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This Is The Law

3 minute read
Straightforward

The Red Heifer, or Parah Adumah, is a profound symbol within Jewish tradition. It represents the archetype of the kind of law that requires our faithful obedience despite not making obvious rational sense and defying our immediate intuition; this is the law – זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה / חֹק.

The Red Heifer ritual restores people from a state of corpse impurity, having been contaminated from coming in contact with death – זֹאת הַתּוֹרָה אָדָם כִּי־יָמוּת בְּאֹהֶל.

Despite being out of practice today, our sages understood every element of the law to embody principles relevant to contemporary living.

Rashi notes R’ Moshe HaDarshan’s teaching that it is a mother’s responsibility to clean up after her child; R’ Yitzchak Vorki suggests that if the Golden Calf represented a lack of faith, the Red Heifer serves as its antithesis, which is the mechanism for restoring spiritual balance and the return to faith and purity.

An eligible Red Heifer is described as having no blemish and no yoke – אֵין־בָּהּ מוּם אֲשֶׁר לֹא־עָלָה עָלֶיהָ עֹל.

The Chozeh of Lublin interprets this as a metaphor for spiritual humility; if a person believes themselves to be without fault or mistakes, it suggests a lack of submission to the yoke of Heaven, underscoring the necessity of humility in spiritual practice.

R’ Simcha Bunim of Peshischa was on his deathbed, and he stoically confronted his impending death while his wife wept. He reminded her of this teaching that life’s essence, the whole Torah, is about preparing oneself for death – זֹאת הַתּוֹרָה אָדָם כִּי־יָמוּת בְּאֹהֶל.

The Chafetz Chaim taught that one should kill themselves to learn Torah, challenging the notion of prioritizing material and worldly living over spirituality – זֹאת הַתּוֹרָה אָדָם כִּי־יָמוּת בְּאֹהֶל. Do not forsake Torah study to be preoccupied with mere living; instead, occupy yourself with and live by the Torah in full awareness of life’s fleeting transience and consciousness of our mortality. This is the law; that’s what it’s all about.

The Kohen would add cedar wood and hyssop grass to the fire and burn them with the Red Heifer. Cedar trees are used throughout the Torah and our prayers to symbolize might and pride; hyssop grass symbolizes humility. R’ Simcha Bunim believed that every person had to balance a sense of pride with a sense of humility, with a note in each pocket, “The world is mine” in one, “I am dust and ashes” in the other, illustrating the balance between humility and recognizing one’s potential.

The ashes of the burnt Red Heifer don’t do anything on their own. They had to be mixed with living water, that is, fresh, flowing water – מַיִם חַיִּים. Alone or mixed with anything else, even stagnant or prepared water, the ritual is incomplete and does serve its purpose.

R’ Meir Schapiro highlights that water is a powerful building block of life, but only when we associate it with motion. Flowing water can break mountains, make deserts bloom, and carve rock; stagnant or frozen water does nothing at all.

R’ Leibele Eiger adds that flowing water’s natural descent down the drainage basin represents the virtue of humility, suggesting that we should aspire to be humble and flexible, allowing ourselves to be shaped by the divine. You put water into a bottle; it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot; it becomes the teapot. Be more fluid.

Ultimately, R’ Yitzchak Vorki highlights how the heart of the law of the Red Heifer is loving one’s neighbor; the Kohen who performs the ritual purifies everyone else but defiles himself in the process, symbolizing the self-sacrifice inherent in a life of genuine love and service to others, even at the cost of one’s own comfort.

The teachings surrounding the Red Heifer challenge us to live with humility, faith, and selflessness, reminding us of our potential to make a difference. In this way, we can make life truly matter, not only for ourselves but for those around us as well.

There Is More Than Meets The Eye

4 minute read
Straightforward

Our bodies are hard-wired with biological adaptations to respond to things that look nice; that’s how nature works. The beauty of a flower is a by-product of what it takes for the plant to attract and reward the bees and birds that will pollinate the flower.

That’s what eyes do; that’s how they work.

Animals live from moment to moment, always looking for food and threats and not much else. As humans, though, our higher faculties must process and respond to what our eyes see. Unlike animals, we are self-conscious and can evaluate what course of action to take. Although we intuitively understand that there is more than meets the eye, humans have always struggled with it for good reason.

It’s at the heart of the Creation story; Eve sees that the forbidden fruit looks attractive and nice and desires it, and ultimately cannot overcome what she sees – וַתֵּרֶא הָאִשָּׁה כִּי טוֹב הָעֵץ לְמַאֲכָל וְכִי תַאֲוָה־הוּא לָעֵינַיִם וְנֶחְמָד הָעֵץ לְהַשְׂכִּיל וַתִּקַּח מִפִּרְיוֹ.

It’s the mistake the spies make when scouting the Land of Israel. They see a land that has so much to offer. Still, instead of thinking how the land might be good for them and trusting in the culmination of the Exodus and the redemption of ancient promises to their ancestors, they just give up in despair about their inadequacy and how they’ll never be able to conquer the strong and mighty natives, leading to a lost generation.

Quite unusually, the Torah characterizes the Creator as vocally expressing disappointment and frustration to Moshe, that their error is unbelievably stupid after all they’ve experienced:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה עַד־אָנָה יְנַאֲצֻנִי הָעָם הַזֶּה וְעַד־אָנָה לֹא־יַאֲמִינוּ בִי בְּכֹל הָאֹתוֹת אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי בְּקִרְבּוֹ – And the Creator said to Moshe, “How long will this people spurn Me, and how long will they have no faith in Me despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst?” (14:11)

There is an ancient fable told of a group of blind men who hear that a strange animal called an elephant has been brought to the town, but none of them are aware of its shape and form, and they step forward to know it by touch. The first person’s hand landed on the trunk and said an elephant is like a thick snake. Another one touched its ear and said it seemed like a kind of fan. Another person’s hand was on its leg and said an elephant is a pillar like a tree trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said an elephant is like a wall. Another felt its tail and described an elephant like a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating that an elephant is hard, smooth, and pointy like a spear.

None of them is wrong, and all are correct, but their limited perceptions lead them to incomplete and fragmented understandings. None have fully apprehended the elephant, and even we who know all these aspects of an elephant do not see the front, back, and sides simultaneously, let alone the inside.

But similarly, our experiences and perceptions often provide only partial glimpses of a broader reality. Assuming we know the whole truth can be misleading, as we are frequently unaware of the deeper dimensions our senses do not capture. We do not experience objective reality; we cannot know the truth, only our experience and perception of it. Our perception is not an infallible representation of reality; our experiences, biases, and limitations shape it.

Indeed, as the Steipler notes, our attitudes shape our experiences. The spies entered the land with a bad attitude; although they experienced miracles, with the inhabitants distracted and preoccupied with tragedy, they perceived everything as negative even though it was all a blessing.

This should create a large space for humility and other perspectives; our sages teach that there are seventy faces of Torah and tell of a story of R’ Meir, who, despite recognizing the inherent impurity of a type of unclean creature, could articulate an argument where it might be considered pure, highlighting the nuanced and layered nature of truth.

R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that the mitzva of tzitzis follows the story of the spies, and the juxtaposition suggests some association by sequence. In fact, the stated purpose of the mitzva mirrors the action of the spies, following the eyes, and even uses the exact same verb – וְיָתֻרוּ אֶת־אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן / וְלֹא-תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם, וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם.

A key part of the mitzvah of tzitzis is to have a blue-violet string – תְּכֵלֶת. R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum ends with blue-violet. There are infrared, ultraviolet, and lots more additional magnitudes of light that radiate unseen beyond what our eyes can discern on either end of the spectrum. It’s also blue like the sky, the limit of Earth’s visible atmosphere, yet we know space sprawls far beyond our most powerful and sensitive imaging tools. Perhaps then, part of the mitzvah of tzitzis is to remind us of the essential human boundaries of our perception, that there is an invisible, imperceptible, but very real unseen sphere of existence beyond what we see and feel.

The Sfas Emes teaches that engaging our higher faculties to look beyond the surface and see within both ourselves and beyond touches the greatest endeavors we are capable of.

Don’t be taken in by appearance; seek the inner truth. In judgment, be aware of your perceptual limitations. When making important decisions, think of your long-term goals and values. Be suspicious of all that is perfectly curated and editorialized in media consumption. In relationships, look beyond the superficial; seek authentic and meaningful interactions with people with good character and values.

What you see is not all there is.

There is more than meets the eye.

Hammered Work

3 minute read
Straightforward

In our modern world, daily living feels fragmented and filled with fleeting connections and constant distractions. Despite being hyperconnected, we experience profound loneliness. The overstimulation from constant connectivity paradoxically leaves us feeling numb.

Notifications, requests, and endless scrolling aim to stave off boredom but leave us feeling scattered. Work, technology, and social obligations often pull us in multiple directions, leading to superficial interactions and transient connections. This constant barrage of information and pressure to multitask erodes depth and continuity, making us acutely aware of a loss of coherence and stability in our lives.

Amidst this disorientation, the Torah offers a profound counterpoint to the notion of fragmentation and disconnection, highlighting how some things require an approach of integrity and wholeness.

וְעָשִׂיתָ שְׁנַיִם כְּרֻבִים זָהָב מִקְשָׁה תַּעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם מִשְּׁנֵי קְצוֹת הַכַּפֹּרֶת – Make two cherubim of gold, made of hammered work, at the two ends of the cover. (25:18)

וְעָשִׂיתָ מְנֹרַת זָהָב טָהוֹר מִקְשָׁה תֵּעָשֶׂה הַמְּנוֹרָה יְרֵכָהּ וְקָנָהּ גְּבִיעֶיהָ כַּפְתֹּרֶיהָ וּפְרָחֶיהָ מִמֶּנָּה יִהְיוּ – Make a Menorah of pure gold made of hammered work; its base and its branches, its lamps, flowers, and petals shall be of one piece. (25:31)

עֲשֵׂה לְךָ שְׁתֵּי חֲצוֹצְרֹת כֶּסֶף מִקְשָׁה תַּעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם וְהָיוּ לְךָ לְמִקְרָא הָעֵדָה וּלְמַסַּע אֶת־הַמַּחֲנוֹת – Make two silver trumpets made of hammered work, and use them to call the community together and for having the camps set out. (10:2)

Then, as now, metallurgy was a highly valued and rare skill. Today, however, we might miss the powerful teaching embedded in these instructions if we aren’t paying close attention.

Typical metallurgical work involves fusing parts through welding or soldering using heat, pressure, or both. However, as Rashi points out, the Torah’s requirement of hammered work from a single piece of metal explicitly rules out the method of shaping components separately and then fusing them together.

Some things should not be crafted in a fragmented manner.

These sacred artifacts had to be shaped from a single piece of material, symbolizing unity, consistency, and completeness, reflecting the timeless ideas they represent.

The cherubim above the Ark symbolize the Divine Presence and the relationship and dialogue between Creator and creation, reminding us of the importance of maintaining a coherent spiritual connection.

The Menorah represents the Torah and the wisdom that enlightens the world, encouraging us to seek depth and continuity in our learning and personal growth.

The trumpets were tools used by the government to lead, gather, communicate, organize, and mobilize the Jewish people, symbolizing unity and purpose and highlighting the need for purposeful and unified action in our communities.

By requiring that key symbols for the Jewish People, the Torah, and our relationship with the Creator be crafted from a single block of metal, the Torah emphasizes the importance of wholeness and integrity in the things that matter most. These objects must be complete and undivided, and the ideas they represent must be whole and unfragmented, reflecting our commitment to our beliefs, practices, and each other – ישראל ואורייתא וקדשא בריך הוא חד הוא.

These symbols are powerful and timeless. You can do some things sporadically, and they are valuable and worthwhile; most people can’t volunteer in soup kitchens every day. However, the fundamentals require a comprehensive commitment and a showing of steadiness and reliability, as reflected in the consistency of the design of a single hammered work. This teaching stands in contrast to the Torah’s sharp criticism of casual practice – וְאִם־תֵּלְכוּ עִמִּי קֶרִי – And if you are with me sporadically… ( 26:21).

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that the Menorah symbolizes the Jewish people, branching out from one end of the spectrum to the other, encompassing all diversity. Despite our different ways of shining, we are fundamentally one, made from a single block. The Shelah profoundly notes that any distinction between the left and right branches is an illusion; there is just one beautiful Menorah.

Some things are self-contained and possess everything they need without requiring anything additional or external. As R’ Judah Mischel notes, there are moments we find ourselves somewhat alienated from each other, a little less in tune with ourselves, and our practices falling short of our aspirations; but we’re still fundamentally whole, as we affirm daily, recognizing the sufficiency of who we are – שעשה לי כל צרכי.

In an age of overload, where our attention is constantly divided, we are saturated with short-term commitments, and the boundaries between work and personal life are increasingly blurred, especially with remote work, the Torah reminds us about the importance of unity and integrity.

These single, unbroken things are a timeless reminder of the wholeness we seek. As we navigate the complexities of modern life, they remind us to hammer away, encouraging us to slowly cultivate, shape, and form a consistent and steady practice grounded in the belief that we are complete and equipped with all we need, in harmonious and unbroken connection with the Torah, the sacred, ourselves, and each other.

Sources and Uses

3 minute read
Straightforward

In a finite universe, resource allocation matters, and the headlines often reveal negligence. Trillions of taxpayer funds are spent on healthcare and defense in the public sector with no accountability for where they go. Corporate executives implement cost-cutting measures to increase margins; a few months later, a critical component fails, and a plane crashes. The lack of accountability is how you get lead in toys, carcinogens in baby food, and low-quality materials holding planes and buildings together; numbers tell a story.

In our daily lives, whenever someone wants an investment, one of the most important things investors should consider is the sources and uses, the story the numbers tell. How much money do they need, and where is it going? Will it make the business more profitable, or are you sponsoring the guy’s next vacation? The same analysis applies to charitable giving: what ratio of the fundraising budget goes to the administration’s salaries, travel, and dinners, and how much of your charity actually goes towards helping the cause?

