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High Holy Days Redux

6 minute read

As the leaves begin to turn and the air carries the crisp promise of autumn, Jews around the world prepare for the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the days of judgment and atonement.

As the sacred words of our liturgy call out, these are the moments when destiny hangs in the balance. As one of the most moving prayers asks of us, will the year ahead hold health or sickness,  safety or insecurity, laughter or tears, power or helplessness? The very books of life and death lie open, awaiting a verdict.

These prayers have stirred and moved our people for generations since antiquity and retain their emotional sharpness. For many, it is a powerful time.

However, there’s one problem staring us right in the face: the central premise upon which these days seem to be built just isn’t true.

One might argue that a linear universe governed by straightforward principles and predictable outcomes reflects Divine wisdom and control. In a linear world, moral choices are clear; if we make amends and do better, then everything will be okay. Many people believe this, and we should let them!

But for everyone else, this is an age-old problem thinkers have engaged with and been troubled by – theodicy, the problem of evil. Why do bad things happen to good people?

Or, to frame it differently, why don’t bad things happen to bad people? After all, it’s the central premise of the High Holy Days.

If you take a cohort of the objectively nastiest people and conduct a longitudinal study monitoring them over a few years, most would probably not face cosmic retribution; they would continue to live and perhaps even flourish. In many cases, life would go on for them, devoid of any tangible form of the kind of divine justice promised by the High Holy Days. This incongruence challenges the philosophical underpinnings of our beliefs and, on the most basic fundamental level, offends our innate sense of fairness and balance and can leave us feeling spiritually adrift; why bother with the exercise of making amends if it doesn’t make a difference?

But taking this presumption to its logical conclusion reveals its critical weakness. That’s not how the universe works; that’s not how it’s ever worked, or at least not since the prophets stopped speaking.

In reality, most bad people will make it to next year, and some of the best will be gone too soon. This has always been true; that’s just how it goes. If you get caught up in questions like this, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees.

In all of our stories, none of our heroes, from Avraham to Moshe, seem to exist in a universe that operates with linear justice; it’s actually a key part of understanding their stories correctly. Even for the perfectly and completely righteous, life doesn’t suddenly become easy or straightforward.

And yet, the worldview of a universe governed by linear justice is openly endorsed by the liturgy — sin and punishment, cause and effect, action and consequence. This model doesn’t resonate with anyone paying even the slightest attention to the world around them and the people in it.

In a universe of swirling complexity where every particle dances to the rhythm of quantum mechanics and uncertainty principles, the notion of linearity seems almost quaint. Complexity is all we know, inviting us to engage with life’s ambiguities and explore its mysteries, driving our spiritual and moral development. In the intricate landscape of real life, the simple black-and-white nature of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur openly invites our questions.

In a universe that plainly doesn’t operate with reflexive linear justice, how can we honestly engage with the central premise of the High Holy Days?

The question is far too good; it has stood the test of time.

But perhaps part of the answer is rooted in a perspective shift, moving from an objective view to a more personal angle, our subjective spiritual experience. Belief in reward and punishment is one of Judaism’s basic core tenets; it is compatible with the factual observation that the universe is more complex than a human mind can grasp, a humbling teaching the Creator intimately shares with Moshe.

But while the mechanics and metaphysics lie beyond our reach, the archetypes of atonement, justice, reward, and punishment are accessible and useful tools for moral and spiritual growth.

The question of linear justice is based on cause and effect, but the unspoken part of the equation is associated with time; someone did a bad thing last year and didn’t repent, and they’ll get to next year just fine! Even if they get struck by lightning in twenty years, that’s not the notion suggested by our prayers. This link invites us to examine not just how we understand justice but also how we understand time.

In our basic primary experience, we perceive time as a line – from then to now, birth to death. Linear time is deeply ingrained in our cultural, philosophical, and scientific narratives: beginning, middle, and end. It offers predictability and order.

But this sense of order is a convenient fiction, a heuristic that makes a complex universe more digestible. A linear universe could never capture the multi-layered, infinitely nuanced essence of the Divine. It would lack the depth and subtlety that make our moral dilemmas fertile ground for growth and transformation. The linearity we attribute to time and justice is subjective and limited, and there are other ways to perceive time.

