Tag Archives: Spirituality

The Most Important Torah Reading

Two columns of parashat Ha’azinu in a Torah scroll

This Shabbat we will be reading Ha’azinu, a unique parasha written in two poetic columns. Ha’azinu is a song; the song that God instructed Moses to teach all of Israel: “And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths, in order that this song will be for Me as a witness for the children of Israel.” (Deut. 31:19) Of course, the entire Torah is a song, chanted with specific ta’amim, musical cantillations. In fact, the mitzvah for each Jew to write a Torah scroll of their own (one of the 613) is derived from the verse above, where God commands the Children of Israel to write this song for themselves. While the simple meaning is that God meant to write the song of Ha’azinu, our Sages interpreted it to refer to the entire Torah. (Since most people are unable to write an entire kosher Torah scroll by themselves, the mitzvah can be fulfilled by writing in a single letter, or by financially contributing to the production of a Torah scroll.)

Why is the song of Ha’azinu so special that God commanded Moses to ensure it will always remain in the mouths of Israel? A careful reading shows that Ha’azinu essentially incorporates all of the central themes of the Torah. We are first reminded that God is perfect, “and all His ways are just” (32:4). While it is common for people to become angry at God and wonder why He is seemingly making life so difficult for them, Ha’azinu reminds us that there is no injustice in God, and that all suffering is self-inflicted (32:5). The Talmud reminds us that hardships are issurim shel ahavah, “afflictions of love”, meant to inspire us to change, grow, repent, learn, and draw us closer to God. Isaac Newton said it well:

Trials are medicines which our gracious and wise Physician gives because we need them; and the proportions, the frequency, and weight of them, to what the case requires. Let us trust His skill and thank Him for the prescription.

History is the Greatest Proof

In the second aliyah, we are told to “remember the days of old and reflect upon the years of previous generations” (32:7). Is there any greater proof for God and the truth of the Torah than Jewish history? Despite all the hate, persecution, exile, and genocide, the Jewish people are still alive and well, prospering as much as ever.

Does it make sense that 0.2% of the world’s population wins over 20% of the world’s Nobel Prizes? (Out of 881 Nobels awarded thus far, 197 were awarded to Jews, who number just 14 million or so. Compare that to the 1.8 billion Muslims in the world—roughly 25% of the world’s population—who have a grand total of three Nobel Prizes in the sciences.) Does it make sense that a nation in exile for two millennia can return to its ancestral homeland, defeat five professional armies that invade it simultaneously (and outnumber it at least 10 to 1), and go on to establish a flourishing oasis in a barren desert in just a few short decades? Does it make sense that tiny Israel is a global military, scientific, democratic, and economic powerhouse? And yet, does it make any sense that the United Nations has passed more resolutions against Israel than all of the rest of the world combined?

There is no greater proof for God’s existence, for the truth of His Torah, and the distinctiveness of the Jewish people than history itself. It is said that King Louis XIV once asked the French polymath and Catholic theologian Blaise Pascal for proof of the supernatural, to which the latter simply replied: “the Jews”. Although Pascal—who was not a big fan of the Jews—probably meant it in a less than flattering way, he was totally correct.

The Consequences of Forgetting God

From the third aliyah onwards, Ha’azinu describes what the Jewish people have unfortunately experienced through the centuries: God gives tremendous blessings, which eventually leads to the Jews becoming “fat and rebellious”. They forget “the God who delivered” them (32:18). This is precisely when God hides His face (32:20), and just as the Jews provoked God with their foolishness and assimilation, God in turn “provokes [them] with a foolish nation”. God sends a wicked foreign nation to punish the Jews—whether Babylonians or Romans, Cossacks or Nazis—to remind the Jews who they are supposed to be: a righteous, Godly people; a light unto the nations. If the Jews will not be righteous and divine, God has no use for them.

Having said that, this does not exonerate those Cossacks and Nazis, for they, too, have been judged. They are a “foolish nation”, a “non-people”, who themselves merit destruction, and God “will avenge the blood of His servants” (32:43). The song ends with a promise: Israel will atone and fulfil its role, its enemies will be defeated, and God will restore His people to their land.

