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Chanukah: to "Light" or to "Place"?


Chanukah: to "Light" or to "Place"?

When discussing the Mitzvah to kindle the Chanukah lights, the Talmud seeks to define the precise definition of the commandment. The first opinion is: "lighting accomplishes the Mitzvah", meaning that the definition of the Mitzvah is the act of lighting. The second opinion is: "placing accomplishes the Mitzvah", meaning that the act of placing the candles in their proper place for the required amount of time (half an hour after sunset) is what defines Mitzva.

Multiple ramifications emerge from the query; here are two of them: 

(1) If the Chanukah candles were extinguished (before the required amount of time has passed), is a person required to relight them? If the commandment requires one to "place the candles", then he would have to relight the candles so the candles would be "placed" throughout the required time. If, however, the commandment is the act of lighting, it would not be necessary to relight the candles, for the essence of the Mitzvah, the act of lighting, has already been fulfilled. 

(2) if someone lit the candles in the incorrect place (not next to the door or window), and then moved the burning candles to the proper place, would he have to relight the candles? If the commandment is defined as "placing the candles", he would have fulfilled the commandment. If, however, the commandment is defined as "lighting the candles”, he would have to relight the candles in the correct place because the commandment, the igniting, must occur in the ordained place. 

After some discussion, the Talmud concludes that the defining point of the commandment is the act of lighting: 

From the fact that we recite the following blessing over the mitzvah of kindling the Chanukah light: Who has made us holy through His commandments and has commanded us to light the Chanukah light, the Gemara suggests: Conclude from this that lighting accomplishes the mitzvah, as it is over lighting that one recites the blessing. The Gemara concludes: Indeed, conclude from this.

On Chanukah, we celebrate the triumph of light over darkness. We celebrate the courage of the Jewish people who stood up to battle darkness. The Maccabees, who fought for religious freedom against the mighty Greek army, could not have known they would be victorious. The priests in the temple who lit the jug of oil on the first night could not have known that the miraculous would occur and the oil would burn for eight days. In a time of darkness, we don't necessarily see how our efforts will succeed in the face of the odds.

Nevertheless, the message of Chanukah is that regardless of the darkness of the night, we must do our part to ignite at least one candle. We must focus on illuminating our environment. We may or may not believe we have the power to achieve lasting transformation, yet we focus on what we can do. We focus on increasing light. 

After all, the defining point of the Mitzvah is not that the candle be "placed" - that we succeed in illuminating the darkness for the desired time. The Mitzvah is to light, to do our part. Doing so will, G-d willing, trigger and elicit miraculous blessing and success.    

Shabbat vs. Chanukah Candles


Shabbat vs. Chanukah Candles 

Considering that we light the Menorah on Chanukah to commemorate the miracle that occurred with the Menorah in the temple, it is interesting to note that there are profound differences between the candles of the Menorah in the temple and the candles of the Chanukah Menorah:

The temple candles were ignited: 

(1) inside the temple

(2) in the afternoon, when the sun was still shining

(3) seven candles were lit

(4) the same number of candles were lit every day. 

Whereas on Chanukah, 

(1) the original ordinance was to light the candles “outside, at the entrance of the house”

(2) the candles are lit “after sunset” 

(3) we light eight candles

(4) we increase the amount of light each night

There is one reason for all these differences.

The temple era represents a time of spiritual light and awareness. Therefore, at that time we focused on serving G-d in a state of figurative daytime, and we consistently served G-d with the number seven, which represents the full gamut of our natural abilities. Chanukah, on the other hand, was a time of triumph of light over spiritual darkness, thus we take the candles and illuminate the darkness outside. We must consistently increase our efforts and commitment  with devotion which extends beyond logic or reason, represented by the number eight, in order to fearlessly overcome any challenge. 

Shabbat candles are similar to the candles of the temple. Shabbat candles represent creating a holy environment in the home for our family. On Shabbat, we are in a state of wholesomeness and spiritual awareness. As we light the Shabbat candles we bring the spiritual light into our home and our home becomes a temple, a space of holiness and connection. 

By contrast, on Chanukah we seek to illuminate the world as a whole. We know that ultimately, we will succeed in our spiritual mission, the mission of the collective Jewish people throughout history, to illuminate the world and infuse it with goodness and kindness, transforming it into a temple, a home for G-d Himself.  


