Blog - Torah Insights

Obligation to Save a Life? - אחרי קדושים


Obligation to Save a Life?

Should there be a legal obligation to save a life? 

In the common law of most English-speaking countries, there is no general duty to come to the rescue of another. Generally, a person cannot be held liable for doing nothing while another person is in peril. By contrast, the Torah (Leviticus 19:16) presents an unequivocal moral obligation "You shall not stand by {the shedding of} your fellow's blood". 

But why does the Torah convey this vital message in the negative form ("you shall not stand by") rather than the more direct, and therefore, impactful, positive form, such as "you shall rescue your fellow"? The answer is that the obligation to rescue applies not only when there is no risk to the rescuer but also when the bystander must assume some degree of risk to save his fellow. The Torah, therefore, employs the negative form ("do not stand by") to indicate that even when one would assume that he may stand by, because of the risk to himself, the Torah instructs us that we may not stand idly by. 

The general parameters of the law are alluded to in Rashi's brief words: 

You shall not stand by {the shedding of} your fellow's blood: {I.e., do not stand by,} watching your fellow's death, and you are able to save him; for example, if he is drowning in the river and a wild beast or robbers come upon him.

In Rashi's scenario, there is a risk to the rescuer, for not only is his fellow man  drowning, in which case he can pull the fellow out of the water while remaining in the safety of dry land, but there is also a beast or robbers threatening the fellow.

On the other hand, the obligation to rescue does have its limits. It applies only when there is a realistic expectation of success, as alluded to in the words of Rashi: "and you are able to save him". 

Rashi's wording also conveys a profound mystical truth. 

Often, the justification for standing idly by is the feeling of inadequacy, when a person thinks he cannot make a difference in the face of a daunting challenge. Yet the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, taught that anything a person sees or hears is for a reason. If G-d has brought something to one's attention, there must be something he must learn from it. In the words of Rashi "to see his death", if G-d has shown you that your fellow is in physical or spiritual distress, that itself is an indication that "you are able to save him", that you have the ability, and therefore the responsibility, to step in and help. 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 32 Kedoshim 2 

Peaceful Shabbat Candles - תזריע מצורע

Peaceful Shabbat Candles 

Amongst the many intricate laws of the impurity of the Metzora, the person afflicted with the skin affliction described in this week’s portion, the Mishna relates a dispute regarding a Metzora who entered someone else’s home: 

If a Metzora entered a house, all the vessels in it, even up to the roof beams, become ritually impure… Rabbi Yehudah says: only if the metzora stayed there as much time as is required for the lighting of a lamp. Negaim 13:11

Rabbi Yehudah offers the lighting of a candle as an example to measure the time that must elapse before the impurity sets in because, as the kabbalists explain, the lighting of the candle is the antithesis and the antidote to the impurity of the Tzaraat, which, as the classic commentators explain, is a consequence for the sin of negative speech. Negative speech, such as slander and gossip, is an expression of arrogance and ego that causes the person to separate from his fellow. A lamp represents the enlightenment of wisdom, which, in the kabbalah, is synonymous with humility, which heals the divisiveness that causes the Tzaarat. 

The commentators explain that Rabbi Yehudah is referring not to the time it takes to light an ordinary lamp but to the Shabbat candles lit Friday toward evening. That teaches us that light per se is not necessarily conducive to peace. Light can destroy romance, as it can sometimes highlight the less desirable features and characteristics of a person or a situation. The Shabbat candles, by contrast, bring peace into the home. For they represent the light of the Torah as it manifests and illuminates our physical environment and reality. The Torah “was given to bring peace to the world”, because the Torah resolves the perceived conflict between the material and spiritual. The light of the Torah, manifest through the physical light of the Shabbat candles, spreads throughout our home, revealing the inner Divine spark within everything, and creating harmony between all aspects of our life, our homes, and the people we love.  

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 17 Tazria 3 


The Midpoint of the Torah - שמיני

The Midpoint of the Torah

It would be logical to say that the midpoint of the Torah contains an important message, perhaps the book's central theme. Yet, while many people could recite the first verse of the Bible, some would know the last verse as well, but how many people know the midpoint of the Torah? 

The Talmud relates that the early sages set out to discover the midpoint of the Torah: 

Therefore, because they devoted so much time to the Bible, the first Sages were called: Those who count [soferim], because they would count all the letters in the Torah, as they would say that the letter vav in the word “belly [gaḥon]” (Leviticus 11:42) is the midpoint of the letters in a Torah scroll. (Kidushin 30a)

It turns out that the midpoint of the Torah is in the portion of Shmini, in the section that discusses kosher food. The Torah lists the prohibited reptiles and states that any creature which goes in its belly is forbidden. The letter vav of the word Gachon, belly, written in a larger font than the other letters, is the midpoint of the Torah. 