The Spiritual Power of Ha’azinu

The song of Ha’azinu beautifully summarizes the purpose and history of the Jewish people, and elegantly lays down the responsibilities, benefits, and consequences of being the nation tasked with God’s mission. Not surprisingly then, God wanted all of Israel to know Ha’azinu very well, and meditate upon this song at all times. This is why it was given in the format of a song, since songs are much easier to memorize and internalize then words alone. Music has the power to penetrate into the deepest cores of our souls.

In fact, the Zohar on this parasha writes that music is the central way to elevate spiritually, and can be used to attain Ruach HaKodesh, the prophetic Divine Spirit. Elsewhere, the Zohar goes so far as to say that Moses’ prophecy was unique in that all other prophets needed music to receive visions, while Moses alone could prophesy without the help of song!

Today, we have scientific evidence that music deeply affects the mind. It triggers the release of various neurotransmitters, and can rewire the brain. It has a profound impact on mood and wellbeing, and can be used to induce all sorts of mental and emotional states. Music is powerful.

And so, the Torah concludes with a song. After relaying Ha’azinu, the Torah says that “Moses finished speaking all of these words to Israel” (32:45). The lyrics were the last of the Torah’s instructions. Indeed, Ha’azinu is the last weekly Torah reading in the yearly cycle. (Although there is one more parasha, it is not read on its own Shabbat, but on the holiday of Simchat Torah, at which point we jump right ahead to Beresheet, the first parasha.)

So important is Ha’azinu that it is always read during the High Holiday period, usually on Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath of Repentance, or Return. So important is Ha’azinu that it is most often the first parasha read in the New Year. And so important is Ha’azinu that it was commonly believed the entire Torah is encoded within it. When our Sages derived the mitzvah of writing the Torah from the command of writing Ha’azinu, they literally meant that Ha’azinu encapsulates the whole Torah! The Ramban went so far as to teach that all of history, including the details of every individual, is somehow encrypted in Ha’azinu. This prompted one of the Ramban’s students, Rabbi Avner, to abandon Judaism and become an apostate. In a famous story, the Ramban later confronts Avner, and proves that Avner’s own name and fate is embedded in one of Ha’azinu’s verses.

In past generations, many people customarily memorized Ha’azinu. The Rambam (Hilkhot Tefillah 7:13) cites another custom to recite Ha’azinu every morning at the end of Shacharit, and the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 31a) states that in those days it was read every Shabbat. This Shabbat, take the time to read Ha’azinu diligently, and see why it was always considered the most important Torah reading. Perhaps you will even find your own life encoded in its enigmatic verses.

Wishing everyone a sweet and happy new year! Shana tova v’metuka! 

A Mystical Look at Pregnancy and Abortion

This week we read a double portion of the Torah, Tazria and Metzora. It begins by stating that a woman who gives birth to a son is spiritually impure for seven days, and requires another 33 days of purification afterwards. If she gives birth to a female, the impurity lasts fourteen days, followed by 66 days of purification.

The Zohar (III, 43b) comments on this section by first reminding us that each soul has male and female halves, and when the soul enters this world, it splits and enters two different bodies, male and female. If the two soulmates merit it, they will find each other and reunite. We are then told that the female part of the soul is larger and more powerful, which is why a woman who gives birth to a female needs double the purification time.

The Zohar explains why the Torah prescribes these specific time periods: 7 and 33 days for boys; 14 and 66 days for girls. It states that at birth, the soul first enters the body and is in complete disarray. For the first seven days, the unsettled soul “roams the body to find its place”. On the eighth day, the soul is finally getting comfortable in its new home. This is one reason why circumcision is done on the eighth day, once the soul is no longer distressed. The soul then needs an additional 33 days to acclimatize to its new environment until it has completely settled into the body. For the greater female souls, the time periods are doubled.

Note how these time periods are referring to the soul of the newborn, yet it is the mother that is described as being “impure”. This is because the mother carried the child, and its soul was housed within her temporarily. (Perhaps this extra soul is responsible for the well-known “pregnancy glow”.) Once the baby is born, its soul leaves the mother’s shelter and is now independent in the baby’s body. (And that pregnancy glow is gone!) The sudden loss of spiritual energy is difficult on the mother as well, and she requires forty (or eighty) days to get back to herself.

