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Blog - Torah Insights

Abraham’s Legacy

Abraham’s Legacy  

This week's Parsha, describes the bitter tension in Abraham’s home. Underlying the tension, was the question of succession; which of Abraham’s two children would be the one chosen to carry on his legacy.

Each of the patriarchs of the Jewish people, explain the Kabbalists, personify one of three basic emotions. Abraham personified the emotion of kindness, Isaac personified awe, and Jacob personified compassion. Being that they are our patriarchs, each of us has a part of them in our spiritual makeup.

Abraham personified kindness. Reading the stories of Abraham, the theme of kindness appears again and again. Abraham made it his life’s mission is to invite travelers into his tent, he loved all people, he prayed to G-d to save the wicked people of Sedom.

Abraham’s oldest child Ishmael, the son of Hagar the maidservant who he married by the request of his wife Sarah, also embodied kindness. Abraham therefore felt a unique connection to Ishmael.  Not only was Ishmael his oldest son, but Ishmael also shared his passion for kindness, leading Abraham to hope that Ishmael would be the one to carry on his legacy.

That was not meant to be.

In this week’s portion we read about Sarah pressuring Abraham to send away his son Ishmael, who she felt was a bad influence on her son Isaac. G-d instructed Abraham to listen to Sarah, leaving him no choice but to expel his own son from his home. G-d reassured Abraham that Ishmael would be blessed, yet G-d also makes it clear that Isaac would be Abraham's spiritual heir who would carry on his legacy.

And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, making merry. And Sarah said to Abraham, "Drive out this handmaid and her son, for the son of this handmaid shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac." But the matter greatly displeased Abraham, concerning his son. And God said to Abraham, "Be not displeased concerning the lad and concerning your handmaid; whatever Sarah tells you, hearken to her voice, for in Isaac will be called your seed. But also the son of the handmaid I will make into a nation, because he is your seed."[1]  

Observing both of Abraham’s sons, it seems that Ishmael should have been the one to carry on the legacy of his father. After all, Ishmael shared the attribute of kindness with his father, while Isaac - who embodied the attribute of awe and fear - seemed to be very different. Why then was Isaac chosen?

While Abraham and Ishmael both performed kindness, the motivating force behind their actions could not be further apart. Once we examine the motivation behind Abraham's kindness we see that Isaac was much closer to Abraham than Ishmael could ever be.

There can be two types of motivation for kindness. [2] Abraham’s kindness was motivated by his humility. As Abraham says, while praying for the people of Sedom, “I am but dust and ashes” [3] The humble person perceives everyone else as being greater than himself. When he sees someone else in need he will do anything in his power to help the stranger who, the humble person believes, is more deserving than himself. This was the kindness of Abraham.

On the other hand, Ishmael, while also performing kindness, was incompatible with Abraham’s essence. Ishmael's kindness was not motivated by humility, on the contrary, his kindness was motivated by arrogance. Ishmael felt that because he was greater than the people around him he should be the one to provide for them, so that his superiority would be apparent. His kindness did not lead him closer to people, his kindness, fueled by his arrogance, pulled him farther apart from the very people he would help. 

G-d’s message to Abraham was that Jewish kindness must be one motivated by humility not by arrogance. Therefore, the son best suited to carry on Abraham’s legacy, was Isaac, who embodies the attribute of awe and fear, keeping him humble, keeping him like his father Abraham. [4]

 

 


[1] Genesis 21:9-13.

[2] See Or Hatorah, Vayera page 93.

[3] Genesis 18:27.

[4] Yes, Isaac is more reserved. Isaac does not always jump in to the rescue. Isaac motivates a person to help themselves. Isaac is filled by humility, he understands that the other person has great potential within himself, that, in some case, true kindness is allowing the person to solve the problem on their own. This, however, is a subject for another essay.

