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Blog - Torah Insights

Holy Leftovers - צו

Holy Leftovers

Thinking about how we live our lives most people will realize that most of our day is not spent on the things we value most. We work all week in order to enjoy time off on the weekend. We spend all day working in order to provide for our family, which, in many cases, leaves us with few waking moments to actually spend time with our loved ones.

This is even more so when we look at the spiritual side of life. Most of our day is dedicated to providing for our material needs of eating, drinking, earning a living, sleeping, exercising, relaxing, etc., which leaves us with, at best, but a few moments each day for the needs of our soul. Our soul, too, desires to be nourished; our soul, too, needs moments of self expression. Our soul desires to transcend, to engage in holiness, to pray, to study Torah and to engage in good deeds. Yet, we spend most of our day, and most of our life, feeding the body instead of feeding the soul.

For some spiritual seekers this is too painful of an existence. Thus, they seek a life of asceticism. They seek to minimize the time they spend on the needs of the body and maximize the time spent on feeding the desires of their soul. And even during the time they use to attend to the needs of the body they do so with a sense of pain, as they would prefer to spend even those moments on the needs of their soul.

Judaism, however, has a completely different outlook, resulting in a vastly different approach to life.    

Judaism teaches that if we begin the day with a moment of holiness, if we offer even a small portion of our time to G-d in the morning then that experience will affect the rest of the day, infusing it with significance and holiness. The rest of the day, when we tend to our material activities and needs, is a continuation of the spiritual experience and is considered holy, for it is  infused with the holiness of the moments we offered to G-d.

This is the inner meaning of the description of the meal offering that we read about in this week's Torah portion. When the Jew offers an offering of grain, which symbolizes all of his material needs, only a handful of the flour is offered on the altar to be burned in fire. Only a few moments of our day are completely dedicated to the spiritual service of G-d. Yet, the Torah assures us, that the remainder of the flour, which is most of the flour, while it is eaten by the priests and not offered in the fire to G-d, is nevertheless holy, as it is considered the remainder of the offering.

The Torah tells us:

And this is the law of the meal offering: that Aaron's sons shall bring it before the Lord, to the front of the altar.

And he shall lift out of it in his fist, from the fine flour of the meal offering and from its oil and all the frankincense that is on the meal offering, and he shall cause its reminder to [go up in] smoke on the altar as a pleasing fragrance to the Lord.

The fist full of flour represents the moments which we dedicate to G-d. The Torah then continues to describe the leftover flour:  

And Aaron and his sons shall eat whatever is left over from it. It shall be eaten as unleavened bread in a holy place; they shall eat it in the courtyard of the Tent of Meeting.

It shall not be baked leavened. [As] their portion, I have given it to them from My fire offerings. It is a holy of holies, like the sin offering and like the guilt offering.

The leftovers, the remainder of the day which we spend on our own needs, is also holy. For the holiness of the morning Mitzvah, reciting the Modeh Ani, reciting the Shema, laying Tefillin, spills over to the rest of the day, impacting the rest of our pursuits. which reminding us that our material needs, too, serve a holy and spiritual purpose.  

Based on the teaching of the Rebbe, Reshimos 134.

 

Pass the Salt - ויקרא

Pass the Salt

The beginning of the third book of the Torah, the book of Leviticus, discusses many categories of offerings, elaborating on the details of each of the various offerings. One law that applies equally to all offerings is that every offering must be offered with salt, as emphasized in the verse:

And you shall salt every one of your meal offering sacrifices with salt, and you shall not omit the salt of your God's covenant from [being placed] upon your meal offerings. You shall offer salt on all your sacrifices. (Leviticus 2:13)

This verse is also the source of the custom to dip our bread in salt, as explained in the code of law:

it is customary to place salt on the table [before the recitation of the blessing HaMotzi, even when the bread does not require it. The rationale is that] the table is comparable to the altar [of the Beis HaMikdash] and our food, to a sacrifice, and it is written: “On all your sacrifices offer salt.” (Shulchan Aruch Harav, Orach Chaim chapter 167)

Why salt?

When a Jew would be inspired to ascend to Jerusalem, come to the house of G-d and offer a sacrifice as a symbol of his bringing himself closer to G-d, the Torah instructs him to pour salt on the offering. In the ancient world salt was the primary preservative agent. Salt, therefore, is a symbol of preservation. Before the era of modern refrigeration, the symbolism of salt was clear. With the commandment that no offering be brought without salt, the Torah is teaching a Jew that there is no value to a fleeting moment of inspiration. When one is inspired to come close, to offer an offering, one must seize the flash of inspiration, and preserve it by sprinkling it, figuratively speaking, with a measure of salt. One must seek to internalize the inspiration, the desire to change and improve, to the point that it is integrated within one’s identity.   

There is more to the symbolism of salt.

Everything physical is, by definition, temporary and fleeting. Every experience, everything we work so hard for, is but temporary. The only thing that is eternal is the spiritual aspect of life. Say you go out for dinner or you take a family vacation. The physical aspects of the experience are fleeting and will be gone before you know it. But there is a way to make the experiences everlasting. If the dinner deepens your connection to your spouse, if the vacation allows you to bond with your child, if the experience helps you get in touch with your soul, then you preserved it for eternity.

This is the symbolism of the salt on the sacrifices.

