Inspiring insights on the Torah portion from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson
Translated and adapted by Rabbi Moshe Wisnefsky
Chabad House Publications / Kehot Publication Society | 446 pp.
The concept of having a set learning schedule is far from foreign to the Jewish world. While it’s a mitzvah to study Torah every day, the past century has seen the development of many new methods of systematic daily learning. One well-known course of daily study is Daf Yomi. Instituted by Rabbi Meir Schapiro in the 1920’s, Daf Yomi aims to unite world Jewry in the study of the same page of Talmud each day.
In the early 20th century as well, the sixth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson, brought the daily study of Chitas, an acronym for Chumash, Tehillim and Tanya, to the wider Jewish world. Chitas includes one part of the weekly Torah portion, the particular Psalms for that day of the month, and a section of the Tanya divided by the year. Later, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, added to this daily study a portion of Maimonides’ Mishna Torah as well as the Hayom Yom, a brief teaching for each day.
A commitment to daily study is integral to Torah learning both in terms of building one’s knowledge as well as maintaining it. Furthermore, the words of Torah, as is taught in Tanya, are G-d’s will and wisdom. As we wrap our mind around these words we not only gain knowledge but we connect and envelop ourselves in the mind of our Creator. It is what Rabbi Yosef B. Soleveichik so beautifully describes as “an encounter with the Divine.” Each day, as we awake from our slumber, still weighed down by the cloudy vision of our dream world, we must take the time to recalibrate the lens through which we view the world.
In this vein, Chabad House Publications in conjunction with the Kehot Publication Society published Daily Wisdom: Inspiring insights on the Torah portion from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, edited by Rabbi Moshe Wisnefsky. The recent recipient of the Independent Book Publishers Association’s Benjamin Franklin Award, Daily Wisdom offers readers a short insight into the daily portion of the weekly Torah reading based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. It reflects the vision of the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, who famously told his students that “A Jew must live with the times,” enjoining them to tap into the timeless wisdom of the weekly Torah portion.
Daily Wisdom breaks down the Torah into the weekly portion as well as the daily readings. It gives a brief summary of each Torah reading before offering a condensed, two-three paragraph version of one of the discourses of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. While it is not a substitute for more in-depth learning, the readings from Daily Wisdom can serve to re-center the reader and offer him or her a profound thought or meditation to live with that day.
These insights take a variety of forms. Some bring classic Chasidic interpretations, offering the reader new ways of understanding aspects of Torah that may have previously seemed peripheral or problematic. For example, the topic of sacrifices is always a difficult one to digest. Not only does it occupy a large part of the Torah and can often seem repetitive, but also the idea of slaughtering animals is not something that sits well with our modern sensibility. In the discussion of this topic in the Torah portion of Tzav, Daily Wisdom views the sacrifices through the classic Chasidic lens:
“The procedures for the sacrifices all allude to inner, psychological processes that we must undergo in order to draw close to G-d…. the Hebrew word for “sacrifice” [korbon] means “drawing close.” Slaughtering the animal alludes to how we slaughter—i.e. renounce—our animalistic orientation toward life… Burning the animal by fire on the altar alludes to the consumption of our animal nature by Divinity, meaning that our formerly animalistic drives become drives for goodness, as we transform the world into G-d’s home.”
Other daily thoughts offer readers a more practical lesson. In the Torah portion of Balak, we read the well-known verse, “How good are your tents, O Jacob, your encampments, O Israel.” This statement, uttered by the evil Balaam who originally wanted to curse the Jewish people, is understood to be his reluctant praise of the structure of encampment of the Israelites in the desert. He saw that the tents of the people of Israel were set up so that the windows or doors of one family’s tent did not look into the tent of another family, a reflection of modesty characteristic of the Jewish people. Taking this a step further, Daily Wisdom offers the following thought from a discourse of the Lubavitcher Rebbe:
“…Lest we think that this alertness to the details of modesty is only required in our day-to-day behavior but not in temporary situations (such as when we are on vacation), we see here that the tremendous power of even the minor details of modest conduct was demonstrated when our forefathers lived in tents, their temporary homes in the desert.”
Often, Daily Wisdom will enliven and personalize a familiar story. The story of Noah and the ark, familiar to even the youngest of children, is treated with new depth:
“Metaphorically our personal “arks” are our periods of Torah study and prayer. Just as Noah and his family were protected by the ark from the flood that raged outside it, we can “enter” the worlds of Torah study and prayer in order to be protected from the “flood” of worldly concerns that threatens to inundate us…”
And so too, Daily Wisdom offers its readers an “ark” of refuge, a way to re-focus themselves, and prepare themselves to enter the world each day.
Daily Wisdomis a valuable tool for those without the time or inclination for rigorous Torah study. But for the student looking to systematically build their learning, and over time come to master a piece of Torah, Daily Wisdom is like skipping to the end of a mystery novel; you get the punchline without any of the dramatic build up that makes the culmination so rewarding.
For those well-versed in Chasidic thought, Daily Wisdom could serve as a reminder of the most influential discourses on that week’s Torah portion. One useful feature of this book (unlike many others written in this style) is that it provides accurate, precise, footnotes, giving the reader who is so inclined the ability to access the full discourse and study it more in-depth. A comprehensive index makes it easy to find insights by subject matter, rather than by Torah portion.
When I was a teenager, slumped in my chair with terrible posture (as is a rite-of-passage for all teenagers), my father encouraged me to walk around with a book on my head. “Though you may want to sit up straight,” he told me, “good intentions are not enough.”
We may want to be better people, more in touch with our Jewish identity, focused on what G-d wants and needs from us, but unless that proverbial book is on your head, falling off and hitting you on the nose when you forget, it’s easy to just fall asleep. Daily Wisdom, hopefully gracing our morning breakfast table rather than balanced on our heads, is that wake-up call. And, unlike the harsh reprimand of the falling book, it brings the warm, yet empowering, words of the Lubavitcher Rebbe to life, giving the reader a daily reminder of who they are and what is expected of them.
The book was also published in a compact format as the Asher David Milstein Edition.
Daily Wisdom is available at kehot.com.