Blog - Torah Insights

Are You a Merchant? - עקב


Are You a Merchant? 


"You shall eat, be satiated, and bless the L-rd your G-d for the good land He gave you". This verse is the source of the biblical obligation to thank G-d after we eat bread. Based on the word "land" which appears in the verse, the sages derive that to fulfill one's obligation, one must mention the land, as well as the covenant of circumcision and the Torah, in whose merit we receive the land of Israel.    


The Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, The founder of the Chabad movement, asked the following questions:  


1) If the land of Israel is a requirement for grace after meals, then why are we obligated to say the blessing outside of Israel when we do not benefit from the land? 

2) The Torah (Genesis chapter 17) states that G-d made a covenant with Abraham that his descendants would receive the Land of Canaan in return for keeping the covenant of circumcision. How, then, were we exiled from the land, although we do indeed fulfill the covenant of circumcision?  


These two questions lead us to the conclusion that even while in the diaspora, we do, in fact, possess the land of Israel. While we may not be in the physical land, we do experience the spiritual gift of Israel, which is why we are obligated to thank G-d not only for our bread but also for the spiritual land we were blessed with. 


We can derive the meaning of the spiritual land of Israel from the etymology of its native name: Canaan, which is similar to two seemingly unrelated words: submission (Hach'na'ah) and merchant (see, for example, Hoshea 12:8). The merchant submits an object to the buyer and, in return, receives payment of money.   


Spiritually speaking, we are all merchants. Our spiritual calling is to submit our physical possessions and experiences to G-d, thereby transferring them from the "ownership" of the material world to the domain of holiness. As merchants, we receive money in return. The Hebrew word for money, Kesef, which also means silver, is etymologically related to the word for love and yearning (nichsof). The love of G-d which we produce through our effort and meditation, is limited by our understanding and perspective. By contrast, the love we are given from above, as payment for submitting and transferring our physical possessions to the domain of the holy, is boundless. It is a love far more intense than any emotion we can produce by our meditation and effort.


When we bless G-d for the gifts of food and the land, we are also blessing him for our spiritual sustenance and the spiritual land. We are thankful for the opportunity to be the merchants who "earn" the "payment" of boundless love in return for transforming the physical into the spiritual.


(Adapted from Likutei Torah, Eikev)        



Can Emotions Be Controlled? - ואתחנן

Can Emotions Be Controlled?

One of the most important commandments in the Torah is that Jewish men put on Tefillin on the head and the arm. As the verse states:

And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for ornaments between your eyes. (Deuteronomy 6:8)

A careful analysis of the verse reveals subtle but important legal differences between the hand Tefillin and the head Tefillin; these seemingly technical distinctions reflect the spiritual significance and purpose of the hand and head Tefillin. 

The verb used in the context of the hand Tefillin is "you shall tie”, whereas regarding the head Tefillin the verse states "they shall be”. The choice of words indicates that regarding the hand Tefillin the commandment is the act of tying. If one wears the hand Tefillin for an hour, the commandment is fulfilled only in the first moment of tying. By contrast, the head Tefillin is described in the Torah as "they shall be”, indicating that one fulfills a commandment every moment that the Tefillin are on the head. 

Why the difference? Why is the head tefillin an ongoing continuous commandment, and the hand Tefillin a one-time commandment?   

A person has the power to control his or her mind; one can choose to shift one's attention to whatever one decides to think about. By contrast, a person cannot control his emotions; one cannot decide to love or to despise, to be happy or to be melancholy. We do not control how we feel. Therefore, the head tefillin, which symbolize the obligation to fill our mind with the awareness of the unity of G-d and love of G-d, is an ongoing continuous commandment, symbolizing our ability, and therefore our obligation, to fill our mind with holy thoughts. By contrast, there is no commandment that the hand Tefillin (placed on the arm near the heart) be placed upon the heart because we cannot determine how we feel. The obligation, therefore, is the act of binding, which symbolizes the responsibility to keep our emotions in check, and behave in a moral and appropriate manner, regardless of how we feel at the moment. 

The above, however, is not the end of the story. 

