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Blog - Torah Insights

The Cry of the Shofar

shofar.jpgThe Cry of the Shofar 

The greatest obstacle in the path of exponential growth is past success. 

If you ask a successful accomplished person to write down what he wants to achieve next year, chances are that the achievement he hopes for is not exponentially greater than the success that he has already achieved.

He is not alone. Children and young people, who did not yet enjoy a degree of success, dream about reaching the stars, adults, who self-define by their success, usually hope to do better in the future, but not exponentially better.

That’s a problem. It’s a problem because intuitively we feel our infinite soul, and our boundless potential. Tell someone that she is so great that she has maximized her potential, and you are sure to offend her. Because, at the core of our being, we reject that we are limited, and we feel that we can always achieve greater heights.

Once a year we have to shatter our carefully constructed comfort zone. Once a year, as we hear the blast of the Shofar, we have to look ourselves in the eye and ask the dreaded questions: “Am I the person I hoped to be? Is this all I can be?”

The only way to sense the infinite, is by feeling the oppressive constraints of the finite. When we hear the Shofar, we are hearing the purity of the soul within us, and the purity of the person we want to become. And when we hear the Shofar we feel how distant we are from our core, from what we want to become, from what we know we can be.

As we hear the Shofar, we face the confines of our current existence yet we refuse to make peace with it. We refuse to allow our shortcomings to define us. The cry of the Shofar is the cry of the soul feeling trapped by the confines of our current being. Hearing the cry of our soul yearning to break free, is the force that pushes us to escape our limitations and reach our core. When we reach our core, we discover that we are infinite, because we are one with the essence of the infinite light of G-d.  

Immediately before we sound the Shofar we recite seven verses of King David’s psalms. The first verse of the seven, the one that sets the tone for the blowing of the Shofar, is a deep cry to G-d:

“Out of the straits, I called to You, O G-d; G-d answered me with abounding relief.”[1]

This verse captures the purpose of blowing the Shofar. The Hebrew word for “abounding relief” (Ba’mer’chav) also means “wide expanse of space”. The verse is telling us that only when we feel trapped in the “straits” of our limitations, will we yearn to break free. The yearning, in and of itself, will cause G-d to answer us and place us in “the expanse”, “the expanse” of material and spiritual blessing for the upcoming year, the expanse of a bond with the infinite G-d.

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[1] Psalms 118:5. 

Celebrating the Mission Statement

Celebrating the Mission Statement

There are many Biblical commandments regarding the produce grown in the land of Israel. The Jewish farmer is commanded to offer various tithings, to the Levite and to the poor, that added up to almost twenty percent of the produce. Yet no other commandment of the produce was done with as much ceremony as the commandment of Bikurim, the commandment to bring the first fruit to the temple. In addition to actually bringing the first fruit to the temple, the Torah commands the farmer to declare a very specific declaration of thanksgiving to G-d, the declaration begins with the description of events that took place centuries earlier, going back in history to the story of Jacob, it continues with the description of the slavery and exodus from Egypt, bringing the people into the Promised Land, and concludes with the farmer’s declaring that he is offering the first fruit as a gift to G-d.

In addition to the declaration, the Mishnah describes the details of the procession through which the fruit were carried to Jerusalem:

A bull would go before them and its horns would be plated with gold and it would have a olive wreath around its head. The flute would play before them until they got close to Jerusalem. Once they got close to Jerusalem, they would send ahead of them [a messenger] and adorned their Bikurim. The overseers and the officers and the treasurers would go out to greet them; in accordance with the stature of those coming in would they go out. All the artisans of Jerusalem would stand before them and greet them, "Our brothers from so-and-so, come in peace!"

The flute would continue playing before them until they arrived at the Temple Mount. Once they arrived at the Temple Mount, even Agripas the King would carry his basket on his shoulder and enter until he reached the courtyard. Once they got to the courtyard, the Levites would speak in song (Psalms 30:2), "I will extol you, O Lord, because you have raised me and not allowed my enemies to rejoice over me."[1]

Why was the commandment to bring the fruit accompanied with this great ceremony and a detailed declaration? After all, it was not the largest gift that the farmer was required to give, as the commandments of the tithings far surpassed the value of the few first fruit brought as Bikurim? What was so unique about Bikurim that the Torah sees it as the culmination and high point of all the Jewish trials and tribulations going all the way back to our Patriarch Jacob?

