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Birkas HaShanim – Year’s Blessing

7 minute read
Straightforward

בָּרֵךְ עָלֵינוּ ה’ אֱלקינוּ אֶת הַשָּׁנָה הַזּאת וְאֶת כָּל מִינֵי תְבוּאָתָהּ לְטובָה.
 בקיץ – וְתֵן בְּרָכָה בחורף – וְתֵן טַל וּמָטָר לִבְרָכָה
עַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה וְשבְּעֵנוּ מִטּוּבָהּ. וּבָרֵךְ שְׁנָתֵנוּ כַּשָּׁנִים הַטּובות. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, מְבָרֵךְ הַשָּׁנִים:
Bless [on] us, O Lord our God, this year and all its kinds of produce for good (From Passover to December fourth/fifth say: And give a blessing) (From December fourth/fifth to Passover say: Give dew and rain for a blessing) upon the face of the land and satisfy us with Your goodness and bless our year as the good years. Blessed are You, O Lord, Who blesses the years.

This blessing deals with issue of making a livelihood

בָּרֵךְ עָלֵינוּ ה’ אֱלקינוּ

One of the first things we must recognize is that our sustenance does not come by our hand. It’s obvious that you don’t generate your intelligence, or even your health. But we’re all capable of getting a minimum wage and putting basic necessities in our mouths, and it’s the easiest one to take credit for. In the capitalist culture of our day, capital is allocated capital where it is perceived as deserved, so if you make any money, you can feel quite confident that you have earned it.

But have you really?

Like all the prayers, the placement in the order of prayer correlates to something about its essential nature. This is ninth blessing, corresponding to the letter ט – closed on the bottom and open on the top, quite literally shaped like a cup or vessel. It reflects our duty to create vessels open to receiving blessings from Heaven, and it’s one of the harder things to do.

אֶת הַשָּׁנָה הַזּאת

It’s worth noting that we don’t ask God to bless us, or the year, but rather, to bless on us this year – בָּרֵךְ הַשָּׁנָה הַזּאת / בָּרֵךְ עָלֵינוּ ה’ אֱלקינוּ אֶת הַשָּׁנָה הַזּאת.

We have asked for wisdom, repentance, redemption, and health, and we now address our financial wellbeing. The other prayers aren’t requests for wisdom on us, but for our wisdom, etcetera.

But unlike wisdom and health, for example, your wealth is not an element of you – it describes you, but is not you. Some things are part of who you are, some things are just what you do

Wealth is not a part of you, or at least should not be. Perhaps when it becomes a part of you, it stops being the blessing we hope it will be.

Farming

The focal point of this blessing is quite clearly the seasonal agricultural cycle. It touches on the year, the crops, the dew, and the rain. And yet, the prayer concludes with God as Master of Years, when we might reaonably expect it be in keeping with the agricutlturl atheme; perhaos Master of Crops – mevarech hatevuah.

So for some essential reason, the year is different and more important than the object of agriculture.

There’s a minimum a person needs to be considered wealthy, or at least not poor. In our sages time, they benchmarked that someone who couldn’t buy their needs for the entire year is allowed to ask for charity.

Mevarech hashanim

Apart from the liquidity to buy what you need, part of financial wellbeing includes security, which is not the same thing. You can have nothing and live securely, and you can have everything and be utterly insecure. Someone worth hundreds of millions might lose a few million and get depressed and cut back on his charity.

We ask God to bless us with the security of knowing that we are going to be ok, to bless on us that this year and its crops will be ok, that if tomorrow’s wheat fails, we’ll live on something else.

Everyone else too

Part of the prayer is for ourselves, but part is for everyone else as well. We live in a globalized world that is intimately interconnected – if one supply chain fails, it has knock on effects everywhere.

A person can be accustomed to something, beneath which is unthinkable, hedonic adaptation.

We ask God to bless all the different kinds of things people count on to put food on the table, including the things we cannot fathom.

Theres a law to support someone who loses their business at the level they are accustomed to – Dei machsoro. These levels are artificial boundaries we give ourselves permission to enjoy, and we don’t need to justify them, the levels are subjective.

We cars, computers, and smartphones, and that doesn’t mean we’re spoilt. That’s just what people like us do! Our culture determines what is acceptable; you’re not wrong for getting pasta at restaurant when you could have made it at home for less.

Its ok to be comfortable, and we don’t have to give up things we are comfortable with. The trouble only starts when our comforts become a part of us. Sometimes people lose money and get terribly depressed at their loss, when in the objective sense, they’re the same as every one else now. But that doesn’t stop the fact that they lose something, it hurts. So we add a caveat that it be for the best – לְטובָה. Upon us, but not us – Aleinu.

Dew and rain

We adapt our prayers to the seasonal nature of agriculture, asking for rain and dew as blessings. Dew is the moisture that appears every day, and is always a blessing – vein bracha. On the other hand, we need to request that rain appear as a blessing – gishmei bracha – because it isn’t always.

Rain can be blessing or curse. Plants need the right amount of moisture at the right time. Too much rain ruins a crop, not enough rain ruins a crop, and rain at the wrong time ruins a crop.

Dew is gentle – its never the wrong time or wrong amount, so always a blessing

In the material world as well, a big windfall once a year isn’t great, and having a huge yield when your stores are full is not great. Investors can have a real problem when they have too much capital to deploy and no good opportunities to invest in.

We ask for the rain to be good so that everything about it be good as well. We hope to find financalal wellbeing, but getting it when you need it is important as well.

Al Pnei hadama not al hadama. The flood washed away topsoil

Truthful prayer

The Gemara tells a story of the legendary sage, R’ Chanina ben Dosa, who had a rpeutation that
all his prayers were answered in the affirmative. In one instance, R’ Chanina was walking with a candle in the rain, and he sighed that everyone was happy it was raining but he was sad – and the rain stopped. He got home with his candle, and sighed that everyone was sad the rain had stopped yet he was happy – and the rain resumed.

One of our core prayers affirms that God is close those who call on God truthfully – Karov hashem lchol korav lchol Asher yirauhu vemes. R’ Chanina’s core trait in prayer was to be truthful – he was telling the truth in both scenarios. In the first, he felt sorry for himself, and in the second, he felt sorry for others. It was the same problem, but defined in different ways – him as opposed to others.

One of the powers of a prayer is to help us define the problems before us, and perhaps helping us formulate them differently .

When R’ Chanina was caught in the rain, it may have been good for everyone but it wasn’t good for him, so he couldn’t truthfully pray for what they needed – it was a zero sum problem, where someone had to lose for someone else to win.

But problems don’t have to be zero sum; there are positive sum problems where everyone can win. Instead of my business canniballising from your sales, people can simply buy more from both! Far too often, we begrudge people success because it’s at our expense, when it really isn’t like that.

Al Pnei hadama

Reward and punishment is a cornerstone of Jewish belief – ani maamin. While we can’t really understand how it works – tzadik vra lo / schar mitzvah bhai alma leka, our sages suggest that plenty of good deeds have tangible effects in the real world that exist apart from the heavenly metaphysical part that is reserved for the hereafter.

Our sages use a metaphor of a heavenly treasury that awaits us when we pass on the to the world to come, and they were terrified of depleting it for currency to use in this world. Story of golden table leg.

Yakov katonti.

We don’t have to understand the divine financial system to understand that we’d prefer to have our blessings come from our own hands, from the good deeds we do as opposed to miracles or special favors – Al Pnei hadama.

We want our blessings to come from here, rather than squander the precious worlds we’ve built, and in harder times, we should remind ourselves that we’re not depleting what matters – keen kayemes Lolam haha.

וְשבְּעֵנוּ מִטּוּבָהּ

Asking God to satisfy us with goodness is a great sounding request that is actually pretty meaningless; God is good and everything God does is God, and we can still be miserable and unhappy.

It’s not a request for God’s goodness to satisfy us; it’s a request for us to be satisfied with the goodness God sends our way. It’s a prayer to not be needy and high maintenance, to be satisfied even if the world isn’t at our fingertips.

Some children will be overjoyed with a birthday cake and a toy, and others will have a tantrum if they don’t get to buy the entire store. It might be great to get everything you want – but you still want to person in the first example, not the second – Sabeinu mituvecha.

The Gemara talks about our great mother Sarah’s bread, and its legendary property of being blessed in people’s stomachs – mevarech bmeiav, a property also shared by the manna. (Double check).

There are times in our lives we just need some more than we’ve got, and other times where we need to be happy with less. Not to suggest that we need to settle for less – it is human nature to strive, and your spirit must always persist. But that being said, it is possible for people to need less, even if they don’t always want less.

There’s a certain amount that you need, and god can make that amount less – Sabeinu mituvecha.

וּבָרֵךְ שְׁנָתֵנוּ כַּשָּׁנִים הַטּובות

All too often, people often have selective memories, and fondly remember the good old days.

But we never seem to notice when we’re in them.

So we fervently ask to recognize the good times to be now, not to wait til later; prospectively today, not only in hindsight.

Our nature seems to be to have something and want more – Yesh mana ratza masayim

A poor man has something that kings do not. A poor man is only ever a few coins short of what he wants, and if a king can’t get what he wants, it must be very out of reach.

The more you have, the more you want. If you only need one bite today, you need one bite tomorrow; if you have five today, you need five tomorrow as well.

But in truth, good times in hindsight is a good blessing as well. It is entirely possible that in the ashes of misery, the seeds of the future are already growing underground, well on their way to blessings down the road – hazorim bdima Brian yiktzoru.

Even in hard times, you can be certain that there are blessings in play you will be able to look back on, even if they’re out of sight.

