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Blog - Torah Insights

The Mystery of the Copper Serpent - חוקת

The Mystery of the Copper Serpent 

When the Jewish people were bitten by snakes, as a consequence of their complaint against G-d and Moses, G-d told Moses how to heal those who were bitten:

The Lord said to Moses, "Make yourself a serpent and put it on a pole, and let whoever is bitten look at it and live. Moses made a copper snake and put it on a pole, and whenever a snake bit a man, he would gaze upon the copper snake and live. (Numbers, 21:8-9)

Why did Moses decide to make the serpent out of copper if G-d did not command him to do so? And why did G-d not instruct Mosses which material to use to create the snake?

Perhaps the answer can be found earlier in the Torah, when the Torah describes the copper basin which the Jewish people made for the tabernacle in the desert. The verse describes: 

And he made the washstand of copper and its base of copper from the mirrors… (Exodus, 38:8)

If the copper washstand was made of copper mirrors, perhaps the copper serpent was also made of reflective copper, which served as a mirror. If that is correct, then perhaps the message of the copper serpent was as follows: when the Jewish people looked up at the serpent, when they looked heavenward hoping for G-d to inspire them toward repentance and healing, they looked at the reflective serpent and saw themselves. They understood that Moses was telling them that they had matured spiritually to the point where the inspiration for repentance and healing comes not from above but rather from within. After forty years in the desert, they could no longer count on Moses to inspire them to repent; they were able, and therefore required to, take responsibility based on their inner capabilities.  

Perhaps G-d did not tell Moses which material the serpent should be made of, in order to allow Moses to demonstrate to the people that, even in the absence of a direct command from above, one must employ one’s own logic and creativity to discover the correct path. 

It seems that the Jewish people did internalize the message. After the story of the copper serpent, we read how the Jewish people sang a song, praising G-d for the well of water. The opening words of the song "then sang" is the precise wording the Torah uses for the song of the crossing of the sea almost forty years earlier, yet with one important difference. At the sea, when the Jewish people were taking their first steps in their spiritual journey, they could not sing on their own. The verse reads: "then Moses sang and the children of Israel," implying that Moses led the song and the people followed his inspiration. Yet, forty years later, they reached spiritual maturity; this time, the verse says: "Then Israel sang this song:" 'Ascend, O well,' sing to it!". This time the Jewish people were able to generate inspiration independently, whereas Moses is not mentioned. 

Moses completed his task. He taught his people how to sing. 

 

Can a Relationship Survive Dispute? - קרח

 

Can a Relationship Survive Dispute? 

 

After Korach's rebellion against Moses and Aaron, G-d commanded Moses to take the pans which Korach's clan used to offer incense and make it into a covering for the Alter. This would remind the people never to repeat the mistake of Korach and his company. As the verse states: 

 

as a reminder for the children of Israel, so that no outsider, who is not of the seed of Aaron, shall approach to burn incense before the Lord, so as not to be like Korach and his company, as the Lord spoke regarding him through the hand of Moses. (Numbers 17:5)

 

Based on the words "as not to be like Korach and his company", the Talmud derives that it is a sin to engage in a dispute:  

 

With regard to the verse: "And Moses arose and went to Dathan and Abiram" (Numbers 16:25), Reish Lakish says: From here we derive that one may not perpetuate a dispute, as Rav says: Anyone who perpetuates a dispute violates a prohibition, as it is stated: "And he will not be like Korach and his assembly. (Talmud, Sanhedrin 110b)

 

But is dispute indeed a sin? Are we afraid of varying opinions? Aren't there multiple opinions on every single page of the Talmud? 

 

The very first "division" in the Torah appears on the second day of creation, when "God said "Let there be an expanse amid the water, and let it be a separation between water and water."". The origin of all division in the world is the division between the spiritual ("the waters of heaven") and the physical ("waters of earth"). The purpose of the separation on the second day of creation was in order to create harmony on the third day. The purpose of the second day was to create two distinct entities that could be interconnected, and whose differences could complement each other. The potential for harmony between the spiritual and physical realms is formed on the third day, when dry land appeared, creating the space for humankind whose task it is to bridge heaven and earth by creating a home for G-d in the physical world. 

 

The same model is true regarding all relationships. A relationship requires two distinct entities that unite to become one. A healthy relationship, therefore, requires both love (the desire to become one) and respect (honoring the distinct perspective, personality and needs of the other), because the oneness of a healthy relationship is not the absence of distinction but rather, on the contrary, growing as a result of the complementing distinctions.   

 

The Talmud's wording is precise. Korach wanted to "perpetuate dispute", Korach wanted that distinction should be absolute. He celebrated the differences between people because he believed that each person is independent and self-standing. The proper model of Judaism is that the various points of view complement and enrich the experience. The division between people, which gives each person their unique identity and perspective, is there to enhance each other, each contributing their own unique perspective and personality to the whole. The distinction between heaven and earth, which occurred on Monday, was not, as Korach would have it, meant to be perpetuated. Instead, the distinction was the first step to creating harmony as modeled by Moses in the Torah.  


