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Take Responsibility

4 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Heart of Worship

3 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Gratitude Redux

8 minute read
Straightforward

Emotional states are everything.

While all animals experience emotions, they are predominantly simple; human capacity for complex thought uniquely impacts the context and depth of how we perceive and experience our emotions. Some emotions, like guilt, can come from our understanding of our role in events in the external world.

One of the highest human emotions is gratitude, which affirms that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits that we have received. Research has shown that gratitude is one of the most powerful predictors of wellbeing, over and above most known factors, including health and wealth. Gratitude is tightly linked to feeling happy, empathetic, energetic, forgiving, hopeful, optimistic, and spiritual while feeling less depressed, envious, and neurotic.

The Mesilas Yesharim teaches that God’s entire purpose in Creation was to have a counterpart to share the gift of God’s goodness with – humans, created as we are in God’s image and likeness.

It follows that recognizing goodness activates and draws out what’s best in us; gratitude and recognition arguably form the undercurrent of the vast majority of mitzvos, and it might not be a stretch to say perhaps all of Judaism.

The Midrash imagines God walking Adam through Eden. After reveling in how beautiful and wonderful each tree is, God would say that each marvelous one had been designed for human enjoyment. Inasmuch as we can say that God could want anything, God wants humans to enjoy His gifts and recognize and appreciate those blessings.

The first words God says to the Jewish People articulate that God wants to be recognized – אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם – and not just for higher-order activities such as Creation, but for a specific and personal intervention in their lives, that God had rescued them from slavery. The next thing God has to say is that God cannot tolerate idolatry, where humans would misattribute God’s work to other, lesser powers. Idolatry betrays and demeans the good that God has done, and ranks among the most egregious sins towards God; idolatry entirely undermines God’s purpose for Creation, that God’s goodness to be appreciated and loved – וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ בְּכָל לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל נַפְשְׁךָ וּבְכָל מְאֹדֶךָ!

In the agrarian world of the Torah, there used to be an annual national thanksgiving ritual – the mitzvah of Bikkurim. Farmers would tie a string to the first fruits that sprouted. Then, after the harvest, the Mishna describes how the entire country would sing and dance together at a massive street festival in Jerusalem to accompany the farmers dedicating those first fruits at the Beis HaMikdash to express their gratitude for the harvest – and almost everyone was a farmer.

On arrival, the farmers would present their baskets to the attending Kohen and recite some affirmations, including a brief recital of Jewish history. They’d recount how Yakov fled from Lavan, that his family descended to Egypt, and that God rescued the Jewish People and gave them the Land of Israel –  אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי / וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה / וַיִּתֶּן־לָנוּ אֶת־הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת. The prayer closes with an instruction to the farmer to rejoice – וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל הַטּוֹב אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לְךָ ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ וּלְבֵיתֶךָ אַתָּה וְהַלֵּוִי וְהַגֵּר אֲשֶׁר בְּקִרְבֶּךָ.

It’s hard to overstate how central our sages saw the mitzvah of Bikkurim. The Sifri suggests that the merit of Bikkurim is what entitles the people to the Land of Israel; the Midrash Tanchuma says that the merit of Bikkurim fuels the world’s prayers; and the Midrash teaches that the mitzvah of Bikkurim perpetuates nothing less than the entire universe.

But there’s one part that doesn’t quite fit.

The farmer would work his field manually; weeding, plowing; sowing; pruning; watering, and guarding it. It redeems no less than an entire year’s work when the harvest comes, and ensures food security for the next year!

The farmer has worried for a year, living with anxiety and uncertainty. After the harvest, those troubles are gone; he can sleep easy now, and it might be the one time a year he can undoubtedly pray from a place of love and security, not fear and worry. So it’s a strange thing for the Torah to instruct the farmer to rejoice – וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל הַטּוֹב אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לְךָ ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ וּלְבֵיתֶךָ.

If this is the happiest anyone will realistically be, why does the Torah need to command joy?

Healthy and well-adjusted humans require a sense of satisfaction and self-worth that comes from hard work and self-sufficiency – בְּזֵעַת אַפֶּיךָ תֹּאכַל לֶחֶם. Our sages call unearned benefits the bread of shame – נהמא דכיסופא / לחם של בושה. When a child begins to individuate from the parent and insists on doing it “all by myself,” we recognize the child undergoing a healthy phase of human development. Eternal childishness and helplessness is a sickness, not a blessing. And after all, self-reliance is the American Dream!

But we can take doing it “all by yourself” too far – וְאָמַרְתָּ בִּלְבָבֶךָ כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי עָשָׂה לִי אֶת־הַחַיִל הַזֶּה.

So perhaps the challenge for the farmer – and us – isn’t only in celebrating the blessings – וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל הַטּוֹב; it’s that even after taking a bare piece of land and making it fruit all by himself, he has to admit that he didn’t truly do it alone – אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לְךָ ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ וּלְבֵיתֶךָ.

Gratitude has a fundamental connection and interaction with humility. It grounds us and orients us by recognizing that what we are and what we have is due to others, and above all, to God, and so the error of self-sufficiency isn’t just that it’s morally wrong – it’s factually wrong!

As R’ Yitzchak Hutner notes, מודה doesn’t just mean thanksgiving; it also means to confess. When we thank another, we concede that we needed the assistance of another, admitting our frail weakness and showing our vulnerability. We acknowledge that another has shared gifts with us, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives. Genuine gratitude strengthens relationships by helping us recognize and appreciate how we’ve been affirmed and supported by others. But our ego can inhibit us if we don’t get it in check, telling us we did it alone.

Gratitude affirms that self-sufficiency is an illusion, perhaps God’s greatest gift of all. John Rawls sharply observed that a person cannot claim credit for being born with greater natural endowments, such as athleticism or intelligence, as it is purely the result of a natural lottery. As the Rambam explains, our lives are a gift within a gift; by definition, our starting points cannot be earned, so gratitude should be our first and overwhelming response to everything. Sure, we may deserve the fruits of what we do with our gifts, but the starting point of having any of those things to start with is the more significant gift by far.

By thanking God loudly and in public, we firmly reject the worldview of self-sufficiency or that we did it ourselves – כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי עָשָׂה לִי אֶת־הַחַיִל הַזֶּה – and perhaps the ritual also helps recalibrate our expectations.

It is natural to be pleased with where you are but to want more still. Healthily expressed, we call it ambition, and unhealthily, we call it greed – יש לו מנה רוצה מאתיים. You’re glad you got something, even though it wasn’t quite what you wanted.

But nothing undermines gratitude as much as expectations. There is an inverse relationship between expectations and gratitude; the more expectations you have, the less appreciation you will have, and it’s obvious why. If you get what you expected, you will not be particularly grateful for getting it.

Expectations are insidious because although we can superficially express gratitude, what looks like gratitude might actually be entitlement cloaked in religiosity and self-righteousness. It’s a blind spot because you think you’re thankful even though you didn’t get what you wanted! But that’s not joy; it’s the definition of resentment.

Getting gratitude right brings out what’s best in humans, encouraging us not just to appreciate life’s gifts but to repay them or pay them forward. But beyond gratitude’s incredible blessings, getting gratitude wrong is catastrophic and is one of the catalysts for all the Torah’s curses and prophecies of doom:

תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר לֹא־עָבַדְתָּ אֶת ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ בְּשִׂמְחָה וּבְטוּב לֵבָב מֵרֹב כֹּל – … Since you did not serve God with joy and good spirit when you had it all… (28:47)

It’s a sentiment the Jewish People expressed uncomfortably often in the wilderness, complaining about lack of food and water, about the dangers they faced from the Egyptians as they were leaving, about the inhabitants of the land they were about to enter, and about the manna and the lack of meat and vegetables.

Moshe warns us how his people lacked gratitude in difficult times and warns them of making the same mistake in good times:

הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ פֶּן־תִּשְׁכַּח אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ לְבִלְתִּי שְׁמֹר מִצְותָיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו וְחֻקֹּתָיו אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם׃ פֶּן־תֹּאכַל וְשָׂבָעְתָּ וּבָתִּים טֹבִים תִּבְנֶה וְיָשָׁבְתָּ׃ וּבְקָרְךָ וְצֹאנְךָ יִרְבְּיֻן וְכֶסֶף וְזָהָב יִרְבֶּה־לָּךְ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר־לְךָ יִרְבֶּה׃ וְרָם לְבָבֶךָ וְשָׁכַחְתָּ אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ הַמּוֹצִיאֲךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים׃ – Take care lest you forget Hashem your God and fail to keep His commandments, His rules, and His laws, which I enjoin upon you today. When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget Hashem your God—who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage. (8:11-14)

So perhaps the short history of how the farmers got their land recalibrates our thinking. Our enemies might have slaughtered us; but God has given us our lives and security – אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי. We might have been spared death, but we could have been enslaved or subjugated to any number of enemies; yet God has given us our labor – וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה. And on top of safety and freedom, we have material abundance –  וַיִּתֶּן־לָנוּ אֶת־הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת. With that kind of context, it would be ridiculous to think we somehow had it coming or that we did it by ourselves!

We don’t practice Bikkurim today, and we’re missing out on a vital aspect of Judaism. But we’ve probably all seen the contemporary analog, though – many businesses frame and hang their first dollar of revenue. It’s sentimental, but it’s a powerful symbol, and just like Bikkurim, it is a ritual that captures the moment you are overwhelmed with gratitude and joy. By dedicating our first sign of success, the first fruit, the first dollar, we protect ourselves from the hubris that we had it coming or the narcissism that we did it ourselves.

The Hebrew term for practicing gratitude literally means “recognizing the good” – הכרת הטוב; gratitude is recognizing the good that is already yours. The things you lack are still present, and in expressing gratitude, no one is saying you need to ignore what’s missing. But there is no limit to what we don’t have, and if that is where we focus, then our lives are inevitably filled with endless dissatisfaction.

As R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains, almost all the mitzvos of the Land of Israel reflect this sentiment in one way or another. By heavily regulating our use of the land, with Shemitta, Yovel, the Omer, Sukka, and the tithes, the Torah guides us that there is only one Landlord, and we are all here to serve – הַכֹּל נָתוּן בְּעֵרָבוֹן, וּמְצוּדָה פְרוּסָה עַל כָּל הַחַיִּים.

The Jewish people are named after Yehuda, a form of the Hebrew word for “thank you” – תודה. We’re not just the people of the book; we could more accurately be called the grateful people, the people of thank you.

As R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches, our blessings and prayers are a daily gratitude ritual; from the first words we say in the morning – מודה אני – to everything about life itself: for the human body, the physical world, the earth to stand on, the eyes we see with, and the air we breathe.

The Eliyahu Rabbah notes that the prayer leader repeats the Amidah aloud, and the congregation answers Amen, for all except the Thanksgiving blessing – מודים אנחנו לך. You can delegate plenty to others, but not saying thank you.

While most of us aren’t farmers in the Land of Israel, each of us has a long list of blessings to be thankful for, and although we’re sorely missing a national thanksgiving ritual; we can learn its lesson that there is no such thing as self-made.

If there are any good things or accomplishments in our lives, we didn’t get them by ourselves; we all got plenty of help. 

You need to recognize how blessed and fortunate you are, with no void of resentment for the things you don’t yet have; to be wholeheartedly and wholesomely thankful, decisively abandoning your expectations and entitlement, truly rejoicing with what you have – אֵיזֶהוּ עָשִׁיר? הַשָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ.

Let gratitude, joy, and happiness spill over beyond the confines of the religious sphere and into the rest of your life – it will deepen and enrich you. Thank God, and perhaps your spouse a little more; your parents, children, colleagues, clients, and community.

We can’t make it alone, and we’re not supposed to. We need each other; it’s a key design feature of being human – לֹא־טוֹב הֱיוֹת הָאָדָם לְבַדּוֹ.

As the legendary physicist and science educator Carl Sagan once said, to bake an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the entire universe.

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.

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.

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.

There and Back Again, and Every Step Along the Way

4 minute read
Straightforward

One of the most formative moments in Yakov’s life was when he fled his parent’s home after obtaining Avraham’s blessing from Yitzchak. He was no longer safe around Esau, and his mother Rivka advised him to escape to her brother’s house.

Yakov ran with nothing more than the clothes on his back, and he would not return home until decades later. Alone and afraid, Yakov slept one night and had a stark vision of a stairway to heaven, with angels climbing and descending over him. When he woke, he asked God to protect him, and God promised to do so.