Although the commandment to don the hand tefillin refers only to the act, and therefore to the moment, of tying, nevertheless the hand Tefillin remain on the arm for as long as the head tefillin are worn (in fact, we first remove the head tefillin and only then do we remove the hand tefillin), as a result of an indirect obligation. As the Talmud states:  

The verse states: "You shall bind them for a sign upon your arm, and they shall be for a sign between your eyes": As long as the head-tefillin are between your eyes, you shall be wearing two

The spiritual significance of this law is as follows: although we can't control how we feel (which is why there is no commandment that the hand tefillin be placed on the arm), nevertheless "As long as the head-tefillin are between your eyes, you shall be wearing two", signifying that when the mind is saturated with holiness, positive thoughts and awareness of G-d, we will be wearing hand tefillin as well, eventually, over time, the awareness will affect and transform our heart, generating a positive and holy emotional state. 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 39 Vaeschanan sicha 2 


Eleven Day Journey - דברים

Eleven Day Journey 

Deuteronomy, where Moses retells the history of the forty-year journey in the desert, begins with verses that describe the place and time of Moses' speech. Verse one describes the site, "across the Jordan in the desert, in the plain opposite the Red Sea, between Paran and Tofel and Lavan and Hazeroth and Di Zahav.", and verse three describes the time, "It came to pass in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month, on the first of the month". 

Between the description of the place and time, verse two offers information that seems out of place. The verse tells us: "It is eleven days' journey from Horeb by way of Mount Seir to Kadesh Barnea." Why is this information pertinent as an introduction to the book?

Based on the teachings of the Arizal, Chassidic philosophy explains that this verse includes the purpose and mission of the journey through the desert. The desert is not merely a geographical obstacle that the Jewish people had to cross in order to reach the promised land. The desert represents the terrain of the world that is not hospitable to holiness. By journeying through the desert, the Jewish people brought holiness into the spiritual wilderness, empowering all future generations to do the same, until ultimately, the entire world will be transformed into a place of goodness, kindness, and holiness. 

And this is the significance of the eleven-day journey. 

While the number ten represents the complete number within the realm of holiness (there are ten divine attributes, ten utterances through which G-d created the world, ten commandments that are the foundation of the Torah), the number eleven represents the forces and energy of unholiness. Why is unholiness represented by a higher number than holiness? Every creation, even one which is destructive and unholy, has a divine spark that brings it into existence. The definition of holiness is that the divine spark is integrated within the creation because the created entity allows the divine spark to shine through it. The definition of unholiness is that it conceals and obstructs the divine spark of goodness within it; the spark, therefore, is counted as a distinct entity. The number eleven, therefore, represents unholiness which contains ten attributes as well as the divine spark, which, while animating the unholy creation, remains distinct and apart. 

The incense offered in the temple had eleven ingredients. The incense represented the service of refining the unholy forces. Therefore, it had eleven species, symbolizing how a negative experience can be transformed to positivity, creating a pleasant aroma within the temple.  

The journey through the desert is described as "by way of Mount Seir to Kadesh Barnea", "Kadesh" is the Hebrew word for holiness, and "Barnea" is comprised of two words: to refine and movement <"nua">. The purpose of our journey through life is to refine (Barnea) the unholiness (eleven) and transform it to holiness (Kadesh).  

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Devarim 5742 


Optimism at the Plains of Moab - מטות מסעי


Optimism at the Plains of Moab

The fourth book of the Torah, the book of Numbers, is, in many ways, a sad book. The book begins on a very positive note; the Jewish people were preparing to travel from Mount Sinai and, in a matter of days, enter the land of Israel. And then, to our painful disappointment, we read about the debacle of the spies, when the Jewish people despised and rejected the land of Israel. G-d, in turn, decreed that the entire generation would remain in the desert. 

The very last verse of the book, however, allows us to revisit the entire book and see it in a positive light. The concluding verse of the book reads as follows: 

These are the commandments and the ordinances that the Lord commanded the children of Israel through Moses in the plains of Moab, by the Jordan at Jericho.

The Hebrew words BiArvot Moav {in the plains of Moab}, have an additional meaning as well. The Hebrew word BiArvot {in the plains of} comes from the word guarantor. And the word Moab means from the father (Moab's name was a reference to the episode where Lot's daughters, thinking that the entire world was destroyed at the destruction of the evil city of Sedom, had children from their father). Taken together, the phrase alludes to the idea that children are the guarantors of their parents. 

