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Pure Priorities

5 minute read
Straightforward

In the Jewish Tradition, the human body and human life are sacrosanct, seeing as humans are created in God’s image – חָבִיב אָדָם שֶׁנִּבְרָא בְצֶלֶם.

Traditional burial is mandatory for Jews; other funeral rites including cremation are prohibited. The mitzvah of burial includes a component of urgency that for certain close relatives,  nearly all positive obligations are suspended until after the burial has concluded to facilitate prompt burial. It is degrading to allow a body, which remains sacred even in death, to lie idle and unburied – קָבוֹר תִּקְבְּרֶנּוּ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא כִּי־קִלְלַת אֱלֹקים תָּלוּי.

But although there are tangible and practical laws relating to death, the Torah also talks about intagible laws, the laws of ritual impurity which result from death.

In the Torah’s conception of a Jewish nation-state, ritual purity was a prominent element of daily life, and all people were to be mindful of their purity status at all times. The state of impurity makes people unsuited to specific activities and puts them at risk of contaminating sanctified foods and objects. A person in a state of impurity must undergo a predefined purification process that usually includes the passage of a specified amount of time.

Although we no longer practice most purity laws today, we still retain certain ritual immersion practices for our bodies or kitchenware as a legacy of these laws.

Traditionally, the job description for any practicing Kohen was to to be knowledgeable and fluent in this arcane and specialized body of law, which was essential given their role in Temple service reporting as well as their year-round consumption of sacred foods that a Kohen could interact with only while in a state of ritual purity. 

The way the Torah categorizes impurity doesn’t neatly correlate with anything we can relate to today; it has nothing to do with hygiene or sin.

But perhaps it’s something like this.

Death is the archetypal trigger of existential dread; the confusion and disorientation that result from our subjective experience of thinking, feeling, and acting in this mode of existence are meaningless and absurd. All you have ever known is your conscious attachment and connection to the universe we experience; one day that will cease to exist.

The notion of death exposes the fleeting fragility of human life, a thought that is antithetical to our entire primary experience in this living universe, undermining any real meaning or value to our lives, and exposure to it imparts something a status-affecting condition called tuma, which loosely translates to impure.

Most people are not ritually pure, albeit with different gradations. Someone out of the state of ritual purity is disqualified from a realm of normal activities in the land of Israel; but for most people, it doesn’t really matter most of the time, so most people didn’t have to be mindful of these laws and could attend to the dead with no issue.

Given that a kohen’s life and work revolve around purity, it follows that a kohen’s attending to the dead is more restricted; even today, a kohen may not intentionally come into contact with a dead body nor approach too closely graves within a Jewish cemetery, except for seven legally defined close relatives. 

The Kohen Gadol was held to even stricter standards; he wasn’t even allowed to contaminate himself to attend to a deceased parent. 

Apart from the hierarchy of purity standards that exists for people, there is also a hierarchy of purity in time. Before Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol would isolate for seven days to attain the highest purity status and perform his duties on the year’s holiest day. With these seven days of preparation, he could enter the Holy of Holies and perform the most sacred ritual of the year.

Purity plays a central and pervasive role in the Torah’s conception of Jewish life, and yet in a landscape where purity is everything, there is a revealing exception. There is a law that obligates all Jewish people to take responsibility for the burial of an unattended Jewish body; this obligation supersedes every purity law and is almost if not entirely overriding – מת מצוה.

If you ever hear about a Jewish person who has died and has no one to perform a Jewish burial, there is rare mitzvah to handle it personally, and it even applies to a Kohen must as well. Usually, since the Kohen is unrelated, he would not otherwise be permitted to handle the burial. But there is no one else, and the obligation to immediately bury unattended dead is so compelling that it even obligates a Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe highlights this hierarchy of laws to reveal the Torah’s sense of where human priorities ought to lie. 

Even the holiest person, on the most sacred day of the year, about to perform his holiest and most core function, must roll up his sleeves and wade into someone else’s mess and get their hands dirty. This explicitly states that no one is above serving others; it is a grave mistake to be too good for that. The correct decision under the circumstances is to forgo performing his duties on Yom Kippur; the Torah that demands his Yom Kippur service states that it is subject to his duty to bury the dead.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe asks us to wonder how if the Torah obligates all of us to take responsibility for the unattended dead, what might it then ask of us concerning the living dead, people born Jewish and yet totally unaffiliated, cut off, and isolated from any trace of Judaism? 

While the analogy isn’t precise, perhaps it’s directionally accurate.

The Jewish People are a sanctified nation where all are called to serve – מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ.

But however holy or self-righteous you are or think you may be, the Torah demands that you get off your high horse, roll up your sleeves and get out there and attend to physical and spiritual orphans, people who don’t have anyone else. If the Kohen Gadol encounters an unattended dead body on Yom Kippur, his role and duties are suspended entirely; his only responsibility is to help the person in front of him. 

The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s followers took this teaching to heart; pioneering heroes and their brave families moved across the globe to set up a Jewish presence worldwide. They stepped far beyond their comfort zones with enormous self-sacrifice out of concern for others.

It might be a bit much to ask that of yourself, but you don’t have to move to the middle of nowhere to recognize that attending to the needs of others is one of the Torah’s highest priorities. The Kotzker mocked the Tzaddik in pelts, a holy man in his fur coat. When people are cold, does the righteous man light a fire that warms others, or does he simply sit back in his comfortable coat sending thoughts and prayers for their wellbeing?

When God talks to Avraham about what it would take to save the people of Sodom, God’s conception of righteous people worth saving is people who are out on the streets, engaging with and influencing their surroundings – צַדִּיקִם בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר. 

We don’t live our lives with purity at the forefront of our minds. But the Torah consistently reminds us where the purity of our priorities must lie.

Caring for others is a core part of the spiritual life. A spiritual life that doesn’t engage the world with acts of care and compassion towards others isn’t spiritual at all.

Isolation Redux

3 minute read
Straightforward

When a person is officially diagnosed with the skin condition the Torah calls tzaraas, the Torah imposes a mandatory seven-day quarantine; the person must leave town and live in solitary isolation. Anyone who lived through COVID has primary experience of isolation and quarantine. However difficult and unpleasant, it has the valuable function of attempting to stop contagion and transmission, saving lives in the aggregate. 

Yet our sages teach that this skin condition resulted from gossip and slander, which is to say that it wasn’t a contagious or transmissible condition.

So why are quarantine and isolation appropriate?

Perhaps isolation is an appropriate measure for the wrongdoing of harmful speech. 

Language distinguishes humans from animals and is the tool that has built and compounded human civilization. More than smarts or strength, it is arguably humanity’s most powerful tool to control and influence the world around us.

Gossip has a positive social utility, exposing genuine threats among us, like abusers and molesters. That kind of gossip is not only permitted but arguably mandatory – תועלת; but most gossip doesn’t meet that standard. Most gossip is destructive speech that puts others down, modifying bonds and cohesion in an imagined social hierarchy, subtly eroding people’s relationships in the perceptions of others. By lowering somebody’s reputation, you can feel superior in gaining status relative to the unknowing victim.  

So gossip quietly but very literally tears apart the fabric of your community and social circle by planting divisive and harmful ideas and impressions, sabotaging trust and relationships.

If that is correct, then quarantine is highly appropriate – society needs protection, not from the disease, but from the person.

And perhaps there’s something else to it as well.

Beyond helping society, perhaps it helps the gossiper as well. They have subverted their precious power of language for nefarious purposes, and isolation from others may help a person who gossips recalibrate how they communicate, reorienting them to their place in society when they rejoin.

Human beings are social creatures; our power of communication is what makes us human, so losing the power of communication is literally dehumanizing. Deprived of human interaction, stimulus, and activity, a person’s mind must fill the void of boredom and sensory deprivation. Solitary isolation isn’t a trivial thing; the prevailing view holds that, generally speaking, more than 15 days in isolation qualifies as torture; it’s not hard to imagine why. 

Moreover, this isn’t the only time the Torah talks about isolation as a punishment; the Torah describes how the penultimate plague of darkness was experienced by its victims, primarily as a form of isolation:

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)

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 isolated, completely cut off from each other – לֹא־רָאוּ אִישׁ אֶת־אָחִיו.

The Chiddushei HaRim highlights that this isolation 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 very heart of what it means to be human, and we should take that notion seriously. Our sages go so far as to say that someone in isolation is effectively considered dead to the world.

Humans need each other; it’s an existential design feature of being human – לֹא־טוֹב הֱיוֹת הָאָדָם לְבַדּוֹ.

Our most fundamental nature, the root of our behavior, is generosity, empathy, courage, and kindness. Isolation exposes what it means to be human by stripping those things away.

Perhaps by being alone for seven days, a person who gossips can appreciate their ability to communicate in a new light, cultivating a new understanding of the value of community for when they return.

Human beings are social creatures; make sure you use your precious gift of communication to build, not break. But some breaking can be constructive; not all gossip is destructive; some forms of gossip are not only permitted, but required.

A good rule of thumb that should only fail rarely is that if there is a credible threat to communal safety and wellbeing, it is better to expose the threat than suppress it. Someone’s potential status of innocence should never trump everyone else’s certain and definite status of safety.

Suppressing public awareness of abusers only protects and serves the interests of abusers. Exposing them is worthy of pride, not shame; utilizing gossip correctly serves to effectively isolate abusers from the general population and protects vulnerable people in our communities.

When there are dangerous folks people need to be careful around, remember that you can serve the highest of purposes in spreading the word.

Not Fooled by Randomness

8 minute read
Advanced

The Purim story unfolded over a protracted period, but we celebrate the holiday on the fourteenth of Adar. The holiday is unusual, in the sense that with most holidays, something happened on a given date, and we celebrate the holiday on its anniversary. That’s not quite the case with Purim because half the story, and the name itself, revolve around why events happened on that particular date.

Haman, the antagonist, decided to mandate a legal genocide, a one-day purge against the Jewish People. He had it all figured out; he’d bribe the king, draft the law, enact it. That’s bad, he’s bad; it’s not hard to understand. But in a puzzling turn of events, he wasn’t sure when his law should take effect, so he cast a lottery to determine the right day and settled on the fourteenth of Adar – עַל־כֵּן קָרְאוּ לַיָּמִים הָאֵלֶּה פוּרִים עַל־שֵׁם הַפּוּר.

Casting lots is distantly removed from our primary experience, and seeing as it is a core feature of the holiday in some sense, we ought to take it seriously.

Why did Haman cast a lottery?

Today, we understand that a lottery applies randomness to confound any notion of certainty or predictability. When a process can generate all outcomes with equal probability, we will perceive the resulting outcome of that uncertainty as fair. The Torah uses this randomizing methodology to select goats for sacrifice on Yom Kippur and to allocate the tribal lands of Israel.

Today, we would use a coin toss as a conventionally reasonable way to decide between two equal options, heads or tails. It’s intuitive, it’s fair, it makes sense, and there’s nothing to argue about – בַּחֵיק יוּטַל אֶת־הַגּוֹרָל וּמֵה’ כּל־מִשְׁפָּטוֹ / מִדְיָנִים יַשְׁבִּית הַגּוֹרָל וּבֵין עֲצוּמִים יַפְרִיד.