The Torah is teaching us that we can take a physical object, temporary and fleeting and make it lasting and immortal. We can and should salt our offerings, infuse them with spirituality which is the true preservative. When we eat a meal, and the same is true of any other physical experience, we can either engage in the material, temporary, aspect of the experience, or we can dip our bread in salt. We can transform the experience and make it one that is spiritual, holy, and everlasting.

 

Linen Curtains - פקודי

Linen Curtains

The second half of the book of Exodus, with its detailed description of the tabernacle and its furniture, teaches us how to create a tabernacle for G-d in our life. Each of the many components of the tabernacle represents an aspect of our life.

The tabernacle had three sections, the courtyard, the holy and the holy of holies. The Torah tells us that the courtyard of the tabernacle was surrounded by a fence made of linen hangings.

The length of the courtyard [shall be] one hundred cubits and the width fifty by fifty [cubits]. The height [of the hangings] shall be five cubits of twisted fine linen, and their sockets [shall be of] copper. (Exodus 27:18).

What is the nature and symbolism of the walls of the courtyard? What are the boundaries within which a Jew should live his life? What are the perimeters which the Jew must enter in order to fulfill his purpose of creation and make a home for G-d?

In a written correspondence between the Rebbe and his father, the great Kabbalist Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneersohn, they discuss two possible interpretations of the spiritual significance and meaning of the linen curtains.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak explains that according to the Kabbalah linen represents the attribute of discipline, the ability to judge and reject that which does not live up to the desired standard.  

The secret to success in any field or endeavor is the ability to be disciplined enough to say no to distraction. No one ever mastered a musical instrument, graduated medical school, or ran a marathon, without cultivating the skill of saying no to distraction. The same is true for creating a spiritual life. The linen curtains represent the ability of the Jew to reject negative influences. According to this approach, the first and most important skill necessary in order to be able to create a space for holiness is the skill of disciplined commitment. The strength to say no to destructive influences of the outside world as well as within the person himself.

The Rebbe offered a different interpretation. The Rebbe taught that the linen does not represent the ability to reject, but rather the ability to embrace.   

The Talmud explains that the Biblical word for linen, “Bad”, means single and alone, because flax, from which linen is made, grows a single stalk from each kernel. Linen, then, represents singularity. The singularity of linen represents the oneness of G-d, and the linen curtains represent the purpose of the Jew: to infuse all aspects of life with a connection to the one G-d.

Life is fragmented and fractured, our attention is constantly being pulled in multiple directions. Any given day we have to navigate between different, often opposing, situations and tasks. Often, the multiplicity of details distract us from the excitement and passion of our overarching goals. We want to be a devoted parent, a loving spouse. We want to be motivated to achieve our professional, recreational or spiritual goals. Yet often, while involved in a specific task, playing with our child, dealing with a frustrating client, or trying to check off an item on our to-do list, we are distracted from the big picture. We lose our passion and commitment because, somehow, this specific moment, this specific task, is disconnected from our overarching purpose.

The Linen material which was used as the outer walls of the tabernacle represent the unique spiritual ability and calling of the Jew. The Jew’s task is to live within the boundaries of the oneness of G-d. The Jew’s purpose is to infuse every detail of life, every specific interaction with the multiplicity of the fragmented world, with a connection to the overarching oneness. To build a sanctuary for G-d is to live a life in which one feels how every detail of life contributes to the overall purpose. To build a home for G-d we must surround ourselves with the embrace of the oneness, experiencing, every detail as just another opportunity for goodness and kindness, healing the fragmentation by infusing it with Divine unity.

Adapted from Reshimos 107.

 

Kindle the Fire - ויקהל

f.jpegKindle the Fire

When Moses assembled the Jewish people to relate to them about the construction of the tabernacle, the sanctuary they were to build in the desert, he first reiterated the the Mitzvah of resting on Shabbat:

Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have sanctity, a day of complete rest to the Lord. (Exodus 35:2)

Of all the thirty nine prohibited categories of labor, the Torah proceeds to name only one specific example of a prohibition. The Torah states:

You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwelling places on the Sabbath day." (Ibid. 35:3)

Why does the Torah emphasize that the commandment about not kindling fire applies to “all your dwelling places”? Why would we assume that the prohibition is limited to a specific place?

The Midrash explains that the words “in all your dwelling places” teach us that we may not kindle fire in all our dwelling places, we may, however, kindle fire in the temple. Elsewhere the Torah commands “A continuous fire shall burn upon the altar; it shall not go out.” We may have thought that the prohibition of kindling fire on Shabbat supersedes the commandment to continuously maintain the fire on the altar, and we would therefore conclude that the commandment to continuously kindle fire on the alter applies to the six days of the week but not to Shabbat. The Torah therefore states that the commandment against kindling fire applies specifically to “all your dwelling places” but does not apply to the temple (which is not our dwelling place, it is the dwelling place for G-d).

Every teaching in the Torah has both a body and a soul. In addition to the legal interpretation there is also a spiritual interpretation of the same legal concept. Here too the “fire”, the “dwelling places” and the “temple”, have a spiritual interpretation as well.

