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Blog - Torah Insights

Serpent, Symbol of Life? - חוקת

Serpent, Symbol of Life?  

The Jews complained, yet again, against G-d and Moses. G-d sent serpents who bit the Jewish people. When Moses prayed, G-d instructed Moses on a means to heal the Jews who were affected: 

The Lord said to Moses, "Make yourself a serpent and put it on a pole, and let whoever is bitten look at it and live.

Moses made a copper snake and put it on a pole, and whenever a snake bit a man, he would gaze upon the copper snake and live. (Numbers 21:8-9)

What was the purpose and function of the copper serpent? Did this not suggest that the serpent had mystical healing powers? Did this not seem idolatrous? 

Rashi, quoting the sages of the Mishnah, explains that indeed the serpent itself was not the source of the healing. The serpent placed on the pole caused the people to look heavenward and that would focus their attention upon G-d, the source of healing:  

Our Rabbis said, Does a snake cause death or life? However, when Israel looked heavenward and subjected their hearts to their Father in heaven, they would be healed, but if not, they would waste away.

According to the rabbis, the healing was a result of looking toward heaven. The question, however, still remains: why, of all things, should Moses raise a copper serpent? Why not have Moses raise his hands heavenward (as he did in the battle with Amalek)?

The serpent represents any challenge in our life that distracts or prevents us from living a wholesome, meaningful and joyous life. The serpent's bite represents the debilitating challenges which stand in our way. G-d told Moses that the way to overcome challenge, the way to heal pain, is to raise the serpent itself on a poll. To look at the serpent, at the challenge, as it exists in its heavenly source. For in its source the purpose of the challenge is not to obstruct, but rather the objective is to offer an opportunity for growth, an opening to conquer new frontiers and experience a deeper part of the self. The Hebrew word for pole, (Nes), is also the root of the word test (Nisayon). What appears as an insurmountable challenge is, in truth, a means to be elevated to a higher state of consciousness. 

Each of us, explains the Zohar, has a spark of Moses within ourselves. We too are able to elevate the serpent. We too can “put it on a pole”. When we come face to face with the serpent, we can ask ourselves: how can this encounter make me a better person? We can “gaze upon the copper snake and live”, viewing it from the perspective of its heavenly source. When we do so, we allow the challenging experience to be transformed into a source of life, passion and vitality. 

Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, 13 Tamuz 5729. 

 

Moses and the Mezuzah - קורח

Moses and the Mezuzah 

Korach set out to spark a rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. He gathered his followers and presented the following question to Moses: If there are Torah scrolls inside a home, does the home require a Mezuzah (which contains merely two paragraphs from the Torah) on the door? Korach was sure that Moses would respond that the home is exempt from the obligation of Mezuzah since the home possesses the far greater holiness of the entire Torah. Korach planned to argue that the people of Israel, like the home which contains the Torah scroll, are holy and therefore they don’t need Moses and Aaron to lead and be the figurative Mezuzah. 

The Midrash describes how Moses’ answer surprised Korach, and how Korach proceeded to mock Moses: 

Korach asked Moses, “If a house is full of Torah scrolls, what is the law? Should it be exempt from the obligation of having a mezuzah?” Moses replied, “It is still under the obligation of having a mezuzah.” Korach retorted, “The entire Torah cannot exempt a house, but the two sections [of the Torah] in a mezuzah can?”  

It turns out that Korach had a philosophical disagreement with Moses. Korach felt that if the home was full of books the inhabitant was holy, while Moses believed that the key to holiness was the Mezuzah on the door. 

Our home is our personal space, we create walls to insulate us from the outside environment, to protect us from the elements, as well as from the influence of the masses. A home is a place where we can live as we please and create an environment based on the ideals and values that we choose. Korach said if your inner home possesses the sacred scrolls then you are holy. That is all you need. 

Moses taught that having a Torah scroll in the home is not sufficient. 

The Mezuzah is placed “on the posts of your home and on your gates”. The Mezuzah is placed at the contact point between the personal home and the outside world. When a Jew sees the Mezuzah he is reminded that not only is his home, his personal environment, sacred, but rather the Mezuzah calls for him to carry the message of the Mezuzah - the Shma Yisrael, the holiness and unity of G-d, which is written in the mezuzah - with him as he leaves the gates of his home and sets out to engage the outside world.

Korach opposed the Mezuzah because he sensed that the Mezuzah captures the essence of the teachings of Moses: the teachings of the Torah are not abstract ideas delegated to books, but rather they are the very purpose of creation.The goal of Judaism is to spread the ideas of the Torah from the mind to the heart and then to action, from the home to the outside world, until the entirety of the earth will be filled with the awareness of G-d, filling the earth with peace and harmony. 

(Adapted from the Rebbe’s teachings, 26 Sivan 5723)

***

The Rebbe spoke these words to the 1963 graduating class of the Beis Rivkah girls school in Brooklyn, NY. The Rebbe encouraged the young women to personify the message of the Mezuzah; to spread the teachings and inspiration they received from studying Torah and carry it as they walk through the gates of their personal life and into the tumultuous world.

