Blog - Torah Insights

Lion, Donkey or Wolf?

L.jpgLion, Donkey or Wolf? 

At the end of his life, Jacob gathered his children to impart his final words and blessings.

Time and again in the book of Genesis, we read about the challenge of succession, the challenge of conveying an intangible, fragile, idea, to the next generation. Indeed, all through the book of Genesis it is only one son who is chosen to be entrusted with the spiritual legacy; the selection of the successor was usually surrounded by tension and conflict.

For the first time in Jewish history, all the twelve sons of Jacob received the blessing and responsibility for carrying the legacy of Abraham. Each of them had a unique personality, a specific quality; the particular contribution of each of them would be critical to the Jewish story.

Jacob refers to many of his children using a metaphor of animals:

“A cub, a grown lion is Judah… He crouched, rested like a lion, and like a lion, who will rouse him?”

“Issachar is a bony donkey, lying between the boundaries.”

“Dan will be a serpent on the road, a viper on the path, which bites the horse's heels, so its rider falls backwards.”

“Naphtali is a swift gazelle, who utters beautiful words.”

“Benjamin is a wolf, he will prey; in the morning he will devour plunder, and in the evening he will divide the spoil."[1]

Amongst the blessings both wild animals of prey as well as domesticated animals are used to describe the tribes. The wild animals represent passionate love to G-d, while the domesticated animals, who are tamed and who easily submit to human beings, represent submission and commitment to the Divine will.

In the terminology of the Kabbalah, the pulse of spiritual life is both “running” and ”returning”. ”Running” is the yearning to escape the confines of one’s own existence. “Running” is the feeling of passionate love to G-d. “Running”, is the feeling of inspiration. But inspiration alone is like a flame without fuel. Inspiration alone will evaporate unless it is followed by “return”, unless the inspiration and passion are channeled into specific, tangible, concrete action. The flame of inspiration will not last unless it is channeled into “vessels”, into day to day life.

The two qualities of “running” and “returning” are both necessary for any human endeavor. A successful business requires vision and inspiration - the passionate energy that keeps the place “running”, as well as a commitment to the, sometimes, tedious tasks necessary for running the business, the “returning”.

The same is true about relationships. Without emotion there is no energy, no fire, no inspiration. Yet “running” alone is not enough. For a relationship to endure, there must be a commitment to the other, one must submit and invest in the relationship regardless of whether he or she feels inspiration at the moment.

The same is true for our relationship with G-d. The Torah seeks to inspire us with love and awe. We begin the day with an effort to “run”, to escape the mundane, to transcend the material and to connect to the heavens. Yet Judaism teaches that we must “return” to the earth to sanctify it. We must “return” with the inspiration and commit to fulfilling the Divine will on this earth.

Jacob gathered his children and reminds them that each of their qualities is critical to the Jewish story. We must “run”, be passionate, like the lion, but also “return”, be committed and dependable, like the donkey.[2]  

[1] Genesis Chapter 49.

[2] Based on Or Hatorah, Bireyshis (vol. 5) page 1984.  

Inspiration vs. Action

J.jpgInspiration vs. Action   

Judah approaches Joseph.

He did not know it at that moment, but when Judah approached the viceroy of Egypt, to demand that his brother Benjamin be released, he was approaching his long lost brother Joseph.

The Kabbalists explain, that the rivalry between the brothers and Joseph, which led to the brothers selling Joseph as a slave, was no ordinary rivalry motivated by a dispute over their father's attention and love. In fact, the dispute between Joseph and his brothers was about something much deeper and more spiritual in nature: it was about which brother should be their leader? Which brother would be their king, the one who exemplified the qualities critical for the Jewish faith to survive? Whose model of spirituality should the family adopt?  

The brothers chose Judah. They believed that he was to be their leader, for he personified the qualities necessary for their values to flourish. The word Judah means acknowledgment and submission. Judah was a man of action. Very often his motives were less than exemplary, yet, consistently, in moments of crises, regardless of his own personal feelings and state of mind, he rose to the occasion and made the right choice.

Judah personifies the Jew who is committed to what he knows is correct despite tremendous persecution and pressure. In fact, the word Jew comes from the word Judah, and was first used to describe all the children of Israel in the book of Esther, when the people remained loyal to their faith despite the persecution of Haman, thus exhibiting Judah like - Jewish - qualities.    

