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Blog - Torah Insights

The Blessing of Peace

BK.jpgThe Blessing of Peace

Finally, it was time to bless the children of Israel.

After the exodus from Egypt, the receiving of the Torah, the construction of the tabernacle and the tribes organizing themselves into four camps, as the Jewish people were preparing to depart from Mount Sinai and travel toward the land of Israel, they were ready to receive the Divine blessing. At that point G-d commanded the priests, Aaron and his sons, to bless the Jewish people with the words dictated by G-d. Until this very day, the priests use these holy words when they bless the Jewish people.

What is the nature of a blessing?

If a blessing is just a form of prayer, asking G-d to bless the people, and if the people are merely passive recipients of the blessing, then the blessing should be said to G-d and not to the people. In fact, the Torah commands the priests to say the blessing to the Jewish people because the purpose of the blessing is not merely to receive without exertion but rather it is in order to inspire the recipient to strive to achieve the blessing, and make the blessing a reality in his life. The priestly blessing, then, represents the totality of all that the Jewish people should aspire to achieve.[2]

The blessing reads as follows:

"May the Lord bless you and watch over you. May the Lord cause His countenance to shine to you and favor you. May the Lord raise His countenance toward you and grant you peace."[2]

Each of the three verses represents another dimension in the life of the Jew. The first verse, “"May the Lord bless you and watch over you”, is a blessing for material prosperity. Rashi explains “your possessions shall be blessed” and “no thieves shall attack you and steal your money.” The Torah does not shy away from material blessing, the Torah teaches us that we should strive for success and blessing in the material world.

Material success, however, brings with it a challenge. Materialism can present a threat to, and a distraction from, spiritual pursuits. The second verse of the blessing, therefore, addresses this concern. The Torah continues “May the Lord cause His countenance to shine to you and favor you”. The “Lord's countenance” is a metaphor for spirituality. The second step of the blessing is that despite our material blessing we should be successful in cultivating a spiritual life. G-d’s spirit should shine upon us.  

The ultimate level of blessing is expressed in the third verse, which concludes with the words “and grant you peace.” The peace in this blessing is not only peace between the people of Israel and the surrounding nations, not only peace among the Jewish people themselves, but also peace within every individual. The third blessing, inner peace, is the ultimate goal of Judaism. Judaism teaches that the material and spiritual do not need to be at war with each other. Instead, the blessing in the first and second verses, the material and spiritual blessings, should complement and enhance each other. The spiritual experiences give meaning to the material possessions and the material possessions serve to enhance the spiritual life.[3]

Throughout the continuation of the fourth book of the Torah we read about the natural tension between physical and spiritual aspirations. We read about some of the Jews descending to pure materialism, which is why they demanded meat, and, on the other hand, we read about the spies who did not want to enter the land of Israel because they wished to remain in the desert, retreat from the material, and remain in a completely spiritual environment. The fourth book represents the struggle to reach the promised land, to reach the ultimate purpose of existence. In the beginning of the book the Torah reminds us of our mission: to succeed in both the material realm as well as the spiritual realm, and, most importantly, to make peace with them both.    



[1] See the commentary of the Alshich.

[2] Numbers 5:24-26

[3] See commentary of the Malbim.

In the Desert

B.jpgIn the Desert

As we begin to study the fourth book of the five books of Moses, the book of Numbers, it is an opportunity to get a birds eye view of the objective the Torah is striving to achieve with all of its stories, lessons and teachings. 

Looking at the book of Numbers in isolation it appears to be a collection of challenging circumstances and negative outcomes. The book begins with the description of the orderly Jewish camp, the temple in its center and the tribes of Israel organized in four camps each on their respective side of the temple; before long, the order and structure turned into chaos. We read about the calamity brought about by the spies, the rebellion of Korach, Miriam speaking about Moses, and the Jewish people constantly complaining that they wanted to go back to Egypt. Moses and Aaron lost control, hitting the stone instead of speaking to it, and as a result, they were not permitted to enter the land. In short, it appears that the fourth book, whose Hebrew name is Bamidbar which means “in the desert”, describes the descent into a spiritual desert, where order, organization and civilization was severely compromised. 

When we take a deeper look, however, we discover that the fourth book represents the ultimate purpose of the Torah. For the desert is the arena in which the creation of the world as well as its divine purpose, is completed. The fourth book then, is the climax of the Torah (the fifth book is a repetition and restatement of the first four books). 

The first book of the five books of Moses, the book of Genesis (“Bereishit”), describes the creation of the world. It describes the relationships and experiences of the people as they were living within the parameters of nature. Genesis is the story of the people and of civilization prior to the Divine revelation of the giving of the Torah.