Refuah – Healing

10 minute read
Straightforward

רְפָאֵנוּ ה’ וְנֵרָפֵא. הושִׁיעֵנוּ וְנִוָּשֵׁעָה כִּי תְהִלָּתֵנוּ אָתָּה. וְהַעֲלֵה רְפוּאָה שְׁלֵמָה לְכָל מַכּותֵינוּ כִּי קל מֶלֶךְ רופֵא נֶאֱמָן וְרַחֲמָן אָתָּה. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, רופֵא חולֵי עַמּו יִשרָאֵל:

Heal us, O Lord, and we shall be healed, save us and we shall be saved, for You are our praise. Bring complete healing to all our wounds, for You are God and King, the faithful and merciful healer. Blessed are You, O Lord, Who heals the sick of his people Israel. 

Health

Of all the prayers a human might  understand on their own, this is that one people don’t need much help understanding – the prayer for health – refaeinu. It usually elicits the strongest and most visceral emotions in people, and with very good reason. A healthy person wants lots things; a sick person only wants one. Without health, all the blessings in the world fall flat. For most people, it is usually the most relatable and straightforward blessing to connect with.

Eights and Healing

It’s the eighth blessing in the order of the Amida, and number sequences were highly significant to our sages. Eight is closely associated with circumcision, the mitzvah of which falls on the eighth day; and circumcision is closely associated with our ancestor Avraham.

Avraham sat at the entrance to his home on a baking hot day right after his circumcision procedure. The Torah describes how three angels came, each with a purpose. One with good news about Yitzchak, one with bad news about Sodom and Lot, and one Raphael, brought healing. Angels are named for their distinct functions, so Rapha-el literally means the power of God’s healing.

This is our first introduction to God’s healing power, and it is associated with circumcision, unlike, say, a broken arm. Circumcision symbolizes human ability to master our instinct, situated as it is in the site of desire, showing the task of subordinating our faculties and lives to connect with and serve God. In the same way that circumcision reveals meaning and purpose of life, and Rapha-el shows up to heal, the power of healing reveals meaning and purpose in sickness. 

Ancestors

Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivka, Yakov and Rachel all had something in common – they experienced infertility for a frustratingly long time. A one off can be excused as random and unfortunate, but our matriarchr were infertile across three generations, and we should remember that they were not closely related. Our sages explain that God seeks out the prayers of the righteous – Nisaveh tefilasan shel tzadikim. 

Farhi line on the person the prayer makes you. If their model serves as an example for us, it’s that our issues should make us turn to God – Refaeinu hashem. 

Magic of Medicine

We live in an age of highly advanced medicine. If our ancestors could see our mastery of the human body, they would call it magic and witchcraft. We should not take for granted how miraculous modern medicine is; but it presents a unique challenge that our ancestors did not have in how to turn to God for healing. In a certain sense, for most of human history, if your kid got sick, all you could do was hope and pray because health outcomes were appallingly bad. Today, people who don’t turn to God have excellent health outcomes; and its not like only people who turn to hashem are healed.

But we still have to recognize God there.

God has allowed doctors to understand microbes, to understand what happens beneath the surface. Today, microscopic surgery allows doctors to perform complex procedures while barely affecting our bodies at all! Our job is to understand is that the doctor and medicine aren’t the source of healing; they are instruments and vehicles, but it is still God acting through them – Rafeinu hashem.

Miracles 

A gentleman came to the Chazon ish asking for a blessing to heal from a particular respiratory disease, and the Chazon ish advised him to move to a particular town, where he covered. Years later, when asked why it had worked, the Chazon ish explained that there’s a halchic dispute about the kosher status of an animal with this illness and whether it will survive or not – treifa. The Chazon ish sent the man to a jurisdiction of the authority who ruled that the animal would survive.

This is an anecdote, it isn’t data, it’s not hard science or good life advice. But its refaeinu hashem vneirofei. 

When things suddenly click or work or suddenly not, it’s refaeinu 

If you work in medicine, say a short prayer before doing what you do to channel the healing energy. If you’re going to the doctor, do the same. Its not down to the right doctor, the right medicine, the right treatment, or the right timing. That’s all part of it, sure. But we don’t want to be healed by the most famous surgeon; we want healing from hashem – Rafeinu hashem.

Vneirafei

When something is wrong, you can treat the symptoms, or you can treat the problem. Treating the symptoms is fine and even necessarry in the short run – because it hurts! But in the long run, you want the treatment to heal the entire problem. It’s not enough to stop the pain; we need healing – vneirofei. 

God uniquely understands the causes of our pain, and we ask God for lasting healing – vneirofei.

Hoshieinu v’nivasheia

We asked God to heal us so we could be healed, and then ask for God to save us so we can be saved, which must be different.

Perhaps the first statement is about our physical condition, and the second is about our spiritual condition. 

It could parallel helping and saving from the first blessing in the Amida, – Ozer umoshia. Sometimes, God help us do something – Ozer; and other times, God does it all for us – moshia. In that case, healing could mean circumstances where our body utilizes medicine and heals; we joined the healing – refaeinu. But in times where we can’t participate in the healing, we ask God to save us – Vnivasheia.

Sometimes, a person is too frail for a treatment, or its allergic; their body won’t cooperate. Doctors will often say that part of the road to recovery is that patient has to want to get better. Conversely, people speak of elderly people dying because they gave up on life; we need to have a positive mindset towards healing.

Sometime we are too weak to heal or don’t have any fight left in them, and some people don’t want to heal. They truly need to be saved to keep fighting – hoshieinu vnivasheia.

Another element that is different from healing and saving is where they exist in time. Healing is problem that exists in the past and present, and salvation is a solution that exists in the present and into the future.

There’s a mitzvah to visit the sick; our sages teach that if you don’t pray for the sick person while you’re visiting, you haven’t performed the mitzvah yet.

There’s a great story about R’ Yitzchak Hutner, famous for his legendary wit. He was sick in bed, and one of his students came to visit. R’ Hutner asked what he wanted, and the student said he’d come to visit the sick. R’ Hutner responded, “Am I your Lulav? Did you come to shake me?”

Our mitzvah isn’t to check on the sick, but to help them heal. Imagine the doctor checking the charts but not doing anything to treat the patient! Part of healing is our prayer. 

It might be hard to wrap our heads around, but if healing is in the hand of god, then the doctor is a cause of healing, but so are you. The doctors skill and experience will inform his treatment, but that is only one dimension of healing, the part that the body needs. But the mind and soul need healing too. If you’re visiting the sick, you’ve only done your job if tomorrow will be better because you came to visit today.

Vnivasheia

It seems like a tautology – obviously if Hashem saves you, you’ll be safe! But it’s not a tautology at all, because God can heal or save you , and some people don’t want that. We’re not always willing to do what needs to be done to heal or be safe, and it takes something on our end to accept and receive what God has in store for us – vnisvasheia.

A person may refuse chemotherapy because they’re afraid of losing their hair, even though they’re slowly dying. They’re too scared to face the world in a new state. The medicine is there, and it works more often than not, but we might not want to go through the pain required for healing. 

Ki shilaseinu ata

We say to God that we’ll recognize God as the source of healing. It almost seems childish at first – are we offering God a gold star?

Everything happens for a reason. While we can’t access the global cosmic why, there is always a local why, the meaning and sense we make out of everything that happens to us. Even if it only comes later, and even if it’s a lesson we don’t want to learn, there is a reason. (EXPLAIN)

One of the reasons that’s generally true is so that we thank God, so in a certain sense, we’re preempting God’s healing with a thank you. Don’t heal us so that we thank you; heal us because we’re thanking you already! 

Imperfection and pain in the world has the latent power to bring us closer to God. When we recognize it as such, it neutralizes the sting, and the pain becomes redundant if we have learned the lesson.

If a teacher holds a class back to do their homework before recess, that is fair enough. But if

one day everyone has finished their homework and keeps them back anyway, we recognize the teacher is gratuitously mean; God is not vindictive.

Critically, our praise has to come from the part that’s hurting as well; our whole body owes thanks to hashem.

When a person needs brain surgery and is healed, is the miracle that the brain is healed, or that the brain worked perfectly before and now works perfectly again? Far greater than one-off miracles are the miracle we take for granted every day every day; it’s not the sickness or healing that are the aberration! But sickness, more than anything else, helps us see that starkly. 

Every time we say this prayer, we should bring gratitude and praises into our lives, for all of our lives, not just the parts that feel good. 

(Requires wider analysis about outcome distributions and probabilistic things

There is no silver bullet

People can do perfect treatment and die

People can be perfectly healthy and drop dead

Bad things happen to good people all the time)

Maka

The first word we usually associate with maka – the Ten Plagues.

If you’ve ever bumped yourself, you might have gotten a bruise. It doesn’t always hurt, and if it does, it doesn’t hurt forever. A maka could be the sickness itself, and may be a byproduct of sickness. Whichever it is, we ask for a comptely recovery, for this sickness and Beyond this sickness – Refuah shleima lchol makosienu.

Sometimes after a sicknss, people change. They’re cautious, afraid, still feeling the effects of being ill. They have a different outlook, a different approach, and sometimes it’s for the worse. Some athletes aren’t the same after an injury, too afraid to give their all the way they once did.

It’s a normal response, so we ask god for an uplifting healing as well – Haaleh refua shleima. Part of a full recovery is raised spirits, to make up for what they missed. We can notice the symptoms of illness, we can treat the illness itself, but there’s also the place they’re in, the headspace they occupy. If that’s not healed too, there’s a residual sickness that needs healing – Refuah shleima lchol makosienu.

Everything happens for a reason, and sometimes, people decide that the reason is they are bad or cursed, and are being punished; that hashem is hurting them. We need to eliminate that thought, because God is not gratuitously cruel, God is graciously compassionate and merciful –  Ki kel melech rofei Neeman vrachaman ata

Statement

The formula of the Amida prayers is the blessing itself, then the statement of the bracha, then the Bracha. Ki kel is the statement

Ki kel goal vchazak ata also 

You can add whatever you want to your prayers, and the best time is before the final statement. 

