Blog - Torah Insights

The Turbulent Journey - לך לך

The Turbulent Journey 

Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, set out on a journey that would, eventually,  change the world. He left Charan, heeding G-d’s call to "Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1). Abraham must have been full of optimism, he was armed with an incredible Divine promise, for G-d had told him: “And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will aggrandize your name, and [you shall] be a blessing.”

Yet, Abraham’s journey seemed to be a disaster and a colossal disappointment. As soon as he reached the land of Cannan, a famine broke out and he was forced to descend to Egypt where his wife was abducted and brought to Pharaoh the king. This was not only a personal challenge, but it was also a terrible blow to Abraham’s mission of spreading the awareness of the one G-d. The pagan inhabitants of Cannan took note of the fact that the terrible famine broke out as soon as Abraham arrived. They must have thought that the famine was a sign from above that Abraham’s faith would bring nothing but trouble. 

Why was Abraham’s journey so complicated and full of frustration? Why wasn't Abraham rewarded for his loyalty with a tranquil existence in Canaan?  The same question applies to the Jewish people, the descendants of Abraham, who carry Abraham’s legacy of teaching the world about the one G-d. Why has our historical journey been so full of disappointment, challenge, and tragedy? 

The Answer can be found in the name of our Torah portion: Lech Licha, which means “go to you ”. The name of the entire portion, including the parts of the story that seem to be a retreat from Abraham’s destination and purpose, are all critical to the journey of growth. The most important message to Abraham, as well as to his descendants, is that what looks like a devastating setback is, in reality, an opportunity for more meaningful growth. Yes, even the descent into Egypt, with all its negative ramifications, would ultimately lead to Abraham and Sarah emerging stronger, and better able to achieve their purpose and mission. The descent into Egypt, was part of the mission of ascent  to Israel. 

This is true in the life of each and every Jew. The first, and perhaps, primary message from the life of Abraham is that every disappointment can be an opportunity for reaching deeper joy, every setback can become a springboard, and every challenge can motivate profound growth. 

This is the essence of the life of Abraham, the essence of the Jewish story, and of the teachings of the Torah: no matter the circumstances, no matter the pain, every experience is part of the journey to discover our essence. Within every challenging experience is a spark of G-dliness waiting to be elevated and channeled to fuel us further on our journey of reaching our promised land. 

(Adapted from Likutei Sichos 5, Lech Licha 1) 


Master of the Soil - נח

Master of the Soil

Noah found favor in the eyes of G-d, he was saved from the flood and tasked with repopulating the earth, G-d extended His covenant to Noah and promised never again to wipe out all the creatures from the face of the earth. G-d’s love to Noah was palpable. 

Noah himself seemed not to share G-d’s optimistic view of the future. Before the flood we read that “Noah did, according to all that the Lord had commanded him (Genesis 7:5)”. Yet, after the flood Noah did not seem to live up to his greatness. He planted a vineyard, got drunk and lost his dignity - “he uncovered himself within his tent”. 

As the Torah relates: 

And Noah, master of the soil, began and planted a vineyard. And he drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father's nakedness, and he told his two brothers outside. And Shem and Japheth took the garment, and they placed [it] on both of their shoulders, and they walked backwards, and they covered their father's nakedness, and their faces were turned backwards, so that they did not see their father's nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine and he knew what his small son had done to him. And he said, "Cursed be Canaan; he shall be a slave among slaves to his brethren." May God expand Japheth, and may He dwell in the tents of Shem, and may Canaan be a slave to them (Genesis 9:20-27)”.

The Torah tells us “And Noah, master of the soil, began and planted a vineyard.”. The Hebrew word for “began”, “Vayachel”, also means “Mundane”. Rashi tells us: “he made himself profane, for he should have first engaged in planting something different.”

Why did Noah, immediately after the flood, plant a vine, which is a symbol of mundane pleasure? The Chassidic Masters explain that after seeing the corruption of the earth Noah wanted to engage with the soil in order to protect it from future spiritual corruption. Noah felt that his responsibility was to be “master of the soil”, he must engage with the most material pleasure and demonstrate how it could, in fact, be used for holiness. 