It’s a powerful story about God’s presence and power transcending national boundaries, about the unique and eternal covenant between God and Avraham’s descendants, and the everlasting gift of the Land of Israel. It speaks to us by acknowledging the tensions that threaten us in exile, with its all too relatable struggle of trying to build and secure our future in a hostile world.

The Sfas Emes notes that Yakov’s journey is one we all make on a personal and national level, escaping Esau’s clutches in one form or another. We must eventually leave our comfort zones, perhaps when we realize that the familiar safety and security we once knew have eroded beneath us and that we need to find someplace else.

The Torah doesn’t just say where Yakov went; it emphasizes that he left Beersheva – וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע וַיֵּלֶךְ חָרָנָה. Rashi suggests that this indicates that when we leave somewhere, it loses a bit of its luster. The Kedushas Levi teaches that what makes a place sparkle is its people, so it loses a little of what made it special when they leave. The Midrash suggests that God folded up the entire Land of Israel into Yakov’s pocket while he slept, illustrating that the greatness of a place is bound to the presence of great people. You contribute to the places you are a part of, and they are worse off when you leave. But your contribution goes where you go, every step along the way, and all the spaces in between.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch highlights this story as critical to understanding what it means to be an upright Jew standing in the face of the adversity of exile. If Avraham’s great test was to leave his homeland – לֶךְ־לְךָ – then this was Yakov’s, and it is more demanding than Avraham’s. When God asked Avraham to set out, he set out with his family, wealth, and great renown. At this moment in Yakov’s life, God had not yet spoken to him, and he was completely isolated and penniless, every bit the outsider – וַיֵּצֵא. Yakov’s loneliness and despair are palpable when he asks God to be with him – he has no place, nothing, and nobody.

At the end of Yakov’s life, he laments the difficulty and misery that blighted his life. Yet even in what R’ Jonathan Sacks describes as the liminal space, the non-moments in between the great chapters of Yakov’s life, he sees visions and grapples with angels, and God promises to keep him safe, watching over him like a parent.

R’ Hirsch highlights how Yakov starts with nothing and nobody and finds himself nowhere precisely because Yakov doesn’t need any of that to become who he’s meant to be. He has everything he needs within him already.

Moreover, God appears to Yakov and promises to protect him precisely at this low point, before he is somewhere, before he is someone, and before he has something. Yakov has not yet undergone his transformation to Yisrael; he is not yet the man he will become. Having just left his parents’ house, he has only just begun his journey into adulthood. But precisely at that moment, at Yakov’s lowest, God appears for the very first time and promises to keep him safe. The Torah tells us nothing about how Yakov earns this remarkable privilege, perhaps indicating to us that God is there at our rock bottom moment, in the darkness and without cause, with the promise that we can shine brightly once again, perhaps even more than in the good old days.

R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that this theme precisely tracks the trajectory of Yakov’s life story. Yakov is born not just a twin, but literally holding on to his brother’s foot, and his childhood is defined by competition with Esau – his identity exists solely in relation to his brother; he must be attached to get by, which perhaps sheds some light on why Yitzchak may have doubted Yakov in his youth. Years afterward, when Yakov and Esau meet up again, Esau offers Yakov to join forces, and Yakov declines in order to travel alone with his own family – Yakov’s ultimate victory over Esau comes when Yakov develops his ability to transcend competition and strife to stand on his own. Esau has no power over Yakov when Yakov can resist not only Esau’s strength but can gracefully decline his diplomatic overtures as well.

The defining struggle of Yakov’s life is in the enigmatic incident at the river, when Yakov battled a mysterious and shadowy figure we identify as Esau’s guardian angel, and the question is posed once and for all, can Yakov stand alone? He holds his own and earns the title of Yisrael.

Yakov’s story is a quest to pave his own way, build a home, and secure his family’s future in a hostile and turbulent environment. But the catalyst was Yakov all along, and it was within him all along.

Taking the dream at face value, we might wonder why Yakov doesn’t ever think to climb the ladder to heaven. There is simply no need to climb the ladder in this interpretation. Yakov can build his family, and they will impact the world through their actions, and he doesn’t need inherited wealth or renown, and he doesn’t need anybody’s help. Even when he is nowhere, he doesn’t need to climb the ladder to become other than who he is; who he is and where he is will do perfectly.

The legacy of Yakov is that we have a spark within us, and we take it wherever we go. If we’ve been anywhere great, we are a part of what made it so, and if we did it there, we could do it anywhere. The model of Yakov’s life demonstrates that we can even do it in the middle of nowhere; that humans have a generative capacity to produce and contain growth and sanctity.

As the Ropshitzer said, the holiest place isn’t the Beis HaMikdash, and the holiest moment isn’t Yom Kippur; it’s right here, right now.

Dig Deep

4 minute read
Straightforward

After climbing and surmounting the monumental challenge of the Akeida, Avraham descended with Yitzchak, and we can only begin to imagine how surreal it must have felt, with undoubtedly complex and fraught emotions on coming down from such dizzying heights.

Yet their reprieve was all too brief.

Before they even got home, they received word that the great Sarah, Yitzchak’s mother, and Avraham’s wife had died.

It’s all too easy to perceive it as below the belt, a cruel gut punch, and frustratingly unfair. We just read about the Akeida! About circumcision and the covenant! About fighting with God to save innocent lives! About running after weary travelers to have someone to look after! And now that this incredible story is drawing to its close, Avraham has finally made it, sealing his name in the pantheon of greatness for eternity, and his wife dies?!

Can they not get a break? A few moments of peace? Where is the happy ending or even fleeting moment of peace and satisfaction that these great heroes have so surely earned?

If we expect life to be fair or balanced, the question is always far better than the answer because there is no real answer. Even if life is somehow fair or balanced, it certainly doesn’t appear that way, and we would do well to make our peace with that.

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that humans will never truly understand suffering, but that’s a good thing; because if we could, we would come to accept it. We cannot accept it, we should not accept it, and we must not accept it. Because the question is better than the answer, no answer is good enough.

Although we can’t understand why things happen the way they do, we can learn from Avraham.

Dealt a difficult hand, the Torah says Avraham grieved a little – וַיָּבֹא אַבְרָהָם לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ – but the Torah doesn’t even record what he said about her, and doesn’t record Yitzchak’s grief at all! The Torah gives us detailed information about the negotiations over the site our ancestors rest in, but nearly nothing about the family grief or funeral – as if the negotiation is what matters!

R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz highlights that the Torah’s lesson isn’t in the grief – which is all too human and ordinary. The lesson is in the extraordinary greatness of Avraham’s response.

There can be no question that Avraham was emotional and that if he would only let it, sadness and grief would consume and overwhelm him. Avraham grieved; he was not some stoic, unfeeling rock – וַיָּבֹא אַבְרָהָם לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ. But when it came to it, Avraham could manage his feelings and emotional state enough to rise to the occasion and do what needed to be done when the moment required.

The heart has different chambers; we have to compartmentalize. Grieving and in pain, Avraham had to – and was able to – gather himself and live up to his responsibility to deal with what the situation called for. This legendary icon, this hero of heroes, could deal with his anguish enough to do what needed to be done.

We are all in pain. Some more, some less. Pain is inevitable, and sometimes it comes at the worst moment and with a bitter and cruel bite. When that day comes, it doesn’t feel fair, and perhaps it really isn’t.

But R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that if you can’t figure out why something bad is happening and what the point is, there is literally no point, and it just wouldn’t happen. We can’t plumb the depths of the global why’s; why me, why now, why like this. We can’t begin to fathom, and anyone who tries is likely to be cruel because the question is better than the answer. But there is always a local why if we spend some time introspecting and soul searching. The local why is a prompt to think about what something means to you and how you need to change course and act differently.

We can’t know the ultimate cause of why bad things happen, but there is always a proximate cause in the outside world and our spiritual realm. We can give meaning to pain, and find a reason that makes sense.

Not everything can be a blessing – some things are truly terrible – but nothing is beyond being our fuel.

It’s true in our personal life when someone gets sick, dies, loses their job, can’t get married, or can’t get pregnant. It’s also true of our national life, whether it’s something as cataclysmic as the Holocaust or something as astonishing as the State of Israel blossoming into existence.

When things like that happen, you need to ask yourself what the duty of the moment is, and who you need to become. If you go about life just the same as before, then you missed it.

When pain comes, as it surely will, we have a chance to distinguish ourselves and live up to Avraham’s legacy. We must take responsibility, identify the duty of the moment, and do what needs to be done. Sure, the pain is real. Don’t ignore it! Experience it, feel it.

But don’t overreact. Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed. Focus on what you can do. Ask yourself, what has to get done? Who will do it for you? Where will it take you?

You can do it, and you have got what it takes.

You always have.

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. Diversity is natural; homogeneity is artificial.

God creates all of us as separate individuals, born with a particular makeup and tendencies that mark us as a distinct and unique piece of fate. It is who you are to the core, but some people never become who they truly are; they conform to the tastes of others and end up wearing a mask that hides their true nature. R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that being the same as others is a sacrilege that profanes and squanders who we are put in this world to be.

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 similarities.

Evolutionary theory teaches that cooperation 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 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 are 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.

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

5 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!

R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that our sages taught a form of stand your ground doctrine; when someone is coming to kill you, you can use deadly force and kill them first. But even that is tempered with a caveat that if you have the ability to neutralize them without killing them, you aren’t permitted to use deadly force. De facto, it’s fully conceivable that in the heat of the moment, there is a split-second decision and you can’t afford to be precise, but de jure, the point stands that even when force is authorized, there is no free pass. Our sages require scholars to stand up for themselves in the way a snake does; snakes have no sense of taste or smell, and a scholar’s self-defense must be free of petty vindictiveness – תלמיד חכם שאינו נוקם ונוטר כנחש, אינו תלמיד חכם.

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.

Science and Torah

5 minute read
Straightforward

The Creation story is one of the most powerful and influential stories in human history.

But is it true?

Traditional people may initially be inclined to condemn such questions as heresy, but that approach alienates inquisitive youngsters and is also problematic. As the Rambam points out, if we take the Creation story at face value, we would mistakenly understand that humans are literally created in God’s image, which means we look like God and that God has some shape or form. But even though we don’t believe God has an actual image, the story is still true!

The language we use to talk about truth is complex and nuanced; it is not a mature expectation to read the words and expect a step-by-step guide to how the Creator shaped the entire universe.

One of the universal rules of interpretation is that the Torah speaks how humans speak – דיברה תורה כלשון בני אדם.

If the Torah speaks in human language for humans to understand, there is literally no point whatsoever for the Torah to include information people would not understand. The Torah’s primary audience was a band of barely literate former slaves in the desert 3000 years ago; imagine explaining General Relativity and the age of the Universe to them! Dinosaur bones were only discovered in 1677 and were believed to belong to giants and dragons at first. Not only would such information have made no sense to our ancestors, but these ideas would not have been useful as they don’t relate to the world as the place of action the Torah asks us to live and move in.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch teaches that the Torah is not a textbook of magic or metaphysics. It isn’t even primarily concerned with history! The Torah is not a how-to manual of how God created the universe; it’s a book of instructions – the literal translation of Torah – guiding us on how to ethically build and shape a cohesive human society in general and Jewish society in particular.

If it was a step-by-step guide, it’s not very good. The Creation story is about 34 verses long, whereas the Mishkan and its related laws and services occupy nearly a quarter of the Torah in exhaustive detail. R’ Jonathan Sacks concludes that while the Torah is somewhat interested in the home God makes for us, it is much more interested in the home man makes for God.

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.

There is a way that humans read stories in this genre, which unlocks the truth of the Creation story; a genre is a category of things characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter. The Torah’s Creation story is part of a creation myth genre, something common to all cultures across all human history.

Creation myths are symbolic stories that enormously influence 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 historically, metaphorically, and symbolically.

Creation myths are potent and formidable because the ideas they contain 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.

You may even have your own personal creation myth about your life and the direction your story has taken.

To ask if a myth is true in a factual or literal sense is to miss the point entirely and is the wrong perspective to approach it on any level. That’s not the function of a creation myth.

Taking the entire Torah literally and at face value only, we’d think God looks like a human and walks in gardens, and we’d all be blind from taking an eye for an eye.

We should not doubt for a moment that the Creator shaped the universe and gave it order; we should not doubt that the image of God is a profoundly consequential idea that requires us to recognize the godliness in ourselves and each other 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 prevailing universe of ideas held that the ancient world’s gods were part of nature and fought each other. For example, a typical contemporary creation myth in Akkadian culture held that there are different tiers of gods. 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 the working-class gods could rest. In this cosmic order, the gods are indifferent to humans at best, and humans don’t matter. 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. The Torah takes the imagery of humans as formed from dirt and inverts and sanctifies it when God infuses the dirt with a soulful breath of life – וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים.

