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Blog - Torah Insights

Pure Happiness

zRTt6595112.jpgPure Happiness

In the background of all existence lies a deep sadness. The sadness is faint, it can be ignored, but it always lurks in the background, occasionally bursting forth into the human being’s consciousness.

The sadness is a result of the mortality of existence. We are all trapped by the march of time. Time consistently moves forward, it never stops to take a rest, and it refuses to free us of its grip and allow us to slow the clock, to freeze a moment in time for prosperity.[1]

No matter how strong the joy felt in the human heart, perhaps at one’s wedding, at the birth of a child or another intensely joyful experience, the joy is experienced against the subtle knowledge that this moment in time can never be recreated. That in a fleeting moment this experience of joy will slip away. 

The sadness is magnified when a person contemplates that from the moment of birth the clock is ticking, he is moving closer to the end of his life. While most people successfully navigate through daily life without facing the sadness of mortality, when we come in contact with death, this natural feeling of sadness is magnified. When we see death we are forced to recognize our own mortality, we realize that eventually everything we cherish and our very existence will end. Thus, the Torah teaches that if someone touches a dead body they become ritually impure, because death produces sadness which is the antithesis to a relationship with G-d, who is the source of life and the source of joy.  

The opening commandment of this week’s Torah portion discusses the law of the red heifer, which provided ritual purity for the impurity of contacting the dead. The portion begins:

The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: This is the statute of the Torah which the Lord commanded, saying, Speak to the children of Israel and have them take for you a perfectly red unblemished cow, upon which no yoke was laid...[2]

The commandment of the red heifer is categorized not as the “statute of the heifer” but rather as the “statute of the Torah”. The commentators explain that the laws of purity and impurity in general, and the law of the red heifer in particular, cannot be fully understood by the human mind and must be observed simply because it is a statute commanded by G-d with no explanation that we can comprehend.

How does this commandment provide purification? How does it cure one of the sadness produced by experiencing human mortality?

There is one path to true and lasting joy; when a person transcends himself, freeing himself from his obsession with self and doing something that is beyond himself, in that state he is breaking free of his mortality. Which is why, perhaps counter intuitively, happiness comes from giving to others. When a person shifts his focus from himself and empathizes with another, when he reaches into himself and takes something which is precious to him, whether it be his time, his money, or his attention, and gives to another, he will feel joy. Because he has broken free of the grip of material existence, and experienced a spiritual existence, one that transcends time and space.  

A person has a limited lifespan but when he fills his life with experiences that connect him to the infinite creator, he achieves immortality, for G-d is the infinite source of life. Connecting to the Divine, going beyond human reason and fulfilling a Mitzvah simply because it is the will of the infinite G-d, allows a person to escape his limitation and leave the sadness of the universe behind him. For he is connected and becomes absorbed in the infinite, transcendent, source of life.  

The law of the red heifer, then, captures a profound lesson in life: in order to be able to experience joy, we must not look toward accumulating more physical objects and experiences. In fact, doing so may increase our sadness as it makes us realize that that which we value is physical and therefore ultimately fleeting. Instead, in order to experience a purifying feeling of happiness, we should turn to the spiritual. We must fill our lives with moments of transcendence. We must connect to the source of life and joy.[3]



[1] See Kli Yakar on Genesis 1:14.

[2] Numbers 1:1-2.

[3] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutey Sichos Chukas vol. 4, as presented in the Kehot Chumash. 

Naming Rights

2609.jpgNaming Rights

Korach was a dangerous man. He led a rebellion against Moses and Aaron which threatened to undermine the veracity of Moshe’s prophecy and destroy the cohesion of the Jewish people necessary for them to survive in the desert and ultimately enter the land of Israel.

Why then do we give the “naming rights” of a portion in the Torah to Korach? Why do we refer to the portion as the portion of Korach, thus enshrining his name for eternity as a model for admiration?

Korach wanted to be the high priest instead of Aaron. Korach spoke out against the division within the people whereby Aaron was deemed the only one holy enough to perform the service of the temple while all other Jews were excluded from that role and, in his estimation, were therefore less holy and spiritually significant. Korach wanted spiritual equality: he wanted everybody to be on the same level of holiness.

The truth, however, is that there must be various grades of holiness.

The High Priest, must remain completely dedicated to the temple service, and disengage from worldly matters. The High Priest is likened to Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, a day when all Jews experience an angelic existence, ignoring the needs of the body and focusing on the soul's relationship with G-d. 

