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The Torah's View on Urbanization - בראשית

The Torah's View on Urbanization

What is the Torah's perspective on urbanization? 

Would we be better off, spiritually and morally, if we lived in a rural setting, closer to nature, or is there an advantage to living in populated centers, where we can collaborate and engage in commerce, technology, the arts, and culture?

It seems that the Torah's first mention of a city is in a negative context, which would imply, perhaps, that the Torah views cities negatively. After Cain killed his brother Abel, the Torah tells us: 

And Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch, and he was building a city, and he called the city after the name of his son, Enoch. (Genesis 4:17)

Indeed, many commentators view the choice of words in this verse as implying a negative message about Cain and his city-building enterprise. The verse states "he was building" in the present tense (as opposed to "and he built"), implying that Cain was perpetually building the city. Cain had a deep ambition to expand his possessions and acquire new assets (in fact, his name, Cain, comes from the Hebrew word for acquisition, "kinyan"). He was unable to find satisfaction in his achievement and constantly desired more. This extreme, unhealthy ambition robbed him of the peace and serenity that comes from being satisfied with one's lot. 

Although the city can be a place of greed, of distraction from G-d and expansion of the selfish ego, there is another way to view the city built by Cain. 

Cain repented from the atrocity of the murder of his brother Abel. To correct the terrible sin of the destruction of life, Cain sought to enhance and support civilization by founding the very first city. Viewed from this perspective, a city is a place that brings people together, collaborating to improve the lives of its inhabitants.  

Kabbalah teaches that there are two primary forces in the world, "chaos" and "order." "Chaos" possesses potent energy that often cannot mitigate itself to collaborate with an opposing form of energy or perspective. The world of chaos consists of extreme energies that ultimately self-destruct because they cannot humble and limit themselves to respect and incorporate an opposing viewpoint. In the world of order, by contrast, the energy is not as potent, and as a result, the various energies can co-exist and develop to create a world that will endure.

Cain's soul was from the world of chaos. However, his potent energy was manifested in a negative form, causing him to see his brother as a threat instead of seeing how their differences could enrich them both. Cain was not able to tolerate another person encroaching on his space, so he killed his brother. When he wanted to correct his sin, he had to delve into the deep recesses of his soul to address the root causes of his sin. He then realized that he must apply his chaotic energy to the harmony of the world of order. He understood that he must create an environment where not everybody needs to engage in growing bread from the earth; instead, each person can develop a specific contribution and be part of a larger organism, the city. This constituted Cain's spiritual rehabilitation because, according to the kabbalah, the model of the city, the world of "order," is the model that will ultimately lead the world to correction. 

In every relationship with parents, children, spouses, colleges, there is a tension between being loyal to one's own perspective, feelings and opinions and creating space for the other person to do the same. The preferred model for relationships is that which Cain achieved through his repentance. The ultimate relationship follows the city model: understanding that, without abandoning one’s own perspective, one can be enhanced and grow specifically from the person who is different from oneself.

Perhaps the Torah doesn't state clearly whether urbanization is positive or negative because it can go both ways. In the final analysis, then, it is up to us whether the city can be a place of chaos or order. We decide whether the city is an extension of Cain's sin, an expansion of unchecked greed and ego, or part of Cain's repentance and rehabilitation, a place where many individuals come together to create a greater story, a deeper harmony by advancing both physical and spiritual life. 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 35 Bereishis 2.  


The Alternative Vision - וזאת הברכה


The Alternative Vision

"And this is the blessing with which Moses, the man of G-d, blessed the children of Israel [just] before his death." These are the opening words of the final portion of the five books of Moses, in which Moses blesses each of the twelve tribes of Israel with unique blessings tailored to their respective spiritual mission and portion in the land of Israel.

The final blessings of Moses are not merely the parting words from a devoted leader to his beloved people; but rather, they represent a radical shift from the song of Haazinu, the song that G-d commanded Moses to "teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths". The song begins with the description of the kindness that G-d bestowed upon the Jewish people in the desert and then turns to the future to describe the blessings G-d will give them in the land of Israel:  

He made them ride upon the high places of the earth, that they would eat the produce of the field. He let them suck honey from a rock, and oil from the mighty part of the crag. The cream of cattle and the milk of sheep, with the fat of lambs and rams of Bashan and he goats, with kidneys of wheat, and it [the congregation of Israel] would drink the blood of grapes [which was] as the finest wine. (Deuteronomy 32:13-14)

The song then turns tragic. The blessing causes the Jewish people to become arrogant, abandon G-d, ultimately leading to a terrible exile. As the verse describes: 

And Jeshurun became fat and rebelled; you grew fat, thick and rotund; [Israel] forsook the God Who made them, and spurned the [Mighty] Rock of their salvation. (Deuteronomy 32:15)

