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Parshat -Vayigash/Hei Tevet

Parshat Behar-Behukotai

 This week we again read a double Parsha, Behar and Bechukotai. At the beginning of Bechukotai, the Torah outlines the wonderful rewards in store for those who toil in Torah study and carefully observe the Mitzvot. Rain in its time, high quality produce and fruit, abundance of all material things and many other material blessings. These passages are perplexing on several levels. The Talmud says that there is no reward for Mitzvot in this world. Certainly the Talmudic scholars knew that these verses seemed to contradict their statement. In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) it says that the reward for a Mitzvah is the Mitzvah itself. This also seems contradictory. Another part of the question is that we are taught to serve Hashem out of love with no expectation of reward. Why then does the Torah promise so many great rewards for serving Hashem?  And why are the promises of a material nature when the ultimate reward is spiritual?

These questions are discussed at great length in many writings of our sages. I am going to approach it briefly from two angles. Rambam explains the seeming contradiction of "no reward in this world" vs the promise of material rewards by defining two types of "reward."  There is a reward that is given in appreciation for work done. Then there are tools and needs provided to help a person do the work. Think of an employee. He or she gets a paycheck at the end of the month. That is the reward for doing a good job. The better the employee performs, the more perks he or she gets to help them do the job. So for example the top salesperson at the company will get a corner office and a secretary. As their performance increases, they may get a second secretary and a car and a driver and flights on a private jet. None of this diminishes the paycheck. In fact the paycheck gets bigger. Rambam says that when a person truly observes the Torah, Hashem gives him or her bountiful blessings that help bolster the observance and remove the obstacles of illness and poverty that make observance more difficult. The true reward is given in the World to Come.

On another level, Chassidus looks at these rewards as part of our service to Hashem.  Contrary to what many believe, the ultimate purpose of Creation is not the spiritual worlds and the ultimate purpose of life is not the World to Come. The entire Creation, including all the spiritual realms, is for the purpose of this physical world. It is here that Hashem's will and purpose are fulfilled, when a human being makes a free choice - something unique to humans on Earth - to disregard all challenges and use the world for Hashem's service. This is the meaning of "creating a home for Hashem in the lower realm" that our Sages taught is the purpose of the entire creation. If we accept this premise, then everything we do and everything we receive should be focused on Hashem's will.  Think of a loving parent.  The greatest pleasure he or she has is to give the children gifts and rewards. Imagine the joy a parent has when his or her child excels at school or does things that strengthen the family or improve the world. There is no limit to how much the parent wants to give the child, and the more opportunities to give, the happier the parent is. Hashem is our loving father who wants to shower us with blessings. He begs us to do whatever we can to be worthy of these blessings, and it gives Him great pleasure when we have material abundance. The child who loves to see his or her parents happy does not do good for the rewards they give, but is excited by the pleasure the parents get from his or her behavior, as expressed by the gifts they give. When we focus on Hashem's will, we devote ourselves to His service, and celebrate the many material gifts He gives us that show His love and appreciation for our work to fulfill our mission on Earth.

Parshat Emor


This Sunday will be Lag Ba’omer – so called because it is the 33rd day of the Omer, the period of counting the days from Pesach to Shavuot, and the numerical value of 33 in Hebrew letters is Lamed Gimel, that spells Lag. This is a day of celebration, with bonfires, gatherings, parties, and special outings for children. The Rebbe instated a custom to have a Great Parade on this day. It started on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, attended by many thousands of children, with floats, marching bands and entertainers, followed by a day of activities in the park. The Rebbe would personally participate in the parade, delivering a major address to the children, and then watching with great love and nachas as they passed by his stand. This custom is also observed in many major cities when Lag Ba’omer is on Sunday. As a young boy, I participated in a few parades in London and I remember the excitement building for weeks in advance.

The day of Lag Ba’omer celebrates two historical events. Rabbi Akiva was one of the greatest Talmudic sages. 24,000 of his students died during this period following Pesach, and they stopped dying on Lag Ba’omer. This is also the day of the Yartzeit - anniversary of passing – of the great Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Rabbi Shimon was the first to reveal the secrets of Kabbalah, that had previously not been taught to anyone but the leader of the generation. Shortly before he died on the day of Lag Ba’omer, Rabbi Shimon called his closest disciples and told them he was going to reveal secrets that had never before been revealed. The mystical fire and light surrounding these teachings, as well as Rabbi Shimon’s intense holiness at that time, caused a physical fire to surround Rabbi Shimon, and most of the disciples were not able to remain in the room. This is one of the reasons for the custom of lighting bonfires on Lag Baomer.

Rabbi Shimon was one of those unique sages who affected the entire world for all generations. He is one of the most prolific Talmudic teachers, quoted widely throughout the Mishna. He is also the author of the Zohar, and is credited with beginning the process of revealing the inner secrets of the Torah to the world, thereby beginning the preparation of the world for the Messianic revelation. The Talmud says that many tried to emulate Rabbi Shimon but were not able to. This is referring to his level of devotion to pure Torah study, which was his only occupation. We generally consider people who are involved completely in study to be removed from the world and without impact on the world. However, this was not the case with Rabbi Shimon. When he heard that there was a drought, he taught Torah and it started to rain. His disciples once asked him to show them how Torah brings material blessings. He took them out to a valley and commanded the valley to fill up with golden coins, and that immediately happened. The Rebbe explained that Rabbi Shimon was showing them that the material rewards from Torah are real, albeit not usually as clearly visible at the time of that miracle.

