The Eternal Spark Within Us

8 12 2015

About a century ago, a poor wandering Rabbi traveled to Milan, Italy on a fundraising mission. As he walked along the city streets he met a wealthy Jew who invited him to his home for Shabbos. That evening as the Rabbi sat enjoying the meal his interest was piqued by a small broken glass flask which seemed very out of place amid the elegant silverware and crystal bowls on display in the cabinet. The wealthy man followed his gaze and began to tell his story.

“I was born in Amsterdam and traveled to Italy at the young age of eighteen to assist my elderly grandfather in his business. When my grandfather died, my parents asked me to sell the enterprise and come back to Amsterdam. However by that time the business had become so successful that I decided to stay in Italy. I became so engrossed in my work that my Jewish observance slowly fell to the wayside. One day I forgot to daven Shachrit. Then it was Mincha. Bit by bit I found myself letting go of all the mitzvot. I married and had children. Although I remembered that I was Jewish we led a totally secular lifestyle.

One afternoon, as I was walking down the street I found a child crying bitterly, ‘What will I tell my father? What will I tell my father?’ I asked the boy what had happened and he told me that although his father was very poor he had set aside a few precious coins to buy a flask of oil for Chanukah. His father gave him the money and cautioned him to come straight home with the precious oil. But he didn’t listen and stopped to play with his friends. The flask fell and broke and now all the oil was gone.

I comforted the boy and bought him a new flask of oil. But as I headed home his refrain rang in my ears, ‘What will I tell my father?’ What would I tell my Father in heaven? How would I face Him on the final day of judgement? I retraced my steps and picked up the broken flask. That night, my wife and children watched in wonderment, as I kindled a Chanukah candle. The following evening, I lit two, and with each passing night, I lit one more. I watched the flames as they danced and glowed and I remembered my parents’ home in Amsterdam. I had drifted far away.”

The wealthy man finished his story, “That Chanukah was the beginning of my return to Judaism. Eventually, with the understanding of my wife, we began educating our children the way we were brought up. Our road back had started with that broken flask and the words of that boy, ‘What will I tell my father?’ That is why I keep that flask as a treasured memento of that which changed my life.”

In Tehilim it says, “Hashem’s candle is the human soul, it searches man’s inner chambers.” Our souls never change, though our awareness may lessen. There is a part within us that stays eternally lit no matter how hidden it may be. The word ner (candle) is composed of the initial letters of the words nefesh and ruach, soul and spirit. Nefesh is related to nofesh, vacation. There is an aspect of the soul that rests within the walls of the body that we can only get at with the senses. When we hear or see something that inspires us, our nefesh is momentarily awakened. Above that is ruach (wind), the part of the soul that cannot be put it into words, the part that moves us and brings us to tears. When we do a mitzvah with love and fear using our 248 limbs, the body itself becomes a candle illuminating the hidden mishkan within us. At the time of the Chanukah story as the Greeks launched their spiritual attack against Judaism, we lost some of the ahavah and yirah, and with that the ability to be who we could be. But we still had the will to grow in Hashem’s ways and in this merit we found the pure cruse of oil. This is the miracle of Chanukah. Although our inner ner may be buried under layers of dross and sin, if we have the passion and desire to grow, Hashem will give us the ability to find our true selves.




Echoes of the Maggid by Rabbi Paysach Krohn retold by Rabbi S Price


Chanuka: Sefas Emes Part I #2 by Reb. Tziporah Heller


Maharal Netivot Olam: Destruction of Self – Part II

5 11 2013
Based on a shiur by Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller

Rav Nachman of Breslov tells the story of a ruler who desired to have the portrait of a powerful king. One day he asked his viceroy to travel to the guarded island where the king lived and attempt to draw his picture. The viceroy accepted the task and soon discovered that the king was exceedingly difficult to see. So he devised a plan. He let people know he was interested in investments. Then he let himself be duped and took the people to court. The case rose up in ranks until it reached the king. When the viceroy finally entered the royal chambers, he found that the king spoke from behind a curtain. The viceroy had stopped thinking rationally at that point, and began to shout, “What kind of a king are you?! Where are you anyway?!” The more he shouted the lower the curtain dropped, until it was drawn aside completely and he found himself facing an invisible king.