If God withholds things from us to build a relationship, then turning to God is part of the process of getting what we need.

When someone has trouble having children, or digestive issues, or mental health issues, its all under the category of healing – refaeinu.

Trustworthy 

For all the stories of magical cures, magical healing, and old women having babies, there are many unfortunate stories of the people who did not get those things. We need constant reminding that God is our trustworthy healer – rofei neeman.

Sometimes the sickness is better than the healing. Sometimes the healing isn’t worth being better. We pray for our healing to be the kind where we feel gods compassion.

Greater Israel 

We conclude our prayer affirming that God heals all the sick of Israel. In the similar public prayer for healing on Shabbos, we pray for healing for particular loved one among the other sick people of Israel – Bsoch shaar cholei Yisrael. 

When you stand alone in prayer, your prayers are evaluated alone. But when pray for and wit others, your healing prayers aren’t personal – you’re asking for communal healing, healing with a greater purpose. 

If you’re praying about a sickness that stops you from taking your place in Israel and doing what you need to do as part of Israel, then your healing is not about you; it’s a matter of national importance! If you see your life as a tool to sanctify heaven, then your health is one of the tools to sanctify heaven.

For most of our history, every tehilim was stained with tears. Our prayers matter. When someone is on the waiting list for a kidney transplant, they mean their prayers. If someone was approved for a surgery they couldn’t afford, but got to apply for a grant that would cover it, how persuasive would they be?

Our prayers hit different when we believe them. When we say them like they’re true. 

Only they are true, whether it’s for ourselves, our loved ones, or ourselves. Our prayers for healing are true whether for sickness or heartbreak.

If you are well, may you continue to be well, and bring God’s healing into the world – Raph-El / refaeinu hashem. Bring joy, happiness, and healing that uplifts others. 

God can save us, and God can help us. If you can do the work, doing the work can be good for you; being saved is a last resort, and you don’t want that.

We think we want easy, pain-free lives, but that’s not always what’s best for us, and that’s not for us to choose. There are some kinds of pain we need to learn to live with.

We don’t get to choose our ordeals, but the Gemara says that when they come, we should look inwards –  yefashfesh bmaasav. It’s cruel to say it to others, but in a certain sense, perhaps it is the only way to respond. We can’t know why bad things happen to us, but we can ask ourselves what we’re going to do about it.

In a story about a deadly snake terrorizing a town, the Gemara concludes that it’s snake venom that kills people; their sins do. R’ Chaim Vittal teaches that it is beyond disgraceful to tell people that their suffering is because of their sins, whether in general or particular; it’s unknowable and entirely beyond human comprehension. That suffering could be something that substitutes for something worse, or cleanses a person in some way by who they become as a result – yisruim shel ahahah.

But our sages teach us that there’s an element of sin to our suffering. Sin is universal – ein tzadik ba’aretz. No one has the ability or wisdom to know how sin results in which real world consequences, but maybe it’s a little hook that opens the door, and that’s enough.

If you imagine a tall steel fence around a property, but there’s a gap in the fence two feet wide. The fence can be tall, strong, and thick, but the property isn’t secure. It doesn’t matter how much is secure if there’s a little section that’s compromised; there’s a way in.

May you never know the pain of removing someone’s name from your prayer list because they have passed. May you only experience the joy in removing someone from that list because they have healed.

Teshuva – Return and Repentance

10 minute read
Straightforward

סְלַח לָנוּ אָבִינוּ כִּי חָטָאנוּ. מְחַל לָנוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ כִּי פָשָׁעְנוּ. כִּי מוחֵל וְסולֵחַ אָתָּה (ספרד: כִּי קל .טוֹב וְסַלָח אָֽתָּה:). בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, חַנּוּן הַמַּרְבֶּה לִסְלחַ

Teshuva and forgiveness

The previous Bracha was a prayer for teshuva, and this Bracha is a blessing for forgiveness. They are linked, and forgiveness does follow teshuva, but they are not the same. There is a distinct conceptual gap between the two.

When we think about teshuva, and who is the actor, it is self-evident that we have to do the work. In the previous blessing, we ask for help finding our way through God’s Torah, that where we are is far from where we want to be, but we have to do the work and act.

In this prayer, we go further along the continuum, and even assuming we have done teshuva, we ask God to act by accepting it. This bilateral relationship is a universal constant in any discussion about God. God can say not to eat from the tree, but will the human listen? Humans can pray and attempt to please God, but will God be receptive? This constant tension is a feature in all relationships, and the relationship we have with God through the lens of our Tradition is that it is a two way street – retzei na bimnuchoseinu

It is possible to do teshuva and for God to reject it – there are times in the prophets when it it is too little, or too late – navi quote about ignoring korbanos – Chazon?

When you hurt somebody you love, you absolutely should feel bad for hurting them, and you should certainly apologize and attempt to make amends. But it doesn’t follow in any way that the person you hurt has to accept your apology, or that the relationship can be restored. There is a leap of faith that we take when we have a relationship with another, and part of the apology must affirm the space for the other to respond how they choose.

Teshuva, the apology, is a distinct act from the forgiveness.

Importance of teshuva

Our prayers are structured in a hierarchy – we don’t just show up and freestyle with all the things we want and need. The opening prayers affirm the destination of our prayers, the Almighty Creator. The next prayer is for holiness and separation, sacred distinction, which orients and designates our lives with purpose and imbues it with meaning. The following blessing is about wisdom and understanding, expanding our consciousness; everything that follows is what you want, but your consciousness what fundamentally your essential self and what you are.

Still quite abstracted from our daily wants and needs, we ask for teshuva and forgiveness. It’s the sixth Bracha, six corresponding to the letter ו. The letter itself is shaped as a straight line with a hook on the top, and the word ואָֽו itself literally means hook. The letter is used a hook, the conjunctive “and”, and links things that might otherwise drift apart. The concepts of teshuva and forgiveness are the hooks that stop us from drifting too far for too long.

Keeping teshuva in mind

The God of our prayers is kind, loving, and forgiving. Our sages anticipated that someone might exploit that perspective, doing all the worst things possible while bearing in mind that God is forgiving anyway, so there’s no downside to doing whatever you please because God will forgive you! Echteh vashuv

Our sages cautioned against this mentality, warning that taking this stance in teshuva is doomed to fail; not as a punishment, but because that’s just not how it works. Our sages explain that teshuva necessarily predates creation and existence, and is the mechanism that enables our conintued existence. If you don’t use it right and attempt to coops it into themechanism of the sin or make it part of the sin, it just won’t work the way it is supposed to.

But that leaves us in a precarious position.

By asking God for forgiveness and teshuva every time we pray, don’t we open ourselves up this issue, effectively making our entire lives consciously aware that God forgives our sins, and go about with our lives anyway counting on forgiveness?
Ultimate echteh vashuv

If we try to unpack the metaphor of teshuva preexisting creation, it quickly turns into nonsense. We cannot imagine what ice cream is if we strip it of the physical characteristics we are familiar with. To the extent there exists a category of supernatural, our sages say that they were created as part of creation, and not before – including splitting the Red Sea, and Bilam’s talking donkey.

Complex things emerge from the simple things that precede them. Humans cannot exist without air and sunlight; so Planet Earth had to possess the properties of air and sunlight before humans could emerge. In a similar way, God had to create teshuva as an abstract conceptual category, wholly dinstcnt and separate from gods ability to forgive, because there is otherwise a filter that stops the complex thing from emerging after it, creation itself.

What if we didn’t need teshuva

We only need teshuva because God displays attributes of strict justice – din. But what if God only displayed generosity – Chessed?

We understand that doing your child’s homework forever and sheltering them from all issues and never teaching boundaries or consequences is catastrophic for healthy development, because exclusive kindness quickly stop being so kind.

In part, because the child never learn, but more fundamentally, because the child never really exists, they never have an identity or existence independent of yours. Nothing they do has any meaning, because they can’t really do anything all, it’s all you.

With no judgment, Hitler is the same as the friendly kindergarten teacher. Judgment is important! It adds a moral dimension to our existence, that we are either worthy or unworthy, ascribing meaning and value to what we do, whether positive or negative. For precisely this reason, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are days to celebrate – Yom Tov, in sharp contrast to Tisha brave, because, even though the books of life and death are open and the stakes couldn’t be higher, we celebrate that what we do matters. With no judgment, we live a meaningless existence.

Justice justifies our place in the world; so by necessity, God must sit in judgment in order to give God’s creatures a purpose. But the other side of the coin is that justice allows the possibility for punishment, and perhaps punishment so bad that God just cancels existence, and it’s not hard to imagine. In a world of pure strict justice, it would be impossible to survive because nothing would be enough.

Finite beings are always lacking – Ilu pinu Shira kayom. If you took for granted that you can see and breathe, you could be considered ungrateful. If you squandered two seconds of your day, you’d be wasting God’s precious gift to you. noone would stand up to scrutiny!

So by necessity, God’s justice is wrapped and enmeshed in God’s kindness, and God gives us teshuva before anything else. Before we can fail at our existence, god doesn’t wait for us to fail before providing the mechanism to thrive, A hook holds something close that would otherwise fall away.

We make mistakes, we are selfish, and we hurt each other; but a fundamental property of the the universe is that we possess the capacityto find our way back.

What is sin?

