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Blog - Torah Insights

Dreaming of Light

CC.jpgDreaming of Light  

The great Pharaoh, ruler of the world’s mightiest superpower, was in distress. Pharaoh was in agony because of the two dreams he dreamt one night.

Pharaoh dreamed of seven fat, robust, cows being eaten up by seven lean ugly cows. He then had a second dream, this time seven thin and beaten ears of grain devoured seven healthy and good ears of grain. 

Pharaoh was shaken.

The Torah tells of how he summoned his advisers seeking an explanation to his dreams:

Now it came to pass in the morning that his spirit was troubled; so he sent and called all the necromancers of Egypt and all its sages, and Pharaoh related to them his dream, but no one interpreted them for Pharaoh. [1]

Why was this dream so troubling to Pharaoh? Did Pharaoh not have other dreams he ignored in the past? Why did this dream affect him so deeply, to the extent that when Joseph interpreted the dreams to his satisfaction, he awarded Joseph with the position of viceroy of Egypt?

Pharaoh was the most powerful person in the most powerful kingdom of his time. Yet, like many powerful people, Pharaoh had a deep persistent concern, he always feared what would happen if the people would rebel against him? What would happen if neighboring countries decided to band together and dethrone him? He may have held tremendous power but deep down he feared that one day he might be challenged and his power might be lost.

To manage his fears, Pharaoh would constantly reassure himself that he had nothing to fear, because in a battle between the mighty and weak the mighty would prevail and the weak would be crushed. He would remind himself that in a confrontation between the powerful and the powerless, the powerful would triumph every time.

And then came the dreams.

The dreams were so troubling because they were the antithesis to what Pharaoh was reassuring himself. The dreams undermined and undercut Pharaoh’s sense of security, because they spoke of the weak overpowering the mighty, the emaciated cows and the downtrodden ears triumphing over the powerful cows and healthy stalks. [2]

Pharaoh was shaken because the dream reinforced his deepest fears.

Joseph interpreted the dreams and explained to Pharaoh that the dreams represent seven years of famine that would follow seven years of plenty; he told Pharaoh to appoint someone to gather food during the years of plenty in preparation for the years of famine. Pharaoh was relieved and appointed Joseph the viceroy of Egypt.

Joseph interpreted the dreams for Pharaoh, but he also drew his own lessons from the dreams. The Zohar, the primary book of Jewish mysticism, teaches that there were multiple layers of meaning embedded within the dream. Joseph shared the outer layer with Pharaoh yet he kept the inner layers of interpretation close to his heart.

The dreams encouraged Joseph to facilitate the transplanting of his father’s household to Egypt. The dreams reassured Joseph that, although the Jews were destined to experience terrible oppression in Egypt, in the end they would triumph and emerge as a great nation, a “nation of priests” [3]. Joseph was reassured that the physically weak Jewish people, would prevail over the mighty Egypt.

The lesson Joseph derived from the dreams was echoed many centuries later during the story of Chanukah [4]. Like Joseph, the Maccabees believed that the morally superior would succeed against the most powerful army of the time. They believed in what we say in the Chanukah prayers: “You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton sinners into the hands of those who occupy themselves with Your Torah.” [5]

As we light the Chanukah Menorah and listen to the whisper of the candles we hear their message of hope. We hear the candles tell us of the miracles of the past as well as the miracles of the future. We listen as the candles reassure us that ultimately, over time, the good will prevail over evil and light will expel the darkness. The candles remind us to appreciate the superiority of spirit over matter. The candles remind us to create miracles in our lives and in the world around us. They remind us to work toward a time when the world will be filled with light.

 


[1] Genesis 41:8.

[2] See Mayan Beis Hashoavah, Parshas Miketz.

[3] Exodus 19:6.

[4] The story of Pharaoh's dreams, in the portion of Miketz, is read in close proximity to Chanukah. 

[5] Vial Hanisim prayer.

