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Thoughts on the Parsha

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Daniel Wein is a Pittsburgh-based writer who specializes in unpacking complex Chassidic thought into relatable action items.

He is a devoted husband as well as a loving father to his adorable daughter.

Oh, he is also a big fan of all things CYP. 

Pharaoh’s Holiness

Parshat Bo

In this week’s Torah portion, Bo (Come), we read about the final three plagues as well as the release of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. The Torah portion begins with G-d’s command to Moses to “Come to Pharaoh” to warn him about the eighth plague: locusts. G-d does not tell Moses to “go to Pharaoh,” as he had with some of the earlier plagues. Why is the phrasing different this time?

Pharaoh represented the epitome of evil and Moses was rightly afraid of him. After all, Pharaoh directed the Egyptians to plaster Jewish children into the walls of buildings when the Jewish people failed to provide the demanded quota of bricks.[1] Furthermore, when Pharaoh contracted leprosy, he attempted to cure himself by bathing in the blood of murdered Jewish children.[2] The word Pharaoh means both “expose” and “wild.” Indeed, Pharaoh demonstrated a shocking lack of restraint, and his decadence was seemingly wild, without bounds. Therefore, according to the Zohar,[3] G-d was in effect reassuring Moses when he told him to “come to Pharaoh,” by indicating “come with me to Pharaoh.” Pharaoh’s unrestrained ideas and feelings intimidated Moses. G-d therefore wanted to let Moses know that he wouldn’t have to break the intense evil of Pharaoh by himself. G-d would accompany him. 

Yet there was something Moses feared even more than Pharaoh’s evil. All evil represents a fallen, corrupt version of holiness. The greater the evil, the more sublime the source in holiness. Therefore, Pharaoh’s soul—his spiritual source—was rooted in a very sublime level of holiness, and this is what Moses most feared to confront! 

On the last day of the plague of darkness, Pharaoh tells Moses, “‘Leave my presence! Take care never to see my face again, for the day you see my face you will die!’ Moses replied, ‘You have spoken rightly.’”[4]

Incredibly, Pharaoh was telling Moses that a finite being cannot behold Pharaoh’s source in G-d’s transcendence and live. Later, G-d tells Moses the same thing: “You may see My ‘back,’ but My ‘face’ may not be seen.”[5] 

Moses had a sense of the incompatibility of G-d’s transcendence with the parameters of a finite being. The soul of Moses had its source in a very high level of holiness. Because of this, Moses had a speech impediment, which represented the impossibility of concretizing and articulating very lofty levels of divine revelation. 

Yet Pharaoh represented an even loftier level of G-d’s transcendence. If “exposed” to Pharaoh’s “wild” holy lights of unbound abstract ideas and feelings, Moses’ soul as it existed in his body would be overwhelmed, and he would be unable to integrate it. Moses would have wanted to join with this sublime level of G-d’s revelation, and he would leave his body and expire. Since Moses wanted to remain grounded in this world, so as to lead the Jewish people and carry out G-d’s will, he rightly feared confronting Pharaoh and the G-dly revelation he could be exposed to. G-d therefore promised to accompany Moses and protect him.[6] 

[1] Sanhedrin 111a[2] Hitva'aduyot 5748, vol. 2, pp. 218-219, 224-225.[3] 2:34a[4] Shemos 10:28[5] Ibid 33:23[6] Sefer HaSichot 5752, volume 1, pp.280-290.

Jacob’s Best Years

Parshat Vayechi

This week’s Torah portion, Vayechi (he lived), opens with the verse, “Jacob lived seventeen years in Egypt.”[1] According to the Baal HaTurim, these seventeen years were the “best” years of Jacob’s life. 

On the surface, this does seem plausible. In his early years, Jacob struggled with his wicked brother, Eisav. Later, Jacob endured twenty years working for his deceitful uncle, Laban. Jacob had to endure the brutalization of his daughter, Dinah, at hands of Shechem. And of course, Jacob suffered mightily for the twenty-two years that he thought his son, Joseph, was dead. Jacob’s sorrow ran so deep that according to Rashi, Jacob had no Divine inspiration for the twenty-two years that he mourned for Joseph.[2] 

It therefore makes sense that once Jacob arrived in Egypt, he would derive immense joy and satisfaction when he saw for himself how Joseph—his favorite son and primary spiritual heir—had remained loyal to his spiritual ideals and even had a positive impact on Egypt. 

Yet a nagging question remains. 

The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, shares the same root letters as the word meitzarim, meaning “boundaries” and “limitations.” Egypt is spiritually constricting. By its very nature, it is a land that does not allow for the revelation of the unlimited dimensions of G-dliness.[3] Ancient Egyptian society was infamous for its depravity, where the forces of kelipah had the capacity to conceal all aspects of G-dliness. 

How could this be a land where our exalted Patriarch, Jacob, had his “best” years?

According to the Midrash,[4] “Judah was charged with preparing a House of Study for him [Jacob], so that the directives of the Torah would emerge from there, and his sons would meditate upon its teachings.”

