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Blog - Torah Insights

Count or Raise? - במדבר

 

Count or Raise? 


Translation is a tricky business. Very often, when a word is translated to another language, some of its cultural, philosophical, and spiritual connotations can be lost. 


One example would be the first commandment of the Book of Numbers, when G-d commands Moses and Aaron to count the Jewish people. The verse states: 


Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by families following their fathers' houses; a head count of every male according to the number of their names. (Numbers 1:2)


The literal translation of the Hebrew word for "take the sum" {"Seu Et Rosh"}, is "lift up the head". Biblical Hebrew has multiple words for counting, such as "Lispor" or "Lifkod", so why does the Torah use the unusual term "lift up the head" instead of a more direct word for counting? 


The great 17th-century sage and Kabbalist known as the Holy Shalah explains that the purpose of the census was to "raise the head", to raise and elevate the importance of each individual. The sages explain that this census was associated with the temple's construction in the desert, "when He came to cause His Divine Presence to rest among them, He counted them". The Torah's message to each and every individual is that bringing G-dliness into this world, transforming the world into a home for the Divine presence, is dependent on every individual. Every individual must "raise up his head" and realize that the purpose of creation is in his or her own hands. 


As the Talmud teaches and codified by Maimonides: 


A person should always look at himself as equally balanced between merit and sin and the world as equally balanced between merit and sin… if he performs one mitzvah, he tips his balance and that of the entire world to the side of merit and brings deliverance and salvation to himself and others.



Discovering the Romance - בחוקותי

Discovering the Romance 

What is a marriage? Is it a contract of shared commitments and responsibilities or is it an expression of love and romance? 

The final portion of the book of Leviticus reads like a legal contract laying out the covenant between G-d and the Jewish people. If we follow the commandments of the Torah, then God will provide for us and bless us:

If you follow My statutes and observe My commandments and perform them, I will give your rains in their time, the Land will yield its produce, and the tree of the field will give forth its fruit. (Leviticus 26:3-4)

However, if we choose to violate the contract and abandon the Torah, we will be struck by terrible calamities, outlined in a painfully detailed description.

Yet the Kabbalists look at this Parsha, and they see the poetry, the love, and the romance hidden between the lines of the formal contract. Toward the end of the rebuke, the verse states despite the terrible rebuke, G-d will not annihilate his people: 

But despite all this, while they are in the land of their enemies, I will not despise them nor will I abhor them to annihilate them, thereby breaking My covenant that is with them, for I am the Lord their God. (Leviticus 26:44)

The Zohar focuses on the word "annihilate", "Lichalotam", and points out that the way the word is written in Torah is strikingly similar to the word bride, "Kallah". Read this way, the verse is saying that because the Jewish people are G-d's bride, not only will they survive, which is a given, but "I will not despise them nor will I abhor them"; the bride is always beautiful and beloved to G-d despite all external circumstances. The Zohar offers a beautiful parable: 

This is like a man who loves a woman who lives in a market of tanners , were she not there, he would never have entered there. Since she is there, seems to him like a market of spice merchants, where there are all the best odors in the world. (Zohar, Bechukotai 115b)

In the Talmud, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai teaches that the Divine presence is with the Jewish people in all their exiles: 

It is taught in a baraita: Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai says: Come and see how beloved the Jewish people are before the Holy One, Blessed be He. As every place they were exiled, the Divine Presence went with them. (Talmud Megillah 29a)

In this passage in the Zohar, Rabbi Shimon's son, Rabbi Elazar, says something far more profound. Not only is G-d with His people, but because of His profound love, He experiences only the pleasurable fragrances of the spice market. Indeed, the entire purpose of the exile is for the Jewish people to transform the world from a space of a figurative "tanners market" to a market of fragrant spices.  

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Toras Menachem Tiferes Levi Yitzchok, Bechukosai

 

Are we Spiraling out of Control? - בהר

 

Are we Spiraling out of Control? 

