Blog - Torah Insights

Hadassah or Esther? - פורים


Hadassah or Esther? 

Esther, the hero of the Purim story, had two different names. The verse (Esther 2:7) states: "And he {Mordechai} raised Hadassah, that is Esther, his uncle's daughter." She had two names because she had a double identity. She was called Hadassah, which means myrtle because she was righteous (and the myrtle is a metaphor for righteousness). Her Hebrew name was Esther, which means concealment because she concealed her Jewish identity while in the palace of Achashverush. Others say that Esther is a Persian name Istahar, which means (Venus). The name Esther represents the ability to blend into Persian society and live the life of a Persian queen, yet simultaneously live a secret life as a Jewess loyal to her people.

A fundamental Kabalsitic principle is that every phenomenon on this earth reflects the spiritual reality on high. The Kabbalists explain that Esther represents the attribute of Malchut, kingship, of the Divine world of Atzilut (the world of Emanation), which is the energy that descends to give life to the three lower worlds (creation, formation, and action). Like Esther, Malchut, the final attribute of Atzilut lives a double life. While in Atzilut it is in an environment of absolute Divine reality, where it senses that G-dliness is the only existence, and there is no other independent reality. However, Malchut, while in Atzilut, is the source of all miracles. Yet, like Esther, Malchut conceals its identity, hides its awareness, and descends to create the lower worlds, where the truth of Atzilut is disguised. The three lower worlds, while receiving their energy and life flow from Malchut of Atzilut, are oblivious to the reality of Atzilut, because Malchut conceals the Hadassah, and expresses the Esther. 

The same is true about the Jewish soul (rooted in Malchut of Atzilut). When the soul descends to this world, its true identity, its passion for G-d and perspective on reality is concealed. Like Esther in the Persian palace, like Malchus of Atzilut in the three lower worlds, the soul hides the Hadasah, her core, and expresses only the Esther. 

Purim is the time when we learn to see beneath the mask and beyond the concealment. The story of Purim demonstrates that the person we thought was Esther was Hadassh all along. While it seemed that G-d's presence was gone, in reality, G-d was present all along, orchestrating the events leading to salvation. The Divine energy of Atzilut descended into the lower worlds, yet retained its connection to Atzilut. Thus, the Purim miracle was a miracle clothed within nature.

Similarly, Purim, is the time when we unmask our own personal inner Esther. On Purim we realize the double reality of our soul, not only the Esther part which we feel in our conscious mind, which comes through the mask's concealment, but Hadassah, the essence of our soul, whose love to G-d is boundless. On Purim we experience the core of our soul, which leads to unlimited joy.

(Adapted from Lekutei Sichos 16 Purim sicha 1)

The Traveling Ark - תרומה

The Traveling Ark 

The first item which G-d commanded Moses to create for the sanctuary was the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the ten commandments engraved on the two tablets. The Torah provides detailed instructions on constructing the Ark, its material, dimensions, rings, and poles. As the Torah describes: 

And you shall make poles of acacia wood and you shall overlay them with gold.

And you shall bring the poles into the rings on the sides of the Ark, to carry the Ark with them.

The Torah then commands that the poles should never be removed from the Ark: 

The poles of the Ark shall be in the rings; they shall not be removed from it. (Exodus 25:13-25)

Sefer Hachinuch, which suggests explanations for each of the Torah's commandments, explains why the prohibition of removing the poles from the Ark: 

We were instructed not to remove the Ark's poles from the Ark in case the need arose to travel somewhere with the Ark quickly. Perhaps due to the travail and haste we would neglect to ensure that the poles were tightly inserted.… But if the poles remained ready at all times and were never removed from the Ark, they would remain firm. (Chinuch, Mitzvah 96).

The explanation describes why the poles had to remain tightly inserted in the Ark during the forty-year journey in the desert. However, what about the centuries when the Ark remained in one place, as was the case in Shiloh and then in the Temple in Jerusalem? Why was it so important that the poles never be removed from the Ark?  

When one engages in the study of Torah, delighting in its sweetness, there is a danger that a person might be tempted to remain in the ivory tower of the study hall, separate and removed from the rest of society. The Torah, therefore, commands that even while the Ark is in its natural place, in the holy of holies, the poles must always be inserted within the Ark, symbolizing that poles, mobility, is critical for the Torah. The poles on the Ark remind us that while solitude may be beneficial for study and contemplation, we are charged with the responsibility of carrying the Torah, its lessons and its wisdom, to every corner of this earth. Doing so will usher in the era of world peace and prosperity when, as the prophet Isaiah declared, "the earth will be filled with the knowledge of G-d as the water covers the sea".   

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos vol. 16 Sicha 2)

The Party at Sinai - משפטים

The Party at Sinai 

When we think about spiritual experiences, we picture prayer, meditation, or perhaps a solitary walk in nature. Yet that is not how the Torah describes the Jewish people’s experience at the greatest Divine revelation in history, the giving of the Torah at Sinai. 

… and they perceived the G-d of Israel, and beneath His feet was like the forming of a sapphire brick and like the appearance of the heavens for clarity.

