Category Archives: Chassidut

Sefirat haOmer: The Inner Journey of Liberation


Taking steps daily on our journey towards freedom

We now find ourselves in Chol haMoed Pesach – the intermediate days of Passover, the middle days of this ongoing eight-day holiday. After a gruelling week of preparation and a very energetic first two festival days, we are all physically spent, ready to relax and enjoy the rest of the week to come.

MITZRAYIM TO HAR SINAI: Mark Hurvitz wrote: "Rabbi Amy Scheinerman's father (Andrew Ross z"l, a graphic artist) arranged the squares in a spiral. If you look at it in three-dimensional space we begin at the foot of Sinai and climb up to the summit in time for Shavuot!"

MITZRAYIM TO HAR SINAI: In this Sefirat haOmer chart one envisions themselves taking 49-steps up the summit of Sinai in time for Shavuot. Designed by Aharon Varady, a realization of a concept envision by Andrew Ross z”l.

Still for many people the joy of the festival and that sense of momentum in our souls remains with us. As we each work through own personal exodus during this season. Now that we have determined to become free people, naturally there is a new passion to experience and actualize that freedom. And to continue this spiritual journey to become more liberated. A desire to push forward in this march of freedom still inspiring many of us.

So who do we do that? How do we become freer and more liberated people?

And how do we satisfy this expansive drive aroused in our souls, while also being amidst an exhaustingly vigorous season?

Our tradition responds to this with the mitzvah of the Sefirat haOmer – the commandment of counting of the Omer. And through this tradition we learn how everyday we can do a little bit of work on improving ourselves. That’s all it really requires to pursue freedom within yourself, just taking a small step each day out of whatever has held us back in our life’s journey.

In the procession of the Jewish year, we are on a journey from Pesach to Shavuot. A journey which takes us from freedom in Egypt, and brings us to celebration at Sinai.

We’ve talked before about the biblical commandment, to count seven weeks of harvest gladness in which our ancestors were to offer up their coarse barley growth. And how on the fiftieth day the ancient Israelites would offer up an offering of their finest wheat in the Temple,  in order to bring great culmination to this spring season on the holiday of Shavuot – the festival of weeks, celebrated on the 50th day from Pesach. (see “The Sefirat haOmer: Making The Days Count“)

These two holidays of Pesach and Shavuot, along with a third agricultural festival of Sukkot in the fall, they are called the Shelosh Regalim. These were the three pilgrimage festivals of the Torah, which in ancient times required people to journey all the way up to the capital of Jerusalem every year for these holidays.

This holiday of Shavuot has no fixed date, it occurs after 49 + 1 days after Pesach. Nor did this holiday historically have any fixed religious significance until the rabbis of the Mishna began to relate this holiday with the giving of Torah at Har Sinai.

The rabbis therefore understood these 49 days as a time of personal preparation for receiving Torah. A period which would come to be characterized by personal reflection and ethical introspection. In this way the rabbis made this period an inner journey for us. They helped us appreciate this extensive mitzvah of Sefrat haOmer as a process on a path to become worthy of receiving this revelation of Torah. In order to stand dignified at Shavuot and receive this Torah anew.

In this way we also come to appreciate the sefirah period as a way for refining and cleaning ourselves up along the way – as we shed our slave characteristics –  on our way to the reception of the Torah at Sinai.

This sense of devotion became even more stressed by the kabbalistic masters of the 16th century in Tzfat, and then later by the chassidic masters who followed them. These mystics also decided take the journey inward, but in a much deeper and more profound way.

According to their custom of meditating upon the prayers of their highly mystical siddurim, they gave practical application to the Sefirat haOmer for making it engage a personal tikkun – a correction, a repair in one’s nature. And to do so systematically and with motivated intention.

The mystics broke the sefirah period into seven cycles of seven weeks, seven being the number of completion and wholeness (i.e. number of days in a week; creation). Each of the seven weeks were set to correspond to one of the seven sefirot (Divine forces) which active in the physical world. Likewise each day of the week was set to correspond to a sefirah as well, making us look even deeper into each of these characteristics within ourselves.

This form of meditation reflects upon seven essential characteristics, and then makes us further consider how we operate those creative drives. We learn to focus on specific points of our character.

Let me give you a few examples of how this line of meditation works, and also demonstrate how one can reflect on these (with a few off-the-cuff meditative suggestions that come to mind for me during my personal reflection at this time, those are in quotes; to give us examples of how to work through these thoughts):

Day 1 of the Omer:

חֶסֶד שֶׁבְּחֶסֶד

Kindness within Kindness

“Do I display my kindness with acts of truly pure kindness?”

Day 2 of the Omer:

גְּבוּרָה שֶׁבְּחֶסֶד

Discipline/Judgment within Kindness

“Is my sense of discipline in-line with my sense of kindness?”

Day 3 of the Omer:

תִּפְאֶרֶת שֶׁבְּחֶסֶד

Beauty/Harmony within Kindness

“Do I use my expansive kindness for bringing harmony and balance?”

Day 4 of the Omer:

נֶצַח שֶׁבְּחֶסֶד

Endurance/Victory within Kindness

“Is my sense of kindness in-line with a love that is long-lasting and able to overcome the challenges?”

During the first week we start in Chesed (Kindness), which is an accessible point of reference for the soul as we continue on with the joy of celebrating Pesach and as are just starting out on our sefirah count. Then in the second week we move into Gevurah (Discipline/Judgement). The third week Tiferet (Beauty/Harmony), etc.

Each week we look at one part of our Divinely inspired nature, and then systematically examine how we can bring balance to it. Looking at each level of our consciousness, realizing there are elements of each impulse mixed-in with the others. Our challenge is to bring balance within ourselves so that none of these are in conflict, and so that we can achieve a sense of freedom within ourselves.

This might also be helpful for beginners of this form of meditation: Think of the daily sefirah as representing one aspect of your divinely inspired inner drives or ambitions, and the sefirah for the week as representing how you go about achieving that in your actions. There is certain ways we feel inside, but its all about bringing our outward displays in-line with that.

The kabbalists weaved other meditative elements into their counting of the Omer. They also assigned certain meditative words from psalms and letters to each day. As well as pieces of the highly mystical Aramaic prayer Ana Bekoach. All these textual overlays, to further inspire an inner journey.

Now there is a reason that I keep referring to the Sefirat haOmer as a journey. This mitzvah is one with many steps in order to fulfill it.  It requires us making the effort everyday for 49 days, taking many small steps everyday. We cannot move forward if we stop at any point. Which is what makes this mitzvah so much of a discipline to keep. However, it is a deeply rewarding journey of self-exploration and refinement for those who follow all the way through!

Modern Meditative Aids for the Sefirat haOmer

colorfulomerchart KOL ALEPH MINIOne of the best ways to help one remember the daily Omer count is to use a chart. Over the years many charts have been devised to help people remember and stay accurate with their count. Many communities and homes have unique ones which people festively display and refer to.

These clever charts are also very useful for helping people visualize this path and process. One contemporary chart posted by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat of the ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal is a personal favorite. See her entry at Kol Aleph:

This not only a great way to keep count, it is also a great way to meditate upon the Omer. To think of it as a journey moving inward, to examine ourselves in our deepest core. Or we can also see this as a path around a mountain, moving upward with a step each day until we reach the peak of Sinai. This lovely chart is also overlaid with other meditative elements which color and desktop formatting today allow.

Over the years I have made the case that the rabbis made intentional use of specific words, letters and sounds to deliver imagery. As they were limited in their means of presenting these ideas in a black-and-white world in which they produced their manuscripts,  the mystics used other schemas. I have always believed that had the mystics of old lived today they would layer meaning in color, which would also aid in showing relationships of one thing to another.

I’m glad to see that several scholars and rabbis of the modern age are utilizing color to expressed concepts in their works and materials. To help people visualize the lesson and their inner journey.

Aharon-Varady-Sefirot-HaOmer-ChartOne the finest examples of this is the Sefirat HaOmer Chart of Lieba B. Ruth (aka, Lauren Deutsch), which was originally created according to her own color scheme.

Aharon Varady also notes:

“Lauren Deutsch’s system of color correspondences for the sefirot mainly follows the light spectrum from red to deep blue, then black and purple. Her systems accords well with that of Mark Hurvitz’s 7×7 Color Grid for the Omer.”

My friend and colleague Aharon Varady of the Open Siddur Project, was able formulate a meditative chart which would alternatively correspond to the color schema innovated by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.

She has generously shared this Kabbalistic Sefirat HaOmer chart as free and redistributable resource through the Open Siddur Project. Please re-distribute!

DOWNLOAD: SVG (source) | PNG

Please also refer to the original post by Aharon Varady and Lauren Deutsch at Open Siddur Project:

This chart expresses how the sefirot – both for the corresponding week and day of the sefirah count – how they come together. Causing us to conceptualize and consider the relationship of one characteristic to the other, and helping us visualize the balance we are trying to achieve between these powerful forces inside us.

In like manner, Aharon Varady also created a variation of the meditative circles chart utilizing a classical and historically inspired color schema. A schema which was presented in Reb Seidenberg’s Omer Counter widget (Neohasid.org). Aharon noted that this color system corresponds closely with that of the colors suggested by the RAMAK in Pardes Rimonim,Aharon-Varady_-_Omer-Circles-(David-Seidenberg's-Color-schema) as cited in Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s book, “Meditation & Kabbalah” (p. 181)  in the chapter titled “Colors.”

Having also taken personal interest in the color correspondences within classic kabbalistic literature, I had also tried to imagine this. To perceive how the mystics would have conceived of this. So this additional contribution has helped bring that to life for me. This color schema is very useful and meaningful to both Chassidic and Sephardic followers of the mystical disciplines.

The meaning of all this is also presented for us by Aharon in his detailed comments of the aforementioned post. The entry also wonderfully included the prayers, blessings, meditations, and even an updating counting widget… in addition to the helping you identify and visualize the interacting sefirot as you observe this special mitzvah!

Conclusion:

Many of us modern people don’t have the time or space in our lives make a religious pilgrimage like ancients used to during this time of year, therefore we have a long tradition of focusing on how to take this journey inward. We should utilize the many ways of teaching and thinking which helps take us on a journey for the soul.

Want to personalize your own journey? Here is a Do-It-Yourself help for making your own Sefirat haOmer Chart.

We have been learning about this inward journey through the soul we engage in during the sefirah period. One of the best ways is to visualize that journey as path up a mountain, as previously mentioned regarding another chart.

Aharon Varady also provides us with a subtle adaptation of a chart concept envisioned by Andrew Ross z”l. As noted by Aharon elsewhere:

 “Mark Hurvitz wrote: “Rabbi Amy Scheinerman‘s father (Andrew Ross z”l, a graphic artist) arranged the squares in a spiral. If you look at it in three-dimensional space we begin at the foot of Sinai and climb up to the summit in time for Shavuot!” (Please see: http://www.scheinerman.net/judaism/shavuot/omer4.html)

This wonderful chart is designed by Aharon Varady, a realization of a concept envision by Andrew Ross z”l.

The chart image shown at the top is a Creative Commons document, editable and redistributable design. Showing a spiral starting from the upper right, and moving counter-clockwise on its way inward. Indeed, all the items presented by Open Siddur are open-source licensed to edit and share! Feel free to personalize it with numbers or meditative thoughts.

What are you making your exodus from this year? Are you trying to leave bad traits behind? Are you making a journey out of addiction? Are you finding liberation from the effects of unhealthy relationships? Or are you just stepping forward in order to leave a sense of apathy behind? Personalize this chart and meditation for your goals. Whatever helps you visualize your journey inward to the soul and upward to Sinai!

Related articles:

Advertisements

Prayer for Peace by Rebbe Nachman of Beslov


A chassidic prayer of intention for peace and an end to war

Breslov Chassidim Singing

“Let there be a truly great peace between every person and their fellow…”

All over the world, our eyes are turned towards Israel as the region is once again thrown into war. This tense situation also having tragic repercussions in diaspora, with violent protests erupting on the streets of cities worldwide as people take sides in this dispute.

I must admit, I am overwhelmed with the crisis of the past few weeks. Everyone wants to debate who is right, and who is wrong. But I am already past that point. It is not that I do not stand with my people. It’s not that I’m not appalled by the violence. But all these recent events together, this is just not something that I can wrap my head around. It’s all too much. This is not something I can ever rationalize or even apologize for. I’m at a loss for words, and my mind is worn.

Do you feel the same way? Then I think it is time that we step away from trying to over-think it, and start doing some soul-work on this issue. As we all know that on a heart level every one of us wants all this crazy violence to end. Not just between Israel and the Palestinians, but also between all the fighting groups in the middle-east as I.S.I.S. militias push through the region. As well as in the Ukraine and Russia, where the situation is further escalating there as well. Our world needs peace!

At times like this, when I feel like I really need to do some deep soul-searching and when my emotions are pushed to the limit, I sometimes find that even my normal “rational” faculties to be insufficient or even broken. My familiar Chabad chassidut learning which focuses on higher intellect, it needs to be augmented. So then I step down from the lofty realms of Chachman, Binah, and Daat (Wisdom, Insight, and Knowledge, respectively); together refereed to by the acronym ChaBaD, which all relate to levels of higher understanding. Then I dig deeper – going down the kabbalistic tree, down from the head to the heart.

The Central Sefirot: Chesed, Gevurah, Tiferet (ChaGaT)It’s at irrational moments like this when I focus on the basic principles of ChaGaT chassidut. Refocusing on the basics which look to the center of our being. I begin to look into the realms of Chesed, Gevurah and Tiferet; which are respectively described as Kindness, Severity, and Harmony. In doing this we look at our basic emotive tendencies and try to bring balance between the extremes. Neither being too kind or permissive, wantonly expressing Chesed. Neither being too strong and severe, which is an excessive expression of Gevurah. But instead work to attain balance and to be in harmony; as expressed by Tiferet, also refereed to a Rachamim, meaning Mercy. In this approach, the goal is to find the golden middle path between the extremes.

