1. Home
  2. Sources
  3. Novellae

The Power to Become

3 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isolation Redux

3 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.

Fooled by Randomness

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, something happened on a given date, and we celebrate the holiday on its anniversary. That’s not quite the case with Purim because half the story, and the name itself, revolve around why events happened on that particular date.

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

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

Why did Haman cast a lottery?

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

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

Either goat can be the scapegoat; it doesn’t matter at all. Which portion of land goes to which tribe doesn’t really matter. It could be any, which is the point; that’s why it’s fair.

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 identify that Jonathan had violated Saul’s command to fast; and by Jonah’s Gentile shipmates to reveal that the terrible storm was his fault. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Purim story contains a powerful and timeless moral; not just that God is concealed in the story but revealed in the outcomes, and that God alone has the power of outcomes entirely. Humans don’t control much at all, so the glory of outcomes is God’s alone; the small, improbable outcomes that stack to shape the history and reality we know are one of God’s most decisive and lauded 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.

But we can only say that in the abstract. The Jewish People may have survived the Holocaust, but a lot of individuals didn’t. When it’s your feet in the story, and you stand face to face with mortal danger, that’s scary, and you have to respond; you have to actually do something. When Haman’s plan went public, they correctly recognize it as an imminent catastrophe! No one in the story thought that they just need to strengthen their faith, that they just needed to trust God to do His thing and sort it all out, and that everything was going to be okay.

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

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

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

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

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

Whereas Haman abdicates choice and responsibility to his magical lottery, Esther bravely and deliberately chooses to advocate for her people and courageously resolves to stand before the king, not because she knows she’s going to succeed, but because it is the right thing to do. Where Haman is a coward who consults a lottery out of fear of failure, Esther puts her best foot forward and takes a chance; the outcome of her last stand no longer matters to her because she has accepted that God alone has the power of outcomes. If she dies, she dies, and salvation will indeed have to come from someplace else. Her willingness to give her life to this cause is a moral victory that places her in our pantheon as a heroine worthy of the highest honors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We believe in God, and God runs the show. But even though Haman can’t hurt us, it sure seems like he can; when it looks like people are in danger, we have no choice but to act accordingly. Although you don’t control the outcome; you must act as if you can do something, like what you do matters, because that’s the only thing within your power to do.

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

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

There’s only one way to find out.

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 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 genuinely 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 entire Torah – so, for example, the Torah unambiguously says to keep Shabbos with no exceptions.

Yet, in reality, that standard has always been theoretical; it has never existed. In the external world where theory meets practice, it is neither possible nor true to achieve perfection. We 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 are compared 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 so obvious that like all things in life, there must be a subjective element to religiosity, by necessity, and there absolutely 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 end result is a “pleasant scent,” which is how the Torah says God receives 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 true even while the sacrifices have lapsed. If you have the means to help others and do less than you could, you have not met your duty. To who 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 own unique potential.

In as much as we all need to be better, you can only move forward from where you are. You are where you are supposed to be right now – הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה עוֹמֵד עָלָיו אַדְמַת־קֹדֶשׁ הוּא. 

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.

Broken Things

5 minute read
Straightforward

At Mount Sinai, Moshe ascended for forty days to receive the Torah. He didn’t show up when people expected, so they got nervous and clamored for something to direct their attention towards. In a moment of madness, they crafted a Golden Calf, and in a bizarre turn of events, labeled 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 witnesses these festivities, and, utterly horrified, throws down the tablets, permanently shattering them.

Now that the first tablets were broken, we have to make do with the second tablets, which are almost second class in comparison. The first tablets contained a Torah that humans could never forget; the second ones contain a Torah we forget all the time. Whereas God had crafted the first ones, a human had to craft the second.

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.

Another 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.

Sure, Moshe shattered the tablets, but what did they do with 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; but also to the first tablets that he had smashed – 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. This is the comprehensive picture of the Golden Calf story and its aftermath, and it 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.

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; sometimes a scratch, sometimes a bruise, and sometimes a deep scar or void that never quite goes away.

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

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.

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, incorporating them with the real world you inhabit. It won’t look quite how you thought, but maybe some parts can in some ways. Sometimes we have to break and let go of what we hoped could be in order to make way for what is and must be.

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. On the ashes of 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 this rupture led to the Mishkan project, which all subsequent prayer, sacrifice, and worship center around. The remarkable quality of a comeback 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, and is an acronym for the Ark, the tablets, and the broken tablet they sit alongside – אלול / ארון לוחת ושברי לוחת.

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.

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.

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.

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 exist in a reciprocal interaction. We must find a way to marry the broken with the whole, hopeful idealism with gritty reality.

Whatever the past may have been, it is all we have to stand on as we build and reach for a brighter and more hopeful future.

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, absolutely!

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 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 literally means to designate or separate – קדושה.

But there is a critical element missing from the everyday use of the word. 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 our 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, and that’s why holiness is so linked with connectedness. Somewhat esoterically speaking, our souls interface in a kind of superstructure which is where the magic happens – 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 an inverse or parallel tzimtzum of our own, which we can only do in our enhanced state of togetherness.

Back in the real world, it starts with individuals, human to human. The Torah has its fair share of lofty arcane things, but a full half 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 as well as 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 vastly 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 sure seems thematically similar. Every single person was invested in the Mishkan, or perhaps better, every single person was a contributor and owner of that holiness, which could be precisely what made it holy in the first place.

There is certainly 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 are supposed to, rich and poor alike. 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, which is to say that 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.

Perhaps it is almost natural that the thing we build when everyone comes together is the holiest thing there can be. 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 learn something with, anything. Find an interesting local community project or charity to support or perhaps get involved with, in a big way or small. 

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

Prayer Redux

7 minute read
Straightforward

One of Judaism’s essential and fundamental practices is prayer.

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 at all what the postulate of prayer working would even look like! 

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 among 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 gave 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 luggage. They have no boats and cannot swim. There is an army approaching on the horizon, and they are out of time and out of options. They are desperate, so obviously, they cry out to God for help! Isn’t that what we do? Isn’t that what we’ve always done?

Moreover, the Gemara imagines that Heaven has gateways for prayers, suggesting that prayers are evaluated and then admitted or refused based on timing and circumstance. The Neila service on Yom Kippur extensively utilizes this imagery to create a sense of urgency – we need to squeeze a final prayer in because the doors 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.

The Jewish People were desperate, and they cried out for help. Why would God get annoyed?

The imagery of gates in Heaven is powerful and compelling, but it appears to have a flaw. The metaphor doesn’t work for a gate of tears because a gate that doesn’t close is no gate at all!

The Kotzker Rebbe sharply teaches that the gate of tears is still a gate because some tears are turned away; the gate is shut to crocodile tears, 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 hurt the Jewish People by sending the young women of Midian into the Jewish camp to seduce the men; and most of the young men found it impossible to resist. The camp succumbed, sparking a devastating plague.

But the Midianite women were not successful at drawing in all the Jews; some of them resisted the obvious temptation, 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 may be real, but prayers can’t help if your approach to problem-solving is fundamentally broken.

There may be stories of people praying for magical solutions that materialize out of thin air with no human input. Still, the Torah seems to dismiss the notion of thoughts and prayers as a substitute for action.

At the Red Sea, God snaps at Moshe to tell the people to get a move on. The Midrash further expands that God told Moshe that it was not the appropriate time for lengthy prayer; danger was at hand, and it was time to act!

Rashi suggests that God was annoyed at the 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 prayer, an 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 that there was nothing else they could do, and we’d be wrong for thinking prayer could 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 be with him and that his family should survive.

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. 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 – crucially, a hope that drove him to act.

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 to them 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, and the ocean split for all.

Perhaps that underpins God’s irritation, and we can almost hear the reverberation of an answer to the rhetorical question of “What do you expect Me to do?!” with God begging for something to work with. Get in the water, dummy!

We should not judge them 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 prayers are corrupted by fear or despair and yet still wonder why our prayers go answered. We need to 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 – “What do you expect Me to do, exactly?” 

If we’re crying crocodile tears, we need to confront the reality that our prayers are mediocre, and it shouldn’t be surprising that they don’t seem to be working.

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 go anywhere if you don’t give your partner attention. You won’t succeed if you don’t try. If you expect your prayer to change that fundamental reality, you will likely continue to be disappointed – the world has never worked that way. You absolutely have to try, and even then, you have to try very hard indeed.

We need to animate our lives 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 blessing, but humans must build the vessels that will contain those blessings.

There’s plenty to be scared of; the uncertain path that lies ahead is shrouded in the darkness of the unknowable. But we can illuminate it with decisive action, taking bold steps that brighten the way forward. And with each step along the way, pray to meet with good fortune and success.

If there’s something you’ve been praying on for a while, it’s worth pausing being a soldier for a moment to think like a general and strategize. Every person who wants something different from their performance than what they’re getting is doing something to perpetuate that. Bluntly ask yourself what you could be doing better to make it happen.

Miracles do happen, but they start with your level of 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

Towards the beginning of the Exodus story, God gives Moshe his great mission.

Moshe initially resists and says that 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 very outset.

This is consistent with a broader motif throughout the entire Torah, filled as it is 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 wasn’t going to 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 particular chapter of the story illustrates that it’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 phase of Dayeinu.

Let’s 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 actually 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 a nonchalant 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. Perhaps their identity could be a hook Moshe’s words latched on to in their intangible subconscious.

Moshe’s words weren’t futile because they don’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 register 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 that they were worth fighting for, and we need to recognize that as well.

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 to 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 it doesn’t look like progress; sometimes it even looks like a step backwards.

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 here, something exceedingly deep 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 or prevent 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 might be the familiar enemy that directly tries to kill, but the devious Lavan only hurts us indirectly. Amidst all Yakov’s material blessing with Lavan, 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 and 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.  

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.

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 escape 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 consciousness. Through symbols, we find meaning in the world, which becomes transparent and reveals the transcendent. 

As the Torah draws to a close, Moshe knew his time was almost up, and he laced his timeless words heavy with metaphor and symbolism. Some symbols are more accessible because they use archetypes that are universally understood, like water:

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 grass; like droplets on the grass. (32:2)

The ancients understood 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, all of which is plain from Moshe’s usage.

What’s more, water symbolizes the universal reservoir of all possible existence, and supports every creation, and precedes their form. In the Torah’s creation myth, there is 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 that is so central to Judaism 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 life and regeneration; and in fact, the search for liquid water elsewhere in the universe serves as a close proxy to the search for life beyond our planet.

Moshe compares the Torah to rain – יַעֲרֹף כַּמָּטָר לִקְחִי – and sure, the Torah has lots in common with rain! Life-giving, cleansing, regenerative, restorative. And like rain, it came from the sky and affirms and sustains us. So sure, the Torah is like rain! 

But Moshe doesn’t say the Torah is like water, and he doesn’t just say the Torah is like rain; he says it’s also like dew.

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 there’s a cold object in a warm environment. As the object’s exposed surface cools by radiating its heat, atmospheric moisture condenses faster than it evaporates, resulting in the formation of water droplets.

In other words, a cold object in a warm environment can draw water 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. 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 generate and cultivate ourselves, 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; it’s far more subtle, like rain and dew. A morning’s dew is not enough to nourish a plant, but with the regular appearance of dew every day, 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 tide them over until the rains come back. 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. 

One of the few explicit promises in the Torah is rain in return for good choices:

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 rain reflects our outward effort, as reflected in this promise; but dew is a product 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 warmth into the world that affirm and sustain, that things can and will eventually grow from. Given the mythical potency of dew and its connection to humble yet persistent origins, our sages suggest that dew has 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, it will 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 machine. You have fallow and fruitful seasons, needing different things at different times; a bit more sun today, a little less rain tomorrow. It is a design feature, not a flaw, and is a far healthier approach to adopt than perpetual sameness.

This isn’t cutesy wordplay; it 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.

And although trees lose their leaves in the dark dead winters, they do not despair, secure in the knowledge that spring will return and they will blossom once again. You might be in the thick of winter, but hold on; you will blossom once again – ‎כי האדם עץ השדה.

In fact, R’ Zohar Atkins notes that the Torah has a multitude of laws about cutting down trees because trees, unlike people, cannot run away. The imagery of a human as a tree is powerful, representing that we must stand tall and persevere in the face of cultural, political, spiritual, and technological upheaval.

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. 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.

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 hard times, and the metaphor itself acknowledges and validates that there are times the rains just won’t come. But in those moments where the Torah won’t be our rain, it can be our dew if we cultivate the environment for it.

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 cultivate, 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.

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 difficult to understand, like shaking the Lulav. A rare few are not only difficult to understand but leave us with a sense of moral unease as well.

One of them is the laws concerning Amalek.

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

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 own voice at Sinai; even more so having suffered a genocide in living memory. Although some people have no trouble understanding it that way, you’re in good company if you find difficulty in a commandment to kill Amalek today.

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

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

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

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

 The perpetrators of the original crime are all dead, and modern society does not believe in the heritability of guilt, but the offense isn’t simply that they physically attacked the Jewish People. As Rashi explains, it’s that they cooled us off along the way while we were weary – אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כּל־הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ. It’s not apologetics or mental gymnastics; it neatly fits the words and is something we recognize all around us.

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

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

So sure, the malignant form of Amalek looks like a Haman or a Hitler. But the benign form is all around us, in ourselves and in others. It’s not any particular humans we need to overcome, but rather, their attitude and ideology. Case in point, 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 – and the attack in Rephidim only happens opportunistically when people were caught off guard – רְפִידִים / רפיון ידים.

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?”

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

As Churchill said, if you have enemies, that means you’ve stood up for something at some time in your life. To be sure, if you only have enemies, you have a different problem; but if you have no enemies, you also have a problem, likely that you try to please everybody rather than standing for your own ideas and values. Make sure you know which side of the line you’re on!

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.

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.

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

Remember that someone who was Amalek can lose their status; when they discard their harmful ideology, they’re not the enemy anymore, and the law no longer applies to them.

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

4 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah’s stories have captured the awe of audiences for three millennia, and rightly so. 

The Torahs tell us of explosive moments, like the 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, Moshe holds out his staff, and God parts the waters, and the Jewish People walk through the dry ocean floor. The Egyptian army attempts to follow, but once Moshe’s people have crossed safely, the sea suddenly reverts back to normal, 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 Red Sea is old news, Sinai is history, and it’s time to move onward:

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 – וַיַּסַּע מֹשֶׁה אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל מִיַּם-סוּף / רַב-לָכֶם שֶׁבֶת, בָּהָר הַזֶּה. פְּנוּ וּסְעוּ לָכֶם.

The starkness of the Torah’s almost dismissive continuity is jarring, and there is a vital lesson here. It suggests that even after the greatest of heights, the most momentous achievements, and the most incredible successes, the Torah simply notes that once you get there, you can’t stay long, and before you know it, it’s time to continue the journey and move onward.

Onward is an interesting word – positive and proactive, meaning going further rather than coming to an end or halt; moving in a forward direction. As the Izhbitzer explains, part of growth is moving on and walking away from the place you once stood. We can’t stay because the moment is gone – it’s gone in time, irretrievably behind us, and it’s our responsibility to realize that distance in mental and physical space too.

It’s true to life as well; the world will not dwell in your magical moments. Whether you ace the test, get the girl, close the deal, buy the house, sell the business, have the baby, or whatever the great achievement is; it’s still Tuesday, you’re still you, you still have deadlines, you still have to get into better shape, your siblings still get on your nerves, and your credit card bill is still due. And so, by necessity, there comes a time to move onward.

This lesson is challenging enough, but the Ishbitzer 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; the miraculous rescue at the Red Sea is mundanely followed by the people’s complaints about the local water being too bitter.

In the boring and dull moments, we may well find ourselves thirsty with nothing to drink. But this, too, as the Izhbitzer teaches, is part of the process of growth. Eventually, those bitter waters can transform into a sweet oasis, and what appeared to be downtime is integrated into the journey forward.

And actually, all too often, great heights are followed by sharp declines and drawdowns, troughs and valleys; the Golden Calf debacle doesn’t just happen after the extraordinary events at Sinai – it literally happens while they’re camped at the foot of the hallowed mountain!

But even the Golden Calf story has redeeming elements; apart from the important teaching that using iconography to worship the One God is still idolatry, it decisively highlights God’s propensity 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 here will fuel you on to further heights; that energy does not simply overflow into everything else. Success is not final, and failure is not fatal; the proper response to both is the same – onward.

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 changes, moves, and evolves.

The Torah is a guide to life – תורת חיים – and one of the defining features of living things is motility – they move independently. We shouldn’t be so shocked by the ebbs and flows of life itself, moving and changing, with concomitant ups and downs. When living things don’t move, they quickly atrophy, stagnate, wither, and before long, they die. Living things must move and push to grow healthy and strong. You can fall down and run out of breath plenty of times along the way, but that’s part of it, so long as you, eventually, get back up and keep moving onward.

As R’ Shlomo Farhi explains, if you look at stock market performance over a century, the zoomed-out time frame looks like a smooth and steady incline; and yet, when you zoom in to years, months, weeks, days, and hours, the amount of choppiness and volatility increases. On an extended time frame, each individual part matters less. The bouncing highs and lows blend into a smooth line that only goes one way – onwards and upwards. 

The past is not gone or forgotten; it forms the basis and foundations of today.

Although we can’t dwell in the moments of achievement, perhaps there is a part we can carry in our hearts and minds.

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

Mental Game

3 minute read
Straightforward

Why do some people accomplish their goals while others fail?

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

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

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

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

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

Talent and skill have normals 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’ Noach Weinberg teaches that desire, the free will to persevere, is evenly distributed to us all. Free choice is binary; we all have it.

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

It means 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 radical proposition that cuts to the very core of Judaism is that all humans have free will, and at any moment, we can make better or worse choices:

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 famously 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 you can’t do much about the genes you were born with, but you can do a lot to develop mental toughness. Mental toughness is a learned trait that anyone can develop.

We can all reach for higher levels of mental resilience. Not everyone has the potential to outrun others in this area, but we can all come closer to realizing our own potential.

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. 

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.

Religious Risk

4 minute read
Straightforward

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 – listen.

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, but they would laugh him off as a crazy old man. 

Imagine sitting next to a heart surgeon on a long flight, and after watching you do your thing and getting to know you a little, he warns you that you’re at risk of heart disease if you don’t tighten up your diet and develop a good exercise habit. How arrogant and overconfident would you need to be to ignore the doctor and do nothing different because he’s just some crazy guy on the plane? After all, he’s not the doctor you’ve seen for twenty years! And he didn’t even talk to you that nicely…

If you have that conversation on the plane, the very least you should do is get checked up and consider the weight of the man on the plane’s word and the gravity of the consequences of doing nothing.

But that’s what Noah’s world did – nothing.

On the back of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we have hopefully considered the importance and urgency of Teshuva. We read the story of Jonah, whom God instructs to go to the corrupt city of Ninveh, and the entire Assyrian empire falls in line and makes amends on the back of just one sentence, and the star of Ninveh 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. Sure, Ninveh had a history of prophecy and God’s acts of Biblical destruction to draw on as precedents, and Noah’s people didn’t. But that only reinforces the sense of hubris we ought to see here, and it ought to make us sit up and introspect for a moment.

Is it a good time to buy a house or a stock? People have been saying it’s a bad time for a long time and been wrong, but they’ll also be right eventually, so it’s hard to say one way or the other. But you have to acknowledge the risk inherent to make an informed decision, not ignore it out of hand.

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. But the entire world was lost because they wouldn’t listen – not even a little.

The riskiest stuff is always what you don’t see coming, and you won’t see anything coming when your eyes are wide shut.

We organize our lives around taking more or less risk; risk is inextricably linked to being human. 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.

These can be more or less obvious at different times in our lives – but they’re always there.

The Flood story highlights another kind of risk – religious risk.

Sure, God promised not to flood the world that way ever again when the world wouldn’t listen. 

But that’s just what God did. Humans still possess the property of not listening, and that ought to make us sit up a little and wonder what we might be ignoring.

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!

