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Start Small

3 minute read
Straightforward

The episode of The Golden Calf stands out as a particularly low moment in Jewish history.

Following such miraculous events as the Ten Plagues, the Exodus, and the parting of the Red Sea, among other supernatural phenomena, the Jewish People panicked because their leader was running late. They somehow concluded that an idol was the solution to their troubles.

In the aftermath, the Jewish People grappled with the consequences and sought to make amends. One form that took was the half-shekel tax, a mandatory contribution from every individual that went towards building the Mishkan. This act of collective responsibility and atonement symbolized the beginning of their journey back towards redemption.

R’ Meilech Biderman highlights how, among other things, the very fact of a half shekel is itself a symbol that teaches a crucial lesson about the nature of human endeavors and the path to improvement and redemption.

A half isn’t a whole, just a part. But it’s a start, and that’s what matters.

A half shekel is a modest contribution that highlights the power of small beginnings; Jewish thought tends to value gradual, consistent progress over grand but fleeting efforts. Starting with small, initial steps is essential for meaningful change; small actions are enough to overcome the scary prospect of starting over and the fear of failure. The half-shekel, being just a fraction of a whole, symbolizes that even partial efforts are valuable starting points.

Small things add up, and they stack and compound quickly.

You just have to get started.

It is easy to dismiss the value of making slightly better decisions on a daily basis; small things are, by definition, not impressive. They are boring and don’t make headlines. But the thing about small commitments, though, is that they work.

Small commitments work because they are easy to stick to; it’s something worth being intentional about when change is on your mind.

R’ Leib Chasman’s students would ask him to recommend New Year’s resolutions, and the sage would reply that they could decide for themselves but to make sure to pick something they could keep to. After thinking, they would share their choices with their teacher, and he would interrogate them. “Are you sure you can keep your resolution?” “I’m certain.” “Great! I want you to cut it in half.”

Commitments and resolutions don’t need to be hard to do; they just need to be something you keep. In that regard, it’s actually better to start small! R’ Yisrael Salanter, the founding father of the Mussar movement, strategically taught that rather than a whole undertaking, surgically target the smallest element; instead of hoping to pray better in general, set a goal of praying one particular blessing more thoughtfully.

Keeping small commitments is what forms new behaviors, habits, patterns, and routines. The philosophy of incremental improvement is echoed in modern self-improvement strategies. The conventional wisdom is to set a large goal and then take big leaps to accomplish the goal in as little time as possible; such enormous strides often lead to burnout and disappointment. Instead, embracing gradual change and appreciating the compound effect of minor improvements can be more sustainable and effective.

R’ Chatzkel Levenstein intuitively suggests that a human can only be obligated to achieve what is possible within a calendar year, comparing personal growth to a loan that is paid off in installments. You don’t pay a mortgage off in one month; that’s not how mortgages work.

Maintaining basic, consistent efforts is often more fruitful than seeking dramatic transformations. Improving by just one percent is barely noticeable. In the beginning, there is hardly any difference between making a choice that is one percent better or one percent worse; it won’t impact you much today. But as time goes on, these small improvements or declines compound and you soon find a huge gap between people who make slightly better choices on a daily basis and those who don’t. If you get one percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done.

The journey back from the brink of one of the Torah’s most significant crises began with a simple yet profound gesture of giving a half-shekel.

It wasn’t much, but it reminds us of the impact of small actions and choices that don’t seem to make much of a difference at the time but add up and compound. The small things we stick with are what ultimately shape our long-term trajectory and path forward.

Pick something small; just get started and see how far it takes you.

Do You Know Who You Are?

4 minute read
Straightforward

In an era where our understanding of the universe is growing at an unprecedented pace, one area remains elusive.

In neuroscience and artificial intelligence, it has so far proven nearly impossible to explain why and how humans and other creatures have the subjective experience that we call consciousness. While some have historically suggested that this is equivalent to the concept of the soul, that’s just another label rather than any kind of explanation.

The philosopher John Locke suggested that consciousness is the continuous collective experience that forms your personal identity. This idea is useful because it is tangible and focuses more on psychology and our experiences rather than anything metaphysical. In other words, what makes you the same person over time is your ability to remember past experiences; or, to put it even simpler, your conscious identity of who you are is a function of where you’ve come from. This continuity of consciousness forms the essence of personal identity; the memories of your past funnel together to tie your present self to your past self.

For some time now, great thinkers have linked the concept of identity with memory and experience. Intuitively, then, the Baal Shem Tov teaches that exile means forgetting.

We know this when we see it; the infamous signature of dehumanization in the Holocaust was erasing people’s names and replacing them with serial numbers. Similarly, we can sadly recognize in cases of dementia that the person before us is experiencing a heartbreaking disconnect from the person that once was.

Exile means forgetting; it’s true of individuals, and it’s also true of nations and societies.

In an era where traditional narratives are often questioned, the loss of a common culture invites fragmentation and can often leave individuals with a sense of feeling adrift. Chaos soon follows when individuals or societies lose touch with the structures and stories that give their lives meaning and direction. In the context of immigrant families, the gradual fading of ancestral languages and traditions is predictable, and the third generation rarely speaks the language of their heritage. This phenomenon is not unique to any one culture; it accurately describes Jewish Americans as much as Korean Americans.

The notion of narrative identity is at the heart of how the Torah frames the Jewish People’s story in Egypt. In the depths of despair, they begin to lose their connection to the past. Our sages imagine a heavenly courtroom drama where the prosecutor questions the value of saving the Jewish People from the Egyptians – if they worship the same idols, what’s the difference? When the Torah describes God’s intervention with imagery of an outstretched arm, it suggests the Jewish People had fallen off a cliff and were saved at the very last moment from the point of no return, the cusp of total assimilation – מ”ט שערי טומאה.

Our sages teach how the Jewish People retained their language, clothing, and names. This teaching is sometimes characterized as praise that they didn’t integrate into the dominant culture and that they retained a connection to their past throughout their exile. But in fact, this teaching highlights the opposite, how they adopted literally everything else. When Moshe himself went to Midian, the locals called him the Egyptian fellow! The Jewish People had forgotten and lost so much that they couldn’t even listen to the man sent to save them; there could be no deeper exile.

But if exile means forgetting, then redemption means remembering; memory is intimately linked with redemption throughout the entire Exodus story, not just on a human level but also at the Divine level.

After the introduction to the setting of the enslavement in Egypt, the Torah describes how God is stirred by memory, specifically, memory of the ancestors – וַיִּזְכֹּר אֱלֹקים אֶת־בְּרִיתוֹ אֶת־אַבְרָהָם אֶת־יִצְחָק וְאֶת־יַעֲקֹב.

When the Creator reveals Himself to Moshe, He introduces Himself as the God of his ancestors, establishing a continuity of Divine engagement with the Jewish people – אָנֹכִי אֱלֹקי אָבִיךָ אֱלֹקי אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹקי יִצְחָק וֵאלֹקי יַעֲקֹב.

It’s also how the Creator instructs Moshe to identify Him to the Jewish People as well – ה־תֹאמַר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל ה אֱלֹקי אֲבֹתֵיכֶם אֱלֹקי אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹקי יִצְחָק אֱלֹקי יַעֲקֹב שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם זֶה־שְּׁמִי לְעֹלָם וְזֶה זִכְרִי לְדֹר דֹּר.

We must remember that God is timeless; God cannot remember or forget. These are words we use when we talk about people; they are anthropomorphic metaphors. When we talk about remembering that someone was hurtful, we mean that the memory will prompt a different action or behavior than one might otherwise expect; God “remembers” in the sense that God acts differently than might reasonably be expected in response to something, in this case, the ancestors. For this reason, the Chizkuni suggests that this self-introduction as the God of our ancestors is the source of our daily prayer – אֱלקינוּ וֵאֱלֹקי אֲבותֵינוּ אֱלֹקי אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹקי יִצְחָק וֵאֱלֹקי יַעֲקב.

Physical freedom was never enough; true liberation from slavery involved a reconnection with the Jewish People’s historical ancestral and spiritual roots. To revitalize the lost nation, to become the people they were meant to be, and to enter the promised land, they had to reforge their connection to the past. By recognizing the codewords of the past and the God of their ancestors, they would know that their time had finally come.

It’s why the Book of Exodus, or more properly, the Book of Names, begins by listing the names of those who journeyed to Egypt, anchoring the narrative in personal identities.

It’s why the Torah interrupts the story with an exposition of each family and the names of their descendants: the names of the sons of Levi, Gershon, Kohath, and Merari, the sons of Kohath, Amram, Yitzhar, Chevron, and Uzziel, and all the rest.

As R’ Hanoch of Alexander teaches, a key part of God’s command is remembering who you are and where you come from; remembering is the catalyst of redemption.

When we speak of our roots, it’s not an empty metaphor. They anchor and ground us; they orient us to where we are. Whatever culture or background, our traditions literally and metaphorically support us; if you want to make it to the promised land, knowing your past is the key to understanding your present and shaping your future.

Life is short, and we barely live before we die. Our narratives do more than recount history; they embed us in a continuum of collective wisdom, teaching us that we are part of a story much larger than our individual selves and that we can be so much more than we are. That’s why knowing your family and your people’s culture and history is so important.

The human connection to family, culture, heritage, tradition, and religion has always been sacred.

Our traditions tell us that we can have the courage to stand up to the existential and metaphysical challenges of life like the heroes of old who walked and talked with the Creator, who would argue and sometimes even win.

Do you know who you are?

You descend from those who wrestle angels and kill giants.

Aim High

4 minute read
Straightforward

In so much of our lives, we occupy places and routines that are familiar and known. But every now and then, life leads us to the very edge and calls on us to step into the unknown and explore the new and uncharted territory of possibility. We can experience these transcendent moments as some of the moments we are most alive, where we extend ourselves and enlarge the boundaries of our reality.

In these pivotal moments, we often meet with what appear to be insurmountable obstacles — goals that lie out of reach, aspirations that loom large like distant stars. It is in these moments that we have the capability of discovering who we are. Do we retreat to the safe boundaries of the known, or do we stretch out toward the unknown? This leap of faith is not a blind jump into the abyss but a conscious choice to trust in our capabilities and the Divine hand that guides us.

The Torah describes one such moment. Pharoah’s daughter, the Egyptian princess Batya, had come to bathe in the shallows of the river Nile with her attendants. It was just another day in the life of a princess; bathing is part of most people’s daily routine. We become so familiar with our routines that our brains can go into autopilot and cruise control; our bodies go through the motions with little conscious effort. But then, one day, unlike every time before, instead of the river, wind, and wildlife she was used to tuning out, she noticed something completely out of place, something unexpected that jolted her into action – a baby floating nearby:

וַתֵּרֶד בַּת־פַּרְעֹה לִרְחֹץ עַל־הַיְאֹר וְנַעֲרֹתֶיהָ הֹלְכֹת עַל־יַד הַיְאֹר וַתֵּרֶא אֶת־הַתֵּבָה בְּתוֹךְ הַסּוּף וַתִּשְׁלַח אֶת־אֲמָתָהּ וַתִּקָּחֶהָ  – The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile, while her maidens walked along the Nile. She spotted the basket among the reeds and reached out to collect it. (2:5)

There is some ambiguity in the word the Torah uses to describe how she collected the child – וַתִּשְׁלַח אֶת־אֲמָתָהּ. In the plain sense, it means she sent her handmaiden to fetch the basket. But it can also mean an arm’s length or cubit. Observing that the story does not use the common word for arm – יָדָהּ – our sages take this to mean that Batya stretched out but could not quite reach, and at that moment, her reach miraculously extended just enough to save the child; she extended her arm, and her arm extended.

Think about it for a moment. She couldn’t reach the child – her arms weren’t long enough. But she reached out anyway.

The Kotzker Rebbe taught that this should be our orientation to anything that matters. When saving a life, you stop at nothing, exhaust every avenue, and chase every possibility, no matter how remote or improbable it seems.

This quality is the meaning behind Moshe’s name – וַיְהִי־לָהּ לְבֵן וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ מֹשֶׁה וַתֹּאמֶר כִּי מִן־הַמַּיִם מְשִׁיתִהוּ. R’ Chaim Shmulevitz highlights that despite Moshe having other names, he is known for the rest of his life by the name given to him by the Egyptian princess, named for the moment of boldness shown by his adopted mother.

In the interwar years, Jewish leaders were politically engaged in navigating East European Jewry through what they could not yet know was its final years. One of the most prominent voices was R’ Meir Shapiro, a leading Rosh Yeshiva scholar, politician, and community organizer. At a major leadership meeting, he proposed bold plans to turn the tides of what was in the air, and his audience told him it was impossible. In response, he countered then by citing this teaching.

Our sages use this story to encourage us not to be daunted by the seemingly unattainable. This does not mean recklessly chasing after dreams but recognizing that whether physically, spiritually, or emotionally, our reach can extend far beyond what we understand our physical capabilities and natural boundaries to be.

In a contemporary embodiment of this wisdom, President Kennedy explained why the Space Race was important, why it mattered for humans to go to the moon, in doing so, captured the human spirit at its best: “We shall send to the moon 240,000 miles away, a giant rocket, more than 300 feet tall on an untried mission to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to Earth. But why the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why 35 years ago fly the Atlantic? We choose to go to the moon this decade and do the other things not because they are easy but because they are hard. Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills because that challenge is one that we’re willing to accept. One we are unwilling to postpone. And therefore, as we set sail, we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous, dangerous, and greatest adventure that man has ever gone.”

Apart from being able to plant a flag on the moon, which is pretty cool, the Space Race extended the boundaries of science in ways that demonstrably improved our lives, including significant advancements in water purification, waterproofing, disease research, agricultural techniques, fireproof insulation, wireless technologies, LED lighting, food preservation, and scratch-resistant eyeglass lenses.

The story of Batya reaching out to Moshe captures a universal truth about the human condition: we are sometimes called to stretch beyond our perceived limits. The act of reaching out becomes a powerful metaphor for the courage and tenacity inherent in each of us. The supernatural extension of Batya’s hand is not a fantasy trope; it symbolizes the extraordinary outcomes that can only emerge from our willingness to extend ourselves beyond what we believe is possible. It’s a reminder that the potential for the miraculous lies within the mundane fabric of daily living.

Whether ancient or modern, these stories remind us of the ongoing relevance of these timeless lessons in our daily lives. In striving to make the world a better place, what seems impossible may only be so until we dare to stretch our hands. Aim high; shoot for the moon, as the famous saying goes.

Because even if you miss, you will land among the stars.

Nostalgia Redux

5 minute read
Advanced

Life comes at you fast.

The days fly by, and the pressures and responsibilities mount. This deadline, that presentation, the big test. Health, relationships, kids, finances. The further out you go, the more complex and uncertain it all gets. There’s rarely someone who can share your unique load, and it’s a lot to handle. But that’s what being a grown-up is in the modern world.

Changing times and complex, pressure-filled moments can trigger feelings of loneliness, social exclusion, and meaninglessness, and our instinct is often to look backward, to take a trip down memory lane and seek solace in the past, recalling happier, simpler times. Personal nostalgia can provide comfort and a sense of continuity; collective nostalgia can foster a sense of community and preserve cultural history. Sitting with an old face, or visiting an old favorite spot, can bring the feeling of the good old days flooding back. This phenomenon is not unique to the modern era; it’s a profoundly human predisposition that transcends time and culture.

But nostalgia can have a negative shadow when it gets to the point of idealizing the past and avoiding reality. We see this reflected in the experiences of the Jewish People in the Torah, their struggles mirroring our own. Stuck in the desert wilderness with no natural food or water, their nostalgia for Egypt expresses itself in their repeated pining to return to Egypt.

But we know the Egypt story better than that. They were neither safe nor happy!

The Torah documents Egypt as a sustained and systematic crime against humanity, with a litany of atrocities and human rights abuses. Without any embellishment from Midrash, the plain text of the narrative reports some of the worst possible human experiences: enslavement, violence, infanticide, and organized genocide as a form of population control.

They were liberated from all that by the Creator with open miracles, sustained by magic food from the sky and an enchanted spring sheltered by supernatural clouds.

What insanity possessed them to want to go back to Egypt?

We must remember that if they were insane, they wouldn’t have been held responsible for their outburst, and their story would be irrelevant to sane readers. They weren’t insane; they were human, like us, and humans get nostalgic sometimes.

Of course, some level of nostalgia is normal. We exist within dimensions that give us a certain degree of spatial freedom; left and right, up and down, backward and forwards. We can re-organize the space we move around in, thereby increasingly turning it to our advantage; humans have largely mastered the physical environment.

But when it comes to time, we are stuck to just one dimension; forcibly and inevitably pushed into a single direction into an unknown future that we observe from the infinitely tiny sliver that we call the present, a brief instance of conscious awareness that almost instantaneously slips away to become the past. In the dimension of time, there is no going back, no going left or right; there is not even standing still. No matter how much we struggle, no matter how much we resist, we are utterly at the mercy of time.

It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop. As such, time is also a source of existential dread. We fear the future, both in the sense that it is unknown and that it will inevitably and unstoppably impose itself on us, helpless and defenseless.

So we experience a nostalgia trip, an escape for a fleeting moment, retreating to the good old days.

But in such instances, nostalgia can become an avoidance mechanism, pulling you away from dealing with present realities and future uncertainties, and it becomes toxic nostalgia, poison in the plainest sense, preventing the possibility of progress and growth. Longing for an oversimplified and idealized past is just a means of coping with feelings of disorientation or powerlessness in the face of challenging complexities and uncertainties in the present and future.

What’s more, since nostalgia is inherently oriented towards simpler and unambiguous emotions and times, overuse of it as an emotionally regulatory strategy in a complex world is sure to backfire. Anchoring to the past instead of grappling with the present and working towards a better future is a recipe for catastrophe – and it can happen to all of us.

And the good old days aren’t even what you think they were; nostalgia can distort our perception of reality. The scientific understanding of memory is clear that memory is not a perfect record of past events but a reconstruction influenced by current knowledge, beliefs, and emotions. This can lead to a distorted, romanticized view of the past where we remember things as better than they were, a golden age that reflects our hopes and fears, obscuring the complexities and contradictions of our actual experiences.

Nostalgia is a seductive liar; our memory isn’t always so honest.

In their wild distortion, life in Egypt may have been awful, but at least it was predictable. Magic food and water are disappointing and unsatisfying, and what if it all stopped tomorrow? That’s not a way to live!

So they reminisce about the crunchy cucumbers and fragrant meat stews and forget the babies drowned in the river; selective memory is a feature of nostalgia.

They long to regress to an immature state, the learned helplessness and mediocrity of captivity. They experience fauxstalgia, false nostalgia, and idealize a past that never was, with a corresponding refusal to embrace the positive changes of the present and take responsibility for their future.

These stories showcase the allure of nostalgia and its incredible power to revise history and reality while simultaneously removing us from the present so the moment passes us by; we should not make the same mistake.

Too often, leaders talk about declinism, which sounds like when people talk about those kids these days; things aren’t what they used to be; things were better back in the day.

It’s not true.

One of the great tragedies of European Jewish history was the burning of twenty-four wagons of sacred texts; today, every person with an internet connection has instant access to the most complete library of Jewish literature ever assembled.

The great yeshivas of pre-war Europe combined didn’t come close to the headcount of even one of the famous yeshivas of our day. How many mothers and children regularly died in childbirth? How many people died of hunger and poverty? How many illiterate generations lived and died with easily treated illness?

Rashi described his crushing poverty as a millstone around his neck; how many people would sponsor him if he lived in our day? How many blood libels, crusades, expulsions, and massacres? While the only acceptable level of anti-Semitism is none, the anti-Semitism of our time is laughably trivial compared to the history books.

If our ancestors could choose any time to be alive, they’d probably pick ours.

We live in a time of plenty. Sure, there are plenty of excesses, but by any standard humans can measure, there has never been so much Torah study, charity, community advocacy and support, and general safety and security in Jewish history.

There is no precedent for our time, but there’s a precedent for not living in the moment. Nostalgia is an illness for people who haven’t realised that today is tomorrow’s nostalgia – אַל־תֹּאמַר מֶה הָיָה שֶׁהַיָּמִים הָרִאשֹׁנִים הָיוּ טוֹבִים מֵאֵלֶּה כִּי לֹא מֵחכְמָה שָׁאַלְתָּ עַל־זֶה.

We are not living in a time of decline. History is taking shape, and we make the same mistake as our ancestors in the wilderness if we pretend otherwise. We are blessed to live in a time of abundant ascendancy; we’d better notice so we can actively participate.

We are decades into the Jewish Renaissance, and the world has changed; some people’s eyes are wide shut, still fighting battles they lost a long time ago. Some people are still fighting the internet; everyone’s been online for years. Some people are still fighting the State of Israel; it’s three generations old and arguably the greatest supporter of Torah in history. Does a flaming Beis HaMikdash need to fall out of the sky before we acknowledge we’re not in medieval Europe anymore? Stuck in the past with no precedent, they don’t have the toolbox to offer relevant guidance for the present moment.

Through our stories, we live with the ghosts of our ancestors. Through their example, we can learn what they could not. We can excuse our ancestors, who carried generational trauma from lifetimes of normalized atrocities.

But what’s our excuse?

Banish the ghosts or redeem them.

People wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them. This is that moment; wake up and take it in.

The Golden Age of Judaism isn’t behind us; we’re living in it.

Truth Redux

5 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are those everyday white lies a violation of Divine truth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slept In At Sinai

3 minute read
Straightforward

Have you ever overslept for something important?

That early morning wakeup for the final exam, to catch a flight to the long-awaited vacation or the big wedding day.

For most people, it’s pretty hard to oversleep the morning of anything important; it’s hard to get any sleep on the eve of such anticipated moments. The anxiety that keeps you up all night is the same anxiety that bolts you straight out of bed come morning.

And yet, our sages teach us that that’s precisely what happened to the Jewish People camped at the foot of Mount Sinai; they had been eagerly awaiting Moshe’s return with the Ten Commandments, the culminating moment of Creation, and they overslept.

This anecdote is one of the sources of the treasured custom of staying up the night of Shavuos immersed in Torah study. When the Creator offers you a piece of eternity, so the thinking goes, who really needs to sleep? If you knew tomorrow was the second coming of the Creator or Mashiach, you wouldn’t be getting any sleep.

And yet, in this telling, the spiritual awakening of the Jewish People and humanity starts with a snooze!

Let’s remember that in this multitude of millions of men, women, and children who overslept is the litany of greats and sages who appear in the Torah. Miriam, Elazar, Itamar, Nadav, Avihu, Pinchas, Caleb, the tribal chiefs, and the sages.

How did everyone oversleep?

The Arugas HaBosem suggests that the intuition that such a thing doesn’t happen naturally is correct; it was a supernatural slumber, the kind the Creator sets on the first man – וַיַּפֵּל ה’ אֱלֹהִים  תַּרְדֵּמָה עַל־הָאָדָם וַיִּישָׁן.

R’ Meilech Biderman teaches that the Creator deliberately establishes the archetype of Torah at Sinai in this way, establishing for all generations that you can be late, tired, and still half asleep but still be invited and expected to attend the awakening at Mount Sinai.

You might believe you’re not ready, and you might even be right, but readiness isn’t a requirement.

What’s more, the sense of tiredness and unpreparedness was not just an internal sensation of their bodies and consciousness; it manifested externally in the real world as well. When they woke and showed up at the foot of the mountain, they encountered an environment shrouded with darkness, cloud, and fog – חֹשֶׁךְ / עָנָן / עֲרָפֶל.

The darkness and fog at Sinai are the uncertainty, mystery, and awe that often accompany profound spiritual experiences. The Chiddushei HaRim teaches that this is not a potential obstacle to our spiritual experience that must simply be overcome; it is an integral feature and part of the essential nature of the work we are called to do. The mountain was obscured in the way the path forward on the journey of our spirit is often obscured; they showed up just the same.

In a world where it’s all too easy to feel distant or disconnected from our heritage, our spirituality, or even from each other, the act of showing up can be a profound statement of commitment and engagement. The Jewish people overslept, but they still showed up to receive the Torah. It was dark and foggy, but they were there, ready to engage and participate, without being perfectly prepared. Both these teachings reject the notion of being perfectly prepared or fully awake to engage. They suggest that the act of engagement itself, of showing up, is valuable and meaningful, even if we are not perfectly prepared.

Uncertainty and mystery are often part of our spiritual journeys. We may not always feel fully prepared or awake. We may feel unsure, lost, tired, or even afraid. But the act of showing up, of being present and ready to engage, is the first and most important step towards connection, meaning, and growth.

We, too, can show up and engage with our spirituality, even in the face of uncertainty and mystery.

You might be late to the party, but you’re still invited.

Regulations Redux

4 minute read
Intermediate

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

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

There are so many rules, and they stack up fast! Eat now, fast then, do this, don’t do that, and it goes on.

Why can’t we just do what we want?

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

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

But the story that follows about Noah and the Flood is a story about what happens in a world with no rules – total anarchy and chaos, and ultimately, the collapse of civilization. When everyone pillages and plunders, you have barbaric savages. Noah and the Flood, we see a world without rules, which leads to chaos and the collapse of civilization.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rules aren’t so terrible.

My Grandfather’s Trees

3 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah opens with Creation and describes the emergence of life and all things in just a single chapter. It spends the best part of two entire books detailing the Mishkan, with meticulous and exhaustive details of the planning, production, and assembly of the portable sanctuary that served as the physical and spiritual center of Judaism until the construction of a permanent Beis HaMikdash.

The Torah’s primary construction materials list contained vast amounts of gold, silver, copper, and precious gems. If you had to say the one main thing the Mishkan was made of, you might say gold, used throughout the project, from finishes to furnishings.

But it’s not.

The Mishkan had no foundation and no roof, just curtains and drapes. The only solid structure came from its walls, which were made of wood:

וְעָשִׂיתָ אֶת־הַקְּרָשִׁים לַמִּשְׁכָּן עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים עֹמְדִים – You shall make the planks for the Tabernacle of acacia wood, upright. (26:15)

The people contributed precious metals and gems they’d brought from Egypt. But they were in the desert; where were they getting wood from?

Rashi highlights that the Torah typically refers to everyday items and general contributions in other instances uses but in the case of wood, uses the definite article – the planks – indicating a specific contribution – הַקְּרָשִׁים / קְּרָשִׁים. Rashi notes that this wood had been designated generations before; our sages teach that before our ancestor Yakov went to Egypt, he visited his grandfather Avraham’s home, took some trees from there, and took them to Egypt with him, making his children swear at his deathbed to take the trees with them when they left to build a sanctuary with.

R’ Yaakov Kamenetsky notes that Yakov didn’t just plant trees; he planted actualized hope in a physical and visual form accessible in the external world of tangible things. Enslaved in Egypt, his descendants would look at and tend to their grandfather’s trees, a promise and symbol that the hands that built pyramids and monuments for their masters would one day make sacred things and places for themselves; work that broke and destroyed could transform into work that built and united.

Yaakov knew his children would raise their eyes and cry in misery. They’d see trees that connected them to the roots of their history and would allow them a glimpse of his hopeful vision of a better, brighter future.

But hope for the future isn’t necessarily specific to trees; Yakov could have left them anything.

He chose to leave trees because trees symbolize life and vitality, seasonality, and natural energy, representing the cycle of life and death. Like trees, generations of death in Egypt would burst to life once more.

Our great ancestors had a tangible vision for what these trees could become and took concrete action to imbue them with meaning so that this vision would unfold in reality. Yaakov was a visionary, but his dreams manifested in the world of action.

This is the wood they used, and it’s ubiquitous – the Mishkan is made of this wood, the Ark is made of this wood, the table is made of this wood, and the large and small altars are made of this wood, too. The wood may be overlaid with metal, but it’s all made of this wood.

More pointedly, wood is organic and simple, unlike gems and precious metals. R’ Zalman Sorotzkin points out in a way that’s hard to overstate that wood is the invisible support structure of no less than the entire project. You might see gold everywhere, but gold is just the decorative overlay; that’s not where the support comes from. Support comes from the durability and enduring sturdiness of the wood – עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים עֹמְדִים. The gold is useless without the underlying strength of the wood that holds it up.

Sparkle and glamor catch the eye, but remember, it’s superficial only.

The boards must be assembled upright, not upside down, in the direction of the tree’s original growth, with the lower part of the board corresponding to the lower part of the tree. Even though the board is symmetrical, this law extends to every mitzvah that uses plants, such as Lulav and Esrog. R’ Joseph Soloveitchik notes that this instruction is a universal law; the way to grow something is with its feet planted on the ground with its head, heart, and spine aligned straight up a straight line, physically, spiritually, and emotionally aligned. You can’t put something together upside-down and expect it to work right; things must be upright to grow correctly.

The Mishkan was built out of Yakov’s hopes and dreams for his children, the promise they inherited about the places they’d go and who they could be. Those children passed on that dream to their children, who would build the Mishkan, but also to us, the children who would remember it.

Every breath of our lives fulfills countless generations’ hopes and prayers. They aren’t burdens; they can be building blocks of lasting meaning if we use them right.

The dreams and promises we inherit are priceless treasures.

