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Blog - Torah Insights

Why Celebrate the New Moon? - בא

Why Celebrate the New Moon?

The spiritual definition of Egypt is stagnation. The feeling that we are defined by our past experiences and negative habits. Exodus from Egypt can happen only when we recognize the potential for renewal and capacity for growth. Freedom is the recognition that the person we were yesterday does not define the person we want to be today. 

Which explains why, before they were told to prepare for the exodus, the Israelites were first commanded to establish the new Hebrew month with the sighting of the new moon:

The Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying,

This month shall be to you the head of the months; to you it shall be the first of the months of the year.

The Hebrew word for “month” (Chodesh) comes from the word “new” (Chadash). Thus, explains Rashi, the verse means (not “this month” but) “this renewal”: 

This renewal. He [God] showed him [Moses] the moon in its renewal and said to him, “When the moon renews itself, you will have a new month”

The Israelites were commanded to count time based on the renewal of the moon, because the theme of renewal is key to redemption and freedom. Looking up at the night sky and seeing the moon recreating itself, inspires us to internalize the message of freedom, the possibility of renewal invested within our soul.

The renewal of the moon has a deeper dimension as well. 

Perhaps one of the most significant teachings of Chassidic philosophy, is the idea that creation is ongoing and continuous. The Divine energy that brings the universe into existence must continually be invested in the creation, breathing it into existence. If, G-d forbid, the Divine energy would cease to create the world for a single moment, the world would immediately revert back to its original state of nothingness. 

The reason we don’t see the creation as continuous, the reason we don’t always sense the presence of G-d  around us, is because we are in a state of spiritual exile, which is defined as the concealment of the creative power invested in every creation. Spiritual redemption, is the recognition that when we look at a stone, a flower, the sky, or a blade of grass, we are seeing the continuous creative power of G-d.  

The commandment to celebrate the new moon empowers us to recognize the Divine energy renewing the creation at every moment, allowing us to feel the exciting potential in every moment of life, to sense the presence of G-d in every creation, and to believe in our power to renew ourselves. 

 

From Seed to Fruit Tree - וארא

From Seed to Fruit Tree 

There was once a seed who felt pretty good about himself. He was good looking, quite tasty, had a healthy self esteem, and overall  had a wonderful and pleasant existence. 

Then, one day, the good times came to an end. 

He was taken to the field and buried in the earth. As he began to  germinate he was frightened of losing his identity and sense of self. Indeed overtime he was left dormant, cold and covered in earth. All growth and life seemed frozen. Over time however, a miracle occurred, the seed germinated and eventually grew far beyond its wildest imagination. From a seed it was transformed into a fruit bearing tree. 

The story of the seed is the story of the exile in Egypt. Referring to the experience of the Israelites, the prophet Isaiah proclaims: 

Those who came, whom Jacob caused to take root, Israel flourished and blossomed and they filled the face of the world with fruitage. (Isaiah 27:6 )

The difficulties, the pain, the numbness of exile were, in reality, a process which allowed us to let go of our limited identity, and connect to the infinity of G-d within our soul, and blossom exponentially. 

This truth can be observed in many areas of life. The greatest innovations, the most profound flashes of creativity, usually occur after a period of deep frustration with the status quo. When the scholar is truly frustrated and in pain because of an intellectual problem, when the artist experiences creative block, they are frustrated by the confines of their current perspective. The writer may think that the writer’s block is the problem, however, the reality is that the problem is the writer himself, for he is trapped by his limited perspective. The frustration produced by the block is the solution. The pain of frustration, breaks the shell, allowing the artist to touch the infinite reservoir of potential within their subconscious soul.   

This explains the conversation between Moses and G-d at the opening of this week’s portion.

Moses’s first attempt to convince the Pharaoh to free the Israelites ended in disaster. Not only did Pharaoh ignore his plea, but Pharaoh intensified the harshness of the slavery. Moses returned to G-d and protested in pain: 

Moses returned to the Lord and said, "O Lord! Why have You harmed this people? Why have You sent me?

Since I have come to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has harmed this people, and You have not saved Your people." (Exodus 5:22-23)    

In the opening verses of this week’s Parsha. G-d responds to Moses: 

God spoke to Moses, and He said to him, "I am the Lord.

