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Blog - Torah Insights

Achieving Inner Peace

Achieving Inner Peace 

The human relationship with materialism can vary dramatically.

At times, we are lucky to experience harmony in our life. The world’s materialism does not create a conflict between our spiritual goals and our need to live in the physical world. Our possessions are not distractions, rather they are the tools we use to advance our spiritual goals. At times we live in harmony.

There are other times, when our minds are blinded by the lure of material pleasure. We may have spent years working to achieve success in a career, in a relationship, or in any other worthy pursuit, and yet, at times we not hesitant to throw it all away because of a temptation that is irrational.     

Usually we find ourselves somewhere in between. Most people struggle between mastering and being enslaved by the physical world. Yes, food is necessary for sustenance, but are we in control of what we eat or does our  impulse enslave us to the chocolate cake? Sure, technology can serve us and make our lives much easier, it can be a powerful tool to serve us. Yet, if it takes control of us, if it forces us to interact with it instead of interacting with the ideas and people closest to us, than, let’s be honest, we are not being served, we are serving. 

In this week's Torah reading, Naso, the Torah teaches us how to move from folly to peace. It does so, by teaching three portions in the following order: 1. the law of the “wayward woman 2. the law of the Nazarite 3. the portion of the Priestly blessing, which concludes “May G‑d turn His countenance toward you and grant you peace.”

At first the Torah describes the law of the “wayward woman”. The Hebrew word for “wayward” (Sotah) is related to the word foolishness (Shtut). The Talmud states, “a person does not commit a transgression unless the spirit of folly enters him”, thus the Sotah represents the person who loses their intellectual judgement as a result of great temptation.

To discover how to respond and overcome the state of the Sotah, we look to the next portion, the portion of the Nazarite, which, when understood correctly, is the secret to achieving the inner spiritual harmony described in the priestly blessing.

The Nazarite, the man or woman who take a vow to temporarily refrain from drinking wine, cutting hair, and becoming ritually impure - is referred to as “holy”. Yet, paradoxically, the Torah teaches that at the conclusion of the Nazarite period, he or she must offer a sin offering. This implies[1] that although the choice to become a Nazarite was right for this person at this specific time, thus it was a holy choice, the Nazarite way of life is not the preferred one.

The Torah’s ideal model of holiness, is one, in which the human engages with the physical and imbues it with spirituality, creating  peace between body and soul and between heaven and earth - as described in the priestly blessing. In order to achieve that level a person may have to take the path of the Nazarite. If one wants to make sure that he is in control, that he can use the wine, the chocolate cake, the smartphone, to enhance his spiritual life, than sometimes, he has to practice disengaging. He has to demonstrate that he can survive for a period of time despite disengaging from a particular material possession.

After the Nazir was able to break away from the folly, by refraining from drinking wine for thirty days, he  can then drink wine and still maintain his holiness, as the verse states: “After this, the Nazirite may drink wine”[2].Although initially one may have had to disengage to maintain holiness, through undergoing the process of the Nazirite, one can be holy while engaged, in the spiritual metaphorical heaven while living on earth.

 


 

[1]           See Talmud Tractate Taanis, 11a.

[2]           Numbers 6:20. 

The Smallest of all Mountains

The Smallest of all Mountains 

The Torah was not given on the tallest mountain, says the Midrash, in order to symbolize that to receive the Torah we must be humble, like Mount Sinai, which was the “smallest of all mountains”. 

If humility is so important, why was the Torah given on a mountain altogether? Would it not be better for the Torah to be given in a plain or a valley?

In the Kabbalah, humility is synonymous with wisdom. That’s because the key ingredient to wisdom is the humility to recognize that our own perspective is not sufficient, the recognition that we must seek deeper and higher understanding. Every intellectual breakthrough is dependent on someone having the courage to tell himself or herself,  “although everyone, myself included, has a deep rooted perspective on this issue, I know that I may be completely wrong”. Without this humility no  new wisdom is possible.

This is true about all wisdom, and is even more true about the divine wisdom, the wisdom of the Torah.

To receive the Torah, we must be humble and small like Sinai. To receive the Torah we must be open to a completely radical shift of viewpoint. To grasp the divine logic, we must be open to a new a perspective that is not self centered but that is spiritually centered. 

And that is why Moses, was chosen to be the one through whom G-d gave us the Torah. Moses was chosen not because he was the smartest, or the brightest, or the best teacher, or the best communicator. Moses was chosen because “this man Moses was exceedingly humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth.[1]” What was  the greatness of Moses? What was the quality that made him the appropriate conveyer of the Torah? It was his humility, his ability to put his perspective aside and view reality from G-d’s perspective.

And yet, being Sinai-small is not enough. One must also be a mountain.

For the Torah was given on a mountain not in a valley, because to learn and live the Torah, we must be humble on the one hand, but proud on the other.

Absolute humility is dangerous. 

To learn and live the Torah we must be fully aware of our immense worth in the eyes of G-d. The attitude most devastating to spiritual growth is the one that says “G-d does not care what I do”, it’s the one that says “I am insignificant to the creator of such a vast universe”.

To follow the Torah is to understand how valuable we are in the eyes of G-d. To live the Torah is to feel how the purpose of the entire universe's creation is in our hands.

To receive the Torah we must be a Sinai, we must be both “small” and “mountain”, humble yet proud[2]

 


 

[1]           Numbers 11:3.