We yearn to have Hashem’s portrait. We want the quick picture but fail to understand that developing a relationship takes years and much effort. Our ego says, “I understand everything, even Hashem.” But in reality we encounter seeming injustice all the time. Hashem made it this way so that we would move past immediacy and pettiness. The moment of enlightenment comes when the curtain is pulled aside and we see that the King is beyond words and anything we can discern. At that moment we feel humble and small before our Creator.

Hashem wants us to be people of truth, greatness, and heroism. He holds back his own honor so that we may see His humility. The Tomer Devora says one of the names of Hashem is Melech Ne’elam, the hidden King. The more a person learns Torah and discovers Hashem’s greatness and His unfathomable nature, the more puny he is in his own eyes. Torah shows us how Hashem contracted His will and understanding in a way in which He can be partially discovered. When we see Hashem’s wisdom, our humility grows progressively greater.

Recognizing the power and incredible intelligence that Hashem invested in the world should engender fear of transgressing any of His laws. When a person sins he’s really saying, “I don’t appreciate this commandment. I don’t trust that the ramifications of violating it can have enormous impact.” This shows a lack of respect for the system and its Author. Yirah (fear) is a direct result of anavah (humility) as the pasuk states, “Eikav anavah yirat Hashem.” The more a person knows Hashem, the more awe he will feel.

Just as anavah and yirah are the roots of many positive traits, desire and anger are the root of all negative traits. The voice of fury and arrogance says, “This isn’t how it should be, it should be how I want it to be.” In contrast humility says, “Hashem wants me to be in this place. I am supposed to contend with this and it will ultimately take me to somewhere good.” While fear of Hashem brings one to awe before the limitations imposed by the Torah, taavah (physical craving) is about following one’s will. Yirah breaks through desire and yearning for this world. The more one see Hashem’s providence in the picture, the more one sees His caring and love for every Jew.


The Torah is compared to a woman. The same way a woman bears children, perpetuating the species, the Torah leads to mitzvot. Chazal say, a woman is only for children. The Torah exists for the mitzvot. You can’t perform them properly without Torah. The world changes when good deeds are done.

Rebbetzin Heller, what is my mission? why am I here?

17 12 2012

Based on Rebbetzin Heller’s Question and Answer Series on






I am childless, happily married, about to turn 50, and quite honestly, am feeling very ‘lost’ since I got laid off from my job almost a year ago. I can see the story of Lech Lecha and feel Hashem has said to me, pick up and go… But where?  What is my mission? Why am I here? If a woman’s primary function is to be a mother, what is the purpose of a woman who will never be one?




Lech Lecha” means go to yourself. Hashem sometimes presents us with situations that force us to figure ourselves out and move beyond who we were before. A person can do this on several levels. “Artzecha,” your land, the part of you that’s earth-like: lazy, depressed, or tied down to external order. Hashem has forced you into this by taking your job away. You can no longer submerge yourself in routine material efforts.


Moladetcha,” your inborn traits. Hashem made you infertile and thereby moved you beyond the biological destiny of most women. “Mibeit avicha,” your father’s home. A father provides a child’s form – the ideas and principles that shape his life. You need to step beyond this and discover new vistas. In order to find yourself you have to know your abilities and what is accessible and needed in your particular area. Think about what you’re good at and what you like to do. That may be where your destiny is.


You may argue that you need a job that pays, and that doing what you like isn’t going to be all that lucrative. You still need to make room for it. It may mean combining it with a regular job, but begin to walk in that direction. In addition, work on developing birur. The idea of birur means finding the element of divinity in a situation and letting that become primary, even when it isn’t primary in terms of substance or time. For example, if you are a real estate broker, you can focus on concerning yourself with people’s needs and taking pleasure in helping them. Obviously this is not a broker’s key motive, but if you succeed in making birur  a part of your life, you can transform ordinary work into something eternal.


