1. Home
  2. Bereishis | Genesis

Imagination Redux

3 minute read
Straightforward

The power of human imagination is incredible.

If you’ve ever daydreamed or watched children play, you’ve experienced firsthand the ability to form images of things or ideas in the mind. When we read stories or consume different media, our minds light up with wonder and possibility, experiencing and feeling things that might not exist in the external world but are very real to us.

The ability to imagine is not trivial; the thoughts and beliefs generated in the internal world drive actions and behaviors that shape the external world.

But imagination isn’t simply idle daydreaming or fantasy, nor even just internal play we then act out externally. It’s a distinctly human quality to think about the future and plan for it, to conceptualize a possible future, and then try to make it a reality.

Without an imagination, you would be stuck living within the confines of what you already know. A world without imagination would be a world without creativity and would leave us with little capacity to experiment, explore, innovate, solve problems, or even entertain ourselves.

The capacity for imaginative thought is an exceptionally creative activity and arguably even a religious act – it is the tool that enables change. The power of imagination speaks to the core of not only who we are but also who we might become, and as such, aligns closely with our essential nature as beings created in the image of the Divine.

This profound understanding of imagination is vividly illustrated in the biblical narrative of Yosef and Yakov’s reunion.

Yosef’s brothers abducted him in childhood and trafficked him into slavery. They covered up their crime by telling their father a wild animal had mauled him, and Yakov lived unconsoled in all the years that followed. When fortune brought his brothers before him, Yosef took the opportunity to bring healing to his family, and Yakov went down to Egypt to see his long-lost son once more. In the pivotal moment, Yakov remarks that he never believed such a thing was possible:

וַיֹּאמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל־יוֹסֵף רְאֹה פָנֶיךָ לֹא פִלָּלְתִּי וְהִנֵּה הֶרְאָה אֹתִי אֱלֹהִים גַּם אֶת־זַרְעֶךָ – And Israel said to Yosef, “I never imagined I’d see you again, and now God has even let me see your children as well!” (48:11)

Our sages teach that at this moment, Yakov uttered Shema Yisrael, a centerpiece of Jewish prayer that affirms the unity and power of the Creator.

We might think that Yakov says this prayer out of appreciation; he is thankful for once again laying eyes on his son Yosef before he dies.

But his words suggest something deeper than gratitude, something much more like shock or surprise – לֹא פִלָּלְתִּי.

Rashi takes this expression to mean deliberative thinking or judgment. The Rashbam explains that Yakov never allowed himself to dare to hope he might see Yosef again. The Chizkuni understands it to mean that Yakov had not even prayed to see Yosef again, an impossible expectation given that a wild animal had killed him, noting that the word Yakov uses is cognate to the word for prayer – תפלה / פִלָּלְתִּי.

Or, as we might say today, Yakov never imagined that he might see Yosef again.

The suggestion of an association between prayer and imagination is exceptionally powerful. R’ Judah Mischel observes that the obvious implication is that part of prayer is allowing yourself to dare to imagine that things can be different or better, that something else is possible.

Taking these insights together, we come to understand that the moment of Yakov and Yosef’s reunion captures an essential teaching that the bounds of our imagination are not the limits of what is possible. As our sages teach, even with a sword resting on your neck, you must not give up; you should still pray for an escape.

Our capacity for imagination transcends mere thought and goes far beyond what we perceive as possible and deep into the realm of faith and hope. In fact, R’ Meilich Biderman teaches that the human predisposition towards hope and optimism is one of God’s greatest expressions of kindness.

R’ Moshe Sherer said that one of our greatest blessings is the ability to dream; the Ponevezher Rav sharply added that dreaming big is important, but be careful not to fall asleep.

We all face situations that seem impossibly far, irrevocably broken, and irretrievably lost. This story challenges us to dare envision a world beyond the confines of our current reality, to pray, hope, and work towards the seemingly impossible because absurdly improbable things happen all the time.

Fuse your prayers with the power of imagination – not as an escape from reality, but as a bridge from the inner world to a brighter, better world that might still be possible.

Mama Rachel Redux

5 minute read
Advanced

Unlike the other great heroes of our pantheon, our ancestor Rachel holds a unique place in our mythology. This special significance is powerfully captured by the prophet Jeremiah, whose promise of redemption we read on Rosh Hashana.

Jeremiah singles Rachel out as possessing the power to move the heavens:

כֹּה  אָמַר ה’ קוֹל בְּרָמָה נִשְׁמָע נְהִי בְּכִי תַמְרוּרִים רָחֵל מְבַכָּה עַל־בָּנֶיהָ מֵאֲנָה לְהִנָּחֵם עַל־בָּנֶיהָ כִּי אֵינֶנּוּ׃כֹּה  אָמַר ה’ מִנְעִי קוֹלֵךְ מִבֶּכִי וְעֵינַיִךְ מִדִּמְעָה כִּי יֵשׁ שָׂכָר לִפְעֻלָּתֵךְ נְאֻם־ה’ וְשָׁבוּ מֵאֶרֶץ אוֹיֵב׃וְיֵשׁ־תִּקְוָה לְאַחֲרִיתֵךְ נְאֻם־ה’ וְשָׁבוּ בָנִים לִגְבוּלָם – So said the Lord: A cry is heard in Ramah; wailing, bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted, for her children who are gone. So says the Lord: you can stop crying, your eyes from your tears; there is truly a reward for your labors. The Lord declares: They shall return from the enemy’s land! There is hope for your future. The Lord declares: Your children shall return to their country! (Jeremiah 31:15-17)

The historical backdrop of Jeremiah’s words is the disastrous reign of the Jewish King Menashe, whose father had initiated a religious revival. On his accession, Menashe backslid and reintroduced polytheistic worship across the country, particularly the Temple Mount. The Creator is enraged, and the exile is already well underway due to the degree of religious failures and betrayal.

This historical scene sets the stage for a poignant Midrash, recounted by Rashi, imagining a scene where the patriarchs and matriarchs plead before the Creator. Avraham stands before the Creator and says that only his children accepted the Torah – this argument goes nowhere. He and Yitzchak testify about the Akeida, the Binding of Isaac; this does not win the day. Yakov invokes his great trials to escape the clutches of Esau and the jaws of Lavan; if God will banish them to their doom, was it all for naught? Moshe recalls his unparalleled loyalty, fidelity, and sacrifice for God’s people; was all that just to have them fade away? Moshe curses the sun for shining at such a time of catastrophe.

Amidst these pleas, Rachel’s intervention stands out, demonstrating her unique role. She steps forward and recalls her pain, how her father made her wait, then cheated her out of her great love, yet allowed Leah in to save her from shame, which led to a life of competition, passed on to their children, paving the way to Egypt and everything that followed.

This is the backdrop of Jeremiah’s vision; Avraham, Yitzchak, Yakov, and Moshe, with all their abundant merit and greatness, can furiously plead to no avail; they are all denied.

Rachel alone has the quality to evoke the response – מִנְעִי קוֹלֵךְ מִבֶּכִי וְעֵינַיִךְ מִדִּמְעָה.

This line is powerful and heartrending. It is something our ancestors held onto – on their deportation from Jerusalem, they passed her shrine on the way to Babylon and cried and prayed. This imagery and language is the basis of countless moving songs in multiple languages in Jewish pop music.

More than anyone else in our Tradition, Rachel is the ancestor we associate with exile, pain, and redemption.

But why?

Rachel’s unique position in this narrative invites a deeper exploration of pain and its meaning; a concept echoed in modern psychology. When children are in pain, they want the pain to go away. A savvy parent can make nice and kiss the pain away, and the episode is over and forgotten.

In contrast, when mature people are in pain, they ask why. When we ask why, they don’t necessarily mean the big global and universal why; we understand that the universe is much bigger than any of us. Moshe asked for this insight, which God said was beyond human comprehension. When we ask why, it is a search for meaning.

Legendary psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankel shared this great insight with us – a person with a why to live for can bear almost any how.

It’s intuitive and easy to understand. What would a normal and healthy parent be willing to endure to save their child? Almost anything.

What this suggests, then, is that more than we want our pain to stop, we want our pain to matter; we desperately desire the redemption of pain, and this remains the case even once the physical pains have stopped – some of life’s greatest pains are the ones that didn’t matter, the ones that were pointless, futile, unnecessary. The psychological injury doesn’t heal as quickly as the physical injury.

As the popular aphorism puts it, there is no pain, no gain, or as another one puts it when a door closes, a window opens. We understand that progress or gain can be associated with pain and that pain that leads to gain is worthwhile. The discomfort of childbirth is proximate to the gain of having a child; we are comfortable with pains that carry us forward.

From the stories of our ancestors, Rachel stands apart from our ancestors. Significant challenges characterize our ancestor’s lives; that’s why they’re our ancestors. And yet, at the end of their days, they dies full and complete – וְאַבְרָהָם זָקֵן בָּא בַּיָּמִים / שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה / וַיִּגְוַע יִצְחָק וַיָּמת וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל־עַמָּיו זָקֵן וּשְׂבַע יָמִים וַיִּקְבְּרוּ אֹתוֹ עֵשָׂו וְיַעֲקֹב בָּנָיו /  וַיְחִי יַעֲקֹב. When Moshe, Ahron, and Miriam die, they die with no anguish or suffering; it is a smooth and peaceful, even loving, transition – מיתת נשיקה. These greats live challenging lives and rise to greatness, but in the fullness of time and before the end, they live to see the culmination of their journey; everything has come full circle, and they die content, fulfilled, and satisfied.

In contrast, Rachel does not die with such fulfillment or satisfaction. She dies bleeding and in pain, on the back of a life of many pains. The pain of a cheating father, cheating her out of her great love and cheating her out of happiness and a comfortable future. She knows the pain of self-sacrifice for her sister, giving up the future to spare her shame. She endures the pain of endless competition. She bears the pain of childlessness.

And then she dies in childbirth. Not at home, not somewhere safe, not somewhere significant; just on the side of the road, on the way, in between places, or in other words, the middle of nowhere.

Unlike every other ancestor, Rachel stands apart as the archetype and embodiment of unredeemed pain. It’s not fair. The defining theme of her life is that things are not fair. When Avraham, Yitzchak, Yakov, and Moshe had their great tests to point to, those trials ended, but Rachel never did; she lived with her sacrifice until her dying breath.

Unfairness speaks to us at the deepest, most pre-conscious level; without being taught, children recognize when something is not fair and will say so. Scientists have shown that chimpanzees and dogs recognize and are agitated by unfairness.

The notion of unredeemed pain is not fair, and it speaks to us. It cannot be allowed to stand; it must be corrected. It moves us in a way that is so tangible and real that it is perhaps what compels God as well. R’ Chaim Shmulevitz poignantly suggests that we should disagree with the prophet; Rachel must not stop crying!

Drawing together these ancient insights and contemporary understandings, we arrive at a profound conclusion.

Pain and unfairness are often parts of our existence, and it is imperative to recognize the power of empathy towards ourselves and others – acknowledging Rachel’s pain is the turning point in this scene. At times, finding meaning in suffering can arguably be more crucial than escaping the pain.

It is unconscionable that our pain goes unseen, unredeemed, not mattering. It cannot be. Sometimes, it only hurts for a while, and sometimes, it never resolves, and the pain persists with no apparent meaning or payoff. This compelling sentiment is intimately associated with Rachel.

This is further echoed by the prophet Malachi, whose words close out the Tanach, the last prophecy; there will be ultimate reconciliation between all things – וְהֵשִׁיב לֵב־אָבוֹת עַל־בָּנִים וְלֵב בָּנִים עַל־אֲבוֹתָם.

The prophets reassure us that there is a divine counter for every tear and every scrape; the tears are not forever; redemption will come for Rachel’s children, and they will all come home together in the end. The potential for a brighter future always remains regardless of the depth of current struggles.

Today, we might be sad, but one day soon, all will be made right.

Truth Redux

5 minute read
Straightforward

The universe is a competitive place, and every creature is in an existential struggle to survive. As Darwin showed, the fittest to survive adapt best to their circumstances, using all tools at their disposal.

Everyone is trying to get by, so what wouldn’t you do to pass the test, get the job, win the relationship? People always exaggerate and lie on resumes, interviews, dates, and sales pitches. It’s a strategic tool for gaining an advantage, no different from how a predator utilizes camouflage to catch its prey. In the context of individual survival and success, so the thinking goes, all is fair.

The only trouble is that it’s dishonest. While some people navigate the world that way anyway, most people are uncomfortable lying.

But consider a more commonplace scenario, the most trivial interaction we encounter daily. How are you doing today? I’m fine, thank you.

It’s not always so true, is it? You might be tired, stressed, and worried. You are feeling hurt or sad about that thing. You’re not always okay, but you say you are and soldier on.

Our sages identify the quality of truth as the signature of the Creator, a profound suggestion that truth is not just a moral or ethical principle but a fundamental building block of the universe woven into the fabric of reality.

The Torah lists many laws and prohibitions; our sages saw value in establishing protective fences around the kind of things that tend to lead to boundary violations. There is one glaring exception – dishonesty. The Torah prohibits deception under a multitude of circumstances but, uncharacteristically, also sees fit to expand the boundary and instructs us to distance from dishonesty generally – מִדְּבַר שֶׁקר תִּרְחָק. If you know some of the Torah’s stories, this makes sense.

Throughout the Torah, dishonesty appears as a consistent signature of its antagonists. The snake is the archetypal trickster whose deception assimilates Creation back into the formless chaos. Ephron does business with Avraham as a crook. Esau presents himself to his father with false piety. Lavan swindles Yakov, not to mention his own daughters, out of years of peace and happiness. Joseph’s brothers cover up his abduction by faking his death. Pharaoh’s slavery started by cheating the Jewish People with phony work quotas; he flip-flops about letting them go. Korach masks his self-serving ambition to foment a populist revolution. Bilam denies his goals to God and himself in pursuit of power and wealth. Among many issues with the infamous scout report about the Land of Israel, the scouts were biased and dishonest in their presentation of their experience.

But we don’t require the Torah to reveal that dishonesty is bad; it’s easy to explain, and there are so many reasons!

You have more to gain from keeping your home than stealing your neighbor’s; not stealing is a social contract that mutually benefits all. Everyone hates getting cheated or deceived, so lying or stealing is at least hypocritical and violates Hillel’s Golden Rule of all things – don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want them doing to you.

As a matter of principle and outside of the consideration of benefits or consequences, lying is wrong because it hurts the person being manipulated and violates and ignores their autonomy; that person cannot and would not otherwise consent to be lied to or interacted with under false pretenses. If you could have achieved your goal without the lie, you would not have had to lie. Humans are created in the Divine image; violating the autonomy and dignity of another also compromises your own.

What’s more, the societal implications of dishonesty are far-reaching. Our society is based on a foundation of mutual trust and honesty, and the only way to obtain any benefits from deception is in a world of trust and honesty; dishonest people hide in the camouflage of the much larger crowd of honest people – שְׂפַת־אֱמֶת תִּכּוֹן לָעַד וְעַד־אַרְגִּיעָה לְשׁוֹן שָׁקֶר. If we understand ethics to be universal standards of conduct, deception is self-evidently unethical because it would devalue and erode the foundation of mutual trust and honesty to the point that no one would trust anybody, and there would be no further benefits to dishonesty.

Truth is a cornerstone of civilization and the reality of our primary experience. Honesty builds trust, so people can rely on each other’s words and actions, cooperating and collaborating, prerequisites for a society to function effectively. Without honesty, trust breaks down, leading to suspicion, conflict, and a lack of cooperation. Rules and laws depend on honesty to maintain stability and order; justice can only exist with truth and accountability. Relationships require honesty to establish understanding, respect, and mutual support. Business and commerce can only happen in an environment of honesty. Simply put, people can only lie in a world of truth, the world we know – אֱמֶת וּמִשְׁפַּט שָׁלוֹם שִׁפְטוּ בְּשַׁעֲרֵיכֶם.

Beyond human culture, the consistency inherent to scientific principles and the laws of physics of the universe itself is an expression of truth, the signature of the Creator that makes the universe go – אֱמֶת מֵאֶרֶץ תִּצְמָח וְצֶדֶק מִשָּׁמַיִם נִשְׁקָף. Unsurprisingly, the Torah places such a strong emphasis on honesty.

No dishonest scales at work, don’t deceive your business counterparts, don’t testify falsely, keep your word, and a litany of others, with a general rule to avoid dishonesty. Truth is the world we know, the Divine signature. Healthy people are truthful people; we don’t want to lie.

Are those everyday white lies a violation of Divine truth?

In context, everyone readily understands it’s probably polite fiction, a form of basic social lubricant. Communication is about more than words; it’s a convention of how humans interact. Conventions are subjectively followed when there is a general expectation that others will also follow them. Social grease is not dishonest when it’s what people expect; deception is only deceptive when the intent is deception. When you respond that you’re okay, you’re not lying, even though it’s not true. No one is looking for, nor expecting, a truthful report on your life; it’s a social handshake, nothing more.

Our sages even went as far as permitting outright falsehood under certain circumstances for the sake of peace. Does the dress make her look fat? You will hopefully understand that her question is not intended literally; the wise here recognize an unspoken invitation for reassurance. It’s not dishonest to give the reassuring response you’re being implicitly asked for. Telling her she’s beautiful, or saying you’re okay, isn’t lying. It’s not even polite compliance with the request; it is fully aligned with truth and perpetuates life and all Creation.

As the school of Hillel taught, don’t tell the bride she’s ugly! Use your common sense, be normal – תְּהֵא דַּעְתּוֹ שֶׁל אָדָם מְעוֹרֶבֶת עִם הַבְּרִיּוֹת.

In our daily lives, we are constantly navigating the complex landscape of truth and deception. We tell white lies to maintain social cohesion, and some of us encounter more harmful forms of dishonesty.

Cultivate a habit of honesty in your life; be mindful of the words you speak and the actions you take. Strive for authenticity in your relationships and integrity in your efforts. Even small acts of honesty contribute towards a culture of trust and respect.

Truth is more than just a moral principle – it’s a fundamental aspect of existence, the divine signature. In a world that can often seem full of deception and dishonesty, be a bearer of truth, showcasing the divine signature in all aspects of your life.

Because truth is not just about what we say to others – it’s also about being true to yourself.

Regulations Redux

4 minute read
Intermediate

Speed limits, traffic lights, parking meters, building codes, dress codes… it’s easy to see rules as restrictive forces in our lives, reducing individual freedom and personal choice.

The Torah is brimming with laws and rules, so it’s a critique one can aim at Judaism with some merit and one that has long been raised by seekers.

There are so many rules, and they stack up fast! Eat this, not that, fast then, do this, you can’t do that, wear this, you can’t wear that. And it goes on and on.

Why can’t we just do whatever we want?

The opening story of Creation about the dawn of humanity centers around the imposition of a rule, don’t eat from this tree, and humanity’s unwillingness to follow the rule – they did it anyway.

There’s a plausible reading here where God is cruel and tantalizing, teasing His creatures by pointing at the beautiful tree they are forbidden to enjoy; the language of prohibition and denial is right there, and it identifies God as the maker and enforcer of a system with arbitrary rules that humans are destined to fail.

But the story that follows about Noah and the Flood is a story about what happens in a world with no rules – total anarchy where everyone is a barbaric savage who pillages and plunders. In Noah and the Flood, we see a world without rules, which leads to chaos and the collapse of civilization, and the unmaking of the world.

No serious person believes that radical anarchy would be sustainable, a total free-for-all where Darwinian principles of survival of the fittest govern the day. Doing anything you want isn’t a utopian dream; it’s a dystopian nightmare. Every human society at all times in all places has understood that humans need rules and norms; ancient and primitive societies had rules and norms we might object to, but they had rules and norms just the same. The existence of rules and norms is a foundation of human society – no one gets to do whatever they want.

Rules form boundaries that enable and facilitate safe human relations by asserting how to interact, preventing infringement on others or abuse or depletion of a thing. Rules are a basic civic requirement.

Beyond the philosophical, this extends to the essential nature of reality; our universe is a universe of rules, built and run according to rules, the laws of physics that govern energy and matter.

The religious aspect of doing whatever we want is based on the notion that observant Jews are missing out. Sure, there are many things observant Jews can’t do or enjoy – bacon, cheeseburgers, lobster, and pepperoni are allegedly some of the big ones.

Yet the Midrash teaches that it is wrong to believe that the Creator denies or prohibits us from the joys of life in any way. Rather, the Torah asks us just to regulate our instincts and stop them from running wild in order to maintain balance in our lives, from greed, hunger, and revenge, to tribal loyalty and sexuality.

Humans break when overindulged – people everywhere abuse and hurt, cheat and steal, get obese and sick, and tirelessly waste years of life on sexual pursuits. These negative impacts aren’t the product of liberty; they’re different forms of addiction and brokenness.

Like all cultures and societies, the Torah has lots of rules. And like all cultures and societies, some make more sense than others.

But like all rules and laws, they keep us safe and stop us from getting out of control. They help regulate our enjoyment of life; they enable everything else.

The laws of sexuality regulate that family relationships are inappropriate if combined with sexuality.

The laws of Shabbos are endless; you learn something new every time you learn the laws of Shabbos. But the existence of Shabbos changes and elevates how we experience time – it’s not Saturday, a day off work, it’s Shabbos! Moreover, Shabbos has kept generations of families and Jewish communities eating, singing, and praying together for life.

The Torah permits a carnivorous diet, which could reasonably be construed as unethical; it asks us to limit our diet to animals with certain features that must be slaughtered humanely. If the Creator is the gatekeeper of Creation, it’s not obvious that we should be able to eat living creatures at all! But otherwise, the Torah allows us to enjoy the vast majority of human cuisine prepared in accordance with our culture.

What’s more, when taken together, the rules of kosher keep the Jewish People distinct and separate from the world. They elevate the most basic instinct to consume into a religious act, saturated with meaning and purpose. As the Chasam Sofer notes, the kosher laws open with what Jews can eat, the permission, not the prohibition.

As the Meshech Chochma notes, the Creation story isn’t about a negative restriction on a tree; it’s about a positive command to eat literally everything else in Creation and fill the world with people, broad and permissive, perhaps even indulgent and hedonistic, with one caveat.

The Creator sanctifies human desire with the very first command – the directive to eat and procreate suggests that even our most basic instincts serve God’s purposes. Although there’s a caveat, even several, the Torah’s claim is that God is the gatekeeper of that permission; that’s what “Creator” means. If we accept the premise of a Creator, why would we feel entitled to the entire universe?

Beyond the aspect of a legal obligation, the fact that Jews observe a rule or practice makes it a cultural norm, unspoken but socially agreed on, and therefore sanctified by the collective consciousness of all Jewish People.

The Torah has lots of rules and laws. But those laws come from the Creator of Genesis; the God who creates life, loves life, commands life to thrive, and wants that life to love and enjoy.

We do this thing, we don’t do that thing. No one gets to do whatever they want, that’s not how the world works. We live in societies built on the rule of law, in a rule-based universe.

Rules aren’t so terrible.

Resurgence Redux

4 minute read
Straightforward

Some things are elastic, which means that when one variable changes, another one does too. In our everyday life, we recognize that when people want more or less of a product or service, the price will correspondingly flex, an example of economic elasticity.

In physics, when you coil a spring from its resting position, it exerts an opposing force approximately proportional to its change in length; the greater the force compressing the spring, the stronger the corresponding tension that will be released. Children quickly learn this when playing with rubber bands; the release of built-up energy is extremely powerful, not to mention painful.

There is also a certain elasticity in the world of spirit.

In stories, life, and all things, there is a moment of failure, a catastrophic fall from grace, the abyss.

It is inevitable; we live in a dynamic world, a fluid environment where failure is possible. On one reading of the Creation story, placing clueless people in a world of stumbling blocks all but guarantees failure. We try to do all sorts of great things and fall short. We fail. Whether to a greater or less extent, we fail and live in a world of failure.

Some failures are particularly acute.

The last chapters of the stories of Genesis revolve around failure. Yehuda has a catastrophic fall from grace, going from being the respected leader of his brothers to an exile, leaving his family, marrying a heathen, and losing his way entirely. Joseph has a corresponding fall from grace, being forced out of his family, trafficked into slavery, and finding himself in a prison dungeon. Something thematically similar happens in the Chanuka story, where the Greek empire occupied Israel and successfully suppressed Jewish practice to the extent that pigs were openly slaughtered as sacrifices to Zeus in the Beis Hamikdash.

But then something magical happens that follows these failures; transformation.

The Proverbs describe how righteous people stumble seven times and rise, and wicked people stumble on their evil just once and are done for – כִּי שֶׁבַע יִפּוֹל צַדִּיק וָקָם וּרְשָׁעִים יִכָּשְׁלוּ בְרָעָה.

The Metzudas David notes that in this conception, the definition of righteousness is in the rising, the wicked in staying down. The Kedushas Levi points out that the proverb still calls a person who falls righteous because it says the person rises after they fall – יִפּוֹל / צַדִּיק / וָקָם.

R’ Yehoshua Hartman suggests that part of what makes a comeback inevitable is the emptiness in the fall; the bland and hollow present contains the potential for a different future, the building blocks the future can be built out of.

As the Chozeh of Lublin teaches, it is the awareness and recognition of downfall that triggers the possibility of redemption – אַחֲרֵי נִמְכַּר גְּאֻלָּה תִּהְיֶה־לּוֹ.

The power of transformation is magical, but it’s entirely within our reach. Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh observes that failures are not an obstacle to growth but the source of it. In other words, every fall is a spring containing the energy of a comeback, a second wind, a resurgence, or an upturn. It often comes after exhaustion and complete deconstruction.

From rock bottom, the heart of darkness, Yehuda and Joseph rise from the abyss and climb higher than the rest in both the physical and spiritual worlds, even paving the way for the aspect of Mashiach they embody. Yehuda makes amends and rises to rule as king, and Joseph forgives his brother and rises to reunite and sustain them all. The Maccabees improvise with what little they have to re-establish Judaism permanently.

The Seder night embeds this profound lesson into a physical ritual with bitter herbs, the memory of our ancestors’ suffering; in the bitterness and inability to tolerate suffering any longer, the Chiddushei Harim recognizes the genesis and awakening of redemption, the beginning of the journey towards freedom. Just by identifying the problem, you are well on the way to a solution; as our sages teach, a question well asked is already half answered.

Nested here is a template for all change, reconceptualizing disorder as a catalyst for transformation and overcoming challenges.

Our sages affirm the power of a comeback; repentant people can get to places that no one else can – מקום שבעלי תשובה עומדים, אין צדיקים גמורים יכולים לעמוד. The Chafetz Chaim told R’ Elchanan Wasserman that Yakov made the unusual comment of needing to see Yosef before he died because the place Yosef would go after surviving his ordeals was far beyond the place Yakov would be.

Intuitively, the potential precedes all forms of the actual; our sages teach that Teshuva predates Creation. Our sages describe the integrated coexistence of God’s greatness within smallness, which perhaps we can perceive in the force to bounce back already existing in the moment of failure; the potential for greatness is present, even if not yet manifest.

We typically recognize a passive transition from darkness to light – מאפלה לאורה. R’ Yitzchak Hutner challenges us to realize within ourselves the transformative ability to actively create light from the very darkness itself – מאפלה לאורה. In R’ Hutner’s formulation, only fools believe that the rise is in spite of the fall; the truth is that the rise is because of the fall. Science bears this out; the force that makes the sun set is the same as the same one that will make it rise.

Change isn’t an external thing that happens passively, not some irresistible force. You are not a leaf blowing in the wind; what comes before is not the final form. You must surrender to the challenge, giving yourself wholly to it, annihilating the self that comes before, to return in the higher form that has risen to the occasion, death and rebirth.

The heights you can reach are directly linked to the contours of your failure.

You will fall; you can be sure of it.

You may even lose your spark.

But you will rise like the sun.

Living with Newness

4 minute read
Straightforward

One of the foundational skills children learn early on is how to read a clock.

What time is it?

It’s not simply a question of hours and minutes; there is something deeper to the question. If you know what time it is, you also know what to do. It’s morning, wake up and eat breakfast before school or work. It’s nighttime, time to wind down and go to sleep. The time of day, the time of year, the seasons, and the calendar all establish the boundaries and time frames upon which our world is built, with specific routines for morning, afternoon, evening, and night, summer, fall, winter, and spring.

Different cultures have established various systems and calendars to measure time. Today, most of the world uses the Gregorian calendar, a fixed calendar determined by how long the earth takes to make one complete orbit around the sun.

The Torah asks us to track time using the moon as a frame of reference; when people spot the new moon, they report it to the highest court, which declares the beginning of a new month – Rosh Chodesh. It’s not Rosh Chodesh because there’s a new moon, but because the Jewish leaders say so. It’s the very first commandment in the Torah, given to the Jewish People still enslaved in Egypt:

הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים רִאשׁוֹן הוּא לָכֶם לְחדְשֵׁי הַשָּׁנָה – This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you. (12:1)

There are many mitzvos, so one has to come first. But why is establishing the lunar calendar through Rosh Chodesh the first mitzvah, as opposed to any other?

The story of the birth of the Jewish People begins at a time of stuckness, with the Jewish People systematically subjugated and oppressed, powerless objects with no choice or control over their circumstances.

Although slavery is illegal in most of the world, it persists today. What’s more, slavery isn’t just an abstract legal status or even just a phenomenon that still occurs in some dark corner of the world; it’s also a state of mind, body, and soul that can happen to anyone. Thankfully, we don’t have much primary lived with the experience criminal aspect of actual human trafficking, but if you’ve ever felt helpless, powerless, or stuck, you have experienced an element of slavery.

When we internalize that forces of change exist and that we have the power to harness and steer them, the possibilities are limitless. This moment can be different to the moments that have come before; this newness is the beginning of all newness – הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים רִאשׁוֹן הוּא לָכֶם לְחדְשֵׁי הַשָּׁנָה.

The Shem miShmuel explains that the power of the Exodus story is that its story of freedom on a national level offers us the opportunity to become free of the tendencies and troubles that hound us on a personal level. The sense of futility, powerlessness, and stuckness from being burnt out or overwhelmed is poison. With the power to change, hard times don’t need to be so scary anymore, and the world isn’t threatening; it can be full of exciting possibilities. It follows that the first mitzvah is the one that empowers us to change by giving us a symbol of change.

One preeminent historian has observed that the worst thing about history is that people try to correct the past. People try to save the past, which is impossible; you cannot go back to the past and save the people there or prevent past injuries. We only have the present circumstances and perhaps a hopeful look to the future.

But as much as stuckness can come from attachment to the past, R’ Nachman of Breslev teaches us to avoid dwelling too much on the future and focus on the present day and present moment. As R’ Hanoch Heinoch of Alexander teaches, we can attach ourselves to vitality by being present – וְאַתֶּם הַדְּבֵקִים ה’ אֱלֹקיכֶם חַיִּים כֻּלְּכֶם הַיּוֹם.

The Torah often speaks to us in terms of here and now – וְעַתָּה / הַיּוֹם. Our sages take these references to Teshuva, our capacity and power to change and repent – וְעַתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל מָה ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ שֹׁאֵל מֵעִמָּךְ כִּי אִם־לְיִרְאָה. Because in one day, everything can change – הַיּוֹם אִם־בְּקֹלוֹ תִשְׁמָעוּ. As R’ Baruch of Mezhibozh teaches, forget the past; right now, be a Jew – וְעַתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל!  The Chafetz Chaim takes this to be a reference to introspection – וְעַתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל מָה ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ שֹׁאֵל מֵעִמָּךְ – what does this moment require?

It follows that our sages wisely guide us to seize every moment; if not now, when? As the Chiddushei Harim observes, every “now” has a different duty, calling for some new, renewed, or entirely other choice or deed. As R’ Ahron of Karlin points out, each moment has its resolution; each moment of existence is incomparably unique, never existing before in the history of Creation, and never to be repeated before becoming irretrievably lost forever.

As the Vilna Gaon points out, Moshe speaks in the present tense to offer us all the power to choose – רְאֵה אָנכִי נתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה. Rashi quotes a Midrash that every day, we should perceive our experience of Judaism as brand new – הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ מְצַוְּךָ.

Even once a person has resolved to change, they can still be anchored by the weight of their wrongdoing. The Shinover Rav suggests that although the past can’t be undone, it can be creatively reinterpreted, in the way Yosef reframes a troubled past with his brothers to relieve them of their guilt – וְעַתָּה אַל־תֵּעָצְבוּ וְאַל־יִחַר בְּעֵינֵיכֶם כִּי־מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה כִּי לְמִחְיָה שְׁלָחַנִי אֱלֹהִים לִפְנֵיכֶם. What happened then wasn’t so great, but that brought us to where we are, here and now, and you can only move forward from where you are!

The world tracks time using the sun; the Sfas Emes notes that the nations of world history rise and fall like the sun, lasting only when things are bright. The Jewish People track time using the moon, persisting in darkness, and even generating light among total blackness.

The very first mitzvah is the lunar calendar, the only calendar with a visual cue for changing times and a powerful symbol of change, a natural symbolic image of a spiritual reality. It’s not just an instruction to count the time but a commandment to rule over time and even natural phenomena. It is an instruction to live by and with the power of change and renewal. It is a mitzvah to live presently with this moment and make it count.

Every day, every week, and in truth, every moment, is brand new, brimming with freshness, vitality, and renewal.

A World of Kindness

3 minute read
Straightforward

Aside from the obvious quality of our great ancestors as figures we look up to and learn from, our sages teach that specific individuals came to embody certain essential attributes. Even before mysticism, our sages associate Avraham with the virtue of kindness, so much so that he came to be recognized as the avatar, conduit, embodiment, and manifestation of God’s kindness in the world.

That God’s kindness is everywhere is arguably one of Judaism’s first principles. When God explains his attributes to Moshe, only one of them is “abundant,” kindness – וְרַב־חֶסֶד. The first blessing of the Amida praises kindness as God’s predominant form of interaction with the universe – גּוֹמֵל חֲסָדִים טוֹבִים וְקוֹנֵה הַכֹּל. It follows that Judaism’s first ancestor is the archetype of kindness, and the first blessing is named for him – מגן אברהם.

In mysticism, there is a paradox at the heart of our basic reality called the bread of shame – נהמא דכיסופא. It would be a degrading handout for souls to remain in Heaven, basking in the ethereal light for eternity. Our souls are placed into bodies so we can earn our piece of Heaven, and it’s no longer a handout. But the thing is, the notion of earning anything at all is an illusion – the system itself is a gift, the most significant gift of all – עולם חסד יבנה.

As the Mesilas Yesharim teaches, God’s entire purpose in Creation was to have a counterpart with whom to share the gift of God’s goodness. R’ Yerucham Levovitz asks us to recognize the kindness in every moment, from the air we breathe to the grocery store selling oranges – the fact it is a for-profit transaction does not change that the store objectively performs a kind deed by giving you something you want.

Avraham understood that we live in a world of kindness, but the people of Canaan did not share those values, so he sent his steward, Eliezer, to his ancestral homeland to find a suitable match for Yitzchak, his son, and heir. When Eliezer arrives, he prays for God’s kindness to grace his mission:

וַיֹּאמַר  ה’ אֱלֹקי אֲדֹנִי אַבְרָהָם הַקְרֵה־נָא לְפָנַי הַיּוֹם וַעֲשֵׂה־חֶסֶד עִם אֲדֹנִי אַבְרָהָם – And he said, “Lord, God of my master Avraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal kindly with my master Avraham.” (24:12)

The Midrash highlights how people from the school of Avraham, the master of kindness, still look to God for further kindness. God’s kindness is essential; our sages say we’d fail at everything without God’s help.

The Beis Yisrael notes how in praying for kindness, Eliezer channeled his teacher and master by checking his ego. Feeling arrogant, confident, or self-righteous about such a sacred mission would be easy. It would be natural! He was sent by Avraham, one of the greatest humans to ever live, to find a suitable match – holy work – for Yitzchak, another one of our giants, to manifest the future greatness of Israel, bearers of the Torah, objectives of all Creation. Each element alone would be enough to get carried away, and rightly so!

But the way of Avraham is not to get ahead of yourself, holding onto groundedness and humility come what may – וְאָנֹכִי עָפָר וָאֵפֶר.

The Chiddushei Harim says that Avraham was a good teacher; Eliezer didn’t harp on his master’s merits and accomplishments and didn’t approach God with a sense of claim or entitlement. Indeed, one of the most shocking discoveries along your spiritual journey might be the realization that you don’t have a claim on the Creator; you’ve already been the recipient of abundant kindness any way you look.

But fortunately, God’s kindness is readily available, and God’s preferred mode of interaction with our universe, however masked it may be – חֶסֶד ה’ מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ.

Avraham doesn’t just teach us the virtue of bestowing kindness on others; Avraham teaches the virtue of receiving kindness and recognizing the Creator as the Source of it all.

You are a grateful person, hopefully, thankful for your health, your family, and the things that get you by. You have been blessed!

But this story contains another lesson – even the spiritual world of Torah and mitzvos is a gift we must appreciate and continue to ask for, no matter how far we have already come.

Fear Redux; Faith Redux

6 minute read
Straightforward

In the context of religion, faith is a natural consequence of professing to believe in God. If there’s a Creator, there must be some plan, and so the thinking goes, we should have faith in it.

Faith means the notion of confidence or trust in a person, thing, or concept; in this case, the Creator – אמונה / בטחון.

But how we talk about faith doesn’t always make sense.

People get afraid and worried about everyday life, like whether they can afford to pay their bills or if their loved one will recover from sickness. The root of every human fear is the notion that we are fundamentally powerless against the forces of the universe.

There can sometimes be a toxic Emunah culture that stifles, suffocates, and squashes real people with real feelings. That sounds like when people say things like don’t worry, God has a plan, or it’s for the best, trust God, and have faith that everything will work out. As the famous song goes, the main thing is to have no fear at all – והעיקר לא לפחד כלל.

Whether spoken or unspoken or even in your own thoughts, there is an invalidation or judgment here; to the extent you feel doubts or fears, you really have to work on your faith because if you had faith in God, you wouldn’t feel afraid – because faith and fear are incompatible and mutually exclusive.

But is that so true?

Firstly, there is a basic problem with the notion that fear is intrinsically wrong. Although many fears are learned, the threshold capacity to fear is part of human nature, a subconscious instinct, which, like desire, does not lend itself to moral judgment; it’s simply the basic reality of our lived experience.

Fear is our response to a stimulus occurring in the present or in anticipation or expectation of a future threat perceived as a risk. The fear response arises from the perception of danger leading to a confrontation with or escape from or avoiding the threat, also known as the fight-or-flight response, which in extreme cases of horror and terror can be a freeze response or paralysis.

Fear is visceral and instinctual, hard coded into our DNA, predates human consciousness, and results from an external stimulus, not a character flaw. The survival instinct originates in the most primal parts of the brain – נפש בהמית.

This is a complete defense of feeling our fears.

Moreover, fear is one of the tools the Torah uses to obtain compliance from its readers – וְחָרָה אַף־הבָּכֶם וְעָצַר אֶת־הַשָּׁמַיִם וְלֹא־יִהְיֶה מָטָר וְהָאֲדָמָה לֹא תִתֵּן אֶת־יְבוּלָהּ וַאֲבַדְתֶּם מְהֵרָה מֵעַל הָאָרֶץ הַטֹּבָה אֲשֶׁר הנֹתֵן לָכֶם.

Fear is arguably why many people practice religion; Pascal’s wager argues that a rational person should live as though God exists because if God does not exist, a person only loses a little luxury or pleasure. In contrast, if God exists, a person stands to receive infinite pain or gain in Heaven and Hell.

But far more powerfully, the greats experienced fear too, as the Torah and our prophets testify, which should demolish any misguided self-righteous attempts at invalidating fear.

Fear is not a negative emotion; it is not something we should avoid associating with our great ancestors. Fear is a human emotion, and our great ancestors were humans who felt fear and responded to those fears in ways we can learn from.

When God promises Avraham a grand future, Avraham wonders what God is talking about because, as a childless older man, he naturally experiences doubt, fear, and insecurity about the future – מַה־תִּתֶּן־לִי / בַּמָּה אֵדַע כִּי אִירָשֶׁנָּה. As beings bound by time, our existence is limited from one moment to the next; everyone worries about the future.

When Yakov and his family finally escape Lavan’s clutches, they are intercepted on the run by Esau with 400 warriors, and Yakov is afraid – וַיִּירָא יַעֲקֹב מְאֹד. He has good reason to be afraid – he can send gifts, give weapons to children, and send half the family a day ahead, but he understands the imminent reality that his family might get massacred – הַצִּילֵנִי נָא מִיַּד אָחִי מִיַּד עֵשָׂו כִּי־יָרֵא אָנֹכִי אֹתוֹ פֶּן־יָבוֹא וְהִכַּנִי אֵם עַל־בָּנִים.

When Yosef frames his brothers as part of his ruse to see if they regret his abduction and trafficking, they express fear when they begin to realize that they are entangled with a powerful person who poses a serious threat to them – וַיֵּצֵא לִבָּם וַיֶּחֶרְדוּ אִישׁ אֶל־אָחִיו.