The Sparks That Pursue Us - ויצא


The Sparks That Pursue Us

Jacob was the only one of the three patriarchs to leave the land of Israel for an extended period of time, and his story represents the ability of the Jew to survive and ultimately thrive during the extended period of our exile. Every aspect of this week’s Torah portion, beginning with the opening statement, “And Jacob left Beer Sheba, and he went to Haran”, is relevant to the story of every Jew in the spiritually challenging environment of exile. 

After twenty years of separation from his parents and the land of Israel, Jacob escaped his domineering father-in-law, Laban, taking his family and possessions with him. Laban chased Jacob, and after an intense confrontation, they created a monument attesting to their peace. 

The Magid of Mezritch explained the mystical meaning of this episode. Every physical object and experience possesses a Divine spark embedded within it. The task of the Jew is to “refine” and “elevate” the sparks by using the physical object for a positive and holy purpose. When Jacob left Charan there were still sparks that he had not yet elevated; when Laban chased him and confronted him, Laban brought these mystical sparks to Jacob to be elevated: 

Jacob had left behind “Torah letters” that he had not yet extracted from Laban. Laban chased Jacob to give him the letters that he had left in Laban’s possession. With these letters, an entire section was added to the Torah. 

Why was it necessary for Laban to bring the additional sparks to Jacob? Why could Jacob not elevate those sparks during his twenty-year stay in Charan? 

The Rebbe explains that there are two forms of sparks. There are those sparks and experiences that a person can incorporate and elevate through intentional focus. Yet there are other experiences whose sparks are so lofty and profound that they surpass the ability to be understood and appreciated through the logical mind. Those are sparks that the person will not pursue, for he cannot fathom how these experiences can enhance his spiritual well-being: 

During his stay in Laban’s house, Jacob refined sparks that had to be refined by engaging with them willingly and knowingly. However, Laban also possessed such lofty sparks that Jacob couldn’t elevate them utilizing his service based on will and knowledge. Therefore, these sparks remained in Laban’s possession. Such sparks could only be refined and elevated by a Supernal power. 

We, too, encounter both forms of sparks. We pursue happiness, success, and well-being in order to fulfill our purpose of creation and our spiritual mission to bring holiness, goodness, and kindness into the world. Those are the sparks we pursue. But then there are sparks that pursue us. There are experiences and challenges that we cannot imagine leading to anything positive. We seek to run away from them. But occasionally, they pursue us. The lesson of the story is that it is precisely those experiences that possess the greatest and deepest sparks. The sparks of holiness within these experiences have far greater potency and potential for incredible transformation and growth. Often, the most profoundly meaningful moments of our life are the experiences we did not seek out or anticipate, but rather the experiences that pursued us. 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Likkutei Sichos vol. 15 Vayetze 5

The Fragrant Garments - תולדות

The Fragrant Garments

In one of the most dramatic scenes in the book of Genesis, Jacob, disguised as his older brother Esau, came to his father, who intended to bless Esau. Isaac blessed Jacob with extraordinary blessings: 

And may the Lord give you of the dew of the heavens and [of] the fatness of the earth and an abundance of grain and wine. Nations shall serve you and kingdoms shall bow down to you; you shall be a master over your brothers, and your mother's sons shall bow down to you. Those who curse you shall be cursed, and those who bless you shall be blessed." (Genesis 27:28-29)

Immediately proceeding these blessings, the Torah tells us that Isaac smelled the fragrance of his son, implying that the scent inspired and motivated the blessing: 

And he came closer, and he kissed him, and he smelled the fragrance of his garments, and he blessed him, and he said, "Behold, the fragrance of my son is like the fragrance of a field, which the Lord has blessed! (Genesis 27:27)

What was it about the garments that inspired the blessing? In fact, as Rashi points out, Jacob was wearing goat skins, which do not have a pleasant aroma at all. Rather, the aroma referred to is a spiritual aroma: 

Is it not so that there is no odor more offensive than that of washed goat skins? But this teaches us that the fragrance of the Garden of Eden entered with him.

Garments are external to the person and, therefore, represent wealth and material assets, which, like garments, allow a person to interact with and navigate the world. Isaac sensed that the garments of his son possessed a spiritual aroma because, to the Jew, material possessions, the “dew of the heavens and [of] the fatness of the earth and an abundance of grain and wine” are not an end in themselves but rather they serve a higher purpose. They are the means through which the soul fulfills its purpose of creation, which is to sanctify the earth and infuse it with holiness, goodness, and kindness. The beauty of Jacob, which Isaac sensed, was that not only had Jacob cultivated a spiritual connection to G-d, but additionally he had sanctified the “garments”, the material aspects of life.

