Blog - Torah Insights

Don't Sacrifice!

3.jpgDon't Sacrifice! 

As we embark on the journey through the third book of the Torah, the book of Leviticus, we read, in the English translation of the Bible, about many forms of sacrifices: from sacrifices offered by the individual, as atonement or thanksgiving, to the communal sacrifices. Reading about all the sacrifices, we must remember that often the translation misses the essence of the idea it seeks to translate.

Let’s state it loud and clear: Judaism does not advocate, command, or believe in sacrifices.

The Merriam-Webster’s definition of “sacrifice” is as follows:  

1:  an act of offering to a deity something precious; especially:  the killing of a victim on an altar 2:  something offered in sacrifice. 3 a:  destruction or surrender of something for the sake of something else b:  something given up or lost, the sacrifices made by parents. 

The word sacrifice, as well as offering, represents the idea that one must sacrifice and give up of him or herself for a cause. The word sacrifice implies that G-d would like to see us take something that is precious to us, something that we would very much like to keep for ourselves, and give it to G-d. 

Judaism, however, does not believe in sacrifice. The Hebrew word for sacrifice-offering is “Karban” which means to draw close [the root of “Karban” is “Karov” which means close][1]. 

What does draw close mean?

There are various forms of pleasures in this world, on a spectrum from the tangible to the spiritual and abstract. The more concrete the pleasure, the more tangible it is, the easier it is to experience without any training. A child does not have to develop a taste for sweets; the first time the child tastes candy the child knows that candy is good and pleasurable. But then there are more abstract forms of pleasure, great music, art, wisdom. It takes time and practice to enjoy them, one must invest in developing a taste for them, they may not be as easy to experience in the beginning, but the pleasure they provide, while not as tangible as candy, can be far more enjoyable. 

When a mother takes her child to a concert for the first time, the child may be thinking that this is a major sacrifice. After all, why waste the time listening to music when there is fun to be had and toys to be played with? Mother, however, is not demanding a sacrifice from her child. What she is doing is introducing him or her to a higher, deeper, form of pleasure.

In the book of Exodus great things are accomplished. G-d takes the people out of physical and spiritual bondage in Egypt, gives them the Torah, and gives them precise instructions on how to construct a temple, a place where one can become close to the Divine.

And then comes the book of Leviticus. G-d introduces the “Karban”, the drawing close. Nachmanides[2] explains that the purpose of offering an animal was to elicit within the person the feeling that in truth he should be the one offered, and the animal is an exchange for himself. All offerings had two things in common: the blood was extracted and placed on the altar, and some of the fats were burnt on the alter. This symbolizes, not the destruction of the passion and pleasure, but rather it symbolizes devoting the passion and pleasure to the holy and Divine. [3]

In the book of Exodus G-d acts like the mother who took her child from the sandbox to the concert hall. In the book of Leviticus it is the child’s turn to act.[4] It is the child who is called upon to do what no one else can do for him: to draw himself close to the music and experience a deeper pleasure; to draw himself close and experience the pleasure and joy of a relationship with G-d.  



[1] There are other, less common, names for “Karban” in the Torah, one example is “Zevach”. The word “Zavach” does not imply taking life per se; rather it implies a positive creation of food, specifically food which brings family together in celebration. See commentary by Rabbi S.R. Hirsh on Exodus 20:20. 

[2] Commentary on Leviticus 1:9.

[3] See Lekutey Sichos volume 1 Vayikra.

[4] See Lekutey Sichos volume 16 Pikudey 3 (p. 479).  

Furniture First?

f.jpgFurniture First? 

Furniture is an important part of our home. How we furnish our home; the colors, designs and art that we choose, says a lot about the people we are and, perhaps more importantly, about the people we strive to be.

Despite its importance, furniture is rarely the first thing we purchase when we decide to acquire a home. First we build a home and then we fill it with furniture.

Indeed, when the Jewish people built a home for G-d in the desert, Betzalel, the chief architect made this very point to Moses.