When handling other people’s money, there can be no room for moral hazard; as our sages acknowledge, money makes people act weird.

The Torah dedicates an entire section to a detailed account of how the donations to the building of the Mishkan were used, a public accounting for posterity.

The Torah’s space is a precious commodity; what makes the cut and what doesn’t is noteworthy. What are we supposed to make of this accounting, verifying that, by the way, Moshe didn’t mess with the money, and just so you know, Bezalel didn’t burgle some bars; might have we suspected otherwise?

Firstly, our sages note that no matter how sacred the project or how pure the builder’s intentions are, you are always guaranteed to have some clowns; there were actually people who suspected Moshe of skimming off the top and getting rich off the project!

Secondly, the essential principle isn’t in the specific line items of how much of this or that there was; maybe that part doesn’t matter today. However, the broader concept is dynamite; there must be transparency and accountability regarding public funds, even if the people involved have impeccable reputations. Leaders should eliminate the need for people to trust them, even if you’re Moshe and even for the Mishkan.

As R’ Jonathan Sacks highlights, the prophets regularly lambasted corrupt judges who had undermined their integrity and eroded the public trust in justice. A community and nation that suspects its leaders of corruption is dysfunctional. It is the mark of a society in good health when public leadership is seen as a form of service rather than a means to power, which is all too easily abused.

Our sages interpret a remark from Moshe as a way of acting in public life so as to be beyond reproach:

וִהְיִיתֶם נְקִיִים מֵה’ וּמִיִּשְׂרָאֵל – And you shall be clear before the Lord and before Israel… (32:22)

As such, at least two people must be in charge of administering public finances; Moshe was the treasurer, and Itamar independently audited, which is how Moshe could verifiably claim at Korach’s revolt never to have taken anything from anyone. When the Beis Hamikdash was operational, treasurers could only exchange treasury coins with a third party, not their own. They were not allowed to enter the treasury wearing tight clothes or anything with linings or pockets in which it might be possible to hide and steal.

Contemporary governance and leadership experts reinforce what the Torah stated plainly long ago: accountability is a prerequisite to leadership and is not just a matter of personal integrity but of a systemic design that distributes responsibility and ensures oversight. Leaders are tasked with doing right and being seen to do right, establishing a culture of integrity that underpins a healthy, functioning society.

While authorities differ on whether this is a legal obligation or best practice, there can be no question that the Torah’s detailed accounting of the sources and uses of public contributions is a precedent that public trust in leadership is built on openness and accountability. It is healthy for leadership to be accountable to the community it serves, especially when it comes to the stewardship of public resources.

It is the mark of good leadership to take proactive measures to eliminate the need for trust by replacing it with verifiable transparency, creating a culture of accountability and openness.

Accountability and integrity are everything; when you are transparent, you’ll never need people to trust you.

Mistakes Were Made

3 minute read
Straightforward

As the Torah wraps up its story, it records every stop between Egypt and the border of the Promised Land. When Moshe retells the story of their journey together, he does the same thing.

It’s a nice recap, but it seems odd on closer inspection.

Some of the stops were simple rest stops where nothing relevant happened. On a road trip, the gas station and toilet break aren’t part of the itinerary; many of these stops are the functional equivalent, and yet Moshe saw fit to include them.

Far more surprisingly, he lists the places they screwed up. He names and shames each one; the places they clashed with Moshe and defied God, the places they worshipped idols, the places they surrendered to materialism, and the places they succumbed to desire.

It’s surprising because humans don’t usually emphasize or highlight failures; we typically avoid the stigma and negativity associated with talking about failure.

Imagine reminiscing with your significant other about that restaurant where you had a huge argument. Or that Pesach you insulted your mother-in-law. They’re not the kind of things that lend themselves to reminiscence.

One conventional answer is that our actions impact our surroundings; our actions have a ripple effect in the world that leaves some residual mark or impact that lingers on our environment, for better and worse. That’s probably true.

But there is a simple yet profound teaching here.

To learn from mistakes.

King David famously states that his sin was constantly before him in his mind’s eye. It’s not a perpetual guilt complex; the word he uses is related to the notion of mistakes. Better than forgetting past mistakes is recalling them.

There is deep wisdom in recalling failure.

You mustn’t forget your mistakes; you must learn from them.

There’s a popular folk saying in hard times; if everyone were to put their bundle of challenges into a pile and everyone head to claim one, most would choose their own.

The conventional explanation is based on a preference for familiarity; better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.

But perhaps there is something more profound hiding in plain sight.

It’s an acknowledgment of our individual paths in life. Your challenges and mistakes are the building blocks of what makes you uniquely you; you are your story. To pick someone else’s story is to stop being you and be someone else entirely.

Picking and choosing is impossible; your story is yours, and theirs is theirs. Our trials and our errors shape us uniquely, weaving the tapestry of our existence.

Your bundle of challenges and tribulations isn’t just yours because it’s familiar; if there is a Creator and Providence, your challenges are, so to speak, designed for you. When the universe puts you in a challenging situation, that challenge has your name on it; it is destined and meant for you.

We ought to humbly remind ourselves that sometimes the circumstances win and judge others accordingly.

The Torah teaches this wisdom by acknowledging the places our ancestors faltered. It reminds us to remember that happens, and it’s something we do too; there’s no need to pretend otherwise. It’s part of our story on a national level; it’s part of the human condition. Failures must be integrated into the story of our life.

It’s not an ascending narrative that tells a story of things getting better, or a descending narrative tells a story of things getting worse. It is an oscillating narrative that tells a story of ups and downs, triumphs and failures, joy and despair, growth and regression. There were terrible, painful times, but we got through them. There were the best of times we enjoyed; they didn’t last, but we survived no matter what.

Everyone makes mistakes. Some minor, some not. Some are recoverable, some not. Don’t forget them. Recall them so you can learn from them, and perhaps others will be able to as well.

Mistakes are part of life, and the Torah integrates them into the human story because even in mistakes, there exists within them the possibility of redemption.

Learn from mistakes. Just remember they don’t all have to be yours.

Calm Among Chaos

3 minute read
Straightforward

Our sages hold Ahron up as the avatar of peace who loved and pursued peace. He is the embodiment of relationships, mending not just spiritual rifts but interpersonal ones as well.

But what was there to fight about in the desert?

There was no struggle for resources and no conventional economy or business to provoke competition or incite envy. They ate magic food and drank magic water, and their clothes were auto-dry cleaned nightly.

There wasn’t much to fight about.

R’ Meilech Biderman highlights the fundamental truth that even when there isn’t anything much in particular worth fighting about, some people will still be inclined to create conflict. Some people don’t need legitimate grievances to sow argument and discord; they will incite strife over the most trivial and inconsequential things.

Korach is the Torah’s example of this; more privileged than most, but someone else has a little more. So one evening, he rouses a mob for open rebellion and challenges Moshe.

How would you respond to such public and baseless humiliation?

Moshe doesn’t take the bait to engage or finish the debate there and then. He calls for a public trial the next morning for all to see, and the story continues the following day.

Rashi notes that instead of engaging, Moshe stalled for time in the hope that Korach and his followers might reconsider and repent, abandoning their challenge and averting the impending catastrophe. But only one person did.

Out of the multitude enflamed by Korach’s uprising, only one person sees through the illusion – On Ben Peleth. His moment of clarity doesn’t arrive through divine revelation or philosophical insight but through a simple conversation with his wife. She asked him a straightforward question: “What’s in it for you?” Whether it was Ahron or Korach as the leader, he’d still only be a disciple, so what did he stand to gain from participating in the dispute? For this, our sages herald her as a woman whose wisdom is constructive – חַכְמוֹת נָשִׁים בָּנְתָה בֵיתָהּ.

But the thing is, there is nothing profound whatsoever about her position. It’s common sense! Anyone is capable of cost-benefit analysis; there is nothing wise about it, yet our sages set this wisdom as the gold standard to aim for.

R’ Chaim Shmulevitz insightfully suggests that wisdom doesn’t always lie in complex philosophies or grand revelations; sometimes, wisdom is remembering and applying simple truths in complex situations. It is not wisdom in the traditional intellectual sense but a different, no less valuable, sort of wisdom: the wisdom of practicality, of understanding human nature, of being grounded in reality, holding onto common sense when the world around you is caught in a storm of confusion.

Moshe doesn’t respond in the heat of the moment, and On Ben Peleth’s wife wouldn’t allow her husband to act in the heat of the moment. These examples offer us a pragmatic approach and grounded understanding of approaching conflict. In the heat of the moment, when our judgment is clouded by emotions, controversy, and mob mentality, it is wise to hit the pause button; it is wise to return to fundamental truths to assess the situation.

These examples encourage us to search for wisdom in simplicity and remind us that not every battle is ours to fight, and guide us toward individual and collective calm amid the storm. They underscore the importance of strategic thought and action in high-stakes situations, which often present an amplified version of reality, forcing us to confront the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous nature of our existence. In an unbalanced situation, remaining calm demonstrates resilience and personal strength. Maintaining a cool head in these moments is a form of embracing this reality and accepting the world as it is rather than as we wish it to be. Our calm can influence those around us, promoting a collective equanimity that can transform potentially destructive situations.

Moshe’s pause didn’t save everyone, but it saved one family from catastrophe, whose story is a reminder of the importance of maintaining a cool head in high-stakes situations. It illuminates our potential to choose differently, to course correct, and take a step back from the precipice, even when we find ourselves on the verge of disaster. It invites us to recognize the wisdom in everyday pragmatism, the strength in quiet resilience, and the potential for redemption even amidst the most turbulent storms.

Remembering simple things in difficult moments is not simple.

It’s wise.

Nostalgia Redux

5 minute read
Advanced

Life comes at you fast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what’s our excuse?

Banish the ghosts or redeem them.

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

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

Truth Redux

5 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are those everyday white lies a violation of Divine truth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fear Redux; Faith Redux

6 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

But is that so true?

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

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

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

This is a complete defense of feeling our fears.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sharing the Load

5 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah’s story traces the origin of the Jewish People, from the dawn of humanity, through our first ancestors and their families, to their eventual subjugation in Egypt. These stories revolve around the struggle to realize God’s promise for their children to live peacefully and securely in their homeland.

The homeland is a core driver of the Torah’s entire story; it’s where the story has been heading from the beginning. With the people stuck in Egypt, God rescues them by sending Moshe to overthrow the world’s most powerful civilization and empire with the aid of transparently magical and supernatural forces, which sustain the Jewish People through years of wandering through a barren wasteland until they finally make it to the border of the Promised Land. This is the culmination of the Torah’s story, and there is going to be a profound transition. 

They’ll have to fend for themselves to a much larger extent, and Moshe won’t be able to join. They won’t be wanderers anymore; they will be colonists and settlers. It’s been a long ride, but they have finally made it. 

The trouble is, no sooner than they’re even in sight of the place when a good twenty percent of the people decide that they don’t really want the Promised Land after all.

Clans from Reuven, Gad, and Menashe take a fancy to the wrong side of the border, which is just too perfect for all their sheep and cattle. So they ask Moshe if they can settle there and relinquish any claim to the Land of Israel, a request that seems as breathtaking in its audacity as its stupidity. 

They turn their back on the literal Promised Land God had promised them and their ancestors. They turn their back on the fulfillment of their ancestors’ hopes and dreams, the promise that was an essential part of their heritage and identity. They even turn their back on respectable values – our sages observe that they asked to build stables for their cattle before mentioning settlements for their children, suggesting that they cherished their money more than their own families.

What’s more, refusing the Promised Land is not just to choose a different physical path but, by definition, a very different spiritual path as well; they arguably turn their back on God in a certain sense. Years later, the Book of Joshua records a story where they have to prove that they still believe in the God of Israel – because that was in question to a certain extent.

Not to mention, entering the Land of Israel is a sensitive topic for Moshe. It’s the thing he is most desperate for, something he prayed countless times for trying to persuade God, and the one instance God refused Moshe and his prayers. These people have his dream within reach, and they don’t even want it!

It’s hard to overstate what a betrayal this was, and Moshe treats it as such. Perhaps the only reason it doesn’t end with the devastation and death that so many similar biblical stories have is that this group didn’t act impetuously; they sought guidance and permission from Moshe. But that doesn’t make the ask any less disturbing. And perhaps, in a sense, asking permission is worse because, at least in the other instances, they were hungry or impassioned!

This interaction is one of Moshe’s last – he’s not going to the Promised Land; he knows this is the end of the line for him, and this will be one of his final lessons. It’s unquestionably one of his most timeless and essential.

Moshe doesn’t take them to task for turning their back on the Promised Land, God, their heritage, their ancestors, or for overrating materialism. He could have set them straight on any or all of those counts, but he doesn’t.

He takes them to task for turning their back on their brothers:

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה לִבְנֵי־גָד וְלִבְנֵי רְאוּבֵן הַאַחֵיכֶם יָבֹאוּ לַמִּלְחָמָה וְאַתֶּם תֵּשְׁבוּ פֹה – Moshe replied to the clans of Gad and Reuven, “Shall your brothers go to war while you remain here?!” (32:6)

In this interaction, Moshe emphasizes the foundational concepts of brotherhood, collective identity, loyalty, and sharing the burden of responsibility.

From the beginning, Moshe’s core defining characteristic has been his loyalty to his people. When he sees someone getting beaten, he risks his life to intervene and protect an otherwise total stranger. He sees his people suffering for too long and boldly accuses God of gratuitous cruelty towards his brothers – לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה לָמָּה זֶּה שְׁלַחְתָּנִי. When they lose their way at the Golden Calf, God threatens their destruction, and Moshe sticks up for them, responding with his own threat – וְעַתָּה אִם־תִּשָּׂא חַטָּאתָם וְאִם־אַיִן מְחֵנִי נָא מִסִּפְרְךָ.

