Blog - Torah Insights

Philosophy of Freedom

10.jpgPhilosophy of Freedom 

Sometimes the drama can distract from the point of the story.

One such example is the story of the ten plagues, which we begin to read about in this week’s parsha.

Reading about the plagues, we witness the showdown between Moses and Pharaoh, we sense the tension of the confrontation between the powerful Egyptians and the powerless Jews, and we watch, again and again, how the miraculous plagues wreak havoc on the wicked Egyptians. Yet it is easy to miss the point of the story.

How does the Torah describe the purpose of the plagues? Here are a few examples:

“And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Hashem”[1]. "With this you will know that I am the Hashem.”[2] “in order that you know that I am the Hashem in the midst of the earth.”[3] “and in order that you tell into the ears of your son and your son's son... and you will know that I am the Hashem."

This is not only a story about punishing the wicked. It is not only a story about breaking the stubbornness of the Egyptians. Most of all it is a story about an education. It is a story of conveying, to both Jew and Egyptian, the nature of G-d, and, by extension, an education about the power of the human soul.  

When Moses first approaches Pharaoh and says “So said the Hashem God of Israel, 'Send out My people, and let them sacrifice to Me in the desert.”[4] Pharaoh responds by asking: "Who is the Hashem that I should heed His voice to let Israel out? I do not know the Hashem, neither will I let Israel out."[5]

There are various names for G-d in the Bible, and the name “Hashem”[6] is critical to Moses’ request as well as to Pharaoh's response. When Pharaoh says “I do not know Hashem” he does not mean that he does not believe in a higher power that was instrumental in the creation of nature. In fact, Pharoah considered himself an embodiment of a higher power. As the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, he considered himself the representative of the G-d of nature, bestowed with the ability to harness the full strength of nature to increase his power. Pharaoh, however, does not know “Hashem”, the name that captures G-d’s transcendence, the name that incorporates the Hebrew words for “past” “present” and “future” into one word, symbolizing G-d’s transcendence over nature and over all of created reality encompassed within time. 

Pharaoh believed in “Elokim”, the name of G-d whose numerical value equals the same as “the nature”. Pharaoh believed in the Divine power expressed in the natural order, but Pharaoh believed that the natural order reigned supreme and that nothing can change nature.

When Moses tells Pharaoh that the time has come to challenge the natural order, that the time has come for the powerful oppressor to release the oppressed, Pharaoh refuses. Pharaoh was rejecting not only the request to liberate the Hebrews, but more fundamentally, he was rejecting the existence of a transcendent G-d, one that is not bound by the laws of nature.

Thus began the ten plagues, demonstrating to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians that the world is not enslaved to nature, that G-d is not bound by the laws of nature he created.

In some ways, the most important audience of the ten plagues is not the Egyptian but the Jew. For the Jew is called upon to carry the torch of freedom. To advocate for freedom, for himself and for the world at large, against all the odds and against all predictions, one must believe that he is not enslaved to the natural order, one must understand that G-d, the creator of nature, is free of it’s trappings and, as a result, so is the human soul, the spark of G-d within man.

The message of freedom is true in every generation and in every day. To experience freedom one must recognize that the human being is not trapped by past experiences, not enslaved to old patterns of behaviour, and  not bound by past experiences. Freedom is the recognition, that, each and every day, one can escape the shackles of the past and choose a new path. To experience spiritual freedom one must know Hashem. One must discover the part of G-d within him or herself. By doing so one can transcend one’s own nature, transform oneself and ultimately transform the en


[1] Exodus 6:5.

[2] Ibid. 6:17.

[3] Ibid. 8:18.

[4] Ibid. 5:1.

[5] Ibid. 5:1-2.

[6] The four-letter name of God (Yud Heh Vav Hey), which we don't pronounce. Instead we use the word “Hashem” - the name. 

It's All in the Name


It's All in the Name 

“Names” - what a strange title for a book!

