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Fear Redux; Faith Redux

7 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 serious problem with the notion that there is something intrinsically wrong with fear. 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 an extricable component of the 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.

But more powerfully, the greats experienced fear too, as testified to by the Torah and our prophets, which ought to 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 felt fear and responded to those fears in ways we can learn from it.

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, 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, siding himself against the extremely powerful Egyptian government with no support, 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 right away; 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.

There’s a story about a great scholar who went with his young family to visit his father, the sage of their generation. The scholar was up studying in the night by candlelight, and at three in the morning, the sage walks into the room holding his screaming grandson and asks the scholar what he thinks he’s been doing — studying, obviously! Said the sage to his scholarly son, don’t be so religious that you can no longer hear a crying child.

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

As one great writer had a child put ask his father, can a man still be brave if he’s afraid? With piercing clarity, the father tells his son that 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 psychic violence to kill off the emotional parts 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, who are not emotionally in tune with themselves or their surroundings, and one of their most important tasks is to reconnect with and reunite the severed parts. By definition, wholeness must be compatible with the full spectrum of human emotion.

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.

Fear is natural, and our greats experienced fear. 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.

In fact, fear is arguably the reason many people practice religion at all; 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, whereas if God exists, a person stands to receive infinite pain or gain in Heaven and Hell.

But, 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; the difference between feeling afraid and being 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.

Controlling your emotions doesn’t mean avoiding complex or difficult emotions. It means doing things with your emotions as the passenger, not the driver. When anger, fear, or sadness comes, feel it, 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 a single 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 horror and terror that is unimaginable and far beyond even those who are subject matter experts. It has been said that the greatest act of faith by the Jewish People was having children after the Holocaust, trusting God with Jewish children once more.

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.

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 with the hope that things would work out, but not with any knowledge or certainty. As our sages point out, they are often afraid of their own 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.

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.

Not Fooled by Randomness

9 minute read
Advanced

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

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

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

Why did Haman cast a lottery?

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

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

Either goat can be the scapegoat; it doesn’t matter at all. Which portion of land goes to which tribe doesn’t really matter. It could be any, which is the point; that’s why it’s fair. R’ Aaron Lopiansky points out that the division of the Land of Israel marks the transition from direction by magical forces to human-driven action. Although the outcome of the lottery isn’t explicitly magical, the outcome will have a spiritual and religious significance, proving that randomness and chance are tools of the divine as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s only one way to find out.

The Heart of Worship

3 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What We Do With Broken Things

5 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Not Kill Your Family

6 minute read
Straightforward

There is a treasured custom in some communities for parents to bless their children before kiddush on Friday night. Traditionally, fathers will bless their sons to be like Ephraim and Menashe and their daughters like the Matriarchs.

It’s not hard to understand why we’d want our daughters to be like the Matriarchs; they are the role models and heroines in the stories of our greats. While we have others, such as Miriam and Devorah, the Matriarchs are a natural conceptual category that we intuitively understand.

But of all the great heroes in our heritage, why are Ephraim and Menashe, in particular, the specific role models we would want our sons to emulate?

Ephraim and Menashe occupy a distinctly unique conceptual category; they transcend a natural hierarchy. While hierarchies are inherent to family dynamics and structures, it is highly irregular to see generation jumpers. Yet, these young boys earned parity with their uncles a generation earlier and are counted as tribes alongside Yakov’s sons.

But transcending family dynamics wasn’t just something that happened to them when Yakov blessed them; transcending family dynamics was a fundamental reflection of who they were.

The Bnai Yissaschar explains that every generation in Genesis suffered rivalry rooted in unequal blessings, favor, or talent, whether from God or a parent. Brothers kill each other in the case of Cain and Abel, come close to it with Yakov and Esau, and fight and fracture in every other instance. But when Yakov crossed his hands and blessed his younger grandson with the better blessing ostensibly fit for the elder without a word of protest, it was the first time a snubbed sibling didn’t have a moment’s thought of entitlement or jealousy.

Ephraim and Menashe showcase what is arguably the most difficult of the Ten Commandments, the commandment of envy – וְלֹא תַחְמֹד. It’s difficult to practice because jealousy originates in the subconscious. The only solution is to adopt the perspective that God’s blessings are abundant; not exclusive, finite, scarce, or zero-sum, that there isn’t a fixed amount of happiness, health, love, or money in the world, so someone else’s good fortune cannot subtract from yours, and it cannot diminish the pool of blessings available to you in the future. Ephraim and Menashe lived that in their relationship with each other.

As R’ David Wolpe notes, this is the first time siblings show acceptance of inequality. It’s the way the world is; we simply have to accept that there will be different distributions of blessings, gifts, talent, and luck. And the acceptance of God’s gifts at unequal levels is the only way brothers succeed in not killing each other.

Put simply, their relationship with each other transcended competitive dynamics and hierarchies, and there is no better blessing to wish on our sons.

That’s great, and it has merit enough to stand on its own, but it still doesn’t get to the core of the matter, which is where this quality came from.

My Zaide suggested that if your father is Yakov and you are born, raised, and live in his house, it’s relatively easy and not especially surprising that you follow his way. In comparison, to be born in Egypt, the crown jewel of a world devoid of spirituality and meaning, whose culture was excess and materialism, rife with lust and idolatry; and yet master the spiritual life as well as any of Yakov’s sons, is the ultimate achievement.

So perhaps the blessing we wish on our children is to master both worlds – the private world of spirituality and the public world of commerce and community, participating without being consumed.

But perhaps there’s something else, hiding in plain sight.

In social psychology, self-categorization theory is the concept of how we categorize and perceive ourselves and others. We categorize our role in the society as the self – “I;” the social self – “we;” and the comparative outgroup – “them.” The “us” versus “them” mentality is natural and stems from our deep evolutionary need to belong to a group in order to survive, belong, and flourish.

Where Yosef’s brothers went so wrong was that they identified him as the outgroup, the other, the enemy, a threat, and not one of them. As the Sfas Emes notes, part of what was so mortifying by Yosef’s grand reveal was that their threat assessment and identification had been so badly miscalibrated; Yosef may have been an annoying, immature, troublemaker, but he had always and only ever been one of them. By not protesting at the superior blessing given to his younger brother, Menashe revealed that he understood his role as a brother and ally; he was not competing with his brother.

And here’s the essential point – if Menashe learned this lesson from observing his father’s life story, cast out from his family then subsequently healing, ultimately rising and magnanimously reuniting his family; then it could never be a lesson that can be repeated or passed on, and blessing our children with a quality they could not possibly hope to emulate doesn’t ring true or make any sense. In that case, the blessing to our children would be to have a father like Yosef, which is self-referential and absurd, so they must have learned this lesson in a way that everyone can.

Most of us want to protect our children from struggles because if we shoulder their burdens, they’ll be happier, right? Not usually. Children are happiest when parents bolster and support their children’s ability to tackle life’s challenging experiences.

Resilience, or better yet, antifragility is not an inherited genetic trait; it is earned and honed. It is derived from the ways children learn to think and act when they are faced with obstacles, large and small. The road to resilience comes first and foremost from children’s supportive relationships with parents, teachers, and other caring adults. These relationships become sources of strength when children work through stressful situations and painful emotions.

With antifragility, we don’t merely recover; we also add some other thing on top. When we’re infected with a virus, we heal and become immune to subsequent infection. It is more than resilience, which is the return to a fixed state. Antifragile is a dynamic state that requires some stressor to stimulate growth

But without stimulus, we can atrophy. Moshe warned of the day the Jewish People would get too comfortable and lose their way:

וַיִּשְׁמַן יְשֻׁרוּן וַיִּבְעָט שָׁמַנְתָּ עָבִיתָ כָּשִׂיתָ וַיִּטֹּשׁ אֱלוֹהַּ עָשָׂהוּ וַיְנַבֵּל צוּר יְשֻׁעָתוֹ – So Jeshurun grew fat and kicked, you grew fat and gross and coarse, and forsook the God who made him, and spurned the Rock of his support. (32:15)

The Haggadah echoes the same by warning us of the threat of Lavan; Pharaoh is a direct threat we know to be cautious about, but a devious Lavan poses an indirect threat equally serious. If Yakov had stayed with Lavan, he might have been fabulously wealthy; and he would not have lost his life, but he would have lost his soul.

We are products of modernity, for which there is no shame; we cannot be anything other than what we are. But what defines us, and what does not? We are Jews; our history and our culture define us, not the society we live in. Our society can influence the expression of our history and our culture, and a Jew today looks different from a Jew in the Middle Ages or a Jew five centuries from now.

When our enemies threaten our very lives, “us” and “them” are self-explanatory and straightforward, but we currently live in one of the rare periods where that’s not the case – thankfully! But the threat is never gone; it merely contorts itself into a different form. While everyone knows that assimilation is a silent killer, materialism is only a slightly less malignant form of assimilation but still very much within the same conceptual category.

So perhaps while “us” and “them” were faulty in Yosef’s brothers, they were rediscovered and reclaimed by Yosef and his sons; and that’s the heart of what we wish for our sons. To know who they are, to correctly identify threats, to stand up in the face of adversity, to rise to the challenge, and to thrive in overcoming it.

In our families and communities, we can and must correctly identify the “us,” who we are alongside each other, and stand up to “them,” the challenge that modern culture poses. If you cannot correctly tell “us” from “them,” then all the concomitant dangers naturally follow when we turn what should be “us” into “them” – competition, fear, jealousy, anger, alienation, and literal or metaphorical death.

Our sons will go out into the world and confront all sorts of trials we cannot imagine or prepare them for, and because they will face those challenges differently and achieve different outcomes.

So we desperately wish for them to be like Ephraim and Menashe because although neither easy nor guaranteed, their example proves that by facing challenges together, it is possible to remain brothers and allies, united in happiness with and for each other, so long as they know who they are, where they come from, and what they stand for and against.

The Water of Life

5 minute read
Straightforward

Symbolism plays an essential role in human culture. Through symbols, we find meaning in the physical world, which becomes transparent and reveals the transcendent. Certain symbols are cultural universals, primal archetypes intuitively understood that derive from the unconscious and require no explanation, like mother and child or light and darkness.

As the Torah draws to its close, Moshe says goodbye with a timeless ballad laced with beautiful metaphor and symbolism:

יַעֲרֹף כַּמָּטָר לִקְחִי, תִּזַּל כַּטַּל אִמְרָתִי, כִּשְׂעִירִם עֲלֵי-דֶשֶׁא, וְכִרְבִיבִים עֲלֵי-עֵשֶׂב – May my discourse come down as rain; my speech distill as dew; like showers on young vegetation; like droplets on the grass. (32:2)

Many ancient cultures believed that water is the source of life, that rain and water are life-giving, and that water symbolizes cleansing, regeneration, renewal, fertility, birth, creation, and new life. Water symbolizes the universal reservoir of all possible existence, supports every creation, and even precedes their form. The Torah’s creation myth aligns with this archetype, with primordial water everywhere, from which everything subsequently emerges:

וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ וְחֹשֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵי תְהוֹם וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל־פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם – The earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep, and the spirit of God hovered over the waters… (1:4)

The Mikvah ritual bath is central to Judaism and draws heavily on this archetype, symbolizing rebirth and renewal. Moreover, with our knowledge of the water cycle, we have learned the literal truth of water as the solvent of life and regeneration; and in fact, the search for liquid water in the universe serves as a close proxy to the search for life beyond our planet.

But Moshe doesn’t say the Torah is like water; he compares the Torah to rain – יַעֲרֹף כַּמָּטָר לִקְחִי. They do have a lot in common; both are life-giving, cleansing, regenerative, restorative, and like rain, the Torah came from the sky to affirm and sustain us. So sure, the Torah is like rain!

But Moshe doesn’t simply say that the Torah is like rain; he says it’s also like dew – יַעֲרֹף כַּמָּטָר לִקְחִי, תִּזַּל כַּטַּל אִמְרָתִי.

But what is dew, if not just another form of rain and water? 

To unlock the symbol and discover the meaning, we must establish the technical difference between rain and dew.

Dew occurs when you have a cold object in a warm environment. As the object’s exposed surface cools by radiating heat, atmospheric moisture condenses faster than it evaporates, resulting in the formation of water droplets on the surface. In other words, a cold object in a warm environment can draw moisture out of the ambient surroundings.

There’s a Torah that’s like rain, that comes from the sky, and that hopefully, you’ve experienced at times, perhaps a flash of inspiration that came out of nowhere, the moments you feel alive. But that doesn’t happen to everyone, and even when it does, it doesn’t happen all the time. To borrow rain’s imagery, this kind of inspiration is seasonal only. If you’re counting on the rain to get by, what happens when the rain stops?

Perhaps precisely because of this problem, there’s a Torah that we can experience that feels more like dew. A warm environment that doesn’t come from the sky, that we can generate and cultivate ourselves, and which draws out the life-affirming properties from within and around us.

R’ Simcha Bunim m’Peshischa notes that we can’t expect our efforts and interactions with Torah to have an instant magical transformational effect like a rain shower; it’s far more subtle, like dew. A morning’s dew is not enough to nourish a plant, but with the regular appearance of morning dew, the days stack up, and despite no noticeable daily effect, the plant will grow.

As R’ Shlomo Farhi points out, dew is gentle, not overwhelming. Plants can’t survive forever on dew alone, but it can be enough to keep them going until the rains return. When you are running cold, a warm atmosphere will nurture and sustain you, but you should remember that it can’t take you all the way; there will come the point that you need to proactively follow through with renewed drive and desire to grow once more. 

The Torah conditions timely rain on the product of outward effort:

וְהָיָה אִם־שָׁמֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶל־מִצְותַי אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם לְאַהֲבָה אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹקיכֶם וּלְעבְדוֹ בְּכל־לְבַבְכֶם וּבְכל־נַפְשְׁכֶם. וְנָתַתִּי מְטַר־אַרְצְכֶם בְּעִתּוֹ – If then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season… (11:,13,14)

The Ishbitzer suggests that dew is a product of internal effort, a reflection of our hearts and minds. Subconsciously, our hearts and minds hope and pray, day and night, without stop. When you so much as hope for the best, or that things turn out okay, or even whisper “Please, God,” those thoughts bring wisps of warm vitality into the world that affirm and sustain growth and life. Given the mythical potency of dew and its connection to humble yet persistent origins, our sages suggest that, of all things, dew contains the latent power to resurrect the dead at the End of Days.

There are times you’ll have flashes of divine inspiration, but at some point, that’s going to dry up. Reassuringly, as Moshe said so long ago, it doesn’t just come from the sky; it can emerge slowly with determination and environmental support. Perhaps then, dew is the symbol of human-driven inspiration – אתערותא דלתתא. 

Half the year we pray for rain, but half the year we also pray for dew; remember that you are more like a plant than a robot. You have fallow and fruitful seasons, needing different things at different times; a light drizzle right now, a little more sun next week. It is a design feature, not a flaw, and is a far healthier approach to adopt than perpetual sameness.

This isn’t cutesy wordplay; the metaphor is quite explicit. If Moshe’s words are the water, then we are the grass and leaves, the tree of life itself, encouraged to endure and grow strong – כִּשְׂעִירִם עֲלֵי-דֶשֶׁא, וְכִרְבִיבִים עֲלֵי-עֵשֶׂב.

When you go into the woods, you see all kinds of trees. One is stunted, another is bent; you understand it was obstructed or didn’t get enough light, and so it turned out that way. You don’t get emotional about it, you allow it; that’s just the way trees are. But humans are like that too – ‎כי האדם עץ השדה. All too often, rather than accept ourselves and others, we are critical, whether self-conscious or judgmental, critical of a way of being other humans for the way they are. But humans are like trees; this one was obstructed like this, that one didn’t get enough that, so they turned out that way.

Trees lose their leaves in the cold dark winters, but they do not despair, secure in the knowledge that spring will return before long and they will blossom once again. You might be in the thick of winter, but hold on; you too will blossom once again.

