Blog - Torah Insights

Joseph - וישב



His brothers misunderstood him.

Joseph's spiritual composition, attitude and skills were different than their own, different than their father’s and grandfather’s. If anything, Joseph seemed similar to their uncle Esau.

The Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob lived in a spiritual realm. To them, the only true reality was G-d; the world did not present a challenge to their spiritual pursuits, for, to them, the worldly temptations were meaningless and had no appeal. The Talmud refers to them as the “chariot of G-d”, meaning that they had no desire other than to serve as a vehicle and a conduit to fulfill the will of G-d on this earth.

The children of Jacob, however, experienced the earthly reality. To them, the world was full of challenges and temptations. For them, the world around them, with its material pleasures and temptations, was seductive. For them to remain loyal to the teachings and lifestyle of their forefathers, they had to retreat from society and surround themselves with the tranquility of the shepherd's lifestyle.

Joseph was different than his father and grandfather in that, to Joseph, the world presented a spiritual challenge. Joseph appreciated the perspective of the contemporary culture and was not oblivious to its appeal. Joseph was also different than his brothers, in that he could not see himself as a shepherd removed from city life. Joseph aspired to engage in agriculture and commerce, and to embrace the world around him.

The brothers could not connect to Joseph’s approach, they viewed him as a foreigner in  the family, and when they saw that their father favored him, they kidnapped him and sold him as a slave to Egypt. From their perspective they were engaged in an act of spiritual greatness, removing the threat that Joseph’s path and aspirations presented to the family legacy.  

His brothers misunderstood him.

Joseph was blazing a new path, superior to those of his father and brothers. Joseph did not remain aloof from the worldly, as his father did, nor was his spiritual life threatened by engaging the world, as were his brothers. Joseph perfected the art of entering the world and transforming it. Instead of being influenced by the values of contemporary society, Joseph was successful in influencing society while remaining loyal to his own inner identity.

Jacob understood his son Joseph. He looked forward to the fruition of Joseph's dreams that foretold how the brothers would bow to Joseph, symbolizing that they would accept the superiority of Joseph’s approach. Jacob favored Joseph's path for he understood that for the world to reach its purpose, each of us will have to follow Joseph’s leadership. We must not remain aloof, unaffected by the world and it’s challenges. We must not retreat from facing the temptations of the material world.  Like Joseph who descended into Egypt as a slave yet ultimately ruled over and influenced all of Egypt we must engage and transform. We too descend into this world in order to engage it and transform it so that it too will express the truth of the creator.

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Vayeshev 19 Kislev vol. 25.


The Kiss - וישׁלח

Jacob-and-Esau.jpgThe Kiss

Twenty years after fleeing to Charan, escaping the wrath of his brother Esau, Jacob headed back to Israel; with much trepidation, preparing to meet his brother Esau. The Torah describes, in great detail, how Jacob prepared for the meeting: he sent gifts to his brother, he prayed, and he prepared for battle.

There was a lot at stake at this meeting. Jacob and Esau, as we have read earlier in the story, had very different personalities, and embodied very different energies. Esau was the man of the field, the energetic hunter, who loved the challenge and thrill of trapping game, and craved sensual pleasures. Jacob, on the other hand, was a man who strived to “dwell in tents”, one immersed in study and in quest for enlightenment, far removed from the chaos of the natural world.   

Isaac hoped to elevate Esau’s energy and passion by blessing Esau. Rebecca understood that blessing Esau with abundant material success would not elevate him to a higher spiritual plane, but rather, it would cement Esau’s investment in a materialistic lifestyle. Rebecca understood that only if Jacob would receive the blessing of material success would Esau be elevated and influenced. For only Jacob’s intense spirituality would have the ability to educate and inspire Esau, by demonstrating how the material blessings could serve the spiritual and the transcendent.