(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Hasam Nafsheinu Bachayim 5718)


 

Your Offering Needs Wine! - שלח

 

Your Offering Needs Wine!


Immediately after the tragic episode of the spies, when G-d declared that all men liberated from Egypt would perish in the desert over the next forty years, G-d offered a word of encouragement. The verse states: 


The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: When you arrive in the Land of your dwelling place, which I am giving you… 


Rashi explains that the commandment is prefaced by the introduction “when you arrive in the land” because: “He {G-d} informed them that they {the children of those who were destined to die in the desert} would enter the Land”. 


Of all the commandments that apply in Israel, the one mentioned here is the commandment of libations, pouring wine on the altar together with an offering. As the verse explains: 



{when} you make a fire offering to the Lord, the one who brings his offering to the Lord shall present... a meal offering containing one tenth fine flour mixed with a quarter of a hin of oil. And a quarter of a hin of wine for a libation, you shall prepare with the burnt offering or for the sacrifice, for each lamb.


The commandment of libations is presented here, and not in Leviticus, the third book of the Torah, where the laws of offerings are discussed, because the libations represent the antidote to the mistake of the spies. Chassidic philosophy explains that the spies preferred to remain in the desert where they would live a spiritual existence, secluded and protected from physical life. They sought to escape the mundane and live a spiritual life where they could be close to G-d. In a word, they sought to be “an offering”; they sought to be utterly devoted to holiness. Their mistake was that they were not aligned  with the purpose of creation, which is to create a home for G-d in the physical reality. They were happy to offer a “fire offering”, like the fire which surges upward, they sought to escape the gravitational pull of the physical. G-d, therefore, introduced the commandment of pouring wine together with the offering. Because the purpose of ascending to spiritual heights is to then "flow downward", to figuratively “pour the wine”, infusing physical life with meaning and joy. 


The Talmud equates the relationship between offering and libations with the relationship between reciting the Shema and putting on tefillin: 


Rabbi Chyya bar Abba said that Rabbi Yoḥanan said: {one who recites Shema without Tefillin} it is as if he has offered a burnt-offering without a meal-offering or a peace-offering without libations. 


When we recite the Shema we are raising ourselves to a higher spiritual plane. We meditate on the unity of G-d, and awaken a passionate love for G-d in our hearts. But just as the offering placed into the fire on the altar must be followed by the wine flowing downward, so too the fire of the Shema needs to be channeled into the Tefillin, which represent tangible, action based, commandments; thus fulfilling the  purpose of creation, making a home for G-d, not in heaven but right here on earth. 


(Based on Likutei Torah 40:1)  



Chametz on (the Second) Passover?! - בהעלותך

 

Chametz on (the Second) Passover?!


During the holiday of Passover, all leavened bread is off-limits. Not only are we not allowed to eat it, it is also a biblical violation to see one's Chametz (leavened bread) or even to own Chametz.


In this week's Torah portion, we read about the second Passover. In response to the demand of individuals who could not offer the Passover offering because they were ritually impure, G-d introduced the second Passover, exactly one month later, offering the opportunity to remedy the missed opportunity. As the verse states: 


In the second month, on the fourteenth day, in the afternoon, they shall make it; they shall eat it with unleavened cakes and bitter herbs. They shall not leave over anything from it until the next morning, and they shall not break any of its bones. They shall make it in accordance with all the statutes connected with the Passover sacrifice. (Numbers 9:11-12)


Virtually all of the laws of the first Passover apply to the second Passover. Still, there are two important differences: (1) On the first Passover we are obligated to rid the Chametz from our home, and we are even prohibited from owning Chametz. On the second Passover, by contrast, we are permitted to have Chametz in the home even while eating the Passover offering. [As Rashi quotes from the Talmud:" On the second Passover, one may keep both leavened bread and unleavened food in the home.... the consumption of leaven is not forbidden except while he eats it (the sacrifice)]. (2) While the first Passover lasts for seven days (in Israel, and eight days outside of Israel), the second Passover is only one day. These two distinctions are interconnected and stem from the inner meaning and energy of the second Passover. 


The first Passover represents the "path of the righteous", the path which we should strive to follow. We rid our home of Chametz, which represents freeing ourselves from negative influences and phenomenon. We seek to celebrate our relationship with G-d without the distractions of negativity and challenge. This experience lasts for seven days because our service of G-d, and commitment to holiness and personal growth is a process that takes time (represented by seven days, a complete week) to achieve.  


Despite aiming for the righteous path, we sometimes find ourselves on the second path, the path of challenge, pain, and hardship. We sometimes succumb to negativity and cannot celebrate the holiday of freedom, as we are enslaved to our negative traits. The Torah introduced the second Passover, which is not only a second chance to achieve what we have missed, but rather it is a far deeper and more profound experience. Granted, While on the first path, we avoid the challenge of negative experiences (symbolized by banning the Chametz from our home), yet on the second Passover, by contrast, we transform the pain of the negative experience into fuel which deepens our commitment to holiness, positivity, and spiritual growth. The experiences that are a distraction from the first path can, through the process of return, be transformed to bring us to a deeper connection with G-d, in the second Passover.   


