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Blog - Torah Insights

The Soul of the Day

YK.jpgThe Soul of the Day

Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, is the day of atonement, a day on which we are purified of our past mistaken deeds and attitudes, as the Torah tells us:

For on this day He shall effect atonement for you to cleanse you. Before the Lord, you shall be cleansed from all your sins. [1]

What exactly happens on Yom Kippur, and how does the cleansing come about? Is it something that we have to create or does it come from above?  

On the surface Yom Kippur seems to be a grim day. A day of confession. A day on which we face our mistakes, shortcomings, and faults and try to correct them. Yet, to focus only on sin and its correction is to miss the soul of Yom Kippur.

There are many layers to a relationship between a child and a parent. On one level the parent works hard to educate the child, to instill wisdom and compassion into the heart and mind of the child. The parent invests tremendous effort to teach the child to master skills that will eventually enable him to become an independent, healthy adult. At times, when the child excels, the parent experiences great pleasure and pride. When the child fails, when the child rejects that which he knows to be good and does something that is hurtful to the parent, the parent is pained. This is the layer of the relationship that is measured according to the effort and accomplishment of the child. At this layer, when the child makes the right choice he will receive allowance money, and when the child breaks the rules he will be deprived of the privileges reserved for those who play by the rules.

There is, however, a deeper layer to the relationship.

There is a place in the heart of both parent and child where the bond is unconditional, where the connection is unbreakable. There is a place in the heart of the parent that will love the child no matter what the child will do or say.

The soul of Yom Kippur is the celebration of the unconditional bond between G-d and the Jewish soul. The soul of Yom Kippur is discovering our essence. The place within ourselves where the connection to G-d and to holiness is unbreakable.

On Yom Kippur while we have to correct our past mistakes, while we have to work to heal the pain we caused, we understand that the mistakes and their correction do not define our relationship with G-d.

The Kabbalists teach that there are five levels of the soul. The first three correspond to conscious thoughts, feelings and actions. The fourth corresponds to will and desire, and the fifth, called Yechidah, the singular, is the essence of the soul which is always connected to the one G-d. Yom Kippur is the only day of the year on which we pray five prayers corresponding to the five levels of the soul. Through prayer, reflection and fasting we come to realize that the challenges, failings and disappointments of the past year do not define us. We discover that our true essence is a part of G-d, one with holiness and always wholesome.

The soul of Yom Kippur is the recognition that we are our soul. The soul of Yom Kippur is the child and parent realizing that despite the pain and hurt, they have an unbreakable connection. On Yom Kippur we recognize that the bond between us and and our father in heaven is unconditional. 

The soul of Yom Kippur is a celebration. It is a day when the deepest dimension of our connection to G-d is expressed. It is a celebration of the recognition that our connection to G-d is unconditional, our bond unbreakable, our relationship intrinsic.

 

  


[1] Leviticus 16:30.  

The Sound of Inspiration

images.jpgThe Sound of Inspiration  

What is the most important ingredient in a relationship? Is it love, respect, trust, commitment, understanding, fun, loyalty? What is the foundation of the connection, without which all other aspects of the relationship would collapse?

The answer, the Kabbalists explain, is desire.

I may take you out to dinner, spend time with you, discuss your favorite ideas, I may be respectful and committed to you. I may be providing you with all you would ever want in a relationship, but if you sense that I don’t want to be here, that my will is not present, that I’d prefer to be elsewhere, then you would feel rejected and the foundation of the relationship would collapse. Thus, for a relationship to exist and thrive, the will, the underlying desire and delight to be in this relationship to begin with, must be nurtured and cultivated.

This, say the Kabbalists, is the essence of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.

The infinite G-d, the creator of heaven and earth, is invested in a relationship with his creation. The relationship is multidimensional, it is imbued with G-d’s wisdom and love, with his ideas and his compassion. Yet, just as the new year is about to begin, G-d’s desire for the connection evaporates. After all, what possible benefit could the creation contribute to an infinite G-d? Why would he desire to relate to a universe that is utterly insignificant in comparison to his infinity?

