Torah Insights


Torah Insights


Comforting Adam and Eve

 The first portion of the Torah begins with pristine beauty. The creation of a graceful, peaceful world, culminating with the creation of the day of rest, as the Torah describes:

 And G-d saw all that He had made, and behold it was very good, and it was evening and it was morning, the sixth day. Now the heavens and the earth were completed and all their host. And G-d completed on the seventh day His work that He did, and He abstained on the seventh day from all His work that He did. And G-d blessed the seventh day and He hallowed it, for thereon He abstained from all His work that G-d created to do. 

Alas, the serenity was short lived.

We turn just a few pages and we read of successive disasters. First, the sin of the tree of knowledge; Adam and Eve taste the fruit of the tree, internalizing both good and evil, thus implanting within themselves an inclination to evil, creating a constant struggle within the human heart between the G-dly soul and the animalistic soul.

We read about Adam and Eve being told of their mortality. At the end of their life, they would return to the earth. They understood that it would take death for the evil and good within them to separate. The body and the evil inclination would return to the earth, and the soul would return heavenward, to G-d.

We then read of the first murder in history. We read about how Adam and Eve had to face a double tragedy; the murder of their son Abel, as well as coming to face with the fact that their son Cain, was capable of murdering his own brother.

The Midrash relates that Adam and Eve were weeping beside the corpse of Abel and were not sure what to do with the body because this was their first encounter with death. The Midrash continues; they saw a bird, the Oraiv in the Hebrew burying a dead bird in the ground, Adam and Eve decided to do the same, they too buried Abel in the earth. 

On the surface, this Midrash explains how they found a solution to the technical question of how to dispose of the corpse. On a deeper level, however, this Midrash contains profound insight into the human condition.

Adam and Eve were at a loss, not only about what to do with Abel’s body, but they had a much deeper question; how to respond to absolute evil? How could they continue to live after witnessing that humanity was capable of such depravity?

True, they too had sinned. They too had been condemned to natural death. They too were not perfect. But they could never have imagined that a human being could act so brutally, that one human being could or would afflict an unnatural death upon another human being. They could not imagine that a person could act in a way that was the polar opposite of what G-d had intended.  

G-d therefore sent the Oraiv bird to teach Adam and Eve how to respond to absolute evil. According to the Sages, the Oraiv is terribly cruel toward its young; the Oraiv abandons its offspring at birth. Adam and Eve witnessed this same Oraiv bird engaging in the truest form of kindness. The Sages explain that buriala is referred to in the Torah as “loving kindness and truth” because, when doing kindness with a living person the doer can always expect a favor in return. Not so with burial. When we are kind to the dead, we do not expect anything in return. Thus, the kindness is absolute. The kindness is true kindness.

Adam and Eve looked at the Oraiv bird and understood. They looked at the Oraiv bird and received the wisdom on how to react. They now understood that the response to absolute evil is absolute kindness. The response to absolute depravity within humanity is absolute love and compassion. 

They were comforted.

They were comforted, because they now understood that the profundity of evil that the human is capable of is matched only by the profound kindness within the human spirit.

They understood that the same human heart capable of boundless hate is likewise capable of boundless love.

We too must take this message to heart. We look around the world and see intense cruelty. We know that we must respond with intense kindness. Like Adam and Eve, we understand that this earth is a complicated place, that humanity is capable of extremes. Like Adam and Eve, we respond to negativity with a greater commitment to absolute kindness. When we face unspeakable cruelty, we take a step toward extreme kindness, bringing us closer and closer to G-d’s vision of a perfect world. A peaceful world. A world that experiences the tranquility of the seventh day. The tranquility of Shabbat.

Choose Your Place

The moment had arrived. 

On the sixth day of creation, after the creation of the inanimate universe, the plant life and the animal kingdom, the moment arrived when G-d decided to create the human being. The first verse where the human being is mentioned reads as follows:  

And God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and they shall rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the heaven and over the animals and over all the earth and over all the creeping things that creep upon the earth."

We would expect the verse to describe a truly great feature of the human being. Humanity is capable of awesome accomplishments, the invention of civilization, of art and of philosophy. We have walked the moon, sent rovers to Mars and created the iphone and the app store. Why then does the verse that first describes the human being identify him as someone who can rule the fish, birds and mammals? Is running an animal circus the most interesting thing we can do? 

The answer lies in the word “and they shall rule”.

The Hebrew word for “and they shall rule” has another, more common, meaning. The word “Vi’yi’rdu” means to “rule” but it also means to “go down”, “descend”. These two words, rule and descend, have opposite meanings: to rule connotes being on top while to descend connotes being on the bottom, yet, remarkably, biblical Hebrew uses one word to capture both of these two meanings.    

G-d was about to create man. Man would look around the world and wonder about his place in the universe. “What is my place on this earth?” “Where is my place in the hierarchy of creatures? “Am I merely a sophisticated animal, or am I a transcendent creation capable of impulse control, of abstract thinking, personal growth, kindness and connecting to the spiritual?” 

The answer to this pressing question, the question of how man should self define, is in the word that has the double meaning, to rule or to descend. G-d was telling the human being that man alone defines his place on earth. Only man can decide to be the “ruler”, the creature who is capable of soaring above and beyond all other creations, or whether he would be the creature lower than all of the animals, capable of falling to the depths of cruelty that no other creature is capable of. 

As Rashi explains: 

and they shall rule over the fish: Hebrew VaYirdu This expression contains both the meaning of ruling and the meaning of subservience. If he merits, he rules over the beasts and over the cattle. If he does not merit, he becomes subservient to them, and the beast rules over him.

Man is a complicated creature. 

The Hebrew word man, Adam, has two meaning which together capture the tension at the heart of the human being. The Hebrew word “adam” means “from the earth”, capturing the Torah’s description of the creation of man: “G-d formed man of dust from the ground”, yet Adam, the Hebrew word for man, also means similar, referring to the verse “I will be similar to the one above (G-d). 

The most important thing the verse could say to describe the human being, and the purpose of his creation, is that he alone of all creations possesses free choice. 

Would he rule and elevate the rest of creation, or would he descend below all other creatures? Would he be “of the earth” or would he be “similar to the one above”? 

Only man knows. 

Only he can determine his place. Only he can write his own story.    

Peeling the Fruit 

If you had to choose one word that would describe all negativity in this world, if you had to choose a word with which to capture the heart and soul of evil, which word would you choose? 

These are some of the synonyms for the word evil suggested by the thesaurus:

wicked, bad, wrong, immoral, sinful, foul, vile, dishonorable, corrupt, iniquitous, depraved, reprobate, villainous, nefarious, vicious, malicious. 

The word the kabbalah uses to describe all negative energy, all unholiness in the universe is, surprisingly, a neutral word, a word that does not evoke a strong image of evil. The Kabbalah refers to all evil with the innocent sounding word “Kelipah”, which is the Hebrew word for a peel. 

The metaphor of a peel captures all we need to know about the unholy: its origin, its purpose, the challenges it presents and ultimately the way to deal with it.

Where does all evil come from? There were many who believed that evil could not possibly come from G-d. Since G-d is good, they argued, all evil must therefore come from Satan, from a power independent from, and contradictory to, G-d. Judaism fiercely rejects this explanation. The most fundamental premise of Judaism is that “Hashem Echad”, G-d is one, and there can be no force independent of G-d. Where then does evil and negativity come from? 

The answer lies within the metaphor of the peel. The peel, while it is not the primary part of the fruit, does serve a purpose. The peel protects the flesh of the fruit, and guards it against the elements, when man removes the peel and consumes the flesh of the fruit, both the peel and the fruit have served their purpose. 

The same is true for all cosmic energy. Everything G-d created, including evil, serves a purpose. Yet there is a distinction between good and evil: the purpose of good is intrinsic, while the purpose of evil is to benefit the good. The purpose of evil is to enable the human being to choose good from evil; choosing the good, consuming the fruit, and removing the peel, rejecting the evil. 

Within evil itself, there are generally two categories. The evil that must be rejected outright, and the evil which could become positive if used to serve the holy.

This sheds light onto one of the earliest dramas of the bible, a story that has captured the imagination of humanity since the beginning of time: the story of the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. 

What did this mysterious tree represent? And why was its fruit so enticing to Eve? 

The Torah tells us that after some conversation with the serpent, Eve perceived the beauty of the fruit: 

And the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was a delight to the eyes, and the tree was desirable to make one wise; so she took of its fruit, and she ate, and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate.

Eve perceived that there was beauty in the “peel” and therefore she desired the “peel” for its own sake. Before Eve’s conversation with the serpent all the fruit was perceived as nothing more than a tool that served the holy. Until the sin all material pleasures served as a tool for people to escape the confines of self, relate to other people and connect to the creator. The heart of the sin was that the human being perceived pleasure in materialism for its own sake. Confusing the peel for the actual fruit, the means for the end; ignoring the cosmic truth that the peel - the material - is but a tool to serve the spiritual- the actual fruit. 

Each and every day we face the allure of the fruit. 

The choice is ours. We can live in the tranquility of paradise or be expelled into a world of tension and chaos. 

We can desire materialism for its own sake, seek the sensual with no higher purpose. We can pursue selfishness for its own sake, choose the peel and reject the fruit. The result will be conflict between people and between families, as selfish egos will inevitably clash, as well as causing inner struggle and chaos between body and soul. 

We can, however, face the allure of the fruit and choose to remain in paradise. We can understand that all the material blessing in our life must be enjoyed and used as a vehicle for spiritual life, thus bringing peace between people, as well as peace to the material and spiritual drives in our personality; recreating the internal paradise, which, in turn, will spread to the rest of the world, transforming the world into the world G-d intended it to be: a world of paradise.  

A Memo to Cain

If you had Cain’s ear moments before he killed his brother Abel, what would you tell him? If you had to condense everything you know about justice, morality, and decency into a few short phrases what would you say? 

G-d had a chance to do just that. Cain was terribly angry at his brother, so angry that just a little while later he murdered his brother in cold blood. G-d sensed Cain’s anger and He addressed him with just two short verses. Understood correctly, these verses capture all Cain needed to know in order to help him overcome his anger, and, understood correctly, these verses are all we need to know in order for us to make the correct choice in the face of raging negative emotions in our heart.  

Here are the cryptic words that G-d spoke to Cain: 

And the Lord said to Cain, "Why are you annoyed, and why has your countenance fallen?

Is it not so that if you improve, it will be forgiven you? If you do not improve, however, at the entrance, sin is lying, and to you is its longing, but you can rule over it." (Genesis 4:6-7). 

Cain, unfortunately, did not take this message to heart and chose to act on his emotional impulses. But these words were written in the Torah so that we can learn their critical, life changing, message.

Cain felt terrible anger toward Abel. Cain innovated the idea of offering a gift to G-d. “Cain brought of the fruit of the soil an offering to the Lord.” Cain watched as Abel copied his idea and received the credit and recognition for it: “And Abel he too brought of the firstborn of his flocks and of their fattest, and the Lord turned to Abel and to his offering. But to Cain and to his offering He did not turn, and it annoyed Cain exceedingly, and his countenance fell.”

When the rage against his brother was threatening to take control of him, the most important thing Cain needed to hear was this: the rage is not you. The anger is not you. The evil inclination is something you have inside of you, but it does not define you and it is not you. G-d told Cain that although there is a powerful force inside you, you must understand that “to you is its longing”. “It” the evil inclination, the negative passion, “longs” “to you”, but, understand, it is not you.

That leads to the next point: “you can rule over it.” The negative passion is not your true self. You can take control over the passion. The common translation of the verse is “if you improve, it will be forgiven you”. Yet the literal translation is “if you improve, lift up”. G-d explained to Cain that the negative passion in his heart could not only be controlled, but it could and should be elevated. When channeled to positivity the awesome strength of the passion will direct the person to greater heights.

This is an essential lesson for each of us. This one verse contains all we need to know about the inner turmoil of our emotions: 

1) The negative passion is not who we are. (“its longing is to you”) 

2) it can be controlled (“you can rule over it”). 

3) its awesome might is, in fact, a great blessing for us (“if you improve, uplift”). Channeled correctly it can propel us to achieve unimaginable greatness.       

The Broken Vessels 

In describing the early stages of creation, we read what is perhaps one of the most cryptic verses in all of the Torah: 

Now the earth was astonishingly empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water. (Genesis 2:2)

The first half of the verse describes a scene of emptiness and chaos (The Hebrew word “Tohu”, means both emptiness and chaos ), while the second half of the verse describes a scene of tranquility and serenity. The Midrash explains that “the spirit of G-d hovering over the face of the water“ refers to the spirit of the Messianic era, a time when peace and serenity will reign throughout the world. The verse, then, is confusing. What was the state of creation in its earliest stages, was it darkness and chaos or peace and holiness? 

The Kabbalists explain that this verse alludes to the Kabbalsitic doctrine of the “breaking of the vessels”, which lies at the heart of the story of creation and its purpose. 

When we read a book or look at a completed puzzle we are looking at a “vessel”, a container, a physical phenomenon which contains a spiritual idea or concept. All of creation is a vessel, a tool which expresses the awesome power and unfathomable wisdom of its creator. Yet, for the purpose of creation to play out, the presence of G-d must be hidden. The vessels must break, the puzzle broken up into pieces, the words of the book rearranged and scrambled. Once the vessels are shattered, the content and ideas of the book are gone, what is left is chaos and confusion. Not only do the letters cease to tell the story, they contribute to the confusion. 

The physical world could have been a vessel revealing its inner content, the Divine creative energy. But the vessels were shattered. It is a physical world that no longer directs our attention to its maker and  its purpose. Instead the myriad creations and experiences leave us in a perpetual state of confusion and aimlessness. The breaking of the vessels is alluded to in the first half of the verse. The earth is now filled with darkness and chaos.

The second half of the verse, however, clarifies the purpose of creation. True, the  scrambled letters and the pieces of the puzzle, no longer reveal their inner content, however, the meaning, the purpose, the story, hovers above, waiting for us to unscramble the letters and piece together the puzzle. The universe is waiting for us to discover that the “spirit of G-d”, the serenity and holiness, was hidden within creation all along.

The same is true in the microcosm, within every man and woman. Our life seems to be a collection of unrelated, or worse, conflicting, forces, urges, experiences, emotions, and drives. We often do not see the purpose and meaning of it all. We experience the tension between the physical and the spiritual, between the destructive and constructive parts of our personality. We are experiencing the shattered vessels, “chaos upon the face of the darkness”. However, the story of our life, like the story of creation, is inherently optimistic. It is our task to fix the shattered vessels. To rearrange the letters of our life. To understand which letter goes first and which follows second. We must rearrange our priorities, understanding that the physical aspects of life are here to serve the spiritual dimension of life. Like every story, our story too has a protagonist and a villain, experiences which must be cultivated and others which must be rejected.  

Life is the process of organizing all its various aspects into an organic whole. From a collection of random moments of to a meaningful story. The purpose of life is to move from chaos and darkness to the serenity of the spirit of G-d upon the waters. 

(Adapted from Totah Or Parshas Vayeshev and Parshas Bireyshis 5712)

What’s Wrong with Knowledge?

When Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden life was simple. G-d had only one request. They were permitted to eat from any tree in the garden, except for one. The tree which they were prohibited from consuming, which therefore symbolized the most negative thing in the garden, was, of course, the tree of knowledge of good and evil. 

This raises many questions, among them: 1) What is wrong with knowledge? Would G-d prefer that Adam and Eve remain  ignorant? 2) The question which Maimonides, in his philosophical work The Guide to the Perplexed, refers to as an “astonishing question” raised by a “learned man”: How can it be that because Adam and Eve violated the commandment of G-d they were rewarded with knowledge, which is the greatest gift man can possess? How is it possible that violating G-d’s will elevated man to the state of enlightenment? 

The answer, according to Maimonides, lies in the words good and evil, which imply subjective good and evil. Before the sin Adam and Eve would think in terms of truth or falsehood; if something was objectively positive it was true, if something was objectively negative it was false. The result of the consumption of the fruit of the tree of knowledge was the introduction of a heightened awareness of self. The human being began to think primarily in terms of self. How does this experience make me feel? If the experience feels good subjectively, it is then desirable. When G-d did not want Adam and Eve to know good and evil he was not trying to keep them ignorant of knowledge, on the contrary, G-d hoped that humanity could hold on to objective knowledge. The “opening of the eyes” that Adam and Eve experienced by consuming the fruit, was not an upgrade that was awarded, but rather on the contrary, it was a downgrade. They traded-in superior objective knowledge for inferior subjective knowledge.  

The consequence of developing a subjective sense of good and evil is that we were expelled from the tranquility of Eden. Each person evaluated good based on their own self interest, which inevitably led to a chaotic clash of egos. In the short term, the fruit of the tree of knowledge moved us away from G-d.

The story of the tree of knowledge is not an all out tragedy. The subjective perspective introduced passion, enthusiasm, and excitement. If I am attracted to something because I feel that it is good for me, that will intensify my longing and desire for it. So while initially the introduction of the subjective idea of good may have turned us away from the truth of G-d, toward the pursuit of our own temptations, in the long run the subjective perspective could, in fact, enhance our relationship with G-d, intensifying the yearning, deepening the love, and stoking the passion to reconnect to G-d and transforming the world back into Eden. 

The Torah's View on Urbanization

What is the Torah's perspective on urbanization? 

Would we be better off, spiritually and morally, if we lived in a rural setting, closer to nature, or is there an advantage to living in populated centers, where we can collaborate and engage in commerce, technology, the arts, and culture

It seems that the Torah's first mention of a city is in a negative context, which would imply, perhaps, that the Torah views cities negatively. After Cain killed his brother Abel, the Torah tells us: 

And Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch, and he was building a city, and he called the city after the name of his son, Enoch. (Genesis 4:17)

Indeed, many commentators view the choice of words in this verse as implying a negative message about Cain and his city-building enterprise. The verse states "he was building" in the present tense (as opposed to "and he built"), implying that Cain was perpetually building the city. Cain had a deep ambition to expand his possessions and acquire new assets (in fact, his name, Cain, comes from the Hebrew word for acquisition, "kinyan"). He was unable to find satisfaction in his achievement and constantly desired more. This extreme, unhealthy ambition robbed him of the peace and serenity that comes from being satisfied with one's lot. 

Although the city can be a place of greed, of distraction from G-d and expansion of the selfish ego, there is another way to view the city built by Cain. 

Cain repented from the atrocity of the murder of his brother Abel. To correct the terrible sin of the destruction of life, Cain sought to enhance and support civilization by founding the very first city. Viewed from this perspective, a city is a place that brings people together, collaborating to improve the lives of its inhabitants.  

Kabbalah teaches that there are two primary forces in the world, "chaos" and "order." "Chaos" possesses potent energy that often cannot mitigate itself to collaborate with an opposing form of energy or perspective. The world of chaos consists of extreme energies that ultimately self-destruct because they cannot humble and limit themselves to respect and incorporate an opposing viewpoint. In the world of order, by contrast, the energy is not as potent, and as a result, the various energies can co-exist and develop to create a world that will endure.

Cain's soul was from the world of chaos. However, his potent energy was manifested in a negative form, causing him to see his brother as a threat instead of seeing how their differences could enrich them both. Cain was not able to tolerate another person encroaching on his space, so he killed his brother. When he wanted to correct his sin, he had to delve into the deep recesses of his soul to address the root causes of his sin. He then realized that he must apply his chaotic energy to the harmony of the world of order. He understood that he must create an environment where not everybody needs to engage in growing bread from the earth; instead, each person can develop a specific contribution and be part of a larger organism, the city. This constituted Cain's spiritual rehabilitation because, according to the kabbalah, the model of the city, the world of "order," is the model that will ultimately lead the world to correction. 

In every relationship with parents, children, spouses, colleges, there is a tension between being loyal to one's own perspective, feelings and opinions and creating space for the other person to do the same. The preferred model for relationships is that which Cain achieved through his repentance. The ultimate relationship follows the city model: understanding that, without abandoning one’s own perspective, one can be enhanced and grow specifically from the person who is different from oneself.

Perhaps the Torah doesn't state clearly whether urbanization is positive or negative because it can go both ways. In the final analysis, then, it is up to us whether the city can be a place of chaos or order. We decide whether the city is an extension of Cain's sin, an expansion of unchecked greed and ego, or part of Cain's repentance and rehabilitation, a place where many individuals come together to create a greater story, a deeper harmony by advancing both physical and spiritual life. 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 35 Bereishis 2.  

Which Was Created First, Heaven or Earth? 

Creation of heaven and earth is described differently in two verses in our Torah portion. The first verse of the Torah mentions heaven before earth, whereas in the second chapter of Genesis the verse mentions earth before heaven. 

Indeed, based on this discrepancy, the Talmud records a dispute between the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel on this very question: which was created first heaven or earth? 

Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel dispute the order of Creation, as the Sages taught: Beit Shammai say: The heavens were created first and afterward the earth was created, as it is stated: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” (Genesis 1:1), which indicates that heaven came first. And Beit Hillel say: The earth was created first, and heaven after it, as it is stated: “On the day that the Lord God made earth and heaven” (Genesis 2:4).

Shammi and Hillel both agree that heaven was created before earth. Their debate is about the purpose of creation. Shammai argues that “heaven was created first”, meaning heaven is primary. The purpose of creation is that a person seek to escape the confines of the material and connect to the spiritual. Earth is the starting point for man, yet the goal is to reach heaven. Hillel disagrees, and, as in the overwhelming majority of their disputes, the law follows Hillel’s perspective. Hillel argues that while the first verse in Genesis describes the chronological order of creation “the heavens and the earth”, the second chapter of Genesis, “The Lord God made earth and heaven”, describes the purpose of creation. “Earth was created first”, because earth is primary. The purpose of creation is not to get to heaven but to sanctify earth.  

This dispute is at the core of all their disputes. Whenever a question arises, Shammai tends to be strict, and to forbid the object or practice, whereas Hillel is lenient, seeking to permit the questionable item or action, including it in the sphere of the Jew. From Shammai’s perspective, being that the purpose of life is to reach the spiritual heavens he is inclined to restrict the Jew’s engagement with the material phenomenon. Whereas Hillel’s perspective is that “earth was created first”, the purpose of creation lies in the sanctification of the material. Therefore, whenever possible, he seeks to expand the scope of the material that can be cultivated and sanctified. 


The Tower of Technology  

In this week’s Parsha we read about how the descendants of the survivors of the great flood sought to unite through the building of a city with a great tower. The Torah relates: 

Now the entire earth was of one language and uniform words. And it came to pass when they traveled from the east, that they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, "Come, let us make bricks and fire them thoroughly"; so the bricks were to them for stones, and the clay was to them for mortar. And they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered upon the face of the entire earth." (Genesis 11:1-3.)

G-d is alarmed by their actions. He steps in to foil their plan. He disrupts their unity and the building project collapses. As G-d tells the angels:

“Come, let us descend and confuse their language, so that one will not understand the language of his companion." And the Lord scattered them from there upon the face of the entire earth, and they ceased building the city. (ibid. 11:7-8.)

Why is building a city a terrible sin? What is wrong with building a tower?

The story of the tower is relevant today, perhaps more than ever before. For it is a story, not about an ancient construction site, but about the development of cutting edge technology.

The building of the Tower of Babel represents a dramatic leap in the development of industry. Up to that point, people built a home out of stone. Stone is a Divine creation. Places like Babylonia, where there were no mountains and thus no stones, were considered inhospitable to the building of cities. Human ingenuity, however, created a new technology, which was none other than the brick.

The verse states that the people said to each other:  

"Come, let us make bricks and fire them thoroughly"; so the bricks were to them for stones, and the clay was to them for mortar.

Fascinated by their ability to create a man made brick, they sought to demonstrate that the brick was far superior to the stone created by G-d. They wanted to show that the brick, not the stone, was the material of choice in building the tallest tower in the world, within the greatest city in the world.  

The Torah does not state clearly that they rebelled against G-d, lest we mistakenly think that developing technology is a sin.

What then was the problem?

The Midrash (Pirkei D’Rabi Eliezer, 24.) relates that during construction of the tower, when a person fell off the tower and died nobody cared. However, if a brick fell and cracked, they all stopped to mourn the lost brick. This is a powerful Midrash. It teaches us that a single minded goal to achieve power and independence, with no higher purpose, can lead to totalitarianism where a human life is not valued.

The message of the story is relevant, now more than ever before. The past century has witnessed the “floods” of the most devastating wars in the history of humankind, as well as the explosion of human scientific knowledge and technological advances.

The message of the tower of Babel is that the towers and cities we create must have a higher purpose. Advancements in technology alone, do not necessarily mean advances in human rights, and it certainly does not necessarily lead to us being better people with a closer relationship with G-d.

Each and every one of us has a choice of what to make of the everincreasing technologies introduced into our lives. We can become the builders of the tower of Babel, or we can emulate Abraham.

The Midrash relates that Abraham watched the building of the tower, and he saw the lack of deeper meaning. He understood that a building with no higher purpose is dangerous. He realized that humanity’s purpose cannot merely be to make a name for itself, to achieve material success.

In next week’s Parsha we read how in contrast to the builders of the tower, whose only purpose was to make a name for themselves, Abraham made it his life’s mission to proclaim the name of G-d. He made it his life’s mission to teach anyone who would listen, that all of human achievement should just be a tool for a higher, more spiritual, purpose.

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutey Sichos, Noach Vol 3).

Natural Light 

The story of Noach (Noah) and the flood is not a legend from ancient history. It is the story of the life of every soul’s journey on this earth. The word Noach is derived from the Hebrew word for rest. The soul, prior to its voyage on the journey we call life is in a state of peace and tranquility. In the state of Noach, the state of rest, there is clarity of purpose, there is no worry and no inner conflict.  

Then, the soul is sent down to a stormy world, a world filled with challenges and turmoil, confusion, and tension. Like the Biblical Noach, the soul rides the turbulent waves in its ark. The soul must overcome torrents of distraction, survive in a materialistic world, and stay true to its inner self despite the external challenges. 

In order for the soul to stay on course, to keep inspired, to remain connected, to discover spiritual light, it must turn to Noach and his ark to see how Noach himself was able to illuminate his ark. 

When commanding Noach to build the ark G-d said: “You shall make a light (“Tzohar”) for the ark”. The big question was, what kind of light should Noach use? How does one create light amidst the darkness of the flood? Rashi, the primary Biblical commentator, quotes the Midrash which offers two opinions as to the meaning of the word “Tzohar”, light, in G-d’s commandment to Noach: 

a light: Heb. צֹהַר, lit. light. Some say [that it was] a window, and some say [that it was] a precious stone, which gave them light.

These two opinions, a window or a precious stone, Chasidic Philosophy explains, represent two approaches on how to bring spiritual light into one’s life. A window allows light to enter from the outside. In life, there are “window” moments. Moments when we experience the extraordinary. A moment of deep inspiration, the birth of a child, a new discovery, and the like. “Window” moments are moments of small miracles, moments when the ordinary is pulled away, a window is created, and we feel the light from above, we feel the touch of the Divine, the warmth of inspiration from above. 

That is the first step, and the first opinion of the “light” in the Ark. 

Then, as Rashi continues, there is a second opinion. “Some say”, after the first, more obvious light is attained, after we learn to celebrate, appreciate and derive inspiration from the miraculous moments of our lives, “some say”, some reach a more profound perspective and say that there is no need to wait for the light from above, there is no need to depend on the extraordinary for inspiration. “Some say” that the light in the ark was that of “a precious stone, which gave them light.” According to the second opinion the light does not come in from above, but rather, one can find light within the ark itself. The “precious stone” moments, are within day-to-day existence itself. 

After learning to identify the extraordinary experiences, “the windows” of our lives, we can learn to find “precious stones”. We can learn to see the Divine in the mundane, the miracle in the natural reality, in the seemingly mundane, we learn to see the remarkable Divine touch.       

Be Fruitful 

Something went terribly wrong. 

The beautiful, pristine world we read about in the beginning of Genesis had turned corrupt. G-d decided to hit reset and begin anew. In the second portion of the Torah, the portion of Noah, we read about the great flood and about how this time G-d falls in love with the earth again, this time, G-d sets the rainbow as a covenant that He will never again destroy the earth.  

Why? What changed? What caused G-d to decide never again to destroy the earth? 

As Noah and his children stepped out of the ark, they experienced what Adam and Eve experienced when they first opened their eyes: a new world. There is a striking parallel between Adam and Eve and Noah and his wife: as Noah emerged from the ark G-d said to him “be fruitful and multiply”, just as he said those very same words to Adam and Eve as soon as they were created.  

Why were the words “be fruitful and multiply” repeated? Why was the commandment to Adam and Eve not sufficient? Why must the commandment be reiterated to Noah?

A careful comparison of the verses will reveal the mystery of the difference in the nature of the earth brought about by the flood. 

When G-d created Adam and Eve the verse tells us: 

And God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it...”

After the flood we read:

And God blessed Noah and his sons, and He said to them: "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.”

The most important change between the words G-d spoke to Adam and Eve and the words he spoke to Noah, a change that captures the core of the story, is that while Adam as well as Noah were both told to “be fruitful and Multiply” and to “fill the earth”, Adam alone was told “conquer” the earth, yet conquest was omitted from the commandment to Noah. 

Filing the earth means more than merely increasing and spreading the human population. To “fill the earth” means to imbue the earth with holiness and spirituality, to direct all its resources and creatures toward a Divine purpose, to infuse all corners of the earth with goodness and kindness, with G-dliness and meaning. Filling the earth with a spiritual energy is something only humanity can achieve. 

It the beginning of creation Man was commanded to “conquer the earth”. Conquest implies that the earth itself, the materialistic perspective, resisted the holy and the spiritual. Man was called upon to superimpose his appreciation of the Divine upon the creation and to force it to live in harmony with its creator. Ultimately, however, Man was unsuccessful. Creation turned corrupt and G-d brought the mighty waters of the flood upon the earth. 

Yet the waters of the flood also possessed a purifying property. When the water receded and Noah emerged from the ark, he stepped into a purified world. This time, G-d commanded humanity to "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” This time there was no mention of conquest. Because, after the flood, the earth needed not to be forced but rather to be educated, not to be broken but rather to be redirected. After the flood waters covered the earth, the earth was no longer an enemy that, in extreme circumstances, needed to be destroyed. Now, post flood, the earth itself, intuitively, yearns for meaning. The earth itself longs to reunite with its creator. 

Our task is to reveal the innate goodness within the world.  

Waves of Change

There are extreme fluctuations in the creator’s attitude toward his creation in the first two portions of the book of Genesis. 

At first G-d is in love with the world. He created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. Each day of creation G-d looked at the creation of that day and “saw that it was good”. [The words “and it was good”, do not appear on the second day; instead, as the rabbis explain, they appear twice on the third day. Once for the creation of Monday and once for the creation of Tuesday]. And upon the conclusion of the sixth day G-d saw that all that He created was not only good, but “exceedingly good”: 

And God saw all that He had made, and behold it was exceedingly good (Genesis, 1:31). 

Yet, very quickly things turned in the opposite direction. Toward the end of the first portion we read that G-d decided to take the drastic measure of destroying all that He had created on earth.

We then read, in the second portion of the Torah, about the terrible flood. After which, G-d seemed to, once again, take the opposite approach. Somehow, he again fell in love with  creation and promised never again to bring flood the earth.  

Why was G-d’s response to the evil of man so dramatically different before and after the flood? If G-d could somehow tolerate the evil after the flood, why could he not have done the same before the flood? Why was it necessary to destroy all the creations of earth?

The generations from Adam to Noah are compared to a student who is close to a most inspirational teacher. As long as the student is in close proximity to the teacher, he will be uplifted and filled with the wisdom and enlightenment flowing from the teacher. But the student himself did not yet learn to innovate, he did not yet cultivate the skills needed in order to discover wisdom on his own. If, for whatever reason, he departs from his teacher's presence, he will be unable to innovate and discover wisdom from within.  

In the beginning of creation, the world was solely an expression of the creator. He created the human being who had the potential to choose to do good. But at that point in history, “good” meant the ability to receive intuition from the creator, to “see” G-d’s vision for humanity. 

This explains why the generations chronicled in the first book of the Torah, lived exceptionally long lives, although they were not deserving of the blessing they received. Because in that period the flow of energy descending from above was an expression of G-d’s “giving”. It was not inspired by, nor dependent on, the actions of man. 

