tool to encourage us to reach deeper within ourselves, to get in touch with our own core, our own “Anochi”. Doing so will allow us to discover that within the concealment we can access the deepest Divine strength, and, ultimately, transform the darkness to light.   

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Vayelech vol. 9 sicha 1).

 

Layers of Will - נצבים

s.jpgLayers of Will 

As the year comes to a close and Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, approaches, it is a time to reflect on the past year and to look ahead toward the upcoming year.

Before we can hope to grow and advance, before we can decide on specific resolutions to help us reach our goals, perhaps the most important question to ask ourselves is what to aspire for? What life do we want for ourselves and with what do we want to fill our minutes, hours and days during the upcoming year?

The power of will is the strongest of all the souls powers. Yet, it is also the most complex and is comprised of multiple layers. As the Kabbalists put it, there is “external will” and “inner will”. “External will” is a will that serves a deeper will, while “inner will” is a will that does not serve a goal but rather it is the goal itself.

[To illustrate: Say a person wakes up in the morning and wants to catch the train. She wants to get to the office. She wants to earn money. She wants to spend the money on the purchase of a house. She wants to make the house into a home, a place where she and her family can live a deep and meaningful life. The desires listed earlier are external, as she doesn't necessarily want them for their own sake (if she can get to work without riding the train, she would not object, nor would she object if she earned the money without the work), the “inner will”, in this illustration, is the will to create a home for family, it is the “inner will” because it is the will for its own sake].

Both our “external will” and “inner will” crave to express themselves free of any outside coercion. Yet the free will we crave is different for the “external will” and for the “internal will”. Our “external will” wants the freedom to choose between options. Yet our “inner will” seeks, not the luxury to decide between two possibilities that are outside of ourselves but rather it seeks to express the core of who we really are.

More often than not, we function at the level of “external will”, expressing our free will by identifying the good and the bad, the positive and negative, the productive and the destructive, the selfish and the selfless. Indeed, this Shabbat, the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, we read the words Moses spoke to the Jewish people on the final day of his life. He tells them: Behold, I have set before you today life and good, and death and evil. (Deuteronomy 30:15). On the level of our “external will”, there is indeed a great choice to be made. Both paths are appealing and exercising the right choice, requires discipline and effort.

Just a few verses later Moses says: “You shall choose life”. The statement seems self contradictory, the commandment implies that we have no choice, so how can there be a commandment to choose? The answer is that “You shall choose life” refers to the “inner will”. Moses is telling us that if we dig deep enough within ourselves, if we excavate deep within our soul, we will discover our “inner will” we will discover that indeed the negativity has no appeal at all. That our deeper self yearns only good. A parent in touch with her “inner will”, does not need to choose to be devoted to her child, for connection to her child is part of her core and, for the “inner will”, no other option exists. The same is true for the connection between our “inner will” and our Father in heaven.     

On Rosh Hashanah we seek to peel away the layers and allow our inner will to express itself. Just before we sound the Shofar we recite the verse “He chooses our heritage for us, the glory of Jacob whom He loves eternally (Psalms 47:5)”. We ask G-d to choose us. We ask him to express His will toward us, to have a relationship with us and to bless us. To illicit G-d’s deepest will and blessing we must first reveal our inner will. We must discover the part of us which yearns to transcend. We listen to the part of our heart whose voice is often overshadowed by the voice of the “external will”. As we hear the Shofar’s cry, we express the longing and yearning of our inner soul. The part of our soul that desires all that is wholesome and good.

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Nitzavim vol. 19 sicha 3).

 

Fruit in the Basket - כי תבוא

b.jpgFruit in the Basket 

Standing at the bank of the Jordan River, days before he was to pass way, Moses spoke to his beloved people, and, just as they had done forty years earlier at the foot of Mount Sinai, Moses once again instructed them that they were about to reaffirm their covenant with G-d. Moses proceeded to present the people with the blessing for the fulfillment of the Torah and the terrible curses, and exile that would occur if they abandoned the Torah.  

