Blog - Torah Insights

Judah the Guarantor - ויגש

 Judah the Guarantor

The Torah has two facets: both a body, law, and a soul, inner meaning, philosophy, and spirituality. By examining the detailed Talmudic analysis, the body, of a given topic, we can gain insight into the inner spiritual dimension.


The Talmud offers two opinions for the scriptural source of the legal liability of a guarantor, the person who agrees to assume the liability to repay a loan given to a third person. Rav Huna states that the scriptural source is from the story of Judah, who committed to his father to become a guarantor to return Benjamin safely home from Egypt: 

Rav Huna said: From where is it derived that a guarantor becomes obligated to repay a loan he has guaranteed? As it is written that Judah reassured his father concerning the young Benjamin: “I will be his guarantor; of my hand shall you request him” (Genesis 43:9). This teaches that it is possible for one to act as a guarantor that an item will be returned to the giver.

This source, however, is somewhat problematic, because Judah’s offer to be a “guarantor” was not referring to the obligation to repay a debt. Since Judah’s commitment does not conform to the scenario of a financial guarantor, the Talmud offers another opinion:

Rabbi Yitzḥak said that the source is from here: “Take his garment that is surety for a stranger; and hold him in pledge that is surety for an alien woman” (Proverbs 20:16). 

And it is stated: “My son, if you have become guarantor for your neighbor, if you have shaken your hands for a stranger, you have become ensnared by the words of your mouth”.

While it seems that the two opinions in the Talmud are debating a technical point, the scriptural source for the legal obligation of a guarantor, in reality, they are debating a deeper philosophical question: what is the nature of the obligation of the guarantor? 

It is clear that according to the second opinion, the relationship between the guarantor and the borrower is limited to a financial obligation. The quoted verses from Proverbs clearly define the borrower as a “stranger”, a separate and distinct entity. 

However, according to the first opinion, the relationship is a far deeper one. When Judah states that he will “guarantee” the return of Benjamin, he is not referring to a financial obligation; instead, he is stating that he is bound to Benjamin as though they were one entity, and he would therefore ensure Benjamin's return. If Judah’s commitment to Benjamin is the scriptural source for the laws of the guarantor of a debt, this indicates that the philosophical underpinnings of the guarantor’s responsibility to repay, is not because he agrees to repay the loan of a “stranger”, but rather it is as if the guarantor himself borrowed the money, because he and the borrower have become one entity.  

The Hebrew word for guarantor {arev} derives from the word blended {meurav}. The guarantor can be considered one entity with the borrower because, in our spiritual source, we are all part of one whole, interconnected and interrelated. This explains why, in Jewish Law, one can recite a blessing on behalf of a fellow who is obligated to recite the blessing, although the reciter himself is not obligated. The reason is because all Jewish people are considered one entity, if one person has not fulfilled his obligation, then his fellow is also “obligated”. 

The interconnectivity between all Jewish people is because of our shared spiritual identity. Therefore, all agree that we are considered one entity in spiritual matters, such as the recitation of a blessing. The Talmudic debate is whether our spiritual connection can play itself out in physical matters as well, expressing itself in financial matters. If, while engaged in the material world, we are unable to see ourselves as one entity, then the commitment to repay a fellow’s debt can only be considered a financial obligation to a fellow. Rav Huna, however, believes that our spiritual core can express itself even in the marketplace. He therefore says that the financial obligation on behalf of derives from the understanding that we are one entity. 

Judah’s family was traumatized by terrible division, when the brothers kidnapped Joseph and sold him as a slave. The healing, the reunion between Joseph and his brothers, could only have occurred once Judah expressed true brotherhood, demonstrating that a family is, in fact, one entity. 

Judah, and his descendants, became the leaders of the Jewish people precisely because a true leader senses that he is one with the people he leads. A true leader helps us all feel that we are part of one whole, part of one family. We are not complete until we are all complete.    

