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Blog - Torah Insights

What were Moses’ Credentials? - שמות

What Were Moses’ Credentials?

Why was Moses chosen to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt, and be their most important leader in history? Was it because he was smart? Charismatic? Handsome? Humble? Persuasive? He may or may not have had the above qualities, but the Torah does not allude to any of these qualities, as the reason he was chosen to lead. 

Before G-d appeared to him at the burning bush, all the Torah tells us about Moses is three short episodes. It is therefore logical to assume that, perhaps, those stories give a clue as to the reason he was chosen. Indeed, all three stories share a common theme: Moses could not stand by silently while others were being oppressed. Moses consistently protected the oppressed from the oppressor. 

The first story reads as follows:   

Now it came to pass in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brothers and looked at their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man of his brothers.

He turned this way and that way, and he saw that there was no man; so he struck the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. (Exodus 2:11-12)

Moses was raised in the Egyptian palace as the adopted son of Pharaoh's daughter. When seeing the Egyptian hit the Jew, he could have looked the other way and returned to his comfortable life in the palace. But Moses could not ignore the suffering of his Jewish brother. He intervened at great risk to himself (when Pharaoh  heard the story he tried to have Moses killed and Moses was forced to flee to Midian).   

The second episode  occurred the following day:

He went out on the second day, and behold, two Hebrew men were quarreling, and he said to the wicked one, "Why are you going to strike your friend?" (ibid. 13)

It is natural to protect a member of one’s own group against an outsider (as when Moses protected a Jew from an Egyptian), yet in the second story Moses intervened to protect a Jew from a member of his own group. When the oppressor is a member of one’s own group, the natural instinct to rally in support of one’s own group in the face of a challenge from the outside, is not in play, and thus it is easier to ignore. But Moses did not hesitate to intervene. 

The third episode: 

Moses fled from before Pharaoh. He stayed in the land of Midian, and he sat down by a well.

Now the chief of Midian had seven daughters, and they came and drew [water], and they filled the troughs to water their father's flocks.

But the shepherds came and drove them away; so Moses arose and rescued them and watered their flocks. (ibid. 15-17)

Moses had just arrived as a refugee in a foreign land. He saw how the shepherds of Midian harassed the female shepherds. Both parties in the dispute were strangers. The natural tendency would be to lie low and mind one’s own business. 

Moses intervened. 

All we know about Moses before he was chosen is that he could not ignore the cruelty of oppression. Moses stood with the oppressed not only when an outsider oppressed his brother, not only when one of his brothers was oppressed by his fellow brother, but also  when a stranger was oppressed by a complete stranger.


Why Would Judah Dip His Shirt in Wine? - ויחי

Why would Judah Dip his Shirt in Wine?

Jacob gathered his children before he passed away and gave each one a unique blessing. Judah, the fourth son received the greatest blessing, a blessing for leadership as well as a blessing that his land should be blessed with abundant fertility. In beautifully poetic language Jacob states:

He binds his donkey to a vine, and to a tendril [he binds] his young donkey. [He launders] his garment with wine, and with the blood of grapes his cloak.

He is red eyed from wine and white toothed from milk. (Genesis 49:11-12).

In addition to the literal blessing for an abundance of wine and milk, the blessings contain a figurative, spiritual, meaning as well. 

Wine represents passion and love. Wine awakens emotion within a person, bringing to the fore emotions that are sometimes hidden within the heart. Jacob made two references to wine, “wine” and “blood of grapes”, because, generally speaking, there are two forms of love. Love as a feeling of closeness, is referred to as “wine that brings joy”. When one feels the love of closeness he is filled with a feeling of closeness, pleasantness and tranquility. Yet there is another form of love, referred to as “intoxicating wine”, which is a love that comes from a feeling of distance. When one feels apart from the beloved the heart is filled with a sense of yearning, of longing to be connected. This wine is intoxicating. Rather than pleasantness one feels the pain of distance, which fuels the lover to draw closer to the beloved with a renewed sense of dedication and passion.   

The first three brothers were blessed with spiritual awareness. According to the Kabbalah, Reuben, Shimon and Levi respectively embodied the attributes of  love, awe and closeness to G-d. Judah was chosen to be the leader because he represented action. Judah was blessed with leadership specifically because he had the humility and dedication to take responsibility for his actions, although this caused him great embarrassment. 

Jacob blessed Judah “He launders his garment with wine”. Garments represent action,  they are not the person himself but rather they are tools through which he interacts with the world around him. Thus, after Judah is blessed for having the strength of character to take the proper action, Jacob blessed him that he launder the action with wine; that the deed be immersed and infused with love and a sense of closeness. “And with the blood of grapes his cloak”. However, in the moments when Judah is not able to feel the pleasantness of the joyous wine of closeness, he can still feel the blood of grapes. The distance can create a passionate longing love, creating a deep yearning that will overcome the obstacles and, once again, unite the lover with the beloved. 

Next time you take an action to help another person or to connect to G-d, dip it in wine or blood of grapes, imbue it with the pleasant joy of closeness or the profound passion of yearning love. 

(Adapted from Torah Ohr, Vayechi) 


Which Speech Would you Give? - ויגש

Which Speech Would you Give?