I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob with [the name] Almighty God, but [with] My name Hashem, I did not become known to them.” (ibid. 6:2-3)

How do G-d’s words answer Moses’ question?

Moses wanted to know why the difficulties had intensified. G-d explained that the patriarchs connected to a limited expression of G-dliness, as G-d expresses himself within the natural world, but they were not able to connect to the true infinity of G-d, to the name Hashem, which transcends time and space and limitation itself. Yet through the pain of the slavery the Israelites were able to break through to connect to the true infinity of G-d. Like the seed, they too lost their previous identity, yet precisely because they were forced out of their old, limited, self, they were able to grow into something far greater. They were able to transcend their limitations and connect to the true infinity of G-d. 

What about us? Do we too need to experience suffering in order to connect to the infinity of G-d? 

The Zohar explains that we can achieve exponential growth through spiritual challenge and effort. The spiritual equivalent of the slavery in Egypt is the challenge of engaging in Torah study, struggling to understand its depth and breath and laboring to reach the correct decision from the sea of discussion, debate, and opinions. The Zohar tells us that the challenge and difficulty that will force us to let go, and, like the germinating seed, break free of the confines of our finite existence, can be self imposed. When we challenge ourselves to grow in our study of Torah and commitment to Judaism, we hit the boundaries of our finite existence. The difficulty, the frustration, the pain, are the growing pains of the germinating seed. We must let go of our limited identity before we can experience infinity.    

(Adapted from Torah Or Shmos, and Lekutei Sichos Vaera vol. 21 sicha 2) 

What were Moses’ Credentials? - שמות

What Were Moses’ Credentials?

Why was Moses chosen to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt, and be their most important leader in history? Was it because he was smart? Charismatic? Handsome? Humble? Persuasive? He may or may not have had the above qualities, but the Torah does not allude to any of these qualities, as the reason he was chosen to lead. 

Before G-d appeared to him at the burning bush, all the Torah tells us about Moses is three short episodes. It is therefore logical to assume that, perhaps, those stories give a clue as to the reason he was chosen. Indeed, all three stories share a common theme: Moses could not stand by silently while others were being oppressed. Moses consistently protected the oppressed from the oppressor. 

The first story reads as follows:   

Now it came to pass in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brothers and looked at their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man of his brothers.

He turned this way and that way, and he saw that there was no man; so he struck the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. (Exodus 2:11-12)

Moses was raised in the Egyptian palace as the adopted son of Pharaoh's daughter. When seeing the Egyptian hit the Jew, he could have looked the other way and returned to his comfortable life in the palace. But Moses could not ignore the suffering of his Jewish brother. He intervened at great risk to himself (when Pharaoh  heard the story he tried to have Moses killed and Moses was forced to flee to Midian).   

The second episode  occurred the following day:

He went out on the second day, and behold, two Hebrew men were quarreling, and he said to the wicked one, "Why are you going to strike your friend?" (ibid. 13)

It is natural to protect a member of one’s own group against an outsider (as when Moses protected a Jew from an Egyptian), yet in the second story Moses intervened to protect a Jew from a member of his own group. When the oppressor is a member of one’s own group, the natural instinct to rally in support of one’s own group in the face of a challenge from the outside, is not in play, and thus it is easier to ignore. But Moses did not hesitate to intervene. 

The third episode: 

Moses fled from before Pharaoh. He stayed in the land of Midian, and he sat down by a well.

Now the chief of Midian had seven daughters, and they came and drew [water], and they filled the troughs to water their father's flocks.

But the shepherds came and drove them away; so Moses arose and rescued them and watered their flocks. (ibid. 15-17)

Moses had just arrived as a refugee in a foreign land. He saw how the shepherds of Midian harassed the female shepherds. Both parties in the dispute were strangers. The natural tendency would be to lie low and mind one’s own business. 

Moses intervened. 

All we know about Moses before he was chosen is that he could not ignore the cruelty of oppression. Moses stood with the oppressed not only when an outsider oppressed his brother, not only when one of his brothers was oppressed by his fellow brother, but also  when a stranger was oppressed by a complete stranger.

 

Why Would Judah Dip His Shirt in Wine? - ויחי

Why would Judah Dip his Shirt in Wine?

