1. Home
  2. Sources

This Is The Law

3 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There Is More Than Meets The Eye

4 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What you see is not all there is.

There is more than meets the eye.

Hammered Work

3 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some things should not be crafted in a fragmented manner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond Words

4 minute read
Straightforward

Seder night is a night when miracles happen, which the Torah refers to as the night God watches over the Jewish People:

לֵיל שִׁמֻּרִים הוּא לַה’ לְהוֹצִיאָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם הוּא־הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה לַה’ שִׁמֻּרִים לְכל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְדֹרֹתָם – It is a night of vigil for the Lord to bring them out of the land of Egypt; this is a night of vigil for the Lord for all the children of Israel throughout the ages.

But before this declaration, the Torah narrates the Jewish People’s experience in Egypt, echoed by the Haggada at the Seder, and describes the turning point, when the people groaned from their backbreaking labor:

וַנִּצְעַק אֶל־ה’ אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ, וַיִּשְׁמַע ה’ אֶת־קֹלֵנוּ, וַיַּרְא אֶת־עָנְיֵנוּ וְאֶת-עֲמָלֵנוּ וְאֶת-לַחֲצֵנוּ… וַנִּצְעַק אֶל־ה’ אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ – כְּמָה שֶּׁנֶּאֱמַר: וַיְהִי בַיָּמִים הָרַבִּים הָהֵם וַיָּמָת מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם, וַיֵּאָנְחוּ בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל מִן־הָעֲבוֹדָה וַיִּזְעָקוּ, וַתַּעַל שַׁוְעָתָם אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִים מִן הָעֲבֹדָה – And we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice, and He saw our affliction, and our toil and our duress…  as it is stated; “And it was in those great days that the king of Egypt died and the Children of Israel sighed from the work and yelled out, and their supplication went up to God from the work.”

The Torah describes what they did – they groaned – and what happened as a result: their cries rose to Heaven, and God heard them, considering these cries as stirring prayers.

When you hear something, it is external and may or may not resonate deeply; however, when someone truly listens, their internal desire extends beyond the self and draws the external inward. God actively listened to their cries, which spurred action and led to redemption; the responsiveness of a Creator, who not only hears but listens, signifies a deep, personal involvement in the life of Creation.

But notice how they didn’t pray in any conventional sense at all; there were no gatherings, campaigns, fasts, or prayer lists. They simply cried out from pain and misery, yet these cries were sufficient; they were the worthy and pivotal prayers upon which the story turns.

Rather than perceiving time as a simple linear progression, we can understand time as cyclical, where events repeat in patterns, with recurring seasons and cycles. When we celebrate a birthday or anniversary, we experience a sense of renewal, a revived manifestation of the original event. Your birth occurred on a specific day years ago, yet the energy or force that gave life to you remains special, and we commemorate it annually, creating a temporal loop.

Every birthday signifies a new beginning, a fresh tally of your life, which aligns with the notion that time is not strictly linear but contains pockets of cyclical or even spiral-shaped significance.

Even the fundamental building block of life, DNA, isn’t linear—it’s a double helix, an interlocking spiral.

Life is replete with cycles, not lines—a spiral galaxy forever rotating, never returning to the exact same point. Seder night is not merely a commemoration of the Exodus; it reinvokes the redemptive energy and forces that give rise to redemption, endowing our existence with renewal and possibility.

The turning point of the Seder is the moment the Jewish People cried for help, not as structured formal prayers, but as raw, heartfelt cries.

The Apter Rav explains that when we read the part of the Haggada about our ancestors crying out, the very same primal energies and forces are accessible to us then and there. R’ Meilich Biderman and many others recount stories of individuals who, during this moment at the Seder, uttered the same prayer as our ancestors and subsequently experienced salvation, whether for children, healing, finances, a marriage, or what – וַנִּצְעַק אֶל־ה’ אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ וַיִּשְׁמַע ה’ אֶת־קֹלֵנוּ.

Our sages conclude from the stories of our ancestors that God loves righteous prayers; you don’t have to be righteous to generate a righteous prayer. Our daily prayers affirm that God is close to the people who call on Him in truth – קרוב ה’ לכל קוראיו, לכל אשר יקראוהו באמת.

When rain gets cold, it turns to snow, but if it gets too cold, it won’t snow at all.

There are times we can pray. But there are times when words are not enough, and we’re not praying; we’re crying, or maybe not even that, because it is too hard, and we are so tired of running on empty.

As R’ Ahron of Karlin points out, this is not a night of remembering past redemptions; it is explicitly a night of future redemptions for all generations, including ours – לֵיל שִׁמֻּרִים הוּא לַה’ לְהוֹצִיאָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם הוּא־הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה לַה’ שִׁמֻּרִים לְכל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְדֹרֹתָם.

The Ohr HaChaim highlights how redemption is promised as something ongoing, not something in the past tense – לְהוֹצִיאָם / לְדֹרֹתָם.

Take a moment to think deeply about yourself, the people you love, and the things you need. Be vulnerable and sincere; when it hurts, you cry. An analysis of the adequacy of our intention and prayers is misplaced; a heartfelt sigh and an honest tear have the power to move the heavens.

Although it isn’t a conventional prayer, and although it isn’t directed at Heaven or anywhere in particular, just know that it happens to be a perfectly faithful reenactment of our ancestor’s great prayer, and that was more than enough – וַנִּצְעַק אֶל־ה’ אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ, וַיִּשְׁמַע ה’ אֶת־קֹלֵנוּ.

On all other nights, the Creator accepts our prayers holistically, from the outermost words to the innermost thoughts and feelings, our deepest desires that we are not consciously aware of and cannot begin to articulate.

There is no mystical meditation here, no magic words.

But on this night, there is magic in the air; this is a night when miracles happen.

One Step At a Time

3 minute read
Straightforward

Gratitude and thanksgiving are foundational sentiments of the Jewish People; we are named after Yehuda, which derives from the Hebrew word for “thank you” – תודה. We’re not just the people of the book; we could more accurately be described as the grateful people, the thankful people.

Among the many expressions of gratitude in our Tradition is the beautiful Seder night Dayenu song, which divides the Exodus into fifteen distinct stages, deeming that each would have been enough on its own – Dayenu!

If the Creator had just taken us out of Egypt and left our enemies alone – Dayenu!

If the Creator had split the Sea but not given us safe passage – Dayenu!

If the Creator had given us safe passage but not given us food and water for forty years – Dayenu!

If the Creator had sustained us but not given us the Torah – Dayenu!

And so on.

It’s a fun song, we love it, it’s great.

However, it harbors a fundamental flaw at its core; without the entire story taken together, the Jewish People’s redemption ultimately fails.

If the Creator had taken us out of Egypt without dealing with our enemies, they would have prevented our escape.

If the Creator had split the Sea and not given us safe passage, our enemies would have overtaken and killed us.

If the Creator had given us safe passage but hadn’t provided logistical support in the form of food and water for forty years, we would have perished from thirst and hunger.

And if the Creator had sustained us for all that time without giving us the Torah, then what exactly would have been the point of everything?

None of these scenarios would have truly been sufficient on their own; each was critically and independently necessary. That’s why they had to happen!

But if they would not have been enough, why say Dayenu?

Understanding this paradox is revealing; while it’s true that each step might not have been enough for comprehensive and total victory, that’s not the point of the song.

The song is about how each step of redemption is enough to earn our undying thanks and earn our song of Dayenu; we will recognize and be thankful for the good we have been graced with, even when it is not quite sufficient for our goals and purposes.

Too often, we zoom out to view the big picture, moving on to the next goal, the next project, and the next win. It’s easy to forget that the goal we just achieved was one we were desperate for not so long ago.

We have good news. We are happy for five seconds. And then we start thinking about all the next steps, and we have moved on. We get the promotion and plan the next career move. We close the deal and plan the next one. We pass this test and focus on the next one.

This song corrects that mistaken perspective. Leaving Egypt and focusing on the Promised Land would not have been enough; you would have missed the whole thing.

Each win is a building block to something else. No win is big enough; there is no ultimate victory. The chase never ends, and there is no finish line, so each win is sacred in itself – Dayenu.

The milestone is not the end goal but deserves a moment of celebration and thanks – Dayenu.

The Sfas Emes points out that we hide part of the Matzah for the later stages of the Seder – Tzafun means Hidden; redemption was not fully revealed at the Exodus, but was concealed and only unfolds in small steps over time. We sing the song and break down each step because it unpacks what redemption looked like once but also so that we can recognize it on an ongoing basis – Dayenu.

By appreciating the process rather than just the outcomes and focusing on each small victory, we build momentum and create an identity of recognition and positivity.

Each step is leading somewhere – הַמֵּכִין מִצְעֲדֵי גָבֶר.

Critically, celebrating a small win isn’t a premature celebration of a big win. The orientation to counting small wins grounds expectations in the present; you don’t count chickens before they hatch. Counting small wins focuses on what is being achieved now without the pressure of expectation of what might or might not happen in the future.

Don’t wait for a complete resolution to acknowledge the significance of each phase of the journey. Each step is a victory, and each accomplishment is a cause for celebration – Dayenu!

Count small wins; the big wins only happen one step at a time.

Creative Corrective

3 minute read
Straightforward

Shabbos is one of the defining features of observant Judaism. With its community prayers, family meals, and adherence to intricate laws, Shabbos is a foundational pillar of observant Judaism. These practices define the day of rest and embody a complex system of values and teachings that guide ethical and spiritual life.

The Torah itself is pretty sparse in terms of the laws of Shabbos. Don’t light fires, don’t gather firewood. Yet the Torah consistently associates the Mishkan’s construction with Shabbos and emphasizes that Shabbos has priority. Our sages take this to mean that any creative work or activity that demonstrates mastery over one’s environment that was part of the construction project constitutes a primary category of activity forbidden on Shabbos – מלאכה.

One of these is the category of erasing.

The Mishkan walls were made of wooden boards that had to be assembled in a particular order – that’s why building is a primary category of forbidden activity. Much like how you’d put together flat-pack shelving, they were labeled: A connects to B, connects to C, and so on. It won’t click together when you build it in the wrong order!

So, the designers marked the boards with letters, which is why writing is a primary forbidden activity.

And if someone on the design team wrote the wrong letter, smudged it, duplicated a letter, inscribed it in the wrong spot, or it wasn’t legible enough, they would erase it, the source of erasing as a primary category of forbidden activity.

However, erasing is very different from the other primary categories. One of the fundamental principles of Shabbos is that only creative work is forbidden.

Building and assembling are creative. Writing is creative. Even demolition and deconstruction are creative; the Mishkan was portable and part of its design was taking it apart and reassembling it. But erasing is corrective; at no point in the construction or design process did anyone have to erase anything for the purpose of making anything!

So why is erasing a primary category of creative activity?

There is a fundamental lesson to orient ourselves around.

While it’s true that you only erase something when you make a mistake, making mistakes is part of building; you cannot build something and not expect mistakes, in which case undoing mistakes is an integral part of the creative process.

In categorizing erasing as an independent primary creative activity, our sages acknowledge the inevitability of errors and the necessity of correcting them Erasing is not an after-the-fact error remedy; it is a crucial phase of the creative process. All forms of building are inherently accompanied by missteps, and correcting these errors is inseparable from the act of building.

Our sages teach that, apart from seven exceptions, every righteous person has made mistakes since the dawn of time; this means that the capacity for mistakes is fully compatible with the category of righteousness, and mistakes are intrinsic to life.

Creators deepen their understanding of their work by recognizing and rectifying errors, gaining insights that guide them toward a more refined and effective creation.

Erasing is far from a simple act of correction; it is a fundamental component of creation. It is part of the essential process and interplay of making and remaking that defines our human experience and spiritual endeavors.

Our sages were wise to understand that the journey towards any form of creation is inherently paved with trial and error and that each misstep is itself a crucial step forward.

Our sages’ categorization of labor is not legal scholasticism; it prompts us to consider our approach to life’s inevitable errors and how we correct them.

Next time you find yourself reaching for the metaphorical eraser, remember that each mistake and each act of correction is a conscious and creative step towards something greater, a constructive act of masterful refinement.

Look beyond the surface of your mistakes.

Embrace the beauty in the process of correcting mistakes; in our mistakes lies our growth and creativity.

Erasing is building.

Can you embrace your missteps as much as your milestones?

Permissionless

3 minute read
Straightforward

The Mishkan was the focal point of spirituality and connection, and its inauguration was a cause for celebration marked by a seven-day ceremony, but the celebration was marred by tragedy. Ahron’s eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, broke protocol and presented sacrificial offerings of their own; they died instantly.

Their loss was devastating far beyond their immediate family; they were more than the beloved children of Ahron, who was the heart and soul of the Jewish People. Our sages suggest that they were perhaps even greater than Moshe and Aaron in some regards; they were primed to lead the next generation but never got their chance.

The Torah doesn’t shy away from criticism; its silence about why they deserved to die is deafening, and our sages suggest possible explanations to fill the gap.

In one such teaching, Nadav and Avihu were liable because they would wonder when the old men would die; then, they could finally take Moshe and Ahron’s place and lead the Jewish People.

R’ Noach Weinberg teaches that their fatal flaw was not in speculating about the great men’s deaths but in their waiting and not acting sooner.

They saw opportunities to make a difference, and rather than act, they waited, squandering all the time and opportunities they had along the way. In touch with the young people in a way the older generation could never be, they perceived a sense of deficiency or lack that they never took ownership of or stepped in to solve; they just sat back and waited for their turn. Their fundamental error was the mistaken belief that you are only responsible for fixing a problem once you have permission or authority.

The correct approach is to understand that responsibility begins the moment you become aware of the problem’s existence. In other words, there is no hierarchy to responsibility; you don’t need anyone’s permission. Take ownership of the issues you perceive around you and confront them regardless of your position, resources, or abilities.

R’ Noach Weinberg encourages us to live with and take to heart our sages’ teaching that the world was created for us. Each of us is obligated to view the world as our personal responsibility, which requires no permission to step in and save; when something is your responsibility, the notion of waiting for permission is absurd.

As R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches, the questioning self-doubt of who you are to step up is mistaken; instead, ask who you are not to share whatever gifts you have been entrusted with because your resources and abilities aren’t yours to withhold from the world.

Our sages implore us not to wait for the perfect moment that might never come – שֶׁמָּא לֹא תִפָּנֶה.

Take responsibility for the world you see.

If you have something to share with the world, share it. If you can build, build. If you can lead, lead.

Everyone has something to share with others, and the bar for making a positive difference in people’s lives is not high.

What’s doubly sad about the incident with Nadav and Avihu is that the Torah’s narratives don’t even support their error. We know that Yisro initiated a judicial overhaul that Moshe adopted without debate because it was a good idea on its merits. In a later incident, Yehoshua was alarmed when Eldad and Medad prophesied in the camp, but Moshe was secure with their greatness and wished for more like them. He regularly complained about being exhausted and overwhelmed with his leadership position and needed more help. He was the most humble of all men; we have every indication that, in all likelihood, Nadav and Avihu’s initiatives would have been welcomed and celebrated, but they kept to themselves and didn’t share.

Knowledge must be shared. If we waited until we knew everything, no one teach. As our morning prayers affirm, part of learning is teaching – לִלְמֹד וּלְלַמֵּד.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe famously built a distributed worldwide network of teachers empowered by the lesson that if all you knew was the letter Aleph, find all the people who don’t yet know it and teach them.

If the universe has made you aware of something others have missed, that is permission enough to at least attempt to make a difference. People out there need your help; the clock is ticking.

Nadav and Avihu waited their turn; their turn never came.

Don’t wait.

Sources and Uses

3 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Start Small

3 minute read
Straightforward

The episode of The Golden Calf stands out as a particularly low moment in Jewish history.

Following such miraculous events as the Ten Plagues, the Exodus, and the parting of the Red Sea, among other supernatural phenomena, the Jewish People panicked because their leader was running late. They somehow concluded that an idol was the solution to their troubles.

In the aftermath, the Jewish People grappled with the consequences of their misjudgment and sought to make amends. One form that took was the half-shekel tax, a mandatory contribution from every individual that went towards building the Mishkan. This act of collective responsibility and atonement symbolized the beginning of their journey back towards redemption.

R’ Meilech Biderman highlights how, among other things, the half shekel itself is a symbol that teaches a crucial lesson about human nature and the path of improvement that leads to lasting change.

A half isn’t a whole, only a part. But it’s a start, and that’s what matters.

The half-shekel, being just a fraction of a whole, symbolizes that even partial efforts can be valuable starting points. It is a modest contribution that highlights the power of small beginnings; gradual, consistent progress is usually better than grand but fleeting efforts. Inertia is powerful; just the act of getting started gets you off zero, off the couch, and in the game with some momentum.

The conventional wisdom is to set large goals and then take big leaps to accomplish the goal in as little time as possible, but enormous strides can often lead to burnout and disappointment. Baby steps are all it takes to overcome the daunting prospect of starting over and the fear of failure. Embracing gradual change and appreciating the compound effect of small commitments to minor improvement can be more sustainable and effective.

Small things count; they add up, stack, and compound quickly. You just have to get started.

Commitments and resolutions don’t need to be hard to do; they just need to be something you keep. In that regard, it’s actually better to start small. R’ Yisrael Salanter recommends a strategic approach; rather than a complete overhaul in a given undertaking, surgically target the smallest element consistently. For example, instead of hoping to pray better in general, set a goal of praying one particular blessing more thoughtfully. Rather than resolve to never gossip again, set a goal of one specific hour a day that is gossip-free.

It is easy to dismiss the value of making slightly better choices and decisions on a daily basis; small things are, by definition, not impressive. They are boring and don’t make headlines. But the thing about small commitments is that they work.

Keeping small commitments is what forms new behaviors, habits, patterns, and routines. Small commitments work because they are easy to stick to; it’s something worth being intentional about when change is on your mind.

R’ Leib Chasman’s students would ask him to recommend New Year’s resolutions, and the sage would reply that they could decide for themselves but to make sure to pick something they could keep to. After thinking, they would share their choices with their teacher, and he would interrogate them. “Are you sure you can keep your resolution?” “I’m certain.” “Great! I want you to cut it in half.”

R’ Chatzkel Levenstein intuitively suggests that a human can only be obligated to achieve what is possible within a calendar year, comparing personal growth to a loan paid off in installments. You don’t pay the whole mortgage off in one month; that’s not how mortgages work.

Maintaining basic, consistent efforts is often more fruitful than seeking dramatic transformations. Improving by just one percent is barely noticeable. In the beginning, there is hardly any difference between making a choice that is one percent better or one percent worse; it won’t impact you much today. But as time goes on, these small differences compound, and you soon find a huge gap between people who make slightly better choices daily and those who don’t. One percent better each day for a year is thirty-seven times better by the end.

The journey back from the brink of one of the Torah’s most significant crises began with a simple half-shekel.

It wasn’t much, but it reminds us of the impact of small actions and choices that didn’t seem to make much of a difference at the time; the small things we stick with are what ultimately shape our long-term trajectory and path forward.

The heaviest weight in the gym is the front door.

People will sit up late at night and wonder what they’re doing with their lives, if they’ll ever achieve their goals, if they’ll ever get to the places they want to go. Choose one thing you can do tomorrow that will get you closer, one thing to take action on. Then do it.

Reduce the scope but stick to the schedule; incremental progress drives exponential gains.

Do You Know Who You Are?

4 minute read
Straightforward

In an era where our understanding of the universe is growing at an unprecedented pace, one area remains elusive.

In neuroscience and artificial intelligence, it has so far proven nearly impossible to explain why and how humans and other creatures have the subjective experience that we call consciousness. While some have historically suggested that this is equivalent to the concept of the soul, that’s just another label rather than any kind of explanation.

The philosopher John Locke suggested that consciousness is the continuous collective experience that forms your personal identity. This idea is useful because it is tangible and focuses more on psychology and our experiences rather than anything metaphysical. In other words, what makes you the same person over time is your ability to remember past experiences; or, to put it even simpler, your conscious identity of who you are is a function of where you’ve come from. This continuity of consciousness forms the essence of personal identity; the memories of your past funnel together to tie your present self to your past self.

For some time now, great thinkers have linked the concept of identity with memory and experience. Intuitively, then, the Baal Shem Tov teaches that exile means forgetting.

We know this when we see it; the infamous signature of dehumanization in the Holocaust was erasing people’s names and replacing them with serial numbers. Similarly, we can sadly recognize in cases of dementia that the person before us is experiencing a heartbreaking disconnect from the person that once was.

Exile means forgetting; it’s true of individuals, and it’s also true of nations and societies.

In an era where traditional narratives are often questioned, the loss of a common culture invites fragmentation and can often leave individuals with a sense of feeling adrift. Chaos soon follows when individuals or societies lose touch with the structures and stories that give their lives meaning and direction. In the context of immigrant families, the gradual fading of ancestral languages and traditions is predictable, and the third generation rarely speaks the language of their heritage. This phenomenon is not unique to any one culture; it accurately describes Jewish Americans as much as Korean Americans.

The notion of narrative identity is at the heart of how the Torah frames the Jewish People’s story in Egypt. In the depths of despair, they begin to lose their connection to the past. Our sages imagine a heavenly courtroom drama where the prosecutor questions the value of saving the Jewish People from the Egyptians – if they worship the same idols, what’s the difference? When the Torah describes God’s intervention with imagery of an outstretched arm, it suggests the Jewish People had fallen off a cliff and were saved at the very last moment from the point of no return, the cusp of total assimilation – מ”ט שערי טומאה.

Our sages teach how the Jewish People retained their language, clothing, and names. This teaching is sometimes characterized as praise that they didn’t integrate into the dominant culture and that they retained a connection to their past throughout their exile. But in fact, this teaching highlights the opposite, how they adopted literally everything else. When Moshe himself went to Midian, the locals called him the Egyptian fellow! The Jewish People had forgotten and lost so much that they couldn’t even listen to the man sent to save them; there could be no deeper exile.

But if exile means forgetting, then redemption means remembering; memory is intimately linked with redemption throughout the entire Exodus story, not just on a human level but also at the Divine level.

After the introduction to the setting of the enslavement in Egypt, the Torah describes how God is stirred by memory, specifically, memory of the ancestors – וַיִּזְכֹּר אֱלֹקים אֶת־בְּרִיתוֹ אֶת־אַבְרָהָם אֶת־יִצְחָק וְאֶת־יַעֲקֹב.

When the Creator reveals Himself to Moshe, He introduces Himself as the God of his ancestors, establishing a continuity of Divine engagement with the Jewish people – אָנֹכִי אֱלֹקי אָבִיךָ אֱלֹקי אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹקי יִצְחָק וֵאלֹקי יַעֲקֹב.

It’s also how the Creator instructs Moshe to identify Him to the Jewish People as well – ה־תֹאמַר אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל ה אֱלֹקי אֲבֹתֵיכֶם אֱלֹקי אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹקי יִצְחָק אֱלֹקי יַעֲקֹב שְׁלָחַנִי אֲלֵיכֶם זֶה־שְּׁמִי לְעֹלָם וְזֶה זִכְרִי לְדֹר דֹּר.

We must remember that God is timeless; God cannot remember or forget. These are words we use when we talk about people; they are anthropomorphic metaphors. When we talk about remembering that someone was hurtful, we mean that the memory will prompt a different action or behavior than one might otherwise expect; God “remembers” in the sense that God acts differently than might reasonably be expected in response to something, in this case, the ancestors. For this reason, the Chizkuni suggests that this self-introduction as the God of our ancestors is the source of our daily prayer – אֱלקינוּ וֵאֱלֹקי אֲבותֵינוּ אֱלֹקי אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹקי יִצְחָק וֵאֱלֹקי יַעֲקב.

