Blog - Torah Insights

The Path to Oneness

ketores.jpgThe Path to Oneness

Just because something is true does not mean that knowing that truth is always helpful. Sometimes, the deepest truths can cause the most frustration and difficulty.

The Kabbalistic truth, that bride and groom are two halves of one whole that unite in marriage, that man and woman are two halves of one soul, is indeed the truth, yet it is not always helpful to contemplate on this truth.

After man and woman unite in marriage, when the honeymoon is over, man and woman may look at each other and see not unity but differences, not oneness but fragmentation. Experiences arise that bring to light the differences in personality, attitude, characteristics and values, differences that were not seen previously due to the blinding glare of love.

At that point, reminding them that deep down, on the soul level, they are one entity, may cause more damage than good. After all, “if we are one”, they might each think to themselves, “why is the other so different from me? Why is it that whatever I want he/she wants something dramatically different? If we are truly one, then why doesn't he/she conform to my perspective and desires?”

In truth, relationships cannot be predicated on the truth of oneness alone. Instead, both spouses need to focus not on “becoming one” but rather on “becoming close”.

“Becoming close” implies that there are two distinct people, quite different from one another. “Becoming close” implies that there is a gap between them that must be bridged in order for them to move toward each other. And, perhaps most importantly, “becoming close” contains the secret of how they should view, and than harness, their differences. Like stones placed in a stream of water, which create the tension that transform the peaceful flow to a torrent, so too the tension of difference, is the oxygen needed to fuel the fire of passion that will overcome difficulty and bring them close.

Only once the two become close, can they experience the space in which they can feel their innate oneness.  

The same is true about our relationship with G-d. Judaism teaches that human love is a reflection of the relationship between G-d, the groom, and the Jewish people, the bride.

Thus, after the marriage at Sinai, G-d asked the Jewish people to construct the Mishkan, the sanctuary, as a home which would represent how the bride and groom would live together. The primary function of the sanctuary was to perform the service which would bring the people closer to G-d. Most of the activity in the sanctuary associated with the “Kurbanot”, the offerings, whose Hebrew root “Karov”, means “coming close”. Much of the service of the offerings represented the tension that comes about when two very different perspectives endeavor to come close to each other.

The Torah dedicates two portions to the specifics of the sanctuary and its service. The first, the portion of Terumah, describes the commandment to build the sanctuary and it’s furniture: the ark, the table, the altar for the offerings. The next portion, Tizaveh, describes the garments of the priests who would perform the service. Only at the very end of the portion does the Torah “remember” one more piece of furniture: the incense altar. All the commentators ask why the incense altar is not mentioned in the first portion together with all the other vessels of the sanctuary?

The answer is that all the details of the sanctuary and its service represent the notion of coming close to G-d. It captures our struggle to bring our ego, our sense of self, closer to the holy and the transcendent. The two portions describing the sanctuary, its furniture and the garments of those who perform the service represent the act of “becoming close”. Only after we become close to G-d can we experience the incense altar. The Kabbalists explain that the Hebrew word for incense “Ketoret” means bound up, and represents that deep down, at the core of our soul, we are truly one with G-d.[1]

Only after studying about all other aspects of the sanctuary can we learn about the incense altar. For only after “becoming close” can we become one.


[1] See Hisvaaduyos, Parshas Tizaveh 5752. 

Construction in the Desert

Mishkan.jpgConstruction in the Desert

Reading the second half of the book of Exodus one begins to wonder why the Torah spends so much time on a project that, by design, was only supposed to be temporary.

This week’s portion, Terumah, begins with the commandment to build a home for G-d:

And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst.[1]

In this portion, the Torah elaborates on the details of the “sanctuary”, and we learn that G-d was not referring to an enduring temple of stone, similar to the one the Jewish people built, centuries later, on the temple mount in Jerusalem. Instead, G-d was referring to a more modest structure that was assembled from beams of wood for the walls and curtains for the roof. This sanctuary was designed to be temporary. It was designed to be assembled and disassembled as the Jewish people traveled through the desert, it was never meant to serve as the permanent structure in Jerusalem, which was the placed referred to in the Torah as “the place that G-d will choose to establish his name there”.    

The temple was the spiritual capital of the Jewish people. It was the place where they were commanded to visit three times year, on the three pilgrimage holidays of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. It was, and continues to be, Judaism's holiest site. Why then does the Torah spend so many chapters on the details of the construction of the sanctuary which the Jewish people built in the desert? Doesn't the sanctuary of the desert pale in comparison to the size, beauty, grandeur and permanence of the temple in Jerusalem? 

