Two-volume set on weekly Torah portion merges wisdom, scholarship and practical action
The Torah is a work of infinite wisdom and depth, filled with the most profound secrets of creation, consciousness and divinity. While comprising a history of humankind and the Jewish people, and serving as the authoritative source of G‑d’s wishes for His people, it is also meant to be approached as personal instruction—as a comprehensive, contemporary self-help book, so to speak, filled with lessons for how people in the 21st century can live a fulfilling, meaningful, G‑dly life.
In Shabbat deLights—published by Ezra Press, an imprint of Kehot Publication Society, and produced by Chabad.org—Chana Weisberg, editor of TheJewishWoman.org, unpacks the practical wisdom to be found in each Torah portion in an important, insight-filled and beautifully presented two-volume set. The book is being launched this week in conjunction with the International Convention of Chabad-Lubavitch Women Emissaries in New York, and the anniversary of the passing of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, of righteous memory, on 22 Shevat. Chana Weisberg recently discussed Shabbat deLights with Chabad.org senior editor Yaakov Ort.
Q: Chana, you’ve written a book on the Five Books of Moses that both passed the scrutiny of serious Torah scholars and appeals to the sensibilities of contemporary readers, which is no small feat. Where did your own personal Torah study begin? Which biblical commentaries influenced you the most as a student? Who were the sources of the inspiration that found its way into Shabbat deLights?
A: Thank you, Yaakov, for your kind words.
I’m not sure that this is the answer you are looking for, but I’d have to say that what influenced me the most as a student of Torah studies was not any specific commentary, though there are many that I love to study. Rather, it was the overarching living example of a lifelong Torah student in the example of my father.
My parents, Rabbi Dovid and Batsheva Schochet, were sent by the Rebbe more than 60 years ago to serve as his shluchim in Toronto, Canada. At the time, Toronto was not the religiously thriving community it has become, and from the moment that they undertook this monumental challenge, my parents worked tirelessly, and they continue, to this day, in their mid-80s, (may they live and be well!) to be the very beloved mara d’atra (“spiritual leader”) and rebbetzin of the wider Toronto community.
Despite his busy schedule and his passion for helping people—and the questions that are directed to him from literally every continent—my father, as far back as I can remember, has no greater joy than learning Torah. And despite his proficiencies in the intricacies of Torah study and its laws, he always took the time to patiently explain to me, his youngest daughter, any questions that I had, and to study the texts with me.
One of my most precious childhood memories is of my father driving me to school every morning. I would always “save” my questions, whether it be in Torah studies, halachicissues or general life confusion, for those cherished times when I knew I’d have his undivided attention (there were no cell phones in those days) before the barrage of the day’s responsibilities would assault him. He would patiently explain to me—at the level that a child, and later, a teenager—complexities that I could understand, but without any condescension. He would also always encourage me in my questions and learning.
I remember, too, when my brother, who is almost 10 years my senior, would return home from yeshivah for the Passover holiday, he and my father would have lengthy discussions at an advanced level on his Talmudic studies or on the Haggadah. I always enjoyed listening and whenever I would interject with my own simplistic thoughts or questions, I was never brushed aside, but was always encouraged and responded to join in.
So, it was my father’s love and passion for learning, as well as his encouragement and enthusiasm for my own studies, that I absorbed from a very young age.
My mother, on the other hand, escaped from the former Soviet Union with her family after the war while in her teens. She did not have the formal Torah learning that I was privileged to have, but embodies the warmth, love and absolute dedication to Yiddishkeit. She is a very perceptive, intuitive person who grasps situations quickly and understands the practical implications associated with them. The stories of her childhood are filled with an astounding devotion to living an observant life, despite the life-threatening risk, and this is what makes her Judaism so authentic. From her, I learned the importance of bringing ideas and ideals into the practical realm—and making them real.
I think that Shabbat deLights is a synthesis of the approach to my studies that I gained from both of these aspects of my parents. It is very much grounded in the beautiful, intricate text and passionate study of the Torah, while practically applying the messages and emotions of Jewish life to the realities of our lives.
Q: Walk into any bookstore, check out any best-seller list and self-help titles abound. How do you see the relationship between Torah study and different types of popular advice and modalities for leading a more stable, calm and productive life, including the alphabet soup of therapies, meditation and mindfulness techniques, 12-step programs, etc. Are they complementary, and if so, in what ways?
A: Our sages teach us, Chochmah bagoyim taamin—there are many forms of wisdom that we can learn from secular knowledge and modalities that can assist us in dealing with the unique challenges of our generation. But the wisdom of Torah is eternal and contains within it a guide of how to lead the most meaningful and most gratifying life.
Ethics of the Fathers teaches us, Hafoch bah, vehafoch bah, dekula bah: “Turn it over and turn it over, for you will find everything in it [Torah].” In other words, if something is valid wisdom, if you search, you will find the roots of it and its applications embedded within the words and wisdom of Torah.
In my own evolution throughout stages of my personal growth and maturation, the Torah has always provided the foundation.
So, for example in my early 20s, when I confronted questions about feminism or feminist thought, I delved into Torah studies to see how it approaches these ideas. I probed the sources searching for role models from biblical women, as well as an understanding of the specific mitzvot of women, to gain a perspective on femininity and feminism. I searched through many sources, from the many commentaries on the Chumash, to the more mystical and Kabbalistic sources as explained by Chassidic thought, and the Rebbe’s writings and teachings. From my research, my first two books were born.
In my 30s, with a growing family ranging from toddlers to teens, I was interested in how the stories and events of our lives have a spiritual message for us. I tried to understand the Torah’s perspective on dealing with the many challenges as well as mundane events of my life to understand what was the “Divine whisper” or message for me as a mother with a busy career, and how I could glean a better perspective. My next two books were born as a result.