Climbing the Ladder of Love

Climbing the Ladder of Love

Each and every episode of the patriarchs that is recorded in the Torah is relevant to the story of every single Jew. There are events in the lives of the patriarchs, that are essential to the story - for example: Abraham discovering the one G-d at an early age and his debates with the people of his native land – and yet, they are not recorded in the Torah. By contrast, there are details that seem trivial, yet they are recorded in the Torah. That is because the Torah records only those aspects that are relevant to us; the Torah records only those episodes that will recur, in some form or another, in the life of every Jew.  

Who was Abraham? What did he stand for? What does he teach us?

Chassidic philosophy teaches that Abraham embodied loving-kindness, love to his fellow human beings, love toward the people closest to him, and love toward his creator. If there is one theme that runs through many of the stories about Abraham, it is the theme of love; his love to G-d as well as his love to people who were not necessarily deserving of love: his love to his nephew Lot, his older son Yishmael and to the wicked people of Sedom. Abraham’s journeys, to Israel and especially his journeys within Israel, is a story about Abraham’s journey toward achieving true love.

This week’s Parsha [1], begins with G-d commanding Abraham to “go forth” and begin a new journey:

And the Lord said to Abram, "Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you".

The Torah describes how Abraham fulfilled the commandment and travelled to what will later become the Promised Land, and how he built an altar to G-d:

And the Lord appeared to Abram, and He said, "To your seed I will give this land," and there he built an altar to the Lord, Who had appeared to him.[2]

Why does Abraham decide to build an altar to G-d precisely at this time and place? Rashi[3] explains, that Abraham built the altar to thank G-d for the two great promises he had just received: the promise that he would have children, and the promise that he would receive the land, as Rashi puts it:

And there he built an altar: [in thanksgiving] for the good tidings concerning his descendants and the good tidings concerning the Land of Israel. 

In the following verse we read about Abraham journeying to the next stop in his travels,  near a place called Ai, where, once again, he built an altar to G-d:

And he moved from there to the mountain, east of Bethel, and he pitched his tent; Bethel was to the west and Ai was to the east, and there he built an altar to the Lord, and he called in the name of the Lord.[4]

Why did Abraham decide to build this second altar? Rashi explains:

And there he built an altar: He (Abraham) prophesied that his sons were destined to stumble there because of the iniquity of Achan, and he prayed there for them.

The story continues. Abraham was forced to move to Egypt because of the famine. His wife Sarah, (at that point her name was still Saray), was taken to Pharaoh. Subsequently, she was saved from  Pharaoh, they returned to Israel, Abraham and his nephew Lot parted ways, and Abraham reached the city of Chevron, where he built his third and final altar:

And Abram pitched his tents, and he came, and he dwelt in the plain of Mamre, which is in Hebron, and there he built an altar to the Lord.

Why did Abraham decide to build the third altar? Being that Rashi explained why he built the first two, we would therefore expect Rashi to explain the rationale for the third one, yet, mysteriously, Rashi is silent. This is because, once we understand the lesson of the three altars, we will understand why Abraham built the third altar, and we will understand why no reason is given for its construction.

In general, there are three stages of love. These three levels are represented by the three altars that Abraham built.

The first stage of love, is a love motivated by a benefit received. We fall in love because of what we receive from the relationship. Because of what the relationship does for us. Because we like the way it makes us feel. Because we like what we get from the relationship.

The second stage is more complicated. We fall in love, and then, sometimes, we grow apart. Eventually, a distance springs up between us and the recipient of our love. This distance is painful. There is, however, a second stage of love. This love is motivated by “returning” to the original love, after the feeling of separation. The second stage of love is fueled by the pain  experienced from being distant from our beloved.

Finally, there is a third stage of love. This love is not motivated by what we receive from the love, nor is it motivated by the pain felt by the lack of it. The third level of love is all about connecting to the object of the love for its own sake. The third stage of love is not about the one loving, it is about the beloved. We are drawn to connect, not because of something we will receive, not because of the pain we will endure if we lack the connection, but rather because there is no other way. We sense that, like the bond between parents and children, deep down we are one. 

The story of Abraham’s travels in the land of Israel, is the story of a man journeying toward a relationship and love to G-d. Each altar represents another stage of love.

