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Blog - Torah Insights

Passover Night

Pesach.jpg Night

As we begin to tell the story of the exodus on the night of Passover, the Haggadah, the book we read at the seder, tells a story of a debate that, on the surface, has absolutely no relevance to the night of Passover.

There is a biblical commandment to remember and mention the exodus from Egypt every day. The Haggadah tells us about the discussion that established that the obligation to mention the exodus of Egypt daily applies not only during the daytime but to every night time as well. 

Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah said: "I am like a man of seventy years old, yet I did not succeed in proving that the exodus from Egypt must be mentioned at night-until Ben Zoma explained it: "It is said, `That you may remember the day you left Egypt all the days of your life;' now `the days of your life' refers to the days, [and the additional word] `all' indicates the inclusion of the nights!"[1]

This debate has nothing to do with Passover night, for all agree that there is a biblical commandment to retell the story of the Exodus on the night of Passover. Why then should we spend the precious time on the night of Passover discussing the debate of whether there is a commandment to mention the exodus on all other nights of the year? Why is that important to discuss on the night of Passover?

If the exodus from Egypt was merely the birth of our nation, we would not have to be so obsessed with the exodus to the extent of having to remember it every day of our life. The exodus is the story of everyday of our life. Each and every day we are empowered to break free of the habits and perceptions that limit us to the person we were yesterday. Mentioning the Exodus every day is the recognition that we can and should break free of our constraints, that no matter how good of a person we were yesterday, we should always seek to be more kind, compassionate, wise and strong today.

But what do we do if we find ourselves in the “night” time? What if we find ourselves in a dark moment in history? What if we find ourselves in the darkness of our life, a time devoid of any inspiration, excitement and passion? Must we mention the exodus? Are we capable of experiencing liberation even in the darkness of our own night?

This question must be addressed specifically on the night of Passover, when we celebrate and re-experience the energy of freedom. For this question is critical to understanding the scope and power of freedom. Is it an energy reserved for specific moments in our history, for the moments of “morning”, or can we experience its liberating energy even in the midst of our personal “night” time?

The answer, according to the Haggadah, is yes. The commandment and empowerment to mention and experience the exodus applies every day as well as every night. 

It was not a simple point to prove. The prevailing wisdom held that breaking free from one’s inner limitations was possible only in the “morning”, when the soul senses the light of inspiration. Yet, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah’s perspective prevailed. For the liberation granted to us on Passover is such that regardless of how strong the shackles, how intense the despair, how heavy the darkness we can always break free.[2]    



 [1] The Mishnah continues: The sages, however, said: "`The days of your life' refers to the present-day world; and `all' indicates the inclusion of the days of Mashiach." According to many opinions the sages do not disagree with Rabbi Elazar Ben Azaryah, they are just adding an additional teaching.

[2] Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Parshas Vaera 5751.

Mindful Eating

Eating.jpgMindful Eating

In recent years it has become increasingly clear that eating mindfully has many health benefits. The Harvard Health blog, for example, reported on the health benefits of mindful eating:

paying more attention to what you eat, not less, could help keep you from overeating. Multitasking—like eating while watching television or working—and distracted or hurried eating can prompt you to eat more. Slowing down and savoring your food can help you control your intake.[1]

Jews have always understood the power of mindful eating.

Judaism teaches that eating is not only a necessity of survival, not just a pleasurable experience, but also a spiritual exercise.

Much of the discussion in this week’s Parsha, Tzav, is about eating the offerings that were offered in the temple. There were offerings which were eaten by the priests while other offerings were eaten by the person who brought the offering. Either way the eating of the offering was part of what achieved the offerings spiritual effect. 

The Talmud[2] states: “Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Elazar both said, while the temple still stood the altar used to make atonement for a man, but now that the temple no longer stands a man's table makes atonement for him.” This teaching is extraordinary: how can it possibly be that when we sit down to eat a meal we are experiencing the same spiritual effect, the same atonement, as with the offerings that were offered upon the altar?