The concluding episode of the fourth book relates to the daughters of Tzelafchad, who cherished and desired the land of Israel. They demanded, and we're granted, their deceased father’s portion in Israel. (The book concludes with the request of their tribe that Tzelafchad’s portion remain within the domain of the tribe. They, therefore, married members of their tribe). The book's conclusion, then, points to the inner theme of the book: that no matter how severe the failings, the children can correct the mistakes of the previous generations. By learning from the past, by cultivating a desire for the land of Israel, the generation of the daughters of Tzelafchad elevated and rectified the mistakes and missed opportunities of their forbearers. 

The conclusion of the fourth book then expresses the Torah's optimistic outlook: ultimately, the painful mistakes and experiences within our personal life, as well as throughout our history, will be corrected. We have the potential, and therefore the responsibility, to rectify the past. We can cross into the Promised Land, ushering in the era of Moshiach, when the world will reach perfection. 

Adapted from the Sifsei Kohen al Hatorah

Does G-d Need Bread for Breakfast? - פנחס


Does G-d Need Bread for Breakfast?

At this point in the story, toward the end of the fourth book of the Torah, in the portion of Pinchas, we find the Jewish people preparing for their entry into the land of Israel. We read about the lottery through which the land would be divided. We read about Moses asking G-d to choose a successor who would lead the Jewish people into the land of Israel (since it had been decreed that Moses would not enter the promised land). The conclusion of the portion, which discusses the laws of the daily offerings and the offerings of the holidays, however, seems completely out of place. Why was the commandment about these offerings given at this point in the story, and not forty years earlier, in the third book of the Torah, which discusses the laws of offerings?

Rashi explains that the commandment about the offerings was in response to Moses' request for a leader to be appointed: 

Command the children of Israel: What is stated above? "Let the Lord…appoint {a leader}". The Holy One, blessed is He, said to him {Moses}, "Before you command me regarding My children, command My children regarding Me."

Moses asked G-d to appoint a leader "so that the congregation of the Lord will not be like sheep without a shepherd." G-d, in turn, responded that in order for the Jewish people to sense that they are not "like sheep without a shepherd", for them to feel the presence of G-d, their ultimate leader, they should offer the daily (and additional, holiday) offerings.

This dimension of the offerings, which creates the awareness that G-d is present in our lives, is expressed in the opening phrase of the commandment: 

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Command the children of Israel and say to them: My offering, My food for My fire offerings, a spirit of satisfaction for Me, you shall take care to offer to Me at its appointed time. (Numbers 28:1-2)

Why does G-d refer to the offerings as "my bread"? Isn't it absurd to think that G-d needs to eat twice daily, and He, therefore, asks that we give him bread? 

Chasidic philosophy explains the metaphor of G-d's bread as follows: the function of food is not for the soul per se. If the person doesn't eat and, G-d forbid, expires, it is the body that dies, the soul remains intact. The food is what connects the soul with the body. Similarly, the offerings are G-d's food, not because he needs food for his sustenance, which would be absurd, but because the offerings serve to connect G-d, the "soul" of the world, with the "body" of the world, the created reality. 

How do the offerings function as "my bread," connecting the "soul" of the universe to its "body"? The answer is found in the following word in the verse: "{my bread} my fire." The offerings placed in the fire, represent the desire of a person to break free of the earth's gravitational pull and, as a flame of fire, ascend upward. The offering represents the Jew's desire to connect to G-d, which elicits within G-d the desire to transcend the trappings of infinity and relate to the finite human being. [As alluded to in the following word of the verse, Nichochi {my pleasing aroma}, which is related to the {Aramaic} word descent].

Following the destruction of the holy temple, our sages instituted daily prayers to substitute for the two daily offerings. The morning prayer is the fire. When we dedicate time each morning and afternoon {the evening prayer was added later}, we are offering G-d his "bread". We are connecting the "soul" of the universe with its physical existence; we are allowing G-d's presence to enter every aspect of our awareness and we are  infusing our physical lives with meaning and with blessing.

Adapted from Lekutei Sichos vol. 12 page 18 and Lekutei Torah, Pinchas 76:1 

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