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Unanswered Prayers

4 minute read

Have you ever wanted something so badly that you just kept praying and didn’t stop?

Most people have had a time they desperately wanted something, that if they got it, they’d never ask for anything again; to resolve the issue, find the right one, make a recovery, for the thing to work out okay. People pray hard in those moments, with more intention and hope than all the other times the stakes aren’t so high.

Sometimes those prayers are fulfilled, and the perfect outcome materializes. There are countless books filled with such stories, and their popularity is a product of how inspiring they are and how they supply us with hope to not give up on our own dreams and wishes.

But what about all the other times when the hoped-for outcome doesn’t happen?

No one writes those books; no one would read those books. But it happens all the time.

It even happens to the best and brightest of us, to no less than Moshe himself. In his parting words to his people, he tells them how he prayed and prayed for God’s permission to enter the Land of Israel, the culmination of his life’s work and the only personal indulgence he ever asked for, but God bid him to stop. It wasn’t going to happen, and his prayers would remain unanswered; or at least answered in the negative, if that makes any difference.

Prayer isn’t a wish fulfillment scratch card game; unanswered prayers are a corresponding aspect of prayer that we must acknowledge, that some of them probably aren’t going to go exactly the way you’d like. For our intents and purposes, some prayers go to waste.

The Izhbitzer notes this existence is wasteful; there is a friction that is a result of being alive, where all effort takes a toll, the transaction tax of all things.  In this conception, waste is not a bug; it’s a feature we need to reorient ourselves to.

Entropy is part of all existence and our basic reality; the appearance of decay, randomness, uncertainty, and unwanted outcomes or outputs. Every interaction might have a desired or likely end goal or output, but there will be an inescapable by-product associated with it.

We are finite and limited; all we know is waste. You can be as energetic as you like, but in a couple of hours, you’ll be exhausted, your muscles will fatigue, and you will need to rest, eat, and sleep. When you sleep, your brain clears waste. When you eat and drink, your body will process the calories and nutrients, and you’ll need the restroom to pass waste matter. When you breathe, you breathe out waste gas, carbon dioxide. Our bodies and minds waste, and all energy and matter eventually waste.

It is significant that Pharaoh, the Torah’s great villain, claims to prove his divinity by pretending he did not pass waste; not producing waste indicates something genuinely supernatural, unlimited, and infinite.

Fruit and nuts have peels and shells, and although they’re waste in terms of what’s edible, they’re fully functional and fulfill their purpose of protecting the fruit, so in reality, they are not waste matter in any real sense of the word. Parenthetically, this example deliberately utilizes the imagery of the shells and husks spoken of in Kabbalah – קליפה. Everything leaves a mark.

The very first service of the day in the Temple was sweeping up the remnants from the day before:

וְהֵרִים אֶת־הַדֶּשֶׁן אֲשֶׁר תֹּאכַל הָאֵשׁ אֶת־הָעֹלָה עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וְשָׂמוֹ אֵצֶל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ. וּפָשַׁט אֶת־בְּגָדָיו וְלָבַשׁ בְּגָדִים אֲחֵרִים וְהוֹצִיא אֶת־הַדֶּשֶׁן אֶל־מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה אֶל־מָקוֹם טָהוֹר – He shall take up the ashes from the fire, which consumed the burnt offering on the altar, and place them beside the altar. He shall then take off his vestments, put on other vestments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a pure place. (6:3,4)

The altar had a fire perpetually fueled with logs by crews round the clock, with a constant stream of sacrifices burnt in whole or in part. Slaughtering and burning animals is messy; there is waste, and the day would begin with a simple dust-sweeping ritual. Some ash would be scooped up and brushed into the floor cracks, becoming integrated into the structure of the Temple. The rest of the ash got carried to a designated quiet spot and deposited and buried, to be left in state. It wasn’t a competitive or glamorous job; it was janitorial and practical, starting the day by cleaning the workspace.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that this ritual symbolizes how today was built on yesterday; we are yesterday’s children. We honor the past by starting the day with an acknowledgment, incorporating an aspect of it into our being, but most of it has to be left behind to move on and start the day fresh. We must build on and respect the past, but we cannot spend too much time and energy focused on the rearview mirror. Each day brings new challenges, obligations, and opportunities, and we must ultimately leave the past behind us.

