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Hanna's Dvar Torah

My aunt, a special person - Bo

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This week, we will celebrate my aunt’s 20th birthday. It is a very special moment, for a very special child, since she has Down Syndrome. We all love her in the family. We made an international party through Zoom, with a beautiful video of wishes from all the brothers, sister, nephews and nieces.

My aunt is not always an easy person… Taking care of her requires a lot of strength from my grandfather, my grandmother and myself, since I live in their home when I am in Israel for my studies. We need a lot patience, perseverance, calm and other various techniques which are not easy to apply every day - all day long…

Where do we draw the strength to continue to take care of her?

In this week’s Parasha Bo, we read about the ninth and next to last plague that G-d inflicted upon the Egyptians – darkness. For three days, the Egyptians could not see anything. The next three days, darkness became so thick that they could not even move. The Jews though did not suffer from darkness. Not only were the Jewish areas not affected by darkness but when the Jews went to the Egyptians areas, they could see and move.

The Jews took the opportunity to go inside the houses of the Egyptians. They did not steal anything, they just searched and checked carefully to see where the jewelry and other precious items were stored. When they would later leave Egypt, they would go the Egyptians by command of G-d and ask them to lend them their various treasures. If some Egyptian pretended not to have anything to lend, the Jews would remind him of where exactly they we hidden. This “loan” was not enough to compensate for the years of slavery, but it was important in order to fulfill G-d promise to our forefather Abraham. His promise that while his descendant will be slaves in a foreign land, they would also leave with great treasures,

In other words, the Jews were commanded to loan expensive items from the Egyptians. G-d made a special miracle during the Plague of Darkness, in order for the Jews to be able to fulfill this commandment. Even though they were still slaves and were not yet redeemed, they had G-d’s help and all the capabilities to do what was needed.

This can encourage us in difficult situations. G-d is always with us. Even when it seems that the light at the end of the tunnel is far away, G-d opens a light inside the tunnel. And if there is a need, G-d will even do miracles for us to be able to do what is needed.

I feel this with my aunt. Do you?

Shabbat Shalom,

Hanna

To be or not to be... stubborn - Vaera

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In this week’s Parasha, Varea, Egypt goes through seven difficult and painful plagues, with the goal of convincing Pharaoh to free the Jewish people. But Pharaoh? Nothing. He remains stubborn and determined, even when his opinion doesn’t seem logical at all. Pharaoh continues to refuse to liberate the Jews, and there are three more plagues that await him in next week’s Parasha.

Being stubborn causes a lot of trouble and misery, to the stubborn person himself as well as to his surroundings, especially when his or her arguments have no logic. King David, in his Psalms, says: “A stubborn heart turns away from me; I will know no evil.” (101:4). This means that when someone frees himself up from his stubbornness, only good things will happen to him!

As much as stubbornness is something negative, many of us still possess that trait. G-d has given it to us so we can use in for the good. Yes, there is positive stubbornness. When we continue to observe G-d’s words, even if we don’t feel like it at the moment, even if it is difficult, even if it does not seem logical. Our history is full of our grandmothers and grandfathers who, despite the wars, antisemitism, difficult economic conditions, continued to keep the Commandments. Despite the hardships of life, they continued stubbornly to transmit the Jewish tradition to the next generations.

Next time that we will find ourselves being stubborn about something, le us think a little. Is it a positive stubbornness, in order to continue something right? If the stubbornness is balanced and we are certain that it is about something good, we can continue. But if it is a simple stubbornness, better to relax and let go. As King David promised, we have only to gain from it.

Shabbat Shalom,

Hanna

The tribe that was not enslaved - Shemot

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Did you think that the entire Jewish people was enslaved in Egypt? You are wrong. Pharaoh was a civilized person and respected spiritual matters. He knew that every nation needs its leaders and its sages. Therefore, he did not enslave one of the Twelve Tribes, the Tribes of Levi, and let them free to study and teach.

But according to Pharaoh, the mandate of those sages was very limited.