The Torah Portion of Behar begins and ends with opposite extremes. It begins with the mention of Mount Sinai: “And the Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai”, then continues to describe the commandments of the sabbatical and jubilee years, which represent a time of peace and serenity, when the land is at rest, and liberty is proclaimed throughout the land. 

However, very quickly, the Torah turns to a series of laws, which, as the sages noted, represent a spiral descent into poverty and servitude.

Rashi, quoting the sages of the Talmud, explains that the order of the portions represents the admonishment against ignoring the laws of the sabbatical year, which will, in turn, bring about financial pressure and destitution.   

The passages {in this whole Portion} are written in a meaningful order: At first, Scripture admonishes us to observe Shemittah; then, if one covets money and becomes suspect of {unlawfully doing business with produce of} Shemittah, he will eventually {become destitute and} have to sell his personal belongings therefore, Scripture juxtaposes to it, “And when you make a sale”. If he still does not repent, he will eventually have to sell his inheritance (25:25). If he even then does not repent, he will eventually have to sell his home, and if even then, he does not repent, he will eventually have to borrow money with interest. Now, the later the scenario in this passage, the more severe it is; if he still does not repent, he will eventually have to sell himself {to his fellow Jew as a servant}; and if he has still not repented, not enough that he had to be sold to his fellow Jew - but he will {be forced to sell himself} even to a non-Jew. (Rash, Leviticus 26:1) 

The Portion begins with the mention of Sinai, the place where we received the Torah, in order to inform us of the purpose of the Torah which was given at Sinai. The ultimate goal of the Torah is to guide a person not so that he remain in a figurative desert, secluded from the temptations and pressures of civilization, but rather, the purpose of the Torah is to guide a person who will affect the world and create a home for G-d within the most mundane space. 

The purpose of the Torah is to apply Divine wisdom, holiness, and compassion, specifically within the natural world, which, left to its own devices, can deteriorate into a place of pain and difficulty. The purpose of Sinai is to empower us to overcome the obstacles in our path and to transform the natural world into a place of holiness and kindness.

This message is captured by the maxim of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, whose day of passing we celebrate on Lag Baomer, as quoted in the Ethics of our Fathers: 

Rabbi Shimon would say: There are three crowns—the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of sovereignty—but the crown of good name surmounts them all. (Ethics of our Fathers, 4:13)

Greater than the crowns of Torah, priesthood, and Kingship, is the crown of a good name, which is acquired as a result of the performance of good deeds. Because, indeed, the purpose of the crown of Torah is to impact and transform the natural word. 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekkutei Sichos, 17 Behar - Lag-Baomer 

 


Why the Number Seven? - אמור

Why the Number Seven?

The second half of this week’s Parsha, which discusses the holidays, emphasizes the number seven. Every seventh day is the Shabbat; we count seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot; the seventh month is the month with the most holidays; the Torah lists seven days of holiday {in the land of Israel} when performing labor is prohibited [the first and final day of Passover and Sukkot, one day of shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur].
 
The emphasis on the number seven explains why, immediately after the discussion of the holidays, the Torah chooses to discuss specific services in the temple, the Menorah:
 
Command the children of Israel, and they shall take to you pure olive oil, crushed for lighting, to kindle the lamps continually… Upon the pure Menorah, he shall set up the lamps, before the Lord, continually. (Leviticus 24:2-4)
 
And the showbread: 
 
And you place them in two stacks, six in each stack, upon the pure table, before the Lord. (ibid. 24:6)
 
The Ohr Hachayim explains that both the Menorah and the showbread were mentioned here, because they both represent the number seven, the Menorah had seven candles, and the six stacks of showbread plus the table upon which they were placed equal seven. 
 
But what is the significance of the number seven, which is emphasized so strongly in our Parsha?
 
The Maharal of Prague, explains that the number six represents physical phenomena, because physical matter contains six boundaries, one on each of the six directions: up, down, east, west, north, and south. The number seven, by contrast, represents the inner spiritual energy at the core of physical existence.

