When the Jewish people received the commandments from G-d at Mt. Sinai, they experienced the difference between freedom from oppression and freedom to expression. When they left Egypt, the Jewish people were freed from Egyptian slavery, but only when they accepted the commandments were they free to be themselves — individualized manifestations of G-d, serving as channels for the flow of the presence of the One Great Self shared by all. A Torah life is all about freedom and self-actualization. It is not about changing who you are, but being you.
Even when you are freed from slavery or addictions, you are still not yet free to be the total you. To be all that you can be, you need to know who you really are, who is G-d, and what is your divine purpose and service on earth.
Living the commandments empowers us to connect with G-d and be our true Godly self. At first we may feel that obedience to G-d and the disciplinary life of mitzvot is submissive and restrictive. Ironically, however, submission and obedience to G-d becomes a source of empowerment and freedom. Through the mitzvot we can experience G-d as the essential power within us, seeking to become expressed through us. At this point, we no longer experience the commandments as acts of obedience, but rather as the free expression of our true inner divine self as an aspect of G-d.
In other words, after we make G-d’s will our will and obey, we ultimately realize that His will is actually what we, in our deepest of depths, truly wanted all along, because our will is an expression and ray of His will.
Fulfilling the commandments is not about collecting merit points to be cashed in after we die. An understanding like that may have worked for us when we were five years old; how else could our parents and teachers have explained it to us? But as adults we need to understand that commandments profoundly transform our life experience — empowering us to feel plugged into the source of all life, awareness, freedom and creativity. Many people resist a lifestyle dedicated to serving G-d only because they don’t understand that G-d is the source of all being, all energy, all values and ideals.
To serve G-d means to embody and channel into the world G-d’s love, wisdom, understanding, kindness, justice, compassion, beauty, truth, peace, etc. When you act mercifully, you are serving to make manifest the source of all mercy. When you act intelligently, you are serving to make manifest the source of all intelligence. And when you serve justice, you are serving to make manifest the source of all justice. You experience the joy of ultimate meaning when you make your life a means to an end, greater than yourself.
The commandments are not simply ways to earn reward and avoid punishment. Rather, they express our true divine essence — who we really are and who we are part of — in the language of human behavior.
When we behave in discord with the mitzvot, we block out G-d’s presence from our world. Conversely, when we behave in a way that expresses G-d, we become a channel for G-d’s presence, and we fill the world with blessing.
Being who we are, experiencing our connection to G-d, is paradise itself.
“For unto Me the children of Israel are servants; they are My servants who I took out of the land of Egypt; I am the Lord G-d.” — Leviticus 25:55
There is an Eastern teaching that proclaims, “Be here and now.” Torah however would say, “Serve G-d here and now.” Indeed, this is the fullest experience of life.
Torah teaches that G-d, the Absolute Good, wants to be present in the here and now, and our job is to serve G-d in that desire. Therefore, to serve G-d means to infuse each moment with the presence of G-dly goodness. It means to live for Goodness sake. In other words, I must always ask myself, “How can I serve bring greater good to the world?”
If right now I am with my friend, spouse or child, I should see this moment as an opportunity to give and thus serve G-d, who is the source and essence of all love. It’s not my love. I didn’t invent love. I didn’t create love and I didn’t give it its’ power and meaning. Love did not start with me and love will not end with me. I am not the master of love but I am the servant of love and when I love someone I am serving to make eternal love present in the here and now.
To serve G-d is to channel love, compassion, justice, wisdom or whatever divine value the moment calls for — present in this moment. That is fully living. The goal of life is to serve G-d, the All-Good, here and now.
Torah teaches that there is no greater joy in life than to live in service of the Good. Living Goodness into the world is our ultimate reward, accomplishment and ecstasy. This is the key to happiness. Because we feel good when we do good.
“These are the appointed holidays of G-d, holy convocations, which you are to proclaim in their appointed times.” — Lev. 23.4
Henny Youngman, the comedian, once said, “I tried being an atheist, but I gave it up. There were no holidays.”
What is a holiday really about? Is it the same as a vacation?
A vacation is a time to vacate, but a holiday is a time to celebrate.
To vacate means to take off, get away from the everyday and clear yourself out from the tensions and challenges of the daily grind. Perhaps you’ll suntan on a beach, play golf or catch a good concert.
A holiday, however, is a holy day. It is not an escape from everyday life to paradise. Rather, it is a time to infuse paradise into the everyday. This is the power of celebration. My guess is that the word celebrate connects to the word celestial. And from a Jewish perspective that would make sense, because a Jewish holiday is a time to see the celestial within the terrestrial. It is a time to acknowledge how the Divine enters our world and meets us in time.