A major question arises here: if the soul only enters the newborn at birth, why is abortion forbidden? Religious groups of various faiths have argued for centuries on when exactly the soul enters the body, and many have taken the stance that a fetus already carries a soul, making abortion indistinguishable from murder. What do Jewish texts say?

Abortion and Gestation in the Talmud

In one passage, the Talmud includes abortion under the category of murder. However, it also famously states that if the mother’s life is at risk—at any point in the pregnancy—the fetus must be removed, “limb by limb” if necessary. In such cases, the fetus is seen as a rodef, a “pursuer”, referring to the Torah law that if one is “pursuing” another to kill them, it is permitted to kill the pursuer first. The Talmud concludes that a fetus can be aborted at any point until its head has emerged. Once the head has emerged, the newborn is considered completely alive, and in cases of life-risk, it is no longer clear who the “pursuer” is. The Sages suggest that the soul fully enters the newborn only at birth, and it is only then that the newborn is a complete person.

Three-month old fetus (Courtesy: BabyCentre)

Elsewhere in the Talmud (Niddah 8b), we are told that the fetus already resembles a person at the three-month mark. We now know that it is precisely around this point that the developing baby has the features of a human (and is no longer called an “embryo”, but a “fetus”). The Talmud adds (Berakhot 60a) that until this three-month mark, a person should pray every day that there shouldn’t be a miscarriage. After three months, a person should pray that the fetus will not be stillborn, and after six months, a person should pray that the mother has an easy delivery. We are told that one should pray for the baby’s desired gender only before the 40-day mark. This, too, shows incredible wisdom on the part of our Sages. Today we know scientifically that the sex organs begin their development around day 42. The ancient rabbis knew that after day 40, gender development is already in progress, and there is no point praying for something different.

In a related passage, we are told that until day 40, the fetus is insignificant and more lifeless than living (Yevamot 69b). Today we know that the neural tube which will make the brain forms around day 40, and this is when the first neurons start signalling. Scientifically speaking, there could be no talk of any kind of consciousness or brain activity before day 40.

Because of this, most rabbinic authorities are far more lenient when it comes to abortions before the 40th day of pregnancy. Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski (1863-1940), who was widely recognized as the greatest posek of his generation, even suggested that abortions before the 40th day are not Biblically prohibited (Achiezer, III, 65:14). Nevertheless, even before the 40th day there is a potential to produce a living human being, and life is valued above all else, which is why abortions are still forbidden except for cases of absolute necessity.

By the 20-week mark (midway through pregnancy), fetuses are seen rolling around, sucking their thumbs, and responding to the prodding of the ultrasound. There is no doubt that the fetus is alive and aware at this point, and any abortion other than a life risk is hardly distinguishable from murder.

Soul Infusion

The fact that the fetus is aware by the 20-week mark (if not sooner) suggests that it does indeed have some level of soul. Yet, earlier we saw sources seemingly propose that the soul does not enter until birth. How do we reconcile these apparent contradictions?

To answer this question it is important to keep in mind that the soul is not one uniform entity. Rather, the soul is composed of multiple layers, each made up of countless sparks. The lowest level of soul is called nefesh, the basic life essence. Above that is the ruach, “spirit”, an animating force that, among other things, gives a person their drives and inclinations. Then comes the neshamah, a higher level of consciousness and the part that gives one their unique traits and qualities. Further still is the chayah, the aura that emanates from the body, followed by the loftiest level, the yechidah, which may be described as a spiritual umbilical cord between each soul and its Creator.

The Arizal taught that ever-higher levels of soul are accessed gradually over the course of one’s life. At birth, a person has only a complete nefesh. As they grow, they are infused with ruach, which becomes fully accessible at bar or bat mitzvah age. At this point one starts to tap into their neshamah, which is wholly available only at age 20. (For this reason, the Torah considers an adult one who is over 20 years of age. Only those over 20 were counted in the census and allowed to join the military. Our Sages state that although one may be judged for their crimes before age 20 here on Earth, only those sins accrued after age 20 are judged in Heaven. Meanwhile, the Midrash notes that Adam and Eve were created as 20 year olds.) The Arizal taught that most people never end up accessing their entire neshamah, and only the most refined individuals ever unlock their chayah and yechidah.