In the words of the Maharal: 
 
It is known that the number seven corresponds to the six extremities (up, down, north, west, south and east) and the center - which is called the Holy Chamber - that is between them. And it is known that the six extremities relate the most to the material. For they surely have distance; and distance is connected to the material. Whereas the middle does not have distance at all, as distance is not applicable to the middle. And that is why [the center] relates to that which is immaterial. (Derech Chaim, 5:15)
 
The number seven, then, represents the ability to see beyond the physical. It represents the ability to tap into the inner core of life, to connect to the spark of G-d within the creation, and relate not only to its physical properties but to its inner purpose and inner soul. 

 

 

 

Holiness is in the Details - קדושים

Holiness is in the Details 

The opening statement in this week's Parsha is the commandment to be holy: 

Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them, You shall be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy. (19:2)

But what does it mean to be holy, and how is holiness achieved? 

After reading the first 19 chapters of Leviticus, we might think that holiness is associated with priests, offerings in the temple, Yom Kippur, or the high priest's entrance into the holy of holies. This week's Parsha, named "Kedoshim" which means "holy", gives us a completely different perspective. This Parsha is addressed not to the priests but to the "entire congregation of the children of Israel", and the arena for this portion's commandments is not the holy temple but rather  daily life: farming, business, and interactions between people: "When you reap the harvest of your land", "The hired worker's wage shall not remain with you overnight" "You shall commit no injustice in judgment", When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not taunt him", "You shall have true scales, true weights". 

In Judaism, holiness begins with separating from the mundane and connecting to the spiritual and transcendent, as expressed in the first half of the book of Leviticus, yet the ultimate meaning of holiness is infusing the daily moments of life with morality and a connection to G-d, as expressed in elaborate detail in this week's Parsha. For ultimately, holiness is not the escape from the physical world but rather its sanctification. 

But how can we attain holiness not only in the temple but also in the field? Not only during the study of Torah but also while trading in the market? The verse continues: "for I, the Lord, your God, am holy". God is not limited to the definitions of time and space, and therefore is not confined to any specific time and place. Our task is to access and connect to G-d’s presence in every area of life, infusing the mundane with meaning and holiness. 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, 26 Nisan, 1986 


 

The Challenges of Spiritual Growth - אחרי

The Challenges of Spiritual Growth: Aspiration, Frustration, Purity 

Striving for spiritual growth is not without its challenges. Attempting to grow can lead to frustration. When a person is satisfied with their spiritual state, they may be stuck in their current condition, but they will not be exposed to disappointment. By contrast, the drive to advance, especially spiritually, may lead to moments of inspiration, enthusiasm, and transcendence, but also to inevitable frustration, disappointment, failure, and setback. 

The Book of Leviticus begins with the laws of offerings, which are an expression of the innate desire of the soul to draw closer to G-d. The book then turns to discuss the laws of purity and impurity, kosher and non-kosher, leprosy on the skin, garments, and home. The person seeking to come close to holiness will inevitably be challenged to overcome the impurity of negativity in this world. He or she will realize that the human being is imperfect, that not every day can one feel inspired and uplifted, and that a person will inevitably feel uninspired and disconnected. The Torah, therefore, sets out the laws of impurity and purity, kosher and non-kosher, to empower the Jew to navigate and ultimately refine a world that contains unholiness and impurity. 

And then, we reach this week’s Parsha, which describes the order of the service of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. The Torah tells us that even though, while navigating the challenges of life, a person may experience the pain of acting inconsistently with what they know to be the right and moral thing, nevertheless atonement is possible: 

For on this day He shall effect atonement for you to cleanse you. Before the Lord, you shall be cleansed from all your sins. (Leviticus 16:30) 

Yom Kippur teaches that negative experiences and actions do not define us. On Yom Kippur, our inner core is revealed, allowing the external negativity to drift away.

Based on the teachings of the rebbe, Likkutei Sichos 27, Acharei 1

Who Comes to Whom? - מצורע

Who Comes to Whom? 