Kabbalah and Chassidic philosophy teach that every creation has a soul, a spark of G-d. This is true for each of the forms of life on earth: the inanimate, the plant and the animal. Each possesses a soul that yearns for the opportunity to transcend and reconnect with its source.

All of creation can be elevated through the human being, the only creation created in the image of G-d and the only creation who possesses free choice.

When man consumes the inanimate, plant or animal, one of two things can happen. If he consumes food for his own personal pleasure than he is lowered to their spiritual level, which, from the souls perspective, is a missed opportunity for both man and food. If however he eats the food with a spiritual purpose - so that he will be healthy, so that he will have the energy to serve his creator and achieve his mission on earth - then man elevates the spark of holiness within the food and allows it to be reunited with its divine source.[3]

The daily offerings, which were offered in the temple on behalf of all the Jewish people, were comprised of all the categories of creation. Every animal was brought together with an offering of grain, representing the plant kingdom, and salt, representing the inanimate. The intense holiness of the temple affected holiness not only to the specific offerings but also to the rest of the world as well[4]. Through the offerings in the temple all animals, plants and minerals were sanctified.  

Today, however, we don't enjoy the spiritual benefits of the temple. As such, the task of elevating the sparks within creation lies upon each of us. “While the temple still stood”, says the Talmud, “the altar used to make atonement for a man, but now that the temple no longer stands a man's table makes atonement for him”. Today, the atonement of the world around us, its spiritual elevation is in our hands, and is upon our table.

So, next time you eat do so mindfully.

Next time you eat notice the colors, smells, flavors, and textures of your food.

But don’t stop there. Dig deeper. Be mindful of the spark of holiness within the food. Be mindful of the soul of the food and its desire to be elevated.

Be mindful of the food, its taste, texture and colors; but most importantly, be mindful of its soul.

 


[1]https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/distracted-eating-may-add-to-weight-gain-201303296037

[2] Menachot 97a.

[3] See Tanya chapter 7.

[4] See Tanya ibid.

Moving Ever Closer

k.jpgMoving Ever Closer

The Third book of the Torah, the book of Leviticus, begins with the laws of various types of offerings that were offered in the temple.

[To be sure, the words “offering” and “sacrifice” do not express the meaning of the Hebrew word “Karban” which means “to come close”. See here for more on this].

The three general categories of offerings mentioned in the Parsha - 1) the elevation offering, 2) the peace-offering, and 3) the sin offering - represent three levels of a relationship, three expressions of our journey to become ever closer to G-d.

The first category, the “Karban Olah”- the elevation offering, represents the yearning to escape the shackles of the material, to escape the pull of gravity and, like a flame surging upward, to elevate oneself and connect to the infinite G-d. When a person felt the intense desire to become close to G-d, or when he wished to cultivate this desire within himself, he would bring the elevation offering to the temple. The entirety of the animal was offered up to G-d as an expression, of man’s desire to be subsumed within the infinity of G-d.

The elevation offering, despite its awesome holiness, is only the first of the three categories of offerings. Because the desire to escape the material and cleave to the spiritual is merely the first step in a journey to reveal our deep-rooted, essential, connection to G-d.

Judaism teaches that far greater than escaping the material is the ability to sanctify it. While we must begin with a yearning to transcend, the goal must be to “return”, to live our physical life on this earth. Many schools of spirituality teach their adherents to escape the confines of the material. The novelty of Judaism is that it shows how the pleasure we feel in living life on this earth, can be elevated from being merely a narcissistic pleasure focused only on the self. Judaism teaches that the enjoyment a person experiences from the material can, in fact, bring him close to the Divine. Judaism teaches that the material pleasure itself, when experienced as a means to serving something greater than itself, can be sanctified and elevated to holiness.  

The second category, the “Karban Shlamin” - the peace offering, expressed this truth.

The peace offering was divided into three parts, one portion was eaten by the priests, one portion was burnt on the altar, and one portion was given to the person who brought the offering, who would eat it in celebration within the boundaries of the holy city of Jerusalem. Through the peace offering, eating of meat, an earthy pleasure, became an experience of holiness that intensified one’s joy and connection to G-d.

The peace offering gets its name from its unique capacity to bring peace between the body and the soul.

