Blog - Torah Insights

Discovering the Romance - בחוקותי

Discovering the Romance 

What is a marriage? Is it a contract of shared commitments and responsibilities or is it an expression of love and romance? 

The final portion of the book of Leviticus reads like a legal contract laying out the covenant between G-d and the Jewish people. If we follow the commandments of the Torah, then God will provide for us and bless us:

If you follow My statutes and observe My commandments and perform them, I will give your rains in their time, the Land will yield its produce, and the tree of the field will give forth its fruit. (Leviticus 26:3-4)

However, if we choose to violate the contract and abandon the Torah, we will be struck by terrible calamities, outlined in a painfully detailed description.

Yet the Kabbalists look at this Parsha, and they see the poetry, the love, and the romance hidden between the lines of the formal contract. Toward the end of the rebuke, the verse states despite the terrible rebuke, G-d will not annihilate his people: 

But despite all this, while they are in the land of their enemies, I will not despise them nor will I abhor them to annihilate them, thereby breaking My covenant that is with them, for I am the Lord their God. (Leviticus 26:44)

The Zohar focuses on the word "annihilate", "Lichalotam", and points out that the way the word is written in Torah is strikingly similar to the word bride, "Kallah". Read this way, the verse is saying that because the Jewish people are G-d's bride, not only will they survive, which is a given, but "I will not despise them nor will I abhor them"; the bride is always beautiful and beloved to G-d despite all external circumstances. The Zohar offers a beautiful parable: 

This is like a man who loves a woman who lives in a market of tanners , were she not there, he would never have entered there. Since she is there, seems to him like a market of spice merchants, where there are all the best odors in the world. (Zohar, Bechukotai 115b)

In the Talmud, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai teaches that the Divine presence is with the Jewish people in all their exiles: 

It is taught in a baraita: Rabbi Shimon ben Yoḥai says: Come and see how beloved the Jewish people are before the Holy One, Blessed be He. As every place they were exiled, the Divine Presence went with them. (Talmud Megillah 29a)

In this passage in the Zohar, Rabbi Shimon's son, Rabbi Elazar, says something far more profound. Not only is G-d with His people, but because of His profound love, He experiences only the pleasurable fragrances of the spice market. Indeed, the entire purpose of the exile is for the Jewish people to transform the world from a space of a figurative "tanners market" to a market of fragrant spices.  

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Toras Menachem Tiferes Levi Yitzchok, Bechukosai


Are we Spiraling out of Control? - בהר


Are we Spiraling out of Control? 

The Torah Portion of Behar begins and ends with opposite extremes. It begins with the mention of Mount Sinai: “And the Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai”, then continues to describe the commandments of the sabbatical and jubilee years, which represent a time of peace and serenity, when the land is at rest, and liberty is proclaimed throughout the land. 

However, very quickly, the Torah turns to a series of laws, which, as the sages noted, represent a spiral descent into poverty and servitude.

Rashi, quoting the sages of the Talmud, explains that the order of the portions represents the admonishment against ignoring the laws of the sabbatical year, which will, in turn, bring about financial pressure and destitution.   

The passages {in this whole Portion} are written in a meaningful order: At first, Scripture admonishes us to observe Shemittah; then, if one covets money and becomes suspect of {unlawfully doing business with produce of} Shemittah, he will eventually {become destitute and} have to sell his personal belongings therefore, Scripture juxtaposes to it, “And when you make a sale”. If he still does not repent, he will eventually have to sell his inheritance (25:25). If he even then does not repent, he will eventually have to sell his home, and if even then, he does not repent, he will eventually have to borrow money with interest. Now, the later the scenario in this passage, the more severe it is; if he still does not repent, he will eventually have to sell himself {to his fellow Jew as a servant}; and if he has still not repented, not enough that he had to be sold to his fellow Jew - but he will {be forced to sell himself} even to a non-Jew. (Rash, Leviticus 26:1) 

The Portion begins with the mention of Sinai, the place where we received the Torah, in order to inform us of the purpose of the Torah which was given at Sinai. The ultimate goal of the Torah is to guide a person not so that he remain in a figurative desert, secluded from the temptations and pressures of civilization, but rather, the purpose of the Torah is to guide a person who will affect the world and create a home for G-d within the most mundane space. 

The purpose of the Torah is to apply Divine wisdom, holiness, and compassion, specifically within the natural world, which, left to its own devices, can deteriorate into a place of pain and difficulty. The purpose of Sinai is to empower us to overcome the obstacles in our path and to transform the natural world into a place of holiness and kindness.

This message is captured by the maxim of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, whose day of passing we celebrate on Lag Baomer, as quoted in the Ethics of our Fathers: 

Rabbi Shimon would say: There are three crowns—the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood and the crown of sovereignty—but the crown of good name surmounts them all. (Ethics of our Fathers, 4:13)

Greater than the crowns of Torah, priesthood, and Kingship, is the crown of a good name, which is acquired as a result of the performance of good deeds. Because, indeed, the purpose of the crown of Torah is to impact and transform the natural word. 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekkutei Sichos, 17 Behar - Lag-Baomer 


Why the Number Seven? - אמור

Why the Number Seven?

