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Blog - Torah Insights

Seeker of Wisdom

Seeker of Wisdom 

While Moses was barred from crossing the Jordan and entering the land promised to his forefathers, he did merit leading the conquest and then the settlement of the lands east of the Jordan, thus beginning the process of settling his beloved people in the Promised Land, concluding his life’s mission. 

Then, just a few weeks before his passing, Moses designated three cities of refuge in the lands east of the Jordan River, which served as a safe heaven for anyone who killed another unintentionally.

Then Moses decided to separate three cities on the side of the Jordan towards the sunrise, so that a murderer might flee there, he who murders his fellow man unintentionally, but did not hate him in time past, that he may flee to one of these cities, and he will live. [1]  

Those last words “and he will live” teach us, says the Talmud, that we must not only provide a place for the unintentional murderer to flee, but that the place must be a place that is conducive to and can support a life. As the Talmud explains: 

These cities of refuge [...] should be medium size towns; they are to be established only in the vicinity of a water supply [...] they are to be established only where there are marketplaces. What is the verse [that teaches us these laws]? The verse states: "and he shall flee to one of these cities and live", which means — we must provide him with arrangements that will enable him to live. [2]

This idea - that we must provide an environment that will enable the unintentional murderer to live - leads to another law. As Maimonides explains:

When a student is exiled to a city of refuge, his teacher is exiled together with him. This is derived from the verse which states [3]: "He shall flee to one of these cities, and he shall live." Implied, is that everything necessary for his life must be provided for him.

Therefore, a student must be provided with his teacher, for the life of one who possesses knowledge and seeks it, without Torah study is considered to be death[4]

This law is astonishing. Granted that there are a select few for whom life without knowledge of Torah is like life without water - and perhaps we would be obliged to force the teachers of those select students to move into the city of refuge so that they would be able to “live” - but how can we apply this law to all students? Can we indeed say that every last student is a person who “possesses knowledge and seeks it” to the extent that a life without Torah is considered to be death”?

The answer, of course, is a resounding yes.

We look at ourselves, we look at our children, we look at our students, and we sometimes tell ourselves that we are superficial beings; we care about materialism more than about wisdom and spiritual enlightenment. We look at a student misbehaving in a classroom and we say, “this child will never make a good student” we say “this child will never understand”. This attitude, says the Talmud, is a terrible mistake. The student who is misbehaving, although he may not be a “possessor of wisdom” at this time, his heart is a “seeker of wisdom”. Deep down he is a person to whom spiritual wisdom is not just an enjoyable luxury but an absolute necessity.

If you are a teacher, and each and every one of us is a teacher in some form, and your path crosses the path of a child, or of an adult who is still a child spiritually, it is your obligation to perceive “the seeker of wisdom” in this child. It is your responsibility to discover the spark, and reveal the essence within the child. It is your duty to help the child discover the beauty of a life imbued with wisdom. Help the child discover that he or she is a “seeker of wisdom”.  [5] 


 [1] Deuteronomy 4:41-43.

[2] Tractate Makot 10a.

[3] Deuteronomy 19:5,

[4] Maimonides, Laws of Murderers and the Protection of Life 7:1. 

[5] Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Likutey Sichos, Vaeschanan Volume 29, Sicha 2. 

Too Much of Sinai?

Too Much of Sinai?

Thirty six days before his passing, on the first day of the Hebrew month of Shvat, Moses began his final series of talks to his beloved people. He spoke words of rebuke, inspiration and hope. Moses related the story of their leaving Mount Sinai after being there for almost a year. At that point, before the sin of the spies, they were heading straight for the land of Israel.

Moses stated:  

The Lord our God spoke to us in Horeb (Sinai), saying, 'You have dwelt long enough at this mountain. Turn and journey, and come to the mountain of the Amorites and to all its neighboring places, in the plain, on the mountain, and in the lowland, and in the south and by the seashore, the land of the Canaanites, and the Lebanon, until the great river, the Euphrates River.[1]

G-d said “You have dwelt long enough at this mountain”, G-d said to the Jewish people “enough already”, you have had too much of Sinai. This seems quite strange. Wasn't the revelation at Sinai the most important event in our history, the foundation of our religion and the basis of all of the Torah? How can one have “too much” of Sinai? What can be better or more spiritually uplifting than camping at the foot of Sinai?  