Either goat can be the scapegoat; it doesn’t matter at all. Which portion of land goes to which tribe doesn’t really matter. It could be any, which is the point; that’s why it’s fair.

But that’s not the only way the ancients used lotteries. 

Ancient civilizations would also cast lots as cleromancy, a form of divination where they would attribute Divine Providence to the outcome – השגחה פרטית. By removing human choice and influence over what course of action to take – so the thinking went – destiny and fate could reveal themselves. The Torah uses this form of lottery to expose a looter, Achan, who illegally claimed spoils in the Book of Joshua; to reveal that Jonathan had violated Saul’s command to fast; and by Jonah’s Gentile shipmates to identify that the terrible storm was his fault. 

Cleromancy, the second form of lottery, has nothing whatsoever to do with fairness or uncertainty. It’s about ascribing not just certainty but divine significance to a random outcome, treating it as the Divine Will, and proceeding accordingly. Achan was the guilty looter, and no one else; Jonathan had broken the vow, and not someone else; Jonah, and not some other sailor or passenger, was responsible for the storm. These individuals faced real consequences in the physical world due to the perception of their divinely ordained guilt through cleromancy.

The Torah explicitly forbids utilizing this second form of lottery multiple times in uncharacteristically strong terms – לֹא תְנַחֲשׁוּ וְלֹא תְעוֹנֵנוּ / לֹא־יִמָּצֵא בְךָ מַעֲבִיר בְּנוֹ־וּבִתּוֹ בָּאֵשׁ קֹסֵם קְסָמִים מְעוֹנֵן וּמְנַחֵשׁ וּמְכַשֵּׁף… כִּי־תוֹעֲבַת ה’ כּל־עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה וּבִגְלַל הַתּוֹעֵבֹת הָאֵלֶּה ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ מוֹרִישׁ אוֹתָם מִפָּנֶיךָ… תָּמִים תִּהְיֶה עִם ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ.

Whether magic is real and that’s how it works doesn’t matter; what matters is that people ascribe divine significance to cleromancy and act accordingly – that’s the kind of superstition the Torah takes great issue with.

To hone in on why Haman cast lots, we need to determine which kind of lottery he utilized.

Governments don’t pick random dates for laws to take effect. Usually, laws take effect when they are relevant – you can ban a terror group overnight, but you might change the tax code years in advance so that everyone has adequate notice. Even for genocide, there’s no point in a randomized lottery to select a date  because there is no question of fairness to resolve. Scheduling a lottery for fairness purposes makes no sense because all dates are already equally random and fair; the question of when is trivial and mundane, and so is the answer – genocide this Friday is every bit as good as genocide next Wednesday. We can be quite certain that Haman didn’t consult a lottery for fair scheduling.

Far more sinister, Haman cast a lottery to seek divine sanction for his genocidal purge. As Rashi notes, his question wasn’t which moment to start; but which moment was most auspicious for him to succeed. The Purim holiday is named for Haman’s lottery, his lottery of cleromancy and divination, his attempt to predict a divinely sanctioned moment for his plot, and arguably, his attempt to abdicate any choice or responsibility in the matter.

The entire story revolves around the comical reversal of Haman’s attempt at divination to reduce his uncertainty; God’s actual Will guides all outcomes and confounds Haman at every turn. The monstrous and powerful Haman is quickly diminished from the dizzying heights of palace society, helplessly humiliated into a weak and wretched joke on the way down to an ignominious death, to be publicly derided and laughed at for all time by the children of history.

The Purim story contains a powerful and timeless moral; that God is concealed in the story but revealed in the outcomes. God alone controls the power of outcomes; the small, improbable outcomes that stack to shape the history and reality we know are one of God’s most decisive and signature capabilities – קונה הכל. We can only hope to recognize God’s Hand retroactively in hindsight at best, and never prospectively, as Haman attempted.

God operates invisibly in the background, orchestrating everything with the power of outcomes; Haman didn’t stand a chance, and we know from history that the bad guys never have a chance either – אֶלָּא שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר עוֹמְדִים עָלֵינוּ לְכַלוֹתֵנוּ, וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַצִּילֵנוּ מִיָּדָם.

We live in a world of possibilities, a probabilistic world, and not a magical one. Probability distributions accurately describe our universe and predict the expected outcomes of all possible values; it is the language God speaks to us every day. We can predict how likely something is to happen, but we can only make that prediction in the abstract because God alone has the power of outcomes – הכל בידי שמים.

When Mordechai encourages Esther to go to the king and make her case to save her people, Esther declines at first because she is afraid – and she should be! She is afraid because she correctly understands that going to the king uninvited is a gross breach of palace protocol and puts her life in serious danger.

Mordechai can’t tell her that she’s wrong or even that she’s going to be fine. He can’t say that because he can’t possibly know that – or he would say so! Esther is correct about the risk and uncertainty of this proposed course of action, and all Mordechai can say is that someone has to step up, and it might as well be her, but if she won’t, someone else will; which is to say that she can choose to do her part, but must leave the rest to God’s power of outcomes.

Even once convinced to accept her fate and role, Esther asks Mordechai to have the Jewish People fast and pray for her success. She wasn’t sure it was going to work, and she didn’t think she would make it through; she was terrified, and Mordechai couldn’t correct or reassure her.

Everything is going to be fine, but nobody knows if you’re going to be, and that’s scary; we should take comfort in the fact our heroes also experienced fear. As one writer put it, the only time you can be brave is when you’re afraid. This understanding unlocks the entire story of Purim and ought to shed light on some foundational tenets of Judaism, including what faith and trust actually look like in a practical and real sense – אמונה / בטחון.

We are probably overly familiar with the story, too numb for Esther’s last words to Mordechai to chill our blood the way they deserve – “and if I die, I die.”

Whereas Haman abdicates choice and responsibility to his magical lottery, Esther bravely and deliberately chooses to advocate for her people and courageously resolves to stand before the king, not because she knows she’s going to succeed, but because it is the right thing to do.

Where Haman is a coward who consults a lottery out of fear of failure, Esther puts her best foot forward and takes a chance; the outcome of her last stand no longer matters to her because she has accepted that God alone has the power of outcomes. If she dies, she dies, and salvation will indeed have to come from someplace else. Her willingness to give her life to this cause is a moral victory that places her in our pantheon of greats as a heroine worthy of the highest honors.

God alone can see all ends, God alone can determine ultimate destiny and fate; all we have to decide is what to do with the time and opportunities we are given.  Esther is only responsible for her choice to make her stand; she is not responsible for the outcome, which is in God’s hands alone, which does not remove the significance of her choice, but redeems it. Mordechai and Esther’s determination to do all they could while depending on and hoping for God’s power of outcomes is a complete and total inversion of Haman’s attempt to control or force the outcome; their immortal hope stands before us forever – ותקוותם לכל דור ודור.

The Purim story is filled with chance and coincidental events and encounters, like Mordechai foiling an assassination attempt, leading to outcomes of such significance that it is plain to readers that they were orchestrated by God. God’s Hand is not directly perceptible to Mordechai and Esther, nor to us; but we can see it in lucky events, where God intervenes without compromising the freedom of His creations.

We can get so drunk that there’s no difference between Haman and Mordechai, and from the perspective of history, that’s perfectly true. God alone has the power of outcomes, and Haman can’t hurt us otherwise. We can get blackout drunk and be totally vulnerable; we’re safe in God’s hands.

Appearances are deceptive, and what you see is not always what you get – our inputs do not always lead to the outcomes we expect or predict, for better and for worse; maybe that’s why we dress up in silly costumes and disguises, hiding behind masks.

Chance and probability are the undercurrents of the entire story; they’re what the holiday is named for. Purim is the holiday that can never die, and even the somber day of Yom Kippur is but a reflection of Purim. Perhaps everything is like Purim in a sense – it looks random, but it’s not.

While there is doubt that is a function of concealment – הסתר – the notion of uncertainty itself is a fundamental feature of existence and reality, and it has to be that way. We live within the constraints of a dimension called time – we can only ever exist now, with no access to the past or future. We can recall the past, and we can forecast and prepare for the future, but that’s the best we can do; because uncertainty itself is an iron law of reality and all existence, that won’t change even in the utopian age of Mashiach.  

Haman is descended of Amalek; who not only grapple with doubt and uncertainty but are numerically equivalent, which is to say inextricably linked – עמלק / ספק. But instead of their mistake of reaching into the future in an attempt to dispel uncertainty, we can transform their doubt. The doubt doesn’t transform into something else, but like Esther who learned to act within uncertainty, we can find joy amidst the uncertainties of life as well; satisfaction is the same exact word as uncertainty if we only look at it differently – ספק / סיפוק.

We believe in God, and God runs the show. But even though Haman can’t hurt us, it sure seems like he can; when it looks like people are in danger, we have no choice but to act accordingly. When you stand face to face with mortal danger, that’s scary, and you have to respond. When Haman’s plan went public, they correctly recognize it as an imminent catastrophe! No one in the story thought that they just need to strengthen their faith, that they just needed to trust God to do His thing and sort it all out, and that everything was going to be okay.

Although you don’t control the outcome, you must act as if you can do something, like what you do matters, because that’s the only thing within your power to do.

If that sounds like our life is theatrics, maybe that’s kind of how it is! Our Sages suggest that the Jews were never even in serious danger; God put on a show for them like they’d put on a show in participating in the feast at the story’s outset – לא עשו אלא לפנים אף הקב”ה לא עשה עמהן אלא לפנים.

In the reality we inhabit, playing along with the theatre is all we can do. If you have a test tomorrow, you’d better study and make sure you know the material well. Sure, God runs the world, but the probability distributions conclusively demonstrate that people who know the material usually pass; people who don’t study typically fail. You might pass or fail, and the test might never ultimately matter in the fullness of your life as it unfolds. But you won’t ever know that sitting in the room, staring at the paper, scratching your head struggling for an answer.

There’s only one way to find out.

The Heart of Worship

3 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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 genuinely 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 entire Torah – so, for example, the Torah unambiguously says to keep Shabbos with no exceptions.

Yet, in reality, that standard has always been theoretical; it has never existed. In the external world where theory meets practice, it is neither possible nor true to achieve perfection. We 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 are compared 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 so obvious that like all things in life, there must be a subjective element to religiosity, by necessity, and there absolutely 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 end result is a “pleasant scent,” which is how the Torah says God receives 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 true even while the sacrifices have lapsed. If you have the means to help others and do less than you could, you have not met your duty. To who 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 own unique potential.

In as much as we all need to be better, you can only move forward from where you are. You are where you are supposed to be right now – הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עוֹמֵד עָלָיו אַדְמַת־קֹדֶשׁ הוּא. 

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.

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, absolutely!

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 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 literally means to designate or separate – קדושה.

But there is a critical element missing from the everyday use of the word. 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 our 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, and that’s why holiness is so linked with connectedness. Somewhat esoterically speaking, our souls interface in a kind of superstructure which is where the magic happens – 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 an inverse or parallel tzimtzum of our own, which we can only do in our enhanced state of togetherness.

Back in the real world, it starts with individuals, human to human. The Torah has its fair share of lofty arcane things, but a full half 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 as well as 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 vastly 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 sure seems thematically similar. Every single person was invested in the Mishkan, or perhaps better, every single person was a contributor and owner of that holiness, which could be precisely what made it holy in the first place.

