Blog - Torah Insights

Song of the Angels - כי תצא

Song of the Angels 

The songs sung by the angels occupy a central part of the Jew’s daily prayers: 

“Whose ministering angels all stand at the height of the Universe, and proclaim with reverence...  they all open their mouths in holiness and purity, with song and music, and they bless, and praise, and glorify, and revere, and sanctify, and proclaim... Holy, holy, holy is Adonoy of Hosts, the fullness of all the earth is His glory. And the Ofanim and the holy Chayos, with a mighty sound rise toward the Serafim. Facing them, they offer praise and say: Blessed is the glory of Adonoy from His place.

The question begs to be asked: why do we plagiarize from the angels? Could we not have commissioned a writer to create man-made, original material to use in praise of G-d? Why couldn't our great sages and poets collaborate to produce a few pieces of good writing? 

Each of us possess not one but two souls. The animal soul which is self oriented, and the G-dly soul, which is a spark of G-d yearning to reconnect with its source in heaven. We pray with the totality of ourselves, we therefore address both the G-dly soul as well as the animal soul.   

A central part of the daily prayer is the Shema prayer, in which we meditate on the oneness of G-d, and seek to awaken a love to G-d. In the opening phrase of the Shema, “Hear O Israel”, we are talking to our inner Israel, to the divine spark within us. We seek to feel its perspective and connect to its feeling of yearning to G-d. 

But before we can focus on the G-dly soul we must first address the more dominant and aggressive force within ourselves, the animal soul, whose self oriented passion is often directed to materialism and superficiality, and directed away from the transcendent and meaningful. 

Yet Jewish mysticism teaches that everything on this earth has a source in heaven, what appears to be a negative phenomenon is, in truth, a distortion of a holy energy rooted in the spiritual source. It is our task to realign the phenomenon with its source, by channeling its inner spark in a positive direction. Doing so heals the distortion and corrects and perfects the earthly phenomenon. 

When we look at the animalistic passion in our heart and seek to direct it to positivity, we cannot inspire it with songs written by a human being, because the animalistic passion is  not influenced by rational thinking and is not affected by the music of humanity. Instead we sing the songs of the angels. The Kabbalaists explain that the intense love, awe, and passion that the angels experience, is the spiritual source for animalistic passion here on earth. The angel's passion to G-d is supra rational, and when that energy descends into this earth it is distorted into irrationality.

Thus, every morning, before we talk to our G-dly soul we take a few minutes to sing to our animal soul. We talk to it in the language it understands, the language of unbridled passion, love and desire. We tell the animal soul that the source of its intense passion is the powerful yearning and intense desire to G-d experienced by the angels and expressed in the angelic songs of praise.

This, explain the mystics, is the meaning of the opening verse of our Parsha: “when you go out to war upon (literally: on, or above) your enemy and the L-rd your G-d will place him in your hand” The intense passion of the animal soul is the spiritual  “enemy” that seeks to destroy our connection to holiness. The battle we are engaged in is the battle to transform the animalistic passion to a passion for holiness. To achieve victory in this battle, we must tap into that which is “above” the enemy. We allow it to experience its spiritual source, by letting it hear the songs of the angels.

Adapted from Likutei Torah, Ki Teitse.

Is Man a Tree of the Field? - שופטים

Is Man a Tree of the Field?

“Man is the tree of the field” says the Torah in order to explain why we should not cut down a fruit bearing tree. But does a tree capture the essence of man? 

The Midrash states that man is a microcosm of the entire world. The Kabbalah explains that human emotions are likened to trees and human intelligence is likened to the animal kingdom. Just as a seed grows into a full grown majestic tree, so too, human emotions grow and mature over time. A child loves things that are small and immature, as the child grows, his love grows too. He desires things that are more expensive and more valuable. 

A tree is stationary. While it grows upward it is rooted in one place and cannot uproot itself and implant itself elsewhere. Human emotions are similar, while one’e emotions evolve, the basic emotional makeup of a person remains the same. Some people are more inclined to love, others to anger, some to compassion, others to jealousy. 