As we move from the end of one year to the beginning of the next, the creation is bereft of its vitality, for, although it continues to be created by G-d, it nevertheless lacks the Divine enthusiasm, pleasure and desire. He is still in the relationship, He is still providing us with life and vitality, but He is unsure if He wants to be here.

The job of the Jew on Rosh Hashanah is to awaken that will. It is to communicate with G-d in a way that will inspire an even deeper dimension of desire and will for the new year. We do so through sounding the blasts of the shofar, a cry from our heart calling to G-d, telling him that we want to be connected to him. In the language of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy: we want Him to be our king and the king of the universe. We are saying that our deepest will and delight is to be connected to G-d.

Throughout the year the details of everyday life often obscure the big picture. We are busy paying bills, working, raising children and trying to carve out time for physical and spiritual well being. We sometimes forget to ask the big question: are we distracted and frustrated by our daily tasks to the extent that we are distracted from the vision of what we are working to achieve? Do we engage in our daily activities with will, desire and enthusiasm? Are we in touch with the spark of spirituality within everything we do?

As we hear the Shofar’s blast on Rosh Hashanah we know the answer. The Shofar is a scream from the depth of our hearts. Words won't do it. Words are too scripted. It must come from the deepest part of our soul. On Rosh Hashana we look into our soul and realign our will and pleasure with holiness. The cry of the Shofar peels away the outer layers of our consciousness and reveals the part of us which desires unity with G-d. G-d, in turn, desires us and showers us with blessing and potential for material and spiritual well being.[1]

 


[1] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Shir Hammalos 5734.  

The Center of His Universe

gpnc8462020.jpgThe Center of His Universe 

When a baby is born the baby can be excused for assuming that it is the center of the universe. All the people around it, mother, father, grandparents, seem to be doing nothing other than caring for the baby. Twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, adults will respond to its calling. 

As the child begins to grow, as he or she develops from infant to child to teenager to adult, the child begins to recognize that he or she is indeed not the center of existence.  As children grow into adulthood they are burdened with the intellectual recognition that they are only one of seven billion people, that the entire human species, as well as the planet they inhabit, are but a speck in a solar system within a galaxy, containing one hundred billion stars, which is insignificant compared to the vastness of the universe.

Yet, despite this knowledge, something deep inside of us protests. Something deep within the psyche of the individual insists that he or she is special and indispensable. A healthy person cannot fully escape the perspective of the infant, something within himself will always look out at humanity, at the world, and at the universe, from a self centered, perspective.

And that is a good thing.

Moses’ greatest fear, as the Jewish people were about to enter the land of Israel, was that the Jew would not see himself as the center of the universe. Moses was afraid that once the Jews cross the Jordan River the individual would see himself as nothing more than one among millions; as merely one individual citizen whose choices don’t make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. Moses understood that in order for a nation to survive, for it to maintain a high moral ground, for it to live up to its calling of being a light unto the nations, each individual must appreciate that the destiny of the nation is in his or her hands. The greatest threat to morality is if every individual believes that the purpose of creation, that the mission of the Jewish people and the fate of humanity is out of his or her control. The greatest assurance that people will make the correct choices in life is when each individual understands that G-d looks to him or her as the center of the universe.

In the opening verses of this week's Parsha, Nitzavim, Moshe creates a covenant with the people, he gathers them together and tells them:

You are all standing this day before the Lord, your God the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel, your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp both your woodcutters and your water drawers. [1]

And then, after speaking to them in the plural, Moses says the following statement in the singular:

in order to establish you this day as His people, and that He will be your God, as He spoke to you, and as He swore to your forefathers to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

The “you” in “in order to establish you this day as His people” is written in the singular. Moses is telling each and every Jew “you are not just one in a nation of millions”, you cannot outsource Judaism's great ideals to be implemented by others. Moses is telling each and every individual: “you”, in the singular, are G-d’s nation. Don’t look to others to carry the Jewish heritage for you. Don’t look for others to make the right decisions. There is no one else. You, personally and singularly, are G-d’s nation. He is looking to you to carry the torch.