As we commemorate the Rebbe's twenty fifth Yahrtzeit tonight, may we merit to carry the Rebbe’s legacy, embodying  the Mezuzah, and transforming the earth into a place of goodness and kindness. 

 

Battling Self Doubt - שלח

Battling Self Doubt 

Do you ever wish you would have more faith in yourself? Do you ever wish that you would be confident in achieving your goals? Do you ever tell yourself that if only you believed in your ability you would be able to reach greater heights? 

When a person believes he can achieve a goal, commit to a challenge, or sell a product, it seems that the true believer will succeed simply because of the confidence he has in his own success. This benefit of belief, it seems, cannot be achieved by the skeptic. Because merely imitating the actions of the believer will not suffice, because, often, a critical factor to success, is the belief that success is possible.

When the Biblical spies returned from scouting the land of Canaan (Israel), they proceeded to persuade the Jews that conquering the land of Canaan would be impossible. The inhabitants were too powerful and the cities too fortified. The spies employed many subtle but effective tactics in their persuasion of the people. Perhaps one of the more powerful points they argued was that the people would not be able to conquer the land because, by dispatching spies in the first place to assess the strength of the inhabitants and evaluate a plan on their own, the people demonstrated a lack of faith in G-d’s promise that they would take the land. The lack of faith, argued the spies, would undermine the motivation, morale, and ability to achieve their goal.

Caleb, one of the two spies who remained loyal to the land of Israel, pushed back forcefully. The Torah tells us:  

Caleb silenced the people to [hear about] Moses, and he said, "We can surely go up and take possession of it, for we can indeed overcome it." (13:30)

Rashi offers the back story. Caleb acted as if he was about to speak against Moses. The people, who by that point were disillusioned of their hope of following Moses into Israel, were eager to hear what they thought would be Caleb’s disparaging words against Moses:

He (Caleb) cried out, “Is this the only thing the son of Amram has done to us?” Anyone listening might have thought that he intended to disparage him, and since there was [resentment] in their hearts against Moses because of the spies’ report, they all became silent so they could hear his defamation. But he said, “Didn’t he split the sea for us, bring down the manna for us and cause the quails to fly down to us?” 

Caleb was strategic about the examples of the miracles he employed. Caleb left out the most obvious examples, the exodus from Egypt and the ten plagues, because Caleb was specifically addressing the fears that the spies planted in the hearts of the Jews. We will focus on Caleb’s last example: “cause the quails to fly down to us”. The quail came to the Jewish camp in response to the complaints against the manna. The people were tired of the manna and wanted meat. They complained and bemoaned “who will give us meat?” By evoking the story of the quail Caleb demonstrated that G-d would help even if their trust was not complete.

*******

Just as the Jewish people were tasked with entering the land of Israel and transforming it to a holy land, each of us is tasked with the transformation of our surroundings and environment into a “holy land”, a place hospitable to G-dliness. We often despair and doubt our own ability to stay focused, upbeat and achieve our purpose. We question ourselves: are we able to battle distraction, despair, cynicism, apathy, and create an environment of holiness, joy and harmony? We sometimes doubt ourselves, and then use the self doubt as proof that we cannot succeed. 

The lesson Caleb teaches us, explains the Rebbe, is that we will succeed in facing our challenges and fulfilling our purpose. Even if we are unsure, even if we experience self doubt, G-d will help us succeed. Because G-d believes in us. 

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos vol. 8 Shlach 1)    

 

Raise the Flame - בהעלותך

Raise the Flame

Nearly a year after they arrived at Mount Sinai the Jewish people began their journey toward the promised land. Before our portion describes the tumultuous journey, which, ultimately, lasted forty years, the Torah reiterates the commandment to light the Menorah:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say to him: "When you light the lamps, the seven lamps shall cast their light toward the face of the Menorah." (Numbers 8:1-2)

The Menorah is a symbol of the mission statement of the Jewish people. Our task is to illuminate ourselves and the world around us with the warmth, enlightenment and inspiration of the Torah. As we depart from Sinai to implement the teachings of the Torah, we are reminded that each of us is heir to the legacy of Aaron, who would kindle the lights of the Menorah, symbolizing Aaron’s effort to inspire and illuminate each and every soul.

The word the Torah uses to describe the lighting of the Menorah, (“Behaalotcha”), means to lift up, which is an unusual word to describe kindling a flame. Rashi offers two explanations on why the word “lift up” is used in the context of kindling the flame:

He is required to kindle the lamp until the flame rises by itself. Our Sages further expounded from here that there was a step in front of the menorah, on which the Kohen stood to prepare [the lamps].

These two explanations apply to the figurative kindling of the flames as well. The first interpretation explains that the word “rise up” is used because the flame rises up independently and no longer needs the influence of the candle that ignited it. This teaches us that when we seek to inspire others, be it a child, a student or a friend, it is not enough to bring our flame close to theirs and allow them to be affected by our excitement and passion. To “lift up” the flame is to “kindle the lamp until the flame rises by itself” by sharing the fire until the recipient of the inspiration no longer needs the teacher in order to receive inspiration. For the child is inspired and passionate on her own, even without the continued presence of the teacher.

