Blog - Torah Insights

Experience Sinai - וילך

Experience Sinai 

Can you do it alone? 

Can you ensure you will be dedicated to G-d’s word by studying the Torah on your own? 

On the last day of his life, Moses indicated that the answer is no. 

To remain committed to the Torah, we must recreate the experience of Sinai, where all the Jewish people stood together and accepted the word of G-d. Something about the tangible experience of standing in one place, along with many people creates a deep impression on the human psyche. 

Therefore, in our Parsha, Moses commands the people: 

At the end of [every] seven years, at an appointed time, in the Festival of Succoth, [after] the year of release,

When all Israel comes to appear before the Lord, your God, in the place He will choose, you shall read this Torah before all Israel, in their ears.

Assemble the people: the men, the women, and the children, and your stranger in your cities, in order that they hear, and in order that they learn and fear the Lord, your God, and they will observe to do all the words of this Torah.

If the purpose of the gathering was so that a person would hear the content of the words being read, then it would not apply to the scholar, who already knows it, or to the person who would not understand the reading. Yet, Maimonides explains that the commandment of Hakhel applies equally to the scholar who already knows the words of the Torah that will be read as well as to people who do not understand the words being read: 

Even great Sages who know the entire Torah are obligated to listen with exceedingly great concentration. One who is unable to hear should focus his attention on this reading, for Scripture established it solely to strengthen the true faith. He should see himself as if he was just now commanded regarding the Torah and heard it from the Almighty. For the king is an agent to make known the word of God (Deuteronomy 31:10-12).

This year is the year of Hakhel. While we are unable to fulfill the commandment in the literal sense, the objective of the Mitzvah, strengthening our commitment to G-d and the Torah, can certainly be fulfilled even during the time of exile. The Rebbe taught us that the year of Hakhel should be dedicated to bringing people together for a shared Jewish experience. 

This is something that can't be done alone. To experience Sinai you must stand together with others.  

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


Fuel Your Spiritual Light - נצבים

Fuel Your Spiritual Light 

The Tanya, the foundational book of Chabad philosophy, spends fifty three chapters explaining the statement in our Parsha that the Torah is “very close”, exceedingly  accessible to every person. Moses states: 

It is not in heaven, that you should say, "Who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?"

Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?"

Rather, [this] thing is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. (Deuteronomy 30:12-14)

Is it indeed the case that it is “very close” to serve G-d not only by taking the right action but also “in your heart”? Is it indeed easy and accessible for one to transform his heart from negative and destructive pleasures to the love of G-d? 

The Tanya explains that, for the overwhelming majority of people, the meaning of the verse is that we are able to develop enough control and inner motivation to to be in control of the most important aspect of our lives, the realm of action. The verse “in your heart, so that you can do it”, means that it is “very close” to generate enough emotional motivation to take control of our actions. 

But why is action primary? Is it only because we live in a physical world and therefore abstract spirituality is less important than tangible action? The Tanya explains that, perhaps counterintuitively, the most profound connection to G-d occurs only through action. 

The Zohar states that every human being is called upon to bring Divine light into the world. The Divine presence is the flame, the human body is the wick and the oil that allows the fire to exist is good deeds. Neither the soul nor its emotions can be the fuel for the Divine light. In order for a substance to become fuel it must become absorbed within the fire to the point that it loses its own existence. The soul can never reach that level of unity with the Divine. Only the energy we expend in doing a good deed dissipates and fuels the Divine flame, allowing us to become the luminaries bringing G-d to ourselves and to the world around us.

In the words of the Tanya:   

the soul of a person—even if he be a perfect tzaddik serving G‑d with fear and love of delights—does not, nevertheless, completely dissolve itself out of existence, so as to be truly nullified and absorbed into the light of G‑d to the extent of becoming one and the same absolutely, but the person remains an entity apart, one who fears G‑d and loves Him.

{By contrast}, the very energy of the body itself which is engaged in this action is absorbed in the Divine light and in His will, and is united with Him in a perfect union… thereby also the energy of the vital spirit in the physical body, originating in the kelipat nogah, is transformed from evil to good, and is actually absorbed into holiness like the divine soul itself. (Tanya Chapter 35)


Renewing the Vows - כי תבוא


Renewing the Vows 


In a healthy relationship, there is a time for each party to take the initiative.


Indeed, the Song of Songs, the Biblical romantic poem which is a metaphor for the love between G-d and the Jewish people, contains two very similar verses: in chapter 6, we read: “I am to my beloved, and my beloved is to me, who grazes among the roses.”, whereas in chapter 2 we read the reverse order: “My beloved is to me, and I am to him, who grazes among the roses.” The commentators explain that both patterns are true. During the season of Passover, we experience “My beloved (G-d) is to me (the Jewish people)”. Passover was the time when G-d initiated. Like a knight in shining armor, G-d led us out of Egypt. Our commitment to Him was a response to His initial expression of love for us. 


By contrast, the High Holidays season is expressed in the verse “I am to my beloved, and my beloved is to me”, when the Jewish people are called upon to take the first step and return to G-d. 


As the Jewish people prepared to enter the land of Israel, the nature of their relationship was about to shift. Until that point, G-d took the initiative in redeeming the Jewish people  from Egypt and leading them through the desert while providing for all their needs. From the time they crossed the Jordan, they would be called upon to take the initiative, to work the land, and build a morally just society. 