Bikurim was more than the Jewish farmer’s token of appreciation to G-d for the blessings of the harvest. In fact, the Bikurim was a symbol of the mission statement of the People of Israel. While many spiritual seekers chose to escape the mundane constraints of civilization in order to cleave to spirituality, while many lofty souls chose to abandon the confines of the material world in order to transcend, the Torah teaches us that we must not escape the world. The Torah teaches that the purpose of creation is not to escape physicality but rather to sanctify it. Not to abandon the work in the farm and the orchard, but rather to bring its first fruit to G-d.

What is the purpose of the Jewish people? What is the purpose all the ups and downs challenges and triumphs of Jewish history? It is all in order that the Jewish people engage in the world and imbue it with spirituality. We take the first fruit of our field, the fruit of all our effort and labor, and bring them to Jerusalem, using the physical fruit to create a spiritual experience of spiritual joy and connection with G-d.  

This is not the first time the fruits of the land of Israel take a prominent place in the Biblical story. In the book of Numbers, the spies that were dispatched by Moses to scout the land of Israel returned to the people with a negative report. They convinced the people that they would be unable to conquer the land, and as evidence they displayed the extraordinary large beautiful fruit of the land, in order to “present a slanderous report, namely, just as its fruit are extraordinary, so too its people are extraordinary.”[2] Chasidic Philosophy teaches that the spies also presented a spiritual argument against entering the land. They presented the beautiful fruit of the land and argued that the fruit, and all the effort needed for its cultivation, would be a distraction from the service of G-d. The fruit, and the material bounty it represents, argued the spies, would pull us away from spirituality. Yet the spies were wrong. We the Jews are not afraid of abundance, we sanctify the abundance and use it to intensify our spiritual life[3]

Thus, the farmer who takes the first fruit to Jerusalem in a celebratory procession is doing more than offering thanksgiving. He is embodying the Jewish mission on earth. He is personifying all that Judaism teaches[4]. He is sanctifying the mundane and elevating the materialism.

He is bringing his first fruit to Jerusalem.  

 

 


[1] Mishnah Bikurin 3:3-4.

[2] Rashi Numbers 13:23.

[3] As explained by the Arizal that the bringing of the first fruit rectifies the sin of the Biblical spies. 

[4] See Talks of the Rebbe (Hisvaaduyos), Parshas Ki Savo 1989. 

Field or Vineyard?

Field or Vineyard?

Among the many laws in the Torah that command us to treat those less fortunate than us with dignity, in this week’s Parsha we read about the commandment to allow an employee, while on the job, to eat from the produce he is harvesting. As the Torah states: [1]

When you enter your neighbor's vineyard [2], you may eat as many grapes as you desire, until you are sated, but you shall not put [any] into your vessel.

When you enter your neighbor's standing grain, you may pick the ears with your hand, but you shall not lift a sickle upon your neighbor's standing grain.[3]

Why does the Torah repeat the same idea, one about an employee working in a vineyard and one about an employee working in a grain field? Why is it not enough to state the principle once?

The repetition of the law is an indication that the Torah seeks to tell us more than the straightforward meaning of the verse. The Torah repeats the law because, on a deeper level, the two employees, the one working in the vineyard and the one working in the field of grain, refer to two different types of employees, they refer to two very different attitudes toward man’s work and purpose on this earth.

G-d created a beautiful but imperfect world. At the conclusion of the six days of creation the Torah states [4]: “G-d rested on the seventh day from all his work which G-d created ‘Laasot’, which means to correct and to perfect. The world is an often chaotic field; we were placed on this earth to “work” it, to create order out of the chaos, to discover the fertility hidden within the earth, to plant and to harvest and ultimately to bring the world to perfection.

There are two ways of looking at our “work”. Some see the world as a field of grain, while others see it as a vineyard. Grain, in the Bible, is staple food; it is a necessity needed for survival, while the vine, and the wine it produces, represents pleasure and enjoyment.

A person can be G-d’s employee, he can understand that he has a purpose in life, a goal he must achieve in order to perfect the world and to fulfill his responsibility toward his maker. Yet, he is working with grain. He does what he needs to as a result of moral necessity, his work is void of any passion or pleasure. Then, there is another person striving to achieve the same goal as the first person. He too recognizes his responsibility, as an employee of G-d, toward the world around him, but he sees the world as vineyard. He sees the work, not as a burdensome task, but rather as a source of pleasure and satisfaction. Both of these people are employees, they are both in the same line of work, yet one is in a field and one is in a vineyard.  