Joseph just dropped the bomb. He revealed his identity to his brothers. The Egyptian prime minister they were standing before, was, in fact, their own brother Joseph who they sold into Egyptian slavery twenty two years earlier. 

They were stunned. 

Joseph spoke. 

Here is the speech Joseph did not deliver:

Brothers, while it is true that I have attained success, greatness and power, please do not take any credit for that. For while your actions ultimately led to my rise to power, you had nothing but evil in your hearts and minds. Your intention was to sell me as a slave. 

Here is the speech Joseph delivered: 

Brothers, do not feel bad that you intended to sell me as a slave. For G-d arranged that the result of your terrible act was that I can save our family and reign over all of Egypt. 

[“Do not be sad, and let it not trouble you that you sold me here, for it was to preserve life that God sent me before you... And now, you did not send me here, but God, and He made me a father to Pharaoh, a lord over all his household, and a ruler over the entire land of Egypt. Genesis 45:5-8].  

Instead of spending emotional energy on feeling resentment and anger against his brothers, Joseph was able to see only the positive, the hand of G-d that led him to success. Joseph saw only the good that came from his brothers cruel act, not their evil intention. 

Incredibly, Joseph was able to see past the negativity and focus only on the good. He was able to do so because of his unique philosophy in life. Joseph understood that wherever he may be he was an emissary of God to carry out the Divine will. In his words to his brothers he used the word  “sent”. To Joseph, the important questions were not, who harmed me? Who can I blame for my real or imagined difficulties?In every situation, Joseph asked himself: why am I here? For what purpose did G-d send me here? What is my mission in this place?

Every time we encounter a challenge or difficulty in our lives, we too have a choice. We can respond with resentment and anger or we can follow Joseph's example. We too are G-d’s emissaries not only to survive the challenge, but rather, like Joseph, to “rule over it”, to transform the obstacle into an experience of life and growth.

Next time you face a challenge, which speech will you give?  

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, 5 Teves 5747)

Why Joseph Framed Benjamin - מקץ

Why Joseph Framed Benjamin

The terrible famine brought ten of Jacob’s sons before the Viceroy of Egypt to purchase bread. The viceroy, who, unbeknownst to them, was their brother Joseph who they sold as a slave, accused them of being spies and demanded that they bring their brother Benjamin to Egypt. Before Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers, he framed Benjamin by planting his silver goblet in Benjamin’s bag and charging  Benjamin with stealing. Judah stood up for Benjamin, requesting that Judah himself be punished instead of Benjamin. Joseph then revealed his identity to his brothers, and the extended family was reunited with Joseph and they all settled in Egypt.   

The conventional understanding is that the entire plot of Joseph and his brothers serves to explain how the Jewish people came to live in Egypt and how they eventually became enslaved to the Egyptians.The Kabbalistic reading is precisely the opposite. Every step that Joseph took was, in reality, paving the way not for the eventual enslavement but rather for the spiritual fortification of the Jews in exile, which would ultimately lead to the redemption.

From the mystical perspective, in order for their descendants to survive the harsh exile, the brothers of Joseph, who were the heads of the tribes of Israel, had to experience the oppression and accusations of the Egyptian monarch, who was, in truth, their brother in disguise. When the Jewish people, like their ancestors before them, would feel subjected to the Egyptian monarch, they would remember the story of Joseph and realize that there was a deeper reality in play. The hidden reality is one where the oppressive monarch, was their “brother”, who would ultimately bring benefit to them. The exile was a process that would refine them and lead them to great material and spiritual wealth.

In addition to physical subjection, exile also has a spiritual dimension. When we are in exile we are not in our natural environment. In exile we are living a life that is not consistent with our inner core. Our natural, inherent, awareness of G-d and connection to the spirituality of our inner soul is compromised, as our emotions and aspirations are directed exclusively to our physical survival.

Joseph empowered the Jewish people  to overcome the spiritual numbness that is exile.  

The Torah describes how Joseph had Benjamin framed:

Then he commanded the overseer of his house, saying, "Fill the men's sacks with food, as much as they can carry, and put each man's money into the mouth of his sack.

And my goblet, the silver goblet, put into the mouth of the sack of the youngest, and his purchase money." And he did according to Joseph's word, which he had spoken. (Genesis 44:1-2)

According to the mystics, the silver goblet represents passionate love and joy. The Hebrew word for silver (kesef) is the same word that means yearning and longing. The goblet contains wine which, as the verse says, brings joy to the heart of man.

Joseph’s planting the goblet in Benjamin’s sack empowers us to realize that hidden within us is a goblet that has the capacity to experience the love and joy which a relationship with G-d embodies. Joseph planted the goblet in the sack of Benjamin to remind us that we can dispel the darkness of exile by searching for the hidden reservoirs of positive emotions planted within us. When we discover the goblet and taste the wine, the spiritual exile dissolves paving the way for the physical redemption as well.

(Adapted from Or Hatorah Bireyshis 6, page 2206)

How to Climb Out of the Pit - וישב

How to Climb Out of the Pit 

If you happen to live on planet earth it is likely that occasionally you will feel trapped. You may feel something holding you back, keeping your spirits down and depleting your joy and passion for life. What is the secret to redemption, to escaping the confines and trappings of negativity?

