Blog - Torah Insights

Fruit in the Basket - כי תבוא

b.jpgFruit in the Basket 

Standing at the bank of the Jordan River, days before he was to pass way, Moses spoke to his beloved people, and, just as they had done forty years earlier at the foot of Mount Sinai, Moses once again instructed them that they were about to reaffirm their covenant with G-d. Moses proceeded to present the people with the blessing for the fulfillment of the Torah and the terrible curses, and exile that would occur if they abandoned the Torah.  

Indeed, The theme of this week’s portion, Ki Tavo, is the covenant that Moses made with the Jewish people:

These are the words of the covenant, which the Lord commanded Moses to make with the children of Israel in the land of Moab, besides the covenant which he made with them in Horeb. (Deuteronomy 28:69)

Why then does the Parash open with the specific commandment of Beekurim, the obligation of the Jewish farmer to bring his first fruit to Jerusalem as a gift to G-d? What is the connection between this specific commandment and the rest of the portion which discusses the acceptance of the covenant, a general acceptance of the entire Torah?

It is safe to assume that, somehow, the commandment to take the “first fruit”, place it in a “basket” and bring it to “the place that G-d will choose” is, in addition to the conventional meaning, also a general mystical lesson for the way we are to live, for the way we are to follow the Torah, and, ultimately, for the purpose of all of the Torah.

The Torah tells us:

And it will be, when you come into the land which the Lord, your God, gives you for an inheritance, and you possess it and settle in it,

that you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you will bring from your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving you. And you shall put [them] into a basket and go to the place which the Lord, your God, will choose to have His Name dwell there. (Deuteronomy 26:12).

The Hebrew word for “land” “Eretz” is related to the Hebrew word  “Ratzon”, will. [The Midrash says “why is she (Israel) called (“Eretz”) land? Because she desired (“Ratzah”) to do the will of her creator”.] Both “land” and “will” are related to the Hebrew word for ”running”, for such is the nature of strong will, it forces us to get up and “run” toward that which we desire.   

The Kabbalists explain that “Ratzon”, will and desire, is the most powerful force within the human being. The will has the power to control the other faculties and unleash the dormant potential. Awakening the desire to feel or to understand, will, in fact, awaken the heart and mind, [which is why the most effective teachers are not the ones who understand the subject matter the best, nor the ones who can articulate and explain the best, but rather it is the ones who are gifted with the ability to instill a love for the subject, which will inspire the student to want to grasp the subject].

Like the farmer who tills the earth to plant, sow, irrigate and reap fruit, a Jew must also seek to cultivate the “first fruit”. The first and most important thing a Jew should seek to cultivate is, what the Kabbalists call, “Ratzon” (“will”), a desire, a longing and a yearning to transcend the confines of the material and reconnect to the source of all, the infinite light of G-d. Indeed, the purpose of all of Torah is to elevate us, to instill within us a desire to grow and to climb ever higher.

Yet the the desire to “run”, to escape the mundane, to transcend the physical and to cleave to the source of life is only the first step.

Judaism demands much more. Judaism teaches that we need to capture the desire, the urge to run, and direct it to a “vessel” that will be able to contain and preserve the inspiration in daily life. “Take of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you will bring from your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving you. And you shall put [them] into a basket”. Placing the “fruit” in the “basket” means applying the inspiration, the desire to transcend, and investing it into our daily life, into our daily activities.

And as the Torah continues, the purpose of placing the fruit in the basket is to “go to the place which the Lord, your God, will choose to have His Name dwell there” . Where is that “place”? Well, the answer is different for each person. For G-d places each of us in a unique place where it is our mission to “have His Name dwell there”, to fill that place with the inspiration, kindness and joy of Judaism.

So yes, the heart of the covenant, the heart of all the Torah is to take “your first fruit”, place in in a “basket”, and bring to “the place that G-d chose”.

[Adapted from Hayom Yom 18 Elul (Based on the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chasidic movement, whose birthday is the 18th of Elul].


The Mystical Marriage - כי תצא

r.jpegThe Mystical Marriage

Many of the laws of Jewish marriage are derived from this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitze. Just a few words in this parsha are the basis for an entire Talmudic tractate packed with the legalities of Jewish marriage, from its major legal principles down to specific intricate details of its laws.

All aspects of Torah, the law, morality, mysticism and instructions for life, are part of one whole, the legal part of Torah is the body of Torah while the mystical part of Torah is the soul. By examining the body, the legal “mechanism” of the marriage, we can discover the Torah’s perspective on the “soul” of marriage.