Both are entitled to “eat on the job”, both are entitled to benefit from G-d’s blessing, both physically and spiritually. There is, however, a fundamental difference between them. The employee working in the field, the one who has no pleasure and just does his obligation, receives a limited flow from above. The employee working in the vine, the one who invests his pleasure and essence into the work, going above and beyond the call of duty, receives an infinite flow from above as he connects to the essence of G-d.

That is why, explain the Kabbalists, when talking about the employee in the vineyard, the Torah says “you shall not put [any] into your vessel”, in the literal sense this means that he may not put any grapes into his vessel to take home. The inner meaning of the verse is that the Divine blessing that the employee in the vineyard  will receive, the level of G-dliness he will reach, will be infinite. As such, it will not be able to be contained in the limited confines of a vessel. [5]  

 

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[1] Deuteronomy 23:25-26.

[2] Rashi explains that this verse refers to an employee, who enters the vineyard to work.

[3] Meaning: the employee may not use a sickle to cut the grain for himself to eat.

[4] Genesis 2:3.

[5] Based on the teaching of the Rebbe, Likutey Sichos vol. 34 Sicha 2.   

 

 

The Problem with Astrology

The Problem with Astrology  

The Torah’s position on astrology is clear: while the nations of ancient Canaan would seek the counsel of astrologers that predict the future, astrology should be off limits for the Jew:    

For these nations that you are possessing - they hearken to astrologers and diviners; but as for you - not so has Hashem your G-d given for you. [1]

The Jews may ask: how then will we survive with this disadvantage? While all the nations look to their astrologers to guide them in everything they do, from planning war to picking stocks, the Jews, will be in the dark regarding the future. Moses puts them at ease by telling them that they will have a different source of information:

A prophet from your midst, from your brethren, like me, shall Hashem, your G-d establish for you - to him shall you hearken. [2]

The question, of course, is what is the difference between the prophet and the astrologer? If listening to an astrologer is so terrible, why is the Jew, not only permitted, but in fact commanded, to listen to the prophet? The question is intensified when one realizes that prophets have a far from perfect track record in predicting the future. Perhaps, the most famous prophetic prediction gone wrong was the prophecy of Jonah, which warned that the great city of Nineveh would be destroyed forty days henceforth, when in fact, no such thing happened. The people of Nineveh repented, and G-d averted the terrible decree. The reason the prophecy was not actualized was because only a prophecy predicting something good must materialize, a prophecy predicting a negative event can change, because G-d is compassionate and may change the bad prophecy up until the very last moment.

The astrologers, by contrast, are straightforward. They don’t say that their prediction might change.

Why then would we want to listen to a prophet, whose prophecy might or might not come to fruition? What good was the Nineveh prophecy, if, due to the inherent uncertainty of prophecy, one could not use it to bet against the Nineveh stock market?

The answer is that the prophet and the astrologer are not at all in the same line of business. Their mission statements cannot be further apart.

The astrologer tells a person that based on his or her personality, nature, or spiritual make-up, his destiny is such and such. In some ways, the information is very useful. Why should a person spend a lifetime trying to discover what he is good at and what will cause him to fail, when he can take the shortcut and get this crucial information from the astrologer? The Torah declares it a sin to listen to the astrologer. Because, implied in the message of the astrologer is that a person cannot change. The astrologer is paid to predict the future, to tell the person what his destiny is, based on his nature, and this nature, argues the astrologer, is not subject to change.

The prophet, however, is not in the business of predicting the future. The prophet is here to inspire a person to break out of his nature, to break free of his destiny, and to understand that there is no barrier to spiritual growth that cannot be shattered. In the final analysis, the astrologer limits a person, while the prophet liberates him.

When Nineveh was spared Jonah was terribly angry. His worst fear was realized. Initially he had tried to escape his mission precisely because he was afraid that at the end, G-d would not destroy the city. He was afraid that his reputation as a professional predictor of the future would be severely damaged. No one would ever trust his predictions again. G-d was upset at Jonah’s anger, precisely because Jonah missed the point of prophecy. Jonah did not realize that had his prediction succeeded, his mission would have failed. For the prophet's mission is not to tell a person what his destiny is, but rather it is to tell him that he can change and become a new person anytime he so desires.