Physical freedom was never enough; true liberation from slavery involved a reconnection with the Jewish People’s historical ancestral and spiritual roots. To revitalize the lost nation, to become the people they were meant to be, and to enter the promised land, they had to reforge their connection to the past. By recognizing the codewords of the past and the God of their ancestors, they would know that their time had finally come.

It’s why the Book of Exodus, or more properly, the Book of Names, begins by listing the names of those who journeyed to Egypt, anchoring the narrative in personal identities.

It’s why the Torah interrupts the story with an exposition of each family and the names of their descendants: the names of the sons of Levi, Gershon, Kohath, and Merari, the sons of Kohath, Amram, Yitzhar, Chevron, and Uzziel, and all the rest.

As R’ Hanoch of Alexander teaches, a key part of God’s command is remembering who you are and where you come from; remembering is the catalyst of redemption.

When we speak of our roots, it’s not an empty metaphor. They anchor and ground us; they orient us to where we are. Whatever culture or background, our traditions literally and metaphorically support us; if you want to make it to the promised land, knowing your past is the key to understanding your present and shaping your future.

Life is short, and we barely live before we die. Our narratives do more than recount history; they embed us in a continuum of collective wisdom, teaching us that we are part of a story much larger than our individual selves and that we can be so much more than we are. That’s why knowing your family and your people’s culture and history is so important.

The human connection to family, culture, heritage, tradition, and religion has always been sacred.

Our traditions tell us that we can have the courage to stand up to the existential and metaphysical challenges of life like the heroes of old who walked and talked with the Creator, who would argue and sometimes even win.

Do you know who you are?

You descend from those who wrestle angels and kill giants.

Aim High

4 minute read
Straightforward

In so much of our lives, we occupy places and routines that are familiar and known. But once in a while, life leads us to the very edge and calls on us to step into the unknown and explore the new and uncharted territory of possibility. We can experience these transcendent moments as some of the moments we are most alive, where we extend ourselves and enlarge the boundaries of our reality.

In these pivotal moments, we often meet with what appear to be insurmountable obstacles — goals that lie out of reach, aspirations that loom large like distant stars. It is in these moments that we have the capability of discovering who we are. Do we retreat to the safe boundaries of the known, or do we reach out toward the unknown? This leap of faith is not a blind jump into the abyss but a conscious choice to trust in our capabilities and the Divine hand that guides us.

The Torah describes one such moment.

Pharoah’s daughter, the Egyptian princess Batya, had come to bathe in the shallows of the river Nile with her attendants. It was just another day in the life of a princess; bathing is a normal part of most people’s personal hygiene.

We become familiar with our routines, and our brains can go into autopilot and cruise control; our bodies can go through the motions with little conscious effort. But then, one day, unlike every time before, instead of the river, wind, and wildlife she was used to tuning out, she noticed something completely out of place, something unexpected that jolted her into action – a baby floating nearby:

וַתֵּרֶד בַּת־פַּרְעֹה לִרְחֹץ עַל־הַיְאֹר וְנַעֲרֹתֶיהָ הֹלְכֹת עַל־יַד הַיְאֹר וַתֵּרֶא אֶת־הַתֵּבָה בְּתוֹךְ הַסּוּף וַתִּשְׁלַח אֶת־אֲמָתָהּ וַתִּקָּחֶהָ  – The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile, while her maidens walked along the Nile. She spotted the basket among the reeds and reached out to collect it. (2:5)

There is some ambiguity in the word the Torah uses to describe how she collected the child – וַתִּשְׁלַח אֶת־אֲמָתָהּ. In the plain sense, it means she sent her handmaiden to fetch the basket. But it can also mean an arm’s length or cubit, albeit not the common word for arm – יָדָהּ. Our sages take this to mean that Batya stretched out but could not quite reach, and at that moment, her reach miraculously extended just enough to save the child; she extended her arm, and her arm extended – וַתִּשְׁלַח אֶת־אֲמָתָהּ.

Think about it for a moment. She couldn’t reach the child – her arms weren’t long enough. But she reached out anyway.

The Kotzker Rebbe taught that this should be our orientation to anything that matters. When saving a life, you stop at nothing, exhaust every avenue, and chase every possibility, no matter how remote or improbable it seems.

This quality is the meaning behind Moshe’s name – וַיְהִי־לָהּ לְבֵן וַתִּקְרָא שְׁמוֹ מֹשֶׁה וַתֹּאמֶר כִּי מִן־הַמַּיִם מְשִׁיתִהוּ. R’ Chaim Shmulevitz highlights that despite Moshe having other names, he is known for the rest of his life by the name given to him by the Egyptian princess, named for the moment of boldness shown by his adopted mother.

In the interwar years, Jewish leaders were politically engaged in navigating East European Jewry through what they could not yet know was its final years. One of the most prominent voices was R’ Meir Shapiro, a leading Rosh Yeshiva scholar, politician, and community organizer. At a major leadership meeting, he proposed bold plans to turn the tides of what was in the air, and his audience told him it was impossible. In response, he countered then by citing this teaching.

Our sages use this story to encourage us not to be daunted by the seemingly unattainable. This does not mean recklessly chasing after dreams but recognizing that whether physically, spiritually, or emotionally, our reach can extend far beyond what we understand our physical capabilities and natural boundaries to be.

In a contemporary embodiment of this wisdom, President Kennedy explained why the Space Race was important, why it mattered for humans to go to the moon, in doing so, captured the human spirit at its best: “We shall send to the moon 240,000 miles away, a giant rocket, more than 300 feet tall on an untried mission to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to Earth. But why the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask, why climb the highest mountain? Why 35 years ago fly the Atlantic? We choose to go to the moon this decade and do the other things not because they are easy but because they are hard. Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills because that challenge is one that we’re willing to accept. One we are unwilling to postpone. And therefore, as we set sail, we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous, dangerous, and greatest adventure that man has ever gone.”

Apart from being able to plant a flag on the moon, which is pretty cool, the Space Race extended the boundaries of science in ways that demonstrably improved our lives, including significant advancements in water purification, waterproofing, disease research, agricultural techniques, fireproof insulation, wireless technologies, LED lighting, food preservation, and scratch-resistant eyeglass lenses.

Batya reaching out to Moshe captures a universal truth about the human condition: we are sometimes called to stretch beyond our perceived limits, and the act of reaching out becomes a powerful metaphor for the courage and tenacity inherent in each of us.

The supernatural extension of Batya’s hand is not a fantasy trope; it symbolizes the extraordinary outcomes that can only emerge from our willingness to extend ourselves beyond what we believe is possible. It reminds us that the potential for the miraculous lies within the mundane fabric of daily life.

What seems impossible may only be so until we dare to stretch our hands.

Aim high and shoot for the moon. Because even if you miss, you might land among the stars.

Imagination Redux

3 minute read
Straightforward

The power of human imagination is incredible.

If you’ve ever daydreamed or watched children play, you’ve experienced firsthand the ability to form images of things or ideas in the mind. When we read stories or consume different media, our minds light up with wonder and possibility, experiencing and feeling things that might not exist in the external world but are very real to us.

The ability to imagine is not trivial; the thoughts and beliefs generated in the internal world drive actions and behaviors that shape the external world.

But imagination isn’t simply idle daydreaming or fantasy, nor even just internal play we then act out externally. It’s a distinctly human quality to think about the future and plan for it, to conceptualize a possible future, and then try to make it a reality.

Without an imagination, you would be stuck living within the confines of what you already know. A world without imagination would be a world without creativity and would leave us with little capacity to experiment, explore, innovate, solve problems, or even entertain ourselves.

The capacity for imaginative thought is an exceptionally creative activity and arguably even a religious act – it is the tool that enables change. The power of imagination speaks to the core of not only who we are but also who we might become, and as such, aligns closely with our essential nature as beings created in the image of the Divine.

This profound understanding of imagination is vividly illustrated in the biblical narrative of Yosef and Yakov’s reunion.

Yosef’s brothers abducted him in childhood and trafficked him into slavery. They covered up their crime by telling their father a wild animal had mauled him, and Yakov lived unconsoled in all the years that followed. When fortune brought his brothers before him, Yosef took the opportunity to bring healing to his family, and Yakov went down to Egypt to see his long-lost son once more. In the pivotal moment, Yakov remarks that he never believed such a thing was possible:

וַיֹּאמֶר יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל־יוֹסֵף רְאֹה פָנֶיךָ לֹא פִלָּלְתִּי וְהִנֵּה הֶרְאָה אֹתִי אֱלֹהִים גַּם אֶת־זַרְעֶךָ – And Israel said to Yosef, “I never imagined I’d see you again, and now God has even let me see your children as well!” (48:11)

Our sages teach that at this moment, Yakov uttered Shema Yisrael, a centerpiece of Jewish prayer that affirms the unity and power of the Creator.

We might think that Yakov says this prayer out of appreciation; he is thankful for once again laying eyes on his son Yosef before he dies.

But his words suggest something deeper than gratitude, something much more like shock or surprise – לֹא פִלָּלְתִּי.

Rashi takes this expression to mean deliberative thinking or judgment. The Rashbam explains that Yakov never allowed himself to dare to hope he might see Yosef again. The Chizkuni understands it to mean that Yakov had not even prayed to see Yosef again, an impossible expectation given that a wild animal had killed him, noting that the word Yakov uses is cognate to the word for prayer – תפלה / פִלָּלְתִּי.

Or, as we might say today, Yakov never imagined that he might see Yosef again.

The suggestion of an association between prayer and imagination is exceptionally powerful. R’ Judah Mischel observes that the obvious implication is that part of prayer is allowing yourself to dare to imagine that things can be different or better, that something else is possible.

Taking these insights together, we come to understand that the moment of Yakov and Yosef’s reunion captures an essential teaching that the bounds of our imagination are not the limits of what is possible. As our sages teach, even with a sword resting on your neck, you must not give up; you should still pray for an escape.

Our capacity for imagination transcends mere thought and goes far beyond what we perceive as possible and deep into the realm of faith and hope. In fact, R’ Meilich Biderman teaches that the human predisposition towards hope and optimism is one of God’s greatest expressions of kindness.

R’ Moshe Sherer said that one of our greatest blessings is the ability to dream; the Ponevezher Rav sharply added that dreaming big is important, but be careful not to fall asleep.

We all face situations that seem impossibly far, irrevocably broken, and irretrievably lost. This story challenges us to dare envision a world beyond the confines of our current reality, to pray, hope, and work towards the seemingly impossible because absurdly improbable things happen all the time.

Fuse your prayers with the power of imagination – not as an escape from reality, but as a bridge from the inner world to a brighter, better world that might still be possible.

Mama Rachel Redux

5 minute read
Advanced

Unlike the other great heroes of our pantheon, our ancestor Rachel holds a unique place in our mythology. This special significance is powerfully captured by the prophet Jeremiah, whose promise of redemption we read on Rosh Hashana.

Jeremiah singles Rachel out as possessing the power to move the heavens:

כֹּה  אָמַר ה’ קוֹל בְּרָמָה נִשְׁמָע נְהִי בְּכִי תַמְרוּרִים רָחֵל מְבַכָּה עַל־בָּנֶיהָ מֵאֲנָה לְהִנָּחֵם עַל־בָּנֶיהָ כִּי אֵינֶנּוּ׃כֹּה  אָמַר ה’ מִנְעִי קוֹלֵךְ מִבֶּכִי וְעֵינַיִךְ מִדִּמְעָה כִּי יֵשׁ שָׂכָר לִפְעֻלָּתֵךְ נְאֻם־ה’ וְשָׁבוּ מֵאֶרֶץ אוֹיֵב׃וְיֵשׁ־תִּקְוָה לְאַחֲרִיתֵךְ נְאֻם־ה’ וְשָׁבוּ בָנִים לִגְבוּלָם – So said the Lord: A cry is heard in Ramah; wailing, bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted, for her children who are gone. So says the Lord: you can stop crying, your eyes from your tears; there is truly a reward for your labors. The Lord declares: They shall return from the enemy’s land! There is hope for your future. The Lord declares: Your children shall return to their country! (Jeremiah 31:15-17)

The historical backdrop of Jeremiah’s words is the disastrous reign of the Jewish King Menashe, whose father had initiated a religious revival. On his accession, Menashe backslid and reintroduced polytheistic worship across the country, particularly the Temple Mount. The Creator is enraged, and the exile is already well underway due to the degree of religious failures and betrayal.

This historical scene sets the stage for a poignant Midrash, recounted by Rashi, imagining a scene where the patriarchs and matriarchs plead before the Creator. Avraham stands before the Creator and says that only his children accepted the Torah – this argument goes nowhere. He and Yitzchak testify about the Akeida, the Binding of Isaac; this does not win the day. Yakov invokes his great trials to escape the clutches of Esau and the jaws of Lavan; if God will banish them to their doom, was it all for naught? Moshe recalls his unparalleled loyalty, fidelity, and sacrifice for God’s people; was all that just to have them fade away? Moshe curses the sun for shining at such a time of catastrophe.

Amidst these pleas, Rachel’s intervention stands out, demonstrating her unique role. She steps forward and recalls her pain, how her father made her wait, then cheated her out of her great love, yet allowed Leah in to save her from shame, which led to a life of competition, passed on to their children, paving the way to Egypt and everything that followed.

This is the backdrop of Jeremiah’s vision; Avraham, Yitzchak, Yakov, and Moshe, with all their abundant merit and greatness, can furiously plead to no avail; they are all denied.

Rachel alone has the quality to evoke the response – מִנְעִי קוֹלֵךְ מִבֶּכִי וְעֵינַיִךְ מִדִּמְעָה.

This line is powerful and heartrending. It is something our ancestors held onto – on their deportation from Jerusalem, they passed her shrine on the way to Babylon and cried and prayed. This imagery and language is the basis of countless moving songs in multiple languages in Jewish pop music.

More than anyone else in our Tradition, Rachel is the ancestor we associate with exile, pain, and redemption.

But why?

Rachel’s unique position in this narrative invites a deeper exploration of pain and its meaning; a concept echoed in modern psychology. When children are in pain, they want the pain to go away. A savvy parent can make nice and kiss the pain away, and the episode is over and forgotten.

In contrast, when mature people are in pain, they ask why. When we ask why, they don’t necessarily mean the big global and universal why; we understand that the universe is much bigger than any of us. Moshe asked for this insight, which God said was beyond human comprehension. When we ask why, it is a search for meaning.

Legendary psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankel shared this great insight with us – a person with a why to live for can bear almost any how.

It’s intuitive and easy to understand. What would a normal and healthy parent be willing to endure to save their child? Almost anything.

What this suggests, then, is that more than we want our pain to stop, we want our pain to matter; we desperately desire the redemption of pain, and this remains the case even once the physical pains have stopped – some of life’s greatest pains are the ones that didn’t matter, the ones that were pointless, futile, unnecessary. The psychological injury doesn’t heal as quickly as the physical injury.

As the popular aphorism puts it, there is no pain, no gain, or as another one puts it when a door closes, a window opens. We understand that progress or gain can be associated with pain and that pain that leads to gain is worthwhile. The discomfort of childbirth is proximate to the gain of having a child; we are comfortable with pains that carry us forward.

From the stories of our ancestors, Rachel stands apart from our ancestors. Significant challenges characterize our ancestor’s lives; that’s why they’re our ancestors. And yet, at the end of their days, they dies full and complete – וְאַבְרָהָם זָקֵן בָּא בַּיָּמִים / שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה / וַיִּגְוַע יִצְחָק וַיָּמת וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל־עַמָּיו זָקֵן וּשְׂבַע יָמִים וַיִּקְבְּרוּ אֹתוֹ עֵשָׂו וְיַעֲקֹב בָּנָיו /  וַיְחִי יַעֲקֹב. When Moshe, Ahron, and Miriam die, they die with no anguish or suffering; it is a smooth and peaceful, even loving, transition – מיתת נשיקה. These greats live challenging lives and rise to greatness, but in the fullness of time and before the end, they live to see the culmination of their journey; everything has come full circle, and they die content, fulfilled, and satisfied.

In contrast, Rachel does not die with such fulfillment or satisfaction. She dies bleeding and in pain, on the back of a life of many pains. The pain of a cheating father, cheating her out of her great love and cheating her out of happiness and a comfortable future. She knows the pain of self-sacrifice for her sister, giving up the future to spare her shame. She endures the pain of endless competition. She bears the pain of childlessness.

And then she dies in childbirth. Not at home, not somewhere safe, not somewhere significant; just on the side of the road, on the way, in between places, or in other words, the middle of nowhere.

Unlike every other ancestor, Rachel stands apart as the archetype and embodiment of unredeemed pain. It’s not fair. The defining theme of her life is that things are not fair. When Avraham, Yitzchak, Yakov, and Moshe had their great tests to point to, those trials ended, but Rachel never did; she lived with her sacrifice until her dying breath.

Unfairness speaks to us at the deepest, most pre-conscious level; without being taught, children recognize when something is not fair and will say so. Scientists have shown that chimpanzees and dogs recognize and are agitated by unfairness.

The notion of unredeemed pain is not fair, and it speaks to us. It cannot be allowed to stand; it must be corrected. It moves us in a way that is so tangible and real that it is perhaps what compels God as well. R’ Chaim Shmulevitz poignantly suggests that we should disagree with the prophet; Rachel must not stop crying!

Drawing together these ancient insights and contemporary understandings, we arrive at a profound conclusion.

Pain and unfairness are often parts of our existence, and it is imperative to recognize the power of empathy towards ourselves and others – acknowledging Rachel’s pain is the turning point in this scene. At times, finding meaning in suffering can arguably be more crucial than escaping the pain.

It is unconscionable that our pain goes unseen, unredeemed, not mattering. It cannot be. Sometimes, it only hurts for a while, and sometimes, it never resolves, and the pain persists with no apparent meaning or payoff. This compelling sentiment is intimately associated with Rachel.

This is further echoed by the prophet Malachi, whose words close out the Tanach, the last prophecy; there will be ultimate reconciliation between all things – וְהֵשִׁיב לֵב־אָבוֹת עַל־בָּנִים וְלֵב בָּנִים עַל־אֲבוֹתָם.

The prophets reassure us that there is a divine counter for every tear and every scrape; the tears are not forever; redemption will come for Rachel’s children, and they will all come home together in the end. The potential for a brighter future always remains regardless of the depth of current struggles.

Today, we might be sad, but one day soon, all will be made right.

High Holy Days Redux

6 minute read
Advanced

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
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there is a simple yet profound teaching here.

To learn from mistakes.

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

There is deep wisdom in recalling failure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calm Among Chaos

3 minute read
Straightforward

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

But what was there to fight about in the desert?

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

There wasn’t much to fight about.

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

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

How would you respond to such public and baseless humiliation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remembering simple things in difficult moments is not simple.

It’s wise.

Nostalgia Redux

5 minute read
Advanced

Life comes at you fast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not true.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what’s our excuse?

Banish the ghosts or redeem them.

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

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

Truth Redux

5 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are those everyday white lies a violation of Divine truth?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never Give Up

3 minute read
Straightforward

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
Straightforward

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 all night is the same anxiety that bolts you straight out of bed come morning.

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 Mashiach, you wouldn’t be getting any sleep.

And yet, in this telling, the spiritual awakening of the Jewish People and humanity 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 the 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 in this way, establishing for all generations that you can be late, tired, and still half asleep but still be invited and expected to attend the awakening at Mount Sinai.

You might believe you’re not ready, and you might even be right, but readiness isn’t a requirement.

What’s more, the sense of tiredness and unpreparedness was not just an internal sensation of their bodies and consciousness; it manifested externally in the real world as well. When they woke and showed up at the foot of the mountain, they encountered an environment shrouded with darkness, cloud, and fog – חֹשֶׁךְ / עָנָן / עֲרָפֶל.

The darkness and fog at Sinai are the uncertainty, mystery, and awe that often accompany profound spiritual experiences. The Chiddushei HaRim teaches that this is not a potential obstacle to our spiritual experience that must simply be 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 forward on the journey of our spirit is often obscured; 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. It was dark and foggy, but they were there, ready to engage and participate, without being perfectly prepared. Both these 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.

We, too, can show up and engage with our spirituality, even in the face of uncertainty and mystery.

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

Nobody’s Perfect

4 minute read
Advanced

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
Intermediate

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 this, not that, fast then, do this, you can’t do that, wear this, you can’t wear that. And it goes on and on.

Why can’t we just do whatever 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 where everyone is a barbaric savage who pillages and plunders. In Noah and the Flood, we see a world without rules, which leads to chaos and the collapse of civilization, and the unmaking of the world.

No serious person believes that radical anarchy would be sustainable, a total free-for-all where Darwinian 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.

Unanswered Prayers

4 minute read
Straightforward

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 that all existence is wasteful. 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. Friction is a result of existing, where all effort takes a toll, the transaction tax of all things. In this conception, the Izhbitzer teaches, waste is not a bug; it’s a feature we need to reorient ourselves to.

Fruit and nuts have peels and shells, which we consider waste in terms of our goal of what’s edible; yet they’re fully functional in fulfilling their natural purpose of protecting the fruit. 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.

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; all energy and matter eventually wastes.

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.

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.

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that there are places, people, and things that come into our lives and shape us for better and for worse; you can only move forward from the place and person you used to be. Those hard-won lessons are precious and something to be thankful for; uplifting of ashes. Be thankful, and let them go gently, so you don’t get stuck; disposal of ashes. Hold on to the things that deserve to be held on to, but hold on out of a renewed commitment to today and tomorrow – not because of inherited commitments from the past.

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.

The Family Trees

3 minute read
Straightforward

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 detailing the Mishkan, with meticulous and exhaustive details of the planning, 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 gems. If you had to say the one main thing the Mishkan was made of, you might say gold, used throughout the project, from finishes to furnishings.

But it’s not.

The Mishkan had no foundation and no roof, just curtains and drapes. The only solid structure came from its walls, which were made of wood:

וְעָשִׂיתָ אֶת־הַקְּרָשִׁים לַמִּשְׁכָּן עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים עֹמְדִים – You shall make the planks for the Tabernacle of acacia wood, upright. (26:15)

The people contributed precious metals and gems they’d brought from Egypt. But they were in the desert; where were they getting wood from?

Rashi highlights that the Torah typically refers to everyday items and general contributions in other instances uses but in the case of wood, uses the definite article – the planks – 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 visited his grandfather Avraham’s home, 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 and monuments 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 trees that connected them to the roots of their history and would allow them a glimpse of his hopeful vision of a better, brighter future.

But hope for the future isn’t necessarily specific to trees; Yakov could have left them anything.

He chose to leave trees because trees symbolize life and 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 ancestors 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, the 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 might see gold everywhere, but gold is just the 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.

The boards must be assembled upright, not upside down, in the direction of the tree’s original growth, with the lower part of the board corresponding to the lower part of the tree. Even though the board is symmetrical, this law extends to every mitzvah that uses plants, such as Lulav and Esrog. R’ Joseph Soloveitchik notes that this instruction is a universal law; the way to grow something is with its feet planted on the ground with its head, heart, and spine aligned straight up a straight line, physically, spiritually, and emotionally aligned. You can’t put something together upside-down and expect it to work right; things must be upright to grow correctly.

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 fulfills 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 are priceless treasures.

One Is Plenty

3 minute read
Straightforward

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 was and what he was about – someone who showed 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 was still there every day, only now 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 staying power to withstand the formidable challenge of swimming against a powerful current, resisting prevailing norms 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 recital of history but an assurance for the future that this sort of person will not bow – 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. The unnamed Jewish hero can be anyone; in that 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 isn’t much, but in truth, one can be enough. 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
Straightforward

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.

Our sages teach that righteous people value their money more than their own bodies. R’ Meir Shapiro suggests that is because righteous people know how much they can do with it; how many poor families they can feed, and how many communal institutions they can support.