When the young Moshe steps beyond the palace life of his childhood into the world of his people’s suffering, he steps in to save someone from an oppressive Egyptian officer, killing the Egyptian. Realizing that he has crossed the point of no return and stands alone against the might of the Egyptian empire, Moshe feels afraid – וַיִּירָא מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמַר אָכֵן נוֹדַע הַדָּבָר.

When Mordechai sends word to Esther about the new legislation authorizing the genocide of the Jewish People, he tells Esther to intervene and go to the king. But Esther doesn’t go immediately; she responds that going to the king without summons is a death sentence. She is afraid to risk her life, and Mordechai must persuade her to overcome those fears to save the Jewish People.

Let there be no doubt that we are talking about giants here, the greatest of greats, heroes of heroes. And they felt fears we can easily recognize as familiar.

It is cruel, not to mention incredibly self-destructive, to idealize a lack of fear.

As one great writer had a child ask his father, can a man still be brave if he’s afraid? Says the father with piercing clarity; it is the only time a man can be brave.

Toxic masculinity is a cultural pressure that says men shouldn’t cry or get scared; our Torah says they do.

As Fred Rogers taught, anything human is mentionable, and the mentionable can become more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they can become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.

A core part of the Jewish mission is the pursuit of wholeness – תמימות / שלימות. It is an act of psychological violence to kill off the emotional aspects of another, or in the case of yourself, self-mutilation. When you cut away the parts of the self capable of feeling a wide range of emotional responses, people wind up disconnected from themselves and the people around them. You get broken people not emotionally in tune with themselves or their surroundings. By definition, wholeness must be compatible with the full spectrum of human emotion; one of the most important tasks of our era is to reconnect with and reunite the severed parts.

The life of our greatest heroes was an emotional life that was visited by fear and doubt. The difference between the best of us and the rest of us is what they did about it. The Torah’s stories reassure us that we’re not alone and that our feelings are natural and normal.

Fear and faith are compatible, and they exist along the same spectrum. Faith is not blind or mindless; the Torah testifies Avraham’s faith in the middle of his doubt and insecurity – וְהֶאֱמִן בַּה’ וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לּוֹ צְדָקָה.

As the Torah draws to the conclusion of its great story, Moshe hands over the reins to Yehoshua, and encourages him in front of the Jewish People, to be brave and strong in the face of fear; God tells Yehoshua the exact same thing – ‘חִזְקוּ וְאִמְצוּ אַל־תִּירְאוּ וְאַל־תַּעַרְצוּ מִפְּנֵיהֶם כִּי ה אֱלֹקיךָ הוּא הַהֹלֵךְ עִמָּךְ לֹא יַרְפְּךָ וְלֹא יַעַזְבֶךָּ / לֹא תִירָא וְלֹא תֵחָת / וַיְצַו אֶת־יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן־נוּן וַיֹּאמֶר חֲזַק וֶאֱמָץ כִּי אַתָּה תָּבִיא אֶת־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר־נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי לָהֶם וְאָנֹכִי אֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ.

As the Abarbanel teaches, there is no contradiction between fear and faith. Faith in God cannot make a person immune to the powerful natural emotional instinct of fear. Faith means that despite those fears, you act with your highest faculties, guided by Torah, reason, and knowledge, not by fear.

What makes our greats great is that while they sometimes felt afraid, they didn’t stay afraid. They didn’t live in fear or act from a place of fear. In the high-stress moments, they felt it, but it is never mentioned again; they choose to act with confidence, faith, security, and trust that there is a divine plan, the difference between feeling afraid and being afraid.

We see this played out in the aftermath of the scout report of the Land of Israel; the Jewish People are consumed with fear and terror that they will be massacred, that their women and children will be captured, and they want to flee back to Egypt. Too afraid to listen, Yehosua and Caleb’s reassurances fall on deaf ears – וְאַתֶּם אַל־תִּירְאוּ אֶת־עַם הָאָרֶץ כִּי לַחְמֵנוּ הֵם סָר צִלָּם מֵעֲלֵיהֶם ה’ אִתָּנוּ אַל־תִּירָאֻם.

Controlling your emotions doesn’t mean avoiding or denying complex or difficult emotions. It means doing things with your emotions as the passenger, not the driver. When a moment of anger, fear, or sadness comes, feel it, recognize it, and understand it, but don’t lose it.

Avraham was right to be anxious about the future; Yakov was right to be scared his family would be massacred in the morning; Moshe was right that one man can’t resist an empire alone; Esther was right that going to the king without an invitation was a death sentence.

In more recent memory, the Jewish world of today is built on foundations laid by Holocaust survivors. These people experienced unthinkable horrors beyond even the greatest subject matter experts. It has been said of the generation that survived the terror of the Holocaust that it was perhaps the greatest act of faith by the Jewish People to trust God and have Jewish children once more.

When you’re afraid, it means you take a threat seriously. It’s pointless to try to stop feeling nervous. Instead, like our heroes, recognize it for what it is, a call to harness all your faculties on the task at hand. Like pain, worry when you don’t feel it.

Judaism and the Torah are situated in the world of action. We bear the timeless and consistent legacy of people who faced their fears and acted with boldness and hope, who felt scared in their darkness yet persisted until the light.

Our great ancestors took action, hoping things would work out, but not with any knowledge or certainty. As our sages point out, they often fear their sins and shortcomings. Their extraordinary acts of faith look like people who feel afraid but do their best to bring about a better outcome, which is well within our reach.

Courage is not the absence of fear but the triumph over it.

Never Enough

4 minute read
Straightforward

Most humans born in the past several thousand years have heard of Moshe; he is rightly one of the most recognized figures in human history.

Today, we might reasonably say that a strange burning bush is no basis for a system of government and that supreme executive power ought to derive from a mandate from the masses – although that’s not the worldview of the Torah’s story. But to the extent there’s some truth to that, we might expect Moshe’s glittering array of accomplishments would eventually win some popular support.

He stood up to Pharaoh and the Egyptian empire and won. He walked a generation of enslaved people into freedom, led them through a suddenly dry ocean, gathered them at Sinai, generating magic food and water along the barren desert waste, among other significant and unparalleled achievements.

And still, the people complained at every turn, resisting him every step of the way.

One particular time, the infamous Korach raised a formidable following and led an attempted coup and insurrection to supplant and usurp his cousin Moshe:

וַיִּקָּהֲלוּ עַל־מֹשֶׁה וְעַל־אַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם רַב־לָכֶם כִּי כל־הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים וּבְתוֹכָם ה וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ עַל־קְהַל ה – They combined against Moshe and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! All the community are holy, all of them! God is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation?” (16:3)

Korach directly paraphrases God’s directive at Sinai to be a nation of holy people –  וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ־לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ / כל־הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים.

This was a grave challenge and threat to Moshe; as one famous quote put it, when you come at the king, you best not miss. Moshe fully understood the severity of the threat and responded rhetorically:

הַמְעַט מִכֶּם כִּי־הִבְדִּיל אֱלֹקי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל לְהַקְרִיב אֶתְכֶם אֵלָיו לַעֲבֹד אֶת־עֲבֹדַת מִשְׁכַּן ה וְלַעֲמֹד לִפְנֵי הָעֵדָה לְשָׁרְתָם׃ וַיַּקְרֵב אֹתְךָ וְאֶת־כּל־אַחֶיךָ בְנֵי־לֵוִי אִתָּךְ וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם גַּם־כְּהֻנָּה׃ – “Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has set you apart from the community of Israel and given you direct access, to perform the duties of God’s Tabernacle and to minister to the community and serve them? Now that God has advanced you and all your fellow Levites with you, do you seek the priesthood too?!” (16:9,10)

But Moshe’s rhetoric appears to fall quite flat. There is no challenge or rebuttal to what Korach has claimed, no counter, checkmate, or riposte. It is only a restatement!

So when Moshe accuses him of wanting to be part of the priesthood – וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם גַּם־כְּהֻנָּה – it’s hard to see how that would give Korach a moment’s pause. Korach would simply say yes, precisely!

Where is Moshe’s winning argument?

The Shem Mi’Shmuel explains that Moshe’s accusation towards Korach was about how self-serving his coup was. Moshe’s rhetoric pierces through Korach’s claim of shared holiness; because, true as it might be, Korach’s words are empty and self-serving. God wants people dedicated to God’s purposes; Korach was out for himself – for power and influence, personal gain, and honor – תִּהְיוּ־לִי / בִקַּשְׁתֶּם.

Moshe’s entire story prominently features the enormous personal cost and self-sacrifice required to lead and serve his people faithfully. Ahron’s entire story was about connecting people with the divine and closer to each other. Korach’s accusation of overstepping – רַב־לָכֶם – rings hollow; Moshe’s accusation of Korach self-serving rings true – בִקַּשְׁתֶּם.

But perhaps there’s more to Moshe’s retort. 

Our sages associate Korach with another famous villain – Haman. 

Both were fabulously wealthy; our sages say they were two of the richest men in the world. 

Both were highly influential; Haman was second only to the king, and Korach was in the highest tier as well. While Moshe and Ahron had the most visible roles, Korach and the whole family of Levi had critical and desirable roles in the new Jewish religion – הִבְדִּיל אֱלֹקי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל לְהַקְרִיב אֶתְכֶם אֵלָיו לַעֲבֹד אֶת־עֲבֹדַת מִשְׁכַּן ה וְלַעֲמֹד לִפְנֵי הָעֵדָה לְשָׁרְתָם.

But with all Haman’s influence, prestige, power, and wealth, it wasn’t worthwhile to him without one thing:

וְכל־זֶה אֵינֶנּוּ שֹׁוֶה לִי בְּכל־עֵת אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי רֹאֶה אֶת־מרְדֳּכַי הַיְּהוּדִי יוֹשֵׁב בְּשַׁעַר הַמֶּלֶךְ׃ – “Yet all this means nothing to me every time I see that Jew Mordechai sitting in the palace gate!”

Perhaps the rhetoric in Moshe’s reply to Korach is similar – הַמְעַט מִכֶּם – is everything Korach already has so trivial? Are all the duties, honors, and privileges of the Mishkan still not enough?

Korach craves the one thing out of reach, the priesthood, without which everything counts for naught. Haman desires the one thing out of reach, Mordechai’s submission, without which everything counts for naught. Not only do they take their blessings for granted, they outright trivialize, discount, and devalue everything they have – הַמְעַט מִכֶּם.

What’s more, our sages note that the Torah refers to Haman in the story of Adam and Eve, hinted in God’s language to Adam asking if they ate from the Tree of Knowledge, which can be read as an oblique allusion to Haman – הָמָן / הֲמִן־הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִיךָ לְבִלְתִּי אֲכל־מִמֶּנּוּ אָכָלְתָּ. 

Dayan Chanoch Ehrentrau observes that Adam and Eve’s mistake is the same color. God creates the entire universe for them; all of Creation is at their disposal in the palm of their hand. But they crave the one thing out of reach, one tree they can’t eat from, without which everything falls stale and flat.

It’s the same mistake as Korach and Haman, a consistent and recurring mistake humans make from the beginning.

While there is plenty of room for healthy ambition and aspirations for tomorrow, you must still value and appreciate where you stand today; otherwise, what’s it all worth? While you can say you appreciate your blessings, your actions may indicate otherwise.

Gratitude and its inverse form, taking things for granted, are recursive throughout the Torah, consistently one of its core themes and a leading indicator of prosperity or disaster. Korach, Haman, and Adam and Eve all suffered severe punishment for taking their blessings for granted – they lost everything, and everything quickly turned to nothing.

They say you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone, but sometimes you do know what you have; you just never think you’ll lose it while you chase the next thing.

Appreciate what you have, and who loves and cares for you. Don’t take the people or things in your life for granted, not just because nothing lasts forever – but because, as Moshe said, is it not enough?

Come As You Are

3 minute read
Straightforward

We often think of holiness or sanctity as the hallowed privilege of a rare few, the people who have made it, the inner circle of those who are better and wiser than us. They are the ones who can pray for us, guide us, and bring healing. Sometimes that’s true; other times, that view is propounded by self-righteous, holier-than-thou folks who self-serve by making us feel that way.

That being said, it is an objective and measurable fact that some people are further on their religious journey and are more advanced on the observance spectrum.

Make no mistake that everyone has the same obligation to meet the standard of perfect observance of the Torah – so, for example, the Torah unambiguously says to keep Shabbos with no exceptions.

Yet, in the external world where theory meets practice, achieving perfection is neither possible nor actual; that standard has only ever been theoretical. We ought to know better than to hold every human to the same standard.

The only uniform standard everyone is mandated to uphold is the half-shekel donation to the Mishkan, the tiniest sum of money, a de minimis threshold contribution. This contribution went towards the foundation sockets, which compare to our threshold foundation of faith and membership of the Jewish People.

But beyond that basic common and tiny denominator, everyone is radically different. Everyone is born in a particular environment, makes mistakes, and is only capable of so much or going so far. We know this intuitively – it is clear that, like all things in life, there must be a subjective element to religiosity by necessity, and there is.

In as much as sacrifices and the Beis HaMikdash are the domain of the privileged few, every single human may bring an offering. One form explicitly recognizes human subjectivity and meets us where we are, contingent on a person’s means – קרבן עולה ויורד. While a wealthy person would bring expensive cattle, a working person would be expected to offer a pair of affordable birds, and a person in poverty would only have to provide some cheap flour:

וְאִם־לֹא תַשִּׂיג יָדוֹ לִשְׁתֵּי תֹרִים אוֹ לִשְׁנֵי בְנֵי־יוֹנָה וְהֵבִיא אֶת־קרְבָּנוֹ אֲשֶׁר חָטָא עֲשִׂירִת הָאֵפָה סֹלֶת – And if one’s means do not suffice for two turtledoves or two pigeons, that person shall bring as an offering for that of which one is guilty a tenth of an ephah of choice flour… (5:11)

Whatever the form, the result is a “pleasant scent,” which is how the Torah describes God receiving them warmly – ‘רֵיחַ נִיחֹחַ לַהֹ. This is quite obviously a metaphor; burning feathers smell disgusting. And yet unmistakably, the same reception reveals that whatever the form, they are substantively the same, whether bull, bird, or flour; all are warmly embraced, with no distinction between rich and poor – נאמר בעוף ריח ניחוח ונאמר בבהמה ריח ניחוח, לומר לך אחד המרבה ואחד ואחד הממעיט ובלבד שיכוין לבו לשמים.

The Chafetz Chaim notes that the principle holds even while the sacrifices have lapsed. If you have the means to help others and do less than you could, you need to step up and meet your duty. To whom much is given, much is expected, and with great power comes great responsibility.

The legendary Reb Zusha of Hanipol would say that when he’d get to Heaven, he wouldn’t be afraid to answer why he wasn’t like Avraham, because he wasn’t Avraham, nor why he wasn’t like Moshe, because he wasn’t Moshe. But when they would ask why he wasn’t like Zusha, he’d have no answer for failing to live up to his unique potential.

As much as we all need to be better, you can only move forward from where you are. You are in the right place to do what you need to – הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עוֹמֵד עָלָיו אַדְמַת־קֹדֶשׁ הוּא. 

This idea is at the heart of Korach’s folly, which leads only to ruin and misery. Everyone’s service is different and yet equally welcome.

One of the most powerful phrases in the Torah is when God saw the young Yishmael dying in the desert. The Midrash imagines the angels arguing against divine intervention to save Yishmael because of the atrocities his descendants would commit, but they lose the argument because God evaluates things differently. God answers the boy based on where he is and the facts and circumstances as they are here and now – בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם.

In your present condition and natural state, you have a key stake in Judaism and a contribution to make that matters, even before the changes you must still undergo. 

You are where you’re supposed to be right now, and you are enough.

Prayer Redux

7 minute read
Advanced

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 cannot doubt that their fears and tears were genuine.

Moreover, our sages imagine Heavenly gateways for prayers, suggesting that prayers are accepted or denied based on 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 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 honest, 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, 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 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 is 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 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 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 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 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 must 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 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 happen, but they start with your 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.

How to Not Kill Your Family

6 minute read
Straightforward

There is a treasured custom in some communities for parents to bless their children before kiddush on Friday night. Traditionally, fathers will bless their sons to be like Ephraim and Menashe and their daughters like the Matriarchs.

It’s not hard to understand why we’d want our daughters to be like the Matriarchs; they are the role models and heroines in the stories of our greats. While we have others, such as Miriam and Devorah, the Matriarchs are a natural conceptual category that we intuitively understand.

But of all the great heroes in our heritage, why are Ephraim and Menashe, in particular, the specific role models we would want our sons to emulate?

Ephraim and Menashe occupy a distinctly unique conceptual category; they transcend a natural hierarchy. While hierarchies are inherent to family dynamics and structures, it is highly irregular to see generation jumpers. Yet, these young boys earned parity with their uncles a generation earlier and are counted as tribes alongside Yakov’s sons.

But transcending family dynamics wasn’t just something that happened to them when Yakov blessed them; transcending family dynamics was a fundamental reflection of who they were.

The Bnai Yissaschar explains that every generation in Genesis suffered rivalry rooted in unequal blessings, favor, or talent, whether from God or a parent. Brothers kill each other in the case of Cain and Abel, come close to it with Yakov and Esau, and fight and fracture in every other instance. But when Yakov crossed his hands and blessed his younger grandson with the better blessing ostensibly fit for the elder without a word of protest, it was the first time a snubbed sibling didn’t have a moment’s thought of entitlement or jealousy.

Ephraim and Menashe showcase what is arguably the most difficult of the Ten Commandments, the commandment of envy – וְלֹא תַחְמֹד. It’s difficult to practice because jealousy originates in the subconscious. The only solution is to adopt the perspective that God’s blessings are abundant; not exclusive, finite, scarce, or zero-sum, that there isn’t a fixed amount of happiness, health, love, or money in the world, so someone else’s good fortune cannot subtract from yours, and it cannot diminish the pool of blessings available to you in the future. Ephraim and Menashe lived that in their relationship with each other.

As R’ David Wolpe notes, this is the first time siblings show acceptance of inequality. It’s the way the world is; we simply have to accept that there will be different distributions of blessings, gifts, talent, and luck. And the acceptance of God’s gifts at unequal levels is the only way brothers succeed in not killing each other.

Put simply, their relationship with each other transcended competitive dynamics and hierarchies, and there is no better blessing to wish on our sons.

That’s great, and it has merit enough to stand on its own, but it still doesn’t get to the core of the matter, which is where this quality came from.

My Zaide suggested that if your father is Yakov and you are born, raised, and live in his house, it’s relatively easy and not especially surprising that you follow his way. In comparison, to be born in Egypt, the crown jewel of a world devoid of spirituality and meaning, whose culture was excess and materialism, rife with lust and idolatry; and yet master the spiritual life as well as any of Yakov’s sons, is the ultimate achievement.

So perhaps the blessing we wish on our children is to master both worlds – the private world of spirituality and the public world of commerce and community, participating without being consumed.

But perhaps there’s something else, hiding in plain sight.

In social psychology, self-categorization theory is the concept of how we categorize and perceive ourselves and others. We categorize our role in the society as the self – “I;” the social self – “we;” and the comparative outgroup – “them.” The “us” versus “them” mentality is natural and stems from our deep evolutionary need to belong to a group in order to survive, belong, and flourish.

Where Yosef’s brothers went so wrong was that they identified him as the outgroup, the other, the enemy, a threat, and not one of them. As the Sfas Emes notes, part of what was so mortifying by Yosef’s grand reveal was that their threat assessment and identification had been so badly miscalibrated; Yosef may have been an annoying, immature, troublemaker, but he had always and only ever been one of them. By not protesting at the superior blessing given to his younger brother, Menashe revealed that he understood his role as a brother and ally; he was not competing with his brother.

And here’s the essential point – if Menashe learned this lesson from observing his father’s life story, cast out from his family then subsequently healing, ultimately rising and magnanimously reuniting his family; then it could never be a lesson that can be repeated or passed on, and blessing our children with a quality they could not possibly hope to emulate doesn’t ring true or make any sense. In that case, the blessing to our children would be to have a father like Yosef, which is self-referential and absurd, so they must have learned this lesson in a way that everyone can.

Most of us want to protect our children from struggles because if we shoulder their burdens, they’ll be happier, right? Not usually. Children are happiest when parents bolster and support their children’s ability to tackle life’s challenging experiences.

Resilience, or better yet, antifragility is not an inherited genetic trait; it is earned and honed. It is derived from the ways children learn to think and act when they are faced with obstacles, large and small. The road to resilience comes first and foremost from children’s supportive relationships with parents, teachers, and other caring adults. These relationships become sources of strength when children work through stressful situations and painful emotions.

With antifragility, we don’t merely recover; we also add some other thing on top. When we’re infected with a virus, we heal and become immune to subsequent infection. It is more than resilience, which is the return to a fixed state. Antifragile is a dynamic state that requires some stressor to stimulate growth

But without stimulus, we can atrophy. Moshe warned of the day the Jewish People would get too comfortable and lose their way:

וַיִּשְׁמַן יְשֻׁרוּן וַיִּבְעָט שָׁמַנְתָּ עָבִיתָ כָּשִׂיתָ וַיִּטֹּשׁ אֱלוֹהַּ עָשָׂהוּ וַיְנַבֵּל צוּר יְשֻׁעָתוֹ – So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked, you grew fat and gross and coarse, and forsook the God who made him, and spurned the Rock of his support. (32:15)

The Haggadah echoes the same by warning us of the threat of Lavan; Pharaoh is a direct threat we know to be cautious about, but a devious Lavan poses an indirect threat equally serious. If Yakov had stayed with Lavan, he might have been fabulously wealthy; and he would not have lost his life, but he would have lost his soul.

We are products of modernity, for which there is no shame; we cannot be anything other than what we are. But what defines us, and what does not? We are Jews; our history and our culture define us, not the society we live in. Our society can influence the expression of our history and our culture, and a Jew today looks different from a Jew in the Middle Ages or a Jew five centuries from now.

When our enemies threaten our very lives, “us” and “them” are self-explanatory and straightforward, but we currently live in one of the rare periods where that’s not the case – thankfully! But the threat is never gone; it merely contorts itself into a different form. While everyone knows that assimilation is a silent killer, materialism is only a slightly less malignant form of assimilation but still very much within the same conceptual category.

So perhaps while “us” and “them” were faulty in Yosef’s brothers, they were rediscovered and reclaimed by Yosef and his sons; and that’s the heart of what we wish for our sons. To know who they are, to correctly identify threats, to stand up in the face of adversity, to rise to the challenge, and to thrive in overcoming it.

In our families and communities, we can and must correctly identify the “us,” who we are alongside each other, and stand up to “them,” the challenge that modern culture poses. If you cannot correctly tell “us” from “them,” then all the concomitant dangers naturally follow when we turn what should be “us” into “them” – competition, fear, jealousy, anger, alienation, and literal or metaphorical death.

Our sons will go out into the world and confront all sorts of trials we cannot imagine or prepare them for, and because they will face those challenges differently and achieve different outcomes.

So we desperately wish for them to be like Ephraim and Menashe because although neither easy nor guaranteed, their example proves that by facing challenges together, it is possible to remain brothers and allies, united in happiness with and for each other, so long as they know who they are, where they come from, and what they stand for and against.

Jacob’s Ladder – The World Bridge

6 minute read
Advanced

One of the most captivating stories in the Torah is often known as Jacob’s Ladder.

The Torah tells how Yakov fled from his enraged murderous brother Esau to the house of his uncle Lavan, in far off Haran. Along the way, and in between places, Yakov put his head down for some rest and had a vivid prophetic dream:

וַיַּחֲלֹם וְהִנֵּה סֻלָּם מֻצָּב אַרְצָה וְרֹאשׁוֹ מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה וְהִנֵּה מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים עֹלִים וְיֹרְדִים בּוֹ – He had a dream; a ladder was planted on the ground, and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. (28:12)

While no one really knows what Heaven is, Heaven is universally understood to be a shorthand for the place where God, angels, and souls reside,  the highest and holiest place, perhaps even paradise. In stark contrast, Earth is the plane of existence humans live on, and in a sense, a negative reflection, void of all those things; a low and profane place, not the place of God, angels, or souls. 

We exist here, and the Creator is not here with us; our environment is artificial and synthetic, perhaps a simulation, even, and only the Creator’s domain is real. Our world is a profane space, a formidable and meaningless expanse that is fundamentally unreal; our time on Earth is fleeting and ultimately somewhat futile and meaningless – הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים הַכֹּל הָבֶל.

It follows that perhaps we can only find the Creator beyond the canvas; and in this worldview, affliction, fasting, and negation of the physical and the self make sense. If this seems extreme, note that it is coherent, consistent, and even reasonably popular, both historically as well as today; it is worth taking seriously even if only to understand why we ought to ultimately reject it.

If the domain of this world is indeed inferior, and Yakov was presented with a ladder to the highest plane of existence literally at his feet, an obvious question presents itself.

Why wouldn’t Yakov try to climb the ladder? 

The answer is that he didn’t have to, and it’s revealing when we consider why that might be and what the ladder represents.

Jacob’s Ladder is a universal motif with many counterparts in mythology. It is known as an axis mundi — also called the cosmic axis, world axis, cosmic bridge, world bridge, cosmic pillar, world pillar, the center of the world, or world tree; and they universally serve as a connection between Heaven and Earth, a bridge between higher and lower realms. The axis mundi is almost always a center point, where blessings from higher realms descend to lower realms and disseminate to all. 

A bridge and ladder function in the same way, except that a bridge is for lateral movement, and a ladder is for vertical movement. There are two separate domains, and there is no way to move from one to the other; they are separated with distinct boundaries that cannot be crossed. A bridge or ladder crosses the gap, linking the domains so the disparate parts can interact.

The cosmic bridge works in the same way, expressing contact and correspondence between higher and lower realms – מֻצָּב אַרְצָה וְרֹאשׁוֹ מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה. In Jacob’s Ladder, angels ascend and descend – וְהִנֵּה מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים עֹלִים וְיֹרְדִים בּוֹ – overtly symbolizing a kind of transfer, a reciprocal interaction and exchange of energy where Heaven comes to Earth, and Earth is elevated to Heaven.

Our sages identify the location of Yakov’s dream disparately as Mount Sinai, Mount Moriah, the Land of Israel, or imagining a diagonally aligned ladder, some combination of these. Still, the effect is the same – the cosmic bridge is at one of these spiritual centers, a place where Heaven and Earth can meet and blessing comes into the world. Legend has it that beneath the Beis HaMikdash on Mount Moriah, possibly the Dome of the Rock and the site of the Akeida, lies the Foundation Stone – אבן השתיה – the focal point and source of creation, itself tying intimately into the imagery of a source of blessing, connection, and expansiveness. 

The motif of a world bridge is recursive – once you know how to spot it, you see it everywhere. Our sages note how Sinai has the same numerical value as Jacob’s ladder – סלם / סיני – suggesting that the Torah is a kind of world bridge. The Midrash indicates that the sacrificial offerings were a world bridge; the altar is described as “of the earth” – מִזְבַּח אֲדָמָה – and legend has it that the smokestack wouldn’t diffuse into the air; it rose in a straight line, straight up to the sky – a world bridge. Many have noted that the expression for prayer and voice also has the same numerical value as Jacob’s ladder – סולם / קול.

Our sages suggest that our homes and marriages are reflections of the Beis HaMikdash – both are called בית, and both are a spiritual center and foundation – and so, like the Beis HaMikdash, are themselves reflections of a world bridge.

More esoterically, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge also present two aspects of this imagery. Each is said to stand at the center of paradise from which four rivers flow that nourish the whole world; a cosmic bridge at the center that is the source of all blessing. Some abstract representations of the Kabbalistic Sefiros even merge the Tree of Life concept with the human body as a cosmic pillar bridging Heaven and Earth.

As R’ Chaim Volozhin explains, humans should not think that we are confined by our mundane composition, because the world bridge of Jacob’s ladder is firmly rooted on Earth; yet it reaches Heaven just the same – מֻצָּב אַרְצָה וְרֹאשׁוֹ מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה. In the same way, our souls interface with this world but can touch the Heavens, and humans can become a world tree as well, grounded firmly in the reality of this world, perhaps even the Underworld, and yet whose branches can touch the sky. This interlaces multiple world bridges – that our souls are a world bridge, that Torah and prayers are a world bridge, and that they can all interact.

While our sages are at pains to identify the site of Jacob’s Ladder, we should remember that although Yakov slept in a physical place, his vision was prophetic; there was no physical ladder in the three-dimensional space we occupy, which is to say there is no “there” there; the actual place is indeterminate, liminal space, the space between spaces, or quite simply, nowhere. It almost doesn’t matter at all!

Yakov’s dream predates Mount Sinai, Mount Moriah, the Torah, Beis HaMikdash, his own home and marriage, and even his own maturity; perhaps suggesting that even before realizing any of those things, the ladder symbolized a continuous, constant connection with the divine powers of the unconscious, the unknown depths of Yakov’s psyche that transcended space and time – and that this link was not limited to any one of those things.

The question of climbing the ladder is predicated on the perspective that this world is devoid of meaning within the internal parameters of creation, and finding God means escaping the void. One of the Baal Shem Tov’s revolutionary teachings, as propounded by the Toldos Yakov Yosef, is that humans can transcend the limiting parameters of creation, not by abstaining from and negating physicality, but by seeing the parameters of creation from the Creator’s perspective. God is sometimes known as הַמָּקוֹם – the Omnipresent, or the place of all things; that the world is a part of God and within God. From this vantage point, there is no “outside” to escape to, no “simulation” to escape from.  

Our reality is fully saturated with God’s existence and presence, and everything that exists reflects that it is fundamentally connected to God in a substantive and real way; this world is absolutely the arena of God, every bit as much as Heaven, and to the extent that we are here for a reason, this is the arena we are supposed to be in.

There is no need to climb the ladder to a holy place; because this world is the holy place! Our world is fundamentally meaningful and is, in fact our only interface to the Creator.

What Jacob’s Ladder reveals then, is not simply that there is a world bridge somewhere, but so much more. It reveals that world bridges exist; that bridged once is bridged forever; that a world bridge can exist anywhere; and that humans can generate them. 

We should remind ourselves that even though the ladder was located in a dreamworld, Yakov’s location within the dream still has him lying on the floor; yet God could stand over Yakov as he lay there and speak to him. While not the literal interpretation of the story, this fits neatly and tightly into Yakov’s exact words in the story – וַיֹּאמֶר אָכֵן יֵשׁ ה’ בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וְאָנֹכִי לֹא יָדָעְתִּי וַיִּירָא וַיֹּאמַר מַה־נּוֹרָא הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה אֵין זֶה כִּי אִם־בֵּית אֱלֹהִים וְזֶה שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם – that this realm is also the domain of the divine and that it can serve as a cosmic gateway. 

As the Kotzker taught, Heavens is Heaven for God, but the Earth is given to humans – הַשָּׁמַיִם שָׁמַיִם לַה׳ וְהָאָרֶץ נָתַן לִבְנֵי־אָדָם – that is, humans can build a Heaven on Earth; where “ascent” into the spiritual world is an opportunity for internal growth and service, and “descent” is re-entering and engaging with the material world bringing blessings and transforming it for the better.

The gap between Heaven and Earth is infinitely wide yet paper-thin. The ladder is our quest to develop insights and perfect ourselves in order to move beyond the current microcosmic realm of Earth and to engage with the transcendent grand Heavenly macrocosmic order.

There is no need to go to Heaven when we are fully capable of bringing Heaven to Earth.

The Water of Life

5 minute read
Straightforward

Symbolism plays an essential role in human culture. Through symbols, we find meaning in the physical world, which becomes transparent and reveals the transcendent. Certain symbols are cultural universals, primal archetypes intuitively understood that derive from the unconscious and require no explanation, like mother and child or light and darkness.

As the Torah draws to its close, Moshe says goodbye with a timeless ballad laced with beautiful metaphor and symbolism:

יַעֲרֹף כַּמָּטָר לִקְחִי, תִּזַּל כַּטַּל אִמְרָתִי, כִּשְׂעִירִם עֲלֵי-דֶשֶׁא, וְכִרְבִיבִים עֲלֵי-עֵשֶׂב – May my discourse come down as rain; my speech distill as dew; like showers on young vegetation; like droplets on the grass. (32:2)

Many ancient cultures believed 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. Water symbolizes the universal reservoir of all possible existence, supports every creation, and even precedes their form. The Torah’s creation myth aligns with this archetype, with primordial water everywhere, from which everything subsequently emerges:

וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ וְחֹשֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵי תְהוֹם וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל־פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם – The earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep, and the spirit of God hovered over the waters… (1:4)

The Mikvah ritual bath is central to Judaism and draws heavily on this archetype, symbolizing rebirth and renewal. Moreover, with our knowledge of the water cycle, we have learned the literal truth of water as the solvent of life and regeneration; and in fact, the search for liquid water in the universe serves as a close proxy to the search for life beyond our planet.

But Moshe doesn’t say the Torah is like water; he compares the Torah to rain – יַעֲרֹף כַּמָּטָר לִקְחִי. They do have a lot in common; both are life-giving, cleansing, regenerative, restorative, and like rain, the Torah came from the sky to affirm and sustain us. So sure, the Torah is like rain!

But Moshe doesn’t simply say that the Torah is like rain; he says it’s also like dew – יַעֲרֹף כַּמָּטָר לִקְחִי, תִּזַּל כַּטַּל אִמְרָתִי.

But what is dew, if not just another form of rain and water? 

To unlock the symbol and discover the meaning, we must establish the technical difference between rain and dew.

Dew occurs when you have a cold object in a warm environment. As the object’s exposed surface cools by radiating heat, atmospheric moisture condenses faster than it evaporates, resulting in the formation of water droplets on the surface. In other words, a cold object in a warm environment can draw moisture out of the ambient surroundings.

There’s a Torah that’s like rain, that comes from the sky, and that hopefully, you’ve experienced at times, perhaps a flash of inspiration that came out of nowhere, the moments you feel alive. But that doesn’t happen to everyone, and even when it does, it doesn’t happen all the time. To borrow rain’s imagery, this kind of inspiration is seasonal only. If you’re counting on the rain to get by, what happens when the rain stops?

Perhaps precisely because of this problem, there’s a Torah that we can experience that feels more like dew. A warm environment that doesn’t come from the sky, that we can generate and cultivate ourselves, and which draws out the life-affirming properties from within and around us.

R’ Simcha Bunim m’Peshischa notes that we can’t expect our efforts and interactions with Torah to have an instant magical transformational effect like a rain shower; it’s far more subtle, like dew. A morning’s dew is not enough to nourish a plant, but with the regular appearance of morning dew, the days stack up, and despite no noticeable daily effect, the plant will grow.

As R’ Shlomo Farhi points out, dew is gentle, not overwhelming. Plants can’t survive forever on dew alone, but it can be enough to keep them going until the rains return. When you are running cold, a warm atmosphere will nurture and sustain you, but you should remember that it can’t take you all the way; there will come the point that you need to proactively follow through with renewed drive and desire to grow once more. 

The Torah conditions timely rain on the product of outward effort:

וְהָיָה אִם־שָׁמֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶל־מִצְותַי אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם לְאַהֲבָה אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹקיכֶם וּלְעבְדוֹ בְּכל־לְבַבְכֶם וּבְכל־נַפְשְׁכֶם. וְנָתַתִּי מְטַר־אַרְצְכֶם בְּעִתּוֹ – If then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season… (11:,13,14)

The Ishbitzer suggests that dew is a product of internal effort, a reflection of our hearts and minds. Subconsciously, our hearts and minds hope and pray, day and night, without stop. When you so much as hope for the best, or that things turn out okay, or even whisper “Please, God,” those thoughts bring wisps of warm vitality into the world that affirm and sustain growth and life. Given the mythical potency of dew and its connection to humble yet persistent origins, our sages suggest that, of all things, dew contains the latent power to resurrect the dead at the End of Days.

There are times you’ll have flashes of divine inspiration, but at some point, that’s going to dry up. Reassuringly, as Moshe said so long ago, it doesn’t just come from the sky; it can emerge slowly with determination and environmental support. Perhaps then, dew is the symbol of human-driven inspiration – אתערותא דלתתא. 

Half the year we pray for rain, but half the year we also pray for dew; remember that you are more like a plant than a robot. You have fallow and fruitful seasons, needing different things at different times; a light drizzle right now, a little more sun next week. It is a design feature, not a flaw, and is a far healthier approach to adopt than perpetual sameness.

This isn’t cutesy wordplay; the metaphor is quite explicit. If Moshe’s words are the water, then we are the grass and leaves, the tree of life itself, encouraged to endure and grow strong – כִּשְׂעִירִם עֲלֵי-דֶשֶׁא, וְכִרְבִיבִים עֲלֵי-עֵשֶׂב.

When you go into the woods, you see all kinds of trees. One is stunted, another is bent; you understand it was obstructed or didn’t get enough light, and so it turned out that way. You don’t get emotional about it, you allow it; that’s just the way trees are. But humans are like that too – ‎כי האדם עץ השדה. All too often, rather than accept ourselves and others, we are critical, whether self-conscious or judgmental, critical of a way of being other humans for the way they are. But humans are like trees; this one was obstructed like this, that one didn’t get enough that, so they turned out that way.

Trees lose their leaves in the cold dark winters, but they do not despair, secure in the knowledge that spring will return before long and they will blossom once again. You might be in the thick of winter, but hold on; you too will blossom once again.

If you’re waiting for inspiration or a sign, it might be a while, it might not come at all, or this might be it.

Cultivate an environment around yourself with structure, systems, and people that will foster, nurture, and support your growth. You will not rise to the level of your goals; you will fall to the level of your systems. It’s simply unsustainable to have big goals with no supporting infrastructure.

Your goal should not be to beat the game but to stay in the game and continue playing so that you can in turn foster a gentle and nurturing environment that will warm others too.

Moshe’s timeless blessing is hauntingly beautiful and refreshingly real. Moshe speaks through the ages and reminds us the Torah is not just water, the stuff of life. It is the water we need in good times and the dew that gets us through hard times.

The metaphor itself acknowledges and validates that there are times the rains just won’t come. But in the moments where the Torah won’t be our rain, it can be our dew.

Trying

3 minute read
Straightforward

Avraham had a faithful attendant and steward in Eliezer. Avraham trusted him to the extent that he sent Eliezer to his homeland, with the task of finding a young woman appropriate for our ancestor Yitzchak, his son and heir, sight unseen. 

In the story, Eliezer is anxious and worried the whole way there. He is nervous about completing the job as quickly as possible and prays to God for rapid success, and perhaps even experiences a miraculously short journey. He fervently prays for success, requesting that the intended woman present herself in a specific way instead of him having to search for and select the candidate.

In the end, Rivka presents herself what seems like only minutes after arriving, and the story proceeds. 

Yet Avraham was a well-established figure in the region, renowned as a respected sage, statesman, war hero, and teacher, in addition to his famous generosity, integrity, and considerable wealth. Finding someone willing to join the family would have been a relatively straightforward formality with a reputation like that.

So why was Eliezer so worried about it?

The Shem M’Shmuel teaches that there are times we persevere and refuse to give up, and then sometimes we quit after only some light resistance; people will respond differently to obstacles based on their mental states. Eliezer didn’t doubt Avraham or Yitzchak; he doubted himself. 

At the time of his mission, Eliezer had a daughter of marriageable age. Eliezer was Avraham’s trusted steward and undoubtedly raised a fine family following the guidance of his teacher and master Avraham. With his daughter at the back and perhaps front of his mind, every girl he met could very plausibly have been not quite good enough, and he could have returned with nobody – and after all, nobody was good enough! – leaving the door open for his daughter.

Eliezer was nervous and worried because he did not want bias or doubt to dull his determination. As much he did not want to let Avraham down, he knew that doubts could downgrade his effort and cloud his judgment.

R’ Chaim Brown suggests that this helps explain Eliezer’s desire for certainty and sense of urgency – when dismissing potential candidates, he would question his motivation for doing so. Was it because they weren’t good enough for Yitzchak? Or was it because they weren’t as good as his daughter? Eliezer prayed for the right girl to present herself to him immediately and free him from any need to deliberate. 

As one classic fantasy has popularized, do or do not – there is no try. “Trying” is an excuse that admits the possibility of not being able to, when far more often than not, it is within our ability if we dig deep enough.

You don’t try to ride a bike. You learn by starting to pedal, and then you fall, and sometimes not. Fall or not, your intent has to be to ride the bike. By beginning with uncertainty, you increase the chances of failure in a self-fulfilling feedback loop. 

Although we do not control our outcomes, we certainly influence them; you can be sure that half-hearted attempts are less frequently successful than unwavering conviction.

If you do something, lean into it and don’t hesitate. Do not go through the motions, but also do not negate failure. You can still fail, but as long as you did all you could, you can sleep easy knowing it wasn’t your fault.

There’s a famous sports aphorism, to leave it all on the field. It means to commit wholly, holding nothing back, with certainty you had nothing left to give.

