Blog - Torah Insights

Personal Liberation - פסח

Personal Liberation

We are seated at the table and well into the order of the Passover Seder: we drank the first cup of wine, washed our hands, dipped the vegetable into salt water, and broke the middle Matzah into two. We proceed to prepare for the telling of the Passover story and the reciting the four questions with the following declaration:

This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat; whoever is in need, let him come and conduct the Seder of Passover. This year [we are] here; next year in the land of Israel. This year [we are] slaves; next year [we will be] free people.

Why do we wait until we are well into the Seder before we invite the needy to join us at the table? Would it not be appropriate to invite the guests when we are at the synagogue, before the beginning of the Seder, when we can actually meet people who are in need? Why do we wait until we get home, close the doors behind us, begin the Seder and only then remember to declare that the needy are invited?

Passover is the holiday of freedom. The holiday when we are able to tap into the divine energy of freedom and break out of our personal Egypt, our personal limitations. Passover is more than a commemoration of the past,  Passover allows us to experience personal redemption from our own challenges, difficulties and limitations, in the present.

The most important limitation to overcome in order to achieve true freedom is the limitation imposed by one’s own ego. From the perspective of the person's own ego, he alone is the center of existence, and other people, to the extent that they have any significance at all, are there just to enhance his existence. A person trapped in his own perspective, will not be able to achieve meaningful relationships, and will not allow others to expand the horizons of his own perspective and experience.

As our ancestors before us, we too achieve liberation through eating the Matzah. Bread, made of dough that rises, represents the inflated ego, while Matzah, the flat bread, represents the humility that allows us to escape the confines of our own personality and identity, and appreciate other people and other perspectives.

We invited guests. They are seated at the table. But we cannot truly empathize with another person unless we free ourselves from the confines of our own perspective. Touching the Matzah, breaking it into two pieces, is the first step of internalizing the Matzah’s message of freedom. Thus, only after we break the Matzah are we able to feel the plight of the needy and identify with their pain. Only after touching the Matzah are we able to transcend ourselves and connect to another.

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Second night of Passover 1968).


Cedar and Hyssop - מצורע

Cain and Abel - Cedar and Hyssop

Two brothers, born to the same parents, yet they could not have been more different from one another. Kayin and Hevel, the children of Adam and Eve, each embodied a fundamentally different attitude toward life.

The Torah describes the birth of Kayin:  

Now the man knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Kayin (Cain), and she said, "I have acquired a man with the Lord."

The name Kayin comes from the word “acquired”. Eve named her son Kayin and hoped he would embody her own aspirations to acquire, to possess, to succeed in self preservation. The human being has a deep need to feel independent, strong, and materially successful’ to experience self worth and to feel pride on his or her own self.

Eve had another son, she named him Hevel (Abel):

and she continued to bear his brother Hevel, and Hevel was a shepherd of flocks, and Cain was a tiller of the soil.

The word Hevel means “emptiness”, “futility”. Eve names her son Hevel, because she sensed that he was a deeply spiritual person to whom materialism, and physical existence, was insignificant and futile. The brothers were very different  but they were born into the same family because G-d hoped that they would affect one another; that Kayin would ground Hevel by teaching him the importance of physical existence, while Hevel’s spiritual attitude would protect Kayin’s sense of self from becoming egotistical and narcissistic.

Sadly, the brothers never learned to communicate and interact with each other. Kayin, unchecked, had an out-of-control sense of self, cared about no one other than himself, and thus descended to murdering his own brother. Hevel also sinned. His sin was that he did not engage in self defense. To him, material life was futile, and insignificant, thus he did not engage in protecting the sanctity of his own life. Both brothers sinned because they did not learn to integrate their individual qualities. They did not learn that the sense of self that wants to exist and acquire (Kayin), must be cultivated, sanctified, and balanced by the humility that comes from sensing the transcendent (Hevel).

The story of brothers who failed to harmonize their qualities can shed light onto an obscure law in the book of Leviticus. The Torah tells us of the process of the purification for the person afflicted with Tzaraat (skin discoloration):

Then the Kohen shall order, and the person to be cleansed shall take two live, clean birds, a cedar stick, a strip of crimson [wool], and hyssop. (Leviticus 14:4) 

Rashi explains the significance of the cedar and hyssop used in the purification process:  

a cedar stick: Because lesions of tzara’ath come because of haughtiness [symbolized by the tall cedar].

and hyssop: What is the remedy that he may be healed [of his tzara’ath]? He must humble himself from his haughtiness.

