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Noah's Ark - the Key to Marriage - נח

Noah's Ark - The Key to Marriage

Toward the end of the portion of Bireishit, the first portion of the Torah, we read about how the downfall of society began with immoral relationships between men and women:   

That the sons of the nobles saw the daughters of man when they were beautifying themselves, and they took for themselves wives from whomever they chose. (6:2)

Rashi explains that this verse represents the breakdown of morality: 

“from whomever they chose: even a married woman” 

Noah’s ark was more than a mere tool through which Noach, his family and future mankind were saved from the flood. The floating ark would rehabilitate humanity by embodying the key to a wholesome and holy relationships, which is the bedrock of a healthy, moral, and holy society. 

The Kli Yakar, The sixteenth century commentator and Kabbalist, points our attention to  the numbers, dimensions and dates mentioned in the story of the flood. Interestingly many of the figures are related to the number fifteen:  

Fifteen cubits above did the waters prevail, and the mountains were covered up. (7:20)

“And the water prevailed upon the earth a hundred and fifty days. (7:24)”. One hundred rand fifty is fifteen times ten. 

“And this [is the size] you shall make it: three hundred cubits the length of the ark, fifty cubits its breadth, and thirty cubits its height. (6:15)”. Each of the three flours of the ark were fifteen thousand square cubits. 

According to the Kabbalah the number fifteen is alluded to within the dimensions of the ark because the ark represents the ability to create a holy reality which would correct the spiritual corruption that led to the flood.The first two letters of the name of G-d are “Yud” and “Hey”. “Yud” has the numerical value of ten and “Hey” of five, the number fifteen represents the connection between  the “Yud” and the “Hey”. 

The Talmud (Sotah 17a) explains that the letters “Yud” and “Hey” are the way one can build a blessed relationship. The Hebrew word for man, “Ish”, and women, “Isha”, are both comprised of the letters “Alef” and “Shin” which create the word “Aish”, which  means fire. In addition to the letters of the word fire, the word “ish”, man, contains the letter “Yud”, and “Isha”, woman, contains the letter ”Hey”. “If a man [ish] and woman [isha] merit”, says the Talmud, when man and woman unite, the letters of G-d’s name, the Yud and Hey in their names, unite as well, and “ the Divine Presence rests between them”. If however the letters of G-d’s name are absent from the relationship, if all they have is the fire, then “fire consumes them.” 

Man and woman have within them passionate fire. This can be a tremendously powerful positive force. It can bring people together in love and create a deep bond between man and woman. Fire, however, also has destructive properties. If man and woman define their relationship on the basis of  passionate fire alone, it can become destructive. For the fire seeks to break all boundaries and shatter all discipline and its quest is to consume the fuel which sustains it. The people in the generation of the flood followed their inner fire, leading them to destroy respect for wholesome relationships. 

The key to creating harmony between man and woman is to introduce a higher dimension to the relationship. When man and woman introduce the letters of G-d's name into their relationship, when both the male and female fire are experienced in the context of a spiritual purpose, then, the positive fire in the relationship will last. The letters of G-d’s name, the “Yud” and the “Hey”merge as one, and the relationship becomes the protective ark of Noah. 


The Broken Vessels - בראשית

The Broken Vessels 

In describing the early stages of creation, we read what is perhaps one of the most cryptic verses in all of the Torah: 

Now the earth was astonishingly empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water. (Genesis 2:2)

The first half of the verse describes a scene of emptiness and chaos (The Hebrew word “Tohu”, means both emptiness and chaos ), while the second half of the verse describes a scene of tranquility and serenity. The Midrash explains that “the spirit of G-d hovering over the face of the water“ refers to the spirit of the Missianic era, a time when peace and serenity will reign throughout the world. The verse, then, is confusing. What was the state of creation in its earliest stages, was it darkness and chaos or peace and holiness? 

The Kabbalists explain that this verse alludes to the Kabbalsitic doctrine of the “breaking of the vessels”, which lies at the heart of the story of creation and its purpose. 

When we read a book or look at a completed puzzle we are looking at a “vessel”, a container, a physical phenomenon which contains a spiritual idea or concept. All of creation is a vessel, a tool which expresses the awesome power and unfathomable wisdom of its creator. Yet, in order for the purpose of creation to play out, the presence of G-d must be hidden. The vessels must break, the puzzle broken up into pieces, the words of the book  rearranged and scrambled. Once the vessels are shattered, the content and ideas of the book are gone, what is left is chaos and confusion. Not only do the letters cease to tell the story, they actually contribute to the confusion. 

