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You Are Not Free Until You Can Sing - בשלח

You Are Not Free Until You Can Sing

Egypt is more than a geographical location where our ancestors were once enslaved. Egypt represents the boundaries that confine and limit each one of us. We are commanded to "remember the day you left Egypt every day of your life", because, each day, we are empowered to escape our own personal Egypt, to escape the stagnation and confinement of our habits, nature, and circumstances. 

But even after we escaped Egypt, we are not yet entirely free. Just as the Jewish people were frightened of the Egyptians until the Red Sea was split, we too are under threat from our confining limitations until we cross the metaphorical sea within ourselves. Only then are we fully liberated, capable of singing, as our ancestors sang, the "Song of the Sea". 

The sea, explains the Kabbalah, represents the barrier between the conscious mind and the soul's hidden deeper recesses. When our experience is limited to our conscious self,  then, even if we are free, we are susceptible to sadness, melancholy, and boredom, which drains us of passion and excitement. 

To experience the joy of life, we have to split the sea. We must tear the barrier between the conscious mind and the core of our soul. For our soul never gets bored of life, it is never drained of excitement. Like a torch continuously surging upward, our soul is in constant motion, continually yearning to transcend and reunite with its source. The soul's yearning is what fills it with joy every time it can act on its desire to transcend. Every connection with another person, every Mitzvah it performs, is as exhilarating to the soul as cold water is to the person in an arid desert. 

Since the conscious mind is oblivious to the thirst and yearning of the soul, it is therefore indifferent to the passion of the soul's never-ending dance between longing and joy. 

Just as we are commanded to remember the exodus of Egypt every day, the Midrash explains, so are we commanded to mention the splitting of the sea each day, which is why we include the "Song of the Sea" in our morning prayers.

The key to connecting to the passion of our soul is music. For unlike almost any other pleasure, we don't get bored of music. When learning, inquiring, or reading, enjoyment is associated with novelty. We enjoy the new idea the moment we hear about it, and from then on, the "return", the pleasure, diminishes. The same is true about eating delicious food or any other pleasure. The second piece of chocolate cake is never as enjoyable as the first. Music is an exception. Generally speaking, the music we love most is the music we heard many times over. In fact, the more we listen to a piece of music, the more we enjoy it. That is because music touches the core of our soul, which feels the intensity of the continuous dance of life, the yearning, and the joy. 

Each morning, as we sing the Song of the Sea, we participate in the dance. We sing together with our soul, feel its yearning, and rejoice in its pleasure of connecting to G-d. 

Ohr Hatorah Shmos, vol. 2 page 397.

Freedom Through Speech - בא

Freedom Through Speech

“Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech."

― Benjamin Franklin

From the perspective of the Kabbalah, spiritual liberation and freedom cannot exist without speech. 

When the Torah describes the suffering of the Jewish people in Egyptian slavery, the Torah states: 

Now it came to pass in those many days that the king of Egypt died, and the children of Israel sighed from the labor, and they cried out, and their cry ascended to God from the labor. (Exodus 2:23)

The Jewish people experienced terrible suffering. The verse describes the pain, the sighs, the crying, but the one thing the Jews could not do was speak. The people were enslaved not only physically but also psychologically. Not only was their body subjugated, but so was their soul; and when the soul is in bondage, one cannot speak. 

Speech is an essential component of the exodus. In the opening verses of this week's portion, the Torah emphasizes that as a result of the exodus, we will have the ability to speak to our children:

so that you tell into the ears of your son and your son's son how I made a mockery of the Egyptians, and My signs that I placed in them, and you will know that I am the Lord." (Exodus 10:2)

Indeed, the telling of stories is one of the most important commandments of the night of Passover. The Torah mandates: "And you shall tell your son". "Vihigadita", (and you shall tell), is the source of the word Haggadah, the story of the exodus read on Passover night. According to the Kabbalists, the word Pesach (Passover) consists of two words Peh Sach, a speaking mouth. Passover, the holiday of freedom, is the holiday of speech.  

The world was created through Divine speech, G-d spoke, and the world came into being. Divine speech is a metaphor for expression and revelation. An idea may exist in the mind, but until  it is expressed through speech, nobody can benefit from it, it is confined within its source (the mind). The same is true regarding G-d's creative energy. As long as the energy remains in a state of potentiality, it is concealed and confined. Divine speech indicates that G-d revealed his creative power from the state of potential into actuality. 