In this week’s Torah portion we begin to read about the turbulent life of Joseph. We read of his going from being his father’s favored child, to being sold as a slave in Egypt. If that was not bad enough, he was then placed in prison on false charges. We read about how Joseph descended to the lowest state of society. In the coming weeks we read about the dramatic and abrupt reversal of his fortunes. Joseph was taken directly from prison to become the leader of Egypt.

What was the moment that triggered the redemption for Joseph? What was the turning point that ultimately led to Joseph’s freedom and ascent to power? 

With Joseph in prison were two of Pharaoh’s ministers. Each of them dreamed a mysterious dream on the same night and in the morning they were troubled by the dream. Joseph’s interaction with them is what ultimately brought salvation to Joseph (and by extension, to his family and to the entire Egyptian economy): 

And Joseph came to them in the morning, and he saw them and behold, they were troubled.

And he asked Pharaoh's chamberlains who were with him in the prison of his master's house, saying, "Why are your faces sad today?" (Genesis 40:6-7)

This seemingly simple question “why are your faces sad today?” is what led to Joseph’s redemption. If Joseph was indifferent to their mood, if he had not inquired about what was troubling them he would not have had the opportunity to interpret their dreams and subsequently he would not have been recommended  to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams which led him to royalty. 

What is remarkable about the exchange is that Joseph himself had all the reasons in the world to be sad and bitter. He was in prison based on false charges and there was no realistic hope for him to be freed. Yet Joseph was able to break free from the constant focus and concern for self. Joseph transcended his own perspective and was concerned for the wellbeing of others. And indeed, this internal liberation, eventually brought salvation to Joseph and ultimately  to his entire family.  

Each of us has two souls within ourselves, The natural soul, which is self oriented, and the G-dly soul, which seeks to transcend the confines of self and connect to G-d and to the Divine spark within each and every person. When we feel confined and limited by difficulties or internal shortcomings and challenges, when we sense that we need to free ourselves from negativity, we should follow Joseph's lead. The best path to redemption is tapping in to our G-dly soul, reaching out and connecting to others. For the liberation from the confines of focusing exclusively on the self, will ultimately unleash broader liberation, freeing us to reach our fullest potential. 

(Adapted from Sichos Kodesh, Miketz 5734)

Can you Really Have Everything? - וישלח

Can you Really Have Everything? 

After twenty years of separation the twin brothers were reunited. 

Upon hearing that Esau was traveling toward him with four hundred men, Jacob prepared for their meeting by preparing for war, praying, and sending large gifts of livestock to appease his brother. 

In one of the most emotionally charged scenes in the Torah, Jacob and Esau reunite and embrace. Esau tells Jacob that he does not need his gift while Jacob implores  Esau to accept it. As the Torah describes: 

But Esau said, "I have plenty, my brother; let what you have remain yours." 

Thereupon Jacob said, "Please no! If indeed I have found favor in your eyes, then you shall take my gift from my hand, because I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of an angel, and you have accepted me.

Now take my gift, which has been brought to you, for God has favored me [with it], and [because] I have everything." He prevailed upon him, and he took [it](Genesis 33:9-11)

Esau and Jacob seem to saying the same thing. They both have an abundance of possessions and they don’t need the gift of cattle. Yet upon careful analysis we discover a slight difference in the way the brothers describe their possessions. Esau says “I have plenty”, while Jacob says “I have everything”.  

Esau’s perspective is the perspective of the natural soul and is the reason that, so often, accumulating possessions does not lead to a feeling of joy. Esau says “I have plenty”, but having a lot does not mean that he does not want more. The Talmud says that human nature is such that “one who has one hundred wants two hundred, and one who has two hundred wants four hundred. Having a lot is no guarantee for happiness, in fact, it can actually make happiness more elusive because the more one has the greater is his appetite for more.  

By contrast, Jacob’s attitude toward his wealth is “I have everything”. Jacob does not need more. He has everything he needs to be able to live his life and fulfill his purpose with meaning. If he does not have something, than he is certain that that is not necessary for him to be able to achieve the purpose of his creation. As the Ethics of our Fathers teach: “Who is wealthy? One who is happy with his lot”. Jacob is joyous because he has everything. 

There is a deeper dimension to Jacob’s statement. To understand this, we must first ask the question, how can Jacob state that he has everything? He can say that he has all he needs, but how can he say that he has everything if, in reality, he does not have everything? The Sfas Emes, the 19th century Chassidic commentary, explains that Jacob does indeed have everything, because Jacob is connected to G-d who is the source of all existence. When Jacob looks at a physical object he sees its soul, the divine spark which continuously brings it into existence. When Jacob connects to the soul of the object he is indeed connecting to the soul of all of the world. When he connects to the soul of a given object, by using it in a manner that is consistent with its inner purpose, he indeed has everything. For he is connected to the Divine source of all existence which permeates everything and encompasses  all of existence. 


Rachel or Leah, Serenity or Struggle - ויצא

Rachel or Leah, Serenity or Struggle  

Would you prefer a life of serenity and peace of mind, or a life of hardship, emotional crises and inner turmoil? 

