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Blog - Torah Insights

Self Discovery

Lech.jpgSelf Discovery

Say you call your friend and ask him to go somewhere. The most important piece of information you must convey is the destination where he is to go.

Yet that is not what happened when G-d spoke, for the very first time, to Abraham, the very first Jew. G-d told Abraham to “go forth”. G-d elaborated on the place from which Abraham would depart, but said nothing about the place where Abraham would travel to. As the opening verse of this week’s Torah portion relates:

And the Lord said to Abram, "Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you.[1]

Why, at this point in the story, did G-d not reveal the destination?

To understand why the focus is on the point of departure rather than on the destination, we must first contemplate the nature of the commandment to Abraham to “go forth”. G-d did not simply ask Abraham to move and change his place of residence. G-d was defining for Abraham the story of his life as well as the story of the people Abraham was about to father. To be a Jew, to be in touch with the message of Monotheism which Abraham was preaching, is to heed the call to “go forth to you”.

Each of us, including Abraham, define ourselves in certain ways. We know our strengths but we also know our limitations. We tell ourselves stories. We tell ourselves what we can and what we cannot accomplish, what we should strive for and what we should dare not dream of. These stories are influenced by our surroundings.[2] Consciously or subconsciously, much of the way we view ourselves is based on the feedback from our surroundings. Society tells us certain things about ourselves, the people in our neighborhood, our teachers, our school principals, the bank manager, and most importantly our parents, all influence how we see ourselves and how we self define.

The first thing Abraham needed to know was that his potential was limitless. At his very core lay a spark of the infinite G-d. If Abraham would see past the natural order, If he would break free of real and perceived limitation, then he would touch his inner core, tap into his essence, and would be able to achieve what, until then, was deemed impossible. He would be able to go beyond his own nature, to be completely devoted and in love, to stand firm against tremendous odds, and to break free of the bonds of his own personality, perceptions and fears.

Thus, G-d tells Abraham that, in order to reach greatness, he must break free of old patterns of thought, he must journey away from the constraints imposed by his mind and heart, and of the influence of the people around him. He must first[3] leave “his land”, the influence of the broader society, and then leave the influence of his town, and finally, he must reject the limitations imposed by his close family. Instead he must travel to”the land that I will show you”.

The “you” in “the land that I will show you”, refers not only to the land but also to Abraham himself. Translated literally, the verse can also read “the land where you will be shown”, the place where your essence will be revealed. When Abraham packed his bags and left his native land, when he left behind the notions of the superiority of nature that prevailed in his father's home, he would reach “the land where I will show you”. He would discover his true self, which is a spark of the infinite G-d. Thus, the destination of the journey remained unstated, for any description is a limitation, and the entire point of the commandment was that Abraham must leave the notion that he, and what he was capable of, was limited. He needed to understand that the true self is undefined because it is limitless.

Over the next two portions of the Torah the story of Abraham highlights the message of “go forth to yourself” - begin the journey of self exploration and discover the true “you”. Time and again, Abraham was challenged. Time and again he was tested. Time and again he discovered that he could rise above the challenge, go beyond the instincts of his personality, and achieve greatness.

This, in one sentence, is the story of the Jewish people, a people whose very existence is a miracle. A people tasked by the calling to “go forth to yourself”, to journey forth and to discover the true “you” the infinity within each and every one of us. A people who no matter the difficulties they faced, defied the odds, they continue to thrive, with their faith and teachings intact, a people who heed the call to Abraham, and believe in achieving the impossible. For they are the people of Abraham, heeding the call to Abraham to journey to the land. A land that cannot be defined, only experienced.

They are on a journey “to the land that I will show you”, where the true “you” will be revealed.[4]

 



[1] Genesis 12:1. 

[2] See Maor Vashemeh on Lech Licha.

[3] Another difficulty in the verse is the order in which G-d describes the place from where Abraham must depart: “from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house”. Seemingly, the order should have been reversed, for one must leave their father's home and birthplace before on can leave their land (it would seem illogical to say, for example, “leave the United States, then leave your city, and then leave your home”)? The answer is that the verse describes the order of difficulty, it is hardest to leave the influence of those closest to us.

[4] Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Parshas Lech Licha 5749. 

Be Fruitful

Noah.jpgBe Fruitful

Something went terribly wrong.

The beautiful, pristine world we read about in the beginning of Genesis had turned corrupt. G-d decided to hit reset and begin anew. In the second portion of the Torah, the portion of Noah, we read about the great flood and about how this time G-d falls in love with the earth again, this time, G-d sets the rainbow as a covenant that He will never again destroy the earth. 

Why? What changed? What caused G-d to decide never again to destroy the earth?

As Noah and his children stepped out of the ark, they experienced what Adam and Eve experienced when they first opened their eyes: a new world. There is a striking parallel between Adam and Eve and Noah and his wife: as Noah emerged from the ark G-d said to him “be fruitful and multiply”, just as he said those very same words to Adam and Eve as soon as they were created. 

Why were the words “be fruitful and multiply” repeated? Why was the commandment to Adam and Eve not sufficient? Why must the commandment be reiterated to Noah?

A careful comparison of the verses will reveal the mystery of the difference in the nature of the earth brought about by the flood.