On the sixth day of creation “Everything He made was exceedingly good”, because it was created and was inspired from above by the almighty G-d. 

Then the people sinned, they filled the earth with corruption and separated themselves from their Divine source. 

G-d therefore flooded the earth, because the people lost the spiritual sensitivity that was required to hear the voice from above. At that point in history there was no hope that they would find the calling to goodness and morality from within themselves. At that point there was no hope for correction, because they did not yet have the ability to self inspire, self refine, and self transform.  

When Noach emerged from the ark, the spiritual vitality that was previously available was no longer present. No longer did people live exceptionally long lives. The divine vitality was hidden, leaving people in a weakened state. 

But something else happened as well; the waters of the flood were waves of purification.  

While the people were no longer able to receive the “goodness” that flowed from above, they were able to create “man-made” inspiration. The potential for their spiritual enlightenment was not as great, but they were refined enough to be able to find the voice of goodness within themselves. After the flood, humanity is likened to a student who learns how to cultivate wisdom on his own. The wisdom may not be as lofty as that which he received from his teacher, but it is wisdom he can generate no matter where he is. 

The waters of the flood have created a world that is no longer solely dependent on inspiration from above. No matter how low they fall, even when the figurative clouds block the rays of Divine consciousness, ultimately people can transform themselves; to transform, the concealment into a magnificent work of art. They can now, using the very cloud of concealment, reflect the light of the sun and generate a rainbow.    

(Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Noach vol. 15 Sicha 3). 

Noah's Ark - The Key to Successful Marriage

Toward the end of the portion of Bireishit, the first portion of the Torah, we read about how the downfall of society began with immoral relationships between men and women:   

That the sons of the nobles saw the daughters of man when they were beautifying themselves, and they took for themselves wives from whomever they chose. (6:2)

Rashi explains that this verse represents the breakdown of morality: 

“from whomever they chose: even a married woman” 

Noah’s ark was more than a mere tool through which Noach, his family and future mankind were saved from the flood. The floating ark would rehabilitate humanity by embodying the key to a wholesome and holy relationships, which is the bedrock of a healthy, moral, and holy society. 

The Kli Yakar, the sixteenth century commentator and Kabbalist, points our attention to the numbers, dimensions and dates mentioned in the story of the flood. Interestingly many of the figures are related to the number fifteen:  

Fifteen cubits above did the waters prevail, and the mountains were covered up. (7:20)

“And the water prevailed upon the earth a hundred and fifty days. (7:24)”. One hundred rand fifty is fifteen times ten. 

“And this [is the size] you shall make it: three hundred cubits the length of the ark, fifty cubits its breadth, and thirty cubits its height. (6:15)”. Each of the three flours of the ark were fifteen thousand square cubits. 

According to the Kabbalah the number fifteen is alluded to within the dimensions of the ark because the ark represents the ability to create a holy reality which would correct the spiritual corruption that led to the flood.The first two letters of the name of G-d are “Yud” and “Hey”. “Yud” has the numerical value of ten and “Hey” of five, the number fifteen represents the connection between  the “Yud” and the “Hey”. 

The Talmud (Sotah 17a) explains that the letters “Yud” and “Hey” are the way one can build a blessed relationship. The Hebrew word for man, “Ish”, and women, “Isha”, are both comprised of the letters “Alef” and “Shin” which create the word “Aish”, which  means fire. In addition to the letters of the word fire, the word “ish”, man, contains the letter “Yud”, and “Isha”, woman, contains the letter ”Hey”. “If a man [ish] and woman [isha] merit”, says the Talmud, when man and woman unite, the letters of G-d’s name, the Yud and Hey in their names, unite as well, and “ the Divine Presence rests between them”. If however the letters of G-d’s name are absent from the relationship, if all they have is the fire, then “fire consumes them.” 

Man and woman have within them passionate fire. This can be a tremendously powerful positive force. It can bring people together in love and create a deep bond between man and woman. Fire, however, also has destructive properties. If man and woman define their relationship based on passionate fire alone, it can become destructive. For the fire seeks to break all boundaries and shatter all discipline and its quest is to consume the fuel which sustains it. The people in the generation of the flood followed their inner fire, leading them to destroy respect for wholesome relationships. 

The key to creating harmony between man and woman is to introduce a higher dimension to the relationship. When man and woman introduce the letters of G-d's name into their relationship, when both the male and female fire are experienced in the context of a spiritual purpose, then, the positive fire in the relationship will last. The letters of G-d’s name, the “Yud” and the “Hey”merge as one, and the relationship becomes the protective ark of Noah. 

Master of the Soil

Noah found favor in the eyes of G-d, he was saved from the flood and tasked with repopulating the earth, G-d extended His covenant to Noah and promised never again to wipe out all the creatures from the face of the earth. G-d’s love to Noah was palpable. 

Noah himself seemed not to share G-d’s optimistic view of the future. Before the flood we read that “Noah did, according to all that the Lord had commanded him (Genesis 7:5)”. Yet, after the flood Noah did not seem to live up to his greatness. He planted a vineyard, got drunk and lost his dignity - “he uncovered himself within his tent”. 

As the Torah relates: 

And Noah, master of the soil, began and planted a vineyard. And he drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father's nakedness, and he told his two brothers outside. And Shem and Japheth took the garment, and they placed [it] on both of their shoulders, and they walked backwards, and they covered their father's nakedness, and their faces were turned backwards, so that they did not see their father's nakedness. And Noah awoke from his wine and he knew what his small son had done to him. And he said, "Cursed be Canaan; he shall be a slave among slaves to his brethren." May God expand Japheth, and may He dwell in the tents of Shem, and may Canaan be a slave to them (Genesis 9:20-27)”.

The Torah tells us “And Noah, master of the soil, began and planted a vineyard.”. The Hebrew word for “began”, “Vayachel”, also means “Mundane”. Rashi tells us: “he made himself profane, for he should have first engaged in planting something different.”

Why did Noah, immediately after the flood, plant a vine, which is a symbol of mundane pleasure? The Chassidic Masters explain that after seeing the corruption of the earth Noah wanted to engage with the soil in order to protect it from future spiritual corruption. Noah felt that his responsibility was to be “master of the soil”, he must engage with the most material pleasure and demonstrate how it could, in fact, be used for holiness. 

Yet, Noah was mistaken. And his mistake was that - “Vayachel” - “he began”. The mistake was that he began with material pleasure. The material will intoxicate one’s spiritual senses unless the person is first saturated in holiness. Had Noah began his day with intensifying his connection to spirituality and only then proceeded to plant, he would have elevated the vine rather than having the vine pull him down.    

When Noah awoke from his wine and recognized his mistake he proceeded to bless Shem and Yafet, the two sons who had treated him with dignity and covered his nakedness. Noah said: 

May God expand Yafet, and may He dwell in the tents of Shem…

Noah, who “uncovered himself within his tent”, saw within his son Shem the potential for the correction of his own negative experience in his tent, an experience of pleasure disconnected from a holy context. Noah proclaimed “may He (G-d) dwell in the tents of Shem”, emphasising that Shem and his descendants would bring G-d into their homes, they would infuse their homes with holiness, which, in turn, would allow them to proceed and elevate the mundane. They begin with prayer, study and good deeds ensuring that their tent is a place where G-d will dwell, and only then do they proceed to plant the vine. 

(Adapted from the Maor Vashemesh)

Did Noah Lack Faith?

"A righteous man perfect in his generations" is the resounding endorsement the Torah gives Noah. Yet, when we examine Rabbinic literature, we find that Noah was less than perfect. 

The Zohar contrasts Noah, who did not seek to pray for, nor influence, the people of his generation, with Abraham, who pleaded with G-d to forgive the wicked people of Sedom, and with Moses, who prayed on behalf of the people who worshipped the golden calf. Noah’s significant fault was that he did not influence the people around him. 

When describing how Noah entered the ark, the verse states "and Noah went in and his sons and his wife and his sons' wives with him into the ark because of the flood waters." Rashi quotes the Midrash, which states: 

because of the flood waters: Noah, too, was of those who had little faith, believing and not believing that the Flood would come, and he did not enter the ark until the waters forced him to do so.

How could it be that the person who the Torah classified as entirely righteous, the person who G-d chose to be the one to repopulate the earth after the Flood, lacked faith? 

Noah did not believe in himself, he did not believe that he was worthy of being saved, and therefore he did not think that G-d would bring a flood, wipe out every living thing except for him. 

"Noah had little faith", explain the Chassidic masters, means not that Noah lacked faith in G-d, but rather that Noah did not believe in himself. He did not think that a human being could have the power to pray and influence G-d, nor did he believe in his ability to influence the people around him.

The lesson we must derive from Noah's shortcoming is that belief in G-d requires belief in the incredible potential G-d invested within the people he created. Our choices matter. Our prayers can influence G-d, we can shape our environment and have a profound impact on the people around us. 

Adapted from the Kedushas Levi 

Enter Your Ark

It's not merely an ancient story about a flood of epic proportions. The story of the Biblical flood, like all Torah's stories, is the story of our own life.  

The waters of the flood are the torrents of worry, anxiety, and distraction that threaten to drown us and divert us from the path of happiness, meaning, and fulfillment. The waters of the flood surround us from every direction, leaving us with no place to run or escape. The only solution is to enter an ark and ride the waves.  

The Hebrew word for ark, Teivah, also means "word". The Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, explained that the words of prayer and Torah study are the spiritual and psychological "ark" which protect us from the waters of the flood. The words form a spiritual haven of peace and serenity that ground and anchor us when we emerge from the "ark" and engage in daily life. 

The Torah's words, "And the Lord said to Noah: "Come into the ark", is G-d's calling to each of us to begin our day with creating an "Ark", a Teivah, holy words of Torah and prayer. 

Two generations after the Baal Shem Tov, The Alter Rebbe, founder of Chabad, added a new dimension to this teaching. He pointed out that while the conventional understanding is that the ark was a response to the flood, serving merely as protection from its threatening waters, upon a careful reading of the Torah's words, we see that the purpose of the flood waters was to actually raise the ark:

"Now the Flood was forty days upon the earth, and the waters increased, and they lifted the ark, and it rose off the earth." (Genesis 7:17)

The challenges that one experiences actually intensify the spiritual experience. The tension, and energy of the negative worries, become the fuel that raises the spiritual experience, intensifying the passion and drive to connect to holiness. 

When you enter your ark, you will realize that the waters are not there to drown you. They are there to raise you ever higher. 

Lech Licha 

The Brand Name 

The first to understand the power of branding was G-d. 

He understood that a brand name that captures the essence of who you are, what your customers can expect of you and what you hope to achieve, you can, overtime, have a deep impact on people’s thinking. 

G-d therefore decided to tweak the name of Abraham, the founder of Monotheism (whose name, at that point, was Avram). The change will upgrade the brand, and cause the message to catch on and create a movement that will change the course of history. 

So G-d adds the Hebrew letter ‘Hey’ to the name. The change seems small but, as any good marketing expert will tell you, a small change in a brand often symbolizes a great changes in direction. 

Abraham’s name from Avram to Avraham (adding the Hebrew letter Hey). As the verse states:   

And your name shall no longer be called Avram, but your name shall be Avraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.

[The Hebrew letter Hey stands for the Hebrew word “Hamon”, which means Multitude.]

As Rashi, the primary commentator of the Torah, explains:

The letter “Resh” that was in it [his name] originally, denoting that he was the father only of Aram, which was his native place, whereas now [with the added letter Hey, he becomes] the father of the whole world.  

With the new and improved name G-d tells Avraham that he cannot be satisfied with leading and inspiring only his close circle; that he cannot limit his goal to creating a haven of Divine morality, rather he is charged with being a father to a multitude of nations. He must change his name, modify his mission statement and  dramatically  broaden his vision. He must understand that his intended audience is not a few people, his audience is every nation on this earth.   

Avraham must teach his children that anybody who wishes to carry the torch, to perpetuate his legacy, will have to follow the message embedded in the letter Hey. He or she will have to constantly remember that the goal is to fill all the earth with the knowledge of G-d.  

There is, however, some danger in adopting so broad a goal.  

For often, those who try to impact the world, those who have the passion and ambition to make a significant impact on the lives of millions of people, forget about those closest to them. They sometimes overlook the “petty” problem of their five year old daughter. They are sometimes too busy to remember the hungry person in their own neighborhood.    

G-d wants to prevent Avraham and his children from making this mistake. So when he adds the letter Hey to the name, thus instructing him to direct the message to all of humanity, he was careful to leave the Hebrew letter Reish in place. 

As the passage of Rashi quoted earlier continues:

“Nevertheless the “Resh” that was there originally was not moved from its place”.  

The marketing experts would certainly protest and argue: “if the Hebrew letter Resh represents that Avraham was a father only to his native land (Reish stands for Aram, where Avraham was borm), and the Hebrew letter Hey represents that he is a father to the entire world (“multitude of nations”), why can’t we drop the letter Resh? Isn’t Avraham’s native land included in the “multitude of nations”?”

Yet the letter Reish must not be moved from it’s place. Just like in the past, before his mission was expanded to include all the people of the earth, Avraham understood that he must drop everything and risk his life to save his nephew Lot, so too after the broadening of his goals he must still be devoted to those closest to him.

Perhaps that is why, in the later portions, the Torah emphasizes that Avraham ultimately does impact all of his family. That even after he is forced, by his wife Sarah and by G-d, to expel Hagar he does not forget about her. That eventually he is able to bring her back into his household, remarry her, and bring her back to the belief in one G-d .  

So, yes, carry the torch of Avraham, go out and make a deep impact on the world around you. But never forget that about those who need you most.

Climbing the Ladder of Love 

Each and every episode of the patriarchs that is recorded in the Torah is relevant to the story of every single Jew. There are events in the lives of the patriarchs, that are essential to the story - for example: Abraham discovering the one G-d at an early age and his debates with the people of his native land – and yet, they are not recorded in the Torah. By contrast, there are details that seem trivial, yet they are recorded in the Torah. That is because the Torah records only those aspects that are relevant to us; the Torah records only those episodes that will recur, in some form or another, in the life of every Jew.   

Who was Abraham? What did he stand for? What does he teach us?

Chassidic philosophy teaches that Abraham embodied loving-kindness, love to his fellow human beings, love toward the people closest to him, and love toward his creator. If there is one theme that runs through many of the stories about Abraham, it is the theme of love; his love to G-d as well as his love to people who were not necessarily deserving of love: his love to his nephew Lot, his older son Yishmael and to the wicked people of Sedom. Abraham’s journeys, to Israel and especially his journeys within Israel, is a story about Abraham’s journey toward achieving true love.

This week’s Parsha, begins with G-d commanding Abraham to “go forth” and begin a new journey:

And the Lord said to Abram, "Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you.”

The Torah describes how Abraham fulfilled the commandment and travelled to what will later become the Promised Land, and how he built an altar to G-d:

And the Lord appeared to Abram, and He said, "To your seed I will give this land," and there he built an altar to the Lord, Who had appeared to him. 

Why does Abraham decide to build an altar to G-d precisely at this time and place? Rashi explains, that Abraham built the altar to thank G-d for the two great promises he had just received: the promise that he would have children, and the promise that he would receive the land, as Rashi puts it: 

And there he built an altar: [in thanksgiving] for the good tidings concerning his descendants and the good tidings concerning the Land of Israel.

In the following verse we read about Abraham journeying to the next stop in his travels,  near a place called Ai, where, once again, he built an altar to G-d: 

And he moved from there to the mountain, east of Bethel, and he pitched his tent; Bethel was to the west and Ai was to the east, and there he built an altar to the Lord, and he called in the name of the Lord.

Why did Abraham decide to build this second altar? Rashi explains: 

And there he built an altar: He (Abraham) prophesied that his sons were destined to stumble there because of the iniquity of Achan, and he prayed there for them. 

The story continues. Abraham was forced to move to Egypt because of the famine. His wife Sarah, (at that point her name was still Saray), was taken to Pharaoh. Subsequently, she was saved from  Pharaoh, they returned to Israel, Abraham and his nephew Lot parted ways, and Abraham reached the city of Chevron, where he built his third and final altar: 

And Abram pitched his tents, and he came, and he dwelt in the plain of Mamre, which is in Hebron, and there he built an altar to the Lord.

Why did Abraham decide to build the third altar? Being that Rashi explained why he built the first two, we would therefore expect Rashi to explain the rationale for the third one, yet, mysteriously, Rashi is silent. This is because, once we understand the lesson of the three altars, we will understand why Abraham built the third altar, and we will understand why no reason is given for its construction.

In general, there are three stages of love. These three levels are represented by the three altars that Abraham built. 

The first stage of love, is a love motivated by a benefit received. We fall in love because of what we receive from the relationship. Because of what the relationship does for us. Because we like the way it makes us feel. Because we like what we get from the relationship.

The second stage is more complicated. We fall in love, and then, sometimes, we grow apart. Eventually, a distance springs up between us and the recipient of our love. This distance is painful. There is, however, a second stage of love. This love is motivated by “returning” to the original love, after the feeling of separation. The second stage of love is fueled by the pain  experienced from being distant from our beloved. 

Finally, there is a third stage of love. This love is not motivated by what we receive from the love, nor is it motivated by the pain felt by the lack of it. The third level of love is all about connecting to the object of the love for its own sake. The third stage of love is not about the one loving, it is about the beloved. We are drawn to connect, not because of something we will receive, not because of the pain we will endure if we lack the connection, but rather because there is no other way. We sense that, like the bond between parents and children, deep down we are one.  

The story of Abraham’s travels in the land of Israel, is the story of a man journeying toward a relationship and love to G-d. Each altar represents another stage of love. 

The first altar that Abraham built, the first stage of Abraham's love to G-d, is based on the benefit that Abraham would receive. As Rashi explains, Abraham built the altar; he connected to G-d, because he understood that the relationship was beneficial to himself. He had just been promised the blessing of children and he had just been gifted with the Land of Israel.

Abraham traveled further. He came to a place called Ai, he sensed that his descendants would sin at this very location. He wasted no time, he built an altar. He teaches his children that sin can be a cause to connect to G-d. That estrangement is, in fact, key to a second, and deeper, stage of love. He teaches his children that love intensifies when it overcomes the pain of separation. 

Finally, Abraham reaches the city of Chebron. The word Chevron comes from the Hebrew word “Chibur” which means connection. In Chebron, Abraham reaches the third, and ultimate, stage of love. Abraham built an altar. Why did he build this altar? Rashi is silent. Rashi’s silence communicates a deep truth. There is no reason for this altar, no reason for this relationship. This stage of love is not based on reason; it is not based on a benefit that Abraham will receive. Why build the altar? For no reason other than to be connected to G-d. Not for any personal benefit, spiritual or otherwise, but for the sake of the bond itself.  

Abraham is the patriarch of each and every Jew. We read about his journeys, not merely for historical information, but as a lesson for our life, a lesson in our relationships, and a lesson for our bond with G-d. We read the story to inspire us to seek to reach the final stage of love. As Maimonides describes: 

One who serves [God] out of love occupies himself in the Torah and the Mitzvot and walks in the paths of wisdom for no ulterior motive: not because of fear that evil will occur, nor in order to acquire benefit. Rather, he does what is true because it is true… This is a very high level, which is not merited by every wise man. It is the level of our Patriarch, Abraham, whom God described as, "he who loved Me," for his service was only motivated by love.

See the Land

Abraham was a newcomer in the land. 

After heeding G-d’s call to “Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you”, after making the long journey from Charan to Canaan, G-d reiterates the promise that he will give the land to Abraham and his descendants. The Torah tells us (Genesis, 13:14-17):   

And the Lord said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, "Please raise your eyes and see, from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward.

For all the land that you see I will give to you and to your seed to eternity.

And I will make your seed like the dust of the earth, so that if a man will be able to count the dust of the earth, so will your seed be counted.

Rise, walk in the land, to its length and to its breadth, for I will give it to you."

On the surface, these verses, containing the promise of the land, seem straightforward; upon deeper examination, however, they appear to be contradictory. 

At first, in verse 14, G-d tells Abraham “Please raise your eyes and see”, meaning, that in order to acquire the land, all he has to do is look, “raise your eyes and see”, no further action required. As Reiterated in the next verse: “For all the land that you see I will give to you and to your seed to eternity”.

Very soon afterward, however, G-d seems to have changed his tone. All of the sudden seeing the land is not enough; in order to acquire the land Abraham was required to walk its length and breadth. As stated in verse 17: ”Rise, walk in the land, to its length and to its breadth, for I will give it to you", all of the sudden, it was not enough for Abraham to look at the land, he was required to actually walk it. 

The reason for the double commandment, to “lift up your eyes” and to “rise, walk the land”, is because in truth, G-d was granting Abraham not one gift but two gifts, one was to be acquired through seeing, while the other was acquired through walking. 

The land of Israel possesses plains and hills, a sea and rivers. It is a land flowing with milk and honey. The physical land of Israel was to be acquired by the physical act of walking the length and breadth of the land. 

But that is only part of the story.  

In addition to the physical land, in addition to the beautiful hills and valleys, there is another gift: the spiritual land of Israel. The spirit of Israel, the holiness of Israel, cannot be attained merely by walking the land. To connect to the spirituality of Israel, G-d tells Abraham, one must “raise your eyes and see”. One must look beyond the obvious, one must “raise” and uplift oneself to see and connect to the holiness and spirituality of the Holy land.

Thus, when G-d told Abraham to walk the land, to take possession of the physical land, G-d said “for I will give it to you”. Yet when commanding Abraham to “raise your eyes and see” in order to acquire the spiritual land of Israel, G-d promised “For all the land that you see I will give to you and to your seed to eternity”. For, historically, while the ownership of the physical land was not always in our hands, the spiritual connection, was always in the possession of the seed of Abraham, and will be so for eternity. 

We are not always on the physical land of Israel, not always able to walk its length and breadth. But we always possess the spiritual Israel: a yearning to connect to the Divine and the desire and will to create a home for G-d on this earth.   

Next time you visit Israel savor every moment, take in the beauty of the land, enjoy its landscapes. Eat Hummus overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, visit the green hills of the Galilee, and the stone hills of Jerusalem. Explore the Negev Desert and the cafes of Tel Aviv. But most importantly, just like our Patriarch Abraham, make sure to “raise your eyes and see”. Experience the spiritual Israel, tap into her holiness and touch her heart and soul. See how she reconnects you to the creator of all life. 

Self Discovery

Say you call your friend and ask him to go somewhere. The most important piece of information you must convey is the destination where he is to go. 

Yet that is not what happened when G-d spoke, for the very first time, to Abraham, the very first Jew. G-d told Abraham to “go forth”. G-d elaborated on the place from which Abraham would depart, but said nothing about the place where Abraham would travel to. As the opening verse of this week’s Torah portion relates: 

And the Lord said to Abram, "Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you.

Why, at this point in the story, did G-d not reveal the destination? 

To understand why the focus is on the point of departure rather than on the destination, we must first contemplate the nature of the commandment to Abraham to “go forth”. G-d did not simply ask Abraham to move and change his place of residence. G-d was defining for Abraham the story of his life as well as the story of the people Abraham was about to father. To be a Jew, to be in touch with the message of Monotheism which Abraham was preaching, is to heed the call to “go forth to you”.

Each of us, including Abraham, define ourselves in certain ways. We know our strengths but we also know our limitations. We tell ourselves stories. We tell ourselves what we can and what we cannot accomplish, what we should strive for and what we should dare not dream of. These stories are influenced by our surroundings. Consciously or subconsciously, much of the way we view ourselves is based on the feedback from our surroundings. Society tells us certain things about ourselves, the people in our neighborhood, our teachers, our school principals, the bank manager, and most importantly our parents, all influence how we see ourselves and how we self define. 

The first thing Abraham needed to know was that his potential was limitless. At his very core lay a spark of the infinite G-d. If Abraham would see past the natural order, If he would break free of real and perceived limitation, then he would touch his inner core, tap into his essence, and would be able to achieve what, until then, was deemed impossible. He would be able to go beyond his own nature, to be completely devoted and in love, to stand firm against tremendous odds, and to break free of the bonds of his own personality, perceptions and fears.

Thus, G-d tells Abraham that, in order to reach greatness, he must break free of old patterns of thought, he must journey away from the constraints imposed by his mind and heart, and of the influence of the people around him. He must first leave “his land”, the influence of the broader society, and then leave the influence of his town, and finally, he must reject the limitations imposed by his close family. Instead he must travel to ”the land that I will show you”. 

The “you”, in “the land that I will show you”, refers not only to the land but also to Abraham himself. Translated literally, the verse can also read “the land where you will be shown”, the place where your essence will be revealed. When Abraham packed his bags and left his native land, when he left behind the notions of the superiority of nature that prevailed in his father's home, he would reach “the land where I will show you”. He would discover his true self, which is a spark of the infinite G-d. Thus, the destination of the journey remained unstated, for any description is a limitation, and the entire point of the commandment was that Abraham must leave the notion that he, and what he was capable of, was limited. He needed to understand that the true self is undefined because it is limitless. 

Over the next two portions of the Torah the story of Abraham highlights the message of “go forth to yourself” - begin the journey of self exploration and discover the true “you”. Time and again, Abraham was challenged. Time and again he was tested. Time and again he discovered that he could rise above the challenge, go beyond the instincts of his personality, and achieve greatness. 

This, in one sentence, is the story of the Jewish people, a people whose very existence is a miracle. A people tasked by the calling to “go forth to yourself”, to journey forth and to discover the true “you” the infinity within each and every one of us. A people who no matter the difficulties they faced, defied the odds, they continue to thrive, with their faith and teachings intact, a people who heed the call to Abraham, and believe in achieving the impossible. For they are the people of Abraham, heeding the call to Abraham to journey to the land. A land that cannot be defined, only experienced. 

They are on a journey “to the land that I will show you”, where the true “you” will be revealed.  

Focused Love 

Abraham embodied love and kindness as an expression of the one G-d, creator of the entire universe. Abraham, spent his career teaching people about monotheism, the belief in the one, all omnipresent G-d, and fought against the idea of idol worship, teaching that the human being should serve no force of nature and no other human being, only G-d himself.  

Abraham felt a deep closeness to his eldest son Yishmael, the son of Hagar Sarah’s maidservant. Yishmael embodied his teachings. As a result of the time spent in his father’s home, Yishmael refused to submit to any person but to the one G-d. Indeed, even before Yishmael’s birth the angel of G-d told Hagar that her son would be a free spirited person: 

And the angel of the Lord said to her, "Behold, you will conceive and bear a son, and you shall name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard your affliction.

And he will be a wild man; his hand will be upon all, and everyone's hand upon him, and before all his brothers he will dwell." (Genesis 16:11-12)

Despite the influence of Abraham’s ideas and beliefs, Yishmael  would not be the one to receive the Divine covenant, and bear the eternal legacy of Abraham. Indeed, while Abraham was content in having Yishmael be his only heir, G-d insisted that the Abrahamic covenant would continue through the son that would be born to Sarah:  

And G-d said, "Indeed, your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac, and I will establish My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his seed after him. (ibid. 17:19) 

That is because the Jewish nation could only be established through the union of Abraham and Sarah. Abraham’s love was not sufficient to father the nation that would have an eternal covenant with G-d. Abraham's love was unlimited, he spread his love to all. But Sarah understood that love must be focused and disciplined. To love properly, one must be willing to exclude influences that would undermine the love. The potent force of love must be focused and directed. Just as a mother protects her child, Sarah’s love motivated her to expel negative influence from her home environment. Abraham without Sarah, love without discipline and focus, is like freedom without commitment, which is but a distorted expression of freedom.  

Abraham and Sarah did not always share the same perspective. They disagreed strongly about important issues. Abraham’s love spread to everybody, while Sarah’s love expressed strength and discipline. Only the marriage of Abraham and Sarah could produce the holy nation. 

The healthy tension between Abraham and Sarah teaches us that both love and discipline are necessary in our own life. When we read the stories of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs, we are also reading our own personal story. Ensuring that the “marriage” between the Abraham and the Sarah within ourselves is harmonious and balanced, will allow us to continue the mission of Abraham and Sarah: filling this earth with goodness and kindness motivated by the awareness of G-d. 

The Journey of Your Soul

Expressing abstract wisdom in simple language is difficult and could be painful. To do so, the scholar must leave the comfort of his  knowledge and expertise and descend into the world, where the audience is not be on the same level as he is. Expressing abstract wisdom in simple language requires limiting the light, masking some of the beauty of the wisdom, and expressing it in simple terms in order that the listener should understand. 

This decent, however, will ultimately lead the scholar to a deeper appreciation of the wisdom. Because when one is forced to explain an abstract idea in concrete terms, when one is forced to create an analogy to help people grasp an intangible idea, one will attain a deeper level of understanding. To be able to communicate a lofty concept in simple terms the wise person has to reach the essence and soul of the idea, only then will he succeed in condensing the concept and expressing it with an appropriate analogy.

The explain the Kabbalist, is the deeper meaning of the G-d’s first communication with Abram (Abraham’s original name): 

"Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1) 

This commandment contains multiple layers of meaning. Yes, Abram was to leave Mesopotamia and travel to what would become the land of Israel, but there is a mystical meaning to the verse as well. Abram, represents abstract wisdom. The word Abram is comprised of two words “Av”, father, which in Kabbalistic terminology is a metaphor for wisdom, and “Ram” which means elevated. Abram is exalted wisdom. [At the time Abram was living in Charan, which Kabbalisticly, represents the “neck” which blocks the abstract wisdom from expressing itself in terms that would allow it to descend into concrete language that could inspire emotions in the heart]. 

Abram’s physical journey was a symbol of his spiritual journey. The journey meant leaving the comfort of his own thoughts and expressing his abstract ideas of monotheism and morality to people who were on a far lower spiritual and intellectual level than himself. Yet, this downward journey, this descent, led Abram to greater heights. As G-d promised Abram, that as a result of his journey: 

I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will aggrandize your name, and [you shall] be a blessing. 

Abram’s journey was far from challenge free. He was faced with many physical and spiritual challenges. He was forced to descend to Egypt where his wife was abducted. His close relationships with his nephew Lot and Concubine Hagar were tested. G-d informed him that his descendants would be enslaved for four hundred years. Yet Abraham understood that the more challenging the journey, the greater the spiritual gain. Abram understood that a descent is critical to, and, therefore, part and parcel of, the journey upward.  

The story of Abram is the story of every soul. 

The soul originates in the spiritual worlds, surrounded by Divine wisdom and awareness. The soul is then called upon to begin the journey we call life. This journey, from the spiritual worlds to life in this physical world seems to be a descent for the soul. No longer can it bask in the glow of spiritual enlightenment and closeness to the infinite light. No longer can it remain in the realm of abstract ideas. On this earth the soul must attend to the concrete needs of the body; food, shelter and comfort. The soul is no longer in the world of “Av” “Ram”, the world of abstract knowledge and enlightenment. The soul is right here on planet earth.

Yet, like Abram our patriarch, like the wise teacher forced to condense his wisdom into a parable, the soul must now express its relationship to G-d in a concrete way. By using physical objects to fulfill the Divine will, by developing an awareness of the Divine on this earth, the soul reaches greater heights than if it had never  embarked on the journey. 

(Adapted form Torah Or, Parshas Lech Licha)

The Turbulent Journey 

Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, set out on a journey that would, eventually,  change the world. He left Charan, heeding G-d’s call to "Go forth from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1). Abraham must have been full of optimism, he was armed with an incredible Divine promise, for G-d had told him: “And I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you, and I will aggrandize your name, and [you shall] be a blessing.”

Yet, Abraham’s journey seemed to be a disaster and a colossal disappointment. As soon as he reached the land of Cannan, a famine broke out and he was forced to descend to Egypt where his wife was abducted and brought to Pharaoh the king. This was not only a personal challenge, but it was also a terrible blow to Abraham’s mission of spreading the awareness of the one G-d. The pagan inhabitants of Cannan took note of the fact that the terrible famine broke out as soon as Abraham arrived. They must have thought that the famine was a sign from above that Abraham’s faith would bring nothing but trouble. 

Why was Abraham’s journey so complicated and full of frustration? Why wasn't Abraham rewarded for his loyalty with a tranquil existence in Canaan?  The same question applies to the Jewish people, the descendants of Abraham, who carry Abraham’s legacy of teaching the world about the one G-d. Why has our historical journey been so full of disappointment, challenge, and tragedy? 