Fire represents passion. Fire represents the joy, the excitement, and the vitality that energizes us and keeps us motivated and imbues our actions with spirit and feeling. During the six days of the week, our passion is invested in the world outside of us. We seek to build, to accomplish and to succeed in the material world. And then Shabbat arrives. Shabbat is far more than a day of rest in the conventional sense. On Shabbat we stop working so that we can pause from the specific details of our life and focus on the big picture. On Shabbat we have time to focus on the purpose of the rest of the week: What is the point of all our work? What are we seeking to accomplish? What is the meaning of our life? Are we living the life we want to live? Are we spending our time and attention with the people that mean most to us?

On Shabbat we may not kindle fire in “our dwelling places”. Our “dwelling places”, as opposed to the temple, represent our physical needs and activities. Shabbat is the day when we redirect our passion, to the “temple”, to the holy aspects of our life. Shabbat is the day that we redirect our passion to G-d, to our family, and to our spiritual life.  

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Shabbat Ki Tisa 5717).

 

Defining Work - כי תשא

c.jpegDefining Work

One of the most important practices in Judaism, the fourth of the ten commandments, is to refrain from work on the seventh day, to sanctify it and make it holy. Yet, the exact definition of rest, and the forms of labor prohibited on Shabbat are not stated explicitly in the Torah.

The Sages of the Talmud explain that the Torah alludes to there being thirty nine categories of prohibited labor. Whenever the Torah discusses the commandment to build the tabernacle, the sanctuary constructed in the desert, the Torah also reiterates the commandment of Shabbat. Case in point is this week’s Torah portion. After more than two full portions dedicated to the intricate details of the sanctuary, the Torah concludes with the theme of Shabbat:

“..the children of Israel observe the Sabbath, to make the Sabbath throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant. Between Me and the children of Israel, it is forever a sign that [in] six days The Lord created the heaven and the earth, and on the seventh day He ceased and rested."

From the juxtaposition of Shabbat and the commandment to build the the tabernacle we derive that the tabernacle may not be constructed on Shabbat. This implies that any labor that was needed for the construction of the tabernacle is considered labor and is therefore prohibited on Shabbat.

This derivation may seem far from straight forward. Why does the Torah communicate its definition of labor through the seemingly unrelated tabernacle? Why is the definition of labor determined based on the labor necessary to construct the sanctuary?

The Torah is teaching us a profound lesson about the purpose of labor. The conventional understanding is that we spend six days of the week working, pursuing our physical needs, and on the seventh day we rest from the pursuit of the physical and we  dedicate a day to our family, our soul and to our spiritual life. Yet the Torah is signaling to us that we should think about labor in the context of the work necessary to construct the sanctuary. That is because, indeed, the purpose of all our work is to create a metaphorical sanctuary, a spiritual home for G-d.

The legal definition of labor is defined by the labor used for the construction of the sanctuary, because the spiritual purpose of all our labor is to create a home for G-d.  We do so by using our physical possessions and experiences to enhance our soul and to advance the purpose for which we were created, namely to transform this earth to a vessel for G-dliness, by filling the world with goodness and kindness.

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

 

The Kabbalah of Fashion - תצוה

f.jpgThe Kabbalah of Fashion

What is Judaism's perspective on the multi billion dollar garment industry?

The Hebrew word for garment is “Beged” which contain the same letters as the word for betrayal - “Bagad”. The connection between garments and betrayal is multi layered. Starting from the beginning of history the garment is intertwined with betrayal. The Torah tells us that garments became necessary only after the sin of the tree of knowledge, when Adam and Eve betrayed their G-d, themselves and their innocence.  

In addition to their emergence as a result of betrayal, the function of garments is also a form of betrayal and dishonesty. The very purpose of a garment is to conceal the inner core and portray an external facade. In fact, a rich person can dress as a pauper, and the pauper can dress as a rich person, a person who feels sad can dress in celebratory garments, and a happy person can don a mourner’s garments, thus betraying the truth, betraying one’s inner feelings and projecting an external image inconsistent with one’s inner feelings and reality.

The soul, Just like the body, also has “garments”. The Kabbalah teaches that the soul has an inner “personality”, its emotional and intellectual composition, as well as “garments” its ability to act, to speak, and to think a given thought. Thought, speech and action are called garments because they are not the soul itself and, like the body’s garments, they can betray the inner makeup of the soul. A person can act, speek or think in ways that are inconsistent with and betray his own inner self.

Yet, garments, and the betrayal they represent, are not all bad. In fact, another word for garment in Hebrew is “Sal-mah” which is the same word as “Sh-lay-mah” which means complete. The Hebrew language is conveying a deep truth: the garment, the ability to betray one’s inner feelings and perspective, can and should lead a person to be wholesome and complete. That’s because garments have an influence on how we feel on the inside. The reason people spend so much on clothing is because clothing have an affect. Although initially donning clothing is an external act, the garment has the power to influence one’s mood and feelings.  

The same is true regarding the garments of the soul. A person can feel cruel yet he can don a garment of kindness by taking a kind action. A person can feel sad yet he can smile and act happy. Initially, that action is a betrayal of the inner feeling, but, over time, the betrayal leads to completion, the external action will affect the inner feeling.

This explains why the Torah commands that the high priest wear eight beautiful garments when he performs the service in the temple. As G-d commands Moses in this week’s portion:  

You shall make holy garments for your brother Aaron, for honor and glory (Exodus 28:2).

