Blog - Torah Insights

The Passion of Youth - שמיני

The Passion of Youth

It was the day the Jewish people had been waiting for. The day G-d would dwell in the tabernacle which they had built. Yet, on the very day of great joy, a great tragedy occurred. Two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, entered the temple and died while offering incense unsanctioned by G-d. As the Torah relates:

And Aaron's sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his pan, put fire in them, and placed incense upon it, and they brought before the Lord foreign fire, which He had not commanded them. And fire went forth from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. (Leviticus 10:1-2)

There are many explanations as to the nature of the sin and punishment of the sons of Aaron. Perhaps the strangest of them all is that the children of Aaron were punished for secretly hoping that Moses and Aaron would die and that they would assume the leadership of the Jewish people. As the Talmud tells us:

And it had already happened that Moses and Aaron were walking on their way, and Nadav and Avihu were walking behind them, and the entire Jewish people were walking behind them. Nadav said to Avihu: When will it happen that these two old men will die and you and I will lead the generation, as we are their heirs? The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to them: We shall see who buries whom. (Talmud, Sanhedrin 52a)

This strange Talmudic interpretation must contain a deeper meaning. For it is unfathomable that great men such as Nadav and Avihu, who were selected by G-d to perform the service in the temple, would hope for the death of Moses and Aaron, their own uncle and father.  

Indeed, the Chassidic commentators explain that Nadav and Avihu were full of intensely passionate love for G-d. The incense they offered, and coming close to G-d in a manner in which they were not commanded, was an expression of their desire to come as close to G-d as possible, to quench the powerful thirst and longing they felt toward G-d. Nadav and Avihu looked to Moses and Aaron and they saw two great leaders, but they did not see a passion and love that matched their own. Nadav and Avihu said to each other, “when will it happen that these two old men will die and you and I will lead the generation?”. Nadav and Avihu felt that Moses and Aaron were too old to experience the intense passion of youth. Thus they thought that if only they could lead the people and teach them how to experience true love and desire for G-d.

Love is beautiful. But love alone is not sufficient to create a healthy relationship. Love and passion will get one close to the beloved, but once close, too much love and not enough respect may destroy a relationship. Love is an expression of self. Love is the desire to cleave to that which one feels is good for him. But just as critical to the relationship is respect. Respect is the recognition of the other in the relationship, one who has their own perspective, personality and identity. While love and longing is critical in order to come close to the beloved, once  close, respect and awe are essential.

What Nadav and Avihu misunderstood about Moses and Aaron was that precisely because Moses and Aaron were so intimately close to G-d, they experienced awe in addition to love. As long as Nadav and Avihu were “outside the tabernacle”, as long as they were distant from G-d, their passionate love was holy and desirable. The moment they “drew near before the Lord”, their love, which was not balanced with awe, was unholy.

The spiritual path of the Jew is one of “run and return”. First we “run”, we experience the soul’s desire to break free of the body, to escape the material, and seek to cleave to G-d in passionate love. But once we experience the love, once we draw near, we experience respect and awe. “We return” to the material world, to sanctify it and elevate it; because that is the desire of our beloved.

(Adapted from Yismach Moshe, Parshas Shmini).

Holy Leftovers - צו

Holy Leftovers

Thinking about how we live our lives most people will realize that most of our day is not spent on the things we value most. We work all week in order to enjoy time off on the weekend. We spend all day working in order to provide for our family, which, in many cases, leaves us with few waking moments to actually spend time with our loved ones.

This is even more so when we look at the spiritual side of life. Most of our day is dedicated to providing for our material needs of eating, drinking, earning a living, sleeping, exercising, relaxing, etc., which leaves us with, at best, but a few moments each day for the needs of our soul. Our soul, too, desires to be nourished; our soul, too, needs moments of self expression. Our soul desires to transcend, to engage in holiness, to pray, to study Torah and to engage in good deeds. Yet, we spend most of our day, and most of our life, feeding the body instead of feeding the soul.