The Answer can be found in the name of our Torah portion: Lech Licha, which means “go to you {to your essence}”. The name of the entire portion, including the parts of the story that seem to be a retreat from Abraham’s destination and purpose, are all critical to the journey of growth. The most important message to Abraham, as well as to his descendants, is that what looks like a devastating setback is, in reality, an opportunity for more meaningful growth. Yes, even the descent into Egypt, with all its negative ramifications, would ultimately lead to Abraham and Sarah emerging stronger, and better able to achieve their purpose and mission. The descent into Egypt, was part of the mission of ascent  to Israel. 

This is true in the life of each and every Jew. The first, and perhaps, primary message from the life of Abraham is that every disappointment can be an opportunity for reaching deeper joy, every setback can become a springboard, and every challenge can motivate profound growth. 

This is the essence of the life of Abraham, the essence of the Jewish story, and of the teachings of the Torah: no matter the circumstances, no matter the pain, every experience is part of the journey to discover our essence. Within every challenging experience is a spark of G-dliness waiting to be elevated and channeled to fuel us further on our journey of reaching our promised land. 

Adapted from Likutei Sichos 5, Lech Licha 1. 

What is the Reason for the Exile?

One of the greatest mysteries in all of the Torah appears in this week's portion, at the "covenant of the parts", when G-d informed Abraham that his descendants would be enslaved in a foreign land before they would return to the land of Israel. The Torah describes:  

And He {G-d} said to Abram, "You shall surely know that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and oppress them, for four hundred years.

And also the nation that they will serve will I judge, and afterward they will go forth with great possessions. (Genesis 15:13-14)

The big question that the verse does not explicitly address is, why? Why was it decreed that the Jewish people would be slaves in Egypt? What was the purpose or benefit of the terrible slavery? 

The sages and commentators do not reach a consensus. The Midrash offers no less than three possible reasons, yet many of the classic commentators of the bible are not satisfied with those explanations and offer their own. Nachmanides explains that slavery was a punishment for Abram's traveling to Egypt because of the famine, after G-d told him to go to the land of Israel. Abarbanel rejects that interpretation, saying that Abram's decision to travel to Egypt was the correct one. Abarbanel offers his own explanation and says that the slavery of the children of Jacob and their descendants was the punishment, measure for measure, for the sale of Joseph as a slave to Egypt. Others explain that it was necessary in order to prepare the Jewish people for receiving the Torah. 

Chassidic teachings explain that the slavery did not come about as a result of any negative act on the part of the Jewish people. When the verse states, "your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs," it alludes to the idea that the reason for the exile is "not theirs." It was not a result of anything that the children of Israel had done. The purpose is alluded to in the words: "And afterward they will go forth with great possessions." The "great possessions" were not merely compensation for the pain of slavery, but rather it was the purpose of slavery. The purpose of the descent into Egypt was in order for the Jewish people to extract and elevate the Divine sparks of holiness within Egypt.

In the book of Exodus, G-d tells Moses:   

Each woman shall borrow from her neighbor and from the dweller in her house silver and gold objects and garments, and you shall put [them] on your sons and on your daughters, and you shall empty out Egypt."

The mystical interpretation of the verse is that the "woman," referring to the soul, who naturally has no interest in material possessions, should request the "silver" and "gold," the sparks of holiness found within the material possessions which she interacts with either occasionally (alluded to by "neighbor") or regularly (alluded to by "the dweller in her house"). We don't have the luxury to ignore the world. We must engage in and elevate the sparks within our possessions. 

What was true in Egypt applies to us as well. The purpose of the exile is so that the Jewish people should spread out to every corner of the earth, elevating their material possessions by using them in the service of G-d.

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Vayigash vol, 3 and Biurei Hachumash)


Why Angles Won't Multitask 

When I was in the first grade, just beginning to study the book of Genesis, I was fascinated by the stories, the personalities, and the drama. But nothing captured my imagination more than the angles. There was something so mysterious about them, disguised as ordinary people, they would show up at the right place in the right time, and solve some problem with their supernatural powers.

And yet, I knew that however great the angles, they had a weakness. Immediately at the first mention of angles in the Torah, the commentators are quick to point out that the angles could not perform more than one action at a time.

Why did three angels come to visit Abraham as he was sitting at the entrance of his tent hoping to find people to invite? Because there were three items to be accomplished, and angles do not have the ability to multi task. As Rashi explains:

And behold, three men: One to bring the news [of Isaac’s birth] to Sarah, and one to overturn Sodom, and one to heal Abraham, for one angel does not perform two errands. You should know that [this is true] because throughout the entire chapter, Scripture mentions them in the plural, e.g., Concerning the announcement, however, it says: “And he said: I will surely return to you.” And concerning the overturning of Sodom, it says: “For I will not be able to do anything”; “I will not overturn”. And Raphael, who healed Abraham, went from there to save Lot. This is what is stated: “And it came to pass when they took them outside, that he [the angel] said, ‘Flee for your life.’” You learn that only one acted as a deliverer.

As a young child this was comforting. Maybe I can't fly like an angel, but at least I have the can do other amazing things like run and shout at the same time.

Now, a few years later, I ask myself, why is it so important for Rashi to keep emphasizing the angles weakness?  Why is it so important for every child studying Genesis to know that angels cannot perform two things at once?

Perhaps it's because it's not a handicap. Perhaps this is the secret to the angels power. Perhaps Rashi tells us about the angles as a critique of the human condition. Perhaps he is telling us, that although we will never able to achieve the goal completely, we should lose the ability to multitask. 

The angel cannot do more then one thing at a time because the angel identifies with the task completely. The angel has no other dimension to his personality other than fulfilling God's mission; no personal name, no personal agenda, no personal ego, to get in the way. At this moment he is nothing but the task. As such he cannot perform two acts simultaneously, as it's impossible to be, fully, in two places at once. 

The human on the other hand, even when performing the will of G-d, never looses his own ego. The human always maintains the sense of an independent identity, an identity which happens to be engaged in the mission. As such he can never become one with the mission, and therefore, some aspect of his identity will always be able to engage in something else.

Rashi understood that the child reading the story is no angel. Yet Rashi is trying to teach me how to be more like an angel. How to be fully engaged in what I am doing to the point that I forget about everything else. How to help someone else, and, while doing so, lose my own ego, and know of nothing else in the world. How to speak to my child, carefully look her in the eyes, and listen. Listen as if, at this moment, I have nothing else in my life. Listen as if I have no emails, no deadlines, no one to meet, no place to go, no other interests.

He is teaching me to listen like an angel. 

Abraham’s Legacy 

This week's Parsha, describes the bitter tension in Abraham’s home. Underlying the tension, was the question of succession; which of Abraham’s two children would be the one chosen to carry on his legacy. 

Each of the patriarchs of the Jewish people, explain the Kabbalists, personify one of three basic emotions. Abraham personified the emotion of kindness, Isaac personified awe, and Jacob personified compassion. Being that they are our patriarchs, each of us has a part of them in our spiritual makeup. 

Abraham personified kindness. Reading the stories of Abraham, the theme of kindness appears again and again. Abraham made it his life’s mission is to invite travelers into his tent, he loved all people, he prayed to G-d to save the wicked people of Sedom. 

Abraham’s oldest child Yishmael, the son of Hagar, the maidservant who he married by the request of his wife Sarah, also embodied kindness. Abraham therefore felt a unique connection to Ishmael.  Not only was Ishmael his oldest son, but Ishmael also shared his passion for kindness, leading Abraham to hope that Ishmael would be the one to carry on his legacy. 

That was not meant to be. 

In this week’s portion we read about Sarah pressuring Abraham to send away his son Yishmael, who she felt was a bad influence on her son Isaac. G-d instructed Abraham to listen to Sarah, leaving him no choice but to expel his own son from his home. G-d reassured Abraham that Ishmael would be blessed, yet G-d also makes it clear that Isaac would be Abraham's spiritual heir who would carry on his legacy. 

And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, making merry. And Sarah said to Abraham, "Drive out this handmaid and her son, for the son of this handmaid shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac." But the matter greatly displeased Abraham, concerning his son. And God said to Abraham, "Be not displeased concerning the lad and concerning your handmaid; whatever Sarah tells you, hearken to her voice, for in Isaac will be called your seed. But also the son of the handmaid I will make into a nation, because he is your seed."   

Observing both of Abraham’s sons, it seems that Ishmael should have been the one to carry on the legacy of his father. After all, Ishmael shared the attribute of kindness with his father, while Isaac - who embodied the attribute of awe and fear - seemed to be very different. Why then was Isaac chosen?

While Abraham and Ishmael both performed kindness, the motivating force behind their actions could not be further apart. Once we examine the motivation behind Abraham's kindness we see that Isaac was much closer to Abraham than Ishmael could ever be. 

There can be two types of motivation for kindness. Abraham’s kindness was motivated by his humility. As Abraham says, while praying for the people of Sedom, “I am but dust and ashes”. The humble person perceives everyone else as being greater than himself. When he sees someone else in need he will do anything in his power to help the stranger who, the humble person believes, is more deserving than himself. This was the kindness of Abraham. 

On the other hand, Ishmael, while also performing kindness, was incompatible with Abraham’s essence. Ishmael's kindness was not motivated by humility, On the contrary, his kindness was motivated by arrogance. Ishmael felt that because he was greater than the people around him he should be the one to provide for them, so that his superiority would be apparent. His kindness did not lead him closer to people, his kindness, fueled by his arrogance, pulled him farther apart from the very people he would help. 

G-d’s message to Abraham was that Jewish kindness must be one motivated by humility not by arrogance. Therefore, the son best suited to carry on Abraham’s legacy, was Isaac, who embodies the attribute of awe and fear, keeping him humble, keeping him like his father Abraham. 

The Sodom Mentality 

We read of the wicked city of Sodom, a city where giving charity was a capital crime, and we wonder how did its people become so evil? What caused them to be so opposed to even simple acts of kindness? What did they find so offensive about sharing one's possessions with someone less fortunate?

Sodom and its laws did not just spring out of a vacuum. Sodom, its philosophy and its way of life, was a direct reaction to the generation of the flood.  

During the generation of the flood, the Torah tells us:

“the earth was corrupt before God, and the earth became full of robbery. And God saw the earth, and behold it had become corrupted, for all flesh had corrupted its way on the earth. And God said to Noah, “The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the earth has become full of robbery because of them, and behold I am destroying them from the earth”. 

The people of Sodom took the lesson of the flood to heart, they understood that the cause of the destruction of the generation of the flood was their robbery, their utter disrespect for private property. The people of the generation of the flood felt entitled to other people's possessions and rejected the notion that one person could own an object and exclude others from using it. The flood, the people of Sodom understood, was a Divine rebuke for robbery and theft. 

As a result of the great flood the people of Sodom recommitted to the respect of property ownership and rights. They correctly understood that to violate someone else's ownership was a grave sin, one that would undermine a healthy and moral society. 

The problem, however, was that they swung to the opposite extreme.

So strong was their commitment to the notion of private property, so powerful was their devotion to private ownership that they outlawed charity and pronounced it an illegitimate act. To them an act of charity was an immoral act because it transferred possessions from the “deserving” owner to the “undeserving” stranger.

The truth, however, is that both the generation of the flood and the people of Sodom were terribly mistaken. The people of the flood were wrong in denying property ownership, but the people of Sodom were just as wrong in outlawing charity. They missed the truth embodied by Abraham who performed “Charity and Law”. Abraham understood the value of “law”, of private property, but he also understood that the purpose of the “law”, the philosophical underpinnings for the right to possess, is the “charity”. The purpose of private ownership is to allow for people to be charitable and give from what is legally theirs to the less fortunate. 

How do we react to a society like Sodom? How do we respond when we see people who seek to outlaw compassion and legalize cruelty to the “other”?

Our Patriarch Abraham taught us just that. 

When Abraham’s pleas to G-d were unable to save Sodom, after Sodom was overturned, the Torah tells us that Abraham migrated from that region as Rashi explains: “Abraham traveled from there: When he saw that the cities had been destroyed and that travelers had ceased to pass by, he migrated from there”. Abraham wanted to bring his message of kindness based on the belief in one G-d to the people. Eventually, the Torah tells us that Abraham settled in Bear Sheva and planted an “Eshel”. What is an Eshel? Rashi offers two opinions: 

An eishel: Heb. אֵשֶׁל [There is a dispute between] Rav and Samuel. One says that it was an orchard from which to bring fruits for the guests at the meal, and one says that it was an inn for lodging, in which there were all sorts of fruits. We find the expression of planting (נְטִיעָה) used in conjunction with tents, as it is written (Dan. 11:45):“And he will pitch (וְיִטַע) his palatial tents.”

What both the interpretations have in common is that Abraham was sharing with his guests not only necessities, bread and water necessary for survival, but rather Abraham was sharing luxury. He was in the habit of sharing fruit which were the delicacies of his time. 

Abraham responded to the culture of Sodom not merely by sharing bread and water, but with treating the “other” with dignity and respect, reserving for them the delicacies of life that one reserves for one’s own family. 

Abraham taught a simple, yet profound, lesson. In the face of the cruelty of Sodom we must respond not merely with kindness but with intense kindness. In the face of extreme cruelty we must, like Abraham in his day, respond not only with love but with extreme love.    

Too Much Testing?

The life of Abraham, the first Jew, seems to be a series of tests; indeed the Mishnah states: “With ten tests our father Abraham was tested and he withstood them all”. Abraham’s tests culminated, at the conclusion of this week’s Torah portion, with the binding of Isaac. As the Torah says: 

And it came to pass after these things, that G-d tested Abraham, and He said to him, "Abraham," and he said, "Here I am." And He said, "Please take your son, your only one, whom you love, yea, Isaac, and go away to the land of Moriah and bring him up there for a burnt offering on one of the mountains, of which I will tell you." 

Why was Abraham continuously tested?

According to the Merriam-webster dictionary, the definition of the word “test” is:  

a means of testing: such as 

(1) :something (such as a series of questions or exercises) for measuring the skill, knowledge, intelligence, capacities, or aptitudes of an individual or group 

(2) :a procedure, reaction, or reagent used to identify or characterize a substance or constituent

A conventional test, then, is a means of learning something about the person or object being tested. Presumably G-d, the knower of all things, knew the magnitude of love and the depth of commitment in Abraham’s heart, why then did G-d need to test Abraham?      

The answer lies within the multiple meanings of the single Hebrew word “Nes”, which is the root of the word “Nisayon”, the Hebrew word for test. 

The Hebrew word for test, Nes, has more than one meaning. A “Nes” also means a banner, as in the verse “I will raise my banner”. A test, then, includes more than measuring the qualities of the subject of the test. A test is also raising a banner, displaying and showing the world, the amazing qualities of the one being tested. Thus, the second meaning of the word “Nes”, the root word for test, informs us that G-d tested Abraham in order to display to all the world Abraham’s great commitment to G-d. 

There is, however, another layer of depth in a test.

In addition to “test” and “raising a banner”, the word “Nes” has one more meaning: “Nes” is also a miracle. What possible connection can there be between a test and a miracle? 

There are two words for “test” in Hebrew: “Bechinah” and “Nisayon”. “Bechinah” is used for tests such as those offered in school, where the test is designed to determine how much the student knows. “Bechinah”, then, gives insight into the ability of the student. “Nisayon” on the other hand, the second form of test, shares the same root word as miracle, because the purpose of this form of test is not to determine the ability of the person being tested, but rather it is to see if the test itself, the obstacle and struggle, could propel the person to grow beyond his or her natural ability. The test offers an opportunity for the person to perform a miracle, to achieve that which was thought to be impossible and to grow into something greater. 

As a wise man once said: ordinary teachers test students to find out what they know, excellent teachers test students so that the students will discover not only how much they know but also what they can become.   

The test of Abraham then was not merely a test to measure his commitment to G-d (“Nisayon” as in test), and not only to demonstrate his commitment to G-d to the world (“Nisayon” as in raising a banner) but, most importantly, it was a test to allow Abraham to break out of his own personality constraints, and become something he never thought possible (“Nisayon” as in miracle). 

The story of Abraham’s test is the story of the journey of each and every soul. The Kabbalists teach that the soul’s descent from its place in the tranquility of heaven to the chaos here on earth, is, first and foremost, a test for the soul. The descent is designed to test the soul, to see how strong is its connection to G-d, to see whether the soul remains true to itself in the face of tremendous challenge and temptation, to see whether or not the soul has what it takes to overcome the spiritual darkness of the world and transform it to light.   

Yet, just as with the test of Abraham, the test of the soul is not merely for the purpose of discovering the existing properties of the soul. The descent into this world is the soul's opportunity to experience the miracle. The test that the descent presents, raises the banner and demonstrates to the soul and to the world, that by being presented with and then overcoming the obstacles and darkness of the world, one can achieve the miracle of exponential spiritual growth, On this earth, one can achieve a bond with G-d that is far greater, far deeper, and far more profound than is possible when the soul is in heaven.    

The Heat of the Day 

The story of Abraham’s life is primarily told in two portions of the Torah. Lech Licha and Vayera. In the first portion of Abraham's story, Abraham comes across as a deeply spiritual person. The Torah tells how he traveled the land and of the altars he built for  G-d in every place that he went. Toward the end of the first portion, G-d introduced a new idea to Abraham. No longer would it suffice for Abraham to be a spiritual person. From now on, Abraham task was to connect the spiritual with the physical. Abraham was commanded to circumcise himself, fulfilling G-d's commandment “my covenant will be in your flesh”. From here on Abraham’s mission was to teach how the spiritual covenant must express itself in the tangible physical world. 

The second portion, Vayera, opens with Abraham, on the third day after his circumcision, sitting at the opening of his tent seeking guests. It was an exceedingly hot day and there was no one in sight, yet Abraham sat there, waiting and hoping to find someone to invite into his home. As the Torah tells us: 

Now the Lord appeared to him in the plains of Mamre, and he was sitting at the entrance of the tent when the day was hot.

And he lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, three men were standing beside him, and he saw and he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent, and he prostrated himself to the ground.

The opening phrase is “the Lord appeared to him”. As a result of this Divine revelation Abraham reached a greater expression of kindness to others. Typically a kind person will express kindness when he or she sees someone in need, or at least someone who can receive the kindness. In this scene Abraham reaches a new level of kindness. Abraham was sitting at the opening of his tent looking to express kindness even when there was no one in sight who was in need of kindness. Abraham’s heart was overflowing with love. For The more Abraham experienced the presence of G-d the more he sought to share with others, the more he transcended himself and sought to connect and to share with other people.  

The verse continues “and he was sitting at the entrance of the tent when the day was hot.” the literal translation of the verse is that “and he was sitting  at the entrance of the tent like the heat of the day”. The verse does not read “in the heat of the day”, but rather it says “like the heat of the day”.The verse implies that Abraham himself was like the “heat of the day”. Abraham himself was like the sun spreading warmth, love and enlightenment. 

Many spiritual seekers seek to escape worldly distractions and seek enlightenment in solitude. The more enlightenment they experience the more removed they become from the rest of society. But Abraham taught us to realize that the closer one comes to spirituality, holiness and transcendence, the more the person will “sit at the opening of the tent”, seeking to express kindness even when the need is not immediately present before him or her. The closer one become to G-d the the more he or she  will be “like the heat of the day”, like the sun, expressing warmth and friendship to all.   

Feeling Connected Throughout the Day

The story of Abraham spans two portions in the book of Genesis: Lech Licha, which concludes with the story of Abraham circumcising himself, and Vayera, which begins with the story of G-d visiting Abraham when he was in the process of healing from the circumcision. 

Why do the portions divide in a seemingly unnatural place? Why separate between the circumcision and the healing? The story divides at this point because after the circumcision Abraham was a completely transformed person. After the circumcision his experiences were radically different from before the circumcision.

G-d is the infinite creator who created a finite universe. Conventional wisdom would argue that in order to connect to the infinite G-d one must separate from the physical, escape the trappings of day to day life, and meditate on the infinite. Indeed, that was the experience of Abraham himself. When he would experience prophecy he would fall on his face and lose touch with physical reality for the duration of the prophetic experience. 

Circumcision however, ushered in a new stage in Abraham’s connection to G-d. Circumcision embodies the purpose of all the Torah: to sanctify the material world, to the extent that the holiness permeates the flesh, and the bond with G-d is seen and felt in the physical world. Circumcision represents the true infinity of G-d. It expresses that G-d is not confined to the infinite but rather He can be found in the finite as well. 

Thus, immediately after the circumcision, in the opening phrase of this week’s portion, a new stage in Abraham’s life begins. The Torah relates: 

Now the Lord appeared to him in the plains of Mamre, and he was sitting at the entrance of the tent when the day was hot. (Genesis 18:1)

The extraordinary novelty of this verse is not that, for the first time, G-d appeared to Abraham in the middle of the day, while sitting at the door of his tent waiting for guests. In fact, what was exceptional was that Abraham experienced the revelation while simultaneously receiving his guests. As a result of the circumcision, physical reality was no longer a distraction from the Divine. The seemingly impassable gulf between heaven and earth, between material and spiritual, was bridged. Abraham could now experience G-d’s revelation while interacting with other human beings. 

Only after the circumcision was Abraham capable of fathering Isaac. It was Isaac’s descendants who would accept the Torah at Sinai, and who would be tasked with the responsibility of connecting heaven and earth, infusing the physical reality with holiness through performing the commandments of the Torah.

The Torah relates that while experiencing the Divine revelation Abraham saw three people. Abraham ran toward them to invite them into his home. Abraham said: 

"My lord, if only I have found favor in your eyes, please do not pass on from beside your servant.” (ibid. 18:3)

One interpretation is that Abraham was talking to the leader of the three guests, asking the guests to enter his tent. Another interpretation is that Abraham was talking to G-d; asking G-d to stand by and not leave Abraham’s presence while Abraham tended to his guests. 

Contemporary commentators suggest that when Abraham said to G-d, “do not pass on from beside your servant”, do not leave me while I interact with  people, Abraham was requesting that he be allowed to experience this newfound spiritual awareness. He was asking G-d for the ability to feel connected to G-d not only while engaging in spiritual pursuits but also while interacting with people. Abraham desired  to feel the connection to G-d in every activity he engaged in, thus sanctifying every aspect of life. 

(Adapted from Likutey Sichos Lech Licha vol. 1, Abarbenel, and commentary by Sivan Rahav Meir). 

Relationships Require Two Wings 

A bird cannot fly with one wing alone, and relationships cannot survive on love alone. To escape the pull of gravity, a relationship requires both the passion of love and the discipline of devotion and commitment. 

The story of Abraham is told primarily in two portions of the Torah, Lech Lecha and Vayera. Lech Lecha tells of Abraham’s life up until his circumcision at age ninety nine. Vayera opens with the scene of Abraham, experiencing the pain of circumcision, sitting at the opening of his tent and seeking guests to invite: 

And he lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, three men were standing beside him, and he saw and he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent, and he prostrated himself to the ground. (Genesis, 18:2).

The sages explain that the three people were in fact three angels, each assigned with a specific task. The Zohar, however, states that the three people appearing at Abraham’s tent represent the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What is the significance of the three angels representing the three patriarchs? 

Each of the Patriarchs embodied one of the three primary emotional attributes: Abraham embodied love (or giving), Isaac embodied awe (or discipline), and Jacob embodied compassion. [Kindness seeks to give to everyone, because it sees good in everyone; discipline, the opposite extreme, seeks to restrict the giving to those who deserve it. Compassion blends the two, on the one hand it acknowledges that not everyone is deserving, on the other hand, it is prepared to give to someone who is in need, even if undeserving].   

Abraham was the embodiment of love, his entire life was about kindness, inviting guests, feeding travelers, and seeking to enlighten the people around him. Yet, love alone is not enough for a meaningful relationship. Ultimately all love is motivated by self love. A person loves someone or something because of how the person or the experience makes them feel. To transcend the self and connect to someone else, one needs commitment and devotion, or, in the language of the Torah, awe. The ability  to put oneself  aside and to do what the other person wants, despite it not being something one wants to do. 

Indeed, the circumcision begins the process of Abraham being called upon to sacrifice for G-d (indeed, while the first portion of Abraham’s life primarily depicts Abraham’s love for G-d, the second portion, culminating in the ultimate sacrifice, the binding of Isaac, expresses how Abraham was called upon to express, not love, but disciplined commitment).  

This, explains the Chassidic Masters, is the significance of the three men, representing the three patriarchs, who appeared at Abraham’s tent after the circumcision. They represent a combination of all three attributes. By not being satisfied with love alone, but rather, by exhibiting disciplined commitment, Abraham reached the level of true service of G-d; embodying the ability to blend the two opposite emotions of love (Abraham) and awe (Isaac), blended together through compassion (Jacob).

The stories of the Patriarchs are relevant to each of our lives. In our relationship with G-d, as well as in our relationship with other people, we must cultivate both “wings” to allow the relationship to soar. We must cultivate both  love and commitment, the desire to become one and the discipline to respect our differences. Both wings are held together with the compassionate ability to balance the two.   

(Adapted from Kedushas Levi)

The Disagreement Between Abraham and Sarah 

Abraham and Sarah, the Patriarch and Matriarch of the Jewish people, were loving partners in marriage and partners in their spiritual path of monotheism. They dedicated their lives to serving G-d and spreading awareness of G-d throughout the land. There was, however, one major disagreement between Abraham and Sarah. They disagreed about how to relate to Ishmael, Abraham's oldest son, born to his maidservant Hagar. As the Torah describes: 

And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, making merry. And Sarah said to Abraham, "Drive out this handmaid and her son, for the son of this handmaid shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac." (Genesis 21:9-11)

The divergent perspective of Abraham and Sarah was a result of their specific spiritual purpose. Abraham's mission was to spread monotheism to the entire world. G-d added the Hebrew letter Hey (which is the dominant letter in the Hebrew word Hamon which means many) to Abraham's name (changing the name from Abram to Abraham), because, as the verse states, "I have made you the father of a multitude of nations." In contrast, Sarah's primary spiritual mission was to cultivate and nurture the Jewish people. Therefore, when Ishamel was a threat to Isaac's spiritual development, Sarah demanded that Ishmael be sent away because the Jewish people were destined to emerge from Issac. To Abraham, however, the notion of sending away Ishamel was painful, not only because he was his son, but also because Abraham had a responsibility as the spiritual father and mentor of many nations, including the ones who would emerge from Ishamel. 

G-d intervened and sided with Sarah: 

And G-d said to Abraham, "Be not displeased concerning the lad and concerning your handmaid; whatever Sarah tells you, hearken to her voice, for in Isaac will be called your seed. (Genesis 21:12)

G-d told Abraham to send away Ishmael in order to protect Issac; in that sense, G-d agreed with Sarah. Yet, G-d also reiterated to Abraham that Ishamel was his child and that Abraham's influence and blessings would extend beyond the Jewish people: 

But also the son of the handmaid I will make into a nation, because he is your seed." (Genesis 21:13)

We are descendants and heirs to the legacy of both Abraham and Sarah. Like Sarah, we have a responsibility to maintain and defend the distinct Jewish spiritual path and way of life. Yet, like Abraham, we have the responsibility to positively influence all of humanity. Perhaps the Torah is telling us that in order to influence Ishmael, we must first cultivate and protect Isaac. In order to contribute our unique contribution to humanity, we must first cultivate our Jewish Identity.  

The Advantage of Brit Milah at Eight Days Old

Sibling rivalry is not a new phenomenon. It is a recurring theme in the book of Genesis.

The Midrash describes a rivalry between Abraham's two sons, Yishmael and Isaac, as to whose relationship with G-d was more "beloved". Yishmael contended that his connection was more profound as he was circumcised at the age of thirteen years old, when he had the ability to protest. Yet, Isaac countered that his relationship with G-d was more profound since he was circumcised at eight days old: 

Yitzchak and Yishmael contended with each other. Yishmael argued, "I am more beloved than you because I was circumcised when I was thirteen years old." Yitzchak countered, "I am more beloved than you because I was circumcised at eight days." (Bereishis Rabbah, Vatera 55:4)

While Yishmael’s argument is clear, Isaac's is not at all obvious. What possible advantage is there to circumcision at eight days, when the child has no understanding of the act and no ability to consent? 

Yishmael and Isaac represent two perspectives on the relationship with G-d. Yishmael argued that the relationship is predicated on, and proportional to, the person's appreciation of G-d and desire to connect to him. Isaac, however, understood that a human being cannot overcome the unbridgeable gap between a finite person and the infinite creator. Only G-d Himself can fuse creator and creation. Isaac understood that we don't create a relationship with G-d; but rather, by fulfilling a commandment, G-d binds himself to the person. 

The Torah describes the covenant of circumcision as an everlasting covenant: "My covenant shall be in your flesh as an everlasting covenant." Isaac understood that nothing a human being can accomplish is eternal. The everlasting covenant is achieved by G-d alone. Isaac, therefore, argued that when a child is circumcised at eight days old, without any input on his part, it is clear and evident that the bond is real, that it is everlasting, because it is achieved by the infinite G-d. 

One lesson from Yishmael and Isaac's debate is that Yishmael argued that since the human being creates the relationship, it has to be developed gradually over time. Yishmael argued that it takes years to build a connection based on appreciation and desire. Isaac teaches us that the most profound, eternal bond can happen instantaneously. All we need to do is perform a commandment which invites G-d to create the eternal bond. 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Vayera 25:3 and Achron Shel Pesach 5741.

Chayey Sarah

The Marriage of Heaven and Earth

Abraham is, undoubtedly, one of the most successful people in history. He began with an idea that pitted him against the entire world. He was called Abraham the Hebrew - etymologically the word Hebrew means “from the other side” - not just because he arrived in Israel from the other side of the river, but because, figuratively, he was “on the other side” of society’s belief system. While society was pagan, only Abraham was the Hebrew, “on the other side”, the outcast the believer in one G-d.  

Today, three millenniums later, Abraham’s ideas succeeded in becoming mainstream. A majority of the world’s population, more than 3.8 billion people, consider themselves adherents to an Abrahamic religion. 

How did Abraham view is achievements during his lifetime? What did he see as his mission, and how did he evaluate his accomplishments? 

In this week's Parsha we read about Abraham dispatching his servant Eliezer to the Land of Charan to find a wife for his son Isaac. While instructing Eliezer about the details of his mission, Abraham assures Eliezer that G-d will help him succeed in finding a proper match for Isaac. Abraham says:

The Lord, God of the heavens, Who took me from my father's house and from the land of my birth, and Who spoke about me, and Who swore to me, saying, 'To your seed will I give this land' He will send His angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there. 

Rashi, the classic commentator of the Torah, is intrigued by Abraham’s description of G-d. In this verse Abraham refers to G-d only as the “G-d of heavens”, yet in an earlier verse Abraham refers to G-d as the “the God of the heaven and the God of the earth”. Why the change? Rashi explains that Abraham was telling Eliezer:  

“Now He is the God of the heaven and the God of the earth, because I have made Him familiar in the mouths of the people, but when He took me from my father’s house, He was the God of the heavens but not the God of the earth, because mankind did not acknowledge Him, and His name was not familiar on the earth.”

Abraham is telling Eliezer that when he first heeded G-d’s calling, leaving his father’s home and journeying to what would become the land of Israel, G-d was only the G-d of the heavens. Now,  after decades of work in the land of Israel, G-d is not only the G-d of heaven but he is also the G-d of the earth, he is at home not only in heaven but also on earth. 

This is Abraham’s achievement. Abraham is not satisfied with a G-d in heaven, Abraham wants G-d to be felt right here on earth. 

Each of our lives is comprised of "heaven" and "earth". There are moments when we are in "heaven", we are connecting to spirituality. praying, performing acts of kindness, studying Torah, and feeling connected to the Divine. 

Then, there are the "earth" moments. Moments when we feel that our existence is mundane. we may be at work, eating lunch, running errands, sitting in traffic, and the list goes on. 

Abraham teaches us that the core of Judaism is to bridge the gap between heaven and earth. The message of Judaism is that G-d wants to feel at home not only in heaven but also on earth. that we can and should infuse our earthly activities with spirituality and meaning. 

Abraham teaches us, that to be a Jew is to experience that G-d is "God of the heaven and the God of the earth". 

The Emissary 

Who is the most important character in the book of Genesis? Who is the character that we can most identify with? 