Herein lies the first lesson of this verse:

Sinai was a great place to be. The revelation at Sinai was the most formative experience of our people. Having said that, there came a moment when dwelling at Sinai became a distraction. The moment came when G-d told the Jewish people that it was time to take the Sinaic inspiration and bring it to day-to-day life in the land of Israel. You have been there too long, says the verse, it is time to face the real world.

Rashi, the primary commentary of the Torah, offers a homiletic interpretation of the verse:

Aggadic explanation: I have given you much greatness and reward for your having dwelt at this mountain: you made the Mishkan, the Menorah, and the [other] furnishings; you received the Torah; you appointed a Sanhedrin for yourselves, and captains over thousands and captains over hundreds.[2] 

Rashi interprets the verse to mean, not that you have spent too much time at Sinai, but rather, you have achieved much at Sinai. What have you achieved at Sinai? Rashi enumerates the achievements: you made a Mishkan, a dwelling place for G-d, and a Menorah, you received the Torah, and you appointed a Sanhedrin (supreme court) and a system of Justice. What about the most important achievement? What about experiencing the divine revelation? Moses himself spends a good chunk of next week's portion describing the revelation at Sinai:   

For ask now regarding the early days that were before you, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and from one end of the heavens to the other end of the heavens, whether there was anything like this great thing, or was the likes of it heard? Did ever a people hear God's voice speaking out of the midst of the fire as you have heard, and live?[3]

When Moses told the Jewish people to pack their bags and depart the camp at the foot of Mount Sinai, the people were surely unhappy. They certainly preferred to remain in spiritual paradise, they must have feared the possibility of losing inspiration, vision and spiritual resolve. Moses reassured them. He told them not to worry. He told them that after all the time spent at Sinai they certainly had the tools to continue their journey to the promised land. Therefore, when Moses enumerated the achievements at Sinai he mentioned, not the revelation itself, but rather he spoke of the Menorah, the study of Torah and the court system. These were symbols, not of an earth-shattering, awe-inspiring experience, but rather these were symbols of a divine wisdom being implemented into daily life. Moses understood that Sinai was spiritual bliss, but to fulfill the purpose of creation, to connect heaven and earth, the Jewish people needed to follow specific steps, they needed to introduce measured, consistent, spirituality into their lives.

Moses taught an important lesson. Yes, the occasional spiritually intense moment is critical. Yes, once a year we need to experience a Yom Kippur, a day in which we are like angels in heaven.  But that it is not enough. The question we ask ourselves is, not how often do we feel as spiritual as we do on Yom Kippur, but rather, the question is, what specific action will we take today to ensure that our life is imbued with the light of the Torah's teachings?[4] 

 


[1] Deuteronomy 1:6-7. 

[2] Rashi on Deuteronomy 1:6.

[3] Deuteronomy 4:32-33.

[4] Bases on the teachings of the Rebbe, Likutey Sichos Volume 24, Devarim Sicha 2.  

A Stick for the Journey

A Stick for the Journey  

The twelve tribes of Israel, descending from the twelve sons of Jacob, are sometimes referred to as the twelve Shevatim, which means branches, and at other times, such as in the opening phrase of this week's Torah portion, are called Matos which means sticks. 

Read literally, the opening phrase sounds something like this: “Moses spoke to the heads of the sticks”. The question immediately presents itself: why would the Torah use the word stick to describe a tribe?

Shvatim, branches, is a beautifully poetic choice of a word to describe the tribes. It evokes the image of a beautiful tree sending forth its branches in all directions, each branch, while unique in its specific character, intrinsically connected to the root. It evokes the image of the diverse family of Jews, all sitting around our forefather Jacob.

Matos, sticks, conveys none of that warmth and beauty. A stick is dry, a stick is hard. Why, then, would we call ourselves sticks?

