Blog - Torah Insights

Faith or Reason? - במדבר

Faith or Reason? 

Which is the preferred path to create a relationship with G-d, faith or reason?

Faith is powerful. It is simple. Pure. Not up for debate. Faith inspires commitment and brings comfort. Like a child who puts his trust in his parents, the believer puts his trust in G-d.

Reason is complicated. We seek to investigate and understand G-d, in order to internalize our relationship. We study and explore in order to enrich our relationship. Reason however is complicated. To every claim there can be a counterclaim, to every perspective there is a counter perspective. One who seeks to understand and learn must be ready for the battlefield of ideas. Focusing on reason has none of the tranquility and comfort of pure faith. 

Which is preferable, the simplicity of faith or complexity of reason? 

In the opening portion of the book of Numbers we read about how G-d commanded Moses to take a census of all the Israelites who were fit for battle:

From twenty years old and upwards, all who are fit to go out to the army in Israel, you shall count them by their legions you and Aaron. (Numbers 1:3)

The Torah then tells us that the Levites should be counted separately from the other tribes, not from age twenty, as the Israelites were counted, but rather from thirty days old: 

Count the children of Levi according to their fathers' house according to their families. Count all males from the age of one month and upward. (ibid. 3:15)

And finally, toward the end of the portion, we read about an additional census. This one was for the Levites who were thirty years old, who reached the age of performing the service of the temple: 

From the age of thirty until the age of fifty, all who enter the service, to do work in the Tent of Meeting. (ibid. 4:3)

Why were the Levites counted twice, at thirty days old and again at thirty years old? The Chassidic masters explain that, like everything else in the Torah, the census has a spiritual meaning as well. The census of the Israelites going to battle, represents the study of Torah. The census therefore begins at age twenty, when a person reaches his full intellectual capacity. Logical inquiry is like battle, where every idea must be analyzed and challenged. 

The Levites represent faith. Faith does not require intellectual maturity, therefore the census of the Levites was from thirty days, because the child is capable of a deeper level of faith than the adult. 

Yet the Levites were counted not once but twice, because there are two levels of faith. There is the census of the Levites from thirty days old, which represents simple childlike faith. The census of the Levites at thirty years old represents the higher form of faith, one that follows intellectual inquiry and understanding. After the person studies and explores all that he can understand, he realizes the limit of human knowledge. Following intellectual exploration, the Jews reach a higher level of faith, a faith that follows reason. The reason itself leads to faith. 

In the final analysis, our relationship with G-d incorporates all three elements: we begin with simple faith (corresponding to the census of the Levites from thirty days old), this is followed by study and intellectual inquiry (corresponding to the census of the Israelites from age twenty), and finally the higher form of faith (corresponding to the census of the Levites from age thirty), the faith which follows study.

(Adapted from the Kedushas Levi)   

How to Deal with Burnout? - בהר בחוקותי

How to Deal with Burnout?

Sooner or later we all experience burnout. We begin with enthusiasm, excited about an idea, a project, starting a business, or raising a family. We set out to achieve our goal with passion, dedication, and a sense of meaning and purpose. Inevitably, however, we lose some of the excitement. At times we feel burnout, drained of energy, and frustrated by the many details and specific tasks that seem to overwhelm us. 

Chassidic philosophy describes this phenomenon as the disconnect between “Chochmah” (wisdom), the general idea, the flash of inspiration, and “Binah” (understanding), when the general idea is applied in detail. The “light” which is present in the general idea, is not felt in the detail. 

[To illustrate: a student enrolls in medical school because he is passionate about helping people. He is filled with excitement and charged with energy. Three years down the road,   studying for an exam at midnight on a Wednesday night, the excitement has evaporated.  Because it is difficult to feel that this specific detail, this exam, is part of the larger process of becoming a healer and helping people.] 

The solution to the problem is to connect the general idea with the detail, or, in Chassidic parlance, to connect the details of “Binah” with the light of “Chochmah”. While one is engaged in a mundane task, he must focus on the goal of this detail. If one can see the larger picture, then the enthusiasm which is present in the general will energize the specific as well. [For example, I may be frustrated that I have to stand on line in the market to buy vegetables for dinner, but, I can look at the task of waiting on line as a critical step which will allow me to enjoy dinner with my loves ones. This is the way the detail is connected to the general experience.]