At this time I would like us all to let ourselves dig deep emotionally. Not just focus on the wars in this outside world, but also deal with the battles raging inside our hearts as a result of these conflicts. So that we can bring balance inside ourselves. And in order to not get dragged into the common tendencies of extremism. To overcome the reactive nature of the soul. So that we be nether driven by fanaticism nor cynicism, but instead be compelled by compassion.

Breslov Chassidim, doing Kiruv (outreach)Probably the most notorious of the ChaGaT schools are the Breslov chassidim. Followers of the legacy and teachings of Rebbe Nachman z”l (1773-1810), of Bratslav, Ukraine. He was the son of Feiga; the meritorious granddaughter of the Baal Shem Tov, the very founder of chassidut. The movement Rebbe Nachman headed, today it has thousands of emissaries and youth active in kiruv. Worldwide they are known for their joyous outreach campaigns, often cutely summed up by observers as the hippie chassidim. (see Breslov.org and Breslev.co.il)

Breslov Street OutreachThe following is a widely distributed prayer, attributed to Rebbe Nachman of Beslov. This prayer is so well-loved that versions of it have made its way into prayerbooks and services everywhere. Not just in chassidic and orthodox Jewish circles, but also in progressive Jewish siddurim and interfaith services (UNESCO, Vatican, etc).

This version is the widely recognized Hebrew text. The English text closely follows the common translation, though slightly modified. The frequently missing first stanza (אדון השלום) is included here. I also added a free-translation for the fourth stanza (ויהיה כל אדם), which has been curiously missing from all previous translations to date.

תפילה לשלום

Prayer for peace

“Lord of Peace, Divine Ruler, to whom peace belongs. Master of Peace, Creator of all things:

אדון השלום, מלך שהשלום שלו עושה שלום ובורא את הכל:

“May it be thy will to put an end to war and bloodshed on earth, and to spread a great and wonderful peace over the whole world, ‘so that nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.’ (Isaiah 2:4)

יהי רצון מלפניך, שתבטל מלחמות ושפיכות דמים מן העולם ותמשיך שלום גדול ונפלא בעולם ולא ישא גוי אל גוי חרב ולא ילמדו עוד מלחמה“:

“Help us and save us all, and let us cling tightly to the virtue of peace. Let there be a truly great peace between every person and their fellow, and between husband and wife, and let there be no discord between any people even in their hearts.

עזרנו והושיענו כולנו שניזכה תמיד לאחוז במידת השלום, ויהיה שלום גדול באמת בין כל אדם לחברו, ובין איש לאשתו ולא יהיה שום מחלוקת אפילו בלב בין כל בני אדם:

“And may it be that all people love peace and pursue peace, always in truth and with wholeheartedness, without holding on to any disputes ever again which would divide us against each other.

ויהיה כל אדם אוהב שלום ורודף שלום תמיד באמת ובלב שלם, ולא נחזיק במחלוקת כלל לעולם ואפילו נגד החולקים עלינו:

“Let us never shame any person on earth, great or small. May it be granted unto us to fulfill Thy Commandment to, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ (Leviticus 19:18) with all our hearts and souls and bodies and possessions.

ולא נבייש שום אדם בעולם מקטן ועד גדול ונזכה לקיים באמת מצוות ואהבת לרעך כמוך“, בכל לב וגוף ונפש וממון:

“And let it come to pass in our time as it is written, ‘And I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down and none shall make you afraid. I will drive the wild beasts from the land, and neither shall the sword go through your land.’ (Leviticus 26:6)

ויקוים בנו מקרא שכתוב ונתתי שלום בארץ ושכבתם ואין מחריד והשבתי חיה רעה מן הארץ וחרב לא תעבור בארצכם:

“Hashem who is peace, bless us with peace!”

יי שלום, ברכנו בשלום.

Attributed to Rabbi Nachman ben Feiga of Breslov, 1773-1810

רבי נחמן בן פיגא מברסלב

Text edited and partially translated by Shmuel Gonzales, July 2014. 
This is free and open-source to distribute, under Creative Commons Zero (CCO) licensing, no rights reserved.

 

Recommended articles:


Chassidic Story: A Man With a Frightening Amount of Potential Within


The Story of the Baal Shem Tov and Reb Chaim the Drunk

An ultra-Orthodox Jew lies on the ground drunk during celebrations for the Jewish holiday of Purim in a synagogue in Jerusalem

“Yes, but if you can get him sober you will experience the best bracha of your life!”

The Belzer Rebbe tells this story of the Baal Shem Tov – the first of the famed Chassidic masters. This story is about one couple who comes to the Rebbe – the grand-rabbi, for a blessing. It was a serious need for this couple, something related to wanting to have a child, or an income to support them; something quite serious, according to the various versions.

As the Baal Shem Tov would do, the story says, he looked into the people standing before him. Their personal attributes and their potential, while pondering the issues facing them. The story says he turns to them and says that there is nothing that he can do. Sure, he’s known as the man of miracles. But this time it’s beyond him.

So as this couple turns to walk away, the Baal Shem Tov notices just how dejected and distraught the husband is. So the Rebbe, the Baal Shem Tov, tells him, “Even though there is nothing I can’t do this for you, I know of someone who can. Go two towns over, and in the back of a tavern you will find him. His name is the holy Reb Chaim. He can do this for you.”

Now this man doesn’t say it, but he thinks that the Rebbe has really lost it this time. Sure, Chassidim are known for doing ecstatic and curious things in one’s joyous expression to G-d. As people say, they are not unknown to stand on their head if needed! But this is not just some rapturous mystical thing the Rebbe has asking of him, or some pious sacred task. He asks him to go to a tavern – which is hardly the place for a gentleman – and in an area which is two towns over, to meet some unknown guy. And all he knows about this man is his name is Chaim.

Well, the man would have done anything the Rebbe asked anyhow, he thinks to himself. He doesn’t understand, but the Rebbe asked him to and so he’s going to do it.

So the chassid makes his way two towns over, and he walks into the tavern. He looks around for a while. And the only thing he really finds is a wild drunkard in the back of the tavern.

In frustration the chassid eventually asks the attendant behind the bar, “Where can I find the holy Chaim?”

The bar tender turns to him and says, “The ‘holy’ Chaim? Don’t know him. The only Chaim we have here is the drunk in the back, spilling beer on everyone.” And he points to the drunkard, who is rambunctiously boozing and throwing his drink about. Barely able to stand, barely able to speak.

So this chassid goes up to Chaim and says, “Reb Chaim, the Baal Shem Tov has sent me. He says I need a bracha (blessing) from you!”

Chaim responds by turning over the tables as he tries to stand, throwing all the booze about. This man Chaim falls on his face. Both this man Chaim and the situation were a mess. The chassid turns to walk away, once again deflated. Wondering why the Rebbe would send him here, to this man. He wonders, was all this just a wild goose chase?

As he turns to walk away he grabs hold of another man and ask again. This fellow confirms, “Yes, this is certainly the holy Reb Chaim.”

To which the chassid replies in shock, “But he’s so drunk!”

However, the fellow reassured him. “Yes, but if you can get him sober you will experience the best bracha of your life!”

So the chassid thinks it over, until he notices a big man hanging about. A huge guy, who looks like a bouncer. So he pays him off to subdue the drunken Chaim. They eventually strap Chaim to a chair and take to the task of sobering him up. They keep him away from alcohol. And for a day-and-a-half, they attend to this Chaim, feeding him bread and water.

After this much time passed he sobered up, and Reb Chaim become conscious. He then turns to the chassid and extends a blessing, “I give you a blessing of parnasa (income), I give you a blessing of children.” And the chassid goes on his way.

Now we are told this chassid did eventually receive his blessing just as it was told. Indeed, that very year the couple did conceive. And they raised their child well.

But having received his blessing, the chassid later returned to his Rebbe, the Baal Shem Tov. And he asked the Rebbe, “Why is it that G-d placed such power in the hands of a drunkard?” He was very grateful for the blessings, but still confused by the experience.

The Rebbe turns to him and says, “Some people, if they recognized their light – if they truly recognize their strength – they would be too afraid of it.”

– – –

Before we end this story telling I want to say, this story speaks to me. As I believed it does to so many other people who have dealt with addiction, or love someone dealing with addiction.

For a moment I want us to consider how many people just look away though, how many people just walk away from it. They shake their heads and say, “This guy is so talented and has so much potential. How sad.” And that’s usually not just a polite observation. The truth is most addicts are very intelligent and talented people. They just don’t know what to do with all that pent-up potential. Or it’s so much more than they feel they can handle.

We are also taught by the chassidic masters:

“The biggest challenges are the blessings in our lives. What to do with the gifts, how to utilize them in service of G-d.”

The Kotzker Rebbe

This week’s lessons I very much want to dedicate to Daniel Ardel, my former-partner, for recently celebrating his second year of sobriety. I was so happy to celebrate with him once again, at Beit T’Shuvah. I owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to the program for taking a chance on one of the most severe cases of drug addiction imaginable, and making room for the first Orange County case to be released from jail into their program.

Year Two Sobriety Beit T'Shuvah

Daniel (right) celebrating his second birthday; year two in recovery completed. And to believe, unlike Reb Chaim we didn’t have to tie him down to sober him up! 😉

Though this story is deeper than I can give you in such a short session, just know his story is intense. After coming out of the closet while in yeshiva (orthodox rabbinical academy) in Israel and facing so many conflicts inside himself, he later left religious life behind all together. And faced even more conflict in the spiritual void and cultural longing.

Together we later spent several years locked in addiction together, numbing ourselves for the same reasons. I broke free of addiction before him, and it was very hard watching his continued descent for many more years. Continuously asking him to seek out Beit T’Shuvah, the only program I heard of that I thought could help him face recovery on all levels. In jail the chaplain helped him get in contact, and they took him in. Today he is happy in recovery, seeking out spiritual thrills and busy as part of the program’s thrift store team!

One of the wonderful things about Beit T’Shuvah’s program is that they don’t just don’t detox people. They also deal with the soul and heart level issues. With a congregation that is certainly one of the most soulful shuls anywhere. As well as providing a variety of programs to engage a person and their talents. Art, music, drama, sports, social justice programs, urban farming, just to name a few. A program that works to help a person find their potential. And works with each person to be who they want to be. A wonderful program that people, Jewish or not, find inspiring.

Please support them and your local programs which provide support for those who suffer from addiction. There are people like ourselves, which need to also be liberated to face and actualize their potential.

Recommended articles:


Parshat Tetzaveh (5774)


Exodus 27:20 – 30:10

Jewish Tall Hats and Turbans

Today we are going to talk about hats. The hats we wear and the roles that hats play in society. We will be looking at the function that hats play in Jewish culture and ritual as well.

Jews in Jerusalem,1895

Jews in Jerusalem,1895

Even if you aren’t a hat wearer, we all take notice of hats. Some of us more than others. However hats and head dresses are something that are not just pervasive in our society, they are actually part of the uniform of many important people. From the earliest years most of us have looked to people’s hats as a symbol of who they are and the role they play in our world. We begin to identify the different notable people by their hats; police, firefighters, nurses, chefs, etc.

Hats can tell us a lot about a person. Be it a baseball cap, a sun hat, cowboy hat or a helmet. Sometimes we can begin to discern and judge a lot about a person based on hats. The hats we wear, and how we wear them.

We are also going to give a detailed look at the way that scholars have tended to color the text surrounding this, according to their own cultural norms and class structures.

As we all know, hats play a very special role in Jewish tradition. But when we talk about hats, we can be talking about any type of head covering. As we are not all accustomed in every country to wear a traditional cap, Jewish men have taken it upon themselves to cover their heads with a kippa or a yarmulke. We all know the reasons for the kippah today, to symbolize the presence of G-d above us and show reverence.

However, we know that historically this only came about after the fall of Jerusalem to Rome (in 70 CE), the then dispersed Jews were shipped across the empire as slaves. The cap in the Roman empire designated their role as slaves. In the face of this, even the free Jews of Rome joined in solidarity with their captive brothers and also took-up the symbolic head coverings. The reason we are told, is because all Jews are servants and slaves to Hashem. We are one across all classes, that is the lesson brought down to us by almost every pulpit rabbi of our age.

And they also point out that we must keep in mind that the yarmulke is a post-biblical symbol, and a rabbinic ordinance upon the congregation of Israel.

I ask us to remove ourselves from this frame of mind for a while, as we look into the ages of the Torah when head coverings are common, but not universally symbolic in the same fashion we think of today.

Though we are mostly going to be focusing on the text of our fourth aliya, we can see that this mentioning of caps and hats is something that begins early on in the parsha:

“And these are the garments that they shall make: a choshen [breastplate], an ephod, a robe, a tunic of checker work, a cap, and a sash. They shall make holy garments for your brother Aaron and for his sons to serve Me as priests.”

וְאֵלֶּה הַבְּגָדִים אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשׂוּ חשֶׁן וְאֵפוֹד וּמְעִיל וּכְתֹנֶת תַּשְׁבֵּץ מִצְנֶפֶת וְאַבְנֵט וְעָשׂוּ בִגְדֵי קֹדֶשׁ לְאַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ וּלְבָנָיו לְכַהֲנוֹ לִי:

Exodus 27:4

As we see, the use of terms like “cap” are used for head coverings here. Now first we should take notice that the word which is used here, it is a seemingly generic word of sorts, as it means a hat or simply cap. The word for a cap is mitznafet, but it’s not exactly clear if this is a specific style of hat or a general term for a hat.