If you’re waiting for inspiration or a sign, it might be a while, it might not come at all, or this might be it.

Cultivate an environment around yourself with structure, systems, and people that will foster, nurture, and support your growth. You will not rise to the level of your goals; you will fall to the level of your systems. It’s simply unsustainable to have big goals with no supporting infrastructure.

Your goal should not be to beat the game but to stay in the game and continue playing so that you can in turn foster a gentle and nurturing environment that will warm others too.

Moshe’s timeless blessing is hauntingly beautiful and refreshingly real. Moshe speaks through the ages and reminds us the Torah is not just water, the stuff of life. It is the water we need in good times and the dew that gets us through hard times.

The metaphor itself acknowledges and validates that there are times the rains just won’t come. But in the moments where the Torah won’t be our rain, it can be our dew.

Gratitude Redux

8 minute read
Straightforward

Emotional states are everything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amalek Redux

4 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah has lots of laws. Some are fun and easy to understand, like Shabbos, and some are fun and challenging to understand, like shaking the Lulav. A rare few are not only difficult to understand but leave us with a sense of moral unease as well.

One of them is the laws concerning Amalek.

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

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

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

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

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

But isn’t it a little unsettling? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onward

4 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 back to it’s 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 momentous achievements, and the most incredible successes, the Torah simply notes that once you get there, you can’t stay long, and 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 the place 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 true to life as well; 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 great 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 the boring and dull moments, we may well find ourselves thirsty with nothing to drink. But this, too, as the Izhbitzer teaches, is part of the process of growth. 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 important 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 on 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 itself, moving and changing, with concomitant ups and downs. When living things don’t move, they quickly atrophy, stagnate, wither, and before long, they die. Living things must move and push to grow healthy and strong. You can fall down 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 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 individual 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, perhaps there is a part we can carry in our hearts and minds.

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

Mental Game

3 minute read
Straightforward

Why do some people accomplish their goals while others fail?

Usually, we default to talking about skill and talent. That’s when we say things like he is the smartest, or she is the quickest. 

Sometimes, we talk about luck. That’s when we say things like someone was in the right place at the right time, or they finally caught a break.

But we all know there is more to it than that.

Talent and luck are part of what it takes, sure. But when we look at top performers across all fields, there’s something that outweighs both – mental game. 

We recognize that top performers have an insatiable desire to persevere that carries them through the troughs of adversity and resistance and into the heights of achievement and success. They have both reactive and proactive qualities; they can endure difficult situations until they persevere and overcome adversity, obstacles, or pressure. They then go on to maintain focus and motivation when things are going well to achieve their goals consistently.

Talent and skill have normal distributions; some people have more, and some people have less. But research has consistently shown that strength or smarts aren’t the most accurate predictions of achievement. Instead, it was grit – the perseverance and passion to achieve long–term goals – that made the difference.

We’ve probably seen evidence of this in our own lives. There’s that friend who squandered their talent, and then that other person who gave their all to accomplish their goal, no matter how hard it was or how long it took. In other words, talent is overrated.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that humans are created in God’s image, meaning humans possess a capacity for free choice that distinguishes us from all other creatures.

R’ Noach Weinberg teaches that desire, the free will to persevere, is evenly distributed, meaning that every one of us has an equal ability to choose, which ought to be hugely empowering. It means any of us can accomplish real greatness, and it starts with just choosing to want it badly enough.

The notion that humans have free will is the radical proposition that cuts to the very core of Judaism:

הַעִדֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם אֶת־הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת־הָאָרֶץ הַחַיִּים וְהַמָּוֶת נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַבְּרָכָה וְהַקְּלָלָה וּבָחַרְתָּ בַּחַיִּים לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה אַתָּה וְזַרְעֶךָ – I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, so you and your children will live! (30:19)

As the Rambam wrote, every one of us could choose to be as righteous as Moshe himself if we genuinely wanted to. Avos d’R’ Nosson teaches that the entire Torah is within everybody’s reach –  עמלה של תורה, כל הרוצה ליטול יבוא ויטול / מורשה קהלת יעקב. 

You have to believe in yourself and in your ability to do it – וְצַדִּיק בֶּאֱמוּנָתוֹ יִחְיֶה. The Ramban suggests that it’s heresy to doubt yourself!

R’ Tzadok HaKohen explains that believing in God necessarily requires that you believe in yourself. God put you here to do something, so God obviously believes in your ability to perform. It follows that if you don’t think God believes in you, you don’t properly believe in God!

Your mental game plays a more important role than anything else in achieving your health, business, and life goals. That’s good news because while you can’t do much about the genes you were born with, you can do a lot to develop mental toughness. Mental toughness is a learned trait that anyone can develop.

There is undoubtedly some natural inclination that makes self-mastery easier for some people, but it is not a limiting factor in itself, however. Everyone’s ability to think, plan and execute is enough if they make use of it.

Regardless of the talent you were born with, you can become more consistent and disciplined, and you can develop superhuman levels of mental toughness.

It’s something you build, but it’s also something you maintain and grow. Newly conquered territory becomes your new comfort zone soon enough. 

When things get tough for most people, they find something easier to work on. When things get difficult for mentally tough people, they find a way to stay on course. There will always be extreme moments that require incredible bouts of courage, determination, resiliency, and grit, and even the best of us will fail. There will never be a human who only succeeds and does not fail – כִּי אָדָם אֵין צַדִּיק בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה טּוֹב וְלֹא יֶחֱטָא. 

Every tough-as-nails person has faced sink-or-swim moments, and they didn’t choose to sink, float, or tread water. They chose life; they chose to swim. Every descendant of Jewish history is the heir to an intrinsic and inescapable legacy of people who chose to live proactively and not reactively. The bedrock of contemporary Jewish life today was substantially laid by Holocaust survivors, people who chose life, building anew in the wake of the devastation they endured. 

But for most of life’s circumstances and challenges, toughness simply comes down to being more consistent than most people. Every day, cultivate your mental game a little and make life-affirming and life-enhancing choices.

Choose life – ובחרת בחיים.

Because hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.

Killing Envy

5 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

Coveting. Envy. Jealousy. Wanting.

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

Well, apparently so. So let’s take it seriously enough to consider why that might be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You pass the test, but compare yourself to the best student in class, without knowing that they haven’t met their friends for six months. You work long and difficult hours and compare yourself to the guy in shul who just made an easy fortune, without knowing that his firm is being investigated and he is in serious jeopardy. You marry a complete human with flaws but compare them to people on social media in the top 1% of looks, smarts, or wealth without seeing their multitudes of flaws. You buy a house and discover issues but compare it to the nicest house on the block without knowing that the gorgeous-looking house has major deferred structural issues and actually needs a full gut renovation. Does any of this sound uncomfortably familiar?

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

Firstly, let’s read the words.

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

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

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

But secondly, and more fundamentally, we need to reorganize how we see the world and remind ourselves that God’s blessings are not finite. There isn’t a fixed amount of happiness, health, love, or money in the world, so it’s not a zero-sum game. Someone else’s good fortune cannot subtract from yours, and it cannot diminish the pool of blessings available to you in the future. His is his – אֲשֶׁר לְרֵעֶךָ – and yours is yours, and we need to respect that boundary down to the smallest detail scrupulously. God’s blessings are abundant, not scarce.

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Love’s Truest Language

3 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

But why were there flowers on Mount Sinai at all?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The flowers on the mountains are the most trivial detail, with nothing whatsoever to do with the tremendous meaning and significance of the events that took place at Sinai or Moriah. Still, those flowers say more than any commotion, and that’s the part that we remember. To this day, when we celebrate the Torah we got at Sinai, we don’t commemorate the darkness by turning out the lights, nor the earthquakes by shaking the tables; Shavuos is the festival of flowers! For centuries, it has been a near-universal custom to decorate our homes and shul with beautiful flower arrangements.

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

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

The Places You’ll Go

3 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holding Us Over a Barrel

4 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Failure isn’t Fatal

2 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 this means that the Torah writes within the boundaries of human understanding, and 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 to the structure, 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 the treaty was stored at a holy site. There would be a periodic public reading to 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 head 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 in its difference.

God does not seek a covenant with Moshe, the head of state, nor Ahron, the Kohen Gadol. God does not even seek 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 single person; 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 to 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 obvious 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.

Sensitivity to All Creatures

3 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We should be proud of our heritage.

The Moral Limits of Power

2 minute read
Straightforward

One of the Torah’s recursive themes is that all life is precious – and human life most of all.

But the sanctity of life is not readily apparent.

Across most of civilized history, societies readily understood that it is wrong to murder another; yet this obvious law didn’t apply equally. Without respect for the sanctity of all human life, not all humans were protected, and certain people could be dehumanized, such as slaves, who were seen as property.

When Noah emerged from the Ark, Hashem formed a covenant with Noah, which famously includes seven fundamental principles that form the bedrock of society. In a world of infanticide and human sacrifice, the Torah declares that humans must not kill, because God created all humans in His image:

שֹׁפֵךְ דַּם הָאָדָם, בָּאָדָם דָּמוֹ יִשָּׁפֵךְ כִּי בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים, עָשָׂה אֶת-הָאָדָם – Whoever sheds a man’s blood; by a man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in God’s image. (9:6)

Yet this principle is established already in the very first chapter of the Torah:

וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ: זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, בָּרָא אֹתָם – God created man in His image; in the image of God created He him – male and female, He created them. (1:27)

What does the Covenant of Noah add to our understanding of God’s image?

R’ Jonathan Sacks explains that the law in Noah develops the principle of God’s image by extending it from oneself to another. I am in God’s image, but so are you, my potential victim.

If all humans are in God’s image, then not only is murder a crime against humanity, it is also sacrilege – an offense against God. By outlawing murder, the Torah establishes a clear boundary, defining the moral limits of power; that just because we have the authority or ability to do something does not mean we ought to.

Among other key concepts of morality, the prohibition of murder gives expression the sanctity of life and the eminence of the human soul. Perhaps that’s why the prohibition of murder is repeated in the Ten Commandments.

The Torah values human life. To kill intentionally is to deny another’s humanness; perhaps the Torah believes that in doing so, the murderer has hopelessly compromised his own humanity as well.

Uncertain Futures

4 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah treats idolatry and pagan practices with extreme severity, condemning them repeatedly throughout the Tanach. In Moshe’s last address, he issues the same instruction to be weary of these foreign practices:

כִּי אַתָּה בָּא אֶל־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר־ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ לֹא־תִלְמַד לַעֲשׂוֹת כְּתוֹעֲבֹת הַגּוֹיִם הָהֵם׃ לֹא־יִמָּצֵא בְךָ מַעֲבִיר בְּנוֹ־וּבִתּוֹ בָּאֵשׁ קֹסֵם קְסָמִים מְעוֹנֵן וּמְנַחֵשׁ וּמְכַשֵּׁף׃ וְחֹבֵר חָבֶר וְשֹׁאֵל אוֹב וְיִדְּעֹנִי וְדֹרֵשׁ אֶל־הַמֵּתִים׃כִּי־תוֹעֲבַת ה כָּל־עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה וּבִגְלַל הַתּוֹעֵבֹת הָאֵלֶּה ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מוֹרִישׁ אוֹתָם מִפָּנֶיךָ׃ תָּמִים תִּהְיֶה עִם ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ׃ – When you enter the land that Hashem is giving you, you shall not learn to imitate the abominable practices of those nations. Let no one be found among you who sends his son or daughter to the fire, or who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead. For anyone who does such things is abhorrent to Hashem, and it is because of these abominable things that the Hashem is dispossessing them before you. You must be perfectly wholehearted with Hashem. (18:9-13)

While extremely difficult to reconcile with a modern understanding of how the world works, it would be obtuse to deny that a sizable portion of Jewish tradition incorporates magic and superstition as having some actual basis and realism – the book of Shmuel tells of an incident where years after the settlement of the Land of Israel, a Philistine army threatened the young state, and King Saul sought a witch out to consult with the ghostly spirit of the dead prophet Shmuel.

Be that as it may, there is a divergent rationalist school of thought more aligned with a modern understanding of the world, notably the Rambam, that does not treat these as genuine, but still equally forbidden.

Real or not, the Torah is explicit that seeking out future knowledge is taboo and, therefore, off-limits. Instead, we should embrace the future straightforwardly as it comes – תָּמִים תִּהְיֶה עִם ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ.

What’s so wrong about wanting to know the future?

R’ Yakov Hillel explains that someone seeking future knowledge yearns to eliminate doubt and uncertainty, which is antithetical to the human condition.

Humans hate uncertainty. It is stressful and makes us worry. Every day, we navigate over the shaky, uncertain, and constantly changing landscape of probabilities that lie before us.

We have natural pattern recognition abilities, which is why humans are prone to believe in magic and superstition. Doubt and uncertainty are fundamental and intrinsic to the human condition – we aren’t computer programs. Uncertainty is central to the Jewish conception of prophecy; counterintuitively, a prophet’s job is not to foretell an inevitable future – instead, their job is to warn people away from the path they are on. A prophet whose warning comes true has failed! The future is not set, which is also a central theme of the High Holy Days.

This is also the theme of Isaiah critique that is read before Tisha b’Av, where Isaiah calls his community to task, people who, instead of doing the work to alleviate poverty and suffering, and be good and kind to each other, would rather just slaughter a goat or two:

לָמָּה-לִּי רֹב-זִבְחֵיכֶם יֹאמַר ה שָׂבַעְתִּי עֹלוֹת אֵילִים וְחֵלֶב מְרִיאִים וְדַם פָּרִים וּכְבָשִׂים וְעַתּוּדִים לֹא חָפָצְתִּי. כִּי תָבֹאוּ לֵרָאוֹת פָּנָי מִי-בִקֵּשׁ זֹאת מִיֶּדְכֶם רְמֹס חֲצֵרָי. לֹא תוֹסִיפוּ הָבִיא מִנְחַת-שָׁוְא קְטֹרֶת תּוֹעֵבָה הִיא לִי חֹדֶשׁ וְשַׁבָּת קְרֹא מִקְרָא לֹא-אוּכַל אָוֶן וַעֲצָרָה. חָדְשֵׁיכֶם וּמוֹעֲדֵיכֶם שָׂנְאָה נַפְשִׁי הָיוּ עָלַי לָטֹרַח נִלְאֵיתִי נְשֹׂא. וּבְפָרִשְׂכֶם כַּפֵּיכֶם אַעְלִים עֵינַי מִכֶּם גַּם כִּי-תַרְבּוּ תְפִלָּה אֵינֶנִּי שֹׁמֵעַ יְדֵיכֶם דָּמִים מָלֵאוּ. רַחֲצוּ הִזַּכּוּ הָסִירוּ רֹעַ מַעַלְלֵיכֶם מִנֶּגֶד עֵינָי חִדְלוּ הָרֵעַ. לִמְדוּ הֵיטֵב דִּרְשׁוּ מִשְׁפָּט אַשְּׁרוּ חָמוֹץ שִׁפְטוּ יָתוֹם רִיבוּ אַלְמָנָה – “What makes you think I want all your sacrifices?”, says Hashem. “I am stuffed with burnt offerings and ram sacrifices and cattle fats. I don’t need the blood of bulls, lambs and goats. When you come to worship me, who asked you to parade through my courts with all your ceremony? Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts; the incense of your offerings disgusts me!
“Your celebrations of Rosh Chodesh and Shabbos and your fast days, are all sinful and false. I want no more of your pious meetings! I hate your new moon celebrations and your annual festivals. They are a burden to me. I cannot stand them! When you raise your hands in prayer, I will not look. Though you might offer many prayers, I will not listen, because your hands are covered with the blood of innocents!
“Wash yourselves and become clean! Get your sins out of my sight. Give up your evil ways; learn to do good. Seek justice! Help the oppressed and vulnerable! Defend the cause of orphans! Fight for the rights of widows!” – (1:10-17)

It is normal to be scared of the future, but that fear can paralyze us from doing the work we need to do. By holding on to what we need from the future, we use shortcuts to hack the outcome.

