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Blog - Torah Insights

The Shattered Tablets

The Shattered Tablets 

In the holiest place to Judaism, in the “holy of holies” which is the inner chamber of the holy temple, stood an ark containing Judaism's most precious treasures. The ark contained the ten commandments engraved on two stone tablets, the tablets that were given to Moses by G-d himself. 

Less known, is that the ark contained more than just a set of tablets. The Talmud teaches that the ark also contained the shattered stones of the first set of tablets that Moses broke when he saw the Jews serving the golden calf. The Talmud teaches that “the (second) tablets, as well as the shattered (first) tablets stood in the ark”[1].

The holy of holies was a place of ultimate purity and connection to G-d. Only the High Priest, on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, was permitted to enter. In fact, when the high priest entered he would wear four white garments, in contrast to his usual garments made of gold and various colored materials.  The High Priest would remove the “golden garments” before entering the holy of holies, because the holy of holies represented the unity of G-d and the Jewish people unlike gold which was a reminder of the sin of the golden calf. As the Talmud teaches: 

Rav Chisda said: Why does the High Priest not enter the inner precinct in garments of gold to perform the service there? Because the accuser may not act as defender. (‘Gold’ is called the accuser in reference to the Golden Calf. The garments worn by the High Priest in the Holy of Holies there were regarded as propitiatory)[2].

This leads to the question: if the holy of holies was to be free of any reference to the sin of the golden calf, why were the shattered tablets, shattered by Moses as a result of the sin, placed within the ark itself? We must therefore search for the reason that the shattered tablets were placed in the ark. This reason must be important to the extent, that it justified   placing the broken tablets alongside the complete tablets in Judaism’s holiest site.

To study Torah, to grasp Divine wisdom, is to engage in a perpetual paradox. On the one hand one must be utterly humble. All wisdom can only be attained once a person has the humility to understand that there is great wisdom beyond what he already knows. One must be prepared to let go of one’s own deeply held perspective and be open to new possibilities that can shatter deeply held ideas. This is even more so when studying the Torah. To be able to grasp the infinite Divine wisdom, one must transcend one’s his own limited perspective. One must face the limitation of one’s ability to grasp. One must have the humility to appreciate the unbridgeable gap between one’s own mind and the mind of the creator of the universe.  

On the other hand, studying Torah must not be an act of submission and acceptance. The purpose is to engage one’s mind, not to ignore it. Torah study is about engraving the words of Torah in one’s heart and mind. It is about the words of Torah resonating within one’s own mind to the point that they are engraved and they become one’s own perspective. To study Torah one must use the full capacity of his mind. One’s dedication to understanding must be unwavering and complete. 

The holy of holies is the place where heaven kisses earth, where the finite and infinite merge. It is the place that empowers one to be aware of the limits of the human mind, yet to strive for the mind to grasp the infinite. 

And this was the secret of the ark. The ark, the study of the Torah, must have both elements. One must understand the wisdom. The words of Torah must be engraved in one’s mind like the words engraved in the complete tablets. Yet, one must always be humble before the Divine wisdom.

Each of us has an ark in our soul. We must possess both the humility of the shattered tablets, as well as the completeness that comes from comprehensive understanding. We must be humble yet completely engaged in the rigorous, inquisitive quest for wisdom.

Each of us has an ark in our soul.

“The tablets, as well as the shattered tablets stood in the ark[3][4]


 


[1] Talmud, Baba Basra 14b.

[2] Talmud, Rosh Hashanah, 26a.

[3] Talmud, Baba Basra 14b.

[4] Inspired by the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutey Sichos vol. 26 Sicha 3. 

The Bridesmaid

The Bridesmaid

Marriage is complicated.

Take two people who are very different from each other, who grew up in different environments, who have their own unique way of living their lives, put them under the same roof and eventually there will be a clash. Love will get them under the same roof, but, as many a couple have discovered to their terrible disappointment, it won’t prevent the clash of two distinct people, each with their own personality, quirks and perspectives.

The secret to lasting relationships is joy. The Kabbalah teaches that joy has the unique power to destroy barriers. When people are happy, they tend to  go beyond themselves in order to be with other people. When feeling sad, people want to  avoid interacting with other people; conversely when people feel joy they want to get out and celebrate with other people.

When a home is filled with happiness, when the hearts of a man and woman are filled with joy, they can easily transcend their differences.. The happier a person is the more open he is to the perspectives and feelings of another, the more he can see the world through the eyes of his beloved.

That is why a wedding should be, more than anything else, a joyous occasion. Yes, the flowers are significant, the food, the wedding cake and the tuxedo are important. But the main ingredient must be joy. Friends and family, bridesmaids and groomsmen are necessary, not for the pictures and the dessert, but rather to rejoice with the bride and groom. Indeed, it is a Mitzvah to bring joy to the bride and groom, to assist them in experiencing an intense measure of joy, which they will, hopefully, capture and recreate in their relationship over many happy years to come.  

