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First Steps

2 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.

Prayer Redux

7 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

The theurgy of prayer – the metaphysics of how prayer works and what it does – is complex, and in all likelihood, fundamentally unknowable. It’s not obvious at all what the postulate of prayer working would even look like! 

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

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

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

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

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

With righteous outrage, we might wonder why God gets annoyed that the people cry out. The Jewish People have made it to the beaches with their children and luggage. They have no boats and cannot swim. There is an army approaching on the horizon, and they are out of time and out of options. They are desperate, so obviously, they cry out to God for help! Isn’t that what we do? Isn’t that what we’ve always done?

Moreover, the Gemara imagines that Heaven has gateways for prayers, suggesting that prayers are evaluated and then admitted or refused based on timing and circumstance. The Neila service on Yom Kippur extensively utilizes this imagery to create a sense of urgency – we need to squeeze a final prayer in because the doors are closing! The Gemara concludes that regardless, the gate of tears is always open; presumably, because tears are heartfelt and sincere, and the pain that generates tearful prayers loads them with a potency that Heaven cannot refuse.

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

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

The Kotzker Rebbe sharply teaches that the gate of tears is still a gate because some tears are turned away; the gate is shut to crocodile tears, sorrow that is insincere, like when people attempt to use grief to excuse inaction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But God speaks through them to us, and we should ask ourselves if our prayers are corrupted by fear or despair and yet still wonder why our prayers go answered. We need to audit our lives, soul searching about whether we truly mean our prayers. Does the way you spend your life align with what you claim to want? Does what you pay attention to and devote time to reflect that? We should wonder if God might give us a similarly terrifying answer – “What do you expect Me to do, exactly?” 

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

You won’t get the dream job you don’t apply to. You won’t get healthy if you don’t diet and exercise. You won’t pass the test if you don’t study the material. You won’t get rich if you don’t invest. Your relationship won’t go anywhere if you don’t give your partner attention. You won’t succeed if you don’t try. If you expect your prayer to change that fundamental reality, you will likely continue to be disappointed – the world has never worked that way. You absolutely have to try, and even then, you have to try very hard indeed.

We need to animate our lives with action and hope, like our ancestor Yakov, like our hero Pinchas, and invoke the incredible bravery of Nachshon. God desperately wants to shower us with blessing, but humans must build the vessels that will contain those blessings.

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

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

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

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

The Water of Life

5 minute read
Straightforward

Symbolism plays an essential role in human consciousness. Through symbols, we find meaning in the world, which becomes transparent and reveals the transcendent. 

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

יַעֲרֹף כַּמָּטָר לִקְחִי, תִּזַּל כַּטַּל אִמְרָתִי, כִּשְׂעִירִם עֲלֵי-דֶשֶׁא, וְכִרְבִיבִים עֲלֵי-עֵשֶׂב – May my discourse come down as rain; my speech distill as dew; like showers on young grass; like droplets on the grass. (32:2)

The ancients understood that water is the source of life, that rain and water are life-giving, and that water symbolizes cleansing, regeneration, renewal, fertility, birth, creation, and new life, all of which is plain from Moshe’s usage.

What’s more, water symbolizes the universal reservoir of all possible existence, and supports every creation, and precedes their form. In the Torah’s creation myth, there is primordial water everywhere, from which everything subsequently emerges:

וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ וְחֹשֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵי תְהוֹם וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל־פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם – The earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep, and the spirit of God hovered over the waters… (1:4)

The Mikvah ritual that is so central to Judaism draws heavily on this archetype, symbolizing rebirth and renewal. Moreover, with our knowledge of the water cycle, we have learned the literal truth of water as life and regeneration; and in fact, the search for liquid water elsewhere in the universe serves as a close proxy to the search for life beyond our planet.

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

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

But what is dew, if not just another form of rain and water? 

To unlock the symbol and discover the meaning, we must establish the technical difference between rain and dew.

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

In other words, a cold object in a warm environment can draw water out of the ambient surroundings.

There’s a Torah that’s like rain, that comes from the sky, and that hopefully, you’ve experienced at times, perhaps a flash of inspiration that came out of nowhere. But that doesn’t happen to everyone, and even when it does, it doesn’t happen all the time. To borrow rain’s imagery, this kind of inspiration is seasonal only. If you’re counting on the rain to get by, what happens when the rain stops?

Perhaps precisely because of this problem, there’s a Torah that we can experience that feels more like dew. A warm environment that doesn’t come from the sky, that we generate and cultivate ourselves, which draws out the life-affirming properties from within and around us.

R’ Simcha Bunim m’Peshischa notes that we can’t expect our efforts and interactions with Torah to have an instant magical transformational effect; it’s far more subtle, like rain and dew. A morning’s dew is not enough to nourish a plant, but with the regular appearance of dew every day, the days stack up, and despite no noticeable daily effect, the plant will grow.

As R’ Shlomo Farhi points out, dew is gentle, not overwhelming. Plants can’t survive forever on dew alone, but it can be enough to tide them over until the rains come back. When you are running cold, a warm atmosphere will nurture and sustain you, but you should remember that it can’t take you all the way; there will come the point that you need to proactively follow through with renewed drive and desire to grow once more. 

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

וְהָיָה אִם־שָׁמֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶל־מִצְותַי אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוֶּה אֶתְכֶם הַיּוֹם לְאַהֲבָה אֶת־ה’ אֱלֹקיכֶם וּלְעבְדוֹ בְּכל־לְבַבְכֶם וּבְכל־נַפְשְׁכֶם. וְנָתַתִּי מְטַר־אַרְצְכֶם בְּעִתּוֹ – If then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day, loving the Lord your God and serving Him with all your heart and soul, I will grant the rain for your land in season… (11:,13,14)

The Ishbitzer suggests that rain reflects our outward effort, as reflected in this promise; but dew is a product of our hearts and minds. Subconsciously, our hearts and minds hope and pray, day and night, without stop. When you so much as hope for the best, or that things turn out okay, or even whisper “Please, God,” those thoughts bring wisps of warmth into the world that affirm and sustain, that things can and will eventually grow from. Given the mythical potency of dew and its connection to humble yet persistent origins, our sages suggest that dew has the latent power to resurrect the dead at the End of Days.

There are times you’ll have flashes of divine inspiration, but at some point, it will dry up. Reassuringly, as Moshe said so long ago, it doesn’t just come from the sky; it can emerge slowly with determination and environmental support. Perhaps then, dew is the symbol of human-driven inspiration – אתערותא דלתתא. 

Half the year we pray for rain, but half the year we also pray for dew; remember that you are more like a plant than a machine. You have fallow and fruitful seasons, needing different things at different times; a bit more sun today, a little less rain tomorrow. It is a design feature, not a flaw, and is a far healthier approach to adopt than perpetual sameness.

This isn’t cutesy wordplay; it is quite explicit. If Moshe’s words are the water, then we are the grass and leaves, the tree of life itself, encouraged to endure and grow strong – כִּשְׂעִירִם עֲלֵי-דֶשֶׁא, וְכִרְבִיבִים עֲלֵי-עֵשֶׂב.

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

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

When you go into the woods, you see all kinds of trees. One is stunted, another is bent; you understand it was obstructed or didn’t get enough light, and so it turned out that way. You don’t get emotional about it, you allow it; that’s just the way trees are. But humans are like that too. All too often, rather than accept ourselves and others, we are critical, whether self-conscious or judgmental, critical of a way of being other humans for the way they are. But humans are like trees; this one was obstructed like this, that one didn’t get enough that, so they turned out that way.

Moshe’s timeless blessing is hauntingly beautiful and refreshingly real. Moshe speaks through the ages and reminds us the Torah is not just water, the stuff of life. It is the water we need in good times and hard times, and the metaphor itself acknowledges and validates that there are times the rains just won’t come. But in those moments where the Torah won’t be our rain, it can be our dew if we cultivate the environment for it.

If you’re waiting for inspiration or a sign, it might be a while, it might not come at all, or this might be it. 

Cultivate an environment around yourself with structure, systems, and people that will cultivate, nurture, and support your growth. You will not rise to the level of your goals; you will fall to the level of your systems. It’s simply unsustainable to have big goals with no supporting infrastructure.

Your goal should not be to beat the game but to stay in the game and continue playing so that you can in turn foster a gentle and nurturing environment that will warm others too.

Onward

4 minute read
Straightforward

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

The Torahs tell us of explosive moments, like the crossing at the Red Sea, where the defenseless Jewish People desperately fled their oppressors, with the most advanced and formidable army in the world in hot pursuit. In a defining moment, Moshe holds out his staff, and God parts the waters, and the Jewish People walk through the dry ocean floor. The Egyptian army attempts to follow, but once Moshe’s people have crossed safely, the sea suddenly reverts back to normal, and the Egyptians are drowned. 

The Torah tells us of the theophany at Sinai, where the people gathered at a mountain enveloped in cloud and smoke, quaking, with fire and lightning flashing overhead, amid the sound of booming thunder and shofar blasts; and then the Jewish People hear the voice of God through the uproar.

These are some of the defining stories of our history and exhibit the dizzying heights of the supernatural. They showcase what is fundamentally magical about the Torah.

But despite the power of these moments to captivate us, the Torah doesn’t indulge us by dwelling on them even a little. Just like that, with the stroke of a pen, the Red Sea is old news, Sinai is history, and it’s time to move onward:

וַיַּסַּע מֹשֶׁה אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל מִיַּם-סוּף, וַיֵּצְאוּ אֶל-מִדְבַּר-שׁוּר; וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁלֹשֶׁת-יָמִים בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְלֹא-מָצְאוּ מָיִם – Moshe and the Children of Israel set out from the Red Sea. They went on into the wilderness of Shur; they traveled three days in the wilderness and found no water. (15:22)

רַב-לָכֶם שֶׁבֶת, בָּהָר הַזֶּה. פְּנוּ וּסְעוּ לָכֶם – You have stayed long enough at this mountain. (1:6)

We have these distinctly unique stories of the Divine manifested in our universe, and then the Torah just moves briskly onward – וַיַּסַּע מֹשֶׁה אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל מִיַּם-סוּף / רַב-לָכֶם שֶׁבֶת, בָּהָר הַזֶּה. פְּנוּ וּסְעוּ לָכֶם.

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

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

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

This lesson is challenging enough, but the Ishbitzer takes us further and forewarns us that what follows the heights of success is rarely smooth and straightforward lulls and plateaus of accumulation and consolidation to catch our breath; the miraculous rescue at the Red Sea is mundanely followed by the people’s complaints about the local water being too bitter.

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

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

But even the Golden Calf story has redeeming elements; apart from the important teaching that using iconography to worship the One God is still idolatry, it decisively highlights God’s propensity for forgiveness and paves the way to the Mishkan and all the resultant forms of interacting with the Divine.

Do not fool yourself into thinking that what got you here will fuel you on to further heights; that energy does not simply overflow into everything else. Success is not final, and failure is not fatal; the proper response to both is the same – onward.

Quite arguably, a failure to move on was the mistake at the heart of the debacle of the scouting mission to Israel – the spies just wanted to stay put in the safety of God’s embrace in the desert. They weren’t wrong; the road ahead was fraught with danger! But that’s not how the world works; stagnation is not God’s design for us or the universe – life changes, moves, and evolves.

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

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

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

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

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

The Bittersweet Symphony

7 minute read
Straightforward

We’ve spent the best part of a year reading the Torah’s greatest story, about how Yakov’s family grew until they were duped into working on public infrastructure that slowly slipped into full-blown slavery; and about how God remembered His promises to their ancestors, and He sends Moshe to save them. We have followed this journey through all the adventures and detours, through the highs and lows, and we’re approaching the end.

But it doesn’t quite go how we might expect. 

Spoiler alert: Moshe dies. 

Actually, his brother dies too, and so does his sister, and come to think of it, so does every single soul that walked out of Egypt.

We’ve probably read it too many times to notice, but the protagonists do not get a happy ending for all their troubles. It almost feels like the opposite, like they utterly failed. Moshe just can’t get this stubborn bunch over the finish line, and none of them ever get to the Promised Land; they all die in the wilderness. 

Moshe didn’t want the job, arguing that they wouldn’t listen. He was spot on and spent the rest of his days fighting their worst inclinations. But he still only ever wanted to save them! After agreeing to take on the mission, he felt like God was taking too long to save his troubled and weary brethren, and in a quite shocking turn, confronts God and tells Him off – לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה! 

Maybe the people tried their best, and their best simply wasn’t good enough. But even if we could accept that they were traumatized and, perhaps on some level, never truly left Egypt behind them, you need a heart of stone not to think that perhaps Moshe might have deserved a little better after all that – עַבְדִּי מֹשֶׁה בְּכָל בֵּיתִי נֶאֱמָן הוּא.

Right at the end of his life, he asks God to allow him to enter the Land of Israel, quite possibly the only instance of a personal indulgence Moshe ever asks for, and God declines this request.

Of all people, doesn’t Moshe, God’s most faithful shepherd, supremely trusted above all others, deserve a happy ending?

And before you dismiss the question as childish – because, after all, life isn’t a fairy tale – perhaps the question is better phrased as a personal question on the long journey our souls are on; how do we reconcile ourselves to the fact that not even the greatest of us gets a happy ending?

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that we need to remind ourselves that perfection is ever elusive and lies perpetually out of reach; failure to achieve perfection does not equal failure, so perhaps we need to reconfigure our expectations. Even if the Jewish People would never shake their demons and were doomed from the start, they didn’t fail. Even if Moshe couldn’t finish the job the way he’d have liked, he didn’t fail.

There’s no happy ending, but perhaps the expectation of a happy ending is our own baggage that we bring along and project as the outcome we’d prefer to see. We are making the error of imposing our expectations on the story, and the story confounds our expectations plain as day, that it’s just not how it works.

There is a separate physical and spiritual reality, and it’s the world of spirit that matters most, where we find the battlefield of human achievement and sanctification. God did not want Moshe to lead the Jewish People from Egypt to Israel for reasons that are not only ultimately inscrutable; but, perhaps in a certain sense, don’t really matter to us at all. God does not ask us to cure cancer and secure world peace; those reach their conclusions in the physical world, and that is not given to us to control. Instead, God asks us to exercise our ethics and wisdom in the spiritual realm, where we can choose to act as best as we can under the circumstances – a moral victory. 

God’s hand is not directly perceptible to us; it’s only apparent in hindsight as things unfold. It has to be that way, so God can influence the world without compromising the freedom of His creations. God’s intervention does not remove the significance of our choices, but in many ways, it can redeem those choices. Or, to put it in another way, we are only responsible for our choices and not for the outcome of those choices; we are responsible for the means, while the ends are solely in God’s hands. 

And so, by necessity, we need to bifurcate moral victory from physical victory.

Physical victory is fantasy, and we all know it; when you get the job, pass the test, get married, buy the house, have the baby, win the deal, there is never a glorious moment of victory. Life will go on just the same as yesterday and the day before, and you will still be you – and it’s just as true if those things aren’t going quite the way you’d like! 

Moshe didn’t struggle with this; he didn’t have a savior complex. He did all he humanly could for his people, and no more, and he knew he had not let God or his people down. He did not live with our question about deserving a happier ending; he let go of the outcome he might have wanted – once it wasn’t on the cards, getting there no longer mattered to him. He was not bitter, and died entirely at peace, with no qualms or regrets – מיתת נשיקה. He never thinks for even one moment that he deserves better; even if at certain points he thinks it’s too hard and threatens to quit. He demonstrated the stoic quality of outcome independence, with complete trust in God that this was simply the way it was supposed to be.

Quite arguably, this is faith played straight; accepting that this is how it has to be right now, and not shying away from it in any way. He was wholly in touch with the now, figuring out how to move forward with no questions about how we got there or why.

That’s not just a story; it’s a fact of life, the human condition, and because Moshe knew it, he could leave this world happy and fulfilled.

Despite the apparent lack of any obvious physical victory, Moshe’s entire life was a living symposium on moral victory. He wanted to save them from suffering in Egypt, and he did. He wanted to give them a future, and he did. He gave all he had for as long as he had breath in him to secure a future for all of us. 

It is not within human capacity to see all ends and decide our fates. Moshe gets to the threshold of the Promised Land, a dream centuries in the making, but never quite gets there; it leaves us no room for pride or self-righteousness, the way many happy endings do, but there is no trace of failure or regret. 

It’s not a sad ending; it’s bittersweet and true to life as we know it. 

The conclusion of the Torah’s greatest story is much more powerful than a patronizing and simple happy ending. It seems to emphasize that this is what even the greatest human successes and victories can look like, reinforcing a belief that ought to guide us through hard times; that, ultimately, no matter how bad things get, there is no darkness greater than the light, and there is always hope, and the future will shine bright. 

This bittersweet ending reasserts the theme of moral victories being more important than physical victories by showing us what is within our power and what is not. Whatever the circumstances, and against all forms of adversity, it is within us to be great; to be brave, gentle, hopeful, kind, and strong, like our heroes Avraham, Yitzchak, Yakov, Yosef, Moshe, Ahron, and Miriam. We shouldn’t expect a happily ever after ending because that’s just not how it works. 

Moshe deserves all honor because he led his people out of the fires of Egypt and spent every last reserve of body and will, which was just sufficient to bring them to a destined point and no further. Moshe could not lead their journey to completion the way he set out to, but that’s not what defines his greatness or success, and it does not make his life or their story any less complete. It was his choice to give himself entirely to the cause that granted him his victory, his moral victory, and it’s that choice that makes him worthy of the highest honors, with the unique title of Rabbeinu, Our Teacher, whose name we remember for eternity.

As R’ Eytan Feiner sharply notes, who better than Moshe Rabbeinu to demonstrate this tremendous lesson? Moshe, the avatar of ultimate loyalty and service, did all he could, and although he didn’t get what he might have wanted, what he got was enough for him. 

As our Sages remind us, we must ground ourselves. The ends are not given to us, and we don’t always get to finish what we set out to do, but that mustn’t stop us – לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה. Sometimes you’ll get to save the day, and sometimes you’ll only get to pass the baton on to the next generation. Other times, you’ll collapse in sight of the finish line, and your work will remain unfinished; but the outcome does not determine the victory. 

The Torah does not end with the patronizing and sickly sweetness of a great physical victory, with Moshe leading his people to a happily ever after. That’s not how the world we live in works. But if there’s no happily ever after, there is an ever after. His victory is bittersweet, but it lingers on in us sitting here three thousand years later learning about him and his battles; his moral victory stands forever. 

The Torah doesn’t end how we expect and instead ends with a transition; they’re about to cross the border, and a new generation with new leaders will write new books for the challenges of a new era. Each story is incomplete, theirs and ours. But that does not detract from the achievements of Moshe and the Jewish People, and it does not dishonor the faith and trust our ancestors had in God. 

Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yakov knew it, Moshe, Ahron, and Miriam knew it, and they lived in peace with it. Yet we struggle with it all the time, even though we are the living embodiment of things not going quite the way we’d expect, and even though it screams out of every single page of Jewish history.

So, perhaps rather than ask why the Torah doesn’t give Moshe and the Jewish People the happy ending we expect, we should invert the question. With all we know, why do we still hold on so tightly to our expectations of how things ought to be?

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

Love’s Truest Language

3 minute read
Straightforward

When we think of Mount Sinai, we think of Divine Revelation and all that it means. But apart from the obvious upheaval in spiritual terms, the Torah also describes a great upheaval in physical terms.

In Tanach, whenever there is a theophany, some manifestation of the divine in a tangible, observable way, there is an upending of the natural order. Moshe saw a burning bush that wasn’t consumed; the Jews were led through the desert by pillars of fiery cloud. Sinai itself is characterized by fire from the sky, along with loud booms, thunder, and lightning, and the whole mountain quaked, enveloped in a haze of dark cloud and smoke. Our Sages even suggest that when people heard God’s Word emerge from the darkness, they died for an instant.