Sin is a Christian idea – see bashevkin

סְלַח לָנוּ אָבִינוּ כִּי חָטָאנוּ

According to Avraham ben hagra, the word חָטָא literally means to miss. In modern Hebrew today, sports commentators use the work חָטָא to describe a player missing their shot.
We tell our father we made a mistake – missed take – סְלַח לָנוּ אָבִינוּ כִּי חָטָאנוּ

In Hebrew, when you brush past somebody on the street, you says slicha – excuse me, a casual and mild form of apology. Utilizing the imagery of parent and child, it was an accident, by mistake, please excuse me.

מְחַל לָנוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ כִּי פָשָׁעְנוּ

But for willful or negligent misdeeds, where the outcome was quite foreseeable, a mild excuse me isn’t quite enough, and the familiarity of the relationship isn’t enough.

When your parent forbids you to take their car and you take and crash it, you need to apologize for at least two things. Firstly, you need to apologize for crashing his car, but there is a second dimension of disobedience and disrespect, that in the moment, you didn’t accept their authority or the boundary they set, and part of the apology will have to acknowledge and affirm that once again.

A yeshiva student once told his rabbi that he didn’t feel like praying, and the rabbi told him he had to anyway. There are going to be days you can’t be bothered to work; but part of having a job is that you show up.

As one prophet hauntingly asks, If I am your father – im aba, ayeh kvodi. Some of the things we do wrong are more severe and we can’t just casually ask for forgiveness, and we need to be more formal and acknowledge God as sovereign – מְחַל לָנוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ כִּי פָשָׁעְנוּ

Its easy to say that life is difficult, but its far harder to own your contribution and responsibility for life being that way. Life is like a mirror, its only nice if you are. We need to take extreme ownership of that, and a key part of that relates to understnaidn that we must ultimately answer to God for how we devote our time and attention.

כִּי קל .טוֹב וְסַלָח אָֽתָּה

Bad things happen all the time. They often happen to good people, and often for no reason. Our sages suggest that bad things can serve as a Tikkun that rectifies or cleanses us in some way, or they could be micro punishments for wrongdoing. In our prayers on Yom Kippur, we take ownership of our mistakes, and ask God to spare us from the terrible things – Vlo al ydei yissurim vchalayim raim.

We can ask that because God is might in kindness – כִּי קל .טוֹב וְסַלָח אָֽתָּה. This isn’t a way of asking to be let off the hook lightly or easy; it is a request for forgiveness that it gentle and kind.

We ask for forgiveness, but fact of the question affirms that you aknolwege God as the bearer of that power, and that you are accountable to and responsible to God. Relating to God as a sovereign, we ask for a pardon, accepting God’s authority.

Owning it

Our sages explained abstract concepts in language and imagery we would recognize. After life on earth comes to an end, our sages imagine our soul called to a heavenly tribunal, with a prosecution, defense, and judgment. The prosecuting angel whose job is to scrutinize our actions and draw attention where necessary is disparately called Satan, Yetzer Hara, or sanegor. It is not malicious or vindictive; it is a divine entity fulfilling its core protocol, in the same way as the sun shines.

Part of the power of this imagery is that we all know that there are things we’d rather keep concealed or hidden, and the prospect of being exposed is terrifying.

And yet, sunlight is the best disinfectant. When we confess our action, apologizing and asking forgiveness from God directly with a personal appeal, it bypasses the whole theatre and spectacle of a heavenly tribunal. We can ask for clemency, a presidential pardon straight from the Source of the law.

Like a pardon we might be familiar with in the real world, once a case has public attention in the courts, there is far less discretion and room for maneauvariblity; which showcases the power of this blessing. It’s a quiet discussion, part of the daily check in we have with our Father in Heaven, far less formal than the ceremony of Rosh Hashahan and Yom Kippur .

Caveat

Prayer doesn’t work in a vacuum, the words aren’t a magic spell with an automatic tangible effect. We have put in serious work before the prayer, and maintain course afterward. You can’t just ask for things and expect them to materialize. You can pray to lose weight all you like, but if you eat that box of donuts on the way home every day it’s just not going to happen.

But we’re shallow creatures with big eyes and short attention spans, so our sages formulated the text of the prayer for us, and we say the words even when we don’t feel them. 
They exist so that we contemplate them while saying them, but even if we don’t have the correct intentions, asking without meaning isn’t nothing

Reward and punishment

Our sages teach not to expect a reward for our achievements in our lifetimes – schar mitzvah bhai alma leka. That’s partly confirmed by lived experience, but it’s also because our achievements are so astronomically valuable that there really is no reward adequate enough to compensate for the good we have done.

Conversely, our sages teach that our troubles and ordeals do compensate for the wrongs that we do. The good vastly outweighs the bad.

חַנּוּן הַמַּרְבֶּה לִסְלחַ

God forgives us a abundantly.

R’ Levi yitzchak of berditchev would tell of a child who asks his pious father for a snack, and the father gently replies that it’s not snacktime. Undeterred, the child loudly recites the blessing over the snack, and not wanting the child’s blessing to go to waste, the father gives him the snack – Bracha lvatala.

The child isn’t cheating or exploiting his father; the child cannot force or coerce the father. When the answer was no, his father didn’t want to give him a snack; but he changed his mind!

In quite a similar vain, we acknowledge God’s abundant forgiveness. It’s not an exploit; it’s a feature. It’s not an exploit so much as a feature. After the debacle with the Golden Calf, our Sages imagine God teaching Moshe how to make amends; it’s not cheating the system at all, it’s actually exactly how the system is supposed to work.

God forgives generously, without always exacting punishment. When you make a mistake, you apologize, and hopefully, they forgive; but they don’t always forget. When someone wrongs you and you forgive them, maybe you don’t hate them, but you might no be friends anymore.

The exceptional property of God’s capacity to forgive is that God’s forgiveness extends dat beyond making it like it never happened. Our sages profoundly highlight how when we approach teshuva out of love, our mistakes and misdeeds can be treated like merits and mitzvos -zedonos naaseh kizchuyos. It’s not magic, it’s common sense. When you make a mistake, you are afraid of losing the relationship and work harder. When you confront grief and pain in a relationship in a healthy and constructive manner, it can propel you to a new place that weren’t previously able to a access, and you can directly say that what brought you closer was the mistake

This sheds light on the closing of the previous blessing – Harotzeh beteshuva. God desires our teshuva, which quite shockingly suggests that on some level, God wants people to sin by extension of the transitive property.

Don’t forget

In this request to God to forgive us, we acknowledge that Hashem is the one that gets to forgive, not ourselves.

Too often, we justify and excuse ourselves. We judge others mistakes freely, but we are very good lawyers for our own mistakes. But in a certain category of misdeeds, it’s not your place to forgive yourself.

After the Golden Calf, Moshe prayed for forgiveness for the people on the first Yom Kippur, with the revealing words of Vayomer hashem salachti kidvarecha – the degree of God’s forgiveness mirrors the input of the apology. God doesn’t forgive without you asking

The worst thing god could do is make excuses for you
You’d move further and further away
The more god needs to forgive you, the better your devarecha needs to be
In words, thoughts, and actions, all aligned

After golden calf – moshe apologized
Jewish people did not
Shmuel – vayomer chatanu lefanecha
Shmuel put on a coat of the jewish people and said we sinned
Shmuel said god only judges people who say they didn’t sin – blame environment and nurture
God judges us on how we feel about our mistakes
They ask for everyone
We need to ask for everyone together
Imagine getting teshuva for everyone you love
Collectively
Not apologizing for them, but with them

The third Beis HaMikdash
The biggest tzadik might be the biggest rasha who does teshuva
A tzadik fights to do good things and gets where he gets
A rasha can go further down the path because its natural
All the things that came natural and easy can turn to merits
What if we get teshuva for all the people we are losing and have lost

How can we do teshuva for aveiros we don’t know about?
Shogeg – absent minded
Misasek – oness – don’t really need to do teshuva

Our first reaction to accidents is – oh no!
That feeling makes you think about it
Sent to you to get you to feel something and look closer around there

If something goes wrong, yefashfesh bmaasav

When someone comes for charity, don’t say you’ll daven
Help them
But also daven for them

Hashem Sfasai Tiftach – Open The Gates

13 minute read
Straightforward

אֲדֹנָי שְׂפָתַי תִּפְתָּח וּפִי יַגִּיד תְּהִלָּתֶֽךָ

Before beginning our silent prayer, we take 3 steps back & then 3 steps forward.
This is based on the word va’yigash (ויגש), confrontation, which is found 3 times in the Torah.
‎The revelation of confrontation first requires stepping back.
‎Before presence there is absence.

Mental orientation
The ideal standard for prayer is that we are supposed to face the direction of Jerusalem. But when you’re not sure which way Jerusalem is, direct your heart to heaven and that counts just as much. When you know which way holiness is, head that way. When we lost our way and get disoriented, it’s as simple as turning our hearts to heaven. In the three steps we take back then forward, we can feel stuck, unable to move forward, struggling or overwhelmed. We’re right back where we started, but we are tuned in now, turned to God, and our hearts are attuned.

Legs Locked
We are supposed to keep our legs parallel for the duration of the Amida. This is popularly believed to imitate the angels, but it is a little odd to use such distinctly physical imagery for non-physical entities. The Rashba explains that keeping our legs locked demonstrates that we are stuck, totally helpless, and our belief that we can only move with God’s permission

Context
Before getting into complicated things, it’s essential to establish foundational first principles. One of the most essential tools to navigating our lives and understanding anything seriously is context, or perspective. Very few things merit an absolute response; far more often, life is complex, and so in some important respect, things can only be understood relative to their context. So for example, our ancestor Avraham’s defining feature was his kindness; so to put someone like that in the hottest of the Akeida presents a serious challenge. The challenge isn’t in instructing someone to sacrifice their child; it’s giving that instruction to someone like Avraham. Giving that instruction to cult leaders in the Ancient Near East isn’t a challenge at all – that’s a regular Tuesday. Context influences and guides our course of action.