When Moses and Aharon, from the Tribe of Levi, went to ask Pharaoh to free the Jewish people, Pharaoh dismissed them, saying: “"Why, Moses and Aaron, do you disturb the people from their work? Go to your own labors." (Exodus 5:4)

This is an ideological disagreement. Moses and Aharon demand freedom for everyone, so that all Jews can serve G-d properly. Pharaoh refuses. He argues that it is enough for the Tribe of Levi to study and serve G-d. As if he was telling them: “You, Moses and Aharon, go back to your books and do not interfere with matters that do not concern you.” In other words, yes, spiritual leaders are important, but they should not have influence outside the synagogue.

Moses and Aharon did not agree with Pharaoh and thanks to them, we are all here, free Jews. A people where spirituality, religion and study do not belong only to the leaders, but to each one of us.

It is not enough for the rabbi to pray; we need to pray as well. It is not enough for the Yeshiva students to study; we need to study as well. It is not enough for wealthy families and organizations to do philanthropic work; we also need to help our fellow people with the means that we do have.

We cannot leave the responsibility to the leaders and the rabbis. We all have a responsibility for the Judaism. Let us be free and active Jews.

Shabbat Shalom,

Hanna

Our best years - Vayechi

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How would you react if someone told you that this corona period is the best period of his or her life?

In this week’s Parasha Vayechi, the Torah describes the last years of Jacob, which he lived in Egypt. Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (also known as the Baal Haturim) notes that these years were the best of Jacob’s life! How is this possible? Egypt is described a land full of lewdness and sins. Spiritually, Egypt represents everything that is an obstacle to our good deeds. Why weren’t the years Jacob spent in the Holy Land his best years?

The Third Rebbe of Chabad had the same question when he was a child, which he asked his grandfather, the First Rebbe of Chabad. His grandfather explained to him that when Jacob’s family was in Egypt, they studied the Torah and kept their Jewish faith. The Torah gave them the necessary strength in order not to be influenced by the negative environment of Egypt.

This nice explanation answers the question about how it is possible that Jacob had good years in Egypt. But it does not answer the question about why his best years were there…

In truth, the Rebbe’s explanation indirectly answers the second question. Because when we succeed in acting correctly and ethically in difficult circumstances, this is more special and significant than doing it in ideal circumstances. This is why Jacob’s best years happened in corrupted Egypt.

Yet, the Rebbe did not clearly tell this to his grandchild, who was still a kid, because we should not actively search and try to put ourselves in difficult and challenging situations. It is best to act morally in a secure and good environment. But when G-d brings us to a difficult situation, we need to remember we can turn this challenge into an opportunity. Through studying the Torah and caring for our fellow people, we can transform the darkness into light.

All of us have difficulties in this corona period. Let us study Torah and this will give us the strength to be able to say that finally, this period, where we transformed the challenge into an opportunity, was the best of our lives.

Shabbat Shalom,

Hanna

A strange gift - Vayigash

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How do you choose a gift for a loved one? Getting the perfect gift for them is not easy at all. We need to think about something that the receiver will enjoy and utilize. There is no point in giving expensive chocolates to someone who has diabetes…

In this week’s Parasha Vayigash, Joseph, now viceroy of Egypt, reveals his identity to his brothers. After 22 years of painful separation, with Jacob thinking that his son is dead, Joseph tells his brother to hurry to his father, give him the good news and bring him to Egypt to be reunited. Joseph sends with the brothers gifts for Jacob. Our Sages have different opinions as to the nature of these gifts. Some say that he sent aged wine, others say that he sent split peas. Why would Joseph send such strange gifts?

Joseph did not simply send foods, he wanted to transmit a message.

Joseph knew that the news that he is still alive would not bring only joy to his father, because he would suddenly understand what his children, Jacob’s brothers, had done to him in the past. Even if he did not discover all the details, just hearing the news would awaken the pain. Joseph was trying to ease the anguish of his father by sending the split peas. These were a traditional Egyptian dish, which was made of crushed beans. It was symbolic: the tremendous agony that they had to go through was finally what brought Joseph to the position of viceroy, giving him the possibility to feed his family in the years of famine. The difficulties turned into something good.

In addition, during the 22 years that Jacob mourned for Joseph, none of them drank wine, which gladdens the heart of man. Joseph sent his father aged wine to give him the message that he never lost his hope to be reunited. This is why he kept away the wine for the joyous day of their reunion.

Our lives are not always easy. Let us internalize the messages of the split peas and the aged wine. Let us remember that the difficulties are for our good and let us not lose hope! Those difficulties will pass.