The physical world could have been a vessel revealing its inner content, the Divine creative energy. But the vessels were shattered. It is a physical world that no longer directs our attention to its maker and  its purpose. Instead the myriad creations and experiences leave us in a perpetual state of confusion and aimlessness. The breaking of the vessels is alluded to in the first half of the verse. The earth is now filled with darkness and chaos.

The second half of the verse, however, clarifies the purpose of creation. True, the  scrambled letters and the pieces of the puzzle, no longer reveal their inner content, however, the meaning, the purpose, the story, hovers above, waiting for us to unscramble the letters and piece together the puzzle. The universe is waiting for us to discover that the “spirit of G-d”, the serenity and holiness, was hidden within creation all along.

The same is true in the microcosm, within every man and woman. Our life seems to be a collection of unrelated, or worse, conflicting, forces, urges, experiences, emotions and drives. We often don't see the  purpose and meaning of it all. We experience the tension between the physical and the spiritual, between the destructive and constructive parts of our personality. We are experiencing the shattered vessels, “chaos upon the face of the darkness”. However, the story of our life, like the story of creation, is inherently optimistic. It is our task to fix the shattered vessels. To rearrange the letters of our life. To understand which letter goes first and which follows second. We must rearrange our priorities, understanding that the physical aspects of life are here to serve the spiritual dimension of life. Like every story, our story too has a protagonist and a villain, experiences which must be cultivated and others which must be rejected.  

Life is the process of organizing all its various aspects into an organic whole. From a collection of random moments to a meaningful story. The purpose of life is to move from chaos and darkness to the serenity of the spirit of G-d upon the waters. 

(Adapted from Totah Or Parshas Vayeshev and Parshas Bireyshis 5712)

Business Can Make You Happy - וזאת הברכה

Business Can Make You Happy 

On the final day of his life, in the final portion of the Torah, Moses blesses each of the twelve tribes of Israel. After blessing the first three tribes with positions of leadership, he blesses the tribe of Joseph with a fertile portion in the land of Israel, which will produce sweet produce. 

Moses, then turns to the tribe of Zevulun, who were destined to be merchants, and blesses them, evoking the word joy: 

And to Zebulun he said: "Rejoice, Zebulun, in your departure, and Issachar, in your tents.

They will call peoples to the mountain; there, they will offer up righteous sacrifices. For they will be nourished by the abundance of the seas, and by the treasures hidden in the sand." Deuteronomy 33:18-19

Why is the blessing to the tribe of Zebulun the only one that mentions the word joy?

There is a Talmudic saying that states: a man would prefer one Kav (a measurement) of grain that he produces rather than nine Kav given to him by a friend. The Talmud teaches that deep within a person’s psyche lies the desire to create something on his own. No matter how much he has been given, that deep desire has not been met. Only when a person creates something by the fruit of his own labor, does he feel a deep sense of satisfaction and joy. 

All the tribes of Israel were blessed with gifts from above. Leadership was bestowed upon the tribes of Reuben, Levi, Judah. The other tribes were blessed with various portions of the land of Israel. Zebulun, alone, was blessed with the opportunity to sail forth from the land of Israel and engage in commerce, buying and selling and create wealth and prosperity by their own effort. Therefore it is Zebulun alone that experiences the truest sense of joy. 

Every phenomenon in the physical world is a mirror of the same phenomenon in the spiritual reality. The same is true about the joy of Zebulun’s commercial efforts. 

Rashi quotes the Midrash’s description of how Zebulun would use their business relationships to spread the light of Judaism: 

Through Zebulun’s commerce, merchants of the world’s nations will come to his land. Now Zebulun is located at the border, so these merchants will say, “Since we have taken so much trouble to reach here, let us go to Jerusalem and see what the God of this nation is like and what they do.” And they see all Israel worshipping one God and eating one kind of food [i.e., only what is permissible to them, and they will be astonished], because [among] the nations, the deity of one is not like the deity of another, and the food of one is not like the food of another. So they will say, “There is no nation as worthy as this one!” Consequently, they will convert to Judaism there, as our verse says,“there, they will offer up righteous sacrifices” [and all of this will be due to Zebulun’s commerce]. 

While all other tribes lived in the holy environment of the land of Israel, the tribe of Zebulun, alone amongst the tribes, spent their time, talent and creativity, outside the borders of the land of Israel. While all other tribes worked the sacred soil of the land of Israel, the tribe of Zebulun was engaged with mundane, physical objects. While all other tribes focused their attention on building their own society, Zebulun was tasked with interacting with and ultimately influencing the countries, people and lifestyles that were foreign to holiness. When Zebulun engaged in commerce, they also spread the light and values of Judaism. Zebulun, therefore, experienced the truest sense of joy for, by their effort, they were able to imbue the most unlikely of places with holiness.