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
Straightforward

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 would be covered by 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 shows 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 will always 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 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
Straightforward

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 understand this phenomenon as the ultimate representation of the power over our livelihood and sustenance – Parnassa.

It’s a prayer people take extremely seriously as a ritual for merit related to our livelihood, and with good reason. Financial insecurity is one of a human’s most elemental and basic fears. It originates in the subconscious; every living creature fears 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.

Some people believe in saying the prayer as the golden ticket to 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 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.

From the time 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. We control our output but not the outcome; 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.

The book of Jeremiah tells of how the people neglected the Torah in favor of work, believing they would have nothing to eat if they didn’t work relentlessly. Jeremiah held up the jug of manna to remind them that the Creator does not require much to work with to sustain us – כִּי לֹא עַל־הַלֶּחֶם לְבַדּוֹ יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם כִּי עַל־כּל־מוֹצָא פִי ה’ יִחְיֶה הָאָדָם

The best response to uncertainty is not a wild grasp at certainty; it is being fully present in the moment. Step up, survey the landscape, and make decisions even when uncertain. One of the great lessons of faith is the understanding that everything is going to be okay, even if we don’t know how.

Reciting the prayer or reading the story affirms where our security comes from: Above. It affirms what we must do daily – do the work to care for 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 give you something some of the richest can only ever dream 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

5 minute read
Straightforward

One of the most enduring and iconic scenes in the Torah is the episode of the burning bush.

It is noteworthy for the obviously supernatural, but it is also 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 into motion that permanently shape human civilization for the remainder of human history to this day.

Moshe had fled Egypt as a fugitive and had built a new identity and life as a shepherd in Midian. One day in the wilderness, he chased a stray lamb and had an encounter with 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 of 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.

In our experience, fire requires fuel to combust; that’s what generates flames. There is no such thing as burning without fuel because fire and burning are inseparable; they are the same thing.

A bush that doesn’t burn is cryptic, yet the symbol is deliberate; God doesn’t act gratuitously or because it sounds cool.

Why does God choose the form of 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-identifies 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; we can only understand what God does. This is perhaps symbolized by the fire that was not sustained by the bush; God’s existence doesn’t depend on anything or anyone external, is fully self-sustaining, and is the source of all energy in the universe.

The burning bush is also 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, a fire that doesn’t seem to consume the bush – מַדּוּעַ לֹא־יִבְעַר הַסְּנֶה.

The Zohar suggests that God’s message through the unusual properties of the burning bush is that fire will not consume the bush, and the fires of exile will not destroy Jewish people. With God’s protection, they would not be consumed. As the thornbush is the least of the plants, the Jewish People have historically occupied a low position in Egypt, and the burning fire is a symbol of oppression. The bush burning yet not being consumed symbolized that the oppressed people would be hurt but not destroyed by their enemies and that their hostility would be ultimately unsuccessful and fruitless.

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, ignoring and pretending away the pain of whatever 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 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 that the devastating pain of his people falls short of total ruin. 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.

This encounter also reveals where God can be found. God is to be found in the wilderness, in the void, and in the middle of nowhere – בּמִּדְבָּר; in the middle of destruction, in the burning pain of exile – בֹּעֵר בָּאֵשׁ; and also nature and the low places – מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה. In other words, this symbol deconstructs any preconceived notions about God’s inaccessibility.

God tells Moshe to remove his shoes because the place he stands is holy soil; the Chafetz Chaim teaches that this statement is universal and stands for all people at all times – God can be found within every and any moment. 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 here and now.

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.

Resurgence Redux

4 minute read
Straightforward

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.

As the Chozeh of Lublin teaches, it is the awareness and recognition of downfall that triggers the possibility of redemption – אַחֲרֵי נִמְכַּר גְּאֻלָּה תִּהְיֶה־לּוֹ.

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 rise 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.

The Seder night embeds this profound lesson into a physical ritual with bitter herbs, the memory of our ancestors’ suffering; in the bitterness and inability to tolerate suffering any longer, the Chiddushei Harim recognizes the genesis and awakening of redemption, the beginning of the journey towards freedom. Just by identifying the problem, you are well on the way to a solution; as our sages teach, a question well asked is already half answered.

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

4 minute read
Straightforward

One of the foundational skills children learn early on is how to read a clock.

What time is it?

It’s not simply a question of hours and minutes; there is something deeper to the question. If you know what time it is, you also know what to do. It’s morning, wake up and eat breakfast before school or work. It’s nighttime, time to wind down and go to sleep. The time of day, the time of year, the seasons, and the calendar all 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 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 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 many mitzvos, so one 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 today. What’s more, slavery isn’t just an abstract legal status or even just a phenomenon that still occurs in some dark corner of the world; it’s also a state of mind, body, and soul that can happen to anyone. Thankfully, we don’t have much primary lived with the experience criminal aspect of actual human trafficking, but if you’ve ever felt helpless, powerless, 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. The sense of futility, powerlessness, and stuckness from being burnt out or overwhelmed is poison. 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.

One preeminent historian has observed that the worst thing about history is that people try to correct the past. People try to save the past, which is impossible; you cannot go back to the past and save the people there or prevent past injuries. We only have the present circumstances and perhaps a hopeful look to the future.

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. As R’ Hanoch Heinoch of Alexander teaches, we can attach ourselves to vitality by being present – וְאַתֶּם הַדְּבֵקִים ה’ אֱלֹקיכֶם חַיִּים כֻּלְּכֶם הַיּוֹם.

The Torah often speaks to us in terms of here and now – וְעַתָּה / הַיּוֹם. Our sages take these 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 – הַיּוֹם אִם־בְּקֹלוֹ תִשְׁמָעוּ. As R’ Baruch of Mezhibozh teaches, forget the past; right now, be a Jew – וְעַתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל!  The Chafetz Chaim takes this to be a reference to introspection – וְעַתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל מָה ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ שֹׁאֵל מֵעִמָּךְ – what does this moment require?

It follows that our sages wisely guide us to seize every moment; if not now, when? As the Chiddushei Harim observes, every “now” has a different duty, calling for some new, renewed, or entirely other choice or deed. As R’ Ahron of Karlin points out, each moment has its resolution; each moment of existence is incomparably unique, never existing before in the history of Creation, and never to be repeated before becoming irretrievably lost forever.

As the Vilna Gaon points out, Moshe speaks in the present tense to offer us all the power to choose – רְאֵה אָנכִי נתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה. Rashi quotes a Midrash that every day, we should perceive our experience of Judaism as brand new – הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ מְצַוְּךָ.

Even once a person has resolved to change, they can still be anchored by the weight of their wrongdoing. The Shinover Rav suggests that although the past can’t be undone, it can be creatively reinterpreted, in the way Yosef reframes a troubled past with his brothers to relieve them of their guilt – וְעַתָּה אַל־תֵּעָצְבוּ וְאַל־יִחַר בְּעֵינֵיכֶם כִּי־מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה כִּי לְמִחְיָה שְׁלָחַנִי אֱלֹהִים לִפְנֵיכֶם. What happened then wasn’t so great, but that brought us to where we are, here and now, and you can only move forward from where you are!

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 symbolic 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 is an instruction to live by and with the power of change and renewal. It is a mitzvah to live presently with this moment and make it count.

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
Straightforward

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.

A World of Kindness

3 minute read
Straightforward

Aside from the obvious quality of our great ancestors as figures we look up to and learn from, our sages teach that specific individuals came to embody certain essential attributes. Even before mysticism, our sages associate Avraham with the virtue of kindness, so much so that he came to be recognized as the avatar, conduit, embodiment, and manifestation of God’s kindness in the world.

That God’s kindness is everywhere is arguably one of Judaism’s first principles. When God explains his attributes to Moshe, only one of them is “abundant,” kindness – וְרַב־חֶסֶד. The first blessing of the Amida praises kindness as God’s predominant form of interaction with the universe – גּוֹמֵל חֲסָדִים טוֹבִים וְקוֹנֵה הַכֹּל. It follows that Judaism’s first ancestor is the archetype of kindness, and the first blessing is named for him – מגן אברהם.

In mysticism, there is a paradox at the heart of our basic reality called the bread of shame – נהמא דכיסופא. It would be a degrading handout for souls to remain in Heaven, basking in the ethereal light for eternity. Our souls are placed into bodies so we can earn our piece of Heaven, and it’s no longer a handout. But the thing is, the notion of earning anything at all is an illusion – the system itself is a gift, the most significant gift of all – עולם חסד יבנה.

As the Mesilas Yesharim teaches, God’s entire purpose in Creation was to have a counterpart with whom to share the gift of God’s goodness. R’ Yerucham Levovitz asks us to recognize the kindness in every moment, from the air we breathe to the grocery store selling oranges – the fact it is a for-profit transaction does not change that the store objectively performs a kind deed by giving you something you want.

Avraham understood that we live in a world of kindness, but the people of Canaan did not share those values, so he sent his steward, Eliezer, to his ancestral homeland to find a suitable match for Yitzchak, his son, and heir. When Eliezer arrives, he prays for God’s kindness to grace his mission:

וַיֹּאמַר  ה’ אֱלֹקי אֲדֹנִי אַבְרָהָם הַקְרֵה־נָא לְפָנַי הַיּוֹם וַעֲשֵׂה־חֶסֶד עִם אֲדֹנִי אַבְרָהָם – And he said, “Lord, God of my master Avraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal kindly with my master Avraham.” (24:12)

The Midrash highlights how people from the school of Avraham, the master of kindness, still look to God for further kindness. God’s kindness is essential; our sages say we’d fail at everything without God’s help.

The Beis Yisrael notes how in praying for kindness, Eliezer channeled his teacher and master by checking his ego. Feeling arrogant, confident, or self-righteous about such a sacred mission would be easy. It would be natural! He was sent by Avraham, one of the greatest humans to ever live, to find a suitable match – holy work – for Yitzchak, another one of our giants, to manifest the future greatness of Israel, bearers of the Torah, objectives of all Creation. Each element alone would be enough to get carried away, and rightly so!

But the way of Avraham is not to get ahead of yourself, holding onto groundedness and humility come what may – וְאָנֹכִי עָפָר וָאֵפֶר.

The Chiddushei Harim says that Avraham was a good teacher; Eliezer didn’t harp on his master’s merits and accomplishments and didn’t approach God with a sense of claim or entitlement. Indeed, one of the most shocking discoveries along your spiritual journey might be the realization that you don’t have a claim on the Creator; you’ve already been the recipient of abundant kindness any way you look.

But fortunately, God’s kindness is readily available, and God’s preferred mode of interaction with our universe, however masked it may be – חֶסֶד ה’ מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ.

Avraham doesn’t just teach us the virtue of bestowing kindness on others; Avraham teaches the virtue of receiving kindness and recognizing the Creator as the Source of it all.

You are a grateful person, hopefully, thankful for your health, your family, and the things that get you by. You have been blessed!

But this story contains another lesson – even the spiritual world of Torah and mitzvos is a gift we must appreciate and continue to ask for, no matter how far we have already come.

Fear Redux; Faith Redux

6 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

But is that so true?

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

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

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

This is a complete defense of feeling our fears.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take Responsibility

4 minute read
Straightforward

One of the core themes of the High Holy Days is God’s capacity for and predisposition towards forgiveness, culminating in the day designated and named for forgiveness, Yom Kippur.

But as much as we believe God will forgive anyone, we also believe in the prerequisite requirement to show up and take responsibility. As R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches, forgiveness can only exist where repentance exists, and repentance can only exist where responsibility exists.

Responsibility is a uniquely human quality; it suggests a duty or obligation that can sometimes be burdensome and make you uncomfortable. The Rambam notes that reward and punishment only make sense if humans have moral agency and free choice, or in other words, responsibility. Without choice, it would be unfair and wrong for God to hold you responsible for bad things you did because you were incapable of choosing otherwise; responsibility only exists alongside the ability to decide how to act.

Taking responsibility is the theme of one of the most prominent prayers of the High Holy Days, as well as the span of days before and in between, the Viduy prayer, where everyone publicly confesses a litany of misdemeanors, sins, and wrongdoings while they beat their hearts. There is something beautiful about the entire Jewish people publicly taking responsibility, acknowledging their failures and weaknesses together, and publicly undertaking to do better, even if you’re alone or with total strangers.

It’s beautiful enough that many communities have the custom of singing the confession prayer in tune. It’s not the most upbeat song, but there is an element of happiness and joy in confessing our failings.

The confession isn’t a performative theatrical ritual; honestly acknowledging that you did something wrong is the only way you can begin to fix it. Beyond being a key technical component of Teshuva, confession is how we take responsibility.

As R’ Shlomo Farhi reminds us, taking responsibility transforms how a slight is observed. If you go to a shopping center with piles of rubble, you won’t go back, but you’d feel differently if the store hung signs asking you to excuse their appearance while they undergo renovations scheduled for completion by April. The acknowledgment makes you more patient and forgiving that the experience was below expectations. 

By confessing to a list of severe transgressions that largely – hopefully – don’t apply to you, perhaps it makes it easier for you to acknowledge some of your genuine shortcomings and makes you a little more empathetic to those of the people in your life. We’re all human; like you, we have all made mistakes.

But perhaps beyond taking responsibility with the Jewish People, it’s also partly a confession of responsibility for the Jewish People; our sages teach that the Jewish People are responsible for each other, and we confess in the collective plural – אשמנו.

Who have we let down? For every lost soul, hurt soul, at-risk teen, and struggling family – how do communal structures and systems enable these outcomes, what does the community do or not do, and what can we do differently and hopefully better next time? Think whose pain you’re not seeing or hearing – בגדנו.

We ought to consider the advice we have given over the years, what guidance our leaders and institutions have given our brothers and sisters, and evaluate any negative consequences as part of our responsibility for others – יעצנו רע.

It can only be different or better if you take responsibility and do something about it. Not only is not knowing not an excuse; errors, omissions, and mistakes over things that aren’t your fault are a feature of the confession prayer itself –  על חטא שחטאנו ביודעים ובלא יודעים / בבלי דעת / בשגגה.

If whatever is wrong isn’t your fault, then you can’t do anything differently next time, and nothing can change; it would be impossible to move on and heal from anything wrong with you. You can only do better next time if you can take responsibility.

If you’ve seen two kids playing rough until they get hurt, you know it doesn’t matter if it was a mistake; head injuries don’t require intention, and nor do the things we all do that wind up hurting others.

And if you don’t take responsibility, you are performing empty confession theater, which, with a large scoop of irony, is also a part of the confession prayer – ועל חטא שחטאנו לפניך בוידוי פה.

Accept responsibility for your actions. Be accountable for your results. Take ownership of your mistakes – including the ones that weren’t your fault.

There’s nothing easy about taking responsibility for yourself – it requires enormous reserves of honesty and strength to confront the realization that you are the one who’s been holding yourself back this whole time.

When you take responsibility for yourself, you can stop relying on others to take responsibility for you. You should want to take responsibility for yourself, your life, your family, your friends, your community, and all the people who need you.

A group’s long-term success depends to a large extent on its leader’s willingness to take responsibility for failure; our sages praise people whose words God concurs with, citing the time Moshe intervened to save the Jewish People after the Golden Calf, acknowledging his people’s responsibility for the calamity, and taking responsibility for protecting them:

סְלַח־נָא לַעֲון הָעָם הַזֶּה כְּגֹדֶל חַסְדֶּךָ וְכַאֲשֶׁר נָשָׂאתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה מִמִּצְרַיִם וְעַד־הֵנָּהוַיֹּאמֶר הסָלַחְתִּי כִּדְבָרֶךָ׃ – “Please pardon the sin of this people according to Your great kindness, as You have forgiven this people ever since Egypt.” And God said, “I have pardoned, as you have asked.” (14:19,20)

There is a good reason to sing the confession, and it’s the same reason we sing that repentance, charity, and prayer have the power to change the future.

The moment you take responsibility for everything is the moment you can change anything.

Sharing the Load

5 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never Enough

4 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where is Moshe’s winning argument?

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

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

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

Our sages associate Korach with another famous villain – Haman. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pure Priorities

5 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But perhaps it’s something like this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Power to Become

3 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

The Haggadah states this in the affirmative; God promised to rescue the Jewish People, and God followed through. The Haggadah then states this in the negative; if God had not followed through, the Jewish People would not have been rescued.

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

The first statement highlights a superficial aspect of redemption; the Jewish People were undergoing immense difficulty, and God saved them. But perhaps the second statement adds another dimension; if God hadn’t saved them, they would have been fundamentally stuck – מְשֻׁעְבָּדִים.

Millions of African people were enslaved and brought to America in more recent history. While slavery has been outlawed for generations, a certain stuckness has persisted long after slavery has become history, at least partly as a result of disconnection from their heritage. People don’t know where they come from, inhibiting them from accessing the fullness of who they are. 

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

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

The Shem miShmuel explains that the power of the Seder night is that its story of freedom on a national level offers us the opportunity to become free of the tendencies and troubles that hound us on a personal level. With the power to change, hard times no longer need to be so scary; they too, shall pass.

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

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

In the Heart of Darkness

2 minute read
Straightforward

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

They got so caught up in the Seder discussion that the night got away from them, and they missed the sunrise.

But it’s tough to miss the sunrise. However engrossed you are in what you’re doing, you can tell whether it’s day or night without thinking.

What is the point of this story?

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

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

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

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

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

First Steps

2 minute read
Straightforward

On the Shabbos before the Exodus, the Jewish People designated one lamb per household to be the first Korban Pesach and kept it in the home for a few days before Pesach. They would slaughter the lamb and smear the blood on their doors to identify their homes as Jewish, and their families would be saved from the destructive forces in play on the night of the tenth Plague.

On the Shabbos HaGadol, the Shabbos before Pesach, we honor our ancestors who followed the command to set aside a lamb.

But it doesn’t align with the way we commemorate things in Judaism. Designating the lamb was a one-off instruction in Egypt; it was never performed again, and we don’t actually do anything to reenact it.

If designating the lamb was small enough that we don’t have a similar ritual, what was the point of the ritual at all?

R’ Shlomo Twersky highlights that while a person can be defined by their aspirations, the kind of person they want to be, a prerequisite step before that is deciding what they don’t want to be.

Designating the lamb was not a symbolic indication of their intent to eat it; our sages teach that lambs were sacred in Egypt, meaning that designating a lamb for sacrifice was also a form of sacrilege to Egyptian deities, upholding the as yet unspoken second of the Ten Commandments – to have no other gods.

As R’ Shlomo Farhi explains, it might have been a small gesture, but it was significant because it marked a rejection of Egyptian religion. In a sense, the second commandment to reject other gods precedes the first commandment, awareness of the One God. It is insufficient to add the Creator to the pantheon of gods you believe in; you need to believe in One Creator and no others; designating the lamb was a small gesture with enormous significance. It only follows that for us, the ritual would be empty. We already believe in the One God; we don’t believe in other powers. 

As the Sfas Emes notes, setting the lamb aside was a one-off instruction in Egypt, never imitated later on in any commandments; it is not the action that we need to remember. Instead, we remember the symbolic move the brave Jewish People took, a tentative but concrete and tangible first step. 

Shabbos HaGadol also has an element of repentance out of love. Pesach demonstrates the loving relationship between God and the Jewish People; God will act for us before we deserve it. The Jewish People earned eternity and redemption with a token gesture, but a token gesture that gave a foretaste of everything to follow.

Our sages suggest that if a person creates an opening the size of a needle, God can expand the breakthrough into a grand ballroom. Designating the lamb wasn’t a big deal at all, but it doesn’t exist in isolation. In the context of our history, that first baby step meant everything because everything followed from that first step. 

A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.

Isolation Redux

4 minute read
Straightforward

When a person is officially diagnosed with the skin condition the Torah calls tzaraas, the Torah imposes a mandatory seven-day quarantine; the person must leave town and live in solitary isolation. Anyone who lived through COVID has primary experience of isolation and quarantine. However difficult and unpleasant, it has the valuable function of attempting to stop contagion and transmission, saving lives in the aggregate. 

Yet our sages teach that this skin condition resulted from gossip and slander, which is to say that it wasn’t a contagious or transmissible condition.

So why are quarantine and isolation appropriate?

Perhaps isolation is an appropriate measure for the wrongdoing of harmful speech. 

Language distinguishes humans from animals and is the tool that has built and compounded human civilization. More than smarts or strength, it is arguably humanity’s most powerful tool to control and influence the world around us.

Gossip has a positive social utility, exposing genuine threats among us, like abusers and molesters. That kind of gossip is not only permitted but arguably mandatory – תועלת; but most gossip doesn’t meet that standard. Most gossip is destructive speech that puts others down, modifying bonds and cohesion in an imagined social hierarchy, subtly eroding people’s relationships in the perceptions of others. By lowering somebody’s reputation, you can feel superior in gaining status relative to the unknowing victim.  

So gossip quietly but very literally tears apart the fabric of your community and social circle by planting divisive and harmful ideas and impressions, sabotaging trust and relationships.

If that is correct, then quarantine is highly appropriate – society needs protection, not from the disease, but from the person.

And perhaps there’s something else to it as well.

Beyond helping society, perhaps it helps the gossiper as well. They have subverted their precious power of language for nefarious purposes, and isolation from others may help a person who gossips recalibrate how they communicate, reorienting them to their place in society when they rejoin.

Human beings are social creatures; our power of communication is what makes us human, so losing the power of communication is literally dehumanizing. Deprived of human interaction, stimulus, and activity, a person’s mind must fill the void of boredom and sensory deprivation. Solitary isolation isn’t a trivial thing; the prevailing view holds that, generally speaking, more than 15 days in isolation qualifies as torture; it’s not hard to imagine why. 

Moreover, this isn’t the only time the Torah talks about isolation as a punishment; the Torah describes how the penultimate plague of darkness was experienced by its victims, primarily as a form of isolation:

לֹא־רָאוּ אִישׁ אֶת־אָחִיו וְלֹא־קָמוּ אִישׁ מִתַּחְתָּיו – People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was… (10:23)

Presumably, Egyptian adults weren’t like children who are scared of the dark; it’s not just that it felt like blindness, it’s that their worlds were isolated, completely cut off from each other – לֹא־רָאוּ אִישׁ אֶת־אָחִיו.

The Chiddushei HaRim highlights that this isolation was the worst punishment God could inflict on Egypt, short only of death itself – that people could not see each other. In a very real way, recognizing another human and moving ourselves to help them cuts to the very heart of what it means to be human, and we should take that notion seriously. Our sages go so far as to say that someone in isolation is effectively considered dead to the world.

Humans need each other; it’s an existential design feature of being human – לֹא־טוֹב הֱיוֹת הָאָדָם לְבַדּוֹ.

Our most fundamental nature, the root of our behavior, is generosity, empathy, courage, and kindness. Isolation exposes what it means to be human by stripping those things away.

Perhaps by being alone for seven days, a person who gossips can appreciate their ability to communicate in a new light, cultivating a new understanding of the value of community for when they return.

Human beings are social creatures; make sure you use your precious gift of communication to build, not break. But some breaking can be constructive; not all gossip is destructive; some forms of gossip are not only permitted, but required.

A good rule of thumb that should only fail rarely is that if there is a credible threat to communal safety and wellbeing, it is better to expose the threat than suppress it. Someone’s potential status of innocence should never trump everyone else’s certain and definite status of safety.

Suppressing public awareness of abusers only protects and serves the interests of abusers. Exposing them is worthy of pride, not shame; utilizing gossip correctly serves to effectively isolate abusers from the general population and protects vulnerable people in our communities.

When there are dangerous folks people need to be careful around, remember that you can serve the highest of purposes in spreading the word.