Think about it like this; what is the difference between 99% and 100%?

Is it 1%? 

Or is it everything?

Gratitude Redux

8 minute read
Straightforward

Emotional states are everything.

While all animals experience emotions, they are predominantly simple; human capacity for complex thought uniquely impacts the context and depth of how we perceive and experience our emotions. Some emotions, like guilt, can come from our understanding of our role in events in the external world.

One of the highest human emotions is gratitude, which affirms that there are good things in the world, gifts, and benefits that we have received. Research has shown that gratitude is one of the most powerful predictors of well-being, over and above most known factors, including health and wealth. Gratitude is tightly linked to feeling happy, empathetic, energetic, forgiving, hopeful, optimistic, and spiritual while feeling less depressed, envious, and neurotic.

The Mesilas Yesharim teaches that God’s entire purpose in Creation was to have a counterpart to share the gift of God’s goodness with – humans, created as we are in God’s image and likeness.

It follows that recognizing goodness activates and draws out what’s best in us; gratitude and recognition arguably form the undercurrent of the vast majority of mitzvos, and it may not be a stretch to say all of Judaism.

The Midrash imagines God walking Adam through Eden. After reveling in how beautiful and wonderful each tree is, God would say that each marvelous one had been designed for human enjoyment. To the extent we can say that God can want anything, God wants humans to enjoy His gifts and recognize and appreciate those blessings.

The first words God says to the Jewish People articulate that God wants to be recognized – אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם – and not just for higher-order activities such as Creation, but for a specific and personal intervention in their lives, that God had rescued them from slavery. The next thing God has to say is that God cannot tolerate idolatry, where humans would misattribute God’s work to other, lesser powers. Idolatry betrays and demeans the good that God has done, and ranks among the most egregious sins towards God; idolatry entirely undermines God’s purpose for Creation, that God’s goodness to be appreciated and loved – וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁךָ וּבְכָל מְאֹדֶךָ!

In the agricultural world of the Torah, there used to be an annual national thanksgiving ritual – the mitzvah of Bikkurim. Farmers would tie a string to the first fruits that sprouted. Then, after the harvest, the Mishna describes how the entire country would sing and dance together at a massive street festival in Jerusalem to accompany the farmers dedicating those first fruits at the Beis HaMikdash to express their gratitude for the harvest – and almost everyone was a farmer.

On arrival, the farmers would present their baskets to the attending Kohen and recite some affirmations, including a brief recital of Jewish history. They’d recount how Yakov fled from Lavan, that his family descended to Egypt, and that God rescued the Jewish People and gave them the Land of Israel –  אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי / וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה / וַיִּתֶּן־לָנוּ אֶת־הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת. The prayer closes with an instruction to the farmer to rejoice – וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל הַטּוֹב אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לְךָ ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ וּלְבֵיתֶךָ אַתָּה וְהַלֵּוִי וְהַגֵּר אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבֶּךָ.

It’s hard to overstate how central our sages saw the mitzvah of Bikkurim. The Sifri suggests that the merit of Bikkurim is what entitles the people to the Land of Israel; the Midrash Tanchuma says that the merit of Bikkurim fuels the world’s prayers; and the Midrash teaches that the mitzvah of Bikkurim perpetuates nothing less than the entire universe.

But there’s one part that doesn’t quite fit.

The farmer would work his field manually; weeding, plowing; sowing; pruning; watering, and guarding it. It redeems no less than an entire year’s work when the harvest comes and ensures food security for the next year!

The farmer has worried for a year, living with anxiety and uncertainty. After the harvest, those troubles are gone; he can sleep easy now, and it might be the one time a year he can undoubtedly pray from a place of love and security, not fear and worry. So it’s a strange thing for the Torah to instruct the farmer to rejoice – וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל הַטּוֹב אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לְךָ ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ וּלְבֵיתֶךָ.

If this is the happiest anyone will be, why does the Torah need to command joy?

Healthy and well-adjusted humans require a sense of satisfaction and self-worth that comes from hard work and self-sufficiency – בְּזֵעַת אַפֶּיךָ תֹּאכַל לֶחֶם. Our sages call unearned benefits the bread of shame – נהמא דכיסופא / לחם של בושה. When a child begins to individuate from the parent and insists on doing it “all by myself,” we recognize the child is undergoing a healthy phase of human development. Eternal childishness and helplessness is a sickness, not a blessing. And, after all, self-reliance is the American Dream!

But we can take doing it “all by yourself” too far – וְאָמַרְתָּ בִּלְבָבֶךָ כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי עָשָׂה לִי אֶת־הַחַיִל הַזֶּה.

So perhaps the challenge for the farmer – and us – isn’t only in celebrating the blessings – וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל הַטּוֹב; it’s that even after taking a bare piece of land and making it fruit all by himself, he has to admit that he didn’t truly do it alone – אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לְךָ ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ וּלְבֵיתֶךָ.

Gratitude has a fundamental connection and interaction with humility. It grounds us and orients us by recognizing that what we are and what we have is due to others and, above all, to God, and so the error of self-sufficiency isn’t just that it’s morally wrong – it’s factually incorrect!

As R’ Yitzchak Hutner notes, מודה doesn’t just mean thanksgiving; it also means to confess. When we thank another, we concede that we need the assistance of another, admitting our frail weakness and showing our vulnerability. We acknowledge that another has shared gifts with us, big and small, to help us achieve goodness in our lives. Genuine gratitude strengthens relationships by helping us recognize and appreciate how others have affirmed and supported us. But our ego can inhibit us if we don’t get it in check, telling us we did it alone.

Gratitude affirms that self-sufficiency is an illusion, perhaps God’s greatest gift of all. John Rawls sharply observed that a person could not claim credit for being born with greater natural endowments, such as athleticism or intelligence, as it is purely the result of a natural lottery. As the Rambam explains, our lives are a gift within a gift; by definition, our starting points cannot be earned, so gratitude should be our first and overwhelming response to everything. Sure, we may deserve the fruits of what we do with our gifts, but the starting point of having any of those things is the more significant gift by far.

By thanking God loudly and in public, we firmly reject the worldview of self-sufficiency or that we did it ourselves – כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי עָשָׂה לִי אֶת־הַחַיִל הַזֶּה – and perhaps the ritual also helps recalibrate our expectations.

It is natural to be pleased with where you are but to want more still. Healthily expressed, we call it ambition, and unhealthily, we call it greed – יש לו מנה רוצה מאתיים. You’re glad you got something, even though it wasn’t quite what you wanted.

But nothing undermines gratitude as much as expectations. There is an inverse relationship between expectations and gratitude; the more expectations you have, the less appreciation you will have, and it’s obvious why. If you get what you expected, you will not be particularly grateful for getting it.

Expectations are insidious because although we can superficially express gratitude, what looks like gratitude might be entitlement cloaked in religiosity and self-righteousness. It’s a blind spot because you think you’re thankful even though you didn’t get what you wanted! But that’s not joy; it’s the definition of resentment.

Getting gratitude right brings out what’s best in humans, encouraging us to appreciate life’s gifts and repay them or pay them forward. But beyond gratitude’s incredible blessings, getting gratitude wrong is catastrophic and is one of the catalysts for all the Torah’s curses and prophecies of doom:

תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר לֹא־עָבַדְתָּ אֶת ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ בְּשִׂמְחָה וּבְטוּב לֵבָב מֵרֹב כֹּל – … Since you did not serve God with joy and good spirit when you had it all… (28:47)

It’s a sentiment the Jewish People expressed uncomfortably often in the wilderness, complaining about lack of food and water, about the dangers they faced from the Egyptians as they were leaving, about the inhabitants of the land they were about to enter, and about the manna and the lack of meat and vegetables.

Moshe warns us how his people lacked gratitude in difficult times and warns them of making the same mistake in good times:

הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ פֶּן־תִּשְׁכַּח אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ לְבִלְתִּי שְׁמֹר מִצְותָיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו וְחֻקֹּתָיו אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם׃ פֶּן־תֹּאכַל וְשָׂבָעְתָּ וּבָתִּים טֹבִים תִּבְנֶה וְיָשָׁבְתָּ׃ וּבְקָרְךָ וְצֹאנְךָ יִרְבְּיֻן וְכֶסֶף וְזָהָב יִרְבֶּה־לָּךְ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר־לְךָ יִרְבֶּה׃ וְרָם לְבָבֶךָ וְשָׁכַחְתָּ אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ הַמּוֹצִיאֲךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים׃ – Take care lest you forget Hashem your God and fail to keep His commandments, His rules, and His laws, which I enjoin upon you today. When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget Hashem your God—who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage. (8:11-14)

So perhaps the short history of how the farmers got their land recalibrates our thinking. Our enemies might have slaughtered us, but God has given us our lives and security – אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי. We might have been spared death, but we could have been enslaved or subjugated to any number of enemies, yet God has given us our labor – וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה. And on top of safety and freedom, we have material abundance –  וַיִּתֶּן־לָנוּ אֶת־הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת. With that kind of context, it would be ridiculous to think we somehow had it coming or did it ourselves!

We don’t practice Bikkurim today, and we’re missing out on a vital aspect of Judaism. But we’ve probably all seen the contemporary analog – many businesses frame and hang their first dollar of revenue. It’s sentimental, but it’s a powerful symbol, and just like Bikkurim, it is a ritual that captures the moment you are overwhelmed with gratitude and joy. By dedicating our first sign of success, the first fruit, the first dollar, we protect ourselves from the hubris that we had it coming or the narcissism that we did it ourselves.

The Hebrew term for practicing gratitude literally means “recognizing the good” – הכרת הטוב; gratitude is recognizing the good that is already yours. The things you lack are still present, and in expressing gratitude, no one says you need to ignore what’s missing. But there is no limit to what we don’t have; if that is where we focus, our lives are inevitably filled with endless dissatisfaction.

As R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains, almost all the mitzvos of the Land of Israel reflect this sentiment in one way or another. By heavily regulating our use of the land, with Shemitta, Yovel, the Omer, Sukka, and the tithes, the Torah guides us that there is only one Landlord, and we are all here to serve – הַכֹּל נָתוּן בְּעֵרָבוֹן, וּמְצוּדָה פְרוּסָה עַל כָּל הַחַיִּים.

The Jewish people are named after Yehuda, a form of the Hebrew word for “thank you” – תודה. We’re not just the people of the book; we could more accurately be called the grateful people, the thankful people.

As R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches, our blessings and prayers are a daily gratitude ritual, from the first words we say in the morning – מודה אני – to everything about life itself: for the human body, the physical world, and the earth to stand on, the eyes we see with, and the air we breathe.

The Eliyahu Rabbah notes that the prayer leader repeats the Amidah aloud, and the congregation answers Amen, for all except the Thanksgiving blessing – מודים אנחנו לך. You can delegate plenty to others, but not saying thank you.

While most of us aren’t farmers in the Land of Israel, each of us has a long list of blessings to be thankful for, and although we’re sorely missing a national thanksgiving ritual, we can learn its lesson that there is no such thing as self-made.

If there are any good things or accomplishments in our lives, we didn’t get them by ourselves; we all got plenty of help.

You need to recognize how blessed and fortunate you are, with no void of resentment for the things you don’t yet have; to be wholeheartedly and wholesomely thankful, decisively abandoning your expectations and entitlement, truly rejoicing with what you have – אֵיזֶהוּ עָשִׁיר? הַשָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ.

Let gratitude, joy, and happiness spill over beyond the confines of the religious sphere and into the rest of your life – it will deepen and enrich you. Thank God, and perhaps your spouse a little more; your parents, children, colleagues, clients, and community.

We can’t make it alone, and we’re not supposed to. We need each other; it’s a key design feature of being human – לֹא־טוֹב הֱיוֹת הָאָדָם לְבַדּוֹ.

As the legendary physicist and science educator Carl Sagan once said, to bake an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the entire universe.

Things That Matter

3 minute read
Straightforward

When we learn the history of Avraham, the first and foremost archetype of the Jewish People and one of the most significant figures who ever lived, we might almost be underwhelmed. 

He came to understand that the pagan idol worship of his world was silly and deduced that there must be one unifying force animating the Universe – the One God. 

But what’s so remarkable about deciding there is One God and not several?

Avraham’s breakthrough wasn’t the simple math of reducing multiple fractional deities into one whole god.

The story of Avraham is about how he acted on the consequences of his breakthrough determination; not only is there One God, but that God has demands and expectations of humans, and as a result, no longer do humans struggle with just their own conscience, but inhabit a universe of moral objectivism, where there is a pre-determined concept of what is considered good or bad, determined by higher forces, and that humans only discover it, not create it. Avraham understood that there are better and worse ways to live, and he understood the imperative to align his actions with what he intuited that the One God would want.

And he was right.

R’ Yitzchak Berkovits cautions us against being so dismissive of idolatry. The problem with idol worship isn’t that it’s ideologically deficient, primitive, or stupid. It’s that people could spend their lives focusing on the wrong things. So rather than sneer and think we’re better than primitives who dance for rain or shout at the moon, we should ask ourselves if we’re focused on the right things and be quite shocked by the answer.

If we think Avraham’s world was primitive and full of silly nonsense, perhaps we could excuse them. But our society, so educated and sophisticated as it is, is preoccupied with advanced nonsense just the same! Culture can change by the decade, but human nature hardly budges, even over millennia.

The Mesilas Yesharim warns us of the pernicious blindness that comes from comfort, desire, and habit. You can miss things, or just as bad, distort things, mistaking one thing for another. We have mental blind spots that stop us from thinking, and they can seem so virtuous! Hustle culture breeds hard workers, sure, but by the same token, lazy thinkers who don’t have time to prioritize. How many of us would benefit from slowing down to devise an effective strategy?

Avraham decided that there was One God, and maybe we’re right there alongside him. Great! But Avraham went on to give meaning to the world, actively seeking people out, bringing life to them, teaching kindness, caring and sharing, leading by example, and never arguing with anyone. And in a world where Sodom and self-interest were the dominant cultures, excluding the other and the outsider, Avraham’s way won. 

Too many of us are on cruise control, coasting by, and we need to wake up and ask what the point is. Avraham is the first archetype, the avatar of kindness. Are we as effective, kind, and loving as we can be? We know that the answer is a resounding no. There are so many people out there who need to be loved and looked after! And forget the world – there’s undoubtedly plenty of low-hanging fruit among your family and friends. 

People are too busy to think or prioritize – what are we doing? where are we going? What matters most? Do my actions reflect those values? Am I effective? Our calendars tell a revealing story about how we spend our time, and how we spend our time says everything about what we value, about what matters.

You have to break the cycle of busyness – literally, of being too busy.

Challenge yourself about where you’re going, what matters, and whether you’re as effective as you could be, but be tough on yourself before you’re tough on others. High performers hold themselves to high standards. 

You have time, but you don’t have time to waste.

Onward

5 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah’s stories have captured the awe of audiences for three millennia, and rightly so. 

The Torahs tell us of astonishing moments like The Binding of Isaac, the ultimate test of human commitment with the future in the balance, where Avraham lifts a knife to his son’s neck only for an angel to interrupt him, salvation averting tragedy through transparently divine intervention at the very last.

The Torah tells us of the harrowing crossing at the Red Sea, where the defenseless Jewish People desperately fled their oppressors, with the most advanced and formidable army in the world in hot pursuit. In a defining moment that upends the entire natural order of our universe, Moshe holds out his staff, and God parts the waters for the Jewish People to walk across the dry ocean floor. The Egyptian army attempts to follow, but once Moshe’s people have crossed safely, the sea suddenly reverts to its normal state, and the Egyptians are drowned. 

The Torah tells us of the theophany at Sinai, where the people gathered at a mountain enveloped in cloud and smoke, quaking, with fire and lightning flashing overhead, amid the sound of booming thunder and shofar blasts; and then the Jewish People hear the voice of God through the uproar.

These are some of the defining stories of our history and exhibit the dizzying heights of the supernatural. They showcase what is fundamentally magical about the Torah.

But despite the power of these moments to captivate us, the Torah doesn’t indulge us by dwelling on them even a little. Just like that, with the stroke of a pen, the Binding of Isaac is behind us, the Red Sea is old news, Sinai is history, and it’s time to move onward:

וַיָּשׁב אַבְרָהָם אֶל־נְעָרָיו וַיָּקֻמוּ וַיֵּלְכוּ יַחְדָּו – Avraham returned to his stewards, and they got up and left together… (22:19)

וַיַּסַּע מֹשֶׁה אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל מִיַּם-סוּף, וַיֵּצְאוּ אֶל-מִדְבַּר-שׁוּר; וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁלֹשֶׁת-יָמִים בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְלֹא-מָצְאוּ מָיִם – Moshe and the Children of Israel set out from the Red Sea. They went on into the wilderness of Shur; they traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water. (15:22)

רַב-לָכֶם שֶׁבֶת, בָּהָר הַזֶּה. פְּנוּ וּסְעוּ לָכֶם – You have stayed long enough at this mountain. (1:6)

We have these distinctly unique stories of the Divine manifested in our universe, and then the Torah just moves briskly onward – וַיָּקֻמוּ וַיֵּלְכוּ / וַיַּסַּע מֹשֶׁה אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל מִיַּם-סוּף / רַב-לָכֶם שֶׁבֶת, בָּהָר הַזֶּה פְּנוּ וּסְעוּ לָכֶם.

The Torah does not dwell in the magical moments, and the starkness of the almost dismissive continuity is jarring, and there is a vital lesson here. It suggests that even after the greatest of heights, the most noteworthy achievements, and the most incredible successes, the Torah simply notes that you can’t stay long once you get there. Before you know it, it’s time to continue the journey and move onward.

Onward is an interesting word – positive and proactive, meaning going further rather than coming to an end or halt; moving in a forward direction. As the Izhbitzer explains, part of growth is moving on and walking away from where you once stood. We can’t stay because the moment is gone – it’s gone in time, irretrievably behind us, and it’s our responsibility to realize that distance in mental and physical space too.

It’s also true to life; the world will not dwell in your magical moments. Whether you ace the test, get the girl, close the deal, buy the house, sell the business, have the baby, or whatever the outstanding achievement is, it’s still Tuesday, you’re still you, you still have deadlines, you still have to get into better shape, your siblings still get on your nerves, and your credit card bill is still due. And so, by necessity, there comes a time to move onward.

In dull moments, we may find ourselves thirsty with nothing to drink. But this, too, as the Izhbitzer teaches, is part of the growth process. Eventually, those bitter waters can transform into a sweet oasis, and what appeared to be downtime is integrated into the journey forward.

Even the Golden Calf story has redeeming elements; apart from the critical teaching that using iconography to worship the One God is still idolatry, it decisively demonstrates God’s predisposition for forgiveness and paves the way to the Mishkan and all the resultant forms of interacting with the Divine.

Do not fool yourself into thinking that what got you to where you are will fuel you to further heights; that energy does not simply overflow into everything else. Success is not final, and failure is not fatal; the proper response to both is the same – onward.

This lesson is challenging enough, but the Izhbitzer takes us further and forewarns us that what follows the heights of success is rarely smooth and straightforward lulls and plateaus of accumulation and consolidation to catch our breath; we can often expect an inverse experience in short order. All too often, great heights are followed by sharp declines and drawdowns, troughs and valleys; Avraham gets home to find his wife has died; the miraculous rescue at the Red Sea is directly followed by the people’s complaints about the local water being too bitter, and the people worship a Golden Calf at the foot of Mount Sinai itself.

Quite arguably, a failure to move on was the mistake at the heart of the debacle of the scouting mission to Israel – the spies just wanted to stay put in the safety of God’s embrace in the desert. They weren’t wrong; the road ahead was fraught with danger! But that’s not how the world works; stagnation is not God’s design for us or the universe – life must change, move, and evolve. Staying put and stagnating is what’s unnatural.

The Torah is a guide to life – תורת חיים – and one of the defining features of living things is motility – they move independently. We shouldn’t be so shocked by the ebbs and flows of life, moving and changing, with attendant ups and downs. When living things don’t move, they quickly atrophy, stagnate, wither, and die before long. Living things must move and push to grow healthy and strong. You can fall and run out of breath plenty of times along the way, but that’s part of it, so long as you eventually get back up and keep moving onward.

As the Leshem teaches, the dual pulsation at the heart of all things is the descent down and the return back up. The breaking is the descent and the fixing is the ascent back to a higher point. This is not only a historic process but a perpetual moment-to-moment one, the elevation of all things, the vibration of life and existence itself.

As R’ Shlomo Farhi explains, if you look at stock market performance over a century, the zoomed-out time frame looks like a smooth and steady incline; and yet, when you zoom in to years, months, weeks, days, and hours, the amount of choppiness and volatility increases. On an extended time frame, each part matters less. The bouncing highs and lows blend into a smooth line that only goes one way – onwards and upwards. 

The past is not gone or forgotten; it forms the basis and foundations of today.

Although we can’t dwell in the moments of achievement, there is a part we can carry in our hearts and minds.

And as we go, it comes with us, ever onward.

Religious Risk

3 minute read
Straightforward

No one knows the future.

As a result, we organize our lives around taking more or less risk; risk is inextricably linked to navigating the unknown, which is the reason the future is unknown. There is risk in our career path, who we marry, where we live, how we invest, what we consume, and how active we choose to be. The entire financial industry, insurance industry, and arguably the entire religious world are organized around risk; we live our lives in the specter of the consequences of wickedness and wrongdoing.

Is it a good time or a bad time to buy a house or invest? People have been saying it’s one or the other for a long time, and they’ll be right eventually. There is an inherent risk factor in an informed decision, and you’d be foolish to ignore it.

Risk is what’s left over when you think you’ve thought of everything. It can be counterintuitive and easy to ignore, especially when no one else has noticed it either. These can be more or less obvious at different times in our lives – but they’re always there. The riskiest stuff is always what you don’t see coming, and you won’t see anything coming if your eyes are wide shut.

The Flood story highlights another kind of risk – religious risk.

Our typical analysis of the flood story often focuses on Noah, the protagonist, and what he did or didn’t do. On occasion, we talk about what the antagonists did so wrong to corrupt their world so irredeemably. 

But let’s consider something Noah’s audience notably did not do. They didn’t listen, and the world was lost.

The Midrash suggests that for the hundred and twenty years he spent building the Ark, people would ask Noah what he was doing, and he would reply that God had informed him that God was bringing a great flood, and they would laugh him off as some crazy old man. 

Imagine sitting next to a heart surgeon on a long flight, and after getting to know you a little, watching you eat and drink the entire flight, he suggests that your habits predispose you to a greater risk of heart disease if you don’t tighten up your diet and develop a good exercise habit. How arrogant and stupid would you need to be to ignore the doctor and carry on just the same?

The very least you should do is get checked up and consider the gravity of the man on the plane’s word and the severity of the consequences of doing nothing. What if there’s a chance he’s right? That alone should get you to pay more attention.

But Noah’s world did nothing.

On the back of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we have considered the importance and urgency of Teshuva. We read the story of Jonah, whom God instructs to go to the corrupt city of Nineveh, and the entire Assyrian empire falls in line and makes amends on the back of just one sentence, and the star of Nineveh shines once more. 

In sharp contrast, we read this story, and Noah couldn’t get even one person to see the error in their ways.

God promised not to flood the world ever again when the world wouldn’t listen, but that’s just what God did. Humans didn’t change, they stayed the same! We are the same species of human, and humans are endowed with the property of not listening, and you ought to sit up a little and wonder what you important thing might be ignoring.

There have always been incidences of tragedy – that’s the nature of risk. Who it happens to, and how it happens, is a question of destiny, fate, and providence. But we live in a connected world – there are no local tragedies anymore, and we remember them longer and more clearly. How many times have you seen the World Trade Center footage?

It’s easy and tempting for leaders to blame whatever is culturally in vogue to attack – on a lack of cohesion and unity, on talking in shul, or on women.

And the truth is far scarier. 

It’s that we simply have no idea.

And in the face of that shocking truth, we ought to face the world with a little more humility. As the Mesilas Yesharim explains, self-assessment requires us to accurately gauge where we are and scrutinize where we are going – יְפַשְׁפֵּשׁ בְּמַעֲשָׂיו ויְמַשְׁמֵשׁ בְּמַעֲשָׂיו. If you can’t do that, or worse, think you can but are mistaken, you have a real problem. 

We need to be tuned in to ourselves and our environments, and even in the best case, it’s ideal to have friends and mentors to help guide us along the way – עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב, וּקְנֵה לְךָ חָבֵר.

We’re probably not a society of corrupt and wicked sinners, and you probably don’t need to listen too closely to anyone with that message. But we can do without excessive pride or self-confidence, and we can always dig a little deeper because what if there’s something we could have done better?

So with good reason, the Rambam’s universal prescription for bad things and hard times is Teshuva; it’s always a good time to make amends and resolve to do better and be better – just in case!

Love’s Truest Language

3 minute read
Straightforward

When we think of Mount Sinai, we think of Divine Revelation and all that it means. But apart from the obvious upheaval in spiritual terms, the Torah also describes a great upheaval in physical terms.

In Tanach, whenever there is a theophany, some manifestation of the divine in a tangible, observable way, there is an upending of the natural order. Moshe saw a burning bush that wasn’t consumed; the Jews were led through the desert by pillars of fiery clouds. Sinai itself is characterized by fire from the sky, along with loud booms, thunder, and lightning, and the whole mountain quaked, enveloped in a haze of dark clouds and smoke. Our Sages even suggest that when people heard God’s Word emerge from the darkness, they died for an instant.

This imagery demonstrates the absolute abnegation of the natural world, and rightly so!

Arguably, the ultimate purpose behind creation was to cultivate a conduit that could receive the Torah; all of existence culminated at that moment at Sinai, and creation achieved its intended goal when God reached into the universe to give the Torah to humanity, forming an intimate bond between Creator and creation. It follows that the imagery is stark and unnatural; this is the most extraordinary and supernatural event in human experience!

But there’s one part that doesn’t fit at all.

Among all the intimidating and scary goings-on, something else happened at Mount Sinai too. The little mountain in the desert burst into bloom, with beautiful plants and fragrant flowers sprawling up the hills and into the cloud, so tantalizing that the Jews had to be instructed to restrain their animals from grazing the lush greenery!

But why were there flowers on Mount Sinai at all?

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that the flowers demonstrate something that darkness, earthquakes, fire, thunder, and lightning do not. Those things demonstrate God’s power, but flowers illustrate God’s love.

There is another famous mountain in our tradition, Mount Moriah, where Avraham and Yitzchak famously stood together, the mountain on which the two Temples stood and where a third will stand once more. This famous mountain was also associated with flowers; the Zohar suggests that the mountain was named Moriah after the fragrant myrrh that grew there.

The legendary mountain is not named for the heroic acts and great deeds that took place there; it’s not the Mountain of the Akeida, the Mountain of Commitment and Faith, or the Mountain of Sacrifice. It’s named for the sweet-smelling plants that grew there!

There is an entire genre of romance that hugely impacts how many of us conceptualize love and relationships; a grand gesture is usually the crescendo of a great love story. Yet, as R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches, a grand gesture or great sacrifice cannot define a relationship because it is only ever an anomaly.

Over time, love is communicated through many little things, not any particular one-time thing. What defines the quality of a relationship isn’t the great deeds here and there; it’s the small gestures, the consistent, subtle, and thoughtful acts that shape how a couple connects and interacts. These small gestures send powerful signals about who we are, what we care about, and why we do what we do.

It’s called Mount Moriah because God wanted it to smell nice for all the great heroes and future pilgrims who would one day make their way there. It was wholly unnecessary, completely irrelevant, and entirely beside the main point of anything of consequence, but that’s why it matters so much. The great epic of Avraham’s ordeal is not impacted even slightly by the fact that God made it smell nice, but God did it anyway.

The flowers on the mountains are the most trivial detail, with nothing whatsoever to do with the tremendous meaning and significance of the events that took place at Sinai or Moriah. Still, those flowers say more than any commotion, and that’s the part that we remember. To this day, when we celebrate the Torah we got at Sinai, we don’t commemorate the darkness by turning out the lights or the earthquakes by shaking the tables; Shavuos is the festival of flowers! For centuries, it has been a near-universal custom to decorate our homes and shul with beautiful flower arrangements.

An employee will give you whatever you ask for, but a lover will give you everything they can. It’s not about doing what you need to do; it’s about doing all you can. That slight change in orientation elevates small and insignificant gestures into the most meaningful and loving relationship-affirming rituals.

Are you giving all you can to the ones you love?

His Brother’s Keeper

5 minute read
Straightforward

After a famine struck Canaan and the surrounding region, Egypt was the only place that could adequately sustain refugees. Yakov sent his sons down to Egypt to obtain provisions, where Yosef noticed them, and Yosef imprisoned Shimon for an extended period of time to make sure they brought Benjamin back with them. After releasing Shimon, Yosef had his goblet planted in Benjamin’s sack and claimed the right to enslave the framed thief. Believing their innocence, the brothers agreed, only to be crestfallen when the missing goblet was discovered in Benjamin’s personal articles, and Yehuda stepped forward with an impassioned plea, the turning point in the family’s story:

וַיִּגַּשׁ אֵלָיו יְהוּדָה וַיֹּאמֶר בִּי אֲדֹנִי יְדַבֶּר־נָא עַבְדְּךָ דָבָר בְּאָזְנֵי אֲדֹנִי וְאַל־יִחַר אַפְּךָ בְּעַבְדֶּךָ כִּי כָמוֹךָ כְּפַרְעֹה… כִּי עַבְדְּךָ עָרַב אֶת־הַנַּעַר מֵעִם אָבִי לֵאמֹר אִם־לֹא אֲבִיאֶנּוּ אֵלֶיךָ וְחָטָאתִי לְאָבִי כָּל־הַיָּמִים. וְעַתָּה יֵשֶׁב־נָא עַבְדְּךָ תַּחַת הַנַּעַר עֶבֶד לַאדֹנִי וְהַנַּעַר יַעַל עִם־אֶחָיו. כִּי־אֵיךְ אֶעֱלֶה אֶל־אָבִי וְהַנַּעַר אֵינֶנּוּ אִתִּי פֶּן אֶרְאֶה בָרָע אֲשֶׁר יִמְצָא אֶת־אָבִי׃ – Then Yehuda went up to him and said, “Please, my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord, and do not be impatient with your servant, you who are the equal of Pharaoh… Now your servant has pledged himself for the boy to my father, saying, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, I shall stand guilty before my father forever.’ Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would consume my father!” (44:1,32-34)

Rashi highlights that Yehuda is not simply begging; he makes a fervent and forceful appeal to save Binyamin. The Gemara suggests that Yehuda was willing to draw swords over this, meaning Yehuda was willing to sacrifice not only his liberty for his brother; but his very life. The Tosefta recognizes this moment as the singular deed that seals Yehuda’s eventual right to the crown.

Where once upon a time, Yehuda had advocated for the rejection of a sibling, he would not and could not tolerate the notion for even a moment, taking absolute responsibility for a planted goblet, something so completely beyond his control. With this bold step, Yehuda showed that he and his brothers had changed, and Yosef’s charade was no longer necessary, and it would be safe for Yosef to reveal his true identity.

Before proceeding, we should recognize that what Yehuda did was highly unusual.

There’s a common law doctrine called frustration. When an unforeseen event renders an agreed contractual obligation impossible, the contract or agreement has been frustrated and is set aside – אונס רחמנא פטריה. Any normal person would be well within their rights to disclaim any responsibility for the planted goblet – who could have foreseen it? There is no universe where it’s in any way Yehuda’s fault! Yehuda could so easily go home empty-handed to their father, broken-hearted and dejected, because what more could he have done to save Benjamin? Knowing that this nightmare scenario is theatrical because the goblet was planted, we know that the answer to what he could have different or better is nothing at all; it was nobody’s fault. Yet Yehuda rejected this tantalizing prompt to escape responsibility, choosing instead to endanger himself to save his brother.

Given the deep significance of this moment in the story, as accentuated by our Sage’s comments, what was the fuel that drove Yehuda to such an extreme extent?

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that Yehuda’s behavior is characteristic of being a leader. Making mistakes is an occupational hazard of leadership, but it’s a feature of being in a role with no rules navigating uncharted territory. Yehuda had made his mistakes, advocating for getting rid of Yosef, and then with his judgment in the story with Tamar. But he had admitted his mistakes and taken responsibility, learning and growing from them to face another day. He was not debilitated by his past failures and would not fail again; the stuff kings should be made of.

R’ Yitzchok Berkovits suggests that Yehuda understood that taking responsibility meant he could stop at nothing and could not allow for failure. Yehuda actually says as much to Yosef! One of the most fundamental premises of Judaism is that we have a duty to each other of mutual responsibility to look out for each other – כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה. The Hebrew expression goes quite a bit further than the notion of responsibility, articulating the legal concept of personal guarantee. There is just no such thing as a good person who minds their own business and leaves community and society to their own devices. That’s just not what a good person looks like! We are all fully responsible for living the Torah’s laws and ideals ourselves, but we are just as responsible for our fellow man and their responsibilities. The Torah teaches us that we don’t just owe God; we owe each other.

Yehuda’s example, and the example of any great leader, is that being responsible means stopping at nothing. If something goes wrong, leaders find another way, and there is no such thing as getting too discouraged.

It’s hard to overstate how monumental this moment is. Yehuda had rehabilitated himself fully, and it is what allows Yakov’s family to peacefully reunite, relocate, and reintegrate together after decades of hurt.

Cycle after cycle, generation after generation, families fought and went their separate ways. Cain killed his brother Abel. Lot had to separate from his uncle Avraham. Yishmael had to be separated from his brother Yitzchak. Esau had to be separated from his twin brother Yakov. In the book of Genesis, the stories of where we come from, families drifting apart is the natural course of events until this very moment – מעשה אבות סימן לבנים.

If the book opened with the haunting and existential question of “Am I my brother’s keeper?;” then the Torah’s answer is categorically and unequivocally that yes, you absolutely are!

Yehuda really is his brother’s keeper. With this essential lesson, the cycle has been broken, setting the scene for the epilogue of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus and the Jewish People.

The Gemara suggests that Yosef cried when he embraced Binyamin for the first time, not only for their emotional and tearful reunion after a lifetime apart; but because Yosef was crying for the two Batei HaMikdash in Binyamin’s territory that would be destroyed because of societies rife with internal hatred and animosity.

Perhaps the Gemara is communicating how hard it is for us not to hate our brother. Yosef and Binyamin had only just learned the lesson but knew that their descendants were doomed to repeat the same mistakes. Friction is part of what it is to be human – but we can be better than that. The stories of our history are about how hard it is to get along. It’s the story of our present. It’s the story of our future.

The Torah talks to us – it is written knowing exactly who we are, our shortcomings, and what we struggle with. And just the same, it calls on us to be our brother’s keeper, to take responsibility for one another, even, or perhaps especially, the ones it’s hard to get along with. It can heal a family, and it can alter the course of history.

We might fail, it might be hard, and the odds might be against us. But there is no avoiding it. It’s hard, but it can be done, and it’s the stuff greatness is made of.

Avoiding I Told You So

4 minute read
Straightforward

The book of Genesis concludes with Yosef’s story.

It’s worth noting that roughly a quarter of the book revolves around Yosef as the central character, making him its most prominent protagonist by a distance.

As an adolescent, Yosef was his own worst enemy, sharing vivid dreams with brothers already jealous of his special relationship with their father. Determining that this arrogant dreamer was unworthy of their great ancestral legacy and posed a threat to its future, the brothers disposed of him, selling him into ignominious slavery.

But he could not be stopped. Undeterred, he climbed his way out the depths of slavery and false imprisonment without faltering until he reached the height of Egyptian aristocracy.

The story reaches its climax with Yosef positioned as the fully naturalized Egyptian ruler of all, Tzafnas Paneach. In a stunning reversal, his brothers unwittingly made their way to him:

וַיָּבֹאוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לִשְׁבֹּר בְּתוֹךְ הַבָּאִים כִּי־הָיָה הָרָעָב בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן. וְיוֹסֵף הוּא הַשַּׁלִּיט עַל־הָאָרֶץ הוּא הַמַּשְׁבִּיר לְכָל־עַם הָאָרֶץ וַיָּבֹאוּ אֲחֵי יוֹסֵף וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ־לוֹ אַפַּיִם אָרְצָה. וַיַּרְא יוֹסֵף אֶת־אֶחָיו וַיַּכִּרֵם וַיִּתְנַכֵּר אֲלֵיהֶם וַיְדַבֵּר אִתָּם קָשׁוֹת וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם מֵאַיִן בָּאתֶם וַיֹּאמְרוּ מֵאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן לִשְׁבָּר־אֹכֶל. וַיַּכֵּר יוֹסֵף אֶת־אֶחָיו וְהֵם לֹא הִכִּרֻהוּ  – The sons of Israel were among those who came to procure rations, for the famine extended to the land of Canaan. Now Yosef ruled the land; it was he who dispensed rations to all the people of the land. Yosef’s brothers came and bowed low to him, with their faces to the ground. When Yosef saw his brothers, he recognized them; but he acted like a stranger toward them and spoke harshly to them. He asked them, “Where do you come from?” And they said, “From the land of Canaan, to procure food.” For though Yosef recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. (42:5-8)

It’s hard to overstate the importance of this moment, quite arguably the moment the entire book of Genesis turns on.

In every story up to this point, siblings could not get past their differences, and families would fracture and splinter off in separate ways. But this time, something different happens, and it’s because Yosef did something different.

We can be confident that Yosef remembered his childhood dream that his siblings would one day bow before him; sharing this vision was the very thing that had torn him from his family and landed him in his current position!

Then this moment happens – they bow and humbly beg for his benevolence and assistance. Despite their best efforts, his dream has come true, and this moment utterly vindicates him. The upstart dreamer had, in fact, been a full-fledged prophet all along!

We can’t begin to imagine all the years of pain and hurt, the difficulties and torment he experienced, first at home, then through abduction and slavery, then prison and later in politics, in utter isolation.

But this moment conclusively proves that however childish or immature he had been, they were completely and utterly wrong.

If he were to reveal his true identity now – the moment his brothers are on the floor beneath him, entirely at his mercy – can we begin to imagine the sense of power and vindication those words might be laden with? How tantalizingly sweet would those words taste rolling off our tongue?

Yet, presented with the ultimate I-told-you-so opportunity, Yosef turned away from that path and towards the road to reconciliation, paving the way for the family to let go of past differences successfully.

The Kedushas Levi highlights how gracious and magnanimous it was for Yosef to avoid rubbing in this complete and total vindication. He recognized exactly who they were, remembered precisely what they had done, and only troubled himself to make sure that in their lowest moment, they would not recognize him – וַיַּרְא יוֹסֵף אֶת־אֶחָיו וַיַּכִּרֵם וַיִּתְנַכֵּר אֲלֵיהֶם וַיְדַבֵּר אִתָּם קָשׁוֹת.

Yosef refused to kick them when they were down, and would ultimately offer a positive spin on the entire story, that God had ordained the whole thing to position him to save them from their predicament – שָׂמַנִי אֱלֹהִים לְאָדוֹן לְכָל־מִצְרָיִם / לֹא־אַתֶּם שְׁלַחְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה כִּי הָאֱלֹהִים / כִּי לְמִחְיָה שְׁלָחַנִי אֱלֹהִים לִפְנֵיכֶם.

All grown-up now, Yosef is able to understand that his dreams were not about him; he was able to recognize that he was a tool. There was no glory to be had in his power, wealth, and success, or even his prophetic ability, except to the extent he could use it to help others and heal the rift in his family he had contributed to. No one had understood his childhood visions; they weren’t going to bow because he was better than them but because he was going to save them all. From this point on through the end of the story, he repeatedly makes sure to feed and care for his brothers and their families.

In this moment, this hero of heroes acted from his heart instead of his pain. He truly was better than the brothers who had once tried to break him; rather than make them bitter too, he healed them all.

Most families are at odds a little too often, that is, assuming they’re even on speaking terms! Inevitably, there are quite a few I-told-you-so moments. It’s a rehash of the cycle of most of the book of Genesis, a tale as old as time, and perhaps even the natural course of life. But just because it’s natural, that doesn’t mean it has to be that way. It’s not inevitable.

We should remember that our greats weren’t robotic machines. They hurt each other deeply and caused their family immense and undeserved pain. Yet when things came back around, although they had not forgotten, they faced those moments with compassion and humility, invoking the power to defuse decades of hurt.

The legacy of these stories is that humans have the ability to choose to avert cycles of hurt, the power to fill that void with healing. Be the person you needed when you were hurting, not the person who hurt you.

Break the cycle.

Hopes and Dreams

3 minute read
Straightforward

In the stories of Yakov’s family and their descent to Egypt, Yosef features prominently. Yosef’s brothers hated him, orchestrating his disappearance. Yet, he somehow rose to the rank of prime minister of Egypt, and in an ironic twist, wound up saving his family years later from a devastating famine in their homeland.

Our Sages herald Yosef as arguably the greatest of his generation, with certain qualities and traits exceeding even those of his lauded ancestors – צדיק יסוד עולם.

