Blog - Torah Insights

Count on Family

B.jpgCount on Family

The book of Numbers describes the journey of the Jewish people, from Mount Sinai to the Jordan River. More than just a geographical journey, the book of Numbers is the story of the psychological odyssey which formed a nation, spiritually mature, able and ready to enter the land of Israel.  

Creating a cohesive enterprise, or a unified nation, is no easy task. In order to reach its full potential, the group needed to unleash the unique personality and strength of each individual. Any effort to suppress the spirit of the individual would stifle all ambition and creativity. On the other hand, nurturing individuality presented its own set of challenges. People are often divided and fragmented. People have trouble communicating effectively with each other and at times seem more interested in using others to advance their own agenda rather than being concerned for their well-being. 

In the book of Numbers, the Torah lays out the secret to creating a healthy society: the formula is the model of the family. 

In the opening portion of the book we read about Moses and Aaron being commanded to count the Israelites:

The Lord spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert, in the Tent of Meeting on the first day of the second month, in the second year after the exodus from the land of Egypt, saying. Take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by families following their fathers' houses; a head count of every male according to the number of their names.[1]

The key to understanding the significance of the census is the phrase “by families”.  

Although this was not the first time the Jewish people were counted[2], this census was unique in that the people were counted by their families. They counted the members of each family which led to the total number of each individual tribe, and then they combined the numbers of each tribe and arrived at the total number of all the people. Thus, the family was the foundation of this census.

What is a family?

The first family described in the Torah was the family of Adam and Eve. The Torah tells us:

On the day that God created man, in the likeness of God He created him. Male and female He created them, and He blessed them, and He named them “Adam” (person) on the day they were created.[3]

A family is comprised of individuals who are unique, who have intellectual and emotional qualities that are different from each other. Yet, the individuals realize that in order for each of them to reach their fullest potential they must come together as a family unit, not in order to dilute their individuality, but rather in order to receive from and give to one another, for only thus are they able grow to their fullest potential.

“Male and female he created them... and named them “Adam” (person)”. The Torah is teaching us that to be a complete person, to be an Adam, a “Mentch”, one must understand that male alone or female alone, is not a complete ”Adam”. In order to be complete one must be part of a literal or figurative family, where one can be fully himself and, at the same time, transcend the confines of self. 

The secret to the survival of the Jewish people is the secret of family. We have learned that in order for the individual to fully thrive he must be willing to connect and give of himself to others. We have learned that the individual can reach his or her greatest heights, specifically when he or she is part of a greater family.

In time all the world will take the lesson of family to heart, ushering in an era of brotherhood and peace.[4]

[1] Numbers 1:1-2.

[2] The Jewish people were counted when they left Egypt, and again, just a few months later, after the sin of the golden calf.  

[3] Genesis 5:2-3.

[4] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, 28 Iyar 5731. 

Holy Farmer!

Behar.jpgHoly Farmer!

Every seventh year, the Jewish farmer living in Israel was commanded to cease working the land, to separate from the earth and to designate a sabbatical year for matters of the spirit. The Sabbatical year, the Shmittah, was to be dedicated as a “Shabbat to G-d”, as this week’s Torah portion begins:

Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them: When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land shall rest a Sabbath to the Lord. You may sow your field for six years, and for six years you may prune your vineyard, and gather in its produce. But in the seventh year, the land shall have a complete rest a Sabbath to the Lord; you shall not sow your field, nor shall you prune your vineyard.[1]

The year of rest followed the six years of working the land, why then does the Torah state: “When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land shall rest a Sabbath to the Lord”, implying that immediately upon entering the land they were to designate a sabbatical year? 

Entering the Land of Israel was the opening of a new chapter in the Jewish story. Up until that point the Jews were not in the agriculture business. The Patriarchs and their children were shepherds; an occupation which did not take much effort and which left them plenty of time to be out in nature, separated from the distractions of civilizations, an occupation conducive to leading a spiritual life. Upon entering the land, the descendants of Abraham and the bearers of his legacy, were, for the first time, called upon to take possession of a land, to work it and to reap its bounty. For the first time, the people were focusing their time and attention on the earth.