In Rabbi Shimon’s time, our sages taught, there was no rainbow. A rainbow is a sign, as written in Parshat Noach, that Hashem made an oath never to again destroy the entire world with a flood. Rabbi Shimon’s holiness was so great and affected the world in such a way that there was not even a possibility that there would be a flood in his generation, so there was no need for the sign. This is one of the reasons that children customarily play with bows and arrows on Lag Baomer.

One of Rabbi Shimon’s teachings (Talmud Megillah 29a) is that wherever the Jewish people are in exile, the Presence of Hashem is with us. One of the sources is the verse that states that at the end of the exile, Hashem will return us from all corners of the earth to our land. The Hebrew word for “He will return you” should be “Veheshiv.” The word used in the verse is “Veshav,” which translates to “He [Himself] will return, implying that Hashem is with us in exile and will return with us. This has been a very comforting statement to Jews throughout the ages, knowing that even though we have experienced tremendous difficulties in exile, Hashem is with us to keep us going.

As I mentioned before, the revelation of the mystical secrets of Torah prepares the way for the Messianic revelation. Lag Ba’omer is a time for us to increase our connection with the inner part of Torah. While pure Kabbala is inaccessible to most and are therefore called “secrets,” these secrets have been made not secret anymore by the teachings of Chassidus, accessible to all. Let’s delve into this study, and do our part to hasten the revelation of the Moshiach. I invite you to come and join us at Chabad for bonfires, barbecues and parties.

Parshat Acharei-Kedoshim

This week, once again, we read a double Parsha, Acharei Mot and Kedoshim.  The name of the first Parsha – Acharei Mot – means after the death.  This is referring to the death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, who had offered incense in the Holy of Holies on the day that the Presence of G-d was first revealed in the sanctuary, and who had died in the process.  Now Hashem is teaching Aaron and the other Kohanim (priests) the proper procedures for entering the Holy of Holies.  This was the inner room of the Sanctuary that contained the Ark with the Tablets that Moshe had brought down from Mount Sinai.  This was the holiest place in the world, and only the holiest person, the Kohen Gadol (high priest) was allowed to go in, and only on the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur.  Even then, he was only allowed in for the specific purpose of the special, once a year burning of the incense.  There was incense burned every day, twice a day, in the outer room of the Sanctuary or Temple, but this service in the inner room was only on Yom Kippur.


Whenever I translate the word Kohen to priest, I feel a little uncomfortable.  While the Kohen would perform the service in the Temple and was a guide and mentor for the people, the word “priest” invokes the idea of celibacy and removal from the norms of family life.  This is the opposite of the Torah’s direction for a Koen Gadol.  In order for him to perform the service on Yom Kippur, he had to be married.  We learn this from requirements of the special goat sacrifices that the Kohen Gadol offered on Yom Kippur.  The Torah says that with these sacrifices “He shall atone for himself and his home…”, and the Talmud say that “his home” refers to his wife.  I have two questions I would like to address here.  First of all, if the Torah wants to tell us that he is atoning for his wife, why doesn’t it just say “his wife?”  Why does it say “his home” and leave it up to the Talmud to explain that it means his wife?  While it is true that the written Torah is in code or “shorthand” and can only be understood by studying the Talmud’s often lengthy explanations, in this case the word is “home” and the explanation is “wife”, so there is no savings of words by saying “home.”  Another question about the whole idea:  The only day when the requirement to be married applies is Yom Kippur.  The holiest day of the year, the holiest person in the nation, performing the service in the holiest place, you would think that he should be at the pinnacle of spirituality, yet specifically in this situation he must be married.


There is an answer that addresses both questions, based on the teachings of the Rebbe.  The relationship between husband and wife is extremely important in the Torah.  The first year a couple is married, the husband is exempt from military or any major community service.  It is a Mitzvah to “make his wife happy.”  We consider Shalom Bayit – meaning peace in the home – of paramount importance.  Yet a relationship between husband and wife should not be just about them.  We must keep in mind that there is a higher purpose to a relationship – to create a home, a place permeated with light and warmth that will pass our values and learning on to the next generation.  A relationship must move beyond the necessary and valuable initial stage of infatuation with one another, to the creation of a home and a family.  While we must always care for one another and be constantly thinking about each other, the ultimate purpose of a marriage is the home, the family and the future.


The same applies with our relationship with Hashem.  Our soul yearns for connection to Hashem, and, if we are in touch with our inner selves, we strive to create a bond with Him and to experience the ecstasy of spiritual enlightenment.  Here too, we must remember that the purpose of this enlightment should not be only about our own, albeit holy, needs.  It is about creating a home with Hashem in the physical world, and ensuring that we pass this spiritual feeling on to our children and our environment.


So, on the holiest day, the holiest person in the holiest place must remember, as he reaches the epitome of mystical experience, that it is not about himself and his spiritual pursuits, it is about affecting the world.  He must be married, the Torah says, and he must be the kind of person who remembers the higher purpose of his relationships.  If he lives this way, recognizing the value of his relationship with his wife, and his relationship with Hashem, as affecting not just himself but the world around him, then he is worthy to be the messenger to bring atonement and blessing to his people.

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