The Mystery of Matzah
It's Matzah season! All across the globe, supermarket shelves are being stacked with boxes of wholesome matzah and pious Jews are rolling up their shirt sleeves, whipping out their rolling pins and firing up their stone ovens in preparation for another transcendental Passover.
Now let's not be fooled by the simplicity of its ingredients. Matzah is perhaps the most spiritually complex food in the Jewish traditional cookbook. Hidden in this seemingly flat and unassuming cracker lies an incredible depth that captures the essence of the Exodus and the lessons of the holiday of Passover.
Let's begin by trying to understand why we have a commandment to eat matzah on Passover. From a very young age we are taught that we eat matzah because the Jewish people didn't have time to let their dough rise before they were rushed out of Egypt by a frantic Pharaoh fearing that his demise was imminent. In that sense, matzah is a declaration of our freedom, a memento to the feeling of liberation we experienced that night, now preserved for all of history.
But as we look deeper, things get a bit puzzling. The author of the Haggadah opens up the Seder with the declaration that matzah "is the bread of poverty that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt." The commentaries teach us that the Egyptians fed matzah to their Jewish slaves because it is "poor man's bread" that sits in the stomach for a long time so it wouldn't be necessary to feed them as often. The author of the Haggadah seems to be telling us that matzah isn't a symbol of freedom at all, rather a symbol of poverty and slavery.
To make matters even more puzzling, the Jewish people were originally commanded to eat matzah at that very first Seder, which we celebrated while still in Egypt as the cries of the Egyptians mourning their first born were emanating from every home. Clearly, if they were already eating it before they were rushed out, the matzah must be more than a reminder of the scene leaving Egypt! So is matzah the "bread of freedom" or the "bread of slavery?"
Several years ago, a film called "Slumdog Millionaire" inspired viewers around the world. It was the story of a young man from India whose childhood was filled with poverty, abuse, lost love and many life-threatening experiences. One day the man's luck changes and he finds himself a contestant on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" As he is challenged by one difficult question after the next, he reflects back on the many negative experiences of his life, each one providing another answer that would lead him to winning it big! The very negativity that plagued him his whole life became the key to his salvation.
Matzah is not simply a symbol of our slavery or a symbol of freedom. It teaches us a much deeper lesson. As we discuss the slavery in Egypt and the miracles of the Exodus, the question begs to be answered: Why did we need to go through it all in the first place? Why did an innocent Jewish nation need to be subjected to such torture? Couldn't the Almighty have nurtured us while we were safely tucked away in a quiet little shtetl (village) until we were ready and then give us the Torah without all the complication?
Obviously not! The Jewish people needed to develop the following 3 character traits in order to become a nation that would soon hear the word of God, receive the Torah and become a light to the other nations.
1) Humility- when we go through difficult times, we come to realize that without the help of others, the individual is just not all that great. We see how we need to be part of something bigger than ourselves. In Jewish tradition, the most powerful prayers come from a person in despair, because that person can truly open up their heart to the Almighty and say “I need you”. This was a necessary level for the Jewish people to reach in order to fully let God in.
2) Perseverance- becoming the Jewish people would be no piece of cake. Becoming the Jewish people meant embracing a future that would provide no shortage of trials and tribulations. Persecutions, pogroms, inquisitions, holocausts and terror would be a recurring a theme in the future of this nation and they had to have the power to persevere as part of their DNA. Only a rough beginning could prepare them for that.
3) Identity- In Egypt, despite falling to the lowest depths of impurity, the Jewish people remained strong in their identity. They had no Mitzvot but they had their style of dress, their language and their names. And most of all, they kept their family unit strong. The power to remain true to our identity even though we did not have the freedom to perform Mitzvos was, again, a trait that would be crucial to our survival as a nation throughout history. When there is nothing left to hold on to, we know we are still the Jewish people.
On Pesach, it is the matzah that takes center stage because matzah is the “bread of slavery” and represents the character traits that we developed as slaves in Egypt. But when the Almighty summoned us to leave Egypt, He set us up to be carrying with us the very food that we were eating that entire time when we were slaves. It was His way of letting us know that freedom doesn't mean forgetting where we came from. Those very important traits of humility, perseverance and identity must accompany us into our new lives as a free nation, a holy nation and a nation of millionaires receiving the most precious gift in the world, the Torah.
The story of the Golden calf that we read in this week’s Torah portion is one of the most shocking in the Torah. The Jewish people are on a high. They stood at Sinai and experienced the sound of God’s voice. They had seen miracles and revelations so clear, like the world would never know again. And 40 days later, in a moment of confusion they sink so low to create an idol and worship it. How could that be?
While there is no shortage of commentaries that help us understand the mindset of the Jewish people, the roles of the different groups of Jews, Ahron’s involvement, the meaning of the calf, and more, I would like to share with you one very simple and incredibly important lesson that the Torah is teaching us through this story.
The higher one climbs on the ladder of spiritual growth, the more vulnerable they are to fall. The faster one is moving forward, the more opposition there will be to slow them down. The more one is ready to take on, the more excuses there will be why not to do it.
The mystery of the Golden calf is a mystery that I witness daily. I call it the Golden Calf Syndrome. Someone gets inspired, enlightened, takes on new commitments; a class, prayer, a new Mitzvah, a new goal. They begin to feel a new freshness and excitement in their Judaism, and then… crash! Life got busy, things got crazy, I am exhausted, the “flu”, the stomach virus, the Caps, the Oscars, family in town, next week I will be back into it for sure, etc… And slowly but surely the excitement drifts, the freshness is stale, and the person is confused and feeling farther away and more disconnected than ever before. It is the Golden Calf Syndrome.
And who are the ones that ultimately overcome the Golden Calf Syndrome? In our Torah portion, the Jewish people who stayed true to what they understood at Sinai- even though 40 days later it didn’t seem so exciting any more- those were the ones who said no to the Golden Calf.
Those who stick on a course, who stay true to themselves and follow through on commitments that they made at moments of clarity, those are the ones who ultimately reach the Promised Land. Those who realize that a bad day doesn’t mean it is over, that just because you fell once, doesn’t mean you can’t get back on again. That is the mentality that it takes to stay inspired, to stay fresh and to not be like those Jews in our Torah portion who buckled under the pressure of the Golden Calf Syndrome.
In the spirit of Purim, I would like to share with you a great quote from American satirist, comedian, writer and actor Stephen Colbert. He says, "Not living in fear is a great gift, because certainly these days we do it so much. And do you know what I like about comedy? You can't laugh and be afraid at the same time — of anything. If you're laughing, I defy you to be afraid."
Laughter appears in the Torah for the first time when God tells Abraham that he will have a child at age 100. Abraham laughs. Until then he was living in the illusion that he could never have children. He was living with a fear that haunted him daily that all his life's work would be for nothing. And then God told him to "rise above the stars," look beyond his fate, not only would he have children but his children would defy the natural order of mankind and become an eternal nation. Laugh!
Isaac's name means laughter. From the Torah's description of Isaac we know that he was, in fact, a pretty serious guy, but his essence is laughter. He was a child born into an impossible situation. He stared death in the face, didn't flinch and, ultimately, lived to tell about it. So his essence is laughter, since laughter is, in fact, the power to see through the surface and understand that there is a deeper reality.