Judah traveled to Egypt ahead of Jacob and opened a Yeshiva for Torah study. 

Torah study has the power to lift a person beyond all boundaries and limitations. Because Torah is rooted in G-d’s very Essence,[5] it enables one to ascend to a level in which he lives with true vitality. Yet wasn’t Jacob capable of reaching this level within Eretz Yisroel? What took place in Egypt that enables us to say that this was where Jacob lived his “best” years? 

Jacob’s soul was on the level of Atzilus, a lofty spiritual realm so permeated with G-dliness that there is no possibility for the existence of created beings who view themselves as independent from G-d. Therefore, even as Jacob existed in the physical realm, his consciousness of a world permeated with G-dliness remained intact. Thus, Jacob—like his son, Joseph—was unaffected by Egypt’s spiritual darkness and concealment of G-d. 

However, for Jacob’s sons (except for Joseph), the shevatim, it was a different story. Their souls were on the level of Beriah.[6] While Beriah is still a lofty spiritual realm, it is a place that allows for a sense of independent existence, self-awareness, and the appearance of being distinct from G-d. The shevatim felt most comfortable expressing holiness within a holy environment. Once they descended to Egypt, a land that concealed G-dliness, they had the capacity to be negatively affected.  

Therefore, the Yeshiva that Judah established at Jacob’s behest was meant not only to inoculate the shevatim against the harmful spiritual effects of Egypt, but it was also intended to offer a novel opportunity for spiritual growth. The shevatim “would meditate” or labor arduously to understand the deepest Torah concepts. This Torah study not only prevented a spiritual descent on the part of the shevatim, but it generated great spiritual light. It was precisely because the shevatim toiled in Torah study in a land of such profound spiritual darkness that they were able to elicit exalted levels of spiritual light, thereby making a dwelling for G-d in the lowest realms. Like their brother Joseph, the shevatim were able to have a positive impact on their environment.

Since Jacob was the facilitator of the shevatim’s Torah study and hence their spiritual accomplishments, he had a share in the spiritual light that they elicited. Jacob therefore achieved a new, heretofore untapped level in his divine service. Thus, Jacob’s years in Egypt were truly his “best.”

[1] Bereishis 47:28[2] Rashi on Bereishis 45:27 and 46:30[3] Likkutei Sichos, Volume 10, p. 160ff.[4] Midrash Tanchuma, Buber edition.[5] Tanya[6] Torah Or, p. 24a

Joseph Vs. Judah

Parshat Vayigash

 In this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash (he approached), we read about the colossal confrontation between Joseph and Judah. Joseph, who remains unrecognized by his brothers, threatens to enslave Benjamin on trumped up charges of stealing a goblet. Judah, outraged and determined to free Benjamin, speaks harshly with Joseph, and even threatens to kill both Joseph and Pharaoh! According to the Midrash, the brothers engage in an ostentatious display of physical prowess, each attempting to outdo the other. “Judah seized a stone weighing four hundred shekel. With his great might, he threw it up to the sky with his right hand and caught it with his left. Then he crushed it under his feet. Joseph…proceeded to prove his strength to Judah. He kicked the marble pillar that formed the base of his throne, converting it to shattered debris.” Judah, conceding defeat, remarked to his brothers, “This one is stronger than me.”[1]

The brothers do not intervene. “The brothers decided, ‘let us leave the combat to the two kings! It is not for us to meddle into their affairs!’”[2] Judah changes tactics and pleads with Joseph to release Benjamin, and finally offers to take the place of his brother, Benjamin, as a slave to Joseph. Joseph is so moved by Judah’s display of self-sacrifice that he reveals his true identity as Judah’s brother, Joseph.  

Why do the brothers refrain from intervening? Surely they too were very powerful and could have helped to intimidate Joseph. Furthermore, why do the brothers describe the confrontation between Judah and Joseph as combat between “two kings?” Joseph was viceroy in Egypt and had the authority of a king, but Judah was a mere shepherd. Why do the brothers elevate Judah to the role of king

Chassidus offers a deeper look at the underlying dynamics of the confrontation between Judah and Joseph.

Joseph represents Ze’ir Anpin,[3] which is a Kabbalistic term denoting spiritual growth through the acquisition of Knowledge and the development of the emotions. Joseph was not only a Torah scholar par excellence. He also had the ability to connect his conscious mind to his subconscious mind in order to achieve new levels of understanding and feeling. This is why Joseph was able to interpret dreams. Joseph means “increase,” which describes his ability to continually increase in all matters both physical and spiritual. Joseph was beautiful physically and was also extremely powerful. Yet he was also able to reach the highest spiritual levels in his understanding of Torah and his love of G-d. Simultaneously, Joseph could impart this high level of spirituality to others. By interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, he was able to connect with him and at least subtly win him over to the side of holiness. With Pharaoh’s permission, he taught the Egyptian people about G-d, the Noahide Laws, and even had the males circumcised.  