And then, after faithfully relaying to the Jewish people the song of Haazinu, Moses offers an entirely different vision. Moses offers a vision where the Jewish people integrate the bountiful blessings with a deep connection to G-d. As Moses says:  

"His land shall be blessed by the Lord, with the sweetness of the heavens with dew, and with the deep that lies below, and with the sweetness of the produce of the sun, and with the sweetness of the moon's yield, and with the crops of early mountains, and with the sweetness of perennial hills, and with the sweetness of the land and its fullness, and through the contentment of the One Who dwells in the thornbush {G-d}. (Deuteronomy 33:13-16)

In his final words, Moses teaches his people that it is their choice. They can choose to experience alienation from G-d and exile from the land of Israel, or they can create the reality envisioned by Moses, fulfilling the ultimate purpose of creation, creating harmony between heaven and earth. 

Adapted from the Abarbenel 

Kosher Sukkah - האזינו


Kosher Sukkah


The upcoming holiday of Sukkot, which commemorates G-d sheltering our ancestors in protective clouds when he liberated them from Egypt, is alluded to in this week's Torah portion. The opening verses of the song of Haazinu describe the kindness that G-d displayed toward the Jewish people:   


He found them in a desert land, and in a desolate, howling wasteland. He encompassed them and bestowed understanding upon them; He protected them as the pupil of His eye.


Rashi explains that this verse refers to the Sukkah: 


He encompassed them: There {in the desert}, {God} encompassed {Israel}, surrounding them by {protective} clouds. 


There are many intricate laws regulating the Schach (the covering of the Sukkah); these laws are discussed at length in the Talmud tractate Sukkah. The following Mishnah formulates the general criteria of Kosher Schach: (1) the material must be something that grows from the ground, yet it must be detached from the ground. (2) In addition, it cannot be susceptible to ritual impurity, meaning it can not be formed into a man-made utensil or receptacle. As the following Mishnah explains: 


If one trellised climbing plants such as a grapevine, or gourd plant, or ivy, over a sukka while they were still attached to the ground, and then added roofing atop them, the sukka is unfit... This is the principle with regard to the roofing of a sukka: Anything that is susceptible to ritual impurity, e.g., vessels, or its growth is not from the ground, e.g., animal hides, one may not roof his sukka with it. And anything that is not susceptible to ritual impurity and its growth is from the ground, one may roof his sukka with it.


The experience of dwelling in the Sukkah reminds us that our protection and security comes not from the homes we build and the possessions we amass, but rather from G-d's protection. That is why we leave our home and sit in a temporary dwelling that does not offer adequate shelter from the elements, symbolizing that our sense of security comes from G-d's embrace. When we sit in the Sukkah, we express that our trust is not in the power of nature nor in the brilliance of man; but rather, it is in the protection of G-d himself. 


This general idea is expressed in the specific laws of the Schach. The first primary principle is that the vegetation fit for Sechah must be severed from the ground, the source of its sustenance and nourishment. This symbolizes that we do not find shelter in the vigor of nature. The second primary principle is that the Schach may not be crafted into an artificial tool or utensil; this symbolizes that we place our trust not in the ingenuity and creativity of man but rather in the loving embrace of G-d himself. 

(Adapted from Rabbi S.R. Hirsh)


Place Your Scroll Alongside Your Ark - וילך

Place Your Scroll Alongside Your Ark

On the final day of his life, Moses instructed the Levites to take the Torah scroll, containing the five books of Moses, and place it alongside the ark which housed the tablets of the ten commandments. As the verse describes: 

"Take this Torah scroll and place it alongside the ark of the covenant of the Lord, your God, and it will be there as a witness. (Deuteronomy 31:26)

The purpose of placing the Torah near the ark was to preserve the accuracy of the Torah. Since there is a possibility of error when copying the Torah by hand, Moses instructed that there should be one Torah that would serve as the master copy, preserved and protected within the ark,  any question or doubt about the specifics of a word or verse would be checked against the master copy. 

There is, however, a deeper meaning as well. 

Human nature is such that we get excited and passionate about general ideas. When, however, we implement the general idea in a series of specific, detailed tasks, some of the excitement and passion wear off. It is relatively easy to get excited about raising a child, beginning a new business, enrolling in a new school, or embarking on a new endeavor. The challenge is to preserve the enthusiasm when occupied with the specifics of the project. In the language of the Kabbalah, the "light" (clarity, enthusiasm, and excitement) which is present in the sphere of Chachmoh (wisdom, which refers to the flash of inspiration that produces the general idea), is diminished in the sphere of Binah (understanding, which refers to the details analysis of the concept).   