For Moses commanded Bezalel to first make the furnishings and afterwards the Mishkan… Betzalel responded, “It is common practice to first make a house and then to put furniture into it.” [1]

Moses agreed with Betzalel, and indeed, first the Tabernacle was constructed and only later did they build the furniture.

This leaves us with a question: why did Moses initially command Betzalel to make the furniture first and only later to build the home? Moses surely knew that doing so is indeed unusual. 

The home with its walls and its roof provide shelter from the outside environment, the home allows the person to take control of and shape his or her environment. The furniture represents specific actions that fill our day. The furniture facilitates specific things like eating, sleeping, studying, etc. Betzalel’s perspective was that it is pointless to focus on performing a given action before one is in control of his environment. Betzalel argued that taking one positive action before there is a holy environment is like having a couch but no home. Betzalel argued that “the common practice”, the logical approach, is to first ensure a protective environment, secured from the rain, the cold and the outside elements; to first create a spiritual environment in which we are protected from the chaos and confusion of the material world. We must begin by creating a tranquil and holy environment, by removing all negative influences from our surroundings. Only then should we focus on doing a positive action. After all, what would be the purpose of one single positive action, if the rest of one’s day is full of unholiness?

Thus, argued Betzalel, first comes the home and then comes the furniture.         

Moses agreed with Betzalel that under normal circumstances one should build a home and then bring in the furniture. Moses agreed that in principle one should first transform one’s environment before focusing on a specific action.

Yet, initially, Moses told Betzalel to first build the furniture and then build the home. Why? 

Because Moses knew that unusual times would be coming.[2] There would be times when a person would feel that the darkness is too great, that the unholy is too dominant and that he or she is too weak to build a home, too weak to shelter oneself from the storm. Moses taught us that in those times we should first create the furniture - the action. Moses taught us to choose just one moment of our day and use it for a holy purpose. Moses taught us that even if we don't have a protective home, we should and could engage in holy actions.  

Moses told us to fill our life with specific positive moments of holiness.

The energy produced from these moments will ultimately empower us to build a beautiful home, full of material and spiritual blessings.


[1] Rashi Exodus 38:22.

[2] See Lekutey Sichos Pikudey vol. 31. 

Shattering Perfection

Shattering PerfectionM.jpg

Parents often ask: “I do everything for my children, so why are they so disrespectful to me?” The answer may just be right there in the question: it may just be because “I do everything for my children”.

To allow children to mature, we must give them the space to take the initiative. If we tell them all the answers they may receive a perfect grade but they still will not know how to solve the problem. We must step aside and give them responsibility. They may make mistakes, they will certainly not be perfect, but they will grow, they will change and, eventually, they will be transformed. The same is true for students and colleagues as well. The more you give them space to invest their own effort, to “make the call” themselves, the more they will internalize the goals and vision you are seeking to impart to them.  

There is no better illustration of this truth than the dramatic story of the creation of the golden calf and its aftermath.

Just forty days after the revelation at Sinai, where the people heard the Ten Commandments directly from G-d, who quite literally had done everything for them, the people abandoned everything they had been taught and served the golden calf.

Moses descended from the mountain holding the most perfect set of tablets; the Torah tells us that both the words engraved on the stone as well as the stone itself were “G-d’s work”:

Now the tablets were God's work, and the inscription was God's inscription, engraved on the tablets.[1]

Our sages explain that if the Jews would have received the first set of tablets they would have achieved perfection in their Torah study, there would be no forgetfulness[2], no questions, no confusion, because the first set of tablets were Divine and would bestow perfection on the people receiving them.

Moses descended from the mountain, holding the tablets, and saw the most terrible scene imaginable: his beloved people who had experienced the miracles of the exodus were dancing around a golden calf. He must have asked himself a version of this question: “If G-d did everything for his children, how could they do this to him?”

Moses knew the answer. He understood that he was literally holding the answer to the question in his hands. The tablets, the handiwork of G-d, represented the problem. Everything was being giving to the people, they were experiencing greatness without any effort. And the tablets were about to impart within them wisdom that they did not have to struggle to achieve.