Joseph paved the way for the Jewish people in exile by imbuing us with spiritual strength. Joseph provided the Jewish people with the ability to internalize holiness to the extent that we can remain immune from the effects of exile. The spiritual leader of every generation is called Joseph, and when we act as his emissary, we can increase holiness in the world generally, just as Joseph positively affected Egypt.

Judah represents Malchus, which is the capacity for selflessness, humility, faith, and unquestioning devotion. Judah has the ability to overcome setbacks and to endure. Judah means “acceptance,” which connotes the humble ability to sacrifice for others and to give of oneself completely. Although Judah advocated for selling Joseph into slavery, Judah ultimately offers himself as a slave in order to save his brother, Benjamin. 

From Judah, the Jewish people inherited the capacity for endurance, self-sacrifice, the ability to rebound from setbacks, and to do Teshuvah.

Joseph outshines Judah and seems to have the upper hand. Yet as great as Joseph is, his perfection is fragile. When he passed away, the Egyptians gradually reverted to their idolatry. Likewise, the ten tribes that made up the Northern Kingdom of Israel were led by rulers descended from Joseph. These tribes ultimately went into exile and disappeared.  

Meanwhile, the Jewish people acquired their very name from the tribe of Judah, and we persist in exile.

The confrontation between the two brothers was thus the beginning of a process that will come to fruition in the Messianic era—that of merging and harmonizing two distinct and sometimes opposing approaches to divine service. In equal measure, we will have the highest possible level of intellectual and emotional connection with G-d while we will simultaneously evince complete humility and selfless devotion in our divine service.

[1] Bereishit Rabbah 93:7[2] Bereishit Rabbah 93:1[3] Torah Or

Sibling Rivalry

Parshat Vayeshev

In this week’s Parsha, Vayeishev (he dwelt), we read about the dysfunctional dynamics among the sons of Yaakov. We are told that Yosef “brought their father [Yaakov] evil reports” about his brothers, yet “Israel [Yaakov] loved Yosef more than any of his other sons.” Yaakov gave Yosef “a fine woolen robe,” which aroused great jealousy amongst his brothers. The brothers’ enmity towards Yosef is made abundantly clear. “His brothers saw that their father loved him [Yosef] more than all his brothers, so they hated him.” 

As if to rub it in, Yosef matter-of-factly informs his brothers about his dreams. “There we were, binding sheaves in the midst of the field, when my sheaf stood up and remained upright. Then your sheaves formed a circle around my sheaf and prostrated themselves before it.” Predictably enough, his brothers now “hated him even more.” As if to add insult to injury, Yosef persists with telling his brothers about yet another dream in which he commands subservience. “Look, I had another dream, and there were the sun, the moon, and eleven stars prostrating themselves before me.”

Yosef’s brothers conspire to kill him. Yet the oldest brother, Reuven, intervenes and convinces the others to throw him into a pit with snakes and scorpions rather than kill him outright. Yehudah later suggests to his brothers that Yosef should be removed from the pit and sold to a passing caravan of Ishmaelite merchants. The Ishmaelites sell Yosef to a caravan of Midianites, who in turn sell him to Potiphar in Egypt.

This narrative begs a simple question. Given that all of Yaakov’s sons were Tzaddikim—perfectly righteous men who did not sin—how do we even begin to understand the profound discord and animosity that existed between them? And how could they deem it appropriate to go so far as to plan to kill Yosef and then ultimately sell him into slavery?

Luckily, Chassidus provides some penetrating answers. The brothers were well aware that their great-grandfather, Avraham, had a son, Ishmael, whose behavior was problematic. Nonetheless, Avraham wanted Ishamel to be his spiritual heir. Likewise, in more recent memory, their grandfather, Yitzchak, had a wicked son, Eisav. On the surface, Eisav pretended to be righteous, and in fact, Yitzchak wanted to bestow his powerful bracha upon him. The brothers reasoned that Yosef was yet another wicked incarnation in an otherwise holy family, who had to be expunged before he usurped leadership and brought destruction upon them all. A series of misunderstandings led the brothers to their erroneous conclusion.  

First, the brothers misunderstood the nature of Yosef’s “evil reports” to their father, Yaakov. Yosef accused his brothers of cutting and eating flesh from a living animal, which is forbidden by Noahide law. The brothers considered themselves full-fledged Jews, and therefore cut off a limb from a carcass that was dead but still twitching, which is permissible by Jewish law. They did not eat the meat until the carcass stopped moving. Yosef also accused Leah’s sons of belittling the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah. This too, was simply a misunderstanding. Finally, Yosef charged that the brothers were conducting business with Canaanite women in an immodest way. This accusation also stemmed from a differing opinion on Torah law. 

