Blog - Torah Insights

Seeing the Sounds - יתרו

S.jpgSeeing the Sounds

As the Jewish people gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai they heard the voice of G-d speaking the Ten Commandments. The Torah describes the awesome experience:  

And all the people saw the voices and the torches, the sound of the shofar, and the smoking mountain, and the people saw and trembled; so they stood from afar.

What is the meaning of the words “and all the people saw the voices”? How can voices be seen? The Midrash tells us that there is a disagreement regarding this verse. Rabbi Yishmael believes that the Jews did not see anything unusual. They saw the torches and heard the voices (The word “saw” in the verse refers to the the word “torches”). Rabbi Akiva, however, insists that the verse must be read literally: “the people saw the voices”, they actually saw the voices. In the words of Rabbi Akiva: “they saw that which is usually heard, and they heard that which is usually seen”.

According to Rabbi Akiva, the experience at Sinai was much more than just receiving ten moral instructions for life; Sinai was a spiritual revelation which changed the way the Jews perceived the meaning of existence. In general the world can be divided into that which is “seen” and that which is “heard”. The concrete, physical needs, desires and experiences are “seen”, they are experienced as the ultimate reality. While that which is “abstract”, theoretical and spiritual, is “heard”. The intangible spirit is not something we can see with our naked eye. To experience it we need to “hear” and “listen”. We must use our mind to discover truths that are not obvious to the observer.    

According to Rabbi Akiva, at Sinai they “heard that which is usually seen”, the physical matter, which is usually perceived as absolute reality, as the most important thing in life, became an abstract idea, while spirituality, “that which is usually heard”, was “seen”, it became real and obvious.  

The experience of Sinai was not merely a one time event. Everytime we study Torah, we are recreating the revelation of Sinai. We are not only hearing the words of G-d being spoken directly to us, but studying the words of Torah also enhances our perception as to what is meaningful and worthy of pursuit. When we study Torah, our priorities are realigned, The sublime ideas in life; meaning, holiness,  transcendence, become real and tangible. For each time we study Torah we are standing at Sinai, and “seeing the sounds”.

(Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Yisro, vol. 6 Sicha 2.)



In the Midst of the Sea - בשלח

Sea.jpgIn the Midst of the Sea

The splitting of the sea is one of the great miracles in the Bible. When the Talmud describes something that is unnatural, and “difficult” for G-d to achieve, the Talmud uses the phrase “it is as difficult as the splitting of the sea”.

If we want to understand the concept of a miracle, what it is, how and why it happens, we must first think about nature.

As human beings began contemplating the incredible universe they began to seek explanations and look for patterns to explain the natural phenomenon they observed. Collectively we label the explanations as “nature”. Why does light travel at the speed of 186,282 miles per second? Well, that's because that is its nature. Why do cells in the human body act the way they do? Why does the human DNA replicate the way it does? Well, that is its nature. Why does gravity operate in the precise way that it does? Again, that’s nature.

If we think about it, we will notice that much of what we call nature is a description not an explanation. We have made incredible strides in understanding the way the universe operates, in observing, and predicting some of its amazing patterns. Yet, understanding how the natural forces operate is not necessarily the same as understanding why it works precisely this way and not slightly, or vastly, differently.   

This idea is alluded to in the Hebrew word for nature, which is “Teva”. The etymology of “Teva” is the word “Tuvuh” which means “drowned”. Nature is just as mysterious as a miracle, but because nature is constant, its mystery is “drowned” and concealed. And it appears to be unremarkable. The truth, however, is that the rising sun is as miraculous as the splitting of the sea. The only difference is that the rising sun is a continuous miracle while the splitting of the sea was a one time event.

When a miracle occurs we are reminded that there is a creator who is involved in creation and who has the power to change the usual patterns of the universe, and to give room for the unexpected. But the purpose of the miracle is to help us discover the miracle of nature. When we witness the awesome power of G-d at the splitting of the sea we are reminded that, indeed, all of creation is an expression of the greatness of G-d.   

