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Spiritual Dust - חוקת בלק

Spiritual Dust 

Billam, the gentile prophet hired to curse the Jewish people, arrived at the eastern bank of the Jordan River, where the Jewish people camped. Try as he may, his plan to evoke G-d's wrath against the Jews failed, and instead, he expressed the most eloquent and poetic praises of the Jewish people found in all of the Torah. 

Amongst the blessings, Billam said: 

Who counted the dust of Jacob or the number of a fourth of [or, of the seed of] Israel? May my soul die the death of the upright and let my end be like his." (Numbers 23:10)

Rashi, the foremost Biblical commentator, addresses the meaning of "the dust of Jacob". If Billam's sole intention was to highlight that the people were numerous ("who counted?"), then why refer to them as "the dust of Jacob"? Rashi offers two interpretations; the following is the second one: 

The dust of Jacob: The number of mitzvot they fulfill with dust are innumerable: "You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey [together]"; "You shall not sow your field with a mixture of seeds", the ashes of the red cow, the dust used for a woman suspected of infidelity, and others similar to these.

Rashi explains that the "dust of Jacob'' refers not to the Jewish people themselves but rather to the commandments that are fulfilled with the earth, the commandments regarding agriculture, and other examples. But why, of all the commandments of the Torah, did Billam single out these specific commandments? Why was he so impressed with "the dust of Jacob", the commandments performed with the earth?  

Billam was a profoundly spiritual man; the Talmud explains that his level of prophecy was on par with Moses. The spirituality of the Jewish people, per se, would not impress him as he was immersed in his own form of spirituality. 

What awed and astonished him, causing him to offer the most beautiful praises of the people, was the radical idea that spirituality must express itself in "the dust". That closeness to G-d must express itself in how we live our mundane physical lives; that the test of intimacy with G-d is expressed not in gazing at the stars but right here on earth. For the mission of the Jewish people is to educate the world that the purpose of creation is to sanctify the earth, to make it a place hospitable to goodness and kindness, and to create an abode for the Divine presence in the most spiritually distant plane, right here, on the dust of the earth. 

Action vs. Affection - קרח

Action vs. Affection 

You may have heard, or experienced, one version or another of this story.

Spouse 1 says (or thinks): why don't you express your appreciation and love? 

Spouse 2 responds: Don't you see how much I am doing for you? Don't you see how I take every action possible to ensure that you are not inconvenienced and that you can enjoy and do the things meaningful to you?  

Spouse 1 thinks (or says): Action is great, but that is no substitute for expressing love and affection. 


Korach was infuriated that Moses and Aaron enjoyed leadership positions, so he went on to spark a rebellion. "The entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst," cried Korach, "So why do you raise yourselves above the Lord's assembly?"

Chassidic philosophy explains that Korach's rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron, who by then were leading the people for a few years, was possible only at this specific point in time, after the episode of the spies, whose position to remain in the desert and live a spirituality-based lifestyle, was utterly rejected. Only when it became clear that G-d desired that the people enter the land of Israel and engage in action, could Korach claim "why do you raise yourselves above the Lord's assembly?" 

Everybody, including Korach, would readily admit that Moses was far superior in his love, awe, and intellectual awareness of G-d. No one would ever claim to be on the spiritual level of Moses. But, if, as they have now learned, action is superior, then Moses and Aaron are no more significant than any other Jew since every Jew performs the same action-based commandments. 

While Korach was correct that action is superior, he was wrong in his anarchistic claim. Because while action is superior, it is most meaningful when imbued with "light", with emotional excitement and intellectual awareness. Moses and Aaron were selected specifically to inspire, illuminate, and infuse the deeds of the Jewish people with enthusiasm and love. 

Korach was like the spouse who felt that action is enough. But, as I'm sure you would agree and intuit, action should be illuminated and inspired by awareness and love.

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Shelach 4)


Can You Climb to the Heavens? - שלח

Can You Climb to the Heavens? 

Ten of the twelve spies that Moses dispatched to scout the land of Israel reported back to the people that the task was impossible. They said: "We are unable to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we." Caleb and Joshua fiercely disagreed. The Torah describes Caleb's response: 

Caleb silenced the people to [hear about] Moses, and he said, "We can surely go up and take possession of it, for we can indeed overcome it." (Numbers 13:30)

Quoting the Talmud, Rashi gives the full version of Caleb's statement to the people:

We can surely go up: even to heaven; if he tells us, "make ladders and go up there," we will succeed in whatever he says. 

Why does Caleb employ this unusual imagery of climbing to the heavens with ladders, seemingly an impossibility, instead of evoking a more realistic example that the people could relate to? 

The spies sought to dissuade the people from entering Israel, not because they did not value Israel as the Holy Land where one's connection to G-d can be felt and expressed to the greatest degree, but rather, they hesitated to enter the land precisely because they understood the intense holiness of Israel. They understood that living in an environment of potent holiness requires a person to tune in to and align with its holiness. Living in Israel without soaring to great spiritual heights, they argued, is not just a missed opportunity but also offensive. "Israel", they argued, is "a land that consumes those who dwell in it," Israel cannot tolerate "dwelling" in one place without constant spiritual growth. The spies did not feel that the Jewish people were capable of connecting to the holiness of Israel, and therefore tried to persuade them to remain in the desert. 