However, the archaic bibles of Europe most often use the word mitre. A strange and not so appropriate word. Though we will get back to that in a moment.

As we see from later on in the parsha, in our key verses for this week, more than one type of headdress is described and ordered. There is one for the kohen gadol – the high priest. And also a different style for his sons, the kohanim – the priests.

Let use take a look at the head-dress of the kohen gadol first. As the way they dress his mitznafet is different from the others:

“And you shall place the cap

on his [Aaron’s] head,

and you shall place the holy crown

upon the cap.”

| Vesamta hamitznefet

| al-rosho

| venatata et-nezer hakodesh

| al-hamitznafet

Exodus 29:6

This mitznafet is unique because it is an integrated part of the garb of the kohen gadol. With ribbons and sashes which bound it around the neck and attached through the breastplate, all meeting around the nap of the neck. But its the crown of gold the with Havayah – with the holy Four-Letter name of G-d written upon it, that is literally the crowing piece.

What we apparently see is a conned or pointed sort of headdress, with a crown of gold that was placed and tied upon it. Together they were the official headdress of the highest priestly office, only worn by the person uniquely appointed to serve before Hashem.

Now regarding the assisting kohanim we read something different. Let me provide you the Hebrew text as well, and not merely a transliteration, so you can see what I mean here for yourself. Also, take notice of the odd Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation (a public domain text that is commonly used by Open Source communities):

“Vechagarta otam avnet Aharon uvanav vechavashta lahem migba’ot,

וְחָגַרְתָּ אֹתָם אַבְנֵט אַהֲרֹן וּבָנָיו, וְחָבַשְׁתָּ לָהֶם מִגְבָּעֹת,

JPS (1917): “And thou shalt gird them with girdles, Aaron and his sons, and bind head-tires on them

Exodus 29:9

Naturally, people wonder what this means. Many others find themselves amused and entertained by the thought of what this could mean. Who has ever heard of a head-tire? I certainly haven’t seen this before this mention here. So what are we talking about here?

Most clear and modern translations of the Torah (such as the latest Judaica Press, Kol Menachem, Kaplan, etc.) instead translate the phrase, “vechavashta lahem migba’ot” as, “and dress them with high-hats.”

Now I know I like to roll with the chassidish hat-lovers, but even I get amused as people perk up their ears and take pride in their fedora or shtreimel at this point. I have met some really cool kohanim and plenty of leviim with some pretty tall hats in my day, but that’s not exactly what it’s talking about.

Well, it might be to them, but that’s not exactly the way I see it. To me, when I hear of mitznafet, in my mind’s eye and according to my cultural mindset, for some reason I first think of the word “turban” instead. But maybe that is because I’m simply used to seeing pictures of tzaddikim (righteous men) in turbans as much as I am in dress-hats. In turbans and head wraps according to the custom of Sephardic Jews and the near-eastern classical age. This is the manner of the Rambam, the Ben Ish Chai, Baba Sali, the chief Sephardic rabbis, etc.

And there are differences still if we draw comparisons and make assumptions based on our own cultural application. It is certainly true that for Sephardim today, the symbol of a turban is a sign of honor and respect. Not just everyone wears a turban in this day and age. So when it is applied, it says something about the dignity of the person.

Now how can I suggest that this is a turban spoken of here? What sources do I and other modern translators have to use this term? As the Torah and our sages seem to display, a mitznafet is a hollow piece of fabric, like most hats. However, they were also twisted and rolled around ones head, forming a hollow interior. (see Exodus 39, and relating commentary) Each layer upon the other appearing like tires, just as the JPS describes without using the then “oriental” word turban.

The Cyclopaedia – Chambers of 1728

One can certainly ask, what’s the difference anyhow? It’s just a hat! You see it your way, I see it my way. And one can also ask, why should we care that rabbis have obsessed over this point? They obsess over every detail anyhow!

However, it isn’t just rabbis and their talmidim that have obsessed over this point. Even the non-Jewish scholars and thinkers of Europe deeply struggled to understand what the form and meaning of all this was.

If you noticed, back in Rashi’s commentary for Exodus 28:4 he states that in old French this type of hat – the mitznafet, it is “kemin kiphat / it’s called a cipha.” He also gives the Aramaic word according to the Onkelos, kovain.

However, this old term cipha in Rashi’s 11th century French dialect is very close to the late-Latin word for this style hat, called a cofia. From this we get the middle-English coif and the Germanic kupfe. But often times when it gets time to translate into formal English, Europeans most often use the word mitre here.

Interestingly, this topic also has pretty detailed references in some fine classic works. As in the premier book of wisdom and knowledge of the early-1700s, the “Cyclopaedia: or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences” of Epharim Chambers. Except we will not get anywhere looking under the Latin cofia. We will find our reference under the Greek term “cidaris (kedaris),” the Greek work for crown that is akin to the Hebrew word “keter” (crown).

Chambers, as a scholarly Englishmen of his day, was not unread and unlearned when it came to the classics of the rabbis. His understanding of the text and the rabbis seems to agree with that of the average Hebrew reader. He says:

The rabbis say the same thing is meant by both these terms [mitznafet and mitgbaot], and that the bonnet used by priests in general was made of a piece of a linen cloth fifteen yards long, which covered their heads like an helmet or a turban: and they allow no other difference to be between the high priest’s bonnet, and that of other priests, than this, that one is flatter, and more in the form of a turban, whereas the other worn by ordinary priests wore something more in a point.”

However, interestingly. The first thing that one notices about Chamber’s contrast between the turbans of the kohen gadol and the kohanim, is a description that is purely based in status. In the opening lines to his entry we read:

The mitre used by the Jewish high priests. When- ever there is mention of the high priest’s mitre, the Hebrew word made use of to express it is always miznepheth; and myg-baoth is used to signify the bonnet belonging to common priests.”

As an Englishmen in a society of roles, status and nobles the idea of social status and level of influence is always at the forefront of his mind. He touches on that first.

Feeling old-school this Shabbat? Go turban!

Feeling old-school this Shabbat? Go turban!

Likewise, he also flavors the status symbols after the model which he knows. That of the pope and the arch bishops; he sees the priestly high hats, their turbans as mitres. Pointed hats with a flat face. The guy with the tallest and firmest hat was higher in the caste, and the priest with the crown was the final authority; kind of like the Pope (or archbishop) in his mitre.

Chambers explains to us that this term is derived from the Hebrew translation of migbaot by the catholic St. Jerome, who chose to use the Latin term mitra to express this, which hints at the shape of a helmet.

Interesting to see how different people and cultures look the same concepts differently, but at the same time they also subtly or sometimes exaggeratedly apply the mindset and structure of their society into that interpretation as well. In a time when the Bible was still considered a book of civic law and understanding, it was interpreted in a way that few of us would relate to today.

Of course, Chambers as an honest scholar admits the limitations of his understanding here. He states early on that their function and descriptions of these headdresses are “so various and different” that they are not well understood. Maybe today, we have a much clearer understanding, or at least a healthier understanding of this than in his day.

However, even then we should keep in mind that progress can also be lost over time as well. In a scholarly view of the past, one can’t help but notice that by the early 20th century the simple use of the word turban was no longer palatable anymore. Not in an age when the British Empire suppressed, instead of honored, people with turbans in places like India and the near-east. The scholars of that day rather refer to tires on peoples heads, before elevating the symbol of the turban.

Now before we give up on Chambers, I would also like to note that he did give us one other insightful and maybe practical application of hats in Jewish culture. At the end of the entry, in the second paragraph:

It is to be observed, that the Hebrew priests never appeared in the temple without covering their heads. And still at this day it is reckoned an incivility in the East, and a mark of con- tempt, for any man to pull off his hat or turban to another, or to hew his naked head before any one.”

He brings it back to the idea of head coverings as signs of reverence. And to be without a head covering, and to flash ones head by choice or by force is considered a sign of contempt.

Modern Use of Hats as Keys to Layered Consciousness

To bring this to a head, let us take our own practical look at hats and what they tell us. It is obvious that kippot and hats are a sign of religious devotion among Jews. Yes, it is a sign of reverence. Ask a religious Jew why they wear one, they will reply like Rav Huna, “Because the Divine Presence is always over my head.” (Talmud Bavli, Kiddushin 32a) Today all holy minded Jews cover their heads in prayer, as this is common among all Jews of every “class” and background. And for traditional people a kippah is often worn all day long.

As each Jews covers their head, they designate for themselves that the One G-d of all is resting above their head. Jews therefore seek to elevate their mind as they cover their head, in order that one might be inclined to act dignified and without contempt.

In our current, modern age we have no stratus levels set by how tall or firm your hat is, as seemed to be suggested regarding this text by all of the commentators stretching back to ancient times. For modern Jews, a hat will not tell you how important a person is. Any person can wear a kippa or a hat, so of course it doesn’t in any way suggest one is a priest or a rabbi. This is the symbol for all the people, common and otherwise.

That is not to say that wearing a certain style of yarmulke does not tell us a lot about a person. Though it might mean little to the outside world, a kippa will tell a person a lot about your religious affiliation.

The orthodox and chassidic often prefer the most modest colors, are you a black velvet type of guy? Or are you more kippa sruga – do you go knitted, are you more Modern Orthodox or even Religious Zionist? Maybe you’re a friend of the Nachs, the Breslovs and wear a Rebbe Nachman cap as you dance in the middle of traffic. Are you a kabbalist who wears white? Or maybe you’re more exotic and wouldn’t mind davening in a Bukharian kippa or fez.

The way one covers, and the style they prefer on their head, can say a lot to others. Does one wear it well, or just awkwardly? Maybe you are in protest, and don’t wear one at all. Either which way, in many cases the way one wears a yarmulke speaks loudly about the person. Much more than the outside world appreciates. But they mean something different according to their application in each custom or persuasion.

And hats for the religious Jew are no less telling. Take just orthodox Jews alone. They all seem the same to the outside world, but to the Jew a person’s hat can tell us a lot about them.

Whats interesting is that often times I will be with friends around town or I’ll be working a job, and as I have people come up to me and start talking I can quickly mention the community or background of this person I’ve just met. Jews tend to brighten up, that I “get it” and they don’t have to explain themselves. But my friends and coworkers often look at me strangely wondering how I “profiled” a person. Well, its nothing mental and it’s certainly not clairvoyance.

As our new friend walks away, I can then begin to explain what everyone else missed, but that speaks subtly to me. This man is saying something, be it with a Brooklyn-style hat or even an old world shtreimel. And if one wears a hat, what type and how do they wear it? Maybe you’re a Spanish-Portuguese Jew in top hat. The style and brand, the shape or the bend in the bill, a pinch or no pinch, dimpled or not dimpled, black or gray? Little touches and accents to your hat can most often tell a person a lot about who you are and your temperament.

You know right away what sect or school of mind a person is from by this. Different schools have a different “uniform” and “cap.”

And for each person it fits differently as well, not every person is identical even if they are similarly styled. Each shows his own character in the way he fashion and handles himself.

These days I’m not really into looking very religious, not that I’m against it. It’s just not where I’m at in my life right now. I’m more interested in doing religious, than looking like it. I’ll admit, aside from prayer and learning I don’t wear kippot often enough. I do when I engage in soulful stuff, as I feel the need like any other Jew does. Much more often at home than when out of the house, oddly enough.

But when shabbat comes, I find myself more intensely getting back into the old mindset of my younger days. Sometimes I just slip back to that mood for no reason, just because that is where my head is today. I take out my hat, clean it and get ready to slip into the comfort of the sabbath.

One may also wear a hat during prayer, to increase this sense of awareness of G-d’s presence. I take it out for that purpose more often these days as well.

Shmueli GonzalesEven more so, like many people of the chassidic philosophy, I especially make special note to wear a hat on the sabbath. As we are mystically taught in the Talmud, on the day of Shabbat we are given a second soul. (Bavli Beitzah 16a) We are given an additional soul, in order to have a double helping of Shabbat joy. To symbolize this many wear a second hat; meaning a kippah and a dress-hat, both. Since each living soul should wear a hat, we deck ourselves with two; one for each soul that we are dressing for the occasion.

Even then as I don my hat, I also keep in mind that I’m not taking on a costume. Nor am I conforming or being nostalgic. But only people who have lived that experience would know what I mean. Recently a friend saw a picture on Facebook of me going out in my hat. Being that we both came out of the same chassidic sect and schools of though, he takes notices of things that only another travelers would notice and also take comfort at the sight.

As I’m walking out the door one day I get a message. Taking notice of the make and color of the hat he texts back excited. And in response I begin to reminisce of the old days, when we were younger and supposedly more level-headed. I talk about the years before this hat was rained on, rusted on, moth bitten, stomped on, and then restored to be worn proudly with scars. But I love my roughed-up hat, because it’s a lot like me. And it says a lot about me. And it also says a lot about what has been put into my head as well. The examples and mindset I follow. He gets excited at the special appearance of the old gray hat as much as I do:

CHAIM: “Same color as the Lubavitche Rebbe before he was the Rebbe! Nice!”

SHMU: “I loved it, being so young and already well hatted. you know, the hat is the sign your serious. but it was cute. the old guys would be all, “look at this hat, how much did it cost? only a Yid would buy such a fine hat, im telling you… feel it… right, like i said…” hahaha and then someone’s father comes in from Kfar Chabad with a shtreimel that puts us all to shame. heheheh but something as simple as a hat sometimes says a lot about a persons temperament and influences that few outsides appreciate.”

And in that way, a friend who knows me as close as a brother can point out to others how I’m of a certain philosophy, while also appreciating my less than dogmatic approach regarding my chassidut. He sees the uniqueness and personal styling lost on the untrained observer who just sees another one of “them.”