There is certainly 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 are supposed to, rich and poor alike. 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, which is to say that 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.

Perhaps it is almost natural that the thing we build when everyone comes together is the holiest thing there can be. 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 learn something with, anything. Find an interesting local community project or charity to support or perhaps get involved with, in a big way or small. 

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

Gratitude Redux

8 minute read
Straightforward

Emotional states are everything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting gratitude right brings out what’s best in humans, encouraging us not just to appreciate life’s gifts but to repay them or pay them forward. But beyond gratitude’s incredible blessings, getting gratitude wrong is catastrophic and is one of the catalysts for all the Torah’s curses and prophecies of doom:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Countdown

3 minute read
Straightforward

While the Torah tends to designate specific calendar dates for the Chagim, Shavuos is a notable exception. Shavuos was the harvest festival, but it also marks the anniversary of Sinai when the Torah was given to humanity. Yet the way the Torah conceives of it, it’s not about a specific calendar date; it’s all about the countdown:

וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם אֶת־עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה. עַד מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת הַשְּׁבִיעִת תִּסְפְּרוּ חֲמִשִּׁים יוֹם וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם מִנְחָה חֲדָשָׁה לַה – And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after Shabbos—you shall count seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to Hashem. (23:15, 16)

This count from Pesach to Shavuos is the mitzvah we know as Sefiras HaOmer. As the Sefer HaChinuch notes, standing at Sinai, there was an excellent reason to count the days to Shavuos; Moshe was gone, and they were supposed to wait for him to come back, and when they finished counting, they experienced Divine revelation. But when we finish the countdown, nothing ever happens. Shavuos is just an anniversary! 

Our ancestors counted a Sefira to Shavuos so they could receive the Torah. Why do we count our Sefira to Shavuos, where nothing happens?

R’ Yitzchok Berkovits observes that it is precisely correct to observe that nothing happens on the anniversary of receiving the Torah; because Torah isn’t something that happens to humans – that was the one-time event. Since then, it’s something humans have to work for, and that’s why we count Sefira.

A birthday is just an anniversary, and an anniversary is just an anniversary. If you just wake up on the morning of your kid’s birthday, nothing at all will happen. But what can make a birthday or anniversary incredibly special is if you put heart and thought into the days leading up to it. Did you order a cake, balloons, presents, and write cards? Plan a party, invite their friends, remind loved ones, book a table at their favorite restaurant, order their favorite treats? If you did some of those things, then instead of nothing happening, something extraordinary will happen; just another Tuesday will magically transform into a timeless feeling of deep love and happiness that will linger for a lifetime.

It might not be right to say that revelation at Sinai was the main event, and then the anniversary is just an anniversary. As the Kli Yakar notes, the Torah only ever refers to Shavuos by its agricultural component, and never for the commemorative anniversary aspect of Sinai; because the date that humans receive the Torah is specifically not located in the past – it’s forever in the here and now. Quite arguably, it’s more correct to say that Sinai was a thing that happened, but it’s what we do with it now that is the main event.

So sure, Shavuos is just an anniversary; but Sefira is the effort we invest in the lead-up. If we think that Torah is something that just happens to us with no investment of effort or desire, we have fundamentally missed the nature of what the Torah asks of us. We have to search for it, desire it, and labor for it to become a part of us. It does not happen by kicking back to listen to a nice class or reading a good book. 

If we believe that the Torah is ultimate wisdom, the handbook for making humans more human, the guide to living a good life, how badly do we want it? How lost are we without it? We know all too well how blind and stupid we can be, hurting ourselves and each other needlessly over the silliest nonsense. The Torah asks everything of us, yet returns everything richer and fuller. If we take it seriously, we can curb our worst excesses, draw out our finest qualities, honing and refining our character and personalities into the brightest fires that warm and light the lives of everyone we touch. But it’s not the calendar date that anchors and orients us; because nothing happens; it’s just Tuesday! It’s our countdown that makes all the difference.

The sad reality is that even the best of us believe that just learning Torah improves our character by osmosis, but most of us know from lived experience that it doesn’t; you actually have to put in the effort. 

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 private spiritual needs, helping them bring sacrificial offerings to find atonement or thanksgiving, whatever their personal circumstances.

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

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

To be sure, clothing is an essential form of self-expression, and self-expression is vital to emotional growth and wellbeing. We use freedom of expression, including clothing choice, to cultivate the ability to make all manner of choices about how we express ourselves, an integral part of learning a wider responsibility for our choices and healthy personal development in general. 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 own outward appearance as part of being in control of your identity. There should be no question that you can definitely tell something about a person as reflected in 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 have to check yourself at the door somewhat. There’s plenty of time for self-expression, but it might not be the right moment to express yourself in all your fullness 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 the conclusions we draw from the way someone dresses. These are powerful drives, and we’d be lying to ourselves if we thought we could suppress subconscious instincts; they are sub-conscious. 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. If you’re sitting in the emergency room with a troubling health concern, it might throw you off a little if the doctor walks in with ripped jeans and spiky chains over a tank top. He’s still the same doctor whether in scrubs or a clown costume, but what that means then, is that scrubs aren’t just for the doctor; the scrubs are also for 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 useful 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 helps patients and their families feel comfortable and at ease, all before a single word needs to be said.

And it’s no different for spiritual health and wellbeing. 

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 absolutely superficial – the textbook definition, in fact – 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 the distractions, removing barriers to people getting what they need. Uniforms aren’t intimidating in 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 you 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 specifically 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 personally think that’s true, it is still a reason somebody else might think 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 a meaningful and high signal interaction 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 alike; uniformity doesn’t mean homogeneity, 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, in your yard, or the 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 certain 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 seem to provide substantial benefits to portions of the population disadvantaged in certain contexts. 

So perhaps dress codes don’t compromise individuality or self-expression at all; 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. 

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.

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.

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 subjugate the Jewish People, which they slowly dialed up until it became 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 the 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 the beginning of one of the most epic and important stories ever told. Moshe knows where he comes from and has seen his brethren suffering, and his birth and upbringing uniquely situated him 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?

It’s essential to understand that refusing the call is not just a literary trope that humanizes the hero; because this story isn’t ordinary literature. If Moshe could refuse the call, and his refusal is part of this timeless story, it reflects a fundamental property intrinsic to all humans we need to acknowledge and understand.

It wasn’t that Moshe doubted that his people could or should be saved; it’s that Moshe doubted himself. He had fears and insecurities – he didn’t think he was worthy of such a great mission. He didn’t think he had what it takes, and he was missing what he believed to be a key trait to be successful – he wasn’t a man of words! How would he persuade anybody to follow him? How would he advocate for his people to the Egyptian government? This isn’t faux humility – Moshe is articulating an accurate self-assessment; he is right! And yet, the answer seems to be that none of that matters at all, that he has to get on with it just the same.

When the Mishkan was finally ready for inauguration, Ahron refuses the call, feeling ashamed and unworthy, in part because of his complicity in the Golden Calf incident. In the view of our sages, Ahron’s shame was exactly what validated him as the right person; his self-awareness of his shortcomings, and his view of the position deserving gravity and severity. Moshe couldn’t say Ahron was wrong, and only encourages him to ignore those doubts – שֶׁהָיָה אַהֲרֹן בּוֹשׁ וְיָרֵא לָגֶשֶׁת, אָמַר לוֹ מֹשֶׁה, לָמָּה אַתָּה בוֹשׁ? לְכָךְ נִבְחַרְתָּ.

In the Purim story, Esther also refuses the call, not wanting to risk her life. Mordechai gives her a similar response – she has correctly assessed the facts and is indeed in danger. But that doesn’t matter; the call to action stands open, and someone has got to respond. If Esther focuses on her fears and flaws, then she will lose the opportunity to step up, and someone else will – 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 and called upon him to be that generation’s prophet. Like Moshe, Jeremiah protests that he is just a kid and is not a speaker, and in what we can now recognize as a consistent fashion, God dismisses these excuses – not because they are wrong; but because they ultimately don’t matter – 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 to us; what it leaves in, and also what it leaves out. Of all the small interactions that don’t make the final cut, we should take note that refusing the call is an interaction the Torah deems necessary for us to know about many of our heroes. Our greatest heroes don’t just jump at the chance to do what is so obviously the right thing; whether the right thing isn’t so obvious in the moment, or whether they didn’t eagerly jump for other complex reasons. The Torah’s stories consistently contain a refusal of the call; our legends also experienced doubt and uncertainty, just like we do.

Who is perfect enough to fix the problems you see around your community? Who is perfect enough to lead the people you love to greatness? Ironically, anyone deluded and narcissistic enough to think they are perfect enough would be the worst candidate. The Torah seems to be saying that it has got to be you – אַל־תֹּאמַר נַעַר אָנֹכִי.

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 in your life vibrating deep within, but it’s not enough. You doubt yourself, and you refuse the call. You’re scared – and you should be! There is plenty to be scared of, 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 shirk our duty. The Torah repeatedly tells us they just don’t matter; there’s work to do!

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 are going to 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 reason 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?

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.

Liberated by a Thank You

3 minute read
Straightforward

We all have plenty to be thankful for, and in the time of the Beish HaMikdash and Mishkan, there were two forms of thanksgiving – the Korban Shelamim and the Korban Todah. The Shelamim was entirely voluntary, brought whenever someone felt the need to express gratitude for something. The Todah was offered when a person recovered from an illness, was released from jail, or crossed the ocean or desert.

The offeror would present the animal with 40 loaves of bread and crackers, and had to finish the entire feast within a day. No one should or could eat that amount in a day; you’d have to invite your friends and family to finish it before the evening. It then becomes a communal event where the offeror can celebrate publicly.

The 40 loaves of bread consisted of part chametz and part matza:

אִם עַל־תּוֹדָה יַקְרִיבֶנּוּ וְהִקְרִיב עַל־זֶבַח הַתּוֹדָה חַלּוֹת מַצּוֹת בְּלוּלֹת בַּשֶּׁמֶן וּרְקִיקֵי מַצּוֹת מְשֻׁחִים בַּשָּׁמֶן וְסֹלֶת מֻרְבֶּכֶת חַלֹּת בְּלוּלֹת בַּשָּׁמֶן׃ עַל־חַלֹּת לֶחֶם חָמֵץ יַקְרִיב קָרְבָּנוֹ עַל־זֶבַח תּוֹדַת שְׁלָמָיו׃ – If he offers it for thanksgiving, he shall offer together with the sacrifice of thanksgiving unleavened cakes with oil mixed in, unleavened wafers spread with oil, and cakes of choice flour with oil mixed in, well soaked. This offering, with cakes of leavened bread added, he shall offer along with his thanksgiving sacrifice of well-being. (7:12, 13)

The idea of matza is that it’s simple ingredients, simply prepared. When dough is allowed time to leaven, the naturally occurring yeast ferments sugars in the dough into carbon dioxide, puffing up the dough. Matza is dense, whereas chametz is quite literally full of air.

Mastery of the fermentation process in bread and wine is the quintessential hallmark that showcase human creativity and civilization, which is why chametz is typically associated with the ego.