Yosef was simply hoping that his father, Yaakov, would clarify issues in Torah law. The brothers, on the other hand, believed that Yosef was attempting to slander them in an effort to convince Yaakov to curse them. They therefore felt that according to Torah law, they were required to kill Yosef before he destroyed them![1] 

Yet why such a profound misunderstanding? It turns out that the brothers misunderstood Yosef’s spiritual mission entirely. Yosef was Yaakov’s main spiritual heir and was therefore “loved…more than all his brothers.” Yaakov possessed the ability to go into an environment that was innately hostile to spirituality and nonetheless to thrive materially and spiritually, as he did when he worked for Laban. Yosef was able to take this ability one step further. Yosef could go into an environment that was anathema to holiness and rule over it completely. Not only did Yosef ultimately thrive in Egypt—he became its viceroy, thus subduing a realm of unholiness. Yosef’s brothers, on the other hand, could only imagine expressing holiness in a holy environment. Yosef’s spiritual mission was therefore inscrutable to them. 

Due to Yosef’s unique and lofty spiritual mission, Yaakov gave him “a fine woolen robe.” Allegorically, Yaakov fitted Yosef with a robe of Torah Knowledge that protected him in Egypt.[2] On an even deeper level, Yaakov imparted such lofty Torah insights to Yosef that they couldn’t be fully internalized (a robe is clothing, which is external to the person). Yosef was the only one of his brothers capable of receiving such transcendent Torah insights.[3] Since the brothers couldn’t fathom why Yosef was deserving of these precious insights, they were jealous and even grew to hate him.

Yosef attempted to explain his spiritual orientation to his brothers through his dreams.According to Chassidus, “binding sheaves” refers to transcending the limits of the body and animal soul by joining all of their potentials together in the service of G-d. All of the sheaves prostrating before Yosef refers to the nullification of the self before the leader of the generation, which in this case was Yosef. The second dream, which involves objects in the heavenly sphere, alludes to purely spiritual service. One must nullify his own spiritual self-image (holy inclinations) to the leader of the generation.[4] 

Ultimately, the brothers failed to recognize Yosef’s unique spiritual qualities and fitness for leadership because they were lacking the proper humility in their Torah study. This is alluded to by the empty pit into which they threw Yosef. According to the Midrash, the pit was empty because it was lacking water. Because water flows downward, it symbolizes humility.[5] In fact, Yosef’s brothers even failed to recognize him altogether—to truly see him—when they first encountered him many years later as viceroy in Egypt.

[1] Or HaChaim[2] Sefer HaSichot 5752, vol. 1, pp.203-204.[3] Torat Chaim, Bereishit 94b [235b].[4] Likkutei Sichos, vol. 3, p. 805ff.[5] Bereishit Rabbah 84:16

Dinah’s Avodah

Parshat Vayishlach

In this week’s Parsha, Vayishlach (And he sent), Yaakov, his family, and his servants encountered Eisav upon their return from Charan. Yaakov successfully appeased Eisav, and they parted ways. Yaakov then encamped with his family outside the city of Shechem. 

Dinah, “daughter of Leah,” went out on Shlichus to the inhabitants of Shechem, looking to influence the women of the city to adopt the righteous ways of her family. Shechem (who shared the name of the city), the son of the chief of the region, kidnapped Dina, and raped her. He later became attached to Dinah and wanted to marry her. 

According to Rashi, Dinah fell into the hands of Shechem as a punishment for an earlier episode. When Yaakov encountered Eisav previously in the Parsha, he locked Dinah in a chest so that Eisav would not set eyes on her. Yaakov was punished for withholding her from his brother. If Dinah had married Eisav, she may have inspired him to do Teshuva.[1] 

How could Dinah be subjected to such a harsh punishment? After all, doesn’t it make sense that Yaakov would want to protect his daughter from his unsavory brother, Eisav?

Rashi explains that “Leah’s eyes were sensitive.”[2]  Leah expected to marry Eisav, so she wept at her misfortune. On a deeper level, Leah’s sensitive eyes allude to the crying that takes place when one is doing Teshuva. As such, Leah is associated with the Divine service of Teshuvah.[3]  Leah passed this trait on to Dinah.

In truth, Dinah’s spiritual power was so great that she could have induced Eisav to do Teshuvah. Since she was prevented from accomplishing this, she instead fell into the hands of Shechem. 

According to the Arizal’s Likkutei Torah, Shechem possessed a spark of the soul of Adam. Due to Adam’s sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, sparks of Godliness became intermingled with impurity. The holiness within Shechem was powerfully drawn to Dinah. Yet Shechem expressed this attraction in an evil way. 

Shechem’s Tikkun (rectification) came about through circumcision, which Shimon and Levi demanded of all the men of the city of Shechem in order to permit marriage between the inhabitants of the city and the members of Yaakov’s family.

Later, Shimon and Levi killed all the men of the city of Shechem for failing to intercede in the rape of Dinah. This completed Shechem’s Tikkun and also allowed the women and children of Shechem to become refined as a result of being taken into captivity by Yaakov’s sons.  