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 all do without excessive pride or self-confidence, and as always, the proper response to everything and at all times is to resolve to do a little better.

Killing Envy

5 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

Coveting. Envy. Jealousy. Wanting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Firstly, let’s read the words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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 this 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 long 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 ever elusive and lies perpetually out of reach; failure to achieve perfection does not equal 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, they didn’t fail. 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 it’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 really 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 ethics 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, 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 was not bitter, and died entirely at peace, with no qualms or regrets – מיתת נשיקה. He never thinks for even one moment that he deserves better; even if at certain points he thinks it’s too hard and threatens to quit. He demonstrated the stoic quality of outcome independence, with complete trust in God that this was simply the way it was supposed to be.

Quite arguably, this is faith played straight; 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 we 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 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. 

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. 

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 just 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 their 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 tremendous lesson? Moshe, the avatar of ultimate loyalty and service, did all he could, and although he didn’t get what he might have 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. That’s not how the world we live in works. But if there’s no happily ever after, there is 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. 

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 should invert the question. With all we know, why do we still hold on so tightly to our expectations of how things ought to be?

We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.

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.”

Almost all 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, the state has a monopoly on violence. The state alone has the right to use or authorize physical force; individuals do not have the right to commit violence. It is the 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 while 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 ladies of Midian, and while some people held back and could remain on the outskirts of the calamity, Pinchas alone stepped into the fray, stood 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, am I any better or worse than the other 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 steps towards 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; bold, brave, and decisive in the face of danger, fear, and uncertainty.

That’s what God endorses, and it’s the 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 observed that God had to throw Truth out, not Peace. It wasn’t about a majority; it’s because the Truth can stand alone and doesn’t require backup. The Truth is the truth, and however many people stand against it, the truth will out. 

As the example of Pinchas shows, it takes heroic courage and determination to go against the crowd, tremendous conviction, inner strength, and willpower. And unlike Pinchas, we’re probably not going to get a shoutout and a 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 a crowd going in the wrong direction.

Waters of Life

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. Far more likely, 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, first to oppression and the suffering, 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.

So, in hindsight, the people realized that the miraculous water God had provided them in impossible circumstances had been in Miriam’s merit. It isn’t a surprise that Miriam is tightly associated with water. She was tough, resilient, and able to adapt her steadfast faith and hope under any circumstances, sharing life-sustaining force with everyone around her.

They should have mourned loudly and openly for Miriam – she had been their water 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 not always the case.

As far as big and life-changing happenings go, the Revelation at Sinai ought to 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, or perhaps at least a somber sense of purpose and responsibility. But that’s not what happens.

The very 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, and 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; that they couldn’t wait to put God’s mountain behind them, figuratively as well as 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 just 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 lots of big and scary things we have to 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.

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 private spiritual needs, helping them bring sacrificial offerings to find atonement or thanksgiving, whatever their personal circumstances.

The Torah describes a plain and simple uniform that all on-duty Kohanim would wear: linen shorts with a matching long-robed shirt, with a belt and turban. 

The uniform was deliberately modest and minimal, but like all dress codes, uniforms pose a challenge. The way we choose to dress is a form of self-expression; doesn’t imposing a uniform dress code stifle individuality and human freedom? 

To be sure, clothing is an essential form of self-expression, and self-expression is vital to emotional growth and wellbeing. We use freedom of expression, including clothing choice, to cultivate the ability to make all manner of choices about how we express ourselves, an integral part of learning a wider responsibility for our choices and healthy personal development in general. 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 own outward appearance as part of being in control of your identity. There should be no question that you can definitely tell something about a person as reflected in 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 have to check yourself at the door somewhat. There’s plenty of time for self-expression, but it might not be the right moment to express yourself in all your fullness 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 the conclusions we draw from the way someone dresses. These are powerful drives, and we’d be lying to ourselves if we thought we could suppress subconscious instincts; they are sub-conscious. 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. If you’re sitting in the emergency room with a troubling health concern, it might throw you off a little if the doctor walks in with ripped jeans and spiky chains over a tank top. He’s still the same doctor whether in scrubs or a clown costume, but what that means then, is that scrubs aren’t just for the doctor; the scrubs are also for 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 useful 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 helps patients and their families feel comfortable and at ease, all before a single word needs to be said.

And it’s no different for spiritual health and wellbeing. 

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 absolutely superficial – the textbook definition, in fact – 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 the distractions, removing barriers to people getting what they need. Uniforms aren’t intimidating in 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 you 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 specifically 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 personally think that’s true, it is still a reason somebody else might think 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 a meaningful and high signal interaction 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 alike; uniformity doesn’t mean homogeneity, 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, in your yard, or the 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 certain 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 seem to provide substantial benefits to portions of the population disadvantaged in certain contexts. 

So perhaps dress codes don’t compromise individuality or self-expression at all; 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 requirements we ought to expect 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 Haggadah doesn’t mean that God merely keeps His promise; the words literally mean that 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 that 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 small remnant might have been rescued. That could plausibly have been one version of keeping to the promise – saving whoever was left.

But God didn’t do that. God did not abandon them to their fates, and God would not let them die or fail. Instead, every single 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, and 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 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 the discussion 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 a 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 actually have no idea whatsoever. Perhaps once again, the qualitative strain of exile can stand in for a required quantity of years. Yet in the final analysis, it’s entirely academic because even if our spiritual assets were entirely exhausted of ancestral credit and merit, we could 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.

Someone with negative liberty can do as they please, like an infinite vacation. The trouble with negative liberty is that it doesn’t exist for long; we are invariably enslaved to someone or something, even if just our conscious habits and subconscious instincts. They may have a good time at first but will eventually become enslaved to some form of addiction, desire, or laziness. That’s not being free; that’s called being lost.

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 actually the highest expression of freedom, and in the long run, you can only benefit. 

The Midrash similarly suggests that not only can freedom be found in the service to God, but it is also the only way to ever 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 humans that are more humane, kinder, and more compassionate.

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 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 saving 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 at all. 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.

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 for the legendary Eliyahu HaNavi, harbinger of redemption in general, and Mashiach in particular. Customarily, this is an honor bestowed on an elder, or perhaps someone who is sick or needs 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; who among us doesn’t need their dose of deliverance? But while all the Seder’s gestures and rituals are laden with meaning, no one seriously thinks that 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 hall. 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 even have to do 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 and inviting the world to share in it as well.

The Yerushalmi tells of two sages traveling through the night. As the sun slowly broke over the horizon, dispelling the darkness that had defined their journey, one sage commented that redemption is exactly the same. There’s a long period of darkness, but then suddenly, there’s just a 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 came to a decisive end in exactly 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 the custom for an elder or a person in distress opening the door is powerful and moving; this person is actively looking for the first glimmer of light, still holding onto hope. 

Our ancestors held on to hope in far worse circumstances, and we can too. Dawn’s early light always came for them eventually, and it’s coming for us too. You might even 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 Persia. It tells us about a six-month festival honoring the mighty Persian Empire, culminating in a seven-day feast for noble aristocrats and foreign diplomats at King Achaverosh’s royal palace. The story includes a long exposition on the materials of the columns, couches, drapes, pavements, cups, decanters, and food. We then learn that in his drunken state, the king summoned the queen to present herself in front of all his guests, but she refused. Insulted by her refusal, and on the advice of his entire cabinet, he ordered her execution. The story then goes into lengthy detail about the meticulous search process for a suitable replacement and how the royal retainers trained the potential candidates in etiquette and protocol before establishing that Esther’s beauty and grace won everyone’s admiration, and she was named queen.

This is not the typical introductory structure of the stories we are familiar with. Consider that the Exodus, our most consequential story, is very short on extraneous 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 only very briefly, allowing the main story to take center stage and unfold.

So why does the Book of Esther have such a long and drawn-out prologue?

The Chasam Sofer suggests that the main story is all too familiar to us – שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר עוֹמְדִים עָלֵינוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנוּ וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַצִּילֵנוּ מִיָּדָם. The main story’s abstract is that 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.

Yet what’s makes this particular version different is precisely that long prologue.

This story marks a paradigm shift – the end of an age of miracles and prophecy. God does not appear in this story, and His guiding hand is only apparent to us, the readers. But while we can probably recognize God’s hand influencing the story’s main events, we can also spot it in the long prologue. Before the main story had even begun, God’s hand is evident to us, arranging all the pieces for the endgame.

We should also recognize that the festival and party the story opens with were a national victory celebration of conquest; the Persian Empire had just conquered Israel and exiled the Jews, and many of those very Jews participated and partook in this party! While we might reasonably expect God to have some compassion for contrite Jews desperately praying to be saved, could we so reasonably expect God to be delighted with Jews joining a celebration of their own downfall and the loss of the Holy Land? And yet, this story so clearly tells us that God was watching in those moments as well, long before the Jews turned to Him and long before there was a threat or any semblance of structure to the story 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 a 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 Purim story’s clear morals is that chaos and chance are forces within God’s ambit and purview.

In a sense, it’s actually the very first thing we know about God from the very dawn of creation; that God exists amid a formless void and then organizes that chaos into the order of creation – וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ וְחֹשֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵי תְהוֹם וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל־פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם. It’s the mistake Haman made, and it’s the heresy of Amalek; Amalek’s observation that the world looks coincidental and random is not wrong, but the conclusion is. Things may look a certain way, but things aren’t truly how they appear – which happens to be exactly what the custom of dressing up expresses.

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, that 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 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 He’s there if we’re looking.

But, as we learn from the long prologue, He’s 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.

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 lawgiver, teacher, and savior has been felt across the world 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, distributing that work for others to perform to reduce bottlenecks and improve throughput.

None of this is difficult or groundbreaking stuff, yet it occupies a non-trivial amount of space in the Torah. 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 at all, 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 very 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; but it also leaves plenty of details for humans to figure out for themselves, such as effective government in this instance. 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 one 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 an effective solution, and his policy suggestions are embraced and successfully implemented. 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 archetype after another! Pharaoh, Egypt, Amalek, and perhaps Yishamel, Esau, Lavan, and Ephron as well.

Given such 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 however 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 it’s probably not for laypeople to grapple with; because our culture is not their culture, 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 outside 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 and internet 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, but there are many wise people and resources available to us with best practices and common sense, and we figure it out. 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; unlike, for example, the Amish. 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 punchline is the very fact we can figure things out on our own; we have the discretion to figure out 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, 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 important moment in the history of creation. To take it even further, cultivating a channel to receive the Torah might even be the reason for existence itself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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, leaving open the possibility 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 and powerful 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 all the people to walk out at precisely the same time. The mission had long been underway, and 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 so hard to imagine Moshe accepting Pharaoh’s offer as a practical and realistic option – and it’s not at all obvious 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 mi’Shmuel 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’s expectation of us is that we expand our consciousness so that those circles be proximate enough to our own that your wellbeing 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 very 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 piece 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 deep and 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 served to isolate people from each other.

What’s more, if we don’t really see our fate as bound to each other, to 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 cannot forget each other. If we do, 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 subjugate the Jewish People, which they slowly dialed up until it became 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 the 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 the beginning of one of the most epic and important stories ever told. Moshe knows where he comes from and has seen his brethren suffering, and his birth and upbringing uniquely situated him 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?

It’s essential to understand that refusing the call is not just a literary trope that humanizes the hero; because this story isn’t ordinary literature. If Moshe could refuse the call, and his refusal is part of this timeless story, it reflects a fundamental property intrinsic to all humans we need to acknowledge and understand.

It wasn’t that Moshe doubted that his people could or should be saved; it’s that Moshe doubted himself. He had fears and insecurities – he didn’t think he was worthy of such a great mission. He didn’t think he had what it takes, and he was missing what he believed to be a key trait to be successful – he wasn’t a man of words! How would he persuade anybody to follow him? How would he advocate for his people to the Egyptian government? This isn’t faux humility – Moshe is articulating an accurate self-assessment; he is right! And yet, the answer seems to be that none of that matters at all, that he has to get on with it just the same.

When the Mishkan was finally ready for inauguration, Ahron refuses the call, feeling ashamed and unworthy, in part because of his complicity in the Golden Calf incident. In the view of our sages, Ahron’s shame was exactly what validated him as the right person; his self-awareness of his shortcomings, and his view of the position deserving gravity and severity. Moshe couldn’t say Ahron was wrong, and only encourages him to ignore those doubts – שֶׁהָיָה אַהֲרֹן בּוֹשׁ וְיָרֵא לָגֶשֶׁת, אָמַר לוֹ מֹשֶׁה, לָמָּה אַתָּה בוֹשׁ? לְכָךְ נִבְחַרְתָּ.

In the Purim story, Esther also refuses the call, not wanting to risk her life. Mordechai gives her a similar response – she has correctly assessed the facts and is indeed in danger. But that doesn’t matter; the call to action stands open, and someone has got to respond. If Esther focuses on her fears and flaws, then she will lose the opportunity to step up, and someone else will – 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 and called upon him to be that generation’s prophet. Like Moshe, Jeremiah protests that he is just a kid and is not a speaker, and in what we can now recognize as a consistent fashion, God dismisses these excuses – not because they are wrong; but because they ultimately don’t matter – 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 to us; what it leaves in, and also what it leaves out. Of all the small interactions that don’t make the final cut, we should take note that refusing the call is an interaction the Torah deems necessary for us to know about many of our heroes. Our greatest heroes don’t just jump at the chance to do what is so obviously the right thing; whether the right thing isn’t so obvious in the moment, or whether they didn’t eagerly jump for other complex reasons. The Torah’s stories consistently contain a refusal of the call; our legends also experienced doubt and uncertainty, just like we do.

Who is perfect enough to fix the problems you see around your community? Who is perfect enough to lead the people you love to greatness? Ironically, anyone deluded and narcissistic enough to think they are perfect enough would be the worst candidate. The Torah seems to be saying that it has got to be you – אַל־תֹּאמַר נַעַר אָנֹכִי.

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 in your life vibrating deep within, but it’s not enough. You doubt yourself, and you refuse the call. You’re scared – and you should be! There is plenty to be scared of, 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 shirk our duty. The Torah repeatedly tells us they just don’t matter; there’s work to do!

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 are going to 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 reason 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 home; 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.

Killing Regret

4 minute read
Straightforward

Our ancestor Avraham was the first iconoclast, a brave pioneer who stood up to a cruel and pagan society and chose to pave a new path of love and kindness.

Late in life, God revealed Himself to Avraham, confirming his intuitions and agreeing to an eternal covenant with the blood bond of the Bris. No sooner than Avraham had been ultimately vindicated that God tests Avraham and asks him to sacrifice his son.

And then, after successfully passing this impossible test, Avraham and Yitzchak arrive home, only to find that the great Sarah is now the late Sarah; she had died, quite possibly from learning what Avraham had set out to do:

וַתָּמָת שָׂרָה בְּקִרְיַת אַרְבַּע הִוא חֶבְרוֹן בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן וַיָּבֹא אַבְרָהָם לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ – And Sarah died in Kiryat-Arba – now Hebron – in the land of Canaan, and Avraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and cry over her. (23:2)

The Baal Haturim famously notes that the text of the Torah records Avraham’s crying with a little כּ – which denotes that he only cried a little for her – וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ.

We are talking about the great Avraham, dealing with the loss of the great Sarah, who shared in all he did, who hosted and taught all the women that came from near and far, whom God endorsed as having greater prophecy and wisdom than Avraham himself! Yet Avraham only cried a little – the Torah doesn’t even record what he said about her!

Given all they’d been through together, how could he only cry a little? How does such a great man only cry a little on losing such a partner and spouse?

Crying is a natural response to pain that expresses our grief and sorrow. When we lose somebody near and dead, we cry because we miss them and won’t see them again.

We’re all going to die.

Hopefully, in a very long time, but death is the price of life, and we can avoid its clutches for a while, but we can never escape. But death is a gift as well, giving impetus and urgency to everything we do. The clock is ticking, and the time is now. Each tick, and every tock, poses one question of us. What will we do with the time that we have?

Few things are sadder than the death of a young person because of the time they didn’t have, the stolen years brimming with possibility and potential that go unlived and unfulfilled.

But sometimes, death doesn’t come with grief and sorrow. Sometimes, death is not a tragedy, so much as it is peace and celebration. There is nothing sweeter than the culmination of a life well-lived. When a person has lived a full and rich life, their death isn’t a life that’s cut short; it has been stretched and squeezed to its fullest until the time comes to move on.

We are talking about Avraham and Sarah.

Their positive impact touched the lives of many in their day; it continues to influence our lives today. How many tens of billions of the humans who have ever lived count Avraham and Sarah among their icons and role models? Is there a more excellent achievement humanly possible than to live a life that permanently moves people across eternity?

When someone like that dies aged 127, that person’s life must be honored and celebrated. It’s a loss, sure. It’s sad! But it’s only a little sad, and that’s why Avraham only cried a little.

When the Torah’s greats pass on, there is no commotion, struggle, or turmoil. The imagery the Torah uses when Hashem collects the soul of the departed is hauntingly beautiful; they go with a kiss – מיתת נשיקה. There is no anguish or suffering; they just move on naturally, smoothly, peacefully, and perhaps even lovingly.

The Torah’s greats do all they can for as long they are able until it is time to move on. The Zohar says that Avraham died with all his days fully accounted for – וְאַבְרָהָם זָקֵן בָּא בַּיָּמִים. Rashi says that every unit of Sarah’s life was brimming with fullness – שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה.

There was no person they should have helped, yet didn’t. There was no move they should have made but had been too afraid. There was no word left unspoken that should have been voiced.

It wasn’t sad for Sarah, and it was only a little sad for Avraham.

The unfortunate timing of Sarah’s death was Avraham’s last test – could he still live with no regrets? The Bikurei Avraham notes that regret can work before and after the fact; we can worry about the opportunity cost of doing something before the fact, and we can regret doing something after the fact – והסר שטן מלפנינו ומאחרינו.

Avraham’s resounding response was that he could live with no regrets, recognizing that his and Sarah’s life together had been worth it, that there wasn’t much to grieve over, and only we know how right he was.

The choices we make all come at a cost. We have to make investments and sacrifices for the lives we want to lead, and it’s hard. But a life well lived is well worth it.

In the end, we only regret the chances we didn’t take, relationships we were too afraid to have, and decisions we waited too long to make.

Live your life to the fullest; let there be no excuses, no explanations, and no regrets.

Count Me In

4 minute read
Straightforward

A fair amount of times, the Torah reports that the Jewish People conducted a census, breaking down how many men were in each tribe, and then adds up the subtotals for a total count. It occupies a lot of space in the Torah.

The Ramban explains that taking a census is a basic government function to organize logistics, safety, and military planning.

While that is accurate, the Torah’s lessons are timeless and eternal. Of what value to us is the level of detail in the raw statistical data from each census?

The Ramban explains that the information itself is more relevant to daily government, which is probably why it only covered military-age men. But the lesson isn’t in the data; it’s in the method of counting.

The way they counted was that every individual would have to appear before Moshe and Ahron, and God. The requirement to appear before the entire generation’s leadership tells us that those people were not just numbers; they were valuable individuals.

There is a constant interplay between individualism and collectivism. Individualism stresses individual identity and goals; collectivism focuses on group identity and goals, what is best for the collective group. The notion of collectivism and unity – אַחְדוּת – is all too often propounded to squash individuality, and we mustn’t tolerate that. You are not just a cog in a machine, with another human being at the ready to take your place. You are not the property of the state or any group or person.

And as the Lubavitcher Rebbe put it, people are not dollars. You are not fungible. You are not replaceable.

R’ Jonathan Sacks highlights the Torah’s choice of words for the count – שְׂאוּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ כָּל־עֲדַת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל / כִּי תִשָּׂא אֶת־רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל – literally, “lift the heads.” There are many ways to say “count” in Hebrew; this isn’t one of the naturally obvious ones. Again, the Torah seems to be saying that even among the crowd, lift your head up high and proud. To this day, Jews do not count people directly, but instead, count heads.