The second interpretation explains that the words “when you rise up” refers not to the flame but to Aaron who kindles the flame, because Aaron would rise up on a step in order to light the Menorah. This interpretation too contains a lesson for each of us. The Torah is telling is that the surest path to elevate oneself is to seek to inspire others. While the natural tendency of someone who seeks to grow spiritually may be to seclude himself and focus inward, the Torah teaches us that by preparing to ignite someone else’s flame, you too will rise up, you too will be inspired.   

This double message - that we must seek to inspire others until they shine on their own, and that the surest way to grow ourselves is by inspiring others - is at the heart of what the Rebbe constantly taught us, and is the message the Rebbe imparted to Rabbi and Rebbetzin Yisrael and Vivi Deren before they got married and set out to establish Chabad in our region.

In the words of Rabbi Deren (Derher magazine, Tamuz 5778):

Before our wedding, we went into yechidus (a private audience), and the Rebbe told us something very powerful, which continues to guide us until today. The Rebbe said, “Ir vet machen lichtig un varem ba andere, un der Aibershter vet machen lichtig un varem ba eich — you shall bring light and warmth to others, and G-d will bring light and warmth to you.” That blessing and assurance is what keeps us going until today.

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Behaalotcha 5748 and 5749)

 

Transporting the Temple - נשא

Transporting the Temple

After describing the order in which the twelve tribes of Israel traveled through the desert, the Torah tells of the census of the tribe of Levi, the tribe tasked with transporting and building the tabernacle (the temple) which was in the center of the Jewish camp.

Like everything in the Torah, the details of the story of the Levites are relevant to our lives just as they were relevant to our ancestors in the desert. For we too are tasked with the mission of the Levites, to erect a home for G-d, in the figurative, spiritual desert, the world we live in. In order to create the temple we rely on the spiritual part of ourselves, on the Levites within our soul.     

The tribe of Levi was divided into three families.

The families of Gershon and Merori were tasked with transporting the curtains that covered the temple and the wooden planks of the temple walls. As the Torah tells us:

This is the service of the Gershonite families to serve and to carry.

They shall carry the curtains of the Mishkan and the Tent of Meeting, its covering and the Tachash skin covering overlaid upon it, and the screen for the entrance to the Tent of Meeting….

[As for] the sons of Merari...

This is the charge of their burden for all their service in the Tent of Meeting: the planks of the Mishkan, its bars, its pillars, and its sockets (4:24-31)

To create a temple in our lives, to build a haven of spirituality in the midst of a spiritual desert, we too employ the skills of the Levite families. To create holy space in our life, we too, like the families of Gershon and Merari, must create walls and a roof in order to take control of our environment. We must cultivate the capacity to say no, to reject, negative influences, temptations and distractions.

Yet saying no, rejecting the distractions and negativity is not enough. The third family of Levites, the family of Kehot, was tasked with transporting the vessels of the temple, the ark, menorah, table and alters.

Aaron and his sons shall finish covering the Holy and all the vessels of the Holy when the camp is set to travel, and following that, the sons of Kohath shall come to carry [them], but they shall not touch the sacred objects for [then] they will die. These are the burden of the sons of Kohath for the Tent of Meeting. (4:15)

Like the family of Kehot, we too must fill our space with the holy vessels, with holy positive experiences.  

The spiritual mission of each of the Levite families are alluded to in their names. Gershon is derived from the word Garesh, which means to chase away, to divorce. Merori comes from the word Mar, which means bitter. They represented the difficult task of learning to say no to That which seeks to pull us away from our commitment to holiness. Kehot, on the other hand, is derived from the biblical word Yikhat which means to gather. Kehot teaches us to cultivate positive experiences; to collect all of our daily experiences and gather them in to our temple, to use them as furniture for the home of G-d, to use  them as a conduit to fulfill the purpose of our creation.

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 13 Naso 1).

 

Balancing Competing Values - במדבר

Balancing Competing Values

After detailing the census of the Jewish people in the desert, the fourth book of the Torah, the book of Numbers, describes how the Jewish people traveled and camped in the desert. The tabernacle and the Levites were in the center of the camp surrounded by four camps each consisting of three tribes. The Torah describes the makeup of each of the four camps, describing the tribe that was the leader of each camp and the other two tribes that were members of each camp.

Reading all this detail leaves the reader puzzled. The Torah’s messages, stories and teachings are eternal; why do we need to know precisely how the tribes organized in the desert? What relevance does this have to our lives today?   

Each of us have multiple aspirations and goals in our lives. We want to succeed in multiple realms simultaneously; we work to advance our career, our relationships, our health and fitness and our values. It often seems that we struggle to keep a healthy balance between all of our, sometimes, conflicting aspirations. The story of the tribes organizing and traveling in the desert, is the story of our life. We too should organize and prioritize our values in our figurative journey through the often complicated dessert en route to the promised land.

