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Declaration of Faith or Lifestyle Manual? - ואתחנן

Declaration of Faith or Lifestyle Manual?

The most important Jewish declaration, which we are commanded to recite every evening and every morning, appears in our Parsha. The Shema is the declaration of the unity of G-d: Hear O Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-ord is one.

The Shema, however, is more than a declaration of faith. Abstract faith is not enough; Judaism teaches that our purpose is to impact life on earth. In the realm of faith, our connection to G-d is theoretical, the Shema reminds us that our relationship with G-d must permeate our daily lifestyle. The Shema then, is not merely a declaration of the unity of G-d, but rather, it is a manual of how to experience the Divine unity in every aspect of our life. 

Thus, the Shema continues by describing how the idea of faith effects, not just our understanding, but our emotion as well: You shall love the L-rd your G‑d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.

The Shema guides us on how to implement the unity of G-d in our thought, speech, and action. 

We connect our thoughts to G-d through the study of Torah: And these words which I command you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them thoroughly to your children, 

We influence our speech through the recitation of the words of the Torah (and the words of the Shema): and you shall speak of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise.

The oneness of G-d permeates our action through the performance of the commandments, symbolized by the commandments to tie the Tefilin on our head and arm: You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for a reminder between your eyes.

A personal relationship with G-d has been achieved, yet the Shema is not yet concluded. Because our task is to spread holiness, not only in our own space but rather, to the rest of the world as well. The Mezuzah, the words of the Shema written on parchment which we place on the posts of our doors, reminds us that the light of holiness must spread through the doors of our homes and the gates of our courtyards, and influence the rest of the world as well: And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your house and upon your gates.   

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Tzion Bimishpat Tipadeh, 5739)

Two Forms of Urban Life - דברים

Two Forms of Urban Life 

There are two words in Biblical Hebrew for the word city. The common word, used in the overwhelming majority of cases is ir, the second word is kiryah.

There are two words for city, because there are two types of cities. The two cities may look the same, they both have shops and boulevards, parks and homes, yet there is a profound difference between them. The ir is a city that houses many individuals, the kiryah  is a place where the many individuals experience social cohesion. They feel interconnected and interdependent, part of one social fabric. The kiryah is more than a collection of individuals, the people in the kiryah are united, they care for each other and they view the needs of their neighbor as their own. In short, the ir is a collection of individuals, the kiryah is a community.  

In our portion Moses uses the word kiryah to describe the cities that the Jewish people conquered east of the Jordan: 

From Aroer which is on the edge of the valley of Arnon, and from the city that is in the valley, even unto Gilead, there was not a kiryah (city) too high for us: the Lord our God delivered up all before us. (Deuteronomy 2:36)

During wartime the unity of a city, and the cohesion of its inhabitants, is critical. For the city to survive a large scale threat, each individual person must suspend their personal wellbeing and work to save the collective city. Therefore when Moses describes the fortitude of the enemy they overcame, he mentions, not only their physical strength, but their spiritual strength as well: they were a kiryah, united and connected. This highlights the great miracle that the Jewish people were successful in conquering cities that were physically fortified and, perhaps more importantly, spiritually fortified. 

[Kiryah also appears regarding the commandment to establish cities of refuge to protect the inadvertent killer, the Torah states: 

You shall designate (vihikrisem) cities for yourselves; they shall be cities of refuge for you, and a murderer who killed a person unintentionally shall flee there. (Numbers 35:11). 

The word the Torah uses for “designate” is vihikrisem, which is the same root as the word kiryah. The Torah is telling us that in order for the city of refuge to have the desired effect of rehabilitation and atonement, we must ensure that the city of refuge is indeed a kiryah. The inadvertent killer was not careful enough in protecting human life, for him to be rehabilitated and healed, he must learn to transcend his own ego and care for others as much as he is concerned about himself. The city of refuge, then must be a place whose inhabitants exemplify unity and concern for one another. Therefore the commandment to establish the city of refuge literally reads “transform the city into a kiryah”.]

As the Jewish people were about to enter the land of Israel, Moses introduced the concept of kiryah. There are many cities that are united around a common cause that all members of the society can relate to. Yet in order for the Jewish people to succeed they would have to produce a deeper level of kiryah, a deeper level of unity and connection, one that would run deeper than the unity based on a common cause and benefit. The Jewish people are able to create a kiryah, a united society, because at our core we are one, we are part of the same spiritual soul and energy. If we are to be successful in creating a healthy society in Israel, we must tap into the part of our soul that is one with the souls of our fellow, and sense the oneness. We must create a kiryah, where each individual is part of a greater collective united community. 

