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The Heart of Worship

3 minute read
Straightforward

Prayer is a central aspect of Judaism, if not all religious beliefs. It is an invocation or act that deliberately seeks out and interfaces with the divine.

Although prayer does appear obliquely or sporadically in the Torah, it is not the predominant mode of worship in the Torah or the ancient world the Torah appeared in, an era where animal sacrifice was a near cultural universal. Our sages went out of their way to teach that prayer doesn’t just appear in the Torah; prayer stands in as a direct replacement or substitute for the lapsed sacrifices of long ago.

Our prayers are replete with requests to restore Jerusalem and rebuild the Beis HaMikdash. However, authorities are divided on whether the future we yearn for heralds a restoration or replacement of animal sacrifice. While that remains speculative until we find out, it is probably fair to say that it is hard for people in the modern world to wrap their heads around animal sacrifice.

Today’s near cultural universal is that animal sacrifice is alien and weird, perhaps even disgusting and nasty. Most people don’t want to watch an animal get slaughtered; any arcane mysticism is hard to imagine over the blood and gore.

That leaves prayer in a bit of a void; prayer is a stand-in or substitute for animal sacrifice, and yet an animal sacrifice is hard to relate to in almost every conceivable way, so far removed as it is from our primary experience. Moreover, the Torah has long sections devoted to the different categories and kinds of sacrifice and their details and nuances; sacrifice is clearly the primary mode of worship in the Torah’s conception, so prayer seems second-rate.

Either way, prayer is hard to understand. If prayer and sacrifice aren’t connected, why bother with something the Torah doesn’t validate as having much significance? And if prayer is connected to sacrifice, what element of sacrifice do we even relate to?

The Torah opens the section on sacrifices by outlining a scenario where someone wants to bring an offering:

‘אָדָם כִּי־יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם קרְבָּן לַהֹ – When one of you presents an offering for God… (1:2)

Although not readily obvious in translation, the Torah utilizes highly unusual language here. Rather than present the sensible scenario where one of you wants to bring an offering, it literally translates to when someone offers an offering of you, which is to say, literally of yourselves – אָדָם מִכֶּם כִּי־יַקְרִיב / אָדָם כִּי־יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם.

The Baal HaTanya notes that this reading suggests that at the earliest juncture, the Torah already indicates that as much it’s going to talk about animal offerings, it’s not about the animal at all; it’s about the part of yourself you’re willing to offer, and prayer would operate in much the same way – יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם.

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that the conventional notion of sacrifice isn’t really reflected in the Hebrew term – קרְבָּן. We think of sacrifice as giving something up when the Hebrew word actually means something more like drawing closer – קרב. You interact with the divine not with what you give up but by drawing close with what you have; in offering the material to God, you transform the material into the sacred.

God doesn’t need our stuff and can’t receive it in any tangible way; the Malbim teaches that all a person can ever offer is themselves, which mirrors precisely what the Torah calls for here – יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם. The Sfas Emes explains that the notion articulated here is that sacrifice and prayer are about aligning ourselves and resources to God’s broader plan; prayer isn’t secondary to sacrifice; it is the same.

While the form of seeking out the divine may have changed over time depending on the zeitgeist, the substance has remained constant. At the root of all mysticism is a desire to connect with the divine transcendence, and our sages have long identified the inner world of the heart as the battlefield of spirituality – עבודה שבלב. So we can read the Yom Kippur atonement ritual that seems odd to modern sensibilities, yet it maintains relevance to our prayers because the substance transcends the form of the performative aspect; that God forgives humans who want to make amends, goats and string or not.

It’s not the form of how it appears so much as it’s about the substance of how it is – אחד המרבה ואחד ואחד הממעיט ובלבד שיכוין לבו לשמים.

As Moshe said to his audience, our Creator is always close, quite different from other gods they might have heard of who can only be invoked with specific rituals – כִּי מִי־גוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשֶׁר־לוֹ אֱלֹקים קְרֹבִים אֵלָיו כַּה’ אֱלֹקינוּ בְּכל־קרְאֵנוּ אֵלָיו.

The Izhbitzer suggests that our subconscious hearts and minds hope and pray all the time. When you whisper “Please, God,” hope for the best, or wish that things turn out okay, those unspoken but very real thoughts are prayers that bring tangible wisps of warmth into the world that affirm and sustain, from which things can and will eventually grow – קָרוֹב ה’ לְכָל קֹרְאָיו לְכֹל אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָאֻהוּ בֶאֱמֶת.

As the Kotzker said, where can we find God? Wherever we let Him in.

Sacrifice, like prayer, was always about the inner world of the spirit, about opening your heart and yourself to the universe.

And prayer, like sacrifice, can’t change God; but it can change you.

What We Do With Broken Things

5 minute read
Straightforward

At Mount Sinai, Moshe ascended for forty days to receive the Torah. He didn’t show up when the people expected, so they got nervous and clamored for a new religious focal point. In a moment of madness, they crafted a Golden Calf, and in a perplexing turn of events, identified it as the god that brought them out of Egypt.

As they celebrate their new object of attention and worship with a festival of dancing, song, and sacrifice, Moshe returns to our world with the original Ten Commandments, a mythical artifact with magical properties crafted by God’s fingers. Moshe enters the camp only to witness these festivities and, utterly horrified, throws down the tablets, permanently shattering them.

With the first tablets broken, Moshe had to repeat the process in an attenuated form; the second tablets are almost second-rate in comparison. Whereas God had crafted the first ones, Moshe – a great human, but still a human – had to prepare the second. The first tablets contained a Torah that humans could never forget; the second ones contain a Torah we forget all the time.

The consequences of the Golden Calf were enormous; God threatened to destroy them all there and then, at least until Moshe intervened. Our sages suggest that the sin was so grave that every bit of human suffering pays down a sliver of the damage done by the Golden Calf.

A common thread people take from this story is the profound loss of what might have been; a more perfect world that never even got a chance to get started. Our sages teach that the letters began peeling off the surface and wafting back to the sky even before Moshe broke the tablets, which is how he understood that his people were no longer worthy.

The lessons of damage and loss are correct but miss something essential.

Moshe shattered the tablets, but what happened to the broken pieces?

When God told Moshe to craft the second set of tablets, God also tells Moshe what to do with them:

וְאֶכְתֹּב עַל־הַלֻּחֹת אֶת־הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר הָיוּ עַל־הַלֻּחֹת הָרִאשֹׁנִים אֲשֶׁר שִׁבַּרְתָּ וְשַׂמְתָּם בָּאָרוֹן – “I will inscribe on the tablets the commandments that were on the first tablets that you smashed, and you shall deposit them in the Ark.” (10:2)

Our sages read the instruction to put “them” in the Ark as not only referring to Moshe’s second tablets, which are like the first tablets in content; but that the original shattered tablets were like the second tablets in what Moshe was supposed to do with them – הַלֻּחֹת הָרִאשֹׁנִים אֲשֶׁר שִׁבַּרְתָּ / וְשַׂמְתָּם בָּאָרוֹן.

The broken tablets are not buried, not forgotten, not hidden, and not lost. Instead, they are stored in the Ark, alongside the new, whole second tablets. As one writer beautifully put it, shattered remnants of the past still matter, persist in their importance, and deserve preservation and remembrance, just like something whole.

In this conception, the broken tablets are a striking symbol of brokenness and wholeness coexisting side by side at Judaism’s most sacred site. The comprehensive picture of the Golden Calf story and its aftermath should reorient our attitude to broken things and setbacks. It’s not a story about breaking things; it’s a story about what we do when we break things, and the epilogue is that you pick up the pieces and move forward.

In Japanese culture, there is an art form of restoring broken pottery by gluing the cracks and seams distinctively, often with gold lacquer; breakage and subsequent repair are part of the proud history of the object, rather than something to disguise.