The four camps of tribes symbolize the four general pursuits which we value: (1) wisdom (2) character (3) physical strength and health (4) wealth. The order in which the Torah places the four camps tells us that they are all critical, yet we must remember the hierarchy of their importance. The first camp, east of the temple, led by the tribe of Judah embodied wisdom. The second camp, south of the temple, led by Reuben, embodied humility and good character. The third camp, north of the temple, led by the tribe of Ephraim, embodied physical strength. The fourth camp, west of the temple, embodied wealth. (see the Kli Yakar for a detailed analysis of how each tribe embodied its own particular quality).   

Naturally these values will conflict and undermine each other. Too much of one will take away from the focus on the other. Some of these values are more spiritual and abstract and other are more physical and concrete, thus, appreciating the value of one may lead to under emphasizing the other. The lesson is that in order for these values to create a wholesome life they must be organized around the temple, the house of the Torah. Our core, the center of our own personal figurative camp, is the Torah. Wisdom, good character, health and wealth, are all valuable and must be pursued because they are means by which we express the Torah and its teachings. Once these values are not an end purpose unto themselves but rather a means to express a deeper unified value (the Torah), they can coexist peacefully, each enhancing the other, creating harmony and serenity in our life.  

Finding the Hidden Sweetness - בחוקותי

Finding the Hidden Sweetness

At the conclusion of the third book of the Five Books of Moses, the Torah lays out the blessings and the rebuke:

“If you follow My statutes and observe My commandments and perform them, I will give your rains in their time, the Land will yield its produce, and the tree of the field will give forth its fruit.”

The Torah then continues to describe the rebuke, the painful and tragic exile that will occur if we abandon the Torah.

Chassidic philosophy teaches that all negativity and darkness within the world is a shell which covers and conceals the spark of good that lies at the core of every experience and phenomenon. .If this is true about worldly matters, it is certainly true about every verse in the Torah. Thus, the rebuke, which, read literally, describes terrible curses, contains a deeper hidden meaning. Beneath the surface, the curses actually contain hidden blessings, blessings so intense that the only way they can descend upon this earth, unobstructed by the forces of judgement, is under the guise of a curse.

One example for this principle is the following verse:

Each man will stumble over his brother, [fleeing] as if from the sword, but without a pursuer. You will not be able to stand up against your enemies (26:37).

Rashi addresses the words “Each man will stumble over his brother” and explains:

“Each man will stumble because of his brother,” i.e., one person will stumble because of someone else’s sin, because all Jews are guarantors for one another.

Rashi is telling us that in addition to the simple reading - we will stumble on our brother in the physical sense - there is an additional meaning to the curse: we will be responsible and accountable for the sins of each other, because we are guarantors for each other.  

The Hebrew word for “guarantor”,  ערב (Arev), has two additional meanings: “mixed” and “pleasant”. These three seemingly unrelated words, (1) “guarantor” (2) “mixed” and (3) “pleasant”, are, upon deeper analysis, deeply connected. Why is every individual Jew a (1) guarantor responsible for all other Jewish people? Because we are (2) integrated and mixed with each other. Just as all parts of the human body comprise one organism, the wellbeing of one limb affecting all others, so too all Jews are specific parts of one collective soul, each part of the soul integrated with all other parts of the collective soul.  

The exile is horrific, but there is a hidden blessing. While living in Israel we didn't necessarily appreciate how we are interdependent and connected to each other. Yet, under the tragic circumstance of the exile, we realize that (1) we are guarantors for each other (2) Because we are connected to each other. Because we are part of one whole. This recognition is the (3) pleasantness that is the blessing in this verse. The pleasantness of discovering that we are indeed all one. This recognition will ultimately serve as the spiritual healing to the exile, and will allow us to experience the sweetness of the return to our homeland.

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Igros Kodesh vol. 2 p. 346)

 

Three Dimensional Sabbatical - בהר

Three Dimensional Sabbatical

The third book of the Torah, the book of Vayikra, is also called “Torat Kohanim”, “the law of the priests” (hence the name Leviticus, as the priests were from the tribe of Levi).

Indeed, the beginning of the book focuses on the offerings in the temple offered, on behalf of the people of Israel, by the priests. Yet, the purpose of the Torah is to teach us to spread the holiness outward, and sanctify all areas of life. Thus, as the book progresses, the focus of the book shifts. From the laws directed primarily to a specific segment of Jews, the priests, and a specific place, the temple, the book shifts to discuss the holiness as it applies to all the people of Israel, and to all of the land of Israel.   

In this week’s Parsha, the Torah tells us the laws of the Sabbatical year: every seventh year agricultural activity would cease and the land would rest. As G-d told Moses:

Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them: When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land shall rest a Sabbath to the Lord. (Leviticus 25:2)

The Law of the Sabbatical was designed to remind the Jew that holiness can be experienced not only by the priests in the temple, but rather, perhaps more importantly, by the the Jew on his farm. When the Jew celebrated the Sabbatical year he recognized that holiness is not relegated to the theoretical, the abstract, and the spiritual but rather the holiness can affect the land itself. The land itself is sanctified. The material world itself expresses the holiness of G-d.  