This imagery demonstrates the absolute abnegation of the natural world, and rightly so!

Arguably, the ultimate purpose behind creation was to cultivate a conduit that could receive the Torah; all of existence culminated at that moment at Sinai, and creation achieved its intended purpose when God reached into the universe to give the Torah to humanity, forming an intimate bond between Creator and creation. It follows that the imagery is stark and unnatural; this is the most extraordinary and supernatural event in human experience!

But there’s one part that doesn’t fit at all.

Among all the intimidating and scary goings-on, there was something else that happened at Mount Sinai too. The little mountain in the desert burst into bloom, with beautiful plants and fragrant flowers sprawling up the hills and into the cloud, so tantalizing that the Jews actually had to be instructed to restrain their animals from grazing the lush greenery!

But why were there flowers on Mount Sinai at all?

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that the flowers demonstrate something that darkness, earthquakes, fire, thunder, and lightning do not. Those things all demonstrate God’s power, but flowers illustrate God’s love.

There is another famous mountain in our tradition, Mount Moriah, where Avraham and Yitzchak famously stood together, the mountain on which the two Temples stood and where a third will stand once more. This famous mountain was also associated with flowers; the Zohar suggests that the mountain was named Moriah after the fragrant myrrh that grew there.

The legendary mountain is not named for the heroic acts and great deeds that took place there; it’s not the Mountain of the Akeida, the Mountain of Commitment and Faith, or the Mountain of Sacrifice. It’s named for the sweet-smelling plants that grew there!

There is an entire genre of romance that hugely impacts how many of us conceptualize love and relationships; a grand gesture is usually the crescendo of a great love story. Yet, as R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches, a grand gesture or great sacrifice cannot define a relationship because it is only ever an anomaly.

Over time, love is communicated through a multitude of little things, not any particular one-time thing. What defines the quality of a relationship isn’t the great deeds here and there; it’s the small gestures, the consistent, subtle, and thoughtful acts that shape how a couple connects and interacts. These small gestures send big signals about who we are, what we care about, and why we do what we do.

It’s called Mount Moriah because God wanted it to smell nice for all the great heroes and future pilgrims who would one day make their way there. It was wholly unnecessary, completely irrelevant, and entirely beside the main point of anything of consequence, but that’s why it matters so much. The great epic of Avraham’s ordeal is not impacted even slightly by the fact that God made it smell nice, but God did it anyway.

The flowers on the mountains are the most trivial detail, with nothing whatsoever to do with the tremendous meaning and significance of the events that took place at Sinai or Moriah. Still, those flowers say more than any commotion, and that’s the part that we remember. To this day, when we celebrate the Torah we got at Sinai, we don’t commemorate the darkness by turning out the lights, nor the earthquakes by shaking the tables; Shavuos is the festival of flowers! For centuries, it has been a near-universal custom to decorate our homes and shul with beautiful flower arrangements.

A waiter will give you whatever you asked for, but a lover will give you everything they can. It’s not about doing what you need to do; it’s about doing all you could do. That slight change in orientation elevates small and insignificant gestures into the most meaningful and loving relationship-affirming rituals.

Are you giving all you could to the ones you love?

The Clothes Make the Man

5 minute read
Straightforward

From all over the world, Jews would come to the Mishkan and Beis HaMikdash for spiritual healing and engagement with the divine transcendence. Offering services far beyond the regular public programming and sacrifices, the Kohanim, the priests on duty, would attend to people’s private spiritual needs, helping them bring sacrificial offerings to find atonement or thanksgiving, whatever their personal circumstances.

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

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

To be sure, clothing is an essential form of self-expression, and self-expression is vital to emotional growth and wellbeing. We use freedom of expression, including clothing choice, to cultivate the ability to make all manner of choices about how we express ourselves, an integral part of learning a wider responsibility for our choices and healthy personal development in general. If you’ve ever seen a child put up a big fight about getting dressed, you’ve seen just how important it is, emotionally speaking, to be able to control your own outward appearance as part of being in control of your identity. There should be no question that you can definitely tell something about a person as reflected in how they dress. While imprecise, it’s directionally accurate. 

Yet, be that as it may, the nature of a public-facing service job is that you have to check yourself at the door somewhat. There’s plenty of time for self-expression, but it might not be the right moment to express yourself in all your fullness when a client or patient requires your advice and compassion. 

Humans have certain behaviors hardcoded into our biological makeup – we make snap judgments from very thin slices of information, including the conclusions we draw from the way someone dresses. These are powerful drives, and we’d be lying to ourselves if we thought we could suppress subconscious instincts; they are sub-conscious. So while there are plenty of highly successful or learned people who avoid formal wear on principle and achieve incredible heights wearing gym clothes and flip flops; the fact remains that when you’re trying to impress, regardless of your merits, everyone knows you’re better off in a suit than pajamas.

How someone dresses is, of course, not a reliable or proper way to judge a person at all, but the fact remains that appearances matter. If you’re sitting in the emergency room with a troubling health concern, it might throw you off a little if the doctor walks in with ripped jeans and spiky chains over a tank top. He’s still the same doctor whether in scrubs or a clown costume, but what that means then, is that scrubs aren’t just for the doctor; the scrubs are also for you.

When you’re at the hospital, and you see someone in scrubs in the hallway, you instantly know an incredible amount of relevant and useful information about that person – they work at the hospital, they know their way around the building, they know a lot about health and the human body, they can direct you where you’re trying to go. But most importantly, you know they’re there to help you; the hospital dress code utilizes nonverbal communication to foster a sense of comfort and gravity that helps patients and their families feel comfortable and at ease, all before a single word needs to be said.

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

The Torah mandates a simple dress code for on-duty Kohanim, consisting of a plain and simple uniform, spirit scrubs if you like, out of concern for the weary and troubled souls who came from far and near.

Dress codes are effective. Dress codes work. While it’s not an absolute and immutable law, it is a pretty good rule of thumb, a heuristic that primes us to act a certain way. And to be sure, what we’re discussing is absolutely superficial – the textbook definition, in fact – but that’s human nature and psychology; we have a strong bias and inclination towards the superficial. The way you present yourself matters.

Dress codes level the playing field by peeling away the distractions, removing barriers to people getting what they need. Uniforms aren’t intimidating in the way fancy clothes are; uniforms aren’t off-putting the way old, raggedy clothes are. Everyone on duty appears equal, at least in an outward sense. Uniforms also create a psychological bond, building a group identity that motivates individuals to do more; you see this in the military, police, school, and work. It can help engender feelings of support: you see others working with you, and you recognize that they aren’t just doing it as individuals for personal reasons. When you are servicing the public, it is not about you because you are specifically not representing yourself. Tellingly, the uniforms were procured with public funds and owned by the Beis HaMikdash endowment.

There is nothing inherent about dress codes or uniforms that makes you better at what you do for wearing those clothes, but the fact you’re wearing them signals, at least to some people, that you’re willing to put them first. And even if you don’t personally think that’s true, it is still a reason somebody else might think is true, and that’s reason enough.

Like other uniforms, the Kohanim’s uniform conveys information and fosters comfort and security, setting the tone for a meaningful and high signal interaction with spiritual seekers. But like a doctor in scrubs, the dress code is only skin deep.

It’s important to stress that appearance isn’t everything – far from it. No two doctors or people are the same, even though they may wear the same uniform. They each have different personalities and sensitivities, and assuming a basic threshold of competency; they distinguish themselves with their bedside manner – what they’re like to interact with. Our Amida also has a uniform structure, morning, noon, and night, Sunday through Friday, yet no two prayers are alike –  the feeling we invest in each word is different each time. R’ Shlomo Farhi highlights that even as similar as the Kohanim’s uniform was, each set of clothing still had to be tapered to the contours of the wearer’s body, with no loose fabric. No two people are alike, and even two conversations with the same person aren’t alike; uniformity doesn’t mean homogeneity, common form is not common substance.

Shakespeare wrote that the clothes make the man, but if that’s a little wide of the mark, it’s probably correct to say that the clothes set the tone. In your own house, in your yard, or the office, do whatever and be whoever you like. Who’s to say otherwise? But in other-facing, client-facing, or public-facing positions, you should be mindful of how you look to people who don’t know to give you the benefit of the doubt. Plenty of major companies have relaxed dress codes for non-client-facing positions, but you can be certain that the client-facing positions are suited and booted!

The value articulated by a dress code or uniform policy is that while they may not help everyone, they seem to provide substantial benefits to portions of the population disadvantaged in certain contexts. 

So perhaps dress codes don’t compromise individuality or self-expression at all; maybe they curb the outermost and superficial part of ourselves, and that’s the part we can afford to sacrifice for other people’s comfort in public service. 

Keeping Your Word

3 minute read
Straightforward

One of the keys to correctly understanding the Egypt story is that God guided events from start to finish. In case we were hoping to blame the enslavement on human free will and attribute the salvation to God, the Haggadah forecloses that option, reminding us that God had promised Avraham that his descendants would wind up in Egypt for four centuries, but that God would eventually rescue them:

בָּרוּךְ שׁוֹמֵר הַבְטָחָתוֹ לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, בָּרוּךְ הוּא. שֶׁהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא חִשַּׁב אֶת־הַקֵּץ, לַעֲשׂוֹת כְּמוֹ שֶּׁאָמַר לְאַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ בִּבְרִית בֵּין הַבְּתָרִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וַיֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָם, יָדֹעַ תֵּדַע כִּי־גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם, וַעֲבָדוּם וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה – Bless the One who keeps His promise to Yisrael, blessed be He; since the Holy One, blessed be He, calculated the end to uphold what He said to Avraham, our father, in the Covenant between the Parts, as it says, “And He said to Avram, ‘You should know that your descendants will be strangers in a land not their own, and they will enslave them and afflict them four hundred years…’”

But if you think about it for a minute, this is faint praise at best. We rightly consider honesty and trustworthiness to be the basic decency requirements we ought to expect from everyone we interact with, let alone the Creator! 

What kind of praise is it to say that God keeps His word?  

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that the Haggadah doesn’t mean that God merely keeps His promise; the words literally mean that God protects His promise – שׁוֹמֵר.

God had promised four hundred years in Egypt, but Rashi counts only two hundred and ten. The hundred and ninety year discrepancy can be accounted for in different ways; perhaps the Jewish People suffered so egregiously, that four hundred years of quantitative pain compressed to two hundred and ten years of the qualitative equivalent; or that they had stooped to the lowest depths of depravity and required emergency intervention. The missing years are alluded to in the words for calculating the end – חִשַּׁב אֶת־הַקֵּץ – because the word קֵּץ has a numerological value of the missing hundred and ninety years.

And yet, if the precise explanation for creative accounting is cutesy and whimsical, the fact of it is deadly serious. 

In the state the Jewish People left, they were identifiable by fashion, language, and name only. In every other conceivable way, they had no semblance of Jewish identity. Hypothetically, if God had not acted at that moment and they would remain even a little longer, their condition would have further deteriorated, and perhaps only a small remnant might have been rescued. That could plausibly have been one version of keeping to the promise – saving whoever was left.

But God didn’t do that. God did not abandon them to their fates, and God would not let them die or fail. Instead, every single man, woman, and child walked out – even though they didn’t deserve to. Because God didn’t just keep His promise; He protected it – בָּרוּךְ שׁוֹמֵר הַבְטָחָתוֹ.

The Sfas Emes notes that our ancestors were confident in their tradition that they would be mired in Egypt for four hundred years; so much so that they refused to believe that Moshe was there to save them, and quite reasonably so – after all, this redeemer was two centuries early…! And yet, before any explanation, logic, or wordplay about how or why, the simple fact was that it was time to go. Regardless of tradition, of what had been made explicitly clear by no less an authority than God’s own word, the time was now, and the discussion evaporates. Because God protects His promise – בָּרוּךְ שׁוֹמֵר הַבְטָחָתוֹ.

On the night we remember redemptions past, fueling our hope for redemptions to come, we ought to remind ourselves that God protects His promise, whatever it takes. We have a rich and vast eschatological literature about what will happen at the end times of Mashiach; will it be easy or painful? Peaceful or tragic? Gradual or sudden? Six thousand years or tomorrow? 

The Sfas Emes reassures us that whatever we convince ourselves, we actually have no idea whatsoever. Perhaps once again, the qualitative strain of exile can stand in for a required quantity of years. Yet in the final analysis, it’s entirely academic because even if our spiritual assets were entirely exhausted of ancestral credit and merit, we could always count on the Creator’s bottomless wellspring of compassion; and the highly persuasive precedent for creative accounting when it comes to these things.

Because בָּרוּךְ שׁוֹמֵר הַבְטָחָתוֹ – God protects His promise.

Trading Taskmasters

4 minute read
Advanced

On Seder night, we celebrate the Jewish People’s birth as a nation and liberation from slavery. The entire night explores the imperative value of freedom and teaches us that freedom is a mode of thinking under all circumstances; it is not handed to us, it is ours to claim only if we make that choice.

But are we really so free?

Quite arguably, did we not simply trade up for a better taskmaster, swapping service to Pharaoh for service to God?

The notion of swapping masters ignores a crucial distinction between negative liberty, the freedom from, and positive liberty, the freedom to. Negative liberty means freedom from restrictions placed on you by other people; positive liberty means freedom to control and direct your own life, to consciously make your own choices, create your own path and purpose, and shape your own identity in life.

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

Everyone suffers from one of two pains; the pain of discipline or the pain of regret. The difference is discipline weighs ounces while regret weighs tons. Counterintuitively, life gets harder when you try to make it easy. Exercising is hard, but never moving makes life harder. Uncomfortable conversations are hard, but avoiding every conflict is
harder. Mastering your craft is hard, but having no skills is harder. Easy has a cost.

Freedom worthy of admiration and respect requires positive liberty, taking responsibility for yourself by committing to an idea or purpose, such as a diet and exercise regime for fitness and good health. However difficult or forced, making these choices is actually the highest expression of freedom, and in the long run, you can only benefit. 

The Midrash similarly suggests that not only can freedom be found in the service to God, but it is also the only way to ever be truly free. When the Torah says that God carved the Ten Commandments, the Midrash suggests we alternatively read it as liberation through the Ten Commandments – חָרוּת עַל־הַלֻּחֹת / חֵרוּת עַל־הַלֻּחֹת. We earn freedom through the Torah’s framework by assuming responsibility for our lives and destiny. It’s an externally imposed responsibility, like Pharaoh, but the comparison stops there. The outcome of the Torah’s responsibility is the gift of positive liberty, freeing us from slavery to our worst inclinations; resulting in humans that are more humane, kinder, and more compassionate.

The God that rescued the Jewish People from Egypt was the same God that had sent them there in the first place. It’s not contrived salvation or engineered heroics because God is not gratuitously cruel. It wasn’t Egypt that held the Jews; it was God holding the Jews in Egypt as foretold to Avraham, in response to Avraham’s question how God could promise a destiny to his descendants if, at some point, they would inevitably deviate from Avraham’s example. The Maharal explains God’s answer to mean that the Egypt experience would permanently bind his descendants to the Creator regardless of their mistakes.

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that God doesn’t just save us from things that hurt us; however bitter the lesson might be to learn, the things that hurt us can also function as instruments of saving us from something, providing pathways to positive liberty. The Jewish People left Egypt with the hard-won experience God had promised Avraham, and with that experience accumulated, the ordeal was complete – בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל.

Yet the unspoken inverse of that notion is that if they’d had the experience all along, the ordeal would have been redundant and would never have happened. It was only because they had lost their way, forgetting who they were and where they had come from, that they suffered through centuries of slavery as a result. If they had stooped to pagan idolatry like anyone else, it only follows that they were vulnerable; the inescapable conclusion is that Pharaoh could have only ever have enslaved them so they could rediscover what they had lost! The hand that hurts is the same hand that serves to save – שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר עוֹמְדִים עָלֵינוּ לְכַלוֹתֵנוּ, וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַצִּילֵנוּ מִיָּדָם. However disturbing this lesson is, it is simultaneously deeply comforting, suggesting that all our pain has deep meaning and significance.

We never swapped service to Pharaoh for service to God; because we aren’t slaves to God at all. God offers us positive liberty, the freedom to take control of our lives and realize our fundamental purpose in the universe. Accepting the responsibility of service to God may look forced, but we know we are the ultimate beneficiaries of our efforts because we can utilize our freedom to thrive, tapping into our highest and best selves and making our lives matter. God offers humans positive liberty, and through it, cosmic significance.

Our bodies feel pain in response to an injury; your nerves send millions of signals to your brain that something is wrong, hopefully prompting a reaction. Pain has a clearly defined purpose; the only incorrect response is to ignore it.

We shouldn’t ignore the pain in our national or personal life, but we possess the freedom and spirit to elevate and transform that pain into meaning and purpose. There is cosmic significance to our hurt. It matters.

The God who heals is the same God who hurts; hurt is a pathway to healing, and compassion can overcome severity – שְׂמֹאל דּוֹחָה וְיָמִין מְקָרֶבֶת.

We’re never glad for the hurt, but we are free to make it count.

Just Open The Door

3 minute read
Straightforward

Towards the Seder’s conclusion, there is a near-universal tradition to open the door and pour a cup of wine for the legendary Eliyahu HaNavi, harbinger of redemption in general, and Mashiach in particular. Customarily, this is an honor bestowed on an elder, or perhaps someone who is sick or needs to get married. 

Taking the legend of Eliyahu HaNavi at face value, it’s not hard to understand why we might want the herald of redemption to visit our Seder; who among us doesn’t need their dose of deliverance? But while all the Seder’s gestures and rituals are laden with meaning, no one seriously thinks that Eliyahu uses the front door to attend! 

So why do we open the door?

The Midrash imagines God telling us that if we open up an opening the size of the eye of a needle, God will expand our efforts into an opening the size of a hall. R’ Shlomo Farhi suggests that if God asks us to open up all year round and remove the boundaries and impediments holding us back, then the magic of Pesach is that we don’t even have to do that! The Chag is called Passover because God passes over boundaries – וּפָסַחְתִּי. In other words, the door is open; we just need to show up!

But there might be something else to it as well.

The Seder prominently features four cups of wine that mark stages of redemptions past; we honor Eliyahu with the fifth cup for redemptions yet to come. What that means then, is that the Seder’s theme isn’t solely about celebrating past redemptions; it’s also fundamentally about hope – proactively anticipating redemption, looking for it, and seeking it out.

We open the Haggadah reading with an open invitation to all to join our Seder, closing with the wish to merit another Seder in Israel – כָּל דִכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכֹל, כָּל דִצְרִיךְ יֵיתֵי וְיִפְסַח. הָשַּׁתָּא הָכָא, לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בְּאַרְעָא דְיִשְׂרָאֵל. In other words, we begin the Seder by proclaiming our hope and inviting the world to share in it as well.

The Yerushalmi tells of two sages traveling through the night. As the sun slowly broke over the horizon, dispelling the darkness that had defined their journey, one sage commented that redemption is exactly the same. There’s a long period of darkness, but then suddenly, there’s just a glimmer of brightness on the horizon, then a faint ray of light, until the sun finally crests over the horizon, and before long, it’s a bright new day, and darkness is a distant memory.

Centuries of trauma in Egypt came to a decisive end in exactly this way. After flashes of hope, God struck the Egyptian firstborn on the very first Seder night while the Jewish People were locked in their homes – לֹא תֵצְאוּ אִישׁ מִפֶּתַח־בֵּיתוֹ עַד־בֹּקֶר. When morning came, a new era had dawned with it. The Sfas Emes reminds us that our exile and troubles are only until dawn comes – עַד־בֹּקֶר.