Humans have a natural tendency to equate the quality of a decision with the quality of its outcome. In reality, we should be thinking about the probability distribution.

When you achieve or succeed at something, the world can look at you and be so impressed at the independence and skill it took. It’s natural to feel in control, self-sufficient, and like nothing can stop you. Whatever the obstacle was, it’s gone now, and what a great reason to throw a party!

To address precisely this hubris, R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that the Torah requires us to temper public thanksgiving celebrations with the simplicity of matza.

There’s an element of randomness to outcome distributions. People don’t always get what they deserve in life, for better and for worse – what about other people in the same circumstances who had different results? We know it’s true: people who worked 80 hours a week and couldn’t pay the bills; and people who were lazy with no brains who made fortunes. People who were lovely yet never got married, and people who were ugly inside and out yet settled down just fine. People who didn’t look after themselves and never got sick a day in their life, and people who obsessed with fitness and got sick anyway.

It might feel like you put in the work, spent the time, and analyzed the matter exhaustively to stack the odds in your favor and set yourself up for a win – that’s what you’re supposed to do!

But even then, it might not be enough.

The secret sauce is that the outcome distribution has to go your way – the element of mazel, chance, or luck, also known as סיעתה דשמיא. Many business titans echo the same refrain – they’d trade all of their skill for just a little more luck.

The circumstances a person brings a Korban Toda aren’t all that miraculous; they’re pretty run of the mill. Perhaps thinking of the ordinary as extraordinary is a little wonky, but even taking the minimalist position, being thankful for things we expect to happen should frame where we truly stand. Just because we expect something to happen doesn’t mean it is going to. And when the outcome goes our way, Heaven has smiled, and we mustn’t take it for granted – we should be humble about it.

While the matza is made of the same stuff as the chametz, it’s not the same at all.

When we stand before God, we need to know that all we have are the simple ingredients. By publicly announcing his dependence on Hashem, a person earns back their independence.

Success should breed humility but is liberated by a simple thank you.

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!

Sensitivity to All Creatures

3 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We should be proud of our heritage.

Peace Redux

5 minute read
Straightforward

For most of history, the utopian ideal that most cultures and societies strived for has been domination, subjugation, and victory; the pages of history are written in the blood and tears of conflict.

In stark contrast, Judaism’s religious texts overwhelmingly endorse compassion and peace; love and the pursuit of peace is one of Judaism’s fundamental ideals and is a near-universal characteristic in our pantheon of heroes – בקש שלום ורדפהו. R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that the utopian ideal of peace is one of Judaism’s great original revolutionary contributions. As Rashi says, all the blessings in the world are worthless without peace.

Avos d’Rabbi Nosson suggests that the mightiest heroism lies not in defeating your foes, but in turning enemies into friends. The Midrash says that the world can only persist with peace, and the Gemara teaches that all of Torah exists to further peace – דְּרָכֶיהָ דַרְכֵי-נֹעַם; וְכָל-נְתִיבוֹתֶיהָ שָׁלוֹם. Peace features prominently in the Priestly Blessing, and the visions of peace and prosperity in the Land of Israel – וְנָתַתִּי שָׁלוֹם בָּאָרֶץ / יִשָּׂא ה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם.

We ask for peace every time we pray and every time we eat – שים שלום / עושה שלום במרומיו. Wishing for peace has been the standard Jewish greeting for millennia – שלום עליכם. Peace is ubiquitous in our lexicon, and it’s not a trivial thing.

We all know peace is important, and peace sounds great in theory, but uncomfortably often, the reality is that peace is too abstract, too difficult, too distant, and too remote.

What does peace look like practically speaking, and how do we bring more of it into our lives?

Before explaining what peace is, it’s important to rule out what it’s not. Peace is not what many or most people seem to think.

Peace doesn’t mean turning the other cheek and suffering in silence. Your non-response to conflict contributes to a lack of overt hostility that is superficial and only a negative peace at best. Sure, there is no external conflict, but everyone recognizes that conflict is there, even if it’s unspoken and even if it’s only internal. It’s a position of discomfort and resentment – possibly only unilateral – and it may genuinely be too difficult or not worth the headache to attempt to resolve. Be that as it may, that is obviously not what peace is; it’s not a state of blessing at all. It’s the kind of status quo that lasts only as long as sufficiently tolerable, but it’s a lingering poison that slowly suffocates; it’s only a ceasefire or stalemate, it’s certainly not peace.

Peace also isn’t the lack of conflict that stems from being weak and harmless. It’s not good morality if you don’t fight when you’re meek and harmless. You haven’t made that choice; you simply have no alternatives. Pirkei Avos is dismissive and disdainful of people who don’t stand up for themselves – אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. In a world of pacifists, a bully with a stick would rule the world. There’s nothing moral about being harmless.

There absolutely are moments the Torah requires us to stand up for ourselves and each other; authorizing and sometimes even mandating aggression as just and necessary – עֵת לֶאֱהֹב וְעֵת לִשְׂנֹא, עֵת מִלְחָמָה וְעֵת שָׁלוֹם. In the story of Balak and Bilam, Pinchas restores peace through an act of shocking public violence, and yet he is blessed with peace for restoring the peace; his courageous act makes him the hero, and not the people who were above it all and didn’t want to get involved.

But we do not value or respect strength and power for its own sake; the One God of Judaism is not the god of strength and power and is firmly opposed to domination and subjugation. Our God is the god of liberty and liberated slaves, who loved the Patriarchs because of their goodness, not their power, who commands us to love the stranger and take care of the orphan and widow. So being powerful and strong doesn’t mean you go around asserting yourself, bullying and intimidating people; but it does mean that if someone threatens you and the people you love, or the orphans and widows in your community, you are equipped to do something about it. Carl Jung called this integrating the shadow, making peace with a darker aspect of yourself. When you know you can bite, you’ll rarely have to.

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that peace is more than a state of non-aggression; peace is a state of mutual acceptance and respect. Peace does not require the absence of strength and power; peace is only possible precisely through the presence and proper application of strength and power – they are prerequisites – ה’ עֹז לְעַמּוֹ יִתֵּן, ה’ יְבָרֵךְ אֶת עַמּוֹ בַשָּׁלוֹם. Peace requires us to cultivate the inner strength and courage to allow others to get what they need.

In Isaiah’s hopeful visions, today featured prominently and optimistically on the wall of the United Nations building, world governments disband their armies and repurpose their weapons into agricultural tools. In this utopian vision, it’s not that states are too weak to defend themselves, a negative peace with no violent conflict; it’s the opposite. It’s a vision of positive peace; complete and perfect security with mutual respect and tolerance, where states will resolve differences peacefully without resorting to hostilities.

As the Ohr HaChaim notes, the word for peace is cognate to wholesomeness, a holistic and symbiotic harmony of constituent parts – שָּׁלוֹם / שלמות.

Peace isn’t a lack of external conflict, and it doesn’t even necessarily mean a lack of conflict at all. Even in Isaiah’s visions of a peaceful future, does anyone seriously think husbands and wives won’t still sometimes disagree about whose family to spend the holiday with? Which school to send their kid to? That organizations won’t have internal disagreements about budget or direction? Then and now, humans are human; we are not robots, and inevitably, we will have our differences! But if peace simply means that those differences can be accepted or settled peacefully, then perhaps peace isn’t the unreachable idealism we may prefer to imagine. It’s just about putting in the effort to learn to live with our differences.

Ralph Waldo Emerson quipped that nobody can bring you peace but yourself. When you feel secure, you’ll have security. It takes benevolence, confidence, and unshakeable strength and power; those come from within. If you do not have peace, it’s because you are not yet at peace. 

There is a very good reason that envy figures as one of the most important things God has to say to humans – וְלֹא תַחְמֹד. 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. Someone else’s prosperity and success don’t make your own any less likely, so be happy when someone else gets a win because yours is no further away. The Ksav Sofer highlights that this is the Torah’s blessing of peace; an internal peace of being satisfied and living with security, happy for both yourself and for others – וַאֲכַלְתֶּם לַחְמְכֶם לָשֹׂבַע וִישַׁבְתֶּם לָבֶטַח.

If we value and desire peace, we must first regulate and then free ourselves from looking at others with grudges, grievances, and jealousy. As one comedian said, the only time you look in your neighbor’s bowl is to make sure they have enough. When other people’s achievements and success no longer threaten us, we can develop lasting and peaceful co-existence and harmony. The differences are still there, but it’s not the other person that changes at all; it’s how you look at them. Your dream of peace starts with you, and it’s an important step that bridges the world we live in with the ideal world of tomorrow. If you cannot accept others, it’s because you haven’t yet accepted yourself.

What better blessing could there be than to live in balanced harmony with yourself, to be completely secure and at peace? To wholly embrace your differences with your spouse, your parents, your siblings, your relatives, your neighbors, your community, your colleagues, and ultimately, everyone you meet? And if we infused our notion of peace with any momentum, maybe the whole world could experience it too.

So, of course we ask for peace every day! In every prayer, and every time we greet someone. As the Gemara says, peace is the ultimate container for blessing, and it’s intuitive; we all know it’s true.

We just have to live like it!

Soul Sparkles

3 minute read
Straightforward

When you think about the parts of Judaism and Torah that capture hearts and minds, you probably aren’t alone if the book of Vayikra isn’t on your highlight reels. It’s quite understandable! The sacrifices; purity laws; Shemita; Yovel, and all the other miscellaneous laws and rituals – they’re rather arcane and quite removed from our daily lived experience.

Of course, that’s not to say that they don’t matter – they’re part of the Torah; they’re important. But unlike, say, most of the books of Bereishis and Shemos, there’s no overarching story or character-driven narrative with broadly applicable lessons and morals. It’s not exactly blasphemy to notice that maybe they’re just a little less exciting.

The book of Vayikra draws to a close with a beautifully detailed exposition of abundant blessings and fulfillment for properly observing the Torah. The blessings are accompanied by an equally detailed and gruesome description of all the terrible calamities that could befall the Jewish People should they fail to uphold the law properly. Many congregations customarily read this section quickly and quietly, and it is no honor to be called to the Torah for this particular reading.

Yet curiously, the final word that immediately follows this grim reading is a postscript with an abrupt and stark change of tone, the miscellaneous section about the assessment and valuation of pledges – Parshas Arachin.

The laws of pledges are technical and specific, and there is a lot of literature that explores the exact parameters. When the Mishkan and Beis HaMikdash stood, they were operated and managed by a public endowment. People could pledge all kinds of contributions to the fund; they could pledge animals, money, property, and fascinatingly, even humans.

The essential broader point of these laws is that the fund was sophisticated and could receive anything of value. Since everything can be valued, it’s simply a question of determining what that specific value is. While the eyebrow-raising notion of pledging a human conjures imagery of human sacrifice or slavery, it only modestly and simply entailed calculating the lifetime labor value of that person and then redeeming that value by contributing the corresponding amount to the public fund.

But of all things, why do the ponderous laws of Parshas Archin close out the book of Vayikra, following all the awful curses?

We could probably make peace with the notion that the Torah is like all things; some parts are more interesting, and some less. If we find meaning in the details of the census, architecture, and sacrifices, the Torah blesses us for observing the laws with joy. Yet specifically for those of us who are disenchanted with some of the arcane technicalities the Torah charges us with, the Torah forecasts a grim and intimidating future for us, that our worlds will fall apart with misery and pain.