Based on this model, we see that right from conception the developing embryo is steadily infused with nefesh, the basic life force. By day 40, there is enough nefesh for the embryo to be considered alive. In fact, it is said that this is why the gematria of אם, “mother”, is 41, since a woman becomes a mother on the 41st day of pregnancy.

Once its entire nefesh has been infused, the baby is ready to be born. At birth, it begins to receive its next soul level, the ruach. A careful look at the Zohar passage with which we started reveals that this is precisely what the Zohar meant, as it explicitly mentions the ruach entering at birth, requiring forty days to fully settle in. Therefore, a developing fetus does indeed have a soul, which is why abortion is so highly discouraged—reserved only for true medical cases—and why it has been compared to murder.

Solving a Scientific Mystery

The above also answers a mystery that has been perplexing biologists for decades: what is it that drives an embryo to grow? Why do the cells multiply, and how do they know to differentiate? Each cell is exactly the same, with the exact same set of DNA, yet one clump of cells knows to form the eyes while another knows to form the liver, and so on. Scientists have still not been able to figure out how the embryo “knows” what to do. (For that matter, we can’t figure out how any cell really “knows” what to do.)

The Kabbalists have an answer: it is the steady infusion of soul that drives a mass of undifferentiated cells to do what it needs to. It is the soul that gives the instructions for how the DNA is to be transcribed and translated in each cell, and how the cells are to interact with one another. As the soul grows, so too does the body. It is therefore not surprising that around the age when most people’s bodies stop growing, their souls tend to stop “growing” as well.

This should remind us that our education does not end with formal schooling, nor does maturing stop with the end of puberty. The process of growth and refinement, both physical and spiritual, must continue throughout life. This is the key to true self-fulfillment and happiness.


Make your Shavuot night-learning meaningful with the Arizal’s ‘Tikkun Leil Shavuot’, a mystical Torah-study guide, now in English and Hebrew, with commentary.

Everything You Wanted to Know About Reincarnation in Judaism

This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim, which is concerned with the first major set of laws that the Israelites received following the Ten Commandments. While the term mishpatim literally means “ordinances” or “judgements”, the Zohar (II, 94a) suggests a very different interpretation:

‘And these are the judgements which you shall set before them…’ These are the rules concerning reincarnation, the judgement of souls that are sentenced according to their acts.

The Zohar goes on to interpret the laws in the Torah with regards to the mechanisms of reincarnation. For example, whereas the Torah begins by describing a Hebrew servant who is indentured for six years of labour and must then be freed in the seventh year, the Zohar interprets that this is really speaking of souls which must reincarnate in order to repair the six middot before they could be freed. (The middot are the primary character traits: chessed, kindness; gevurah, restraint; tiferet, balance and truth; netzach, persistence and faith; hod, gratitude and humility; and yesod, sexual purity.)

While the Zohar speaks at length about reincarnation, it is the Arizal who systematically laid down the rules of reincarnation and explained the Zohar in depth. His primary disciple, Rabbi Chaim Vital, recorded these teachings in a famous treatise known as Sha’ar HaGilgulim, “Gate of Reincarnation”. The following is a brief condensation of the basic rules of reincarnation that are defined in this tremendous text, answering many of the common questions people have about spiritual transmigration.

Why Do People Reincarnate?

At the start of the eighth chapter, Rabbi Vital writes:

למה מתגלגלים. דע, כי הנשמות יתגלגלו לכמה סבות, הראשונה הוא, לפי שעבר על איזו עבירה מעבירות שבתורה, ובא לתקן. הב’ הוא, לתקן איזו מצוה שחסר ממנו. השלישית היא, שבא לצורך אחרים, להדריכם ולתקנם… לפעמים יתגלגל, ליקח את בת זוגו, כי לא זכה בראשונה לקחתה

Why do people reincarnate? Know that souls reincarnate for several reasons: The first is that one transgressed one of the prohibitions in the Torah, and returns to repair it. The second is to fulfil a mitzvah that one lacks. The third is in order to assist others, to guide them, and rectify them… Sometimes one reincarnates to marry their soulmate, which they did not merit to do in a previous life.