The second Passover, the process of transformation and return, takes place on only one day which symbolizes that transformation can happen instantaneously. All a person has to do is turn around and face a new direction, and the transformation has occurred. Because where we are is not the important consideration. What is important is where we are heading. 


Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Likkutei Sichos Behaaloscha vol. 18 Sicha 3. 


When Logic is Ineffective - נשא

When Logic is Ineffective 

The relationship between the Jewish people and G-d is likened to the marriage between man and woman. Therefore the Torah laws regarding marriage also inform us about our relationship with G-d.

 

In this week's Parsha we read about the Sotah, the married woman who was secluded with another man after being warned not to do so. The Torah outlines the process by which the relationship between the Sotah and her husband can be restored. 

 

The word Sotah is derived from the word to go astray (Tisteh), which introduces the law of the Sotah: 

 

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:

Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: Should any man's wife go astray and deal treacherously with him (Numbers 5:11-12)

 

The Talmud remarks that the word for going astray (Tisteh) is related to the word for folly (shtut), that is because: "A man commits a transgression only if a spirit of folly [shetut] enters him." The implications of this are far-reaching. The Talmud is saying that essentially the inherent goodness within every person would naturally lead them to choose the correct moral path. The reason we often stray from what we know is the correct path is because of the spirit of folly which blurs our rational thinking and distorts our true desire. Therefore, no matter how far we stray, the Talmud is telling us, we must remember that our mistakes don't define us, as they don't reflect our true self, and we can therefore always return to our true self, which is inherently good. 

 

While this message is uplifting, the question still remains: how do we deal with the spirit of folly which leads us to stray from our true selves? How do we deal with the spirit of folly which, by definition, being folly, is not moved by logic?  

 

This solution is alluded to in the word Tisteh (which, as mentioned, means both to go astray and folly). There are two ways to go astray, to deviate from the path of reason: one way can be irrational and foolish, the other way can be unreasonable by committing to the right path even more than reason dictates. 

 

The Talmud tells the story of a sage whose commitment to the Mitzvah of dancing at a wedding,  bringing joy to the bride and groom, was beyond the limitations of logic: 

 

Rav Shmuel bar Rav Yitzḥak would base his dance on three myrtle branches that he would juggle. Rabbi Zeira said: The old man is humiliating us, as through his conduct he is demeaning the Torah and the Torah scholars. It is further related: When Rav Shmuel bar Rav Yitzḥak died, a pillar of fire demarcated between him and everyone else, and we learn through tradition that a pillar of fire demarcates only for either one person in a generation or for two people in a generation.  

Rabbi Zeira said: His branch [shotitei] was effective for the old man, due to this Mitzva that he fulfilled so enthusiastically he was privileged to receive this great reward. And some say that Rabbi Zeira said: His nonsense [shetutei] was effective for the old man. (Talmud Ketubot 17a)

 

Chasidic philosophy explains that the spirit of folly, which seeks to pull the person in the direction of negativity, cannot be managed through intellectual reasoning since folly is utterly uninterested in reason. The only way one can counter straying toward the direction of negativity is not by trying to follow the standard path but rather by straying toward the direction of increased positivity. The only way to combat negative folly is by countering it with positive folly. When logic does not work, one must respond with a commitment to goodness that supersedes the demands of logic: one’s actions must be kinder, more patient, more loving, more giving, and more empathetic than reason demands. 


Adapted from Basi Ligani 5710 

 

The Spiritual Significance of the Flags - במדבר

The Spiritual Significance of the Flags 

The fourth book of the Torah begins by detailing the precise order of how the tribes of Israel camped around the Mishkan (the sanctuary) in the desert. The verse tells how each tribe camped with their specific flag: 

G-d spoke to Moses and Aaron saying: The children of Israel shall encamp each man by his division with the flagstaffs of their fathers' house; some distance from the Tent of Meeting they shall encamp. (Numbers 2:2)

Rashi elaborates: 

with the flagstaffs: Every division shall have its own flag staff, with a colored flag hanging on it; the color of one being different from the color of any other. The color of each one was like the hue of its stone, set in the choshen [worn by the Kohen Gadol], and in this way, everyone could recognize his division.

The Midrash attributes great significance to the flags. The Midrash describes how, at Sinai, the Jewish people saw the angels divided into camps, each with their unique flag. Observing the scene, the Jewish people desired flags. And, indeed, in this week's Parsha, Hashem tells Moses and Aaron that each tribe would camp with their own flag. 

The memory of the flags is, according to the Midrash, what kept the Jewish people loyal to G-d throughout the persecution and pressures of exile. The Song of Songs, the Biblical book that describes the love between the Jewish people and G-d, depicts a scene where the girls ask the protagonist why she cleaves to her beloved, despite the challenges in the relationship. Why doesn't she return to them?

Return, return, O Shulammite; return, return, and let us gaze upon you." 

Rashi explains that the verse is a metaphor for the nations of the world who ask the Jewish people to abandon G-d, and they, the nations of the world, will, in return, appoint them to positions of greatness. The Jewish people respond: 

"What will you see for the Shulammite, as in the dance of the camps?

