Blog - Torah Insights

Until Forty Years - כי תבוא

Until Forty Years

On the final day of Moses' life, he gathered the Jewish people to reestablish the covenant with G-d. Up until that point, he said to them, although you have seen G-d's miracles in Egypt and in the desert, you have not yet experienced an internal transformation for the better. Only today, forty years after those events, would the Jewish people have the ability to internalize what they saw: 

And Moses called all of Israel and said to them, "You have seen all that the Lord did before your very eyes in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh, to all his servants, and to all his land;

the great trials which your very eyes beheld and those great signs and wonders.

Yet until this day, the Lord has not given you a heart to know, eyes to see and ears to hear. (Deuteronomy 29:1-3)

Based on these verses, the Talmud states: 

Rabba said: Conclude from here that a person does not understand the opinion of his teacher until forty years

Chassidic teachings explain that the covenant Moses established with the Jewish people on the final day of his life, is recreated every year on Rosh Hashanah, to reestablish our relationship with G-d, by refocusing our life and desire toward him. During the year, when we are involved and invested in material life, our passion is fragmented and dispersed in multiple directions. On Rosh Hashanah, all external desires fade as we rediscover the essence of our soul, whose desire and pleasure is to connect to G-d. When we refocus our desire toward G-d, He reciprocates by gifting us with awareness, sensitivity, awe, and love that is far more elevated than we could hope to achieve on our own. He gives us "a heart to know, eyes to see, and ears to hear." 

As the new year approaches, we often think about our aspirations for spiritual growth and personal betterment. We aspire to be a better person, child, spouse, parent and friend. Yet, we are sometimes discouraged because we don't think we will achieve our spiritual dreams. We may have tried in the past and not succeeded. The Torah tells us that if we do our part, invest our effort toward growing spiritually, then G-d will bless us with success beyond our ability. He will bless us with "a heart to know, eyes to see and ears to hear", allowing us to internalize and be transformed by the teachings of the Torah. 

Adapted from Lekutei Torah, Ki Savo 43:3


The Blessing of "Letting Go" - כי תצא

The Blessing of "Letting Go"

When harvesting a field, the Torah commands that we share specific gifts with the poor. We are commanded to leave a corner of the field (Pe'ah), and individual stalks of wheat that fall to the ground (Leket), for the poor people. These commandments were written in the book of Leviticus and repeated in our Parsha in Deuteronomy. 

Our Parsha introduces a new commandment that was not written in Leviticus, the commandment regarding the forgotten sheaf (Shi'chi'cha):  

When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to take it; it shall be [left] for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord, your G-d, will bless you in all that you do. (Deuteronomy 24:19)

Leaving the forgotten bundle is more than just a way to feed the poor. It is introduced specifically in the book of Deuteronomy, as the Jewish people were about to enter the land of Israel and transition from a life of spirituality in the desert to a life dedicated to earthly matters. The life of agriculture can be all-consuming, potentially distracting the person from spiritual life.

The command to leave the forgotten sheaf frees the farmer's mind of worry. Naturally, when the farmer comes home from work, his mind drifts back to the field. He wonders, "did I leave anything behind?", "did I maximize my potential for profit?", "did I miss any opportunities to increase my income?" The Torah liberates the farmer from constant worry, allowing him to focus on the time with his family and his spiritual life. There is no point in worrying about the forgotten sheaf because even if he forgot something in the field, it is no longer his; it belongs to the poor people. 

Although we are not farming the land of Israel, this message is just as relevant to each of us. We are called upon to achieve success in every realm of life: personal, spiritual, and material. We were blessed with a sense of ambition to accomplish, which propels us toward greater success. However, the danger of ambition is that after we do what we can, once we "return home", we cannot enjoy our blessings. We cannot focus on the present, our family, and our spiritual life because we are thinking about the "sheafs" and the opportunities we may have left in the "field". The commandment of the forgotten sheaf, the recognition that what we left in the field was not meant for us, allows us to receive the blessing "that the Lord, your G-d, will bless you in all that you do." It is the blessing of a mind free to focus on the deeper gifts in life.

Adapted from Rabbi S.R. Hirsh 



King vs. Judge - שופטים

King vs. Judge

In the portion of Shoftim, the Torah addresses the institutions of leadership within the Jewish people: the Judiciary (the courts which we are commanded to establish "in all your gates ", as well as the supreme court in Jerusalem), monarchy,  prophecy, and priesthood. 

In addition to the literal meaning, every part of Torah exists on multiple levels, including within the soul of man. Each of us has the "institutions of government" that can lead us toward a healthy, productive, and meaningful life. Exploring the characteristics of two forms of leadership in our Parsha, the judge and the king, will help us understand their equivalent within our personality, which will help us utilize them to their fullest potential. 

Based on the verse in our Parsha regarding the king "so that his heart will not be haughty over his brothers," Maimonides defines the king as the "heart" of the Jewish people". As Maimonides explains: 

"Deuteronomy 17: 17 warns: 'lest his heart go astray.' His heart is the heart of the entire congregation of Israel. Therefore, the verse commanded him to have it cleave to the Torah to a greater degree than the rest of the nation, as it is stated: 'all the days of his life.'