The detailed biblical story of the construction of the portable temple in the desert, a story that spans four complete portions of the Torah, is, in fact, a story of the wedding between G-d, the groom, and his beloved wife, the people of Israel. Like any wedding, much thought and care goes into every detail of the celebration, from the food on the menu (the various offerings and sacrifices), to the color of the curtains and tablecloths (the detailed description of the precise materials and colors of the curtains which served as the roof and the partition of the temple).

The actual Mishkan, the portable temple, consisted of a structure divided by a partition. The partition represented the divergent perspectives of the bride and groom. The inner chamber, the “holy of holies” represented the Divine perspective. There stood the ark with the ten commandments engraved in stone. In the “holy of holies”, awareness of the Divine was engraved into the fabric of existence. In the “holy of holies” one felt that the physical reality had no independent existence,  it was but an expression of the Divine. The “holy of holies” represented what the kabbalists call the “supernal knowledge”, it represented the perspective of the Divine.  

And then there was the perspective of the bride. The bride, the people of Israel,was “outside the partition”, in the outer chamber called the “holy”. She was unable to experience reality from the perspective of the groom. The bride had her own perspective. From her point of view, the world was often a dark place that seemed void of the tangible presence of spiritual light. In her world there were ups and downs, moments of confusion and moments of spiritual ecstasy. In her life there was both “bread” and “incense”, both matter and spirit. In short, her life was a struggle between light and darkness.  

And this is where the bridesmaid came into the picture. The bride had a dedicated friend who helped her prepare for the wedding. When the bride experienced some anxiety about the marriage, the bridesmaid reassured her. It was her job to ensure that the bride would “be in the moment” and enjoy the wedding, that she not be distracted and overwhelmed by the enormity of the event. That she would actually experience the joy necessary to ensure the success of the marriage.

Every bride needs a bridesmaid, and the Jewish people needed  Aaron.

In the the opening verses of this week's portion the Torah commands:

In the Tent of Meeting, outside the dividing curtain that is in front of the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall set it up before the Lord from evening to morning; [it shall be] an everlasting statute for their generations, from the children of Israel.

The Jew is “outside the dividing curtain that is in front of the testimony”, the Jew is outside the perspective of the “tablets of testimony”. The Jew lives in a reality where there is “evening” and “morning”, where there is darkness that must be transformed to light. It is Aaron who kindles the flame in the outer chamber, who inspires the Jew to draw close to the Torah, and experience the Joy inherent in fulfilling the Divine commandments.

Each of us has an Aaron within ourselves. We must seek to light the candles of our soul, to fill our hearts with joy. For joy is the ingredient that allows us to overcome the barriers of separation, and cleave to the Divine.

Each of us must be an Aaron. We must work kindle our own light, and the light of the people around us.

 

The Truth of the Matter

The Truth of the Matter

“In the beginning G-d created the heaven and the earth”.[1]

G-d created a magnificently beautiful world but this world is far from perfect. The Zohar, one of the earliest Kabbalistic works, writes: “this world is a world of lies”. That is because, often, the physical world hides its inner core and essence, often, the physical reality conceals the spiritual soul that is at its core. 

The spiritual worlds, by contrast, are called “worlds of truth”. There, the true nature of creation can be seen. There, the world does not conceal its spiritual energy.  There each creation is aware of its source, and is drawn to reconnect to its source of life. 

Indeed, the last letters of the Hebrew words “in the beginning G-d created” are the letters “tof” (ת), “alef” (א), and “mem” (מ), which spell the Hebrew word for “truth” (אמת). This alludes to the nature of creation. Creation is a place where the truth is concealed, but is waiting to be discovered. If you dig deep enough into the nature of creation, you will discover the truth of the universe.[2]

G-d did his part in creation, and then began looking for a partner to finish the job. He began to search for a people who would make it their business to discover the truth of the world. A people who would help reveal the soul of the world, who would discover that the body is just a conduit for the soul, that the physical is a chariot for the spiritual.

The story of G-d’s search for a nation to partner with spans the first book and a half of the five books of Moses, from creation until the exodus and the giving of the Torah. Finally, we reach the climax of the story. Finally the people would uncover the truth of this world. Finally the people would expose the big lie: the material world is an independent, selfish identity interested only in self preservation. Finally a people would use the material as a vehicle to fulfill G-d’s will, thus aligning it with its soul and spiritual spark.

Thus, the second half of the book of Exodus, the detailed description of the construction of the Mishkan, the portable temple built in the desert, which to some people seems irrelevant to their lives, is in truth the climax of the story of creation. G-d created a physical world that conceals its spiritual core, and we excavate the physical and extract its treasures. We take the material and use it as a home for G-d, as a tool that perpetuates goodness, kindness, and the Divine will on this earth.