The Ishbitzer compellingly suggests that by stating these laws specifically here, the Torah makes a sweepingly broad statement that all humans and all things have a fundamental and intrinsic value and worth – reminding us that even after tragedy strikes, all is not lost. All people are still worth something, including the people who have temporarily lost their way. Faced with a disheartening list of some of the worst things that can happen to a human, the Torah reminds the same people cowering from the curses that we are still worth something. Sure, how exactly we calculate the precise value is technical, but don’t miss the wider point. Even the worst of us still has something valuable and special to them, and it ought to change our orientation to ourselves and to others.

Moreover, it bears noting that the nature of the endowment’s expenditures was not profane or secular. From even the most awful, depraved, and lost souls, the endowment spent every last penny of their contributions on only the holiest and most sacred things; the value he has to offer is not worth less than yours.

There’s a Yiddish expression that powerfully captures a vast amount of wisdom in just a few short words: the pintele Yid. It literally means the dot of a Jew; the fundamental essence of Jewish identity, and is perhaps related to the concept of the incorruptible soul – חלק אלוק ממעל. This imagery articulates clearly and plainly that no matter how far you try to distance yourself, there will always remain some small spark that lies buried deep within. Perhaps that’s the inalienable and inviolable part of us that Parshas Archin tries to speak to, even if we may have lost our way to some extent. The pintele yid, your soul spark, cannot be lost or extinguished; it can only ever lie dormant. It will wait patiently for as long as it takes to reignite and burst into flame once again, even if it takes generations.

Whatever you have done, whatever mistakes you have made, big or small, many or few, you need to remind yourself that you are worthwhile.

We are all better than the worst thing we’ve ever done.

The Covenant of Perfection

2 minute read
Straightforward

Covenants feature prominently in the Torah and Judaism. A covenant is the highest form of contractual agreement, a binding promise of far-reaching importance in the relations between parties, with legal, religious, and social ramifications.

In addition to the agreement itself, covenants typically have a physical and public display of the sign or symbol to remember the promise, such as how the Torah deems rainbows to signify God’s promise not to flood the world again.

Judaism can directly trace its roots to God’s covenant with Avraham, the first Patriarch, and the initiation into the religion for Jewish males is called the Bris, literally, “covenant.”

As the exclusive rite of passage for formal admission into Judaism, it’s hard to overstate the central importance of Bris, so it’s worth understanding the covenant it invokes.

When God engaged Avraham to enter the covenant, God mapped out a vision for humanity, blessing Avraham’s descendants with greatness and the land of Israel. They just had to do one thing:

וַיֵּרָא ה אֶל-אַבְרָם, וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי-אֵל שַׁדַּי–הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי, וֶהְיֵה תָמִים – Hashem appeared to Avraham, and said to him; “I am The Omnipotent…. Walk before me, and be perfect ”. (17:1)

Like it’s no big deal, the covenant requires us to be perfect. It doesn’t take much trying before you quickly realize that perfection is impossible. While perfection is a worthy objective, it is an inherently unattainable one, and any who claim to have found it are deluding themselves.

How can God ask us to do the impossible?

The question betrays the kind of defeatist thinking we are all prone to at times. Perfectionism can be paralyzing – if we can’t do it perfectly, then why try at all?

We should be very clear nothing and no one has ever been, currently is, nor will ever be perfect. Idealism can serve as a north star for direction, meaning, and purpose, but idealism alone is not an effective strategy for navigating day-to-day living, which necessitates some degree of flexibility and pragmatism.

We need to orient ourselves towards the process of perfecting, not the outcome of perfection, on the journey, not the destination. The Beis Halevi teaches that when we do our best, striving for better and more, we will find ourselves becoming more perfect over time – הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי / וֶהְיֵה תָמִים

The Gemara teaches that the name Hashem introduced Himself with, אֵל שַׁדַּי, expresses the concept that the Creator withdrew from creating so that life had space to be and grow – שאמר לעולמו די.

The Kedushas Levi notes that God forms this space for us to have any input by necessity because that input is precisely what God desires from us.

Rabbi Akiva taught that in the same way we consider a loaf of bread an improvement from raw stalks of wheat, humans can and must improve the world around us.

The Malbim explains that our active participation is the essential theme of the covenant. Circumcision is not just an extrinsic sign on our bodies; Judaism’s initiation for men symbolizes the action we are called upon to take to enhance our world, a living articulation of the covenant itself.

The symbolism of modifying our bodies as soon as we are born is a powerful visual metaphor we carry with us, teaching us that our everyday lives can elevate, refine, and improve the world around us.

You will never be perfect.

But the perfect is the enemy of the good.

Language Redux

4 minute read
Straightforward

Humans are the apex predator on Earth.

We share this planet with thousands of species and trillions of organisms, and none but humans carry a lasting multi-generational record of knowledge of any obvious consequence. And yet, a feral human being left alone in the woods from birth to death kept separate and alive, would be not much more than an ape; our knowledge isn’t because humans are smart.

It’s because we speak – מְדַבֵּר.

We communicate and cooperate with others through language, giving us a formidable advantage in forming groups, sharing information, and pooling workloads and specializations. Language is the mechanism by which the aggregated knowledge of human culture is transmitted, actualizing our intelligence and self-awareness, transcending separate biological organisms, and becoming one informational organism. With language, we have formed societies and built civilizations; developed science and medicine, literature and philosophy.

With language, knowledge does not fade; we can learn from the experiences of others. Without learning everything from scratch, we can use an existing knowledge base built by others to learn new things and make incrementally progressive discoveries. As one writer put it, a reader lives a thousand lives before he dies; the man who never reads lives only once.

Language doesn’t just affect how we relate to each other; it affects how we relate to ourselves. We make important decisions based on thoughts and feelings influenced by words on a page or conversations with others. It has been said that with one glance at a book, you can hear the voice of another person – perhaps someone gone for millennia – speaking across the ages clearly and directly in your mind.

Considering the formidable power of communication, it follows that the Torah holds it in the highest esteem; because language is magical. Indeed, the fabric of Creation is woven with words:

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקים, יְהִי אוֹר; וַיְהִי-אוֹר – God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. (1:3)

The Hebrew root word for “thing” and “word” is identical – דַבֵּר / דָבָר. R’ Moshe Shapiro notes that for God –  and people of integrity! – there is no distinction; giving your word creates a new reality, and a word becomes a thing. R’ Shlomo Farhi points out the obvious destruction that ensues from saying one thing but meaning and doing something else entirely.

R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that humans use language to create things as well. The notion of a contract or agreement is a performative utterance – things that people say to create something that wasn’t there before; a relationship of mutual commitment between people, created through speech. Whether it’s God giving us the Torah or a husband marrying his wife, relationships are fundamental to Judaism. We can only build relationships and civilizations with each other when we can make commitments through language.

Recognizing the influential hold language has over us, the Torah emphasizes an abundance of caution and heavily regulates how we use language: the laws of gossip and the metzora; and the incident where Miriam and Ahron challenged Moshe; among others. Even the Torah’s choice of words about the animals that boarded the Ark is careful and measured:

מִכֹּל הַבְּהֵמָה הַטְּהוֹרָה, תִּקַּח-לְךָ שִׁבְעָה שִׁבְעָה–אִישׁ וְאִשְׁתּוֹ; וּמִן-הַבְּהֵמָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא טְהֹרָה הִוא, שְׁנַיִם-אִישׁ וְאִשְׁתּוֹ – Of every clean creature, take seven and seven, each with their mate; and of the creatures that are not clean two, each with their mate. (7:2)

The Gemara notes that instead of using the more accurate and concise expression of “impure,” the Torah utilizes extra ink and space to articulate itself more positively – “that are not clean” – אֲשֶׁר לֹא טְהֹרָה הִוא. While possibly hyperbolic, the Lubavitcher Rebbe would refer to death as “the opposite of life”; and hospital infirmaries as “places of healing.”

The Torah cautions us of the power of language repeatedly in more general settings:

לֹא-תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ, לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ: אֲנִי, ה – Do not allow a gossiper to mingle among the people; do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor: I am Hashem. (19:16)

The Torah instructs us broadly not to hurt, humiliate, deceive, or cause another person any emotional distress:

וְלֹא תוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת-עֲמִיתוֹ, וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱלֹקיךָ: כִּי אֲנִי ה, אֱלֹקיכֶם – Do not wrong one another; instead, you should fear your God; for I am Hashem. (25:27)

Interestingly, both these laws end with “I am Hashem” – evoking the concept of emulating what God does; which suggests that just as God constructively uses language to create – שהכל נהיה בדברו  – so must we – אֲנִי ה. The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that as much as God creates with words, so do humans.

The Gemara teaches that verbal abuse is arguably worse than theft; you can never take back your words, but at least a thief can return the money!

The idea that language influences and impacts the world around us is the foundation of the laws of vows, which are significant enough that we open the Yom Kippur services at Kol Nidrei by addressing them.

Of course, one major caveat to harmful speech is intent. If sharing negative information has a constructive and beneficial purpose that may prevent harm or injustice, there is no prohibition, and there might even be an obligation to protect your neighbor by conveying the information – לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ.

As R’ Jonathan Sacks powerfully said, no soul was ever saved by hate; no truth was ever proved by violence; no redemption was ever brought by holy war.

Rather than hurt and humiliate, let’s use our language to educate, help and heal; because words and ideas have the power to change the world.

They’re the only thing that ever has.

Walking God’s Way

2 minute read
Straightforward

For all the time we spend learning Torah, we ought to orient ourselves with what we are trying to accomplish.

Two of the most frequently quoted yet misrepresented answers are to be holy and to dwell on Torah day and night – קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם / וְהָגִיתָ בּוֹ יוֹמָם וָלַיְלָה.

The instruction to dwell on Torah day and night is only a sentence fragment. After the Torah concludes with Moshe passing on, and Joshua’s succession to leadership, God’s first directive to him is instructive:

לֹא-יָמוּשׁ סֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֶּה מִפִּיךָ, וְהָגִיתָ בּוֹ יוֹמָם וָלַיְלָה, לְמַעַן תִּשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת, כְּכָל-הַכָּתוּב בּוֹ כִּי-אָז תַּצְלִיחַ אֶת-דְּרָכֶךָ, וְאָז תַּשְׂכִּיל – This book of Law must not leave your mouth; you must dwell on it day and night, so you will observe and perform everything it says…

Echoing this instruction to learn in order to do, the Gemara lauds study that leads to action and teaches that wisdom’s purpose is to foster repentance and good deeds – תִּשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת.

The Chafetz Chaim notes that observing the commandments is only any good when it brings us to walk in God’s ways. The Mishna reiterates that the main thing is not the strategy, but the execution – וְלֹא הַמִּדְרָשׁ הוּא הָעִקָּר, אֶלָּא הַמַּעֲשֶׂה.

These extracts are a cross-section of a recurring theme – we study the Torah to live it. But how do we know we’re doing it right?

