Blog - Torah Insights

Transform Your Nile to Blood - וארא

Transform Your Nile to Blood 


The purpose of the ten plagues was not only to crush the Egyptians, thereby forcing them to release the Jewish people from bondage. The ten plagues were designed to demonstrate that G-d is not bound by the laws of nature; that G-d is present within creation and therefore can change the course of the natural order. 


This explains why the first plague struck the Nile. The Egyptians worshiped the Nile, which was the source of their sustenance and the cause of their prosperity. The Nile represented the power of nature. They were not dependent on rain, making them vulnerable to drought common in the region; instead, they relied on the consistent waters of the Nile and on their ability to harness its waters for irrigation. The first plague, the plague of blood, demonstrated that nature, embodied by the Nile, is dependent on G-d, who is both transcendent from and present within creation. 


The mystics explain that a figurative Egypt exists within each one of us. Egypt represents limitations and boundaries, the gravitational pull of the negative tendencies and habits that interfere with our soul’s desire to soar heavenward and connect to the Divine. The ten plagues are the roadmap that allows us to break the shackles of our inner Egypt and achieve spiritual freedom. 


The first step on the journey to freedom is to transform the Nile into blood. The cold waters of the Nile represent apathy and indifference. Blood, by contrast, represents life, passion, and excitement. The first, and perhaps most important, ingredient to escape stagnation is introducing passion into our actions. In every area of life, when we parent our children, engage in business, relate to our spouse, study Torah or perform a Mitzvah, we can go through the motions and act by rote. The key to freedom, the path to growth, is consciously introducing excitement and passion into every act we do. In Deuteronomy (4:24), Moses tells us: “for the L-rd your God is a consuming fire.” When we ignite our actions with passionate fire, we escape the trappings of Egypt and touch the Divine. 


Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekitei Sichos Vaera vol.1.  


What the Donkey Taught Moses about Freedom - שמות

What the Donkey Taught Moses about Freedom   

When Moses set out on the mission to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt, The Torah relates that he employed a donkey to carry his family: 

So Moses took his wife and his sons, mounted them upon the donkey, and returned to the land of Egypt, and Moses took the staff of G-d in his hand. (Exodus 4:20)

Why does the Torah find it necessary to draw our attention to the donkey? Rashi, quoting the Midrash, explains the uniqueness of the donkey:  

Mounted them upon the donkey: The designated donkey. That is the donkey that Abraham saddled for the binding of Isaac, and that is the one upon whom the King Moshiach is destined to appear, as it is said: "humble, and riding a donkey" (Zechariah. 9:9).

The deeper interpretation of the Midrash is that the donkey was the response to Moses's hesitation to accept the leadership role. At the burning bush, Moses resisted the task of going to Egypt. After much back and forth, Moses told G-d: 

"I beseech You, O Lord, send now [Your message] with whom You would send." (Exodus 3:13)

Rashi offers two interpretations as to who Moses was referring to when he requested that G-d send "whom you would send"; either he was referring to his older brother Aaron or to the Moshiach who will usher in the final redemption: 

With whom You would send: With whom You are accustomed to sending, and this is Aaron. Another explanation: With someone else, with whom You wish to send, for I am not destined to bring them into the land [of Israel] and to be their redeemer in the future. You have many messengers.

After G-d addressed all of his other concerns, there were two final reasons Moses hesitated to accept the position of leadership. Firstly, Moses did not want to offend his older brother Aaron. Secondly, Moses sensed that he would not be the final redeemer. Moses hoped that the person who G-d would appoint to lead the people out of Egypt would usher in the final redemption. Moses sensed that he would not do so; he therefore requested that the final redeemer be appointed. 

While G-d did not directly address those two concerns, Moses did accept the leadership because the donkey that would lead his family to Egypt represented the resolution to his concerns. The donkey reminded Moses of the donkey that Abraham took to the binding of Isaac, expressing the incredible commitment and devotion which Abraham displayed toward G-d, next to which the sacrifice required of Moses paled in comparison. The "donkey upon which Moshiach would ride" signaled to Moses that the final redemption would be the continuation and culmination of the Exodus from Egypt. The final redemption through Moshiach, who will ride on a donkey, can only happen if Moses would first initiate the redemption by riding his donkey to Egypt.