The first altar that Abraham built, the first stage of Abraham's love to G-d, is based on the benefit that Abraham would receive. As Rashi explains, Abraham built the altar; he connected to G-d, because he understood that the relationship was beneficial to himself. He had just been promised the blessing of children and he had just been gifted with the Land of Israel.

Abraham traveled further. He came to a place called Ai, he sensed that his descendants would sin at this very location. He wasted no time, he built an altar. He teaches his children that sin can be a cause to connect to G-d. That estrangement is, in fact, key to a second, and deeper, stage of love. He teaches his children that love intensifies when it overcomes the pain of separation.

Finally, Abraham reaches the city of Chebron. The word Chevron comes from the Hebrew word “Chibur” which means connection. In Chebron, Abraham reaches the third, and ultimate, stage of love. Abraham built an altar. Why did he build this altar? Rashi is silent. Rashi’s silence communicates a deep truth. There is no reason for this altar, no reason for this relationship. This stage of love is not based on reason; it is not based on a benefit that Abraham will receive. Why build the altar? For no reason other than to be connected to G-d. Not for any personal benefit, spiritual or otherwise, but for the sake of the bond itself. 

Abraham is the patriarch of each and every Jew. We read about his journeys, not merely for historical information, but as a lesson for our life, a lesson in our relationships, and a lesson for our bond with G-d. We read the story to inspire us to seek to reach the final stage of love. As Maimonides[5] describes:

One who serves [God] out of love occupies himself in the Torah and the Mitzvot and walks in the paths of wisdom for no ulterior motive: not because of fear that evil will occur, nor in order to acquire benefit. Rather, he does what is true because it is true… This is a very high level, which is not merited by every wise man. It is the level of our Patriarch, Abraham, whom God described as, "he who loved Me," for his service was only motivated by love. [6]

 

 


[1] Genesis 12:1.

[2] Genesis 12:7

[3] Rashi, Genesis 12:7.

[4] Genesis 12:8.

[5] Maimonides, laws of repentance chapter 10.

[6] Inspired by the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutey Sichos, Lech Licha Vol. 30, Sicha 1.  

The Tower of Technology

The Tower of Technology  

In this week’s Parsha we read about how the descendants of the survivors of the great flood sought to unite through the building of a city with a great tower. The Torah relates[1]: 

Now the entire earth was of one language and uniform words. And it came to pass when they traveled from the east, that they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks and fire them thoroughly"; so the bricks were to them for stones, and the clay was to them for mortar. And they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered upon the face of the entire earth."

G-d is alarmed by their actions. He steps in to foil their plan. He disrupts their unity and the building project collapses. As G-d tells the angels[2]:

“Come, let us descend and confuse their language, so that one will not understand the language of his companion." And the Lord scattered them from there upon the face of the entire earth, and they ceased building the city.

Why is building a city a terrible sin? What is wrong with building a tower?

The story of the tower is relevant today, perhaps more than ever before. For it is a story, not about an ancient construction site, but about the development of cutting edge technology.

The building of the Tower of Babel represents a dramatic leap in the development of industry. Up to that point, people built a home out of stone. Stone is a Divine creation. Places like Babylonia, where there were no mountains and thus no stones, were considered inhospitable to the building of cities. Human ingenuity, however, created a new technology, which was none other than the brick[3].

The verse states that the people said to each other:  

"Come, let us make bricks and fire them thoroughly"; so the bricks were to them for stones, and the clay was to them for mortar.

Fascinated by their ability to create a man made brick, they sought to demonstrate that the brick was far superior to the stone created by G-d. They wanted to show that the brick, not the stone, was the material of choice in building the tallest tower in the world, within the greatest city in the world.  

The Torah does not state clearly that they rebelled against G-d, lest we mistakenly think that developing technology is a sin .

What then was the problem?

The Midrash[4] relates that during construction of the tower, when a person fell off the tower and died nobody cared. However, if a brick fell and cracked, they all stopped to mourn the lost brick. This is a powerful Midrash. It  teaches us that a single minded goal to achieve power and independence, with no higher purpose, can lead to totalitarianism where a human life is not valued.