Sacred Fire

3 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah reports God’s instruction to Moshe to conduct a census of the Jewish People by counting adult males. The conventional methodology of counting is inappropriate for this task, and God orders Moshe to instead use a proxy for counting heads – a half-shekel fixed financial contribution per person. Count the donations, and that’s how many people there are – one step removed:

כִּי תִשָּׂא אֶת־רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל לִפְקֻדֵיהֶם וְנָתְנוּ אִישׁ כֹּפֶר נַפְשׁוֹ לַה’ בִּפְקֹד אֹתָם וְלֹא־יִהְיֶה בָהֶם נֶגֶף בִּפְקֹד אֹתָם׃ זֶה  יִתְּנוּ כּל־הָעֹבֵר עַל־הַפְּקֻדִים מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל בְּשֶׁקֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ עֶשְׂרִים גֵּרָה הַשֶּׁקֶל מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל תְּרוּמָה לַה – “When you take a census of the Israelite men according to their military enrollment, each shall pay the Lord a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled. This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall give: a half-shekel…” (30:12,13)

In almost every instance the Creator speaks, the Torah doesn’t lead us to understand that this speech has any physical element, perhaps not even an audible sound. But in the instruction to count the Jewish People, the Torah uses language that is tangibly concrete and physical – זֶה  יִתְּנוּ –  “This shall they give.”

Sensitive to this nuance, our sages suggest that the Creator pulled a fiery coin in the form of a half-shekel from beneath the Divine Throne and showed it to Moshe – “This.”

We might understand the premise of a vision that helps Moshe practically understand the physical properties of such a coin. But the coin described isn’t a metal coin; it is a fiery coin.

Why was the coin made of fire?

Interactions with the Creator commonly feature fire as a standard building block of prophetic vision. Fire is immaterial, visible energy – not to mention dangerous and scary. The effortless control of fire is a powerful  symbol of the Creator’s total control over the elements and matter.

But our sages’ words teach far more than predictable cliche.

Tosfos point out that Moshe had seen money before and understood what a coin was; where he was struggling was the notion that something as mundane and terrestrial as money could affect the soul. The Kotzker suggests that the Creator pulls a fiery coin out from beneath the Divine Throne in response, not because there is power in currency, but in its fire – the fire and spirit that animate the giving is what have the redemptive effect on the soul. “This.”

The Noam Elimelech teaches that the point isn’t that the specific coin the Creator summoned was made of fire; but that all coin is fire.

Fire is technology, and its use depends on the user and the context. Fire can symbolize creativity, transformation, and destruction; it can mean heat and warmth or burning ruin. Money is also a form of technology, a medium of exchange that facilitate transactions and the exchange of goods and services. Like fire, each exchange is transformative and can be creative or destructive.

It’s not wrong to have money. It’s not wrong to want money. But it’s dangerous to love money, embracing the fire – that’s how you burn the house down. It’s essential to strike a balance; money is just a tool. It is not just a means to improve your own life but the lives of many others; love the goodness you can do with it.

Our sages teach that righteous people value their money more than their own bodies. R’ Meir Shapiro suggests that is because righteous people know how much they can do with it; how many poor families they can feed, and how many communal institutions they can support.

If all coin is like the fiery half-shekel everyone gave, we ought to remember that it symbolized the equality of all community members and was the symbol of their obligations to support the community and its institutions. Your giving must be broad and generous, animated with a spirit that sets your soul on fire.

Our sages teach us that the Creator pulled the coin from beneath the Divine Throne.

Remember that’s where it comes from – and be careful not to burn yourself.

Taking God’s Name in Vain

3 minute read
Straightforward

One of the Ten Commandments is the commandment against taking God’s name lightly:

לֹא תִשָּׂא אֶת־שֵׁם־ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ לַשָּׁוְא כִּי לֹא יְנַקֶּה ה’ אֵת אֲשֶׁר־יִשָּׂא אֶת־שְׁמוֹ לַשָּׁוְא – Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain; for the Lord will not hold guiltless the one that takes His name in vain. (20:7)

This law encourages people to treat God’s name with reverence and respect, affirming that abusing God’s name shows a lack of humility and gratitude and is a way of disdaining the Creator’s power and authority. Practically speaking, observant Jews today do not pronounce God’s name as written and are careful in treating any document containing God’s written name, using substitutes instead, like Creator, Hashem, Lord, or God.

But what does it mean to take God’s name in vain?

Some people believe it to mean cursing. Others think it means casually swearing, like “I swear to God” or “God damn it.” Refraining from coarse and foul language is a good idea and a worthy struggle, but that doesn’t capture the essence of this law.

To be sure, swearing, in the old-fashioned sense, is partly covered. In any matter of doubt, a person would hold a religious article and swear in God’s name; the willingness to take an oath in God’s name with the implied invitation of punishment if the oath-taker was lying is taken to support the truth of the statement being sworn to.

But this is not the commandment against false oaths – that would be covered by the Tenth Commandment.

To do something in vain is to do something without success or result; Rashi narrowly suggests that this law is about a pointless invocation of God’s name, like swearing that the sky is blue. Everyone knows that – that would be taking God’s name in vain.

The Ohr HaChaim suggests a broader and more profound meaning to this law. The verb of the mitzvah means to carry or to bear; the prohibition is on bearing God’s name lightly, carrying it with you in deception. It means falsely invoking God to advance your own self-interest, being false with God or others in God’s name, or, in other words, holding yourself out as more pious and righteous than you are.

On Rosh Hashana, we read the story of Chana. Chana was married to a righteous man named Elkanah, who had another wife, Penina. Penina had children, and Chana did not. When it was time to bring a sacrifice in the Sanctuary, the whole family went to Shilo and enjoyed the festivities. Penina teased Chana about where her children were, and Chana cried and refused to eat. When Elkanah saw her crying, he tried to comfort her, but Chana would not be comforted. She went to the courtyard, silently poured out her heart in prayer, and was soon blessed with a son, the legendary prophet Shmuel.

We read this story in part because it illustrates the power of prayer, but it also shows something else.

Penina’s behavior is striking in its shocking cruelty. Her only saving grace is that she had the best intentions, which is that she wanted to push Chana to the point that she’d pray and be answered. And the story bears this out – Penina is indeed the catalyst.

The Kotzker highlights how her behavior was so monstrously evil that it could only have been for the highest and most sacred purpose, or, in other words, bearing God’s name in vain.

R’ Jonathan Sacks notes how much religious extremism and violence are committed in the name of God. As the Dudaei Reuven notes, all the most terrible crimes against humanity are carried out under the cloak of truth, justice, and uprightness.

If only it were as easy as substituting an “Oh my goodness” for an “Oh my God.”

Whenever a calamity happens, the proper thing to do is introspect and repent. But there will always be a clown who says it’s because of this or that: talking in shul, hair coverings, knee coverings, the gays, or whatnot. Next time you notice, note how they deceptively invoke God’s name to establish an in-group and out-group dynamic, virtue signal, and manipulate people to advance their agenda and control others – all with the best intentions.

Don’t tell a grieving family it’s part of God’s plan. Do not say or do awful things to others and claim it’s God’s will or what God wants. That’s using God’s name in vain.

Taking God’s name seriously demands that we audit and introspect ourselves for self-righteousness and any sense of self-serving holier-than-thou superiority. It is complex and requires us to live intentionally with decency, humility, and honesty toward others and ourselves.

The Rain Maker

4 minute read
Straightforward

After the daily morning service, most prayer books have a variety of additional prayers. One of them is Parshas HaMan, the section of the Torah that introduces the manna, miracle food from the sky that appeared when the Jewish People were starving and needed it most.

Our sages understand this phenomenon as the ultimate representation of the power over our livelihood and sustenance – Parnassa.

It’s a prayer people take extremely seriously as a ritual for merit related to our livelihood, and with good reason. Financial insecurity is one of a human’s most elemental and basic fears. It originates in the subconscious; every living creature fears going hungry.

The Beis Yosef says it’s a good thing to say every day, and Rabbeinu Bachya adds that whoever says it daily is guaranteed never to lack a livelihood. R’ Menachem Mendel of Rimanov established the popular custom of saying it on the Tuesday afternoon of Parshas Beshalach, the section it appears in, with a similar promise.

Some people believe in saying the prayer as the golden ticket to ultimate security.

But if we take a closer read of the story on its terms, we might be surprised by what it has to say to us.

First of all, the way the the story presents itself is that the Creator states at the outset that what will follow is a test of faith – הִנְנִי מַמְטִיר לָכֶם לֶחֶם מִן־הַשָּׁמָיִם וְיָצָא הָעָם וְלָקְטוּ דְּבַר־יוֹם בְּיוֹמוֹ לְמַעַן אֲנַסֶּנּוּ הֲיֵלֵךְ בְּתוֹרָתִי אִם־לֹא.

A big part of the test is to take only what your family needs – לִקְטוּ מִמֶּנּוּ אִישׁ לְפִי אכְלוֹ עֹמֶר לַגֻּלְגֹּלֶת מִסְפַּר נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם אִישׁ לַאֲשֶׁר בְּאהֳלוֹ תִּקָּחוּ.

Our animal instinct resists the notion of taking only enough for today; it wants to be acquisitive and gather a stockpile just in case. But however much or little people took, it was only ever just enough – וַיַּעֲשׂוּ־כֵן בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיִּלְקְטוּ הַמַּרְבֶּה וְהַמַּמְעִיט. וַיָּמֹדּוּ בָעֹמֶר וְלֹא הֶעְדִּיף הַמַּרְבֶּה וְהַמַּמְעִיט לֹא הֶחְסִיר אִישׁ לְפִי־אכְלוֹ לָקָטוּ.

What’s more, people ignored the explicit instruction against holding and stockpiling, and gather more than they needed – just in case! But it turned rotten and maggoty overnight – וְלֹא־שָׁמְעוּ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה וַיּוֹתִרוּ אֲנָשִׁים מִמֶּנּוּ עַד־בֹּקֶר וַיָּרֻם תּוֹלָעִים וַיִּבְאַשׁ וַיִּקְצֹף עֲלֵהֶם מֹשֶׁה.

R’ Meilich Biderman highlights how Dasan and Aviram, the ever-present villains throughout, try to be sneaky and gather a second helping of manna. Apart from their rebellious act being pointless because the manna goes bad, R’ Meilich points out how short-sighted and plain stupid it is, even beyond the context of magic sky food.

Because if there’s no fresh manna, then in the best case, they have enough to get them through tomorrow. Then what? What about the day after? They have broken the rules, acted selfishly and faithlessly, and aren’t better off; they still live with the same structural uncertainty as anyone else, with only the imagined safety of perhaps a day or two because that’s just how life works.

The story reminds us about the need to put in a certain amount of work every day – וְלָקְטוּ דְּבַר־יוֹם בְּיוֹמוֹ.

It reminds us that working on Shabbos is fruitless – שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תִּלְקְטֻהוּ וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שַׁבָּת לֹא יִהְיֶה־בּוֹ׃ וַיְהִי בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי יָצְאוּ מִן־הָעָם לִלְקֹט וְלֹא מָצָאוּ.

From the time Adam was cursed to work at the sweat of his brow, and today, arguably more than ever, humans have had to grapple with hustle culture, the idea that working long hours and sacrificing self-care are required to succeed. The Chafetz Chaim reminds us that people who collected more or less weren’t better or worse off than each other; everyone had just enough – וְלֹא הֶעְדִּיף הַמַּרְבֶּה וְהַמַּמְעִיט לֹא הֶחְסִיר אִישׁ לְפִי־אכְלוֹ לָקָטוּ.

We would do well to remind ourselves that our opportunities never come from where we expect and rarely do they look how we expect – וַיִּרְאוּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל־אָחִיו מָן הוּא כִּי לֹא יָדְעוּ מַה־הוּא.

R’ Meilich Biderman reminds us that the nature of this story is likened to rain – הִנְנִי מַמְטִיר לָכֶם לֶחֶם מִן־הַשָּׁמָיִם. Humans don’t have the power to make it rain at all, much less the ability to make it rain in a particular amount or moment; act accordingly. We control our output but not the outcome; making a given amount of money isn’t within reach, but making ten phone calls is.

Taking an abstract view of this story, there are clear and relevant lessons we can conclude from a straightforward reading of Parshas HaMan. Perhaps the most significant part of the test represented by the manna is that it doesn’t solve for security at all; quite the opposite. It invites us to live securely within the insecurity – אַל־יוֹתֵר מִמֶּנּוּ עַד־בֹּקֶר.

The book of Jeremiah tells of how the people neglected the Torah in favor of work, believing they would have nothing to eat if they didn’t work relentlessly. Jeremiah held up the jug of manna to remind them that the Creator does not require much to work with to sustain us – כִּי לֹא עַל־הַלֶּחֶם לְבַדּוֹ יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם כִּי עַל־כּל־מוֹצָא פִי ה’ יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם

The best response to uncertainty is not a wild grasp at certainty; it is being fully present in the moment. Step up, survey the landscape, and make decisions even when uncertain. One of the great lessons of faith is the understanding that everything is going to be okay, even if we don’t know how.

Reciting the prayer or reading the story affirms where our security comes from: Above. It affirms what we must do daily – do the work to care for your family, but don’t take someone else’s portion. It affirms that you must do enough for today and be hopeful for tomorrow because there is no blessing to be found in hoarding today’s resources.

This story probably doesn’t have the power to give you riches, but it might give you something some of the richest can only ever dream of – enough.

As our Sages guided us, who is wealthy? One who celebrates and takes joy in what he has – אֵיזֶהוּ עָשִׁיר, הַשָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ.

On your quest to be the rainmaker, remind yourself regularly Who makes it rain.

The Unburning Bush

5 minute read
Straightforward

One of the most enduring and iconic scenes in the Torah is the incident of the burning bush.

Not only is it momentous for the obviously supernatural, but it is also the turning point in the Exodus story. Having described the cruel extent of the Jewish People’s enslavement and suffering, the burning bush is the moment the Creator reaches out to Moshe to intervene, setting events into motion that permanently shape human civilization for the remainder of human history to this day.

At this point in the story, Moshe has fled Egypt as a fugitive and has built a new identity and life as a shepherd in Midian. One day in the wilderness, he chases a stray lamb and has an encounter with the arcane:

וּמֹשֶׁה הָיָה רֹעֶה אֶת־צֹאן יִתְרוֹ חֹתְנוֹ כֹּהֵן מִדְיָן וַיִּנְהַג אֶת־הַצֹּאן אַחַר הַמִּדְבָּר וַיָּבֹא אֶל־הַר הָאֱלֹקים חֹרֵבָה׃ וַיֵּרָא מַלְאַךְ ה’ אֵלָיו בְּלַבַּת־אֵשׁ מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה הַסְּנֶה בֹּעֵר בָּאֵשׁ וְהַסְּנֶה אֵינֶנּוּ אֻכָּל׃… וַיֹּאמֶר אַל־תִּקְרַב הֲלֹם שַׁל־נְעָלֶיךָ מֵעַל רַגְלֶיךָ כִּי הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עוֹמֵד עָלָיו אַדְמַת־קֹדֶשׁ הוּא׃… וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ רָאֹה רָאִיתִי אֶת־עֳנִי עַמִּי אֲשֶׁר בְּמִצְרָיִם וְאֶת־צַעֲקָתָם שָׁמַעְתִּי מִפְּנֵי נֹגְשָׂיו כִּי יָדַעְתִּי אֶת־מַכְאֹבָיו… וְעַתָּה הִנֵּה צַעֲקַת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּאָה אֵלָי וְגַם־רָאִיתִי אֶת־הַלַּחַץ אֲשֶׁר מִצְרַיִם לֹחֲצִים אֹתָם׃… וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקים אֶל־מֹשֶׁה אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה וַיֹּאמֶר כֹּה תֹאמַר לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶהְיֶה שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם׃ – Now Moshe, tending the flock of his father-in-law Yisro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He saw the bush in flames, yet the bush was not consumed… And He said, “Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground…” And the Lord continued, “I have seen the plight of My people in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I am mindful of their suffering… Now the cry of the Israelites has reached Me; moreover, I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them… And God said to Moshe, “I will be what I will be.” He continued, “Tell the Israelites, I Will Be, sent me to you.’” (3:1,2,5,7,9,14)

Apart from the local significance of this story, this interaction is one of the Torah’s vanishingly rare instances of a theophany, a physical manifestation of the divine in a tangible, observable way, which is always accompanied by an upending of the natural order – the appearance of physics-bending supernatural properties.

In our experience, fire requires fuel to combust; that’s what generates flames. There is no such thing as burning without fuel because fire and burning are inseparable; they are the same thing.

A bush that doesn’t burn is cryptic, and yet the symbol is deliberate; God doesn’t act gratuitously or because it sounds cool.

Why does God choose the form of a burning bush to communicate with Moshe?

God’s self-introduction is essential and, in a way, tells us a lot about what God wants us to know. God self-identifies as אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה, a complex form of the infinitive “to be.” It might mean “I am what I am,” or perhaps “I will be what I will be.”

The Midrash expounds on this conversation and says that when God seeks to be seen as compassionate, God is called Hashem. When God desires justice, God is called God. What that means, then, is that God is fluid and free-spirited, always in a state of being and becoming, transcending any single definition. We can not understand God as God is; we can only understand what God does. This is perhaps symbolized by the fire that was not sustained by the bush; God’s existence doesn’t depend on anything or anyone external, is fully self-sustaining, and is the source of all energy in the universe.

The burning bush is also a metaphor that contains the imagery and symbolism of Moshe’s place in everything to come. Moshe was in the desert, and God appeared before Moshe noticed; God was already there. God is there, and engages Moshe specifically because he notices the bush – וַיַּרְא ה’ כִּי סָר לִרְאוֹת וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו. What Moshe sees isn’t a burning bush but an unburning bush, a fire that doesn’t seem to consume the bush – מַדּוּעַ לֹא־יִבְעַר הַסְּנֶה.

The Zohar suggests that God’s message through the unusual properties of the burning bush is that fire will not consume the bush, and the fires of exile will not destroy Jewish people. With God’s protection, they would not be consumed. As the thornbush is the least of the plants, the Jewish People have historically occupied a low position in Egypt, and the burning fire is a symbol of oppression. The bush burning yet not being consumed symbolized that the oppressed people would be hurt but not destroyed by their enemies and that their hostility would be ultimately unsuccessful and fruitless.

R’ Shlomo Farhi suggests that this contains a crucial insight into what qualified Moshe, above all others, to be the lawgiver and redeemer of the Jewish People, trusted over all others. In times of difficulty, positive and upbeat people will attempt to focus and redirect their attention towards positivity; look on the bright side; it could be worse, it’s part of God’s plan – heads in the sand, ignoring and pretending away the pain of whatever is taking place. Pessimistic people can be fully consumed by how terrible and unfortunate it is, how bad things are, and how bad it hurts; the essence of who they are gives way entirely to the ordeal.

Neither is wrong, but this story teaches a third way. Moshe sees past the bush that is on fire; he sees a fire that does not consume, which, as applied to the circumstances of his people, suggests an attitude of recognizing that the devastating pain of his people falls short of total ruin. Moshe can hold the notion of their suffering in mind without a diminished understanding of the nature of what they were: in immense pain and suffering, totally on fire, and yet still fundamentally whole, that things were hard, but everything was going to be okay.

Moshe would not look away from a Jew getting beaten by a taskmaster, and he would not look away from Jews fighting each other. He didn’t ignore their hurt, nor did he magnify it. He didn’t say they’d be okay or to get over it. He didn’t passively witness any of those things; he actively engaged with them.

This encounter also reveals where God can be found. God is to be found in the wilderness, in the void, and in the middle of nowhere – בּמִּדְבָּר; in the middle of destruction, in the burning pain of exile – בֹּעֵר בָּאֵשׁ; and also nature and the low places – מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה. In other words, this symbol deconstructs any preconceived notions about God’s inaccessibility.

God tells Moshe to remove his shoes because the place he stands is holy soil; the Chafetz Chaim teaches that this statement stands for all people at all times that God can be found within every and any moment. A person who lives with the awareness that the place you stand is also the place God is found lives with the secret of creation – that the Divine is here with us here and now.

The burning bush symbolizes the Divine Presence before redemption; the Midrash teaches that God feels our pain and is a partner in our troubles. The burning bush is an image of God’s presence and protection in the face of danger and oppression and reveals where we can find God – in hard times and places.

Living with Newness

4 minute read
Straightforward

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

What time is it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fear Redux; Faith Redux

6 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

But is that so true?

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

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

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

This is a complete defense of feeling our fears.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come As You Are

3 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What We Do With Broken Things

5 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sacred Space

6 minute read
Intermediate

If you ask people what the defining traits of religion are, holiness will be on most people’s lists. 

Holiness is a shorthand code word everyone recognizes, and we sagely and solemnly nod our heads. Yes, yes, holiness, of course!

But what is holiness? 

We sometimes think of holiness as something we do on our own. Withdrawing from the world, from the joys and vices of life, fasting, going into the woods, or perhaps profound meditations on lofty metaphysics, retreating deep into the recesses of the mind.

There may be substance to some or even all of those things, but that’s not how the Torah talks about holiness.

The Torah talks about withdrawing in part and designating times and spaces; the Hebrew word for holiness means to designate or separate – קדושה.

But a critical element is missing from the word’s everyday use. Most appearances of holiness throughout the Torah describe it as a function of plurality, something we do with others together.

When the Torah asks us to be holy, Rashi notes that the instruction is given to everyone together – דַּבֵּר אֶל־כּל־עֲדַת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ. Moreover, it follows this instruction with commands to be charitable, fair, and honest in dealing with others. As the Chasam Sofer notes, the Torah’s conception of holiness is one of connection and interdependence, not disconnection and asceticism.

When the time comes to build the Mishkan, everyone must come together for God to be found in their work:

וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם – And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. (25:8)

Standing at the hallowed Mount Sinai, on the cusp of receiving the Torah, God tells the gathered people their overarching mission:

וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ־לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ – You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation… (19:6)

Beyond the Torah explicitly speaking about holiness as a function of togetherness – תִּהְיוּ / וְעָשׂוּ – our Sages emphasize the central importance of the Jewish People coming together at Har Sinai – וַיִּחַן־שָׁם יִשְׂרָאֵל נֶגֶד הָהָר / כאיש אחד בלב אחד.

Almost all sacred gatherings require a group, from prayers and sacrifices to reading the Torah and weddings – כל דבר שבקדושה לא יהא פחות מעשרה.

So why is holiness so tightly linked to togetherness?

In the Torah’s formative story of the emergency of humanity, it describes the first man’s existential aloneness as bad – לֹא־טוֹב הֱיוֹת הָאָדָם לְבַדּוֹ. Being alone and doing things alone is terrible; being together and doing things together is good.

Our prophets and sages talk about the soul as the thing that animates our consciousness, the part of you that makes you uniquely you, and they speak of soul fragments directly connected to God – חלק אלוק ממעל. 

But when we come together, we become whole, which is why holiness is linked with connection – כנסת ישראל.

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that if the Creation story is about the space God makes for us, the Mishkan narrative is about the space we make for God. Noting that the Torah spends a lot more time discussing the Mishkan than Creation, R’ Sacks teaches that the Torah is far more interested in what we do for God than what God does for us.

Far more esoterically, Chassidus speaks of tzimtzum, the space or vacuum God separates from God’s fullness so that existence can have an independent existence and reality. But maybe when we build a Mishkan, a separate return space, we form our own inverse or parallel tzimtzum, which we can only do in our enhanced state of togetherness.

In the external world, it starts with individuals, human to human. The Torah has its fair share of lofty arcane things, but a full half of the Ten Commandments are grounded in interpersonal regulations – בין אדם לחברו. It’s not enough to love humanity in the abstract; you have to love people in particular – your annoying neighbor and the guy who never stops talking.

Among the most misunderstood laws are the mitzvos about sanctifying and profaning God’s name – וְלֹא תְחַלְּלוּ אֶת־שֵׁם קדְשִׁי וְנִקְדַּשְׁתִּי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. But in the context of holiness as something we do together, they make perfect sense – בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. If holiness is related to togetherness, our public actions either draw people in or alienate them.

The Chemdas Dovid explains that while an individual is like a string, a group is more like a rope, far stronger than the individual components alone, which is to say that togetherness generates something greater than the sum of its parts.

While the Mishkan project had an open call for donations of all kinds of things that were wonderful and welcome, the core donation to the Mishkan project was a simple half-shekel and was required of everyone – הֶעָשִׁיר לֹא־יַרְבֶּה וְהַדַּל לֹא יַמְעִיט מִמַּחֲצִית הַשָּׁקֶל לָתֵת אֶת־תְּרוּמַת ה’ לְכַפֵּר עַל־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם.

While the Torah predates the notion of corporations or public companies, it seems thematically similar. Every person was invested in the Mishkan, or perhaps better; everyone was a contributor and owner of that holiness, which could be precisely what made it holy in the first place.

There is undoubtedly an aspect of generosity that we need to welcome and celebrate – כל המרבה הרי זה משובח. But it can often feel like we miss the everyman who can’t quite swing a high roller donation.

The unit of the mandatory universal contribution to the Mishkan was a half shekel, not a whole shekel, and most or all of the measurements in the Mishkan ended in half cubits, reflecting the same core theme that your contribution can only ever take you halfway. The Mishna in Pirkei Avos teaches that it is not for us to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist, with the obvious conclusion that we count on others by necessity – לא עליך המלאכה לגמור, ולא אתה בן חורין ליבטל ממנה

We ought to remember the Mishkan project that indicates smaller nominal contributions are just as valuable as everyone else’s. Everyone gives the whole of what they should, rich or poor. You give a fraction, and not only does it count, but it’s enough, and that’s all we need. More than how much you give, it matters that you participate.

This isn’t cutesy moralizing – the half-shekel contributions were melted down to form the sockets that connected the base of each wall segment. The part everyone gave together formed no less than the foundation of the entire Mishkan.

We’re better off through what we do together, for, and with others. The Gemara says that collecting the half shekel from everyone elevated and uplifted them –  כִּי תִשָּׂא אֶת-רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, לִפְקֻדֵיהֶם, וְנָתְנוּ אִישׁ כֹּפֶר נַפְשׁוֹ. Avos d’Rabi Nosson notes how valuable human contribution is; God is everywhere, but we can manifest the divine presence a little more palpably by coming together to make something for God. The Midrash goes so far as to suggest that God is most pleased by what we do down here, as exhibited by God leaving Heaven behind to be a little closer to us – דירה בתחתונים.

It is almost natural that the thing we build when everyone comes together is the holiest thing there is. As R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes, it follows that it is the physical and spiritual center of our lives, which the entire camp is built around, the site we aim our prayers, and the place we come closest to the divine.

Moreover, it follows why our sages attribute the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash to animosity and hatred; disputes and internal strife led to division, and without togetherness, it only followed that sanctity would disappear as well. The Ohr Pnei Moshe notes that the inverse is true as well; for Moshe to inaugurate the Mishkan, he must bring all the people together – וַיַּקְהֵל מֹשֶׁה אֶת־כּל־עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.

The Torah commands the commission of each utensil in the Mishkan in the second person singular, but not the Aron, which it commands in the plural – ועשית / ועשו. The Alshich notes that the Torah is not like monarchy or priesthood, which fall to specific individuals; the call to Torah is open-ended and universally accessible – it beckons to all of us, to you.

R’ Menachem Mendel of Vorki notes that if holiness is something that everyone has to do, it has to be according to the capabilities and circumstances of every individual. There can be no one-size-fits-all; as the Kotzker famously put it, God doesn’t need more angels.

The Chafetz Chaim teaches that the Torah is everyone’s to take up, even if our stakes look different; a bit more of this, a bit less of that. You might be a scholar, maybe you offer financial support, or perhaps you help tidy up your shul a little. Everybody counts, and everybody’s contribution is counted. 

We are not designed to be alone; we cannot exist alone. We need each other, and it’s not weakness; it’s our greatest strength. Where you find togetherness, you’ll find wholeness and holiness; and we must yearn for it perpetually – בָּרְכֵנוּ אָבִינוּ כֻּלָּנוּ כְּאֶחָד בְּאוֹר פָּנֶיךָ.

But don’t just yearn for it; work for it too. Find somebody to mentor, find an interesting local community project or charity to support, or get involved with, in whatever way, big or small. 

Your participation doesn’t just make a difference; it makes it better.

Prayer Redux

7 minute read
Advanced

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Choreographed Futility

4 minute read
Straightforward

At the beginning of the Exodus story, God tasks Moshe with his great mission. Moshe initially resists, saying the Jewish People will not listen to him.

Although our sages criticize him for this, he demonstrates that he is highly attuned to his environment because, sure enough, that’s precisely what happens:

וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה כֵּן אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה – But when Moshe told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moshe, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage. (6:9)

Exactly as Moshe had predicted, they didn’t listen, and this theatre only caused Moshe and his exhausted people unnecessary aggravation, disappointment, and frustration. It’s hard to see this as anything other than choreographed futility – a colossal waste of time, energy, and effort on all counts from the outset.