Nobody could be more qualified than Moshe to talk about loyalty, and no lesser than God testifies to Moshe’s fidelity, not just to his boss but to his people as well – עַבְדִּי מֹשֶׁה בְּכָל־בֵּיתִי נֶאֱמָן הוּא. In sharp contrast, the villainous Bilam is mocked as a faithless man loyal to nobody but the highest bidder – בלעם / בלא עם.

Our sages teach that all of Israel is interconnected – כל ישראל עֲרֵבִים זה בזה – suggesting not just connected or linked things, but something gestalt, a new entity, wholly integrated into itself. Our sages liken the Jewish People to a boat; if there is a hole in the hull, we recognize the entire vessel, not just the hull, is in danger and requires your immediate attention and repair.

This story is explicitly political; Moshe expressly rejects the individualistic mentality of self-interested autonomy and liberty. It is wrong to enjoy yours before helping your brothers get theirs; your duty and responsibility are to help them get theirs, too, and when we organize our societies, people with a libertarian skew ought to remember Moshe’s words.

The premise of Moshe’s rhetoric is that it is selfish to take without giving back, that it is a self-evident dishonor and disgrace to abandon your brothers to their fates without facing the challenge alongside them. Regardless of your personal beliefs, this orientation is why Chabad volunteers and kiruv professionals set up Jewish infrastructure across the planet and why Israeli citizens commonly take a firm stance on the central importance of national military service.

It is important to note that collective responsibility has an outer boundary; the notion of collective responsibility in guilt is fundamentally problematic and a critical ingredient in genocidal and totalitarian thinking – the Church used such reasoning to justify centuries of antisemitic oppression. The only proper basis for blame and fault is an individual’s moral responsibility, but collective responsibility can still be a helpful concept regarding proactive direction. We didn’t destroy the Temple; that’s not our fault. But we’re collectively responsible for why it hasn’t been rebuilt yet, and we can channel our energies to do better.

Moshe’s emphasis on the responsibility between brothers is the culmination of another central theme of the Torah; the Genesis stories open with Cain asking the existential, haunting, and unanswered question – “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Genesis tells the stories of generations of families that could not learn to keep each other until Yehuda breaks the cycle and risks everything to stand up and be a keeper for his brother Binyamin.

Moshe’s rhetoric in this story is another firm indication that, yes, you are your brother’s keeper, and if you missed that, you haven’t been paying attention. It’s one of the most important interactions you can have; remembering your brother might be one of the simplest rules in life, but it is certainly one of the hardest for us to practice. 

The distorted spirituality and wayward values reflected in the choice to refuse the Promised Land were problematic but somewhat tolerable for Moshe. But disloyalty to their brothers, any loosening of the connection and identity with the greater Jewish People, was a bridge too far.

You might not want to be so observant, or you might not want to sign up for the Israeli army; those might be reasonable personal choices – אַל תָּדוּן אֶת חֲבֵרְךָ עַד שֶׁתַּגִּיעַ לִמְקוֹמוֹ. But you can’t choose to avoid your contribution to the Jewish People’s well-being.

Make no mistake, there is a war out there. Our brothers and sisters are on the front lines battling the forces of assimilation, abuse, apathy, ignorance, illness, intermarriage, and poverty. You probably know your capabilities, and you may or may not have the skills and experience to be a front-line activist, advocate, coordinator, educator, or fundraiser. But honestly consider what you have to offer the Jewish People on any of those fronts, small or large, and remember what one of Moshe’s last teachings asks us.

Shall your brothers go to war while you remain over here?

Never Enough

4 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where is Moshe’s winning argument?

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

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

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

Our sages associate Korach with another famous villain – Haman. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 intangible 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. All people were to be mindful of their purity status at all times, because a 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 practices such as immersion for our bodies or kitchenware as a legacy of these laws.

Traditionally, the job description for any practicing Kohen was to be knowledgeable and fluent in this arcane and specialized body of law, which was essential given their role in Temple service as well as their year-round consumption of sacred foods that only a Kohen could interact with and 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 contemplating our subjective experience of thinking, feeling, and acting in this mode of existence as 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 antithetical to our entire primary experience in this living universe, undermining any real meaning or value to our lives, and exposure to it imparts a status-affecting condition called tuma, which loosely translates to impurity.

Someone out of the state of ritual purity is disqualified from a realm of everyday activities in the land of Israel. Still, for most people, it doesn’t matter most of the time, so most people didn’t have to be mindful of these laws and can 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 certain 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. 

Beyond 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 most sacred ritual duties in the Holy of Holies on the holiest day of the calendar.

While it’s clear that ritual purity plays a central and pervasive role in the Torah’s conception of Jewish life, there is a revealing exception. In a landscape where purity is everything, the Torah 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 hear about a Jewish person who has died and has no one to perform a Jewish burial, there is a rare mitzvah to handle the burial personally, and even a Kohen is obligated. 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 Torah obligates all of us to take responsibility for the unattended dead; the Lubavitcher Rebbe asks us to wonder what it might 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.

However holy or self-righteous, the Torah demands that you get off your high horse, roll up your sleeves, 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. 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 gather materials to light a fire, or does he huddle in his warm jacket, praying intensely 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 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.

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 self-righteous, holier-than-thou folks who self-serve by making us feel that way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prayer Redux

7 minute read
Advanced

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onward

5 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bittersweet Symphony

7 minute read
Straightforward

We’ve spent the best part of a year reading the Torah’s greatest story, about how Yakov’s family grew until they were duped into working on public infrastructure that slowly slipped into full-blown slavery; and about how God remembered His promises to their ancestors, and He sends Moshe to save them. We have followed this journey through all the adventures and detours, through the highs and lows, and we’re approaching the end.

But it doesn’t quite go how we might expect. 

Spoiler alert: Moshe dies. 

Actually, his brother dies too, and so does his sister, and come to think of it, so does every single soul that walked out of Egypt.

We’ve probably read it too many times to notice, but the protagonists do not get a happy ending for all their troubles. It almost feels like the opposite, like they utterly failed. Moshe just can’t get this stubborn bunch over the finish line, and none of them ever get to the Promised Land; they all die in the wilderness. 

Moshe didn’t want the job, arguing that they wouldn’t listen. He was spot on and spent the rest of his days fighting their worst inclinations. But he still only ever wanted to save them! After agreeing to take on the mission, he felt like God was taking too long to save his troubled and weary brethren, and in a quite shocking turn, confronts God and tells Him off – לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה! 

Maybe the people tried their best, and their best simply wasn’t good enough. But even if we could accept that they were traumatized and, perhaps on some level, never truly left Egypt behind them, you need a heart of stone not to think that perhaps Moshe might have deserved a little better after all that – עַבְדִּי מֹשֶׁה בְּכָל בֵּיתִי נֶאֱמָן הוּא.

Right at the end of his life, he asks God to allow him to enter the Land of Israel, quite possibly the only instance of a personal indulgence Moshe ever asks for, and God declines his request.

Of all people, doesn’t Moshe, God’s most faithful shepherd, supremely trusted above all others, deserve a happy ending?

And before you dismiss the question as childish – because, after all, life isn’t a fairy tale – perhaps the question is better phrased as a personal question on the journey our souls are on; how do we reconcile ourselves to the fact that not even the greatest of us gets a happy ending?

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that we need to remind ourselves that perfection is elusive and perpetually out of reach; failure to achieve perfection is not failure, so perhaps we need to reconfigure our expectations. Even if the Jewish People would never shake their demons and were doomed from the start, that’s not a failure; even if Moshe couldn’t finish the job the way he’d have liked, he didn’t fail.

There’s no happy ending, but perhaps the expectation of a happy ending is our own baggage that we bring along and project as the outcome we’d prefer to see. We are making the error of imposing our expectations on the story, and the story confounds our expectations plain as day; that’s just not how it works.

There is a separate physical and spiritual reality, and it’s the world of spirit that matters most, where we find the battlefield of human achievement and sanctification. God did not want Moshe to lead the Jewish People from Egypt to Israel for reasons that are not only ultimately inscrutable; but, perhaps in a certain sense, don’t matter to us at all. God does not ask us to cure cancer and secure world peace; those reach their conclusions in the physical world, and that is not given to us to control. Instead, God asks us to exercise our values and wisdom in the spiritual realm, where we can choose to act as best as we can under the circumstances – a moral victory. 

God’s hand is not directly perceptible to us; it’s only apparent in hindsight as things unfold. It has to be that way, so God can influence the world without compromising the freedom of His creations. God’s intervention does not remove the significance of our choices, but in many ways, it can redeem those choices. Or, to put it in another way, we are only responsible for our choices and not for the outcome of those choices; we are responsible for the means, while the ends are solely in God’s hands. 

And so, by necessity, we need to bifurcate moral victory from physical victory.

Physical victory is fantasy, and we all know it; when you get the job, pass the test, get married, buy the house, have the baby, and win the deal, there is never a glorious moment of victory. Life will go on just the same as yesterday and the day before, and you will still be you – and it’s just as true if those things aren’t going quite the way you’d like! 

Moshe didn’t struggle with this; he didn’t have a savior complex. He did all he humanly could for his people, and no more, and he knew he had not let God or his people down. He did not live with our question about deserving a happier ending; he let go of the outcome he might have wanted – once it wasn’t on the cards, getting there no longer mattered to him. He never thinks for even one moment that he deserves better, even if at certain points he gets overwhelmed. He was not bitter and died entirely at peace, with no qualms or regrets – מיתת נשיקה.

He demonstrated the stoic quality of outcome independence, faith played straight, fully accepting that this is how it has to be right now, and not shying away from it in any way. He was wholly in touch with the now, figuring out how to move forward with no questions about how he got there or why.

That’s not just a story; it’s a fact of life, the human condition, and because Moshe knew it, he could leave this world happy and fulfilled.

Despite the apparent lack of any obvious physical victory, Moshe’s entire life was a living symposium on moral victory. He wanted to save them from suffering in Egypt, and he did. He wanted to give them a future, and he did. He gave all he had for as long as he had breath in him to secure a future for all of us. 

It is not within human capacity to see all ends and decide our fates. Moshe gets to the threshold of the Promised Land, a dream centuries in the making, but never quite gets there; it leaves us no room for pride or self-righteousness, the way many happy endings do, but there is also no trace of failure or regret. 

It’s not a sad ending; it’s bittersweet and true to life as we know it. 

The conclusion of the Torah’s greatest story is much more powerful than a patronizing and simple happy ending. It seems to emphasize that this is what even the greatest human successes and victories can look like, reinforcing a belief that ought to guide us through hard times; that, ultimately, no matter how bad things get, there is no darkness greater than the light, and there is always hope, and the future will shine bright. 

Moshe deserves all honor because he led his people out of the fires of Egypt and spent every last reserve of body and will, which was sufficient to bring them to a destined point and no further. Moshe could not lead their journey to completion the way he set out to, but that’s not what defines his greatness or success, and it does not make his life or story any less complete. It was his choice to give himself entirely to the cause that granted him his victory, his moral victory, and it’s that choice that makes him worthy of the highest honors, with the unique title of Rabbeinu, Our Teacher, whose name we remember for eternity.

As R’ Eytan Feiner sharply notes, who better than Moshe Rabbeinu to demonstrate this lesson? Moshe, the avatar of perfect loyalty and service, did all he could, and although he didn’t get everything he wanted, what he got was enough for him. 

As our Sages remind us, we must ground ourselves. The ends are not given to us, and we don’t always get to finish what we set out to do, but that mustn’t stop us – לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה. Sometimes you’ll get to save the day, and sometimes you’ll only get to pass the baton on to the next generation. Other times, you’ll collapse in sight of the finish line, and your work will remain unfinished; but the outcome does not determine the victory. 

The Torah does not end with the patronizing and sickly sweetness of a great physical victory, with Moshe leading his people to a happily ever after. But if there’s no happily ever after, there is still an ever after. His victory is bittersweet, but it lingers on in us sitting here three thousand years later learning about him and his battles; his moral victory stands forever. 

The Torah doesn’t end how we expect and instead ends with a transition; they’re about to cross the border, and a new generation with new leaders will write new books for the challenges of a new era. Each story is incomplete, theirs and ours. But that does not detract from the achievements of Moshe and the Jewish People, and it does not dishonor the faith and trust our ancestors had in God. 

This bittersweet ending reasserts the theme of moral victories being more important than physical victories by showing us what is within our power and what is not. Whatever the circumstances, and against all forms of adversity, it is within us to be great; to be brave, gentle, hopeful, kind, and strong, like our heroes Avraham, Yitzchak, Yakov, Yosef, Moshe, Ahron, and Miriam. We shouldn’t expect a happily ever after ending because that’s just not how it works.

Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yakov knew it, Moshe, Ahron, and Miriam knew it, and they lived in peace with it. Yet we struggle with it all the time, even though we are the living embodiment of things not going quite the way we’d expect, and even though it screams out of every single page of Jewish history.

So, perhaps rather than ask why the Torah doesn’t give Moshe and the Jewish People the happy ending we expect, we ought to invert the question.

With all we know, why do we still hold on so tightly to our expectations of how things ought to be?

The Steward of Your Future

2 minute read
Straightforward

As the Jewish People approached the borders of Israel, Moshe knew he didn’t have much time left in this world. 

It was important to prime the next generation for what would lie ahead. He retold their entire history, as recorded in the book of Deuteronomy, a Greek word literally meaning the restatement.

One of the first things he talks to them about is one of the last things he did; just before they got to Israel, he designated sanctuary cities where perpetrators of accidental crimes could flee and find refuge from the strict letter of the law. 

Sure, it’s an important law, but why is it a part of his ethics speech at all?

We all have dreams and goals of what we want to achieve and who we want to be. And we procrastinate out of fear of failure or even fear of the reality of our own potential greatness. We doubt we can succeed, and the future seems uncertain. What if we fail? And after all, if we fail, then what’s the point of starting?

This line of thinking handicaps us all the time.

In sharp contrast, Moshe had no doubts about his future – and not for the better. He knew with as much certainty as a human could ever hope to have that he would not set foot into the Land of Israel, and he had gone as far as he could, and his time had come. 

And he still made plans for a future he knew he would not participate in, a future that only others would ever be able to practice and enjoy.