Perhaps the first tablets represent an idealism that crashes into reality and shatters into pieces. While admittedly easy to say, perhaps their example shows that these hopes aren’t permanently lost to the ether. Rather than becoming cynical and jaded from traumatic experience and upheaval, discarding the vision of what could have been, you might be able to recover remnants that persist, integrating them with the real world you inhabit. It won’t look quite how you thought, but maybe some parts can in certain ways. Sometimes we have to break or let go of what we hoped could be in order to make way for what is and can still become.

Moshe didn’t break the tablets out of violent anger; his people and their world simply weren’t ready for the first tablets. Letting go of them, however damaging and terrible, was a necessary part of the healing process, paving the way for his people to build a world on a foundation of broken ideals. There’s nothing sad about that; that’s just the way life is.

The Torah closes with a line of praise for Moshe, the faithful shepherd, endorsing his strength and valor – וּלְכֹל הַיָּד הַחֲזָקָה וּלְכֹל הַמּוֹרָא הַגָּדוֹל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה מֹשֶׁה לְעֵינֵי כּל־יִשְׂרָאֵל. Our sages take this as a reference to some of the things Moshe intuited on his own, which God only endorsed after the fact, one of which is breaking the tablets – אֲשֶׁר שִׁבַּרְתָּ / יִישַׁר כֹּחֲךָ שֶׁשִּׁבַּרְתָּ.

On Simchas Torah, after we complete the Torah with that line, we immediately begin again, a new beginning built on breaking, breaking that is holy, breaking that God endorses, and breaking that stands before us and alongside the best we have to offer. From the ashes of this colossal failure, God teaches Moshe how his people can make amends and gives him the formula that features so prominently in our prayers on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. The healing from the rupture led to the Mishkan project, which all subsequent prayer, sacrifice, and worship center around. The remarkable quality of comebacks is not in spite of setbacks; it is because of them.

The Megaleh Amukos notes that the season of repentance and making amends is Ellul, an acronym for the Ark, the tablets, and the broken tablet they sit alongside – אלול / ארון לוחת ושברי לוחת. More to the point, the second tablets are delivered on Yom Kippur itself.

We all break things, and we experience brokenness in different ways over the course of our journey. When we lose someone, that loss leaves a void with their shape imprinted in our hearts, and we carry that brokenness forever. After pain and loss, life goes on, only differently than before; we now live with two sets of tablets.

We might call forgetting and moving on from what we break bouncing back, but that’s not how people are; that’s not how the world works. Everything leaves its mark; a scratch, a bruise, or sometimes a deep scar or void that never entirely goes away.

Perhaps we’re not supposed to bounce back at all; maybe it’s better to bounce forward.

Take heart in the image of Moshe on his hands and knees, lovingly gathering the precious fragments, collecting every shard, then gently placing each sacred sliver one by one in the Ark, a brilliant glimmer of hope that lingers for posterity.

The shattered remnants of the past belonged in the Ark, and we ought to remember that the Ark wasn’t a mere prop; it featured prominently in the Jewish People’s travels and wars. It went out in front of them, leading the way, which is to say that any step forward was paved by the broken tablets as much as the whole tablets.

We live in a world of the second tablets. Although the first ones couldn’t exist in their wholeness, they could exist in their brokenness, and maybe we can pick up some of those pieces and find a place for them to help shape our world.

There is no paradox of broken and whole; they coexist in a reciprocal interaction. We must find a way to marry the broken with the whole, hopeful idealism with gritty reality.

Brokenness is not something to conceal or deny; it is an essential part of being human. The moments that break us are as significant to our growth as the moments that make us whole. We can find sanctity not only in whole tablets; but in shattered ones, as well.

If we honor that brokenness and carry it with us, it can become sacred, Holy of Holies. In the words of the Kotzker, there is nothing so whole as a broken heart.

Prayer Redux

7 minute read
Straightforward

Prayer is one of Judaism’s essential and fundamental practices.

Through prayer, we commune with the Creator, affirming our connection, dependency, and gratitude to the Source of all life.

The theurgy of prayer – the metaphysics of how prayer works and what it does – is complex, and in all likelihood, fundamentally unknowable. It’s not obvious how you’d test whether or not prayer works, because the universe is self-evidently a much bigger place than your personal wish list.

What we do know is that at all times and all places throughout our history, the Jewish People have always turned to God in prayer for health, success, and salvation. It is almost universally understood that prayer plays a prominent role in the efforts and energy we must expend to get the outcomes we want – as well as the ones we don’t. 

The crescendo of the Exodus came with the decisive miracle at the Red Sea. The ocean parted, giving the desperate Jewish People safe passage, while simultaneously obliterating their great tormentors in one fell swoop. The Splitting of the Red Sea is one of the most captivating and magical moments in the entire Torah, and prayer plays a prominent role in the build-up:

וּפַרְעֹה הִקְרִיב וַיִּשְׂאוּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת־עֵינֵיהֶם וְהִנֵּה מִצְרַיִם  נֹסֵעַ אַחֲרֵיהֶם וַיִּירְאוּ מְאֹד וַיִּצְעֲקוּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל־ה – As Pharaoh drew near, the Jewish People caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Jewish People cried out to the Lord. (14:10)

But surprisingly, and quite unlike how we might expect, this prayer is not well received:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה מַה־תִּצְעַק אֵלָי דַּבֵּר אֶל־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִסָּעוּ – Then the Lord said to Moshe, “Why are you crying out to Me!? Tell the Jewish People to get going!!” (14:15)

With righteous outrage, we might wonder why God gets annoyed that the people cry out. The Jewish People have made it to the beaches with their children and everything they own. They have no boats and cannot swim to safety; just over the horizon, there is a hostile force in hot pursuit. By any reasonable standards, they are out of time and out of options. They are desperate, so they cry out to God for help; we can have no doubt that their fears and tears were deeply real.

What’s more, our sages imagine Heavenly gateways for prayers, suggesting that prayers are accepted or denied based on factors like circumstances, quality, and timing. The Neila prayer on Yom Kippur extensively utilizes this imagery to evoke a sense of urgency – quickly squeeze in your final prayers, because the gates are closing! The Gemara concludes that regardless, the gate of tears is always open; presumably, because tears are heartfelt and sincere, and the pain that generates tearful prayers loads them with a potency that Heaven cannot refuse.

If crying to God for help is what you are supposed to do, why did God get annoyed at their prayer?

The imagery of gates in Heaven is powerful and compelling, but it appears to have a fatal flaw. The metaphor doesn’t work for a gate of tears because a gate that never closes is no gate at all!

The Kotzker Rebbe sharply teaches that the gate of tears is still a gate, because not all tears are equal; some tears are indeed turned away. The gate is shut to crocodile tears – superficial sorrow that is insincere, like when people attempt to use grief to excuse inaction.

In the story of Pinchas, Balak and Bilam successfully schemed to compromise the Jewish People by sending the young women of Midian into the Jewish camp to seduce the men; most young men found the temptation impossible to resist, sparking a devastating plague.

But the Midianite women were not successful at drawing in everyone; some of them were strong enough to resist, and, unsure what to do, they went to the holiest man, their leader Moshe, at the most sacred spot they knew, the Mishkan, to cry and pray – וְהֵמָּה בֹכִים, פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד.

These people of moral fiber cried and prayed for help, but that didn’t save the day.

R’ Moshe Sherer highlights how the Torah explicitly credits Pinchas’s assassination of the provocateurs for stopping the plague, and not anyone’s prayers – וַיִּדְקֹר אֶת-שְׁנֵיהֶם–אֵת אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאֶת-הָאִשָּׁה אֶל-קֳבָתָהּ; וַתֵּעָצַר, הַמַּגֵּפָה / הֵשִׁיב אֶת-חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת-קִנְאָתִי.

When something is wrong and we respond only with thoughts and prayers, they are crocodile tears, lip service, pearl-clutching, and window dressing. The pain and tears may be real, but prayers don’t help if your approach to problem-solving is fundamentally broken.

As much as there may be stories of people praying for magical solutions that materialize out of thin air with no human input, the Torah dismisses the notion of thoughts and prayers as a substitute for action.