The Ari explains that people mainly reincarnate in order to atone for sins of past lives, or to fulfil mitzvahs that they didn’t do previously. Later, in Chapter 16, we read that people who return do not have to fulfil all the mitzvahs in one lifetime, but only have to accomplish those that their souls are still lacking. Some reincarnate not for their own rectification, but to assist others. We are told elsewhere that these are usually very righteous individuals who agree to return to this world in order to help others.

Fresco of the Resurrection of the Dead from the ancient Dura-Europos Synagogue

Some also reincarnate because they either did not marry, or married the wrong person. They must return to reunite with their true soulmate. The Arizal teaches that, unfortunately, some people are so deeply mired in kelipot, negative spiritual “husks”, that they are unable to find their soulmate in this world. These people will reunite with their other half only in Olam HaBa, the “next world” at the time of the Resurrection. With regards to finding soulmates, this is directed particularly at male souls, for it is primarily a man’s responsibility to find his soulmate.

On that note, the following chapter tells us that female souls actually reincarnate very rarely. To begin with, female souls are more refined than male ones, and are unlikely to require more rectifications. What does happen more commonly is that male souls are reincarnated into female bodies! This opens up a number of fascinating scenarios which Rabbi Chaim Vital describes.

What Do People Reincarnate Into?

In Chapter 22, we read that people can reincarnate not only into human bodies, but also animals, vegetation, and even inanimate matter. For example, a person who feeds others non-kosher food reincarnates as a tree; one who sheds blood reincarnates into water; those who transgress various sexual prohibitions reincarnate into bats, rabbits, and other animals; while proud people and those who talk too much reincarnate into bees. (We are told that this is what happened to the judge Deborah who, despite her greatness and wisdom, had a bit of pride and was required to reincarnate into a bee, hence her name devorah, which literally means “bee”!)

It is important to mention, though, that an entire human soul does not fully reincarnate into another organism. Rather, souls are complex entities made up of many different interacting sparks. It is only those sparks that require rectification that return to this world (Chapter 14). Interestingly, the Arizal teaches that when two people really dislike each other, and are constantly in conflict with one another, this is often because the two are sharing sparks from one soul!

How Many Times May One Reincarnate?

Sha’ar HaGilgulim records that a person can reincarnate thousands of times—but only on the condition that they improve at least a little bit in each incarnation. If they fail to improve, they can only reincarnate a maximum of three times. After three strikes, that particular spark is sent to Gehinnom (loosely translated as “hell”) where it will be purified. However, the souls of those who regularly learn Torah are never sent to Gehinnom, and always merit reincarnation. This is one of the incredible protective powers of regular Torah study.

In multiple places, the Arizal teaches about the reincarnations of Abel, the son of Adam. Abel (הבל) had a good side and a bad one. The good side was represented by the letter Hei (ה) of his name, and the bad by the Beit and Lamed (בל). The bad part needed to be rectified, so it reincarnated in Laban (לבן), the wicked father-in-law of Jacob. Laban didn’t do much better, so he was reincarnated in the gentile prophet Bilaam (בלעם). He, too, was an ungodly person, so the Beit-Lamed soul was reincarnated for the third time in Naval (נבל), the ungrateful man who rejected David. Naval was strike three, and that Beit-Lamed soul no longer returned in a reincarnation.

We see from the above how a person’s name may offer tremendous hints as to their soul sparks, previous lives, tests, challenges, and character traits. When we read about the above individuals in the Tanakh, we see how similar they were. All three were very wealthy, famous, and participated in divination and sorcery. All were cunning, greedy, and deceitful individuals. The Arizal explains in detail what rectifications each was supposed to do, and how one life affected the next, weaving together these three seemingly unrelated Biblical narratives that span nearly a thousand years into one beautiful tapestry.

Which Body Will A Person Have at the End?

Perhaps the most famous question: if a soul has so many different bodies over so many different lifetimes, which body will that soul inhabit in the afterlife, or in the world of Resurrection? Rabbi Vital writes:

וכן הענין בכל נשמה ונשמה, וכאשר יהיה זמן התחיה, כל גוף וגוף יקח חלקו של נשמתו, כפי חלק הזמן שלו באיזו מדרגה היתה

And with each and every soul, when the time of the Resurrection comes, each and every body will take its corresponding soul, according to the part that it had at that particular time.