When G-d created Adam and Eve the verse tells us:

And God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it...”[1]

After the flood we read:

And God blessed Noah and his sons, and He said to them: "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.”[2]

The most important change between the words G-d spoke to Adam and Eve and the words he spoke to Noah, a change that captures the core of the story, is that while Adam as well as Noah were both told to “be fruitful and Multiply” and to “fill the earth”, Adam alone was told “conquer” the earth, yet conquest was omitted from the commandment to Noah. 

Filing the earth means more than merely increasing and spreading the human population. To “fill the earth” means to imbue the earth with holiness and spirituality, to direct all its resources and creatures toward a Divine purpose, to infuse all corners of the earth with goodness and kindness, with G-dliness and meaning. Filling the earth with a spiritual energy is something only humanity can achieve.

It the beginning of creation Man was commanded to “conquer the earth”. Conquest implies that the earth itself, the materialistic perspective, resisted the holy and the spiritual. Man was called upon to superimpose his appreciation of the Divine upon the creation and to force it to live in harmony with its creator. Ultimately, however, Man was unsuccessful. Creation turned corrupt and G-d brought the mighty waters of the flood upon the earth.

Yet the waters of the flood also possessed a purifying property. When the water receded and Noah emerged from the ark, he stepped into a purified world. This time, G-d commanded humanity to "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” This time there was no mention of conquest. Because, after the flood, the earth needed not to be forced but rather to be educated, not to be broken but rather to be redirected. After the flood waters covered the earth, the earth was no longer an enemy that, in extreme circumstances, needed to be destroyed. Now, post flood, the earth itself, intuitively, yearns for meaning. The earth itself longs to reunite with its creator.

Our task is to reveal the innate goodness within the world.[3] 

 


[1] Genesis 1:28.

[2] Ibid. 9:1.

[3] Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Shabbos Parshas Noach 5751. 

Peeling the Fruit

FT.jpgPeeling the Fruit  

If you had to choose one word that would describe all negativity in this world, if you had had to choose a word with which to capture the heart and soul of evil, which word would you choose?

These are some of the synonyms for the word evil suggested by the thesaurus:

wicked, bad, wrong, immoral, sinful, foul, vile, dishonorable, corrupt, iniquitous, depraved, reprobate, villainous, nefarious, vicious, malicious.

The word the kabbalah uses to describe all negative energy, all unholiness in the universe is, surprisingly, a neutral word, a word that does not evoke a strong image of evil. The Kabbalah refers to all evil with the innocent sounding word “Kelipah”, which is the Hebrew word for a peel.

The metaphor of a peel captures all we need to know about the unholy: its origin, its purpose, the challenges it presents and ultimately the way to deal with it.

Where does all evil come from? There were many who believed that evil could not possibly come from G-d. Since G-d is good, they argued, all evil must therefore come from Satan, from a power independent from, and contradictory to, G-d. Judaism fiercely rejects this explanation. The most fundamental premise of Judaism is that “Hashem Echad”, G-d is one, and there can be no force independent of G-d. Where then does evil and negativity come from?

The answer lies within the metaphor of the peel[1]. The peel, while it is not the primary part of the fruit, does serve a purpose. The peel protects the flesh of the fruit, and guards it against the elements, when man removes the peel and consumes the flesh of the fruit, both the peel and the fruit have served their purpose.

The same is true for all cosmic energy. Everything G-d created, including evil, serves a purpose. Yet there is a distinction between good and evil: the purpose of good is intrinsic, while the purpose of evil is to benefit the good. The purpose of evil is to enable the human being to choose good from evil; choosing the good, consuming the fruit, and removing the peel, rejecting the evil.

Within the realm of the unholy itself there are generally two categories. The evil and negativity that must be rejected outright, and the negative energy which could become positive if used to serve the holy.

This sheds light onto one of the earliest dramas of the bible, a story that has captured the imagination of humanity since the beginning of time: the story of the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden.

What did this mysterious tree represent? And why was its fruit so enticing to Eve?

The Torah tells us that after some conversation with the serpent, Eve perceived the beauty of the fruit:

And the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was a delight to the eyes, and the tree was desirable to make one wise; so she took of its fruit, and she ate, and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate.[2]

Eve perceived that there was beauty in the "peel" and therefore she desired the "peel" for its own sake. Before Eve’s conversation with the serpent all the fruit was perceived as nothing more than a tool that served the holy. Until the sin all material pleasures served as a tool for people to escape the confines of self, relate to other people and connect to the creator. The heart of the sin was that the human being perceived pleasure in materialism for its own sake. Confusing the peel for the actual fruit, the means for the end; ignoring the cosmic truth that the peel - the material - is but a tool to serve the spiritual- the actual fruit.

Each and every day we face the allure of the fruit.

The choice is ours. We can live in the tranquility of paradise or be expelled into a world of tension and chaos.

We can desire materialism for its own sake, seek the sensual with no higher purpose. We can pursue selfishness for its own sake, choose the peel and reject the fruit. The result will be conflict between people and between families, as selfish egos will inevitably clash, as well as causing inner struggle and chaos between body and soul.

We can, however, face the allure of the fruit and choose to remain in paradise. We can understand that all the material blessing in our life must be enjoyed and used as a vehicle for spiritual life, thus bringing peace between people, as well as peace to the material and spiritual drives in our personality; recreating the internal paradise, which, in turn, will spread to the rest of the world, transforming the world into the world G-d intended it to be: a world of paradise. 

 


[1] See Shalah 19b; Sefer Hamamarim 5659 p. 176. 

[2] Genesis 3:6. 

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