Although we are no longer in the era of the prophets, we must nevertheless take the message of the prophets to heart.  We need to ignore our inner astrologer and listen to our inner prophet. The greatest impediment to growth, both spiritual and material, is the voice inside of us which tells us, that, after all these years, we know who we are, we know our strengths and we know our weaknesses. We know where we will succeed and we know where we will fail. We have it all figured out. We know what we allow ourselves to hope for, and we know what we afraid to even attempt to dream for.

The commandment to heed the prophet, in the portion of Shoftim, is read during the month of Elul, the month of introspection and repentance leading up to the New Year, And we read the book of Jonah on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement because at this time of the year, as we prepare for the new year, we must listen to the voice of prophecy. We must understand that whatever our nature is, we can and must not be limited by it. We must understand that G-d gives us the power to break out of our limitations, to change, to become the person we know we should be.        

 

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[1] Deuteronomy 18:14.

[2] Ibid. 18:15.

Jerusalem

Jerusalem

Camped at the bank of the Jordan River, while talking to the Jewish people in preparation for their entry into the Promised Land, Moses painted a beautiful picture of one place where all the Jewish people would gather to celebrate. No longer would every individual choose their own place to present an offering to G-d, instead there would be one place where all the people would unite in the service and celebration of the one G-d: 

And you shall cross the Jordan and settle in the land the Lord, your God, is giving you as an inheritance… And it will be, that the place the Lord, your G-d, will choose in which to establish His Name there you shall bring all that I am commanding you: Your burnt offerings, and your sacrifices, your tithes, and the separation by your hand, and the choice of vows which you will vow to the Lord. And you shall rejoice before the Lord, your God you and your sons and your daughters and your menservants and your maidservants, and the Levite who is within your cities.[1]

The phrase “the place the Lord your G-d will choose” appears no less than ten times in this Portion, the portion of Reah. The pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate the festive holidays is a central theme in the portion, the Torah commands us how to celebrate, with whom to celebrate, but there is one glaring omission: “the place the Lord your G-d will choose” is left unnamed. 

Moses spent forty years teaching Torah, he passed on the Mitzvot with intricate detail. He transmitted the laws of the sacrifices with all its details, everything from what type of animals may be offered to the location on the temple where the animals should be offered. Yet the place where all this should happen is undisclosed. Why did Moses keep the location of the spiritual capital city of Israel a secret? Why does the name of the city where the Holy Temple will be built remain a mystery?

The answer can be found in the verse where the phrase “the place the Lord, your G-d, will choose” is used for the first time. The verse states: 

But only to the place which the Lord your God shall choose from all your tribes, to set His Name there; you shall seek his presence and come there.[2]

“You shall seek his presence”, says the Torah. G-d will choose Jerusalem only after the people themselves choose a place that they feel is appropriate for G-d's home. Only the Jew, who is part and parcel of the physical reality, can create a permanent dwelling place for G-d in this physical world. Only once King David chose the site of Jerusalem, did G-d, through the prophet, agree with the choice, making Jerusalem, and the Temple Mountain, the spiritual capital of the world.

The holiness of all the places that G-d chose for divine revelation was temporary. Neither the physical location of Mount Sinai nor the physical locations of the sanctuary in the desert - chosen directly by G-d - retained their holiness. The one place that was chosen by human beings, where they did not wait for a sign from on high, but rather they fulfilled the command to “seek his presence”, the place that was selected with human input, was the place that achieved permanent and everlasting holiness.

This is a life lesson for each one of us. The gifts we receive, from parents, friends, teachers, as well as inspiration received directly from G-d, will not have a permanent effect on our lives unless we choose to get involved, to become a partner, to contribute to the effort. To become the person we want to be, we cannot wait for inspiration from above. Inspiration alone will not change us for the better, unless we do our part to “seek his presence”.

G-d will choose to send you Divine inspiration and success, but it will have a permanent effect only after you do your part in building your spiritual Jerusalem.[3]

 

 


[1] Deuteronomy 12:10-12

[2] Ibid. 12:5

[3] Inspired by the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutey Sichos vol. 30 p. 120. 

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