Our Parsha begins with the laws of the purification of the Metzora, who was sent outside the camp due to the severity of his ritual impurity. The Parsha begins to describe the process of purification:  

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, This shall be the law of the person afflicted with Tzara'ath, on the day of his cleansing: He shall be brought to the Kohen .

The verse states, "He shall be brought to the kohen", which implies that the person seeking purification will come to the Kohen, yet the following verse states the opposite: 

The Kohen shall go outside the camp, and the Kohen shall look, and behold, the lesion of tzara'ath has healed in the afflicted person.

Which one is it? Does the person seeking purification go to the Kohen or does the Kohen "go outside the camp" to meet the person? 

The technical interpretation is that both are correct. The person would come to the entrance of the city, and the Kohen would exit the city to greet the person. The mystics, however, explain that there is a deep message that can be gleaned from these verses. The Kabbalah explains that in the relationship between the creator and creation, there is "an awakening from above" and an "awakening from below". At times, a person experiences inspiration, creativity, and enthusiasm as a gift from above without any effort on his part. Other times, the person "awakens from below"; he invests continuous effort to elevate and inspire himself. 

The Zohar explains that a person is not merely a passive recipient of the spiritual energy that descends from above; but rather, he is an active participant in the process. "An awakening from below creates an awakening from above". When a person awakens himself to the best of his ability, that awakens the Divine energy to bestow additional "awakening from above", far more than the person could have achieved on their own. 

Back to our Parsha. "He shall be brought to the Kohen" represents the person inspiring himself to improve and grow. Doing so, generating the "awakening form below" will elicit the "awakening from above", "the kohen" representing the gift from above, "shall go outside the camp" to reach the person. 

To create healing, purity, and inspiration in our lives, we should take the first step by creating the desire and plan for growth; G-d will then bless our efforts and infuse us with even greater energy and blessing. 

Adapted from the Shem Mishmuel 


 

Healing From Within - תזריע

 

Healing From Within 


Of all the forms of ritual impurity discussed in the Torah, the ritual impurity of the Tzaarat {skin discoloration}, is, in some ways, the most severe. The Torah states: 


All the days the lesion is upon him, he shall remain unclean. He is unclean; he shall dwell isolated; his dwelling shall be outside the camp. (Leviticus 13:46)


Rashi clarifies that not only must the Metzora {person afflicted with Tzaraat} be separated from people who are ritually pure, but he must also dwell in complete isolation, separate even from other people who are ritually impure: 


He shall dwell isolated: [meaning] that other ritually impure people shall not abide with him.


Our sages taught that the Tzaarat affliction was a result of Lashin hara {negative speech, gossip}, based on that Rashi continuous to explain why the Metzora must dwell alone:


Our Sages said: "Why is he different from other ritually impure people, that he must remain isolated? Since, with his slander, he caused a separation {a rift} between man and wife or between man and his fellow, he too, shall be separated {from society}".


From a deeper perspective, we can suggest that dwelling in isolation is not merely a consequence of the negative speech, but rather it is an important step to healing the Metzora. The sages identify two causes for the Tzaarat: (1) gossip and (2) arrogance. While they seem to be two unrelated deficiencies, the reality is that they both stem from the same cause: a person's lack of self-esteem and his inability to be in touch with his internal core, which is the source of his own infinite value. When a person does not feel his inherent value, he will constantly need validation and affirmation from others. The person will then be inclined to be haughty and arrogant in order to receive recognition from others and will engage in negative speech in order to tear down those whom he perceives will outshine and outperform him. 


The cure to both gossip and arrogance is for a person to turn inward. Not to outsource their sense of value and make it dependent on recognition from others but rather to find an internal anchor within his own spiritual core. The healing, therefore, is to be alone, to realize that one must rely on one's own self for physical survival, and, just as importantly, for mental and emotional survival, allowing a person to tap into his infinite value stemming from the spark of G-d within each of us, only then can a person reintegrate with family and friends and create healthy lasting relationships. 