 

[1] Rashi on Bereishis 32:23.  [2]Rashi on Bereishis 29:17.  [3] Likkutei Sichos, Volume 35, pp.152-153

Heart of Stone

Parshat Vayatzei

In Parshas Vayeitzei (He went out), Yaakov leaves Beersheba and travels to Charan, looking to marry his cousin, Rochel. Upon arrival, Yaakov meets a group of shepherds gathered around a well in a field. The opening of the well is covered with a huge boulder. The shepherds explain that they can only remove the boulder to access the well water if all of them move it together. Yaakov then catches sight of Rochel approaching and is able to effortlessly roll the boulder off the opening of the well by himself. Aside from testifying to Yaakov’s great physical strength, what deeper message can we learn from his removal of the boulder?

According to Chassidus, the boulder, representing the inanimate kingdom, evinces the lowest level of spirituality, since it appears lifeless. Metaphorically, the boulder is our egos and mundane activities, both of which can impede access to the pure well waters of divine consciousness. This is why the prophet Ezekiel describes a spiritual blockage as a “heart of stone.”[1] How do we remove the impediment to the pure waters of the soul? 

If our relationship with God is one-dimensional, relying too heavily on either love or fear of God (rather than a balance of the two), access to the divinity that lies within us will be blocked. This is because the yetzer hara can assail love of God with love for material possessions or undue love of oneself. Likewise, fear of God can induce impatience with others or cause us to be judgmental. We must therefore cultivate a healthy balance of love and fear in order to ward off the yetzer hara. When we have the right mix, fear of God prevents us from experiencing spiritually unhealthy forms of love, while love of God protects us from using fear to act out negatively. 

Yaakov Avinu contained a perfect mix of love and fear of God, so he had no trouble removing any impediment to his divine soul. This perfect blending of love and fear of God therefore uniquely qualified him to enter a negative place like Charan (which was hostile to spirituality), work with his deceitful Uncle Laban, and liberate whatever holiness lay trapped there. Yaakov became “exceedingly prosperous” in Charan. He acquired great material wealth, married Leah and Rochel, and fathered perfect Tzadikim, the leaders of the future tribes of Israel.

[1] Ezekiel 11:19

Yitzchak’s Blindness

Parshat Toldos

In this week’s Parsha, Toldos (descendants), we are introduced to Yitzchak and Rivka’s twin sons, Yaakov and Eisav. Yaakov was a Torah scholar, who spent his time in the tents of Shem and Ever. In contrast, Eisav spent his time in the field, hunting animals and birds. According to the Midrash, Eisav murdered Nimrod (on the day of Avraham’s death) in order to steal his coat, which had the power to subdue animals and had been passed down from Adam.[1] Eisav went on to commit other murders, to engage in adultery, and to marry women who practiced idolatry. God even shortened Avraham’s life so that he would not have to live to see his grandson Eisav’s wickedness.[2] What did Yitzchak see (or fail to see) in Eisav that would have been unbearable for Avraham? And how did Yitzchak see in Eisav a worthy successor deserving of his exalted blessing?

 

To gain further insight, we must first contrast Avraham and Yitzchak’s respective modes of divine service. Avraham’s dominant trait was Chesed (kindness), and he gave of himself lavishly. He spent much of his time as an itinerant preacher, going from city to city, spreading awareness of God. He inspired large numbers of people with his charisma and sincerity. He uplifted those he came into contact with, regardless of their spiritual standing.

 

Yitzchak’s dominant trait was Gevurah (severity). He lived a far more insular life than Avraham and spent most of his time praying in the fields, looking inward, and perfecting himself. Following the Akeidah, Yitzchak had attained such a lofty level of holiness that he was considered “a perfect burnt-offering.”[3] When famine struck, God instructed Yitzchak not to leave Eretz Yisroel, as descending into exile was not suitable for him. Instead, Yitzchak dwelled among the Philistines, where he set to work digging wells. Instead of searching out adherents, people came to Yitzchak “like a large torch to which sparks are attracted.”[4] He challenged them to “dig deep” and engage in profound self-reflection. If they cleared away the mud and dirt (bad character traits or other impediments) in their lives, they would discover within themselves a reservoir of goodness and spirituality. Yitzchak influenced fewer people than Avraham. Yet the changes he did inspire in others tended to be long-lasting when compared with the intense but fleeting inspiration that Avraham offered.

 

What does this tell us about how Yitzchak perceived Eisav? Yitzchak was surely aware of Eisav’s profound shortcomings.[5] Yet Yitzchak could also see that Eisav possessed a very lofty soul that originated in the world of Tohu, a place of profound but chaotic energy. Indeed, Eisav evinced greater strength, sophistication, and skill than Yaakov. Yitzchak reasoned that if he gave Eisav his powerful blessing, he would in turn be empowered to do the arduous work of clearing away his spiritual “mud and dirt” until he uncovered the pure waters of his soul. Eisav could then harness his prodigious though latent spiritual capacities for goodness. Yitzchak saw the potential in Eisav for a mighty warrior devoted to serving God. After all, Yitzchak had witnessed the transformation of Avimelech, king of the Philistines. Although Avimelech at first spurned Yitzchak, he later sought him out—recognizing that he was “blessed by God” —to establish a covenant of peace. Why couldn’t Eisav undergo a similar transformation?

