Blog - Torah Insights

The New Moon - the Key to Redemption - בא

The New Moon - the Key to Redemption

While the Jewish people were still in Egypt, two weeks before the Exodus, the Jewish people were commanded to set up a lunar calendar, where the rebirth of the moon is the beginning of the new month: 

The Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying, 

This month shall be to you the head of the months; to you it shall be the first of the months of the year. (Exodus 12:1-2)

The Hebrew word month is the same letters as the word for ”new”, implying that the renewal of the moon ushers in the new month. 

The first step of the process of redemption was the establishment of the Jewish calendar, because it represents the spiritual key to both literal and spiritual liberation. 

One of the most foundational Chassidic teachings is that creation is not an event that happened in the past, but rather the act of creation is continuous. In the words of the Tanya: 

It is written: "Forever, O G‑d, Your word stands firm in the heavens." The Baal Shem Tov, of blessed memory, has explained that "Your word" which you uttered, "Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters.. .", these very words and letters stand firmly forever within the firmament of heaven and are forever clothed within all the heavens to give them life, as it is written, "The word of our G‑d shall stand firm forever" and "His words live and stand firm forever. ..." For if the letters were to depart [even] for an instant, G‑d forbid, and return to their source, all the heavens would become naught and absolute nothingness, and it would be as though they had never existed at all, exactly as before the utterance, "Let there be a firmament." And so it is with all created things, in all the upper and lower worlds.

The spiritual definition of exile is when we don’t see the constant renewal. When we look at the world, or when we look at ourselves, our relationships, our mission in life, as “old” and “stale”. When we look at our lives and see the same patterns and experiences that we saw yesterday. We are then trapped in yesterday's perspective and modes of behavior, and often depleted of excitement and enthusiasm. Redemption occurs when we can see the novelty. When we sense the miracle of creation. When we feel that G-d is recreating us every moment, we can tap into the depth of potential of the spark of infiniti within us. We view ourselves and the people we love with fresh and curious eyes, excited to experience a greater depth, meaning and joy by breaking free of the past and tapping into the new blessing which is every moment. 

Adapted from the Sfas Emes 


Treating the Hardened Heart - וארא


Treating the Hardened Heart

Philosophers, theologians, and Biblical commentators grappled with the meaning of the Biblical phrase, repeated multiple times in the story of the Exodus: "and I {G-d} will harden Pharaoh's heart". Is it possible that G-d took away Pharaoh's free choice, causing him to refuse to let the Jewish people go free, bringing upon himself and his people plague after plague? Isn't freedom of choice a foundation of morality? Wouldn't it be unjust to punish Pharaoh for actions for which he had no choice?

There are a wide array of interpretations. Abarrbenel explains that Pharaoh did not lose his ability to choose. "I will harden Pharaoh's heart", means that G-d removed each of the plagues, allowing Pharaoh to continue to sin by refusing to free the Jewish people. Maimonides argues that as a consequence of his wickedness, Pharaoh was punished with losing his free will. The plagues that followed were punishments, not for his refusal to release the Jews after losing the free choice, but for his prior choice to enslave the Jews of his own free will. 

When Rashi describes the plagues, he uses two words, "testify" and "warn":

for the plague would be in effect for a quarter of a month, and for three quarters [of the month], he [Moses] would testify and warn them. (Rashi 7:25) 

While "testify" implies that the plague will undoubtedly come about, "warn" implies that it is conditional; Pharaoh is being warned to let the people go lest the plague unfold. 

As the plagues continue to unfold, the Torah continues to assert that Pharaoh's heart was hardened: 

The Lord said to Moses: "Come to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants, in order that I may place these signs of Mine in his midst, (Exodus 10:1)

Nevertheless, Rashi insists that Pharaoh retained his free will and had the option to free the Jewish people. Rashi explains that the purpose of Moses speaking to Pharah was to warn him: "The Lord said to Moses: Come to Pharaoh: and warn him." 

Rashi teaches us a profound lesson. Sometimes we feel that our "hearts are hardened". We feel that destructive habits, and harmful patterns of behavior, have molded our personality and formed neuro-pathways that we cannot undo. Sometimes we feel that G-d himself has "hardened our heart" by creating circumstances over which we have no control and that we are therefore subjected and enslaved to our circumstances. 