At the Red Sea, God urges Moshe to have his people quickly get a move on. The Midrash expands this discussion; God rebuked Moshe that it was an inappropriate moment for lengthy prayers – there was danger close, and it was time for decisive action.

Rashi suggests that God was annoyed at the people’s prayer at the sea because they seized their ancestral craft – תָּפְשׂוּ אֻמָּנוּת אֲבוֹתָם. The Maharal explains that prayer isn’t craftsmanship, like carpentry or plumbing. Prayer is supposed to be heartfelt and soulful! But they cried out to God as the last resort of their ancestors; a weak effort that betrayed deep fear and insecurity and the cynical despair of helplessness, that all was lost. It was an inferior, or at least suboptimal prayer, an immature prayer that betrayed a lack of belief, both in God and in themselves, that there was nothing they could do! 

Only they were wrong to think that there was nothing else they could do, and we’d be equally wrong for thinking prayer could ever work in a vacuum.

As R’ Shlomo Farhi explains, they should have believed enough in their prayer to stop praying and get moving, but they were frozen and paralyzed. 

In sharp contrast, our ancestor Yakov prepared to reunite with Esau years after wronging him and meticulously prepared for their meeting. He prepared for peace by sending waves of lavish gifts to Esau; prepared for battle and victory, arming his young family and training them; prepared for defeat and death, dividing his family in two, in the hope that the second camp might escape without Esau ever knowing they existed; and then finally, he prays that God be with him and that his family survives.

As R’ Noach Weinberg highlights, Yakov prepares for peace, victory, and death; which is to say that he did no less than everything possible to prepare for all eventualities before prayer, even though God had already promised to be with him and that his children would inherit the land and his legacy. 

Maybe that’s what our efforts have to look like to give our prayers a hook to latch on to – even when God promises.

God didn’t want their prayers at the Red Sea, because it wasn’t time to pray; it was time to act! But they couldn’t, because they had given up, and were totally consumed with fear. Perhaps that lends enduring power to the legacy of Nachson ben Aminadav, whom the Midrash heralds for clambering into the water when he could not yet know what would happen, because just maybe there was one last thing to try before giving up, finding room for a ray of hope amid the clouds of despair – a hope that drove action.

R’ Shlomo Farhi suggests that the biggest challenge to our faith and belief is time; that we give up prematurely.

By wading into the water, Nachshon showed people who thought they had reached the outer limit of what they could do and revealed to them that the boundary was just a little further than they’d thought. They’d stopped at the shore, but he boldly and bravely stepped into the impossible and waded up to his neck, without waiting for instructions, leading by example in the face of uncertainty, the quality of his tribe, Yehuda. And when he did that, he sparked salvation, upending the entire natural order, and the ocean split for all.

Perhaps that underpins God’s irritation at why they cry out – they are parked on the beach, crying; but what exactly do they expect God to do with that?! We can almost hear God begging for something to work with – tell them to get up and get going!

To be sure, we should not judge our ancestors too harshly for being afraid. The fight, flight, or freeze response is hardcoded into our DNA and predates human consciousness; people do tend to freeze when their families are about to get massacred.

But God speaks through them to us, and we should ask ourselves if our own prayers are corrupted by fear or despair and yet still wonder why our prayers go unanswered. We need to audit our lives, soul searching about whether we truly mean our prayers. Does the way you spend your life align with what you claim to want? Does what you pay attention to and devote time to reflect that? We should wonder if God might give us a similarly terrifying answer about what we’re asking God to work with.

If you’re crying crocodile tears, you shouldn’t be surprised that your prayers don’t seem to be working; you may need to confront the reality that your prayers are wildly mediocre.

You won’t get the dream job you don’t apply to. You won’t get healthy if you don’t diet and exercise. You won’t pass the test if you don’t study the material. You won’t get rich if you don’t invest. Your relationship won’t be meaningful if you don’t give your partner attention. That’s the way the world works; if you expect your prayer to change that fundamental reality, you will likely continue to be disappointed.

You need to animate your life with action and hope, like our ancestor Yakov, like our hero Pinchas, and invoke the incredible bravery of Nachshon. God desperately wants to shower us with blessings, but we need to build the vessels that will contain those blessings or they have no place to land.

The future is concealed and uncertain; what lies ahead is shrouded in the darkness of the unknowable. But we can illuminate it with bold and decisive actions that brighten each step along the way. And with each step, certainly pray to meet with good fortune and success.

If there’s something you’ve been praying on for a while, stop being a soldier and think like a general – strategize for a moment. Every person who wants something different from their performance than what they’re getting is doing something to perpetuate poor outcomes. Bluntly consider what you could be doing better to make it happen, and do those things.

Miracles do happen, but they start with your level of effort and dedication toward your dreams. Thoughts and prayers are not a substitute for action.

You must believe in a positive outcome enough to invest real effort into making it a reality.

Transcending Time

3 minute read
Straightforward

From Rosh Hashana through Sukkos, honey features prominently at the festive meals. Honey is sweet, and it functions as a symbol for the sweet new year we yearn for.

But think about it for a moment, using honey is odd. Honey is sweet, but it comes from bees, which have a painful sting and are not kosher creatures.

Honey is a complex sugar; why don’t we use simple cane sugar, a naturally growing plant that metabolizes into the energy that fuels all living things?

The universe operates on fundamental laws of physics that express empirical facts and describe physical properties of how the natural universe works. One such law is the law of entropy, which describes how natural states tend to undergo increasing decay and disorder over time. Eventually, all things break down.

The Midrash suggests that the notion of Teshuva predates the universe, which suggests that it is of a higher order that transcends its constraints; Teshuva is above space and time, and therefore not subject to entropy.

Creation is an environment where humans can make choices. The nature of a test is that it is challenging; you can pass or fail. As much as God can want us to pass a test, the objective fact remains that tests can and will be failed. But God is not gratuitously cruel and does not set us up to fail; the fact we can fail necessarily requires the existence of Teshuva, so failure is not the end. A person can learn from their mistakes, put it behind them, and move on.

R’ Nechemia Sheinfeld explains that the supernatural aspect of Teshuva is that it unwinds the effect of time and entropy; we can repair our mistakes, removing the decay, leaving only the lesson we have learned. Teshuva is not an after-the-fact solution; it’s baked into the fabric of the creation process, so redemption is structurally possible from the outset.

Existence without Teshuva would be static and stagnant – there would be no recovery from failure or setbacks, no growth, and therefore no life. Teshuva must predate existence, because that’s the only way life can change and become.

With Teshuva, sins and transgressions can be recategorized based on motivation. When Teshuva is motivated by fear, sins are downgraded to accidents and oversights; when motivated by love, sins can become merits. It’s intuitive; the way a person adapts their past mistakes materially affects the way you incorporate the lessons learned to be a better person.

It’s a bit like learning to ride a bicycle. The first time you lose your balance, you fall and hurt yourself. Maybe next time you wear a helmet and pads, and you slowly learn how to keep your balance. If you focus on how bad falling hurts, you’ll never learn to ride the bike. But once you learn to keep your balance, you forget about falling, and maybe you don’t need the pads anymore. You now know how to ride a bicycle.

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that this is why the Hebrew word for “year” – שנה – is cognate to the words שני and שנוי – “secondary” and “change” respectively. Today’s achievements are built on the foundations of yesterday; a repetition would be no different from what came first, and a fresh start can’t carry the lessons along the way. This may help explain why we temporarily behave more diligently day between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – a reliable foundation is the precursor of a strong building.

R’ Meir Shapiro teaches that this is why specifically honey, and not sugar, is the centerpiece of the holiday imagery. Honey is kosher, despite being a product of non-kosher origins, and maybe you get stung. It’s complex, not simple. But doesn’t that sound a lot like Teshuvah? You made mistakes that weren’t so kosher, maybe they stung a little, and they weren’t so simple, but you can learn and grow from them all the same – you’ve made something kosher from something that’s not.