The stories of Abraham and Isaac carry the DNA of Jewish history. With all we have gone through, we really shouldn't be here. But we are alive. We are committed. And we are fighting to regain our identity. And because of that, we have much to laugh about.
Purim is a day of laughter. There is a mitzvah to get dressed up, a mitzvah to drink alcohol until we can't fully control what is coming out of our mouths. How sad is it that so many adults mistakenly think that Purim is a holiday for the children! It is us who live with the daily fears and concerns about our health, our livelihood, our security, our strained relationships, our fading dreams, our struggling spiritual state, our purpose in this world. We need to learn how to laugh. We can only teach our children how to laugh if we know how to laugh.
Purim is one of the most exalted days of the year. On Purim, we can reach very high levels in our faith in God. On Purim, we can connect with others in very deep ways. On Purim we can tap into a much deeper place inside of ourselves that we aren't always able to experience. How do we get there?
It happens by listening to the Megillah, by delivering baskets of food to our friends and loved ones, by delivering gifts to the poor and by getting together for the most festive meal of the year. In the merit of the mitzvot of Purim, may our laughter and joy carry us through the year and until the coming of Moshiach.
Parshat Tetzaveh continues with the instructions for the creation of the Tabernacle that would be the center of spiritual service for the Jewish people in the desert. Moshe and the Jewish people are instructed to make special clothing for the Kohen, the priest and additional clothing for the Kohen Gadol, the high priest to wear when performing the service.
While one might think that this clothing was just a very stylish way for the priests to perform their service, our Sages teach us that, like the Sacrifices and other aspects of the service, these clothing were in fact part of the process of atoning for the sins of the Jewish nation. Sins like idol worship, murder, immorality, dishonesty in business and haughtiness were all included in the sins that would rely on these special clothing for their final atonement.
One might wonder how clothing is connected with sin, and why should it play a role in the atonement for these very serious crimes.
Additionally, we find that every year this week’s Torah portion immediately precedes the holiday of Purim, a holiday which seems to center around clothing. Clothing seems to play an important role in The Book of Esther, which makes several mentions of the outfits of the characters. And, of course, there is the age old custom of dressing up in a disguise on Purim. The connection between the “Torah portion of clothing” and the “holiday of clothing” is certainly not a coincidence.
The role of clothing for humanity is certainly quite profound. On the most basic level, one might say that the purpose of clothing is concealment, as the primary function of clothes is to cover up the nakedness of man. However, when we consider this further, we find that in fact clothing has a very strong power of revelation as well. It is through our clothes that we tell the world what we want them to think about us. Our clothing might be our way of giving off the impression that we are more conservative or more free spirited, organized or care free, religious or secular, etc. It might tell the world about our profession, the sports team we follow, the movies we like or our opinions about important social issues. A naked person can express none of this. Their only expression is their lack of clothing and what that might say about them. Through our clothes we can allow the world to view us in way that either accurately describes attributes of ours, or fools the world into thinking things about us that might not be true.
But the power of clothing goes, yet, even deeper. More than just giving us the power to expresss a certain part of our personality to others, it is through our clothing that we might actually tap in to that energy and bring it alive. Casual dress brings about our casual side. We might feel more confident when we are wearing our more refined clothes and act sillier when we are dressed down.
This last point will helps us answer our original question. Clothing brings about atonement for sin, because most sins are an expression of some inner desire or trait that was brought out in to the world in an inappropriate way. And, in all likelihood, the sinners lack of ability to keep those traits inside of him comes from how he is expressing himself to the world. The Kohen Gadol’s clothing is a message to the sinner that he needs a “change of clothing” i.e. a change of how he expresses himself to the world. What are the external factors in his life that are causing him to act this way? How can he project those inner traits in a way that is more appropriate to living with holiness?
And it is this duality of clothing, the power to conceal and to reveal, to express or to fool, that is the underlying message of Purim. Our Sages often use clothing as a metaphor for events that happen in this world. Just like clothing, many world events, or events in our life, have this same duality. They can be used to conceal God’s presence or reveal, depending on how you look at it. They can be God’s way of fooling us or Gods way of expressing himself to us, and we need tohave sharp eye to decipher the true meaning behind those events. The Purim story had all of the ingredients of being absolute concealment of Hashem. The Book of Esther is the only book without God’s name. But by the time we finish reading this story of concealment, we are shocked to discover that it is in fact the greatest story of revelation.
The words Megilas Esther can be translated as “The Book of Esther” but it has an alternative meaning as well. Megilah is similar to the word migaleh which means to reveal. The word Esther is derived from the word hester which means concealment. Hence the alternative meaning of the words Megilas Esther, are in fact a description of God’s actions in this world, as well as the function of clothing: The Revelation that comes about through Concealment.
Parshat Yitro is the climax of the story of the Exodus. We read about the Almighty giving the Torah to the Jewish people as we stand at the foot of a blazing Mount Sinai amidst thunder, lightning and many other impressive pyrotechnic effects. Even the simplest Jew was elevated to the level of prophecy as they experienced the Almighty introducing Himself and his Torah with His declaration of the Aseret HaDibrot, universally referred to as the 10 Commandments.
The 10 Commandments are not only the foundation of all of Jewish living and the fabric of the 613 commandments, they taught mankind the principles necessary for a Godly, moral and ethical way of living. They contain in them universal messages to live happier, more productive and extraordinary lives!
Let’s try to understand some of the lessons that are contained in these statements and how they relate to all people at all times.
1. I am Hashem, your God, who took you out of Egypt- Learn to see beyond your limits!
God could have introduced himself as the Creator of the World or the Omnipresent who controls everything, but instead he highlights his role in freeing from slavery. The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, is the same word for ‘entrapments’ or ‘limits’. Life is a journey of overcoming obstacles and challenges that entrap us. The struggle is for us to break free and reach our potential and accomplish our purpose. The first commandment is to believe that God is there to help you rise above your challenges and break free from the things in life that you feel are limiting you.
2. No Other Gods- Don’t view yourself as a casualty of life!
So much of the stress in our life comes from us viewing ourselves a victim of the world around us. We give power to influential people in our life, to our employers, to the stock market, even to celebrities. The 2nd commandment tells us that there is nothing in life that can throw us off. If it is there, it must be there because somehow or another this will help us achieve our true purpose in this world.
3. Do Not Carry the Name of God in Vain- Remember that you represent something BIG!
All Jews and religious non-Jews, as well, carry with them the name of God. Therefore every action is either going to bring honor or disgrace to God’s name. Our job is to teach the world that the Torah’s ways are sweet and its paths are peaceful, and that our relationship with Hashem is one of love and connection. The 3rd commandment teaches us to realize that we are part of something big. Even the simplest Jew is a representative of God! Be careful never to bring about anything other than positive associations to the Name of God.
4. Remember the Shabbat- Don’t become a slave to the mundane!
Shabbat has taught the world that we are not here to be workaholics. Once every seven days, completely log out, power down, switch off and unplug and just take the time to be in the moment, to spend quality time with our loved ones, to study and pray, to sit around a table of culinary delicacies and fine wine, and to discuss the meaningful moments of the week. And most importantly, take the time to just think. Think about life. About God. About everything.