In a certain sense, perhaps that’s the promise embodied by Eliyahu HaNavi, the eternal symbol of hope. We don’t need to open the door for Eliyahu HaNavi; he probably doesn’t use doors. But maybe, like those sages among so many others who came before us, we open the door for a hopeful and yearning look. The imagery of the custom for an elder or a person in distress opening the door is powerful and moving; this person is actively looking for the first glimmer of light, still holding onto hope. 

Our ancestors held on to hope in far worse circumstances, and we can too. Dawn’s early light always came for them eventually, and it’s coming for us too. You might even catch an early glimpse!

You just have to open the door. 

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.

How to Eat an Elephant

6 minute read
Straightforward

In our storied and hallowed tradition, some of our sages have suggested that the Torah contains a Golden Rule, a comprehensive and holistic meta-principle that unifies and underlies the entire framework of the Torah.

It’s worthwhile to take those suggestions seriously to understand why one, as opposed to another, might be considered the most important thing, or at a minimum, a close candidate.

Some are pretty intuitive, like R’ Akiva’s timeless and universal “love thy neighbor”; or Hillel’s ethic of reciprocity – what is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. Ben Azzai suggested that it was the notion that humans are created in the image of God, which teaches us the fundamental equality of all humans; Ben Zoma suggested it was Shema Yisrael – that there is One God. They’re not hard to explain; they’re not hard to understand.

But one suggestion is a little more ponderous – Shimon ben Pazi’s suggestion:

וְזֶה אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשֶׂה עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּחַ כְּבָשִׂים בְּנֵי־שָׁנָה שְׁנַיִם לַיּוֹם תָּמִיד׃ אֶת־הַכֶּבֶשׂ הָאֶחָד תַּעֲשֶׂה בַבֹּקֶר וְאֵת הַכֶּבֶשׂ הַשֵּׁנִי תַּעֲשֶׂה בֵּין הָעַרְבָּיִם׃ – This is what you shall offer upon the altar: two year-old lambs; every day, regularly. You shall offer the one lamb in the morning and the other lamb in the evening. (29:38, 39)

Shimon ben Pazi taught that the Torah’s Golden Rule is the daily ritual – the עֲבוֹדָה – and more specifically, the instruction to bring the daily sacrifice at its designated times in the morning and evening – קרבן תמיד.

Quite obviously, this stands in stark contrast to the other proposed candidates. It’s perfectly plausible to suggest that treating other humans with kindness and respect might be the most essential thing the Torah has to tell us; it’s perfectly plausible to suggest that pronouncing our belief in the existence of the One God might be the most important thing.

R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that whichever candidate we decide upon, it would not be the Golden Rule of personal relations, nor would it be the Golden Rule of Judaism. If the Torah is the blueprint for existence, then it would be the Golden Rule of life and all things – הסתכל באורייתא וברא עלמא. It follows that identifying the Golden Rule and what it has to teach us is enormously consequential.

How could the specific and technical daily sacrificial service possibly be the most important thing the Torah has to tell us?

Perhaps it was selected as a candidate for the Golden Rule not to emphasize the importance of the sacrificial service or its technicalities; but rather to highlight another key value for us – the essential nature of consistency. It’s not about the קרבן; it’s about the תמיד.

The defining feature of the daily sacrifice is quite arguably the regularity for which it is named – תמיד. It is the only mitzvah that happens every morning and every evening, rain or shine, hot or cold, weekday, Shabbos, or Chag; commitment with conviction.

R’ Yehuda Amital suggests that the non-spectacular nature of the law is precisely what makes it remarkable. It does not commemorate some miraculous historical event nor deliver a moment of tangible spirituality. It is boring, plain, repetitive, and simple; twice per day, morning and night.

It is worth noting that the motif of regularity in the Torah appears almost exclusively in the context of the Mishkan; תמיד is intimately and tightly associated with עֲבוֹדָה. Aside from the regular daily sacrifices, the bread had to be on the table regularly – תמיד; there had to be a regularly lit candle on the Menorah – תמיד – and a regularly lit fire on the altar – תמיד. As the Mesilas Yesharim puts it, the only path to success for any serious undertaking is through disciplined, regular, and unwavering commitment.

If you’ve ever wanted to accomplish anything of note, you know that getting started can be challenging. All too often, we bite off more than we can chew. Maybe you sit down to think about everything you have to do, only to freeze up, intimidated and overwhelmed, no longer capable of taking that first step. We can get lost, frustrated, and impatient. We want instant results or lack the commitment necessary to follow through. We’re unclear of the goal, or we run out of energy and time. We get sidetracked and distracted, bogged down, and get lost in the noise. We give up too soon or hang on too long. And so we fail. We don’t finish. It flops. And nothing has changed.

If that sounds familiar, that’s because you’re human, and we need to remember the Golden Rule; it’s not about the flourishes and sprints of inspiration and hard work. The great principle of our lives is consistency; small disciplines and routines repeated daily that empower us and lead to great and hard-won achievements gained slowly over time.

As Rashi notes, it seems impossible to finish Shas or Shulchan Aruch, but it’s fairly easy to learn a page or two per day. It’s insane to go from the couch to running a marathon, but it’s quite doable to train for a 5K. It’s too costly to pay off a house in one shot, but it’s pretty realistic to pay your mortgage every month. It’s tough to lose weight, but it’s manageable when you stick to your daily diet and exercise. It’s grueling to decide whether to spend the rest of your life with someone, but it’s more straightforward to figure out if you’re having a good time with them. It’s challenging to cram everything for a test in just one sitting, but it’s not too difficult to do the assigned reading and homework every week.

From health and finance to spirituality and relationships, any kind of serious progress must be incremental by necessity. It requires showing up and putting in the work, doing what needs to be done wherever you find yourself, whether you’re in the mood or not.

Consistency requires perseverance through plateaus and setbacks and a lifelong commitment to establishing positive habits and routines that become almost second nature. All of your life’s goals will require consistent effort to push toward them. If you do not consistently focus on achieving them and do not put in the work, you will likely fall back into old habits or lose motivation and interest. If you are persistent, you can get them. But if you are consistent, you will keep them.

It’s not what we do once in a while that shapes our lives – it’s what we do consistently.

Consistency is about time investment – a little bit of time, repeated over an extended period of time.

That being said, it’s important to separate consistency from stagnation – it’s not enough to mindlessly repeat one action over and over; we aren’t machines. Far too often, we aren’t successful because while we sustain our efforts, we fail to scale those efforts over time; we don’t take responsibility for our progress. But it’s just so obvious; if you never ratchet up your efforts incrementally, of course you will only ever find yourself right where you are!

Instead, you must adapt your actions as you grow and learn, gaining feedback from each action adjusting accordingly to help you stay on track and make progress towards your goal. Incremental improvements compound, leading to exponential gains if you stay on track. Each step forward fuses and stacks, gradually building greater momentum, which is typically the difference between success and failure in any field and the key to high levels of achievement.

Leonardo da Vinci quipped that a diamond is a lump of coal that just stuck to its job. If you think of any titan of business, entertainment, religion, or sport, they never got there on the back of a heroic one-off performance. They are legends because of their consistent, sustained efforts over the long-term – they heeded the Golden Rule. It’s a mistake to compare yourself to someone successful and chalk up the difference to a difference in ability, intelligence, talent, or even hard work when, in all likelihood, the difference is consistency. You can get there too.

If it sounds like work, that’s because it is – the definition of the term the Mishkan rituals fall under is quite literally “work” or “service” – עֲבוֹדָה‎. It’s an investment on our part; it’s the contribution and service we can offer. In a certain sense, maybe it’s all we truly can offer – all we have to offer is our all, that deepest part of ourselves, committing to what’s important and putting the time in on a regular basis; and what we do is who we become. Consistency, continuity, and dedication is the עֲבוֹדָה; and it’s our עֲבוֹדָה – the Golden Rule of all things.

We all have big dreams, and we should – they’re part of what makes life beautiful and worth living. The Torah provides clear guidance on how to get there; the goal may be gargantuan, but you can still only ever take it one day and one step at a time. Getting anywhere serious requires building small habits and rituals that you partake in every day that keep you focused on your highest goals and priorities. Goals can change, but they can change us too; you might be pleasantly surprised who you have become when you’re ten years in.

As the old saying goes, there has only ever been one way to eat an elephant: one bite at a time.

Friends From Far Away

5 minute read
Straightforward

Moshe is arguably the most significant person in the Torah, whose impact as lawgiver, teacher, and savior has been felt across the world by most major religions for over three millennia.

He was undoubtedly a brilliant and astute person whose measured thinking carried immense gravity. At a bare minimum, before any of the more expansive literature, the Torah’s plain text testifies that Moshe regularly spoke with God Himself and that he retained his sharpness and vigor until his very last breath.

Moshe had only just decisively rescued the Jewish People from Egypt and its formidable military. His newly liberated people had no government, so Moshe was the only person with the apparent authority to settle people’s disputes.

Morning till night, he would arbitrate and resolve problems. The trouble is, he quickly ran into a capacity problem; people were coming to him non-stop, and it was too much. He was exhausted!

So the Torah introduces Yisro, who tells Moshe that it simply can’t be correct for there to be one sole arbiter of justice for so many people! So Yisro advises Moshe to train some honest and competent men to share the burden, and they’d refer to Moshe any cases they could not resolve on their own. Moshe implements Yisro’s proposal, and the new organizational structure of the justice system proves to be a resounding success. Moshe is no longer stretched so thin, and Yisro goes on his way.

This story is almost funny to read – it just seems absurdly trivial!

Sure, we can say that Moshe believed he was required to teach everyone himself – וְהוֹדַעְתִּי אֶת־חֻקֵּי הָאֱלֹקים וְאֶת־תּוֹרֹתָיו – but he was limited by the same twenty-four hours in a day as anybody else who has walked the earth. Who hasn’t experienced a productivity bottleneck at some point in their lives? It is such a basic problem! Of course, anyone who’s been there recognizes that however basic and common, it is still a serious problem. Yet as basic as the problem is, the Torah introduces Yisro, who proposes a solution that is equally basic and can be found in any book on business management or organizational strategy: to optimize workflow efficiency, the individual at capacity must delegate tasks, distributing that work for others to perform to reduce bottlenecks and improve throughput.

None of this is difficult or groundbreaking stuff, yet it occupies a non-trivial amount of space in the Torah. Could Moshe not figure out how to delegate effectively on his own? What is remotely remarkable about Yisro’s solution?

Perhaps the answer is what we sense – there is nothing remarkable about this conversation at all, other than the fact of the conversation itself.

People speculate on the Torah’s political stances regarding capitalism, socialism, or what have you – but here, in the very section the Torah is given, the Torah quite plainly states that it is not exhaustive; that it doesn’t purport to contain every single kernel of wisdom that could ever exist.

Sure, it has a comprehensive framework covering the full spectrum of human experience; but it also leaves plenty of details for humans to figure out for themselves, such as effective government in this instance. Yisro proposed an idea about improving Moshe’s administration, and the Torah explicitly takes a pragmatic approach; if it works – great!

The Ishbitzer suggests that when God tells us not to carve graven images or sculptures, it is essentially a commandment against rigidity. Rigidity almost assures self-destruction in the long run. As Charles Darwin said, it is not the strongest of species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the one most adaptable to change.

While it might be intuitive to delegate tasks – that intuition still came from a human; it is not obvious that the Torah endorses and adapts to human intuition, which is what is so remarkable about Moshe’s problem and Yisro’s solution.

What’s more, the solution didn’t simply come from a human; it came from a Gentile! At a minimum, the Torah takes a nuanced view on Gentiles here – that Yisro is welcome; and his wisdom is welcome too. He correctly identifies a problem in Jewish society; he proposes an effective solution, and his policy suggestions are embraced and successfully implemented. Aside from the pragmatic approach to government, this interaction is highly significant because, so far, almost every Gentile in the Torah has been one villain archetype after another! Pharaoh, Egypt, Amalek, and perhaps Yishamel, Esau, Lavan, and Ephron as well.

Given such well-documented history, it is only too easy to generalize that Gentiles are not our friends – they only want to hurt us, they have nothing to offer, and we ought to keep our distance. This conclusion does not stretch the imagination, and it’s a safe bet that asks nothing of us. Trust nobody; everyone hates us!

But in this story, the Torah affirms that for all the enemies out there – however many and however dangerous – we might also encounter allies along the way. The Ibn Ezra suggests that the Torah explicitly infers this lesson by introducing Yisro immediately after battling Amalek. In Yisro, we learn that not only do allies exist whom we ought to welcome, but there also exists the possibility that they bring experience, knowledge, or wisdom that we ought to welcome too.

To be sure, it is a minefield to navigate how to live with this, and it’s probably not for laypeople to grapple with; because our culture is not their culture, our values are not their values. But educated and experienced leaders with the maturity to appreciate nuance should recognize that the Torah plainly states that value can exist that originates outside the Torah and outside our society, from people who don’t come from the same places we do.

This bold thought shouldn’t be as threatening or radical as it may appear at first glance. Using the digital technology and internet that went into writing this sentence so that you could then use the same technology to read it with, it’s something we should recognize is true. The Torah doesn’t tell humans about electricity or indoor plumbing, but there are many wise people and resources available to us with best practices and common sense, and we figure it out. As R’ Shlomo Farhi notes, there is no religious imperative to reject something purely because it doesn’t originate from within the Torah’s culture; unlike, for example, the Amish. It’s something our sages understood long ago – חכמה בגוים תאמין. If it works – great!

Moshe was intelligent; he likely understood the value of delegating but still believed he had to do it all on his own until Yisro cautioned him otherwise. By reporting this banal conversation in such detail, it seems that the Torah embraces an element of flexibility or fluidity in how we navigate the dynamic environments we encounter in the world. Yisro probably didn’t innovate management science and delegation – that’s nothing we can’t figure out on our own. Perhaps the story’s punchline is the very fact we can figure things out on our own; we have the discretion to figure out how to build and operate a society using the Torah’s guidelines.

When we encounter uncharted territory and unprecedented obstacles in our community and society, as we inevitably will, we have to remember that not only is figuring out the solution not against the Torah, figuring out the solution is the embodiment of the Torah’s highest ideals.

Staying alive in an ever-changing world requires flexibility and the ability to roll with the punches and modify your approach.

As the saying goes, the trees that flex in the wind survive, and the ones that do not bend will break.

Holding Us Over a Barrel

4 minute read
Straightforward

The moment God gave the Torah at Sinai is probably the most important in the Torah. It might be the most important moment in the history of creation. To take it even further, cultivating a channel to receive the Torah might even be the reason for existence itself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hopes and Dreams

3 minute read
Straightforward

In the stories of Yakov’s family and their descent to Egypt, Yosef features prominently. Yosef’s brothers hated him, orchestrating his disappearance. Yet, he somehow rose to the rank of prime minister of Egypt, and in an ironic twist, wound up saving his family years later from a devastating famine in their homeland.

Our Sages herald Yosef as arguably the greatest of his generation, with certain qualities and traits exceeding even those of his lauded ancestors – צדיק יסוד עולם.

What was Yosef’s distinctive quality; what made Yosef, Yosef?

The first Yosef story, the story of his youth, starts with him on top, his father’s favorite, and ends with him quite literally at the bottom, in a pit and on the way to slavery. The second story, the story of his maturity and growth, begins with him in the depths of a prison dungeon, yet he climbs his way to the heights of Egyptian society. What changed was Yosef’s perspective.

R’ Isaac Bernstein sharply observes that the axis of Yosef’s fortune turns based on where his focus is.

In his youth, his fall precipitated from his self-absorption about his dreams and ambitions; in his maturity, his climb blossomed from his deep empathy and sensitivity to others, listening to the troubled butler and baker, and eventually, an unsettled Pharaoh, to their dreams, hopes, and fears.

The Torah begins the second story by testifying that God was with Yosef from the bottom through the top of his successes:

וְיוֹסֵף הוּרַד מִצְרָיְמָה וַיִּקְנֵהוּ פּוֹטִיפַר סְרִיס פַּרְעֹה שַׂר הַטַּבָּחִים אִישׁ מִצְרִי מִיַּד הַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים אֲשֶׁר הוֹרִדֻהוּ שָׁמָּה׃ וַיְהִי ה’ אֶת־יוֹסֵף וַיְהִי אִישׁ מַצְלִיחַ וַיְהִי בְּבֵית אֲדֹנָיו הַמִּצְרִי׃ – When Yosef was taken down to Egypt, a certain Egyptian, Potiphar, a courtier of Pharaoh and his chief steward, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him there. God was with Yosef, and he was a successful man, and he stayed in the house of his Egyptian master. (3:1,2)

The Da’as Zkeinim observes that it’s not too remarkable for someone desperate to believe in God – who else is going to help? But far too often, and with uncomfortable regularity, those self-same people forget God the moment they get their blessings, because all too often, wealth and success are the death of spirituality, snuffed out under a tidal wave of materialism.

But Yosef doesn’t forget, because it’s not about him anymore. The Torah classifies Yosef as a “successful” person – אִישׁ מַצְלִיחַ – the only instance the Torah describes someone this way; this title belongs uniquely to Yosef.

The Malbim notes that the word itself is the causative form of the word for success – מַצְלִיחַ – meaning Yosef was literally someone who caused the success of others. As the story makes abundantly clear, Yosef did in fact bring success to others; First, making Potiphar’s household successful, and then running the prison successfully, and eventually, the entire government.

What if that were your definition of what success looks like? We ought to be mindful that it is the Torah’s definition, after all. The egocentric definition of success as personal gain is victory, but it’s not success. Success is improving other people’s lives, nothing more, nothing less.

The progression of Yosef’s story is in the common thread of his God-given charisma, looks, talents, and smarts. In the beginning, he thought it made him better than everybody else, but then he grew up, and understood that it merely gave him a greater ability to help others.

R’ Shlomo Farhi suggests that this was the symbolic significance of Yosef’s stripy cloak Yakov had given home; that Yakov saw in Yosef the ability to bring together people of different stripes and backgrounds.

Our sages herald Yosef as the greatest of his generation. He stood strong and tall in the face of nightmares his brothers could never begin to imagine, and he did it with his distinctive style and flair.

In shackles and from the pits, he never forgot that God was with him and calibrated his sensitivity to others’ problems and determined to help them, despite being down on luck more than any of them.

Your fortune will change when you stop looking out for yourself.

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.

In The Land of the Blind

4 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah’s heroes are individuals of impeccable character and quality, entirely above reproach, and we cannot comprehend the character of the people they were. However, that being said, the Torah tells us stories in a very deliberate way, and we can and should talk about the Torah’s characterization in these stories.

Our ancestor Yakov was someone who had to fight and grind throughout his life to get what he was owed; nothing ever came easy. We read the stories of his trials, the archetype and model of a Jew in exile, and take comfort and strength from his immense grit and perseverance throughout the turbulent times in his life.

But some incidents give us pause.

In particular, the incident where he masqueraded as his brother Esau to his blind and aging father to appropriate the blessing intended for Esau.

The Jewish People are called the Upright Tribe – שבטי ישורון. We take our common name from Yakov himself, a person renowned for being straight – ישר-אל. But Yakov tricked his father into giving him something that, although intangible, was meant for another.

How do we justify Yakov as honest and upright?