This is consistent with a broader motif throughout the entire Torah, filled with so many aborted attempts, failed efforts, and wasted opportunities.

Generally speaking, it is usually worth giving something a go because you never know, but in this instance, everyone did know – they knew it wouldn’t work!

Moshe knew they wouldn’t listen. God knew they wouldn’t listen. Yet God sent Moshe anyway. Why would God bother sending Moshe on an exercise in futility?

The Sfas Emes teaches that there is no such thing as futility when trying to help people. This chapter of the story illustrates that there’s never one specific interaction that has an instantaneous magical breakthrough effect; the helper must persist. Words can take root even if they don’t immediately blossom and yield fruit; the lack of immediate and apparent results doesn’t mean the efforts are wasted.

The Netziv highlights how the Torah is replete with phases and stages that indicate gradual transformation; for example, there are five expressions of redemption, ten plagues, and each step of Dayeinu.

Remember that we are reading the Exodus story, the grandest redemption story in history to date, and this is how it starts. Moshe is frustrated, his people are hurting and spent, and he can’t get them to entertain the dream or notion that things could change for the better. Not even the most legendary redemption story has an instant turning point or pivotal moment; it starts like this – boring and painfully slow. Nothing happens! On Seder night, we celebrate the great miracles, but maybe we should read these few lines as well and remember what change looks like, not only in our daily lived experience but as attested to in the Torah’s own words.

The Chizkuni suggests that it’s not that they wouldn’t listen but that they couldn’t; they were structurally and systemically too traumatized to have the mental or physical capacity to hold on to hope. And even so, God sends Moshe to them with words that are not lost to the ether. Even if they can’t internalize the message, it is objectively important that they see Moshe trying to help them, that they hear the words, and accordingly, that we hear that interaction through the ages as well. There are times a person is so stuck that they don’t want to be saved, and still, you can’t abandon them.

Right after this unsuccessful effort to encourage his people, Moshe reports back to God, and God tells them straightforwardly that their mission is going ahead on schedule and as planned:

וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה לִפְנֵי ה’ לֵאמֹר הֵן בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא־שָׁמְעוּ אֵלַי וְאֵיךְ יִשְׁמָעֵנִי פַרְעֹה וַאֲנִי עֲרַל שְׂפָתָיִם. וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל־אַהֲרֹן וַיְצַוֵּם אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶל־פַּרְעֹה מֶלֶךְ מִצְרָיִם לְהוֹצִיא אֶת־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם – But Moshe appealed to God, saying, “The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech!” So God spoke to both Moshe and Ahron regarding the Israelites and Pharaoh king of Egypt, instructing them to deliver the Israelites from the land of Egypt. (6:12,13)

But what follows this powerful reaffirmation of the mission isn’t a renewal or redoubling of efforts. The Torah interrupts this story mid-paragraph with a tangential breakdown of the heritage and lineage of the Jewish families in Egypt in exhaustive detail.

It’s unclear what this breakdown is doing in this story, but perhaps it ties into the notion of efforts not going to waste.

The Ishbitzer teaches that in the instant we choose to pray, before uttering a word, God is poised to listen, which is to say, God responds before we have reached out. In the physical world, Moshe tried to encourage the Jewish People, but they couldn’t hear him. But in the spiritual world, which is to say the world of the spirit, the Torah tells us who they were and where they came from, that they were descendants of Yisrael. Their identity could be a hook Moshe’s words latched on to in their intangible subconscious.

Moshe’s words weren’t futile because they didn’t exist in isolation; they pooled into a more extensive relationship full of interactions, and this was just one of many. They weren’t futile because change happens gradually, incrementally, and slowly. They weren’t futile because they still registered on a subconscious level. They weren’t futile because they were the Children of Israel, and he was going to save them and stand with them at Sinai. They weren’t futile because the people needed to see someone show them they were worth fighting for, and we must also recognize that.

We read about this ostensibly failed interaction, and it’s blindingly obvious that although the words might not have landed perfectly, these efforts were anything but futile.

Nothing ever happens in a day. In the words of Steve Jobs, most overnight successes take a really long time.

God sent Moshe to talk to people when everyone knew it wouldn’t change a thing, but this failed interaction goes on to form a part of a foundation that all future growth and progress can be built upon. It’s not wasted breath; it’s an investment in posterity.

Time and again, we expect ultimate salvation, a moment everything changes and turns around, and we get disappointed because the world doesn’t work like that. God very deliberately sends Moshe on a mission he already knows he cannot possibly succeed at, highlighting to Moshe and us that apparent failure and setbacks are not futile. God sends Moshe because humble beginnings and failed efforts are independently valuable, regardless of the outcome.

If you’ve clashed with someone in a relationship that matters to you, you know that you can’t fix things with a good one-liner. No single idea or thought will make them suddenly understand; no light bulb will turn on that changes everything. Reality is far more modest than that; each kind word and positive interaction is a deposit into an account balance that barely seems to grow at the start. It’s painfully slow, frustrating, and doesn’t look like progress; sometimes, it even looks like a step backward.

If you’re stuck in trouble and can’t hear a kind word, hold on. If you’re trying to help someone who won’t hear or see it, keep it up.

It wasn’t futile then; it’s not futile now.

Amalek Redux

4 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah has lots of laws. Some are fun and easy to understand, like Shabbos, and some are fun and challenging to understand, like shaking the Lulav. A rare few are difficult to understand and might also leave us with a sense of moral unease.

One of them is the laws concerning Amalek.

On the back of the miraculous Exodus and escape at the Red Sea, the Jewish People were exhausted and weary when a band of raiders called Amalek attacked the stragglers in the group.

Seeing as the Jewish People are the protagonists and our ancestors, we understand that Amalek is the antagonist. But of all the adversaries of Jewish history, Amalek has a unique distinction, sitting in a class of its own. From the earliest Jewish writings, Amalek is the code word for everything that is wrong with the world ideologically.

The story of the Land of Israel is a story of conquest. In many stories, the inhabitants recognize the geopolitical risk and act accordingly, such as Balak, Sichon, and Og. But that’s not how the Torah tells the story of Amalek, who attack not out of self-defense, but because they could, and with great dishonor, by targeting weak stragglers.

By most counts, there are no less than three separate duties incumbent on all Jews as it pertains to Amalek: to remember that Amalek attacked the Jewish People just as they left Egypt; not to forget what they did; and the big one, to eradicate the memory of Amalek from the world.

These laws are serious and are part of the rare category of mitzvos that apply to all people at all times under all circumstances. 

But isn’t it a little unsettling? 

It sounds uncomfortably like a mitzvah to commit genocide, the moral argument against which is certainly compelling, especially for a nation who heard the commandment “do not kill” from God’s voice at Sinai, even more so having suffered a genocide in living memory. Although some people have no trouble understanding it that way, you’re in good company if you find difficulty in a commandment to kill Amalek today.

Long ago, the Gemara dismissed the notion of practicing the straightforward interpretation, pointing to a story in the Prophets where the Assyrian king Sennacherib forcibly displaced and resettled the entire Middle East, eliminating distinct bloodlines of racial descent.

While this elegantly eliminates the problem in a practical sense – there is no problem because the law can no longer apply – the moral issue remains open.

Over centuries, a substantial number of prominent halachic authorities have clarified that the status of Amalek is not racial; that although a tribe called Amalek attacked the Jewish People and formed the context for the law, the law is not and never was an instruction to commit genocide against those people. While the Gemara says that Amalek can never join the Jewish People, it also says that descendants of Amalek taught Torah in Israel, suggesting that their women, or children of women who married out, could lose their identity as Amalek. If Amalek isn’t a race, there is no law to kill such a particular group, and there is no moral dilemma.

R’ Chaim Brisker explains that Amalek is not a particular group of humans; it is a conceptual category. It’s an attitude and ideology that transcends any specific race or individual and persists forever, an archetype of evil that we must fundamentally stand against and be on alert for. Writers through the ages have labeled enemies or opposition as Amalek, which, although often lazy, correctly categorizes and formalizes this eternal struggle.

 The perpetrators of the original crime are all dead, and modern society does not believe in the heritability of guilt. But the offense isn’t simply that they physically attacked the Jewish People; as Rashi explains, it’s that they cooled us off along the way while we were weary – אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כּל־הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ.

As the Netziv points out, it would be self-defeating and tautological to have an eternal command to destroy something’s memory; the Torah makes that impossible simply by mentioning it.

The Kedushas Levi goes further and suggests that Amalek’s legacy lies in the heart of every person.

We might stop to wonder if the ideology of Amalek is all around us in the social Darwinist culture we have built ourselves, which is, at its core, a simple application of survival of the fittest behavior.

Sure, the malignant form of Amalek looks like a Haman or a Hitler. But the benign form is all around us, in ourselves and others. It’s not any particular humans we need to overcome, but their attitude and ideology. The fight against Amalek does not end even though the nation is long gone; its legacy remains, and it’s the legacy that poses a threat.

A Chassidic aphorism observes that Amalek is numerically equivalent to doubt – עמלק / ספק.

In our day-to-day lives, that looks like when you consider doing something bold or different, and someone, perhaps even yourself, pokes holes or second-guesses the new initiative. “I want to try this new idea, but maybe I shouldn’t? What if it’s the wrong choice? Maybe I don’t deserve it?” Or perhaps, “Why start or support that project—aren’t there far more important ones?”

The attack in Rephidim only happens opportunistically when people are caught off guard – רְפִידִים / רפיון ידים.

Anthropologists and psychologists have long observed the phenomenon of crab mentality in some groups. The metaphor derives from a pattern of behavior noted in crabs when trapped in a bucket – any individual crab could easily escape, but the others will undermine its efforts, ensuring the group’s collective demise. In some groups, members will attempt to reduce the self-confidence of any member who achieves success beyond the others, whether out of envy, resentment, spite, or competitive feeling, to halt their progress. The wrong circles have powerful inertia that draws members towards conformity and mediocrity in a self-fulfilling negative feedback loop.

Letting feelings of self-doubt and personal incompetence persist is called impostor syndrome. You can baselessly hold back from doing things that could transform your life because you’re not ready to face the reality of your own potential greatness.

As the Mishna in Pirkei Avos says, eliminate doubt – הִסְתַּלֵּק מִן הַסָּפֵק.

If it sounds pithy or trite, just know that that’s quite literally Amalek’s great crime – trying to hold the Jewish People back just as they were beginning to break through, discouraging them just as they were getting started and finding their feet – אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כּל־הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ.

It’s not apologetics or mental gymnastics; it neatly fits the words and is something we recognize all around us.

Haters rarely hate you; far more often, they hate themselves because you’re showing them a reflection of what they wish they could be, and they don’t like feeling inadequate.

Shine bright and soar, and forget about the people who tried to hold you back.

Onward

5 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Killing Envy

5 minute read
Straightforward

If you had to sit in a room for a month and compile a top ten list of Judaism’s most important concepts, most people would probably come out with something that looks like the Ten Commandments.

We’d probably start with the notion that there is a Creator and not to betray faith in the Creator by taking God’s name lightly or praying to other deities. We’d all agree that humans should not kill other humans. Most of us would agree on the importance of observing Shabbos, which honors the Creator and the natural order of Creation, acknowledging the bounds of human creativity in space and time. We’d probably agree on the value of respecting our parents and honoring the people who raised us.

These laws are intuitive; they make sense – we understand why these are some of the most essential things the Creator has to say to humans.

But then there’s one that probably wouldn’t spring to mind for most people:

וְלֹא תַחְמֹד אֵשֶׁת רֵעֶךָ. וְלֹא תִתְאַוֶּה בֵּית רֵעֶךָ שָׂדֵהוּ וְעַבְדּוֹ וַאֲמָתוֹ שׁוֹרוֹ וַחֲמֹרוֹ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר לְרֵעֶךָ – You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. You shall not crave your neighbor’s house, or his field, or his male or female slave, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s. (5:18)

Coveting. Envy. Jealousy. Wanting.

Is warning us off jealousy one of the most important things God has to say to humanity?

It’s on the list, so we can conclude that the answer to that question is yes, and that we ought to consider why.

The destructiveness of murder and theft are obvious, as they utterly disregard the autonomy and integrity of other humans and their rights to life and property. But the destructiveness of envy and jealousy are deceptively subtle in comparison because it seems so harmless. It’s a victimless crime – who are you hurting?

Perhaps it’s precisely that line of thinking that allows it to slip under our radars stealthily, and we should be concerned because, in reality, there is a victim of jealousy, and you haven’t noticed because it isn’t someone else – it’s you.

Envy suffocates you and slowly poisons your soul. Anger and hatred are occasionally justified – some things should not be tolerated and require our outrage to prompt decisive action. We should hate Nazis, and we should get angry when they march in public and express their ugliness; we then need to send them scurrying back to the dark crevasses they crawled out of.

Our Sages allow a very narrow form of jealousy towards someone highly accomplished. But even then, our Sages only permit a positive and productive form of action-oriented jealousy, where you use it as fuel to motivate you to raise your game and match their efforts. Are those excellent qualities replicable? Practice them, and you, too, can have those qualities. The unspoken premise here is that our Sages take it as a given that you cannot expect to be worthy of an equal opportunity to participate in the accomplishment without putting in the same effort that someone else did. This conception does not allow for armchair envy and everyday jealousy; you cannot expect to achieve your targets without paying your dues and putting in the work.

On the other hand, simple jealousy is the ultimate manifestation of entitlement, laziness, and a scarcity mindset – that there’s not enough of something to go around, so if others have it, it means you can’t. It’s a mentality that creates a landscape of fear, and the world descends into a cutthroat competition of survival of the fittest, a vile manifestation of social Darwinism. It might be the nastiest emotion we can have!

But unless we’re invoking envy to do better, it isn’t just a dangerous sin; it’s a stupid sin as well because it’s one of the only ones you could never possibly enjoy. It’s a severe hidden drawback to how we live today, with unlimited information at our fingertips, stoking feelings of inadequacy and jealousy by comparing what we have with the thin slice we see of other people’s lives. All pain, no gain, and yet we wonder what the harm is!

You pass the test but compare yourself to the best student in class, without knowing they haven’t met their friends for six months. You work long and difficult hours and compare yourself to the guy in the neighborhood who just made a fortune without knowing that his firm is under investigation and he is in serious jeopardy. You marry a complete human with flaws but compare them to people on social media in the top 1% of looks, smarts, or wealth without seeing their multiple flaws. You buy a house and discover issues but compare it to the nicest house on the block without knowing that the foundation is weak and needs to be torn down. Does any of this sound uncomfortably familiar?

So sure, maybe we know that envy is terrible, but you can’t just change the way you feel, so what can we do, practically speaking?

Firstly, let’s read the words.

“Do not kill” and “Do not steal” are simple two-word instructions, and we understand that we are to apply them broadly and generally. Unlike those and several others, envy, the one that doesn’t spring to mind as quickly, is spelled out in explicit detail, with seven specific hypotheticals before the general rule.

Maybe it would be too hard to prohibit jealousy because we can’t just stop feeling the way we feel. But God doesn’t just tell us not to be jealous – God tells us how to avoid it entirely. Don’t be jealous of this in particular; don’t be jealous of that – בֵּית רֵעֶךָ / שָׂדֵהוּ / וְעַבְדּוֹ / וַאֲמָתוֹ / שׁוֹרוֹ / וַחֲמֹרוֹ – you can’t cherry-pick certain aspects of someone else’s life. To have what they have, you’d have to be them, so, as the Sfas Emes notes, if you are going to be jealous of someone, you must be willing to swap your entire life for theirs – וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר לְרֵעֶךָ.

Or in other words, if you’re seeing someone’s highlight reel, remember that you can’t correctly judge the whole by a part.

But secondly, and more fundamentally, we need to reorganize how we see the world and remind ourselves that God’s blessings are not finite. There isn’t a fixed amount of happiness, health, love, or money in the world, so it’s not a zero-sum game. Someone else’s good fortune cannot subtract from yours and cannot diminish the pool of blessings available to you in the future. His is his – אֲשֶׁר לְרֵעֶךָ – and yours is yours, and we need to respect that boundary down to the smallest detail scrupulously. God’s blessings are abundant, not scarce. The Ibn Ezra suggests that the practice of this law requires that you refine yourself to have no interest in what is not meant for you.

As our Sages guided us, who is wealthy? One who celebrates and takes joy in what he has – אֵיזֶהוּ עָשִׁיר, הַשָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ. One interpretation even inverts the plain reading, from celebrating what you have to celebrating what he has – בְּחֶלְקוֹ. We should take this sage wisdom to heart, kill the scarcity mindset, and cultivate an abundance mentality. Someone else’s prosperity and success don’t make your own any less likely, so be happy when someone else wins because yours is no further away.

So perhaps warning us against envy is one of the most important things God has to say to us; it might be the sin with the highest destructiveness to innocence ratio. It withholds you from your highest consciousness and prevents you from being you in all your fullness; it stops you from being happy and limits your ability to embrace your blessings.

So don’t look at your neighbor to see if you have as much as them; the only time you should look at what your neighbor has is to ensure they have enough.

No person has the power to have everything they want, but it is within everyone’s power not to want what they don’t have and to cheerfully put what they do have to good use.

While you can’t have everything you want, it’s such a blessing to want what you have.

Face the Facts

3 minute read
Straightforward

When something big and life-changing happens, you might think it’s obvious that you notice and act accordingly. But that’s only sometimes the case.

As far as significant and life-changing happenings go, the Revelation at Sinai should be up there. God came down to Earth to give humans the Torah! We might expect the beginning of humanity’s journey with the Torah to be full of eager excitement, perhaps at least a somber sense of purpose and responsibility. But that’s not what happens.

The first excursion away from Sinai winds up in catastrophe; the people bitterly complain about their miserable life in the desert. They seem to have forgotten all about the genocide and slavery; this is a fine example of the slave mentality they could never seem to shake. They fondly reminisce about the good old days of Egypt, when they enjoyed abundant fish, cucumbers, garlic, onion, leeks, and juicy melons. Now they’re stuck eating manna from Heaven, fed daily by no less than God Himself, but after experiencing the culinary delights Egypt had to offer, this was bland and boring. They clamor for more enjoyable food and demand some tasty meat, and subsequently, a plague ensues with many casualties.

While the story unfolds in its way, Rashi suggests that it was the manner of their departure from Sinai that cultivated their craving for meat:

וַיִּסְעוּ מֵהַר ה’ דֶּרֶךְ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים – They marched from the mountain of God a distance of three days…. (10:33)

Our Sages compare their attitude to a child running out of school; they couldn’t wait to put God’s mountain behind them, figuratively and literally. What if God imposed even more laws?! As the Ramban notes, it’s not just they traveled a physical distance; it’s that they traveled away mentally and spiritually from the mountain, and all it meant – ‘וַיִּסְעוּ מֵהַר ה.

The Chasam Sofer notes that the causation must work both ways; if a poor attitude had fueled their craving for meat, then intuitively, the inverse lesson must be true too, that if they had solemnly carried the Torah and lived up to their responsibilities, then they never could have contemplated that God’s cuisine was lousy!

But instead, they ran from destiny.

Rather than act like people who had witnessed Sinai, they acted like people who had not, simple folk with simple wants and needs, because who doesn’t enjoy a good steak now and then?

But as the story shows, that shouldn’t be what satisfies us; that shouldn’t be the thing we crave and desire first and foremost. Did they want fresh meat because that’s just what humans like, or was it the result of their unwillingness to face the fact of Sinai and rise to its challenge? They might have believed the former, but our Sages believe the latter.

Our Sages labeled their mentality as childish; a child lacks the discipline, experience, maturity, and wisdom to do the hard things they need to but don’t want to. A child is not yet ready to grapple with life’s challenges.

Only they weren’t children.

While we can knowingly sigh at such an obvious error, the Torah is a mirror that tells us who we are, that God can speak to humans, and we will run away. Destiny can call, with the highest and most sacred purpose the universe has to offer, and we will procrastinate with all kinds of creative escapism, avoiding responsibility by indulging ourselves with trivial nonsense.

Consider for a moment what you might be avoiding, failing to recognize, or running away from. At its core, avoidance is an emotion management problem. That feeling you get when there is something you keep kicking down the road? That’s a signal.

Something big happened to them, and they ignored it and tried to leave it behind. But life comes at you one way or another, so you’ve got to take it all with you and incorporate it into your being. The stakes are too high – we can’t afford to be childish, and we can’t run from who we are.

There are many big and scary things we must do, and we must cultivate the maturity to rise to the challenge.

As Kierkegaard said, face the facts of being what you are, for that is what changes what you are.

Love’s Truest Language

3 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

But why were there flowers on Mount Sinai at all?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Clothes Make the Man

5 minute read
Straightforward

From all over the world, Jews would come to the Mishkan and Beis HaMikdash for spiritual healing and engagement with the divine transcendence. Offering services far beyond the regular public programming and sacrifices, the Kohanim, the priests on duty, would attend to people’s personal spiritual needs, helping them bring sacrificial offerings to find atonement or thanksgiving, whatever their circumstances.

The Torah describes a plain and simple uniform that all on-duty Kohanim would wear: linen shorts with a matching long-robed shirt, a belt, and a turban. 

The uniform was modest and minimal, but like all dress codes, uniforms pose a challenge. How we dress is a form of self-expression; doesn’t imposing a uniform dress code stifle individuality and human freedom? 

Clothing is a basic form of self-expression, and self-expression is vital to emotional growth and well-being. We use freedom of expression, including clothing choice, to cultivate the ability to make choices about how we express ourselves, an integral part of learning a broader responsibility for our choices and healthy personal development. If you’ve ever seen a child put up a big fight about getting dressed, you’ve seen just how important it is, emotionally speaking, to be able to control your outward appearance as part of being in control of your identity. There should be no question that you can tell something about a person by how they dress. While imprecise, it’s directionally accurate. 

Yet, be that as it may, the nature of a public-facing service job is that you must somewhat check yourself at the door. There’s plenty of time for self-expression, but it might not be the right moment to express yourself fully when a client or patient requires your advice and compassion. 

Humans have certain behaviors hardcoded into our biological makeup – we make snap judgments from very thin slices of information, including conclusions from how someone dresses. These are powerful drives, and we’d be lying to ourselves if we thought we could suppress subconscious instincts; they are subconscious. So while there are plenty of highly successful or learned people who avoid formal wear on principle and achieve incredible heights wearing gym clothes and flip flops, the fact remains that when you’re trying to impress, regardless of your merits, everyone knows you’re better off in a suit than pajamas.

How someone dresses is, of course, not a reliable or proper way to judge a person at all, but the fact remains that appearances matter. Sitting in the emergency room with a troubling health concern, you might get thrown off a little if the doctor walks in with ripped jeans and spiky chains over a tank top. In scrubs or a clown costume, he’s still the same doctor; the scrubs also help you.

When you’re at the hospital, and you see someone in scrubs in the hallway, you instantly know an incredible amount of relevant and valuable information about that person – they work at the hospital, they know their way around the building, they know a lot about health and the human body, they can direct you where you’re trying to go. But most importantly, you know they’re there to help you; the hospital dress code utilizes nonverbal communication to foster a sense of comfort and gravity that allows patients and their families to feel comfortable and at ease, all before a single word needs to be said.

And it’s no different for spiritual health and well-being. 

The Torah mandates a simple dress code for on-duty Kohanim, consisting of a plain and simple uniform, spirit scrubs if you like, out of concern for the weary and troubled souls who came from far and near.

Dress codes are effective. Dress codes work. While it’s not an absolute and immutable law, it is a pretty good rule of thumb, a heuristic that primes us to act a certain way. And to be sure, what we’re discussing is the textbook definition of superficial – but that’s human nature and psychology; we have a strong bias and inclination towards the superficial. The way you present yourself matters.

Dress codes level the playing field by peeling away distractions and removing barriers to people getting what they need. Uniforms aren’t intimidating the way fancy clothes are; uniforms aren’t off-putting the way old, raggedy clothes are. Everyone on duty appears equal, at least in an outward sense. Uniforms also create a psychological bond, building a group identity that motivates individuals to do more; you see this in the military, police, school, and work. It can help engender feelings of support: you see others working with you and recognize that they aren’t just doing it as individuals for personal reasons. When you are servicing the public, it is not about you because you are expressly not representing yourself. Tellingly, the uniforms were procured with public funds and owned by the Beis HaMikdash endowment.

There is nothing inherent about dress codes or uniforms that makes you better at what you do for wearing those clothes, but the fact you’re wearing them signals, at least to some people, that you’re willing to put them first. And even if you don’t think that’s true, it is still a reason somebody else might think it is true, and that’s reason enough.

Like other uniforms, the Kohanim’s uniform conveys information and fosters comfort and security, setting the tone for meaningful and high-signal interactions with spiritual seekers. But like a doctor in scrubs, the dress code is only skin deep.

It’s important to stress that appearance isn’t everything – far from it. No two doctors or people are the same, even though they may wear the same uniform. They each have different personalities and sensitivities, and assuming a basic threshold of competency; they distinguish themselves with their bedside manner – what they’re like to interact with. Our Amida also has a uniform structure, morning, noon, and night, Sunday through Friday, yet no two prayers are alike –  the feeling we invest in each word is different each time. R’ Shlomo Farhi highlights that even as similar as the Kohanim’s uniform was, each set of clothing still had to be tapered to the contours of the wearer’s body, with no loose fabric. No two people are alike, and even two conversations with the same person aren’t interchangeable; uniformity doesn’t mean homogeneity, and common form is not common substance.

Shakespeare wrote that the clothes make the man, but if that’s a little wide of the mark, it’s probably correct to say that the clothes set the tone. In your own house, yard, or office, do whatever and be whoever you like. Who’s to say otherwise? But in other-facing, client-facing, or public-facing positions, you should be mindful of how you look to people who don’t know to give you the benefit of the doubt. Plenty of major companies have relaxed dress codes for non-client-facing positions, but you can be sure that the client-facing positions are suited and booted!

The value articulated by a dress code or uniform policy is that while they may not help everyone, they provide substantial benefits to portions of the population disadvantaged in specific contexts. 

So perhaps dress codes don’t compromise individuality or self-expression; maybe they curb the outermost and superficial part of ourselves, and that’s the part we can afford to sacrifice for other people’s comfort in public service. 

Trading Taskmasters

4 minute read
Advanced

On Seder night, we celebrate the Jewish People’s birth as a nation and liberation from slavery. The entire night explores the imperative value of freedom and teaches us that freedom is a mode of thinking under all circumstances; it is not handed to us; it is ours to claim only if we make that choice.

But are we really so free?

Quite arguably, did we not simply trade up for a better taskmaster, swapping service to Pharaoh for service to God?

The notion of swapping masters ignores a crucial distinction between negative liberty, the freedom from, and positive liberty, the freedom to. Negative liberty means freedom from restrictions placed on you by other people; positive liberty means freedom to control and direct your own life, to consciously make your own choices, create your own path and purpose, and shape your own identity in life.

People in retirement can do as they please, like an infinite vacation. But as many retirees and their families can confirm, lack of routine and structure is negative liberty; it doesn’t feel great for long, and people invariably become enslaved to someone or something, even habits and subconscious instincts, leading to addiction, boredom, depression, or laziness. That’s not being free; that’s called being lost. 

Discipline and freedom only seem to sit on opposite ends of the spectrum; they are tightly connected, in fact. If you want freedom, the only way to get there is through discipline.

Everyone suffers from one of two pains; the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. The difference is discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons. Counterintuitively, life gets harder when you try to make it easy. Exercising is hard, but never moving makes life harder. Uncomfortable conversations are hard, but avoiding every conflict is harder. Mastering your craft is hard, but having no skills is harder. Easy has a cost.

Freedom worthy of admiration and respect requires positive liberty, taking responsibility for yourself by committing to an idea or purpose, such as a diet and exercise regime for fitness and good health. However difficult or forced, making these choices is the highest expression of freedom, and you can only benefit in the long run. 

The Midrash similarly suggests that not only can freedom be found in service to God, but it is also the only way to be truly free. When the Torah says that God carved the Ten Commandments, the Midrash suggests we alternatively read it as liberation through the Ten Commandments – חָרוּת עַל־הַלֻּחֹת / חֵרוּת עַל־הַלֻּחֹת. We earn freedom through the Torah’s framework by assuming responsibility for our lives and destiny. It’s an externally imposed responsibility, like Pharaoh, but the comparison stops there. The outcome of the Torah’s responsibility is the gift of positive liberty, freeing us from slavery to our worst inclinations, resulting in more compassionate, humane, and kind humans.

The God that rescued the Jewish People from Egypt was the same God that had sent them there in the first place. It’s not contrived salvation or engineered heroics because God is not gratuitously cruel. It wasn’t Egypt that held the Jews; it was God holding the Jews in Egypt, as foretold to Avraham, in response to Avraham’s question about how God could promise a destiny to his descendants if, at some point, they would inevitably deviate from Avraham’s example. The Maharal explains God’s answer to mean that the Egypt experience would permanently bind his descendants to the Creator regardless of their mistakes.

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that God doesn’t just save us from things that hurt us; however bitter the lesson might be to learn, the things that hurt us can also function as instruments of protecting us from something, providing pathways to positive liberty. The Jewish People left Egypt with the hard-won experience God had promised Avraham, and with that experience accumulated, the ordeal was complete – בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל.