5. Honor Your Parents- Don’t forget your roots!
Part of living life to the fullest is realizing that God puts every one of us in the exact home and environment that we need to grow and to blossom into the person that can fulfill our unique mission. Every message we receive as a child somehow plays a role in our development. Hashem chose your parents to partner with to create you and therefore you are obligated to give your parents the awe and respect a partner of God deserves.
6. Do Not Murder- Enhance, never ruin, the lives of the people around you!
Aside from the obvious ethical problems with committing murder, the statement “Do not murder” takes on a whole new meaning when we see how many interpersonal wrongdoings our Sages include as extensions of not killing. For example, the language of killing someone is used in relation to causing them public embarrassment or causing someone to become impoverished. It seems that this commandment includes not only taking a person’s life, but anything that we do that ruins a person life. The 6th commandment requires us to constantly think about how we treat others, what we say to them and how we are affecting their lives. Do we enhance the lives of the people around us or, God forbid, the opposite?
7. Do Not Commit Adultery- Harness the energy that can build or destroy worlds!
Just as our Sages expanded the scope of the prohibition of murder, the same applies with the commandment of not committing adultery. One who pushes any limits in order to gratify their sex drive, or interferes with the relationship of someone else, is tiptoeing on committing adultery. The sex drive can be the cause of so much pain and the driving force behind many bad decisions and can ultimately ruin your life. Use it to build, not to destroy.
8. Do Not Steal- Live with honesty and integrity!
Once again our Sages extend this commandment beyond actual stealing. We are required to act with complete integrity in money matters, making sure to go above and beyond to stick to our word and never cut corners, but also to respect people’s privacy, their intellectual property and to have complete respect of their possessions and boundaries. Even stealing someone’s sleep is an extension of this commandment.
9. Do Not to Bear False Witness- Advocate for others and stand up for the truth!
Sometimes the truth can be hard to say. Sometimes it is just easier to stay out of things and keep your mouth shut. But living life to the fullest requires us to say what needs to be said, to stand up for what we believe in and to make sure that the truth is being heard.
10. Do Not Covet- Realize that everything you need to fulfill your mission, you already have!
Everything that you have, from your unique personality, to your specific body, to how financially successful you are, is determined with great precision by the Almighty based on your mission in this world. Someone who looks at someone else’s lot in life with jealousy is essentially saying that they don’t believe in God and that they don’t believe that they have a unique role. The last commandment is a reminder that if you maximize every tool that is in your toolbox , you will certainly be successful at finding joy, happiness, vitality and fulfilment and live a truly extraordinary life.
Tu B’Shvat, or the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat, is traditionally called the "New Year for the trees of the world". It is the time of year when the sap begins to rise, thus beginning the cycle of rebirth for the trees. And it is considered an auspicious day in the Jewish calendar.
Why do we make such a big deal about the New Year
for trees? We have our own New Year, why crash their party as well?
But the truth is that the tree teaches us a profound lesson about
our potential for growth especially during this time of year.
In fact, the Torah even compares us to trees: "A person is like the tree of
a field" (Devarim 20:19). And in describing a righteous person, the
prophet Jeremiah writes, "He will be like a tree planted near water" (17:8). Finally, the Torah even compares itself to a tree in the verse, "Torah is a tree of life for all who grasp it" (Proverbs 3:18).
Trees represent the ever-present potential for spiritual renewal. Everybody has high point and low points. And every spiritual seeker hits points on their journey where they feel uninspired, disconnected and burnt out.
We look at a tree in the dead of winter looking so down and sad, branches bare and frozen, with no life force visible, and then, miraculously it seems, the Almighty sends a gush of sap up from its roots, inducing it with new vitality and life.
This is the Almighty whispering into our ear. Remember how not too long ago we were so energized by our potential for growth, our dreams and resolutions? Perhaps many of those dreams have faded away. Perhaps we are feeling spiritually bare and frozen in these dark days of winter. Shake off the dust and get up! This time of year, Shevat, the Zodiac sign of Aquarius, brings with it the potential to reach down to the roots of our souls, the wellsprings of freshness that reside inside of us and ask ourselves what we can do to reignite!
Additionally, Kabbalistic masters teach that the Jewish month of Shevat is a time when our creative energy flows into the world. Just as the roots of the tree discover a new source of vitality from someplace beneath the surface to begin the process of bringing beautiful, colorful, fresh fruit in to the world, we, too, need to use this time to dig down deep and tap in to the creative force inside of us to bring new flare, color and excitement into the world around us. The worlds needs out unique creativity, our unique flare.
May the month of Shevat and the holiday of Tu B’shevat bring you new vitality and energy into your life!
Rising Above the Stars
Our Sages teach us that the lamb was considered a God in ancient Egypt. What was it about the lamb that attracted the Egypt to worship it? The answer lies in the understanding that every nation has a Mazal, a sign in the Zodiac that represents their strengths and weaknesses. And when that Mazel is at the height of its power, the corresponding nation is also prosperous.
We see again and again in the Torah that ancient Egypt was very in tune to the movement of the stars. The Zodiac sign for the Egyptians was Aries, the Lamb. Aries is also the sign of the Jewish month of Nissan. Nissan is the beginning of the spring, a time of year which is blessed agriculturally, which is why Egypt was the agriculture head of the world.
Our Sages teach us that the world was created in the Month of Nissan, meaning under the Zodiac of Aries. This is why an individual or a nation under that Zodiac has a very strong disposition towards leadership, or the negative manifestation of that trait, excessive ego and tyranny, as was the case of Egypt. Firstborn children also have a special connection to that Mazal, since it is the “firstborn” of the Zodiac signs. Egypt was also the first country to have the concept of a “God-king,” viewed by his subjects as a deity. Egypt’s power resided in the fact they were, indeed, under the firstborn of all the signs of the Zodiac.
With this understanding, we gain much deeper insight into the events of that night that the Jewish people were released from their bondage. It was the 15th day of the month of Nissan, exactly midway through the month, at exactly midnight. It was the very moment when the Egyptian nation should be at the height of its power, the height of world power. But instead, at that very moment, Egypt came crashing down, and it began with the death of the firstborns, clearly showing that the Almighty is above all other forces of Creation.
And this was all initiated by the Jewish people taking that first bold step, to take the lamb and to slaughter it, instilling in their hearts that tonight, they were destined to rise above the stars. This was a fulfillment of the promise that God made to Abraham 400 years earlier when, while informing about the exile and redemption of the Jewish people, he told him to “rise above the stars”.
Indeed, on the night that we left Egypt we rose above all forces of nature. We became a supernatural nation that would be able to withstand all existential threats throughout its history. We became a nation that does not fall and outlives all our enemies, no matter how powerful they are. On that night, we rose above the stars.
The fast of the tenth of Teves marks the beginning of the siege on Jerusalem. All fast days in the Jewish calendar are meant to arouse our hearts and to open the paths to return to God. Let’s try to understand the deeper essence of this day and the type of arousal that is especially suited to this fast.
In Jewish tradition, there are 3 months of the year that are considered “bad months”. These months are destined for struggle, when the Heavenly attribute of Strict Justice is prevalent. Those months are the Jewish months of Tamuz and Av, when we commemorate the destruction of the Temple and the month of Teves, when we commemorate the siege on Jerusalem.
If we take a look at the Mazal, the Zodiac sign, of the month of Teves it is the Gedi, the Goat, also known as Capricorn. Some of the traits associated with the Goat are the evil eye, anger, stubbornness, immaturity and insecurity.
