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Rabbi Levin's Blog

Parshat - Lech Lecha

If you look into the story of Avraham and Sarah, the subject of this week’s Parsha, there is something quite shocking.  Think about who Avraham was and how he lived for the first 75 years of his life, and how the Torah introduces him. At the end of the last Parsha there is a list of the generations from Noah, after the Flood, until Avraham, and there is some elaboration on Avraham’s family. We know that his father was Terach, his wife was (at that time called) Sarai, and a few other details of the family. We also know that Terach took his family and travelled from the family home in Ur Casdim to Charan and died there, and that one of his sons, Haran, dies while he was still alive.  The next thing we know, beginning this week’s Parsha, is: “Hashem appeared to Avram.”  Why?  What did he do to deserve that revelation? He was 75 years old at the time, had his life been uneventful until then?  In fact, when we read the Midrash, we see that Avraham and Sarah were great leaders who had brought huge numbers of people out of idolatry to believe in Hashem. Avraham had, on his own, recognized the Creator, sacrificed his life for his belief in Hashem, and been saved by a miracle. The king Nimrod (the Hitler of that time) threw him into a furnace because he had destroyed Terach’s idols and he came out unscathed. Quite a career and quite a life! The written Torah tells us none of that!  “Hashem appeared to Avraham” is our introduction to this unique, amazing individual! 

Torah means lesson, and the purpose of the stories in the Torah is to teach us how to live our lives as Jews. There is a powerful lesson here, relating to Avraham’s faith in Hashem and its impact on all future generations. There are two kinds of faith or belief. You take a look at a house. You know with absolute certainty that a builder built this house and nothing will shake that belief. But that belief is based on your understanding that houses don’t build themselves and you are, after all, looking at a house. You have not seen the builder, and you are relying on your knowledge and your intellect. Now imagine that you saw the builder at work. It’s not that you believe in a builder more, it’s that you have actually seen him or her and your belief is therefore based on what you have actually seen. You need no intellectual work or any other knowledge to recognize it. You have seen it with your eyes. 

Everything Avraham did until he turned 75 was based on his absolute belief in one G-d, the Creator of heaven and earth. He, together with Sarah, was so sure of it that he convinced a large segment of the population of it, and was willing to give up his life for this belief. That is not the Avraham that the Torah introduces us to as the father of our nation, no matter how lofty and worthy he was. When Hashem appeared to Avraham, his faith reached a whole new level. He had now seen Hashem and therefore experienced Him in a way that was essential, not related to his knowledge or intelligence. His faith was no longer something he figured out or understood, it was absolute, a part of himself. 

This is the inheritance that Avraham passed down to each of us. We each have a soul that is a part of Hashem, and the soul has an unshakable bond with Hashem that has nothing to do with what we know or what we have learned or understood. It “sees” Hashem. This is why we see so often Jews who have had no visible connection to Judaism, sometimes for generations, suddenly become interested in pursuing their heritage, sparked by something that they cannot understand.  When this happens, we know that it is not something foreign to them.  It is their inner essence, an inheritance from Avraham and Sarah, that is simply waking up.

Parshat - Rosh Chodesh Noach

There is a fascinating Midrash about Creation that relates to the main subject of this week’s Parsha, the Great Flood.  When Hashem first created the world, it was entirely covered with water, and on day 2, He brought about the cataclysmic events that separated the seas and the dry land, ultimately leading to the creation of human life.  The Midrash tells a story of a king who built a beautiful palace, and populated it with people who were mute.  Every day these people would praise the king with sign language and thank him for giving them such a magnificent place to live.  The king said: If I get so much praise from mute people, imagine how wonderful it would be if the people could talk, how sweet would it be to hear the praise!  So he brought people who were able to talk to the palace. However, those people did not praise the king and instead claimed that the palace was their own and turned against him. So the king decided to go back to the way it was before, bringing back the mute people and kicking the others out. This, says the Midrash, is what happened at the beginning of Creation. The world was filled with water, and the raging waters sang Hashem’s praises. So Hashem decided to create human beings who could speak and through whom His praise would be so much greater. The people, however, rebelled and denied Hashem’s existence, living lives that were the opposite of Hashem’s will. So Hashem said, let the world return to its original state, and covered it again with water.

I could write many pages discussing this Midrash, but I will just give a very brief explanation from Chassidus. What does all this mean, how is Hashem praised by water, and why did He make a covenant after the flood never again to flood the entire earth?  The mystical interpretation of this story is as follows. What is the difference between a world covered by water and dry land? (If you don’t know, I’m not going to let you plan my vacations, just kidding.) Sea creatures live in the water. All their sustenance comes from the water, and they can’t leave the water and live. Land creatures also receive all their sustenance from the land, but they are not living inside the land.  They are separate from it, and can even fly away from it and live. In mystical terms, water represents a state where holiness is revealed, where one recognizes clearly that our source of life is Hashem and there is no possibility to separate from Him. Living on dry land represents a state where we don’t experience Hashem with our eyes, where the fact that our lives and sustenance come from Him can be denied, and it takes choice to connect to and follow Hashem’s will. 