Twenty years after Jacob stole the blessing, he was about to meet Esau once more.  There was a lot at stake at that moment of meeting, not only for Jacob and his family but for all of the cosmos. Would the brothers embrace? Would Esau’s energy and materialistic desires reconcile with Jacob’s spirituality? Or would Esau and Jacob, matter and spirit, be at war forever?

The moment finally arrived. The Torah describes the fateful meeting between the brothers:

And Esau ran toward him and embraced him, and he fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. (Genesis 33:4)

To our great surprise, and perhaps to the great surprise of the brothers themselves, both Jacob and Esau understood their need for one another. They discovered deep feelings toward one another. They realized that they shared the same source and the same father.

The brothers then parted ways. The bond of love and compassion that had been established between them was still fragile. They realized that in order for them to be able to settle together in harmony, more work would be required. They therefore temporarily parted ways. Only in the Messianic era will the world experience the wholesomeness of the restored relationship between Esau and Jacob, between matter and spirit, between body and soul.

Until then, it is up to us, to foster this relationship, to nurture and to allow it to prosper and grow.  

Looking back at Esau’s fateful kiss, the one that reestablished the bond with Jacob Rashi, quoting the Midrash comments:

and kissed him: Heb. וֹיֹשֹקֹהֹוּ. There are dots over the word. There is controversy concerning this matter in a Baraitha... Some interpret the dots to mean that he did not kiss him wholeheartedly. Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai said: It is a well known tradition that Esau hated Jacob, but his compassion was moved at that time, and he kissed him wholeheartedly.

The two opinion of whether or not Esau’s kiss was wholeheartedly sincere, represent two stages in the fusion of the material and spiritual. At first, the bond is not wholehearted. The materialistic side of the person would prefer to live a life unburdened by the discipline of spirituality and meaning. At first, the selfish side of the person would prefer to push back and reject the search for meaning. The first step is to create a kiss, an embrace, that is not yet wholehearted. Eventually, over time and with practice, the bond, the kiss, will become wholehearted. For the material itself will come to realize the beauty of harmony.

Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Vayishlach 5743.    


Jacob’s Ladder - ויצא

Jacob’s Ladder


While Jacob was on his way to Charan, fleeing his brother Esau, he went to sleep and dreamed of G-d reassuring him that he would eventually return to Israel in safety. His dream, began with the famous vision of the ladder, as the verse states:

And he dreamed, and behold! a ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven; and behold, angels of God were ascending and descending upon it.

There are various interpretations of the symbolism of the ladder. Some say the ladder represents prayer. Jacob slept on the temple mount, the place where all Jewish prayers ascend to G-d, and G-d was showing Jacob the awesome power of prayer, it’s ability to connect heaven and earth.

Others explain that the ladder is a metaphor for Mount Sinai, the mountain on which the Torah was given, and the message to Jacob was that the Torah, the Divine will and wisdom, is the ladder that connects the person heavenward.

But why did Jacob need to see the image of the ladder specifically at this point in his life, on his way out of Israel while fleeing to the morally debased Charan?

Rabbi Mordechai Hakohen, a 17th century kabbalist of Safed, Israel, explains that the ladder represents Jacob himself.

Jacob was leaving the comfort and holiness of the land of Israel and was heading to a land that was spiritually foreign to his way of life. On his way G-d showed Jacob the vision of a ladder in order to impart to him that he himself had the ability to connect the lowest parts of the earth to heaven. While his father Isaac lived in Israel all his life, and while his grandfather Abraham was commanded to leave Charan and migrate to Israel, Jacob would make the opposite journey. Jacob’s life’s mission was not to flee the negativity but rather to face it and challenge it head on. Jacob, as well as all his descendants, are compared to a ladder. No matter where he might be, no matter how foreign the environment might seem, he was capable of erecting a ladder that would connect heaven and earth, he was able to build a bridge that would allow the epitome  of holiness to affect even the most distant of places.

There is another dimension to the comparison of Jacob and the ladder.

The Kabbalah explains that each of the three patriarchs embodied one of the three primary emotions; Abraham represented the attribute of love, Isaac the attribute of awe and reverence and Jacob represented the attribute of compassion.