Yet, Noah was mistaken. And his mistake was that - “Vayachel” - “he began”. The mistake was that he began with material pleasure. The material will intoxicate one’s spiritual senses unless the person is first saturated in holiness. Had Noah began his day with intensifying his connection to spirituality and only then proceeded to plant, he would have elevated the vine rather than having the vine pull him down.    

When Noah awoke from his wine and recognized his mistake he proceeded to bless Shem and Yafet, the two sons who had treated him with dignity and covered his nakedness. Noah said: 

May God expand Yafet, and may He dwell in the tents of Shem…

Noah, who “uncovered himself within his tent”, saw within his son Shem the potential for the correction of his own negative experience in his tent, an experience of pleasure disconnected from a holy context. Noah proclaimed “may He (G-d) dwell in the tents of Shem”, emphasising that Shem and his descendants would bring G-d into their homes, they would infuse their homes with holiness, which, in turn, would allow them to proceed and elevate the mundane. They begin with prayer, study and good deeds ensuring that their tent is a place where G-d will dwell, and only then do they proceed to plant the vine. 

(Adapted from the Maor Vashemesh)

What’s Wrong with Knowledge? - בראשית

What’s Wrong with Knowledge?

When Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden life was simple. G-d had only one request. They were permitted to eat from any tree in the garden, except for one. The tree which they were prohibited from consuming, which therefore symbolized the most negative thing in the garden, was, of course, the tree of knowledge of good and evil. 

This raises many questions, among them: 1) What is wrong with knowledge? Would G-d prefer that Adam and Eve remain  ignorant? 2) The question which Maimonides, in his philosophical work The Guide to the Perplexed, refers to as an “astonishing question” raised by a “learned man”: How can it be that because Adam and Eve violated the commandment of G-d they were rewarded with knowledge, which is the greatest gift man can possess? How is it possible that violating G-d’s will elevated man to the state of enlightenment? 

The answer, according to Maimonides, lies in the words good and evil, which imply subjective good and evil. Before the sin Adam and Eve would think in terms of truth or falsehood; if something was objectively positive it was true, if something was objectively negative it was false. The result of the consumption of the fruit of the tree of knowledge was the introduction of a heightened awareness of self. The human being began to think primarily in terms of self. How does this experience make me feel? If the experience feels good subjectively, it is then desirable. When G-d did not want Adam and Eve to know good and evil he was not trying to keep them ignorant of knowledge, on the contrary, G-d hoped that humanity could hold on to objective knowledge. The “opening of the eyes” that Adam and Eve experienced by consuming the fruit, was not an upgrade that was awarded, but rather on the contrary, it was a downgrade. They traded-in superior objective knowledge for inferior subjective knowledge.  

The consequence of developing a subjective sense of good and evil is that we were expelled from the tranquility of Eden. Each person evaluated good based on their own self interest, which inevitably led to a chaotic clash of egos. In the short term, the fruit of the tree of knowledge moved us away from G-d.

The story of the tree of knowledge is not an all out tragedy. The subjective perspective introduced passion, enthusiasm, and excitement. If I am attracted to something because I feel that it is good for me, that will intensify my longing and desire for it. So while initially the introduction of the subjective idea of good may have turned us away from the truth of G-d, toward the pursuit of our own temptations, in the long run the subjective perspective could, in fact, enhance our relationship with G-d, intensifying the yearning, deepening the love, and stoking the passion to reconnect to G-d and transforming the world back into Eden. 

"He Dwells Between his Shoulders" - וזאת הברכה

"He Dwells Between his Shoulders"

On the last day of his life Moses blessed each of the twelve tribes of Israel, tailoring the blessing to each tribe's unique contribution to the collective Jewish people. In his blessing to the tribe of Benjamin Moses refers to the temple which was destined to be built In the portion of Benjamin, blessing them that the Divine presence shall always dwell in the temple:

And of Benjamin he said, "The Lord's beloved one shall dwell securely beside Him; He protects him all day long, and He dwells between his shoulders." (Deuteronomy 33:12)

Rashi addresses the question of why, when describing the dwelling of the Divine presence in the temple, Moses uses the words “between his shoulders”, and explains that the expression refers to the location of the Temple Mount. It was a bit lower than the “head”, the highest point in the land of Benjamin, it was therefore referred to as “between the shoulders”, just as the shoulders are a bit lower than the head.

