Blog - Torah Insights

Kindle the Fire - ויקהל

f.jpegKindle the Fire

When Moses assembled the Jewish people to relate to them about the construction of the tabernacle, the sanctuary they were to build in the desert, he first reiterated the the Mitzvah of resting on Shabbat:

Six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have sanctity, a day of complete rest to the Lord. (Exodus 35:2)

Of all the thirty nine prohibited categories of labor, the Torah proceeds to name only one specific example of a prohibition. The Torah states:

You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwelling places on the Sabbath day." (Ibid. 35:3)

Why does the Torah emphasize that the commandment about not kindling fire applies to “all your dwelling places”? Why would we assume that the prohibition is limited to a specific place?

The Midrash explains that the words “in all your dwelling places” teach us that we may not kindle fire in all our dwelling places, we may, however, kindle fire in the temple. Elsewhere the Torah commands “A continuous fire shall burn upon the altar; it shall not go out.” We may have thought that the prohibition of kindling fire on Shabbat supersedes the commandment to continuously maintain the fire on the altar, and we would therefore conclude that the commandment to continuously kindle fire on the alter applies to the six days of the week but not to Shabbat. The Torah therefore states that the commandment against kindling fire applies specifically to “all your dwelling places” but does not apply to the temple (which is not our dwelling place, it is the dwelling place for G-d).

Every teaching in the Torah has both a body and a soul. In addition to the legal interpretation there is also a spiritual interpretation of the same legal concept. Here too the “fire”, the “dwelling places” and the “temple”, have a spiritual interpretation as well.

Fire represents passion. Fire represents the joy, the excitement, and the vitality that energizes us and keeps us motivated and imbues our actions with spirit and feeling. During the six days of the week, our passion is invested in the world outside of us. We seek to build, to accomplish and to succeed in the material world. And then Shabbat arrives. Shabbat is far more than a day of rest in the conventional sense. On Shabbat we stop working so that we can pause from the specific details of our life and focus on the big picture. On Shabbat we have time to focus on the purpose of the rest of the week: What is the point of all our work? What are we seeking to accomplish? What is the meaning of our life? Are we living the life we want to live? Are we spending our time and attention with the people that mean most to us?

On Shabbat we may not kindle fire in “our dwelling places”. Our “dwelling places”, as opposed to the temple, represent our physical needs and activities. Shabbat is the day when we redirect our passion, to the “temple”, to the holy aspects of our life. Shabbat is the day that we redirect our passion to G-d, to our family, and to our spiritual life.  

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Shabbat Ki Tisa 5717).


Defining Work - כי תשא

c.jpegDefining Work

One of the most important practices in Judaism, the fourth of the ten commandments, is to refrain from work on the seventh day, to sanctify it and make it holy. Yet, the exact definition of rest, and the forms of labor prohibited on Shabbat are not stated explicitly in the Torah.

The Sages of the Talmud explain that the Torah alludes to there being thirty nine categories of prohibited labor. Whenever the Torah discusses the commandment to build the tabernacle, the sanctuary constructed in the desert, the Torah also reiterates the commandment of Shabbat. Case in point is this week’s Torah portion. After more than two full portions dedicated to the intricate details of the sanctuary, the Torah concludes with the theme of Shabbat:

“..the children of Israel observe the Sabbath, to make the Sabbath throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant. Between Me and the children of Israel, it is forever a sign that [in] six days The Lord created the heaven and the earth, and on the seventh day He ceased and rested."

From the juxtaposition of Shabbat and the commandment to build the the tabernacle we derive that the tabernacle may not be constructed on Shabbat. This implies that any labor that was needed for the construction of the tabernacle is considered labor and is therefore prohibited on Shabbat.

This derivation may seem far from straight forward. Why does the Torah communicate its definition of labor through the seemingly unrelated tabernacle? Why is the definition of labor determined based on the labor necessary to construct the sanctuary?

The Torah is teaching us a profound lesson about the purpose of labor. The conventional understanding is that we spend six days of the week working, pursuing our physical needs, and on the seventh day we rest from the pursuit of the physical and we  dedicate a day to our family, our soul and to our spiritual life. Yet the Torah is signaling to us that we should think about labor in the context of the work necessary to construct the sanctuary. That is because, indeed, the purpose of all our work is to create a metaphorical sanctuary, a spiritual home for G-d.

The legal definition of labor is defined by the labor used for the construction of the sanctuary, because the spiritual purpose of all our labor is to create a home for G-d.  We do so by using our physical possessions and experiences to enhance our soul and to advance the purpose for which we were created, namely to transform this earth to a vessel for G-dliness, by filling the world with goodness and kindness.

