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Blog - Torah Insights

Saddle the Donkey - בלק

d.jpgSaddle the Donkey

There are two towering figures in the Torah that originate from the city of Aram in Mesopotamia. The first one is Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish people, the second is Bilaam, the gentile prophet who is the protagonist of this week’s Torah portion.

While Abraham and Billam were both great prophets who hailed from Aram they could not be more different from each other. Abraham was a man whose heart was filled with kindness, a man who spent his life teaching love for G-d and every one of G-d’s creations.Even in the wicked people of Sodom, Abraham looked for goodness. Abraham journeyed, to what would eventually become the land of Israel, on a mission to spread the awareness of G-d and morality. Billam could not have been more different than Abraham. Billam was a man full of hate, he possessed an “evil eye”, the unfortunate “skill” of seeing bad within people. Billam journeyed toward Israel by request of Balak, the king of Moab, who hired Billam to curse the Jews.

Billam’s journey to the hills of Moab is one of the most fascinating and unusual stories in the Torah; a journey which included multiple encounters with an angel of G-d, and a talking donkey. At the start of the Journey the Torah tells us:   

In the morning Balaam arose, saddled his she-donkey and went with the Moabite dignitaries. (Numbers 22:21)

When Billam was called to Moab, so anxious was he to perform the service which promised to be the highlight of his career, that he didn't rely on his lads or servants.  He saddled his donkey all by himself.  

On the journey to the binding of Isaac, the climax of his devotion and love to G-d, Abraham too saddled his donkey by himself, as the Torah tells us:  

And Abraham arose early in the morning, and he saddled his donkey, and he took his two young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for a burnt offering, and he arose and went to the place of which God had told him. (Genesis 22:3)

Rashi comments on this striking similarity of saddling  the donkey in these very different journeys:

[Billam] saddled his she-donkey: From here [we learn] that hate causes a disregard for the standard [of dignified conduct], for he saddled it himself. The Holy One, blessed is He, said, “Wicked one, their father Abraham has already preceded you, as it says, 'Abraham arose in the morning and saddled his donkey’”.

Rashi is offering insight that is relevant to each one of us. We look at the world around us, as well as within our own selves, and we sometimes see intense negativity, similar to the hate of Billam, which causes people, and sometimes ourselves, to “disregard the standard”, the selfish, destructive forces within ourselves can sometimes propel us to do things that we ourselves understand is “below the standard”, it is below the standard that we set for ourselves, it is below the person we want to be. We feel helpless in the face of the intense urge “to saddle our donkey”, in the service of the negative energy.

Rashi is telling us that Abraham saddled his donkey with intense passion to fulfill the will of G-d. That the Intensity of the Abrahamic love that is within each of us “precedes” the hate of Billam. Although we each have both forces within ourselves, the positive energy of Abraham is our essence, while the negativity of Billam is just an externality which does not define our identity.

By emphasizing that both Abraham and Billam saddled their donkeys by themselves, the Torah teaches us that the way to overcome the negativity of Billam is to awaken and reveal the Abrahamic passion that is within us. The passion and commitment of the Abraham within us will absorb the negative passion, and transform it to fuel which will intensify our commitment to holiness and positivity.  Just as described so poetically in the Biblical story, Billam’s curses were transformed to magnificent and beautiful blessings.

 

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(Adapted from the teaching of the Rebbe, Chukas Balak 1982 - Leku”s Balak vol. 28 sicha 1).

Confronting the Heifer

r.jpgConfronting the Heifer

The law of the red heifer is the most mysterious law of the Torah. Somehow the red heifer would provide purity for the most severe form of ritual impurity, that of coming in contact with a human corpse.

Life is synonymous with holiness, for G-d is the source of life. The red heifer represents the power to purify even the most severe form of ritual impurity, represented by death, the antithesis of holiness and life.  

Indeed, Chassidic philosophy explains that the red heifer captures the secret of the uniquely Jewish approach to purifying the negativity within each of us; the key to dealing with our inner passions, which overwhelm us with the force of their energy.