The Mishnah learns from the imagery of the emergence of humanity by creating one individual that each life is its own universe, so taking a life is like destroying a universe; saving a life is saving a universe. Individuals matter, created as they are in God’s image.

The development of the scientific method created an inflection point in the trajectory of human knowledge, transforming our understanding of the world around us. 

Ideas like evolution and the Big Bang aren’t a threat.

If you’re reading the Torah looking for 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, or 9/11 predictions or the future, you are going to come away disappointed because you are reading the Torah wrong. That is not the Torah’s purpose in any way; how it all works is a separate and parallel track to what it all means. 

And is it even possible for humans to understand how the Creator did it? Moshe and Job communicated to God and came away with learned ignorance, the understanding that there is an outer boundary to human knowledge and that humans can’t understand much. 

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 art, not science.

The Creation of the universe is more complicated than the brief treatment the Torah tells us, but the ideas it contains are explosive, and their truth and importance are absolute.

Lift As You Climb

3 minute read
Straightforward

As the Torah begins the Flood story, the Torah introduces Noach as the righteous man of his time, a famously ambiguous description.

It might be a straightforward compliment that Noach was one of the greats, or it might be a backhanded compliment with the faint inference that his generation was so awful that being the best of them isn’t especially praiseworthy.

Noach is a significant figure and the protagonist of an important story. In isolation, the negative characterization might seem a little harsh.

But in the context of the Torah’s story, it matters that we notice who Noach was, and what he did and did not do. The Rambam notes that the Torah leads us through the early trajectory of human history; and how people just couldn’t get it right until eventually, someone did – Avraham.

The Midrash teaches that after God told Noach to start prepping for the Flood, Noach would tell everyone what he was doing and preach to them to abandon their corruption and lawlessness to embrace ethics and morality. His pleas fell on deaf ears, and the world was lost.

In a sense, this reinforces the question. The most humans can do is try in the hope that God helps. We control our efforts only and not the outcome.

Why do we hold Noach’s failure against him?

R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz teaches that Noach’s failing wasn’t in his efforts; it was his methods.

Noach didn’t attempt to understand his society; he separated himself from it. He insulated his family to the extent he couldn’t understand the people around him, and he couldn’t get through. His name literally means “easy” – the easy way out.

We need to ask if we could consider ourselves righteous if we detach entirely from humanity and society. How strong is our belief system truly if we don’t think it could withstand the slightest scrutiny?

The issues of Noach’s day weren’t ideological or philosophical because paganism isn’t a philosophy – it’s ad hoc. The problems of that day were lust, desire, greed, and selfishness.

The tragedy of Noach was that for all his efforts and personal righteousness, he didn’t put in the effort to understand the people around him.

Arguing with people rarely succeeds – and anyone who’s had a significant dispute will tell you that it rarely matters that you’re right.

In stark contrast, Avraham is lauded as someone who was very in tune with how to win the hearts and minds of his society. He fed people and washed them, caring for all people with genuine love and kindness. Pagans were not a threat to him because his beliefs and practices were strong enough to survive contact with them. The Raavad notes how we herald Shem, Ever, and others as righteous, yet they don’t feature in our pantheon of greats because they never went out into the world.

R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch taught that righteous people are not scholars in ivory towers; they actively drive positive change in their communities by living out the Torah’s teachings – בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה בָּעִיר.

Noach, the best man his generation could muster, failed:

וַיִשָּׁאֶר אַךְ־נֹחַ – Only Noach was left… (7:23)

Instead of saying that Noach survived – וַיִשָּׁאֶר נֹחַ, the Torah emphasizes that “only” Noach survived, underscoring the utter devastation and loss in the story. R’ Meir Schapiro highlights that this is the moment Noach understood the cost of his failure, abandoning his peers to their fates without doing all he humanly could.

R’ Josh Joseph notes that we highlight Noach’s failure despite his efforts because the image of Noach alone is terrifying, which leads him to see his remaining days in the depths of alcoholism and depression. R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that Noach’s defining feature was that there was nothing wrong with him – תמים – which is to say that Noach was perfectly adequate, and yet that wasn’t enough.

R’ Jonathan Sacks contrasts this broken figure of Noach, who couldn’t save anyone, with the bold and staunch figure of Avraham, who tried to save everyone. When God informed Avraham that He intended to destroy Sodom, Avraham passionately advocated for Sodom’s survival – a civilization that stood for everything Avraham stood against!

As R’ Yisrael Yehoshua Tronk of Kutno observes, Noach walks with God, which suggests the exclusion of others, whereas we see Avraham as someone who went before God; over, above and beyond הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי / אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִים הִתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹחַ.

We need to dig very deep to have a shot at saving others, lifting as we climb, so it resonates with us that Noach could have done more. Perhaps we recognize that’s what it takes in order to live with ourselves.

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 Moral Limits of Power

2 minute read
Straightforward

One of the Torah’s recursive themes is that all life is precious – and human life most of all.

But the sanctity of life is not readily apparent.

Across most of civilized history, societies readily understood that it is wrong to murder another; yet this obvious law didn’t apply equally. Without respect for the sanctity of all human life, not all humans were protected, and certain people could be dehumanized, such as slaves, who were seen as property.

When Noah emerged from the Ark, Hashem formed a covenant with Noah, which famously includes seven fundamental principles that form the bedrock of society. In a world of infanticide and human sacrifice, the Torah declares that humans must not kill, because God created all humans in His image:

שֹׁפֵךְ דַּם הָאָדָם, בָּאָדָם דָּמוֹ יִשָּׁפֵךְ כִּי בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים, עָשָׂה אֶת-הָאָדָם – Whoever sheds a man’s blood; by a man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in God’s image. (9:6)

Yet this principle is established already in the very first chapter of the Torah:

וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ: זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, בָּרָא אֹתָם – God created man in His image; in the image of God created He him – male and female, He created them. (1:27)

What does the Covenant of Noah add to our understanding of God’s image?

R’ Jonathan Sacks explains that the law in Noah develops the principle of God’s image by extending it from oneself to another. I am in God’s image, but so are you, my potential victim.

If all humans are in God’s image, then not only is murder a crime against humanity, it is also sacrilege – an offense against God. By outlawing murder, the Torah establishes a clear boundary, defining the moral limits of power; that just because we have the authority or ability to do something does not mean we ought to.

Among other key concepts of morality, the prohibition of murder gives expression the sanctity of life and the eminence of the human soul. Perhaps that’s why the prohibition of murder is repeated in the Ten Commandments.

The Torah values human life. To kill intentionally is to deny another’s humanness; perhaps the Torah believes that in doing so, the murderer has hopelessly compromised his own humanity as well.

Fit for a King

3 minute read
Straightforward

There’s an interesting discussion about what the Torah’s constitution might look like, and many famous scholars looked to the Torah as a source of political theory. One particular thread of that discussion is the role of a king. The Torah doesn’t particularly advocate for monarchy, and imposes many constraints:

כִּי־תָבֹא אֶל־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ וִירִשְׁתָּהּ וְיָשַׁבְתָּה בָּהּ וְאָמַרְתָּ אָשִׂימָה עָלַי מֶלֶךְ כְּכָל־הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבֹתָי׃ שׂוֹם תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בּוֹ מִקֶּרֶב אַחֶיךָ תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ לֹא תוּכַל לָתֵת עָלֶיךָ אִישׁ נָכְרִי אֲשֶׁר לֹא־אָחִיךָ הוּא׃ רַק לֹא־יַרְבֶּה־לּוֹ סוּסִים וְלֹא־יָשִׁיב אֶת־הָעָם מִצְרַיְמָה לְמַעַן הַרְבּוֹת סוּס וַיהוָה אָמַר לָכֶם לֹא תֹסִפוּן לָשׁוּב בַּדֶּרֶךְ הַזֶּה עוֹד׃ וְלֹא יַרְבֶּה־לּוֹ נָשִׁים וְלֹא יָסוּר לְבָבוֹ וְכֶסֶף וְזָהָב לֹא יַרְבֶּה־לּוֹ מְאֹד׃ וְהָיָה כְשִׁבְתּוֹ עַל כִּסֵּא מַמְלַכְתּוֹ וְכָתַב לוֹ אֶת־מִשְׁנֵה הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת עַל־סֵפֶר מִלִּפְנֵי הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם׃ וְהָיְתָה עִמּוֹ וְקָרָא בוֹ כָּל־יְמֵי חַיָּיו לְמַעַן יִלְמַד לְיִרְאָה אֶת־יְהוָה אֱלֹהָיו לִשְׁמֹר אֶת־כָּל־דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת וְאֶת־הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה לַעֲשֹׂתָם׃ – If, after you have entered the land that Hashem has assigned to you, taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, “I want a king over me, like all the nations around me,” you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by Hashem. Be sure to select your king from your own people; you must not select a foreigner over you, one who is not your kin. Moreover, he shall not keep many horses… And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess. When he is seated on his royal throne, he must write a copy of this Torah written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel. (18:14-20)

The Gemara notes that the king actually must write two Sifrei Torah; one that remains in the royal treasury, and another that he carries with him wherever he goes.

The Rambam explains that during a king’s reign, he must write a Torah scroll for himself in addition to the scroll left to him in the treasury by his ancestors.

Even if the king inherits a treasury filled with beautiful Sifrei Torah from ancestors, the very act of writing the Torah scroll is a way of making the Torah, quite literally, one’s own. The act of doing that writing becomes a powerful pedagogy through which the king comes to understand what his moral position must be.

In political theory, this is called the rule of law, that all persons, institutions, and entities are accountable to the same body of law. In real day to day life, laws matter only as far as they command the collective loyalty of those in power; it requires a governing class that cares about law and government and tradition, rather than personal power and gain. By making the king go through this exercise, the Torah hopes and envisions that a king will understand the gravity of his office.

The Torah’s perspective is that all men are just men – in the very beginning, the Torah says that humans are formed “in the image of God,” which R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches to mean as destroying a divine right to oppress others. It is political dynamite, from which we can learn about the sanctity of life, the dignity of individuals and human rights, the sovereignty of justice and the rule of law, free society, all because God bestows his image on everyone, not just kings and emperors. It follows that we would expect a Jewish conception of a king to look qualitatively different.

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that the higher in stature and authority someone is, the closer scrutiny they can expect. Intuitively, a powerful person needs more humbling – not necessarily in a negative way, but more so that a successful leader is someone whose leadership exists to help his people.

Leadership is about being of service to others, not being served by others.

Parallel Lines

3 minute read
Straightforward

Most of the second half of the book of Genesis is about Yakov’s children, with a strong focus on Yosef. Yet, right in the middle of the Yosef narrative, the Torah interrupts with a cryptic parallel side story about Yehuda, commonly glossed over, and perhaps a little awkward.

Yehuda had a son who displeased God and died. Presuming some form of levirate marriage, wherein marriage outside the family clan was forbidden, Yehuda’s second son married Tamar, but would not uphold his duty to have a child with her, and he died as well. Afraid that Tamar was somehow responsible for the death of his sons, Yehuda withheld his third son from her, leaving her in limbo as the first chained woman – an aguna. She then disguised herself as a harlot to seduce Yehuda and became pregnant.

When word spread that Tamar was pregnant, the obvious conclusion was that she had violated her duty to the family clan, and so she had to be executed. At the last minute, she revealed her ruse, and Yehuda admitted fault.

What is this story doing in the middle of the Yosef stories?

R’ Jonathan Sacks observes that this story mirrors the Yosef story, and illustrates that Yosef and Yehuda had a parallel and corresponding rise and fall.

Both stories involve deception through clothing – Yosef with his blood-stained tunic, and Yehuda with Tamar’s seductive disguise.

The Torah begins this narrative with Yehuda isolated:

וַיְהִי בָּעֵת הַהִוא וַיֵּרֶד יְהוּדָה מֵאֵת אֶחָיו וַיֵּט עַד־אִישׁ עֲדֻלָּמִי וּשְׁמוֹ חִירָה. וַיַּרְא־שָׁם יְהוּדָה בַּת־אִישׁ כְּנַעֲנִי וּשְׁמוֹ שׁוּעַ וַיִּקָּחֶהָ וַיָּבֹא אֵלֶיהָ – And afterward, Yehuda descended from his brothers and camped near an Adullamite whose name was Hirah. There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua, and he married her and lived with her. (38:1, 2)

Yehuda’s descent was both literal and figurative – וַיֵּרֶד יְהוּדָה מֵאֵת אֶחָיו. The Midrash teaches that the remaining brothers held Yehuda responsible for their father’s misery; he separated himself and did what no one else in the family had done – he married a Canaanite.

