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Finding the Hidden Sweetness - בחוקותי

Finding the Hidden Sweetness

At the conclusion of the third book of the Five Books of Moses, the Torah lays out the blessings and the rebuke:

“If you follow My statutes and observe My commandments and perform them, I will give your rains in their time, the Land will yield its produce, and the tree of the field will give forth its fruit.”

The Torah then continues to describe the rebuke, the painful and tragic exile that will occur if we abandon the Torah.

Chassidic philosophy teaches that all negativity and darkness within the world is a shell which covers and conceals the spark of good that lies at the core of every experience and phenomenon. .If this is true about worldly matters, it is certainly true about every verse in the Torah. Thus, the rebuke, which, read literally, describes terrible curses, contains a deeper hidden meaning. Beneath the surface, the curses actually contain hidden blessings, blessings so intense that the only way they can descend upon this earth, unobstructed by the forces of judgement, is under the guise of a curse.

One example for this principle is the following verse:

Each man will stumble over his brother, [fleeing] as if from the sword, but without a pursuer. You will not be able to stand up against your enemies (26:37).

Rashi addresses the words “Each man will stumble over his brother” and explains:

“Each man will stumble because of his brother,” i.e., one person will stumble because of someone else’s sin, because all Jews are guarantors for one another.

Rashi is telling us that in addition to the simple reading - we will stumble on our brother in the physical sense - there is an additional meaning to the curse: we will be responsible and accountable for the sins of each other, because we are guarantors for each other.  

The Hebrew word for “guarantor”,  ערב (Arev), has two additional meanings: “mixed” and “pleasant”. These three seemingly unrelated words, (1) “guarantor” (2) “mixed” and (3) “pleasant”, are, upon deeper analysis, deeply connected. Why is every individual Jew a (1) guarantor responsible for all other Jewish people? Because we are (2) integrated and mixed with each other. Just as all parts of the human body comprise one organism, the wellbeing of one limb affecting all others, so too all Jews are specific parts of one collective soul, each part of the soul integrated with all other parts of the collective soul.  

The exile is horrific, but there is a hidden blessing. While living in Israel we didn't necessarily appreciate how we are interdependent and connected to each other. Yet, under the tragic circumstance of the exile, we realize that (1) we are guarantors for each other (2) Because we are connected to each other. Because we are part of one whole. This recognition is the (3) pleasantness that is the blessing in this verse. The pleasantness of discovering that we are indeed all one. This recognition will ultimately serve as the spiritual healing to the exile, and will allow us to experience the sweetness of the return to our homeland.

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Igros Kodesh vol. 2 p. 346)


Three Dimensional Sabbatical - בהר

Three Dimensional Sabbatical

The third book of the Torah, the book of Vayikra, is also called “Torat Kohanim”, “the law of the priests” (hence the name Leviticus, as the priests were from the tribe of Levi).

Indeed, the beginning of the book focuses on the offerings in the temple offered, on behalf of the people of Israel, by the priests. Yet, the purpose of the Torah is to teach us to spread the holiness outward, and sanctify all areas of life. Thus, as the book progresses, the focus of the book shifts. From the laws directed primarily to a specific segment of Jews, the priests, and a specific place, the temple, the book shifts to discuss the holiness as it applies to all the people of Israel, and to all of the land of Israel.   

In this week’s Parsha, the Torah tells us the laws of the Sabbatical year: every seventh year agricultural activity would cease and the land would rest. As G-d told Moses:

Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them: When you come to the land that I am giving you, the land shall rest a Sabbath to the Lord. (Leviticus 25:2)

The Law of the Sabbatical was designed to remind the Jew that holiness can be experienced not only by the priests in the temple, but rather, perhaps more importantly, by the the Jew on his farm. When the Jew celebrated the Sabbatical year he recognized that holiness is not relegated to the theoretical, the abstract, and the spiritual but rather the holiness can affect the land itself. The land itself is sanctified. The material world itself expresses the holiness of G-d.  

After introducing the general concept of the Sabbatical, the Torah elaborates on the three elements which the commandment addresses: (1) the person (2) the land (3) the produce.