Thus, each part of the soul will have its own body, and all reincarnations will exist simultaneously as individuals in Olam HaBa!

Breaking Free from Materialism

In Chapter 23, Rabbi Vital suggests that the most important thing to take from all of this is to live a meaningful, spiritual life. When a person is mired in materialism, and cares only for their physical aspects, they become so attached to their bodies that they cannot exist without one. And so, when that person’s body dies their soul is in complete disarray; frightened, pained, and unable to ascend onwards. Angels must come and quickly place the soul in a new body. As such, this person can never free themselves from endless reincarnations into this imperfect, difficult world.

However, those who in their lifetimes tap into their souls, and are comfortable with their spiritual side, are able to simply take off their dead bodies like an old garment, and move on. For such people, their wonderful portion in Olam HaBa is not too far away.

Are More Restrictions Good for Judaism?

This week’s parasha is Nasso, the longest portion in the Torah. Among many other things, Nasso relates various laws pertaining to the nazir, commonly (and loosely) translated as a “monk”. Nazirite status was typically conferred on a person temporarily, for a minimum of 30 days. During this time, the nazir abstained from wine and grape products (and likely anything else that might have put them under the influence), from being contaminated by the impurity of death (and therefore avoiding contact with corpses or visits to a cemetery), and desisted from cutting their hair. At the end of the term, the nazir would immerse in a mikveh and bring a series of offerings in the Temple.

The Torah describes a person who has undergone the nazirite process “holy”. At the same time, the Torah instructs this person to bring a sin offering. As such, the Jewish Sages debate whether becoming a nazir is something commendable, or actually sinful! The most likely possibility is that a person who felt a great deal of guilt over some sin they had done would take on the nazirite vow as a form of expiation or spiritual purification. A person could even take on the nazirite vow for life.

Rabbi Elazar HaKappar taught (Taanit 11a) that a nazirite is likened to a sinner for practicing such abstinence, and the sage Shmuel taught that anyone who fasts voluntary for self-affliction is a sinner, too. Separating one’s self from the joys of this world and taking on more and more restrictions is not a path to spiritual enlightenment. The Jewish way has always been about finding balance. It is not about separating from this physical world, but properly engaging in it. And more than just restrictions, the Jewish way focuses on positive actions.

It is said that this was Abraham’s revolution: What the first Jew did was introduce people to spirituality not by way of abstinence from the physical, but rather, spirituality by way of elevating the physical. Abraham did not invent negative mitzvot, but presented the right way to do positive mitzvot. This is hinted to by his name, for the numerical value of Abraham (אברהם) is 248, which is the number of positive mitzvot in the Torah. Meanwhile, Moses brought down the complete Torah, balancing the positive and the negative – both deeds and restrictions – in 613 mitzvot, also hinted to by his name and title Moshe Rabbeinu (משה רבינו), which equals 613.

Dealing with Stringencies

If taking on more and more stringencies and restrictions is not the proper path, how do we deal with the ever-increasing expanse of halachic prohibitions and “fences”? The Talmud Yerushalmi (Shabbat 1:4) writes how the more stringent Beit Shammai once took hold of the Sanhedrin and enacted 18 restrictions, among them rules like chalav yisrael and pat yisrael. This day is described as being as tragic for Israel as the day of the Golden Calf! While Rabbi Eliezer said that on that day the scholars “filled the measure” (ie. did a good thing), Rabbi Yehoshua said that they completely erased the measure!

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow explains that Rabbi Yehoshua believed more restrictions would end up destroying Judaism in the long run. While it may be different for the serious scholar, the average person is unable to keep taking on more and more restrictions, and will only be frustrated by the ever-increasing stringencies. Soon enough, these people will cast off the yoke of Torah completely.

It appears that Rabbi Yehoshua’s words were prophetic, for this is precisely what has happened in the Jewish world. Today, Orthodox Judaism has so many fences that the average Jew wants nothing to do with the religion, and fears taking on even a little more observance. Non-observant Jews often critique (and rightly so) that the restrictions have gone so far that they bear little resemblance to what the Torah initially instructed! It therefore isn’t surprising that the vast majority of Jews today are completely secular.