The Izbhitzer suggests that this ritual acknowledges and affirms our unanswered prayers, the orphan prayers that get left behind. The day begins with a recognition that even the holiest efforts experience waste, friction, transaction tax, fatigue, and wear and tear. Nothing is lossless, even the best things. Something is always lost in translation; not everything can go the way we hope. But that doesn’t mean the efforts went to waste; the ritual itself refers to the uplifting of this waste – תרומת הדשן.

Some of our efforts and prayers turn to ash; unanswered prayers are a thing, and the Temple service began at dawn by sweeping and disposing of yesterday’s ashes.

Something might be wrong with the road we hoped to travel, or it might be perfect but not meant to be; the hopes and dreams of yesterday might not be the road we must ultimately take. For good reason, we pray on Rosh Hashana to be like heads, not tails. Memory and identity can be burdens from the past; you can live perpetually as yesterday’s tail and never live freely in the present.

The thing you prayed for might have been the right thing to pray for yesterday, but today’s service calls for a fresh start or at least a fresh analysis.

We must cherish and honor our past hopes and dreams but ultimately let go and release them to face each day anew.

My Grandfather’s Trees

3 minute read

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

The Torah’s primary construction materials list contained vast amounts of gold, silver, copper, and precious stones, not to mention vast amounts of actual cash. If you had to say the one main thing the Mishkan was made of, most people might say gold, which was used throughout the entire project, from finishes to furnishings.

But it’s not.

The Mishkan had no foundation, and no roof, only curtains and drapes. The only solid structure came from the walls, which were made of simple wood – וְעָשִׂיתָ אֶת־הַקְּרָשִׁים לַמִּשְׁכָּן עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים עֹמְדִים.

The people contributed gold and gems they’d brought from Egypt, but who was carrying wood logs?

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

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

Yaakov knew his children would raise their eyes and cry in misery. They’d see these trees he had brought with him that connected them to the roots of their history and allowed them to see his hopeful vision of a better, brighter future for them.

Yakov’s hope isn’t specific to wood; he could have left them anything. The fact he left trees indicates explicitly that the trees themselves are powerful symbols. Trees symbolize life, vitality, seasonality, and natural energy, representing the cycle of life and death. Like trees, generations of death in Egypt would burst to life once more.

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

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

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

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

R’ Joseph Soloveitchik notes that this instruction teaches a universal law; the wood must be assembled upright, in the direction of the tree’s original growth, with the lower part of the board corresponding to the lower part of the tree. The Torah requires the Mishkan to be assembled with upright boards, not upside down boards – even though the board is symmetrical; this law extends to every mitzvah that uses plants, such as Lulav and Esrog.

Yakov’s trees showed them how to grow, with feet firmly rooted on the ground and their heads held high, with head, heart, and spine in a straight line, physically, spiritually, and emotionally aligned. You can’t put something together upside-down and expect it to work right; you must grow upright.

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

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

The dreams and promises we inherit can be priceless treasures.

Everything Starts With One

3 minute read

Our culture is saturated with messaging about efficiency, instant feedback in real-time, and rapid scale and success. But as Steve Jobs said, overnight success stories take a really long time.

What appears sudden to others is the product of many invisible moments and a sustained commitment to pursuing goals and ideals. People who have experienced success will usually admit it was the culmination of a long journey of unseen hard work and dedication filled mostly with countless setbacks and perhaps the occasional win.

The Book of Esther starts slowly, with a lengthy prologue before it gets going, and even when it does get into the main story, the main story goes slowly too. Before Haman rose to power, the story tells us the kind of person Mordechai is and what he’s about – someone who shows up for Esther day after day:

וּבְכל־יוֹם וָיוֹם מרְדֳּכַי מִתְהַלֵּךְ לִפְנֵי חֲצַר בֵּית־הַנָּשִׁים לָדַעַת אֶת־שְׁלוֹם אֶסְתֵּר וּמַה־יֵּעָשֶׂה בָּהּ – And every single day, Mordechai would walk about in front of the women’s quarters, to know how Esther was doing and what was happening with her. (2:11)

After Haman’s rise but before his plot begins, Mordechai is still there every day, only now he’s dealing with daily resistance, defending his refusal to bow to Haman:

וְכָל־עַבְדֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר־בְּשַׁעַר הַמֶּלֶךְ כֹּרְעִים וּמִשְׁתַּחֲוִים לְהָמָן כִּי־כֵן צִוָּה־לוֹ הַמֶּלֶךְ וּמָרְדֳּכַי לֹא יִכְרַע וְלֹא יִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה … וַיְהִי כְּאָמְרָם אֵלָיו יוֹם וָיוֹם וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֲלֵיהֶם וַיַּגִּידוּ לְהָמָן לִרְאוֹת הֲיַעַמְדוּ דִּבְרֵי מָרְדֳּכַי כִּי־הִגִּיד לָהֶם אֲשֶׁר־הוּא יְהוּדִי – All the king’s courtiers in the palace gate knelt and bowed low to Haman, for such was the king’s order concerning him; but Mordechai would not kneel or bow low… When they spoke to him day after day and he would not listen to them, they told Haman, in order to see whether Mordechai’s resolve would prevail; for he had explained to them that he was a Jew.  (3:2,4)

The Sfas Emes highlights how only someone with the dedication and sensitivity to care day in, and day out, who recognizes the value in showing up every day, will have the sustained staying power to withstand the formidable challenge of swimming against a powerful current, resisting the prevailing norm to face off with one of the most powerful villains in Jewish history.

But for the person with that kind of determination and perseverance, this story offers not just a history but a prediction; not just that he did not bow, but that he would not, in the future tense – לֹא יִכְרַע וְלֹא יִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה. We all choose whether to bow to the forces of Haman in our lives or whether to go with the flow, getting dragged along through passive inertia.

The Sfas Emes notes that this promise is directed at us, the readers of the future, an assurance that in all times and places, there will always be a person who refuses to bow. When the story introduces us to Mordechai, the protagonist, it doesn’t even say his name, giving him a generic title, a Jewish man – אִישׁ יְהוּדִי. It could be anyone; in that particular time and place, his name was Mordechai.

Our sages suggest an alternate reading, not that there was a Jewish man, but that there was a single man, one person who could stand alone in the face of adversity – יהודי / יחידי.

One doesn’t sound like much, but in truth, one is plenty. One spark can burst into flame. One compliment can build newfound confidence. One date can turn into a lifelong relationship.

One person’s commitment to their ideals and courage to stand up for their beliefs can inspire others to stand with them. One person’s kindness or generosity can generate a ripple effect that influences everything else. One person can change the course of history and leave a lasting impact on the world.

Your choices and actions can extend far beyond yourself and deep into the lives of countless others and catalyze powerful transformation; even minor actions can produce significant results. One idea or action can make a difference.

As the story and this teaching remind us, Mordechai might have been the only one, but one person is all it takes.

One person is enough.

Sacred Fire

3 minute read

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

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

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

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

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

Why was the coin made of fire?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking God’s Name in Vain

3 minute read

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

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

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

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

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

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

But this is not the commandment against false oaths – that’s the Tenth Commandment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rain Maker

4 minute read

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

Our sages associate this story with the power of our livelihood and sustenance – Parnassa.

It’s a prayer people take extremely seriously as a ritual for merit as it relates to our livelihood, and with good reason. Financial insecurity is one of the most elemental and basic fears a human can have. It originates in the lizard brain; all animals fear going hungry.

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

A sizeable number of people believe in the custom and that saying the prayer is their golden ticket to a million or a billion, or in other words, ultimate security.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This story probably doesn’t have the power to give you riches, but it might provide you with something some of the richest have only ever dreamed of; enough.

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

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

The Unburning Bush

4 minute read

One of the most iconic scenes in the Torah is the burning bush. It is the turning point in the Exodus story; having described the cruel extent of the Jewish People’s enslavement and suffering, the burning bush is the moment the Creator reaches out to Moshe to intervene, setting events in motion that permanently shape human civilization.

Moshe has fled Egypt as a fugitive and has built a new identity and life as a shepherd in Midian. One day in the wilderness, he chases a stray lamb and encounters the arcane:

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

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

As we experience it, all fire requires fuel to combust, which is what generates flames; there is no such thing as burning with no fuel. Fire and burning are inseparable; they are the same thing.