The brothers crowned Judah as their king. They understood, correctly, that he must lead. That his commitment to action in the face of challenge was the secret ingredient to their survival.    

Then, along came Joseph and his dreams. Joseph told the brothers, that in his dreams, the brothers bow to him, that he must be their leader. That they must acknowledge the superiority of inspiration, wisdom and learning. The word Joseph means “to add”. Joseph was like a fountain of wisdom who continuously would come up with new insights, adding layers  of understanding to the previously acquired wisdom.  

The brothers decided to get rid of Joseph. They mistakenly thought that they were correct in doing so because Joseph rebelled against Judah the king who they had appointed, and because he threatened their survival by undercutting the importance of action based commitment to the correct path.

In this week's Parsha, Judah approached Joseph, Joseph was the powerful ruler of Egypt and Judah was subordinate to him. In what is perhaps one of the most emotional scenes in the Torah, Judah revealed his identity to his brothers, and then, explain the Kabbalists, Joseph revealed a deep truth. He told them “G-d has sent me here before you”. Joseph explained that indeed, ultimately, Judah would  rule. That indeed the tribe of Judah would be the tribe of kingship. That indeed action, the quality of Judah, is superior. Yet “G-d sent me (Joseph) before you”. That before you acquire a leader who is Judah you require a leader who is Joseph. There must be a recognition of the role of study and personal growth in the life of a Jew.

Just as it was in the history of the Jewish people, so it is in the life of every Jew. At first our inner Joseph is meant to rule. We are called upon to “add”, to grow our understanding and our emotional bond to the teachings of Judaism. Yet once we reach the limit of where our heart and mind can take us, we appoint Judah as our king. We realize that our wisdom, our Joseph, cannot touch the infinite light of G-d. To touch the infinity we must achieve a Judah like commitment and dedication to G-d’s will. We must take action.[1]

[1] Adapted from the Shalah Parshas Mikets, and on Torah Or Parsahs Vayigash. 

Joseph the Charmer

668.jpgJoseph the Charmer

Woven into the story of Joseph are dreams and their interpretations. Joseph’s terrible hardships, beginning with being sold as a slave by his own brothers, were caused by his dreams that his brothers would bow to him. His rise to the height of power was also brought about by Joseph's skillful interpretation of dreams.

Indeed, in this week’s portion we read about Pharaoh summoning Joseph from prison, in order to interpret his dreams:

And Pharaoh said to Joseph, "I have dreamed a dream, and there is no interpreter for it, but I have heard it said of you [that] you understand a dream, to interpret it."[1]  

Dream interpretation turned out to be central to Joseph’s story, because, according to the Kabbalists, it represents Joseph's spiritual makeup and his unique divine mission.

Life is like a dream.

A dream is a state of mind where there is no orderly thinking, a place where opposing forces can co-exist. A consciousness where chaos reigns free. A dream is a place where one can move between opposite extremes very quickly, one moment the dreamer is in grave danger, and a moment later he is safe and sound.

Life is like a dream. 

This world we live in is a world of fragmentation. In a single day we experience opposite feelings, highs and lows, the pull to transcend and the opposing gravitational pull of the earth. We experience moments of meaning and mindfulness, as well as moments of distraction, pain and confusion.  

Joseph's experience was like a dream, one moment he was a slave in prison, a moment later he was the leader of Egypt.

If life is similar to a dream, then the key to success in life is to be a dream interpreter.    

The Hebrew word for “(dream) interpreter” is “Poter” (פתר), (which means to solve, as in solving a riddle). The same letters rearranged spell the word “Tofer” (תפר) which means to sew.

Joseph was able to solve the dreams as well as solve the challenges of life, by realizing that he must serve as the needle that would sew together all of the fragments and create unity. To Joseph every experience, both positive and negative, was part of the tapestry of a single story. The negative moments in life, the challenges one faces, are confusing until one sews them all together to achieve the big picture. The ability to solve and “interpret” the dream comes from infusing every moment and every experience with meaning. No matter where a person is, he is always able to ask: what can I accomplish this moment? Who can I help? How can I advance the cause of goodness and kindness?

Which is precisely what Joseph told Pharaoh. Pharaoh saw many details. In the first dream he saw seven fat cows and then seven skinny cows. In the second dream he saw seven healthy ears of grain and seven thin ears of grain. 