The Midrash explains: 

"What will you see for the Shulammite?" What greatness can you allot me, that will be equal to the greatness which G-d gave me in the desert, the flag of the camp of Judah, the flag of the camp of Reuben… can you replicate that for us? 

What is the meaning and significance of the flags? 

A flag creates unity. It is a symbol around which people gather, it reminds them of their shared identity and common purpose and allows them to regroup after being dispersed. The angels are divided into camps and flags. They are constantly aware of the purpose of their creation and their inner identity, that awareness permeates all aspects of their personality. When the Jewish people saw the angels at Sinai, they too desired this awareness, the sense of clarity of purpose and direction. They, too, wanted to experience the unity of G-d in every part of their life. G-d responded that, yes, indeed, in the desert, when they would build the tabernacle and camp around it, they too would experience the awareness of the flags. They would be able to unite every aspect of their lives, every detail of their day, with their purpose, namely to infuse every aspect of reality with holiness. 

Through the long exile, the nations tried to persuade us to abandon our relationship with G-d in return for material comfort and prestige. We have not accepted the tradeoff because, as the Song of Songs explains, we would not give up the "dance of the camps". Nothing the material world can give is as powerful as the flags of the desert; no physical pleasure can compare with the sense of spiritual fulfillment that comes from the clarity of understanding the meaning and purpose of one's life. 

We, too, travel through a figurative wilderness, with our banner, the Torah, that teaches us how to unify every aspect of our lives with our purpose and mission. We are in the "dance of the camps," referring to the camp of the Jewish people as well as the camp of angels. We are in a dance with the angels: while they pronounce the glory of G-d in heaven, we have a far more challenging task, we reveal G-d's holiness right here on earth. 

(Adapted from the Shem Mishmuel) 

 

Should You Parent Like "Tiger Mom"? - בהר בחוקותי

Should You Parent Like "Tiger Mom"?


The Hebrew language, the "holy tongue" with which G-d created the world, captures the inner essence of reality. Often, words that seem unrelated share a common root because, upon deeper exploration, there is an intrinsic connection between them. 


One example is the word Bechukotai (my statutes), the first word of the final portion of the book of Leviticus, which is derived from the root word of "engraving". What is the connection between a statute and engraving? 


[Interestingly, the English words statue and statute derive from the same Latin root, "sta", which means to stand. The statue stands tall in the literal sense, while the law is established and stands in the figurative sense.]


The Hebrew word Bechukotai, commonly translated as statutes, refers specifically to the laws that don't have a rational reason; we perform them only because they are the will of G-d. This category of law is therefore associated with engraving, in contrast to writing. Engraving differs from writing in two respects: engraving requires far more effort than writing, and engraving penetrates the stone to the extent that the engraved letter is one entity with the stone, unlike writing in which the ink does not become one entity with the parchment. 


It is relatively easy to fulfill the commandments that we understand and relate to; therefore, fulfilling them is likened to writing.  By contrast, the commandments that are beyond our understanding require far more effort on our part. Since we have to "push ourselves" to fulfill them, they are likened to engraving. Yet, precisely because of the effort required to fulfill the supra-rational commandments, they have a more profound impact on our personality; they are engraved in our psyche in a far more profound way than the rational commandments. 


The idea that effort equals engraving also explains Rashi's commentary on Bechukotai. Rashi points out that in this case, Bechukotai cannot possibly be referring to fulfilling the statutes because the following clause refers to fulfilling all the commandments (including the supra-rational statutes). Rashi, therefore, offers a surprising interpretation: in this case, the word Bechukotai refers to toiling in the study of Torah:


if you follow My statutes: I might think that this refers to the fulfillment of the commandments. However, when Scripture says, "and observe My commandments," the fulfillment of the commandments is [already] stated. So what is the meaning of "If you follow My statutes"? It means that you must toil in the study of Torah.


The connection between toil in Torah and the word Bechukotai, is the effort-engraving equation. When one studies Torah, he or she is metaphorically writing the words of Torah into their consciousness, yet when one toils and invests effort in the study of Torah, then the words of Torah are engraved within their soul. 


What is true about our own Torah study can perhaps be applied to education as well. We should not necessarily "tiger parent" by pushing every child to achieve straight A's. We should, however, teach our children to work harder each day. More important than achieving a good grade, we should value the child who tries harder today than he did yesterday. Because the effort invested is what leads to the true definition of success: engraving the divine words of the Torah on our heart and mind. 


(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos vol. 17 Bechukosai 1)

 

The Kabbalah of Dance - אמור

 

The Kabbalah of Dance


A circle dance, according to wikipedia, is probably the oldest form of dance. In Biblical Hebrew there is a specific word for a circle dance, Machol, as King David wrote in the Book of Psalms: “Let them praise His name with a {circle} dance”.  


The Hebrew word Machol, a circle dance, is related to the word Mechilah forgiveness. What possible connection can there be between a dance and forgiveness? 


