Blog - Torah Insights

The Engine and the Steering Wheel

The Engine and the Steering Wheel

Much of the struggle and tension within the human being could be boiled down to the natural tension between the mind and the heart. Between that which the mind knows to be right and that which the heart desires.

The mind and the heart have trouble communicating simply because they don’t speak the same language, and they don’t respond to the same stimuli.

The job of the heart is to answer a simple question: “is this good for me?”. The heart does not respond to objective truths. The heart in not concerned about the greater good. The heart’s job is to be subjective, to make sure that the self is happy and pampered. On the other hand, when functioning properly, the mind, is supposed to be objective. The mind is the tool which allows the human being to transcend the self. The mind has the ability to ponder the abstract, to ask, not, “is this good for me”, but rather, “is this good”. The healthy objective mind will be attracted to that which it understands to be objectively good, while the heart will reject it if it is inconsistent with what it perceives to be good for itself. 

With the mind and the heart pulling in different directions, which one should the person follow? Which one should rule the person?

Western society is unequivocal: “follow your heart”. Parents and teachers, songwriters and poets, keep reminding us to “follow your heart, it knows best”.  

It does not take much thought to see the flaw in the “follow the heart” formula. What if one wakes up in the morning and his heart tells him to rob a bank. Should he do what his mother always taught him to do and follow his heart?

Both the emotion and intellect are critical to a healthy life. Both are necessary. On the journey we call life, the heart is the engine and the mind is the steering wheel. A person without emotion is a person without an engine, without passion, without the strength to smash through the obstacles and achieve, without the fire to overcome rivers of separation and connect to another. But an engine without a steering wheel will end up in the ditch stuck on the side of the road.   

The heart is the stuff of life, but when the mind turns on the “check engine” light then we must stop, lift up the hood, and examine the emotions.

In fact, we “check the engine” every year during the forty nine days between the holidays of Passover and Shavuos. The Kabbalah teaches that there are seven emotions, each emotion includes all seven. On each day of the forty nine days, we examine one of our emotions. We scrutinize the emotion and direct it to the proper road.

We cannot live a healthy life without love, awe, compassion, and commitment. But we must ensure that our emotions are guided by our objective mind to lead us to healthy relationships. Unrefined emotion can lead a person to self centered, destructive, narcissistic behavior.     

This is the symbolism of the Commandment of the Jubilee which we read in this week’s Parsha:

And you shall count for yourself seven sabbatical years, seven years seven times. And the days of these seven sabbatical years shall amount to forty nine years for you… And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim freedom [for slaves] throughout the land for all who live on it. It shall be a Jubilee for you, and you shall return, each man to his property, and you shall return, each man to his family.[1]

We count seven years seven times. Each of the forty nine years represents the refinement of one character trait. On the fiftieth year, we “proclaim freedom throughout the land”. On the fifteenth year we are refined, free of the negative impulses of the emotions. On the fiftieth year we are free to enjoy freedom of objectivity. The freedom to realize the perspective of our loved ones. The freedom to unshackle ourselves from the grasp of our ego. The freedom to apologize. The freedom to improve. 

The freedom to use our inner engine, not to self destruct, but to imbue us with the drive and passion to achieve that which we know we want to achieve.


[1] Leviticus 25:8-10. 

The Moon and the Holidays

The Moon and the Holidays

Who should take the first step? 

Eventually every relationship will reach a point where it will need to be strengthened. Someone will have to apologize, offer a compliment, or purchase flowers. Someone will have to make a move to strengthen the bond, and reconnect.

In a troubled relationship, it often happens that each person refuses to take the first step toward reconciliation and renewed friendship. In the troubled relationship, each party tells themselves “sure, I am not perfect, I need to apologize for my part of the mess, but let the other person apologize first for their far more significant part of the fight“. What separates a good relationship, one that will endure and thrive, from the troubled one, is that in the good relationship each person understands that there are times when they will have to make the first move.

The same is true of our relationship with G-d. In this week's Torah portion we read about the holidays, G-d tells Moses:

Speak to the children of Israel and say to them:.. these are the Lord's appointed [holy days], holy occasions, which you shall designate in their appointed time.[1]

The Biblical word for Holiday is “Moed” which means: “appointed time for meeting”. The holidays are times designated for rejuvenation. They are times when we break from the daily grind, and carve out a place in time to meet our beloved, and rededicate ourselves to the strengthening of our relationship with G-d. There are various holidays, each representing a phase in the relationship, these phases are expressed by the phase of the moon on the night of the given holiday.