Yet the unspoken inverse of that notion is that if they’d had the experience all along, the ordeal would have been redundant and would never have happened. It was only because they had lost their way, forgetting who they were and where they had come from, that they suffered through centuries of slavery as a result. If they had stooped to pagan idolatry like anyone else, it only follows that they were vulnerable; the inescapable conclusion is that Pharaoh could have only ever have enslaved them so they could rediscover what they had lost! The hand that hurts is the same hand that serves to save – שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר עוֹמְדִים עָלֵינוּ לְכַלוֹתֵנוּ, וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַצִּילֵנוּ מִיָּדָם. However disturbing this lesson is, it is simultaneously deeply comforting, suggesting that all our pain has deep meaning and significance.

We never swapped service to Pharaoh for service to God; because we aren’t slaves to God. God offers us positive liberty, the freedom to take control of our lives and realize our fundamental purpose in the universe. Accepting the responsibility of service to God may look forced, but we know we are the ultimate beneficiaries of our efforts because we can utilize our freedom to thrive, tapping into our highest and best selves and making our lives matter. God offers humans positive liberty and, through it, cosmic significance.

Our bodies feel pain in response to an injury; your nerves send millions of signals to your brain that something is wrong, hopefully prompting a reaction. Pain has a clearly defined purpose; the only incorrect response is to ignore it.

We shouldn’t ignore the pain in our national or personal life, but we possess the freedom and spirit to elevate and transform that pain into meaning and purpose. There is cosmic significance to our hurt. It matters.

The God who heals is the same God who hurts; hurt is a pathway to healing, and compassion can overcome severity – שְׂמֹאל דּוֹחָה וְיָמִין מְקָרֶבֶת.

We’re never glad for the hurt, but we are free to make it count.

Your Heart in the Right Place

3 minute read
Straightforward

In every field of human civilization, there are discoveries, technologies, and people that changed everything.

The printing press permanently slashed the cost of information, commoditizing and dramatically expanding the reach of human knowledge. Antibiotics and vaccination neutralized the dangers of the historically leading causes of human death. The internet has transformed how we communicate.

Closer to home, Rashi opened up our literature to the masses. The Rambam organized and synthesized broad and divergent streams of lore and thought into cohesive and comprehensive works of law and philosophy. Aish HaTorah and Ohr Someach demonstrated the urgency of outreach to combat the attrition wrought by assimilation. Chabad put a Jewish embassy in every major city on the planet.

These are all remarkable feats, and they should speak to something deep within us; who hasn’t once dreamed of making an impact and leaving the world better off for it? Even once we have matured past the stage of wanting to make the world in our image, we still have ambitions; and we eventually face the question of how we can hope to succeed at those ambitious goals.

It’s a familiar question because it’s universal.

How are you going to succeed at that?

This line of thinking is common and garbs itself in the language of realism. But this line of thinking is actually pessimism in disguise, and ironically, often grants people the certainty they need to excuse themselves from getting started.

Survivorship bias is real. While it’s not strictly wrong to say that the number of people who are fortunate enough to successfully pull off massive accomplishments is small, what they all have in common is that they got started, which might be half the battle – לא עליך המלאכה לגמור, ולא אתה בן חורין ליבטל ממנה. Rashi himself wrote dismissively of people who say it’s impossible to finish Shas; the only way it’s ever been done is a couple of pages per session.

But there is something else to it as well.

Our sages suggest that the designer in chief of the Mishkan, Bezalel, was exceptionally gifted and perhaps even supernaturally clairvoyant. But when the Torah describes the architects and artisans, the common craftsmen and contributors of the Mishkan construction project, it consistently refers to one unifying characteristic of the men and women who rose to the occasion:

וַיִּקְרָא מֹשֶׁה אֶל־בְּצַלְאֵל וְאֶל־אָהֳלִיאָב וְאֶל כָּל־אִישׁ חֲכַם־לֵב אֲשֶׁר נָתַן ה חָכְמָה בְּלִבּוֹ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר נְשָׂאוֹ לִבּוֹ לְקָרְבָה אֶל־הַמְּלָאכָה לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָהּ׃ – Moshe called Bezalel and Oholiav, and every skilled person whom Hashem had endowed with skill in his heart, everyone who had given their hearts to undertake the task and carry it out. (36:2)

The Ramban notes that the working population of that moment consisted of freed slaves, who only had experience in manual labor – they were not skilled in metallurgy or textiles! Yet the Torah consistently describes their technical skill as a feature of having a heart for the task in question – חֲכַם־לֵב. The Chafetz Chaim suggests that in doing so, the Torah subtly recognizes the skill of these volunteers as a product not of experience, but of desire; their hearts were in the right place – נָתַן ה’ חָכְמָה בְּלִבּוֹ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר נְשָׂאוֹ לִבּוֹ לְקָרְבָה אֶל־הַמְּלָאכָה לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָהּ.

The Mishkan volunteers could succeed at something unprecedented with no relevant experience because God granted the requisite skill to the people whose hearts were in the right place and whose hearts were invested in the project. R’ Noach Weinberg similarly encourages us to invest heart into our undertakings and trust that God sends us the fortune and wisdom required to succeed – יגעתי ולא מצאתי אל תאמן. If we want the right things for the right reasons, why wouldn’t we throw ourselves in the deep end and hope for the best?

The Malbim suggests that all we truly can give is our all, and it’s true enough of most things. Who can accomplish the impossible? The people who want it badly enough – רחמנא ליבא בעי. Our Sages taught that you could have anything you want if you want it badly enough – אין דבר עומד בפני הרצון. If you want it badly enough, you’ll find a way; and if you don’t, you’ll find an excuse – בדרך שאדם רוצה לילך מוליכין אותו.

We all have big goals, and if we expect to influence the quality of our lives, we must be proactive. But what are the chances you get what you want if you don’t go after it? And crucially, what are the chances you get it if you go about it half-heartedly?

If you want to succeed, your heart has to be in the right place, and you have to go all-in.

It’s Not Over Til It’s Over

5 minute read
Straightforward

With the climactic events at Sinai, the Jewish People heard God’s word and received the Torah’s laws, along with detailed instructions on how to build a Mishkan. Moshe remained at the summit of the mountain for another forty days, so the people got nervous waiting for him and built themselves a Golden Calf, a debacle that requires its own treatment.

Whatever Moshe and God were in the middle of, they stopped for God to inform Moshe what his people had done. Sending Moshe off the mountain, God declared that He would destroy the Jewish People and start over from Moshe:

וַיְדַבֵּר ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה לֶךְ־רֵד כִּי שִׁחֵת עַמְּךָ אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלֵיתָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם׃ סָרוּ מַהֵר מִן־הַדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִם עָשׂוּ לָהֶם עֵגֶל מַסֵּכָה וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ־לוֹ וַיִּזְבְּחוּ־לוֹ וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם׃ וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה רָאִיתִי אֶת־הָעָם הַזֶּה וְהִנֵּה עַם־קְשֵׁה־עֹרֶף הוּא׃ וְעַתָּה הַנִּיחָה לִּי וְיִחַר־אַפִּי בָהֶם וַאֲכַלֵּם וְאֶעֱשֶׂה אוֹתְךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל – Hashem spoke to Moshe, “Hurry down, for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely. They have been so quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them. They have made themselves a molten calf and bowed low to it and sacrificed to it, saying: ‘This is your god, Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!’” Hashem further said to Moshe, “I see that this is a stiffnecked people. Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation.” (32:7-10)

Horrified at the prospect of his people’s imminent doom, Moshe argued with God:

וְעַתָּה אִם־תִּשָּׂא חַטָּאתָם וְאִם־אַיִן מְחֵנִי נָא מִסִּפְרְךָ אֲשֶׁר כָּתָבְתָּ – “Now, if You will forgive their sin, then well and good; but if not, erase me from the Book You have written!” (32:32)

God concedes the discussion, and Moshe successfully averts a catastrophe. The story continues with the aftermath of the Golden Calf incident and a slow return to normality. But although we know how the story ends and that Moshe was ultimately successful, we shouldn’t downplay or gloss over what Moshe did.

Moshe argued with God; God let him win. Each element alone is remarkable. Both elements combined are explosive.

Moshe was intimately familiar with the Almighty, playing an instrumental role in supporting God’s raining destruction on Egypt and devastating its military forces, utterly tearing the fabric of nature in the process. Knowing the Creator better than anyone who has ever lived and hearing God commit to destroying the Jewish People, Moshe stood his ground. He picked a fight with God Himself, threatening to resign and walk away from it all if God followed through.

Yet, there was no way for Moshe to think his actions had any serious prospect of success in real-time. The heroism and self-sacrifice it must have taken at that moment ought to send chills down our spine. Where does someone get the boldness to play religious Russian roulette against God Himself? Or put differently, how could Moshe possibly know that this gambit wouldn’t backfire spectacularly?

The question is far better than the answer because there is no indication that Moshe had any knowledge of that effect. He simply refused to accept the finality of a national death sentence and took a chance in the hope that God would let him win.

There is a deeply pertinent lesson here. Far too often, well-meaning people end up excusing or justifying other people’s suffering as “meant to be,” resigning those unfortunate souls to destiny and fate. Yet Moshe literally heard God Himself impose a death sentence, and he still challenged it. The unequivocal moral of Moshe’s standoff against God is that we must not accept what is “meant to be” because if that information even exists, humans can not access it. As we so clearly see, even if you heard the words uttered directly from God, you still wouldn’t actually know what God truly intended to do.

The Gemara teaches that even if a sword rests upon someone’s neck, they should not stop praying and should still hold on to the hope that their prayers will be answered.

None of this is to say that God wasn’t serious. However, a characteristic we learn from God in this story and others, including Avraham concerning Sodom, is that God may pose something unconscionable to us as a prompt we are challenged to take issue with. R’ Shlomo Farhi highlights how our heroes and role models never suspended their internal moral compasses, even when it brought them to the point of directly questioning God. Avraham took his opportunity, and God welcomed a discussion. Moshe took the opportunity here, and God not only welcomed the discussion but went on to explain how the Jewish People could make amends long into the future. When we fail to take the prompt, it results in needless suffering and misery, which Noach is the classic archetype of.

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, but asking the question might make us do something about it. If there’s any nobility in accepting suffering with grace, there is only cruelty in accepting the suffering of others.

After winning his argument with God, Moshe asked for greater understanding, but God cryptically answered that we could only see God in hindsight. This suggests that Moshe’s bold and hopeful intuition was correct; we shouldn’t just accept things because that’s the way it is. God’s response is encouraging, not discouraging – our honed intuition is the absolute zenith of human apprehension. Don’t take it lying down as Noach did, and if you don’t win, then like Avraham, you’ll know you did all you possibly could. We cannot know what God will do, and we cannot see God in real-time, only in hindsight. This concept underlies the entire notion of Teshuva – our fate is not predetermined, and we can directly influence it; use your judgment, and don’t justify things that don’t feel right as destiny and fate.

The Leshem teaches that Moshe’s exchange teaches that understanding God is simply beyond human grasp; it is not a symptom of some failure, but rather a constitutive element of being human. As so many of our prophets make clear, God is not like us; not just different, but fundamentally unlike, utterly inscrutable and incomprehensible, not just in part, but entirely at all – כי לא מחשבותי מחשבותיכם.

Finally, to understand Moshe’s boldness, we must recognize that the position he took was brimming with hope. Hope locates itself in the premise that we don’t know what will happen and that there is room for us to act in the spaciousness of uncertainty. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists, who both excuse themselves from acting. Hope depends on a degree of uncertainty; otherwise, it would be prediction, expectation, or even knowledge. Moshe had hope because even though he heard God say the words, he still wasn’t sure that was the end. Think about that for a second; God can tell you something will happen, and you still couldn’t be sure that it will! And from this story, we know that God endorses this view.

As Kierkegaard said, life must be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards.

When events are still unfolding, there is simply no way for humans to determine what God’s plan is, so there is equally no need to act like anything is God’s plan for as long as you can still do something about it; the stories of our heroes and legendary figures should empower us to boldly act with the hope they once had.

Because it’s not over until it’s over.

The Places You’ll Go

3 minute read
Straightforward

The Mishkan and Beis HaMikdash had different chambers and utensils laden with meaning and symbolism.

Quite arguably, the centerpiece and focal point of the entire endeavor was the Ark, the gold-covered wooden chest containing the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments; the seat of the Torah and the physical embodiment of God’s immanent closeness, as represented by the cherubim, the angelic children sculpted on top in a warm embrace.

By its very nature, the Mishkan and its contents were built to be portable; taken apart then put back together every time the camp moved. Some items were simple to box and move, like knives and cups. Some oversized items were not designed to be dismantled and boxed, like the Menora and Table. Those items had built-in rings that enabled the insertion and alignment of moving rods; large poles that enabled and facilitated portability by the carrying crew.

These rods were auxiliary gear whose sole purpose was easy and balanced handling on the go; they weren’t part of the furniture. When not being transported, they were entirely redundant otherwise and were removed and stored away. This was standard and uniform policy, with one notable exception – the Ark.

Just like every other large instrument and utensil, the Ark was built with rings for its moving rods. But quite unlike every other instrument and utensil, its moving rods were forbidden to remove:

וְיָצַקְתָּ לּוֹ אַרְבַּע טַבְּעֹת זָהָב וְנָתַתָּה עַל אַרְבַּע פַּעֲמֹתָיו וּשְׁתֵּי טַבָּעֹת עַל־צַלְעוֹ הָאֶחָת וּשְׁתֵּי טַבָּעֹת עַל־צַלְעוֹ הַשֵּׁנִית׃ וְעָשִׂיתָ בַדֵּי עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים וְצִפִּיתָ אֹתָם זָהָב׃ וְהֵבֵאתָ אֶת־הַבַּדִּים בַּטַּבָּעֹת עַל צַלְעֹת הָאָרֹן לָשֵׂאת אֶת־הָאָרֹן בָּהֶם׃ בְּטַבְּעֹת הָאָרֹן יִהְיוּ הַבַּדִּים לֹא יָסֻרוּ מִמֶּנּוּ׃ – Cast four gold rings for it, to be attached to its four feet, two rings on one of its sidewalls and two on the other. Make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold; then insert the poles into the rings on the sidewalls of the Ark for carrying. The poles shall remain in the rings of the Ark: they shall not be removed from it. (25:12-15)

The Ark used the exact same prefabricated rods that went on and off everything else; only these remained permanently attached. But what is the point of designing the Ark with moving rods that don’t come out? Why not simply design an Ark with elegantly built-in handles?

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch suggests that these poles highlight a powerful symbolism. They weren’t just ordinary handles, which perhaps truly could have been a permanent design feature. Instead, the Ark – which contains and represents the Torah and all it entails – is deliberately designed with permanent moving rods, meaning the Ark is built to be permanently portable. It requires no preparation to arrive or depart; it is designed to be taken wherever we need and wherever we go at a moment’s notice.

Our sages suggest that the Ark had a variety of physics breaking properties; that it had an anti-gravitational effect, hovering and never touching the ground, and carrying its carriers; that it flattened and smoothed the hills and obstacles in the way of the weary Jewish People; and that it bent physical space when measured end to end. When Jerusalem was sacked for the last time, the Beis HaMikdash was pillaged, and many vessels and utensils were famously plundered. Yet the Ark was not – it was mysteriously hidden, and legend has it that it will show up again one day when it’s supposed to.

While each of these alone is wild, R’ Nosson Adler takes them together to thematically reflect that the Torah contained in the Ark transcends space and time. Torah precedes creation – אסתכל באורייתא וברא עלמא; it can bend space and time because it does not belong to space and time. It comes from somewhere beyond our dimensions and is not bound by them.

Permanently portable, we have carried the Torah through crusades, exiles, expulsions, and pogroms, the living memory we lovingly look to for wisdom and guidance through good times and bad. But perhaps in some sense, the Torah has carried us too, helping us soothe some of the bumps and scratches we’ve accumulated along the way, providing us with comfort and warmth in the times we need it most.

On a similar note, Rashi comments that Moshe taught the Torah in seventy languages; which the Chiddushei HaRim takes this as equipping the Jewish People with a way to bring the Torah to every corner of the world. As the Ksav Sofer highlights, the Torah in another language suggests that the Torah can be fully integrated into another culture, as history has shown.

The Ohr HaChaim notes that the Torah is self-referential as a way of life, a way of being – אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ. It speaks to us on the go, in the desert, in liminal space, the place between places – וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ בַדֶּרֶךְ. While this certainly holds true in the global historical macro sense, you ought to at least attempt to make it true in the local and personal sense; in the small chunks of time between things, there have never been more opportunities to learn something short, so take your opportunities.

In the Torah’s profoundly symbolic way, it goes as we go, built to move with us.

How to Eat an Elephant

6 minute read
Straightforward

In our storied and hallowed tradition, some of our sages have suggested that the Torah contains a Golden Rule, a comprehensive and holistic meta-principle that unifies and underlies the entire framework of the Torah.

It’s worthwhile to take those suggestions seriously to understand why one, as opposed to another, might be considered the most important thing, or at a minimum, a close candidate.

Some are pretty intuitive, like R’ Akiva’s timeless and universal “love thy neighbor”; or Hillel’s ethic of reciprocity – what is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. Ben Azzai suggested that it was the notion that humans are created in the image of God, which teaches us the fundamental equality of all humans; Ben Zoma suggested it was Shema Yisrael – that there is One God. They’re not hard to explain; they’re not hard to understand.

But one suggestion is a little more ponderous – Shimon ben Pazi’s suggestion:

וְזֶה אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשֶׂה עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּחַ כְּבָשִׂים בְּנֵי־שָׁנָה שְׁנַיִם לַיּוֹם תָּמִיד׃ אֶת־הַכֶּבֶשׂ הָאֶחָד תַּעֲשֶׂה בַבֹּקֶר וְאֵת הַכֶּבֶשׂ הַשֵּׁנִי תַּעֲשֶׂה בֵּין הָעַרְבָּיִם׃ – This is what you shall offer upon the altar: two year-old lambs; every day, regularly. You shall offer the one lamb in the morning and the other lamb in the evening. (29:38, 39)

Shimon ben Pazi taught that the Torah’s Golden Rule is the daily ritual – the עֲבוֹדָה – and more specifically, the instruction to bring the daily sacrifice at its designated times in the morning and evening – קרבן תמיד.

Quite obviously, this stands in stark contrast to the other proposed candidates. It’s perfectly plausible to suggest that treating other humans with kindness and respect might be the most essential thing the Torah has to tell us; it’s perfectly plausible to suggest that pronouncing our belief in the existence of the One God might be the most important thing.

R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that whichever candidate we decide upon, it would not be the Golden Rule of personal relations, nor would it be the Golden Rule of Judaism. If the Torah is the blueprint for existence, then it would be the Golden Rule of life and all things – הסתכל באורייתא וברא עלמא. It follows that identifying the Golden Rule and what it has to teach us is enormously consequential.

How could the specific and technical daily sacrificial service possibly be the most important thing the Torah has to tell us?

Perhaps it was selected as a candidate for the Golden Rule not to emphasize the importance of the sacrificial service or its technicalities; but rather to highlight another key value for us – the essential nature of consistency. It’s not about the קרבן; it’s about the תמיד.

The defining feature of the daily sacrifice is quite arguably the regularity for which it is named – תמיד. It is the only mitzvah that happens every morning and every evening, rain or shine, hot or cold, weekday, Shabbos, or Chag; commitment with conviction.

R’ Yehuda Amital suggests that the non-spectacular nature of the law is precisely what makes it remarkable. It does not commemorate some miraculous historical event nor deliver a moment of tangible spirituality. It is boring, plain, repetitive, and simple; twice per day, morning and night.

It is worth noting that the motif of regularity in the Torah appears almost exclusively in the context of the Mishkan; תמיד is intimately and tightly associated with עֲבוֹדָה. Aside from the regular daily sacrifices, the bread had to be on the table regularly – תמיד; there had to be a regularly lit candle on the Menorah – תמיד – and a regularly lit fire on the altar – תמיד. As the Mesilas Yesharim puts it, the only path to success for any serious undertaking is through disciplined, regular, and unwavering commitment.

If you’ve ever wanted to accomplish anything of note, you know that getting started can be challenging. All too often, we bite off more than we can chew. Maybe you sit down to think about everything you have to do, only to freeze up, intimidated and overwhelmed, no longer capable of taking that first step. We can get lost, frustrated, and impatient. We want instant results or lack the commitment necessary to follow through. We’re unclear of the goal, or we run out of energy and time. We get sidetracked and distracted, bogged down, and get lost in the noise. We give up too soon or hang on too long. And so we fail. We don’t finish. It flops. And nothing has changed.

If that sounds familiar, that’s because you’re human, and we need to remember the Golden Rule; it’s not about the flourishes and sprints of inspiration and hard work. The great principle of our lives is consistency; small disciplines and routines repeated daily that empower us and lead to great and hard-won achievements gained slowly over time.

As Rashi notes, it seems impossible to finish Shas or Shulchan Aruch, but it’s fairly easy to learn a page or two per day. It’s insane to go from the couch to running a marathon, but it’s quite doable to train for a 5K. It’s too costly to pay off a house in one shot, but it’s pretty realistic to pay your mortgage every month. It’s tough to lose weight, but it’s manageable when you stick to your daily diet and exercise. It’s grueling to decide whether to spend the rest of your life with someone, but it’s more straightforward to figure out if you’re having a good time with them. It’s challenging to cram everything for a test in just one sitting, but it’s not too difficult to do the assigned reading and homework every week.

From health and finance to spirituality and relationships, any kind of serious progress must be incremental by necessity. It requires showing up and putting in the work, doing what needs to be done wherever you find yourself, whether you’re in the mood or not.

Consistency requires perseverance through plateaus and setbacks and a lifelong commitment to establishing positive habits and routines that become almost second nature. All of your life’s goals will require consistent effort to push toward them. If you do not consistently focus on achieving them and do not put in the work, you will likely fall back into old habits or lose motivation and interest. If you are persistent, you can get them. But if you are consistent, you will keep them.

It’s not what we do once in a while that shapes our lives – it’s what we do consistently.

Consistency is about time investment – a little bit of time, repeated over an extended period of time.

That being said, it’s important to separate consistency from stagnation – it’s not enough to mindlessly repeat one action over and over; we aren’t machines. Far too often, we aren’t successful because while we sustain our efforts, we fail to scale those efforts over time; we don’t take responsibility for our progress. But it’s just so obvious; if you never ratchet up your efforts incrementally, of course you will only ever find yourself right where you are!

Instead, you must adapt your actions as you grow and learn, gaining feedback from each action adjusting accordingly to help you stay on track and make progress towards your goal. Incremental improvements compound, leading to exponential gains if you stay on track. Each step forward fuses and stacks, gradually building greater momentum, which is typically the difference between success and failure in any field and the key to high levels of achievement.

Leonardo da Vinci quipped that a diamond is a lump of coal that just stuck to its job. If you think of any titan of business, entertainment, religion, or sport, they never got there on the back of a heroic one-off performance. They are legends because of their consistent, sustained efforts over the long-term – they heeded the Golden Rule. It’s a mistake to compare yourself to someone successful and chalk up the difference to a difference in ability, intelligence, talent, or even hard work when, in all likelihood, the difference is consistency. You can get there too.

If it sounds like work, that’s because it is – the definition of the term the Mishkan rituals fall under is quite literally “work” or “service” – עֲבוֹדָה‎. It’s an investment on our part; it’s the contribution and service we can offer. In a certain sense, maybe it’s all we truly can offer – all we have to offer is our all, that deepest part of ourselves, committing to what’s important and putting the time in on a regular basis; and what we do is who we become. Consistency, continuity, and dedication is the עֲבוֹדָה; and it’s our עֲבוֹדָה – the Golden Rule of all things.

We all have big dreams, and we should – they’re part of what makes life beautiful and worth living. The Torah provides clear guidance on how to get there; the goal may be gargantuan, but you can still only ever take it one day and one step at a time. Getting anywhere serious requires building small habits and rituals that you partake in every day that keep you focused on your highest goals and priorities. Goals can change, but they can change us too; you might be pleasantly surprised who you have become when you’re ten years in.

As the old saying goes, there has only ever been one way to eat an elephant: one bite at a time.

Friends From Far Away

5 minute read
Straightforward

Moshe is arguably the most significant person in the Torah, whose impact as a lawgiver, teacher, and savior has been felt worldwide by most major religions for over three millennia.

He was undoubtedly a brilliant and astute person whose measured thinking carried immense gravity. At a bare minimum, before any of the more expansive literature, the Torah’s plain text testifies that Moshe regularly spoke with God Himself and that he retained his sharpness and vigor until his very last breath.

Moshe had only just decisively rescued the Jewish People from Egypt and its formidable military. His newly liberated people had no government, so Moshe was the only person with the apparent authority to settle people’s disputes.

Morning till night, he would arbitrate and resolve problems. The trouble is, he quickly ran into a capacity problem; people were coming to him non-stop, and it was too much. He was exhausted!

So the Torah introduces Yisro, who tells Moshe that it simply can’t be correct for there to be one sole arbiter of justice for so many people! So Yisro advises Moshe to train some honest and competent men to share the burden, and they’d refer to Moshe any cases they could not resolve on their own. Moshe implements Yisro’s proposal, and the new organizational structure of the justice system proves to be a resounding success. Moshe is no longer stretched so thin, and Yisro goes on his way.

This story is almost funny to read – it just seems absurdly trivial!

Sure, we can say that Moshe believed he was required to teach everyone himself – וְהוֹדַעְתִּי אֶת־חֻקֵּי הָאֱלֹקים וְאֶת־תּוֹרֹתָיו – but he was limited by the same twenty-four hours in a day as anybody else who has walked the earth. Who hasn’t experienced a productivity bottleneck at some point in their lives? It is such a basic problem! Of course, anyone who’s been there recognizes that, however basic and common, it is still a serious problem. Yet as basic as the problem is, the Torah introduces Yisro, who proposes a solution that is equally basic and can be found in any book on business management or organizational strategy: to optimize workflow efficiency, the individual at capacity must delegate tasks, distribute that work for others to perform to reduce bottlenecks and improve throughput.

None of this is complicated or groundbreaking, yet it occupies a non-trivial amount of space in the Torah. Rashi says that Yisro’s very name alludes to the extra portion added to the Torah through his input and initiative. Could Moshe not figure out how to delegate effectively on his own? What is remotely remarkable about Yisro’s solution?

Perhaps the answer is what we sense – there is nothing remarkable about this conversation other than the fact of the conversation itself.

People speculate on the Torah’s political stances regarding capitalism, socialism, or what have you – but here, in the same section the Torah is given, the Torah quite plainly states that it is not exhaustive, that it doesn’t purport to contain every single kernel of wisdom that could ever exist.

Sure, it has a comprehensive framework covering the full spectrum of human experience. Still, it also leaves plenty of details for humans to figure out for themselves, in this instance, effective government. Yisro proposed an idea about improving Moshe’s administration, and the Torah explicitly takes a pragmatic approach; if it works – great!

The Ishbitzer suggests that when God tells us not to carve graven images or sculptures, it is essentially a commandment against rigidity. Rigidity almost assures self-destruction in the long run. As Charles Darwin said, it is not the strongest of species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the most adaptable to change.

While it might be intuitive to delegate tasks – that intuition still came from a human; it is not obvious that the Torah endorses and adapts to human intuition, which is what is so remarkable about Moshe’s problem and Yisro’s solution.

What’s more, the solution didn’t simply come from a human; it came from a Gentile! At a minimum, the Torah takes a nuanced view on Gentiles here – that Yisro is welcome; and his wisdom is welcome too. He correctly identifies a problem in Jewish society; he proposes a practical solution, and Moshe embraces and successfully implements his policy suggestions with God’s blessing. Aside from the pragmatic approach to government, this interaction is highly significant because, so far, almost every Gentile in the Torah has been one villain or another! Pharaoh, Egypt, Amalek, and perhaps Yishmael, Esau, Lavan, and Ephron.

Given the well-documented history, it is only too easy to generalize that Gentiles are not our friends – they only want to hurt us, they have nothing to offer, and we ought to keep our distance. This conclusion does not stretch the imagination, and it’s a safe bet that asks nothing of us. Trust nobody; everyone hates us!

But in this story, the Torah affirms that for all the enemies out there – however many and dangerous – we might also encounter allies along the way. The Ibn Ezra suggests that the Torah explicitly infers this lesson by introducing Yisro immediately after battling Amalek. In Yisro, we learn that not only do allies exist whom we ought to welcome, but there also exists the possibility that they bring experience, knowledge, or wisdom that we ought to welcome too.

To be sure, it is a minefield to navigate how to live with this, and you should seek guidance from a trusted advisor; because our culture is not their culture, and our values are not their values. But educated and experienced leaders with the maturity to appreciate nuance should recognize that the Torah plainly states that value can exist that originates outside the Torah and beyond our society from people who don’t come from the same places we do.