[2]           Based on Lekutey Torah Bamidbar page 15. 

Self Made Holiness

Self Made Holiness  

Many people expect inspiration to come from above. “If G-d really wants me to follow the Torah”, they argue, “he would plant within my heart a burning desire to do so”. “If G-d felt it important that I dedicate time to Torah study”, they insist, “then I would be born with a natural draw to the wisdom of the Torah”. What they are saying in effect is, “if G-d wanted me to be holy  he would have made me holy from the womb, without any effort necessary on my part”. When  they think about holiness, they think of G-d descending on Mount Sinai to inspire a people who could not inspire themselves.

This, argue the last verses in Leviticus, is just one form of holiness. The highest form of holiness, however, is the one that is man made.

On the last page of the book of Leviticus, at the culmination of the book about the various offerings and the temple services, the Torah discusses two categories of holy animals which must be offered in the temple. The first is the Bechor[1], the firstborn animal; and the second, the last offering of the book of Leviticus, is the Maaser[2],  the tithe, every tenth animal born.

These two offerings represent the two forms of holiness; the first is imparted by G-d, the second is man made.

The Bechor is sacred by virtue of being born first. No human intervention necessary. As Maimonides explains:

It is a mitzvah to sanctify a firstborn kosher animal and say: "Behold, this is holy," as the verse states: "Every firstborn shall you sanctify unto God your Lord." Even if the owner did not sanctify it, it is sanctified as a matter of course. It is sanctified upon its emergence from the womb[3].

The last offering on the book, the Maaser, is not sacred until the Jew sanctifies it himself. As explained by Maimonides:  

He should gather all of the lambs or all of the calves born that year in a corral. He then makes a small entrance so that two cannot emerge at the same time. He positions their mothers outside the corral and they bleat so that the lambs will hear their voices and leave the corral to meet them. This is necessary, as implied by the verse which states: "all that passes beneath the staff," i.e., they must pass on their own initiative; one should not remove them by hand.

As they leave the corral one by one, the owner begins to count them with a staff: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. The tenth animal that departs, whether male or female, whether unblemished or blemished, should be painted with red paint, and the owner should say: "This is the tithe."[4]

The book  dealing with all offerings, culminates with the Masser offering,, specifically because its holiness is dependant on man. The person does not expect G-d to inspire him.  The person is required to take steps for self inspiration. He cannot rely on heaven to send him a first-born-already-assembled dose of inspiration. Here he must gather his lambs and calves, he must count, he must apply the red paint. It’s in his hands. By doing so he realizes that the true holiness is created only when a person is the one generating the inspiration.      

Don’t wait for the inspiration to come from above and fill your heart with a passion for G-d. Even if you are not in the mood, count your sheep and give one to G-d, take some time of your day and sanctify it, use it to pray, to study Torah, to do a Mitzvah. It may not be as dramatic as the holiness that comes from above, but it is what G-d finds most meaningful[5].


 

[1]           Leviticus 27:26: “However, a firstborn animal that must be [sacrificed as] a firstborn to the Lord no man may consecrate it; whether it be an ox or sheep, it belongs to the Lord”.

[2]           Leviticus 27:32: “Any tithe of cattle or flock of all that pass under the rod, the tenth shall be holy to the Lord”.

[3]           Bechorot 1:4.

[4]           Bechorot 7:1

[5]           Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutey Sichos Vol. 17, Bechukosay Sicha 3.  

The Holiday of Weeks

The Holiday of Weeks 

The Torah refers to it simply as “holiday of the weeks” and many contemporary Jews have never even heard of the holiday. Yet, the holiday of Shavuot celebrates what may be the most important event in Judaism: the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.  

Why does the Torah fail to mention this most crucial detail - the reason for the celebration?

With its silence, the Torah is telling us something important about the giving of the Torah, it is telling us that Divine revelation is not specific to a particular time and place in our history. There is no,one day a year, designated to celebrate the Divine revelation, because Divine revelation occurs every time we open and study the Torah. As we say in the blessing before reading the Torah - ("Notayn Hatorah") "the one who gives the Torah", "gives" is written in the present tense, conveying that G-d is continuously giving us the Torah.

The Torah is silent about the date of the most important event in the  history of mankind, in order to teach us, that anytime we open the Torah, G-d is speaking to us, directly, personally.

What then do we commemorate on - Shavuot - the holiday of weeks?

The name "holiday of weeks" describes, not the obligation of the holiday - as does the Holiday of Matzot and Holiday of Sukkot-but rather it describes the lead up to the holiday, the obligation to count seven weeks in anticipation and preparation of the giving of the Torah. Although G-d speaks to us every time we open the book, sometimes we fail to perceive the power of the experience. We are distracted by day to day life, we are tuned out spiritually and we are like an unplowed field being showered with rain: the rain has the power to bring forth growth but the earth is too rough to accept the seed and the water.

So, G-d commands us to designate some time for spiritual refinement, to count forty nine days, to understand that G-d wants to talk to us and we must tune in if we are to benefit from the experience. Finally on the fiftieth day - on the anniversary of the giving of the Torah - after all the preparation, every Jew can finally feel it: yes, G-d is talking to me, personally.

In the final analysis, what is unique about the fiftieth day is only the preparation - the weeks of counting, hence the name "holiday of the weeks" - the actual revelation, however, happens every time we read the book.

 

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