That character is not one of our three patriarchs or four matriarchs, not one of their children or relatives and not one of the twelve tribes of Israel. 

That character, in whom we see our own story, is none other than the hero of this week’s Torah portion: Eliezer the servant of Abraham. 

The patriarchs and matriarchs are more than just the founding fathers and mothers of our people. According to the Kabbalistic teachings, they are our patriarchs and matriarchs because the soul of each and every individual Jew is comprised of the qualities and attributes embodied by them.

And yet, often, it can be hard for us to identify with our patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Midrash teaches us that “The Patriarchs are truly the [Divine] chariot”, just as a chariot has no will of it’s own, and is but a vehicle for the rider, so too the Patriarchs served as a vehicle for nothing but the Divine Will.  

So while our soul possesses love, the attribute of Abraham, awe and discipline, the attribute of Isaac, and compassion, the attribute of Jacob, we also hang on to our own identity. We navigate through life, and we want to know “what’s in it for me”. We don’t always identify with the “chariot” of our history, with those men and women who saw themselves exclusively as chariots to the divine will.    

Enter Eliezer. 

Eliezer was the servant of Abraham, dispatched to a distant land to find a bride for Isaac. Eliezer was entrusted with facilitating the marriage that would produce the Jewish people, whose job it would be to bring heaven and earth together in marriage.  

Eliezer himself had mixed feelings about his mission. On the one hand, he understood the importance of fulfilling Abraham’s request of finding a wife for Isaac from among Abraham’s family, but on the other hand he had a psychological resistance to the success of the mission. According to the Midrash, Eliezer hoped that his own daughter would be the one to marry Isaac, thus, the success of his mission would spell the end of his own personal aspiration. 

Before Eliezer embarked on his mission he said to Abraham: 'Perhaps the woman will not follow me?'. Rashi points out that there was a deeper meaning to this innocent sounding question:

Perhaps the woman will not follow me: It [the word אֻלַי (perhaps)] is written [without a “vav” and may be read] אֵלַי (to me). Eliezer had a daughter, and he was looking for a pretext so that Abraham would tell him, to turn to him, to marry off his daughter to him (Isaac).

Eliezer is not a son who is capable of completely surrendering himself to his parents. Eliezer is an independent person. An Emissary. An individual with his own personality, perspective and agenda. And yet, it is specifically Eliezer, despite his misgivings about the mission, who succeeds in his mission of arranging the marriage. Despite his own doubts and misgivings, he is the one who, relying on his own initiative, using his own creativity, employing his own judgment, is instrumental in the marriage that would perpetuate Abraham’s legacy for all future generations. 

If the purpose of creation is to bring together spirit and matter, then that purpose must be carried out by people like you and me, who, like Eliezer, possess both polar opposites within themselves. By combining our own identity and perspective with the perspective of the Divine we are able to use our personal gifts, talents and unique touch to carry out the vision of the creator. Only when the two diametrical parts of ourselves, the voice of Abraham and the voice of our own individuality, collaborate to achieve one goal,  are we able to unite our internal ”heaven” and “earth”, are we able to accomplish the purpose of creation of the universe  and fuse the material with the spiritual. 

Abraham the Landowner

The first recorded real estate deal negotiated by a Jew appears in this week’s Torah portion, when Abraham sought to purchase a piece of land in order to bury his beloved wife Sarah. 

What emerges from the transcript of the conversation between Abraham and the sellers, the children of Chet, is that the children of Chet had enormous respect for Abraham, they refer to him as “a prince of G-d”, they were happy to allow him to bury Sarah anywhere he would chose, including in the “the choicest of our graves”. Yet, while they were happy to gift the land to Abraham they were reluctant to sell any real estate to him. As the Torah relates: 

And the sons of Chet answered Abraham, saying to him, "Listen to us, my lord; you are a prince of God in our midst; in the choicest of our graves bury your dead. None of us will withhold his grave from you to bury your dead."

Indeed, when Abraham identified the piece of land he wanted to purchase, the cave of Machpela, situated in the field of a man by the name of Ephron, the same attitude prevailed: Ephron did not want to sell the land, instead he offered to gift the field to Abraham free of charge. Only after Abraham insisted that he wanted to pay the full price did Ephron agree to sell the land for an astronomical sum.   

Why were the children of Chet and Ephron reluctant to sell to Abraham? Was it just a negotiating tactic to extract a higher price for the desired field? 

Nachmanides, the great 13th century Biblical commentary, explains that the sale of the land to Abraham was a political statement, because, in that culture, owning a plot of land for burial was a symbol of permanent residence. The children of Chet considered owning a plot for burial to be a symbol of deep rooted connection to the land, they therefore would grant any sojourner an individual place for burial, but would only sell a burial plot to members of their own tribe. Thus selling land to Abraham for burial was an acknowledgement that the connection of Abraham and his family to the land was deep as well as eternal. 

Like every story in the Torah, this story too has multiple layers. In addition to the political interpretation offered by Nachmanides there is also a philosophical interpretation which explains the reluctance of the children of Chet to sell land to Abraham, specifically because of the high esteem in which they held Abraham.  

The children of Chet had great respect for Abraham, and understood that he was a deeply spiritual person, who believed in, and was completely devoted to, an intangible, infinite G-d. They referred to him as “prince of G-d”, they were privileged to honor him and allow him to use any piece of land he desired. Yet they did not think it befitting for Abraham to actually own the land, because a title holder was granted the right to voice an opinion and have a vote on matters relevant to the local economy and everyday life. The children of Chet strongly believed that someone as intensely spiritual as Abraham should remain in the world of abstract ideas and not get involved in the tangible details of daily life and the local economy.    

Abraham insisted otherwise and he eventually persuaded the children of Chet to agree with him. Abraham explained to them that the sacred is not reserved for the house of worship, that holiness is not exclusive to the realm of ideas. Abraham taught that the calling of a Jew is to bring heaven down to earth, to infuse every aspect of life with spirituality. Abraham taught that a Jew must be a “landowner”. He or she must take ownership of the tangible earth and sanctify it with holiness and meaning. 

The Genesis of Liberty

Liberty and freedom are fundamental to the Torah’s values, teachings and stories. The struggle for liberty and freedom plays out dramatically and powerfully in the second book of the five books of Moses. Yet a careful read of the first book, the book of Genesis shows that liberty is embedded from very beginning, early on in the life and teachings of Abraham our first patriarch. 

Let us begin with this week’s portion, the portion of Chayey Sarah. Most of the portion is dedicated to the story of how Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, was dispatched to Charan to find a wife for Isaac, Abraham's son. The Torah relates how Abraham requested that Isaac only marry someone from Abraham’s own birthplace. 

[This pattern continued in the next generation. Rebecca, Isaac's wife, insisted that her son Jacob not marry a woman from the land of Canaan but rather she instructed her son to go back to Charan, her birth place, and marry from amongst her own family].

Why not marry someone from the land of Canaan? Wasn't the land of Canaan the place where G-d instructed Abraham to travel to, “go to yourself”, “to the land that I will show you”? 

To understand the nature of Canaan we must try to figure out who Canaan was, what his value system, culture and belief system were. When we journey back in the story we read about Noah and his three sons who were saved from the flood. The youngest of the children was Ham the father of Canaan. 

After the flood, the first thing Noah did was plant a vineyard. The Torah tells us: 

And Noah began to be a master of the soil, and he planted a vineyard.

And he drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent.

And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father's nakedness, and he told his two brothers outside. And Shem and Japheth took the garment, and they placed [it] on both of their shoulders, and they walked backwards, and they covered their father's nakedness, and their faces were turned backwards, so that they did not see their father's nakedness.”

Noah awoke from his wine, and he knew what his small son had done to him. And he said, "Cursed be Canaan; he shall be a slave among slaves to his brethren." [Genesis 9:20-25]. 

What is the meaning of the curse “he will be a slave”? Does it mean, that the Torah condones slavery? More specifically, does it mean that the Torah approved of the descendants of Shem and Japheth enslaving the children of Ham? 

The descendants of Ham believed that the best way to create a successful civilization was through hierarchy; each class submitting to the class above it and ultimately at the top of the pyramid  rests the king to who all must submit. They believed that in order for society to reach its full economic potential, and for society to be strong and protected, the individual must submit to the hierarchy, he must give up a significant portion of his freedom in exchange for the prosperity and security he would receive in return. 

No surprise then that the first king recorded in the Torah was Nimrod, a descendant of Ham. ["Like Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord.” And the beginning of his kingdom was Babylon and Erech and Accad and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. Ibid. 10:9-10] Nimrod was also the one who conceived of the idea to build the tower of Babel, “a tower whose head reaches the heavens”. Nimrod surely understood that no tower can reach the heavens, but this was a political ploy to get the people to submit to a building project that would never be completed. 

Abraham himself [according to some opinions, (see Iben Ezra)] was enthusiastically involved in the building of the tower. The young idealistic Abraham must have been excited by Nimrod’s great vision of transcending the individual and submitting to the collective. Yet, in time, Abraham became disillusioned with Nimrod, Abraham rejected Nimrod and his vision of a society built upon the individual submitting and relinquishing his own freedom in return for economic security. 

Abraham’s spiritual search eventually led him to discover the truth of Monotheism: there is only one source of power in the universe and no other angel, force of nature, or human being has any control.  

Then, in the third portion of the Torah, we read about how G-d appeared  to Abraham  telling him to go to the land of Canaan. The Torah then goes into very specific details about the geo-political state of Canaan at the time: 

Now it came to pass in the days of Amraphel the king of Shinar, Arioch the king of Ellasar, Chedorlaomer the king of Elam, and Tidal the king of Goyim.

That they waged war with Bera the king of Sodom and with Birsha the king of Gomorrah, Shineab the king of Admah, and Shemeber the king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela, which is Zoar.

All these joined in the valley of Siddim, which is the Dead Sea.

For twelve years they served Chedorlaomer, and for thirteen years they rebelled.

And in the fourteenth year, Chedorlaomer came, and the kings who were with him, and they smote the Rephaim in Ashteroth Karnaim and the Zuzim in Ham, and the Emim in Shaveh Kiriathaim. [ibid. 14:1-5]. 

Why so many kings? Because they were the descendants of Ham and Canaan who believed in submitting to the stronger party in order to gain security. Which is why the five kings, in turn submitted to the four kings, each class submitted to the class above it in the hierarchy. But as soon as Abraham arrived on the scene preaching monotheism , things began to change. We read about Lot, Abraham’s nephew, moving to Sedom. What happens next? The king of Sedom, and the five kings rebel against the four kings. Hard not to see the influence of Abraham’s idea of freedom beginning to affect the five kings. 

The four kings, including Nimrod who was mentioned earlier, the first to create a form of an empire, joined the other three kings and crushed the rebellion. Who do they take captive? Who is their true enemy? Not the king of Sedom who rebelled against them, but rather Lot the nephew of Abraham, the one spreading dangerous ideas of freedom. 

Abraham then launched a surprise gorilla attack and defeated the four kings. He risked his life in order to save his nephew, but also to free the land of the oppressive ideology of the four kings, the suppressive ideology of the children of Cham and Canaan. 

The attitude of submission to hierarchy prevalent in the political realm, affected their spiritual beliefs as well. They understood the universe to be a hierarchy of power, with the human being controlled by forces outside of himself. Thus morality, which is based on personal choice, on the freedom to make the right choice, was virtually non existent. For if one is controlled by the gods and powers of nature, then one cannot be asked to fight his own instincts and commit to a moral choice. 

Underlying the stories of the book of Genesis is a culture clash between the philosophy of Cham, which seeks to submit to and serve any power stronger than himself, which denies that the human beings greatest gift is the gift of moral freedom; and the teachings of monotheism as embodied by Abraham who taught that the one G-d endows us with the freedom to choose moralistically. The human being is not controlled by the forces of nature, not by a group of Gods battling with each other over authority, not by instinct and not by astrology. For the only authority in the universe is the one G-d.   

Thus, when Abraham began to search for a wife for his son Isaac, for a matriarch of the future people of Israel, and when Rebecca wanted her son to marry and build the nation that would teach the world about monotheism and the freedom and liberty it inspires, they understood that the culture of Canaan, a culture that believed that the human being is enslaved by his instincts to the forces of nature, must be rejected. 

Thus Abraham turned to his own family, the descendant of Shem son of Noah. For they were open and ready to accept the responsibilities of freedom, the dedication to morality, inspired by the belief in the one G-d.

The Journey Toward Joy

From the dawn of history people have been searching for a sense of joy which is as elusive as it is desirable. 

When Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden in a state of tranquility and spiritual enlightenment, free of worry and hardship, they were unsatisfied, and therefore susceptible to the temptation of the forbidden fruit: 

And the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was a delight to the eyes, and the tree was desirable to make one wise; so she took of its fruit, and she ate, and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate. (Genesis 3:6)

According to the Kabbalah, what Eve wanted more than anything, was not the fruit per se but rather she was seeking  a feeling of the subjective self. In Eden there was no feeling of self, only an awareness of the Divine presence. The serpent showed Eve that one could experience a sense of self which created  desire. Fulfilling one’s own desire and pleasure, argued the serpent, is the way joy can be achieved. Unfortunately, experiencing the sense of ego resulted in  tragic consequences. In a matter of a few generations humanity had deteriorated, the world was filled with moral corruption, and G-d brought the flood upon the earth.   

As soon as Noah disembarked from the ark, we read: 

And Noah began to be a master of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. And he drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent. (ibid. 9:21)

Noah was no simple drunk who was finally able to get back the bottle after a full year in the ark. Drinking wine was Noah’s attempt to correct the spiritual effect of the sin of the tree of knowledge which brought about the moral depravity which ultimately led to the flood. Noah understood that ever since Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden mankind  possessed the feeling of self, which among other things, focused their attention on their own needs. This led  to selfishness which robbed them  of happiness. For the ego is never satisfied with what it has, however much it has it always desires more. 

Noah wanted to reverse the course of human psychology, he desired to break free of the confines of the ego, and, at least temporarily  escape the feeling of self. He hoped that getting drunk would suspend the sense of self and would bring about  bliss and joy. 

Very quickly, however, Noah learned that the route to joy is not the suspension of consciousness through consuming alcohol. That episode did not end well.

And then came Sarah our matriarch. According to the Kabbalists Sarah was the first person to achieve the wholesome experience of a joyous life. She was the first to “correct” the negative behavior of Eve and Noah. Sarah understood that the path to joy does not run through the experience of self, like the pleasure of the fruit of the tree of knowledge; nor can it be achieved by escaping self awareness as Noah attempted to do. Sarah understood that while we cannot go back in time and return to Eden,while we cannot liberate ourselves from the sense of self, we can achieve joy by devoting ourselves to something greater than ourselves. When our sense of self is part of a transcendent experience, we are able to escape the ego without destroying awareness.

As a consequence of the sin of the tree of knowledge, G-d told Eve “in sadness you shall bear children. (ibid. 3:16)”.  For in a world where people perceive themselves, there is pleasure but also sadness. Yet, many generations later, Sarah understood that devoting oneself to raising a child, devoting oneself to a purpose beyond one's own self, is a model for becoming holy and achieving joy. Indeed when Sarah gave birth she named her son Isaac, which means joy and laughter. She modeled the transformation from pain to joy not only for herself but also for everyone around her, as the Torah relates,And Sarah said, "God has made joy for me; whoever hears will rejoice over me." (ibid. 20:6)

Sarah teaches us that in order to transcend the ego which stifles joy, one must transcend oneself by being part of a greater story and a greater mission; a mission to make the world a better place by carrying out the Divine purpose of creation.    

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Vayihiyu Chayey Sarah 5741).

The Double Cave 

Mearat Hamachpela, “the double cave”, was the place Abraham chose to purchase for the burial of his wife Sarah. The Torah describes how Abraham negotiated and ultimately purchased the cave, yet the Torah does not explain why Abraham chose that particular spot, which ultimately became the burial spot of our patriarchs and matriarchs (excluding Rachel). 

In order to discover the mystical and spiritual significance of the cave we must first explore why the cave was called “the double cave”. The Talmud relates:  

With regard to the Machpelah Cave, in which the patriarchs and matriarchs are buried, Rav and Shmuel disagreed. One said: The cave consists of two rooms, one further in than the other. And one said: It consists of a room and a second story above it. (Eiruvin 53a)

The Chassidic masters explain that the configuration of the cave explained in the Talmud is a physical representation of a spiritual reality. The patriarchs and matriarchs embodied the concept of “the double cave” in their lifetime, they therefore merited to be buried in that holy spot, which, as explained in the Zohar, is the “opening of Eden”, it is the place on earth that represents the entrance to heaven. This is the meaning of “the double cave”, the space of the cave is “double”, it possesses a dual reality, it is the place where dimensions of both earth and heaven, of physical and spiritual, are present. 

The Chassidic masters elaborate: one opinion in the Talmud is that the word “double” refers to the cave consisting of two stories, one above the other. This represents the awareness that every person possesses two dimensions, one above the other; the first level represents ordinary material life, in which we are preoccupied primarily with the needs of our body, and “above” the physical reality is the domain of the soul, the higher more spiritual side of self. The patriarchs and matriarchs teach us to live in both these dimensions simultaneously, not to be satisfied with a materialistic definition of self, but rather to seek and experience our heavenly dimension, to feel the yearning of our soul to ascend to its source within G-d himself. 

Once we are in touch with the “higher story” dimension of life we can appreciate the other interpretation in the Talmud, which is that the cave was called “double” because it consisted of an outer chamber and an inner chamber. The symbolism of “two rooms, one further in than the other” is that in every person we meet, and every experience we encounter, we have a choice to focus exclusively on the externality of the person or experience, or we can look deeper and see the “inner room”, the inner soul and spark of G-d that  lies hidden within every person we meet and every experience we encounter. 

The double cave represents the legacy our patriarchs and matriarchs pass on to us. We should live to its fullest, not being satisfied with the shallow and superficial dimension of existence. We must seek to experience both the “room and a second story above it”, both our physical awareness as well as the heavenly source of our soul. The awareness of both dimensions of self will allow us to see, not only the outer chamber, the external, but also the inner chamber, the deepest holy core of every person and of every experience. 

(Adapted from the Sfas Emes)

The Meaning of Kindness 

When it came time for Isaac to marry, Abraham called his servant Eliezer and appointed him to go to Abraham's birthplace to find a wife for Isaac. 

And Abraham said to his servant, the elder of his house, who ruled over all that was his, "Please place your hand under my thigh. And I will adjure you by the Lord, the God of the heaven and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, in whose midst I dwell. But you shall go to my land and to my birthplace, and you shall take a wife for my son, for Isaac." (Genesis 24:2-4)

The commentators explain that the Canaanite girls were unkind. Abraham understood that the most important criteria in  marriage and the foundational quality for the matriarch of the Jewish people is kindness. Indeed, when Eliezer arrived in Charan, he created a test to determine which girl possesses the attribute of kindness. 

Analyzing Eliezer's test gives us insight into the true meaning of kindness. The Torah relates:

And the servant ran toward her, and he said, "Please let me sip a little water from your pitcher." And she said, "Drink, my lord." And she hastened and lowered her pitcher to her hand, and she gave him to drink. And she finished giving him to drink, and she said, "I will also draw for your camels, until they will have finished drinking." And she hastened, and she emptied her pitcher into the trough, and she ran again to the well to draw water, and she drew for all his camels. (Genesis 24:17-20)

Eliezer asked for a sip of water. Yet Rebekah understood that the full extent of kindness is not merely responding to a request. Rebekah understood that beneath the articulated need lie a deeper need.

This story is relevant to each of us. In our relationships, we sometimes wait for a child, spouse, colleague or friend, to articulate what they need, and when they do, we try to provide support. Rebekah, on the other hand, teaches us to look for the deeper need that is not articulated. Rebekah teaches us to be present and in tune with the people around us. Rebekah teaches us that true kindness begins with a deep awareness of another person, which allows us to give without waiting to be asked. 

Love and Marriage

This is a Parsha about a matchmaker, Abraham's servant Eliezer, and his efforts to create a marriage between two very different people. Isaac was raised in a holy environment. From the moment he was offered as an offering to G-d at the binding of Isaac, he was considered sacred and was not permitted to leave the land of Israel. Rebecca, by contrast, was raised in a distant land surrounded by less-than-honest people. Isaac was an introvert; discipline and "strength" was the dominant emotion in his personality, whereas Rebecca was the opposite, the epitome of outstanding kindness and giving. Yet, despite this seemingly unlikely match, theirs is the first marriage in the Torah that describes love. 

Perhaps the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca offers lessons on how to reach and maintain true and lasting love. Perhaps the first lesson is that the foundation of a healthy relationship is not love but respect. While both love and respect are essential for a relationship, love without respect, the expansion of self that does not consider the other person and their needs, can be overwhelming and even hurtful. Love, the desire to connect to another person, must be predicated on respecting the other person's needs, personality, and perspective. Indeed, the first time Rebecca meets Isaac, the scene describes not euphoric love but rather awe and respect. As the verse states: 

Rebecca lifted her eyes, and saw Isaac, and she let herself down from the camel. And she said to the servant, "Who is that man walking in the field towards us?" And the servant said, "He is my master." And she took the veil and covered herself.

The Torah then describes their marriage and love: 

And Isaac brought her to the tent of Sarah, his mother, and he took Rebecca, and she became his wife, and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted for [the loss of] his mother.

Perhaps counterintuitively, and sometimes overlooked, is that "and he loved her" is written not as a reason for the marriage but rather as a result of the marriage. The Torah may be signaling that true love is a process that takes time to develop. True love is developed by many small acts of consideration, giving, and kindness. The act of giving is not merely the result of love; but rather, it can be the cause that intensifies love. The more kindness we bestow in a relationship, the more love we will experienc


Your Heart and Your Mind

Your mind and heart are opposites. 

Your mind breaks everything into small bite size pieces, while your heart sweeps everything in as one. 

Your heart, knows no details. If your heart is in love, it is in live completely. If it loves someone, then the totality of that person, with all his or her complexities, are all swept up in the love. In the moment of love there can be no annoying details. If someone tells you ‘I love all of you except for one small detail about you that annoys me’, then you know it is not their heart talking it’s their mind talking. for the heart is blind to detail. If her heart loves you then she sees no bad in you.   

Your mind, on the other hand, is analytical. It breaks an idea into small parts, it analyzes them, accepting some polishing others and throwing some out. When something exciting happens, your mind’s job is to cool you down. It knows that, indeed, the news is exciting, but it is smart enough to know that ‘the devil is in the details’. The mind gets paid to tell you things like: ‘sure you love the new job offer, but are you really willing to put up with the extra commute time?’, or ‘sure he makes you happy, but is he really right for you?’.

So the next time you are not sure if what you love is right for you, and you take a sheet of paper and list the pros and cons, what you are doing is applying the analytical mind to the passionate heart. This application does not come without a cost. You see, the reason the heart can get so much more excited then the mind is precisely because it does not look at details. For when you weigh every detail individually, somehow, the magic escapes. 

But following the passionate heart, is also not a great solution. Sure, the passion and drive are powerful forces that can propel you to great heights, but, like the saying goes, it’s like ‘the blind leading the blind’. Follow your hearts passion, without the mind’s approval, and you may end up in places you don’t want to be. For the heart is from the world of ‘Chaos’, intense passion bit no direction, and the mind is all about ‘Order’. And the holistic lifestyle is the one where the mind, cool and collected, shows the heart where to express it’s passion. In Kabbalistic terminology: only the world of order can elevate the world of chaos. 

This, says Chasidic philosophy, explains all you need to know about Esau and Jacob. 

Isaac loved Esau. Why? Because he saw the energy of chaos. For the Judaism to survive, argues Isaac, you need passion, commitment, and emotional strength. The intellectual may have the right ideas, but he also has no drive to fight for, and protect, those ideas. You need an Esau to carry, safeguard, and implement your message. 

Rebecca disagrees. 

Esau has awesome potential. Indeed. But he needs Jacob as his compass. Give Esau the blessings and you risk him using them to further his base desires rather than the perpetuation of his grandfather's legacy. So she convinces a reluctant Jacob to steal the blessings designed for Esau. She understands, that we need Esau’s great quality. But Esau’s chaotic power needs direction. 

It needs a Jacob.      

The Deception

In what is one of the most dramatic stories in the Torah, we read about Jacob’s epic deception, he tricked his father Isaac, presenting himself as his older brother Esau, thus stealing the blessing from Esau. 

This story raises many questions: 

Why did Isaac, the quintessential spiritual person, someone who was prepared to offer himself as a sacrifice to G-d, want to bless his older son, the one who abandoned the tents of study and who spent his time out in the field leading a hunter’s lifestyle?

Why did Rebecca conspire to trick her husband Isaac? If she felt, as she did, that her younger son, Jacob, was deserving of the blessings, why did she not speak to her husband and convince him of her perspective?  

Why the deception?

To understand the story we must look at the actual blessing that Isaac was about to give. Isaac opened his blessings to his son, whom he thought was Esau, with the words: 

And may the Lord give you of the dew of the heavens and [of] the fatness of the earth and an abundance of grain and wine. Nations shall serve you and kingdoms shall bow down to you; you shall be a master over your brothers, and your mother's sons shall bow down to you. Those who curse you shall be cursed, and those who bless you shall be blessed."  

The blessing that Jacob received through deception was a blessing for material success. Only later in the story, when Isaac sent Jacob to the land of Charan, did Isaac bless Jacob with the spiritual blessing of the legacy of Abraham and the land of Israel: 

And Isaac called Jacob and blessed him... And may the Almighty God bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, and you shall become an assembly of peoples. And may He give you the blessing of Abraham, to you and to your seed with you, that you may inherit the land of your sojournings, which God gave to Abraham."

Isaac never intended to bless Esau with the spiritual blessing and make him the bearer of the legacy of Abraham. Isaac understood that the studious Jacob was the one fit to carry forth the teachings of Judaism. Isaac intended to bless Esau with a blessing of material prosperity. Isaac hoped that a partnership between the secular Esau and the spiritual Jacob would ensure the future of the legacy of Abraham. 

Isaac’s plan was not meant to be. 

Rebecca understood that the spiritual blessing, the “blessing of Abraham”, which naturally was Jacob’s domain, as well as the blessing of material success, “the dew of the heaven and the fat of the land”, which naturally was Esau’s domain, must both be given to Jacob. She understood that, in Judaism’s view, the material cannot be separated from the spiritual. She understood that materialism devoid of spirituality and spirituality that does not affect the material are both deeply problematic. She understood that Jacob, the spiritual person, must also possess the material blessings. 

And here we arrive at the spiritual meaning of deception. 

The first instance where the Torah mentions deception is in the context of the sin of the tree of knowledge. The Torah tells us that the serpent who enticed Eve to see “that the tree was good for food and that it was a delight to the eyes” “was cunning, more than all the beasts of the field”. Thus there is a connection between the cunning snake and the deception of Jacob. The Torah teaches us that the deception of the snake can only be corrected by the deception of Jacob.

According to the Zohar, the primary book of Jewish mysticism, Rebecca and Jacob represent Adam and Eve, who, after being deceived by the serpent, were now using cunningness to correct the effect of the snake’s deception.  

What is deception? 

Deception occurs when the inner and outer layers are not in sync. When a person’s external actions are inconsistent with their inner motives they are being deceptive. When the serpent told Eve to focus on the outer layer of reality of the fruit of the tree, that it appeared delightful to the eyes, but not on its inner energy and purpose, that was deception. 

And when the intensely spiritual Jacob, sought material blessing, when he invested his ambition in the achievement of material success, he was also being deceptive. Jacob’s seeming interest in materialism, was indeed a deception. For in truth Jacob’s inner desire was to serve his spiritual legacy. 

On the surface it appeared that Jacob was like the rest of them. That he desired the dew and the fat of the land, the grain and the wealth for its own sake. But that was but a  deception. Nothing could be farther from the truth. For Jacob desired material blessing in order to advance his spiritual goals. Jacob wanted the dew and the grain, not for its own sake but rather in order to successfully perpetuate the “blessing of Abraham”.    

Happiness vs. Ambition 

The art of living a good life is the art of maintaining a balance between happiness and ambition. 

Happiness and ambition, while they are both important to our physical and mental well being, are contradictory feelings that, in some cases, can undermine each other. To be happy is to be content with one’s lot, while to be ambitious one must feel that what one has is not enough. To be happy one must feel satisfied while to be ambitious one must feel hungry. To feel happiness is to feel that there is no gap between what you have and what you want, while ambition is motivated by seeing the great gap between what you have already achieved and what remains to be achieved.   

The tension between happiness and ambition, between feeling close to one’s goals and distant from them, expresses itself in many other areas of life; one example is in the realm of education. 

Say I want to motivate my daughter to tackle a new subject, study a new course of learning and take a test on advanced material. There are two methods I can use to inspire her. I can tell her that the test will not be too hard for her. I can remind her of her gift of intelligence and tell her that if she puts herself to it she will be able to achieve success. What I am doing for her is narrowing the gap between the way she perceives her abilities and the goal. I am telling her that the goal is closer to her than she realizes. 

Another method of inspiration would be to do the exact opposite. The second option would be to widen the gap. I would emphasize to her that the subject material is more difficult and challenging than anything she has experienced in the past. I am cautioning her not to underestimate the daunting task ahead. I am reminding her of the awesomeness of the challenge at hand. I am doing so not in order to scare her away, on the contrary, I am emphasizing the distance of the task in order to inspire her to grow beyond her comfort zone and to outperform the effort she is used to investing. I am emphasizing the distance in order to encourage her to do what it takes to grow into the person who can undertake this challenge.   

These two paths, emphasizing the closeness and emphasizing the distance, were the two paths of our patriarchs, Abraham and Isaac. 

Abraham embodied love. He taught people to develop a love for G-d. Love is only possible when someone feels a degree of closeness to the beloved. Abraham taught people to see that G-d loves them, to feel his closeness and to be inspired by the bond between the creator and his creation. Abraham taught people to rejoice and celebrate in their relationship with G-d. 

Isaac embodied the attribute of awe. Isaac felt the intense unbridgeable gap between the finite creation and the infinite G-d. Isaac felt acutely that no matter how much one achieves, no matter how high one climbs on the ladder of holiness, he is still insignificant compared to the infinite. Isaac perceived the distance that exists between man and his creator. Yet the perception of distance encouraged not a feeling of sadness but rather a feeling of ambition. Feeling the distance encouraged the person to keep evolving and growing in their spiritual journey. 

Which path is the right path? 

To survive in this world we need both happiness and ambition. To enjoy a healthy relationship with G-d we need to experience both love and awe. We need to feel the comfort of G-d’s embrace as well as the ambition to keep climbing, to escape the finite and cling to the infinite. 

To be a healthy Jew we must embody both the attribute of Abraham as well as the attribute of Isaac. We need to be spiritually happy and at the same time spiritually ambitious.  

Keep Laughing 

It’s a strange name to give a child. 

The child of Abraham and Sarah, the first child to be born to a Jewish family, was named Yitzchok, or Isaac, which means laughter. 

Why would Abraham and Sarah chose the name laughter for their child who was destined to be a deeply spiritual person and a patriarch of the Jewish people? 

The name Isaac is even more ironic when we consider that the nature and character of Isaac seems to be the precise opposite of laughter and joy. While Abraham was an outgoing extrovert, Isaac kept to himself; while Abraham is characterized in the Torah as the lover of G-d, Isaac is characterized as being in awe of G-d. While Abraham represents the attribute of kindness and giving, Isaac embodies the attributes of strength and discipline. The name Isaac - Joy and laughter - seems out of character with his identity and spiritual path.     

An important ingredient in humor is that in order to be funny the situation has to be unpredictable and unexpected. The same is true about the broader meaning of the word laughter: a person experiencing a measure of goodness will feel happiness in his heart, yet in order for happiness to overflow from his heart and express itself in laughter he must experience more than the expected measure of joy. Happiness becomes laughter when the joyous event surpasses all expectations. 

The Torah tells us that when Sarah gave birth to her son she said: 

And Sarah said, "God has made joy for me; whoever hears will rejoice over me." And she said, "Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children, for I have borne a son to his old age!" [Genesis 21:6-7]

Sarah’s giving birth to a child in her old age was more than just a happy event, it was an event that defied all expectations. Every time Sarah held her son in her arms she was overwhelmed with joy. The overwhelming joy caused her to name her son Isaac/laughter. 

