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Blog - Torah Insights

Choose Your Place

Choose Your Place

The moment had arrived.

On the sixth day of creation, after the creation of the inanimate universe, the plant life and the animal kingdom, the moment arrived when G-d decided to create the human being. The first verse where the human being is mentioned reads as follows: 

And God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and they shall rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the heaven and over the animals and over all the earth and over all the creeping things that creep upon the earth."[1]

We would expect the verse to describe a truly great feature of the human being. Humanity is capable of awesome accomplishments, the invention of civilization, of art and of philosophy. We have walked the moon, sent rovers to Mars and created the iphone and the app store. Why then does the verse that first describes the human being identify him as someone who can rule the fish, birds and mammals? Is running an animal circus the most interesting thing we can do?

The answer lies in the word “and they shall rule”.

The Hebrew word for “and they shall rule” has another, more common, meaning. The word “Vi’yi’rdu” means to “rule” but it also means to “go down”, “descend”. These two words, rule and descend, have opposite meanings: to rule connotes being on top while to descend connotes being on the bottom, yet, remarkably, biblical Hebrew uses one word to capture both of these two meanings.   

G-d was about to create man. Man would look around the world and wonder about his place in the universe. “What is my place on this earth?” “Where is my place in the hierarchy of creatures? “Am I merely a sophisticated animal, or am I a transcendent creation capable of impulse control, of abstract thinking, personal growth, kindness and connecting to the spiritual?”

The answer to this pressing question, the question of how man should self define, is in the word that has the double meaning, to rule or to descend. G-d was telling the human being that man alone defines his place on earth. Only man can decide to be the “ruler”, the creature who is capable of soaring above and beyond all other creations, or whether he would be the creature lower than all of the animals, capable of falling to the depths of cruelty that no other creature is capable of.

As Rashi explains:

and they shall rule over the fish: Hebrew VaYirdu This expression contains both the meaning of ruling and the meaning of subservience. If he merits, he rules over the beasts and over the cattle. If he does not merit, he becomes subservient to them, and the beast rules over him.

Man is a complicated creature.

The Hebrew word man, Adam, has two meaning which together capture the tension at the heart of the human being. The Hebrew word “adam” means “from the earth”, capturing the Torah’s description of the creation of man: “G-d formed man of dust from the ground”[2], yet Adam, the Hebrew word for man, also means similar, referring to the verse “I will be similar to the one above (G-d)[3].

The most important thing the verse could say to describe the human being, and the purpose of his creation, is that he alone of all creations possesses free choice.

Would he rule and elevate the rest of creation, or would he descend below all other creatures? Would he be “of the earth” or would he be “similar to the one above”?

Only man knows. Only he can determine his place. Only he can write his own story.   

 


[1] Genesis 1:26.

[2] Genesis 2:7.

[3] Isaiah 14:14.

The Inheritance

The Inheritance 

As Moses began to convey his blessings to each of the tribes of Israel on the last day of his life, Moses began his final words by describing how G-d came to Sinai to give the Torah to the Jewish people:

"The Lord came from Sinai and shone forth from Seir to them; He appeared from Mount Paran and came with some of the holy myriads; from His right hand was a fiery Law for them.[1]

Throughout history, the Jewish people refer to Moses as “Moshe Rabeynu”, Moses our Teacher, because, while Moses did many great things for the Jewish people, from liberating them from Egypt to conquering the lands east of the Jordan River, conveying the Torah was his greatest life achievement.  

How then does Moses describe the Torah in his final words to his beloved people? What words, image or metaphor does Moses employ to convey to the Jewish people the preciousness of the Torah? How does he seek to inspire them and to do all in their power to transmit it to the future generations?

There is so much to say about the Torah. He could have said any of the following: “The Torah is infinite Divine wisdom made available to the finite human mind.” “The Torah is the greatest moral code”. “The Torah will fill your life with inspiration.” “The Torah will give meaning to your existence.” Moses, however, said something entirely different:

The Torah that Moses commanded us is a inheritance for the congregation of Jacob.[2]

Moses understood that, in order for the Torah to survive the test of time, in order for it to be transmitted and studied throughout the generations, more important than telling the Jew about any particular quality of the Torah, more important than knowing what the Torah would add to his life or her life, the most important thing that the Jew needs to know about the Torah, is that the Torah is his or her inheritance.

What is an inheritance, and how is it different from other forms of acquisition?

When purchasing something, the buyer “earns” that which is being purchased. The buyer receives the item in consideration of money being paid.

When receiving a gift there is a reason that the gift is being given to this particular person. The Talmud states that the giver gives a gift because the recipient gives the giver some form of pleasure, joy or satisfaction. In other words, while the recipient of the gift did not pay for the gift by offering payment in accordance with its full value, the gift is “payment” for the intangible satisfaction the recipient gives to the giver. The transfer of ownership from one party to another can only occur if the recipient wants the transfer to take effect.  

Inheritance is a different story altogether.