After introducing the general concept of the Sabbatical, the Torah elaborates on the three elements which the commandment addresses: (1) the person (2) the land (3) the produce.

At first the Torah tells us the commandment is directed to the person. The person is prohibited from doing any labor on the land: “you shall not sow your field, nor shall you prune your vineyard”. The Torah then continues to tell that the Mitzvah applies to the land: “ it shall be a year of rest for the land. the land shall have a complete rest a Sabbath to the Lord” (25:5). And finally the Torah discusses the produce that grows on its own in the seventh year. The Torah commands that the produce should be available to everyone equally. The owner of the field may enjoy the fruit just as any other worker or resident: “And [the produce of] the Sabbath of the land shall be yours to eat for you, for your male and female slaves, and for your hired worker and resident who live with you” (25:6).

Experiencing the laws of the Sabbatical year helps the Jew internalize that all aspects of his reality are affected by his relationship with G-d. (1) The holiness affects himself(as he may not perform work on the land) (2) the holiness affects his natural environment, (the land must rest). (3) the holiness affects his possessions and wealth (the produce of the land must be available to all).  

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Likkutei Sichos Vayelech, vol. 24 Sicha 1)

 

Show Me the Dough! - אמור

Show Me the Dough!

Judaism’s relationship with bread is complex.

The prohibition against bread on Passover is far more extensive than all other prohibitions. Not only are we not allowed to eat bread, we are also prohibited to own bread. Immediately after Passover, however, bread makes a comeback. The bread that was so terrible yesterday, somehow becomes acceptable today.

There was no leavened bread in the holy temple all year long. All grain offerings were made of dough that was not leavened. The verse states clearly: “No meal offering that you sacrifice to the Lord shall be made out of anything leavened. For you shall not cause to go up in smoke any leavening or any honey, as a fire offering to the Lord.” (Leviticus 2:11) Yet, once a year, after counting forty nine days from the second day of Passover, there was a commandment to offer leavened bread. As the Torah states in this week’s portion:

And you shall count for yourselves, from the morrow of the rest day from the day you bring the omer as a wave offering seven weeks...

From your dwelling places, you shall bring bread, set aside, two loaves made from two tenths of an ephah; they shall be of fine flour, [and] they shall be baked leavened, the first offering to the Lord. (Leviticus 23:15-17)

What is the spiritual nature of bread? Is bread completely prohibited (as it is on Passover, and,  year round in the temple), is it a neutral substance (as it is all year outside the temple), or is it a Mitzvah (as it is in the temple after counting the seven weeks)?

Leavened bread represents the inflated ego. As such, in the beginning of our relationship with G-d, as we seek to establish a connection to the spiritual side of ourselves, we must reject our  pleasure seeking ego. For if we allow our inflated sense of self to dictate how we live our life we will not be able to transcend the self and create a relationship with that which is beyond our self. Thus, on Passover, at the beginning of our spiritual journey, we separate completely from bread.

The purpose of life, and the ultimate goal of Judaism, however, is not to escape the self, but rather the goal is to elevate the self. Therefore, Immediately after Passover, as we count the seven weeks, we work to refine our seven primary character traits, elevating the animalistic side of ourselves. At the conclusion of the seven weeks, the bread, the sense of self, is no longer a distraction from spirituality. On the contrary - the sense of self has been refined to the point that the pleasure seeking self now directs its intense animalistic passion and drive to spirituality, to the love of others and to the love of G-d. At this point the bread, the self, is not only neutral it is a constructive and essential part of our relationship with the spiritual. Thus, after the seven weeks, on the holiday of Shavuot, the bread becomes a Mitzvah.

Our relationship with bread is the model for our interaction with all aspects of the world around us. To ensure that we are using physical objects and experiences, such as the smartphone, food, or any other worldly pleasure, for a good purpose, and that these objects are not controlling us, we must first ensure that we have the ability to separate from them; to turn off the phone, to say no to a given pleasure. Once we establish that we are in control, we can introduce the material object into our life and use it in a healthy way Ultimately, we take it a step further, and the material object or experience can become a positive influence in our life, making us happier, kinder, and more spiritually aware.  It can become like the bread offered to G-d in the temple.

As Yourself? - קדושים

As Yourself?

According to Rabbi Akiva, “love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) is “a great principal of the Torah”, yet, it is a commandment easier said than done. How can we love every person as our self? People possess the full gamut of negative traits, shortcomings and failings. Often, the closer we become to someone the more we see their personality flaws. How then can we be expected to love every person? Must we ignore their negativity?

The most seemingly problematic part of the statement is “as yourself”. Even if, somehow, we learn to love our fellow, can the Torah expect the love to rise to the level of self love?