Rather than perceive time as a simple line, we also understand time as something cyclical, where events repeat in patterns, with seasons and cycles. When we celebrate a birthday or anniversary, there is a sense of renewal, a revived manifestation of the original event. You were born one day some time ago, but the energy or force that gave life to you is special, and we mark it every year in the present, even though the day you were born is still anchored in the past – a temporal loop. Every birthday is a new start, a fresh count of your life, which aligns with the notion that time is not strictly linear but contains pockets of cyclical or even spiral-shaped significance.

The very building blocks of life as we know it, DNA, isn’t linear – it’s a double helix, an interlocking spiral.

Life is about cycles, not lines, a spiral galaxy forever rotating yet never returning to the exact same point. When we think of justice, judgment, time, and life itself as cyclical, like seasons of the year or phases of the moon, we can make room for regeneration, renewal, and the sanctity of imperfection.

Rosh Hashana isn’t just a commemoration of the anniversary of Creation; it reinvokes the Creative energy and forces that gave rise to life and all things, renewing our existence and endowing the New Year with freshness and vitality.

The notion of Teshuva aligns with cyclicality. We shouldn’t idealize the notion of a clean slate wiped to zero. Repentance isn’t a simple linear departure from the past and saying sorry; you will still be you. Repentance is a form of spiritual regeneration, what one thinker called the eternal return. It is a step forward but also a step inward; the most updated version of you would not make those same mistakes.

As we beat our chests as an act of contrition, we remember that our world is not just one of brokenness but also one of continual creation, where each end marks a new beginning, every fall is an invitation to rise, and every step of repentance is a step in our never-ending journey toward realizing human and Divine love in the ongoing struggle toward becoming better versions of ourselves, year after year, cycle after cycle.

The universe isn’t governed by linear justice, but neither are Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur moments in linear time. They are recurring points on the spiral of the universe, offering us opportunities for self-examination and growth. Each turn of the spiral provides a new perspective on the same recurring challenges and themes of our journey through it. Each year invites a new opportunity for a deeper and more nuanced understanding, enlarging the High Holy Days from specific moments in linear time into recurring opportunities for growth and reflection in cyclical time,

In this view, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a breath of life welcoming the new year to come, profound moments of human and cosmic regeneration, our souls invited to dance to the rhythm of an ancient melody that is heard every year for the first time.

Life is complex, not linear, but you probably know which way your words and deeds are oriented – towards life or death, towards health or sickness, towards laughter or tears. These become not final verdicts but periodic reference points in the cyclical adventure of the rich tapestry that is the wild complexity of life in our universe.

Take the opportunity the High Holy Days present to reflect and redirect. With purpose and intention, step into the next iteration of the cycle with freshness and optimism – towards life, towards health, and towards laughter.

It’s going to be a Happy New Year.

Mistakes Were Made

3 minute read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there is a simple yet profound teaching here.

To learn from mistakes.

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

There is deep wisdom in recalling failure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calm Among Chaos

3 minute read

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

But what was there to fight about in the desert?

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

There wasn’t much to fight about.

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

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

How would you respond to such public and baseless humiliation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remembering simple things in difficult moments is not simple.

It’s wise.

Nostalgia Redux

6 minute read

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

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

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

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

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

But sure, apart from all that, those Egyptian cucumbers sure were crunchy and delicious! They were liberated from all that by the Creator with open miracles, sustained by magic food from the sky and an enchanted spring sheltered by supernatural clouds.

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

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

These stories showcase the allure of nostalgia and its power to revise history and reality while simultaneously removing us from the present so the moment passes us by.

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

But this wildly distorts their Egypt experience; they reminisce about the cucumbers and meat stews, and they forget the babies drowned in the river, highlighting the selective memory of nostalgia. Even the meat pots were only at the very end of their time in Egypt, once they had already been emancipated from enslavement but not yet liberated from the borders of Egypt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too often, leaders talk about declinism, which sounds like those kids these days; things aren’t what they used to be; things used to be better back in the day. It’s just not true.