Sons of Aaron Vs. Rabbi Akiva - שמיני

 

Sons of Aaron Vs. Rabbi Akiva 


It was one of the happiest days in Jewish history. After many months of construction and seven days of inauguration, the cloud rested on the tabernacle on the eighth day, symbolizing the Divine presence resting amidst the Jewish people.


It was also a day when tragedy struck. As the Torah relates: 


And Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his pan, put fire in them, and placed incense upon it, and they brought before the Lord foreign fire, which He had not commanded them. And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. (Leviticus 10:1-2)


Drawing too close to G-d, what the kabbalah calls "running", can be dangerous. 

The Talmud relates that four great Talmudic sages "entered the orchard", a metaphor for delving into the most mystical secrets of the Torah, only one of them emerged safely:  


Four entered the orchard: Ben Azzai peeked and was hurt… Ben Zoma peeked and died… Aḥer peeked and cut saplings {became a heretic}… Rabbi Akiva entered in peace and left in peace. (Jerusalem Talmud, Chagigah 2b)


What was Rabbi Akiva's secret to not only "run", to experience the intense desire and yearning to cleave to G-d, but also to "return", to turn back to earth to sanctify the mundane experiences of life? 


Regarding the other rabbis, the Talmud tells us only how they emerged from the "orchard"; yet regarding Rabbi Akiva, the Talmud adds a detail that sheds light on how Rabbi Akiva succeeded where the others failed. Rabbi Akiva not only "emerged in peace" but also "entered in peace". Rabbi Akiva's attitude and motivation to "running" was not his own personal desire to connect, which would make it difficult to "return" to a healthy life, but rather it was motivated by a devotion to the will of G-d, which is to create "peace" and bridge the gap between heaven and earth. 


It would be a mistake to assume that the lesson of the story of the sons of Aaron is that we should not seek to "run" - that we should not cultivate the yearning and desire to transcend and escape the mundane. Instead, the message is that" running" must not be motivated by one's personal desire, for then the person can become self-centered and disconnected from family, friends, and the task of impacting the world. Instead, the story of the sons of Aaron teaches us that the yearning for transcendence must be for the sake of fulfilling the will of G-d. The yearning must be predicated upon, and therefore consistent with, the Divine desire that we "run" and "return", that we enter the orchard in peace in order to emerge in peace. 


Would You Donate Some Wood? - ויקרא

 

Would You Donate Some Wood? 


The entire first portion of the third book of the Torah, Vayikra, is dedicated to the laws of the various offerings in the temple: elevation offerings, meal offerings, peace offerings, and sin and guilt offerings. There is one offering that, while not mentioned explicitly in the Torah, was the cause for a great holiday for various Jewish families. 


The Talmud explains that in a time of shortage, some families donated wood for the fire on the Altar. The times of those donations became holidays for those families who would then donate wood on those days in subsequent years:  


When the people of the exile ascended to Jerusalem in the beginning of the Second Temple period, they did not find enough wood in the Temple chamber for the needs of the altar. And these families arose and donated from their own wood to the Temple. And the prophets among them stipulated as follows, that even if the entire chamber were full of wood, the descendants of these families would donate wood from their own property on these specific days, as it is stated: “And we cast lots, the priests, the Levites and the people, for the wood offering, to bring it into the house of our God, according to our fathers’ houses, at appointed times year by year, to burn upon the altar of the Lord our God, as it is written in the Torah” (Nehemiah 10:35). Although these donations were not always necessary, it was established that all generations would observe these days. (Talmud, Taanit 28a)


While the wood offerings were not mentioned explicitly in the Torah, they caused a great holiday because, in some ways, they were even more profound than the offerings mentioned explicitly in the Torah. Every offering represents the effort to draw one specific aspect, dimension, or experience of self closer to G-d. Yet the wood, to fuel the fire of the Altar, present in all offerings, represents the general longing and desire to transcend and connect to G-d, expressed by abandoning the orientation toward self and focusing entirely on what is needed. Thus, the person donates not a specific offering, which is a Mitzvah, giving him the satisfaction that he is the one performing the will of G-d, but rather he donates the wood which is merely an accessory, allowing others to bring their offerings. 