But in almost every other instance, there’s a relationship tax; the friction that inevitably results when two humans interact. If you want people to be in your life, it’s important to overlook minor frictions such as occasional misunderstandings, small disagreements, differences in preferences or habits, and unintentional mistakes. The law of the metzora mirrors human interaction; people who engage in gossip and slander can often experience loneliness and isolation, the consequence of people keeping their distance in order to protect themselves from drama and conflict.

To have other people in your life, you have to be willing to endure and ignore a certain amount of friction.

Randomness Redux

8 minute read
Advanced

The Purim story unfolded over a protracted period, but we celebrate the holiday on the fourteenth of Adar. The holiday is unusual in the sense that, with most holidays, an event happens on a random date, and we celebrate the date to mark the anniversary of the event; the date is incidental to the event. That’s not quite the case with Purim, whose story revolves around a specific date; the events are almost incidental to the date.

The antagonist, Haman, decided to mandate a legal genocide, a one-day purge against the Jewish People. He had it all figured out; he’d bribe the king, draft the law, and execute it with the king’s seal. That’s bad, he’s bad; it’s easy to understand. But in a puzzling turn of events, he wasn’t sure about the effective date for his new law, so he cast a lottery to determine the right day and settled on the fourteenth of Adar – עַל־כֵּן קָרְאוּ לַיָּמִים הָאֵלֶּה פוּרִים עַל־שֵׁם הַפּוּר.

Casting lots is distantly removed from our primary experience, but it is a core feature of the story.

Why did Haman cast a lottery?

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

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

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

Governments don’t assign effective dates to legislation randomly. Usually, the effective date of a law is whenever it becomes relevant – it would be relevant to ban a terror group overnight; it would only be appropriate change the tax code years in advance so that everyone has adequate notice.

Unlike the tax code, genocide doesn’t have a relevant date. Genocide this week is the same as genocide next summer. There isn’t a fairness question that requires randomness to resolve; any given date is already equally random and fair. Haman didn’t need a lottery for fair selection or random scheduling.

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

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

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

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

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

Far more sinister, this is the kind of lottery Haman cast; cleromancy, seeking divine approval for his genocide. As Rashi notes, Haman wasn’t simply consulting his sorcery for which moment to start; but which moment he might succeed. The Purim holiday is named for Haman’s lottery of cleromancy and divination, his attempt to predict a divinely sanctioned moment for his plot, and arguably, his attempt to abdicate any choice or responsibility in the matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Purim story is filled with chance and coincidental events and encounters, like Mordechai foiling an assassination attempt, leading to outcomes of such significance that it is plain to readers that God orchestrated them. God’s Hand is not directly perceptible to Mordechai and Esther; but we can see it in lucky events that weave the story together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But you won’t ever know that sitting in the room, staring at the paper, scratching your head, searching for the answer.

The Heart of Worship

3 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Come As You Are

3 minute read
Straightforward

We often think of holiness or sanctity as the hallowed privilege of a rare few, the people who have made it, the inner circle of those who are better and wiser than us. They are the ones who can pray for us, guide us, and bring healing. Sometimes that’s true; other times, that view is propounded by self-righteous, holier-than-thou folks who self-serve by making us feel that way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What We Do With Broken Things

5 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sacred Space

6 minute read
Intermediate

If you ask people what the defining traits of religion are, holiness will be on most people’s lists. 

Holiness is a shorthand code word everyone recognizes, and we sagely and solemnly nod our heads. Yes, yes, holiness, of course!

But what is holiness? 

We sometimes think of holiness as something we do on our own. Withdrawing from the world, from the joys and vices of life, fasting, going into the woods, or perhaps profound meditations on lofty metaphysics, retreating deep into the recesses of the mind.

There may be substance to some or even all of those things, but that’s not how the Torah talks about holiness.

The Torah talks about withdrawing in part and designating times and spaces; the Hebrew word for holiness means to designate or separate – קדושה.

But a critical element is missing from the word’s everyday use. Most appearances of holiness throughout the Torah describe it as a function of plurality, something we do with others together.

When the Torah asks us to be holy, Rashi notes that the instruction is given to everyone together – דַּבֵּר אֶל־כּל־עֲדַת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ. Moreover, it follows this instruction with commands to be charitable, fair, and honest in dealing with others. As the Chasam Sofer notes, the Torah’s conception of holiness is one of connection and interdependence, not disconnection and asceticism.

When the time comes to build the Mishkan, everyone must come together for God to be found in their work:

וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם – And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them. (25:8)

Standing at the hallowed Mount Sinai, on the cusp of receiving the Torah, God tells the gathered people their overarching mission:

וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ־לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ – You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation… (19:6)

Beyond the Torah explicitly speaking about holiness as a function of togetherness – תִּהְיוּ / וְעָשׂוּ – our Sages emphasize the central importance of the Jewish People coming together at Har Sinai – וַיִּחַן־שָׁם יִשְׂרָאֵל נֶגֶד הָהָר / כאיש אחד בלב אחד.

Almost all sacred gatherings require a group, from prayers and sacrifices to reading the Torah and weddings – כל דבר שבקדושה לא יהא פחות מעשרה.

So why is holiness so tightly linked to togetherness?

In the Torah’s formative story of the emergency of humanity, it describes the first man’s existential aloneness as bad – לֹא־טוֹב הֱיוֹת הָאָדָם לְבַדּוֹ. Being alone and doing things alone is terrible; being together and doing things together is good.

Our prophets and sages talk about the soul as the thing that animates our consciousness, the part of you that makes you uniquely you, and they speak of soul fragments directly connected to God – חלק אלוק ממעל. 

But when we come together, we become whole, which is why holiness is linked with connection – כנסת ישראל.

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that if the Creation story is about the space God makes for us, the Mishkan narrative is about the space we make for God. Noting that the Torah spends a lot more time discussing the Mishkan than Creation, R’ Sacks teaches that the Torah is far more interested in what we do for God than what God does for us.

Far more esoterically, Chassidus speaks of tzimtzum, the space or vacuum God separates from God’s fullness so that existence can have an independent existence and reality. But maybe when we build a Mishkan, a separate return space, we form our own inverse or parallel tzimtzum, which we can only do in our enhanced state of togetherness.

In the external world, it starts with individuals, human to human. The Torah has its fair share of lofty arcane things, but a full half of the Ten Commandments are grounded in interpersonal regulations – בין אדם לחברו. It’s not enough to love humanity in the abstract; you have to love people in particular – your annoying neighbor and the guy who never stops talking.

Among the most misunderstood laws are the mitzvos about sanctifying and profaning God’s name – וְלֹא תְחַלְּלוּ אֶת־שֵׁם קדְשִׁי וְנִקְדַּשְׁתִּי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. But in the context of holiness as something we do together, they make perfect sense – בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. If holiness is related to togetherness, our public actions either draw people in or alienate them.

The Chemdas Dovid explains that while an individual is like a string, a group is more like a rope, far stronger than the individual components alone, which is to say that togetherness generates something greater than the sum of its parts.

While the Mishkan project had an open call for donations of all kinds of things that were wonderful and welcome, the core donation to the Mishkan project was a simple half-shekel and was required of everyone – הֶעָשִׁיר לֹא־יַרְבֶּה וְהַדַּל לֹא יַמְעִיט מִמַּחֲצִית הַשָּׁקֶל לָתֵת אֶת־תְּרוּמַת ה’ לְכַפֵּר עַל־נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם.

While the Torah predates the notion of corporations or public companies, it seems thematically similar. Every person was invested in the Mishkan, or perhaps better; everyone was a contributor and owner of that holiness, which could be precisely what made it holy in the first place.

There is undoubtedly an aspect of generosity that we need to welcome and celebrate – כל המרבה הרי זה משובח. But it can often feel like we miss the everyman who can’t quite swing a high roller donation.

The unit of the mandatory universal contribution to the Mishkan was a half shekel, not a whole shekel, and most or all of the measurements in the Mishkan ended in half cubits, reflecting the same core theme that your contribution can only ever take you halfway. The Mishna in Pirkei Avos teaches that it is not for us to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist, with the obvious conclusion that we count on others by necessity – לא עליך המלאכה לגמור, ולא אתה בן חורין ליבטל ממנה

We ought to remember the Mishkan project that indicates smaller nominal contributions are just as valuable as everyone else’s. Everyone gives the whole of what they should, rich or poor. You give a fraction, and not only does it count, but it’s enough, and that’s all we need. More than how much you give, it matters that you participate.

This isn’t cutesy moralizing – the half-shekel contributions were melted down to form the sockets that connected the base of each wall segment. The part everyone gave together formed no less than the foundation of the entire Mishkan.

We’re better off through what we do together, for, and with others. The Gemara says that collecting the half shekel from everyone elevated and uplifted them –  כִּי תִשָּׂא אֶת-רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, לִפְקֻדֵיהֶם, וְנָתְנוּ אִישׁ כֹּפֶר נַפְשׁוֹ. Avos d’Rabi Nosson notes how valuable human contribution is; God is everywhere, but we can manifest the divine presence a little more palpably by coming together to make something for God. The Midrash goes so far as to suggest that God is most pleased by what we do down here, as exhibited by God leaving Heaven behind to be a little closer to us – דירה בתחתונים.

It is almost natural that the thing we build when everyone comes together is the holiest thing there is. As R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes, it follows that it is the physical and spiritual center of our lives, which the entire camp is built around, the site we aim our prayers, and the place we come closest to the divine.

Moreover, it follows why our sages attribute the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash to animosity and hatred; disputes and internal strife led to division, and without togetherness, it only followed that sanctity would disappear as well. The Ohr Pnei Moshe notes that the inverse is true as well; for Moshe to inaugurate the Mishkan, he must bring all the people together – וַיַּקְהֵל מֹשֶׁה אֶת־כּל־עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.

The Torah commands the commission of each utensil in the Mishkan in the second person singular, but not the Aron, which it commands in the plural – ועשית / ועשו. The Alshich notes that the Torah is not like monarchy or priesthood, which fall to specific individuals; the call to Torah is open-ended and universally accessible – it beckons to all of us, to you.

R’ Menachem Mendel of Vorki notes that if holiness is something that everyone has to do, it has to be according to the capabilities and circumstances of every individual. There can be no one-size-fits-all; as the Kotzker famously put it, God doesn’t need more angels.

The Chafetz Chaim teaches that the Torah is everyone’s to take up, even if our stakes look different; a bit more of this, a bit less of that. You might be a scholar, maybe you offer financial support, or perhaps you help tidy up your shul a little. Everybody counts, and everybody’s contribution is counted. 

We are not designed to be alone; we cannot exist alone. We need each other, and it’s not weakness; it’s our greatest strength. Where you find togetherness, you’ll find wholeness and holiness; and we must yearn for it perpetually – בָּרְכֵנוּ אָבִינוּ כֻּלָּנוּ כְּאֶחָד בְּאוֹר פָּנֶיךָ.

But don’t just yearn for it; work for it too. Find somebody to mentor, find an interesting local community project or charity to support, or get involved with, in whatever way, big or small. 

Your participation doesn’t just make a difference; it makes it better.

Prayer Redux

7 minute read
Advanced

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Choreographed Futility

4 minute read
Straightforward

At the beginning of the Exodus story, God tasks Moshe with his great mission. Moshe initially resists, saying the Jewish People will not listen to him.

Although our sages criticize him for this, he demonstrates that he is highly attuned to his environment because, sure enough, that’s precisely what happens:

וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה כֵּן אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה – But when Moshe told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moshe, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage. (6:9)

Exactly as Moshe had predicted, they didn’t listen, and this theatre only caused Moshe and his exhausted people unnecessary aggravation, disappointment, and frustration. It’s hard to see this as anything other than choreographed futility – a colossal waste of time, energy, and effort on all counts from the outset.

This is consistent with a broader motif throughout the entire Torah, filled with so many aborted attempts, failed efforts, and wasted opportunities.

Generally speaking, it is usually worth giving something a go because you never know, but in this instance, everyone did know – they knew it wouldn’t work!

Moshe knew they wouldn’t listen. God knew they wouldn’t listen. Yet God sent Moshe anyway. Why would God bother sending Moshe on an exercise in futility?

The Sfas Emes teaches that there is no such thing as futility when trying to help people. This chapter of the story illustrates that there’s never one specific interaction that has an instantaneous magical breakthrough effect; the helper must persist. Words can take root even if they don’t immediately blossom and yield fruit; the lack of immediate and apparent results doesn’t mean the efforts are wasted.

The Netziv highlights how the Torah is replete with phases and stages that indicate gradual transformation; for example, there are five expressions of redemption, ten plagues, and each step of Dayeinu.

Remember that we are reading the Exodus story, the grandest redemption story in history to date, and this is how it starts. Moshe is frustrated, his people are hurting and spent, and he can’t get them to entertain the dream or notion that things could change for the better. Not even the most legendary redemption story has an instant turning point or pivotal moment; it starts like this – boring and painfully slow. Nothing happens! On Seder night, we celebrate the great miracles, but maybe we should read these few lines as well and remember what change looks like, not only in our daily lived experience but as attested to in the Torah’s own words.

The Chizkuni suggests that it’s not that they wouldn’t listen but that they couldn’t; they were structurally and systemically too traumatized to have the mental or physical capacity to hold on to hope. And even so, God sends Moshe to them with words that are not lost to the ether. Even if they can’t internalize the message, it is objectively important that they see Moshe trying to help them, that they hear the words, and accordingly, that we hear that interaction through the ages as well. There are times a person is so stuck that they don’t want to be saved, and still, you can’t abandon them.

Right after this unsuccessful effort to encourage his people, Moshe reports back to God, and God tells them straightforwardly that their mission is going ahead on schedule and as planned:

וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה לִפְנֵי ה’ לֵאמֹר הֵן בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא־שָׁמְעוּ אֵלַי וְאֵיךְ יִשְׁמָעֵנִי פַרְעֹה וַאֲנִי עֲרַל שְׂפָתָיִם. וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל־אַהֲרֹן וַיְצַוֵּם אֶל־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶל־פַּרְעֹה מֶלֶךְ מִצְרָיִם לְהוֹצִיא אֶת־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם – But Moshe appealed to God, saying, “The Israelites would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech!” So God spoke to both Moshe and Ahron regarding the Israelites and Pharaoh king of Egypt, instructing them to deliver the Israelites from the land of Egypt. (6:12,13)

But what follows this powerful reaffirmation of the mission isn’t a renewal or redoubling of efforts. The Torah interrupts this story mid-paragraph with a tangential breakdown of the heritage and lineage of the Jewish families in Egypt in exhaustive detail.

It’s unclear what this breakdown is doing in this story, but perhaps it ties into the notion of efforts not going to waste.

The Ishbitzer teaches that in the instant we choose to pray, before uttering a word, God is poised to listen, which is to say, God responds before we have reached out. In the physical world, Moshe tried to encourage the Jewish People, but they couldn’t hear him. But in the spiritual world, which is to say the world of the spirit, the Torah tells us who they were and where they came from, that they were descendants of Yisrael. Their identity could be a hook Moshe’s words latched on to in their intangible subconscious.

Moshe’s words weren’t futile because they didn’t exist in isolation; they pooled into a more extensive relationship full of interactions, and this was just one of many. They weren’t futile because change happens gradually, incrementally, and slowly. They weren’t futile because they still registered on a subconscious level. They weren’t futile because they were the Children of Israel, and he was going to save them and stand with them at Sinai. They weren’t futile because the people needed to see someone show them they were worth fighting for, and we must also recognize that.

We read about this ostensibly failed interaction, and it’s blindingly obvious that although the words might not have landed perfectly, these efforts were anything but futile.

Nothing ever happens in a day. In the words of Steve Jobs, most overnight successes take a really long time.

God sent Moshe to talk to people when everyone knew it wouldn’t change a thing, but this failed interaction goes on to form a part of a foundation that all future growth and progress can be built upon. It’s not wasted breath; it’s an investment in posterity.

Time and again, we expect ultimate salvation, a moment everything changes and turns around, and we get disappointed because the world doesn’t work like that. God very deliberately sends Moshe on a mission he already knows he cannot possibly succeed at, highlighting to Moshe and us that apparent failure and setbacks are not futile. God sends Moshe because humble beginnings and failed efforts are independently valuable, regardless of the outcome.

If you’ve clashed with someone in a relationship that matters to you, you know that you can’t fix things with a good one-liner. No single idea or thought will make them suddenly understand; no light bulb will turn on that changes everything. Reality is far more modest than that; each kind word and positive interaction is a deposit into an account balance that barely seems to grow at the start. It’s painfully slow, frustrating, and doesn’t look like progress; sometimes, it even looks like a step backward.

If you’re stuck in trouble and can’t hear a kind word, hold on. If you’re trying to help someone who won’t hear or see it, keep it up.

It wasn’t futile then; it’s not futile now.

How to Not Kill Your Family

6 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jacob’s Ladder – The World Bridge

6 minute read
Advanced

One of the most captivating stories in the Torah is often known as Jacob’s Ladder.

The Torah tells how Yakov fled from his enraged murderous brother Esau to the house of his uncle Lavan, in far off Haran. Along the way, and in between places, Yakov put his head down for some rest and had a vivid prophetic dream:

וַיַּחֲלֹם וְהִנֵּה סֻלָּם מֻצָּב אַרְצָה וְרֹאשׁוֹ מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה וְהִנֵּה מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים עֹלִים וְיֹרְדִים בּוֹ – He had a dream; a ladder was planted on the ground, and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were going up and down on it. (28:12)

While no one really knows what Heaven is, Heaven is universally understood to be a shorthand for the place where God, angels, and souls reside,  the highest and holiest place, perhaps even paradise. In stark contrast, Earth is the plane of existence humans live on, and in a sense, a negative reflection, void of all those things; a low and profane place, not the place of God, angels, or souls. 

We exist here, and the Creator is not here with us; our environment is artificial and synthetic, perhaps a simulation, even, and only the Creator’s domain is real. Our world is a profane space, a formidable and meaningless expanse that is fundamentally unreal; our time on Earth is fleeting and ultimately somewhat futile and meaningless – הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים הַכֹּל הָבֶל.

It follows that perhaps we can only find the Creator beyond the canvas; and in this worldview, affliction, fasting, and negation of the physical and the self make sense. If this seems extreme, note that it is coherent, consistent, and even reasonably popular, both historically as well as today; it is worth taking seriously even if only to understand why we ought to ultimately reject it.

If the domain of this world is indeed inferior, and Yakov was presented with a ladder to the highest plane of existence literally at his feet, an obvious question presents itself.

Why wouldn’t Yakov try to climb the ladder? 

The answer is that he didn’t have to, and it’s revealing when we consider why that might be and what the ladder represents.

Jacob’s Ladder is a universal motif with many counterparts in mythology. It is known as an axis mundi — also called the cosmic axis, world axis, cosmic bridge, world bridge, cosmic pillar, world pillar, the center of the world, or world tree; and they universally serve as a connection between Heaven and Earth, a bridge between higher and lower realms. The axis mundi is almost always a center point, where blessings from higher realms descend to lower realms and disseminate to all. 

A bridge and ladder function in the same way, except that a bridge is for lateral movement, and a ladder is for vertical movement. There are two separate domains, and there is no way to move from one to the other; they are separated with distinct boundaries that cannot be crossed. A bridge or ladder crosses the gap, linking the domains so the disparate parts can interact.

The cosmic bridge works in the same way, expressing contact and correspondence between higher and lower realms – מֻצָּב אַרְצָה וְרֹאשׁוֹ מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה. In Jacob’s Ladder, angels ascend and descend – וְהִנֵּה מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים עֹלִים וְיֹרְדִים בּוֹ – overtly symbolizing a kind of transfer, a reciprocal interaction and exchange of energy where Heaven comes to Earth, and Earth is elevated to Heaven.

Our sages identify the location of Yakov’s dream disparately as Mount Sinai, Mount Moriah, the Land of Israel, or imagining a diagonally aligned ladder, some combination of these. Still, the effect is the same – the cosmic bridge is at one of these spiritual centers, a place where Heaven and Earth can meet and blessing comes into the world. Legend has it that beneath the Beis HaMikdash on Mount Moriah, possibly the Dome of the Rock and the site of the Akeida, lies the Foundation Stone – אבן השתיה – the focal point and source of creation, itself tying intimately into the imagery of a source of blessing, connection, and expansiveness. 

The motif of a world bridge is recursive – once you know how to spot it, you see it everywhere. Our sages note how Sinai has the same numerical value as Jacob’s ladder – סלם / סיני – suggesting that the Torah is a kind of world bridge. The Midrash indicates that the sacrificial offerings were a world bridge; the altar is described as “of the earth” – מִזְבַּח אֲדָמָה – and legend has it that the smokestack wouldn’t diffuse into the air; it rose in a straight line, straight up to the sky – a world bridge. Many have noted that the expression for prayer and voice also has the same numerical value as Jacob’s ladder – סולם / קול.

Our sages suggest that our homes and marriages are reflections of the Beis HaMikdash – both are called בית, and both are a spiritual center and foundation – and so, like the Beis HaMikdash, are themselves reflections of a world bridge.

More esoterically, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge also present two aspects of this imagery. Each is said to stand at the center of paradise from which four rivers flow that nourish the whole world; a cosmic bridge at the center that is the source of all blessing. Some abstract representations of the Kabbalistic Sefiros even merge the Tree of Life concept with the human body as a cosmic pillar bridging Heaven and Earth.

As R’ Chaim Volozhin explains, humans should not think that we are confined by our mundane composition, because the world bridge of Jacob’s ladder is firmly rooted on Earth; yet it reaches Heaven just the same – מֻצָּב אַרְצָה וְרֹאשׁוֹ מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה. In the same way, our souls interface with this world but can touch the Heavens, and humans can become a world tree as well, grounded firmly in the reality of this world, perhaps even the Underworld, and yet whose branches can touch the sky. This interlaces multiple world bridges – that our souls are a world bridge, that Torah and prayers are a world bridge, and that they can all interact.

While our sages are at pains to identify the site of Jacob’s Ladder, we should remember that although Yakov slept in a physical place, his vision was prophetic; there was no physical ladder in the three-dimensional space we occupy, which is to say there is no “there” there; the actual place is indeterminate, liminal space, the space between spaces, or quite simply, nowhere. It almost doesn’t matter at all!

Yakov’s dream predates Mount Sinai, Mount Moriah, the Torah, Beis HaMikdash, his own home and marriage, and even his own maturity; perhaps suggesting that even before realizing any of those things, the ladder symbolized a continuous, constant connection with the divine powers of the unconscious, the unknown depths of Yakov’s psyche that transcended space and time – and that this link was not limited to any one of those things.

The question of climbing the ladder is predicated on the perspective that this world is devoid of meaning within the internal parameters of creation, and finding God means escaping the void. One of the Baal Shem Tov’s revolutionary teachings, as propounded by the Toldos Yakov Yosef, is that humans can transcend the limiting parameters of creation, not by abstaining from and negating physicality, but by seeing the parameters of creation from the Creator’s perspective. God is sometimes known as הַמָּקוֹם – the Omnipresent, or the place of all things; that the world is a part of God and within God. From this vantage point, there is no “outside” to escape to, no “simulation” to escape from.  

Our reality is fully saturated with God’s existence and presence, and everything that exists reflects that it is fundamentally connected to God in a substantive and real way; this world is absolutely the arena of God, every bit as much as Heaven, and to the extent that we are here for a reason, this is the arena we are supposed to be in.

There is no need to climb the ladder to a holy place; because this world is the holy place! Our world is fundamentally meaningful and is, in fact our only interface to the Creator.

What Jacob’s Ladder reveals then, is not simply that there is a world bridge somewhere, but so much more. It reveals that world bridges exist; that bridged once is bridged forever; that a world bridge can exist anywhere; and that humans can generate them. 