This bold thought shouldn’t be as threatening or radical as it may appear at first glance. Using the digital technology that went into writing this sentence so that you could then use the same technology to read it with, it’s something we should recognize is true. The Torah doesn’t tell humans about electricity or indoor plumbing. As R’ Shlomo Farhi notes, there is no religious imperative to reject something purely because it doesn’t originate from within the Torah’s culture. It’s something our sages understood long ago – חכמה בגוים תאמין. If it works – great!

Moshe was intelligent; he likely understood the value of delegating but still believed he had to do it all on his own until Yisro cautioned him otherwise. By reporting this banal conversation in such detail, it seems that the Torah embraces an element of flexibility or fluidity in how we navigate the dynamic environments we encounter in the world. Yisro probably didn’t innovate management science and delegation – that’s nothing we can’t figure out on our own. Perhaps the story’s conclusion is that we can figure things out on our own; we have the discretion to determine how to build and operate a society using the Torah’s guidelines.

When we encounter uncharted territory and unprecedented obstacles in our community and society, as we inevitably will, we have to remember that not only is figuring out the solution not against the Torah but figuring out the solution is the embodiment of the Torah’s highest ideals.

Staying alive in an ever-changing world requires flexibility and the ability to roll with the punches and modify your approach.

As the saying goes, the trees that flex in the wind survive, and the ones that do not bend will break.

Holding Us Over a Barrel

4 minute read
Straightforward

The moment God gave the Torah at Sinai is probably the most important in the Torah. It might be the most crucial moment in the history of creation. To take it even further, cultivating a channel to receive the Torah might even be the reason for existence itself.

Given the significance of this moment, it should come as no surprise that the Midrashic literature likens Sinai to a wedding ceremony and makes extensive use of the imagery of love and marriage, demonstrating the powerful bond of commitment between God and the Jewish People, characterized by the all-important unanimous and unconditional acceptance of the Torah – נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע.

However, there is another imagery our sages utilize. The Gemara imagines a scene where God lifts and holds Mount Sinai over the gathered crowd and tells them that if they accept the Torah, all will be well, and if not, they will meet an early grave there and then – שכפה הקב”ה עליהם את ההר כגיגית.

This visual contrasts starkly with the predominant and prevailing imagery that the Jewish People threw their enthusiastic consent behind accepting the Torah and its precepts. To engage the language of the metaphor, the bride loved the groom, and everything was agreed upon and resolved. Once the relationship had been firmly established on a bedrock of love and trust, the imagery of coercion and force seems entirely unnecessary, if not an outright oxymoron.

If the Jewish People were eager and willing to accept the Torah, why do our sages use the motif of coercive force at all?

The Baal Shem Tov acknowledges this idealized romantic view; the beginning of most relationships can be characterized by butterflies and excitement, feelings of elation and joy. But, as anyone who has experienced a mature relationship can attest, eventually, there comes a day when the good vibes and pleasant feelings aren’t quite there; if the relationship is going to succeed, it needs more than good vibes alone – many relationships fail for not comprehending this notion in its fullness. A successful relationship requires its constituents to maintain the relationship in the moments that don’t feel so good.

The imagery of holding a mountain over the audience is not a literal death threat – the metaphor describes God imploring the audience that this is serious stuff. If that seems so obvious now, it wasn’t readily obvious in the moment. Up to that point, being on God’s team had been pretty cool and fun – they watched waves of supernatural plagues smite their oppressors; saw a literal ocean split and dry up to escape then obliterate the most powerful military force in the known world; ate magical food from the sky; drank from magic wellsprings in the desert; while protected day and night by miracle clouds that lit up the dark and followed them wherever they went. It’s not so hard to guess which side you’d want to be on! But that’s not really what accepting the yoke of Torah means or looks like in any material way, so God warns the people that this is a serious undertaking. As the Maharal explains, the Torah can not only be accepted for the glorious moments. It’s like the unspoken part of a young couple getting married; no one wants to tell them, and they probably aren’t even equipped to hear it yet, but they have their work cut out to make it work. It’s a lifelong undertaking that will require an enormous amount of investment and sacrifice if they are to have a chance at happiness. They’ll probably learn that lesson for themselves – the hard way.

It’s not that the Gemara imagines God threatening to slaughter the Jewish People; it’s a warning about what was at stake and how much it mattered. It’s a comment on the naivete of thinking that the imagery of a happy wedding could ever be enough to make a relationship work. The happy beginning is an essential starting point of any relationship, but the relationship can only ever be superficial if that’s all there is. What the Torah demands from us is a serious commitment – the part that is not easy. It’s not all sunshine, rainbows, and redemption – the blood-soaked pages of Jewish history speak for themselves.

R’ Shlomo Farhi suggests that the Gemara explicitly teaches this lesson by employing imagery of a barrel, a hollow object that confines and traps its contents instead of, say, a hammer or blunt instrument which would be used to flatten. The antidote to the immaturity of the excitement of happy beginnings is recognizing that there are times when commitment feels like being trapped. It’s true of relationships, and it’s true of religion. There’s a moment we feel called and seen, and a moment we feel invisible and ignored; the things that can make it wonderful are part of what can make it so hard. There’s no such thing as picking and choosing part of a person, or part of the Torah, for some of the time. It just doesn’t work that way.

But while it’s well and good to suggest the lesson of forceful imagery is to teach us the seriousness of the subject matter, it is almost universally understood that agreements entered into under coercion are not binding – we would never enforce a contract signed at gunpoint. Based on this intuitive reasoning, the Gemara questions the imagery of coercion and wonders if it compromises, if not entirely undermines, the basis of accepting the Torah – taking the imagery of the metaphor at face value, we wouldn’t be partners with God; we’d be victims! The Gemara responds that to the extent this is a serious question, the Purim story remedied this because the Jewish People accepted the Torah anew entirely of their own volition – קיימו מה שקיבלו כבר.

R’ Jonathan Sacks observes that the Gemara concludes what we know intuitively – you cannot teach something that matters through coercion; you cannot impose truth by force. Even if God were to try, it simply doesn’t work like that. We can only say that people accept ideas and beliefs to the extent people can freely choose and embrace them.

As important and exciting as the moment captured at Sinai was, the wedding is not the relationship. The people who stood there that day lacked context – the bigger picture that accepting the Torah fits into.  After the Purim story, the people learned that lesson the hard way. With this mature understanding, they could freely accept what had been accepted so long ago with newfound and hard-won insight.

A lack of problems cannot be the bedrock of a great relationship; it will only ever become great when its participants are invested enough to weather and work through complex issues.

No Man Left Behind

5 minute read
Straightforward

After many long and grueling years enduring enslavement, the Creator had at long last dispatched Moshe to save the Jewish People. During one round of talks, Moshe suggested a more modest request to Pharaoh than letting his people go for good; instead, he proposed taking them into the desert for a multi-day festival, indicating that they would return once the festivities were completed.

At this point, since Egypt had already experienced several plagues, cracks began to appear in the Egyptian government’s resolve:

וַיֹּאמְרוּ עַבְדֵי פַרְעֹה אֵלָיו עַד־מָתַי יִהְיֶה זֶה לָנוּ לְמוֹקֵשׁ שַׁלַּח אֶת־הָאֲנָשִׁים וְיַעַבְדוּ אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹקיהֶם הֲטֶרֶם תֵּדַע כִּי אָבְדָה מִצְרָיִם׃ וַיּוּשַׁב אֶת־מֹשֶׁה וְאֶת־אַהֲרֹן אֶל־פַּרְעֹה וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם לְכוּ עִבְדוּ אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹקיכֶם מִי וָמִי הַהֹלְכִים׃ וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה בִּנְעָרֵינוּ וּבִזְקֵנֵינוּ נֵלֵךְ בְּבָנֵינוּ וּבִבְנוֹתֵנוּ בְּצֹאנֵנוּ וּבִבְקָרֵנוּ נֵלֵךְ כִּי חַג־ה’ לָנוּ׃ וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם יְהִי כֵן ה’ עִמָּכֶם כַּאֲשֶׁר אֲשַׁלַּח אֶתְכֶם וְאֶת־טַפְּכֶם רְאוּ כִּי רָעָה נֶגֶד פְּנֵיכֶם׃ לֹא כֵן לְכוּ־נָא הַגְּבָרִים וְעִבְדוּ אֶת־ה’ כִּי אֹתָהּ אַתֶּם מְבַקְשִׁים וַיְגָרֶשׁ אֹתָם מֵאֵת פְּנֵי פַרְעֹה׃ – Pharaoh’s advisers said to him, “How long will this one be a snare to us?! Let the men go to worship Hashem their God! Do you not yet know that Egypt is lost?” So Moshe and Ahron were brought back to Pharaoh and he said to them, “Go, worship Hashem your God! Who will be going?” Moshe replied, “We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds; for we must observe Hashem’s festival!” But he said to them, “Hashem be with you; the same as I mean to let your children go with you! Clearly, you are bent on mischief! No! Your men can go and worship Hashem since that is what you want.” And they were expelled from Pharaoh’s presence. (10:7-10)

Outside of wondering whether this alleged festival was mere diplomatic posturing or perhaps a genuinely lost festival we might otherwise mark, Pharaoh’s advisors took it seriously and at least attempted to meet Moshe halfway.

While Moshe delivered a compelling speech about going with everyone, men, and women, young and old, categorically refusing to leave anyone behind, it’s worth dwelling for a moment on why Moshe wouldn’t take Pharaoh up on his counteroffer to take the men out of Egypt.

This was an enormous and monumental concession! At a minimum, Pharaoh was at least willing to let some of the people go! If nothing else, Moshe could extract some fraction of the people he was tasked with saving. It’s not obvious to assume that the only possible plan was for everyone to walk out at precisely the same time. The mission had long been underway; this was plausibly the beginning of what succeeding at that mission might look like! Moshe could feasibly take this group out under the ruse of the festival and report to God for new orders about how to save those who remained behind. However many or few people were left behind, God still had to do the same work to get them out! It’s not hard to imagine Moshe accepting Pharaoh’s offer as a practical and realistic option – and it’s unclear why he didn’t.

Why wouldn’t Moshe accept a partial victory and take the first opportunity he had to get some – even if not all – of the Jewish People out of Egypt?

The Shem miShmuel explains that Moshe’s speech to Pharaoh highlighted a core value – if he had to leave even one single soul behind, it would be better if they stayed put.

Healthy humans have concentric relationship circles. I am at the center, then perhaps my spouse and children, then parents and siblings, then friends and extended family, then community and acquaintances. The Torah expects us to expand our consciousness so that those circles are proximate enough to our own that your well-being impacts mine.

Pharaoh was a savvy villain and exploited this to great effect by presenting Moshe with such a choice – Moshe could never accept it. The apparent personal victory for Moshe succeeding in part but having to leave some people behind wouldn’t be a partial victory – it was no victory at all. At best, a personal win is the starting point of helping others, and if we have the gall to take the win and abandon others to their fates, not only is it not a victory – it is actually a defeat. Pharaoh’s offer was empty; it offered nothing we could live with.

This is by no means the most practical value to live by. Moshe’s refusal indicated that he’d rather they all stay put – in Egypt! – than leave a man behind. But choosing to live with ideals is never easy; putting values before profit or self-preservation has tangible drawbacks and real-life consequences. It takes immense willpower and inner strength to avoid cutting corners. But that’s what all the stories of our greats call us to, with acts of courage and decency that fan the flames of idealism in our hearts, inspiring a desire to be just as bold and noble.

If we doubt the sacrosanctity of caring about the people we might leave behind, it’s worth recalling the penultimate plague of darkness; and, in particular, the effect it had on the people who experienced it:

לֹא־רָאוּ אִישׁ אֶת־אָחִיו וְלֹא־קָמוּ אִישׁ מִתַּחְתָּיו – People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was… (10:23)

We need to remind ourselves that, presumably, Egyptian adults weren’t like children who are scared of the dark; it’s not just that it felt like blindness, it’s that their worlds were completely cut off from each other – לֹא־רָאוּ אִישׁ אֶת־אָחִיו.

The Chiddushei HaRim highlights that this was the worst punishment God could inflict on Egypt, short only of death itself – that people could not see each other. In a very real way, recognizing another human and moving ourselves to help them cuts to the heart of what it means to be human, and we should take that notion seriously.

The distinguished psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl witnessed humanity stripped to its essence in the concentration camps and observed how, despite living under the most terrible conditions, there were still men walking around comforting others and giving away their last pieces of bread. People like these, the ones who placed themselves in service of others, who committed themselves to a greater cause, were the ones who found nourishment even in complete deprivation, who kept their fire burning even in total darkness.

In the wake of a disaster, whether earthquake, flood, terror attack, or other catastrophe, people are consistently altruistic, urgently engaged in coming together to care for themselves and those around them, strangers and neighbors as well as friends and loved ones. Every single incident has citizens who come to rescue those in need, providing evacuation and other necessities like food, clothes, medicine, and shelter. There are always first responders, but also plain everyday people from all walks of life putting their lives on the line to help.

Most people, deep down, want to be pretty decent, reflecting a profound longing for community and connection.

It’s why stories of bravery and sacrifice tend to resonate so strongly, especially when they involve ordinary people. They are reminders of who we know we can be, of who we want to be. They are antidotes to a culture of toxic individualism, cynicism, and general self-centeredness, a culture that dismisses collective meaning in favor of individual gains, that sees altruism only as a personal expense, not as a source of fulfillment, as something from which you receive as much as you give.

Our most fundamental nature, the root of our behavior, is generosity, empathy, courage, and kindness. The shadows of the plague of darkness expose what it is to be human by stripping those things away. It ought to be incredibly telling that one of the most terrible things the Egyptians experienced was a divinely imposed solitary confinement that isolated people from each other.

What’s more, if we don’t see our fate as bound to each other, the people we love, and everyone around us, we might accidentally be inviting the plague of darkness into our lives, carrying its shadows with us long after Egypt has faded into the distance.

While reaching for greatness, we either remember each other or we forget ourselves.

Refusing the Call

5 minute read
Straightforward

Before introducing us to Moshe, the Torah describes how Yakov’s family grew numerous and how the Egyptian government felt threatened by such a sizable population of outsiders. Determined to curb this threat, they devised a means to enslave the Jewish People, which crept slowly until it was intolerable.

Once the Torah has established the setting, the Torah tells us of Moshe’s birth and upbringing before he has to flee. Moshe encounters a mysterious burning bush on his travels, and God calls on him to save his people. Curiously, Moshe refuses this call:

וְעַתָּה הִנֵּה צַעֲקַת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּאָה אֵלָי וְגַם־רָאִיתִי אֶת־הַלַּחַץ אֲשֶׁר מִצְרַיִם לֹחֲצִים אֹתָם׃ וְעַתָּה לְכָה וְאֶשְׁלָחֲךָ אֶל־פַּרְעֹה וְהוֹצֵא אֶת־עַמִּי בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם׃ וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־הָאֱלֹקים מִי אָנֹכִי כִּי אֵלֵךְ אֶל־פַּרְעֹה וְכִי אוֹצִיא אֶת־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרָיִם׃… וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל־ה’ בִּי אֲדֹנָי לֹא אִישׁ דְּבָרִים אָנֹכִי גַּם מִתְּמוֹל גַּם מִשִּׁלְשֹׁם גַּם מֵאָז דַּבֶּרְךָ אֶל־עַבְדֶּךָ כִּי כְבַד־פֶּה וּכְבַד לָשׁוֹן אָנֹכִי׃ – “The cry of the Children of Israel has reached Me; I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them. Come! I will send you to Pharaoh, and you shall free My people, the Children of Israel, from Egypt.” But Moshe said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Children of Israel from Egypt?”… Moshe said to God, “Please God, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” (3:9-11, 4:10)

This is one of the most important stories ever told. Moshe knows where he comes from and has seen his brethren suffering. His birth and upbringing uniquely situate him between both sides to do something about it. No less than the Creator has called on him to greatness, and he refuses, not once, but twice!

How could Moshe possibly refuse the call?

Refusing the call is a literary trope that humanizes the hero, but this story isn’t ordinary literature. Moshe’s refusal is part of this timeless story because it reflects a fundamental property intrinsic to all humans we must acknowledge and understand.

Moshe didn’t doubt that his people could or should be saved; Moshe doubted himself. He had fears and insecurities; he was missing an essential trait to be successful! He wasn’t a man of words; how would he persuade anybody to follow him? How would he convince the Egyptian government to let his people go? This isn’t faux humility – Moshe articulates an accurate self-assessment; he is right! And yet, the Creator answers that it doesn’t matter; he must do it anyway.

When the Mishkan was finally ready for inauguration, Ahron also refused the call, feeling ashamed and unworthy for his responsibility for the Golden Calf incident. Yet in the view of our sages, Ahron’s shame was exactly what distinguished him as the right person; his self-awareness of his shortcomings and his view of the position as one that required gravity and severity. Moshe never says Ahron is wrong; he only encourages him to ignore those doubts and do it anyway – שֶׁהָיָה אַהֲרֹן בּוֹשׁ וְיָרֵא לָגֶשֶׁת, אָמַר לוֹ מֹשֶׁה, לָמָּה אַתָּה בוֹשׁ? לְכָךְ נִבְחַרְתָּ.

In the Purim story, Mordechai asks Esther to go the king to save her people and Esther refuses the call, not wanting to risk her life; she has correctly assessed the facts and is indeed in danger. But as Mordechai says, that doesn’t matter; if Esther remains paralysed by her fears, she will lose the opportunity to step up. The call to action is open before her; and she must do it anyway – כִּי אִם־הַחֲרֵשׁ תַּחֲרִישִׁי בָּעֵת הַזֹּאת רֶוַח וְהַצָּלָה יַעֲמוֹד לַיְּהוּדִים מִמָּקוֹם אַחֵר וְאַתְּ וּבֵית־אָבִיךְ תֹּאבֵדוּ וּמִי יוֹדֵעַ אִם־לְעֵת כָּזֹאת הִגַּעַתְּ לַמַּלְכוּת.

The book of Jeremiah opens with a similar vignette. Jeremiah reports that God appeared to him in his youth, and called upon him to be the prophet for his generation; like his forebears, Jeremiah protests that he is just a kid and is not a speaker. In what we can now recognize as a consistent fashion, God dismisses these excuses; not because they are wrong, but because they don’t matter – he’s got to do it anyway – וַיְהִי דְבַר־ה’ אֵלַי לֵאמֹר׃ בְּטֶרֶם אֶצָּרְךָ בַבֶּטֶן יְדַעְתִּיךָ וּבְטֶרֶם תֵּצֵא מֵרֶחֶם הִקְדַּשְׁתִּיךָ נָבִיא לַגּוֹיִם נְתַתִּיךָ׃ וָאֹמַר אֲהָהּ אֲדֹנָי ה הִנֵּה לֹא־יָדַעְתִּי דַּבֵּר כִּי־נַעַר אָנֹכִי׃ וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֵלַי אַל־תֹּאמַר נַעַר אָנֹכִי כִּי עַל־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר אֶשְׁלָחֲךָ תֵּלֵךְ וְאֵת כָּל־אֲשֶׁר אֲצַוְּךָ תְּדַבֵּר.

The Torah is deliberate in how it presents stories; there are lessons in what it leaves in and leaves out. Of all the small interactions that don’t make the final cut, we should note that refusing the call is an interaction the Torah consistently deems necessary in multiple unrelated stories; our greatest heroes don’t just jump at the chance to do what is clearly the right thing.

Who is perfect enough to fix the problems in your community? Who is perfect enough to lead the people you love to greatness? The Torah seems to endorse and validate this sentiment, insisting that it has got to be you despite your flaws – אַל־תֹּאמַר נַעַר אָנֹכִי. Ironically, the people who are deluded and narcissistic enough to think they are perfect would be the worst candidate; the Torah holds Korach up as the counterexample.

If you have adequately honed your sensitivities, you recognize you have a lot of work to do, and so many people need your help. You might even hear a call to action reverberating deep within. But you doubt yourself, and you refuse the call. You’re scared – and you should be! There is plenty to fear, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. The undertaking the Torah calls us to is enormous, too enormous to accomplish on our own; yet it calls on us just the same – לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה.

There is moral fiber in quieting the voice of self-doubt and stepping up to answer the call anyway – אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי.

The Torah calls on humans, keenly aware of our fears, flaws, imperfection, and insecurities. We mustn’t engage those self-same fears, flaws, imperfections, and insecurities as excuses to neglect our duty. The Torah repeatedly tells us they don’t matter; do it anyway!

Moshe, Ahron, Jeremiah, and Esther all expressed a form of impostor syndrome, the feeling that whatever job you’re in, you’re not qualified for it and that people will figure out any minute that you’re a poser with no clue what you’re doing. Your self-awareness serves you well by accurately identifying gaps in your skillset but does you a disservice by stopping you from trying. You have to silence the doubt in yourself when it gets to the point of holding you back from doing transformational things simply because you’re not quite ready to face the reality of your own potential greatness.

Our pantheon of heroes is replete with imperfect individuals who had good reasons to refuse the call. Each excuse was entirely accurate; we ought to draw immense comfort and power from how universal self-doubt and uncertainty are. The Torah’s consistent thematic response to our greats, and through them to us, echoing and reverberating for all eternity, is simply that there’s work to do, and someone has to do it.

So why shouldn’t it be you?

Count Me In

4 minute read
Straightforward

A fair amount of times, the Torah reports that the Jewish People conducted a census, breaking down how many men were in each tribe, and then adds up the subtotals for a total count. It occupies a lot of space in the Torah.

The Ramban explains that taking a census is a basic government function to organize logistics, safety, and military planning.

While that is accurate, the Torah’s lessons are timeless and eternal. Of what value to us is the level of detail in the raw statistical data from each census?

The Ramban explains that the information itself is more relevant to daily government, which is probably why it only covered military-age men. But the lesson isn’t in the data; it’s in the method of counting.

The way they counted was that every individual would have to appear before Moshe and Ahron, and God. The requirement to appear before the entire generation’s leadership tells us that those people were not just numbers; they were valuable individuals.

There is a constant interplay between individualism and collectivism. Individualism stresses individual identity and goals; collectivism focuses on group identity and goals, what is best for the collective group. The notion of collectivism and unity – אַחְדוּת – is all too often propounded to squash individuality, and we mustn’t tolerate that. You are not just a cog in a machine, with another human being at the ready to take your place. You are not the property of the state or any group or person.

And as the Lubavitcher Rebbe put it, people are not dollars. You are not fungible. You are not replaceable.

R’ Jonathan Sacks highlights the Torah’s choice of words for the count – שְׂאוּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ כָּל־עֲדַת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל / כִּי תִשָּׂא אֶת־רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל – literally, “lift the heads.” There are many ways to say “count” in Hebrew; this isn’t one of the naturally obvious ones. Again, the Torah seems to be saying that even among the crowd, lift your head up high and proud. To this day, Jews do not count people directly, but instead, count heads.

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

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

We cannot tolerate factionalism, where one subgroup splinters from the main group, but we cannot afford to exclude individuals. The Torah makes incredible demands of us, and we mostly fall well short, some a little more, some a little less.  We must hold ourselves to the highest standards, but we can never look down at our fellow.

To argue the other side, while we must celebrate individuality, we must not condone individualism. Our duty is to find a balance between being individuals while remaining part of the group. We need to maintain a tension between the need for individual freedom and the demands of others.

The whole idea of loving others is that they are not just like you; if you had to love people like you, that would just be loving yourself and would demand nothing of you. We must reinforce the notion of tolerance of heterogeneity, people not just like us. Diversity is natural; homogeneity is artificial.

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

Loving another is not that I care about someone in my circle who is just like me, and perhaps I have a duty to expand my conception of who is in the circle. That would be loving yourself and would demand nothing of you.  Loving another means that someone else’s problems bother me so deeply that I simply have to do something about it, and I will be lacking if I do not. The idea of loving another does not include circles – it has nothing to do with people’s similarities.

Evolutionary theory teaches that cooperation is as important for survival as competition. You’re irreplaceable and unique – but remember that we need you! The strength of the team is each individual. The strength of each individual is the team.

The idea that every Jew is worthy enough to be presented before God and the generation’s leadership, that every Jew must lift their head high, is timeless and eternal. Moreover, it teaches a broader lesson that is portable to all and covers women, children, and the elderly as well. The Jewish People are something massively monumental, yet we each have our own significant role to play. We must celebrate each other’s unique contributions while striving to do more ourselves.

This illuminates an interesting comment by Rashi, that the point of the census was to discern how many people had survived the plague that followed the Golden Calf debacle. The plague killed a small fraction of the total population figure given in the Torah, so it’s strange to talk in terms of “survivors” when only a few succumbed. But if we consider each individual as a core component of the Jewish People, then the Jewish People as a whole really are damaged by the loss of any single person, and the remainder truly are “survivors.”

The Baal Shem Tov taught that if the Jewish People are a Sefer Torah, then every Jew is a letter.

The Torah counts everyone. Because everyone counts.

An Eye for An Eye Redux

5 minute read
Straightforward

One of the most bizarre and incomprehensible laws of the entire Torah was also one of the ancient world’s most important laws – the law of retaliation; also called lex talionis:

עַיִן תַּחַת עַיִן שֵׁן תַּחַת שֵׁן יָד תַּחַת יָד רֶגֶל תַּחַת רָגֶל׃ – An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot. (21:24)

The law of retaliation isn’t the Torah’s innovation; it appears in other Ancient Near Eastern law codes that predate the text of the Torah, such as the Code of Hammurabi. All the same, it appears three times in the Torah, and its words are barbaric and cruel to modern eyes, easily dismissed as unworthy of humane civilization.

People who wish to express their opposition to forgiveness, concession, and compensation, insisting on retaliation of the most brutal and painful kind, will quote “An eye for an eye” as justification, conjuring a vision of hacked limbs and gouged eyes.

This law is alien and incomprehensible to us because we lack the necessary context; we fail to recognize its contemporary importance to early human civilization.

The human desire for revenge isn’t petty and shallow. It stems from a basic instinct for fairness and self-defense that all creatures possess; and also from a deeply human place of respect and self-image. When a person is slighted, they self-righteously need to retaliate to restore balance. It makes sense.

The trouble is, balance is delicate and near impossible to restore, so far more often, people would escalate violence, and so early human societies endured endless cycles of vengeance and violence. In this ancient lawless world, revenge was a severe destabilizing force.

This is the context we are missing. In such a world, societies developed and imposed the law of retaliation as a cap and curb violence by prohibiting vigilante justice and disproportionate vengeance. An eye for an eye – that, and crucially, no more. It stops the cycle of escalation, and tempers, if not neuters, the human desire for retribution. Crucially, it stops feuds from being personal matters, subordinating revenge to law and justice by inserting the law between men, a key political theory called the state monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force.

R’ Jonathan Sacks observes that the same rationale underlies the Torah’s requirement to establish sanctuary cities. The Torah inserts laws between the avenger and the killer, and a court must give the order. Revenge is not personal, and it is sanctioned by society.

This was familiar to the Torah’s original audience. We ought to reacquaint ourselves with this understanding – the law is not barbaric and primitive at all; it’s essential to building a society.

Even more importantly, our Sages taught that these words are not literal, and instead, the remedy for all bodily injury is monetary compensation. The Torah forecloses compensation for murder –  לא תקחו כופר לנפש רוצח. The fact the Torah chooses not to for bodily injuries necessarily means compensation is allowed. And since people are of different ages, different genders, and in different trades, with discrete strengths and weaknesses; mirroring the injury isn’t a substitute at all, so paying compensation is the exclusive remedy, in a sharp application of the rule of law – there shall be only one law, equitable to all – מִשְׁפַּט אֶחָד יִהְיֶה לָכֶם.

Before dismissing this as extremely warped apologetics, the overwhelming academic consensus is that no society practiced the law as it is written. Today, we readily understand that if we suffer bodily injury, we sue the perpetrators’ insurance company, and the ancient world understood that tradeoff too.

How much money would the victim accept to forgo the satisfaction of seeing the assailant suffer the same injury? How much money would the assailant be willing to pay to keep his own eye? There is most certainly a price each would accept, and all that’s left is to negotiate the settlement figure, which is where the court can step in. Even where the law is not literally carried out, the theoretical threat provides a valuable and perhaps even necessary perspective for justice in society.

It’s vital to understand this as a microcosm for understanding the whole work of the Torah. There is a much broader point here about how we need to understand the context of the Torah to get it right, and we need the Oral Tradition to get it right as well. The text is contingent, to an extent, on the body of law that interprets and implements it.

Without one or the other, we are getting a two-dimensional look at the very best, or just plain wrong at worst. If we were pure Torah literalists, we would blind and maim each other and truly believe we are doing perfect like-for-like justice! After all, what more closely approximates the cost of losing an eye than taking an eye?! Doesn’t it perfectly capture balance, precision, and proportionality elegantly? It holds before us the tantalizing possibility of getting divinely sanctioned justice exactly right!

But we’d be dead wrong. Taking an eye for an eye doesn’t fix anything; it just breaks more things.

The original purpose of the law of retaliation was to limit or even eliminate revenge by revising the underlying concept of justice. Justice was no longer obtained by personal revenge but by proportionate punishment of the offender in the form of compensation enforced by the state. While not comprehensive, perhaps this overview can help us look at something that seemed so alien, just a bit more knowingly.

