Blog - Torah Insights

The Missing Biography - לך לך


The Missing Biography

The story told in the Torah of Abraham the first Jew, begins when he was seventy-five years old. The Torah tells us that G-d told Abraham to leave his birthplace and travel to the land that G-d would show him: 

And the Lord said to Abram, "Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you. And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will aggrandize your name, and [you shall] be a blessing. And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you." (Genesis 12:1-3)

While the Midrash tells us a lot about Abraham's early history up to that point - how discovered G-d through his own intellectual inquiry and how he debated the local idolaters who, in turn, sought to kill him - in contrast the account in the Bible makes no mention of Abraham's early life, spiritual awareness, courage, and devotion to G-d. 

This missing story led Nachmonides the great 13th-century Biblical commentator, to point out that the story is missing important information:  

Now, this portion of Scripture is not completely elucidated. What reason was there that the Holy One, blessed be He, should say to Abraham, "Leave your country, and I will do you good in a completely unprecedented measure," without first stating that Abraham worshiped G-d or that he was a righteous man, [and] perfect?… But there is no reason for G-d to promise [Abraham a reward merely] for his leaving the country.

Nachmonides explains that the Torah omits Abraham's early biography because the Torah does not wish to draw attention to the mistaken opinions of the idolaters. Yet, that answer seems insufficient because the Torah could have briefly mentioned Abraham’s discovery of G-d without elaborating on the mistaken notions of his contemporaries. 

The story of Abraham is also the story of every Jew. The opening story of Abraham is also the beginning and foundation of our relationship with G-d. The Torah tells us that the bedrock of our connection to G-d cannot be intellectual inquiry or spiritual awareness because our mind is incapable of bridging the gap between finite creation and the infinite creator. The bond between a person and G-d, cannot be created by human effort; it can only be achieved through a commandment which, as the Hebrew word Mitzvah implies, means connection and togetherness. Only the infinite G-d can invest himself within a finite act of a Mitzvah.

This is a lesson for each of us. We may not feel inspired or enlightened; we may encounter someone who does not necessarily appreciate a connection to holiness, yet the act of a Mitzvah is transformational. For it allows us to connect with G-d Himself, transcending our finite nature and connecting to G-d's infinity. 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 25 Lech Licha 1 

Be a Noah - נח

Be a Noah 

The Torah introduces the story of the great flood by describing Noah with beautiful praises:  

These are the generations of Noah, Noah was a righteous man he was perfect in his generations; Noah walked with God. (Genesis 6:9)

Despite the beautiful adjectives "righteous" and "perfect", the sages debate whether these terms are meant as praise or critique. As Rashi explains:  

in his generations: Some of our Sages interpret it [the word בְּדֹרֹתָיו] favorably: How much more so if he had lived in a generation of righteous people, he would have been even more righteous. Others interpret it derogatorily: In comparison with his generation he was righteous, but if he had been in Abraham's generation, he would not have been considered of any importance. 

We understand why the Torah would seek to praise Noah because that would explain why he was saved contrary to the rest of his generation. It is, however, difficult to explain why the Torah would choose to diminish Noah's stature; why would the Torah go out of its way to highlight that Noah was less than perfect and that, in comparison to Abraham, he was insignificant? 

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a) teaches: ״each and every person is obligated to say: The world was created for me", meaning that every individual must take responsibility for the world, and cannot assume that someone else will solve the world's problems. If a problem has come to one's attention, one must act as if the entire world was created for him alone, for him to solve this problem. 

The Torah, therefore, highlights that Noah was not an extraordinary person. Indeed, in comparison to Abraham he would be considered insignificant. Yet this is a profound message to each one of us. We don't have to be extraordinary people to accomplish the extraordinary. Anybody can be righteous and wholesome in his or her generation. Anybody can take action to save the world regardless of what other people are  doing. Each of us can be a Noah, bringing comfort, salvation, and serenity to others and ultimately to the entire world. 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos vol. 5 p. 282

Our Right to The Land of Israel - בראשית

Our Right to The Land of Israel 

The choice of where to start a story will affect the entire narrative.

