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Blog - Torah Insights

Multi Layered Festivals - ראה

Multi Layered Festivals

Virtually all ancient cultures had festivals celebrating the agricultural harvest, paying tribute to the bounty of mother nature. Judaism’s ’s three pilgrimage festivals, discussed in this week's Torah portion, capture a far deeper perspective. On the one hand the festivals coincide with the natural agricultural cycle: Passover is a celebration of the spring, Shavuot of the harvest, and Sukkot the completion of the ingathering of the produce. Yet these same agricultural festivals also celebrate historic events that celebrate not nature but rather the  miraculous relationship between the Jewish people and G-d. Passover is the commemoration of the miraculous exodus, Shavuot is a commemoration of the Divine revelation at Sinai, and Sukkot is a celebration that follows the Divine atonement of Yom Kippur. 

To Judaism the natural and the miraculous are not a dichotomy. For nature is not an independent force, but rather it is an expression of the Divine creative power.

The Chassidic teachings further elaborate on this idea. The Kabbalah teaches that the physical reality is a mirror of the spiritual reality. Earthly  reality is a reflection of heavenly energy. Thus the Jewish agricultural festivals are a multi layered commemoration. They come to celebrate the material bounty of the harvest, but they also celebrate a spiritual harvest, the reaping of the spiritual produce. 

Passover, celebration of the Exodus, is in  the spring. The spring is the time when the wheat begins to ripen, yet it has not matured to the point that it can be harvested and taken home. This holiday is a celebration of  potentiality. It is a celebration in anticipation of the ripening produce. The same is true regarding the spiritual growth process. The ten plagues, the exodus, the splitting of the sea, occurred not because the Jewish people were deserving of these incredible miracles; but rather it was in anticipation of the spiritual heights they would achieve in the future, by receiving the Torah and implementing its teachings in their life. The Shavuot holiday, is the celebration of the harvest. Although the wheat is not yet in our home, we nevertheless  celebrate the tangible gift of the produce we have been blessed with, which we can now hold in our hands. Likewise, Shavuot is the time when we receive the Torah. While we did not “bring the Torah home” by internalizing its teachings, we have the gift in our hands. We can begin the process of internalizing its teachings and inspiration. 

And finally, on the holiday of Sukkot, our joy is complete, because the produce has been gathered into  our home. It is now ours to enjoy. Just as it is with the produce of the field so too it is with the produce of our spiritual toil and effort. Sukkot is the celebration of the internalization of the Torah. During the months between the giving of the Torah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish people betrayed the Torah by creating the golden calf. Then, on Yom Kippur, G-d forgave them and gave them the second tablets. We realize that our relationship with G-d is unconditional.  Even if we stumble we are able to reconnect to the Torah; for at our core, the Torah, our soul and G-d are all one. We realize that the “produce”, the relationship we are creating with G-d, is “in our home”. It has been internalized to the point that it can survive any challenge and overcome any distraction. The produce has been “gathered in”.

(Adapted from Lekutei Sichos. Beracha vol. 29)

Meaning of a Meal - עקב

Meaning of a Meal 

“And you will eat and be sated, and you shall bless the Lord, your God, for the good land He has given you”. (Deuteronomy 7:11). Based on the biblical commandment to thank G-d for the food we eat, the sages instituted that we recite four blessings after every meal (at which we eat bread). In these four blessings we cover several themes: in the first blessing we thank G-d for the food. In the second, we give thanks for the land of Israel, the Torah and the covenant of circumcision. In the third blessing we mention Jerusalem, the kings of the house of David and the holy temple, and in the fourth blessing  we thank G-d for the kindness he showed us during one of the darkest periods of our history, under Roman rule. As explained in the Talmud:

Rav Naḥman said: 

Moses instituted for Israel the first blessing of: Who feeds all, when the manna descended for them and they needed to thank God.

Joshua instituted the blessing of the land when they entered Eretz Yisrael.

David and Solomon instituted the third blessing: Who builds Jerusalem, in the following manner: David instituted “…on Israel Your people and on Jerusalem Your city…” as he conquered the city, and Solomon instituted “…on the great and Holy Temple…” as he was the one who built the Temple. 

They instituted the blessing: Who is good and does good, at Yavne in reference to the slain Jews of the city of Beitar at the culmination of the Bar Kochva  rebellion. They were ultimately brought to burial after a period during which Hadrian refused to permit their burial. (Brachot, 48b)

Why do we need to mention all this every time we simply want to eat a piece of bread?  Why the need to mention so many events in Jewish history, and cover so many themes? Why is it not enough to simply say “”thank you for the piece of bread”?