For some spiritual seekers this is too painful of an existence. Thus, they seek a life of asceticism. They seek to minimize the time they spend on the needs of the body and maximize the time spent on feeding the desires of their soul. And even during the time they use to attend to the needs of the body they do so with a sense of pain, as they would prefer to spend even those moments on the needs of their soul.

Judaism, however, has a completely different outlook, resulting in a vastly different approach to life.    

Judaism teaches that if we begin the day with a moment of holiness, if we offer even a small portion of our time to G-d in the morning then that experience will affect the rest of the day, infusing it with significance and holiness. The rest of the day, when we tend to our material activities and needs, is a continuation of the spiritual experience and is considered holy, for it is  infused with the holiness of the moments we offered to G-d.

This is the inner meaning of the description of the meal offering that we read about in this week's Torah portion. When the Jew offers an offering of grain, which symbolizes all of his material needs, only a handful of the flour is offered on the altar to be burned in fire. Only a few moments of our day are completely dedicated to the spiritual service of G-d. Yet, the Torah assures us, that the remainder of the flour, which is most of the flour, while it is eaten by the priests and not offered in the fire to G-d, is nevertheless holy, as it is considered the remainder of the offering.

The Torah tells us:

And this is the law of the meal offering: that Aaron's sons shall bring it before the Lord, to the front of the altar.

And he shall lift out of it in his fist, from the fine flour of the meal offering and from its oil and all the frankincense that is on the meal offering, and he shall cause its reminder to [go up in] smoke on the altar as a pleasing fragrance to the Lord.

The fist full of flour represents the moments which we dedicate to G-d. The Torah then continues to describe the leftover flour:  

And Aaron and his sons shall eat whatever is left over from it. It shall be eaten as unleavened bread in a holy place; they shall eat it in the courtyard of the Tent of Meeting.

It shall not be baked leavened. [As] their portion, I have given it to them from My fire offerings. It is a holy of holies, like the sin offering and like the guilt offering.

The leftovers, the remainder of the day which we spend on our own needs, is also holy. For the holiness of the morning Mitzvah, reciting the Modeh Ani, reciting the Shema, laying Tefillin, spills over to the rest of the day, impacting the rest of our pursuits. which reminding us that our material needs, too, serve a holy and spiritual purpose.  

Based on the teaching of the Rebbe, Reshimos 134.


Pass the Salt - ויקרא

Pass the Salt

The beginning of the third book of the Torah, the book of Leviticus, discusses many categories of offerings, elaborating on the details of each of the various offerings. One law that applies equally to all offerings is that every offering must be offered with salt, as emphasized in the verse:

And you shall salt every one of your meal offering sacrifices with salt, and you shall not omit the salt of your God's covenant from [being placed] upon your meal offerings. You shall offer salt on all your sacrifices. (Leviticus 2:13)

This verse is also the source of the custom to dip our bread in salt, as explained in the code of law:

it is customary to place salt on the table [before the recitation of the blessing HaMotzi, even when the bread does not require it. The rationale is that] the table is comparable to the altar [of the Beis HaMikdash] and our food, to a sacrifice, and it is written: “On all your sacrifices offer salt.” (Shulchan Aruch Harav, Orach Chaim chapter 167)

Why salt?

When a Jew would be inspired to ascend to Jerusalem, come to the house of G-d and offer a sacrifice as a symbol of his bringing himself closer to G-d, the Torah instructs him to pour salt on the offering. In the ancient world salt was the primary preservative agent. Salt, therefore, is a symbol of preservation. Before the era of modern refrigeration, the symbolism of salt was clear. With the commandment that no offering be brought without salt, the Torah is teaching a Jew that there is no value to a fleeting moment of inspiration. When one is inspired to come close, to offer an offering, one must seize the flash of inspiration, and preserve it by sprinkling it, figuratively speaking, with a measure of salt. One must seek to internalize the inspiration, the desire to change and improve, to the point that it is integrated within one’s identity.   

There is more to the symbolism of salt.