There’s a valuable lesson here.

The literal reading of lex talionis is a vindictive punishment that seeks pure cold justice to mirror the victim’s pain and perhaps serve as a deterrent.

With our new understanding, compensation is not punitive at all – it’s restitutive and helps correct bad behavior. You broke something or caused someone else pain, and now you need to fix it – and you don’t have to maim yourself to make it right!

R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that our sages taught a form of stand your ground doctrine; when someone is coming to kill you, you can use deadly force and kill them first. But even that is tempered with a caveat that if you have the ability to neutralize them without killing them, you aren’t permitted to use deadly force. De facto, it’s fully conceivable that in the heat of the moment, there is a split-second decision and you can’t afford to be precise, but de jure, the point stands that even when force is authorized, there is no free pass. Our sages require scholars to stand up for themselves in the way a snake does; snakes have no sense of taste or smell, and a scholar’s self-defense must be free of petty vindictiveness – תלמיד חכם שאינו נוקם ונוטר כנחש, אינו תלמיד חכם.

There is nothing outdated about the law of retaliation. It’s as timely as ever because we all break things. We hurt others, and sometimes we hurt ourselves too. Our Sages urge us to remember that one broken thing is bad, and two broken things are worse. We can’t fix what is broken by adding more pain and hope to heal.

Taking it further, there is a wider lesson here as well.

In seeking justice for ourselves, we needn’t go overboard by crushing our enemies and hearing the lamentations of their women. We can and should protect ourselves and our assets, but we needn’t punish our adversaries mercilessly such that they never cross us again. In a negotiation, don’t squash the other side just because you can. It’s about making it right, not winning. Channeling the law of retaliation, don’t escalate. Think in terms of restitution, not retribution.

Do all you must, sure, but don’t do all you could.

Taboo

5 minute read
Straightforward

The materials procurement process is one of the painstakingly detailed aspects of the Mishkan’s planning and development. Aside from the sections about fundraising, the Torah includes a public ledger accounting for all sources and uses, recording where every last donation ended.

While not precisely gripping, there is a discrepancy in how the Torah accounts for how they utilized the donations of bronze:

וּנְחֹשֶׁת הַתְּנוּפָה שִׁבְעִים כִּכָּר וְאַלְפַּיִם וְאַרְבַּע־מֵאוֹת שָׁקֶל. וַיַּעַשׂ בָּהּ אֶת־אַדְנֵי פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְאֵת מִזְבַּח הַנְּחֹשֶׁת וְאֶת־מִכְבַּר הַנְּחֹשֶׁת אֲשֶׁר־לוֹ וְאֵת כָּל־כְּלֵי הַמִּזְבֵּחַ. וְאֶת־אַדְנֵי הֶחָצֵר סָבִיב וְאֶת־אַדְנֵי שַׁעַר הֶחָצֵר וְאֵת כָּל־יִתְדֹת הַמִּשְׁכָּן וְאֶת־כָּל־יִתְדֹת הֶחָצֵר סָבִיב – The donated bronze came to 70 talents and 2,400 shekels. From it, he made the sockets for the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; the bronze altar and its bronze grating and all the utensils of the altar; the sockets of the enclosure and the sockets of the gate of the enclosure; and all the pegs of the Mishkan and all the pegs of the enclosure. (38:29-31)

The Abarbanel notes that we know of a bronze vessel that doesn’t feature on this list, the washbasin. It is categorized separately from the general bronze accounting because this bronze didn’t come from the main bronze operating account; it came from a wholly separate source from the rest of the general fund:

וַיַּעַשׂ אֵת הַכִּיּוֹר נְחֹשֶׁת וְאֵת כַּנּוֹ נְחֹשֶׁת בְּמַרְאֹת הַצֹּבְאֹת אֲשֶׁר צָבְאוּ פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד – He made the washbasin and its stand of bronze, from the mirrors of the women who amassed at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. (38:8)

Rashi quotes a fascinating Midrash that when the women of Israel wanted to donate their makeup mirrors to the Mishkan fund, Moshe considered rejecting these mirrors since they are, on their face, tools of immodesty. Notionally correct, humans use cosmetics to enhance their appearance aesthetically. While not the same, physical attractiveness is tightly correlated with sexual attractiveness, so cosmetics and makeup, superficially at least, serve the purposes of desire and lust, which are more aligned with the evil inclination – תאווה. But despite this, God interceded and instructed Moshe to readily accept these mirrors, declaring them the dearest of all contributions.

The subtext of this unusual vignette is that when the enslaved men in Egypt were exhausted and spent from backbreaking forced labor, they no longer wanted to be with their wives, the thought being that with no more children, their misery would come to an end. To counter this, the women would bring their husbands food and drink and use these personal makeup mirrors to seduce them with great success, directly resuscitating the imperiled future of the Jewish People. Rather than perceiving these actions as mere gratuitous and mundane acts of the flesh, God recognized their heroic courage and bravery in the Jewish People’s hour of great need.

Let’s recall the stated point of Pharaoh’s enslavement of the Jewish People was for population control; their fertility was a threat, so Egypt pursued oppressive policies to suppress it. But it didn’t work, and this teaching credits the brave Jewish women for that. It also suggests that even the most accomplished leader could fail to recognize their true value, but as our sages ultimately conclude, the Jewish People were saved from Egypt on the merit of righteous women. 

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch highlights the profound significance of how even something as mundane as a mirror, a symbol that draws attention to the human body as an object of sensual desire, can be co-opted and integrated into Divine service.

The symbolism goes deep; the washbasin functions to consecrate hands and feet, which means we can elevate and refine our simple flesh and blood bodies. There is no separate track for holy things – we create holiness through our actions and footsteps. The mirrors we might have thought of as a source of impurity are sacred and become the washbasin, the source of purity.

The separate accounting of the women’s bronze mirrors contains an essential and illuminating insight into the role of intimacy. It’s taboo to discuss, tainted as it so often is with guilt and shame, and yet one of its tools became not only a central feature in the Mishkan but quite plausibly the dearest donation of the lot!

It is imperative to separate what’s kosher from what’s not, right from wrong. The laws of איסורי ביאה and עריות‎ are incredibly severe and have catastrophic consequences highlighted by, among others, Hoshea and Yirmiyahu. They matter! But we must remember that the very first commandment from God to humans is to be fruitful and multiply. The Sefer Hachinuch observes that the mitzvah’s essential nature is that God desires a world populated with life. This is intuitive because we are designed to precisely that specification, like every other living thing. It’s a defining feature of being a living thing!

Judaism is highly focused on the purity of our sexuality. Adam and Eve were created naked and felt no shame until they ate from the Tree of Knowledge later in the story. There was nothing intrinsically wrong about their bodies, so there was no guilt or shame associated with them; they were living expressions of holiness even in their natural state. Only once they gained a deeper perception and understanding of consciousness could they comprehend that sexuality could be immoral and their nakedness could be shameful and embarrassing.

We often childishly characterize Satan as this evil other at odds with God’s purposes, but this could not be more wrong. Satan is a trusted member in good standing of God’s forces and has a decisive and vital role to play in the universe’s destiny. Nechama Leibowitz teaches that the same impulses that lead to destruction can equally lead to sanctity – building our families and perpetuating the future. Our sages recognized the need to serve God with our better and worse inclinations – בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ – literally, “hearts,” in the plural.

While we may categorize desire as originating in the baser or evil inclination, we must recognize its necessity as an essential precursor to life, to the extent that the Midrash labels that evil inclination as “very good.” Like eating or drinking, it is a fundamental biological driving force that is integrated and synonymous with being alive. When controlled and channeled in the appropriate context, it can be sacred.

R’ Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz teaches that Judaism does not exist to quell or quash the forces of human nature; the constraints of the Torah’s laws leave room for those forces to be beneficial and constructive. As the famous song goes, beauty and grace are vain but vain only in the sense that they are transient, that there is more to life than preoccupation with your image. But vain doesn’t mean bad; beauty is a gift, and modesty should not be a denial or rejection of it. 

We may even think that beauty, desire, and sexuality are good in our homes but still inappropriate in the Mishkan, a place where we strive to be above any distraction and focus on God, where physical impulses should remain outside. And yet, speaking directly to this notion, Rashi and our sages straightforwardly and unambiguously point out that God does not see it that way. If we still think it’s inappropriate, we need to recalibrate – קַבֵּל, כִּי אֵלּוּ חֲבִיבִין עָלַי מִן הַכֹּל.

Human desire can be elevated into the sanctified life force of Judaism, showcased by the persistence of the Jewish women who saved the Jewish people.

The separate treatment of the women’s makeup mirrors highlights that intimacy and everything associated with it can be sacred and what God considers among the dearest thing we have.

Failure isn’t Fatal

2 minute read
Straightforward

We often like to think that if we were to witness the biblical miracles, we’d feel confident that everything is going to work out and that you and your family are going to be safe.

Yet, confounding our expectations, no one who in those circumstances ever seems to feel that way. God could take them out of Egypt, split the sea, and smash their enemies; but Moses was for a little longer than they expected, and they panicked.

A mob cornered Ahron and demanded he come up with something to lead them:

וַיִּקָּהֵל הָעָם עַל־אַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו קוּם עֲשֵׂה־לָנוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר יֵלְכוּ לְפָנֵינוּ כִּי־זֶה מֹשֶׁה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָנוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לֹא יָדַעְנוּ מֶה־הָיָה לוֹ – The people gathered against Ahron and said to him, “Make us a god who will go before us, because Moshe, the man who brought us from the land of Egypt – we do not know what happened to him.” (32:1)

Ahron crafts an idol for them, a Golden Calf, a betrayal of catastrophic proportion.

Seeing that they had seen, this seems quite unforgivable. Moshe destroys the Ten Commandments, and the Jewish People suffer a plague.

It’s easy to read this story and be struck by the rashness and poor thinking. Some of our enemies have even pointed to this story as a reason for God to void our covenant and open the door for another religion to supersede Judaism.

But they don’t seem to have read the rest of the story.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that this is the very first time the Jewish People have been on the receiving end of God’s severity. The paradigm up to this point is that God gets angry at you, it’s over, you’re done.

But in a highly irregular turn, instead of getting biblical, God talks to Moshe about how God is feeling:

וְעַתָּה הַנִּיחָה לִּי וְיִחַר־אַפִּי בָהֶם וַאֲכַלֵּם וְאֶעֱשֶׂה אוֹתְךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל – “Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make you the great nation.” (32:10)

God doesn’t need to threaten anyone, God doesn’t need to share how God is feeling. God can just do things; that’s why God is God. God isn’t acting godly here; God chooses to appear here as an aggrieved lover or partner.

A threat is a statement of intention given to another with the specific goal of provoking some desired response. As our litany of stories of our prophets show, God threatens so people respond. Recognizing the threat as a prompt, rather than a promise, Moshe successfully persuades God to forgive the people.

And the very next thing that follows the Golden Calf is God’s instruction to build the Mishkan. As R’ Hirsch explains, even before sinners apologize or repent, before any rituals or sacrifices, before fasting and prayer, God has initiated contact and paved a way forward for people who have let God down.

This is a new side of God; God in a covenantal relationship with the Jewish People. Despite the colossal failure to meet the standards expected of covenantal partners, God establishes plainly and unambiguously that this relationship can withstand missteps.

The Golden Calf was the worst thing the Jewish People could do, and yet we find God not only waiting but proactively inviting us back; even an event like the Golden Calf can not destroy the unconditional love between Creator and creation.

Whatever mistakes we’ve made, we can take heart that we can always make amends.

Think it Through

2 minute read
Straightforward

Once the Mishkan was completed, it had to be consecrated, and Moshe oversaw a soft opening of sorts, serving as Kohen Gadol for a week.

After seven days, God told Moshe to hand over his duties to Ahron and instruct him how to do the job:

אַתָּה הַקְרֵב אֵלֶיךָ אֶת־אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ וְאֶת־בָּנָיו אִתּוֹ מִתּוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְכַהֲנוֹ־לִי… – You shall draw close your brother, Aaron, with his sons, from among the Jewish People, to serve Me as priests… (28:1)

Moshe had to serve in the capacity of Kohen Gadol for a short time, and then pass the methods on.

But why not just give the job directly to Ahron from the outset?

The Gemara explains that Moshe might have originally been tapped to be Kohen Gadol, but lost this privilege right at the beginning of the Exodus story when he resisted God’s overtures to save the Jewish People. The Midrash suggests that this discussion took place over seven days; the seven days in charge of the Mishkan correspond to the time he delayed his mission.

The Ohr HaChaim suggests that in this view, Moshe had to serve for a short while just so that he would see what he lost by not eagerly pouncing on the opportunity. Moshe had to gather Ahron’s family to teach them – הַקְרֵב אֵלֶיךָ – but the root of קרב is cognate to sacrifice. Moshe had to come close to see what he gave up – הַקְרֵב אֵלֶיךָ.

It’s worthwhile to note that when this transition period ended, the Torah marks Moshe’s final act in the cantillation marks with a Shalsheles, a rare note which translates as “chain.” The Shalsheles sounds like what it conveys, a wavering and faltering hesitation before finally letting go, breaking the chain as it were, and now Moshe had learned what a vital position Ahron held.

When it comes to essential things, it’s worth understanding what the opportunity is and what its associated costs and benefits will be before making a decision.

While we can’t say yes to everything, we can certainly give it some thought before saying no!

The Covenant of Kings

3 minute read
Straightforward

One of the most basic and essential rules of interpretation is understanding that the Torah is written in language humans can read and understand – דיברה תורה כלשון בני אדם.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that the Torah writes within the boundaries of human understanding, not objective truths known only to God.

The Rambam utilizes this theme prominently, famously suggesting that the Torah co-opted animal sacrifices only because they were culturally familiar methods of worship in the Ancient Near East. The Ralbag similarly recognized the value of understanding the ancient world of the Torah to give us enhanced context and understanding of the Torah’s teachings.

Apart from animal sacrifices, another ancient practice that would be culturally familiar was the notion of the covenant.

In the Ancient Near East, kings would formalize their diplomatic relations with treaties or covenants. These treaties were drafted between equals and sometimes between a superior and a subordinate state or suzerain and vassal. The structure of the Torah’s covenants has striking parallels to the suzerain-vassal treaties. If we unpack the layers of the system, we can unlock a deeper appreciation for it.

The main elements of suzerain-vassal treaties are identifying the treaty-maker, the superior; a historical introduction, such as prior beneficial acts the superior has done for the subordinate; the stipulations, typically the demand for loyalty; a list of divine witnesses; and blessings and curses. The treaty was proclaimed in public along with a ceremonial meal and stored at a holy site. A periodic public reading would remind the subordinate citizens of their duties.

The similarity between the Torah’s use of covenants and other treaties extant in the Ancient Near East isn’t merely interesting trivia – it’s political dynamite.

For most of ancient history, the head of state was also the leader of the cult – god-kings and priest-kings were standard. The king or the priestly class had a monopoly on the rituals of religion, and the common serfs were passive observers living vicariously through these holy men.

In sharp contrast with that background, the Torah’s rendition of a covenant is striking not in its similarity but also its difference.

God does not seek a covenant with Moshe, the head of state, nor Ahron, the Kohen Gadol. God does not even desire a covenant with the Jewish People; the party God treats with is no less than every single individual, which is explosive because it’s shocking enough that a God would care about humans in general, let alone each of us in particular. And by making a covenant with us, God goes even further and asks us to be His partners.

A covenant between God and individuals doesn’t just illustrate the dignity of every individual; it also bestows a second facet to our identity. By elevating common people into vassal-kings, we are all royalty – מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ / כָל-הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים. This also echoes a broader ideological theme that idealized a community of educated and empowered citizens – וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ / וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ.

R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that we take self-identity for granted today, but historically, self-identity was subsumed into community and culture. In a world where the individual self barely existed and mattered very little, it’s radical to say that God cares for us individually because it’s not apparent at all – בשבילי נברא העולם. This tension between God as distant yet close is captured in our blessings, where we call Hashem “You” in the second person, indicating familiar closeness, and then “Hashem,” with titles in the third person, indicating distance.

Striking a covenant with individuals democratizes access to God and spirituality, creating a direct line for everybody. Parenthetically, this echoes the Torah’s conception of creating humans in God’s image – everyone is, not just a few “special” people.

We are all royalty in God’s eyes, and we are all God’s partners.

The Moral Limits of Power

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Straightforward

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

The sanctity of life is not obvious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humility Redux

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Straightforward

We take for granted that humility is an admirable virtue, but it’s worth taking a moment to consider what humility is and also what it is not.

Humility is commonly understood to mean a low estimate of oneself and one’s accomplishments. The Oxford English Dictionary defines humility as “the quality of being humble: having a low estimate of one’s importance, worthiness, or merits.”

But this doesn’t ring true with what Judaism teaches us about the value of humility.

The Midrash famously teaches that Mount Sinai was only a little mountain to show how instrumental humility is.

But suppose the educational purpose of giving the Torah in such a place is to illustrate the value of humility. In that case, you’d assume a valley would be a more appropriate geological feature to teach the lesson!

So why give the Torah on a mountain at all?

The Shem Mi’Shmuel states that to accept the Torah and live its ideals, you must be like a mountain, not a valley; or as Pirkei Avos puts it, if I don’t stand up for myself, what am I?

As important as the quality of humility is, people who accept the Torah upon themselves must consider themselves important and deserving of the Torah.

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that humility is an appreciation of our talents, skills, and virtues. It is not meekness or self-deprecating thought but the dedication of oneself to something higher.

R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that the Torah labels Moshe as the most humble of all men. If humility is simply a low view of oneself, then Moshe, the Lawgiver and single most significant authority on the Torah, would meekly cave to any challenge – which he obviously couldn’t and didn’t. But if humility is about being of service, then Moshe truly was the most humble of all men – Moshe singularly dedicated his entire life to public service. His achievements were never about him or his status; they were all in furtherance of rescuing and building the Jewish people.

It was no lack of humility for Moshe to acknowledge his authority and leadership. When a person believes they are nothing, the Torah itself will ultimately have little effect in elevating him. Although pride is a dangerous vice in large quantities, a small amount is still essential to living a good life.

Pride is about competing – that you are more intelligent than or richer than others; humility is about serving. Humility isn’t the opposite of narcissism and hubris; it’s the lack of them. In the absence of pride, you find humility, which sees no need for competition.

So perhaps humility is not that you are nothing; it’s just that it’s not about you anymore. In humility, you are no more and no less than other people. Humility is not about hiding away, becoming a wallflower or a doormat; it is about the realization that your abilities and actions are uncorrelated to others.

Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.

The Universal and the Particular

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Straightforward

The Exodus story is long and complex, with many different stages. The Ten Plagues took place over a year or so, but it wouldn’t have been any less cool or impressive to rescue the Jewish People in the space of a day. The theatre of a long and drawn-out Ten Plagues is deliberate then, rather than miraculously magic the Jewish People out or flatten Egypt instantly.

Why did God take His time saving the Jewish People?

If the goal is to save the Jewish People, then the question is excellent; God should have done it as quickly and efficiently as possible!

The story plainly states that saving the Jewish People was not God’s only priority, but God had other goals. Among others, the Torah states that as much as the Jewish People must understand there is a God, Egypt must come to understand this as well – וְיָדְעוּ מִצְרַיִם כִּי-אֲנִי ה. Beyond simple comeuppance or karma, more than punishment or vengeance for centuries of oppression, God deems it independently necessary for Egypt to recognize the One God.

When the vanquished Egyptian army drifted in the waves of the Red Sea, the Jews celebrated, and the Midrash imagines how the angels in Heaven attempted to applaud the great salvation as well, but God would not tolerate it- “Shall angels sing while My creations drown?!”

Quite obviously, God’s analysis fundamentally differs from ours – כִּי לֹא מַחְשְׁבוֹתַי מַחְשְׁבוֹתֵיכֶם.

The conclusion of the book of Jonah carries a similar sentiment, where God admonishes Jonah for caring about his narrow corner of the world without caring for a metropolis full of people and animals simply because they aren’t his countrymen:

וַאֲנִי לֹא אָחוּס עַל־נִינְוֵה הָעִיר הַגְּדוֹלָה אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ־בָּהּ הַרְבֵּה מִשְׁתֵּים־עֶשְׂרֵה רִבּוֹ אָדָם אֲשֶׁר לֹא־יָדַע בֵּין־יְמִינוֹ לִשְׂמֹאלוֹ וּבְהֵמָה רַבָּה – “Should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who don’t yet know their right hand from their left, and many animals as well?!”

The Lubavitcher Rebbe notes that one of our liturgy’s sharpest prayers about Gentiles, the request at the Seder for God to pour out His wrath on them over our exile – שְׁפֹךְ חֲמָתְךָ אֶל־הַגּוֹיִם – is qualified with the caveat of those who do not recognize God – אֲשֶׁר לֹא יְדָעוּךָ. 

From its earliest moments and consistently throughout, God’s goal has never been to save the Jewish People to the exclusion of greater humanity. The Torah’s utopian vision for the world has consistently been a universal one where all humans recognize God – בֵיתִי בֵּית־תְּפִלָּה יִקָּרֵא לְכָל־הָעַמִּים / וְכָל בְּנֵי בָשָׂר יִקְרְאוּ בִשְׁמֶךָ / וִיקַבְּלוּ כֻלָּם אֶת עֹל מַלְכוּתֶךָ.

While the Lubavitcher Rebbe and his followers have certainly taken outreach to its furthest conceivable limits, it is worth dwelling on the principle. The Torah is not a pathway to personal joy and reward just for Jews; the Gemara and the Rambam emphatically affirm that Gentiles go to the same places we do when we die.

God doesn’t whisk the Jewish People out of Egypt and into freedom instantly because that is not what God wants from our universe.

We would do well to remember that as much as our people have a sacred mission, the rest of the world matters and serves God’s purposes in a different way.

The Strength to Carry On

3 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah describes how Pharaoh resists Moshe’s requests to let his people go, so God sends waves of plagues. At multiple points in the Exodus story, Pharaoh is ready to concede, but God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, giving him the resolve to avoid doing the right thing, delaying the Jewish People’s eventual liberation.

Once he was ready to concede, what was the point of hardening his heart?

The Sforno suggests a compelling answer.

One of the keys to correctly understanding the Exodus story is that getting the Jewish People out of Egypt was not the only goal. It demands nothing of God to flatten Egypt or magic the Jews out. Instead, many other things happen that aren’t reducible to the purposes of a defeated Egypt and a free Jewish People. The Exodus, like Creation, was not instantaneous; it was a deliberately gradual and incremental process.

There are two words the Torah uses to describe what happens to Pharaoh’s heart: strength and heaviness – כבד / חזק. Where God acts directly, there is only חיזוק – God gives him the strength to carry on.

The story is very clear why, and it slips right under the radar. God explicitly states the purpose of what is to come to Moshe, foreshadowing the first plague:

וְיָדְעוּ מִצְרַיִם כִּי-אֲנִי ה’, בִּנְטֹתִי אֶת-יָדִי עַל-מִצְרָיִם; וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִתּוֹכָם – “Egypt will know that I am the Lord when I stretch My hand over Egypt and take the Jews from them.” (7:17)

We’ve read this story a few times, and our eyes glaze over because we know it a little too well, and we ought to remember that at this point in the story, no one knows what God can do – not Moshe, and certainly not Pharaoh. The Jewish People only know they are descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yakov; and that they believe in the One God of their ancestors. But that’s really it – no one knew God had actual power; no one had ever seen or heard of a miracle. Quite arguably, there hadn’t been a miracle since the Flood, which had almost no survivors. So with good reason, Pharaoh mocked Moshe:

מִי ה אֲשֶׁר אֶשְׁמַע בְּקֹלוֹ לְשַׁלַּח אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא יָדַעְתִּי אֶת־ה וְגַם אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחַ – “Who is this Lord that I should heed Him and let Israel go?! I don’t know this Lord, and I won’t let Israel go!” (5:2)

So when God flexed a strong and outstretched arm on Egypt, people were rightly terrified, and so Pharaoh needed strength to continue. If he tried to save Egypt out of fear of destruction, that would be the wrong reason! So God gave Pharaoh the resolve to withstand his own fear up to the seventh plague.

But after the seventh plague, the task is seemingly complete; and Pharaoh concedes entirely:

וַיִּשְׁלַח פַּרְעֹה, וַיִּקְרָא לְמֹשֶׁה וּלְאַהֲרֹן, וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, חָטָאתִי הַפָּעַם: ה, הַצַּדִּיק, וַאֲנִי וְעַמִּי, הָרְשָׁעִים. הַעְתִּירוּ, אֶל-ה, וְרַב, מִהְיֹת קֹלֹת אֱלֹהִים וּבָרָד; וַאֲשַׁלְּחָה אֶתְכֶם, וְלֹא תֹסִפוּן לַעֲמֹד – Pharaoh sent for Moshe and Ahron, and said to them, “Now I have sinned. God is righteous; my people and I are guilty. Beg the Lord to bring an end to this flaming hail; I will free you; you will be here no longer…” (9:27,28)

Egypt has been educated – וְיָדְעוּ מִצְרַיִם כִּי-אֲנִי ה – but this is not the end. With three more plagues to come, God tells Moshe that he has a new audience now:

וּלְמַעַן תְּסַפֵּר בְּאָזְנֵי בִנְךָ וּבֶן-בִּנְךָ, אֵת אֲשֶׁר הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי בְּמִצְרַיִם, וְאֶת-אֹתֹתַי, אֲשֶׁר-שַׂמְתִּי בָם; וִידַעְתֶּם, כִּי-אֲנִי ה – So that you tell over to your sons and daughters how I toyed with Egypt, with my wonders that I cast on them, and you will know that I am the Lord. (10:2)

Now it is about the Jewish People -‘ וִידַעְתֶּם כִּי-אֲנִי ה.

The Jewish People need to understand what God would do for them. It was understandably mind-bending for them to comprehend what was taking place, and they fought against a life of miracles for the rest of their days.

But even if that generation wouldn’t see it, their children would.

The Long Way

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Straightforward

The Exodus story is a foundation of Judaism and features prominently in most of our mitzvos and prayers.

Aware of the magnitude and scope of the Exodus, God tells Moshe and Ahron in real-time how consequential this story will always be:

וְהָיָה הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה לָכֶם לְזִכָּרוֹן וְחַגֹּתֶם אֹתוֹ חַג ה’ לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם חֻקַּת עוֹלָם תְּחגֻּהוּ – “This day shall be to you one of remembrance; you shall celebrate it as a festival to God throughout the ages, you shall celebrate it as an institution for all time!” (12:14)

We practice this command in festive detail at the Seder, as the Haggadah recounts the story of the Jewish people’s birth and liberation from Egypt and slavery.

But there’s a significant issue we ought to recognize immediately, without which the entire remembrance is irreparably compromised with no contemporary relevance at all.

We are fortunate to live in a vanishingly rare era of safety and prosperity, which obscures the fact that the Jewish People people have been exiled and persecuted time after time in place after place for most of our history.

But even today, we’re not as safe as it superficially seems.

Although largely safe from physical danger, the spiritual dangers have never been more powerful or seductive; most of our people are at different stages of assimilation or disorientation, disconnected in whole or in part from their heritage identity.

What’s the point of talking about redemption that happened long ago when we’re not yet redeemed today?

The Meshech Chochmah explains that if it were nothing more than the anniversary of physical liberation, it would make little sense to celebrate in a time of subjugation. But if we understand it correctly as the founding archetype of the liberation of the spirit, then it necessarily continues to have a residual effect forever as the source of all freedom, as the Torah so powerfully puts it, promising us today that our Seder matters and reflects that moment in full – וְחַגֹּתֶם אֹתוֹ חַג ה’ לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם חֻקַּת עוֹלָם.

As the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains, the Seder does not reinforce that an Exodus happened that one time; but that an Exodus can happen.

R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that throughout the highs and lows of Jewish history, our people have celebrated the Seder at the heights of civilization and in ghettos and concentration camps under conditions similar to or worse than Egypt.

The Exodus we celebrate was imperfect – it did not lead to a full and final utopia for anyone. The formerly enslaved people fought God and Moshe for the rest of their lives, yearning to return to the Egypt that had shackled them.

But the Torah and Haggadah openly embrace the notion of an imperfect and partial redemption; both subvert our expectation of a happily ever after ending where the Jewish People live in peace and prosperity in Israel.

R’ Shai Held notes that by celebrating imperfect redemption, the Haggadah seems to powerfully suggest that the journey is more important than the destination. The Gemara warns against believing someone who says they have searched for answers but found nothing. As R’ Louis Jacobs put it, the search for Torah is itself Torah, and in that search, we have already found. There is plenty of space between all and nothing; as the Kotzker put it, the searching is the finding. 

The question’s premise is false; things don’t need to be perfect to be a whole lot better. Humans are not robots, and we are all perfectly imperfect in our own way.

We have yet to make it all the way, but the only analysis is that each step further is vastly better than no way.

There is still quite some way to go, but you’re a long way from where you used to be, and that’s also worth celebrating.

