One of the surprising things about the Torah is that it actually does not say much about spiritual matters, at least not on the superficial level. Adam is given a soul (Genesis 2:7) and all human beings subsequently have one, but there is no exposition on what a soul actually is. There is no discussion of the afterlife, either. In this week’s parasha, Va’etchanan, we are cautioned to “carefully guard our souls” (Deuteronomy 4:15). How exactly does one do so? We know that to keep the soul healthy, we need to fulfil mitzvot, yet mitzvot are mostly actions performed with the body. How does this connection between body and soul actually work? Moreover, our Sages use the above phrase in teaching that one is responsible for the health of their body as well. What is the difference between a healthy body and a healthy soul? Continue reading
This week’s parasha is Balak, named after the Moabite king who sought to curse Israel. The Zohar spends a significant amount of time on the mysteries of this parasha. Included within it is a distinct mystical text known as the Yenuka, the “Child”, describing some fateful encounters between the Sages and an angelic youth, who reveals to them profound Torah secrets. (The identity of this child and some of his teachings were explored in the second edition of Secrets of the Last Waters.) In the first encounter (Zohar III, 186a), Rabbi Yitzchak and Rabbi Yehudah are travelling and make a stop at the home of the famous mystic Rav Hamnuna Saba. They meet the Rav’s wife and child, then settle down to rest and eat. This sets the stage for the youth to reveal the secrets of things like netilat yadayim, mayim achronim, and zimun.
In another encounter (III, 188a), Rabbis Elazar, Abba, and Yose make a stop at the same home. The Yenuka senses that the Sages are perplexed by an issue regarding Ammon and Moav (which ties to this week’s parasha, Balak being the king of Moav). The youth segues into a discussion of the mystical secrets of grains and breads. These teachings help us understand why the hamotzi blessing is so powerful and “covers” all other foods. It also explains why the Sages described bread as the most wholesome food, and one that can save a person from many illnesses: In Bava Metzia 107b, for instance, we read that the gematria of “illness” (מחלה) is 83, while “bread” (לחמה) is its anagram, with the same value. This is to teach that eating a simple meal of bread and water—with the right blessings and meditations in mind—can cure a person of 83 illnesses. Continue reading
This Wednesday evening we mark Tu b’Shevat, the “New Year for Trees”. While originally an obscure and mostly-unobserved holiday, Tu b’Shevat took on greater significance among the Kabbalists of the 16th and 17th centuries. As is well-known, an entire Tu b’Shevat “seder” emerged, complete with four cups of wine and a Haggadah of sorts. What is not so well-known is where this Tu b’Shevat seder actually came from, and the mystical foundations upon which it stands. Continue reading