Everything physical is, by definition, temporary and fleeting. Every experience, everything we work so hard for, is but temporary. The only thing that is eternal is the spiritual aspect of life. Say you go out for dinner or you take a family vacation. The physical aspects of the experience are fleeting and will be gone before you know it. But there is a way to make the experiences everlasting. If the dinner deepens your connection to your spouse, if the vacation allows you to bond with your child, if the experience helps you get in touch with your soul, then you preserved it for eternity.

This is the symbolism of the salt on the sacrifices.

The Torah is teaching us that we can take a physical object, temporary and fleeting and make it lasting and immortal. We can and should salt our offerings, infuse them with spirituality which is the true preservative. When we eat a meal, and the same is true of any other physical experience, we can either engage in the material, temporary, aspect of the experience, or we can dip our bread in salt. We can transform the experience and make it one that is spiritual, holy, and everlasting.


Linen Curtains - פקודי

Linen Curtains

The second half of the book of Exodus, with its detailed description of the tabernacle and its furniture, teaches us how to create a tabernacle for G-d in our life. Each of the many components of the tabernacle represents an aspect of our life.

The tabernacle had three sections, the courtyard, the holy and the holy of holies. The Torah tells us that the courtyard of the tabernacle was surrounded by a fence made of linen hangings.

The length of the courtyard [shall be] one hundred cubits and the width fifty by fifty [cubits]. The height [of the hangings] shall be five cubits of twisted fine linen, and their sockets [shall be of] copper. (Exodus 27:18).

What is the nature and symbolism of the walls of the courtyard? What are the boundaries within which a Jew should live his life? What are the perimeters which the Jew must enter in order to fulfill his purpose of creation and make a home for G-d?

In a written correspondence between the Rebbe and his father, the great Kabbalist Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneersohn, they discuss two possible interpretations of the spiritual significance and meaning of the linen curtains.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak explains that according to the Kabbalah linen represents the attribute of discipline, the ability to judge and reject that which does not live up to the desired standard.  

The secret to success in any field or endeavor is the ability to be disciplined enough to say no to distraction. No one ever mastered a musical instrument, graduated medical school, or ran a marathon, without cultivating the skill of saying no to distraction. The same is true for creating a spiritual life. The linen curtains represent the ability of the Jew to reject negative influences. According to this approach, the first and most important skill necessary in order to be able to create a space for holiness is the skill of disciplined commitment. The strength to say no to destructive influences of the outside world as well as within the person himself.

The Rebbe offered a different interpretation. The Rebbe taught that the linen does not represent the ability to reject, but rather the ability to embrace.   

The Talmud explains that the Biblical word for linen, “Bad”, means single and alone, because flax, from which linen is made, grows a single stalk from each kernel. Linen, then, represents singularity. The singularity of linen represents the oneness of G-d, and the linen curtains represent the purpose of the Jew: to infuse all aspects of life with a connection to the one G-d.

Life is fragmented and fractured, our attention is constantly being pulled in multiple directions. Any given day we have to navigate between different, often opposing, situations and tasks. Often, the multiplicity of details distract us from the excitement and passion of our overarching goals. We want to be a devoted parent, a loving spouse. We want to be motivated to achieve our professional, recreational or spiritual goals. Yet often, while involved in a specific task, playing with our child, dealing with a frustrating client, or trying to check off an item on our to-do list, we are distracted from the big picture. We lose our passion and commitment because, somehow, this specific moment, this specific task, is disconnected from our overarching purpose.

The Linen material which was used as the outer walls of the tabernacle represent the unique spiritual ability and calling of the Jew. The Jew’s task is to live within the boundaries of the oneness of G-d. The Jew’s purpose is to infuse every detail of life, every specific interaction with the multiplicity of the fragmented world, with a connection to the overarching oneness. To build a sanctuary for G-d is to live a life in which one feels how every detail of life contributes to the overall purpose. To build a home for G-d we must surround ourselves with the embrace of the oneness, experiencing, every detail as just another opportunity for goodness and kindness, healing the fragmentation by infusing it with Divine unity.

Adapted from Reshimos 107.


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