When a person senses the Divine speech, the G-dly energy within himself and within each creation, he is spiritually free. Exile begins when he no longer senses the Divine energy within creation; when he sees nothing other than random natural phenomenon; when he cannot tap into the spark of infinity within himself. If he no longer senses the Divine presence within his soul and within the world, he will submit to the confines of what he perceives to be all powerful laws of physical might, nature, and habit. 

Spiritual redemption begins when we perceive Divine speech, when we hear nature's song, when we sense our soul surging upward. When we sense the universe singing, we experience Pesach (Passover), Peh Sach, the talking mouth, unleashing creativity, joy, and optimism, which is the stuff of true freedom.  

Similarly, our soul is a reservoir of untold potential, a never-ending fountain of love, kindness, ideas, and creativity. Yet, often, our soul is in confinement. We feel empty, stone-like, irritated, or angry. The Kabbalah teaches that the way to free the soul's potential is through speech. Regardless of how we feel, we can speak words of kindness, love, and compassion. Words are liberating. The spoken word will draw the soul from concealment to revelation, from bondage to liberation.   

Next time you feel confined,next time you feel trapped, free yourself through speech. Take control of the narrative of your life. Speak words of gratitude, joy, and love. You will discover that words unlock the feelings trapped within your soul. 

Adapted from Ohr Hatorah, Vayikra 3, p. 736.  

How Many Plagues Were There? - וארא

How Many Plagues Were There? 

You may have heard that ten plagues struck Egypt; in fact, that is the story told in the Torah in the portions of Vaera and Bo (the portions read this week and next). According to the Talmudic sages, however, it is more complicated. Rabbi Eliezer says that each plague consisted of four plagues, for a total of forty plagues, whereas Rabbi Akiva maintains that each plague consisted of five plagues, totaling fifty plagues. As we read in the Passover Haggadah:  

Rabbi Eliezer said: How do we know that each individual plague which the Holy One, blessed be He, brought upon the Egyptians in Egypt consisted of four plagues?

For it is said: "He sent against them His fierce anger, fury, and indignation, and trouble, a discharge of messengers of evil": `Fury,' is one; `Indignation,' makes two; `Trouble,' makes three; `Discharge of messengers of evil,' makes four. Thus you must now say that in Egypt, they were struck by forty plagues.

Rabbi Akiva said: How do we know that each individual plague which the Holy One, blessed be He, brought upon the Egyptians in Egypt consisted of five plagues?

For it is said: "He sent against them his fierce anger, fury, and indignation, and trouble, a discharge of messengers of evil": "His fierce anger," is one; "fury," makes two; "indignation," makes three; "trouble," makes four; "discharge of messengers of evil," makes five. Thus you must now say that in Egypt, they were struck by fifty plagues.

The ancient philosophers classified four building blocks of matter: fire, wind, water, and earth. In addition, they understood that there is a "fifth element", the quintessential {from the Latin Quintus, meaning "fifth"}, the undefined essence, the potentiality, and source of the four elements. The purpose of the plagues was to break the impurity and negativity of Egypt. Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva debated on how deep the impurity and, consequently, the plague penetrated the physical matter of the object being smitten. Rabbi Eliezer believed that each plague consisted of four plagues, for the plague affected all four elements in which the unholiness penetrated. However, Rabbi Akiva classified each plague as consisting of five plagues, for Rabbi Akiva believed that the unholiness of Egypt penetrated the essence of the matter as well. 

The abstract philosophical dispute, whether Egypt's unholiness penetrated only as far as the four elements or whether it reached the quintessential core, has practical and mystical ramifications. 

The Mishnah records a dispute regarding the obligation to obliterate Chametz (leavened bread) from our possession before Passover: 

Rabbi Yehuda says: The removal of leavened bread is to be accomplished only through burning. And the Rabbis say: Burning is not required, as one may even crumble it and throw it into the wind or cast it into the sea.

The Rabbis believed that the prohibition of leavened bread (which, on Passover, represents Egypt's unholiness) does not penetrate the bread's essence. Therefore one can destroy the Chametz by altering its form to the point where it can no longer provide a benefit ("crumble it and throw it into the wind or cast it into the sea"). Rabbi Yehuda, however, believed that the prohibition of Chametz penetrates down to its essence; thus, the only way to destroy the Chametz is by burning it, obliterating not only its form but its essence as well. 