A Jewish holiday is referred to in Hebrew as a Moed. This actually means a date or a meeting. In other words, a holiday is a date with G-d. Why would you need to date G-d?
Even though my wife and I have been married for over thirty years now, we regularly go out on dates. Although we see each other daily, our profound connection often gets overshadowed by the hustle and bustle of life. Life sometimes gets in the way of love. And you forget how deep is your love.
When was the last time you noticed your breath or your heartbeat? Unless you lose your breath or miss a beat, these miracles of life often go unnoticed and unappreciated. It is precisely because they are constant and consistent that we forget them and lose the wonder they should inspire.
G-d is with us every moment of our life. Therefore, it is easy for us to forget that His presence fills the present. The holidays, however, mark special times in Jewish history where G-d’s loving presence becomes dramatically obvious.
Each holiday in the Jewish calendar is a date with G- d. They are opportunities to relive the dramatic events that occurred on those days and revitalize our love today.
Each holiday is a time to remember and celebrate G-d’s timeless love for us.
A fellow once shared with me that although his father did not live a Torah life he was an incredibly moral man.
“Torah would have made no difference to my father’s moral excellence.” He said.
“But do you think your father might have been holier?” I asked.
People often think that because they are good people they don’t need Torah. But the goal of Torah life is not only to enable us to be good but also to be holy.
The meditation recited prior to doing a mitzvah is “Blessed be You, G-d . . . Who has made us holy through the commandments.”
It says “holy,” not “good”, not “moral.” Now, of-course, you can’t be holy if you’re not moral but you could be moral and yet still not holy.
Here’s the difference between holiness and morality.
Sherry and Judy are walking down the street and see a hungry homeless man. They both give him ten dollars.
Sherry gave because she felt guilty about her good fortune and hoped that her giving would earn her protection from poverty and perhaps even get rewarded. Sherry did what’s good. And that’s truly admirable and great but not yet the greatest; not yet holy.
Judy, however, did what’s holy. Judy gave naturally and spontaneously because she understood that at a deep soul level she and this homeless were connected like branches sharing the same root. Judy’s gift to this man was an uncalculated expression of her true self as part of the One Whole Greater Self she shared with this person.
Morality is about beating ego.
Holiness is about being soul; being whole.
Holiness is about being true to being totally you as a part the One Soul you share with all.
The Torah Sages gave a spiritual rather than physiological explanation for the disease tsara’as (generally translated as “leprosy”) which affected not only the body but also clothing and the walls of houses.
According to one source several sins could possible be the cause: Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: Because of seven things the plague of leprosy is incurred, namely, slander, the shedding of blood, a vain oath, incest, arrogance, robbery and envy. (Arakhin 16a)
However, most Sages concur that the main cause for tsara’as was slander and gossip.
The Kabbalah teaches that the world you and I live in is a product of our perception of reality. The philosopher Immanuel Kant probed this concept. He asked: Do we see reality or do we see our perception of reality? Kant’s answer is that we do not see reality, but only our perception of reality. In other words, is this world reality? No, this world is your perception of reality. Therefore, the focus and clarity of your consciousness will determine the kind of world you live in.
Each one of us has a choice. You can believe that this world is filled with the presence of G-d who cares about it and guides it. Or you can believe that this world is one big accident, a chaotic mess. The choice is yours. But remember what you believe is ultimately what you will see and experience. What you believe creates the world you live in.
How would I act if I really believed that G-d’s presence filled my life, my home, my office, my city, my world? How would I speak to my wife and kids? How would I treat the stranger? To the extent that I think, speak, and act in accordance with this heightened awareness, to that extent, G-d can be present in my world.
The so-called “good- deeds” and “rituals” of Torah tradition are designed to be building blocks to nurture and concretize consciousness all day long, so that I can channel G- d’s presence into the world and into my life.
By increasing my consciousness of G-d, I thereby allow the light of G-d and all the gifts of spiritual wealth to pour into the world. Few realize the true goodness in deeds and the real richness in rituals. They are really invitations to G-d. What we are saying in both words and actions is, “G-d, I want to get You into my life!”
The Kabbalah teaches that you and I have the dimmer switch in our hands. We can either turn the light of G-d up, creating a whole and radiant world filled with health and joy, imbued with the presence of G-d, or we can turn the dimmer down, creating a dark, gloomy, ugly, Godless world. Our consciousness, which is nurtured by our thoughts, speech, and actions, becomes the vessel to receive the divine presence and the vehicle to transmit the divine blessings into our daily lives.
