Blog - Torah Insights

Allow them to Fail?

D.jpgAllow them to Fail? 

What took them so long? Why did it take the Jewish people forty years to cross the Sinai Desert?

In the opening of the fifth book of the Torah, the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses retells the history of the forty year journey and address this question. In the second verse of the book the Torah states:

“It is eleven days' journey from Horeb [Mt. Sinai] by way of Mount Seir to Kadesh Barnea [just south of Israel’s southern border]."

In the next verse we read that forty years later they were still in the desert:

It came to pass in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month, on the first of the month, that Moses spoke to the children of Israel…

By juxtaposing these two verses the Torah is implying that there are two possible answers to the question of how long it takes to get from Sinai to Israel: the journey could either eleven days or forty years.

How long does it take to cross the desert? Well, if the journey is one where the people are passive participants, being led by G-d who is sheltering and protecting them from internal and external harm and conflict, if the journey is one in which the people are the mere recipients of G-d’s blessing and, like a loving parent he solves all their problems, then, indeed, it is an eleven day journey. If Moses would have discouraged the people from sending spies, if Moses could have protected them from failing, he would have been able to lead them quickly and decisively to the border of Israel. 

Moses explained to the people that they could have arrived in Israel in eleven days. Moses could have protected them from facing challenges, and sheltered them from the possibility of failure. Yet, had that been the case, they would have eventually experienced disappointment and pain; they would not have had the tools to survive, overcome, and transform, when they reached their destination.

If however the people were to reach Israel on their own accord, by the fruit of their own effort then the duration of the journey was forty years. If they were to learn to trust their inner voice of inspiration, if they were to learn to conquer their own fears, find the courage to believe in their own ability and awaken a desire to enter the land, if they were to cross the desert, literally as well as figuratively, with their own effort, then the journey and the transformation would take forty years.  

As parents, we sometimes feel that we must step in and protect our children from failure. Here, for example, is an  excerpt of a review of the book 'The Gift of Failure’ which describes the phenomenon:

Any day they can “help” their child — on the playground, rushing breathlessly from sandbox to swings to ensure nobody gets hurt; at home, shuttling forgotten l­­unches or assignments to school and doing the student’s homework; in class, contesting grades; or at sports, second-guessing coaches and referees — they reassure themselves that “Yes, you are a good parent today.” It’s a parent’s ego trip, but children pay the price. When parents try to engineer failure out of kids’ lives, Lahey says, kids feel incompetent, incapable, unworthy of trust and utterly dependent. They are, she argues, unprepared when “failures that happen out there, in the real world, carry far higher stakes.[1]

To express true love we must withhold the urge to solve all our children's challenges.

We learn from Moses that true parental love is allowing the child to fail in a safe environment. We must allow them to realize that they can survive defeat and recover from setbacks.  We must teach them to find strength within themselves to work their way through pain, to overcome failure and transform pain and disappointment into a drive for even greater success.



Be the Bridge

22.pngBe the Bridge

Toward the end of the book of Numbers we read about the Jewish people concluding their journey through the desert and arriving at the border of the Promised Land.

The Torah describes that the tribes of Reuben and Gad requested that they be granted the lands that the Jewish people conquered outside of Israel, on the east bank of the Jordan River, as their inheritance. At first Moses was angered with their request. He suspected that it would discourage the other tribes from wanting to cross the Jordan and enter the land, but once they explained their intention of leading the other tribes in battle, Moses agreed to their request and gave them the lands east of the Jordan as their inheritance.

Although they did not request it, Moses also placed half the tribe of Menashe, the son of Joseph, on the eastern bank of the Jordan. The question arises: if Moses was so disturbed by the request of the tribes who wanted to settle outside of Israel, why did Moses, on his own initiative, split the tribe of Menashe in two, and place half the tribe outside of Israel across the Jordan River? 

What do we know about the tribe of Menashe?

Back in the Book of Genesis we read about how ten of the twelve children of Jacob, who later became the tribes of Israel, kidnapped their brother and sold him into slavery. We read about the many challenges Joseph, a seventeen year old boy, a slave in a foreign country, had to face, and how he miraculously rose to become the viceroy of Egypt and the acting leader of the ancient world’s superpower.

We read about Joseph naming his eldest son Menashe: “for G-d has caused me to forget (“Nashani”) all my toil and all my father's house.”[1] With the name Menashe Joseph reminded himself that the culture of Egypt was a foreign one, it was a culture that sought to make him forget his father’s home. He chose this name to remind himself that while he was physically distant from his father’s home, while he was completely invested in the well being of the Egyptian nation and economy, he must never forget that his essence remained back home with his father and with the legacy of Abraham.

Menashe, then, was a symbol of Joseph’s ability to have a foot in both worlds. On the one hand he was present, invested and successful in Egyptian society, while on the other hand, at his core, he was a Hebrew. His heart and soul, his thoughts and aspirations were back home in the land and ideas of his father’s home.

