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Blog - Torah Insights

Whose Birthday is it Anyway? - ראש השנה

Whose Birthday is it Anyway? 

Going as far back as preschool we were told that Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world. That sounded so beautiful, we loved celebrating our own birthday and it filled our little hearts with joy to know that the world has a birthday celebration as well. 

We got a bit older and we discovered that the birthday celebration theme of Rosh Hashanah is confirmed in the Machzor, the Rosh Hashanah prayer book. There we read: “this is the day of the (anniversary of the) beginning of your creation.” 

When you do the math, however, you discover that Rosh Hashanah does not occur on the “beginning of your creation” at all. In fact, Rosh Hashanah is celebrated on the sixth day of creation. By the time Rosh Hashanah came around the heavens and earth, the stars and planets, the oceans and dry land, the birds and the fish were already  created. Rosh Hashanah is actually the birthday of Adam and Eve, of humanity, not the birthday of the world. If that is the case why do we keep saying that it is the anniversary of the “beginning of your creations”, the birthday of the universe?  

The process of creation expresses the awesome power of G-d. As King David put it in the book of Psalms: “How manifold are Your works, O L-rd! You have made them all with wisdom”. An untold number of galaxies and stars, millions of forms of life, endless diversity of creations, yet until the creation of man, the creation of the universe is not complete. For while the first day of creation represents the multiplicity, diversity, and fragmentation of existence, the sixth day, the day of the creation of Adam and Eve, represents the ability of the human being to create unity and harmony amongst the diversity. The Zohar describes that when Adam was created he turned to the creations and said: “Come, let us prostrate ourselves and bow; let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker.” For human beings alone possess the capacity to heal the fragmentation of existence by recognizing that all of creation is part of a greater whole, that all of existence is an expression of one infinite creator.  

The birthday of humanity is therefore also the birthday the entire world and its creations. For the creation of the world has not been completed until man reveals the unifying purpose in all the earth, stringing together the multiplicity of creation into a single unified organism. 

Judaism teaches that every individual person in a microcosm of the entire world. Initially, when we look inside ourselves, on the figurative “first day of creation”, we see chaos and conflict. We have multiple, often contradictory, desires, thoughts, and aspirations. We often lead a fragmented life, being pulled in different directions. Part of us seeks material well being and pleasure while part of us seeks transcendence. Part of us is concerned only with the self while part of us wants to connect to others. We have big dreams, goals, and aspirations but spend much of our day engaged in mundane tedious tasks that deflate our excitement, energy, and passion. 

Rosh Hashanah, the day when humanity discovers the purpose and meaning within all of creation, is the day we heal the division and create a unified holistic life. Rosh Hashanah is the day when we internalize the perception that the drive for materialism can be elevated to serve our spiritual soul. That every detail of our day is part of the greater purpose for which we were created. There is no such thing as a meaningless moment and mundane task. For every moment, every encounter can be a moment that expresses, and is critical to, our purpose on this earth.    

(Adapted from the Rebbe’s letter, 25 Elul 5747)

Ingredients of Joy - כי תבוא

Ingredients of Joy

The ceremony seems disproportionate to the actual gift. 

The Jewish farmer was commanded to give various forms of tithings and donations of produce that amounted to about twenty percent of his yearly yield of produce. The Bikurim, the commandment to bring a basket of the first fruit that grow in one’s orchard to Jerusalem, and donate them to the priest, is a very small gift in comparison. Yet the Torah devotes a great deal of attention to the ceremony accompanying the donation of the Bikurim. The Torah describes the specifics of the ceremony and the precise formula and wording the Jewish farmer uses to thank G-d. When presenting the Bikurim the Jew would thank G-d not only for that year’s crop but also for all of Jewish history going back to the days of Jacob our patriarch. Which leads the commentators to ask: why does the Torah make a “big deal” about the small gift of the first fruit?

The concluding verse of the portion of the Bikurim is: Then, you shall rejoice with all the good that the Lord, your God, has granted you and your household. (Deuteronomy 26:11). The Torah is telling us that the two most important ingredients of joy are right here in this commandment. Bring the first fruit announce the declaration and you will experience happiness.    