Adapted from the Malbim

Finding a Wife, and G-d, at the Well - חיי שרה

Finding a Wife, and G-d, at the Well

Abraham dispatched his servant Eliezer to the distant land of Charan to find a bride for his son Isaac. Eliezer arrived at the well in the center of town, and prayed to G-d for success. He requested that G-d give him a sign that the girl was the right one for Isaac. If, when he would ask a girl for water to drink, she would also  offer to provide water for his camels, it would be clear that she was the one destined for Isaac. 

When the events played out exactly as Eliezer had hoped, his response was surprising. Eleiezer was not happy, elated, or grateful. Eliezer was astonished! The Torah tells us: 

And the man was astonished at her, standing silent, [waiting] to know whether the Lord had caused his way to prosper or not. (Genesis 24:21)

Why was Eliezer so surprised when his prayer was accepted and his plan was successful? 

Eliezer believed in G-d. He understood that one can have a deep relationship with G-d through meditation and prayer. Yet, what was astonishing to him was seeing G-d’s hand play out not in the house of worship but in the daily affairs in the market place or at the well. Eliezer believed in an exalted,  transcendent G-d, and was astonished to experience the infinite G-d helping him through what seemed to be a chance occurrence. 

Perhaps this is one of the messages of the story, and why the Torah repeats the episode with Eliezer multiple times. As Rashi quotes the Midrash: 

Rabbi Acha said: The ordinary conversation of the servants of the Patriarchs is more beloved before G-d than the Torah of their sons, for the section dealing with Eliezer is repeated in the Torah, whereas many fundamentals of the Torah were given only through allusions. (24:42)

“The Torah of the sons” is how we connect to G-d by internalizing His wisdom. Yet the “conversations of servants of the Patriarchs” are more beautiful, because they teach us  that the infinite G-d is present not only in meditation but also when one is looking for a soul mate; not only in the halls of study but also in the everyday interactions of man. 


A Higher Purpose - וירא


A Higher Purpose 

Abraham led an extraordinary life. 

He discovered G-d on his own. He had the courage to go against the popular beliefs and notions of his time. And he changed the course of history. 

But how did Abraham keep busy on a daily basis?

The Torah tells us that Abraham's life’s focus was to "call in the name of Hashem", to teach people about G-d. 

In last week's portion, we read: 

"To the place of the altar that he had made at first, and Abram called there in the name of the Lord." (Genesis 12:4) 

and then again (12:8): 

"And he moved from there to the mountain, east of Beth el, and he pitched his tent; Beth el was to the west and Ai was to the east, and there he built an altar to the Lord, and he called in the name of the Lord." 

In this week's portion we read (21:33):

And he planted an Eishel {an orchard, or an inn} in Beer-Sheba, and he called there in the name of the Lord, the God of the world. 

Earlier in the Torah, we read the cryptic story of the tower of Babel. The people, who at that point spoke one language, sought to build a city and a tower that reached the heavens. G-d was displeased with their plan and confused their language, which caused them to disperse and develop into many nations and languages. What the story does not explicitly state is what was so terrible with their plan that caused G-d to be so disturbed by their effort. 

One interpretation is that they had no higher purpose in their life. In presenting their plan, the Torah states: 

And they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves a name.

Their sole purpose was to "make a name" for themselves. They had no transcendent meaning in their life, nothing was greater than themselves. In addition to living a superficial life, being that their sole purpose was the advancement of self, there was no limit to what they would do to achieve that goal, setting aside morality and values. 

The Midrash teaches that at first, Abraham, like everyone else, was involved in the construction of the tower, completely and wholeheartedly devoted to the endeavor. Eventually, Abraham became disillusioned, and he abandoned the project. 

Abraham's search led him to focus on "the name of G-d" instead of "a name for ourselves". Abraham taught and shared with the world that we must incorporate spiritual values into our life. To live a life of decency, meaning, and joy, we must think about a purpose that is greater than ourselves. We must call in the name of Hashem.  