What was Yosef’s distinctive quality; what made Yosef, Yosef?

The first Yosef story, the story of his youth, starts with him on top, his father’s favorite, and ends with him quite literally at the bottom, in a pit and on the way to slavery. The second story, the story of his maturity and growth, begins with him in the depths of a prison dungeon, yet he climbs his way to the heights of Egyptian society. What changed was Yosef’s perspective.

R’ Isaac Bernstein sharply observes that the axis of Yosef’s fortune turns based on where his focus is.

In his youth, his fall precipitated from his self-absorption about his dreams and ambitions; in his maturity, his climb blossomed from his deep empathy and sensitivity to others, listening to the troubled butler and baker, and eventually, an unsettled Pharaoh, to their dreams, hopes, and fears.

The Torah begins the second story by testifying that God was with Yosef from the bottom through the top of his successes:

וְיוֹסֵף הוּרַד מִצְרָיְמָה וַיִּקְנֵהוּ פּוֹטִיפַר סְרִיס פַּרְעֹה שַׂר הַטַּבָּחִים אִישׁ מִצְרִי מִיַּד הַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים אֲשֶׁר הוֹרִדֻהוּ שָׁמָּה׃ וַיְהִי ה’ אֶת־יוֹסֵף וַיְהִי אִישׁ מַצְלִיחַ וַיְהִי בְּבֵית אֲדֹנָיו הַמִּצְרִי׃ – When Yosef was taken down to Egypt, a certain Egyptian, Potiphar, a courtier of Pharaoh and his chief steward, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him there. God was with Yosef, and he was a successful man, and he stayed in the house of his Egyptian master. (3:1,2)

The Da’as Zkeinim observes that it’s not too remarkable for someone desperate to believe in God – who else is going to help? But far too often, and with uncomfortable regularity, those self-same people forget God the moment they get their blessings, because all too often, wealth and success are the death of spirituality, snuffed out under a tidal wave of materialism.

But Yosef doesn’t forget, because it’s not about him anymore. The Torah classifies Yosef as a “successful” person – אִישׁ מַצְלִיחַ – the only instance the Torah describes someone this way; this title belongs uniquely to Yosef.

The Malbim notes that the word itself is the causative form of the word for success – מַצְלִיחַ – meaning Yosef was literally someone who caused the success of others. As the story makes abundantly clear, Yosef did in fact bring success to others; First, making Potiphar’s household successful, and then running the prison successfully, and eventually, the entire government.

What if that were your definition of what success looks like? We ought to be mindful that it is the Torah’s definition, after all. The egocentric definition of success as personal gain is victory, but it’s not success. Success is improving other people’s lives, nothing more, nothing less.

The progression of Yosef’s story is in the common thread of his God-given charisma, looks, talents, and smarts. In the beginning, he thought it made him better than everybody else, but then he grew up, and understood that it merely gave him a greater ability to help others.

R’ Shlomo Farhi suggests that this was the symbolic significance of Yosef’s stripy cloak Yakov had given him; that Yakov saw in Yosef the ability to bring together people of different stripes and backgrounds.

Our sages herald Yosef as the greatest of his generation. He stood strong and tall in the face of nightmares his brothers could never begin to imagine, and he did it with his distinctive style and flair.

In shackles and from the pits, he never forgot that God was with him and calibrated his sensitivity to others’ problems and determined to help them, despite being down on luck more than any of them.

Your fortune will change when you stop looking out for yourself.

Living with Differences

3 minute read
Straightforward

The formative stories in the book of Genesis are powerful and moving.

They tell us where we come from, what our heroes and role models looked like, and how they got there. We recognize the individual protagonists’ greatness when we read these stories, but the stories also include plenty of failings.

In the stories of Yakov’s children, there is constant tension, a sibling rivalry. Yet Yakov’s children are the first of the Jewish People; the first generation to be entirely worthy of inheriting the covenant of Avraham collectively – מטתו שלימה / שבטי י-ה.

While the Torah’s terse stories obviously cannot capture who these great people truly were in three dimensions, we shouldn’t ignore that the Torah deliberately frames the stories a particular way, characterizing and highlighting specific actions and people. We should sit up and notice, wondering what we are supposed to learn from the parts that won’t quite fit with our picture of greatness.

Each generation of our ancestral prototypes added something – Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yakov. What are we supposed to make of the apparent disputes and strife between Yosef and his brothers?

R’ Yitzchak Berkovits suggests that one lesson is how perilously close people came to killing one of their own in Yosef, how their inability to tolerate Yosef nearly ruined them, with a straight line from their disagreements to centuries of enslavement in Egypt.

While we can’t get to some ultimate historical truth of the matter, the Torah’s characterization is unequivocal. As much as we believe that there is a right and wrong approach to life and that we must fight for what we believe in, we must still love and tolerate people we disagree with. If, in our pursuit of truth and justice, we end up dividing the family, hating and alienating others, we have gotten lost along the way.

The Sfas Emes suggests that Yosef’s criticisms stemmed from the fact that he had different, which is to say, higher standards than his brothers. Being the closest to his father, he was the best placed to claim authority from his father’s teachings; and being so highly attuned, he was sensitive to his brother’s nuanced missteps, so while Yosef’s brothers could not dispute his greatness, they determined that his standards were destructive.

It’s not so hard to see why. Although they were the heirs of Avraham’s covenant, it was intolerable to have someone so demanding and oversensitive policing them day and night. In their estimation, it was untenable for a viable Jewish future.

The brothers would eventually see that Yosef wasn’t a threat, that he had been on the right track all along, just not the right one for them. But they would only realize too late, after the family had already suffered greatly from the fallout, and would be mired in Egypt for centuries as a result.

R’ Yitzchak Berkovits suggests that the lesson for us is to learn to live with high standards in the place where theory and practice meet.

Daily, we see the razor-sharp edge of absolute truth clashing with the realpolitik of practical rather than moral or ideological considerations. It’s impossible to measure and quantify values or where to draw the line; it’s deeply personal and subjective to specific circumstances, continually hinging on so many practicalities.

Yosef and Yehuda never clash about what’s true, or what matters. They agree entirely about the value of Avraham’s legacy, but they could not agree on what that might look like. One of the story’s lessons is the error of confusing theory with practice; with no difference in values, we can and should tolerate differences in practice.

Two of the most fundamental principles of the Torah and life are loving your neighbor and the image of God, both of which speak to the dignity of others – ואהבת לרעך כמוך / צלם אלוקים. Reserving love and compassion for people who are just like you is not the Torah’s greatest principle – that would demand literally nothing of us. We must tolerate the existence of those who are not just like us, which is incredibly hard.

Like Yosef, we mustn’t be afraid of high standards. But if we aren’t quite ready to live that way, we should at the very least tolerate others who do have high standards. Society has to tolerate the person who wants things to be better just as equally it has to tolerate the person who can’t quite live up to that just yet.

Because true to life, you can’t teach someone anything you’ve chased them away.

The Hand of My Brother

2 minute read
Straightforward

When Yakov impersonated Esau to take his blessing, his place at home was untenable, and he had to run away. After twenty years apart, their paths crossed once more, and Yakov was afraid of what Esau might do to him or his family, and he prayed for God’s help:

הַצִּילֵנִי נָא מִיַּד אָחִי מִיַּד עֵשָׂו כִּי־יָרֵא אָנֹכִי אֹתוֹ פֶּן־יָבוֹא וְהִכַּנִי אֵם עַל־בָּנִים – Save me, please! From the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, I’m scared he might come and strike me down, mothers and children alike. (32:12)

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that it was easier for Yakov to endure 20 years of injustice under a deceptive crook like Lavan than face Esau, the man Yakov had wronged, for just one moment.

The Beis Halevi highlights that Yakov was afraid of two aspects – the hand of his brother, and the hand of Esau – מִיַּד אָחִי מִיַּד עֵשָׂו. We know all too well about Esau’s destructive capacity for violence – מִיַּד עֵשָׂו, but Yakov knows that Esau’s warm embrace of brotherhood is no less of a threat – מִיַּד אָחִי.

For everyone who died in pogroms, Crusades, the Inquisition, or the Holocaust, there are so many memorials and prayers, so much history, so many resolutions of “Never Again.” But, in the words of R’ Noach Weinberg, there is a spiritual Holocaust taking place as we speak. How many souls do we lose to assimilation, to a friendly society that opens its arms to us and beckons to us so invitingly? What are we doing with our unprecedented freedom, information, and resources?

We may not live in a time of physical danger, but the spiritual danger is no less catastrophic, and for all the wonderful accomplishments of outreach organizations today, we still lose more than we save.

We like to think that if we were around then, we would have done all we could, and hopefully, that’s even true. Today, the cries are a lot more subtle, but the opportunity is there just the same – מִיַּד אָחִי.

R’ Chaim Shmulevitz would tell the Mir Yeshiva to cry for the assimilating Jews in Russia and the United States; that the students should not dare to ask for God’s compassion when they could not move themselves to show compassion for others.

Pharaoh had three advisors concerning his slavery and genocide program – Bilam advocated for it and is a villain; Yisro was against it, was forced to flee, and is a hero; and Iyov stayed neutral and said nothing and suffered immensely afterward. The Brisker Rav noted that Iyov’s suffering was because he became an accomplice by remaining silent in the face of such cruelty.

As R’ Noach Weinberg says, if a boy was drowning, you could ask his father for some rope to save him and be very sure he’d give you all the rope he had! We all encounter the unaffiliated from time to time – and if not, perhaps you should start there?

Yakov recognized the threat and asked for help.

If you recognize the threat, are you doing all you can?

Family Feuds

3 minute read
Straightforward

In the stories of the middle phase of Yakov’s life, the recurring theme is internal clashes within the family. There is a constant tension between Rachel and Leah, and it spills down to their children when Yosef’s brothers hate him for being Yakov’s favorite.

To be sure, multiple moments mark them out as great humans. Rachel recognized her father for the scoundrel he was and gave Leah the secret code signals on what was supposed to be Rachel’s wedding day so that Leah wouldn’t be discovered and humiliated; Yosef saved his family from starvation when he could have taken revenge.

But as much as we hold these individuals up as our righteous and saintly ancestors and even bless and name our children after them, they seem to compete and fight rather often, vying for Yakov’s attention.

Is it every man and woman for themselves?

R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz cautions us against this superficial analysis.

Some things are constant, like the characteristics of Avraham, defined by his loving outreach and warm, kind heart, and God promises that Avraham’s name would be the one we highlight in our prayers – מָגֵן אַבְרָהָם.

But past that common denominator, perfection looks different from person to person, and it doesn’t follow that what’s good for me will work for you. The correct perspective to understand these stories – and ourselves – is that we are all different people with different personalities and perspectives, with different responsibilities requiring different things.

The stories of Yakov’s family are of people vying to leave their mark, fighting to contribute, fighting to matter, fighting to leave an impact, and it’s something we should notice that our greats tend to do, raising their voices to draw out individuality and avoid homogeneity. These clashes are not about a winning ideology; they’re about making sure that different voices exist.

The notion of collectivism and unity – אַחְדוּת – is all too often propounded to squash individuality, and we mustn’t tolerate that. On the contrary, the Torah is indisputably tolerant of pluralism, the existence of different voices. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe put it, people are not dollars. Your voice and existence are not fungible. You are not replaceable, and we need you to shine.

God creates all of us as separate individuals, born with a particular makeup and tendencies that mark us as distinct and unique elements of the universe. It is who you are to the core, but some people never become who they truly are; they conform to the tastes of others and end up wearing a mask that hides their true nature. R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that dulling your essential self to conform with others is heresy and sacrilege that profanes and squanders who we are put in this world to be.

There is a beautiful and uncommon blessing we say upon seeing a crowd of multitudes – חכם הרזים – the knower of secrets, which the Gemara explains as acknowledging God’s greatness in knowing each of us in our individual hearts, despite our different faces and minds. This is a subtle but vital point – God is great not because of the glory and sheer size of the crowd, but because God can see each of us as distinct within the sea of all too forgettable faces; God can see the individual within the collective.

It is a blessing in praise of the God who creates diversity in our world, rejoicing in our different minds, opinions, and thoughts. It is a blessing over Jewish pluralism. It is one thing to tolerate our differences; it is quite another to acknowledge them as a blessing. It is one thing to love Jews because we are all Jewish; that is, the same. It is quite another to love Jews because they are different from ourselves.

Sure, we have a group identity, but there is also individuality, and everyone expresses their sparkle in their own unique way.

As much as the world has gotten smaller in a certain sense, our world is also bigger today than it’s ever been, so it’s not zero-sum. Opportunities are abundant all around us, and you mustn’t be shy about shining in whatever way you do it best.

Our world will only sparkle when you do.

There and Back Again, and Every Step Along the Way

4 minute read
Straightforward

One of the most formative moments in Yakov’s life was when he fled his parent’s home after obtaining Avraham’s blessing from Yitzchak. He was no longer safe around Esau, and his mother Rivka advised him to escape to her brother’s house.

Yakov ran with nothing more than the clothes on his back, and he would not return home until decades later. Alone and afraid, Yakov slept one night and had a stark vision of a stairway to heaven, with angels climbing and descending over him. When he woke, he asked God to protect him, and God promised to do so.

It’s a powerful story about God’s presence and power transcending national boundaries, about the unique and eternal covenant between God and Avraham’s descendants, and the everlasting gift of the Land of Israel. It speaks to us by acknowledging the tensions that threaten us in exile, with its all too relatable struggle of trying to build and secure our future in a hostile world.

The Sfas Emes notes that Yakov’s journey is one we all make on a personal and national level, escaping Esau’s clutches in one form or another. We must eventually leave our comfort zones, perhaps when we realize that the familiar safety and security we once knew have eroded beneath us and that we need to find someplace else.

The Torah doesn’t just say where Yakov went; it emphasizes that he left Beersheva – וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע וַיֵּלֶךְ חָרָנָה. Rashi suggests that this indicates that when we leave somewhere, it loses a bit of its luster. The Kedushas Levi teaches that what makes a place sparkle is its people, so it loses a little of what made it special when they leave. The Midrash suggests that God folded up the entire Land of Israel into Yakov’s pocket while he slept, illustrating that the greatness of a place is bound to the presence of great people. You contribute to the places you are a part of, and they are worse off when you leave. But your contribution goes where you go, every step along the way, and all the spaces in between.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch highlights this story as critical to understanding what it means to be an upright Jew standing in the face of the adversity of exile. If Avraham’s great test was to leave his homeland – לֶךְ־לְךָ – then this was Yakov’s, and it is more demanding than Avraham’s. When God asked Avraham to set out, he set out with his family, wealth, and great renown. At this moment in Yakov’s life, God had not yet spoken to him, and he was completely isolated and penniless, every bit the outsider – וַיֵּצֵא. Yakov’s loneliness and despair are palpable when he asks God to be with him – he has no place, nothing, and nobody.

At the end of Yakov’s life, he laments the difficulty and misery that blighted his life. Yet even in what R’ Jonathan Sacks describes as the liminal space, the non-moments in between the great chapters of Yakov’s life, he sees visions and grapples with angels, and God promises to keep him safe, watching over him like a parent.

R’ Hirsch highlights how Yakov starts with nothing and nobody and finds himself nowhere precisely because Yakov doesn’t need any of that to become who he’s meant to be. He has everything he needs within him already.

Moreover, God appears to Yakov and promises to protect him precisely at this low point, before he is somewhere, before he is someone, and before he has something. Yakov has not yet undergone his transformation to Yisrael; he is not yet the man he will become. Having just left his parents’ house, he has only just begun his journey into adulthood. But precisely at that moment, at Yakov’s lowest, God appears for the very first time and promises to keep him safe. The Torah tells us nothing about how Yakov earns this remarkable privilege, perhaps indicating to us that God is there at our rock bottom moment, in the darkness and without cause, with the promise that we can shine brightly once again, perhaps even more than in the good old days.

R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that this theme precisely tracks the trajectory of Yakov’s life story. Yakov is born not just a twin, but literally holding on to his brother’s foot, and his childhood is defined by competition with Esau – his identity exists solely in relation to his brother; he must be attached to get by, which perhaps sheds some light on why Yitzchak may have doubted Yakov in his youth. Years afterward, when Yakov and Esau meet up again, Esau offers Yakov to join forces, and Yakov declines in order to travel alone with his own family – Yakov’s ultimate victory over Esau comes when Yakov develops his ability to transcend competition and strife to stand on his own. Esau has no power over Yakov when Yakov can resist not only Esau’s strength but can gracefully decline his diplomatic overtures as well.

The defining struggle of Yakov’s life is in the enigmatic incident at the river, when Yakov battled a mysterious and shadowy figure we identify as Esau’s guardian angel, and the question is posed once and for all, can Yakov stand alone? He holds his own and earns the title of Yisrael.

Yakov’s story is a quest to pave his own way, build a home, and secure his family’s future in a hostile and turbulent environment. But the catalyst was Yakov all along, and it was within him all along.

Taking the dream at face value, we might wonder why Yakov doesn’t ever think to climb the ladder to heaven. There is simply no need to climb the ladder in this interpretation. Yakov can build his family, and they will impact the world through their actions, and he doesn’t need inherited wealth or renown, and he doesn’t need anybody’s help. Even when he is nowhere, he doesn’t need to climb the ladder to become other than who he is; who he is and where he is will do perfectly.

The legacy of Yakov is that we have a spark within us, and we take it wherever we go. If we’ve been anywhere great, we are a part of what made it so, and if we did it there, we could do it anywhere. The model of Yakov’s life demonstrates that we can even do it in the middle of nowhere; that humans have a generative capacity to produce and contain growth and sanctity.

As the Ropshitzer said, the holiest place isn’t the Beis HaMikdash, and the holiest moment isn’t Yom Kippur; it’s right here, right now.

Dig Deep

4 minute read
Straightforward

After climbing and surmounting the monumental challenge of the Akeida, Avraham descended with Yitzchak, and we can only begin to imagine how surreal it must have felt, with undoubtedly complex and fraught emotions on coming down from such dizzying heights.

Yet their reprieve was all too brief.

Before they even got home, they received word that the great Sarah, Yitzchak’s mother, and Avraham’s wife had died.

It’s all too easy to perceive it as below the belt, a cruel gut punch, and frustratingly unfair. We just read about the Akeida! About circumcision and the covenant! About fighting with God to save innocent lives! About running after weary travelers to have someone to look after! And now that this incredible story is drawing to its close, Avraham has finally made it, sealing his name in the pantheon of greatness for eternity, and his wife dies?!

Can they not get a break? A few moments of peace? Where is the happy ending or even fleeting moment of peace and satisfaction that these great heroes have so surely earned?

If we expect life to be fair or balanced, the question is always far better than the answer because there is no real answer. Even if life is somehow fair or balanced, it certainly doesn’t appear that way, and we would do well to make our peace with that.

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that humans will never truly understand suffering, but that’s a good thing; because if we could, we would come to accept it. We cannot accept it, we should not accept it, and we must not accept it. Because the question is better than the answer, no answer is good enough.

Although we can’t understand why things happen the way they do, we can learn from Avraham.

Dealt a difficult hand, the Torah says Avraham grieved a little – וַיָּבֹא אַבְרָהָם לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ – but the Torah doesn’t even record what he said about her, and doesn’t record Yitzchak’s grief at all! The Torah gives us detailed information about the negotiations over the site our ancestors rest in, but nearly nothing about the family grief or funeral – as if the negotiation is what matters!

R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz highlights that the Torah’s lesson isn’t in the grief – which is all too human and ordinary. The lesson is in the extraordinary greatness of Avraham’s response.

There can be no question that Avraham was emotional and that if he would only let it, sadness and grief would consume and overwhelm him. Avraham grieved; he was not some stoic, unfeeling rock – וַיָּבֹא אַבְרָהָם לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ. But when it came to it, Avraham could manage his feelings and emotional state enough to rise to the occasion and do what needed to be done when the moment required.

The heart has different chambers; we have to compartmentalize. Grieving and in pain, Avraham had to – and was able to – gather himself and live up to his responsibility to deal with what the situation called for. This legendary icon, this hero of heroes, could deal with his anguish enough to do what needed to be done.

We are all in pain. Some more, some less. Pain is inevitable, and sometimes it comes at the worst moment and with a bitter and cruel bite. When that day comes, it doesn’t feel fair, and perhaps it really isn’t.

But R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that if you can’t figure out why something bad is happening and what the point is, there is literally no point, and it just wouldn’t happen. We can’t plumb the depths of the global why’s; why me, why now, why like this. We can’t begin to fathom, and anyone who tries is likely to be cruel because the question is better than the answer. But there is always a local why if we spend some time introspecting and soul searching. The local why is a prompt to think about what something means to you and how you need to change course and act differently.

We can’t know the ultimate cause of why bad things happen, but there is always a proximate cause in the outside world and our spiritual realm. We can give meaning to pain, and find a reason that makes sense.

Not everything can be a blessing – some things are truly terrible – but nothing is beyond being our fuel.

It’s true in our personal life when someone gets sick, dies, loses their job, can’t get married, or can’t get pregnant. It’s also true of our national life, whether it’s something as cataclysmic as the Holocaust or something as astonishing as the State of Israel blossoming into existence.

When things like that happen, you need to ask yourself what the duty of the moment is, and who you need to become. If you go about life just the same as before, then you missed it.

When pain comes, as it surely will, we have a chance to distinguish ourselves and live up to Avraham’s legacy. We must take responsibility, identify the duty of the moment, and do what needs to be done. Sure, the pain is real. Don’t ignore it! Experience it, feel it.

But don’t overreact. Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed. Focus on what you can do. Ask yourself, what has to get done? Who will do it for you? Where will it take you?

You can do it, and you have got what it takes.

You always have.

Killing Regret

4 minute read
Straightforward

Our ancestor Avraham was the first iconoclast, a brave pioneer who stood up to a cruel and pagan society and chose to pave a new path of love and kindness. Late in life, God revealed Himself to Avraham, confirming his intuitions and agreeing to an eternal covenant with the blood bond of the Bris. No sooner than Avraham had been ultimately vindicated that God tests Avraham and asks him to sacrifice his son.

After successfully passing this impossible test, Avraham and Yitzchak arrive home, only to find that the great Sarah is now the late Sarah; she had died, and the association of her death with the Akeida suggests that she died from learning what Avraham had set out to do:

וַתָּמָת שָׂרָה בְּקִרְיַת אַרְבַּע הִוא חֶבְרוֹן בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן וַיָּבֹא אַבְרָהָם לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ – And Sarah died in Kiryat-Arba – now Hebron – in the land of Canaan, and Avraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and cry over her. (23:2)

The Baal Haturim famously observes that the text of the Torah records Avraham’s mourning with an irregular small letter, suggesting that he only cried a little for her – וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ.

But we are talking about Avraham, the first of our greats, dealing with the loss of the correspondingly great Sarah, his partner in all he did, who hosted and taught all the women that came from near and far, whom God endorsed as having greater prophecy and wisdom than Avraham himself.

Given all they’d been through together, and given Sarah’s legendary quality as a partner and spouse, how could Avraham only cry a little?

Crying is a natural response to pain that expresses our grief and sorrow. When we lose somebody near and dead, we cry because we miss them and won’t see them again.

We’re all going to die.

Hopefully, in a very long time, but death is the price of life, and we can avoid its clutches for a while, but we can never escape. But death is a gift as well, giving impetus and urgency to everything we do. The clock is ticking, and the time is now. Each tick, and every tock, poses one question of us. What will we do with the time that we have?

Few things are sadder than the death of a young person because of the time they didn’t have, the stolen years brimming with possibility and potential that go unlived and unfulfilled.

But sometimes, death doesn’t come with grief and sorrow. Sometimes, death is not a tragedy, so much as it is peace and celebration. There is nothing sweeter than the culmination of a life well-lived. When a person has lived a full and rich life, their death isn’t a life that’s cut short; it has been stretched and squeezed to its fullest until the time comes to move on.

We are talking about Avraham and Sarah.

Their positive impact touched the lives of many in their day; it continues to influence our lives today. How many tens of billions of the humans who have ever lived count Avraham and Sarah among their icons and role models? Is there a more excellent achievement humanly possible than to live a life that permanently moves people across eternity?

When someone like that dies aged 127, that person’s life must be honored and celebrated. It’s a loss, sure. It’s sad! But it’s only a little sad, and that’s why Avraham only cried a little.

When the Torah’s greats pass on, there is no commotion, struggle, or turmoil. The imagery the Torah uses when Hashem collects the soul of the departed is hauntingly beautiful; they go with a kiss – מיתת נשיקה. There is no anguish or suffering; they just move on naturally, smoothly, peacefully, and perhaps even lovingly.

The Torah’s greats do all they can for as long they are able until it is time to move on. The Zohar says that Avraham died with all his days fully accounted for – וְאַבְרָהָם זָקֵן בָּא בַּיָּמִים. Rashi says that every unit of Sarah’s life was brimming with fullness – שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה.

There was no person they should have helped, yet didn’t. There was no move they should have made but had been too afraid. There was no word left unspoken that should have been voiced.

It wasn’t sad for Sarah, and it was only a little sad for Avraham.

The unfortunate timing of Sarah’s death was Avraham’s last test – could he still live with no regrets? The Bikurei Avraham notes that regret can work before and after the fact; we can worry about the opportunity cost of doing something before the fact, and we can regret doing something after the fact – והסר שטן מלפנינו ומאחרינו.

Avraham’s resounding response was that he could live with no regrets, recognizing that his and Sarah’s life together had been worth it, that there wasn’t much to grieve over, and only we know how right he was.

The choices we make all come at a cost. We have to make investments and sacrifices for the lives we want to lead, and it’s hard. But a life well lived is well worth it.

In the end, we only regret the chances we didn’t take, relationships we were too afraid to have, and decisions we waited too long to make. In the spirit of Avraham and Sarah, live your life to the fullest; let there be no excuses, no explanations, and no regrets.

Don’t count the days; make the days count.

In The Land of the Blind

4 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah’s heroes are individuals of impeccable character and quality, entirely above reproach, and we cannot comprehend the character of the people they were. However, that being said, the Torah tells us stories in a very deliberate way, and we can and should talk about the Torah’s characterization in these stories.

Our ancestor Yakov was someone who had to fight and grind throughout his life to get what he was owed; nothing ever came easy. We read the stories of his trials, the archetype and model of a Jew in exile, and take comfort and strength from his immense grit and perseverance throughout the turbulent times in his life.

But some incidents give us pause.

In particular, the incident where he masqueraded as his brother Esau to his blind and aging father to appropriate the blessing intended for Esau.

The Jewish People are called the Upright Tribe – שבטי ישורון. We take our common name from Yakov himself, a person renowned for being straight – ישר-אל. But Yakov tricked his father into giving him something that, although intangible, was meant for another.

How do we justify Yakov as honest and upright?

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch highlights a reading of how the story unfolded, noting that Rivka is the instigator of the entire course of events:

וְרִבְקָה אָמְרָה אֶל־יַעֲקֹב בְּנָהּ לֵאמֹר הִנֵּה שָׁמַעְתִּי אֶת־אָבִיךָ מְדַבֵּר אֶל־עֵשָׂו אָחִיךָ לֵאמֹר׃ הָבִיאָה לִּי צַיִד וַעֲשֵׂה־לִי מַטְעַמִּים וְאֹכֵלָה וַאֲבָרֶכְכָה לִפְנֵי ה’ לִפְנֵי מוֹתִי׃וְעַתָּה בְנִי שְׁמַע בְּקֹלִי לַאֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מְצַוָּה אֹתָךְ… – Rivka had been listening as Yitzchak spoke to his son Esau. When Esau had gone out into the open to hunt game to bring home, Rivka said to her son Yakov, “I overheard your father speaking to your brother Esau, saying, ‘Bring me some game and prepare a dish for me to eat, that I may bless you, with God’s approval, before I die.’ Now, my son, listen carefully as I instruct you…” (27:6-8)

Rivka tells Yakov to act as if he were Esau, and Yakov responds that he is uncomfortable doing so:

וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל־רִבְקָה אִמּוֹ הֵן עֵשָׂו אָחִי אִישׁ שָׂעִר וְאָנֹכִי אִישׁ חָלָק׃ אוּלַי יְמֻשֵּׁנִי אָבִי וְהָיִיתִי בְעֵינָיו כִּמְתַעְתֵּעַ וְהֵבֵאתִי עָלַי קְלָלָה וְלֹא בְרָכָה׃ – Yakov answered his mother Rivka, “But my brother Esau is a hairy man, and I am smooth-skinned. If my father touches me, I shall appear to him as a trickster and bring upon myself a curse, not a blessing!”

There is an unbridgeable tension here between deception versus honor and loyalty. Quite correctly, Yakov expresses his discomfort with Rivka’s idea, precisely because he is not a trickster – וְהָיִיתִי בְעֵינָיו כִּמְתַעְתֵּעַ. But at this point, Rivka pulls the proverbial ace:

וַתֹּאמֶר לוֹ אִמּוֹ עָלַי קִלְלָתְךָ בְּנִי אַךְ שְׁמַע בְּקֹלִי וְלֵךְ קַח־לִי – But his mother said to him, “My son, any curse would be upon me! Just do as I say and go fetch them for me.” (27:13)

At this juncture, Rivka exercises her maternal authority to silence Yakov’s protest, and the story goes on. We can continue to look up Yakov because he is not a crook; he is obedient to his mother.

While this is a compelling reading, it doesn’t answer the crux of the problem. While it serves the purposes of salvaging Yakov’s image, Rivka becomes tarnished instead, and we must ask the same question of Rivka, only it looks substantially worse now; she has forced her son to trick her husband – his father – to take something intended for his brother.

To reinforce the question, what exactly is the point of the ruse here? It’s so incredibly pointless, if only because it is sure to be foiled the very next time Esau speaks to his father!

Moreover, to the extent we can understand how blessings work, why would we think it even works that way? The blessing is God’s to bestow – is God also taken by a gruff voice behind a silly disguise?

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that the point of the deception is the fact of the deception itself. This is not a story about Yakov stealing blessings; it’s a story about Yitzchak’s blindness to who his children have become.

The Midrash suggests that Yitzchak was blind ever since the Akeida, where his father bound him up and was prepared to kill him. It’s not a stretch to suggest that this traumatic experience blinded him to Esau’s shortcomings, unable to contemplate discarding his son in the way he so nearly was.

Esau had disgraced the family legacy, a feared killer who married idolators and indulged in their pagan practices, which another Midrash links to Yitzchak’s blindness. Esau was not the scion of his grandfather Avraham.

Esau didn’t become the person he did when he went out into the big wide world. Esau found his ignominious way while still living under his father’s roof – and Yitzchak was blind, completely oblivious! Sure, Esau was a smooth operator, and that’s on Esau; but Yitzchak bought the ruse. He would not, or perhaps could not, see him for who he was.

So if Yakov, so bookish and refined, could pass himself off as the macho hunter, then perhaps the macho hunter could also pass for bookish and refined!

Indeed – R’ Shlomo Farhi sharply notes that Yakov’s concern in the story is only ever the appearance of trickery, not trickery itself, because the story isn’t about stealing blessings – וְהָיִיתִי בְעֵינָיו כִּמְתַעְתֵּעַ / וְהָיִיתִי מְתַעְתֵּעַ!

There is no crime here, and this story should not give us pause about the greatness of some of our greatest. Rivka’s intention in setting Yakov up to deceive Yitzchak was simply to show how easily he could be deceived.

Deception for dishonest gain is wrong – at the beginning of the story, at the end, and throughout. One of the story’s conclusions is that blessings go where they’re meant to, and they’re not limited.

Keep Chopping

4 minute read
Straightforward

Mark Twain famously admired the Jewish People’s survival through the ages. The great empires of Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome all rose and fell, yet the Jewish People endured.

What, he wondered, was the secret to Jewish immortality?

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that for every nation and culture in history, land, not law, brought people together. People first formed settlements, then small groups, then villages, and then built towns and cities. As the groups grew, they became unstable and developed legal systems to resolve disputes and uncertainties – first the land, then the law. Unique to the Jewish People is the phenomenon that the law precedes the land, and it transforms the expected trajectory of Judaism by making it non-contingent. When a nation is exiled and dispersed, it doesn’t typically survive; Judaism has spent most of its history in the diaspora – not sovereign in Israel.

And it has a lot to do with the fact that the Torah was given in the desert wilderness the fourth book of the Torah is named for – במדבר; the location of three-quarters of the Torah’s stories, where the Jewish People accepted the Torah and formed a covenant with God, lived on miraculous manna and water, while sheltered under divine cloud cover.

At that moment, the Jewish People were constituted long before they ever saw the land, and so they could survive, identity intact, without it. As only R’ Jonathan Sacks could put it – the law came before the land, so even when the Jews lost the land, they still had the law. Without geography, there was still history.

Pagan worship often revolves around natural life cycles and ecosystems, to which the desert wilderness is inhospitable, teaching the essential lesson that the One God exists in the emptiness too.

This understanding inverts our expectation of the exilic trope of the wandering Jew. We don’t practice a majority of the Torah in exile – the laws of the Temple, the laws of the Land, the laws of government, or the laws of holiness and purity, among others. But although exile is not ideal, we can still thrive.

Our ancestor Yakov was the final prototype of the Jewish people and is the archetype for life on the run. When Yakov leaves home for the first time, Rashi comments that even with his departure, and even in his sleep, the sanctity of the land went with him – it was contingent on him, not where he found himself. He fled from home, from Lavan, from Esau, and then from Israel. Yet he transitions ever upwards, and it all happens on the go, casting off a former identity and emerging anew, foreshadowing the journey his children through the ages would have to take.

The very notion of a Mishkan – a portable temple – embodies the idea that we can create holiness on the move, and it reinforces the idea that the law before the land means that the law without the land is not lesser. If we can live with God in the middle of nowhere, we can live with God anywhere.

It’s the underlying theme of the Purim story as well – in the moments we think we’re most alone, God is by our side every step of the way, no less than when He seems closer. You may have to search a bit, but God doesn’t vanish on us.

The law precedes the land. The model to survive, perhaps even thrive, is placed before us long before being tested – the antidote before the venom. On a far deeper level, it even precedes Creation – it comes before everything else.

None of this is to say that it’s easy to persevere in difficult times – it most certainly is not. There is no shortage of moments in Jewish history where it took all people had only to scrape by, at times physically, other times spiritually, and on occasion both. There is no shortage of moments where people were lucky to make it out alive. Our circumstances can be cruel, and that pain is genuine, and we must be careful not to callously dismiss it.

Yakov’s life was fraught with pain and strife, and the spectre of mortal danger loomed over his family throughout. The Jews fought Moshe and struggled to live in the wilderness from beginning to end. The Jews in the Purim story came perilously close to a genocide that was averted at the very last. If anyone says it’s easy – it’s assuredly not.

We don’t choose our circumstances, and sometimes the odds can be stacked against us. On a national level, exile has lasted for most of our history, but again, the law precedes the land. So sure, we yearn for redemption every day, hoping for a time we can practice the Torah in its fullness; but this is where we are right now, and life today isn’t worth a smidge less than it could be – so long as we’re doing the best we can. If we’re doing everything within our power, what more could God possibly ask of us? Perfection describes a process, not an outcome.

Channeling our ancestor, the archetype of Yakov, we can shine through pain and exile – not just surviving, but perhaps even thriving.

There are times we feel lost, scared, and alone. Sometimes the only real choice we have is whether we can even keep going at all. It’s real, and it’s hard! But we do have the capacity – הַזֹּרְעִים בְּדִמְעָה בְּרִנָּה יִקְצֹרוּ.

Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says we’ll try again tomorrow.

Science and Torah

5 minute read
Straightforward

The Creation story is one of the most powerful and influential stories in human history.

But is it true?

Traditional people may initially be inclined to condemn such questions as heresy, but that approach alienates inquisitive youngsters and is also problematic. As the Rambam points out, if we take the Creation story at face value, we would mistakenly understand that humans are literally created in God’s image, which means we look like God and that God has some shape or form. But even though we don’t believe God has an actual image, the story is still true!

The language we use to talk about truth is complex and nuanced; it is not a mature expectation to read the words and expect a step-by-step guide to how the Creator shaped the entire universe.

One of the universal rules of interpretation is that the Torah speaks how humans speak – דיברה תורה כלשון בני אדם.

If the Torah speaks in human language for humans to understand, there is literally no point whatsoever for the Torah to include information people would not understand. The Torah’s primary audience was a band of barely literate former slaves in the desert 3000 years ago; imagine explaining General Relativity and the age of the Universe to them! Dinosaur bones were only discovered in 1677 and were believed to belong to giants and dragons at first. Not only would such information have made no sense to our ancestors, but these ideas would not have been useful as they don’t relate to the world as the place of action the Torah asks us to live and move in.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch teaches that the Torah is not a textbook of magic or metaphysics. It isn’t even primarily concerned with history! The Torah is not a how-to manual of how God created the universe; it’s a book of instructions – the literal translation of Torah – guiding us on how to ethically build and shape a cohesive human society in general and Jewish society in particular.

If it was a step-by-step guide, it’s not very good. The Creation story is about 34 verses long, whereas the Mishkan and its related laws and services occupy nearly a quarter of the Torah in exhaustive detail. R’ Jonathan Sacks concludes that while the Torah is somewhat interested in the home God makes for us, it is much more interested in the home man makes for God.

The Torah is God’s handiwork. But godly as it may be, it must be read, understood, and practiced by imperfect humans. It’s not a deficiency in the medium, the Torah – it’s a deficiency in us, the audience.

There is a way that humans read stories in this genre, which unlocks the truth of the Creation story; a genre is a category of things characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter. The Torah’s Creation story is part of a creation myth genre, something common to all cultures across all human history.

Creation myths are symbolic stories that enormously influence our lives and societies. The word “myth” itself doesn’t primarily mean false or fanciful; in the society in which it is told, a myth is regarded as conveying profound truths – not just literally but historically, metaphorically, and symbolically.

Creation myths are potent and formidable because the ideas they contain express in narrative form what we experience as our basic reality – where we come from, how we find ourselves where we are, and crucially, where we are going.

You may even have your own personal creation myth about your life and the direction your story has taken.

To ask if a myth is true in a factual or literal sense is to miss the point entirely and is the wrong perspective to approach it on any level. That’s not the function of a creation myth.

Taking the entire Torah literally and at face value only, we’d think God looks like a human and walks in gardens, and we’d all be blind from taking an eye for an eye.

We should not doubt for a moment that the Creator shaped the universe and gave it order; we should not doubt that the image of God is a profoundly consequential idea that requires us to recognize the godliness in ourselves and each other to the extent that one sage, Ben Azzai, identified it as the essential principle of the Torah.

The Torah was given in the ancient world, where the prevailing universe of ideas held that the ancient world’s gods were part of nature and fought each other. For example, a typical contemporary creation myth in Akkadian culture held that there are different tiers of gods. The working-class gods were tired of serving the upper-class gods, so they created humans from the dirt to be the new underclass, and the working-class gods could rest. In this cosmic order, the gods are indifferent to humans at best, and humans don’t matter. Humans exist to be enslaved and serve the gods. Critically, this corresponded to the earthly social hierarchy, where people exist to serve the priestly class and king, who serve the gods best.

This entire hierarchy is utterly obliterated by the Torah when the One singular God, free and independent, creates humans out of love and, in God’s image, creates them free. This imagery completely delegitimizes the language of oppression and enslavement and reimagines humans as supremely valuable and completely free. The Torah takes the imagery of humans as formed from dirt and inverts and sanctifies it when God infuses the dirt with a soulful breath of life – וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים.

The Mishnah learns from the imagery of the emergence of humanity by creating one individual that each life is its own universe, so taking a life is like destroying a universe; saving a life is saving a universe. Individuals matter, created as they are in God’s image.

The development of the scientific method created an inflection point in the trajectory of human knowledge, transforming our understanding of the world around us. 

Ideas like evolution and the Big Bang aren’t a threat.

If you’re reading the Torah looking for empirical facts, or parsing the text for hints or rebuttals to an old or young universe, to evolution or dinosaurs, to arcane magic or General Relativity, or 9/11 predictions or the future, you are going to come away disappointed because you are reading the Torah wrong. That is not the Torah’s purpose in any way; how it all works is a separate and parallel track to what it all means. 

And is it even possible for humans to understand how the Creator did it? Moshe and Job communicated to God and came away with learned ignorance, the understanding that there is an outer boundary to human knowledge and that humans can’t understand much. 

As R’ Jonathan Sacks explains, science speaks of causes, but only religion can speak about purpose; science can take things apart to see how they work, but only religion can put things together to see what they mean.

If science is about the world as it is, and religion is about the world that ought to be, then religious people need science because we cannot apply God’s will to the world if we do not understand the world. Torah is art, not science.

The Creation of the universe is more complicated than the brief treatment the Torah tells us, but the ideas it contains are explosive, and their truth and importance are absolute.

Lift As You Climb

3 minute read
Straightforward

As the Torah begins the Flood story, the Torah introduces Noach as the righteous man of his time, a famously ambiguous description.

It might be a straightforward compliment that Noach was one of the greats, or it might be a backhanded compliment with the faint inference that his generation was so awful that being the best of them isn’t especially praiseworthy.