“Genesis”, the title of the first book of the Torah, is a brilliant name. It is full of mystery and intrigue. It captures the imagination of billions of people who are fascinated by the timeless question: what is the origin of the universe? How did it all begin?

By contrast, “Names”, the Hebrew title for the second book of the Torah, does not elicit curiosity or intrigue. Unlike the Greek name, Exodus, it does not seem to capture the heart of the story. In fact, the names mentioned in the book, are perhaps the most uninspiring part of the book and they don’t seem to add anything to the plot and message of the book.

The first book of the Torah tells the stories of our patriarchs and Matriarchs, of their children and grandchildren. It is a book that captures the story of a family. The second book, however, tells the story of a people. We are no longer a small family, we are now a nation, and the stories and dramas are about a nation as a whole. We read about the slavery and exodus of a nation. We read about a nation receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai and we read about the national project of building the Mishkan, the home for G-d in the desert.

Nations are comprised of numbers. When people think of nations, when encyclopedias list nations, one of the most important things to list is the number of people that comprise the nation.

Numbers capture the common denominator of that which is being counted. The numbers 1.3 billion Chinese, 1.2 billion Indians, or 320 million Americans, respectively, describe the common nationality of the people, not their individual philosophies, perspectives, hopes and dreams. The number does not tell the story of the individual, of his or her unique personality and calling. The number is blind to anything but what the individual has in common with the group. 

A name, on the other hand, seeks to highlight the individual. A name gifts its possessor with the dignity of individuality. If you are needed to fill a number than you may be counted in the census, but you can easily be replaced. If you are valued for your unique identity, if your contribution is indispensable, than you are not merely a number, you are given a name.[1]   

Thus, when the focus shifts from the individual to the community, from the one to the collective, from the person to the nation, there is a danger of the individual being lost in the story of the whole. Often, the price of building a nation is sacrificing the focus on the individual. The title of the second book, “Names”, reminds us that in Judaism every individual is not just a number, one that shares a common identity with others, but also, a name, an individual. One who is indispensable. 

Indeed in all the epic stories of the book, the exodus, the revelation at Sinai and the building of the temple, events that created our nation, the Torah goes out of its way to highlight the importance of the individual. Moses, the fearless leader of the Jewish people is introduced as someone who risks his life to save not a nation but an individual:

Now it came to pass in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brothers and looked at their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man of his brothers. He turned this way and that way, and he saw that there was no man; so he struck the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.[2]

In the moment of the Divine revelation, when G-d revealed himself and spoke to all entire people of Israel gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai, he spoke not in the plural but in the singular, as explained in the Midrash:

When the Holy One, blessed be He, spoke [the Ten Commandments], each Jew said, ‘The words are speaking [directly] to me!’ This is why it says [at the beginning of the Ten Commandments], ‘I am Hashem your G-d,’ using the singular form of the word ‘your’ (rather than the plural form usually used in the Torah).”[3]

And finally, when the Jewish people set at to build the Tabernacle the home for G-d in the center of the Jewish camp in the desert, a monumental project made possible only with the combined efforts of the community, the commandment alludes to the home for G-d in the heart of each and every individual:

They shall make for Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell within them (25:8)

The verse does not say “and I will dwell within it,” but “and I will dwell within them”—within each and every one of them.[4]

Thus there is no better name for a book about a fledgling nation then the “Names”. It captures the tension of the story and it gets to the very essence of the Jewish people: yes, we are a group, a community, a nation, but each of us has a name. In G-d’s eyes each of us is indispensable. Each of us is critical to the Divine plan of making this world a dwelling place for Hashem.


[1] Lekutey Sichos, Shmos Vol. 6, Sicha 1.

[2] Exodus 2:11-12.

[3] Yalkut Shimony, Yisro 20:2.

[4] Likutey Torah, Naso. 