Instead, the Torah advises us to be wholesome, to embrace the struggle the uncertainty and fear of the future straightforwardly as it comes – תָּמִים תִּהְיֶה עִם ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ.

Maybe there are religious hacks. But R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz notes that people who are wholesome and straightforward understand that shortcuts are no substitute for the real deal.

The human enterprise is trial and error, courage, and risk. R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that shortcuts are pitfalls – the bad and wrong ways to do things. We need to prepare for the future properly you can’t hack your way into being a decent human – you can’t ask for forgiveness before making amends; you can’t lose weight sorting out your diet; you can’t retire without saving.

When we are afraid of the future, there is something we want to avoid. Instead of avoiding the pain, confront it, put in the work, and take decisive action.

Fit for a King

3 minute read
Straightforward

There’s an interesting discussion about what the Torah’s constitution might look like, and many famous scholars looked to the Torah as a source of political theory. One particular thread of that discussion is the role of a king. The Torah doesn’t particularly advocate for monarchy, and imposes many constraints:

כִּי־תָבֹא אֶל־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ וִירִשְׁתָּהּ וְיָשַׁבְתָּה בָּהּ וְאָמַרְתָּ אָשִׂימָה עָלַי מֶלֶךְ כְּכָל־הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבֹתָי׃ שׂוֹם תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בּוֹ מִקֶּרֶב אַחֶיךָ תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ לֹא תוּכַל לָתֵת עָלֶיךָ אִישׁ נָכְרִי אֲשֶׁר לֹא־אָחִיךָ הוּא׃ רַק לֹא־יַרְבֶּה־לּוֹ סוּסִים וְלֹא־יָשִׁיב אֶת־הָעָם מִצְרַיְמָה לְמַעַן הַרְבּוֹת סוּס וַיהוָה אָמַר לָכֶם לֹא תֹסִפוּן לָשׁוּב בַּדֶּרֶךְ הַזֶּה עוֹד׃ וְלֹא יַרְבֶּה־לּוֹ נָשִׁים וְלֹא יָסוּר לְבָבוֹ וְכֶסֶף וְזָהָב לֹא יַרְבֶּה־לּוֹ מְאֹד׃ וְהָיָה כְשִׁבְתּוֹ עַל כִּסֵּא מַמְלַכְתּוֹ וְכָתַב לוֹ אֶת־מִשְׁנֵה הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת עַל־סֵפֶר מִלִּפְנֵי הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם׃ וְהָיְתָה עִמּוֹ וְקָרָא בוֹ כָּל־יְמֵי חַיָּיו לְמַעַן יִלְמַד לְיִרְאָה אֶת־יְהוָה אֱלֹהָיו לִשְׁמֹר אֶת־כָּל־דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת וְאֶת־הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה לַעֲשֹׂתָם׃ – If, after you have entered the land that Hashem has assigned to you, taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, “I want a king over me, like all the nations around me,” you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by Hashem. Be sure to select your king from your own people; you must not select a foreigner over you, one who is not your kin. Moreover, he shall not keep many horses… And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess. When he is seated on his royal throne, he must write a copy of this Torah written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel. (18:14-20)

The Gemara notes that the king actually must write two Sifrei Torah; one that remains in the royal treasury, and another that he carries with him wherever he goes.

The Rambam explains that during a king’s reign, he must write a Torah scroll for himself in addition to the scroll left to him in the treasury by his ancestors.

Even if the king inherits a treasury filled with beautiful Sifrei Torah from ancestors, the very act of writing the Torah scroll is a way of making the Torah, quite literally, one’s own. The act of doing that writing becomes a powerful pedagogy through which the king comes to understand what his moral position must be.

In political theory, this is called the rule of law, that all persons, institutions, and entities are accountable to the same body of law. In real day to day life, laws matter only as far as they command the collective loyalty of those in power; it requires a governing class that cares about law and government and tradition, rather than personal power and gain. By making the king go through this exercise, the Torah hopes and envisions that a king will understand the gravity of his office.

The Torah’s perspective is that all men are just men – in the very beginning, the Torah says that humans are formed “in the image of God,” which R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches to mean as destroying a divine right to oppress others. It is political dynamite, from which we can learn about the sanctity of life, the dignity of individuals and human rights, the sovereignty of justice and the rule of law, free society, all because God bestows his image on everyone, not just kings and emperors. It follows that we would expect a Jewish conception of a king to look qualitatively different.

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that the higher in stature and authority someone is, the closer scrutiny they can expect. Intuitively, a powerful person needs more humbling – not necessarily in a negative way, but more so that a successful leader is someone whose leadership exists to help his people.

Leadership is about being of service to others, not being served by others.

Conspiracy!

2 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah contains a litany of laws that pertain to every aspect of court procedures in general and testimony in particular. The proper procedure ensures the fair administration of justice, which is the underpinning of a just society. There are many prerequisites to accept witness testimony, and anything short is disqualified.

One of the most fascinating subtopics is about witnesses who present false evidence; then, another set of witnesses testifies that the first set of witnesses were with them elsewhere at the time, and so the original witnesses could not possibly have first-hand knowledge about the case. Under these circumstances, the Torah imposes the punishment that the liars attempted to implicate the innocent man with:

וַעֲשִׂיתֶם לוֹ כַּאֲשֶׁר זָמַם לַעֲשׂוֹת לְאָחִיו וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִקִּרְבֶּךָ – You shall do to him as he plotted to do to his brother, and purge the wickedness from among yourselves. (19:19)

The Gemara suggests that the court will only carry this out when the court catches the liar before the plot succeeds, not after, because there is no brotherhood in death – כאשר זמם ולא כאשר עשה. If the plot succeeds, there is no punishment.

The Ritva queries that the law of Yibum is about brotherhood, but the whole concept of Yibum only arises to after the death of a brother; he further notes that Nadav and Avihu are referred to as brothers after death as well.

R’ Ezriel Hildesheimer explains that there is an obvious difference between biological and fraternal brotherhood. A biological brother remains so even after death – so it is natural to refer to brotherhood in those instances.

But the law of testimony specifically precludes blood relatives from testifying against each other, so any reference to brotherhood in the context of testimony can only mean the fraternal kind! We are brothers in identity and community, with a shared observance of Torah law and tradition, members of the Jewish People. But when we die, we are no longer bound to the Torah or each other – we move on into the beyond, and the imagery of brotherhood no longer makes sense.

While the interpretation is sound, the law itself is hard to understand. Why is it fair that if the conspiracy succeeds, that they get off scot-free, with no consequences?

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that there are plenty of times that people don’t get what they deserve, for good and for bad, and sometimes people do get away with it.

But the Torah’s embodiment of punishment isn’t “just dessert” – it’s about restoring balance, and sometimes, the scales just won’t balance, and the consequence will be ineffective.

When the court catches the conspirators in time, the court can punish their wicked intentions by giving them the pain of their attempt, and this squares off their debt.

But when the conspirators succeed, there is no remedy, because they have done something far worse than “only” harming an innocent person. In their success, the witnesses are not the tool that inflicts the harm on the innocent; their testimony exploits and weaponizes the court, it’s sages and the entirely legal system.

The law of conspiring witnesses is not just an interpersonal crime against another, but against the entire system that Judaism builds, and there is no way to make up for that. You can get a sense of the Torah’s indignance at this, because, unusually, it labels this crime as “wicked” – בִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִקִּרְבֶּךָ.

When someone corrupts the entire legal system, there is no remedy for that, and we leave it to the heavens.

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 if the educational purpose of giving the Torah in such a place is to illustrate the value of humility, then 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 M’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.

Rabbi Lord 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.

Rabbi 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 greatest 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 own authority and leadership. When a person believes they are nothing, then ultimately, the Torah itself will have little effect in elevating him. Although pride is a dangerous vice in large quantities, a small amount is still an essential ingredient to living a good life.

Pride is about competing – that you are smarter than or richer than; 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 not better or less. They simply are.

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

Good Fortune

3 minute read
Straightforward

We spend most of the Seder night talking about the Exodus story. But right towards the beginning of the Haggadah, we say something that almost casually dismisses the central theme of the night, the Exodus:

צֵא וּלְמַד מַה בִּקֵּשׁ לָבָן הָאֲרַמִּי לַעֲשׂוֹת לְיַעֲקֹב אָבִינוּ: שֶׁפַּרְעֹה לֹא גָזַר אֶלָּא עַל הַזְּכָרִים, וְלָבָן בִּקֵּשׁ לַעֲקֹר אֶת־הַכֹּל – Go learn what Lavan from Aramean sought to do to our father Yakov; Pharaoh only oppressed the males, whereas Lavan tried to destroy it all!

But it doesn’t quite resonate.

Pharaoh was a genocidal despot who cruelly enslaved an entire race and murdered children indiscriminately – לֹא גָזַר אֶלָּא עַל הַזְּכָרִים. He ticks every box on the villain archetype bingo card, which is in large part why the Exodus was such a big deal.

Our ancestor Lavan, although a tricky swindler, nonetheless provided refuge and safe harbor when Yakov was on the run with nowhere to go, and over time, provided him with a family, a home, and tremendous wealth.

In what universe can we plausibly say that Lavan was worse than Pharaoh? Moreover, doesn’t that totally undermine Pharaoh’s atrocities, and perhaps the entire Seder?

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that the Haggadah reminds us of Lavan as a warning that threats don’t always look like the atrocities of Pharaoh; sometimes they appear as a kindly person who took you in and gave you everything. 

There’s nothing surprising about our response to clear and obvious danger. When calamity strikes, in the face of a Pharaoh type villain, we know what to do; across the ages, in the face of adversity, Jews have been resilient, doubling down on study, prayer, and observance – וְכַאֲשֶׁר יְעַנּוּ אֹתוֹ כֵּן יִרְבֶּה וְכֵן יִפְרֹץ. 

The danger Lavan poses is far more insidious; Yakov might forget who he was – לַעֲקֹר אֶת־הַכֹּל. Affluence, no less than genocide or slavery, threatens Jewish continuity by making us forget who we are and why.

Before Moshe’s death, he warned his current and future audience  about a subtle mistake humans are consistently prone to:

הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ, פֶּן-תִּשְׁכַּח אֶת-ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ, לְבִלְתִּי שְׁמֹר מִצְותָיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו וְחֻקֹּתָיו, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם. פֶּן-תֹּאכַל, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ; וּבָתִּים טֹבִים תִּבְנֶה, וְיָשָׁבְתָּ.וּבְקָרְךָ וְצֹאנְךָ יִרְבְּיֻן, וְכֶסֶף וְזָהָב יִרְבֶּה-לָּךְ; וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר-לְךָ, יִרְבֶּה.וְרָם, לְבָבֶךָ; וְשָׁכַחְתָּ אֶת-ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ, הַמּוֹצִיאֲךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים – Take care that you don’t forget the Lord your God and fail to keep His commandments, rules, and laws, which I instruct you today: when you have eaten, and you are satisfied and built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, be careful that your heart does not grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God—who freed you from the land of Egypt, home of slaves… (8:10-14)

The Beis Halevi highlights that Yakov feared facing his brother Esau on two counts – the hand of his brother, and the hand of Esau – מִיַּד אָחִי מִיַּד עֵשָׂו. We know all too well about Esau’s destructive capacity for violence – מִיַּד עֵשָׂו, but Yakov understood that Esau’s warm embrace of brotherhood was no less of a threat – מִיַּד אָחִי.

For everyone who died in pogroms, Crusades, the Inquisition, or the Holocaust, there are memorials and prayers, history, and proclamations of “Never Again.” But, in the words of R’ Noach Weinberg, there is a spiritual Holocaust taking place right now. How many souls do we lose to assimilation, to a friendly society that opens its arms to us and beckons oh so invitingly?

It is one thing to believe in God when you need His help. It is another thing entirely when you have already received it. 

Perhaps Lavan is worse because when faced with a Lavan, people obliviously slip away, invisible and silent, without resistance.

The Haggadah and the entire Seder night provide the antidote – צֵא וּלְמַד. If you hold on to your identity, your history, and where you come from, you will not lose your way.

You are Worthy

3 minute read
Straightforward

The Exodus is an orienting event for the Jewish People, a founding moment in our history, with a daily duty to recall it. It’s the first thing God has to say to humans at Sinai; God introduces Himself as the God who took us out of Egypt.

Remembering the Exodus is a perpetual mitzvah, and an astounding amount of our daily blessings, mitzvos, and prayers commemorate the Exodus – זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם. It is ubiquitous to the extent we could miss the point entirely.

What do we mean when we say that we remember that God took the Jews out of Egypt?

It is essential to understand first principles because they are the foundational concepts that govern the systems built upon them.

If we unpack the story, the Jews in Egypt didn’t deserve to be saved because they were so good or so special; in fact, quite the opposite. 

The Zohar imagines the angels arguing whether or not God should save the Jews, and the argument was that “this lot are just a bunch of idol-worshippers, and so are those!” The Haggadah admits as much – מִתְּחִלָּה עוֹבְדֵי עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה הָיוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ.

When Moshe told the Jews to set aside and take one sheep per family, the Midrash says that “set aside” meant setting aside their idols before taking the sheep for the mitzvah!

When even Moshe, already well on his way to greatness, saw Yisro’s daughters getting bullied and got involved in the dispute to protect them, the onlookers mistook him for just another Egyptian!

The Midrash famously states that the enslaved Jews retained their names, clothing, and language. This is often framed as a point of pride, but the point would seem to be that apart from these narrow and limited practices, they were otherwise indistinguishable from Egyptians in every other conceivable way!

Moreover, the generation that left Egypt and stood at Sinai fought Moshe the rest of their lives, begging to go back to Egypt, and was ultimately doomed to wander and die in the wilderness.

The Zohar goes so far as to say that the Jews were on the 49th level of spiritual malaise, just one notch off rock bottom, the point of no return. Rav Kook notes that this adds a particular dimension to the imagery of God’s strong outstretched arm – it was a forceful intervention, an emergency rescue of a nation that had stumbled and was about fall off a cliff – בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה.

As R’ Shlomo Farhi explains, whenever God is characterized with strength, it indicates God doing something that is undeserved. God does not require more incremental strength to move a grape than a galaxy; but God can force compassion to overwhelm what justice requires – גּוֹאֵל וחָזָק אָתָּה.

That is to say that on a fundamental level, the Jews didn’t deserve rescuing at all.

And yet crucially, as R’ Chaim Kanievsky notes, God responded to their cries all the same – וַנִּצְעַק אֶל־ה’ אֱלֹקי אֲבֹתֵינוּ, וַיִּשְׁמַע ה’ אֶת־קֹלֵנוּ.

The Divrei Chaim notes that the very first Commandment is no command at all; God “introduces” himself as the God who took us out of Egypt – אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים. It’s not a command – it is just a simple statement of fact. We might not deserve redemption, yet God redeems us all the same.

R’ Tzadok haKohen writes that to remember Egypt is to remember God’s first declarative sentence; our God rescues people from Egypt, whatever they have done and whoever they have become. Our God initiates the great Exodus before the Jewish People ever take a single step of their own to be better – אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים.

The Ropshitzer quipped that תְּחִלָּה לְמִקְרָאֵי קדֶשׁ זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם – the first step towards holiness is remembering that the same Exodus that rescued people from the abyss once before could be just a moment away.

So when we remind ourselves about Egypt, it’s not just that it happened once, but that, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe put it, God’s redemption is not contingent on our worthiness.

Take this lesson to heart; it’s one of the vanishingly few that the Torah specifically asks us to remember at all times – לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת־יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ.

And it’s clear why.

You don’t need to remember the simple historical events of the Exodus; you have to remind yourself that every single last human is worthy of God’s unconditional love.

Walking God’s Way

2 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Recreating Egypt and Sinai

2 minute read
Straightforward

One of the more forgotten laws is the mitzvah of Hakhel.