Noach is a significant figure and the protagonist of an important story. In isolation, the negative characterization might seem a little harsh.

But in the context of the Torah’s story, it matters that we notice who Noach was, and what he did and did not do. The Rambam notes that the Torah leads us through the early trajectory of human history; and how people just couldn’t get it right until eventually, someone did – Avraham.

The Midrash teaches that after God told Noach to start prepping for the Flood, Noach would tell everyone what he was doing and preach to them to abandon their corruption and lawlessness to embrace ethics and morality. His pleas fell on deaf ears, and the world was lost.

In a sense, this reinforces the question. The most humans can do is try in the hope that God helps. We control our efforts only and not the outcome.

Why do we hold Noach’s failure against him?

R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz teaches that Noach’s failing wasn’t in his efforts; it was his methods.

Noach didn’t attempt to understand his society; he separated himself from it. He insulated his family to the extent he couldn’t understand the people around him, and he couldn’t get through. His name literally means “easy” – the easy way out.

We need to ask if we could consider ourselves righteous if we detach entirely from humanity and society. How strong is our belief system truly if we don’t think it could withstand the slightest scrutiny?

The issues of Noach’s day weren’t ideological or philosophical because paganism isn’t a philosophy – it’s ad hoc. The problems of that day were lust, desire, greed, and selfishness.

The tragedy of Noach was that for all his efforts and personal righteousness, he didn’t put in the effort to understand the people around him.

Arguing with people rarely succeeds – and anyone who’s had a significant dispute will tell you that it rarely matters that you’re right.

In stark contrast, Avraham is lauded as someone who was very in tune with how to win the hearts and minds of his society. He fed people and washed them, caring for all people with genuine love and kindness. Pagans were not a threat to him because his beliefs and practices were strong enough to survive contact with them. The Raavad notes how we herald Shem, Ever, and others as righteous, yet they don’t feature in our pantheon of greats because they never went out into the world.

R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch taught that righteous people are not scholars in ivory towers; they actively drive positive change in their communities by living out the Torah’s teachings – בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה בָּעִיר.

Noach, the best man his generation could muster, failed:

וַיִשָּׁאֶר אַךְ־נֹחַ – Only Noach was left… (7:23)

Instead of saying that Noach survived – וַיִשָּׁאֶר נֹחַ, the Torah emphasizes that “only” Noach survived, underscoring the utter devastation and loss in the story. R’ Meir Schapiro highlights that this is the moment Noach understood the cost of his failure, abandoning his peers to their fates without doing all he humanly could.

R’ Josh Joseph notes that we highlight Noach’s failure despite his efforts because the image of Noach alone is terrifying, which leads him to see his remaining days in the depths of alcoholism and depression. R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that Noach’s defining feature was that there was nothing wrong with him – תמים – which is to say that Noach was perfectly adequate, and yet that wasn’t enough.

R’ Jonathan Sacks contrasts this broken figure of Noach, who couldn’t save anyone, with the bold and staunch figure of Avraham, who tried to save everyone. When God informed Avraham that He intended to destroy Sodom, Avraham passionately advocated for Sodom’s survival – a civilization that stood for everything Avraham stood against!

As R’ Yisrael Yehoshua Tronk of Kutno observes, Noach walks with God, which suggests the exclusion of others, whereas we see Avraham as someone who went before God; over, above and beyond הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי / אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִים הִתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹחַ.

We need to dig very deep to have a shot at saving others, lifting as we climb, so it resonates with us that Noach could have done more. Perhaps we recognize that’s what it takes in order to live with ourselves.

The Pelagian Heresy

4 minute read
Straightforward

A substantial chunk of humans who have ever lived are familiar with the Adam and Eve story, about the emergence of humans and human consciousness out of primordial space and time.

The nature of the kind of story it is lends itself to a plethora of explanations and interpretations; the motifs and concepts evoked by its imagery are incredibly powerful and convey deep meaning.

Consider just one line of interpretation. After Adam ate the fruit, the original sin – what changed?

It is hard to overstate how enormously consequential both the question and answer are.

In Christianity, the dominant Augustine school teaches that man’s original sin fundamentally corrupted the state of humanity from a state of innocent obedience to God to a state of guilty disobedience, the fall of man. Humans are bad and sinful, and humans need God’s grace to be redeemed. Humans are born in a state of sin, and there is a straight line from this interpretation to the belief that God sent Jesus to die to atone for humanity’s sinful condition.

To Judaism, the Augustine theory is untenable and poses insurmountable theological problems, and so it is critically essential to reject it entirely and understand what our point of departure is.

If a human is fundamentally sinful or evil by nature, then not only is sin inevitable, but the idea of religion or morality is a cruel joke. It turns God into a grotesque caricature – how could a just and fair God punish us for sinning if doing right is simply beyond our power? If humans can’t choose to be good, there’s no free will and no reward or punishment. If we can’t choose, our actions have no value as we don’t control them. If you are fundamentally bad, then it’s not your fault because being good is impossible. Interestingly, a Christian theologian named Pelagius noted these objections and was excommunicated as an arch-heretic for well over a thousand years.

The proper Jewish perspective is that humans are untainted by original sin and freely choose between good and evil. The idea of free choice underpins all the laws and stories of the entire Torah. Arguably, it underpins the whole idea of creation – as much as the almighty God could want anything from an as puny thing as a human, what could we even do for God if we can’t choose?

More fundamentally, the idea that humans are bad and sinful in a perpetual state of evil that is somehow separate from God or God’s master plan is a form of dualism. Dualism is the belief in two opposed powers, which borders on idolatry, contrasted with monotheism, the belief in one singular power.

As R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches, dualistic thinking is immature and dangerous because it means all bad things are caused by something God hates, or the enemy of God, or Satan. In ourselves, it causes terrible and unwarranted guilt and shame, and in societies, it causes fractious rifts among people, who see each other as the enemy and the other.

R’ Shimon Bar Yochai suggested that since God wanted to give the Torah to humans, God might have created humans with two mouths; one for words of Torah and holiness and one for talking and eating. The implied premise of the question is that perhaps dualism is the correct view, and we ought to protect good from being tainted by evil. Yet we know we only have one mouth for all the good and bad, because dualism is the wrong way to look at the world; that’s just not how things work.

We’re not supposed to be angels – God isn’t short of them and doesn’t need our help making more. We might not be much, but we’re precisely what we’re supposed to be. Maybe we have an aspect or inclination to do the wrong thing sometimes or perhaps often – יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו. But it’s not that we are essentially and intrinsically bad; it’s still just an inclination – a יֵצֶר.

This is arguably the point of the flood story, which begins and ends with God lamenting how bad people can be. It’s not that humans stopped being bad; it’s that God recognizes that human badness is inseparable from the other things God wants from us. We can learn to resist and even overcome this inclination, which is the entire point of creation, Judaism, and the Torah.

One of the most influential ideas in Judaism, mentioned in the book of Job and popularized by the Baal Shem Tov, is the idea that our souls are a small fragment of godliness, and God as well in some sense – חלק אלוה ממעל. This motif is formidable – not only is God a piece of us, but equally, we are a piece of God.

There is a part of the soul, whatever it may be, that is fundamentally pure and incorruptible – אֱלֹהַי, נְשָׁמָה שֶׁנָּתַתָּ‏ בִּי טְהוֹרָה הִיא.

Adam sinned, sin exists, and we make mistakes. But it’s not that we are bad because of dualism; it’s because of the duality of all things. What changed wasn’t that Adam became bad, but in eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, he became more knowledgeable and aware of good and evil, of guilt and consequences.

There is a little bit of something in everything. In the good, there is some bad, and in the bad, there is some good. There is fullness in the emptiness, sadness in the happiness. They are complementary parts of a reciprocal interaction that are present in all things, including ourselves.

We take the good with the bad.

Don’t be Afraid

2 minute read
Straightforward

After Yosef revealed himself to his brothers, he invited their entire family to relocate from the famine-plagued Canaan to Egypt’s fertile and prosperous land under Yosef’s protection and influence. When Yakov discovered his long-lost son was alive and well, he was overwhelmed at the prospect of reuniting the family before he died. But he had reservations, and God had to reassure him:

וַיֹּאמֶר אָנֹכִי הָאֵל אֱלֹהֵי אָבִיךָ אַל־תִּירָא מֵרְדָה מִצְרַיְמָה כִּי־לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשִׂימְךָ שָׁם – And He said, “I am God, the God of your father. Don’t be afraid of going down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation”. (46:3)

Undoubtedly, God was speaking to some nerves or anguish Yakov was experiencing at the idea of leaving the land of his fathers. Yakov was afraid of the unknown, leaving the safety, security, and comfort of the land his family had grown up in. But fear makes us withdraw, which may be the point God was addressing.

And God’s reassurance contains a powerful notion that reverberates through the ages. Difficulties don’t have to diminish – they can be the making of us. Strength and growth come with pain and sacrifice.

Of 3,000 or so years of Jewish history, perhaps 400 at best were sovereign and secure, with the rest in one exile or another. Yet, the trajectory has only been upwards. There is no greater freedom than knowing we can thrive in exile.

It’s ultimately true of life itself – we build through overcoming adversity with self-sacrifice. So counterintuitively, outstanding achievements are not despite adversity; they are a product of it. Leaning into the challenge will be the making of you – כִּי־לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשִׂימְךָ שָׁם – that’s the only place it can happen.

When everything is easy, it’s hard to be our best, and Yakov’s life embodied this. His family could only be reunited in a foreign land, paving the way to slavery and eventual redemption. His life was truth and greatness, but always with pain and on the run.

R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz teaches that this theme is recursive – time and again, the resistance is not the obstacle – it’s the catalyst. The obstacle is the way. It’s the story of the matza on Pesach; it’s the story of Purim and Chanuka. Overcoming the challenge is what lets us become great.

That’s not to diminish in any way the severity of the different ordeals life hurls our way – the struggle is real.

But we don’t have to be shackled by our shackles; the challenges can give us a siege mentality. The key to unlocking this superpower is God’s message to humans.

Don’t be afraid.

Sensitivity to All Creatures

3 minute read
Straightforward

From the dawn of humanity, people have utilized animals for all kinds of purposes, from farming and hunting to clothing, food, labor, transport, and domestication as pets. Inasmuch as the Torah permits these uses, the Torah categorically prohibits human mistreatment of animals, with a comprehensive list of laws designed to minimize animal suffering resulting from human interaction.

As it relates to food, from field to table, there is a vast corpus of rules that governs everything we put into our mouths and everything we don’t; and one of the defining features of observant Judaism is the laws of kosher, in particular, the rules concerning how we obtain edible meat.

R’ Avraham Yitzchak Kook suggests that, among other reasons, the Torah’s laws of kosher meat consistently demonstrate an underlying principle that humans ought to respect the life and well-being of all non-human creatures.

Consider that kosher slaughter, the most obviously exploitative use of animal life, is heavily regulated; the Torah requires the blade to be razor-sharp for a smooth cut and must be concealed from the animal throughout, among many other laws that prevent unnecessary animal distress. The Midrash rhetorically asks what possible difference it could make to God whether an animal dies by a cut in the front of its neck or the back; it concludes that it doesn’t make a difference to God so much as it makes a difference to the human, since a front cut is more humane, and refines the humans who observe this law.

The laws of kosher aren’t just about how we treat the animal until it dies, but afterward as well. There is a little known law to conceal the blood that is spilled, almost a mini-burial ceremony:

וְשָׁפַךְ אֶת-דָּמוֹ, וְכִסָּהוּ בֶּעָפָר – Pour out the blood, and cover it with dust. (17:13)

In the Torah’s conception, blood is the vehicle for the essence and soul of identity, personality, and vitality, warranting sensitive handling and treatment; it follows that it is disrespectful and inappropriate to consume blood:

אַךְ-בָּשָׂר, בְּנַפְשׁוֹ דָמוֹ לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ – Eat only the meat; do not consume the blood… (9:4)

When we talk about the blood draining from someone’s face, or the lifeblood of an organization, we’re using the same kind of imagery as the Torah, where blood is the seat and symbol of life and vitality, which may help us understand why blood is a central element of all the sacrificial rituals:

כִּי נֶפֶשׁ הַבָּשָׂר, בַּדָּם הִוא, וַאֲנִי נְתַתִּיו לָכֶם עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, לְכַפֵּר עַל-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם: כִּי-הַדָּם הוּא, בַּנֶּפֶשׁ יְכַפֵּר – For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that atones because of the life. (17:11)

The Torah unambiguously permits humans to consume a carnivorous diet, but as Nechama Leibowitz points out, the Torah only reluctantly allows humans to eat meat after the Flood story. As much as humans are the apex predator on Earth, God’s compassion goes far beyond humans – וְהָאָרֶץ נָתַן לִבְנֵי-אָדָם / טוֹב ה’ לַכֹּל וְרַחֲמָיו עַל כָּל מַעֲשָׂיו.

The distinction between right and wrong, good and evil, purity and defilement, the sacred and the profane, is essential in Judaism. Beyond Judaism, navigating regulations is part of living and working in a civilized society. The laws of kosher elevate the simple act of eating into a reminder and religious ritual to exercise self-control over our most basic, primal instincts, even the ones to hunt and gather food.

While animals do not possess sentience to understand the notion that life is a sacred thing, humans are not like other animals, and the Torah gives us laws to remind us that there is a difference. R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that the Torah’s boundaries should instill sensitivity and reverence for life. Our abilities, choices, rights, strength, and power are not trump cards; just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

You don’t need to become a vegan; you can still enjoy your steak and ribs. But you should recognize the Torah’s concern for all creatures and not just humans, because the two are linked; someone who is cruel to animals will be cruel to people.

In a largely positive trend, our host cultures have woken up to animal cruelty in recent decades, but we have a proud tradition that is millennia older; the Torah instituted the first systematic legislation prohibiting animal cruelty and mandating humane treatment long ago.

Judaism is in constant dialogue with its surroundings, and we may have to get more familiar with our environment to navigate it properly. On the one end, the Torah’s laws don’t explicitly regulate intensive factory farming, but it’s a product of modern business practices that raises many animal welfare issues, and the relevant parties should be receptive to calibrating how they can do better. On the other end, the tradition of kosher slaughter is in jeopardy in an increasing number of jurisdictions, labeled as backward and cruel; there are some important organizations working tirelessly to protect our tradition that deserve your support.

The Torah has regulated human interaction with animals for thousands of years; the laws of kosher teach us compassion and sensitivity to other creatures.

We should be proud of our heritage.

The Moral Limits of Power

2 minute read
Straightforward

One of the Torah’s recursive themes is that all life is precious – and human life, most of all.

The sanctity of life is not obvious.

Across most of history, civilized societies readily understood that it is wrong to murder another, yet this obvious law didn’t apply equally. Without respect for the sanctity of all human life, not all humans were protected, and certain people could be dehumanized, such as enslaved people, who were seen as property.

When Noah emerged from the Ark, Hashem formed a covenant with Noah, which famously includes seven fundamental principles that form the bedrock of society. In a world of infanticide and human sacrifice, the Torah declares that humans must not kill because God created all humans in His image:

שֹׁפֵךְ דַּם הָאָדָם, בָּאָדָם דָּמוֹ יִשָּׁפֵךְ כִּי בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים, עָשָׂה אֶת-הָאָדָם – Whoever sheds a man’s blood; by a man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in God’s image. (9:6)

Yet this principle is established already in the very first chapter of the Torah:

וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ: זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, בָּרָא אֹתָם – God created man in His image; in the image of God created He him – male and female, He created them. (1:27)

What does the Covenant of Noah add to our understanding of God’s image?

R’ Jonathan Sacks explains that the law in Noah develops the principle of God’s image by extending it from oneself to another. I am in God’s image, but so are you, my potential victim.

If all humans are in God’s image, then not only is murder a crime against humanity, but it is also sacrilege – an offense against God. By outlawing murder, the Torah establishes a clear boundary, defining the moral limits of power; that just because we have the authority or ability to do something does not mean we ought to.

Among other critical concepts of morality, the prohibition of murder expresses the sanctity of life and the eminence of the human soul. Perhaps that’s why the prohibition of murder is repeated in the Ten Commandments.

The Torah values human life. To kill intentionally is to deny another’s humanness; perhaps the Torah believes that in doing so, the murderer has also hopelessly compromised his own humanity.

Parallel Lines

3 minute read
Straightforward

Most of the second half of the book of Genesis is about Yakov’s children, with a strong focus on Yosef. Yet, right in the middle of the Yosef narrative, the Torah interrupts with a cryptic parallel side story about Yehuda, commonly glossed over, and perhaps a little awkward.

Yehuda had a son who displeased God and died. Presuming some form of levirate marriage, wherein marriage outside the family clan was forbidden, Yehuda’s second son married Tamar, but would not uphold his duty to have a child with her, and he died as well. Afraid that Tamar was somehow responsible for the death of his sons, Yehuda withheld his third son from her, leaving her in limbo as the first chained woman – an aguna. She then disguised herself as a harlot to seduce Yehuda and became pregnant.

When word spread that Tamar was pregnant, the obvious conclusion was that she had violated her duty to the family clan, and so she had to be executed. At the last minute, she revealed her ruse, and Yehuda admitted fault.

What is this story doing in the middle of the Yosef stories?

R’ Jonathan Sacks observes that this story mirrors the Yosef story, and illustrates that Yosef and Yehuda had a parallel and corresponding rise and fall.

Both stories involve deception through clothing – Yosef with his blood-stained tunic, and Yehuda with Tamar’s seductive disguise.

The Torah begins this narrative with Yehuda isolated:

וַיְהִי בָּעֵת הַהִוא וַיֵּרֶד יְהוּדָה מֵאֵת אֶחָיו וַיֵּט עַד־אִישׁ עֲדֻלָּמִי וּשְׁמוֹ חִירָה. וַיַּרְא־שָׁם יְהוּדָה בַּת־אִישׁ כְּנַעֲנִי וּשְׁמוֹ שׁוּעַ וַיִּקָּחֶהָ וַיָּבֹא אֵלֶיהָ – And afterward, Yehuda descended from his brothers and camped near an Adullamite whose name was Hirah. There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua, and he married her and lived with her. (38:1, 2)

Yehuda’s descent was both literal and figurative – וַיֵּרֶד יְהוּדָה מֵאֵת אֶחָיו. The Midrash teaches that the remaining brothers held Yehuda responsible for their father’s misery; he separated himself and did what no one else in the family had done – he married a Canaanite.

The turning point in this story is powerful, where Tamar reveals that she had fulfilled her duty to the clan when the they would not uphold their duty to her:

הִוא מוּצֵאת וְהִיא שָׁלְחָה אֶל־חָמִיהָ לֵאמֹר לְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר־אֵלֶּה לּוֹ אָנֹכִי הָרָה וַתֹּאמֶר הַכֶּר־נָא לְמִי הַחֹתֶמֶת וְהַפְּתִילִים וְהַמַּטֶּה הָאֵלֶּה. וַיַּכֵּר יְהוּדָה וַיֹּאמֶר צָדְקָה מִמֶּנִּי כִּי־עַל־כֵּן לֹא־נְתַתִּיהָ לְשֵׁלָה בְנִי וְלֹא־יָסַף עוֹד לְדַעְתָּה – As she was being brought out, she sent this message to her father-in-law, “I am with child by the man to whom these belong.” And she added, “Examine these: whose seal and cord and staff are these?” Judah recognized them and said, “She is more in the right than I since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he was not intimate with her again. (38:25,26)

As surely as Yosef and Yehuda hit rock bottom, they could both rise once more.

Admitting his wrongdoing, Yehuda unlocked the ability to make amends, and the man who had once proposed murdering his brother Yosef could transform into a man who would stand up for his brother Binyamin when he was in danger.

It is worth highlighting the enormous gamble Tamar took to avoid embarrassing Judah. Chazal hyperbolically liken humiliation to murder. R’ Jonathan Sacks quips that we cover bread at the Shabbos table so that we don’t embarrass the bread when we make kiddush first; if only we were so careful with people with feelings!

R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that these stories contain the first instances of teshuva – repentance and forgiveness – the power to heal what would otherwise lead to permanent relationship fractures.

Yakov’s family found their way back when they learned to admit their mistakes to themselves and each other.

So can we.

God Needs Partners

3 minute read
Straightforward

Avraham was a powerful icon whose legacy has reverberated across the ages. The way the Torah sums up his life, you would think he had it all:

וְאַבְרָהָם זָקֵן בָּא בַּיָּמִים וַה’ בֵּרַךְ אֶת־אַבְרָהָם בַּכֹּל – Avraham was old, well advanced in years, and God had blessed Avraham with everything. (24:1)

The Torah characterizes his death similarly:

וַיִּגְוַע וַיָּמָת אַבְרָהָם בְּשֵׂיבָה טוֹבָה זָקֵן וְשָׂבֵעַ וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל־עַמָּיו – Then Avraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an elderly man full of years; and he was gathered to his people. (25:8)

Along the same vein, Rashi notes that the Torah describes the years of Sarah’s life as equally good and full of life as well – שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה.

These serene descriptions have one flaw, however. They’re just not true! Let’s recap.

God promised Avraham and Sarah land and children – yet they had to fight tooth and nail to get anywhere! They were told to leave everything they had ever known for some unknown foreign land, but as soon as they’d arrived, they were forced to leave because of a devastating famine. Then, on their travels, Sarah was twice targeted by despotic leaders with unwanted sexual advances; and Avraham had to endanger himself to protect his family. They waited desperately for decades to have a child; then, when the child finally arrived, it caused bitter strife in the family between Sarah and Hagar, resulting in Avraham sending Hagar and Ishmael from home. And after all that, Avraham was asked to murder his precious child, the one he had waited so long for.

One way or another, when we think of God’s great promises of children and land, the reality fell far short of what Avraham and Sarah might have expected.

So why does the Torah sum up their lives as full of satisfaction and fulfillment?

Maybe the question is better than the answer.

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that happiness does not and should not mean that we have everything we want or everything we believe we are due. Happiness can exist even when life falls short of our expectations. As one thinker put it, if you can’t enjoy a cup of coffee, you won’t enjoy a yacht.

R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz notes that Avraham’s life is the origin story for the Jewish people, and it doesn’t go how we might expect. Avraham’s story seems trivial – it’s about his business ventures, travels, and family disputes. It’s so ordinary!

But suppose our stories were about magical demigods riding flying unicorns wielding miraculous lightning bolts to vanquish their enemies and save the world from the clutches of evil. In that case, they couldn’t be more silly or less relevant. Avraham’s story matters precisely because it is so ordinary. It teaches us that God’s grand mission for us comes without fanfare, with no red carpet and no grand celebration. Avraham is our heroic role model because the work God would have us do is in the mundane things of everyday living. It’s in making a living, marrying off a child, and living in harmony. The plain and mundane can be celebrated and sacred.

The Mishna in Pirkei Avos teaches that it is not for us to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it. It’s not your job to do everything from start to finish, but we have a duty to do all we can to pave the way before passing the baton on to the next person or generation.

As only R’ Jonathan Sacks can put it, God is waiting for us to act. We need God, and God needs us.

God could promise Avraham the land, but Avraham still had to buy his first field. God could promise Avraham countless descendants, but Avraham still had to identify a suitable partner for his son. God can promise, but humans still have to act.

Despite all the promises, God does not and will not do it alone.

He did not need to see the entire land in Jewish hands, nor did he need to see the Jewish People become numerous. He had begun, and he had perfect confidence that his descendants would continue. Avraham and Sarah were able to die at peace not only because of their faith in God but also because of their faith, trust, and hope that others would finish what they had started.

Avraham had taken those first steps and was satisfied. It was enough for Avraham and Sarah, and it must be enough for us.

Just do your best, and hope for the rest.

When 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.

Inflection Points

3 minute read
Straightforward

One of the most tragic figures in the Torah is Reuven. His haunting story is replete with squandered potential and the road not traveled. When he wanted to bring his mother flowers, he might have waited until Leah was alone. After Rachel’s death, he might have spoken directly to his father instead of moving the beds.

One of his defining missed opportunities is when the brothers resolved to dispose of Joseph, and Reuven convinced them to change their scheme:

וַיִּשְׁמַע רְאוּבֵן, וַיַּצִּלֵהוּ מִיָּדָם; וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא נַכֶּנּוּ נָפֶשׁ. וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם רְאוּבֵן, אַל-תִּשְׁפְּכוּ-דָם–הַשְׁלִיכוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל-הַבּוֹר הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְיָד אַל-תִּשְׁלְחוּ-בוֹ:  לְמַעַן, הַצִּיל אֹתוֹ מִיָּדָם, לַהֲשִׁיבוֹ, אֶל-אָבִיו – But when Reuven heard, he tried to save him from their clutches. He said, “Let us not take his life.” And Reuven went on, “Shed no blood! Cast him into that pit out in the wilderness, but do not touch him yourselves”—intending to save him from them and restore him to his father. (37:21, 22)

Yet his good intentions never materialize:

וַיָּשָׁב רְאוּבֵן אֶל-הַבּוֹר, וְהִנֵּה אֵין-יוֹסֵף בַּבּוֹר; וַיִּקְרַע, אֶת-בְּגָדָיו.  וַיָּשָׁב אֶל-אֶחָיו, וַיֹּאמַר:  הַיֶּלֶד אֵינֶנּוּ, וַאֲנִי אָנָה אֲנִי-בָא – When Reuven returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he rent his clothes. Returning to his brothers, he said, “The boy is gone! Where do I go now?” (37:29, 30)

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch wonders whether his previous failures might have crippled him, or that he felt threatened by Joseph; what is certain is that by deferring action to avoid the tension of confrontation, the moment fizzled out and disappeared.

The Midrash laments the missed opportunity, saying that if Reuven had known that the Torah would record for posterity that “when Reuven heard, he tried to save him from their clutches”, he would have carried Joseph back to his father on his shoulders; and the Midrash concludes with the lesson that we should do everything wholeheartedly.

But if you think about it, that’s the wrong message. If Reuven would act because of his audience, he wouldn’t be saving Joseph because he cared at all! Isn’t the Midrash honing in on the wrong point?

R’ Elya Meir Bloch observes that since the Torah spans centuries and generations, it has time skips. The stories and sagas that make the cut resonate not just in the protagonist’s lives, but in the lives of their readers for all time.

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that we can never know which moments in our lives are the inflection points. The Midrash is not about insincerity; it’s about indecisiveness. If we knew which moments would be the ones that mattered, we’d be fully present and engaged to give our all.

If Reuven had only known, says the Midrash. If he’d known that the future was watching that moment, he might have found the conviction to follow through. But Reuven could not know. He had not read the story. None of us can read the story of our life – we can only live it.

As R’ Jonathan Sacks notes, it is impossible not to recognize in Reuven a person of the highest ethical sensibilities. His heart is in the right place and he only means the best. But though he had a conscience, he lacked courage and conviction. He knew what was right, but dwelling on his mistakes had robbed him of the resolve to act boldly and decisively; and in this particular moment, more was lost than Joseph. So too was Reuven’s chance to become the hero he could and should have been.

The feeling of regret is the pain of what could have been. To minimize regret, engage in every moment wholeheartedly and fully present.

The future is watching.

Nature & Nurture

3 minute read
Straightforward

One of the oldest debates in the history of psychology is nature versus nurture.

Nature is what people think of as pre-wiring and is influenced by genetic inheritance of ancestral personality traits and other biological predispositions; nurture is generally taken as the influence of external environmental factors and learned experience. As with most such questions, the answer is probably non-binary and lies somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

When the Torah begins the story of the adult Yitzchak’s family, the next chapter of our ancestral history, the Torah specifies in explicit detail where Rivka came from:

וַיְהִי יִצְחָק, בֶּן-אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה, בְּקַחְתּוֹ אֶת-רִבְקָה בַּת-בְּתוּאֵל הָאֲרַמִּי, מִפַּדַּן אֲרָם–אֲחוֹת לָבָן הָאֲרַמִּי, לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה – Yitzchak was forty years old when he took Rivka – daughter of Besuel the Aramean from Padan-Aram, sister of Lavan the Aramean – to be his wife. (25:20)

The thing is, we know who Rivka is! The Torah has only just introduced us to the kindly Rivka a few short lines earlier. Eliezer has only just encountered her and brought her to Avraham and Yitzchak’s home, and not much else has happened.

Why does the Torah restate in detail who Rivka’s family was and where she came from?

Rashi notes this and suggests that the Torah here contrasts her gentle, kind, and warm heart with the callous selfishness and greed of the environment she grew up in, illustrating that she overcame negative influences and still earned her place in Avraham’s famously open home. Or in other words, her nature beat her nurture.

R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that as much as the famous adage in Pirkei Avos cautions against the powerful influence of bad neighbors and a poor environment, Rivka’s example clearly and conclusively demonstrates the power of an individual to transcend adverse circumstances.

What’s more, we can contrast Rivka, who grows up with bad people around her, yet retains her kind and warm spirit, with Esau, who had a close relationship with Yitzchak, under the guidance of no less than Rivka herself! And yet, instead of Esau becoming a full working partner in Avraham’s covenant, as his father had so dearly hoped, he lost his way entirely.

Leaning too heavily on nature or nurture is deterministic, the belief that our actions are ultimately determined by causes external to free choice and is wholly incompatible with Judaism. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that nature dictates our limits, and nurture defines where you start within that range. But at best, that only modifies the starting point; where you come from does not define the boundaries of what you do or who you become.

Transcending environments is actually a key theme in each generation of these chapters of our ancestral history. Apart from Rivka transcending her family environment; Avraham had to leave the only home he’d ever known behind- לך לך; Yakov had to flee home with just the clothes on his back to get away from his murderous brother and spent years trying to find his place – ויצא.

Whatever path you’re on, you can always change your direction if you want to. And it cuts both ways, Rivka could ignore negative influences and become a wonderful person, and Esau could disregard the most positive and loving influences and lose his way entirely.

We don’t choose our family, and we don’t choose our upbringing, but the surest way to forfeit your choice is to doubt that you have one. “It’s just the way I am” isn’t a justification for treating people poorly. It’s a pathetic excuse for harming and hurting others, whether through controlling or belittling others and whether it’s to exalt yourself or simply in the name of leadership and authority. It’s up to you to decide which elements of your identity and personality show up and when.

Your cultural environment, peer pressure, and even your genetics do not excuse you from taking ownership and responsibility for your life and choices. Maybe due to your circumstances, you can’t be expected to cure cancer or end world poverty, and that’s perfectly fine. But nothing is stopping you from being gentler, kinder, softer, warmer, and more scrupulously honest.

Your life, trajectory, and choices have always and only ever been yours alone.

Becoming Yourself

3 minute read
Straightforward

Deception is one of the key recurring themes in Yakov’s life story – as perpetrator and victim.

Yakov opportunistically bought Esau’s birthright for a bowl of soup and masqueraded as Esau to get his blessing. This set a course of events in motion, where Yakov had to flee to his uncle Lavan, who then deceived Yakov by substituting Leah in Rachel’s place, causing lifelong tension between them and their children; culminating in the brothers’ abduction of Yosef and the subsequent cover-up of Yosef; which ultimately led the family and the Jewish People to the mire of Egypt.

Late in life, when he met Pharoh, Yakov recognized the constant struggle his life had been:

וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב, אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, יְמֵי שְׁנֵי מְגוּרַי, שְׁלֹשִׁים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה:  מְעַט וְרָעִים, הָיוּ יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיַּי, וְלֹא הִשִּׂיגוּ אֶת-יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי אֲבֹתַי, בִּימֵי מְגוּרֵיהֶם – Yakov said to Pharoh: ‘The days of the years of my journey are a hundred and thirty years; few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, they have not approached the days of the years of the life of my fathers in their days.’ (47:9)

Yakov recognized his difficulties, and we ought to as well. It is simplistic to dismissively hand wave and whitewash Yakov’s role in the way his life unfolded. R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch emphasizes that it is critical to proudly acknowledge the way the Torah characterizes our heroes’ flaws so that we learn that although perfection is ever-elusive, excellence is not.

The Torah explicitly suggests that Yakov hurt Esau:

כִּשְׁמֹעַ עֵשָׂו, אֶת-דִּבְרֵי אָבִיו, וַיִּצְעַק צְעָקָה, גְּדֹלָה וּמָרָה עַד-מְאֹד – When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried with an extremely great and bitter cry (27:34)

R’ Jonathan Sacks highlights that the Torah narrates emotions sparingly, and uses four modifiers here – גְּדֹלָה וּמָרָה עַד-מְאֹד.

This hurt came at a great cost; the Zohar suggests that these tears alone were responsible for thousands of years of suffering, over a blessing. When Yitzchak was on his deathbed, Rivka knew that Yitzchak could not see Esau for who he was, so she instructed Yakov to act like Esau and take his blessing:

וְיִתֶּן-לְךָ, הָאֱלֹהִים, מִטַּל הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּמִשְׁמַנֵּי הָאָרֶץ וְרֹב דָּגָן, וְתִירֹשׁ יַעַבְדוּךָ עַמִּים, וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְךָ לְאֻמִּים – הֱוֵה גְבִיר לְאַחֶיךָ, וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְךָ בְּנֵי אִמֶּךָ; אֹרְרֶיךָ אָרוּר, וּמְבָרְכֶיךָ בָּרוּךְ – May God give you the dews of heaven, and the fats of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine. Let people serve you, and nations bow down to you. Lord over your brother, and let your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be every one that curses you, and blessed be every one that blesses you. (27:28,29)

This is the great blessing Yakov suffered so considerably for, and it seems a little underwhelming. As R’ Jonathan Sacks sharply notes, this is a blessing for wealth and power; it is plainly not the blessing of Avraham’s covenant, which is about family and the Promised Land. Avraham gave Yishmael a blessing for wealth and power, and Esau could have one too.

Once Yakov and Rivka’s ruse was discovered, and just before Yakov left for good, his father Yitzchak blessed him one last time, transparent with who he was speaking to:

וְאֵל שַׁדַּי יְבָרֵךְ אֹתְךָ, וְיַפְרְךָ וְיַרְבֶּךָ; וְהָיִיתָ, לִקְהַל עַמִּים. וְיִתֶּן-לְךָ אֶת-בִּרְכַּת אַבְרָהָם, לְךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ אִתָּךְ–לְרִשְׁתְּךָ אֶת-אֶרֶץ מְגֻרֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַן אֱלֹהִים לְאַבְרָהָם – May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful, and multiply you, that you may be a congregation of people; and give you the blessing of Avraham – to you, and your children together; that you may inherit the land of your residence, which God gave to Avraham. (28:3,4)

By imparting Avraham’s blessing to Yakov with no pretenses, the Torah suggests that the entire ruse and ensuing struggle was unnecessary, that the strife and deception that characterized Yakov’s life was based on a misunderstanding.

God’s blessing is abundant; it is not exclusive or zero-sum. Yishmael and Esau can also have God’s blessing; it will not detract from our own.

Perhaps when Esau and Yakov met again years later, Yakov had learned this lesson, and that was how they were able to reconcile:

קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּרְכָתִי אֲשֶׁר הֻבָאת לָךְ, כִּי-חַנַּנִי אֱלֹהִים וְכִי יֶשׁ-לִי-כֹל; וַיִּפְצַר-בּוֹ, וַיִּקָּח – “Please take my blessings that I gift to you; because God has been gracious with me, and I have enough,” he urged him; and he took it. (33:11)

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that the material gifts to Esau were the literal return of the material blessing – קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּרְכָתִי; and bowing to Esau showed his deference to Esau’s place; acknowledging the wrongdoing of their youth. Instead of trying to usurp Esau’s position in the family and take his blessings; Esau could be Esau, and Yakov could be Yakov – וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו, יֶשׁ-לִי רָב; אָחִי, יְהִי לְךָ אֲשֶׁר-לָךְ.

Once Yakov fights off the literal specter of trying to be like Esau, he earns the name and title of Yisrael, which has a connotation of straightness.

We each have our own blessings, and we mustn’t seek our brother’s blessing. His blessing is his, and yours is yours.

Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.

Finding Their Way

3 minute read
Straightforward

One of the Torah’s features is that it doesn’t whitewash its heroes. It presents them as real people, which R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes is a key element of the Torah’s credibility as a moral guide.

The story of Yakov and Esau’s childhood and upbringing offers an illuminating masterclass on family dynamics:

וַיִּגְדְּלוּ הַנְּעָרִים, וַיְהִי עֵשָׂו אִישׁ יֹדֵעַ צַיִד, אִישׁ שָׂדֶה; וְיַעֲקֹב אִישׁ תָּם, יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים – The boys grew up together; and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Yakov was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. (25:27)

Yitzchak and Rivka raised their twin boys together – וַיִּגְדְּלוּ הַנְּעָרִים – yet were surprised that they turned out differently – וַיְהִי.

Rashi criticizes this blanket parenting technique, citing the proverb in Mishlei that advises parents to educate every child in their own way; so that when they grow up, they don’t lose their way – חֲנֹךְ לַנַּעַר עַל פִּי דַרְכּוֹ, גַּם כִּי יַזְקִין לֹא יָסוּר מִמֶּנָּה.

The Malbim intuitively notes that different people need different things, and all people are different!

Parents need to be on the same page and reinforce each other, but it’s certainly not easy. And it is obvious today that it is the problematic and unruly children who need extra love, acceptance, and embracing, which is undoubtedly the most challenging thing of all.

The cookie-cutter approach is highly effective for the cookies it is designed for, but not so much for humans. It should not surprise us that one size does not fit all; because it never has – כְּשֵׁם שֶׁאֵין פרצופיהן דּוֹמִין זֶה לָזֶה, כָּךְ אֵין דַּעְתָּן שָׁוִין זֶה לָזֶה.

It was and is a mistake to raise a Yakov and an Esau in the same way with their differing abilities and aptitudes. Whatever Yitzchak might have hoped for Esau, history has borne out that he did not live up to the family legacy, and we can only wonder what might have been if there had been some way for a man of Esau’s talents to channel them for the better in partnership with his brother.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch ponders whether Yitzchak and Rivka not being on the same page about how to raise Esau might have contributed to the environment of competition and strife between their children, preventing them from being themselves, resulting in the jealousy and rivalry that defines the relationship between Esau and Yakov. This disagreement was likely why Rivka orchestrated the ruse for the blessings, to show Yitzchak how he could be fooled.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch suggests that one of Yakov’s most incredible blessings was that he could recognize the value of the diversity of his twelve sons – even if only at the end of his life – and blessed each of them with an individualized yet still cohesive and complementary future – the scholars of Levi would teach the rest; the warrior-kings of Yehuda would lead in peace and war; the traders of Zevulun would support the scholar of Yissachar, and so on. Each child had different predispositions, and he foresaw a way for them to come together.

Invariably, a child will grow up and exercise their independence in ways one or both parents don’t approve of. But any attempts to enforce conformity will backfire and cause deeper alienation in the long run because that’s not who the child is anymore. Parents and teachers must never forget that however much the Torah requires us to be good people, the recipe is different for each of us, and it will look different from person to person.

R’ Shlomo Farhi sharply notes that the proverb advises parents to raise every child in the child’s way, not the parent’s way – עַל פִּי דַרְכּוֹ, not דרכך. Even more pointedly, the proverb doesn’t even predict that he won’t veer from the way you taught him, only that he won’t veer from his own path.

We should not teach our children to be just like us; we would do well to follow the proverb – חֲנֹךְ לַנַּעַר עַל פִּי דַרְכּוֹ, גַּם כִּי יַזְקִין לֹא יָסוּר מִמֶּנָּה.

If you teach your children to find themselves, they will never be lost.

An Answer to the Problem of Evil

2 minute read
Straightforward

There is a famous philosophical problem called The Problem of Evil. Seeing evil all around us, it challenges our belief that God is omnipotent and omniscient.

It’s not a problem isolated to philosophers; it’s a question we all find ourselves asking from time to time. Why do bad things happen to good people?

The different approaches to this are called theodicy. Some try to explain how everything that we call bad is actually good or that God is simply beyond our understanding. There is some merit to these and similar arguments, but they are impractical.

Anyone who claims to have the one true answer to almost any philosophical question is almost invariably wrong. The nature of such things is that they either don’t lend themselves to a single resolution and sometimes to any resolution at all. The best we can muster is that different approaches work for different people.

We might learn one such approach from the story of Avraham.

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that the answer to the question is how it challenges us to live in response to the existence of the problem – when we see something is wrong, do we try to make it better? While this does not directly address the question, remember the question has no answer; it can only prompt us to respond.

After passing the great test of the Akeida, the Binding of Isaac, there is a long denouement, where Avraham goes home and receives word that his brother had many children from his many wives and had built a formidable clan. Despite all God’s promises, Avraham has had to fight tooth and nail for every single thing; yet his brother seems to get it all oh-so-easily.

But Avraham never complains that God has been unfair. He just gets on with it.

He could do that because he didn’t live with the expectation or entitlement that life would turn out just the way he wanted if he lived a moral life.

