Blog - Torah Insights

Back to the Beginning - וזאת הברכה

Simchas Torah.jpgBack to the Beginning

On the holiday of Simchat Torah we read the final chapter of the five books of Moses. After journeying through the stories, characters and lessons of the Torah,  e anticipate reaching the culmination of our journey, the Torah’s climatic message and its deepest insight.

Yet, there seems to be no clear end to the odyssey. For on the same day we conclude the Torah we once again begin to read it anew. Doing so, represents the depth of the Torah, no matter how much we have understood there is still an infinite amount of wisdom waiting to be discovered. Moving directly from the conclusion to the beginning, tells us that in order to understand the finale of the five books of Moses, we must look at the connection between the final verse of the Torah and the opening words of the Torah.

The Torah concludes with the description of the passing of Moses, and of his unique role in history:

And there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face,

as manifested by all the signs and wonders, which the Lord had sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and all his servants, and to all his land,

and all the strong hand, and all the great awe, which Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel.  

The final words of the Torah are “before the eyes of all Israel”. The unity of “all of Israel” is the purpose of all of Torah. Achieving unity is no simple task. We were each created as a distinct entity, and, naturally, we are concerned primarily with ourselves and our own well being. True unity, therefore, can only be achieved through internalizing the teachings of the Torah, which teaches us to look deep within ourselves and discover our true self. While from the perspective of the body we are different and distinct from one another, Torah teaches us to self define primarily as our soul. We are to appreciate the soul’s perspective, and tune in to its understanding of reality; we are to see our body merely as a vessel and conduit for our soul. From the perspective of our soul, the Jewish people are one, because all of our souls are part of the one G-d.

Once we learn to see the soul within every person, we can them learn to see the soul of all the universe. The soul of the universe is addressed in the first verse of the Torah:     

In the beginning of G-d's creation of the heavens and the earth.

The conventional interpretation of the verse is that G-d created a world in which his existence is concealed. When we look around, we see heaven and earth but not G-d. In fact, the name of G-d used in the story of creation (“Elokim”) is the name that refers to G-d’s power of concealment. According to Chassidic interpretation, “in the beginning”, the first and primary purpose of creation is to “create”, to express and reveal that G-d created the heavens and the earth. When we look around us we see a vast universe consisting of an untold number of distinct creations, stars and galaxies, it is our task to reveal the hidden truth, that all the multiplicity in creation is an expression of the awesome greatness of the one G-d.  

As we conclude the reading of the Torah, we think about how the Torah teaches us to identify with our soul which feels bound up with “all of Israel”. Upon concluding the reading of the Torah and feeling its impact on our life, we can once again re-read the story of creation and see, not multiplicity but unity. Wherever we look, throughout the heavens and earth, we see  the oneness of G-d, we feel the embrace of His unifying presence. It is our task to reveal this unity in every moment of our day, in every part of our life, and in every corner of heaven and earth.

(Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos, Simchas Torah vol. 2).


Heaven and Earth - האזינו

h.jpgHeaven and Earth

It contains only forty-three verses, yet the song Moses taught the Jews on the last day of his life, spans all of Jewish history, from the very beginning when “He found them in a desert land”, all the way to the future redemption when the nations will praise G-d “For He will... appease His land (and) His people.”

In the opening phrase of the song Moses calls for the heaven and earth to bear witness to the words he is about to speak:

Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak! And let the earth hear the words of my mouth! (Deuteronomy 32:1).

Because Jewish law requires that any legal matter be established on the basis of two witnesses, Moses called upon both heaven and earth to bear witness that he indeed had conveyed this song to the people.

The testimony of heaven and earth is more than merely a poetic metaphor to introduce the song. Rather Moses was conveying a profound message, namely, that in order for the message to endure, the Jew must evoke both heaven and earth.

The purpose of the Jewish people, the objective of all Jewish history, is the marriage of heaven and earth. While many spiritual seekers, and virtually all religions, seek to escape the confines of the flesh and climb heavenward, the Jew is charged with a far more profound calling. The Jew’s task is more ambitious and revolutionary. It is first to create peace, then to build a bridge and finally a marriage between heaven and earth.    