Having just seen the terrible results of a people who were not required to invest effort, Moses did the unthinkable. He shattered the tablets. He shattered the perfection. He understood that the people would not mature and internalize the truth without struggle and human effort.

G-d agreed and thanked Moses for shattering of the tablets. And then, commanded Moses to prepare a second set of tablets. This time, however, only the words were inscribed by G-d, while Moses was the one who prepared the stones:

And the Lord said to Moses: "Hew for yourself two stone tablets like the first ones. And I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke.[3]

This time, the study of the Divine words of the Torah would be accompanied by the human stones, and human shortcomings. This time around the study of Torah entailed struggle, questions and disagreements. To grasp the clarity of Torah requires human effort to overcome forgetfulness and drill through obstacles.

Moses taught us that in order to influence ourselves, our children or our colleagues, we too must seek the gift of responsibility, to invest our own efforts and allow ourselves to struggle and ultimately to conquer our challenges through our own achievement.[4] We must shatter the notion of perfection.

We must give others the space to fail and rise again, we must give others the space to internalize the vision.

We must give others the gift of the second tablets. 


 [1] Exodus 32:16.

[2] Talmud Eiruvin 54a. See Mammar Viyten Licha 5666. 

[3] Exodus 34:1. 

[4] See Sichas Shabbos Ki Tisa 5752. 

High Fashion

High Fashion

Moses was commanded to appoint his brother as the High Priest, who would perform the service in the Temple. Much of this week’s Torah portion, the Portion of Tetzaveh, is dedicated to the detailed description of the eight garments of the High Priest, as G-d commanded Moses: “You shall make holy garments for your brother Aaron, for honor and glory.”[1]   

Aaron’s service was not on behalf of himself but rather it was on behalf of all the people of Israel. Therefore, Aaron would “carry the names of the children of Israel” on his heart and on his shoulders, in order to remind himself and to remind the people, that everything he would do was on behalf of the people.

But why would Aaron carry the names of the tribes not once but twice?

The names of the tribes of Israel were engraved in the garments of the high priest in two places: 1) on the Choshen, the plate worn on the chest which contained twelve precious stones inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel:

four rows of stones… And the stones shall be for the names of the sons of Israel twelve, corresponding to their names; [similar to] the engravings of a seal, every one according to his name shall they be, for the twelve tribes.[2]

- 2) on the Efod, the apron-like garment which was worn on the back of the priest, its straps reached the shoulders, the shoulder straps contained two stones upon which, once again, the names of the children of Israel were engraved. But instead of twelves stones there were only two stones:  

And you shall take two shoham stones and engrave upon them the names of the sons of Israel. Six of their names on one stone and the names of the remaining six on the second stone, according to their births.[3]

Why the need to engrave the names twice? And why the change in form - on the Choshen each tribe had its own stone, while on the shoulders of the Efod all tribes shared two stones?

The Choshen, sat on the heart of the high priest, and represented the Jewish people who lead a healthy spiritual life, one imbued with passion and feeling. The names placed upon the heart represent a life where one does not only take the right action but one does so with a heart full of love, excitement as well as a reverence for the holiness of the act. While every Jew follows the same commandments, we each do so with our own unique personality, this truth is expressed in the fact that each tribe had its own stone. No two tribes are exactly the same, just as no two people perform one Mitzvah with the same feeling and intention. When looking at the emotions of the heart, each tribe and each Jew is unique, the individuality of each tribe is celebrated and cherished.

Yet, the names engraved on the Choshen were not sufficient. For the leadership of the high priest was not solely reserved for those who were already inspired. A Jewish leader cannot be satisfied with leading those who already have established an emotional bond with the cause.

Aaron, therefore, also had a Efod, an apron, worn on the back, which represents the Jewish person who may take the right action, but does so devoid of heart, without a feeling of connection. The Efod represents the Jew who may show up to the Seder, but his heart never arrived, for he would much rather have been elsewhere. In the action devoid of emotion, all of the Jewish people are equal, as we are all required to do the same action. Therefore there was no unique stone for each tribe on the Efod.