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Vayakhekl vol. 1)


The Kabbalah of Fashion - תצוה

f.jpgThe Kabbalah of Fashion

What is Judaism's perspective on the multi billion dollar garment industry?

The Hebrew word for garment is “Beged” which contain the same letters as the word for betrayal - “Bagad”. The connection between garments and betrayal is multi layered. Starting from the beginning of history the garment is intertwined with betrayal. The Torah tells us that garments became necessary only after the sin of the tree of knowledge, when Adam and Eve betrayed their G-d, themselves and their innocence.  

In addition to their emergence as a result of betrayal, the function of garments is also a form of betrayal and dishonesty. The very purpose of a garment is to conceal the inner core and portray an external facade. In fact, a rich person can dress as a pauper, and the pauper can dress as a rich person, a person who feels sad can dress in celebratory garments, and a happy person can don a mourner’s garments, thus betraying the truth, betraying one’s inner feelings and projecting an external image inconsistent with one’s inner feelings and reality.

The soul, Just like the body, also has “garments”. The Kabbalah teaches that the soul has an inner “personality”, its emotional and intellectual composition, as well as “garments” its ability to act, to speak, and to think a given thought. Thought, speech and action are called garments because they are not the soul itself and, like the body’s garments, they can betray the inner makeup of the soul. A person can act, speek or think in ways that are inconsistent with and betray his own inner self.

Yet, garments, and the betrayal they represent, are not all bad. In fact, another word for garment in Hebrew is “Sal-mah” which is the same word as “Sh-lay-mah” which means complete. The Hebrew language is conveying a deep truth: the garment, the ability to betray one’s inner feelings and perspective, can and should lead a person to be wholesome and complete. That’s because garments have an influence on how we feel on the inside. The reason people spend so much on clothing is because clothing have an affect. Although initially donning clothing is an external act, the garment has the power to influence one’s mood and feelings.  

The same is true regarding the garments of the soul. A person can feel cruel yet he can don a garment of kindness by taking a kind action. A person can feel sad yet he can smile and act happy. Initially, that action is a betrayal of the inner feeling, but, over time, the betrayal leads to completion, the external action will affect the inner feeling.

This explains why the Torah commands that the high priest wear eight beautiful garments when he performs the service in the temple. As G-d commands Moses in this week’s portion:  

You shall make holy garments for your brother Aaron, for honor and glory (Exodus 28:2).

One may wonder why garments are critical to the service. Aren’t beautiful garments superficial and a symbol of vanity? Why doesn't G-d focus on the priests internal, emotional and spiritual state rather than on the external garments? The answer is that the garments represent, thought, speech and action, the garments of the soul. The Torah is teaching us that if we want to come close to G-d we should don beautiful garments. We should focus on positive garments, on positive action, even if those garments are a betrayal of our internal feelings. Because, ultimately, the beautiful garments, the positive action, will bring wholesomeness and completion to the internal soul, and our heart will be transformed by the garments.


The Structure of the Soul - תרומה

k.jpgThe Structure of the Soul

The second half of the book of Exodus presents a dramatic shift from the first half of the book. Until this point, G-d was the active member in the relationship between G-d and the Jewish people. While G-d brought the ten plagues, liberated the Jews from Egypt, split the sea, spoke the ten commandments and dictated Jewish civil law, the Jews were passive recipients of all that G-d was doing. Finally, in the second half of the book, the Jewish people were called upon to take the initiative and build a home for G-d.

The sages teach that the commandment to construct a home for G-d includes the idea of constructing a figurative home for G-d within every person. Each of us are called upon to create a home for G-d within ourselves. From this perspective, the detailed descriptions of the temple and its furniture, which comprise almost five portions in the Torah, have an equivalent spiritual meaning within every person.    

The sanctuary was built of three components. The walls were made of beams of wood ten cubits tall, the beams were supported by silver sockets, and the roof was comprised of coverings made of wool and animal skins. Each of us is called upon to build the figurative temple within ourselves. To do so, we need to find the beams, coverings and sockets, within our soul, and dedicate them to the service of G-d.

The Kabbalists explain that the ten cubit beams, which stood vertically, represent the ten faculties, three intellectual and seven emotional, within every human soul.

The foundation of the entire structure were the silver sockets which were the base for the beams. The spiritual equivalent of the sockets, the foundation of the souls structure, is the capacity to be committed and devoted to someone or something.     

The curtains that served as the roof of the tabernacle, covering the entire structure, represent a person’s will and capacity of pleasure, referred to by the Kabbalists as the “encompassing powers of the soul”.