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch highlights a reading of how the story unfolded, noting that Rivka is the instigator of the entire course of events:

וְרִבְקָה אָמְרָה אֶל־יַעֲקֹב בְּנָהּ לֵאמֹר הִנֵּה שָׁמַעְתִּי אֶת־אָבִיךָ מְדַבֵּר אֶל־עֵשָׂו אָחִיךָ לֵאמֹר׃ הָבִיאָה לִּי צַיִד וַעֲשֵׂה־לִי מַטְעַמִּים וְאֹכֵלָה וַאֲבָרֶכְכָה לִפְנֵי ה’ לִפְנֵי מוֹתִי׃וְעַתָּה בְנִי שְׁמַע בְּקֹלִי לַאֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מְצַוָּה אֹתָךְ… – Rivka had been listening as Yitzchak spoke to his son Esau. When Esau had gone out into the open to hunt game to bring home, Rivka said to her son Yakov, “I overheard your father speaking to your brother Esau, saying, ‘Bring me some game and prepare a dish for me to eat, that I may bless you, with God’s approval, before I die.’ Now, my son, listen carefully as I instruct you…” (27:6-8)

Rivka tells Yakov to act as if he were Esau, and Yakov responds that he is uncomfortable doing so:

וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל־רִבְקָה אִמּוֹ הֵן עֵשָׂו אָחִי אִישׁ שָׂעִר וְאָנֹכִי אִישׁ חָלָק׃ אוּלַי יְמֻשֵּׁנִי אָבִי וְהָיִיתִי בְעֵינָיו כִּמְתַעְתֵּעַ וְהֵבֵאתִי עָלַי קְלָלָה וְלֹא בְרָכָה׃ – Yakov answered his mother Rivka, “But my brother Esau is a hairy man, and I am smooth-skinned. If my father touches me, I shall appear to him as a trickster and bring upon myself a curse, not a blessing!”

There is an unbridgeable tension here between deception versus honor and loyalty. Quite correctly, Yakov expresses his discomfort with Rivka’s idea, precisely because he is not a trickster – וְהָיִיתִי בְעֵינָיו כִּמְתַעְתֵּעַ. But at this point, Rivka pulls the proverbial ace:

וַתֹּאמֶר לוֹ אִמּוֹ עָלַי קִלְלָתְךָ בְּנִי אַךְ שְׁמַע בְּקֹלִי וְלֵךְ קַח־לִי – But his mother said to him, “My son, any curse would be upon me! Just do as I say and go fetch them for me.” (27:13)

At this juncture, Rivka exercises her maternal authority to silence Yakov’s protest, and the story goes on. We can continue to look up Yakov because he is not a crook; he is obedient to his mother.

While this is a compelling reading, it doesn’t answer the crux of the problem. While it serves the purposes of salvaging Yakov’s image, Rivka becomes tarnished instead, and we must ask the same question of Rivka, only it looks substantially worse now; she has forced her son to trick her husband – his father – to take something intended for his brother.

To reinforce the question, what exactly is the point of the ruse here? It’s so incredibly pointless, if only because it is sure to be foiled the very next time Esau speaks to his father!

Moreover, to the extent we can understand how blessings work, why would we think it even works that way? The blessing is God’s to bestow – is God also taken by a gruff voice behind a silly disguise?

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that the point of the deception is the fact of the deception itself. This is not a story about Yakov stealing blessings; it’s a story about Yitzchak’s blindness to who his children have become.

The Midrash suggests that Yitzchak was blind ever since the Akeida, where his father bound him up and was prepared to kill him. It’s not a stretch to suggest that this traumatic experience blinded him to Esau’s shortcomings, unable to contemplate discarding his son in the way he so nearly was.

Esau had disgraced the family legacy, a feared killer who married idolators and indulged in their pagan practices, which another Midrash links to Yitzchak’s blindness. Esau was not the scion of his grandfather Avraham.

Esau didn’t become the person he did when he went out into the big wide world. Esau found his ignominious way while still living under his father’s roof – and Yitzchak was blind, completely oblivious! Sure, Esau was a smooth operator, and that’s on Esau; but Yitzchak bought the ruse. He would not, or perhaps could not, see him for who he was.

So if Yakov, so bookish and refined, could pass himself off as the macho hunter, then perhaps the macho hunter could also pass for bookish and refined!

Indeed – R’ Shlomo Farhi sharply notes that Yakov’s concern in the story is only ever the appearance of trickery, not trickery itself, because the story isn’t about stealing blessings – וְהָיִיתִי בְעֵינָיו כִּמְתַעְתֵּעַ / וְהָיִיתִי מְתַעְתֵּעַ!

There is no crime here, and this story should not give us pause about the greatness of some of our greatest. Rivka’s intention in setting Yakov up to deceive Yitzchak was simply to show how easily he could be deceived.

Deception for dishonest gain is wrong – at the beginning of the story, at the end, and throughout. One of the story’s conclusions is that blessings go where they’re meant to, and they’re not limited.

Science and Torah

4 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Torah is an art, not a science.

The Simple Things

2 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transcending Time

3 minute read
Straightforward

From Rosh Hashana through Sukkos, honey features prominently at the festive meals. If you give it a moment’s thought, using honey seems odd. Honey is produced by bees, which are not kosher and have a painful sting.

Why not use cane sugar, a naturally growing plant that metabolizes into the energy that fuels all living things?

The Midrash teaches that the idea of Teshuva is supernatural, in that it preexists the universe so that whatever nature is, Teshuva transcends.

The simplified idea belying Creation is that it is a sandbox for humans to make choices and thrive. Choices present tests, and the nature of a test is that it is pass or fail. As much as Hashem can want us to pass our tests, the fact remains that tests can and will be failed. This fact alone requires the existence of Teshuva – failure is not the end; a person can learn from their mistakes, put it behind them, and move on.

The universe operates on fundamental laws of physics that express empirical facts and describe physical properties about how nature works. One of these laws is the law of entropy, which is that natural states tend to undergo increasing decay and disorder over time. Eventually, all things break down.

R’ Nechemia Sheinfeld explains that the supernatural aspect of Teshuva is that it unwinds the effect of time and entropy; we can repair our mistakes, removing the decay, leaving only the lesson we have learned. Entropy is a byproduct of a finite Creation, whereas Teshuva is infinite because it predates time and space. Teshuva is not an after-the-fact solution; it’s baked into the fabric of the creation process, so redemption is structurally assured from the outset.

It’s’s like learning to ride a bicycle. The first time you lose your balance, you fall and hurt yourself. Maybe next time you wear a helmet and pads, and you slowly learn how to keep your balance. If you focus on how bad falling hurts, you’ll never learn to ride the bike. But once you learn to keep your balance, you forget about falling, and maybe you don’t need the pads anymore. You now know how to ride a bicycle.

Existence without Teshuva would be static and stagnant – it could never grow, which is why Teshuva necessarily predates existence. With Teshuva, we can change and become, and life is vibrant and alive.

When a person does Teshuva, their sins and transgressions can be measured differently based on their motivation. When motivated by fear, they are downgraded to accidents and oversights; when motivated by love, they can become merits. It’s intuitive; the way a person adapts their past mistakes materially affects the way you incorporate the lessons learned to be a better person.

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that this why the Hebrew word for “year” – שנה – is cognate to the words שני and שנוי – “secondary” and “change” respectively. Today’s achievements are built on the foundations of yesterday; a repetition would be no different to what came first, and a fresh start can’t carry the lessons along the way. This may help explain why we temporarily behave more diligently day between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – a reliable foundation is the precursor of a strong building.

R’ Meir Shapiro explains that this is why specifically honey, not sugar, is the centerpiece of the holiday imagery. Honey is kosher, despite being a product of non-kosher origins, and maybe you get stung. Doesn’t that sound a lot like Teshuvah? You made mistakes that weren’t so kosher, and maybe they stung a little; but you learn and grow from them all the same – something kosher from something that’s not.

All this is to say what R’ Nachman of Breslov taught straightforwardly: if you believe you can break, then believe you can fix.

The Covenant of Kings

3 minute read
Straightforward

One of the most basic and essential rules of interpretation is understanding that the Torah is written in language humans can read and understand – דיברה תורה כלשון בני אדם.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that this means that the Torah writes within the boundaries of human understanding, and not objective truths known only to God.

The Rambam utilizes this theme prominently, famously suggesting that the Torah co-opted animal sacrifices only because they were culturally familiar methods of worship in the Ancient Near East. The Ralbag similarly recognized the value of understanding the ancient world of the Torah to give us enhanced context and understanding of the Torah’s teachings.

Apart from animal sacrifices, another ancient practice that would be culturally familiar was the notion of the covenant.

In the Ancient Near East, kings would formalize their diplomatic relations with treaties or covenants. These treaties were drafted between equals and sometimes between a superior and a subordinate state, or suzerain and vassal. The structure of the Torah’s covenants has striking parallels to the suzerain-vassal treaties. If we unpack the layers to the structure, we can unlock a deeper appreciation for it.

The main elements of suzerain-vassal treaties are identifying the treaty-maker, the superior; a historical introduction, such as prior beneficial acts the superior has done for the subordinate; the stipulations, typically the demand for loyalty; a list of divine witnesses; and blessings and curses. The treaty was proclaimed in public along with a ceremonial meal, and the treaty was stored at a holy site. There would be a periodic public reading to remind the subordinate citizens of their duties.

The similarity between the Torah’s use of covenants and other treaties extant in the Ancient Near East isn’t merely interesting trivia – it’s political dynamite.

For most of ancient history, the head of state was also the head of the cult – god-kings and priest-kings were standard. The king or the priestly class had a monopoly on the rituals of religion, and the common serfs were passive observers living vicariously through these holy men.

In sharp contrast with that background, the Torah’s rendition of a covenant is striking not in its similarity but also in its difference.

God does not seek a covenant with Moshe, the head of state, nor Ahron, the Kohen Gadol. God does not even seek a covenant with the Jewish People; the party God treats with is no less than every single individual, which is explosive because it’s shocking enough that a God would care about humans in general, let alone each of us in particular. And by making a covenant with us, God goes even further and asks us to be His partners.

A covenant between God and individuals doesn’t just illustrate the dignity of every single person; it also bestows a second facet to our identity. By elevating common people into vassal-kings, we are all royalty – מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ / כָל-הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים. This also echoes a broader ideological theme that idealized a community of educated and empowered citizens – וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ / וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ.

R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that we take self-identity for granted today, but historically, self-identity was subsumed to community and culture. In a world where the individual self barely existed and mattered very little, it’s radical to say that God cares for us individually, because it’s not obvious at all – בשבילי נברא העולם. This tension between God as distant yet close is captured in our blessings, where we call Hashem “You” in the second person, indicating familiar closeness, and then “Hashem,” with titles in the third person, indicating distance.

Striking a covenant with individuals democratizes access to God and spirituality, creating a direct line for everybody. Parenthetically, this echoes the Torah’s conception of creating humans in God’s image – everyone is, not just a few “special” people.

We are all royalty in God’s eyes, and we are all God’s partners.

Sensitivity to All Creatures

3 minute read
Straightforward

From the dawn of humanity, people have utilized animals for all kinds of purposes, from farming and hunting to clothing, food, labor, transport, and domestication as pets. Inasmuch as the Torah permits these uses, the Torah categorically prohibits human mistreatment of animals, with a comprehensive list of laws designed to minimize animal suffering resulting from human interaction.

As it relates to food, from field to table, there is a vast corpus of rules that governs everything we put into our mouths and everything we don’t; and one of the defining features of observant Judaism is the laws of kosher, in particular, the rules concerning how we obtain edible meat.

R’ Avraham Yitzchak Kook suggests that, among other reasons, the Torah’s laws of kosher meat consistently demonstrate an underlying principle that humans ought to respect the life and well-being of all non-human creatures.

Consider that kosher slaughter, the most obviously exploitative use of animal life, is heavily regulated; the Torah requires the blade to be razor-sharp for a smooth cut and must be concealed from the animal throughout, among many other laws that prevent unnecessary animal distress. The Midrash rhetorically asks what possible difference it could make to God whether an animal dies by a cut in the front of its neck or the back; it concludes that it doesn’t make a difference to God so much as it makes a difference to the human, since a front cut is more humane, and refines the humans who observe this law.

The laws of kosher aren’t just about how we treat the animal until it dies, but afterward as well. There is a little known law to conceal the blood that is spilled, almost a mini-burial ceremony:

וְשָׁפַךְ אֶת-דָּמוֹ, וְכִסָּהוּ בֶּעָפָר – Pour out the blood, and cover it with dust. (17:13)

In the Torah’s conception, blood is the vehicle for the essence and soul of identity, personality, and vitality, warranting sensitive handling and treatment; it follows that it is disrespectful and inappropriate to consume blood:

אַךְ-בָּשָׂר, בְּנַפְשׁוֹ דָמוֹ לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ – Eat only the meat; do not consume the blood… (9:4)

When we talk about the blood draining from someone’s face, or the lifeblood of an organization, we’re using the same kind of imagery as the Torah, where blood is the seat and symbol of life and vitality, which may help us understand why blood is a central element of all the sacrificial rituals:

כִּי נֶפֶשׁ הַבָּשָׂר, בַּדָּם הִוא, וַאֲנִי נְתַתִּיו לָכֶם עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, לְכַפֵּר עַל-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם: כִּי-הַדָּם הוּא, בַּנֶּפֶשׁ יְכַפֵּר – For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that atones because of the life. (17:11)

The Torah unambiguously permits humans to consume a carnivorous diet, but as Nechama Leibowitz points out, the Torah only reluctantly allows humans to eat meat after the Flood story. As much as humans are the apex predator on Earth, God’s compassion goes far beyond humans – וְהָאָרֶץ נָתַן לִבְנֵי-אָדָם / טוֹב ה’ לַכֹּל וְרַחֲמָיו עַל כָּל מַעֲשָׂיו.

The distinction between right and wrong, good and evil, purity and defilement, the sacred and the profane, is essential in Judaism. Beyond Judaism, navigating regulations is part of living and working in a civilized society. The laws of kosher elevate the simple act of eating into a reminder and religious ritual to exercise self-control over our most basic, primal instincts, even the ones to hunt and gather food.

While animals do not possess sentience to understand the notion that life is a sacred thing, humans are not like other animals, and the Torah gives us laws to remind us that there is a difference. R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that the Torah’s boundaries should instill sensitivity and reverence for life. Our abilities, choices, rights, strength, and power are not trump cards; just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

You don’t need to become a vegan; you can still enjoy your steak and ribs. But you should recognize the Torah’s concern for all creatures and not just humans, because the two are linked; someone who is cruel to animals will be cruel to people.

In a largely positive trend, our host cultures have woken up to animal cruelty in recent decades, but we have a proud tradition that is millennia older; the Torah instituted the first systematic legislation prohibiting animal cruelty and mandating humane treatment long ago.

Judaism is in constant dialogue with its surroundings, and we may have to get more familiar with our environment to navigate it properly. On the one end, the Torah’s laws don’t explicitly regulate intensive factory farming, but it’s a product of modern business practices that raises many animal welfare issues, and the relevant parties should be receptive to calibrating how they can do better. On the other end, the tradition of kosher slaughter is in jeopardy in an increasing number of jurisdictions, labeled as backward and cruel; there are some important organizations working tirelessly to protect our tradition that deserve your support.

The Torah has regulated human interaction with animals for thousands of years; the laws of kosher teach us compassion and sensitivity to other creatures.

We should be proud of our heritage.

Uncertain Futures

4 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah treats idolatry and pagan practices with extreme severity, condemning them repeatedly throughout the Tanach. In Moshe’s last address, he issues the same instruction to be weary of these foreign practices:

כִּי אַתָּה בָּא אֶל־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר־ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ לֹא־תִלְמַד לַעֲשׂוֹת כְּתוֹעֲבֹת הַגּוֹיִם הָהֵם׃ לֹא־יִמָּצֵא בְךָ מַעֲבִיר בְּנוֹ־וּבִתּוֹ בָּאֵשׁ קֹסֵם קְסָמִים מְעוֹנֵן וּמְנַחֵשׁ וּמְכַשֵּׁף׃ וְחֹבֵר חָבֶר וְשֹׁאֵל אוֹב וְיִדְּעֹנִי וְדֹרֵשׁ אֶל־הַמֵּתִים׃כִּי־תוֹעֲבַת ה כָּל־עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה וּבִגְלַל הַתּוֹעֵבֹת הָאֵלֶּה ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מוֹרִישׁ אוֹתָם מִפָּנֶיךָ׃ תָּמִים תִּהְיֶה עִם ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ׃ – When you enter the land that Hashem is giving you, you shall not learn to imitate the abominable practices of those nations. Let no one be found among you who sends his son or daughter to the fire, or who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead. For anyone who does such things is abhorrent to Hashem, and it is because of these abominable things that the Hashem is dispossessing them before you. You must be perfectly wholehearted with Hashem. (18:9-13)

While extremely difficult to reconcile with a modern understanding of how the world works, it would be obtuse to deny that a sizable portion of Jewish tradition incorporates magic and superstition as having some actual basis and realism – the book of Shmuel tells of an incident where years after the settlement of the Land of Israel, a Philistine army threatened the young state, and King Saul sought a witch out to consult with the ghostly spirit of the dead prophet Shmuel.

Be that as it may, there is a divergent rationalist school of thought more aligned with a modern understanding of the world, notably the Rambam, that does not treat these as genuine, but still equally forbidden.

Real or not, the Torah is explicit that seeking out future knowledge is taboo and, therefore, off-limits. Instead, we should embrace the future straightforwardly as it comes – תָּמִים תִּהְיֶה עִם ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ.

What’s so wrong about wanting to know the future?

R’ Yakov Hillel explains that someone seeking future knowledge yearns to eliminate doubt and uncertainty, which is antithetical to the human condition.

Humans hate uncertainty. It is stressful and makes us worry. Every day, we navigate over the shaky, uncertain, and constantly changing landscape of probabilities that lie before us.

We have natural pattern recognition abilities, which is why humans are prone to believe in magic and superstition. Doubt and uncertainty are fundamental and intrinsic to the human condition – we aren’t computer programs. Uncertainty is central to the Jewish conception of prophecy; counterintuitively, a prophet’s job is not to foretell an inevitable future – instead, their job is to warn people away from the path they are on. A prophet whose warning comes true has failed! The future is not set, which is also a central theme of the High Holy Days.

This is also the theme of Isaiah critique that is read before Tisha b’Av, where Isaiah calls his community to task, people who, instead of doing the work to alleviate poverty and suffering, and be good and kind to each other, would rather just slaughter a goat or two:

לָמָּה-לִּי רֹב-זִבְחֵיכֶם יֹאמַר ה שָׂבַעְתִּי עֹלוֹת אֵילִים וְחֵלֶב מְרִיאִים וְדַם פָּרִים וּכְבָשִׂים וְעַתּוּדִים לֹא חָפָצְתִּי. כִּי תָבֹאוּ לֵרָאוֹת פָּנָי מִי-בִקֵּשׁ זֹאת מִיֶּדְכֶם רְמֹס חֲצֵרָי. לֹא תוֹסִיפוּ הָבִיא מִנְחַת-שָׁוְא קְטֹרֶת תּוֹעֵבָה הִיא לִי חֹדֶשׁ וְשַׁבָּת קְרֹא מִקְרָא לֹא-אוּכַל אָוֶן וַעֲצָרָה. חָדְשֵׁיכֶם וּמוֹעֲדֵיכֶם שָׂנְאָה נַפְשִׁי הָיוּ עָלַי לָטֹרַח נִלְאֵיתִי נְשֹׂא. וּבְפָרִשְׂכֶם כַּפֵּיכֶם אַעְלִים עֵינַי מִכֶּם גַּם כִּי-תַרְבּוּ תְפִלָּה אֵינֶנִּי שֹׁמֵעַ יְדֵיכֶם דָּמִים מָלֵאוּ. רַחֲצוּ הִזַּכּוּ הָסִירוּ רֹעַ מַעַלְלֵיכֶם מִנֶּגֶד עֵינָי חִדְלוּ הָרֵעַ. לִמְדוּ הֵיטֵב דִּרְשׁוּ מִשְׁפָּט אַשְּׁרוּ חָמוֹץ שִׁפְטוּ יָתוֹם רִיבוּ אַלְמָנָה – “What makes you think I want all your sacrifices?”, says Hashem. “I am stuffed with burnt offerings and ram sacrifices and cattle fats. I don’t need the blood of bulls, lambs and goats. When you come to worship me, who asked you to parade through my courts with all your ceremony? Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts; the incense of your offerings disgusts me!
“Your celebrations of Rosh Chodesh and Shabbos and your fast days, are all sinful and false. I want no more of your pious meetings! I hate your new moon celebrations and your annual festivals. They are a burden to me. I cannot stand them! When you raise your hands in prayer, I will not look. Though you might offer many prayers, I will not listen, because your hands are covered with the blood of innocents!
“Wash yourselves and become clean! Get your sins out of my sight. Give up your evil ways; learn to do good. Seek justice! Help the oppressed and vulnerable! Defend the cause of orphans! Fight for the rights of widows!” – (1:10-17)

It is normal to be scared of the future, but that fear can paralyze us from doing the work we need to do. By holding on to what we need from the future, we use shortcuts to hack the outcome.