The Goat also reminds us of a very important struggle in the Torah that very much shaped who the Jewish people are as a nation.
At the end of the life of our Patriarch Yitzchak, he calls in Esav and instructs him to hunt for him a tasty dish so that he can bless him. Our matriarch Rivkah gets wind of the idea and instead instructs Yaakov to bring to Isaac some food and steal away the blessings. What specifically is the food that he is instructed to bring: two tasty goats. And when Yaakov is afraid that his blind father might touch him ans discover that he is an imposter, Rivka disguises Yaakov as Esav by putting on his arms the skins of, you guessed it, goats.
One can say, therefore, that there are in fact two Torah personalities that are represented by the goat. The first is Esav who was obviously “goat-like” both in personality and in skin texture. And the second is Yaakov disguised as Esav.
It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word Gedi has the numerical value of 17, which is also equal to the word tov, good. And in fact the word Teves contains the main letters that make up the word Tov. Taking all this into consideration, we clearly see a theme immerge. The month of Teves is a month of good concealed in bad.
Teves is followed by Shevat, a month that celebrates the beginning of the blossoming of the trees that seem to undergo a resurrection from the dead, and then Adar, the month that celebrates the transformation of death into life. All that transformation begins in Teves.
Teves is the month to transform the Evil eye and start looking at people in a positive light. The month to channel our anger towards the things in life that hold us back from being great. The month to channel our stubbornness into a refusal to adapt our morals and values to the pressure of society. And to use our immaturity and insecurity to increase our dialogue with God and realize how much we need Him in our lives.
In spiritual growth we often need to hit rough waters before we emerge as greater people. The month of Teves is just that.
May we all have in mind this year, as we fast on the 10th of Teves, that we should discover the hidden good in all of the pain in our life, and that we should soon see the day when all sadness is transformed into good.
One of the most important keys to living a happy life is knowing how to forgive.
Most people carry around with them some form of resentment. Sometimes they are for small wounds like a broken relationship or loss of a job, and sometimes the wounds are much more significant like abuse or violence. But harboring such feelings only causes emotional sadness, negative effects on one’s health and higher levels of stress.
So how can we forgive someone who has done something so cruel to us, we feel that it has left a permanent stain on our heart? How can we let go of that resentment when we feel that this person has significantly affected our quality of life?
Well, if it there is anyone in the Torah who can teach us a lesson or two about forgiveness it is Yosef and we need to look no farther than this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayigash.
We have been reading about the dramatic tale of the sons of Yaakov selling their brother Yosef into Egyptian slavery. 22 years later they find themselves standing before Yosef who has risen to become the second to most powerful man in Egypt, one of the world’s elite empires. Despite his high position in a most immoral setting, Yosef has nonetheless kept his faith strong and his spirit pure.
As Yosef reveals his identity they realize that their assessment of him all along as a narcissist, a dreamer, and a slanderer, had been incorrect. And then, in a moment of awkward silence and utter shock, Yosef comforts them by telling them not to worry, “this was all part of the divine plan.”
What is the message that Yosef is relaying? Clearly, they had made the decision to sell him to Egypt, how could he completely absolve them by attributing everything to a divine plan?
But let’s look at the story from a different angle. The Torah teaches us that the decent of the Jewish people to Egypt was part of the divine plan all along, a plan that God already relayed to Avraham long before. The family of Yaakov were destined to become “strangers in a strange land” in order to build a foundation for the Jewish nation who would be spending much of their future in similar circumstances.
And what better way to enter Egypt for this extended stay then to have the most righteous human being, Yosef, already planted in Egypt. Yosef, the one who would refuse the most tempting behavior, had already shown that the impure forces of Egypt can be overcome. It would be his hand who would be feeding his brothers upon their arrival so that they would not have to receive their sustenance from the impure forces of Egypt, rather from the hand of God through his vehicle Yosef. With this stage set the Jewish people would be able to withstand their extended stay and never sink to that “level of no return”.
So if that was the master plan all along, what role did the brothers play?
They certainly cannot be blamed for the outcome of their actions as this was already predestined. Their sin is only the hatred and jealousy that they allowed to linger in their hearts and blur their assessment of who Yosef really was. Utilizing their free will properly they would have overcome these negative emotions and discovered the truth, but they allowed this hatred and jealousy to burn. Once they used their free will improperly God made them the vehicle to bring about an occurrence that was destined to happen anyhow.
When Yosef comforted them he wasn’t telling them they had done nothing wrong, for in fact their hatred and jealousy were unwarranted. Rather he was letting them know that their guilt shouldn’t be on the predicament that they are finding themselves in, rather the impure emotions that they had felt 22 years prior. It was for this they needed to repent.
Yosef is teaching us that the first step in forgiveness is to realize that even though a friend, relative, boss or another might have used their own free will to hurt us, the outcome of their actions is still in the Almighty’s hand. He always wants the best for us. He has a plan for us, and even though we might not understand how everything fits into that plan, nothing can happen to us that cannot bring us closer to fulfilling our mission in this world. And even when others make mistakes, hurt us, and knock us down, He is right there to make sure we land exactly where we are supposed to.
What is the most important quality to look for in a Jewish leader? Intelligence? Self-confidence? Determination? Integrity? Sociability?
As we read the Torah portions of these weeks which tell us the story of Yosef and his brothers, the spotlight seems to keep moving back and forth between Yosef and Yehuda. In these 3 Torah portions we are being given a very personal and intimate look at their early mistakes, their defining moments and their ultimate emergence as the progenitors of Jewish kingship which would come only from the lineage of the two of them. Each portion contains another milestone moment that teaches us profound lessons about what it means to be a Jewish leader.
This week’s portion ends with the spotlight on Yehuda and a proposal to his father that will define his essence. The viceroy of Egypt, who is really Yosef under cover, offers the brothers a proposition. If they would like to purchase food, they would need to present their youngest brother, Benyamin, who was not with them at the time to the viceroy. When Yaakov heard this, he adamantly refused, unwilling to take the chance that he might lose the only remaining son from his cherished wife Rochel, to this Egyptian tyrant.
And then Yehuda steps in. Realizing that the destiny of the sons of Yaakov is on the line, that herein lays the opportunity to bring atonement for falling short on protecting his brother Yosef, Yehuda makes the ultimate guarantee. He tells Yaakov that if he does not return Benyamin unharmed then he will lose his life in this world and his share in Olam Haba, the Next World. In other words, Yehuda is putting everything on the line.
Giving up one’s share in the Next World is no small potatoes. In Jewish thought, we believe that the next world is the ultimate place of connecting to God, a place of no concealment, of ultimate revelation. It is the promise of a share in the world to come that helps us understand suffering and sacrifice. A place we don’t understand yet yearn for and dream about.
But Yehuda teaches us that there is something even more important to great leaders than their share in the Next World: The world of another.
Many great leaders throughout history have adopted this view. There are abundant stories that tell us of great Tzadikim giving away their share in the world to come to save a life or to bring joy to others.
But practically speaking, what Yehuda is telling us is that we can’t sit comfortably on our own merits, focusing exclusively on our own spirituality, when we are needed by others. There are times when our contribution to our community and to the world might feel like it is coming at the expense of our “master plan” as to how our life should look. But it is through living life with that perspective that will ultimately earn us the privilege to live up to the name all Jews carry, Yehudim, after our father Yehuda, who was willing to put it all on the line.