Chassidic philosophy explains that the words “as yourself” are the key to the ability to love our fellow. When a person loves himself or herself, he is not ignorant of his own personality flaws. On the contrary, no one is as aware of his  flaws as he is himself. Despite the knowledge of his own shortcomings, somehow, the awareness of his own flaws does not contradict or destroy his self love. That is because a person does not see his own flaws in isolation, he sees his own flaws against the backdrop of self love. Thus looking at himself, the flaws don't bother him because they are overwhelmed by the self love.

The person who is aware of his own flaws will work very hard to conceal those flaws from others. Because he fears, often correctly, that the other person’s focus will zero in on the fault alone, and the other person will define him by his flaws.

The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) relates that a gentile who sought to convert asked the great sage Hillel to teach him all of the Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel told him “what is hateful to you don’t do to others”. “What is hateful to you”: you hate when others define you by your shortcomings, therefore: “don’t do to others”: never look at the shortcomings in isolation, see them only against the backdrop of love.  

How can you “love your fellow”? “As yourself”. Your own faults don't define the way you see yourself. They are insignificant because the self love is so powerful.

Apply that same formula to your child, to your spouse, to your neighbor and to your fellow.

(Adapted from Derech Mitzvosecha, Ahvas Yisrael)

 

Heading Home - אחרי

Heading Home

Life on this earth is complex. We are a hybrid of body and soul. We have both material as well as spiritual needs and desires. To survive on this earth, our soul must engage and embrace material life, it must spend much time and energy to succeed in a realm foreign to its values and its natural environment. Once a year, however, we separate ourselves from the mundane and the earthly and we seek to get in touch with our inner core. We refrain from food and drink, we separate from our material needs, and we seek to embrace our essence, which, while may be hidden throughout the year, always remains loyal to our spiritual source.    

The day of Yom Kippur, which we read about in this week’s Torah portion, is designed to allow us to return to our inner core. Thus, when the temple stood in Jerusalem, once a year, on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, the high priest, the holiest man on earth, would enter the inner chamber of the temple, the holy of holies, which is the  holiest space on earth.

The spiritual journey to our core, to peel away the layers of our external desires and distractions and to reconnect to our inner purity, takes time and effort. The Mishnah describes that seven days before Yom Kippur the high priest would depart from his home and enter his chamber in the holy temple to prepare for the service of the holiest day. As the Mishnah describes:  

Seven days prior to Yom Kippur the Sages would remove the High Priest, who performs the entire Yom Kippur service, from his house to the Chamber of Parhedrin, a room in the Temple designated specifically for the High Priest during that period. (Yoma 1:1)

The Mishnah then proceeds to elaborate on all the details of the service of Yom Kippur. Finally, toward the end of the tractate we read about the conclusion of the day of Yom Kippur:

They then brought his personal garments. He got dressed, and they would go with him to his residence. And he would make a feast for those close to him, for having exited the Holy of Holies in peace. (Yoma 7:4)

No gradual transition.

No seven day period to internalize the awesome experience before he would head back home to ordinary life. No rest at the chamber, where he spent seven days transitioning from ordinary life to the holiness of Yom Kippur.

The high priest would proceed directly from the sanctity of the holy of holies to his home. Because, Judaism teaches, the purpose of entering the temple to begin with is to experience the holiness of the temple in our daily life. After seven days of preparation, after experiencing the profound holiness of Yom Kippur, the high priest was able to reach true spiritual heights: he was able to experience the holiness of the holy of holies while  in his own home.

This idea is relevant to each one of us. In our lives we experience moments of inspiration and clarity, moments when we are in touch with our inner feelings and aspirations. Judaism teaches us to be bold. To aspire to spread those holy moments to all of our life. To realize, if we were truly affected by the experience of holiness,  we will now feel that same intensity of holiness in our home.

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Parshas Re’eh 5746

Personal Liberation - פסח

Personal Liberation

We are seated at the table and well into the order of the Passover Seder: we drank the first cup of wine, washed our hands, dipped the vegetable into salt water, and broke the middle Matzah into two. We proceed to prepare for the telling of the Passover story and the reciting the four questions with the following declaration:

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

Why do we wait until we are well into the Seder before we invite the needy to join us at the table? Would it not be appropriate to invite the guests when we are at the synagogue, before the beginning of the Seder, when we can actually meet people who are in need? Why do we wait until we get home, close the doors behind us, begin the Seder and only then remember to declare that the needy are invited?

Passover is the holiday of freedom. The holiday when we are able to tap into the divine energy of freedom and break out of our personal Egypt, our personal limitations. Passover is more than a commemoration of the past,  Passover allows us to experience personal redemption from our own challenges, difficulties and limitations, in the present.

The most important limitation to overcome in order to achieve true freedom is the limitation imposed by one’s own ego. From the perspective of the person's own ego, he alone is the center of existence, and other people, to the extent that they have any significance at all, are there just to enhance his existence. A person trapped in his own perspective, will not be able to achieve meaningful relationships, and will not allow others to expand the horizons of his own perspective and experience.

As our ancestors before us, we too achieve liberation through eating the Matzah. Bread, made of dough that rises, represents the inflated ego, while Matzah, the flat bread, represents the humility that allows us to escape the confines of our own personality and identity, and appreciate other people and other perspectives.