 

In this Parsha, we are told that in Yitzchak’s old age, his eyesight had “become dim.”[6] One explanation for why Yitzchak lost his sight is that he was affected by the smoke from the idolatrous incense offerings of Eisav’s wives. His eyes were so pure that he could not tolerate the evil that these incense offerings represented.[7] Yitzchak was not naïve about the evil in his midst. Instead, he was blind to evil as an impediment. Yitzchak was so devoted to spiritually transforming those who came to him that he was blind to any negativity that could stand in his way. True, wells could be filled in (representing spiritual regression), as happened to the wells that Avraham dug. Wells could also be co-opted (representing spiritual misappropriation). Yet the pure waters could always be uncovered.

 

Yitzchak perceived correctly that his blessing would enable access to the pure waters of Eisav’s soul. Yet he was blind to the fact that Eisav would be unable to extract the water and utilize it. In Chassidic terms, Yitzchak’s blessing could liberate the holy sparks trapped within Eisav. Yet Eisav would not be capable of elevating and utilizing those holy sparks. The arduous and lengthy process of extracting and bringing to the surface those pure waters would have to be left to Yaakov. Only Yaakov—who represented the harmonious energy of Tikun—was capable of teasing out and elevating the holy sparks trapped within Eisav. Rivka therefore understood that the blessing could only go through Yaakov. Through diligent Torah study, Yaakov and his descendants would be very well equipped with the knowledge, skill, and ingenuity necessary to overcome any obstacles that might prevent them from imbuing the world with spirituality. Indeed, many righteous converts to Judaism are descended from Eisav, including great prophets and sages. This is evidence that over time, Yaakov and his descendants have successfully liberated the sublime Divine energy trapped within Eisav.  

 


[1] Bereishit Rabbah 65:16.

[2] Likutei Sichot, vol. 25, pp. 116-119.

[3] Rashi, Bereishit, 26:2.

[4] Sefer HaMaamarim 5659, p. 162ff.

[5] Likutei Sichot, vol. 20, p. 114.

[6] Bereishit, 27:1.

[7] Likutei Sichot, vol. 5, pp.139-140.

Free to Do Good

Parshat Chayei Sarah

In Parshas Chayei Sarah (the life of Sarah), we are told that “the years of Sarah’s life were all equally good.”[1] This simple statement can be explained in many ways. Yet at a fundamental level, how can we describe every year of Sarah’s life as “equally good?” Sarah Imeinu suffered great hardship: her father Haran was thrown into a fiery furnace, executed by Nimrod; she was kidnapped by Pharoah; she was childless for ninety years; and her son was almost sacrificed. Were these events as joyous, as “good” as the birth of Yitzchak, the child she had prayed for all her life?

A brief conversation between Avraham and Eliezer, his disciple and faithful servant, sheds some light on the above question. When Avraham was looking for a wife for his son, Yitzchak, Eliezer suggested his own daughter as a possible match. Avraham responded, “My son is blessed, and you, being a descendent of Canaan, are cursed. The accursed cannot unite in marriage with the blessed.”[2] How could Avraham speak to Eliezer, a truly righteous man, in such a way? Furthermore, how does this address our question above?   

Eliezer was descended from Canaan, whose descendants were cursed by Noach to be slaves. According to Chassidus, the curse essentially refers to a spiritual predisposition that would be passed down, namely that of feeling enslaved by life’s circumstances. This attitude invariably leads to a sense that one is a victim of life’s vicissitudes and does not have the agency to change his fate or to respond positively in the face of great adversity.

This spiritual predisposition is diametrically opposed to the Torah view that humanity has free will, and therefore we can choose how to respond to the circumstances of our lives, particularly unfavorable ones. The Torah message is one of hope and moral freedom. Despite negative events, we are not victims and are always empowered to act in the best possible way.

 We now have an insight into why the Torah describes all of Sarah’s days as “equally good.” Sarah Imeinu was not enslaved to the events in her life. Although she experienced many challenges, her perspective was a Godly one—she was focused on her divine mission instead of focusing on life’s hardships. No matter her circumstances, she felt free to do good.[3] 

We can also understand why Eliezer’s daughter would not be a good match for Yitzchak. In truth, we all have free will and are not bound by a negative spiritual predisposition that we may have inherited. Yet Yitzchak was to continue the work of progenitor of a new nation devoted to Torah ideals. His match had to be spiritually pristine and could only come from Avraham and Sarah’s family. Even the daughter of the exalted Eliezer was not suitable. 

It goes without saying that as Jews, we have inherited from Sarah Imeinu the ability to be consistently positive in response to life’s challenges. This means that we are predisposed to reject taking on the identity of a victim, even if we have been victimized. Wherever we are or whatever our circumstances, our task is to evince the joy that comes from knowing we are free to serve God and to do good.

[1] Bereishit, 23:1[2] Rashi on Bereishit, 24:39[3] Likutei Sichot, vol 35, pp.92-93. 