One may wonder why garments are critical to the service. Aren’t beautiful garments superficial and a symbol of vanity? Why doesn't G-d focus on the priests internal, emotional and spiritual state rather than on the external garments? The answer is that the garments represent, thought, speech and action, the garments of the soul. The Torah is teaching us that if we want to come close to G-d we should don beautiful garments. We should focus on positive garments, on positive action, even if those garments are a betrayal of our internal feelings. Because, ultimately, the beautiful garments, the positive action, will bring wholesomeness and completion to the internal soul, and our heart will be transformed by the garments.

 

The Structure of the Soul - תרומה

k.jpgThe Structure of the Soul

The second half of the book of Exodus presents a dramatic shift from the first half of the book. Until this point, G-d was the active member in the relationship between G-d and the Jewish people. While G-d brought the ten plagues, liberated the Jews from Egypt, split the sea, spoke the ten commandments and dictated Jewish civil law, the Jews were passive recipients of all that G-d was doing. Finally, in the second half of the book, the Jewish people were called upon to take the initiative and build a home for G-d.

The sages teach that the commandment to construct a home for G-d includes the idea of constructing a figurative home for G-d within every person. Each of us are called upon to create a home for G-d within ourselves. From this perspective, the detailed descriptions of the temple and its furniture, which comprise almost five portions in the Torah, have an equivalent spiritual meaning within every person.    

The sanctuary was built of three components. The walls were made of beams of wood ten cubits tall, the beams were supported by silver sockets, and the roof was comprised of coverings made of wool and animal skins. Each of us is called upon to build the figurative temple within ourselves. To do so, we need to find the beams, coverings and sockets, within our soul, and dedicate them to the service of G-d.

The Kabbalists explain that the ten cubit beams, which stood vertically, represent the ten faculties, three intellectual and seven emotional, within every human soul.

The foundation of the entire structure were the silver sockets which were the base for the beams. The spiritual equivalent of the sockets, the foundation of the souls structure, is the capacity to be committed and devoted to someone or something.     

The curtains that served as the roof of the tabernacle, covering the entire structure, represent a person’s will and capacity of pleasure, referred to by the Kabbalists as the “encompassing powers of the soul”.

[The curtains which covered the entire structure of the sanctuary represent the powers of will and pleasure which effect and inspire all of the faculties. When a person desires something the specific soul power will be awakened and invigorated. When a person has no desire to study and master a specific topic it will be difficult for him to understand. The sages teach us that “a person should always study where his heart desires”, because when the will power is invested in understanding the subject the mind will comprehend, because the encompassing will power will trigger and awaken the specific power of understanding].

Understanding that the temple is a symbol for the human soul, explains the commandments that the Jewish people donate the materials necessary to construct the sanctuary. In this week’s Parsha the Torah tells us that each individual donated both to the construction of the walls and to the covering of the sanctuary in the amount they chose according to their heart’s desire:

"The Lord spoke to Moses saying:"Speak to the children of Israel, and have them take for Me an offering; from every person whose heart inspires him to generosity, you shall take My offering. (Exodus 25:1-2).

Yet, there was another form of donations, specifically designated for the silver sockets which were the base of the structure, where everybody was required to donate an equal amount:

This they shall give, everyone who goes through the counting: half a shekel… The rich shall give no more, and the poor shall give no less than half a shekel (ibid 30:13-15).

There were two forms of donations, one with an equal, set amount for each person to donate, and another which was open ended, each person donated according to their heart’s desire. This is because there are aspects where all are equal and other aspects where each person is unique, and has a distinctive contribution to make. When it comes to the specific faculties of the soul; intelligence, emotion, wisdom, kindness, will power, each of us is unique. Thus the contribution to create the structure is individualized. Yet the foundation of the structure, the foundation of the relationship with G-d, the power of devotion and commitment is the same for everyone. For we all are equal in our capacity to devote ourselves to G-d, yet the nature of our devotion and relationship is based on our own specific personality, and is therefore unique to each  individual.

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

 

 

Four Guardians - משפטים

c.jpgFour Guardians

Immediately after the great revelation at Sinai, the Torah proceeds to teach the civil law that governs the interactions between people in day to day life.

One of the topics discussed in this week’s portion is the law of the guardian who  agreed to watch his fellow’s item. The Torah introduces four categories of guardians, each with its own level of liability, in cases when the guardian is unable to return the item which was left in his possession for safekeeping. The degree of liability pertaining to each of the guardians is determined by the division of benefit derived by the owner of the object and the guardian.

The first category is the “unpaid guardian”, who agrees to guard the object without receiving payment. Since the unpaid guardian receives no benefit from watching the item, he is therefore not liable if the object was lost or stolen (unless the guardian was negligent). The next two categories of guardians are the “paid guardian” and the “renter”. Both receive some benefit for guarding the object (payment for guarding the object, or in the case of the renter, the right to use the object) and therefore they have some liability. They are obligated to pay in a case where the object was lost or stolen, yet they are not obligated to pay if the object was destroyed by an event which was completely out of their control. The forth guardian is the “borrower”, who receives all the benefit, as he uses the object without paying for the usage, his liability is therefore the greatest. The borrower is liable to pay even if the object was destroyed by an event outside the borrower’s control.