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Noach vol. 3 

The Missing Biography - לך לך


The Missing Biography

The story told in the Torah of Abraham the first Jew, begins when he was seventy-five years old. The Torah tells us that G-d told Abraham to leave his birthplace and travel to the land that G-d would show him: 

And the Lord said to Abram, "Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will aggrandize your name, and [you shall] be a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you." (Genesis 12:1-3)

While the Midrash tells us a lot about Abraham's early history up to that point - how discovered G-d through his own intellectual inquiry and how he debated the local idolaters who, in turn, sought to kill him - in contrast the account in the Bible makes no mention of Abraham's early life, spiritual awareness, courage, and devotion to G-d. 

This missing story led Nachmonides the great 13th-century Biblical commentator, to point out that the story is missing important information:  

Now, this portion of Scripture is not completely elucidated. What reason was there that the Holy One, blessed be He, should say to Abraham, "Leave your country, and I will do you good in a completely unprecedented measure," without first stating that Abraham worshiped G-d or that he was a righteous man, [and] perfect?… But there is no reason for G-d to promise [Abraham a reward merely] for his leaving the country.

Nachmonides explains that the Torah omits Abraham's early biography because the Torah does not wish to draw attention to the mistaken opinions of the idolaters. Yet, that answer seems insufficient because the Torah could have briefly mentioned Abraham’s discovery of G-d without elaborating on the mistaken notions of his contemporaries. 

The story of Abraham is also the story of every Jew. The opening story of Abraham is also the beginning and foundation of our relationship with G-d. The Torah tells us that the bedrock of our connection to G-d cannot be intellectual inquiry or spiritual awareness because our mind is incapable of bridging the gap between finite creation and the infinite creator. The bond between a person and G-d, cannot be created by human effort; it can only be achieved through a commandment which, as the Hebrew word Mitzvah implies, means connection and togetherness. Only the infinite G-d can invest himself within a finite act of a Mitzvah.

This is a lesson for each of us. We may not feel inspired or enlightened; we may encounter someone who does not necessarily appreciate a connection to holiness, yet the act of a Mitzvah is transformational. For it allows us to connect with G-d Himself, transcending our finite nature and connecting to G-d's infinity. 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 25 Lech Licha 1 

Be a Noah - נח

Be a Noah 

The Torah introduces the story of the great flood by describing Noah with beautiful praises:  

These are the generations of Noah, Noah was a righteous man he was perfect in his generations; Noah walked with God. (Genesis 6:9)

Despite the beautiful adjectives "righteous" and "perfect", the sages debate whether these terms are meant as praise or critique. As Rashi explains:  

in his generations: Some of our Sages interpret it [the word בְּדֹרֹתָיו] favorably: How much more so if he had lived in a generation of righteous people, he would have been even more righteous. Others interpret it derogatorily: In comparison with his generation he was righteous, but if he had been in Abraham's generation, he would not have been considered of any importance. 

We understand why the Torah would seek to praise Noah because that would explain why he was saved contrary to the rest of his generation. It is, however, difficult to explain why the Torah would choose to diminish Noah's stature; why would the Torah go out of its way to highlight that Noah was less than perfect and that, in comparison to Abraham, he was insignificant? 

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a) teaches: ״each and every person is obligated to say: The world was created for me", meaning that every individual must take responsibility for the world, and cannot assume that someone else will solve the world's problems. If a problem has come to one's attention, one must act as if the entire world was created for him alone, for him to solve this problem. 

The Torah, therefore, highlights that Noah was not an extraordinary person. Indeed, in comparison to Abraham he would be considered insignificant. Yet this is a profound message to each one of us. We don't have to be extraordinary people to accomplish the extraordinary. Anybody can be righteous and wholesome in his or her generation. Anybody can take action to save the world regardless of what other people are  doing. Each of us can be a Noah, bringing comfort, salvation, and serenity to others and ultimately to the entire world. 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos vol. 5 p. 282

Our Right to The Land of Israel - בראשית

Our Right to The Land of Israel 

The choice of where to start a story will affect the entire narrative.

The Torah begins with the story of creation: 

In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth.

The Midrash, quoted in the very first Rashi in the Torah, questions this choice. Why does the Torah - (from the root word Horaah, lesson)  begin with the story of creation, rather than beginning with  the first instruction, commandment, to the Jewish people in Egypt? After all, isn't the primary purpose of the Torah to teach us the will of G-d expressed in the commandments?