On the other hand, repealing fences can also be dangerous. The thinking is that once people start taking things out, there will be no end to it. This is what happened in Reform Judaism, which started out fairly innocent, but quickly became just about completely secular. Where is the line to be drawn?

Finding the Right Balance

The above issue is possibly the central challenge of modern-day Judaism: How do we return to a logical, spiritual, uplifting Judaism, without destroying its fundamental base? To continue adding more and more fences does not work, nor does forcing people into observance through guilt and fear. On the other hand, how do we avoid being ensnared by the descending spiral that plagues the Reform and Conservative world?

At present, it appears we are unable to remove any stringencies at all for the masses, and it is highly doubtful that any great halachic figure alive today feels they have the authority to do so. Perhaps, then, the secret to success lies solely within the individual. There were 600,000 Jewish souls at Mt. Sinai, and the Arizal taught that every one of them received their own unique explanation of the Torah. Each person needs to find their own unique path within the vast world of Torah and halacha. Every individual must continue learning, digging deeper, and getting to the bottom of why they are practicing what they are.

What is the origin of the halacha in question? Does it have a Biblical or Talmudic basis, or is it simply a long-outdated local custom? Do all rabbinic authorities agree on its necessity, or do major authorities hold against it? Is there a good, logical reason to keep certain fences? Do particular restrictions enhance one’s religious experience, or constrain it? And most importantly, does a person feel like they are growing closer to God through their chosen path of halacha, and becoming holier and more righteous, or do they feel like they are actually falling backwards because of it?

These are vital questions that each person should be asking. We must never simply submit unquestioningly to the words of a wise man or a charismatic leader, whether a rabbi or anyone else. It is a central tenet of Judaism to always ask questions, and find good answers to them. If the answers don’t satisfy us, we must prod further. And if there is still no answer, we must seriously reconsider what we are doing. This is all the more significant in our generation, in the footsteps of Mashiach, which the Talmud (Sotah 49b) describes as a period where “the meeting place of scholars will be used for immorality… the wisdom of the learned will degenerate… and truth will be unseen…”

May Hashem give us all the strength and wisdom to see the truth and find the proper Godly path.

What It Really Means to Be “Israel”

This week’s Torah reading is Vayishlach, which begins with Jacob’s return to the Holy Land following a twenty-year stay in Charan. The most famous passage of this portion is Jacob’s battle with a certain angel. After its defeat, the angel gives Jacob a blessing and renames him Israel. What is the meaning of “Israel”? What was the purpose of this battle to begin with? And what does it all have to do with Jacob’s difficult twenty years in servitude to his deceiving father-in-law Laban?

Jacob vs. Esau

"Jacob wrestling with the angel" by Eugène Delacroix (1861)

“Jacob wrestling with the angel” by Eugène Delacroix (1861)

The Torah describes in quite some detail the conception, birth, and early lives of the twins Jacob and Esau. We see that Jacob was a “quiet [or innocent] man, sitting in tents” while Esau was a “hunter, a man of the field.” As twins, and the only children of Isaac and Rebecca, they were meant to work together in carrying on the divine mission started by their grandfather Abraham. Jacob was blessed with extra intellect and spirituality, while Esau was blessed with extra physical strength and ambition. Jacob would have acted as the peaceful teacher, while Esau would defeat any remaining evil in battle. As partners, they would have been unstoppable in bringing light, morality, and a new God-consciousness to the world.

Unfortunately, the two couldn’t channel their blessings in the right direction. Esau’s physicality got the better of him, and he descended into a never-ending spiral of materialism and lust. At the same time, Jacob used his cunning to take Esau’s birthright, instead of using his greater intellect to put his brother back on the right path. Nonetheless, Jacob remained dedicated to fulfilling his divine mission, while Esau “despised his birthright” (Genesis 25:34).

By taking Esau’s birthright and blessing, what Jacob had done was to take Esau’s mission upon himself. However, Jacob was born soft and meek – not fit for a fighter – while Esau was the one born muscular and hairy, as if already a grown man (hence his name Esav, literally “complete”). Could Jacob really become that holy warrior that Esau was meant to be? The only way to find out was to put Jacob to the test.