Chassidic philosophy explains that Egypt, whose Hebrew name Mitzraim indicates, represents the constraints and limitations we each face in our own life. G-d calls upon us to break free of the restrictions of our negative habits and obstacles. Like Moses, we hesitate. We fear that the task of breaking free is far too difficult. We fear that even if we achieve some level of freedom, the freedom will not be complete as we will revert to our old selves. The message of the donkey, alluding to Abraham, Moses and Moshiach, teaches us the steps to achieve our spiritual freedom. We must cultivate Abraham's devotion to the task, commit to the journey, and begin with a specific expression of freedom. We must understand that the ultimate freedom may take time, but the first step on the journey to freedom, the first victory over our inner exile, will ultimately lead to our final and complete spiritual liberation.  

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 31 Shmos sicha 2 

Yearn and Celebrate - ויחי


Yearn and Celebrate 

The last four portions of the Book of Genesis tell the incredible story of Joseph. From the position of his father's favored son, he was sold as a slave to Egypt, then put in prison before ascending to lead the world's superpower. It is a story of dramatic change, pain, challenges, and hope. It is also the story of each one of us. 

Our soul, which originates in a spiritually comfortable environment in heaven, is thrust into the material world, where the soul is challenged at every moment. When the soul overcomes the challenges of the physical world it, like Joseph, achieves far greater spiritual heights than before it descended into the physical world. 

Joseph's sons Menashe and Ephraim represent the two different perspectives he cultivated in order to survive and thrive in the challenging environment of Egypt. The Torah relates: 

And Joseph named the firstborn Manasseh, for "G-d has caused me to forget all my toil and all my father's house."

And the second one he named Ephraim, for "G-d has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction." (41:51-52)

The name Menashe, which means "to forget," evoked within Joseph a sense of yearning and longing for his father's home; it reminded him that Egypt was a spiritually hostile environment that sought to tear him away from the values of his father's home. That awareness intensified his longing for his father's home and reminded him never to become complacent in his effort to remain connected to his past. The name Ephraim, derived from "fruitful," expressed a very different awareness. "G-d has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction," is the realization that specifically in the land of Egypt, Joseph was able to achieve tremendous success, despite, or more accurately, because of the difficulties within the "land of my affliction."  

To be successful in the journey of life, we too must cultivate the divergent perspectives of Menashe and Ephraim. We must yearn for and create moments to connect to our "father's home"; we begin each day by reconnecting to G-d by devoting time for prayer and study. Only once we are rooted in our own spiritual identity can we reach the next step, becoming fruitful in the land of our affliction, intensifying our bond with G-d far more passionately than when our soul was still in heaven. Only when anchored in our spiritual source can we achieve the purpose of creation, transforming the material world into a home for the Divine. 

Adapted from Lekutei Sichos 15 Vayechi 2

The Root Cause of The Hate - ויגש


The Root Cause of The Hate


Now that Joseph had been reunited with his brothers, now that the dreams of his brothers bowing to him had been fulfilled, we can examine the underlying cause of the conflict and animosity of the brothers toward Joseph.  


The conventional reading of the story is that the brothers were jealous of Joseph because he was their father's favored son. Their jealousy turned to hate when Joseph shared his dreams in which the brothers would bow to him. They were furious; as the Torah (Genesis 37:8) records their response: "So his brothers said to him, "Will you reign over us, or will you govern us? And they continued to hate him on account of his dreams and on account of his words." 


There is, however, a deeper dimension to the dispute. 


The brothers saw Joseph as a threat to their way of life, a challenge to their understanding of Judaism, they felt that Joseph’s lifestyle would threaten their ancestors' teachings which they sought to preserve. 


The patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the tribes, the sons of Jacob, were all shepherds. This allowed them to spend their time in nature, separated from the distractions of civilization, allowing them to focus on spirituality and their closeness to G-d. Even when the brothers descended to Egypt, they maintained their occupation of raising cattle, settling in Goshen, an enclave within the land of Egypt. Joseph, by contrast, was charting a new path. Joseph had the ability to cleave to G-d while simultaneously being involved in society. Joseph consistently rose to be a leader in his environment, first in the home of his Egyptian master, then in prison and finally in all of Egypt. Yet, despite being thoroughly invested in the economic affairs of Egypt, he maintained his sense of morality, and his connection to G-d. 


The brothers were frightened by the prospect of Joseph becoming their leader. They feared that if that was the case they would have to adapt Joseph's lifestyle.They feared being thrust into an environment of materialism, which would mean losing their connection to holiness. To them, Joseph and his lifestyle represented a mortal threat to their spiritual lives. 


The reality, however, was that they misinterpreted the meaning of Joseph's dreams. They feared that their sheaves of wheat bowing to Joseph represented that Joseph would dominate them. In reality, however, the dreams predicted that Joseph would sustain them not only physically, during the famine, but also spiritually in an immoral society. Joseph imparted to his brothers from his own spiritual quality, enabling them to retain their connection to G-d notwithstanding the unholy environment they inhabited.  


The verse in Psalms (80:2) refers to the collective Jewish people as Joseph: "O Shepherd of Israel, hearken, He Who leads Joseph like flocks… appear." Rashi explains: "All Israel are called by the name Joseph because he sustained and supported them in time of famine. We are called Joseph, not only because he sustained us during the famine thousands of years ago, but because his influence and example sustain us until this very day. Joseph empowers us to cleave to G-d while engaging in worldly matters, allowing us to infuse the world with holiness, transforming it into a place of goodness and kindness. 


Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 25 Vayigash 1.  



Keep Dreaming - מקץ


Keep Dreaming

The second half of the book of Genesis is replete with dreams. Jacob dreams of a ladder reaching heaven as he is fleeing the land of Israel and he dreams of cattle when he is about to head back to Israel. Joseph dreams that his brothers will bow to him. He interprets the dreams of Pharaoh's ministers when they are in prison. And, ultimately, he rises to power when he interprets Pharaoh's dreams.

Our relationship with dreams is complicated. Deep down, we each have something we dream of, a goal to reach, an achievement to aspire to, yet our critical mind places a damper on our aspirations, telling us to be realistic and logical, telling us that our goals are unattainable. Yet, Joseph teaches us never to stop dreaming, always to believe in our ability to reach the loftiest of goals.  

Joseph's dreams offer insight into the way to dream in a sustainable and healthy way. 

There is an essential difference between the dreams of Pharaoh and the dreams of Joseph. In Pharaoh's dream, there is a descent from a higher form of life to a lower form of life. At first, Pharaoh dreams of seven healthy cows devoured by seven lean cows and afterwards he dreams of seven healthy ears of grain being swallowed up by seven emaciated ears of grain. A descent from the animal kingdom to vegetation. Joseph's dream, by contrast, represents an elevation from the earthly to the heavenly. At first, he dreamt of bundles of grain bowing to him, and afterwards he dreamt of the stars, sun, and moon bowing to him. Joseph, whose name means "increase," teaches us that the way to dream is to increase in small steps in order to elevate oneself. As long as we work to increase and grow, our dream will be kept alive and will ultimately be fulfilled. 

The holiday of Chanukah, which occurs in proximity to when the portion of Joseph's dreams is read, embodies this message. Chanukah reminds us that in times of darkness, we must not despair. We must continue to dream for and work toward a bright future by continuously increasing light. We begin with one small candle. But if we keep dreaming, if we keep growing, if we keep adding a candle each night, we will ultimately prevail. The entire Menorah will be filled with light, ultimately transforming the world into a place of goodness and kindness. 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Likkutei Sichos Vayeshev vol. 3. 

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