Imagine a world where good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. Who would be bad if you knew that every time you steal, you get cancer? Everyone would be good all the time!

The only way it is possible to be authentically good is if you don’t know the consequences. If the consequences don’t look random, goodness cannot exist. But in a world where the greatest philanthropist can still die in a terrible car accident, goodness is real. You do it because it’s important or because it’s the right thing; it’s intrinsic, and not out of an expectation that God’s bounty will immediately follow.

Bad things happen to good people all the time. Good things happen to bad people all the time. Bad things happen to everyone, and good things happen to everyone!

We read the story of the Akeida and the news that follows on Rosh HaShana. The story recalls the merit of our heroes and the struggles they faced in their day to day lives. They did not live with the expectation that life would be fair and appear fair, and we must dispel that notion as well.

Because sometimes it really isn’t fair, and no answer or explanation will do. It just isn’t fair! We’d best make our peace with it, and all we can do is respond in the way we choose to live. Like Avraham, we just have to get on with it and try to live as best we can.

Make Some Space

2 minute read
Straightforward

One of Judaism’s most treasured traditions is gracious hospitality. We rightly praise altruism and kindness, aspiring to emulate the role models who practiced it so well, Avraham first and foremost among them.

There is one story that encapsulates the generous and loving warmth that so characterized Avraham, the first man to correctly intuit the right way to live.

After circumcising himself, an excruciatingly painful procedure to be performed as an elderly man with no modern anesthetic or medicine, he faced an agonizing recovery. While recuperating from the procedure that marked his body with the symbol of his family’s new covenant with God, he parked himself at the door, and received a remarkable visitor – no less than God Himself:

וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו ה’, בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא; וְהוּא יֹשֵׁב פֶּתַחהָאֹהֶל, כְּחֹם הַיּוֹם – Hashem appeared to him on the plains of Mamre, as he sat by the tent door in the heat of the day. (18:1)

No sooner had this unusual visitor appeared that something even more remarkable happened. No sooner than God arrives, Avraham interrupts this extraordinary visit to chase some passing travelers and bring them home to rest with some food and drink!

 וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו, וַיַּרְא, וְהִנֵּה שְׁלֹשָׁה אֲנָשִׁים, נִצָּבִים עָלָיו; וַיַּרְא, וַיָּרָץ לִקְרָאתָם מִפֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל, וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ, אָרְצָה –  He lifted his eyes and looked, and, saw three men standing nearby; and when he noticed them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed down to the earth, (18:2)

The Midrash imagines that Avraham quite literally interrupted God, and asked God to wait a few minutes! Assuming that Avraham did the right thing, the Gemara concludes that hospitality is even more important than welcoming God.

We are religious people. We believe in God, we serve God, and live our lives according to our best understanding of God’s law. How could anything be more important than God?!

The Maharal explains that when we honor guests, we honor the image of God in the other person. Accordingly, loving a human and loving God are close, if not identical.

The Malbim explains that the yardstick for measuring love of God is how much love we show others. Avraham calls the men his masters, and ask them not to leave – אֲדֹנָי, אִםנָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ אַלנָא תַעֲבֹר, מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ – but this also reads as the moment Avraham asked God to wait – it’s one of God’s names, which suggests the teaching that welcoming God is subordinate to hospitality.

R’ Jonathan Sacks highlights that in this story, God appears happy to wait, endorsing the essential lesson that we don’t show our love of God by fasting, retreating into the mountains, vowing silence, or abstaining from earthly things. God’s approval of Avraham’s choice illustrates that we show our interaction with other humans is what proves our love of God.

Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik notes that the arrival of traveller at the precise moment Avraham was communing with the Divine was the Creator’s way of testing Avraham’s commitment, his readiness to sacrifice his own personal spirituality in favour of caring for and recognizing the dignity inherent in another human being.

We honor God most by honoring those in His image – other humans. Nothing is holier or more sacred than making space in your life for others.

The Binding of Isaac Redux

5 minute read
Straightforward

The Binding of Isaac, the Akeida, is one of the most challenging stories in the Torah. Our best and brightest sages and philosophers have grappled with it since time immemorial, and with good reason.

The Torah is the source code for what we understand to be moral. Yet God asks Avraham to murder his son, and the Torah confronts the reader with a fundamental question: can God ask us to do something immoral and wrong?

The story concludes with a retraction of the notion that Avraham would need to follow through and kill his son in God’s name. God is impressed that Avraham doesn’t withhold his son, and we come to understand that God does not ask us to do the unethical. In stopping Avraham at the very last moment, God drives home the point that there is no sanctity in child sacrifice and death; this God is different. This God is the God of life.

But while the ending is illuminating, how we interpret the story until the reversal matters.

To be sure, there is a diverse spectrum of legitimate discourse; we should evaluate the relative standing of teachings by their lessons and values. The ramifications of what we teach our children are enormously consequential, so we need to get it right.

If we think about God’s instruction and say that up until the final moment, God truly meant it and only then changed His mind, then it destroys our conceptualization of universal ethics and morality because they are ad hoc and fluid; morality is only whatever God says it is from one moment to the next.

If we were to think that Avraham had no hesitation in sacrificing his son and that he regretted not being able to obey God’s command, then the whole story makes no sense. Child sacrifice was common in that era – if Avraham were willing to murder his son, it would destroy the entire notion of sacrifice! More pointedly, if Avraham was all too willing to murder his son, it would destroy Avraham as a role model, and it would be perverse to teach children that this is what greatness looks like. Should we be proud if one of our foremost ancestors was an eager child-killing barbarian?

But of course, apart from the fact these interpretations leave us in moral turpitude, they also make no sense in the broader context of the Torah, which explicitly condemns child sacrifice on multiple occasions.

By necessity, we need to reject the notion that Avraham truly wished to sacrifice Yitzchak. The story only makes sense if it was hard – excruciatingly hard, and fortunately, that’s very much the story the Torah tells. At no point does the story suggest that this is easy for Avraham, and actually, quite the opposite.

Until this point in Avraham’s life, his commitment to life and commitment to God were in perfect harmony – God wanted Avraham to be good to others, and he was. Now that God asked him to sacrifice his son, he had a dilemma because his two great commitments were no longer in alignment:

וַיֹּאמֶר קַח־נָא אֶת־בִּנְךָ אֶת־יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר־אָהַבְתָּ אֶת־יִצְחָק וְלֶךְ־לְךָ אֶל־אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם לְעֹלָה עַל אַחַד הֶהָרִים אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ… בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת־עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת־הַמָּקוֹם מֵרָחֹק… וַיִּשְׁלַח אַבְרָהָם אֶת־יָדוֹ וַיִּקַּח אֶת־הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת לִשְׁחֹט אֶת־בְּנוֹ – And He said, “Please take your son, your favored one, Yitzchak, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you…” On the third day, Avraham looked up and saw the place from afar… And Avraham sent his hand and picked up the knife to slay his son. (22:2,4,10)

The Ran highlights that God never commanded Avraham to sacrifice his son; God only requests it – “Please” – קַח-נָא. This is not an instruction that demands obedience; it is a request that does not mandate compliance.

As Avraham struggled with turmoil about the position he was in, he looked up and saw the mountain in the distance –  וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם–מֵרָחֹק. The Nesivos Shalom notes that there is a reference to one of God’s names, the Omnipresent, the attribute that God is everywhere and the place of all things – הַמָּקוֹם. In this reading, the whole affair felt wrong to Avraham. He’d opposed human sacrifice pagan worship his entire life, yet here he was, about to destroy his life’s work and snuff out his family legacy. He felt alienated and distanced from God – וַיַּרְא אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם–מֵרָחֹק.

The Torah uses remarkable imagery to characterize what happened in the story’s dramatic crescendo. Avraham does not simply pick up the knife; he “forces his hand” – וַיִּשְׁלַח אַבְרָהָם אֶת-יָדוֹ, וַיִּקַּח אֶת-הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת. The Torah dissociates Avraham from his disembodied hand because Avraham was resisting what he was doing.

The Kotzker suggests that even to the musculoskeletal level, the cumbersome description of Avraham’s belabored muscle movements truly expressed and mirrored God’s desire that Yitzchak would remain unharmed – כָּל עַצְמוֹתַי תֹּאמַרְנָה.

Lastly, R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that Avraham’s entire characterization in this story is lethargic, illustrating the slow heaviness with which he moves through the story. But lethargy runs counter to everything we know about Avraham up to this point! He is introduced to us as someone who eagerly and enthusiastically goes where God tells him, runs after guests to invite them in, and hurries to feed them. In this story, he is in stark contrast with his energetic, vibrant self because he faces the greatest challenge of his life, antithetical to and incompatible with his very being.

Of course, we know how the story ends. God would never ask us to do something unethical. But how we tell the story matters as much as how it ends.

This gut-wrenching story of moral turmoil is held in the highest esteem by humans and by God. And that’s because it wasn’t easy. It is not a story about blind faith and obedience but the opposite.

It is all too rare that we face a moral choice that is truly black and white. Most of the time, it’s not a starving orphaned widow with cancer whose house burned down knocking on the door asking for help. Far more often, we face a difficult choice between competing ideals, none of which will resolve the situation in a manner that perfectly aligns with an established code of ethics or norms.

Will we tell the truth and be honest when confronted, or keep a secret and loyally honor a promise? Will we prioritize individual needs to significantly help a few or communal needs to support many adequately? Will we be just, fair, and equal in our relationships, or will we be compassionate and merciful based on each circumstance? Will we prioritize the present or the future?

We would do well to remember our role models. They weren’t primitive people but refined humans doing their best to navigate a complex world ethically. And while civilization may have changed in form, it hasn’t changed in substance, and humans haven’t changed much at all.

Doing the right thing is hard enough, but you must first identify the right thing, which is far more complex. It gets to the core of our mission in life, and we must take strength from the stories of our greats – this is the way it’s always been, and we must persevere all the same.

Quite tellingly, we read this story on Rosh Hashana. Sure, we read it in part to recall the great merit of our ancestors, and perhaps that is a complete reason.

But maybe it can also remind us that the greats also struggled, and struggles are the precursor of greatness.

The Candle in the Dark

2 minute read
Straightforward

Before God destroyed Sodom, He discussed it with Avraham. Avraham pleaded for Sodom to be spared and speculated that perhaps fifty righteous people would be worth saving the city for.

Hashem agreed:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה, אִם-אֶמְצָא בִסְדֹם חֲמִשִּׁים צַדִּיקִם בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר–וְנָשָׂאתִי לְכָל-הַמָּקוֹם, בַּעֲבוּרָם – Hashem said: “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous in the city, then I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” (18:26)

The Ibn Ezra notes that God requires these potential saviors to be righteous in public – בִסְדֹם / צַדִּיקִם בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר.

R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch teaches that righteous people are not scholars in ivory towers; they actively drive positive change in their communities by publicly living out the Torah’s teachings. They live among and interact with other people, leading by example and inspiring their communities, like Avraham himself. A righteous man is not hidden away with books but is part of a community – including its sinners – as a teacher and a neighbor.

R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz highlights Avraham as someone concerned and compassionate for the people and world around him – even people who stand against everything he stands for.

This leaves us with a remarkable lesson about Sodom’s destruction; it was condemned because of its evil, but it was only doomed because it had no one willing to work for its salvation. If even 10 such people had existed, working with the public to improve the community’s moral fiber, the city would have been saved.

Nechama Leibowitz notes that Yirmiyahu mentions a similar theme when warning of the fall of Jerusalem:

שׁוֹטְטוּ בְּחוּצוֹת יְרוּשָׁלִַם, וּרְאוּ-נָא וּדְעוּ וּבַקְשׁוּ בִרְחוֹבוֹתֶיהָ, אִם-תִּמְצְאוּ אִישׁ, אִם-יֵשׁ עֹשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט מְבַקֵּשׁ אֱמוּנָה–וְאֶסְלַח, לָהּ – Run through the squares of Jerusalem and search its streets; if you can find just one single man who practices justice and seeks the truth, I will forgive her! (5:1)

The Radak explains that no righteous men could be found in Jerusalem’s streets because they were in their houses. They were too fearful to publicly stand up for what they believed in, so Jerusalem fell.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that our souls are candles that God gives us to illuminate the world, like the Chanukah Menorah, which is positioned by the front door or window, so that it lights up the inside of our homes, but ideally, the outside as well. He famously dispatched followers to the ends of the earth based on the understanding that part and parcel of wholesome observance is seeking out others to encourage their own religious expression.

The discomfort of swimming against the tide of popular culture is the sacrifice that validates whether or not and how much we care about other people. If we concentrate solely on ourselves, abandoning those who wander or are lost, can we say we care for others at all?

R’ Mordechai Gifter taught that altruism is superior to empathy; empathy only requires us to tune in to other people’s needs, whereas altruism requires positive outreach.  When Avraham had no-one to help, he literally went outside to find someone to bring in and take care of.

The few can save the many, so long as they care enough about their communities to get involved – בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר / בְּחוּצוֹת יְרוּשָׁלִַם / בִרְחוֹבוֹתֶיהָ.

The Jewish People are a candle in the dark of the world. If you care for the vision the Torah has for us; you’re in a small subset of candles that can burn especially bright. If you cared enough to live accordingly, how many people’s lives could you touch?

A single candle can dispel a whole night of darkness.

Looking Out for Yourself; for Others

3 minute read
Straightforward

Altruism is a core value of Torah and Judaism, the practice of being concerned with others’ welfare. Altruism can and does intersect with self-interest, and there is plenty of philosophical debate about the how’s and why’s.

Closer to home, we rightfully laud Avraham as the first man to reach out to others with kindness and softness, demonstrating the way humans ought to live. Yet when God reaches out to him, God speaks in the language of self-interest, not the language of altruism:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ. וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, וַאֲבָרֶכְךָ, וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ; וֶהְיֵה, בְּרָכָה. וַאֲבָרְכָה, מְבָרְכֶיךָ, וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ, אָאֹר; וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ, כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה – Hashem said to Avram: “Go for yourself; from your land, from your neighborhood, and from your father’s house; to the land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those that bless you, and those that curse you I will curse; and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” (12:1-3)

Rashi explains that Avraham must go for himself, for his own sake; he must seek family, fame, and fortune because he desires them – לֶךְ-לְךָ / לַהֲנָאָתְךָ וּלְטוֹבָתְךָ.

Why would God command Avraham, the paragon of altruism, to pursue self-interest?

Perhaps our understanding of altruism is slightly skewed. It seems like a good question because the conventional wisdom suggests that pure altruism requires one person to sacrifice for another with no personal benefit; that self-interest and altruism are antithetical to each other, diametrically opposed.

But they’re not, and we ought to know that.

As the famous saying in Pirkei Avos goes, if I am not for myself, what am I…? Rabbeinu Yonah explains that extrinsic motivation is fleeting; we need to pursue our goals for our own purposes – אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי.

In practice, we rightly admire people who create or contribute opportunities in our communities. We have no respect for people who let others walk all over them, which amounts to a lack of self-respect, not altruism.

God tells Avraham to go on the journey for intrinsic purposes because it will be personally rewarding. The Rambam says that wise people do the right thing because it is the right thing to do; any optimistic hopes about what may follow will always be secondary to doing the right thing.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches that only once we value ourselves can we learn to value others.

For Avraham to open his home to the world, he needed to have a house large enough to share with others and something to share with them. He had to establish himself in order to help others – וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי.

Avraham is altruistic, but he is not selfless, which is extrinsic and other-focussed. Extrinsic motivation is outcome-oriented, so it cannot last – when we win the deal, marry the person, or build the school, what happens next? And what if we don’t get the outcome we hoped for?

In contrast, intrinsic motivation is process-oriented, which is more reliable in the long run because it is objectively fulfilling and meaningful.

The Torah does not expect or condone selflessness. Selflessness is not sustainable, and it’s not an ingredient that leads to a lasting legacy. Hashem says to Avraham that he must take the journey for his own sake, not for God and not for others. His approach would only endure if it weren’t contingent on something extrinsic. Altruists do not seek other people’s approval.

The Seforno notes that Hashem promises Avraham that on this journey of self-fulfillment that takes care of others, he will not only be blessed; he will literally become a blessing – וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ; וֶהְיֵה, בְּרָכָה.

As the saying in Mishlei says, a kind man cares for his well-being, and a cruel man afflicts himself – גֹּמֵל נַפְשׁוֹ, אִישׁ חָסֶד; וְעֹכֵר שְׁאֵרוֹ, אַכְזָרִי. Altruism is possible, and altruism is real, although, in healthy people, it intertwines with self-care and personal well-being; our actions express and promote our values.

It’s ok to establish and stand up for yourself. The balance to strike is that we utilize our blessings to help others. For example, it can be perfectly fine to have or want lots of money, but the qualifier is what we do with it.

Are you utilizing your blessings as best as you can?

The Covenant of Perfection

2 minute read
Straightforward

Covenants feature prominently in the Torah and Judaism. A covenant is the highest form of contractual agreement, a binding promise of far-reaching importance in the relations between parties, with legal, religious, and social ramifications.

In addition to the agreement itself, covenants typically have a physical and public display of the sign or symbol to remember the promise, such as how the Torah deems rainbows to signify God’s promise not to flood the world again.

Judaism can directly trace its roots to God’s covenant with Avraham, the first Patriarch, and the initiation into the religion for Jewish males is called the Bris, literally, “covenant.”

As the exclusive rite of passage for formal admission into Judaism, it’s hard to overstate the central importance of Bris, so it’s worth understanding the covenant it invokes.

When God engaged Avraham to enter the covenant, God mapped out a vision for humanity, blessing Avraham’s descendants with greatness and the land of Israel. They just had to do one thing:

וַיֵּרָא ה אֶל-אַבְרָם, וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי-אֵל שַׁדַּי–הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי, וֶהְיֵה תָמִים – Hashem appeared to Avraham, and said to him; “I am The Omnipotent…. Walk before me, and be perfect ”. (17:1)

Like it’s no big deal, the covenant requires us to be perfect. It doesn’t take much trying before you quickly realize that perfection is impossible. While perfection is a worthy objective, it is an inherently unattainable one, and any who claim to have found it are deluding themselves.

How can God ask us to do the impossible?

The question betrays the kind of defeatist thinking we are all prone to at times. Perfectionism can be paralyzing – if we can’t do it perfectly, then why try at all?

We should be very clear nothing and no one has ever been, currently is, nor will ever be perfect. Idealism can serve as a north star for direction, meaning, and purpose, but idealism alone is not an effective strategy for navigating day-to-day living, which necessitates some degree of flexibility and pragmatism.

We need to orient ourselves towards the process of perfecting, not the outcome of perfection, on the journey, not the destination. The Beis Halevi teaches that when we do our best, striving for better and more, we will find ourselves becoming more perfect over time – הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי / וֶהְיֵה תָמִים

The Gemara teaches that the name Hashem introduced Himself with, אֵל שַׁדַּי, expresses the concept that the Creator withdrew from creating so that life had space to be and grow – שאמר לעולמו די.

The Kedushas Levi notes that God forms this space for us to have any input by necessity because that input is precisely what God desires from us.

Rabbi Akiva taught that in the same way we consider a loaf of bread an improvement from raw stalks of wheat, humans can and must improve the world around us.

The Malbim explains that our active participation is the essential theme of the covenant. Circumcision is not just an extrinsic sign on our bodies; Judaism’s initiation for men symbolizes the action we are called upon to take to enhance our world, a living articulation of the covenant itself.

The symbolism of modifying our bodies as soon as we are born is a powerful visual metaphor we carry with us, teaching us that our everyday lives can elevate, refine, and improve the world around us.

You will never be perfect.

But the perfect is the enemy of the good.

The Filter of Wealth

4 minute read
Straightforward

Power is the ability to do something or act in a particular way or the capacity to influence others’ behavior or the course of events. Abraham Lincoln famously said that anyone could handle adversity, but to test a man’s character truly, give him power.

Today, more than ever, power and money are almost inextricably linked, as wealthy people are typically influential, utilizing the resources and the means at their disposal to make things happen. In some cases, they can even buy the right lawyers, politicians, and institutions to protect them from meaningful consequences, becoming laws unto themselves.

We know all too well that wealth has a halo effect and gives the wealthy a podium because of the tremendous love and respect people have for money, and maybe they’ll get tossed a bone or two?

We probably know Machiavellian characters who would forsake family, friends, respect, and integrity for another dollar; people whose zero-sum, all-or-nothing attitude becomes plain as day if they can get ahead. These people tend to reveal themselves when the opportunity to make money comes around, and they’d sell their grandmother if there were a buyer. As the Mesilas Yesharim writes, exploiting people in business is sadly all too common, perhaps even the norm.

And yet, despite the tremendously corrosive effect wealth can have, the Torah never actually says that money is bad or evil. In fact, many of the heroes in our stories are blessed with fabulous wealth and success, like Avraham’s family when they left Egypt:

וַיַּעַל אַבְרָם מִמִּצְרַיִם הוּא וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וְכָל-אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ, וְלוֹט עִמּוֹ–הַנֶּגְבָּה. וְאַבְרָם, כָּבֵד מְאֹד, בַּמִּקְנֶה, בַּכֶּסֶף וּבַזָּהָב. וַיֵּלֶךְ, לְמַסָּעָיו, מִנֶּגֶב, וְעַד-בֵּית-אֵל–עַד-הַמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר-הָיָה שָׁם אָהֳלֹה בַּתְּחִלָּה, בֵּין בֵּית-אֵל, וּבֵין הָעָי. אֶל-מְקוֹם, הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה שָׁם, בָּרִאשֹׁנָה; וַיִּקְרָא שָׁם אַבְרָם, בְּשֵׁם ה – Avram went up from Egypt; him, and his wife, and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the South. And Avram was very rich in cattle, in silver, and gold. And he went on his journeys from the South to Beth-el, to the place where his tent had originally been, between Beth-el and Ai, and to the site of the altar, which he had made earlier; and Avram called there in the name of Hashem. (13:1-4)

Given the undeniable challenges and pitfalls that come with wealth, how do our heroes model the proper way to wield influence and wealth?

The Torah gives us some clues on how to conduct ourselves, and we see it play out in Lot’s contentious departure from Avraham.

Upon Avraham’s return to Israel, the Torah makes it clear that wealth hasn’t changed him. The Torah emphasizes Avraham’s return, not his transition; to his old home, to the place he’d first come from, to the original site of his legendary altar – עַד-הַמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר-הָיָה שָׁם אָהֳלֹה בַּתְּחִלָּה / אֶל-מְקוֹם, הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה שָׁם, בָּרִאשֹׁנָה.

In stark contrast, Lot’s attitude to wealth alienates him from the family, which causes the dispute:

וְלֹא-נָשָׂא אֹתָם הָאָרֶץ, לָשֶׁבֶת יַחְדָּו:  כִּי-הָיָה רְכוּשָׁם רָב, וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לָשֶׁבֶת יַחְדָּו.  וַיְהִי-רִיב, בֵּין רֹעֵי מִקְנֵה-אַבְרָם, וּבֵין, רֹעֵי מִקְנֵה-לוֹ- The land was not able to bear them dwelling together; because their assets were so great. There was strife between the herdmen of Abram’s cattle and the herdmen of Lot’s cattle… (13:6,7)

The Torah implies from the beginning that money is what stands between Avraham and Lot – וַיַּעַל אַבְרָם מִמִּצְרַיִם הוּא וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וְכָל-אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ, וְלוֹט עִמּוֹ. In this imagery, what stands between Avraham and Lot is literally their wealth – כָל-אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that they drifted apart not because of a shortage of land but because of such an abundance that they couldn’t figure out how to jointly manage it – כִּי-הָיָה רְכוּשָׁם רָב וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לָשֶׁבֶת יַחְדָּו.

The Malbim observes that people who can agree on fundamental principles can always figure out a path forward. Avraham wanted to return to his roots, whereas Lot wanted to accumulate more – they were going different ways, and there was no way to work together anymore. Lot’s fortune had changed him, and Avraham’s had not. The assets had become a burden – כָּבֵד מְאֹד, בַּמִּקְנֶה, בַּכֶּסֶף וּבַזָּהָב.

The tension between the family leads them to separate, and Avraham magnanimously offers his young nephew the first choice of where he will go, and Lot chooses Sodom and the fertile Jordan Valley. The Torah lets us know what it thinks of Lot; he has selfishly chosen the best land over the uncle who did everything. Lot literally and figuratively descends from the hills of Avraham into the evil environment of Sodom, whose destruction is imminent; in contrast to Avraham, thanking Hashem high in the hills and mountains.

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that tribulations unite us against common adversity, but our real test can come in times of plenty and security.

In any relationship, whether business, personal, or romantic, it just won’t work if each partner is only out for themselves. Keeping score creates mutual incompatibility and is a sure way to lose. The only way everyone wins is when partners look out for each other and let small things pass.

Relationships are always a binary choice of working towards the vision or division. The Torah teaches us that families and relationships disintegrate when individuals lose sight of the bigger picture of common goals and let money get in between them.

People think that money and power corrupt, but more probable than the notion that it changes us is the idea that it reveals our authentic selves by expressing our priorities. When we don’t need to keep up a facade to get what we want from others, our most authentic self can express itself, which is how the Torah’s heroes wield influence and power. The Torah’s ideal is that good fortune will pair with good character rather than unmasking mediocre values.

Money and power aren’t inherently wrong; they don’t change you. But they do reveal who you are.

Money doesn’t matter when you lose what’s important on the way.

The Call to Action

4 minute read
Straightforward

Avraham was counter-cultural, resisting the religious and social trends of his day, earning the blessing of being a father of multitudes:

וַיּוֹצֵא אֹתוֹ הַחוּצָה, וַיֹּאמֶר הַבֶּט-נָא הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וּסְפֹר הַכּוֹכָבִים–אִם-תּוּכַל, לִסְפֹּר אֹתָם; וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, כֹּה יִהְיֶה זַרְעֶךָ – And He took him outside, and said: ‘Look at the heavens, and count the stars as if you could ever count them’; and He said to him: ‘So will your children be.’ (15:5)

By living differently, he earned a different fate, transcending the natural course of history – וַיּוֹצֵא אֹתוֹ הַחוּצָה.

Avraham was different in his belief in the One God, which manifested in him dedicating his life to education, kindness, justice, and outreach. On this basis, before destroying Sodom, something remarkably unusual happens.

The Torah describes a soliloquy, characterizing God’s internal thought process, telling us of God’s discomfort with hiding something from a human:

וַה’ אָמָר: הַמְכַסֶּה אֲנִי מֵאַבְרָהָם, אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי עֹשֶׂה. וְאַבְרָהָם–הָיוֹ יִהְיֶה לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, וְעָצוּם; וְנִבְרְכוּ-בוֹ–כֹּל, גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ. כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו, לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת-בָּנָיו וְאֶת-בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ ה, לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט–לְמַעַן, הָבִיא ה עַל-אַבְרָהָם, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר, עָלָיו –  Hashem said to Himself: “Shall I hide from Avraham what I am about to do? Avraham will become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed through him. I know him; he will command his children and his house after him, that they may observe the way of Hashem, to do what is right and just; so that Hashem will bring upon Avraham that which He spoke of him.” (18:17-19)

This whole episode takes place because God, remarkably, feels obligated to talk to a human. The flow of the story implies that without this conversation, Avraham would wake up in the morning to smoldering ruins on the horizon, and, believing that innocent citizens of Sodom were swept away with the guilty, he would no longer be able to teach that God is just. We know this would have been Avraham’s thought process because this is precisely his line of questioning when he, again, remarkably, challenges God:

וַיִּגַּשׁ אַבְרָהָם, וַיֹּאמַר הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה, צַדִּיק עִם-רָשָׁע – Avraham approached and said: “Will you really sweep away the righteous with the wicked?!” (18:23)

Avraham continues:

חָלִלָה לְּךָ מֵעֲשֹׂת כַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה, לְהָמִית צַדִּיק עִם-רָשָׁע, וְהָיָה כַצַּדִּיק, כָּרָשָׁע; חָלִלָה לָּךְ–הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל-הָאָרֶץ, לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט. – “It profanes You to do such a thing – to slay the righteous with the wicked so that the righteous should exactly be the same as the wicked – it profanes You! Will the Judge of all the earth not act justly?!” (18:25)

Fascinatingly, God accepts Avraham’s fundamental premise that collective punishment is unjust, that it truly would be wrong to destroy a whole group indiscriminately. Once God has validated that this principle is correct, they negotiate how many innocents would be worth saving the city for:

וַיֹּאמֶר אַל-נָא יִחַר לַאדֹנָי, וַאֲדַבְּרָה אַךְ-הַפַּעַם–אוּלַי יִמָּצְאוּן שָׁם, עֲשָׂרָה; וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אַשְׁחִית, בַּעֲבוּר הָעֲשָׂרָה. – And he said: “Please, don’t be angry, Hashem, and I will speak just once more. Perhaps ten innocents can be found there?” And Hashem said: “I will not destroy the city for the ten’s sake.” (18:32)

Of course, God did rescue the innocents in the form of Lot and his family, and then God destroyed the city anyway, as God was always going to.

The seed for this entire highly unusual dialogue is for the stated reason that Avraham is going to teach his descendants about justice and integrity – לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת-בָּנָיו וְאֶת-בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ ה, לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט.

Unlike Noah, who accepts God’s condemnation of his world, Avraham establishes a precedent followed by Moshe, Jonah, and many others of brazenness towards Heaven, for Heaven’s sake – חוצפה כלפי שמיא. And we must not think this is sacrilege – it’s the exact opposite! Hashem very literally invites and prompts Avraham into the argument. There is a reason Avraham is known as the Hebrew, the stranger standing alone on the other side – אברהם העברי.

Avraham was committed to God and to justice, but his loyalties were at odds in this conversation. The test is that God would appear unjust to see whether Avraham swayed towards justice or to God. By appearing to lose the staged argument, God demonstrates a commitment to justice, paradoxically validating Avraham’s loyalty to God. Thus, the story of Avraham testing God’s commitment to justice turns out to simultaneously be a story of God testing Avraham’s commitment to justice.

But he could not teach what he did not yet know! R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that God orchestrates the whole conversation simply so that Avraham and his descendants – we the readers – can learn that there is nothing sacred about accepting suffering or wrongdoing.

R’ Jonathan Sacks explains that it is beyond human comprehension to understand suffering in the world; because if we could understand it, then we would accept it. There is no satisfactory answer to injustice in the world, except that asking the question might cause us to live the response through our actions.

The Piacesczna Rebbe points out that God chooses Avraham because he is great, but also because of the children and people who will follow him – לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶתבָּנָיו וְאֶתבֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו. That explicitly makes you a member of the class of people God analyzed and inspected, and deemed worthy. The Piacesczna Rebbe bids that we take ourselves seriously as part of that class – you are why Avraham was chosen, as is everyone you teach, formally or informally, as well as everyone you encounter, the people who will follow. Don’t write yourself off, nor anyone else.

It is up to us as the bearers of Avraham’s legacy to stand up for what is right. Do not close your eyes and turn away when there is something you can do to make it right.

Language Redux

4 minute read
Straightforward

Humans are the apex predator on Earth.

We share this planet with thousands of species and trillions of organisms, and none but humans carry a lasting multi-generational record of knowledge of any obvious consequence. And yet, a feral human being left alone in the woods from birth to death kept separate and alive, would be not much more than an ape; our knowledge isn’t because humans are smart.

It’s because we speak – מְדַבֵּר.

We communicate and cooperate with others through language, giving us a formidable advantage in forming groups, sharing information, and pooling workloads and specializations. Language is the mechanism by which the aggregated knowledge of human culture is transmitted, actualizing our intelligence and self-awareness, transcending separate biological organisms, and becoming one informational organism. With language, we have formed societies and built civilizations; developed science and medicine, literature and philosophy.

With language, knowledge does not fade; we can learn from the experiences of others. Without learning everything from scratch, we can use an existing knowledge base built by others to learn new things and make incrementally progressive discoveries. As one writer put it, a reader lives a thousand lives before he dies; the man who never reads lives only once.

Language doesn’t just affect how we relate to each other; it affects how we relate to ourselves. We make important decisions based on thoughts and feelings influenced by words on a page or conversations with others. It has been said that with one glance at a book, you can hear the voice of another person – perhaps someone gone for millennia – speaking across the ages clearly and directly in your mind.

Considering the formidable power of communication, it follows that the Torah holds it in the highest esteem; because language is magical. Indeed, the fabric of Creation is woven with words:

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקים, יְהִי אוֹר; וַיְהִי-אוֹר – God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. (1:3)

The Hebrew root word for “thing” and “word” is identical – דַבֵּר / דָבָר. R’ Moshe Shapiro notes that for God –  and people of integrity! – there is no distinction; giving your word creates a new reality, and a word becomes a thing. R’ Shlomo Farhi points out the obvious destruction that ensues from saying one thing but meaning and doing something else entirely.

R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that humans use language to create things as well. The notion of a contract or agreement is a performative utterance – things that people say to create something that wasn’t there before; a relationship of mutual commitment between people, created through speech. Whether it’s God giving us the Torah or a husband marrying his wife, relationships are fundamental to Judaism. We can only build relationships and civilizations with each other when we can make commitments through language.

Recognizing the influential hold language has over us, the Torah emphasizes an abundance of caution and heavily regulates how we use language: the laws of gossip and the metzora; and the incident where Miriam and Ahron challenged Moshe; among others. Even the Torah’s choice of words about the animals that boarded the Ark is careful and measured:

מִכֹּל הַבְּהֵמָה הַטְּהוֹרָה, תִּקַּח-לְךָ שִׁבְעָה שִׁבְעָה–אִישׁ וְאִשְׁתּוֹ; וּמִן-הַבְּהֵמָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא טְהֹרָה הִוא, שְׁנַיִם-אִישׁ וְאִשְׁתּוֹ – Of every clean creature, take seven and seven, each with their mate; and of the creatures that are not clean two, each with their mate. (7:2)

The Gemara notes that instead of using the more accurate and concise expression of “impure,” the Torah utilizes extra ink and space to articulate itself more positively – “that are not clean” – אֲשֶׁר לֹא טְהֹרָה הִוא. While possibly hyperbolic, the Lubavitcher Rebbe would refer to death as “the opposite of life”; and hospital infirmaries as “places of healing.”

The Torah cautions us of the power of language repeatedly in more general settings:

לֹא-תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ, לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ: אֲנִי, ה – Do not allow a gossiper to mingle among the people; do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor: I am Hashem. (19:16)

The Torah instructs us broadly not to hurt, humiliate, deceive, or cause another person any emotional distress:

וְלֹא תוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת-עֲמִיתוֹ, וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱלֹקיךָ: כִּי אֲנִי ה, אֱלֹקיכֶם – Do not wrong one another; instead, you should fear your God; for I am Hashem. (25:27)

Interestingly, both these laws end with “I am Hashem” – evoking the concept of emulating what God does; which suggests that just as God constructively uses language to create – שהכל נהיה בדברו  – so must we – אֲנִי ה. The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that as much as God creates with words, so do humans.

The Gemara teaches that verbal abuse is arguably worse than theft; you can never take back your words, but at least a thief can return the money!

The idea that language influences and impacts the world around us is the foundation of the laws of vows, which are significant enough that we open the Yom Kippur services at Kol Nidrei by addressing them.

Our sages praise people whose words God concurs with, one of which is the language of repentance. Words have the power to activate a force that predates Creation; Moshe intercedes on behalf of the Jewish People for the calamitous Golden Calf, and God forgives them specifically because Moshe asked – וַיֹּאמֶר הסָלַחְתִּי כִּדְבָרֶךָ.

Of course, one major caveat to harmful speech is intent. If sharing negative information has a constructive and beneficial purpose that may prevent harm or injustice, there is no prohibition, and there might even be an obligation to protect your neighbor by conveying the information – לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ.

As R’ Jonathan Sacks powerfully said, no soul was ever saved by hate; no truth was ever proved by violence; no redemption was ever brought by holy war.

Rather than hurt and humiliate, let’s use our language to educate, help and heal; because words and ideas have the power to change the world.

They’re the only thing that ever has.

It’s Not About Who You Are; But What You Do

3 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah speaks in human language, and storytelling is one of humanity’s most powerful tools.

Some parts of the Torah are communicated in the forms of laws, and others in stories.  Integral messages can be passed through the ages, each generation filtering it through its wisest minds, gleaning new insights in each telling.

Some say that our tradition’s stories are not about ordinary people like us; they are about perfect saints who were qualitatively different from us.

This is not a universally held position, and with good reason. If the stories are about holy people who are different from us, how can their stories be relevant guidance for our lives?

As R’ Shlomo Farhi observes, while the Torah’s terse stories obviously do not capture the character of these great people in three dimensions, we also cannot ignore the Torah’s deliberate characterization and presentation of these stories, emphasizing and highlighting specific actions and people frame their particular way. We should sit up and notice, wondering what we are supposed to learn from the parts that don’t quite align with our picture of greatness.

When famine struck Avraham’s new home in Israel, he decided that his family would have better food security in Egypt’s fertile land, and they left Israel. While this was an eminently reasonable decision to have made based on his assessment of the facts, the way it worked out was that he placed Sarah in a highly compromising situation that required divine intervention after Pharaoh took her.

The Ramban criticizes Avraham for leaving Israel and not counting on God’s promises and that by abandoning Israel, he directly jeopardized those promises and endangered his family.

The Maharitz Chajes notes that stories are often the Torah’s medium for teaching us about morality because mature people understand that moral choices are often difficult and rarely black and white. While the law is made of words, those words have to be lived out, and only a story transmits the turmoil and weight of how those words and values interface with real life.

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that the Torah’s enduring hold is that our heroes are not gods or demigods; they are mortal men. God is God, and humans are human – and humans make mistakes.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that this kind of discussion is an essential feature of our rich heritage. Our ancestors are prototypes of what the ideal human acts like, but the Torah does not whitewash its heroes; excellent humans are still human.

Our role models cannot be idealized characters; they wouldn’t be relevant if they weren’t materially like us. What makes them great is precisely the fact that they weren’t so different from us. They faced the same kinds of problems: how best to protect and provide for their families; and how to maintain their beliefs and practices while trying to do the right thing.

Avraham was not born holy and perfect, nor under extraordinary or supernatural circumstances. Avraham did not possess some innate characteristic that gave him a religious advantage. Avraham is first and foremost in our pantheon of great figures because, throughout his struggles, he maintained his integrity and persevered – sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly. He is great because of the things he did, not because he was born that way.

The Torah speaks in whole truths to give a three-dimensional view of the people we look up to. The Torah is for and about humans; because it’s ok to be human.

Some people suggest that focusing on our hero’s misdeeds is disrespectful, but perhaps they have it backward. Their humanity does not undermine our respect for them; it is the very basis of our respect and veneration!

The Torah is replete with stories about how great people also make mistakes.

Adam eats the fruit; Noach doesn’t save a single person; Avraham compromises Sarah; Yitzchak favors Esau; Yakov tricks his father; Yosef is vain, and his brothers engage in human trafficking. The generation that comes out of Egypt is doomed to die in the wilderness. Moshe doesn’t get to the Promised Land. The Promised Land doesn’t result in the Final Redemption. Failure is a core theme of almost every story in the Torah!

But crucially, here we are 3000 years later, learning those stories, still trying. Perfection is ever-elusive, and there is no finish line. The Torah’s stories guide our way through the ages because they matter to us. They teach us that humans can fail, but if perfection is out of reach, greatness is not.

If all our greats are humans; then all humans possess the capacity to be great. That’s why their stories matter to us.

Greatness isn’t who you are; it’s what you do that defines you.

Under Scrutiny

2 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah isn’t so much about God as it is about humans and how we ought to behave. This is in large part because we cannot comprehend what God is, only what God does.

One of Judaism’s most fundamental beliefs is that we can change, through the ability to repent and make amends – Teshuva – which presupposes that to some extent, God can also change. While this may sound absurd at first, it’s quite benign. We believe that with prayer, repentance, and charity, God might act with compassionate mercy in lieu of strict justice.

This transition from strict justice to compassionate mercy ought to be instructive to how we exercise judgment in our own lives.

The Torah’s stated cause for the great Flood was a human tendency towards evil:

וַיַּרְא ה, כִּי רַבָּה רָעַת הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ, וְכָל-יֵצֶר מַחְשְׁבֹת לִבּוֹ, רַק רַע כָּל-הַיּוֹם –  Hashem saw the great evil of humans on Earth, and that every imagination of his heart’s intent was only ever evil. (6:5)

After the great Flood, God laments the destruction and devastation, and resolves not destroy life ever again:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל-לִבּוֹ לֹא-אֹסִף לְקַלֵּל עוֹד אֶת-הָאֲדָמָה בַּעֲבוּר הָאָדָם, כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו; וְלֹא-אֹסִף עוֹד לְהַכּוֹת אֶת-כָּל-חַי, כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי – Hashem said in His heart: “I will not curse the ground again for humanity’s sake; because the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every living thing, as I have just done.” (8:21)

What changed between the beginning and end of the Flood?