The third category, the “Karban Chatat” - the sin offering, expresses an even deeper closeness. It gets to the heart of our relationship with G-d: no matter if we cover our ears to the voice of our soul, no matter how far we stray, G-d’s love to us is unwavering. He offers a path for us to correct our mistakes. The third category of offerings is the final one because it expresses the deepest form of closeness: it teaches us that G-d’s love to us is unconditional.

When the Jew would sense that despite any possible betrayal, he was always loved by G-d, he would not only return to the pre-sin relationship, but rather his passion to connect to G-d would intensify. For just as being in the desert deepens the thirst for water so too the distance created by sin is transformed to fuel greater longing and love to G-d.

The three general categories of offerings, the elevation offering, the peace offering and the sin offering represent the three steps of closeness: 1) yearning for transcendence, 2) sanctifying the material, and 3) experiencing G-d’s unconditional love.      

 

Mirror

mi.jpgMirror

The Jewish people were eager to donate. The project, the building of the sanctuary in the desert, was a symbol that, despite the pain of betrayal with the golden calf, the relationship had been restored and, in fact, strengthened, and G-d desired to dwell in the midst of the Jewish camp.

The people donated enthusiastically.  Bracelets, earrings, rings, all kinds of golden objects, blue, purple and crimson wool, linen, goat hair, ram skins dyed red or tachash skins, silver and copper, were some of the items that were gifted.

There was, however, one item that Moses refused to accept.

The Torah describes that the women contributed even more than the men, they even brought their mirrors to be used in the sanctuary.  Moses refused to accept the mirrors. A mirror, he argued, is the antithesis to the sanctuary. A mirror is used to adorn the externality and superficiality of the person, it intensifies a person’s pride and narcissism. A mirror is pure vanity, a tool for self-worship. It has no place in the service of G-d.

Moses saw the mirror as an enemy. Here was a tool designed to, at best, focus attention on the self rather than on the Divine, and at worst, a tool to create destructive lust and seduction.

Moses sought to create a transparent “window”, he sought to teach people how to view the world as a “window” through which one can see the awesome power of the creator.  The “mirror”, blocking the light and reflecting the vision back to the viewer, was the precise opposite of everything Moses stood for.

G-d disagreed.

The Midrash describes how G-d explained to Moses that not only should the mirrors be accepted but indeed they are more precious than all the other gifts. For it is precisely the mirror that represents the purpose of the entire effort of creating the sanctuary, and more broadly, the purpose of creation itself.

G-d explained to Moses, that the mirror could be just as holy as it could be destructive. Desire and temptation could be, not ego driven but rather, an expression of intense holiness. As Rashi[1] explains:

Even these [mirrors] they did not hold back from bringing as a contribution toward the Mishkan, but Moses rejected them because they were made for temptation [i.e., to inspire lustful thoughts]. The Holy One, blessed is He, said to him, “Accept [them], for these are more precious to Me than anything because through them the women set up many legions [i.e., through the children they gave birth to] in Egypt.” When their husbands were weary from back-breaking labor, they [the women] would go and bring them food and drink and give them to eat. Then they [the women] would take the mirrors and each one would see herself with her husband in the mirror, and she would seduce him with words, saying, “I am more beautiful than you.” And in this way they aroused their husbands desire and would copulate with them, conceiving and giving birth.  

Every creation on this earth, from a beautiful flower to nuclear energy, has a soul, an energy, which can be used for both good or evil. Ironically, the more potent the energy, the more potential it has for good, the more destructive it can be. The reverse is just as true: the more destructive the force, when transformed or channeled, the deeper the goodness and enlightenment.    

The mirror captures a deep truth. When glass is covered with a layer of silver that obstructs the transparency the result is deeper. Looking at a mirror, while one cannot see forward, there is no “direct vision”, one is able to see behind. One will see the unexpected.

The mirror does not completely obstruct the light, as do other objects. Instead it reflects the light that shines upon it. It symbolizes how the creation itself can reflect and express the Divine light.