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 29 Devarim 1)


The Fall - מטות מסעי


The Fall

In the final portion of the fourth book of the Torah we read about the borders of the land of Israel. 

Command the children of Israel and say to them: “This is the land that shall fall to you as an inheritance, the land of Canaan according to its borders.” (Numbers 34:2). 

There are two points in this verse which Rashi addresses:

1) Rashi explains that the exact borders of the land were written to inform us regarding  the area in which the commandments that are dependent on the land of Israel apply: 

Since many mitzvos apply in the land and do not apply outside the land, the Torah found it necessary to describe the outer limits of its boundaries from all sides, to inform you that the mitzvos apply everywhere within these borders.

2) Rashi moves on to explain why the verse uses the term “falling”, which is a negative term, in relation to the land of Israel (“this is the land that will fall to you”): 

Shall fall to you -- Since it was apportioned by lot, the division is described in terms of falling . Midrash Aggadah says that because the Holy One, blessed is He, cast down

Every concept in the Torah has a mystical interpretation in addition to the plain meaning of the verse. According to Chassidic teachings the verse, as well as the points Rashi clarifies, is relevant to the purpose of every Jew on this earth. 

According to the Kabbalah, the source of the Jewish soul, the Divine attribute of Malchut, is referred to as land. While earth is lower than vegetation, animal and human life, the earth produces and sustains life. The same is true regarding Malchut, the divine attribute of royalty, it is the lowest of all attributes, yet it sustains the creation by infusing it with Divine energy.

The verse “this is the land that will fall to you”, refers to the “falling”, the traumatic and steep descent, of the “land”, the soul, when it descends from heaven to earth. What is the purpose of the descent? Why does the soul leave its spiritual paradise and “fall” into a spiritually hostile and challenging environment? Rashi explains: “many mitzvos apply in the land and do not apply outside the land”. The reason the soul descends to the earth is because the earth is the arena in which the commandments can be fulfilled. For the Divine purpose of creation is that the infinite light of G-d should be drawn down within the finite space, the “boundaries”, of creation. 

If the descent into the world allows the soul to fulfill the Divine purpose, and thus elevate itself to even greater heights, why does the verse use the term “fall”, which implies descent? 

Rashi offers two interpretations. 

The first is that the term “fall” refers to the lottery that is cast in order to divide the land among the tribes. The mystical interpretation of the lot is as follows: when the soul is in heaven it experiences the Divine reality and is therefore filled with love and awe to the creator. Its relationship with G-d is based on its understanding and experience of God's greatness. When the soul descends, it loses its Divine awareness. The love and awe are no longer felt naturally. Instead, the soul reaches the level of “lottery”. A lottery is not decided based on logic; the lottery represents a level deeper than logic. While in heaven the soul’s relationship with G-d was conditioned on its understanding, on this earth the soul, lacking the understanding and awareness, experiences an even deeper level of connection. The unconditional bond. The lottery. 

Rashi’s second interpretation as to why the Torah uses the term “fall” is: “ the Holy One, blessed is He, cast down from Heaven the celestial ministers of the seven nations, and shackled them before Moshe.” When the soul responds to the descent into this world, to the “fall” from its heavenly state, by cultivating the “lot”, the unconditional bond to G-d, then G-d removes all obstacles that stand in the way of  man’s service. 

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Masei vol. 13 sicha 2)



Inheritance: the Deepest form of Relationship - פנחס

Inheritance: the Deepest form of Relationship  

What is the nature of your relationships? Are they rational, based on the benefit we receive,or are they unconditional? 

There are three dimensions included in the relationship between the land of Israel and the Jewish people. (1) The land was divided based on  the population of the tribe. As the verse states: “To the large [tribe] you shall give a larger inheritance and to a smaller tribe you shall give a smaller inheritance, each person shall be given an inheritance according to his number (Numbers 26:54).” (2) The land was divided by lottery. As the verse states: “Only through lot shall the Land be apportioned; they shall inherit it according to the names of their fathers' tribes. The inheritance shall be apportioned between the numerous and the few, according to lot (Numbers 26:55-56).” [According to one opinion, the lottery miraculously confirmed the division based on the size of the tribe. Another opinion is that the lottery determined the location where the tribe would receive its portion]. (3) The land of Israel is the inheritance of every Jew. As the verse states: “I will give it to you as a heritage; I am the Lord (Exodus 6:8).”    