When a person is dancing in a circle he begins the dance at a specific point, and then moves farther and farther away from that point, only to once again return to the same point. If a person would observe a dance for the first time, he would probably wonder what the point is of going in circles, moving away only to return once again? Yet, the nature of dance is that the rhythm, exuberance and joy of the dance is produced specifically by moving farther away in order to return. 


The Kabbalists explain that all of life is, in essence, a dance. The soul descends into this world, moving away from its sense of closeness to G-d, yet the descent and distance is in order to return closer to G-d with greater passion, excitement and joy. If the soul had not moved away from G-d, it would experience the closeness to G-d as if it were, so to say, sitting on a couch right next toG-d. Yet the descent, and distance, is likened to the excitement and passion which is produced by the dance. 


The circle dance explains the rhythm of the seventh month in the Jewish calendar, the month of holidays, which is discussed in this week’s portion. The month begins with the days of awe. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we seek forgiveness, we introspect, we realize that, inevitably, over the course of the year, we have moved away from G-d, from our true self, and from our deepest aspirations and goals. We sense the awe. The distance and gap between the person we are and the person we know we could be. Yet, just like the circle dance, the feeling of distance, is just the first part of the story. Specifically because we sense the distance, feel the longing, and seek forgiveness, we are drawn back to the starting point of the circle in a much deeper way. After the distance, after the forgiveness of Yom Kippur, we experience G-d’s love to us in a more profound way. The second half of the circle, is the second half of the month, “the season of joy”, when we sit in the Sukkah, whose walls symbolize G-d’s loving embrace, and experience a far deeper sense of joy than the soul could ever have felt had it not embarked on the dance we call life.   


Throughout the year we experience the pain, frustration, and disappointment of being distant from the people we love, from our true selves and from G-d. We experience setbacks and challenges. We sometimes seem to be moving farther away from the life we want for ourselves. The rhythm of the month of the holidays teaches us a profound lesson: it is up to us to transform the distance into a circle dance. We alone can transform the pain into longing and the longing into profound closeness. All we need to do is realize that we are in the midst of a circle dance. 


Adapted from Lekutei Torah, Shmini Atzeres, 86:3.  


Are You Lovesick? - אחרי מות קדושים

 

Are You Lovesick? 

 

Getting too close to G-d could be dangerous. That, according to Rashi, is the message of the opening verse in this week's Torah portion: 

 

And the Lord spoke to Moses after the death of Aaron's two sons, when they drew near before the Lord, and they died.

 

Why does the Torah have to state that the commandments of this portion occurred after the death of the sons of Aaron, which is a story that has been clearly stated previously in the Torah? 

 

Rashi, offers an interesting metaphor to explain the repetition:  

 

Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah illustrated [the answer] with a parable of a sick patient, whom a physician came to visit. [The physician] said to him, "Do not eat cold foods, and do not lie down in a cold, damp place." Then, another [physician] visited him, and advised him, "Do not eat cold foods or lie down in a cold, damp place, so that you will not die the way so-and-so died." This one warned that patient more effectively than the former. Therefore, Scripture says, "after the death of Aaron's two sons" [i.e., God effectively said to Aaron, "Do not enter the Holy in a prohibited manner, so that you will not die as your sons died"]- 

 

This metaphor explains that "and they died" is a veiled warning to Aaron to adhere to the commandment warning against entering the holy of holies (except on Yom kippur). 

 

But why does the metaphor describe a sick person, when the same point could have been made about a physician warning a healthy person to take preventive measures (to secure their health)? Why does the metaphor imply that Aaron was sick?

 

The metaphor teaches us that, indeed, Aaron was sick. Aaron was love sick. 

 

Aaron had a deep yearning and desire to connect to G-d, just like a sick person burning up with fever yearns for cold air and cold food. Aaron had to be warned not to enter the holy of holies, because without the warning he would be drawn to escape to the intense holiness and lose the ability to live a healthy balanced life. 

 

Like Aaron, we too must be lovesick. True, G-d desires that we live in the material world and infuse it with holiness. G-d desires that we sanctify the mundane experiences of daily life. But, paradoxically, in order to do so, we must cultivate the desire to escape the confines of materialism and be enveloped in Torah and prayer. 

 

The Kabbalah teaches that the model of connection to holiness is "run and return". We begin our day with prayer. We recite the Shema, declaring the unity of G-d and declaring the verse "you shall love the L-ord your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might". Only after this moment of intense connection (running) in the beginning of the day, do we focus on the "return", channeling our love to fulfilling G-d's will down here on this earth. 

 

The purpose of creation is the "return", yet the only way we can remain connected to holiness while in "return" mode is by "running", cultivating a longing and desire to cleave to G-d.

 

To live a wholesome life, we need balance. We must focus on life on this earth, but we also need to be lovesick.  

 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichios Acharei vol 7 sicha 1.