On the first day of Chol HaMoed Sukkos, two weeks after the end of the Shemitta year; every man, woman, and child would assemble to hear a public Torah reading from his personal Sefer Torah:

מִקֵּץ שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים, בְּמֹעֵד שְׁנַת הַשְּׁמִטָּה–בְּחַג הַסֻּכּוֹת בְּבוֹא כָל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵרָאוֹת אֶת-פְּנֵי ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בַּמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר יִבְחָר:  תִּקְרָא אֶת-הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת, נֶגֶד כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל–בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם: הַקְהֵל אֶת-הָעָם, הָאֲנָשִׁים וְהַנָּשִׁים וְהַטַּף, וְגֵרְךָ, אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ–לְמַעַן יִשְׁמְעוּ וּלְמַעַן יִלְמְדוּ, וְיָרְאוּ אֶת-ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, וְשָׁמְרוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת, אֶת-כָּל-דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת – Every seventh year, after the Shemittah year, on the festival of Sukkos… in the place that He shall choose, read the Torah before all of Israel, so they will hear it. Gather the nation – men, women, children, the stranger among you… so that they may learn and fear Hashem your G-d. (31:10-12)

It’s an unusual mitzvah, in that it is fulfilled by everybody – young and old, men and women, Kohen, Levi, and Yisrael. Children aren’t typically expected to observe the Torah like adults – yet the Torah not only includes them but adds additional emphasis that they are a part of this ceremony:

וּבְנֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדְעוּ, יִשְׁמְעוּ וְלָמְדוּ לְיִרְאָה אֶת ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם – The children who do not yet know will hear and learn to fear Hashem your God… (31:13)

Why is it important that children are a part of this mitzvah?

The Gemara says that while a child does not have the mental capacity to technically fulfill a mitzvah, there is a pedagogical benefit to their inclusion nonetheless.

The reason children must attend is simple and powerful: the Torah is for everyone – even the king, and even the children. Today, we call this principle the rule of law.

R’ Shai Held considers Hakhel an orienting event that re-enacts the redemption and revelation the foundational moments of Egypt and Sinai that Judaism revolves around.

It takes place after the Shemitta year because Shemitta releases slaves and debts, and discharges mortgages and pledges.

It takes place on Sukkos because it is the time of year that everyone leaves the illusion of security and trappings of life behind, living with simplicity and vulnerability together – צילא דמהימנותא.

It is not enough that everyone attends; they must be there “together”.

The Shem Mi’Shmuel notes that to achieve the level where we can accept the Torah once more, it takes a whole year of living in liberty and equality, free from the obsession of increasing our private property.

The Sfas Emes teaches that the effort parents have to make to bring their kids teaches the children how important it is to understand this. While it may be difficult to explain to a  young child that something is important, they will understand when you show them.

The Hakhel ceremony reaffirms that beneath the details and minutiae of our lives, we cannot help but acknowledge our shared common identity and fundamental dependence on God. Accordingly, it is entirely fitting that the experience of the children is front and center.

The Torah belongs to everyone. The buildup to the moment at Sinai where the Jewish People could accept the Torah in sacred unity with one voice is reenacted every calendar cycle at Hakhel, and the Torah calls for a similar process to break the barriers down.

To build a community, you need a longer table; not a higher fence.

Speak Up, Step Up

2 minute read
Straightforward

For a long time, there was a prevailing but now discredited theory that history is written by a few great men, and that these privileged few are driven to greatness through some intrinsic superiority, be it religious, economic, intellectual, or some other advantage.

The Torah has never taken this view:

אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם, לִפְנֵי האֱלֹהֵיכֶםרָאשֵׁיכֶם שִׁבְטֵיכֶם, זִקְנֵיכֶם וְשֹׁטְרֵיכֶם, כֹּל, אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל. טַפְּכֶם נְשֵׁיכֶםוְגֵרְךָ, אֲשֶׁר בְּקֶרֶב מַחֲנֶיךָמֵחֹטֵב עֵצֶיךָ, עַד שֹׁאֵב מֵימֶיךָ. לְעָבְרְךָ, בִּבְרִית ה אֱלֹהֶיךָוּבְאָלָתוֹאֲשֶׁר ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, כֹּרֵת עִמְּךָ הַיּוֹם – All of you are standing before Hashem your God today: heads; tribes; elders; officers; all the men of Israel; children; women; the strangers in your midst; the wood choppers and the water carriers; so that you should enter into the covenant and oath of Hashem your God, which Hashem your God makes with you today… (29:9-11)

One of Judaism’s great innovations is that our God is the God of all people, and cares about all people.

R’ Boruch of Medzhybizh teaches that the Torah’s call to action is not just to the wise and industrious, and instead requires each of us to participate in realizing its vision; from the most natural born leaders to the most marginalized groups as well – רָאשֵׁיכֶם שִׁבְטֵיכֶם זִקְנֵיכֶם וְשֹׁטְרֵיכֶם / טַפְּכֶם נְשֵׁיכֶם.

We believe that God’s call to action presents itself every day – אֲשֶׁר ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, כֹּרֵת עִמְּךָ הַיּוֹם – and that it emanates from Sinai itself – בְּכָל יוֹם וָיוֹם בַּת קוֹל יוֹצֵאת מֵהַר חוֹרֵב וּמַכְרֶזֶת.

We will make mistakes, we will stumble, and we will fail, and someone else would do it better. But it doesn’t matter.

Because whatever your talents and shortcomings are, you have a unique voice and contribution that you alone can offer – לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה.

The only person who will never make mistakes is someone who does nothing at all.

Not Yet Lost

< 1 minute
Straightforward

One of the most beautiful and innovative themes in the Torah is the concept of teshuva – return and repentance. Everything broken and lost can be found, fixed, and restored.

Whatever mistakes we have made, we believe that Hashem loves us and will accept us the moment we make up our minds:

וְשָׁב ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶתשְׁבוּתְךָ, וְרִחֲמֶךָ; וְשָׁב, וְקִבֶּצְךָ מִכָּלהָעַמִּים, אֲשֶׁר הֱפִיצְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, שָׁמָּה. אִםיִהְיֶה נִדַּחֲךָ, בִּקְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִםמִשָּׁם יְקַבֶּצְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וּמִשָּׁם יִקָּחֶךָ – God will return your captives and have compassion for you; and will return and gather you from all the nations, wherever God has scattered you. Even if you are displaced to the edge of the heavens; that’s where God will gather you from – He will fetch you from there. (30:3,4)

R’ Chaim Brown notes that Hashem promises to find us twice – וְקִבֶּצְךָ / יְקַבֶּצְךָ.

What does the repetition add?

Rav Kook teaches that the first promise is about a physical return to Israel, and the second promise is that God will also return us from the outer edge of the spiritual universe – קְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם.

The Sfas Emes teaches that Hashem makes this promise regardless of whatever it is that brought us there to that spiritual wilderness – whether it’s upbringing; bad choices; poor self-control – none of it matters – מִשָּׁם יְקַבֶּצְךָ / וּמִשָּׁם יִקָּחֶךָ.

An astounding number of people today believe they are irredeemable and have done terrible things. But if you’re not an adulterous, idol worshipping murderer, the odds are that you can make amends pretty easily. And even if you are, Hashem doesn’t give up on us!

So forgive yourself for yesterday; make amends today; all for a better tomorrow.

God is Biased

4 minute read
Straightforward

One of Judaism’s signature beliefs is in our personal ability to make amends – Teshuva. 

It’s hard to overstate the significance of this belief.

In sharp contrast, Christianity does not have a framework for humans to make amends; humans are born and remain in a state of sinfulness as a result of the corruption of original sin, which is the theological basis of Jesus’ death as an atonement.

Teshuva is a fundamentally different worldview. 

Teshuva and the personal abilities of atonement and forgiveness are groundbreaking because, in the ancient world, humans lived in fear of their gods. You would try to do right by them, in the hope that they would do right to you; you don’t offend them, so they don’t smite you. The relationship people had with their gods was explicitly transactional; and from a certain perspective, what we might call abusive. 

But in a framework where atonement and forgiveness exist, God isn’t looking to catch you out at all, and the new possibility exists for a very different relationship – not just master and servant, but now something more like parent and child.

Why do we believe we have the ability to atonement and earn forgiveness?

Quite simply, we believe we can make amends because the Torah consistently not only emphasizes that God is not impartial; but that God is biased towards creation – וּבְטוֹב הָעוֹלָם נִדּוֹן /  עוֹלָם חֶסֶד יִבָּנֶה.

The priestly blessing explicitly talks about God’s preferential treatment; Rashi explains it as a wish for God to literally smile at us – יָאֵר ה’ פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וִיחֻנֶּךָ, יִשָּׂא ה’ פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ.

As the Shem mi’Shmuel explains, God’s compassion amplifies the steps we take to make amends – ועֹשֶׂה חֶסֶד לַאֲלָפִים. 

The Torah speaks plainly about how compassion will drive God to personally gather up every lost soul and return and restore them from wherever they are:

 וְשָׁב ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת–שְׁבוּתְךָ, וְרִחֲמֶךָ; וְשָׁב, וְקִבֶּצְךָ מִכָּל–הָעַמִּים, אֲשֶׁר הֱפִיצְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, שָׁמָּה. אִם–יִהְיֶה נִדַּחֲךָ, בִּקְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם מִשָּׁם יְקַבֶּצְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וּמִשָּׁם יִקָּחֶךָ – God will return your captives and have compassion for you; and will return and gather you from all the nations, wherever God has scattered you. (30:3,4)

Rav Kook teaches that the first promise is about a physical return to Israel, and the second promise is that God will also return us from the outer edge of the spiritual universe – קְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם. The Sfas Emes teaches that Hashem makes this promise regardless of whatever it is that brought us there to that spiritual wilderness – whether it’s upbringing; bad choices; poor self-control – none of it matters – מִשָּׁם יְקַבֶּצְךָ / וּמִשָּׁם יִקָּחֶךָ.

The High Holy Day prayers prominently quotes Ezekiel telling his audience, and us, what it will take to avert harsh judgment:

וְהָרָשָׁע כִּי יָשׁוּב מִכּל־חַטֹּאתָו אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וְשָׁמַר אֶת־כּל־חֻקוֹתַי וְעָשָׂה מִשְׁפָּט וּצְדָקָה חָיֹה יִחְיֶה לֹא יָמוּת. כּל־פְּשָׁעָיו אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לֹא יִזָּכְרוּ לוֹ בְּצִדְקָתוֹ אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂה יִחְיֶה. הֶחָפֹץ אֶחְפֹּץ מוֹת רָשָׁע נְאֻם אֲדֹנָי אלוקים הֲלוֹא בְּשׁוּבוֹ מִדְּרָכָיו וְחָיָה – Moreover, if the wicked one repents of all the sins that he committed and keeps all My laws and does what is just and right, he shall live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions he committed shall be remembered against him; because of the righteousness he has practiced, he shall live. Is it my desire that a wicked person shall die?—says the Lord God. It is rather that he shall turn back from his ways and live. (Ezekiel 18:21-23)

As R’ Jonathan Sacks notes, there is no mention of sacrifice, no mention of a temple, no magic ritual or secret; it’s never too late to change, God will forgive every mistake we’ve made so long as   we are honest in regretting it and doing our best to make it right.

As the Izhbitzer teaches, there are no mistakes, and the world has unfolded up to this moment as intended; which, quite radically, validates sin retroactively, although it should be clear that this teaching has zero prospective or forward-looking value. You are where you are supposed to be today, you were supposed to make that mistake; and now your task is to move forward from it. God is willing to let go of our mistakes; we needn’t hold on so tight.

As R’ Simcha Bunim of Peshischa points out, there’s nothing surprising about humans making mistakes and doing the wrong thing. The big surprise is that we don’t take advantage of our ability to atone and make amends every day – כִּי הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם לֹא-נִפְלֵאת הִוא מִמְּךָ וְלֹא רְחֹקָה הִוא. לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא / כִּי-קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד, בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ, לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ.

The conclusion of one of the most moving parts of the prayers unambiguously says that even a person who sinned their entire life can still repent on his deathbed –כי לא תחפץ במות המת, כי אם בשובו מדרכו וחיה ועד יום מותו תחכה לו, אם ישוב מיד תקבלו.

It’s literally not possible to alienate yourself from the Creator Who permeates Creation. As R’ Akiva taught, God Himself cleanses us – וּמִי מְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם, ‏אֲבִיכֶם שֶׁבַּשָּׁמַיִם, ‏… ‏מַה מִקְוֶה מְטַהֵר אֶת הַטְּמֵאִים, אַף הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מְטַהֵר אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל.

It’s not even difficult! Our sages authorize a wicked man to marry a woman on the condition that he is righteous, on the basis that he might have had a moment’s thought about changing for the better. The Minchas Chinuch notes that this potential thought doesn’t include the confession and follow through required for complete rehabilitation; but the Rogatchover and the Brisker school suggest that the mere thought alone of doing better removes the designation of wicked from a person – because God is biased.

By designing creation with a framework that includes atonement, forgiveness, and Teshuva, God freely admits bias towards the children of creation. In fact, our sages say that a repentant can achieve what saints cannot.

God invites the children of creation to come home – שובו בנים שובבים. There is no need to hold yourself to a higher standard than God.

If you think you can probably be doing a little better in certain respects, you might be right and it could be time to raise your standards. 

It’s not hard, and it’s not far away. Creation has been designed for you to make amends, has been waiting for you to make amends.

What are you waiting for?

Make it Right

2 minute read
Straightforward

The Western world we inhabit is dominated by Christian dogma. One particular widespread belief is that sin corrupts us in some fundamental and irredeemable way.

But that’s not how the Torah talks about wrongdoing:

כִּי-יִהְיֶה רִיב בֵּין אֲנָשִׁים, וְנִגְּשׁוּ אֶל-הַמִּשְׁפָּט וּשְׁפָטוּם; וְהִצְדִּיקוּ, אֶת-הַצַּדִּיק, וְהִרְשִׁיעוּ, אֶת-הָרָשָׁע. וְהָיָה אִם-בִּן הַכּוֹת, הָרָשָׁע–וְהִפִּילוֹ הַשֹּׁפֵט וְהִכָּהוּ לְפָנָיו, כְּדֵי רִשְׁעָתוֹ בְּמִסְפָּר אַרְבָּעִים יַכֶּנּוּ, לֹא יֹסִיף: פֶּן-יֹסִיף לְהַכֹּתוֹ עַל-אֵלֶּה מַכָּה רַבָּה, וְנִקְלָה אָחִיךָ לְעֵינֶיךָ – If there is a dispute between men; they shall approach the court, and the judges will judge them, and acquit the innocent one and condemn the guilty one. If the guilty one has incurred lashes, the judge shall make him lean over and flog him in front of him, commensurate with his crime, in number. He shall beat him with forty lashes; he shall not exceed, lest he give him a much more severe flogging than these forty lashes, and your brother will be degraded before your eyes. (25:1-3)

The Torah suggests that the very instant the crime is remediated, the Torah reclassifies the formerly guilty party as your brother – רָשָׁע / אָחִיךָ.

The Sifri derives from here the fundamental principle of rehabilitating offenders. Once a wrongdoer has made amends, he becomes your brother again. So for example, he is permitted to be a witness like anyone else, and his testimony is no less credible. The stain on his character is temporary, not permanent. He is not an ex-convict or Baal Teshuva; he is your brother.

One of the most influential ideas in Judaism, mentioned in the book of Job and popularized by the Baal Shem Tov, is the idea that our souls are a small fragment of godliness, and God as well in some sense – חלק אלוה ממעל. This motif is formidable – not only is God a piece of us, but equally, we are a piece of God.

There is a part of the soul, whatever it may be, that is fundamentally pure and incorruptible – אֱלֹהַי, נְשָׁמָה שֶׁנָּתַתָּ‏ בִּי טְהוֹרָה הִיא.