Ever since then my head has been wrapped around this topic (no pun intended). The topic of hats and turbans. The elegance and gracefulness of them. The poised way a fine and fitted hat makes one feel. Not just how warm its keeping me this winter. But also the gentle and refined spirit that they can bring over a person who understands and values the symbolism. The person who wants to not just look his best, but also think and feel his best.

This shabbat, maybe you want to give it a try. Do you feel a second soul welling up? Is there double the joy inside that you just want to dress up and celebrate? Maybe you should try wearing a hat. It just might be something that simple that can help set your head into shabbat mode.

Recommended articles:


Parshat Vayeira (2013)


Genesis 18 – 22

When is a laugh more than just a chuckle?

Doctors Visit Upset

Have you ever had a nervous reaction caused by fear? What do these reactions to being put on the spot teach us about ourselves? What type inner cues do you hear in a case of uncertainty?

What is a laugh exactly? Why do we do it at all? A laugh isn’t like any other reaction, it is something that is quite automatic. Everybody laughs. People who have studied laughter are amazed that even blind and deaf people laugh. This comes as a surprise to many because we most often think of our responses as being learned and culturally influenced. But we can’t help but notice that even babies laugh. Babies, who have never witnessed another person laugh, will naturally do it themselves; in-fact more often, at about 200 times a day while an infant, as compared to adults at only 20 times a day. It’s something that just impulsively bubbles up out of a person.

Today we are going to begin to take a look at a story about laughter, and how the many facets of laughter are displayed in the Torah. When is a laugh more than just a chuckle? Sometimes it is an appropriate response, at other times it’s merely a bad reaction. Sometimes it is well received, other times it’s something that can be a thing of scorn. People laugh for many reasons. But all forms of outburst reveal a bit of the soul of the person it bellies up out of.

The most notorious of all laughs in the scriptures is presented here, in the following verse from the first aliya of our parsha:

“And Sarah laughed with herself,

saying,

‘After I have become old?

Shall I become tender again?

And my master is old!’”

| Vatitzchak Sarah bekirbah

| lemor

| acharei veloti

| hayetah-li ednah

| va’adoni zaken

Genesis 18:12

The story is familiar to us all. Our parsha begins with Avraham entertaining messengers of G-d, the angels are begged to accept his hospitality before continuing on their travels. (v.1-5) They therefore come into his tent and Avraham begins to feverishly prepared many courses of meals and takes to entertaining his honored guests. (v.6-8)

The first thing that is recorded to have been uttered by the guests once they settled themselves in was a question at to where Avraham’s wife Sarah was. Out of modestly she is standing away from them, almost hiding near the entrance which is behind the guests. Knowing that she is close enough to hear the messenger doesn’t wait for her to present herself, he just goes to declare that surely this time next year Sarah will have a son. (v.9-10)

And then Sarah laughs. (v.12) However, not without the Torah first validating the reason why Sarah laughs inside of herself. Both Avraham and Sarah are advanced in age, they are very old. And Sarah has stopped having her menstrual cycle. (v.11) Only then do we see the reason why she laughs. How can a person not laugh? What is being suggested is nothing short of fantastical. So she laughs inside herself. (v.12)

Knowing that she has laughed, G-d asks a question of Avraham, as his wife is still cowering aside from their house-guests. Though sheepishly hidden at first, G-d hears her secret doubts, and confronts them. Asking rhetorically, can there be anything impossible for G-d?

Now the reason that this laugh is so notorious is not just because she is called out on it, but also because she is insistent in denying her laughing. This is not a passing mention, this takes up an unusually large amount of the narrative for something so seemingly trivial. However so much of a central point is this to the story that the second aliyah begins with her denial at its head. We are even told why she denied her laughter, it was because she was afraid. She was intimidated. However, G-d insists, “No, but you did laugh.” (v.15)

Now one of the reasons this story sometimes has troubled me is because we aren’t sure exactly why G-d makes such an incident out of this. Why does she get singled out for such a scolding?

One of the reasons that this seems odd to me is because this isn’t the first time that we see someone laughing in response to something astounding G-d has said. In fact it is none other than Avraham himself who is said to have previously busted-up after hearing a prophecy. A prophecy that was about the very same subject. In the previous chapter and parsha, in Genesis 17:17 we read, “Vayapol Avraham panav vayetzchak / And Avraham fell on his face and laughed…”

G-d had already given Avraham this talk about their bareness before. In fact Avraham already had one son by a concubine, Ishma’el. However, instead of recognizing that son born of a servant Avraham is told that his true wife Sarah is going to bear him a son to carry on their dynasty. When he makes this pact with G-d he accepted everything, even the concept of circumcision and changing their names without even a flinch. But then when Avraham is told that the couple is finally going to have their long-awaited child, he breaks into hysterical laugher and falls to the ground face-first. He asks in his heart how this could be, as he is 100 years old and she is already 90 years old.

What was so different about their laughter? Why does his laughter and doubt only get the slightest correction, and Sarah get such a strong and direct one? They had even laughed in response to the same topic, just on different occasions.

One of the reasons is obviously because of Sarah’s objection. Had she not vehemently denied her laugher the topic would have probably ended there. But instead she was corrected to the extend that she objected.

Though it’s more than that. If we take a good look we can see that there is a difference between the way Avraham and Sarah laughed. Avraham laughed out-loud, but doubted in his heart. Sarah is said to have laughed in her heart, and then doubted out-loud.

The difference between the emotions and attitude behind each reaction may not appear evident to us right away. But there is a substantial difference. Sure both of them reacted to the absurdity of the situation. They needed to release their dissonance with this new reality is some way, and it reveals itself as laughter. They both had this involuntary response. Both of them laughed when they first heard of their amazing destiny. However Avraham’s laughter is one of astonishment, whereas Sarah first reacts with silent mocking. It’s this silent mocking that G-d pulls to the surface and reveals for them to see.

What is also different about the two reactions is that Avraham’s laughter is at least followed-up with a question as to how this is going to happen. In the mind of Avraham it was more of a question of how it was possible, not necessarily if it was truly possible. He wants to think it out. Sure his expression does relate a certain level of disbelief, but not one of doubt. He was open to the possibility. For Sarah it was a closed case, she already doubted it in her heart.

On the surface it clearly appears that she is being singled out here for her cynicism. And that was a major problem that needs to be settled. She is not exposed in this narrative in order to shame her, but to call to attention to her lack of hope. This exchange between her and G-d cannot simply be about knocking her chops for some sort of derision, but instead because she had a deep sense of doubt about herself!

Notice when G-d rebuttals Sarah’s denial of her laughter He doesn’t bring up the unkind things that she said about her husband being an old man. It isn’t repeated that way, G-d instead rephrased it to focuse on the only real obstacle left. Her own doubt about her own ability to make this happen. G-d interpreted her statement for what it was really saying, she felt she was too old and worn out to make it happen now.

This self-doubt ran so deep that she might not have even been fully aware how deeply her cynicism ran. This might explain for her continuous insistence that she hadn’t laughed. The reality is that she had not actually laughed vocally, but she laughed all the same. And it is this deep-seated doubt that is the most debilitating. So deeply does this disbelief and lack of hope run that she might have actually been honest in her own mind about not laughing, she just didn’t recognize that inner voice laughing at herself. So here it is exposed bare for her to face within herself.

As we consider this lesson, I would like us to consider a few questions within ourselves: Do you hear the cues of self-doubt in your head? Is it possible that you just don’t recognize some of your own sense of hopelessness? Have you grown cynical?

It is a very human thing to doubt ourselves, and is certainly is a reality that sometimes we also doubt G-d too. But as we see in the example of Avraham, G-d is okay with our fiery laughter when it comes with a sense of wonder or shock. But what is not acceptable is a passive laugh of cold pessimism.

Responding to Good and Bad News in Our Tradition: A Personal Experience

Is there an appropriate way to respond to tides of good and bad news as they come in our lives? As we see, we are to be careful about the tone of the inner voices. Surely we should take even more care with our outward expressions. Though not all expressions can be easily controlled, as religious Jews we try to be poised and dignified with our responses.

In light of Sarah’s example, it would make sense why we are very careful to say a blessing when we hear good news. The blessing used is also the one we say when we are observing a holiday or special occasion in our lives. Most Jews of all levels of observance know this one intimately:

“Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the Universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.”

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ ,וְקִיְמָנוּ ,וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לִזְמַן הַזֶּה:

Baruch ata Hashem, Eloheinu Melech ha’Olam, she’ech’eyanu, ve’ki’eh’manu, va’higiy’anu liz’man hazeh

We also have another blessing exclusively for if one hears good news, but in most tradition its associated with communal good news so it’s another good one to know as well:

“Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the Universe, who is good and does good.”

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, אֶלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, הַטּוֹב וְהַמֵטִיב:

Baruch ata Hashem, Eloheinu Melech ha’Olam, hatov v’hamaitiv.

It was this type of blessing I had in mind when I first walked into my doctor’s office one day. My health had been improving after several years of suffering with multiple life threatening conditions and surgeries. I had crawled out of the depression, addiction and the rest of the ruin that had come with my collapse into disrepair. I was doing well with my job. My family life was better than ever before. I was even getting ready to move into a new home and focus on some new longterm plans. The she’ech’eyanu was a prayer that I had come to know very well, especially more recently as things just got better and better in my life.

I was so confident that things were going somewhere that I marched in to take my annual physical on schedule, simply to confirm that all was going to be fine. Everything was going to be well, because I was well.

However a few days later my doctor calls me back into his office. My simple physical started to get more complicated as more and more tests were run. The number of tests and visits kept increasing, though without any clear explanation as to why. However, given my experience with strange illnesses I expected just a little bit of oddity. At first I was sure it was something I was going to shrug off. But as the diagnostics went on and on I grew more afraid.

One day during one of the doctor’s visits I began to read the chart myself, and I noticed that my white blood cells and platelets were impossibly low. I had a dangerous case of anemia. So I asked the doctor about this, and he suggested that we run test for leukemia and HIV.

As that point I became overwhelmed with fear. Whereas I understood the nature of each disease, I was terrified at the possibility of either. My own dear sister, one of the closest people to me, she suffered leukemia starting at four years old. Such forms of cancer are common in my family. having to watch the treatment of it up close in all it’s brutality I was traumatized by it.

Having also grown up through the crazy-making of the AIDS crisis I also understood HIV well. Coming of age in a world where the virus was virtually non-treatable, before the anti-retrovirials that were rolled out in the mid-to-late 1990s. I watched many friends and acquaintances die of AIDS, caring for a few of them through the pain of their final months.

Remembering the pain and suffering I had witnessed with my loved ones, I was overwhelmed by the crisis I was facing. The more testing and waiting made me even more worried.

One day the doctor walks into the room and just begins to speak, “Your test results came back, you are HIV-positive….”

The rest of his words were kind of a blur to me. But I remember he just kept on talking, paced and steadily. There was no pause for me to get in a word as he just droned on, I could hear the nervousness in his breath and make out the nervous twitches on his face. It was as though he had to keep going in order to see it through, if he stopped it would overwhelm him too.

And for a moment there I thought I was going to laugh. I felt it come up and then stop. Now far from my mind was my blessing of thanksgiving. I was left sitting there, with this tragedy falling all over me and my hopes all at one. And of all misfortunes, one that I had grown to fear the most. And as he kept talking the news just kept getting worse.

As I sat there trying to take it all in a growing rumble came up inside of me. Then I felt myself lean forward in despair, my arms slightly flailing to the side. But then all at once my hands oddly went right up and over my head, holding my head as it just seemed to thud and spin at the same time. My breath was broken between trembling, wisping and sputtering. I didn’t know what to do or say. And then I heard my own voice achingly blurt out the words: “Baruch diyan ha’emet / Blessed is the True Judge.”

At that point I noticed that the doctor stopped talking, being of middle-eastern origin he seemed to recognize the words. He jerked back in surprise, and his looked showed an equal sense of surprise and pain. As I peered up he gave me a look of, “How can you?” And the truth is that I was wondering the same thing myself.

When religious Jews hear bad news or on the occurrence of a tragic event this is the way that one is taught to respond. For any calamitous event one says, “Blessed is the True Judge.” In our tradition it is the custom to respond to all major events with a way of recognizing G-d’s role in that occurrence. This also applies to calamity.

The reason behind such a blessing is because religious Jews recognize that all events in our lives are opportunities. All opportunities can lead to blessing. When we hear of tragedy we use these strong words to help us stand firm in face of our greatest fears. It might look like an impossibly bad situation, but we need to let G-d be the judge of that. It make look like there is no hope, but we need to G-d to be the judge of that.

Even at life’s end we still find ourself coming to the same conclusion, our final destiny is only judged by G-d alone. Thus “diyan ha’emet” is also the blessing one says when they hear a person has died. We have nothing to fear in death, as we trust that we will stand and face the judgment of a just G-d. We will face the True Judge, we have nothing to fear.

One of the reasons my reaction surprised me so was because I didn’t know I had it in me. This was the worst news I could think of. I knew what I was in store for. And I had a million questions that I couldn’t articulate, as they all collided and pilled up on their way out. I had just heard the worst news of my life. And even more painfully, I began to see all my plans go crumble into ruin. All the progress I thought I had made was lost in a new fight for my life, one that I was quite sure I wasn’t strong enough for. I had grown older, more worn down by my battles up until up until then. This was something my logic told me I had little chance of surviving, my condition being that severe. I felt helpless and for a brief moment. Any sliver of bravery I thought I possessed appeared to escape me.

But then I heard myself say those words. And for a moment I just sat and felt those words echo in my head. Every bit stunned by this statement as the doctors words of doom.