One of the Torah’s meta-principles is that we should emulate God:

כִּי תִשְׁמֹר, אֶת-מִצְות ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וְהָלַכְתָּ, בִּדְרָכָיו – You shall observe Hashem’s commandments, and walk in His ways… (28:8)

The Gemara and Midrash note that since we cannot replicate God’s perfect justice, we can only emulate God’s kindness and compassion. R’ Eliyahu Dessler teaches that the image of God we are created with is what allows us to be compassionate.

The Sifri teaches that to understand God, we should learn the stories in the Torah and come to act like God – with more kindness and compassion.

The commandment to be holy also echoes the instruction to emulate God – קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי. It is not some esoteric call for ethereal holiness. What follows are simple laws, and loving your neighbor is foremost among them – וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ אֲנִי ה.

It should be no surprise that Hill and Rabbi Akiva famously classified this as the Torah’s Golden Rule – we emulate a God who is kind and compassionate by loving others – אֲנִי ה.

The Baal HaTanya notes that we are not commanded to love humanity in the abstract; but individuals in particular – the fallible, flesh and blood person nearby who gets on your nerves. The Baal Shem Tov taught that we must accept others and their flaws as surely as we accept our own.

The moment we finish the Torah, we start over anew from the beginning. This ritual of perpetual cycles is powerfully symbolic of what the Torah is all about: the Midrash says that the beginning, middle, and end of Torah – the entire undercurrent – are about kindness.

The Gemara notes that the Torah opens with God caring for Adam by making his clothes, and closes with God caring for Moshe by burying his faithful lawgiver – God deeply cares for humans, to the extent that no work is menial.

The only litmus test of our engagement with Torah is whether it makes us kinder and more compassionate – דְּרָכֶיהָ דַרְכֵי נֹעַם וְכָל-נְתִיבוֹתֶיהָ שָׁלוֹם.

 

Who Watches the Watchman?

6 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

The Torah describes such an example. 

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

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

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

Would anyone seriously suspect that they were?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trust Means Sharing The Blessing

2 minute read
Straightforward

The agricultural aspects of the Chagim are often forgotten in today’s world of finance and commerce. People would plant their fields around Sukkos, cut the crops at Pesach, and leave them to dry until Shavuos when they would gather in the yield – hence the alternative name for Shavuos, Chag Ha’Asif – the Chag of Gathering. The main feature of Shavuos was the Omer offering, where people would bring the first two bushels they harvested to Jerusalem.

People nervously check their investments to see if they work out. It’s the same for crops, between planting and harvesting. Once cut, owners can be satisfied with the certainty of that year’s yield. Yet in Judaism, the freshly cut crops would be off-limits until people brought the Omer offering. This then permitted consumption of the rest. Shmitta and Yovel govern land use so that people relinquish control and effective ownership of their land every few years, and the Omer serves a similar purpose.

Typically, communal offerings consist of a single animal or unit representing the united Jewish people. Why is the Omer made up of two portions?

Rav Hirsch teaches how the laws regulating the use of the Land of Israel instill a sense of gratitude and trust in a person. That little bit of doubt, that little bit of insecurity, are exactly the points at which a person can actionably show their dependence and gratitude for the blessings they have.

When a communal offering has more than one unit, it is for the constituent parts of the Jewish people. There are two portions to the Omer offering to remind us that we cannot enjoy our blessings unless others can too. It’s part of the trust and thanks we owe for what we have.

We cannot say thank you for our blessings without sharing them as well.

Distinctive Instinct

2 minute read
Straightforward

When a new mother gives birth, her life will never be the same again. After months of aches, pains, nausea, and emotions, the new mother can finally clutch her little piece of heaven to her chest, and a new chapter in her life begins.

Yet the Torah requires waiting periods before a new mother attains purity, who must then offer a sacrifice. What is the purpose of this?

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch teaches that the different kinds of impurities are about the death of moral freedom amidst life, to varying degrees.

Pregnancy and having a child is chaotic and wreaks havoc on the mother’s life, physically, mentally, and emotionally. It would be a surprise if, under the circumstances, she didn’t lose the ability to choose clearly!

The words the Torah uses – אִשָּׁה כִּי תַזְרִיעַ – describes the physiological process of seed forming. The most vital matters on which the future depends, marriage, the home, and family, can be reduced to a simple physiological process of biological happening, which can attest to the lack of moral freedom; this is the impurity that needs dispelling. The Torah calls on us to live consciously.

Moral freedom and the ability to choose are the gifts that distinguish humanity. The periods of waiting correspond to the child and to the parent, and how both must consciously and continuously strive towards greater moral consciousness, and this might help explain why the waiting period for a boy and girls are different, as the covenant of circumcision teaches this same lesson.

The process the Torah prescribes a new mother serves to rededicate her to her calling as a wife, mother, and Jew, despite the painful experience she has undergone. Submission to the forces of nature is antithetical to what it means to be a Jew. While the biological aspect is undeniable, the Torah calls the mother to the Mishkan, to exercise her moral freedom and dedicate physical life to a higher ultimate purpose.

To be a mother is not merely to give birth. To be a mother is to create human beings.

Actionable Metrics

2 minute read
Straightforward

Honesty and trust are the basis of all healthy relationships. In the section of the Torah that charges the Jewish people to being holy, the Torah does not detail some ascetic, mystical ideal of inhibition. It talks about us. It talks about how we interact with each other:

לֹא תִשְׂנָא אֶת אָחִיךָ בִּלְבָבֶךָ הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ אֶת עֲמִיתֶךָ וְלֹא תִשָּׂא עָלָיו חֵטְא – Do not hate your brother in your heart. Reprove your neighbour again and again; but do not bear a sin on his account! (19:17)

In our respective circles, people respond differently to different things. Intentionally or not, people get upset. It’s an unavoidable part of life. The Torah calls on us to act on it.

There is also no shortage of people to denounce from our circles. People whose politics or religiosity offend us. The Torah reminds us that these people too, are our brothers, and calls on us to act on this too. It is okay to call people out on public desecrations, and draw a line. But they are still out brothers.

Rav Hirsch notes that there is is a dual aspect. לֹא תִשְׂנָא אֶת אָחִיךָ – Do not hate your brother, and בִּלְבָבֶךָ, in your heart. The hatred is bad; but keeping it to yourself is worse. Forget the wrong, or don’t keep it in. The way to let it out is הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ אֶת עֲמִיתֶךָ. It is a personal duty to directly bring a little more self-awareness to others, in our own way.

The duty is qualified by integrity and moral awareness. It is important for deliver the message properly, but it is equally important to hear the message properly. This duty reverberates with the fraternal relationship we have with each other אָחִיךָ and עֲמִיתֶךָ; to properly perform this mitzva, there can be no judgment or superiority. If they’ll never listen, you should not say anything.

Crucially, the Torah says that וְלֹא תִשָּׂא עָלָיו חֵטְא – Do not bear a sin on his account. If we say nothing, it is our fault, not theirs! If someone hurts you, and doesn’t understand or realise the extent of it, then the broken relationship is your own fault for not bringing it to their attention to fix.

Consider the gas tank indicator in your car. What if it didn’t want to bother you with an accurate measurement of precisely how long you have until you stall? Such “kindness” would defeat it’s very purpose. A measuring tool that isn’t accurate is completely useless.

It’s definitely frustrating that your car lets you know you need to make a twenty minute trip to then pump expensive fuel. But the kindness is not in the information. The kindness is in what you do with it.

Middos literally means measurements. And we are charged with being the measuring tools of each other’s behaviour.

All of us would do well accept constructive criticism more freely from those who truly care. But it’s important to sometimes offer it to friends too.

The integrity of your relationship can be measured by the amount of truth it can take.

Excuses Aren’t Kosher

2 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah specifies in clear terms what makes a mammal kosher. A kosher animal possesses a digestive property called chewing its cud, and the form of its hooves must be a fully cloven split. An animal that meets these two requirements is kosher; an animal that doesn’t meet both is not kosher. 

It’s not complicated; it’s not hard to understand.

But quite curiously, the Torah doesn’t leave us with its simple formulation; it specifies several familiar animals that meet one requirement, but not both and states that they aren’t kosher:

אַךְ אֶת זֶה לֹא תֹאכְלוּ מִמַּעֲלֵי הַגֵּרָה וּמִמַּפְרִסֵי הַפַּרְסָה אֶת הַגָּמָל כִּי מַעֲלֵה גֵרָה הוּא וּפַרְסָה אֵינֶנּוּ מַפְרִיס טָמֵא הוּא לָכֶם: וְאֶת הַשָּׁפָן כִּי מַעֲלֵה גֵרָה הוּא וּפַרְסָה לֹא יַפְרִיס טָמֵא הוּא לָכֶם: וְאֶת הָאַרְנֶבֶת כִּי מַעֲלַת גֵּרָה הִוא וּפַרְסָה לֹא הִפְרִיסָה טְמֵאָה הִוא לָכֶם: וְאֶת הַחֲזִיר כִּי מַפְרִיס פַּרְסָה הוּא וְשֹׁסַע שֶׁסַע פַּרְסָה וְהוּא גֵּרָה לֹא יִגָּר טָמֵא הוּא לָכֶם: – You may eat any animal with split hooves, that also chews its cud. Don’t eat animals that chew the cud but don’t have fully cloven hooves: The camel, since it chews the cud but doesn’t have a split hoof is not kosher for you. The hyrax, since it chews the cud but doesn’t have a split hoof is not kosher for you. The hare, since it chews the cud but doesn’t have a split hoof is not kosher for you. The pig, since it has a split hoof but doesn’t chew the cud is not kosher for you. (10:3-7)

The Torah says that the camel, hare, hyrax, and pig aren’t kosher because they only meet one of the specifications, almost suggesting a difference between having one sign and having neither. 

But these animals are on the non-kosher list because they don’t meet both requirements; why is the Torah bothered by the fact they possess one element of the kosher laws?

The Kli Yakar suggests that having one sign may be worse than none; one sign can present a deceptive appearance, and only a more thorough inspection dispels the illusion. 

We use excuses as justifications for a fault; an excuse’s primary function is to diminish your responsibility by getting someone to excuse or forgive your wrongdoing. Where there’s an excuse, it indicated a lesser commitment to the matter, and behind every excuse lies a real reason, whether it’s decency, energy, interest, or time.

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that most of us possess the clarity and self-awareness to know what we need to work on. We can hold ourselves back by clutching onto something, pointing to some achievement or progress to excuse ourselves from doing more, and that good thing or two you’ve got going for you perversely wind up being something that’s holding you back.

The Torah highlights the animals that have some things going for them, but not the whole package, drawing attention to them so that we aren’t fooled, and perhaps so we don’t fool each other or ourselves. You need to soberly define the boundaries of where you are in the physical and spiritual universe, being honest about your successes and failures.

Presenting as something you’re not is not kosher, nor are your excuses.

Cutting Corners

< 1 minute
Straightforward

Anyone could tell you that idol worship is anathema to Judaism. Some would tell you that idol worship doesn’t truly exist today. Fewer could tell you that it exists in certain forms in all our lives.

A sub-category of idolatry is superstition, which the Torah outlaws:

לֹא תְנַחֲשׁוּ וְלֹא תְעוֹנֵנוּ – Do not consult omens or lucky times… (19:26)

R’ Shlomo Farhi defines idolatry as losing grip on your intellectual approach to what it means to a human. What differentiates mankind from the animal kingdom is that we can control our choices and thought processes.