It’s at the beginning of his ethics speech because it’s one of the most important things a human has to know, and Moshe knew it, which is why it’s at the beginning of his last public address, imploring the people to uphold good ethics to build a future that would last. 

We may not have accomplished what we set out to do; we may not have gotten where we thought we ought to be by now. But if there is something available to you to do, just do it. 

Don’t do it to succeed, do it because it’s the right thing to do, and do it even if it’s only a step in the right direction. 

The future is a commons that is best cared for in the present. 

You are a steward of the future whether you like it or not, and whether you participate in it or not; you are carrying the yoke of the future here and now, today. Every single thing you do, every single day, compounds into the future that materializes – for better and for worse.

The future is sensitive. Deferring progress or responsibility compounds building an inactivity debt that requires a lot of future effort to undo before you can progress.

How many people can give their all to a project they won’t benefit from? Taking care of the future without self-interest is hard, but that’s the mindset Moshe showed us thousands of years ago for a future he would not be a part of.

A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.

Dirty Business

4 minute read
Straightforward

“Thou shalt not kill.”

In almost all times and places, most societies consider murder to be an extremely serious crime. Although it’s one of the Ten Commandments, it’s probably one of those things that doesn’t require revelation for us to be aware of it; it’s intuitive and near-universal across almost all ages and civilizations.

In modern political science, we say the state has a monopoly on violence; that the state alone has the right to use or authorize physical force, and individuals do not have the right to commit violence. It is a hallmark of civil society when citizens do not commit wanton acts of violence against each other.

In our tradition, even though Jewish courts and governments historically possessed this power, they were judicious to the extreme in its application; a court that killed more than once in a lifetime was considered bloodthirsty.

And yet, on the other hand, the Torah presents us with the story of Pinchas, heralded as he is for the public assassination of a political leader! His act is jarring for at least two reasons. Firstly, the killing apparently makes him a hero; and secondly, it’s an extrajudicial killing – only the state can commit acts of violence, and Pinchas was a civilian! 

If Pinchas was just a civilian, and the Torah doesn’t advocate violence, how is Pinchas a hero for being a killer?

It’s an important question because the answer is revealing. 

Pinchas is not a hero for being a killer; he’s a hero for something else.

God never endorses the killing; God endorses Pinchas’ passion – הֵשִׁיב אֶת־חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת־קִנְאָתִי בְּתוֹכָם. If that sounds like a distinction without a difference, it’s not; our Tradition does not laud the killing. Our Sages say that although it may have been the right thing to do, we don’t do that – הלכה ואין מורין כן.

The Chomas Esh reminds us that the Torah speaks to individuals, so you cannot justify your own inaction by pointing to others. The Ten Commandments are stated in the second person, to each of us personally – I am Hashem your God; Thou shall not kill. Pinchas did his duty to his God as he understood it, the masses be damned – תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר קִנֵּא לֵאלֹהָיו – that’s why he’s a hero, for his boldness and courage.

It’s worthwhile to note that in the heat of the moment, Pinchas could not know what we know. He wasn’t a prophet, and he could not know that the story would have a happy ending for him. Up to that point, as Rashi notes, Pinchas was a nobody in everyone’s eye; he risked his life to stand up and strike. The vast majority of the camp had fallen prey to the nefarious women of Midian, and while some people held back and could remain on the outskirts of the calamity, Pinchas alone stepped into the fray, stood in the center against them, and challenged their ringleader.

Humans are heavily socialized creatures; we often hold ourselves to the standards of the people around us. One adage suggests that our character and mentality are the average of the five people we spend the most time with! We do what others do and don’t do what others don’t; we don’t like to stand out from our peers, so we excuse our shortcomings by hiding in the crowd. After all, are you any better or worse than the next guy?

While it’s undoubtedly the inflection point in the story, it bears considering what Pinchas thought would happen. He can’t have expected to survive, and he stepped into the fray anyway. 

That’s why he’s a hero, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the killing.

He’s a hero because he marches into the unthinkable against all odds. He doesn’t ask or wait for anyone’s permission. He remembers his identity and where he comes from – פִּינְחָס בֶּן־אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן־אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן.

Through his bold act, he revealed that the bystanders and victims and ourselves had the power and capacity to do more all along. His daring act stands as an example that ought to make people who believe themselves helpless and powerless dig a little deeper. He doesn’t preach or shout at the people caught up in trouble, nor at the people who are too scared to get involved – he just leads by example; acting bravely and decisively in the face of danger, fear, and uncertainty.

That’s what God endorses, and it’s this act of courage that sparks salvation. God could have stopped the plague at any point; God could have foiled the threat posed by the Midianite women wandering into the camp at multiple junctures along the way. But God deliberately doesn’t step in to avert the catastrophe until one of the people bravely risks himself to do what needs to be done – הֵשִׁיב אֶת־חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת־קִנְאָתִי בְּתוֹכָם.

The Midrash imagines a primordial internal discussion before God creates humanity, where Charity and Kindness advocate for God to proceed, as humans will be good and kind to each other. But Peace and Truth object because humans will fight and lie. The dispute is tied in deadlock, and God casts Truth from the sky, so Charity and Kindness carry the day, and God creates humanity.

The Kotzker observes that God had to throw Truth out, not Peace. It wasn’t about giving Charity and Kindness a majority; because Truth can stand alone and doesn’t require consensus or support. The Truth is the truth, and however many people stand against it, truth speaks for itself.

As the example of Pinchas shows, it takes heroic courage and determination to go against the crowd, tremendous conviction, inner strength, and willpower. Unlike Pinchas, we’re probably not going to get a shoutout or magical blessing from God for doing the right thing. But the right thing remains the right thing.

If there’s something to do, don’t wait for someone else to do it; do it now, and don’t think twice. Stop thinking, start doing. Courage isn’t the absence of fear; it’s just doing it anyway.

It’s better to walk alone than in a crowd going in the wrong direction.

When Something is Off

6 minute read
Straightforward

As the Jewish People approached the Land of Israel, bordering nation-states were alarmed. A chieftain of Moav, Balak, had become familiar with the Jewish People’s encounters and victories over the tribes and states who had crossed them and correctly anticipated imminent conflict and geopolitical upheaval in his neck of the woods. 

Seeking divine aid, he sent elders to engage Bilam, a mystic and shaman whose magical abilities the Torah treats as an actual genuine threat – unlike say, Pharaoh’s wizards.

Bilam accepted the job, setting out to curse the Jewish People and bring their unstoppable march to a halt. He saddled his donkey and departed with the dignitaries, but God, the source of his abilities, would not endorse his mission. God arranges many obstructions along the way by sending an angel – an especially intimidating one.

The donkey saw this angel standing in the way holding a flaming sword, so the donkey veered off the road into a field, until Bilam beat the donkey to turn her back onto the road. The angel soon reappeared in a narrow walled lane, and the donkey cowered against the sidewall, crushing Bilam’s leg, so he beat her again. The angel then repositioned itself in a narrow spot that allowed no room for maneuver, and the donkey lay down, so Bilam beat the donkey one last time.

After the third beating, God gave the donkey the power to speak, and she complained to Bilam that she had always been a loyal steed and did not deserve these beatings. God then gives Bilam the ability to see the angel, and Bilam bows to the ground; the angel then berates Bilam for beating the donkey, noting that she saved Bilam’s life. Bilam admits his error and the story proceeds.

While our modern sensibilities suggest that it’s wrong to beat animals, the story seems to assume that some part of animal training plausibly includes negative reinforcement, so that wouldn’t be why the donkey and angel are so angry at Bilam. Instead, the sense we get as readers is that the beating is wrong because  it’s not fair! It’s not disobedient; it’s scared of the scary thing – the donkey is innocent.

Yet Bilam is missing the crucial piece of information that unlocks the story – that there is an invisible threat ahead, and only his donkey is aware of the imminent danger! Without this missing piece, it would seem exactly how Bilam thought it seemed to him; his donkey was misbehaving and not following directions, so he did what animal trainers do – he hit the donkey, consistent with what he understood was happening. His trained animal was behaving erratically for no apparent reason, wandering off and walking into walls.

Bilam hitting the animal was a rational conclusion to draw if he didn’t have the key to understanding what was really going on, undermining his wrongdoing. What was so wrong about his actions that both the angel and talking donkey told him off?

The Kedushas Levi suggests that this exact line of thinking was Bilam’s mistake, and it’s something we do all the time.

If you’ve ever noticed that something is a little off, you typically feel a sense of unease, as the sense of wrongness slowly but undeniably creeps up on you. Bilam should have noticed that something strange was happening and taken a moment’s pause to contemplate, but he missed the cue; something incredibly unusual happened, not once, not twice, but three times, and he totally missed it.

Instead of noticing and contemplating, he got angry and beat his donkey, powering right on with his plan, blaming rather than understanding. That’s not the way a purported man of God ought to behave.

A person professing to live their lives according to their understanding of God’s mission and the right thing to do ought to keep their eyes wide open. But Bilam couldn’t see past his ego; he sought the fortune and power this prestigious mission would bring, and nothing was going to put him off course.

There’s a classic joke about a flood, and the waters reach the top of the priest’s home. The priest climbs to the roof, and a neighbor with a boat comes by and says, “Hop on, I’ll take you to safety.” The priest replied, “No, no, the Lord will save me.” Then the water reaches his waist when a helicopter comes by and drops a ladder. The priest shouts up, “No, no, the Lord will save me.” Finally, the water goes over his head, and he paddles to the surface. A disaster relief boat comes by and offers to bring the priest to safety. Once again, he declined, “No, no, the Lord will save me.” The priest paddles until he is exhausted, and he drowns and dies. He reaches the gates of Heaven, puzzled, and asks God, “Lord, why didn’t you save me?” only for God to smile, “My guy, I sent you two boats and a helicopter!”

The signal isn’t only when God opens Bilam’s eyes to see the angel. As the Shelah notes, the donkey’s initial misbehavior was already an interaction with the divine; the flaming angel and magic sword don’t reveal any additional information. By that point, he’d already missed it three times and had only been spared from disaster at the very last moment in a stroke of fortune, mercy, and providence.

Even if he could excuse the first time the donkey misbehaved as a one-off, the second and third time in quick succession were moments he ought to have realized something was off, and he might have reconsidered whether he was doing the right thing. But instead of acknowledging the obstacles in his way with humility and understanding and adjusting accordingly, he responded with anger, ego, and pride, lashing out in rage at his poor donkey.

The nature of our universe is that life doesn’t go according to plan; no plan survives contact with the enemy, as one proverb put it. So when we hit speed bumps and obstacles, we ought to be strategic in responding; some obstacles need to be climbed, and some obstacles require a full detour and rerouting.

To be clear, an obstacle doesn’t mean you stop. An obstacle means you are required to recalibrate around, over, or through.

They are signs, and we should respond to them with the serious consideration they deserve and consider which way they point, where we are in the physical and spiritual universe, where we are going, and how we’d best get there.

R’ Elchanan Wasserman powerfully suggests that knowing what God wants, even without explicit instruction, is sufficient information to impose a duty to act on that knowledge. Bilam was punished for following Balak’s entourage because he could already recognize from the outset that God did not want him to curse the Jewish people, regardless of any formal instruction.

Bilam’s mistake wasn’t that he hit the donkey; that is somewhat excusable. Bilam’s mistake was that he had all the tools necessary to recognize the obstacles that pointed him away from his ill-fated mission. Instead, he ignored the cues, responding with anger and ego three times, without one moment of introspection and self-reflection. If the unusual and extraordinary make no impression and fail to spark a moment of reflection and reorientation, we are ignoring the signs; you probably shouldn’t count on a flaming angel wielding a magic sword showing up with the helpful feedback you need.

But to put it another way, if it takes a flaming angel with a magic sword to let you know you’re on the wrong track, you haven’t been paying attention, and you probably should have realized it quite some time ago already. 

R’ Yitzchok Berkovits suggests that this story highlights Bilam’s central flaw – his character. Bilam had abilities equal to or greater than even Moshe, but he wasn’t a teacher or leader. With all the unique knowledge and power he possessed, he was just a wizard for hire, a simple mercenary in the venal pursuit of money, power, and prestige.

Our Sages suggest that Bilam had the ability to identify the most opportune moment to curse people. So while God neutralized this specific scheme against the Jewish People, we are left with a story about who Bilam was, a man who, with all his abilities and wisdom, used them to carve a profession out of knowing when to curse people most effectively – assuming the pay was good enough, of course.

The Mishna in Avos contrasts upright students from the school of Avraham with students from the crooked school of Bilam. It’s not that the school of Bilam isn’t learned or wise; Bilam is never characterized as ignorant or stupid! But perhaps the Mishna suggests that our wisdom is reflective of our character. We don’t see the world as it is, but rather as we are.

If we focus our gifts and wisdom on pursuing fame, money, and power, we channel the evil eye of Bilam. But if we utilize our gifts to show compassion and generosity, kindly and selflessly giving to and serving others, then we are students from the school of Avraham, who prayed for Sodom, even though its people were the antithesis of all he stood for.

The story of Bilam stands as an example for all time of the folly of skill without character, of being plugged in but not tuned in. We need to understand who we are and where we are, striving to become caring, good, kind, and honest human beings; or else our gifts are useless, or worse, dangerous.

Next time you encounter obstacles, check your ego and open your eyes.

You might need to course-correct, and you might not; but if you’re attentive and responsive to your particular path, you probably already know if you’re on the right track or not.

Thirst

4 minute read
Straightforward

Miriam was Moshe and Ahron’s older sister and a great leader and prophetess of her own right. Michah describes her alongside Moshe and Ahron as delivering the Jews from exile in Egypt, and the Midrash says that Moshe led the men out of Egypt, but Miriam led the women.