Instead, the Torah advises us to be wholesome, to embrace the struggle the uncertainty and fear of the future straightforwardly as it comes – תָּמִים תִּהְיֶה עִם ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ.

Maybe there are religious hacks. But R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz notes that people who are wholesome and straightforward understand that shortcuts are no substitute for the real deal.

The human enterprise is trial and error, courage, and risk. R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that shortcuts are pitfalls – the bad and wrong ways to do things. We need to prepare for the future properly you can’t hack your way into being a decent human – you can’t ask for forgiveness before making amends; you can’t lose weight sorting out your diet; you can’t retire without saving.

When we are afraid of the future, there is something we want to avoid. Instead of avoiding the pain, confront it, put in the work, and take decisive action.

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.

Conspiracy!

2 minute read
Straightforward

The Torah contains a litany of laws that pertain to every aspect of court procedures in general and testimony in particular. The proper procedure ensures the fair administration of justice, which is the underpinning of a just society. There are many prerequisites to accept witness testimony, and anything short is disqualified.

One of the most fascinating subtopics is about witnesses who present false evidence; then, another set of witnesses testifies that the first set of witnesses were with them elsewhere at the time, and so the original witnesses could not possibly have first-hand knowledge about the case. Under these circumstances, the Torah imposes the punishment that the liars attempted to implicate the innocent man with:

וַעֲשִׂיתֶם לוֹ כַּאֲשֶׁר זָמַם לַעֲשׂוֹת לְאָחִיו וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִקִּרְבֶּךָ – You shall do to him as he plotted to do to his brother, and purge the wickedness from among yourselves. (19:19)

The Gemara suggests that the court will only carry this out when the court catches the liar before the plot succeeds, not after, because there is no brotherhood in death – כאשר זמם ולא כאשר עשה. If the plot succeeds, there is no punishment.

The Ritva queries that the law of Yibum is about brotherhood, but the whole concept of Yibum only arises to after the death of a brother; he further notes that Nadav and Avihu are referred to as brothers after death as well.

R’ Ezriel Hildesheimer explains that there is an obvious difference between biological and fraternal brotherhood. A biological brother remains so even after death – so it is natural to refer to brotherhood in those instances.

But the law of testimony specifically precludes blood relatives from testifying against each other, so any reference to brotherhood in the context of testimony can only mean the fraternal kind! We are brothers in identity and community, with a shared observance of Torah law and tradition, members of the Jewish People. But when we die, we are no longer bound to the Torah or each other – we move on into the beyond, and the imagery of brotherhood no longer makes sense.

While the interpretation is sound, the law itself is hard to understand. Why is it fair that if the conspiracy succeeds, that they get off scot-free, with no consequences?

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that there are plenty of times that people don’t get what they deserve, for good and for bad, and sometimes people do get away with it.

But the Torah’s embodiment of punishment isn’t “just dessert” – it’s about restoring balance, and sometimes, the scales just won’t balance, and the consequence will be ineffective.

When the court catches the conspirators in time, the court can punish their wicked intentions by giving them the pain of their attempt, and this squares off their debt.

But when the conspirators succeed, there is no remedy, because they have done something far worse than “only” harming an innocent person. In their success, the witnesses are not the tool that inflicts the harm on the innocent; their testimony exploits and weaponizes the court, it’s sages and the entirely legal system.

The law of conspiring witnesses is not just an interpersonal crime against another, but against the entire system that Judaism builds, and there is no way to make up for that. You can get a sense of the Torah’s indignance at this, because, unusually, it labels this crime as “wicked” – בִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִקִּרְבֶּךָ.

When someone corrupts the entire legal system, there is no remedy for that, and we leave it to the heavens.

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.

You are Worthy

3 minute read
Straightforward

The Exodus is an orienting event for the Jewish People, a founding moment in our history, with a daily duty to recall it. It’s the first thing God has to say to humans at Sinai; God introduces Himself as the God who took us out of Egypt.

Remembering the Exodus is a perpetual mitzvah, and an astounding amount of our daily blessings, mitzvos, and prayers commemorate the Exodus – זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם. It is ubiquitous to the extent we could miss the point entirely.

What do we mean when we say that we remember that God took the Jews out of Egypt?

It is essential to understand first principles because they are the foundational concepts that govern the systems built upon them.

If we unpack the story, the Jews in Egypt didn’t deserve to be saved because they were so good or so special; in fact, quite the opposite. 

The Zohar imagines the angels arguing whether or not God should save the Jews, and the argument was that “this lot are just a bunch of idol-worshippers, and so are those!” The Haggadah admits as much – מִתְּחִלָּה עוֹבְדֵי עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה הָיוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ.

When Moshe told the Jews to set aside and take one sheep per family, the Midrash says that “set aside” meant setting aside their idols before taking the sheep for the mitzvah!

When even Moshe, already well on his way to greatness, saw Yisro’s daughters getting bullied and got involved in the dispute to protect them, the onlookers mistook him for just another Egyptian!

The Midrash famously states that the enslaved Jews retained their names, clothing, and language. This is often framed as a point of pride, but the point would seem to be that apart from these narrow and limited practices, they were otherwise indistinguishable from Egyptians in every other conceivable way!

Moreover, the generation that left Egypt and stood at Sinai fought Moshe the rest of their lives, begging to go back to Egypt, and was ultimately doomed to wander and die in the wilderness.

The Zohar goes so far as to say that the Jews were on the 49th level of spiritual malaise, just one notch off rock bottom, the point of no return. Rav Kook notes that this adds a particular dimension to the imagery of God’s strong outstretched arm – it was a forceful intervention, an emergency rescue of a nation that had stumbled and was about fall off a cliff – בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה.

As R’ Shlomo Farhi explains, whenever God is characterized with strength, it indicates God doing something that is undeserved. God does not require more incremental strength to move a grape than a galaxy; but God can force compassion to overwhelm what justice requires – גּוֹאֵל וחָזָק אָתָּה.

That is to say that on a fundamental level, the Jews didn’t deserve rescuing at all.

And yet crucially, as R’ Chaim Kanievsky notes, God responded to their cries all the same – וַנִּצְעַק אֶל־ה’ אֱלֹקי אֲבֹתֵינוּ, וַיִּשְׁמַע ה’ אֶת־קֹלֵנוּ.

The Divrei Chaim notes that the very first Commandment is no command at all; God “introduces” himself as the God who took us out of Egypt – אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹקיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים. It’s not a command – it is just a simple statement of fact. We might not deserve redemption, yet God redeems us all the same.

R’ Tzadok haKohen writes that to remember Egypt is to remember God’s first declarative sentence; our God rescues people from Egypt, whoever they are.

The Ropshitzer quipped that תְּחִלָּה לְמִקְרָאֵי קדֶשׁ זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם – the first step towards holiness is remembering that the same Exodus that rescued people from the abyss once before could be just a moment away.

So when we remind ourselves about Egypt, it’s not just that it happened once, but that, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe put it, God’s redemption is not contingent on our worthiness.

You don’t need to remember the simple historical events of the Exodus; you have to remind yourself that every single last human is worthy of God’s unconditional love.

Nature & Nurture

3 minute read
Straightforward

One of the oldest debates in the history of psychology is nature versus nurture.

Nature is what people think of as pre-wiring and is influenced by genetic inheritance of ancestral personality traits and other biological predispositions; nurture is generally taken as the influence of external environmental factors and learned experience. As with most such questions, the answer is probably non-binary and lies somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

When the Torah begins the story of the adult Yitzchak’s family, the next chapter of our ancestral history, the Torah specifies in explicit detail where Rivka came from:

וַיְהִי יִצְחָק, בֶּן-אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה, בְּקַחְתּוֹ אֶת-רִבְקָה בַּת-בְּתוּאֵל הָאֲרַמִּי, מִפַּדַּן אֲרָם–אֲחוֹת לָבָן הָאֲרַמִּי, לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה – Yitzchak was forty years old when he took Rivka – daughter of Besuel the Aramean from Padan-Aram, sister of Lavan the Aramean – to be his wife. (25:20)

The thing is, we know who Rivka is! The Torah has only just introduced us to the kindly Rivka a few short lines earlier. Eliezer has only just encountered her and brought her to Avraham and Yitzchak’s home, and not much else has happened.

Why does the Torah restate in detail who Rivka’s family was and where she came from?

Rashi notes this and suggests that the Torah here contrasts her gentle, kind, and warm heart with the callous selfishness and greed of the environment she grew up in, illustrating that she overcame negative influences and still earned her place in Avraham’s famously open home. Or in other words, her nature beat her nurture.

R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that as much as the famous adage in Pirkei Avos cautions against the powerful influence of bad neighbors and a poor environment, Rivka’s example clearly and conclusively demonstrates the power of an individual to transcend adverse circumstances.

What’s more, we can contrast Rivka, who grows up with bad people around her, yet retains her kind and warm spirit, with Esau, who had a close relationship with Yitzchak, under the guidance of no less than Rivka herself! And yet, instead of Esau becoming a full working partner in Avraham’s covenant, as his father had so dearly hoped, he lost his way entirely.

Leaning too heavily on nature or nurture is deterministic, the belief that our actions are ultimately determined by causes external to free choice and is wholly incompatible with Judaism. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that nature dictates our limits, and nurture defines where you start within that range. But at best, that only modifies the starting point; where you come from does not define the boundaries of what you do or who you become.

Transcending environments is actually a key theme in each generation of these chapters of our ancestral history. Apart from Rivka transcending her family environment; Avraham had to leave the only home he’d ever known behind- לך לך; Yakov had to flee home with just the clothes on his back to get away from his murderous brother and spent years trying to find his place – ויצא.

Whatever path you’re on, you can always change your direction if you want to. And it cuts both ways, Rivka could ignore negative influences and become a wonderful person, and Esau could disregard the most positive and loving influences and lose his way entirely.

We don’t choose our family, and we don’t choose our upbringing, but the surest way to forfeit your choice is to doubt that you have one. “It’s just the way I am” isn’t a justification for treating people poorly. It’s a pathetic excuse for harming and hurting others, whether through controlling or belittling others and whether it’s to exalt yourself or simply in the name of leadership and authority. It’s up to you to decide which elements of your identity and personality show up and when.

Your cultural environment, peer pressure, and even your genetics do not excuse you from taking ownership and responsibility for your life and choices. Maybe due to your circumstances, you can’t be expected to cure cancer or end world poverty, and that’s perfectly fine. But nothing is stopping you from being gentler, kinder, softer, warmer, and more scrupulously honest.

Your life, trajectory, and choices have always and only ever been yours alone.

Finding Their Way

3 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Binding of Isaac Redux

5 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Call to Action

3 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avraham continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

R’ Jonathan Sacks explains that it is beyond human comprehension to understand suffering in the world; because if we could understand it, then we would accept it. There is no satisfactory answer to injustice in the world, except that asking the question might cause us to live the response through our actions.

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

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.

What makes us great isn’t what we are; it’s what we do.

A Wish Upon A Star

1 minute
Straightforward

One of the most beautiful promises ever made was the one God made to Avraham about his future descendants:

וַיּוֹצֵא אֹתוֹ הַחוּצָה וַיֹּאמֶר הַבֶּט־נָא הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וּסְפֹר הַכּוֹכָבִים אִם־תּוּכַל לִסְפֹּר אֹתָם וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ כֹּה יִהְיֶה זַרְעֶךָ – He took him outside and said, “Look at the heavens above. Count the stars, if you ever could! So will your offspring be.” (15:5)

We can read this literally, that Avraham’s lineal and intellectual descendants would be numerous, and this has undoubtedly come to pass – most religions count Avraham as their precursor.

R’ Shlomo Farhi suggests a symbolic approach, that perhaps the blessing is that just like Avraham would look heavenward and dream of a better future, his children would be stargazers as well, living and looking beyond the present, hoping and working towards a better future.

Interestingly, the Torah only describes the sun setting after this conversation:

וַיְהִי הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ לָבוֹא וְתַרְדֵּמָה נָפְלָה עַל־אַבְרָם וְהִנֵּה אֵימָה חֲשֵׁכָה גְדֹלָה נֹפֶלֶת עָלָיו – As the sun was about to set, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a great dark dread descended upon him. (15:12)

Since we’re talking about the prophetic discussions with God, we are very deep into the realm of speculation about “where” this conversation takes place, but the Torah grounds this meeting in the physical by anchoring it with physical imagery – sky, sun, and stars.

My father notes that God seems to promise Avraham that his descendants will be like stars in the daytime sky; when we can’t actually see them with the naked eye – a very literal reading of וּסְפֹר הַכּוֹכָבִים אִם־תּוּכַל לִסְפֹּר אֹתָם – but they’re there all the same.

They’ll always be there, only sometimes in the background, evoking a beautiful blessing of ebbs and flows, or waxing and waning, biding time for a comeback and resurgence.

Your Moral Compass

2 minute read
Straightforward

The book of Bereishis is about the evolution of human justice and the evolving dynamic of God’s relationship with people. Avraham is considered the first prototype of the kind of person God wanted people to behave like, and it is his descendants that would go on to receive the Torah.

But Noah was righteous too; why is Noah not held up as a model of what a good person looks like?

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that our role models followed their internal moral compasses, even when it led them to the point of directly questioning God outright.

When Noah left the Ark, everything and everyone was gone. Noah took in the scale of desolation and loss, and questioned God – where was God’s mercy all this time? The Zohar describes God’s stunning reply to Noah – when God had told him the flood was coming and all would be lost, where was Noah’s mercy for the world he had known?

In sharp contrast, when God announced that Sodom would be destroyed, Avraham questioned God’s justice. When God threatened to destroy the Jewish people after they danced around the Golden Calf, Moshe questioned God’s justice. Throughout history, our heroes have challenged God when something felt wrong.

Even if unsuccessful, they are still fundamentally correct. Avraham stood up for pagan barbarians, and said that if God is merciful and good, then that ought to be true even towards the wicked! Our heroes’ internal moral compasses tell them that something is wrong, and they follow through.

But Noah simply accepted God’s judgment that his society was corrupt and deserved annihilation. He did not attempt to affect the course of events until it was far too late.

Accepting that bad things will happen to other people isn’t a feature – it’s a critical flaw. Noah agreed that everything and everyone was bad, and that they deserved what was coming. R’ Yisrael Salanter says that a hidden tzadik is no tzadik at all. Avraham went out into the world to show people a better way, whereas Noah just let his whole world slip into oblivion.

Maybe that’s why he never seems to make the list of truly righteous people. It may also be why he planted vineyards and turned to alcohol and solitude. The magnitude of his missed opportunity was enormous.

It is a Jewish characteristic to question everything, even of God. Just because God Himself says something, does not mean we must accept it – ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזרה. The entire point of prophecies of doom is so that we do something different and avert disaster so that God’s promise does not happen.

When something feels wrong don’t just accept it. It’s a challenge! Do something, say something.

Believe It, Achieve It

2 minute read
Straightforward

The flood story is a complex and layered story, with many different messages about right and wrong.

One of the messages that Chazal understood is the importance of careful speech. When the Torah talks about the different kinds of animals, it does not use the accurate and concise form of טהור and טמא, pure and impure. Instead, it uses the terms טְּהוֹרָה and אֲשֶׁר לֹא טְהֹרָה, pure and that which is not pure. Avoiding a word with negative connotations teaches the value of the words we use.

Yet the opening of the story is not overly complimentary:

נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹרֹתָיו – Noah was righteous; he was flawless in his day… (6:9)

Chazal detected ambiguity, and understood that this description could be interpreted favourably or unfavourably. Either he was absolutely righteous, and would have been considered righteous in any era, or he was only relatively righteous. In a degenerate age, he was the best person humanity could muster.

But how could Chazal teach the importance of speaking nicely, yet within the very same story interpret an ambiguous phrase unfavourably?

God spoke to Noah and said something similar:

כִּי־אֹתְךָ רָאִיתִי צַדִּיק לְפָנַי בַּדּוֹר הַזֶּה – I have found you alone to be righteous in this generation… (7:1)

The Zohar says that the Noah thought that he was being damned with faint praise, and God didn’t rate him. Therefore, Rabbi Shlomo Farhi explains, Chazal didn’t read it as a criticism – but Noah did! And his disappointment tarnished his subsequent choices and actions.

He didn’t try to save his community, influence them, or even pray for them, because he was only תָּמִים – flawless. There was only nothing wrong with him; in another time, that might not be enough. He could have been so much more, but believing that God’s ambiguous remark was a criticism destroyed him.

It is incorrect to be trite and small. Not only does it let yourself down; but far worse is that it lets the people who need you down too. It’s not wrong to believe in our ability to affect the people around us.

One of the messages of the flood story teaches that the opposite is true – there is a universal principle that every one of us would do well to believe that we can positively impact each other.

Salty

< 1 minute
Straightforward

After Korach’s failed coup, Hashem reiterated the prominence that Ahron and his descendants would have. They would always be at the service of the Jewish people, guiding religious practice:

כל תרומת הקדשים אשר ירימו בני־ישראל ה נתתי לך ולבניך ולבנתיך אתך לחק־עולם ברית מלח עולם הוא לפני ה לך ולזרעך אתך – All the gifts that the Jewish people set aside for Hashem, I give to you, to your sons and daughters, as a due for all time. It shall be an eternal covenant of salt before Hashem and for you and your descendants as well. (18:19)

The covenant of salt is an expression of trust and friendship. Calling the covenant after salt calls to mind how the covenant is eternal.

But if it’s eternal, what does salt add to the expression?

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi explains that the comparison is literal as well.

The property of salt is not just that it never spoils, but that it enhances and draws out the properties of what it interacts with.

Ahron was the paragon of public service. What he did for others was he brought people together, and brought out what was best in them. Life in service of others is what made him so special.

The comparison to salt evokes a contrast to Korach, who was only in it for himself, not for others.

The mark of greatness is being there for others even when it’s a thankless task.

Failure is not Fatal

3 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acting

2 minute read
Straightforward

When the spies returned from Canaan and delivered their gloomy report, the people were distraught. These people who had seen so much lost faith and bitterly complained, wishing to go back to Egypt.

Disappointed, God condemned them to wander for 40 years and die in the wilderness. While they did not deserve the privilege of the Land of Israel, perhaps their children would.