Some of the holidays represent G-d’s kindness to the Jewish people, they represent the man who makes it his business to step in and take responsibility for the relationship. While other holidays represent the woman who does not wait for the man’s courtship, but rather she takes the initiative and reaches out to her beloved.  

Indeed, to learn all we need to know about our relationship with the Divine, all we need to do is look at the phase of the moon on each of the Jewish holidays.

Passover and Sukkot both begin on the fifteenth  of the Hebrew month when the moon is full. Passover and Sukkot celebrate the exodus from Egypt when G-d “took the first step”, and pulled us out of Egypt with only minimal effort on our part. Just as the full moon fully reflects the light of the sun, so do Passover and Sukkot represent the divine kindness and inspiration in its fullest form.

In contrast to the fullness of the moon on Passover and Sukkot, Rosh Hashanah, the new year, is on the first day of the Hebrew month when the moon is barely visible. Rosh Hashanah, represents the bride, the people of Israel, taking the first step. On Rosh Hashanah we don't celebrate any miracles or divine inspiration. Roshe Hashanah is the time when G-d, the groom, takes no action. He waits for the people of Israel to call out to him. He waits for them to take the first step and sound the Shofar, which represents the people’s commitment to return to G-d, and amend the strained bond. Thus, on Rosh Hashanah almost none of the sun’s light is reflected by the moon, for Rosh Hashanah is the day that the people are supposed to initiate the inspiration.         

And then there is the holiday of Shavuot, when we celebrate the giving of the Torah. On Shavuot both the bride and the groom act in partnership, as Shavuot represents G-d’s descent unto mount SInai to gift the people with the awesome gift of the Torah, as well as the commitment of the people to accept and follow the words of the Torah. Shavuot is on the sixth day of the Hebrew month, when half the moon is visible. Shavuot represents the partnership between bride and groom, G-d will descend, his will and wisdom will shine forth through the words of the Torah, yet the moon is not complete, because, on Shavuot, G-d is only half the story. The people’s acceptance of the Torah is just as integral a part of the story.

Next time you’re on your way to a holiday dinner, look up at the moon and you’ll know all you need to know about who should take the first step.


[1] Leviticus 23:2-4 

The Spectrum of Love

The Spectrum of Love  

Which of the Torah’s commandments is the hardest to keep? Eating Kosher? Fasting on Yom Kippur? Observing the Shabbat?

Perhaps the most difficult Mitzvah is “love your fellow as yourself”[1]. Now, “love your fellow” is hard enough to fulfill, but the second clause, “as yourself”, seems impossible. After all, were we not born with an innate instinct to care first and foremost for ourselves? Isn't self love more powerful than any other love known to mankind?

Thankfully, there are at least two ways to understand the meaning of the commandment. We’ll call them the conventional interpretation and the exotic interpretation. 

There are many prominent commentators[2], who offer one version or another, of the conventional interpretation. The conventional interpretation acknowledges that to love someone else, and certainly to love a stranger, “as yourself”, is indeed an impossibility. They explain that the verse means that one must desire good things for a fellow person, just as one desires good things for oneself.

The Chassidim, unconventional as they are, love the exotic interpretation, which argues, that if one internalizes the essential message of Judaism, it is possible to love a fellow as one’s self.

What is at the heart of all the commandments, from eating Matzah, to giving charity, to Torah study to prayer?

In the words of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad movement: “the basis and root of the entire Torah is to raise and exalt the soul high above the body”[3]. If the Torah has one message, it is that the soul is the essence of the person and the body is but a garment. The Torah calls upon us, not to forget about our core while we are busy feeding the needs of our body. Throughout every day of the year, and every step of our life, the Torah reminds us who we are: we are our soul.