As Sarah held her son in her arms she knew that just as his birth was an event that defied expectations, so too the people he would  father would be a people whose destiny  would not be defined by predictions and expectations. Their very survival would be a miracle. Sarah understood that while Isaac might not be the most charismatic of the patriarchs, he  would possess the ability to create an unpredictable transformation. He would have the unique ability to defy expectations by finding goodness in the most unlikely of places. 

Indeed, this was a central theme of Isaac's life. While the Torah tells us precious little about the life of Isaac, the Torah does elaborate on Isaac's success as a well digger. The Kabbalists explain that Isaac's wells represent a departure from his father Abraham's approach. Abraham influenced people by “bringing the water to them”. Abraham was a superb teacher and a charismatic communicator. He showered his listeners with love and, by the force of his character, compelled them to be influenced by his message of G-d and morality. Isaac, by contrast, did not bring the water to the people. Instead he helped people find the well within themselves. He helped them realize that they have a wellspring of G-dliness and holiness within themselves. Abraham would teach through sharing the enlightening, Abraham was like a teacher eager to share the answer with the student. Isaac, by contrast, displayed discipline. He would withhold the answer and allow the student to search for the answer on his own. Isaac empowered the student to believe in his own ability to dig within himself, to remove the psychological barriers, and discover the truth on his own.

Which is why Isaac loved Esau. 

Esau was the child who seemed completely uninterested in the ideas of his father and grandfather. He loved the thrill of hunting more than the excitement of ideas. On the surface he seemed to be in a spiritual desert, devoid of spiritual water. Yet Isaac understood that every creation has a spark within it,that every child has a reservoir of pure water within themselves. The job of the parent and educator is to drill the well, remove the dirt and discover the water. 

Thus Isaac embodied laughter. Isaac mastered the skill of seeing the good in unexpected places. He had the ability to mine the holiness that lay in the heart of every person and in the soul of every activity.  

As the children of our patriarchs and matriarchs we are heirs to the qualities and characteristics they embodied. From Isaac we inherited the ability to be joyous in the face of great challenge. From Isaac we learn to expect the unexpected; to believe in ourselves and in the people around us. From Isaac we inherit the power to create laughter, to discover the deeper truth of reality that is not always noticeable to the naked eye. From Isaac we learn to drill beneath the surface and find the holiness in every person and the good in every experience.

Adapted from Torah Or Parshas Toldos (Mayim Rabim).

How to Bless a Rebellious Child

The aging Isaac decided to bless his eldest son Esau, but, strangely, Isaac would not bless Esau until Esau  would prepare food for Isaac, as the Torah relates: 

It came to pass when Isaac was old, and his eyes were too dim to see, that he called Esau his elder son, and he said to him, "My son," and he said to him, "Here I am." 

And he said, "Behold now, I have grown old; I do not know the day of my death.

So, now, sharpen your implements, your sword [and take] your bow, and go forth to the field, and hunt game for me.

And make for me tasty foods as I like, and bring them to me, and I will eat, in order that my soul will bless you before I die." (Genesis 27:1-3)

How is it possible that Isaac, the quintessential spiritual person, who was prepared to offer himself as a sacrifice to G-d, refused to bless his child until his child would offer him a piece of meat?  

In order to understand Isaac’s request for Esau to prepare delicacies, we must first explore the broader question: why would Isaac love Esau the hunter more than Jacob the tent dweller? We would expect that Isaac would appreciate Jacob’s spiritual pursuits more than Esau’s hunting. 

Isaac loved Esau because Isaac saw the potential within Esau’s chaotic passion. Isaac recognized that if Esau would channel his energy to constructive and holy pursuits, he would, with the power of his intense passion, be able to achieve far greater heights than Jacob.

Isaac told Esau “So, now, sharpen your tools, your sword [and take] your bow”. The Hebrew word for Sharpen (“Sa”) also means “raise up”. Isaac told Esau that he would be worthy of blessing if he would elevate his talents and passions. Instead of directing his passion to a destructive goal, he should channel his talents and passions toward the transcendent and holy, toward helping feed another. Isaac was not looking for lunch, he was looking to help Esau discover the pleasure of channeling his energy toward a constructive goal. He was looking to give Esau a model for how to live his life. A model of how to navigate the intense energy within his soul. Isaac was teaching Esau not to suppress his nature  but rather to elevate it. Not to fight it but to channel it. 

We each have both an Isaac and an Esau within our own heart. The Jacob within us seeks the transcendent and the holy, but it lacks the intensity and passion with which the Esau within us pursues its destructive desires. Isaac teaches us that ultimately our purpose is to harmonize the Jacob and the Esau within ourselves. The passion of Esau is should be channeled and focused on the goals of Jacob. 

(Adapted from Rabbi S”R Hirsh.)

The Double Blessing

Isaac assumed that the person standing before him was Esau, his eldest son, who he intended to bless before his passing. Unbeknownst to him it was actually Jacob, his younger son, disguised as Esau. Isaac began the blessing with an unusual choice of words, which offer insight into the nature of this particular blessing which was intended for Esau. 

The opening phrase of the blessing is: ‘May Elokim {G-d} grant you”. Elokim is the name of G-d which expresses concealment, judgment, and withholding. It is an unusual name to be used in association with a blessing. In fact, most blessings in the Torah are associated with the name Hashem, which represents benevolence and revelation. 

The first word of the blessing is “and”, which implies that the statement is a continuation of a previous statement, when in fact, the word “and” is the beginning of the blessing. Rashi explains that the “and” represents a double giving: “May He {G-d} give and repeatedly give”. This explanation, however, prompts another question: why the need for an additional blessing? What is lacking in the first blessing that requires a second blessing? 

The conventional meaning of a blessing is the bestowal of a gift which does not require effort on the part of the recipient. Yet, Isaac’s blessings differed considerably. Unlike Abraham, who embodied loving kindness and giving, Isaac embodied the attributes of discipline and restraint. Isaac's idea of blessing was empowering the recipient to achieve through his or her own effort. Isaac did not suffice with the blessing from above, for he wanted his son to acquire the blessing through his own effort. This can be compared to a student who not only receives information, knowledge  and enlightenment from his teacher, but rather he also learns how to innovate and create new ideas. Isaac blessed his son that he should receive blessing from G-d, {“may He give”}, additionally, his son should tread his own path and create his own blessing {“and return and give”}.

Generally speaking there are two ways of serving G-d: The first is the path of the righteous who follow G-d's directives as spelled out in the Torah. They seek to receive direction and inspiration from above.  Yet, often we are confronted with challenges and confusion, finding ourselves in a state of spiritual darkness, feeling disconnected from the gift of the Torah. At those times we are unable to appreciate the inspiration from above.  When that happens we have no choice but to engage in the second, more profound, form of Divine service: the service of Teshuvah, return to G-d, motivated by the inspiration generated from within the person himself. The service of Teshuvah is a true human innovation for it has the power to elevate negativity by transforming unholy, destructive experiences into fuel for good, motivating a deep longing and yearning for G-d. 

Isaac knew that his son Esau was out of touch with his spiritual source and the Divine potential gifted to him from above. He therefore began the blessing with the name Elokim, which represents G-d’s ability to conceal his awesome presence. Isaac was telling his son that the greatest blessing is the ability to transform the state of 

concealment {which can occur as a result of the name Elokim} through one’s own effort. The greatest blessing is not the one given from above {“may he give”}, but rather the one created by man {“and repeatedly give”}. 

Rebekah, however, understood that Jacob was the one who must receive the blessing intended for Esau. For only the righteous Jacob can harness the profound energy and passion generated by returning to G-d from a place of darkness. In the final analysis, Jacob was the one who could cultivate both qualities, the quality of the righteous as well as the quality of the returnee, thus granting each and every one of his descendants the ability to experience both forms of the divine blessing. 

Based on Lekutei Sichos Toldos, vol. 10 sicha 2.   

Fragrance of Eden  

It is the most suspenseful moment of the story. 

At the behest of his mother Rebecca, Jacob donned the garments of his older brother Esau, he covered his arms and neck with goat skin in order to appear as hairy as Esav. He entered his father’s room hoping to trick his father into blessing him with the blessings with which his father intended to bless Esav. 

Would the deception work? Would Isaac be fooled? 

Isaac hesitated: 

And Isaac said to Jacob, "Please come closer, so that I may feel you, my son, whether you are really my son Esau or not." Jacob drew near to Isaac his father, and he felt him, and he said, "The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau."

Isaac ate the food. He turned to bless his son, but his attention turned toward the garments Jacob was wearing: 

and he (Isaac) smelled the fragrance of his garments, and he blessed him, and he said, "Behold, the fragrance of my son is like the fragrance of a field, which the Lord has blessed!

Why did Isaac's attention drift to the fragrance of the garments? Rashi addresses this question: 

Is it not so that there is no odor more offensive than that of washed goat skins? But this teaches us that the fragrance of the Garden of Eden entered with him.

The fragrance of the garments was the fragrance of the Garden of Eden. Rashi is telling us that in order to understand the story of the blessings, we must keep in mind the fragrance of Eden.  Eden was a place of egoless purity. Adam and Eve felt only their souls when they were in Eden. Their bodies and all bodily functions, eating, drinking and even intimacy and pro creation, were but a garment and a tool for the soul to fulfil its purpose. In Eden, Adam and Eve were naked yet they experienced no shame. The physical reality was not perceived, it was merely an expression of the holiness of the soul.

When Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, they shattered the purity of Eden. They desired the fruit of the tree of knowledge because they wanted to experience a sense of self. They were therefore expelled from the purity of the Garden of Eden. 

Isaac was about to bestow blessings of great material abundance (“And may the Lord give you of the dew of the heavens and the fatness of the earth and an abundance of grain and wine...”). Isaac sensed that his son standing before him possessed the fragrance of Eden. His desire for material success was selfless, and, as in Eden, it was solely for the purpose of serving the soul’s sublime needs. Isaac sensed that within the Jewish people, embodied by Jacob, the desire for material success was not for a self centered materialistic purpose, but rather the desire contained the fragrance of Eden. Because for the Jew, “the dew of the heaven, the fatness of the earth”, as well as the “abundance of grain and wine” is a tool to assist the soul in achieving its mission of filling the earth with goodness and kindness.

Why Esau Wanted to Tithe Salt

Rebecca and Isaac were blessed with twins who were very different from each other: “And the youths grew up, and Esau was a man who understood hunting, a man of the field, whereas Jacob was an innocent man, dwelling in tents {of study}. (Genesis 25:27).” Surprisingly, the intensely spiritual Issac loved Esau: “And Isaac loved Esau because [his] game was in his mouth”. Rashi explains that Issac loved Esau because Esau deceived his father by presenting himself as righteous: 

who understood hunting: [He knew how] to trap and to deceive his father with his mouth and ask him, “Father, how do we tithe salt and straw?” His father thereby thought he was scrupulous in his observance of the commandments. 

Of all the questions Esau could have asked his father, why did he choose to ask about tithing salt and straw, which, according to Jewish law, are exempt from tithing? 

Issac loved Esau and sought to bless him because he hoped that Esau and Jacob would form a partnership whereby Esau would use his material success to support Jacob’s spiritual pursuits. From Isaac’s perspective, materialism is worthwhile and meaningful only when it serves a greater purpose of serving G-d. 

Unfortunately, Esau was not on board. As Rebecca sensed, Esau did not wish to partner with his brother as he desired and valued material success for its own sake.

Esau, therefore, asked about tithing salt and straw, items that are exempt from tithing specifically because they only have value when they are used to perfect something else. Salt seasons a dish, and hay is used to create bricks. Esau expected the salt and straw to be tithed and to be considered inherently significant, as Esau failed to distinguish between what is of primary importance and what is of secondary importance.

Judaism teaches that each and every aspect of our life, including the mundane and material, is significant when and because it serves a higher purpose. Every achievement and success is significant when subordinate to a higher purpose. Our efforts during the six days of the week become significant when they contribute to our experiencing the holiness of Shabbat. It is our job to sanctify every part of our life by viewing it as part of our overarching purpose of serving our Divine mission and purpose. 

Adapted from the Shem Mishmuel


Leah and Rachel 

The complex story of the relationship between Jacob and his wives Leah and Rachel can be understood on many levels, both emotionally and spiritually. 

One way to read the story is to realize that every character in the Torah is also an aspect of every human soul. The stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs, their trials and triumphs, their struggles and their successes, is indeed the story of every Jew. 

Jacob loved Rachel. He wanted to marry her and he was willing to pay any price to be able to do so. And yet, the story gets complicated. He is tricked into marrying Leah, and only then is he able to marry Rachel. The story of Jacob and his children is the story of the tension between his two primary wives and their children. 

The Kabbalists explain that Leah represents the “concealed world” of thought, while Rachel represents the “revealed world” of speech. 

Leah’s children were all highly spiritual. The names Reuben, Shimon, Levi and Judah are names which represent seeing, hearing, committing and submitting to the Divine. That is why, say the Kabbalists, Leah had no problem giving birth in the spiritually challenging environment of Charan. Because no matter how dark the surrounding society is, a person always has the option to retreat into their own “concealed world”, to retreat to their own thoughts and consciousness, where one can always see, hear, connect and submit to the Divine.  

Rachel, however, represents the “revealed world” of speech. Her mission was to articulate her spiritual reality in language that the people around her could understand and appreciate. No wonder that it was challenging for her to conceive. Her children represent the ability to reveal the Divine in the most physical reality. Rachel’s son Joseph is unique among all the sons of Jacob in his ability to remain loyal to the teachings of Judaism while being fully engaged in the material world. Joseph, alone amongst the sons of Jacob, was able to articulate his spiritual truth while simultaneously serving as the Vicar to the king of Egypt, the superpower of the ancient world.     

Jacob loves Rachel. 

Jacob understood that Judaism is about affecting the real world. Jacob understood that the purpose of creation is to imbue this physical world with holiness. He therefore had no interest in Leah’s ability to introspect and connect thought and consciousness to G-d. He was attracted to Rachel’s more difficult and challenging path. He was fascinated by her insistence that everything that she understood and felt must be experienced and articulated in the real world. 

Opposites attract. Jacob - the man who “dwells in the tent” - was attracted to Rachel, to the woman who had the capacity to reveal and express the hidden truths. 

Jacob’s intense desire to marry Rachel was complicated by the Divine plan. Jacob had to first marry Leah and experience her spiritual world, before he could marry Rachel and hope to articulate those ideas to the rest of the world.

This story, like all the stories in the Torah, is a lesson to each Jew. We must love the Rachel within us, we must not be satisfied with living a spiritually introverted life. We must understand that, like Rachel, we have to live in the “revealed world” of speech. We must, however, also cultivate our Leah, our inner spiritual core.   

On the Run 

Jacob was on the run. 

In the beginning of the Torah portion, Jacob was about to embark on the most difficult journey of his life, fleeing his native land of Canaan, and heading towards the spiritually foreign land of Charan.

Jacob spent twenty difficult years in Charan. He faced enormous challenges, yet he emerged tremendously successful. He left Canaan as a single, impoverished man and he emerged from Charan with a family of four wives, eleven children and great wealth. Jacob himself described the contrast between his impoverished lonely self who arrived in Charan and the remarkable wealthy family he had become in the land of Charan. Jacob said to G-d: “for with my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps”.   

In the beginning of the portion, on his way out of Canaan, we read about Jacob’s famous dream of the ladder reaching heaven. In the opening verses of the portion, the Torah relates how Jacob arrived at “the place”, which refers to Mount Moriah, the holiest place to Judaism and the future home of the Holy Temple: 

And he arrived at the place and lodged there because the sun had set, and he took some of the stones of the place and placed [them] at his head, and he lay down in that place. And he dreamed, and behold! a ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven; and behold, angels of God were ascending and descending upon it.

In the last two verses of the portion, describing Jacob’s journey back from Charan, Jacob again encountered angels: 

And Jacob went on his way, and angels of God encountered him. And Jacob said when he saw them, "This is the camp of God," and he named the place Machanaim (camps).

There are at least two major differences between the two encounters. The first difference is: in the beginning of the portion, Jacob had to seek out the angels, Jacob “encountered the place”, while at the end of the portion Jacob did not have to seek out the angels, instead the angels found him, as the verse states “angels of God encountered him”.

The second difference is: in the beginning of the portion Jacob sees the angels in a dream, while at the end of the portion Jacob sees the angels while he was awake.  

The Torah teaches a profound lesson. 

Jacob was forced to leave the holy environment of the “tents of study” and was forced to plunge into a spiritually dark reality. Jacob overcame the challenge by discovering the sparks of holiness that are at the core of every creation and every experience. Jacob was forced out of the realm of the holy, yet he responded by finding the holy in the realm of the mundane, by finding the holy spark in every experience.

When Jacob was in Charan, when his values and his soul were under threat, the challenge of the culture so foreign to him forced him to grow. Being so distant from his birthplace, he could not rely on retreating to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, but rather, he was forced to discover G-dliness in the land of Charan. He was forced to discover that in order to experience holiness one does not have to dream on the Temple mount, to retreat to the spiritually abstract. He discovered that, if one searches hard enough, the angels are everywhere. 

In Charan Jacob discovered that surmounting the challenge to seek holiness in a spiritually hostile environment, elevates the person. That over time, discovering the angels, the sparks of holiness, in daily life becomes easier. Eventually, instead of Jacob having to struggle to encounter the angles, the angles would now encounter him.  

The story of Jacob, related in the opening verse of the portion: “And Jacob left Beer Sheba, and he went to Charan”, is the story of every soul. 

Like Jacob, the soul is called upon to leave the comfort of its native land and to descend into the physical world. Like Jacob, the soul leaves an environment where the Divine is easily accessible. Like Jacob, the soul embarks on a journey to a place where it will have to engage with the mundane. 

And indeed, just like Jacob, the soul reaches deeper spiritual awareness. The soul discovers that the oneness of G-d can be found everywhere. That no matter how far he or she wanders, no matter how distant the soul's journey, the soul does not have to dream of escaping to an angelic reality. Our soul can wake up, and find holiness everywhere. We can open our eyes and see the angels encountering us.      

The Thanksgiving Jew 

You may be surprised to hear that the word Jew does not appear in the five books of Moses. The Torah refers to our people as the Children of Israel, for we are the children of our patriarch Jacob who was given the additional name of Israel. Israel fathered twelve children who became the twelve tribes of Israel.

The name Jew comes from the name Judah, which means thanksgiving. Judah was the fourth son of Jacob and his wife Leah. As we read in this week’s Parsha:  

And she conceived again and bore a son, and she said, "This time, I will thank the Lord! Therefore, she named him Judah. 

Why then are all Jews called by the name of just one of the sons? Why are all the tribes referred to by the name of the tribe of Judah? What is it about thanksgiving that captures the essence of the children of Israel? 

Thanksgiving is easier said than done. 

We often look around and wonder why some of the people around us are so ungrateful? Why don't our children appreciate all that we do for them? Why does our spouse not show gratitude? Why do our co-workers take us for granted? 

To understand why the feeling of gratitude is so elusive we must examine the Hebrew word for gratitude.

The Hebrew word for thanksgiving, “Hoddah”, also means to acknowledge, as in two people who have two different opinions yet one acknowledges that the other’s opinion is correct. 

Why do these two seemingly distinct ideas, thanksgiving and acknowledgement, share the same word? What possible connection do they share? 

The answer is that the key to being thankful is acknowledging the other's perspective. To illustrate: a mother does so much for her child. The greatest obstacle to the child feeling gratitude, is the child’s perspective that whatever mother does for him is because, as a mother, this is what she is required to do. After all, argues the child, isn't this her job? The only way the child can genuinely feel grateful is if he adopts her perspective; if he appreciates all of her sacrifices and all the time she lovingly dedicated to him. The same is true of a spouse. We can say thank you for the act of kindness. But to truly feel grateful we need to see the picture from the perspective of our spouse. We need to appreciate all the thought, feeling and energy that was invested in this one act. Only when we acknowledge and appreciate the other’s point of view - "Hodaah" - can I say - "Todah" - thank you.

To be a Jew, then, is to possess the ability to see beyond the obvious, to acknowledge the other’s perspective and go beyond the limitations of one’s own perception To be a Jew is the ability to experience someone else’s pain as well as to rejoice in their happiness as if it were our own. To be a Jew is to acknowledge and accept the perspective of hope and joy even in the midst of great hardship.   

There is an ongoing and long standing dispute between the creation and the creator. Our perspective is that our life, health and success is due to our independent efforts, and that the only one we need to thank is ourselves. From G-d's perspective, however, the entire universe is being brought into existence every moment by the word of G-d. From his perspective the only true reality is the G-dly vitality within every created being.

The Jew has the ability to see the world from G-d’s perspective. To cultivate the point of view that focuses on the spiritual rather than on the physical. The Jew possesses the gift of acknowledgement, which is why he or she can experience genuine thanksgiving. 

Jacob’s Ladder 

While Jacob was on his way to Charan, fleeing his brother Esau, he went to sleep and dreamed of G-d reassuring him that he would eventually return to Israel in safety. His dream, began with the famous vision of the ladder, as the verse states: 

And he dreamed, and behold! a ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven; and behold, angels of God were ascending and descending upon it.

There are various interpretations of the symbolism of the ladder. Some say the ladder represents prayer. Jacob slept on the temple mount, the place where all Jewish prayers ascend to G-d, and G-d was showing Jacob the awesome power of prayer, it’s ability to connect heaven and earth.

Others explain that the ladder is a metaphor for Mount Sinai, the mountain on which the Torah was given, and the message to Jacob was that the Torah, the Divine will and wisdom, is the ladder that connects the person heavenward. 

But why did Jacob need to see the image of the ladder specifically at this point in his life, on his way out of Israel while fleeing to the morally debased Charan? 

Rabbi Mordechai Hakohen, a 17th century kabbalist of Safed, Israel, explains that the ladder represents Jacob himself. 

Jacob was leaving the comfort and holiness of the land of Israel and was heading to a land that was spiritually foreign to his way of life. On his way G-d showed Jacob the vision of a ladder in order to impart to him that he himself had the ability to connect the lowest parts of the earth to heaven. While his father Isaac lived in Israel all his life, and while his grandfather Abraham was commanded to leave Charan and migrate to Israel, Jacob would make the opposite journey. Jacob’s life’s mission was not to flee the negativity but rather to face it and challenge it head on. Jacob, as well as all his descendants, are compared to a ladder. No matter where he might be, no matter how foreign the environment might seem, he was capable of erecting a ladder that would connect heaven and earth, he was able to build a bridge that would allow the epitome  of holiness to affect even the most distant of places.   

There is another dimension to the comparison of Jacob and the ladder. 

The Kabbalah explains that each of the three patriarchs embodied one of the three primary emotions; Abraham represented the attribute of love, Isaac the attribute of awe and reverence and Jacob represented the attribute of compassion.

The attribute of compassion, even more than love, is the ultimate bridge builder. Love is a very powerful emotion, yet its reach is limited to a specific audience. A person loves that which is attractive to him or her. A person does not love everybody and everything, love is selective, it is awakened and attracted to specific people or objects that, for whatever reason, touch the heart in a specific way. 

Compassion, on the other hand, can reach anybody. It may be a person who you never met, whose language you don't understand, yet the moment you sense that the person is suffering, something in your heart will connect to the person with empathy and compassion. 

In fact, compassion has the power to unleash love. You may have known someone for many years, and felt no connection to him or her. Yet as soon as tragedy strikes and you feel compassion for the person, suddenly, you begin to see how wonderful the person is. You begin to feel a feeling of closeness and love to the person. How does that happen? The love flows over the bridge created by compassion. 

We each have a Jacob within ourselves, a Jacob that allows us to empathize with people who may seem very different from ourselves. The Jacob within us is able to connect people with each other because the Jacob within us knows is able to see the soul within each person. Our soul is the bridge that connects us to other people, and which connects heaven and earth. 

Rachel or Leah, Serenity or Struggle  

Would you prefer a life of serenity and peace of mind, or a life of hardship, emotional crises and inner turmoil? 

When Jacob fled to Charan to escape his brother Esau, he arrived at the well. He saw Rachel, the daughter of his uncle Laban. It was  love at first sight. 

Laban had two daughters. As the Torah describes:

Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel.

Leah's eyes were tender, but Rachel had beautiful features and a beautiful complexion. (Genesis 29:16:17). 

Jacob wanted to marry Rachel but he was tricked into marrying her sister Leah. While Jacob’s love for  Rachel was greater, Leah became the most important of his four wives. She bore  six of his twelve sons, and while Rachel was buried on the side of the road on the way to Efrat, Leah was laid to rest together with Jacob in the cave of Machpelah. As Jacob commanded his children before his passing:

Bury me with my fathers, in the cave that is in the field of Ephron the Hittite… 

There they buried Abraham and his wife Sarah, there they buried Isaac and his wife Rebecca, and there I buried Leah.

Rachel was beautiful. She was righteous and spirituality wholesome. Jacob, who the Torah describes as “an innocent man, dwelling in tents” was immediately drawn to Rachel’s purity and innocence. Leah, on the other hand, had a complex personality, she experienced inner tension and frustration and had to struggle  to live the life she desired and to achieve her spiritual goals.

The children of Rachel and Leah personified the character traits of their mothers. Rachel’s children, Joseph and Benjamin, were naturally righteous, while Leah’s children had to struggle with their moral integrity. They sold their brother as a slave, Judah went to Tamar, who he thought was a harlot. They were far from perfect. Yet Leah’s children learned to overcome their moral shortcomings, they learned to correct their mistakes and grow from the negative experiences. 

Jacob loved Rachel. Jacob was attracted to a woman who had inner peace and serenity. Yet it turns out that Leah, who triumphed over  hardships and challenges, became the matriarch who bore six of the twelve tribes, and who was buried with Jacob in his eternal resting place. 

We often yearn for “Rachel”, for a life filled with tranquility and inner beauty. The story of Jacob teaches us that we should embrace the “Leah” in our life. The challenges we face in our lives are opportunities for us to discover the deepest and most profound part of ourselves.  The true potential for growth lies in the experience of facing a challenge and persevering. 

Adapted from Lekutei Sichos Vayishlach, vol. 35 Sicha 3.

Why Did Jacob Pour Oil on a Stone?

It is a strange name to name a child.

The name Jacob, a derivative of the Hebrew word for “heel”, was given because when Jacob emerged from his mother's womb he was holding the heel of his twin brother. Why would anyone name a child, heel? Why would we want him to consistently remember that he emerged grasping his brother's heel? 

Chassidic philosophy explains the mystical meaning of the name Jacob, and how the name captures Jacob life’s purpose and calling. The Hebrew word for Jacob, Yaakov, consists of two parts, the Hebrew letter “Yud”  and the word “Eikev” which means heel. Jacob’s spiritual task was to engage with the Hebrew letter “Yud” which represents wisdom, enlightenment and vision and bring it to every area of the person including the heel, which is the part of the body with the least vitality, the part of the body with the least inspiration. Jacob's skill was to take this vision and bring it to the everyday mundane tasks of life. Jacob's skill was his ability to see within every moment, within every activity, within every chore, a larger vision, one of an inspired and meaningful life. 

This theme plays out in the story of Jacob’s reaction to his dream: as the Torah describes: 

And he arrived at the place and lodged there because the sun had set, and he took some of the stones of the place and placed [them] at his head, and he lay down in that place.

And he dreamed, and behold! a ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven; and behold, angels of God were ascending and descending upon it.…

And Jacob arose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had placed at his head, and he set it up as a monument, and he poured oil on top of it.

 The commentators point out that before he went to sleep he put stones, plural, around his head. When he woke up he took the stone, singular, that was around his head and poured oil on it. Was it one stone or was it many stones? Rashi, quoting the Talmud, explains: 

and placed [them] at his head: He arranged them in the form of a drainpipe around his head because he feared the wild beasts. They [the stones] started quarreling with one another. One said, “Let the righteous man lay his head on me,” and another one said, “Let him lay [his head] on me.” Immediately, the Holy One, blessed be He, made them into one stone. This is why it is stated: “and he took the stone [in the singular] that he had placed at his head.” 

This is the essence of Jacob’s spiritual skill. By pouring oil, which represents light, wisdom, and Divine awareness, Jacob could transform many stones into a single stone; within the multiple, seemingly mundane and monotonous details of existence and daily life, Jacob could experience a unifying light and purpose.

Jacob fled to the city of Charan. The word Charan is related to the word “Nichar”, as in the verse “my throat became dry {and therefore unable to speak}”. In Charan, G-d’s speech invested within creation was not apparent. The universe did not tell a unified story, the story of the greatness of G-d. Instead  randomness and chaos reigned. Jacob's task was to transform the “Nichar”, the silence, to “Rina”, joyous song, by revealing the myriads of details within creation, each singing their own song, all part of a unified orchestra, proclaiming the beauty and greatness of the creator.  

Jacob is the patriarch of each and every Jew. We each possess Jacob’s ability to infuse the specific details of everyday life with overarching, unifying, meaning. We each have the ability to experience a connection to G-d in every mundane act, because every individual moment is a detail of a unified song, the song which connects us  to our creator.

Adapted from  Vishavti Bishalom, Torah Or, Parshas Vayetze.

Like the Dust of the Earth

Each of the three Patriarchs offered a unique contribution to the creation of the Jewish people; we, as their descendants, inherit each of their spiritual qualities. 

Abraham pioneered. 

Abraham discovered G-d on his own, he had the courage to stand up to his entire pagan society and chart a new spiritual path. Abraham heeded the call of G-d to go to "the land that I will show you" and founded a nation based on the values of charity and justice. Abraham gives us the ability to discover new ideas, and to chart new paths.  

Yet, the pioneering spirit alone is not enough to create an enduring legacy. So often, an idea generates excitement in its initial stages, yet over time, when the idea is no longer novel, when the initial excitement dissipates, the enterprise fails.

Isaac perpetuated. 

Isaac’s unique contribution was the ability to preserve and perpetuate the legacy of his father. Isaac represents the commitment to an idea that someone else revolutionized. The Torah relates how Isaac re-dug the wells his father had dug: "And Isaac again dug the wells of water which they had dug in the days of his father, Abraham; and the Philistines had stopped them up after Abraham's death; and he gave them names like the names that his father had given them (Genesis 26:18).” The project might not carry his name, but it would not have survived without him affecting its perpetuation. 

While Abraham and Isaac began the formation of the Jewish people in the promised land, in the spiritual environment appropriate for the homeland of the Jewish people, Jacob represents the ability to live the values of his ancestors in a foreign land. Jacob, alone amongst the patriarchs, married and raised his children in the land of Charan, a land foreign to his values and void of holiness. From Jacob, we inherit the ability to live a life with the values of Abraham and Isaac in any environment we may find ourselves in. 

When Jacob was en route from Israel to Charan he dreamed of a ladder reaching heaven. G-d promised him: 

Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall burst forth to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. (Genesis 28:14)

While Abraham was told that his descendants would be like the stars of heaven, Jacob was promised descendants who would be "like the dust of the earth”. For Jacob's descents would be in exile; they would be in environments as  lowly (in a spiritual sense) as the dust of the earth. Yet specifically in these hostile environments, precisely because of these challenges, they would reach far greater heights than if they had remained in a wholesome, challenge-free environment. Specifically because they were compared to the dust of the earth, they were destined to burst forth with great strength. 

Like Jacob, we all face the difficulty of living in a spiritually challenging environment. Each of our souls descended from heaven, the metaphorical land of Israel, to the "dust of the earth", physical existence and reality. Yet precisely because of the challenge, we can reveal a deeper dimension of our soul and experience a more meaningful and authentic relationship with G-d. 

The Benefit of the Journey 

What is the point of the journey? 

Jacob was the first of the Patriarchs to spend significant time outside of Israel, away from his natural environment. The opening statement of our portion, "And Jacob departed from Beer Sheba, and he went to Haran", tells the story of our Patriarch Jacob's departure from the land of Israel and travel to the spiritually hostile environment of Charan. We read of how he emerged twenty years later with a large family and tremendous wealth. 

The Kabbalists teach that this story is the prototype for the descent of every soul from the figurative "land of Israel", the soul's abode in heaven to its descent into the spiritually challenging environment of life on this earth. 