Binding Bundles

Binding Bundlesw.jpg

So much of our history was shaped by the conflict between Joseph and his brothers. Much of the tension can be traced back to Joseph telling his brothers about the dreams he dreamed in which he saw that they would bow to him. As the Torah relates:

And Joseph dreamed a dream and told his brothers, and they continued to hate him. And he said to them, "Listen now to this dream, which I have dreamed: Behold, we were binding sheaves in the midst of the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and also stood upright, and behold, your sheaves encircled [it] and prostrated themselves to my sheaf."[1]

Everything in the Torah is precise. The setting of the dream, the brothers binding sheaves of wheat in the field, was chosen specifically because gathering stalks into bundles is a metaphor for the purpose of the Jew on this earth.

As we look around the world, we often experience the world as concealing the truth of the one G-d. Often it is a challenge to feel unity of the one G-d in the chaos around us. How did this disconnect emerge? By what process does the oneness break down into multiplicity?

Let us think about a sentence. Though a sentence is combined of many letters it is able to convey one specific idea, as long as the many letters combine in an orderly fashion to create words, and those words align in a specific order to convey the one idea. If, however, the letters that form the words are separated from each other, if their order is lost, then, although the letters themselves are intact, the meaning, the idea and the energy conveyed by the sentence is lost.

The same is true with the creation of the universe. The world was created by Divine speech. G-d spoke and the world came into being. Those sentences, “let there be light”, let there be a firmament” etc., conveyed the Divine energy. Somewhere along the way, in a process called “the breaking of the vessels”, the letters and words separated from each other, they were rearranged, and as a result, the meaning, the purpose, and the divine source, is no longer legible within the universe.

What was once a unified sentence that expressed the truth of reality, now appears to be no more than a mix of random, fragmented letters.

And this is where the children of Jacob entered the picture. The twelve tribes of Israel were charged with the mission of collecting and organizing the scattered letters, they were tasked with arranging them in the proper order which would allow the meaning to be conveyed. Thus, in the dream, Joseph and his brothers were in the field binding individual, seemingly random, stalks, and creating a unified bundle.

Living on this earth a person is constantly pulled in many directions. In the same day a person may have to be a father, a spouse, a son, and an employer. He must eat, drink, sleep and groom. He must feed his psychological needs, and nourish his spiritual soul, he must relax, and he must invest time in achieving his long term goals. No wonder then, that at the end of a day, a person is often drained and uninspired. He feels that too much of his day was spent on trivial matters: overcoming distraction, finding a parking spot, or waiting in line at the coffee shop.

Yet the Jew knows that his task is to collect the various scattered sparks embedded in the various experiences and combine them into one meaningful entity. Moving through the day we take the scattered letters - what seems like mundane and trivial moments - and string together a meaningful sentence. We spend our time bundling sheaves of wheat, taking individual stalks and revealing that they can be bound together in a common purpose.

The Children of Jacob understood that their job was to demonstrate that there need not be a dichotomy between body and soul. That life does not have to be a collection of meaningless fragmented moments. Every activity, every moment and every detail in life can be an expression of the same intention: to fill our life, and the lives of the people around us with a unified purpose, to fill the world with goodness and kindness. Through binding the scattered stalks of wheat, revealing the spark of holiness in every experience, and organizing the letters and allowing them to express the message that the world is an expression of the Divine oneness.[2]    

 


[1] Genesis 37:5-7.

[2] Adapted from Torah Or Parshas Vayeshev. 

Jacob the Sojourner

 V.jpgJacob the Sojourner

In one of the most dramatic scenes in the Torah we read about the emotional reunion of Esau and Jacob. After stealing the blessings that were designated for Esau, Jacob fled to the land of Charan and remained there for twenty years. Finally, in this week’s Parsha, we read about Jacob preparing for and eventually meeting his brother Esau. They embraced, kissed and wept.