When Jacob fled to Charan to escape his brother Esau, he arrived at the well. He saw Rachel, the daughter of his uncle Laban. It was  love at first sight. 

Laban had two daughters. As the Torah describes:

Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel.

Leah's eyes were tender, but Rachel had beautiful features and a beautiful complexion. (Genesis 29:16:17). 

Jacob wanted to marry Rachel but he was tricked into marrying her sister Leah. While Jacob’s love for  Rachel was greater, Leah became the most important of his four wives. She bore six of his twelve sons, and while Rachel was buried on the side of the road on the way to Efrat, Leah was laid to rest together with Jacob in the cave of Machpelah. As Jacob commanded his children before his passing:

Bury me with my fathers, in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite… 

There they buried Abraham and his wife Sarah, there they buried Isaac and his wife Rebecca, and there I buried Leah.

Rachel was beautiful. She was righteous and spirituality wholesome. Jacob, who the Torah describes as “an innocent man, dwelling in tents” was immediately drawn to Rachel’s purity and innocence. Leah, on the other hand, had a complex personality, she experienced inner tension and frustration and had to struggle  to live the life she desired and to achieve her spiritual goals.

The children of Rachel and Leah personified the character traits of their mothers. Rachel’s children, Joseph and Benjamin, were naturally righteous, while Leah’s children had to struggle with their moral integrity. They sold their brother as a slave, Judah went to Tamar, who he thought was a harlot. They were far from perfect. Yet Leah’s children learned to overcome their moral shortcomings, they learned to correct their mistakes and grow from the negative experiences. 

Jacob loved Rachel. Jacob was attracted to a woman who had inner peace and serenity. Yet it turns out that Leah, who triumphed over  hardships and challenges, became the matriarch who bore six of the twelve tribes, and who was buried with Jacob in his eternal resting place. 

We often yearn for “Rachel”, for a life filled with tranquility and inner beauty. The story of Jacob teaches us that we should embrace the “Leah” in our life. The challenges we face in our lives are opportunities for us to discover the deepest and most profound part of ourselves.  The true potential for growth lies in the experience of facing a challenge and persevering. 

Adapted from Lekutei Sichos Vayishlach, vol. 35 Sicha 3.


How to Bless a Rebellious Child - תולדת

How to Bless a Rebellious Child

The aging Isaac decided to bless his eldest son Esau, but, strangely, Isaac would not bless Esau until Esau  would prepare food for Isaac, as the Torah relates: 

It came to pass when Isaac was old, and his eyes were too dim to see, that he called Esau his elder son, and he said to him, "My son," and he said to him, "Here I am." 

And he said, "Behold now, I have grown old; I do not know the day of my death.

So, now, sharpen your implements, your sword [and take] your bow, and go forth to the field, and hunt game for me.

And make for me tasty foods as I like, and bring them to me, and I will eat, in order that my soul will bless you before I die."  (Genesis 27:1-3)

How is it possible that Isaac, the quintessential spiritual person, who was prepared to offer himself as a sacrifice to G-d, refused to bless his child until his child would offer him a piece of meat?  

In order to understand Isaac’s request for Esau to prepare delicacies, we must first explore the broader question: why would Isaac love Esau the hunter more than Jacob the tent dweller? We would expect that Isaac would appreciate Jacob’s spiritual pursuits more than Esau’s hunting. 

Isaac loved Esau because Isaac saw the potential within Esau’s chaotic passion. Isaac recognized that if Esau would channel his energy to constructive and holy pursuits, he would, with the power of his intense passion, be able to achieve far greater heights than Jacob.

Isaac told Esau “So, now, sharpen your tools, your sword [and take] your bow”. The Hebrew word for Sharpen (“Sa”) also means “raise up”. Isaac told Esau that he would be worthy of blessing if he would elevate his talents and passions. Instead of directing his passion to a destructive goal, he should channel his talents and passions toward the transcendent and holy, toward helping feed another. Isaac was not looking for lunch, he was looking to help Esau discover the pleasure of channeling his energy toward a constructive goal. He was looking to give Esau a model for how to live his life. A model of how to navigate the intense energy within his soul. Isaac was teaching Esau not to suppress his nature  but rather to elevate it. Not to fight it but to channel it. 

We each have both an Isaac and an Esau within our own heart. The Jacob within us seeks the transcendent and the holy, but it lacks the intensity and passion with which the Esau within us pursues its destructive desires. Isaac teaches us that ultimately our purpose is to harmonize the Jacob and the Esau within ourselves. The passion of Esau is should be channeled and focused on the goals of Jacob. 


The Journey Toward Joy - חיי שרה

The Journey Toward Joy

From the dawn of history people have been searching for a sense of joy which is as elusive as it is desirable. 

When Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden in a state of tranquility and spiritual enlightenment, free of worry and hardship, they were unsatisfied, and therefore susceptible to the temptation of the forbidden fruit: 

And the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was a delight to the eyes, and the tree was desirable to make one wise; so she took of its fruit, and she ate, and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate. (Genesis 3:6)

According to the Kabbalah, what Eve wanted more than anything, was not the fruit per se but rather she was seeking  a feeling of the subjective self. In Eden there was no feeling of self, only an awareness of the Divine presence. The serpent showed Eve that one could experience a sense of self which created  desire. Fulfilling one’s own desire and pleasure, argued the serpent, is the way joy can be achieved. Unfortunately, experiencing the sense of ego resulted in tragic consequences. In a matter of a few generations humanity had deteriorated, the world was filled with moral corruption, and G-d brought the flood upon the earth.   