Now consider the following question: if Yom Kippur is the holiest day, if it is a day on which we touch our core self as like on no other day, why don’t we simply declare everyday as holy as Yom Kippur? Why are most days mundane?

The answer is that if every day is as intensely holy as Yom Kippur then the purpose of creation, which is to sanctify the mundane and make it a dwelling place for the Divine, cannot be achieved. A world where every day is Yom Kippur, or, where every person is a high priest, is a world where, although the soul is connected to G-d, the body and the mundane reality are out of the picture. As a result, instead of the material existence being elevated and sanctified, it will fall lower, it will become more selfish, and farther away from its Divine source.

Which is why the devastating results of Korach’s rebellion were that the rebels were punished in two ways. The two hundred and fifty leaders who offered the incense were burned by fire, while the rest of Korach’s camp was swallowed up by the earth. The consequences demonstrated what would have happened had Korach’s plan been implemented. Fire, always surging upward, is a metaphor for spirituality. Yes, if we were all high priests, then our spiritual side would surge upward and would always be connected to G-d, yet our body would not come along for the ride. Our intensely spiritual existence could not understand or communicate with the more physical part of our existence. Thus, while the soul would ascend in fire, the body would be swallowed up by the earth, unable to elevate itself.

Which is why the Divine plan was that there should be both holy and mundane. One day a year we escape the body, and that experience empowers us to elevate the body during the rest of the year. At all other times, we have a high priest who is intensely holy, who inspires the rest of the people, who are engaged in the material world, to be more spiritual.

While Korach was mistaken, as there must be varying degrees of holiness, there is one aspect of Korach which is not only desirable but also necessary. In order for the mundane to be elevated it has to experience the desire and yearning for holiness. Thus although on a Tuesday afternoon in  November, a Jew is not as holy as he is on Yom Kippur; there must be part of him which, like Korach, wishes it were Yom Kippur. In the final analysis, then, while Korach’s actions were disastrous, his desire for holiness must be celebrated.

Thus the name of the portion is not “(and Korach) took”, the first word of the Parsha[1], which describes Korach disastrous actions, his rebellion; but rather the Parsha is named, Korach. For Korach himself, the desire to be holy, is positive and should be celebrated.

Korach himself, as opposed to his actions, earned for himself the naming rights to the Parsha. Because the desire for holiness must be cultivated and celebrated.[2]     

 


[1] In Hebrew the verb - “took” - precedes the subject - “Korach”.

[2] Adopted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Likutey Sichos vol. 18, Sicha 1 and 3.

The Miracle of Bread

C.jpgThe Miracle of Bread

The spies returned from scouting out the land of Israel with a report describing the might of its inhabitants. The hearts of the Jewish people filled with fear, they lost faith in G-d’s ability to bring them into the land, and they cried: “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt!”[1]. As a result of their rejection of the land, it was decreed that they, the generation that was liberated from Egypt would remain in the desert for forty years. Only the next generation would merit to enter the land and to see the fulfillment of the Divine promise to bring the people to the land of their ancestors.

After the tragic episode of the spies, the Torah tells us:  

The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them, When you arrive in the Land to which I am bringing you, and you eat from the bread of the Land, you shall set aside a gift for the Lord. The first portion of your dough, you shall separate a loaf for a gift... From the first portion of your dough you shall give a gift to the Lord in [all] your generations.[2]

Why would G-d choose to place the commandment of Challah, the commandment to dedicate the first piece of dough to G-d, at this point in the story? The words: “When you arrive in the Land to which I am bringing you”, clearly state that the commandment would not take effect for forty years. Discussing a Mitzvah that applies only in the Land of Israel immediately after the decree barring the Jews from entering the land, seems, at first glance, to be quite cruel.

To understand this, we must turn back and analyze the mistake made by the spies, we must address one of the most difficult questions raised by this story: How is it possible that the same people who experienced great miracles, from the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea to the manna descending from heaven, could undergo a dramatic change of heart and suffer a colossal loss of faith? How could a people who perceived G-d’s wonders deny his ability to help them conquer the land?   

The answer to this question is, that the spies, as well as the Jewish people, witnessed G-d’s ability to perform miracles, to shatter the laws of nature, and they understood that the laws of nature are no match for G-d’s might. G-d can, and occasionally will, suspend the laws of nature and display his miraculous wonders.