Very soon, G-d will bring us Mashiach and pain and troubles will disappear from the world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Hanna

The early bird catches the worm - Miketz

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In this week’s Parasha Miketz, Pharaoh makes two strange dreams.

In the first dream, Pharaoh sees seven fat good-looking cows grazing in the Nile. Then, seven lean cows arrive and after a while, they swallow the fat cows, but nevertheless stay lean!

The second dream was similar to the first one, but it had earls of grain instead of cows. A group of seven fat earls of grain and a group of seven lean earls of grain grow near each other, and the lean ones swallow the fat ones, nevertheless staying thin!

Pharaoh’s advisors could not give him a satisfactory interpretation. In his anguish, Pharaoh orders to bring Joseph from the prison to interpret his dreams. Joseph’s interpretation is simple. Egypt would go through seven years of plenty, which will be followed by seven years of such terrible famine the years of abundance will be forgotten. Joseph concludes that the Egyptians need to take advantage of the years of abundance and store food for the years of hunger.

We also have in our lives, cycles of “hunger” and abundance. There are periods where everything goes well: we are healthy, successful and our bank account is full. Sometimes, in good periods, we forget to invest time and energy in cultivating our relationships with our spouse, our friends and develop a deep connection with G-d.

But then, when the times of “hunger” and of various difficulties come, and we suddenly feel the need for help, we may not know how to communicate it. If we do not cultivate our relationships in the times of abundance, we may not have the tools that will help us go through the difficult times…

The secret is during the times of abundance to have in mind the times of “hunger”. Keeping the right set of priorities and investing in what is really important, such as the relationships with our loved ones and our connection to G-d, is what will help us go though the difficult times when they come.

Shabbat Shalom,

Hanna 

Is there something really empty in the world? - Vayeshev

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This week’s Parasha Vayeshev tells about the children of Jacob who were jealous of their brother Joseph. They hated him so much that once, when they were in the pasture, they decided to kill him. But Reuven, the firstborn, stopped them and proposed to throw him in a pit instead, having in mind to come later to save him. But until Reuven came back, the brothers had taken out Joseph from the pit and sold him as a slave to itinerant merchants. Joseph ended up in Egypt, and later brought the rest of the family there, thus setting the stage for the story of Pesach to unfold.

The Torah describes Joseph’s pit as “an empty pit where there was no water”. This sounds harmless, doesn’t it?  But, as we know, the Torah never uses words without a purpose. Why did the Torah have to precise that there was no water? It is self-understood. Our Sages explain that the Torah hints here that there is no such a thing as an empty pit. If it had no water, it means that it had inside snakes and scorpions…

This rule applies to us as well. Our mind is always busy, it is never empty. If it is not busy with positive matters, it is necessarily busy with nonsense and less positive matters… We need to fill it up with water, symbolizing Torah.

This rule works the other way around as well. When a negative thought sneaks into our mind and does not want to leave, we need not fight it. It is better to study some Torah, to occupy our mind with something positive. In this way, the negative thoughts will leave on their own.

This is also connected to the holiday of Chanukah which is starting today. How can we chase away the darkness? We do not need to fight it. It is enough to open the light.

Let us always occupy our thoughts with positive matters. Let us study some Torah, let us think of whom we can help and how. When our mind with will full and bright, darkness will not be able to enter.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Chanukah!

Hanna

How to confront our inner “Esau”?

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The story of this week’s Parasha Vayishlach is perplexing. As we remember from the previous Parashiyot, Jacob took his father’s blessings instead of Esau, who became very angry with him and decided to take revenge. Jacob then flees to Charan where he works, gets married, has children, and becomes wealthy.

After 20 years in Charan, Jacob returns to the land of Israel. Before confronting Esau, he wants to know if his brother is still angry or if the years that passed have appeased him. For this purpose, Jacob sends angels to Esau. Yet, we know that G-d does not do pointless miracles but only when there is a real need and meaning. Why did Jacob’s messengers need to be angels and not mere mortals?

The answer is simple and is found in what we know about Esau’s character. He was not an honest and good man… he had committed his first murder when he was only 15 years old. To survive an encounter with Esau, the help and power of angels were needed.