When we eat we are focused on our own needs, on our biological and physical needs. When we eat we are feeding the material, zeroing in on the self-oriented side of self. Therefore, as we conclude the meal we seek to elevate the activity of eating by expanding our perspective. We remind ourselves that we eat not just because we need to survive, not merely because it provides us pleasure and comfort,but rather because the energy and vitality we receive from eating becomes fuel to elevate us to greater spiritual heights. We eat not only for biological survival. Yes, we eat in order to live, but the life we live is part of a greater spiritual calling. We are part of a people who are charged with a mission and purpose, symbolized by Israel and Jerusalem. We are part of a people who have learned to seek out and find the hand of G-d even in the midst of terrible darkness. 

Specifically when we are focused on the physical aspect of life, when we are engaged in eating our meal, we remind ourselves that we feed our body for the sake of our soul. We remind ourselves that the bread we eat is  part of the story of Israel and Jerusalem; part of the mission to transform the earth into a dwelling place for the creator.

(Adapted from Olas R’iyah). 

 

When You Go on the Road - ואתחנן

When You Go on the Road

The Shema, the prayer that captures the essence of Judaism, is said by Moses in this week’s Torah portion. Moses commanded the Jewish people to recite the Shema twice every day, “when you lie down'' which is interpreted by the sages to mean in the evening, “and when you get up” which is interpreted to mean in the morning. 

The words “and when you lie down and when you get up” are subject to a debate in the Mishnah. The sages of the House of Shammai believed that the verse addresses the position of one’s body when one recites the Shema. They explain that one is required to lay down during the recitation of the evening Shema, and stand up during the recitation of the morning Shema. While the sages of the House of Hillel believe that the Shema should be read in any position. As the Mishna explains: 

Bet Shammai say: in the evening every man should recline and recite the Shema, and in the morning he should stand, as it says, “And when you lie down and when you get up”. Bet Hillel say that every man should recite in his own way, as it says, “And when you walk on the way”. Why then is it said, “And when you lie down and when you get up?” At the time when people lie down and at the time when people rise up. Rabbi Tarfon said: I was once walking by the way and I reclined to recite the Shema according to the words of Bet Shammai, and I incurred danger from robbers. They said to him: you deserved to come to harm, because you acted against the words of Bet Hillel. (Brachot 1:3)

This dispute is more than a specific debate about the meaning of the words “when you lie down and when you wake up”. The schools of Shammai and Hillel are debating a fundamental point about the nature and meaning of our relationship with G-d. 

When reciting the words of the Shema, “Hear O Israel, the L-rd is our G-d the L-ord is one”, we focus on the existence of G-d and our relationship to Him. The House of Shammai believe that in order to experience a connection with G-d we have to cease “walking on our way”, and we have to align our bodies in the position spelled out in the Torah. The Shema, argue the House of Shammai is a time to cease our mundane activities and focus on G-d.   

The House of Hillel disagree. The House of Hillel believe that the essence of our relationship with G-d is for our connection to permeate all areas of life. If the recitation of the Shema requires aligning the body in a specific way, that would mean that our connection to G-d is reserved for the specific times when we cease from our activities and focus exclusively on G-d. The House of Hillel teach that the Shema should be read “when you walk on the way”, in any position you may be in, without disengaging completely from natural life, while you are engaged in your activities. For the purpose of Judaism, and the calling of the Shema, is to allow the oneness of G-d to affect, inform and sanctify every aspect of our life.   

(Nishmas Hamishnah)

 

 

Transformative Words - דברים

Transformative Words 

The fifth book of the Torah opens with no less than nine descriptions of the precise location from where Moses began to speak to the people thirty six days before his passing. As the opening verse of the book tells us:   

These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel on that side of the Jordan in the desert, in the plain opposite the Red Sea, between Paran and Tofel and Lavan and Hazeroth and Di Zahav. 

The problem with the verse however, is that some of these locations do not exist and some of them that do exist were nowhere near where the Jews were at that time! Rashi addresses this problem and explains that this verse is an example of Moses’s sensitivity and love for the people. Moses intended to rebuke the people for their sins over the previous forty years, yet he did not want to embarrass them, so he concealed the sin and alluded to it by evoking the name of the place which referenced the specific sin. 

Since these are words of rebuke and he [Moses] enumerates here all the places where they angered the Omnipresent, therefore it makes no explicit mention of the incidents [in which they transgressed], but rather merely alludes to them, [by mentioning the names of the places] out of respect for Israel.

But if Moses was concerned about respecting the people of Israel, why then does he, later in the portion, describe some of their sins explicitly and with great detail? If Moses began with a veiled rebuke to protect the dignity of the people, why does he then proceed to speak about the sins directly? 