But what is the point of the descent? Why should the soul be forced to engage in the painful journey instead of basking in G-d's light in heaven? What is the purpose of the turbulent journey we call life? 

When the soul descends into this spiritually dark world, its connection to G-d is challenged. The soul is forced to struggle to maintain its relationship to holiness. The tension and struggle intensify its spiritual strength and its natural love and awe of G-d. The soul emerges from this world with a deeper and more meaningful bond with G-d. 

This benefit, however, is limited, as it is merely an intensification of the bond with G-d that already existed. The more profound benefit is created when the soul engages with the physical objects of the world, transforming them from physical creations to holy objects that are a conduit to the Divine will. This transformation is a true novelty and is possible only through the soul accessing the infinite power of G-d, which is accessible exclusively "in the lowest realm", right here on earth. 

These two elements are expressed in the words Jacob spoke as he began his journey. As he departed the land of Israel, he requested that G-d protect him (verse 20), enabling him to serve G-d (verses 21 and 22). 

First, Jacob’s prayer to be able to survive and thrive in this world: 

20. And Jacob uttered a vow, saying, "If God will be with me, and He will guard me on this way, upon which I am going, and He will give me bread to eat and a garment to wear;

Then, Jacob explains the benefit of the struggle and the purpose of the journey. Firstly, the soul will emerge "in peace" from the challenges, and secondly, the "Lord will be my God", the soul's connection to G-d will withstand the challenges: 

21. And I return in peace to my father's house, and the Lord will be my God

And then, Jacob describes the more remarkable achievement of life: 

22. Then this stone, which I have placed as a monument, shall be a house of God, and everything that You give me, I will surely tithe to You.

"The stone", a physical object, is transformed to become "the house of G-d". "Everything that you give me" becomes sanctified. 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Likutei Sichos Vayetze 15 Sicha 3. 


The Torch

The Hebrew language, also called “the Holy Tongue”, has a significantly smaller vocabulary than the English language, yet it contains great mystical insight. Every Hebrew word has a root word, comprised of two or three letters, which can then take different forms. When we dig down to the root, we often find similarities between the roots of two words, which on the surface seem unrelated. These connections between seemingly unrelated words, often express deep mystical truths. 

In this week’s Parsha, there is a beautiful example of a connection between two seemingly unrelated words. The Torah tells the story of Jacob returning to the land of Israel, traveling to meet his brother Esau, after a twenty year stay in Charan. The night before he meets his brother, Jacob encounters a mysterious man, and they wrestle all night long:

And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn.

Who was this man? What is the meaning of this encounter?

We must first examine the meaning of the Hebrew word for “wrestle”. The Hebrew word is “Va’ye’A’VeK” (ויאבק), which means struggle; wrestle; fight. The root of the word is AVK (אבק). The same root is also the root of a seemingly unrelated word; the root AVK (אבק) is also the root of the word “torch” (AVuKa אבוקה).

What possible connection can there be between the words “wrestle” and “torch”? 

There are many forms of battle. In the modern era battles are fought from great distances. Soldiers sitting at computers in Nevada are operating drones that conduct warfare over the skies of the Middle East and Africa. Wrestling, however, is a completely different form of battle. To wrestle is to come up close to the enemy. Two people wrestling with each other are literally hugging each other.

Let’s return to the story of Jacob wrestling with the mysterious man. The sages teach that the man wrestling with Jacob was no ordinary man, the man was Esau’s guardian angel disguised as a man. Before Jacob could reconcile with his brother Esau he must first wrestle with Esau's guardian angel. The Kabbalists elaborate and explain that Jacob and Esau represent the spiritual and material respectively, the body and soul. Body and soul are in constant warfare, each trying to draw the other to what they appreciate and enjoy. The body tries to pull the soul to materialism, while the soul tries to pull the body to spirituality.  

This struggle between body and soul is not fought via intercontinental ballistic missiles. The body and soul are not waging warfare from different continents. Body and soul are literally hugging each other, they are as close to each other as two entities can possibly be. Body and soul are wrestling.

With its use of a single root word for “wrestle” and “torch” the “Holy Tongue” teaches us what the goal of the wrestling match between body and soul is. The goal is not to obliterate the material aspects and pleasures from one’s life. The goal is to create a torch. A torch is not a single candle, but rather it is many candles merged together. To create spiritual light the soul must not retreat from the world, but instead it must embrace the material world, it must fuse the material into a torch of light. It must use the objects and pleasures of the material world as a tool to spread spiritual light. It must use the material blessings it has and fuse them into a torch producing light, warmth and inspiration to illuminate the world.

We wrestle with the material, we embrace it, we elevate it. We weave it into our soul’s torch.

Jacob the Sojourner 

In one of the most dramatic scenes in the Torah we read about the emotional reunion of Esau and Jacob. After stealing the blessings that were designated for Esau, Jacob fled to the land of Charan and remained there for twenty years. Finally, in this week’s Parsha, we read about Jacob preparing for and eventually meeting his brother Esau. They embraced, kissed and wept.

Reading this story the question arises: why was the reunion between the brothers short lived? A few verses after the emotional meeting, we read about Esau heading back to the land of Seir, where he had settled, while Jacob remained in Canaan, the land of his ancestors. If the brothers were so moved by their meeting why did they part ways so quickly?  

Another point to ponder: In this story, Esau undergoes an extreme transformation. Initially plotting to kill his brother Jacob, he ends up embracing and crying on his shoulder. What exactly caused the change in Esau’s heart? Why did he no longer begrudge Jacob for stealing his blessing? Which one of the gifts and words of appeasement that Jacob sent to his brother was the one that was effective in penetrating Esau’s heart?  

The key to understand these questions lies in the very first statement Jacob sent to his brother at the opening of the Parsha. Jacob sends messengers to his brother:

And he commanded them, saying, "So shall you say to my master to Esau, 'Thus said your servant Jacob, "I have sojourned with Laban, and I have tarried until now.

Jacob chose his words deliberately. The phrase “I have sojourned”, is what would affect Esau to forego on the stolen blessing and allow him to forgive his brother Jacob. 

What image did the word sojourn evoke for Esau? Where had Esau heard this word before?     

G-d promised Abraham the land of Canaan, yet the promise came with a heavy price. G-d told Abraham: 

"You shall surely know that your seed will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and they will enslave them and oppress them, for four hundred years.

Jacob was telling Esau that although Jacob received the blessing, he was also forced to pay the price for Abraham’s legacy. Jacob told Esau, I indeed was blessed, but I am also the sojourner who will suffer for many years before ultimately returning to the land. 

Esau, well aware of the condition of slavery that was tied to inheriting the land promised to Abraham, decided that he had no interest in paying the price for the land. He therefore, willingly chose to migrate to the land of Seir, which although was not the land promised to Abraham, was a land for which one did not have to pay for with four hundred years of sojourning. In Esau’s cost benefit analysis, being a sojourner was too high a price to pay for the land. 

Thus, when Jacob told Esau “I have sojourned”, he was reminding him of the price to be paid for the blessing of their father Isaac. To receive the legacy of Abraham, Jacob reminded Esau, was a great spiritual destiny, but it also demanded a willingness to sacrifice. Esau listened. He understood that indeed the blessings were not for him. They were not the future he envisioned for himself. Thus, he was able to forgive Jacob for stealing the now undesired blessings, and therefore he parted from Jacob, traveled back to Seir. He did so in order to separate himself from having to pay the price of bearing the legacy of Abraham.

Being a sojourner has a spiritual connotation as well. A sojourner who is in a specific place may be tremendously successful, yet he is a sojourner because his stay is but temporary. Jacob and his descendants are sojourners, because to us material blessing is but temporary. It does not capture our true identity. We engage in the physical world, as visitors, because at our core, we are truly at home when we connect to the spiritual. 

To carry the legacy of Abraham Isaac and Jacob is to understand that while we are blessed with physical blessings, those blessings do not define our identity. While Esau refused to be a sojourner in the material world, Jacob and his descendants embrace our destiny. We understand that while we seek to prosper and find success, in order to allow us to carry out our mission on this planet, we remember that holiness is our native land, and spirituality is our mother tongue. 

Jacob or Israel?

In what is perhaps one of the most dramatic and emotional scenes in the Torah, Jacob meets his brother Esau after twenty years of rift and separation. Jacob fled his father’s home, after stealing the blessings which his father Isaac intended for his older son Esau. In this week’s portion we read about the heartfelt reunion between the brothers. 

Prior to the reunion, we read that “Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn”, and finally, when the man saw that he could not overpower Jacob, he asked to be allowed to go, Jacob refused to allow him to go until he would bless him: 

So he said to him, "What is your name?" and he said, "Jacob." And he said, "Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have commanding power with [an angel of] God and with men, and you have prevailed." 

Who was this mysterious man? One interpretation is that the man who wrestled with Jacob while Jacob was alone (which seems to be an inherent contradiction, if a man wrestled with him, than by definition Jacob  was not alone) was none other than Jacob himself. The struggle between Jacob and the man (who the sages refer to as the angel, or energy of Esau) represents an internal struggle between the force of good and the negative within Jacob himself. Before Jacob could reconcile with his brother Esau, he was first compelled to wrestle with his internal Esau. He was compelled to settle the internal struggles and contradictions within himself before he could find peace within himself.  

The struggle lasted all night. Jacob asks for a blessing. Instead of a blessing “the man” got into a discussion about names, the conversation went as follows:

So he said to him (to Jacob), "What is your name?"

“the man” asked Jacob: What is your name? What is your identity? How do you self define?

and he said, "Jacob." 

The name Jacob denotes struggle. The name Jacob, which also means heel, was given to Jacob because as he emerged from the womb he was holding on to the heel of his  twin brother Esau. The name Jacob represents the constant battle between the internal Jacob and Esau, the spirit and the matter, the sensual and the transcendent. Jacob told the angel that his name was Jacob. He explained that he was constantly being drawn between the holy and the mundane, between the physical and the spiritual. 

And he (“the man”) said, "Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel (which means to rule), because you have commanding power with [an angel of] God and with men, and you have prevailed. 

He told Jacob, that there is a place within himself where there is no struggle at all. At his core, which is pure holiness, there is a state of consciousness where there is no struggle to begin with. When the core of the soul is felt in the conscious mind, then evil, temptation and negativity lose all appeal and are not enticing to begin with. 

Each of us has both a Jacob and an Israel within ourselves. There is a place in our heart where we have to struggle to be the person we know we want to be. We have to struggle to be kind, joyful, patient and considerate. There is a place within ourselves where it takes a struggle to delay gratification and invest in a relationship over immediate pleasure. There are times, when we are Jacob. 

Yet, when we look deeply within ourselves, we discover that there is a part of us that is Israel, where we reign over the negativity even without a battle. There are times when there is no struggle. 

Jacob is compared to a Jew as he is during the six days of the week, when he is involved in the business of daily life; while Israel is compared to a Jew as he or she exists on Shabbat, when they tune out the mundane and touch the spiritual side of existence.

As Jacob prepared to face his brother Esau, he first spent the night in introspection, experiencing the wrestling within his soul. As the sun rose  Jacob realized, that from that point on his primary name was Israel. While we experience Jacob, we are Israel. Living on this earth presents us with challenge, difficulty and struggle, yet our identity is not Jacob. The struggle with evil and selfishness does not define who we are. We engage in Jacob but we are Israel. Our truest self is the part of us which sees the material, not as a contradiction to, but rather as a vehicle for holiness. Our truest self is the Israel within us, the part of us which intuitively feels connected to G-d. 

The Kiss 

Twenty years after fleeing to Charan, escaping the wrath of his brother Esau, Jacob headed back to Israel. The Torah describes, in great detail, how Jacob, with much trepidation, prepared for the meeting: he sent gifts to his brother, he prayed, and he prepared for battle.

There was a lot at stake at this meeting. Jacob and Esau, as we have read earlier in the story, had very different personalities, and embodied very different energies. Esau was the man of the field, the energetic hunter who loved the challenge and thrill of trapping game, and craved sensual pleasures. Jacob, on the other hand, was a man who strived to “dwell in tents”, immersed in study and in quest for enlightenment, far removed from the chaos of the natural world.   

Isaac hoped to elevate Esau’s energy and passion by blessing Esau. Rebecca understood that blessing Esau with abundant material success would not elevate him to a higher spiritual plane, but rather, it would cement Esau’s investment in a materialistic lifestyle. Rebecca understood that only if Jacob would receive the blessing of material success would Esau be elevated and influenced. For only Jacob’s intense spirituality would have the ability to educate and inspire Esau, by demonstrating how the material blessings could serve the spiritual and the transcendent. 

Twenty years after Jacob stole the blessing, he was about to meet Esau once more.  There was a lot at stake at that moment of meeting, not only for Jacob and his family but for all of the cosmos. Would the brothers embrace? Would Esau’s energy and materialistic desires reconcile with Jacob’s spirituality? Or would Esau and Jacob, matter and spirit, be at war forever?

The moment finally arrived. The Torah describes the fateful meeting between the brothers:

And Esau ran toward him and embraced him, and he fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. (Genesis 33:4)

To our great surprise, and perhaps to the great surprise of the brothers themselves, both Jacob and Esau understood their need for one another. They discovered deep feelings toward one another. They realized that they shared the same source and the same father. 

The brothers then parted ways. The bond of love and compassion that had been established between them was still fragile. They realized that in order for them to be able to settle together in harmony, more work would be required. They therefore temporarily parted ways. Only in the Messianic era will the world experience the wholesomeness of the restored relationship between Esau and Jacob, between matter and spirit, between body and soul. 

Until then, it is up to us, to foster this relationship, to nurture and to allow it to prosper and grow.  

Looking back at Esau’s fateful kiss, the one that reestablished the bond with Jacob Rashi, quoting the Midrash comments: 

and kissed him: Heb. וֹיֹשֹקֹהֹוּ. There are dots over the word. There is controversy concerning this matter in a Baraitha... Some interpret the dots to mean that he did not kiss him wholeheartedly. Rabbi Simeon ben Yochai said: It is a well known tradition that Esau hated Jacob, but his compassion was moved at that time, and he kissed him wholeheartedly.

The two opinions of whether or not Esau’s kiss was wholeheartedly sincere, represent two stages in the fusion of the material and spiritual. At first, the bond is not wholehearted. The materialistic side of the person would prefer to live a life unburdened by the discipline of spirituality and meaning. At first, the selfish side of the person would prefer to push back and reject the search for meaning. The first step is to create a kiss, an embrace, that is not yet wholehearted. Eventually, over time, and with practice, the bond, the kiss, will become wholehearted. For the material itself will come to realize the beauty of the harmony. 

Based on the teachings of the Rebbe, Vayishlach 5743.    

  Can you Really Have Everything? 

After twenty years of separation the twin brothers were reunited. 

Upon hearing that Esau was traveling toward him with four hundred men, Jacob prepared for their meeting by preparing for war, praying, and sending large gifts of livestock to appease his brother. 

In one of the most emotionally charged scenes in the Torah, Jacob and Esau reunite and embrace. Esau tells Jacob that he does not need his gift while Jacob implores  Esau to accept it. As the Torah describes: 

But Esau said, "I have plenty, my brother; let what you have remain yours." 

Thereupon Jacob said, "Please no! If indeed I have found favor in your eyes, then you shall take my gift from my hand, because I have seen your face, which is like seeing the face of an angel, and you have accepted me.

Now take my gift, which has been brought to you, for God has favored me [with it], and [because] I have everything." He prevailed upon him, and he took [it].

(Genesis 33:9-11)

Esau and Jacob seem to saying the same thing. They both have an abundance of possessions and they don’t need the gift of cattle. Yet upon careful analysis we discover a slight difference in the way the brothers describe their possessions. Esau says “I have plenty”, while Jacob says “I have everything”.  

Esau’s perspective is the perspective of the natural soul and is the reason that, so often, accumulating possessions does not lead to a feeling of joy. Esau says “I have plenty”, but having a lot does not mean that he does not want more. The Talmud says that human nature is such that “one who has one hundred wants two hundred, and one who has two hundred wants four hundred. Having a lot is no guarantee for happiness, in fact, it can actually make happiness more elusive because the more one has the greater is his appetite for more.  

By contrast, Jacob’s attitude toward his wealth is “I have everything”. Jacob does not need more. He has everything he needs to be able to live his life and fulfill his purpose with meaning. If he does not have something, than he is certain that that is not necessary for him to be able to achieve the purpose of his creation. As the Ethics of our Fathers teach: “Who is wealthy? One who is happy with his lot”. Jacob is joyous because he has everything. 

There is a deeper dimension to Jacob’s statement. To understand this, we must first ask the question, how can Jacob state that he has everything? He can say that he has all he needs, but how can he say that he has everything if, in reality, he does not have everything? The Sfas Emes, the 19th century Chassidic commentary, explains that Jacob does indeed have everything, because Jacob is connected to G-d who is the source of all existence. When Jacob looks at a physical object he sees its soul, the divine spark which continuously brings it into existence. When Jacob connects to the soul of the object he is indeed connecting to the soul of all of the world. When he connects to the soul of a given object, by using it in a manner that is consistent with its inner purpose, he indeed has everything. For he is connected to the Divine source of all existence which permeates everything and encompasses  all of existence. 

Value Thy Possessions

It was a tense night for Jacob, as he prepared to meet his brother Esau after twenty years of separation. Jacob was afraid. Would Esau accept his gifts and his friendship, or would Esau seek confrontation and conflict?

The night before Jacob was to meet Esau he crossed the stream of Jabok with his wives, children and possessions, enroute to the land of Israel. Jacob returned to the other side of the Jabok alone, where he met a mysterious man and they wrestled until morning. As the Torah relates: 

And he arose during that night, and he took his two wives and his two maidservants and his eleven children, and he crossed the Jabbok stream.

And he took them and brought them across the stream, and he took across what was his.

And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn (Genesis 32:23-25)

What was Jacob’s state of mind on that fateful night as he stood alone in the dark, on the other side of the Jabok stream? The sages offer two seemingly contradictory possibilities. Rashi explains that Jacob crossed the Jabok seeking to retrieve a few small jugs: 

And Jacob was left: He had forgotten small bottles and returned for them.

Jacob was alone, not for any spiritual purpose, but rather because despite his great wealth, he was seeking to recover something of very little value. On the other hand, the Midrash reads this verse in an entirely different fashion. The verse states that Jacob was alone, the word alone, is used by the prophet Isaiah to describe G-d’s presence in the Messianc era, when G-d will be “alone”, because all will recognize that all existence is dependent on, and therefore insignificant to, his presence. As the Midrash states:  

Just as, regarding the Holy Blessed One, it is written, "None but the G-d shall be Exalted on that day" (Isaiah 2:17), so too regarding Jacob it is written: "Jacob was left alone." (Breishis Rabbah chapter 77)

So which one is it? Was Jacob alone because he was trying to save a few dollars or was he alone because he was experiencing the oneness of G-d? Can these opposite interpretations coexist in the same verse? 

The Chassidic answer is yes. Indeed, both these interpretations are true, simultaneously. The Talmud (Chulin 91a) states “from here {Jacob’s concern for the jugs} we derive that the righteous value their money more than their body”. The Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, explains this startling statement as follows: every creation possesses a spark of holiness in a dormant state, waiting to be released back to its source. This can be accomplished by elevating the object, using it for a higher purpose. The righteous, explains the Baal Shem Tov, sense the sparks of G-dliness, the holy potential waiting to be unleashed, within their possessions. Thus, when Jacob crossed the stream to collect his possessions, he sensed, not the physical worth of his possessions, but rather, the spark of G-d within the material. Within the material world, Jacob sensed that indeed G-d is “alone”, the true and ultimate existence.     

The meeting of Jacob and Esau represents the unity between body and soul, between physical and spiritual. Before Jacob could meet, unite, and elevate Esau, he must first experience oneness within himself. Thus, the night before the meeting Jacob was alone, introspecting, seeing the Divine unity within each creation.  

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 15 Vayishlach sicha 3. 

Why Jacob Bowed to Esau

The twin brothers Esau and Jacob embody the two energies of chaos and order. 

The Kabbalists explain that initially, G-d created the spiritual world of chaos, in which each of the ten fundamental energies was in a state of great intensity. In the “world of chaos”, each of the ten energies exists in the fullest possible measure. The “world of chaos,” however, is unsustainable because the intensity of the energy cannot express itself in a limited and defined way. In the language of the Kabbalists, the intense "lights" (energies) shattered the "vessels", which were supposed to contain and express the light. The  ״vessels" “broke” and "fell”, they no longer fulfill their purpose, and, like the metaphor of a shattered vessel, they can be harmful. The "broken vessels" become the sparks scattered throughout the physical world and within the forces of unholiness and negativity. 

Following the “world of chaos”, “G-d created the “world of order”, in which the energies were diminished and the vessels were, therefore, able to contain and express the light. 

The world of order is what we refer to as positivity and holiness. The world of chaos contains a duality; in its fallen and broken state, it expresses itself in harmful and destructive ways; in its origin, however, it is far more potent divine energy than the "world of order". The world will experience its ultimate healing and perfection when we utilize the holiness of the "world of order" to elevate the "shattered vessels" of chaos, marrying the intensity of the "world of chaos" with the discipline and order of the "world of order". 

In our Torah portion, we read about the intensely emotional, climactic reunion between Jacob and Esau. Just like the world of chaos he embodied, Esau was the firstborn; he was intense and passionate; Jacob, by contrast, was a wholesome man dwelling in the tents of study, embodying the "world of order." The Torah describes the encounter: 

And he went ahead of them and prostrated himself to the ground seven times, until he came close to his brother.

And Esau ran toward him and embraced him, and he fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. (Genesis 33:3-4)

Jacob bowed to Esau because Jacob sensed that in its source, Esau's chaotic personality is far superior to Jacob's source in holiness. While Jacob hoped to partner with Esau, to channel the energy of chaos constructively through the world of order, the time was not yet ripe; the harmony was short-lived. The complete reunion between the "world of chaos," the chaotic passion of the physical world, with the "world of order," the awareness and holiness of the spiritual world, will occur in the messianic era. This will be brought about when each of us, within our personality, directs the chaotic energy of the heart to fuel and enhance our spiritual purpose. 

(Adapted from Torah Ohr, Vayishlach)

  Why Jacob Bowed to Esau

The twin brothers Esau and Jacob embody the two energies of chaos and order. 

The Kabbalists explain that initially, G-d created the spiritual world of chaos, in which each of the ten fundamental energies was in a state of great intensity. In the “world of chaos”, each of the ten energies exists in the fullest possible measure. The “world of chaos,” however, is unsustainable because the intensity of the energy cannot express itself in a limited and defined way. In the language of the Kabbalists, the intense "lights" (energies) shattered the "vessels", which were supposed to contain and express the light. The  ״vessels" “broke” and "fell”, they no longer fulfill their purpose, and, like the metaphor of a shattered vessel, they can be harmful. The "broken vessels" become the sparks scattered throughout the physical world and within the forces of unholiness and negativity. 

Following the “world of chaos”, “G-d created the “world of order”, in which the energies were diminished and the vessels were, therefore, able to contain and express the light. 

The world of order is what we refer to as positivity and holiness. The world of chaos contains a duality; in its fallen and broken state, it expresses itself in harmful and destructive ways; in its origin, however, it is far more potent divine energy than the "world of order". The world will experience its ultimate healing and perfection when we utilize the holiness of the "world of order" to elevate the "shattered vessels" of chaos, marrying the intensity of the "world of chaos" with the discipline and order of the "world of order". 

In our Torah portion, we read about the intensely emotional, climactic reunion between Jacob and Esau. Just like the world of chaos he embodied, Esau was the firstborn; he was intense and passionate; Jacob, by contrast, was a wholesome man dwelling in the tents of study, embodying the "world of order." The Torah describes the encounter: 

And he went ahead of them and prostrated himself to the ground seven times, until he came close to his brother. And Esau ran toward him and embraced him, and he fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. (Genesis 33:3-4)

Jacob bowed to Esau because Jacob sensed that in its source, Esau's chaotic personality is far superior to Jacob's source in holiness. While Jacob hoped to partner with Esau, to channel the energy of chaos constructively through the world of order, the time was not yet ripe; the harmony was short-lived. The complete reunion between the "world of chaos," the chaotic passion of the physical world, with the "world of order," the awareness and holiness of the spiritual world, will occur in the messianic era. This will be brought about when each of us, within our personality, directs the chaotic energy of the heart to fuel and enhance our spiritual purpose. 

(Adapted from Torah Ohr, Vayishlach)

The Two Columns 

When Jacob, the third Patriarch, prepared to meet his brother Esau, he divided his family and the people with him into two camps. 

Jacob became very frightened and was distressed; so he divided the people who were with him and the flocks and the cattle and the camels into two camps. And he said, "If Esau comes to one camp and strikes it down, the remaining camp will escape." (Genesis 32:89)

Esau represents the world of "chaos", whereas Jacob embodies the "world of order". Before the world as we know it was created, G-d emanated ten intense energies; each was too intense to compromise and interconnect with the others. As a result, the energies clashed and were shattered. Then, G-d emanated the powers of order, whose energy was dimmed and thus able to interact with a different energy to become the building blocks of creation. 

Jacob was the third Patriarch, for he embodied the "middle column", which exists specifically in the world of order, that can synthesize the two extreme "columns", the kindness and love of his grandfather Abraham with the discipline and awe of his father, Isaac. Yet, in preparation to meet his brother Esau, a product and embodiment of the intensity of the world of chaos, Jacob divided his camp in two, because he understood that it was his responsibility not to ignore or destroy but rather to elevate and channel the chaotic energy. To align his camp with the chaotic energy, Jacob divided his camp in two, for the number two represents the two extremes that cannot interact with each other. The meeting of Jacob and Esau represents the fusion of the intensity and passion of chaos with the focused application of order. 

The Torah teaches us, the descendants of Jacob, how to balance order and chaos. Each morning we dedicate time to pray, to awaken the chaotic desire to "run", to escape the confines of life, and cleave to G-d. Yet that feeling is followed by the commitment to "return", channeling that desire for transcendence and applying it within the framework and limitation of daily life. 

Adapted from Torah Ohr Vayishlach 


Tamar And Her Twins

The Torah is obviously fascinated with twins. Every time twins are born, we hear every detail of the birth; as if we are the grandparents who are desperate to hear about every step of the labor and delivery. 

When Tamar gave birth to her twins, the Torah gives us this detailed description:

While she was in labor, one [of the babies] stuck out his hand [from the womb]. The midwife took a scarlet thread and tied it on his hand to signify, "This one emerged first." [The baby then withdrew his hand.]

But as soon as he withdrew his hand, his brother emerged, and [his mother] said, "With what vigor have you pushed yourself ahead!" So [Judah] named him Peretz ["breaking through"].

Then his brother, who had the scarlet thread on his hand, emerged, and Judah named him Zerach ["shining"].

Why do we need to know that the one stretched out his hand, pulled it back, and the other burst ahead and emerged first? Why do we have to know that the midwife tied a crimson thread on his hand because she thought that he will be born first? What message is the Torah conveying?

There are two paths we can walk on our journey on this planet.

We Can walk the bright and shiny path. We can strive to never succumb to evil temptation, and to always make the right choices. Or we can take the more tricky path. We can follow our heart even when it directs us to places our mind cautions us to stay away from. 

Those of us taking this second path will make mistakes.

Like Tamar we will lose our innocence. We will probably cause pain to ourselves and to the people who love us. We may even reach a place of total spiritual darkness, a place where we can no longer hear the whispering voice of our G-dly soul trying to direct us back to the path of life.

And then we burst forward.

We are not sure where we get the strength from. We are not sure if and how we will able to rebuild our shattered relationships, if we will have the strength of character to sustain the push forward and to escape old habits. But we burst forward and push ahead. And do all it takes to make it to where we need to be.

And then we discover, that taking the second path has its advantages.

While it is not the “firstborn” path, while that is not the path G-d wants us to choose, while at the outset we should have taken the first path, we nevertheless come out ahead in the game of life. For the journey through the raging sea of life forced us to dig deeper, to mine our soul for spiritual courage, and to discover treasures that most people never discover.

We discover within us the power to burst through any challenge, to overcome any obstacle, and to shatter any roadblock. We discover that our commitment to the people and ideas we hold dear, is bulletproof. The strength needed to burst forward and get us back on the right path is now channeled to sustain and nurture our commitments. 

We recognize that "one [of the babies] stuck out his hand [from the womb]. The midwife took a scarlet thread and tied it on his hand to signify, 'This one emerged first.'" We recognize that our midwife - The Torah and G-d - tells us to take the first path. The path that has the shiny crimson string on it. It’s the path that will get you the name Zerach which means to shine. It’s the path that the Torah is pointing toward. And yet, if we fail to take the preferred path, if we find ourselves in the dark, we must know that we can be a Peretz - the one who bursts forward. The Torah is telling us that ultimately Peretz is the one who achieves greatness, and becomes the ancestor of King David, who becomes one of the greatest leaders in our history, precisely because he overcame spiritual failure. 

King David, the descendant of Peretz, is the ancestor of Moshiach. Because the perfection of the world will be achieved, not by those who never experienced pain, but by those whose pain was transformed into fuel for good. To the point that they, as well as the people around them, cry out in amazement: "With what vigor have you pushed yourself ahead!"

Strive to stretch your hand and reach for the crimson path of Zerach, but if you fail, burst forward like Peretz. You will be the first born. You will achieve more than anyone would dream is possible. 

Destiny or Free Choice? 

Does Judaism  believe in destiny? Do we believe that G-d is in control of all that transpires in the universe, that every human being is just playing a pre-determined role in a vast Divine plan? Or, do we believe in the freedom of every human being to choose his or her own path, to experience the consequences of their own decisions?   

These two possibilities, destiny or free choice, seem to be mutually exclusive. 

If we believe that everything is determined by G-d, seemingly, we cannot also accept that the human being can be held accountable, or rewarded, for his or her actions. Yet Judaism teaches us that Divine destiny and free choice are both true. 

No biblical story expresses this truth more powerfully than the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph dreamed that his brothers would bow to him; the brothers in turn viewed him as a threat and planned to kill him; at the last moment they decided to sell him as a slave. Many years later, Joseph became the viceroy of Egypt and his brothers indeed bowed to him. Joseph was reunited with his brothers and sustained them during the terrible famine. 

How should we view the actions of the brothers? 

On the one hand, the brothers were certainly guilty of sin. After all they conspired to kill Joseph and they sold him as a slave. On the other hand, the selling of Joseph was part of the Divine plan so that Joseph would achieve greatness and lead the superpower of the world.  Were the brothers succumbing to sin or were they pawns in the divine plan that would ultimately save their entire family? Was this  act a sin or was it an act of redemption?  The Torah responds to the sale of Joseph by issuing two commandments. The first is the commandment to redeem the firstborn son, and the second is the commandment to give a half shekel, once a year, (every Jew would give a half Shekel each year to the funds that would pay for the communal offerings offered in the temple). The Torah refers to the half shekel as an “atonement for the soul.”

 The Talmud explains the connection between these commandments and the sale of Joseph: 

Rabbi Berechyah and Rabbi Levi in the name of Rabbi Shimon Ben Lakish say: Because they sold the firstborn of Rachel for twenty pieces of silver let each one redeem his firstborn with twenty pieces of silver. 

Rabbi Pinchas in the name of Rabbi Levi says: Because they sold the firstborn of Rachel for twenty pieces of silver (twenty Dinars) and each one of the brothers received (a Tibbah, which is) two Dinars, as his share of the proceeds, therefore let each one give for Shekel obligation (a Tibbah, which is the value of) two dinars. 

The theme of each of these two commandments is completely different. The half Shekel is about “atonement for the soul”, atonement implies that there is a sin that needs to be atoned for. The commandment of the redeeming of the first born, commemorating the saving of the Jewish first born children at the exodus of Egypt, is a symbol of redemption. Despite the opposing themes, sin and redemption, both these commandments are associated with the sale of Joseph. 

The Talmud is teaching us how to view the actions of Joseph’s brothers, as well as how to view the broader question of free choice versus Divine destiny. Every scenario has multiple layers of meaning and can therefore be viewed from multiple perspectives. Free choice and divine destiny operate simultaneously, yet each one does not negate the other.