The word “Gachon” evokes the first and only other time the word is used, in the context of the snake in the garden of Eden, G-d tells the snake: "Because you have done this, cursed be you more than all the cattle and more than all the beasts of the field; you shall walk on your belly, and you shall eat dust all the days of your life.”

The Zohar explains that the serpent represents the evil inclination within every person, which causes a person to orient toward earth instead of toward heaven. The midpoint of the Torah, mentions the serpent because the ultimate purpose of the Torah is the transformation of the serpent. In the garden of Eden G-d told the serpent “And I shall place hatred between you and between the woman, and between your seed and between her seed”, yet the purpose of the Torah is the refinement of the serpent, which will create peace between the snake and the person. 

The midpoint letter of the Torah, the letter vav of Gachon, is written in a larger font, alluding to its spiritual energy and source. The serpent possesses an intensity of energy whose spiritual source is positive and holy. The task of the Jew is to reconnect the inner serpent to its source, to refine the self to the point that even the self-oriented animalistic side of the human being appreciates the pleasure and benefit of connecting to holiness. 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 17 Shmini 4 


Meditations for Your Seder


Meditations for Your Seder


Judaism is obsessed with the Exodus. We commemorate the Exodus every Passover, every holiday, every Shabbat, and every morning and evening. Were we merely commemorating the past, it would seem excessive, but in truth, we are re-experiencing the ongoing, daily Exodus. 

The etymology of the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, is straits and limitations. Every day we seek to break free of the limits we reached yesterday. Every day we strive to grow on our journey toward inner freedom. 

Ask yourself: is my inner Egypt holding me back from being the person I want to be? What is my first step to take in order to break out of my inner Egypt?

Matzah - Humility

If Egypt represents limitation, then the figurative oppressing "Pharaoh" is the inflated ego, represented by inflated leavened bread. Often, what keeps a person from growth is the fear of failure, the fear of rejection, and the fear of admitting one's weakness and vulnerability. Other times, it's the arrogant refusal to take responsibility.  

The antidote to the inner Pharoah is the flat humble Matzah. Humility allows one to acknowledge his or her own fault and accept responsibility, which is the prerequisite to break free of a negative habit or perspective. 

Bitter Herbs 

The bitter herbs represent bitterness. Chassidic philosophy distinguishes between "sadness", defined as the absence of energy, which is antithetical to freedom, and "bitterness", the pain and bitterness infused with energy that motivates one to change their current circumstance. When we eat the bitter herbs, we focus on the pain we experience because of our distance from our true selves, G-d, and the people we love. The pain; the bitterness, becomes the fuel and energy to rebound and become ever closer. 

Ask yourself: what painful experience can I channel to be fuel for growth? 

Four Cups of Wine 

The sages instituted that we drink four cups of wine on Passover night, to commemorate the four expressions of redemption that G-d communicated to Moses to convey to the Jewish people. 

When we examine the verses, we will notice that there are only three expressions that describe the redemption from slavery ("take you out", "save", and "redeem"). The fourth expression ("I will take you") has nothing to do with the redemption from Egypt; rather, it refers to the giving of the Torah at Sinai when G-d takes us as his people. Why, then, do the sages say that there are four expressions of redemption, and therefore four cups of wine at the Passover Seder, when, in fact, it seems that there are only three?    

The four cups of wine teach us that freeing the body is not enough. To enjoy true freedom, we must experience not merely the first three expressions of redemption, describing the freedom from Egyptian bondage; but rather we must also experience the fourth expression of redemption, allowing the soul to express its bond with G-d, thus experiencing ultimate freedom. 

Freedom means freeing not only our body but also our soul. 

Redemption means drinking all four cups of wine.

Tell The Story

The Torah mandates that we verbally relate the story of Passover. According to the Kabbalists, the word Pesach (Passover) consists of two words: Peh Sach, a speaking mouth. Passover, the holiday of freedom, is the holiday of speech.  

Our soul is a reservoir of untold potential, a never-ending fountain of love, kindness, ideas, and creativity. Yet, often, our soul is in confinement. We feel empty, stone-like, irritated, or angry. The Kabbalah teaches that the way to free the soul's potential is through speech. Regardless of our feelings, we can choose to speak words of kindness, love, and compassion. Words are liberating. The spoken word will draw the soul from concealment to revelation, from bondage to liberation.   

Next time you feel confined, next time you feel trapped, free yourself through speech. Take control of the narrative of your life. Speak words of gratitude, joy, and love. You will discover that words unlock the feelings trapped within your soul. 


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