The monetary laws of the Torah are more than just utilitarian laws which allow for a functioning society. Just like all other parts of the Torah, the monetary laws contain deep psychological and spiritual truths. Thus, the laws of the four guardians, also represent four states of mind in our relationship of G-d,  our soul and the purpose of creation.

A healthy relationship is one in which both parties benefit from the relationship. Yet, a relationship is more than a “win-win” arrangement, where each party is involved in order to receive that which they consider beneficial. While the parties may have entered the relationship for personal gain, in order for the relationship to be more than a transactional business-like arrangement, it must develop from the original cost benefit analysis and mature to include commitment and selfless devotion to the partner in the relationship.

The Torah tells us that G-d created Adam and “placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to guard it” (Genesis 2:15). G-d entrusts us with a spiritual soul and places us on this earth with a mission to “work it and guard it”, to preserve and to increase the goodness on this earth. We, the guardians, receive benefit from our work on behalf of G-d, for G-d blesses us and provides us with our material and spiritual needs. Yet, just like in human relationships, there are different levels in the relationship with G-d. On one end of the spectrum is a person who is primarily interested in receiving the “benefits” life has to offer. On the other end of the spectrum is the person who is an “unpaid guardian”. He is in love with G-d to the point of being completely altruistic, his motivation is to serve G-d, and do the right thing for its own sake.

In a wholesome human relationship, we can and should benefit from our relationship  yet we must also experience selfless devotion to our partner. The same is true in our relationship with G-d. At times we will be a “borrower”, motivated primarily by our own needs and desires. But we should always seek those moments when we transcend our own ego and act as an “unpaid guardian”, motivated primarily with the desire to devote ourselves to our beloved.  

 

Seeing the Sounds - יתרו

S.jpgSeeing the Sounds

As the Jewish people gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai they heard the voice of G-d speaking the Ten Commandments. The Torah describes the awesome experience:  

And all the people saw the voices and the torches, the sound of the shofar, and the smoking mountain, and the people saw and trembled; so they stood from afar.

What is the meaning of the words “and all the people saw the voices”? How can voices be seen? The Midrash tells us that there is a disagreement regarding this verse. Rabbi Yishmael believes that the Jews did not see anything unusual. They saw the torches and heard the voices (The word “saw” in the verse refers to the the word “torches”). Rabbi Akiva, however, insists that the verse must be read literally: “the people saw the voices”, they actually saw the voices. In the words of Rabbi Akiva: “they saw that which is usually heard, and they heard that which is usually seen”.

According to Rabbi Akiva, the experience at Sinai was much more than just receiving ten moral instructions for life; Sinai was a spiritual revelation which changed the way the Jews perceived the meaning of existence. In general the world can be divided into that which is “seen” and that which is “heard”. The concrete, physical needs, desires and experiences are “seen”, they are experienced as the ultimate reality. While that which is “abstract”, theoretical and spiritual, is “heard”. The intangible spirit is not something we can see with our naked eye. To experience it we need to “hear” and “listen”. We must use our mind to discover truths that are not obvious to the observer.    

According to Rabbi Akiva, at Sinai they “heard that which is usually seen”, the physical matter, which is usually perceived as absolute reality, as the most important thing in life, became an abstract idea, while spirituality, “that which is usually heard”, was “seen”, it became real and obvious.  

The experience of Sinai was not merely a one time event. Everytime we study Torah, we are recreating the revelation of Sinai. We are not only hearing the words of G-d being spoken directly to us, but studying the words of Torah also enhances our perception as to what is meaningful and worthy of pursuit. When we study Torah, our priorities are realigned, The sublime ideas in life; meaning, holiness,  transcendence, become real and tangible. For each time we study Torah we are standing at Sinai, and “seeing the sounds”.

(Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Yisro, vol. 6 Sicha 2.)

 

 

In the Midst of the Sea - בשלח

Sea.jpgIn the Midst of the Sea

The splitting of the sea is one of the great miracles in the Bible. When the Talmud describes something that is unnatural, and “difficult” for G-d to achieve, the Talmud uses the phrase “it is as difficult as the splitting of the sea”.

If we want to understand the concept of a miracle, what it is, how and why it happens, we must first think about nature.

As human beings began contemplating the incredible universe they began to seek explanations and look for patterns to explain the natural phenomenon they observed. Collectively we label the explanations as “nature”. Why does light travel at the speed of 186,282 miles per second? Well, that's because that is its nature. Why do cells in the human body act the way they do? Why does the human DNA replicate the way it does? Well, that is its nature. Why does gravity operate in the precise way that it does? Again, that’s nature.

If we think about it, we will notice that much of what we call nature is a description not an explanation. We have made incredible strides in understanding the way the universe operates, in observing, and predicting some of its amazing patterns. Yet, understanding how the natural forces operate is not necessarily the same as understanding why it works precisely this way and not slightly, or vastly, differently.   

This idea is alluded to in the Hebrew word for nature, which is “Teva”. The etymology of “Teva” is the word “Tuvuh” which means “drowned”. Nature is just as mysterious as a miracle, but because nature is constant, its mystery is “drowned” and concealed. And it appears to be unremarkable. The truth, however, is that the rising sun is as miraculous as the splitting of the sea. The only difference is that the rising sun is a continuous miracle while the splitting of the sea was a one time event.