Caleb disagreed. "We can surely go up: even to heaven". Every Jew can "ascend to heaven" and connect to the intense spiritual heights accessible in the Land of Israel. How so? Caleb explains: "if he tells us, "make ladders and go up there”, we will succeed in whatever he says”. The ladder, composed of many individual steps, is the image Caleb evoked to demonstrate that the path to ascend to heaven is not dramatic or extreme, it is a series of small steps. Focus on one step at a time, focus on the next positive action, and you will reach success.   

(Adapted from Maayanah Shel Torah)

Maintaining Excitement - בהעלותך

Maintaining Excitement

Beginnings are exciting. Starting a family, enrolling in a new school, starting a business, or embarking on a new project, generates passion and enthusiasm. The challenge, of course, is how to maintain that same excitement and passion on an ongoing basis. This, explains the Rebbe, is the inner meaning of a discussion between G-d and Aaron as described in the beginning of our Parsha.

The Torah states: 

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:

Speak to Aaron and say to him: "When you light the lamps, the seven lamps shall cast their light toward the face of the menorah." (Numbers 8:1-2)

Rashi, quoting the Midrash, explains:

When you light: Why is the portion dealing with the menorah juxtaposed to the portion dealing with the chieftains? For when Aaron saw the dedication [offerings] of the chieftains, he felt distressed over not joining them in this dedication - neither he nor his tribe. So G-d said to him, "By your life, yours is greater than theirs, for you will light and prepare the lamps." 

At first glance, this Midrash is puzzling. Why did Aaron regret that he was not included in the offerings brought on the day of the inauguration of the tabernacle? Why wasn't Aaron satisfied with his more prominent role in the Temple? And, in what way is Aaron's lighting of the menorah greater than the inauguration offerings of the princes?

The princes’ offerings at the inauguration represent the additional excitement and passion that is granted from above at the beginning of a new journey. Aaron was distressed, for it was his task to inspire the Jewish people in their ongoing service of G-d, on a day-to-day basis, once the initial excitement had evaporated. Aaron wondered: "How can I generate within the Jewish people that same thrill and joy that the princes’ had during their inauguration? "

G-d responds, "By your life, yours is greater than theirs." Aaron, as well as the Aaron within each one of us, achieves a far more remarkable accomplishment. Aaron can tap into the essence of our soul, unleashing a reservoir of life and passion. Aaron inspires us to approach every day and every task with the same excitement as if it is the first time we are engaging in this activity. Whether you are educating your child or dealing with a tedious task on your to-do list, you can turn deep within yourself, reconnect to the reservoir of life in your inner soul and infuse the seemingly mundane activity which you are facing at the moment, with delight, excitement, and enthusiasm.

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 18 Behaaloscha 1 


Do I Matter? - נשא


Do I Matter? 

What is the basis and foundation for our self-value and self-esteem? Should we value ourselves based on our talents, achievements, and accomplishments, or is our value inert to our humanity, unconditional, irrespective of performance metrics? 

Each of these approaches alone may produce substantial negative consequences. When one's self-esteem is pegged to external accomplishments, the person has an unquenchable need for consistent confirmation and validation from others. The person is left without a psychologically healthy anchor and is in constant need to justify their own value and existence. On the other hand, focusing on one's unconditional value is a disincentive for a person to work hard to achieve greatness and impact the world.   

At the beginning of the Book of Numbers, we read of two distinct censuses for the tribe of Levi. The opening verses of this week's portion describe the command to count the Levites who would serve in the temple, the Levites who were between 30 and 50 years old:  

The Lord spoke to Moses saying:

Take a census of the sons of Gershon, of them too, following their fathers' houses, according to their families.

From the age of thirty years and upward, until the age of fifty years you shall count them, all who come to join the legion, to perform service in the Tent of Meeting. (4:21-23)

In last week's portion, by contrast, we read of the census of the tribe of Levi in which they counted all levites from thirty days old: 

The Lord spoke to Moses in the Sinai desert, saying:

Count the children of Levi according to their fathers' house according to their families. Count all males from the age of one month and upward. (Numbers 3:14-15)

With the double census, the Torah teaches us that both perspectives on self-value are true. The foundation is that we are created in the image of G-d, and therefore every human being has infinite and unconditional value. We must remind ourselves and teach our children that, despite a society that evaluates people by their wealth, power, beauty, and influence, our value is infinite as it is predicated on the spark of infinity that is our soul. This truth is expressed by counting even the infant Levites who could not possibly have any achievements to speak of. Yet together with that, there is a second census, at the age when the Levites would perform service in the temple. The second census symbolizes that we attain meaning and satisfaction from our ability to express our G-d given talents. In the second census, every action and every accomplishment adds value since it is an opportunity for us to fulfill the purpose of our creation, namely to transform the world into a home for the Divine, a palace of harmony, goodness, and kindness. 

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