What were the key requirements for the red heifer? The Torah[1] tells us:

The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying:

This is the statute of the Torah which the Lord commanded, saying, Speak to the children of Israel and have them take for you a perfectly red unblemished cow, upon which no yoke was laid.

The heifer must be red, it must be unblemished, and it must never have been burdened by a yoke. Red is the color of passion. The heifer represents the animalistic emotions within the human heart. A yoke represents the taming of the animal. At times we look inside ourselves and we experience the emotional intensity of our animalistic urges and cravings.

We look at our inner red heifer and we fear that its animalistic raw energy is too powerful for us to control; we look at our inner red heifer and we see nothing but impurity. 

The Torah’s insight into the red heifer is as profound as it is revolutionary. After the priest would slaughter the heifer the Torah[2] tells us: 

The cow shall then be burned in his presence; its hide, its flesh, its blood, with its dung he shall burn it…

They shall take for that unclean person from the ashes of the burnt purification offering, and it shall be placed in a vessel [filled] with spring water…

A ritually clean person shall take the hyssop and dip it into the water and sprinkle it on the tent, on all the vessels, and on the people who were in it, and on anyone who touched the bone, the slain person, the corpse, or the grave.

Purity is not achieved by suppressing or waging war against desire. The Torah teaches us to look right at the passionate, forceful red heifer. Look at its core and understand that, the red heifer is not negative, nor is it spiritually neutral. The Torah wants us to understand that the heifer can be the most powerful agent of purity in our life. The power of desire, its incredible force and energy, is not evil. For while the external expression of the desire may be negative and must be burned, the ashes of the heifer, its inner essence, the power of desire, is the source of purity. Mixed into the “living waters”, when the power of desire is directed toward a positive goal, the heifer itself will be an unbridled force which will provide spiritual and emotional purity.[3]

 



[1] Numbers 19:1-2.

[2] Ibid 19:5-18.

[3] Adapted from Lekutei Torah Parsahs Chukas.

The Gift of Individuality

K.jpgThe Gift of Individuality 

Korach, a prominent member of the tribe of Levi and a cousin of Moses and Aaron, led a rebellion against Moses.

He instigated others and together they claimed that the Jewish people were all holy and therefore there was no need for Moses and Aaron to lead the people, as the Torah tells us:

They assembled against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, "You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do you raise yourselves above the Lord's assembly?"[1]  

The rebellion had a tragic ending. G-d intervened, punished Korach and his camp, and reiterated that G-d himself was the one who chose Moses and Aaron as leaders.

Perhaps the part of the story which is most difficult to understand is, not why Korach rebelled or why he was punished so severely, but rather, what was wrong with his claim? Korach put forth a convincing argument; all Jews are holy. The entire Jewish nation heard G-d speak to them at Sinai. All Jews have a soul that is part of G-d. So why are there differences between people? Korach argued that if indeed we all have the same source, if we are all part of the same G-d, then why is the priesthood reserved for only a small group of Jews? Why can’t all Jews be equal?

Rashi quotes the Midrash which refers to Korach as an astute, wise person (as the Midrash asks: “But what did Korah, who was astute, see to commit this folly?”). The wise person has the ability to see not just the reality as it presents itself but also the source and energy of the phenomenon. Thus, when Korach looked at the Jewish people he saw them as they were within their source above, complete oneness with no distinctions between them.     

Yet Korach was wrong. His desire to blur the differences between them, his claim that all Jews are equally holy and therefore there is no need for a leader, is misguided and dangerous. We live in a world of limitations, definitions and distinctions. This world cannot be a vessel to receive the full potency of Divine unity. In this world, the Divine unity is revealed  when the multiplicity of creation joins together to express unity. Divine unity is expressed, not by eradicating the differences between people but rather by each individual celebrating their own individuality, recognizing that specifically because he or she is unique, different and distinct from the billions of human beings living on the planet, he or she is indispensable to G-d. Only when each individual expresses their own unique perspective and talents, contributing a critical, vital  detail to the overall purpose of creation, is a true and lasting unity achieved.