There is a beautiful and uncommon blessing we say upon seeing a crowd of multitudes – חכם הרזים – the knower of secrets, which the Gemara explains as acknowledging God’s greatness in knowing each of us in our individual hearts, despite our different faces and minds. This is a subtle but vital point – God is great not because of the glory and sheer size of the crowd, but because God can see each of us as distinct within the sea of all too forgettable faces; God can see the individual within the collective.

It is a blessing in praise of the God who creates diversity in our world, rejoicing in our different minds, opinions, and thoughts. It is a blessing over Jewish pluralism. It is one thing to tolerate our differences; it is quite another to acknowledge them as a blessing. It is one thing to love Jews because we are all Jewish, that is, the same; it is quite another to love Jews because they are different from ourselves.

We cannot tolerate factionalism, where one subgroup splinters from the main group, but we cannot afford to exclude individuals. The Torah makes incredible demands of us, and we mostly fall well short, some a little more, some a little less.  We must hold ourselves to the highest standards, but we can never look down at our fellow.

To argue the other side, while we must celebrate individuality, we must not condone individualism. Our duty is to find a balance between being individuals while remaining part of the group. We need to maintain a tension between the need for individual freedom and the demands of others.

The whole idea of loving others is that they are not just like you; if you had to love people like you, that would just be loving yourself and would demand nothing of you. We must reinforce the notion of tolerance of heterogeneity, people not just like us.

Loving another is not that I care about someone in my circle who is just like me, and perhaps I have a duty to expand my conception of who is in the circle. That would be loving yourself and would demand nothing of you.  Loving another means that someone else’s problems bother me so deeply that I simply have to do something about it, and I will be lacking if I do not. The idea of loving another does not include circles – it has nothing to do with people’s similarity.

Evolutionary theory teaches that co-operation is as important for survival as competition. You’re irreplaceable and unique – but remember that we need you! The strength of the team is each individual. The strength of each individual is the team.

The idea that every Jew is worthy enough to be presented before God and the generation’s leadership, that every Jew must lift their head high, is timeless and eternal. Moreover, it teaches a broader lesson that is portable to all and covers women, children, and the elderly as well. The Jewish People are something massively monumental, yet we each have our own significant role to play. We must celebrate each other’s unique contributions while striving to do more ourselves.

This probably illuminates an interesting comment by Rashi, that the point of the census was to discern how many people had survived the plague that followed the Golden Calf debacle. The plague killed a small fraction of the total population figure given in the Torah, so it’s strange to talk in terms of “survivors” when only a few succumbed. But if we consider each individual as a core component of the Jewish People, then the Jewish People as a whole really is damaged by the loss of any single person, and the remainder truly are “survivors”.

The Baal Shem Tov taught that if the Jewish People are a Sefer Torah, then every Jew is a letter.

The Torah counts everyone. Because everyone counts.

You can be the best whistler in the world, but you can’t whistle a symphony. It takes an orchestra.

Keep Chopping

4 minute read
Straightforward

Mark Twain famously admired the Jewish People’s survival through the ages. The great empires of Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome all rose and fell, yet the Jewish People endured.

What, he wondered, was the secret to Jewish immortality?

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that for every nation and culture in history, land, not law, brought people together. People first formed settlements, then small groups, then villages, and then built towns and cities. As the groups grew, they became unstable and developed legal systems to resolve disputes and uncertainties – first the land, then the law. Unique to the Jewish People is the phenomenon that the law precedes the land, and it transforms the expected trajectory of Judaism by making it non-contingent. When a nation is exiled and dispersed, it doesn’t typically survive; Judaism has spent most of its history in the diaspora – not sovereign in Israel.

And it has a lot to do with the fact that the Torah was given in the desert wilderness the fourth book of the Torah is named for – במדבר; the location of three-quarters of the Torah’s stories, where the Jewish People accepted the Torah and formed a covenant with God, lived on miraculous manna and water, while sheltered under divine cloud cover.

At that moment, the Jewish People were constituted long before they ever saw the land, and so they could survive, identity intact, without it. As only R’ Jonathan Sacks could put it – the law came before the land, so even when the Jews lost the land, they still had the law. Without geography, there was still history.

Pagan worship often revolves around natural life cycles and ecosystems, to which the desert wilderness is inhospitable, teaching the essential lesson that the One God exists in the emptiness too.

This understanding inverts our expectation of the exilic trope of the wandering Jew. We don’t practice a majority of the Torah in exile – the laws of the Temple, the laws of the Land, the laws of government, or the laws of holiness and purity, among others. But although exile is not ideal, we can still thrive.

Our ancestor Yakov was the final prototype of the Jewish people and is the archetype for life on the run. When Yakov leaves home for the first time, Rashi comments that even with his departure, and even in his sleep, the sanctity of the land went with him – it was contingent on him, not where he found himself. He fled from home, from Lavan, from Esau, and then from Israel. Yet he transitions ever upwards, and it all happens on the go, casting off a former identity and emerging anew, foreshadowing the journey his children through the ages would have to take.

The very notion of a Mishkan – a portable temple – embodies the idea that we can create holiness on the move, and it reinforces the idea that the law before the land means that the law without the land is not lesser. If we can live with God in the middle of nowhere, we can live with God anywhere.

It’s the underlying theme of the Purim story as well – in the moments we think we’re most alone, God is by our side every step of the way, no less than when He seems closer. You may have to search a bit, but God doesn’t vanish on us.

The law precedes the land. The model to survive, perhaps even thrive, is placed before us long before being tested – the antidote before the venom. On a far deeper level, it even precedes Creation – it comes before everything else.

None of this is to say that it’s easy to persevere in difficult times – it most certainly is not. There is no shortage of moments in Jewish history where it took all people had only to scrape by, at times physically, other times spiritually, and on occasion both. There is no shortage of moments where people were lucky to make it out alive. Our circumstances can be cruel, and that pain is genuine, and we must be careful not to callously dismiss it.

Yakov’s life was fraught with pain and strife, and the spectre of mortal danger loomed over his family throughout. The Jews fought Moshe and struggled to live in the wilderness from beginning to end. The Jews in the Purim story came perilously close to a genocide that was averted at the very last. If anyone says it’s easy – it’s assuredly not.

We don’t choose our circumstances, and sometimes the odds can be stacked against us. On a national level, exile has lasted for most of our history, but again, the law precedes the land. So sure, we yearn for redemption every day, hoping for a time we can practice the Torah in its fullness; but this is where we are right now, and life today isn’t worth a smidge less than it could be – so long as we’re doing the best we can. If we’re doing everything within our power, what more could God possibly ask of us? Perfection describes a process, not an outcome.

Channeling our ancestor, the archetype of Yakov, we can shine through pain and exile – not just surviving, but perhaps even thriving.

There are times we feel lost, scared, and alone. Sometimes the only real choice we have is whether we can even keep going at all. It’s real, and it’s hard! But we do have the capacity – הַזֹּרְעִים בְּדִמְעָה בְּרִנָּה יִקְצֹרוּ.

Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says we’ll try again tomorrow.

An Eye for An Eye Redux

4 minute read
Straightforward

One of the most bizarre and incomprehensible laws of the entire Torah was also one of the ancient world’s most important laws – the law of retaliation; also called lex talionis:

עַיִן תַּחַת עַיִן שֵׁן תַּחַת שֵׁן יָד תַּחַת יָד רֶגֶל תַּחַת רָגֶל׃ – An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot. (21:24)

The law of retaliation isn’t the Torah’s innovation; it appears in other Ancient Near Eastern law codes that predate the text of the Torah, such as the Code of Hammurabi. All the same, it appears three times in the Torah, and its words are barbaric and cruel to modern eyes, easily dismissed as unworthy of humane civilization.

People who wish to express their opposition to forgiveness, concession, and compensation, insisting on retaliation of the most brutal and painful kind, will quote “An eye for an eye” as justification, conjuring a vision of hacked limbs and gouged eyes.

This law is alien and incomprehensible to us because we lack the necessary context; we fail to recognize its contemporary importance to early human civilization.

The human desire for revenge isn’t petty and shallow. It stems from a basic instinct for fairness and self-defense that all creatures possess; and also from a deeply human place of respect and self-image. When a person is slighted, they self-righteously need to retaliate to restore balance. It makes sense.

The trouble is, balance is delicate and near impossible to restore, so far more often, people would escalate violence, and so early human societies endured endless cycles of vengeance and violence. In this ancient lawless world, revenge was a severe destabilizing force.

This is the context we are missing. In such a world, societies developed and imposed the law of retaliation as a cap and curb violence by prohibiting vigilante justice and disproportionate vengeance. An eye for an eye – that, and crucially, no more. It stops the cycle of escalation, and tempers, if not neuters, the human desire for retribution. Crucially, it stops feuds from being personal matters, subordinating revenge to law and justice by inserting the law between men, a key political theory called the state monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force.

R’ Jonathan Sacks observes that the same rationale underlies the Torah’s requirement to establish sanctuary cities. The Torah inserts laws between the avenger and the killer, and a court must give the order. Revenge is not personal, and it is sanctioned by society.

This was familiar to the Torah’s original audience. We ought to reacquaint ourselves with this understanding – the law is not barbaric and primitive at all; it’s essential to building a society.

Even more importantly, our Sages taught that these words are not literal, and instead, the remedy for all bodily injury is monetary compensation. The Torah forecloses compensation for murder –  לא תקחו כופר לנפש רוצח. The fact the Torah chooses not to for bodily injuries necessarily means compensation is allowed. And since people are of different ages, different genders, and in different trades, with discrete strengths and weaknesses; mirroring the injury isn’t a substitute at all, so paying compensation is the exclusive remedy, in a sharp application of the rule of law – there shall be only one law, equitable to all – מִשְׁפַּט אֶחָד יִהְיֶה לָכֶם.

Before dismissing this as extremely warped apologetics, the overwhelming academic consensus is that no society practiced the law as it is written. Today, we readily understand that if we suffer bodily injury, we sue the perpetrators’ insurance company, and the ancient world understood that tradeoff too.

How much money would the victim accept to forgo the satisfaction of seeing the assailant suffer the same injury? How much money would the assailant be willing to pay to keep his own eye? There is most certainly a price each would accept, and all that’s left is to negotiate the settlement figure, which is where the court can step in. Even where the law is not literally carried out, the theoretical threat provides a valuable and perhaps even necessary perspective for justice in society.

It’s vital to understand this as a microcosm for understanding the whole work of the Torah. There is a much broader point here about how we need to understand the context of the Torah to get it right, and we need the Oral Tradition to get it right as well. The text is contingent, to an extent, on the body of law that interprets and implements it.

Without one or the other, we are getting a two-dimensional look at the very best, or just plain wrong at worst. If we were pure Torah literalists, we would blind and maim each other and truly believe we are doing perfect like-for-like justice! After all, what more closely approximates the cost of losing an eye than taking an eye?! Doesn’t it perfectly capture balance, precision, and proportionality elegantly? It holds before us the tantalizing possibility of getting divinely sanctioned justice exactly right!

But we’d be dead wrong. Taking an eye for an eye doesn’t fix anything; it just breaks more things.

The original purpose of the law of retaliation was to limit or even eliminate revenge by revising the underlying concept of justice. Justice was no longer obtained by personal revenge but by proportionate punishment of the offender in the form of compensation enforced by the state. While not comprehensive, perhaps this overview can help us look at something that seemed so alien, just a bit more knowingly.

There’s a valuable lesson here.

The literal reading of lex talionis is a vindictive punishment that seeks pure cold justice to mirror the victim’s pain and perhaps serve as a deterrent.

With our new understanding, compensation is not punitive at all – it’s restitutive and helps correct bad behavior. You broke something or caused someone else pain, and now you need to fix it – and you don’t have to maim yourself to make it right!

There is nothing outdated about the law of retaliation. It’s as timely as ever because we all break things. We hurt others, and sometimes we hurt ourselves too. Our Sages urge us to remember that one broken thing is bad, and two broken things are worse. We can’t fix what is broken by adding more pain and hope to heal.

Taking it further, there is a wider lesson here as well.

In seeking justice for ourselves, we needn’t go overboard by crushing our enemies and hearing the lamentations of their women. We can and should protect ourselves and our assets, but we needn’t punish our adversaries mercilessly such that they never cross us again. In a negotiation, don’t squash the other side just because you can. It’s about making it right, not winning. Channeling the law of retaliation, don’t escalate. Think in terms of restitution, not retribution.

Do all you must, sure, but don’t do all you could.

Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost

3 minute read
Straightforward

There are parts of the Torah that we all love, with fond memories of the wonder of learning them for the first time, like the Creation story, Avraham’s first encounters with God, the Ten Plagues, and Sinai. Hopefully, it’s not sacrilegious to observe that some parts are a little less riveting, like the Mishkan’s design-build, the laws of sacrifices, and the 42 locations in the wilderness the Jewish People visited on their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land:

אֵלֶּה מַסְעֵי בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר יָצְאוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לְצִבְאֹתָם בְּיַד־מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן – These were the journies of the Jewish People who departed in their configurations from the land of Egypt, under the charge of Moshe and Ahron… (33:1)

It’s worth asking what the point of this is. The Torah is not a history journal; it exists to teach all people for all time. Here we are, 3000 years later, tediously reading about rest stops.

Why does it matter at all?

In a sense, it’s the wrong question to ask, and it betrays the kind of thinking we are all guilty of.

We have this expectation and perception of linear progress, consciously or not, that our lives should be a straight road, leading directly and smoothly to our destination. What’s more, we are relentlessly focussed on the outcome, where we are going. And then we get frustrated and feel sabotaged when invariably, it doesn’t pan out that way!

But this is a stiff and unrealistic view of not only progress but life itself. Progress is incremental and organic, not linear or mechanical.

If you’ve ever driven long-distance, there are a few things you just know. You can’t go straight as the crow flies, so you know you’re going to have to follow the signs that guide your way carefully to get to the right place. You know you will probably miss an exit when you’re not paying attention, and it’ll cost you 15 minutes rerouting until you are back on track. You know you will need to stop for gas and bathroom breaks. You know there will be long stretches of open road where you can cruise, and there will be times you will get stuck in traffic. You know you will have to get off the highway at some point and take some small unmarked local streets. We know this.

We trivialize the journey, and we really mustn’t. Sure, there are huge one-off watershed moments in our lives; but the moments in between matter as well – they’re not just filler! While they might not be our final glorious destination, the small wins count and stack up.

The Sfas Emes notes how the Torah highlights each step we took to put Egypt behind us – מַסְעֵי בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר יָצְאוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם. We might not get where we’re going so quickly – but if Egypt is behind us, then that means we must still be moving forwards. As we get further away from our point of origin, we should keep it in the rearview mirror to orient us as a reference point to remind us that we’re headed in the right direction. However long it takes to get where we’re going, and however bumpy and curved the road is, it’s important to remember why we got started in the first place.

The 42 stops along the way were not the optimal way to get from Egypt to Israel. It doesn’t take 40 years to travel from Egypt to Israel. But it happened that way, and the Torah tells us this for 3000 years and posterity because that’s the way life is, and we can disavow ourselves of the notion that progress or life should somehow be linear. The process is not a necessary evil – it is the fundamental prerequisite to getting anywhere, even if it’s not where we expected, and it’s worth paying attention to.

We put Egypt behind us one step at a time. We get to the Promised Land one step at a time. Any step away from Egypt is a substantial achievement – even if it’s not a step in the physical direction of the Promised Land, it truly is a step towards the Promised Land.

The journey is anything but direct, and there are lots of meandering stops along the way. It might seem boring and unnecessary – I left Egypt, and I’m going to Israel! But that’s the kind of thinking we have to short circuit. It’s not a distraction – it’s our life.

Life isn’t what happens when you get there; life is every step along the way.

Science and Torah

4 minute read
Straightforward

It is probably not hyperbole to say that the Torah’s Creation story is one of the most powerful and influential stories in human history.

But here’s a provocative question. Is it literally true?

Our first instinct might be an emphatic and outraged “of course it is!” and shut down all discussion. Instead, let’s consider the matter soberly.

The Creation story is a type of creation myth, a genre common to all societies across all human history.

A genre is a category of things characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter. Creation myths are symbolic stories that carry enormous influence on our lives and societies. The word “myth” itself doesn’t primarily mean false or fanciful; in the society in which it is told, a myth is regarded as conveying profound truths – not just literally, but metaphorically, symbolically, and historically.

A creation myth is potent and formidable because the ideas it contains express in narrative form what we experience as our basic reality – where we come from, how we find ourselves where we are, and crucially, where we are going.

The idea of a creation myth is not particular or unique to the Torah. It is a feature across all cultures in human history, and we probably each have our own personal creation myth about the direction.

To ask if a myth is literally and factually true is to miss the message entirely and is the wrong lens to understand it on any level.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch emphasized that the Torah is not a textbook of magic or metaphysics. The Torah is not a how-to manual of how God created the universe; it’s about how to ethically form and structure human society in general and Jewish society in particular.

The Creation story is about 34 verses long, whereas the Mishkan and its related laws and services occupy close to a quarter of the Torah. R’ Jonathan Sacks quips that while the Torah is clearly interested in talking about the natural universe, the home god makes for us; it is clearly much more interested in the home man makes for God.

Moreover, the Torah speaks in human language for humans to understand – דיברה תורה כלשון בני אדם. The Torah does not describe things in terms of objective truths known only to God but in terms of human understanding, which is, after all, the basis for human language and expression. There is literally no point whatsoever for the Torah to include information we could not comprehend.

The Torah is God’s handiwork. But godly as it may be, it must be read, understood, and practiced by imperfect humans. It’s not a deficiency in the medium, the Torah – it’s a deficiency in us, the audience.

Taking the entire Torah at literal face value only, we’d practice the law of the captive woman, the law of the rebellious son, and we’d all be blind from taking an eye for an eye.

Using just one example, the concept of “the image of God” literally means God has a form, an incorrect and possibly heretical belief. Taken non literally, it’s an astoundingly egalitarian concept and infinitely more consequential, to the extent that one sage, Ben Azzai, identified it as the essential principle of the Torah.

The Torah was given in the ancient world, where the available universe of ideas held that the ancient world’s gods were part of nature and often fought each other. For example, in Atrahasis, a contemporary Akkadian epic, there were different tiers of god, and the working class gods were tired of serving the upper-class gods. So they created humans from the dirt to be the new underclass and relieve the working gods of their labor. In this cosmic order, the gods are indifferent to humans at best, and humans don’t matter at all. Humans exist to be enslaved and serve the gods. Critically, this corresponded to the earthly social hierarchy, where people exist to serve the priestly class and king, who serve the gods best.

This entire hierarchy is utterly obliterated by the Torah when the One singular God, free and independent, creates humans out of love, and in God’s image, creates them free. This imagery completely delegitimizes the language of oppression and enslavement and reimagines humans as supremely valuable and completely free. Note also how the “formed from dirt” motif is inverted and elevated when God personally infuses the dirt with a soulful breath of life – וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים.

The Mishna learns from the imagery of the emergence of humanity by creating one individual that each life is its own universe, so when one person takes another’s life, it is like destroying a universe. When a person saves a life, it is as if he saved a universe.

R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that we take self-identity for granted today, but historically, self-identity was subsumed to community and culture. In a world where the individual self barely existed and mattered very little, it’s radical to say that God cares for us individually because it’s not obvious at all – בשבילי נברא העולם.

The motifs in the Torah’s creation story don’t need to be literal to be explosive. All this and more, from just one concept – the image of God.

The development of the scientific method created an inflection point in the trajectory of human knowledge, transforming our understanding of the world around us. We needn’t feel threatened by revolutionary ideas like evolution and the Big Bang, because once again, the Torah speaks in human language for humans to understand. Imagine explaining General Relativity and the age of the Universe to a band of barely literate slaves in the desert 3000 years ago. Dinosaur bones were only discovered in 1677 and were believed to belong to giants!

If we’re looking to the Torah to teach us empirical facts, or parsing the text for hints or rebuttals to an old or young universe, to evolution or dinosaurs, to arcane magic or General Relativity, we are going to come away disappointed because that is not a primary function of the Torah; how it all works is a wholly separate and parallel track to what it all means.