Joy is a by-product of transcending self. Therefore, the holidays were established specifically to celebrate the wood, where the emphasis was not on an individual’s own spiritual growth, but rather on his enabling others to reconnect and reunite with G-d.


Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Likkutei Sichos 22 Vayikra 2

 




The Sanctuary of Testimony - פקודי

The Sanctuary of Testimony 

For the first time since the introduction of the Mishkan, the temple that the Jewish people constructed in the desert, the Torah presents the term "Mishkan of testimony". In the opening verse of the final portion of the book of Exodus, we read:  

These are the numbers of the Mishkan, the Mishkan of the Testimony, which were counted at Moses' command; [this was] the work of the Levites under the direction of Ithamar, the son of Aaron the Kohen. 

Rashi addresses the word "testimony" and explains: 

the Mishkan of the Testimony: [The Mishkan] was testimony for Israel that the Holy One, blessed is He, forgave them for the incident of the calf, for He caused His Shechinah to rest among them [in the Mishkan].

The construction of the Mishkan `was more than just a story of building a place of worship. The Torah devotes so much attention to every detail of the temple because it expresses the triumph of the marriage between G-d and the Jewish people, which survived the terrible betrayal of the golden calf. Underlying every detail of the home is a story of love and forgiveness; the building of the home is testimony that, indeed, G-d and the Jewish people are reunited. 

Idolatry at its core is the notion of dichotomy, that there is a space devoid of the Divine presence. Idolatry argues that G-d is far too great to be concerned with the physical world, leaving a vacuum where the forces of nature are in control. The Mishkan was a testimony "that the Holy One, blessed is He, forgave them for the incident of the calf" because the Mishkan is an antidote to the sin of idolatry, the Mishkan is a testimony that the infinite G-d is present within a physical home constructed by mundane worldly materials. 

We, too, are engaged in creating a metaphorical Mishkan for G-d. We bridge the superficial dichotomy between the physical and spiritual by using the physical blessings of our lives as a conduit and vessel to bring the Divine presence into our own life and environment, ultimately transforming the entire world into a home of the Divine. 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Likkutei Sichos 1 Pekudei 

 

Why are the Goblets Upside Down? - ויקהל

Why are the Goblets Upside Down? Menorah.jpeg

 

In his drawing of the Menorah, Maimonides drew the "cups" that were on the base and branches of the Menorah as upside-down cups (Maimonides writes that the goblets "had wide mouths and narrow bases"; in the drawing, the wide end of the goblets face downward). This detail seems, at first glance, inconsistent with the principle explained in the Talmud that when performing a Mitzvah with an object, it must be held or placed in its natural position: 

 

Ḥizkiya said that Rabbi Yirmeya said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai: With regard to all objects used in performance of each and every one of the mitzvot, a person fulfills his obligation only when the objects are positioned in the manner of their growth. One must take the lulav with the bottom of the branch facing down, as it is stated with regard to the beams of the Tabernacle : "Acacia wood, standing" (Exodus 26:15), indicating that the beams stood in the manner of their growth.

 

Why then were the cups of the menorah upside down?

 

The answer must be that, at least in the context of the Menorah, the cup's natural position was not to receive and contain but rather to pour and share. The purpose of the temple in general, and the Menorah in particular, was not to create a sanctuary of light and inspiration for the temple itself, but rather to "pour", shine, and influence the rest of the world. 

 

Perhaps we can apply this lesson to our own lives. There is a built-in tension regarding our metaphorical "goblet," our defined personality, talents, and skills. Are we a goblet that "receives" or one that "pours"? 