Quite remarkably, it seems like nothing at all changed. Humans were bad before, and they are still bad after – יֵצֶר מַחְשְׁבֹת לִבּוֹ, רַק רַע כָּל-הַיּוֹם / כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו.

This non-change also happens when the Jewish People misguidedly craft the Golden Calf, upon which God states He can longer tolerate their obstinate rigidity:

כִּי לֹא אֶעֱלֶה בְּקִרְבְּךָ, כִּי עַם-קְשֵׁה-עֹרֶף אַתָּה פֶּן-אֲכֶלְךָ בַּדָּרֶךְ – “I will not go up with you; because you are a stiff-necked people; otherwise I might destroy you on the way!” (33:3)

Yet Moshe appeals for God’s compassion and mercy based on that very same characteristic:

וַיֹּאמֶר אִם-נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ, אֲדֹנָי, יֵלֶךְ-נָא אֲדֹנָי, בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ:  כִּי עַם-קְשֵׁה-עֹרֶף הוּא, וְסָלַחְתָּ לַעֲוֹנֵנוּ וּלְחַטָּאתֵנוּ וּנְחַלְתָּנוּ – And he said: “If I have found favor in your sight, Hashem, please go in our midst; because this is a stiff-necked people; and forgive our error and sin, and take us as Your inheritance.” (34:9)

While we cannot know God as God is, we can learn to understand God a little better by imitating what He does. In both instances, humans do not earn forgiveness through Teshuva, because they have not changed. We are prone to error and don’t always learn from our mistakes.

In the story of Noach, God does something extremely unusual and talks to Himself – וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל-לִבּוֹ. The power of this soliloquy teaches us that how we frame a characteristic can be the difference between strict justice and compassionate mercy. The self-same flaw God can condemn can also be excused on the same basis – כִּי.

We can’t change other people. Sometimes they won’t ever make amends and won’t fix what they broke. But we can still change the lens we use to scrutinize them.

In the same way that God can choose to judge favorably out of a commitment to life, we can do the same.

A judgmental attitude helps neither ourselves nor others.

The Image of God

3 minute read
Straightforward

Thousands of years ago, the Torah set the world upon a revolutionary path, drastically steering world history and modern civilization, on a trend that continues to this day.

When the Torah describes the creation and emergence of humans, it bestows a defining characteristic that has reverberated through the ages:

וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ: זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, בָּרָא אֹתָם – God created man in His image; in the image of God created He him – male and female, He created them. (1:27)

Different sages from our tradition have taken differing views on Judaism’s defining characteristic; there need not need to be one single foundational principle. The range of principles is sufficiently indicative of what they held to be the Torah’s meta-principles or golden rules that underpin the rest.

Ben Azzai labeled the concept of man in God’s image as the most important principle in the Torah.

Since Judaism believes that God has no shape or form, what can it mean to be the image of a God who has no image?

Traditional explanations of the precise definition range from the more conventional to the more outlandish; but the consequence as R’ Saadia Gaon understands it is that we represent God as ambassadors in a way that animals and plants do not.

R’ Jonathan Sacks explains that the defining feature of the Creation story is God choosing and selecting what to create and how to create it – so to be created in God’s image is to share the godly characteristic of free will. Whereas animals are driven by instinct; humans can make choices.

The language of God’s image was not new to the ancient world, whose leaders were seen as divine. God-kings were once common, such as Egypt’s Pharaoh thousands of years ago, but this concept persists to this day in some places, such as North Korea’s Supreme Leader. The ramification of a god in human form is that he does not answer to mere humans and deserves to be worshipped by his subjects.

The political structure of god-kings is based on the instinctive assumption that the strong have a right to dominate the weak. This logic was and is the justification for all sorts of evils, including slavery, sexism, racism, eugenics, and genocide.

The Torah dismisses the worldviews of a divine right to dominate others out of hand with a simple but elegant statement that humans are fundamentally the same. Whatever objects people believed worthy of worship, from sky and stars to seas and serpents, one God created them all, and that one God created all humans in one image. We all answer to God equally – and no one else.

R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that God grants humans dominion of the beasts, the birds, and the earth; but tellingly, not other humans. Humans are created free and must respect the dignity of other humans to preserve that freedom.

The Exodus story tells of the birth of the nation as slaves liberated from a powerful ruled by a god-king to show that our God does not respect powerf and that humans must not dominate each other.

These powerless Jews were called upon to accept the Torah and live out its principles as role models for humanity. Strength and superiorirty have not carried Judaism through the ages; only adherence to the Torah.

Tellingly, the Torah commands the Jewish People not to hate the Egyptians, but to love the stranger and protect the widows and orphans. The Torah describes not a God of the powerful, but a God of everyone. The Torah’s utopian vision is not apocalypse or victory, but peace and security for all.

The Torah planted the idea of fundamental human equality thousands of years ago, and human history has only trended away from domination and subjugation ever since.

It is all too easy to abuse power, and to hate those not like us. If we love God, we must love the godliness in others.

We differentiate ourselves not by seed or creed; only by deed.

Context is Key

2 minute read
Straightforward

For whatever reason, many people today believe in a God that is angry and out to get people. Instead of understanding that sins are mistakes that can be fixed, some people believe that they are irredeemably bad and broken, and God hates them. They wish that God loved them, and don’t see God’s blessing in their lives. Instead, they believe that their lives belong to Satan or the devil, or some other dualistic entity.

We grow up reading the same stories, and we can become desensitized to the context of the lessons our stories are trying to convey. Moreover, worldviews can become entrenched and force their perspectives into ours.

A classic example is the story of creation.

To some, it’s the story of a God who makes arbitrary rules and creates sinful and irresponsible humans that are doomed to fail.

That’s certainly one way to read the story.

But that’s a lopsided and myopic perspective, laden with pain and blame.

The Meshech Chochma notes that when our tradition reads the story, we see neither people who are doomed, nor a distant God who sets arbitrary and impossible rules.

The first two rules God gives are “Be fruitful and multiply – the entire world will be yours,” and “From every tree shall you eat…”.

To be sure, the second rule finishes with a qualification – “From every tree shall you eat, except this one.”

Without context, it seems so tantalizing and cruel – “You can’t enjoy this delicious tree over here!” We can hear the language of prohibition and denial.

With context, we can understand that it is a limitation in the broader context of a positive command.

Many people see the world and our tradition the negative way. Perhaps it’s a problem with the way we educate people, or maybe the popular worldview is irresistibly strong. But it’s just plain wrong.

To be sure, Judaism has some restrictions. Some do seem more arbitrary than others. But none exist to impede our enjoyment of life.

On the contrary, they exist to regulate our wholesome enjoyment of life, to prevent us from running wild with greed and hedonism. The commandment to enjoy comes before the commandment to refrain. The regulation gives a context and meaning to all the countless things that we do get to experience.

A husband who remembers or forgets to buy his wife flowers on their anniversary isn’t instantly a good or bad husband. It matters as one data point in the context of their entire relationship.

Shabbos is not just a Saturday not spent working – the concept of Shabbos elevates our time by giving it context, making it sacred and valuable. Not just “Saturday,” but our entire week building up to it as well. It’s all about the context. And the same goes for everything else we believe.

The story of Creation speaks for itself. It rejects the worldview of a God who wants to create stumbling blocks for people, and of people who are intrinsically evil.

Our God is the God who loves life, creates life, and wants that life to learn to love and enjoy as well.

Our lives are surrounded by blessings and abundance, and our tradition is rich and full of meaning.

But not everyone can see that.

We just have to look for the context every day. Because it’s there.

Show, Don’t Tell

2 minute read
Straightforward

Avraham sent his trusted steward, Eliezer, to his ancestral home to find a suitable partner for Yitzchak.

Eliezer had key criteria that would be identifying traits of the right candidate; the ideal woman would be kind to him, but also to his camels and entourage as well.

When Eliezer approached Avraham’s hometown, there were many young women drawing water at the local well, one of whom was Rivka. Before exchanging introductions or pleasantries, she drew water for him to drink and then his thirsty camels, satisfying Eliezer’s criteria and correctly distinguishing herself as the person he had been looking for.

Based on a textual anomaly, the Midrash suggests that as Rivka approached the well to draw water, the water rose up to meet her, saving her any effort.

The function of this teaching is to mark Rivka as an extraordinary individual; but taking it at face value, why wouldn’t such a fantastic miracle be sufficient for Eliezer to identify her as the right person?

R’ Chaim Shmulevitz sharply suggests that even if you can perform miracles, miracles don’t speak to your quality as an individual. Miracles don’t make you a good person – good deeds make you a good person.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch highlights how Rivka told Eliezer she would get him some water, and only once he had finished did she say that she would help with his camels as well. Rivka did not promise the kind things she would do; she just did them when the moment came; highlighting the key trait of saying a little and doing a lot – אֱמֹר מְעַט וַעֲשֵׂה הַרְבֵּה.

You are the things you do, not the things you say you’re going to do.

Quite unusually for a Torah story, we also see Rivka’s quality in her blindness to social class. Eliezer was a stranger and servant, yet Rivka treated him with dignity and respect, even referring to him as “my lord.” The story also highlights how Rivka deliberately exerted herself to help as quickly as possible – וַתְּמַהֵר וַתְּעַר כַּדָּהּ אֶל־הַשֹּׁקֶת וַתָּרץ עוֹד אֶל־הַבְּאֵר לִשְׁאֹב וַתִּשְׁאַב לְכל־גְּמַלָּיו׃.

This origin story of our ancestors is not a story of miracles or about vanquishing evil; it’s a story about the gentle and kind heart worthy of being a mother in the house of Avraham.

In this story, we see a bias towards urgent action, not talking. We see kindness towards a stranger, sensitivity to the human dignity of inferior or lower-class individuals, and compassion towards animals.

You probably don’t experience daily miracles. But even in the age of miracles, miracles were never the thing that made humans great.

It’s what you do that can make you great, and that’s always and only been solely up to you.

Together Forever

2 minute read
Straightforward

If you’ve ever paid much attention to the procedures at a Jewish wedding, you might have noticed a lot of fuss about the rings, the words the groom has to say, and the witnesses.

It’s not just for show. The formalities essentially make the marriage, so we need to get them right.

The source of the formalities is the Gemara in Kiddushin, which famously derives the model of halachic marriage from the transaction that took place when Avraham purchased a burial plot to bury his late wife, Sarah. The marriage formalities echo the steps Avraham took to acquire the title to that small parcel of land.

While the source might be familiar to many, the logic most certainly is not.

In what way is a man marrying a woman anything like a man buying some land?

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that confining the analogy to a substantive level collapses it, because a woman is self-evidently not an object. The analogy only works in the wider context of the meaning and significance of the transaction.

The Land of Israel is inextricably intertwined with Jewish history and identity. The Promised Land has been a driving force of our hopes and prayers for thousands of years. Our ancestors might have wished for what we have today, and even today, we recognize that we are only at the beginning at best – רֵאשִׁית צְמִיחַת גְּאֻלָּתֵנוּ. It’s a dream that gets us through hard times; the hope that one day, things could be better.

The dream of a Promised Land is so tantalizing because it speaks to a human need deep within us, invested as it is with all our aspirations for the future. It’s the embodiment of our idealism, a permanent home, a place of belonging and security, and the national happily ever after that everybody longs for.

When Avraham bought that little cave and adjoining field, it was the very first interaction by the first Jew on that Promised Land, forging the very first link in the chain of the eternal bond that binds the Jewish People to the Land of Israel.

At a Jewish wedding, the couple is bonded by mirroring the steps our ancestor Avraham took; it was never a simple land transaction, it is about preserving permanent commitment.

This idea is mirrored by the imagery of the cave itself; a multi-chambered double-storeyed structure – the word מַּכְפֵּלָה literally means “doubled up.” According to legend, this unique structure enabled each of our ancestral couples to be buried together in private, husband and wife, and it allowed for parent and child to be buried near each other, father and son. Even after death, the family would remain together.

So sure, Avraham simply bought a parcel of land to bury his wife; but in that trivial action, he kept his family together forever, even into death.

A woman is not like land, but marriage is very much like our bond to the Land of Israel. The land is God’s eternal commitment to us, and marriage is our eternal commitment to each other.

A Wish Upon A Star

1 minute
Straightforward

One of the most beautiful promises ever made was the one God made to Avraham about his future descendants:

וַיּוֹצֵא אֹתוֹ הַחוּצָה וַיֹּאמֶר הַבֶּט־נָא הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וּסְפֹר הַכּוֹכָבִים אִם־תּוּכַל לִסְפֹּר אֹתָם וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ כֹּה יִהְיֶה זַרְעֶךָ – He took him outside and said, “Look at the heavens above. Count the stars, if you ever could! So will your offspring be.” (15:5)

We can read this literally, that Avraham’s lineal and intellectual descendants would be numerous, and this has undoubtedly come to pass – most religions count Avraham as their precursor.

R’ Shlomo Farhi suggests a symbolic approach, that perhaps the blessing is that just like Avraham would look heavenward and dream of a better future, his children would be stargazers as well, living and looking beyond the present, hoping and working towards a better future.

Interestingly, the Torah only describes the sun setting after this conversation:

וַיְהִי הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ לָבוֹא וְתַרְדֵּמָה נָפְלָה עַל־אַבְרָם וְהִנֵּה אֵימָה חֲשֵׁכָה גְדֹלָה נֹפֶלֶת עָלָיו – As the sun was about to set, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a great dark dread descended upon him. (15:12)

Since we’re talking about the prophetic discussions with God, we are very deep into the realm of speculation about “where” this conversation takes place, but the Torah grounds this meeting in the physical by anchoring it with physical imagery – sky, sun, and stars.

My father notes that God seems to promise Avraham that his descendants will be like stars in the daytime sky; when we can’t actually see them with the naked eye – a very literal reading of וּסְפֹר הַכּוֹכָבִים אִם־תּוּכַל לִסְפֹּר אֹתָם – but they’re there all the same.

They’ll always be there, only sometimes in the background, evoking a beautiful blessing of ebbs and flows, or waxing and waning, biding time for a comeback and resurgence.

Your Moral Compass

2 minute read
Straightforward

The book of Bereishis is about the evolution of human justice and the evolving dynamic of God’s relationship with people. Avraham is considered the first prototype of the kind of person God wanted people to behave like, and it is his descendants that would go on to receive the Torah.

But Noah was righteous too; why is Noah not held up as a model of what a good person looks like?

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that our role models followed their internal moral compasses, even when it led them to the point of directly questioning God outright.

When Noah left the Ark, everything and everyone was gone. Noah took in the scale of desolation and loss, and questioned God – where was God’s mercy all this time? The Zohar describes God’s stunning reply to Noah – when God had told him the flood was coming and all would be lost, where was Noah’s mercy for the world he had known?

In sharp contrast, when God announced that Sodom would be destroyed, Avraham questioned God’s justice. When God threatened to destroy the Jewish people after they danced around the Golden Calf, Moshe questioned God’s justice. Throughout history, our heroes have challenged God when something felt wrong.

Even if unsuccessful, they are still fundamentally correct. Avraham stood up for pagan barbarians, and said that if God is merciful and good, then that ought to be true even towards the wicked! Our heroes’ internal moral compasses tell them that something is wrong, and they follow through.

But Noah simply accepted God’s judgment that his society was corrupt and deserved annihilation. He did not attempt to affect the course of events until it was far too late.

Accepting that bad things will happen to other people isn’t a feature – it’s a critical flaw. Noah agreed that everything and everyone was bad, and that they deserved what was coming. R’ Yisrael Salanter says that a hidden tzadik is no tzadik at all. Avraham went out into the world to show people a better way, whereas Noah just let his whole world slip into oblivion.

Maybe that’s why he never seems to make the list of truly righteous people. It may also be why he planted vineyards and turned to alcohol and solitude. The magnitude of his missed opportunity was enormous.

It is a Jewish characteristic to question everything, even of God. Just because God Himself says something, does not mean we must accept it – ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזרה. The entire point of prophecies of doom is so that we do something different and avert disaster so that God’s promise does not happen.

When something feels wrong don’t just accept it. It’s a challenge! Do something, say something.

Believe It, Achieve It

2 minute read
Straightforward

The flood story is a complex and layered story, with many different messages about right and wrong.

One of the messages that Chazal understood is the importance of careful speech. When the Torah talks about the different kinds of animals, it does not use the accurate and concise form of טהור and טמא, pure and impure. Instead, it uses the terms טְּהוֹרָה and אֲשֶׁר לֹא טְהֹרָה, pure and that which is not pure. Avoiding a word with negative connotations teaches the value of the words we use.

Yet the opening of the story is not overly complimentary:

נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹרֹתָיו – Noah was righteous; he was flawless in his day… (6:9)

Chazal detected ambiguity, and understood that this description could be interpreted favourably or unfavourably. Either he was absolutely righteous, and would have been considered righteous in any era, or he was only relatively righteous. In a degenerate age, he was the best person humanity could muster.

But how could Chazal teach the importance of speaking nicely, yet within the very same story interpret an ambiguous phrase unfavourably?

God spoke to Noah and said something similar:

כִּי־אֹתְךָ רָאִיתִי צַדִּיק לְפָנַי בַּדּוֹר הַזֶּה – I have found you alone to be righteous in this generation… (7:1)

The Zohar says that the Noah thought that he was being damned with faint praise, and God didn’t rate him. Therefore, Rabbi Shlomo Farhi explains, Chazal didn’t read it as a criticism – but Noah did! And his disappointment tarnished his subsequent choices and actions.

He didn’t try to save his community, influence them, or even pray for them, because he was only תָּמִים – flawless. There was only nothing wrong with him; in another time, that might not be enough. He could have been so much more, but believing that God’s ambiguous remark was a criticism destroyed him.

It is incorrect to be trite and small. Not only does it let yourself down; but far worse is that it lets the people who need you down too. It’s not wrong to believe in our ability to affect the people around us.

One of the messages of the flood story teaches that the opposite is true – there is a universal principle that every one of us would do well to believe that we can positively impact each other.

How to Pray

3 minute read
Straightforward

Prayer is deeply personal, and everyone prays in their own way.

While there are different approaches to precisely how prayer works or what it affects, we assume that the omnipresent and omniscient God is listening, and we know that not every prayer is answered in the way we might hope.

We intuitively understand that the Creator is the Source of all blessing, the final and only destination for all our hopes and dreams. The stakes couldn’t be higher – the Creator holds all the cards and pulls all the strings, with the power of life and death and everything in between.

So it’s important to pray properly so God will listen.

What are the requirements of a proper prayer that God will listen to?

If you think need righteous and holy saints to pray for you and bless you, you might be surprised because the Torah plainly states otherwise.

In the story of Yitzchak’s life, the Torah recounts how his mother Sarah identified the older Yishmael as a corruptive influence on the young Yitzchak, and she sent Yishmael and his mother Hagar away from the family home.

The Torah tells how Hagar and Yishmael wandered, lost in the wilderness, until they ran out of water, and Yishmael slowly dehydrated. Knowing no one was coming to the rescue and with certainty that her son would die suffering, she cried out in complete and utter despair – וַתִּשָּׂא אֶת-קֹלָהּ וַתֵּבְךְּ.

Completely and utterly miraculously, the Torah tells how Hagar received a vision of a nearby oasis, and she rushes to get the water she needs to save her son.

This seems to conform with our conventional understanding of prayer; the desperate mother crying for her suffering child.

But the Torah does not give credit to Hagar. An angel speaks with her and tells her that everything is going to be okay because the Creator has listened to the prayer – but not Hagar’s:

וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶת קוֹל הַנַּעַר וַיִּקְרָא מַלְאַךְ אֱלֹהִים אֶל הָגָר מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ מַה לָּךְ הָגָר אַל תִּירְאִי כִּי שָׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶל קוֹל הַנַּעַר בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם – God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called out to Hagar from heaven, and said to her: “Don’t worry, Hagar; God has heard the voice of the boy in his state.” (21:16)

God listens to Yishmael’s prayer, not Hagar’s – כִּי שָׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶל קוֹל הַנַּעַר.

The story never ascribes an action or a word to Yishmael; he is a passive object in the story, the object of his mother’s prayers, the person acted upon, and not the actor.

A mother’s tears for her dying son did not move the heavens. But what moved the heavens was the voice of a dying boy, and he never even says a word! Perhaps, in his suffering, he cried or sighed; not even significant enough for the Torah to record it as an action he took.

That literally invisible moment of pain or sadness is what drives the entire story and goes on to shape history, and perhaps it should shape our understanding of prayer.

There are no requirements to pray properly; you just have to mean it, and you don’t have to be anyone or anything special. You can just be a kid, and you can just cry because it hurts.

The Midrash imagines the angels arguing against divine intervention to save Yishmael because of the atrocities his descendants would commit, but they lose the argument because God evaluates things differently. God answers the boy based on where he is and the facts and circumstances as they are – בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם.

The story of Yishmael teaches us that prayer isn’t confined to ritualized formalities, and maybe that’s partly why we read this story on Rosh Hashana.

It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done. You don’t need to know how to pray or understand the words.

Our sages conclude from the stories of our ancestors that God loves righteous prayers – הקדוש ברוך הוא מתאוה לתפילתן של צדיקים. R’ Shlomo Farhi highlights that God loves righteous prayers, not prayers of the righteous – תפילתן של צדיקים / תפילת צדיקים.

You don’t have to be perfect to generate a perfect prayer. Our daily prayers affirm that God is close to the people who call on Him truthfully – קרוב ה’ לכל קוראיו, לכל אשר יקראוהו באמת. It is not beyond any of us to ask for help and truly mean it – יקראוהו באמת.

Everyone is capable of a one-off, pure prayer.

Just a single moment of pain from a suffering boy moved the heavens. It is not beyond us.

Open Hearts, Open Hands

3 minute read
Straightforward

After living his life based on his intuition about the right way to live, Avraham was ultimately vindicated when God reached out to him in his old age. In this dialogue, God formed a covenant with Avraham, a contract for eternity, the sign of which was circumcision, an excruciatingly painful procedure.

The first thing we learn of the freshly circumcised Avraham, the very first act by the very first Jew, is that as he recuperated in the blazing heat, he was standing at the door looking for guests he could host and look after:

וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו ה בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא וְהוּא ישֵׁב פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל כְּחֹם הַיּוֹם. וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה שְׁלשָׁה אֲנָשִׁים נִצָּבִים עָלָיו וַיַּרְא וַיָּרָץ לִקְרָאתָם – God appeared to him in Mamre, while he was sitting at the door in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men approaching, and he ran towards them. (18:1-2)

The three men were no ordinary guests; it turns out that they were angels on a mission! Part of the mission was predicting Yitzchak’s birth, after which Avraham has another encounter with God, in which God tells Avraham the divine plan, that Sodom is doomed and will be destroyed by morning:

וַהֹ אָמָר הַמֲכַסֶּה אֲנִי מֵאַבְרָהָם אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי עֹשֶׂה. אַבְרָהָם הָיוֹ יִהְיֶה לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל וְעָצוּם וְנִבְרְכוּ בוֹ כֹּל גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ. כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת בָּנָיו וְאֶת בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ ה לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט לְמַעַן הָבִיא ה עַל אַבְרָהָם אֵת אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר עָלָיו – God said, “Shall I hide what I am doing from Avraham? Avraham will be great, and through him, the world will be blessed. I know he instructs his children, and their children after them, to preserve the way of God; to do what is right and practice justice…” (18:17-19)

It is important to notice how irregular and unusual this is. The Torah characterizes God’s internal thought process, narrating God’s discomfort with hiding something from a human! This should rightly strike us as absolutely bizarre – God is God and can do as God pleases, without human approval or intervention. That’s why God is God!

If we closely read God’s discomfort, there’s something that doesn’t quite add up. God warns Avraham about how wicked Sodom is as the reason for its demise. Yet Avraham is the last person who needs to be instructed to avoid the ways of Sodom!

We already know that Avraham already is someone who will always do the right thing- the very setting of the conversation is that in his weakest moment, in agonizing pain, he is out there looking for weary travelers to bathe, feed, and take care of! Avraham is already the anathema of Sodom. Is this a man who needs to be warned to avoid the ways of Sodom?!

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that Hashem wasn’t concerned for Avraham in this conversation. Hashem shared His plan with Avraham not so that he would do the right thing, but because he was someone who would teach his family to do the right thing – אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת בָּנָיו וְאֶת בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו. And Avraham argues with God to save Sodom!

This story presents a haggard, old, sick, and weary Avraham as the pinnacle of humanity – ethical and humane at his lowest and worst; in stark contrast to Sodom, a vibrant, wealthy, and successful commercial hub, yet so cruel to outsiders.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch highlights this contrast as the very first lesson we learn after Avraham circumcises himself. Entering into the covenant could set him apart, but it did not. He was still himself, living in Mamre, the land of his old friends and allies. He did not cloister himself away from the world or think he was above it all. He could abandon Sodom to their fate without a fight – a fight with God! This, even despite knowing of their cruel and wicked ways.

And even then, he was looking to the streets to bring in some pagan idolators to entertain; who else he could expect?! And he personally ran to give the mysterious guests luxurious and freshly prepared cuisine.

This is the first encounter the world has with the people of the covenant.

Avraham himself was only overjoyed that people would not think he was strange or different. His distinction only enhanced his relationship with humanity, and it must be the model for us – the בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו – God’s very purpose in engaging in the conversation.

Avraham is our hero and role model, the perfect man – the original “human.” He was not someone who hid away from the world to focus on his own holiness or mystical spirituality. He went out into the world, engaged with it, and made it better through his interactions.

As descendants of Avraham, we are charged with being the most humane of men – to show the world a better way, Avraham’s way. The way of open hearts and open hands.

Is This The Real Life

2 minute read
Straightforward

When God created the universe, the life it contained was blessed. Yet the blessing was not given equally to all. The amphibians and birds were told one thing:

וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם אֱלֹהִים, לֵאמֹר: פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ, וּמִלְאוּ אֶת-הַמַּיִם בַּיַּמִּים, וְהָעוֹף, יִרֶב בָּאָרֶץ – God blessed them saying, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the waters of the seas, and multiply the land”. (1:22)

In contrast, mankind was told:

וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם, אֱלֹהִים, וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם אֱלֹהִים פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, וְכִבְשֻׁהָ – God blessed them; and God said to them to be fruitful and multiply; fill the land and conquer it… (1:28)

Both are blessed to be populous, yet man is given a personal instruction – וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם – spoken directly, and not just about them.

Rav Hirsch notes that nature serves God by its intrinsic existence. It cannot be otherwise because there is no deviation in how it relates to God; the laws of science and nature are fixed. Mankind however, is spoken to, and must choose to listen. Free will is the צלם אלוקים that distinguishes humanity from other creatures. Allowing instinct and nature to run wild is to surrender to the animal within, which is not the duty man is charged with; the charge is moral consciousness, and the freedom to choose to overcome the natural instinct:

The Netziv explains that the animal instinct within us must be channeled a particular way, as evidenced by the origin of humanity:

וַיִּיצֶר ה אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם, עָפָר מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו, נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים; וַיְהִי הָאָדָם, לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה – God formed man from the dust of the earth, and breathed into him a living soul, and the man became alive (2:7)

Animals are simply called נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה – they are living things. But mankind is made of more – a blend of matter, fused with soul. With this equilibrium, man becomes truly “alive”. The word חַיָּה means alive, but it also means happy. The happiness is found in the balance. This is the instruction– וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם.

This is reflected in their respective developments too; a newborn calf can stand not long after birth, and while it will get bigger, it is born as it will always be; whereas humans are born helpless, defenceless, and pretty useless for a relatively large part of their lives.

The body is the container of the soul. The soul has to operate the system, or it withers away. Our choices are what make us human. Are your choices wise?

Harder Than It Looks

2 minute read
Straightforward

On Shavuos, it is customary to read the Book of Ruth. The subtext of the story is how crucial it is to pursue a personal stake in Torah and to want to be a part of the Jewish people. The story concludes with the genealogy of Ruth’s descendants, culminating in David – and therefore Moshiach too, the ultimate dream of Jewish hope.

But the story is not a happy one. Boaz died the morning after he took her in, leaving her a pregnant widow. She never saw the happy ending; neither did Boaz or Naomi see the vindication of their actions. David’s rise was generations after they had passed.

The story is explicit that God’s justice is not simple or immediate but calculated over centuries and generations.

The Chasam Sofer notes that the story of Cain and Abel is included in the Torah, right at the beginning, to teach precisely this lesson. God favored Abel, and Cain murdered him out of jealousy. Yet, Cain lived a full life with countless descendants. Where is justice? It is not just to say that justice was when they died in the Flood, so long afterward.

The story shows that justice is complicated. And it is curious to note that book’s ending, the genealogy of Jewish hope, springs from some bizarre circumstances.

Boaz, a member of the house of Yehuda, was descended from Peretz, born of the mysterious story of Yehuda and Tamar. The Gemara says that he lost his free will when he approached the crossroads and spotted her.

Boaz fainted at the sight of Ruth in his bed chambers. Everyone castigated him, supporting Ploni Almoni’s arguments. After adjudicating Ruth’s case, he died, which could certainly be labeled as divine retribution by his critics.

Ruth was descended from Moav, born of incest between Lot and his daughters. The other child born of this was Amon, whose descendant married King Shlomo.

The story of David and Batsheva is one of the great mysteries in our tradition. She was married, and David orchestrated her husband’s death. The Gemara declares that whoever says David sinned is mistaken, but whoever says he didn’t is as well!

Moshiach rises through bizarre circumstances. Incest, prostitution, adultery, and promiscuity.

The world needs a Moshiach. Judaism believes in a World to Come, but it alone is not enough. Otherwise, we could each just take care of ourselves as hermits and leave the world to be damned and passively watch it burn and unravel. Judaism staunchly disavows this. Judaism affirms that this world is ours, and it needs repair. We must do what we can to make it a better place – and Moshiach will finish the job. He emerges out of the ashes of a world which has started to rebuild.

Receiving the Torah is the moment we were chosen to be charged with this responsibility.

Perhaps we read Ruth to remind ourselves that we may fade long before we see success. But success is not why we started. We persevere and endure, fortified with the knowledge that’s what right isn’t always what’s easy.

A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.

Your Mind’s Eye

2 minute read
Straightforward

Waiting out famine in Canaan, Yakov sent his sons to Egypt to obtain provisions, but they were arrested and imprisoned by their long-lost and unrecognizable brother Yosef.

Held in prison, they speculated how they’d wound up in such a precarious situation:

וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל-אָחִיו, אֲבָל אֲשֵׁמִים אֲנַחְנוּ עַל-אָחִינוּ, אֲשֶׁר רָאִינוּ צָרַת נַפְשׁוֹ בְּהִתְחַנְנוֹ אֵלֵינוּ, וְלֹא שָׁמָעְנוּ; עַל-כֵּן בָּאָה אֵלֵינוּ, הַצָּרָה הַזֹּאת – The brothers lamented to each other, “We are guilty! For what we did to our brother… We saw his suffering! He pleaded with us, and we ignored him. We have brought this on ourselves!” (42:21)

But when we review the entire episode as it unfolded, there is no record of any such conversation to that effect. The story simply narrates what they did to him, with no record of Yosef’s cries or pleas,  no mention of his suffering.

What were they remembering?

R’ Shlomo Freifeld suggests a frightening answer.

Sight is not an exclusively visual faculty. Our eyes govern the physical aspect of perception, but there is also a mental and emotional component; the way you process optical inputs. A deficiency in the physical element will result in blindness, but lacking the mental component results in functional blindness, if only in figuratively.

That’s what the brothers realized years later in a miserable jail cell.

We don’t need the Torah to tell us that if we were standing there observing this traumatic episode unfolding, we would have seen Yosef crying and begging them to stop their madness.

Instead, the Torah speaks to us with deafening silence. In their eyes, Yosef was trouble, an upstart pretender, a threat to be removed. It was settled in their minds, they had to be decisive.

But in other words, powerful emotions had clouded their senses. Caught up in the heat of the moment, any sound he made fell on deaf ears; the Torah records events as they experienced, with his silence.

Only in hindsight, sitting in jail years later, could they take stock of the terrible ordeal as it truly unfolded; they had been blind to the cries of their brother.

Every day, we ask God to open our eyes – פוקח עורים – which takes on new meaning in light of this teaching; it’s a prayer for clarity and perception, and it’s hard to overstate how important that is.

Your eyes aren’t enough when it’s your mind that’s blind.

Is there something you might be blinding yourself to right now?

Personal Choice

2 minute read
Straightforward

Rivka had a difficult pregnancy and was frequently pained by her unborn children hitting her. One particular time, she lamented:

‘וַיִּתְרֹצְצוּ הַבָּנִים, בְּקִרְבָּהּ, וַתֹּאמֶר אִם-כֵּן, לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי; וַתֵּלֶךְ, לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת-ה – The children struggled within her, and she said, “This is what it is? Why is this happening to me?” And she went to inquire of the Lord. (25:22)

People have difficult pregnancies, and the baby kicks too much; it’s pretty common. Yet more than just experiencing physical discomfort, Rivka seems emotionally troubled and has some soul searching to do, so she asks for help.

What was so difficult that she had to seek out answers?

We have the benefit of knowing how the story unfolds. At this point in the story, Rivka did not yet know that she was having twins!

Our sages suggest that each time Rivka walked past a holy site, she would feel her belly stir, and each time she walked past a place of pagan worship, she would feel more stirring. Without knowing it would be two children with different inclinations, it just seemed like one very confused individual!

R’ Chaim Brown suggests a compelling reading. When Moshe reviewed the Torah in his final speech to the people, he told them:

רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָֽה – See how I place before you a blessing and a curse… Good and Evil! (11:26)

The simple explanation is that there is always a good and a bad choice, and we must be careful to choose wisely. But there is a more profound implication as well.

It is not simply a choice of what we want to do, but also a matter of who we want to be. What identity will we take up? What kind of אָנֹכִי, the archetypal “I,” will we choose to become?

In the context of to Rivka’s frustration, she cried – לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי – where is the אָנֹכִי of this long-awaited promised child? He likes sanctity and idolatry!

Understanding the depth of her question, we can plumb the depths and meaning in the answer when the oracle replied to her, that שְׁנֵי גֹיִים בְּבִטְנֵך – it is not one confused child, there will be two children with two separate identities! And she was comforted, and the story continues.

Your personal choices are the choices that shape your personality. Every choice aligns you closer towards or further from the person you’ve always wanted to be.

Don’t Run Before You Can Walk

2 minute read
Straightforward

Avraham interacted with God many times without incident.

But in God’s most important conversation with Avraham, where God forms a covenant with Avraham and gives him a glimpse of the future, the Torah reports something unusual:

וַיִּפֹּל אַבְרָם, עַל-פָּנָיו; וַיְדַבֵּר אִתּוֹ אֱלֹהִים, לֵאמֹר – Avraham threw himself on his face, and God spoke to him. (17:3)

This sort of reaction to God’s presence is unique – the Torah does not describe this response any other time before or after. As Rashi explains, this was the moment God instructed Avraham to circumcise himself and his family with the symbol of their covenant – the Bris. He fell because he was not yet uncircumcised and so not in compliance with God’s command; so he recoiled from God’s presence, deficient as he was in that state.

But he was uncircumcised in every conversation beforehand, so why doesn’t the Torah records that Avraham recoiled for being uncircumcised?

R’ Chaim Soloveitchik explains that before duty or obligation exists, there cannot be a corresponding deficiency or liability for not complying with the non-existent requirement. Avraham was not “uncircumcised” in their previous interactions because the conceptual category of “uncircumcised” did not exist until God gave a command to circumcise.

Avraham didn’t have to circumcise himself before God told him to; how could he know? But the very moment God gave the instruction, the obligation came into being, and Avraham was still uncircumcised, so he could not stand in God’s presence.

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that this cuts both ways.

The standard expected of all Jews is nothing less than absolute, perfect dedication, and diligent moral consciousness.

It’s a standard far beyond what humans are capable of – so the obligation and corresponding deficiency don’t actually exist in their ideal forms. We are only capable of acting from where we are here and now.

However, day after day of here and now incrementally stack up with gradual improvement. As long as you are not yet ready to take on more, it’s not your fault that you’re not there yet. You’re not ready for every duty right now, so don’t try to take on everything at once.

But when the day comes that you can and should be doing more, but remain content to stay put, then that duty and obligation start to count against you – וַיִּפֹּל אַבְרָם, עַל-פָּנָיו.

Sure, chase more responsibility, learn more, and demand higher standards of yourself. But the moral life is a marathon, not a sprint. One step at a time is a proven and effective strategy.

Don’t run before you can walk.

Greater Than The Sum Of It’s Parts

2 minute read
Straightforward

At the end of Creation, before the first Shabbos begins, the concluding overview summarizes how all the component parts came together:

וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, וְהִנֵּה-טוֹב מְאֹד; וַיְהִי-עֶרֶב וַיְהִי-בֹקֶר, יוֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁי – And God saw all that He had done, and it was very good. With an evening and a morning, the sixth day. (1:31)

The Ramban notes how כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה includes the  unpleasant aspects of creation which are nonetheless labeled טוֹב מְאֹד – excellent. With a greater perspective, everything turns out for the best.

The Netziv further adds that this was not just true of that individual moment. Within that moment, all potential and future moments were dormant, and all that latent potential was excellent as well.

Rabeinu Bachye notes how at the conclusion of every other day, the Torah describes it as כי טוב – it was “good”. But on the final day, where all the different aspects of existence had been formed and came together, it became something else; טוֹב מְאֹד – “excellent”. The creation itself was truly greater than sum of its parts; like a sophisticated machine, all the various levers, gears and cogs came together to become something utterly incredible.

The Kli Yakar points out the contrast between the first five days of כי טוב, and the conclusion of events called וְהִנֵּה טוֹב מְאֹד. The Kli Yakar explains that כי is a term of clarification. It indicates a deliberation weighing towards טוב. But when everything comes together, it is unqualified – וְהִנֵּה טוֹב מְאֹד – it is clearly and absolutely good.

The Sforno explains that the conclusion of creation achieved an equilibrium; existence was literally “at rest” – precisely the definition of Shabbos. With the acceptance and absorption of the imperfections in the world, the Torah was in balance. The Torah calls this טוֹב מְאֹד.

Existence was whole, complete and in balance. On such a sixth day – הַשִּׁשִּׁי – “the” perfect sixth day, Shabbos can finally commence.

Perfection is seeing that there are countless components to the sophisticated machine that is life, some of which are tough, but all of which, together, make it work. It just takes a little perspective.

The Butterfly Effect

2 minute read
Straightforward

Yakov had a difficult life. He had fled his childhood home to live in hiding from his brother; he’d been cheated and overworked by his father in law; he’d been denied marriage to the love of his youth; he’d been betrayed by his firstborn son; he’d seen the rape of his daughter; he’d seen his children fight; he’d lost a son, missing and presumed death for 22 years; he’d seen his great love Rachel die in childbirth. This was not the future he had sought for his family.

When Yakov meets Pharaoh for the first time, he comments on how old Yakov appears, and Yakov laments his life:

וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה, אֶל-יַעֲקֹב: כַּמָּה, יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיֶּיךָ. וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב, אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, יְמֵי שְׁנֵי מְגוּרַי, שְׁלֹשִׁים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה: מְעַט וְרָעִים, הָיוּ יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיַּי, וְלֹא הִשִּׂיגוּ אֶת-יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי אֲבֹתַי, בִּימֵי מְגוּרֵיהֶם – Pharaoh said to Yakov, “How many have been the days, the years of your life?” Yakov said to Pharaoh, “The days of the years of my journeys are one hundred thirty years. The days of the years of my life have been few and miserable, and have not reached the days of the years of the lives of my forefathers, in the days of their journeys.” (47:8-9)

A good life is one of peace, understanding, and love. With such misfortune, he was understandably bitter. Yet once his family resettled in Egypt, his perspective changed:

וַיְחִי יַעֲקֹב בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, שְׁבַע עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה; וַיְהִי יְמֵי-יַעֲקֹב, שְׁנֵי חַיָּיו–שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים, וְאַרְבָּעִים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה – Yakov lived in Egypt for seventeen years, and Yakov’s days, the years of his life, were a hundred and forty seven years. (47:28)

Just 17 years after Yakov bemoaned his miserable life, Yakov had lived life to it’s fullest – וַיְחִי.

How did he re-frame his outlook?

The Nesivos Shalom explains that to tolerate suffering, it needs to be worth it. Yakov going to Egypt was the beginning of a dark period in the nascent Jewish people’s history, and he believed that he had failed. But reunited with his family, in harmony, he could look back and see that there had been a point, and it was worth it.

The butterfly effect describes the concept that small causes can have large effects. Every wrong turn down the broken road still led them to this point.

The maturity and introspection it took to recognise this could only happen once Yakov attained some form of peace. It gave value to everything he had been through, and he could finally be content and fulfilled.

The hand that writes history sometimes holds our hands too; if we only looked closer.