As R’ Jonathan Sacks explains, science speaks of causes, but only religion can speak about purpose; science can take things apart to see how they work, but only religion can put things together to see what they mean.

If science is about the world as it is, and religion is about the world that ought to be, then religious people need science because we cannot apply God’s will to the world if we do not understand the world.

Torah is an art, not a science.

The Pelagian Heresy

4 minute read
Straightforward

A substantial chunk of humans who have ever lived are familiar with the Adam and Eve story, about the emergence of humans and human consciousness out of primordial space and time.

The nature of the kind of story it is lends itself to a plethora of explanations and interpretations; the motifs and concepts evoked by its imagery are incredibly powerful and convey deep meaning.

Consider just one line of interpretation. After Adam ate the fruit, the original sin – what changed?

It is hard to overstate how enormously consequential both the question and answer are.

In Christianity, the dominant Augustine school teaches that man’s original sin fundamentally corrupted the state of humanity from a state of innocent obedience to God to a state of guilty disobedience, the fall of man. Humans are bad and sinful, and humans need God’s grace to be redeemed. Humans are born in a state of sin, and there is a straight line from this interpretation to the belief that God sent Jesus to die to atone for humanity’s sinful condition.

To Judaism, the Augustine theory is untenable and poses insurmountable theological problems, and so it is critically essential to reject it entirely and understand what our point of departure is.

If a human is fundamentally sinful or evil by nature, then not only is sin inevitable, but the idea of religion or morality is a cruel joke. It turns God into a grotesque caricature – how could a just and fair God punish us for sinning if doing right is simply beyond our power? If humans can’t choose to be good, there’s no free will and no reward or punishment. If we can’t choose, our actions have no value as we don’t control them. If you are fundamentally bad, then it’s not your fault because being good is impossible. Interestingly, a Christian theologian named Pelagius noted these objections and was excommunicated as an arch-heretic for well over a thousand years.

The proper Jewish perspective is that humans are untainted by original sin and freely choose between good and evil. The idea of free choice underpins all the laws and stories of the entire Torah. Arguably, it underpins the whole idea of creation – as much as the almighty God could want anything from an as puny thing as a human, what could we even do for God if we can’t choose?

More fundamentally, the idea that humans are bad and sinful in a perpetual state of evil that is somehow separate from God or God’s master plan is a form of dualism. Dualism is the belief in two opposed powers, which borders on idolatry, contrasted with monotheism, the belief in one singular power.

As R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches, dualistic thinking is immature and dangerous because it means all bad things are caused by something God hates, or the enemy of God, or Satan. In ourselves, it causes terrible and unwarranted guilt and shame, and in societies, it causes fractious rifts among people, who see each other as the enemy and the other.

R’ Shimon Bar Yochai suggested that since God wanted to give the Torah to humans, God might have created humans with two mouths; one for words of Torah and holiness and one for talking and eating. The implied premise of the question is that perhaps dualism is the correct view, and we ought to protect good from being tainted by evil. Yet we know we only have one mouth for all the good and bad, because dualism is the wrong way to look at the world; that’s just not how things work.

We’re not supposed to be angels – God isn’t short of them and doesn’t need our help making more. We might not be much, but we’re precisely what we’re supposed to be. Maybe we have an aspect or inclination to do the wrong thing sometimes or perhaps often – יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו. But it’s not that we are essentially and intrinsically bad; it’s still just an inclination – a יֵצֶר.

This is arguably the point of the flood story, which begins and ends with God lamenting how bad people can be. It’s not that humans stopped being bad; it’s that God recognizes that human badness is inseparable from the other things God wants from us. We can learn to resist and even overcome this inclination, which is the entire point of creation, Judaism, and the Torah.

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

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

Adam sinned, sin exists, and we make mistakes. But it’s not that we are bad because of dualism; it’s because of the duality of all things. What changed wasn’t that Adam became bad, but in eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, he became more knowledgeable and aware of good and evil, of guilt and consequences.

There is a little bit of something in everything. In the good, there is some bad, and in the bad, there is some good. There is fullness in the emptiness, sadness in the happiness. They are complementary parts of a reciprocal interaction that are present in all things, including ourselves.

We take the good with the bad.

The Simple Things

2 minute read
Straightforward

Sukkos is the harvest festival. Nature and God have given their bounty; a year of stressful and messy work in the field has finally paid off, and the storehouses are full. In an agrarian society, it was probably the time of year where everyone got their best night’s sleep on a full belly.

And yet Sukkos is the festival of Hoshana – literally, “save us!” – הושע נא. Each day of the Sukkos prayers is marked by beautiful and moving liturgy tracing all the times and circumstances God has saved us, culminating in Hoshana Rabba, with the ultimate wish to please save us too. But it’s the time of year we probably ought to feel most safe and secure!

But the Hoshana prayers seem like they would fit better at calendar moments we were at our lowest and needed God’s salvation most. So why not say them on say, Pesach, when the Jewish People were mired in Egyptian slavery, or maybe the infamous day of mourning and loss, Tisha b’Av?

A recurring theme of the Torah is that challenging moments are obvious in the sense that we know how to respond. In a crisis, we know we have to do better, be better, pray harder, and perhaps fast. Don’t tell the poor soul mired in those unfortunate circumstances to have faith and believe – it’s unnecessary because that’s all they have.

Someone whose family is well and whose well-paying job is stable doesn’t feel the same desperation that the other guy does. How could he?

At the exact calendar moment of security, the Torah reminds us not to take our wins for granted, to count our blessings. We step outside our solid and warm homes into the flimsy and makeshift Sukka, which by definition, must be structurally defective for permanent habitation, reminding us how frail we are and how life is so temporary. That’s not a bad thing – that’s just what it means to be human. The Sukka is not built for inclement weather, and that’s just fine. It’s not supposed to. We don’t control the weather outside the Sukka; we only control what happens inside the Sukka. It’s not made of much, but the mitzvah is to make it as beautiful as possible on the inside.

We step away from the trappings of success to live in simplicity with God. We need to remind ourselves at the moment that we feel most blessed because that’s when we are prone to forget. So we beg for help – save us… from ourselves, from our own complacency.

We can forget that the difference between the successful and unfortunate person isn’t necessarily the effort and merit each puts in. We can forget that a whole lot of things we were desperate for a few years ago worked out quite nicely in the end. The Sukka is an excellent metaphor for the uncontrollable vicissitudes of life, a humbling moment amid proud successes.

It’s not about saying thank you for finally getting what you wanted; it’s about recognizing that you were always blessed. That maybe we don’t need the trappings of success to see our blessings; that in the moments we have deemed to be blessed, we need to remember not to take for granted all the other blessed moments as well.

We don’t control our circumstances, but we can find joy in life regardless.

Recycling the Past

2 minute read
Straightforward

Hopefully, we go into Sukkos on the back of an uplifting Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Resolved to do better and be better, we feel invigorated and full of life. Yet we leave Shul and go right back into the daily grind of everyday living, with the same habits and routines of yesterday.

What sort of change can we expect if we go right back to what we were doing?

Perhaps the mitzvah of Sukka can teach us.

The defining feature of the Sukka is that the roof has to be made from unprocessed raw plant matter and must create sufficient shade. The classic example is the waste product from the threshing floor and winery once you’ve extracted the useful resources. Instead of disposing of the refuse, the husks and stalks can be recycled and repurposed for the mitzvah – which is precisely what Teshuvah is.

It’s not accurate to say that we put the past wholly behind us and move on. Instead, we should carry the past forward with us. Past mistakes can become informative stepping stones for us to learn and improve. History need not repeat itself, and we can evolve.

The Esrog echoes this concept as well. It is the choicest of the four species and the metaphor for an ideal human, yet if you cut one open, the edible fruit is surpassingly small – the inedible rind makes up most of the mass. Even the ideal person has built up plenty of rind over time, yet it’s still a beautiful Esrog.

An old Chassidic saying highlights Sukka as the only mitzvah where a person enters with his muddy boots. Muddy boots are th mark of our journey through life, intimately interconnected with who we are and entirely inseparable; they are welcome in the Sukka.

This may also explain why the Zohar calls the Sukka the shade of God – God is with us in our dark moments too – צילא דמהימנותא. It may also explain why of all festivals, Sukkos, in particular, is the time of joy – the debits can turn into credits – זְמַן שִׂמְחָתֵנוּ.

There is a tangible Kabbalistic dimension here as well. The Hebrew word for husks and rind is קְלִפָּה. In Kabbalistic symbolism, souls are shining lights, and sins cloak the soul in layers of קְלִפָּה, sort of like an onion. Instead of discarding the קְלִפָּה, Teshuvah transforms it from a bad thing into a good thing.

It’s not a magic trick – sins and transgressions are treated differently based on Teshuvah’s motivation. The way you adapt your past mistakes materially affects the way you incorporate the lessons learned to be a better person.

So perhaps that’s why Sukkos comes right on the back of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. While we shouldn’t just sink back into the same routine as before, Teshuvah doesn’t need to look like such a radical departure from the past. Change is incremental – it isn’t so different from past habits and routines, maybe it’s quite similar, but with small improvements and modifications.

Sukkos teaches the holistic view of how we change.

We all make mistakes, but the only real mistake is the one we don’t learn from.

Peace Redux

5 minute read
Straightforward

For most of history, the utopian ideal that most cultures and societies strived for has been domination, subjugation, and victory; the pages of history are written in the blood and tears of conflict.

In stark contrast, Judaism’s religious texts overwhelmingly endorse compassion and peace; love and the pursuit of peace is one of Judaism’s fundamental ideals and is a near-universal characteristic in our pantheon of heroes – בקש שלום ורדפהו. R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that the utopian ideal of peace is one of Judaism’s great original revolutionary contributions. As Rashi says, all the blessings in the world are worthless without peace.

Avos d’Rabbi Nosson suggests that the mightiest heroism lies not in defeating your foes, but in turning enemies into friends. The Midrash says that the world can only persist with peace, and the Gemara teaches that all of Torah exists to further peace – דְּרָכֶיהָ דַרְכֵי-נֹעַם; וְכָל-נְתִיבוֹתֶיהָ שָׁלוֹם. Peace features prominently in the Priestly Blessing, and the visions of peace and prosperity in the Land of Israel – וְנָתַתִּי שָׁלוֹם בָּאָרֶץ / יִשָּׂא ה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם.

We ask for peace every time we pray and every time we eat – שים שלום / עושה שלום במרומיו. Wishing for peace has been the standard Jewish greeting for millennia – שלום עליכם. Peace is ubiquitous in our lexicon, and it’s not a trivial thing.

We all know peace is important, and peace sounds great in theory, but uncomfortably often, the reality is that peace is too abstract, too difficult, too distant, and too remote.

What does peace look like practically speaking, and how do we bring more of it into our lives?

Before explaining what peace is, it’s important to rule out what it’s not. Peace is not what many or most people seem to think.

Peace doesn’t mean turning the other cheek and suffering in silence. Your non-response to conflict contributes to a lack of overt hostility that is superficial and only a negative peace at best. Sure, there is no external conflict, but everyone recognizes that conflict is there, even if it’s unspoken and even if it’s only internal. It’s a position of discomfort and resentment – possibly only unilateral – and it may genuinely be too difficult or not worth the headache to attempt to resolve. Be that as it may, that is obviously not what peace is; it’s not a state of blessing at all. It’s the kind of status quo that lasts only as long as sufficiently tolerable, but it’s a lingering poison that slowly suffocates; it’s only a ceasefire or stalemate, it’s certainly not peace.

Peace also isn’t the lack of conflict that stems from being weak and harmless. It’s not good morality if you don’t fight when you’re meek and harmless. You haven’t made that choice; you simply have no alternatives. Pirkei Avos is dismissive and disdainful of people who don’t stand up for themselves – אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. In a world of pacifists, a bully with a stick would rule the world. There’s nothing moral about being harmless.

There absolutely are moments the Torah requires us to stand up for ourselves and each other; authorizing and sometimes even mandating aggression as just and necessary – עֵת לֶאֱהֹב וְעֵת לִשְׂנֹא, עֵת מִלְחָמָה וְעֵת שָׁלוֹם. In the story of Balak and Bilam, Pinchas restores peace through an act of shocking public violence, and yet he is blessed with peace for restoring the peace; his courageous act makes him the hero, and not the people who were above it all and didn’t want to get involved.

But we do not value or respect strength and power for its own sake; the One God of Judaism is not the god of strength and power and is firmly opposed to domination and subjugation. Our God is the god of liberty and liberated slaves, who loved the Patriarchs because of their goodness, not their power, who commands us to love the stranger and take care of the orphan and widow. So being powerful and strong doesn’t mean you go around asserting yourself, bullying and intimidating people; but it does mean that if someone threatens you and the people you love, or the orphans and widows in your community, you are equipped to do something about it. Carl Jung called this integrating the shadow, making peace with a darker aspect of yourself. When you know you can bite, you’ll rarely have to.

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that peace is more than a state of non-aggression; peace is a state of mutual acceptance and respect. Peace does not require the absence of strength and power; peace is only possible precisely through the presence and proper application of strength and power – they are prerequisites – ה’ עֹז לְעַמּוֹ יִתֵּן, ה’ יְבָרֵךְ אֶת עַמּוֹ בַשָּׁלוֹם. Peace requires us to cultivate the inner strength and courage to allow others to get what they need.

In Isaiah’s hopeful visions, today featured prominently and optimistically on the wall of the United Nations building, world governments disband their armies and repurpose their weapons into agricultural tools. In this utopian vision, it’s not that states are too weak to defend themselves, a negative peace with no violent conflict; it’s the opposite. It’s a vision of positive peace; complete and perfect security with mutual respect and tolerance, where states will resolve differences peacefully without resorting to hostilities.

As the Ohr HaChaim notes, the word for peace is cognate to wholesomeness, a holistic and symbiotic harmony of constituent parts – שָּׁלוֹם / שלמות.

Peace isn’t a lack of external conflict, and it doesn’t even necessarily mean a lack of conflict at all. Even in Isaiah’s visions of a peaceful future, does anyone seriously think husbands and wives won’t still sometimes disagree about whose family to spend the holiday with? Which school to send their kid to? That organizations won’t have internal disagreements about budget or direction? Then and now, humans are human; we are not robots, and inevitably, we will have our differences! But if peace simply means that those differences can be accepted or settled peacefully, then perhaps peace isn’t the unreachable idealism we may prefer to imagine. It’s just about putting in the effort to learn to live with our differences.

Ralph Waldo Emerson quipped that nobody can bring you peace but yourself. When you feel secure, you’ll have security. It takes benevolence, confidence, and unshakeable strength and power; those come from within. If you do not have peace, it’s because you are not yet at peace. 

There is a very good reason that envy figures as one of the most important things God has to say to humans – וְלֹא תַחְמֹד. 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. Someone else’s prosperity and success don’t make your own any less likely, so be happy when someone else gets a win because yours is no further away. The Ksav Sofer highlights that this is the Torah’s blessing of peace; an internal peace of being satisfied and living with security, happy for both yourself and for others – וַאֲכַלְתֶּם לַחְמְכֶם לָשֹׂבַע וִישַׁבְתֶּם לָבֶטַח.

If we value and desire peace, we must first regulate and then free ourselves from looking at others with grudges, grievances, and jealousy. As one comedian said, the only time you look in your neighbor’s bowl is to make sure they have enough. When other people’s achievements and success no longer threaten us, we can develop lasting and peaceful co-existence and harmony. The differences are still there, but it’s not the other person that changes at all; it’s how you look at them. Your dream of peace starts with you, and it’s an important step that bridges the world we live in with the ideal world of tomorrow. If you cannot accept others, it’s because you haven’t yet accepted yourself.

What better blessing could there be than to live in balanced harmony with yourself, to be completely secure and at peace? To wholly embrace your differences with your spouse, your parents, your siblings, your relatives, your neighbors, your community, your colleagues, and ultimately, everyone you meet? And if we infused our notion of peace with any momentum, maybe the whole world could experience it too.

So, of course we ask for peace every day! In every prayer, and every time we greet someone. As the Gemara says, peace is the ultimate container for blessing, and it’s intuitive; we all know it’s true.

We just have to live like it!

Soul Sparkles

3 minute read
Straightforward

When you think about the parts of Judaism and Torah that capture hearts and minds, you probably aren’t alone if the book of Vayikra isn’t on your highlight reels. It’s quite understandable! The sacrifices; purity laws; Shemita; Yovel, and all the other miscellaneous laws and rituals – they’re rather arcane and quite removed from our daily lived experience.

Of course, that’s not to say that they don’t matter – they’re part of the Torah; they’re important. But unlike, say, most of the books of Bereishis and Shemos, there’s no overarching story or character-driven narrative with broadly applicable lessons and morals. It’s not exactly blasphemy to notice that maybe they’re just a little less exciting.

The book of Vayikra draws to a close with a beautifully detailed exposition of abundant blessings and fulfillment for properly observing the Torah. The blessings are accompanied by an equally detailed and gruesome description of all the terrible calamities that could befall the Jewish People should they fail to uphold the law properly. Many congregations customarily read this section quickly and quietly, and it is no honor to be called to the Torah for this particular reading.

Yet curiously, the final word that immediately follows this grim reading is a postscript with an abrupt and stark change of tone, the miscellaneous section about the assessment and valuation of pledges – Parshas Arachin.

The laws of pledges are technical and specific, and there is a lot of literature that explores the exact parameters. When the Mishkan and Beis HaMikdash stood, they were operated and managed by a public endowment. People could pledge all kinds of contributions to the fund; they could pledge animals, money, property, and fascinatingly, even humans.

The essential broader point of these laws is that the fund was sophisticated and could receive anything of value. Since everything can be valued, it’s simply a question of determining what that specific value is. While the eyebrow-raising notion of pledging a human conjures imagery of human sacrifice or slavery, it only modestly and simply entailed calculating the lifetime labor value of that person and then redeeming that value by contributing the corresponding amount to the public fund.

But of all things, why do the ponderous laws of Parshas Archin close out the book of Vayikra, following all the awful curses?

We could probably make peace with the notion that the Torah is like all things; some parts are more interesting, and some less. If we find meaning in the details of the census, architecture, and sacrifices, the Torah blesses us for observing the laws with joy. Yet specifically for those of us who are disenchanted with some of the arcane technicalities the Torah charges us with, the Torah forecasts a grim and intimidating future for us, that our worlds will fall apart with misery and pain.

The Ishbitzer compellingly suggests that by stating these laws specifically here, the Torah makes a sweepingly broad statement that all humans and all things have a fundamental and intrinsic value and worth – reminding us that even after tragedy strikes, all is not lost. All people are still worth something, including the people who have temporarily lost their way. Faced with a disheartening list of some of the worst things that can happen to a human, the Torah reminds the same people cowering from the curses that we are still worth something. Sure, how exactly we calculate the precise value is technical, but don’t miss the wider point. Even the worst of us still has something valuable and special to them, and it ought to change our orientation to ourselves and to others.

Moreover, it bears noting that the nature of the endowment’s expenditures was not profane or secular. From even the most awful, depraved, and lost souls, the endowment spent every last penny of their contributions on only the holiest and most sacred things; the value he has to offer is not worth less than yours.

There’s a Yiddish expression that powerfully captures a vast amount of wisdom in just a few short words: the pintele Yid. It literally 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 imagery articulates clearly and plainly that no matter how far you try to distance yourself, there will always remain some small spark that lies buried deep within. Perhaps that’s the inalienable and inviolable part of us that Parshas Archin tries to speak to, even if we may have lost our way to some extent. The pintele yid, your soul spark, cannot be lost or extinguished; it can only ever lie dormant. It will wait patiently for as long as it takes to reignite and burst into flame once again, even if it takes generations.

Whatever you have done, whatever mistakes you have made, big or small, many or few, you need to remind yourself that you are worthwhile.

We are all better than the worst thing we’ve ever done.