When a miracle occurs we are reminded that there is a creator who is involved in creation and who has the power to change the usual patterns of the universe, and to give room for the unexpected. But the purpose of the miracle is to help us discover the miracle of nature. When we witness the awesome power of G-d at the splitting of the sea we are reminded that, indeed, all of creation is an expression of the greatness of G-d.   

In the Torah’s description of the splitting of the sea we read:

Then the children of Israel came into the midst of the sea on dry land, and the waters were to them as a wall from their right and from their left. (Exodus 14:22)

Israel “came into the midst of the sea on dry land”. Yet just a few verses later the Torah reiterates the miracle, this time it changes the order of “Sea” and “dry land”:

But the children of Israel went on dry land in the midst of the sea, and the water was to them like a wall from their right and from their left. (Ibid. 14:29)

So which one is it? Did we enter “the sea on dry land” or was it “dry land in the midst of the sea”? The Chassidic masters explain: at first the Jewish people entered the sea and experienced the great miracle of “dry land”. Once they experienced the miracle they reached a deeper understanding that even when they are on “dry land”, where there is nothing unnatural to their existence, they are indeed “within the sea” surrounded by G-d’s “constant miracles”, providence, and loving care.

The Great Escape - בא

The Great Escape

Let’s be honest about it, the Jewish people were not completely transparent and honest with Pharaoh. While they intended to leave Egypt forever and return to their homeland of Canaan, that is not what they told Pharaoh. In all Moses’s talks with Pharaoh never once did he mention that the Jewish people demanded to be free from their slavery and liberated from Egyptian bondage. According to what Moses told Pharaoh, all the Jewish people wanted was a three day break so that they could serve their G-d in the desert:  

Moses and Aaron came and said to Pharaoh, "So said the Lord God of Israel, 'Send out My people, and let them sacrifice to Me in the desert.'"

And Pharaoh said, "Who is the Lord that I should heed His voice to let Israel out? I do not know the Lord, neither will I let Israel out."

And they said, "The God of the Hebrews has happened upon us. Now let us go on a three day journey in the desert and sacrifice to the Lord our God, lest He strike us with a plague or with the sword." (Exodus 5:1-3)

Granted, Moses did not say an explicit lie. He never said that the people would return to Egypt after the three day journey and festival to G-d. But why was he not  open and demand that it is the right of the Jewish people to be free for good? By the time the tenth plague came around Pharaoh’s resistance was completely broken. Being a first born himself, Pharaoh was frightened that he too would die in the plague of the first born, if, at that point, Moses would have asked that the Jewish people be completely freed, never to return to Egypt again, Pharaoh would have had no choice but to agree. Why then did the Jewish people  claim that they were only leaving for three days when in fact they intended to escape for good?

The Jewish people did not ask Pharaoh to free them, because, by definition, an oppressor can never free the oppressed. The oppressed must take the freedom for himself. If the slaves leave Egypt only because the Pharaoh allowed them to do so, then they are still subject to Pharaoh’s rule. The only change is that at first Pharaoh commanded them to be enslaved and noe Pharaoh commands them to leave. To be free, the oppressed must defy the oppressor. He must escape the oppression against the will of the oppressor.

The Exodus from Egypt is also a story of inner liberation. Before we can break free from Egypt we must break free from our internal constraints and limitations which hold us captive and prevent us from escaping the grip of our negative behavioral patterns.  

The Jewish people were not escaping from Pharaoh, mighty king of  Egypt. They were actually escaping from the negativity, from the constraints, within themselves. They were not fleeing from an  external Pharaoh but rather from the Pharaoh that was within themselves.

What does it mean to be internally free?

Some assume that in order to be free one must be liberated from negativity, tension, and struggle. They assume that to be emancipated is to live a life of internal tranquility, free of negative impulses. Thus, when they experience the pull of negativity they conclude that they are trapped by its seductive force, believing they have no choice but to succumb to their negative habits and desires. They long for liberation, but don't see a way to achieve it.

The story of the Exodus teaches us the road to true freedom. Freedom doesn't mean that there is no Pharaoh. Nor does freedom  mean that Pharaoh decides to release you. We cannot achieve freedom by waiting for the oppressor to leave us alone. We must take our own freedom by defying our oppressor and escaping. Freedom doesn't mean the cessation of temptation and negativity. Freedom is the ability to escape. Freedom is the recognition that despite the great force of Pharaoh, we can pick up and leave. That despite the raging temptation, we are free to “run away” and  take the right action despite internal struggle and hesitation.

When the Jewish people were commanded to offer the Passover sacrifice, celebrating the imminent liberation, while still in Egypt, the Torah provides precise instructions as to how the offering should be eaten:

And this is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste it is a Passover sacrifice to the Lord. (ibid 12:11)

We cannot wait until we desire to follow the right path with all our heart. We must be ready with our walking stick in hand, and we must proceed in haste. We must be prepared to escape the parts of ourselves that hold us back and take a step that will begin the journey to freedom. A journey that will ultimately lead to complete redemption, when there will be no need to escape the negativity inside of us in haste, for the negativity will be completely transformed to good. As the prophet Isaiah foretells of  a future when “not with haste shall you go forth and not in a flurry of flight shall you go”. (Isaiah 52:12).

(Adapted from Tanya Chapter 31)

Who Created These? - וארא

s.jpgWho Created These?