We should remind ourselves that even though the ladder was located in a dreamworld, Yakov’s location within the dream still has him lying on the floor; yet God could stand over Yakov as he lay there and speak to him. While not the literal interpretation of the story, this fits neatly and tightly into Yakov’s exact words in the story – וַיֹּאמֶר אָכֵן יֵשׁ ה’ בַּמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה וְאָנֹכִי לֹא יָדָעְתִּי וַיִּירָא וַיֹּאמַר מַה־נּוֹרָא הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה אֵין זֶה כִּי אִם־בֵּית אֱלֹהִים וְזֶה שַׁעַר הַשָּׁמָיִם – that this realm is also the domain of the divine and that it can serve as a cosmic gateway. 

As the Kotzker taught, Heavens is Heaven for God, but the Earth is given to humans – הַשָּׁמַיִם שָׁמַיִם לַה׳ וְהָאָרֶץ נָתַן לִבְנֵי־אָדָם – that is, humans can build a Heaven on Earth; where “ascent” into the spiritual world is an opportunity for internal growth and service, and “descent” is re-entering and engaging with the material world bringing blessings and transforming it for the better.

The gap between Heaven and Earth is infinitely wide yet paper-thin. The ladder is our quest to develop insights and perfect ourselves in order to move beyond the current microcosmic realm of Earth and to engage with the transcendent grand Heavenly macrocosmic order.

There is no need to go to Heaven when we are fully capable of bringing Heaven to Earth.

The Water of Life

5 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trying

3 minute read
Straightforward

Avraham had a faithful attendant and steward in Eliezer. Avraham trusted him to the extent that he sent Eliezer to his homeland, with the task of finding a young woman appropriate for our ancestor Yitzchak, his son and heir, sight unseen. 

In the story, Eliezer is anxious and worried the whole way there. He is nervous about completing the job as quickly as possible and prays to God for rapid success, and perhaps even experiences a miraculously short journey. He fervently prays for success, requesting that the intended woman present herself in a specific way instead of him having to search for and select the candidate.

In the end, Rivka presents herself what seems like only minutes after arriving, and the story proceeds. 

Yet Avraham was a well-established figure in the region, renowned as a respected sage, statesman, war hero, and teacher, in addition to his famous generosity, integrity, and considerable wealth. Finding someone willing to join the family would have been a relatively straightforward formality with a reputation like that.

So why was Eliezer so worried about it?

The Shem M’Shmuel teaches that there are times we persevere and refuse to give up, and then sometimes we quit after only some light resistance; people will respond differently to obstacles based on their mental states. Eliezer didn’t doubt Avraham or Yitzchak; he doubted himself. 

At the time of his mission, Eliezer had a daughter of marriageable age. Eliezer was Avraham’s trusted steward and undoubtedly raised a fine family following the guidance of his teacher and master Avraham. With his daughter at the back and perhaps front of his mind, every girl he met could very plausibly have been not quite good enough, and he could have returned with nobody – and after all, nobody was good enough! – leaving the door open for his daughter.

Eliezer was nervous and worried because he did not want bias or doubt to dull his determination. As much he did not want to let Avraham down, he knew that doubts could downgrade his effort and cloud his judgment.

R’ Chaim Brown suggests that this helps explain Eliezer’s desire for certainty and sense of urgency – when dismissing potential candidates, he would question his motivation for doing so. Was it because they weren’t good enough for Yitzchak? Or was it because they weren’t as good as his daughter? Eliezer prayed for the right girl to present herself to him immediately and free him from any need to deliberate. 

As one classic fantasy has popularized, do or do not – there is no try. “Trying” is an excuse that admits the possibility of not being able to, when far more often than not, it is within our ability if we dig deep enough.

You don’t try to ride a bike. You learn by starting to pedal, and then you fall, and sometimes not. Fall or not, your intent has to be to ride the bike. By beginning with uncertainty, you increase the chances of failure in a self-fulfilling feedback loop. 

Although we do not control our outcomes, we certainly influence them; you can be sure that half-hearted attempts are less frequently successful than unwavering conviction.

If you do something, lean into it and don’t hesitate. Do not go through the motions, but also do not negate failure. You can still fail, but as long as you did all you could, you can sleep easy knowing it wasn’t your fault.

There’s a famous sports aphorism, to leave it all on the field. It means to commit wholly, holding nothing back, with certainty you had nothing left to give.

Think about it like this; what is the difference between 99% and 100%?

Is it 1%? 

Or is it everything?

Gratitude Redux

8 minute read
Straightforward

Emotional states are everything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting gratitude right brings out what’s best in humans, encouraging us to appreciate life’s gifts and repay them or pay them forward. But beyond gratitude’s incredible blessings, getting gratitude wrong is catastrophic and is one of the catalysts for all the Torah’s curses and prophecies of doom:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amalek Redux

4 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah has lots of laws. Some are fun and easy to understand, like Shabbos, and some are fun and challenging to understand, like shaking the Lulav. A rare few are difficult to understand and might also leave us with a sense of moral unease.

One of them is the laws concerning Amalek.

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

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

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

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

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

But isn’t it a little unsettling? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things That Matter

3 minute read
Straightforward

When we learn the history of Avraham, the first and foremost archetype of the Jewish People and one of the most significant figures who ever lived, we might almost be underwhelmed. 

He came to understand that the pagan idol worship of his world was silly and deduced that there must be one unifying force animating the Universe – the One God. 

But what’s so remarkable about deciding there is One God and not several?

Avraham’s breakthrough wasn’t the simple math of reducing multiple fractional deities into one whole god.

The story of Avraham is about how he acted on the consequences of his breakthrough determination; not only is there One God, but that God has demands and expectations of humans, and as a result, no longer do humans struggle with just their own conscience, but inhabit a universe of moral objectivism, where there is a pre-determined concept of what is considered good or bad, determined by higher forces, and that humans only discover it, not create it. Avraham understood that there are better and worse ways to live, and he understood the imperative to align his actions with what he intuited that the One God would want.

And he was right.

R’ Yitzchak Berkovits cautions us against being so dismissive of idolatry. The problem with idol worship isn’t that it’s ideologically deficient, primitive, or stupid. It’s that people could spend their lives focusing on the wrong things. So rather than sneer and think we’re better than primitives who dance for rain or shout at the moon, we should ask ourselves if we’re focused on the right things and be quite shocked by the answer.

If we think Avraham’s world was primitive and full of silly nonsense, perhaps we could excuse them. But our society, so educated and sophisticated as it is, is preoccupied with advanced nonsense just the same! Culture can change by the decade, but human nature hardly budges, even over millennia.

The Mesilas Yesharim warns us of the pernicious blindness that comes from comfort, desire, and habit. You can miss things, or just as bad, distort things, mistaking one thing for another. We have mental blind spots that stop us from thinking, and they can seem so virtuous! Hustle culture breeds hard workers, sure, but by the same token, lazy thinkers who don’t have time to prioritize. How many of us would benefit from slowing down to devise an effective strategy?

Avraham decided that there was One God, and maybe we’re right there alongside him. Great! But Avraham went on to give meaning to the world, actively seeking people out, bringing life to them, teaching kindness, caring and sharing, leading by example, and never arguing with anyone. And in a world where Sodom and self-interest were the dominant cultures, excluding the other and the outsider, Avraham’s way won. 

Too many of us are on cruise control, coasting by, and we need to wake up and ask what the point is. Avraham is the first archetype, the avatar of kindness. Are we as effective, kind, and loving as we can be? We know that the answer is a resounding no. There are so many people out there who need to be loved and looked after! And forget the world – there’s undoubtedly plenty of low-hanging fruit among your family and friends. 

People are too busy to think or prioritize – what are we doing? where are we going? What matters most? Do my actions reflect those values? Am I effective? Our calendars tell a revealing story about how we spend our time, and how we spend our time says everything about what we value, about what matters.

You have to break the cycle of busyness – literally, of being too busy.

Challenge yourself about where you’re going, what matters, and whether you’re as effective as you could be, but be tough on yourself before you’re tough on others. High performers hold themselves to high standards. 

You have time, but you don’t have time to waste.

Onward

5 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mental Game

3 minute read
Straightforward

Why do some people accomplish their goals while others fail?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Choose life – ובחרת בחיים.

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

Religious Risk

3 minute read
Straightforward

No one knows the future.

As a result, we organize our lives around taking more or less risk; risk is inextricably linked to navigating the unknown, which is the reason the future is unknown. There is risk in our career path, who we marry, where we live, how we invest, what we consume, and how active we choose to be. The entire financial industry, insurance industry, and arguably the entire religious world are organized around risk; we live our lives in the specter of the consequences of wickedness and wrongdoing.

Is it a good time or a bad time to buy a house or invest? People have been saying it’s one or the other for a long time, and they’ll be right eventually. There is an inherent risk factor in an informed decision, and you’d be foolish to ignore it.

Risk is what’s left over when you think you’ve thought of everything. It can be counterintuitive and easy to ignore, especially when no one else has noticed it either. These can be more or less obvious at different times in our lives – but they’re always there. The riskiest stuff is always what you don’t see coming, and you won’t see anything coming if your eyes are wide shut.

The Flood story highlights another kind of risk – religious risk.

Our typical analysis of the flood story often focuses on Noah, the protagonist, and what he did or didn’t do. On occasion, we talk about what the antagonists did so wrong to corrupt their world so irredeemably. 

But let’s consider something Noah’s audience notably did not do. They didn’t listen, and the world was lost.

The Midrash suggests that for the hundred and twenty years he spent building the Ark, people would ask Noah what he was doing, and he would reply that God had informed him that God was bringing a great flood, and they would laugh him off as some crazy old man. 

Imagine sitting next to a heart surgeon on a long flight, and after getting to know you a little, watching you eat and drink the entire flight, he suggests that your habits predispose you to a greater risk of heart disease if you don’t tighten up your diet and develop a good exercise habit. How arrogant and stupid would you need to be to ignore the doctor and carry on just the same?

The very least you should do is get checked up and consider the gravity of the man on the plane’s word and the severity of the consequences of doing nothing. What if there’s a chance he’s right? That alone should get you to pay more attention.

But Noah’s world did nothing.

On the back of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we have considered the importance and urgency of Teshuva. We read the story of Jonah, whom God instructs to go to the corrupt city of Nineveh, and the entire Assyrian empire falls in line and makes amends on the back of just one sentence, and the star of Nineveh shines once more. 

In sharp contrast, we read this story, and Noah couldn’t get even one person to see the error in their ways.

God promised not to flood the world ever again when the world wouldn’t listen, but that’s just what God did. Humans didn’t change, they stayed the same! We are the same species of human, and humans are endowed with the property of not listening, and you ought to sit up a little and wonder what you important thing might be ignoring.

There have always been incidences of tragedy – that’s the nature of risk. Who it happens to, and how it happens, is a question of destiny, fate, and providence. But we live in a connected world – there are no local tragedies anymore, and we remember them longer and more clearly. How many times have you seen the World Trade Center footage?

It’s easy and tempting for leaders to blame whatever is culturally in vogue to attack – on a lack of cohesion and unity, on talking in shul, or on women.

And the truth is far scarier. 

It’s that we simply have no idea.

And in the face of that shocking truth, we ought to face the world with a little more humility. As the Mesilas Yesharim explains, self-assessment requires us to accurately gauge where we are and scrutinize where we are going – יְפַשְׁפֵּשׁ בְּמַעֲשָׂיו ויְמַשְׁמֵשׁ בְּמַעֲשָׂיו. If you can’t do that, or worse, think you can but are mistaken, you have a real problem. 

We need to be tuned in to ourselves and our environments, and even in the best case, it’s ideal to have friends and mentors to help guide us along the way – עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב, וּקְנֵה לְךָ חָבֵר.

We’re probably not a society of corrupt and wicked sinners, and you probably don’t need to listen too closely to anyone with that message. But we can do without excessive pride or self-confidence, and we can always dig a little deeper because what if there’s something we could have done better?

So with good reason, the Rambam’s universal prescription for bad things and hard times is Teshuva; it’s always a good time to make amends and resolve to do better and be better – just in case!

Killing Envy

5 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

Coveting. Envy. Jealousy. Wanting.

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

It’s on the list, so we can conclude that the answer to that question is yes, and that we ought to consider why.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You pass the test but compare yourself to the best student in class, without knowing they haven’t met their friends for six months. You work long and difficult hours and compare yourself to the guy in the neighborhood who just made a fortune without knowing that his firm is under investigation and he is in serious jeopardy. You marry a complete human with flaws but compare them to people on social media in the top 1% of looks, smarts, or wealth without seeing their multiple flaws. You buy a house and discover issues but compare it to the nicest house on the block without knowing that the foundation is weak and needs to be torn down. Does any of this sound uncomfortably familiar?

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

Firstly, let’s read the words.

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

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

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

But secondly, and more fundamentally, we need to reorganize how we see the world and remind ourselves that God’s blessings are not finite. There isn’t a fixed amount of happiness, health, love, or money in the world, so it’s not a zero-sum game. Someone else’s good fortune cannot subtract from yours and cannot diminish the pool of blessings available to you in the future. His is his – אֲשֶׁר לְרֵעֶךָ – and yours is yours, and we need to respect that boundary down to the smallest detail scrupulously. God’s blessings are abundant, not scarce. The Ibn Ezra suggests that the practice of this law requires that you refine yourself to have no interest in what is not meant for you.

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

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

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

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

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

The Show of Self-Righteousness

2 minute read
Straightforward

The Shabbos before Tisha b’Av, we read the Haftara of  חֲזוֹן יְשַׁעְיָהוּ – Isaiah’s Vision, with sharp words for his audience then and now.

The common understanding of the reading is that their religiosity and spirituality was missing feeling, that Judaism had become a national culture while its underlying values and precepts were ignored. The people celebrated on Shabbos and the Holidays with prayers and sacrifices devoid of content and meaning, stripped of the soul that ought to accompany them.

It’s a fine reading, and we’d do well to take it to heart. But what if there’s more to it than that?

The prophet’s criticism is specific:

 וּבְפָרִשְׂכֶם כַּפֵּיכֶם אַעְלִים עֵינַי מִכֶּם גַּם כִּי-תַרְבּוּ תְפִלָּה אֵינֶנִּי שֹׁמֵעַ יְדֵיכֶם דָּמִים מָלֵאוּ. רַחֲצוּ הִזַּכּוּ הָסִירוּ רֹעַ מַעַלְלֵיכֶם מִנֶּגֶד עֵינָי חִדְלוּ הָרֵעַ. לִמְדוּ הֵיטֵב דִּרְשׁוּ מִשְׁפָּט אַשְּׁרוּ חָמוֹץ שִׁפְטוּ יָתוֹם רִיבוּ אַלְמָנָה – When you raise your hands in prayer, I will not look. Though you might offer many prayers, I will not listen because your hands are covered with the blood of innocents! Wash and clean yourselves! Get your sins out of my sight. Give up your evil ways; learn to do good. Seek justice! Help the oppressed and vulnerable! Defend the cause of orphans! Fight for the rights of widows!

The words seem to indicate very strongly that something important is missing – the interpersonal component of the Torah; that they’re too focussed on God and not focussed enough on each other. We’d do well to take that to heart as well; all the spirituality in the world is no good when it isn’t accompanied by actively doing right by the people who need your help. 

But that’s still not the full picture, and even the best of us probably doesn’t want to internalize what the prophet seems to be truly saying.

Again, the prophet’s words are specific. 

He does not say that their spirituality is devoid of content and meaning, stripped of the soul that ought to accompany it, or that it’s great, but not enough without the interpersonal component of the Torah. That wouldn’t be hard to say, and he doesn’t say it; he says something else – that their spirituality is repulsive, sickening, and unwelcome. 

The prophet doesn’t say their spirituality lacks feeling; he simply says it’s disgusting. 

Perhaps these people really and truly felt wonderful, that they were doing Shabbos, the Holidays, prayers, and sacrifices impeccably, with perfect intention and meticulous attention to detail. The prophet seems to be saying that they have deluded themselves completely with their spirituality, that it is entirely self-indulgent and self-serving. These self-righteous people who think they’re so holy are not only missing some essential elements of Judaism, like caring for the weak and vulnerable; but even what they think they’re getting right are empty and hollow, and they don’t even know it.  

It’s a shocking thought, but we should be mindful that such a notion exists. 

There are two elements to acting on the prophet’s words. First, ask yourself if your actions demonstrate the values of compassion and decisive engagement with people who need help. That’s not hard to verify. 

But the second element requires deep soul searching. When you press your spirituality buttons, is something important missing? Is there any trace of self-serving motivation?

The truth will set you free. But first, it will make you miserable.

The Bittersweet Symphony

7 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

Spoiler alert: Moshe dies. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Steward of Your Future

2 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

This line of thinking handicaps us all the time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dirty Business

4 minute read
Straightforward

“Thou shalt not kill.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Something is Off

6 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thirst

4 minute read
Straightforward

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

When she died, the water stopped:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Face the Facts

3 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But instead, they ran from destiny.

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

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

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

Only they weren’t children.

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

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

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

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

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

Love’s Truest Language

3 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

But why were there flowers on Mount Sinai at all?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The flowers on the mountains are the most trivial detail, with nothing whatsoever to do with the tremendous meaning and significance of the events that took place at Sinai or Moriah. Still, those flowers say more than any commotion, and that’s the part that we remember. To this day, when we celebrate the Torah we got at Sinai, we don’t commemorate the darkness by turning out the lights or the earthquakes by shaking the tables; Shavuos is the festival of flowers! For centuries, it has been a near-universal custom to decorate our homes and shul with beautiful flower arrangements.

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

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

Countdown

3 minute read
Straightforward

While the Torah tends to designate specific calendar dates for the Chagim, Shavuos is a notable exception. Shavuos was the harvest festival, but it also marks the anniversary of Sinai when the Torah was given to humanity. Yet the way the Torah conceives of it, it’s not about a specific calendar date; it’s all about the countdown:

וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם אֶת־עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה. עַד מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת הַשְּׁבִיעִת תִּסְפְּרוּ חֲמִשִּׁים יוֹם וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם מִנְחָה חֲדָשָׁה לַה – And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after Shabbos—you shall count seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to Hashem. (23:15, 16)

This count from Pesach to Shavuos is the mitzvah we know as Sefiras HaOmer. As the Sefer HaChinuch notes, standing at Sinai, there was an excellent reason to count the days to Shavuos; Moshe was gone, and they were supposed to wait for him to come back, and when they finished counting, they experienced Divine revelation. But when we finish the countdown, nothing ever happens. Shavuos is just an anniversary! 

Our ancestors counted a Sefira to Shavuos so they could receive the Torah. Why do we count our Sefira to Shavuos, where nothing happens?

R’ Yitzchok Berkovits observes that it is precisely correct to observe that nothing happens on the anniversary of receiving the Torah; because Torah isn’t something that happens to humans – that was the one-time event. Since then, it’s something humans have to work for, and that’s why we count Sefira.

A birthday is just an anniversary, and an anniversary is just an anniversary. If you just wake up on the morning of your kid’s birthday, nothing at all will happen. But what can make a birthday or anniversary incredibly special is if you put heart and thought into the days leading up to it. Did you order a cake, balloons, presents, and write cards? Plan a party, invite their friends, remind loved ones, book a table at their favorite restaurant, order their favorite treats? If you did some of those things, then instead of nothing happening, something extraordinary will happen; just another Tuesday will magically transform into a timeless feeling of deep love and happiness that will linger for a lifetime.

It might not be right to say that revelation at Sinai was the main event, and then the anniversary is just an anniversary. As the Kli Yakar notes, the Torah only ever refers to Shavuos by its agricultural component, and never for the commemorative anniversary aspect of Sinai; because the date that humans receive the Torah is specifically not located in the past – it’s forever in the here and now. Quite arguably, it’s more correct to say that Sinai was a thing that happened, but it’s what we do with it now that is the main event.

So sure, Shavuos is just an anniversary; but Sefira is the effort we invest in the lead-up. If we think that Torah is something that just happens to us with no investment of effort or desire, we have fundamentally missed the nature of what the Torah asks of us. We have to search for it, desire it, and labor for it to become a part of us. It does not happen by kicking back to listen to a nice class or reading a good book. 

If we believe that the Torah is ultimate wisdom, the handbook for making humans more human, the guide to living a good life, how badly do we want it? How lost are we without it? We know all too well how blind and stupid we can be, hurting ourselves and each other needlessly over the silliest nonsense. The Torah asks everything of us, yet returns everything richer and fuller. If we take it seriously, we can curb our worst excesses, draw out our finest qualities, honing and refining our character and personalities into the brightest fires that warm and light the lives of everyone we touch. But it’s not the calendar date that anchors and orients us; because nothing happens; it’s just Tuesday! It’s our countdown that makes all the difference.

The sad reality is that even the best of us believe that just learning Torah improves our character by osmosis, but most of us know from lived experience that it doesn’t; you actually have to put in the effort. 

The Clothes Make the Man

5 minute read
Straightforward

From all over the world, Jews would come to the Mishkan and Beis HaMikdash for spiritual healing and engagement with the divine transcendence. Offering services far beyond the regular public programming and sacrifices, the Kohanim, the priests on duty, would attend to people’s personal spiritual needs, helping them bring sacrificial offerings to find atonement or thanksgiving, whatever their circumstances.

The Torah describes a plain and simple uniform that all on-duty Kohanim would wear: linen shorts with a matching long-robed shirt, a belt, and a turban. 

The uniform was modest and minimal, but like all dress codes, uniforms pose a challenge. How we dress is a form of self-expression; doesn’t imposing a uniform dress code stifle individuality and human freedom? 

Clothing is a basic form of self-expression, and self-expression is vital to emotional growth and well-being. We use freedom of expression, including clothing choice, to cultivate the ability to make choices about how we express ourselves, an integral part of learning a broader responsibility for our choices and healthy personal development. If you’ve ever seen a child put up a big fight about getting dressed, you’ve seen just how important it is, emotionally speaking, to be able to control your outward appearance as part of being in control of your identity. There should be no question that you can tell something about a person by how they dress. While imprecise, it’s directionally accurate. 

Yet, be that as it may, the nature of a public-facing service job is that you must somewhat check yourself at the door. There’s plenty of time for self-expression, but it might not be the right moment to express yourself fully when a client or patient requires your advice and compassion. 

Humans have certain behaviors hardcoded into our biological makeup – we make snap judgments from very thin slices of information, including conclusions from how someone dresses. These are powerful drives, and we’d be lying to ourselves if we thought we could suppress subconscious instincts; they are subconscious. So while there are plenty of highly successful or learned people who avoid formal wear on principle and achieve incredible heights wearing gym clothes and flip flops, the fact remains that when you’re trying to impress, regardless of your merits, everyone knows you’re better off in a suit than pajamas.

How someone dresses is, of course, not a reliable or proper way to judge a person at all, but the fact remains that appearances matter. Sitting in the emergency room with a troubling health concern, you might get thrown off a little if the doctor walks in with ripped jeans and spiky chains over a tank top. In scrubs or a clown costume, he’s still the same doctor; the scrubs also help you.

When you’re at the hospital, and you see someone in scrubs in the hallway, you instantly know an incredible amount of relevant and valuable information about that person – they work at the hospital, they know their way around the building, they know a lot about health and the human body, they can direct you where you’re trying to go. But most importantly, you know they’re there to help you; the hospital dress code utilizes nonverbal communication to foster a sense of comfort and gravity that allows patients and their families to feel comfortable and at ease, all before a single word needs to be said.

And it’s no different for spiritual health and well-being. 

The Torah mandates a simple dress code for on-duty Kohanim, consisting of a plain and simple uniform, spirit scrubs if you like, out of concern for the weary and troubled souls who came from far and near.