A person may have a child who is merely one day old, the person may have never seen his child, and in fact, may not even know that the child exists. The child, has no capacity to understand that there is an estate, and he is its heir. And yet the transfer takes effect. The heir inherits the estate in its entirety, not because of anything he did, not because he wants it. The heir receives the inheritance because there is an essential bond between the parent and child. The child inherits from the parent, not because the child is deserving, but because deep down, on the soul level, they are one.

The Torah is the inheritance of every Jew.

Moses understood that the most important thing a Jew must know about the Torah is that the Torah is his inheritance, that the Jew and the Torah are bound at the soul level. That even if the Jew is not aware of the preciousness of the Torah, even if the Jew does not want the Torah and even tries to escape it, he and the Torah are one.

The Torah may or may not be the bestselling book out there, but it is our book.

To the Jew living in a particular age, Torah may or may not be the most popular story, but it is his story.

The Torah is our inheritance because at the core of our identity we yearn to hear its words, its stories and its teachings. The Torah is our inheritance because of the essential bond between the Torah and the Jewish soul. The Torah is our inheritance because no matter how much knowledge we acquire, our soul will still  yearn for something deeper. No matter how many libraries of wisdom we acquire, our soul will still yearn for the Torah. Because the Jew, the Torah, and the Holy One Blessed be He are all one.  

 

 


[1] Deuteronomy 33:2.

[2] Ibid. 33:4. 

Find Yourself

Find Yourself

The Song of Haazinu - the song Moses sang to the Jewish people on the final day of his life, the song that encompasses all of Jewish history, from the “days of yore” to the future redemption - begins with a description of the great kindness that G-d expressed to the Jewish people. G-d protected them in the desert and gave them his most precious treasure - the Torah. As Moses tells the people in beautiful, poetic, language: 

He (G-d) found them in a desert land, and in a desolate, howling wasteland. He encompassed them and bestowed understanding upon them; He protected them as the pupil of His eye.[1]

Most of the verse is understood: “He encompassed them” - G-d surrounded them in the desert and protected them with the “clouds of glory”. “bestowed understanding upon them” - He gave them the Torah. But what is the meaning of “He found them in a desert land”? The word “found” implies that the finder found something unexpected. Did G-d just happen to find the Jews roaming in the desert? Did He not take them out of Egypt and lead them into the desert? How could Moses say that G-d found them in the desert?

Rashi, the primary Biblical commentator, explains that, indeed, G-d did find the unexpected in the desert. As the Jews expressed profound faith in G-d, following Moses into an inhospitable desert, and committing to accept the Torah. As Rashi explains:

He found them in a desert land: God found them [i.e., Jacob’s sons] faithful to Him in a desert land, for they accepted His Torah, His sovereignty, and His yoke upon themselves-something that Ishmael and Esau did not do, 

and in a desolate, howling wasteland:An arid, desolate land, a place of howling (יְלֵל) jackals and ostriches. Yet even there, Israel followed their faith. They did not say to Moses, “How can we go out into the desert, a place of drought and desolation?”

In the desert G-d found the unexpected, he found a people that were committed to him, that believed in him, in a way that was beyond reason.       

Many relationships are rational. People fall in love because they mutually benefit each other. There is a give and take between that which benefits both parties. The love is rational as it is based on the benefit each party receives from the other. But then there comes a time, that in order for the relationship to survive, what is necessary is not a calculated love, where one gives of him or herself in exchange for what he or she receives from his or her partner, but a love and commitment that is beyond the calculated, business-like, relationship.

Every relationship begins with two happy partners who both feel that they are gaining from the relationship, but what separates the enduring relationship from the transient one, is that somewhere along the way, a deeper, unexpected, commitment was “found”. At some point a person looks at him or her self and is surprised at the level of feeling and connection he or she feels, a connection and commitment that is beyond the logical calculation of investment and reward. When a couple “falls out of love”, when the reason for the initial attraction no longer exists, the relationship will not endure unless, along the way, a deeper connection was “found”.

When a person becomes a parent he or she is overwhelmed with love and devotion to his or her little baby; but no matter how great the love at the moment, at some point later on in life, there is usually a surprise. The parent looks at him or herself and is surprised to have found a devotion and commitment to his or her child that is far greater than what they have ever imagined.

The same it true about our relationship with G-d. Initially the connection between G-d and the Jewish people was a contractual one, where each party was supposed to give something in return for what he would get. G-d would redeem the people from Egypt, bring them to their ancestral land, the land of Israel, and in turn the people would uphold their part of the deal by keeping the Torah. This was a reasonable deal for both parties. But then the unexpected happened. In the desert, G-d found a deeper dimension of the relationship. In the desert G-d discovered that the Jewish people were loyal to him, following Moses into the frightening desert, beyond the dictates of reason.[2] This was no longer a calculated relationship, the people dug deep within their hearts, and found within themselves a commitment to G-d that was deeper than they themselves had ever anticipated.