Our Seder isn’t the anniversary of an ancient generation’s liberation long ago; each of us must feel as though we experienced the great departure from Egypt. Our Seder continues it, reminding us that redemption exists, redemption can happen, and we are all worthy of it.

You are Worthy

3 minute read
Straightforward

The Exodus is an orienting event for the Jewish People, a founding moment in our history, with a daily duty to recall it. It’s the first thing God has to say to humans at Sinai; God introduces Himself as the God who took us out of Egypt.

Remembering the Exodus is a perpetual mitzvah, and an astounding amount of our daily blessings, mitzvos, and prayers commemorate the Exodus – זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם. It is ubiquitous to the extent we could miss the point entirely.

What do we mean when we say that we remember that God took the Jews out of Egypt?

It is essential to understand first principles because they are the foundational concepts that govern the systems built upon them.

If we unpack the story, the Jews in Egypt didn’t deserve to be saved because they were so great or unique; they were quite the opposite. And that’s the point we need to remember.

The Zohar imagines the angels arguing whether or not God should save the Jews, and the argument was that “this lot are just a bunch of idol-worshippers, and so are those!” The Haggadah admits as much – מִתְּחִלָּה עוֹבְדֵי עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה הָיוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ.

When Moshe told the Jews to set aside and take one sheep per family, the Midrash says that “set aside” meant setting aside their idols before taking the sheep for the mitzvah!

Even when Moshe, already well on his way to greatness, intervened to protect Yisro’s daughters from bullies, onlookers mistook him for some random Egyptian!

The Midrash famously states that the enslaved Jews retained their names, clothing, and language. This is frequently – and mistakenly – framed as a point of pride when it seems the point is that apart from these narrow and limited practices, they were indistinguishable from Egyptians in every other conceivable way!

Moreover, the generation that left Egypt and stood at Sinai fought Moshe for the rest of their lives, begging to return to Egypt, and was ultimately doomed to wander and die in the wilderness.

The Zohar goes so far as to say that the Jews were on the 49th level of spiritual malaise, just one notch off rock bottom, the point of no return. Rav Kook notes that this adds a particular dimension to the imagery of God’s mighty and outstretched arm – it was a forceful intervention, an emergency rescue of a nation that had stumbled and was about fall off a cliff – בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה.

As R’ Shlomo Farhi explains, whenever God is characterized with strength, it indicates God is doing something undeserved. God does not require more power to move a grape than a galaxy, but God can force compassion to overwhelm what justice requires – גּוֹאֵל וחָזָק אָתָּה.

That is to say that on a fundamental level, the Jews didn’t deserve rescuing at all.

And yet crucially, as R’ Chaim Kanievsky notes, God responded to their cries all the same – וַנִּצְעַק אֶל־ה’ אֱלֹקי אֲבֹתֵינוּ, וַיִּשְׁמַע ה’ אֶת־קֹלֵנוּ.

The Divrei Chaim notes that the very first Commandment is no command at all; God “introduces” himself as the God who took us out of Egypt – אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים. It’s not a command but a simple statement of fact. We might not deserve redemption, yet God redeems us all the same.

R’ Tzadok haKohen writes that to remember Egypt is to remember God’s first declarative sentence; God rescues people from Egypt, whatever they have done and whoever they have become. Our God initiates the great Exodus before the Jewish People ever take a single step of their own to be better – אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים.

The Ropshitzer quipped that תְּחִלָּה לְמִקְרָאֵי קדֶשׁ זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם – the first step towards holiness is remembering that the same Exodus that rescued people from the abyss once before could be just a moment away.

So when we remind ourselves about Egypt, it’s not just that it happened once, but that, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe put it, God’s redemption is not contingent on our worthiness. As the Kozhnitzer Maggid reminds us, the Creator chooses us at our worst – מִתְּחִלָּה עוֹבְדֵי עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה הָיוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ.

Take this lesson to heart; it’s one of the vanishingly few that the Torah specifically asks us to remember at all times – לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת־יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ.

And it’s clear why.

You don’t need to remember the simple historical events of the Exodus; you must remind yourself that every single last human is worthy of God’s unconditional love.

Under Scrutiny

2 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah isn’t so much about God as it is about humans and how we ought to behave. This is in large part because we cannot comprehend what God is, only what God does.

One of Judaism’s most fundamental beliefs is that we can change, through the ability to repent and make amends – Teshuva – which presupposes that to some extent, God can also change. While this may sound absurd at first, it’s quite benign. We believe that with prayer, repentance, and charity, God might act with compassionate mercy in lieu of strict justice.

This transition from strict justice to compassionate mercy ought to be instructive to how we exercise judgment in our own lives.

The Torah’s stated cause for the great Flood was a human tendency towards evil:

וַיַּרְא ה, כִּי רַבָּה רָעַת הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ, וְכָל-יֵצֶר מַחְשְׁבֹת לִבּוֹ, רַק רַע כָּל-הַיּוֹם –  Hashem saw the great evil of humans on Earth, and that every imagination of his heart’s intent was only ever evil. (6:5)

After the great Flood, God laments the destruction and devastation, and resolves not destroy life ever again:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל-לִבּוֹ לֹא-אֹסִף לְקַלֵּל עוֹד אֶת-הָאֲדָמָה בַּעֲבוּר הָאָדָם, כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו; וְלֹא-אֹסִף עוֹד לְהַכּוֹת אֶת-כָּל-חַי, כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי – Hashem said in His heart: “I will not curse the ground again for humanity’s sake; because the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every living thing, as I have just done.” (8:21)

What changed between the beginning and end of the Flood?

Quite remarkably, it seems like nothing at all changed. Humans were bad before, and they are still bad after – יֵצֶר מַחְשְׁבֹת לִבּוֹ, רַק רַע כָּל-הַיּוֹם / כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו.

This non-change also happens when the Jewish People misguidedly craft the Golden Calf, upon which God states He can longer tolerate their obstinate rigidity:

כִּי לֹא אֶעֱלֶה בְּקִרְבְּךָ, כִּי עַם-קְשֵׁה-עֹרֶף אַתָּה פֶּן-אֲכֶלְךָ בַּדָּרֶךְ – “I will not go up with you; because you are a stiff-necked people; otherwise I might destroy you on the way!” (33:3)

Yet Moshe appeals for God’s compassion and mercy based on that very same characteristic:

וַיֹּאמֶר אִם-נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ, אֲדֹנָי, יֵלֶךְ-נָא אֲדֹנָי, בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ:  כִּי עַם-קְשֵׁה-עֹרֶף הוּא, וְסָלַחְתָּ לַעֲוֹנֵנוּ וּלְחַטָּאתֵנוּ וּנְחַלְתָּנוּ – And he said: “If I have found favor in your sight, Hashem, please go in our midst; because this is a stiff-necked people; and forgive our error and sin, and take us as Your inheritance.” (34:9)

While we cannot know God as God is, we can learn to understand God a little better by imitating what He does. In both instances, humans do not earn forgiveness through Teshuva, because they have not changed. We are prone to error and don’t always learn from our mistakes.

In the story of Noach, God does something extremely unusual and talks to Himself – וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל-לִבּוֹ. The power of this soliloquy teaches us that how we frame a characteristic can be the difference between strict justice and compassionate mercy. The self-same flaw God can condemn can also be excused on the same basis – כִּי.

We can’t change other people. Sometimes they won’t ever make amends and won’t fix what they broke. But we can still change the lens we use to scrutinize them.

In the same way that God can choose to judge favorably out of a commitment to life, we can do the same.

A judgmental attitude helps neither ourselves nor others.

All Men are Created Equal

3 minute read
Straightforward

Centuries ago, the founding fathers of the United States of America made the radical and immortal proclamation that all men are created equal.

Today, this doctrine is called egalitarianism and is arguably a cornerstone of the modern world. This political theory prioritizes equality for all people, generally characterized by the idea that all humans are equal in fundamental worth or moral status and should have equal rights. While different sections along the political spectrum can reasonably disagree on the exact contours of equality and which policies further its ideals, it is clear that the inequalities of the ancient world are relics of history. Feudalism and entitled aristocracy are gone, as is a landed gentry with lords and serfs. Today, we understand that all men are created equal and that no one is better or worse than anyone else.

Quite compellingly, the Torah makes a case for a form of equality that not only predates many of the Renaissance ideals that gave rise to the modern world; but is quite arguably their source.

When the Torah talks about humans in the image of God, the Torah is unequivocal that the only hierarchy that exists is between you and God. There is no one else above or below you; every other human stands alongside you and under God. 

What’s more, is that whenever the Torah talks about interpersonal mitzvos and our duties to each other, the Torah utilizes recursive imagery in which all the laws are rooted: 

כִּי-יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן מֵאַחַד אַחֶיךָ / וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת-יָדְךָ, מֵאָחִיךָ, הָאֶבְיוֹן / וְרָעָה עֵינְךָ בְּאָחִיךָ הָאֶבְיוֹן, וְלֹא תִתֵּן לוֹ / פָּתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת-יָדְךָ לְאָחִיךָ / כִּי-יִמָּכֵר לְךָ אָחִיךָ הָעִבְרִי / לְבִלְתִּי רוּם-לְבָבוֹ מֵאֶחָיו / וְנַחֲלָה לֹא-יִהְיֶה-לּוֹ, בְּקֶרֶב אֶחָיו / וְשֵׁרֵת, בְּשֵׁם ה אֱלֹקיו–כְּכָל-אֶחָיו / נָבִיא מִקִּרְבְּךָ מֵאַחֶיךָ / וַעֲשִׂיתֶם לוֹ, כַּאֲשֶׁר זָמַם לַעֲשׂוֹת לְאָחִיו – When there will be a poor man among your brothers / Don’t withold your hand from your brother, the poor man / Should your eye turn evil towards your poor brother, and you don’t give him [what he needs] / Open your hands to your brother, and open them once more / Should your brother be sold as a slave / [Let a king] not be haughty over his brothers / [The kohen] shall not have an inheritance with his brothers [because of his extra benefits] / He will serve in God’s name, as his brothers / A prophet will come from among your brothers / Conspiring witnesses shall suffer what they conspired upon their brother. (Multiple sources)

Whether we’re talking about rich and poor, slaves or kings, prophets or priests, the Torah utilizes the imagery of brotherhood and fraternity consistently. When the Torah says something, it matters. When the Torah says the same recurring thing over and over, it matters a lot, and we should recognize it as such. 

The Torah asks us not to define people by their status in a hierarchy as a lender or borrower, king or subject, master or slave. While socioeconomic status may accurately describe us, it is our common identity that defines us. 

There is a radical concept here.

We must help each other, not because we are different, but because we are the same.

The theory of common identity anchoring us to each other is presented as one of the foundational reasons we observe the Torah:

וְזָכַרְתָּ, כִּי עֶבֶד הָיִיתָ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, וַיִּפְדְּךָ, ה אֱלֹקיךָ – Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the Lord redeemed you (15:15)

The fact that we were once oppressed is not merely a reason to find empathy with vulnerable folks; it goes further. It should serve as a constant reminder that we mustn’t fall victim to arrogance and hubris by taking credit for our good fortune – וְאָמַרְתָּ בִּלְבָבֶךָ כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי עָשָׂה לִי אֶת־הַחַיִל הַזֶּה.

Although egalitarianism informs many government policies today, we live in a modern professional world optimized for capital and commerce, not community. It has bestowed a litany of benefits and has resulted in arguably the finest era of human society to date. Still, while reasonable people can disagree on what optimal social policy looks like, we ought to remember that the Torah’s conception of our duties to each other goes a lot further than equality and deep into the realm of brotherhood and fraternity, imposing a firm sense of duty to protect and respect each other.

The Torah speaks past our relative status and straightforwardly and unambiguously demands that you see the less fortunate as your responsibility. It has nothing to do with generosity and everything to do with our duties towards each other.

Because there, but for the grace of God, go I.

The Candle In The Dark

2 minute read
Straightforward

In the early phases of Moshe and Ahron’s mission, they were God’s agents to Pharaoh. But at some point, they had to become agents of the Jewish people as well. That is the point of the first mitzva – Rosh Chodesh, the New Moon.

Rav Hirsch teaches the deep symbolism that belies the mitzva, far beyond a calculation of the calendar dates.

Rosh Chodesh literally means “beginning of renewals”. There were signs and miracles to try and persuade the Egyptians, and there would be a perpetual sign for the Jewish people as well. Rosh Chodesh was to be the recurring sign that would call for ever fresh rejuvenation out of the night and darkness, immunising the people from the corruption they’d find themselves immersed in, from Egypt to everywhere else.

The procedure for calling it is human-centric – it requires multiple witnesses, and multiple judges to form a court. For simple declarations, one of each is enough, but more is required for cases concerning relationships. Rosh Chodesh is not an astronomical phenomenon; it is solely dependent on human criteria. It is the court as representatives of the Jewish people that decide when it is or is not Rosh Chodesh.

The Chagim are all based on when Rosh Chodesh is. Rosh Chodesh is called a מועד, which means a designated meeting time. The מועדים are designated times for a meeting between God and the Jewish people. The meeting is voluntary between both sides, which is the timing is only general, with latitude on our part; the meeting will be by mutual choice.

It is for this reason that this is the first mitzva communicated to the Jewish people as a whole; the mitzva that binds the relationship between the Jewish people, Moshe, and God.

The natural phenomena are not the reason. Rather, as each time the moon reunites with the sun, receiving new light, the Jewish people too can find their way back, no matter where they may be, or what darkness they find themselves in. The natural phenomena are the symbol.

Personal Space

2 minute read
Straightforward

Historically, the Mishkan and Beis HaMikdash were focal points in our religious lives, and quite rightly. The Jewish People would journey from near and far for the Holidays, and there were all manner of offerings and rituals the people would partake in. They were the seat of justice, with the highest courts headquartered there. They feature prominently in almost all of our prayers.

How could Judaism survive, let alone thrive, without these central sites and rites?

It’s an essential question that speaks to the heart of what Judaism is; it matters. But if Judaism has lingered on long after those holy sites are gone; if Judaism has persisted for the overwhelming majority of its history without these holy places, then perhaps it was never about the bricks – it was about the people and their commitment. The bricks could break, but the people and their commitment would not.

It’s all encoded in the very first instruction to build a communal holy place:

וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם – And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. (25:8)

God is incorporeal and doesn’t need a place to live; God is the place of all things and is in all places already. The important part isn’t simply the place; but what the place does – it helps us experience and feel like God dwells among us – וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that the very fact that the Mishkan was built in the heart and center of the camp illustrates God’s closeness to our lives.

It’s not the form of the place we make for God that matters; it’s the substance – the very concept of the entire Mishkan project speaks to the notion that sanctity is portable – that there isn’t a single “holy place”; there are only the places we choose to make holy. If that place wasn’t just for God, of course we could survive without the Mishkan and Beis HaMikdash. If we built it there, we could build it here. If we built it once, we could build it again. Our ancestors could do it in a grand temple, and they could do it in a dark cellar on the run from danger.

The Mishkan and Beis HaMikdash were quite literally public works in every way – paid for by every citizen and member of the public, monuments representing the dedication to what we can build together, carving out a dedicated space for God – which God promises to reciprocate in a mutual covenant – וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ, וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם. If we make the space, God will be there.

As the Kotzker famously quipped, where does God dwell? Wherever we let Him in.

If we make the space, God will be there.

This Cannot Be How It Ends

3 minute read
Straightforward

They thought it was over.

The Jewish People had finally left centuries of oppression behind them and had walked out of Egypt. But barely a few days out, the Egyptian army was in pursuit and had them cornered by the ocean shore, wading in the reeds, open sea in front of them, a cloud of dust from the vengeful Egyptian army on the horizon. They were trapped, and the people despaired.

Yet before God even talks to Moshe, Moshe already knows how to proceed:

אַל-תִּירָאוּ–הִתְיַצְּבוּ וּרְאוּ אֶת-יְשׁוּעַת ה’, אֲשֶׁר-יַעֲשֶׂה לָכֶם הַיּוֹם – “Have no fear! Stand and wait, and you shall see God’s salvation today!” (14:13)

At this point, the Torah has not recorded an interaction between Moshe and the Creator; Moshe has not been briefed or prepared for what to do in this scenario. And yet he knows.

But how?

The easy answer is that when you’re in a tough spot, have some faith, and it’ll all work out! But apart from being a cop-out answer, it’s true except for when it doesn’t work out. Blind faith is probably not the answer; maybe it’s something else.

Right after the Jewish People are saved, they sing the Song of the Sea. The Torah also records how Miriam led a separate rendition of gratitude, and the Jewish women followed her. It’s curious because it indicates that the Song of the Sea was not enough, that Miriam’s activity was distinct and unique, over and above the Song of the Sea. It’s also curious because the Torah identifies her in a highly unusual way:

וַתִּקַּח מִרְיָם הַנְּבִיאָה אֲחוֹת אַהֲרֹן, אֶת-הַתֹּף–בְּיָדָהּ; וַתֵּצֶאןָ כָל-הַנָּשִׁים אַחֲרֶיהָ, בְּתֻפִּים וּבִמְחֹלֹת. וַתַּעַן לָהֶם, מִרְיָם … – Miriam the prophetess, sister of Aharon, took an instrument in her hand, and led the women with instruments and dancing. And she sang to them… (15:21)

At this point in the story, we know that Miriam is a heroic leader in her own right who needs no introduction. The Torah highlights her prophecy and association with Aharon, even though she was also a sister to Moshe.

Sensitive to these nuances, Rashi suggests that the Torah alludes here to the prophecy Miriam received when she was only Aharon’s sister but not Moshe’s.

Pharaoh’s mystics had foreseen Moshe’s birth and launched a campaign of infanticide against Jewish boys in the preceding months. The Midrash records how Amram and Yocheved, the Jewish leaders of their time, had separated so as not to suffer such a terrible fate. Miriam then experienced the prophecy of Moshe’s impending birth. She persuaded her parents to get back together by saying that their action was worse than Pharaoh’s decree, as separation prevented the birth of girls as well.

When Yocheved fell pregnant, the Egyptian government kept tabs on her – but Moshe was born prematurely after a six-month pregnancy. When he was born, the Torah describes his appearance as brilliant – וַתֵּרֶא אֹתוֹ כִּי-טוֹב הוּא – which the Midrash suggests is the same brilliance as the light of Creation – כִּי-טוֹב  – and the entire house shone.

But despite such an encouraging sign, the moment came where she could hide him no longer – וְלֹא-יָכְלָה עוֹד, הַצְּפִינוֹ. After three more months, which would have been a full-term pregnancy, the Egyptians came for her to inspect the child she was due to give birth to. She knew she had to abandon the child prophesied by her daughter. Yocheved placed the boy into a basket and put him in the river. The Torah implies she could not bear to watch – and who could? What chances would one give a baby with no one to care for him, abandoned in a box in a river,  in the heat, with an army on the hunt for him no less:

וַתֵּתַצַּב אֲחֹתוֹ, מֵרָחֹק, לְדֵעָה, מַה-יֵּעָשֶׂה לוֹ – Miriam stood and waited from afar, to know what would be of him…(2:4)

The emphasis is on Miriam; Miriam stayed when Yocheved could not. She had not experienced a new prophecy and was only a child herself. Holding on to her prophecy, one thought guided her – this cannot be how it ends.

And she was right.

The daughter of the Jewish People’s oppressors showed up, which would ordinarily be the worst thing that could happen. Still, in a stunning reversal, she displays compassion for the boy and takes him in, ultimate victory seized from the clutches of total defeat.

As R’ David Fohrman explains, years later, Moshe knew what to tell the Jews at the shore of the Red Sea because this had happened before; it was the same story!

Jew cornered by Egyptian among the reeds, at the water’s edge, all hope fading fast. Moshe had been in this situation before, so he understood to tell them to watch what happens. This cannot be how it ends!

Once they were safe, so many years after her prophecy, Moshe had finally saved their people. It is Miriam’s celebration more than anyone else’s because this is the ultimate fulfillment of her prophecy – the promised child has saved their people from Egypt for good.

You probably haven’t experienced a prophecy of salvation. But all the same, in the heartbreaking moments that look like all is lost, you can invoke the power of Miriam and hold on just a little longer.

This cannot be how it ends.

Pharaoh’s Responsibility

3 minute read
Straightforward

One of the foundations of religion and morality is free will.

With good reason, Maimonides identifies free will as a foundational principle underpinning the entire Torah. If humans can’t deliberately choose between right and wrong, there can be no reward or punishment. If we can’t choose, our actions have no value as we don’t control them; if you are bad, it’s not your fault because being good is impossible.

The Exodus story poses a problem, however.

Throughout the story, God tells Moshe that He has hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and Pharaoh refuses to free the Jews. But if God had hardened Pharaoh’s heart, his free will was hopelessly compromised; why was Pharaoh’s punishment?

Maimonides’s exposition of free will allows for the possibility of doing something so egregiously wrong that the path of making amends and repentance is foreclosed, and the person can no longer return to who they once were.

There is an old folk saying that the axe forgets, but the tree remembers, meaning that the person who hurts another forgets, but the person who gets hurt does not. Someone abusive can reform themselves, regret their actions, and resolve never to harm another person again; they should do all those things. But they can only hope to find a new path; they can never return to their old one, and that’s what happened to Pharaoh. 

Pharaoh’s government enslaved, tortured, and murdered people, particularly children; justice required that he be prevented from making amends. Pharaoh was so far down his path of madness and violence that he could not see or hear the Egyptian people overwhelmed by the plagues, and his adviser’s pleas fell on deaf ears:

הֲטֶרֶם תֵּדַע כִּי אָבְדָה מִצְרָיִם – “Do you not see that Egypt is already lost?” (10:7)

Pharoah was determined to hold onto his power over his Jewish subjects; this conflicted with his duties to the Egyptian people. These beliefs were incompatible and mutually exclusive, but Pharoah would not address the core issue and let the Jewish People go; he only ever asked Moshe to remove the symptoms of the plague at hand.

Contemporary psychology might refer to this as a form of cognitive dissonance, the uncomfortable feeling when two beliefs conflict. When confronted with challenging new information, people may seek to preserve their current understanding of the world by rejecting, explaining away, avoiding the new information, or convincing themselves that no conflict exists.

If we are puzzled about Pharaoh’s free will, we ought to invert the question back at ourselves because people lie to themselves all the time to justify bad decisions and hypocrisy. It’s not so difficult to imagine becoming so entrenched in a worldview that you get tunnel vision and can’t change course.

The Midrash warns us that sin is like a passing visitor, then a houseguest who overstays their welcome, and before long, it’s master of the house. R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that we can all too easily become prisoners to our pride on a microcosmic level.

R’ Yisrael Salanter says that the first time you do something wrong, it’s a sin. When you repeat the sin, it seems permitted. When you do it again the third time, it can feel like a mitzvah!

R’ Shimshon Pinkus suggests that this is the definition of the Rosh Hashana blessing to be the head and not the tail – שֶׁנִּהְיֶה לְרֹאשׁ וְלֹא לְזָנָב. It’s a wish for an intentional year, with conscious and constant course corrections, because if today’s actions are based on yesterday’s decisions, you end up being your own tail!

As much as we value the notion of freedom, you must consciously choose it daily.

A Legendary Relationship

2 minute read
Straightforward

Midrashim are cryptic and often misunderstood. They are metaphors and literary devices that encode perspectives on how Chazal understood stories in the Torah.

One popular Midrash teaches that before Creation, God approached every nation and offered them the Torah. Each nation responded to the offer with an inquiry into what they were signing up for and declined the Torah for one reason or another until God offered it to the Jewish People, who accepted without reservation.

But what’s wrong with asking what you’re signing up for?

The Midrash is probably not talking about some metaphysical racial superiority or that Jews aren’t afraid of sin. We can speculate which answer might have turned them off if they had only asked; perhaps the response might have been about business ethics or gossip, and they’d decline the Torah just the same as anyone else!

R’ Chaim Brown explains that the Midrash is about something else entirely – relationships.

If you get a call from an unknown number, and the caller claims he has the deal of a lifetime for you, but you need to send all the money right now, you’d have many questions to ask. Healthy natural skepticism should give rise to many sensible questions, like, who are you? How did you get my number? What’s the deal? And crucially, what are the terms?

Before you agree to anything, it is reasonable to ask what you’re getting yourself into. If you are used to accepting the Terms and Conditions without reading and signing anything without review, you shouldn’t!

So the Midrash probably isn’t speaking about a defect in the nations who ask the question; the question is eminently fair and reasonable – “what will this Torah require of me?”

But now, what if it’s not an unknown caller; consider that it’s your parent, sibling, or favorite cousin on the phone. They are launching a new venture imminently, but you can join if you send the money immediately.

Sure, there are risks – and you shouldn’t make any financial decisions this way! – but in the context of the love and trust of a close relationship, you don’t have the same kind of questions, and your natural skepticism is muted.

That’s what the Midrash is about.

When our Father in Heaven offers us the deal, all the obligations are worthwhile to be in business together.

Parenthetically, the inverse of this might be what was so wrong with sending spies to scout the Land of Israel.

Cause And Effect

< 1 minute
Straightforward

Having delivered word of a fair few plagues already, Moshe is told to go see Pharaoh again, and the reason he is given is quite bizarre:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, בֹּא אֶל-פַּרְעֹה: כִּי-אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת-לִבּוֹ -Hashem said to Moshe, “Go see Pharaoh, because I’ve hardened his heart”. (10:1)

What is the cause and effect in the instruction? Why is the fact Moshe is sent related to Hashem hardening his heart?

The Sfas Emes explains that Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, meaning his resolve was given the endurance to withstand the plagues. This was the challenge Moshe was sent to address.

The Sfas Emes teaches that every Jew must know that every hurdle and obstacle they will ever face in life is a challenge straight from God. It is precisely because God is testing you that you must rise to the occasion. When a כִּי-אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת-לִבּוֹ is placed before us, is precisely when we receive the instruction of בֹּא אֶל-פַּרְעֹה.

Attitude Redux

4 minute read
Straightforward

God gave various commands during the Jewish People’s time in the desert.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our sages were sensitive to this subtle but universal nuance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mastery is typically dull. Finishing your fiftieth marathon is less notable than your first.

It’s normal.

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

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

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

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

The way you do things matters.

Ill-Gotten Gains

3 minute read
Straightforward

While still reeling from the extraordinary events at Sinai, the Jewish People started building the Mishkan that would be the focal point of religious life for many generations. While still at the mountain, God instructs the people to build altars for their sacrifices.

Most of the rest of the book of Exodus deals with the construction and assembly of the Mishkan, but with a material interruption for the civil law; the laws of a thief who cannot pay restitution and so must work off his debt, the laws of charity, and the laws of damages and duties of care, among others.

But if the narrative has turned towards the Mishkan, why interrupt it with civil laws?

The Beis Halevi explains that the Torah’s prerequisite to constructing the Mishkan is that the people building it and using it live with kindness, charity, and social responsibility. People can pledge all the money in the world to worthy causes, but the contributors and contributions must be kosher, obtained ethically, and with regard to the well-being of others.

The Torah’s treatment of a Jew who steals and must work off his debt is illuminating. This Jewish man must be well-treated and cared for, and he is not the permanent property of his owner. But nor is he a fully-fledged Jew for the term of his slavery; his primary obligation is to his owner, and he relinquishes many obligations to observe the Torah as he once did. He is even permitted to marry a non-Jew in this state and start a family, but these children will not be Jewish and belong to his master. 

Perhaps we aren’t as sensitive to ill-gotten gains as we should be. This is the Torah’s first law after Sinai, telling an unfortunate soul how to navigate the way to mend the crime of theft. The Torah is quite clear that renouncing Judaism, marrying a non-Jew, and having a family of slave children are part of the rehabilitation from how wrong stealing is.

R’ Zalman Sorotzkin notes that the Torah has already opened the discussion about the Mishkan, specifically the altars of earth and stone. God initiates the Mishkan construction with materials that are freely available to everyone and of negligible value before asking the people to bring gold, silver, and precious gems. In so doing, the Torah openly states that holiness is universally accessible without glamour.

Before discussing valuable contributions, the Torah emphasizes the need to be scrupulously honest. Before God asks people what they have to offer, God lays out the consequences of theft, demanding that the contributors rightfully obtain their gifts.

Our sages have a broad and profound debate about good deeds that are the product of bad deeds – מצווה הבאה בעבירה. The parameters of what is disqualifying and how disqualifying it is are technical, but the concept is not. Isaiah unambiguously states that God loves justice, and hates human attempts at holiness with ill-gotten gains – כִּי אֲנִי ה’ אֹהֵב מִשְׁפָּט שֹׂנֵא גָזֵל בְּעוֹלָה.

A good deed is a good deed – Judaism is not all or nothing. If you need to improve at keeping Shabbos, you should still try to keep kosher! As the Baal Shem Tov teaches, the good deed of charity has a positive real-world impact regardless of intent or origin. But generosity with money dishonestly earned is missing something.

Business is tough; for some people, business is war! But how we put food on the table falls under the rubric of the Torah just as much as keeping Shabbos or kosher. While the specifics are complex and nuanced, the rules of thumb are not.