Rav Hirsch teaches that superstition divorces our God-given mental faculties from our choices, which is the exact definition of idolatry.

Superstition denies the order of science and nature, and denies free will and morality. The Torah is the lens through which we are charged with making choices, and superstition circumvents it.

Superstition places moral actions under external influences, destroying the relationship between Creator and creation. Rav Hirsch notes the common root of Nichush – superstition, and Nachash – the primeval snake. Like the snake, superstitious activity deceptively wriggles and slithers toward disaster.

The people most susceptible to superstition are vulnerable people struggling through something, desperate for a way forward. The Torah emphasises that cutting corners is not the way forward.

The Torah is supposed to guide us through the darkness. Doubt is normal. Uncertainty is expected. The Torah urges us to embrace the difficulty of the unknown, and challenges us to work through it without looking for a quick fix.

Right Thing; Wrong Time

4 minute read
Straightforward

Few people want to do the wrong thing. Most people want to do the right thing, and usually, it pays off. Sometimes, even when we know the right thing to do, we’re afraid to follow through.

But once in a while, even doing the right thing backfires spectacularly.

After an eventful year for the Jewish People, with the Exodus, Red Sea, Sinai, and Golden Calf debacle all in quick succession, the Mishkan was finally ready, and the people could settle down and catch their breath.

The new spiritual infrastructure embodied by the Mishkan was an exciting cause for celebration; the people hadn’t had a way to thank their Creator for keeping them through Egypt and ultimately saving them – arguably the thought process behind the excitement for the Golden Calf. The Creator had established a medium through which their worship was welcome; the celebration was genuine, and Ahron’s family felt it too. And so, after they had followed Moshe’s commanded rituals, Ahron’s eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, wanted to make a token offering of their own, expressing their gratitude and respect on this momentous occasion. The Midrash imagines their joy at seeing a Heavenly fire descend, and suggests that they wanted to join God’s act of life and love with one of their own.

But joy turned to ashes, and celebration turned to tragedy:

וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי-אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ, וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ, וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ, קְטֹרֶת; וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי ה, אֵשׁ זָרָה–אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה, אֹתָם. וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי ה’, וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם; וַיָּמֻתוּ, לִפְנֵי ה – Nadav and Avihu took pans of fire, in which they placed the spices, and presented it before God; this alien fire which they were not commanded. A great fire emerged and consumed them before God. (10:1,2)

The Torah has no trouble describing people doing something bad or wrong; it conspicuously avoids suggesting that Nadav and Avihu did anything explicitly wrong. Our sages suggest different things that might associate them with wrongdoing, but we are left with the impression that this wasn’t wrong so much as it was inappropriate or misguided. Their image is still very much that they were great men who died a beautiful death before God; failed heroes, and not wayward sinners –וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי ה’ וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם; וַיָּמֻתוּ, לִפְנֵי ה.

R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that this story is a caution that our power of initiative might be welcome in the world of action, but we must taper it in the world of spirituality. The world of spirituality is about subduing our ego in honor of God, not asserting it.

The Torah repeatedly affirms where laws come from – אֲנִי ה אֱלֹקיכֶם. Rashi notes that this statement is an echo of Sinai – אָנֹכִי ה אֱלֹקיךָ – suggesting a direct link from Sinai to the laws; if we accept God as sovereign, these are the laws of the kingdom, and Sinai is interwoven in the fabric of every mitzvah we uphold.

The Sfas Emes understands this as an affirmation of the nature of the Torah, that there is an invisible and intangible component beyond the obvious things we can directly apprehend. The social, inter-personal mitzvos build and develop a cohesive society whether performed intentionally as mitzvos or not; that’s just how they work. Acts of charity will inherently bring brotherhood, goodwill, and positivity into the world, regardless of your awareness of a mitzvah called tzedaka.

The power of initiative works in the world of relationships because people are interactive – we can learn and understand how to get along better. But once we step out of the realm of feedback and interactivity, it is deeply presumptuous to continue asserting the power of initiative.

The Ohr HaChaim sharply observes that their initiative to do the right thing at the wrong time got them killed. This story unequivocally conveys the terrifying yet essential lesson that doing the right thing or having noble intentions is not enough; the context must necessarily inform our behavior.

No action exists in a vacuum. The right thing to do depends entirely on the context; circumstances, timing, and relevant values are necessary to determine the rightness of an action. If you’re doing the right thing but the timing creates problems, it wasn’t actually the right thing to do at that time. Doing the right thing without an awareness of context and timing very quickly becomes the wrong thing – אֵשׁ זָרָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה.

This reflects a school of thought in philosophy called consequentialism, which teaches that the only way to determine whether something was morally correct or not is the consequences of that action. The Torah pays respect to these great men, but the outcome was that they died.

And our lives are like that in many ways.

If a young man wants to buy flowers for his wife, he should probably remember the red rose bouquet she chose for their wedding because they are her favorite. If he buys her a beautiful arrangement of white tulips for her birthday, we understand that he probably hasn’t done the right thing. While he meant well and has done something genuinely and objectively nice, the context determines that red roses would have been the way to go.

Many variables go into something working out well, but what that means, then, is that the right person at the wrong time, or the right deal at the wrong time, or the right job at the wrong time, are actually all the wrong thing, and we would do well to let go of them and make our peace. More than a simple misfire, bad context or timing reveals a fundamental incompatibility and misalignment.

There is no shortage of positive outlets for your enthusiasm and initiative, no shortage of good causes to contribute to and volunteer for.

But when it comes to using your initiative, it is imperative to be in tune with the context of your physical and spiritual environment because, as the famous proverb goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

It’s All For You

2 minute read
Straightforward

In the aftermath of the Golden Calf, God tells the Jewish People to build a Mishkan. Once it is built and operationally ready, God calls Moshe to tell him the laws of sacrifices:

וַיִּקְרָא, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֵלָיו, מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר – God called Moshe; and spoke to him from the Hall, to say… (1:1)

Calling to somebody is a deliberate expression of consideration and care; it is the highest honor to be so directly recognized by the Creator. Quite unusually, the word וַיִּקְרָא appears in the Torah scroll with a small א. Rashi, citing a Midrash, takes this to mean that while writing the words, Moshe was uncomfortable writing about God seeking him out directly, and wrote the final letter in a small font, evoking a comparison to the prophecy of Bilam, whose prophecy has a sense of erratic encounters rather than deliberate meetings – ויקר אלוקים אל בלעם.

This teaching serves to illustrate Moshe’s humility, but it raises a major issue.

One of the foundations of Judaism is that Moshe Rabbeinu had prophecy unlike any other; it is Moshe’s Torah that we hold in such high esteem. By comparing himself to Bilam, or anyone, doesn’t Moshe actually undermine the entire Torah?

Our sages teach that Bilam didn’t have prophecy because of his qualities; but to preempt a prospective claim that if the nations of the world had a prophet like Moshe, they might have acted differently. Accordingly, it follows that Bilam was a prophet for the people’s sake, not his own merits; the abilities and achievements were incidental to the man.

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that this is the common thread Moshe could draw between himself and Bilam. In the aftermath of the Golden Calf, God told Moshe to raise his people’s spirits, and as Rashi explains, he does so by saying that God only talks to him because of the people – צא ואמור להם דברי כבושים. בשבילכם הוא מדבר עמי.

In the distinctive words of R’ Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, a man standing at the top of a mountain can’t be proud of how tall he is. As high as he may stand in the physical world, the mountain lends him his height over others, nothing else. In much the same way, Moshe achieved greatness yet remained humble. His great accomplishments were not attributable to his own effort; the people had given him his power.

However great you or them might be, we are all here to serve.

Attitude Redux

5 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our sages were sensitive to this subtle but universal nuance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s normal.

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

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

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

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

The way you do things matters.

Under Observation

4 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah describes a skin condition called tzaraas and many associated laws of diagnosis, quarantine, and rehabilitation. The Torah treats it as a spiritual affliction as opposed to having any apparent medical significance, and as such, it falls under the holiness and purity rubric of the kohen.

The Torah is deliberate and precise that the condition can only be diagnosed or treated by a kohen, the religious leaders of an era before rabbis. If the patient were a learned expert and the kohen an illiterate imbecile, the patient’s status still turns on the kohen’s word alone and nothing else. 

If the kohen doesn’t need to know what he’s doing, why is the kohen a central figure at all?

Our sages understood that the condition called tzaraas was a symptom experienced by people who gossip and speak ill of others. In this light, it follows that the entire treatment process serves to rehabilitate the patient. 

By requiring someone else to make the diagnosis, the Torah acknowledges that it’s pretty easy to find faults in others and that it can be hard to see our own; being subjected to the judgment of another is precisely the experience you subject others to when you gossip about them. 

It is easy to figure out what others are doing that feels annoying, disappointing, or hurtful. It tends to be harder to figure out what you are doing that is annoying, disappointing, or hurtful. But gossiping about what others are doing gets you nowhere, and the Torah’s focus is on reorienting your interactions. 

The Tur notes that when the kohen makes his determination, the Torah describes how the kohen quarantines the condition away for a week; not the person – וְהִסְגִּיר הַכֹּהֵן אֶת־הַנֶּגַע שִׁבְעַת יָמִים.

R’ Yitzhak Yehuda Trunk highlights how the kohen must look at the condition first but then also looks at the whole person – וְרָאָה הַכֹּהֵן אֶת־הַנֶּגַע / וְרָאָהוּ הַכֹּהֵן – suggesting the need to see an issue for what it is critically but to consider the totality of a person in context; their qualities and redemptive features as well.

One of the laws of diagnosis is that if the condition persists but does not spread, the kohen must declare the illness healed – וְלֹא־פָשָׂה הַנֶּגַע בָּעוֹר וְטִהֲרוֹ הַכֹּהֵן. When someone is in a stable medical condition, you might equally describe them as stable and therefore improving; or you might say that the lack of improvement is a sign of deterioration, that they’re not going to get better. Neither is wrong, but in terms of our orientation to the world, this law indicates a clear bias towards positivity.

R’ Zusha of Hanipol observes how severe the Torah is about gossip and slander; if a person has the propensity for gossip and slander within them, they don’t belong around others – כׇּל־יְמֵי אֲשֶׁר הַנֶּגַע בּוֹ יִטְמָא טָמֵא הוּא בָּדָד יֵשֵׁב מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה מוֹשָׁבוֹ. 

The Rema notes that this could well be someone with tzaraas on their entire body doesn’t quarantine; their exterior physical condition matches their inner spiritual condition, and people will know to steer clear just by looking.

R’ Yisrael Salanter sharply notes how the punishment of isolation fits the crime. The sin isn’t just telling stories about others; it’s specifically about finding fault in others, a sin of misappropriating a skill you’re supposed to use on yourself. The Torah describes the skin healing from its nucleus but quite literally talks about inverting the eye – הָפַךְ הַנֶּגַע אֶת עֵינוֹ. By placing the laws of Tzaraas next to the laws of kosher, the Torah suggests that what comes out of our mouths is just as important as what goes in. If the condition and isolation are a result of judgmental eyes, then he has healed when his eyes are fixed firmly inward.