The construction of the sanctuary represents more than a conventional building project. Our sages explain that the verse, quoted earlier, “And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell within them”, employs the plural “I will dwell in them”, (instead of the singular ”I will dwell in it”), in order to teach us that every Jew is commanded to construct a figurative sanctuary within their own heart, and, indeed, the Divine presence dwells within the heart of every Jew.[2]

 The commandment to construct the sanctuary is the core purpose of the creation of the universe and our mission on this earth. G-d desires that we create a home for Him in the most unlikely of places, constructed of the most unlikely materials. He empowers us to construct a home for Him built of the stuff of daily life, our material possessions and experiences. Every time we use our body or our possessions for a good purpose we are creating space for the Divine presence to dwell and we are sanctifying that part of ourselves and of the world.

Of all the sanctuaries built for G-d, the most precious to Him is the one built, not in the holy city of Jerusalem, but in the inhospitable desert. In our life, we experience “Jerusalem” moments, moments when we feel uplifted, inspired, connected. There are, however, other moments when we feel that we have been exiled from Jerusalem and we find ourselves in a spiritually inhospitable environment. We may feel fragmented, disconnected and deflated of the joy of life. At those moments we must take to heart the message of this Torah portion.

The sanctuary to which the book of Exodus devotes no less than four portions is the sanctuary of the desert. For it is precisely the sanctuary of the desert that captures the transformative power granted to us through the Torah and its commandments. No matter where we may find ourselves, geographically, emotionally, spiritually or psychologically we are able to transform our environment, and create a home of peace and tranquility amidst the inhospitable desert. No matter how challenging the external circumstances, we can take the material of the world and construct a haven, a home, where we can experience the presence of G-d in our life.[3]


[1] Exodus 25:8

[2] Indeed, the commentators, both the classic commentators as well as the mystics, seek to explain how each of the details of the temple is an expression and reflection within the life of the Jew.  

[3] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Likutey Sichos Terumah vol. 21 sicha 1.

The Arrow of Fire

f.pngThe Arrow of Fire  

Immediately following the Torah portion of the ten commandments, we read the portion of Mishpatim which discusses the laws of monetary obligation.

Among the many laws are the laws of torts, the obligation to pay for damage that one has caused. The Torah classifies four general categories of damages, they are: the ”ox that gored”, a “pit”, “an animal that ate produce”[1] and “fire”. These categories are analyzed and explained at great length in the Talmud.

In this week’s portion the Torah states:

If a fire goes forth and finds thorns, and a stack of grain or standing grain or the field be consumed, the one who ignited the fire shall surely pay.[2]

Of all the forms of damages, damage by fire is, in some ways, the most intriguing. Fire is distinct from all other forms of damage and does not fit neatly into the usual theory of liability. There is, therefore, a disagreement between two Talmudic sages, Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish, as to the underlying reason, or doctrine, under which the “owner” of the fire is held responsible:

Rabbi Yochanan says “fire is like his arrow”, while Reish Lakish says “fire is like his property”.[3]

According to Rabbi Yochanan, when a person’s fire causes damage, it is very different from a scenario in which a person’s animal causes damage. An animal is a  tangible possession of value and as such the person is responsible for damage caused by his possessions. Fire, by contrast, is intangible, and therefore cannot be considered as a possession which has caused damage. Rabbi Yochanan, therefore, believes that the obligation to pay for damage caused by fire is based on the doctrine that “fire is like an arrow”.

Rabbi Yochanan’s logic is as follows: when a person throws an arrow which causes damage, the person is held responsible on the basis of the theory that although he did not actually cause the damage with his own hands, the arrow is considered an extension of himself, and thus he is responsible just as if he himself had caused the damage. Similarly, argues Rabbi Yochanan, in the case of fire, although the person did not cause the damage with his own hands, lighting the fire and not protecting it is comparable to throwing an arrow. We therefore consider the damage done by the fire to be equivalent to the damage done by the owner’s own hands.

Reish Lakish disagrees.

Reish Lakish argues that lighting fire cannot be compared to throwing an arrow. While the arrow flies only because the person throws it, fire, by contrast, travels on its own. Fire travels through burning the fuel it finds in its path. Fire, argues Reish Lakish, is very different from an arrow. 

Rejecting the arrow doctrine, Reish Lakish believes that “fire is like his property”. Despite the differences between fire and conventional property, whereas conventional property is tangible while fire is not, Reish Lakish maintains that the owner of the fire is responsible for the damage caused by the fire, because the fire is considered to be his property.