Dress codes are effective. Dress codes work. While it’s not an absolute and immutable law, it is a pretty good rule of thumb, a heuristic that primes us to act a certain way. And to be sure, what we’re discussing is the textbook definition of superficial – but that’s human nature and psychology; we have a strong bias and inclination towards the superficial. The way you present yourself matters.

Dress codes level the playing field by peeling away distractions and removing barriers to people getting what they need. Uniforms aren’t intimidating the way fancy clothes are; uniforms aren’t off-putting the way old, raggedy clothes are. Everyone on duty appears equal, at least in an outward sense. Uniforms also create a psychological bond, building a group identity that motivates individuals to do more; you see this in the military, police, school, and work. It can help engender feelings of support: you see others working with you and recognize that they aren’t just doing it as individuals for personal reasons. When you are servicing the public, it is not about you because you are expressly not representing yourself. Tellingly, the uniforms were procured with public funds and owned by the Beis HaMikdash endowment.

There is nothing inherent about dress codes or uniforms that makes you better at what you do for wearing those clothes, but the fact you’re wearing them signals, at least to some people, that you’re willing to put them first. And even if you don’t think that’s true, it is still a reason somebody else might think it is true, and that’s reason enough.

Like other uniforms, the Kohanim’s uniform conveys information and fosters comfort and security, setting the tone for meaningful and high-signal interactions with spiritual seekers. But like a doctor in scrubs, the dress code is only skin deep.

It’s important to stress that appearance isn’t everything – far from it. No two doctors or people are the same, even though they may wear the same uniform. They each have different personalities and sensitivities, and assuming a basic threshold of competency; they distinguish themselves with their bedside manner – what they’re like to interact with. Our Amida also has a uniform structure, morning, noon, and night, Sunday through Friday, yet no two prayers are alike –  the feeling we invest in each word is different each time. R’ Shlomo Farhi highlights that even as similar as the Kohanim’s uniform was, each set of clothing still had to be tapered to the contours of the wearer’s body, with no loose fabric. No two people are alike, and even two conversations with the same person aren’t interchangeable; uniformity doesn’t mean homogeneity, and common form is not common substance.

Shakespeare wrote that the clothes make the man, but if that’s a little wide of the mark, it’s probably correct to say that the clothes set the tone. In your own house, yard, or office, do whatever and be whoever you like. Who’s to say otherwise? But in other-facing, client-facing, or public-facing positions, you should be mindful of how you look to people who don’t know to give you the benefit of the doubt. Plenty of major companies have relaxed dress codes for non-client-facing positions, but you can be sure that the client-facing positions are suited and booted!

The value articulated by a dress code or uniform policy is that while they may not help everyone, they provide substantial benefits to portions of the population disadvantaged in specific contexts. 

So perhaps dress codes don’t compromise individuality or self-expression; maybe they curb the outermost and superficial part of ourselves, and that’s the part we can afford to sacrifice for other people’s comfort in public service. 

Keeping Your Word

3 minute read
Straightforward

One of the keys to correctly understanding the Egypt story is that God guided events from start to finish. In case we were hoping to blame the enslavement on human free will and attribute the salvation to God, the Haggadah forecloses that option, reminding us that God had promised Avraham that his descendants would wind up in Egypt for four centuries but that God would eventually rescue them:

בָּרוּךְ שׁוֹמֵר הַבְטָחָתוֹ לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, בָּרוּךְ הוּא. שֶׁהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא חִשַּׁב אֶת־הַקֵּץ, לַעֲשׂוֹת כְּמוֹ שֶּׁאָמַר לְאַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ בִּבְרִית בֵּין הַבְּתָרִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וַיֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָם, יָדֹעַ תֵּדַע כִּי־גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם, וַעֲבָדוּם וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה – Bless the One who keeps His promise to Yisrael, blessed be He; since the Holy One, blessed be He, calculated the end to uphold what He said to Avraham, our father, in the Covenant between the Parts, as it says, “And He said to Avram, ‘You should know that your descendants will be strangers in a land not their own, and they will enslave them and afflict them four hundred years…’”

But if you think about it for a minute, this is faint praise at best. We rightly consider honesty and trustworthiness to be the basic decency we ought to expect and require from everyone we interact with, let alone the Creator! 

What kind of praise is it to say that God keeps His word?  

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that the word doesn’t mean that God keeps His promise; it means God protects His promise – שׁוֹמֵר.

God had promised four hundred years in Egypt, but Rashi counts only two hundred and ten. The hundred-and-ninety-year discrepancy can be accounted for in different ways; perhaps the Jewish People suffered so egregiously that four hundred years of quantitative pain compressed to two hundred and ten years of the qualitative equivalent, or maybe they had stooped to the lowest depths of depravity and required emergency intervention. The missing years are alluded to in the words for calculating the end – חִשַּׁב אֶת־הַקֵּץ – because the word קֵּץ has a numerological value of the missing hundred and ninety years.

And yet, if the precise explanation for creative accounting is cutesy and whimsical, the fact of it is deadly serious. 

In the state the Jewish People left, they were identifiable by fashion, language, and name only. In every other conceivable way, they had no semblance of Jewish identity. Hypothetically, if God had not acted at that moment and they would remain even a little longer, their condition would have further deteriorated, and perhaps only a tiny remnant might have been rescued. That could have been a plausible variant form of keeping the promise – saving what little was left.

But God didn’t do that. God did not abandon them to their fates and would not let them die or fail. Instead, every man, woman, and child walked out – even though they didn’t deserve to. Because God didn’t just keep His promise; He protected it – בָּרוּךְ שׁוֹמֵר הַבְטָחָתוֹ.

The Sfas Emes notes that our ancestors were confident in their tradition that they would be mired in Egypt for four hundred years, so much so that they refused to believe that Moshe was there to save them. Quite reasonably so – after all, this redeemer was two centuries early…! And yet, before any explanation, logic, or wordplay about how or why, the simple fact was that they were wrong, and it was time to go. Regardless of tradition, of what had been made explicitly clear by no less an authority than God’s own word, the time was now, and any analysis evaporates. Because God protects His promise – בָּרוּךְ שׁוֹמֵר הַבְטָחָתוֹ.

On the night we remember redemptions past, fueling our hope for redemptions to come, we ought to remind ourselves that God protects His promise, whatever it takes. We have rich and vast eschatological literature about what will happen at the end times of Mashiach; will it be easy or painful? Peaceful or tragic? Gradual or sudden? Six thousand years or tomorrow? 

The Sfas Emes reassures us that whatever we convince ourselves, we have no idea. The qualitative strain of exile might stand in for a required quantity of years once again, or perhaps something else. Yet, in the final analysis, it’s entirely academic because even if our spiritual assets were completely exhausted of ancestral credit and merit, we can always count on the Creator’s bottomless wellspring of compassion; and the highly persuasive precedent for creative accounting when it comes to these things.

Because בָּרוּךְ שׁוֹמֵר הַבְטָחָתוֹ – God protects His promise.

Trading Taskmasters

4 minute read
Advanced

On Seder night, we celebrate the Jewish People’s birth as a nation and liberation from slavery. The entire night explores the imperative value of freedom and teaches us that freedom is a mode of thinking under all circumstances; it is not handed to us; it is ours to claim only if we make that choice.

But are we really so free?

Quite arguably, did we not simply trade up for a better taskmaster, swapping service to Pharaoh for service to God?

The notion of swapping masters ignores a crucial distinction between negative liberty, the freedom from, and positive liberty, the freedom to. Negative liberty means freedom from restrictions placed on you by other people; positive liberty means freedom to control and direct your own life, to consciously make your own choices, create your own path and purpose, and shape your own identity in life.

People in retirement can do as they please, like an infinite vacation. But as many retirees and their families can confirm, lack of routine and structure is negative liberty; it doesn’t feel great for long, and people invariably become enslaved to someone or something, even habits and subconscious instincts, leading to addiction, boredom, depression, or laziness. That’s not being free; that’s called being lost. 

Discipline and freedom only seem to sit on opposite ends of the spectrum; they are tightly connected, in fact. If you want freedom, the only way to get there is through discipline.

Everyone suffers from one of two pains; the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. The difference is discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons. Counterintuitively, life gets harder when you try to make it easy. Exercising is hard, but never moving makes life harder. Uncomfortable conversations are hard, but avoiding every conflict is harder. Mastering your craft is hard, but having no skills is harder. Easy has a cost.

Freedom worthy of admiration and respect requires positive liberty, taking responsibility for yourself by committing to an idea or purpose, such as a diet and exercise regime for fitness and good health. However difficult or forced, making these choices is the highest expression of freedom, and you can only benefit in the long run. 

The Midrash similarly suggests that not only can freedom be found in service to God, but it is also the only way to be truly free. When the Torah says that God carved the Ten Commandments, the Midrash suggests we alternatively read it as liberation through the Ten Commandments – חָרוּת עַל־הַלֻּחֹת / חֵרוּת עַל־הַלֻּחֹת. We earn freedom through the Torah’s framework by assuming responsibility for our lives and destiny. It’s an externally imposed responsibility, like Pharaoh, but the comparison stops there. The outcome of the Torah’s responsibility is the gift of positive liberty, freeing us from slavery to our worst inclinations, resulting in more compassionate, humane, and kind humans.

The God that rescued the Jewish People from Egypt was the same God that had sent them there in the first place. It’s not contrived salvation or engineered heroics because God is not gratuitously cruel. It wasn’t Egypt that held the Jews; it was God holding the Jews in Egypt, as foretold to Avraham, in response to Avraham’s question about how God could promise a destiny to his descendants if, at some point, they would inevitably deviate from Avraham’s example. The Maharal explains God’s answer to mean that the Egypt experience would permanently bind his descendants to the Creator regardless of their mistakes.

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that God doesn’t just save us from things that hurt us; however bitter the lesson might be to learn, the things that hurt us can also function as instruments of protecting us from something, providing pathways to positive liberty. The Jewish People left Egypt with the hard-won experience God had promised Avraham, and with that experience accumulated, the ordeal was complete – בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל.

Yet the unspoken inverse of that notion is that if they’d had the experience all along, the ordeal would have been redundant and would never have happened. It was only because they had lost their way, forgetting who they were and where they had come from, that they suffered through centuries of slavery as a result. If they had stooped to pagan idolatry like anyone else, it only follows that they were vulnerable; the inescapable conclusion is that Pharaoh could have only ever have enslaved them so they could rediscover what they had lost! The hand that hurts is the same hand that serves to save – שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר עוֹמְדִים עָלֵינוּ לְכַלוֹתֵנוּ, וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַצִּילֵנוּ מִיָּדָם. However disturbing this lesson is, it is simultaneously deeply comforting, suggesting that all our pain has deep meaning and significance.

We never swapped service to Pharaoh for service to God; because we aren’t slaves to God. God offers us positive liberty, the freedom to take control of our lives and realize our fundamental purpose in the universe. Accepting the responsibility of service to God may look forced, but we know we are the ultimate beneficiaries of our efforts because we can utilize our freedom to thrive, tapping into our highest and best selves and making our lives matter. God offers humans positive liberty and, through it, cosmic significance.

Our bodies feel pain in response to an injury; your nerves send millions of signals to your brain that something is wrong, hopefully prompting a reaction. Pain has a clearly defined purpose; the only incorrect response is to ignore it.

We shouldn’t ignore the pain in our national or personal life, but we possess the freedom and spirit to elevate and transform that pain into meaning and purpose. There is cosmic significance to our hurt. It matters.

The God who heals is the same God who hurts; hurt is a pathway to healing, and compassion can overcome severity – שְׂמֹאל דּוֹחָה וְיָמִין מְקָרֶבֶת.

We’re never glad for the hurt, but we are free to make it count.

No One Else Can Feel It For You

2 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah has many laws and doesn’t usually specify that we must keep them; it is assumed.

The Torah’s expectation may be a little ambitious, but its threshold requirement is no less than its complete observance. While full observance may be difficult for some people in practice, the Torah pulls no punches and makes no exceptions; the laws of Shabbos don’t have an exception for when your team is in the final, or you’re at the closing steps of a big business deal.

But the Haggadah draws our attention to observe one particular mitzvah:

אֲפִילוּ כֻּלָּנוּ חֲכָמִים כֻּלָּנוּ נְבוֹנִים כֻּלָּנוּ זְקֵנִים כֻּלָּנוּ יוֹדְעִים אֶת הַתּוֹרָה מִצְוָה עָלֵינוּ לְסַפֵּר בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם – Even if we were all wise sages familiar with the entire Torah, the mitzvah is incumbent on each of us to discuss the story of the Exodus…

If we correctly assume that we are supposed to observe all the mitzvos, and tonight’s mitzvah is telling the story of Egypt, then what is the point of the Haggadah saying that we have to do the mitzvah – מִצְוָה עָלֵינוּ? 

R’ Benjamin Blech notes that even though everyone must keep every mitzvah, it’s vanishingly rare for everyone to do it themselves. There are so many you can do through an agent; people who don’t know how to pray can still satisfy their prayer obligation just by listening – שומע כעונה. It’s the principle that facilitates everyone listening to the shofar, for example, without actually doing it themselves.

But even within prayer, the go-to example of this principle, there has always been one section the leader can’t say for anyone else – מוֹדִים – the section on thanksgiving. At that point, everyone listening must say it individually. 

It sounds technical, but it’s simple; appreciation is personal. Maybe someone can help you with the Torah reading, but no one can say thank you for you!

The mitzvah of the night isn’t to tell the story; if we do it correctly, we relive the experience and make it come alive. If that’s what we’re doing, we must express gratitude personally, not via an agent or public reading, because genuine appreciation flows from the soul.

Parenthetically, this may shed light on why the Haggadah praises whoever expounds the details – כָל הַמַּרְבֶּה לְסַפֵּר בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם הֲרֵי זֶה מְשֻׁבָּח. The Gemara suggests that anyone who prays too much detaches themselves from the world because words are finite, so it is impossible to adequately praise an infinite God because the vocabulary does not exist. And yet, expounding the Exodus’ details doesn’t fall foul of this rule – הֲרֵי זֶה מְשֻׁבָּח – because whereas praise focuses on the other, the wellspring of gratitude comes from within.

Of course everyone has to participate personally – no one else can feel it for you! And, of course there’s no limit. Because when we channel gratitude, we have to let it flow freely with no boundaries.

Just Open The Door

3 minute read
Straightforward

Towards the Seder’s conclusion, there is a near-universal tradition to open the door and pour a cup of wine in honor of the legendary Eliyahu HaNavi, the harbinger of redemption in general, and Mashiach in particular. Customarily, this is an honor bestowed on an elder, or perhaps someone hoping for their own redemption, someone sick or looking to get married. 

Taking the legend of Eliyahu HaNavi at face value, it’s not hard to understand why we might want the herald of redemption to visit our Seder; everyone could use an extra dose of salvation in their lives.

But while all the Seder’s gestures and rituals are meaningful, no one seriously thinks Eliyahu uses the front door to attend! 

So why do we open the door?

The Midrash imagines God telling us that if we open up an opening the size of the eye of a needle, God will expand our efforts into an opening the size of a ballroom. R’ Shlomo Farhi suggests that if God asks us to open up all year round and remove the boundaries and impediments holding us back, then the magic of Pesach is that we don’t have to do even that. The Chag is called Passover because God passes over boundaries – וּפָסַחְתִּי. In other words, the door is open; we just need to show up. 

But there might be something else to it as well.

The Seder prominently features four cups of wine that mark stages of redemptions past; we honor Eliyahu with the fifth cup for redemptions yet to come. What that means, then, is that the Seder’s theme isn’t solely about celebrating past redemptions; it’s also fundamentally about hope – proactively anticipating redemption, looking for it, and seeking it out.

We open the Haggadah reading with an open invitation to all to join our Seder, closing with the wish to merit another Seder in Israel – כָּל דִכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכֹל, כָּל דִצְרִיךְ יֵיתֵי וְיִפְסַח. הָשַּׁתָּא הָכָא, לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בְּאַרְעָא דְיִשְׂרָאֵל. In other words, we begin the Seder by proclaiming our hope, inviting the world to share in it as well.

The Yerushalmi tells of a sage traveling through the night. As the sun slowly broke over the horizon, dispelling the darkness that had defined their journey, the sage thought that redemption is exactly the same. There’s a long period of darkness; then there’s a small glimmer of brightness on the horizon, then a faint ray of light, until the sun finally crests over the horizon, and before long, it’s a bright new day, and darkness is a distant memory.

Centuries of trauma in Egypt reached a decisive end precisely this way. After flashes of hope, God struck the Egyptian firstborn on the very first Seder night while the Jewish People were locked in their homes – לֹא תֵצְאוּ אִישׁ מִפֶּתַח־בֵּיתוֹ עַד־בֹּקֶר. When morning came, a new era had dawned with it. The Sfas Emes reminds us that our exile and troubles are only until dawn comes – עַד־בֹּקֶר.

In a certain sense, perhaps that’s the promise embodied by Eliyahu HaNavi, the eternal symbol of hope. We don’t need to open the door for Eliyahu HaNavi; he probably doesn’t use doors. But maybe, like those sages among so many others who came before us, we open the door for a hopeful and yearning look. The imagery of an elder or a person in distress opening the door is powerful and moving; this person is holding onto their hope, taking proactive measures.

One of the morning blessings thanks God for giving the rooster the understanding to distinguish between day and night – הַּנוֹתֵן לַשֶּׂכְוִי בִינָה לְהַבְחִין בֵּין יוֹם וּבֵין לָיְלָה. Although every creature with eyes knows the difference, R’ Meilech Biderman teaches that the rooster gets special recognition because it crows while it’s still dark, just before dawn. In Perek Shira, a song that attributes different verses to different creatures and cosmic entities, the rooster sings how it hopes and yearns for God’s salvation – לישועתך קיויתי ה – the rooster knows before dawn that the darkness is coming to an end and that the sun will rise once more.

Our ancestors held on to hope in far worse circumstances, so we can too. Dawn’s early light always came for them eventually, and it’s coming for us too. Look hard enough and you might catch an early glimpse.

You just have to open the door. 

Your Heart in the Right Place

3 minute read
Straightforward

In every field of human civilization, there are discoveries, technologies, and people that changed everything.

The printing press permanently slashed the cost of information, commoditizing and dramatically expanding the reach of human knowledge. Antibiotics and vaccination neutralized the dangers of the historically leading causes of human death. The internet has transformed how we communicate.

Closer to home, Rashi opened up our literature to the masses. The Rambam organized and synthesized broad and divergent streams of lore and thought into cohesive and comprehensive works of law and philosophy. Aish HaTorah and Ohr Someach demonstrated the urgency of outreach to combat the attrition wrought by assimilation. Chabad put a Jewish embassy in every major city on the planet.

These are all remarkable feats, and they should speak to something deep within us; who hasn’t once dreamed of making an impact and leaving the world better off for it? Even once we have matured past the stage of wanting to make the world in our image, we still have ambitions; and we eventually face the question of how we can hope to succeed at those ambitious goals.

It’s a familiar question because it’s universal.

How are you going to succeed at that?

This line of thinking is common and garbs itself in the language of realism. But this line of thinking is actually pessimism in disguise, and ironically, often grants people the certainty they need to excuse themselves from getting started.

Survivorship bias is real. While it’s not strictly wrong to say that the number of people who are fortunate enough to successfully pull off massive accomplishments is small, what they all have in common is that they got started, which might be half the battle – לא עליך המלאכה לגמור, ולא אתה בן חורין ליבטל ממנה. Rashi himself wrote dismissively of people who say it’s impossible to finish Shas; the only way it’s ever been done is a couple of pages per session.

But there is something else to it as well.

Our sages suggest that the designer in chief of the Mishkan, Bezalel, was exceptionally gifted and perhaps even supernaturally clairvoyant. But when the Torah describes the architects and artisans, the common craftsmen and contributors of the Mishkan construction project, it consistently refers to one unifying characteristic of the men and women who rose to the occasion:

וַיִּקְרָא מֹשֶׁה אֶל־בְּצַלְאֵל וְאֶל־אָהֳלִיאָב וְאֶל כָּל־אִישׁ חֲכַם־לֵב אֲשֶׁר נָתַן ה חָכְמָה בְּלִבּוֹ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר נְשָׂאוֹ לִבּוֹ לְקָרְבָה אֶל־הַמְּלָאכָה לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָהּ׃ – Moshe called Bezalel and Oholiav, and every skilled person whom Hashem had endowed with skill in his heart, everyone who had given their hearts to undertake the task and carry it out. (36:2)

The Ramban notes that the working population of that moment consisted of freed slaves, who only had experience in manual labor – they were not skilled in metallurgy or textiles! Yet the Torah consistently describes their technical skill as a feature of having a heart for the task in question – חֲכַם־לֵב. The Chafetz Chaim suggests that in doing so, the Torah subtly recognizes the skill of these volunteers as a product not of experience, but of desire; their hearts were in the right place – נָתַן ה’ חָכְמָה בְּלִבּוֹ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר נְשָׂאוֹ לִבּוֹ לְקָרְבָה אֶל־הַמְּלָאכָה לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָהּ.

The Mishkan volunteers could succeed at something unprecedented with no relevant experience because God granted the requisite skill to the people whose hearts were in the right place and whose hearts were invested in the project. R’ Noach Weinberg similarly encourages us to invest heart into our undertakings and trust that God sends us the fortune and wisdom required to succeed – יגעתי ולא מצאתי אל תאמן. If we want the right things for the right reasons, why wouldn’t we throw ourselves in the deep end and hope for the best?

The Malbim suggests that all we truly can give is our all, and it’s true enough of most things. Who can accomplish the impossible? The people who want it badly enough – רחמנא ליבא בעי. Our Sages taught that you could have anything you want if you want it badly enough – אין דבר עומד בפני הרצון. If you want it badly enough, you’ll find a way; and if you don’t, you’ll find an excuse – בדרך שאדם רוצה לילך מוליכין אותו.

We all have big goals, and if we expect to influence the quality of our lives, we must be proactive. But what are the chances you get what you want if you don’t go after it? And crucially, what are the chances you get it if you go about it half-heartedly?

If you want to succeed, your heart has to be in the right place, and you have to go all-in.

It’s Not Over Til It’s Over

5 minute read
Straightforward

With the climactic events at Sinai, the Jewish People heard God’s word and received the Torah’s laws, along with detailed instructions on how to build a Mishkan. Moshe remained at the summit of the mountain for another forty days, so the people got nervous waiting for him and built themselves a Golden Calf, a debacle that requires its own treatment.

Whatever Moshe and God were in the middle of, they stopped for God to inform Moshe what his people had done. Sending Moshe off the mountain, God declared that He would destroy the Jewish People and start over from Moshe:

וַיְדַבֵּר ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה לֶךְ־רֵד כִּי שִׁחֵת עַמְּךָ אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלֵיתָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם׃ סָרוּ מַהֵר מִן־הַדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִם עָשׂוּ לָהֶם עֵגֶל מַסֵּכָה וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ־לוֹ וַיִּזְבְּחוּ־לוֹ וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלֶּה אֱלֹהֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלוּךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם׃ וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה רָאִיתִי אֶת־הָעָם הַזֶּה וְהִנֵּה עַם־קְשֵׁה־עֹרֶף הוּא׃ וְעַתָּה הַנִּיחָה לִּי וְיִחַר־אַפִּי בָהֶם וַאֲכַלֵּם וְאֶעֱשֶׂה אוֹתְךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל – Hashem spoke to Moshe, “Hurry down, for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely. They have been so quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them. They have made themselves a molten calf and bowed low to it and sacrificed to it, saying: ‘This is your god, Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!’” Hashem further said to Moshe, “I see that this is a stiffnecked people. Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation.” (32:7-10)

Horrified at the prospect of his people’s imminent doom, Moshe argued with God:

וְעַתָּה אִם־תִּשָּׂא חַטָּאתָם וְאִם־אַיִן מְחֵנִי נָא מִסִּפְרְךָ אֲשֶׁר כָּתָבְתָּ – “Now, if You will forgive their sin, then well and good; but if not, erase me from the Book You have written!” (32:32)

God concedes the discussion, and Moshe successfully averts a catastrophe. The story continues with the aftermath of the Golden Calf incident and a slow return to normality. But although we know how the story ends and that Moshe was ultimately successful, we shouldn’t downplay or gloss over what Moshe did.