One of the great tragedies of European Jewish history was the burning of twenty-four wagons of sacred texts; today, every person with an internet connection has instant access to the greatest library of Jewish literature. The great yeshivas of pre-war Europe combined didn’t come close to the headcount of some of the famous yeshivas of our era. How many mothers and children regularly died in childbirth? How many people died of hunger and poverty? Rashi described his crushing poverty as a millstone around his neck; how many people would sponsor him if he lived in our day? How many blood libels, crusades, expulsions, and massacres? While the only acceptable level of anti-Semitism is none, the anti-Semitism of our time is laughably trivial compared to the history books. If any of our ancestors could choose a time to be alive, they’d probably pick ours.

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

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

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

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

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

But what’s our excuse?

Banish the ghosts or redeem them.

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

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

Truth Redux

5 minute read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are those everyday white lies a violation of Divine truth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never Give Up

3 minute read

On the holiday of Shavuos, it is customary to read the Book of Ruth, a story set in the harvest season with a vivid depiction of one woman’s unwavering commitment to Judaism, thematically echoing our own renewed dedication to our faith during this period.

The story is about a family’s unrelenting stream of adversity and setbacks and Naomi and Ruth’s attempts at navigating them. Ruth faces a series of formidable challenges: she must reconcile her Moabite roots with her newfound Jewish identity, depart from her homeland with no intention of return, cope with the death of her husband, grapple with the loss of her fortune, establish herself in a foreign land, struggle with poverty while seeking food and provisions, and finally, present herself to Boaz.

Each of these challenges would have been independently formidable. Yet, Ruth faced them all in succession, compounding their severity and making success not just improbable but nearly impossible. Some of these were especially hard because widowed women are a vulnerable class, especially in that era.

We experience only one outcome, but risk means many other potential future outcomes could have come to pass. We ought to recognize the essential nature of challenges; not every person can overcome every hurdle they face. Everyone’s journey is unique, colored by their personal circumstances, resources, and strengths, and we ought not to judge when people cannot surmount the difficult obstacles in their lives. Far better to hope that life never rolls the dice against you than to believe everything will just work out.

Despite her significant loss and her daunting transitions, Ruth did not surrender to despair or choose the easier path. She consciously decided to persist, adapt, and carve her path forward. Remarkably, amidst all the uncertainty and hardship, Ruth’s journey ultimately led her to a place of security and belonging, and everything sort of worked out in the end.

R’ Shlomo Freifeld teaches that this is the most important lesson the Book of Ruth has to offer; to never give up hope, to believe that there is some kind of order or plan to the universe, and that everything will work out in the end.

The notion that one must never give up is an empowering message, a testament to human resilience, hope, and the transformative potential of perseverance. Ruth’s story speaks of an individual who, against all odds, chose not to give up. She held on steadfastly, not just to her own survival, but to her commitment to her mother-in-law, Naomi, her new faith, and her new people. Her persistence eventually led her to Boaz, establishing her as an important figure in Jewish history and a founder of the House of King David.

But never giving up doesn’t mean what you think.

Ruth gives up a lot, nearly everything in fact.

Ruth gives up her identity as a Moabite woman, a princess, her ancestral beliefs, her safety and comfort, and the person she was and might have been. She gives up these aspects from a place of freedom and power; she doesn’t stubbornly stick to an old path that no longer serves her. Rather, she undergoes a transformative journey, embracing new alignments and beliefs that reflect her authentic self more accurately; she forges a new path with courage and determination. Her resilience is nuanced; it’s not about resisting change but embracing it.

In other words, she gives up on plenty; but she never gives up on herself.

People rigidly stick to jobs, places, and relationships that don’t work because they don’t want to give up. But as one writer put it, you can never cure structural defects; the system corrects itself by collapsing. Failure is not a dead-end; it is a necessary precursor to building something stronger and more aligned that can ultimately survive.

There are moments the universe calls us to venture into the unknown, endure the trials that come our way, and persist until we reach our own growth and transformation.

Like Ruth, there are some things you should be happy to give up and let go of, but like Ruth, never give up on yourself or your values.

Slept In At Sinai

3 minute read

Have you ever overslept for something important?