 

 

How to Criticize Effectively - תזריע מצורע

 

How to Criticize Effectively 


A Kohen {a member of the priestly family who would perform the Temple service} represents the attribute of love. In the Ethics of Our Fathers, the Mishnah teaches: “be of the descendants of Aaron {the patriarch of the priestly family}, a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace, one who loves the creatures and draws them close to Torah”. The feeling of love is integral to the role of a Kohen. Until this very day, when the priests fulfill the commandment to bless the Jewish people, they recite the blessing “Blessed… who commanded us to bless his people Israel with love”. The blessing defines the commandment as one which not only commands to bless but also to bless with love. In fact, the reason the Kohen’s words elicit Divine blessing is because the blessing is recited with love. 


Yet, in our Torah portion, the Kohen also has a very different role. It is specifically the Kohen who can declare a person impure with the ailment of Tzaraat. While determining whether an affliction is indeed Tzaraat requires the expertise of a sage, nevertheless it is not the sage who can declare the person impure; but rather, the sage notifies the Kohen that the affliction is umpire, and the Kohen is the one who must pronounce it impure. As Maimonides codifies the law: 


The designation of a person as impure or pure is dependent on a Kohen. What is implied? If there is a Kohen who does not know how to assess blemishes, a sage should observe them and instruct him: "Say 'You are impure,' and the Kohen says: "You are impure;" "Say 'You are pure,'" and the Kohen says: "You are pure." "Isolate him," and he isolates him… Even if a Kohen is a minor or intellectually or emotionally incapable, the sage instructs him and he declares the person definitively impure, releases him from the inspection process, or isolates him. (Maimonides Laws of Tzaraat 9:2) 


Why is this the only law in the Torah which requires a Kohen to decide a matter of law?


The Tzaarat is, in some ways, the most severe form of impurity, requiring the Metzora {person afflicted with Tzaarat} to “dwell isolated, his dwelling shall be outside the camp”. This, precisely, is the reason the Torah demands that specifically a Kohen, whose spiritual makeup and communal responsibility is to love his people,  be the one to declare a person impure. For the Kohen will not declare anyone impure unless it is absolutely necessary to do so. When the Kohen is forced to declare a person impure, the Kohen’s empathy, concern, and love will allow the person to accept the Kohen’s declaration without becoming defensive, enabling him to begin spiritual rehabilitation that will ultimately render him pure once again. 


A google search on “how to criticize effectively” will yield many good techniques, but, in our Parsha, the Torah teaches that the most important factor in effective criticism is the way in which it is given. The way the recipient of the criticism, be it a child, college employee, or friend, is able to accept the criticism is when they  sense that the critique is motivated by your love and concern. 


Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Tazria vol. 27 Sicha 2. 


When Moses Could Not Complete the Job - שמיני

 

When Moses Could Not Complete the Job


After many months of construction, after the seven-day temple inauguration, the fateful day had finally arrived. On the eighth day, the Divine presence was to rest on the sanctuary, symbolizing that G-d desired to dwell amongst the Jewish people. Yet, even after the services were performed on the eighth day, there was no sign of a Divine revelation. After anticipating this moment for so many months, the people cried out to Moses: what is the meaning of the delay? Is it possible that G-d has no interest in his people and in their efforts to erect a home for Him in their midst? 


Moses' response was unexpected. He said that he, Moses, was unable to cause the Divine presence to dwell. As Rashi explains:  


Throughout all seven days of the investitures, when Moses erected the Mishkan, performed the service in it, and then dismantled it daily, the Shechinah did not rest in it. The Israelites were humiliated, and they said to Moses, "Moses, our teacher, all the efforts we have taken were so that the Shechinah should dwell among us, so that we would know that we have been forgiven for the sin of the [golden] calf!" Therefore, Moses answered them (verse 6), "This is the thing the Lord has commanded; do [it], and the glory of the Lord will appear to you. My brother Aaron is more worthy and important than I, insofar as through his offerings and his service the Shechinah will dwell among you, and you will know that the Omnipresent has chosen him." (Leviticus 9:23)


Moses states: "my brother Aaron is more worthy and important than I." But why? Wasn't Moses the one who took the people out of Egypt, led them to Mount Sinai, and brought them the ten commandments? Why was Aaron superior in his ability to cause the Divine revelation in the temple?  


Moses and Aaron were distinct in their spiritual personality and, therefore, in their leadership role. Moses represented the attribute of truth and Aaron the attribute of peace. Moses's mission was to convey the Divine law, to bring the word of G-d to the people. Moses's chief responsibility was to communicate the unadulterated Divine will. Aaron, by contrast, was a man of love. His task was to inspire the people to elevate themselves and come closer to G-d. As the Ethics of our fathers state: "Be of the disciples of Aaron—a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace, one who loves the creatures and draws them close to Torah."


Since the ultimate purpose of G-d's descent into the world is to inspire the subsequent elevation of the world, therefore, it is specifically Aaron who represents the elevation of the people, who is the one who causes the Divine revelation. 


There is a Moses and Aaron in each of our lives. When we study Torah, seeking to connect to the Divine truth, we connect to the Moses within us. When we reach out to help others, to raise them either physically or spiritually, we express the Aaron within us. 


The lesson for us is that if we want G-d to rest within our life, we must not only study Torah, focusing on our own growth, but rather, we must be like Aaron, loving the people around us and bringing them closer to the Torah. 