Thus, the High Priest represents and inspires all Jews.

The Torah commands that the Choshen and the Efod, the breastplate and the apron, must  be attached to each other[4]. This is a message to the Jew who does not feel connected to the practices of Judaism. He may feel that he is on the Efod apron, disconnected from the feeling to Judaism, symbolized by the stones on the Choshen. The  Efod and the Choshen always being connected expresses that ultimately, the heart will follow the action, taking the right action will eventually fill the heart with inspiration.[5]


1. Exodus 28:2.

2. Ibid. 28:17-21.

3. Ibid. 28:9-10.

4. Maimonides book of Mitzvot, negative Mitzvah 87: “we are forbidden from separating the breastplate from the ephod. The source of this prohibition is G‑d's statement "Do not separate the breastplate from the ephod" — instead, leave it attached.”

5. Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Lihavin Inyan Hachoshen 5726.


The Cherubim

Cherubim.jpgThe Cherubim

After reading the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah at Sinai we arrive at the final theme of the book of Exodus: the story of the construction of the Mishkan, the temple, which the Jewish people built in the desert.

The first article which the Torah commands us to build is the “ark of the testimony”, which would contain the tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were engraved. The Torah then commands us to build the “Kaporet”, commonly translated as “cover”, with two golden Cherubim emerging from the two ends of the “Kaporet”, which would be placed upon the ark. As the Torah states: 

And you shall make an ark cover of pure gold, two and a half cubits its length and a cubit and a half its width. And you shall make two golden cherubim; you shall make them of hammered work, from the two ends of the ark cover. And make one cherub from the one end and the other cherub from the other end; from the ark cover you shall make the cherubim on its two ends.[1]

What was the purpose of the ark covering and it’s the mysterious Cherubim? If the ark contained the essence of the Torah, what could possibly be so important as to be placed on top of the Torah?

Nachmanides, the great 12the century commentator, explains that the Kaporet and its Cherubim symbolize that the Divine presence rests upon the ark and the Torah.

According to Nachmanides, the ark and its covering symbolize the continuation of the experience at Sinai, where G-d revealed himself to the Jewish people and gave us the Torah. The Angelic Cherubim remind us that G-d dwells within the Torah, and that by studying the Torah we can experience a glimpse of the awesome revelation at Sinai.[2]  

Rashi, the primary commentator of the Torah, offers another explanation for the Kaporet (ark cover). He implies that the ark and the Kaporet are two distinct vessels, which hold separate and distinct symbolism.

To Rashi, the ark represents the bond between the Jewish people and G-d that is achieved through the study and commitment to the Torah. Yet, as we recognize the awesome power of the Torah, we wonder, what happens to a person who fails to live up to the Torah’s teachings and values? What happens if, like our ancestors who constructed the golden calf, we betray the teachings of the Torah? Is our connection to G-d destroyed? Is there a path of rehabilitation?  

This precisely is the message of the Kaporet and its Cherubim. The word Kaporet, (as well as the word “Kippur”), is derived from the Hebrew word Kaparah, which means atonement. The Cherubim, according to Rashi, had the shape of the face of young children, symbolizing the essential and unbreakable love between parent and young child. Love shown to older children is, often, colored by reason; we love our children because we love the people they have become, we love their wisdom, their talents and their character. By contrast, love to very young children, is an essential love, not defined by the specific achievements of the child.

The Cherubim, then, are placed above the ark because they are a symbol of the unconditional love and unbreakable bond between G-d and the Jewish people. The Cherubim remind us that no matter how far we think we have strayed from the Torah, we can always return and experience atonement. We can always return and rediscover that G-d’s love to us is unconditional.[3]

[1] Exodus, 25:17-22. 

[2]  As the verse describing the Cherubim continues: “I will arrange My meetings with you there, and I will speak with you from atop the ark cover from between the two cherubim that are upon the Ark of the Testimony, all that I will command you unto the children of Israel.”

[3] Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Likutey Sichos Terumah vol. 26 Sicha 2. 

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