But when some of the people heard their fate, they refused to accept it at first and attempted to cross the border themselves:

וַיַּשְׁכִּמוּ בַבֹּקֶר וַיַּעֲלוּ אֶל־רֹאשׁ־הָהָר לֵאמֹר הִנֶּנּוּ וְעָלִינוּ אֶל־הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר־אָמַר ה’ כִּי חָטָאנוּ – They rose early the next morning, and set out toward the crest of the mountain, saying, “We are prepared to go to the place that Hashem has spoken of, for we were wrong.” (14:40)

This excursion was a catastrophic failure, and this group quickly succumbed to the local population

R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that the language used to describe this doomed show of faith has echoes that are reminiscent of the story of Avraham’s ultimate act of faith. He rose early; they rose early – וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אַבְרָהָם בַּבֹּקֶר / וַיַּשְׁכִּמוּ בַבֹּקֶ. He went to the place; they went to the place – וַיֵּלֶךְ אֶל־הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר־אָמַר־לוֹ הָאֱלֹהִים / וְעָלִינוּ אֶל־הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר־אָמַר ה’. He reported for duty, with a simple “Here I stand,” and they did the same – הִנֵּנִי / הִנֶּנּוּ.

Yet Avraham is canonized in our pantheon of heroes for eternity, and these failed adventurers died in disgrace, even though the Torah suggests that they reenacted Avraham’s path to the letter!

Why did doing what worked for Avraham’s legendary feat not work for these people?

R’ Shlomo Farhi suggests that quite simply, Avraham’s faith was authentic and genuine, and this was not. Avraham’s great act of faith was corrupted here into only a show of faith.

Avraham had faith long before he knew where he was going, and Avraham set out entirely open to where God and the universe would bring him, and could truthfully say he stood ready to serve – הִנֵּנִי.

But when this foolhardy group attempted to preempt history, the comparison they wanted to evoke was false and hollow. Unlike Avraham, they had an agenda entirely closed to what God would send their way; God had made clear this was not the way, and Israel had been closed to them. So they could imitate Avraham’s actions and parrot the words, but it’s not where they truly stood, and they weren’t ready to serve – they weren’t listening at all.

To understand how and where to move forward, you need to introspect with intellectual honesty.

Before trying to get where you’re going, make sure you first determine where you actually are.

Excuses Aren’t Kosher

2 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cutting Corners

< 1 minute
Straightforward

Anyone could tell you that idol worship is anathema to Judaism. Some would tell you that idol worship doesn’t truly exist today. Fewer could tell you that it exists in certain forms in all our lives.

A sub-category of idolatry is superstition, which the Torah outlaws:

לֹא תְנַחֲשׁוּ וְלֹא תְעוֹנֵנוּ – Do not consult omens or lucky times… (19:26)

R’ Shlomo Farhi defines idolatry as losing grip on your intellectual approach to what it means to a human. What differentiates mankind from the animal kingdom is that we can control our choices and thought processes.

Rav Hirsch teaches that superstition divorces our God-given mental faculties from our choices, which is the exact definition of idolatry.

Superstition denies the order of science and nature, and denies free will and morality. The Torah is the lens through which we are charged with making choices, and superstition circumvents it.

Superstition places moral actions under external influences, destroying the relationship between Creator and creation. Rav Hirsch notes the common root of Nichush – superstition, and Nachash – the primeval snake. Like the snake, superstitious activity deceptively wriggles and slithers toward disaster.

The people most susceptible to superstition are vulnerable people struggling through something, desperate for a way forward. The Torah emphasises that cutting corners is not the way forward.

The Torah is supposed to guide us through the darkness. Doubt is normal. Uncertainty is expected. The Torah urges us to embrace the difficulty of the unknown, and challenges us to work through it without looking for a quick fix.

The Answer to Your Prayers

3 minute read
Straightforward

Prayer is deeply personal, and everyone prays in their own way.

While there are different approaches to precisely how prayer works or what it affects, we assume that the omnipresent and omniscient God is listening, and we know that not every prayer is answered in the way we might hope.

What kind of prayers does God listen to?

Some people expect that we need righteous men and saints to pray for us, and they might be surprised.

In the story of Yitzchak’s childhood, the Torah recounts how Sarah saw Yishmael as a bad influence on her son Yitzchak, and so she sent Yishmael and his mother Hagar away from home.

The Torah tells how Hagar and Yishmael wandered, lost in the wilderness, until they ran out of water, and Yishmael slowly dehydrated. Knowing no-one was coming to the rescue, and with certainty that her son would die suffering, she cried out in utter despair – וַתִּשָּׂא אֶת-קֹלָהּ וַתֵּבְךְּ – she raised her voice and wept.

Miraculously, Hagar is given a vision of a nearby oasis and rushes to get the water she needs to save her son.

While this seems to conform with our conventional understanding of prayer, the mother crying for her child, the Torah does not credit Hagar with the prayer that saved Yishmael. The angel says that Hashem listened – but not to her:

וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶת קוֹל הַנַּעַר וַיִּקְרָא מַלְאַךְ אֱלֹהִים אֶל הָגָר מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ מַה לָּךְ הָגָר אַל תִּירְאִי כִּי שָׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶל קוֹל הַנַּעַר בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם – God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called out to Hagar from heaven, and said to her: “Don’t worry, Hagar; God has heard the voice of the boy in his state.” (21:16)

The Torah never ascribes an action or a word to Yishmael; he is entirely passive. He is the object in the story, the object of his mother’s prayers, the acted upon, and not the actor.

The mother’s tears for the dying son did not move the heavens. What the great prayer that moves the heavens was the voice of a dying boy – קוֹל הַנַּעַר – and he never says a word! Perhaps, in his suffering, he cried or sighed; but whatever it was, it is not significant enough for the Torah to record it as an action he took!

Yet that literally invisible moment of pain or sadness is what drives the entire story and goes on to shape all of history. Perhaps it can shape our understanding of prayer.

The Midrash imagines that the angels didn’t want Hashem to save Yishmael because of the atrocities his descendants would commit. But God sees the world differently. God judges circumstances as they are – בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם. The story of Yonah in Nineveh reaffirms this – it doesn’t matter how bad they are or might one day be – if they’re innocent and suffering, God cannot abide that.

We don’t have to be perfect to produce one perfect prayer. Our daily prayers affirm that God is close to the people who call on Him truthfully – קרוב ה’ לכל קוראיו, לכל אשר יקראוהו באמת. It is not beyond us to ask for help and really mean it – יקראוהו באמת.

From the stories of our ancestors, we know that God loves righteous prayers – הקדוש ברוך הוא מתאוה לתפילתן של צדיקים. R’ Shlomo Farhi highlights that God loves righteous prayers, not prayers of the righteous – תפילתן של צדיקים, as opposed to תפילת צדיקים.

Everyone is capable of a one-off, pure prayer.

The story of how Yishmael was saved teaches us that prayer isn’t confined to ritualized formalities. And maybe that’s why we read this story on Rosh Hashana. Because it doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done; or whether you know how to pray or even understand the words.

Just a single moment of pain from a suffering boy moved the heavens. It is not beyond us.

In a Hurry

2 minute read
Straightforward

Almost all mitzvos and rituals have a commemorative or symbolic aspect: we have two challahs on Shabbos to symbolize the double portion of manna on Shabbos; we sit in sukkahs because our ancestors sat in sukkahs.

But there’s something unusual about Pesach that is uncommon, if not unique.

The mitzvah of Matza is not commemorative of the fact that it’s what our ancestors ate when they left Egypt; we eat Matza specifically because of the way they left Egypt, which was in a hurry – בחפזון. Our ancestors left in a hurry and didn’t have time to bake bread properly, so we prepare our bread quickly as well.

“Quickly” is an adverb; it modifies leaving Egypt. Mitzvos usually commemorate concrete events and things. Even more than the fact of leaving Egypt, why is the fact it happened quickly so significant?

In the context of mitzvos, Judaism places utmost value in urgency – זריזין מקדימין למצות. R’ Yitzchok Hutner suggests that this principle is derived from the Matza our ancestors ate because they had to leave in a hurry.

The Torah urges us to observe the mitzvos, which the Midrash alternatively reads as Matzos – ושמרתם את המצות. Taking the analogy at face value, rushing to do a mitzvah is not an extra credit; because if it’s anything like Matza, then waiting would spoil it – מצוה הבאה לידך אל תחמיצנה. So if a mitzvah comes your way, don’t delay!

The Vilna Gaon notes that in our daily prayers, we thank God for creating space and time – ברוך עושה בראשית. In the moment God took the Jews out of Egypt, they became bonded and connected to the transcendent Creator. That connection distorts time because when the temporal meets the eternal, the result is haste; where נצחי interacts with זמן, you get חפזון. The moment God executed the Final Plague, a moment that transcended all time and decisively won the day, happened כחצות, in a non-moment. God does not act in time and so does not take His time.

As complicated as it may sound, it’s quite intuitive; when something matters, it demands urgency. R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that a lack of urgency ruins mitzvos because it profanes something sacred into just another item to procrastinate on the to-do list.

Speed and urgency are not just the specific way our ancestors left Egypt; they are the only way our ancestors could ever have left Egypt. The point of the story isn’t simply that the Jewish People left Egypt. It’s that they left quickly. Leaving “quickly” is everything – it’s the moment of magic, the moment God honoured His promise to Avraham to bind and bond with the Jewish People forever.  It was an emergency, and it was urgent; quick.

When the time came for God to act for us, God was decisive. When it’s time for us to act for God, we ought to reciprocate.

The way you do things matters. If it matters, be decisive.

Trailblazer

2 minute read
Straightforward

Before the Jews entered the Land of Israel, Moshe gave a speech to the gathered people. One of the points he made was that just because some things seem less important; it doesn’t mean people should perform them half-heartedly:

וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם-וְשָׁמַר ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ, אֶת-הַבְּרִית וְאֶת-הַחֶסֶד, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע, לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ – When you finally listen (עֵקֶב) to the laws, observe and perform them; Hashem will safeguard you, and uphold the covenant sworn to your fathers. (7:12)

עֵקֶב is the word for “heel”; it denotes some definition of stepping. In other words: when you observe the things that are trodden on, God safeguards you in some way.

Rashi understands the word to be cognate to “kneading”, which lends an additional layer of understanding. Kneading has a constructive purpose, which is to warm and stretch a cold and firm dough. We knead mitzvos when we instrumentalize them for personal gains and ends.

R’ Shlomo Farhi observes that Moshe repeats the imagery of stepping on things once again:

כָּל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר תִּדְרֹךְ כַּף רַגְלְכֶם בּוֹ לָכֶם יִהְיֶה מִן הַמִּדְבָּר וְהַלְּבָנוֹן מִן הַנָּהָר נְהַר פְּרָת וְעַד הַיָּם הָאַחֲרוֹן יִהְיֶה גְּבֻלְכֶם. לֹא יִתְיַצֵּב אִישׁ בִּפְנֵיכֶם פַּחְדְּכֶם וּמוֹרַאֲכֶם יִתֵּן | ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם עַל פְּנֵי כָל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר תִּדְרְכוּ בָהּ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לָכֶם – Every place the soles of your feet tread will be yours… No man will rise before you; the Lord will cast the fear of you and the dread of you on the land upon which you tread… (11:24,25)

This seems to say that the Land of Israel would become theirs by stepping on it. But this cannot be literal – Israel became theirs after a war!

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that the meaning here mirrors the figurative sense of treading on essential things. By be being careful what we step on, we measure our steps, and each safeguarded step takes us where we need to go.

But this is only true if we internalize the lesson – וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן.

What if we don’t get it?

Moshe addresses this in his very next sentence:

רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָֽה – Look and see how I place before you a blessing and a curse… (11:26)

Quite literally – רְאֵה – “Look and see! I need you to get this!”

The curse that comes along with not measuring our actions is actions that are not measured! We will inevitably tread on the important things, and our steps will take us nowhere.

With a singular focus of what matters and what doesn’t, we would have such singular focus that it would be impossible to go wrong. We have a crystal clarity that fire burns when you come too close.

If we had the same level of perception of right and wrong; that itself would be our safeguard, and every step would take us forward, and we would not fear a misstep.

Steps can take us forward, backward, sideways, and nowhere. We can step on important things and important people along the way. It is always a good time to be mindful of the direction we are headed, why we’re doing it, and if what we’re doing is the best way to get there.

The speech was long ago, but the message is as true today as it was then. No one else can take the steps for us. We need to blaze trails of our own.

Our moral compasses can only navigate for us when they are switched on.

Achdus; What Is Unity?

< 1 minute
Straightforward

At the inauguration of the Mishkan, the princes of each tribe offered a sacrifice. The Torah records what each prince offered separately, despite being completely identical, and they delivered the twelve sets of gifts on six wagons:

וַיָּבִיאוּ אֶת קָרְבָּנָם לִפְנֵי ה שֵׁשׁ עֶגְלֹת צָב וּשְׁנֵי עָשָׂר בָּקָר עֲגָלָה עַל שְׁנֵי הַנְּשִׂאִים וְשׁוֹר לְאֶחָד וַיַּקְרִיבוּ אוֹתָם לִפְנֵי הַמִּשְׁכָּן – They brought their gifts before the Lord: six covered wagons and twelve oxen, a wagon for each two chieftains, and an ox for each one; they presented them in front of the Mishkan. (7:3)

The Sforno understands that the six wagons were a perfect act of unity. This illustrates that each prince’s gift, while the same as the others in substance, retained a sense of individuality.

Unity cannot require an individual to be subsumed into a homogenous, uniform entity; this would entirely compromise the individual.

It cannot be that the way to accept another person is when they are just like you.

However, this begs the question; for the ultimate display of unity, why not merge all the gifts into one wagon?

R’ Shlomo Farhi suggests that something done as a display is only a display! Unity is not an ideological principle; it is practical, grassroots, and organic. One individual has to get on with another individual specifically! The example set by the princes is perfect – it is not institutional or societal; it is personal – human to human.

Unity means actually identifying and sharing a common bond and spirit with something – not the display.

Chazon; Vision Through Frosted Glass

5 minute read
Straightforward

Everyone knows that the Second Beis HaMikdash was destroyed because of baseless hatred. But not everyone talks about why the First Beis HaMamikdash fell, which ought to be surprising.

It’s surprising because the reasons are very well documented. And unlike the Second Beis HaMikdash, the causes aren’t speculative because the First Beis HaMikdash stood in the last era of prophecy. So if we were actually concerned with what issues plagued the society in the days leading to the destruction of a Beis HaMikdash, we need to look no further than God’s own thoughts on the matter, as communicated through the prophets of that era.

It’s important to understand what issues caused the loss of a Beis HaMikdash because they are the issues that preclude a new one from materializing. Our Sages suggest that each generation that does not see it rebuilt has participated in its destruction; a generation that hasn’t resolved the issues that cause the loss of a Beis HaMikdash isn’t ready for one. In other words, if we don’t have a solution, we are part of the problem.

The Shabbos before Tisha b’Av is Parshas Devarim, which is also called Shabbos Chazon, named for the opening words of the Haftara, חֲזוֹן יְשַׁעְיָהוּ – Isaiah’s Vision. He has sharp words for his audience, that reverberate through the ages:

שִׁמְעוּ דְבַר-ה קְצִינֵי סְדֹם הַאֲזִינוּ תּוֹרַת אֱלֹהֵינוּ עַם עֲמֹרָה. לָמָּה-לִּי רֹב-זִבְחֵיכֶם יֹאמַר ה שָׂבַעְתִּי עֹלוֹת אֵילִים וְחֵלֶב מְרִיאִים וְדַם פָּרִים וּכְבָשִׂים וְעַתּוּדִים לֹא חָפָצְתִּי. כִּי תָבֹאוּ לֵרָאוֹת פָּנָי מִי-בִקֵּשׁ זֹאת מִיֶּדְכֶם רְמֹס חֲצֵרָי. לֹא תוֹסִיפוּ הָבִיא מִנְחַת-שָׁוְא קְטֹרֶת תּוֹעֵבָה הִיא לִי חֹדֶשׁ וְשַׁבָּת קְרֹא מִקְרָא לֹא-אוּכַל אָוֶן וַעֲצָרָה. חָדְשֵׁיכֶם וּמוֹעֲדֵיכֶם שָׂנְאָה נַפְשִׁי הָיוּ עָלַי לָטֹרַח נִלְאֵיתִי נְשֹׂא. וּבְפָרִשְׂכֶם כַּפֵּיכֶם אַעְלִים עֵינַי מִכֶּם גַּם כִּי-תַרְבּוּ תְפִלָּה אֵינֶנִּי שֹׁמֵעַ יְדֵיכֶם דָּמִים מָלֵאוּ. רַחֲצוּ הִזַּכּוּ הָסִירוּ רֹעַ מַעַלְלֵיכֶם מִנֶּגֶד עֵינָי חִדְלוּ הָרֵעַ. לִמְדוּ הֵיטֵב דִּרְשׁוּ מִשְׁפָּט אַשְּׁרוּ חָמוֹץ שִׁפְטוּ יָתוֹם רִיבוּ אַלְמָנָה.

“Listen to Hashem, you leaders of Sodom. Listen to the law of our God, people of Gomorrah!”

“What makes you think I want all your sacrifices?” says Hashem. “I am stuffed from your burnt offerings and sacrifices of rams and the fat of cattle. I get no pleasure from the blood of bulls, lambs, and goats. When you come to worship me, who asked you to parade through my courts with all your ceremony? Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts; the incense of your offerings disgusts me!

“Your celebrations of Rosh Chodesh and Shabbos and your fast days are all sinful and false. I want no more of your pious meetings! I hate your new moon celebrations and your annual festivals. They are a burden to me. I cannot stand them! When you raise your hands in prayer, I will not look. Though you might offer many prayers, I will not listen because your hands are covered with the blood of innocents!

“Wash yourselves and become clean! Get your sins out of my sight. Give up your evil ways; learn to do good. Seek justice! Help the oppressed and vulnerable! Defend the cause of orphans! Fight for the rights of widows!” – (1:10-17)

There were many prophets and prophecies whose names and stories are lost; they did were not included in the canon of Tanach. The ones that were selected were included because of their resonance beyond their time.

The prophet goes on to mention bribery, broken institutions, and corrupt leadership. A permanent victory that vanquishes evil forever is childish fantasy; even the most ideal world would still require a justice system. It’s not a flaw; it’s a feature of human choice.

But when our society is challenged, when evil rears its ugly head, how do we respond? Do we respond decisively and with finality? Or with hesitancy and lip service?

The prophet rails against corruption and perversion of justice as the ultimate crime. If a society’s institutions are too crooked to protect the people who need them, those people can be stepped on with impunity. That society, in a subtle, but very real way, endorses and protects criminals and predators, that society is morally bankrupt and not fit for purpose.

How many vulnerable people do you know? Are they getting all the help they need? What are you doing about it? Are you hiding behind institutions? Are you so sure those institutions are doing everything possible?

The prophet is pretty emphatic that the individuals in his society did not personally take up the fight for the vulnerable people who needed someone in their corner – רַחֲצוּ הִזַּכּוּ הָסִירוּ רֹעַ מַעַלְלֵיכֶם מִנֶּגֶד עֵינָי חִדְלוּ הָרֵעַ. לִמְדוּ הֵיטֵב דִּרְשׁוּ מִשְׁפָּט אַשְּׁרוּ חָמוֹץ שִׁפְטוּ יָתוֹם רִיבוּ אַלְמָנָה.

Every year, we read about another aguna, another fraud, another molester, another scandal, and another cover-up. How many times have once-great institutions and leaders failed to remove malfeasors from their prey or even call them out for what they are? It is the highest betrayal, and it comes at our expense.

We are not a community if we do not protect and ease the burdens of our brothers and sisters. When individuals have been proven dangerous, whether on the balance of probabilities or beyond a reasonable doubt, we should tolerate their presence or influence. If you wonder if there is a veiled reference here to some specific incident that says a lot about where we are.

A generation that does not see the Temple rebuilt has participated in its destruction. The prophet’s words are chilling.