The second half of this week’s Parsha, which discusses the holidays, emphasizes the number seven. Every seventh day is the Shabbat; we count seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot; the seventh month is the month with the most holidays; the Torah lists seven days of holiday {in the land of Israel} when performing labor is prohibited [the first and final day of Passover and Sukkot, one day of shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur].
The emphasis on the number seven explains why, immediately after the discussion of the holidays, the Torah chooses to discuss specific services in the temple, the Menorah:
Command the children of Israel, and they shall take to you pure olive oil, crushed for lighting, to kindle the lamps continually… Upon the pure Menorah, he shall set up the lamps, before the Lord, continually. (Leviticus 24:2-4)
And the showbread: 
And you place them in two stacks, six in each stack, upon the pure table, before the Lord. (ibid. 24:6)
The Ohr Hachayim explains that both the Menorah and the showbread were mentioned here, because they both represent the number seven, the Menorah had seven candles, and the six stacks of showbread plus the table upon which they were placed equal seven. 
But what is the significance of the number seven, which is emphasized so strongly in our Parsha?
The Maharal of Prague, explains that the number six represents physical phenomena, because physical matter contains six boundaries, one on each of the six directions: up, down, east, west, north, and south. The number seven, by contrast, represents the inner spiritual energy at the core of physical existence.

In the words of the Maharal: 
It is known that the number seven corresponds to the six extremities (up, down, north, west, south and east) and the center - which is called the Holy Chamber - that is between them. And it is known that the six extremities relate the most to the material. For they surely have distance; and distance is connected to the material. Whereas the middle does not have distance at all, as distance is not applicable to the middle. And that is why [the center] relates to that which is immaterial. (Derech Chaim, 5:15)
The number seven, then, represents the ability to see beyond the physical. It represents the ability to tap into the inner core of life, to connect to the spark of G-d within the creation, and relate not only to its physical properties but to its inner purpose and inner soul. 




Holiness is in the Details - קדושים

Holiness is in the Details 

The opening statement in this week's Parsha is the commandment to be holy: 

Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them, You shall be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy. (19:2)

But what does it mean to be holy, and how is holiness achieved? 

After reading the first 19 chapters of Leviticus, we might think that holiness is associated with priests, offerings in the temple, Yom Kippur, or the high priest's entrance into the holy of holies. This week's Parsha, named "Kedoshim" which means "holy", gives us a completely different perspective. This Parsha is addressed not to the priests but to the "entire congregation of the children of Israel", and the arena for this portion's commandments is not the holy temple but rather  daily life: farming, business, and interactions between people: "When you reap the harvest of your land", "The hired worker's wage shall not remain with you overnight" "You shall commit no injustice in judgment", When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not taunt him", "You shall have true scales, true weights". 

In Judaism, holiness begins with separating from the mundane and connecting to the spiritual and transcendent, as expressed in the first half of the book of Leviticus, yet the ultimate meaning of holiness is infusing the daily moments of life with morality and a connection to G-d, as expressed in elaborate detail in this week's Parsha. For ultimately, holiness is not the escape from the physical world but rather its sanctification. 

But how can we attain holiness not only in the temple but also in the field? Not only during the study of Torah but also while trading in the market? The verse continues: "for I, the Lord, your God, am holy". God is not limited to the definitions of time and space, and therefore is not confined to any specific time and place. Our task is to access and connect to G-d’s presence in every area of life, infusing the mundane with meaning and holiness. 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, 26 Nisan, 1986 


The Challenges of Spiritual Growth - אחרי

The Challenges of Spiritual Growth: Aspiration, Frustration, Purity 

Striving for spiritual growth is not without its challenges. Attempting to grow can lead to frustration. When a person is satisfied with their spiritual state, they may be stuck in their current condition, but they will not be exposed to disappointment. By contrast, the drive to advance, especially spiritually, may lead to moments of inspiration, enthusiasm, and transcendence, but also to inevitable frustration, disappointment, failure, and setback. 

The Book of Leviticus begins with the laws of offerings, which are an expression of the innate desire of the soul to draw closer to G-d. The book then turns to discuss the laws of purity and impurity, kosher and non-kosher, leprosy on the skin, garments, and home. The person seeking to come close to holiness will inevitably be challenged to overcome the impurity of negativity in this world. He or she will realize that the human being is imperfect, that not every day can one feel inspired and uplifted, and that a person will inevitably feel uninspired and disconnected. The Torah, therefore, sets out the laws of impurity and purity, kosher and non-kosher, to empower the Jew to navigate and ultimately refine a world that contains unholiness and impurity. 

And then, we reach this week’s Parsha, which describes the order of the service of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. The Torah tells us that even though, while navigating the challenges of life, a person may experience the pain of acting inconsistently with what they know to be the right and moral thing, nevertheless atonement is possible: 

For on this day He shall effect atonement for you to cleanse you. Before the Lord, you shall be cleansed from all your sins. (Leviticus 16:30) 

Yom Kippur teaches that negative experiences and actions do not define us. On Yom Kippur, our inner core is revealed, allowing the external negativity to drift away.

Based on the teachings of the rebbe, Likkutei Sichos 27, Acharei 1

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