We often will feel that our hearts, or the hearts of others, have been hardened. Rashi reminds us that the "hardening of the heart" is superficial. The essence of our soul, and the soul of every person, is a spark of the infinite G-d that has the capacity to shatter the shell and ignite a fire of holiness. We are free to break out of our negative habits and positive and healthy routines. For the essence of our soul remains infinite and free. 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Bo 16 Sicha 1 

The Act of Freedom - שמות


The Act of Freedom 

The challenge is too great, the task too daunting, and the odds of success are too slim. The natural response is to do nothing. This was at the heart of Moses' reluctance to accept G-d's mission and lead the people out of Egypt. Throughout the conversation at the burning bush, Moses raised many objections; he did not think he was the right person who would succeed in liberating the Jews. Moses began by asserting that even before the challenge of confronting Pharaoh, the Jewish people themselves would not believe his message: 

Moses answered and said, "Behold they will not believe me, and they will not heed my voice, but they will say, 'The Lord has not appeared to you.'"

G-d responded by presenting three signs to Moses that would persuade the people that G-d did, in fact, appear to him. The second of these signs read as follows:

And the Lord said further to him, "Now put your hand into your chest," and he put his hand into his chest, and he took it out, and behold, his hand was leprous like snow.

And He said, "Put your hand back into your chest," and he put his hand back into his chest, and [when] he took it out of his chest, it had become again like [the rest of] his flesh.

With this sign, G-d was conveying a profound message to Moses and to each of us, seeking to break out of our own personal "Egypt", our constraints, limitations, and blockages. The message of this sign is that inaction, "put your hand into your chest", leads to leprosy, a depletion of the life-giving blood, which is synonymous with death. In order for the skin to heal, Moses had to take his hand out of his chest: "he took it out of his chest, it had become again like [the rest of] his flesh". The message was clear. The path to national and personal liberty is to take action. You may not see how this one positive act will solve the problem, but the positive action makes you a partner with G-d in perfecting and healing the world. We must take the first step in the right direction, and G-d will help that one action create a positive dynamism that will ultimately lead to the breaking out of Egypt. 

The key to breaking out of our inner Egypt, our negative habits, limitations, and debilitating despair, is to "remove our hand from our chest" and engage in a specific positive action. 

Adapted from the Malbim   

Find Your Blessing - ויחי

Find Your Blessing

At the conclusion of the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Torah, Jacob, as he is about to pass away, called his twelve sons and blessed each one with a unique blessing. The book of Genesis is full of stories about brothers contending for their father’s affection and legacy. Throughout the book, we read how, in each generation, only one child was selected to carry on his parents' legacy. Finally, at the conclusion of the book, we read how all the brothers were blessed. Each of Jacob's twelve sons possessed  a unique quality and gift, indispensable to the fulfillment of the Divine mission to transform the world to holiness.   

While the Torah implies that all twelve sons were blessed, "(All these are the twelve tribes of Israel… each man, according to his blessing, he blessed them"), it seems that Reuben, the first Son, was not blessed, and Simeon and Levi were, in fact, cursed with harsh words: 

Simeon and Levi are brothers; stolen instruments are their weapons.

Let my soul not enter their counsel; my honor, you shall not join their assembly, for in their wrath they killed a man, and with their will they hamstrung a bull.

Cursed be their wrath for it is mighty, and their anger because it is harsh. I will separate them throughout Jacob, and I will scatter them throughout Israel. (Genesis 49:5-7)

Upon deeper reflection, however, we discover that, like the other brothers, Simon and Levi were indeed also blessed by Jacob, revealing their unique gift and spiritual purpose.  

Jacob identified and cursed the anger and wrath of Simeon and Levi ("Cursed be their wrath for it is mighty, and their anger because it is harsh"), Jacob addressed their tendency to violence that caused them to kill the entire city of Shechem in retribution for the defilement of their sister Dinah. Yet, Jacob also identified the path for them to "elevate" their personality, refine their character, and direct their passion to holiness. 

Rashi explains that Jacob's words "I will separate them throughout Jacob, and I will scatter them throughout Israel", refer to the tribe of Levi which was destined to serve in the temple, and would, therefore, not receive a portion in the land of Israel, instead they would scatter around the land to collect the tithings. The tribe of Simeon, too, would travel around Israel as teachers of young children. In other words, Jacob was demonstrating that the same qualities expressed in a negative way could be channeled to public service, with a determination and uncompromising commitment on behalf of "Jacob" and "Israel", in matters of holiness. 

As descendants of Jacob, each of us possesses a unique, indispensable personality that is critical to the Jewish mission. We must find our unique blessing and allow it to shine forth. 

Adapted from the Kli Yakar


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