Blog - Torah Insights

A Community of Individuals - ויקהל


A Community of Individuals 

Every human being has two contradictory psychological and existential needs: the need to experience life as an independent, unique individual as well as the need to be part of a larger group. We each sense that we are individuals with a unique personality, perspective, and gifts. To live an authentic life we must celebrate and cherish our individuality. Yet, we also possess a deep need to be part of a group, we yearn to transcend our existence and be included in something larger than ourselves.  

Where do these contradictory needs emerge from? 

These two needs are reflected in the names of the final two portions of the book of Exodus, Vayakhel and Pekudei. Vayakhekl translated as “and he {Moses} assembled,” which comes from the word Kahal, congregation, expresses the theme that individuals connect to form a community. In contrast, Pekudei, which means “counting” and refers to the accounting of the material donated to the temple and to the counting of the Jewish people, highlights the unique contribution of each individual.   

These contradictory needs reflect the purpose of all of creation, which is to create a home for G-d in the physical world. The formula “a home for G-d in the physical world” has two realities: the infinite and the finite. G-d, who is infinite, is drawn down into the finite reality of the physical world. The purpose of creation is written into the very core of our soul, which in turn expresses itself in the life of the person. 

Our soul seeks the connection to Divine infinity. This is expressed by the deep need to escape the confines of our personality, to transcend our own concerns and interests, and be subsumed within a larger community. The goal of creation, however, is to draw infinity into the finite reality, to draw the infinite G-d into every facet of creation. The soul, therefore, experiences the desire to celebrate its finite, unique personality, to celebrate its particular perspective, and to cherish its exclusive contribution to the universe.  

This insight is adapted from the Rebbe's words at a Farbrengen {Chassidic gathering} thirty years ago this Shabbat, which was the last time we heard the Rebbe speak at a Farbrengen. To quote Rabbi Yanki Tauber: “The Rebbe's Chassidim are still waiting for the next farbrengen. In the meantime, they're making communities.”

The Golden Calf and Divine Oneness - Ki Tisa


The Golden Calf and Divine Oneness 

This week's portion tells the story of colossal failure and spiritual descent, when Jewish people, just forty days after accepting the Torah at Sinai, betrayed G-d and served the golden calf. Yet, the name of the portion, Ki Tisa, "when you will raise {the heads of the Jewish people}" implies that this is a story not of descent but of elevation. 

After the sin of the golden calf G-d told Moses:

"Go, ascend from here, you and the people you have brought up from the land of Egypt, to the land that I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying: 'I will give it to your descendants.' (Exodus 33:1)

G-d tells Moses "Go ascend from here", meaning, the experience of the sin and repentance itself, will lead to an even greater ascent. 

Indeed, our Sages teach "where the baal teshuva {the person who repents from sin} stands, even the completely righteous cannot stand." The baal teshuva is superior not just because of his intense, passionate longing for G-d, but also because of his contribution to the purpose of creation. While the righteous person only interacts with the neutral and holy experiences, the baal teshuva, who experiences sin and unholiness, elevates the sparks of goodness hidden within sin and brings them back to their source within G-d. 

There are two perspectives on reality. From the first perspective, the perspective of creation, the world is divided into good and evil. G-d's presence and oneness are expressed exclusively in the realm of good, whereas evil must be avoided and rejected. This is the perspective of the righteous. The baal teshuva, by contrast, rises to a far more profound experience of the unity of G-d. The baal teshuva experiences the second perspective, the point of view of the creator, who sees that the true essence of evil is the Divine spark responsible for its creation and continued existence. Therefore, through repentance and transformation, even evil can be elevated and reunited with holiness.  

These two paths, of the righteous and the baal teshuva, exist within each of us. While we hope for a life of holiness, serenity, and peace, while we dream of the path of the righteous, we often experience challenges, pain, and disappointment. When we do, we must realize that G-d is blessing us with the opportunity to rise to greater heights, to reconnect and recommit to our goals and values with greater passion. When we do, we will rise from the perspective of the creation to the perspective of the creator. We will discover the hidden spark within every experience. We will extend the awareness of the oneness of G-d into every aspect of reality, ultimately transforming the world into a place of goodness and kindness. 

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Ki Tisa 16:4)

Constant Awareness - תצוה

Constant Awareness 

Is love constant or fleeting, stable or fragile? 