There’s lots of things we need to contextualize in our prayer. Far more than what to say, we must contextualize who and where we are, Whom we are addressing, and what we think we are trying to accomplish.

אֲדֹנָי שְׂפָתַי תִּפְתָּח וּפִי יַגִּיד תְּהִלָּתֶֽךָ
Hashem, open my lips, and my mouth will tell your praises

אֲדֹנָי
It’s a foundational tenet of monotheism that there is one deity, the absolute and indivisible One God- Hashem Echad. The existence of God is enormously consequential to how we experience life in multiple ways, but in particular, it means there exists a higher authority, and that our lives unfold within the context of larger unseen forces working towards their own purpose in the universe, far beyond our comprehension. It means our lives play out on a gigantic canvas, and that we matter

The Ramchal explains that it is simply and entirely beyond us to grasp God as God is; but what we can understand is how we experience God’s interactions. So although there is one God, God also has lots of names, with each name describing a particular aspect or expression of God as experienced by humans in a given moment. But what we experience isn’t exactly what it is, only what it’s sort of like; when we feel anger or pride, they are separate and distinct traits, but God isn’t human, so doesn’t experience emotions the way humans do. God isn’t moody or volatile, God doesn’t change.

So while different expressions or interactions come from different places in humans, in God they somehow originate from the same place, so much so that the Tachanun prayer quotes from Tehilim, berogez rachem tizkor – In anger, remember compassion. This would be laughable to say to an angry person, an oxymoron almost, and yet it’s something we can ask God for, to remember compassion amidst anger. Because for God, they come from the same place.

In multiple places the Torah asks us to be like God:
Ubo sidvak
Acharei hashem telechu
Vhalachta bidrachav
It’s one of the broadest and all encompassing guiding principles of Judaism, following God’s ways; imitation dei. God visited Avraham when he was sick, so we should visit the sick. God buried Moshe, so we should bury the dead. God is kind and merciful, we should be kind and merciful. But while aspirational and noble, it doesn’t quite paint the full picture. God is angry and jealous at times, so maybe we should get angry and jealous at times! The Ran explains that we can’t emulate God’s anger or jealousy, because they are simultaneously imbued with love and compassion in a way we cannot emulate; we can only emulate what we can grasp. We know what love and compassion look and feel like, so those are the ones we copy.

YHVH means eternal being, and ELKM means the all powerful. Both are a little remote from our daily lived experience, but ADNY is the simplest – mastery. When Avraham went to greet his three guests, he showed them great deference and reverence, calling them his masters – XYZ. Rashi explains that mastery has a sacred aspect and a profane aspect, and different applications can be illuminating in different contexts. Are we slaves to master of the universe? It doesn’t really feel that way. What’s compelling you to be observant right this minute? What will happen if you stop? If we can stop being observant right now, and not get struck by lightning or cancer, are we really enslaved? But if the sacred aspect is remote, the profane aspect certainly isn’t. Do we actually feel there is an external force that influences our lives? That universal access point is ADNY. It’s the most common usage, and also the most genuine that exists in the sacred and the profane. Before understanding how to engage with God, the Almighty Master and Creator of the universe, we intuitively understand how to relate to God the master of health, the master of children, the master of business. ADNY.

שְׂפָתַי
The simple meaning is lips, but it also means boundaries – the frogs breached the Sefas hayeor. Our lips are the threshold that divides the interior body from the exterior, and is the only external body part of our body made of the inside of our bodies – try running your tongue through your cheek and across your lips – your lips are a part of your mouth, not your skin. As the threshold between interior and exterior, our lips control and convey what what is happening inside – or not. When our lips are closed, they form a rigid boundary, and there is no telling what the person is thinking or experiencing; you are limited to what’s happening facially and superficially, at the surface. Perhaps we simply open our prayer by asking that our own lips not be boundaries to what we’d like to say. Sefasai

But maybe there’s more to it than that. Let’s imagine an educated and accomplished banker or lawyer, well heeled and successful. If the market collapses, and unemployment skyrockets, firms shut down and lay people off. Like everyone else, this poor man loses his job, and there’s no jobs to be had. But he hears the local municipality is hiring trash pickers. He shows up to the interview, gets the job, and a nice high visibility uniform and gets a nice trash grabbing tool so he doesn’t have to bend down each time. Content that at least he has a job, and conscious that he’s better off than most, he does it for a week. He takes a break, and stands by the road the sidewalk, leaning by a lamppost, watching the cars go by. A few minutes go by, and suddenly, a car is speeding way too close to the curb, and our friend has to leap out the way to avoid getting injured. He picks himself up, and dusts his uniform, when, to his dismay, he sees his trash picker lying a few feet away, smashed to pieces in the commotion. In utter despair, the man falls to his knees, and screams through tears with a heartrending look to the heavens, “Come on God! Can I catch a break seriously!? Please, please God, just help me fix my trash picker!”

The story is quite obviously absurd. God can fix your trash picker; but God can get you a new one, or help you find another job, or turn the entire economy around from depression to boom times. But the joke’s on us because, we all make this exact mistake, and we make it all the time! We have lists of things we think we want, all the outcomes we’re banking on, and every single one of those is a boundary we are putting up.

If you’ve ever seen a horse and carriage on the street, you’ll notice the horse’s harnesses always have blinders. These blinders are critical for road safety; they reducing visual distractions from the horse’s peripheral vision, enhancing the horse’s concentration and focus on the road straight ahead. Sometimes it’s imperative to be focussed on the task ahead, but it’s not universally applicable. But there are plenty of times you need to take the blinders off so you can think and see bigger than the problem! In our prayers every morning, we say pokeach ivrim, and it’s about so much more than physical sight. It’s about perspective; mental and emotional sight as well. When we put up our own mental blinders and boundaries, we restrict ourselves from ever thinking bigger than the problem right ahead – Sefasai

When your uncle asks what you want for your birthday, is the right answer a pizza or a Ferrari? The right answer would depend on so many things, including how wealthy your uncle is, and how generous he is. When asked what you want for your birthday, a Ferrari is the wrong answer, because the giver is limited. But God the giver isn’t limited; we are.

If God were a genie in a magic lamp granting you three wishes, it’s the same effort to grant a wish for a Porsche as a wish for a potato. Now, God isn’t a genie, and God isn’t Santa Claus. But the point is, the difference between a Porsche and a Potato isn’t in the giver; it’s in the recipient, in us, specifically in our boundaries, and all the things holding us back – Sefasai tiftach

If we open ourselves up to the notion of taking down our boundaries, we’ll find that the bounds are quite literally endless. The Gemara teaches that even when the executioner’s sword is on your neck, you still mustn’t give up hope that somehow things will turn around; when Moshe faced execution under Pharaoh, his neck turned miraculously hardened like stone. – Sefasai tiftach

וּפִי יַגִּיד תְּהִלָּתֶֽךָ – and my mouth will tell your praises

Like any language, there’s many ways to say something, and the word we use to describe the speech also describes something about the way it is said – like speaking, shouting, whispering. The word used for the speaking here is a harsh form of speaking, like telling an uncomfortable truth. Rashi on Ko sagid says dvarim kashim kgidim. It’s speech that has a certain sense of harshness to it. But the harshness isn’t directed at God; it’s at ourselves.

There are times we are little too feel-good about God and religion (“Oh, you know why your wife has cancer and you lost your job? Because Hashem loves you!”). Sometimes, the truth and reality are harsh; they don’t always feel so good. It’s a harsh truth that God is ADNY, the master, and ADNY, my master. It is painful to admit that we are not completely in control, and that actually, we are almost entirely helpless.

Anyone with a smidge of self-awareness and intellectual honesty will readily admit that timing and luck played enormous roles in their successes. But the inverse is true as well; when we hear that someone loses their sanity, or something tragic happens, is it something they did to themselves? Does anyone seriously think there is a 1:1 linearity between people suffering and their sins? You’d have to be have to be incredibly cruel or immature to think so. They are called the less fortunate for good reason – it’s not a euphemism.

It does not feel good to lack control, and we develop sophisticated mental models to provide the illusion of feeling in control of our lives. Not being in control is something that happens to others! Someone else gets sick, someone else’s business is struggling, someone else’s marriage is facing difficulties… The harsh truth is targeted at ourselves who think we have it together, because your life is only ever one phone call away from going completely off the rails.

It takes nothing to ruin our health. The first substantive Bracha of the day for most of us is probably Asher yatzar. The Bracha articulates clearly and concisely that it takes almost nothing to wreck our health. It takes almost nothing to get into a deadly car wreck. Every time we face oncoming traffic, how do we know the driver across the painted stripe won’t get a surprise text message, and be distracted for the one moment he needs to adjust the wheel by half a degree to avoid a collision? Of course, if we lived that way, we’d lose our minds – you’d never let your family leave the house! But if we peel back the illusion, we recognize how the entire canvas of our lives and everybody we love hangs on very fine threads, and they can unravel in a second.

The grip you have on your life is a shorthand illusion you need to function properly, but it’s not the full picture. The world is a big and wild place; we cannot tame it, and we cannot tame God. We live in a complex and non-linear world, and it’s scary and painful to admit we’re not in control. – Ufi yagid

But once we have that orientation, the first thing we do after acknowledging our place and standing in the cosmos is to bow down

To be clear, humans are not nothing. Far from it. But we are not the self important demigods we make ourselves out to be either. We are quite puny, even in physical terms of space and time, which requires a painful and shocking cognitive shift in awareness
You are a delicate bag of organic matter on a tiny, fragile ball of life, hanging in the void of an incomprehensibly enormous universe, and all the things we love and cherish live equally tiny existences in the cosmos, and yet the tiniest thing could knock over your entire universe – Ufi yagid

Pale blue dot
Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
— Carl Sagan

Three Steps
As we start the Amida, we take three steps back and then take steps forward, returning to our starting point. It might symbolize stepping away from the domain of the profane and stepping into the domain of the sacred. The Rashba explains that keeping our legs locked demonstrates that we can only move with God’s permission, and perhaps taking three steps backward then forward, ending up right where you started reflects something similar.