If one self defines as primarily a body, then he will be incapable of loving his fellow as himself, because he - his physical body - is indeed separate and distinct from his fellow. In that case, a person can only experience “love your fellow as yourself” in the conventional limited form, as in “you should want good things to happen to your friend just as you want good things for yourself”. If however, he understands the essence of Judaism, if he appreciates that he is his soul, if he identifies, not with his external, garment, but with his core, then he will be able to “love your fellow as yourself”, because at the core, at the soul level, all souls are indeed one.  

The Talmud[4] relates that, once a gentile came to Hillel and said that he wanted to convert to Judaism on the condition that Hillel teach him all of the Torah in the amount of time that he could stand on one foot. Hillel responded with the now famous idiom: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: that is the whole Torah while the rest is commentary; go and learn it.”

The brilliance of Hillel’s response was that it captured the full spectrum of the Mitzvah of “Love your fellow as yourself”. On the one hand, here was a person with no exposure to Torah and its message, if Hillel would have said “love your fellow as yourself” the gentile would have rejected it as an impossibility. So instead, Hillel gave him the conventional interpretation, the one that is simple enough for anyone to understand: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow”. But Hillel did not stop there. Hillel continued to give him the formula that would eventually enable him to grasp the true message of the Torah and the true meaning of “love your fellow”. “This is the whole Torah” says Hillel, study and internalize the core message of the Torah and you will discover that, yes, indeed, you can and should “love your fellow as yourself”.

Because the core of the “you”, and the core of “your fellow” are united as one.   


[1] Leviticus 19:18.

[2] See for example, Nachmanides.

[3] Tanya Chapter 32. 

[4] Tractate Shabbat 31a. 

Mixing with the Crowd

Mixing with the Crowd

By this point in our journey through the book of Leviticus, we have encountered a great variety of sacrificial offerings, each with distinct laws, significance and symbolism.

In the portion of Achrey Mos, the sixth portion of the book of Leviticus, G-d instructs Moses that his brother Aaron may not enter the inner chamber of the temple at will. The high priest, the only person allowed entry to the holy of holies, Judaism's holiest site, may do so only once a year, only after offering multiple offerings and carrying out the specific instructions of the service, spelled out in the Torah.

Aaron was to offer specific offerings as atonement for himself and his family, as well as various offerings on behalf of the people of Israel. As the Torah states:

With this shall Aaron enter the Holy: with a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering[1]..

And from the community of the children of Israel, he shall take two he goats as a sin offering, and one ram as a burnt offering.[2]

The Torah continues to detail the specific procedure for each of the offerings, and then, the verse tells Aaron to do the completely unusual: to mix the bloods of two offerings and sprinkle the mixture on the alter: 

And he shall then go out to the altar that is before the Lord and effect atonement upon it: He shall take some of the bull's blood and some of the he goat's blood, and place it on the horns of the altar, around.[3]

Typically each offering was distinct. Each offering had its unique laws and required a unique intention, the accidental mixing of bloods of various offerings create many Halachic challenges. Yet, once a year, on Yom Kippur, Aaron was commanded to deliberately mix the blood of the goat and the bull. Why? Every detail in the Torah contains profound insight. What can we learn from this detail about Aaron, about the essence of Yom Kippur, and about the meaning of leadership?

The high priest was a spiritual leader serving to inspire the people, to elevate them, to motivate them to climb ever higher and to help them escape the gravitational pull of materialism. The high priest was the symbol of holiness and purity, the high priest embodied the ideal state of sanctity, which, at least on occasion, the people were intended to strive for.

Aaron served as a source of inspiration, as a model of what the Jew should aim for. Throughout the year, however, there was a great gulf dividing the leader and the people. While the people were devoted to navigating the challenges and trials of daily life, their leader Aaron, by contrast, was far removed from the mundane and was immersed in the spiritual service of the temple.

On Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, Aaron was required to influence the people of Israel even more than on any other day. On Yom Kippur, therefore, both Aaron and the people of Israel understood, that once the external layers of identity were peeled away, the people and Aaron were  one and the same. The Torah tells Aaron that in order for him, or for any leader for that matter, to have a meaningful impact on the people he wishes to lead, he must mix the blood of his bull with the blood of the goat of the people. For Aaron to influence the people and for the people to be inspired by Aaron, Israel must feel that Aaron recognizes that he and they are essentially one. 


[1] Leviticus 16:3.

[2] Ibid.16:5.

[3] Ibid. 16:18. 

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