This explains why, in this week’s portion, as they were about to cross the Jordan, Moses commanded them to reestablish the covenant with G-d as soon as they would enter the land. At Sinai, G-d wrote the text of the tablets, in the second covenant, it was the people who were commanded to write the Torah: 


And it will be, on the day that you cross the Jordan to the land the Lord, your God, is giving you, that you shall set up for yourself huge stones, and plaster them with lime. When you cross, you shall write upon them all the words of this Torah. (27:2-3)


When at Sinai, the Jewish people passively heard the voice of G-d speaking the ten commandments, in Israel, at the renewal of the covenant, it was the Levites who spoke the words of the Torah: “The Levites shall speak up, saying to every individual of Israel, in a loud voice”. At Sinai G-d inspired the Jewish people, whereas in Israel the Jewish people were called upon to self-generate inspiration; only then would G-d reciprocate.   


In our Parsha, as an introduction to renewing the covenant, Moses expressed the pattern of “I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me,” where the people initiate the relationship. First, the verse states, “you have selected the Lord”, and only then “the Lord has selected you”:


You have selected the Lord this day, to be your God, and to walk in His ways, and to observe His statutes, His commandments and His ordinances, and to obey Him.

And the Lord has selected you this day to be His treasured people, as He spoke to you, and so that you shall observe all His commandments. (Deuteronomy 26:17-18)



You Will Not Be Able To Ignore - כי תצא

You Will Not Be Able To Ignore

Every morally just legal system requires that a person not cause damage to his fellow. Yet the Torah goes much further in its moral calling. A person must invest time and effort to prevent his fellow from suffering a loss. This principle is demonstrated in the commandment to return a lost object:  

1. You shall not see your brother's ox or sheep straying, and ignore them. [Rather,] you shall return them to your brother.

2. But if your brother is not near you, or if you do not know him, you shall bring it into your house, and it shall be with you until your brother seeks it out, whereupon you shall return it to him.

3. So shall you do with his donkey, and so shall you do with his garment, and so shall you do with any lost article of your brother which he has lost and you have found. You shall not ignore [it]. (Deuteronomy 22)

But are there any limits to this obligation? Does one have to return a lost object even at great monetary expense to himself or at the expense of one's dignity? The Talmudic sages isolate the words of the first verse of the passage, "and ignore them", and teach that there are scenarios when one may ignore a lost object: 

The Sages taught in a baraita: It is stated with regard to the return of a lost item: “You shall not see your brother’s ox or his sheep wandering and ignore them; you shall return them to your brother” (Deuteronomy 22:1). The tanna explains that the phrase “and ignore them” means that there are occasions in which you may ignore lost items and there are occasions in which you may not ignore them.

How so; under what circumstances may one disregard a lost item? One may do so in a case where he was a priest and the lost item is in the graveyard (Leviticus 21:1–4), or where he was an elderly person and it is not in keeping with his dignity to tend to the item, or where the value of his labor was greater than the value of the lost item of the other person, i.e., if the finder was to return the item, reimbursing him for his lost wages would cost more than the value of the item; therefore, it is stated: “And ignore them.” (Baba Metziah 30a)

Rabbi Moshe Alshich, the great 16th-century mystic, explains a deeper dimension of these passages. When seeing a lost object and realizing the cost of time and effort it would take to return it, a person's first instinct is to ignore it. Therefore, in the first verse, the Torah emphasizes "you shall not see… and ignore them" because a person's natural inclination is to be self-oriented and therefore "ignore" another's potential financial loss. Yet, after engaging in performing the commandment - as described in the second verse ("your brother is not near you, or if you do not know him, you shall bring it into your house, and it shall be with you until your brother seeks it out, whereupon you shall return it to him") the person's nature is transformed. He becomes empathetic and sensitive to the other person to the extent that he can no longer ignore his fellow. This is expressed in the final verse of the passage, which, while commonly translated as "You shall not ignore", actually means "you will not be able to ignore”.

The portion of Ki Teitzei includes 74 of the Torah's 613 commandments, which cover virtually every area of life. Every Mitzvah further refines our character. From the natural inclination to be self-centered and ignore the people around us, we become people who "are not able to ignore".  


What Separates Successful People From the Pack? - שופטים

What Separates Successful People From the Pack?

"You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities that the Lord, your God, is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment."

This verse, the commandment to set up a justice system, is the opening statement of this week's Torah portion, the portion of Shoftim.

The Chassidic commentaries explain that it also has another meaning. Every individual person is called upon to appoint figurative "judges" and "officers" at their own "gates", at their eyes, ears, and mouth, the "gates through which we interact with the world. "Judges" refers to our intellectual ability to evaluate what stimuli we want to allow into our consciousness; our inner "Judge" differentiates between what is a productive or destructive interaction with the people around us. Yet, Judges are not enough because we often know which action is correct, but occasionally, that is not enough to motivate action because we choose the more comfortable, momentarily convenient path. The Torah, therefore, tells us to establish "officers" who are responsible for implementing the judge's verdict. The appointment of "officers" represents the ability to commit to taking the right action despite internal or external obstacles. 

Apparently this ancient wisdom is true not only for our spiritual growth and interpersonal relationships but also for achieving success in the material world. While reading the Chassidic commentary, my brother sent me an article from with the catchy headline: "Warren Buffett Says What Separates Successful People From the Pack Comes Down to 1 Simple Word”’ the article quotes him as saying: "The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything”, and it was the late Steve Jobs who said: "People think focus means saying yes to the thing you've got to focus on. But that's not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I'm actually as proud of the things we haven't done as the things I have done."


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