The Living Life

The Living LifeTorah.jpg

The story of the final portion of the book of Genesis, the portion of Vayechi, is a bittersweet one. We read about Jacob living the best years of his life in the land of Egypt, about the reunification of the children of Jacob, and about the close bond Jacob forms with Joseph’s children. Yet we also read about the passing of Jacob and Joseph. While the book of Genesis concludes with a happy ending for Jacob and his children, we feel the exile closing in on their children. Joseph, their patron and protector, dies and is placed in an ark in Egypt. The children of Israel are trapped in Egypt for the foreseeable future.

The portion of Vayechi is unique in the way it is written in the Torah scroll. All portions begin with an empty space separating the new portion from the previous one. The portion of Vayechi is the only portion which begins without a break of empty space. Looking at the scroll, one cannot easily find the beginning of the new portion. 

Why is this Parsha “closed”, why is there no spacing before this Parsha?

Rashi[1] offers two explanations:

Why is this section [completely] closed? Because, as soon as our father Jacob passed away, the eyes and the heart of Israel were “closed,” (i.e., it became “dark” for them) because of the misery of the slavery, for they (the Egyptians) commenced to subjugate them. Another explanation: That he (Jacob) attempted to reveal the End [of the exile] to his sons, but it was “closed off” (concealed) from him. 

Rashi believes that the closed space in the opening of this Parsha alludes to the negative aspects of the story. As soon as Jacob passes away, the Jewish people lost their unique status in Egypt and the misery of slavery was inevitable. According to Rashi’s second interpretation, the closed portion refers to spiritual darkness. Jacob attempted to reveal to his children the secret of the end of exile, yet it was concealed from him, leaving his children in darkness about the timing of their salvation.

As mentioned, the portion of Vayechi is a mix of joyous moments and sad moments. No surprise then that while Rashi explains the “closed” portion as a reference to negative elements of the story, the Midrash interprets the “closed” beginning of the portion in a positive way. The Midrash[2] explains:

Why is this portion “closed”? Because all tragedies and troubles have been “closed” to Jacob.

According to the Midrash the “closed” space in the beginning of the Parsha alludes, not to something negative, but rather it alludes to the great peace and tranquility that Jacob attained while living in Egypt. According to this interpretation, the “closed” space highlights the positive aspects of the story.

Why then does Rashi not quote the Midrash’s positive interpretation? Why does Rashi insist that the “close” is a reference to something negative, when he could just as easily have given a positive interpretation?

The name of this portion is Vayechi which comes from “Chai” the Hebrew word for life.

What is life?

In Judaism, life is synonymous with eternity.  Life comes from the soul, a part of the eternal G-d. The more a person is in touch with their immortal, eternal, soul the more the person is “alive”. Hence, counterintuitively, the portion of Jacob’s death is called the portion of - “Vayechi” - of life. For the test of Jacob’s life is specifically after his passing. Jacob is truly alive only if his legacy and teachings, if his example and inspiration, live on in the next generation. Only if his impact survives the mortality of the body do we know that he is truly alive.

The test of Jacob’s life, therefore, is not in the times of tranquility and peace. Jacob and his family living a life loyal to their ideals when there are no external pressures, does not inform us about whether or not they are truly alive, it does not tell us whether or not their legacy is enduring. Only when they survive difficult and challenging times are we sure that this group is enduring, that its spirit is everlasting, that this nation is alive. 

This is the lesson Rashi seeks to teach. The place of the closed gap between the portions is precisely at the opening word “Vaychi” (“and he lived”). Rashi has two possibilities in seeking to explain this anomaly. He can choose the positive explanation - “all tragedies and troubles have been “closed” to Jacob.” - but that would imply that to experience “Vayechi”, to be “alive”, one must experience a trouble-free existence. Rashi, therefore, chooses the negative explanations:

- “the eyes and the heart of Israel were “closed,” because of the misery of the slavery”, “he (Jacob) attempted to reveal the End [of the exile] to his sons, but it was “closed off” (concealed) from him” -

Rashi is teaching that it is specifically the times of oppression and darkness that allow our truest, most pure, most alive self to emerge. When we connect to G-d, the eternal source of all life, despite the challenges closing in us, then we are truly alive.