As R’ Nachman of Breslov taught straightforwardly: if you believe you can break, then believe you can fix.

How The Tables Turn

2 minute read
Straightforward

After a turbulent relationship with his siblings that culminated in his abduction and exile, Yosef climbed his way from the gutter to Egyptian aristocracy.

Years later, his brothers came to Egypt to avoid a famine back home, and Yosef entrapped them in a drawn-out ruse.

Instead of identifying himself, he role-played as a meticulous bureaucrat. Noticing that Binyamin was absent, he apprehended and jailed Shimon until they returned with Binyamin, and then had his personal effects planted on Binyamin to make him look like a thief.

The story is a classic, albeit protracted, and theatrical. Why did Yosef act so strangely?

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch perceptively notes that Yosef’s goal must have always been to bring his family back together because if he’d wanted to forget his family, then when his brothers came to Egypt, he could have just let them be. They’d return to Israel none the wiser!

But to reunite the family, Yosef had several major obstacles to overcome. If he ever went home or wrote back to reforge the connection, it would not bring the family together; it would irreparably tear it apart. By exposing to Yakov the murderous cover-up and human trafficking perpetrated by his brothers, Yakov might regain a long lost son, but he’d undoubtedly lose the rest.

The only way to make it right would be for things to be different. The brothers would need to see that Yosef had changed, and Yosef would need to know that they had changed, and he has cause for concern.

Where was Binyamin? Had the same thing happened to Rachel’s last son?

Judah, who had once instigated Yosef’s abduction, would now take responsibility and endanger himself to protect Binyamin. Coupled with their admission of guilt and repentance – מַה־נֹּאמַר לַאדֹנִי מַה־נְּדַבֵּר וּמַה־נִּצְטַדָּק / אֲבָל אֲשֵׁמִים אֲנַחְנוּ עַל־אָחִינוּ – they had accomplished something remarkable – our very first encounter with teshuva in Jewish history.

Seeing how Yehuda courageously took responsibility for his family and stood up to take the blame, Yosef knew that they were not the reckless and impulsive young men they had been all those years ago. Seeing that they had grown, he revealed himself to them.

Once, they had feared Yosef’s ambition, believing he wanted them to serve him. Now Yosef had power over them; he could show that he didn’t want to take anything from them; he wanted to help them!

With all the theatrics, the brothers could learn more about each other than they ever could have with words, and it was the one way to tease out the insights that could bring their family together once more.

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that the stories of Bereishis are about families that could not learn to live together – it is one acrimonious falling out after another. But now there is a new paradigm – teshuva and forgiveness. Forgiveness brings Yakov’s fragmented family back together and forms the foundation of the Jewish people.

Recreating Egypt and Sinai

2 minute read
Straightforward

One of the more forgotten laws is the mitzvah of Hakhel.

On the first day of Chol HaMoed Sukkos, two weeks after the end of the Shemitta year; every man, woman, and child would assemble to hear a public Torah reading from his personal Sefer Torah:

מִקֵּץ שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים, בְּמֹעֵד שְׁנַת הַשְּׁמִטָּה–בְּחַג הַסֻּכּוֹת בְּבוֹא כָל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵרָאוֹת אֶת-פְּנֵי ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בַּמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר יִבְחָר:  תִּקְרָא אֶת-הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת, נֶגֶד כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל–בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם: הַקְהֵל אֶת-הָעָם, הָאֲנָשִׁים וְהַנָּשִׁים וְהַטַּף, וְגֵרְךָ, אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ–לְמַעַן יִשְׁמְעוּ וּלְמַעַן יִלְמְדוּ, וְיָרְאוּ אֶת-ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, וְשָׁמְרוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת, אֶת-כָּל-דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת – Every seventh year, after the Shemittah year, on the festival of Sukkos… in the place that He shall choose, read the Torah before all of Israel, so they will hear it. Gather the nation – men, women, children, the stranger among you… so that they may learn and fear Hashem your G-d. (31:10-12)

It’s an unusual mitzvah, in that it is fulfilled by everybody – young and old, men and women, Kohen, Levi, and Yisrael. Children aren’t typically expected to observe the Torah like adults – yet the Torah not only includes them but adds additional emphasis that they are a part of this ceremony:

וּבְנֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדְעוּ, יִשְׁמְעוּ וְלָמְדוּ לְיִרְאָה אֶת ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם – The children who do not yet know will hear and learn to fear Hashem your God… (31:13)

Why is it important that children are a part of this mitzvah?

The Gemara says that while a child does not have the mental capacity to technically fulfill a mitzvah, there is a pedagogical benefit to their inclusion nonetheless.

The reason children must attend is simple and powerful: the Torah is for everyone – even the king, and even the children. Today, we call this principle the rule of law.

R’ Shai Held considers Hakhel an orienting event that re-enacts the redemption and revelation the foundational moments of Egypt and Sinai that Judaism revolves around.

It takes place after the Shemitta year because Shemitta releases slaves and debts, and discharges mortgages and pledges.

It takes place on Sukkos because it is the time of year that everyone leaves the illusion of security and trappings of life behind, living with simplicity and vulnerability together – צילא דמהימנותא.

It is not enough that everyone attends; they must be there “together”.

The Shem Mi’Shmuel notes that to achieve the level where we can accept the Torah once more, it takes a whole year of living in liberty and equality, free from the obsession of increasing our private property.

The Sfas Emes teaches that the effort parents have to make to bring their kids teaches the children how important it is to understand this. While it may be difficult to explain to a  young child that something is important, they will understand when you show them.

The Hakhel ceremony reaffirms that beneath the details and minutiae of our lives, we cannot help but acknowledge our shared common identity and fundamental dependence on God. Accordingly, it is entirely fitting that the experience of the children is front and center.

The Torah belongs to everyone. The buildup to the moment at Sinai where the Jewish People could accept the Torah in sacred unity with one voice is reenacted every calendar cycle at Hakhel, and the Torah calls for a similar process to break the barriers down.

To build a community, you need a longer table; not a higher fence.

Not Yet Lost

< 1 minute
Straightforward

One of the most beautiful and innovative themes in the Torah is the concept of teshuva – return and repentance. Everything broken and lost can be found, fixed, and restored.

Whatever mistakes we have made, we believe that Hashem loves us and will accept us the moment we make up our minds:

וְשָׁב ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶתשְׁבוּתְךָ, וְרִחֲמֶךָ; וְשָׁב, וְקִבֶּצְךָ מִכָּלהָעַמִּים, אֲשֶׁר הֱפִיצְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, שָׁמָּה. אִםיִהְיֶה נִדַּחֲךָ, בִּקְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִםמִשָּׁם יְקַבֶּצְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וּמִשָּׁם יִקָּחֶךָ – God will return your captives and have compassion for you; and will return and gather you from all the nations, wherever God has scattered you. Even if you are displaced to the edge of the heavens; that’s where God will gather you from – He will fetch you from there. (30:3,4)

R’ Chaim Brown notes that Hashem promises to find us twice – וְקִבֶּצְךָ / יְקַבֶּצְךָ.

What does the repetition add?

Rav Kook teaches that the first promise is about a physical return to Israel, and the second promise is that God will also return us from the outer edge of the spiritual universe – קְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם.

The Sfas Emes teaches that Hashem makes this promise regardless of whatever it is that brought us there to that spiritual wilderness – whether it’s upbringing; bad choices; poor self-control – none of it matters – מִשָּׁם יְקַבֶּצְךָ / וּמִשָּׁם יִקָּחֶךָ.

An astounding number of people today believe they are irredeemable and have done terrible things. But if you’re not an adulterous, idol worshipping murderer, the odds are that you can make amends pretty easily. And even if you are, Hashem doesn’t give up on us!

So forgive yourself for yesterday; make amends today; all for a better tomorrow.

God is Biased

2 minute read
Straightforward

One of our core beliefs is in our ability to repent and make amends – teshuva – both on a personal and a national level.