Indeed, The theme of this week’s portion, Ki Tavo, is the covenant that Moses made with the Jewish people:

These are the words of the covenant, which the Lord commanded Moses to make with the children of Israel in the land of Moab, besides the covenant which he made with them in Horeb. (Deuteronomy 28:69)

Why then does the Parash open with the specific commandment of Beekurim, the obligation of the Jewish farmer to bring his first fruit to Jerusalem as a gift to G-d? What is the connection between this specific commandment and the rest of the portion which discusses the acceptance of the covenant, a general acceptance of the entire Torah?

It is safe to assume that, somehow, the commandment to take the “first fruit”, place it in a “basket” and bring it to “the place that G-d will choose” is, in addition to the conventional meaning, also a general mystical lesson for the way we are to live, for the way we are to follow the Torah, and, ultimately, for the purpose of all of the Torah.

The Torah tells us:

And it will be, when you come into the land which the Lord, your God, gives you for an inheritance, and you possess it and settle in it,

that you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you will bring from your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving you. And you shall put [them] into a basket and go to the place which the Lord, your God, will choose to have His Name dwell there. (Deuteronomy 26:12).

The Hebrew word for “land” “Eretz” is related to the Hebrew word  “Ratzon”, will. [The Midrash says “why is she (Israel) called (“Eretz”) land? Because she desired (“Ratzah”) to do the will of her creator”.] Both “land” and “will” are related to the Hebrew word for ”running”, for such is the nature of strong will, it forces us to get up and “run” toward that which we desire.   

The Kabbalists explain that “Ratzon”, will and desire, is the most powerful force within the human being. The will has the power to control the other faculties and unleash the dormant potential. Awakening the desire to feel or to understand, will, in fact, awaken the heart and mind, [which is why the most effective teachers are not the ones who understand the subject matter the best, nor the ones who can articulate and explain the best, but rather it is the ones who are gifted with the ability to instill a love for the subject, which will inspire the student to want to grasp the subject].

Like the farmer who tills the earth to plant, sow, irrigate and reap fruit, a Jew must also seek to cultivate the “first fruit”. The first and most important thing a Jew should seek to cultivate is, what the Kabbalists call, “Ratzon” (“will”), a desire, a longing and a yearning to transcend the confines of the material and reconnect to the source of all, the infinite light of G-d. Indeed, the purpose of all of Torah is to elevate us, to instill within us a desire to grow and to climb ever higher.

Yet the the desire to “run”, to escape the mundane, to transcend the physical and to cleave to the source of life is only the first step.

Judaism demands much more. Judaism teaches that we need to capture the desire, the urge to run, and direct it to a “vessel” that will be able to contain and preserve the inspiration in daily life. “Take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you will bring from your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving you. And you shall put [them] into a basket”. Placing the “fruit” in the “basket” means applying the inspiration, the desire to transcend, and investing it into our daily life, into our daily activities.

And as the Torah continues, the purpose of placing the fruit in the basket is to “go to the place which the Lord, your God, will choose to have His Name dwell there” . Where is that “place”? Well, the answer is different for each person. For G-d places each of us in a unique place where it is our mission to “have His Name dwell there”, to fill that place with the inspiration, kindness and joy of Judaism.

So yes, the heart of the covenant, the heart of all the Torah is to take “your first fruit”, place in in a “basket”, and bring to “the place that G-d chose”.

[Adapted from Hayom Yom 18 Elul (Based on the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chasidic movement, whose birthday is the 18th of Elul].

 

The Mystical Marriage - כי תצא

r.jpegThe Mystical Marriage

Many of the laws of Jewish marriage are derived from this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitze. Just a few words in this parsha are the basis for an entire Talmudic tractate packed with the legalities of Jewish marriage, from its major legal principles down to specific intricate details of its laws.