It could mean taking a step back from where we were, gaining perspective, and then returning to our place with new context, which is a recurring theme by now, the clarity and consciousness we need to face up to our challenges correctly and properly. By returning to where we were before, perhaps are acting out what we hope to get from our prayer, seeing that God was right where I was, only I wasn’t where He was. I had to step away for a bit to see God was always there. The Mona Lisa is heralded as the greatest artwork a human has produced; if you stuck your nose to the canvas you wouldn’t really be able to see the masterpiece for what it is. It’s cordoned off to the optimal vantage point, twenty or so feet away. Sometimes you need to step back for a moment to gain perspective on where we were.

R’ Menachem Mendel of Rimanov was traveling one day, and he encountered a young boy crying. He stooped down, and asked the child what was wrong. Explained the child, he’d been playing hide and seek with his friends, and no-one came to find him. Even worse, they kept playing until it was time to go home, and no one noticed he was gone. In the phase of history we are currently in, God is hiding. But are we looking? What’s it like for God to be hiding and for us to not be looking? How many people in the world are looking for god?

The Torah describes how amidst the thunder, the mountain was enveloped in progressive fields of darkness, cloud, and hazy fog – חושך, ענן ,וערפל. The Mishna Berura suggests that each of the three steps symbolizes walking through those distortion fields. R’ Twersky suggests that we arrange our own distortion fields in our lives of our own making, barriers around ourselves to the divine, blinding ourselves from seeing more in different ways. Darkness blinds us from perceiving that there is something to look for, but fixing that is easy – just need to turn on the lights! Cloud blinds us by obscuring things – you can see dainty but not in details, and you get lost amid lack of clarity, seeing but not recognizing things as they truly are. Fog blinds us in a more sinister way. If you ever drive in fog, you should know to turn on your lights, so people know you’re there. But the trouble with fog is that it doesn’t just mask what’s there, it also catches and reflects the light, and so while helping people know that someone is there, they actually can’t see anything at all, because the fog distorts the light, and the light contributes to the distortion effect. There are times the Torah and its ideas can be blinding – people who have the light, and yet it’s distorted or distorted. Refracted and twisted, bent and corrupted light.

We all experience blindness of some kind. We all compartmentalize our Judaism. Even if it’s not like we keep every other Shabbos, or keep Kosher on Thursdays, we are all complacent about things. Whether it’s blessings before or after food, praying, praying with a minyan; we are all complacent about things we shouldn’t be complacent about, and that’s the blindness or distortion in our lives. But even more nefariously, there are mitzvos and ideals we aren’t complacent about, the things we take super duper seriously, and ironically, those blind us to all our shortcomings more than anything!

Perhaps taking three steps is the act of looking for God. If you’ve ever realized that you lost something, you search through the house til you find it, and unless interrupted, you’ll go back to where you started when you realized it was missing. But now you’ve found it. And when we find it, hashem sefasai tiftach

What’s the most important thing about torah? Context – zooming out
Avraham does akeida.
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What’s fascinating is that the very words we utter to open our prayer were spoken by King David, at his lowest point. He’d married Batsheva under morally problematic circumstances, and could no longer experience prophecy. In his rock bottom moment of abolsute failure, he begged God to open his lips – Hashem sefasai tiftach. There is an irony to David praying to pray, but it serves to illustrate that there is no such thing as not being able to pray. King David honestly and truly felt that way – but he was wrong. He doesn’t feel worthwhile, and he prayer to get there again. It is of the highest significance that the archetype we channel to open our prayers is of someone who feeling bad and sad, rightly or wrongly. Bring your ugly feelings to your prayers too – that’s literally where these words come from. Your thoughts and feelings are the rocket fuel that animate the words with life and meaning – they’re hollow and empty if you don’t infuse with spirit and emotion.

A sinner can feel cast aside, they’ve lost their way, walked the path away from God. But the funny thing is, wherever you are in the physical or spiritual universe, if you ever get lost, it’s actually not hard at all to course correct; you just have to turn the right way and now you’re on the right track again. Ki lo sachpotz bmos hames ki im bshuvo midarko. Teshuva can be as simple as turning to face the right direction

 

 

Hashiva Shofteinu – Justice and Generosity

12 minute read
Straightforward

הָשִׁיבָה שׁופְטֵינוּ כְּבָרִאשׁונָה וְיועֲצֵינוּ כְּבַתְּחִלָּה. וְהָסֵר מִמֶּנּוּ יָגון וַאֲנָחָה. וּמְלךְ עָלֵינוּ אַתָּה ה’ לְבַדְּךָ בְּחֶסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים. וְצַדְּקֵנוּ בַּמִשְׁפָּט. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, מֶלֶךְ אוהֵב צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט

Getting there together

There are three elements to this prayer; restoration of just leadership, removing sorrow and suffering, and asking for God’s rule. It’s not particularly obvious how one follows from another.

The Riva suggests there is a correspondence between the first half of the Amida and the second;  the first half are more personal requests, and the second half are broader and more abstracted. The earlier personal request of a return to wholeness and teshuva parallels this request for the return of leadership and justice – הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ  / הָשִׁיבָה. The first blessing speaks about our narrow personal path, and this one is about the broader collective, where everyone makes their way back, and that only happens with good leader and role models.

Good ol’ days

The Torah talks about the administration and enforcement of law and justice with an acknolwedgment that the availability of quality judges will vary from time to time and place to place – הַשֹּׁפֵט אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם.  Our sages note that you can only make use of what’s available to you, and it’s pointless to compare the relative ability of judges. Not everyone is going to be Moshe or Samuel, but the best leader available to you must be treated on par with them by necessity. The best you have might not be all that, but if he is the best available then you must accept his authority and judgment.

Our sages teach us to respect the leaders we have; and here we are asking for judges like the good ol’ days – הָשִׁיבָה שׁופְטֵינוּ כְּבָרִאשׁונָה וְיועֲצֵינוּ כְּבַתְּחִלָּה. Doesn’t this prayer violate that sentiment?

It’s all relative

Perhaps aren’t just suggesting that we respect the leaders we have. On a certain level, the quality of a leader is determined by the quality of the followers.

When Moshe stood at Sinai to receive the Torah, God commanded him to stop and descend because his people had corrupted their ways, what with having forged a Golden Calf they were celebrating.  The superficial explanation is that God sent Moshe down the mountain to stop the festivities; but on a deeper level, the potency of the leader is directly proportional to what the people deserve. When his people were eager and excited to receive the Torah, they empowered Moshe to climb the mountain the Torah. But when then lost their way, their leader had no business staying in the clouds, so God tells Moshe to climb down; his people aren’t where they need to be for him to carry on.

And it goes the other way too; we get the leaders we deserve based on merit and relatability. We don’t deserve to be lead by a Moshe, but if he was here, we wouldn’t understand each other, which ties back into the link between this prayer for the return of great leaders to the return to teshuva. If we were better people, we’d deserve better leadership.

It’s important to highlight that we aren’t asking for better, which is to say different leaders; we ask for our leaders to be and do better, like the greats of our past – הָשִׁיבָה שׁופְטֵינוּ כְּבָרִאשׁונָה

Guidance and Judgment

This blessing asks for restoration of great judges and counsellor – שׁופְטֵינוּ / וְיועֲצֵינוּ. While a judge imposes law, a counsellor advises and guides us through situations, and we need both in our lives. You always want to have good low and mid level advisors, arming you with the information and perspective you need to make good decisions. But there are times the best advice in the world doesn’t, when you’re too biased or jaded or stuck. In those situations, you need someone to tell you what you need to do.

But we should have no illusions that we need judgment and counsel in tandem. If you submit to someone imposing what you need to do too often, you might be doing the right thing, but you won’t be much at all. You need to take counsel and be sure to exercise your own judgment as well.

Groaning Ineptitude

In days gone by, a core member of communal leadership was a spirit guide, the prophet,, or shaman. Our books talk about how people would regularly seek insight with the Kohen Gadol in his capacity as the oracle entrusted to consult the Urim v’Tumim; or kings taking instruction from prophets about who they had to be and what they had to. These interactions don’t lend themselves to ambiguity; they give crystal clear guidance and direction. If you needed direction, focus, and purpose, there was a designated place to go to get answers; you wouldn’t have to figure it out for yourself – הָשִׁיבָה שׁופְטֵינוּ כְּבָרִאשׁונָה וְיועֲצֵינוּ כְּבַתְּחִלָּה.

One of the defining features of the zeitgeist in our times is a sense of spiritual disorientation, the feeling of being orphaned from meaning and who we are, lost in this vast and chaotic space we inhabit. There is no designated place to go for answers, and we very much have to figure it out for ourselves – וְהָסֵר מִמֶּנּוּ יָגון וַאֲנָחָה.

But if the nature of the answers we seek looks different from our ancestors, the starting point of the question is very much the same. The Torah anticipates things being too difficult for us to determine on our own, and tells us to seek guidance – כִּי יִפָּלֵא מִמְּךָ דָבָר לַמִּשְׁפָּט / וּבָאתָ אֶל־הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם וְאֶל־הַשֹּׁפֵט אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם  וְדָרַשְׁתָּ וְהִגִּידוּ לְךָ אֵת דְּבַר הַמִּשְׁפָּט. Definitionally, if the Torah expects we will get stuck with questions from time to time, it necessarily requires us to think for ourselves.