The earth was first created covered with water. Hashem’s light was clearly visible and there was no way to deny His existence. As great as this state may be, however, Hashem wanted to create beings that have free choice and the ability to deny His providence. As wonderful as it is to be sure of the praise that will come if we clearly see, visibly, Hashem’s presence, this praise is not that exciting, because there is no alternative. True praise comes when a person has the choice to deny it, and instead chooses to turn to Hashem, so Hashem created people, with real free choice. Instead of looking for the source of their life and following a just path, the people felt separate and self-made, and corrupted everything. So Hashem decided to return everything to its original state, to cover everything with water, bringing revelation of His light back to the world. But this was not permanent. The idea was to purify the world (the flood acted like a Mikvah) so that the world and its creatures, as they are on the dry land, would not be as separate as they had been before and would have more of a tendency to have faith in Hashem. The flood brought a synthesis of choice and faith, and gave future generations the tools to overcome our narcissistic tendencies and live for a higher purpose.  

Parshat - Bereshit

This Thursday and Friday we celebrate the last two days of the Holiday season, Shmini Atzeret and Simchat Torah, when we conclude the reading of the Torah, followed immediately by Shabbat when we read the first Parsha of the Torah, Beresheet.  Simchat Torah is a unique day.  It is a day spent primarily celebrating with the wrapped Torah scrolls, with dancing, singing and L’chaim. Much has been written about the spiritual significance of this day, and I encourage you to read some of the wonderful commentary here. Briefly, this day celebrates the essential bond between Hashem and every Jew, which is not dependent on any knowledge or observance. It is unconditional and eternal. This is why we celebrate with a wrapped Torah as opposed to opening the books and studying. I invite you to join us at Chabad, there is no place like Chabad to get the true spirit of Simchat Torah.

Since this Friday is a Holiday, it is important to remember to make an eruv Tavshilin in order to be permitted to prepare for Shabbat, as I wrote before Rosh Hashana. You can see the details here. I wish you a very happy Simchat Torah!  

Parshat - Chol Hamoed

Sukkot is coming, the harvest festival. A local organization was hosting a “harvest festival” around the corner on Yom Kippur, and as I walked by I wondered exactly what the harvest they were celebrating was. The last time there were orchards or farms in Palo Alto was probably in the 1960s or even earlier. The only remnants of any orchards around here is the ant population that, deprived of the apricots that filled the area, now forage in our houses. Farmers are now celebrating the end of the harvest. Everything has been brought in from the field into the storehouses, and the farmers can relax and celebrate. What about the rest of us? We don’t live in an agricultural society, so are we just remembering an ancient celebration or are we just showing solidarity with the relatively few farmers out there?

Well, there is much more to this harvest, and it is relevant to each of us. We are physical beings, and most of us are not attuned to the spiritual. We have a body and a soul.  We certainly know what the body needs and wants, and how we react to various stimuli and situations.  We are, however, generally not aware of the needs of our soul or how it is impacted by our actions or environment. We have just spent a considerable amount of time on spiritual pursuits – Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the days in between, and the month of Elul in preparation for these holy days.  Most people feel uplifted on Yom Kippur, especially at the end of the day at Neila, but does this feeling last with us?  What impact does it have on the rest of the year? 

The purpose of our spiritual pursuits is not to remain spiritual. Hashem put our soul into our body and created us in a physical world in order for us to change and fix the world, to bring light into darkness and to overcome the challenges that we face daily.  If all the inspiration of the High Holidays remains spiritual, it won’t properly impact our day-to-day lives and would therefore essentially be, at least in terms of our mission on this earth, a waste of time.  So how do we connect with these spiritual feelings and the uplifting effects of the High Holidays? How do we “harvest” all the great soul-felt feelings and have them affect our physical reality?  Enter the beautiful Holiday of Sukkot. It is a Mitzvah to eat food in the Sukkah. We make Kiddush over a cup of wine, and eat bread and other delicacies. We take four different species of plants, representing the diversity of our people and our differences in observance and knowledge, and wave them in every direction and toward our heart. This way we are “bringing in” the spiritual light that we have brought to the world but is “out there somewhere,” and personalizing it in our physical experience. Sukkot is also a time of great joy and celebration, culminating in the day of Simchat Torah when we physically dance with the Torah and experience a great physical bond with our heritage.

So I encourage you to participate personally in the Sukkot observances. Call us if you would like to purchase a four species set. If you don’t have a Sukkah or are not sure about the observances, come and join us and let’s share the joy together. This is a wonderful opportunity to harvest all of Hashem’s blessings and have plenty to “eat” for the rest of the year!  Happy Sukkot.

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