Follow through. Keep your word. Don’t step on people. Pay bills on time. Don’t retrade.

There is such a thing as human complexity; what were the terms? Was the service performed within the agreed scope of work? But there is no moral complexity.

The Mekor Baruch states that ill-gotten money is dirty money and dismisses crooks who attempt to launder their reputations with flashy donations. Do not be complicit in their attempts.

R’ Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld notes how Moshe needs to appoint truthful men who truly hate ill-gotten gains – אַנְשֵׁי אֱמֶת שֹׂנְאֵי בָצַע – and quips how they had to be truthful first, because money buys you anything; including men who hate money!

For better and for worse, our society is built around capital and access to it. Even if we sometimes ignore or forget, we should remind ourselves that even the most generous donations can’t straighten a crook.   

Because before you ever do the right thing with your money, it matters every bit as much that you obtained it in the right way.

Mechanics Of A Nation

3 minute read
Straightforward

After the Golden Calf, Moshe gathers the people for a discourse:

וַיַּקְהֵל מֹשֶׁה אֶת כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה’ לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָם’ – Moses gathered the whole community of Israel to assemble, and he said to them: “These are the things that the Lord commanded to do” (35:1)

He tells them certain laws of Shabbos, and collection for and initiation of construction of the Mishkan.

This occurred the morning after the Yom Kippur Moshe returned with the second Luchos. It seems likely that his first public appearance upon his return would include a notable message regarding their conduct. Yet he gathered them together to discuss Shabbos and the Mishkan. The Nesivos Shalom notes out how usually, an act, speech or instruction initiate an episode; this is the sole instance where וַיַּקְהֵל , getting people together, starts a story.

The Noam Elimelech explains that mitzvos were given to the nation, not individuals. This means that when a person sins, it is an act of rebellion, splintering from the nation, albeit momentarily. Redemption and forgiveness is attained by blending back into the nation. In the same way a harmony is a beautiful sound where no single voice is discernible, a tzibbur, the collective, is safe because an individual does not stand out.

Moshe defended the Jews to God, and argued that the Golden Calf was the act of rogue individuals, not the nation. Sin is an individual act – how could the nation be held accountable, regardless of how many had indeed sinned?

On his return, he saw to it that what he said was indeed true. The nation was whole and not fractured – he united them – וַיַּקְהֵל. This makes וַיַּקְהֵל unique as an opening.

The Nesivos Shalom proves this from what Moshe told them. He said of the laws that לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָם – but the instructions for Shabbos that he mentions are to not light fire, and to not work. How is not doing something called לַעֲשֹׂת – to do?

Perhaps the instruction wasn’t discussing Shabbos at all; having conceded to Moshe’s argument, he received the instruction לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָם – to make them, the Jews, into a united nation once again – וַיַּקְהֵל. Moshe was told to back up his claim!

This concept recurs over and over. When the spies were sent, the nation could not be absolved. They were sent in the capacity of the people’s representatives, and the generation died out. The Purim rescue occurred once the divided nation fought stood as one לְהִקָּהֵל וְלַעֲמֹד עַל-נַפְשָׁם. Korach’s error was not believing that the nation was more potent than the individual, claiming כולם קדושים.

Not to say that the laws Moshe spoke about were incidental to the purpose of gathering them. Far from it. They were chosen as both are incumbent on the nation, serving the same function, in contrast to more personal mitzvos,

The Midrash says that Hashem said to Shabbos that כנסת ישראל is its pre-ordained. כנסת ישראל is the Jewish national identity and consciousness, the supersoul of the nation. Shabbos observance is not down to the individual alone – it requires everyone’s input. Shabbos intrinsically unites Jews.

The Mishkan was selected for the discourse for the same reason. Everyone was required to make donation, buying a small stake in it. Covering the project costs with a few individual sponsors would not have served it’s purpose.

Both demonstrate the potency of a group over an individual. The parts in a machine are unremarkable – but together they achieve complex and sophisticated goals. Note how many mitzvos require groups to be adequately performed. The Nesivos Shalom says that we refer to Hashem as אבינו – our father – conceptually, obviously. If we identify with the nation, we can say אבינו.

We say in the Amida every day: ברכנו אבינו כולנו כאחד באור פניך – when everyone gets along, we can proudly say אבינו.

Faith And Salvation

2 minute read
Straightforward

As the newly liberated Jews flee Egypt, their former captors gave chase:

וּפַרְעֹה הִקְרִיב וַיִּשְׂאוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת עֵינֵיהֶם וְהִנֵּה מִצְרַיִם נֹסֵעַ אַחֲרֵיהֶם וַיִּירְאוּ מְאֹד וַיִּצְעֲקוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל ה – Pharaoh drew near, and the children of Israel raised their eyes, and Egyptians were pursuing them. They were terrified, and they cried out to the Lord. (14:10)

Although the Torah clearly intends to mean that he drew near i.e. that he and his army approached, it doesn’t actually say that at all. It says הקריב – a word used for sacrifices, meaning “he brought near”. The Medrash says that Pharaoh was indeed מקריב – what he “brought near” was the Jews, closer to Hashem.

Why does the Torah attribute such credit Pharoah and what is it he did which deserved such high recognition?

There is a Midrash that teaches that prior to the Jews leaving Egypt, there was a debate in Heaven as to whether they should be allowed to leave. The prosecution and defense, the Kategor and Sanegor, would keep going in circles; “The Egyptians worship idols,” was countered with “So do the Jews!” – no redeeming quality could be found in the Jews favour.

The decisive factor in allowing their departure to occur was the faith placed in Hashem through deciding to follow Moshe.

Egypt recognised that their departure would be a massive loss and pursued them. Suddenly, the Jews faith evaporated:

וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל מֹשֶׁה הַמִבְּלִי אֵין קְבָרִים בְּמִצְרַיִם לְקַחְתָּנוּ לָמוּת בַּמִּדְבָּר מַה זֹּאת עָשִׂיתָ לָּנוּ לְהוֹצִיאָנוּ מִמִּצְרָיִם – They said to Moshe, “Were there no graves in Egypt that you have taken us to die in the desert? What have you have done by taking us out of Egypt!?” (14:11)

Their attachment to Moshe was severed, their faith gone. They cried out to Hashem but didn’t mean it – the entire episode demonstrates a lack of belief in God’s providence.

Moshe prays for assistance, and Hashem replies: מַה תִּצְעַק אֵלָי – What are you crying out to me for? Now is a time for action! This is וּפַרְעֹה הִקְרִיב – Pharaoh brought the Jews close to Hashem; but to the exclusion of Moshe from the equation. It is no praise at all.

So Hashem responds:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל מֹשֶׁה מַה תִּצְעַק אֵלָי דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִסָּעוּ – The Lord said to Moshe, “Why do you cry out to Me? Speak to the children of Israel and tell them to go!”. (14:15)

Their salvation was not going to be based on Moshe’s prayers, or theirs, as that wasn’t the problem.

Moshe’s authority had to be re-established, so Hashem gave him the solution: דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִסָּעו – their salvation would be as it was on leaving Egypt – through displaying faith their leader.

As the Pasuk says upon their entering the Red Sea: וַיַּאֲמִינוּ בַּה’ וּבְמֹשֶׁה עַבְדּוֹ – They believed in Hashem and His servant Moshe. (14:31).

Appreciating Nature

3 minute read
Straightforward

The splitting of the Red Sea is one of the most important stories in the Torah and one of the most incredible miracles in Jewish belief.

Each element defies expectation; the magnitude of the miracle, where a vast ocean suspends and violates the entire natural order of the universe, not just to help the Jewish People escape, but eradicating the enemy force in one decisive moment, in just the nick of time and all at once out of nowhere.

Like so many of the plagues that struck Egypt, this miracle was also activated by Moshe raising his staff:

וְאַתָּה הָרֵם אֶת־מַטְּךָ וּנְטֵה אֶת־יָדְךָ עַל־הַיָּם וּבְקָעֵהוּ וְיָבֹאוּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּתוֹךְ הַיָּם בַּיַּבָּשָׁה… וַיֵּט מֹשֶׁה אֶת־יָדוֹ עַל־הַיָּם וַיּוֹלֶךְ ה  אֶת־הַיָּם בְּרוּחַ קָדִים עַזָּה כּל־הַלַּיְלָה וַיָּשֶׂם אֶת־הַיָּם לֶחָרָבָה וַיִּבָּקְעוּ הַמָּיִם – “And you lift up your rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it, so that the Israelites may march into the sea on dry ground”… Then Moshe held out his arm over the sea and the Lord drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and turned the sea into dry ground. The waters were split… (14:16,19)

Interestingly, the miracle was deactivated, and the natural order was restored with the same instruction and action:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה נְטֵה אֶת־יָדְךָ עַל־הַיָּם וְיָשֻׁבוּ הַמַּיִם עַל־מִצְרַיִם עַל־רִכְבּוֹ וְעַל־פָּרָשָׁיו׃ וַיֵּט מֹשֶׁה אֶת־יָדוֹ עַל־הַיָּם וַיָּשׁב הַיָּם לִפְנוֹת בֹּקֶר לְאֵיתָנוֹ וּמִצְרַיִם נָסִים לִקְרָאתוֹ וַיְנַעֵר ה’ אֶת־מִצְרַיִם בְּתוֹךְ הַיָּם – Then the Lord said to Moshe, “Hold out your arm over the sea, that the waters may come back upon the Egyptians and upon their chariots and upon their riders.” Moshe held out his arm over the sea, and at daybreak the sea returned to its normal state, and the Egyptians fled at its approach. But the Lord hurled the Egyptians into the sea. (14:26,27)

To be clear, we are talking miracles here, so there are no rules, and we are deep in the uncharted realm of speculation.

But if you think about it, it makes sense that Moshe has to do something to activate the miracle to split the waters. After all, miracles don’t just happen by themselves!

But then it doesn’t necessarily follow that Moshe would have to do something to deactivate the miracle and restore the natural order. We quite reasonably might expect that the miracle is over the very moment it has served its purpose; once the last straggler made it to dry land, the miracle is unnecessary and would resume its default natural state.

But the miracle doesn’t end when it’s over. God instructs Moshe to activate the return of the natural order as well. Why wouldn’t the miracle end when it was over?

R’ Shimshon Pinkus observes that this suggests an essential lesson that is a key to understanding the Torah; from God’s vantage point, the natural and the supernatural are the same, in which case there is no default condition.

On this view, Moshe wasn’t stopping a miracle; he was performing another miracle, the return of the natural order we take for granted.

R’ Joseph B. Soloveitchik highlights how Jewish tradition has endorsed cosmic wonder at natural phenomena for centuries, with blessings over the waxing moon, first blossoms of spring, the configuration of the starry expanse, and the sweet smell of flowers, down to the food we eat, the healthy body, and something as simple as going to the bathroom.

Although modern science has demystified the world, the world is still magical. With a sense of wonder, you can look at the world as more miraculous than natural without saying there is a difference between the two and without disputing the scientific narrative. Every breath you take, every sunrise, a child’s smile; these are the kind of things that are so commonplace that we overlook how special they are – וְעַל נִסֶּיךָ שֶׁבְּכָל יוֹם עִמָּנוּ וְעַל נִפְלְאוֹתֶיךָ וְטוֹבוֹתֶיךָ שֶׁבְּכָל עֵת עֶרֶב וָבֹֽקֶר וְצָהֳרָיִם.

If you’re still surprised the natural world didn’t just kick back into gear when the Jewish People were done walking through the ocean, you might be taking a lot for granted in life.

Visionary Leadership

3 minute read
Straightforward

The story of Egypt begins by setting the scene of a nation oppressed and enslaved, and we learn a few details of Moshe’s youth.

He witnesses an Egyptian officer harassing a Jew and intervenes to save the victim and kill the bully. He witnesses two Jews fighting and intervenes to separate them. He witnesses shepherds bullying Yisro’s daughters and intervenes to protect them.

The Midrash fills in some gaps, suggesting that he followed a thirsty lost lamb and carried it to water, which led him to the burning bush.

Although the Torah and our Sages give specific indications that Moshe was born special and was always destined to save his people, the Torah also leaves a space for these formative stories, suggesting that it wasn’t as simple as destiny; that Moshe also had certain vital qualities and characteristics that made him the man for the job.

The Meshech Chochma notes that the common thread in these short vignettes is that Moshe demonstrates his compassion and concern for the weak and vulnerable and a willingness to take responsibility and intervene for others.

The stories of breaking up a fight between Jews and stopping the abuse of another Jew show he cares about his people. The story of his intervention to save Yisro’s daughters demonstrate he cares about other people too, not just his own. The story of the thirsty lamb show goes even further to show he is a deeply compassionate person in general, concerned with the wellbeing of just another creature.

This quality of perception that drives action and behaviour is what God sees in Moshe:

וַיַּרְא ה’ כִּי סָר לִרְאוֹת וַיִּקְרָא אֵלָיו אֱלֹהִים מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה – Hashem saw that he had turned to look, and God called to him from within the thorn bush. (3:4)

This is the very first time God speaks to Moshe, the moment Moshe is called to greatness, to become the ultimate leader and liberator. While the simple reading is that God noticed Moshe turn to look at the bizarre apparition of a bush on fire yet did not burn, it also suggests the quality that God recognizes in Moshe, that Moshe is someone who notices things and will turn to look – וַיַּרְא ה’ כִּי סָר לִרְאוֹת. Consider that this is one of the vanishingly few instances where the Torah narrates God’s thoughts to us, in this case, that God noticed something that provoked a response from God as a result.

Sure, Moshe was born under miraculous circumstances and, by luck, was born straddling the political divide between Egypt and the Jewish People. But while we can’t hope to emulate the circumstances of his birth, we can undoubtedly invoke the qualities that made him so compelling and worthy in God’s eyes. Moshe was a natural giver and helper who wanted nothing in return. He protected the weak and vulnerable with genuine self-sacrifice – all before God ever said a word to him.

That’s the kind of person who can carry people out of the depths of abject misery to the heights of greatness. While the specific expression looks different, they start with one thing – the leader’s vision.

Before you can solve, first, you must see.

Our sages teach that when Pharaoh announced his policy for all the Jewish infant boys to be thrown in the Nile, Bilam congratulated him on his wise policy and was rewarded by the king; Yitro told him that it was wrong and had to flee for his life; and Iyov saw that Yisro’s protest was ineffective, so chose the path of prudence and was silent in the face of monstrous evil.

And as a result, says the Midrash, he was afflicted with all of the suffering recounted in the book of his name.

Pharaoh took counsel on his policies of genocide, oppression, and subjugation from three men – Bilaam, Yisro, and Iyov; the renowned villain advised Pharaoh to hurt the Jewish People, Yisro advised against it and fled, and Iyov remained silent and suffered for pretty much the rest of his days.

But Pharaoh was resolved on his wickedness! Yisro’s protest was ineffective, not to mention the Torah itself says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. What good would it have done to speak up?

R’ Chaim Shmulevitz answers that it’s basic – when something hurts, you scream. Even if it does not accomplish anything, you scream from the pain.

Iyov wasn’t pained enough at the prospect of all Jewish boys drowning in the Nile; pain does not allow you to stay silent. Open your eyes to the people around you. It doesn’t hurt enough if you can rationally decide that it’s not worth it to scream.

As R’ Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook said, I don’t speak because I have the power to speak; I speak because I don’t have the power to remain silent.

Charity Redux

7 minute read
Straightforward

One of the foundations of the modern world we inhabit is the notion of egalitarianism, the idea that all humans are equal in fundamental worth or moral status; giving birth to, among others, the ideas that women aren’t lesser than men, and that black people aren’t lesser than white people, and the like.

This has been a decisively positive development in many respects; the American Declaration of Independence famously begins by stating that it is self-evident that all men are created equal, and the Torah says as much – וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹקים  אֶת־הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹקים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם.

But it is equally evident that in many respects, the universe is not fair or equal; plenty of people are disadvantaged in countless ways. Many hardworking, honest, and decent people have difficult, stressful, and impoverished lives, not to mention the various health issues so many people experience. Human input isn’t decisive; luck is.

A modern phenomenon in human civilization has emerged to address this imbalance: the welfare state. First-world governments allocate taxpayer funds to alleviate the poverty of the disadvantaged and less fortunate – in other words, charity is a core part of national policy. This practice has been criticized for perversely enabling and exacerbating poverty further, reducing the incentive for workers to seek employment by reducing the need to work and reducing the rewards of work. If we help these people, so the thinking goes, they become dependent and lazy. Moreover, it’s a zero-sum game; I have to give up more of what’s mine, and somebody else gets the benefit from it – as any child could tell you, that’s not fair!

While the specific contours of government policy are best left to experts, it brings to the fore a relevant question that profoundly impacts our orientation to others. 

What do we owe to each other?

The conventional understanding of charity is that it’s an act of benevolent kindness and generosity, initiated and executed at the actor’s sole discretion; but this is not the Jewish understanding. 

The Jewish understanding of tzedaka is orders of magnitude more comprehensive and overarching. Extending far beyond the boundaries of kindness, the word itself literally means justice. The practice is a religious duty and social obligation; we have a duty to dispense God’s justice by helping the less fortunate. In the ancient agrarian world of the Torah, Jewish farmers were subject to mandatory religious taxes that were allocated to different beneficiaries according to specific parameters. To this day, many Jews tithe their income, allocating at least ten percent to worthy causes.

The Torah is consistently firm and unequivocal in our obligations towards each other:

וְכִי־יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ וּמָטָה יָדוֹ עִמָּךְ וְהֶחֱזַקְתָּ בּוֹ… וְחֵי אָחִיךָ עִמָּךְ – When your brother languishes, and his hand falters, you must steady and support him… Let your brother live by your side, with you. (Leviticus 25:35,36)

This framing allows no savior complex; the Torah says plainly that the recipient of your help is a disadvantaged equal, lateral to you. There is no hierarchy or verticality in helping your brother – אָחִיךָ – and you must help him live alongside you, with you – עִמָּךְ. The person you get to help is not lesser or worse than you.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch highlights how in this conception, the value of a person is not tied in any way to their economic productivity; the Torah speaks of a person’s hand faltering and requiring assistance, yet still remaining your brother – וְכִי־יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ וּמָטָה יָדוֹ עִמָּךְ. Other people don’t need to achieve anything or make money to be valid in their humanness or worthy of your respect and support. 

The Rambam famously taught that the highest level of charity is helping people get on their own feet – the ultimate and most literal fulfillment of helping your brother stand alongside you.

In the Torah’s primeval story of the dawn of humanity, Cain fatefully asks God the rhetorical question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This question deserves scrupulous attention, not just because we read the story and know that Cain is attempting to cover up his crime, but because it is the great unanswered question of Genesis and quite possibly the entire Torah and all of human history.

The pregnant silence in the story is jarring; when we read about the obligations we have toward our brother, we should consider them in light of the Torah’s first brothers – perhaps suggesting that yes, you are indeed your brother’s keeper. 

Echoing the Genesis story, the Ramban famously wrote to his son that humans have no natural hierarchy; nobody is better than you, and you’re better than nobody. Humans are brothers; the Torah speaks of what we owe each other as a result of our fraternal bond; our obligations to each other are born of sameness, not of difference. The interpersonal mitzvos are obligations between equals – from human to human; horizontal, and not vertical.

As a direct consequence, the Torah encourages loans, whether of money or food, not as debt investment instruments the modern world is built with, but as assistance to enable the poor to regain their independence; as such, charging interest of any kind is predatory and therefore forbidden. The Torah goes so far as to command its adherents to lend money even when non-repayment is guaranteed, with an explicit mitzvah to lend before the Shemitta year, when all debts are written off:

כִּי־יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן מֵאַחַד אַחֶיךָ בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ בְּאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר־ה אֱלֹקיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ לֹא תְאַמֵּץ אֶת־לְבָבְךָ וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת־יָדְךָ מֵאָחִיךָ הָאֶבְיוֹן׃ כִּי־פָתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת־יָדְךָ לוֹ וְהַעֲבֵט תַּעֲבִיטֶנּוּ דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לוֹ – If there is a needy person among you, one of your kin in any of your settlements in the land that your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kin. Rather, you must open your hand and lend whatever is sufficient to meet the need. (Deut 15:7,8)

The mitzvah to aid others is far-reaching – beyond financial loss, the Torah’s expectation is that we spent time, energy, and emotion, on helping others, even to the point of manual labor:

לֹא־תִרְאֶה אֶת־חֲמוֹר אָחִיךָ אוֹ שׁוֹרוֹ נֹפְלִים בַּדֶּרֶךְ וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ מֵהֶם הָקֵם תָּקִים עִמּוֹ – If you see your brother’s donkey or his ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it; you must surely raise it together. (Deut 22:4)

Beyond your brother, or the people you’d want to help, you are even obligated to help the people you don’t:

כִּי־תִרְאֶה חֲמוֹר שֹׂנַאֲךָ רֹבֵץ תַּחַת מַשָּׂאוֹ וְחָדַלְתָּ מֵעֲזֹב לוֹ עָזֹב תַּעֲזֹב עִמּוֹ – When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless surely help raise it. (Ex 23:5)

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes the common tendency humans have to give up on people who seem to attract calamity and misfortune; it would be far easier to cut them loose. The Torah speaks against the backdrop of such wayward thinking and reminds us that this person is your brother; you cannot give up on him. You must persist in helping, even if he fails over and over again – עָזֹב תַּעֲזֹב / הָקֵם תָּקִים/  פָתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח / וְהַעֲבֵט תַּעֲבִיטֶנּוּ.

However, this unilateral obligation is ripe for abuse, giving cheats and crooks a religiously sanctioned opportunity to exploit good people. The Kli Yakar offers a sharp caveat; you must only persist in helping people who are at least trying to help themselves – עִמּוֹ. R’ Shlomo Farhi piercingly suggests that it is not actually possible to help someone who won’t help themselves; the mitzvah is only to help, not enable. But so long as they’re trying, don’t walk away; figure it out together – עָזֹב תַּעֲזֹב עִמּוֹ / הָקֵם תָּקִים עִמּוֹ. 

Our sages suggest that we should be grateful for cheats and crooks; otherwise, we’d be guilty over each and every person we fail to help.

While many mitzvos and rituals have an accompanying blessing to initiate the action, the Rashba notes that interpersonal mitzvos do not have such a blessing; making a blessing before helping another person would be dehumanizing, instrumentalizing a person into an object you do a mitzvah with, eroding the mitzvah entirely.

The Torah has a prominent spiritual dimension, but the interpersonal aspect of the Torah is a coequal, interdependent, and reciprocal component. It can be easy to get carried away with the spiritual trappings of helping people without being concerned about the person, but that’s what it’s all about – the other person is your brother, and you need to relate to him in that way.

R’ Yitzchak Hutner was a Rosh Yeshiva renowned for his wit. Sick in hospital, a student came to visit his teacher and mentor. The great rabbi asked his guest why he had come, and the young man responded that it was a great mitzvah to visit the sick. In characteristic form, R’ Hutner challenged his visitor, “Am I your Lulav? Did you come to shake me?”

The Alter of Kelm suggests that the most pristine form of charity is not the person who helps others because it’s a mitzvah; but the person who empathizes with the recipient and gives because he is moved by their needs. On this reading, charity and helping others is an extension of loving your neighbour. Most people don’t eat because it’s a mitzvah to protect our bodies, we eat because we feel hungry; the Alter says you must treat the needs of another the same way. Don’t help people because it’s a mitzvah. Help people because you empathize with their pain to such a degree that if they are hungry, you are hungry; and when you are hungry, you eat.

If we are more concerned about lazy freeloaders who exploit public resources than disadvantaged people who need a leg up, it is only misdirection from the lesser angels of our nature; moral indignation that permits acting on envy and hate under a cloak of virtue. The Torah articulates a clear skew and strong preference toward taking action that helps others; the marginal cost of not helping is unacceptable.

Tzedaka is not charity or philanthropy. Less fortunate isn’t a euphemism; it’s a self-evident and observable fact. It’s entitled to think it’s not fair that you have to give something up so someone else can benefit; it’s about justice, not fairness. Giving your money to others is explicitly a zero-sum game. By telling us to do it anyway, the Torah explicitly dismisses this objection as irrelevant, revealing that thinking in terms of winning and losing is an entirely incorrect perspective to bring to the interaction.

Your choice isn’t whether to help others; it’s who to help and how – which charities to give to, and in what quantities. It’s the right thing to do; it is wrong not to.

It is important to be a good steward of capital; will this contribution be the highest and best use of your resources? But while it’s vital to think in terms of impact and effectiveness, be mindful that some people aren’t ever going to get by on their own. The widows and orphans of the world aren’t going to be okay because you wrote a check one time or sent a care package for Pesach; people experiencing chronic illness aren’t going to recover because you visited them once or hosted a fundraiser a while back. 

And if you don’t have the financial means, remember that your time and expertise must be spent charitably as well.

The Torah calls for your continued interest and persistent involvement, not a one-off act; a mode of being, a mentality of feeling obligated to intervene for people who need help today and, in all likelihood, will still need help tomorrow and the day after as well.

Your brothers need you; you must persist.

Inherent Similarities

2 minute read
Straightforward

Part of the laws intrinsic to the service include the uniforms, and regulations around them. The Kohen Gadol had extra clothing, with their own laws:

וְיִרְכְּסוּ אֶת הַחֹשֶׁן מִטַּבְּעֹתָיו אֶל טַבְּעֹת הָאֵפֹד בִּפְתִיל תְּכֵלֶת לִהְיוֹת עַל חֵשֶׁב הָאֵפוֹד וְלֹא יִזַּח הַחֹשֶׁן מֵעַל הָאֵפוֹד – They shall fasten the breastplate by its rings to the rings of the apron with a blue cord, so that it will be on the band of the apron; and the breastplate will not move off the apron. (28:28)

Although separate, the breastplate and rear-facing apron were fastened together at all times. Simply because the breastplate did not have a neck chain, and the apron had no shoulder straps – they would balance and offset each other. But the Torah is not giving logistical or fashion advice – if this is how they are worn, it need not be specified at all. Why emphasise that they are inseparable then?

The Gemara in Erchin explains how each of the garments the Kohen Gadol wore would atone for a different national deficiency. The apron atoned for idolatry, while the breastplate atoned for financial dishonesty, with regard to both business and judicial matters.

R’ Moshe Feinstein notes that this could very well be the reason that the breastplate and apron were inseparable – they share a common facet. Someone who worships idols does not believe that God controls all things. Someone who cheats, steals, distorts, or embezzles in their finances is guilty of the same crime!

Dishonesty, and all forms of financial impropriety demonstrate that the guilty party believes that both no-one is watching, and that they can get more than what ought to be coming their way. This is entirely heretical, antithetical to Judaism, and quite similar to idolatry.

R’ Moshe Feinstein explains that the root of both is the same – a belief that Hashem lacks control over the world. Therefore, since they are inherently similar, the Torah specifies that these two parts of clothing are inseparable- they are almost the same.

Identity Crisis

2 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah does not introduce us to Moshe as an adult, ready to save the Jewish people. Instead, the Torah tells us of his birth and adoption by the Egyptian royal family.

Moshe’s childhood contains subtle descriptions of his nature, resulting in his eventual leadership. It is clear throughout that although brought up in the palace; he was aware that he was a Jew:

וַיְהִי בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם וַיִּגְדַּל מֹשֶׁה וַיֵּצֵא אֶל אֶחָיו וַיַּרְא בְּסִבְלֹתָם וַיַּרְא אִישׁ מִצְרִי מַכֶּה אִישׁ עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו – It came to pass in those days. Moshe grew up and went out to his brothers and saw their burdens. He saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man of his brothers (2:11).

He recognized the slaves as his brothers, which distressed him – וַיֵּצֵא אֶל אֶחָיו וַיַּרְא בְּסִבְלֹתָם. His people were suffering, yet he was a prince of Egypt!

When he came across an Egyptian officer abusing a Jew, it was too much for him to ignore:

וַיִּפֶן כֹּה וָכֹה וַיַּרְא כִּי אֵין אִישׁ וַיַּךְ אֶת הַמִּצְרִי וַיִּטְמְנֵהוּ בַּחוֹל – He looked this way and that way, and saw that there was no-one; he struck the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. (2:12)

At that moment, he decided to kill the Egyptian and stand with his people, committing a crime against the law and land of the people that had raised and nurtured him.

R’ Nathan Lopez Cardozo notes how this story in the external world mirrors Moshe’s internal conflict. He was a walking contradiction, Egyptian and Jew, yet neither as well! He looked within, this way and that way – וַיִּפֶן כֹּה וָכֹה – and saw that there was no man, just different parts – וַיַּרְא כִּי אֵין אִישׁ. So he left the Egyptian inside him in the sand, rejecting Egyptian culture and values – וַיַּךְ אֶת הַמִּצְרִי וַיִּטְמְנֵהוּ בַּחוֹל.

Moshe put his neck on the line for others, and this story reveals what we should all know, that it is impossible to be neutral. Sitting on the fence is a vote for a political party – the dominant party. Washing your hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.

You’re already taking sides.

By not doing or saying something, are you unintentionally lending support to something you probably ought to oppose?