When she died, the water stopped:

וַיָּבֹאוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל כָּל-הָעֵדָה מִדְבַּר-צִן, בַּחֹדֶשׁ הָרִאשׁוֹן, וַיֵּשֶׁב הָעָם, בְּקָדֵשׁ; וַתָּמָת שָׁם מִרְיָם, וַתִּקָּבֵר שָׁם. וְלֹא-הָיָה מַיִם, לָעֵדָה; וַיִּקָּהֲלוּ, עַל-מֹשֶׁה וְעַל-אַהֲרֹן – The Jewish People arrived at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there. There was no water, and they gathered against Moshe and Ahron. (20:1,2)

Rashi cites a Gemara that notes the juxtaposition of Miriam’s death with the lack of water, suggesting the association of Miriam’s merit with water in the desert. So when she died, the water stopped.

You might wonder what the association of Miriam is with water in particular; the Gemara doesn’t say why. But we might also be troubled by taking the association at face value; one of God’s favorite people dies, so everyone has to go thirsty! If it was just a logistics problem, God could have told Moshe to speak to the rock to get the water going again; but that’s not what happened! The water dried up, then the people went thirsty and got scared, and only then did God instruct Moshe how to produce water; which suggests that going thirsty is an essential element in this story.

Why did they have to go thirsty? What did they do wrong?

It’s silly to conclude that God was lashing out at the people because Miriam died. But perhaps it was a response to something else, or rather, something that was notable in its absence.

The Torah simply records that she died, and the narrative proceeds, like nothing happened – and that’s the problem – וַתָּמָת שָׁם מִרְיָם, וַתִּקָּבֵר שָׁם. וְלֹא-הָיָה מַיִם, לָעֵדָה.

Compare the response to her death to the response to her brother’s deaths:

וַיִּרְאוּ, כָּל-הָעֵדָה, כִּי גָוַע, אַהֲרֹן; וַיִּבְכּוּ אֶת-אַהֲרֹן שְׁלֹשִׁים יוֹם, כֹּל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל- The whole community knew that Ahron had breathed his last. The entire house of Israel wept over Ahron for thirty days. (20:29)

וַיִּבְכּוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת־מֹשֶׁה בְּעַרְבֹת מוֹאָב שְׁלֹשִׁים יוֹם וַיִּתְּמוּ יְמֵי בְכִי אֵבֶל מֹשֶׁה – And the Jewish People wept over Moshe in the plains of Moab for thirty days, and the mourning period for Moshe came to an end. (34:8)

Sure, Moshe and Ahron were the two most prominent leaders; but Miriam was no slouch! She was indisputably one of the most significant people in the entire story, and the Torah doesn’t record that anyone cried or mourned! 

They did not cry to pay their respects to this legendary heroine, so they would cry about something else. If they just had a new water source with no interruption, it would have endorsed the fact that they hadn’t appreciated her contributions and had failed to honor her correctly; so God stopped providing water so that they’d make the connection between Miriam’s contributions and their survival. The water didn’t stop so that we would make the association between water and Miriam’s merit; it stopped so that they would make the association. 

Water is a biological necessity and prerequisite for life due to its extensive and unequaled capability to dissolve molecules, helping cells transport and utilize substances like oxygen and nutrients. It is designated as the “universal solvent,” and it is this ability that makes water such an invaluable life-sustaining force. On a simple biological level, water is life.

One of water’s most defining features is that its fluid properties allow it to adapt perfectly to its surroundings; water always assumes the form of its container.

Nothing is softer or more flexible than water, yet nothing can resist it.

Legend tells of R’ Akiva noticing a steady trickle of water hitting a rock. It was only a droplet at a time, but it would not let up – drip after drip, but he realized that the water had carved a hole through the rock, pierced only by drops of water. 

Miriam was born during one of the darkest chapters of Jewish history in Egypt. She was named Miriam, associated with the word מרה, bitter, for the bitterness of the Jewish condition.

When she was just a young girl, Pharaoh decreed that all male babies be thrown into the river. Husbands and wives separated to avoid having children who would not survive the edict, but Miriam boldly encouraged her parents to have faith and stay together. As a direct result, her brother, Moshe, the redeemer and lawgiver, was born. She then showed her own hope and faith at troubled waters, watching over the baby Moshe in the river, determined to watch over her brother in the darkest moment when their mother abandoned him at the river rather than face the pain of watching him be discovered and murdered – מר ים. She then became the famous midwife Puah, who soothed the infants when they were born; and led the women through the waters of the Red Sea to the other side, watching their tormentors drown in the waves – רם ים.

Like water, Miriam adapted to oppression, remaining steadfast in faith and hope, staunchly encouraging the people around her, guiding them through their dire straits, and then leading them on to better times.

Miriam led the women in song, separate from the men who responded to Moshe and Ahron, in a display of private class and dignity. R’ Shlomo Farhi suggests that perhaps in some similar way, the Jewish People thought it would only be fit to mourn in private.

In our esoteric tradition, a core property of the archetypal feminine energy is to cultivate what is present – אתערותא דלתתא / מים נוקבין / נקבה. As the Piaseczna notes, it follows that the well, a self-generated, self-contained source of water, corresponded to Miriam, a woman who embodied the power of human initiative, with her internally-generated drive to act and inspire; when she died, the well died with her. And it follows that the Torah does not write that she died by Divine Kiss, even though our Sages teach that she did, because her approach was human-centric – אינו מצווה ועושה, rather than על פי ה.

The people realized in hindsight that the miraculous water God had provided them in impossible circumstances had been in Miriam’s merit; but perhaps it shouldn’t have been so surprising that Miriam was tightly associated with their water. When they were thirsting for hope and solace, she’d always been there to nourish them.

They should have mourned loudly and publicly for Miriam – she had been openly sustaining her people with life-sustaining energy and vitality all along.

Face the Facts

3 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But instead, they ran from destiny.

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

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

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

Only they weren’t children.

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

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

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

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

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

How to Eat an Elephant

6 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Refusing the Call

5 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

How could Moshe possibly refuse the call?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why shouldn’t it be you?

Count Me In

4 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Torah counts everyone. Because everyone counts.

Keep Chopping

4 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flags and Formations

< 1 minute
Straightforward

Wherever the Jewish People camped and traveled in the wilderness, the tribes were always positioned in a particular formation, which the Torah goes into lengthy detail about several times.

But we’re one people! Why are there tribes, and why was there any kind of formation; and more importantly, what are we supposed to make of the specific logistics millennia after the fact?

R’ Norman Lamm notes that we read about the formations before Shavuos when we celebrate receiving the Torah. We might think that we’re doing pretty great – we’re in the camp of Torah after all!

The Torah gently reminds us that that’s never been enough. The twelve tribes all had different characteristics, and each contributed in its own particular way. For example, Yehuda, the largest and strongest, tapped for leadership and monarchy, was the first in the formation and the first into battle.

We all have particular skills and functions useful at a particular time and place. It’s not enough to be Torah-oriented in general – what is your individual place and purpose in particular? What do you stand for?

We need only remind ourselves of Bilam, a man whose belief in God’s existence was as genuine and absolute as it gets and yet, remained an awful human.

Believing is step one only. The formations matter because we need a reminder that we can’t hide in the crowd.

It’s what we do that matters.

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.

Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost

3 minute read
Straightforward

There are parts of the Torah that we all love, with fond memories of the wonder of learning them for the first time, like the Creation story, Avraham’s first encounters with God, the Ten Plagues, and Sinai. Hopefully, it’s not sacrilegious to observe that some parts are a little less riveting, like the Mishkan’s design-build, the laws of sacrifices, and the 42 locations in the wilderness the Jewish People visited on their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land:

אֵלֶּה מַסְעֵי בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר יָצְאוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לְצִבְאֹתָם בְּיַד־מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן – These were the journies of the Jewish People who departed in their configurations from the land of Egypt, under the charge of Moshe and Ahron… (33:1)

It’s worth asking what the point of this is. The Torah is not a history journal; it exists to teach all people for all time. Here we are, 3000 years later, tediously reading about rest stops.

Why does it matter at all?

In a sense, it’s the wrong question to ask, and it betrays the kind of thinking we are all guilty of.

We have this expectation and perception of linear progress, consciously or not, that our lives should be a straight road, leading directly and smoothly to our destination. What’s more, we are relentlessly focussed on the outcome, where we are going. And then we get frustrated and feel sabotaged when invariably, it doesn’t pan out that way!

But this is a stiff and unrealistic view of not only progress but life itself. Progress is incremental and organic, not linear or mechanical.

If you’ve ever driven long-distance, there are a few things you just know. You can’t go straight as the crow flies, so you know you’re going to have to follow the signs that guide your way carefully to get to the right place. You know you will probably miss an exit when you’re not paying attention, and it’ll cost you 15 minutes rerouting until you are back on track. You know you will need to stop for gas and bathroom breaks. You know there will be long stretches of open road where you can cruise, and there will be times you will get stuck in traffic. You know you will have to get off the highway at some point and take some small unmarked local streets. We know this.

We trivialize the journey, and we really mustn’t. Sure, there are huge one-off watershed moments in our lives; but the moments in between matter as well – they’re not just filler! While they might not be our final glorious destination, the small wins count and stack up.

The Sfas Emes notes how the Torah highlights each step we took to put Egypt behind us – מַסְעֵי בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר יָצְאוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם. We might not get where we’re going so quickly – but if Egypt is behind us, then that means we must still be moving forwards. As we get further away from our point of origin, we should keep it in the rearview mirror to orient us as a reference point to remind us that we’re headed in the right direction. However long it takes to get where we’re going, and however bumpy and curved the road is, it’s important to remember why we got started in the first place.

The 42 stops along the way were not the optimal way to get from Egypt to Israel. It doesn’t take 40 years to travel from Egypt to Israel. But it happened that way, and the Torah tells us this for 3000 years and posterity because that’s the way life is, and we can disavow ourselves of the notion that progress or life should somehow be linear. The process is not a necessary evil – it is the fundamental prerequisite to getting anywhere, even if it’s not where we expected, and it’s worth paying attention to.

We put Egypt behind us one step at a time. We get to the Promised Land one step at a time. Any step away from Egypt is a substantial achievement – even if it’s not a step in the physical direction of the Promised Land, it truly is a step towards the Promised Land.

It’s about the journey, not the destination.

The journey is anything but direct, and there are lots of meandering stops along the way. It might seem boring and unnecessary – I left Egypt, and I’m going to Israel! But that’s the kind of thinking we have to short circuit. It’s not a distraction – it’s our life.

Life isn’t what happens when you get there; life is every step along the way.

The Covenant of Kings

3 minute read
Straightforward

One of the most basic and essential rules of interpretation is understanding that the Torah is written in language humans can read and understand – דיברה תורה כלשון בני אדם.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that the Torah writes within the boundaries of human understanding, not objective truths known only to God.

The Rambam utilizes this theme prominently, famously suggesting that the Torah co-opted animal sacrifices only because they were culturally familiar methods of worship in the Ancient Near East. The Ralbag similarly recognized the value of understanding the ancient world of the Torah to give us enhanced context and understanding of the Torah’s teachings.

Apart from animal sacrifices, another ancient practice that would be culturally familiar was the notion of the covenant.

In the Ancient Near East, kings would formalize their diplomatic relations with treaties or covenants. These treaties were drafted between equals and sometimes between a superior and a subordinate state or suzerain and vassal. The structure of the Torah’s covenants has striking parallels to the suzerain-vassal treaties. If we unpack the layers of the system, we can unlock a deeper appreciation for it.

The main elements of suzerain-vassal treaties are identifying the treaty-maker, the superior; a historical introduction, such as prior beneficial acts the superior has done for the subordinate; the stipulations, typically the demand for loyalty; a list of divine witnesses; and blessings and curses. The treaty was proclaimed in public along with a ceremonial meal and stored at a holy site. A periodic public reading would remind the subordinate citizens of their duties.

The similarity between the Torah’s use of covenants and other treaties extant in the Ancient Near East isn’t merely interesting trivia – it’s political dynamite.

For most of ancient history, the head of state was also the leader of the cult – god-kings and priest-kings were standard. The king or the priestly class had a monopoly on the rituals of religion, and the common serfs were passive observers living vicariously through these holy men.

In sharp contrast with that background, the Torah’s rendition of a covenant is striking not in its similarity but also its difference.

God does not seek a covenant with Moshe, the head of state, nor Ahron, the Kohen Gadol. God does not even desire a covenant with the Jewish People; the party God treats with is no less than every single individual, which is explosive because it’s shocking enough that a God would care about humans in general, let alone each of us in particular. And by making a covenant with us, God goes even further and asks us to be His partners.

A covenant between God and individuals doesn’t just illustrate the dignity of every individual; it also bestows a second facet to our identity. By elevating common people into vassal-kings, we are all royalty – מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ / כָל-הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים. This also echoes a broader ideological theme that idealized a community of educated and empowered citizens – וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ / וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ.

R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that we take self-identity for granted today, but historically, self-identity was subsumed into community and culture. In a world where the individual self barely existed and mattered very little, it’s radical to say that God cares for us individually because it’s not apparent at all – בשבילי נברא העולם. This tension between God as distant yet close is captured in our blessings, where we call Hashem “You” in the second person, indicating familiar closeness, and then “Hashem,” with titles in the third person, indicating distance.

Striking a covenant with individuals democratizes access to God and spirituality, creating a direct line for everybody. Parenthetically, this echoes the Torah’s conception of creating humans in God’s image – everyone is, not just a few “special” people.

We are all royalty in God’s eyes, and we are all God’s partners.

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.

After low moments, like the Golden Calf and the debacle of the spies, the Torah reminds us of our value, of a future of glory, promise, and redemption, because rock bottom is only a snapshot in time, and not the final word.

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.

Humility Redux

2 minute read
Straightforward

We take for granted that humility is an admirable virtue, but it’s worth taking a moment to consider what humility is and also what it is not.

Humility is commonly understood to mean a low estimate of oneself and one’s accomplishments. The Oxford English Dictionary defines humility as “the quality of being humble: having a low estimate of one’s importance, worthiness, or merits.”

But this doesn’t ring true with what Judaism teaches us about the value of humility.