At first the Torah tells us the commandment is directed to the person. The person is prohibited from doing any labor on the land: “you shall not sow your field, nor shall you prune your vineyard”. The Torah then continues to tell that the Mitzvah applies to the land: “ it shall be a year of rest for the land. the land shall have a complete rest a Sabbath to the Lord” (25:5). And finally the Torah discusses the produce that grows on its own in the seventh year. The Torah commands that the produce should be available to everyone equally. The owner of the field may enjoy the fruit just as any other worker or resident: “And [the produce of] the Sabbath of the land shall be yours to eat for you, for your male and female slaves, and for your hired worker and resident who live with you” (25:6).

Experiencing the laws of the Sabbatical year helps the Jew internalize that all aspects of his reality are affected by his relationship with G-d. (1) The holiness affects himself(as he may not perform work on the land) (2) the holiness affects his natural environment, (the land must rest). (3) the holiness affects his possessions and wealth (the produce of the land must be available to all).  

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Likkutei Sichos Vayelech, vol. 24 Sicha 1)


Show Me the Dough! - אמור

Show Me the Dough!

Judaism’s relationship with bread is complex.

The prohibition against bread on Passover is far more extensive than all other prohibitions. Not only are we not allowed to eat bread, we are also prohibited to own bread. Immediately after Passover, however, bread makes a comeback. The bread that was so terrible yesterday, somehow becomes acceptable today.

There was no leavened bread in the holy temple all year long. All grain offerings were made of dough that was not leavened. The verse states clearly: “No meal offering that you sacrifice to the Lord shall be made out of anything leavened. For you shall not cause to go up in smoke any leavening or any honey, as a fire offering to the Lord.” (Leviticus 2:11) Yet, once a year, after counting forty nine days from the second day of Passover, there was a commandment to offer leavened bread. As the Torah states in this week’s portion:

And you shall count for yourselves, from the morrow of the rest day from the day you bring the omer as a wave offering seven weeks...

From your dwelling places, you shall bring bread, set aside, two loaves made from two tenths of an ephah; they shall be of fine flour, [and] they shall be baked leavened, the first offering to the Lord. (Leviticus 23:15-17)

What is the spiritual nature of bread? Is bread completely prohibited (as it is on Passover, and,  year round in the temple), is it a neutral substance (as it is all year outside the temple), or is it a Mitzvah (as it is in the temple after counting the seven weeks)?

Leavened bread represents the inflated ego. As such, in the beginning of our relationship with G-d, as we seek to establish a connection to the spiritual side of ourselves, we must reject our  pleasure seeking ego. For if we allow our inflated sense of self to dictate how we live our life we will not be able to transcend the self and create a relationship with that which is beyond our self. Thus, on Passover, at the beginning of our spiritual journey, we separate completely from bread.

The purpose of life, and the ultimate goal of Judaism, however, is not to escape the self, but rather the goal is to elevate the self. Therefore, Immediately after Passover, as we count the seven weeks, we work to refine our seven primary character traits, elevating the animalistic side of ourselves. At the conclusion of the seven weeks, the bread, the sense of self, is no longer a distraction from spirituality. On the contrary - the sense of self has been refined to the point that the pleasure seeking self now directs its intense animalistic passion and drive to spirituality, to the love of others and to the love of G-d. At this point the bread, the self, is not only neutral it is a constructive and essential part of our relationship with the spiritual. Thus, after the seven weeks, on the holiday of Shavuot, the bread becomes a Mitzvah.

Our relationship with bread is the model for our interaction with all aspects of the world around us. To ensure that we are using physical objects and experiences, such as the smartphone, food, or any other worldly pleasure, for a good purpose, and that these objects are not controlling us, we must first ensure that we have the ability to separate from them; to turn off the phone, to say no to a given pleasure. Once we establish that we are in control, we can introduce the material object into our life and use it in a healthy way Ultimately, we take it a step further, and the material object or experience can become a positive influence in our life, making us happier, kinder, and more spiritually aware.  It can become like the bread offered to G-d in the temple.

As Yourself? - קדושים

As Yourself?