Humility Redux

2 minute read
Straightforward

We take for granted that humility is an admirable virtue, but it’s worth taking a moment to consider what humility is and also what it is not.

Humility is commonly understood to mean a low estimate of oneself and one’s accomplishments. The Oxford English Dictionary defines humility as “the quality of being humble: having a low estimate of one’s importance, worthiness, or merits.”

But this doesn’t ring true with what Judaism teaches us about the value of humility.

The Midrash famously teaches that Mount Sinai was only a little mountain to show how instrumental humility is.

But if the educational purpose of giving the Torah in such a place is to illustrate the value of humility, then you’d assume a valley would be a more appropriate geological feature to teach the lesson!

So why give the Torah on a mountain at all?

The Shem M’shmuel states that to accept the Torah and live its ideals, you must be like a mountain, not a valley; or as Pirkei Avos puts it, if I don’t stand up for myself, what am I?

As important as the quality of humility is, people who accept the Torah upon themselves must consider themselves important and deserving of the Torah.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks teaches that humility is an appreciation of our talents, skills, and virtues. It is not meekness or self-deprecating thought, but the dedication of oneself to something higher.

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi notes that the Torah labels Moshe as the most humble of all men. If humility is simply a low view of oneself, then Moshe, the Lawgiver and single greatest authority on the Torah would meekly cave to any challenge – which he obviously couldn’t and didn’t. But if humility is about being of service, then Moshe truly was the most humble of all men – Moshe singularly dedicated his entire life to public service. His achievements were never about him or his status; they were all in furtherance of rescuing and building the Jewish people.

It was no lack of humility for Moshe to acknowledge his own authority and leadership. When a person believes they are nothing, then ultimately, the Torah itself will have little effect in elevating him. Although pride is a dangerous vice in large quantities, a small amount is still an essential ingredient to living a good life.

Pride is about competing – that you are smarter than or richer than; humility is about serving. Humility isn’t the opposite of narcissism and hubris; it’s the lack of them. In the absence of pride, you find humility, which sees no need for competition.

So perhaps humility is not that you are nothing; it’s just that it’s not about you anymore. In humility, you are no more and no less than other people. Humility is not about hiding away, becoming a wallflower or a doormat; it is about the realization that your abilities and actions are not better or less. They simply are.

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

Finding Their Way

3 minute read
Straightforward

One of the Torah’s features is that it doesn’t whitewash its heroes. It presents them as real people, which R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes is a key element of the Torah’s credibility as a moral guide.

The story of Yakov and Esau’s childhood and upbringing offers an illuminating masterclass on family dynamics:

וַיִּגְדְּלוּ הַנְּעָרִים, וַיְהִי עֵשָׂו אִישׁ יֹדֵעַ צַיִד, אִישׁ שָׂדֶה; וְיַעֲקֹב אִישׁ תָּם, יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים – The boys grew up together; and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Yakov was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. (25:27)

Yitzchak and Rivka raised their twin boys together – וַיִּגְדְּלוּ הַנְּעָרִים – yet were surprised that they turned out differently – וַיְהִי.

Rashi criticizes this blanket parenting technique, citing the proverb in Mishlei that advises parents to educate every child in their own way; so that when they grow up, they don’t lose their way – חֲנֹךְ לַנַּעַר עַל פִּי דַרְכּוֹ, גַּם כִּי יַזְקִין לֹא יָסוּר מִמֶּנָּה.

The Malbim intuitively notes that different people need different things, and all people are different!

Parents need to be on the same page and reinforce each other, but it’s certainly not easy. And it is obvious today that it is the problematic and unruly children who need extra love, acceptance, and embracing, which is undoubtedly the most challenging thing of all.

The cookie-cutter approach is highly effective for the cookies it is designed for, but not so much for humans. It should not surprise us that one size does not fit all; because it never has – כְּשֵׁם שֶׁאֵין פרצופיהן דּוֹמִין זֶה לָזֶה, כָּךְ אֵין דַּעְתָּן שָׁוִין זֶה לָזֶה.

It was and is a mistake to raise a Yakov and an Esau in the same way with their differing abilities and aptitudes. Whatever Yitzchak might have hoped for Esau, history has borne out that he did not live up to the family legacy, and we can only wonder what might have been if there had been some way for a man of Esau’s talents to channel them for the better in partnership with his brother.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch ponders whether Yitzchak and Rivka not being on the same page about how to raise Esau might have contributed to the environment of competition and strife between their children, preventing them from being themselves, resulting in the jealousy and rivalry that defines the relationship between Esau and Yakov. This disagreement was likely why Rivka orchestrated the ruse for the blessings, to show Yitzchak how he could be fooled.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch suggests that one of Yakov’s most incredible blessings was that he could recognize the value of the diversity of his twelve sons – even if only at the end of his life – and blessed each of them with an individualized yet still cohesive and complementary future – the scholars of Levi would teach the rest; the warrior-kings of Yehuda would lead in peace and war; the traders of Zevulun would support the scholar of Yissachar, and so on. Each child had different predispositions, and he foresaw a way for them to come together.

Invariably, a child will grow up and exercise their independence in ways one or both parents don’t approve of. But any attempts to enforce conformity will backfire and cause deeper alienation in the long run because that’s not who the child is anymore. Parents and teachers must never forget that however much the Torah requires us to be good people, the recipe is different for each of us, and it will look different from person to person.

R’ Shlomo Farhi sharply notes that the proverb advises parents to raise every child in the child’s way, not the parent’s way – עַל פִּי דַרְכּוֹ, not דרכך. Even more pointedly, the proverb doesn’t even predict that he won’t veer from the way you taught him, only that he won’t veer from his own path.

We should not teach our children to be just like us; we would do well to follow the proverb – חֲנֹךְ לַנַּעַר עַל פִּי דַרְכּוֹ, גַּם כִּי יַזְקִין לֹא יָסוּר מִמֶּנָּה.

If you teach your children to find themselves, they will never be lost.

Make Some Space

2 minute read
Straightforward

One of Judaism’s most treasured traditions is gracious hospitality. We rightly praise altruism and kindness, aspiring to emulate the role models who practiced it so well, Avraham first and foremost among them.

There is one story that encapsulates the generous and loving warmth that so characterized Avraham, the first man to correctly intuit the right way to live.

After circumcising himself, an excruciatingly painful procedure to be performed as an elderly man with no modern anesthetic or medicine, he faced an agonizing recovery. While recuperating from the procedure that marked his body with the symbol of his family’s new covenant with God, he parked himself at the door, and received a remarkable visitor – no less than God Himself:

וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו ה’, בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא; וְהוּא יֹשֵׁב פֶּתַחהָאֹהֶל, כְּחֹם הַיּוֹם – Hashem appeared to him on the plains of Mamre, as he sat by the tent door in the heat of the day. (18:1)

No sooner had this unusual visitor appeared that something even more remarkable happened. No sooner than God arrives, Avraham interrupts this extraordinary visit to chase some passing travelers and bring them home to rest with some food and drink!

 וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו, וַיַּרְא, וְהִנֵּה שְׁלֹשָׁה אֲנָשִׁים, נִצָּבִים עָלָיו; וַיַּרְא, וַיָּרָץ לִקְרָאתָם מִפֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל, וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ, אָרְצָה –  He lifted his eyes and looked, and, saw three men standing nearby; and when he noticed them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed down to the earth, (18:2)

The Midrash imagines that Avraham quite literally interrupted God, and asked God to wait a few minutes! Assuming that Avraham did the right thing, the Gemara concludes that hospitality is even more important than welcoming God.

We are religious people. We believe in God, we serve God, and live our lives according to our best understanding of God’s law. How could anything be more important than God?!

The Maharal explains that when we honor guests, we honor the image of God in the other person. Accordingly, loving a human and loving God are close, if not identical.

The Malbim explains that the yardstick for measuring our love for God is how much we love others, which is why even welcoming God is subordinate to hospitality. Avraham calls the men his masters, and ask them not to leave – אֲדֹנָי, אִםנָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ אַלנָא תַעֲבֹר, מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ – but this also reads as the moment Avraham asked God to wait – it’s one of God’s names!

R’ Jonathan Sacks highlights that in this story, God appears happy to wait, endorsing the essential lesson that we don’t show our love of God by fasting, retreating into the mountains, vowing silence, or abstaining from earthly things. God’s approval of Avraham’s choice illustrates that we show our interaction with other humans is what proves our love of God.

Nothing is holier or more sacred than making space in your life and home for others. We honor God most by honoring those in His image – other humans.

The Binding of Isaac Redux

5 minute read
Straightforward

The Binding of Isaac, the Akeida, is one of the most challenging stories in the Torah. Our sages and philosophers have grappled with it since time immemorial, and with good reason.

The Torah is the source code for what we understand to be moral. Yet God asks Avraham to murder his son, and the Torah confronts the reader with a fundamental question: Can God ask us to do something immoral and wrong?

The story concludes with a retraction of the notion that Avraham would need to follow through and kill his son in God’s name. God is impressed that Avraham doesn’t withhold his son, and we come away understanding that God would never ask us to do something unethical. In stopping Avraham at the very last moment, God drives home the point that there is no sanctity in child sacrifice and death; this God is different. This God is committed to life, absolutely.

But while the ending is illuminating, the way we interpret the story up until the reversal matters as well.

To be sure, there is a diverse spectrum of legitimate discourse; we should evaluate their relative standing with regards to the values they teach. The ramifications of what we teach our children are enormously consequential, so we need to get it right.

If we think about God’s instruction and say that up until the final moment, God truly meant it and only then changed His mind; then, it destroys our conceptualization of ethics and morality because they are ad hoc – fluid and not universal.

And if we think that Avraham truly and simply desired to obey God and sacrifice his son and that he regretted not being able to obey God’s command, then the whole story makes no sense. Child sacrifice was common in that era – if Avraham was all too willing to murder his son, what exactly is the test? It destroys the entire notion of his “sacrifice”!  Furthermore, if Avraham is all too willing to murder his son, what kind of role model is he, and why would we teach children that this is what greatness looks like?

And of course, apart from the fact this interpretation leaves us in moral turpitude, it also makes no sense in the broader context of the Torah, which explicitly condemns child sacrifice on multiple occasions.

By necessity, we need to reject the notion that Avraham truly and simply wished to sacrifice Yitzchak. The story only makes sense if it was hard – really hard.

Until this point in Avraham’s life, his commitment to life and commitment to God were in perfect harmony – God wanted Avraham to be good to others. Now that God asked him to sacrifice his son, he had a dilemma because his two great commitments were no longer aligned. At no point does the story suggest that this is easy for Avraham, and actually, quite the opposite. Let’s read the story closely:

וַיֹּאמֶר קַח־נָא אֶת־בִּנְךָ אֶת־יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר־אָהַבְתָּ אֶת־יִצְחָק וְלֶךְ־לְךָ אֶל־אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם לְעֹלָה עַל אַחַד הֶהָרִים אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ… בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת־עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת־הַמָּקוֹם מֵרָחֹק… וַיִּשְׁלַח אַבְרָהָם אֶת־יָדוֹ וַיִּקַּח אֶת־הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת לִשְׁחֹט אֶת־בְּנוֹ – And He said, “Please take your son, your favored one, Yitzchak, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you…” On the third day, Avraham looked up and saw the place from afar… And Avraham sent his hand and picked up the knife to slay his son. (22:2,4,10)

The Ran highlights out that Hashem never instructed Avraham to sacrifice his son; Hashem only requested it – “Please” – קַח-נָא. This is not a command that must be obeyed; this is a request that does not mandate compliance.

As Avraham struggled with turmoil about the position he was in, he looked up and saw the mountain in the distance –  וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם–מֵרָחֹק. The Nesivos Shalom notes that הַמָּקוֹם is one of God’s names, the Omnipresent, the attribute that God is everywhere, and “the place” of all things – הַמָּקוֹם. This whole affair did not feel right to Avraham. He’d opposed human sacrifice pagan worship his whole life, and yet here he was, about to destroy his life’s work and snuff out his family legacy. He felt a distance from God – וַיַּרְא אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם–מֵרָחֹק.

Then, at the story’s dramatic crescendo, the Torah uses remarkable imagery to characterize what took place. Avraham does not “pick up” the knife; he must “force his hand” – וַיִּשְׁלַח אַבְרָהָם אֶת-יָדוֹ, וַיִּקַּח אֶת-הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת. The Torah dissociates Avraham from his disembodied hand because Avraham was resisting what he was doing. The Malbim notes that Avraham had to force himself because his natural predisposition had always been aligned with God, so this resistance was unfamiliar because murdering his son was something God didn’t actually want!

The Kotzker suggests that even to the musculoskeletal level, the cumbersome description of Avraham’s belabored muscle movements truly expressed and mirrored God’s desire that Yitzchak would remain unharmed – כָּל עַצְמוֹתַי תֹּאמַרְנָה.

Lastly, R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that Avraham’s entire characterization in this story is lethargic, illustrating the slow heaviness with which he moves through the story. But lethargy runs counter to everything we know about Avraham up to this point! He is introduced to us as someone who eagerly and enthusiastically goes where God tells him, who runs after guests to invite them in, and who hurries to feed them. In this story, he is in stark contrast with his energetic fervent self because he faces the greatest challenge of his life, and it is antithetical to his very being.

Of course, we know how the story ends. God would never ask us to do something unethical. But how we tell the story matters just as much as how it ends.

This gut-wrenching story of moral turmoil is held in the highest esteem by humans and by God. And that’s because it wasn’t easy. It is not a story about blind faith and obedience, but the exact opposite.

Quite tellingly, we read this story on Rosh Hashana. Sure, we recall the great merit of our ancestors. But perhaps we can also remind ourselves that the greats also grappled mightily with unclear choices between right and wrong.

Will we tell the truth and be personally honest when confronted, or keep a secret and loyally honor a promise? Will we prioritize individual needs and do something that greatly helps a few, or communal needs and do something that adequately helps many? Will we be just, fair, and equal with our friends and family, or will we be compassionate and merciful based on each circumstance? Will we prioritize the present or the future? Short term or long term?

It is all too rare that we face a moral choice that is truly black and white. Most of the time, it’s not a starving orphaned widow with cancer whose house burned down, knocking on the door asking for help. Far more often, we face a difficult choice between competing ideals, none of which will resolve the situation in a manner that perfectly aligns with an established code of ethics or norms.

We would do well to remember our role models. They weren’t primitive people – they were refined humans doing their best to ethically navigate a world of murky choices. And while society may have changed in form, it hasn’t changed in substance, and humans haven’t changed much at all.

Doing the right thing is plenty hard enough; but you first have to identify what the right thing truly is, which is far harder. It gets to the core of our mission in life, and we must take strength from the stories of our greats – this is the way it’s always been, and we must persevere all the same.

The Call to Action

3 minute read
Straightforward

Avraham was counter-cultural, resisting the religious and social trends of his day, earning the blessing of being a father of multitudes:

וַיּוֹצֵא אֹתוֹ הַחוּצָה, וַיֹּאמֶר הַבֶּט-נָא הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וּסְפֹר הַכּוֹכָבִים–אִם-תּוּכַל, לִסְפֹּר אֹתָם; וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, כֹּה יִהְיֶה זַרְעֶךָ – And He took him outside, and said: ‘Look at the heavens, and count the stars as if you could ever count them’; and He said to him: ‘So will your children be.’ (15:5)

By living differently, he earned a different fate, transcending the natural course of history – וַיּוֹצֵא אֹתוֹ הַחוּצָה.

Avraham was different in his belief in the One God, which manifested in him dedicating his life to education, kindness, justice, and outreach. On this basis, before destroying Sodom, something remarkably unusual happens.

The Torah describes a soliloquy, characterizing God’s internal thought process, telling us of God’s discomfort with hiding something from a human:

וַה’ אָמָר: הַמְכַסֶּה אֲנִי מֵאַבְרָהָם, אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי עֹשֶׂה. וְאַבְרָהָם–הָיוֹ יִהְיֶה לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, וְעָצוּם; וְנִבְרְכוּ-בוֹ–כֹּל, גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ. כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו, לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת-בָּנָיו וְאֶת-בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ ה, לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט–לְמַעַן, הָבִיא ה עַל-אַבְרָהָם, אֵת אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר, עָלָיו –  Hashem said to Himself: “Shall I hide from Avraham what I am about to do? Avraham will become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed through him. I know him; he will command his children and his house after him, that they may observe the way of Hashem, to do what is right and just; so that Hashem will bring upon Avraham that which He spoke of him.” (18:17-19)

This whole episode takes place because God, remarkably, feels obligated to talk to a human. The flow of the story implies that without this conversation, Avraham would wake up in the morning to smoldering ruins on the horizon, and, believing that innocent citizens of Sodom were swept away with the guilty, he would no longer be able to teach that God is just. We know this would have been Avraham’s thought process because this is precisely his line of questioning when he, again, remarkably, challenges God:

וַיִּגַּשׁ אַבְרָהָם, וַיֹּאמַר הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה, צַדִּיק עִם-רָשָׁע – Avraham approached and said: “Will you really sweep away the righteous with the wicked?!” (18:23)

Avraham continues:

חָלִלָה לְּךָ מֵעֲשֹׂת כַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה, לְהָמִית צַדִּיק עִם-רָשָׁע, וְהָיָה כַצַּדִּיק, כָּרָשָׁע; חָלִלָה לָּךְ–הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל-הָאָרֶץ, לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט. – “It profanes You to do such a thing – to slay the righteous with the wicked so that the righteous should exactly be the same as the wicked – it profanes You! Will the Judge of all the earth not act justly?!” (18:25)

Fascinatingly, God accepts Avraham’s fundamental premise that collective punishment is unjust, that it truly would be wrong to destroy a whole group indiscriminately. Once God has validated that this principle is correct, they negotiate how many innocents would be worth saving the city for:

וַיֹּאמֶר אַל-נָא יִחַר לַאדֹנָי, וַאֲדַבְּרָה אַךְ-הַפַּעַם–אוּלַי יִמָּצְאוּן שָׁם, עֲשָׂרָה; וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אַשְׁחִית, בַּעֲבוּר הָעֲשָׂרָה. – And he said: “Please, don’t be angry, Hashem, and I will speak just once more. Perhaps ten innocents can be found there?” And Hashem said: “I will not destroy the city for the ten’s sake.” (18:32)

Of course, God did rescue the innocents in the form of Lot and his family, and then God destroyed the city anyway, as God was always going to.

The seed for this entire highly unusual dialogue is for the stated reason that Avraham is going to teach his descendants about justice and integrity – לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת-בָּנָיו וְאֶת-בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ ה, לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט.

Unlike Noah, who accepts God’s condemnation of his world, Avraham establishes a precedent followed by Moshe, Jonah, and many others of brazenness towards Heaven, for Heaven’s sake – חוצפה כלפי שמיא. And we must not think this is sacrilege – it’s the exact opposite! Hashem very literally invites and prompts Avraham into the argument. There is a reason Avraham is known as the Hebrew, the stranger standing alone on the other side – אברהם העברי.

Avraham was committed to God and to justice, but his loyalties were at odds in this conversation. The test is that God would appear unjust to see whether Avraham swayed towards justice or to God. By appearing to lose the staged argument, God demonstrates a commitment to justice, paradoxically validating Avraham’s loyalty to God. Thus, the story of Avraham testing God’s commitment to justice turns out to simultaneously be a story of God testing Avraham’s commitment to justice.

But he could not teach what he did not yet know! R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that God orchestrates the whole conversation simply so that Avraham and his descendants – we the readers – can learn that there is nothing sacred about accepting suffering or wrongdoing.

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 in the world, except that asking the question might cause us to live the response through our actions.

It is up to us as the bearers of Avraham’s legacy to stand up for what is right. Do not close your eyes and turn away when there is something you can do to make it right.

Language Redux

3 minute read
Straightforward

Humans are the apex predator on Earth.