The second book, Exodus (“Shmot”), describes how G-d revealed his greatness to the people of Israel. He freed them from Egyptian bondage, gave them his Torah and instructed them to create a tabernacle, a home for Him, so that He would dwell in their midst. In the second book of the Torah, we advance beyond the natural and we experience holiness which transcends nature.

The third book, Leviticus (“Vayikra”), is a collection of laws and instructions, procedures and rules, which teach us when and how we can come close to the Divine. We offer offerings, purify ourselves, and then, on unique occasions, we enter the temple, the home of God, the realm of holiness. The third book teaches us how to elevate ourselves and become close to G-d.

Unlike the third book, which teaches us the appropriate way to enter the tabernacle, the fourth book flows in the opposite direction. The fourth book, the book of Numbers (“Bamidbar”), teaches how to bring the holiness into the desert. In the fourth book we are taught that our object is not we cannot to remain in the confines of the temple awash in holiness, but rather we are empowered to bring the teachings of the Torah to every corner of the world, even to its most inhospitable spiritual desert.   

No question, the desert is a challenging place. We experience constant struggle between our inner soul and the world around us. We have our share of “ups” and “downs”, “highs” and “lows”. We face confusion, doubt and delay. We suffer setbacks and disappointment. Yet, despite the setbacks, along the way we experience spiritual triumph, commitment and dedication.

Along the way, we advance to the point where we are able to do more than merely retreat to the house of G-d. Over time, we fulfill the purpose of creation, which is to carry the light through the desert and transform the earth, all of the earth, to the holiness of the promised land.[1]     

 



[1] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutey sichos Pekudey vol. 16 Sicha 3.

Proclaim Freedom

Y.jpgProclaim Freedom

In Biblical Israel life vibrated to a rhythm of cycles of seven. We are commanded to work six days and rest on the seventh; to work the land for six years and to let it lay fallow on the seventh. We would then count seven cycles of seven years and proclaim the fiftieth year as the year of the jubilee, a year of freedom, when all slaves were set free and any land that was sold would return to its original owner.  

While the laws of the jubilee year don’t apply today, and while the laws of the sabbatical year only apply in the land of Israel, the message and spiritual lesson of the sabbatical and jubilee years are relevant for all of time they are the roadmap for the journey to achieve spiritual freedom.  

When the Jewish people entered the land of Israel they devoted themselves to agriculture; their days were dedicated to plowing, planting, harvesting and working the land, work which required a tremendous amount of devotion. Left unchecked, this devotion could, over time, enslave the person to the land. Left unchecked the earth could rob a person of his or her higher, more spiritual pursuits.   

The Torah therefore commands that every seventh year we refrain from working the land and dedicate the year to matters of the spirit:  

You may sow your field for six years, and for six years you may prune your vineyard, and gather in its produce, But in the seventh year, the land shall have a complete rest a Sabbath to the Lord; you shall not sow your field, nor shall you prune your vineyard.[1]

The sabbatical year is described as a rest for the land; the person rests only as a result of the obligation for the land to rest. In other words, the sabbatical year does not transform the Jew. During the Sabbatical year, a person might still prefer to be in the field, and, even while refraining from work, might worry about what he would eat.[2] The land achieved its freedom, but the Jew was still only on his journey to freedom.

In the spiritual service of the Jew, the sabbatical year represents the service of “Bitul Hayesh”, subjugating the self to a higher purpose. The person has not yet reached a place of inner peace and tranquility. At this point in his spiritual development, there is challenge and struggle. He overcomes the part of his inner self which only values the material, he separates from the mundane “work of the field” and designates time in which he devotes himself to the service of G-d.   

After seven cycles of the Sabbatical we reach the fiftieth year. The year of freedom:

And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim freedom throughout the land for all who live on it. It shall be a Jubilee for you, and you shall return, each man to his property, and you shall return, each man to his family.[3]

The fiftieth year is described as the year of freedom for the person, “It shall be a Jubilee for you”, because by the time we reach the jubilee year, we are transformed. We are in touch with our true identity, our soul, we therefore are happy to experience a reset to the economy, allowing land we may have purchased to return to its original owner and slaves to return to their freedom.

The jubilee, in the spiritual sense, signifies a time when there is no longer any inner conflict and strife. The jubilee represents the Jew who, at least at this moment, understands and internalizes the vision of the Torah. The Jew’s mind and heart are aligned with his core inner self.

Each year we experience a taste of the jubilee cycle. Beginning on the second night of Passover we are commanded to count forty nine days, seven cycles of seven, and sanctify the fiftieth day as the holiday of Shavuot.

