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Things That Matter

3 minute read

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.

Lift As You Climb

3 minute read

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 quite clearly a significant figure, the protagonist of an important story. Why would the Torah imply even a hint of a negative interpretation?

In isolation, the negative characterization might seem a little harsh.

But in the context of the bigger picture, the Torah wants us to learn; 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. The word “Noach” 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!

Whereas Noach walked with God – אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִים הִתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹחַ – we see Avrohom as someone who went before God; over, above and beyond – הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי.

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.

God Needs Partners

3 minute read

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. But the Torah says they were happy and fulfilled because it’s true!

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.

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.

Looking Out for Yourself; for Others

3 minute read

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

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

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

3 minute read

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.

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.

It’s Not About Who You Are; But What You Do

3 minute read

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.

What makes us great isn’t what we are; it’s what we do.

A Wish Upon A Star

1 minute

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.

Don’t Run Before You Can Walk

2 minute read

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.

All You Can Be

2 minute read

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.