We invited guests. They are seated at the table. But we cannot truly empathize with another person unless we free ourselves from the confines of our own perspective. Touching the Matzah, breaking it into two pieces, is the first step of internalizing the Matzah’s message of freedom. Thus, only after we break the Matzah are we able to feel the plight of the needy and identify with their pain. Only after touching the Matzah are we able to transcend ourselves and connect to another.

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Second night of Passover 1968).

 

Cedar and Hyssop - מצורע

Cain and Abel - Cedar and Hyssop

Two brothers, born to the same parents, yet they could not have been more different from one another. Kayin and Hevel, the children of Adam and Eve, each embodied a fundamentally different attitude toward life.

The Torah describes the birth of Kayin:  

Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Kayin (Cain), and she said, "I have acquired a man with the Lord."

The name Kayin comes from the word “acquired”. Eve named her son Kayin and hoped he would embody her own aspirations to acquire, to possess, to succeed in self preservation. The human being has a deep need to feel independent, strong, and materially successful’ to experience self worth and to feel pride on his or her own self.

Eve had another son, she named him Hevel (Abel):

and she continued to bear his brother Hevel, and Hevel was a shepherd of flocks, and Cain was a tiller of the soil.

The word Hevel means “emptiness”, “futility”. Eve names her son Hevel, because she sensed that he was a deeply spiritual person to whom materialism, and physical existence, was insignificant and futile. The brothers were very different  but they were born into the same family because G-d hoped that they would affect one another; that Kayin would ground Hevel by teaching him the importance of physical existence, while Hevel’s spiritual attitude would protect Kayin’s sense of self from becoming egotistical and narcissistic.

Sadly, the brothers never learned to communicate and interact with each other. Kayin, unchecked, had an out-of-control sense of self, cared about no one other than himself, and thus descended to murdering his own brother. Hevel also sinned. His sin was that he did not engage in self defense. To him, material life was futile, and insignificant, thus he did not engage in protecting the sanctity of his own life. Both brothers sinned because they did not learn to integrate their individual qualities. They did not learn that the sense of self that wants to exist and acquire (Kayin), must be cultivated, sanctified, and balanced by the humility that comes from sensing the transcendent (Hevel).

The story of brothers who failed to harmonize their qualities can shed light onto an obscure law in the book of Leviticus. The Torah tells us of the process of the purification for the person afflicted with Tzaraat (skin discoloration):

Then the Kohen shall order, and the person to be cleansed shall take two live, clean birds, a cedar stick, a strip of crimson [wool], and hyssop. (Leviticus 14:4) 

Rashi explains the significance of the cedar and hyssop used in the purification process:  

a cedar stick: Because lesions of tzara’ath come because of haughtiness [symbolized by the tall cedar].

and hyssop: What is the remedy that he may be healed [of his tzara’ath]? He must humble himself from his haughtiness.

According to Rashi, the cedar’s height represents haughtiness while the lowly hyssop grass represents  humility. But if that is the case then why is the cedar a part of the purification process, does the cedar not represent the cause of the spiritual malady which the person needs to correct?

The cedar and hyssop teach us that in order to be pure and holy one must not declare war on the sense of self. Rather, holiness, in Judaism, is to harmonize the tall cedar, the feeling of self, the desire to possess, acquire and succeed, with the humble hyssop. To achieve purity we must sanctify the desire to acquire, and the sense of self,  utilizing our possessions, our talents and our strength in the service of G-d, spreading goodness and kindness in the world. The humble hyssop, too, must cultivate the feeling of the tall cedar, a sense of confidence and pride in order to embrace the world and transform it.

Purity is about harmonizing the cedar and the hyssop, the Kain and the Hevel, the desire to possess and the futility of materialism. Holiness is when the feeling of self is cultivated and dedicated to the service of that which is greater than the self.

(Adapted from Shem Mishmuel)

 

The Gift of Pleasure - תזריע

The Gift of Pleasure

The Hebrew language, “the holy tongue”, is a language of profound depth. Just by looking at its words one can discover the deepest truths of life. One example is the word Nega, affliction, used in this week’s portion to describe Tzaraat, the skin ailment that creates ritual impurity. The book of formation, perhaps the earliest Kabbalistic work, teaches that the Hebrew word for affliction, נגע, consists of the same letters as the word for pleasure, ענג.

“Affliction” and “pleasure” are, in fact, opposite extremes. The affliction of the Tzaraat is considered, in some ways, to be the most severe of impurities. It is the only impurity in which the person must leave the camp and sit in solitude. Pleasure, explains the Kabbalah, is the deepest capacity of the soul. Yet, the Hebrew language teaches us, that there is a relationship between that which we think of as most negative and that which is most positive.

The inner meaning of the laws of the Tzaraat affliction demonstrate this principle. The Torah tells us that when someone is afflicted with specific forms of skin discoloration they are brought to the priest, who will determine whether or not the affliction is ritually impure or ritually pure. There is, however, a deeper, figurative, interpretation, which contains a broader message for the life of the Jew.   