All aspects of Torah, the law, morality, mysticism and instructions for life, are part of one whole, the legal part of Torah is the body of Torah while the mystical part of Torah is the soul. By examining the body, the legal “mechanism” of the marriage, we can discover the Torah’s perspective on the “soul” of marriage.

“Kiddushin” (betrothal) is the Hebrew word for the legal status of marriage. While there are three ways to affect a “Kiddushin”, the most common one is when a man gives a woman something of monetary value for the sake of  “Kiddushin”, and the woman accepts the object of monetary value for the purpose of becoming betrothed.

A close analysis will show that “Kiddushin” contains two components. The first is “Kesef”, which is the Hebrew word for money (or its value), which the woman receives. The second component is the “Kiddushin” itself, the woman is betrothed “consecrated” to this marriage, and she is prohibited from marrying anyone else.

The Talmudic commentators ask an interesting question: which of these components takes effect first and triggers the other? Is the money the trigger, meaning is the woman betrothed as a result of the acquisition of the money or does it work the other way around, the woman acquires the money only as a result of the onset of the marriage.

A careful examination of the Talmudic sources will reveal that this is not merely a theoretical discussion, but rather there are practical legal ramifications to this question.

These two components, “Kesef”, the money and “kiddushin” the betrothal, represent two spiritual ideas which are necessary in order to create a marriage, without either one of them no marriage can survive and thrive.

The Hebrew word for Money, “Kesef”, comes from the Hebrew word “Kosef” meaning love and yearning. The word “Kiddushin” comes from the word “kodesh” which means “designated”, representing that marriage is about exclusive commitment. Marriage is created and nourished by both love and commitment.

These are very different, perhaps even contradictory, emotions. Love is passionate and exciting, it is where the person who loves  expresses him or her self. When I love something or someone I do so because of how it makes me feel. Commitment, on the other hand, is not about what I want and how I feel at the given moment. Commitment is the ability to place my will aside and create space for someone else’s needs and perspective. Commitment is the ability to be there for someone on their terms. Commitment is the ability to connect even when one does not feel the passionate love; in fact, commitment is the oxygen which allows the passionate love to reignite.

Love is self centered. When I feel love, I am in the center of the relationship. When I feel, and practice, commitment, the other person is in the center. Both love and commitment, both “money” and “betrothal” are critical to a healthy relationship.    

Marriage between man and woman is a reflection of the the spiritual “marriage” between G-d and the Jewish people. Our “marriage” with G-d is also centered on the two ideas of “Kesef” money, which, as explained earlier, represents love, and “kiddushin”, betrothal, which represents exclusive commitment, which in the context of our marriage with G-d represents the commitment to separate form negativity and unholiness.

The question is, which of these elements comes first and triggers the other? Should we first seek to love, to feel inspired and connected to holiness before we work on ridding negativity and distraction from our life, or, alternatively, should we first focus on being committed to G-d, on separating from negativity, before we can hope to experience the bliss of love and enthusiasm in our relationship with G-d?

In our spiritual marriage, either of the elements will trigger the other. Both paths will lead to success, for each of these two components will trigger the other, the commitment will inevitably trigger love and the love will solidify the commitment.

This is a profound lesson in our service of G-d. We don't need to wait until we rid ourselves of negativity, we don't need to wait until our relationship with G-d is exclusive and all encompassing. Instead we should focus on the good, creating moments of inspiration and love in our life, which, ultimately, will trigger the “kddushin”, the betrothal, the complete, exclusive, committed, relationship with G-d.  

 

Cities of Refuge - שופטים

c.jpegCities of Refuge

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

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

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

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

Moses tells us:

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

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

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

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

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

* * *  

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Eating in Jerusalem - ראה

J.jpgEating in Jerusalem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bread from the Earth - עקב

bread.jpgBread from the Earth

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

(Talmud, Brachot 48a)

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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