The attribute of compassion, even more than love, is the ultimate bridge builder. Love is a very powerful emotion, yet its reach is limited to a specific audience. A person loves that which is attractive to him or her. A person does not love everybody and everything, love is selective, it is awakened and attracted to specific people or objects that, for whatever reason, touch the heart in a specific way.

Compassion, on the other hand, can reach anybody. It may be a person who you never met, whose language you don't understand, yet the moment you sense that the person is suffering, something in your heart will connect to the person with empathy and compassion.

In fact, compassion has the power to unleash love. You may have known someone for many years, and felt no connection to him or her. Yet as soon as tragedy strikes and you feel compassion for the person, suddenly, you begin to see how wonderful the person is. You begin to feel a feeling of closeness and love to the person. How does that happen? The love flows over the bridge created by compassion.

We each have a Jacob within ourselves, a Jacob that allows us to empathize with people who may seem very different from ourselves. The Jacob within us is able to connect people with each other because the Jacob within us knows is able to see the soul within each person. Our soul is the bridge that connects us to other people, and which connects heaven and earth. 

Keep Laughing - תולדות

I.jpgKeep Laughing

It’s a strange name to give a child.

The child of Abraham and Sarah, the first child to be born to a Jewish family, was named Yitzchok, or Isaac, which means laughter.

Why would Abraham and Sarah chose the name laughter for their child who was destined to be a deeply spiritual person and a patriarch of the Jewish people?

The name Isaac is even more ironic when we consider that the nature and character of Isaac seems to be the precise opposite of laughter and joy. While Abraham was an outgoing extrovert, Isaac kept to himself; while Abraham is characterized in the Torah as the lover of G-d, Isaac is characterized as being in awe of G-d. While Abraham represents the attribute of kindness and giving, Isaac embodies the attributes of strength and discipline. The name Isaac - Joy and laughter - seems out of character with his identity and spiritual path.     

An important ingredient in humor is that in order to be funny the situation has to be unpredictable and unexpected.  The same is true about the broader meaning of the word laughter: a person experiencing a measure of goodness will feel happiness in his heart, yet in order for the happiness to overflow from his heart and express itself in laughter he must experience more than the expected measure of joy. Happiness becomes laughter when the joyous event surpasses all expectations.

The Torah tells us that when Sarah gave birth to her son she said:

And Sarah said, "God has made joy for me; whoever hears will rejoice over me." And she said, "Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children, for I have borne a son to his old age!" [Genesis 21:6-7]

Sarah’s giving birth to a child in her old age was more than just a happy event, it was an event that defied all expectations. Every time Sarah held her son in her arms she was overwhelmed with joy. The overwhelming joy caused her to name her son Isaac/laughter.

As Sarah held her son in her arms she knew that just as his birth was an event that defied expectations, so too the people he would  father would be a people whose destiny would not be defined by predictions and expectations. Their very survival would be a miracle. Sarah understood that while Isaac might not be the most charismatic of the patriarchs, he  would possess the ability to create an unpredictable transformation. He would have the unique ability to defy expectations by finding goodness in the most unlikely of places.

Indeed, this was a central theme of Isaac's life. While the Torah tells us precious little about the life of Isaac, the Torah does elaborate on Isaac's success as a well digger. The Kabbalists explain that Isaac's wells represent a departure from his father Abraham's approach. Abraham influenced people by “bringing the water to them”. Abraham was a superb teacher and a charismatic communicator. He showered his listeners with love and, by the force of his character, compelled them to be influenced by his message of G-d and morality. Isaac, by contrast, did not bring the water to the people. Instead he helped people find the well within themselves. He helped them realize that they have a wellspring of G-dliness and holiness within themselves. Abraham would teach through sharing the enlightening, Abraham was like a teacher eager to share the answer with the student. Isaac, by contrast, displayed discipline. He would withhold the answer and allow the student to search for the answer on his own. Isaac empowered the student to believe in his own ability to dig within himself, to remove the psychological barriers, and discover the truth on his own.