The Torah begins with the story of creation: 

In the beginning G-d created the heavens and the earth.

The Midrash, quoted in the very first Rashi in the Torah, questions this choice. Why does the Torah - (from the root word Horaah, lesson)  begin with the story of creation, rather than beginning with  the first instruction, commandment, to the Jewish people in Egypt? After all, isn't the primary purpose of the Torah to teach us the will of G-d expressed in the commandments?

The Midrash explains that the Torah begins with the stroy of creation in order to establish the bedrock of the Jewish people’s right to the Land of Israel. In the future, we may be accused of robbing the land of the Canaanite nations. The Torah, therefore, explains that all of the earth belongs to the creator, who desired to give the land to them and then desired to take it from them and give it to us. 

In the beginning: Said Rabbi Isaac: It was not necessary to begin the Torah except from "This month is to you," (Exodus 12:2) which is the first commandment that the Israelites were commanded, (for the main purpose of the Torah is its commandments). Now for what reason did He commence with "In the beginning?" Because of [the verse] "The strength of His works He related to His people, to give them the inheritance of the nations" (Psalms 111:6). For if the nations of the world should say to Israel, "You are robbers, for you conquered by force the lands of the seven nations [of Canaan]," they will reply, "The entire earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it (this we learn from the story of the Creation) and gave it to whomever He deemed proper When He wished, He gave it to them, and when He wished, He took it away from them and gave it to us.

The accusation about the "conquest" of "the land of the seven nations" also applies to the figurative and spiritual "Land of Israel". Creation is divided into heaven and earth, the spiritual and material. Indeed, many faiths understand the divide to be absolute, where one must separate and escape the material in order to experience spiritual transcendence and enlightenment. The Jewish people, however, are different. Every day of our life, we are engaged in the conquest of the mundane, the figurative "land of the seven nations", in order to transform it into holiness, the figurative holy “Land of Israel”.

The claim of the nations of the world is that the physical and spiritual are diametrically opposed; when one is engaged in physical life, one cannot have any connection to spirituality. To refute that mistaken notion, the Torah begins with the story of creation to emphasize that everything in the universe was created by G-d, who desires that we reveal its potential and transform it into the "Land of Israel", into a dwelling place for the creator. 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 20 Bereshis 1            


When the Torah Comes Full Circle - וזאת הברכה


When the Torah Comes Full Circle 


On the day of Simchat Torah, when we celebrate the conclusion of the annual cycle of the Torah reading, as soon as we conclude the reading of the final verse of the Torah, we begin the cycle again by reading the first section of the Torah. This is because the Torah is infinite, and therefore, no matter the depth of meaning we uncover in our study, we are just beginning to explore the Divine wisdom within the Torah. 


Many commentators, therefore, sought to glean insight from the connection between the conclusion of the five Books of Moses to the beginning. 


The final verses of the Torah describe Moses greatness: 


And there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face,


The Torah then describes the great miracles that Moses performed before the Jewish people: 


as manifested by all the signs and wonders, which the Lord had sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and all his servants, and to all his land, and all the strong hand, and all the great awe, which Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel.


The beginning of the Torah describes the creation of the world and all of the natural phenomenon: 


In the beginning God created heaven and earth —


When we begin to read the Torah, we understand that G-d created the world and the natural order. As we progress through the narrative, we begin to experience revelation, we read of prophecy and miracles, we read of Divine providence and G-dly intervention, which interfere with and disturb the natural order. The Torah concludes by addressing the extraordinary miracles which the Jewish people experienced. And then, we return to the beginning and, once again, read about the creation of the natural order. This is because, after we experience  miracles and revelation, we reach a deeper understanding. We come to recognize that nature itself is also a miracle. We realize that G-d is present within the natural order just as He is present within the extraordinary. 


Connecting the end of the Torah to its beginning fosters the awareness that the miraculous and the natural are expressions of one G-d, who can be felt and experienced not only in the extraordinary and inspired moments of life but also in what seems to be the ordinary, predictable and mundane times in our life.


(Adapted from Tefilah Lemoshe)




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