The turning point in this story is powerful, where Tamar reveals that she had fulfilled her duty to the clan when the they would not uphold their duty to her:

הִוא מוּצֵאת וְהִיא שָׁלְחָה אֶל־חָמִיהָ לֵאמֹר לְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר־אֵלֶּה לּוֹ אָנֹכִי הָרָה וַתֹּאמֶר הַכֶּר־נָא לְמִי הַחֹתֶמֶת וְהַפְּתִילִים וְהַמַּטֶּה הָאֵלֶּה. וַיַּכֵּר יְהוּדָה וַיֹּאמֶר צָדְקָה מִמֶּנִּי כִּי־עַל־כֵּן לֹא־נְתַתִּיהָ לְשֵׁלָה בְנִי וְלֹא־יָסַף עוֹד לְדַעְתָּה – As she was being brought out, she sent this message to her father-in-law, “I am with child by the man to whom these belong.” And she added, “Examine these: whose seal and cord and staff are these?” Judah recognized them and said, “She is more in the right than I since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he was not intimate with her again. (38:25,26)

As surely as Yosef and Yehuda hit rock bottom, they could both rise once more.

Admitting his wrongdoing, Yehuda unlocked the ability to make amends, and the man who had once proposed murdering his brother Yosef could transform into a man who would stand up for his brother Binyamin when he was in danger.

It is worth highlighting the enormous gamble Tamar took to avoid embarrassing Judah. Chazal hyperbolically liken humiliation to murder. R’ Jonathan Sacks quips that we cover bread at the Shabbos table so that we don’t embarrass the bread when we make kiddush first; if only we were so careful with people with feelings!

R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that these stories contain the first instances of teshuva – repentance and forgiveness – the power to heal what would otherwise lead to permanent relationship fractures.

Yakov’s family found their way back when they learned to admit their mistakes to themselves and each other.

So can we.

God Needs Partners

3 minute read
Straightforward

Avraham was a powerful icon whose legacy has reverberated across the ages. The way the Torah sums up his life, you would think he had it all:

וְאַבְרָהָם זָקֵן בָּא בַּיָּמִים וַה’ בֵּרַךְ אֶת־אַבְרָהָם בַּכֹּל – Avraham was old, well advanced in years, and God had blessed Avraham with everything. (24:1)

The Torah characterizes his death similarly:

וַיִּגְוַע וַיָּמָת אַבְרָהָם בְּשֵׂיבָה טוֹבָה זָקֵן וְשָׂבֵעַ וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל־עַמָּיו – Then Avraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an elderly man full of years; and he was gathered to his people. (25:8)

Along the same vein, Rashi notes that the Torah describes the years of Sarah’s life as equally good and full of life as well – שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה.

These serene descriptions have one flaw, however. They’re just not true! Let’s recap.

God promised Avraham and Sarah land and children – yet they had to fight tooth and nail to get anywhere! They were told to leave everything they had ever known for some unknown foreign land, but as soon as they’d arrived, they were forced to leave because of a devastating famine. Then, on their travels, Sarah was twice targeted by despotic leaders with unwanted sexual advances; and Avraham had to endanger himself to protect his family. They waited desperately for decades to have a child; then, when the child finally arrived, it caused bitter strife in the family between Sarah and Hagar, resulting in Avraham sending Hagar and Ishmael from home. And after all that, Avraham was asked to murder his precious child, the one he had waited so long for.

One way or another, when we think of God’s great promises of children and land, the reality fell far short of what Avraham and Sarah might have expected.

So why does the Torah sum up their lives as full of satisfaction and fulfillment?

Maybe the question is better than the answer.

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that happiness does not and should not mean that we have everything we want or everything we believe we are due. Happiness can exist even when life falls short of our expectations. As one thinker put it, if you can’t enjoy a cup of coffee, you won’t enjoy a yacht.

R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz notes that Avraham’s life is the origin story for the Jewish people, and it doesn’t go how we might expect. Avraham’s story seems trivial – it’s about his business ventures, travels, and family disputes. It’s so ordinary!

But suppose our stories were about magical demigods riding flying unicorns wielding miraculous lightning bolts to vanquish their enemies and save the world from the clutches of evil. In that case, they couldn’t be more silly or less relevant. Avraham’s story matters precisely because it is so ordinary. It teaches us that God’s grand mission for us comes without fanfare, with no red carpet and no grand celebration. Avraham is our heroic role model because the work God would have us do is in the mundane things of everyday living. It’s in making a living, marrying off a child, and living in harmony. The plain and mundane can be celebrated and sacred.

The Mishna in Pirkei Avos teaches that it is not for us to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it. It’s not your job to do everything from start to finish, but we have a duty to do all we can to pave the way before passing the baton on to the next person or generation.

As only R’ Jonathan Sacks can put it, God is waiting for us to act. We need God, and God needs us.

God could promise Avraham the land, but Avraham still had to buy his first field. God could promise Avraham countless descendants, but Avraham still had to identify a suitable partner for his son. God can promise, but humans still have to act.

Despite all the promises, God does not and will not do it alone.

He did not need to see the entire land in Jewish hands, nor did he need to see the Jewish People become numerous. He had begun, and he had perfect confidence that his descendants would continue. Avraham and Sarah were able to die at peace not only because of their faith in God but also because of their faith, trust, and hope that others would finish what they had started.

Avraham had taken those first steps and was satisfied. It was enough for Avraham and Sarah, and it must be enough for us.

Just do your best, and hope for the rest.

How The Tables Turn

2 minute read
Straightforward

After a turbulent relationship with his siblings that culminated in his abduction and exile, Yosef climbed his way from the gutter to Egyptian aristocracy.

Years later, his brothers came to Egypt to avoid a famine back home, and Yosef entrapped them in a drawn-out ruse.

Instead of identifying himself, he role-played as a meticulous bureaucrat. Noticing that Binyamin was absent, he apprehended and jailed Shimon until they returned with Binyamin, and then had his personal effects planted on Binyamin to make him look like a thief.

The story is a classic, albeit protracted, and theatrical. Why did Yosef act so strangely?

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch perceptively notes that Yosef’s goal must have always been to bring his family back together because if he’d wanted to forget his family, then when his brothers came to Egypt, he could have just let them be. They’d return to Israel none the wiser!

But to reunite the family, Yosef had several major obstacles to overcome. If he ever went home or wrote back to reforge the connection, it would not bring the family together; it would irreparably tear it apart. By exposing to Yakov the murderous cover-up and human trafficking perpetrated by his brothers, Yakov might regain a long lost son, but he’d undoubtedly lose the rest.

The only way to make it right would be for things to be different. The brothers would need to see that Yosef had changed, and Yosef would need to know that they had changed, and he has cause for concern.

Where was Binyamin? Had the same thing happened to Rachel’s last son?

Judah, who had once instigated Yosef’s abduction, would now take responsibility and endanger himself to protect Binyamin. Coupled with their admission of guilt and repentance – מַה־נֹּאמַר לַאדֹנִי מַה־נְּדַבֵּר וּמַה־נִּצְטַדָּק / אֲבָל אֲשֵׁמִים אֲנַחְנוּ עַל־אָחִינוּ – they had accomplished something remarkable – our very first encounter with teshuva in Jewish history.

Seeing how Yehuda courageously took responsibility for his family and stood up to take the blame, Yosef knew that they were not the reckless and impulsive young men they had been all those years ago. Seeing that they had grown, he revealed himself to them.

Once, they had feared Yosef’s ambition, believing he wanted them to serve him. Now Yosef had power over them; he could show that he didn’t want to take anything from them; he wanted to help them!

With all the theatrics, the brothers could learn more about each other than they ever could have with words, and it was the one way to tease out the insights that could bring their family together once more.

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that the stories of Bereishis are about families that could not learn to live together – it is one acrimonious falling out after another. But now there is a new paradigm – teshuva and forgiveness. Forgiveness brings Yakov’s fragmented family back together and forms the foundation of the Jewish people.

Inflection Points

3 minute read
Straightforward

One of the most tragic figures in the Torah is Reuven. His haunting story is replete with squandered potential and the road not traveled. When he wanted to bring his mother flowers, he might have waited until Leah was alone. After Rachel’s death, he might have spoken directly to his father instead of moving the beds.

One of his defining missed opportunities is when the brothers resolved to dispose of Joseph, and Reuven convinced them to change their scheme:

וַיִּשְׁמַע רְאוּבֵן, וַיַּצִּלֵהוּ מִיָּדָם; וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא נַכֶּנּוּ נָפֶשׁ. וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם רְאוּבֵן, אַל-תִּשְׁפְּכוּ-דָם–הַשְׁלִיכוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל-הַבּוֹר הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְיָד אַל-תִּשְׁלְחוּ-בוֹ:  לְמַעַן, הַצִּיל אֹתוֹ מִיָּדָם, לַהֲשִׁיבוֹ, אֶל-אָבִיו – But when Reuven heard, he tried to save him from their clutches. He said, “Let us not take his life.” And Reuven went on, “Shed no blood! Cast him into that pit out in the wilderness, but do not touch him yourselves”—intending to save him from them and restore him to his father. (37:21, 22)

Yet his good intentions never materialize:

וַיָּשָׁב רְאוּבֵן אֶל-הַבּוֹר, וְהִנֵּה אֵין-יוֹסֵף בַּבּוֹר; וַיִּקְרַע, אֶת-בְּגָדָיו.  וַיָּשָׁב אֶל-אֶחָיו, וַיֹּאמַר:  הַיֶּלֶד אֵינֶנּוּ, וַאֲנִי אָנָה אֲנִי-בָא – When Reuven returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he rent his clothes. Returning to his brothers, he said, “The boy is gone! Where do I go now?” (37:29, 30)

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch wonders whether his previous failures might have crippled him, or that he felt threatened by Joseph; what is certain is that by deferring action to avoid the tension of confrontation, the moment fizzled out and disappeared.

The Midrash laments the missed opportunity, saying that if Reuven had known that the Torah would record for posterity that “when Reuven heard, he tried to save him from their clutches”, he would have carried Joseph back to his father on his shoulders; and the Midrash concludes with the lesson that we should do everything wholeheartedly.

But if you think about it, that’s the wrong message. If Reuven would act because of his audience, he wouldn’t be saving Joseph because he cared at all! Isn’t the Midrash honing in on the wrong point?

R’ Elya Meir Bloch observes that since the Torah spans centuries and generations, it has time skips. The stories and sagas that make the cut resonate not just in the protagonist’s lives, but in the lives of their readers for all time.

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that we can never know which moments in our lives are the inflection points. The Midrash is not about insincerity; it’s about indecisiveness. If we knew which moments would be the ones that mattered, we’d be fully present and engaged to give our all.

If Reuven had only known, says the Midrash. If he’d known that the future was watching that moment, he might have found the conviction to follow through. But Reuven could not know. He had not read the story. None of us can read the story of our life – we can only live it.

As R’ Jonathan Sacks notes, it is impossible not to recognize in Reuven a person of the highest ethical sensibilities. His heart is in the right place and he only means the best. But though he had a conscience, he lacked courage and conviction. He knew what was right, but dwelling on his mistakes had robbed him of the resolve to act boldly and decisively; and in this particular moment, more was lost than Joseph. So too was Reuven’s chance to become the hero he could and should have been.

The feeling of regret is the pain of what could have been. To minimize regret, engage in every moment wholeheartedly and fully present.

The future is watching.

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!

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.

Transmitting Memory

3 minute read
Straightforward

The Seder is replete with strange customs and rituals to encourage questions that we answer with stories.

But why don’t we just read the story?

Aside from the fact that the story is incredibly long, R’ Tzadok haKohen explains that the perpetual mitzvah of knowledge and history of the Exodus is not enough on Seder night, nor are the reasons behind the mitzvos, nor even the cleverest thumbwavy pedantry. The Haggadah’s goal is engagement, the vehicle for which is stories – וַאֲפִילוּ כֻּלָּנוּ חֲכָמִים כֻּלָּנוּ נְבוֹנִים כֻּלָּנוּ זְקֵנִים כֻּלָּנוּ יוֹדְעִים אֶת הַתּוֹרָה מִצְוָה עָלֵינוּ לְסַפֵּר בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם.