The commandment to build the Mishkan, the portable temple, is a commandment which transforms the lie into truth. The structure of the Mishkan was made of beams of wood. The Hebrew word for “beam” (קרש) contains the same letters as the Hebrew word for “lie” (שקר). G-d is telling us that when we use a physical possession for a MItzvah, we are transforming it from a lie, from something that conceals its inner truth, to a “beam” that creates a home and a dwelling place for the truth of G-d to dwell on this earth.  

Thus, the portions that describe the commandment to construct a temple for G-d, “And you shall make the beams for the Mishkan of acacia wood, upright”[3], are not only about a structure built in a desert over three thousand years ago. We are reading about our story. We are reading about our purpose on this earth, about our obligation to partner with G-d in creation. We are reading about our mission to transform lie to truth, and darkness to light.

We are reading about our part in the story of creation.[4]

 

 


[1] Genesis 1:1.

[2] See Bas Ayin, Parshas Terumah.

[3] Exodus 26:15.

[4] Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Basi Ligani 5711.  

What the Ox Taught the Therapist

What the Ox Taught the Therapist

Back in the day, before cars were used to transport people and merchandise, before there were tractors to plow fields, the ox was a central feature of daily life.

Unlike a car, the ox has a mind of its own, which potentially could cause some headache to its owner. An ox would occasionally damage property and the owner of the ox was held liable to pay for the damage.

One category of the laws of torts, explained in this week’s Parsha, are the laws of the goring ox. The Torah teaches that if an ox gores once or twice, the owner of the ox is only responsible to pay for half of the damage. The reason for this is, that it is considered to be unusual for an ox to gore, the ox is considered a “Tam” which means innocent, and therefore the owner is only partially liable, because he was not expected to anticipate that his “innocent” ox would gore. If, however, the ox gores a third time, then the owner is responsible to pay for the full damage, since this animal now has a habit of goring, the animal is a “Muad”, meaning the animal is “warned”, and the owner is responsible to guard the animal more carefully. 

This was an important law for people living in the ancient world. But what about for those of us living in cities and suburbs in the 21st century, what can we learn from the law of the goring ox?

It turns out that this law contains lessons with far reaching implications for our lives. 

The Kabbalists explain, that within each person there are two souls, the G-dly soul and the animal soul.

Each of us has an animal soul, the selfish aspect of the personality. This animal soul is not necessarily destructive. In fact, if the animal causes harm to someone else we assume that the aggression is the exception not the rule. We assume that the animal is still “innocent”. Yet, once the animal soul develops a habit of destructive behavior, it becomes very difficult to rid oneself of the habit. 

The first lesson of the law of the goring ox is to recognize the power of destructive habits and to prevent ourselves from falling into negative patterns of behavior. 

When we study the teachings of the oral law which expound upon the law of the goring ox, we discover a second, more profound, lesson about what we can do to break free of the grasp of the negative habit; how to free oneself from being enslaved to our destructive behavioral patterns. 

The Rabbis in the Talmud offer various scenarios in which the “warned ox”, the ox that gored three times, can revert back to the legal status of the “innocent ox”. One example is if a “warned ox” is sold to a new owner, then the status of the ox changes and it becomes on “innocent ox”. For some reason, we assume that the sale of the ox will change the nature of the ox, from one that is prone to goring to a civilized domesticated ox. 

Why would the sale affect such deep change?

The Talmud is teaching a profound lesson about the nature of habit. The Talmud is teaching that a single negative habit is very difficult to change in isolation. The way to change a bad habit is to change the environment. An animal develops bad habits while living in a specific setting, various elements of the environment trigger the compulsive behavior. The moment the animal is placed in a completely different environment, the triggers are no longer present, and the animal could develop new patterns of positive behavior.

The same is true for each of us. Keeping resolutions to improve a specific behavior is very hard, and it takes a tremendous amount of willpower. The path that is more likely to succeed is not to change a specific behavior but to change the overall environment. If one places oneself in a positive environment, with positive influences, the old patterns are more likely to fall away, creating space for new, positive, patterns and habits 

And lest you think that this is just an optimistic view on human nature, modern research is discovering this truth. The following is an excerpt from research conducted at Duke University:

"Once you form a habit, it takes willpower to inhibit the triggered response. If you don't have the energy to override the response, you tend to repeat what you've done in the past," Wood says.

In another study, Wood found that college students who transferred to a new university were able to break their television-watching habit if the TV was in a different location at their new school. Students who found the TV in the same location were less successful at breaking the TV habit, she says.

The implication for people trying to stop bad habits or develop new ones is that they should pay attention to their environment in order to sustain a new behavior over time, Wood says.[1]  

If the internal animal is getting out of hand you can try to muster the willpower to control and contain the animal; you may or may not be successful. Or, you could take the wholesome approach. Change the environment, surround yourself with positive people and spiritual experiences. The old triggers will fall away, new patterns will emerge, new habits will take hold. 

Place yourself in a holy environment.[2]

 


[1] https://today.duke.edu/2007/12/habit.html

[2] Inspired by the teachings of the Rebbe, Likutey Sichos, Mishpatim, vol. 36, Sicha 1. 

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