There are times we get stuck and can’t find the answer, don’t understand our ordeals, can’t unlock meaning in our painful experiences. Indeed, experiencing something that feels unfair is itself one of the most painful experiences without meaning to sanctify it – וְהָסֵר מִמֶּנּוּ יָגון וַאֲנָחָה.

It’s relative

While the nature of our questions and answers might be substantively different to those of our ancestors, it bears wondering whether there is a comparison to draw. We might suggest that our struggle is greater than theirs, because our answers shrouded with mystery in a way theirs were not.

But in all likelihood, there isn’t really a comparison to draw in our struggle; ours is ours and theirs was theirs. If you’re a diamond dealer, the tiniest cut or flaw adds or destroys enormous value. If you’re a real estate developer, a bump on the ceiling or a great coat of paint aren’t going to make a huge difference.

Our struggle might be bigger and more acute, but that doesn’t offer commentary on which is better or worse. Our sages remind us that God considers great the things we consider small and trivial, and that being removed from the plugged-in switched-on state of our ancestors mean that the value in our victories is enormous. They didn’t bring about a final redemption, but we still can. It’s not because we’re better than our greats, but that our role takes place in concealment, darkness, and uncertainty.

First beginnings

Aside from the plain sense of this prayer requesting good judges, in a profound sense, it is also a request for better judgment. The Torah talks about the importance of establishing and maintaining a good justice and law enforcement system at our gates – שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים תִּתֶּן־לְךָ בְּכׇל־שְׁעָרֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ לִשְׁבָטֶיךָ וְשָׁפְטוּ אֶת־הָעָם מִשְׁפַּט־צֶדֶק.

The Kotzker read this as the need to exercise good judgment over our gateways and openings to the world – sights, smells, sounds, people, and ideas. Who or what are we letting into our lives, and does it live up to the ideals we once had? הָשִׁיבָה שׁופְטֵינוּ כְּבָרִאשׁונָה וְיועֲצֵינוּ כְּבַתְּחִלָּה

Our sages teach of a universal beginning, that all children in the womb is accompanied by an angel that teaches them the wisdom and secrets of the Torah and the universe, only to promptly erase this experience upon birth. In our sage’s conception, this is a person’s first exposure to wisdom, your first identity and personality that predates everything else about you. The personality you have cultivated has been shaped by everything in your life; but it is a secondary judge or personality, influenced by your circumstances, gifts, struggles, and successes. Perhaps we are asking for our judgment to return to the state of idealism and clarity we once had – הָשִׁיבָה שׁופְטֵינוּ כְּבָרִאשׁונָה וְיועֲצֵינוּ כְּבַתְּחִלָּה.

Relevance

When Moshe approached the end of his life, he spoke with God about succession planning. It was important to him that the next leader of the Jewish People do a good job, and the way Moshe characterizes doing a good job is revealing, echoed as it is in the beautiful and uncommon blessing we say upon seeing a crowd of multitudes, praising God as the knower of secrets – חכם הרזים. Our sages explain this as an acknowledgment of God’s greatness in knowing each of us in our complexity as individual hearts and minds. This is a subtle but vital point – God is great not because of the glory and sheer size of the crowd, but because God can see each of us as distinct within the sea of all too forgettable faces; God can see the individual within the collective, and that’s what Moshe wanted in the next great leader.

There is no leader who is a one size fits all, because people are different and need different things at different times. But if the messaging has to be different, the attitude has to be the same; that every individual must be met as and where they are. R’ Chaim Shmulevitz advises that the only way a teacher can care about each individual student is to see them as your own children.

R’ Shlomo Freifeld ran a yeshiva that admitted students from the  broadest and most diverse backgrounds. One student was a particularly bohemian free spirit, and would occasionally tell the rabbi about his travels, living in the woods among native peoples and their folk religious experiences, and rather than smile and nod, the rabbi would engage substantively. One day, the student was early for a meeting with the rabbi and looked through his office bookshelf, perusing all the familiar tomes, Midrash, Mishna, Halach, and spotted a colorful book among the usual collection; a book on native culture and folklore, their customs, rituals, and way of life. As unique as this anecdote is, it wasn’t unique to the rabbi; that’s the attitude and orientation it took to get through to each student that crossed his threshold.

הָשִׁיבָה שׁופְטֵינוּ כְּבָרִאשׁונָה וְיועֲצֵינוּ כְּבַתְּחִלָּה – Doesn’t everyone wish for teachers and mentors who care like that?

But it’s not fair

Experiencing something that feels unfair is itself one of the most painful experiences, with no meaning to sanctify the pain – וְהָסֵר מִמֶּנּוּ יָגון וַאֲנָחָה.

At the end of his life, the great Chafetz Chaim wanted to travel to Israel and applied for a visa to travel. The immigration office sent him from one department to another, ultimately determining that he needed to present a birth certificate as proof of identification. Of course, aged 90 and born in a small town in the 1800’s in an age of political upheavals, he didn’t have a birth certificate, so they sent him to the registrar of births and deaths to get one. But when he got there, the clerk told him that he could only issue a birth certificate with two witnesses to the birth. The Chafetz Chaim explained that he was 90 years old, everyone alive at his birth was long dead and the requirement was a legal impossibility. The clerk apologized and said that his hands were tied – the rules are the rules and there was nothing he could do.

Sometimes the rules are the rules, and what passes for justice is actually experienced as injustice. Under Nazi rule, killing Jews was faithfully upholding the law, and helping or hiding Jews was the criminal offense.

When we ask for leaders who promote justice, we mean the real thing, not some internally consistent kafka-esque nightmare.

Utilizing high office

A judge can be a judge, like a king can be a king. That’s great, and we’d be sitting pretty if everyone took their jobs seriously a tried to do a good job. But it’s possible to transform the entire position with the right attitude.

The Torah says that King David and King Solomon sat on the throne of God; which our sages take to be a unique description of how they weren’t in it for themselves. They dedicated their lives to using the position to establish greater religious access and make life better for their people; so they are characterized correctly as sitting on God’s throne, not their own, because they channeled the powers of their office for God, not themselves. When our leaders act for us and for God rather than themselves, it’s the closest possible thing to living under God’s protection, like our ancestors in the wilderness – וּמְלךְ עָלֵינוּ אַתָּה ה’ לְבַדְּךָ בְּחֶסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים.

Uncomfortably often, leaders and politicians start out idealistically and noble with the best of intentions, but before long, elections and realpolitik take their toll and they become part of the establishment they wanted to change. Every first term politician wants to be a reelected second term politician; and their job becomes about retaining the seat of power and office, not the people they once so badly wanted to help. Perhaps part of the prayer is that our leaders hold onto that initial enthusiasm and perspective of wanting to make things better, before the title and before exercising power – הָשִׁיבָה שׁופְטֵינוּ כְּבָרִאשׁונָה וְיועֲצֵינוּ כְּבַתְּחִלָּה.

Needs work

Hevei mitalmidei Ahron

Love peace, chase peace, draw them to torah

Peace is Ahron

But draw close to torah is moshe!

Why associate with Ahron?

If you’re the guy that fixes relationships, they love you!

Ahrons skill was getting them to see through him

With kindness and with mercy

We ask God to rule us exclusively in kindness and mercy – וּמְלךְ עָלֵינוּ אַתָּה ה’ לְבַדְּךָ בְּחֶסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים.

Did you ever break something at home as a kid and get punished? Did your sibling ever do the same thing and get a different punishment? That is something that happens all the time. The same crime can receive a range of sentences, based on things like previous offenses and likelihood to reoffend, but also something as trivial as the judge having a bad day. Sometimes, an example must be made to deter others from doing the same; except that can very quickly stop being a consideration of justice.

But God can judge with mercy and kindness, righteous and justice at the same time.

God loves righteousness and justice

This blessing concludes with something unique in the Amida – an affirmation of God’s love for anything, and we ought to take note. We don’t affirm God’s love for healing or wisdom; only for righteousness and and justice, which is not to suggest that God doesn’t love those things, just not in the same way as justice.

It could reflect a teaching in Pirkei Avos that the world stands on three legs; justice, truth, and peace. Justice is one of the most important things, so that could be why God loves it; but there’s no reference to God’s love of truth and peace in the Amida.

This is an attachment of value to righteousness and justice in tandem – צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט.

God doesn’t operate our universe from a lens of strict justice, nor a lens of mercy and kindness – דין / חסד. A universe of strict justice would have no tolerance for mistakes . Everyone who isn’t yet perfect – meaning everyone who ever lived – would get cancer or struck by lightning. It would be a dysfunctional universe, a dead universe that could never grow or tolerate the wild freedom of life.

A universe of pure kindness and generosity would not be functional either – you’re supposed to give a child everything they need, sure, but if you’re thirty and your parents still dress you and feed you and read you stories, we understand that something terrible has happened. There comes a time to individuate; a time to set boundaries and establish yourself as an independent human with a distinct existence and identity. In a universe where God opens unlimited spigots, we would lose ourselves and drown with no conceivable sense of independence; that universe too would not grow or tolerate the wild freedom of life.

So of necessity, our universe’s characteristics of justice and generosity temper each other and coexist in equilibrium, and God loves that – מֶלֶךְ אוהֵב צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט.

We need judgment and justice, and we need God’s kindness. Only with both can we have the space to do anything or earn God’s blessings and rewards. Outside of the season between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, this is the only blessing of the entire year that concludes with God as the King, because it is about justice and generosity, no less than exactly what enables God to be king of anything – מֶלֶךְ אוהֵב צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט.