The Glitz, the Glamour and the Latkes
On Chanukah we celebrate the miracle of the oil. The Maccabees liberate Jerusalem and march into the Temple only to find that there is only enough oil to light the Menorah for one night. Miraculously the oil lasts for eight nights.
In our homes, with eight nights of oil-powered Menorah lights and an endless supply of fried latkes and jelly doughnuts, if, by the end of Chanukah there is still any oil left in our local supermarket, that itself is a mini Chanukah miracle.
The heavy focus on oil has profound depth in Jewish thought. It is certainly no coincidence that the Hebrew word for oil, shemen, is also the root of the word shemoneh (the number eight), which equals the days of Chanukah.
Oil, which produces light, represents clarity. Our Sages teach us that clarity is something that transcends the natural order of the world. Our day-to-day life provides countless opportunities to be deceived, to allow the complicated world to skew our perception of right and wrong, of good and bad, and of truth and falsehood. To experience clarity one has to be able to challenge that which seems to be on the surface, to ask questions and to probe deeper when something just doesn't seem to make sense. It takes an open mind and an attitude that welcomes change and all possibilities. Just because "everybody is doing it" or "this is how I have always done it" doesn't mean that that is the way it ought to be.
Oil always rises to the top. It doesn't allow itself to be swallowed up and absorbed into other liquids. That is why it is was so appropriate to the miracle of Chanukah, which celebrated our resolve to not get swept away by all the glitz and glamour that the Greeks tried to impose upon us.
The number eight, shemoneh, also represents the transcendence of the natural order. It is the number seven that is the days of the week, the number of colors in the rainbow, the notes on a musical scale, the continents and many other manifestations in our physical world. But the number eight takes us into a place that transcends the natural order. It takes us above space and time. It reminds us that it isn't about the colors or the music or what is trending. It is only when we are ready to infuse the physical world with that spiritual light that we can really extract the true beauty in our world.
In the upcoming Torah portions we read about our patriarch Yaakov's son, Yosef. We turn to Yosef for inspiration every year at this time because his message and the message of the oil are one and the same. Yosef transcends the natural order of life. He was beautiful but did not allow his beauty to get him swept up in the culture of the communities where he found himself. He used it to become a powerful leader, to bring holiness into Egyptian culture, one of the most immoral societies of that time.
This Chanukah, let's let the message of the oil, of the number eight and of the righteous Yosef permeate our lives and challenge us to rise to the top and shine our light to the world!
I always thought that the close proximity of Chanukah to Christmas was a bizarre coincidence. Certainly it worked out well for holiday-season shopping, and it's great that Jewish kids in America don't feel left out. But it never occurred to me that perhaps these two holidays are actually connected in a very deep way.
For those who are unfamiliar with the origins of Christmas, you might be surprised to learn that it was actually introduced first by the Roman pagans as the holiday of Saturnalia. It a week-long period of lawlessness celebrated Dec. 17-25 when Roman courts were closed and Roman law dictated that no one could be punished for damaging property or injuring others. The festival's customs included many l'chaims, so to speak, and people parading through the streets singing and dancing while wearing, or not wearing, whatever they pleased.
In the 4th century CE, Christianity imported the Saturnalia festival hoping to take the pagan masses in with it. After all, who would want to part ways with a festival like that? Early Christians succeeded in converting large numbers of pagans to Christianity by promising them that they could continue to celebrate their festival.
The festival of Saturnalia was a celebration of the "Sun God." It came during the dead of winter at the exact point when the nights were at their longest and about to begin to get shorter. To them is was a sign that the Sun God is regaining his strength, a great reason for a wild careless celebration.
Now let's view this from a Jewish perspective. We are all familiar with the traditional Jewish idea that time is fused with potential. Holidays come around at certain times each year not only because they are commemorating certain events, but because locked in those days is the potential to bring about certain improvements in our lives that relate specifically to that time of year. In fact, we believe that the victories we are celebrating were able to come about exactly when they did because of the potential that is locked into that specific time.
Chanukah comes during the dark days of winter. It is a time when many of us feel that our dreams and hopes of the High Holidays have already drifted away into the darkness. We feel disconnected from our Father in Heaven and disappointed in ourselves for not living up to what we thought we would be. Over the past two weeks many people have shared with me concerns about their health, concerns about their livelihood, concerns about troubling times in America and in the Middle East and other personal challenges.
On Chanukah we enter our homes and light a candle. We take one small step to rekindle the hopes and the dreams that might have faded away. And then we light another, and another, and by the time we're done we have a Menorah lit up with the transcendent number eight that defies the natural order of the world (as we discussed last week) and brings new energy into our lives.
And in a very clear non-coincidence, the days of Christmas, a holiday once marked with violence and lewdness, has become a time when families unite, when the world seems "merry" and lit up, and people talk about their hopes and dreams. And for the Jewish people, we continue to modestly light the Menorah in our homes and sing our beautiful Chaunkah melodies, knowing that, whether or not the outside world acknowledges our contributions to the civilized world, our message of hope and of renewal has been heard loud and clear and we have been, quite literally, a "light unto the nations."
Jewish law is filled with guidelines that govern the way men and women may relate to each other outside of marriage. With boundaries and fences derived from the Torah as well as Rabbinic legislation, there are several controls in place that limit physical contact, mode of dress, the allowance of a man and woman to be alone with each other, and other behaviors.
And while all restrictions on people’s personal lives have and will always face cynicism, misinterpretations, accusations and disparaging remarks, is there a thinking individual who would deny the potential pitfalls of close contact between men and women and the fatal attractions that are caused when even the most innocent and moral of individuals get caught up in the heat of their emotions?
The Torah personality who most embodies the potential to withstand such trials is our forefather Yaakov’s son Yosef. He is known in Rabbinic literature as a “Tzadik”, one who can consistently prevail over his impulses. Yet, in this week’s Torah portion we find a near mishap even with this paradigm of holiness.
After being sold into slavery by his brothers and descending to Egypt, Yosef finds unusual success, and becomes the head supervisor in the home of Potifar, one the major politicians of the land. All seems to be going well until Yosef finds himself being stalked by his master’s wife, a situation that clearly wouldn’t look good for him on his next resume. The situation spirals so out of control that Yosef, coming moments away from losing this battle, must evacuate the house, leaving his clothes behind, in a total panic to avoid the advances of this woman and the intense persuasion of his evil inclination.
And, while one would get the impression that we are witnessing the actions of a very immoral woman, ready to commit a blatant act of adultery to satisfy her improper desires, our commentaries allude to the fact that her intentions were somewhat more noble than one might think.
Rashi informs us that Mrs. Potifar had a vision that the children of Yosef were supposed to come through her household (in fact, the woman that Yosef ultimately married was her adopted child). Furthermore, on the verse that states “And Yosef refused to lie with her”, Rashi comments with the following statement, “not in Olam Hazeh (this world) and not in Olam Habah (the World to Come)”, implying that this was more than a physical obsession but a spiritual one as well.
Two hrighteous people, finding themselves moments away from a potential disaster, an act of adultery that would have affected Yosef’s holiness and the future of the Jewish people! If Yosef can fall, what does that say about me and you?