Moshe argued with God; God let him win. Each element alone is remarkable. Both elements combined are explosive.

Moshe was intimately familiar with the Almighty, playing an instrumental role in supporting God’s raining destruction on Egypt and devastating its military forces, utterly tearing the fabric of nature in the process. Knowing the Creator better than anyone who has ever lived and hearing God commit to destroying the Jewish People, Moshe stood his ground. He picked a fight with God Himself, threatening to resign and walk away from it all if God followed through.

Yet, there was no way for Moshe to think his actions had any serious prospect of success in real-time. The heroism and self-sacrifice it must have taken at that moment ought to send chills down our spine. Where does someone get the boldness to play religious Russian roulette against God Himself? Or put differently, how could Moshe possibly know that this gambit wouldn’t backfire spectacularly?

The question is far better than the answer because there is no indication that Moshe had any knowledge of that effect. He simply refused to accept the finality of a national death sentence and took a chance in the hope that God would let him win.

There is a deeply pertinent lesson here. Far too often, well-meaning people end up excusing or justifying other people’s suffering as “meant to be,” resigning those unfortunate souls to destiny and fate. Yet Moshe literally heard God Himself impose a death sentence, and he still challenged it. The unequivocal moral of Moshe’s standoff against God is that we must not accept what is “meant to be” because if that information even exists, humans can not access it. As we so clearly see, even if you heard the words uttered directly from God, you still wouldn’t actually know what God truly intended to do.

The Gemara teaches that even if a sword rests upon someone’s neck, they should not stop praying and should still hold on to the hope that their prayers will be answered.

None of this is to say that God wasn’t serious. However, a characteristic we learn from God in this story and others, including Avraham concerning Sodom, is that God may pose something unconscionable to us as a prompt we are challenged to take issue with. R’ Shlomo Farhi highlights how our heroes and role models never suspended their internal moral compasses, even when it brought them to the point of directly questioning God. Avraham took his opportunity, and God welcomed a discussion. Moshe took the opportunity here, and God not only welcomed the discussion but went on to explain how the Jewish People could make amends long into the future. When we fail to take the prompt, it results in needless suffering and misery, which Noach is the classic archetype of.

R’ Jonathan Sacks explains that it is beyond human comprehension to understand suffering in the world; because if we could understand it, then we would accept it. There is no satisfactory answer to injustice, but asking the question might make us do something about it. If there’s any nobility in accepting suffering with grace, there is only cruelty in accepting the suffering of others.

After winning his argument with God, Moshe asked for greater understanding, but God cryptically answered that we could only see God in hindsight. This suggests that Moshe’s bold and hopeful intuition was correct; we shouldn’t just accept things because that’s the way it is. God’s response is encouraging, not discouraging – our honed intuition is the absolute zenith of human apprehension. Don’t take it lying down as Noach did, and if you don’t win, then like Avraham, you’ll know you did all you possibly could. We cannot know what God will do, and we cannot see God in real-time, only in hindsight. This concept underlies the entire notion of Teshuva – our fate is not predetermined, and we can directly influence it; use your judgment, and don’t justify things that don’t feel right as destiny and fate.

The Leshem teaches that Moshe’s exchange teaches that understanding God is simply beyond human grasp; it is not a symptom of some failure, but rather a constitutive element of being human. As so many of our prophets make clear, God is not like us; not just different, but fundamentally unlike, utterly inscrutable and incomprehensible, not just in part, but entirely at all – כי לא מחשבותי מחשבותיכם.

Finally, to understand Moshe’s boldness, we must recognize that the position he took was brimming with hope. Hope locates itself in the premise that we don’t know what will happen and that there is room for us to act in the spaciousness of uncertainty. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists, who both excuse themselves from acting. Hope depends on a degree of uncertainty; otherwise, it would be prediction, expectation, or even knowledge. Moshe had hope because even though he heard God say the words, he still wasn’t sure that was the end. Think about that for a second; God can tell you something will happen, and you still couldn’t be sure that it will! And from this story, we know that God endorses this view.

As Kierkegaard said, life must be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards.

When events are still unfolding, there is simply no way for humans to determine what God’s plan is, so there is equally no need to act like anything is God’s plan for as long as you can still do something about it; the stories of our heroes and legendary figures should empower us to boldly act with the hope they once had.

Because it’s not over until it’s over.

Chaotic Good

4 minute read
Straightforward

The Book of Esther opens with a long prologue, introducing a detailed and vivid snapshot of life in the mighty Persian Empire.

It tells us about a six-month festival, culminating in a seven-day feast for noble aristocrats and foreign diplomats at the royal palace. The story includes a long exposition on the materials of the columns, couches, cups, decanters, drapes, food, and pavements. We learn that the king drunkenly summons the queen to present herself in front of all his guests, but she refuses. Insulted by her refusal and on the advice of his entire cabinet, he orders her execution.

The story then goes into lengthy detail about the meticulous search process for a suitable replacement and how the royal retainers train the potential candidates in etiquette and protocol before establishing that Esther’s beauty and grace win universal admiration, and she is named queen.

This differs from the typical structure of the stories we are familiar with. Consider that the Exodus, our most consequential story, is very short on introductory detail – a few terse sentences about the rise of a new Pharaoh who didn’t know Yosef or his family, how the new Pharaoh gradually subjugated and enslaved his Jewish subjects; and how a man from the house of Levi had a son, who would grow up to be Moshe, their savior. The backstory is set briefly, allowing the main story to take center stage and unfold. The Book of Esther takes a while to get going.

Why does the Book of Esther have such a long and drawn-out prologue?

The main story abstract is familiar to us; there was an existential threat, so the Jews turned to God for help, crying, fasting, and praying, and God ultimately listens to their pleas for salvation – שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר עוֹמְדִים עָלֵינוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנוּ וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַצִּילֵנוּ מִיָּדָם.

The Chasam Sofer suggests that what makes this particular version different is precisely the long prologue.

This story marks a paradigm shift – the end of an age of miracles and prophecy. The Creator does not appear in this story, and His guiding hand is only apparent to us readers. But while we can easily recognize God’s hand influencing the story’s main events, we can also spot it in the long prologue, how before the main story has even begun, God’s hand arranges all the disparate pieces for the endgame.

We should recognize that the festival and party the story opens with were a national victory celebration of conquest and victory; the Persian Empire had conquered Israel and exiled the Jews, many of whom attended this party! While we might reasonably expect God to have some compassion for contrite Jews desperately praying to be saved, could we reasonably expect that God would be pleased with Jews joining the celebration of their downfall and the loss of the Holy Land? And yet, this story tells us that God was watching in those moments too long before the Jews turned to Him and before the threat rose, before any semblance of story structure had yet to unfold.

Our sages identify Haman with Amalek, the eternal foe whose primary weapon is chance and chaos. Haman attempted to co-opt chaos by using a lottery, a game of chance, to identify an auspicious day for genocide.

But not only did the lottery fail, but the chaos Haman attempted to weaponize was also his undoing – Mordechai broke the law and refused to bow, and Esther broke protocol when she went to the king with no summons; both articulations of chaotic good. One of the story’s key themes is that chaos and chance are forces within God’s ambit and purview.

It’s actually one of very first things we know about God, from the very dawn of creation; that God exists amid a formless void and then organizes chaotic void into the order of creation – וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ וְחֹשֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵי תְהוֹם וְרוּחַ אֱלֹקים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל־פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם.

Haman’s mistake is the heresy of Amalek; the observation that the world looks coincidental and random is not wrong, but the conclusion is. Things can look a certain way, but things aren’t all they appear. We express this theme with the custom of dressing up.

The Ishbitzer suggests that this also underlies the custom of drinking to intoxication on Purim to the point we can’t distinguish between Haman and Mordechai. By letting go of knowledge as an empirical process, we abandon any semblance of order or structure and embrace chaos; we know from the Purim story that before anything and everything, not only can we find God in the chaos, but that chaos has served God’s purposes all along – there is simply no way it could ever pose a threat.

The Creator is hidden in the story; Mordechai has no cause to believe in a happy ending. And yet the readers can follow the trail of breadcrumbs every step of the way.

The stories contained in the Torah and prophets are passed down to us because generation after generation decided that they had eternal relevance; the Book of Esther captures a mood that is real in the story and real for us. For we who have never seen prophets or prophecy, these books are all we have to hold onto. The Book of Esther tells us that the breadcrumbs in that story are also present in our lives, even if our stories appear chaotic and disorganized.

If Purim was an event that happened through a natural course of events, then the same force that existed for them persists and is transferable. It can and does reveal itself repeatedly; in the fullness of time, chaos produces nothing but order.

The lesson the Book of Esther has to teach us is in the details of the long prologue – the chance and the trivial are all in play for God’s masterplan; us knowing readers get to recognize how all the stars aligned to set the story up for its ending long before the story had even begun. God may appear distant, but the breadcrumbs are there if we’re looking.

But, as we learn from the long prologue, the breadcrumbs are there even when we’re looking away.

The Places You’ll Go

3 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On a similar note, Rashi comments that Moshe taught the Torah in seventy languages; which the Chiddushei HaRim takes this as equipping the Jewish People with a way to bring the Torah to every corner of the world. As the Ksav Sofer highlights, the Torah in another language suggests that the Torah can be fully integrated into another culture, as history has shown.

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

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

How to Eat an Elephant

6 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friends From Far Away

5 minute read
Straightforward

Moshe is arguably the most significant person in the Torah, whose impact as a lawgiver, teacher, and savior has been felt worldwide by most major religions for over three millennia.

He was undoubtedly a brilliant and astute person whose measured thinking carried immense gravity. At a bare minimum, before any of the more expansive literature, the Torah’s plain text testifies that Moshe regularly spoke with God Himself and that he retained his sharpness and vigor until his very last breath.

Moshe had only just decisively rescued the Jewish People from Egypt and its formidable military. His newly liberated people had no government, so Moshe was the only person with the apparent authority to settle people’s disputes.

Morning till night, he would arbitrate and resolve problems. The trouble is, he quickly ran into a capacity problem; people were coming to him non-stop, and it was too much. He was exhausted!

So the Torah introduces Yisro, who tells Moshe that it simply can’t be correct for there to be one sole arbiter of justice for so many people! So Yisro advises Moshe to train some honest and competent men to share the burden, and they’d refer to Moshe any cases they could not resolve on their own. Moshe implements Yisro’s proposal, and the new organizational structure of the justice system proves to be a resounding success. Moshe is no longer stretched so thin, and Yisro goes on his way.

This story is almost funny to read – it just seems absurdly trivial!

Sure, we can say that Moshe believed he was required to teach everyone himself – וְהוֹדַעְתִּי אֶת־חֻקֵּי הָאֱלֹקים וְאֶת־תּוֹרֹתָיו – but he was limited by the same twenty-four hours in a day as anybody else who has walked the earth. Who hasn’t experienced a productivity bottleneck at some point in their lives? It is such a basic problem! Of course, anyone who’s been there recognizes that, however basic and common, it is still a serious problem. Yet as basic as the problem is, the Torah introduces Yisro, who proposes a solution that is equally basic and can be found in any book on business management or organizational strategy: to optimize workflow efficiency, the individual at capacity must delegate tasks, distribute that work for others to perform to reduce bottlenecks and improve throughput.

None of this is complicated or groundbreaking, yet it occupies a non-trivial amount of space in the Torah. Rashi says that Yisro’s very name alludes to the extra portion added to the Torah through his input and initiative. Could Moshe not figure out how to delegate effectively on his own? What is remotely remarkable about Yisro’s solution?

Perhaps the answer is what we sense – there is nothing remarkable about this conversation other than the fact of the conversation itself.

People speculate on the Torah’s political stances regarding capitalism, socialism, or what have you – but here, in the same section the Torah is given, the Torah quite plainly states that it is not exhaustive, that it doesn’t purport to contain every single kernel of wisdom that could ever exist.

Sure, it has a comprehensive framework covering the full spectrum of human experience. Still, it also leaves plenty of details for humans to figure out for themselves, in this instance, effective government. Yisro proposed an idea about improving Moshe’s administration, and the Torah explicitly takes a pragmatic approach; if it works – great!

The Ishbitzer suggests that when God tells us not to carve graven images or sculptures, it is essentially a commandment against rigidity. Rigidity almost assures self-destruction in the long run. As Charles Darwin said, it is not the strongest of species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the most adaptable to change.

While it might be intuitive to delegate tasks – that intuition still came from a human; it is not obvious that the Torah endorses and adapts to human intuition, which is what is so remarkable about Moshe’s problem and Yisro’s solution.

What’s more, the solution didn’t simply come from a human; it came from a Gentile! At a minimum, the Torah takes a nuanced view on Gentiles here – that Yisro is welcome; and his wisdom is welcome too. He correctly identifies a problem in Jewish society; he proposes a practical solution, and Moshe embraces and successfully implements his policy suggestions with God’s blessing. Aside from the pragmatic approach to government, this interaction is highly significant because, so far, almost every Gentile in the Torah has been one villain or another! Pharaoh, Egypt, Amalek, and perhaps Yishmael, Esau, Lavan, and Ephron.

Given the well-documented history, it is only too easy to generalize that Gentiles are not our friends – they only want to hurt us, they have nothing to offer, and we ought to keep our distance. This conclusion does not stretch the imagination, and it’s a safe bet that asks nothing of us. Trust nobody; everyone hates us!

But in this story, the Torah affirms that for all the enemies out there – however many and dangerous – we might also encounter allies along the way. The Ibn Ezra suggests that the Torah explicitly infers this lesson by introducing Yisro immediately after battling Amalek. In Yisro, we learn that not only do allies exist whom we ought to welcome, but there also exists the possibility that they bring experience, knowledge, or wisdom that we ought to welcome too.

To be sure, it is a minefield to navigate how to live with this, and you should seek guidance from a trusted advisor; because our culture is not their culture, and our values are not their values. But educated and experienced leaders with the maturity to appreciate nuance should recognize that the Torah plainly states that value can exist that originates outside the Torah and beyond our society from people who don’t come from the same places we do.

This bold thought shouldn’t be as threatening or radical as it may appear at first glance. Using the digital technology that went into writing this sentence so that you could then use the same technology to read it with, it’s something we should recognize is true. The Torah doesn’t tell humans about electricity or indoor plumbing. As R’ Shlomo Farhi notes, there is no religious imperative to reject something purely because it doesn’t originate from within the Torah’s culture. It’s something our sages understood long ago – חכמה בגוים תאמין. If it works – great!

Moshe was intelligent; he likely understood the value of delegating but still believed he had to do it all on his own until Yisro cautioned him otherwise. By reporting this banal conversation in such detail, it seems that the Torah embraces an element of flexibility or fluidity in how we navigate the dynamic environments we encounter in the world. Yisro probably didn’t innovate management science and delegation – that’s nothing we can’t figure out on our own. Perhaps the story’s conclusion is that we can figure things out on our own; we have the discretion to determine how to build and operate a society using the Torah’s guidelines.

When we encounter uncharted territory and unprecedented obstacles in our community and society, as we inevitably will, we have to remember that not only is figuring out the solution not against the Torah but figuring out the solution is the embodiment of the Torah’s highest ideals.

Staying alive in an ever-changing world requires flexibility and the ability to roll with the punches and modify your approach.

As the saying goes, the trees that flex in the wind survive, and the ones that do not bend will break.

Holding Us Over a Barrel

4 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Man Left Behind

5 minute read
Straightforward

After many long and grueling years enduring enslavement, the Creator had at long last dispatched Moshe to save the Jewish People. During one round of talks, Moshe suggested a more modest request to Pharaoh than letting his people go for good; instead, he proposed taking them into the desert for a multi-day festival, indicating that they would return once the festivities were completed.

At this point, since Egypt had already experienced several plagues, cracks began to appear in the Egyptian government’s resolve:

וַיֹּאמְרוּ עַבְדֵי פַרְעֹה אֵלָיו עַד־מָתַי יִהְיֶה זֶה לָנוּ לְמוֹקֵשׁ שַׁלַּח אֶת־הָאֲנָשִׁים וְיַעַבְדוּ אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹקיהֶם הֲטֶרֶם תֵּדַע כִּי אָבְדָה מִצְרָיִם׃ וַיּוּשַׁב אֶת־מֹשֶׁה וְאֶת־אַהֲרֹן אֶל־פַּרְעֹה וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם לְכוּ עִבְדוּ אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹקיכֶם מִי וָמִי הַהֹלְכִים׃ וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה בִּנְעָרֵינוּ וּבִזְקֵנֵינוּ נֵלֵךְ בְּבָנֵינוּ וּבִבְנוֹתֵנוּ בְּצֹאנֵנוּ וּבִבְקָרֵנוּ נֵלֵךְ כִּי חַג־ה’ לָנוּ׃ וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם יְהִי כֵן ה’ עִמָּכֶם כַּאֲשֶׁר אֲשַׁלַּח אֶתְכֶם וְאֶת־טַפְּכֶם רְאוּ כִּי רָעָה נֶגֶד פְּנֵיכֶם׃ לֹא כֵן לְכוּ־נָא הַגְּבָרִים וְעִבְדוּ אֶת־ה’ כִּי אֹתָהּ אַתֶּם מְבַקְשִׁים וַיְגָרֶשׁ אֹתָם מֵאֵת פְּנֵי פַרְעֹה׃ – Pharaoh’s advisers said to him, “How long will this one be a snare to us?! Let the men go to worship Hashem their God! Do you not yet know that Egypt is lost?” So Moshe and Ahron were brought back to Pharaoh and he said to them, “Go, worship Hashem your God! Who will be going?” Moshe replied, “We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds; for we must observe Hashem’s festival!” But he said to them, “Hashem be with you; the same as I mean to let your children go with you! Clearly, you are bent on mischief! No! Your men can go and worship Hashem since that is what you want.” And they were expelled from Pharaoh’s presence. (10:7-10)

Outside of wondering whether this alleged festival was mere diplomatic posturing or perhaps a genuinely lost festival we might otherwise mark, Pharaoh’s advisors took it seriously and at least attempted to meet Moshe halfway.

While Moshe delivered a compelling speech about going with everyone, men, and women, young and old, categorically refusing to leave anyone behind, it’s worth dwelling for a moment on why Moshe wouldn’t take Pharaoh up on his counteroffer to take the men out of Egypt.

This was an enormous and monumental concession! At a minimum, Pharaoh was at least willing to let some of the people go! If nothing else, Moshe could extract some fraction of the people he was tasked with saving. It’s not obvious to assume that the only possible plan was for everyone to walk out at precisely the same time. The mission had long been underway; this was plausibly the beginning of what succeeding at that mission might look like! Moshe could feasibly take this group out under the ruse of the festival and report to God for new orders about how to save those who remained behind. However many or few people were left behind, God still had to do the same work to get them out! It’s not hard to imagine Moshe accepting Pharaoh’s offer as a practical and realistic option – and it’s unclear why he didn’t.

Why wouldn’t Moshe accept a partial victory and take the first opportunity he had to get some – even if not all – of the Jewish People out of Egypt?

The Shem miShmuel explains that Moshe’s speech to Pharaoh highlighted a core value – if he had to leave even one single soul behind, it would be better if they stayed put.

Healthy humans have concentric relationship circles. I am at the center, then perhaps my spouse and children, then parents and siblings, then friends and extended family, then community and acquaintances. The Torah expects us to expand our consciousness so that those circles are proximate enough to our own that your well-being impacts mine.

Pharaoh was a savvy villain and exploited this to great effect by presenting Moshe with such a choice – Moshe could never accept it. The apparent personal victory for Moshe succeeding in part but having to leave some people behind wouldn’t be a partial victory – it was no victory at all. At best, a personal win is the starting point of helping others, and if we have the gall to take the win and abandon others to their fates, not only is it not a victory – it is actually a defeat. Pharaoh’s offer was empty; it offered nothing we could live with.

This is by no means the most practical value to live by. Moshe’s refusal indicated that he’d rather they all stay put – in Egypt! – than leave a man behind. But choosing to live with ideals is never easy; putting values before profit or self-preservation has tangible drawbacks and real-life consequences. It takes immense willpower and inner strength to avoid cutting corners. But that’s what all the stories of our greats call us to, with acts of courage and decency that fan the flames of idealism in our hearts, inspiring a desire to be just as bold and noble.

If we doubt the sacrosanctity of caring about the people we might leave behind, it’s worth recalling the penultimate plague of darkness; and, in particular, the effect it had on the people who experienced it:

לֹא־רָאוּ אִישׁ אֶת־אָחִיו וְלֹא־קָמוּ אִישׁ מִתַּחְתָּיו – People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was… (10:23)

We need to remind ourselves that, presumably, Egyptian adults weren’t like children who are scared of the dark; it’s not just that it felt like blindness, it’s that their worlds were completely cut off from each other – לֹא־רָאוּ אִישׁ אֶת־אָחִיו.

The Chiddushei HaRim highlights that this was the worst punishment God could inflict on Egypt, short only of death itself – that people could not see each other. In a very real way, recognizing another human and moving ourselves to help them cuts to the heart of what it means to be human, and we should take that notion seriously.

The distinguished psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl witnessed humanity stripped to its essence in the concentration camps and observed how, despite living under the most terrible conditions, there were still men walking around comforting others and giving away their last pieces of bread. People like these, the ones who placed themselves in service of others, who committed themselves to a greater cause, were the ones who found nourishment even in complete deprivation, who kept their fire burning even in total darkness.

In the wake of a disaster, whether earthquake, flood, terror attack, or other catastrophe, people are consistently altruistic, urgently engaged in coming together to care for themselves and those around them, strangers and neighbors as well as friends and loved ones. Every single incident has citizens who come to rescue those in need, providing evacuation and other necessities like food, clothes, medicine, and shelter. There are always first responders, but also plain everyday people from all walks of life putting their lives on the line to help.

Most people, deep down, want to be pretty decent, reflecting a profound longing for community and connection.

It’s why stories of bravery and sacrifice tend to resonate so strongly, especially when they involve ordinary people. They are reminders of who we know we can be, of who we want to be. They are antidotes to a culture of toxic individualism, cynicism, and general self-centeredness, a culture that dismisses collective meaning in favor of individual gains, that sees altruism only as a personal expense, not as a source of fulfillment, as something from which you receive as much as you give.

Our most fundamental nature, the root of our behavior, is generosity, empathy, courage, and kindness. The shadows of the plague of darkness expose what it is to be human by stripping those things away. It ought to be incredibly telling that one of the most terrible things the Egyptians experienced was a divinely imposed solitary confinement that isolated people from each other.

What’s more, if we don’t see our fate as bound to each other, the people we love, and everyone around us, we might accidentally be inviting the plague of darkness into our lives, carrying its shadows with us long after Egypt has faded into the distance.

While reaching for greatness, we either remember each other or we forget ourselves.

Refusing the Call

5 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

How could Moshe possibly refuse the call?