“Kiddushin” (betrothal) is the Hebrew word for the legal status of marriage. While there are three ways to affect a “Kiddushin”, the most common one is when a man gives a woman something of monetary value for the sake of  “Kiddushin”, and the woman accepts the object of monetary value for the purpose of becoming betrothed.

A close analysis will show that “Kiddushin” contains two components. The first is “Kesef”, which is the Hebrew word for money (or its value), which the woman receives. The second component is the “Kiddushin” itself, the woman is betrothed “consecrated” to this marriage, and she is prohibited from marrying anyone else.

The Talmudic commentators ask an interesting question: which of these components takes effect first and triggers the other? Is the money the trigger, meaning is the woman betrothed as a result of the acquisition of the money or does it work the other way around, the woman acquires the money only as a result of the onset of the marriage.

A careful examination of the Talmudic sources will reveal that this is not merely a theoretical discussion, but rather there are practical legal ramifications to this question.

These two components, “Kesef”, the money and “kiddushin” the betrothal, represent two spiritual ideas which are necessary in order to create a marriage, without either one of them no marriage can survive and thrive.

The Hebrew word for Money, “Kesef”, comes from the Hebrew word “Kosef” meaning love and yearning. The word “Kiddushin” comes from the word “kodesh” which means “designated”, representing that marriage is about exclusive commitment. Marriage is created and nourished by both love and commitment.

These are very different, perhaps even contradictory, emotions. Love is passionate and exciting, it is where the person who loves  expresses him or her self. When I love something or someone I do so because of how it makes me feel. Commitment, on the other hand, is not about what I want and how I feel at the given moment. Commitment is the ability to place my will aside and create space for someone else’s needs and perspective. Commitment is the ability to be there for someone on their terms. Commitment is the ability to connect even when one does not feel the passionate love; in fact, commitment is the oxygen which allows the passionate love to reignite.

Love is self centered. When I feel love, I am in the center of the relationship. When I feel, and practice, commitment, the other person is in the center. Both love and commitment, both “money” and “betrothal” are critical to a healthy relationship.    

Marriage between man and woman is a reflection of the the spiritual “marriage” between G-d and the Jewish people. Our “marriage” with G-d is also centered on the two ideas of “Kesef” money, which, as explained earlier, represents love, and “kiddushin”, betrothal, which represents exclusive commitment, which in the context of our marriage with G-d represents the commitment to separate form negativity and unholiness.

The question is, which of these elements comes first and triggers the other? Should we first seek to love, to feel inspired and connected to holiness before we work on ridding negativity and distraction from our life, or, alternatively, should we first focus on being committed to G-d, on separating from negativity, before we can hope to experience the bliss of love and enthusiasm in our relationship with G-d?

In our spiritual marriage, either of the elements will trigger the other. Both paths will lead to success, for each of these two components will trigger the other, the commitment will inevitably trigger love and the love will solidify the commitment.

This is a profound lesson in our service of G-d. We don't need to wait until we rid ourselves of negativity, we don't need to wait until our relationship with G-d is exclusive and all encompassing. Instead we should focus on the good, creating moments of inspiration and love in our life, which, ultimately, will trigger the “kddushin”, the betrothal, the complete, exclusive, committed, relationship with G-d.  


Cities of Refuge - שופטים

c.jpegCities of Refuge

Humanity’s capacity to build is spectacular. We have built towers, cities and  civilizations. Yet the greatest construction projects often came at a high cost. Historically, the drive to create came at the expense of the the rights and well-being of individuals. An estimated 20,000 people died, mostly due to disease, in the effort to construct the Panama Canal. Hundreds of thousands of people are estimated to have died building the great wall of China.

When people pooled their efforts to advance a great cause, when they came together to achieve a great project, they often focused on the collective at the expense of the individual. They felt that in comparison to the collective, the individual was insignificant. Societies celebrated the great achievement, but, often, would ignore the individuals who may have been sacrificed for the sake of the collective.

Thus, as the Jews were about to enter the land of Israel, Moses addressed this very issue: the relationship between the individual and the communal in the land they were about to build.

In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses reminded the people of their history and the fundamentals of Torah. in this week’s portion, the portion of Shoftim, Moses discussed institutions they would create in the land of Israel, the priesthood, the monarchy, judiciary and the supreme court. And then, Moses repeated the commandant of the cities of refuge. This commandment was written twice in the first four books of the Torah and repeated twice more by Moses in the fifth book, because the cities of refuge represent the founding principle of the country the Jewish people were about to establish.