Coexisting, not cancelling

While justice and generosity both exist, they don’t cancel each other out. The Torah demands that we judge justly and forbids showing a bias in favor of the poor or weak in law – לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ עָוֶל בַּמִּשְׁפָּט לֹא תִשָּׂא פְנֵי דָל וְלֹא תֶהְדַּר פְּנֵי גָדוֹל בְּצֶדֶק תִּשְׁפֹּט עֲמִיתֶךָ. Right is still right and wrong is still wrong.

But when King David would rule against a poor person if that’s what justice required, he’d call them back to offer some aid and support because that’s what generosity required of him – מֶלֶךְ אוהֵב צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט.

God loves both. In the moments we experience justice, God also sends a measure of generosity to tolerate the justice. It would be impossible and unfair for the two to never balance out eventually; and hopefully, we are lucky enough for the generosity to come first. Our sages teach that God delivers the cure before the sickness; but that can be hard to see in the moment, so we ask for generosity before justice – מֶלֶךְ אוהֵב צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט.

It’s ubiquitous in our stories, but not always in our lives.

Moshe grows up in as Paroah’s step-grandson; when he receives his mission, he is well placed to take it because everyone knows him and he understands them. Yosef is sold into slavery and climb his way up the social circles of Egyptian aristocracy; when his family reappear in their time of need, he is uniquely situated to save them. Esther was queen for a while before Haman showed and caused trouble; she is well placed from the beginning, the cure before the sickness, but can we doubt that she cried to herself every night until it all made sense?

But it’s not always linear.

The Jews were evicted from Spain 1492, the year Columbus discovered America, arguably the greatest haven for Jewish life since biblical times; we know that, but those Jews did not. The Holocaust is the worst calamity to befall the Jewish People in millennia, but the State of Israel was born out of the ashes; the cure came at enormous cost and far too late for the millions who were lost. Who is to say what the cure is? It’s not obvious, and that certainly doesn’t justify the pain; but perhaps it helps us make a little sense of it.

We don’t believe in the Mother Teresa-esque sanctification of pain for its own sake, and we don’t always get the eureka moment where everything fits together into a cohesive narrative with a great reason for everything that ever happened to you. But there is something for us to look for, a challenge to seek out meaning in our experiences.

God loves justice and generosity, and we ought to cultivate the temperament too. As the great Viktor Frankl wrote, what helps give us the strength to withstand anything is meaning and purpose.

The combination of justice and generosity are what help us live and grow in the long term, the purpose of creation. The universe is big and complex, but we understand that when you need to punish a child, you also need to explain why they’re getting punished so it doesn’t feel gratuitously cruel and they will know better next time.

 

Sharing the Load

5 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never Enough

4 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where is Moshe’s winning argument?

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

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

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

Our sages associate Korach with another famous villain – Haman. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s the same mistake as Korach and Haman, and it is quite clearly a consistent and recurring mistake humans make from the very beginning.

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

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

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

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

Pure Priorities

5 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But perhaps it’s something like this.

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

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

Someone out of the state of ritual purity is disqualified from a realm of everyday activities in the land of Israel. Still, for most people, it doesn’t matter most of the time, so most people didn’t have to be mindful of these laws and can attend to the dead with no issue.

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

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

Beyond the hierarchy of purity standards that exists for people, there is also a hierarchy of purity in time. Before Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol would isolate for seven days to attain the highest purity status and perform his most sacred ritual duties in the Holy of Holies on the holiest day of the calendar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It might be a bit much to ask that of yourself, but you don’t have to move to the middle of nowhere to recognize that attending to the needs of others is one of the Torah’s highest priorities. The Kotzker mocked the Tzaddik in pelts, a holy man in his fur coat. When people are cold, does the righteous man gather materials to light a fire, or does he huddle in his warm jacket, praying intensely for their wellbeing?

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

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

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

The Power to Become

3 minute read
Straightforward

The Haggadah recounts how Pharaoh enslaved our ancestors in Egypt, but God rescued them and us from an existence of perpetual servitude to Egypt:

עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְרָיִם, וַיּוֹצִיאֵנוּ ה’ אֱלֹקינוּ מִשָּׁם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה. וְאִלּוּ לֹא הוֹצִיא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֶת אֲבוֹתֵינוּ מִמִּצְרָיִם, הֲרֵי אָנוּ וּבָנֵינוּ וּבְנֵי בָנֵינוּ מְשֻׁעְבָּדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְרָיִם – We were slaves to Pharaoh in the land of Egypt. And the Lord, our God, took us out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched forearm. And if the Holy One, blessed be He, had not taken our ancestors from Egypt, behold we and our children and our children’s children would all be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.

The Haggadah states this positively; God promised to rescue the Jewish People, and God followed through. The Haggadah then states this in the negative; if God had not followed through, the Jewish People would not have been rescued – וְאִלּוּ לֹא הוֹצִיא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֶת אֲבוֹתֵינוּ מִמִּצְרָיִם, הֲרֵי אָנוּ וּבָנֵינוּ וּבְנֵי בָנֵינוּ מְשֻׁעְבָּדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְרָיִם. 

But these statements are functionally equivalent; they mean the same thing. What does the second one add that isn’t evident with the first?

Perhaps the first one highlights the superficial aspect of redemption; the Jewish People were undergoing immense suffering, and God saved them and stopped it. But perhaps the second one adds another dimension that they were saved from; that if God hadn’t saved them, they wouldn’t have just continued to suffer – they would have been fundamentally stuck – מְשֻׁעְבָּדִים.

Millions of African people were enslaved and brought to America in more recent history. While slavery has been outlawed for generations, there is a certain stuckness that persists long after slavery has become history, in part from being disconnected from their heritage. People don’t know where they come from, which inhibits them from accessing the fullness of who they really are. 

With the Exodus, the Jewish People were saved from stuckness permanently, bestowed with the power of redemption, the ability to change and experience things dynamically, the ultimate cure to stuckness and stagnation. We weren’t stuck with Egypt, and we weren’t lost to Egypt; we moved on from Egypt entirely. Egypt is gone, and the cruel monster Pharaoh is a joke today, a weak pretender to greatness and strength.

People can get stuck, like quicksand. Egypt gradually worsened, starting out fairly benign, descending slowly into full-blown enslavement and ethnic cleansing. The situation deteriorated even after Moshe appeared and entered the mix. The turning point in the story is when the people cry out, and God hears them after generations of trauma – וַנִּצְעַק אֶל־ה’ אֱלֹקי אֲבֹתֵינוּ, וַיִּשְׁמַע ה’ אֶת־קֹלֵנוּ, וַיַּרְא אֶת־עָנְיֵנוּ וְאֶת עֲמָלֵנוּ וְאֶת לַחֲצֵנוּ. Their cry wasn’t even a prayer – it was a sigh of utter despair, from pain and anguish, not religious sentiment, although cries of pain are a form of prayer as well. The people had given up, never believing nor hoping that Moshe would or could save them; they were stuck.

The Shem miShmuel explains that the power of the Seder night is that its story of freedom on a national level offers us the opportunity to become free of the tendencies and troubles that hound us on a personal level. With the power to change, hard times don’t need to be so scary anymore, and the world isn’t threatening; it can be full of exciting possibilities.

R’ Daniel Rowe suggests that the first step of breaking free is to recognize how damaging stuckness and stagnation are. The leafy vegetation that provided comfort food in abundance in Egypt is bitter Maror; Egypt’s comforts are still bitter. The crutches that help you come to terms with and accept stuckness are not comforts at all; they are the deepest kind of bitter. God doesn’t just save people from suffering; God offers people the way out of stuckness.

If freedom means a life rooted in the future, with the ability to choose and become, then its pre-requisite is to taste the bitterness of what is missing in the present, that this moment isn’t good enough. 

In the Heart of Darkness

2 minute read
Straightforward

Right towards the beginning of the evening, the Haggadah lays out that the mitzvah of Seder night is for everyone to participate as much as possible. The Haggadah immediately follows this instruction with a vignette about five sages in Bnei Brak who did precisely that. 

When these sages had their Seder, they got so caught up in their discussion that the night got away from them, and they missed the sunrise.

But it’s tough to miss the sunrise. However engrossed you are in what you’re doing, you can tell whether it’s day or night passively with barely a conscious thought.

What is the point of this story?

R’ Daniel Rowe suggests that the story isn’t an example of how immersed the sages were in their discussion; this story occurs during an era of religious oppression and persecution under the Roman Empire. The sages didn’t miss the sun because they were out of touch with the world around them; they missed the sun rising because they observed their Seder in hiding with no natural light, in a cave or crawl space.

The story of our sages in Bnei Brak is the Haggadah’s instruction played straight; their example inspires us to practice their faith and hope.

It’s also a meta-commentary on the Haggadah. Having set out how universal the mitzvah is, even to people who know it all – וַאֲפִילוּ כֻּלָּנוּ חֲכָמִים כֻּלָּנוּ נְבוֹנִים כֻּלָּנוּ זְקֵנִים כֻּלָּנוּ יוֹדְעִים – the Haggadah reminds a would-be know-it-all that the sages who composed the Haggadah and actually knew it all took their Seder seriously. They weren’t preaching from the comfort of an ivory tower – their example serves as a living expression of their teaching; this story doesn’t tell us the value of their teaching – it shows it.

The Jewish view of time is that calendar dates start in the night and end the following evening, suggesting that darkness is a prelude to the beauty of brightness and illumination; we must navigate the darkness with faith and hope for a better day – וֶאֱמוּנָתְךָ בַּלֵּילות.

The sages under siege in Bnei Brak directly inform our understanding of Ben Zoma’s insight that follows; the mitzvah of remembering redemption is in the nights. As the story of the sages in Bnei Brak teaches, we must remember that better times exist and are coming, even amid the insecurity and uncertainty of the unknown and even in times of concealment and total darkness.