Each year as we escape our inner Egypt, we begin the journey to attain freedom. At first we encounter seven sabbaticals, during which we sometimes must overcome temptation, confusion and negativity. The sabbatical is a time when we overcome negative habits by simply abstaining from them and directing our attention to the good and positive, despite our internal struggle.

On the fiftieth day, the holiday of Shavuot, the day we received the ten commandments engraved on the tablets of stone, there is no longer a need for struggle. On the fiftieth day, we achieve a taste of the jubilee and experience a taste of freedom. The words of Torah are engraved upon our hearts, we identify with its teachings, and internalize its message.[4]

 



[1] Leviticus 25:3-4. 

[2] As the Torah describe: “And if you should say, "What will we eat in the seventh year? We will not sow, and we will not gather in our produce!" [Know then, that] I will command My blessing for you in the sixth year, and it will yield produce for three years.” (Leviticus: 25:20-21)

[3] Leviticus 25:9.

[4] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Behar, vol.7 sicha 1. 

Count Yourself

T.jpgCount Yourself

The holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah, is unique among the holidays in that every other holiday is celebrated on a specific day of the Hebrew calendar, yet there is no date given for the holiday of Shavuot. Instead, the Torah instructs us to count forty nine days from the second day of Passover and to celebrate the giving of the Torah on the fiftieth day. As the Torah tells us in this week’s portion:   

And you shall count for yourselves, from the morrow of the rest day from the day you bring the omer as a wave offering seven weeks; they shall be complete. You shall count until the day after the seventh week, [namely,] the fiftieth day, [on which] you shall bring a new meal offering to the Lord… And you shall designate on this very day a holy occasion it shall be for you; you shall not perform any work of labor. [This is] an eternal statute in all your dwelling places throughout your generations.[1]

There is another anomaly in the holiday of Shavuot. There are other commandments for which counting is required: counting six days and resting on the seventh day, (in the land of Israel) counting six years and celebrating a sabbatical in the seventh year, counting seven sabbatical years and celebrating the Jubilee in the fiftieth year. On all other occasions there is no requirement for each individual to count, the commandment to count is upon the community. The counting of the court, on behalf of the community, establishes the occasion for everyone. The holiday of Shavuot is unique in that the commandment to count is upon each and every individual.

[There is a fascinating practical ramification to the individual count. If one travels from the United States to Australia crossing the Pacific Ocean, he will have crossed the dateline and skipped a day. He would celebrate Shabbat not on the seventh day since the previous Shabbat he celebrated, but rather on the seventh day according to the count of the community in Australia (although it is only the sixth day since his previous Shabbat). The Holiday of Shavuot, however, is an exception to this rule. If one skips a day by crossing the dateline from east to west, his holiday will follow his own count. Thus his Shavuot will begin one day after the beginning of Shavuot for the Jews of Australia].

All holidays are a time when the celebration encompasses the nation as a whole. We commemorate our shared history, we celebrate G-d’s blessings of agricultural bounty and, in biblical times, we would unite with other Jews in a pilgrimage to the temple in the holy city of Jerusalem. During all the holidays the individual is part of the collective, he celebrates as part of a people and a nation.

The holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Torah, is the exception. When the Jews gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai, G-d spoke the words of the ten commandments in the singular. G-d said to every individual “I am the lord your (“your” in the singular) G-d”. As the Midrash explains:

When He (G-d) spoke, every individual Israelite maintained: "He spoke to me!" "I am Hashem your (plural) G-d" is not written here, rather " I am Hashem your (singular) G-d".[2] 

The Jew standing at Sinai as well as the Jew reading the words of Torah, must appreciate that his relationship with G-d is not merely with the Jewish people as a whole. Rather G-d desires a relationship with him as an individual. G-d is speaking to him as if there was nobody else present, as if he were an only child. For G-d finds meaning in every individual.

To make this point clear, the Torah emphasizes that to prepare for the holiday of Shavuot, to prepare to receive the Torah anew, to reestablish our bond with G-d, every individual must count seven weeks. Every individual must refine and prepare himself in order to recommit to the relationship. It is not enough to join a community that counted forty nine days. Each individual must rely on his own counting, for each individual has their own, personal relationship with G-d and his Torah.

The Torah tells each individual: Do not rely on the counting of the community. Count, prepare, reconnect on your own. Because G-d, through the words of the Torah, is waiting to speak to you.[3]

 

 

 _________________________

[1] Leviticus 23:15,16,21.

[2] Yalkut Shimoni, Yisro, Remez 286.

[3] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Emor vol. 3.

 

 

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