The Lonely Darkness

5 minute read
Straightforward

One of the recurring motifs in the stories of our heroes is how often they stand alone, against all odds, and it starts from the very beginning of our Tradition.

During Yakov and his family’s escape from Lavan, they had to navigate their way across a river. Some of the family’s articles had remained on the wrong side during the crossing, so he sent his family ahead to make the most of the dwindling light while he stayed back to retrieve what he had left behind.

Alone as darkness fell, in one of the defining moments in Yakov’s life, he was accosted by and fought with a mysterious figure, whom we identify as Esau’s guardian angel:

וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב, לְבַדּוֹ; וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ, עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר. וַיַּרְא, כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ, וַיִּגַּע, בְּכַף-יְרֵכוֹ; וַתֵּקַע כַּף-יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב, בְּהֵאָבְקוֹ עִמּוֹ. וַיֹּאמֶר שַׁלְּחֵנִי, כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר; וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחֲךָ, כִּי אִם-בֵּרַכְתָּנִי. וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, מַה-שְּׁמֶךָ; וַיֹּאמֶר, יַעֲקֹב. וַיֹּאמֶר, יַעֲקֹב לא יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ–כִּי, אִם-יִשְׂרָאֵל: כִּי-שָׂרִיתָ עִם-אֱלֹהִים וְעִם-אֲנָשִׁים, וַתּוּכָל. וַיִּשְׁאַל יַעֲקֹב, וַיֹּאמֶר הַגִּידָה-נָּא שְׁמֶךָ, וַיֹּאמֶר, לָמָּה זֶּה תִּשְׁאַל לִשְׁמִי; וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתוֹ, שָׁם –  Yakov was alone, and a man grappled with him until daybreak. When the stranger saw that he could not overcome him, he struck Yakov’s hip and dislocated it as he grappled with him. He said, “Let me go, dawn is breaking!” – but Yakov said, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” He said to him, “What is your name?” and he replied, “Yakov.” He said, “No longer shall your name be Yakov, for your name is Yisrael, because you have mastery with God and men, and you have prevailed.” Yakov asked, and said, “Now tell me your name” and he replied, “Why is it you ask my name?”‘ and blessed him there. (32:25-30)

The imagery of this iconic battle is that it takes place in the darkness and lasts until dawn’s early light. Darkness is a mythological archetype for concealment, chaos, danger, deception, disorder, fear, uncertainty, and the unknown.

As such, most humans are afraid of the dark to some degree; our sight is the sense we depend on the most, and we cannot see well in darkness, so a lack of light makes us feel vulnerable to danger.

In the darkness, we are surrounded by the unknown, with all sorts of potential threats hidden by the shadows just out of sight. But when dawn’s light comes, the dangerous unknown is dispelled, the shadows disappear, and the darkness dissipates, to be replaced with the clarity and concrete safety of known order.

The Mesilas Yesharim says the trouble with darkness is not just that you won’t see something dangerous, but that you can mistake something dangerous for something safe. You might not see the snake in the woods, and what if that big rock is actually a bear?

The Steipler teaches that the battleground of our struggles is in our minds. Whether fear or fantasy, our minds can paint vivid pictures that do not correspond to reality. Fear amplifies the negative, and fantasy amplifies the positive; but neither includes the consequences, opportunity costs, pathways, or tradeoffs that always accompany reality. When someone returns to their family after a long time away, they often think they’ll all get along peacefully and happily now; or the newlywed couple might think they’ll be in love forever – but we know how naive that is. Reality is much more challenging than the illusion of fantasy, but the difference is that it is real.

Driving at night, you can’t see much further than your headlights – but you can make the whole trip that way; concealment and uncertainty are scary, but you will always have what it takes to make it through that particular darkness.

When Yakov asks the figure for his name, Yakov gets an evasive non-answer, “Why is it you ask for my name?”

R’ Leib Chasman intuitively suggests that this is the nature of the formless enemy we fight. The Gemara teaches how at the end of days, Hashem will slaughter the Satan, and the righteous will cry because it was this enormous mountain they somehow overcame, and the wicked will cry because it was a tiny hair they couldn’t even blow away. The very idea of the Satan is a shorthand for what we fight – a flicker of our reflection, a shadow, constantly in flux.

Although Yakov was permanently injured in his encounter, he still emerged as Yisrael, the master; we can expect to trip, stumble, and make mistakes along the way, and we might even get hurt. But it is the human condition to fight and struggle, but we can persist and win.

It’s important to note that Yakov doesn’t actually achieve total physical victory – he holds out for a stalemate while seriously injured. The victory – וַתּוּכָל – is in staying in the fight and not giving up – וַיַּרְא, כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ.

Our biggest tests, if not all of them, come when we are alone, but it is our characteristic ability to rise to the challenge that Bilam highlights in his reluctant blessing to the Jewish People – הֶן־עָם לְבָדָד יִשְׁכֹּן. 

It’s a point of pride, rooted in our identity from the very beginning, starting with Avraham, the first Hebrew, so-called because he is an outsider who stands alone against the dominant culture עברי / מעבר הנהר.

This theme repeats itself with Yosef, home alone with Potiphar’s wife. About to give in to an almost irresistible temptation, he sees his father’s face, reminding him that his family heritage is that he has what it takes to stand alone and not give up. 

The Hebrew word for grappling is cognate to the word for dust because the fighter’s feet stir up dust when fighting for leverage and grip – וַיֵּאָבֵק / אבק. The Midrash suggests that the dust kicked up from this epic struggle rose all the way to the Heavenly Throne.

R’ Tzvi Meir Silberberg highlights that the Midrash doesn’t say that the victory went up to Heaven, but that the dust, the energy expended on the struggle, went up to Heaven. Our victories are personal, and although we don’t always get to choose whether we win, we always control whether we go down without a fight; and putting up a fight is specifically what the Midrash honors. It’s your choice to stand that will ultimately endure and carry the day, which perhaps Bilam also refers to – מִי מָנָה עֲפַר יַעֲקֹב.

The opening blessing of the morning blessings is for giving the rooster the understanding to distinguish between day and night – הַּנוֹתֵן לַשֶּׂכְוִי בִינָה לְהַבְחִין בֵּין יוֹם וּבֵין לָיְלָה. But doesn’t every animal with eyes know the difference? R’ Meilech Biderman teaches that the rooster is highlighted because it crows just before dawn while it’s still dark. In Perek Shira, a song that attributes different verses to different creatures and cosmic entities, the rooster sings how it hopes and yearns for God’s salvation – לישועתך קיויתי ה – the rooster understands already before dawn that the darkness is coming to an end and that the sun will rise once more. 

In all the stories of our heroes, no one came to save them; how you face the realization that to some extent, you stand alone is arguably a defining moment of adulthood and maturity – אֶשָּׂא עֵינַי אֶל הֶהָרִים מֵאַיִן יָבֹא עֶזְרִי. That’s not simply to say that no one is coming to save you; it’s more profound than that. It’s that the only person who will ultimately save you is yourself; that the helping hand you’re looking for is at the end of your own two arms, and that your fate is your own responsibility.

It might take everything to stand alone, but you are enough. You already have what it takes – it’s in your blood. 

For The Record

5 minute read
Straightforward

If we try to imagine the cunning and devious Lavan’s house, it can’t have been a particularly nurturing and safe environment to grow up in. All the same, that environment produces quality individuals in the forms of Rachel and Leah. Moreover, it is where our ancestor Yakov comes into himself and where all his sons were born.

However, there is a palpable strain and tension between Rachel and Leah, which repeatedly surfaces. Yakov loved Rachel, but Lavan substituted Leah in her place at their wedding, and Rachel only married Yakov a little later. Rachel was loved but could not give Yakov children, whereas Leah, who gave Yakov his sons, was hated. One day, a young Reuven picked some flowers for his mother Leah, which the Midrash suggests might have been a fertility supplement. All the same, we recognize it for what it is, that joyful moment in a parent’s life when a child does something sweet.

Rachel asked Leah to share that moment with her, and Leah bristled at the suggestion:

וַיֵּלֶךְ רְאוּבֵן בִּימֵי קְצִיר-חִטִּים, וַיִּמְצָא דוּדָאִים בַּשָּׂדֶה, וַיָּבֵא אֹתָם, אֶל-לֵאָה אִמּוֹ; וַתֹּאמֶר רָחֵל, אֶל-לֵאָה, תְּנִי-נָא לִי, מִדּוּדָאֵי בְּנֵךְ. וַתֹּאמֶר לָהּ, הַמְעַט קַחְתֵּךְ אֶת-אִישִׁי, וְלָקַחַת, גַּם אֶת-דּוּדָאֵי בְּנִי; וַתֹּאמֶר רָחֵל, לָכֵן יִשְׁכַּב עִמָּךְ הַלַּיְלָה, תַּחַת, דּוּדָאֵי בְנֵךְ. וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב מִן-הַשָּׂדֶה, בָּעֶרֶב, וַתֵּצֵא לֵאָה לִקְרָאתוֹ וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלַי תָּבוֹא, כִּי שָׂכֹר שְׂכַרְתִּיךָ בְּדוּדָאֵי בְּנִי; וַיִּשְׁכַּב עִמָּהּ, בַּלַּיְלָה הוּא – In the days of the wheat harvest, Reuven went and found flowers in the field. He brought them to Leah, his mother, and Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s flowers.” And Leah said to her, “Is it not enough that you took my husband, but now you also wish to take my son’s flowers?” So Rachel said, “Fine, he shall sleep with you tonight in return for your son’s flowers.” Yakov came from the field in the evening, and Leah went to meet him, and she said, “You shall be with me, because I have won you for my son’s flowers.” (30:14-16)

This is a very terse and complex interaction, and there is typically a lot of focus on Rachel’s grace and dignity in not destroying Leah with a fiery response. Knowing the story as we do, we know that Yakov served Lavan faithfully for seven years to marry the love of his life, Rachel, only for Lavan to cruelly substitute Leah in her place at the wedding ceremony with a phony excuse.

R’ Shalom Schwadron teaches that while it was significant enough for Rachel to want to prevent Leah from public humiliation, the ability to refrain from embarrassing her even in a private conversation between sisters shows the extent of Rachel’s greatness. R’ Mordechai Druck highlights that Rachel refused to keep the score, despite the pain she lived with.

But, admirable as that may be, how can Leah have the audacity and gall to suggest that Rachel was taking Leah’s husband when it was Leah who had taken Rachel’s husband? Leah is living Rachel’s life! Leah is married to her love, took her place at her own wedding, and is now giving her husband the children that she herself cannot. Doesn’t Leah have it precisely backward? What was she thinking?

R’ Shlomo Farhi suggests that Leah was saying that it was bad enough that Rachel deprived Leah of the companionship of having a husband – הַמְעַט קַחְתֵּךְ אֶת-אִישִׁי; but all Leah had going for her was the kids! And now Rachel wanted to take the only thing Leah had over her by giving Yakov kids – וְלָקַחַת, גַּם אֶת-דּוּדָאֵי בְּנִי.

If we consider Leah’s perspective for a moment, what was she supposed to have done? Lavan was a trickster and a powerful man; do we expect that she had any choice in the matter? She did what she had to do in the moment and tried to get on with her life and make the best of it. As the Seforno puts it, why did Rachel still have to marry Yakov after that happened, sabotaging Leah so she was hated? It’s all Rachel’s fault!

This reading makes sense, and it fits.

R’ David Fohrman suggests a compelling and explosive reading based on Midrash.

The story about the flowers is a re-enactment of the wedding night, recreating the past and healing all the hurt.

In the story of the flowers, it was Rachel’s night to be with Yakov, just like the first wedding night. There, Leah was substituted in secret, but this time, Rachel brought Leah in with everyone’s consent – no longer Lavan’s victims. Rachel willingly gave Leah that night, letting go of years of pain, choosing to share what should have been her exclusive relationship with Yakov. Rachel hears Leah’s pain and perspective, that to Leah, Rachel stood in the way of Leah’s companionship, and Rachel acts on this and stops obstructing Leah.

Once Rachel does this, the Torah never describes her as jealous ever again. She has healed and given Leah permission to be in the relationship.

What’s more, Leah boldly goes out to greet Yakov – וַתֵּצֵא לֵאָה לִקְרָאתוֹ וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלַי תָּבוֹא, כִּי שָׂכֹר שְׂכַרְתִּיךָ, mirroring Yakov’s bargain with Lavan – מַה־מַּשְׂכֻּרְתֶּךָ / שָׂכֹר שְׂכַרְתִּיךָ. The fraud of the wedding night is undone and quite literally unveiled. Leah can present herself as she truly is, burying Yakov’s resentment for good as well – the Torah never describes Leah as hated ever again.

Right after this moment of healing, God remembers Rachel and blesses her with children:

וַיִּזְכֹּר אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-רָחֵל; וַיִּשְׁמַע אֵלֶיהָ אֱלֹהִים, וַיִּפְתַּח אֶת-רַחְמָהּ –  Hashem remembered Rachel, heard her, and opened her womb. (30:22)

Rashi explains that what God remembered was Rachel’s kindness to Leah on the night of the wedding. Rachel could have ruined the marriage but chose not to, saving her sister from humiliation, playing a vital role in ensuring that Lavan’s scheme wasn’t discovered until it was too late. But that was years ago!

God remembered Rachel now, not because of her pain, but because of her healing. When things were most challenging for her, she could hear the perspective of the sister she’d turned into her rival and dug deep to make peace.

On Tisha b’Av, we read Jeremiah’s consolation, where God listens to Rachel:

קוֹל בְּרָמָה נִשְׁמָע נְהִי בְּכִי תַמְרוּרִים רָחֵל מְבַכָּה עַל־בָּנֶיהָ מֵאֲנָה לְהִנָּחֵם עַל־בָּנֶיהָ כִּי אֵינֶנּוּ… מִנְעִי קוֹלֵךְ מִבֶּכִי וְעֵינַיִךְ מִדִּמְעָה כִּי יֵשׁ שָׂכָר לִפְעֻלָּתֵךְ נְאֻם־ה וְשָׁבוּ מֵאֶרֶץ אוֹיֵב – A cry is heard in Ramah; wailing, bitter weeping Rachel is weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted over her children; they are gone… “Restrain your voice from weeping, your eyes from shedding tears! For there is a reward for your labor, declares Hashem, they shall return from the enemy’s land…” (31:15,16)

Jeremiah tells us that beyond the tears and prayers, which Avraham, Yitzchak, Yakov, and Moshe could provide as well, God only listens to Rachel because of something heroic she did – יֵשׁ שָׂכָר לִפְעֻלָּתֵךְ. Even better than being sad is becoming our own hero.

In our greatest moments of pain, can we take a step back from our hurt and ask what the situation might look like from our opponent’s point of view? The ability to ask that question is nothing short of heroic, but it’s the way out of conflict.

All You Can Be

2 minute read
Straightforward

Hashem’s very first communication with Avraham was the immense challenge to abandon all he had ever known:

לֶךְ־לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ אֶל־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ – “Go for yourself, from your land, your birthplace, and the home of your father, to the land which I will show you.” (12:1)

The instruction is quite odd because it focuses on leaving, not where Avraham has to go; moreover, the departure sequence is backward! When you travel, you first leave your home, then the neighborhood, and only lastly, your country.

Why does the story emphasize leaving, and in such a strange way?

The Sfas Emes explains that the hallmark of great people is that they actively seek challenges and opportunities. Avraham was the first person to intuitively understand God’s vision for humanity of ethics and moral consciousness.

But he couldn’t bring it into being in the stagnant place he grew up.

Avraham was going someplace new, to become something new. Old ideologies would have no place in this new vision, and they had to go.

The Nesivos Shalom observes how central the environments that nurture us are to our development and identity; the more familiar the environment, the greater the effect. So the order of God’s instruction isn’t the order of how we leave home, but it is the order of how home leaves us. You forget your national culture before the community you grew up in, and you can forget your community before you forget your family, and it sure is tough to unlearn the things you picked up as a child – מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ.

R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz teaches that greatness and growth aren’t simply about going someplace or doing something. They fundamentally require us to leave the comfort zone, the familiar, and the supportive behind. To get where you want to go, you also need to let something go – לֶךְ־לְךָ.

The Mesilas Yesharim observes that the most natural default state for living things is laziness. When animals aren’t trying to eat or reproduce, they typically won’t do anything at all to conserve energy. Entropy is a law of physics that dictates that everything deteriorates to its most static state over time, which is to say that idleness and stagnation are natural!

It’s hard to move and think outside the comfort zone, and we develop a self-image, the story we tell ourselves of what we can and can’t do. After all, if you can’t do it, it’s not your fault, and it’s not your responsibility! We have to let go of that – לֶךְ־לְךָ.

The standard expected of all Jews is nothing less than absolute, perfect dedication, and diligent moral consciousness. Yet, since that standard is a long way away from anything humans are capable of, we don’t even begin! We tell ourselves greatness is beyond us, so we don’t have to do anything.

That’s why more than God emphasizes the need to get somewhere; God emphasizes the need to get started – לֶךְ־לְךָ.

Get off zero, and get started. You might be surprised where you land up.

Charity Redux

7 minute read
Straightforward

One of the foundations of the modern world we inhabit is the notion of egalitarianism, the idea that all humans are equal in fundamental worth or moral status; giving birth to, among others, the ideas that women aren’t lesser than men, and that black people aren’t lesser than white people, and the like.

This has been a decisively positive development in many respects; the American Declaration of Independence famously begins by stating that it is self-evident that all men are created equal, and the Torah says as much – וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹקים  אֶת־הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹקים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם.

But it is equally evident that in many respects, the universe is not fair or equal; plenty of people are disadvantaged in countless ways. Many hardworking, honest, and decent people have difficult, stressful, and impoverished lives, not to mention the various health issues so many people experience. Human input isn’t decisive; luck is.

A modern phenomenon in human civilization has emerged to address this imbalance: the welfare state. First-world governments allocate taxpayer funds to alleviate the poverty of the disadvantaged and less fortunate – in other words, charity is a core part of national policy. This practice has been criticized for perversely enabling and exacerbating poverty further, reducing the incentive for workers to seek employment by reducing the need to work and reducing the rewards of work. If we help these people, so the thinking goes, they become dependent and lazy. Moreover, it’s a zero-sum game; I have to give up more of what’s mine, and somebody else gets the benefit from it – as any child could tell you, that’s not fair!

While the specific contours of government policy are best left to experts, it brings to the fore a relevant question that profoundly impacts our orientation to others. 

What do we owe to each other?

The conventional understanding of charity is that it’s an act of benevolent kindness and generosity, initiated and executed at the actor’s sole discretion; but this is not the Jewish understanding. 

The Jewish understanding of tzedaka is orders of magnitude more comprehensive and overarching. Extending far beyond the boundaries of kindness, the word itself literally means justice. The practice is a religious duty and social obligation; we have a duty to dispense God’s justice by helping the less fortunate. In the ancient agrarian world of the Torah, Jewish farmers were subject to mandatory religious taxes that were allocated to different beneficiaries according to specific parameters. To this day, many Jews tithe their income, allocating at least ten percent to worthy causes.

The Torah is consistently firm and unequivocal in our obligations towards each other:

וְכִי־יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ וּמָטָה יָדוֹ עִמָּךְ וְהֶחֱזַקְתָּ בּוֹ… וְחֵי אָחִיךָ עִמָּךְ – When your brother languishes, and his hand falters, you must steady and support him… Let your brother live by your side, with you. (Leviticus 25:35,36)

This framing allows no savior complex; the Torah says plainly that the recipient of your help is a disadvantaged equal, lateral to you. There is no hierarchy or verticality in helping your brother – אָחִיךָ – and you must help him live alongside you, with you – עִמָּךְ. The person you get to help is not lesser or worse than you.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch highlights how in this conception, the value of a person is not tied in any way to their economic productivity; the Torah speaks of a person’s hand faltering and requiring assistance, yet still remaining your brother – וְכִי־יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ וּמָטָה יָדוֹ עִמָּךְ. Other people don’t need to achieve anything or make money to be valid in their humanness or worthy of your respect and support. 

The Rambam famously taught that the highest level of charity is helping people get on their own feet – the ultimate and most literal fulfillment of helping your brother stand alongside you.

In the Torah’s primeval story of the dawn of humanity, Cain fatefully asks God the rhetorical question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This question deserves scrupulous attention, not just because we read the story and know that Cain is attempting to cover up his crime, but because it is the great unanswered question of Genesis and quite possibly the entire Torah and all of human history.

The pregnant silence in the story is jarring; when we read about the obligations we have toward our brother, we should consider them in light of the Torah’s first brothers – perhaps suggesting that yes, you are indeed your brother’s keeper. 

Echoing the Genesis story, the Ramban famously wrote to his son that humans have no natural hierarchy; nobody is better than you, and you’re better than nobody. Humans are brothers; the Torah speaks of what we owe each other as a result of our fraternal bond; our obligations to each other are born of sameness, not of difference. The interpersonal mitzvos are obligations between equals – from human to human; horizontal, and not vertical.

As a direct consequence, the Torah encourages loans, whether of money or food, not as debt investment instruments the modern world is built with, but as assistance to enable the poor to regain their independence; as such, charging interest of any kind is predatory and therefore forbidden. The Torah goes so far as to command its adherents to lend money even when non-repayment is guaranteed, with an explicit mitzvah to lend before the Shemitta year, when all debts are written off:

כִּי־יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן מֵאַחַד אַחֶיךָ בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ בְּאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר־ה אֱלֹקיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ לֹא תְאַמֵּץ אֶת־לְבָבְךָ וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת־יָדְךָ מֵאָחִיךָ הָאֶבְיוֹן׃ כִּי־פָתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת־יָדְךָ לוֹ וְהַעֲבֵט תַּעֲבִיטֶנּוּ דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לוֹ – If there is a needy person among you, one of your kin in any of your settlements in the land that your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kin. Rather, you must open your hand and lend whatever is sufficient to meet the need. (Deut 15:7,8)

The mitzvah to aid others is far-reaching – beyond financial loss, the Torah’s expectation is that we spent time, energy, and emotion, on helping others, even to the point of manual labor:

לֹא־תִרְאֶה אֶת־חֲמוֹר אָחִיךָ אוֹ שׁוֹרוֹ נֹפְלִים בַּדֶּרֶךְ וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ מֵהֶם הָקֵם תָּקִים עִמּוֹ – If you see your brother’s donkey or his ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it; you must surely raise it together. (Deut 22:4)

Beyond your brother, or the people you’d want to help, you are even obligated to help the people you don’t:

כִּי־תִרְאֶה חֲמוֹר שֹׂנַאֲךָ רֹבֵץ תַּחַת מַשָּׂאוֹ וְחָדַלְתָּ מֵעֲזֹב לוֹ עָזֹב תַּעֲזֹב עִמּוֹ – When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless surely help raise it. (Ex 23:5)

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes the common tendency humans have to give up on people who seem to attract calamity and misfortune; it would be far easier to cut them loose. The Torah speaks against the backdrop of such wayward thinking and reminds us that this person is your brother; you cannot give up on him. You must persist in helping, even if he fails over and over again – עָזֹב תַּעֲזֹב / הָקֵם תָּקִים/  פָתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח / וְהַעֲבֵט תַּעֲבִיטֶנּוּ.

However, this unilateral obligation is ripe for abuse, giving cheats and crooks a religiously sanctioned opportunity to exploit good people. The Kli Yakar offers a sharp caveat; you must only persist in helping people who are at least trying to help themselves – עִמּוֹ. R’ Shlomo Farhi piercingly suggests that it is not actually possible to help someone who won’t help themselves; the mitzvah is only to help, not enable. But so long as they’re trying, don’t walk away; figure it out together – עָזֹב תַּעֲזֹב עִמּוֹ / הָקֵם תָּקִים עִמּוֹ. 

Our sages suggest that we should be grateful for cheats and crooks; otherwise, we’d be guilty over each and every person we fail to help.

While many mitzvos and rituals have an accompanying blessing to initiate the action, the Rashba notes that interpersonal mitzvos do not have such a blessing; making a blessing before helping another person would be dehumanizing, instrumentalizing a person into an object you do a mitzvah with, eroding the mitzvah entirely.

The Torah has a prominent spiritual dimension, but the interpersonal aspect of the Torah is a coequal, interdependent, and reciprocal component. It can be easy to get carried away with the spiritual trappings of helping people without being concerned about the person, but that’s what it’s all about – the other person is your brother, and you need to relate to him in that way.

R’ Yitzchak Hutner was a Rosh Yeshiva renowned for his wit. Sick in hospital, a student came to visit his teacher and mentor. The great rabbi asked his guest why he had come, and the young man responded that it was a great mitzvah to visit the sick. In characteristic form, R’ Hutner challenged his visitor, “Am I your Lulav? Did you come to shake me?”

The Alter of Kelm suggests that the most pristine form of charity is not the person who helps others because it’s a mitzvah; but the person who empathizes with the recipient and gives because he is moved by their needs. On this reading, charity and helping others is an extension of loving your neighbour. Most people don’t eat because it’s a mitzvah to protect our bodies, we eat because we feel hungry; the Alter says you must treat the needs of another the same way. Don’t help people because it’s a mitzvah. Help people because you empathize with their pain to such a degree that if they are hungry, you are hungry; and when you are hungry, you eat.

If we are more concerned about lazy freeloaders who exploit public resources than disadvantaged people who need a leg up, it is only misdirection from the lesser angels of our nature; moral indignation that permits acting on envy and hate under a cloak of virtue. The Torah articulates a clear skew and strong preference toward taking action that helps others; the marginal cost of not helping is unacceptable.

Tzedaka is not charity or philanthropy. Less fortunate isn’t a euphemism; it’s a self-evident and observable fact. It’s entitled to think it’s not fair that you have to give something up so someone else can benefit; it’s about justice, not fairness. Giving your money to others is explicitly a zero-sum game. By telling us to do it anyway, the Torah explicitly dismisses this objection as irrelevant, revealing that thinking in terms of winning and losing is an entirely incorrect perspective to bring to the interaction.

Your choice isn’t whether to help others; it’s who to help and how – which charities to give to, and in what quantities. It’s the right thing to do; it is wrong not to.

It is important to be a good steward of capital; will this contribution be the highest and best use of your resources? But while it’s vital to think in terms of impact and effectiveness, be mindful that some people aren’t ever going to get by on their own. The widows and orphans of the world aren’t going to be okay because you wrote a check one time or sent a care package for Pesach; people experiencing chronic illness aren’t going to recover because you visited them once or hosted a fundraiser a while back. 

And if you don’t have the financial means, remember that your time and expertise must be spent charitably as well.

The Torah calls for your continued interest and persistent involvement, not a one-off act; a mode of being, a mentality of feeling obligated to intervene for people who need help today and, in all likelihood, will still need help tomorrow and the day after as well.

Your brothers need you; you must persist.

Pay It Forward

3 minute read
Straightforward

While mature people recognize that good character looks different in different people, there are some common universal traits, like kindness, strongly identified with Avraham, or humility, frequently associated with Yakov.

When Yakov arrived at Lavan’s house, he had just the clothes on his back and the staff in his hand. Yet, he left with a large family and entourage, thriving livestock, and serious wealth. Honestly evaluating himself, he determined that he was more fortunate than he could otherwise have expected:

קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים וּמִכָּל הָאֱמֶת אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ אֶת עַבְדֶּךָ – I am humbled by all the kindness You have done Your servant… (32:11)

The Ramban explains that Yakov felt that his blessings were grossly disproportionate, far beyond anything he could have deserved, and recognized that God had been generous with him.

The truth is, if we take similar stock of our blessings, most of us have to admit something similar. Do we deserve our families? Our friends? Our successes? Or even further, to be born into our family and the privileges that came along with it? Do we deserve to have been born in the most educated, healthy, and wealthy era in human history? Can we truly say that we didn’t equally deserve to be born to a poor peasant family in medieval China?

John Rawls sharply suggested that a person cannot claim credit for being born with greater natural endowments, such as athleticism or intelligence, as it is purely the result of a natural lottery. As the Rambam explains, our lives are a gift within a gift; by definition, our starting points cannot be unearned, so gratitude should be our first and overwhelming response to our privilege. Sure, we may deserve the fruits of what we do with our gifts, but the starting point of having any of those things to start with is the more significant gift by far.

In mysticism, there is a paradox called the bread of shame – נהמא דכיסופא. If our souls had just stayed in Heaven, basking in the ethereal light, it would be a degrading handout. Our souls go into bodies so we can earn our way back, and it’s no longer a handout. But the thing is, the notion of earning anything at all is an elaborate illusion – the system itself is a gift, the biggest gift of all.

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that the Torah uses sevens for complete natural cycles, and the number eight restarts the cycle, an octave higher. For example, circumcision is performed on the day after one seven-day cycle; and the Yovel is the year after seven complete Shmitta cycles.

The notion of eighths concerning how to handle our blessings speaks to the idea that we are all blessed – we should be grateful for what we have and dedicate those talents, tools, and resources to make an impact. That’s one eighth.

But it’s entirely possible to get carried away. Sure, I’m fortunate to have received so many blessings, but why me, of all people? It’s not hard to think there’s an element of justice involved, that maybe you really do deserve it on some level. That’s the second eighth.

The Gemara cryptically teaches that everyone needs a dose of arrogant confidence to offset humility, and the proper amount is an eighth of an eighth – leaving the denominating unit unspecified. The Gemara doesn’t suggest that the unit is one sixty-fourth, and the Vilna Gaon notes that Yakov’s admission is the eighth verse in the eighth Parsha to hint at the model of handling our blessings.

When we realize how fortunate we are, we feel like Yakov, humbled by God’s generosity. Sure, there’s plenty that could be better, and we have very hungry ambitions for much more. But Yakov was self-aware enough to acknowledge those blessings long before he had stability or security. He could see his blessings for the good fortune they were even while on the run, yet again, escaping Lavan’s clutches while hoping to avoid getting slaughtered by his brother Esau and his forces. We can want lots more but recognize the blessings that have gotten us where we are.

Crucially, we should take note of where this self-reflection propelled Yakov.

Yakov knew he was blessed, and he knew he hadn’t earned those blessings. After escaping Esau, the first thing Yakov did was to buy land and install an altar to thank God.

It’s not enough to know that we’re blessed. We have to recognize that the fact we have any gifts is the greatest gift of all, and taking Yakov’s example, all we can do is pay it forward and make sure we use our blessings for the best purposes we can find.

Dying Of Embarrassment

2 minute read
Straightforward

Yosef planted stolen property on Binyamin and imprisoned him to determine if his brothers had changed over the years.

Yehuda stepped forward to persuade their captor with a heart-rending plea on behalf of their elderly father; to return home without his youngest boy would be the death of him. Out of mercy for their elderly father, Yehuda begged Yosef to release Binyamin.

Seeing them stick up for each other, Yosef knew that they had changed, and this was the moment to reveal his identity:

וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל אֶחָיו אֲנִי יוֹסֵף הַעוֹד אָבִי חָי וְלֹא יָכְלוּ אֶחָיו לַעֲנוֹת אֹתוֹ כִּי נִבְהֲלוּ מִפָּנָיו – Yosef said to his brothers, “It is I, Yosef. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer because they were so shocked.

While the reveal stuns them into silence, Yosef’s question is a little strange. Yehuda has just been talking about their elderly father and his frail health as to why Yosef should let Binyamin go. Yosef already knows that Yakov is alive!

So why would he ask if his father was still alive?

The Beis Halevi explains that Yosef’s rhetoric isolates their concern for their father. They love their father. They worry for him and don’t want to trouble him. But, Yosef asks, what of my father, the father you put through years of inconsolable anguish and grief? Is he only alive to you now that you are the victims?

They were shocked into silence. Not just because of the surprise of Yosef’s reveal, but because he is transparently correct that they are hypocrites! The Midrash teaches that when our souls arrive in Heaven, we are put on trial to account for how we spent our lives, likening the experience to the mortifying and humiliating moment Yosef revealed himself to his brothers. It’s not about surprise; it’s about the ad hoc justifications and hypocrisy we regularly indulge in.

Yet what happens next shows the caliber of these great heroes. Having said his piece, and without a hint of malice, he simply embraces them.

It is worth noting that until he revealed himself, Yosef was a threat to them, but his brothers were dangerous too. Yehuda was known for his decisive albeit arguably rash actions, and Shimon and Levi were infamous and feared killers. But rather than humiliate his brothers in front of an audience, Yosef commands his guards and staff to leave, endangering himself and risking his life.

The story is a paradigm for how to mend a broken relationship. Yosef’s reproof is concise but comprehensive on delivery and accepted without dispute when received.

We all have relationship struggles over far less.

Which ones can you mend with a few well-chosen words?

Thanksgiving

3 minute read
Straightforward

Oftentimes in the Torah, people’s and place’s names are a play on words describing some event or feeling of the moment – Avraham, Yitzchak, Yakov, Yisrael, Moshe, and many more. Quite arguably, it might even be the rule, with only a few exceptions. Leah named each of her children in keeping with this theme, describing what each child’s arrival introduced into her life. When she had her fourth child, Yehuda, she described how his birth precipitated the arrival of gratitude into her life:

וַתֹּאמֶר הַפַּעַם אוֹדֶה אֶת־ה עַל־כֵּן קָרְאָה שְׁמוֹ יְהוּדָה – And she said, “Now I have to thank God,” so she named him Yehuda. (30:35)

Curiously, the Gemara identifies this moment as significant for being the first time in history that a human had properly thanked God.

But we know from reading the stories up to this point that that’s not true! Noach thanked God for saving him after the flood, Avraham thanked God for averting Yitzchak’s sacrifice, and Yakov thanked God for saving him from Esau and Lavan, among others.

Moreover, Leah had been showered with blessings! Coming from Lavan’s house, she married Yakov and was already the mother to three of the great Tribes of Israel. She had so much to be thankful for! With the arrival of Yehuda, her fourth son, what newfound conception of gratitude did she discover? What was so fresh and unique about this particular expression of thanks, such that the Gemara says had never been done before?

Rashi addresses this, citing the Midrash that Yakov’s wives might have expected to have three sons each out of the twelve he was destined to have, but the arrival of a fourth son confounded this expectation.

R’ Yaakov Hillel highlights that the arrival of a fourth son didn’t just confound the expectation that she would have three sons; it confounded the very notion of expectations!

Leah acknowledged that what she had already received was not just her fair share but rather a gift and blessing, and no one before her had ever recognized that. R’ Avraham Pam notes that up until that moment, people thanked God for discrete, particular things, often with a sacrificial offering on an altar. But Yehuda’s name had a totally different perspective – it was a generalized, global “thank you,” an everyday appreciation recalled every time she would say her own son’s name.

Leah was the pioneer of gratitude in the world, and Jews are called after Yehuda, mirroring Leah’s play on words. As R’ Yitzchak Hutner notes, the word itself has a secondary embedded meaning of concession – להודות. As humans, we deeply wish to be free and independent, and at the moment we appreciate another, we concede our frail weakness in having required the assistance of another.

This interpretation of gratitude also resolves the famous question of why there are eight days of Chanuka if the miracle was only the seven extra days; the question presupposes taking the first day for granted.

R’ Shai Held highlights that the very first word of the day on a Jew’s lips is מודה אני, expressing thanks for waking up to a new day, subordinating the self to the existence of gratitude. A powerful lesson from something as trivial as waking up!

When we feel entitled to something, we often don’t fully appreciate it, even once we have it. It takes practice and a conscious effort to change that thinking, but it’s life-changing if we can get there.

We would do well to learn from Leah’s example and live up to the charge of Judaism, proudly carrying Yehuda’s name, which calls us to express our gratitude for all the blessings we are fortunate to have, from the biggest to the smallest.

Concession

4 minute read
Straightforward

As intelligent people, we understand that working towards a goal requires determination, effort, and investment to get what we want. As religious people, we understand that it includes prayer as well.

A recurring theme in the stories of our ancestors is that they do not have children easily or naturally. They are often infertile and repeatedly have to beg, fight, pray, and struggle to have the children God had promised.

When it was Yitzchak and Rivka trying for a long time, they prayed together:

‘וַיֶּעְתַּר יִצְחָק לַה’ לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ, כִּי עֲקָרָה הִוא וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ ה –  Yitzchak begged the Lord on behalf of his wife because she was barren; and God conceded. (21:25)

The Torah narrates this story with unusually heavy language – ויעתר. Rather than a word like “pray,” “request,” or something similar, he “begs,” an intensely emotive verb connoting earnest desperation; and the Torah uses another construct of the same word to indicate God’s almost reluctant acquiescence -‘ וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ ה.

We probably think that God desires our prayers, and the ebbs and flows of our lives present opportunities for us to reach out. This is actually an aspect of why our ancestors were frequently barren!

Yet, in this instance, God “concedes” to the prayer, as though defeated by this unwelcome request to give Yitzchak and Rivka the family they so desperately want! It doesn’t quite align with the classical understanding of prayer or even our own basic expectations of what prayer looks like.

Why was this prayer so unwelcome?

R’ Shlomo Farhi suggests that this is a prime example of the right thing at the wrong time.

Rashi suggests that Avraham died five years sooner than he might have otherwise, as a kindness to spare him from watching his grandson Esau become a murderer. It follows that the sooner Esau was to be born, the sooner Avraham would die. This might help explain God’s difficulty in accepting this prayer – it’s the right thing, but it’s not yet the right time. While Gematria might not be the most serious analytical tool, R’ Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld noted that the value of ‘וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ ה is 748, equivalent to חמש שנים, the five years Avraham died too soon.

As far as Yitzchak’s desperate prayer, God wasn’t quite ready to bless them with children at the expense of letting Avraham go. But God allowed Himself to be persuaded and convinced, seduced by the tears of Yitzchak’s prayer, even though it wasn’t quite time yet.

The Gemara tells a similar story of how the people of King David’s day would mock his inability to build the Beis HaMikdash, wondering when he’d die, and David, thinking he was channeling what God wanted, wistfully hoped the joke would come true, quite literally wishing his life away. God corrected him and explained that David’s good deeds were worth more than any sacrifices; that what David had wanted for God wasn’t what God wanted at all.

We don’t always want the consequences of what we think we want, and they’re not always good.

We might find it disturbing to learn that our prayers can hurt us. If we can sabotage ourselves by wanting and asking for the wrong thing, then maybe we shouldn’t ask for anything at all and let destiny and fate play out! It’s a moot point because, in reality, we chase the wrong things all the time; but unsurprisingly then, hedging our ability to self-sabotage features prominently in our prayers. Sometimes the thing we need saving from is ourselves!

For example, you think you want something, but you’d much rather what’s good for you – ימלא כל משאלות ליבך לטובה. We ask for a good and sweet New Year – שָׁנָה טוֹבָה וּמְתוּקָה – because not everything sweet is good, and not everything good is sweet. God can grant our desires, and save us from them when they are the very thing that ends up hurting us – רְצוֹן-יְרֵאָיו יַעֲשֶׂה; וְאֶת-שַׁוְעָתָם יִשְׁמַע, וְיוֹשִׁיעֵם.

Yitzchak’s defining feature is seriousness – גבורה – he was someone who took things seriously. When God had asked for his life at the Akeida, he took it seriously and was at peace. So if God didn’t want him to have children, he could take it seriously and be at ease as well. R’ Shlomo Farhi sharply notes that Yitzchak prays opposite his wife, facing her – לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ – rather than with her, together, suggesting that he wasn’t doing it for himself, but for her.

Facing her, seeing her pain and anguish, he could do for her what he would not do for himself and grapple with Heaven on her behalf, explaining the force of the prayer. Yitzchak removed himself from a position he was comfortable with for a position he was not, mirroring the position he asked God to take, to upend a reality where Avraham lives his full life, in favor of a reality where Rivka has her children sooner, but Avraham dies early. The mirroring is literal – וַיֶּעְתַּר / וַיֵּעָתֶר.

It also highlights an essential component of prayer – meaning what you’re saying. Only exposure to Rivka’s anguish could make the words real enough for Yitzchak.

Generalities don’t move us; how could they? There is a chasm between hoping your career works out, in contrast with needing a sale to go through so you can put food on the table. What drives us is being specific; the purest prayers come from the heart.

We have to pray. It is possible that something would happen if we only put in the effort, and if we fail to pray, we could end up preventing something that was coming our way. But if we’re nervous about praying for the wrong thing, we might pray in generalities; but then we wouldn’t mean it! So we pray with precision and heart, hedging it with a hope for the best.

Most of the time, the things we want don’t end up cutting our parents’ lives short. But for most of what we want, it would be healthier to cultivate an attitude of outcome independence. We are often stuck on something because we mistakenly think what we want is scarce when the universe is actually abundant.

It’s also worth introspecting if what we are so desperate for isn’t a specific thing but rather an unmet underlying need. In which case, your headspace ought to be that if not this deal, this house, this job, or this relationship, help me find what I’m really looking for – dignity, fulfillment, happiness, and security.

We don’t really know how prayer works. It’s a key tool in our arsenal and features prominently in our heritage. We pray, and sometimes things work out just the way we hope – and sometimes not.

And that has to be okay too.