Yet, they were aware that once they entered the land the miracles would cease. They would have to wage a natural war of conquest, they would have to farm the land to sustain themselves, no longer could they expect G-d to interfere and change the laws of nature on their behalf. Thus, they were afraid to enter the land; not because they thought that G-d could not perform miracles, but rather because they thought that G-d would choose not to perform them. Without shattering the laws of nature, they feared, they would be powerless to conquer the land.[3]

What they failed to understand is that nature itself is a miracle.

They understood that G-d could shatter nature but they failed to grasp that G-d operates through nature, that the miraculous as well as the natural are both expressions of the Divine. 

That it is why, shortly after the debacle of the spies, G-d commanded the Jewish people to separate the first piece of dough and gift it to the priest. Kneading dough follows many months of toil; man must invest his effort, plow, sow and harvest; months will pass before the earth works its magic and produces wheat. At the culmination of all his effort, before he enjoys the fruit of many months of labor, the Jew dedicates the first piece of dough to the priest, because the Jew understands that the bread is a result of G-d’s blessing. The Jew recognizes that the earth yielding its produce is an expression of the Divine power. That nature is nothing but an expression of G-d’s will. That the loaf of bread is as great a miracle as the splitting of the sea.

Thus, the commandment of Challah is placed soon after the story of the spies for it is, in fact, a roadmap to rehabilitation from the mistake of the spies. Understanding that G-d operates through nature would give the Jew the confidence, as well as the merit, to leave the miracles of the desert and embrace life in the land.

The Commandment of Challah reminds the Jew that while he is engaged in the natural process of plowing, sowing and harvesting, he is experiencing the kindness of G-d.[4] The Jew realizes that G-d is found not only in the miracles of the desert but also in the fields of the Land of Israel.

Separating the Challah demonstrates that for the Jew, G-d is present not only in the miraculous but also in the mundane. 

 


[1] Numbers 14:4.

[2] Numbers 15:17-21.

[3] See Lekutey Sichos Shlach, vol. 4.

[4] See Lekutey Sichos Shlach, vol. 18 Sicha 5. 

The Lonely Leader?

jpIw10135939.jpgThe Lonely Leader?

Something about this episode was different. While the Jewish people disappointed Moses many times in the desert, by creating the golden calf, losing their faith in their ability to conquer Israel, and rebelling against Moses, never before or since had Moses reacted with such pain and despair as when the People asked for meat.

The Torah tells us:

The multitude among them began to have strong cravings. Then even the children of Israel once again began to cry, and they said, "Who will feed us meat?

Moses reacted with great pain and anguish, he turned to G-d and said:

"Why have You treated Your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in Your eyes that You place the burden of this entire people upon me?

Did I conceive this entire people? Did I give birth to them, that You say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom as the nurse carries the suckling,' to the Land You promised their forefathers?

Where can I get meat to give all these people? For they are crying on me, saying, 'Give us meat to eat.'

Alone I cannot carry this entire people for it is too hard for me.

If this is the way You treat me, please kill me if I have found favor in Your eyes, so that I not see my misfortune."[2]


Why was the request for meat so terrible? Is asking for meat really more severe a transgression than created the golden calf, after which Moses did not ask to die, nor did he complain that he had to carry them like a nurse carries the suckling, and after which Moses defended his people with enthusiasm and force?

To understand this, we must first look at the beginning of the Torah portion.

The portion of Behaalotcha, begins with the Torah reiterating the commandment to light the Menorah. Why was the commandment to light the Menorah singled out for repetition at this point in the story, as the children of Israel were about to embark on their Journey toward Israel?

Lighting the Menorah is more than a specific detail of the service of the temple. The Menorah captures the mission of the Jew, namely to add spiritual light to his own life as well as to the world around him. Thus the commandment to light the Menorah is repeated as they were about the leave Sinai and begin the mission of our nation.
[3]

Shortly after the departure from Sinai, Moses discovered that his people were in no position to be a Menorah radiating spiritual light. Moses came to the realization that the people had no interest in matters of the spiritual in general, and were not concerned with their calling of adding light in the world in particular. Moses discovered that their chief concern was: “what’s for supper’. This was the greatest disappointment because it represented an abandonment of their core mission. 

When Moses said “Alone I cannot carry this entire people” he did not mean that he was incapable of leading them. Moses meant that he could not carry the mission of the entire people alone. He could not be the only one holding the light of the Menorah, the only one carrying forth the Jewish calling. 