Our sages teach that a person must “sanctify themselves with things that are permitted”. In matters of appropriate behavior, it isn’t enough to stick to the rules, we need to go beyond the letter of the law. We must identify high risk situations and environments that might bring a one to act or speak in ways that are beneath his or her dignity and stay far away!
It is noteworthy that the initial commitment to marriage is referred to in the Torah as Kidushin, which is from the same root as the word Kedushah, holiness. In marriage, one spouse commits to the other not only to be faithful to the other, but to accept on themselves a level of complete holiness towards one another. That means not only avoiding infidelity, but avoiding any breach of that sacred holiness.
May we merit to open our hearts to the love and concern that the Torah and our Sages have had for us, to try to protect us from lowering ourselves and our bar of holiness. May we be humble enough to realize that their guiding light is essential for us to maintain our purity. And may we merit to rise above all challenges and sanctify God’s name in any situation that we find ourselves in.
Lessons in Honesty and Integrity
The Talmud teaches that when a person leaves this world the first question they must face in the Next World is “Did you do your business dealings with Emunah?” This can be interpreted as “honestly” or, alternatively “with faith in God”.
Unfortunately, Jews throughout history have gotten a bad reputation in money matters. Much of this was thrust upon us by those who disliked us. The term “to Jew somebody down” has been used as a derogatory way of saying that Jewish people are cheap, aggressive with their money and less than honest.
The Torah approach to dealing in money matters is established in this week’s Torah portion by the father of the Jewish people, Yaakov, who also carries the description as being “Ish Emet” the man of Truth.
The 12 sons of Yaakov, the foundation of the Jewish people, are born while Yaakov is in the home of his sly, sneaky, and “anti-Semitic” father-in-law, Lavan. And, though, he is fully aware that he is repeatedly being taken advantage of, Yaakov doesn’t try to beat Lavan at his own game. He maintains his integrity.
In his dramatic final speech to his father in law, Yaakov gives a message to all future generations about how we should approach money:
Already twenty years have I been with you, and your cattle have not miscarried, neither have I eaten the rams of your flocks. I have not brought you anything defective; I would suffer its loss; from my hand you would demand it, what was stolen by day and what was stolen at night. I was [in the field] by day when the heat consumed me, and the frost at night, and my sleep wandered from my eyes. This is twenty years that I have spent in your house. I served you fourteen years for your two daughters and six years for your animals, and you changed my wages ten times ten times. Had not the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, been for me, you would now have sent me away empty handed. God has seen my affliction and the toil of my hands, and He reproved [you] last night."
Yaakov is setting the standard for us. Be great at your job. Never try to cut corners or take something that isn’t yours. Sometimes it is worth it to take a loss for the sake of integrity. Work extra hard. And, even when dealing with tricky people, believe that the Hashem has an address for every penny that switches hands.
Honesty and integrity apply not only to the employee but to the employer as well. The following amazing story demonstrates this point:
A pious Jew approached the great Kabbalist the Arizal and complained about a personal difficulty. The Arizal responded that it came about because he was dishonest in business. Shocked by the accusation and quite sure that he did his best to be 100 percent honest, the man gathered all of his employees and associates, put on the table a large sum of money and announced that if he owed anyone any amount of money, they should please come and take whatever was owed to them.
No one budged. The man begged the crowd not to be ashamed and insisted that anyone who has ever felt slighted by him should please come forth and claim what they were owed. After a few moments, an older women who worked in one of the man's factories came forward and took an amount of money as small as the value of a couple of dollars. The man asked her how it came about that he owed her this money. She responded by saying that had he not insisted, she wouldn't have come forward at all. However, she did feel that based on her age and level of expertise, she should be making slightly more money for the jobs that she did. Shortly afterward the man returned to the Arizal, who told him that he had brought about a complete rectification of his flaw.
The great Rabbi Shimon Schwab used to say “I live with the hope that one day there will be a new version of the dictionary that will translate “to Jew somebody” as to be scrupulously honest, to be decent”. May we merit to be a light on to the nations and fulfill these holy words”.
Thanksgiving, Kislev and Tears
Shanah is the Hebrew word for year. But it also means to repeat, to do again. This is because Jewish tradition teaches that time isn't linear, it is cyclical. It carries with it potential for positive and negative manifestations. Events that happened during a certain time have greater potential to repeat themselves during that specific time. And every season, every month, every holiday comes along with opportunities for growth as well as obstacles to overcome.
We are all still shaking from the tragedy that happened last week when 5 righteous men were brutally slaughtered in Jerusalem, including 3 Rabbis, one of them, Rav Moshe Twerski, having played a very major role in my life.
This morning, as I was looking back at old articles that I have written, I was surprised to discover that what I had written two years ago, precisely this time of year, when Rosh Chodesh (the beginning of the month of) Kislev also fell out on the week of Thanksgiving, was exactly the message that I needed to hear today.
The article was written when Operation Pillar of Defense was going on in Israel, after I had read on the news about the deaths of three holy souls that were killed in a rocket attack in Kiryat Malachi- on a Tuesday, just like this year. One of them was a 25-year-old mother who was involved in Jewish educational efforts in India. Another was IDF Corporal Yosef Fartuch. The words and the tone of the article could have simply been cut and pasted to today’s date and be completely appropriate.
Though it saddened me that we are in mourning once again, it reminded me that just as the year takes us through highs and lows, so does history. And just as we mourn our losses, we can’t forget that Hashem is watching over us, bringing the final redemption closer with every tear that falls.
So, I would like to share with you once again my Kislev-Thanksgiving message from 2012:
The Jewish month of Kislev is all about miracles. The theme of the month is giving thanks to God, praising Him for the miracles we have experienced throughout history and the miracles that happen every single day, no matter how hidden they are.
Kislev is a time when one of the greatest wars ever fought by our people occurred. Against all odds, the Maccabees defeated the Greeks and ended the persecution and suffering that the Jews of the land of Israel were facing. Today, as we are all filled with concern for our brothers and sisters in Israel, and in pain over the lives that have been lost, we all must find inspiration and hope in the fact that this time of year is infused with the potential to see great miracles.
It is often difficult to see miracles during dark times. Fear and sadness tend to overshadow our ability to properly see the hand of God. But despite the rockets falling or the terror that has become the norm on the streets of Israel, we can't forget that God is watching over His children. How grateful must we be that with thousands of rockets being fired at Israel, only a handful landed in urban areas!
And when, God forbid, we hear that there were casualties, like those of last Tuesday, we must also remember that when a Jewish life is taken away from us in such a tragic way, these neshamot return to their Creator holy and pure and provide protection for the rest of our people.
This weekend many of us will be spending time with our loved ones. In the spirit of the day, we will likely focus on many of the gifts that we have in our life. Let's not forget the words of our Sages, who teach us that we must not only bless God for the good in our lives, but also when times are difficult. Even when things seem bad, we bless God for the small miracles and remind ourselves that even in pain, our Father in Heaven hasn't forsaken us. He has a plan. After the past few weeks, we are certainly so much closer to finding out what that plan is.
Are people predestined for either greatness or for evil? Does spirituality just come easier for some people than it does for others? It certainly seems that way quite often. But how can that be true when we all know that one of the central themes in Jewish thought is that we all have free choice, that our spiritual greatness is in our hands and our hands alone.
