Blog - Torah Insights

Selecting the Successor - פנחס

Selecting the Successor

Toward the end of the forty year journey in the desert, Moses turned to G-d and asked that a leader be appointed to succeed him, as we read in this week’s portion: 

Moses spoke to the Lord, saying:

Let the Lord, the God of spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation 

who will go forth before them and come before them, who will lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord will not be like sheep without a shepherd." (Numbers 27:16) 

In these few words Moses described the task of the leader (“who will go forth before them and come before them, who will lead them out and bring them in”), but does Moses provide any insight into the perspective and mindset necessary to lead? 

The great Chassidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev, known as the “defender of Israel” because of his inability to see anything negative in his fellow Jew, offered a powerful insight. Moses referred to G-d with an unusual title: “G-d of spirits of all flesh”. With these words Moses was alluding to the quality required of a true leader. A leader must understand that a human being is a composite of both body and soul, both “spirit” and “flesh”. A great leader who seeks to inspire his people to get in touch with their inner soul, their spirit, and soar to great heights, may sometimes forget that a human being is also “flesh”, plagued with challenges, weaknesses and deficiencies. A great leader, explained Rabbi Levi Yitzchok, must accept and love his people despite their shortcomings, he must defend them even when they make mistakes, because he must remember that people are imperfect by design. They are not angels. For G-d himself created the hybrid of spirit and flesh otherwise known as the human being.    

Perhaps we can build on Rabbi Levi Yitzchok’s insight. 

Every person is a mix of spirit and flesh, a mix of the self centered and the transcendent, a combination of desire for the fleeting material pleasures and longing for spiritual connection. A proper spiritual leader understands that the spirit and the matter do not have to be at war with each other. The spirit can be found within the flesh and the flesh can serve as an expression of the spirit. The leader who will be chosen to lead the people of Israel, helping them to apply the Torah study of the desert to material life in Israel, must teach them that, (material life does not have to be a contradiction to a life of holiness. Our material pleasures can be a tool in the service of G-d, enhancing our ability to fulfill the purpose of our creation. 

Living a wholesome life is experiencing the Divine not only in the spiritual but also in the material. Discovering that indeed G-d is the spirits of all flesh.  


What Kind of Prophet Will You Be? - בלק

What Kind of Prophet Will You Be?

Billam, the gentile prophet hired by the king of Moab to curse the Jews, was as great a prophet as Moses. He, too, possessed the ability to see the mystical energies that lay beneath the surface, hidden in the subconscious. Despite G-d’s reiterating to Billam that the Jews are blessed and must not be cursed, he nevertheless traveled to the plains of Moab with the intention of cursing the Jews. Billam knew that he would be unable to curse the Jews without G-d’s permission, but Billam was confident in his own ability to persuade G-d to allow the Jews to be cursed. 

Billam’s plan was to draw attention to the negativity and sins of the Jewish people. He would evoke their shortcomings by looking toward the desert, gazing at the places where they had committed sins. Billam was sure that by focusing on the negativity within the Jews, G-d’s attribute of judgement would be awakened, allowing him to use that moment to curse them.

Billam’s plan failed. Instead of cursing the Jews, he offered the most beautiful blessings. He tried to get G-d to focus on their negativity, yet G-d would not pay attention: 

He does not look at evil in Jacob, and has seen no perversity in Israel; the Lord, his God, is with him, and he has the King's friendship.

Rashi offers two interpretations as to why G-d would not see evil in the Jewish people despite their being far from perfect. The first interpretation, from Onkelos the translator, says that the sin that G-d did not see, was the sin of idol worship; while the Jewish people may have had other sins, at that point they were free of idol worship.The second interpretation is far more profound, and Rashi himself refers to it as a “beautiful” interpretation: 

Another explanation: According to its plain sense it can receive a beautiful exposition:  He does not see — i. e., the Holy One, blessed be He, does not see the iniquity which is in Jacob: when they transgress His words He does not deal so strictly with them as to pay regard to their iniquitous doings and their transgression by which they infringe His law. 

According to the second interpretation, G-d does not focus on the negativity, because He sees their core and essence. To his loving eyes, their shortcomings do not define them.  Their frailties and imperfections are but an opportunity for transformation and elevation.

The western world’s notion of love is that people fall in love because they are blinded to  the shortcomings of the other. Once the intoxicating effect of love wears off, the shortcomings emerge and challenge the love. The Jewish idea of love is radically different. When one experiences love one is not blind to the other’s shortcomings,  they simply don’t have any effect on the love because they are seen against the backdrop of love. The shortcoming does not define the person and is therefore not a contradiction to the love.   

There are generally two perspectives one can have in life. The first is the path of Billam who had the trait  of finding fault in every circumstance and person. Anticipating the negativity became a self fulfilling prophecy. The second perspective is the G-dly one. “He sees no iniquity in Jacob”, for He focuses on the positive within every experience and within every person. This perspective, too, becomes a self fulfilling prophecy, allowing the negativity to be channeled and transformed to goodness and beauty. 

What Kind of Prophet Will You Be?


Serpent, Symbol of Life? - חוקת

Serpent, Symbol of Life?  