And it’s crucial to understand the prophet’s specific criticism correctly. It is not a polemic against leaders, and nor is this. It was and is a call to action directly to each of us, not to hide behind or rely on institutions or others to get help to the people who need it.

They and we need you.

Our society has much to be proud of today, but make no mistake; we cannot launder or buy off mediocrity in one area with excellence in another. The people of that time were so diligent and meticulous in their prayer and sacrifice, yet awful at other things. The amount and scale of Torah study and charity in the world today is phenomenal and unprecedented in history. But God tells us what He thinks of that if the people who need help go neglected and unassisted:

לָמָּה-לִּי רֹב-זִבְחֵיכֶם יֹאמַר ה שָׂבַעְתִּי עֹלוֹת אֵילִים וְחֵלֶב מְרִיאִים וְדַם פָּרִים וּכְבָשִׂים וְעַתּוּדִים לֹא חָפָצְתִּי – “I am stuffed from your burnt offerings and sacrifices of rams and the fat of cattle. The blood of bulls, lambs and goats does nothing for Me!” (1:11)

The lessons we ought to learn from history knock on our door every year, louder and louder. In Moshe’s parting address to the people he spent his life trying to save, he says to them:

אֲדַבֵּר אֲלֵיכֶם וְלֹא שְׁמַעְתֶּם – “I spoke, yet you would not listen!” (1:43)

We see problems around us, and we do not do enough to fix them. If someone lost their job, or can’t get into school, or is being bullied, you already know that praying more with greater intensity is not the solution these problems require.

If you see something wrong, do not make our ancestors’ mistake of hiding behind false piety. Get involved and lend a hand to fix the problems in your community. And if you have some money, open the checkbook – but don’t forget to roll your sleeves up, or else you’re just hiding behind other people in a slightly better way.

If we had a Beis HaMikdash today, we couldn’t be trusted to keep it; otherwise, it would be here by now. How can we fast, weep, and pray when there are so many abused, hungry, poor, and other vulnerable people in our communities? Our wonderful charities and outstanding individuals and organizations lead the way for the rest of us, but they do not satisfy our personal obligations.

It is easy to make that difference; resolve to be better in a meaningful and substantial way.

Give more charity. Give food and clothes away. Volunteer more. Make sure no child is left without a school. Stop bullying in school, shul, and work. Get involved in your community’s events and organizations. Use any influence you have, talk to influential people, and make that difference. Even if it’s just you alone, take responsibility for the people around you, who don’t yet know that you are someone they can rely on to help them.

If it’s too hard to cry for a tragedy we didn’t experience, that we are thousands of years removed from, then let’s cry for now; for how far we are from where we are meant to be, for the agony in our communities that’s too close for comfort. Cry for the injustices around you that you don’t seem to do anything about.

צִיּוֹן בְּמִשְׁפָּט תִּפָּדֶה וְשָׁבֶיהָ בִּצְדָקָה – “Zion will be redeemed through justice; its restoration will be through righteousness.” (1:27)

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

It’s All For You

2 minute read
Straightforward

In the aftermath of the Golden Calf, God tells the Jewish People to build a Mishkan. Once it is built and operationally ready, God calls Moshe to tell him the laws of sacrifices:

וַיִּקְרָא, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֵלָיו, מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר – God called Moshe; and spoke to him from the Hall, to say… (1:1)

Calling to somebody is a deliberate expression of consideration and care; it is the highest honor to be so directly recognized by the Creator. Quite unusually, the word וַיִּקְרָא appears in the Torah scroll with a small א. Rashi, citing a Midrash, takes this to mean that while writing the words, Moshe was uncomfortable writing about God seeking him out directly, and wrote the final letter in a small font, evoking a comparison to the prophecy of Bilam, whose prophecy has a sense of erratic encounters rather than deliberate meetings – ויקר אלוקים אל בלעם.

This teaching serves to illustrate Moshe’s humility, but it raises a major issue.

One of the foundations of Judaism is that Moshe Rabbeinu had prophecy unlike any other; it is Moshe’s Torah that we hold in such high esteem. By comparing himself to Bilam, or anyone, doesn’t Moshe actually undermine the entire Torah?

Our sages teach that Bilam didn’t have prophecy because of his qualities; but to preempt a prospective claim that if the nations of the world had a prophet like Moshe, they might have acted differently. Accordingly, it follows that Bilam was a prophet for the people’s sake, not his own merits; the abilities and achievements were incidental to the man.

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that this is the common thread Moshe could draw between himself and Bilam. In the aftermath of the Golden Calf, God told Moshe to raise his people’s spirits, and as Rashi explains, he does so by saying that God only talks to him because of the people – צא ואמור להם דברי כבושים. בשבילכם הוא מדבר עמי.

In the distinctive words of R’ Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, a man standing at the top of a mountain can’t be proud of how tall he is. As high as he may stand in the physical world, the mountain lends him his height over others, nothing else. In much the same way, Moshe achieved greatness yet remained humble. His great accomplishments were not attributable to his own effort; the people had given him his power.

However great you or them might be, we are all here to serve.

You Are Not Alone

2 minute read
Straightforward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s are the Simanim?

3 minute read
Straightforward

One of the highlights of most people’s Jewish calendar is the Rosh Hashana seder, at which we customarily eat foods we call Simanim – loosely, “Signals”.

Dipping the apple in the honey is the iconic classic, and every community has their own, be it beets; dates; leeks; pomegranates; pumpkins; beans; or even a whole lamb head.

What turns a quaint dish into a time-honored tradition is the small prayer that accompanies it, consisting of some sort of pun or wordplay: apples are sweet, so we wish each other a sweet year. Pomegranates are full of seeds, so we wish to be full of good deeds. The head is where the brain is, so we pray that we are the heads and not the tails.

You can even make up your own. Some French-speaking communities eat bananas – which sounds like “Bonne Année”, the French greeting for “Happy New Year”.

This all sounds like good fun, and possibly light-hearted.

Yet it is anything but that.

The Gemara states that Simanim are a legitimate thing – סימנא מלתא. History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes – our ancestors’ stories signal a possible future of ours – מעשה אבות סימן לבנים.

The Simanim on Rosh Hashana are not frivolous games.

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that the Simanim are supposed to make an impression, bringing our thoughts and aspirations into the world of action through this activity.

When Israel’s prophets would warn the Jews of impending exile, they would also have a visual cue symbolizing their approaching demise, offering an experience of the prophecy through actions, senses, and feelings rather than through the words of the prophet. Jeremiah wore a cattle yoke, signaling the burdens to come; Isaiah walked around nearly naked, signaling the people’s vulnerability and defenselessness; Ezekiel had to bake a bread substitute over manure, signalling the unclean foods the Jewish People would subsist on in exile. The action was not an eccentric restatement of the message; it was a key part of their duty to warn about the posible future,

The Simanim are indicators that initiate action, beginning the process of actualizing our hopes and dreams.

Breaking some of the common Simanim down shows the depth of their meaning.

For the apple and honey, staples at every Rosh Hashana table, the prayer we say is may the year ahead be good but also sweet. Because not everything sweet is good, and not everything good is sweet – תְּחַדֵּשׁ עָלֵינוּ שָׁנָה טוֹבָה וּמְתוּקָה

The word for “year” – שנה – shares a root with the words reiteration and change. The way to another year is through change – שינוי. Retracing steps, something new on top of something old, isn’t progress. A drawing that is erased still leaves the paper smudged. We don’t ask for another year, but a “new” year. The most incredible thing we can ask for is a fresh start and a new iteration – שתחדש.

Instead of bringing old baggage, we should realize the choice is ours.

Different communities differ on whether they eat a morsel from a fish head or lamb head, but the blessing is the same: may we be heads, not tails – שֶׁנִּהְיֶה לְרֹאשׁ וְלֹא לְזָנָב.

When looking at an animal, it may seem like they are essentially the same, just a body length apart.

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi suggests that actually, the tail can occupy the same space as the head, but it can never get to where the head is, because the head leads, and the tail just follows.

While we don’t get to control all circumstances, variables, and people that make up our lives; we do get to exercise our free will. All we really are is the sum of the choices we’ve ever made. While we can’t choose to be happy, healthy, or successful; we can choose to take steps those things more possible.

In other words, all we can choose is what we choose.

If choices define you, and you are a passenger to someone else’s choices, you are their tail.  Floating with the current is not the same as swimming.

Rav Shimshon Pinkus explained it as a wish for a year that is intentional – לראש; with constant course corrections going forward – שנהיה; because if your actions today are based on yesterday’s decisions, can end up being your own tail!

There is a reason that the Simanim are beloved in every Jewish home. They bring our hopes and dreams from the realm of thought into the sensory world we can touch and feel.

The Loop

< 1 minute
Straightforward

On certain special occasions, we make a blessing called Shehecheyanu, expressing thanks for the opportunity of experiencing the event.

Finishing the Torah cycle on Simchas Torah is a significant milestone, yet we don’t say the Shehecheyanu blessing.

Why not?

R’ Shlomo Farhi points out that the first word in the Torah is בראשית, and the last, ישראל. The first and last letters in the Torah spell out לב – heart. The Torah only wants an emotional investment from us – רחמנה ליבא בעי.

But in the correct order, it also spells out בל, as in בלבל or מבלבל, meaning “confused” or “mixed up”. When we look at the ocean of Torah before us, it is בלבל – uncharted and unknown territory. But looking back, it is our לב.

A Torah cycle does not stand in isolation – every new cycle amplifies previous cycles.

This lends light to the old adage that the Torah never finishes, and why we immediately loop back to the beginning. There is no end, only a constant battle against בלבל by way of לב, finishing again. And again. And again.

In other words, there’s no והגיענו!

It’s not the Torah we complete every year, only the cycle.

Don’t Run Before You Can Walk

2 minute read
Straightforward

Avraham interacted with God many times without incident.

But in God’s most important conversation with Avraham, where God forms a covenant with Avraham and gives him a glimpse of the future, the Torah reports something unusual:

וַיִּפֹּל אַבְרָם, עַל-פָּנָיו; וַיְדַבֵּר אִתּוֹ אֱלֹהִים, לֵאמֹר – Avraham threw himself on his face, and God spoke to him. (17:3)

This sort of reaction to God’s presence is unique – the Torah does not describe this response any other time before or after. As Rashi explains, this was the moment God instructed Avraham to circumcise himself and his family with the symbol of their covenant – the Bris. He fell because he was not yet uncircumcised and so not in compliance with God’s command; so he recoiled from God’s presence, deficient as he was in that state.

But he was uncircumcised in every conversation beforehand, so why doesn’t the Torah records that Avraham recoiled for being uncircumcised?

R’ Chaim Soloveitchik explains that before duty or obligation exists, there cannot be a corresponding deficiency or liability for not complying with the non-existent requirement. Avraham was not “uncircumcised” in their previous interactions because the conceptual category of “uncircumcised” did not exist until God gave a command to circumcise.

Avraham didn’t have to circumcise himself before God told him to; how could he know? But the very moment God gave the instruction, the obligation came into being, and Avraham was still uncircumcised, so he could not stand in God’s presence.

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that this cuts both ways.

The standard expected of all Jews is nothing less than absolute, perfect dedication, and diligent moral consciousness.

It’s a standard far beyond what humans are capable of – so the obligation and corresponding deficiency don’t actually exist in their ideal forms. We are only capable of acting from where we are here and now.

However, day after day of here and now incrementally stack up with gradual improvement. As long as you are not yet ready to take on more, it’s not your fault that you’re not there yet. You’re not ready for every duty right now, so don’t try to take on everything at once.

But when the day comes that you can and should be doing more, but remain content to stay put, then that duty and obligation start to count against you – וַיִּפֹּל אַבְרָם, עַל-פָּנָיו.

Sure, chase more responsibility, learn more, and demand higher standards of yourself. But the moral life is a marathon, not a sprint. One step at a time is a proven and effective strategy.

Don’t run before you can walk.

Attitude Redux

5 minute read
Straightforward

During the Jewish People’s time in the desert, God gave a variety of commands.

We expect God to give commands, it comes with the territory, that’s what God does, it makes sense. They’d only just left Egypt and stood at Sinai; there was a new religion with new procedures and protocols to implement. And after all, there’s no way to know what God wants unless God says so!

What God says, we expect the audience to do, which the Torah dutifully records – וַיַּעַשׂ כֵּן. 

But what we might not expect is that the Torah reports with meticulous regularity, each and every time, not just that people obey, but that people carry out their task as per God’s command – וַיַּעַשׂ כֵּן כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה. The Torah uses this phrase tens, if not hundreds of times!

If you think about it, apart from the repetitiveness, it’s almost entirely redundant. It’s not at all obvious what doing something per God’s command adds, because, in almost every example, there is literally no other conceivable way to do the thing.

When God says to light the Menora, there is only one way to light a Menora. When God says to take a census of how many people there are, the only way to fulfill the command is to count people. When God says to bring a Korban Pesach, or how to do the Yom Kippur service, or any of the Mishkan-related workflows, or to go to war with Midian, or to execute somebody, there isn’t any other way to do any of those things! And yet each time, the Torah doesn’t say people followed their instructions; it says that the people followed their instructions faithfully as per God’s command – ‘וַיַּעַשׂ כֵּן כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה. 

Each time people follow instructions, why does the Torah add that they followed the instructions per God’s command?

Perhaps the Torah isn’t telling us that they did it; it’s telling us how they did it.

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that even when there truly is only one way to do something, there is still a right and wrong way. When the Torah adds that people followed instructions faithfully – ‘כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה – it’s not saying that they did just like they were told; it means that people follow instructions just like when they were told, capturing the snapshot of sentiment or feeling of a particular moment.

When you do anything, even if there’s no other way, you can still do it with energy, focus, and joy; or not – a right way and a wrong way, even when there’s only one way. 

Our sages were sensitive to this subtle but universal nuance.

Rashi quotes the Sifri that Ahron lit the Menora every day, precisely the way Moshe told him for the rest of his life, and never changed or deviated in any way – ‘כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה; the Sifri suggests that our everyday approach to Torah should similarly be with freshness and excitement – וְהָיוּ הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם עַל־לְבָבֶךָ.

R’ Simcha Bunim of Peshischa notes that as much as the comment is about Ahron not changing how he performed his duties, it’s equally a comment about how his duties didn’t change him. Some people let privilege and honor get to their heads – but not Ahron.

The Sfas Emes notes that lighting the Menora wasn’t a particularly prestigious ceremony in that any Kohen could kindle the lights. Still, Ahron took it seriously enough that he insisted on doing it himself every day for the rest of his life – every day, he did it like the moment he received the command.

The Ishbitza notes that the highest praise for Ahron is that he retained that initial desire, that things never got stale or boring for him. He kept challenging himself to find something new and exciting, so he lit the Menora his last time with the same enthusiasm as the first.

The Shem mi’Shmuel notes that the word for training, which means practice repetitions, is cognate to the word for inauguration, the first time you do something – חינוך / חנוכה. This suggests that training is not simply a repeat of past performance but the repetition of newness, with each repetition inviting an opportunity to introduce a fresh aspect or dimension.

Attitude and mentality are everything; the mental and emotional components heavily influence the substance of any interaction. Prayer and sacrifice require proper intent to have any substance to them; there is a vast difference between giving someone a hand because you care and giving someone a hand out of pity.

A Torah scroll is quite clearly and obviously a religious article, and yet it has no inherent sanctity from its perfect script and spelling. A Torah scroll is kosher and sacred exclusively if they were written with the express intent of imbuing the words and scroll with sanctity; which is to say that its utility and value as a holy object are solely determined by the mentality of the scribe.

The Mishkan had plenty of unique artifacts like the Menora, but it had some pretty ordinary implements that everyone owns; a shirt, a hat, a cup, and a spoon. What designated these as sacred and distinct is the intention with which they were crafted.

This is a universal truth in all walks of life, from Judaism to art to cooking. A great cook will say their secret ingredient is love; a great artist or sage will say their secret technique is heart and soul. 

In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., if a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michelangelo painted, Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’

Mastery is typically boring. Finishing your fiftieth marathon is probably less special than your first.

It’s normal.

The more we experience something, the more our enthusiasm and attention typically wane. Predictability and comfort put an end to fresh euphoria; when we know what to expect, our excitement wears off, and boredom sets in. That’s why we need to keep things fresh if we’re focused on a long-term project or goal; cruise control is a killer.

It’s something often seen with young athletes or scholars who lose their way – they think they’ve made it and stop putting in the work that would take them to the elite tier. The seasoned pros always comment on how essential it is for youngsters to maintain their concentration and focus to stay on track; to be fully present in each moment and devote their full and undivided attention so things don’t get boring.

In all walks of life, the highest form of mastery is in valuing each repetition and finding the novelty and excitement in it.

It’s not redundant for the Torah to say each time that people did the right thing in the right way for the right reason. It is ubiquitous because it reflects a truism of life, a constant reminder that is universally true.

The way you do things matters.

For The Record

5 minute read
Straightforward

If we try to imagine the cunning and devious Lavan’s house, it can’t have been a particularly nurturing and safe environment to grow up in. All the same, that environment produces quality individuals in the forms of Rachel and Leah. Moreover, it is where our ancestor Yakov comes into himself and where all his sons were born.

However, there is a palpable strain and tension between Rachel and Leah, which repeatedly surfaces. Yakov loved Rachel, but Lavan substituted Leah in her place at their wedding, and Rachel only married Yakov a little later. Rachel was loved but could not give Yakov children, whereas Leah, who gave Yakov his sons, was hated. One day, a young Reuven picked some flowers for his mother Leah, which the Midrash suggests might have been a fertility supplement. All the same, we recognize it for what it is, that joyful moment in a parent’s life when a child does something sweet.

Rachel asked Leah to share that moment with her, and Leah bristled at the suggestion:

וַיֵּלֶךְ רְאוּבֵן בִּימֵי קְצִיר-חִטִּים, וַיִּמְצָא דוּדָאִים בַּשָּׂדֶה, וַיָּבֵא אֹתָם, אֶל-לֵאָה אִמּוֹ; וַתֹּאמֶר רָחֵל, אֶל-לֵאָה, תְּנִי-נָא לִי, מִדּוּדָאֵי בְּנֵךְ. וַתֹּאמֶר לָהּ, הַמְעַט קַחְתֵּךְ אֶת-אִישִׁי, וְלָקַחַת, גַּם אֶת-דּוּדָאֵי בְּנִי; וַתֹּאמֶר רָחֵל, לָכֵן יִשְׁכַּב עִמָּךְ הַלַּיְלָה, תַּחַת, דּוּדָאֵי בְנֵךְ. וַיָּבֹא יַעֲקֹב מִן-הַשָּׂדֶה, בָּעֶרֶב, וַתֵּצֵא לֵאָה לִקְרָאתוֹ וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלַי תָּבוֹא, כִּי שָׂכֹר שְׂכַרְתִּיךָ בְּדוּדָאֵי בְּנִי; וַיִּשְׁכַּב עִמָּהּ, בַּלַּיְלָה הוּא – In the days of the wheat harvest, Reuven went and found flowers in the field. He brought them to Leah, his mother, and Rachel said to Leah, “Please give me some of your son’s flowers.” And Leah said to her, “Is it not enough that you took my husband, but now you also wish to take my son’s flowers?” So Rachel said, “Fine, he shall sleep with you tonight in return for your son’s flowers.” Yakov came from the field in the evening, and Leah went to meet him, and she said, “You shall be with me, because I have won you for my son’s flowers.” (30:14-16)

This is a very terse and complex interaction, and there is typically a lot of focus on Rachel’s grace and dignity in not destroying Leah with a fiery response. Knowing the story as we do, we know that Yakov served Lavan faithfully for seven years to marry the love of his life, Rachel, only for Lavan to cruelly substitute Leah in her place at the wedding ceremony with a phony excuse.