Based on this Talmudic discussion, the post Talmudic codifiers rule that indeed “fire is like an arrow”.[4]


Law is more than a utilitarian system that allows for a functioning society. The law is an expression and a reflection of the values, attitudes and morals of a culture. Indeed, reading the Talmudic debate, studying and internalizing that indeed “fire is like his arrow” can have a profound impact on our spiritual well being.

Almost all “damage” that a person brings upon himself stems from the separation in his mind between an act that causes pleasure at the moment and the negative consequences which result in the future. Almost all good and valuable achievements come from investing time and effort which subsequently produce a benefit in the future. In other words, “damage” is the separation of the act from its final result, while “goodness” results from envisioning in the present effort the reward that will come in the future.

The most important ingredient for success in life, then, is the ability to see the end result of a given action as a direct extension of the action.

For, indeed, “his fire is like his arrow”.   



[1] Others interpret the third category as referring to damage caused by a person himself.

[2] Exodus 22:5.

[3] Talmud, Baba Kama 22a.  

[4] There is a practical ramification to the debate. If the liability is based on the doctrine of “fire is like his arrow”, then, in a case that the fire damaged a person, the owner of the fire would have to pay not only for damages but also for the pain, medical expenses, lost labor and shame, which are required only in a case where a person himself, not his possession, damaged. If, however, the liability of fire is based on the doctrine that “fire is like his property”, then, in a case where the fire damaged a person, the owner would only be liable to pay for the damages alone, and not the additional four categories. See Talmud Baba Kama 23a.

Jethro’s Contribution

S.jpgJethro’s Contribution 

In some ways, it is the most important portion of the Torah. It contains the most fundamental principles of our faith. It tells the story of the most significant event in the history of our people. It is the portion about the Divine revelation at Sinai, where G-d spoke the Ten Commandments in the presence of all the children of Israel.

We would expect the name of the portion to capture this monumental revelation. Instead the portion is named Yisro, Jethro, who was the father-in-law of Moses, who left his home in Midyan and came to join the Jewish people in the desert. As the Torah relates:

Now Moses' father in law, Jethro, the chieftain of Midian, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel, His people that the Lord had taken Israel out of Egypt…

Now Moses' father in law, Jethro, and his [Moses'] sons and his wife came to Moses, to the desert where he was encamped, to the mountain of God…

Jethro said, "Blessed is the Lord, Who has rescued you from the hands of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh, Who has rescued the people from beneath the hand of the Egyptians. Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the deities...”[1]

While Jethro was certainly a distinguished man and his story adds a twist to the narrative, it does seem strange that the portion is named after a person, Jethro, who has merely a supporting role in the story.

After the splitting of the Red Sea the Jewish people sang a beautiful song to G-d. To sing is to express inspiration. To sing is to elevate one’s self from matters of the mundane. To sing is to surge upward and to seek transcendence.

The ultimate purpose of the Torah, however, cannot be achieved through song alone. The Torah’s message is not to seek escape from daily life but rather to sanctify it. Not to climb the mountain and remain aloof, but rather to draw holiness within the existing parameters of culture and society.

Thus Jethro was critical to fulfilling the objective of the Torah.

Indeed, the Zohar, the primary book of Jewish mysticism, explains that the Jewish people were unable to receive the Torah, until Jethro came to the Jewish camp and offered thanks to G-d.

Jethro was no ordinary person. Jethro was a leader of Midyan and was considered one of the foremost scholars of his time. Jethro was able to state: “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the deities” because he was an expert on the religions, philosophies, and theories of his time. Jethro represented the peak of human scholarship. His arrival to the Jewish camp represented the ability of the Torah to reach, to transform, and to imbue holiness within every culture and society.

Song is important. Seeking transcendence is essential. But the ultimate goal is to reach the level of Jethro, to draw inspiration into daily life.

Thus immediately after reading of the awesome revelation at Sinai, the Torah continues, in next week’s portion, to elucidate the Jewish civil laws. Because, while it is inspiring to gather at the foot of Mount Sinai, to seek to hear the voice of G-d, to attempt to hear the song of inspiration, the message of the Torah is that we must bring the inspiration into our daily life. We must strive for the Torah to permeate every part of our life, not just in our most spiritual moments but, perhaps more important, in our business and in our interactions with our fellow man.[2] 



[1] Exodus 18:1-5.

[2] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutey Sichos vol. 11. 

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