The Torah tells us:

If a man has a Se'eith, a sappachath, or a bahereth on the skin of his flesh, and it forms an affliction of Tzara'ath on the skin of his flesh, he shall be brought to Aaron the Kohen, or to one of his sons, the Kohanim. (Leviticus 13:2).

The Hebrew names for the shades of the Tzaraat discolorings, “Se’eith”, “Sappachat” and “Baheret”, are translated literally as “uplifted”, “additional”, and “clear”. According to the inner spiritual interpretation, the Torah is referring to someone who is gifted with a positive quality; wisdom, beauty, wealth, charisma, creativity, insight. This “additional” quality has the ability to “uplift”, to “add”, and to “purify”. Yet, in this case, the person chose to express that quality in a destructive way. Thus the positive quality designed to uplift and purify, now “forms an affliction of Tzara'ath on the skin of his flesh”. The divine gift becomes a spiritual affliction because the person chose to express the gift to advance his own selfish desires, arrogance and narcissism.  

The spiritual solution, one would think, is that the person seeking purity, must abandon the path which led to the spiritual affliction. He must walk away from the attribute that led to his spiritual downfall.   

The Torah, however, teaches otherwise: “he shall be brought to Aaron the Kohen, or to one of his sons, the Kohanim.” The very quality that led to the spiritual challenge, must be “brought to the Priest”, must be used for the sake of holiness and positivity. The Kohen who would perform the service in the temple teaches us that the gifts we have; beauty, wealth, musical talent, artistic creativity, etc., were given to us in order that we use them for holiness.  

Everything in our life can be a spiritual affliction or a source of great pleasure. Everything in our life can be “brought to the priest”. Everything we possess can be used in the service of G-d to advance the purpose of our creation: to transform a world afflicted with challenge and suffering into a place of pleasure and holiness.

(Adapted from Be’er Mayim Chayim)   

 

The Passion of Youth - שמיני

The Passion of Youth

It was the day the Jewish people had been waiting for. The day G-d would dwell in the tabernacle which they had built. Yet, on the very day of great joy, a great tragedy occurred. Two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, entered the temple and died while offering incense unsanctioned by G-d. As the Torah relates:

And Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his pan, put fire in them, and placed incense upon it, and they brought before the Lord foreign fire, which He had not commanded them. And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. (Leviticus 10:1-2)

There are many explanations as to the nature of the sin and punishment of the sons of Aaron. Perhaps the strangest of them all is that the children of Aaron were punished for secretly hoping that Moses and Aaron would die and that they would assume the leadership of the Jewish people. As the Talmud tells us:

And it had already happened that Moses and Aaron were walking on their way, and Nadav and Avihu were walking behind them, and the entire Jewish people were walking behind them. Nadav said to Avihu: When will it happen that these two old men will die and you and I will lead the generation, as we are their heirs? The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to them: We shall see who buries whom. (Talmud, Sanhedrin 52a)

This strange Talmudic interpretation must contain a deeper meaning. For it is unfathomable that great men such as Nadav and Avihu, who were selected by G-d to perform the service in the temple, would hope for the death of Moses and Aaron, their own uncle and father.  

Indeed, the Chassidic commentators explain that Nadav and Avihu were full of intensely passionate love for G-d. The incense they offered, and coming close to G-d in a manner in which they were not commanded, was an expression of their desire to come as close to G-d as possible, to quench the powerful thirst and longing they felt toward G-d. Nadav and Avihu looked to Moses and Aaron and they saw two great leaders, but they did not see a passion and love that matched their own. Nadav and Avihu said to each other, “when will it happen that these two old men will die and you and I will lead the generation?”. Nadav and Avihu felt that Moses and Aaron were too old to experience the intense passion of youth. Thus they thought that if only they could lead the people and teach them how to experience true love and desire for G-d.

Love is beautiful. But love alone is not sufficient to create a healthy relationship. Love and passion will get one close to the beloved, but once close, too much love and not enough respect may destroy a relationship. Love is an expression of self. Love is the desire to cleave to that which one feels is good for him. But just as critical to the relationship is respect. Respect is the recognition of the other in the relationship, one who has their own perspective, personality and identity. While love and longing is critical in order to come close to the beloved, once  close, respect and awe are essential.

What Nadav and Avihu misunderstood about Moses and Aaron was that precisely because Moses and Aaron were so intimately close to G-d, they experienced awe in addition to love. As long as Nadav and Avihu were “outside the tabernacle”, as long as they were distant from G-d, their passionate love was holy and desirable. The moment they “drew near before the Lord”, their love, which was not balanced with awe, was unholy.

The spiritual path of the Jew is one of “run and return”. First we “run”, we experience the soul’s desire to break free of the body, to escape the material, and seek to cleave to G-d in passionate love. But once we experience the love, once we draw near, we experience respect and awe. “We return” to the material world, to sanctify it and elevate it; because that is the desire of our beloved.

(Adapted from Yismach Moshe, Parshas Shmini).

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