Reading this story the question arises: why was the reunion between the brothers short lived? A few verses after the emotional meeting, we read about Esau heading back to the land of Seir, where he had settled, while Jacob remained in Canaan, the land of his ancestors. If the brothers were so moved by their meeting why did they part ways so quickly? 

Another point to ponder: In this story, Esau undergoes an extreme transformation. Initially plotting to kill his brother Jacob, he ends up embracing and crying on his shoulder. What exactly caused the change in Esau’s heart? Why did he no longer begrudge Jacob for stealing his blessing? Which one of the gifts and words of appeasement that Jacob sent to his brother was the one that was effective in penetrating Esau’s heart? 

The key to understand these questions lies in the very first statement Jacob sent to his brother at the opening of the Parsha. Jacob sends messengers to his brother:

And he commanded them, saying, "So shall you say to my master to Esau, 'Thus said your servant Jacob, "I have sojourned with Laban, and I have tarried until now.[1]

Jacob chose his words deliberately. The phrase “I have sojourned”, is what would affect Esau to forego on the stolen blessing and allow him to forgive his brother Jacob.[2]

What image did the word sojourn evoke for Esaus? Where had Esau heard this word before?    

G-d promised Abraham the land of Canaan, yet the promise came with a heavy price. G-d told Abraham:

"You shall surely know that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and oppress them, for four hundred years.[3]

Jacob was telling Esau that although Jacob received the blessing, he was also forced to pay the price for Abraham’s legacy. Jacob told Esau, I indeed was blessed, but I am also the sojourner who will suffer for many years before ultimately returning to the land.

Esau, well aware of the condition of slavery that was tied to inheriting the land promised to Abraham, decided that he had no interest in paying the price for the land. He therefore, willingly chose to migrate to the land of Seir, which although was not the land promised to Abraham, was a land for which one did not have to pay for with four hundred years of sojourning. In Esau’s cost benefit analysis, being a sojourner, was too high a price to pay for the land.

Thus, when Jacob told Esau “I have sojourned”, he was reminding him of the price to be paid for the blessing of their father Isaac. To receive the legacy of Abraham, Jacob reminded Esau, was a great spiritual destiny, but it also demanded a willingness to sacrifice. Esau listened. He understood that indeed the blessings were not for him. They were not the future he envisioned for himself. Thus, he was able to forgive Jacob for stealing the now undesired blessings, and therefore he parted from Jacob, traveled back to Seir. He did so in order to separate himself from having to pay the price of bearing the legacy of Abraham.[4]

Being a sojourner has a spiritual connotation as well.[5] A sojourner who is in a specific place may be tremendously successful, yet he is a sojourner because his stay is but temporary. Jacob and his descendants are sojourners, because to us material blessing is but temporary. It does not capture our true identity. We engage in the physical world, as visitors, because at our core, we are truly at home when we connect to the spiritual.

To carry the legacy of Abraham Isaac and Jacob is to understand that while we are blessed with physical blessings, those blessings do not define our identity. While Esau refused to be a sojourner in the material world, Jacob and his descendants embrace our destiny. We understand that while we seek to prosper and find success, in order to allow us to carry out our mission on this planet, we remember that holiness is our native land, and spirituality is our mother tongue.

 


[1] Genesis 32:5.

[2] See Panim Yafot on our Parsha.

[3] Genesis 15:13.

[4] See Rashi on Genesis 36:6: “because of his brother Jacob,” [as follows:] Because of the note of obligation of the decree: “that your seed will be strangers” (Gen. 15: 13), which was put upon the descendants of Isaac. He (Esau) said, “I will get out of here. I have neither a share in the gift-for the land has been given to him-nor in the payment of the debt.

[5] See Lekutey Sichos, Vayishlach Vol. 1. 

On the Run

Vayetze.jpgOn the Run 

Jacob was on the run.

In the beginning of the Torah portion, Jacob was about to embark on the most difficult journey of his life, fleeing his native land of Canaan, and heading towards the spiritually foreign land of Charan.