The majority of Jewish people are only loosely affiliated and are not well versed in our beliefs and traditions. It’s certainly not their fault, and they are oblivious to the notion they might be doing something wrong.

For them and for us, how do we fix something we don’t know is broken?

The beautiful thing is, we don’t always need to know, and we don’t have to do it alone:

 וְשָׁב ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶתשְׁבוּתְךָ, וְרִחֲמֶךָ; וְשָׁב, וְקִבֶּצְךָ מִכָּלהָעַמִּים, אֲשֶׁר הֱפִיצְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, שָׁמָּה. אִםיִהְיֶה נִדַּחֲךָ, בִּקְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם מִשָּׁם יְקַבֶּצְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וּמִשָּׁם יִקָּחֶךָ – God will return your captives and have compassion for you; and will return and gather you from all the nations, wherever God has scattered you. (30:3,4)

As Pirkei Avos puts it, God has a bias towards goodness – וּבְטוֹב הָעוֹלָם נִדּוֹן.

God promises a gift of compassion, that wherever we find ourselves, however far we might have fallen, He will find us and bring us back.

The popular aphorism has it that home is the place that when you go there, they have to let you in. Teshuva is the return to a religious home – even if you’ve never been there before. R’ Jonathan Sacks likens it to the waves of diaspora immigrants who escaped to Israel. When Europeans, Yemenites, Moroccans, Russians, and Ethiopians stepped off boats and planes into a land they’d never seen before, they still knew they were home – וְקִבֶּצְךָ מִכָּלהָעַמִּים, אֲשֶׁר הֱפִיצְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, שָׁמָּה.

The Shem mi’Shmuel explains that God’s compassion amplifies the steps we take to make amends – ועֹשֶׂה חֶסֶד לַאֲלָפִים. A person who sinned their entire life can still repent on his deathbed – כי לא תחפץ במות המת, כי אם בשובו מדרכו וחיה ועד יום מותו תחכה לו, אם ישוב מיד תקבלו.

As Rabbi Nachman of Breslev put it: if you believe you can break; believe you can fix. Just a few moments of real introspection go a long way. We just have to take a step, because the perfect is the enemy of the good.

And if God never gives up on us, it would be perverse to judge ourselves negatively according to some higher standard!

Who Watches the Watchman?

6 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah details many laws that help regulate society. As with any legal system, the Torah anticipates that sometimes people will fail, break the law, and what to do about it.

But sometimes, it’s already too late. Some crimes go unsolved in what is called a cold case, when there are no leads, no suspects, and no witnesses, which is particularly dangerous for the obvious reason that the perpetrator remains at large and unidentified.

The Torah describes such an example. 

In the event an unidentified body is discovered in an unpopulated area, the Torah commands a specific and highly bizarre ritual, where the elders and leaders of the closest city take a calf to a nearby river or stream, break its neck, and make a public proclamation they didn’t kill this innocent person:

וְעָנוּ, וְאָמְרוּ:  יָדֵינוּ, לֹא שָׁפְכוּ אֶת-הַדָּם הַזֶּה, וְעֵינֵינוּ, לֹא רָאוּ. כַּפֵּר לְעַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר-פָּדִיתָ, ה, וְאַל-תִּתֵּן דָּם נָקִי, בְּקֶרֶב עַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְנִכַּפֵּר לָהֶם, הַדָּם.  וְאַתָּה, תְּבַעֵר הַדָּם הַנָּקִי–מִקִּרְבֶּךָ:  כִּי-תַעֲשֶׂה הַיָּשָׁר, בְּעֵינֵי ה – They shall speak and say “Our hands did not shed this blood, and our eyes were blind. Hashem, forgive Israel, Your people, and do not tolerate innocent blood to remain among Israel, your people,” and the blood shall be forgiven. Purge yourself of the guilt of innocent blood, and do what is right and proper in the eyes of God. (21:7-9)

Beyond the specifics of the ritual that require their own explanation, it’s quite something for the Torah to require the elders, sages, and leaders to say they weren’t the killers. 

Would anyone seriously suspect that they were?

Rashi explains the proclamation to mean that they didn’t know there was a traveler and therefore were not complicit in the murder by letting them travel in a dangerous area alone. The Sforno similarly explains that they must affirm that they didn’t knowingly permit a murderer to roam free.

The Chasam Sofer takes a very different approach, observing that it is straightforward to say the murder was not their fault, but they don’t get to say that. In this reading, the ceremony is not a declaration of innocence; but a public statement of collective responsibility and guilt, a confession and acknowledgment that the crime happened on their watch.

Or in other words, there is no question of why the Torah summons the elders and sages and leaders to answer for the quiet mystery death of an innocent; it’s the answer. 

“Our hands didn’t kill this person; we didn’t hold the knife, or the gun, or give them the pills. But that’s as far as we can go in disclaiming responsibility. Because we weren’t looking, we weren’t paying the close attention this person deserved and needed, so the criminal – and the victim – slipped right through our fingers.”

When the Torah describes the Mishkan construction process, it presents an exhaustive account of each donation because the leaders were publicly accountable for each contribution; and that’s just for finances! As the Lubavitcher Rebbe said, people are not dollars.

If you are surprised the Torah requires leaders to account for human life, then, like the sages who perform the ritual, you haven’t been paying attention.

In the section detailing the rituals for sacrificial atonement, the Torah talks about leaders who make mistakes:

אֲשֶׁר נָשִׂיא יֶחֱטָא וְעָשָׂה אַחַת מִכּל־מִצְות ה אֱלֹקיו אֲשֶׁר לֹא־תֵעָשֶׂינָה בִּשְׁגָגָה וְאָשֵׁם – When a leader incurs guilt by doing unwittingly any of the things which God commanded not to do, and he realizes his guilt… (4:22)

The Torah plainly and unambiguously talks about when, and not if, leaders make mistakes because avoiding mistakes in power is impossible; we need to stop pretending otherwise because denying errors compounds them and makes things worse. Very few people expect a society without any wrongdoing, but corruption and impotence in dealing with misconduct are highly destructive; the cover-up is always worse than the crime.

When politics demands a lie, but people demand the truth, you get corruption. Leaders that face painful truths are not just morally preferable; they save lives. Wilfully blind leaders playing make-believe about real problems in our community alienate and disillusion people who care, weakening their ties to a community that won’t show care and concern to the people who need it! We can’t afford to tolerate leaders who fixate on maintaining the illusion of infallible perfection and divine knowledge. We will never correct our community’s mistakes so long as we deny them and don’t confront them. While we can’t reasonably expect perfect leaders, we can reasonably expect perfectly compassionate and honest leaders who will do what is right and proper.

On Yom Kippur, the great Day of Atonement, the Kohen Gadol’s first atonement ritual is a personal confession for himself and his family, publicly owning his mistakes.

Every year before Tisha b’Av, we publicly read Isaiah’s explicit rage against corrupt leadership and broken institutions that don’t protect the vulnerable – רַחֲצוּ הִזַּכּוּ הָסִירוּ רֹעַ מַעַלְלֵיכֶם מִנֶּגֶד עֵינָי חִדְלוּ הָרֵעַ׃ לִמְדוּ הֵיטֵב דִּרְשׁוּ מִשְׁפָּט אַשְּׁרוּ חָמוֹץ שִׁפְטוּ יָתוֹם רִיבוּ אַלְמָנָה… שָׂרַיִךְ סוֹרְרִים וְחַבְרֵי גַּנָּבִים כֻּלּוֹ אֹהֵב שֹׁחַד וְרֹדֵף שַׁלְמֹנִים יָתוֹם לֹא יִשְׁפֹּטוּ וְרִיב אַלְמָנָה לֹא־יָבוֹא אֲלֵיהֶם.

The Ibn Ezra explains that the Torah is suggesting that when something terrible happens in a community, that community has some introspection and soul searching to do. In fact, this is the Rambam’s universal guidance on how to respond to tragedy; bad things happen in a climate and environment, and we can identify the factors that make them more likely to occur in a given context and change them.