If we look at the sale of Joseph from the perspective of the brothers, we see sin. We look at how much each brother profited from the sale - a half Shekel - and we understand that the Torah's commandment to give an annual gift of a half shekel is a reminder to correct and avoid the terrible mistake of the brothers. If, however, we choose to look at the story from the Divine perspective, we  understand that no human action can interfere with the Divine plan. While the brothers used their free choice to choose  sin, G-d used the sale of Joseph as the conduit for Joseph’s eventual greatness. If we look at the big picture, if we don’t look at the sum that each brother profited by, but rather we look at the general story, at the “combined profit” from the sale of Joseph, we see a totally different story. When we focus on the totality of the profit earned by the sale, which symbolizes the totality of the story from G-d’s perspective we see a story of salvation. 

We commemorate the story  by thinking about the redemption G-d brought about through the sinful act of the brothers. 

The lesson we learn from the story of the sale of Joseph is profound. A fellow human being can choose to harm us. We can even use our own free choice to harm ourselves. We can make a choice that will lead to failure, pain and tragedy. Yet, like Joseph, we must remember that despite human choice, G-d’s plan is always at work. We recognize that where the human chooses evil, G-d plants seeds of redemption.   

We must remember that human free choice is no contradiction to Divine destiny.    

Binding Bundles

So much of our history was shaped by the conflict between Joseph and his brothers, which can be traced back to Joseph telling his brothers about the dreams he dreamed, in which he saw that they would bow to him. As the Torah relates:

And Joseph dreamed a dream and told his brothers, and they continued to hate him. And he said to them, "Listen now to this dream, which I have dreamed: Behold, we were binding sheaves in the midst of the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and also stood upright, and behold, your sheaves encircled [it] and prostrated themselves to my sheaf."

Everything in the Torah is precise. The setting of the dream - the brothers binding sheaves of wheat in the field - was chosen specifically because gathering stalks into bundles is a metaphor for the purpose of the Jew on this earth. 

As we look around the world, we often experience the world as concealing the truth of the one G-d. Often it is a challenge to feel the presence of the one G-d in the chaos around us. How did this disconnect emerge? By what process does the oneness break down into multiplicity? 

Let us think about a sentence. 

Although a sentence is combined of many letters it is nevertheless able to convey one specific idea, as long as the many letters combine and organize in an orderly fashion to create words, and those words align in a specific order to convey one idea. If, however, the letters that form the words are separated from each other, if their order is lost, then, although the letters themselves are intact, the meaning, the energy and the idea conveyed by the sentence is lost. 

The same is true with the creation of the universe. The world was created by Divine speech. G-d spoke and the world came into being. Those sentences, “let there be light”, “let there be a firmament” etc., conveyed the Divine energy. Somewhere along the way, however, in a process called “the breaking of the vessels”, the letters and words separated from each other, they were rearranged, and as a result, the meaning, the purpose, and the divine source, is no longer legible within the universe. What was once a unified sentence that expressed the truth of reality, now appears to be no more than a mix of random, fragmented letters. 

And this is where the children of Jacob entered the picture. The twelve tribes of Israel were charged with the mission of collecting and organizing the scattered letters, they were tasked with arranging them in the proper order which would allow the meaning to be conveyed. Thus, in the dream, Joseph and his brothers were in the field binding individual, seemingly random, stalks, and creating a unified bundle. 

Living on this earth a person is constantly pulled in many directions. In the same day a person may have to be a father, a spouse, a son, and an employer. He must eat, drink, sleep and groom. He must feed his psychological needs, and nourish his spiritual soul, he must relax and he must invest time in achieving his long term goals. No wonder then that at the end of a day a person is often drained and uninspired. He feels that too much of his day was spent on trivial matters: overcoming distraction, finding a parking spot, or waiting in line at the coffee shop. 

Yet the Jew knows that his task is to collect the various scattered sparks embedded in the various experiences and combine them into one meaningful entity. Moving through the day we take the scattered letters - moments what seem mundane and trivial - and string together a meaningful sentence. We spend our time bundling sheaves of wheat, taking individual stalks and revealing that they can be bound together in a common purpose.

We, the children of Jacob, understand that our job is to demonstrate that there need not be a dichotomy between body and soul. That life does not have to be a collection of meaningless fragmented moments. Every activity, every moment and every detail in life can be an expression of the same intention: to fill our lives, and the lives of the people around us, with a unified purpose, to fill the world with goodness and kindness. We do so by binding the scattered stalks of wheat, revealing the spark of holiness in every experience, organizing the letters and allowing them to express the message that all of the world is an expression of the Divine oneness.    

Double Dream, Single Reality 

There is only one person in all of the five Books of Moses that the Torah refers to as being “successful”, that person is Joseph. Joseph's extraordinary gift was his ability to rise to the top of any situation he was placed in. When his brothers sold him into slavery he became the leader of his master’s home; when he was thrown into prison he became the administrator of the prison; and finally, the epitome of his success, he rose from the lowest rung in society to the highest rung: from a slave in prison to the acting leader of Egypt, the superpower of the ancient world.  

What was the secret to his success? How did he remain focused, optimistic and upbeat despite all the difficulties that he had to endure? 

Joseph brothers would mock him by referring to him as “the dreamer”. Indeed, to understand Jospeh, his story and his success, we must understand the unique nature of his dreams. 

In the beginning of this week’s Torah portion we read about the two dreams Joseph dreamed, both with the same theme, namely, that Joseph was destined to be the leader over his brothers who would bow to him, as the Torah relates: 

And Joseph dreamed a dream and told his brothers, and they continued to hate him.

And he said to them, "Listen now to this dream, which I have dreamed:

Behold, we were binding sheaves in the midst of the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and also stood upright, and behold, your sheaves encircled [it] and prostrated themselves to my sheaf."...

And he again dreamed another dream, and he related it to his brothers, and he said, "Behold, I have dreamed another dream, and behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were prostrating themselves to me."

Joseph’s dreams were different than the dreams of Pharaoh and Pharaoh's butler and baker recorded later in the story. Joseph first dreamed about the earthly, the grain in the field, and then continued to dream about the heavens, the celestial bodies, the sun, the moon and the stars. 

Joseph understood that the dreams were conveying that the material and the spiritual are not two separate entities, but rather they are two layers of the same reality. Joseph understood that if he would indeed become a leader in the physical sense, if his brothers’ “wheat” would bow to his “wheat”, if he would be the leader who would provide them with bread, then that is but the first dream and the outer layer of the story. The deeper layer, the spiritual counterpart, is found in the second dream; it is that Joseph must bestow upon his brothers not just material bounty but also spiritual insight. While his brothers thought they had to retreat from society and become shepherds in order to maintain a connection to holiness, he must share with them his unique ability to remain loyal to sanctity and holiness, even while being involved in the heart of the Egyptian economy and culture. 

Joseph’s double dream taught him that one could simultaneously be in a field with the grain, and in heaven with the stars. That one can exist on two planes at the same time. That within every earthly scenario one must seek and find the inner layer, the spark of heaven, that is the purpose of the experience. 

Thus, Joseph’s spirit could not be crushed. No matter the circumstance, Joseph understood that there is a hidden piece of spirituality, there is celestial energy amidst what might appear to be the bleak, earthy reality of the field. Whether he was a slave in his master's home, or worse yet, confined to prison, his spirit remained high as he understood that reality is layered, that beneath the first dream lay the second dream, that there must be a deeper purpose in the physical existence. 

Just like Joseph himself, each of us is empowered to connect the wheat and the stars, the heaven and the earth, the spiritual and the mundane. The Torah gifts us with the ability to find the good in every situation, to find the spark of opportunity in every challenge. We can elevate the earthly experience and discover that even while in the field we are living a transcendent, heavenly, experience.    



His brothers misunderstood him.

Joseph's spiritual composition, attitude and skills were different than their own, different than their father’s and grandfather’s. If anything, Joseph seemed similar to their uncle Esau. 

The Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob lived in a spiritual realm. To them, the only true reality was G-d; the world did not present a challenge to their spiritual pursuits, for, to them, the worldly temptations were meaningless and had no appeal. The Talmud refers to them as the “chariot of G-d”, meaning that they had no desire other than to serve as a vehicle and a conduit to fulfill the will of G-d on this earth. 

The children of Jacob, however, experienced the earthly reality. To them, the world was full of challenges and temptations. For them, the world around them, with its material pleasures and temptations, was seductive. For them to remain loyal to the teachings and lifestyle of their forefathers, they had to retreat from society and surround themselves with the tranquility of the shepherd's lifestyle. 

Joseph was different than his father and grandfather in that, to Joseph, the world presented a spiritual challenge. Joseph appreciated the perspective of the contemporary culture and was not oblivious to its appeal. Joseph was also different than his brothers, in that he could not see himself as a shepherd removed from city life. Joseph aspired to engage in agriculture and commerce, and to embrace the world around him. 

The brothers could not connect to Joseph’s approach, they viewed him as a foreigner in  the family, and when they saw that their father favored him, they kidnapped him and sold him as a slave to Egypt. From their perspective they were engaged in an act of spiritual greatness, removing the threat that Joseph’s path and aspirations presented to the family legacy.  

His brothers misunderstood him.

Joseph was blazing a new path, superior to those of his father and brothers. Joseph did not remain aloof from the worldly, as his father did, nor was his spiritual life threatened by engaging the world, as were his brothers. Joseph perfected the art of entering the world and transforming it. Instead of being influenced by the values of contemporary society, Joseph was successful in influencing society while remaining loyal to his own inner identity. 

Jacob understood his son Joseph. He looked forward to the fruition of Joseph's dreams that foretold how the brothers would bow to Joseph, symbolizing that they would accept the superiority of Joseph’s approach. Jacob favored Joseph's path for he understood that for the world to reach its purpose, each of us will have to follow Joseph’s leadership. We must not remain aloof, unaffected by the world and it’s challenges. We must not retreat from facing the temptations of the material world. Like Joseph who descended into Egypt as a slave yet ultimately ruled over and influenced all of Egypt we must engage and transform. We too descend into this world in order to engage it and transform it so that it too will express the truth of the creator. 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Vayeshev 19 Kislev vol. 25. 

The Wedding Ring 

Perhaps one of the most puzzling stories in the Torah is the story of Judah and Tamar. Judah promised Tamar, his twice widowed daughter-in-law, that he would give her his third son in marriage. When Tamar realized that Judah had no intention of doing so, she disguised herself as a harlot and became pregnant from Judah, giving birth to twins, one of whom became the ancestor of King David, as well as the ancestor of Moshiach, who will bring the world to perfection. 

Every detail in the Torah is layered with significance. Tamar asked Judah for security for payment. As the Torah describes: 

So he said, "What is the pledge that I should give you?" And she said, "Your signet, your cloak, and the staff that is in your hand." So he gave them to her, and he came to her, and she conceived his likeness. (Genesis 38:18)

Rashi emphasizes that the signet was set in a ring: “Your ring, with which you seal”. 

The Story of Judah and Tamar affects an essential aspect of every Jewish marriage. While the Jewish Law teaches that a woman is betrothed by receiving any object of monetary value, it has become the universal Jewish custom to betroth a woman by giving her a ring. The commentators explain that the biblical source for betrothal by a ring is Judah, who gave Tamar his signet set in a ring. 

What is the mystical meaning of the ring? Why do we evoke the, seemingly immodest, union of Judah and Tamar in every Jewish marriage?

Regarding the day of Shabbat, the Midrash employs the following parable: “This is compared to a king who made a ring. What was the ring missing? It was missing a signet {on the ring}. So too, what was the world missing? The world was missing Shabbat.  

A ring represents nature. The Hebrew word ring {tabbat} consists of the same letters as the Hebrew word for nature {teva}. Like a ring, nature is cyclical, like a ring, nature does not necessarily have an identifying mark expressing its owner. What nature, the ring, is missing is a signet, identifying its owner, it’s meaning, and its purpose. Shabbat is the signet. Shabbat is our declaration that G-d created the world in six days and rested in the seventh. While nature is a ring that tells you nothing about its owner or its purpose, Shabbat is the signet of the ring which infuses nature with awareness of the holiness and transcendence of G-d. 

This is the significance of the wedding ring, which represents Judah’s signet. When man and woman seek to unite in marriage, they seek more than a natural, and therefore temporary, bond, they seek to draw holiness and transcendence into their relationship.  Marriage is the sacred bond which infuses the natural connection between man and woman, with the energy of the infinite light of G-d, thus creating an everlasting edifice, expressed in the Divine power of procreation. 

And finally, the Messianic era, whose seeds were planted by the union of Judah and Tamar, represents the ultimate fusion between the ring and the signet, between the natural order, and the infinite light of G-d. Indeed, the Messianic era represents the culmination of the marriage between G-d and the Jewish people, When “the earth {the ring} will be filled with the knowledge of G-d {the signet} as the waters fill the sea.”

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos, Vayeshev, vol. 15 sicha 4. 

The Impossible Dream 

Dreams play a central role in the story of the Jewish people's descent to Egypt. Firstly, Joseph's brothers sold him as a slave to Egypt as a result of him sharing his dreams with them, in which his brothers bowed down to him. Secondly, after being sent to prison, Joseph interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh's ministers, who were imprisoned with him. And finally, Joseph rose to become the ruler of Egypt because he interpreted Pharaoh's dreams.

The exile to Egypt was brought about through dreams because exile is likened to a dream. The verse in Psalms (126:1) states, "When the Lord will return the exiles of Zion, we will have been like dreamers." When a person awakens from a dream, he realizes that what seems so vivid and real was but a dream, so too, when we will return from the exile, we will look back at our time in exile and realize that it was but a dream.

A dream is a state of mind where a person's discerning mind is not conscious, and therefore he can imagine a contradictory and impossible reality. Spiritual exile is when one is living a contradiction, where two opposite desires can co-exist. When one is in a state of spiritual exile, he may have a deep love for G-d, yearning to transcend and cleave to holiness. Yet moments later, he may be wholly invested in love and desire for physical existence and pleasure. When one is spiritually "awake," when the discerning mind functions, these two opposing desires cannot co-exist, yet in exile, they both exist. One may suspect that the love to G-d is not genuine for, if it were, it would permeate all of his desires. Yet, the reality is that the devotion to the material and the spiritual are both real. They may be a contradiction, yet, like in a dream, they can exist simultaneously. 

Kabbalah explains that the illogical dream, which occurs when the discerning mind is asleep, can sometimes express truths that the logical mind cannot grasp. The same is true regarding the spiritual dream of exile. When we will be redeemed, we will awake and see that we were dreaming. We will recognize that reality, as we experienced it, was not the ultimate truth, for in truth, the material and the spiritual are not contradictory. They were both created by G-d, and each expresses their Divine source in their unique way. In exile, we are in a dream; we are genuinely drawn to the contradictory experiences of heaven and earth. When we awake from our dream, with the arrival of Moshiach, there will be no more dream because the physical and the spiritual will be at peace. 

Adapted from Torah Ohr Parshas Vayeshev as explained by Rabbi Adin Even-Yisrael.   

Was She a Villain?

Joseph experienced a dramatic downfall. 

This week's Torah portion begins with the description of Joseph as his father's favored son, and concludes with Joseph in prison after his brothers sold him as a slave. 

Indeed a dramatic downfall. 

One of the characters in the story who advances the plot is Potifar's wife, who, after failing to seduce Joseph, causes his imprisonment. The Torah describes the story in great detail: 

Now it came to pass after these events that his master's wife lifted up her eyes to Joseph, and she said, "Lie with me."... Now it came about when she spoke to Joseph day in and day out, that he did not obey her, to lie beside her [and] to be with her. And it came about on a certain day, that he came to the house to do his work, and none of the people of the house were there in the house. So she grabbed him by his garment, saying, "Lie with me!" But he left his garment in her hand and fled and went outside. So she left his garment beside her, until his master came home. And she told him the same thing, saying, "The Hebrew slave that you brought to us came to me to mock me. Genesis 39:7, 10-17)

It would be natural to view Potifar's wife as a villain, yet, surprisingly, the sages explain that her motivation was holy ("for the sake of heaven"). As the Midrash, quoted by Rashi, explains: 

Scripture juxtaposes the incident of Potiphar's wife with the incident of Tamar, to tell you that just as that one [Tamar] meant for the sake of heaven, so too this one [Potiphar's wife] meant for the sake of heaven. For she saw through her astrology that she was destined to raise children from him (Joseph), but she did not know whether [they would be] from her or from her daughter {Indeed, later in the story, Joseph married her daughter}. 

While the perspective that Potifar's wife had a holy intention may seem radical, it captures the essence of the story of Joseph and replays itself in each of our lives. The Mystics explain that the source of all unholy energy and phenomenon is rooted in holiness, the source of all existence. At the core of unholiness lies its concealed spark, whose intention is not to destroy holiness but to challenge the person to grow and intensify his connection to holiness due to the challenge. 

Indeed, every obstacle and challenge in Joseph's path was, in reality, a pedestal that would ultimately allow him to ascend to the most incredible heights. The same is true in our life. When we cultivate the awareness that at the core of our challenge or opponent is a concealed Divine spark; that in reality, there is no experience separate from G-d, the challenge becomes the fuel of commitment, dedication and spiritual growth. 

Recognizing the Divine spark in every experience will help reveal that Divine purpose and allow us to see how the challenge is transformed into positivity. 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos Vayeshev volume 1


How to Climb Out of the Pit 

If you happen to live on planet earth it is likely that occasionally you will feel trapped. You may feel something holding you back, keeping your spirits down and depleting your joy and passion for life. What is the secret to redemption, to escaping the confines and trappings of negativity?

In this week’s Torah portion we begin to read about the turbulent life of Joseph. We read of his going from being his father’s favored child, to being sold as a slave in Egypt. If that was not bad enough, he was then placed in prison on false charges. We read about how Joseph descended to the lowest state of society. In the coming weeks we read about the dramatic and abrupt reversal of his fortunes. Joseph was taken directly from prison to become the leader of Egypt.

What was the moment that triggered the redemption for Joseph? What was the turning point that ultimately led to Joseph’s freedom and ascent to power? 

With Joseph in prison were two of Pharaoh’s ministers. Each of them dreamed a mysterious dream on the same night and in the morning they were troubled by the dream. Joseph’s interaction with them is what ultimately brought salvation to Joseph (and by extension, to his family and to the entire Egyptian economy): 

And Joseph came to them in the morning, and he saw them and behold, they were troubled.

And he asked Pharaoh's chamberlains who were with him in the prison of his master's house, saying, "Why are your faces sad today?" (Genesis 40:6-7)

This seemingly simple question “why are your faces sad today?” is what led to Joseph’s redemption. If Joseph was indifferent to their mood, if he had not inquired about what was troubling them he would not have had the opportunity to interpret their dreams and subsequently he would not have been recommended   to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams which led him to royalty. 

What is remarkable about the exchange is that Joseph himself had all the reasons in the world to be sad and bitter. He was in prison based on false charges and there was no realistic hope for him to be freed. Yet Joseph was able to break free from the constant focus and concern for self. Joseph transcended his own perspective and was concerned for the wellbeing of others. And indeed, this internal liberation, eventually brought salvation to Joseph and ultimately  to his entire family.  

Each of us has two souls within ourselves, The natural soul, which is self oriented, and the G-dly soul, which seeks to transcend the confines of self and connect to G-d and to the Divine spark within each and every person. When we feel confined and limited by difficulties or internal shortcomings and challenges, when we sense that we need to free ourselves from negativity, we should follow Joseph's lead. The best path to redemption is tapping in to our G-dly soul, reaching out and connecting to others. For the liberation from the confines of focusing exclusively on the self, will ultimately unleash broader liberation, freeing us to reach our fullest potential. 

(Adapted from Sichos Kodesh, Miketz 5734)

The Dreams 

They dropped the ball.

They had been preparing for this moment for their entire careers. They were the greatest experts in their field, the best dream-interpreters money could buy. Yet, when it mattered most, they dropped the ball.

Shaken by the dreams of seven skinny cows swallowing up seven fat cows, and then seven thin and beaten ears of grain swallowing up seven healthy and full ears of grain, Pharaoh called the interpreters and demanded an interpretation. The verse states: “Pharaoh related to them his dream, but no one interpreted them for Pharaoh (Genesis 41:8)”. To be sure, they tried offering interpretations, yet Pharaoh was unsatisfied with their explanations. As Rashi points out:

“They did interpret them, but not for Pharaoh, for their voice did not reach his ears, and he had no satisfaction from their interpretation, for they said, “You will beget seven daughters, and you will bury seven daughters.”

The failure of the official dream interpreters created an opening for Joseph, the Hebrew slave languishing in prison, to step in to offer his interpretation. Joseph offered the most simple and straightforward interpretation possible. Joseph explained that there would be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Joseph suggested that Pharaoh appoint someone to collect and store food during the years of plenty which would sustain the country and the surrounding countries during the years of famine. Pharaoh was impressed with the brilliant explanation. He did not think twice. He appointed Joseph - the Hebrew slave, the foreigner - as the second in command of Egypt.

How could the expert interpreters miss such an obvious interpretation of the dream? How difficult was it to figure out that skinny cows and beaten-thin grain represents famine? Why did they drop the ball?

There was one important, yet often overlooked, detail that  did not allow the interpreters to explain that the cows refer to years. When the Torah tells us about the dream, it tells us that there were seven fat cows grazing, and then seven skinny cows emerged from the Nile and here is the critical detail:

“(And behold, seven other cows were coming up after them from the Nile, of ugly appearance and lean of flesh,) and they stood beside the cows on the Nile bank (ibid 41:3)”. 

Pharaoh's interpreters were convinced that there was no way that the skinny cows could represent years of famine that would follow years of plenty, because years of famine do not “stand beside” years of plenty. In other words, the years of famine follow the years of plenty, the two are not experienced simultaneously. The interpreters therefore suggested that the meaning of the dream was "You will beget seven daughters, and you will bury seven daughters.”  The advantage of their interpretation was that seven daughters could be born, from multiple wives, and simultaneously seven other daughters could die, in which case both the “fat cows” and the “skinny cows” would stand next to each other, representing joy and sorrow standing side by side. 

Joseph’s interpretation was novel in that Joseph explained that the dream Pharaoh dreamed was not just a notification of future events. Joseph explained to Pharaoh that the dreams were a call to action. Joseph helped Pharaoh understand that the dreams were not a description of a problem - seven years of devastating famine following and eliminating the seven years of plenty - but rather, the dreams depicted the solution. Joseph explained that the meaning of the key verse “and they stood beside the cows on the Nile bank” was indeed the key to the solution to the problem. The dreams were telling Pharaoh that the only way to survive the famine was if the years of plenty and the years of famine would be experienced simultaneously. G-d was showing Pharaoh that during the years of plenty the people should experience the years of famine by being cognizant of what was to come and by collecting and storing  food for the upcoming years of famine. And during the years of famine the people would experience the years of plenty, by eating the food that grew during the years of plenty.

In Joseph interpretation there were no years that were exclusively “good” or exclusively “bad”. The good fat cows and the bad skinny cows stood side by side.

Likewise, it is incumbent upon us to realize that in this world there is a mix of good and evil, a mix of spiritual plenty and spiritual famine. Joseph, the dreamer, the ultimate optimist, taught us that at any given moment we may decide what reality we want to live in. Although we may find ourselves spiritually in a situation of “years of famine”, we must be aware that at any given moment we can access the spiritual “years of plenty”.

Joseph taught us that when faced with a challenging circumstance, we must realize that G-d never sends us seven years of famine alone. Embedded in the reality we face, is the potential to discover the “plenty”. After all, the seven skinny cows always stand beside the seven fat cows.

Inspired by the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutey Sichos, Mikets, Vol. 15 sicha 1. 

Dreaming of Light

The great Pharaoh, ruler of the world’s mightiest superpower, was in distress. Pharaoh was in agony because of the two dreams he dreamt one night.

Pharaoh dreamed of seven fat, robust, cows being eaten up by seven lean ugly cows. He then had a second dream, this time seven thin and beaten ears of grain devoured seven healthy and good ears of grain.  

Pharaoh was shaken. 

The Torah tells of how he summoned his advisers seeking an explanation to his dreams: 

Now it came to pass in the morning that his spirit was troubled; so he sent and called all the necromancers of Egypt and all its sages, and Pharaoh related to them his dream, but no one interpreted them for Pharaoh.  

Why was this dream so troubling to Pharaoh? Did Pharaoh not have other dreams he ignored in the past? Why did this dream affect him so deeply, to the extent that when Joseph interpreted the dreams to his satisfaction, he awarded Joseph with the position of viceroy of Egypt? 

Pharaoh was the most powerful person in the most powerful kingdom of his time. Yet, like many powerful people, Pharaoh had a deep persistent concern, he always feared what would happen if the people would rebel against him? What would happen if neighboring countries decided to band together and dethrone him? He may have held tremendous power but deep down he feared that one day he might be challenged and his power might be lost. 

To manage his fears, Pharaoh would constantly reassure himself that he had nothing to fear. In battle between the mighty and weak the mighty would prevail and the weak would be crushed. He would remind himself that in a confrontation between the powerful and the powerless, the powerful would triumph every time. 

And then came the dreams.

The dreams were so troubling because they were the antithesis to what Pharaoh was reassuring himself. The dreams undermined and undercut Pharaoh’s sense of security, because they spoke of the weak overpowering the mighty, the emaciated cows and the downtrodden ears triumphing over the powerful cows and healthy stalks.  

Pharaoh was shaken because the dream reinforced his deepest fears. 

Joseph interpreted the dreams and explained to Pharaoh that the dreams represent seven years of famine that would follow seven years of plenty; he told Pharaoh to appoint someone to gather food during the years of plenty in preparation for the years of famine. Pharaoh was relieved and appointed Joseph the viceroy of Egypt. 

Joseph interpreted the dreams for Pharaoh, but he also drew his own lessons from the dreams. The Zohar, the primary book of Jewish mysticism, teaches that there were multiple layers of meaning embedded within the dream. Joseph shared the outer layer with Pharaoh yet he kept the inner layers of interpretation close to his heart. 

The dreams encouraged Joseph to facilitate the transplanting of his father’s household to Egypt. The dreams reassured Joseph that, although the Jews were destined to experience terrible oppression in Egypt, in the end they would triumph and emerge as a great nation, a “nation of priests”. Joseph was reassured that the physically weak Jewish people, would prevail over the mighty Egypt. 

The lesson Joseph derived from the dreams was echoed many centuries later during the story of Chanukah. Like Joseph, the Maccabees believed that the morally superior would succeed against the most powerful army of the time. They believed in what we say in the Chanukah prayers: “You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton sinners into the hands of those who occupy themselves with Your Torah.”  

As we light the Chanukah Menorah and listen to the whisper of the candles we hear their message of hope. We hear the candles tell us of the miracles of the past as well as the miracles of the future. We listen as the candles reassure us that ultimately, over time, the good will prevail over evil and light will expel the darkness. The candles remind us to appreciate the superiority of spirit over matter. The candles remind us to create miracles in our lives and in the world around us. They remind us to work toward a time when the world will be filled with light.

Joseph the Charmer

Woven into the story of Joseph are dreams and their interpretations. Joseph’s terrible hardships, beginning with being sold as a slave by his own brothers, were caused by his dreams that his brothers would bow to him. His rise to the height of power was also brought about by Joseph's skillful interpretation of dreams. 

Indeed, in this week’s portion we read about Pharaoh summoning Joseph from prison, in order to interpret his dreams: 

And Pharaoh said to Joseph, "I have dreamed a dream, and there is no interpreter for it, but I have heard it said of you [that] you understand a dream, to interpret it."   

Dream interpretation turned out to be central to Joseph’s story, because, according to the Kabbalists, it represents Joseph's spiritual makeup and his unique divine mission. 

Life is like a dream. 

A dream is a state of mind where there is no orderly thinking, a place where opposing forces can co-exist. A consciousness where chaos reigns free. A dream is a place where one can move between opposite extremes very quickly, one moment the dreamer is in grave danger, and a moment later he is safe and sound. 

Life is like a dream.  

This world we live in is a world of fragmentation. In a single day we experience opposite feelings, highs and lows, the pull to transcend and the opposing gravitational pull of the earth. We experience moments of meaning and mindfulness, as well as moments of distraction, pain and confusion.   

Joseph's experience was like a dream, one moment he was a slave in prison, a moment later he was the leader of Egypt. 

If life is similar to a dream, then the key to success in life is to be a dream interpreter.     

The Hebrew word for “(dream) interpreter” is “Poter” (פתר), (which means to solve, as in solving a riddle). The same letters rearranged spell the word “Tofer” (תפר) which means to sew. 

Joseph was able to solve the dreams as well as solve the challenges of life, by realizing that he must serve as the needle that would sew together all of the fragments and create unity. To Joseph every experience, both positive and negative, was part of the tapestry of a single story. The negative moments in life, the challenges one faces, are confusing until one sews them all together to achieve the big picture. The ability to solve and “interpret” the dream comes from infusing every moment and every experience with meaning. No matter where a person is, he is always able to ask: what can I accomplish this moment? Who can I help? How can I advance the cause of goodness and kindness?

Which is precisely what Joseph told Pharaoh. Pharaoh saw many details. In the first dream he saw seven fat cows and then seven skinny cows. In the second dream he saw seven healthy ears of grain and seven thin ears of grain.  

The first words that Joseph said to Pharaoh are the clue to how Joseph cracked the code of the dream and it represents Joseph's attitude towards life in general:

And Joseph said to Pharaoh, "Pharaoh's dream is one; what God is doing He has told Pharaoh.   

Both dreams are one dream. Both the good years and the bad years are part of one story. Both give us the opportunity to bring G-dliness into the world and to work to help others. 

This was Joseph’s key insight. 

From Joseph we learn that every soul is like a sewing needle. Like the needle's point, we possess the ability to penetrate the fabric and sew things together. We have the ability to penetrate the material and connect it to the divine, to pierce through the outer shell and discover that all of creation is but an expression of the one G-d.  

As Jacob was about to pass away he blessed each of his children. He turned to Joseph and said:  “Ben Porat Yoseph”, “A charming son is Joseph”. The word Jacob used for charm and beauty is “Porat” (פרת), the same letters as the letters of the word Interpreter, “Poter” (פתר), and the same letters as the word for sewing, “Tofer”.

When one learns to (פתר) interpret their life by (תפר) sewing all details of life into one story, then life, every part of life, becomes (פרת) beautiful and charming

Dreams of Hope

Joseph was appointed to be the viceroy of Egypt because he alone was able to interpret Pharaoh's dreams. Joseph explained that the dreams foretold that seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine were to come. Joseph suggested that Pharaoh appoint officers to collect food during the years of plenty in order to sustain the land of Egypt during the seven years of famine. 

Pharaoh was so taken by the interpretation of the dreams that he appointed Joseph, an unknown prisoner from a foreign land, to be the ruler of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself:   

Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, "Since God has let you know all this, there is no one as understanding and wise as you.

You shall be [appointed] over my household, and through your command all my people shall be nourished; only [with] the throne will I be greater than you." (Genesis 41:40)

The story seems strange. Why would Pharaoh appoint Joseph as leader, instead of Pharaoh’s government ministers and agencies? Even if Pharaoh liked Joseph’s interpretation, why could he not have accepted Joseph's advice while instructing his own government agents to implement the policy? 

Egypt was a pagan society which believed that everything on earth was controlled by the pagan gods. According to Egyptian philosophy, the human being was bound to the will of the gods, trapped by destiny and had no power over his own future and moral choices. In Egyptian culture, the circumstances to which one was born, was where he would forever remain, bound by the gods of the natural forces. Thus, Egypt did not allow for social mobility, freedom or moral free choice. 

From the perspective of the Egyptian professional dream interpreters, if the gods were planning seven years of famine there was nothing human beings could do to save society. If the gods of nature were about to bring hardship and pain then the people would have no choice but to accept the suffering. 

Which is why Pharaoh was so taken by Joseph. 

Joseph explained to Pharaoh that G-d informing him of the seven years of famine was a Divine call to action. G-d wanted the people to take action, make the right choices and prepare for the future. Joseph received the promotion because Pharaoh understood  that Joseph’s interpretation and his policy suggestion were so foreign to Egyptian culture that only a Hebrew, foreign to Egyptian philosophy and culture, could succeed in preparing for the seven years of famine. Pharaoh understood that there was no one in all his kingdom that could embrace the optimism and proactive approach that came from Joseph’s perspective. Only Joseph could infuse the Egyptians with the spirit of hope and the commitment to action. 