In the Torah’s description of the splitting of the sea we read:

Then the children of Israel came into the midst of the sea on dry land, and the waters were to them as a wall from their right and from their left. (Exodus 14:22)

Israel “came into the midst of the sea on dry land”. Yet just a few verses later the Torah reiterates the miracle, this time it changes the order of “Sea” and “dry land”:

But the children of Israel went on dry land in the midst of the sea, and the water was to them like a wall from their right and from their left. (Ibid. 14:29)

So which one is it? Did we enter “the sea on dry land” or was it “dry land in the midst of the sea”? The Chassidic masters explain: at first the Jewish people entered the sea and experienced the great miracle of “dry land”. Once they experienced the miracle they reached a deeper understanding that even when they are on “dry land”, where there is nothing unnatural to their existence, they are indeed “within the sea” surrounded by G-d’s “constant miracles”, providence, and loving care.

The Great Escape - בא

The Great Escape

Let’s be honest about it, the Jewish people were not completely transparent and honest with Pharaoh. While they intended to leave Egypt forever and return to their homeland of Canaan, that is not what they told Pharaoh. In all Moses’s talks with Pharaoh never once did he mention that the Jewish people demanded to be free from their slavery and liberated from Egyptian bondage. According to what Moses told Pharaoh, all the Jewish people wanted was a three day break so that they could serve their G-d in the desert:  

Moses and Aaron came and said to Pharaoh, "So said the Lord God of Israel, 'Send out My people, and let them sacrifice to Me in the desert.'"

And Pharaoh said, "Who is the Lord that I should heed His voice to let Israel out? I do not know the Lord, neither will I let Israel out."

And they said, "The God of the Hebrews has happened upon us. Now let us go on a three day journey in the desert and sacrifice to the Lord our God, lest He strike us with a plague or with the sword." (Exodus 5:1-3)

Granted, Moses did not say an explicit lie. He never said that the people would return to Egypt after the three day journey and festival to G-d. But why was he not  open and demand that it is the right of the Jewish people to be free for good? By the time the tenth plague came around Pharaoh’s resistance was completely broken. Being a first born himself, Pharaoh was frightened that he too would die in the plague of the first born, if, at that point, Moses would have asked that the Jewish people be completely freed, never to return to Egypt again, Pharaoh would have had no choice but to agree. Why then did the Jewish people  claim that they were only leaving for three days when in fact they intended to escape for good?

The Jewish people did not ask Pharaoh to free them, because, by definition, an oppressor can never free the oppressed. The oppressed must take the freedom for himself. If the slaves leave Egypt only because the Pharaoh allowed them to do so, then they are still subject to Pharaoh’s rule. The only change is that at first Pharaoh commanded them to be enslaved and noe Pharaoh commands them to leave. To be free, the oppressed must defy the oppressor. He must escape the oppression against the will of the oppressor.

The Exodus from Egypt is also a story of inner liberation. Before we can break free from Egypt we must break free from our internal constraints and limitations which hold us captive and prevent us from escaping the grip of our negative behavioral patterns.  

The Jewish people were not escaping from Pharaoh, mighty king of  Egypt. They were actually escaping from the negativity, from the constraints, within themselves. They were not fleeing from an  external Pharaoh but rather from the Pharaoh that was within themselves.

What does it mean to be internally free?

Some assume that in order to be free one must be liberated from negativity, tension, and struggle. They assume that to be emancipated is to live a life of internal tranquility, free of negative impulses. Thus, when they experience the pull of negativity they conclude that they are trapped by its seductive force, believing they have no choice but to succumb to their negative habits and desires. They long for liberation, but don't see a way to achieve it.

The story of the Exodus teaches us the road to true freedom. Freedom doesn't mean that there is no Pharaoh. Nor does freedom  mean that Pharaoh decides to release you. We cannot achieve freedom by waiting for the oppressor to leave us alone. We must take our own freedom by defying our oppressor and escaping. Freedom doesn't mean the cessation of temptation and negativity. Freedom is the ability to escape. Freedom is the recognition that despite the great force of Pharaoh, we can pick up and leave. That despite the raging temptation, we are free to “run away” and  take the right action despite internal struggle and hesitation.