When you look at a beautiful painting, do you only see the art or does the art lead you to think about the artist? When you see a beautifully prepared feast, do you see the food exclusively or does the aroma and taste lead you to think about the chef?   

When you look at a sunset, at ocean waves crashing onto the shore or at a brilliant night sky, what do you see? Some see mother nature in all her glory: the predictable, unchanging patterns of the natural order. Seeing the beauty and mystery of the universe intrigues one to study the earth’s secrets, to discover the laws by which it operates, and to harness its awesome strength.

Others see more than a natural world.

The prophet Isaiah tells us: “Lift up your eyes on high and see, who created these”. (Isaiah 40:26). Pondering the magnificent and awesome universe, says Isaiah, will lead us to ask the question: “who created these”. By asking “who created these” the creation itself leads us to the know and to experience the creator.

Egypt, or Mitzrayim in Hebrew, was the most advanced society of the ancient world, their understanding of science was unparalleled in that era. They were the experts in harnessing the power of nature to their advantage. But they were in spiritual constraint. They studied the universe, they worshiped nature, but did not ask the most important question: “who created these?”. This is the question that is the path to discovery of meaning, morals and ethics, for the “who created these?” leads to asking “why did He create?”. “What does the creator expect of us?”.

The Kabbalists explain that Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt, is comprised of the words “Meitzar Yam”. “Meitzar”- means constraints, and the letters “Yud” and “Mem” create the word “Mi”  which means, “who”. In other words, Egypt, Mitzrayim, is a culture where constraints are able to ask the question “who?” The Egyptian culture encouraged asking all sorts of questions about the universe, except for the question that would  lead to freedom from the constraints of the material world, the question that would lead toward the liberating connection with the creator. Egypt, Mitzraim, constrains the “who?”, it distracts  from Isaiah's plea “Lift up your eyes on high and see, who created these”.

Being in Egypt means to look at nature and see a set of laws that rule supreme. Trapping man in its grip, enslaving him to his natural habits, temptations and shortcomings.The Torah tells us that we must remember the exodus from  Egypt all the days of our life, for each and every day we are called upon to break free of our limitations, of the constraints that hold us back from being the person we want to be and from living the life we are capable of living. We are liberated from Egypt when looking at nature brings us to the recognize the creator who gifts us of his infinity, allowing us to break free of the confines of the natural and predictable order, and to create change in our own society and in our personal life.

Thus, twice a day we cover our eyes and say the most important Jewish prayer: “Hear O  Israel, Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One”. The word “hear”, “Shema”, is an acronym for the words, “Siuh Marom Einichem” “lift up your eyes on high”. Saying the Shema allows us to look at nature and experience the creator of the universe. Saying the Shema, lifting our eyes heavenward, empowers us to transcend the confines of the limited reality by connecting to His transcendent existence.

(Adapted from Shabos hagadol 5679)

 

 

In the Face of Suffering - שמות

Bbush.jpegIn the Face of Suffering

At the burning bush G-d called upon Moses to accept the incredible task of leading the Jewish people, from slavery to liberation. Moses hesitated to accept the task, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” he said to G-d. G-d replied: “For I will be with you”, Moses, would not go alone. G-d would be with him every step of the way.  

Moses understood that before he could seek to influence Pharaoh to let the Jewish people go, he first had to influence the Jewish people. He had to impress upon them that G-d, the G-d of their fathers, was about to take them out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. Moses sensed that Influencing the Jews, inspiring them to believe in the imminent redemption, would not be easy.  

And Moses said to God, "Behold I come to the children of Israel, and I say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they say to me, 'What is His name?' what shall I say to them?" (Exodus 3:13)

Moses understood that the first question the Jewish people would ask immediately upon hearing that the G-d of their fathers was about to redeem them, was what is His name? The various names of G-d represent the various ways G-d expresses Himself; kindness, judgement, compassion, etc. Moses, understood that the Jews would immediately ask “what is His name?”. How did G-d behave in a way that  caused the Jewish people to suffer so terribly for so many decades? What is His name? What is the “name”, the attribute, the justification, for G-d to be silent in the face of such terrible human suffering? Moses understood that before the Jews could accept G-d’s promise for redemption, they must first understand how and why G-d allowed this suffering.

God said to Moses, "Ehyeh asher ehyeh (I will be what I will be)," and He said, "So shall you say to the children of Israel, 'Ehyeh (I will be) has sent me to you.'"

What is the meaning of the name “I will be what I will be”? And how does this name address Moses’s question of what name would allow for so much Jewish suffering?

Rashi explains:

“Ehyeh asher ehyeh (I will be what I will be)”: “I will be” with them in this predicament “what I will be” I will be with them in their subjugation by other kingdoms.

According to Rashi, G-d told Moses that the question of how G-d allows so much suffering, is indeed the most powerful question that can be asked. Yet, to be a Moses, to bring a message of hope to the people, to lead them to physical and spiritual liberation, one does not need to know the answer to the question. Moses must convey to the Jewish people, not an explanation for the suffering, but rather a far more powerful insight: that G-d is with us in our suffering. That he has not abandoned us. That he is present with us even when his presence is hidden.

Indeed, the Jewish people have survived so much pain and suffering not because they had a philosophical explanation to how G-d allows so much suffering. We have survived because we knew, because we sensed, that we are not alone. G-d is always with us.