The Suprarational Approach

Parshat Vayeira

In Parshas Vayeira (“God appeared to him.”), God tells Avraham, “Since the outcry of Sodom and Amorah has become great, and since their sin has become very grave, I will descend now and see: if they have actually caused the outcry which has reached me.” According to the Talmud, there was a certain girl in the city of Sodom who would secretly bring bread out to the poor, hiding it in her pitcher when she went to draw water from the well. Her Tzedaka to the poor was discovered, and she was brutally executed for her crime. The court ordered that her body should be smeared with honey and placed on top of the city wall. Swarms of bees came and stung her. In her death throes, she cried out to God. This is the “outcry” to which God refers.[1]

 

How could the people of Sodom behave in such an unspeakable way? Their calculations were in fact very reasonable—immutably tethered to worldly logic. The cities of the plain, which included Sodom and Amorah, were very prosperous, and its people were wealthy. They reasoned that their wealth (represented by honey) would attract the poor (represented by bees), who would be seeking Tzedaka. Each instance of giving Tzedaka was likened to a bee sting, which injects venom and weakens the body. If news got out that the poor could expect to receive Tzedaka in Sodom and Amorah, the people feared that they would be swarmed by those in need and that the results would be fatal: they would lose all of their wealth and perish. They therefore outlawed Tzedaka and executed with terrible cruelty anyone who dared to practice it.

 

We must contrast this behavior with that of Avraham, the first Jew, who opened an inn in Beersheba with the express purpose of offering delicacies free of charge to travelers while he taught them about God. In fact, at the beginning of our Parsha, God appears to Avraham to perform the mitzvah of Bikur Cholim (visiting the sick) while he recovers from circumcision. When three angels in the guise of mortal men come to visit Avraham, he forgoes the lofty spiritual experience of speaking with G-d in order to serve these three guests. He speaks to them with deference and enjoins them to “recline under the tree,” where they can enjoy shade from the hot sun. The Midrash teaches that in the merit of Avraham offering the angels respite under the shade of his tree, G-d rewarded his descendants, the Jewish people, with the commandment to dwell in sukkot during the yearly Sukkot holiday.[2] What is the connection? Furthermore, doesn't Torah law stipulate that we are forbidden from building a sukkah underneath a tree and that the covering of the sukkah must be made from vegetation that is detached from the ground? 

 

Avraham excelled at using his material possessions and his environment in a suprarational way. Unbound by earthly constraints and calculations, Avraham used his wealth and property to serve others while putting his own needs aside. Because of Avraham’s selflessness, today the Jewish people can fulfill the mitzvah of dwelling in a sukkah, which frees us from mundane limitations. Just as the vegetation used to build the covering of the sukkah is uprooted from the earth, when we dwell in the sukkah, we are no longer bound by the confines of the world. We are instead connecting with God and thereby evoking limitless blessings. For example, when we study Torah in the sukkah, we are enhancing our capacity for learning and growth for the rest of the year far and above what we could rationally expect. The same holds true for any mitzvah we do in the sukkah, as well as any mitzvah we do throughout the year. Through bonding with God, we are accessing the infinite, and this gives us the capacity to accomplish above and beyond what could be expected from natural ability alone. 

 

The lesson is not that we should embrace the irrational, G-d forbid. Instead, one of the many lessons we learn from Parshas Vayeira is that relying on mortal intellect alone will not produce a society based on justice and kindness. In fact, we are likely to produce just the opposite. It is only by connecting with G-d and fulfilling his commandments—many of which transcend the limits of worldly reason—that we can create a better world. Furthermore, unlike the people of Sodom and Amorah, we should rest assured that giving Tzedaka will not impoverish us. On the contrary, G-d promises to repay us many times over for the money we give to help others. Using the Torah as our guide, this suprarational approach not only offers us the key to creating a kinder and more just world. It has the capacity to connect us with the infinite, earn blessings, and enrich our lives beyond anything we could imagine.

 

 

[1] Sanhedrin 109b.

[2] Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 48:10.

Self-Transcendence

Parshat Lech Lecha

 

Avraham was a master of self-refinement. By engaging in acts of kindness and teaching others about God, he perfected his seven emotional attributes (middos) by the time he left Charan at the age of seventy-five. Seventy refers to his seven emotional attributes, with each one containing ten sub-attributes (three sefiros of the intellect and seven middos). The number five refers to the five states of kindness (chasadim) that enable the intellect to fully penetrate the emotions and thereby transform them.[1]

 

One would expect that since Avraham had succeeded in the arduous task of fully refining his intellect and emotions, he had achieved the pinnacle of his spiritual development. Yet God commands Avraham to “Go out from your land, your birthplace, and your father’s house.”

 

According to Chassidus, “Go out from your land” refers to the need to transcend one’s own will (the Hebrew words ratzon [will] and eretz [land] have the same root letters). “Your birthplace” refers to one’s innate tendencies, inclinations, and emotional traits (Moledes or “birthplace” can also mean “one’s natural tendencies”). “Your father’s house” refers to one’s intellectual capacities (Av means father, which alludes to chochmah or “wisdom.”)[2]

 

Astonishingly, God’s command suggests that despite the lofty mode of divine service that Avraham had achieved, more was expected of him. Although all of Avraham’s thoughts, desires, and energies were focused on Godliness, this was insufficient! In order to unite fully with God, Avraham was commanded to transcend his own identity entirely, even though this identity was characterized by holiness.