The reason that this both startled and comforted me was because I had always been afraid of the possibility of this type of reality. I had become very careful and extremely mindful of my health because of it. I knew all the science and facts to arm oneself with. I had convinced people so many times before that they could be okay in this situation. But secretly inside myself, I was always afraid that I could never live up to my own words of optimism in the face such a diagnosis. I had seen stronger and nobler people lose this battle. Could I keep the courage of my convictions and maintain my spirit of hope when my life really depended on it? I just wasn’t so sure.

And then I heard myself blurt out those words. “Baruch diyan ha’emet,” blessed is the True Judge.

Even when I was at a total loss, my soul appeared to know what to do and sprung into action. A rarely used blessing bubbled to the surface. Whereas everything else seemed to fail me, these words of our tradition found their usefulness. Though the first words started with a broken voice, each word staggered out stronger than the one before it. But is was enough to convinced me.

As I look over this lesson of Sarah’s laughter, I can most certainly related to the experience of wanting to react with cynicism. I can certainly understand the pain of what it feels like to have one’s body seem to betray them and their dreams. I very much know what it’s like to automatically respond with a knee-jerk reaction. Her story reverberates with me with a different sense of empathy than most. I know what it’s like to want something so bad and to find one’s own body to be the only obstacle.

Though I found myself facing the most trying and painful time in my life, I experienced a bit of awe like never before. In that when my rationality failed me, soulful words of truth came to the rescue. I found that my soul had matured and cherished the truth of my faith in a deeper way than I had realized. My true faith so natural that when pricked all that flowed to the surface was a rebuttal to cognitive dissonance of this situation. Though this diagnosis held itself over my head like a death sentence, I knew that only G-d was the final Judge in this matter. The case was not yet settled. These words reminded me of that truth.

From there I was able to collect myself and then spring into action, talking over the next round of tests and necessary measured that needed to be taken to preserve my life. I picked up my head and started to move into action to help save my life.

Many of us never know the strength that is inside of us until pushed to the limit. Many of us never realize how deep our faith and our sense of hope run until we are put on the spot. Most of us think that when faced with such disastrous circumstances we will be helpless and lost, but your heart knows the truth (ha-emet) if we listen to it. We know that our fate is only determined by G-d and our own faith in a better reality.

Baruch Hashem, thank G-d, I’m still here and thriving. Not because I’m a saint, or even particularly brave. But because I know a Judge that is greater than any. And He that still hasn’t ruled me out. For the first time in my life, this is something I’m sure I’m convinced of on a heart level.

Advice: This week I would like people to spend some time listening to their inner voices and cues. As you face new challenges this week, ask yourself how you feel about it. Is it something you have confidence in, or is there some level of fear, uncertainty or doubt that is still troubling you? Revealing it to the surface helps us confront it.

Recommended Articles:


Parshat Bereishit (2013)


Genesis 1 – 6:8

How We Kabbalistically Bring Thoughts Into Reality

sephirot4pngbbbOver the past few years this Torah portion has been a starting place for me to discuss aspects of Kabbalah, the basics of Jewish mysticism. It is nearly impossible for me to discuss the topic of creative process without doing so through the eyes of received wisdom. In Hebrew to mitkabel means to receive. Our received Jewish mystical tradition is thus called Kabbalah, it is the studying of received truth as documented in the Torah and it’s wealth of commentary.

One of the reasons that I feel I must take this approach is because the allegorical and spiritual essence of this story is intentional and central to the creation narrative. It’s not a cop-out that was invented by modern apologist. The Torah uses seemingly esoteric use of symbolism that richly color this narrative like none other in the scriptures.

Generally when we are looking for mystical truth from the Torah we turn to books like the Zohar, the book of enlightenment that is a commentary to the Torah. The Zohar is broken down in basic discussions and parashot (sections) that match up with cycle of parashiyot (our weekly Torah readings). It’s not the only text of kabbalah, but it is the most exhaustive and essential of the primary works of Torah commentary. Though most scholars can only date this text back as far as the middle ages, it is written in the language and tone as that of the Talmud. It features the same sages and presents the same form of discourses as Talmudic literature. Jews receive this text as being among the many mesoretic inheritances handed down to us, one that was once oral but has since been written down for posterity.

I present some commentary from the Zohar in order to offer us some guidance of how we should look at the Torah, for how we should be reading it as we go along. This is probably a good discussion to have now, as we are renewing our cycle of Torah reading for another year. Our text reads as follows:

“Says Rabbi Shimon: Woe to the man who says that the Torah came to merely relate stories and ordinary words. For if this was so, even in this present day we could make a Torah from ordinary tales; and ones probably nicer than those [in the scriptures]. If it came to present earthly matters, then even the [present] rulers of the world have among themselves works which are superior. If this is the case, let us follow their example and compose some sort of Torah of our own…

…Woe to the wicked that say that the Torah consists of stories and nothing more, for they look at the [outer] garment and no further. Praiseworthy are the righteous, who look at the Torah the proper way. Just as wine must be in a container to hold it, the Torah does not endure unless in its mantle. So therefore only look at what is under the garment. All those words and stories are garments.”

רש אמר ווי לההוא בנ דאמר דהא אורייתא אתא לאחזאה ספורין בעלמא ומלין דהדיוטי. דאי הכי אפילו בזמנא דא אנן יכלין למעבד אורייתא במלין דהדיוטי ובשבחא יתיר מכלהו אי לאחזאה מלה דעלמא אפילו אינון קפסירי דעלמא אית בינייהו מלין עלאין יתיר. אי הכי נזיל אבתרייהו ונעביד מנייהו אורייתא כהאי גוונא אלא כל מלין דאורייתא מלין עלאין אינון ורזין עלאין.

ווי לאינון חייביא דאמרי דאורייתא לאו איהי אלא ספורא בעלמא ואינון מסתכלי בלבושא דא לא יתיר זכאין אינון צדיקייא דמסתכלי באורייתא כדקא יאות. חמרא לא יתיב אלא בקנקן כך אורייתא לא יתיב אלא בלבושא דא. ועד לא בעי לאסתכלא אלא במה דאית תחות לבושא ועד כל אינון מלין וכל אינון ספורין לבושין אינון:

Zohar: Parshat Behaaolatecha 58; 64

One of the reasons that many traditional, orthodox Jews find it fairly easy to exist in a world of deep religious conviction while still excelling in science and reason is because the two are not mutually exclusive. Nor is one called to compromise one for the other. Our Torah presents our truths, our reason produces our facts.

Though we look to this Torah for truth, we don’t presume that all that is true about the world is written here in the Torah. It is the truth, but it does not demand that we see it as necessarily factually or chronologically true. The Torah is the essential truth that G-d has revealed into this world, but it cannot be used as a history book or as a primer in physical science.

Interestingly, this Zohar text is redacted in the middle-ages, when knowledge was lost and they looked back to a more glorious and well documented past. But in his tone the author suggests that even in their dark-ages a contemporary historian could have come up with something more profound if one tried. If this Torah is about fact, then wise and important men have libraries of books that do a better job at that than our Torah. The Torah cannot have been given to us for that purpose or else it is obsolete and antiquated. Surely today in an age of science and empirical evidence this is even more true. We need to read the text deeper, in fact according to the “right way,” which is through allegory and symbolism.

Most people who come from other religious experiences tend to find this position mighty progressive, and maybe even a bit irreverent. But for the person of reason, this tends to come across as refreshing. The only people who tend to get irritated by this approach are those who intend to mock Torah, who need biblical literalism to stand as their straw-man to kick over.

It’s not just atheists that tend dislike this approach, even co-religionists tend to get upset with me for stating this. For instance once I sat in a class and heard a very liberal rabbi poking fun at our ancestors for not understanding how the world worked. His reason was to in like fashion characterize present orthodox Jews as handicapped by an almost magical view of creation and history.

When I later pulled him aside and asked how he felt his reduction to absurdity was intellectually honest he got upset. I posed that if you considering it, the more orthodox the person the more they tend to revere this mystical and allegorical mentality as found in the Zohar, it’s not theory for light-weights. In response he made issue with the authority of the Zohar and challenged that kabbalah is not universally appreciated. However I contended that this approach was a well documented and accepted concept in Judaism much prior to the Renaissance and Enlightenment, it is not a product of modern religious movements. Elements of kabbalah permeate much of our established Jewish customs and liturgy, it is a shared heritage. It is not a marginal philosophy, therefore it is dishonest to mis-characterize what it means to be a Torah believing person by slighting this approach.

One of the points I have to make to people like this when discussing the creation story of Genesis, is that we need to not just recognize the similarities that exist among the various myths and legends (example: the great flood). We also need to look at stories more multi-layered, the way we clearly know to do for the texts of other well documented societies; the Egyptians, Hindus, Greeks, Persians, Romans, etc. We know that their equivalent of the genesis narratives are made not as much to describe the literal composition of the world, but to present their perceived architecture of existence. Their philosophy surrounding the formation of the world and living souls presented in their stories was for the purpose of displaying the structure of the soul and the creative process. For these societies their sacred texts were discussion points that encouraged an almost early attempt at the philosophy of psychology. It not just said how the souls were formed, but also to exhibited what motivates them.

Now it’s not just defense of traditional Judaism that motivates me to engage people, like the previously mentioned rabbi, to dig further into our tradition to reveal a deeper kernel of truth in these stories. It’s because as people who represent Judaism to others we need to get beyond the claim that Torah is primarily concerned with mere history, because that approach does not offer us any reason for why one should personally seek out G-d or spirituality.

The Zohar, in the name of Rabbi Shimon, instead says it’s not just beneficial for us to look beyond the surface level meaning of the Torah, but it calls anyone that does not do so a sinner. The Zohar insists that we consider another way, it demands that we look for the soul of the Torah.

And this is that path that we will take as we begin to explore the Torah this year. Not that allegory is only present in the Zohar, it is present in all forms of rabbinic literature, however it is a central focus of the Zohar. Our starting off place this year is with the Zohar, as it offers us one of the best descriptions of how allegory and mystical interpretation of the scriptures works.

The Zohar contends that the Torah is wrapped in a mantle, but underneath there is a living soul to it. It’s like a person, when we look at someone generally the first thing that we see is their appearance. We judge their demeanor, how well they are dressed-up and how they present themselves. But the Zohar contends that just as foolish as it would be for us to judge a person based on their outer appearance, it is so when consider only the surface level of the Torah. (Zohar, ff. 61)

The Zohar tell us that the Torah is not just an abstract thing, there is a real substance to it. There is a solid body of truth to it. The Zohar calls the Torah mitzvot (the laws and commandments, good and holy deeds) “gufei Torah / the Body of the Torah” in Aramaic (the Talmudic language of rabbinic Judaism). It is the frame that holds us up. And on this frame hang our “levushin / garments,” the stories of the Torah are thus like the clothing one wears, that dress one up but at the same time conceal hidden person underneath.

The rabbis here challenges us to be wise, to not just look at the surface oblivious that of the anything else might existing beneath it all. If it was a person we would want to see the body underneath. Even more so we should want to get to know the person that is even deeper than that, so intimately so that we can almost touch their soul. The Zohar states that we are to look as deep as we can. Stating that the sages and our ancestors who stood at Sinai were so wise that, “la mis’taklei ela b’nishmata, d’i’hi ikara dchola oraita mamash / they only looked at the soul of the Torah, which is the essential root of everything, the real Torah.” We are told that in the future, in the world to come, all will see the soul of the Torah. (Zohar. ff. 62)

So why do we consider the Torah and its commands (mitzvot) at all? What do we have to learn from them? What importance does this Torah have to us? And why should we practice Torah mitzvot?

The Torah is the physical body that houses the soul of Essential Truth, clothed in the beauty of a story. It tells us how to bring the Divine Will into physicality, we do this by causing our soul to meet up with a physical action as mitzvot – doing the will of G-d in performing good deeds and spiritual acts.

But why does this kabbalah, the essence of all that is, have to be revealed through the Torah? The Zohar explains because it needs to be revealed in a form that we can understand. The Zohar brings forward an idea of the spiritual realm that we already understand to show as an example, it uses angels and their taking on a physical form. In order for us to perceive of them they take on a physical appearance. It is not just to see them, but also because their raw energy would be overwhelming if we came in direct contact with it. So too, this essential truth needs to be presented in a form we can understand, and in a fashion in which we can approach. (Zohar ff. 59)

The Zohar further contends that the “true Torah” (which we can call kabbalah) cannot be separated from its mantle, from the stories and it’s discussions in the scriptures. If we tried to separate them it could not last, anymore than wine could if you removed it from its flask. It needs to be held and preserved in this fashion.

However, just like with wine, we are really interested in what is on the inside. We should continue to seek to reach the sweet and sometimes intoxicating center of Divine reality hidden in these scriptures.

As we move forward in our Torah learning over this next year, I would hope that we begin to look at the scriptures as a guide to bringing our abstract feelings of faith and potential that is in our souls into reality. To utilize the Torah as our muscle to move us forward, so that we can labor in producing mitzvot that correct ourselves (tikkun atzmi) and repair our world (tikkun olam).

Continuing Discussion Regarding Applied Kabbalah

Last time we discussed this parsha we began to talk about basics of kabbalah. We started off with the primary concepts of the Three Pillars, the three modalities. They are symbolized by the variables ש for Fire, מ for Water, and א for Air. (see Parshat Bereishit 2012) When we discuss these aspects we must understand we are not talking about true elements. We are merely using these descriptions in order to best display the nature of the modalities. We are using these things to express how they react towards each other. It’s like talking about electromagnetic states; positive, negative and neutral. We began to discuss how we need to bring balance to our nature; to not be too much of a hot wire, nor should we bone cold, but we should find a golden middle path. We should bring balance to our thoughts and actions.