Which is why Isaac loved Esau.

Esau was the child who seemed completely uninterested in the ideas of his father and grandfather. He loved the thrill of hunting more than the excitement of ideas. On the surface he seemed to be in a spiritual desert, devoid of spiritual water. Yet Isaac understood that every creation has a spark within it,that every child has a reservoir of pure water within themselves. The job of the parent and educator is to drill the well, remove the dirt and discover the water.

Thus Isaac embodied laughter. Isaac mastered the skill of seeing the good in unexpected places. He had the ability to mine the holiness that lay in the heart of every person and in the soul of every activity.  

As the children of our patriarchs and matriarchs we are heirs to the qualities and characteristics they embodied. From Isaac we inherited the ability to be joyous in the face of great challenge. From Isaac we learn to expect the unexpected; to believe in ourselves and in the people around us. From Isaac we inherit the power to create laughter, to discover the deeper truth of reality that is not always noticeable to the naked eye. From Isaac we learn to drill beneath the surface and find the holiness in every person and the good in every experience.

Adapted from Torah Or Parshas Toldos (Mayim Rabim).


The Genesis of Liberty - חיי שרה

download.jpgThe Genesis of Liberty

Liberty and freedom are fundamental to the Torah’s values, teachings and stories. The struggle for liberty and freedom plays out dramatically and powerfully in the second book of the five books of Moses. Yet a careful read of the first book, the book of Genesis shows that liberty is embedded from very beginning, early on in the life and teachings of Abraham our first patriarch.

Let us begin with this week’s portion, the portion of Chayey Sarah. Most of the portion is dedicated to the story of how Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, was dispatched to Charan to find a wife for Isaac, Abraham's son. The Torah relates how Abraham requested that Isaac only marry someone from Abraham’s own birthplace.

[This pattern continued in the next generation. Rebecca, Isaac's wife, insisted that her son Jacob not marry a woman from the land of Canaan but rather she instructed her son to go back to Charan, her birth place, and marry from amongst her own family].

Why not marry someone from the land of Canaan? Wasn't the land of Canaan the place where G-d instructed Abraham to travel to, “go to yourself”, “to the land that I will show you”?

To understand the nature of Canaan we must try to figure out who Canaan was, what his value system, culture and belief system were. When we journey back in the story we read about Noah and his three sons who were saved from the flood. The youngest of the children was Ham the father of Canaan.

After the flood, the first thing Noah did was plant a vineyard. The Torah tells us:

And Noah began to be a master of the soil, and he planted a vineyard.

And he drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent.

And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father's nakedness, and he told his two brothers outside. And Shem and Japheth took the garment, and they placed [it] on both of their shoulders, and they walked backwards, and they covered their father's nakedness, and their faces were turned backwards, so that they did not see their father's nakedness.”

Noah awoke from his wine, and he knew what his small son had done to him. And he said, "Cursed be Canaan; he shall be a slave among slaves to his brethren." [Genesis 9:20-25].

What is the meaning of the curse “he will be a slave”? Does it mean, that the Torah condones slavery? More specifically, does it mean that the Torah approved of the descendants of Shem and Japheth enslaving the children of Ham?

The descendants of Ham believed that the best way to create a successful civilization was through hierarchy; each class submitting to the class above it and ultimately at the top of the pyramid  rests the king to who all must submit. They believed that in order for society to reach its full economic potential, and for society to be strong and protected, the individual must submit to the hierarchy, he must give up a significant portion of his freedom in exchange for the prosperity and security he would receive in return.

No surprise then that the first king recorded in the Torah was Nimrod, a descendant of Ham. ["Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord.” And the beginning of his kingdom was Babylon and Erech and Accad and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. Ibid. 10:9-10] Nimrod was also the one who conceived of the idea to build the tower of Babel, “a tower whose head reaches the heavens”. Nimrod surely understood that no tower can reach the heavens, but this was a political ploy to get the people to submit to a building project that would never be completed.