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 30 Vayigash 1)

Finding the "Opening of the House" - מקץ

Finding the "Opening of the House"

The brothers were frightened. 

The viceroy of Egypt, who unbeknownst to them was their brother Joseph whom they sold into slavery, accused them of being spies. When they returned home from purchasing grain to sustain their families during the terrible famine, they found that the money they spent was mysteriously returned to their bags. When they returned to Egypt with Benjamin to purchase additional garin they were immediately brought to the house of Joseph. 

They were afraid to enter Joseph's house. 

The Torah describes that they approached the steward of Joseph’s house, trying to convince him of their innocence. As the Torah describes: 

so they went up to Joseph’s house steward and spoke to him at the entrance of the house.

And they said, "Please, my lord, we came down at first to purchase food.

And it came to pass when we came to the lodging place that we opened our sacks, and behold! each man's money was in the mouth of his sack, our money in full weight; and we returned it in our hands.

And we brought down other money in our hand[s] to purchase food. We do not know who put our money into our sacks." (Genesis 43:19-22)

The Torah describes how they were reassured: 

He replied, “All is well with you; do not be afraid. Your God, the God of your father, must have put treasure in your bags for you. I got your payment.” And he brought out Simeon to them. 43-23

Every detail in the Torah is precise. Why does the Torah emphasize that the exchange happened “at the entrance of the house“?

The Chasidic Masters explain the mystical meaning of the story and its relevance to each of our lives. The Baal Shem Tov taught that everything that happens in this world happens by Divine providence. When a person experiences fear caused by physical concerns, it is in order to help the person reach a higher state of fear, the awe of G-d. The spiritual fear then causes all other fears, which are debilitating and paralyzing, to dissipate. This, in fact, is what happened to Joseph’s brothers. When they were accused of being spies (and later, when Benjamin was accused of stealing Joseph’s goblet), they were frightened. Yet the fear of the viceroy led them to a deeper awe, it led them to realize the severity of their terrible sin of selling their brother. The “external fear”, the fear of the human king, led them to “an inner fear”, the fear of their creator, which led to their ultimate repentance and transformation. 

This is the mystical significance of the “opening of the house”. Every challenge is, in reality, an opening to a deeper and more elevated space. When the brothers were faced with a profound fear, they realized that it was an “opening of a house”, an opportunity to get to a deeper awe. They were able to use the external fear as an opportunity to introspect and reach a deeper level of awe.    

The same is true for each of us. Every experience in our life could become “an opening of the house”, an opportunity for spiritual growth, deeper awareness. Next time you face a challenge, or encounter an obstacle, ask yourself: how do I use this challenge as an opening to a new “house”, to a space of deeper meaning and spiritual connection? 

Based on the Degel Machane Ephrayim.

The Wedding Ring - וישב

The Wedding Ring 

Perhaps one of the most puzzling stories in the Torah is the story of Judah and Tamar. Judah promised Tamar, his twice widowed daughter-in-law, that he would give her his third son in marriage. When Tamar realized that Judah had no intention of doing so, she disguised herself as a harlot and became pregnant from Judah, giving birth to twins, one of whom became the ancestor of King David, as well as the ancestor of Moshiach, who will bring the world to perfection. 

Every detail in the Torah is layered with significance. Tamar asked Judah for security for payment. As the Torah describes: 

So he said, "What is the pledge that I should give you?" And she said, "Your signet, your cloak, and the staff that is in your hand." So he gave them to her, and he came to her, and she conceived his likeness. (Genesis 38:18)

Rashi emphasizes that the signet was set in a ring: “Your ring, with which you seal”.  

The Story of Judah and Tamar affects an essential aspect of every Jewish marriage. While the Jewish Law teaches that a woman is betrothed by receiving any object of monetary value, it has become the universal Jewish custom to betroth a woman by giving her a ring. The commentators explain that the biblical source for betrothal by a ring is Judah, who gave Tamar his signet set in a ring. 