In our relationship with other people and our relationship with G-d, love is like a flame of fire that surges and retreats. A relationship, therefore, requires not only love but also devotion, not only desire but also willpower. 

This is the inner meaning of the "tzitz", show-plate, which the high priest wore on his forehead. As the Torah describes:   

And you shall make a show-plate of pure gold, and you shall engrave upon it like the engraving of a seal: Holy to the Lord."

And you shall place it upon a cord of blue wool and it shall go over the cap, and it shall be opposite the front side of the cap.

​​It shall be upon Aaron's forehead, and Aaron shall bear the iniquity of the holy things that the children of Israel sanctify, for all their holy gifts. It shall be upon his forehead constantly to make them favorable before the Lord. (28:36-38)

Like every aspect of the Temple, each of the high priest's garments represents a lesson in our Divine service. The tzitz represents our awareness of the presence of G-d. Every moment of the day, and every experience we engage in, is an opportunity to fulfill our Divine service, imbuing the world with holiness.

The Kabbalah explains that there are two levels of awareness. The first level of awareness is achieved through the cognition of the brain, when one meditates in prayer about the greatness of G-d. This cognition gives birth to the emotion of love within the heart. Yet, the love produced by intellectual contemplation can cease when the mind focuses on other matters throughout the day. Thus, the awareness of the understanding and the love it produces will not be "constant" throughout the day. 

The second level of awareness is the power of will that emerges from a deeper place within the soul. Even when one does not feel love, one can awaken the will to be devoted to a beloved. The will is represented by the forehead, which covers the brain and the mind, and represents the devotion, the will to connect, that is present even when the love is not felt.  

"It shall be upon his forehead constantly." The commitment that emerges from the will enables the person to be connected to G-d throughout the day, even when the love is not felt as passionately as it is felt during meditation and prayer.

Adapted from Torah Ohr Parshas Tizaveh 


What is the Primary Purpose of the Temple? - תרומה


What is the Primary Purpose of the Temple? 


Should we value ourselves based on what we do or should we value ourselves for who we are? Is our relationship with G-d based on what we do or is it based on who we are? 


This question is the deeper meaning of the debate between two of the great classic commentaries on the primary purpose of the temple that the Jews were commanded to build. The temple contained two chambers, a courtyard, and multiple pieces of furniture, including, the ark, table, menorah, two altars, and a washing basin. The question arises, which of these details expresses the core purpose of the temple? 


Nachmanides argues that the main objective of the temple was to house the ark, which contained the ten commandments. In his words: 


Thus the main purpose of the Tabernacle was to contain a place in which the Divine Glory rests, this being the ark, just as He {G-d} said, "I will arrange My meetings with you there, and I will speak with you from atop the ark-cover." Therefore He {G-d} first gave the commandment about the ark and the ark-cover, for they are first in importance. (Ramban 25:1) 


Maimonides, however, defines the sacrifices as the main objective of the temple. This implies that the temple's main function was the altar that served the offerings. As Maimonides explains in his Book of Commandments: 


We are commanded to build a Sanctuary to serve [G‑d]. In it we offer sacrifices, burn the eter­nal flame, offer our prayers, and congregate for the festivals each year, as will be explained. (Sefer Hamitzvos, positive mitzvah 20)


The altar and the offerings represent the person's effort toward self-improvement and development, refining himself and becoming closer to G-d. By contrast, there was no action or service related to the ark; thus, the ark represents G-d's relationship with the Jewish people that is unconditional and not dependent on anything the people were required to do. 


When Maimonides, the great legalist and codifier, looked at the Tabernacle, he focused on what a person is required to do, as symbolized by the offerings upon the altar, whereas Nachmanides, whose commentary incorporates the "hidden wisdom," the wisdom of the Kabbalah, sees the crux of the temple as an expression of G-d's love and desire to dwell amongst the Jewish people. 


The Rebbe explains that Maimonides and Nachmanides are not arguing; instead, to employ a Talmudic expression, "one said one statement, and one said another statement, and they do not disagree." Nachmanides focuses on the essence of G-d, whose connection to the core of the soul is unconditional, while Maimonides focuses on how we express our connection to G-d within our conscious mind, personality, and lifestyle. 


Returning to our opening question: G-d values us unconditionally because of who we are at our core, as Nachmanides highlights. Yet, as Maimonides alludes, G-d also gives us a roadmap, showing us how we can align the totality of our being with our essential core. 


Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos vol. 36 Vayakhel Pekudei. 



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