(Based on the teaching of the Rebbe, Shabbos Shmini 5732)

Why Celebrate a Partial Liberation? - פסח

Why Celebrate a Partial Liberation?  

For millennia, on the night of Passover, the Jewish people have sat with family and friends, celebrating the liberation from Egypt. Yet what is the meaning of commemorating a liberation which did not last? For most of Jewish history, the Jewish people have been subjugated by world empires, oppressed and persecuted. What value is there to the exodus from Egypt if we reverted to other forms of slavery? Even today, when we live in free countries, we are not in a state of liberty, free of challenge and pain. Amongst us there are people who, to some degree, or another, experience poverty, pain, and suffering. 

In addition to physical liberation, the exodus from Egypt ushered in spiritual liberation. Yet, the spiritual freedom did not either last. We look within ourselves, and we know that, to some degree, we are plagued by negativity and challenge, far from the ideal state of spiritual liberation.

How, then, can we celebrate liberation when we are burdened with worry and hardship? How can we celebrate spiritual liberation if we don’t feel spiritually free? 

The key to understanding the nature of the celebration is the introductory passage we say at the beginning of Magid, the part of the Seder in which we recite the story of the exodus:

This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat; whoever is in need, let him come and conduct the Seder of Passover. This year [we are] here; next year in the land of Israel. This year [we are] slaves; next year [we will be] free people.

This introductory passage highlights that we are very much aware of the present reality as we sit down to celebrate freedom. We are aware that we are far from an ideal state of freedom. Amongst us there are people who are hungry and in need who we must reach out to and invite into our homes. “This year we are here,” we are not in our ideal state in the land of Israel. “This year we are slaves,” we still have vestiges of bondage to material hardship and worries as well as subjugation to spiritual challenge. 

Judaism in general, and Passover in particular, is a bridge within time, interconnecting past, present and future. We are firmly in the present, rooted in the past, and working to the future. Therefore, despite the past exodus from Egypt not being a complete redemption, and therefore, in the present, the freedoms we received have eroded over time; we celebrate the exodus from Egypt because it unleashed the potential for us to work toward the future, complete, redemption. 

As we sit down to our Seder, we celebrate the past exodus because it empowers us in the present to work for a wholly liberated future. The Matzah, the “bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt”, inspires our present (“this year we are here”) to improve the future and usher in the ultimate liberation - “next year in the land of Israel... next year [we will be] free people.”

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos vol. 17 Pesach sicha 2 


 

Do You Hear the Calling? - ויקרא

 Do You Hear the Calling?

 

The opening verse of the third book of the Torah, the book of Vayikra {Leviticus} reads: 

 

And He called to Moses, and the Lord spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying. 

 

This verse raises several grammatical questions. (1) What is the meaning of the double expression "he called" and "spoke"? The verse could have simply stated: "the Lord spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying"? (2) Why does the verse say "He", without stating explicitly that it was Hashem who called; whereas regarding the expression "spoke" the verse states clearly that it was "the Lord" who spoke?

 

Rashi, the preeminent Biblical commentator, explains that the Torah writes "And He called", in addition to "spoke ", because it is an expression of affection. As Rashi tells us: 

 

Every [time God communicated with Moses, whether it was represented by the expression] "And He spoke," or "and He said," or "and He commanded," it was always preceded by {the expression of} calling {to Moses}. "Calling "{Vayikra} is an expression of affection, the {same} expression employed by the ministering angels {when addressing each other}, as it says, "And one called to the other…" (Isaiah 6:3). 

 

There is a Chasidic explanation for why the Torah uses both expressions "He called" and "Hashem spoke. 

 

The word Vayikra, "and he called," is written in the Torah scroll with a small Aleph {ויקרא}. The letter Aleph, which is the numerical value of one, is related to the word "Aluf," which means leader or ruler, referring to Hashem, the ruler of the universe. The letter Alef is small because although we often hear a Divine call - something inside us is stirred, we feel moved and inspired to change and improve, or we feel that the life we are living is lacking - the Aleph, the Divine source of the call, is hidden. We feel drawn to something, but we are not sure what we are drawn to, we sense our soul yearning, but we don't know what we are yearning for; we hear the calling, but the caller is hidden. 

 

The third book begins "and He called," concealing the identity of the caller, because when Hashem reaches out to us, he does not overwhelm us with his awe-inspiring presence. Instead, He calls to us through a guise of nature, circumstances, or the yearning within ourselves. If, when we hear the call, we continue to explore, we will discover that, in reality, it is Hashem who is calling us. We then reach the second clause of the verse: "the Lord spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying", we will come to the tent of meeting, the temple which housed the ark and the Torah. In the Torah, we will advance from hearing the disguised call to understanding and appreciating the holy words of the Torah, which articulate Hashem's words to us. 

 

Hashem is calling you. The Torah will help you understand the calling. 