How Can I Make My Life More Meaningful?

10 12 2012

Excerpted from Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller’s Question and Answer series on



 Although children did not come easily to me, thank G-d I now have three school age children. Sometimes I can’t help feeling like I’m neither here nor there – not really immersed in child-rearing to the exclusion of everything else, but not entirely free to go back to school to pursue my interests. I can only imagine how betrayed women who planned careers or employment as prospective mothers and were not yet fortunate enough to get married and/or have kids must feel!



It seems like you only see two possibilities of fulfillment. One is full time employment in a demanding career, and the other is full time mothering. However, there are many other possibilities and ways to spend time that are fulfilling and interesting. When a person’s basic physical needs are met, people usually pursue aesthetic pleasure. After that, people search for relationships.  Think about the individuals you like the most, ask yourself why you like them. The answers are always spiritual. You can’t weigh loyalty or measure kindness. Feeling loyal, kind, and positive when you are with the person makes you like them even more. This is called spiritual bonding, and it is a very deep pleasure.


You need opportunities for spiritual bonding. It can take place within your family, through tefila, through chesed, or by taking a course which can equip you to help others.  If Hashem gave you the ability to do more, than by all means do more. Some single or childless women may feel betrayed, but the proper response is, “This is where I am supposed to be and I am going to find the good in it.”


The Sefat Emet explains that when Hashem told Avraham, “Lech lecha,” he did not tell him where to go because he wanted to bring Avraham to the maximum level of bitul haratzon, negation of his own will. Hashem gave him the opportunity to say, “I will go where you will lead me, wherever that may be.”


Everyone is told, “Lech lecha,” to go to Eretz Yisrael, in a theoretical sense, the place of bitul haratzon. Ask yourself, “How can I do Hashem’s will without questions?”  By giving you time and space, Hashem is saying, “Go where I am leading you.”  Don’t waste this time. Fill it with meaning and depth by nurturing your relationship with Hashem and giving to others in a way that will expand your inner self.

Chanukah, Vayeishev and Mikeitz

9 12 2012

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Beinush Ginsburg


Why does Chanukah always fall out during the parshiot of Vayeishev or Mikeitz?  The midrash in Mikeitz tells us that Hashem had a master plan. He wanted Yosef to be imprisoned for two years.  Therefore, he caused Pharoh to have a dream, so Yosef would be freed in a natural way. This is contrary to what we would think – that Pharoh had a dream, therefore Yosef was released. Hashem governs hashgacha through natural events, but in reality everything is part of a miraculous master plan. This is a central theme of Chanukah.


On this holiday, the prayer of Modim takes on extra meaning as we thank Hashem for all the hidden miracles we experience daily. The Greeks worshipped science, we worship the omniscient Creator behind it all.  This is what the Alter of Kelm meant when he explained why Chanukah is eight days and not seven. True we had seven revealed miraculous days, but the fact that oil burns at all, is a hidden miracle too that calls for celebration. 


Rav Mirsky suggests another connection.  In Al Hanissim we say, “The mighty were given into the hands of the weak, and the many into the hands of the few.”  Similarly, in Yosef’s dream, the majority deferred to the minority.  In Pharoh’s dream too, the seven thin cows swallowed up the heavy ones.  Just as the small band of Maccabees fought bravely against the Greeks, Yosef stood up alone against the idol worshipping people of Egypt to proclaim Hashem’s sovereignty. 


Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz relates a third explanation.  The midrash Yalkut Shemoni explains that although the Arab caravans would normally transport foul-smelling skins, Hashem made them carry sweet-smelling spices with Yosef so he would not need to endure extra discomfort. Rav Shmuelevitz depicts this as a kiss from Hashem to Yosef.  Yosef understood through this sign that Hashem had not completely abandoned him. On Chanukah too, Hashem gifted us with the miracle of the jug of oil to show His love for us. Pure oil was not necessary because the Jews were ritually impure, but Hashem wanted to give them the joy of performing the mitzva in the best possible way. 


Rav Nebenzhal explores a fourth connection.  The Gemara in Shabbat discusses Chanukah and the law that a menorah that is taller than twenty amot is invalid for the mitzvah of Chanuka menorah. This is because one cannot publicize the miracle this way. The gemara continues with an analysis of the pit into which Yosef was thrown. “V’habor reik ein bo mayim.” The well was empty of water – but it contained snakes and scorpions. Yosef spoke lashon hara about his brothers. Therefore, he was punished and thrown into a well with snakes. Yet Hashem saved him in the merit that Yosef would later publicize Hashem’s name in Egypt.


As we gaze at the small twinkling Chanukah flames, let us contemplate the secret of our nation’s immortality, our commitment to Judaism, our strength to stick to the truth despite being the minority, Hashem’s extra special love for us, and the miracle of our very existence.

The Power of the Soul: Actions That Create Connection

20 11 2012

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Eliezer Miller


How can we come closer to Hashem? How can we connect to the heavenly spark within us?


The basis of the connection between the Jewish people and Hashem is the Torah symbolized by the tablets that were hidden inside the ark. There were two keruvim (angels) atop the ark in the shape of a male and female. The male signified Hashem and the female symbolized the Jewish people. It was there that the Divine Presence rested.


The Maharal writes that the Torah bonds a person to his Creator more than anything else. When a Jew studies Torah, Hashem is there with him. The Torah joins a person to the tree of life and his portion in this world and the next depends on it. The Torah gives life to the Jewish people and to the world. The Nefesh Hachaim writes that if there would be a minute where no one would be learning Torah or keeping mitzvot, the world could not continue to exist.


The Meor Enayim points out that the mitzvot are meant to bring us to a level of “U’vo sidbak” – to cleave to Hashem with the part of Him that rests inside of us. Mitzvah comes from the root word zevot-a team. When we do mitzvot we join with Hashem and achieve closeness to Him.


The Torah says, “V’lo sosuru achrei levavchem.” Chazal say that a person who goes after his heart denies Hashem. The Chofetz Chaim explains that a Jew who doesn’t keep mitzvot but claims that his connection to Hashem is in his heart, will come to heresy. It’s like two people who hold a rope and shake it. Each can sense the other but it’s not a true connection. We need to feel Hashem inside of us, that we are like one, but a real bond can only form when we keep the Torah and mitzvot.


Hashem said, “Ko somar l’beis Yaakov v’tagid l’bnei yisrael.” Ko somar refers to the woman and v’tagid refers to the men. Why were the women mentioned before the men? Chazal explain that women are obligated to make every effort to enable their sons to study Torah. As a reward they merited to experience the giving of the Torah. The Maharasha asks, women also have mitzvot of their own. Why shouldn’t they have been at matan Torah? We see that the awe inspiring experience of matan Torah was only out of respect for the learning of Torah.


The Yesod V’shoresh Avodah writes that man’s main purpose is to serve Hashem and to create a nachat ruach (spiritual pleasure) for Him. We do this by fearing and loving Him and especially by learning Torah.


The Midrash Rabbah in Shemot brings the verse in Mishlei, “Ki lekach tov nasati lachem…” Hashem says, “I sold you the Torah and I sold myself with it.” This is comparable to a king who had an only daughter. When she married he told her husband, “Wherever you go, make for me a little place that I can come and dwell there, because I cannot leave her.” The Midrash says, Hashem told klal Yisrael, “I gave you the Torah. I can’t separate from her. So wherever you go make for me a home so I can dwell there. The Sefas Emes writes that the more a person tries to do Hashem‘s will, the more the Divine Presence rests inside him.