This interaction is cryptic, and the imagery is deliberate; God doesn’t act gratuitously or because it sounds cool – even though it certainly does!

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

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

The Midrash expounds on this conversation and says that when God seeks to be seen as compassionate, God is called Hashem. When God desires justice, God is called God. What that means, then, is that God is fluid and free-spirited, always in a state of being and becoming, transcending any single definition. We can not understand God as God is, only what God does.

This encounter also reveals where God can be found. In the wilderness, in the void, in the middle of nowhere – בּמִּדְבָּר;  in the middle of apparent destruction, in the burning pain of exile – בֹּעֵר בָּאֵשׁ; and also nature and the low places – מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה.

God tells Moshe to remove his shoes because the place he stands is holy soil; a person who lives with the awareness that the place you stand is also the place God is found lives with the secret of creation, that the Divine is here with us.

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

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

Neither is wrong, but this story teaches us a third way. Moshe sees past the bush that is on fire; he sees a fire that does not consume, which, as applied to the circumstances of his people, suggests an attitude of recognizing the devastating pain of his people falls short of ruin.

God wants Moshe to see the fire but not to miss the properties it retained; the fire will not consume the bush, and the fires of Egypt will not destroy his people.

The Zohar suggests that the burning bush was a hint that even though the Israelites were suffering in Egypt and would suffer many exiles, they had God’s protection and would not be consumed; as the thornbush is the least of the plants, the Jewish People occupied a lowly and despised position in Egypt, and the burning fire was a symbol of their oppression. The bush burning yet not being consumed symbolized that the oppressed people would not be destroyed by their enemies and that their hostility would be ultimately unsuccessful and fruitless.

Moshe can hold the notion of their suffering in mind without a diminished understanding of the nature of what they were; in immense pain and suffering, totally on fire, and yet still fundamentally whole, that things were hard, but everything was going to be okay.

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

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

Resurgence Redux

3 minute read

Some things are elastic, which means that when one variable changes, another one does too. In our everyday life, we recognize that when people want more or less of a product or service, the price will correspondingly flex, an example of economic elasticity.

In physics, when you coil a spring from its resting position, it exerts an opposing force approximately proportional to its change in length; the greater the force compressing the spring, the stronger the corresponding tension that will be released. Children quickly learn this when playing with rubber bands; the release of built-up energy is extremely powerful, not to mention painful.

There is also a certain elasticity in the world of spirit.

In stories, life, and all things, there is a moment of failure, a catastrophic fall from grace, the abyss.

It is inevitable; we live in a dynamic world, a fluid environment where failure is possible. On one reading of the Creation story, placing clueless people in a world of stumbling blocks all but guarantees failure. We try to do all sorts of great things and fall short. We fail. Whether to a greater or less extent, we fail and live in a world of failure.

Some failures are particularly acute.

The last chapters of the stories of Genesis revolve around failure. Yehuda has a catastrophic fall from grace, going from being the respected leader of his brothers to an exile, leaving his family, marrying a heathen, and losing his way entirely. Joseph has a corresponding fall from grace, being forced out of his family, trafficked into slavery, and finding himself in a prison dungeon. Something thematically similar happens in the Chanuka story, where the Greek empire occupied Israel and successfully suppressed Jewish practice to the extent that pigs were openly slaughtered as sacrifices to Zeus in the Beis Hamikdash.

But then something magical happens that follows these failures; transformation.

The Proverbs describe how righteous people stumble seven times and rise, and wicked people stumble on their evil just once and are done for – כִּי שֶׁבַע יִפּוֹל צַדִּיק וָקָם וּרְשָׁעִים יִכָּשְׁלוּ בְרָעָה.

The Metzudas David notes that in this conception, the definition of righteousness is in the rising, the wicked in staying down. The Kedushas Levi points out that the proverb still calls a person who falls righteous because it says the person rises after they fall – יִפּוֹל / צַדִּיק / וָקָם.

R’ Yehoshua Hartman suggests that part of what makes a comeback inevitable is the emptiness in the fall; the bland and hollow present contains the potential for a different future, the building blocks the future can be built out of.