 

The lesson is an extraordinary one. Although self-refinement is a prerequisite for serving God properly, we are ideally expected to transcend our own thoughts, feelings, and drives completely. We are enjoined simply to “go to the land that I will show you.” We are to follow God’s will, which is to do mitzvos, simply because God commands us to do so. The mitzvos represent God’s innermost will, and no rationale or feeling on our part can provide a suitable motivation for bonding properly and fully with God. Therefore, it is only when we are driven to perform mitzvos free of all calculations (even holy ones) that we achieve perfection in our divine service.

 

We then merit true greatness, as God promises Avraham, “I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, and I will magnify your renown.” Only God possesses genuine greatness, and when we unite fully with Him, we earn blessings above and beyond anything that could be expected through our own efforts.

 

 

1 Hitva’aduyot 5751, vol 1, p.271

[2] Likkutei Sichos, Volume 25, p. 47ff

Was Noach Righteous?

Parshat Noach 

According to our sages, there is a question as to whether Noach was truly righteous or merely righteous “relative to his generation.”

Noach was certainly faultless and never sinned. Yet he spent 120 years constructing the Ark and in all that time could not convince a single person to do Teshuva. How passionate could he have been about affecting others?

Before the Flood, the world was very different, and Teshuva was much less accessible. Once bad behavior became ingrained, it was almost impossible to change course. The Flood acted like an enormous mikvah, cleansing the world spiritually. One of the main effects was that Teshuva became much more likely if someone sincerely desired to change his or her behavior.

But was Noach truly faultless for failing to influence those around him even after the Flood? While Noach did influence his descendants, Shem and Ever, to establish a Torah Academy (where our Patriarchs learned Torah), Noach didn’t seek out disciples. Instead, one had to be proactive and seek out the Torah Academy. It seems that Noach was happy to live a cloistered life and remained uninterested in affecting others. Is this an example we want to follow?

The Maggid of Mezerich explains that Noach lived in an extremely wicked generation, where cruelty was taken for granted. This hampered Noach’s own spiritual growth. Had he lived in Avraham’s generation, he would have grown spiritually to the point that he would have sought to influence others.[1] Although Noach lived until Avraham was fifty-eight years old and the two would have known each other, Noach is not considered to have “lived” in Avraham’s generation. While Avraham influenced others during his time in Ur Kasdim and Charan, it wasn’t until Avraham left Charan at the age of seventy-five that he truly began to influence his generation to think like he did.[2]

While Noach cannot be faulted, his manner of divine service was limited. We admire Noach for remaining righteous under very difficult circumstances, yet we need to remain cognizant that our divine service is complete only when we reach out to others in order to affect them in a positive way.

As Jews, our divine awareness can never be divorced from the reality that humanity is interconnected, and that everyone must do their part. Secluded spirituality renders our divine service incomplete. We are responsible for each other, as we all must play a role in properly imbuing the world with holiness until we usher in the era of Moshiach.

 

[1] Or Torah (Rimzei Torah)

[2] Likutei Sichot, vol 20, pp 13-21

Where are you, Adam?

Parshat Bereishit

According to Chassidus, before Adam and Chava ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, they could see with the naked eye the Godly energy that animates all of existence. Once they ate from the Tree, the first thing they noticed was that they were naked. 

They certainly recognized that they were naked before eating the forbidden fruit. Yet this nakedness was only remarkable to the extent of their awareness that the body could be utilized solely as a vehicle for connection with each other and with God. When Godliness was visible, physical intimacy could only be understood in the context of its higher purpose—namely to bond deeply with one another and to produce children.

Once they ate the forbidden fruit, God’s presence became hidden. For the first time, they saw the body from a self-oriented perspective. Now they realized that the body could be used merely for one’s pleasure, devoid of connection, devoid of greater meaning. 

Adam and Chava were uncomfortable with this new realization, as they understood that indulgence in pleasure for its own sake would compromise connection with one another and with God. They wished to return to the state of innocence that existed before eating the forbidden fruit, so they fashioned for themselves clothing and hid behind the trees and bushes.

God then calls to Adam: “Where are you?”

God isn’t asking Adam where he is physically. Rather, he is asking the ultimate question: Now that I, God, will throw you out of the Garden of Eden where you had everything you could possibly desire, and will hide from you while subjecting you to unspeakable trials and tribulations, where are you emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically regarding our relationship? Will you remember the exalted connection we enjoyed before you ate the forbidden fruit, and will you seek to rekindle it? Although you now have the option to live as if I don’t exist, will you search for me? Now that life will be difficult and the allure of fleeting pleasure for its own sake will be great, will you dig deep and marshal your soul’s most profound powers to connect with me? I want you. Do you want me? Where are you? 

This is the question each of us must answer every day.