Moses tells us:

you shall separate three cities for yourself in the midst of your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving you to possess.

Prepare the road for yourself and divide into three parts the boundary of your land, which the Lord, your God, is giving you as an inheritance, and it will be for every killer to flee there…

As when a man goes with his fellow into the forest to chop wood, and his hand swings the ax to cut down the tree, and the iron flies off the handle, and it reaches his fellow, and he dies he shall flee to one of these cities, and live.

The Torah describes a “work accident”. Somebody was chopping wood in the forest and accidentally a bystander was killed. The Torah tells us that we cannot ignore the tragedy. We cannot allow life to go on as usual just because the person chopping the wood was doing so in the service of the community. The Torah tells us that the accidental murderer needs atonement, he needs to flee to exile in the city of refuge.

This commandment captures the foundation of the Jewish state. An individual cannot be sacrificed for the building of the collective. In fact the opposite is true. The state, the collective has legitimacy only to the extent that it is devoted to protecting the life and dignity of the individual. The Mitzvah of the cities of refuge is a reminder, that in the land of Israel,  an individual is never sacrificed on the altar of the collective. The society which the Jewish people built in the land of Israel, represented the truth that every human being is created in the image of G-d.

* * *  

The city of refuge exists not only in the realm of space but also in the realm of time. The month of Elul, which precedes the Jewish New Year, is a metaphorical “city of refuge”. It is a time when we seek refuge from the distractions of the broader world, we engage in self reflection, introspection and self betterment.

When we think about the passing year, we will inevitably discover a discrepancy between the life we are living vs. the life we know we want to live. We have lofty goals and ideals, we want to live a life full of accomplishment and meaning, we want deep and rewarding relationships, we want to live by the values we believe in and cherish. Yet, the trouble begins with individual moments.

Somehow, sometimes, the general ideals and aspirations of our life do not infuse and inspire the individual moments, when we have to choose between investing in a meaningful relationship or  pursuing something of no lasting value.

The “cities of refuge” remind us, that a collective is only as strong as the individuals who comprise it, and life is only as meaningful as daily, seemingly inconsequential, moments and decisions.

The month of Elul is the time we resolve, and we practice, to be mindful of the individual moments of our life. For the life we live, it’s joy and fulfillment, meaning and accomplishments, are determined by individual moments.  



Eating in Jerusalem - ראה

J.jpgEating in Jerusalem

At the bank of the Jordan River, after the forty year journey in the desert, Moses spoke

to the people as they were about to enter the land of Israel. Up until this point, in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses spoke about the history of the forty year journey through the desert, as well as words of rebuke warning the people to remain loyal to G-d even after they achieve success in the land of Israel. In the fourth portion of the book, the portion of Reeh, Moses is ready to describe the apex of the entire journey, life at its greatest in the holy land of Israel.

Moses told the people that when they would enter the land they would no longer be permitted to bring offerings to G-d in the place of their choice, but rather there would only be one place that  G-d would choose to bring their offerings.

Contemplating on the way Moses described the “place that G-d will choose” is critical to understanding Judaism’s approach to spirituality, holiness and life itself.

When we think of religious pilgrimage we often think of people bowing in prayer, submission and awe. Contrast that with Moses’s description:

But only to the place which the Lord your G-d shall choose from all your tribes, to set His Name there; you shall inquire after His dwelling and come there.

And there you shall bring your burnt offerings, and your sacrifices, and your tithes, and the separation by your hand, and your vows and your donations, and the firstborn of your cattle and of your sheep.

And there you shall eat before the Lord, your G-d, and you shall rejoice in all your endeavors you and your households, as the Lord, your G-d, has blessed you. (Deuteronomy 12:5-7)

What is the scene Moses paints? After hundreds of years of Jewish history, what do we do when we finally come to the place that G-d will choose?

We eat. (“And there you shall eat before the Lord, your G-d”.)

We rejoice. (“you shall rejoice in all your endeavors”.)

When a Jew travels to Jerusalem to become close to G-d, he is not escaping his daily life. The Jew brings the tithings of his crop along with him to Jerusalem. All the effort he invested in agriculture, in growing his produce comes along with him to Jerusalem. The Jew is commanded to “eat before the Lord, your G-d, and you shall rejoice in all your endeavors”, because the material labor and success is in itself part of the service of G-d. The purpose of creation is to sanctify the material world, to elevate it and to use it, as well as the joy it creates, in the service of holiness.  