The Midrash famously teaches that Mount Sinai was only a little mountain to show how instrumental humility is.

But suppose the educational purpose of giving the Torah in such a place is to illustrate the value of humility. In that case, you’d assume a valley would be a more appropriate geological feature to teach the lesson!

So why give the Torah on a mountain at all?

The Shem Mi’Shmuel states that to accept the Torah and live its ideals, you must be like a mountain, not a valley; or as Pirkei Avos puts it, if I don’t stand up for myself, what am I?

As important as the quality of humility is, people who accept the Torah upon themselves must consider themselves important and deserving of the Torah.

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that humility is an appreciation of our talents, skills, and virtues. It is not meekness or self-deprecating thought but the dedication of oneself to something higher.

R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that the Torah labels Moshe as the most humble of all men. If humility is simply a low view of oneself, then Moshe, the Lawgiver and single most significant authority on the Torah, would meekly cave to any challenge – which he obviously couldn’t and didn’t. But if humility is about being of service, then Moshe truly was the most humble of all men – Moshe singularly dedicated his entire life to public service. His achievements were never about him or his status; they were all in furtherance of rescuing and building the Jewish people.

It was no lack of humility for Moshe to acknowledge his authority and leadership. When a person believes they are nothing, the Torah itself will ultimately have little effect in elevating him. Although pride is a dangerous vice in large quantities, a small amount is still essential to living a good life.

Pride is about competing – that you are more intelligent than or richer than others; humility is about serving. Humility isn’t the opposite of narcissism and hubris; it’s the lack of them. In the absence of pride, you find humility, which sees no need for competition.

So perhaps humility is not that you are nothing; it’s just that it’s not about you anymore. In humility, you are no more and no less than other people. Humility is not about hiding away, becoming a wallflower or a doormat; it is about the realization that your abilities and actions are uncorrelated to others.

Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.

Language Redux

4 minute read
Straightforward

Humans are the apex predator on Earth.

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

It’s because we speak – מְדַבֵּר.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our sages praise people whose words God concurs with, one of which is the language of repentance. Words have the power to activate a force that predates Creation; Moshe intercedes on behalf of the Jewish People for the calamitous Golden Calf, and God forgives them specifically because Moshe asked – וַיֹּאמֶר הסָלַחְתִּי כִּדְבָרֶךָ.

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

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

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

They’re the only thing that ever has.

Building the Future

3 minute read
Straightforward

The Jewish People left Egypt and slowly made their way to the Promised Land. But the Promised Land had been settled already, and the Jewish People had to do some planning, so they sent scouts.

When the scouts got back from Canaan, they delivered a bleak report about the battles that lay ahead, and the Jewish People were devastated. They rued the day they ever left Egypt, that the arduous journey had been a colossal waste. If they were just going to die attempting to take the land, the thinking went, they’d be better off going back to Egypt with a new leader who was a little more realistic.

The aftermath of their poor response was that this lost generation would aimlessly wander the wilderness for nearly 40 years. Once these adults had all died, their children would have another go at conquering and establishing a new nation in the Land of Israel.

But something doesn’t quite add up.

The wrongdoers in the story are the scouts, who conspire to paint the Land of Israel as an impossible goal when it’s not. But while that’s the catalyst for the story going off the rails, the Torah is explicit that God’s punishment is not directed at the scouts but towards their audience:

בַּמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה יִפְּלוּ פִגְרֵיכֶם וְכָל-פְּקֻדֵיכֶם, לְכָל-מִסְפַּרְכֶם, מִבֶּן עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה, וָמָעְלָה:  אֲשֶׁר הֲלִינֹתֶם, עָלָי – “In this wilderness shall your corpses drop, all of you who were recorded in the lists from the age of twenty years up, you who have complained towards Me.” (14:29)

 

The people believed the scout report, coming as they did from established and trusted leaders, that the task ahead was impossible. The scouts ought to have known better, but how should the people have reacted to their leaders saying they were doomed? Bad news is bad! When people hear bad news from reputable sources, it is quite normal – expected, even – to react negatively. That’s why it’s called bad news!

Even if we say they overreacted and took it too far, how does the punishment fit the crime?

There have been many empires, nations, and states. Many had come before this story, and many have come since.

But the Jewish People are not just another member of that category; the Jewish People are in a class by themselves and unique in at least one respect.

The Jewish People in the Land of Israel, observing the Torah and living in the Divine Presence, are fundamentally and qualitatively different, with goals and values unlike any other. It is the culmination of a centuries-old hope and vision, with many careful and deliberate stops along the way. From Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, through Canaan, Egypt, and Sinai, the Torah call us to build something that no one had seen or done before.

Yet even after witnessing the events of Egypt, the Red Sea, Sinai, the clouds, the manna, and the water, cared for daily as much as anyone can be by the hand of God Himself; in the face of even the slightest adversity, their worst inclinations get the best of them, revealing that these people never really left Egypt at all. Here they are on the threshold of greatness, and they only want to turn around and go right back!

God is so let down to the extent that God considers killing them all, even the children, illustrating the severity of this misstep. Not believing in their great mission was a failure they could not recover from, and the result was a catastrophe.

Building a new model for a Torah society cannot happen by itself, or it would! Then and now, it requires pioneers with hope and vision.

If that’s the attitude and perspective it takes to achieve the goal of establishing the Jewish People in the Land of Israel, how could these people ever hope to succeed?

They weren’t ready, but maybe their children could be.

To accomplish something that no one has ever done before takes a certain character, perspective, and resiliency; anyone who’s ever taken on something bold and ambitious knows it. If it were easy, someone else would have done it – but just because no one else has done it yet, that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

A great vision can never come to fruition with half-hearted execution; you need to believe before you can achieve.

Who can do it? The people who want it badly enough.

When History Repeats Itself

2 minute read
Straightforward

One of the most tragic incidents in the Torah is when the Jewish people complain one too many times for Moshe:

וְלֹא-הָיָה מַיִם, לָעֵדָה; וַיִּקָּהֲלוּ, עַל-מֹשֶׁה וְעַל-אַהֲרֹן – There was no water for the people, and they assembled against Moshe and Ahron. (20:2)

In his anger and frustration, he berates the Jewish people and hits a rock he was supposed to speak to:

וַיַּקְהִלוּ מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן, אֶת-הַקָּהָל–אֶל-פְּנֵי הַסָּלַע; וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם, שִׁמְעוּ-נָא הַמֹּרִים–הֲמִן-הַסֶּלַע הַזֶּה, נוֹצִיא לָכֶם מָיִם – Moshe and Ahron gathered the people together before the rock, and Moshe said to them: “Listen you rebels! Shall we bring you water from this rock?’ (20:10)

In the aftermath, he is denied the ability to complete his life’s purpose of saving and resettling the Jewish people.

The Jewish People had complained many times during their existence in the desert, subsisting on miracle clouds, miracle food, and miracle water. Each time, they were made to suffer tremendously through one plague and another. Whatever they’d experienced, they just wanted to get back to normal, to Moshe’s irritation.

Why was this time so different that Moshe could not see his purpose through to the end?

It’s possible that it had something to do with Moshe hitting the rock he was supposed to speak to, but that doesn’t seem so egregious that he couldn’t enter the Land of Israel.

R’ Shai Held contends that it is possible that when Moshe saw the people gathering and complaining, he assumed that history was repeating itself and called them rebels. But perhaps there was actual merit to what they were complaining about this time.

The Jewish People were traveling through the desert, and the water had run out. They were thirsty. What were they supposed to do?

Moshe wrote them off and thought this was just like all the other times. But what’s interesting is that while Moshe grew furious, Hashem did not:

קַח אֶת-הַמַּטֶּה, וְהַקְהֵל אֶת-הָעֵדָה אַתָּה וְאַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ, וְדִבַּרְתֶּם אֶל-הַסֶּלַע לְעֵינֵיהֶם, וְנָתַן מֵימָיו; וְהוֹצֵאתָ לָהֶם מַיִם מִן-הַסֶּלַע, וְהִשְׁקִיתָ אֶת-הָעֵדָה וְאֶת-בְּעִירָם – “Take the rod, and assemble the people, you and Ahron your brother, and speak to the rock before their eyes, that it will produce water. Bring water out of the rock so you can give the people and their cattle their drink.” (20:8)

Being thirsty in the desert is eminently reasonable. It is arguable that Moshe was so disillusioned and frustrated with the people he had led so many years that he couldn’t hear them properly anymore.

If that’s a fair reading of the story, then the story does not teach us that hitting the rock was such a terrible thing to do; it shows us that when a leader stops believing in his people, what mandate does he have to lead them a moment longer?

There are leadership moments in our lives every day. We must nurture those moments by tuning in with sensitivity to the people looking to us for guidance.

Salty

< 1 minute
Straightforward

After Korach’s failed coup, Hashem reiterated the prominence that Ahron and his descendants would have. They would always be at the service of the Jewish people, guiding religious practice:

כל תרומת הקדשים אשר ירימו בני־ישראל ה נתתי לך ולבניך ולבנתיך אתך לחק־עולם ברית מלח עולם הוא לפני ה לך ולזרעך אתך – All the gifts that the Jewish people set aside for Hashem, I give to you, to your sons and daughters, as a due for all time. It shall be an eternal covenant of salt before Hashem and for you and your descendants as well. (18:19)

The covenant of salt is an expression of trust and friendship. Calling the covenant after salt calls to mind how the covenant is eternal.

But if it’s eternal, what does salt add to the expression?

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi explains that the comparison is literal as well.

The property of salt is not just that it never spoils, but that it enhances and draws out the properties of what it interacts with.

Ahron was the paragon of public service. What he did for others was he brought people together, and brought out what was best in them. Life in service of others is what made him so special.

The comparison to salt evokes a contrast to Korach, who was only in it for himself, not for others.

The mark of greatness is being there for others even when it’s a thankless task.

Failure is not Fatal

3 minute read
Straightforward

Dissatisfied with his middle management role in the tribe of Levi, Korach attempted a coup.

The story unfolds and wraps up with an epilogue that the remaining leaders conducted a public disputation by planting their walking sticks into the ground. Nothing happened to theirs; but Ahron’s instantly blossomed with almonds and flowers, showing Ahron’s divine election, that God supported Moshe and Ahron’s leadership and not Korach’s insurrection.

The Torah concludes the story by telling us how Ahron’s staff became a sacred relic stored in the Mishkan, a powerful symbol of what took place. It’s blindingly obvious why the legacy of Ahron’s miraculous staff is recorded. It was a long-dead walking stick, and yet it touched the ground and burst into life; it was an object of the highest cultural, historical, and religious significance, giving closure and finality to the story.

But the Torah also has words to say about the vanquished individuals, that they stepped forward to collect their inert walking sticks and went home.

Why does the Torah bother to tell us for posterity that each person took their walking sticks back?

R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that in the same way that Ahron’s staff was a symbol of victory, these walking sticks were a symbol of defeat – but they took them home just the same. These ordinary and inert walking sticks, with no magical properties, symbolized that these men had reached for greatness but failed. In telling us that each man stepped forward to reclaim his staff, the Torah is telling us that they took ownership of their failed attempt, and in doing so, there is a future after failure.

Their defeat was a reality check, but by owning their failure, they could once again resume their place in the hierarchy they had attempted to overthrow. The man who learns from failure has not truly failed.

It’s part of a broader theme in the Torah; failure features prominently throughout, from the very first stories of humans in the Garden of Eden, through the very last stories of Moshe not able to finish his great mission of settling the Land of Israel.

The Torah doesn’t shy away from human failure; it leans into it, and perhaps we should reappraise failure in that light.

As Kierkegaard said, life must be lived forwards but can only be understood backward. But because of that, no matter how you look at it, our experiences always have a two-fold significance.

First, there is the initial experience of something; the excitement of meeting someone new, the strangeness of an unfamiliar event, or the pain that follows failure.

But then afterward, there’s the meaning that those experiences take on as we reshape and retell them into the story of our lives as they continue to unfold, which has the power to change how we perceive them. Most honest, successful people tell the story of how their failures became stepping stones to more meaningful victories down the road, giving the story of their failure a triumphant ending after all.

You can’t learn if you don’t try, you can’t try if you are afraid to fail, and you can’t be good at something if you have not failed multiple times. Learning to manage failure is one of the most important skills you can and must cultivate. If you are someone who never fails, you probably aren’t trying enough.

The final word in the story isn’t the magical staff; the final word affirms for posterity that these men could recover from failure, that there was a life and future beyond their mistakes.

A person who never makes a mistake has never tried anything. Mistakes can often be a better teacher than success; success only confirms the lessons you expect. But failure teaches you unexpected lessons in ways you can’t foresee.

Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it’s the courage to continue that counts.

Acting

2 minute read
Straightforward

When the spies returned from Canaan and delivered their gloomy report, the people were distraught. These people who had seen so much lost faith and bitterly complained, wishing to go back to Egypt.

Disappointed, God condemned them to wander for 40 years and die in the wilderness. While they did not deserve the privilege of the Land of Israel, perhaps their children would.

But when some of the people heard their fate, they refused to accept it at first and attempted to cross the border themselves:

וַיַּשְׁכִּמוּ בַבֹּקֶר וַיַּעֲלוּ אֶל־רֹאשׁ־הָהָר לֵאמֹר הִנֶּנּוּ וְעָלִינוּ אֶל־הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר־אָמַר ה’ כִּי חָטָאנוּ – They rose early the next morning, and set out toward the crest of the mountain, saying, “We are prepared to go to the place that Hashem has spoken of, for we were wrong.” (14:40)

This excursion was a catastrophic failure, and this group quickly succumbed to the local population

R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that the language used to describe this doomed show of faith has echoes that are reminiscent of the story of Avraham’s ultimate act of faith. He rose early; they rose early – וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אַבְרָהָם בַּבֹּקֶר / וַיַּשְׁכִּמוּ בַבֹּקֶ. He went to the place; they went to the place – וַיֵּלֶךְ אֶל־הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר־אָמַר־לוֹ הָאֱלֹהִים / וְעָלִינוּ אֶל־הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר־אָמַר ה’. He reported for duty, with a simple “Here I stand,” and they did the same – הִנֵּנִי / הִנֶּנּוּ.