 

Within each of us, there are two opposing drives. On the one hand, we want to self-actualize, to achieve and enjoy a degree of success, recognition, meaning, and significance. On the other hand, deep within our souls is the desire to transcend itself, to submerge within something greater than ourselves. As the Tanya explains, the Torah refers to the soul as a candle because just as the fire surges upward as if to escape the wick, so too does the soul seek to escape the confines of its independent existence and "unite with its origin and source in G‑d, blessed be He, who is the fountainhead of all life. Though thereby it would become null and naught, and its identity would there—in its source—be completely nullified, with nothing at all remaining of its original essence and self, this is its will and desire by its nature."

 

Perhaps the Menorah's lesson is that we need to create a goblet which receives and contains our success. Yet, the ultimate purpose of creating a vessel which "contains", why it matters to us to accomplish and to feel significant, is in order for us to "pour", to share the blessing with others. In the final analysis, our desire to be significant is itself part of the greater transcendence because the reason we crave to be a goblet that "contains" is in order for our goblet to "pour" and "share".  

 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 21 Terumah 3

 

 

 

A Fiery Coin - כי תשא

A Fiery Coin

Can money buy atonement? 

Moses was told to command the people of Israel that they each offer a half-shekel coin for atonement:  

"When you take the sum of the children of Israel according to their numbers, let each one give to the Lord an atonement for his soul when they are counted; then there will be no plague among them when they are counted.

This they shall give, everyone who goes through the counting: half a shekel according to the holy shekel. Twenty gerahs equal one shekel; half of [such] a shekel shall be an offering to the Lord.

Moses was bewildered: how could a coin create atonement? 

The Midrash, quoted by Rashi explains: 

This they shall give: He [G-d] showed him [Moses] a sort of coin of fire weighing half a shekel, and He said to him, "Like this one they shall give."

How does an image of a fiery coin explain Moses' bewilderment?

The common interpretation is that, indeed, a coin cannot offer atonement, for a coin is physical and mundane, whereas atonement relates to the spiritual soul. The insight that G-d offered Moses was that when the coin is "a fiery coin", when the act of giving is imbued with emotion, heart, and feeling, then the coin can create atonement.

According to this interpretation, it is not the coin that creates atonement but rather the fire, the emotion, and the heart invested in it. There is, however, a deeper Chassidic insight that suggests the opposite: G-d was indeed showing Moses that the coin itself offers the atonement. 

When one uses a physical object for a Mitzvah, its Divine source, the fire, the spiritual spark within it is revealed and expressed, the actual "coin", mined from the depths of the earth, becomes a coin of "fire", which surges upward seeking to escape the grasp of the wick. By showing Moses the fiery coin, G-d demonstrated that to confine the presence of G-d to the spiritual realm is to impose a limitation upon his infinite light. True infinity is the ability to be in the physical just as in the spiritual. 

By doing a Mitzvah, we reveal that what seemed to be a physical object or experience is, in truth, a spark of fire, an entity that, deep down at the core of its existence and consciousness, is a fire that allows us to raise ourselves upward, uniting us with G-d. 

What seemed to be a mere coin, is, in fact, a coin of fire.

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 26 Ki Tisa 1 

 

 

A Journey Through a Talmudic Tractate - משפטים

 

A Journey Through a Talmudic Tractate 


A majority of the Torah's civil law, based on the principles laid out in this week's Parsha, appears in the Talmud in three tractates: Baba Kamma, "the first gate", describes the laws of torts; Baba Metziah, "the middle gate" discourses laws of ownership, and Baba Batra "the final gate", which discusses laws of neighbors, and real estate.  


The Torah contains both "body", the practical law, and "soul", the deeper spiritual meaning within the teaching. Therefore, every aspect of the Torah, including the order of the laws, contains a lesson for each of us. 