What is the mystical meaning of the ring? Why do we evoke the, seemingly immodest, union of Judah and Tamar in every jewish marriage?

Regarding the day of Shabbat, the Midrash employs the following parable: “This is compared to a king who made a ring. What was the ring missing? It was missing a signet . So too, what was the world missing? The world was missing Shabbat.  

A ring represents nature. The Hebrew word ring consists of the same letters as the Hebrew word for nature . Like a ring, nature is cyclical, like a ring, nature does not necessarily have an identifying mark expressing its owner. What nature, the ring, is missing is a signet, identifying its owner, it’s meaning, and its purpose. Shabbat is the signet. Shabbat is our declaration that G-d created the world in six days and rested in the seventh. While nature is a ring that tells you nothing about its owner or its purpose, Shabbat is the signet of the ring which infuses nature with awareness of the holiness and transcendence of G-d. 

This is the significance of the wedding ring, which represents Judah’s signet. When man and woman seek to unite in marriage, they seek more than a natural, and therefore temporary, bond, they seek to draw holiness and transcendence into their relationship.  Marriage is the sacred bond which infuses the natural connection between man and woman, with the energy of the infinite light of G-d, thus creating an everlasting edifice, expressed in the Divine power of procreation. 

And finally, the Messianic era, whose seeds were planted by the union of Judah and Tamar, represents the ultimate fusion between the ring and the signet, between the natural order, and the infinite light of G-d. Indeed, the Messianic era represents the culmination of the marriage between G-d and the Jewish people, When “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of G-d as the waters fill the sea.”

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos, Vayeshev, vol. 15 sicha 4. 

Value Thy Possessions - וישלח

Value Thy Possessions

It was a tense night for Jacob, as he prepared to meet his brother Esau after twenty years of separation. Jacob was afraid. Would Esau accept his gifts and his friendship, or would Esau seek confrontation and conflict?

The night before Jacob was to meet Esau he crossed the stream of Jabok with his wives, children and possessions, enroute to the land of Israel. Jacob returned to the other side of the Jabok alone, where he met a mysterious man and they wrestled until morning. As the Torah relates: 

And he arose during that night, and he took his two wives and his two maidservants and his eleven children, and he crossed the Jabbok stream.

And he took them and brought them across the stream, and he took across what was his.

And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn (Genesis 32:23-25)

What was Jacob’s state of mind on that fateful night as he stood alone in the dark, on the other side of the Jabok stream? The sages offer two seemingly contradictory possibilities. Rashi explains that Jacob crossed the Jabok seeking to retrieve a few small jugs: 

And Jacob was left: He had forgotten small bottles and returned for them.

Jacob was alone, not for any spiritual purpose, but rather because despite his great wealth, he was seeking to recover something of very little value. On the other hand, the Midrash reads this verse in an entirely different fashion. The verse states that Jacob was alone, the word alone, is used by the prophet Isaiah to describe G-d’s presence in the Messianc era, when G-d will be “alone”, because all will recognize that all existence is dependent on, and therefore insignificant to, his presence. As the Midrash states:  

Just as, regarding the Holy Blessed One, it is written, "None but the G-d shall be Exalted on that day" (Isaiah 2:17), so too regarding Jacob it is written: "Jacob was left alone." (Breishis Rabbah chapter 77)

So which one is it? Was Jacob alone because he was trying to save a few dollars or was he alone because he was experiencing the oneness of G-d? Can these opposite interpretations coexist in the same verse? 