[The curtains which covered the entire structure of the sanctuary represent the powers of will and pleasure which effect and inspire all of the faculties. When a person desires something the specific soul power will be awakened and invigorated. When a person has no desire to study and master a specific topic it will be difficult for him to understand. The sages teach us that “a person should always study where his heart desires”, because when the will power is invested in understanding the subject the mind will comprehend, because the encompassing will power will trigger and awaken the specific power of understanding].

Understanding that the temple is a symbol for the human soul, explains the commandments that the Jewish people donate the materials necessary to construct the sanctuary. In this week’s Parsha the Torah tells us that each individual donated both to the construction of the walls and to the covering of the sanctuary in the amount they chose according to their heart’s desire:

"The Lord spoke to Moses saying:"Speak to the children of Israel, and have them take for Me an offering; from every person whose heart inspires him to generosity, you shall take My offering. (Exodus 25:1-2).

Yet, there was another form of donations, specifically designated for the silver sockets which were the base of the structure, where everybody was required to donate an equal amount:

This they shall give, everyone who goes through the counting: half a shekel… The rich shall give no more, and the poor shall give no less than half a shekel (ibid 30:13-15).

There were two forms of donations, one with an equal, set amount for each person to donate, and another which was open ended, each person donated according to their heart’s desire. This is because there are aspects where all are equal and other aspects where each person is unique, and has a distinctive contribution to make. When it comes to the specific faculties of the soul; intelligence, emotion, wisdom, kindness, will power, each of us is unique. Thus the contribution to create the structure is individualized. Yet the foundation of the structure, the foundation of the relationship with G-d, the power of devotion and commitment is the same for everyone. For we all are equal in our capacity to devote ourselves to G-d, yet the nature of our devotion and relationship is based on our own specific personality, and is therefore unique to each  individual.

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Terumah vol. 1).



Four Guardians - משפטים

c.jpgFour Guardians

Immediately after the great revelation at Sinai, the Torah proceeds to teach the civil law that governs the interactions between people in day to day life.

One of the topics discussed in this week’s portion is the law of the guardian who  agreed to watch his fellow’s item. The Torah introduces four categories of guardians, each with its own level of liability, in cases when the guardian is unable to return the item which was left in his possession for safekeeping. The degree of liability pertaining to each of the guardians is determined by the division of benefit derived by the owner of the object and the guardian.

The first category is the “unpaid guardian”, who agrees to guard the object without receiving payment. Since the unpaid guardian receives no benefit from watching the item, he is therefore not liable if the object was lost or stolen (unless the guardian was negligent). The next two categories of guardians are the “paid guardian” and the “renter”. Both receive some benefit for guarding the object (payment for guarding the object, or in the case of the renter, the right to use the object) and therefore they have some liability. They are obligated to pay in a case where the object was lost or stolen, yet they are not obligated to pay if the object was destroyed by an event which was completely out of their control. The forth guardian is the “borrower”, who receives all the benefit, as he uses the object without paying for the usage, his liability is therefore the greatest. The borrower is liable to pay even if the object was destroyed by an event outside the borrower’s control.

The monetary laws of the Torah are more than just utilitarian laws which allow for a functioning society. Just like all other parts of the Torah, the monetary laws contain deep psychological and spiritual truths. Thus, the laws of the four guardians, also represent four states of mind in our relationship of G-d,  our soul and the purpose of creation.

A healthy relationship is one in which both parties benefit from the relationship. Yet, a relationship is more than a “win-win” arrangement, where each party is involved in order to receive that which they consider beneficial. While the parties may have entered the relationship for personal gain, in order for the relationship to be more than a transactional business-like arrangement, it must develop from the original cost benefit analysis and mature to include commitment and selfless devotion to the partner in the relationship.

The Torah tells us that G-d created Adam and “placed him in the Garden of Eden to work it and to guard it” (Genesis 2:15). G-d entrusts us with a spiritual soul and places us on this earth with a mission to “work it and guard it”, to preserve and to increase the goodness on this earth. We, the guardians, receive benefit from our work on behalf of G-d, for G-d blesses us and provides us with our material and spiritual needs. Yet, just like in human relationships, there are different levels in the relationship with G-d. On one end of the spectrum is a person who is primarily interested in receiving the “benefits” life has to offer. On the other end of the spectrum is the person who is an “unpaid guardian”. He is in love with G-d to the point of being completely altruistic, his motivation is to serve G-d, and do the right thing for its own sake.

In a wholesome human relationship, we can and should benefit from our relationship  yet we must also experience selfless devotion to our partner. The same is true in our relationship with G-d. At times we will be a “borrower”, motivated primarily by our own needs and desires. But we should always seek those moments when we transcend our own ego and act as an “unpaid guardian”, motivated primarily with the desire to devote ourselves to our beloved.  


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