The final section of the Baba Batra, the final gate, discusses a dispute between Rabbi Yishmael and Ben Nanas regarding the legal obligation of a guarantor who committed to secure the loan for his friend, not at the issuing of the loan but after the loan is due. Ben Nanas argues that the guarantor is not liable since the creditor did not rely on the guarantor when he made the loan. Rabbi Yishamel argues that, under certain circumstances, the guarantor's commitment is binding since the guarantor benefits from making his commitment. The benefit he receives is that - due to his commitment - the creditor stops the collection process against the borrower. In the words of the Mishnah: 


In the case of a guarantor whose commitment emerged after the signing of the promissory note…


An incident occurred where such a case came before Rabbi Yishmael, and he said: The creditor can collect the sum from unsold property of the guarantor, but not from liened property that he has sold to others.  Ben Nannas said to Rabbi Yishmael: The creditor cannot collect the sum from the guarantor at all, not from liened property that has been sold, nor from unsold property.


Rabbi Yishmael said to him: Why not? Ben Nannas said to him: If one was strangling someone in the marketplace, demanding repayment of a loan, and another person found him doing so and said to the attacker: Leave him alone and I will give you the money he owes, the person who intervened is exempt from paying, as the creditor did not loan the money in the first place based on his trust of the one who intervened. 


The significance of the conclusion of all the laws of torts with the discussion about the guarantor can be appreciated when comparing the end of the tractate Baba Batra to its beginning. The first Mishnah in the tractate discusses the laws of how partners may dissolve a partnership and divide the land they once shared.


Partners who wished to make a partition [meḥitza] in a jointly owned courtyard build the wall for the partition in the middle of the courtyard. What is this wall fashioned from? In a place where it is customary to build such a wall with non-chiseled stone [gevil], or chiseled stone [gazit], or small bricks [kefisin], or large bricks [leveinim], they must build the wall with that material. Everything is in accordance with the regional custom.


In the figurative sense, partners dissolving a partnership represents the beginning of all torts, when people see themselves as separate from others and, therefore, are not concerned with the wellbeing of the other. After studying the entire tractate, we develop spiritually to the point where we recognize that our souls are all part of the same essence and are interconnected. This recognition motivates us to be concerned for the well-being of others to the extent that we commit to be their "guarantor", to take personal responsibility for their well-being. 


Spiritual development and redemption occur when we move from "Partners who wished to make a partition" to a "guarantor" who sees his friend being "strangled" by the creditor and he intervenes and says, "Leave him alone and I will give you {the money he owes}". 


Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Likutei Sichos 26 Mishpatim 1


“This is My - Personal - G-d” - בשלח

 

“This is My - Personal - G-d”

In the song of the sea, which the Jewish people sang after the splitting of the sea, they refer to G-d as both the G-d of their fathers as well as their own G-d. They exclaim: 

This is my God, and I will make Him a habitation, the God of my father, and I will ascribe to Him exaltation (Exodus 15:2).

Although chronologically G-d is “the G-d of my father” before he is “my G-d”, nevertheless the order of the verse teaches us that a person must first thank G-d for the kindness he himself experiences, creating a personal relationship with G-d, before thanking G-d for the kindness to  his ancestors. Indeed, in the opening blessing of the Amidah prayer, recited three times every day of the year, the sages instituted that we say “our G-d and the G-d of our fathers”, following the same pattern as the Jewish people’s song at the sea; we begin with our own personal relationship with G-d.

The Shallah, the great 17th century Kabbalist, explains the deeper meaning of this verse. “The G-d of my father” refers to faith which is transmitted from parent to child. The parent conveys the history and teachings of our people thus educating the child about G-d. As the child develops however, he expands his knowledge, he studies and understands the greatness of G-d. At that point G-d is not only the “G-d of my father”, the G-d transmitted to him and which he accepts on faith, but rather “my G-d” for now a personal relationship has been born. 

The verse states “my G-d,  and I will make him a habitation” the Hebrew word for habitation , Veanveihu, is comprised of two words Ani Vahu, “I” and “He”. For only through study can the mind comprehend and internalize the relationship with G-d, creating an abode where “I” and “He” unite in oneness.

 

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