The Rambam says that when disaster strikes, it is forbidden to treat tragedy as a chance act of nature or randomness and that all things come from God and should be catalysts for teshuvah. Our response to suffering should be humility and introspection; don’t look elsewhere and blame it on those you don’t like. 

The Brisker Rov taught his students that the prophet Yonah fled from God, preferring to suffer rather than betray his people, but that when God sent a storm after him, he took ownership of the predicament around him – בשלי הסער הגדול הזה. In taking responsibility, you claim the power and ability to respond.

R’ Asher of Stolin suggests that the Torah’s approach to our personal shortcomings is to be upfront and forthcoming with them – נֶגַע צָרַעַת כִּי תִהְיֶה בְּאָדָם וְהוּבָא אֶל־הַכֹּהֵן. A problem shared is a problem halved; when people know you have an issue, they are in a position to help you in the way you need it. With self-compassion, you can be gentle and forgiving with yourself enough to display your mistakes and vulnerabilities and can be open with trusted people about the fact that you are flawed, like everyone else. The error of gossip is hiding your faults by exposing other people’s rather than doing anything. Share your flaws with trusted teachers and friends; own them before they own you. 

At every step, the Torah reminds us repeatedly that we don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are. Take ownership rather than point a finger.

Humans are highly subjective creatures, and we need to be mindful of how we use our ability to analyze critically. You need to take responsibility for your faults, not point fingers and place the blame elsewhere. Acknowledging imperfections opens the door to doing something about them. Success isn’t hiding your cracks or revealing others; it’s in honestly confronting yourself and bringing attention to the cracks within. 

When everything is someone else’s fault, you will suffer a lot. When you realize everything springs from within, you will discover peace and joy.

Responsibilities

2 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah details curses, of tragedy and atrocities, that occur when the Jewish nation strays from its course of bettering mankind. One of them stands out:

וְכָשְׁלוּ אִישׁ בְּאָחִיו – Each man will stumble over his brother (26:37)

The literal translation is incorrect. Rashi explains that this curse is the inverse of the famous maxim of כל ישראל ערבין זה לזה – all of Israel are accountable for one another. The curse is that Jews will stumble over other Jews sins.

The Maharal explains why the literal meaning is incorrect. Tripping over someone has nothing to do with brotherhood. When the Torah says וְכָשְׁלוּ אִישׁ בְּאָחִיו – the tripping is because of the brotherhood – the tripping is over the accountability that brotherhood engenders.

The root of the word ערבין is the word ערב – meaning mixture – it is the same root as the word for tasty, evening, guarantor, Arab and eruv. R’ Ezra Hartman explains that these are all mixtures; An eruv mixes property rights; tasty is the cuisine that “mixes” when digested; evening is twilight, in contrast to בקר which means “differentiate”, in twilight things are hard to make out. The name for ערבי – Arab, is a mixture too. The pasuk in Bereishis says of Yishmael, their ancestor, that יָדוֹ בַכֹּל וְיַד כֹּל בו – his hand will be upon all, and everyone’s hand upon him (16:12). Today, we see this as terrorism. Terrorism has no borders – it is potentially everywhere, in a school, a mall, a bus, a train or a plane.

Rashi saw fit to quote that the solution is כל ישראל ערבין – the nation is a unit, a brotherhood, with components accountable for one another – the Torah assures us that we will stumble on our brother’s problems it if we do not help them.

For that reason alone, we have to help them.

Making Favorable Judgments

2 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah states in numerous places that upstanding societies are predicated on justice:

בְּצֶדֶק תִּשְׁפֹּט עֲמִיתֶךָ – You shall judge your fellow with righteousness (19:15)

Rashi notes that this is not just the approach for formal legal systems and executors of justice; this is how people ought to conduct themselves on an individual level too. The Gemara in Shabbos states that הדן חבירו לכף זכות, דנין אותו לזכות – one who judges their fellow favorably is judged favorably in return.

The Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that when a person gets to Heaven, he is ushered into a courtroom, and is instructed to judge a case. The case is presented, the prosecution speaks, then the defense. The eager new-comer pounds the gavel and declares the defendant guilty. The angels pull him aside, and say, “Reb Yid, this case was actually about you. You are the defendant. Don’t you remember that time you…” He must then answer for all the times he was guilty.

R’ Yisroel Reisman points out that this is why we call this process דין וחשבן – a ruling and accounting. The ruling comes first.

R’ Reisman asks a poignant question – this mechanism will not work on people who already know this. When it is eventually and inescapably their turn to judge, will the people who know better declare everyone and everything innocent, and when informed that they are the defendants, will they feign surprise and be absolved?

The Beis HaLevi explains that the judgment in Heaven is not a new, independent decision.

The judgments we make in our lives will one day be applied to ourselves, and we will be held to the standards we expected of others. All a person truly is, is the decision they have made. Are we real? Do we match up to what we think we perceive to be in the mirror? When you judge another, you do not define them; you define yourself. If you are kind, you will be treated kindly. You project the values and beliefs you have, and one day, which will one day be shined on you.

בְּצֶדֶק תִּשְׁפֹּט עֲמִיתֶךָ is not exclusively about a court system. It is a way of life; a mentality. It is the way to create a community of fair, decent, and good people. Don’t treat people well based on their respective merit, or otherwise. Treat people well purely because you are someone who treats all people well.

The Eternal Flame

3 minute read
Straightforward

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

Rain is a powerful symbol in the covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people; unlike Egypt, where the water comes up from the Nile and beneath feet, Israel is a land where people must look up to the heavens for rain.

Given rain’s prominent role in an agricultural economy, it follows that rain features in our daily prayers; but there was one time of year when the rain had a unique prayer.

The Kohen Gadol would enter the inner sanctum of the Beis HaMikdash once a year on Yom Kippur and perform the ritual service and say one single prayer – the only prayer ever said at Judaism’s holiest site – about rain.

But where we might expect the foremost religious leader and representative of an entire generation to request the right amount of rain at the appropriate time and place, we find that instead, the prayer simply asks God to ignore the prayers of travelers who don’t want to get wet on their way.

Given the central importance of rain, why is that the most important thing to say?

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

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

On its face, this is a simple instruction to the attending Kohanim on duty to regularly stoke and fuel the flame.

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

Pirkei Avos suggests that their efforts were met with divine assistance; when it rained, the rain would not quench the fire, which is to say that our sages specifically understood the divine assistance to take the form of rain that wouldn’t put the fire out, as opposed to no rain at all over the fire. The Kohanim would still have to work the fire in adverse weather conditions; God would make sure their efforts were successful.

This strongly implies that no rain here, there, or anywhere is not a viable solution.

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

This eternal flame, fueled as it was by raw human willpower, was the source of fires in all the year-round services, from the Menorah to the incense, the crescendo of the Yom Kippur service when the Kohen Gadol said his prayer for the rain. The eternal flame wasn’t just something that lies in the external world; it came from within. Perhaps every person is a miniature eternal flame; you must continually stoke the fire at whatever pace allows you to keep at it for decades without burning out.

Our sages understood the true miracle of the eternal flame; determined willpower and enduring efforts blessed with success. The Yom Kippur prayer affirms our worldview; we reject the immaturity of the fair-weather traveler, who does not accept that it will rain. We live in a world where there is rain, a world where it must rain, and people are going to have to be a little wet and uncomfortable.

You must not deny the crucial role consistency, perseverance, and perspiration play in life. Like the eternal flame, the miracle only happens after you’ve exhausted your efforts.

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

R’ Joseph B. Soloveitchik suggests that it is a human’s duty to broaden the scope and strengthen the intensity of their efforts – השתדלות – because the aggregate of all outcomes is contingent on our efforts.

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

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

Charity Redux

6 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; it is self-evident that all humans are fundamentally 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.

The mitzvah to aid others is far-reaching – it goes far beyond money, encompassing your time, energy, and emotions, 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.

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. Characteristically, R’ Hutner challenged his visitor, “Am I your Lulav? Did you come to shake me?”

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. 

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.

Faith When It’s Tough

3 minute read
Straightforward

Sections of the laws of sacrifices detail how to dispose of what is not eaten or burnt as part of the Korban. It opens:

צַו אֶת אַהֲרֹן וְאֶת בָּנָיו לֵאמֹר זֹאת תּוֹרַת הָעֹלָה – Command Aaron and his sons, saying, This is the law of the burnt offering. (6:2)

It is curiously referred to as תּוֹרַת הָעֹלָה – despite not being the burnt offe at all, which is discussed earlier in the Torah. It is the fats, leftovers and refuse! How is it תּוֹרַת הָעֹלָה?

The Midrash tells how the students of R’ Yosi bar Kisma asked him when Mashiach would come to which he cryptically responded “זֹאת תּוֹרַת הָעֹלָה”.

R’ Moshe Wolfson quotes the Satmar Rav in the name of his father, who explained. Disposal of the leftovers and undesirable parts at night seems mundane and inelegant; just something that has to be done. The Torah states that an attitude adjustment is called for – this work is not mundane at all, it’s תּוֹרַת הָעֹלָה – and therefore entirely holy!

By quoting this, R’ Yosi was telling his students that their question was fundamentally flawed. Their underlying assumption was that exile is a waste of time, but just has to be, like taking the trash out. His answer was that it is not a waste of time at all, it is a separate but equally important component in the bigger picture, just in a different form.

The origins of formal prayer can be pegged to two sources. They either correlate to the Temple sacrifices that are lost to us; or they symbolise the three times the Patriarchs prayed. The Torah records how Avraham stood in prayer in the morning, which we call Shachris; Yitzchak stood in the afternoon, which we call Mincha; and Yakov in the evening, which we call Maariv.

The Patriarchs were prototypes of the Jewish people, each generation refining and honing what was there, discarding undesirable traits; Yakov was the final version. It seems counter-intuitive that he is credited with Maariv, which is the least required of all the prayers. Shachris and Mincha have clearly defined Halachic requirements, and Maariv does not, to anywhere near the same degree. Arguably, it could even be said to be optional! So why is the least significant prayer attributed to our most significant ancestor?

The Sfas Emes answers along a similar vein. Yakov embodies and encapsulates the Jew in exile. There is an imprint in our national identity left by our ancestors footsteps. Forcibly displaced from his home in Israel, to a degenerate foreign soil, yet a remarkable model of quality, integrity, dignity, and class. Perfect in every way, he set the bar as high as possible. Maariv, and Yakov, are the Jew persevering against all odds, when it may even be understandable for not pulling through. This is why he was the final prototype, and why Maariv is attributed to him.

The slumps and downside of things have their key role too, and must be recognised as part of the greater web of events that lead us onward. The laws under discussion concern fats of the animal that are burned at night. Fat represent a lack of faith – it is stored energy, hedged against the possibility that the next meal may be hard to come by. Faith in the dark, in the hard times, is critical. This is what Yakov embodied, and that is what תּוֹרַת הָעֹלָה is.

It is pertinent to note that the Torah obliges us to burn the fat, this lack of faith, specifically at nighttime. להגיד בבוקר חסדיך, ואמונתך בלילות – at night, or when things seem unknown, cold, dark, when we feel most alone, that is precisely when we have to persevere most.