The human mind, however, is likened to a living animal. The animal is not planted in one place. An animal can travel great distances and explore great expanses. The human mind, too, can travel great expanses. The human mind is objective and can explore perspectives very different from its own. The emotions are centered in one place, they are chiefly concerned with how the self feels, and all stimuli is filtered through the lens of the question: “how does this make me feel”. The mind, by contrast, is able to escape the trappings of self, transcend the familiar perspective of one’e own inclinations and explore ideas foreign to his native environment. 

If the tree represents subjective emotion and the animal represents the objective mind, why does the Torah tell us that man is a tree of the field, implying that the uniqueness of man is something other than his intelligence? 

The ability to think abstractly is unique to the human being. Yet abstract thought per se is not the superiority of man. Yes, humanity has made great leaps forward in developing advanced sciences, culture and philosophy. We have uncovered distant galaxies and subatomic particles. We have landed man on the moon and a rover on mars. Impressive indeed. But does abstract intelligence alone make us better, kinder, more compassionate people?

The Torah is telling us that the greatest achievement of man is when abstract thinking affects his emotions, When his capacity to be objective allows him to see the needs of others and to relate to them with human emotion. Man is the tree of the field, because abstract knowledge is valuable only to the extent that it affects the person we are. A man is a tree, because the greatest achievement of a person is when his knowledge makes him into a mentch.   

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos,  Shoftim vol. 4.  

The Word Moses Introduced - ראה

The Word Moses Introduced 

The gap between G-d and the human being seems unbridgeable. G-d is infinite and transcends time and space, while man is finite, a speck of dust in comparison to the vast universe, here today and gone tomorrow. Yet the Torah teaches that man can achieve a meaningful relationship with G-d, through the six hundred and thirteen commandments, each of which is a vehicle  man can use to transcend his limited existence and to touch the infinite light. Because the Hebrew word for commandment, Mitzvah, also means connection, every commandment is a mode of connection. 

In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses introduces a new word that does not appear in the first four books in the context of our relationship with G-d. The root word is Dveykut, which means to cleave. Dveykut is a powerful word, because it demands more than just doing what G-d commands. Dveykut means that we cleave to G-d and become one with him. 

What exactly does that mean? And is it even possible for the human being to cleave to G-d? 

When we examine the instances when Moses employed the word Dveykut, we note that Rashi offers divergent interpretations depending on the context of the verse. 

The first time the word Dveykut appears, in the verse “But you who cleave (Hadveikim) to the Lord your God are alive, all of you, this day.” Rashi does not explain the term. That is because Rashi assumes that the meaning is self understood. Indeed, earlier in the Torah the term is used to express deep love. In describing how Shechem loved Dina, the Torah says: “his soul cleaved to Dina the daughter of Jacob and he loved her”. To cleave, then, could mean to love. 

The word Dveykus appears again: 

“For if you keep all these commandments which I command you to do them, to love the Lord, your God, to walk in all His ways, and to cleave to Him.” (ibid. 11:22) 

Because love is mentioned earlier in the verse, Dveykut there cannot mean love, it would be redundant. Rashi therefore introduces another interpretation:

and to cleave to Him: Is it possible to say this? Is God not “a consuming fire”? Rather, it means: Cleave to the disciples and the Sages, and I will consider it as though you cleave to Me. 

In this week’s portion the word cleave appears once again: 

You shall follow the Lord, your God, fear Him, keep His commandments, heed His voice, worship Him, and cleave to Him. (ibid. 13:5)

Here, cleave cannot mean love, as this verse appears in the context of the theme of love of G-d, to cleave then must mean something beyond love. To cleave is the climax of the verse, therefore it cannot mean to cleave to the sages and scholars, because that cannot possibly be of greater importance than: “to follow the Lord, your God, fear Him, keep His commandments, heed His voice, worship Him”.

Rashi therefore explains: 

and cleave to Him: Cleave to His ways: bestow kindness, bury the dead, and visit the sick, just as the Holy One, blessed is He, did.