To ensure that the people of Israel would maintain their spiritual identity, and elevate the earth rather than be consumed by it, the Torah tells us that as soon as they entered the land they must know that eventually the land would rest and experience the Sabbatical year. The Torah begins with the mention of the Sabbatical year, although it would not come to pass until after the six years of work, in order to remind us of the goal of the entire enterprise. Why are we in business? Why do we spend six long years working the land? Not merely because we desire the produce. The goal of all our work, the purpose of all our efforts, is to connect to G-d during the Sabbatical year.[2]

The Mitzvah of the Sabbatical, has an unusual introduction:

And the Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying:[3]

The phrase “and the Lord spoke to Moses saying” appears many times in the Torah, yet the addition “on Mount Sinai” appears only once in the entire Torah. It appears only regarding the commandments of the Sabbatical year.

What is the connection between the commandment of the Sabbatical year and Mount Sinai? 

The Torah is telling the Jewish farmer: make no mistake about your identity, and about how you self define. You may be plowing the field or harvesting its fruit, you may be on the trading floor or in a meeting with investors, but that does not define you. The true you, is at Mount Sinai yearning for a connection to G-d and his wisdom. The true you understands that the purpose of all your efforts is for the spiritual Sabbatical.

Studying the Torah portion of the Sabbatical year reminds us to create sacred space in our life, in which we allow ourselves to re-experience Mount Sinai. We remind ourselves that it is on the weekly Shabbat, as well as the daily moments we devote to holiness, where we express our true identity. Those moments, in turn, empower us to carry the holiness to all areas of our life.


[1] Leviticus 25:2-4.

[2] See talk of the Rebbe, Behar 5741.

[3] Leviticus 25:1. 

The Non Anniversary

Sukkah.jpgThe Non Anniversary  

The Jewish year is filled with holidays that commemorate past events: Passover is celebrated on the day we were liberated from Egypt, Shavuot on the day we received the Torah, Rosh Hashanah, the day of judgement, the day Adam and Eve were judged for the sin of eating from the tree of knowledge; and on the day the Jewish people received the second set of tablets, which represented the atonement for the sin of the golden calf, we celebrate Yom Kippur. 

In truth, Judaism does not believe in an anniversary as merely a celebration of the past. According to the teachings of Chasisdisim, the same energy that occurred in the past is, once again, available and more easily accessible on the anniversary of that event. Thus, a wedding anniversary, for example, is not just a commemoration of the time that a couple experienced a moment of profound meaning and deep love all those years ago, but rather it is a day when the commitment, devotion, love and friendship they experienced in the past can be readily reawakened. By the same token, on Passover the energy of freedom is once again in the air, and on Yom Kippur we access the energy of atonement, because the events of the past come alive and are reawakened on their anniversary.

Which leads us to the one exception: the holiday of Sukkot.

In this week’s portion the G-d commands Moshe:

Speak to the children of Israel, saying: On the fifteenth day of this seventh month, is the Festival of Succoth, a seven day period to the Lord… In order that your [ensuing] generations should know that I had the children of Israel live in booths when I took them out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God.[1]

We sit in the Sukkah to commemorate the exodus, to remind ourselves that when we left Egypt G-d had us live in Sukkah huts. But why do we celebrate the holiday on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, six months after the exodus, on a day that is not the anniversary of any profound historic event? 

Why is Sukkot celebrated on a non anniversary date?

Sukkot is most joyous of all the holidays: while on Passover there is no explicit commandment to rejoice, and regarding Shavuos the Torah mentions the word joy only once, on Sukkot the Torah instructs us to rejoice no less than three times. Sukkot is the most joyous holiday specifically because it does not occur on an anniversary. Sukkot teaches us that we don’t need to wait for times when a unique energy shines from above. Instead, through building the Sukkah, we have the power to sanctify an otherwise mundane day. Sukkot teaches us that while, ordinarily, the inspiration and joy associated with the holidays comes from above specifically at designated holy times, we are, however, able to produce an even greater inspiration through our own actions.    

This explains why the Mitzvah of Sukkah is unique in that it encompasses our entire being. The holiness is not reserved for a specific action, such as eating Matzah or hearing the Shofar, but rather it is all encompassing. Anything we do in the Sukkah, whether it be eating, drinking, reading the paper or just relaxing, is a holy spiritual act that connects us to the Divine. Because such is the power of the Jew: to sanctify mundane time and to imbue daily activities with spirituality and holiness. 