Each of us is a Moses. We will each experience a time in life when we are called upon to offer comfort and encouragement to someone who is suffering. Perhaps the lesson from G-d’s words to Moses is that when when a child, a spouse, a stranger or friend is suffering, we should not  seek to rationalize, explain, justify, philosophize or blame. The most important thing we can do is, just like G-d Himself, to be present. To help the person in pain feel that he or she is not alone. To help them appreciate that G-d is with them. And, that, we too, seek to emulate G-d, and do the best we can to be present with them.

 

The Book of Creation - ויחי

book.jpegThe Book of Creation

We are about to conclude the reading of the book of Genesis, the first book of the five books of Moses. We have traveled through the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah and the flood, the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, Joseph and his brothers, and we finally read of how the family of Jacob settles in Egypt. Jacob passes away and Joseph reaffirms his commitment to forgive and sustain his brothers. We have arrived at the climax, we are waiting for a verse that will capture the heart of all we have learned from our patriarchs and matriarchs.

Yet the book concludes with a somber tone:

And Joseph died at the age of one hundred ten years, and they embalmed him and he was placed into the coffin in Egypt.

Why end the book with this mournful verse? By simply switching the order of the last two verses in the book, the Torah could have concluded the book with a powerful message of hope:

And Joseph adjured the children of Israel, saying, "God will surely remember you, and you shall take up my bones out of here."

What better way to end the book of Genesis that the promise of redemption that would sustain the faith and hope of the Jewish people through the bitter slavery? Why then, does the Torah choose to conclude the book with Joseph's death in Egypt?

To understand the conclusion of the book we must first examine what is the theme of the first book of the Torah, what message is the entire book conveying, what is the overarching theme of the book?

In one word, the book of Genesis is about creation.

The book of Genesis is the story of creation. It begins with the G-d creating a physical world to be a home for the human being, and then, continues with the stories of human beings striving to reciprocate by sanctifying the world and creating a home for G-d. Genesis tells the story of a family who understands that the heaven and earth and all therein were created for the purpose of being sanctified, that the world in all its diversity yearns to be connected with the Divine oneness its source.

Story leads to story until we reach the climax of the book’s message. In its final verses Genesis tells of the creation of a spiritual haven, of a home to holiness, not in Israel but in Egypt. Not only during Joseph's lifetime, when he ruled the land, but also after his death.

Even in Egypt, at the time considered the most morally debased location on earth, the Jew has the power to be like Joseph, to rule over Egypt, to resist its temptations and eventually transform its environment.

Thus the Torah concludes with the passing of Joseph and his placement in a coffin in Egypt, teaching us, that even while being away from the land of Israel, Joseph’s bones, his essence, power and inspiration is with us.

This is the core message of the book: from the description of the magnificent creation, to the story of Joseph ruling the mighty Egypt, all of the book of Genesis carries the same message: no land too dark, no culture too distant,, no circumstance too foreign, for the holiness. By their example, the Patriarchs and Matriarchs demonstrate to the future Jewish people that they too can create holiness within the mundane, imbuing the material with meaning and spirituality. 

 

Jacob's Distress - ויגש

p.jpgJacob's Distress

After twenty two years of mourning the loss of his beloved son, Jacob received the news that Joseph was alive and well, and was the ruler of Egypt. Jacob wasted no time and together with his family, he began the journey to Egypt. Jacob was filled with conflicting emotions. On one hand he was about to spend the best years of life, in peace and tranquility, reunited with his beloved son, Joseph. On the other hand, the journey to Egypt was the beginning of what, decades later, would become the terrible enslavement of the Jews in Egypt.

The Torah relates:

And God said to Israel in visions of the night, and He said, "Jacob, Jacob!" And he said, "Here I am."

And He said, "I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid of going down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation.

Rashi explains that G-d’s reassuring words to Jacob were in response to Jacob’s concern about traveling to Egypt:

Do not be afraid of going down to Egypt: [God encouraged him] because he was distressed at being compelled to leave the Holy Land.

A careful read of Rashi reveals a discrepancy in the emotion described; while the Torah describes the emotion as fear (“do not be afraid to go down to Egypt”) Rashi describes the feeling as one of distress (“he was distressed”). According to Rashi, then, Jacob was feeling distress and G-d told him  not to fear. Yet G-d did not tell Jacob not to be distressed.

Rashi teaches a powerful lesson on how Jacob was to approach the onset of the exile, as well as how we should approach our own exile; we must not fear the exile and it’s difficulties, we must, however, be distressed about it. We must never make peace with the exile and it’s spiritual and physical challenges. We must always remember that the exile and it’s challenges are not our natural state of being.. In fact, these two components, not fearing the exile and experiencing distress from exile, are interdependent: the only way we can immunize ourselves against the negative effect of exile and its challenges (“do not fear”), is if we understand that our true identity is at home only in our own homeland.

The same is true when we experience a figurative “exile”, when we feel trapped by internal or external challenge, when we are frightened by our current state of being and wish we could improve ourselves. We must remember that the challenge and difficulty are but temporary.  The negativity we are experiencing does not define us. The most important tool of spiritual survival is to remember that we will overcome and return to our true selves, to our soul, to our homeland.

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos vol. 30 Vayigash 3)

 

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