Yet Avraham is canonized in our pantheon of heroes for eternity, and these failed adventurers died in disgrace, even though the Torah suggests that they reenacted Avraham’s path to the letter!

Why did doing what worked for Avraham’s legendary feat not work for these people?

R’ Shlomo Farhi suggests that quite simply, Avraham’s faith was authentic and genuine, and this was not. Avraham’s great act of faith was corrupted here into only a show of faith.

Avraham had faith long before he knew where he was going, and Avraham set out entirely open to where God and the universe would bring him, and could truthfully say he stood ready to serve – הִנֵּנִי.

But when this foolhardy group attempted to preempt history, the comparison they wanted to evoke was false and hollow. Unlike Avraham, they had an agenda entirely closed to what God would send their way; God had made clear this was not the way, and Israel had been closed to them. So they could imitate Avraham’s actions and parrot the words, but it’s not where they truly stood, and they weren’t ready to serve – they weren’t listening at all.

To understand how and where to move forward, you need to introspect with intellectual honesty.

Before trying to get where you’re going, make sure you first determine where you actually are.

Achdus; What Is Unity?

< 1 minute
Straightforward

At the inauguration of the Mishkan, the princes of each tribe offered a sacrifice. The Torah records what each prince offered separately, despite being completely identical, and they delivered the twelve sets of gifts on six wagons:

וַיָּבִיאוּ אֶת קָרְבָּנָם לִפְנֵי ה שֵׁשׁ עֶגְלֹת צָב וּשְׁנֵי עָשָׂר בָּקָר עֲגָלָה עַל שְׁנֵי הַנְּשִׂאִים וְשׁוֹר לְאֶחָד וַיַּקְרִיבוּ אוֹתָם לִפְנֵי הַמִּשְׁכָּן – They brought their gifts before the Lord: six covered wagons and twelve oxen, a wagon for each two chieftains, and an ox for each one; they presented them in front of the Mishkan. (7:3)

The Sforno understands that the six wagons were a perfect act of unity. This illustrates that each prince’s gift, while the same as the others in substance, retained a sense of individuality.

Unity cannot require an individual to be subsumed into a homogenous, uniform entity; this would entirely compromise the individual.

It cannot be that the way to accept another person is when they are just like you.

However, this begs the question; for the ultimate display of unity, why not merge all the gifts into one wagon?

R’ Shlomo Farhi suggests that something done as a display is only a display! Unity is not an ideological principle; it is practical, grassroots, and organic. One individual has to get on with another individual specifically! The example set by the princes is perfect – it is not institutional or societal; it is personal – human to human.

Unity means actually identifying and sharing a common bond and spirit with something – not the display.

A Legendary Relationship

2 minute read
Straightforward

Midrashim are cryptic and often misunderstood. They are metaphors and literary devices that encode perspectives on how Chazal understood stories in the Torah.

One popular Midrash teaches that before Creation, God approached every nation and offered them the Torah. Each nation responded to the offer with an inquiry into what they were signing up for and declined the Torah for one reason or another until God offered it to the Jewish People, who accepted without reservation.

But what’s wrong with asking what you’re signing up for?

The Midrash is probably not talking about some metaphysical racial superiority or that Jews aren’t afraid of sin. We can speculate which answer might have turned them off if they had only asked; perhaps the response might have been about business ethics or gossip, and they’d decline the Torah just the same as anyone else!

R’ Chaim Brown explains that the Midrash is about something else entirely – relationships.

If you get a call from an unknown number, and the caller claims he has the deal of a lifetime for you, but you need to send all the money right now, you’d have many questions to ask. Healthy natural skepticism should give rise to many sensible questions, like, who are you? How did you get my number? What’s the deal? And crucially, what are the terms?

Before you agree to anything, it is reasonable to ask what you’re getting yourself into. If you are used to accepting the Terms and Conditions without reading and signing anything without review, you shouldn’t!

So the Midrash probably isn’t speaking about a defect in the nations who ask the question; the question is eminently fair and reasonable – “what will this Torah require of me?”

But now, what if it’s not an unknown caller; consider that it’s your parent, sibling, or favorite cousin on the phone. They are launching a new venture imminently, but you can join if you send the money immediately.

Sure, there are risks – and you shouldn’t make any financial decisions this way! – but in the context of the love and trust of a close relationship, you don’t have the same kind of questions, and your natural skepticism is muted.

That’s what the Midrash is about.

When our Father in Heaven offers us the deal, all the obligations are worthwhile to be in business together.

Parenthetically, the inverse of this might be what was so wrong with sending spies to scout the Land of Israel.

Blue is the Color

3 minute read
Straightforward

After the fallout of the spies’ poor report of what lay ahead, God instructed the Jewish People to observe the mitzvah of tzitzis, which we recite to this day as a part of the Shema:

וְהָיָה לָכֶם, לְצִיצִת, וּרְאִיתֶם אֹתוֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם אֶת-כָּל-מִצְו‍ֹת ה’, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם; וְלֹא-תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם, וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם – You will wear these tzitzis. When you see them, you will be reminded of all God’s commands; and you’ll do them – and you won’t stray after your hearts and eyes! (15:39)

R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that the juxtaposition of tzitzis with the story of the spies implies some association by sequence. In fact, the stated purpose of tzitzis mirrors the failure of the spies, being misled by eyes that seek – וְיָתֻרוּ אֶת־אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן / וְלֹא-תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם, וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם.

Our eyes and hearts are our emotion and instinct – the spies’ error was that they succumbed to fear out of a desire for comfort and safety. They were correct that conquering Israel would be difficult and scary; they were wrong for thinking it was impossible and that the whole journey had been a fruitless mistake. After everything they’d seen, they still couldn’t conquer their fear, and their fight or flight response was engaged.

As the Sfas Emes notes, it’s only the interpretation of the spies’ report that was flawed – they had correctly assessed the facts. But even if the land were inhabited by hordes of big, strong, tough, well-armed, and well-trained men, would God’s assurances and promises have meant any less? Scouting ahead only altered things from their perspective; nothing changed for God. It was only ever for their benefit – שלח לך – but they were sadly led astray by what they’d seen and how it made them feel.

Enter the mitzvah of tzitzis, reminding us that there is more than meets the eye. Don’t fall for how things appear! While it’s an essential lesson for us to learn, it was especially egregious for them to miss. God had come good for them in Egypt, at the Red Sea, and then gave them food, shelter, and water through an arid and empty desert; God had more than earned their trust. But they couldn’t trust in God, couldn’t live with the uncertainty of what lay ahead. Yet when God conceded to their request, they couldn’t handle it, and they panicked. But the Jewish People would have been better off not sending spies to scout ahead at all!

A key part of the mitzvah of tzitzis requirement is to have a blue-violet string – תְּכֵלֶת. R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum ends with blue-violet. There are infrared, ultraviolet, and lots more additional magnitudes of light that radiate unseen beyond what our eyes can discern on either end of the spectrum. It’s also blue like the sky, the limit of earth’s visible atmosphere, yet we know that space sprawls out far beyond our most powerful and sensitive imaging tools. Perhaps then, part of the mitzvah of tzitzis is to remind us of the essential human boundaries of our perception, that there is an invisible, imperceptible, but very real unseen sphere of existence beyond what we see and feel.

It’s worth highlighting that the blue thread surrounds the white threads and not the other way around. If tzitzis corresponds to all of Torah – לְמַעַן תִּזְכְּרוּ, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֶת-כָּל-מִצְו‍ֹתָי – then it corresponds to all of life within the finite bounds of human capability and limitations. There is no separate track for spirituality to exclude the physical; the Torah utilizes the earthly and physical drives. It’s a man’s duty to unite and elevate all available forces and things and incorporate them under the Torah’s umbrella, and tzitzis is the mini-uniform for the job.

And given blue’s deep symbolism and appearance on a Jew’s uniform,  it should be no surprise that it is the standard color of the Beis HaMikdash and Kohen Gadol’s uniforms.

Tzitzis follows the story with the spies to remind us daily and for eternity that the spies could not have been more wrong. It’s not what you look at that matters, but what you see and how you see.

There’s always more than meets the eye.

Attitude Redux

4 minute read
Straightforward

God gave various commands during the Jewish People’s time in the desert.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our sages were sensitive to this subtle but universal nuance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mastery is typically dull. Finishing your fiftieth marathon is less notable than your first.

It’s normal.

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

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

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

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

The way you do things matters.

The Lonely Darkness

5 minute read
Straightforward

One of the recurring motifs in the stories of our heroes is how often they stand alone, against all odds, and it starts from the very beginning of our Tradition.

During Yakov and his family’s escape from Lavan, they had to navigate their way across a river. Some of the family’s articles had remained on the wrong side during the crossing, so he sent his family ahead to make the most of the dwindling light while he stayed back to retrieve what he had left behind.

Alone as darkness fell, in one of the defining moments in Yakov’s life, he was accosted by and fought with a mysterious figure, whom we identify as Esau’s guardian angel:

וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב, לְבַדּוֹ; וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ, עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר. וַיַּרְא, כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ, וַיִּגַּע, בְּכַף-יְרֵכוֹ; וַתֵּקַע כַּף-יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב, בְּהֵאָבְקוֹ עִמּוֹ. וַיֹּאמֶר שַׁלְּחֵנִי, כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר; וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחֲךָ, כִּי אִם-בֵּרַכְתָּנִי. וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, מַה-שְּׁמֶךָ; וַיֹּאמֶר, יַעֲקֹב. וַיֹּאמֶר, יַעֲקֹב לא יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ–כִּי, אִם-יִשְׂרָאֵל: כִּי-שָׂרִיתָ עִם-אֱלֹהִים וְעִם-אֲנָשִׁים, וַתּוּכָל. וַיִּשְׁאַל יַעֲקֹב, וַיֹּאמֶר הַגִּידָה-נָּא שְׁמֶךָ, וַיֹּאמֶר, לָמָּה זֶּה תִּשְׁאַל לִשְׁמִי; וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתוֹ, שָׁם –  Yakov was alone, and a man grappled with him until daybreak. When the stranger saw that he could not overcome him, he struck Yakov’s hip and dislocated it as he grappled with him. He said, “Let me go, dawn is breaking!” – but Yakov said, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” He said to him, “What is your name?” and he replied, “Yakov.” He said, “No longer shall your name be Yakov, for your name is Yisrael, because you have mastery with God and men, and you have prevailed.” Yakov asked, and said, “Now tell me your name” and he replied, “Why is it you ask my name?”‘ and blessed him there. (32:25-30)

The imagery of this iconic battle is that it takes place in the darkness and lasts until dawn’s early light. Darkness is a mythological archetype for concealment, chaos, danger, deception, disorder, fear, uncertainty, and the unknown.

As such, most humans are afraid of the dark to some degree; our sight is the sense we depend on the most, and we cannot see well in darkness, so a lack of light makes us feel vulnerable to danger.

In the darkness, we are surrounded by the unknown, with all sorts of potential threats hidden by the shadows just out of sight. But when dawn’s light comes, the dangerous unknown is dispelled, the shadows disappear, and the darkness dissipates, to be replaced with the clarity and concrete safety of known order.

The Mesilas Yesharim says the trouble with darkness is not just that you won’t see something dangerous, but that you can mistake something dangerous for something safe. You might not see the snake in the woods, and what if that big rock is actually a bear?

The Steipler teaches that the battleground of our struggles is in our minds. Whether fear or fantasy, our minds can paint vivid pictures that do not correspond to reality. Fear amplifies the negative, and fantasy amplifies the positive; but neither includes the consequences, opportunity costs, pathways, or tradeoffs that always accompany reality. When someone returns to their family after a long time away, they often think they’ll all get along peacefully and happily now; or the newlywed couple might think they’ll be in love forever – but we know how naive that is. Reality is much more challenging than the illusion of fantasy, but the difference is that it is real.

Driving at night, you can’t see much further than your headlights – but you can make the whole trip that way; concealment and uncertainty are scary, but you will always have what it takes to make it through that particular darkness.

When Yakov asks the figure for his name, Yakov gets an evasive non-answer, “Why is it you ask for my name?”

R’ Leib Chasman intuitively suggests that this is the nature of the formless enemy we fight. The Gemara teaches how at the end of days, Hashem will slaughter the Satan, and the righteous will cry because it was this enormous mountain they somehow overcame, and the wicked will cry because it was a tiny hair they couldn’t even blow away. The very idea of the Satan is a shorthand for what we fight – a flicker of our reflection, a shadow, constantly in flux.

Although Yakov was permanently injured in his encounter, he still emerged as Yisrael, the master; we can expect to trip, stumble, and make mistakes along the way, and we might even get hurt. But it is the human condition to fight and struggle, but we can persist and win.

It’s important to note that Yakov doesn’t actually achieve total physical victory – he holds out for a stalemate while seriously injured. The victory – וַתּוּכָל – is in staying in the fight and not giving up – וַיַּרְא, כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ.

Our biggest tests, if not all of them, come when we are alone, but it is our characteristic ability to rise to the challenge that Bilam highlights in his reluctant blessing to the Jewish People – הֶן־עָם לְבָדָד יִשְׁכֹּן. 

It’s a point of pride, rooted in our identity from the very beginning, starting with Avraham, the first Hebrew, so-called because he is an outsider who stands alone against the dominant culture עברי / מעבר הנהר.

This theme repeats itself with Yosef, home alone with Potiphar’s wife. About to give in to an almost irresistible temptation, he sees his father’s face, reminding him that his family heritage is that he has what it takes to stand alone and not give up. 

The Hebrew word for grappling is cognate to the word for dust because the fighter’s feet stir up dust when fighting for leverage and grip – וַיֵּאָבֵק / אבק. The Midrash suggests that the dust kicked up from this epic struggle rose all the way to the Heavenly Throne.