The Chassidic answer is yes. Indeed, both these interpretations are true, simultaneously. The Talmud (Chulin 91a) states “from here {Jacob’s concern for the jugs} we derive that the righteous value their money more than their body”. The Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, explains this startling statement as follows: every creation possesses a spark of holiness in a dormant state, waiting to be released back to its source. This can be accomplished by elevating the object, using it for a higher purpose. The righteous, explains the Baal Shem Tov, sense the sparks of G-dliness, the holy potential waiting to be unleashed, within their possessions. Thus, when Jacob crossed the stream to collect his possessions, he sensed, not the physical worth of his possessions, but rather, the spark of G-d within the material. Within the material world, Jacob sensed that indeed G-d is “alone”, the true and ultimate existence.

The meeting of Jacob and Esau represents the unity between body and soul, between physical and spiritual. Before Jacob could meet, unite, and elevate Esau, he must first experience oneness within himself. Thus, the night before the meeting Jacob was alone, introspecting, seeing the Divine unity within each creation.  

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 15 Vayishlach sicha 3. 


Why Did Jacob Pour Oil on a Stone? - ויצא

Why Did Jacob Pour Oil on a Stone?

It is a strange name to name a child.

The name Jacob, a derivative of the Hebrew word for “heel”, was given because when Jacob emerged from his mother's womb he was holding the heel of his twin brother. Why would anyone name a child, heel? Why would we want him to consistently remember that he emerged grasping his brother's heel? 

Chassidic philosophy explains the mystical meaning of the name Jacob, and how the name captures Jacob life’s purpose and calling. The Hebrew word for Jacob, Yaakov, consists of two parts, the Hebrew letter “Yud”  and the word “Eikev” which means heel. Jacob’s spiritual task was to engage with the hebrew letter “Yud” which represents wisdom, enlightenment and vision and bring it to every area of the person including the heel, which is the part of the body with the least vitality, the part of the body with the least inspiration. Jacob's skill was to take this vision and bring it to the everyday mundane tasks of life. Jacob's skill was his ability to see within every moment, within every activity, within every chore, a larger vision, one of an inspired and meaningful life. 

This theme plays out in the story of Jacob’s reaction to his dream: as the Torah describes: 

And he arrived at the place and lodged there because the sun had set, and he took some of the stones of the place and placed [them] at his head, and he lay down in that place.

And he dreamed, and behold! a ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven; and behold, angels of God were ascending and descending upon it.…

And Jacob arose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had placed at his head, and he set it up as a monument, and he poured oil on top of it.

The commentators point out that before he went to sleep he put stones, plural, around his head. When he woke up he took the stone, singular, that was around his head and poured oil on it. Was it one stone or was it many stones? Rashi, quoting the Talmud, explains: 

and placed [them] at his head: He arranged them in the form of a drainpipe around his head because he feared the wild beasts. They [the stones] started quarreling with one another. One said, “Let the righteous man lay his head on me,” and another one said, “Let him lay [his head] on me.” Immediately, the Holy One, blessed be He, made them into one stone. This is why it is stated: “and he took the stone [in the singular] that he had placed at his head.” 

This is the essence of Jacob’s spiritual skill. By pouring oil, which represents light, wisdom, and Divine awareness, Jacob could transform many stones into a single stone; within the multiple, seemingly mundane and monotonous details of existence and daily life, Jacob could experience a unifying light and purpose.

Jacob fled to the city of Charan. The word Charan is related to the word “Nichar”, as in the verse “my throat became dry ”. In Charan, G-d’s speech invested within creation was not apparent. The universe did not tell a unified story, the story of the greatness of G-d. Instead  randomness and chaos reigned. Jacob's task was to transform the “Nichar”, the silence, to “Rina”, joyous song, by revealing the myriads of details within creation, each singing their own song, all part of a unified orchestra, proclaiming the beauty and greatness of the creator.  

Jacob is the patriarch of each and every Jew. We each possess Jacob’s ability to infuse the specific details of everyday life with overarching, unifying, meaning. We each have the ability to experience a connection to G-d in every mundane act, because every individual moment is a detail of a unified song, the song which connects us  to our creator.

Adapted from Vishavti Bishalom, Torah Or, Parshas Vayetze. 


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