The Jews complained, yet again, against G-d and Moses. G-d sent serpents who bit the Jewish people. When Moses prayed, G-d instructed Moses on a means to heal the Jews who were affected: 

The Lord said to Moses, "Make yourself a serpent and put it on a pole, and let whoever is bitten look at it and live.

Moses made a copper snake and put it on a pole, and whenever a snake bit a man, he would gaze upon the copper snake and live. (Numbers 21:8-9)

What was the purpose and function of the copper serpent? Did this not suggest that the serpent had mystical healing powers? Did this not seem idolatrous? 

Rashi, quoting the sages of the Mishnah, explains that indeed the serpent itself was not the source of the healing. The serpent placed on the pole caused the people to look heavenward and that would focus their attention upon G-d, the source of healing:  

Our Rabbis said, Does a snake cause death or life? However, when Israel looked heavenward and subjected their hearts to their Father in heaven, they would be healed, but if not, they would waste away.

According to the rabbis, the healing was a result of looking toward heaven. The question, however, still remains: why, of all things, should Moses raise a copper serpent? Why not have Moses raise his hands heavenward (as he did in the battle with Amalek)?

The serpent represents any challenge in our life that distracts or prevents us from living a wholesome, meaningful and joyous life. The serpent's bite represents the debilitating challenges which stand in our way. G-d told Moses that the way to overcome challenge, the way to heal pain, is to raise the serpent itself on a poll. To look at the serpent, at the challenge, as it exists in its heavenly source. For in its source the purpose of the challenge is not to obstruct, but rather the objective is to offer an opportunity for growth, an opening to conquer new frontiers and experience a deeper part of the self. The Hebrew word for pole, (Nes), is also the root of the word test (Nisayon). What appears as an insurmountable challenge is, in truth, a means to be elevated to a higher state of consciousness. 

Each of us, explains the Zohar, has a spark of Moses within ourselves. We too are able to elevate the serpent. We too can “put it on a pole”. When we come face to face with the serpent, we can ask ourselves: how can this encounter make me a better person? We can “gaze upon the copper snake and live”, viewing it from the perspective of its heavenly source. When we do so, we allow the challenging experience to be transformed into a source of life, passion and vitality. 

Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, 13 Tamuz 5729. 


Moses and the Mezuzah - קורח

Moses and the Mezuzah 

Korach set out to spark a rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. He gathered his followers and presented the following question to Moses: If there are Torah scrolls inside a home, does the home require a Mezuzah (which contains merely two paragraphs from the Torah) on the door? Korach was sure that Moses would respond that the home is exempt from the obligation of Mezuzah since the home possesses the far greater holiness of the entire Torah. Korach planned to argue that the people of Israel, like the home which contains the Torah scroll, are holy and therefore they don’t need Moses and Aaron to lead and be the figurative Mezuzah. 

The Midrash describes how Moses’ answer surprised Korach, and how Korach proceeded to mock Moses: 

Korach asked Moses, “If a house is full of Torah scrolls, what is the law? Should it be exempt from the obligation of having a mezuzah?” Moses replied, “It is still under the obligation of having a mezuzah.” Korach retorted, “The entire Torah cannot exempt a house, but the two sections [of the Torah] in a mezuzah can?”  

It turns out that Korach had a philosophical disagreement with Moses. Korach felt that if the home was full of books the inhabitant was holy, while Moses believed that the key to holiness was the Mezuzah on the door. 

Our home is our personal space, we create walls to insulate us from the outside environment, to protect us from the elements, as well as from the influence of the masses. A home is a place where we can live as we please and create an environment based on the ideals and values that we choose. Korach said if your inner home possesses the sacred scrolls then you are holy. That is all you need. 

Moses taught that having a Torah scroll in the home is not sufficient. 

The Mezuzah is placed “on the posts of your home and on your gates”. The Mezuzah is placed at the contact point between the personal home and the outside world. When a Jew sees the Mezuzah he is reminded that not only is his home, his personal environment, sacred, but rather the Mezuzah calls for him to carry the message of the Mezuzah - the Shma Yisrael, the holiness and unity of G-d, which is written in the mezuzah - with him as he leaves the gates of his home and sets out to engage the outside world.

Korach opposed the Mezuzah because he sensed that the Mezuzah captures the essence of the teachings of Moses: the teachings of the Torah are not abstract ideas delegated to books, but rather they are the very purpose of creation.The goal of Judaism is to spread the ideas of the Torah from the mind to the heart and then to action, from the home to the outside world, until the entirety of the earth will be filled with the awareness of G-d, filling the earth with peace and harmony. 

(Adapted from the Rebbe’s teachings, 26 Sivan 5723)


The Rebbe spoke these words to the 1963 graduating class of the Beis Rivkah girls school in Brooklyn, NY. The Rebbe encouraged the young women to personify the message of the Mezuzah; to spread the teachings and inspiration they received from studying Torah and carry it as they walk through the gates of their personal life and into the tumultuous world.

As we commemorate the Rebbe's twenty fifth Yahrtzeit tonight, may we merit to carry the Rebbe’s legacy, embodying  the Mezuzah, and transforming the earth into a place of goodness and kindness. 


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