The power of transformation is magical, but it’s entirely within our reach. Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh observes that failures are not an obstacle to growth but the source of it. In other words, every fall is a spring containing the energy of a comeback, a second wind, a resurgence, or an upturn. It often comes after exhaustion and complete deconstruction.

From rock bottom, the heart of darkness, Yehuda and Joseph rises from the abyss and climb higher than the rest in both the physical and spiritual worlds, even paving the way for the aspect of Mashiach they embody. Yehuda makes amends and rises to rule as king, and Joseph forgives his brother and rises to reunite and sustain them all. The Maccabees improvise with what little they have to re-establish Judaism permanently.

Nested here is a template for all change, reconceptualizing disorder as a catalyst for transformation and overcoming challenges.

Our sages affirm the power of a comeback; repentant people can get to places that no one else can – מקום שבעלי תשובה עומדים, אין צדיקים גמורים יכולים לעמוד. The Chafetz Chaim told R’ Elchanan Wasserman that Yakov made the unusual comment of needing to see Yosef before he died because the place Yosef would go after surviving his ordeals was far beyond the place Yakov would be.

Intuitively, the potential precedes all forms of the actual; our sages teach that Teshuva predates Creation. Our sages describe the integrated coexistence of God’s greatness within smallness, which perhaps we can perceive in the force to bounce back already existing in the moment of failure; the potential for greatness is present, even if not yet manifest.

We typically recognize a passive transition from darkness to light – מאפלה לאורה. R’ Yitzchak Hutner challenges us to realize within ourselves the transformative ability to actively create light from the very darkness itself – מאפלה לאורה. In R’ Hutner’s formulation, only fools believe that the rise is in spite of the fall; the truth is that the rise is because of the fall. Science bears this out; the force that makes the sun set is the same as the same one that will make it rise.

Change isn’t an external thing that happens passively, not some irresistible force. You are not a leaf blowing in the wind; what comes before is not the final form. You must surrender to the challenge, giving yourself wholly to it, annihilating the self that comes before, to return in the higher form that has risen to the occasion, death and rebirth.

The heights you can reach are directly linked to the contours of your failure.

You will fall; you can be sure of it.

You may even lose your spark.

But you will rise like the sun.

Living with Newness

3 minute read

One of the key skills children learn is how to read a clock; what time is it?

Beyond answering the basic question with hours and minutes, there is something deeper behind the question; knowing the time means knowing what to do. The time of day and time of year, the seasons, and the calendar establish the boundaries and time frames upon which our world is built, with specific routines for morning, afternoon, evening, and night, summer, fall, winter, and spring.

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

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

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

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

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

Although slavery is illegal in most of the world, it persists. Moreover, slavery isn’t just a legal status; it’s a state of mind, body, and soul. If you have ever felt helpless or stuck, you have experienced an element of slavery.

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

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

The sense of futility, powerlessness and stuckness that come from being burnt out or overwhelmed is poison. But as much as stuckness can come from attachment to the past, R’ Nachman of Breslev teaches us to avoid dwelling too much on the future and focus on the present day and present moment.

The Torah often speaks to us in terms of here and now – וְעַתָּה / הַיּוֹם – which our sages take to mean as references to Teshuva, our capacity and power to change and repent – וְעַתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל מָה ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ שֹׁאֵל מֵעִמָּךְ כִּי אִם־לְיִרְאָה. Because in one day, everything can change – וַאֲנַחְנוּ עַם מַרְעִיתוֹ וְצֹאן יָדוֹ הַיּוֹם אִם־בְּקֹלוֹ תִשְׁמָעוּ.

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

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

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

The Miracle of Resolve

3 minute read

Although modern science has demystified the world, the world is still magical.

With a sense of wonder, you can look at the world as more miraculous than natural without saying there is a difference between the two and without disputing the scientific narrative.

Every breath you take, every sunrise, a child’s smile; these are the kind of things that are so commonplace that we overlook how special they are and take entirely for granted – וְעַל נִסֶּיךָ שֶׁבְּכָל יוֹם עִמָּנוּ וְעַל נִפְלְאוֹתֶיךָ וְטוֹבוֹתֶיךָ שֶׁבְּכָל עֵת עֶרֶב וָבֹֽקֶר וְצָהֳרָיִם.

If we can see the miraculous in nature, then the natural and supernatural are the same.