Although there are other examples of G-d performing kindness, such as when the verse states: “And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife shirts of skin, and He dressed them”, Rashi cites specifically two forms of kindness that G-d performed: burying the dead and visiting the sick. This is because Rashi is referring to a unique form of kindness. The two examples Rashi quotes were instances where there were others available to perform the kindness, and therefore G-d was not “obligated” to step in and perform the kindness. G-d buried Aaron, although the Jewish people were present and they could have performed the burial; G-d visited Abraham after the circumcision, although there were other people available to visit him. This represents a deeper form of kindness, one that goes beyond the legal and moral obligation. 

This form of kindness represents the profound meaning of Dveykut, that, in some ways, is even more powerful than a Mitzvah, a commandment. When a person fulfills a commandment he is seeking to connect to G-d, yet there are two entities, the commander and the commanded, the person feels like a distinct and separate entity seeking to connect to G-d through fulfilling the commandment. On the other hand, Dveykut, cleaving, is a state of being  when the person does not feel separate and apart from G-d. Therefore, he cleaves to G-d’s ways even when the commandment does not compel this degree of kindness. Why does he perform this kindness? Only because this is what G-d does and he is in a state of Dveykus, cleaving to G-d. 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 14 Re’eh Sicha 1. 

Can We Please Finish the Job? - עקב

Can We Please Finish the Job? 

Beginnings bring along a fresh sense of optimism and excitement. When we embark on a new task, when we tackle a new challenge, there is an excitement that motivates us to push forward. I will speak for myself. It is much easier for me to start a project than to finish it. Easier for me to write a paper than to edit it. And, I’ll confess, easier to begin playing with my child than to finish. Eventually burnout sets in, the excitement evaporates, my attention moves on, and completing the task seems tedious and a drain on my energy. 

Just a few weeks before he was to pass away, in his parting words to his beloved people, Moses stated: 

The entire commandment that I command you this day you shall keep to do, that you may live and multiply, and come and possess the land that the Lord swore to your forefathers. (Deuteronomy 8:1)

What is the meaning of “the entire commandment” (kol hamitzvah)? The simple meaning is that Moses was referring to the entire body of the six hundred and thirteen commandments. Indeed, that is Rashi’s first interpretation. This interpretation, however, is somewhat problematic, because at that point, when the Jewish people were still outside the promised land, there were many commandments they could not have fulfilled on “this day”. How then does the verse state that the Jewish people will merit to enter the land by keeping the “entire commandment”? Rashi therefore offers a second interpretation, which explains that “the entire commandment” refers, not to all the commandments, but rather to the totality of a single commandment. As Rashi explains:

A midrashic explanation is: If you have started a mitzvah, finish it, because it is attributed only to the one who completes it, as it is said, “And the bones of Joseph, which the children of Israel had brought up from Egypt, they buried in Shechem”. But did not Moses alone occupy himself with them to bring them up? However, since he did not complete the mitzvah [of burying the bones], and [the children of] Israel did, [this mitzvah] is accredited to their name.

Beginning the commandment, is the easy part. Here Moses is reminding us of the importance of concluding the task. The people who eventually brought Joseph’s bones back to Israel, completing the cycle, returning Joseph to the land from which he was kidnapped more than two centuries earlier, could not claim that they developed the idea to perform this good deed. It was not an expression of their own creativity and kindness. But they are the ones who get the credit for they are the ones who completed the task. 

This is true in our life as well. We may feel far more inspired in the beginning of a project, but it is not truly ours unless and until we conclude those final touches and complete the endeavor. And, this is true in the span of history. The great giants of our past, our patriarchs and matriarchs, sages and scholars, mystics and philosophers have revolutionized the world and  began, and continued, the Jewish mission of transforming the world into a Divine garden of goodness and kindness. They had the vision, passion and focus, that we could never match. But it is we who will receive the credit for ushering in the era of redemption with the coming of the righteous Moshiach, because it is we who will complete the task.

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos vol. 19, Eikev Sicha 2)


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