The Midrash explains that the Torah begins with the stroy of creation in order to establish the bedrock of the Jewish people’s right to the Land of Israel. In the future, we may be accused of robbing the land of the Canaanite nations. The Torah, therefore, explains that all of the earth belongs to the creator, who desired to give the land to them and then desired to take it from them and give it to us. 

In the beginning: Said Rabbi Isaac: It was not necessary to begin the Torah except from "This month is to you," (Exodus 12:2) which is the first commandment that the Israelites were commanded, (for the main purpose of the Torah is its commandments). Now for what reason did He commence with "In the beginning?" Because of [the verse] "The strength of His works He related to His people, to give them the inheritance of the nations" (Psalms 111:6). For if the nations of the world should say to Israel, "You are robbers, for you conquered by force the lands of the seven nations [of Canaan]," they will reply, "The entire earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it (this we learn from the story of the Creation) and gave it to whomever He deemed proper When He wished, He gave it to them, and when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us.

The accusation about the "conquest" of "the land of the seven nations" also applies to the figurative and spiritual "Land of Israel". Creation is divided into heaven and earth, the spiritual and material. Indeed, many faiths understand the divide to be absolute, where one must separate and escape the material in order to experience spiritual transcendence and enlightenment. The Jewish people, however, are different. Every day of our life, we are engaged in the conquest of the mundane, the figurative "land of the seven nations", in order to transform it into holiness, the figurative holy “Land of Israel”.

The claim of the nations of the world is that the physical and spiritual are diametrically opposed; when one is engaged in physical life, one cannot have any connection to spirituality. To refute that mistaken notion, the Torah begins with the story of creation to emphasize that everything in the universe was created by G-d, who desires that we reveal its potential and transform it into the "Land of Israel", into a dwelling place for the creator. 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 20 Bereshis 1            


When the Torah Comes Full Circle - וזאת הברכה


When the Torah Comes Full Circle 


On the day of Simchat Torah, when we celebrate the conclusion of the annual cycle of the Torah reading, as soon as we conclude the reading of the final verse of the Torah, we begin the cycle again by reading the first section of the Torah. This is because the Torah is infinite, and therefore, no matter the depth of meaning we uncover in our study, we are just beginning to explore the Divine wisdom within the Torah. 


Many commentators, therefore, sought to glean insight from the connection between the conclusion of the five Books of Moses to the beginning. 


The final verses of the Torah describe Moses greatness: 


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


The Torah then describes the great miracles that Moses performed before the Jewish people: 


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 beginning of the Torah describes the creation of the world and all of the natural phenomenon: 


In the beginning God created heaven and earth —


When we begin to read the Torah, we understand that G-d created the world and the natural order. As we progress through the narrative, we begin to experience revelation, we read of prophecy and miracles, we read of Divine providence and G-dly intervention, which interfere with and disturb the natural order. The Torah concludes by addressing the extraordinary miracles which the Jewish people experienced. And then, we return to the beginning and, once again, read about the creation of the natural order. This is because, after we experience  miracles and revelation, we reach a deeper understanding. We come to recognize that nature itself is also a miracle. We realize that G-d is present within the natural order just as He is present within the extraordinary. 


Connecting the end of the Torah to its beginning fosters the awareness that the miraculous and the natural are expressions of one G-d, who can be felt and experienced not only in the extraordinary and inspired moments of life but also in what seems to be the ordinary, predictable and mundane times in our life.


(Adapted from Tefilah Lemoshe)




Should We Emulate Moses or Isaiah? - האזינו


Should We  Emulate Moses or Isaiah? 

Moses began the song of Haazinu with poetic language. He called upon both heaven and earth to bear witness to his parting words to the Jewish people: 

Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; Let the earth hear the words I utter! (Deuteronomy 32:1)

The Midrash points out that Isaiah too, in his very first prophecy, employed a similar phrase: 

Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth (Isaiah 1:2)

However, there is a significant difference between the words of Moses and Isaiah.

Upon addressing the heavens, Moses who was “close to heaven” in a spiritual sense, used the term "give ear", (Haazinu), which implies addressing someone who is close by. And since Moses was distant from  earthly matters, he used the term, "let the earth hear", as "hear" can imply hearing from a distance. Isaish, by contrast, was "distant from the heavens and close to the earth", and therefore he said, "Hear {from, a distance}, O heavens, and give ear {implying closeness}, O earth". 

The question, of course, is, where does that leave us? 