On Sukkot our joy reaches its climactic peak because Sukkot represents the ability to feel the closeness and love to our beloved even on the days that are not our wedding anniversary.[2]


[1] Leviticus, 23: 34-43.

[2] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Likutey Sichos vol. 22 Emor Sicha 2. 

Marshmallows and the Tree of Knowledge

images.jpgMarshmallows and the Tree of Knowledge

One of the most famous studies in the field of psychology is the Marshmallow Test.

In a series of famous experiments in the 1960s and ’70s conducted by the Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel, preschoolers were invited to sit alone in a room furnished only with a small desk. On the desk sat two marshmallows (or equivalently tempting treats) and a bell. The researcher told each child that he had to leave, but that when he returned, she could eat both marshmallows. If she wanted one marshmallow before then, however, she could ring the bell and eat one, but not both. Then the researcher shut the door, leaving the child alone with the forbidden marshmallows:

Some children gobbled a marshmallow the minute the door was closed, while others distracted themselves by covering their eyes, singing and kicking the desk. One resourceful child somehow managed to take a nap. But here’s the part that made the experiment famous: In follow-up studies, children who had resisted temptation turned out years later to be not only... better socially adapted, but they also scored as much as 210 points higher on their SATs than the most impatient children in the studies did.[1]

Without getting into the debate about the merits of this fascinating experiment, the experiment brings to mind a commandment in this week’s Torah portion:

When you come to the Land and you plant any food tree, you shall surely block its fruit [from use]; it shall be blocked from you [from use] for three years, not to be eaten.

And in the fourth year, all its fruit shall be holy, a praise to the Lord.

And in the fifth year, you may eat its fruit; [do this, in order] to increase its produce for you. I am the Lord, your God.[2]  

The same fruit tree, year one to year three the fruit is forbidden, year four the fruit becomes holy and must be eaten in Jerusalem. The fruit of the fifth year may be eaten anywhere. It seems that the Torah wants us to wait before we consume our marshmallows.  

Indeed the commentators[3] explain that by refraining from eating the fruit of a tree for three years, we are rectifying the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, who consumed the fruit of the tree of knowledge. According to the Midrash, the prohibition against the fruit of the tree of knowledge was supposed to extend for only three hours of the day. At the fourth hour, when the holy day of Shabbat commenced, they were to squeeze the fruit of the tree, the grape, and use the wine to sanctify the day of Shabbat with the Kiddush blessing. Adam and Eve were not able to wait the three hours. They ate of the fruit early which led to tragic results. We, the descendants of Adam and Eve wait three years in order to rectify Adam and Eve’s choice to not to wait for three hours.

Buy why the need to wait?

If the grape eaten at the fourth hour would have been a positive and holy experience, why is eating it a few hours early so spiritually devastating?  

Every time we interact with the world around us there can be one of two possibilities. When we interact with food, with technology, with our vacation home, or any other phenomenon, either we are serving it or it is serving us. Either we are in control of it or it is in control if us. Some people are in control. Their smartphone serves them, they indulge in pleasure when they know it will be conducive to their overall well being. Others are controlled. Their possessions provide not peace of mind but rather anxiety and worry. They are enslaved to food, technology, or other forms of pleasure, they engage even when they know that the interaction is detrimental to their well being.

The deep insight we receive from the Mitzvah to refrain from eating the fruit for three years, is that before we can use the material to our advantage, we must demonstrate restraint. By doing so we exercise control and ensure that we are in the driver’s seat. That it is serving us, not the other way around.

If I can say no when necessary, then when I say yes, I do so in a healthy and wholesome manner.   

What is true regarding the fruit of the land of Israel is also true in our daily life.

There are moments when we are engaged in study or prayer, at which time we refrain from all fruit of the world and focus on our inner spiritual identity. This gives us the power to then use the fruit of the world in a holy, productive and healthy manner.[4]



[2] 19:23-25. 

[3] See Sifsy Cohen on the verse.

[4] Adapted from, the teachings of the Rebbe, 10 Shvat 5714.  

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