You are the center of His universe. 

 



[1] Deuteronomy 29:9-10.

The Heart of the Covenant

Tavo.jpgThe Heart of the Covenant 

It is a word that describes the heart of the bond between the Jewish people and G-d, yet no one knows for sure what the word means.

As the Jewish people were about to enter the land of Israel, as the time of Moses passing was fast approaching, Moses facilitated a covenant between the Jewish people and G-d, in addition to the covenant created at Sinai.

At Sinai it was G-d who pursued the relationship, he took the people out of Egypt and expressed his great love to them by selecting them to be a “kingdom of princes and a holy nation”. The people were passive recipients of this love. Forty years later, however, the relationship had matured, the people were active in its creation[1], they were the ones who pursued the bond with G-d, and G-d reciprocated to the commitment shown by his people.

The verb used to describe what the people did for G-d, and in turn what G-d did for the Jewish people is “Heemarta” (הֶֽאֱמַ֖רְתָּ) and “Heemircha” (הֶאֱמִירְך). What exactly does this verb mean? 

Rashi, the classic Biblical commentator, tells us that in the entire Bible there is no word precisely the same as this one, thus we don’t know for sure what the word means, yet he does suggest two possible meanings: 

We do not find any equivalent expression in the Scriptures [which might give us a clue to the meaning of these words]. However, it appears to me that [the expression הֶאֱמִיר] denotes separation and distinction. [Thus, here, the meaning is as follows:] From all the pagan deities, you have set apart the Lord for yourself, to be your God, and He separated you to Him from all the peoples on earth to be His treasured people.

Rashi continues:

 [Notwithstanding,] I did find a similar expression [to הֶאֱמִיר], which denotes “glory,” as in the verse “[How long will] all workers of violence glorify themselves (יִתְאַמְּרוּ)?”[2]

Why does the Torah choose to use a word that is so rare that it defies a precise definition? How is it that the Torah does not describe the heart of the covenant with a word whose meaning is clear? 

Perhaps the reason is that our relationship with G-d is multifaceted and multidimensional and does not always look the same. Thus the Torah specifically uses a word that has multiple shades of meaning so that it will encompass all phases of our relationship.  

Rashi’s first suggestion is that the verb describing the covenant “denotes separation and distinction”. This interpretation describes a person who is totally committed to a bond with G-d, and is not distracted or enticed by anything else. To him G-d is separate and distinct from anything else in the world, holiness is all that is worth pursuing, everything else in his life serves his relationship with holiness. Thus G-d is the only one who he has a relationship with, and he, in turn, is the one who G-d has a sole relationship with. The relationship is just like two people newly in love, who, while navigating through work and life, see nothing other than each other and experience an exclusive and wholesome relationship.

Yet there is more than one way to experience a relationship.

While sometime we feel a wholesome connection to the holy and to the spiritual, at other times we feel the struggle and pain. Our spiritual life is sometimes more like a warzone than a vacation resort. We try and fail. We sometimes face disappointment frustration and confusion. We experience a deep struggle in our attempt to bond with G-d.

This is why Rashi continues with his second interpretation.

Rashi tells us that the verb describing our relationship can also mean “Glory”, and the verse he quotes is one that describes “workers of violence”, which is a verse with a negative connotation. What Rashi is telling us is that while we prefer a wholesome, loving, tension free relationship, sometimes we “find” another meaning. Sometimes life teaches us that there is beauty in overcoming challenge. That struggle produces a deeper bond.

The verses describing our covenant can be read as describing the times when we are in love with everything good and holy. When we designate G-d as our exclusive love. In those times the verses read:

You have designated the Lord this day, to be your God, and to walk in His ways… And the Lord has designated you this day to be His treasured people.

Those same verses can also be read to describe the times of challenge and the beauty of engaging in the struggle. Describing this dimension the verses read:

You have glorified the Lord this day, to be your God, and to walk in His ways… And the Lord has glorified you this day to be His treasured people.

For indeed, the heart of the covenant is that the Jew is connected to G-d both in peaceful times and in challenging times. The nature of the relationship may be “separation and distinction” - where there is nothing that distracts from the exclusive relationship - or it may entail the “glory” of struggling with darkness, Either way the bond between the Jew and G-d is unbreakable.[3]

 

 


[1] See Malbim. 

[2] Rashi on Deuteronomy 26:17

[3] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutey Sichos Ki Savo, vol. 9 Sicha 1. 

Mother Bird

MB.jpgMother Bird  

Raising children in a modern democracy introduces unique challenges; chief among them is how to impose some measure of authority in a society that promotes individual choices, freedom and rights?

As parents it is our responsibility to show our children unconditional love, but also to set boundaries for our children. We often hesitate and wonder what right do we have to teach our children to respect us? What right do we have to impose our perspective on our children? Perhaps our children know best when they argue that our suggested bedtime is too early and our taste in fashion is outdated? 

We watch with amazement as our children surpass us in the ease with which they navigate technology, and wonder: perhaps we are holding them back, perhaps they know what's best for themselves in this changing world, perhaps they are better suited to creating their own boundaries just as they are in writing their own computer code? 

In this week’s portion, Ki Teitze, the Torah provides deep insight about the importance of honoring parents. The Torah instructs us how to treat a mother bird: 

If a bird's nest chances before you on the road, on any tree, or on the ground, and [it contains] fledglings or eggs, if the mother is sitting upon the fledglings or upon the eggs, you shall not take the mother upon the young. You shall send away the mother, and [then] you may take the young for yourself, in order that it should be good for you, and you should lengthen your days. [1]

A person may not take the eggs or young birds together with the mother, instead he must send away the mother before he takes the children. Taking the mother bird together with the children exploits the mother's natural kindness to her children which causes her to stay with her children and not escape. The Torah commands us to send away the mother in respect of the mother bird's natural motherly devotion. 

The Torah is teaching us more than just to respect our parents who brought us into this world, as described in the fifth of the Ten Commandments: “honor your father and your mother”. With its instruction to send away the mother bird the Torah is teaching us that we have to respect parenthood in general, even if the parent isn't our parent and even if she is not a member of our species. Respecting a parent brings to our attention that every phenomenon has a parent, a source, from which it derives. That, in turn, makes us conscious that the entire world has a source, a parent, a creator. G-d, the first cause, the parent of all existence, who possesses the power to create, bestowed that power to a created being, gifting him or her with the ability to give life.

Thus, when we teach our children to honor their parents we are not asserting our own right to authority, we are not claiming that we are always correct or that we always know all the answers. We are teaching our children to respect their parents because their parents are a vessel to the Divine power to create.

Immediately following the Mitzvah to send away the mother bird the Torah continues: 

When you build a new house, you shall make a guard rail for your roof, so that you shall not cause blood [to be spilled] in your house, that the one who falls should fall from it [the roof]. [2]

Once our children learn to recognize that their parents were gifted with a Divine creating power, they will discover that same creative spirit within themselves. They will learn that G-d placed within their souls the imagination and spirit to create, they too, can “build a new home” and leave their unique imprint and contribution upon the world. When they realize that their creative ability is a Divine gift, they will ensure that it is used in a responsible way, in a way that is not harmful to other people. They will create a “fence” on the “roof” of the “home they built” to ensure that others are not harmed, and that the gift of creativity is used consistent with the will of G-d, the “parent” of the ability to create.

Teach your children to respect their parents. They will learn to respect the Divine spark wherever they see it: within their parents, within nature and within themselves[3]

  



[1] Deuteronomy 22:6-7. 5

[2] Ibid. 22:8.

[3] Inspired by the commentary of the Kli Yakar. 

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