We don’t often have to deal with murders in our community, but the Torah doesn’t explicitly talk about murder at all – כִּי־יִמָּצֵא חָלָל בָּאֲדָמָה… נֹפֵל בַּשָּׂדֶה לֹא נוֹדַע מִי הִכָּהוּ.

R’ Aaron Lopiansky teaches that we must not mistakenly classify sexual abuse as a sin or misdemeanor. It is no exaggeration to say that sexual abuse is a matter of life and death, among the most severe crimes a human can commit, right alongside murder, which ties back into the severity of the sage’s confession over an unidentified body.

If a survivor of abuse commits suicide, who really killed them?

R’ Aharon Lichtenstein warns against resorting to the no-true-Scotsman fallacy – “he wasn’t really one of us!” We don’t get to disclaim wrongdoers after the fact when they fit in seamlessly alongside the best and brightest our community has to offer until being found out. We have to be willing to ask the difficult question of what allowed them to hurt vulnerable people yet blend right in with us.

There are good reasons why victims are scared to report crimes in our community, and if you want to sleep well at night, make sure you’re not one of them. People who have experienced abuse and trauma are not damaged goods, not pitiful, stained misfits who deserve your deepest sympathies. It’s not their fault. You need to believe them, and you need to believe in them. The abuser’s best friend is the Sefer Chofetz Chaim; they rely on and exploit the fact that their victim will remain silent.

You can be very sure there are victimized and vulnerable people in your circles. If you don’t know of any offhand, you ought to wonder why no one trusts you enough to share that with you. It starts with not turning away or keeping silent when people misguidedly or maliciously defend abusers; victims must know in their bones that you are with them all the way, otherwise you are complicit.

The Torah uses emotion extremely sparingly, so we ought to sit up and notice when it does. The way the Torah uses the imagery of spilled innocent blood to demand the sages publicly beg forgiveness is particularly powerful; the Torah has no tolerance for unanswered crimes, where the victim dies alone and invisible – וְאַל-תִּתֵּן דָּם נָקִי, בְּקֶרֶב עַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְנִכַּפֵּר לָהֶם, הַדָּם.  וְאַתָּה, תְּבַעֵר הַדָּם .הַנָּקִי–מִקִּרְבֶּךָ.

Every time one of our institutions acts to protect a victimizer instead of the victim, we fail that test.

On Shabbos, Jewish communities worldwide for generations have said a prayer for the victims with a particularly stirring line:

כִּי־דֹרֵשׁ דָּמִים אוֹתָם זָכָר לֹא־שָׁכַח צַעֲקַת עֲנָוִים – For He does not ignore the cry of the distressed; He who requites bloodshed is mindful of them.

The Torah plainly and unambiguously demands that leaders take extreme ownership and recognize the systemic failures that lead to an innocent person’s untimely death, with a ritual of collective responsibility for contributory negligence, that they did not meet their duties of care to the standards the victim required.

Today, purging ourselves from the guilt of innocent blood and doing what is right and proper in the eyes of God means allegations should be taken seriously and thoroughly, and impartially investigated. We do what is right and proper by upholding the rule of law, applying the law evenly, without fear or favor, even if the accused is someone we care about and look up to. Call the police, and report the abuse. Make sure the authorities know and make sure competent mental health professionals are involved. If there’s the slightest hint of impropriety or wrongdoing, the institution must reorganize.

The Torah’s consistent vision of our society is that we stand up for each other, and most especially for those who cannot stand up for themselves. Systemic failures in our entire communal framework allow such things to happen, and the Torah calls on the leaders of that framework to account for bad things that happen on their watch.

“We didn’t see! We didn’t know!” These excuses don’t cut it when your head is in the sand and you didn’t do anything last time around. The errors and omissions for things we weren’t paying attention to are still sins that require rectification on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – שוגג / על חטא שחטאנו ביודעים ובלא יודעים.

If good people don’t enforce what is right and proper against abusers and criminals because we’re afraid of backlash or negative attention, then the abusers and criminals win by default because no one bothered to stop them.

It’s not the mayor, Rosh Yeshiva, or local rabbi who must perform the ritual; it’s all of them, which is to say that no one gets to say it’s not their fault. We are responsible for both our actions and inactions.

Who watches the watchers? All of us – שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים תִּתֶּן־לְךָ בְּכל־שְׁעָרֶיךָ.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. We deserve leaders who protect the people who need it most, and we ought to demand that; if we can’t disempower bad leaders, we need new institutions and leadership.

Leaders are responsible for their communities, but communities are responsible for who they will follow.

Yonah: Rejecting Justice For Mercy

3 minute read
Straightforward

On Yom Kippur, before the conclusion of the day, we read the story of Yonah, who is summoned by God to travel to Nineveh and warn its residents to repent of their sins or face divine wrath.

Instead, he boards a ship and runs away. Caught in a storm, he orders the terrified sailors to cast him overboard, and a giant fish swallows him. Three days later,  Yonah agrees to go to Nineveh, and the fish vomits him onto the shore. Yonah convinces the entire city of Nineveh to repent and regretting his mission, attempts to die in the desert. God grows a mysterious plant to shield him, then causes it to wither. When Yonah complains about the plant’s removal, God rebukes him.

What is this story’s particular relevance to the themes of the day?

R’ Jonathan Sack notes that the story tells us to recalibrate who we think is capable of change. Simple pagan sailors can change, and so can Israel’s enemies – the people of Nineveh.

When an input changes, the output changes – which is why repentance, prayer, and charity have the power to change our fate. Yonah ran away specifically because he knew that God forgives when people listen.

God prefers mercy over justice, as Yonah himself says – כִּי יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי אַתָּה אֵל-חַנּוּן וְרַחוּם, אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב-חֶסֶד, וְנִחָם עַל-הָרָעָה.

Throughout the story, we sense Yonah’s effortless ability to make an impact; even when he is literally running from God, he still manages to leave all his shipmates as righteous and upright men making vows and sacrifices to God. He doesn’t jump overboard, which fits his characterization in the story of being frustrated at his ability to save anyone except the people he actually wants to save – his own people.

The nature of a warning prophecy is that it’s not supposed to come true. It is a call to action, warning against continuing in the current direction. A prophecy shows a fork in the road – a successful prophecy is one that doesn’t come true. The story is about hearing a call to action and taking it seriously.

Teshuva happens when we tune in and listen.

With just five words – עוֹד אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם, וְנִינְוֵה נֶהְפָּכֶת – he made an impact on the people of Nineveh that a lifetime of serving his own people had not. He knew what would happen if the people of Nineveh listened when the Jewish People would not – they would attack Israel, because the Jewish people had rejected the option of mercy, and would instead receive justice.

Yonah knew what would happen when Nineveh listened – God would forgive.

Depressed, Yonah went into the desert hoping to die, so God grew a plant overnight to shelter him, at which Yonah recovered and rejoiced. The plant then died as quickly as it grew, and Yonah lamented his situation and wanted to die again.

God then spoke to Yonah and pointed out the egocentric solipsism of his selfish inability to understand a perspective other than his own:

אַתָּה חַסְתָּ עַל-הַקִּיקָיוֹן, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-עָמַלְתָּ בּוֹ וְלֹא גִדַּלְתּוֹ:  שֶׁבִּן-לַיְלָה הָיָה, וּבִן-לַיְלָה אָבָד: וַאֲנִי לֹא אָחוּס, עַל-נִינְוֵה הָעִיר הַגְּדוֹלָה–אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ-בָּהּ הַרְבֵּה מִשְׁתֵּים-עֶשְׂרֵה רִבּוֹ אָדָם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַע בֵּין-יְמִינוֹ לִשְׂמֹאלוֹ, וּבְהֵמָה, רַבָּה – You worry about a little plant, which you did not grow or cultivate, which came and went in a single night – should I not worry for the enormous city of Nineveh, home to 120,000 people who don’t know their right from their left, and all their animals? (4:10,11)

It is selfish and hypocritical to want mercy for ourselves but justice for our enemies. You cannot ask for forgiveness for yourself yet deny it to others, and you don’t always get to choose who to save.