The message of the story is relevant, now more than ever before. The past century has witnessed the “floods” of the most devastating wars in the history of humankind, as well as the explosion of human scientific knowledge and technological advances.

The message of the tower of Babel is that the towers and cities we create must have a higher purpose. Advancements in technology alone, do not necessarily mean advances in human rights, and it certainly does not necessarily lead to us being better people with a closer relationship with G-d.

Each and every one of us has a choice of what to make of the ever increasing technologies  introduced into our lives. We can become the builders of the tower of Babel, or we can emulate Abraham.

The Midrash relates that Abraham watched the building of the tower, and he saw the lack of deeper meaning. He understood that a building with no higher purpose is dangerous. He realized that humanity’s purpose cannot merely be to make a name for itself, to achieve material success.

In next week’s Parsha we read how in contrast to the builders of the tower, whose only purpose was to make a name for themselves, Abraham made it his life’s mission to proclaim the name of G-d. He made it his life’s mission to teach anyone who would listen, that all of human achievement should  just be a tool for a higher, more spiritual, purpose.[5]

 


[1] Genesis 11:1-3.

[2] Genesis 11:7-8.

[3] See The Tower of Babel, by Sharon Rimon. 

[4] Pirkei D’Rabi Eliezer, 24. 

[5] Inspired by the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutey Sichos, Noach Vol 3. 

Comforting Adam and Eve

Comforting Adam and Eve

The first portion of the Torah begins with pristine beauty. The creation of a graceful, peaceful world, culminating with the creation of the day of rest, as the Torah describes:

And G-d saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good, and it was evening and it was morning, the sixth day. Now the heavens and the earth were completed and all their host. And G-d completed on the seventh day His work that He did, and He abstained on the seventh day from all His work that He did. And G-d blessed the seventh day and He hallowed it, for thereon He abstained from all His work that G-d created to do. [1]

Alas, the serenity was short lived.

We turn just a few pages and we read of successive disasters. First, the sin of the tree of knowledge; Adam and Eve taste the fruit of the tree, internalizing both good and evil, thus implanting within themselves an inclination to evil, creating a constant struggle within the human heart between the G-dly soul and the animalistic soul.

We read about Adam and Eve being told of their mortality. At the end of their life, they would return to the earth. They understood that it would take death for the evil and good within them to separate. The body and the evil inclination would return to the earth, and the soul would return heavenward, to G-d.

We then read of the first murder in history. We read about how Adam and Eve had to face a double tragedy; the murder of their son Abel, as well as coming to face with the fact that their son Cain, was capable of murdering his own brother.

The Midrash relates that Adam and Eve were weeping beside the corpse of Abel and were not sure what to do with the body because this was their first encounter with death. The Midrash continues; they saw a bird, the Oraiv in the Hebrew burying a dead bird in the ground, Adam and Eve decided to do the same, they too buried Abel in the earth. 

On the surface, this Midrash explains how they found a solution to the technical question of how to dispose of the corpse. On a deeper level, however, this Midrash contains profound insight into the human condition. 

Adam and Eve were at a loss, not only about what to do with Abel’s body, but they had a much deeper question; how to respond to absolute evil? How could they continue to live after witnessing that humanity was capable of such depravity?

True, they too had sinned. They too had been condemned to natural death. They too were not perfect. But they could never have imagined that a human being could act so brutally, that one human being could or would afflict an unnatural death upon another human being. They could not imagine that a person could act in a way that was the polar opposite of what G-d had intended.  

G-d therefore sent the Oraiv bird to teach Adam and Eve how to respond to absolute evil. According to the Sages, the Oraiv is terribly cruel toward its young; the Oraiv abandons its offspring at birth. Adam and Eve witnessed this same Oraiv bird engaging in the truest form of kindness. The Sages [2] explain that burial is referred to in the Torah [3] as “loving kindness and truth” because, when doing kindness with a living person the doer can always expect a favor in return. Not so with burial. When we are kind to the dead, we do not expect anything in return. Thus, the kindness is absolute. The kindness is true kindness.