G-d instructed Moses to gather seventy elders, G-d would take from the spirit which was on Moses and place it upon them, and they would experience prophecy. How would that solve the problem of the request for meat? G-d was demonstrating to Moses that although the people were not as intensely spiritual and humble as Moses, they could also experience the spirit of holiness and be a part of the Menorah, spreading spiritual warmth and light.    

Moses realized that he was not alone. As he watched the seventy elders receive inspiration from his spirit, he understood that he was not carrying the Jewish mission on his own. For every Jew throughout history is inspired by the words of Moses, and would carry the message and inspiration forward. That indeed, even the Jew who is concerned with material success, can and will be part of the Menorah. Moses learned that indeed he was not alone. 

 


[1] Numbers 11:4.

[2] Numbers 11:11-15.

[3] See Hisvaaduyos, Bamidbar 5749.   

Study or Action?

R.jpgStudy or Action?

Two pillars of Jewish life are Torah study and good deeds. The great Talmudic sages, who analyzed and debated every detail of our law and tradition, were curious about the hierarchy of study and deed, which of the two is greater?

The Talmud relates:

Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were reclining in the loft of the house of Nit’za in Lod, this question was asked of them: Is study greater or is action greater? Rabbi Tarfon answered and said: action is greater. Rabbi Akiva answered and said: study is greater. Everyone answered and said: study is greater, as study leads to action.[1]

The meaning of the conclusion, “study is greater, as study leads to action”, is not entirely clear. If the virtue of study is that it “leads to action”, then it seems that action is greater because it is the ultimate goal and purpose. If that is the case, why doesn't the Talmud simply say that action is greater? 

The ability to think, to learn, to grow intellectually, is the greatest gift man possesses. Most of the personality is egocentric and subjective. The person's heart tells him what feels right to him, his will tells him what he should want, his tastebuds tell him whether the food he is eating is enjoyable to him. The mind, by contrast, is the tool which allows the person to escape the ego’s gravitational pull. The mind allows the person to be objective, to see truths separate from his own limited perspective. The mind allows the person to understand and identify with people, cultures, opinions and experiences different from his own. The mind enables the person to be transported to another time and place, losing his grounded self and being completely immersed in new stories, experiences and ideas. In short, the mind is the ticket to freedom, it is the tool through which one can transcend the self.

This then is the deep insight of the Talmud. When faced with the question of which is greater study or action, the sages give the typical Talmudic answer: it depends. Wisdom that does not set one free from his own sense of self, wisdom that makes a person arrogant, wisdom which robs the person of the humble sense of mystery and wonder, is no virtue, in fact, in extreme cases it can be directed toward evil, and it is certainly not superior to good deeds.

By contrast, wisdom which leads one to see beyond the self, that allows one to understand the needs of others, wisdom that propels the person to do for the benefit of another, is wisdom that is superior, because it is the ultimate superiority of man, the ability to break free of one's own limited self.

When the Talmud says “study is greater, as study leads to action” it is telling us what type of study is great. Only study which leads to action, study which inspires the person to do for others, study which frees the person from focus on the self and enables him to grasp a perspective beyond his own, is the greatest state of being one can achieve.

This idea is reflected in the beginning of the book of Numbers. In the first portion of the book, after the description of the order in which the twelve tribes camped around the tabernacle in the desert, the Torah describes the responsibilities of the Levites. In the first portion of the book, the Torah lists only one of the three families of the Levites, the family of Kehot, while the other two Levite families are listed in the second portion of the book, the portion of Naso, which means “lift up” or “elevate”. 

The family of Kehot whose primary responsibility was to carry the ark which contained the tablets, and later the Torah, represent Torah study. Yet, they are not mentioned in the portion of Naso, which means “elevate”. That is because study alone does not elevate one to the greatest heights unless it leads to the contribution of the families of Gershon and Merari, the Levites whose responsibility it was to transport and assemble the walls and coverings of the tabernacle. Gershon and Merari transformed the uninhabitable desert into a tabernacle, a home of peace and tranquility. Their service, therefore, represents action and good deeds. Thus, they are listed in the portion of Naso, “elevate”, because they passed the test of true elevated wisdom. They embody the wisdom which leads to action on behalf of others.

To be truly elevated is to achieve great wisdom: wisdom which leads to action.[2]

 


[1] Kidushin 40b. 

[2] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Likutey Sichos 33 Naso 1. 

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