In this week’s Torah portion we are introduced to a character named Esav. Esav didn’t seem to have very much going for him. Already in the womb he was trying to make a break for it whenever his mother would pass a house of idol worship. He was born with a red complexion, indicative of his thirst to spill blood. In his early years he was ready to trade away spiritual eternity, for temporary worldly pleasures. It certainly seems that Esav was predestined for evil, doesn’t it?
But the Torah puts a very interesting spin on the whole thing by telling us that “Yitzchak loved Esav”. Then in his old age, Yitzchak seeks to give the blessings to Esav who had already grown into a full blown villain. Apparently Yitzchak saw a hidden potential even in Esav that made him worthy of being the candidate to receive this blessing.
We can gain insight into this, by getting to know another famous biblical personality, King David. We see in the book of Samuel that King David was “red-haired, with beautiful eyes, and good looking (Samuel 16:12).” The Midrash teaches that when Samuel, who anointed David as king of Israel, first saw that David was red-headed he was smitten with fear, thinking he might be a murderer. But God reassured him that while Esav killed impulsively, David would only slay for the sake of God.
The comparison between these two red-heads is certainly profound. It seems as if Esav and King David really had the same inner tendencies except Esav allowed that inner drive to rule over him, whereas David took complete control. Esav’s greatest weakness, was the key to King David becoming the greatest leader the Jewish people have ever known.
So what was this inner tendency that the two shared and how did it favor King David but bring the downfall of Esav?
Yitzchak understood that Esav’s lust for the physical world could be used to elevate the mundane to a holy place. His lust for food and pleasure could be channeled towards growing his love for God, a task that his lofty brother Jacob could not accomplish, as he was “too spiritual” and disconnected from the corporeal world.
Yitzchak saw this great potential in Esav and was ready to bless him with all the blessings of the finite world. It was to be his task to engage in a world of impurity so that his spiritually inclined brother Yaakov could be free to be immersed in spirituality. But Esav didn’t feel it was worth the effort. “Why do I need it? I’m going to die anyway.” Once that decision was made, it became the job of Yaakov to step in, to leave the sheltered world he was immersed in and take on the mission of lighting up the finite world. For this reason the blessings rightfully belonged to him.
No one is predestined for greatness and no one is predestined for evil. But we are all predestined to struggle. The greater the challenge, the greater the potential. Through Torah study, we are able to identify our weaknesses, and not only overcome them, but turn them into our greatest strengths.
The first time the Torah mentions love in context of man and woman is in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Chayei Sarah, when Yitzchak marries Rivkah.
And Yitzchak brought her to the tent of Sarah his mother, and he took Rivka, and she became his wife, and he loved her. And Yitzchak was comforted after the loss of his mother.
The Torah seems to link Yitzchak’s love for Rivka with the fact that she was able to fill a void in his life left by the passing of his great mother, Sarah.
Rashi expounds on this by making reference to an amazing Midrash:
For as long as Sarah was alive, a candle burned from one Shabbat to the next, blessing was found in the dough, and a cloud was attached to the tent. When she died, these things ceased, and when Rivka arrived, they returned.
Our commentaries link the three blessings Sarah brought to the home with the three mitzvot that are unique to the Jewish woman: Lighting Shabbat candles, separating Challah when making dough, and immersion in the Mikvah. The connections between Sarah’s candles and the Shabbat candles, and between Sarah’s dough and separating Challah are obvious. The cloud above Sarah’s tent is symbolic of the Divine presence residing in the home, a symbol of the holiness generated when there is purity, peace and intimacy between husband and wife, hence the correlation to Mikvah.
The juxtaposition between the first time the Torah ever mentions love between man and woman and this allusion to the three mitzvot and the three blessings is certainly no coincidence.
So let’s try to understand the deeper essence of the three mitzvot.
The Shabbat Candles
The candle’s light is symbolic of a woman’s wisdom. The Talmud teaches that a woman is blessed with a special wisdom called Bina. Bina is defined as deep understanding, an intuition, the ability to sense things that are beneath the surface, an awareness of what isn’t obvious, a sensitivity to feelings and emotions that perhaps can’t be articulated.
I heard from a great Jew who spent much time in the presence of a great Torah personality and head of the largest Torah institution in the world, that before he would make any significant decisions about the institution he would consult with his wife. If she didn’t give him the green light, if she had a “bad feeling” about it, all other advice from his board, advisors and supporters would be for naught. And the Torah institution soared and continues to soar!
The Challah Dough
The combination of flour and water represents the uniting of physicality (flour) and spirituality (water), symbolizing how even the most mundane can be elevated and made holy. The Torah teaches us that a woman has a greater capacity than a man to see the hand of God in day-to-day life, to constantly stay connected and to remain aware of God even during the most mundane activities. This is why the Hebrew word for Mother is Eim or Ima, which is the root of the word Emunah, which means faith in God. Children learn more about trusting in Hashem from hearing their mothers conversations with God throughout the day than what they learn from any formalized and structured service.
It is no secret the emotional connection between husband and wife rides the waves of their intimate life together. The laws of family purity and Mikvah bring into the home a special way to express intimacy by renewing that connection time and time again, consistently reigniting the romance in a marriage in the holiest of ways, and ensuring that no matter how busy life is or how distant spouses might have drifted from one another, the date night of all date nights must happen!
So we see that these three mitzvot - and the three blessings of Sarah’s tent - all point to the three blessings that a woman brings into the world, the blessings of clarity, connection and purity.
In politics we are all to aware of the ongoing struggles and battles between the "Right" and the "Left". In religion we also often hear about being over to the "right" or a little more to the "left". But in Jewish thought, the terms "right" and "left" take on a slightly different meaning.
Our Sages teach us that the right side and the left side represent two different extremes in our personalities. The right side is the side of expansion, the energy source of traits such as love, kindness, joy and the will to give. The left side represents the side of constriction and is the source of traits such as self-control, discipline, judgment and negation of the self. All the classic works on character refinement emphasize the importance of balancing these two traits.
In Parshat Vayera, Avraham is challenged with what seems to be the ultimate of his many tests. God asks him to bring his son Yizchak as a sacrifice. This test challenged everything Avraham had ever believed and taught to others about God. In a world where child sacrifice was common pagan practice, Avraham preached about the evils of such forms of worship and stood for a compassionate God of kindness who would never want such a thing.
Though we discover at the end of the story that this really was not God’s desire at all, that it was all a test, the commentaries look for a deeper understanding of the message we are supposed to take away from the story. Did God just confront Avraham with the most difficult challenge possible, or was there some deeper message being conveyed?
In Jewish thought Avraham is considered the embodiment of the right side, the side of expansion. Yitzchak, on the other hand, is the embodiment of the left side, the side of constriction. The very fact that we seldom hear the voice of Yitzchak in the Torah alludes to his “strong-silent-type” personality. His name Yitzchak, which means laughter, describes his ability to laugh at the world as he turns his back on physical pleasures, which he views as futile.
God tells Avraham to sacrifice Yitzchak, and then stops him to generate in his heart the ability to dominate the trait of Yitzchak while ultimately acknowledging that it needs to be in the world.