All this applies to our relationship with G-d. 

In this week’s portion the Torah tells us that the laws of the Sabbatical year were related to the Jewish people at Sinai. Two great sages, Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva debate what the precise meaning of the words “at Sinai” is. Rabbi Yishmael asserts that only the general principles of the commandments were taught at Sinai, while the details of the laws were taught in the Tent of Meeting (the temple constructed in the desert). Rabbi Akiva disagrees and says that both the general rules of the commandments as well as their particular details were taught at Sinai.

What are the implications of their disagreement? 

Sinai, where the Jewish people experienced the Divine revelation in all its intensity, represents the intense feeling of connection and devotion to G-d. Rabbi Yishmael explains that only the general ideas of the commandments are “from Sinai”, meaning only the general idea of the commandments can elicit within us the same excitement as we experienced at Sinai. Each morning, during prayer, we experience a general devotion to G-d that is reminiscent of the experience at Sinai. Once we are engaged in the specifics of the commandments, however, once we are engaged in the specific tasks of the day,  it is impossible to feel the excitement of Sinai. The details of the laws, therefore, were taught at the Tent of Meeting. 

In contrast to Rabbi Yishmael, who was a high priest whose life experiences kept him within the realm of the holy and tranquil, Rabbi Akiva’s spiritual journey was far more challenging. Rabbi Akiva was a descendant of converts, he began to study Torah at the age of forty, and is the embodiment of one who must overcome difficulty in order to serve G-d. 

Rabbi Akiva’s life experiences taught him that in order to persevere one must be able to experience the full intensity of inspiration every moment. Rabbi Akiva told his students that every day of his life he was yearning to sacrifice his life in total commitment to G-d. 

Rabbi Akiva argues, and exemplifies, that one can indeed have the passion of Sinai not only in the general, not only when one makes general life decisions, but also every moment of every day. Rabbi Akiva shows us that the general ideas as well as the details were both said at Sinai.  

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 17 Behar 1.)  


Teach Me How To Run - אמור

Teach Me How to Run

The Song of Songs, the Biblical book that describes the love between a young woman and her beloved, is a metaphor for the deep relationship between G-d, the groom, and the Jewish people, the bride. 

Early in the book, we read the verse spoken by the woman to her beloved: 

Draw me after you, let us run! The king has brought me to his chambers. We will rejoice and be glad in you. We will recall your love more fragrant than wine; they have loved you sincerely. (Song of Songs 1:4)

The Chassidic masters explain that the first three clauses of the verse refer to three stages of the relationship between G-d and the Jewish people, represented in (1) the holiday of Passover, (2) the counting of the Omer (during the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot), (3) and the holiday of Shavuot (which commemorates the giving of the Torah at Sinai). 

“Draw me after you”: The woman is helpless to pursue the person she loves. She is trapped by her circumstances. All she can do is call out to her beloved to draw her after him. To inspire her and free her from the shackles holding her back. This metaphoric scene captures the reality of the Jewish people in Egypt. They were enslaved not only physically but also spiritually. They were unable to free themselves from the shackles and the perspective of Egypt. They cried out to G-d, and G-d rescued his beloved. G-d pulled them out of Egypt without any effort on their part. 

“Let us run!”: After the beloved drew her near, she too can run. This corresponds to the seven weeks of counting the omer, the seven weeks of preparation for the giving of the Torah, when the Jewish people work to refine themselves, growing spiritually in preparation for receiving the Torah. That is why the verse states “we will run”, because, unlike in Egypt where the Jewish people were passive, during the counting of the omer, the Jewish people are investing effort, they are running, to become closer to G-d. 

“The king has brought me to his chambers”: This refers to the holiday of Shavuot, when we receive the Torah. When we study Torah we experience an intimate bond with G-d. We are in his innermost chamber. 