As soon as Noah disembarked from the ark, we read: 

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. (ibid. 9:21)

Noah was no simple drunk who was finally able to get back the bottle after a full year in the ark. Drinking wine was Noah’s attempt to correct the spiritual effect of the sin of the tree of knowledge which brought about the moral depravity which ultimately led to the flood. Noah understood that ever since Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden mankind  possessed the feeling of self, which among other things, focused their attention on their own needs. This led to selfishness which robbed them of happiness. For the ego is never satisfied with what it has, however much it has it always desires more. 

Noah wanted to reverse the course of human psychology, he desired to break free of the confines of the ego, and, at least temporarily  escape the feeling of self. He hoped that getting drunk would suspend the sense of self and would bring about bliss and joy. 

Very quickly, however, Noah learned that the route to joy is not the suspension of consciousness through consuming alcohol. That episode did not end well.

And then came Sarah our matriarch. According to the Kabbalists Sarah was the first person to achieve the wholesome experience of a joyous life. She was the first to “correct” the negative behavior of Eve and Noah. Sarah understood that the path to joy does not run through the experience of self, like the pleasure of the fruit of the tree of knowledge; nor can it be achieved by escaping self awareness as Noah attempted to do. Sarah understood that while we cannot go back in time and return to Eden,while we cannot liberate ourselves from the sense of self, we can achieve joy by devoting ourselves to something greater than ourselves. When our sense of self is part of a transcendent experience, we are able to escape the ego without destroying awareness.

As a consequence of the sin of the tree of knowledge, G-d told Eve “in sadness you shall bear children. (ibid. 3:16)”.  For in a world where people perceive themselves, there is pleasure but also sadness. Yet, many generations later, Sarah understood that devoting oneself to raising a child, devoting oneself to a purpose beyond one's own self, is a model for becoming holy and achieving joy. Indeed when Sarah gave birth she named her son Isaac, which means joy and laughter. She modeled the transformation from pain to joy not only for herself but also for everyone around her, as the Torah relates,And Sarah said, "God has made joy for me; whoever hears will rejoice over me." (ibid. 20:6)

Sarah teaches us that in order to transcend the ego which stifles joy, one must transcend oneself by being part of a greater story and a greater mission; a mission to make the world a better place by carrying out the Divine purpose of creation.  

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Vayihiyu Chayey Sarah 5741).

Feeling Connected Throughout the Day - וירא

Feeling Connected Throughout the Day

The story of Abraham spans two portions in the book of Genesis: Lech Licha, which concludes with the story of Abraham circumcising himself, and Vayera, which begins with the story of G-d visiting Abraham when he was in the process of healing from the circumcision. 

Why do the portions divide in a seemingly unnatural place? Why separate between the circumcision and the healing? The story divides at this point because after the circumcision Abraham was a completely transformed person. After the circumcision his experiences were radically different from before the circumcision.

G-d is the infinite creator who created a finite universe. Conventional wisdom would argue that in order to connect to the infinite G-d one must separate from the physical, escape the trappings of day to day life, and meditate on the infinite. Indeed, that was the experience of Abraham himself. When he would experience prophecy he would fall on his face and lose touch with physical reality for the duration of the prophetic experience. 

Circumcision however, ushered in a new stage in Abraham’s connection to G-d. Circumcision embodies the purpose of all the Torah: to sanctify the material world, to the extent that the holiness permeates the flesh, and the bond with G-d is seen and felt in the physical world. Circumcision represents the true infinity of G-d. It expresses that G-d is not confined to the infinite but rather He can be found in the finite as well. 

Thus, immediately after the circumcision, in the opening phrase of this week’s portion, a new stage in Abraham’s life begins. The Torah relates: 

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. (Genesis 18:1)

The extraordinary novelty of this verse is not that, for the first time, G-d appeared to Abraham in the middle of the day, while sitting at the door of his tent waiting for guests. In fact, what was exceptional was that Abraham experienced the revelation while simultaneously receiving his guests. As a result of the circumcision, physical reality was no longer a distraction from the Divine. The seemingly impassable gulf between heaven and earth, between material and spiritual, was bridged. Abraham could now experience G-d’s revelation while interacting with other human beings. 

Only after the circumcision was Abraham capable of fathering Isaac. It was Isaac’s descendants who would accept the Torah at Sinai, and who would be tasked with the responsibility of connecting heaven and earth, infusing the physical reality with holiness through performing the commandments of the Torah.

The Torah relates that while experiencing the Divine revelation Abraham saw three people. Abraham ran toward them to invite them into his home. Abraham said: 

"My lord, if only I have found favor in your eyes, please do not pass on from beside your servant.” (ibid. 18:3)

One interpretation is that Abraham was talking to the leader of the three guests, asking the guests to enter his tent. Another interpretation is that Abraham was talking to G-d; asking G-d to stand by and not leave Abraham’s presence while Abraham tended to his guests. 