Moses uses different words to address the heavens and the earth. He says: “Give ear, O heavens,  (“Haazinu”), “let the earth hear” (“Vi’Tishma”). The Hebrew word “Haazinu”, Give ear, is used specifically when the listener is in close proximity to the speaker, while the word “Tishma”, “hear”, applies to hearing something that is a distance away. Indeed, the Midrash explains that since Moses was “close to the heavens”, since to him spirituality was the reality of existence, he employed the word “Give ear” when addressing the heavens. And being that the material world was insignificant to Moses, because he was “distant from the earth”, he used the word “hear” when addressing the earth.

Moses was close to the heavens, but since the purpose of Judaism is to connect both matter and spirit, Moses must evoke not only heaven but earth as well.

The words of Moses were spoken to each of us. We each have a “heaven” and an “earth” within ourselves. Part of us seeks the transcendent and the spiritual, while part of us seeks the earthly and the physical. In his song Moses tells us how, despite a terrible exile, the Jewish people would emerge with a strengthened bond with G-d. The song tells how the Jewish people and their mission would endure. Perhaps more than any other part of the song, the opening words, “Give ear O heavens” and “Let the earth hear”, capture the mission of the Jew.

The song is read on Shabbat in close proximity to the holidays of Yom Kippur and Sukkot, for Yom Kippur and Sukkot are the embodiment of the song. On Yom Kippur we reach to the heavens, we connect to the core of our soul which is “close to the heavens” and feels one with G-d. Yet, as we reach the climax of the holiness of Yom Kippur we transition to the preparation for the holiday of Sukkot, which is a celebration of the ingathering of the harvest, when we celebrate the bounty we were blessed with. As the verse states:

You shall make yourself the Festival of Sukkot for seven days, when you gather in [the produce] from your threshing floor and your vat… Seven days you shall celebrate the Festival to the Lord, your God, in the place which the Lord shall choose, because the Lord, your God, will bless you in all your produce, and in all the work of your hands, and you will only be happy. (Deuteronomy 16:13-15).

The combination of Yom Kippur and Sukkot represents the life of the Jew. We are “close to heaven”, we connect to our angelic, spiritual and pure soul on Yom Kippur, and then we connect the “heaven”, spiritual awareness, to the field, to sanctify and uplift the blessings of everyday life.   

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Haazinu vol. 2)


In Hiding - וילך

v.jpgIn Hiding 

Our history has not always been rosy. We have experienced tranquility, peace and spiritual greatness, yet we have also experienced terrible exile, destruction and persecution. Indeed, on the last day of the life of Moses, G-d tells Moses what will befall the people when they abandon G-d:

And the Lord said to Moses: Behold, you are [about to] lie with your forefathers, and this nation will rise up and stray after the deities of the nations of the land, into which they are coming. And they will forsake Me and violate My covenant which I made with them.

And My fury will rage against them on that day, and I will abandon them and hide My face from them, and they will be consumed, and many evils and troubles will befall them, and they will say on that day, 'Is it not because our God is no longer among us, that these evils have befallen us?'

The purpose of these harsh words was not merely to warn the Jewish people of the consequence of abandoning their destiny. Perhaps more importantly, the purpose was to ensure that the people correctly interpret, and as a result, correctly respond to, the difficult exile. The natural response to the “many evils and troubles” is for the people to believe that G-d “is no longer among us” - that G-d had abandoned them. Yet, as G-d told Moses, that conclusion would be categorically wrong.  

G-d told Moses:

And I will hide My face on that day, because of all the evil they have committed, when they turned to other deities.

Only because of these words, conveyed to the Jewish people by Moses, were they able to survive until this day. If we are here as Jews today it is because generations of Jews understood this truth. That the exile is not the absence of G-d’s love and presence, but rather the exile is merely a concealment of G-d’s grace. “I will hide My face on that day”, says G-d. The Jewish people understood that hiding is by no means an abandonment. They felt G-d’s presence even in the most difficult circumstances.  

And then came the mystics.

They understood that all existence is dependent on G-d and that there is no place void of Him. When they looked at darkness, when they saw no obvious light, they understood that although G-d’s presence is not revealed in a given space his essence is present there. They understood that the most powerful message in the verse ““And I will hide My face on that day” is not that G-d will hide but rather that even within the concealment, even within the difficulty, G-d is very much present.