According to Rashi, the cedar’s height represents haughtiness while the lowly hyssop grass represents  humility. But if that is the case then why is the cedar a part of the purification process, does the cedar not represent the cause of the spiritual malady which the person needs to correct?

The cedar and hyssop teach us that in order to be pure and holy one must not declare war on the sense of self. Rather, holiness, in Judaism, is to harmonize the tall cedar, the feeling of self, the desire to possess, acquire and succeed, with the humble hyssop. To achieve purity we must sanctify the desire to acquire, and the sense of self,  utilizing our possessions, our talents and our strength in the service of G-d, spreading goodness and kindness in the world. The humble hyssop, too, must cultivate the feeling of the tall cedar, a sense of confidence and pride in order to embrace the world and transform it.

Purity is about harmonizing the cedar and the hyssop, the Kain and the Hevel, the desire to possess and the futility of materialism. Holiness is when the feeling of self is cultivated and dedicated to the service of that which is greater than the self.

(Adapted from Shem Mishmuel)


The Gift of Pleasure - תזריע

The Gift of Pleasure

The Hebrew language, “the holy tongue”, is a language of profound depth. Just by looking at its words one can discover the deepest truths of life. One example is the word Nega, affliction, used in this week’s portion to describe Tzaraat, the skin ailment that creates ritual impurity. The book of formation, perhaps the earliest Kabbalistic work, teaches that the Hebrew word for affliction, נגע, consists of the same letters as the word for pleasure, ענג.

“Affliction” and “pleasure” are, in fact, opposite extremes. The affliction of the Tzaraat is considered, in some ways, to be the most severe of impurities. It is the only impurity in which the person must leave the camp and sit in solitude. Pleasure, explains the Kabbalah, is the deepest capacity of the soul. Yet, the Hebrew language teaches us, that there is a relationship between that which we think of as most negative and that which is most positive.

The inner meaning of the laws of the Tzaraat affliction demonstrate this principle. The Torah tells us that when someone is afflicted with specific forms of skin discoloration they are brought to the priest, who will determine whether or not the affliction is ritually impure or ritually pure. There is, however, a deeper, figurative, interpretation, which contains a broader message for the life of the Jew.   

The Torah tells us:

If a man has a Se'eith, a sappachath, or a bahereth on the skin of his flesh, and it forms an affliction of Tzara'ath on the skin of his flesh, he shall be brought to Aaron the Kohen, or to one of his sons, the Kohanim. (Leviticus 13:2).

The Hebrew names for the shades of the Tzaraat discolorings, “Se’eith”, “Sappachat” and “Baheret”, are translated literally as “uplifted”, “additional”, and “clear”. According to the inner spiritual interpretation, the Torah is referring to someone who is gifted with a positive quality; wisdom, beauty, wealth, charisma, creativity, insight. This “additional” quality has the ability to “uplift”, to “add”, and to “purify”. Yet, in this case, the person chose to express that quality in a destructive way. Thus the positive quality designed to uplift and purify, now “forms an affliction of Tzara'ath on the skin of his flesh”. The divine gift becomes a spiritual affliction because the person chose to express the gift to advance his own selfish desires, arrogance and narcissism.  

The spiritual solution, one would think, is that the person seeking purity, must abandon the path which led to the spiritual affliction. He must walk away from the attribute that led to his spiritual downfall.   

The Torah, however, teaches otherwise: “he shall be brought to Aaron the Kohen, or to one of his sons, the Kohanim.” The very quality that led to the spiritual challenge, must be “brought to the Priest”, must be used for the sake of holiness and positivity. The Kohen who would perform the service in the temple teaches us that the gifts we have; beauty, wealth, musical talent, artistic creativity, etc., were given to us in order that we use them for holiness.  

Everything in our life can be a spiritual affliction or a source of great pleasure. Everything in our life can be “brought to the priest”. Everything we possess can be used in the service of G-d to advance the purpose of our creation: to transform a world afflicted with challenge and suffering into a place of pleasure and holiness.

(Adapted from Be’er Mayim Chayim)   


Looking for older posts? See the sidebar for the Archive.