Contemporary commentators suggest that when Abraham said to G-d, “do not pass on from beside your servant”, do not leave me while I interact with  people, Abraham was requesting that he be allowed to experience this newfound spiritual awareness. He was asking G-d for the ability to feel connected to G-d not only while engaging in spiritual pursuits but also while interacting with people. Abraham desired  to feel the connection to G-d in every activity he engaged in, thus sanctifying every aspect of life. 

(Adapted from Likutey Sichos Lech Licha vol. 1, Abarbenel, and commentary by Sivan Rahav Meir). 

The Journey of Your Soul - לך לך

The Journey of Your Soul

Expressing abstract wisdom in simple language is difficult and could be painful. To do so, the scholar must leave the comfort of his  knowledge and expertise and descend into the world, where the audience is not be on the same level as he is. Expressing abstract wisdom in simple language requires limiting the light, masking some of the beauty of the wisdom and expressing it in simple terms in order that the listener can understand. 

This decent, however, will ultimately lead the scholar to a deeper appreciation of the wisdom. Because when one is forced to explain an abstract idea in concrete terms, when one is forced to create an analogy to help people grasp an intangible idea, one will attain a deeper level of understanding. To be able to communicate a lofty concept in simple terms the wise person has to reach the essence and soul of the idea, only then will he succeed in condensing the concept and expressing it with an appropriate analogy.

The explain the Kabbalists, is the deeper meaning of the G-d’s first communication with Abram (Abraham’s original name): 

"Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1) 

This commandment contains multiple layers of meaning. Yes, Abram was to leave Mesopotamia and travel to what would become the land of Israel, but there is a mystical meaning to the verse as well. Abram, represents abstract wisdom. The word Abram is comprised of two words “Av”, father, which in Kabbalistic terminology is a metaphor for wisdom, and “Ram” which means elevated. Abram is exalted wisdom. [At the time Abram was living in Charan, which Kabbalisticly, represents the “neck” which blocks the abstract wisdom from expressing itself in terms that would allow it to descend into concrete language that could inspire emotions in the heart]. 

Abram’s physical journey was a symbol of his spiritual journey. The journey meant leaving the comfort of his own thoughts and expressing his abstract ideas of monotheism and morality to people who were on a far lower spiritual and intellectual level than himself. Yet, this downward journey, this descent, led Abram to greater heights. As G-d promised Abram, that as a result of his journey: 

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. 

Abram’s journey was far from challenge free. He was faced with many physical and spiritual challenges. He was forced to descend to Egypt where his wife was abducted. His close relationships with his nephew Lot and Concubine Hagar were tested. G-d informed him that his descendants would be enslaved for four hundred years. Yet Abraham understood that the more challenging the journey, the greater the spiritual gain. Abram understood that a descent is critical to, and, therefore, part and parcel of, the journey upward.  

The story of Abram is the story of every soul. 

The soul originates in the spiritual worlds, surrounded by Divine wisdom and awareness. The soul is then called upon to begin the journey we call life. This journey, from the spiritual worlds to life in this physical world seems to be a descent for the soul. No longer can it bask in the glow of spiritual enlightenment and closeness to the infinite light. No longer can it remain in the realm of abstract ideas. On this earth the soul must attend to the concrete needs of the body; food, shelter and comfort. The soul is no longer in the world of “Av” “Ram”, the world of abstract knowledge and enlightenment. The soul is right here on planet earth.

Yet, like Abram our patriarch, like the wise teacher forced to condense his wisdom into a parable, the soul must now express its relationship to G-d in a concrete way. By using physical objects to fulfill the Divine will, by developing an awareness of the Divine on this earth, the soul reaches greater heights than if it had never  embarked on the journey. 

(Adapted form Torah Or, Parshas Lech Licha)   

Noah's Ark - the Key to Marriage - נח

Noah's Ark - The Key to Marriage

Toward the end of the portion of Bireishit, the first portion of the Torah, we read about how the downfall of society began with immoral relationships between men and women:   

That the sons of the nobles saw the daughters of man when they were beautifying themselves, and they took for themselves wives from whomever they chose. (6:2)

Rashi explains that this verse represents the breakdown of morality: 

“from whomever they chose: even a married woman” 

Noah’s ark was more than a mere tool through which Noach, his family and future mankind were saved from the flood. The floating ark would rehabilitate humanity by embodying the key to a wholesome and holy relationships, which is the bedrock of a healthy, moral, and holy society. 

The Kli Yakar, The sixteenth century commentator and Kabbalist, points our attention to  the numbers, dimensions and dates mentioned in the story of the flood. Interestingly many of the figures are related to the number fifteen:  

Fifteen cubits above did the waters prevail, and the mountains were covered up. (7:20)

“And the water prevailed upon the earth a hundred and fifty days. (7:24)”. One hundred rand fifty is fifteen times ten. 

“And this [is the size] you shall make it: three hundred cubits the length of the ark, fifty cubits its breadth, and thirty cubits its height. (6:15)”. Each of the three flours of the ark were fifteen thousand square cubits. 