One interpretation is straightforward: Moses feared that if he began with an explicit rebuke the people would refuse to continue listening, he therefore began with a veiled rebuke. When he saw that the Jewish people were accepting his words, he realized that he could speak directly and the people would still listen, he therefore continued the speech discussing the sins directly. 

The Chassidic commentary offers deeper insight. 

Sin and betrayal is cause for pain and negativity. Yet when a person corrects the sin and heals the betrayal, the experience is transformed. The pain caused by the sin can become a powerful motivator to correct the mistake and strengthen the relationship, fueling a greater bond and passion. Once corrected, the sin is no longer negative and shameful, for it has been transformed into fuel for positivity and growth.   

Moses began speaking to the Jewish people with veiled rebuke. Those words penetrated their hearts and caused them to return to G-d. At that point there was no need to hide the negative experiences because they had become engines of growth, and a source of tremendous passion and enthusiasm in their relationship with G-d. 

The first portion of the fifth book is always read just before the ninth of Av, the day of mourning for the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. We can either experience the sadness and pain of the day, or we can transform the pain into motivation and fuel to bring us closer to G-d and to each other. The choice is ours. 

 

The Women of Menashe - מטות מסעי

The Women of Menashe

At the conclusion of the fourth book of the Torah the Jewish people were camped at the eastern bank of the Jordan River ready to cross into the promised land. We have reached the conclusion of the story of the five books of Moses. (The fifth book consists of Moses’ repetition of the first four books, there are, however, no new episodes in the fifth book).

We would expect the final verses of the fourth book to capture an important story, idea  or lesson that would express the culmination of the story of our people. Yet, the concluding story seems trivial, and inconsequential for us today. 

At the conclusion of the fourth book we read about how the members of the tribe of Menashe approached Moses, concerned about the possibility of the five daughters of Tezelafchad marrying members of another tribe. Earlier in the story, in response to their request, the daughters of Tzelafchod were granted the right to inherit their deceased father’s portion of the land of Israel. If the daughters of Tzelafchad would marry members of another tribe, they would then ultimately pass the inherited land to their own children, the land would then be transferred from their tribe to the tribe of their husbands (as the tribal division is patriarchal), depriving the tribe of Menashe of tribal land. Moses agreed with the members of Menashe, and instructed the daughters to marry within their tribe. The book concludes by telling us that the women did just that:

Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah married their cousins.

They married into the families of the sons of Manasseh the son of Joseph, and their inheritance remained with the tribe of their father's family. (Numbers 36:11-12)

Upon deeper analysis, this episode does, in fact, capture a central theme of the Torah; the story of these five women symbolize the purpose of the Jewish people on this earth.

The backstory is as follows: two of the tribes, Reuven and Gad, requested that they be granted land east of the Jordan, outside the borders of the land of Israel. After some discussion, Moses reluctantly conceded to their request and allocated the land east of the Jordan to them. Surprisingly, although they did not request it, Moses also decided to settle half the tribe of Menashe east of the Jordan. 

Why did Moses split the tribe of Menashe and place half the tribe outside the land of Israel? 

Moses, explains the Rebbe, was teaching us that our mission is not merely to live a holy and wholesome life in Israel, but rather our task is to spread the holiness of Israel to the rest of the world, to infuse all lands with the holiness of the land of Israel. While Reuben and Gad did not want to enter Israel, Menashe, divided between both banks of the Jordan, had a foot in both worlds. Half the tribe was in Israel, and half the tribe was tasked with expanding the holiness of Israel to foreign soil. 

More than anyone else in the tribe, The five sisters embodied this message. For while the collective tribe of Menashe lived on both sides of the Jordan, every individual member of the tribe lived either in Israel or outside of Israel. The five daughters of Tzelafchad, however, married their cousins who lived on the other side of the Jordan. Thus they  inherited land and settled on both sides of the Jordan, they optimized the Torah’s central purpose: first to create a holy environment in Israel and then to spread that holiness all throughout the earth. 

We who live outside of Israel must look to these remarkable women for inspiration. Our presence in the diaspora should not be a rejection of the holiness of Israel, as was the attitude of Reuben and Gad, but rather, like the five sisters of the tribe of Menashe, we are tasked with spreading the wholeness of Israel wherever we may be. We too, like Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah live, figuratively, with a foot on either side of the Jordan River. May we succeed in ushering in the era when “G-d will expand your boundaries” (Deuteronomy 12:20) and “the (holiness of) land of Israel is destined to spread to all lands” (Sifri, Devarim).

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe Lekutei Sichos, Matos Masei vol. 28

 

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