We share this planet with thousands of species and trillions of organisms, and none but humans carry a lasting multi-generational record of knowledge of any obvious consequence. And yet, a feral human being left alone in the woods from birth to death kept separate and alive, would be not much more than an ape; our knowledge isn’t because humans are smart.

It’s because we speak – מְדַבֵּר.

We communicate and cooperate with others through language, giving us a formidable advantage in forming groups, sharing information, and pooling workloads and specializations. Language is the mechanism by which the aggregated knowledge of human culture is transmitted, actualizing our intelligence and self-awareness, transcending separate biological organisms, and becoming one informational organism. With language, we have formed societies and built civilizations; developed science and medicine, literature and philosophy.

With language, knowledge does not fade; we can learn from the experiences of others. Without learning everything from scratch, we can use an existing knowledge base built by others to learn new things and make incrementally progressive discoveries. As one writer put it, a reader lives a thousand lives before he dies; the man who never reads lives only once.

Language doesn’t just affect how we relate to each other; it affects how we relate to ourselves. We make important decisions based on thoughts and feelings influenced by words on a page or conversations with others. It has been said that with one glance at a book, you can hear the voice of another person – perhaps someone gone for millennia – speaking across the ages clearly and directly in your mind.

Considering the formidable power of communication, it follows that the Torah holds it in the highest esteem; because language is magical. Indeed, the fabric of Creation is woven with words:

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקים, יְהִי אוֹר; וַיְהִי-אוֹר – God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. (1:3)

R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that humans use language to create things as well. The notion of a contract or agreement is a performative utterance – things that people say to create something that wasn’t there before; a relationship of mutual commitment between people, created through speech. Whether it’s God giving us the Torah or a husband marrying his wife, relationships are fundamental to Judaism. We can only build relationships and civilizations with each other when we can make commitments through language.

Recognizing the influential hold language has over us, the Torah emphasizes an abundance of caution and heavily regulates how we use language: the laws of gossip and the metzora; and the incident where Miriam and Ahron challenged Moshe; among others. Even the Torah’s choice of words about the animals that boarded the Ark is careful and measured:

מִכֹּל הַבְּהֵמָה הַטְּהוֹרָה, תִּקַּח-לְךָ שִׁבְעָה שִׁבְעָה–אִישׁ וְאִשְׁתּוֹ; וּמִן-הַבְּהֵמָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא טְהֹרָה הִוא, שְׁנַיִם-אִישׁ וְאִשְׁתּוֹ – Of every clean creature, take seven and seven, each with their mate; and of the creatures that are not clean two, each with their mate. (7:2)

The Gemara notes that instead of using the more accurate and concise expression of “impure,” the Torah utilizes extra ink and space to articulate itself more positively – “that are not clean” – אֲשֶׁר לֹא טְהֹרָה הִוא. While possibly hyperbolic, the Lubavitcher Rebbe would refer to death as “the opposite of life”; and hospital infirmaries as “places of healing.”

The Torah cautions us of the power of language repeatedly in more general settings:

לֹא-תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ, לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ: אֲנִי, ה – Do not allow a gossiper to mingle among the people; do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor: I am Hashem. (19:16)

The Torah instructs us broadly not to hurt, humiliate, deceive, or cause another person any emotional distress:

וְלֹא תוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת-עֲמִיתוֹ, וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱלֹקיךָ: כִּי אֲנִי ה, אֱלֹקיכֶם – Do not wrong one another; instead, you should fear your God; for I am Hashem. (25:27)

Interestingly, both these laws end with “I am Hashem” – evoking the concept of emulating what God does; which suggests that just as God constructively uses language to create – שהכל נהיה בדברו  – so must we – אֲנִי ה. The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that as much as God creates with words, so do humans.

The Gemara teaches that verbal abuse is arguably worse than theft; you can never take back your words, but at least a thief can return the money!

The idea that language influences and impacts the world around us is the foundation of the laws of vows, which are significant enough that we open the Yom Kippur services at Kol Nidrei by addressing them.

Of course, one major caveat to harmful speech is intent. If sharing negative information has a constructive and beneficial purpose that may prevent harm or injustice, there is no prohibition, and there might even be an obligation to protect your neighbor by conveying the information – לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ.

As R’ Jonathan Sacks powerfully said, no soul was ever saved by hate; no truth was ever proved by violence; no redemption was ever brought by holy war.

Rather than hurt and humiliate, let’s use our language to educate, help and heal; because words and ideas have the power to change the world.

They’re the only thing that ever has.

Under Scrutiny

2 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah isn’t so much about God as it is about humans and how we ought to behave. This is in large part because we cannot comprehend what God is, only what God does.

One of Judaism’s most fundamental beliefs is that we can change, through the ability to repent and make amends – Teshuva – which presupposes that to some extent, God can also change. While this may sound absurd at first, it’s quite benign. We believe that with prayer, repentance, and charity, God might act with compassionate mercy in lieu of strict justice.

This transition from strict justice to compassionate mercy ought to be instructive to how we exercise judgment in our own lives.

The Torah’s stated cause for the great Flood was a human tendency towards evil:

וַיַּרְא ה, כִּי רַבָּה רָעַת הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ, וְכָל-יֵצֶר מַחְשְׁבֹת לִבּוֹ, רַק רַע כָּל-הַיּוֹם –  Hashem saw the great evil of humans on Earth, and that every imagination of his heart’s intent was only ever evil. (6:5)

After the great Flood, God laments the destruction and devastation, and resolves not destroy life ever again:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל-לִבּוֹ לֹא-אֹסִף לְקַלֵּל עוֹד אֶת-הָאֲדָמָה בַּעֲבוּר הָאָדָם, כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו; וְלֹא-אֹסִף עוֹד לְהַכּוֹת אֶת-כָּל-חַי, כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי – Hashem said in His heart: “I will not curse the ground again for humanity’s sake; because the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every living thing, as I have just done.” (8:21)

What changed between the beginning and end of the Flood?

Quite remarkably, it seems like nothing at all changed. Humans were bad before, and they are still bad after – יֵצֶר מַחְשְׁבֹת לִבּוֹ, רַק רַע כָּל-הַיּוֹם / כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו.

This non-change also happens when the Jewish People misguidedly craft the Golden Calf, upon which God states He can longer tolerate their obstinate rigidity:

כִּי לֹא אֶעֱלֶה בְּקִרְבְּךָ, כִּי עַם-קְשֵׁה-עֹרֶף אַתָּה פֶּן-אֲכֶלְךָ בַּדָּרֶךְ – “I will not go up with you; because you are a stiff-necked people; otherwise I might destroy you on the way!” (33:3)

Yet Moshe appeals for God’s compassion and mercy based on that very same characteristic:

וַיֹּאמֶר אִם-נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ, אֲדֹנָי, יֵלֶךְ-נָא אֲדֹנָי, בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ:  כִּי עַם-קְשֵׁה-עֹרֶף הוּא, וְסָלַחְתָּ לַעֲוֹנֵנוּ וּלְחַטָּאתֵנוּ וּנְחַלְתָּנוּ – And he said: “If I have found favor in your sight, Hashem, please go in our midst; because this is a stiff-necked people; and forgive our error and sin, and take us as Your inheritance.” (34:9)

While we cannot know God as God is, we can learn to understand God a little better by imitating what He does. In both instances, humans do not earn forgiveness through Teshuva, because they have not changed. We are prone to error and don’t always learn from our mistakes.

In the story of Noach, God does something extremely unusual and talks to Himself – וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל-לִבּוֹ. The power of this soliloquy teaches us that how we frame a characteristic can be the difference between strict justice and compassionate mercy. The self-same flaw God can condemn can also be excused on the same basis – כִּי.

We can’t change other people. Sometimes they won’t ever make amends and won’t fix what they broke. But we can still change the lens we use to scrutinize them.

In the same way that God can choose to judge favorably out of a commitment to life, we can do the same.

A judgmental attitude helps neither ourselves nor others.

The God of All

2 minute read
Straightforward

Judaism has several core beliefs that have have been adopted by mainstream culture. Some of them were once radical beliefs that we take for granted today, such as introducing the concept of monotheism to a pagan and polytheistic world.

The ramification of one God, as opposed to many gods, is that the one God must be the God of not just everything, but also everyone.

Unlike almost every other chag, particularly Shemini Atzeres, Sukkos has a pervasive characteristic of inclusivity that reflects this.

The Gemara teaches that the biggest celebration in the Jewish calendar was the famed water drawing ceremony that marked God’s judgment of rainfall for the entire world, for the entire year.

The Gemara also notes that the Sukkos sacrifices had a sequence of 70 animals, corresponding to the 70 nations of the world so that greater humanity might also enjoy a year of abundant blessing.

We may be the conduit of God’s blessing to the world at large, but we are not the exclusive beneficiaries.

Unsurprisingly, the God of all also has compassion for the most distant and lost Jews.

When we wave the lulav and esrog, the different species traditionally correspond to different kinds of Jew, from the most observant to the least. But even the least observant Jew is part and parcel of the Jewish people, and both the mitzvah and the Jewish people are deficient if the apparent “undesirables” are not actively included. Hoshana Raba has a dedicated ceremony specifically constructed around a bouquet of the undesirables.

The Sfas Emes reminds us that the God of all necessarily loves us all. God’s love and compassion is elemental; it is not reserved just for worthy Jews, or Jews at all. On Sukkos, all humans gather under God’s protection – חג האסיף. Sitting in a sukka acts out the simplicity of our relationship with the God of all –  צילא דמהימנותא

Of all Judaism’s special occasions, Sukkos is called the festival of celebration, perhaps because of the simple joy of God’s love for all human life.

Speak Up, Step Up

2 minute read
Straightforward

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

The Torah has never taken this view:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Men are Created Equal

3 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is a radical concept here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building the Future

3 minute read
Straightforward

When the spies got back from Canaan and delivered their bleak report, the Jewish People were devastated. They rued the day they ever left Egypt, that the arduous journey had been a colossal waste. If they were just going to die attempting to take the land, the thinking went, they’d be better off going back to Egypt with a new leader who was a little more realistic.

The aftermath of their poor response was that this lost generation would aimlessly wander the wilderness for nearly 40 years. Once these adults had all died, their children would have another go at conquering and establishing a new nation in the Land of Israel.

But something doesn’t quite add up.

We ought to expect the conspiracy itself to be the crime, painting the Land of Israel as an impossible goal, but it’s not. While it’s the catalyst for the story going off the rails, the Torah is explicit that it was only the people’s reaction to the news that dooms them:

בַּמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה יִפְּלוּ פִגְרֵיכֶם וְכָל-פְּקֻדֵיכֶם, לְכָל-מִסְפַּרְכֶם, מִבֶּן עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה, וָמָעְלָה:  אֲשֶׁר הֲלִינֹתֶם, עָלָי – “In this wilderness shall your corpses drop, all of you who were recorded in the lists from the age of twenty years up, you who have complained towards Me.” (14:29)

When people hear bad news, it is quite normal – expected, even – to react negatively. That’s why it’s called bad news!

The people believed the scout reports, coming as they did from established and trusted leaders, that the task ahead was impossible. Even if we say they overreacted and took it too far, how does the punishment fit the crime?

There are many nations and many states. Many had come before, and many have come since. But the situation in this story was unique, both before and since.

The Jewish People in the Land of Israel are not just one more on the list.

Correctly executed, it is fundamentally and qualitatively different, with goals and values unlike any other. It is the culmination of a centuries-old hope and vision, with many careful and deliberate stops along the way. From Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, through Canaan, Egypt, and Sinai, the Torah paves before us a winding path to build something new that no one has ever seen or done before.

Yet even after witnessing the events of Egypt, the Red Sea, Sinai, the clouds, the manna, and the water, cared for daily as much as anyone can be by the hand of God Himself; in the face of even the slightest adversity, their worst inclinations get the best of them, revealing that these people never really left Egypt at all. Here they are on the threshold of greatness, and they only want to turn around and go right back!

God is so let down, to the extent that God considers killing them all, even the children, illustrating the seriousness of this misstep. Not believing in their great mission was a failure they could not recover from, and the result was catastrophe.

Building a new model for a Torah society cannot happen by itself, or else it would; it requires pioneers with hope and vision. If that’s the attitude and perspective required to achieve the lofty divine goal of establishing the Jewish People in the Land of Israel, how could these people ever hope to succeed?

They just weren’t ready.

But maybe their children could be.

To accomplish something no one has ever done before takes a certain character, perspective, and resiliency; anyone who’s ever taken on something bold and ambitious knows it. If it were easy, someone else would have done it – but just because no one else has done it yet, that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

A great vision can never come to fruition with half-hearted execution; you need to believe to achieve.

Who can do it? The people who want it badly enough.

Together Forever

2 minute read
Straightforward

If you’ve ever paid much attention to the procedures at a Jewish wedding, you might have noticed a lot of fuss about the rings, the words the groom has to say, and the witnesses.

It’s not just for show. The formalities essentially make the marriage, so we need to get them right.

The source of the formalities is the Gemara in Kiddushin, which famously derives the model of halachic marriage from the transaction that took place when Avraham purchased a burial plot to bury his late wife, Sarah. The marriage formalities echo the steps Avraham took to acquire the title to that small parcel of land.

While the source might be familiar to many, the logic most certainly is not.

In what way is a man marrying a woman anything like a man buying some land?

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that confining the analogy to a substantive level collapses it, because a woman is self-evidently not an object. The analogy only works in the wider context of the meaning and significance of the transaction.

The Land of Israel is inextricably intertwined with Jewish history and identity. The Promised Land has been a driving force of our hopes and prayers for thousands of years. Our ancestors might have wished for what we have today, and even today, we recognize that we are only at the beginning at best – רֵאשִׁית צְמִיחַת גְּאֻלָּתֵנוּ. It’s a dream that gets us through hard times; the hope that one day, things could be better.

The dream of a Promised Land is so tantalizing because it speaks to a human need deep within us, invested as it is with all our aspirations for the future. It’s the embodiment of our idealism, a permanent home, a place of belonging and security, and the national happily ever after that everybody longs for.

When Avraham bought that little cave and adjoining field, it was the very first interaction by the first Jew on that Promised Land, forging the very first link in the chain of the eternal bond that binds the Jewish People to the Land of Israel.

At a Jewish wedding, the couple is bonded by mirroring the steps our ancestor Avraham took; it was never a simple land transaction, it is about preserving permanent commitment.

This idea is mirrored by the imagery of the cave itself; a multi-chambered double-storeyed structure – the word מַּכְפֵּלָה literally means “doubled up.” According to legend, this unique structure enabled each of our ancestral couples to be buried together in private, husband and wife, and it allowed for parent and child to be buried near each other, father and son. Even after death, the family would remain together.

So sure, Avraham simply bought a parcel of land to bury his wife; but in that trivial action, he kept his family together forever, even into death.

A woman is not like land, but marriage is very much like our bond to the Land of Israel. The land is God’s eternal commitment to us, and marriage is our eternal commitment to each other.

Failure is not Fatal

3 minute read
Straightforward

Dissatisfied with his middle management role in the tribe of Levi, Korach attempted a coup.

The story unfolds and wraps up with an epilogue that the remaining leaders conducted a public disputation by planting their walking sticks into the ground. Nothing happened to theirs; but Ahron’s instantly blossomed with almonds and flowers, showing Ahron’s divine election, that God supported Moshe and Ahron’s leadership and not Korach’s insurrection.

The Torah concludes the story by telling us how Ahron’s staff became a sacred relic stored in the Mishkan, a powerful symbol of what took place. It’s blindingly obvious why the legacy of Ahron’s miraculous staff is recorded. It was a long-dead walking stick, and yet it touched the ground and burst into life; it was an object of the highest cultural, historical, and religious significance, giving closure and finality to the story.

But the Torah also has words to say about the vanquished individuals, that they stepped forward to collect their inert walking sticks and went home.

Why does the Torah bother to tell us for posterity that each person took their walking sticks back?

R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that in the same way that Ahron’s staff was a symbol of victory, these walking sticks were a symbol of defeat – but they took them home just the same. These ordinary and inert walking sticks, with no magical properties, symbolized that these men had reached for greatness but failed. In telling us that each man stepped forward to reclaim his staff, the Torah is telling us that they took ownership of their failed attempt, and in doing so, there is a future after failure.

Their defeat was a reality check, but by owning their failure, they could once again resume their place in the hierarchy they had attempted to overthrow. The man who learns from failure has not truly failed.

It’s part of a broader theme in the Torah; failure features prominently throughout, from the very first stories of humans in the Garden of Eden, through the very last stories of Moshe not able to finish his great mission of settling the Land of Israel.

The Torah doesn’t shy away from human failure; it leans into it, and perhaps we should reappraise failure in that light.

As Kierkegaard said, life must be lived forwards but can only be understood backward. But because of that, no matter how you look at it, our experiences always have a two-fold significance.

First, there is the initial experience of something; the excitement of meeting someone new, the strangeness of an unfamiliar event, or the pain that follows failure.

But then afterward, there’s the meaning that those experiences take on as we reshape and retell them into the story of our lives as they continue to unfold, which has the power to change how we perceive them. Most honest, successful people tell the story of how their failures became stepping stones to more meaningful victories down the road, giving the story of their failure a triumphant ending after all.

You can’t learn if you don’t try, you can’t try if you are afraid to fail, and you can’t be good at something if you have not failed multiple times. Learning to manage failure is one of the most important skills you can and must cultivate. If you are someone who never fails, you probably aren’t trying enough.

The final word in the story isn’t the magical staff; the final word affirms for posterity that these men could recover from failure, that there was a life and future beyond their mistakes.

A person who never makes a mistake has never tried anything. Mistakes can often be a better teacher than success; success only confirms the lessons you expect. But failure teaches you unexpected lessons in ways you can’t foresee.

Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it’s the courage to continue that counts.

Excuses Aren’t Kosher

2 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah specifies in clear terms what makes a mammal kosher. A kosher animal possesses a digestive property called chewing its cud, and the form of its hooves must be a fully cloven split. An animal that meets these two requirements is kosher; an animal that doesn’t meet both is not kosher. 

It’s not complicated; it’s not hard to understand.

But quite curiously, the Torah doesn’t leave us with its simple formulation; it specifies several familiar animals that meet one requirement, but not both and states that they aren’t kosher:

אַךְ אֶת זֶה לֹא תֹאכְלוּ מִמַּעֲלֵי הַגֵּרָה וּמִמַּפְרִסֵי הַפַּרְסָה אֶת הַגָּמָל כִּי מַעֲלֵה גֵרָה הוּא וּפַרְסָה אֵינֶנּוּ מַפְרִיס טָמֵא הוּא לָכֶם: וְאֶת הַשָּׁפָן כִּי מַעֲלֵה גֵרָה הוּא וּפַרְסָה לֹא יַפְרִיס טָמֵא הוּא לָכֶם: וְאֶת הָאַרְנֶבֶת כִּי מַעֲלַת גֵּרָה הִוא וּפַרְסָה לֹא הִפְרִיסָה טְמֵאָה הִוא לָכֶם: וְאֶת הַחֲזִיר כִּי מַפְרִיס פַּרְסָה הוּא וְשֹׁסַע שֶׁסַע פַּרְסָה וְהוּא גֵּרָה לֹא יִגָּר טָמֵא הוּא לָכֶם: – You may eat any animal with split hooves, that also chews its cud. Don’t eat animals that chew the cud but don’t have fully cloven hooves: The camel, since it chews the cud but doesn’t have a split hoof is not kosher for you. The hyrax, since it chews the cud but doesn’t have a split hoof is not kosher for you. The hare, since it chews the cud but doesn’t have a split hoof is not kosher for you. The pig, since it has a split hoof but doesn’t chew the cud is not kosher for you. (10:3-7)

The Torah says that the camel, hare, hyrax, and pig aren’t kosher because they only meet one of the specifications, almost suggesting a difference between having one sign and having neither. 

But these animals are on the non-kosher list because they don’t meet both requirements; why is the Torah bothered by the fact they possess one element of the kosher laws?