We all have inside us a symbolic “Esau” that prevents our spiritual growth. It is our tendency to focus only on egoistic and material endeavors. In order to confront it and to occupy ourselves with altruistic and spiritual endeavors, regular forces are not enough, we need angels – enforced powers.

Our powers are our mind and our heart, which have the ability to keep us higher than the everyday difficulties. But in order to confront the “Esau” inside us, we need to enhance them. For our mind and our heart to conduct us in this fight, we need to fill them up with G-dly and positive content. A Torah class, a book or an article on spiritual matters give us inspiration and “fill up the batteries” of our powers so we can succeed!

Let us take advantage of the angels inside us, filling up our heart and mind with the right content.

Shabbat Shalom!

Hanna

A noticeable absence - Vayetse

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What can you tell an employee who feels that no one will notice if he is absent for a couple of days? Or a child who feels that his absence will not be felt if he misses a few days of school? It is a very difficult feeling…

In this week’s Parasha Vayetse, Jacob leaves from Beer Sheva to go to Charan, to his relatives. He hopes to find a wife there. He also wants to escape from his brother Esau, who was furious that Jacob took the blessings of their father and wants to kill him. Why does the Torah mention that Jacob left from Beer Sheva? Telling us that he left for Charan, was enough for us to understand that he left his previous city to go to the other one.

Our Sages explain that the reason the Torah mentions it, is to tell us that the departure of Jacob was felt in the city. All the inhabitants of Beer Sheva felt that Jacob was no longer amongst them. Indeed, Isaac and Rebecca were still there but they were elderly and did not interact that much with the rest of the population. Their presence was important in the city, but not as much as the presence of Jacob. Jacob was active in the city. He did not care only about his spiritual growth, but he spread light and knowledge in the whole town.

Let us follow Jacob’s example, so we can know that if we leave, our absence will be felt. Our good actions and our positive influence will be missed by our surrounding. Let us think which lives we can influence by showing our care, for example with a phone call. And let us share our knowledge with our friends and family.

The way to be noticed in a positive sense is to take initiative and be active.

Shabbat Shalom,

Hanna

Why did Jacob dress up as Esau? - Toldot

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In this week’s Parasha Toldot, Isaac and Rebeca give birth to twins: Esau and Jacob. Even though they were twins, they did not look alike at all. Esau was a hunter, a thief and a murderer while Jacob was a Torah scholar, honest and righteous.  

When Isaac got to the age of 123, he decided to bless his firstborn, Esau. Rebeca, who knew her children’s characterwell, called Jacob, dressed him in Esau’s clothes and sent him to his father, so that he should get the blessings. And this exactly what happened.

This is a strange story which raises many questions, to which our Sages bring various interesting explanations [some of which are being explored in the current JLI seminar “Secrets of the Bible”].

We will mention here one of the explanations to the basic question: why did Jacob have to receive the blessings dressed as and pretending to be Esau?

If Jacob had received the blessings as himself, a righteous and honest Torah scholar, we could think that these blessings concern only his descendants who resemble him. In other words, the Jews who dress and act like Jews. Yet, there are Jews who do not resemble Jacob, who have changed their dress and their behaviour… Are these also included in the blessings?

This is the reason why Jacob received the blessings dressed us as Esau, to include in the blessings all the Jews, regardless of their current situation. Because each Jew has inside him or her a G-dly soul that is always connected to G-d. Even if a Jew looks more like Esau than Jacob, he is still part of the Jewish people.

When we consider this, we fill up with gratitude and love towards G-d, Who wants us close to Him and blesses all of us.

Let us do an action to reciprocate this love. A prayer, some Torah study, providing help to someone we were not planning to. Thus, we will hasten the coming of Mashiach, which all we await.

Shabbat Shalom,

Hanna

The secret of a good life - Chaye Sara

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Do you think there is someone who can say that all the years of his or her life were equally good?

In this week’s Parasha Chaye Sara, we read about the passing of Sara, who lived “one hundred years, twenty years and seven years”. According to our Sages, this circumvoluted way of describing Sara’s age, repeating the word “years”, teaches us that all the years of her life were equally good.