The first words that Joseph said to Pharaoh are the clue to how Joseph cracked the code of the dream and it represents Joseph's attitude towards life in general:

And Joseph said to Pharaoh, "Pharaoh's dream is one; what God is doing He has told Pharaoh.[2]   

Both dreams are one dream. Both the good years and the bad years are part of one story.[3] Both give us the opportunity to bring G-dliness into the world and to work to help others.

This was Joseph’s key insight.

From Joseph we learn that every soul is like a sewing needle.[4] Like the needle's point, we possess the ability to penetrate the fabric and sew things together. We have the ability to penetrate the material and connect it to the divine, to pierce through the outer shell and discover that all of creation is but an expression of the one G-d. 

As Jacob was about to pass away he blessed each of his children. He turned to Joseph and said:  “Ben Porat Yoseph”, “A charming son is Joseph”. The word Jacob used for charm and beauty is “Porat” (פרת), the same letters as the letters of the word Interpreter, “Poter” (פתר), and the same letters as the word for sewing, “Tofer”.

When one learns to (פתר) interpret their life by (תפר) sewing all details of life into one story, then life, every part of life, becomes (פרת) beautiful and charming.[5]

[1] Genesis 41:15.

[2] Genesis 41:25.

[3] See Ben Ish Chai, Drasot Miletz.

[4] Sicha of 20 Av 5749.

[5] Adapted from Torah Or, Vayeshev, and Toras Chaim, Vayechi. 

Double Dream, Single Reality

download.jpgDouble Dream, Single Reality  

There is only one person in all of the five Books of Moses that the Torah refers to as being “successful”, that person is Joseph. Joseph's extraordinary gift was his ability to rise to the top of any situation he was placed in. When his brothers sold him into slavery he became the leader of his master’s home; when he was thrown into prison he became the administrator of the prison; and finally, the epitome of his success, he rose from the lowest rung in society to the highest rung: he rose from a slave in prison to the acting leader of Egypt, the ancient world’s superpower. 

What was the secret to his success? How did he remain focused, optimistic and upbeat despite all the difficulties that he had to endure?

Joseph brothers would mock him by referring to him as “the dreamer”. Indeed, to understand Jospeh, his story and his success, we must understand the unique nature of his dreams.

In the beginning of this week’s Torah portion we read about the two dreams Joseph dreamed, both with the same theme, namely, that Joseph was destined to be the leader over his brothers who would bow to him, as the Torah relates:

And Joseph dreamed a dream and told his brothers, and they continued to hate him.

And he said to them, "Listen now to this dream, which I have dreamed:

Behold, we were binding sheaves in the midst of the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and also stood upright, and behold, your sheaves encircled [it] and prostrated themselves to my sheaf."...

And he again dreamed another dream, and he related it to his brothers, and he said, "Behold, I have dreamed another dream, and behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were prostrating themselves to me."[1]

What is unique about the dreams of Joseph, as opposed to the dreams of Pharaoh and the dreams of Pharaoh's butler and baker recorded later in the story? It is that Joseph first dreamed about the earthly, the grain in the field, and then continued to dream about the heavens, the celestial bodies, the sun, the moon and the stars.

Joseph understood that the dreams were conveying that the material and the spiritual are not two separate entities, but rather they are two layers of the same reality. Joseph understood that if he would indeed become a leader in the physical sense, if his brothers’ “wheat” would bow to his “wheat”, if he would be the leader who would provide them with bread, then that is but the first dream and the outer layer of the story. The deeper layer, the spiritual counterpart, is found in the second dream; it is that Joseph must bestow upon his brothers not just material bounty but also spiritual insight. While his brothers thought they had to retreat from society and become shepherds in order to maintain a connection to holiness, he must share with them his unique ability to remain loyal to sanctity and holiness, even while being involved in the heart of the Egyptian economy and culture.

Joseph’s double dream taught him that one could simultaneously be in a field with the grain, and in heaven with the stars. That one can exist on two planes at the same time. That within every earthly scenario one must seek and find the inner layer, the spark of heaven, that is the purpose of the experience.[2]

Thus, Joseph’s spirit could not be crushed. No matter the circumstance, Joseph understood that there is a hidden piece of spirituality, there is celestial energy amidst what might appear to be the bleak, earthy reality of the field. Whether he was a slave in his master's home, or worse yet, confined to prison, his spirit remained high as he understood that reality is layered, that beneath the first dream lay the second dream, that there must be a deeper purpose in the physical existence.