Jacob spent twenty difficult years in Charan. He faced enormous challenges, yet he emerged tremendously successful. He left Canaan as a single, impoverished man and he emerged from Charan with a family of four wives, eleven children and great wealth. Jacob himself described the contrast between his impoverished lonely self who arrived in Charan and the remarkable wealthy family he had become in the land of Charan. Jacob said to G-d: “for with my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps”.  

In the beginning of the portion, on his way out of Canaan, we read about Jacob’s famous dream of the ladder reaching heaven. In the opening verses of the portion, the Torah relates how Jacob arrived at “the place”, which refers to Mount Moriah, the holiest place to Judaism and the future home of the Holy Temple:

And he arrived at the place and lodged there because the sun had set, and he took some of the stones of the place and placed [them] at his head, and he lay down in that place. And he dreamed, and behold! a ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven; and behold, angels of God were ascending and descending upon it.[1]

In the last two verse of the portion, describing Jacob’s journey back from Charan, Jacob again encountered angels:

And Jacob went on his way, and angels of God encountered him. And Jacob said when he saw them, "This is the camp of God," and he named the place Machanaim (camps).[2]

There are at least two major differences between the two encounters. The first difference is: in the beginning of the portion, Jacob had to seek out the angels, Jacob “encountered the place”, while at the end of the portion Jacob did not have to seek out the angels, instead the angels found him, as the verse states “angels of God encountered him”.

The second difference is: in the beginning of the portion Jacob sees the angels in a dream, while at the end of the portion Jacob sees the angels while he was awake. 

The Torah teaches a profound lesson.

Jacob was forced to leave the holy environment of the “tents of study” and was forced to plunge into a spiritually dark reality. Jacob overcame the challenge by discovering the sparks of holiness that are at the core of every creation and every experience. Jacob was forced out of the realm of the holy, yet he responded by finding the holy in the realm of the mundane, by finding the holy spark in every experience.

When Jacob was in Charan, when his values and his soul were under threat, the challenge of the culture so foreign to him forced him to grow. Being so distant from his birthplace, he could not rely on retreating to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, but rather, he was forced to discover G-dliness in the land of Charan. He was forced to discover that in order to experience holiness one does not have to dream on the Temple mount, to retreat to the spiritually abstract. He discovered that, if one searches hard enough, the angels are everywhere.

In Charan Jacob discovered that surmounting the challenge to seek holiness in a spiritually hostile environment, elevates the person. That over time, discovering the angels, the sparks of holiness, in daily life becomes easier. Eventually, instead of Jacob having to struggle to encounter the angles, the angles would now encounter him. 

The story of Jacob, related in the opening verse of the portion: “And Jacob left Beer Sheba, and he went to Charan”, is the story of every soul.

Like Jacob, the soul is called upon to leave the comfort of its native land and to descend into the physical world. Like Jacob, the soul leaves an environment where the Divine is easily accessible. Like Jacob, the soul embarks on a journey to a place where it will have to engage with the mundane.

And indeed, just like Jacob, the soul reaches deeper spiritual awareness. The soul discovers that the oneness of G-d can be found everywhere. That no matter how far he or she wanders, no matter how distant the soul's journey, the soul does not have to dream of escaping to an angelic reality. Our soul can wake up, and find holiness everywhere. We can open our eyes and see the angels encountering us.[3]    

 

 


[1] Genesis 28:10-12.

[2] Ibid. 31:23.

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

The Deception

I.jpgThe Deception

In what is one of the most dramatic stories in the Torah, we read about Jacob’s epic deception, he tricked his father Isaac, presenting himself as his older brother Esau, thus stealing the blessing from Esau.

This story raises many questions:

Why did Isaac, the quintessential spiritual person, someone who was prepared to offer himself as a sacrifice to G-d, want to bless his older son, the one who abandoned the tents of study and who spent his time out in the field leading a hunter’s lifestyle?