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that Judaism believes in rehabilitation both spiritually and in civil law, to help wrongdoers rebuild and make amends.

When someone sins or stumbles, the Torah condemns the act, not the person. The moment a wrong has been made right, anyone can become your brother, once again.

Hate the sin, not the sinner.

Self-Regulate

< 1 minute
Straightforward

As part of the functioning society the Torah seeks to create, the Torah requires us to have a judiciary to interpret the law, and an executive to apply it:

שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים, תִּתֶּן-לְךָ בְּכָל-שְׁעָרֶיךָ – You shall place judges and police within all your gates… (16:18)

As with many mitzvos, the Torah speaks to individuals here, and not the community. Does the Torah expect each of us to individually to create a roster of judges and a police force?

While the simple reading is about judges and police, it is not simply a law about the branches of government.

The Shelah instead reads it as Judaism’s source for the principle of personal development and self-regulation. Building a great society starts with individuals. The mitzvah is literally given to you, in the second person possessive, because nobody else could possibly judge or police you in the way only you are uniquely able.

The Kotzker suggests that the mitzvah is literally to gatekeep the openings to our bodies, the sights, sounds, smells, and ideas we let in and out.

R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that we pray every day for a return of the judges of old – הָשִׁיבָה שׁופְטֵינוּ כְּבָרִאשׁונָה – which on this reading, would mean a return to our youthful ideals.

R’ Yisrael Salanter taught that our natural intuition is the only judge and policeman we ever need.

R’ Jonathan Sacks explains that this is a microcosm of the Jewish People’s mission. In our personal lives and in our communities, we have a duty to determine whether there is a gap between where we are and where we ought to be, then taking the necessary steps to bridge it.

Because if we’re tuned in, we know what’s wrong, and we know how to fix it too.

Who Watches the Watchman?

6 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

The Torah describes such an example. 

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

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

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

Would anyone seriously suspect that they were?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Men are Created Equal

3 minute read
Straightforward

Centuries ago, the founding fathers of the United States of America made the radical and immortal proclamation that all men are created equal.

Today, this doctrine is called egalitarianism and is arguably a cornerstone of the modern world. This political theory prioritizes equality for all people, generally characterized by the idea that all humans are equal in fundamental worth or moral status and should have equal rights. While different sections along the political spectrum can reasonably disagree on the exact contours of equality and which policies further its ideals, it is clear that the inequalities of the ancient world are relics of history. Feudalism and entitled aristocracy are gone, as is a landed gentry with lords and serfs. Today, we understand that all men are created equal and that no one is better or worse than anyone else.

Quite compellingly, the Torah makes a case for a form of equality that not only predates many of the Renaissance ideals that gave rise to the modern world; but is quite arguably their source.

When the Torah talks about humans in the image of God, the Torah is unequivocal that the only hierarchy that exists is between you and God. There is no one else above or below you; every other human stands alongside you and under God. 

What’s more, is that whenever the Torah talks about interpersonal mitzvos and our duties to each other, the Torah utilizes recursive imagery in which all the laws are rooted: 

כִּי-יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן מֵאַחַד אַחֶיךָ / וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת-יָדְךָ, מֵאָחִיךָ, הָאֶבְיוֹן / וְרָעָה עֵינְךָ בְּאָחִיךָ הָאֶבְיוֹן, וְלֹא תִתֵּן לוֹ / פָּתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת-יָדְךָ לְאָחִיךָ / כִּי-יִמָּכֵר לְךָ אָחִיךָ הָעִבְרִי / לְבִלְתִּי רוּם-לְבָבוֹ מֵאֶחָיו / וְנַחֲלָה לֹא-יִהְיֶה-לּוֹ, בְּקֶרֶב אֶחָיו / וְשֵׁרֵת, בְּשֵׁם ה אֱלֹקיו–כְּכָל-אֶחָיו / נָבִיא מִקִּרְבְּךָ מֵאַחֶיךָ / וַעֲשִׂיתֶם לוֹ, כַּאֲשֶׁר זָמַם לַעֲשׂוֹת לְאָחִיו – When there will be a poor man among your brothers / Don’t withold your hand from your brother, the poor man / Should your eye turn evil towards your poor brother, and you don’t give him [what he needs] / Open your hands to your brother, and open them once more / Should your brother be sold as a slave / [Let a king] not be haughty over his brothers / [The kohen] shall not have an inheritance with his brothers [because of his extra benefits] / He will serve in God’s name, as his brothers / A prophet will come from among your brothers / Conspiring witnesses shall suffer what they conspired upon their brother. (Multiple sources)

Whether we’re talking about rich and poor, slaves or kings, prophets or priests, the Torah utilizes the imagery of brotherhood and fraternity consistently. When the Torah says something, it matters. When the Torah says the same recurring thing over and over, it matters a lot, and we should recognize it as such. 

The Torah asks us not to define people by their status in a hierarchy as a lender or borrower, king or subject, master or slave. While socioeconomic status may accurately describe us, it is our common identity that defines us. 

There is a radical concept here.

We must help each other, not because we are different, but because we are the same.

The theory of common identity anchoring us to each other is presented as one of the foundational reasons we observe the Torah:

וְזָכַרְתָּ, כִּי עֶבֶד הָיִיתָ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, וַיִּפְדְּךָ, ה אֱלֹקיךָ – Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the Lord redeemed you (15:15)

The fact that we were once oppressed is not merely a reason to find empathy with vulnerable folks; it goes further. It should serve as a constant reminder that we mustn’t fall victim to arrogance and hubris by taking credit for our good fortune – וְאָמַרְתָּ בִּלְבָבֶךָ כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי עָשָׂה לִי אֶת־הַחַיִל הַזֶּה.

Although egalitarianism informs many government policies today, we live in a modern professional world optimized for capital and commerce, not community. It has bestowed a litany of benefits and has resulted in arguably the finest era of human society to date. Still, while reasonable people can disagree on what optimal social policy looks like, we ought to remember that the Torah’s conception of our duties to each other goes a lot further than equality and deep into the realm of brotherhood and fraternity, imposing a firm sense of duty to protect and respect each other.

The Torah speaks past our relative status and straightforwardly and unambiguously demands that you see the less fortunate as your responsibility. It has nothing to do with generosity and everything to do with our duties towards each other.

Because there, but for the grace of God, go I.

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.

What Do You See?

2 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah’s civil laws consistently emphasize the duties and responsibilities humans owe to each other.

In one of them, the Torah considers what happens when you find someone’s animals wandering unsupervised:

לֹא תִרְאֶה אֶת שׁוֹר אָחִיךָ אוֹ אֶת שֵׂיוֹ נִדָּחִים וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ מֵהֶם הָשֵׁב תְּשִׁיבֵם לְאָחִיךָ – Do not see your brother’s ox or sheep straying and ignore them – you should return them to your brother. (22:4)

This law is simple and consistent with the Torah’s vision, but its phrasing is unusual.

The law as practiced is about not ignoring someone’s lost animal but is phrased in terms of seeing – לֹא תִתְעַלם / לֹא תִרְאֶה וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ.

Why does the law talk about what we see instead of what we ignore?

R’ Shlomo Freifeld teaches that sight is not an exclusively visual function. Our eyes govern a physical aspect of perception, but there is also a mental and emotional aspect, the way you process optical inputs. A deficiency in the physical element will result in actual blindness, but lacking the mental component also results in functional blindness, if only in the figurative sense. 

As the Sfas Emes explains, the Torah does not charge us with a simple instruction against ignoring; there are genuinely things that we don’t see! But the Torah here makes us responsible for the way we look at things, and especially the things in our peripheral vision – the things we see but ignore – לֹא תִרְאֶה וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ.

When you change how you look at things, the things you look at change.

In this instance, the person you are helping isn’t even an active participant; your obligation to help exists independently of that person. There is no one on the other side seeking your help here, so it’s an easy one to avoid, and so the Torah warns us against the tendency to ignore our brothers and sisters.

Being unaware or not noticing aren’t good enough excuses. The errors and omissions for things we weren’t paying attention to are still sins that require rectification on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – שוגג / על חטא שחטאנו ביודעים ובלא יודעים.

Every day, we ask God to open our eyes – פוקח עורים – which takes on new meaning in light of this teaching; it’s a prayer for clarity and perception, and it’s hard to overstate how important that is.

Your eyes aren’t enough when it’s your mind that’s blind.

Is there something you might be blinding yourself to right now?

Trailblazer

2 minute read
Straightforward

Before the Jews entered the Land of Israel, Moshe gave a speech to the gathered people. One of the points he made was that just because some things seem less important; it doesn’t mean people should perform them half-heartedly:

וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם-וְשָׁמַר ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ, אֶת-הַבְּרִית וְאֶת-הַחֶסֶד, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע, לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ – When you finally listen (עֵקֶב) to the laws, observe and perform them; Hashem will safeguard you, and uphold the covenant sworn to your fathers. (7:12)

עֵקֶב is the word for “heel”; it denotes some definition of stepping. In other words: when you observe the things that are trodden on, God safeguards you in some way.

Rashi understands the word to be cognate to “kneading”, which lends an additional layer of understanding. Kneading has a constructive purpose, which is to warm and stretch a cold and firm dough. We knead mitzvos when we instrumentalize them for personal gains and ends.

R’ Shlomo Farhi observes that Moshe repeats the imagery of stepping on things once again:

כָּל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר תִּדְרֹךְ כַּף רַגְלְכֶם בּוֹ לָכֶם יִהְיֶה מִן הַמִּדְבָּר וְהַלְּבָנוֹן מִן הַנָּהָר נְהַר פְּרָת וְעַד הַיָּם הָאַחֲרוֹן יִהְיֶה גְּבֻלְכֶם. לֹא יִתְיַצֵּב אִישׁ בִּפְנֵיכֶם פַּחְדְּכֶם וּמוֹרַאֲכֶם יִתֵּן | ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם עַל פְּנֵי כָל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר תִּדְרְכוּ בָהּ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לָכֶם – Every place the soles of your feet tread will be yours… No man will rise before you; the Lord will cast the fear of you and the dread of you on the land upon which you tread… (11:24,25)

This seems to say that the Land of Israel would become theirs by stepping on it. But this cannot be literal – Israel became theirs after a war!

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that the meaning here mirrors the figurative sense of treading on essential things. By be being careful what we step on, we measure our steps, and each safeguarded step takes us where we need to go.

But this is only true if we internalize the lesson – וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן.

What if we don’t get it?

Moshe addresses this in his very next sentence:

רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָֽה – Look and see how I place before you a blessing and a curse… (11:26)

Quite literally – רְאֵה – “Look and see! I need you to get this!”

The curse that comes along with not measuring our actions is actions that are not measured! We will inevitably tread on the important things, and our steps will take us nowhere.

With a singular focus of what matters and what doesn’t, we would have such singular focus that it would be impossible to go wrong. We have a crystal clarity that fire burns when you come too close.

If we had the same level of perception of right and wrong; that itself would be our safeguard, and every step would take us forward, and we would not fear a misstep.

Steps can take us forward, backward, sideways, and nowhere. We can step on important things and important people along the way. It is always a good time to be mindful of the direction we are headed, why we’re doing it, and if what we’re doing is the best way to get there.

The speech was long ago, but the message is as true today as it was then. No one else can take the steps for us. We need to blaze trails of our own.

Our moral compasses can only navigate for us when they are switched on.

Chazon; Vision Through Frosted Glass

6 minute read
Straightforward

The Jewish calendar associates certain times and places with different events and emotions. In the summer, the Jewish calendar marks several days and weeks for mourning in general, and in particular, the loss of sovereignty in the land of Israel, and especially the destruction of the religious order of the Temple.

Believing that history is written by God’s hand alone, our sages do not accept the notion that the Roman Empire went up against the God of Israel and won a victory; rather, our sages teach that there was a fatal flaw in the Jewish People’s religious observance that gave rise to a weakness the enemy could exploit. In the instance of the loss of the Second Temple, our sages attribute the weakness to baseless hatred and internal strife. People talk about this a lot, that working on this weakness is the mechanism to right all wrongs and restore the Temple and Jewish sovereignty and invite a new utopian era of history.

But not enough people talk about why the First Temple fell, which ought to be surprising because the reasons are extremely well documented.

While our sages can only speculate why the Second Temple fell, the reasons the First Temple fell is crystal clear for the simple reason that it took place in the age of the last prophets.

If we wanted to know what issues plagued a society to the extent it could destroy or prevent a Temple from existing, God’s prophets have some thoughts on the matter.

We ought to want to understand the issues that cause the loss of a Temple because they are the issues that preclude a new one from materializing. Our Sages suggest that each generation that does not see it rebuilt has participated in its destruction; a generation that hasn’t resolved the issues that cause the loss of a Beis HaMikdash isn’t ready for one. In other words, if we don’t have a solution, we are part of the problem.

The crescendo of the days of mourning is Tisha b’Av, and the Shabbos before is always Parshas Devarim, also known as Shabbos Chazon, named for the opening words of the Haftara, Isaiah’s Vision – חֲזוֹן יְשַׁעְיָהוּ.

Isaiah’s words are so clear and sharp they need little embellishment or explanation. He speaks through his doomed audience in words that reverberate through the ages in the hope that one day we might actually pay attention:

שִׁמְעוּ דְבַר-ה קְצִינֵי סְדֹם הַאֲזִינוּ תּוֹרַת אֱלֹהֵינוּ עַם עֲמֹרָה. לָמָּה-לִּי רֹב-זִבְחֵיכֶם יֹאמַר ה שָׂבַעְתִּי עֹלוֹת אֵילִים וְחֵלֶב מְרִיאִים וְדַם פָּרִים וּכְבָשִׂים וְעַתּוּדִים לֹא חָפָצְתִּי. כִּי תָבֹאוּ לֵרָאוֹת פָּנָי מִי-בִקֵּשׁ זֹאת מִיֶּדְכֶם רְמֹס חֲצֵרָי. לֹא תוֹסִיפוּ הָבִיא מִנְחַת-שָׁוְא קְטֹרֶת תּוֹעֵבָה הִיא לִי חֹדֶשׁ וְשַׁבָּת קְרֹא מִקְרָא לֹא-אוּכַל אָוֶן וַעֲצָרָה. חָדְשֵׁיכֶם וּמוֹעֲדֵיכֶם שָׂנְאָה נַפְשִׁי הָיוּ עָלַי לָטֹרַח נִלְאֵיתִי נְשֹׂא. וּבְפָרִשְׂכֶם כַּפֵּיכֶם אַעְלִים עֵינַי מִכֶּם גַּם כִּי-תַרְבּוּ תְפִלָּה אֵינֶנִּי שֹׁמֵעַ יְדֵיכֶם דָּמִים מָלֵאוּ. רַחֲצוּ הִזַּכּוּ הָסִירוּ רֹעַ מַעַלְלֵיכֶם מִנֶּגֶד עֵינָי חִדְלוּ הָרֵעַ. לִמְדוּ הֵיטֵב דִּרְשׁוּ מִשְׁפָּט אַשְּׁרוּ חָמוֹץ שִׁפְטוּ יָתוֹם רִיבוּ אַלְמָנָה.

“Listen to Hashem, you leaders of Sodom. Listen to the law of our God, people of Gomorrah!”

“What makes you think I want all your sacrifices?” says Hashem. “I am stuffed from your burnt offerings and sacrifices of rams and the fat of cattle. I get no pleasure from the blood of bulls, lambs, and goats. When you come to worship me, who asked you to parade through my courts with all your ceremony? Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts; the incense of your offerings disgusts me!

“Your celebrations of Rosh Chodesh and Shabbos and your fast days are all sinful and false. I want no more of your pious meetings! I hate your new moon celebrations and your annual festivals. They are a burden to me. I cannot stand them! When you raise your hands in prayer, I will not look. Though you might offer many prayers, I will not listen because your hands are covered with the blood of innocents!