Now the reason we started out with the sefirah of Chesed – the Divine aspect of Kindness (also called Gedulah, or “greatness”) – is because that is the first real manifestation of G-d in the world that we can experience, according to kabbalah. It is a great and expansive form of kindness which is displayed in the scriptures as the first of the Seven Lower Sefirot – the seven Divine aspects that we display in this physical world (they are drawn from 1 Chronicles 29:11).

upperthreesefirotbThey are not the only aspects of G-d that exist. Indeed there are higher aspects of the Divine that transcend physical form, so they take the form of consciousness. They are understood as Chochmah (wisdom), Binah (discernment) and Daat (understanding, also displayed as Keter, the Crown). These are the Three Upper Sefirot. Though we understand that physical forms begin to take shape with Chesed, the scriptures tell us that very foundations of the physical world are first laid in Chochmah, in wisdom. (“Hashem b’chochma yasad-aretz,” see Proverbs 3:20) And that is what we are learning about today, creation and the creative process. How it goes from thought to physicality. We do so through the story of how a purposeful thought became ha-aretz, the Earth.

Our Torah text reads as follows:

“At the beginning

G-d created the heavens

and the earth.

Now the earth was desolate and

formless,

and darkness covered the face the deep.

And the wind of G-d hovered

upon the face of the waters.

And G-d said:

Let there be light!

And then there was light.”

| Bereshit

| bara Elohim et hashamayim

| ve’et ha’aretz

| Veha’aretz hayetah tohu

| vavohu

| vechoshech al-penei tehom

| veruach Elohim merachefet

| al-penei hamayim.

| Vayomer Elohim

| yehi-or v

| ayehi-or.

Genesis 1:1

In our kabbalistic understanding there are Ten Sefirot – ten aspects that manifest the Divine. Our sages first tell us in the Talmud that there are ten creative acts, that we call the Ten Utterances. (see Talmud, Rosh haShanah 32a) They point to here in the scriptures, where G-d says “Let there be…” Now the Talmud notes the fact that we only see nine actual spoken commands to accounts for. There is at least one unspoken act, and that is the actual creation of the world itself. If we look at our text we see a primordial world spring into existence at the beginning (bereshit). One that is formless and in chaos, with bodies of water and winds blowing over the surface of them. From this perspective the whole first sentence of Torah becomes one creative act.

From the Talmudic perspective we see how will and intention – pure thought (as expressed through the Upper Three Sefirot) – must precede action (as expressed by the Lower Seven Sefirot). Creation comes down from a higher consciousness, in the same manner that impulses from our brains manifest in the actions of our body.

The Zohar however has a slightly different take on things. It shifts the focus even more metaphysically. It agrees that there was something before this start, that is yet undescribed in the scriptures. Though it begins to count the Ten Utterances from the words, “Let there be light.” This is the first true act of creation, the Zohar contends. It starts with light, understanding that G-d needed to create a way in which to relate to us. A divine manifestation to permeate the universe that we can understand, which we perceive that as Light. The Zohar takes us to the very moments near the big bang, when the universe seems to inflate from an infinitesimally minuscule point and it is yet flooded with light.

The Zohar teaches that this overwhelming light which is displayed at the top of our kabbalistic tree, in Keter (the Crown, the highest level of consciousness), is what we can perceive of as G-d, the creator. He is manifested as a stream of pure and all-encompassing light that is without form, Ohr (אור). It is the highest aspect of the modality of synthesis, the type of state we spoke of in Tiferet (harmony); everything is in balance. There is no lack of anything, there is nothing but an endless amount of potential energy in this universe for us to draw from there. G-d is one, and nothing else exists aside from His being. In His highest form we understand G-d as being Ohr Ein Sof – the Light (ohr) that is without (ain) end (sof). G-d is everything, and yet not one thing at all.

G-d needed a place to display this power so He created a void space, The universe was thus created as an empty canvas for G-d to work with. A blank screen on which he could project His light. Into this space the Divine takes all this energy and projects it out of pure will. This is a positive force, akin to a masculine drive; this is displayed as Chochmah, which is the higher manifestation of Chesed.

tree-emptyIt takes root in Binah, in a constrictive and yet receptive form of consciousness; we understand it as being akin to a feminine aspect. Binah we understand to mean “understanding,” but it is more like receiving a spark of intuition. It is a consciousness achieved through receptivity. From here all creative things are birth. This is the upper aspect akin to Gevurah.

Thus in this structure, the crowing truth is that G-d Consciousness is pure thought, intellect and understanding (The Upper Three). When it is synthesized to be translatable into the mortal world it take the form of Daat, which is Knowledge. The world cannot contain all of the “ultimate truth,” but it is discernible through knowledge.

And at the heart of us people are our emotional drives, the first three of the Lower Seven, which is the second level of this cosmic modality (Chesed, Gevurah and Tiferet). But what we need to understand and be knowledgeable regarding is the reality that we are more than just the sum of our emotions and drives. These drives are reflections of a higher consciousness and state of mindfulness that we drawing down from a higher spiritual place.

The reason why we need to get into control of our thoughts and emotions, is because eventually they transform into actions. Our emotions replicate themselves as Netzach (Endurance), Hod (Glory), and Yesod (Foundation). This is the realm of action, where our thoughts result in work to produce what we only vision in an abstract way; in our thoughts and emotions.

These levels of the grouped sefirot are called partzufim (configurations); they are gradations of truth and existence. So far we have seen three levels of this emanation. Partzufim are described as almost separate realms, understood as distinct “worlds.” In this form of mystical teaching we state that the creative power of the Divine trickled down through levels of formation and actualization until it results in producing this world, the earth. We are told earth is created in Malchut, the lowest of the ten sefirot. It is displayed in the fourth and lowest level of the partzufim. This is the realm of the physical world, were intent, drive and actions come into true form. It is not just potential and intent anymore. Malchut in the fourth patzuf is the realm where one’s will become a true products – a solid form through action. (assiyah)

During creation in this realm we see the primordial states ש (Fire), מ (Water) and א (Air) take form to become a new elemental state never existed before – haAretz, the Earth. Unlike the mysticism of the occult schools, we understand the earth is not eternal, earth is not a natural state on its own. It is formed out of the combination of three primordial states.

The Three Mother letters thus take their place standing over the Three Pillars, they best exemplify the first three sefirot (Keter, Chochman and Binah; and alternatively in different instances Chochmah, Binah, and Daat). These three do not directly touch this world, as it cannot contain them; they are transcendent.

worldscharts2Now to I must quickly bring us up to speed how this affects our understanding of the Etz Chaim – the Tree of Life – the form that sefirot take as they descend into our reality. The Three Mother elements spawn the creation of the physical world. The Lower Seven Lower sefirot thus become expressed by Seven Letters (ב, ג, ד, כ, פ, ר, ת) that correspond to the physical world. They are clearly representative of a shift in reality to a consciousness of space and time. These Seven Letters also correspond to the seven days of the week, and the seven planets of the classical world (Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn).

Thus the Three Mothers are the mochin (the brains), and the Seven Lower are the middot (characteristics) in which we manifest these thoughts and impulses through (such as emotions).

So what does this have to do with you and I? Why should this matter at all to any of us? This is all very psychedelic, but what is the usefulness of considering this?

One of the things that we learn here in Parshat Bereishit is that man (adam) was created b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of G-d. That does not mean that we were made to look physiologically like G-d Almighty. We are made in His image, but not as a duplicate of Him. We are not photocopies of G-d, however we do exhibit more like a traced shadow copy of G-d’s nature as though made in a camera obscura. Still the blueprint form we see in the spiritual realms for His general workings are also displayed in us. The order we see spiritually displayed in G-d’s emanations are nearly the same in principle as that of the working of our souls.

Many kabbalists understand man to be almost a microcosm of G-d, and even of the Universe itself. We have G-d given creativity and ability to shape a destiny for this universe. We do this by actualizing things we perceive in our higher intellect and imagination, and continue to work with something until all our effort begins to take a true and functioning form. And above our own intellect is an inspiration that we can also learn to draw down from a higher realms of spiritual consciousness.

In conclusion I want to remind us that we are talking about creation and the creative process. We naturally have in us the ability to create what we conceive of in our minds and dream of in our hearts. But a lot of the struggle in making that possible is learning to first let our heads rule our hearts. To be mindful and follow the cues of the wise inspiration that G-d has placed in our hearts. If so then we can be people who are not just creative, but also profoundly artistic and productive. Like the craftsman Bezalel who build the Mishkan (tabernacle) and temple instruments, for whom it is said:

And I have filled him with the Spirit of G-d, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship…

וָאֲמַלֵּא אֹתוֹ, רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, בְּחָכְמָה וּבִתְבוּנָה וּבְדַעַת, וּבְכָלמְלָאכָה

Exodus 31:3

Tips: We learned today that the commandments and the spiritual acts that we do are the gufei Torah – the Body of the Torah, because this is how we embody the Light and the true fullness of the Torah consciousness. But just like any body, if we exercise our various parts we strengthen our greater body. We become stronger and more nimble at doing the things we challenge ourselves with. Likewise in order for us to build up our creative skills and ability we need to work-out spiritually. We engage all the various parts of our intellect and desires in doing mitzvot – good deeds, spiritual acts.

The Torah mitzvot are tried and true ways to help us develop our skills and strengths. For every little good deed we do we also grown in a sense of accomplishment and pride.

It doesn’t take much to spark mindfulness and the creative process. Chant a beautiful prayer, learning a little Torah, give a tad of charity, or volunteer in the community.


Ten Tehillim (Psalms) for After a Terror Attack


Psalms You Can Say In Vigil for the Victims of the Boston Terror Attack

Terrorist Attack on the Boston Marathon: the people of Israel and all America stands with Boston.

Terrorist Attack on the Boston Marathon: the people of Israel and all Americans stand with the City of Boston.

During great times of distress it is the Jewish custom to engage in prayers and the saying of Tehillim (Psalms). Psalms are actually liturgical songs, and for this reason they are the backbone of Jewish prayer. The Psalms are not only a deep guide for prayer, but they are also a heartfelt book of poetry that provides prayers for strength and words of comfort to those who utilize them.

To learn more about the reciting of Tehillim (Psalms), please refer to the following article:

Most often for chassidim Psalms are said at night or in the darkness of the early morning, during times of reflection and devotion. It may even be paired with Tikkun Chatzot, or the Bedtime Shema.

I have handpicked these ten Psalms that I believe are appropriate for this incident. Certain standard Tehillim are most often suggested after terrorist attacks or similar disasters; Psalms 23, 83 and 121. Psalm 46 is also a commonly appropriate chapter, it also holds special significance for Americans since it has been previously invoked by President Barak Obama in memory of the victims of the 9/11 attack.

May G-d hear our prayers and bring a speedy recovery, and restore the peace and joy to the city of Boston and all the Artzot haBrit – The United States, or literally in Hebrew “the Land of The Covenant.” (a term derived in references to our Constitution).

Psalm 46 – “G-d is for us a shelter and a strength, a help in troubles; He is very accessible… But as for the river-its rivulets shall cause the city of G-d, the holy place of the dwellings of the Most High, to rejoice. Gd is in its midst that it should not totter; G-d shall help it as morning approaches… The L-rd of Hosts is with us; the G-d of Jacob is our fortress forever.”

Psalm 20 – “May the L-rd answer you on a day of distress; may the name of the G-d of Jacob fortify you. May He send your aid from His sanctuary, and may He support you from Zion… They kneel and fall, but we rise and gain strength.”

Psalm 23 – “The L-rd is my shepherd; I shall not want. Even when I walk in the valley of darkness, I will fear no evil for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff-they comfort me.”

Psalm 83 – “O G-d, have no silence, do not be silent and do not be still, O G-d. For behold, Your enemies stir, and those who hate You raise their heads. Against Your people they plot cunningly, and they take counsel against Your protected ones….”

Psalm 121 – “I shall raise my eyes to the mountains, from where will my help come? My help is from the L-rd, the Maker of heaven and earth. He will not allow your foot to falter; Your Guardian will not slumber.”

Psalm 27 – “The L-rd is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The L-rd is the stronghold of my life; from whom shall I be frightened? When evildoers draw near to me to devour my flesh, my adversaries and my enemies against me-they stumbled and fell.”

Psalm 56 – “They lodge, they hide, they watch my steps, when they hope for my life… Then my enemies will retreat on the day that I call. Thereby I will know that I have a G-d… In G-d I trusted. I will not fear. What can man do to me?”

Psalm 64 – “Hear, O G-d, my voice in my prayer; from fear of the enemy You shall guard my life. You shall hide me from the counsel of evildoers, from the gathering of workers of iniquity.”

Psalm 68 – “May Gd rise up; His enemies scatter, and those who hate Him flee from before Him. As smoke is driven away, You will drive [them] away; as wax melts before fire, the wicked will perish from before G-d. And the righteous will rejoice, yea, they will exult before G-d and they will delight with joy.”

Psalm 70 – “May those who seek my life be shamed and humiliated; may those who desire my harm turn back and be disgraced… May all those who seek You exult and rejoice, and may those who love Your salvation say constantly, “May G-d be magnified”… But I am poor and needy, O G-d, hasten to me; You are my aid and my rescuer, O L-rd, do not delay.”


Parshat Ki-Tissa (2013)


Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

How G-d is an Expert at Working with Second Chances

This look at Parshat KiTissa is not going to be a very intellectual undertaking, because intellectualism doesn’t comfort the realities of our pain. This is a look through the eyes of belief; belief that our lives matter, and we deserve dignity, and as dignified beings our sufferings have purpose and merit. May you be strengthened!

brokentabsAs we know, even the name of the Torah portion has a hidden meaning that sums up the entire essence of the whole portion. The Parsha begins with the words, “Vayedaber Hashem el-Moshe lemor, ‘Kitissa et-rosh benei-Yisra’el…‘ / And Hashem spoke to Moses, saying, ‘When you take a census of the children of Israel…’”

Our parsha is named after these key words, “kitissa et-rosh” in reference to the commandment of taking the census, however literally these words mean “when you lift the head.” This is also a colloquial phrase that we see similarly used in Genesis 40:13, where we see the phrase, “yisa Paroh et-roshecha / and Pharaoh will lift your head,” meaning to be singled out, given special consideration, to be put on the spot. If we look closely maybe we can find direction for what to do when situations in life seem to be singling us out, when difficulties seem to be squarely directed at as.