The Kli Yakar suggests that having one sign may be worse than none; one sign can present a deceptive appearance, and only a more thorough inspection dispels the illusion. 

We use excuses as justifications for a fault; an excuse’s primary function is to diminish your responsibility by getting someone to excuse or forgive your wrongdoing. Where there’s an excuse, it indicated a lesser commitment to the matter, and behind every excuse lies a real reason, whether it’s decency, energy, interest, or time.

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that most of us possess the clarity and self-awareness to know what we need to work on. We can hold ourselves back by clutching onto something, pointing to some achievement or progress to excuse ourselves from doing more, and that good thing or two you’ve got going for you perversely wind up being something that’s holding you back.

The Torah highlights the animals that have some things going for them, but not the whole package, drawing attention to them so that we aren’t fooled, and perhaps so we don’t fool each other or ourselves. You need to soberly define the boundaries of where you are in the physical and spiritual universe, being honest about your successes and failures.

Presenting as something you’re not is not kosher, nor are your excuses.

Yonah: Rejecting Justice For Mercy

2 minute read
Straightforward

On Yom Kippur, before the conclusion of the day, we read the story of Yonah, who is summoned by God to travel to Nineveh and warn its residents to repent of their sins or face divine wrath.

Instead, he boards a ship and runs away. Caught in a storm, he orders the terrified sailors to cast him overboard, and a giant fish swallows him. Three days later,  Yonah agrees to go to Nineveh, and the fish vomits him onto the shore. Yonah convinces the entire city of Nineveh to repent and regretting his mission, attempts to die in the desert. God grows a mysterious plant to shield him, then causes it to wither. When Yonah complains about the plant’s removal, God rebukes him.

What is this story’s particular relevance to the themes of the day?

R’ Jonathan Sack notes that the story tells us to recalibrate who we think is capable of teshuva. Pagan sailors could do teshuva, and even  Israel’s enemies could – the people of Nineveh.

When the input changes, the output changes – which is why repentance, prayer, and charity avert an evil decree. Yonah ran away specifically because he knew that God forgives when people listen.

God prefers mercy over justice, as Yonah himself says – כִּי יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי אַתָּה אֵל-חַנּוּן וְרַחוּם, אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב-חֶסֶד, וְנִחָם עַל-הָרָעָה.

The nature of a warning prophecy is that it’s not supposed to come true. It is a call to action, warning against continuing in the current direction. A prophecy is a fork, showing the end of one road – a successful prophecy is one that doesn’t come true. The story is about hearing a call to action and taking it seriously.

Teshuva happens when we tune in and listen.

With just five words – עוֹד אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם, וְנִינְוֵה נֶהְפָּכֶת – he made an impact on the people of Nineveh that a lifetime of serving his own people had not. He knew what would happen if the people of Nineveh listened when the Jewish People would not – they would attack Israel, because the Jewish people had rejected the option of mercy, and would instead receive justice.

Yonah knew what would happen when Nineveh listened – God would forgive.

Depressed, Yonah went into the desert hoping to die, so God grew a plant overnight to shelter him; at which Yonah recovered, and rejoiced. The plant then died as quickly as it grew, and Yonah lamented his situation, and wanted to die again.

God then spoke to Yonah, and pointed out the egocentric solipsism of his selfish inability to understand a perspective other than his own:

אַתָּה חַסְתָּ עַל-הַקִּיקָיוֹן, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-עָמַלְתָּ בּוֹ וְלֹא גִדַּלְתּוֹ:  שֶׁבִּן-לַיְלָה הָיָה, וּבִן-לַיְלָה אָבָד: וַאֲנִי לֹא אָחוּס, עַל-נִינְוֵה הָעִיר הַגְּדוֹלָה–אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ-בָּהּ הַרְבֵּה מִשְׁתֵּים-עֶשְׂרֵה רִבּוֹ אָדָם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַע בֵּין-יְמִינוֹ לִשְׂמֹאלוֹ, וּבְהֵמָה, רַבָּה – You worry about a little plant, which you did not grow or cultivate, which came and went in a single night – should I not worry for the enormous city of Nineveh, home to 120,000 people who don’t know their right from their left, and all their animals? (4:10,11)

It is selfish and hypocritical to want mercy for ourselves but justice for our enemies. We cannot ask for forgiveness for ourselves, yet deny it to others.

With these provocative thoughts, we move into the crescendo of Yom Kippur’s finale.

It is the final opportunity to ask for mercy, not justice. For everyone, not just ourselves.

Right Thing; Wrong Time

4 minute read
Straightforward

Few people want to do the wrong thing. Most people want to do the right thing, and usually, it pays off. Sometimes, even when we know the right thing to do, we’re afraid to follow through.

But once in a while, even doing the right thing backfires spectacularly.

After an eventful year for the Jewish People, with the Exodus, Red Sea, Sinai, and Golden Calf debacle all in quick succession, the Mishkan was finally ready, and the people could settle down and catch their breath.

The new spiritual infrastructure embodied by the Mishkan was an exciting cause for celebration; the people hadn’t had a way to thank their Creator for keeping them through Egypt and ultimately saving them – arguably the thought process behind the excitement for the Golden Calf. The Creator had established a medium through which their worship was welcome; the celebration was genuine, and Ahron’s family felt it too. And so, after they had followed Moshe’s commanded rituals, Ahron’s eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, wanted to make a token offering of their own, expressing their gratitude and respect on this momentous occasion. The Midrash imagines their joy at seeing a Heavenly fire descend, and suggests that they wanted to join God’s act of life and love with one of their own.

But joy turned to ashes, and celebration turned to tragedy:

וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי-אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ, וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ, וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ, קְטֹרֶת; וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי ה, אֵשׁ זָרָה–אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה, אֹתָם. וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי ה’, וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם; וַיָּמֻתוּ, לִפְנֵי ה – Nadav and Avihu took pans of fire, in which they placed the spices, and presented it before God; this alien fire which they were not commanded. A great fire emerged and consumed them before God. (10:1,2)

The Torah has no trouble describing people doing something bad or wrong; it conspicuously avoids suggesting that Nadav and Avihu did anything explicitly wrong. Our sages suggest different things that might associate them with wrongdoing, but we are left with the impression that this wasn’t wrong so much as it was inappropriate or misguided. Their image is still very much that they were great men who died a beautiful death before God; failed heroes, and not wayward sinners –וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי ה’ וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם; וַיָּמֻתוּ, לִפְנֵי ה.

R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that this story is a caution that our power of initiative might be welcome in the world of action, but we must taper it in the world of spirituality. The world of spirituality is about subduing our ego in honor of God, not asserting it.

The Torah repeatedly affirms where laws come from – אֲנִי ה אֱלֹקיכֶם. Rashi notes that this statement is an echo of Sinai – אָנֹכִי ה אֱלֹקיךָ – suggesting a direct link from Sinai to the laws; if we accept God as sovereign, these are the laws of the kingdom, and Sinai is interwoven in the fabric of every mitzvah we uphold.

The Sfas Emes understands this as an affirmation of the nature of the Torah, that there is an invisible and intangible component beyond the obvious things we can directly apprehend. The social, inter-personal mitzvos build and develop a cohesive society whether performed intentionally as mitzvos or not; that’s just how they work. Acts of charity will inherently bring brotherhood, goodwill, and positivity into the world, regardless of your awareness of a mitzvah called tzedaka.

The power of initiative works in the world of relationships because people are interactive – we can learn and understand how to get along better. But once we step out of the realm of feedback and interactivity, it is deeply presumptuous to continue asserting the power of initiative.

The Ohr HaChaim sharply observes that their initiative to do the right thing at the wrong time got them killed. This story unequivocally conveys the terrifying yet essential lesson that doing the right thing or having noble intentions is not enough; the context must necessarily inform our behavior.

No action exists in a vacuum. The right thing to do depends entirely on the context; circumstances, timing, and relevant values are necessary to determine the rightness of an action. If you’re doing the right thing but the timing creates problems, it wasn’t actually the right thing to do at that time. Doing the right thing without an awareness of context and timing very quickly becomes the wrong thing – אֵשׁ זָרָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה.

This reflects a school of thought in philosophy called consequentialism, which teaches that the only way to determine whether something was morally correct or not is the consequences of that action. The Torah pays respect to these great men, but the outcome was that they died.

And our lives are like that in many ways.

If a young man wants to buy flowers for his wife, he should probably remember the red rose bouquet she chose for their wedding because they are her favorite. If he buys her a beautiful arrangement of white tulips for her birthday, we understand that he probably hasn’t done the right thing. While he meant well and has done something genuinely and objectively nice, the context determines that red roses would have been the way to go.

Many variables go into something working out well, but what that means, then, is that the right person at the wrong time, or the right deal at the wrong time, or the right job at the wrong time, are actually all the wrong thing, and we would do well to let go of them and make our peace. More than a simple misfire, bad context or timing reveals a fundamental incompatibility and misalignment.

There is no shortage of positive outlets for your enthusiasm and initiative, no shortage of good causes to contribute to and volunteer for.

But when it comes to using your initiative, it is imperative to be in tune with the context of your physical and spiritual environment because, as the famous proverb goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Pharaoh’s Responsibility

3 minute read
Straightforward

One of the foundations of religion and morality is free will.

With good reason, Maimonides identifies free will as a foundational principle underpinning the entire Torah. If humans can’t deliberately choose between right and wrong, there can be no reward or punishment. If we can’t choose, our actions have no value as we don’t control them; if you are bad, it’s not your fault because being good is impossible.

The Exodus story poses a problem to this, however.

Throughout the story, God tells Moshe that He has hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and so Pharaoh refuses to free the Jews. But if God had hardened his heart, Pharaoh’s free will was hopelessly compromised; how was punishing Pharaoh deserved or fair?

Maimonides’s exposition of free will explains that it is possible to do something so bad egregious that the path of making amends and repentance is foreclosed, and the person can no longer turn back to where they once were.

We understand this; there is an old folk saying that the axe forgets; but the tree remembers, meaning that the person who hurts another forgets but the person who gets hurt will not. Someone abusive can reform themselves, regret their actions, and resolve never to hurt another person again, and they should do all those things! But the point is, they can only hope to find a new path; they can never return to their old one, and that’s what happened to Pharaoh. 

Pharaoh’s government enslaved, tortured, and murdered people, particularly children; justice itself required that he be prevented from making amends.

Pharaoh was so far down his path of madness and violence that he could not see or hear his people suffering, and his adviser’s pleas fell on deaf ears:

הֲטֶרֶם תֵּדַע כִּי אָבְדָה מִצְרָיִם – “Do you not see that Egypt is already lost?” (10:7)

Contemporary psychology might call this a form of cognitive dissonance, the uncomfortable feeling you experience when two of your beliefs are in conflict. When confronted with challenging new information, people may seek to preserve their current understanding of the world by rejecting, explaining away, or avoiding the new information, or convincing themselves that no conflict really exists. We can lie to ourselves to justify bad decisions and hypocrisy.

Pharoah was determined to hold onto his power over his Jewish subjects, but this was at odds with his duties to the Egyptian people who were suffering. These beliefs were incompatible, but Pharoah would not address the systemic issue and let the Jewish People go; he would only ever ask Moshe to remove the symptoms of the plague at hand.

Where was Pharaoh’s free will? Where is ours? Cognitive dissonance is ubiquitous.

The Midrash warns us that sin is like a passing visitor, then a houseguest who overstays their welcome, and before long, it’s master of the house. R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that we can all too easily become prisoners to our own pride on a microcosmic level.

It’s not so difficult to imagine becoming so entrenched in a worldview that you get tunnel vision and can’t change course.

R’ Yisrael Salanter says that the first time you do something wrong, it’s a sin. When you repeat it again, it seems permitted. When you do it the third time, it can feel like a mitzvah!

R’ Shimshon Pinkus suggests that this is the definition of the Rosh Hashana blessing to be the head, and not the tail – שֶׁנִּהְיֶה לְרֹאשׁ וְלֹא לְזָנָב. It’s a wish for an intentional year, with conscious and constant course corrections, because if today’s actions are based on yesterday’s decisions, you end up being your own tail!

As much as we celebrate the prospect of freedom, you must consciously choose it daily.

The Beacon

2 minute read
Straightforward

The Chagim are extensively detailed, earning their own books in the Gemara. All of them, except Chanuka.

The Midrash also states an opinion that when all the Jews are back in Israel, with a Third Temple, the Chagim may not be observed the way they are today – except Purim and Chanuka. What is Chanuka’s essential purpose, and why is it not clearly stated anywhere?

Rav Hutner explains that Chanuka and Purim were not direct interventions from God; they were events instigated by humans reaching out. At a time when tyranny sought to purge Judaism of what made it Jewish, a select few stood up to fight for spirituality and the oral Torah.

At its core, the Torah is what binds us to God, it is the place from where our commitment stems from. The nature of oral Torah is that largely unwritten. What is written is terse in style, and only a guideline for exploring larger topics. It is primarily learnt by word of mouth; it needs to be discussed to explore it fully. It reflects the underlying commitment – it is all-encompassing.

The Chanuka story was about a few people willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to show the value of the principle of commitment to God. People are needed to uphold the covenant, or there isn’t one. This is why Chanuka cannot have been fully explained. This explanation still does not do it justice; it cannot. It is the bigger picture of dedication that trumps everything.

The factual circumstances of the story reflect the spiritual circumstances; the little bit of unadulterated oil left was the few remaining unadulterated Jews. That so little oil lasted so long was the few Jews commitment being sufficient to reignite everyone else’s flame.

This is why Chanuka was the last of the Chagim to be established. With it, exile is not the end. No matter the odds, a handful of good people can turn it around in a heartbeat. Chazal say that Chanuka gave the powe to rescue light from darkness itself.

Darkness, and it’s corollary, forgetfulness, are setbacks that set the stage for comebacks. Torah, the instrument of our commitment, is practiced and studied, to develop and strengthen the relationship. All sincere discussion is Torah, even an incorrect opinion. Exile, the darkness of the unknown, can be faced with such an ability in our arsenal.

It speaks volumes that the Chag is called חנוכה, a derivative of the word חינוך, education. It is not called “Martyrdom”, or “Sacrifice”. Because it is about education. In a mechanical world, there can be a free choice of commitment. Note how the mitzva of Menora is always performed to its highest standard; no one does the basic mitzva of one candle per house – everyone lights progressively more. Excellence is the standard for such an important theme.

Chanuka was the final piece of the jigsaw that lets us choose to be resolute; able to withstand crushing circumstances.

You Are Not Alone

2 minute read
Straightforward

There is a Midrash that holds that the regular Chagim as we know them will be modified, scaled back or otherwise abolished completely. The Midrash provides an analogy that it would be like a candle in the daytime to remember miracles in an era of miracles. The Midrash stipulates that the exceptions will be Chanuka and Purim.

This is disputed; but whether or not this will be the case, such an opinion in Chazal is worth analysis.

Something about the Jews relationship with God radically changed after the Purim story. Chazal understand that as daytime ends the nighttime, so did Esther end the age of miracles.

The analogy is not clear. Should it not then be that as night ends the day, the era of miracles ended with Esther? Do we not think that the exile we are in is analogous to darkness? Why then, is exile held to be the daytime?

R’ Yonasan Eibeshutz explains that the Chagim record how God directly interceded on the Jews’ behalf at a particular time. The Purim story, along with Chanuka, are exactly the opposite. There is no direct interference on God’s part whatsoever; only behind the scenes, invisibly conducting and orchestrating events.

Purim and Chanuka will be celebrated in the era of Redemption, long after the other Chagim are superseded, because they record how in the exile, we were never alone.

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that when you realise God is with you, always; you are never lost, alone, or in the dark, ever again. The analogy of “as the daytime ends the nighttime” is deliberate, because in the exile, we see that God is truly with us, illustrated most clearly by the Purim story. It set the tone for the entire exile, that no matter how it looked, God would be there for us, always.

Perhaps this is what is meant by King David, when he said ה׳ שומריך, ה׳ צלך על יד ימינך. ה׳ ישמור צאתך ובואך מעתה ועד עולם – God is your guardian; God is your shadow. Hashem will protect your arrivals and departures; now and always! (Tehilim 121). The chapter is about a dawning realisation that God has always been with you, as if your shadow, “shadowing” you everywhere you go, and have been.

Here’s the kicker. You see shadows in the daytime.

National Identity Crisis – Assimilation And Brotherhood

2 minute read
Straightforward

Two of the mitzvos particular to Purim are Mishloach Manos, and Matanos L’Evyonim – giving gifts to people, and distributing charity freely. The Sfas Emes explains that the function of these mitzvos as they relate to Purim is that they increase unity and brotherhood.

Unity is the anathema of Amalek, who Haman was descended of. His complaint to Achashverosh:

יֶשְׁנוֹ עַם אֶחָד מְפֻזָּר וּמְפֹרָד בֵּין הָעַמִּים בְּכֹל מְדִינוֹת מַלְכוּתֶךָ וְדָתֵיהֶם שֹׁנוֹת מִכָּל עָם – There is one nation, scattered and dispersed among all the regions of your kingdom, and they are different from everyone else. (3:8)

Even in exile, Jews must maintain identity, and resist assimilation. Haman points out their refusal to integrate, they remain עַם אֶחָד – one nation; this in spite of how the Purim story begins with the Jews attending Achashverosh’s party celebrating their own downfall with the parading of the sacked Temple’s artefacts. The Jews lost their identity and it paved the way for Haman’s nefarious plans to destroy them all – the moment they let their guard down.

The resolution came at the hand of Mordechai and Esther. She tells him to unite the people and impress on them the severity of their futures:

כְּנוֹס אֶת כָּל הַיְּהוּדִים הַנִּמְצְאִים בְּשׁוּשָׁן וְצוּמוּ עָלַי וְאַל תֹּאכְלוּ וְאַל תִּשְׁתּוּ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים לַיְלָה וָיוֹם – Gather all the Jews in Shushan. Fast for me; don’t eat or drink for three days and nights. (4:16)

The threat is faced when they gather once more, when the Megila tells us that וְעָמֹד עַל נַפְשָׁם – it does not say ועמדו in the plural, that they stood for their lives, but in the singular. Their national identity had discovered. The Jewish nation had united and defended itself from attack.

It is famously expounded in Chazal that Purim also celebrates קימו מה שקיבלו כבר – the Jews had no choice to accept the Torah at Sinai, but after Purim they accepted the Torah afresh, voluntarily. A prerequisite to the Torah is unity; ויחן שם נגד ההר – The nation camped by the mountain, in the singular – not ויחנו – like one man with one heart. The Sfas Emes teaches that וְעָמֹד עַל נַפְשָׁם is directly parallel to ויחן שם נגד ההר.

Unity is fortified with acts of ואהבת לרעך כמוך – loving ones fellow as oneself. If people identify with the nation, they have a very direct connection to the Torah and Sinai. It is quite reasonable to suggest that due to this, it is taught that זה כלל גדול בתורה.

The Gemara says that Mordechai is identified as an איש יהודי. It asks that he was not from Yehuda, but from Binyamin, and answers that we do not read it יהודי, but יחידי – from the root אחד. He brought unity and identity back to Jews who had lost it, cementing their faith, culminating in a new acceptance of the Torah. All mitzvos of the day will reflect unity and friendship to some degree.

The way to fight Amalek is a constant quest for unity and understanding our identity, and the closer we get, the nearer we get ultimate truth and redemption.

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

2 minute read
Straightforward

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

But that can’t be right.

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

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

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

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

What does it mean to be “chosen”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We become chosen when we choose to live good lives.

Greater Than The Sum Of It’s Parts

2 minute read
Straightforward

At the end of Creation, before the first Shabbos begins, the concluding overview summarizes how all the component parts came together:

וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, וְהִנֵּה-טוֹב מְאֹד; וַיְהִי-עֶרֶב וַיְהִי-בֹקֶר, יוֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁי – And God saw all that He had done, and it was very good. With an evening and a morning, the sixth day. (1:31)

The Ramban notes how כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה includes the  unpleasant aspects of creation which are nonetheless labeled טוֹב מְאֹד – excellent. With a greater perspective, everything turns out for the best.