Moses preferred the clarity of vision. He was drawn to transparency, to a place where holiness is obvious. G-d explained that the purpose of the Mishkan, which reflects the purpose of the creation of the world, was to be mirror-like; to see the holiness where it is least expected, to understand that “desire” can be an expression of transcendence and spirituality. The mirror reminds us that in order to experience the true profundity of the infinity G-d, one should look not directly upward to the transparent heavens, but rather instead one should look down here on earth; where the concealment of the material, creates a deeper reflection of the oneness of G-d.[2]

 

____________________________

[1] On Exodus 38:8.   

[2] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos. Ki Tisa vol. 6 Sicha 1.
 

Unmasking the Golden Calf

Mask.jpgUnmasking the Golden Calf

Right in the middle of the second half of the book of Exodus the story of the sin of the golden calf is told:

When the people saw that Moses was late in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron, and they said to him: "Come on! Make us gods that will go before us, because this man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt we don't know what has become of him."[1]

That a mere forty days after the people heard the ten commandments directly from G-d, they created an idol and violated the first two of the ten commandments, tells us that idol worship had a powerful allure upon the imagination of the people. Indeed for the next thousand years, the story of the Jewish people is a recurring one, relapsing to idol worship.   

Idol worship in it’s more refined and abstract form, is still very much a spiritual threat. Specifically when we seek a relationship with G-d, when we stand at our figurative Sinai, there is a risk that we too can fall prey to the spell of the golden calf.

The root of all idol worship is the belief in duality. The belief that there is something, anything, that has a power independent of G-d’s all inclusive unity. 

The perspective that the infinite G-d is regulated exclusively to the domain of the spirit, to the moments when we pursue abstraction, religion and philosophy, is Idol worship in its more subtle form. The belief that G-d is disconnected from the finite, from the earthly and from the physical, is the belief that there is something independent and disconnected from G-d.

The Torah tells us that Aaron made an “Eigel Masecha” (עגל מסכה) which usually translates as “molten calf”. Yet the word “Masecha” also means a mask. For that is precisely the function of the idol, to direct our attention to the concealment of nature rather than to the Divine presence beneath the mask.  

This explains why the story of the golden calf and its aftermath is sandwiched between the four portions that discuss the construction of the Mishkan, the sanctuary that the Jews were commanded to build in the desert. The construction of the Mishkan is the antidote to the story of the golden calf. The four portions tell a story that, if internalized, will protect us against the mistake made by the creators of the golden calf. It tells that we are called upon to make a home for G-d on this earth, and that we do so with our material possessions.[2]

The Mishkan teaches that G-d must be found not only in the hall of study but also in the marketplace. Not only when we pray but also when we eat. The apparent dichotomy between the physical and spiritual, body and soul, heaven and earth create not duality but oneness, not conflict but harmony.

The second half of the book of Exodus builds upon and expands the message of the first half of the book. The first half of the book tells of G-d’s awesome, supernatural power. We read about the great miracles that shatter the natural order. We encounter G-d in moments of revelation. Yet, the second half of the book tells a story that, in some ways, is far more profound: beneath the mask of duality and separation lies unity and harmony. When we use our material possessions to fulfill the will of G-d, we are creating a home for him within the concealment of nature.

This is also the theme of the holiday of Purim (which occurs during the week of, or in proximity to, the reading of the story of golden calf). Purim is the sole Jewish holiday that celebrates an event that occurred while the Jews were in exile, while they were subject to the rule of a foreign king. G-d’s name as well as supernatural miracles are absent from the scroll of Esther, the book that chronicles the story. While the events of Passover are far more miraculous than the events of Purim, the story of Purim is no less profound.[3]

Purim teaches that even where we see nothing but darkness, G-d is very much present.

On Purim the custom is to dress up in a costume. The idea is to recognize that what is obvious to the eye is no more than a mask. We dress up so that we become aware of the presence of G-d beneath the mask of nature. Purim teaches us not to be distracted by the masquerade, but rather to look beneath the mask, and sense is oneness.



[1] Exodus 32:1. 

[2] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe. Lekutei Sichos Vayakhel vol. 3. 

[3] See Lekutey Sichos Purim, vol. 6.

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