After the Jew celebrates in Jerusalem, when the Jew experiences how the earth's bounty can be sanctified and celebrates in the context of holiness, he is ready to extend the holiness even farther. The Torah continues:    

When the Lord, your God, expands your boundary, as He has spoken to you, and you say, "I will eat meat," because your soul desires to eat meat, you may eat meat, according to every desire of your soul. (Ibid. 12:20)

In the desert, as Rashi explains, eating meat was permitted only in the context of an offering. Only if the animal was offered in the tabernacle as an offering to G-d would some of the meat be given to the person offering the offering, who would then fulfill the Mitzvah of eating the sacrificial meat. Once the Jewish people entered Israel, however, they were permitted to eat meat that was not a sacrifice, even when they were distant from the temple. While on the surface this may seem as though the people were stepping down from their holy state of being as they began to indulge their cravings. The truth, however, is that this  represents a far greater level of holiness. Once the people entered Israel they reached greater spiritual heights, they were now able to bring holiness not only to the celebration in Jerusalem but also to their daily “mundane” life, throughout Israel. In the desert only an act of a Divine commandment, a Mitzvah, was holy. Once we entered Israel, once we experienced the holiness of the temple affecting our produce and our festivals, we could then carry the holiness over to daily life itself. 

In the desert only the Tabernacle was holy. When we ascended to Jerusalem we elevated our physical reality to the point where our eating and drinking was an expression of connection to G-d. And then, descending from the mountains of Jerusalem and returning home, we were empowered to sanctify all of our existence, our body and its cravings, as well as all aspects of society, by using them in the service of holiness; thus expanding the holiness of Jerusalem throughout the entire world.


Bread from the Earth - עקב

bread.jpgBread from the Earth


Almost all the blessings in the Jewish prayer book - blessings within the various prayers, blessings of praise or request, blessings celebrating the Shabbat and holidays - were instituted by our sages, and are not biblically mandated. The only exception is the biblical commandment to bless G-d after eating bread, as Moses tells us in this week’s Torah portion:


And you will eat and be sated, and you shall bless the Lord, your God, for the good land He has given you.


Over time the blessing after the meal evolved and is now a series of four blessings composed over more than a Millennium. The Talmud tells us when and who composed these blessings. We will focus on the first two blessings:   


With regard to the origins of the four blessings of Grace after Meals, Rav Naḥman said: Moses instituted for Israel the first blessing of “Who feeds all”, when the manna descended for them and they needed to thank God. Joshua instituted the blessing of the land when they entered Eretz Yisrael.

(Talmud, Brachot 48a)


Why on earth do we thank G-d with a blessing about bread from the heavens? The bread we eat, bread grown from the ground with a great investment of toil and time, is categorically different than, the manna, the bread that the Jewish people ate in the desert, which miraculously descended from the heavens each morning of the forty year journey through the desert. Why then do we say the first blessing, composed by Moses for the miraculous Manna and not begin directly with the blessing composed by Joshua as he and the Jews entered Israel and ate natural bread, bread grown from the land?     


Perhaps the sages included the blessing composed by Moses because it captures the essence of the purpose for the blessing.


While much of the previous Torah portion is dedicated to reminding the Jewish people never to forget the awesome experience at Sinai, much of this week’s portion, the portion of Eikev, is focused on the spiritual dangers of entering the land of Israel. The miracles of the exodus from Egypt and of the journey through the wilderness were about to end. Moses cautioned the people that there would be a great temptation to attribute the success in the land of Israel to one's own power and wisdom. In the land of Israel, where the Jew must grow bread by the sweat of his own brow, he might forget about G-d and attribute his success to his ability to navigate and channel nature’s force. Moses therefore reminds us that when we eat natural bread, when we are satiated, when we enjoy blessing, we must recognize G-d the source of the blessing.


Perhaps this is why the Sages included Moses’s blessings for the Manna, the bread from the heavens, together with Joshua’s blessings for the bread of the land of Israel, the bread of the earth. For the purpose of the grace after meals is to recognize that the natural bread is a blessing from G-d no less than the bread from the heavens. Both Moses and Joshua teach us to recognize the truth, that G-d is manifest not only in miracles but also in nature, not only in the bread from the heavens but also in the bread from the earth.

Looking for older posts? See the sidebar for the Archive.