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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 cloud. 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 cloud 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 purpose 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, there was something else that 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 actually 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 all 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 a multitude of 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 big 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, nor 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.

A waiter will give you whatever you asked 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 could do. That slight change in orientation elevates small and insignificant gestures into the most meaningful and loving relationship-affirming rituals.

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

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 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
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. 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.

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 our love for God is how much we love others, which is why even welcoming God is subordinate to hospitality. 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!

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.

Nothing is holier or more sacred than making space in your life and home for others. We honor God most by honoring those in His image – other humans.

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 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 away understanding that God would never ask us to do something 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 committed to life, absolutely.

But while the ending is illuminating, the way we interpret the story up until the reversal matters as well.

To be sure, there is a diverse spectrum of legitimate discourse; we should evaluate their relative standing with regards to the values they teach. 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 ethics and morality because they are ad hoc – fluid and not universal.

And if we think that Avraham truly and simply desired to obey God and sacrifice 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 was all too willing to murder his son, what exactly is the test? It destroys the entire notion of his “sacrifice”!  Furthermore, if Avraham is all too willing to murder his son, what kind of role model is he, and why would we teach children that this is what greatness looks like?

And of course, apart from the fact this interpretation leaves us in moral turpitude, it also makes 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 and simply wished to sacrifice Yitzchak. The story only makes sense if it was hard – really hard.

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. Now that God asked him to sacrifice his son, he had a dilemma because his two great commitments were no longer aligned. At no point does the story suggest that this is easy for Avraham, and actually, quite the opposite. Let’s read the story closely:

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 out that Hashem never instructed Avraham to sacrifice his son; Hashem only requested it – “Please” – קַח-נָא. This is not a command that must be obeyed; this 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 הַמָּקוֹם is one of God’s names, the Omnipresent, the attribute that God is everywhere, and “the place” of all things – הַמָּקוֹם. This whole affair did not feel right to Avraham. He’d opposed human sacrifice pagan worship his whole life, and yet here he was, about to destroy his life’s work and snuff out his family legacy. He felt a distance from God – וַיַּרְא אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם–מֵרָחֹק.

Then, at the story’s dramatic crescendo, the Torah uses remarkable imagery to characterize what took place. Avraham does not “pick up” the knife; he must “force 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 Malbim notes that Avraham had to force himself because his natural predisposition had always been aligned with God, so this resistance was unfamiliar because murdering his son was something God didn’t actually want!

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, who runs after guests to invite them in, and who hurries to feed them. In this story, he is in stark contrast with his energetic fervent self because he faces the greatest challenge of his life, and it is antithetical to 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 just 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 exact opposite.

Quite tellingly, we read this story on Rosh Hashana. Sure, we recall the great merit of our ancestors. But perhaps we can also remind ourselves that the greats also grappled mightily with unclear choices between right and wrong.

Will we tell the truth and be personally honest when confronted, or keep a secret and loyally honor a promise? Will we prioritize individual needs and do something that greatly helps a few, or communal needs and do something that adequately helps many? Will we be just, fair, and equal with our friends and family, or will we be compassionate and merciful based on each circumstance? Will we prioritize the present or the future? Short term or long term?

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.

We would do well to remember our role models. They weren’t primitive people – they were refined humans doing their best to ethically navigate a world of murky choices. And while society may have changed in form, it hasn’t changed in substance, and humans haven’t changed much at all.

Doing the right thing is plenty hard enough; but you first have to identify what the right thing truly is, which is far harder. 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.

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.

The Call to Action

3 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.

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.

The Answer to Your Prayers

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.

What kind of prayers does God listen to?

Some people expect that we need righteous men and saints to pray for us, and they might be surprised.

In the story of Yitzchak’s childhood, the Torah recounts how Sarah saw Yishmael as a bad influence on her son Yitzchak, and so she sent Yishmael and his mother Hagar away from 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 utter despair – וַתִּשָּׂא אֶת-קֹלָהּ וַתֵּבְךְּ – she raised her voice and wept.

Miraculously, Hagar is given a vision of a nearby oasis and rushes to get the water she needs to save her son.

While this seems to conform with our conventional understanding of prayer, the mother crying for her child, the Torah does not credit Hagar with the prayer that saved Yishmael. The angel says that Hashem listened – but not to her:

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)

The Torah never ascribes an action or a word to Yishmael; he is entirely passive. He is the object in the story, the object of his mother’s prayers, the acted upon, and not the actor.

The mother’s tears for the dying son did not move the heavens. What the great prayer that moves the heavens was the voice of a dying boy – קוֹל הַנַּעַר – and he never says a word! Perhaps, in his suffering, he cried or sighed; but whatever it was, it is not significant enough for the Torah to record it as an action he took!

Yet that literally invisible moment of pain or sadness is what drives the entire story and goes on to shape all of history. Perhaps it can shape our understanding of prayer.

The Midrash imagines that the angels didn’t want Hashem to save Yishmael because of the atrocities his descendants would commit. But God sees the world differently. God judges circumstances as they are – בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם. The story of Yonah in Nineveh reaffirms this – it doesn’t matter how bad they are or might one day be – if they’re innocent and suffering, God cannot abide that.

We don’t have to be perfect to produce one 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 us to ask for help and really mean it – יקראוהו באמת.

From the stories of our ancestors, we know 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, as opposed to תפילת צדיקים.

Everyone is capable of a one-off, pure prayer.

The story of how Yishmael was saved teaches us that prayer isn’t confined to ritualized formalities. And maybe that’s why we read this story on Rosh Hashana. Because it doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done; or whether you know how to pray or even understand the words.

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.

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.