That early morning wakeup for the final exam, to catch a flight to the long-awaited vacation or the big wedding day.

For most people, it’s pretty hard to oversleep the morning of anything important; it’s hard to get any sleep on the eve of such anticipated moments. The anxiety that keeps you up is the same anxiety that gets you straight out of bed.

And yet, our sages teach us that that’s precisely what happened to the Jewish People camped at the foot of Mount Sinai; they had been eagerly awaiting Moshe’s return with the Ten Commandments, the culminating moment of Creation, and they overslept.

This anecdote is one of the sources of the treasured custom of staying up the night of Shavuos immersed in Torah study. When the Creator offers you a piece of eternity, so the thinking goes, who really needs to sleep? If you knew tomorrow was the second coming of the Creator or Moshiach, you wouldn’t be getting any sleep. And yet, the Jewish People and humanity’s spiritual awakening starts with a snooze.

Let’s remember that in this multitude of millions of men, women, and children who overslept is the litany of greats and sages who appear in the Torah. Miriam, Elazar, Itamar, Nadav, Avihu, Pinchas, Caleb, the tribal chiefs, and the sages.

How did everyone oversleep?

The Arugas HaBosem suggests that our intuition that such a thing doesn’t happen naturally is correct; it was a supernatural slumber, the kind the Creator sets on the first man – וַיַּפֵּל ה’ אֱלֹהִים  תַּרְדֵּמָה עַל־הָאָדָם וַיִּישָׁן.

R’ Meilech Biderman teaches that the Creator deliberately establishes the archetype of Torah at Sinai precisely this way, establishing for all generations that you can be late, tired, and still half asleep, but still be invited and expected to attend Mount Sinai.

You might think you’re not ready, you might truly be unready, but readiness isn’t a requirement.

But their unreadiness wasn’t simply an internal function of tiredness or lack of preparation. When they woke and showed up at the foot of the mountain, they encountered an external environment shrouded in darkness and fog – חֹשֶׁךְ / עָנָן / עֲרָפֶל.

The darkness and fog over Sinai are the uncertainty, mystery, and awe that often accompany profound spiritual experiences, but the Chiddushei HaRim highlights how this is not just a possible feature of our spiritual experience or an obstacle to overcome; it is an integral feature and part of the essential nature of the work we are called to do. The mountain was obscured in the way the path of our spiritual journey is often obscured. But they showed up just the same.

In a world where it’s all too easy to feel distant or disconnected from our heritage, our spirituality, or even from each other, the act of showing up can be a profound statement of commitment and engagement. The Jewish people overslept, but they still showed up to receive the Torah. They were there, ready to engage and participate, even if they were not perfectly prepared. We, too, can show up and engage with our spirituality, even in the face of uncertainty and mystery.

The people showed up despite oversleeping, and when they did, the mountain was obscured. Both teachings reject the notion of being perfectly prepared or fully awake to engage. They suggest that the act of engagement itself, of showing up, is valuable and meaningful, even if we are not perfectly prepared.

Uncertainty and mystery are often part of our spiritual journeys. We may not always feel fully prepared or awake. We may feel unsure, lost, tired, or even afraid. But the act of showing up, of being present and ready to engage, is the first and most important step towards connection, meaning, and growth.

And it’s enough.

You might be late to the party, but you’re still invited.

Nobody’s Perfect

4 minute read

Temple service is vital to the Torah’s conception of religious life; priests, sacrificial worship, and purity were at the front and center of daily living.

The Mishkan and Temple were monumental communal endeavors, embodying the pursuit of perfection in every aspect. Both structures boasted awe-inspiring aesthetics and intricate design, featuring the finest precious metals and gemstones. Each architectural feature was meticulously crafted, with each detail carefully honed to achieve unparalleled beauty and precision.

The priests were facilitators of the people’s religious experiences; their role was to assist the public with performing their rituals and maintaining the sanctity of sacred spaces and things. As such, they were expected to embody an idealized form of physical and spiritual purity.

The sacrifices in each sacred ritual were held to the highest standard of perfection, free from any injury or impairment. The offeror, offering, and priest each required careful monitoring to ensure perfect purity; even their thoughts and intentions had to be perfectly pristine.