Becoming Israel

Right after receiving Esau’s blessings, Jacob was told that his brother was out to get him. The soft Jacob immediately fled the Holy Land, as far away from his brother as he could. This was true to his character as a docile man, “sitting in tents”. But this was not what a holy warrior should do.

Jacob ended up in the home of his uncle and future father-in-law, Laban. He instantly fell in love with Laban’s younger daughter Rachel, and agreed to work for Laban for seven years to have her hand in marriage. After seven years, Jacob was tricked into marrying the elder Leah instead of his beloved Rachel. It is hard to miss the irony of it all: Jacob, the one who tricked his father into getting his older brother’s blessing, is now tricked by his father-in-law into marrying his beloved’s older sister.

To have Rachel, Laban forces Jacob to work for yet another seven years. This is, of course, completely unjust. A man such as Esau would have surely taken on Laban, but the spineless Jacob simply agrees, and slaves away for another seven years. Following this, Laban finds more ways to trick Jacob out of an honest wage. But Jacob is starting to learn, and counters Laban’s wits with his own, soon building an even greater wealth than his father-in-law.

At this point, Jacob hears that Laban is not very pleased with Jacob, and Jacob fears for himself and his family once again. As he did twenty years earlier, he decides to flee. While Laban was away shearing his sheep, Jacob takes the opportunity to run away, taking the whole family with him. It appears that Jacob fails the test yet again, and is unable to confront his evil enemies.

Ten days later, Laban and his men find Jacob, and everything begins to change. Laban waltzes in to Jacob’s camp and begins threatening his son-in-law as he’d always done in the past. But this time, Jacob has had enough, and realizes he can’t run away anymore. “And Jacob was angered, and battled with Laban” (Genesis 31:36). Jacob succeeds, and Laban seeks a peace treaty (v. 44). The two make a pact and part ways, never to see each other again. Jacob is becoming a fighter.

Jacob vs. Israel

This sets up this week’s portion, where Jacob has to face off with Esau, twenty years after running away from him. The night before, Jacob goes off on his own and is confronted by a mysterious figure (the identity of whom was discussed last year). The two battle it out all night long, and Jacob finally prevails. He is certainly no longer that weak, passive man he was two decades earlier. He has earned his badge of being a holy warrior. And with this, he is given a new name: Israel, one who battles with God; not against God, but alongside God, to defeat evil and make the world a better place. Jacob finally proves that he can indeed be Esau, and his taking of Esau’s birthright and blessing was not in vain.

The Sages tell us that this is the real reason why Jacob had to marry both Rachel and Leah. Originally, since Rebecca had two sons and Laban had two daughters, it was commonly said that the younger Jacob would marry the younger Rachel, while the older Esau would marry the older Leah (Talmud, Bava Batra 123a). Truly, these two couples were soul mates. However, Esau lost his spiritual essence to Jacob, and with it, his spiritual counterpart, Leah. The problem is that the Torah forbids a man from marrying two sisters! The Arizal (in Sha’ar HaPesukim, on Vayetze) tells us that, in fact, Rachel and Leah did not marry one man, for Jacob and Israel were really two souls in one body, and while Jacob married Rachel, it was Israel that married Leah. After all, Israel was the new Esau, the part of Jacob that wasn’t just “sitting in tents” but was capable of being a “man of the field”, too.

We later see that Israel was Jacob’s true self, his more-elevated inner being, and what he was really meant to be all along. God confirms this with a prophetic blessing (Genesis 35:10): “‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.’ And He named him Israel.”

This brings a tremendous lesson for all of us: we are not meant to be the weak Jacob, passively sitting in tents and being pushed around. Rather, we are meant to be Israel, who can balance study and prayer with strength and might; who can balance the physical with the spiritual, the science with the religion, and who knows when to seek peace, and when to pursue war. It is most fitting that the founders of the modern Jewish State decided to call it “Israel” (as opposed to its more common historic name of “Judah”). If Israel is to fulfill its divine task, it should live up to its name: battling alongside God, as holy, righteous warriors, to repair this world – both physically and spiritually – restoring it to its original, perfected state.