At the conclusion of the story of Korach’s rebellion the Torah tells us that Moses collected one staff from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, the staff of the tribe of Levi was inscribed with Aaron’s name. Miraculously Aaron’s staff blossomed and produced almonds, which was a sign that G-d chose Aaron as the high priest. As the Torah[2] describes:

Moses spoke to the children of Israel, and all their chieftains gave him a staff for each chieftain according to their fathers' houses, [a total of] twelve staffs, and Aaron's staff was amidst their staffs.

Moses placed the staffs before the Lord in the Tent of the Testimony.

And on the following day Moses came to the Tent of Testimony, and behold, Aaron's staff for the house of Levi had blossomed! It gave forth blossoms, sprouted buds, and produced ripe almonds.

When the Staff of Aaron blossomed, the story continues:

Moses took out all the staffs from before the Lord, to the children of Israel; they saw and they took, each man his staff.

The Torah emphasizes that, after Aaron’s staff blossomed, the leader of each tribe took his own staff back. This captures the purpose of the story. You may not be a Kohen, you may not have the gifts that someone else has, yet you must know that you do have your own staff, your own path, your own mission, your own gifts. Moses teaches each of us, that after our staff is placed next to Aaron’s staff, after we are inspired by Aaron’s leadership, we must each take our own staff and pursue that which we alone can achieve.

***

This Shabbat, the third of Tammuz, is the twenty fourth Yohrtzeit of the Rebbe. The Rebbe saw the unique beauty within every person. The Rebbe inspired each person he met to express the Divine soul that is within them, by illuminating their surroundings with the light of Torah and Mitzvot. May we each continue to live the Rebbe’s legacy until we merit the coming of Moshiach, speedily in our days.[3]

___________________

[1] Numbers 16:13. 

[2] Ibid. 17:21-24 

[3] Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Korch vol. 18 sicha 3, and Parshas Korach 5749.
 

 

Scouting a New Path

s.jpgScouting a New Path  

For the first time in his career Moses did not receive a direct instruction from G-d. The Jewish people requested of Moses to send spies to scout the promised land. G-d told Moses:

Send out for yourself men who will scout the Land of Canaan, which I am giving to the children of Israel.

Rashi, the primary commentary on the Torah, clarifies and explains that the words “for yourself” are not a commandment to dispatch spies, in the words of Rashi:

Send for yourself: According to your own understanding. I am not commanding you, but if you wish, you may send.

The spies brought calamity upon the Jewish people. When they returned from scouting the land they reported that the Jewish people were incapable of conquering the land. The Jewish people wept and called for the appointment of a new leader who would l bring them back to Egypt. In response to their rejection of the promised land, G-d decreed that the Jewish people would wander in the desert for forty years, the generation of people that was liberated from Egypt would die in the desert. Only the next generation would merit to enter the promised land of Israel.

Why did Moses decide to send the spies? Until that point Moses did not make a move without an explicit instruction from above. Why did Moses not consider that, by emphasizing that He was not commanding Moses to dispatch the spies, G-d may have been signaling to Moses to hold back and not send the spies? Why did Moses miss the red flag?

When he heard the words “if you wish, you may send” Moses was filled with joy. Moses understood that the Jewish people were being asked to climb to greater spiritual heights and exercise free choice. They were now developed to the point where they were capable of performing the will of G-d, not because they were commanded to do so, but because of their own will and desire. G-d was opening a new path in the service of G-d, no longer would there be a direct commandment from above, specifically because the goal of the Torah is not to superimpose its will from above, but rather it is for people to discover that they themselves want to do the right thing.   

Until now, the people were shown which path to take, G-d led them out of Egypt took them to Sinai, and led them through the desert toward the land of Israel. Once they entered Israel, they would no longer experience Divine revelation leading their every step. The sending of the spies, represented the critically important ability of the Jewish people to decide that they wanted to enter the land, not because of a commandment alone, but because their own will and desire directed them to do so.    