Adam and Eve looked at the Oraiv bird and understood. They looked at the Oraiv bird and received the wisdom on how to react. They now understood that the response to absolute evil is absolute kindness. The response to absolute depravity within humanity is absolute love and compassion. 

They were comforted.

They were comforted, because they now understood that the profundity of evil that the human is capable of is matched only by the profound kindness within the human spirit.

They understood that the same human heart capable of boundless hate is likewise capable of boundless love.

We too must take this message to heart. We look around the world and see intense cruelty. We know that we must respond with intense kindness. Like Adam and Eve, we understand that this earth is a complicated place, that humanity is capable of extremes. Like Adam and Eve, we respond to negativity with a greater commitment to absolute kindness. When we face unspeakable cruelty, we take a step toward extreme kindness, bringing us closer and closer to G-d’s vision of a perfect world. A peaceful world. A world that experiences the tranquility of the seventh day. The tranquility of Shabbat. [4] 

 


 [1]Genesis 1:31 - 2:3.

 [2] See Rashi to Genesis 47:29.

 [3] Genesis 47:29

 [4] Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Reshimos booklet 25. 

Choosing Moses

Choosing Moses

Reading the last portion of the Torah causes us to feel a measure of sadness. Moses, the faithful leader who spent decades of his life devoted to his people, is unable to conclude his life’s journey. He led the Children of Israel from Egypt to the bank of the Jordan River, but he was unable to see them enter the Promised Land. As is written in the final page of the Torah[1]:

And the Lord said to him, "This is the Land I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, 'I will give it to your offspring.' I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there."

Looking back at Moses’ long career, one cannot but think about the many disappointments he endured. If leadership is about influencing people, then Moses achieved only a limited measure of success. In story after story, we witness an ungrateful nation, a nation who is resistant to many of the teachings of Moses.

When, however, we take a deeper look at the words of Moses on his last day on earth, we see that he did find comfort. What looks like a rejection of all Moses stood for, is interpreted by Moses as the greatest act of devotion to Moses and to his teachings.

Just a few weeks earlier Moses was faced with, what he thought was a colossal threat. The tribe of Reuven and the tribe of Gad approached Moses and said that they did not want to cross the Jordan and enter the land of Israel, they preferred to stay east of the Jordan River, in the lands conquered by the Jewish people on their approach to Israel.

At first, Moses was furious. He accused them of being just like the spies, who, almost forty years earlier, dissuaded the Jews from entering the land, causing G-d to decree that the entire generation be barred from entrance to the land. Moses was afraid that he was facing a replay of that disaster. 

Only after the two tribes committed to leading the troops in the future battles to conquer the land of Israel, did Moses, seemingly with great reluctance, agree to allow the two tribes to settle in the lands east of the land of Israel. 

As he blessed each tribe, on the final day of his Life, Moses turns to the tribe of Gad, one of those who settled east of Israel and says[2]:

He saw the first portion for himself, because there, the portion of the lawgiver is hidden. And he came at the head of the people; he did what is righteous for the Lord, and what is lawful with Israel."

Rashi explains:

He saw the first portion for himself: He saw fit to take for himself territory in the land of Sihon and Og, whose land was the beginning of the conquest of the Land. 

Because there, the portion of the lawgiver is hidden: For Gad knew [through Divine transmission,] that within his territory would be contained a portion of the field designated for the burial of “the lawgiver,” namely Moses.

Moses looked at his people, and sensed that beneath every action lies a deep love for their leader Moses. Moses recognized that amongst the Jews, there were some, whose love for him was so deep; they were willing to forfeit their portion of the land of Israel, and to settle outside of Israel just to be in close proximity to Moses. Chasidic Philosophy explains, that what they really wanted was to be close, not only to Moses’ burial place, but also to his ideas. Moses was inspiring his people to come to the holy land of Israel, the land that, as the Midrash says, is a land, which “wants to fulfill the will of its Maker”. The tribe of Gad wanted to apply Moses’ teaching even further. They felt that as students of Moses, they could and therefore must, extend Moses’ vision; they must extend the land of Israel eastward, sanctifying the eastern bank of the Jordan as well. Doing so, allowed them to be in close proximity to Moses, it allowed them to extend the holiness of Israel, and, most remarkably, allowed Moses to be buried amongst his people, allowing him, in some way, to be buried in the extension of the land of Israel.