When the Jewish people were commanded to offer the Passover sacrifice, celebrating the imminent liberation, while still in Egypt, the Torah provides precise instructions as to how the offering should be eaten:

And this is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste it is a Passover sacrifice to the Lord. (ibid 12:11)

We cannot wait until we desire to follow the right path with all our heart. We must be ready with our walking stick in hand, and we must proceed in haste. We must be prepared to escape the parts of ourselves that hold us back and take a step that will begin the journey to freedom. A journey that will ultimately lead to complete redemption, when there will be no need to escape the negativity inside of us in haste, for the negativity will be completely transformed to good. As the prophet Isaiah foretells of  a future when “not with haste shall you go forth and not in a flurry of flight shall you go”. (Isaiah 52:12).

(Adapted from Tanya Chapter 31)

Who Created These? - וארא

s.jpgWho Created These?

When you look at a beautiful painting, do you only see the art or does the art lead you to think about the artist? When you see a beautifully prepared feast, do you see the food exclusively or does the aroma and taste lead you to think about the chef?   

When you look at a sunset, at ocean waves crashing onto the shore or at a brilliant night sky, what do you see? Some see mother nature in all her glory: the predictable, unchanging patterns of the natural order. Seeing the beauty and mystery of the universe intrigues one to study the earth’s secrets, to discover the laws by which it operates, and to harness its awesome strength.

Others see more than a natural world.

The prophet Isaiah tells us: “Lift up your eyes on high and see, who created these”. (Isaiah 40:26). Pondering the magnificent and awesome universe, says Isaiah, will lead us to ask the question: “who created these”. By asking “who created these” the creation itself leads us to the know and to experience the creator.

Egypt, or Mitzrayim in Hebrew, was the most advanced society of the ancient world, their understanding of science was unparalleled in that era. They were the experts in harnessing the power of nature to their advantage. But they were in spiritual constraint. They studied the universe, they worshiped nature, but did not ask the most important question: “who created these?”. This is the question that is the path to discovery of meaning, morals and ethics, for the “who created these?” leads to asking “why did He create?”. “What does the creator expect of us?”.

The Kabbalists explain that Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt, is comprised of the words “Meitzar Yam”. “Meitzar”- means constraints, and the letters “Yud” and “Mem” create the word “Mi”  which means, “who”. In other words, Egypt, Mitzrayim, is a culture where constraints are able to ask the question “who?” The Egyptian culture encouraged asking all sorts of questions about the universe, except for the question that would  lead to freedom from the constraints of the material world, the question that would lead toward the liberating connection with the creator. Egypt, Mitzraim, constrains the “who?”, it distracts  from Isaiah's plea “Lift up your eyes on high and see, who created these”.

Being in Egypt means to look at nature and see a set of laws that rule supreme. Trapping man in its grip, enslaving him to his natural habits, temptations and shortcomings.The Torah tells us that we must remember the exodus from  Egypt all the days of our life, for each and every day we are called upon to break free of our limitations, of the constraints that hold us back from being the person we want to be and from living the life we are capable of living. We are liberated from Egypt when looking at nature brings us to the recognize the creator who gifts us of his infinity, allowing us to break free of the confines of the natural and predictable order, and to create change in our own society and in our personal life.

Thus, twice a day we cover our eyes and say the most important Jewish prayer: “Hear O  Israel, Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One”. The word “hear”, “Shema”, is an acronym for the words, “Siuh Marom Einichem” “lift up your eyes on high”. Saying the Shema allows us to look at nature and experience the creator of the universe. Saying the Shema, lifting our eyes heavenward, empowers us to transcend the confines of the limited reality by connecting to His transcendent existence.

(Adapted from Shabos hagadol 5679)



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