Seder night is a night of storytelling. The goal of our Seder should be to engender a feeling, an experience of emotional connection, a sense of wonder, and a sense of identity and heritage. On Pesach, we refill the fuel tank of our spirit, rooting our identity in where we come from, overflowing with the wealth of knowing where we come from and where we can go. Our reaction should be one of awe, amazement, curiosity, and wonder – it’s not the time to explain a halachic discrepancy. Even the wisest of us must undergo this journey every year because there isn’t just more to know; there is further and deeper to experience beyond the assimilation of more information.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that the two Hebrew words for inheritance have very different meanings – נַחֲלָה / יְרוּשָׁה. The root נחל means a flowing river, and the root רשת means conquest or capture, as in מורשה קהלת יעקב.

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that tradition is not inherited in the way a river flows – we cannot make the grave error of assuming children will just follow their heritage. Tradition is an inheritance secured through conquest because when you invest in your learning, you have earned and acquired your knowledge. Children and questions are central to the Seder because through their questions, they make what is ours into theirs.

When the wise son asks what the point of it all is, we answer that we don’t eat anything after the Korban Pesach. Rav Kook understands this as an allegory; let your children experience the lingering aftertaste of our traditions – don’t dilute them. 

We all grew up sharing a table with extended families, and we don’t just tell stories. We taste the strange foods, the Matza, Maror, and Charoses, talk about what it means to be free, and sing songs to celebrate our blessings. Everyone remembers being the one to ask the four questions and steal the afikoman. As we grow up, we become the ones to answer the questions, and it’s our afikoman getting taken. The Seder’s enduring power is its way of transmitting our memory and identity across generations. It should be no surprise that more people go to a Seder than to shul on Yom Kippur.

That’s the power of ritual, simple things we do as children because it’s fun, and as adults, because we know that our identity is one of the most precious things we can pass on. We can’t just tell stories at the Seder, that would miss the point entirely. Seder night is about what we do together as an expression of collective memory and shared ideals.

A great Seder holds a mirror to our hearts, that tells our universal tale of pain and redemption, and affirms to us that redemption exists and will always be more resilient than any force of transient evil or misfortune. A great Seder is a source of lasting inspiration not just in our lives, but for countless generations to come, as with countless generations before – בְּכָל־דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת־עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם.

The Jewish People make it out of Egypt, ushering in a new age of freedom and victory, culminating at Sinai, but the victory is not everlasting, as no victory over evil is. Eventually, Moshe will die and so will all his people. Darkness and persecution will find their way into the world again and the entire struggle begins anew, which brings us back to the importance of the Seder experience.

In order to comprehend the experience we are living in, we must, by imagination and intellect, be lifted out of it. We must be given to see it whole; but since we can never wholly gaze upon our own life while we live it, we gaze upon the symbol, that comprehends our own.

The Seder is such a symbol, persisting as a mother of truth through countless generations, coming therefore with the approval not of one group of people but of all. When you see yourself as part of the Seder experience – חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת־עַצְמוֹ – part of the living history that is still becoming, with the ebbs and flows and light and darkness, the marvelous translation has occurred, and you are lifted out of yourself to see your life wholly.

Good Fortune

3 minute read
Straightforward

We spend most of the Seder night talking about the Exodus story. But right towards the beginning of the Haggadah, we say something that almost casually dismisses the central theme of the night, the Exodus:

צֵא וּלְמַד מַה בִּקֵּשׁ לָבָן הָאֲרַמִּי לַעֲשׂוֹת לְיַעֲקֹב אָבִינוּ: שֶׁפַּרְעֹה לֹא גָזַר אֶלָּא עַל הַזְּכָרִים, וְלָבָן בִּקֵּשׁ לַעֲקֹר אֶת־הַכֹּל – Go learn what Lavan from Aramean sought to do to our father Yakov; Pharaoh only oppressed the males, whereas Lavan tried to destroy it all!

But it doesn’t quite resonate.

Pharaoh was a genocidal despot who cruelly enslaved an entire race and murdered children indiscriminately – לֹא גָזַר אֶלָּא עַל הַזְּכָרִים. He ticks every box on the villain archetype bingo card, which is in large part why the Exodus was such a big deal.

Our ancestor Lavan, although a tricky swindler, nonetheless provided refuge and safe harbor when Yakov was on the run with nowhere to go, and over time, provided him with a family, a home, and tremendous wealth.

In what universe can we plausibly say that Lavan was worse than Pharaoh? Moreover, doesn’t that totally undermine Pharaoh’s atrocities, and perhaps the entire Seder?

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that the Haggadah reminds us of Lavan as a warning that threats don’t always look like the atrocities of Pharaoh; sometimes they appear as a kindly person who took you in and gave you everything. 

There’s nothing surprising about our response to clear and obvious danger. When calamity strikes, in the face of a Pharaoh type villain, we know what to do; across the ages, in the face of adversity, Jews have been resilient, doubling down on study, prayer, and observance – וְכַאֲשֶׁר יְעַנּוּ אֹתוֹ כֵּן יִרְבֶּה וְכֵן יִפְרֹץ. 

The danger Lavan poses is far more insidious; Yakov might forget who he was – לַעֲקֹר אֶת־הַכֹּל. Affluence, no less than genocide or slavery, threatens Jewish continuity by making us forget who we are and why.

Before Moshe’s death, he warned his current and future audience  about a subtle mistake humans are consistently prone to:

הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ, פֶּן-תִּשְׁכַּח אֶת-ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ, לְבִלְתִּי שְׁמֹר מִצְותָיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו וְחֻקֹּתָיו, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם. פֶּן-תֹּאכַל, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ; וּבָתִּים טֹבִים תִּבְנֶה, וְיָשָׁבְתָּ.וּבְקָרְךָ וְצֹאנְךָ יִרְבְּיֻן, וְכֶסֶף וְזָהָב יִרְבֶּה-לָּךְ; וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר-לְךָ, יִרְבֶּה.וְרָם, לְבָבֶךָ; וְשָׁכַחְתָּ אֶת-ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ, הַמּוֹצִיאֲךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים – Take care that you don’t forget the Lord your God and fail to keep His commandments, rules, and laws, which I instruct you today: when you have eaten, and you are satisfied and built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, be careful that your heart does not grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God—who freed you from the land of Egypt, home of slaves… (8:10-14)

The Beis Halevi highlights that Yakov feared facing his brother Esau on two counts – the hand of his brother, and the hand of Esau – מִיַּד אָחִי מִיַּד עֵשָׂו. We know all too well about Esau’s destructive capacity for violence – מִיַּד עֵשָׂו, but Yakov understood that Esau’s warm embrace of brotherhood was no less of a threat – מִיַּד אָחִי.

For everyone who died in pogroms, Crusades, the Inquisition, or the Holocaust, there are memorials and prayers, history, and proclamations of “Never Again.” But, in the words of R’ Noach Weinberg, there is a spiritual Holocaust taking place right now. How many souls do we lose to assimilation, to a friendly society that opens its arms to us and beckons oh so invitingly?

It is one thing to believe in God when you need His help. It is another thing entirely when you have already received it. 

Perhaps Lavan is worse because when faced with a Lavan, people obliviously slip away, invisible and silent, without resistance.

The Haggadah and the entire Seder night provide the antidote – צֵא וּלְמַד. If you hold on to your identity, your history, and where you come from, you will not lose your way.

The Long Way

3 minute read
Straightforward

The Exodus story is a foundation of Judaism and features prominently in most of our mitzvos and prayers.

Aware of the magnitude and scope of the Exodus, God tells Moshe and Ahron in real-time how consequential this story will always be:

וְהָיָה הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה לָכֶם לְזִכָּרוֹן וְחַגֹּתֶם אֹתוֹ חַג ה’ לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם חֻקַּת עוֹלָם תְּחגֻּהוּ – “This day shall be to you one of remembrance; you shall celebrate it as a festival to God throughout the ages, you shall celebrate it as an institution for all time!” (12:14)

We practice this command in festive detail at the Seder, as the Haggadah recounts the captivating story of the Jewish people’s birth and liberation from Egypt and slavery.

But there’s a significant issue we ought to recognize immediately, without which the entire remembrance is irreparably compromised with no contemporary relevance at all.

We are fortunate to live in a vanishingly rare era of safety and prosperity, which only serves to obscure the fact that our people have been persecuted in one exile after another for most of our history. Even today, although largely safe from physical danger, the spiritual dangers have never been more powerful or seductive; most of our people are at different stages of assimilation or disorientation, desperately lacking clarity and direction.

What’s the point of talking about redemption that happened long ago when we’re not yet redeemed today?

The Meshech Chochmah explains that if it were nothing more than the anniversary of physical liberation, it truly would make little sense to celebrate in an era of subjugation. But if we understand it correctly as a spiritual liberation, then it continues to have a residual effect forever – וְחַגֹּתֶם אֹתוֹ חַג ה’ לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם חֻקַּת עוֹלָם.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that the Seder’s goal is not just to remember that an Exodus happened once; but that an Exodus could happen at all.

R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that Jews have celebrated this throughout the highs and lows of our history, in ghettos and concentration camps, under conditions similar to or worse than Egypt.

Even the Exodus itself was imperfect – it did not lead to a full and final utopian life in Israel. The freed slaves fought God and Moshe for the rest of their lives, yearning to go back to Egypt.

Remarkably, the Torah and Haggadah openly embrace the notion of an imperfect and partial redemption; both subvert our expectation of a happy ending resulting in the Jewish people living happily ever after in peace and prosperity in Israel, which suggests that the premise of the question is false.

However flawed that generation’s ability to embrace a new path might have been, they planted the seeds of redemption in the blueprint of our DNA. Humans are not robots, and we are all perfectly imperfect in our own way.

We don’t need to mark the anniversary of an ancient generation’s liberation long ago; we remember in order to celebrate what germinates from the seed planted by the Exodus – the innate ability to redeem ourselves.

Each of us in every generation must feel as though we experienced the great departure from Egypt, forever remembering that whatever troubles we face, the tools of redemption are already there, and salvation could be just a day away.

R’ Shai Held notes that the Haggadah seems to powerfully suggest that the journey is more important than the destination. The Gemara warns against believing someone who says they have searched for answers but found nothing. As R’ Louis Jacobs put it, the search for Torah is itself Torah, and in that search, we have already found; or as the Kotzker put it, the searching is the finding. 

The question was accurate, that we’ve not yet made it all the way; but it’s vastly better than no way.

There is still quite some way to go, but you’re a long way from where you used to be, and that’s worth celebrating as well.

The Shackles of Your Mind

2 minute read
Straightforward

The redemption story of the Haggadah opens with Matza, the bread of affliction – הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא. It’s what our ancestors ate, and we invite whoever is hungry to join – כָּל דִכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכֹל.

If you think about it, it’s a strange invitation.

It’s one thing to invite people to join your festive meal, but what sort of dubious invitation is it for people to share your bread of affliction?

The Chiddushei HaRim highlights that isolation was the worst punishment God could inflict on Egypt, short only of death itself – that people could not see each other. 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. Perhaps one of the first steps towards redemption is experiencing pain together; that even in times we don’t have much, at least we have each other.

Moreover, R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that what transforms the bread of affliction into the bread of freedom is the willingness to share with others.

The distinguished psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl witnessed humanity stripped to its essence in the concentration camps and observed how there were still men walking around comforting others and giving away their last piece of bread despite living in the most wretched circumstances. 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 freezing darkness. Even in the worst of times, we can freely choose to share with others, and in doing so, we become partners in planting the seeds of our redemption.

The Maharal notes that the Exodus is so fundamental because it imbues Judaism with an essential quality of absolute freedom – Judaism is born with the removal of coercive influence. 

The Lubavitcher Rebbe notes that R’ Elazar ben Azariah discovered Ben Zoma’s teaching to recall the Exodus at night on the day he became a leader; because it falls to a leader to be the beacon of hope during times of darkness and difficulty.

Rav Kook explains that the critical distinction between an enslaved person and a free man is not simply physical liberty; there’s a mental component. There could be an enlightened slave whose spirit is free and a free man whose whole life is enslaved to his basest desires – physically free, but with a slave mentality. The people who walked out of Egypt and through the Red Sea to stand at Sinai then spent 40 lost years pining to go back “home” to Egypt.

It’s essential to understand the direction of the story the Torah tells; that God physically freed the Jews of that time, but that mentally, they never left.