The king seems to be the most powerful leader, yet, the metaphor of "heart" also points to the weakness of the king (indeed the Zohar explains that the heart is "sensitive and weak). While the king is the most powerful person in the kingdom, in many ways the king is weaker than his subjects. The phrase "there is no king without subjects" highlights that the monarchy is dependent on the subjects for its very existence. In addition, based on the verses in the book of Samuel, Maimonides describes how the king is permitted to tax his subjects and draft them to his armies. While that emphasizes the king's power, paradoxically, it also highlights his weakness; he is dependent on his people for all his needs. The king is therefore likened to the heart, whose relationship with the other limbs of the body also portrays its strength and weakness simultaneously.  On one hand, the heart pumps life-giving blood to the rest of the body. On the other hand, the heart can only share the blood it receives from the other limbs. Thus, the heart is in a dance with the limbs, it is their "leader, yet the heart is constantly working on their behalf, pumping life non-stop. The same is true for the king. He is the leader of his subjects, yet his primary role is to serve them. His role is to "go forth before them and come before them, who will lead them out and bring them in." 

The judge, by contrast, is likened to the "head." The judge is a scholar whose knowledge of the Torah and his expertise in applying its legal wisdom is independent of other people. He is aloof and apart from the rest of the population. In contrast to the heart, which is in the midst of the torso, integrated with the rest of the body, the judge, like the head, is above and distinct from the rest of the body, 

There are two primary leaders within each of us: the intelligent mind, which is the figurative judge, and the emotions, which are the figurative heart. Emotions seem all-powerful; they have the strength to motivate us with far more force than the mind. However, like the king, the emotions serve the person. Emotions are rooted in the person's subjective experience. By contrast, the intelligence of the mind, our inner "judge", does not seem as strong as our emotions; just because we understand intellectually that something is good for us does not mean that we will be motivated enough to pursue it. Yet, like the judge who is aloof from the people, the mind is objective, able to break free of a person's narrow experience and biases, allowing the person to grow beyond his own ego and perspective. 

Judaism believes in the separation of powers. We need both the judge and the king;  both the cold, aloof, intellectual analysis, which directs us to the correct path, as well as the passionate, subjective emotions, whose force fuels our journey of growth and achievement. 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 19, Shoftim 1


Found In Translation - ראה


Found In Translation


Translation is a tricky business. It is incredibly difficult to translate the nuances, cultural references, connotations, and subtleties from one language to another. Indeed, since there is no one perfect way to translate, no two translations are the same. 


Translating the Torah, in which every word is infused with nuance and layers of meaning, is even more difficult. Any translation, therefore, is a compromise; some of the meaning will, inevitably, be lost in translation.


In this week's Torah portion, however, a translation reveals deeper insight than is apparent in the original.  The inner meaning of the original Biblical Hebrew is found, specifically, in the translation. 


The opening statement of this week's portion highlights the fundamental principle of the Torah, the concept of free choice. Moses, conveying the word of G-d, says: 


Behold, I set before you today a blessing and a curse.

The blessing, that you will heed the commandments of the Lord your G-d, which I command you today; and the curse, if you will not heed the commandments of the Lord your G-d, but turn away from the way I command you this day, to follow other gods, which you did not know.


Onkelos (the convert, nephew of the Roman Emperor Titus; whose Aramaic translation of the Torah  was universally accepted and is printed in most editions of the Chumash) translates "curse" ("I set before you today a blessing and a curse") as "milattaya", which is the Aramaic word for curse. Yet the translation of Yonatan (compiled by the great Talmudic sage Rabbi Yonatan ben Uziel) offers an unusual translation: "curse" is translated as "chilufa", Aramaic for "its exchange". 


"Exchange" is a surprising choice for translation of the word "curse", because not only does it seem unrelated to the word "curse", it seems to have the opposite meaning. There must be some relation between two things in order for one to exchange the other, whereas blessing and curse are polar opposites. How can the curse be considered the "exchange" of the blessing?


The verse states "I set before you today a blessing and a curse" The term used in the verse is "notain" which means "I gift". This leads to two questions: (1) how can we say that the curse is a gift? (2) A more profound question: how is it possible that something as negative and painful as a curse can emerge from G-d, who is perfect and good?  


The translation of Onkelos, the primary translation used in Babylonia, does not address these questions, because Babylonia represents the spiritual exile, where the light of G-d is concealed. In a state of spiritual exile all we see is the negativity of the "curse". 


The translation of Yonatan, by contrast, was a translation written in the land of Israel, where even in the time of exile, when Aramaic was the prevailing language, spiritual awareness and enlightenment were accessible. Targum Yonatan, therefore, seeks to shed light and explain that what appears to be a curse is, in reality, the "exchange" of blessing. Both the blessing and the curse are an expression of G-d's love and connection to us. The only difference is that we can perceive the goodness in the blessing, whereas in the curse, the blessing is "exchanged", it expresses itself in a different form, we, therefore, cannot sense the Divine source, as the positivity is hidden. 


The curse is the "exchange" (which implies similarity) of the blessing, because G-d is present in both good times and challenging times, in moments of pain just as in moments of blessing.


When the Jewish people read the Torah in the original Hebrew, they were living in Israel basking in the light of Divine blessing, yet, their understanding of G-d was limited. They only knew how to sense the presence of G-d in times of blessing. Yet, specifically when the Jewish people were exiled, they discovered a deeper truth. When they experienced spiritual descent, represented by the inability to understand the original Hebrew, they discovered, within the translation, that G-d is present even when the blessings are no longer apparent. Since G-d is truly infinite, he is not confined to "light"; He is present in the "darkness" as well as in the light, because the darkness is merely an "exchange", another form of the blessing. 


The recognition that within pain and difficulty lies hidden goodness will allow the concealed good to be revealed, transforming the "curse" into open and revealed blessing. 


Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos vol. 19 Re'eh Sicha 1. 



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