“Wash yourselves and become clean! Get your sins out of my sight. Give up your evil ways; learn to do good. Seek justice! Help the oppressed and vulnerable! Defend the cause of orphans! Fight for the rights of widows!” – (1:10-17)

There were many prophets and prophecies whose names and stories are lost; they were not included in the canon of Tanach. The ones that were selected were included because of their resonance beyond their time.

The prophet rails against bribery, broken institutions, corruption, and perversion of justice as the ultimate crimes. If a society’s institutions are too crooked to protect the people who need them, those people can be stepped on with impunity. That society, in a subtle, but very real way, endorses and protects criminals and predators, that society is morally bankrupt and not fit for purpose.

These aren’t relics of the past; they’re part and parcel of the world we live in, a constant specter we must battle against. A permanent victory that vanquishes evil forever is childish fantasy; even the most ideal world would still require a justice system. It’s not a flaw; it’s a feature of human choice.

But when our society is challenged, when evil rears its ugly head, how do we respond? Do we respond decisively and with finality? Or with denial, hesitancy, and lip service?

The prophet is emphatic that the individuals in his society did not personally take up the fight for the vulnerable people who needed someone in their corner:

– רַחֲצוּ הִזַּכּוּ הָסִירוּ רֹעַ מַעַלְלֵיכֶם מִנֶּגֶד עֵינָי חִדְלוּ הָרֵעַ. לִמְדוּ הֵיטֵב דִּרְשׁוּ מִשְׁפָּט אַשְּׁרוּ חָמוֹץ שִׁפְטוּ יָתוֹם רִיבוּ אַלְמָנָה – Wash yourselves and become clean! Get your sins out of my sight. Give up your evil ways; learn to do good. Seek justice! Help the oppressed and vulnerable! Defend the cause of orphans! Fight for the rights of widows!

The prophet’s words are chilling.

You cannot hide behind institutions. How many vulnerable people do you know? Are they getting all the help they need? What are you doing about it? And are you so sure those institutions are doing everything possible?

How often do we learn of another aguna, another fraud, another molester, another scandal, and another cover-up. How many times have once-great institutions and leaders failed to remove malfeasors from their prey or even acknowledge them as the predators they are? It is the highest betrayal, and it is a crime against the victim and the Jewish People.

We are not a community if we do not protect and ease the burdens of our brothers and sisters. When individuals have been proven dangerous, whether on the balance of probabilities or beyond a reasonable doubt, we should not tolerate their influence or presence. If you’re wondering which incident this is a veiled reference to, that says a lot about where we are and how much work we have to do.

A generation that does not see the Temple rebuilt has participated in its destruction.

It’s crucial to understand the prophet’s specific criticism correctly. Isaiah’s words are not a polemic against leaders or the establishment, and nor is this. It was and is a call to action directly to each of us as individuals, not to hide behind or rely on institutions or anybody else to get help to the people who need it.

They and we need you.

Our society has much to be proud of today, but make no mistake; we cannot launder or buy off mediocrity in one area with excellence in another. The prophet acknowledges that the people of that time were diligent and meticulous in their prayer and sacrifice, yet awful at other things, and it wasn’t enough to save them.

The quantity and quality of Torah study and charity in the world today are phenomenal and unprecedented in history; we should rightly be proud, but let’s not kid ourselves that there’s still lots more to do. We know precisely what God thinks when people need our help and go neglected and unassisted:

לָמָּה-לִּי רֹב-זִבְחֵיכֶם יֹאמַר ה שָׂבַעְתִּי עֹלוֹת אֵילִים וְחֵלֶב מְרִיאִים וְדַם פָּרִים וּכְבָשִׂים וְעַתּוּדִים לֹא חָפָצְתִּי – “I am stuffed from your burnt offerings and sacrifices of rams and the fat of cattle. The blood of bulls, lambs and goats does nothing for Me!” (1:11)

The lessons we ought to learn from history knock on our door regularly. In Moshe’s parting address to the people he spent his life trying to save, he admonishes their refusal to be receptive:

אֲדַבֵּר אֲלֵיכֶם וְלֹא שְׁמַעְתֶּם – “I spoke, yet you would not listen!” (1:43)

We see problems around us, and we do not do enough to fix them. If someone has financial issues, family issues, health issues, or can’t get into school, you ought to know that thoughts and prayers are not the solutions those problems require.

If you see something wrong, do not make our ancestors’ mistake of hiding behind false piety. Get involved and lend a hand in fixing the problems in your community. And if you have some money, open the checkbook – but don’t forget to roll your sleeves up, or else you’re just hiding behind other people in a slightly more sophisticated way.

How can we fast, weep, and pray when there are so many abused, hungry, poor, and other vulnerable people in our communities? Our wonderful charities and outstanding individuals and organizations lead the way for the rest of us, but they do not satisfy our personal obligations. If we had a Temple today, we couldn’t be trusted to keep it; otherwise, it would be here by now.

If it’s too hard to cry for tragedies we never experienced, tragedies we are thousands of years removed from, maybe that’s fair enough. But then let’s cry for now; for how far we are from where we could be, for the agony in our communities that’s way too close for comfort. Cry for the injustices around you that you don’t seem to do anything about.

צִיּוֹן בְּמִשְׁפָּט תִּפָּדֶה וְשָׁבֶיהָ בִּצְדָקָה – “Zion will be redeemed through justice; its restoration will be through righteousness.” (1:27)

It is easy to make that difference; resolve to be better in a meaningful and substantial way.

Help people find jobs and grow their businesses. Give more charity. Give food and clothes away. Volunteer more. Make sure no child is left without a school. Stop bullying in school, shul, and work. Get involved in your community’s events and organizations. Use any influence you have, talk to influential people, and make that difference. Even if it’s just you alone, take responsibility for some of the people around you who don’t yet know that you are someone they can rely on for the helping hand they need.

If the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing, are you so sure you’re not one of them?

A Legendary Relationship

2 minute read
Straightforward

Midrashim are cryptic and often misunderstood. They are metaphors, 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. Every 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 accept without reservation.

What is this Midrash about?

The Midrash is probably not talking about some sort of 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 just need to send all the money right now, you’d have a lot of questions to ask. Healthy natural skepticism should give rise to lots of 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 absolutely reasonable to ask what you’re getting yourself into. If you are used to accepting the Terms and Conditions without reading and signing anything with no review, you really 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 too if you send the money right away.

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 it’s our Father in Heaven offering us the deal, all the obligations are worthwhile to be in business together.

Think Of The Children

< 1 minute
Straightforward

There core components to Teshuva are remorse and making amends. A prerequisite to these is taking ownership of our actions.

Before Moshe died, he warned the Jewish People not to deny or avoid their mistakes:

שִׁחֵת לוֹ לֹא, בָּנָיו מוּמָם: דּוֹר עִקֵּשׁ, וּפְתַלְתֹּל – Destruction is not His – it is His children’s shortcoming; a crooked and twisted generation. (32:5)

R’ Avrohom Shor teaches that our actions shape our realities: anger creates fear and withdrawal, greed alienates partners, gossip erodes trust, and laziness hinders results.

Sometimes making amends is as easy as apologizing, but not always. For example, years of anger and abuse cannot be undone by suddenly turning soft and gentle; we might genuinely want to change, but the resentment caused by years of negativity will linger for quite some time, and we are responsible – שִׁחֵת לוֹ לֹא, בָּנָיו מוּמָם.

How can we mitigate that?

R’ Ahron Belzer remarked that we should allow those our nearest and dearest to see more of our inner lives. It can only be a good thing for them to know that we too are flawed and just trying our best.

It can only be a good thing for our families to know about our good deeds and community work, most especially young children, who learn from example:

הַנִּסְתָּרֹת לַה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ עַד עוֹלָם – The hidden things are Hashem’s; the revealed things are for our children and us for eternity. (29:28)

Those close to us see more than we think. So if you are committed to improving and making amends,  put it on display, so your loved ones can learn and participate – וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ עַד עוֹלָם.

When it’s authentic, they should only be supportive and encouraging, and your example will have a ripple effect.

Humble Beginnings

2 minute read
Straightforward

One of the traits heralded by the Gemara as particularly Jewish is humility. Moshe emphasised that the people’s lack of stature was a good thing:

כִּי עַם קָדוֹשׁ אַתָּה, לה אֱלֹהֶיךָ: בְּךָ בָּחַר ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה, מִכֹּל הָעַמִּים, אֲשֶׁר עַל-פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה. לֹא מֵרֻבְּכֶם מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, חָשַׁק ה בָּכֶם–וַיִּבְחַר בָּכֶם: כִּי-אַתֶּם הַמְעַט, מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים. כִּי מֵאַהֲבַת ה אֶתְכֶם – You are a holy people to God. It is you He has selected, to be His chosen people, from all other nations on the face of the earth. You have not been chosen because you are mighty; in fact, you’re small. Purely because He loves you so… (7:6-8)

The Midrash says that this is a reference to humility – we are beloved because we make ourselves “small”.

The Sfas Emes says that the רֻבְּכֶם / מְעַט dynamic, of majority versus minority, frequently recurs. Jews have always been a minority; there are fewer Jews alive today than the margin of statistical error in the Chinese census! But in content, Jews contribute a disproportionate amount of knowledge and achievements to the world. This is our heritage from our ancestor, Yakov.

Yakov was so called because his name derives from being marginalised and disadvantaged, against all odds – or, מְעַט. He was Yakov because he was born clutching the heel – עקב – of the mighty Esav. He had to run away as Yakov. It requires shrewdness to overcome the challenges faced – shrewdness also being a derivative of the word עקב.

But after surmounting everything in his way, he is no longer the disadvantaged, shrewd Yakov. He is given a new name, Yisrael, a derivative of שר א-ל – a minister of God. The name שר indicates his mastery over all the obstacles he has overcome, to face the world and lead – or, רֻבְּכֶם.

The names linger on in our identity. But not everyone is equally gifted or talented; some people are predisposed to greatness with all the tools at their disposal. So is it not a level playing field?

The Sfas Emes explains that the מְעַט aspect of Yakov in everyone is the same. Everyone can do with reducing the mundane aspects if their lives. Everyone can display a little more gratitude and humility. Everyone would do well to not take their things or relationships for granted.

It is the מְעַט aspect that makes the difference, because that is what really makes the רֻבְּכֶם aspect. Yakov could only become Yisrael after dealing with the challenges that every ordinary Yakov has.

Not everyone can save the world, because not everyone is blessed with such ability. But everyone can certainly contribute that little more, to make the world that little bit better.

Personal Choice

2 minute read
Straightforward

Rivka had a difficult pregnancy and was frequently pained by her unborn children hitting her. One particular time, she lamented:

‘וַיִּתְרֹצְצוּ הַבָּנִים, בְּקִרְבָּהּ, וַתֹּאמֶר אִם-כֵּן, לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי; וַתֵּלֶךְ, לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת-ה – The children struggled within her, and she said, “This is what it is? Why is this happening to me?” And she went to inquire of the Lord. (25:22)

People have difficult pregnancies, and the baby kicks too much; it’s pretty common. Yet more than just experiencing physical discomfort, Rivka seems emotionally troubled and has some soul searching to do, so she asks for help.

What was so difficult that she had to seek out answers?

We have the benefit of knowing how the story unfolds. At this point in the story, Rivka did not yet know that she was having twins!

Our sages suggest that each time Rivka walked past a holy site, she would feel her belly stir, and each time she walked past a place of pagan worship, she would feel more stirring. Without knowing it would be two children with different inclinations, it just seemed like one very confused individual!

R’ Chaim Brown suggests a compelling reading. When Moshe reviewed the Torah in his final speech to the people, he told them:

רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָֽה – See how I place before you a blessing and a curse… Good and Evil! (11:26)

The simple explanation is that there is always a good and a bad choice, and we must be careful to choose wisely. But there is a more profound implication as well.

It is not simply a choice of what we want to do, but also a matter of who we want to be. What identity will we take up? What kind of אָנֹכִי, the archetypal “I,” will we choose to become?

In the context of to Rivka’s frustration, she cried – לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי – where is the אָנֹכִי of this long-awaited promised child? He likes sanctity and idolatry!

Understanding the depth of her question, we can plumb the depths and meaning in the answer when the oracle replied to her, that שְׁנֵי גֹיִים בְּבִטְנֵך – it is not one confused child, there will be two children with two separate identities! And she was comforted, and the story continues.

Your personal choices are the choices that shape your personality. Every choice aligns you closer towards or further from the person you’ve always wanted to be.

The Loop

< 1 minute
Straightforward

On certain special occasions, we make a blessing called Shehecheyanu, expressing thanks for the opportunity of experiencing the event.

Finishing the Torah cycle on Simchas Torah is a significant milestone, yet we don’t say the Shehecheyanu blessing.

Why not?

R’ Shlomo Farhi points out that the first word in the Torah is בראשית, and the last, ישראל. The first and last letters in the Torah spell out לב – heart. The Torah only wants an emotional investment from us – רחמנה ליבא בעי.

But in the correct order, it also spells out בל, as in בלבל or מבלבל, meaning “confused” or “mixed up”. When we look at the ocean of Torah before us, it is בלבל – uncharted and unknown territory. But looking back, it is our לב.

A Torah cycle does not stand in isolation – every new cycle amplifies previous cycles.

This lends light to the old adage that the Torah never finishes, and why we immediately loop back to the beginning. There is no end, only a constant battle against בלבל by way of לב, finishing again. And again. And again.

In other words, there’s no והגיענו!

It’s not the Torah we complete every year, only the cycle.

What Does it Mean to be the “Chosen” People?

2 minute read
Straightforward

The concept of chosenness is widely known, yet widely misunderstood. It has been held up by some of our own people as a clear sign of Jewish superiority, and by some of our enemies as a superiority complex.

But that can’t be right.

When you tie your superiority to your race, you are elevating an objective feature because there is nothing else subjectively remarkable about you at all. And if your actions don’t make you better, you’re not better at all. The ethnic element of Judaism is not a chauvinistic narrative of racial supremacy; it’s a cultural and historical identity narrative only.

As Rabbi Sacks put it, Judaism embodies a unique paradox in that it honors both the universality of the human condition and the particularity of the Jewish faith. We believe that God is a universal creator who creates humanity in the image of God; yet also has a covenant with a particular chosen people.

This tension between universal and particular has caused issues between the Jewish People and others, and within Judaism itself:

הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה, ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מְצַוְּךָ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת-הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה–וְאֶת-הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים; וְשָׁמַרְתָּ וְעָשִׂיתָ אוֹתָם, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשֶׁךָ. אֶת-ה הֶאֱמַרְתָּ, הַיּוֹם: לִהְיוֹת לְךָ לֵאלֹהִים וְלָלֶכֶת בִּדְרָכָיו, וְלִשְׁמֹר חֻקָּיו וּמִצְו‍ֹתָיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו–וְלִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקֹלוֹ. וַה הֶאֱמִירְךָ הַיּוֹם, לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה, כַּאֲשֶׁר, דִּבֶּר-לָךְ; וְלִשְׁמֹר, כָּל-מִצְו‍ֹתָיו. וּלְתִתְּךָ עֶלְיוֹן, עַל כָּל-הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, לִתְהִלָּה, וּלְשֵׁם וּלְתִפְאָרֶת; וְלִהְיֹתְךָ עַם-קָדֹשׁ לה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֵּר – Today, Hashem your God commands you to perform these laws and statutes; to guard and keep them – with all your heart and soul. Regarding Hashem you have said today, that He will be a God to you; that you will walk in his ways, to keep his laws and statutes; and listen to His voice. Hashem has said of you this day, for you to be a Chosen People for Him, as He has said to you; and you will keep His mitzvos. And He will place you supreme, above all the nations He made; for praise, honor, and glory, that you would be a holy nation dedicated to Him, as was said. (26:16-19)

What does it mean to be “chosen”?