A careful analysis of the grammar reveals deep insight into our inner self. The Kabbalah teaches that each person possesses two souls. The G-dly soul seeks transcendence and holiness, and the animal soul which is self-oriented seeks physical pleasures. On Passover, when we experience Divine inspiration without any effort on our part, it is specifically our G-dly soul that is affected. That is why the verse states “Draw me”, in the singular. Because the animal soul is not affected by the inspiration that descends from above. During the seven weeks of refinement that precede the giving of the Torah, the G-dly soul seeks to awaken within the animal soul a desire to come close to G-d. Slowly, the G-dly soul demonstrates to the animal soul that it is desirable to experience spirituality. That the greatest pleasure one can achieve is transcendence. Which is why the verse uses the expression “we will run” in the plural. Because at this point both the G-dly soul and the animal soul are involved together.

Perhaps the most surprising insight in this verse is that not only is the animal soul affected by the G-dly soul, but the reverse is also true. The G-dly soul is affected by  the animal soul. The G-dly soul is wise, enlightened, and kind. But the G-dly soul does not have nearly as much passion as the animal soul. When the animal soul wants something it wants it forcefully and completely. There is no delay and no compromise. The animal soul is either not engaged or engaged completely, with all its energy and might. While the G-dly soul “walks”, the animal soul “runs”. 

The verse states “we will run” in the plural. For once the G-dly soul teaches the animal soul the sweetness of becoming close to G-d, the animal soul begins to “run”, unleashing its desire and passion, which may have been previously directed toward unholy matters, to holiness. In the process, the animal soul teaches the G-dly soul how to “run”. The G-dly soul learns to develop an intense passion for G-d. 

The G-dly soul teaches the animal soul what to love, and the animal soul teaches the G-dly soul how to love.

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Usfartem Lachem 5711) 

How To Judge Your Fellow - אחרי קדושים

How To Judge Your Fellow

What do you think of when you hear the word holiness? 

Some would think about spirituality, prayer, perhaps fasting on Yom Kippur. Interestingly, the portion of the Torah called Kedoshim, holy, discusses the proper conduct between people. The Torah believes that the test of holiness is how one treats one’s  fellow human being. 

Amongst the many commandments in the portion of Kedoshim, we read a verse about the judicial system, the judges must treat all people who come before them equally:   

You shall commit no injustice in judgment; you shall not favor a poor person or respect a great man; you shall judge your fellow with righteousness. (Leviticus 19:15)

Rashi addresses the final clause of the verse “you shall judge your fellow with righteousness”, and explains that the verse is referring to the judges sitting in judgment. But there is another meaning as well. For in one sense, each of us is a judge. We each sit in judgment and decided how to evaluate other people. Rashi, therefore, offers a second interpretation: “another explanation is: judge your fellow favorably.”

What does it mean to judge others favorably? 

The conventional interpretation is to give others the benefit of the doubt. I must hold off on judging the person before I know all the facts. Even if I do know all the facts, I must take into consideration that I do not know the extent of another person’s challenges and struggles. When someone fails, when someone does something wrong, I can not judge them, because I have no idea of the magnitude of their inner struggle. 

Rashi’s words however include a deeper meaning as well. Translated literally they read: “judge your fellow meritoriously”. Not only should I not judge the other person negatively, but I must see them as if they have great merit. At first glance this seems strange. Perhaps we can overlook the negative behavior because we understand that there may be extenuating circumstances, but why would I consider the person meritorious?

The verse states “G-d has made one corresponding to the other”, this means that there is a balance between the positive forces and the negative forces in the world and the human soul. This indicates that if someone has a great challenge, he was also gifted with the strength, energy and skills necessary to overcome the challenge.   

When I see someone doing something wrong, I have a choice to make. I can choose to focus on the negative action and deem the person to be inferior. Or, I can judge the person meritoriously. I can choose to see not the negativity, which is an expression of the person’s great internal struggle, but rather I can see the great potential gifted to this person. For if someone is more challenged than me, it also means that he has greater spiritual potential then I do. 

It is up to me to judge the people around me favorably. They must feel that instead of their shortcomings I see their merit, and define them by the reservoir of positivity within them. 

If I will judge my fellow meritoriously then he too will begin to believe in his merit, and seek to express his innate positivity. 

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Emor vol. 27 Sicha 1)  

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