With these provocative thoughts, we move into the crescendo of Yom Kippur’s finale.

It is the final opportunity to ask for mercy, not justice. For everyone, not just ourselves.

Fighting Fate

2 minute read
Straightforward

For many people, one of the most moving parts of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy is the Nesaneh Tokef prayer; which vividly describes the courtroom of judgment and sets the stakes as high as possible – determinations of life, death, and everything in between. 

The prayer affirms that on this day, Heaven determines who will live and who will die, and you take a moment to think about who left us too soon this year. Who will suffer, and who will have it easy; you think of your friend who’s had an awful time recently. Who will be well and who will be weak; you think of that terrible diagnosis you heard about. 

And yet, for all the severity of judgment, the prayer concludes by throwing it out the window entirely. It’s Judgment Day, and sure, your verdict for the year is set today, and this is the decisive moment. But we loudly proclaim that our fate is, in fact, not fixed at all because of the notion that we can choose to change and grow, because repentance, prayer, and charity can change our fate – וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה.

The word for repentance means homecoming or return; that however lost we may be, we can always find our way back – תְשׁוּבָה. The word for prayer means introspection; we can always take stock for an honest self-appraisal, evaluating and redirecting our direction – תְפִלָּה. The word for charity means justice; justice is something humans can create and share with others – צְדָקָה. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains, the words we say are all aspects of our lives that we have complete agency and control over. 

R’ Micha Berger notes that they parallel the three relationships a person has – charity reflecting our horizontal relationship with each other, prayer reflecting our vertical relationship with God, and repentance reflecting our inner relationship with ourselves. 

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that the judgment of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur only determines the default trajectory as things stand, but they are not exhaustively binding or rigidly preordained. We can hold on to hope that, ultimately, we can influence and control our destinies.

If you improve one single characteristic, that constitutes a change substantial enough to change and reshape the future.

Mathematics validates the butterfly effect, where small things have non-linear impacts on a complex system, like a butterfly flapping its wings which through ripple effects causes a typhoon. Small things can have a big impact on the future.

Change yourself, change your fate.

Think Of The Children

< 1 minute
Straightforward

There core components to Teshuva are remorse and making amends. A prerequisite to these is taking ownership of our actions.

Before Moshe died, he warned the Jewish People not to deny or avoid their mistakes:

שִׁחֵת לוֹ לֹא, בָּנָיו מוּמָם: דּוֹר עִקֵּשׁ, וּפְתַלְתֹּל – Destruction is not His – it is His children’s shortcoming; a crooked and twisted generation. (32:5)

R’ Avrohom Shor teaches that our actions shape our realities: anger creates fear and withdrawal, greed alienates partners, gossip erodes trust, and laziness hinders results.

Sometimes making amends is as easy as apologizing, but not always. For example, years of anger and abuse cannot be undone by suddenly turning soft and gentle; we might genuinely want to change, but the resentment caused by years of negativity will linger for quite some time, and we are responsible – שִׁחֵת לוֹ לֹא, בָּנָיו מוּמָם.

How can we mitigate that?

R’ Ahron Belzer remarked that we should allow those our nearest and dearest to see more of our inner lives. It can only be a good thing for them to know that we too are flawed and just trying our best.

It can only be a good thing for our families to know about our good deeds and community work, most especially young children, who learn from example:

הַנִּסְתָּרֹת לַה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ עַד עוֹלָם – The hidden things are Hashem’s; the revealed things are for our children and us for eternity. (29:28)

Those close to us see more than we think. So if you are committed to improving and making amends,  put it on display, so your loved ones can learn and participate – וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ עַד עוֹלָם.

When it’s authentic, they should only be supportive and encouraging, and your example will have a ripple effect.

Fool Me Twice..?

< 1 minute
Straightforward

During Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Selichos prayers, we refer to Hashem as old and kind -ותיק ועושה חסד.

While we readily understand the benefits of kindness, it’s an odd thing to call someone “old” and mean in a good way. How does being “old” modify God’s kindness?

Imagine speeding your car down the road and getting pulled over by the police.

Maybe you could talk your way out of it by saying you had a family emergency, and if the police officer is in a good mood, he’ll let you off with a warning.

But what if the very next day, the same police officer pulls you over in the same place for the same offense, and you then give the exact same excuse?

Every year, we make the same promises and the same excuses.

Yet Hashem never tires of us, and that’s the quality we admire here.

That the same old judge from yesterday and a year ago can still bear to listen kindly.

Attitude Redux

5 minute read
Straightforward

During the Jewish People’s time in the desert, God gave a variety of commands.

We expect God to give commands, it comes with the territory, that’s what God does, it makes sense. They’d only just left Egypt and stood at Sinai; there was a new religion with new procedures and protocols to implement. And after all, there’s no way to know what God wants unless God says so!

What God says, we expect the audience to do, which the Torah dutifully records – וַיַּעַשׂ כֵּן. 

But what we might not expect is that the Torah reports with meticulous regularity, each and every time, not just that people obey, but that people carry out their task as per God’s command – וַיַּעַשׂ כֵּן כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה. The Torah uses this phrase tens, if not hundreds of times!

If you think about it, apart from the repetitiveness, it’s almost entirely redundant. It’s not at all obvious what doing something per God’s command adds, because, in almost every example, there is literally no other conceivable way to do the thing.

When God says to light the Menora, there is only one way to light a Menora. When God says to take a census of how many people there are, the only way to fulfill the command is to count people. When God says to bring a Korban Pesach, or how to do the Yom Kippur service, or any of the Mishkan-related workflows, or to go to war with Midian, or to execute somebody, there isn’t any other way to do any of those things! And yet each time, the Torah doesn’t say people followed their instructions; it says that the people followed their instructions faithfully as per God’s command – ‘וַיַּעַשׂ כֵּן כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה. 

Each time people follow instructions, why does the Torah add that they followed the instructions per God’s command?

Perhaps the Torah isn’t telling us that they did it; it’s telling us how they did it.

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that even when there truly is only one way to do something, there is still a right and wrong way. When the Torah adds that people followed instructions faithfully – ‘כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה – it’s not saying that they did just like they were told; it means that people follow instructions just like when they were told, capturing the snapshot of sentiment or feeling of a particular moment.

When you do anything, even if there’s no other way, you can still do it with energy, focus, and joy; or not – a right way and a wrong way, even when there’s only one way. 

Our sages were sensitive to this subtle but universal nuance.

Rashi quotes the Sifri that Ahron lit the Menora every day, precisely the way Moshe told him for the rest of his life, and never changed or deviated in any way – ‘כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה; the Sifri suggests that our everyday approach to Torah should similarly be with freshness and excitement – וְהָיוּ הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם עַל־לְבָבֶךָ.

R’ Simcha Bunim of Peshischa notes that as much as the comment is about Ahron not changing how he performed his duties, it’s equally a comment about how his duties didn’t change him. Some people let privilege and honor get to their heads – but not Ahron.

The Sfas Emes notes that lighting the Menora wasn’t a particularly prestigious ceremony in that any Kohen could kindle the lights. Still, Ahron took it seriously enough that he insisted on doing it himself every day for the rest of his life – every day, he did it like the moment he received the command.

The Ishbitza notes that the highest praise for Ahron is that he retained that initial desire, that things never got stale or boring for him. He kept challenging himself to find something new and exciting, so he lit the Menora his last time with the same enthusiasm as the first.

The Shem mi’Shmuel notes that the word for training, which means practice repetitions, is cognate to the word for inauguration, the first time you do something – חינוך / חנוכה. This suggests that training is not simply a repeat of past performance but the repetition of newness, with each repetition inviting an opportunity to introduce a fresh aspect or dimension.