The message to Avraham and Yitzchak, the message to all of us, is that we all need to have some of Yitzchak in us. And although the word “judgmental” has become synonymous with a bad character trait, sometimes a person needs to draw that hard line between what they believe is right and wrong. The world continues to adopt more and more the culture of “anything goes,” and much of that creeps into Jewish views as well. The Yitzchak within needs to remind us that we need to hold on strong to our ability to see boundaries.
However, Yitzchak is only complete after he is ready to be sacrificed, dominated by his father Avraham, the embodiment of love and kindness. The trait of Yitzchak is channeled properly only when it is rooted in love. As a primary trait it can be destructive, turning us into overly judgmental, angry, rigid people. But when it is secondary to the dominant right side, it allows us to refine our power to love and give in the proper frequency and set meaningful boundaries.
Knowing When to Put Yourself First
One of life’s most important lessons can be learned right before takeoff on every flight. The flight attendant shows you your oxygen mask and then tells you that no matter what happens, you need to make sure that your oxygen is flowing before you help others.
Happiness and success follows the same rule. When we start feeling that our entire life is about everyone else, we begin to feel lack of personal identity and ultimately burnout. And even though we can be doing great things, saving the world, if we aren’t in touch with our own needs, we can be completely missing out on accomplishing our mission.
Parshat Lech Lecha begins with God commanding our forefather Abraham to leave his land and his father's home. Abraham had already built a name for himself in his home town of Ur Kasdim. He had become a well-known public figure, a spiritual guru for thousands, captivating audiences with novel and controversial ideas about God, morality and personal potential. But now, God commands to leave it all behind.
For what purpose? Lech “Lecha”. "Go for Yourself". For your own good. To accomplish your own personal mission. To build your family. For Abraham, there could be no greater test. His whole life was devoted to others, to kindness and selflessness. But now, his paradigm would have to change.
Many of us are faced with a similar challenge daily. We have people in our life who need us, who have expectations of us, often to a point that it holds us back from moving our life in a direction we know is necessary. We are then charged with the daunting task of having to balance our own needs with the needs of others. But there is a time when we need to hear the voice inside of us saying Lech Lecha.
We all owe it to ourselves to make sure that we are leading healthy lives, eating right and getting enough sleep. We owe it to ourselves to have time alone and to set time for our dearest loved ones without being hounded by all of the important emails and phone calls from our job and other people who “need us” so much.
And we owe it to ourselves to make sure that we are growing spiritually and not being held back by others. Abraham couldn’t become Abraham while still in the same city as his father’s house. He had to leave. One of the greatest barriers to spiritual growth is when we feel that we somehow “owe it” to others to be a certain way or to engage in certain activities.
Parshat Lech Lecha challenges us to know when to say just that:
“GO…. FOR YOURSELF!!!!”
From Days of Awe to Days of Love
Oh, the brilliance of the Jewish calendar! Can you imagine what life would be like if right after Yom Kippur, right after we reach such an exalted state of closeness to the Almighty, right after we turn ourselves completely inside-out and reach that most incredible state of consciousness and awareness, if right after all that we would just jump right back into our regular life and daily grind? What a crash landing that would be!
But instead, the moment the curtain closes on Yom Kippur, a new door opens, a new incredible opportunity to grow spiritually but in an entirely different way.
What more could we achieve after Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? We've woken up to the sound of the Shofar and invited God into our lives. We've immersed ourselves in His love, beseeching Him to remove all of the blockages that separate our hearts from feeling His presence. We've put our bodies on hold and let our souls be enraptured in the energy of these days. What is the next step?
Jewish tradition teaches us that we are supposed to serve God out of awe and out of love, with love obviously being the greater level of the two. That being said, if Rosh Hashanah, the 10 Days of Repentance and Yom Kippur are referred to as the "Days of Awe," clearly the next step would have to be the "Days of Love."
And that is the most accurate way to describe Sukkot: one big, warm, fuzzy hug from our Beloved in Heaven. Sitting in the Sukkah requires us to leave our regular state - living a life of expansion - and enter into a much smaller, intimate space. This space represents the loving embrace of the Almighty. The basic requirements of a Sukkah are two long, perpendicular walls and one short extending wall, which represents an arm reaching over to bring another closer. The roof, known as schach, requires us to be able to see the sky, to remind us that He is looking down on us and rejoicing with us.
For the next week and a half, we experience a time referred to in the Torah, as "the Time of our Joy." We sing, we dance and we celebrate all that we achieved during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is that final celebration, the hug that follows the intensity and captures the moment, that really allows those feelings to penetrate our hearts in the deepest way, escorting our new and improved selves into the brand new new year!
Last week we explored the deeper meaning of the holiday of Sukkot and how the Sukkah resembles a "divine embrace," a hug from the Almighty to capture the feeling of arriving at our destination. If we look further into the various mitzvot we perform over the holiday, we see this deep connection of love that is formed between God and the Jewish people being very explicitly portrayed throughout.
It is well known that the various species that we shake on Sukkot resemble various parts of the human body. The lulav resembles the spine. The leaves of the hadasim and aravot resemble the eyes and lips, respectively. And the etrog resembles the heart. The deeper sources expound on this idea and how it connects to the theme of the day.
The lulav is bound together with the hadasim and aravot creating a single unit, portraying that our bodies and desires (alluded to by the spine) are constantly being affected by the stimuli we take in through our eyes and mouth. By binding them together, we are showing that we are taking complete control of our physical desires. The etrog, on the other hand, reflects the heart, the seat of our emotions. It is by taking control of our physical desires that we can channel our emotions towards loftier goals.
Our Sages explain further. The lulav and its group, representing self-control of the physical desires, is more closely connected with man's spiritual focus, while the etrog, and its symbolism towards emotions and beauty, is more closely connected to a woman's spiritual focus. The tradition is to shake the lulav and etrog in the Sukkah. This act of taking the lulav and etrog, representing man and woman, holding them close together and bringing them into the Sukkah, represents a bride and groom coming together under the chuppah (wedding canopy) and creating a new bond of love. This represents the bond of love being formed between the Almighty and us.
It is no coincidence, therefore, that the second half of the holiday of Sukkot, known as Simchat Torah, closely resembles the part of the wedding that comes right after the chuppah: the celebration! We sing and dance until we drop celebrating this new union. By the time the holiday is over we have gone through the complete "wedding experience" and are ready to begin our new life. And as we enter the dark days of winter that immediately follow, we are confident that the vows that we made over these special days will be etched in our hearts and that we will experience a year like we have never had before.
On the holy and awesome day of Rosh Hashana, Jews from all walks of life gather together in Synagogues across the world for Prayer, inspiration and check back in and say a quick “hi” to God. The focal point and climax of the day is of course the Shofar ceremony.
Since it is the shofar blowing that takes center stage, allow me to share with you some of the depth behind why we blow the shofar. There are many reasons that are given, but I would like to share with you one that resonates very deeply with me.
Shofar is perhaps the only Mitzvah that we do with our breath. Breath is symbolic for the Soul, as the two share a common Hebrew word. The word for soul, "Neshama", is almost identical to the word for breath, “Neshima”. And since the day of Rosh Hashana is the day when we celebrate the birthday of Mankind, the day that the Torah writes “And God blew into his nostrils the breath of life”, the Shofar serves as a reminder to us that are souls are just that, the breath of God.
"The Shofar is meant to wake us up and remind us