Jacob gathered his children before he passed away and gave each one a unique blessing. Judah, the fourth son received the greatest blessing, a blessing for leadership as well as a blessing that his land should be blessed with abundant fertility. In beautifully poetic language Jacob states:

He binds his donkey to a vine, and to a tendril [he binds] his young donkey. [He launders] his garment with wine, and with the blood of grapes his cloak.

He is red eyed from wine and white toothed from milk. (Genesis 49:11-12).

In addition to the literal blessing for an abundance of wine and milk, the blessings contain a figurative, spiritual, meaning as well. 

Wine represents passion and love. Wine awakens emotion within a person, bringing to the fore emotions that are sometimes hidden within the heart. Jacob made two references to wine, “wine” and “blood of grapes”, because, generally speaking, there are two forms of love. Love as a feeling of closeness, is referred to as “wine that brings joy”. When one feels the love of closeness he is filled with a feeling of closeness, pleasantness and tranquility. Yet there is another form of love, referred to as “intoxicating wine”, which is a love that comes from a feeling of distance. When one feels apart from the beloved the heart is filled with a sense of yearning, of longing to be connected. This wine is intoxicating. Rather than pleasantness one feels the pain of distance, which fuels the lover to draw closer to the beloved with a renewed sense of dedication and passion.   

The first three brothers were blessed with spiritual awareness. According to the Kabbalah, Reuben, Shimon and Levi respectively embodied the attributes of  love, awe and closeness to G-d. Judah was chosen to be the leader because he represented action. Judah was blessed with leadership specifically because he had the humility and dedication to take responsibility for his actions, although this caused him great embarrassment. 

Jacob blessed Judah “He launders his garment with wine”. Garments represent action,  they are not the person himself but rather they are tools through which he interacts with the world around him. Thus, after Judah is blessed for having the strength of character to take the proper action, Jacob blessed him that he launder the action with wine; that the deed be immersed and infused with love and a sense of closeness. “And with the blood of grapes his cloak”. However, in the moments when Judah is not able to feel the pleasantness of the joyous wine of closeness, he can still feel the blood of grapes. The distance can create a passionate longing love, creating a deep yearning that will overcome the obstacles and, once again, unite the lover with the beloved. 

Next time you take an action to help another person or to connect to G-d, dip it in wine or blood of grapes, imbue it with the pleasant joy of closeness or the profound passion of yearning love. 

(Adapted from Torah Ohr, Vayechi) 

 

Which Speech Would you Give? - ויגש

Which Speech Would you Give?

Joseph just dropped the bomb. He revealed his identity to his brothers. The Egyptian prime minister they were standing before, was, in fact, their own brother Joseph who they sold into Egyptian slavery twenty two years earlier. 

They were stunned. 

Joseph spoke. 

Here is the speech Joseph did not deliver:

Brothers, while it is true that I have attained success, greatness and power, please do not take any credit for that. For while your actions ultimately led to my rise to power, you had nothing but evil in your hearts and minds. Your intention was to sell me as a slave. 

Here is the speech Joseph delivered: 

Brothers, do not feel bad that you intended to sell me as a slave. For G-d arranged that the result of your terrible act was that I can save our family and reign over all of Egypt. 

[“Do not be sad, and let it not trouble you that you sold me here, for it was to preserve life that God sent me before you... And now, you did not send me here, but God, and He made me a father to Pharaoh, a lord over all his household, and a ruler over the entire land of Egypt. Genesis 45:5-8].  

Instead of spending emotional energy on feeling resentment and anger against his brothers, Joseph was able to see only the positive, the hand of G-d that led him to success. Joseph saw only the good that came from his brothers cruel act, not their evil intention. 

Incredibly, Joseph was able to see past the negativity and focus only on the good. He was able to do so because of his unique philosophy in life. Joseph understood that wherever he may be he was an emissary of God to carry out the Divine will. In his words to his brothers he used the word  “sent”. To Joseph, the important questions were not, who harmed me? Who can I blame for my real or imagined difficulties?In every situation, Joseph asked himself: why am I here? For what purpose did G-d send me here? What is my mission in this place?

Every time we encounter a challenge or difficulty in our lives, we too have a choice. We can respond with resentment and anger or we can follow Joseph's example. We too are G-d’s emissaries not only to survive the challenge, but rather, like Joseph, to “rule over it”, to transform the obstacle into an experience of life and growth.

Next time you face a challenge, which speech will you give?  

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, 5 Teves 5747)

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