The debate is relevant to each one of us in our quest to liberate our spiritual selves from negativity and destructive energy. The liberation must reach as deep as the negativity. Rabbi Eliezer maintained that the spiritual freedom and purification must extend to each of the four elements of our soul (1) the external "garments" of the soul; thought, speech, and action (2) Emotion (3) Intelligence (4) commitment and devotion. Rabbi Akiva, who was a descendant of converts, possessed an intense passion for serving G-d, he therefore maintained that the exodus must reach an even deeper level. Our deepest core must also experience the spiritual liberation from the shackles of the ego. True spiritual freedom is the ability to be subsumed in the oneness of G-d, losing any sense of being a distinct entity, separate and detached from the infinite source of reality.    

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Likutei Sichos Vaera 16:5

The Kabbalah of Shoes - שמות

The Kabbalah of Shoes 

As Moses approached to see the intriguing sight of a bush burning and not being consumed, G-d spoke to him for the first time. G-d instructed Moses to take off his shoes: 

The Lord saw that he had turned to see, and G-d called to him from within the thorn bush, and He said, "Moses, Moses!" And he said, "Here I am!"

And He said, "Do not draw near here. Take your shoes off your feet, because the place upon which you stand is holy soil." (Exodus 3:4-5)

"Remove your shoes from your feet" indicates that shoes don't belong on holy soil. Yet, there are many references in Judaism where shoes are highlighted in the context of holiness. One example is in the Song of Songs, which portrays the love between G-d and the Jewish people through a metaphor of the love between man and woman. Amongst the many praises the man uses to describe the beauty of his beloved, the verse states:  

How fair are your steps in shoes, O daughter of nobles! The curves of your thighs are like jewels, the handiwork of a craftsman. (Song of Songs 7:2)

The Talmud explains that the verse is a metaphor describing the beauty of the Jewish people as they would travel to Jerusalem to celebrate the three pilgrimage holidays of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot:  

Rava taught: What is the meaning of that which is written: "How beautiful are your steps in shoes, O prince's daughter" (Song of Songs 7:2)? How beautiful are the feet of the Jewish people at the time when they ascend to Jerusalem for the Festival. 

Every physical phenomenon originates from its spiritual equivalent, which is its source. What is the spiritual root of the "shoe"? The Kabbalists explain that the attribute of Malchut, Divine speech, which is the lowest of the ten divine attributes, is the only attribute which can be expressed within creation. The energy of the higher attributes is too powerful to be contained within creation. The verse states: "So says the Lord, "The heavens are My throne, and the earth is My footstool (Isaiah 66:1)". Malchut is likened to the "foot", the lowest part of the body, which "descends" in order to give life to the lower worlds. If the Divine energy of Malchut constantly vitalizes the entire universe, why is the Divine presence concealed? Why is it so difficult to sense G-d's presence on earth? This is, explain the Kabbalists, because of the "shoe" which conceals the "foot".   

Chassidic writings explain that the metaphorical "shoe" exists within every Jew. The name of our third patriarch, Yaakov, Jacob (which becomes a name of the collective Jewish people) consists of two parts: the letter yud, and the word akev, which means heel. Another name for Jacob is the name Israel, which represents the soul's essence, which hovers above the person remaining in the subconscious (or, more accurately, in the supra conscious). The name Yaakov represents the yud, wisdom, which is invested in the akev, heel; the dimension of the soul, which is clothed within the body. 

If the heel represents the soul, the spark of G-d within us, then the shoe, which conceals the heel, symbolizes the animal soul, the self-oriented drive which seeks nothing more than physical survival and material pleasure. 

Shoes have two characteristics (1) they are generally made of leather, the hide of animals (2) the primary purpose of shoes is to allow the person to walk, and they are especially beneficial when traveling long distances. The animal soul, our metaphorical shoes, has these two characteristics as well: (1) the substance of the self-oriented soul is animalistic, it doesn't see beyond the mundane and the tangible (2) the animal soul, the shoe, allows the G-dly soul, the foot, to travel on this earth, reaching landscapes and horizons it could not reach without the shoes. For just as an animal has more physical force than a human, so too, the animal soul possesses greater passion and excitement than does the G-dly soul. If we channel its energy toward love of G-d, if we can tan the hide, then we have successfully created a figurative pair of shoes: animal energy strengthening and intensifying our love of G-d.