As time moves on—and it seems to me that as a society, we live in particularly psychologically challenging times—so many of us are leading such fast-paced lives. We feel isolated, frustrated and unhappy, seeking to live more purposeful lives. Spiritually, we are parched and can’t seem to quench our overwhelming thirst to become more in tune with the dynamics of our inner spiritual selves. As a result, there are a plethora of therapies and modalities in how to achieve more mindfulness and personal empowerment. Shabbat deLights attempts to show how all the greatest wisdom can be found within the very words of Torah in empowering each of us to live the best lives that we can.
Q: Some of the best, most interesting teachers of Torah in my Jerusalem neighborhood are women. When you wrote the essays in this book, did you write just for women? Do you think that men can also benefit from the book, and how?
A: Absolutely! The book was not written for any particular gender, but for anyone who wishes to genuinely be inspired by the beautiful wisdom of the Torah and how it can enrich all aspects of our lives.
If I can make a generality, I would say that when a woman learns Torah, she seeks its practical application. The first thing that a woman will ask when she studies a beautiful concept in Torah is: What now? How can I apply this to my life? How can this wisdom make a real difference in my perspective, in my interpersonal relationships, in my daily schedule?
I think there are many men that appreciate this way of learning and benefit from a more feminine perspective. Over the years, as an editor at Chabad.org and theJewishWoman.org, I have received countless comments, feedback or correspondence from my male readership expressing their gratitude for being enriched from this more feminine perspective.
The messianic era is described as a time when nekeivah tesovev gaver—“when the feminine perspective will supersede the male.” At the threshold of this time, I think we are getting a taste of this, and our world, filled with both men and women, is ready and needs to hear more of the feminine voice.
Q: The focus of much of the Jewish world is rightly on young adults, particularly recent college graduates who don’t (or very often haven’t had the opportunity to) see the relevance of Torah or Judaism in their lives. What does Shabbat deLightshave to offer them? How do you suggest they approach it? What’s in it for them?
A: I believe the greatest challenge that faces us in the Jewish world today is apathy—not ignorance, misconceptions or even misguidance. When someone is misguided but still passionate about his or her Judaism, their searching will lead them to the right conclusions. But if we are apathetic to our Jewishness, then we don’t even care to investigate how this can apply in my life. We simply don’t care.
The cure to apathy is relevance. When we can show our youth that Torah isn’t some theological philosophy that has little to do with their lives, but that it has practical and relevant advice for greatly enhancing their relationships, their time management, their schedules, their careers, their interpersonal skills—perhaps we can entice them to give it a try.
In the 1960s, the youth were searching for wisdom or ideals. Today, young people are searching for relevance. How can this positively affect my life?
With very few exceptions, the essays in Shabbat deLights are deliberately concise. It will take the reader just a minute or two to digest each entry. Moreover, the subject matters are intentionally diverse: one deals with a parenting issue, the next with clutter in your home or feelings of inadequacy. I think our society is collectively the “instant-gratification” generation; we need our information in small, understandable soundbites—and right away. We don’t want to invest too much effort into something unless the real benefits are obvious. More than that, we want this information immediately; technology has trained us to get more and do more at the fastest pace possible.
I hope that our youth will find a path in Shabbat deLights that shows them how Judaism and the wisdom it offers is very practical and relevant to so many areas of their lives. Though it’s rooted in “up-in-the-clouds” deep wisdom, it is surprisingly down to earth.
Q: We’re approaching the 25th anniversary of the passing of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. How has the Rebbe influenced you as a writer and editor? How are his teachings reflected in your book?
A: It’s a really hard question for me to answer because I honestly cannot think of any area that the Rebbe and his teachings have not influenced for me as a writer, editor, mother, wife and human being.
Having said that, if I had to express in a nutshell one all-embracing theme that suffuses the Rebbe’s talks and writings, and as a result, is reflected throughout Shabbat deLights it is: Believe in yourself and your G‑dly potential.
The greatest motivation for a person to reach higher and lead a greater life is the belief that you can.
One of the greatest plagues of our generation that prevents many of us from reaching our objectives—or even trying to—is an underlying feeling of inadequacy and not feeling “good enough.” When you feel inadequate, you don’t even bother trying or creating the best life that you can lead.
Moreover, too many of us compare ourselves to others and harshly self-judging. Especially in our social-media culture, where so many of us feel the need to put forth the false face of perfection, too many wind up judging themselves as colossal failures. As a result, the rate of depression, lack of motivation, frustration and feelings of isolation has hit sky-high levels.
On the other hand, when you believe that you can, you are strengthened to do more than you ever imagined you were capable of. And there is no one size fits all mold, we need to find and express our individuality to impact our world in the best way that we can.
The Rebbe constantly reminds us that at the core of our being, we have a Divine spark, and despite our behavior, it is never tarnished or blemished, but always remains perfect and pristine. The key to change and personal empowerment is being in tune with this greatest part of ourselves.
So when the Rebbe encourages us to do more and be more, as he constantly does through his teachings, it isn’t because we are inadequate or not “good enough.” To the contrary, the belief in the individual greatness of each and every one of us emboldens us to try harder, be more and create a better life. Not because we are lacking, but because of the infinite goodness that we are.
I think this way of viewing ourselves and our individual specialness is crucial and holds the keys to repair the many ills in our society. Throughout the essays of Shabbat deLights, this personal empowerment is evident and provides a positive perspective in facing every single day of our lives.
Shabbat DeLights can be purchased online and at fine Jewish bookstores everywhere.
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