According to the Kabbalah the number fifteen is alluded to within the dimensions of the ark because the ark represents the ability to create a holy reality which would correct the spiritual corruption that led to the flood.The first two letters of the name of G-d are “Yud” and “Hey”. “Yud” has the numerical value of ten and “Hey” of five, the number fifteen represents the connection between  the “Yud” and the “Hey”. 

The Talmud (Sotah 17a) explains that the letters “Yud” and “Hey” are the way one can build a blessed relationship. The Hebrew word for man, “Ish”, and women, “Isha”, are both comprised of the letters “Alef” and “Shin” which create the word “Aish”, which  means fire. In addition to the letters of the word fire, the word “ish”, man, contains the letter “Yud”, and “Isha”, woman, contains the letter ”Hey”. “If a man [ish] and woman [isha] merit”, says the Talmud, when man and woman unite, the letters of G-d’s name, the Yud and Hey in their names, unite as well, and “ the Divine Presence rests between them”. If however the letters of G-d’s name are absent from the relationship, if all they have is the fire, then “fire consumes them.” 

Man and woman have within them passionate fire. This can be a tremendously powerful positive force. It can bring people together in love and create a deep bond between man and woman. Fire, however, also has destructive properties. If man and woman define their relationship on the basis of  passionate fire alone, it can become destructive. For the fire seeks to break all boundaries and shatter all discipline and its quest is to consume the fuel which sustains it. The people in the generation of the flood followed their inner fire, leading them to destroy respect for wholesome relationships. 

The key to creating harmony between man and woman is to introduce a higher dimension to the relationship. When man and woman introduce the letters of G-d's name into their relationship, when both the male and female fire are experienced in the context of a spiritual purpose, then, the positive fire in the relationship will last. The letters of G-d’s name, the “Yud” and the “Hey”merge as one, and the relationship becomes the protective ark of Noah. 


The Broken Vessels - בראשית

The Broken Vessels 

In describing the early stages of creation, we read what is perhaps one of the most cryptic verses in all of the Torah: 

Now the earth was astonishingly empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water. (Genesis 2:2)

The first half of the verse describes a scene of emptiness and chaos (The Hebrew word “Tohu”, means both emptiness and chaos ), while the second half of the verse describes a scene of tranquility and serenity. The Midrash explains that “the spirit of G-d hovering over the face of the water“ refers to the spirit of the Missianic era, a time when peace and serenity will reign throughout the world. The verse, then, is confusing. What was the state of creation in its earliest stages, was it darkness and chaos or peace and holiness? 

The Kabbalists explain that this verse alludes to the Kabbalsitic doctrine of the “breaking of the vessels”, which lies at the heart of the story of creation and its purpose. 

When we read a book or look at a completed puzzle we are looking at a “vessel”, a container, a physical phenomenon which contains a spiritual idea or concept. All of creation is a vessel, a tool which expresses the awesome power and unfathomable wisdom of its creator. Yet, in order for the purpose of creation to play out, the presence of G-d must be hidden. The vessels must break, the puzzle broken up into pieces, the words of the book  rearranged and scrambled. Once the vessels are shattered, the content and ideas of the book are gone, what is left is chaos and confusion. Not only do the letters cease to tell the story, they actually contribute to the confusion. 

The physical world could have been a vessel revealing its inner content, the Divine creative energy. But the vessels were shattered. It is a physical world that no longer directs our attention to its maker and  its purpose. Instead the myriad creations and experiences leave us in a perpetual state of confusion and aimlessness. The breaking of the vessels is alluded to in the first half of the verse. The earth is now filled with darkness and chaos.

The second half of the verse, however, clarifies the purpose of creation. True, the  scrambled letters and the pieces of the puzzle, no longer reveal their inner content, however, the meaning, the purpose, the story, hovers above, waiting for us to unscramble the letters and piece together the puzzle. The universe is waiting for us to discover that the “spirit of G-d”, the serenity and holiness, was hidden within creation all along.

The same is true in the microcosm, within every man and woman. Our life seems to be a collection of unrelated, or worse, conflicting, forces, urges, experiences, emotions and drives. We often don't see the  purpose and meaning of it all. We experience the tension between the physical and the spiritual, between the destructive and constructive parts of our personality. We are experiencing the shattered vessels, “chaos upon the face of the darkness”. However, the story of our life, like the story of creation, is inherently optimistic. It is our task to fix the shattered vessels. To rearrange the letters of our life. To understand which letter goes first and which follows second. We must rearrange our priorities, understanding that the physical aspects of life are here to serve the spiritual dimension of life. Like every story, our story too has a protagonist and a villain, experiences which must be cultivated and others which must be rejected.  

Life is the process of organizing all its various aspects into an organic whole. From a collection of random moments to a meaningful story. The purpose of life is to move from chaos and darkness to the serenity of the spirit of G-d upon the waters. 

(Adapted from Totah Or Parshas Vayeshev and Parshas Bireyshis 5712)

Business Can Make You Happy - וזאת הברכה

Business Can Make You Happy 

On the final day of his life, in the final portion of the Torah, Moses blesses each of the twelve tribes of Israel. After blessing the first three tribes with positions of leadership, he blesses the tribe of Joseph with a fertile portion in the land of Israel, which will produce sweet produce. 