On the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, we remove our leather shoes. When Moses stood on the sacred soil at the burning bush, G-d commanded him to remove his shoes. Because in the presence of holiness, we focus on our G-dly soul. Yet, the Song of Songs teaches that a truly beautiful sight is the climb to Jerusalem with our shoes. The ultimate spiritual beauty is achieved by transforming the animal soul's passion into fuel that propels us on our ascent to the holy city of Jerusalem. 

Adapted from Lekutei Torah Shir Hashirim 43:4 

Devouring Wolf - ויחי

Devouring Wolf

Before his passing, Jacob gathered his children and blessed each of them with a unique blessing. Some of those blessings are poetically beautiful: 

A cub [and] a grown lion is Judah… He crouched, rested like a lion, and like a lion, who will rouse him?

[He is] red eyed from wine and white toothed from milk.

Zebulun will dwell on the coast of the seas.

From Asher will come rich food, and he will yield regal delicacies.

Naphtali is a swift gazelle; [he is one] who utters beautiful words.

After blessing eleven of his children, Jacob turned to Benjamin, his youngest son, and spoke the following blessing: 

Benjamin is a wolf, he will prey; in the morning he will devour plunder, and in the evening he will divide the spoil." (Genesis 49:27)

Why is Benjamin likened to a devouring wolf?

Rashi offers two interpretations as to what the devouring wolf represents: 

He is a wolf for he will prey. He prophesied: {1} that they were destined to be “grabbers” : “and you shall grab for yourselves each man his wife”, in the episode of the concubine in Gibeah. 

{2} and he prophesied about Saul , that he would be victorious over his enemies all around.

The second interpretation is indeed a profound blessing, addressing the most glorious period of the tribe of Benjamin: Saul, of the tribe of Benjamin, would be the first king of Israel and would devour his enemies. 

The first interpretation, however, is baffling. 

The “concubine of Gibeah” and its aftermath were one of the most horrific events in the Jewish people's history in the land of Israel. A mob in Gibeah, a town in the tribal portion of Benjamin, violated a Levite's concubine, leading to her death. To demonstrate his outrage, the Levite dismembered her corpse and sent her remains to each of the tribes. After the Benjaminites refused to hand over the perpetrators, the other tribes waged war and decimated the tribe of Benjamin, of whom only 600 men survived. Before the battle, The other tribes had taken an oath not to allow their daughters to marry men from Benjamin. After the war, the other tribes felt remorse at having doomed Binjamin to extinction. To circumvent their oath, the other tribes allowed the Benjaminites to “grab” wives from Shiloh. 

Of all the blessings Jacob could have blessed his beloved child Benjamin, why did he begin with the most tragic event in Benjamin's future? What kind of a blessing is it that after the tribe was nearly wiped out, they had to “grab” “devour” girls of other tribes to avert extinction? 

While, on the surface, “devouring wolf” does not appear to be an appropriate blessing, Chassidic philosophy explains that, in reality, the blessing to Benjamin is perhaps the greatest blessing of all. The blessing to Benjamin, the final blessing Jacob gave to his children, is also the most profound. The devouring wolf represents the ability to turn around after moral and physical failure. Despite being, in the aftermath of the war, in the absolute lowest abyss, physically, spiritually, and morally, the Benjaminites were able to change course. They were able to forcibly “devour” and pull themselves away from the negative behavior and attitudes that led to their downfall and seek to rehabilitate and refine. The devouring wolf represents the inner force, strength, and courage necessary to pull one away from one’s habits and character and begin a new path. 

When the tribes saw the transformation in Benjamin's surviving members, they too sought to help Benjamin rehabilitate and take their place amongst the tribes of Israel once again. 

The blessing to Benjamin, the ability to gather the courage, to transform negativity into growth and rehabilitation, reflects the theme of the second half of the book of Genesis. As Joseph reiterates to his brothers after the passing of his father: “Indeed, you intended evil against me, but G-d designed it for good, in order to bring about what is at present to keep a great populace alive.” The entire episode of Joseph, spanning the last four portions of Genesis, expresses this truth: while there is evil in this world, while the brothers sought to do evil to Joseph, G-d blesses us, as he blessed Joseph, with the ability to transform the evil into an opportunity for growth and life. 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Vayechi 25:2 


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