Why did Rebecca conspire to trick her husband Isaac? If she felt, as she did, that her younger son, Jacob, was deserving of the blessings, why did she not speak to her husband and convince him of her perspective? 

Why the deception?

To understand the story we must look at the actual blessing that Isaac was about to give. Isaac opened his blessings to his son, whom he thought was Esau, with the words:

And may the Lord give you of the dew of the heavens and [of] the fatness of the earth and an abundance of grain and wine. Nations shall serve you and kingdoms shall bow down to you; you shall be a master over your brothers, and your mother's sons shall bow down to you. Those who curse you shall be cursed, and those who bless you shall be blessed."[1] 

The blessing that Jacob received through deception was a blessing for material success. Only later in the story, when Isaac sent Jacob to the land of Charan, did Isaac bless Jacob with the spiritual blessing of the legacy of Abraham and the land of Israel:

And Isaac called Jacob and blessed him... And may the Almighty God bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, and you shall become an assembly of peoples. And may He give you the blessing of Abraham, to you and to your seed with you, that you may inherit the land of your sojournings, which God gave to Abraham."[2]

Isaac never intended to bless Esau with the spiritual blessing and make him the bearer of the legacy of Abraham.[3] Isaac understood that the studious Jacob was the one fit to carry forth the teachings of Judaism. Isaac intended to bless Esau with a blessing of material prosperity. Isaac hoped that a partnership between the secular Esau and the spiritual Jacob would ensure the future of the legacy of Abraham.

Isaac’s plan was not meant to be.

Rebecca understood that the spiritual blessing, the “blessing of Abraham”, which naturally was Jacob’s domain, as well as the blessing of material success, “the dew of the heaven and the fat of the land”, which naturally was Esau’s domain, must both be given to Jacob. She understood that, in Judaism’s view, the material cannot be separated from the spiritual. She understood that materialism devoid of spirituality and spirituality that does not affect the material are both deeply problematic. She understood that Jacob, the spiritual person, must also posses the material blessings.

And here we arrive at the spiritual meaning of deception.

The first instance where the Torah mentions deception is in the context of the sin of the tree of knowledge. The Torah tells us that the serpent who enticed Eve to see “that the tree was good for food and that it was a delight to the eyes” “was cunning, more than all the beasts of the field”. Thus there is a connection between the cunning snake and the deception of Jacob. The Torah teaches us that the deception of the snake can only be corrected by the deception of Jacob.[4]

According to the Zohar, the primary book of Jewish mysticism, Rebecca and Jacob represent Adam and Eve, who, after being deceived by the serpent, were now using cunningness to correct the effect of the snake’s deception. 

What is deception? 

Deception occurs when the inner and outer layers are not in sync. When a person’s external actions are inconsistent with their inner motives they are being deceptive. When the serpent told Eve to focus on the outer layer of reality of the fruit of the tree, that it appeared delightful to the eyes, but not on its inner energy and purpose, that was deception.

And when the intensely spiritual Jacob, sought material blessing, when he invested his ambition in the achievement of material success, he was also being deceptive.[5] Jacob’s seeming interest in materialism was indeed a deception. For in truth Jacob’s inner desire was to serve his spiritual legacy.

On the surface it appeared that Jacob was like the rest of them. That he desired the dew and the fat of the land, the grain and the wealth for its own sake. But that was but a deception. Nothing could be farther from the truth. For Jacob desired material blessing in order to advance his spiritual goals. Jacob wanted the dew and the grain, not for its own sake but rather in order to successfully perpetuate the “blessing of Abraham”.   

 


[1] Genesis 27:28-29.

[2] Genesis 28:1-4.

[3] See Toras Chaim, end of Parshas Toldos.

[4] Lekutey Sichos, Toldos vol. 1.

[5] See Hemshech 5672 page 1317. 

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