Moses, then turns to the tribe of Zevulun, who were destined to be merchants, and blesses them, evoking the word joy: 

And to Zebulun he said: "Rejoice, Zebulun, in your departure, and Issachar, in your tents.

They will call peoples to the mountain; there, they will offer up righteous sacrifices. For they will be nourished by the abundance of the seas, and by the treasures hidden in the sand." Deuteronomy 33:18-19

Why is the blessing to the tribe of Zebulun the only one that mentions the word joy?

There is a Talmudic saying that states: a man would prefer one Kav (a measurement) of grain that he produces rather than nine Kav given to him by a friend. The Talmud teaches that deep within a person’s psyche lies the desire to create something on his own. No matter how much he has been given, that deep desire has not been met. Only when a person creates something by the fruit of his own labor, does he feel a deep sense of satisfaction and joy. 

All the tribes of Israel were blessed with gifts from above. Leadership was bestowed upon the tribes of Reuben, Levi, Judah. The other tribes were blessed with various portions of the land of Israel. Zebulun, alone, was blessed with the opportunity to sail forth from the land of Israel and engage in commerce, buying and selling and create wealth and prosperity by their own effort. Therefore it is Zebulun alone that experiences the truest sense of joy. 

Every phenomenon in the physical world is a mirror of the same phenomenon in the spiritual reality. The same is true about the joy of Zebulun’s commercial efforts. 

Rashi quotes the Midrash’s description of how Zebulun would use their business relationships to spread the light of Judaism: 

Through Zebulun’s commerce, merchants of the world’s nations will come to his land. Now Zebulun is located at the border, so these merchants will say, “Since we have taken so much trouble to reach here, let us go to Jerusalem and see what the God of this nation is like and what they do.” And they see all Israel worshipping one God and eating one kind of food [i.e., only what is permissible to them, and they will be astonished], because [among] the nations, the deity of one is not like the deity of another, and the food of one is not like the food of another. So they will say, “There is no nation as worthy as this one!” Consequently, they will convert to Judaism there, as our verse says,“there, they will offer up righteous sacrifices” [and all of this will be due to Zebulun’s commerce]. 

While all other tribes lived in the holy environment of the land of Israel, the tribe of Zebulun, alone amongst the tribes, spent their time, talent and creativity, outside the borders of the land of Israel. While all other tribes worked the sacred soil of the land of Israel, the tribe of Zebulun was engaged with mundane, physical objects. While all other tribes focused their attention on building their own society, Zebulun was tasked with interacting with and ultimately influencing the countries, people and lifestyles that were foreign to holiness. When Zebulun engaged in commerce, they also spread the light and values of Judaism. Zebulun, therefore, experienced the truest sense of joy for, by their effort, they were able to imbue the most unlikely of places with holiness.

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, second night of Sukkos 5742)


Conflict Between Material and Spiritual - האזינו

Conflict Between Material and Spiritual

The song of Haazinu, the song Moses sung to the Jewish People on the final day of his life, describes how the great blessings of the land of Israel, the involvement with material pursuits, would ultimately cause the Jewish people to abandon G-d, and ignore their spiritual calling. They would then experience the horrors of exile. Yet, as the song continues, ultimately the people would be healed, and G-d would bring them back to their land. 

At the precise point where the song transitions from describing the terrible calamity of the exile to the eventual reconciliation between G-d and the people, the song alludes to the spiritual insight that would correct the underlying problem that led to the spiritual downfall in the first place. The song states: 

See now that it is I! I am the One, and there is no G-d like Me! I cause death and grant life. I strike, but I heal, and no one can rescue from My Hand!

The words “I strike and I heal” capture the secret of the transformation. The Midrash points out that the Hebrew word “strike”, “Machatzti”, is the same root as the word “partition”, “Mechitzah”. Thus, the verse can be read, “I created a division and I will heal the division”. Chasidic philosophy explains that the source of all pain, darkness and frustration is the  partition between materialism and spirituality. Creation represents the separation of the material from its spiritual source. When we look at the physical reality we don’t sense its soul, its spiritual core. The material creation distracts us from the spiritual energy that continually brings it into existence. The created being is a partition, concealing the inner, mystical, reality. 

The purpose of creation, however, is to heal the divide, to heal the separation between creation and creator. The partition is necessary, without it there is no independent creation, only the infinite light of G-d. Yet the partition can be healed when the created being reveals that its purpose is to express the Divine truth. 

The Song of Haazinu, then, tracks the story of our interaction with the material world we live in. We are the products of the partition, we experience the divide, we sense the conflict. We interact with the physical reality and material pleasures and we sense that it has the potential to distract us from our higher selves. We then continue reading the song and our understanding deepens. The partition does not have to be a source of conflict. When we discover the soul and the purpose of the material, the partition will be healed. The purpose of the divide, like the purpose of creation, is to find the unity and harmony in the midst of conflict and tension; to heal the divide between the physical and spiritual.

While the entirety of Judaism is about bridging heaven and earth, no Mitzvah does so as powerfully as the Mitzvah of Sukkah. The Sukkah encompasses the entirety of our physical body as well as our physical possessions and experiences. The Sukkah represents the capacity of bringing every aspect of our life into the holy embrace of the Sukkah, imbuing our material life with holiness. 

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Simcha beis Hashoeva 5716)

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