The Netziv further adds that this was not just true of that individual moment. Within that moment, all potential and future moments were dormant, and all that latent potential was excellent as well.

Rabeinu Bachye notes how at the conclusion of every other day, the Torah describes it as כי טוב – it was “good”. But on the final day, where all the different aspects of existence had been formed and came together, it became something else; טוֹב מְאֹד – “excellent”. The creation itself was truly greater than sum of its parts; like a sophisticated machine, all the various levers, gears and cogs came together to become something utterly incredible.

The Kli Yakar points out the contrast between the first five days of כי טוב, and the conclusion of events called וְהִנֵּה טוֹב מְאֹד. The Kli Yakar explains that כי is a term of clarification. It indicates a deliberation weighing towards טוב. But when everything comes together, it is unqualified – וְהִנֵּה טוֹב מְאֹד – it is clearly and absolutely good.

The Sforno explains that the conclusion of creation achieved an equilibrium; existence was literally “at rest” – precisely the definition of Shabbos. With the acceptance and absorption of the imperfections in the world, the Torah was in balance. The Torah calls this טוֹב מְאֹד.

Existence was whole, complete and in balance. On such a sixth day – הַשִּׁשִּׁי – “the” perfect sixth day, Shabbos can finally commence.

Perfection is seeing that there are countless components to the sophisticated machine that is life, some of which are tough, but all of which, together, make it work. It just takes a little perspective.

All You Can Be

2 minute read
Straightforward

Hashem’s very first communication with Avraham was the immense challenge to abandon all he had ever known:

לֶךְ־לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ אֶל־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ – “Go for yourself, from your land, your birthplace, and the home of your father, to the land which I will show you.” (12:1)

The instruction is quite odd because it focuses on leaving, not where Avraham has to go; moreover, the departure sequence is backward! When you travel, you first leave your home, then the neighborhood, and only lastly, your country.

Why does the story emphasize leaving, and in such a strange way?

The Sfas Emes explains that the hallmark of great people is that they actively seek challenges and opportunities. Avraham was the first person to intuitively understand God’s vision for humanity of ethics and moral consciousness.

But he couldn’t bring it into being in the stagnant place he grew up.

Avraham was going someplace new, to become something new. Old ideologies would have no place in this new vision, and they had to go.

The Nesivos Shalom observes how central the environments that nurture us are to our development and identity; the more familiar the environment, the greater the effect. So the order of God’s instruction isn’t the order of how we leave home, but it is the order of how home leaves us. You forget your national culture before the community you grew up in, and you can forget your community before you forget your family, and it sure is tough to unlearn the things you picked up as a child – מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ.

R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz teaches that greatness and growth aren’t simply about going someplace or doing something. They fundamentally require us to leave the comfort zone, the familiar, and the supportive behind. To get where you want to go, you also need to let something go – לֶךְ־לְךָ.

The Mesilas Yesharim observes that the most natural default state for living things is laziness. When animals aren’t trying to eat or reproduce, they typically won’t do anything at all to conserve energy. Entropy is a law of physics that dictates that everything deteriorates to its most static state over time, which is to say that idleness and stagnation are natural!

It’s hard to move and think outside the comfort zone, and we develop a self-image, the story we tell ourselves of what we can and can’t do. After all, if you can’t do it, it’s not your fault, and it’s not your responsibility! We have to let go of that – לֶךְ־לְךָ.

The standard expected of all Jews is nothing less than absolute, perfect dedication, and diligent moral consciousness. Yet, since that standard is a long way away from anything humans are capable of, we don’t even begin! We tell ourselves greatness is beyond us, so we don’t have to do anything.

That’s why more than God emphasizes the need to get somewhere; God emphasizes the need to get started – לֶךְ־לְךָ.

Get off zero, and get started. You might be surprised where you land up.

The Principal-Agent Problem

2 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

What was Moshe adding?

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

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

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

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

It had been God all along.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Eternal Flame

3 minute read
Straightforward

The ancients understood 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.

Rain is a powerful symbol in the covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people; unlike Egypt, where the water comes up from the Nile and beneath feet, Israel is a land where people must look up to the heavens for rain.

Given rain’s prominent role in an agricultural economy, it follows that rain features in our daily prayers; but there was one time of year when the rain had a unique prayer.

The Kohen Gadol would enter the inner sanctum of the Beis HaMikdash once a year on Yom Kippur and perform the ritual service and say one single prayer – the only prayer ever said at Judaism’s holiest site – about rain.

But where we might expect the foremost religious leader and representative of an entire generation to request the right amount of rain at the appropriate time and place, we find that instead, the prayer simply asks God to ignore the prayers of travelers who don’t want to get wet on their way.

Given the central importance of rain, why is that the most important thing to say?

There is an interesting directive in the laws of sacrifices about a fire that had to burn in all weather conditions, even in the rain:

אֵשׁ תָּמִיד תּוּקַד עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ לֹא תִכְבֶּה – Burn an eternal flame on the altar, it can never burn out… (6:6)

On its face, this is a simple instruction to the attending Kohanim on duty to regularly stoke and fuel the flame.

There was nothing magical about it; it could not and did not burn on its own. It required a complex and dedicated logistical operation with constant maintenance and monitoring with round-the-clock shifts year-round, rain or shine, snow or wind.

Pirkei Avos suggests that their efforts were met with divine assistance; when it rained, the rain would not quench the fire, which is to say that our sages specifically understood the divine assistance to take the form of rain that wouldn’t put the fire out, as opposed to no rain at all over the fire. The Kohanim would still have to work the fire in adverse weather conditions; God would make sure their efforts were successful.

This strongly implies that no rain here, there, or anywhere is not a viable solution.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch suggests that this illustrates that the heat and warmth of the special moments of life are only fuelled by the grit and consistency of our daily grind. It wasn’t an eternal flame so much as a perpetual flame – אֵשׁ תָּמִיד.

This eternal flame, fueled as it was by raw human willpower, was the source of fires in all the year-round services, from the Menorah to the incense, the crescendo of the Yom Kippur service when the Kohen Gadol said his prayer for the rain. The eternal flame wasn’t just something that lies in the external world; it came from within. Perhaps every person is a miniature eternal flame; you must continually stoke the fire at whatever pace allows you to keep at it for decades without burning out.

Our sages understood the true miracle of the eternal flame; determined willpower and enduring efforts blessed with success. The Yom Kippur prayer affirms our worldview; we reject the immaturity of the fair-weather traveler, who does not accept that it will rain. We live in a world where there is rain, a world where it must rain, and people are going to have to be a little wet and uncomfortable.

You must not deny the crucial role consistency, perseverance, and perspiration play in life. Like the eternal flame, the miracle only happens after you’ve exhausted your efforts.

As R’ Chaim Volozhin teaches, while we can’t choose our circumstances, we can control our direction and velocity – לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר.

R’ Joseph B. Soloveitchik suggests that it is a human’s duty to broaden the scope and strengthen the intensity of their efforts – השתדלות – because the aggregate of all outcomes is contingent on our efforts.

For the blessing to have a place to land, you need to do all you possibly can; ask not for a lighter burden, but broader shoulders.

All you can do is your best; you must simply hope for the rest.

Anchor Of The Universe

2 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We just do our best and hope for the rest.

Tests And Consequences

3 minute read
Straightforward

It should go without saying that war is terrible.

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

For the vast majority of human history, men were massacred, and women were raped and possibly enslaved. Although international humanitarian law has considered wartime sexual violence as a war crime in the last century, it still occurs frequently in less developed parts of the world.

The Torah is sensitive to the moral challenge of this baseline reality, and steps in to regulate it with the law of the captive woman:

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

This mitzvah flies in the face of what we today consider to be moral and ethical. How can the Torah endorse such a barbaric act?

Rashi immediately explains that the Torah does not command, endorse, or approve this; instead, the law speaks to mankind’s baser inclination in the heat of the moment, and grants a discretionary permission.

R’ Daniel Rowe expounds that a law’s inclusion in the Torah doesn’t have to be an endorsement at all.

If we scrutinize the context, the laws continue that for 30 days she must be shaved bald, mourning her family in unkempt black rags. This “marriage” is not meant to be romantic or attractive, perhaps precisely so that the soldier regrets forcing this poor stranger under his roof, and will return her home.

The next two laws that follow are the laws of a despised wife and the rebellious son, which Chazal understood to mean that by taking advantage of this permission, a man would come to hate his wife, and their sour relationship would produce bad children.

While the Torah contains lofty ideals, it also contains certain threshold requirements that elevate baseline morals and norms for the moments we are not at our best.

With this law, the Torah requires a total departure from thousands of years of normalized slavery and rape. Instead of conforming to the convention that classified women as spoils of war like other property to be exploited, the Torah demands that a woman’s personhood is acknowledged and respected, and her dignity preserved.

This is a radical polemic that represents a total paradigm shift.

Recognising that is what the mitzvah really is.

The Torah demands more of its adherents. When we wage war, we are supposed to fight justly and ethically, with minimal harm to others, in the same way that we are supposed to live our daily lives.

The Torah is not some distant ideal that is beyond the reach and understanding of humans – לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם, הִוא.

The Torah is written for humans, with all our fallibility – דיברה תורה כלשון בני אדם.

The Torah talks about rape and slavery. But just because they are in the Torah, that does not mean they are ideals that we aspire to practice ever again.

Because if we study a little closer, the Torah is actually steering us away from a world that tolerates such rampant immoral practices, and towards the more civilized world we are familiar with today.

Everybody is Somebody

2 minute read
Straightforward

After assuaging God’s wrath and ending the plague, the Torah hails Pinchas:

פִּינְחָס בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן הֵשִׁיב אֶת חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת קִנְאָתִי בְּתוֹכָם וְלֹא כִלִּיתִי אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּקִנְאָתִי – Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Ahron HaKohen, has turned My anger away from the Children of Israel with his zealously avenging Me among them so that I did not destroy the children of Israel in My zeal. (25:11)

The naming convention is usually X son of Y, and Rashi highlights how in this instance, the Torah traces Pinchas’ ancestry to his grandfather Ahron. Rashi comments that people had mocked Pinchas as being a grandson of Yisro, a former pagan worshipper, so the Torah goes out of its way to identify Pinchas as having good pedigree; that God didn’t see him as lower class.

This seems to reveal that past a threshold level, lineage and pedigree are things humans get caught up with; God doesn’t actually care! Because in other words, you do not need to be somebody to make things happen because a nobody to us is somebody to God!

Nowhere is this illustrated clearer than the opening of Yirmiyahu, where God appears to Yirmiyahu in his adolescence, and Yirmiyahu doesn’t think he has what it takes, that he’s just a kid and isn’t a speaker:

וָאֹמַר אֲהָהּ 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 – I said, “Alas, God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am just a kid!” And the Lord said to me, “Do not tell Me “I am just a kid!” Because wherever I send you, you will go, and whatever I command you, you will say!” (1:6-7)

R’ Nosson Vachtvogel wonders how many potential greats our world has lost to self-doubt. Even if God doesn’t say it to us the way he did to Yirmiyahu, God says it to use just the same – אַל-תֹּאמַר נַעַר אָנֹכִי. Let’s remember that we have no reason to suspect Yirmiyahu responds with self-effacing humility; he’s not lying! He has correctly and honestly assessed himself and found himself wanting, yet God still dismisses these excuses – not because they are wrong, but because they ultimately don’t matter.

R’ Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin teaches that you ought to believe in yourself in the same way you believe in God. If you think God doesn’t believe in you, you don’t properly understand what believing in God entails. Your consciousness is rooted in your soul, a fragment of God – חלק אלוק ממעל. God saw fit to send that part of Himself into the world in the shape of you, which is to say that God very literally believes in you, and we know that because you are here.

It’s easier to believe in yourself if someone else does it first. And God believes in all of us!

So don’t forget that God saw fit to share you with us; you’re somebody.

Charity Redux

6 minute read
Straightforward

One of the foundations of the modern world we inhabit is the notion of egalitarianism, the idea that all humans are equal in fundamental worth or moral status; giving birth to, among others, the ideas that women aren’t lesser than men, and that black people aren’t lesser than white people, and the like.

This has been a decisively positive development in many respects; it is self-evident that all humans are fundamentally equal, and the Torah says as much – וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹקים  אֶת־הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹקים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם.

But it is equally evident that in many respects, the universe is not fair or equal; plenty of people are disadvantaged in countless ways. Many hardworking, honest, and decent people have difficult, stressful, and impoverished lives, not to mention the various health issues so many people experience. Human input isn’t decisive; luck is.

A modern phenomenon in human civilization has emerged to address this imbalance: the welfare state. First-world governments allocate taxpayer funds to alleviate the poverty of the disadvantaged and less fortunate – in other words, charity is a core part of national policy. This practice has been criticized for perversely enabling and exacerbating poverty further, reducing the incentive for workers to seek employment by reducing the need to work and reducing the rewards of work. If we help these people, so the thinking goes, they become dependent and lazy. Moreover, it’s a zero-sum game; I have to give up more of what’s mine, and somebody else gets the benefit from it – as any child could tell you, that’s not fair!

While the specific contours of government policy are best left to experts, it brings to the fore a relevant question that profoundly impacts our orientation to others. 

What do we owe to each other?

The conventional understanding of charity is that it’s an act of benevolent kindness and generosity, initiated and executed at the actor’s sole discretion; but this is not the Jewish understanding. 

The Jewish understanding of tzedaka is orders of magnitude more comprehensive and overarching. Extending far beyond the boundaries of kindness, the word itself literally means justice. The practice is a religious duty and social obligation; we have a duty to dispense God’s justice by helping the less fortunate. In the ancient agrarian world of the Torah, Jewish farmers were subject to mandatory religious taxes that were allocated to different beneficiaries according to specific parameters. To this day, many Jews tithe their income, allocating at least ten percent to worthy causes.

The Torah is consistently firm and unequivocal in our obligations towards each other:

וְכִי־יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ וּמָטָה יָדוֹ עִמָּךְ וְהֶחֱזַקְתָּ בּוֹ… וְחֵי אָחִיךָ עִמָּךְ – When your brother languishes, and his hand falters, you must steady and support him… Let your brother live by your side, with you. (Leviticus 25:35,36)

This framing allows no savior complex; the Torah says plainly that the recipient of your help is a disadvantaged equal, lateral to you. There is no hierarchy or verticality in helping your brother – אָחִיךָ – and you must help him live alongside you, with you – עִמָּךְ. The person you get to help is not lesser or worse than you.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch highlights how in this conception, the value of a person is not tied in any way to their economic productivity; the Torah speaks of a person’s hand faltering and requiring assistance, yet still remaining your brother – וְכִי־יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ וּמָטָה יָדוֹ עִמָּךְ. Other people don’t need to achieve anything or make money to be valid in their humanness or worthy of your respect and support. 

The Rambam famously taught that the highest level of charity is helping people get on their own feet – the ultimate and most literal fulfillment of helping your brother stand alongside you.

In the Torah’s primeval story of the dawn of humanity, Cain fatefully asks God the rhetorical question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This question deserves scrupulous attention, not just because we read the story and know that Cain is attempting to cover up his crime, but because it is the great unanswered question of Genesis and quite possibly the entire Torah and all of human history.

The pregnant silence in the story is jarring; when we read about the obligations we have toward our brother, we should consider them in light of the Torah’s first brothers – perhaps suggesting that yes, you are indeed your brother’s keeper. 

Echoing the Genesis story, the Ramban famously wrote to his son that humans have no natural hierarchy; nobody is better than you, and you’re better than nobody. Humans are brothers; the Torah speaks of what we owe each other as a result of our fraternal bond; our obligations to each other are born of sameness, not of difference. The interpersonal mitzvos are obligations between equals – from human to human; horizontal, and not vertical.

The mitzvah to aid others is far-reaching – it goes far beyond money, encompassing your time, energy, and emotions, even to the point of manual labor:

לֹא־תִרְאֶה אֶת־חֲמוֹר אָחִיךָ אוֹ שׁוֹרוֹ נֹפְלִים בַּדֶּרֶךְ וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ מֵהֶם הָקֵם תָּקִים עִמּוֹ – If you see your brother’s donkey or his ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it; you must surely raise it together. (Deut 22:4)

Beyond your brother, or the people you’d want to help, you are even obligated to help the people you don’t:

כִּי־תִרְאֶה חֲמוֹר שֹׂנַאֲךָ רֹבֵץ תַּחַת מַשָּׂאוֹ וְחָדַלְתָּ מֵעֲזֹב לוֹ עָזֹב תַּעֲזֹב עִמּוֹ – When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless surely help raise it. (Ex 23:5)

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes the common tendency humans have to give up on people who seem to attract calamity and misfortune; it would be far easier to cut them loose. The Torah speaks against the backdrop of such wayward thinking and reminds us that this person is your brother; you cannot give up on him. You must persist in helping, even if he fails over and over again – עָזֹב תַּעֲזֹב / הָקֵם תָּקִים.

However, this unilateral obligation is ripe for abuse, giving cheats and crooks a religiously sanctioned opportunity to exploit good people. The Kli Yakar offers a sharp caveat; you must only persist in helping people who are at least trying to help themselves – עִמּוֹ. R’ Shlomo Farhi piercingly suggests that it is not actually possible to help someone who won’t help themselves; the mitzvah is only to help, not enable. But so long as they’re trying, don’t walk away; figure it out together – עָזֹב תַּעֲזֹב עִמּוֹ / הָקֵם תָּקִים עִמּוֹ. 

Our sages suggest that we should be grateful for cheats and crooks; otherwise, we’d be guilty over each and every person we fail to help.

While many mitzvos and rituals have an accompanying blessing to initiate the action, the Rashba notes that interpersonal mitzvos do not have such a blessing; making a blessing before helping another person would be dehumanizing, instrumentalizing a person into an object you do a mitzvah with, eroding the mitzvah entirely.

The Torah has a prominent spiritual dimension, but the interpersonal aspect of the Torah is a coequal, interdependent, and reciprocal component. It can be easy to get carried away with the spiritual trappings of helping people without being concerned about the person, but that’s what it’s all about – the other person is your brother, and you need to relate to him in that way.

R’ Yitzchak Hutner was a Rosh Yeshiva renowned for his wit. Sick in hospital, a student came to visit his teacher and mentor. The great rabbi asked his guest why he had come, and the young man responded that it was a great mitzvah to visit the sick. Characteristically, R’ Hutner challenged his visitor, “Am I your Lulav? Did you come to shake me?”

If we are more concerned about lazy freeloaders who exploit public resources than disadvantaged people who need a leg up, it is only misdirection from the lesser angels of our nature; moral indignation that permits acting on envy and hate under a cloak of virtue. The Torah articulates a clear skew and strong preference toward taking action that helps others; the marginal cost of not helping is unacceptable.

Tzedaka is not charity or philanthropy. Less fortunate isn’t a euphemism; it’s a self-evident and observable fact. It’s entitled to think it’s not fair that you have to give something up so someone else can benefit; it’s about justice, not fairness. Giving your money to others is explicitly a zero-sum game. By telling us to do it anyway, the Torah explicitly dismisses this objection as irrelevant, revealing that thinking in terms of winning and losing is an entirely incorrect perspective to bring to the interaction.

Your choice isn’t whether to help others; it’s who to help and how – which charities to give to, and in what quantities. It’s the right thing to do; it is wrong not to.

It is important to be a good steward of capital; will this contribution be the highest and best use of your resources? But while it’s vital to think in terms of impact and effectiveness, be mindful that some people aren’t ever going to get by on their own. The widows and orphans of the world aren’t going to be okay because you wrote a check one time or sent a care package for Pesach; people experiencing chronic illness aren’t going to recover because you visited them once or hosted a fundraiser a while back. 

The Torah calls for your continued interest and persistent involvement, not a one-off act; a mode of being, a mentality of feeling obligated to intervene for people who need help today and, in all likelihood, will still need help tomorrow and the day after as well.

Your brothers need you; you must persist.