The portion of Haazinu is read in proximity to Sukkot, the festive seven day holiday that follows Yom Kippur and is an expression of the deep joy in the connection between G-d and the Jewish people. Celebrating in the Sukkah, commemorating G-d’s placing our ancestors in Sukkahs as they left Egypt, we must “find ourselves”, just as G-d “found” the Jews in the desert. When we leave our home to dwell in the Sukkah we must leave behind the notions of self that limit us. We must realize that within each of us there are hidden, unexpected, treasures waiting to be mined and discovered.

We each have infinite hidden strength, courage, kindness and holiness. As we begin the new year, as we sit in the Sukkah celebrating G-d’s embrace, let us surprise ourselves. Let us “find ourselves”. Let us find our true selves.[3]   

 

 


[1] Deuteronomy 32:10.

[2] Just a few months later, when the people sinned and violated the covenant by creating the golden calf, G-d forgave them. Not because they were worthy of forgiveness but because the relationship between G-d and the people of Israel reached a point that was deeper than a cost-benefit analysis. The forgiveness was an expression of love that was greater than reason.  

[3] Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutey Sichos Haazinu, Vol. 34. 

Keep Walking

In loving memory of my dear great aunt, Mrs. Tzipora Feldman, who passed away, and was laid to rest, today in Jerusalem, Israel. She and her late husband, both survivors of Aushwitz, migrated to Israel, raised a beautiful family, and led a life of kindness and devotion to Hashem. She was a kind righteous woman who always "kept walking". May her soul be bound in the eternal bond of life. 

Keep Walking

The opening phrase of the portion of Vayelech, which chronicles the last day of the life of Moses, begins with the words:

And Moses went, and he spoke the following words to all Israel.[1]

The Torah tells us “And Moses went”, the question is: where did he go? Reading the verse and understanding its context reveal that Moses went nowhere at all. At that point, all the people of Israel were already assembled, as described in the opening verses of last week's Parsha: “You are all standing this day before the Lord, your God the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel”.[2]

“And Moses went”, therefore, is not a description of what Moses did on that day, but rather it is a description of what Moses did every day of his life. The Kabbalists[3] explain that the essential difference between an angel and a human being is that an angel is stationary but, by contrast, a human being “walks” and experiences change. An angel does not experience good days and bad days, an angel is never in a bad mood and an angel never has a bad hair day. There are angels who feel a love towards G-d and angels who feel awe of G-d, but what they both have in common is that the feeling and its intensity always remain the same.

A person is another story altogether. A person is almost never stationary. A person experiences a wide spectrum of changing emotions. A person experiences mood swings, one minute a person feels truly altruistic and the next moment the person feels as self centered as a beast.

The human state of change, as opposed to the stationary state of the angels, while on the surface may seem like a disadvantage, is in fact a tremendous advantage. Yes, we have bad days, yes, we lose our temper and we can be cruel to the people we love, but our existence has meaning. We are not a beautiful painting that does not change, we are a living breathing human being who is capable of growth. Yes, we may fail, we may falter, but we can also generate the deep courage to get up dust ourselves off and continue walking. When doing so, we experience growth. We are forced to create a deeper commitment to good; one that the soul did not experiences while it was in heaven, unchallenged, basking in the glory of the Divine.

“And Moses went”, therefore, is a description of the purpose of the descent of the soul of Moses, as well as the soul of every person, into this world.[4] “And Moses went” is the purpose of life - to go forward, to walk, to grow.

On the last day of Moses’s life, after “Moses went”, after he achieved his life's mission and purpose, Moses says:  

"Today I am one hundred and twenty years old. I can no longer go out or come in, and the Lord said to me, "You shall not cross this Jordan."

When Moses says “I can no longer go out or come in”, he does not mean that he is too frail and weak. The Torah testifies that “His eye had not dimmed, nor had he lost his moisture”. The Kabbalistic interpretation of “I can no longer go out or come in” is that Moses has completed his mission and thus reached completion and was no longer subject to “go out”, he was no longer subject to falling from his lofty state, no longer subject to failure, and, therefore, he was also no longer subject to “come” to a higher level. Because, if there is no possibility for failure, there is also no possibility for growth. In a state of perfection where the challenge of failure is not possible, there is also no ability to experience the uniquely human sensation of transformation. 

We read the portion of Vayelech just a few days before Yom Kippur, when we are called upon to seek atonement and forgiveness for our mistakes, and to try to overcome our shortcomings and correct our failures. On the soul stirring day of Yom Kippur, as we seek to connect to the purity of our soul, we sometimes wonder why G-d has created us as flawed creatures. We sometimes wish that we would be more like the perfect holy angels, who we emulate as we fast on Yom Kippur. Yet Moses teaches us otherwise. “And Moses went”. Moses tells us that the beauty of life is “to go”, to grow, to walk and to change.

Moses teaches us that G-d is not looking for a perfect person. What G-d wants is a person who sometimes falls, but never stops trying. A person who sometimes struggles, but never stops walking. 

 


[1] Deuteronomy 31:1.

[2] Ibid. 29:9. 

[3] See Torah Or Vayeshv page 30.

[4] See Pri Tzadik, Parshas Vayelech. 

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