 As Rashi explains:

and dwells between his shoulders: The Holy Temple was built on the highest point of his [Benjamin’s] land, except that it was twenty-three cubits below the Eitam Well. Now, it was David’s intention to build it there [at the level of the Eitam Well], [However,] they said to David: “Let us build it a little lower, for Scripture states, ‘and He dwells between his shoulders’ [which are lower than the head] - and there is no part of an ox more beautiful than its shoulders.”

The topography on the temple mountain, lower than the “head”, was not an accident. The Rebbe explained that the metaphor of the “neck” captures the essence of the temple. Conventional wisdom is that the temple is a “head”, the most spiritual and lofty place, a place where we experience and are intune with the Divine presence. That is why David sought to build the temple on the highest peak in the region to symbolize that the temple is the place where we ascend to the highest place within the world. 

Moses, in his blessing to Benjamin teaches us that the purpose and function of the temple is to serve as the metaphoric “neck”, connecting the “head”, the holy and the spiritual with the figurative body which is the rest of the world. 

The same is true within each of our lives. We each possess a spiritual “head”, the part of our self that is spiritual, idealistic and pure. Yet the Torah teaches that the Divine presence dwells not in the “head“, but rather in the “neck”, which connects our spiritual and holy self with the rest of the body, allowing our spiritual, lofty soul to permeate every part of our existence.   

The topography of the temple mount symbolizes to us that the mission of the temple, is not to retreat to a spiritual haven, but rather to connect “head” the core of holiness within the world and within each of our souls, with the “body”, every part of the world and every part of our life.  

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos, Vayigash vol. 10 sicha 1.  

How to Find a Sense of Security - סוכות

How to Find a Sense of Security

The three biblical pilgrimage holidays follow the agricultural cycle. Passover, which commemorates the exodus from Egypt, must take place in the month of spring. The Hebrew word for spring, Aviv, means the ripening of the first grain. Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah, is referred to in the Torah as the holiday of the harvest, and Sukkot, which commemorates  G-d establishing us in huts when he took us out of Egypt, is referred to as the holiday of the ingathering, as the Torah tells us:   

But on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you gather in the produce of the land, you shall celebrate the festival of the Lord for a seven day period; the first day shall be a rest day, and the eighth day shall be a rest day (Leviticus 23:39)

For a seven day period you shall live in booths. Every resident among the Israelites shall live in booths (ibid. 23:42)

The first two holidays find the farmer out in the field, inspecting the ripening produce, and engaging in the harvest. By the time the third holiday comes around, the farmer is comfortably in his home, with all his produce stored away indoors. This is the time when the farmer feels most secure, knowing that his home contains the produce that will sustain him and his family throughout the long winter. 

Yet, ironically, specifically when the farmer feels most secure in his home, the Torah tells him to go out of his home and find shelter in a temporary structure. The Torah uses the term “every resident among the Israelites shall live in booths” emphasizing that the Israelites are residents, they have homes, their homes are full of produce, yet they should dwell outside. 

And this is the message the Sukkah conveys to the Jew: every person needs a sense of security in order to experience peace of mind and a sense of joy. Yet the Torah tells us that, specifically when we are tempted to find our security in the walls we have build and the produce we have gathered, we must abandon the home and seek refuge in the sukkah, internalizing the awareness that our security comes not from the power of our achievements but rather from G-d’s protection. 

And here the Torah offers us a profound insight: The Torah emphasizes that, more than the other holidays, Sukkot is the holiday of joy. This seems counterintuitive, after all if the person is to experience joy shouldn't he be allowed to dwell in his home  where he can enjoy the wealth which he  gathered with much effort? The Torah says no. Joy cannot come from one’s wealth and one’s achievements alone. If one puts his trust and joy in the produce alone, it can only lead to greater anxiety. He will question if the produce will suffice. Will it rot? Will he be able to recreate this degree of success next year? Joy, the Torah tells us can only come from a sense of connection to G-d. Joy comes when we step out of our home, away from the produce we gathered, and realize that our shelter, our security, and our meaning and purpose in life comes not from the produce which we have gathered but rather from connecting to the infinite G-d. 

(Adapted from the Kli Yakar, Leviticus 23:42)    

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