Pharaoh's dreams served a more profound purpose than just to help the Egyptians  survive the economic downturn. The dreams and their interpretations were supposed to be the first step in changing Egypt’s perspective. Human choice matters. G-d gives us the freedom to choose the path we take. Without the gift of free choice there can be no freedom and no morality. 


Each year the story of Joseph, the quintessential optimist, the dreamer who never loses hope for a better future, is read on Chanukah. It is the spirit of Joseph which inspired the Maccabees to take action, to be hopeful and to persevere in their efforts to fight for their religious freedom. 

May the flames of the Chanukah candles inspire hope and optimism, which, in turn, fuel our actions, to fill the earth with the light of goodness and kindness.  

Why Joseph Framed Benjamin

The terrible famine brought ten of Jacob’s sons before the Viceroy of Egypt to purchase bread. The viceroy, who, unbeknownst to them, was their brother Joseph who they sold as a slave, accused them of being spies and demanded that they bring their brother Benjamin to Egypt. Before Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers, he framed Benjamin by planting his silver goblet in Benjamin’s bag and charging Benjamin with stealing. Judah stood up for Benjamin, requesting that Judah himself be punished instead of Benjamin.  Joseph then revealed his identity to his brothers, and the extended family was reunited with Joseph and they all settled in Egypt.    

The conventional understanding is that the entire plot of Joseph and his brothers serves to explain how the Jewish people came to live in Egypt and how they eventually became enslaved to the Egyptians.The Kabbalistic reading is precisely the opposite. Every step that Joseph took was, in reality, paving the way not for the eventual enslavement but rather for the spiritual fortification of the Jews in exile, which would ultimately lead to the redemption.

From the mystical perspective, in order for their descendants to survive the harsh exile, the brothers of Joseph, who were the heads of the tribes of Israel, had to experience the oppression and accusations of the Egyptian monarch, who was, in truth, their brother in disguise. When the Jewish people, like their ancestors before them, would feel subjected to the Egyptian monarch, they would remember the story of Joseph and realize that there was a deeper reality in play. The hidden reality is one where the oppressive monarch, was their “brother”, who would ultimately bring benefit to them. The exile was a process that would refine them and lead them to great material and spiritual wealth. 

In addition to physical subjection, exile also has a spiritual dimension. When we are in exile we are not in our natural environment. In exile we are living a life that is not consistent with our inner core. Our natural, inherent, awareness of G-d and connection to the spirituality of our inner soul is compromised, as our emotions and aspirations are directed exclusively to our physical survival. 

Joseph empowered the Jewish people to overcome the spiritual numbness that is exile.   

The Torah describes how Joseph had Benjamin framed:

Then he commanded the overseer of his house, saying, "Fill the men's sacks with food, as much as they can carry, and put each man's money into the mouth of his sack.

And my goblet, the silver goblet, put into the mouth of the sack of the youngest, and his purchase money." And he did according to Joseph's word, which he had spoken. (Genesis 44:1-2)

According to the mystics, the silver goblet represents passionate love and joy. The Hebrew word for silver (kesef) is the same word that means yearning and longing. The goblet contains wine which, as the verse says, brings joy to the heart of man. 

Joseph’s planting the goblet in Benjamin’s sack empowers us to realize that hidden within us is a goblet that has the capacity to experience the love and joy which a relationship with G-d embodies. Joseph planted the goblet in the sack of Benjamin to remind us that we can dispel the darkness of exile by searching for the hidden reservoirs of positive emotions planted within us. When we discover the goblet and taste the wine, the spiritual exile dissolves paving the way for the physical redemption as well. 

(Adapted from Or Hatorah Bireyshis 6, page 2206)

Finding the "Opening of the House"

The brothers were frightened. 

The viceroy of Egypt, who, unbeknownst to them, was their brother Joseph whom they sold into slavery, accused them of being spies. When they returned home from purchasing grain to sustain their families during the terrible famine, the brothers found their money mysteriously returned to their bags. When they returned to Egypt with Benjamin to purchase additional grain they were immediately brought to the house of Joseph. 

They were afraid to enter Joseph's house. 

The Torah describes that they approached the steward of Joseph’s house, trying to convince him of their innocence. As the Torah describes: 

so they went up to Joseph’s house steward and spoke to him at the entrance of the house.

And they said, "Please, my lord, we came down at first to purchase food.

And it came to pass when we came to the lodging place that we opened our sacks, and behold! each man's money was in the mouth of his sack, our money in full weight; and we returned it in our hands.

And we brought down other money in our hand[s] to purchase food. We do not know who put our money into our sacks." (Genesis 43:19-22)

The Torah describes how they were reassured: 

He replied, “All is well with you; do not be afraid. Your God, the God of your father, must have put treasure in your bags for you. I got your payment.” And he brought out Simeon to them. 43-23

Every detail in the Torah is precise. Why does the Torah emphasize that the exchange happened “at the entrance of the house“?

The Chasidic Masters explain the mystical meaning of the story and its relevance to each of our lives. The Baal Shem Tov taught that everything that happens in this world happens by Divine providence. When a person experiences fear caused by physical concerns, it is in order to help the person reach a higher state of fear, the awe of G-d. The spiritual fear then causes all other fears, which are debilitating and paralyzing, to dissipate. This, in fact, is what happened to Joseph’s brothers. When they were accused of being spies (and later, when Benjamin was accused of stealing Joseph’s goblet), they were frightened. Yet the fear of the viceroy led them to a deeper awe, it led them to realize the severity of their terrible sin of selling their brother. The “external fear”, the fear of the human king, led them to “an inner fear”, the fear of their creator, which led to their ultimate repentance and transformation. 

This is the mystical significance of the “opening of the house”. Every challenge is, in reality, an opening to a deeper and more elevated space. When the brothers were faced with a profound fear, they realized that it was an “opening of a house”, an opportunity to get to a deeper awe. They were able to use the external fear as an opportunity to introspect and reach a deeper level of awe.    

The same is true for each of us. Every experience in our life could become “an opening of the house”, an opportunity for spiritual growth, deeper awareness. Next time you face a challenge, or encounter an obstacle, ask yourself: how do I use this challenge as an opening to a new “house”, to a space of deeper meaning and spiritual connection? 

Based on the Degel Machane Ephrayim.

Keep Dreaming

The second half of the book of Genesis is replete with dreams. Jacob dreams of a ladder reaching heaven as he is fleeing the land of Israel and he dreams of cattle when he is about to head back to Israel. Joseph dreams that his brothers will bow to him. He interprets the dreams of Pharaoh's ministers when they are in prison. And, ultimately, he rises to power when he interprets Pharaoh's dreams.

Our relationship with dreams is complicated. Deep down, we each have something we dream of, a goal to reach, an achievement to aspire to, yet our critical mind places a damper on our aspirations, telling us to be realistic and logical, telling us that our goals are unattainable. Yet, Joseph teaches us never to stop dreaming, always to believe in our ability to reach the loftiest of goals.  

Joseph's dreams offer insight into the way to dream in a sustainable and healthy way. 

There is an essential difference between the dreams of Pharaoh and the dreams of Joseph. In Pharaoh's dream, there is a descent from a higher form of life to a lower form of life. At first, Pharaoh dreams of seven healthy cows devoured by seven lean cows and afterwards he dreams of seven healthy ears of grain being swallowed up by seven emaciated ears of grain. A descent from the animal kingdom to vegetation. Joseph's dream, by contrast, represents an elevation from the earthly to the heavenly. At first, he dreamt of bundles of grain bowing to him, and afterwards he dreamt of the stars, sun, and moon bowing to him. Joseph, whose name means "increase," teaches us that the way to dream is to increase in small steps in order to elevate oneself. As long as we work to increase and grow, our dream will be kept alive and will ultimately be fulfilled. 

The holiday of Chanukah, which occurs in proximity to when the portion of Joseph's dreams is read, embodies this message. Chanukah reminds us that in times of darkness, we must not despair. We must continue to dream for and work toward a bright future by continuously increasing light. We begin with one small candle. But if we keep dreaming, if we keep growing, if we keep adding a candle each night, we will ultimately prevail. The entire Menorah will be filled with light, ultimately transforming the world into a place of goodness and kindness. 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Likkutei Sichos Vayeshev vol. 3.

Joseph and Self Esteem

No other character in the Torah experiences extreme circumstance changes, as does Joseph. He starts as the cornerstone of his home, his father's favorite son, and abruptly descends to become a slave in Egypt. If that were not enough, he is slandered by his master's wife and is imprisoned. Just as abruptly, he ascends from the lowest position in society to become the leader of Egypt, as Pharaoh told him: "besides you, no one may lift his hand or his foot in the entire land of Egypt."

What is Joseph's secret to success, remaining upbeat and loyal to his ethics, beliefs, and inner character, despite the dramatic and changing circumstances? What was the secret of his ability not only to preserve his own identity but to affect the people around him in a positive way? 

Our culture values people based on external criteria, such as physical appearance, material possessions, or professional success. Defining ourselves by these criteria, however, is never a route to healthy and enduring self-esteem and could potentially be psychologically dangerous because our circumstances and achievements are not permanent. The healthiest and most durable way of creating lasting self-esteem is by connecting to our spiritual soul, the spark of G-d within, whose value is infinite and unconditional. When we live this way, no one can diminish our self-esteem, and we experience a great sense of freedom. There is no need for validation from others. When we connect to the spiritual side of ourselves, we recognize that our value is infinite and unconditional. 

Back to Joseph.

When Joseph was rushed from prison to meet Pharaoh, the Torah states: 

So Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they rushed him from the dungeon, and he shaved and changed his clothes, and he [then] came to Pharaoh. (Genesis 41:14)

The deeper meaning of "changed his clothes" is that the circumstances of slavery and prison were "garments", they were external to his essence. Joseph did not allow those "garments" to define him. The same was true about his successes. His success in the eyes of the Egyptians was not what defined him. Joseph self-defined as someone with a Divine soul, a conduit to the Divine plan, to bring salvation, comfort, and holiness wherever he was, regardless if he was imprisoned or on the throne of Egypt.

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 35 Mikeitz Sicha 1


Judah’s Transformation 

Judah is the hero of the story.

Yes, at first he was the brother who suggested and arranged the sale of Joseph. He was the one who was forced to move away from the family, because the brothers deposed him of his leadership role once they realized the terrible pain Joseph’s absence caused their father.

Yet, somewhere along the way there was a transformation. Judah assumed the role of leader of the brothers, and in the opening scene of this week’s Torah Portion we read what is certainly one of the most dramatic moments portrayed in the Torah, Judah alone, confronted the Egyptian leader.

When was Judah’s turning point? When did he transform from the brother who destroyed the unity of the family to the brother who took responsibility to defend Benjamin at great personal cost?

Let us look back in the story to search for clues to Judah’s transformation.

In last week’s portion we read about how Judah was successful where Reuben, his oldest brother, failed. The brothers tried to persuade their father to allow them to take Benjamin to Egypt, to comply with the demand of the leader of Egypt, who, unbeknownst to them was their own brother Joseph. Jacob refused to allow Benjamin, his youngest child, the son of his late most beloved wife, to go to Egypt, out of fear for his well being. Reuben, the eldest brother, the leader of the group, spoke to his father as follows:

And Reuben spoke to his father, saying, "You may put my two sons to death if I don't bring him (Benjamin) to you. Put him into my hand[s] and I will return him to you." 

Jacob responded:

But he (Jacob) said, "My son shall not go down with you, because his brother is dead, and he alone is left, and if misfortune befalls him on the way you are going, you will bring down my gray head in sorrow to the grave."

Where Reuben failed Judah succeeded. When Jacob again requested that his sons descend to Egypt to purchase food, Judah steps in to talk to their father, Judah says:

If you send our brother with us, we will go down and buy food for you. But if you do not send [him], we will not go down, because the man said to us, 'You shall not see my face if your brother is not with you.' 

Judah then continues:

And Judah said to Israel, his father, "Send the lad with me, and we will get up and go, and we will live and not die, both we and you and also our young children. I will guarantee him; from my hand you can demand him. If I do not bring him to you and stand him up before you, I will have sinned against you forever. For had we not tarried, by now we would have already returned twice."

Judah was successful. Jacob agreed to send Benjamin.

Why? What did Judah say or do that was so different from what Reuben said?

Judah understood what leadership meant. He understood that his job as a leader was to empower others, in this case his father, to take responsibility. Judah understood that as long as the brothers were the ones pleading with Jacob to send Benjamin, Jacob would not agree. Judah understood that his job as a leader was to place the decision in Jacob’s hands, pointing out that the ramifications of the decision would be completely on Jacob’s conscience. 

Judah did not try to persuade his father. He did, however, tell his father that the decision whether or not they would go down to Egypt was in their father's hand. He tells his father “had we not tarried, by now we would have already returned twice".

What Judah did was he forced his father to make the decision. Once his father had to decide, Judah was sure that his father would make the right choice.

Where did Judah learn this important truth about leadership? Where did he learn that the key to leading someone to do the right thing is by placing the responsibility in their hands?

The person who was responsible for Judah’s transformation and ultimate leadership role within the Jewish people was Tamar.

Looking back to one portion before the last, we read about Judah’s daughter-in-law, Tamar, who Judah sentenced to death for adultery. In fact, Tamar disguised as a harlot, became pregnant from Judah himself, who she was entitled to marry, since someone from Judah’s family had an obligation to marry her due to the law of the Levirate marriage.

Tamar had Judah’s staff and signet as evidence that Judah was in fact the father of her unborn twin children and thus she was not guilty of adultery. She did not proclaim her innocence by shaming Judah. Instead, she forced Judah to make a choice. Tamar forced Judah to choose between making the right moral choice or between allowing Tamar and her unborn children to be killed:

She was taken out, and she sent to her father in law, saying, "From the man to whom these belong I am pregnant," and she said, "Please recognize whose signet ring, cloak, and staff are these?"

Judah then realized that he must choose, and that the choice he would make would lay on his conscience and on his conscience alone, forever.

Courageously, Judah made the morally correct choice:

Then Judah recognized [them], and he said, "She is right, [it is] from me, because I did not give her to my son Shelah."

Tamar transformed Judah. She taught him how to assume responsibility.

Judah, in turn, internalized her message. When it came time to influence Jacob, Judah empowered Jacob, by highlighting that the responsibility lay in Jacob’s hands.

And when Judah himself saw disaster about to strike, when he saw the Egyptian leader trying to enslave Benjamin, he took Tamar’s message to heart: Don't shy away. Don't wait for one of your brothers to step in. Realize that the solution to this problem will come only when you take action. Realize that G-d is waiting for you to make the right choice.  

The Estate of Goshen

The final two portions of the book of Genesis leave us with mixed feelings.

On the one hand, Jacob was finally at peace; his family was reunited and his son Joseph was the leader of Egypt, the world’s superpower.  For the first time in many decades Jacob was living in tranquility. Joseph granted Jacob and his family Egypt’s best real estate, the region of Goshen, where they lived a worry-free, peaceful, existence.

On the other hand, it was a sad story. There was a dark cloud hanging over their tranquil life in the land of Goshen. The children of Israel were heading toward a period of terrible slavery.

The Torah, with a carefully selected Hebrew word, alludes to the complex reality of life in the Goshen region of Egypt.

The final verse in this week's Torah portion describes the Jewish people thriving:

And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt in the land of Goshen, and they acquired property in it, and they were prolific and multiplied greatly. 

The Hebrew word for “acquired property” is “Va’ye’ah’chazu”, which is from the word ”Achuzah” which is commonly translated as estate. In our story the word is telling us that the Israelites acquired an estate in the land of Goshen. The word “Achuzah”, however, has another meaning as well. It is from the root word “Achaz” which means to grasp. “Achuzah”, can also mean that the land grasped the Israelites. That in some way they were trapped by the land.

The word “Va’ye’ah’chazu”, then, has different and opposing meanings. It can mean “acquiring an estate”, which is a symbol of freedom, or it can mean being “grasped” by the land, which implies being trapped and enslaved.

The two meanings of the word “Achuzah” - “estate” and “grasped” - teach us an eternal message. It is a lesson about what our attitude toward Egypt should be, and what our general attitude toward the world we live in should be.

When our soul descends into this world, it enters a foreign land. When we are exiled from Israel, we are in foreign territory. The purpose of the journey to this foreign territory is to “acquire an estate”. It is to find and to elevate the sparks of holiness which are in every material object and in every corner of the planet. We elevate the sparks by using physical objects for a meaningful purpose, thus infusing the world with holiness.

Wherever we find ourselves in the journey of life we are charged with transforming that place into an estate for holiness, an oasis of spirituality. G-d sends each of us to “exile” with a mission to find and elevate the thirsting sparks. 

And yet, there is a danger in the journey. The danger is that instead of elevating the material, we are grasped by it. That instead of our possessions serving us, we serve our possessions. That instead of enjoying our estate, we are trapped by it.

The essence of exile, then, is “Achuzah”, grasped and trapped by the land. 

Yet “Achuzah”, as in estate, also captures the essence of redemption and freedom.  

We are all in the metaphorical land of Goshen. We may feel that we are enslaved by the lure of the material, that we are trapped by its grip. Yet, the Torah reminds us that we have the power to free ourselves from its gravitational pull. That the physicality which held us down yesterday can be redeemed and become the building blocks of a spiritual edifice, of an estate of holiness.

Inspiration vs. Action  

Judah approaches Joseph.

He did not know it at that moment, but when Judah approached the viceroy of Egypt, to demand that his brother Benjamin be released, he was approaching his long lost brother Joseph. 

The Kabbalists explain that the rivalry between the brothers and Joseph, which led to the brothers selling Joseph as a slave, was no ordinary rivalry motivated by a dispute over their father's attention and love. In fact, the dispute between Joseph and his brothers was about something much deeper and more spiritual in nature: it was about which brother should be their leader? Which brother would be their king, the one who exemplified the qualities critical for the Jewish faith to survive? Whose model of spirituality should the family adopt?   

The brothers chose Judah. They believed that he was to be their leader, for he personified the qualities necessary for their values to flourish. The word Judah means acknowledgment and submission. Judah was a man of action. Very often his motives were less than exemplary, yet, consistently, in moments of crises, regardless of his own personal feelings and state of mind, he rose to the occasion and made the right choice. 

Judah personifies the Jew who is committed to what he knows is correct despite tremendous persecution and pressure. In fact, the word Jew comes from the word Judah, and was first used to describe all the children of Israel in the book of Esther, when the people remained loyal to their faith despite the persecution of Haman, thus exhibiting Judah like - Jewish - qualities.     

The brothers crowned Judah as their king. They understood, correctly, that he must lead. That his commitment to action in the face of challenge was the secret ingredient to their survival.     

Then, along came Joseph and his dreams. Joseph told the brothers, that in his dreams, the brothers bow to him, that he must be their leader. That they must acknowledge the superiority of inspiration, wisdom and learning. The word Joseph means “to add”. Joseph was like a fountain of wisdom who continuously would come up with new insights, adding layers  of understanding to the previously acquired wisdom.   

The brothers decided to get rid of Joseph. They mistakenly thought that they were correct in doing so because Joseph rebelled against Judah the king who they had appointed, and because he threatened their survival by undercutting the importance of action based commitment to the correct path. 

In this week's Parsha, Judah approached Joseph, Joseph was the powerful ruler of Egypt and Judah was subordinate to him. In what is perhaps one of the most emotional scenes in the Torah, Judah revealed his identity to his brothers, and then, explain the Kabbalists, Joseph revealed a deep truth. He told them “G-d has sent me here before you”. Joseph explained that indeed, ultimately, Judah would rule. That indeed the tribe of Judah would be the tribe of kingship. That indeed action, the quality of Judah, is superior. Yet “G-d sent me (Joseph) before you”. That before you acquire a leader who is Judah you require a leader who is Joseph. There must be a recognition of the role of study and personal growth in the life of a Jew. 

Just as it was in the history of the Jewish people, so it is in the life of every Jew. At first our inner Joseph is meant to rule. We are called upon to “add”, to grow our understanding and our emotional bond to the teachings of Judaism. Yet once we reach the limit of where our heart and mind can take us, we appoint Judah as our king. We realize that our wisdom, our Joseph, cannot touch the infinite light of G-d. To touch the infinity we must achieve a Judah like commitment and dedication to G-d’s will. We must take action.  

Jacob's Distress

After twenty two years of mourning the loss of his beloved son, Jacob received the news that Joseph was alive and well, and was the ruler of Egypt. Jacob wasted no time and together with his family, he began the journey to Egypt. Jacob was filled with conflicting emotions. On one hand he was about to spend the best years of life, in peace and tranquility, reunited with his beloved son, Joseph. On the other hand, the journey to Egypt was the beginning of what, decades later, would become the terrible enslavement of the Jews in Egypt. 

The Torah relates: 

And God said to Israel in visions of the night, and He said, "Jacob, Jacob!" And he said, "Here I am." 

And He said, "I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid of going down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. (Genesis 46:3)

Rashi explains that G-d’s reassuring words to Jacob were in response to Jacob’s concern about traveling to Egypt: 

Do not be afraid of going down to Egypt: [God encouraged him] because he was distressed at being compelled to leave the Holy Land.

A careful read of Rashi reveals a discrepancy in the emotion described; while the Torah describes the emotion as fear (“do not be afraid to go down to Egypt”) Rashi describes the feeling as one of distress (“he was distressed”). According to Rashi, Jacob was feeling distress and G-d told him not to fear. Yet G-d did not tell Jacob not to be distressed. 

Rashi teaches a powerful lesson on how Jacob was to approach the onset of the exile, as well as how we should approach our own exile; we must not fear the exile and it’s difficulties, we must, however, be distressed about it. We must never make peace with the exile and it’s spiritual and physical challenges. We must always remember that exile and it’s challenges are not our natural state of being. In fact, these two components, not fearing the exile and experiencing distress from exile, are interdependent: the only way we can immunize ourselves against the negative effect of exile and its challenges (“do not fear”), is if we understand that our true identity is at home only in our own homeland. 

The same is true when we experience a figurative “exile”, when we feel trapped by internal or external challenge, when we are frightened by our current state of being and wish we could improve ourselves. We must remember that the challenge and difficulty are but temporary. The negativity we are experiencing does not define us. The most important tool of spiritual survival is to remember that we will overcome and return to our true selves, to our soul, to our homeland. 

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos vol. 30 Vayigash 3)

Which Speech Would you Give?

Joseph just dropped the bomb. He revealed his identity to his brothers. The Egyptian prime minister they were standing before, was, in fact, their own brother Joseph who they sold into Egyptian slavery twenty two years earlier. 

They were stunned. 

Joseph spoke. 

Here is the speech Joseph did not deliver:

Brothers, while it is true that I have attained success, greatness and power, please do not take any credit for that. For while your actions ultimately led to my rise to power, you had nothing but evil in your hearts and minds. Your intention was to sell me as a slave. 

Here is the speech Joseph delivered: 

Brothers, do not feel bad that you intended to sell me as a slave. For G-d arranged that the result of your terrible act was that I can save our family and reign over all of Egypt. 

[“Do not be sad, and let it not trouble you that you sold me here, for it was to preserve life that God sent me before you... And now, you did not send me here, but God, and He made me a father to Pharaoh, a lord over all his household, and a ruler over the entire land of Egypt. Genesis 45:5-8].  

Instead of spending emotional energy on feeling resentment and anger against his brothers, Joseph was able to see only the positive, the hand of G-d that led him to success. Joseph saw only the good that came from his brothers cruel act, not their evil intention. 

Incredibly, Joseph was able to see past the negativity and focus only on the good. He was able to do so because of his unique philosophy in life. Joseph understood that wherever he may be he was an emissary of God to carry out the Divine will. In his words to his brothers he used the word  “sent”. To Joseph, the important questions were not, who harmed me? Who can I blame for my real or imagined difficulties?In every situation, Joseph asked himself: why am I here? For what purpose did G-d send me here? What is my mission in this place?

Every time we encounter a challenge or difficulty in our lives, we too have a choice. We can respond with resentment and anger or we can follow Joseph's example. We too are G-d’s emissaries not only to survive the challenge, but rather, like Joseph, to “rule over it”, to transform the obstacle into an experience of life and growth.

Next time you face a challenge, which speech will you give?  

(Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, 5 Teves 5747)

Judah the Guarantor

The Torah has two facets: both a body, law, and a soul, inner meaning, philosophy, and spirituality. By examining the detailed Talmudic analysis, the body, of a given topic, we can gain insight into the inner spiritual dimension.

The Talmud offers two opinions for the scriptural source of the legal liability of a guarantor, the person who agrees to assume the liability to repay a loan given to a third person. Rav Huna states that the scriptural source is from the story of Judah, who committed to his father to become a guarantor to return Benjamin safely home from Egypt: 

Rav Huna said: From where is it derived that a guarantor becomes obligated to repay a loan he has guaranteed? As it is written that Judah reassured his father concerning the young Benjamin: “I will be his guarantor; of my hand shall you request him” (Genesis 43:9). This teaches that it is possible for one to act as a guarantor that an item will be returned to the giver.

This source, however, is somewhat problematic, because Judah’s offer to be a “guarantor” was not referring to the obligation to repay a debt. Since Judah’s commitment does not conform to the scenario of a financial guarantor, the Talmud offers another opinion:

Rabbi Yitzḥak said that the source is from here: “Take his garment that is surety for a stranger; and hold him in pledge that is surety for an alien woman” (Proverbs 20:16). 

And it is stated: “My son, if you have become guarantor for your neighbor, if you have shaken your hands for a stranger, you have become ensnared by the words of your mouth”.

While it seems that the two opinions in the Talmud are debating a technical point, the scriptural source for the legal obligation of a guarantor, in reality, they are debating a deeper philosophical question: what is the nature of the obligation of the guarantor? 

It is clear that according to the second opinion, the relationship between the guarantor and the borrower is limited to a financial obligation. The quoted verses from Proverbs clearly define the borrower as a “stranger”, a separate and distinct entity. 

However, according to the first opinion, the relationship is a far deeper one. When Judah states that he will “guarantee” the return of Benjamin, he is not referring to a financial obligation; instead, he is stating that he is bound to Benjamin as though they were one entity, and he would therefore ensure Benjamin's return. If Judah’s commitment to Benjamin is the scriptural source for the laws of the guarantor of a debt, this indicates that the philosophical underpinnings of the guarantor’s responsibility to repay, is not because he agrees to repay the loan of a “stranger”, but rather it is as if the guarantor himself borrowed the money, because he and the borrower have become one entity.  

The Hebrew word for guarantor {arev} derives from the word blended {meurav}. The guarantor can be considered one entity with the borrower because, in our spiritual source, we are all part of one whole, interconnected and interrelated. This explains why, in Jewish Law, one can recite a blessing on behalf of a fellow who is obligated to recite the blessing, although the reciter himself is not obligated. The reason is because all Jewish people are considered one entity, if one person has not fulfilled his obligation, then his fellow is also “obligated”. 

The interconnectivity between all Jewish people is because of our shared spiritual identity. Therefore, all agree that we are considered one entity in spiritual matters, such as the recitation of a blessing. The Talmudic debate is whether our spiritual connection can play itself out in physical matters as well, expressing itself in financial matters. If, while engaged in the material world, we are unable to see ourselves as one entity, then the commitment to repay a fellow’s debt can only be considered a financial obligation to a fellow. Rav Huna, however, believes that our spiritual core can express itself even in the marketplace. He therefore says that the financial obligation on behalf of derives from the understanding that we are one entity. 

Judah’s family was traumatized by terrible division, when the brothers kidnapped Joseph and sold him as a slave. The healing, the reunion between Joseph and his brothers, could only have occurred once Judah expressed true brotherhood, demonstrating that a family is, in fact, one entity. 

Judah, and his descendants, became the leaders of the Jewish people precisely because a true leader senses that he is one with the people he leads. A true leader helps us all feel that we are part of one whole, part of one family. We are not complete until we are all complete.

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 30 Vayigash 1)  

The Root Cause of The Hate

Now that Joseph had been reunited with his brothers, now that the dreams of his brothers bowing to him had been fulfilled, we can examine the underlying cause of the conflict and animosity of the brothers toward Joseph.  

The conventional reading of the story is that the brothers were jealous of Joseph because he was their father's favored son. Their jealousy turned to hate when Joseph shared his dreams in which the brothers would bow to him. They were furious; as the Torah (Genesis 37:8) records their response: "So his brothers said to him, "Will you reign over us, or will you govern us? And they continued to hate him on account of his dreams and on account of his words." 

There is, however, a deeper dimension to the dispute. 

The brothers saw Joseph as a threat to their way of life, a challenge to their understanding of Judaism, they felt that Joseph’s lifestyle would threaten their ancestors' teachings which they sought to preserve. 

The patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the tribes, the sons of Jacob, were all shepherds. This allowed them to spend their time in nature, separated from the distractions of civilization, allowing them to focus on spirituality and their closeness to G-d. Even when the brothers descended to Egypt, they maintained their occupation of raising cattle, settling in Goshen, an enclave within the land of Egypt. Joseph, by contrast, was charting a new path. Joseph had the ability to cleave to G-d while simultaneously being involved in society. Joseph consistently rose to be a leader in his environment, first in the home of his Egyptian master, then in prison and finally in all of Egypt. Yet, despite being thoroughly invested in the economic affairs of Egypt, he maintained his sense of morality, and his connection to G-d. 

The brothers were frightened by the prospect of Joseph becoming their leader. They feared that if that was the case they would have to adapt Joseph's lifestyle. They feared being thrust into an environment of materialism, which would mean losing their connection to holiness. To them, Joseph and his lifestyle represented a mortal threat to their spiritual lives. 

The reality, however, was that they misinterpreted the meaning of Joseph's dreams. They feared that their sheaves of wheat bowing to Joseph represented that Joseph would dominate them. In reality, however, the dreams predicted that Joseph would sustain them not only physically, during the famine, but also spiritually in an immoral society. Joseph imparted to his brothers from his own spiritual quality, enabling them to retain their connection to G-d notwithstanding the unholy environment they inhabited.  

The verse in Psalms (80:2) refers to the collective Jewish people as Joseph: "O Shepherd of Israel, hearken, He Who leads Joseph like flocks… appear." Rashi explains: "All Israel are called by the name Joseph because he sustained and supported them in time of famine. We are called Joseph, not only because he sustained us during the famine thousands of years ago, but because his influence and example sustain us until this very day. Joseph empowers us to cleave to G-d while engaging in worldly matters, allowing us to infuse the world with holiness, transforming it into a place of goodness and kindness. 

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe, Lekutei Sichos 25 Vayigash 1

Feminine Redemption 

The family of Jacob was heading toward the land of Egypt, a journey that would eventually lead to the slavery which had been foretold to Abraham. As they were entering Egypt, a child was born that symbolized the ability to persevere through exile and ultimately transform it. 

When Jacob and his family travel to Egypt, the Torah tells us that they numbered seventy souls:  

All the souls coming to Egypt with Jacob, those descended from him, excluding the wives of Jacob's sons, all the souls were sixty six. And Joseph's sons, who were born to him in Egypt, two souls; all the souls of the house of Jacob who came to Egypt were seventy. (Genesis 46:26-27)

The problem, however, is that when we run the numbers, we see only sixty-nine, not seventy, names. Rashi addresses this discrepancy by explaining that both are true; sixty-nine people traveled to Egypt, but seventy arrived in Egypt because at the city's walls, a baby was born who completed the number seventy. The baby was Yocheved, who later became the mother of Moses. As Rashi explains: 

This [missing one] is Jochebed, who was born between the walls when they entered the city, as it is said: "whom she bore to Levi in Egypt". Her birth was in Egypt, but her conception was not in Egypt. (Rashi, Genesis 46:15)

Yocheved, born at the gates of Egypt, symbolized the unique ability to be in Egypt but not be from Egypt, to live within the spiritual darkness of Egypt yet to remain connected to the light and inspiration of the holy land. The Kabbalists explain that she embodied the feminine Divine attribute of Malchut, sovereignty, which descends from the spiritual world of "emanation", where G-d is the only reality, to the three lower worlds of "creation", "formation", and "action", where G-d's vitalizing energy is concealed. The energy of Malchut is present within creation but yearns for, and occasionally ascends to, its source in the world of unity. 

This feature of the feminine attribute, the ability to bridge two worlds and perspectives, ultimately led to redemption.