The three aspects of our relationship with the land of Israel reflect the three dimensions of our relationship with G-d. 

The first is the “allocation based on population”. The rational division of the land represents the logical relationship with G-d. We serve G-d because we appreciate and understand the importance of the relationship, and, in turn, G-d’s connection to the people of Israel in general, and the individual Jew in particular, is commensurate with the love, loyalty and service of the Jew to G-d. At this level G-d values and derives benefit from the commandments that we fulfill and the service we perform. 

The second aspect of the relationship to the land of Israel is the lottery which determined which portion the Jew would receive. When we don't want to decide based on logical criteria, we employ a lottery. In our relationship with G-d, the lottery represents the supranational bond, which is unconditional, not dependent on any reason. On this level, G-d’s connection to us is not because of anything we can offer Him but rather because G-d chose us to be his people. On this level, G-d’s choice is free of any external influence. He chooses to relate to us not because of anything we can give him (which would then influence his choice to choose us), but rather we were chosen only because that is what G-d chose to do, regardless of our own worthiness. 

The third dimension of the relationship is even deeper. On the first two levels, G-d and the people are two distinct entities that relate to each other. From the third perspective, the inheritance dimension of the relationship, G-d and the people are one. 

The conventional understanding of inheritance is that the estate is transferred from the ownership of the deceased to the ownership of the heir. According to Jewish law however, the mechanism of inheritance is not that the estate transfers to the heir, but rather the heir takes the place of the deceased relative, because the heir is considered one and the same with his relative. 

This represents the deepest element of our bond with G-d. We recognize  that we are not an entity separate from G-d, who merely enjoys a relationship with G-d, but rather we are like the heir who 0is legally considered an extension of, and one entity with, the relative. We are in fact one with G-d, since our soul is a part of G-d above.

The history of our people can be divided into three general periods, consistent with the three perspectives described above.

 The patriarchs experienced the logical relationship. Abraham discovered G-d by his own intellectual inquiry and G-d loved him as a result of his dedication and loving kindness. 

When we received the Torah at Mount Sinai a new era was ushered in. When G-d chose us to be his people the deeper dimension of our relationship was expressed. We experienced the unconditional bond that kept us together even when we ignored our connection and did not live up to our responsibility and purpose.  

The third and most profound element of the relationship will be experienced in the era of the future redemption. We will then feel the deepest truth, that we and G-d are in fact one. 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos, Pinchos vol. 28 sicha 2.   


The Blessing of the Jewish Home - חוקת בלק

The Blessing of the Jewish Home 

The greatest blessings and praises of the Jewish people recorded in the Torah, were, ironically, spoken by the gentile prophet Balaam, who tried to curse the Jewish people.  

Balaam was the great gentile prophet hired by Balak, king of Moab, to curse the Jews, who were camped at the bank of the Jordan River as they readied to cross into the promised land. The Torah relates in intricate detail, the story of Balaam's travel to the proximity of the Jewish camp, how Balak took Balaam to the mountain peaks so he could gaze upon the Jewish people as he would curse them. Balak’s plan was foiled when  G-d placed blessings in the mouth of Balaam instead of curses.

Of all the praise and blessings uttered by Balaam, one verse was incorporated into our daily prayers: 

How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! (Numbers 24:5)

“How goodly are your tents Jacob”: Balaam was a prophet, steeped in spirituality, the service of G-d was not foreign to him. What  impressed him about the Jewish people and their culture was that while virtually all people created temples and designated places for worship, the Jewish people understood that it is primarily in the home, not the shrines and temples, where the connection to G-d is experienced and celebrated. Balaam understood that a Jew’s relationship with holiness is not relegated to a specific time and place, when he separates from daily life and goes to worship, but rather, holiness permeates life itself and expresses itself within the home of every individual Jew. 

“Your dwelling places Israel”: The word for “dwelling places” is the same word the Torah  uses to describe the tabernacle, the temple that the Jewish people built in the desert, fulfilling the commandment: “they shall make for me a sanctuary and I will dwell amongst them”. At this point in the Torah when we hear the word “mishkenosecha” (your dwelling places) we can't help but think of the word “mishkan” (tabernacle).  What Balaam was saying  about the Jewish people was that every Jewish home is indeed a mishkan, a sanctuary for the Divine presence.     

As we read Balaam’s  words, we are mindful of our own individual mission. Each of our homes can become a dwelling place for G-d, when it becomes a place of Torah study, hospitality, charity,  celebration of Shabbat, and performing all Mitzvot, creating a dwelling place for G-d in our home.


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