R’ Tzvi Meir Silberberg highlights that the Midrash doesn’t say that the victory went up to Heaven, but that the dust, the energy expended on the struggle, went up to Heaven. Our victories are personal, and although we don’t always get to choose whether we win, we always control whether we go down without a fight; and putting up a fight is specifically what the Midrash honors. It’s your choice to stand that will ultimately endure and carry the day, which perhaps Bilam also refers to – מִי מָנָה עֲפַר יַעֲקֹב.

The opening blessing of the morning blessings is for giving the rooster the understanding to distinguish between day and night – הַּנוֹתֵן לַשֶּׂכְוִי בִינָה לְהַבְחִין בֵּין יוֹם וּבֵין לָיְלָה. But doesn’t every animal with eyes know the difference? R’ Meilech Biderman teaches that the rooster is highlighted because it crows just before dawn while it’s still dark. In Perek Shira, a song that attributes different verses to different creatures and cosmic entities, the rooster sings how it hopes and yearns for God’s salvation – לישועתך קיויתי ה – the rooster understands already before dawn that the darkness is coming to an end and that the sun will rise once more. 

In all the stories of our heroes, no one came to save them; how you face the realization that to some extent, you stand alone is arguably a defining moment of adulthood and maturity – אֶשָּׂא עֵינַי אֶל הֶהָרִים מֵאַיִן יָבֹא עֶזְרִי. That’s not simply to say that no one is coming to save you; it’s more profound than that. It’s that the only person who will ultimately save you is yourself; that the helping hand you’re looking for is at the end of your own two arms, and that your fate is your own responsibility.

It might take everything to stand alone, but you are enough. You already have what it takes – it’s in your blood. 

Solid Ground

2 minute read
Straightforward

At one point in the wilderness, people went to Moshe, and lamented that they were impure at the time the Korban Pesach was offered, and wanted inclusion in the mitzvah. Their feedback was legitimate, and the law of Pesach Sheni was revealed.

Yet Korach too sought more inclusion – that everyone ought to have access to the holy service, not just the Kohanim. His demise was swift.

What is the difference between what they wanted if their complaint was essentially the same?

There is a concept that all negative characteristics have a positive application – for example, it is permitted to be jealous of a tzaddik or great scholar. Such jealousy can foster aspirations, that if realised, transform a person. This operates on the stepping-stone principle that מתוך שלו לשמה, בה לשמה – misdirected thought can nonetheless develop into legitimate action and intent.

However, there is a caveat to this rule. Not all misguided actions are reparable in the long term – one type of action will never become legitimate – argument. The Mishna in Pirkei Avos 5:17 says כל מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמים, סופה להתקים. ושאינה לשם שמים, אין סופה להתקים.
איזו היא מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמים? זו מחלוקת הלל ושמאי. ושאינה לשם שמים? זו מחלוקת קרח וכל עדתו – Any argument for the sake of Heaven, will endure in the end. One that is not for sake of Heaven, will not endure. What is the paradigm of an argument for the sake of heaven? Hillel and Shamai. What is the paradigm of an argument not the sake of Heaven? Korach and his congregation.

Is it simply that an argument in Torah will endure, and that politics will not?

R’ Yaakov Minkus explains that there is more to it than that. Adding the mitzvah of Pesach Sheni was not a problem – the Torah was not closed canon yet. Korach however, was looking to cause issues and rifts.

Hillel and Shamai were looking to build halachos, and build a system to live by. From one’s point of view, we understand the other better. We need both to build and consolidate. A losing argument is included in the Gemara because it is a valid view that aids in understanding the issue.

Not so with Korach. His arguments were not constructive at all. His claims and goals were literally baseless and without foundation – note how the ground on which he stood collapsed beneath him – he was not fighting for anything real. The same is certainly not true of the Pesach Sheni crowd – therein lies the difference.

The Mishna says as much too. The paradigm of an argument not for the sake of heaven is “Korach and his congregation.”. If the parallel to Hillel And Shamai were correct, it ought to have said “Korach and Moshe”. Korach wasn’t really fighting anyone at all – it was just about causing a stir and breaking down the system that existed.

This is what Rashi and the Targum mean – ויקח קרח – “And Korach took” – What did he take? Himself, to one side.

It was never about Moshe. It was about causing a stir. The Pesach Sheni people wanted to be close to God – the parallel to Korach’s falls away swiftly.

Social Context

2 minute read
Straightforward

The Book of Vayikra, also known as Toras Kohanim, or Leviticus. It deals with the Tribe of Levi, the kohanim, their roles, and duties throughout. The Book of Shemos, or Exodus, deals with the Exodus and all that ensued.

The Book of Bamidbar is known as Sefer Pikudim, the Book of Numbers, after the census numbers.

But the census occurs only twice, in Bamidbar and Pinchas. The numbers aren’t actually a theme of the book!

So why is the whole book called Pikudim?

R’ Matis Weinberg explains that the book is not called Numbers for the counting, but context and logistics. The theme of every section is about the development, establishment, and formation of society – the מחנה.

Part of building a society is finding space for the people who don’t seem to fit.

Among the guidance for the different clans of Levi and their respective roles, there are four interceding sections before the main discussion continues; how certain types of sick people, the metzora and zav, must leave the camp and quarantine before we can rehabilitate them; that when a convert dies with no family, his assets are distributed to kohanim; the law of Sotah; and the law of Nazir.

R’ Matis Weinberg explains that these laws aren’t interrupting the discussion of establishing a society; they are an essential part of it. Any decent society needs to find a place to deal with the exceptions, the people who don’t fit.

The laws of metzora and zav don’t pertain to the sick person so much as ourselves, society. The Torah teaches that his presence impacts our society while he is a part of it, and that is why he must quarantine.

The convert who dies with no family poses a difficulty. The Torah is concerned with the orderly distribution of his estate, so no property lapses into limbo. While Jewish communities tend to have tightly integrated setups with shared common ancestry, this person has no relatives in his family tree. The classical inheritance system fails, so the Torah explains what our society is supposed to do.

The Sotah tramples on society’s norms and violates the marriage by associating with men after direct warnings not to. She’s not an adulteress per se, so the Torah explains the procedure of how society resolves this with an attempt to either punish or rehabilitate this misbehavior.

The Nazir, despite all his noble commitment, has sharply deviated from the norm as well. In our society, drinking wine and cutting hair are normal things to do; abstaining is abnormal. The Torah teaches us that our society isn’t just for people who are the same as us and share our values; we must tolerate odd people and have a place for them in our society.

The Book is called Numbers because God does not ask us for homogeneity. Everyone is part of the setup, even those who don’t quite fit. The establishment of an ideal society is interrupted specifically to include the less than ideal people, too, reflecting the grounded realism that there can probably only be an imperfect but still ultimately no less ideal society; odd people are part of our numbers too, and we have to know how to deal with them.

The presence of undesirables does not detract from a community’s wholeness; it’s an essential part of it.

Everybody is Somebody

3 minute read
Straightforward

Who are you? Where do you come from?

You are the sum of uniquely miraculous conjunctions of different DNAs, a complex recipe of hundreds of thousands of ancestors meeting in the distant past, resulting in you. It can be humbling, and it can be intimidating, although it’s worth remembering the first time the Torah discusses pedigree, suggesting how much we ought to value it – פר בן בקר.

After assuaging God’s wrath and ending the plague, the Torah hails Pinchas and his pedigree:

פִּינְחָס בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן הֵשִׁיב אֶת חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת קִנְאָתִי בְּתוֹכָם וְלֹא כִלִּיתִי אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּקִנְאָתִי – Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Ahron HaKohen, has turned My anger away from the Children of Israel with his zealously avenging Me among them so that I did not destroy the children of Israel in My zeal. (25:11)

The Torah’s usual naming convention is to name someone the son of their father – פִּינְחָס בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר. Rashi highlights how in this instance, the Torah traces Pinchas’ ancestry to his grandfather, Ahron – פִּינְחָס בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן – because people had mocked Pinchas as having mediocre pedigree, being a grandson of Yisro, a former pagan druid, so the Torah goes out of its way to identify Pinchas as having good pedigree; that God didn’t see him as any less than.

What this seems to indicate is that past a threshold level, lineage and pedigree are things humans get caught up with; God doesn’t actually care! Because in other words, you do not need to be somebody to make things happen, because a nobody in our eyes is still somebody to God.

Nowhere is this illustrated clearer than the opening of Yirmiyahu, where God appears to Yirmiyahu in his adolescence, and Yirmiyahu doesn’t think he has what it takes to be the prophet God wants him to be, that he’s just a kid and isn’t one for public speaking:

וָאֹמַר אֲהָהּ 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 – I said, “Alas, God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am just a kid!” And the Lord said to me, “Do not tell Me “I am just a kid!” Because wherever I send you, you will go, and whatever I command you, you will say!” (1:6-7)

R’ Nosson Vachtvogel wonders how many potential greats have been lost to self-doubt. . There is no reason to suspect Yirmiyahu of self-effacing humility; he’s not lying! He has honestly assessed and evaluated his abilities and concludes he doesn’t have what it takes, yet God still dismisses these excuses – not because they are wrong, but because they ultimately don’t matter. Although God doesn’t talk to us the way he did to Yirmiyahu, we can have no doubt that God speaks to us through Yirmiyahu just the same – אַל-תֹּאמַר נַעַר אָנֹכִי

R’ Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin teaches that you ought to believe in yourself in the same way you believe in God. If you think God doesn’t believe in you, you don’t properly understand what believing in God entails. Your consciousness is rooted in your soul, a fragment of God – חלק אלוק ממעל. God saw fit to send that part of Himself into the world in the shape of you, which is to say that God very literally believes in you, and we know that because you are here.

It’s easier to believe in yourself if someone else does it first. And God believes in all of us!

God saw fit to share you with us; you’re already somebody.

Inauguration

2 minute read
Straightforward

In the topic of Kodshim – the section of Torah that addresses Beis HaMikdash protocol, sacrifices, priesthood and the like – there is a procedure for designating utensils and tools for service. This made them Hekdesh – separate, and not for personal use or benefit. Historically, the procedure was done with שמן המשחה – anointing oil. It is said that the flask of oil that Moshe first used never ran dry, and the same oil was used to coronate kings of Israel.

Before the Second Temple, however, this oil was lost, along with numerous other artefacts. The Gemara in Menachos queries how they brought new utensils into service if they hadn’t been properly designated by the oil, and concludes that their use as holy items intrinsically made them holy – “avodoson mechanchosom”.

This was necessitated by circumstance. But perhaps there is a source in the Torah.

Ahron, Korach and his followers, all men of great stature, were instructed to take brand new pans, put on the same incense recipe, and God would display preference. Ahron’s was accepted, and Korach and the lead revolutionaries fell into the earth, while the remaining revolutionaries were consumed by a fire. The pans used for the test fell to the ground. Korach’s property went down into the void with him, but the pans of the great men, who had righteous intentions, remained. Their memory was not destroyed, because they truly wanted all Jews to have equal access to the holiness of the service.

God recognised this:

אֱמֹר אֶל אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן וְיָרֵם אֶת הַמַּחְתֹּת מִבֵּין הַשְּׂרֵפָה וְאֶת הָאֵשׁ זְרֵה הָלְאָה כִּי קָדֵשׁוּ. אֵת מַחְתּוֹת הַחַטָּאִים הָאֵלֶּה בְּנַפְשֹׁתָם וְעָשׂוּ אֹתָם רִקֻּעֵי פַחִים צִפּוּי לַמִּזְבֵּחַ – Say to Elazar son of Ahron that he should pick up the pans from the burned area and throw the fire away, because they have become sanctified. The pans of these who sinned at the cost of their lives; they shall make them into flattened plates as an overlay for the altar (17:3)

Their use had sanctified them, excluding the possibility of anyone using them privately ever again. They were Hekdesh – personal benefit was prohibited, and they necessarily had to become part of the Mishkan as a result.

But all things considered, they didn’t really become part of the service – they weren’t used in a capacity of pans. Is the cover for the altar part of the service? Is this a Torah proof of the concept that using an item inaugurates it?

Probably not. But there is one pan which has been overlooked – Ahron’s. Korach, Dasan and Aviram’s plunged into the depths of the earth, and the 250 men’s became a cover for the altar, but what of Ahron’s?

Ahron’s was fine where it was and did not need instruction. It was in the Ohel Moed, right where it belonged – in the Mishkan – and became a part and parcel of the service. Conclusive.

Time To Shine

2 minute read
Straightforward

After the story of Korach, all the pans that were used for the incense test were smelted into a cover for the Mizbeach, with an accompanying warning:

וְלֹא יִהְיֶה כְקֹרַח וְכַעֲדָתוֹ – Do not be like Korach and his congregation.

Rashi understands that this served as a reminder to avoid spurious argument. The Yereim classifies such argument as a sin God, but not to mankind.

But argument is observably detrimental to relationships; why does argument and strife come under the category of sins against Heaven – בין אדם למקום?

Perhaps it stems from not understanding people’s role and specialities.

The Chinuch notes that a Levi who performs the service of a Kohen is subject to the death penalty. Not because of a higher sanctity – because the inverse is also true; a a Kohen who performs the service of a Levi is also punishable by death.

Moreover, abandoning a designated role is also punishable by death. If a duty is as simple as guarding the gates, and the Levi leaves his post to for the singing which is he is allowed to do as a Levi, he is also subject to the death penalty for not doing what was required of him.

Perhaps this explains what the warning is. Everyone is put on this world for a particular reason and function. Everyone has their own abilities and potential that does not infringe on any one else’s – nor anyone else on yours. Missing this is a fundamental mistake and underrates yourself and your abilities.

A Korach claim that everyone is homogenous and ultimately the same, treads all over the speciality of individuals. Like a Kohen who doesn’t appreciate that his work is specific to him, and feels that he can also serve as a Levi, there is a fatal flaw in their understanding of God’s providence, and arguably a certain degree of heresy and apikorsus – perhaps the reason this is punishable by death!

Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.