They understood that for a parent to withhold the expression of love in order to give the child space for trial and error, the parent must reach deep within him or herself, the parent must access a deeper level of love. Indeed when the verse says “and I will hide my face” it uses the the Hebrew word “Anochi”, which means more than “I” (“I” is “Ani”). “Anochi” means “my essence”.

Every year this portion is read in proximity to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur when we engage in introspection, seek atonement and spiritual betterment, when we look back at the past year we see moments of joy and inspiration, but also moments of darkness, hurt and despair. The Torah teaches us that specifically in the moments of concealment lies the potential to reach the deepest part of ourselves. When we feel no inspiration, no excitement, no enthusiasm, we must understand that the concealment is a tool to encourage us to reach deeper within ourselves, to get in touch with our own core, our own “Anochi”. Doing so will allow us to discover that within the concealment we can access the deepest Divine strength, and, ultimately, transform the darkness to light.   

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Vayelech vol. 9 sicha 1).


Layers of Will - נצבים

s.jpgLayers of Will 

As the year comes to a close and Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, approaches, it is a time to reflect on the past year and to look ahead toward the upcoming year.

Before we can hope to grow and advance, before we can decide on specific resolutions to help us reach our goals, perhaps the most important question to ask ourselves is what to aspire for? What life do we want for ourselves and with what do we want to fill our minutes, hours and days during the upcoming year?

The power of will is the strongest of all the souls powers. Yet, it is also the most complex and is comprised of multiple layers. As the Kabbalists put it, there is “external will” and “inner will”. “External will” is a will that serves a deeper will, while “inner will” is a will that does not serve a goal but rather it is the goal itself.

[To illustrate: Say a person wakes up in the morning and wants to catch the train. She wants to get to the office. She wants to earn money. She wants to spend the money on the purchase of a house. She wants to make the house into a home, a place where she and her family can live a deep and meaningful life. The desires listed earlier are external, as she doesn't necessarily want them for their own sake (if she can get to work without riding the train, she would not object, nor would she object if she earned the money without the work), the “inner will”, in this illustration, is the will to create a home for family, it is the “inner will” because it is the will for its own sake].

Both our “external will” and “inner will” crave to express themselves free of any outside coercion. Yet the free will we crave is different for the “external will” and for the “internal will”. Our “external will” wants the freedom to choose between options. Yet our “inner will” seeks, not the luxury to decide between two possibilities that are outside of ourselves but rather it seeks to express the core of who we really are.

More often than not, we function at the level of “external will”, expressing our free will by identifying the good and the bad, the positive and negative, the productive and the destructive, the selfish and the selfless. Indeed, this Shabbat, the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, we read the words Moses spoke to the Jewish people on the final day of his life. He tells them: Behold, I have set before you today life and good, and death and evil. (Deuteronomy 30:15). On the level of our “external will”, there is indeed a great choice to be made. Both paths are appealing and exercising the right choice, requires discipline and effort.

Just a few verses later Moses says: “You shall choose life”. The statement seems self contradictory, the commandment implies that we have no choice, so how can there be a commandment to choose? The answer is that “You shall choose life” refers to the “inner will”. Moses is telling us that if we dig deep enough within ourselves, if we excavate deep within our soul, we will discover our “inner will” we will discover that indeed the negativity has no appeal at all. That our deeper self yearns only good. A parent in touch with her “inner will”, does not need to choose to be devoted to her child, for connection to her child is part of her core and, for the “inner will”, no other option exists. The same is true for the connection between our “inner will” and our Father in heaven.     

On Rosh Hashanah we seek to peel away the layers and allow our inner will to express itself. Just before we sound the Shofar we recite the verse “He chooses our heritage for us, the glory of Jacob whom He loves eternally (Psalms 47:5)”. We ask G-d to choose us. We ask him to express His will toward us, to have a relationship with us and to bless us. To illicit G-d’s deepest will and blessing we must first reveal our inner will. We must discover the part of us which yearns to transcend. We listen to the part of our heart whose voice is often overshadowed by the voice of the “external will”. As we hear the Shofar’s cry, we express the longing and yearning of our inner soul. The part of our soul that desires all that is wholesome and good.

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Nitzavim vol. 19 sicha 3).


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