If we look at Sara’s life, we will be very surprised. Sara lived through many challenges and her life was far from easy. Because of the famine in the Land of Israel, she fled to Egypt with her husband Abraham. There, because of her exceptional beauty, she was taken to Pharaoh’s palace and only a miracle made it impossible for him to touch her, and she was thus freed. Likewise, she waited many years until she gave birth to a son, at the age of 90. How can we compare the years of sterility and the years of maternity, the moments with Abraham and the moments with Pharaoh and say that they were equally good?

Let us imagine a businessperson, who has various businesses. If one day, he wins thousands of euros with one business, while losing 50 cents with another, he will be very happy. If he is asked why is he not distressed about the loss of the 50 cents, he will not understand the question, since he earned thousands of euros!

This is the case of someone who lives a meaningful life. He or she has a significant goal in life, beyond survival and material pleasures. Thus, when difficulties arise, these do not overthrow him or her. The center of his or her life is not material issues. Like the businessperson who focuses and busies himself with the thousand euros and does not let the 50 cents affect him.

It is the same for Sara: She lived a meaningful life, with the significant goal of spreading the faith in the One and only G-d. The various difficulties did not bring her down.

We are living a complicated period. But if our lives are meaningful and focused on significant goals, the difficulties will affect us less.

Let us dedicate a few moments each day to reflect: What is the purpose of my life? What fills it up with meaning? As a result, we will be able to see what we accomplish, what influence we have on our surroundings. This will give us strength and courage, especially in difficult times, and motivate us to do even more.

Thus, like Sara, we will be able to say that all our years were significant and good.

Shabbat Shalom

Hanna

No inspiration: what should I do? - Vayera

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Sometimes, we feel completely devoid of inspiration. Is there a point in continuing to perform various good deeds like a robot, without feelings?

In this week’s Haftara, we are told an interesting story. A widow came to the prophet Elisha. Because of her debts, the creditors wanted to take her children as slaves. She went to the Prophet to ask for his blessing and help. He asked her if she had anything left in her home and she answered that she only had a small jug of oil. Elisha told her to bring all the empty containers she had, and to borrow from her neighbors as well. When she did it, he told her to fill the containers with little oil she had. And a miracle happened, she filled up all the empty containers with oil, enabling her to pay her creditors and keep her children.

The Torah’s stories, besides their literal meaning, also have a metaphorical teaching for us. Allegorically, the widow represents the soul who has lost her fire and her inspiration (in Hebrew the words ish – man, esh – fire, are very similar). The evil forces want to take away her children, that is her feelings, and sway them to serve and get busy with negative topics.

 

When she is asked what characteristic of hers is left, that is faithful and full of feelings for G-d, the soul answers that almost nothing is left. Only the inner strength, the faith that is found deep in the soul, remains. It is something so deep that it usually does not express itself in our everyday lives, only on special occasions such as Yom Kippur or when faced with a threat or danger. The guidance comes soon enough: Fill up your house with empty containers, do as many Mitzvot as you can, even if they are empty of feeling and inspiration. Beginning from this deep faith that always exists in a Jews’ heart, the empty deeds will fill up. The feelings will come.

Let us not allow the “empty” periods without inspiration stop us. The Mitzvot have value even when we do them without feeling. Through the action, the inspiration will come.

Shabbat Shalom,

Hanna

How to leave our comfort zone - Lech Lecha

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Imagine that you want to drive somewhere that you have never been yet. You type in the address in the GPS and wait to hear instructions. But instead of telling you about your destination, it explains to you in detail where to leave from. “Go out of the second floor, from your home in Iraklitou St number 43, in the neighborhood of Psiri”. If this happened to the GPS, you would think the device went crazy. Yet you will be surprised to learn that this is exactly how G-d gives directions to Abraham in this week’s Parasha, Lech Lecha.

G-d speaks to Abraham and tells him in great detail where he needs to leave from: “from your land and from your birthplace and from your father's house”, but He does not tell him where to go. G-d simply mentions “to the land that I will show you.” Why did G-d need to describe to Abraham where to leave from? Abraham knew it very well. Would it not be better if G-d told Abraham where to go?

G-d’s command to Abraham to leave his place is not only about the literal journey but also has a metaphorical meaning. G-d was explaining to Abraham that in order to advance, he needs to go beyond himself, to leave his comfort zone. This is expressed in the three details that were mentioned before, about the place Abraham needs to leave. The elements we need to leave in order to advance.