According to Rabbi Akiva, “love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) is “a great principal of the Torah”, yet, it is a commandment easier said than done. How can we love every person as our self? People possess the full gamut of negative traits, shortcomings and failings. Often, the closer we become to someone the more we see their personality flaws. How then can we be expected to love every person? Must we ignore their negativity?

The most seemingly problematic part of the statement is “as yourself”. Even if, somehow, we learn to love our fellow, can the Torah expect the love to rise to the level of self love?

Chassidic philosophy explains that the words “as yourself” are the key to the ability to love our fellow. When a person loves himself or herself, he is not ignorant of his own personality flaws. On the contrary, no one is as aware of his  flaws as he is himself. Despite the knowledge of his own shortcomings, somehow, the awareness of his own flaws does not contradict or destroy his self love. That is because a person does not see his own flaws in isolation, he sees his own flaws against the backdrop of self love. Thus looking at himself, the flaws don't bother him because they are overwhelmed by the self love.

The person who is aware of his own flaws will work very hard to conceal those flaws from others. Because he fears, often correctly, that the other person’s focus will zero in on the fault alone, and the other person will define him by his flaws.

The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) relates that a gentile who sought to convert asked the great sage Hillel to teach him all of the Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel told him “what is hateful to you don’t do to others”. “What is hateful to you”: you hate when others define you by your shortcomings, therefore: “don’t do to others”: never look at the shortcomings in isolation, see them only against the backdrop of love.  

How can you “love your fellow”? “As yourself”. Your own faults don't define the way you see yourself. They are insignificant because the self love is so powerful.

Apply that same formula to your child, to your spouse, to your neighbor and to your fellow.

(Adapted from Derech Mitzvosecha, Ahvas Yisrael)


Heading Home - אחרי

Heading Home

Life on this earth is complex. We are a hybrid of body and soul. We have both material as well as spiritual needs and desires. To survive on this earth, our soul must engage and embrace material life, it must spend much time and energy to succeed in a realm foreign to its values and its natural environment. Once a year, however, we separate ourselves from the mundane and the earthly and we seek to get in touch with our inner core. We refrain from food and drink, we separate from our material needs, and we seek to embrace our essence, which, while may be hidden throughout the year, always remains loyal to our spiritual source.    

The day of Yom Kippur, which we read about in this week’s Torah portion, is designed to allow us to return to our inner core. Thus, when the temple stood in Jerusalem, once a year, on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, the high priest, the holiest man on earth, would enter the inner chamber of the temple, the holy of holies, which is the  holiest space on earth.

The spiritual journey to our core, to peel away the layers of our external desires and distractions and to reconnect to our inner purity, takes time and effort. The Mishnah describes that seven days before Yom Kippur the high priest would depart from his home and enter his chamber in the holy temple to prepare for the service of the holiest day. As the Mishnah describes:  

Seven days prior to Yom Kippur the Sages would remove the High Priest, who performs the entire Yom Kippur service, from his house to the Chamber of Parhedrin, a room in the Temple designated specifically for the High Priest during that period. (Yoma 1:1)

The Mishnah then proceeds to elaborate on all the details of the service of Yom Kippur. Finally, toward the end of the tractate we read about the conclusion of the day of Yom Kippur:

They then brought his personal garments. He got dressed, and they would go with him to his residence. And he would make a feast for those close to him, for having exited the Holy of Holies in peace. (Yoma 7:4)

No gradual transition.

No seven day period to internalize the awesome experience before he would head back home to ordinary life. No rest at the chamber, where he spent seven days transitioning from ordinary life to the holiness of Yom Kippur.

The high priest would proceed directly from the sanctity of the holy of holies to his home. Because, Judaism teaches, the purpose of entering the temple to begin with is to experience the holiness of the temple in our daily life. After seven days of preparation, after experiencing the profound holiness of Yom Kippur, the high priest was able to reach true spiritual heights: he was able to experience the holiness of the holy of holies while  in his own home.

This idea is relevant to each one of us. In our lives we experience moments of inspiration and clarity, moments when we are in touch with our inner feelings and aspirations. Judaism teaches us to be bold. To aspire to spread those holy moments to all of our life. To realize, if we were truly affected by the experience of holiness,  we will now feel that same intensity of holiness in our home.

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Parshas Re’eh 5746

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