 

Adapted from the Meiras Einayim   

 

 

The Kabbalah of Colors - ויקהל פקודי

 

The Kabbalah of Colors 


The Mishkan, the Sanctuary the Jewish people build in the desert, is described in this week’s portion in all its detail. The commandment to construct the Mishkan, “make for me a sanctuary, and I will dwell amongst them,” employs the plural {“them”} because it alludes to Hashem dwelling in the figurative sanctuary within every individual. As the equivalent of every detail of the temple: its coverings, walls, foundation sockets, courtyard, and furniture, exist within the life of every Jew. 


Covering the sanctuary was a magnificent tapestry of woven colored wool and linen. As the Torah describes: 


Then all the wise-hearted people of the performers of the work made the Mishkan out of ten curtains [consisting] of twisted fine linen, and blue, purple, and crimson wool. A cherubim design, the work of a master weaver he made them. (Exodus 36:8)


The colors of the dyed wool are significant. The Kabbalah teaches that every soul possesses seven emotional sefirot, or attributes, which blend to produce the full spectrum of human emotion. Three of the seven represent three primary emotions, represented by 3 colors: crimson - love, blue - awe and respect, purple - compassion. 


Red is the color of passion. Crimson red represents the soul’s passionate yearning to cleave to Hashem. Like the flame surging upward, our soul is in a constant dance of passionately yearning to reconnect to its source and reunite with Hashem. 


Turquoise Blue represents awe and respect. While love is the draw to connect, to become one, awe causes one to pull back. The attribute of love desires to connect and unite. In contrast, the feeling of awe creates distance and respect. 


The Talmud (Menachot 43b) teaches that “tekhelet {turquoise-blue} is similar to the sea, and the sea is similar to the firmament and the firmament is similar to the throne of Glory.”  Blue evokes the color of the heavens, which reminds us of how small we are in comparison to the universe, and evokes within us the awe of Hasehem. 


Purple, a blend of red and blue, represents compassion, which is a blend of love and awe. Compassion is the feeling of love that is awakened by the fear of a painful circumstance. When we feel compassion, we are feeling the love for someone as well as dread of the suffering. 


All three colors-emotions are necessary in order to build a relationship with Hashem. Crimson, the love that draws us to come close to G-d, is balanced by turquoise, the retreat in awe back to fulfill Hashem’s will on this earth. And at times when we don’t feel emotionally connected, when we feel numb and cold, we look to the purple, the emotion of compassion. By feeling empathy and compassion for our soul, a spark of Hashem trapped in material reality, the awe and love are again reawakened. 


(Adapted from Hayosheves Baganim 5708)


Fire From Flintstone - כי תשא

Fire From Flintstone 


It seems that all hope is lost; the fire has been extinguished. 


Fire needs suitable conditions to survive, it needs fuel to burn, and water can wash it away. But what if the fuel was spent, and the diminishing coal is thrown into the water? 


In that case, you can create a new fire from a flintstone. The beauty of the flintstone is that its fire yielding potential can lie dormant for many years, the stone can be immersed at the bottom of the sea for decades, yet, when steel hits the rock with force, it can produce a spark that will once again ignite a fire.  


The verse says: "the L-rd your G-d is a consuming fire." The Divine energy, like fire, surges upward, seeking to escape the confines of this world and return to its source. In order for the Divine holiness to be present in our life, we must produce the fuel that keeps the fire grounded. The fuel is thought, speech, and action of Torah and Mitzvot. Every time we engage in a holy thought, speech or action, we produce the fuel that keeps the Divine fire alive in our world and in our life. 


In this week's portion, we read about how the people betrayed G-d and created the golden calf. Like the tablets Moses shattered, the fire of love and passion to G-d was destroyed. Lacking fuel, the flame of romance escaped and ascended into thin air.  


As the story unfolds, we realize that it is, in fact, a story of healing and reconnection. G-d forgives the people and gives them the second set of tablets. And Moses, amazed, asked to see G-d's glory, to understand the essence of G-d, the source of forgiveness.


In what are perhaps the most cryptic mystical verses in all of the Torah we read: 


And the L-rd said: "Behold, there is a place with Me, and you shall stand on the rock.

And it shall be that when My glory passes, I will place you into the cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with My hand until I have passed by. (Exodus 33:21-22)


What is the meaning of these words and images? G-d's glory? The rock? The cleft of the rock? 


While there are multiple interpretations, one Kabbalistic interpretation is that the rock alludes to the imagery of the fire-producing flintstone. For indeed, the passionate fire of the relationship between G-d and His people is no longer seen or felt. "My glory has passed", the light and the warmth are gone. Yet G-d tells Moses that the core of the Jew, the cleft of the rock, can still produce fire. Even when the stone, the core of the Jew, is immersed in water, nothing can rob it of its ability to once again produce a spark. The forceful pull to return to G-d, motivated by the pain of distance from G-d, creates the spark that will ignite into a fire, healing the pain, and recreating the love. 


In our own lives, we sometimes feel that hope is lost; the fire has been extinguished. Like Moses, we must remember the image of the flintstone lying in the water. And remember that our soul, like the flintstone, always retains the ability to create warmth, holiness, and fiery passion. 


Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Ki Tisa 5722

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