The first ingredient is gratitude. Despite popular belief, the amount of blessing we receive has no impact on our state of joy. The chief ingredient of joy is gratitude. If we take time to be mindful of the blessings we have in our life, we will be joyful. Thus, Moses tells us that in order to achieve joy we need to experience and express our gratitude. The Torah therefore attributes great significance to the gift of the first fruit, not because the fruit themselves are so valuable but because the fruit represent the gratitude which is the basis  of joy. The Torah composes the declaration recited by the Jew offering the Bikurim. The declaration of thanksgiving allowing us to focus on the blessings that we, as a people and as individuals, are blessed with. 

The second ingredient to happiness is meaning. When the Jew offers the first fruit in the temple he declares that he is part of a broader story which begins with our patriarchs, through the slavery and exodus from Egypt. He too, living in Israel and enjoying its produce continues to contribute his own page to the story. While bringing the fruit the Jew cultivates the art of storytelling, the art of finding meaning in what initially seems to be unrelated, random events. A Jew who sees his life not as a collection of meaningless random moments but instead realizes that there is an overarching purpose to his existence will experience joy in good times and in challenging times. For he senses that the challenging times too add meaning and significance to his life. 

In our times, when there is no Holy temple in Jerusalem, we do not fulfill the commandment of Bikurim in the literal sense, however, we do have an opportunity to experience the Mitzvah of Bikurim in the figurative sense. Every morning we donate our “first fruits” to G-d. We dedicate the first few moments of the day, to thank G-d, be mindful of his blessings and focus on our purpose. When we say  Modeh Ani, recite the Shema, pray and study a portion of the Torah, we are acknowledging the gift of life and its blessings. We realize that G-d gifted us with life and blessing in order for us to fulfill our purpose and mission on earth. Being grateful and mindful of our purpose will inevitably lead to experiencing deep joy. As the Toarh concludes: 

Then, you shall rejoice with all the good that the Lord, your God, has granted you and your household you, the Levite, and the stranger who is among you. (Deuteronomy 26:11)    

Betrothal - כי תצא

Betrothal  

The Biblical source for the laws of marriage are derived from this week’s Torah portion. The Talmud explains that there are three ways to betroth a woman: 

A woman is acquired by, i.e., becomes betrothed to, a man to be his wife in three ways, and she acquires herself, i.e., she terminates her marriage, in two ways. She is acquired through money, through a document, and through marital relations.

Jewish law may appear to be technical and legalistic, yet,  upon deeper reflection we discover that the nuances of the law express Judaism’s philosophical and spiritual perspective on a given subject. Judaism’s perspective and insight into the profound meaning, beauty, romance and mystery of marriage can be discovered by exploring the meaning behind the seemingly technical details of the law. 

There are three ways to betroth a woman, not merely because the Torah would like to give us more options on how to create the legal state of marriage, but rather because marriage has three dimensions or layers. Each of the three methods of betrothal express one of the three dimensions of the relationship.  

[To be sure, one of the methods of betrothal suffice to usher in all three dimensions of the marriage. In fact, the rabbis prohibited betrothal through intimacy, and it has become the universal custom  to betroth through a form of money. Yet, the law offers three forms of betrothal to teach us to be aware of all three dimensions that can be initiated by any one of these three forms of betrothal.]

The first form of betrothal is betrothal through money, where the groom gives the bride something of monetary value. Money is tangible and physical. Money represents the physical aspects of the relationship. The couple will live under the same roof, eat dinner together, have a joint bank account and file a joint tax return. They will spend time together and enjoy each other's company. Yet, whilst it is important, the physical aspect of the relationship is not all there is to marriage.  

The second form of betrothal is through writing a legal document. The document itself does not have to have any monetary value. The document’s value is abstract and intangible. The document represents the spiritual aspect of the marriage. The relationship is not merely an arrangement encompassing the physical aspects of life, but rather the relationship includes the spiritual dimension as well. They will share ideas with each other, enjoy each others wit, wisdom and point of view. 