First, we need to leave behind our innate character, our natural tendencies (symbolized by the land). Some people are more rigorous; others are more lenient. Some are very emotional; others are impassive. For us to advance, we need to go beyond ourselves to do the right thing, even if it does not fit our character. Even if we are not used to doing this. We need to choose the right action, not the comfortable action.     

Second, we need to leave our birthplace, that is the influence of the culture in which we were brought up. Everyone is influenced by the society and the usages of his or her place. But whatever is widespread and accepted should not be part of our decisions. We should not be afraid to be different from others, as long as we know that what we do is right.

Finally, we need to leave our parent’s home. The home where we grew up in influences us a lot, but we cannot use it as an excuse. If we developed a bad habit at home, we can and should get rid of it. If our parents did not observe a Mitzvah, this does not mean we do not have the obligation to observe it. Even more, the good habits we learned from our home need to be adopted as our own. We should not do them only because our parents did it, but because we think they are important.

Let us go beyond ourselves, let us leave our comfort zone and not let our habits, our social or familial environment stop us. Let us think about something in our lives that we have blocked because of our character, our habits, or the fear of “what will others say”.

Let us decide to make a small step to overcome this challenge. It will not be easy, but it will certainly be very rewarding.

Shabbat Shalom,

Hanna

The three victims of gossip - Noach

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This week’s Torah portion Noach begins with the words: “This is the genealogy of Noe”. One would expect the rest of the sentence to list the names of Noe’s children. Instead, the Torah stops to describe Noe himself and tell us that he was a righteous person, and only then does it list the names of his children. Why this interruption and change from the original subject?

To answer this question, we first need to understand something else.

The Talmud declares that Lashon Hara (literally evil tongue, or gossip) metaphorically “kills” three people: the one speaking, the one listening and the one who is being discussed. We can understand why the speaker and his audience are punished, since Lashon Hara is such a terrible sin, but why should the poor victim who they spoke about suffer?

When we speak, we bring to light thoughts that were otherwise hidden. Generally, speech has the great power of revealing hidden things. When someone says bad things about someone else, he uncovers and strengthens these bad elements in him. Thus, the Lashon Hara has an effect on the victim who was being spoken about.

The same applies to positive words as well. When we speak about the good elements of someone, we help to reveal and strengthen them even more.

This is the reason the Torah stops to say something good about Noe, to strengthen his positive traits. Noe, who was the only righteous person in the world, needed a lot of strength in order not to get carried away like the rest of the people.

Let us follow this approach in our personal lives and our personal relationships. Let us discuss the good characteristics and the good actions of the others, and not the opposite. In this way, the world will be filled with better people and will be a kinder and safer place.

Shabbat Shalom,

Hanna

"Let there be light" - Bereshit

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Happy Birthday!

We have many new beginnings today. This week, we start the reading of the Torah from the beginning, after having completed it on Simchat Torah. It is also the beginning of the 6th (!) year of my Parsha column. Finally, the portion of this week Bereshit starts with the Creation of the world, the beginning of everything.

The first thing that G-d created on the first day of the Creation was light. This is surprising. The light is not an independent creature. It is useful only when there is someone like a person, animal or plant that can benefit from it. Why then did G-d start the Creation with it? The light could have waited and be created along with the plants, on the third day.

This resembles an architect who builds a house. Before he begins, he prepares a plan and defines the goal, the destination. In the same way, G-d, at the beginning of the Creation, defined its goal and destination, the light, in the spiritual sense. When we illuminate an object, we reveal it. Metaphorically, when we illuminate something or someone, we reveal his capacities and his potential, the purpose of his existence.

Many people are satisfied with considering themselves good people, only because they live peacefully and do not hurt anyone. If G-d simply wanted us not to hurt anyone, He did not need to create us… If we were not born at all, we surely would not have disturbed anyone.

G-d expects from us the positive action of bringing light, of uncovering the good and the G-dliness in everything and everyone. It is not enough not to hurt, we need to help. It is not enough not to destroy, we need to build.

Like G-d at the beginning of Creation, let us dedicate a moment at the beginning of our creative day to remember the purpose and destination of our creation: to bring light. Let this thought lead and direct the rest of our day. Thus, our days will be brighter, and our world will be better, until Mashiach comes thanks to us and our actions.

Shabbat Shalom,

Hanna

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