A stick was once a branch. At one point the stick was just an extension of a tree. Yet eventually, the branch was separated from the tree, and over time its moisture dried up, and it hardened to the point that when looking at the stick it is hard to imagine that this stick was once part of a living tree.

The stick metaphor is therefore a great analogy for the Jewish family. Initially, we were a small group, we all sat around the same table, we all recognized one another and we saw each other as different branches of a common tree-trunk. And then, as the generations passed, we look around and we didn't necessarily identify with all the members of our now extended family. We know that once upon a time we had a common ancestor, we know that we were all part of the same tree, but now, we feel more like a stick who is separate and independent from the other sticks in the neighborhood.  

The same is true for our soul. In some ways, our souls have become sticks.

Yes, each and every soul was once a branch, visibly connected to its source, alive and sensitive to spirituality. And then the soul descended into this world, its connection to its roots is no longer visible. Its openness to the Divine reality, its sensitivity to the intangible is severely compromised. 

And yet, the transition from branch to stick, however difficult for the soul, is not just necessary but it is also tremendously beneficial and rewarding. For only once the soul descends into this world, detaching itself from its tree, facing the challenges of human life, does it discover and express the strength hidden within its deepest recesses. Only once it is severed from it source does it gain the strength of a stick, enabling it to achieve what no branch can achieve. As a stick it has the chance to experience a more powerful relationship with G-d, a relationship that is strong enough to survive, and is intensified by, the challenges of this world. As a stick it has the power to do what no soul has ever done in branch form; as a stick it has the power to impact the physical world.  

This is why immediately following the portion of Matot, sticks, comes the portion of Masey, journeys (which describe the 42 journeys traveled by the children of Israel from Egypt to the Land of Israel). These two portions are often combined. The message is clear: there is no way to journey to our goal, to journey toward the fulfillment of our potential, and to journey toward fulfilling our purpose of creation, without achieving what can only be achieved when the branch becomes a stick. For it is the stick, the strength that we must produce in order to overcome challenge, that leads to the journey toward, first to the figurative, and then to the actual, land of Israel[1].


 

[1] Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Likutey Sichos, Volume 18, Matos-Masey.

Pinchas vs. Moses

Pinchas vs. Moses 

There is a powerful, yet, seemingly unfair, contrast between the reward which Pinchas received for his deed and the reward which Moses did not receive for his similar deeds.

Pinchas was the hero of the moment. In what was an act of great self sacrifice, putting his own life in danger, risking revenge by the tribe of Simeon, Pinchas killed the leader of the tribe of Simeon and the Midianite woman, thus stopping the plague that ravaged the Jewish people.

As the Torah relates the dramatic story:

Then an Israelite man came and brought the Midianite woman to his brethren, before the eyes of Moses and before the eyes of the entire congregation of the children of Israel, while they were weeping at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.          

Pinchas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron the Kohen saw this, arose from the congregation, and took a spear in his hand.            

He went after the Israelite man into the chamber and drove [it through] both of them; the Israelite man, and the woman through her stomach, and the plague ceased from the children of Israel[1].

In the opening statement of this weeks portion Pinchas receives an awesome reward from G-d for his great act of courage. A reward not only for himself but also for his descendents for all time:

Pinchas the son of Eleazar the son of Aaron the Kohen has turned My anger away from the children of Israel by his zealously avenging Me among them, so that I did not destroy the children of Israel because of My zeal.

Therefore, say, "I hereby give him My covenant of peace.

It shall be for him and for his descendants after him [as] an eternal covenant of priesthood, because he was zealous for his G-d and atoned for the children of Israel."[2]

Pinchas receives an incredible award. Pinchas receives the gift of priesthood, not only for himself but also for his descendants for all time. Why does he merit this great reward? Because he “turned My anger away from the children of Israel”, because, with his act, he caused G-d to forgive the Jews.

In this very Parsha we read about the desire of Moses to see his own children succeed him. Moses beseeches G-d:

Let the Lord, the God of spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation, who will go forth before them and come before them, who will lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord will not be like sheep without a shepherd."[3]

According to Rashi, Moses asked G-d to appoint his own child as his successor, yet G-d refused:

When Moses heard that the Omnipresent told him to give Zelophehad’s inheritance to his daughters, he said, “It is time to ask for my own needs-that my son should inherit my high position.” The Holy One, blessed is He, said to him, That is not My intention.[4]

This seems terribly unfair. If Pinchas was rewarded with the gift of his children inheriting his priesthood because he “turned My anger away from the children of Israel” just one time, why did Moses not merit the same reward? After all, Moses turned G-d’s wrath away from the children of Israel numerous times (at the sin of the golden calf, at the sin of the spies, to name just two instances)!  

There was an important difference between the leadership of Moses and the leadership of Pinchas, which will explain why Pinchas’ position of leadership was passed on to his children.

Moses was the leader during the time of spiritual illumination. At every turn he was led by G-d. G-d was at his side, holding his hand, directing his every step. From the moment of the first revelation at the burning bush, to the day of his passing, Moses’ primary job was to communicate the Divine revelation to the people. Moses did not face moments of personal spiritual darkness. Moses was blessed with the constant revelation of the Divine countenance.

Pinchas, by contrast, steps up to the plate and shows leadership in a time of great spiritual confusion. There was no Divine communication; Moses himself was at a loss of what to do. Pinchas faced a completely different situation than Moses did. Moses continuously had to figure out how to communicate the divine revelation to the people.  Pinchas, however, faced a very different challenge: what to do when there was no clear directive from Moses? What to do when many of the leaders of the people were engaged in sin and there was no clear spiritual and moral path forward? What did Pinchas do? Pinchas took action.  Pinchas did not wait for the revelation from above; he found the path forward from within the spiritual darkness.

This is why Moses' style leadership could not be passed on. Not always can one rely on Divine revelation and intervention. Divine revelation will not necessarily prepare the leader, or his descendants, for the moment when the revelation is over. Pinchas by contrast, was able to find the right path without relying on Divine revelation. His leadership, therefore was not limited to a specific time, and the skill of finding the right path forward could be passed on to his children and grandchildren as well.


Like Pinchas before him, Jeremiah, who we read about in the Haftarah, also led the people in a time of spiritual darkness. He was the prophet in the years leading up to the destruction of the temple and the exile of the Jewish people.

Jeremiah did not feel up for the task. As we read in the Haftorah:

And I said, "Alas, O Lord God! Behold, I know not to speak for I am a youth[5].”

G-d responds by reassuring Jeremiah that he has the power to lead in what were the darkest moments of Jewish history:

And the Lord said to me; Say not, "I am a youth," for wherever I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak[6].

Like Jeremiah, we question our ability to bring light and spiritual warmth to the world. Yet, we know that the words of the Haftorah - G-d reassuring Jeremiah of his ability to inspire in times of terrible crisis - apply to us as well. The lesson we must take from Jeremiah, as we begin the three week period which marks the commemoration of the destruction, is that we too must carry the word of G-d, the values and teachings of the Torah, to a world that is often spiritually dark.

G-d’s words to Jeremiah apply to each of us:

When I had not yet formed you in the womb, I knew you, and when you had not yet emerged from the womb, I had appointed you; a prophet to the nations I made you[7].

Each and every soul is a prophet, carrying the divine message to this world. Each and every soul has the power to inspire all those she touches. Each and every soul was sent to this world to do just that.[8]

 


[1] Numbers 25:6-8.

[2] Numbers 25:11-13.

[3] Numbers 27:16-17

[4] Rashi on Numbers 27:16.

[5] Jeremiah 1:6.

[6] Jeremiah 1:7.

[7] Jeremiah 1:5.

[8] Adopted based the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutey Sichos Pinchas, volume 18 sicha 3.

The Secret of Jewish Strength

The Secret of Jewish Strength

For a leader living in Biblical times, before the era of sophisticated intelligence gathering, modern spy satellites, and NSA electronic surveillance, preparing for war included calling on a prophet to give insight into the nature and character of the enemy.

In our Parsha, Balak, king of Moab, does just that. Balak is afraid of being attacked by the children of Israel, so he sent for the Prophet Bilam:

“He sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor, to Pethor, which is by the river of the land of his people, to call for him, saying, "A people has come out of Egypt, and behold, they have covered the "eye" of the land, and they are stationed opposite me.

So now, please come and curse this people for me, for they are too powerful for me. Perhaps I will be able to wage war against them and drive them out of the land, for I know that whomever you bless is blessed and whomever you curse is cursed."

Balak asked Bilam to come curse the Jews, but he also wanted to understand the nature of the Jews. Who were they? What was the secret to their strength? What were their weaknesses? The curse, Balak hoped, would be more than just a mystical weapon but rather, it would serve a practical purpose as well. A curse is an attack on the personality of the person being cursed; the prophet hired to curse was expected to identify character traits worthy of curse, the king would then have a better understanding of the enemy, and would seek to exploit the enemy's character weaknesses and vulnerabilities in the battle.

This story of Bilam, then, is a story about the character of the Jews; how G-d perceives them, how they perceive themselves, and how the nations of the world should, and ultimately will, perceive them.

In the first series of blessings, Bilam is addressing the fear which caused the Moabites to hire Billam to curse the Jews in the first place. The Torah describes the fear as follows:

“Moab became terrified of the people, for they were numerous.”

Addressing this fear, Bilam responds:

“Who counted the dust of Jacob or the number of a fourth of Israel? May my soul die the death of the upright and let my end be like his."

Moab feared the Jews “for they were numerous”, Bilam responds: who cares about their number? “Who counted the dust of Jacob”? Their strength is not in their physical numbers. Do not look at the “dust”, at their materialistic elements, because their “dust” - the body which G-d formed of “dust from the ground” - is not the secret of their success, or source of their strength. Their strength is their spirit, which, unlike their “dust”, can’t be measured.

Billam is honest enough to admit that, despite all his prophetic powers, he is unable to grasp the precise nature of the Jew’s strength, because the power of the Jew is completely different than Bilam’s understanding of power.  

The conventional meaning of power is the solidification of one's existence. The strength of the Jew, by contrast, is their ability to be like their patriarchs and matriarchs, to be like a flame yearning to escape the confines of the candle, to lose its confining existence and to become one with the Divine oneness. The Jew’s strength is his ability to defy his own ego and to sacrifice for someone else. The strength of the Jew is his understanding that the true existence is not himself but rather it is G-d.   

Bilam wants to describe their power, but he cannot grasp or explain it, so he does what prophets do when they have a message too deep for people to understand: he offers a parable.

“I see them from mountain peaks, and I behold them from hills.”

While the straightforward meaning of this verse is that Bllam was standing on a mountain peak gazing at the Jewish camp, Rashi, uncharacteristically, ignores the straightforward interpretation and interprets this verse as a parable.

Rashi explains:

I see them from mountain peaks: I look at their origins and the beginning of their roots, and I see them established and powerful, like these mountains and hills, because of their patriarchs and matriarchs.  

Their strength, says Billam, is a strength, not of numbers, not of physical might, but rather of spiritual fortitude which they inherit from their patriarchs and matriarchs.

In the next series of Blessings, Billam continues on the same theme, this time directing his words to the Jews themselves:

“How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!”.

Jacob and Israel are both names of the Jew. On weekdays, when the Jew is immersed in worldly matters, struggling to make the world a holier place, the Jew is called Jacob, as Jacob is the name that alludes to the struggles with Esau. On Shabbat, when the Jew retreats from the chaos of worldly struggles and returns to his natural spiritual environment, spending the day on matters of the soul, he is called Israel. For the Jew, on Shabbat - prevailing and becoming a ruling minister - the meaning of the Hebrew word Israel - over the struggles of the past week.

Billam is telling the Jew: “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!”, your “Jacob”, your weekday, your involvement with the material is beautiful. But you must remember that it is only a “tent”, it is only a temporary state. You are in the tent to fulfill a purpose. It is not your natural home. 

“Your dwelling places, O Israel!”. Your Israel, your soul-nourishing Shabbat, is your dwelling place. That is who you are. That is how you should self define. That is your essence.    

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