Betrothal by document reminds us that marriage is more than just sharing together, marriage is about creating a bond between two souls (or, as the mystics say: reuniting two halves of the same soul).The document represents the soul connection that is established (or reestablished) through marriage.  

The third form of betrothal, marital intimacy, represents the ultimate goal of marriage. In Judaism, intimacy in the context of a sacred marriage is considered a holy experience for it is a fusion of both body and soul. It is when the first two dimensions of marriage, the physical unity and the spiritual unity merge. The physical union expresses the deepest spiritual bond. 

***

The marriage of man and woman is a reflection and mirror image of the spiritual marriage between G-d, the groom, and the Jewish people, the bride. Perhaps we can add that our relationship with G-d is also expressed in these three forms of betrothal: 1) betrothal by money: G-d blesses us with our physical life, health, and necessities, allowing us to enjoy our physical life on earth 2) betrothal by document: we enjoy a spiritual connection with G-d, by studying his document, his Torah, which contains the mysteries of his deepest thoughts 3) betrothal by intimacy: the ultimate expression of our connection with G-d is through performing a Mitzvah. For the physical act of the commandment is an act of intimacy with G-d, whereby our body and soul become one with his infinity.  

(Adapted from Binyan Adei Ad, by Rabbi Yosef Karasik)

 

Holy Witnesses - שופטים

Holy Witnesses 

Witnesses are an important part of every Judicial system. Yet, as is often the case, Judaism presents a deeper dimension and perspective of the function and purpose of witnesses. 

The conventional definition of witnesses is "clarifying witnesses”. Witnesses observe an event and later testify to confirm that the event indeed occurred; for example, witnesses can testify that a man borrowed one hundred dollars from his friend. The witnesses, however, are not part of the transaction and have no part in the  obligation to repay. The borrower is morally obligated to repay the loan whether or not the witness testifies. The witnesses are necessary in order to prevent the borrower from avoiding his moral obligation to repay by denying that he borrowed the money. The witnesses themselves, however, are merely observers, the moral obligation to pay is created by the act of the loan not by the witnesses.   

Jewish law introduces a second category of witnesses: “witnesses who establish”. According to Jewish law there are events that have no legal significance unless there are witnesses present. For example, the witnesses at a wedding ceremony are a critical part of the onset of the marriage. Marriage witnesses serve not only to clarify in the case where there is a question as to whether a wedding took place, but rather they serve as the ones who actually establish the marriage (in Jewish law, a marriage without proper witnesses has no legal significance). 

Torah is comprised of body and soul. These two categories of witnesses are relevant to the inner, spiritual dimension of the Torah. 

The prophet Isaiah tells us: “‘You are My witnesses,’ says the Lord (Isaiah 43:10)”. We are the witnesses charged with the responsibility to “testify” and reveal the truth of G-d  throughout the earth. Our spiritual task as witnesses contains both dimensions of witnesses, the “clarifying witnesses” who do not create but only reveal, the legal reality, and the “witnesses who establish” who actively participate in creating a legal reality.    

We serve as “clarifying witnesses” when we recognize the presence of G-d in the magnificent universe he created. We serve as “clarifying witnesses” when we remind ourselves and others of the good inherent in the world and within people. 

Yet merely observing, appreciating, and sharing does not capture the full potential and greatness of the Jew, for the Jew is a witness to a marriage, the marriage between creator and creation, between the groom, G-d, and the bride, the Jewish people, between heaven and earth. As previously explained, the witnesses of a marriage are “witnesses who establish”, part of the creation and establishment of the marriage. 

To be a witness to the marriage of heaven and earth the Jew must do more than appreciate and focus on the inherent G-dliness found on earth. The Jew must partner with G-d in creation. The Jew actively improves and elevates the world around him. He transforms the mundane by imbuing it with meaning and holiness. The Jew doesn't just tell a story, the Jew seeks to actively create it.

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Reshimos booklet 160). 

 

 

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