The Yefei Toar explains that Hashem doesn’t rest his Shechina in this world only through the Torah. Chazal point out that we say, “Ki lolam chasdo” 26 times. For the first 26 generations, Hashem hadn’t given the Torah yet and there was no reason for the world to exist. Yet he kept the world in motion out of his kindness.


It says, “Barasi yetzer hara barasi Torah tavlin.” (I created the evil inclination and I created the Torah as an antidote.) The Torah oppresses and breaks the evil inclination which in turn brings the Shechina to dwell inside our hearts.




Partners For Life: The First Jewish Marriage

12 11 2012

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Hershel Reichman


The Midrash expounds the verse, “Yodeiya Hashem yemei temimim. Hashem knows the days of the perfect ones.” The Midrash says this refers to Sarah, who was perfect in her actions. A similar Midrash says this refers to Avraham, who was perfect. The difference between the two Midrashim is that the word ‘actions’ is mentioned in connection with Sarah.


There is another intriguing statement mentioned in the Midrash quoted by Rashi, “Kol asher tomar elecha Sarah shema b’kola.” Whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her voice. Rashi says that we see from here that her prophecy was superior to Avraham’s. This is surprising as the Torah mainly focuses on Avraham and not on Sarah.


The Shem Mishmuel explains that there are three levels of the soul, nefesh, the biological soul centered in the body; ruach, the emotional soul located in the heart; neshama, the intellectual soul found in the brain. Tamim really means perfection of one’s body, emotions, and intellect. There are mitzvot that relate to the body such as brit milah, mitzvot dealing with emotions, such as not to be hateful or covetous, and mitzvot of the mind such as studying Torah. The Torah aims to help every Jew achieve perfection on a triple level.


Marriage creates a single entity. Two half souls merge. However, the Zohar says the soul is concentrated within man and woman in different ways. The physical and emotional part of the common soul is expressed more in the woman and the intellect is in the man. Both half souls have all three qualities. It’s just a question of where the emphasis is. The wife is called akeret habayit, the pillar of the home. She is mainly involved on a physical level with the children and the managing of the home. She is also more in tune with the emotional needs of her family.


The intellectual aspect is more pronounced in the man. Men gravitate to study. “V’shinantem l’vanecha,” the obligation to teach Torah to children is primarily the father’s. Mishlei says, “Shma bni mussar avicha.” The father must teach his children the intellectual Torah. “V’al titosh Torat imecha.” The mother must teach her children middot. She, more than the father, shapes their character, which is primarily formed in the early years.


The Gemara says that when there’s a difference of opinion between a husband and wife, milei d’shmaya (heavenly matters) are decided by the husband while milei d’alma (worldly matters) are the wife’s prerogative. Perhaps the Gemara means that if the issue is related to something physical or emotional, it is mila d’alma and a woman will understand better. But if it involves the intellect, it’s the husband’s call.


Avraham was the soul of the original Jewish family. Sarah was the body. Avraham was the ish hasechel (man of intellect). Sarah expressed the emotional and physical aspect of their marriage. The Torah says, “V’hinei ba’ohel.” Sarah was in the tent. She was the foundation of her home. She had emotional control of the family. A woman’s role is having the strength and discipline over her emotions to be able to make those difficult decisions.


The Shem Mishmuel explains that prophecy is an emotional experience, an emotional connection with Hashem. Sarah was greater in prophecy because she was more in tune with her emotions. Therefore, Hashem told Avraham, “Whatever she says listen to her.”


Avraham’s tests were on the intellectual level. Akeidat Yitzchak seemed like an illogical absurdity. How could Hashem, the source of life, take an innocent life for no reason? But nonetheless, Avraham went ahead and did it. That was his greatness. He sacrificed his intellect, his most precious aspect, for Hashem. Sarah too never let her physical beauty dominate her. She sacrificed her strengths for Hashem. That is how they became the most sanctified couple, the couple that defined all future Jewish couples forever.