There is another kind of miracle though, things that are incredibly unlikely, and we naturally perceive these categories of miracles differently.

When we talk about an underdog winning against the odds or a remarkable comeback story, people also talk about miracles of the hidden kind. The history of the State of Israel, or someone recovering from a severe illness, can be spoken about in such terms.

The Chanukah story includes similar elements; the hidden miracle of an underdog defeating a formidable and vastly more powerful enemy – מָסַֽרְתָּ גִבּוֹרִים בְּיַד חַלָּשִׁים וְרַבִּים בְּיַד מְעַטִּים. While unlikely, it was not impossible; it was not openly miraculous or explicitly magical in the way freezing and splitting an ocean is.

The brave victors diligently searched for kosher oil to light the Menorah once more; the enemy had deliberately contaminated and sabotaged all the stores. But in a fortunate turn we could also perceive as miraculous, they discovered one last jar of oil, enough to last one day and night. This, too, was unlikely but not impossible.

They chose to use the entire jar for the first lighting and rededication, and their efforts were met with an open miracle; oil that should have burned for one day lasted eight days and nights, by which time they had been able to prepare more kosher oil. We live in a finite and limited universe where one day’s worth of anything does not last for eight; that’s how numbers and words work. One day’s worth of oil lasting for eight isn’t simply unlikely; it’s not physically possible.

Making a day’s worth of oil last eight days is an incredible display of the Creator’s power, unbelievable unless we acknowledge the magic of it.

Our sages explain intuitively that miracles are never redundant; the natural order is deliberate. The purpose of a miraculous military victory is obvious, perhaps even necessary, with the Torah and the future of the Jewish People in grave danger – כְּשֶׁעָמְדָה מַלְכוּת יָוָן הָרְשָׁעָה עַל־עַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל לְהַשְׁכִּיחָם תּוֹרָתֶךָ וּלְהַעֲבִירָם מֵחֻקֵּי רְצוֹנֶךָ.

What was the point of making the oil last longer?

The Sfas Emes explains that in terms of lighting the Menorah, it didn’t matter at all. They could have found a hundred jars of oil, or perhaps even zero – circumstances would have permitted the temporary use of any oil.

R’ Shlomo Twersky highlights the capacity of these heroes to hope and search for a jar of oil in the first place when malicious forces had done everything they could to snuff out any chance or possibility of success.

From the perspective of these brave heroes who stood up for the Jewish People, the miracle meant everything. A military victory might be a wink from Heaven that they were correct, as might be political and religious freedom, but the Chanukah miracle left no room for doubt that there is a power in the universe that gives spiritual victories sacred purpose and meaning. It was a smile from Heaven at their efforts; a thumbs up that their hopes and dreams were well placed and mattered.

We are awed by God’s power to shape the universe, but miracles aren’t the only thing that shapes the universe. The power of human desire can also shape the universe and awe the Creator to the point of upending the natural order; magic born of wanting, the miracle of human resolve.

The Chanuka Amida prayer doesn’t talk about God making oil last a long time; it celebrates the daring few who stood up to restore their religion to greatness – בָּאוּ בָנֶיךָ לִדְבִיר בֵּיתֶךָ וּפִנּוּ אֶת־הֵיכָלֶךָ וְטִהֲרוּ אֶת־מִקְדָּשֶׁךָ וְהִדְלִיקוּ נֵרוֹת בְּחַצְרוֹת קָדְשֶׁךָ.

We might take courage from their example that no matter the odds, there is always one last untainted source of light from which everything else can flow and grow; the lone jar, or what in Yiddish is called the pintele Yid. It means the dot of a Jew, the fundamental essence of Jewish identity, and is perhaps related to the concept of the incorruptible soul – חלק אלוק ממעל. This story and this imagery articulate clearly and plainly that there always remains some residual spark that cannot be lost or extinguished; it can only ever lie dormant, waiting patiently for as long as it takes to be rediscovered, to reignite and burst into flame once again.

The magic of Chanuka isn’t only in God’s power to shape the universe by making one day of oil last for eight. The magic of Chanuka is the example of our ancestors utilizing the power of human desire to shape the universe, the miracle of human resolve, something we all possess.

We light Chanukah candles to remember how powerful that truly is.