The Torah discusses these at great length in substantial detail, utilizing the imagery and language of perfection to emphasize their importance. Perfection is ubiquitous in the Temple service; any contamination, deviation, or flaw in any part disqualified the whole. Everything had to be perfect.

On this backdrop of perfection, the Torah states that priests with disabilities are excluded from performing the Temple service:

דַּבֵּר אֶל־אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר אִישׁ מִזַּרְעֲךָ לְדֹרֹתָם אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בוֹ מוּם לֹא יִקְרַב לְהַקְרִיב לֶחֶם אֱלֹקיו – Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring with a defect shall be qualified to make the offering to his God throughout the ages. (21:16)

Although such individuals were permitted all other rights and privileges of priesthood, including handling, receiving, and consuming the priestly gifts, they weren’t allowed to perform the Temple service. Even today, there can be a question of whether individuals with disabilities can participate in the priestly blessing or count towards the minimum number required for public prayers.

Modern society emphasizes the inclusion and value of all individuals. While some aspects of inclusion might be more controversial, the inclusion of individuals with disabilities is not. Today, it is an esteemed and popular activity for young adults to volunteer, visit, and care for individuals with special needs; the charities, camps, and organizations supporting them and their families are rightly celebrated, and volunteer spots are competitive and prestigious.

We proudly believe in inclusion, and the people who live and breathe it are some of our finest; the Torah’s emphasis on the Temple’s perfection and exclusion of priests with disabilities is a little uncomfortable. It puts a fundamental law in the Torah at odds with a mainstream sensibility that makes a lot of sense; the suggestion that something is bad or wrong with individuals with disabilities is highly offensive.

Why does the Torah exclude people with disabilities?

Sacrificial rituals are mechanisms for people to express their devotion, gratitude, and repentance to the Creator. As R’ Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains, humans are moral agents responsible for their actions. By bringing a sacrifice, you utilize your ability to act and choose, demonstrating a willingness to stop doing bad things and rededicating your actions and choices towards good things. By offering a perfect animal, worshippers demonstrated their commitment to providing their highest and best possible selves.

In other words, the sacrifice is a selfless act that symbolizes the transformation and change in the human. The rituals are not magic formulas that must be performed perfectly to have an effect; they are symbolic representations that promote spiritual growth and self-improvement.

It is essential to recognize that cultural and historical context plays a vital role in our experience and perception of perfection.

The simple reality is that until only recently, discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities and special needs have been commonplace; some societies went so far as to legally ban their presence in public spaces. The basis for this was that the physical state was often associated with or considered a reflection of spiritual condition, so physical deformities were sometimes perceived as a reflection of spiritual imperfections.

If a critical part of sacrificial rituals is about dissociating from flaws and imperfections, an injured animal or assistant might obstruct the introspection, self-reflection, and spiritual growth the rituals are intended to stir – not because they are intrinsically bad in any conceivable way, but simply because that’s how they are experienced.

In the same section of the Torah’s treatment of priests with disabilities, the Torah commands perfect sacrifices, and presents a basis; a requirement that the offering be something that people find acceptable and favorable – לִרְצֹנְכֶם / כֹּל אֲשֶׁר־בּוֹ מוּם לֹא תַקְרִיבוּ כִּי־לֹא לְרָצוֹן יִהְיֶה לָכֶם. This is not just reasonable logic; it introduces an element of subjectivity at the very outset of the discussion, that perfection is not an absolute standard.

What’s more, our sages teach that an individual with unusual facial features or skin pigmentations is not permitted to say the priestly blessing with his brothers. Yet, they allowed numerous exceptions when people are accustomed to the person or condition – reinforcing that what people do and do not find unsettling is subjective, not absolute.

The Torah’s exclusion of priests with disabilities isn’t a standalone judgment but a subjective mirror reflecting its audience’s cultural and historical context.

It’s not correct to conclude that all the Temple processes must be perfect because humans must be or seem perfect. Nobody is perfect, and nobody ever will be; there is no need to pretend.