Only you can free your spirit, which leads to a shocking but indisputable conclusion. 

God can save you from Egypt, but not even God can save you from yourself. 

Becoming Yourself

3 minute read
Straightforward

Deception is one of the key recurring themes in Yakov’s life story – as perpetrator and victim.

Yakov opportunistically bought Esau’s birthright for a bowl of soup and masqueraded as Esau to get his blessing. This set a course of events in motion, where Yakov had to flee to his uncle Lavan, who then deceived Yakov by substituting Leah in Rachel’s place, causing lifelong tension between them and their children; culminating in the brothers’ abduction of Yosef and the subsequent cover-up of Yosef; which ultimately led the family and the Jewish People to the mire of Egypt.

Late in life, when he met Pharoh, Yakov recognized the constant struggle his life had been:

וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב, אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, יְמֵי שְׁנֵי מְגוּרַי, שְׁלֹשִׁים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה:  מְעַט וְרָעִים, הָיוּ יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיַּי, וְלֹא הִשִּׂיגוּ אֶת-יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי אֲבֹתַי, בִּימֵי מְגוּרֵיהֶם – Yakov said to Pharoh: ‘The days of the years of my journey are a hundred and thirty years; few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, they have not approached the days of the years of the life of my fathers in their days.’ (47:9)

Yakov recognized his difficulties, and we ought to as well. It is simplistic to dismissively hand wave and whitewash Yakov’s role in the way his life unfolded. R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch emphasizes that it is critical to proudly acknowledge the way the Torah characterizes our heroes’ flaws so that we learn that although perfection is ever-elusive, excellence is not.

The Torah explicitly suggests that Yakov hurt Esau:

כִּשְׁמֹעַ עֵשָׂו, אֶת-דִּבְרֵי אָבִיו, וַיִּצְעַק צְעָקָה, גְּדֹלָה וּמָרָה עַד-מְאֹד – When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried with an extremely great and bitter cry (27:34)

R’ Jonathan Sacks highlights that the Torah narrates emotions sparingly, and uses four modifiers here – גְּדֹלָה וּמָרָה עַד-מְאֹד.

This hurt came at a great cost; the Zohar suggests that these tears alone were responsible for thousands of years of suffering, over a blessing. When Yitzchak was on his deathbed, Rivka knew that Yitzchak could not see Esau for who he was, so she instructed Yakov to act like Esau and take his blessing:

וְיִתֶּן-לְךָ, הָאֱלֹהִים, מִטַּל הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּמִשְׁמַנֵּי הָאָרֶץ וְרֹב דָּגָן, וְתִירֹשׁ יַעַבְדוּךָ עַמִּים, וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְךָ לְאֻמִּים – הֱוֵה גְבִיר לְאַחֶיךָ, וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְךָ בְּנֵי אִמֶּךָ; אֹרְרֶיךָ אָרוּר, וּמְבָרְכֶיךָ בָּרוּךְ – May God give you the dews of heaven, and the fats of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine. Let people serve you, and nations bow down to you. Lord over your brother, and let your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be every one that curses you, and blessed be every one that blesses you. (27:28,29)

This is the great blessing Yakov suffered so considerably for, and it seems a little underwhelming. As R’ Jonathan Sacks sharply notes, this is a blessing for wealth and power; it is plainly not the blessing of Avraham’s covenant, which is about family and the Promised Land. Avraham gave Yishmael a blessing for wealth and power, and Esau could have one too.

Once Yakov and Rivka’s ruse was discovered, and just before Yakov left for good, his father Yitzchak blessed him one last time, transparent with who he was speaking to:

וְאֵל שַׁדַּי יְבָרֵךְ אֹתְךָ, וְיַפְרְךָ וְיַרְבֶּךָ; וְהָיִיתָ, לִקְהַל עַמִּים. וְיִתֶּן-לְךָ אֶת-בִּרְכַּת אַבְרָהָם, לְךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ אִתָּךְ–לְרִשְׁתְּךָ אֶת-אֶרֶץ מְגֻרֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַן אֱלֹהִים לְאַבְרָהָם – May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful, and multiply you, that you may be a congregation of people; and give you the blessing of Avraham – to you, and your children together; that you may inherit the land of your residence, which God gave to Avraham. (28:3,4)

By imparting Avraham’s blessing to Yakov with no pretenses, the Torah suggests that the entire ruse and ensuing struggle was unnecessary, that the strife and deception that characterized Yakov’s life was based on a misunderstanding.

God’s blessing is abundant; it is not exclusive or zero-sum. Yishmael and Esau can also have God’s blessing; it will not detract from our own.

Perhaps when Esau and Yakov met again years later, Yakov had learned this lesson, and that was how they were able to reconcile:

קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּרְכָתִי אֲשֶׁר הֻבָאת לָךְ, כִּי-חַנַּנִי אֱלֹהִים וְכִי יֶשׁ-לִי-כֹל; וַיִּפְצַר-בּוֹ, וַיִּקָּח – “Please take my blessings that I gift to you; because God has been gracious with me, and I have enough,” he urged him; and he took it. (33:11)

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that the material gifts to Esau were the literal return of the material blessing – קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּרְכָתִי; and bowing to Esau showed his deference to Esau’s place; acknowledging the wrongdoing of their youth. Instead of trying to usurp Esau’s position in the family and take his blessings; Esau could be Esau, and Yakov could be Yakov – וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו, יֶשׁ-לִי רָב; אָחִי, יְהִי לְךָ אֲשֶׁר-לָךְ.

Once Yakov fights off the literal specter of trying to be like Esau, he earns the name and title of Yisrael, which has a connotation of straightness.

We each have our own blessings, and we mustn’t seek our brother’s blessing. His blessing is his, and yours is yours.

Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.

An Answer to the Problem of Evil

2 minute read
Straightforward

There is a famous philosophical problem called The Problem of Evil. Seeing evil all around us, it challenges our belief that God is omnipotent and omniscient.

It’s not a problem isolated to philosophers; it’s a question we all find ourselves asking from time to time. Why do bad things happen to good people?

The different approaches to this are called theodicy. Some try to explain how everything that we call bad is actually good or that God is simply beyond our understanding. There is some merit to these and similar arguments, but they are impractical.

Anyone who claims to have the one true answer to almost any philosophical question is almost invariably wrong. The nature of such things is that they either don’t lend themselves to a single resolution and sometimes to any resolution at all. The best we can muster is that different approaches work for different people.

We might learn one such approach from the story of Avraham.

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that the answer to the question is how it challenges us to live in response to the existence of the problem – when we see something is wrong, do we try to make it better? While this does not directly address the question, remember the question has no answer; it can only prompt us to respond.

After passing the great test of the Akeida, the Binding of Isaac, there is a long denouement, where Avraham goes home and receives word that his brother had many children from his many wives and had built a formidable clan. Despite all God’s promises, Avraham has had to fight tooth and nail for every single thing; yet his brother seems to get it all oh-so-easily.

But Avraham never complains that God has been unfair. He just gets on with it.

He could do that because he didn’t live with the expectation or entitlement that life would turn out just the way he wanted if he lived a moral life.

Imagine a world where good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. Who would be bad if you knew that every time you steal, you get cancer? Everyone would be good all the time!

The only way it is possible to be authentically good is if you don’t know the consequences. If the consequences don’t look random, goodness cannot exist. But in a world where the greatest philanthropist can still die in a terrible car accident, goodness is real. You do it because it’s important or because it’s the right thing; it’s intrinsic, and not out of an expectation that God’s bounty will immediately follow.

Bad things happen to good people all the time. Good things happen to bad people all the time. Bad things happen to everyone, and good things happen to everyone!

We read the story of the Akeida and the news that follows on Rosh HaShana. The story recalls the merit of our heroes and the struggles they faced in their day to day lives. They did not live with the expectation that life would be fair and appear fair, and we must dispel that notion as well.

Because sometimes it really isn’t fair, and no answer or explanation will do. It just isn’t fair! We’d best make our peace with it, and all we can do is respond in the way we choose to live. Like Avraham, we just have to get on with it and try to live as best we can.

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 love of God is how much love we show others. 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, which suggests the teaching that welcoming God is subordinate to hospitality.

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.

Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik notes that the arrival of traveller at the precise moment Avraham was communing with the Divine was the Creator’s way of testing Avraham’s commitment, his readiness to sacrifice his own personal spirituality in favour of caring for and recognizing the dignity inherent in another human being.

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

The Filter of Wealth

4 minute read
Straightforward

Power is the ability to do something or act in a particular way or the capacity to influence others’ behavior or the course of events. Abraham Lincoln famously said that anyone could handle adversity, but to test a man’s character truly, give him power.

Today, more than ever, power and money are almost inextricably linked, as wealthy people are typically influential, utilizing the resources and the means at their disposal to make things happen. In some cases, they can even buy the right lawyers, politicians, and institutions to protect them from meaningful consequences, becoming laws unto themselves.

We know all too well that wealth has a halo effect and gives the wealthy a podium because of the tremendous love and respect people have for money, and maybe they’ll get tossed a bone or two?

We probably know Machiavellian characters who would forsake family, friends, respect, and integrity for another dollar; people whose zero-sum, all-or-nothing attitude becomes plain as day if they can get ahead. These people tend to reveal themselves when the opportunity to make money comes around, and they’d sell their grandmother if there were a buyer. As the Mesilas Yesharim writes, exploiting people in business is sadly all too common, perhaps even the norm.

And yet, despite the tremendously corrosive effect wealth can have, the Torah never actually says that money is bad or evil. In fact, many of the heroes in our stories are blessed with fabulous wealth and success, like Avraham’s family when they left Egypt:

וַיַּעַל אַבְרָם מִמִּצְרַיִם הוּא וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וְכָל-אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ, וְלוֹט עִמּוֹ–הַנֶּגְבָּה. וְאַבְרָם, כָּבֵד מְאֹד, בַּמִּקְנֶה, בַּכֶּסֶף וּבַזָּהָב. וַיֵּלֶךְ, לְמַסָּעָיו, מִנֶּגֶב, וְעַד-בֵּית-אֵל–עַד-הַמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר-הָיָה שָׁם אָהֳלֹה בַּתְּחִלָּה, בֵּין בֵּית-אֵל, וּבֵין הָעָי. אֶל-מְקוֹם, הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה שָׁם, בָּרִאשֹׁנָה; וַיִּקְרָא שָׁם אַבְרָם, בְּשֵׁם ה – Avram went up from Egypt; him, and his wife, and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the South. And Avram was very rich in cattle, in silver, and gold. And he went on his journeys from the South to Beth-el, to the place where his tent had originally been, between Beth-el and Ai, and to the site of the altar, which he had made earlier; and Avram called there in the name of Hashem. (13:1-4)

Given the undeniable challenges and pitfalls that come with wealth, how do our heroes model the proper way to wield influence and wealth?

The Torah gives us some clues on how to conduct ourselves, and we see it play out in Lot’s contentious departure from Avraham.

Upon Avraham’s return to Israel, the Torah makes it clear that wealth hasn’t changed him. The Torah emphasizes Avraham’s return, not his transition; to his old home, to the place he’d first come from, to the original site of his legendary altar – עַד-הַמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר-הָיָה שָׁם אָהֳלֹה בַּתְּחִלָּה / אֶל-מְקוֹם, הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה שָׁם, בָּרִאשֹׁנָה.

In stark contrast, Lot’s attitude to wealth alienates him from the family, which causes the dispute:

וְלֹא-נָשָׂא אֹתָם הָאָרֶץ, לָשֶׁבֶת יַחְדָּו:  כִּי-הָיָה רְכוּשָׁם רָב, וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לָשֶׁבֶת יַחְדָּו.  וַיְהִי-רִיב, בֵּין רֹעֵי מִקְנֵה-אַבְרָם, וּבֵין, רֹעֵי מִקְנֵה-לוֹ- The land was not able to bear them dwelling together; because their assets were so great. There was strife between the herdmen of Abram’s cattle and the herdmen of Lot’s cattle… (13:6,7)

The Torah implies from the beginning that money is what stands between Avraham and Lot – וַיַּעַל אַבְרָם מִמִּצְרַיִם הוּא וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וְכָל-אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ, וְלוֹט עִמּוֹ. In this imagery, what stands between Avraham and Lot is literally their wealth – כָל-אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that they drifted apart not because of a shortage of land but because of such an abundance that they couldn’t figure out how to jointly manage it – כִּי-הָיָה רְכוּשָׁם רָב וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לָשֶׁבֶת יַחְדָּו.