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, second night of Sukkos 5742)


Conflict Between Material and Spiritual - האזינו

Conflict Between Material and Spiritual

The song of Haazinu, the song Moses sung to the Jewish People on the final day of his life, describes how the great blessings of the land of Israel, the involvement with material pursuits, would ultimately cause the Jewish people to abandon G-d, and ignore their spiritual calling. They would then experience the horrors of exile. Yet, as the song continues, ultimately the people would be healed, and G-d would bring them back to their land. 

At the precise point where the song transitions from describing the terrible calamity of the exile to the eventual reconciliation between G-d and the people, the song alludes to the spiritual insight that would correct the underlying problem that led to the spiritual downfall in the first place. The song states: 

See now that it is I! I am the One, and there is no G-d like Me! I cause death and grant life. I strike, but I heal, and no one can rescue from My Hand!

The words “I strike and I heal” capture the secret of the transformation. The Midrash points out that the Hebrew word “strike”, “Machatzti”, is the same root as the word “partition”, “Mechitzah”. Thus, the verse can be read, “I created a division and I will heal the division”. Chasidic philosophy explains that the source of all pain, darkness and frustration is the  partition between materialism and spirituality. Creation represents the separation of the material from its spiritual source. When we look at the physical reality we don’t sense its soul, its spiritual core. The material creation distracts us from the spiritual energy that continually brings it into existence. The created being is a partition, concealing the inner, mystical, reality. 

The purpose of creation, however, is to heal the divide, to heal the separation between creation and creator. The partition is necessary, without it there is no independent creation, only the infinite light of G-d. Yet the partition can be healed when the created being reveals that its purpose is to express the Divine truth. 

The Song of Haazinu, then, tracks the story of our interaction with the material world we live in. We are the products of the partition, we experience the divide, we sense the conflict. We interact with the physical reality and material pleasures and we sense that it has the potential to distract us from our higher selves. We then continue reading the song and our understanding deepens. The partition does not have to be a source of conflict. When we discover the soul and the purpose of the material, the partition will be healed. The purpose of the divide, like the purpose of creation, is to find the unity and harmony in the midst of conflict and tension; to heal the divide between the physical and spiritual.

While the entirety of Judaism is about bridging heaven and earth, no Mitzvah does so as powerfully as the Mitzvah of Sukkah. The Sukkah encompasses the entirety of our physical body as well as our physical possessions and experiences. The Sukkah represents the capacity of bringing every aspect of our life into the holy embrace of the Sukkah, imbuing our material life with holiness. 

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Simcha beis Hashoeva 5716)

Awesome Joy - וילך

Awesome Joy 

The Hebrew month of Tishrei, the month of the high holidays, is packed with a wide spectrum of intense emotions. It begins with the ten days of awe, beginning with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and then shifts to the holiday of Sukkot, which is called “the season of our rejoicing", culminating with the intense joy of Simchat Torah.  The transition between the two extreme emotions occurs in the final moments of Yom Kippur. The Neilah, the final prayer of Yom Kippur, is the climax of awe, and then, with the blast of the Shofar, the intense energy bursts into joy and excitement. 

Why are these holidays so close together?  How are we to move so quickly between these extreme emotions, awe and joy? 

The truth is that awe and  joy are two sides of the same coin, two expressions of the same reality. 

On Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, we focus on our core self, our soul, which is a spark of the Divine. When we focus on our own core, on the part of us which is connected to G-d unconditionally,  we elicit the revelation of G-d’s unconditional bond and love for us. G-d’s unconditional love brings about the atonement from sins and the cleansing of spiritually toxic experiences.

On Yom Kippur,  we experience our essential bond with G-d, and on Sukkot we celebrate that connection.

Which is why the theme of unity is essential to the holiday of Sukkot. The Sukkah is a place where many people can unite. On Sukkot we shake the Lulav, the four species of vegetation which represent the unity between all Jews. The celebration of the unconditional bond between G-d and the Jewish soul, will include all Souls, for all souls are united as one. 

On the final day of his life Moses relays the commandment that, once in seven years, all the Jewish People should assemble to hear the Torah read in unity. This event, referred to as Hakhel, assembly, occurs on the festival of Sukkot. In order for the people of Israel to truly feel united as one we must experience the part of us which is indeed integrated with all other Jews. We must experience our soul. The unity of Hakhel can occur only after the introspection of Yom Kippur is expressed in the joy of Sukkot.

(Adapted from Lekutei Sichos, Sukos vol 19, and Kli Yakar on Hakhel). 

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