Just like Joseph himself, each of us is empowered to connect the wheat and the stars, the heaven and the earth, the spiritual and the mundane. The Torah gifts us with the ability to find the good in every situation, to find the spark of opportunity in every challenge. We can connect heaven and earth by elevating the earthly experience and discovering that even in the field, we are living a transcendent, heavenly, experience.   


[1] Genesis 37:5-9.

[2] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos, Vayeshev Vol. 3.  

Jacob or Israel?

Israel.jpgJacob or Israel?

In what is perhaps one of the most dramatic and emotional scenes in the Torah, Jacob meets his brother Esau after twenty years of rift and separation. Jacob fled his father’s home, after stealing the blessings which his father Isaac intended for his older son Esau. In this week’s portion we read about the heartfelt reunion between the brothers.


Prior to the reunion, we read that “Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn”, and finally, when the man saw that he could not overpower Jacob, he asked to be allowed to go, Jacob refused to allow him to go until he would bless him:


So he said to him, "What is your name?" and he said, "Jacob." And he said, "Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have commanding power with [an angel of] God and with men, and you have prevailed."


Who was this mysterious man? One interpretation[1] is that the man who wrestled with Jacob while Jacob was alone (which seems to be an inherent contradiction, if a man wrestled with him, than by definition Jacob  was not alone) was none other than Jacob himself. The struggle between Jacob and the man (who the sages refer to as the angel, or energy of Esau) represents an internal struggle between the force of good and the negative within Jacob himself. Before Jacob could reconcile with his brother Esau, he was first compelled to wrestle with his internal Esau. He was compelled to settle the internal struggles and contradictions within himself before he could find peace within himself.  


The struggle lasted all night. Jacob asks for a blessing. Instead of a blessing “the man” got into a discussion about names, the conversation went as follows:

So he said to him (to Jacob), "What is your name?":


“the man” asked Jacob: What is your name? What is your identity? How do you self define?


and he said, "Jacob."


The name Jacob denotes struggle. The name Jacob, which also means heel, was given to Jacob because as he emerged from the womb he was holding on to the heel of his  twin brother Esau. The name Jacob represents the constant battle between the internal Jacob and Esau, the spirit and the matter, the sensual and the transcendent. Jacob told the angel that his name was Jacob. He explained that he was constantly being drawn between the holy and the mundane, between the physical and the spiritual.


And he (“the man”) said, "Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel (which means to rule), because you have commanding power with [an angel of] God and with men, and you have prevailed.


He told Jacob, that there is a place within himself where there is no struggle at all. At his core, which is pure holiness, there is a state of consciousness where there is no struggle to begin with. When the core of the soul is felt in the conscious mind, then evil, temptation and negativity lose all appeal and are not enticing to begin with.


Each of us has both a Jacob and an Israel within ourselves. There is a place in our heart where we have to struggle to be the person we know we want to be. We have to struggle to be kind, joyful, patient and considerate. There is a place within ourselves where it takes a struggle to delay gratification and invest in a relationship over immediate pleasure. There are times, when we are Jacob. 

Yet, when we look deeply within ourselves, we discover that there is a part of us that is Israel, where we reign over the negativity even without a battle. There are times when there is no struggle.


Jacob is compared to a Jew as he is during the six days of the week, when he is involved in the business of daily life; while Israel is compared to a Jew as he or she exists on Shabbat, when they tune out the mundane and touch the spiritual side of existence.[2]


As Jacob prepared to face his brother Esau, he first spent the night in introspection, experiencing the wrestling within his soul. As the sun rose  Jacob realized, that from that point on his primary name was Israel. While we experience Jacob, we are Israel. Living on this earth presents us with challenge, difficulty and struggle, yet our identity is not Jacob. The struggle with evil and selfishness does not define who we are. We engage in Jacob but we are Israel. Our truest self is the part of us which sees the material, not as a contradiction to, but rather as a vehicle for holiness. Our truest self is the Israel within us, the part of us which intuitively feels connected to G-d.

[1] See Malbim.
[2]  See Lekutey Torah, Mammar Lo Hibit Aven Biyaakov (Sefer Bamidbar  70:3 
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