This explains why forty years after Moses sent the first group of spies, Joshua, the student and successor of Moses, once again sent spies, as we read in the Haftorah:

And Joshua the son of Nun sent two men out of Shittim to spy secretly, saying, Go see the land and Jericho.

The mission of Joshua’s spies was successful. Joshua, despite witnessing the calamity brought on by the spies sent by Moses, took a risk and sent spies. Joshua understood that they could not enter the land without first sending spies. Because we cannot truly transform the earth, we cannot imbue the earth with lasting holiness, unless we do so because of our own desire.


(Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Parshas Shlach 5749.)

 

Who will Give us Meat?

m.jpegWho will Give us Meat?

Only three days had  passed since the Jewish people left Mount Sinai, beginning their journey toward the Land of Israel, and already there was a stunning setback. The people who experienced Divine revelation, the people who merited to see the cloud of glory rest upon the tabernacle they built for G-d, began complaining. They cried out that they wanted meat!

As the Torah[1] tells us:

But the multitude among cultivated a craving. Then even the children of Israel once again began to cry, and they said, "Who will feed us meat?

How is it possible that the people so quickly abandoned the spirituality which they had cultivated at Sinai and demanded meat?

Every story in the Torah is multi layered, and can be understood on many levels. According to the Chassidic interpretation, the people’s desire for meat was, in fact, a positive desire. Upon closer reading of the story we discover that the people complained not because they wanted meat, but because they wanted a  desire for meat (the literal translation of the verse is “they desired a desire”, meaning they desired to experience desire). After almost a year of intense spiritual experience, they departed from Sinai and  realized that they had ceased to feel any craving for materialism. The lack of desire troubled them because they felt that the purpose of life is to experience challenge. They craved the challenge of overcoming temptation. They said:

We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt free of charge, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now, our bodies are dried out, for there is nothing at all; we have nothing but manna to look at.

They wanted fish, cucumbers and watermelons, because they wanted to experience desire, to be challenged by passion, and then channel the desire. They desired  to feel the natural craving for delicious food and transform that desire to a craving for G-d. At Sinai, they did not experience passionate love to G-d, which is predicated on feeling the self and feeling how the self desires to cleave to G-d. At Sinai they experienced complete devotion and humility before G-d. The humble person does not focus on himself, instead he is devoted to and focused on someone or something outside of himself.

Moses responded with  despair. Moses turned to G-d and cried:

Where can I get meat to give all these people? For they are crying on me, saying, 'Give us meat to eat.' Alone I cannot carry this entire people for it is too hard for me.

Moses, was  the humblest of men. Moses is referred to as Moses our  teacher. According to Kabbalah wisdom is synonymous with humility, for wisdom is the ability to separate oneself from his or her own subjective emotions and point of view, and focus on the objective reality that is greater than the self. Moses, therefore told  G-d that he, Moses, was incapable of leading the people who craved a desire. He had no common language with people who wanted to experience passionate love. As the Torah continues:

Moses said, "Six hundred thousand people on foot are the people in whose midst I am, and You say, 'I will give them meat, and they will eat it for a full month'?

Moses said “these are the people in whose midst I am”. Moses said to G-d, that he, Moses had invested much time and effort in order to impart within the people a spark of Moses, a glimpse of his own selfless humility and devotion to G-d. Now that they wished to experience desire, argued Moses, they were disconnecting themselves from Moses and his unique spiritual lifestyle!  

G-d, however, did  not share Moses’s concern. He told Moses:  

"Is My power limited? Now you will see if My word comes true for you or not!"

G-d gave the Jewish people meat. He allowed them to experience desire and to transform the desire and passion for meat to a passionate love to G-d. Because, as G-ds told Moses, “is my power limited?” The message of Judaism is that G-d can be found not only in the humility of Moses, but, perhaps even more importantly, in elevating our craving and channeling our passion to bring us closer to G-d.[2]

 


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[1] Numbers 11.

[2] Adapted from Arvi Nachal and Lekutey Torah Bihaaloscha 31:3.

 

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