And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He did not lay His hand, and they perceived G-d, and they ate and drank. (Exodus 24:10-11)

It seems almost inconceivable. “They perceived the G-d of Israel,” and how did they respond? They ate and drank!

In explaining this incident, Biblical commentators are divided. Some maintain that eating and drinking was indeed a sin, evidenced by the words, “And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He did not lay His hand.” i.e., the nobles should have been punished for eating, but G-d refrained. Others, however, explain that it was not only permitted, but the right thing to do, since the food and drink were not a distraction from the Divine revelation, rather a celebration of it.

Judaism teaches that our task is to heal the rift between physical and spiritual, to the point where the physical is sanctified by enhancing the spiritual experience.  

Chassidic philosophy explains that before the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the divide between physical and spiritual was unbridgeable. At Sinai the separation was broken; G-d descended upon Mount Sinai, enabling us, for the first time in the history of the cosmos, to elevate the physical world and connect it to holiness.

There is, however, another point that requires exploration. 

What is the meaning of the verse, “And upon the nobles of the children of Israel He did not lay His hand”? To those who maintain that the Jews sinned by eating and drinking at the Revelation, the meaning is clear: although they were deserving of punishment, G-d refrained. But what is the meaning to those who believe that eating and drinking at Sinai (elevating the physical world we live in) was, in fact, the purpose of the entire spiritual experience?

The Hebrew word for “nobles”, atzilei, shares the same root as the word etzel, which means “near”. The Alter Rebbe, the founder of Chabad, explains: “He did not lay His hand” means that G-d did not place paralyzing fear within their hearts. Many of the Jewish people at Sinai were overwhelmed by the intensity of the experience and were unable to eat. It was specifically the nobles, those close to G-d, who were not awe-stricken, and were able to engage in elevating the food and drink. The lesson, says the Alter Rebbe, is that the more we connect to the sacred, the more we are able to fulfill the task of elevating the physical world. 

This explains a Talmudic debate regarding the purpose of Shabbat. Some argue that Shabbat was given so that the Jewish people would have time to study Torah (since labor is prohibited), while others say that Shabbat was given for the Jewish people to enjoy food and drink (as there is an obligation to honor the Shabbat with delicacies). These two opinions do not contradict one another; they address two distinct situations: if we spend the six days of the week completely engaged in material business and we do not dedicate time to holiness, then Shabbat is the time to dedicate to spirituality. 

If, however, we create moments of closeness to G-d during the week, then on Shabbat we enjoy the pleasures of food and drink, because the spiritual experiences empower us to be able to sanctify the food and drink.

The more we connect to spirituality and holiness, the more we can elevate the material world. 

(Adapted from Mamorei Admu”r Hazaken Haktzarim, p. 378)

The Wedding Day - יתרו

The Wedding Day

As we prepare to read the story of the great revelation at Sinai, where the Jewish people received the ten commandments, the Torah inserts a story that does not fit the chronological order. 

The Torah tells us that "on the next morning" Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, saw how Moses was judging the people alone. Jethro said: "The thing you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out both you and these people who are with you for the matter is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone (18:17-18)". Instead, Jethro suggested: "You shall choose out of the entire nation men of substance, G-d-fearers, men of truth, who hate monetary gain, and you shall appoint over them [Israel] leaders over thousands, leaders over hundreds, leaders over fifties, and leaders over tens. (18:21)". Moses indeed implemented Jethro's suggestion. 

When did this story occur? The verse says: "it came about the next day". Which day is this referring to? Rashi explains that "the next day" does not refer to the previous story, the day after Jethro came to the Jewish camp, but rather it refers to the day after Yom Kippur (Yom Kippur is the day the Jewish people received the second tablets), which occurred over four months later. 

Why is the story that occurred many months later inserted at this point before the giving of the Torah?      

The giving of the Torah at Sinai was not only a time when the Jewish people accepted G-d's commandments and agreed to submit His word. The Mishnah teaches that the day the Torah was given was the wedding day of G-d, the groom, and the Jewish people, the bride. The Torah therefore represents not the submission to G-d, but rather it represents the marriage and union between the Jewish people and G-d. 

This explains the uniqueness of the Torah. The Torah is not only the word of G-d, but rather it is a partnership between the word of G-d, conveyed in the written Torah, and the understanding of the people, the application of the Torah which is found in the Oral Torah (the Mishnah, the Talmud, and its commentaries). In Judaism, the question "what is the will of G-d?" is addressed not only by G-d in the written Torah, but also in the Talmud, which is the human application and understanding of the Divine word. 

Moses represents the written Torah, as he was the conduit to deliver the word of G-d to the Jewish people. Jethro, on the other hand, represents the contribution of the oral Torah, the human input. Therefore, Jethro insisted that the people had to be involved in the judicial system, applying the word of G-d to their lives. 

By placing the details of Jethro's advice before the revelation at Sinai, the Torah implies that the day we stood at Sinai was not the day we became subjects of G-d. It was our wedding day. 

Adapted from the Pri Tzadik

Looking for older posts? See the sidebar for the Archive.