This is why Moses divided the inheritance of the tribe of Menashe, placing them on both banks of the Jordan River. Moses understood that Mensahe could bridge the gap between Israel and the rest of the world. Moses knew that the purpose of the Jewish people was not only to build a haven of spirituality in the land of Israel, but rather they were also tasked with spreading their influence and message to the rest of the world. No tribe was better suited to this task than Menashe, who exemplified that even while living in a spiritually hostile environment one can bridge both worlds. One could remain loyal to his spiritual home, while prospering in a foreign land and one could bring the influence of Israel to the heart of a foreign capital.

We read the end of the book of Numbers in the days leading up to the ninth of Av, the day the temple was destroyed and we were exiled from the land of Israel. The lesson to be learned, especially at this time of year, is clear. Although, our people were exiled from Israel, we have not abandoned Israel and its message. Like the tribe of Menashe, we are able to have a foot on both sides of the River. Although we are in the diaspora, our heart is in Israel. Our presence is the bridge that allows the holiness of Israel to reach the rest of the world. We are the bridge upon which the inspiration emerging from Jerusalem will transform the rest of the world, the bridge that will fill the world with the knowledge of G-d, ushering in an era of peace and harmony.[2]

[1]Genesis 41:51.

[2]Inspired by Lekutey Sichos Matos-Masey vol. 28. 

In Love with the Moon

Moon.pngIn Love with the Moon  

Jews are in love with the Moon.

We have always been fascinated by its soft glow, by its ability to illuminate the dark night, and, most importantly, by its capacity for rebirth. At the end of the Lunar month we look up at the sky and we see no moon at all, yet, a day or two later, the moon reappears, reborn, invigorated and reassuring, it once again begins to steadily grow and increase its beauty and light. We look up at the moon and we see our story. We, like the moon, are called upon to illuminate an often spiritually dark world. As individuals and as a people we wax and wane, we experience ups and downs, we are sometimes fully bright, while at other times we feel devoid of all light and we fear that this may be the end of our people. Yet, miraculously, we reappear. We have a capacity to adapt, to recreate ourselves, not to be trapped by the negativity of our past, to rise to the new challenges of the day. Thus, every month we celebrate Rosh Chodesh, the rebirth of the moon, on the first day of the Hebrew month.

Looking back at the verses in Genesis which describe the creation of the moon, there is an interesting discrepancy. At first the verse states that G-d created “two great luminaries”, and then the verse proceeds to elaborate: “the great luminary (the sun) to rule the day and the small luminary (the moon) to rule the night”. The question is obvious: are they both “great luminaries” or is one “great” and the other “small”?

The Talmud explains that initially both the sun and the moon were created as “great luminaries”, however, the moon was diminished and it became “small”:

The moon said to the Holy One, Blessed Be He, ‘Master of the Universe, How can two kings share one crown?’

He said to her, ‘Go and diminish yourself!’

She said to him: ‘Master of the universe, because I said a logical thing before you, I should diminish myself?’...

The Holy One said, “I will bring an atonement on Me for I have diminished the moon.”[1]

Indeed, in this week’s Torah portion, the portion of Pinchas, we read about the commandment to offer a sin offering on Rosh Chodesh, as the Talmud continues:

“Why the difference in how the New Moon offering is written, “A he-goat on the new moon, for the Lord?’ Because the Holy One is saying, ‘Let this he-goat be an atonement for me, for the diminishment of the moon.”

What are we to make of this seemingly strange teaching? Why indeed was the moon punished for speaking the truth? And how can human beings possibly be the ones who atone for G-d’s injustice?

The sun is a metaphor for the shining light of G-d, while the moon, which has no light of its own and receives its light from the sun, represents the creation. G-d’s plan was that both the sun and the moon would be great luminaries. That the infinity and intensity of the Divine energy and light would be felt by the moon, by the creation, just as powerfully as when it shines forth from G-d. There would still be a creation separate from the creator, but there would not be any spiritual darkness within the creation, because the Divine light would shine in all its intensity. Thus both the source of light and the recipient of the light, both the sun and the moon, both the creator and the creation, would be great luminaries.

The moon protested.

“How can two kings share one crown?” cried the moon. “If the full force of the divine light will shine in this world then I will not have my own distinct identity and personality”.

G-d agreed. G-d told the moon: “Go and diminish yourself!”. Yes, creation will plunge into spiritual darkness, yes, creation will feel separated from its great source of holiness, but the moon, and the creation it represents, will have its own identity. It will have the ability to forge its own path, to illuminate the darkness with its light. For once the moon is diminished, once it no longer reflects the full intensity of the sun’s light, there is spiritual darkness in the world. There is chaos, pain and confusion, yet, precisely because of the darkness, the human being is able to feel its own identity, to feel the satisfaction of creativity, and to discover his or her purpose: to bring light to the darkness, to fill the world with goodness and kindness. 

The moon, however, was still troubled. It tells G-d “Master of the universe, because I said a logical thing before you, I should diminish myself?” The moon was protesting all the pain that would exist in this world as a result of the world being plunged into darkness. The concealment of the Divine light is, in fact, what enables all suffering loneliness and sadness to exist.

G-d therefore responds that indeed, the moon has a just claim. In order to create space for man and woman, to give meaning to their choices and a feeling of satisfaction to their achievements, there must be darkness and pain. And G-d is in need of atonement for the suffering enabled by the darkness of the diminishment of the moon. Thus G-d says to the Jew: “bring a he-goat to be an atonement for me, for the diminishment of the moon”. G-d is telling us that we alone can atone for G-d. That we alone must work to overcome the spiritual darkness, the pain and suffering that exists in this world. We alone must look up to the moon, watch it emerge from the darkness, and take its lesson to heart.

Like the moon, we must always understand that it is our responsibility to keep shining even in the darkest of times. It is our responsibility to heal the pain on earth, and to bring the universe closer to its creator.[2]   

[1] Talmud Chulin 60b.

[2] See Maharal, Chidushey Agados, Shavuos 9a. 

Who’s Your Zaidy?

109652.jpgWho’s Your Zaidy[1]?

After more than two hundred years in Egypt, after forty years of wandering in the desert, the children of Israel came back to the border of their homeland; only the Jordan River stood between them and the land promised to their ancestors.

Then it happened. Billam, a gentile prophet, was called to come from Aram, (Charan, modern day Iraq) to curse the Jews. His intention was to harm the Jewish people, but G-d intervened and the curse was transformed into a blessing.

Does this story sound familiar? Have we heard of someone coming from Aram to harm the Jews when they were on their way back to Israel? Does this story ring a bell?

If so, it is because there is a strikingly similar story in the book of Genesis, the very first book of the Torah. When Jacob was returning home to Israel, after a twenty year stay in Charan, Laban, his dishonest father-in-law, chased after him and wanted to harm him. G-d came to Laban in a dream and warned him not to harm Jacob. The evil plan was averted and Laban created a peace treaty with Jacob.

With so many similarities between the stories - both Bilam and Laban came from Aram, both wanted to harm the Jews, both were forced by G-d to refrain from causing harm, both experiences led to a transformation, Laban created peace and Billam blessed the Jews with extraordinary blessings - is there an inner connection between the stories?      

Indeed there is.

The Talmud states that the prophet Bilaam was a descendant of Lavan. It would seem that the story of Billam offers closure to the story of Laban. Somehow the transformation of Laban was incomplete, and therefore his descendant Billam had to correct and finalize the transformation of hostility to blessing. 

Just before Laban offered a covenant of peace to Jacob, the verse states:

And Laban answered and said to Jacob, "The daughters are my daughters, and the sons are my sons, and the animals are my animals, and all that you see is mine.”[2]

Laban declares that he, Laban, was the patriarch of Jacob’s family. While he understood that Jacob had a moral legacy which he had received from Abraham and Isaac, Laban declared that the spiritual legacy which Jacob received from his fathers was relevant solely for Jacob himself. Jacob himself was free to believe as he desired. However, the daughters and sons, the next generation, as well as all of Jacob’s material possessions, are attributed to and belong to Laban. They would carry the legacy of Laban. Laban declared that the Jewish ideals of morality have no place in the real world. They may be interesting abstract concepts, but they have no place in influencing the manner of raising a family and earning a living.

More than two centuries later, Billam, like his grandfather before him, came to curse the Jews. He expected to find a people that fit Laban’s description "The daughters are my daughters, and the sons are my sons, and the animals are my animals, and all that you see is mine”. He expected to find a people who were the descendants of Laban and the bearers of his materialistic legacy. He expected to find a people whose holiness was confined to specific moments; a people who, in their daily life, are a nation like all other nations. A people whose unique values don’t influence their real life experiences.

Billam, inspired by prophecy, discovered his mistake and set out to correct the record. He said:

For from their beginning, I see them as mountain peaks, and I behold them as hills; it is a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations.[3]

“Mountain peaks” and “hills” are a metaphor for the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the Jewish people. As Rashi explains:

For from its beginning, I see them as mountain peaks: I look at their origins and the beginning of their roots, and I see them established and powerful, like these mountains and hills, because of their patriarchs and matriarchs.

Billam declared that Laban was unequivocally wrong. Billam declared that the roots of the children of Israel are not the conniving Laban but rather Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel and Leah. They are a nation loyal to the teachings of the patriarchs and matriarchs. A nation whose holiness, morals and spirit permeates every area of their life. They are “a nation that will dwell alone, and will not be reckoned among the nations”, because their unique beliefs affect the way they raise their families and the way they engage in commerce and agriculture. 

Billam declared that they are not the descendants of Laban, but rather of the “mountains” and “hills”. Their Bubys and Zeidys are the patriarchs and matriarchs.[4]


[1] Yiddish for Grandfather.

[2] Genesis 31:43.

[3] Numbers 23:9.

[4] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutey SIchos Balak, vol. 2. 

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