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

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

When the Mishkan was finally ready for inauguration, Ahron also refused the call, feeling ashamed and unworthy for his responsibility for the Golden Calf incident. Yet in the view of our sages, Ahron’s shame was exactly what distinguished him as the right person; his self-awareness of his shortcomings and his view of the position as one that required gravity and severity. Moshe never says Ahron is wrong; he only encourages him to ignore those doubts and do it anyway – שֶׁהָיָה אַהֲרֹן בּוֹשׁ וְיָרֵא לָגֶשֶׁת, אָמַר לוֹ מֹשֶׁה, לָמָּה אַתָּה בוֹשׁ? לְכָךְ נִבְחַרְתָּ.

In the Purim story, Mordechai asks Esther to go the king to save her people and Esther refuses the call, not wanting to risk her life; she has correctly assessed the facts and is indeed in danger. But as Mordechai says, that doesn’t matter; if Esther remains paralysed by her fears, she will lose the opportunity to step up. The call to action is open before her; and she must do it anyway – כִּי אִם־הַחֲרֵשׁ תַּחֲרִישִׁי בָּעֵת הַזֹּאת רֶוַח וְהַצָּלָה יַעֲמוֹד לַיְּהוּדִים מִמָּקוֹם אַחֵר וְאַתְּ וּבֵית־אָבִיךְ תֹּאבֵדוּ וּמִי יוֹדֵעַ אִם־לְעֵת כָּזֹאת הִגַּעַתְּ לַמַּלְכוּת.

The book of Jeremiah opens with a similar vignette. Jeremiah reports that God appeared to him in his youth, and called upon him to be the prophet for his generation; like his forebears, Jeremiah protests that he is just a kid and is not a speaker. In what we can now recognize as a consistent fashion, God dismisses these excuses; not because they are wrong, but because they don’t matter – he’s got to do it anyway – וַיְהִי דְבַר־ה’ אֵלַי לֵאמֹר׃ בְּטֶרֶם אֶצָּרְךָ בַבֶּטֶן יְדַעְתִּיךָ וּבְטֶרֶם תֵּצֵא מֵרֶחֶם הִקְדַּשְׁתִּיךָ נָבִיא לַגּוֹיִם נְתַתִּיךָ׃ וָאֹמַר אֲהָהּ אֲדֹנָי ה הִנֵּה לֹא־יָדַעְתִּי דַּבֵּר כִּי־נַעַר אָנֹכִי׃ וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֵלַי אַל־תֹּאמַר נַעַר אָנֹכִי כִּי עַל־כָּל־אֲשֶׁר אֶשְׁלָחֲךָ תֵּלֵךְ וְאֵת כָּל־אֲשֶׁר אֲצַוְּךָ תְּדַבֵּר.

The Torah is deliberate in how it presents stories; there are lessons in what it leaves in and leaves out. Of all the small interactions that don’t make the final cut, we should note that refusing the call is an interaction the Torah consistently deems necessary in multiple unrelated stories; our greatest heroes don’t just jump at the chance to do what is clearly the right thing.

Who is perfect enough to fix the problems in your community? Who is perfect enough to lead the people you love to greatness? The Torah seems to endorse and validate this sentiment, insisting that it has got to be you despite your flaws – אַל־תֹּאמַר נַעַר אָנֹכִי. Ironically, the people who are deluded and narcissistic enough to think they are perfect would be the worst candidate; the Torah holds Korach up as the counterexample.

If you have adequately honed your sensitivities, you recognize you have a lot of work to do, and so many people need your help. You might even hear a call to action reverberating deep within. But you doubt yourself, and you refuse the call. You’re scared – and you should be! There is plenty to fear, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. The undertaking the Torah calls us to is enormous, too enormous to accomplish on our own; yet it calls on us just the same – לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה.

There is moral fiber in quieting the voice of self-doubt and stepping up to answer the call anyway – אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי.

The Torah calls on humans, keenly aware of our fears, flaws, imperfection, and insecurities. We mustn’t engage those self-same fears, flaws, imperfections, and insecurities as excuses to neglect our duty. The Torah repeatedly tells us they don’t matter; do it anyway!

Moshe, Ahron, Jeremiah, and Esther all expressed a form of impostor syndrome, the feeling that whatever job you’re in, you’re not qualified for it and that people will figure out any minute that you’re a poser with no clue what you’re doing. Your self-awareness serves you well by accurately identifying gaps in your skillset but does you a disservice by stopping you from trying. You have to silence the doubt in yourself when it gets to the point of holding you back from doing transformational things simply because you’re not quite ready to face the reality of your own potential greatness.

Our pantheon of heroes is replete with imperfect individuals who had good reasons to refuse the call. Each excuse was entirely accurate; we ought to draw immense comfort and power from how universal self-doubt and uncertainty are. The Torah’s consistent thematic response to our greats, and through them to us, echoing and reverberating for all eternity, is simply that there’s work to do, and someone has to do it.

So why shouldn’t it be you?

His Brother’s Keeper

5 minute read
Straightforward

After a famine struck Canaan and the surrounding region, Egypt was the only place that could adequately sustain refugees. Yakov sent his sons down to Egypt to obtain provisions, where Yosef noticed them, and Yosef imprisoned Shimon for an extended period of time to make sure they brought Benjamin back with them. After releasing Shimon, Yosef had his goblet planted in Benjamin’s sack and claimed the right to enslave the framed thief. Believing their innocence, the brothers agreed, only to be crestfallen when the missing goblet was discovered in Benjamin’s personal articles, and Yehuda stepped forward with an impassioned plea, the turning point in the family’s story:

וַיִּגַּשׁ אֵלָיו יְהוּדָה וַיֹּאמֶר בִּי אֲדֹנִי יְדַבֶּר־נָא עַבְדְּךָ דָבָר בְּאָזְנֵי אֲדֹנִי וְאַל־יִחַר אַפְּךָ בְּעַבְדֶּךָ כִּי כָמוֹךָ כְּפַרְעֹה… כִּי עַבְדְּךָ עָרַב אֶת־הַנַּעַר מֵעִם אָבִי לֵאמֹר אִם־לֹא אֲבִיאֶנּוּ אֵלֶיךָ וְחָטָאתִי לְאָבִי כָּל־הַיָּמִים. וְעַתָּה יֵשֶׁב־נָא עַבְדְּךָ תַּחַת הַנַּעַר עֶבֶד לַאדֹנִי וְהַנַּעַר יַעַל עִם־אֶחָיו. כִּי־אֵיךְ אֶעֱלֶה אֶל־אָבִי וְהַנַּעַר אֵינֶנּוּ אִתִּי פֶּן אֶרְאֶה בָרָע אֲשֶׁר יִמְצָא אֶת־אָבִי׃ – Then Yehuda went up to him and said, “Please, my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord, and do not be impatient with your servant, you who are the equal of Pharaoh… Now your servant has pledged himself for the boy to my father, saying, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, I shall stand guilty before my father forever.’ Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would consume my father!” (44:1,32-34)

Rashi highlights that Yehuda is not simply begging; he makes a fervent and forceful appeal to save Binyamin. The Gemara suggests that Yehuda was willing to draw swords over this, meaning Yehuda was willing to sacrifice not only his liberty for his brother; but his very life. The Tosefta recognizes this moment as the singular deed that seals Yehuda’s eventual right to the crown.

Where once upon a time, Yehuda had advocated for the rejection of a sibling, he would not and could not tolerate the notion for even a moment, taking absolute responsibility for a planted goblet, something so completely beyond his control. With this bold step, Yehuda showed that he and his brothers had changed, and Yosef’s charade was no longer necessary, and it would be safe for Yosef to reveal his true identity.

Before proceeding, we should recognize that what Yehuda did was highly unusual.

There’s a common law doctrine called frustration. When an unforeseen event renders an agreed contractual obligation impossible, the contract or agreement has been frustrated and is set aside – אונס רחמנא פטריה. Any normal person would be well within their rights to disclaim any responsibility for the planted goblet – who could have foreseen it? There is no universe where it’s in any way Yehuda’s fault! Yehuda could so easily go home empty-handed to their father, broken-hearted and dejected, because what more could he have done to save Benjamin? Knowing that this nightmare scenario is theatrical because the goblet was planted, we know that the answer to what he could have different or better is nothing at all; it was nobody’s fault. Yet Yehuda rejected this tantalizing prompt to escape responsibility, choosing instead to endanger himself to save his brother.

Given the deep significance of this moment in the story, as accentuated by our Sage’s comments, what was the fuel that drove Yehuda to such an extreme extent?

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that Yehuda’s behavior is characteristic of being a leader. Making mistakes is an occupational hazard of leadership, but it’s a feature of being in a role with no rules navigating uncharted territory. Yehuda had made his mistakes, advocating for getting rid of Yosef, and then with his judgment in the story with Tamar. But he had admitted his mistakes and taken responsibility, learning and growing from them to face another day. He was not debilitated by his past failures and would not fail again; the stuff kings should be made of.

R’ Yitzchok Berkovits suggests that Yehuda understood that taking responsibility meant he could stop at nothing and could not allow for failure. Yehuda actually says as much to Yosef! One of the most fundamental premises of Judaism is that we have a duty to each other of mutual responsibility to look out for each other – כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה. The Hebrew expression goes quite a bit further than the notion of responsibility, articulating the legal concept of personal guarantee. There is just no such thing as a good person who minds their own business and leaves community and society to their own devices. That’s just not what a good person looks like! We are all fully responsible for living the Torah’s laws and ideals ourselves, but we are just as responsible for our fellow man and their responsibilities. The Torah teaches us that we don’t just owe God; we owe each other.

Yehuda’s example, and the example of any great leader, is that being responsible means stopping at nothing. If something goes wrong, leaders find another way, and there is no such thing as getting too discouraged.

It’s hard to overstate how monumental this moment is. Yehuda had rehabilitated himself fully, and it is what allows Yakov’s family to peacefully reunite, relocate, and reintegrate together after decades of hurt.

Cycle after cycle, generation after generation, families fought and went their separate ways. Cain killed his brother Abel. Lot had to separate from his uncle Avraham. Yishmael had to be separated from his brother Yitzchak. Esau had to be separated from his twin brother Yakov. In the book of Genesis, the stories of where we come from, families drifting apart is the natural course of events until this very moment – מעשה אבות סימן לבנים.

If the book opened with the haunting and existential question of “Am I my brother’s keeper?;” then the Torah’s answer is categorically and unequivocally that yes, you absolutely are!

Yehuda really is his brother’s keeper. With this essential lesson, the cycle has been broken, setting the scene for the epilogue of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus and the Jewish People.

The Gemara suggests that Yosef cried when he embraced Binyamin for the first time, not only for their emotional and tearful reunion after a lifetime apart; but because Yosef was crying for the two Batei HaMikdash in Binyamin’s territory that would be destroyed because of societies rife with internal hatred and animosity.

Perhaps the Gemara is communicating how hard it is for us not to hate our brother. Yosef and Binyamin had only just learned the lesson but knew that their descendants were doomed to repeat the same mistakes. Friction is part of what it is to be human – but we can be better than that. The stories of our history are about how hard it is to get along. It’s the story of our present. It’s the story of our future.

The Torah talks to us – it is written knowing exactly who we are, our shortcomings, and what we struggle with. And just the same, it calls on us to be our brother’s keeper, to take responsibility for one another, even, or perhaps especially, the ones it’s hard to get along with. It can heal a family, and it can alter the course of history.

We might fail, it might be hard, and the odds might be against us. But there is no avoiding it. It’s hard, but it can be done, and it’s the stuff greatness is made of.

Avoiding I Told You So

4 minute read
Straightforward

The book of Genesis concludes with Yosef’s story.

It’s worth noting that roughly a quarter of the book revolves around Yosef as the central character, making him its most prominent protagonist by a distance.

As an adolescent, Yosef was his own worst enemy, sharing vivid dreams with brothers already jealous of his special relationship with their father. Determining that this arrogant dreamer was unworthy of their great ancestral legacy and posed a threat to its future, the brothers disposed of him, selling him into ignominious slavery.

But he could not be stopped. Undeterred, he climbed his way out the depths of slavery and false imprisonment without faltering until he reached the height of Egyptian aristocracy.

The story reaches its climax with Yosef positioned as the fully naturalized Egyptian ruler of all, Tzafnas Paneach. In a stunning reversal, his brothers unwittingly made their way to him:

וַיָּבֹאוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לִשְׁבֹּר בְּתוֹךְ הַבָּאִים כִּי־הָיָה הָרָעָב בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן. וְיוֹסֵף הוּא הַשַּׁלִּיט עַל־הָאָרֶץ הוּא הַמַּשְׁבִּיר לְכָל־עַם הָאָרֶץ וַיָּבֹאוּ אֲחֵי יוֹסֵף וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ־לוֹ אַפַּיִם אָרְצָה. וַיַּרְא יוֹסֵף אֶת־אֶחָיו וַיַּכִּרֵם וַיִּתְנַכֵּר אֲלֵיהֶם וַיְדַבֵּר אִתָּם קָשׁוֹת וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם מֵאַיִן בָּאתֶם וַיֹּאמְרוּ מֵאֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן לִשְׁבָּר־אֹכֶל. וַיַּכֵּר יוֹסֵף אֶת־אֶחָיו וְהֵם לֹא הִכִּרֻהוּ  – The sons of Israel were among those who came to procure rations, for the famine extended to the land of Canaan. Now Yosef ruled the land; it was he who dispensed rations to all the people of the land. Yosef’s brothers came and bowed low to him, with their faces to the ground. When Yosef saw his brothers, he recognized them; but he acted like a stranger toward them and spoke harshly to them. He asked them, “Where do you come from?” And they said, “From the land of Canaan, to procure food.” For though Yosef recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. (42:5-8)

It’s hard to overstate the importance of this moment, quite arguably the moment the entire book of Genesis turns on.

In every story up to this point, siblings could not get past their differences, and families would fracture and splinter off in separate ways. But this time, something different happens, and it’s because Yosef did something different.

We can be confident that Yosef remembered his childhood dream that his siblings would one day bow before him; sharing this vision was the very thing that had torn him from his family and landed him in his current position!

Then this moment happens – they bow and humbly beg for his benevolence and assistance. Despite their best efforts, his dream has come true, and this moment utterly vindicates him. The upstart dreamer had, in fact, been a full-fledged prophet all along!

We can’t begin to imagine all the years of pain and hurt, the difficulties and torment he experienced, first at home, then through abduction and slavery, then prison and later in politics, in utter isolation.

But this moment conclusively proves that however childish or immature he had been, they were completely and utterly wrong.

If he were to reveal his true identity now – the moment his brothers are on the floor beneath him, entirely at his mercy – can we begin to imagine the sense of power and vindication those words might be laden with? How tantalizingly sweet would those words taste rolling off our tongue?

Yet, presented with the ultimate I-told-you-so opportunity, Yosef turned away from that path and towards the road to reconciliation, paving the way for the family to let go of past differences successfully.

The Kedushas Levi highlights how gracious and magnanimous it was for Yosef to avoid rubbing in this complete and total vindication. He recognized exactly who they were, remembered precisely what they had done, and only troubled himself to make sure that in their lowest moment, they would not recognize him – וַיַּרְא יוֹסֵף אֶת־אֶחָיו וַיַּכִּרֵם וַיִּתְנַכֵּר אֲלֵיהֶם וַיְדַבֵּר אִתָּם קָשׁוֹת.

Yosef refused to kick them when they were down, and would ultimately offer a positive spin on the entire story, that God had ordained the whole thing to position him to save them from their predicament – שָׂמַנִי אֱלֹהִים לְאָדוֹן לְכָל־מִצְרָיִם / לֹא־אַתֶּם שְׁלַחְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה כִּי הָאֱלֹהִים / כִּי לְמִחְיָה שְׁלָחַנִי אֱלֹהִים לִפְנֵיכֶם.

All grown-up now, Yosef is able to understand that his dreams were not about him; he was able to recognize that he was a tool. There was no glory to be had in his power, wealth, and success, or even his prophetic ability, except to the extent he could use it to help others and heal the rift in his family he had contributed to. No one had understood his childhood visions; they weren’t going to bow because he was better than them but because he was going to save them all. From this point on through the end of the story, he repeatedly makes sure to feed and care for his brothers and their families.

In this moment, this hero of heroes acted from his heart instead of his pain. He truly was better than the brothers who had once tried to break him; rather than make them bitter too, he healed them all.

Most families are at odds a little too often, that is, assuming they’re even on speaking terms! Inevitably, there are quite a few I-told-you-so moments. It’s a rehash of the cycle of most of the book of Genesis, a tale as old as time, and perhaps even the natural course of life. But just because it’s natural, that doesn’t mean it has to be that way. It’s not inevitable.

We should remember that our greats weren’t robotic machines. They hurt each other deeply and caused their family immense and undeserved pain. Yet when things came back around, although they had not forgotten, they faced those moments with compassion and humility, invoking the power to defuse decades of hurt.

The legacy of these stories is that humans have the ability to choose to avert cycles of hurt, the power to fill that void with healing. Be the person you needed when you were hurting, not the person who hurt you.

Break the cycle.

Hopes and Dreams

3 minute read
Straightforward

In the stories of Yakov’s family and their descent to Egypt, Yosef features prominently. Yosef’s brothers hated him, orchestrating his disappearance. Yet, he somehow rose to the rank of prime minister of Egypt, and in an ironic twist, wound up saving his family years later from a devastating famine in their homeland.

Our Sages herald Yosef as arguably the greatest of his generation, with certain qualities and traits exceeding even those of his lauded ancestors – צדיק יסוד עולם.

What was Yosef’s distinctive quality; what made Yosef, Yosef?

The first Yosef story, the story of his youth, starts with him on top, his father’s favorite, and ends with him quite literally at the bottom, in a pit and on the way to slavery. The second story, the story of his maturity and growth, begins with him in the depths of a prison dungeon, yet he climbs his way to the heights of Egyptian society. What changed was Yosef’s perspective.

R’ Isaac Bernstein sharply observes that the axis of Yosef’s fortune turns based on where his focus is.

In his youth, his fall precipitated from his self-absorption about his dreams and ambitions; in his maturity, his climb blossomed from his deep empathy and sensitivity to others, listening to the troubled butler and baker, and eventually, an unsettled Pharaoh, to their dreams, hopes, and fears.

The Torah begins the second story by testifying that God was with Yosef from the bottom through the top of his successes:

וְיוֹסֵף הוּרַד מִצְרָיְמָה וַיִּקְנֵהוּ פּוֹטִיפַר סְרִיס פַּרְעֹה שַׂר הַטַּבָּחִים אִישׁ מִצְרִי מִיַּד הַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים אֲשֶׁר הוֹרִדֻהוּ שָׁמָּה׃ וַיְהִי ה’ אֶת־יוֹסֵף וַיְהִי אִישׁ מַצְלִיחַ וַיְהִי בְּבֵית אֲדֹנָיו הַמִּצְרִי׃ – When Yosef was taken down to Egypt, a certain Egyptian, Potiphar, a courtier of Pharaoh and his chief steward, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him there. God was with Yosef, and he was a successful man, and he stayed in the house of his Egyptian master. (3:1,2)

The Da’as Zkeinim observes that it’s not too remarkable for someone desperate to believe in God – who else is going to help? But far too often, and with uncomfortable regularity, those self-same people forget God the moment they get their blessings, because all too often, wealth and success are the death of spirituality, snuffed out under a tidal wave of materialism.

But Yosef doesn’t forget, because it’s not about him anymore. The Torah classifies Yosef as a “successful” person – אִישׁ מַצְלִיחַ – the only instance the Torah describes someone this way; this title belongs uniquely to Yosef.

The Malbim notes that the word itself is the causative form of the word for success – מַצְלִיחַ – meaning Yosef was literally someone who caused the success of others. As the story makes abundantly clear, Yosef did in fact bring success to others; First, making Potiphar’s household successful, and then running the prison successfully, and eventually, the entire government.

What if that were your definition of what success looks like? We ought to be mindful that it is the Torah’s definition, after all. The egocentric definition of success as personal gain is victory, but it’s not success. Success is improving other people’s lives, nothing more, nothing less.

The progression of Yosef’s story is in the common thread of his God-given charisma, looks, talents, and smarts. In the beginning, he thought it made him better than everybody else, but then he grew up, and understood that it merely gave him a greater ability to help others.

R’ Shlomo Farhi suggests that this was the symbolic significance of Yosef’s stripy cloak Yakov had given him; that Yakov saw in Yosef the ability to bring together people of different stripes and backgrounds.

Our sages herald Yosef as the greatest of his generation. He stood strong and tall in the face of nightmares his brothers could never begin to imagine, and he did it with his distinctive style and flair.

In shackles and from the pits, he never forgot that God was with him and calibrated his sensitivity to others’ problems and determined to help them, despite being down on luck more than any of them.

Your fortune will change when you stop looking out for yourself.

Living with Differences

3 minute read
Straightforward

The formative stories in the book of Genesis are powerful and moving.

They tell us where we come from, what our heroes and role models looked like, and how they got there. We recognize the individual protagonists’ greatness when we read these stories, but the stories also include plenty of failings.

In the stories of Yakov’s children, there is constant tension, a sibling rivalry. Yet Yakov’s children are the first of the Jewish People; the first generation to be entirely worthy of inheriting the covenant of Avraham collectively – מטתו שלימה / שבטי י-ה.

While the Torah’s terse stories obviously cannot capture who these great people truly were in three dimensions, we shouldn’t ignore that the Torah deliberately frames the stories a particular way, characterizing and highlighting specific actions and people. We should sit up and notice, wondering what we are supposed to learn from the parts that won’t quite fit with our picture of greatness.

Each generation of our ancestral prototypes added something – Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yakov. What are we supposed to make of the apparent disputes and strife between Yosef and his brothers?

R’ Yitzchak Berkovits suggests that one lesson is how perilously close people came to killing one of their own in Yosef, how their inability to tolerate Yosef nearly ruined them, with a straight line from their disagreements to centuries of enslavement in Egypt.

While we can’t get to some ultimate historical truth of the matter, the Torah’s characterization is unequivocal. As much as we believe that there is a right and wrong approach to life and that we must fight for what we believe in, we must still love and tolerate people we disagree with. If, in our pursuit of truth and justice, we end up dividing the family, hating and alienating others, we have gotten lost along the way.

The Sfas Emes suggests that Yosef’s criticisms stemmed from the fact that he had different, which is to say, higher standards than his brothers. Being the closest to his father, he was the best placed to claim authority from his father’s teachings; and being so highly attuned, he was sensitive to his brother’s nuanced missteps, so while Yosef’s brothers could not dispute his greatness, they determined that his standards were destructive.

It’s not so hard to see why. Although they were the heirs of Avraham’s covenant, it was intolerable to have someone so demanding and oversensitive policing them day and night. In their estimation, it was untenable for a viable Jewish future.

The brothers would eventually see that Yosef wasn’t a threat, that he had been on the right track all along, just not the right one for them. But they would only realize too late, after the family had already suffered greatly from the fallout, and would be mired in Egypt for centuries as a result.

R’ Yitzchak Berkovits suggests that the lesson for us is to learn to live with high standards in the place where theory and practice meet.

Daily, we see the razor-sharp edge of absolute truth clashing with the realpolitik of practical rather than moral or ideological considerations. It’s impossible to measure and quantify values or where to draw the line; it’s deeply personal and subjective to specific circumstances, continually hinging on so many practicalities.

Yosef and Yehuda never clash about what’s true, or what matters. They agree entirely about the value of Avraham’s legacy, but they could not agree on what that might look like. One of the story’s lessons is the error of confusing theory with practice; with no difference in values, we can and should tolerate differences in practice.

Two of the most fundamental principles of the Torah and life are loving your neighbor and the image of God, both of which speak to the dignity of others – ואהבת לרעך כמוך /