The first man and woman ate fruits and vegetables—not animals—in the Garden of Eden. It was only later, after the Flood during the time of Noah, that G-d allowed mankind to eat meat.
We cannot understand the exact connection between the sins of mankind and the subsequent permission to eat meat, but we do know that eating meat is a concession that G-d made. The ideal state of humanity is to be vegetarian.
One suggested reason for this concession is that humanity has an inclination for aggression and cruelty. Humans were not created cruel; they incorporated the characteristic over a period of time. And now that we are challenged with this inclination, we have to figure out how to sublimate it and eventually overcome it.
One way is through the consumption of meat. There is something cruel and vicious about eating meat; it is a way of releasing aggression. But sometimes people have a craving for it. Cravings are really our efforts to express and satisfy a need. Better we satisfy our need for aggression by eating meat than by doing something harmful to people, the Torah grants. Better we not have the urge for cruelty and aggression in the first place, but it is a reality that we now have to deal with and work to overcome.
Judaism does not advocate complete suppression of our negative urges rather it gives us outlets to sublimate them while guiding us to gradually overcome them. Therefore, when we crave, we must satisfy the craving in some way while working towards kicking the habit.
Take a drug addict, for example. There are two approaches to treating the addiction. One method is cold turkey—just stay off the stuff and go through an excruciating period of withdrawal. The other approach is measured withdrawal, which looks like hospital-sanctioned drug abuse but is really medical intelligence. To wean the addict, the doctors slowly administer, each day, decreasing amounts of the drug until the addiction is gone. If a person who did not know anything about this method walked into the hospital, from his limited perspective he would conclude that this place promotes drug abuse as an ideal.
In the same way, there are Torah laws that do not express the ideals of Judaism but exist as a way to reach those ideals. In the case of consuming meat, whether it is to satisfy a craving and sublimate the need for aggression or some other divine reason unknown to us, the Torah temporarily concedes and allows us to do it in the interest of helping us eventually overcome the urge and become vegetarians.
People who are already vegetarian should not pride themselves and think that this is a sure sign that they are more spiritually and ethically evolved than anyone else.
How Ideal is the Law?
The Talmud states: “G-d says, ‘I created the evil inclination and I created Torah as its antidote” (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 85a). The Torah is an antidote to our negative and destructive inclinations. Therefore, the Torah may sometimes appear to be sanctioning some type of amoral behavior, but in fact, it is simply employing a realistic approach in order to empower people to stop doing what they otherwise may not have had the power to overcome on their own.
Keeping this essential principle in mind, we can now explore the meaning of eating kosher and some of the seemingly odd kosher laws.
Although, as we mentioned, Torah laws do not always indicate the ideal, without a doubt they outline a way towards reaching the ideals. Therefore, incorporated within such Torah laws are windows to the future.
The laws regarding kosher slaughter are one example. Although G-d allowed humanity to eat meat, one of the “Seven Laws of the Descendants of Noah” is the prohibition against eating a limb ripped off from a live animal. G-d deemed that although humanity needed an outlet for their cruelty this is too much.
As the world evolves G-d chose the Jewish people to become a model of ethical excellence for the rest of the world. Therefore, He placed upon them even more restrictions regarding the consumption of meat.
The laws of Kashrut generate an atmosphere of discomfort to remind us that eating meat is not ideal and to preserve, as much as possible, our humanness while we sublimate our cruel urges. Therefore, we cannot feel free to eat any animal we choose, certainly not those of a wild meat-eating nature. We cannot eat meat before removing its blood. And we must cover its blood and maintain a healthy sense of embarrassment. If we are not slaughtering our own meat then we must purchase only meat that we know has been slaughtered in this most uncomfortable and humane way.
Getting out of Egypt was more than a political emancipation of the Jewish people. It was a spiritual transformation. The Jews were not only physically enslaved but also spiritually enmeshed in Egyptian culture. Egypt was the epitome of egotism and haughtiness. But in truth we all know that in actuality, a person is egotistical because he lacks true self-esteem and confidence of his self-worth. His haughty airs are really a cover-up, a guise. He is trying to compensate for his painful sense of inadequacy and insecurity.
Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher living in the Twelfth century, explains that humanity’s lack of self worth was what led them to idolatry. He explains that the ancients were unable to fathom that G-d would personally care about them. Therefore, they sought out help from an intermediate power other than G-d. They believed that their lives were guided by the power of the stars because G-d, the Creator, does not personally care about them. They reasoned, “Of what worth are we that the Creator would have any regard for our situation?”
The Passover story teaches us that this despairing attitude is false. A verse in the Torah reads, “Don’t make intermediate gods, guard the Festival of the Matza.” The Sages explain this odd juxtaposition: “This is to teach us that anyone who disgraces the Festival is as if performs idolatry.” In other words, celebrating Passover affirms our belief that G-d loves us and personally takes care of us; there is no need for any intermediaries between us. To think otherwise is the beginning of idolatry.
Judaism teaches that G-d’s love and care for us is unconditional. Therefore, in the times when the Temple stood in Jerusalem we were obligated to come there and, so to speak, greet G-d face to face. Of-course the presence of G-d fills the earth and we are in His presence wherever. However, in Jerusalem that truth is more readily experienced. On the holiday of Passover even a simpleton with no preparation could experience a sudden quantum leap in his spiritual level and feel worthy to enjoy a personal loving relation with G-d. Each and every one of us is befitting to bask in G-d’s loving presence.
The Torah refers to a Festival as a Moed, which literally means “to meet.” The portable sanctuary that the Jews carried with them in the desert was called the Ohel Moed—the Meeting Tent. It was a place to meet G-d. The Festivals, however, are a time to meet G-d. The Torah also refers to a festival as a Mikra Kodesh a “Calling of Holiness,” because it calls forth from each of us our innate holiness and godliness. Therefore, to deny yourself the celebration of a Moed—a direct meeting with G-d — is as if to accept the claim of idolatry; that G-d doesn’t love and care about you because you are insignificant and, therefore, unworthy of His personal attention.
In truth, we are always connected to and loved by G-d. However, three times a year on the holidays of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot we are able to readily feel that truth without preparation.
There are different opinions regarding the actual meaning of the animal sacrifices. Maimonides (1135-1204) understood the sacrifices as a divine concession. G-d recognized that when the Israelites left Egypt they were steeped in a religious culture that brought sacrificial offerings to their gods. G-d decided, so to speak, to allow the Israelites to express their religious passion in a somewhat similar way that they were accustomed to with some limitations which were meant to help wean them off this approach towards the eventually annulment of animal sacrifices.
Thus Maimonides writes:
Many precepts in our Law are the result of a similar course adopted by the Supreme Being [i.e. gradual evolution]. It is impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other; it is therefore, according to the nature of man, impossible for him suddenly to discontinue everything to which has been accustomed . . . The custom which was in those days widespread among all people, and the general mode of worship in which Israelites were brought up, consisted in sacrificing animals in temples which contained certain images, to bow down to those images and to burn incense before them . . . For this reason, G-d allowed these kinds of service to continue. He transferred to His service that which had formerly served as a worship of created beings [i.e. idolatry] . . . By this Divine plan it was effected that the traces of idolatry were blotted out, and the truly great principle of our faith — the existence and unity of G-d — was firmly established. This was achieved without deterring or confusing the minds of the people by the abolition of the service to which they were accustomed and which alone was familiar to them.
In other words, although G-d was not at all interested in sacrifices G-d conceded to the needs of the people understanding where they were at. However, this concession is nonetheless with an eye towards the future when the ideal Temple worship will be prayer.
Over time the Temple services will evolve and ultimately animal sacrifices will be nullified. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) elaborates that when the Temple is reinstated, there will be a period of time when we will no longer be slaughtering animals for consumption or pleasure, and eventually we will only bring meal offerings. But even the meal offering will be nullified until finally the Temple will be strictly a house of prayer.
In other words, when we reach the point when we no longer need the sacrificial service, we will be on a high enough spiritual level to experience “giving ourselves completely to G-d” through prayer alone. We will put our entire souls into our words of prayer – recite them soulfully — and thus no longer need sacrifices to experience our connection G-d.
Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of solemn rest to the Lord. (Exodus 35:2)
During the forty years that the Israelites wandered in the desert they carried with them a portable temple referred to as the Tabernacle or the Mishkan. The creative acts that are forbidden on Shabbat are those acts similar to the skills that went into building or assembling the Mishkan. The Talmud outlines 39 different categories of such creative acts that are forbidden to do on Shabbat. They represent our ultimate power of creativity which is to build a temple that accommodates the presence of G-d on earth. Of course we know that G-d does not literally dwell in the Mishkan, however, the Mishkan symbolizes the greatest accomplishment of a human being which is to serve to make manifest G-d, the presence of Absolute Good.