Attitude and mentality are everything; the mental and emotional components heavily influence the substance of any interaction. Prayer and sacrifice require proper intent to have any substance to them; there is a vast difference between giving someone a hand because you care and giving someone a hand out of pity.

A Torah scroll is quite clearly and obviously a religious article, and yet it has no inherent sanctity from its perfect script and spelling. A Torah scroll is kosher and sacred exclusively if they were written with the express intent of imbuing the words and scroll with sanctity; which is to say that its utility and value as a holy object are solely determined by the mentality of the scribe.

The Mishkan had plenty of unique artifacts like the Menora, but it had some pretty ordinary implements that everyone owns; a shirt, a hat, a cup, and a spoon. What designated these as sacred and distinct is the intention with which they were crafted.

This is a universal truth in all walks of life, from Judaism to art to cooking. A great cook will say their secret ingredient is love; a great artist or sage will say their secret technique is heart and soul. 

In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., if a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’

Mastery is typically boring. Finishing your fiftieth marathon is probably less special than your first.

It’s normal.

The more we experience something, the more our enthusiasm and attention typically wane. Predictability and comfort put an end to fresh euphoria; when we know what to expect, our excitement wears off, and boredom sets in. That’s why we need to keep things fresh if we’re focused on a long-term project or goal; cruise control is a killer.

It’s something often seen with young athletes or scholars who lose their way – they think they’ve made it and stop putting in the work that would take them to the elite tier. The seasoned pros always comment on how essential it is for youngsters to maintain their concentration and focus to stay on track; to be fully present in each moment and devote their full and undivided attention so things don’t get boring.

In all walks of life, the highest form of mastery is in valuing each repetition and finding the novelty and excitement in it.

It’s not redundant for the Torah to say each time that people did the right thing in the right way for the right reason. It is ubiquitous because it reflects a truism of life, a constant reminder that is universally true.

The way you do things matters.

The Principal-Agent Problem

2 minute read
Straightforward

As Moshe prepares for the end of his life, he tells the Jewish people to have no fear, and that God would look after them:

ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ, הוּא-יַשְׁמִיד אֶת-הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה – “Hashem, your God; He will cross you over, He will destroy your enemies before you.” (31:3)

Instead of saying “God will cross you over and destroy your enemies,” Moshe adds extra emphasis that “God, He” will do it – הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ, הוּא-יַשְׁמִיד אֶת-הַגּוֹיִם.

What was Moshe adding?

The Ohr HaChaim explains that Moshe was speaking to people who were afraid to lose Moshe.

Moshe had rescued the Jewish People numerous times, even when they were at fault. After instigating the Golden Calf, a plague struck them that only Moshe’s prayer could stop. Who would save them from peril if not Moshe?

The few wars and skirmishes they’d fought were all won under Moshe’s command. Facing a campaign of conquest in Israel, who would lead them into battle?

Moshe recognized that people idolized him, figuratively and perhaps literally, and told them that they were misplacing their trust. It had never been about him. They had mistaken the agent for the principal.

It had been God all along.

Looking over the theatre of getting angry and sending a plague; God had wanted Moshe to pray; had planted the idea; taught him the words, and fundamentally, wants to forgive. That’s what God’s essence is, and Moshe evoked imagery of the same word used to describe God’s characteristic of forgiveness – עובר על פשע / הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ.

It had never been Moshe winning the wars – God had been orchestrating events and would continue – הוּא-יַשְׁמִיד אֶת-הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה.

The Seforno explains quite simply, Moshe was telling his audience that the medium was not the message, and that that he was just a vehicle for God’s plans.

R’ Tzadok HaCohen notes how Moshe’s entire speech is addressed to “you” – the second person singular – because the message echoes through the ages.

Each of us has equal and direct access to God. We do not believe in intermediaries, however special they are.

Teachers and guides are critically important influences – עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב.

But outsourcing our faculties to a proxy is something else entirely.

The Eternal Flame

3 minute read
Straightforward

The ancients understood that water is the source of life, that rain and water are life-giving, and that water symbolizes cleansing, regeneration, renewal, fertility, birth, creation, and new life.

Rain is a powerful symbol in the covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people; unlike Egypt, where the water comes up from the Nile and beneath people’s toes, Israel is a land where people must raise their eyes and thoughts to the heavens for rain.

Given rain’s prominent role in the agricultural world of our ancestors, it follows that rain features prominently in our daily prayers – מַשִּׁיב הָרוּחַ וּמוֹרִיד הַגֶּשֶׁם.

But once a year, there was a distinctly unique prayer featuring rain.

The Kohen Gadol would enter the inner sanctum of the Beis HaMikdash on Yom Kippur, perform the ritual service, and say one single prayer, the only prayer ever uttered at Judaism’s holiest site. It was about rain.

Given the heavy agricultural dependency, we might reasonably expect the religious leader and representative of the entire generation to request the right amount of rain at the appropriate time and place.

But this prayer would confound those expectations.

The prayer asks God to ignore the prayers of travelers who don’t want to get wet along the way.

It’s arguably the most important day and ritual of the year; if we had to nominate one significant thing to pray for, we might think of several. But even if we have understood how rain is of vital importance, why would ignoring travelers be the single most important thing we have to say about it?

Perhaps this prayer reveals a worldview on how to think about the things we need most.

There is an interesting directive in the laws of sacrifices about a fire that had to burn in all weather conditions; even the rain:

אֵשׁ תָּמִיד תּוּקַד עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ לֹא תִכְבֶּה – Burn an eternal flame on the altar, it can never burn out… (6:6)

On its face, this is a simple instruction to the attending Kohanim on duty to regularly stoke and fuel the flame so it would never burn out.

There was nothing magical about it; it could not and did not burn on its own. It required a complex and dedicated logistical operation with constant maintenance and monitoring, round-the-clock shifts year-round, rain or shine, snow or wind.

Pirkei Avos suggests that these efforts were met with divine assistance; rain would not quench the fire.

Water extinguishes fire; yet even in the realm of the transparently supernatural, our sages specifically understood the divine assistance to take the form of rain that wouldn’t put the fire out, as opposed to no rain over the fire. This strongly suggests that it’s not viable for there to be no rain here, there, or anywhere. It just doesn’t work that way.

The Kohanim would still have to work the fire in adverse weather conditions; God would ensure their efforts were successful.

The eternal flame wasn’t fueled by magic; it was driven by raw human willpower and was the source of fires in all the year-round services, from the Menorah to the incense, the crescendo of the Yom Kippur service when the Kohen Gadol said his prayer for the rain.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch suggests that this illustrates that the heat and warmth of life’s special moments are only fuelled by the grit and consistency of our daily grind. It wasn’t an eternal flame so much as a perpetual flame – אֵשׁ תָּמִיד.

The eternal flame wasn’t an external phenomenon; it came from within, entirely generated by humans. You are a miniature eternal flame; you must consistently stoke the fire under whatever conditions at whatever pace allows you to keep at it for decades without burning out.

The Kohanim stokes the flames in the pouring rain, beating winds, barefoot on the slippery stone floors. Our sages well understood the real miracle of the eternal flame; determined willpower and enduring efforts that were blessed with success. The Yom Kippur prayer rejects the immaturity of fair-weather travelers who do not accept that we live in a world that needs rain, a world where it must rain, a world where people are going to get wet and uncomfortable sometimes.

Don’t be a fair-weather traveler.

Embrace the crucial role consistency, perseverance, and perspiration play in life; the miracle of the eternal flame only happens once human effort is exhausted.

As R’ Chaim Volozhin teaches, we can’t choose our circumstances,  but we fully control our direction and velocity – לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר.

R’ Joseph B. Soloveitchik suggests that we must broaden the scope and strengthen the intensity of our efforts because the aggregate of all outcomes is entirely contingent on our actions – השתדלות.

For the blessing to have a place to land, you need to do all you can; ask not for a lighter burden but broader shoulders.

All you can do is your best; you must hope for the rest.