As Jacob is about to pass away in the land of Egypt, he discovers a new truth. He discovers that his children and grandchildren will continue to live his legacy and survive the Egyptian oppression. He discovers that the children of Israel are eternal.

He discovers that he is alive.[3]



[1] Rashi on Genesis 47:28.

[2] Midrash Rabbah portion 96 section 1.

[3] Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutey Sichos Vol. 15 Sicha 1. 

Estate of Goshen

j.jpgEstate of Goshen

The final two portions of the book of Genesis leave us with mixed feelings.

On the one hand, Jacob was finally at peace; his family was reunited and his son Joseph was the leader of Egypt, the world’s superpower.  For the first time in many decades Jacob was living in tranquility. Joseph granted Jacob and his family Egypt’s best real estate, the region of Goshen, where they lived a worry-free, peaceful, existence.

On the other hand, it was a sad story. There was a dark cloud hanging over their tranquil life in the land of Goshen. The children of Israel were heading toward a period of terrible slavery.

The Torah, with a carefully selected Hebrew word, alludes to the complex reality of life in the Goshen region of Egypt.

The final verse in this week's Torah portion describes the Jewish people thriving:

And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt in the land of Goshen, and they acquired property in it, and they were prolific and multiplied greatly.[2]

The Hebrew word for “acquired property” is “Va’ye’ah’chazu”, which is from the word ”Achuzah” which is commonly translated as estate. In our story the word is telling us that the Israelites acquired an estate in the land of Goshen. The word “Achuzah”, however, has another meaning as well. It is from the root word “Achaz” which means to grasp. “Achuzah”, can also mean that the land grasped the Israelites[2]. That in some way they were trapped by the land.

The word “Va’ye’ah’chazu”, then, has different and opposing meanings. It can mean “acquiring an estate”, which is a symbol of freedom, or it can mean being “grasped” by the land, which implies being trapped and enslaved.

The two meanings of the word “Achuzah” - “estate” and “grasped” - teach us an eternal message. It is a lesson about what our attitude toward Egypt should be, and what our general attitude toward the world we live in should be.

When our soul descends into this world, it enters a foreign land. When we are exiled from Israel, we are in foreign territory. The purpose of the journey to this foreign territory is to “acquire an estate”. It is to find and to elevate the sparks of holiness which are in every material object and in every corner of the planet. We elevate the sparks by using physical objects for a meaningful purpose, thus infusing the world with holiness.

Wherever we find ourselves in the journey of life we are charged with transforming that place into an estate for holiness, an oasis of spirituality. G-d sends each of us to “exile” with a mission to find and elevate the thirsting sparks.

And yet, there is a danger in the journey. The danger is that instead of elevating the material, we are grasped by it. That instead of our possessions serving us, we serve our possessions. That instead of enjoying our estate, we are trapped by it.

The essence of exile, then, is “Achuzah”, grasped and trapped by the land.

Yet “Achutzah”, as in estate, also captures the essence of redemption and freedom. 

We are all in the metaphorical land of Goshen. We may feel that we are enslaved by the lure of the material, that we are trapped by its grip. Yet, the Torah reminds us that we have the power to free ourselves from its gravitational pull. That the physicality which held us down yesterday can be redeemed and become the building blocks of a spiritual edifice, of an estate of holiness.[3]


[1]Genesis 47:27

[2]The form of the word in this verse “וַׁיֵאָחַזוּ” means that they - the people - were grasped. If it would mean that they grasped the land then the word would be “וַיֹאחַזוּ”.

[3] Inspired by the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutey Sichos vol. 15 Sicha 4.

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