Rabbeinu Bachye teaches that being “chosen” is not a genetic status; it is an achievement that we each must earn.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch sharply notes that what the Torah literally says is that we become chosen on the day we observe the Torah and uphold its laws and ideals – הַיּוֹם: לִהְיוֹת לְךָ לֵאלֹהִים וְלָלֶכֶת בִּדְרָכָיו, וְלִשְׁמֹר חֻקָּיו וּמִצְו‍ֹתָיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו–וְלִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקֹלוֹ. וַה הֶאֱמִירְךָ הַיּוֹם, לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה.

Being chosen does not mean an intrinsic superiority, because there can be no intrinsic superiority when everyone is created in God’s image.

The only difference there can be between one human and another is the choices we make.

When our actions embody ethics and morality, we become a moral beacon for others to aspire to emulate, or put differently, “a light unto the nations” – עֶלְיוֹן, עַל כָּל-הַגּוֹיִם.

Improving ourselves, (and thereby, the world,) through our actions – is a consistent undercurrent of many fundamental concepts in the Torah. When a theme is recursive, it’s hard to deny.

Being chosen does not mean special privileges and free license; it means extra scrutiny on our obligations and responsibilities towards God and each other.

The Torah assures us that perfection of the world comes through the perfection of ourselves. With a little more humility, kindness and gratitude; and a little less materialism, your world will change.

We become chosen when we choose to live good lives.

Worth The Effort

2 minute read
Straightforward

One of the sections of Moshe’s farewell speech opens with a reiteration on the importance of energizing actions with effort:

וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם-וְשָׁמַר ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ, אֶת-הַבְּרִית וְאֶת-הַחֶסֶד, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע, לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ – When you will finally listen to the laws, observe and perform them; Hashem will safeguard you, and uphold the covenant sworn to your fathers. (7:12)

The c conditional protection raises an issue. We are not supposed to observe our duties as workers expecting compensation; we are meant to dedicate ourselves because it is objectively important.

So why is observance framed with the conditional incentive of protection?

The Alshich notes that the word עֵקֶב is very peculiar, and not frequently found. It also doesn’t seem to add anything to the message.

R’ Shlomo Ganzfried explains that the reward is not the outcome of observance itself; it is for the effort and exertion the word עֵקֶב implies.

The Gemara in Berachos tells of how R’ Zeira took a short break from his learning and left the study hall. He sat on the steps outside so that if a scholar walked by, he could stand up out of respect, gaining merit while being idle from his learning.

In other words, beyond any particular of set mitzvos and laws, his attitude was an independently valuable characteristic to display and exercise.

The Torah always requires witnesses to testify, without getting paid. However, they can be still be paid for their time or travel, because the payment is for the work and effort put in, and not the testimony.

The same is consistently true of the Torah’s affirmation of rewards. There may not be a reward for the actual mitzva in this world – but there might be tangible benefits to showing respect for the things the Torah considers important.

This might be why the word עֵקֶב – literally “heel” – appears here. Our legwork will safeguard us because effort makes all the difference.

Attitude Redux

5 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our sages were sensitive to this subtle but universal nuance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s normal.

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

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

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

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

The way you do things matters.

The Principal-Agent Problem

2 minute read
Straightforward

As Moshe prepares for the end of his life, he tells the Jewish people to have no fear, and that God would look after them:

ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ, הוּא-יַשְׁמִיד אֶת-הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה – “Hashem, your God; He will cross you over, He will destroy your enemies before you.” (31:3)

Instead of saying “God will cross you over and destroy your enemies,” Moshe adds extra emphasis that “God, He” will do it – הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ, הוּא-יַשְׁמִיד אֶת-הַגּוֹיִם.

What was Moshe adding?

The Ohr HaChaim explains that Moshe was speaking to people who were afraid to lose Moshe.

Moshe had rescued the Jewish People numerous times, even when they were at fault. After instigating the Golden Calf, a plague struck them that only Moshe’s prayer could stop. Who would save them from peril if not Moshe?

The few wars and skirmishes they’d fought were all won under Moshe’s command. Facing a campaign of conquest in Israel, who would lead them into battle?

Moshe recognized that people idolized him, figuratively and perhaps literally, and told them that they were misplacing their trust. It had never been about him. They had mistaken the agent for the principal.

It had been God all along.

Looking over the theatre of getting angry and sending a plague; God had wanted Moshe to pray; had planted the idea; taught him the words, and fundamentally, wants to forgive. That’s what God’s essence is, and Moshe evoked imagery of the same word used to describe God’s characteristic of forgiveness – עובר על פשע / הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ.

It had never been Moshe winning the wars – God had been orchestrating events and would continue – הוּא-יַשְׁמִיד אֶת-הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה.

The Seforno explains quite simply, Moshe was telling his audience that the medium was not the message, and that that he was just a vehicle for God’s plans.

R’ Tzadok HaCohen notes how Moshe’s entire speech is addressed to “you” – the second person singular – because the message echoes through the ages.

Each of us has equal and direct access to God. We do not believe in intermediaries, however special they are.

Teachers and guides are critically important influences – עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב.

But outsourcing our faculties to a proxy is something else entirely.

Teach Your Children

3 minute read
Straightforward

One of the weirder laws in the Torah is the law of the rebellious son, where parents ask the government to execute their child:

.כִּי יִהְיֶה לְאִישׁ בֵּן סוֹרֵר וּמוֹרֶה אֵינֶנּוּ שֹׁמֵעַ בְּקוֹל אָבִיו וּבְקוֹל אִמּוֹ וְיִסְּרוּ אֹתוֹ וְלֹא יִשְׁמַע אֲלֵיהֶם וְתָפְשׂוּ בוֹ אָבִיו וְאִמּוֹ וְהוֹצִיאוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל זִקְנֵי עִירוֹ וְאֶל שַׁעַר מְקֹמוֹ. וְאָמְרוּ אֶל זִקְנֵי עִירוֹ בְּנֵנוּ זֶה סוֹרֵר וּמֹרֶה אֵינֶנּוּ שֹׁמֵעַ בְּקֹלֵנוּ זוֹלֵל וְסֹבֵא. וּרְגָמֻהוּ כָּל אַנְשֵׁי עִירוֹ בָאֲבָנִים וָמֵת וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִקִּרְבֶּךָ וְכָל יִשְׂרָאֵל יִשְׁמְעוּ וְיִרָאוּ – If a man has a wayward and rebellious son, who does not obey his father or his mother, and they rebuke him, and he still does not listen to them; his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city, and to the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders of his city, “This son of ours is wayward and rebellious; he does not obey us; he is a glutton and a guzzler.” All the men of his city shall pelt him to death with stones, and he shall die. So shall you cast out the evil from among you, and all Israel will listen and fear. (21:18-21)

It’s probably safe to say that capital punishment against children offends our sensibilities. Even if it were certain that such a child will eventually become a murderer, it shouldn’t sit well to punish someone for a crime they haven’t yet committed.

Apparently, it didn’t sit well with our sages either, who disqualified any practical applications for as long as we know.

Our sages set tight parameters to meet the definitional requirements of the mitzvah: the age bracket is limited to a boy in the three months following his 13th birthday; he needs to have stolen and eaten impossible quantities of meat; cooked in a particular way; paired with a precise amount of wine; all while on his father’s property. What’s more, both parents must agree that their son ought to be executed.

The concurrence of all these restrictive conditions is not just improbable – it is impossible, and the Gemara records that no court ever carried out this law, concluding that the law exists exclusively for us to study the law and merit its reward.

But the Torah isn’t short of laws and stories, and there is no minimum page count or word count target that requires bulk or filler.

What is the particular reward for studying the law never-practiced law of the rebellious son that is absent from the rest of the Torah?

R’ Moshe Mordechai Epstein suggests that by inverting the parameters of what goes wrong in a rebellious son, the Torah reveals its guidelines for decent parenting.

The behavioral problems the Torah discusses result from overindulgence. We use the term “spoilt” to describe it, literally meaning that the person has been ruined. Parents must discipline through rewards and punishments to teach self-control, working towards curbing excessive, self-centered behaviors.

With this law, the Torah tells us to recognize the signs a child is growing out of control and to do something about it – וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִקִּרְבֶּךָ. It’s not filler content at all; it’s an instruction to study the pitfalls and frightening consequences of poor parenting – וְכָל יִשְׂרָאֵל יִשְׁמְעוּ וְיִרָאוּ.

While the purpose of child discipline is to develop and entrench desirable social habits in children, the ultimate goal is to foster particular judgment and morals, so the child develops and maintains self-discipline throughout the rest of their life.

When a young plant grows curved, fastening a splint is all it requires to grow straight and strong. Hitting children is no longer culturally acceptable, and that’s an overwhelmingly good thing. But if you love your children, you must correct and discipline them in a way they’ll understand.

It is hard work, but then again, it takes twenty years to grow an oak tree and only a couple of months to grow a cucumber.

The Abundance Of Charity

< 1 minute
Straightforward

One of the key themes the Torah reiterates over and over is the importance of charity:

עשר תעשר – you shall tithe… (14:22)

In Hebrew, a double statement means to do something repeatedly.

How can the Torah expect us to keep giving charity over and over?

Recognising the issue with giving charity to the point we have nothing left, the Gemara in Kesubos caps charity at no more than 20% of our income.

While this is a sensible limit dictated by necessity, we still need to make sense of the fact the Torah expects us to keep giving repeatedly.

Taking this at face value, the Vilna Gaon concludes that if the Torah truly requires endless generosity without depleting the giver, it can only be that the reward for charity is the ability to give more!

Indeed, this could be why the Gemara in Taanis says that עשר בשביל שתתעשר – a person who gives generously will receive blessings of abundance.

Learning to take better care of others is a fundamental principle that underlies the entire Torah. Our long tradition reassures us that like a candle doesn’t lose anything by lighting another candle, we will never be worse off for helping others.

Anchor Of The Universe

2 minute read
Straightforward

In the agrarian world that the Torah was given in, there are many laws regulating land use. One of them was the mitzvah of bikkurim. After spending the best part of a year working a field, the farmer would identify the first fruit to sprout and tie a cord around the fruit. When ripe, he would present it in a grand and elaborate ceremony at the Beis HaMikdash.

Although we don’t practice it today, our tradition treats the mitzvah of bikkurim with critical importance. Not known for hyperbole, Rashi at the beginning of the Torah states that bikkurim perpetuates the entire universe.

Why is presenting the first fruits considered so much more remarkable than almost all other Torah observance?

Every living organism has a self-preservation instinct, which among other things, means seeking food. Accordingly, almost every normal human’s first order of priority is to provide for their families.

In agriculture, a person would have to manually work a plot of land; weed it; plow it; sow it; prune it; weed it some more; reap the crop; dry it; process it; prepare it; and only then was the product edible.

It takes year-round labor and energy to support our families.

This mitzvah teaches us that we must celebrate the end product, but we must not take sole credit for it.

The first thing that sprouts is taken to Jerusalem, and given to the Kohen, and requires him to say, “Thank You, God, for the land and fruit that you have given me,”.

This touches on kindness, gratitude, faith, and humility. Judaism’s vision is a world of kind, humble, grateful, faithful people.

Perhaps in this light, it makes sense to classify bikkurim is foundational. It arguably represents a microcosm of Judaism’s entire mission. No matter how much work we put in, or how successful we are; we don’t control the end product.

We just do our best and hope for the rest.

All About Appreciation

3 minute read
Straightforward

The Seder is all about reliving the Egypt experience and making it come alive.

Among the focal points of the Haggadah readings are verses and expositions tracing our history to and from Egypt:

אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה, וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט; וַיְהִי-שָׁם, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב. וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ הַמִּצְרִים, וַיְעַנּוּנוּ; וַיִּתְּנוּ עָלֵינוּ, עֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה. וַנִּצְעַק, אֶל-ה אֱלֹקי אֲבֹתֵינוּ; וַיִּשְׁמַע ה אֶת-קֹלֵנוּ, וַיַּרְא אֶת-עָנְיֵנוּ וְאֶת-עֲמָלֵנוּ וְאֶת-לַחֲצֵנוּ. וַיּוֹצִאֵנוּ ה, מִמִּצְרַיִם, בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה, וּבְמֹרָא גָּדֹל–וּבְאֹתוֹת, וּבְמֹפְתִים. וַיְבִאֵנוּ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וַיִּתֶּן-לָנוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת, אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ. וְעַתָּה, הִנֵּה הֵבֵאתִי אֶת-רֵאשִׁית פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַתָּה לִּי, ה; וְהִנַּחְתּוֹ, לִפְנֵי ה אֱלֹקיךָ, וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתָ, לִפְנֵי ה אֱלֹקיךָ. וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל-הַטּוֹב, אֲשֶׁר נָתַן-לְךָ – You will answer and say before your God, “The Aramean pursued my father, and he descended to Egypt, and dwelled there, where he became a nation, great and many. Egypt cruelly afflicted us, and they gave us hard labor. We cried out to Hashem, God of our fathers, and He heard our cries, and saw our suffering and affliction. He extracted us from Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with great wonders and miracles; and brought us to this place. He gave us this land, flowing with milk and honey. And now, see I have brought my first fruit, which God has granted me, and I place it before God,”. He shall place it before God and bow, and rejoice at all the good he has been given. (26:5-11)

While this is a pretty succinct overview of the Egypt story, you might be surprised to learn that this section isn’t taken from the Exodus story and has nothing at all to do with Egypt!

We might expect the Haggadah readings to come from the primary record the stories come from, the book of Shemos. Instead, this section actually comes from all the way at the end of the Torah, the portion about the mitzvos of the Land of Israel. It is part of the prayer the farmers would recite when they presented their first fruits, tracing the Jewish People’s history so that they would cherish their land.

If the Haggadah is about how we left Egypt, why does the Haggadah quote a paraphrased story and not the original?

The Sefer HaChinuch explains that Seder night is not only about the story; it’s about experiencing gratitude. The original sections of the story are narrative history, and they lack the context of gratitude that the evening requires, whereas the sections about the mitzvos of the Land of Israel are infused with gratitude throughout, so it makes sense that the Haggadah quotes from the paraphrased sections.

The Abarbanel suggests that if the Seder is about gratitude, then its central highlight, the Pesach offering, is essentially a Toda offering, the thanksgiving sacrifice. The Toda was the most common sacrificial offering and was obligated of someone released from jail, or crossed an ocean or a desert, or recovered from illness. This mirrors the course of the Exodus, where the Jewish People were liberated from slavery, crossed both ocean and desert, and were healed of all sickness when they stood at Sinai. The Toda consisted of a lamb presented with 40 loaves of bread and had to be consumed within a day – which is quite obviously impossible. The only solution would be to invite friends and family to participate in the celebration, again mirroring the Pesach offering requirement of consuming it in its entirety with friends and family.

The conclusion of the farmer’s blessing beautifully captures what we’re trying to achieve; to rejoice in every single thing Hashem does for you and your household – וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל הַטּוֹב אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לְךָ ה אֱלֹקיךָ וּלְבֵיתֶךָ.

Because experiencing gratitude and joy with loved ones is what Seder night is all about.

Tests And Consequences

3 minute read
Straightforward

War is bad.

Apart from the carnage between opposing forces, one of the awful consequences is that nearby civilians are typically subject to collateral damage at best and direct atrocities at worst. The Jewish people know this fact better than most, and history students will know of countless others.

For the vast majority of the history of warfare, women were raped and enslaved. Although international humanitarian law has deemed wartime sexual violence a war crime in the last century, it was a common practice in antiquity for millennia and still occurs frequently in less civilized parts of the world.

There’s a law about it in the Torah, permitting soldiers at war to capture women:

כִּי תֵצֵא לַמִּלְחָמָה עַל אֹיְבֶיךָ וּנְתָנוֹה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּיָדֶךָ וְשָׁבִיתָ שִׁבְיוֹ. וְרָאִיתָ בַּשִּׁבְיָה אֵשֶׁת יְפַת תֹּאַר וְחָשַׁקְתָּ בָהּ וְלָקַחְתָּ לְךָ לְאִשָּׁה – If you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord, your God, will deliver them into your hands, and you take captives; if you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her, you may take her for yourself as a wife. (21:10,11)

This mitzvah flies in the face of what we consider ethical and moral today. Why does the Torah endorse such a barbaric act?