The Malbim observes that people who can agree on fundamental principles can always figure out a path forward. Avraham wanted to return to his roots, whereas Lot wanted to accumulate more – they were going different ways, and there was no way to work together anymore. Lot’s fortune had changed him, and Avraham’s had not. The assets had become a burden – כָּבֵד מְאֹד, בַּמִּקְנֶה, בַּכֶּסֶף וּבַזָּהָב.

The tension between the family leads them to separate, and Avraham magnanimously offers his young nephew the first choice of where he will go, and Lot chooses Sodom and the fertile Jordan Valley. The Torah lets us know what it thinks of Lot; he has selfishly chosen the best land over the uncle who did everything. Lot literally and figuratively descends from the hills of Avraham into the evil environment of Sodom, whose destruction is imminent; in contrast to Avraham, thanking Hashem high in the hills and mountains.

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that tribulations unite us against common adversity, but our real test can come in times of plenty and security.

In any relationship, whether business, personal, or romantic, it just won’t work if each partner is only out for themselves. Keeping score creates mutual incompatibility and is a sure way to lose. The only way everyone wins is when partners look out for each other and let small things pass.

Relationships are always a binary choice of working towards the vision or division. The Torah teaches us that families and relationships disintegrate when individuals lose sight of the bigger picture of common goals and let money get in between them.

People think that money and power corrupt, but more probable than the notion that it changes us is the idea that it reveals our authentic selves by expressing our priorities. When we don’t need to keep up a facade to get what we want from others, our most authentic self can express itself, which is how the Torah’s heroes wield influence and power. The Torah’s ideal is that good fortune will pair with good character rather than unmasking mediocre values.

Money and power aren’t inherently wrong; they don’t change you. But they do reveal who you are.

Money doesn’t matter when you lose what’s important on the way.

The Call to Action

4 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.

The Piacesczna Rebbe points out that God chooses Avraham because he is great, but also because of the children and people who will follow him – לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶתבָּנָיו וְאֶתבֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו. That explicitly makes you a member of the class of people God analyzed and inspected, and deemed worthy. The Piacesczna Rebbe bids that we take ourselves seriously as part of that class – you are why Avraham was chosen, as is everyone you teach, formally or informally, as well as everyone you encounter, the people who will follow. Don’t write yourself off, nor anyone else.

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

4 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)

The Hebrew root word for “thing” and “word” is identical – דַבֵּר / דָבָר. R’ Moshe Shapiro notes that for God –  and people of integrity! – there is no distinction; giving your word creates a new reality, and a word becomes a thing. R’ Shlomo Farhi points out the obvious destruction that ensues from saying one thing but meaning and doing something else entirely.

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.

Our sages praise people whose words God concurs with, one of which is the language of repentance. Words have the power to activate a force that predates Creation; Moshe intercedes on behalf of the Jewish People for the calamitous Golden Calf, and God forgives them specifically because Moshe asked – וַיֹּאמֶר הסָלַחְתִּי כִּדְבָרֶךָ.

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.

It’s Not About Who You Are; But What You Do

3 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah speaks in human language, and storytelling is one of humanity’s most powerful tools.

Some parts of the Torah are communicated in the forms of laws, and others in stories.  Integral messages can be passed through the ages, each generation filtering it through its wisest minds, gleaning new insights in each telling.

Some say that our tradition’s stories are not about ordinary people like us; they are about perfect saints who were qualitatively different from us.

This is not a universally held position, and with good reason. If the stories are about holy people who are different from us, how can their stories be relevant guidance for our lives?

As R’ Shlomo Farhi observes, while the Torah’s terse stories obviously do not capture the character of these great people in three dimensions, we also cannot ignore the Torah’s deliberate characterization and presentation of these stories, emphasizing and highlighting specific actions and people frame their particular way. We should sit up and notice, wondering what we are supposed to learn from the parts that don’t quite align with our picture of greatness.

When famine struck Avraham’s new home in Israel, he decided that his family would have better food security in Egypt’s fertile land, and they left Israel. While this was an eminently reasonable decision to have made based on his assessment of the facts, the way it worked out was that he placed Sarah in a highly compromising situation that required divine intervention after Pharaoh took her.

The Ramban criticizes Avraham for leaving Israel and not counting on God’s promises and that by abandoning Israel, he directly jeopardized those promises and endangered his family.

The Maharitz Chajes notes that stories are often the Torah’s medium for teaching us about morality because mature people understand that moral choices are often difficult and rarely black and white. While the law is made of words, those words have to be lived out, and only a story transmits the turmoil and weight of how those words and values interface with real life.

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that the Torah’s enduring hold is that our heroes are not gods or demigods; they are mortal men. God is God, and humans are human – and humans make mistakes.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that this kind of discussion is an essential feature of our rich heritage. Our ancestors are prototypes of what the ideal human acts like, but the Torah does not whitewash its heroes; excellent humans are still human.

Our role models cannot be idealized characters; they wouldn’t be relevant if they weren’t materially like us. What makes them great is precisely the fact that they weren’t so different from us. They faced the same kinds of problems: how best to protect and provide for their families; and how to maintain their beliefs and practices while trying to do the right thing.

Avraham was not born holy and perfect, nor under extraordinary or supernatural circumstances. Avraham did not possess some innate characteristic that gave him a religious advantage. Avraham is first and foremost in our pantheon of great figures because, throughout his struggles, he maintained his integrity and persevered – sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly. He is great because of the things he did, not because he was born that way.

The Torah speaks in whole truths to give a three-dimensional view of the people we look up to. The Torah is for and about humans; because it’s ok to be human.

Some people suggest that focusing on our hero’s misdeeds is disrespectful, but perhaps they have it backward. Their humanity does not undermine our respect for them; it is the very basis of our respect and veneration!

The Torah is replete with stories about how great people also make mistakes.

Adam eats the fruit; Noach doesn’t save a single person; Avraham compromises Sarah; Yitzchak favors Esau; Yakov tricks his father; Yosef is vain, and his brothers engage in human trafficking. The generation that comes out of Egypt is doomed to die in the wilderness. Moshe doesn’t get to the Promised Land. The Promised Land doesn’t result in the Final Redemption. Failure is a core theme of almost every story in the Torah!

But crucially, here we are 3000 years later, learning those stories, still trying. Perfection is ever-elusive, and there is no finish line. The Torah’s stories guide our way through the ages because they matter to us. They teach us that humans can fail, but if perfection is out of reach, greatness is not.

If all our greats are humans; then all humans possess the capacity to be great. That’s why their stories matter to us.

Greatness isn’t who you are; it’s what you do that defines you.

The Image of God

3 minute read
Straightforward

Thousands of years ago, the Torah set the world upon a revolutionary path, drastically steering world history and modern civilization, on a trend that continues to this day.

When the Torah describes the creation and emergence of humans, it bestows a defining characteristic that has reverberated through the ages:

וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ: זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, בָּרָא אֹתָם – God created man in His image; in the image of God created He him – male and female, He created them. (1:27)

Different sages from our tradition have taken differing views on Judaism’s defining characteristic; there need not need to be one single foundational principle. The range of principles is sufficiently indicative of what they held to be the Torah’s meta-principles or golden rules that underpin the rest.

Ben Azzai labeled the concept of man in God’s image as the most important principle in the Torah.

Since Judaism believes that God has no shape or form, what can it mean to be the image of a God who has no image?

Traditional explanations of the precise definition range from the more conventional to the more outlandish; but the consequence as R’ Saadia Gaon understands it is that we represent God as ambassadors in a way that animals and plants do not.

R’ Jonathan Sacks explains that the defining feature of the Creation story is God choosing and selecting what to create and how to create it – so to be created in God’s image is to share the godly characteristic of free will. Whereas animals are driven by instinct; humans can make choices.

The language of God’s image was not new to the ancient world, whose leaders were seen as divine. God-kings were once common, such as Egypt’s Pharaoh thousands of years ago, but this concept persists to this day in some places, such as North Korea’s Supreme Leader. The ramification of a god in human form is that he does not answer to mere humans and deserves to be worshipped by his subjects.

The political structure of god-kings is based on the instinctive assumption that the strong have a right to dominate the weak. This logic was and is the justification for all sorts of evils, including slavery, sexism, racism, eugenics, and genocide.

The Torah dismisses the worldviews of a divine right to dominate others out of hand with a simple but elegant statement that humans are fundamentally the same. Whatever objects people believed worthy of worship, from sky and stars to seas and serpents, one God created them all, and that one God created all humans in one image. We all answer to God equally – and no one else.

R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that God grants humans dominion of the beasts, the birds, and the earth; but tellingly, not other humans. Humans are created free and must respect the dignity of other humans to preserve that freedom.

The Exodus story tells of the birth of the nation as slaves liberated from a powerful ruled by a god-king to show that our God does not respect powerf and that humans must not dominate each other.

These powerless Jews were called upon to accept the Torah and live out its principles as role models for humanity. Strength and superiorirty have not carried Judaism through the ages; only adherence to the Torah.

Tellingly, the Torah commands the Jewish People not to hate the Egyptians, but to love the stranger and protect the widows and orphans. The Torah describes not a God of the powerful, but a God of everyone. The Torah’s utopian vision is not apocalypse or victory, but peace and security for all.

The Torah planted the idea of fundamental human equality thousands of years ago, and human history has only trended away from domination and subjugation ever since.

It is all too easy to abuse power, and to hate those not like us. If we love God, we must love the godliness in others.

We differentiate ourselves not by seed or creed; only by deed.

God is Biased

4 minute read
Straightforward

One of Judaism’s signature beliefs is in our personal ability to make amends – Teshuva. 

It’s hard to overstate the significance of this belief.

In sharp contrast, Christianity does not have a framework for humans to make amends; humans are born and remain in a state of sinfulness as a result of the corruption of original sin, which is the theological basis of Jesus’ death as an atonement.

Teshuva is a fundamentally different worldview. 

Teshuva and the personal abilities of atonement and forgiveness are groundbreaking because, in the ancient world, humans lived in fear of their gods. You would try to do right by them, in the hope that they would do right to you; you don’t offend them, so they don’t smite you. The relationship people had with their gods was explicitly transactional; and from a certain perspective, what we might call abusive. 

But in a framework where atonement and forgiveness exist, God isn’t looking to catch you out at all, and the new possibility exists for a very different relationship – not just master and servant, but now something more like parent and child.

Why do we believe we have the ability to atonement and earn forgiveness?

Quite simply, we believe we can make amends because the Torah consistently not only emphasizes that God is not impartial; but that God is biased towards creation – וּבְטוֹב הָעוֹלָם נִדּוֹן /  עוֹלָם חֶסֶד יִבָּנֶה.

The priestly blessing explicitly talks about God’s preferential treatment; Rashi explains it as a wish for God to literally smile at us – יָאֵר ה’ פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וִיחֻנֶּךָ, יִשָּׂא ה’ פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ.

As the Shem mi’Shmuel explains, God’s compassion amplifies the steps we take to make amends – ועֹשֶׂה חֶסֶד לַאֲלָפִים. 

The Torah speaks plainly about how compassion will drive God to personally gather up every lost soul and return and restore them from wherever they are:

 וְשָׁב ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת–שְׁבוּתְךָ, וְרִחֲמֶךָ; וְשָׁב, וְקִבֶּצְךָ מִכָּל–הָעַמִּים, אֲשֶׁר הֱפִיצְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, שָׁמָּה. אִם–יִהְיֶה נִדַּחֲךָ, בִּקְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם מִשָּׁם יְקַבֶּצְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וּמִשָּׁם יִקָּחֶךָ – God will return your captives and have compassion for you; and will return and gather you from all the nations, wherever God has scattered you. (30:3,4)

Rav Kook teaches that the first promise is about a physical return to Israel, and the second promise is that God will also return us from the outer edge of the spiritual universe – קְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם. The Sfas Emes teaches that Hashem makes this promise regardless of whatever it is that brought us there to that spiritual wilderness – whether it’s upbringing; bad choices; poor self-control – none of it matters – מִשָּׁם יְקַבֶּצְךָ / וּמִשָּׁם יִקָּחֶךָ.