In Parshat KiTissa we find that the children of Israel are engaged in the Exodus from Egypt and are encamped at the base of Mount Sinai. This is one of the most pivotal points in all of Jewish history.

As wonderful as the story is of Moses descending with the tablets containing the Law of G-d on them should be, this account is almost immediately overshadowed with the tragedy of the destruction of the first two tablets of the Ten Commandment. And too often we quickly glance over the second part of the story, as the revelation of Torah is redeemed from the catastrophe and a second set of tablets are made.

But before we get there let us familiarize ourself with where we are at, both in the story of the Exodus, as well as our timing in the order of the readings of the Torah portions. Because even in this account there is an amazing lesson.

Bezalel and The Wise-Hearted Person

In this parsha we find that Moses is on Mount Sinai and is communing with G-d. During this time of discussion between Hashem and Moses the entire Torah is being revealed. For 40 days and nights Moses is audience to G-d’s voice and revelation there. When Parshat KiTissa begins we find that a census is being ordered in order to raise money for the rectification of the Mishkan, the Holy Tabernacle. Torah law prescribes that a census is taken by each person contributing a certain set amount money; the number of people is known by the sum of the money collected. In this respect census was akin to a form of taxation. The preceding sections of Parshat Tetzaveh and Parshat Terumah were entirely about the service of the Tabernacle, and this mention of a census is just a logical stopping off point on its way to explaining how this is all going to come into being. (see Parshat Terumah 2013)

But more than just explaining the finances of how this was all going to come into being, Hashem also elaborated on the human element of how all the holy vestments and items were going to be made. We read with at the beginning of chapter 31:

“And Hashem spoke to Moses, saying:

I have called by name

Betzalel son of Uri, son of Chur,

of the tribe of Judah

I have filled him with divine spirit,

and with wisdom,

and with insight,

and with knowledge,

and with all forms of craftsmanship.”

| Vayedaber Hashem el-Moshe lemor:

| Re’eh karati veshem

| Betzal’el ben-Uri ven-Chur

| lemateh Yehudah

| Va’amale oto ruach Elohim

| bechochmah

| uvitvunah

| uveda’at

| uvechol-melachah

Exodus 31:1-3

I find this to be such a beautiful statement.

As one reads through the Torah’s descriptions of the Tabernacle and all its elements it all begins to seem so overwhelming, so awesome in form and sheer size that it seems almost impossible to imagine, let alone build. Even to this day, great minds stumble on trying to conceive of this holy place in all its wonder. I can only imagine that even more so to our ancient ancestors this must have seemed something miraculous to perform. But if it didn’t already lean on the miraculous, it most surely must have when G-d reveled His choice of architect, Bezalel son of Hur. We are told in Talmud Sanhedrin 69b that he was 13 years old when he made the Tabernacle!

In G-d’s choice of selecting a craftsman He selected a mere boy to make the holy vessels and His places of worship. In doing so G-d was displaying His ability to guide man by imparting all form of wisdom, insight, and knowledge to him. He was displaying His desire to impart into man character and ability. All these things He imparted to Bezalel, displaying this young boy as a vessel of otherworldly ability; displaying him to the nation as whole of what He could do through us all! I love the commentary of Artscroll on this verse which explains, “G-d showed that He had not merely redeemed Israel from slavery. He had endowed them with the capacity to serve Him beyond their ordinary human potential.”

But of course, there are the nay sayers, those who like to limit G-d by saying that either it was a one time event, or a special act He only performed for one person. For those people the Torah elaborated saying, in verse 6:

“And I, behold, I have assigned with him

Oholiav son of Achisamach,

of the tribe of Dan,

and I have endowed the heart

of every wise-hearted person with wisdom,

and they shall make all

that I have commanded you.”

| Va’ani hineh natati ito et

| Oholi’av ben-Achisamach

| lemateh-Dan

| uvlev kol-chacham-lev

| natati chochmah

| ve’asu et kol-asher

| tziviticha

Exodus 31:6

In the scriptures we see that G-d empowers people with chochma, with wisdom; we also understand this word to correctly mean “natural ability.

Herein we find one of the key factors in the tragedy of the Gold Calf, it was entirely unnecessary. The creation of the Tabernacle itself was in order to rectify the need for a tangible place of worship in order that the people feel a closeness to G-d, there was no need for them to create an oracle in the form of a Gold Calf. The solution was presented before the problem presented itself, in the form of the Tabernacle. Sadly the people’s need to take action into their own hands displayed two terrible characteristics of doubt:

  1. Out right doubt: the people did not believe that G-d was truly able to guide man through his natural abilities to do something truly supernatural and extra-ordinary

  2. Impatience as doubt: the people were so crippled by doubt that even if they could accept that G-d could divinely work through them, they looked at Bezalel as a mere boy and incorrectly assumed that they would have to wait for him to grow to be a man before he could complete his work. They were unwilling to wait, this is reiterated in the people’s inability to wait for even 40 days for Moses to descend from the mountain and instruct them.

The true tragedy is that in the people’s choice of creating the Golden Calf they were seeking out what was fast and easy; an image that was familiar to them, in the form that was immediately available.

It is my hope that as we read this section of the Torah we grasp on to the truth that G-d is still in the business of refining His people! It is my sincere hope that we all learn to grasp hold of a youthful heart like that of young Bezalel, that is malleable and open to being guided by the natural wisdom and ability placed in us by G-d to rise to the challenges presented to us in this life.

The Two Sets of Tablets

Of course as the story goes on we find that Hashem commands Moses to go down from the mountain carrying the tablets of the Law presented to him by G-d Himself, as the people had broken out into adoration of the Gold Calf. As we know, the first set of tablets are destroyed.

This parsha becomes very personal to me at this point. I have often considered the situation surrounding the presentation of the tablets. What should have been a time of rejoicing seemingly turns into a disaster. It appears as though when the tablets of G-d’s Law are smashed so too are the promises and hopes for them. And this is where my heart has been reflecting. How often have our dreams taken form in amazing shape and color, only to crash down and left in a smoldering heap?

Let us understand that the tablets Moses descended with were miraculous and truly wondrous. Of them the parsha reads:

“Moses turned and descended

from the mountain,

with the two Tablets of Testimony

in his hand,

Tablets inscribed on both their sides;

they were inscribed

on one side and the other.

The Tablets were G-d’s handiwork,

and the script was the script of G-d

engraved on the Tablets.”

| Vayifen vayered Moshe

| min-hahar ushnei

| luchot ha’edut

| beyado

| luchot ktuvim mishnei evreihem

| mizeh umizeh

| hem ktuvim

| Vehaluchot ma’aseh Elohim hemah

| vehamichtav michtav Elohim hu

| charut al-haluchot

Exodus 32:15

This statement can also be correctly read to meant that the writing was not necessarily written on all sides, but that it was visible from both sides, thus the Midrash suggesting the tall tale that the tablets were made out of Sapphire. Both the Torah and our Tradition suggest that these tablets were something unique and wondrous.

And for many fundamentalists the story usually ends with the destruction of the first set of tablets. They like to stop and give their commentary on the grave tragedy, but go no further. They can’t get beyond the loss of the “ideal.” But this story, like life, doesn’t just end in face of a tragedy. We find after the fallout of the people’s wrongful acts had passed G-d renews and reinforces His covenant with Israel! Thus we read:

“Hashem said to Moses,

‘Carve for yourself two stone Tablets

like the first ones,

and I shall inscribe on the Tablets the words

that were on the first Tablets,

which were shattered.’”

| Vayomer Hashem el-Moshe:

| Psol-lecha shnei-luchot avanim

| karishonim

| vechatavti al-haluchot et-hadevarim

| asher hayu al-haluchot harishonim

| asher shibarta

Exodus 34:1

As I read this parsha I began to be comforted, and I started to understand the position of Chassidut (mystical tradition) that the second set were superior to the first. I had always wondered how this was so. How could this be? One would think that because the first set were priceless and heavenly in composition they would be superior to a set made out of ordinary stone cut by the hand of man. But it is precisely because this second set were “ordinary” in origin that they were far more extraordinary than the first. Something created by the Divine is wondrous, but that is what we would expect, so it is not surprising. But what is surprising is when G-d takes ordinary things, in fact second chances of crude means, and elevates them to holiness equal to anything He could miraculously create.

In Chassidut we learn that every descent is for the purpose of an ascent. That sometimes things in life, challenges and failures are merely a vehicle that Hashem has sent our way to get us to a higher spiritual place. Something things have to be broken in order for us to appreciate the intervention of G-d in our lives!

We go on to read that Moses did in fact carve two stone tablets like the first and carried them in hand up the mountain. (v.4). Then we read that G-d sealed a covenant with Israel, and then lays out the major traditions and holidays of the Jewish people. (v.10-25) When these things are spoken G-d then tells Moses to write the words of this covenant down for himself (v.27). But I love how the Artscroll translation correctly changes the inflection at this point when it comes to the Tablets and goes on to say, “vayichtov al-haluchot et divrei habrit aseret hadevarim / and He wrote on the Tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.” This is in agreement with verse 34:1 when G-d says, “I shall inscribe on the Tablets.” This position is also supported by the Rashbam and Ibn-Ezra.

And this is one of the most beautiful lessons of the Torah. That if we take our second chances, no matter how crude and mundane they appear, and present then before Him He will reach in and touch them with His own hand and make them holy! And this, after all, is the purpose of Torah and very meaning of holiness; to take ordinary things and elevate them to greatness!

This is how Hashem makes His words ring true, “I will place My Torah within them and I will write it onto their heart.” (Jeremiah 31:32)


Parshat Terumah (2013)


Exodus 25:1 – 27:19

Making a Dwelling Place for G-d

Hashem spoke to Moses saying:

Speak to the Children of Israel

and let them take for Me a portion,

from every man whose heart motivated him

you shall take My portion.”

| Vayedaber Hashem el-Moshe lemor

| Daber el-benei Yisra’el

| veyikchu-li trumah

| me’et kol-ish asher yidvenu libo

| tikchu et-trumati

Exodus 25:1

Pillar of Smoke and FireThis weeks parsha begins with the words “Vayedaber Hashem el-Moshe lemor / Hashem spoke to Moses saying.” The first question we should ask ourselves is, when did He say this; when did this take place? There are various possibilities presented to us by our Sages and Rabbis. The Baalei Tosafot, Ibn Ezra, the Zohar and several other commentaries say that these words were spoken to Moshe Rabbenu – Moses our Teacher – when he went up to the mountain for 40 days. However, Rashi’s commentary of Exodus, with both Tanchumah and Seder Olam Rabbah, contend that these words were spoken after the incident of the Golden Calf when Moses went up to receive the second set of tablets. However the point should be made that we are certain that these words are connected to either one of these events; you see the book of Exodus primarily concerns itself with two topics from here on. Aside from the story of the Gold Calf (which only takes up two chapters), the remainder of the book of Exodus is devoted to the preparation for construction of the Mishkan the Tabernacle. This parsha is named Trumah, after the portion contributed by each person to help build this Tabernacle sanctuary mentioned here.

In terms of the dictation of biblical commandments, the central focus of the mitzvot of Exodus surrounds the Mishkan. This being the case then we must furthermore ask ourselves what the significance of the Mishkan is. For the Hebrew speaker the word Mishkan is so direct and simple that the profoundness of it can easily be missed; Mishkan literally means a dwelling place, or a habitation. Before the Beit haMikdash the Temple – this was done in the Mishkan tent and not a fixed building, but here in this parsha we see the foundation of Temple worship laid for both instances. Our parsha reads:

Now they shall make Me a sanctuary,

and I will dwell among them.”

| Ve’asu li mikdash

| veshachanti betocham.

Exodus 25:8

And that is really all the place was, a sanctuary constructed unto G-d. There was indeed a type of worship that was centered in this complex, it was designed with altars for sacrifices of all sorts, but namely the perpetual tamid offering of incense that was always lit as the central element of worship. The other task of temple worship was to care for the Holy of Hollies (Kadosh Kadoshim), held in an inner building that also had a perpetually lit candelabrum, the Menorah that illuminated the sanctuary. This was considered the earthly dwelling place of the G-d of Israel. It was so notorious that people from all over the world came to witness it, even though no one other than the high priest was allowed to go into the innermost sanctum. The priests occupied themselves with maintaining this during the day, but the symbols of its occupation through its fires was constant.

What demanded so much attention? What made this all so holy that it would drive the theme of the scriptures so much and the imaginations of people throughout the ages in such a profound way? Even those who are not G-d fearing have asked this question.

In the year 63 B.C.E. after years of besieging the city of Jerusalem the arrogant Roman general Pompey insisted as “victor” had the right to enter into the Holy of Holies itself – beyond of the veils into the Kadosh Kadoshim, his motivation seemingly one of defiance as much as curiosity. Roman historian Tacitus made note of it this way:

Roman control of Judaea was first established by Gnaeus Pompey. As victor he claimed the right to enter the Temple, and this incident gave rise to the common impression that it contained no representation of the deity — the sanctuary was empty and the Holy of Holies untenanted.”

The Histories:” Book Five §9,

Cornelius Tacitus, 105 C.E.

When Pompey entered he found no images, no symbols of any kind. All he found was old Torah scrolls occupying the inner chambers. Though this is documented over 150 years after the fact, this is one of the only historical and independent reference we really have that describes the interior for us. Flavius Josephus would also note this event as well, but aside from that the only thing we know about the Temple is from the Torah and the Talmud.