Rashi quotes our sages’ explanation that the Torah does not command anyone to practice sexual violence proactively; instead, it gives a license to human inclination in the heat of the moment and provides discretionary permission for people in a moment of weakness. 

That doesn’t seem substantially better, but it makes a difference, minimizing its occurrence and brutality.

R’ Daniel Rowe notes that the Torah places heavy restrictions on people who practice this law; she must be shaved bald and grieve for thirty days in rags in the soldier’s home. It’s supposed to be distressing, not attractive. If the soldier comes to his senses over thirty days, he will probably regret abducting this poor stranger and forcing her to live under his roof, and will send her home.

Our sages note the juxtaposition of the two laws that follow, the law of a hated wife and the rebellious son, which our sages took to mean that this is a slippery slope. A person who exploits this permission to take an unsuitable wife will come to hate her, and their abusive relationship will produce dysfunctional children.

With this law, the Torah requires a total departure from thousands of years of normalized slavery and rape. Instead of conforming to a convention that classified women as spoils of war like other property to be exploited, the Torah demands that a woman’s personhood be acknowledged and respected by giving her certain minimum rights. She preserves an element of dignity and status despite the fact she has been captured and her autonomy destroyed.

This radical polemic represents a total paradigm shift, and perhaps that’s the real message to take from the law of the captive womeweains lofty ideals; it also has words for the moments we are not at our best, even in our basest, most primal moments, in the moments of anger, passion, or lust. 

The Torah is not some distant ideal that is beyond the reach and understanding of humans – לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם, הִוא.

The Torah is written for humans, with all our fallibility – דיברה תורה כלשון בני אדם.

The Torah talks about rape and slavery, but that’s not the final word. The fact they are in the Torah does not mean they are ideals we aspire to practice again. 

Because if we look a little closer, the Torah is steering us away from a world that tolerates rampant immoral practices and toward the more civilized world we are familiar with today.

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

Seize The Day

< 1 minute
Straightforward

In Moshe’s final speech to his people, he lets them know that whatever they do, they always have a stark choice:

רְאֵה אָנכִי נתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה – I am giving before you today a blessing and a curse. (11:26)

The Vilna Gaon suggests that this principle reverberates through the ages, and is as relevant today as it was thousands of years ago. It is a personal, ever-relevant choice. Anyone, at any time, can choose to do better and be better.

Hashem “is giving” us a choice – in the present tense – נתן.

We can make the choice “today” – הַיּוֹם.

The time is now. Yesterday’s mistakes are today’s opportunities to make it right.

Chazal understand that repentance is like turning over a new leaf; to the extent that someone making amends is considered as innocent as a newborn baby.

Despite the niggling self-doubt in the recesses of our minds at the ability to change, Hashem assures that we are not alone. The choice is presented by the ultimate אָנכִי – “I am with you in the struggle”. God loves and is with us all, whatever mistakes we have made.

R’ Yitzchak Lande points out that the Torah frequently switches between plural and singular, to teach that every single Jew has to participate in building a better society. And if no one else is doing it, we do it anyway.

But God can only present the opportunity – אָנכִי נתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם. Teshuva is not foreclosed from anyone – God waits until the day we die to make amends if we only take that step.

But only we can take it.

Interconnected

2 minute read
Straightforward

In Moshe’s final address to the people, he tells them how each of them must take care to observe and uphold the law to earn God’s blessing:

וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם וְשָׁמַר ה’ אֱלֹ-ךָ לְךָ אֶת הַבְּרִית וְאֶת הַחֶסֶד אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ – It will be because you listen to these ordinances, keep and perform them, that the Lord your God will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers. (7:12)

Why does Moshe alternate between the singular and plural תִּשְׁמְעוּן / לְךָ?

Perhaps it serves to teach us how as individuals, we fit into a broader community.

The Gemara in Shabbos tells a story of a non-Jew who proposed that if Shammai could teach him how to observe the entire Torah while he was standing on one leg, he would convert to Judaism. Interpreting this as mockery, Shammai chased him away with a piece of construction material. When he made the same proposal to Hillel and stood on one leg, Hillel simply said, “Love your neighbor as yourself. The rest is commentary, now go and study.”

Clearly, the notion of learning anything on one leg is absurd, let alone the subject matter, or the stature of his audience. But the most interesting part of the story is Hillel’s response.

How does loving your neighbor incorporate laws such as Shabbos, lulav, and every other mitzvah?

Perhaps Shamma turned him away because it is simply impossible for an individual to observe every law in the Torah; many are mutually exclusive. Only a man can only do some, and only by a woman can do others; some only by a Kohen, some only by a Levi, and some only by a king! How could anyone learn to observe the whole Torah?

Shammai chased him away with construction material – the imagery of which alludes to a building that has many component sections – rooms, ceilings, walls, and floors. Without its parts, there is no building.

In the same vein, a lone Jew is incomplete. Shamai’s response indicates that the Torah is not for individuals; it belongs to the Jewish People as a whole.

Hillel went one step further – he proposed how people can transcend their individuality and become part of something bigger.

The ultimate expression of וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ is כאיש אחד בלב אחד – one man with one heart – disparate parts forming one holistic unit.

We do not have separate identities for our hands or our feet. They all belong to one indivisible “me”.

We can not observe the entire Torah individually. But by forming a group, we can observe the whole Torah collectively. Arguably, shaping this cohesive identity is one of the Torah’s expressly stated goals.

R’ Yitzchak Lande notes that the Torah switches from plural to singular throughout because although there is a communal responsibility, we each have an individual’s duty to pitch in.

Moshe says וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם – we must collectively keep and perform the Torah, and then וְשָׁמַר ה’ אֱלֹ-ךָ, Hashem will protect you – the individual.

Because even the most observant person cannot keep the whole Torah – we can each only do the best we can.

Charity Redux

7 minute read
Straightforward

One of the foundations of the modern world we inhabit is the notion of egalitarianism, the idea that all humans are equal in fundamental worth or moral status; giving birth to, among others, the ideas that women aren’t lesser than men, and that black people aren’t lesser than white people, and the like.

This has been a decisively positive development in many respects; the American Declaration of Independence famously begins by stating that it is self-evident that all men are created equal, and the Torah says as much – וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹקים  אֶת־הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹקים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם.

But it is equally evident that in many respects, the universe is not fair or equal; plenty of people are disadvantaged in countless ways. Many hardworking, honest, and decent people have difficult, stressful, and impoverished lives, not to mention the various health issues so many people experience. Human input isn’t decisive; luck is.

A modern phenomenon in human civilization has emerged to address this imbalance: the welfare state. First-world governments allocate taxpayer funds to alleviate the poverty of the disadvantaged and less fortunate – in other words, charity is a core part of national policy. This practice has been criticized for perversely enabling and exacerbating poverty further, reducing the incentive for workers to seek employment by reducing the need to work and reducing the rewards of work. If we help these people, so the thinking goes, they become dependent and lazy. Moreover, it’s a zero-sum game; I have to give up more of what’s mine, and somebody else gets the benefit from it – as any child could tell you, that’s not fair!

While the specific contours of government policy are best left to experts, it brings to the fore a relevant question that profoundly impacts our orientation to others. 

What do we owe to each other?

The conventional understanding of charity is that it’s an act of benevolent kindness and generosity, initiated and executed at the actor’s sole discretion; but this is not the Jewish understanding. 

The Jewish understanding of tzedaka is orders of magnitude more comprehensive and overarching. Extending far beyond the boundaries of kindness, the word itself literally means justice. The practice is a religious duty and social obligation; we have a duty to dispense God’s justice by helping the less fortunate. In the ancient agrarian world of the Torah, Jewish farmers were subject to mandatory religious taxes that were allocated to different beneficiaries according to specific parameters. To this day, many Jews tithe their income, allocating at least ten percent to worthy causes.

The Torah is consistently firm and unequivocal in our obligations towards each other:

וְכִי־יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ וּמָטָה יָדוֹ עִמָּךְ וְהֶחֱזַקְתָּ בּוֹ… וְחֵי אָחִיךָ עִמָּךְ – When your brother languishes, and his hand falters, you must steady and support him… Let your brother live by your side, with you. (Leviticus 25:35,36)

This framing allows no savior complex; the Torah says plainly that the recipient of your help is a disadvantaged equal, lateral to you. There is no hierarchy or verticality in helping your brother – אָחִיךָ – and you must help him live alongside you, with you – עִמָּךְ. The person you get to help is not lesser or worse than you.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch highlights how in this conception, the value of a person is not tied in any way to their economic productivity; the Torah speaks of a person’s hand faltering and requiring assistance, yet still remaining your brother – וְכִי־יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ וּמָטָה יָדוֹ עִמָּךְ. Other people don’t need to achieve anything or make money to be valid in their humanness or worthy of your respect and support. 

The Rambam famously taught that the highest level of charity is helping people get on their own feet – the ultimate and most literal fulfillment of helping your brother stand alongside you.

In the Torah’s primeval story of the dawn of humanity, Cain fatefully asks God the rhetorical question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This question deserves scrupulous attention, not just because we read the story and know that Cain is attempting to cover up his crime, but because it is the great unanswered question of Genesis and quite possibly the entire Torah and all of human history.

The pregnant silence in the story is jarring; when we read about the obligations we have toward our brother, we should consider them in light of the Torah’s first brothers – perhaps suggesting that yes, you are indeed your brother’s keeper. 

Echoing the Genesis story, the Ramban famously wrote to his son that humans have no natural hierarchy; nobody is better than you, and you’re better than nobody. Humans are brothers; the Torah speaks of what we owe each other as a result of our fraternal bond; our obligations to each other are born of sameness, not of difference. The interpersonal mitzvos are obligations between equals – from human to human; horizontal, and not vertical.

As a direct consequence, the Torah encourages loans, whether of money or food, not as debt investment instruments the modern world is built with, but as assistance to enable the poor to regain their independence; as such, charging interest of any kind is predatory and therefore forbidden. The Torah goes so far as to command its adherents to lend money even when non-repayment is guaranteed, with an explicit mitzvah to lend before the Shemitta year, when all debts are written off:

כִּי־יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן מֵאַחַד אַחֶיךָ בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ בְּאַרְצְךָ אֲשֶׁר־ה אֱלֹקיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ לֹא תְאַמֵּץ אֶת־לְבָבְךָ וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת־יָדְךָ מֵאָחִיךָ הָאֶבְיוֹן׃ כִּי־פָתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת־יָדְךָ לוֹ וְהַעֲבֵט תַּעֲבִיטֶנּוּ דֵּי מַחְסֹרוֹ אֲשֶׁר יֶחְסַר לוֹ – If there is a needy person among you, one of your kin in any of your settlements in the land that your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kin. Rather, you must open your hand and lend whatever is sufficient to meet the need. (Deut 15:7,8)

The mitzvah to aid others is far-reaching – beyond financial loss, the Torah’s expectation is that we spent time, energy, and emotion, on helping others, even to the point of manual labor:

לֹא־תִרְאֶה אֶת־חֲמוֹר אָחִיךָ אוֹ שׁוֹרוֹ נֹפְלִים בַּדֶּרֶךְ וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ מֵהֶם הָקֵם תָּקִים עִמּוֹ – If you see your brother’s donkey or his ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it; you must surely raise it together. (Deut 22:4)

Beyond your brother, or the people you’d want to help, you are even obligated to help the people you don’t:

כִּי־תִרְאֶה חֲמוֹר שֹׂנַאֲךָ רֹבֵץ תַּחַת מַשָּׂאוֹ וְחָדַלְתָּ מֵעֲזֹב לוֹ עָזֹב תַּעֲזֹב עִמּוֹ – When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless surely help raise it. (Ex 23:5)

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes the common tendency humans have to give up on people who seem to attract calamity and misfortune; it would be far easier to cut them loose. The Torah speaks against the backdrop of such wayward thinking and reminds us that this person is your brother; you cannot give up on him. You must persist in helping, even if he fails over and over again – עָזֹב תַּעֲזֹב / הָקֵם תָּקִים/  פָתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח / וְהַעֲבֵט תַּעֲבִיטֶנּוּ.

However, this unilateral obligation is ripe for abuse, giving cheats and crooks a religiously sanctioned opportunity to exploit good people. The Kli Yakar offers a sharp caveat; you must only persist in helping people who are at least trying to help themselves – עִמּוֹ. R’ Shlomo Farhi piercingly suggests that it is not actually possible to help someone who won’t help themselves; the mitzvah is only to help, not enable. But so long as they’re trying, don’t walk away; figure it out together – עָזֹב תַּעֲזֹב עִמּוֹ / הָקֵם תָּקִים עִמּוֹ. 

Our sages suggest that we should be grateful for cheats and crooks; otherwise, we’d be guilty over each and every person we fail to help.

While many mitzvos and rituals have an accompanying blessing to initiate the action, the Rashba notes that interpersonal mitzvos do not have such a blessing; making a blessing before helping another person would be dehumanizing, instrumentalizing a person into an object you do a mitzvah with, eroding the mitzvah entirely.

The Torah has a prominent spiritual dimension, but the interpersonal aspect of the Torah is a coequal, interdependent, and reciprocal component. It can be easy to get carried away with the spiritual trappings of helping people without being concerned about the person, but that’s what it’s all about – the other person is your brother, and you need to relate to him in that way.

R’ Yitzchak Hutner was a Rosh Yeshiva renowned for his wit. Sick in hospital, a student came to visit his teacher and mentor. The great rabbi asked his guest why he had come, and the young man responded that it was a great mitzvah to visit the sick. In characteristic form, R’ Hutner challenged his visitor, “Am I your Lulav? Did you come to shake me?”

The Alter of Kelm suggests that the most pristine form of charity is not the person who helps others because it’s a mitzvah; but the person who empathizes with the recipient and gives because he is moved by their needs. On this reading, charity and helping others is an extension of loving your neighbour. Most people don’t eat because it’s a mitzvah to protect our bodies, we eat because we feel hungry; the Alter says you must treat the needs of another the same way. Don’t help people because it’s a mitzvah. Help people because you empathize with their pain to such a degree that if they are hungry, you are hungry; and when you are hungry, you eat.

If we are more concerned about lazy freeloaders who exploit public resources than disadvantaged people who need a leg up, it is only misdirection from the lesser angels of our nature; moral indignation that permits acting on envy and hate under a cloak of virtue. The Torah articulates a clear skew and strong preference toward taking action that helps others; the marginal cost of not helping is unacceptable.

Tzedaka is not charity or philanthropy. Less fortunate isn’t a euphemism; it’s a self-evident and observable fact. It’s entitled to think it’s not fair that you have to give something up so someone else can benefit; it’s about justice, not fairness. Giving your money to others is explicitly a zero-sum game. By telling us to do it anyway, the Torah explicitly dismisses this objection as irrelevant, revealing that thinking in terms of winning and losing is an entirely incorrect perspective to bring to the interaction.

Your choice isn’t whether to help others; it’s who to help and how – which charities to give to, and in what quantities. It’s the right thing to do; it is wrong not to.

It is important to be a good steward of capital; will this contribution be the highest and best use of your resources? But while it’s vital to think in terms of impact and effectiveness, be mindful that some people aren’t ever going to get by on their own. The widows and orphans of the world aren’t going to be okay because you wrote a check one time or sent a care package for Pesach; people experiencing chronic illness aren’t going to recover because you visited them once or hosted a fundraiser a while back. 

And if you don’t have the financial means, remember that your time and expertise must be spent charitably as well.

The Torah calls for your continued interest and persistent involvement, not a one-off act; a mode of being, a mentality of feeling obligated to intervene for people who need help today and, in all likelihood, will still need help tomorrow and the day after as well.

Your brothers need you; you must persist.