Why then are we commanded to refrain on Shabbat from the greatest act of human creativity and accomplishment? To ensure that we are truly doing it for G-d’s sake to bring good to the world. Otherwise it could be just an ego trip.
Imagine it is Friday afternoon, it’s the dawn of the sixth millennium, six thousand years we have been waiting for the Messiah and finally he has come and we are building the tabernacle. Within minutes we complete the ultimate accomplishment we have been dreaming of, but Shabbat is coming soon. We need just ten more minutes to complete the temple and infuse this world with the complete presence of G-d — but Shabbat is starting in five minutes. Would we stop? Could we stop? Are we willing to let go of the greatest service to G-d, the ultimate accomplishment humanly possible? Are we going to blow the rectification of the universe for five minutes of Shabbat and wait 25 hours to resume?
But this is exactly the message of Shabbat and the blessing it bears.
If we are really building the Temple for G-d than if the Boss says stop we stop. If you cannot stop then you were building the temple for yourself.
Shabbat is a time to stop. And when we stop on Shabbat that retroactively affirms that everything we have done until now is not about our ego but truly in service of bringing the greater good to the world.
When Moses went up the mountain to receive the Commandments written in stone by G-d the Israelites impatiently waited below. Based on their miscalculation of time Moses seemed to delay in returning and the people panicked. Before Moses came down from Mt. Sinai G-d told him that the Jewish people have created an idol—a golden calf. But Moses wasn’t alarmed; he was determined to bring the Jewish people the commandments, nonetheless. But, as he descended the mountain and saw the Jewish people dancing and singing around the golden calf, he suddenly threw the Tablets down and broke them. Why? Why did he lose his determination? The answer is that G-d told him about the golden calf, but G-d did not tell him that the people were dancing and singing.
Moses may have imagined the people sitting beside the golden calf, crying, because they had lost hope in their leader returning. Surely, they would rejoice as soon as they saw him! Instead, they were happy with a golden calf. Its one thing to make a mistake in a moment of despair, it’s another thing to be happy about it.
Incredulously, Moses recognized that if the people could be happy with a golden calf, they could not have comprehended the great gift that he was about to bring them from G-d. The Talmud further explains that as Moses came down the mountain, his incredulity and horror rising at the scene fore him, the letters flew off the tablets. When that happened, the tablets became so heavy that Moses couldn’t hold them any longer. When the tablets lost their meaning they became lifeless rock.
So it is with the Torah. When it ceases to be the Book of Life then it becomes dead weight—just a heavy burden. When the meaning and the taste of Torah are lost, then there is no love for it and no joy in living it. When a person whom you love asks you for a favor, it is easy to do it, it’s a pleasure. But when you don’t like the person, the favor can be the hardest thing in the world because there are no good feelings surrounding it.
Moses realized that the people were really not ready for the Torah. They would have never made a golden calf and certainly would not have rejoiced over it had they really internalized the understanding of what they were waiting to receive.
Imagine somebody suggests to you that you should tell your spouse “I love you” three times a day. Sounds like a great idea. You wake up in the morning and start rushing off to work. “Oh, my gosh!” You hurry back and say, “Honey, I love you. See you later.”
You’re having a busy day, lots of big deals in the make, and it’s now two o’clock—oh, no! You call up your wife and say, “Hey, sweetheart, it’s me. I love you. I’ll call you later.”
You get home exhausted, fall asleep on the couch and—oh, no—it’s two o’clock in the morning! You panic, run to the bedroom: “Oh, honey, honey, wake up!”
“What is it?” she asks with alarm.
“I love you, goodnight.”
So what would happen if that kind of behavior went on and on? Would it keep you ever mindful of your loved ones presence and significance in your life? Or would it become a burdensome obligation? Is it a good idea to tell your spouse “I love you” three times a day, or is it a bad idea?
The answer to that question is up to you. The intentions that you put into it are what you’d get out of it. If a person says “I love you” with no meaning, no feeling and no understanding, then those words will get in the way of the relationship. But it is a truly great idea to tell your spouse regularly that you love him or her. You just have to put a little something into it—a little consciousness and understanding.
The same thing goes for a living the commandments. The Torah gives us ways of connecting to G-d and each other, spiritual strategies for living a more complete, meaningful and enlightened life, but we have to have put a little soul into it. I can have a powerful lamp, but if I don’t know how to plug it in, it’s not going to turn on.
Parsha Ki Tissa