Abraham himself [according to some opinions, (see Iben Ezra)] was enthusiastically involved in the building of the tower. The young idealistic Abraham must have been excited by Nimrod’s great vision of transcending the individual and submitting to the collective. Yet, in time, Abraham became disillusioned with Nimrod, Abraham rejected Nimrod and his vision of a society built upon the individual submitting and relinquishing his own freedom in return for economic security.

Abraham’s spiritual search eventually led him to discover the truth of Monotheism: there is only one source of power in the universe and no other angel, force of nature, or human being has any control.  

Then, in the third portion of the Torah, we read about how G-d appeared  to Abraham telling him to go to the land of Canaan. The Torah then goes into very specific details about the geo-political state of Canaan at the time:

Now it came to pass in the days of Amraphel the king of Shinar, Arioch the king of Ellasar, Chedorlaomer the king of Elam, and Tidal the king of Goyim.

That they waged war with Bera the king of Sodom and with Birsha the king of Gomorrah, Shineab the king of Admah, and Shemeber the king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela, which is Zoar.

All these joined in the valley of Siddim, which is the Dead Sea.

For twelve years they served Chedorlaomer, and for thirteen years they rebelled.

And in the fourteenth year, Chedorlaomer came, and the kings who were with him, and they smote the Rephaim in Ashteroth Karnaim and the Zuzim in Ham, and the Emim in Shaveh Kiriathaim. [ibid. 14:1-5].

Why so many kings? Because they were the descendants of Ham and Canaan who believed in submitting to the stronger party in order to gain security. Which is why the five kings, in turn submitted to the four kings, each class submitted to the class above it in the hierarchy. But as soon as Abraham arrived on the scene preaching monotheism , things began to change. We read about Lot, Abraham’s nephew, moving to Sedom. What happens next? The king of Sedom, and the five kings rebel against the four kings. Hard not to see the influence of Abraham’s idea of freedom beginning to affect the five kings.

The four kings, including Nimrod who was mentioned earlier, the first to create a form of an empire, joined the other three kings and crushed the rebellion. Who do they take captive? Who is their true enemy? Not the king of Sedom who rebelled against them, but rather Lot the nephew of Abraham, the one spreading dangerous ideas of freedom.

Abraham then launched a surprise gorilla attack and defeated the four kings. He risked his life in order to save his nephew, but also to free the land of the oppressive ideology of the four kings, the suppressive ideology of the children of Cham and Canaan.

The attitude of submission to hierarchy prevalent in the political realm, affected their spiritual beliefs as well. They understood the universe to be a hierarchy of power, with the human being controlled by forces outside of himself. Thus morality, which is based on personal choice, on the freedom to make the right choice, was virtually non existent. For if one is controlled by the gods and powers of nature, then one cannot be asked to fight his own instincts and commit to a moral choice.

Underlying the stories of the book of Genesis is a culture clash between the philosophy of Cham, which seeks to submit to and serve any power stronger than himself, which denies that the human beings greatest gift is the gift of moral freedom; and the teachings of monotheism as embodied by Abraham who taught that the one G-d endows us with the freedom to choose moralistically. The human being is not controlled by the forces of nature, not by a group of Gods battling with each other over authority, not by instinct and not by astrology. For the only authority in the universe is the one G-d.   

Thus, when Abraham began to search for a wife for his son Isaac, for a matriarch of the future people of Israel, and when Rebecca wanted her son to marry and build the nation that would teach the world about monotheism and the freedom and liberty it inspires, they understood that the culture of Canaan, a culture that believed that the human being is enslaved by his instincts to the forces of nature, must be rejected.

Thus Abraham turned to his own family, the descendant of Shem son of Noah. For they were open and ready to accept the responsibilities of freedom, the dedication to morality, inspired by the belief in the one G-d.


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