The High Holy Day prayers prominently quotes Ezekiel telling his audience, and us, what it will take to avert harsh judgment:

וְהָרָשָׁע כִּי יָשׁוּב מִכּל־חַטֹּאתָו אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וְשָׁמַר אֶת־כּל־חֻקוֹתַי וְעָשָׂה מִשְׁפָּט וּצְדָקָה חָיֹה יִחְיֶה לֹא יָמוּת. כּל־פְּשָׁעָיו אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לֹא יִזָּכְרוּ לוֹ בְּצִדְקָתוֹ אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂה יִחְיֶה. הֶחָפֹץ אֶחְפֹּץ מוֹת רָשָׁע נְאֻם אֲדֹנָי אלוקים הֲלוֹא בְּשׁוּבוֹ מִדְּרָכָיו וְחָיָה – Moreover, if the wicked one repents of all the sins that he committed and keeps all My laws and does what is just and right, he shall live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions he committed shall be remembered against him; because of the righteousness he has practiced, he shall live. Is it my desire that a wicked person shall die?—says the Lord God. It is rather that he shall turn back from his ways and live. (Ezekiel 18:21-23)

As R’ Jonathan Sacks notes, there is no mention of sacrifice, no mention of a temple, no magic ritual or secret; it’s never too late to change, God will forgive every mistake we’ve made so long as   we are honest in regretting it and doing our best to make it right.

As the Izhbitzer teaches, there are no mistakes, and the world has unfolded up to this moment as intended; which, quite radically, validates sin retroactively, although it should be clear that this teaching has zero prospective or forward-looking value. You are where you are supposed to be today, you were supposed to make that mistake; and now your task is to move forward from it. God is willing to let go of our mistakes; we needn’t hold on so tight.

As R’ Simcha Bunim of Peshischa points out, there’s nothing surprising about humans making mistakes and doing the wrong thing. The big surprise is that we don’t take advantage of our ability to atone and make amends every day – כִּי הַמִּצְוָה הַזֹּאת, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם לֹא-נִפְלֵאת הִוא מִמְּךָ וְלֹא רְחֹקָה הִוא. לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא / כִּי-קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד, בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ, לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ.

The conclusion of one of the most moving parts of the prayers unambiguously says that even a person who sinned their entire life can still repent on his deathbed –כי לא תחפץ במות המת, כי אם בשובו מדרכו וחיה ועד יום מותו תחכה לו, אם ישוב מיד תקבלו.

It’s literally not possible to alienate yourself from the Creator Who permeates Creation. As R’ Akiva taught, God Himself cleanses us – וּמִי מְטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם, ‏אֲבִיכֶם שֶׁבַּשָּׁמַיִם, ‏… ‏מַה מִקְוֶה מְטַהֵר אֶת הַטְּמֵאִים, אַף הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מְטַהֵר אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל.

It’s not even difficult! Our sages authorize a wicked man to marry a woman on the condition that he is righteous, on the basis that he might have had a moment’s thought about changing for the better. The Minchas Chinuch notes that this potential thought doesn’t include the confession and follow through required for complete rehabilitation; but the Rogatchover and the Brisker school suggest that the mere thought alone of doing better removes the designation of wicked from a person – because God is biased.

By designing creation with a framework that includes atonement, forgiveness, and Teshuva, God freely admits bias towards the children of creation. In fact, our sages say that a repentant can achieve what saints cannot.

God invites the children of creation to come home – שובו בנים שובבים. There is no need to hold yourself to a higher standard than God.

If you think you can probably be doing a little better in certain respects, you might be right and it could be time to raise your standards. 

It’s not hard, and it’s not far away. Creation has been designed for you to make amends, has been waiting for you to make amends.

What are you waiting for?

Make it Right

2 minute read
Straightforward

The Western world we inhabit is dominated by Christian dogma. One particular widespread belief is that sin corrupts us in some fundamental and irredeemable way.

But that’s not how the Torah talks about wrongdoing:

כִּי-יִהְיֶה רִיב בֵּין אֲנָשִׁים, וְנִגְּשׁוּ אֶל-הַמִּשְׁפָּט וּשְׁפָטוּם; וְהִצְדִּיקוּ, אֶת-הַצַּדִּיק, וְהִרְשִׁיעוּ, אֶת-הָרָשָׁע. וְהָיָה אִם-בִּן הַכּוֹת, הָרָשָׁע–וְהִפִּילוֹ הַשֹּׁפֵט וְהִכָּהוּ לְפָנָיו, כְּדֵי רִשְׁעָתוֹ בְּמִסְפָּר אַרְבָּעִים יַכֶּנּוּ, לֹא יֹסִיף: פֶּן-יֹסִיף לְהַכֹּתוֹ עַל-אֵלֶּה מַכָּה רַבָּה, וְנִקְלָה אָחִיךָ לְעֵינֶיךָ – If there is a dispute between men; they shall approach the court, and the judges will judge them, and acquit the innocent one and condemn the guilty one. If the guilty one has incurred lashes, the judge shall make him lean over and flog him in front of him, commensurate with his crime, in number. He shall beat him with forty lashes; he shall not exceed, lest he give him a much more severe flogging than these forty lashes, and your brother will be degraded before your eyes. (25:1-3)

The Torah suggests that the very instant the crime is remediated, the Torah reclassifies the formerly guilty party as your brother – רָשָׁע / אָחִיךָ.

The Sifri derives from here the fundamental principle of rehabilitating offenders. Once a wrongdoer has made amends, he becomes your brother again. So for example, he is permitted to be a witness like anyone else, and his testimony is no less credible. The stain on his character is temporary, not permanent. He is not an ex-convict or Baal Teshuva; he is your brother.

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.

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that Judaism believes in rehabilitation both spiritually and in civil law, to help wrongdoers rebuild and make amends.

When someone sins or stumbles, the Torah condemns the act, not the person. The moment a wrong has been made right, anyone can become your brother, once again.

Hate the sin, not the sinner.

Self-Regulate

< 1 minute
Straightforward

As part of the functioning society the Torah seeks to create, the Torah requires us to have a judiciary to interpret the law, and an executive to apply it:

שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים, תִּתֶּן-לְךָ בְּכָל-שְׁעָרֶיךָ – You shall place judges and police within all your gates… (16:18)

As with many mitzvos, the Torah speaks to individuals here, and not the community. Does the Torah expect each of us to individually to create a roster of judges and a police force?

While the simple reading is about judges and police, it is not simply a law about the branches of government.

The Shelah instead reads it as Judaism’s source for the principle of personal development and self-regulation. Building a great society starts with individuals. The mitzvah is literally given to you, in the second person possessive, because nobody else could possibly judge or police you in the way only you are uniquely able.

The Kotzker suggests that the mitzvah is literally to gatekeep the openings to our bodies, the sights, sounds, smells, and ideas we let in and out.

R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that we pray every day for a return of the judges of old – הָשִׁיבָה שׁופְטֵינוּ כְּבָרִאשׁונָה – which on this reading, would mean a return to our youthful ideals.

R’ Yisrael Salanter taught that our natural intuition is the only judge and policeman we ever need.

R’ Jonathan Sacks explains that this is a microcosm of the Jewish People’s mission. In our personal lives and in our communities, we have a duty to determine whether there is a gap between where we are and where we ought to be, then taking the necessary steps to bridge it.

Because if we’re tuned in, we know what’s wrong, and we know how to fix it too.

Yonah: Rejecting Justice For Mercy

3 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 change. Simple pagan sailors can change, and so can Israel’s enemies – the people of Nineveh.

When an input changes, the output changes – which is why repentance, prayer, and charity have the power to change our fate. 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.

Throughout the story, we sense Yonah’s effortless ability to make an impact; even when he is literally running from God, he still manages to leave all his shipmates as righteous and upright men making vows and sacrifices to God. He doesn’t jump overboard, which fits his characterization in the story of being frustrated at his ability to save anyone except the people he actually wants to save – his own people.

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 shows a fork in the 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. You cannot ask for forgiveness for yourself yet deny it to others, and you don’t always get to choose who to save.

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.

Fighting Fate

2 minute read
Straightforward

For many people, one of the most moving parts of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy is the Nesaneh Tokef prayer; which vividly describes the courtroom of judgment and sets the stakes as high as possible – determinations of life, death, and everything in between. 

The prayer affirms that on this day, Heaven determines who will live and who will die, and you take a moment to think about who left us too soon this year. Who will suffer, and who will have it easy; you think of your friend who’s had an awful time recently. Who will be well and who will be weak; you think of that terrible diagnosis you heard about. 

And yet, for all the severity of judgment, the prayer concludes by throwing it out the window entirely. It’s Judgment Day, and sure, your verdict for the year is set today, and this is the decisive moment. But we loudly proclaim that our fate is, in fact, not fixed at all because of the notion that we can choose to change and grow, because repentance, prayer, and charity can change our fate – וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה.

The word for repentance means homecoming or return; that however lost we may be, we can always find our way back – תְשׁוּבָה. The word for prayer means introspection; we can always take stock for an honest self-appraisal, evaluating and redirecting our direction – תְפִלָּה. The word for charity means justice; justice is something humans can create and share with others – צְדָקָה. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains, the words we say are all aspects of our lives that we have complete agency and control over. 

R’ Micha Berger notes that they parallel the three relationships a person has – charity reflecting our horizontal relationship with each other, prayer reflecting our vertical relationship with God, and repentance reflecting our inner relationship with ourselves. 

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that the judgment of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur only determines the default trajectory as things stand, but they are not exhaustively binding or rigidly preordained. We can hold on to hope that, ultimately, we can influence and control our destinies.

If you improve one single characteristic, that constitutes a change substantial enough to change and reshape the future.

Mathematics validates the butterfly effect, where small things have non-linear impacts on a complex system, like a butterfly flapping its wings which through ripple effects causes a typhoon. Small things can have a big impact on the future.

Change yourself, change your fate.

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.

Blue is the Color

3 minute read
Straightforward

After the fallout of the spies’ poor report of what lay ahead, God instructed the Jewish People to observe the mitzvah of tzitzis, which we recite to this day as a part of the Shema:

וְהָיָה לָכֶם, לְצִיצִת, וּרְאִיתֶם אֹתוֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם אֶת-כָּל-מִצְו‍ֹת ה’, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם; וְלֹא-תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם, וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם – You will wear these tzitzis. When you see them, you will be reminded of all God’s commands; and you’ll do them – and you won’t stray after your hearts and eyes! (15:39)

R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that the juxtaposition of tzitzis with the story of the spies implies some association by sequence. In fact, the stated purpose of tzitzis mirrors the failure of the spies, being misled by eyes that seek – וְיָתֻרוּ אֶת־אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן / וְלֹא-תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם, וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם.

Our eyes and hearts are our emotion and instinct – the spies’ error was that they succumbed to fear out of a desire for comfort and safety. They were correct that conquering Israel would be difficult and scary; they were wrong for thinking it was impossible and that the whole journey had been a fruitless mistake. After everything they’d seen, they still couldn’t conquer their fear, and their fight or flight response was engaged.

As the Sfas Emes notes, it’s only the interpretation of the spies’ report that was flawed – they had correctly assessed the facts. But even if the land were inhabited by hordes of big, strong, tough, well-armed, and well-trained men, would God’s assurances and promises have meant any less? Scouting ahead only altered things from their perspective; nothing changed for God. It was only ever for their benefit – שלח לך – but they were sadly led astray by what they’d seen and how it made them feel.

Enter the mitzvah of tzitzis, reminding us that there is more than meets the eye. Don’t fall for how things appear! While it’s an essential lesson for us to learn, it was especially egregious for them to miss. God had come good for them in Egypt, at the Red Sea, and then gave them food, shelter, and water through an arid and empty desert; God had more than earned their trust. But they couldn’t trust in God, couldn’t live with the uncertainty of what lay ahead. Yet when God conceded to their request, they couldn’t handle it, and they panicked. But the Jewish People would have been better off not sending spies to scout ahead at all!

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

It’s worth highlighting that the blue thread surrounds the white threads and not the other way around. If tzitzis corresponds to all of Torah – לְמַעַן תִּזְכְּרוּ, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֶת-כָּל-מִצְו‍ֹתָי – then it corresponds to all of life within the finite bounds of human capability and limitations. There is no separate track for spirituality to exclude the physical; the Torah utilizes the earthly and physical drives. It’s a man’s duty to unite and elevate all available forces and things and incorporate them under the Torah’s umbrella, and tzitzis is the mini-uniform for the job.

And given blue’s deep symbolism and appearance on a Jew’s uniform,  it should be no surprise that it is the standard color of the Beis HaMikdash and Kohen Gadol’s uniforms.

Tzitzis follows the story with the spies to remind us daily and for eternity that the spies could not have been more wrong. It’s not what you look at that matters, but what you see and how you see.

There’s always more than meets the eye.