This, then, is the deeper meaning of placing the Torah scroll alongside the ark. 

The Torah scroll contains six hundred and thirteen detailed commandments that are an elaboration of the general themes of the Torah contained within ten commandments. On the day of his passing Moses sought to teach the Jewish people that the Torah scroll, which represents the specific implementation of the Divine will, can, and therefore should, be infused with the sense of excitement and clarity felt within the tablets in the ark, which contain the general ideas of the Torah.

[Rashi quotes a Talmudic debate regarding where exactly the scroll was placed: The Sages of Israel differ. Some say that a board projected outward from the ark, and there it was laid, while others maintain that it was laid alongside the tablets, inside the ark. The inner meaning of their debate is to what extent the ark can affect the specific details. Some say that the scroll was outside the ark, because while the general idea can influence the details, they cannot possess the same degree of "light" as the general idea. Others believe that the scroll is placed within the ark, because they believe the details can be infused with the equivalent "light" within the general idea.]

This message is especially relevant to the time of year when we read this portion. During the season of Rosh Hashanah and Yom kippur, we seek to connect to the essence of our soul, which is a reservoir of enthusiasm, spiritual awareness, and positive emotions. We focus our attention on what is truly meaningful in our life. We are in touch with our "ark", our essence. But having an ark is not enough. We are empowered to connect every moment of the year with the clarity of vision and purpose which we experience during the high holidays. We are empowered to place the scroll alongside the ark.  

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 9 Vayelech 2.  


Reconnecting to Our Inner Core - נצבים

Reconnecting to Our Inner Core 

Although Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are, respectively, the beginning and the culmination of the days of Judgement, as we read in the liturgy, "On Rosh Hashanah, they are inscribed; and on Yom Kippur, they are sealed," nevertheless, the prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are very different. On Yom Kippur we ask G-d numerous times to forgive our sins. We recite the confession no less than ten times, tapping our chest with our fist as we mention every type of transgression imaginable. Whereas on Rosh Hashanah, while we ask for a good life in the new year, we make no reference to sin at all. 

The simple reason for not mentioning sin on Rosh Hashanah is because we don't want to draw attention to our shortcomings on the day of Judgement. Just as a trial lawyer will do all he can to divert attention from the defendant's negative action, we seek to place the emphasis on anything other than our shortcomings. Yet, that cannot be the entire reason because, if so, then on Yom Kippur, when the Judgement is sealed, we should also avoid mentioning sin.   

Rosh Hashanah is the day when we connect to the essence of our soul. Chassidic Philosophy explains that Rosh Hashanah is the day we coronate G-d as king of the universe. On the eve of Rosh Hashanah G-d's desire to invest himself in the creation returns to its source in the essence of G-d, and it is up to us to reawaken G-d's desire and pleasure in engaging with creation for another year. We do so by calling to G-d from the essence of our soul, which elicits from within the essence of G-d the pleasure and desire to relate to creation, infusing the world with a more profound flow of energy and blessing for the upcoming year. 

And therefore, there is no mention of sin on Rosh Hashanah because the essence of our soul is always connected to G-d, not susceptible to the separation caused by sin. As we seek to reconnect to our core, we reach a place within ourselves where there is no sin, no negativity, no shortcoming, only an unbroken connection to G-d. On Yom Kippur, however, we focus on our flaws and mistakes because the unique quality of Yom Kippur is that the essence of the soul, which is usually removed and not present in the conscious mind, is revealed and present within the totality of our persona. Yom Kippur is when the inspiration of the essence of our soul is felt within the part of ourselves that is subject to failure, disappointment and negativity. On Rosh Hashanah we move away from our conscious desires and thoughts in order to connect to our essence. On Yom Kippur we seek to apply our essence, our true self, to the parts of self that require rehabilitation and correction.  

The themes of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are reflected in our portion, describing the last day of the life of Moses. In this week's portion, Moses begins: 

You are all standing this day before the Lord your God, the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel, your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp both your woodcutters and your water drawers, that you may enter the covenant of the Lord, your God, and His oath, which the Lord, your God, is making with you this day. (Deuteronomy 29:9-11)

When we stand before G-d, as the Jewish people stood on that day, and as we do every year on Rosh Hashanah, we are united because at the level of our soul there is no distinction between us since all souls are rooted within G-d himself. Yet, this unity is only when the people would leave their own "tent", their mundane life, and gather before G-d. Yet, the next portion describes a more profound form of unity: "And Moses went, and he spoke the following words to all Israel." Moses "went" to the people, to their tents, and there he "spoke… to all Israel", Moses imparted the sense of unity, inspired by the essence of the soul, to the people, not only when they stood before G-d, but also when they were at home, in their tents, in their everyday life..

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 19 Vayelch 1. 


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