I find it interesting that of all the things that is noted by the classic historians, they would marvel in the lack of images or representations of a deity. Also when Tacitus and Josephus, both imperial Romans but one being non-Jewish and the other Jewish, make this point and note that it is unoccupied they are making a huge statement. Normally in the Greco-Roman custom, like for most other non-Jews of the region, it was common for even a priests or priestesses to be consecrated as a living deity and abide in the inner chambers of their temple complexes. But this was not the case here. It was unique and noteworthy, there were no idols nor demigods or devis in this sanctuary.

Though this is not what surprises most of us Torah students, we are not at all taken back by its lack of images or representations. In much of our recent studies we have discussed the Torah’s demand that we not give in to idolatry and how it champions iconoclasm. In terms of general religion this complex is pretty simple, but this Temple is not exactly empty though. So what should surprise us is the nature of the commandments being given in order to make a sanctuary. The specifics for construction are extremely detailed and demanding, building instruments that are intended for a home; candelabras, tables, curtains, ect. Why are they being told to build things out of precious gold, to make a dwelling tent for an incorporeal G-d? What type of need does it satisfy?

In the Talmud people also wrestle with this question, and the rabbis come to an interesting conclusion as to why all the ritual tenants of the sanctuary were created:

Rabbi Sheshet retorted: ‘Place the lampstand outside the curtain of the Ark of the Covenant…’ (Lev. 24:3) Does [the Holy One, blessed be He] need it’s light? All forty years that the Children of Israel wandered in the wilderness, were they not following His light? However, the lampstand attests to all who are in the world that the Divine Presence dwells among Israel.”

מתיב רב ששת: (ויקרא כד) מחוץ לפרוכת העדות יערוך וכי לאורה הוא צריך והלא כל ארבעים שנה שהלכו בני ישראל במדבר לא הלכו אלא לאורו אלא עדות היא לבאי עולם שהשכינה שורה בישראל:

Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 22b

In this text Rabbi Sheshet asks us to consider a section of Torah of Leviticus 24:1-4. What our text seems to imply is that even though some of the ritual items appear to have a usefulness, their purpose is for more than mere functionality. For those who are keen to the rituals of Torah know there were no Temple services that took place during the evening, there was no work for the priests to do that demanded light. The lamp-stands were purely intended to stand before the presence of G-d, in the same way as the golden cherubim that were made also stood there to herald the presence of G-d in the sanctuary and flood it with reflective light off their golden wings. The priest didn’t work by the menorah’s diffused light, nor did G-d need its light as He showed His presence in a self-illuminating cloud before His people during the Exodus. Our rabbis here contend that the reason for the ritual items was to signify to the world that G-d’s presence dwells among Israel.

I want us to remember that this section of Torah goes in tandem with Golden Calf crisis, either being immediately before or precisely after the incident. It may seem odd to us that G-d, who unleashes wrath on the people for making a cult around objects of gold and worshiping before them, that here He would be commanding people to make a Temple complex and corresponding rituals for it in worship to Him. Again, no one is exactly sure if this is taking place while the people are below building a Golden Calf or if it is after the fact; but what the juxtaposition of these stories tells us is that G-d had to define right away how the people of Israel were going to be able to relate to Him because left to their own devices they would degenerate into idol worship. And that is exactly what happened, after Moses and the cloud of glory ascended to the mountain and was far off from them for long.

Though our Talmud lesson here turns it all around on us, it make the point that G-d did not need any of these items anymore than He needed a lamp for light. But the people felt a great need, they intensely needed something to symbolize that G-d dwelt among them. Just like the pillar of cloud by day, the smoke of incense offerings would raise up from the middle of the camp; and the same as a pillar of fire by night, the Menorah would shine its light to remind the people of the Divine Presence that dwelt among them.

I have to stress that point, that this sanctuary is to remind the people that G-d dwells among them, because the truth is that G-d is always with us. In all instances before the dedications or restorations of the Temples G-d made it known that He would dwell their in their midst, not just because they had built a complex but because He dwells with His people forever. (compare Exodus 25:8, 29:45; Zachariah 2:14-15; I Kings 6:13; Ezekiel 43:9)

We need to understand that this commandment regarding building of the Tabernacle and the Temple instruments is not one of, “Build it and He will come.” Instead it is more like, “Build it, so that you will know that He is with you.”

As we look back at our ancestors and consider the context of their way of worship, perplexed as to what motivated them to show their adoration for the Divine in this way, we need to understand that all people have an innate drive to bring holiness and wholeness into the world. We all desire to make things better than they are, to bring a purposefulness and intentionality to things in our world. And this was their way of showing it. In the chassidic, mystical work of the Tanya we find the following statement made:

Now it is so for every person, |

and the purpose of all His creations |

and the creation of all the worlds, |

to make a dwelling place for |

G-d in this lower world.” |

זה כל האדם 

ותכלית בריאתו 

ובריאות כל העולמות 

עליונים ותחתונילהיות 

לו דירה זו בתחתוני

Likkutei Amarim – Tanya, Chapter 33

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe

On a fundamental level, everything in the universe was created to be an embodiment of godliness. The kabbalists teach us that the universe was created as a space in order for the Divine to be manifest. The universe is a canvas, and the elements in it are materials we can artistically fashion to show the glory of the Divine. And each of us people, our desire is to bring completion and holiness to this world. Us living things have an internal drive to be partners in this act of creation, taking the basic elements of the world and fashion them into a display of higher order. That is just what we are meant to do.

Though we do not have a Temple that stands before us, we need to be aware that the Divine Presence does dwell among us. And this Torah displays many other ways, aside from just the commandments of building a Tabernacle, for how we can manifest holiness in this world. We can take the basic elements of everyday life and raise them to holiness through completing mitzvot. We can take the ordinary things of life and impart spirituality and intention into them, and thus allow holiness to dwell in our homes and lives. In this way we can cause Hashem to dwell among us.

What type of contribution are you willing to make today in order to bring godliness into the world?

Related articles:


Parshat Shemot (2013)


Parshat Shemot
Exodus 1:1 – 6:1

When People Actually Curse Themselves Through Their Own Words

Pointing FingerHave you ever known people who have overactive mouths and imaginations? People who are constantly over-thinking things, ever speculating, and let their mouths get ahead of them. Most of us would agree that for the sake of prudence one should not let their minds and mouths run amok. Unfortunately, some people do not have this type of common sense; common sense is not always so common. But it’s hard to explain this to people who think they are so smart and therefore see no reason to filter what is passing through their heads and spilling out their mouths. This may sound harsh, but it’s less drastic than the consequences that arise in the lives of people who cannot compose themselves. Trust me, I know this from personal experience.

The reason why we have to be careful about what we let consume our imaginations, and likewise what we confess with our mouths, is because what we begin to believe and profess has a habit of becoming our reality.

The Chassidic maxim, “Tracht gut, vet zein gut / think well, and it will be well,” it is not just wishful thinking. It is a powerful truth. However, in this parsha we will learn this lesson backwardly through the foolishness of Pharaoh and the Egyptians; people who thought evil in their minds and then declared it to be such in their lives. This error on their part started a downward spiral that made the tragedy they lamented over their reality. It began through thinking it, then speaking it, and finally acting it out.

In this weeks parsha we learn that a new Pharaoh arose, or at least a new type of Pharaoh. Our sages are split on the subject of if it was actually a mamash paro chadash – an actually new Pharaoh as the text leads us to believe by using the word chadash (new) – or if it was just a new type of administration, same man but that he had a different way of thinking. As we see the death of Pharaoh is not mentioned here, just that there arose a new Pharaoh after the death of Yosef haTzadik. (see Rashi to Genesis 1:8) Either way, this man ignored and pretended to not know the contribution that Yosef and the Hebrews had made to their society and economy. He began to conspire against the Israelites saying:

“Look, the people of the children of Israel

are too many and mightier than us.

Get ready,

let us deal cleverly with them

lest they multiply

and it happens that a war befall us,

and they also join them to turn against us,

and go up out of the land.”

| Hinei, am benei Yisrael

| rav v’atzum mimeinu.

| Havah

| nit’chak’mah lo

| pen yir’bah

| v’haya ki tik’rehnah mil’chama

| v’nosaf gam hu al son’einu banu

| v’alah min ha’aretz.

Genesis 1:9-10

Here the Pharaoh of Egypt is making a point to his people, one that politicians often make about strangers is in their midst, namely that there are too many of these foreigners being born in their land. Not just that, they have even become stronger and more successful than the established citizenry. So he tells them to go and get ready, they need to prepare, because they are going to have to deal wisely and shrewdly with them; he is going to outsmart the Israelites.

Now what is the reason that he decided to act in such a way towards them? It’s not enough that he make the point of their growing population and success, but he has to justify it with another paranoid claim. He works his subjects up with the possible scenario that if they find themselves in a state of war that the Israelites might decide that they actually hate the Egyptians (son’einu, literally hate us or loath us) and join their enemies. Only lastly does he make the point that they might get up and go out of the land of Egypt.

Rashi makes the most interesting point in his commentary on this text:

And depart from the land:

against our will.

Our Rabbis, interpreted [of Pharaoh]

that this is like a man who curses himself

but hangs the blame of his curse

on someone else.

Therefore it is as if it was written:

And we will be driven out of the land

and they will take possession of it.

ועל מן הארץ: |

על כרחנו. |

ורבותינו דרשו |

כאדם שמקלל עצמו |

ותולה קללתו |

באחרים, |

והרי הוא כאלו כתב: |

ועלינו מן הארץ |

והם יירשוה. |

Rashi on Gensis 1:10

It is indeed a very interesting point, but it might seem a bit perplexing to us on the surface. Rashi tells us that what this literally means, in the context of how Pharoah stated it, is that the descendants of Israel would leave the land of Egypt against the will of the Egyptians.

However, Rashi goes on to expound that our Rabbis interpret this text differently. He says that the Rabbis make an observation, saying that the words Pharaoh spoke were a curse upon himself. He had no reason to believe that this would actually be the case, nonetheless he began to plot and act against the Israelites. He preemptively began an action of hostility against them. He had no evidence that this would be the case, but his enmity towards Israel started off an atmosphere of antagonism that lay squarely on his shoulders. The collisions between Israel and Egypt was something that he started, but we see him placing the blame on them instead. It was as though he was cursing himself with a negative conclusion. (see Talmud Bavli Sotah 11a, the statement in the name of Rabbi Abba ben Kahana)

Rashi then goes on to make an even more perplexing statement. That this text was taken as though it were written that in the case of a war they themselves – the Egyptians – would be driven out of the land and the Israelites would instead inherit their land and occupy it.

But why is it that Rashi says this? What point is he trying to make?

If we consider it, that instead should have been Pharaoh’s primary concern, for the security of his own people. That in a state of war the Israelites could align themselves with their enemy and they could go to war against them. And that in the aftermath it would be that the Egyptians could find themselves occupied and displaced from their land; that the Egyptians themselves could be forced to leave the land of Egypt against their will. That it could be the Egyptians that would get up and go, not the Israelites.

However, that isn’t what he said, and likewise that isn’t the way it happened. In his hysteria and speculation against them Pharaoh let his mouth slip, instead his words confessed a different scenario all together. And so it happened just like he said in the end, that the Israelites would get up and go out of the land. He curses himself with this outcome. Pharaoh did something terrible to himself here, he didn’t know what he was talking about nor did he even have a clue about what he was speaking into reality in his life.

The Israelites would indeed get up and go, however it would come to pass with great suffering and a barrage of curses that would trouble the Egyptian people during this exodus. But we cannot blame the curses on the presence of the Israelites, nor even their G-d. Sure it was destined that Israel would leave Egypt, but he began a state of hostility that only Pharaoh was really to blame for.

Think about it, in the Torah G-d told Abraham that his descendants would be slaves in a land that was not their own for 400 years. (see Genesis 15:13) Instead, the Israelites would only find themselves in captivity for 215 years at most (as suggested by many traditional people who utilize biblical chronology). Not only did Pharaoh provoke a situation, he made it much worse than it really had to be for his people. He was accelerating Israel’s departure and causing terrible plagues to befall Egypt in the wake of their exodus. Though there is no way that the Israelites could find themselves to blame for what befell the Egyptians, and why they would be left in shambles. It was Pharaoh’s own doing, and his alone by leading all the people involved towards this.

Before we move on from this parsha, we should look at Pharaoh as a terrible example of conniving thought, deed and speech that backfires. Of people who think they are so wise (chochmah). And this is generally the case with people of defective thinking, they can’t even imagine the type of mess that their scheming is getting them into.

But why is it, even if by turn of phrase, that the ending sum of Pharaohs words should come to pass exactly as he said it would? Our teachers would point out the he was a leader, and words of a great man, even a bad one should never be discounted. There is always a little bit of truth found even in the declarations of a foolish man, especially more so when they are in a role of authority. But it’s not because he had any type of insight or even intuition, it’s not as though he was prophesying something. He wasn’t that well-informed or virtuous. The reality is that this situation was concerning his existence and domain, what he spoke came to pass because it was his life and what he focused on was naturally going to become his reality.

As we consider the Chassidic saying once again, let us remember for ourselves that if we think good things it will begin to produce good things in our lives. If we think bad then it will bring about bad results in our lives. People need to learn to catch themselves when they find their thoughts and words starting to wander to the negative, because it will surely lead to an action eventually. If we cannot think positively about a situation or person, at the very least we should try to calm our minds and tongues before it starts a chain of negative actions. In the end the things we let slip might actually become our final outcome, whether we know it or not at the time. And when this happens we surely have no one to blame but ourselves.


%d bloggers like this: