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Blog - Torah Insights

The Light of Sinai

The Light of Sinai

Every Shabbat evening, as darkness descends upon the earth and the Shabbat departs, we perform the Havdalah ceremony. We fill a cup of wine, we thank G-d who distinguishes between the weekday and the Shabbat. We smell the spices and we say a blessing over the braided Havdalah candle.

Why do we light the Havdalah candle on Saturday night?

The Midrash[1] teaches that while Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden they experienced no darkness, as a constant Divine light shined in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden on Saturday night, which was the first time that they were engulfed in darkness. They were frightened by the darkness, until G-d gave them the wisdom to strike flint stones together and create fire. To commemorate the light created by Adam and Eve, we too light the fire every Saturday night.

Why is the discovery of fire so significant? Do we commemorate the first time Adam ate a tuna sandwich or took a swim or sang a song?

The Garden of Eden was a place where the Divine light shined. After Adam and Eve sinned, after they lost their innocence, they were expelled from experiencing the Divine light. They were devastated. They were overtaken by physical darkness. But more frightening to them was the prospect of remaining in spiritual darkness. They were afraid that they had forever lost the warm glow of spirituality which they had experienced. And then G-d gave them a profound insight. They understood that the human being must create his own light. The light may not be as glorious and brilliant as the sun, it may not light up all of the sky, yet, in some ways it is more precious and comforting than the sun. For it is light created not by G-d but by man.

As the Shabbat departs, as the holiness of the seventh day retreats, we may feel bereft of spirituality, we may be frightened of the mundane week that lays ahead devoid of the spiritual ecstasy of Shabbat. We therefore light the candle to remind ourselves that what G-d cherishes most are the man made spiritual candles of light. 

***

Six days before the Torah was given, the Children of Israel arrived at Sinai. For the next few days G-d instructed Moses to prepare the Jews for the great revelation, by sanctifying themselves. G-d also warned against climbing Mount Sinai, for anyone who would climb the mountain would die as a result of the intense holiness of the mountain. As the Torah relates:   

And the Lord said to Moses, "Go to the people and prepare them today and tomorrow, and they shall wash their garments. And the Lord said to Moses, "Go to the people and prepare them today and tomorrow, and they shall wash their garments. And you shall set boundaries for the people around, saying, Beware of ascending the mountain or touching its edge; whoever touches the mountain will surely die' No hand shall touch it, for he shall be stoned or cast down; whether man or beast, he shall not live.[2]

The message was clear. G-d was about to descend on the mountain, therefore the people were not to climb the mountain lest they be consumed by the overwhelming awesome holiness of G-d.

The verse, however, continues and offers another detail. The verse states that the boundaries around Sinai were only temporary. As soon as the Divine revelation at Sinai was complete, the people are permitted to climb the mountain:

When the ram's horn sounds a long, drawn out blast, they may ascend the mountain[3].

Rsahi explains:

When the ram’s horn sounds a long, drawn-out blast, this is the sign of the withdrawal of the Divine presence and the cessation of the voice of God. As soon as the Divine presence withdraws, they are permitted to ascend the mountain.

Why was it important to emphasize at this point, before the revelation, that the boundaries around the mountain were only temporary? If the emphasis was the separation from the mountain, why mention that the separation had an “expiration date” and was merely temporary? Seemingly G-d could have waited until after the departure of the thunder, lightning, smoke and voice and only then notify the people that “all is clear” that they may once again climb the mountain?

The permission to climb the mountain after the revelation was not merely a trivial bit of information. It captured the essence of the experience of the Divine revelation at Sinai,   therefore, the people had to hear it at the outset.

The revelation at Sinai, despite being the greatest Divine revelation of all time, was merely temporary. Moments after the revelation there was no lasting effect on the mountain itself. The mountain itself was no different from any other mountain and no different than it had been a few days earlier. Unlike the Temple Mount, which is considered a holy place despite the destruction of the temple almost two thousand years ago, Sinai is no longer a holy place.

Because holiness cannot be superimposed upon the creation.

G-d can descend amidst smoke and fire and speak to the people, yet that does not have a lasting effect on creation. In order for the creation itself to be transformed, change must come from below. Only through the organic effort of the the human to sanctify himself and the world around him is the mundane transformed to holiness.

G-d therefore tells the people that, yes, they are about to experience the most dramatic revelation of the Divine. Yet they must understand that imparting holiness into the world cannot come from above. G-d’s descent into our world will not leave a permanent mark. In order for the world to become transformed, people themselves must take action. 

For the experience of Sinai to become permanent, we need to be the ones to connect heaven and earth. We need to engage in acts of holiness. We are the ones who light our candle and illuminate the night’s sky.[4]

 

 


[1] Bireyshis Rabbah, 12, 6.

[2] Exodus 19:10-13.

[3] Ibid 19:13.

[4] Inspired the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutey Sichos, volume 22, Terumah, Sicha 1.  

The Splitting Sea

The Splitting Sea

Looking at the ocean all we see is water.

The ocean is full of life, it is home to creatures of all sizes and shapes, yet when we look at the ocean all we see is water. The great diversity of creatures, living beneath the surface of the sea, submerged beneath its waters, are hidden from our view. In fact, more than 95 percent of the underwater world remains unexplored[1].  

It is for this reason that the Kabbalists use the sea as a metaphor for the “concealed worlds”. The spiritual worlds are indeed full of spiritual life - angels, souls, energy, Divine light -  yet they are concealed from our eyes. Like the sea, the spiritual worlds are rich with life, like the sea, this life is mostly hidden from our eyes. Dry land, by contrast, is a metaphor for reality as we perceive it. If something is tangible enough to be grasped by our five senses, then it is a creation living on dry land. If it is a spiritual reality that cannot be perceived with the naked eye, it is a creature of the sea, it resides in the concealed world of the sea.

This explains the spiritual significance of the Biblical story of the splitting of the sea. When the Children of Israel were traveling from Egypt toward Sinai, they were pursued by Pharaoh and the Egyptians, they were trapped at the red sea. Miraculously, the sea split before them, they traveled on dry land in the midst of the sea. The Egyptians followed them, and the waters of the sea came crashing down upon them, drowning them. One look at the map of the Middle East will show, that the Jewish people, who were en route from Egypt to Mount Sinai, had no business being at the red sea, which is  southeast of Mount Sinai and therefore in the opposite direction of their destination. In fact, the Jewish people did not cross the sea and emerge on the opposite side, rather they emerged from the sea on the same side on which they had entered the sea.

What was the purpose of traveling to the Red Sea and of the splitting of the sea? Was it just a theater for G-d to drown the Egyptian army? Couldn't G-d have found an easier way to punish the Egyptians?

The answer is, that in order for the people to receive the Torah, they would first need to experience the splitting of the sea.

The sea represents that which is concealed. The sea represents the Divine energy within every created being. The sea represents the spark of holiness that is at the core of every creation.

When the sea split, when the waters were transformed to dry land, when the concealment was transformed to revelation, then the hidden core within every creation was revealed. As the sea split, all of the concealment of the world was torn open, revealing the truth of the oneness of G-d. As the sea split, each and every individual experienced a Divine revelation, the concealed became revealed, to the extent that the Talmud teaches that “a maid-servant at the sea was able to see what the prophet Ezekiel was unable to see"[2].

When we received the Torah at Sinai, we were charged with a mission which seemed impossible. At Sinai we were commanded to connect the physical to the spiritual, the mundane with the holy, the earth to the Divine. How is that even possible? They seem to be polar opposites. 

The splitting of the sea explains it all.

Before G-d could command the people to connect the physical and the spiritual, they must first have experienced the splitting of the sea, the revelation of the concealment. They must understand that the hidden core of all of creation is indeed the creator. They must realize that, in truth, the physical is nothing more then concealed spirituality. Tear open the concealment, and discover the essence. Split the sea, and find that every physical creation craves to be used as a vessel for a Mitzvah, craves to be reunited with its divine source. 

To split the sea in the world around us, to reveal the hidden essence of the world, we must first split our own sea. We must first reveal the hidden reality of our soul. Once we reveal the essence of our soul, we discover that the world around us is disguising a deeper truth, a truth waiting to be revealed.

When the Torah tells the story of the split sea, the Torah emphasizes more than once that the waters of the sea became protective walls for the Jewish people as they traveled through the split sea. When we look at our personalities we like to divide things into two categories: the first is the category of the things that we tell ourselves that we are capable of doing, the things we believe we are good at, the accomplishments that we are comfortable striving for. The second group, are the things we believe to be beyond our grasp. The things that are inconsistent with our nature, ability and inclination. We have a long list of things, we tell ourselves, that we cannot accomplish.

When the sea split the verse emphasizes, more than once, that: “The waters were to them as a wall from their right and from their left”[3]. The Midrash[4] teaches that the protective walls on the right and on the left represent the spiritual protection of the study of Torah - the right side - and of prayer - the left side.

Torah teaches us, that as the sea split, as the concealed world was revealed, the core of the soul was also revealed. At that moment of revelation they realized that the soul defies definition. They realized that they could express themselves in opposite ways. They could excel in opposite fields. They could be introverts as well as extraverts, scholars as well as people of action. “The waters were to them as a wall from their right and from their left”, both the right side and the left side are protective walls. A soul is not limited to a single form of expression. A soul cannot be boxed into one model of achievement. As soon as we reveal our essence, there is nothing that we cannot achieve.  

The stories of the Torah are not merely stories about the past, they are the stories of our life. To achieve the purpose of our creation, we too must experience the three most fundamental events of Jewish history. We must experience the Exodus, the splitting of the sea, and the giving of the Torah.

Each and every day we have the opportunity to escape our Egypt. To escape the enslavement to our perceived limitations. Each and every day we receive the Torah at Sinai empowering us to connect creation to its creator, to reveal the hidden core of the physical. To do so, however, we must first reveal the inner core of our soul, we must split our own sea, reveal our hidden truth, and discover that our essence is indeed limitless. 

We must split our sea and reveal the hidden spark of infinity within our souls.[5]

 


[1] http://www.noaa.gov/ocean.html

[2] Rashi Exodus 15:2.

[3] Exodus 14:22.

[4] Mechilta, Exodus 14:29.

[5] Inspired by the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutey Sichos vol. 3, Sicha for Shviei Shel Pesach. 

The Meaning of Time

The Meaning of Time

The first commandment in the Torah directed to the Jewish people (as opposed to being directed to the patriarchs or other individuals who pre-dated the Jewish people as the nation of Israel) was to establish a Jewish calendar.

Fifteen days before the Exodus, on the first day of the month of Nissan, G-d commanded Moses and Aaron to establish a new month, by observing the new moon. This month would be the first of the months of the year. They were then commanded to instruct the Jews that ten days hence, on the tenth day of the first month, they should designate and prepare a sheep as an offering. On the fourteenth day of the first month they should offer the sheep as a Passover offering, they should eat the offering on the night of the fifteenth, which would coincide with the tenth plague, the plague that would force Pharaoh to set the Jews free.

We would expect that the very first commandment to the Jews as a people would capture a deep spiritual truth, a life altering message, a revolutionary idea that was unique to the nation about to be born. Why then is the commandment of setting a calendar the first thing that G-d commands the new nation? The Jewish people were about to experience radical change, they were about to become a free people. They were about to begin the journey toward accepting the Ten Commandments at Sinai. Why then does G-d burden them with the task of establishing a calendar which seems no more than a footnote to the life altering experiences of the Exodus? A calendar might be a necessary tool for a functional society, yet it does not seem to be a pressing need at the moment of liberation, it seems that a calendar is no more than a bureaucratic tool which could be established sometime in the future.

The one thing which we have no control over is the passage of time. Time ticks by whether we like it or not. All the money in the world, the combined effort of all humanity, cannot stop the clock. We therefore view the passage of time as something we have no control over, as an objective fact independent of human experience. We think of ourselves as bound by time, unable to escape its tight grip on our very existence.

That is until we are commanded to establish a calendar.

When G-d redeemed the Jewish people from Egypt, he charged them with the task of being a holy people. The Jews were called upon to connect heaven and earth, to sanctify the mundane, and to bring the Divine into every facet of creation.

All of creation lies within the boundaries of time. If our mission is to sanctify all of existence, then the first Mitzvah, the place to begin, is with the sanctification of time itself. Setting up the calendar, and establishing the new month based on the sighting of the new moon, is referred to in Hebrew as “Kiddush Hachodesh” - the Sanctification of the new month.

The Biblical system for establishing the calendar was by witnesses who would come to the high court in Jerusalem each month to testify that they had sighted the new moon. The court would then pronounce that day to be a holy day, the day of Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the new month. The Jewish people would wait for news of when the court established the new month. The message they received was, indeed, the human being does control time. The Mitzvah is not to passively observe and mark the passage of time, but rather it is to actively participate in establishing the “Rosh Chodesh”, the beginning of the new months, and the holy days throughout the year.

The message to the Jewish people is, although we cannot control the passage of time, we are very much in control of time itself. We determine the meaning of time. Will this day be mundane or holy; meaningless or filled with sanctity? Will the next moment be just a trivial moment or will it be infused with the infinity of G-d? It is up to us. Time itself is in the hands of each and every individual.

G-d took us out of Egypt and gave us free choice. G-d gave us the ability to be truly free, to be in control of our time.

G-d commanded us to establish a calendar, to understand that we are in control of our time, for r only we can determine its significance and meaning.[1]  

 


[1] Inspired by the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutey Sichos, Bo, Vol. 26 Sicha 1. 

Four Cups of Freedom

Four Cups of Freedom

Two very important concepts, which are often mistakenly understood to be one and the same, are freedom and free choice.  

Free choice is a fundamental principle in Judaism. As Maimonides explains:

Free will is granted to all people. If one desires to turn himself to the path of good and be righteous, the choice is his. Should he desire to turn to the path of evil and be wicked, the choice is his... This principle is a fundamental concept and a pillar [on which rests the totality] of the Torah and Mitzvot as it is written: "Behold, I have set before you today life [and good, death and evil]." Similarly, the verse states, "Behold, I have set before you today [the blessing and the curse]," implying that the choice is in your hands. [1]

On the surface, free choice is synonymous with freedom. If a person has the ability to choose his own path, to decide what he should do in a given scenario, then, conventional wisdom argues, he is free.

But what if a person makes a choice that imprisons himself? What if a person makes a choice to become enslaved to an activity that robs him of his happiness? What if a person decides to suppress his deepest gifts and talents? That person expresses his free choice, but can we say that he is indeed truly free?

Freedom is more than just free choice. To be free is to express one's inner self. A person who has the gift of being a world class musician, yet chooses not to express that gift, is locking up part of his soul. That person exercises free choice, yet that person is not truly free. The ultimate meaning of freedom, in addition to being able to choose freely, is expressing the deepest part of the self.

In the opening verses of this week's Parsha, G-d once again reiterates his promise to redeem the children of Israel from the Egyptian slavery:

Therefore, say to the children of Israel, 'I am the Lord, and I will take you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will save you from their labor, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. And I will take you to Me as a people, and I will be a God to you, and you will know that I am the Lord your God, Who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. [2]

Our sages read these verses and identified within them four expressions of redemption, (“take you out”, “save”, “redeem”, “I will take you”). To commemorate these four expressions of redemption, they instituted that we drink four cups of wine at the Passover Seder.

When we examine the verses we will notice that there are only three expressions that describe the redemption from slavery (“take you out”, “save”, and “redeem”). The fourth expression (“I will take you”) has nothing to do with the redemption from Egypt, rather it refers to the giving of the Torah at Sinai, when G-d takes us as his people. Why then do the sages say that there are four expressions of redemption, and therefore four cups of wine at the Passover Seder, when, in fact, it seems that there are only three?   

The first three expressions of redemption describe how G-d will take us out of Egyptian bondage and give us physical freedom. Yet, physical freedom is not enough. To be truly free, our sages teach us, we must reach the fourth expression of redemption. We must come to Sinai, become the people of G-d, and allow our soul, the deepest part of ourselves, to express itself.

The four cups of wine teach us that freeing the body is not enough. To enjoy true freedom we must experience not merely the first three expressions of redemption, describing the freedom from Egyptian bondage, rather we must also experience the fourth expression of redemption, allowing the soul to express its bond with G-d, thus experiencing ultimate freedom.

Freedom means freeing not only our body, but also our soul.

Redemption means drinking all four cups of freedom.

 

 


[1] Maimonides, Laws of Repentance, chapter 5.

[2] Exodus 6:7.

The Burning Bush

The Burning Bush  

In the portion of Shemot, the first portion of the book of Exodus, we read about Moses experiencing Divine revelation for the first time. The revelation was unique. Moses was tending the sheep of his father-in-law in the desert, when he saw a bush burning, yet the bush was not consumed.

As the Torah [1] describes:

Moses was pasturing the flocks of Jethro, his father-in-law, the chief of Midian, and he led the flocks after the free pastureland, and he came to the mountain of God, to Horeb. An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire from within the thorn bush, and behold, the thorn bush was burning with fire, but the thorn bush was not being consumed. So Moses said, "Let me turn now and see this great spectacle why does the thorn bush not burn up?" The Lord saw that he had turned to see, and God called to him from within the thorn bush, and He said, "Moses, Moses!" And he said, "Here I am!" And He said, "Do not draw near here. Take your shoes off your feet, because the place upon which you stand is holy soil."

In the book of Genesis, when G-d spoke to Adam, Eve, Cain, Noah, Abraham, Hagar, Isaac, Rebekah, Laban, and Jacob, G-d spoke to them directly, without the need for an attention grabbing scheme. Why did G-d choose to reveal himself to Moses from amidst a bush that was burning but was not consumed?

Moses experienced the Divine revelation, not for his own personal sake, rather for the sake of the Jewish people who Moses would lead out of Egypt and to Mount Sinai - the very mountain on which Moses saw the burning bush - to become the nation of G-d, a nation charged with the mission of making G-d’s vision for this world a reality. It follows, then, that the burning bush was not merely a way to grab Moses’ attention, but rather it was the mission statement of the nation that would be born at Sinai, immediately following the Exodus.

A surging fire represents a soul surging upward, yearning to transcend the physical world and connect to spirituality. The annals of religious experience are full of people who felt this burning passion in their heart, and who chose to retreat from this world. They chose to escape civilization, to flee to the forests and hills in an effort to escape the material.  They fled the prickly thorns of daily existence in order to bond with the spiritual.

The most important message of Judaism,, and the first message which G-d communicates to Moses was, that indeed in order to connect to G-d one must reveal the fire burning within the human heart. To experience the Divine one must discover the fire, the passion, the yearning and longing to reconnect with the Divine source of all existence. The fire, however, must not consume the bush. One must not look to escape the world, which sometimes feels like a thorn bush in a desolate place, unsuitable for spiritual growth. 

G-d's first message to Moshe was that the “bush is not consumed” - the fire should not lead one to escape the physical. The consuming fire of G-d must burn in one’s heart, yet, paradoxically, one cannot allow himself to be consumed. One may be the greatest prophet of all time, one may be the lawgiver, one may speak to G-d “like a man speaks to his friend”, but one may not be consumed by the fire. One may not abandon the reality in which one lives, one must not forget about the people around him, one must be like the flame surging upward yet remaining grounded by its wick. 

Moses was fascinated.

How could this be? How could one maintain the fire while living in a thorn bush? Moses said to himself: “Let me turn now and see this great spectacle, why does the thorn bush not burn up?" 

G-d responded to Moses’s wonder:

“Take your shoes off your feet, because the place upon which you stand is holy soil."

G-d told Moses that the physical, “the place on which you stand”, is itself a creation of G-d, which can be elevated to become sacred soil. Indeed, all of the earth can become as holy as Mount Sinai. G-d revealed to Moses the mission statement and purpose of the nation that was about to be born. “The place upon which you stand is holy soil”, we are instructed, not to wear a shoe, which represents separation from the soil, but rather we are instructed to imbue the earth itself with holiness.

The purpose of creation, the reason the soul descends into this world, is to sanctify the material, to discover and to unveil that upon any place on earth there can be a burning bush. [2]

 

 


[1] Exodus, 3:1-5.

[2] Inspired by Sefer Hamaamarim 5704, page 117. 

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