The etymology of the word Torah is a lesson, because every phrase in the Torah is not just informative, but rather it is intended for us to implement in our own life. If Isaiah could not live up to Moses' example and be "close to the heavens", how can we possibly expect to be "close to the heavens and distant from the earth"? 

In a beautiful essay on our Torah portion, the Rebbe explains that the two expressions of Moses and Isaiah build upon each other. At first, one is called upon to be like Moses, "close to the heavens and distant from the earth". When we begin our day, we dedicate time to pray and study, dedicating a few moments to escape the confines of earth and soar to the expanses of heaven. In these moments, we, like Moses, are close to the heavens. Yet, that is but the first step in our spiritual journey. The greater and perhaps more critical achievement is that after we are like Moses, we advance and learn from Isaiah. We turn toward earth. Because the purpose of life is not to find solace in heaven but rather to extend our influence into the world. After we study Torah and become "close to the heavens", we are empowered to become "close to the earth", transforming it into a place of spirituality and harmony, until the time when earth itself will become a home for G-d, a place of goodness, kindness, and holiness.   

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 9 Haazinu 1

A Year Empowered by Shabbat - ראש השנה

A Year Empowered by Shabbat

Shabbat contains two opposite elements. On one hand, Shabbat is referred to as Shabbat Kodesh, the holy Shabbat. The etymology of the Hebrew word for holy (Kodesh) is separate and apart. Indeed, Shabbat is the day when we are removed from work, uplifted from daily concerns and worries, and dedicated to holiness, spirituality, study, and prayer. 

On the other hand, Shabbat is a time of physical pleasure and enjoyment. As the verse (Isaiah 58:13) states, “and you call the Sabbath a delight”, implying that Shabbat must be a time of pleasure and delight. Indeed, Maimonides states: 

What is meant by [Sabbath] delight? This refers to our Sages' statement that a person must prepare a particularly sumptuous dish and a pleasantly flavored beverage for the Sabbath. All of this must be done within the context of a person's financial status. (Mainimudes, Shabbat 29:7)


Shabbat contains these two extremes because this precisely is the vision and ultimate goal of Judaism. The holiness and the spiritual experiences of our lives must infuse and permeate our physical and mundane existence.  

The Jewish people refer to the beginning of the year not as the new year, but as the head (Rosh) of the year (Hashanah), because just as the head affects the entire body, Rosh Hashanah affects the entire year. This year, when Rosh Hashanah begins on Shabbat, the entire year is empowered by the energy of Shabbat. We are empowered to infuse the awareness of our spiritual purpose within every moment of the year. No matter how mundane a moment or experience may seem, we can charge the moment with joy and enthusiasm recognizing that the moment is part of our greater purpose in the world, making this world a place hospitable to holiness, G-dliness, and kindness. 

Adapted from the Rebbe's Public letter, 18 Elul 5749 


Get Yourself a Copy - נצבים וילך

Get Yourself a Copy

On the final day of his life, Moses relayed the last two commandments of the Torah, the commandment that the Jewish people assemble once every seven years to hear the Torah read: 

Then, Moses commanded them, saying, "At the end of [every] seven years, at an appointed time, in the Festival of Succoth, [after] the year of release, When all Israel comes to appear before the Lord, your God, in the place He will choose, you shall read this Torah before all Israel, in their ears. Assemble the people: the men, the women, and the children, and your stranger in your cities, in order that they hear, and in order that they learn and fear the Lord, your God, and they will observe to do all the words of this Torah. (Deuteronomy 31:12-14)

And the final commandment of the Torah, that every individual person write a Torah scroll: 

And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths, in order that this song will be for Me as a witness for the children of Israel. (Deuteronomy 31:19)

Both commandments emphasize that, unlike other societies, the Torah is not the domain of a priestly or scholarly class. The Torah is the inheritance of every Jew. That is why the Torah is not exclusively housed in the temple but rather it must be in the possession of every Jew. That is why when the Torah is read after the Sabbatical, it is read not to a select group of delegates but rather to every man, woman, and child.  

As we prepare for the new year, let us apply the message of these commandments to our lives: we should purchase a book of the Torah (which is one way of fulfilling the commandment to write a Torah Scroll), and read it ourselves. Let us not rely on others to convey its messages to us; but rather we should interact with the book ourselves, enjoying the flavor and style of the original. And then, like the public assembly in Biblical times, we should join together to study Torah with other people, where we can be  enriched by each others perspective and input. 