But perfection in the context of the Temple is a symbol of aspirations, ideals, and the people we want to be, symbols can be perfect, and the instruments, symbols, and tools ought to be as perfect as possible.

The Torah’s law excluding priests with disabilities from performing the Temple service is not a statement on the worth or value of individuals with disabilities or the relative perfection of humans; it simply illustrates the symbolic nature of priestly services.

It’s crucial not to compromise on dreams and ideals; they are the rocket fuel for everything that matters, most especially the people we hope to become. Today, one of our shared ideals is creating more compassionate and inclusive communities that understand and embrace the experiences of individuals with disabilities and special needs. We probably have a deeper appreciation of the dignity and value of every individual than our ancestors might have. We recognize that individuals with disabilities or special needs are no less perfect than anyone else because nobody is perfect.

But the Torah’s emphasis on perfection never meant that we should expect ourselves or others to be perfect in every aspect of life. It simply reminds us that we should strive to uphold our highest ideals to the best of our abilities while still recognizing and embracing the inherent flaws and imperfections that make us human.

Regulations Redux

4 minute read

Speed limits, traffic lights, parking meters, building codes, dress codes… it’s easy to see rules as restrictive forces in our lives, reducing individual freedom and personal choice.

The Torah is brimming with laws and rules, so it’s a critique one can aim at Judaism with some merit and one that has long been raised by seekers.

There are so many rules, and they stack up fast! Eat now, fast then, do this, don’t do that, and it goes on.

Why can’t we just do what we want?

The opening story of Creation about the dawn of humanity centers around the imposition of a rule – don’t eat from this tree, and humanity’s unwillingness to follow the rule – they did it anyway.

There’s a plausible reading here where God is cruel and tantalizing, teasing His creatures by pointing at the beautiful tree they are forbidden to enjoy; the language of prohibition and denial is right there, and it identifies God as the maker and enforcer of a system with arbitrary rules that humans are destined to fail.

But the story that follows about Noah and the Flood is a story about what happens in a world with no rules – total anarchy and chaos, and ultimately, the collapse of civilization. When everyone pillages and plunders, you have barbaric savages. Noah and the Flood, we see a world without rules, which leads to chaos and the collapse of civilization.

No serious person believes that radical anarchy would be sustainable, a total free for all where Darwinist principles of survival of the fittest govern the day. Doing anything you want isn’t a utopian dream; it’s a dystopian nightmare. Every human society at all times in all places has understood that humans need rules and norms; ancient and primitive societies had rules and norms we might object to, but they had rules and norms just the same. The existence of rules and norms is a foundation of human society – no one gets to do whatever they want.

Rules form boundaries that enable and facilitate safe human relations by asserting how to interact, preventing infringement on others or abuse or depletion of a thing. Rules are a basic civic requirement.

Beyond the philosophical, this extends to the essential nature of reality; our universe is a universe of rules, built and run according to rules, the laws of physics that govern energy and matter.

The religious aspect of doing whatever we want is based on the notion that observant Jews are missing out. Sure, there are many things observant Jews can’t do or enjoy – bacon, cheeseburgers, lobster, and pepperoni are allegedly some of the big ones.

Yet the Midrash teaches that it is wrong to believe that the Creator denies or prohibits us from the joys of life in any way. Rather, the Torah asks us just to regulate our instincts and stop them from running wild in order to maintain balance in our lives, from greed, hunger, and revenge, to tribal loyalty and sexuality.

Humans break when overindulged – people everywhere abuse and hurt, cheat and steal, get obese and sick, and tirelessly waste years of life on sexual pursuits. These negative impacts aren’t the product of liberty; they’re different forms of addiction and brokenness.

Like all cultures and societies, the Torah has lots of rules. And like all cultures and societies, some make more sense than others.

But like all rules and laws, they keep us safe and stop us from getting out of control. They help regulate our enjoyment of life; they enable everything else.

The laws of sexuality regulate that family relationships are inappropriate if combined with sexuality.

The laws of Shabbos are endless; you learn something new every time you learn the laws of Shabbos. But the existence of Shabbos changes and elevates how we experience time – it’s not Saturday, a day off work, it’s Shabbos! Moreover, Shabbos has kept generations of families and Jewish communities eating, singing, and praying together for life.