Could there be a greater expression of love toward Moses? Is there anything that Moses could see in his lifetime that would be more meaningful?

***

As we conclude the five books of Moses, on the happiest day of the year, on Simchat Torah, we find comfort and joy from our spiritual bond with Moses. We see ourselves as the tribe of Gad, as people whose task it is to fulfill Moses’ legacy. As people, whose mission it is to bring the Jewish people to the land of Israel, to the place where they have  deep desire to connect to their creator. As people, whose mission it is to create Israel wherever we may be.

    

 

 


 [1] Deuteronomy 34:4.

 2] Deuteronomy 33:21. 

Music Symphony vs. Music Lesson

Music Symphony vs. Music Lesson  

One of the most common concepts in Kabalistic and Chasidic thought is the idea of the two forms of Divine light: “Makif” and “Pnimi”, the encompassing light and the internal light. 

Let us look at the Mitzvot of the holiday of Sukkot to help us understand these two forms of Divine energy. 

In the Kabbalistic and Chasidic teachings, the Sukkah is “Makif”, it represents the encompassing light; the Lulav and Etrog represent the “Pnimi”, the light that can be internalized. When we shake the Lulav and Etrog in the Sukkah, we “draw down the encompassing light and assimilate it internally”.

What exactly does that mean?  

There are two ways that we can be affected by music. One way is by going to a world-class symphony, the music played touches the core of our being, we feel uplifted and inspired. From this point on, we want nothing else but to be involved in the world of music.

A second option is, by looking through the phonebook, finding a music teacher, who will teach us how to hold a guitar and play a music note. The music lesson is utterly boring, we are uninspired, we cannot understand why anybody would enjoy spending time with this instrument, at this moment, we would prefer to be anywhere else other than with the guitar.

Which one of these experiences has a deeper effect on us, the symphony or the music lesson?

The answer, of course, is that they each one has a very different type of impact.

The symphony, changes the course of our life, it leads us to become a lifelong music fan. Yet, its impact is, in the language of the Kabbalah, “encompassing”, not “internal”. Meaning to say, that despite all the inspiration, we have not internalized the music. We still cannot play even one single note. In fact, we cannot reproduce any music; our music is completely dependent on the world outside of us. The symphony had a life changing impact on us, but is is encompassing, it was not internalized.

Now let us look at the music lesson. We have received no inspiration, no life altering experience, yet the lesson had an “internal” impact on us. We can now, on our own, without help from the outside, play a music note. We have internalized the music to the extent that we can now reproduce music. The skill is ours. It has become part of us.

In our relationship with G-d we experience both the encompassing and the internal light.

We sit in the Sukkah surrounded by the Divine energy, represented by the walls and cover of the Sukkah, we experience great inspiration and joy, the happiness and the spirituality present in the Sukkah can and should move us profoundly.

The Sukkah experience should change us, but the change is encompassing, once the holiday passes we cannot reproduce the feeling, we cannot reproduce the music of the Sukkah. Once we are back at home, we leave the spiritual symphony behind us. The Sukkah did not teach us to play the notes; it did not teach us how to internalize this great experience. 

That is why we take the four species. We stand in the Sukkah and wave the Lulav and Etrog in all four directions, bringing them back to our heart, symbolizing to us, that as we stand in the Sukkah, basking in the encompassing light, we must take a limited measure of the light and apply it to our life. We must internalize some of the inspiration and make it part of who we are, we need to be able to reproduce a measure of this inspiration on a simple Tuesday in the cold winter.

We need to learn to play just one note, but that note will be internalized, we need to resolve to do just one more Mitzvah, but that one Mitzvah will become part of our identity.

For music to have the ultimate affect on our life we need to experience both the symphony and the music lesson. For the light of Judaism to have the ultimate affect on our life we need both the Sukkah and the Lulav.   

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