A Heart to Know - כי תבוא


A Heart to Know

In the final days of his life, Moses spoke to the Jewish people and told them that only now, forty years after receiving the Torah, are they ready to internalize its message and understand its teachings. Moses stated: 

Yet until this day, the Lord has not given you a heart to know, eyes to see and ears to hear. (Deuteronomy 29:3)

Indeed, based on this verse, the Talmud derives that the same applies to all teachers. A student will not comprehend the full depth of his teacher's wisdom until forty years have passed: 

Rabba said: Conclude from here that a person does not understand the opinion of his teacher until after forty years (Talmud, Avoda Zarah 5b)  

Nevertheless, the verse seems a bit difficult to understand. How can we say that the Jewish people who experienced the extraordinary Divine revelation at Sinai did not possess knowledge of the Torah? The sages refer to the generation of Moses as "the generation of Knowledge", how can the Torah imply that they lacked "a heart to know"? 

The Chassidic commentaries offer a beautiful interpretation. 

The verse does not say that the people did not have knowledge, or the ability to see and hear. The key emphasis of the verse is on the words "heart," "eyes," and "ears". At Sinai, and throughout the forty years in the desert, the Jewish people's experience was intensely spiritual. In a sense, they studied Torah in an effort to transcend the world, to escape the gravitational pull of earthly existence, and to become submerged within holiness and spirituality. So, while they certainly experienced knowledge, the knowledge did not permeate and affect their physical reality, their heart, eyes, and ears. 

Specifically after the forty-year period in the desert, as the Jewish people stood at the bank of the Jordan river prepared to enter the land of Israel, were they going to experience a life not of transcending the world but rather of transforming it. The holiness of the land of Israel and the Temple in Jerusalem represent the ability to sanctify the earth and permeate it with holiness. Only at that point did the Jewish people receive not only knowledge in the spiritual sense but knowledge that had the transformative ability to sanctify every aspect of our life. 

Adapted from the Sfas Emes 

Don’t Forget the Vinegar - כי תצא

Don’t Forget the Vinegar 

The commandment to remember Amalek, “remember what Amalek did to you on the way, when you went out of Egypt,” (Deuteronomy 24:17), is one of the six events in Jewish history that we are commanded to remember every day. What is the benefit of constantly reminding ourselves of Amalek? Would it not be more beneficial to ignore the negativity that Amalek represents and focus on living a healthy, positive life? Indeed, this is the meaning of the Midrash which records the Jewish people’s response to this commandment: 

Remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you were leaving Egypt — The Jewish people said: Moshe, our teacher! One verse says, Remember what Amalek did to you, and another verse says, Remember the Shabbos day to sanctify it. How can both be fulfilled? This one says remember, and that one says remember!...

The memory of Shabbat is one of the most important principles of Judaism. Shabbat reminds us of the creator who created the world in six days and rested on the seventh day; it reminds us that the world was created for a purpose, and we dedicate the Shabbat day to fostering and developing our spiritual life. The memory of Amalek, by contrast, seems to be the antithesis of the memory of Shabbat, it reminds us of the human ability to defy G-d, to undermine morality and to prey on the weak. Why then would the Torah tell us to constantly be mindful not only of the Shabbat but also of Amalek? 

The Medrash records Moses’ response: 

Moshe replied to them: “A cup of spiced wine cannot be compared to a cup of vinegar {even though} this is a cup and that is a cup. This is a remembrance to guard and sanctify the Shabbos day, and the other is a remembrance of a punishment.” (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer ch. 44)

While it seems that the Midrash presents spiced wine (Shabbat) and vinegar (Amalek) as two matters which cannot be compared to one another, the reality is that the origin of vinegar is wine. The deeper meaning of the Midrash is that, like every reality in this world, including Amalek, originates from G-d. Amalek too can be transformed to serve a positive purpose. While vinegar cannot be consumed alone, when added to a dish it can improve and enhance the taste of the food. The negative energy and passion of Amalek can be transformed to positive passion that will bring us closer to G-d. The negative experience itself can become fuel that generates intense longing and closeness to G-d. 

Both Shabbat, the holy experiences in our life, and Amalek, the negative aspects of our personality, can both serve as “cups” that enable us to “receive” and experience the flow of holiness. The difference is that Shabbat is inherently a “cup of spiced wine”, whereas Amalek must be transformed before it can enhance our spiritual lives.  

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Likutei Sichos 19 Ki Teitze 4

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