The Torah permits a carnivorous diet, which could reasonably be construed as unethical; it asks us to limit our diet to animals with certain features that must be slaughtered humanely. If the Creator is the gatekeeper of Creation, it’s not obvious that we should be able to eat living creatures at all! But otherwise, the Torah allows us to enjoy the vast majority of human cuisine prepared in accordance with our culture.

What’s more, when taken together, the rules of kosher keep the Jewish People distinct and separate from the world. They elevate the most basic instinct to consume into a religious act, saturated with meaning and purpose. As the Chasam Sofer notes, the kosher laws open with what Jews can eat, the permission, not the prohibition.

As the Meshech Chochma notes, the Creation story isn’t about a negative restriction on a tree; it’s about a positive command to eat literally everything else in Creation and fill the world with people, broad and permissive, perhaps even indulgent and hedonistic, with one caveat.

The Creator sanctifies human desire with the very first command – the directive to eat and procreate suggests that even our most basic instincts serve God’s purposes. Although there’s a caveat, even several, the Torah’s claim is that God is the gatekeeper of that permission; that’s what “Creator” means. If we accept the premise of a Creator, why would we feel entitled to the entire universe?

Beyond the aspect of a legal obligation, the fact that Jews observe a rule or practice makes it a cultural norm, unspoken but socially agreed on, and therefore sanctified by the collective consciousness of all Jewish People.

The Torah has lots of rules and laws. But those laws come from the Creator of Genesis; the God who creates life, loves life, commands life to thrive, and wants that life to love and enjoy.

We do this thing, we don’t do that thing. No one gets to do whatever they want, that’s not how the world works. We live in societies built on the rule of law, in a rule-based universe.

Rules aren’t so terrible.

Next Year In Jerusalem

2 minute read

At the end of the Seder, at the back of the Haggadah, there are many songs and prayers. Some people skim through them selectively; other people lovingly sing each one.

There’s one that pretty much everyone says though: לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בִּירוּשָלָיִם הַבְּנוּיָה – Next year, in Jerusalem rebuilt!

We pray for Jerusalem to be rebuilt all the time, and maybe this is just one more of those times. It’s a staple part of our prayers; that’s what we say, so you say it.

And why not? It’s a fun song to sing with the people you love!

But maybe there’s something more to it as well.

Look around the faces at the table, and ask yourself, and perhaps challenge them to think, how much can things change in the space of a year?

Despite the finest dreams and aspirations, and perhaps a great deal of effort, the daunting challenges of daily living can seem all-consuming. People can find themselves at another birthday, the end of another year with the painful realization that little has changed. It’s not hard for time and goals to slip away, unfulfilled, to concede to the belief that change is hard.

But even though change can be difficult, change is real, and you can be very sure that in a lot less than a year, everything can change several times over.

On a micro-scale, our lives are only ever one phone call away from going off the rails; health, finances, and relationships can evaporate from one moment to the next. On a global scale, a market crash, a war, a terror attack, and a virus have changed the world in the space of a few days in ways we never thought possible.

The world has transformed a few times, even in recent memory; we have lived it. A year is a really long time.

But that force of change doesn’t just serve destructive purposes; it also exists for good. Technological breakthroughs, vaccines, peace, and powerful ideas have also changed the world in a few days.

Who is exactly the person they were a year ago, exactly where they were a year ago, physically, emotionally, spiritually, financially, and personally?

In a year, defeat can turn into victory. In a year, the single one can be married. In a year, the childless one can have children. In a year, the sick one can heal. In a year, the business can turn around. In a year, failure can turn into success.

The whole Seder night, we have read and talked and sang about our belief in redemptions past. We sign off with a final affirmation that redemption lies ahead too.

“Next year, in Jerusalem rebuilt.”

It’s not just a thing we say; it’s not just a fun song we sing with the people we love.

It’s something we say because it is self-evidently true. This time next year, you can be a different person; and the world can be a different place, reshaped in ways we never imagined.

A year is a really long time – לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בִּירוּשָלָיִם הַבְּנוּיָה.

Next year, in Jerusalem rebuilt!