R’ Shalom Schwadron teaches that while it was significant enough for Rachel to want to prevent Leah from public humiliation, the ability to refrain from embarrassing her even in a private conversation between sisters shows the extent of Rachel’s greatness. R’ Mordechai Druck highlights that Rachel refused to keep the score, despite the pain she lived with.

But, admirable as that may be, how can Leah have the audacity and gall to suggest that Rachel was taking Leah’s husband when it was Leah who had taken Rachel’s husband? Leah is living Rachel’s life! Leah is married to her love, took her place at her own wedding, and is now giving her husband the children that she herself cannot. Doesn’t Leah have it precisely backward? What was she thinking?

R’ Shlomo Farhi suggests that Leah was saying that it was bad enough that Rachel deprived Leah of the companionship of having a husband – הַמְעַט קַחְתֵּךְ אֶת-אִישִׁי; but all Leah had going for her was the kids! And now Rachel wanted to take the only thing Leah had over her by giving Yakov kids – וְלָקַחַת, גַּם אֶת-דּוּדָאֵי בְּנִי.

If we consider Leah’s perspective for a moment, what was she supposed to have done? Lavan was a trickster and a powerful man; do we expect that she had any choice in the matter? She did what she had to do in the moment and tried to get on with her life and make the best of it. As the Seforno puts it, why did Rachel still have to marry Yakov after that happened, sabotaging Leah so she was hated? It’s all Rachel’s fault!

This reading makes sense, and it fits.

R’ David Fohrman suggests a compelling and explosive reading based on Midrash.

The story about the flowers is a re-enactment of the wedding night, recreating the past and healing all the hurt.

In the story of the flowers, it was Rachel’s night to be with Yakov, just like the first wedding night. There, Leah was substituted in secret, but this time, Rachel brought Leah in with everyone’s consent – no longer Lavan’s victims. Rachel willingly gave Leah that night, letting go of years of pain, choosing to share what should have been her exclusive relationship with Yakov. Rachel hears Leah’s pain and perspective, that to Leah, Rachel stood in the way of Leah’s companionship, and Rachel acts on this and stops obstructing Leah.

Once Rachel does this, the Torah never describes her as jealous ever again. She has healed and given Leah permission to be in the relationship.

What’s more, Leah boldly goes out to greet Yakov – וַתֵּצֵא לֵאָה לִקְרָאתוֹ וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלַי תָּבוֹא, כִּי שָׂכֹר שְׂכַרְתִּיךָ, mirroring Yakov’s bargain with Lavan – מַה־מַּשְׂכֻּרְתֶּךָ / שָׂכֹר שְׂכַרְתִּיךָ. The fraud of the wedding night is undone and quite literally unveiled. Leah can present herself as she truly is, burying Yakov’s resentment for good as well – the Torah never describes Leah as hated ever again.

Right after this moment of healing, God remembers Rachel and blesses her with children:

וַיִּזְכֹּר אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-רָחֵל; וַיִּשְׁמַע אֵלֶיהָ אֱלֹהִים, וַיִּפְתַּח אֶת-רַחְמָהּ –  Hashem remembered Rachel, heard her, and opened her womb. (30:22)

Rashi explains that what God remembered was Rachel’s kindness to Leah on the night of the wedding. Rachel could have ruined the marriage but chose not to, saving her sister from humiliation, playing a vital role in ensuring that Lavan’s scheme wasn’t discovered until it was too late. But that was years ago!

God remembered Rachel now, not because of her pain, but because of her healing. When things were most challenging for her, she could hear the perspective of the sister she’d turned into her rival and dug deep to make peace.

On Tisha b’Av, we read Jeremiah’s consolation, where God listens to Rachel:

קוֹל בְּרָמָה נִשְׁמָע נְהִי בְּכִי תַמְרוּרִים רָחֵל מְבַכָּה עַל־בָּנֶיהָ מֵאֲנָה לְהִנָּחֵם עַל־בָּנֶיהָ כִּי אֵינֶנּוּ… מִנְעִי קוֹלֵךְ מִבֶּכִי וְעֵינַיִךְ מִדִּמְעָה כִּי יֵשׁ שָׂכָר לִפְעֻלָּתֵךְ נְאֻם־ה וְשָׁבוּ מֵאֶרֶץ אוֹיֵב – A cry is heard in Ramah; wailing, bitter weeping Rachel is weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted over her children; they are gone… “Restrain your voice from weeping, your eyes from shedding tears! For there is a reward for your labor, declares Hashem, they shall return from the enemy’s land…” (31:15,16)

Jeremiah tells us that beyond the tears and prayers, which Avraham, Yitzchak, Yakov, and Moshe could provide as well, God only listens to Rachel because of something heroic she did – יֵשׁ שָׂכָר לִפְעֻלָּתֵךְ. Even better than being sad is becoming our own hero.

In our greatest moments of pain, can we take a step back from our hurt and ask what the situation might look like from our opponent’s point of view? The ability to ask that question is nothing short of heroic, but it’s the way out of conflict.

Charity Redux

6 minute read
Straightforward

One of the foundations of the modern world we inhabit is the notion of egalitarianism, the idea that all humans are equal in fundamental worth or moral status; giving birth to, among others, the ideas that women aren’t lesser than men, and that black people aren’t lesser than white people, and the like.

This has been a decisively positive development in many respects; it is self-evident that all humans are fundamentally equal, and the Torah says as much – וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹקים  אֶת־הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹקים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם.

But it is equally evident that in many respects, the universe is not fair or equal; plenty of people are disadvantaged in countless ways. Many hardworking, honest, and decent people have difficult, stressful, and impoverished lives, not to mention the various health issues so many people experience. Human input isn’t decisive; luck is.

A modern phenomenon in human civilization has emerged to address this imbalance: the welfare state. First-world governments allocate taxpayer funds to alleviate the poverty of the disadvantaged and less fortunate – in other words, charity is a core part of national policy. This practice has been criticized for perversely enabling and exacerbating poverty further, reducing the incentive for workers to seek employment by reducing the need to work and reducing the rewards of work. If we help these people, so the thinking goes, they become dependent and lazy. Moreover, it’s a zero-sum game; I have to give up more of what’s mine, and somebody else gets the benefit from it – as any child could tell you, that’s not fair!

While the specific contours of government policy are best left to experts, it brings to the fore a relevant question that profoundly impacts our orientation to others. 

What do we owe to each other?

The conventional understanding of charity is that it’s an act of benevolent kindness and generosity, initiated and executed at the actor’s sole discretion; but this is not the Jewish understanding. 

The Jewish understanding of tzedaka is orders of magnitude more comprehensive and overarching. Extending far beyond the boundaries of kindness, the word itself literally means justice. The practice is a religious duty and social obligation; we have a duty to dispense God’s justice by helping the less fortunate. In the ancient agrarian world of the Torah, Jewish farmers were subject to mandatory religious taxes that were allocated to different beneficiaries according to specific parameters. To this day, many Jews tithe their income, allocating at least ten percent to worthy causes.

The Torah is consistently firm and unequivocal in our obligations towards each other:

וְכִי־יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ וּמָטָה יָדוֹ עִמָּךְ וְהֶחֱזַקְתָּ בּוֹ… וְחֵי אָחִיךָ עִמָּךְ – When your brother languishes, and his hand falters, you must steady and support him… Let your brother live by your side, with you. (Leviticus 25:35,36)

This framing allows no savior complex; the Torah says plainly that the recipient of your help is a disadvantaged equal, lateral to you. There is no hierarchy or verticality in helping your brother – אָחִיךָ – and you must help him live alongside you, with you – עִמָּךְ. The person you get to help is not lesser or worse than you.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch highlights how in this conception, the value of a person is not tied in any way to their economic productivity; the Torah speaks of a person’s hand faltering and requiring assistance, yet still remaining your brother – וְכִי־יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ וּמָטָה יָדוֹ עִמָּךְ. Other people don’t need to achieve anything or make money to be valid in their humanness or worthy of your respect and support. 

The Rambam famously taught that the highest level of charity is helping people get on their own feet – the ultimate and most literal fulfillment of helping your brother stand alongside you.

In the Torah’s primeval story of the dawn of humanity, Cain fatefully asks God the rhetorical question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This question deserves scrupulous attention, not just because we read the story and know that Cain is attempting to cover up his crime, but because it is the great unanswered question of Genesis and quite possibly the entire Torah and all of human history.

The pregnant silence in the story is jarring; when we read about the obligations we have toward our brother, we should consider them in light of the Torah’s first brothers – perhaps suggesting that yes, you are indeed your brother’s keeper. 

Echoing the Genesis story, the Ramban famously wrote to his son that humans have no natural hierarchy; nobody is better than you, and you’re better than nobody. Humans are brothers; the Torah speaks of what we owe each other as a result of our fraternal bond; our obligations to each other are born of sameness, not of difference. The interpersonal mitzvos are obligations between equals – from human to human; horizontal, and not vertical.

The mitzvah to aid others is far-reaching – it goes far beyond money, encompassing your time, energy, and emotions, even to the point of manual labor:

לֹא־תִרְאֶה אֶת־חֲמוֹר אָחִיךָ אוֹ שׁוֹרוֹ נֹפְלִים בַּדֶּרֶךְ וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ מֵהֶם הָקֵם תָּקִים עִמּוֹ – If you see your brother’s donkey or his ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it; you must surely raise it together. (Deut 22:4)

Beyond your brother, or the people you’d want to help, you are even obligated to help the people you don’t:

כִּי־תִרְאֶה חֲמוֹר שֹׂנַאֲךָ רֹבֵץ תַּחַת מַשָּׂאוֹ וְחָדַלְתָּ מֵעֲזֹב לוֹ עָזֹב תַּעֲזֹב עִמּוֹ – When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless surely help raise it. (Ex 23:5)

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes the common tendency humans have to give up on people who seem to attract calamity and misfortune; it would be far easier to cut them loose. The Torah speaks against the backdrop of such wayward thinking and reminds us that this person is your brother; you cannot give up on him. You must persist in helping, even if he fails over and over again – עָזֹב תַּעֲזֹב / הָקֵם תָּקִים.

However, this unilateral obligation is ripe for abuse, giving cheats and crooks a religiously sanctioned opportunity to exploit good people. The Kli Yakar offers a sharp caveat; you must only persist in helping people who are at least trying to help themselves – עִמּוֹ. R’ Shlomo Farhi piercingly suggests that it is not actually possible to help someone who won’t help themselves; the mitzvah is only to help, not enable. But so long as they’re trying, don’t walk away; figure it out together – עָזֹב תַּעֲזֹב עִמּוֹ / הָקֵם תָּקִים עִמּוֹ. 

Our sages suggest that we should be grateful for cheats and crooks; otherwise, we’d be guilty over each and every person we fail to help.

While many mitzvos and rituals have an accompanying blessing to initiate the action, the Rashba notes that interpersonal mitzvos do not have such a blessing; making a blessing before helping another person would be dehumanizing, instrumentalizing a person into an object you do a mitzvah with, eroding the mitzvah entirely.

The Torah has a prominent spiritual dimension, but the interpersonal aspect of the Torah is a coequal, interdependent, and reciprocal component. It can be easy to get carried away with the spiritual trappings of helping people without being concerned about the person, but that’s what it’s all about – the other person is your brother, and you need to relate to him in that way.

R’ Yitzchak Hutner was a Rosh Yeshiva renowned for his wit. Sick in hospital, a student came to visit his teacher and mentor. The great rabbi asked his guest why he had come, and the young man responded that it was a great mitzvah to visit the sick. Characteristically, R’ Hutner challenged his visitor, “Am I your Lulav? Did you come to shake me?”

If we are more concerned about lazy freeloaders who exploit public resources than disadvantaged people who need a leg up, it is only misdirection from the lesser angels of our nature; moral indignation that permits acting on envy and hate under a cloak of virtue. The Torah articulates a clear skew and strong preference toward taking action that helps others; the marginal cost of not helping is unacceptable.

Tzedaka is not charity or philanthropy. Less fortunate isn’t a euphemism; it’s a self-evident and observable fact. It’s entitled to think it’s not fair that you have to give something up so someone else can benefit; it’s about justice, not fairness. Giving your money to others is explicitly a zero-sum game. By telling us to do it anyway, the Torah explicitly dismisses this objection as irrelevant, revealing that thinking in terms of winning and losing is an entirely incorrect perspective to bring to the interaction.

Your choice isn’t whether to help others; it’s who to help and how – which charities to give to, and in what quantities. It’s the right thing to do; it is wrong not to.

It is important to be a good steward of capital; will this contribution be the highest and best use of your resources? But while it’s vital to think in terms of impact and effectiveness, be mindful that some people aren’t ever going to get by on their own. The widows and orphans of the world aren’t going to be okay because you wrote a check one time or sent a care package for Pesach; people experiencing chronic illness aren’t going to recover because you visited them once or hosted a fundraiser a while back. 

The Torah calls for your continued interest and persistent involvement, not a one-off act; a mode of being, a mentality of feeling obligated to intervene for people who need help today and, in all likelihood, will still need help tomorrow and the day after as well.

Your brothers need you; you must persist.

Tailoring Your Torah

3 minute read
Straightforward

While the Seder is about transmitting memories and identity to our children, the Haggadah wisely acknowledges that there is no one-size-fits-all for education, suggesting a tailored approach to respond to each child.

When the wise son asks what the reasons behind our observance are, we give part of an answer, just a law really – אֵין מַפְטִירִין אַחַר הַפֶּסַח אֲפִיקוֹמָן. The Sfas Emes explains that the starting point of observance is that the Torah is ours, and this is the law. There needn’t be a loftier reason than that!

And yet, R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch quipped that if you perform symbolic acts without bothering to understand the symbolism, you end up doing a bunch of strange things for literally no reason at all.

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that we need to engage with the wise son and stimulate his thinking. There are many reasons for everything that we do, and different reasons speak to different people. But the reasons are secondary to why we choose to be observant. So we tell him the law with no reason; there is no one single reason, he can search for the ideas that speak to him.

To the wicked son, the Haggadah offers an incredibly harsh rebuke – blunt his teeth and remind him that if he’d been in Egypt, he never would have left – הַקְהֵה אֶת שִׁנָּיו וֶאֱמוֹר לוֹ: “בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה’ לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם.” לִי וְלֹא־לוֹ. אִלּוּ הָיָה שָׁם, לֹא הָיָה נִגְאָל. While our parents’ generation might have taken this quite literally, it’s not necessarily as harsh as it seems!

R’ Shlomo Freshwater observes that before Sinai, people who lost their way tended not to find their way back, for example, the generation of the Flood story, Yishmael, and Esav, among many others. But in a post-Sinai era, this son is fortunate to live in an era where he can make amends. If he’d lived in that ear, he might not have been so lucky! – אִלּוּ הָיָה שָׁם, לֹא הָיָה נִגְאָל.

As far as blunting his teeth, it is famously noted that רשע has a numerological value of 570. Subtract שניו, numerological value 366; and the result is 204, the numerological value of צדיק. Behind the cutesy numbers game lies a serious truth. Some children harbor bitterness, negativity, and resentment. Find a way to neutralize the bite, and dig past the surface because there is a wonderful person in there waiting to be recognized.

The simple son can’t get past shallow simplicity – “What is this?” But, the Haggadah cautions, don’t talk down to him. Rather, patiently explain the answer in a way he can process.

The Haggadah suggests what to say to each son, but not to the son who doesn’t know how to ask. Instead of saying anything in particular – the Haggadah just says to give him an opening – אַתְּ פְּתַח לוֹ.

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that creating an opening means cultivating curiosity – the entire Seder is full of strange customs and rituals to help do just that. The most wonderful and profound speech just won’t matter to someone who doesn’t get it, but it is also possible to nurture with silence – חֲנֹךְ לַנַּעַר עַל פִּי דַרְכּוֹ.

Whatever challenges the wise, wicked, simple, and quiet child may pose, at least they are at the Seder. They’re present and engaged in different ways, and we can work with that. The Lubavitcher Rebbe wonders about a fifth son – the one who isn’t at the seder because we’ve given up on him.

We can recognize these archetypes in our friends and family, but we may even recognize them in ourselves at different phases of our lives. So take the Haggadah’s advice to heart. Don’t be rigid; know yourself, know your audience, and tailor your message accordingly.

False Start

3 minute read
Straightforward

One of the primary ways we embrace holiness and spirituality, be it Shabbos or Yom Tov, is by saying kiddush – literally, sanctification. By saying the ritual words, we imbue the day and, therefore, our meal with sacrality.

Doctors sanitize their hands before seeing a new patient, and chefs soap their hands before handling food. But if you’ve ever been to a Shabbos or Yom Tov meal, you’ll know that first, we say kiddush, and then, we ritually clean our hands and break our bread. 

Maybe we have it backward. Why isn’t washing our hands the first thing we do, before we make kiddush? 

There’s a Chassidic fable about a man trudging his way through a swamp, his boots caked in thick, wet mud. Clean boots are great, dirty boots not so much. Be that as it may, he’d better only start thinking about cleaning his boots once well clear of the swamp; there’s simply no use stopping to clean them while still ankles deep in mud!

R’ Moshe Feinstein explains that true to life, there is no perfect moment to start something. There will always be baggage and resistance, lots of fantastic excuses and justifications not to do the things we could or become the people we should. So we might as well just get started trying to be better humans where we are right now, notwithstanding the fact we all have our baggage. 

To be sure, there are some times Judaism requires purification – a ritual immersion, a sacrifice, purity to enter the Beis HaMikdash and eat some sacred foods; but those are the exception, not the rule. The rest of the time, Judaism does not require cleansing and purification of ordinary people trying to do a little better; you can do better while still imperfect – Kadesh before Urchatz.

It’s one of the core themes of Pesach; redemption for people who don’t necessarily deserve it yet – we just need a kickstart. Cleansing and purification are important, and they can come next; but first, get started as and where you are! Maybe the perfect moment you’re waiting for is right here, right now. 

R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that on the eve of Pesach, we search our homes for chametz with the soft light of a single wick candle; someone who uses a larger, multi-wick fire won’t check properly and needs to conduct their search again. A multi-wick flame is much harsher and larger, and therefore, a fire hazard that stops you from checking too closely – and if it doesn’t, you might burn the house down! When you look through the nooks and crannies of your soul, look gently, and don’t burn the whole thing down; the journey of growth requires compassion. 

Sometimes, when we discover and understand those flaws, it’s an unpleasant experience that leaves us broken – Yachatz. But when we break our Matza, we don’t throw it out; we hold on to it until its time comes, and the poor man’s bread transmutes into the afikoman, the sacred crescendo of Seder night. The broken heart of improvement never goes to waste; it is fully redeemable – במקום שבעלי תשובה עומדין צדיקים גמורים אינם עומדין. The pursuit of excellence requires an intimate relationship with pain; growth can’t happen without pain, so much so that it is a recognized medical condition – growing pains. 

If our heroes had waited for the perfect opportunity over the moment destiny called, we would have neither heroes nor stories. Taking action is a unifying characteristic; our heroes didn’t procrastinate.

We all have to confront the things that hold us back, but there’s no reason they should stop us from getting started. Our heroes experienced fear and doubt, and there were plenty of reasons not to act; but they acted just the same, that’s how they become heroes!

Thoughts of waiting for a perfect moment and fear of failure or flaws holding you back originate from cowardice and fear. The resounding message of Seder night, our heroes, and beyond is that we ought to act with courage and confidence that at least we are trying to do the right thing.

So, of course you’re not “there” yet! None of us are. But our future, and yours, rests on whether action will overcome fear and apathy.

Because we are the people who make kiddush before we have washed our hands.

Pay It Forward

3 minute read
Straightforward

While mature people recognize that good character looks different in different people, there are some common universal traits, like kindness, strongly identified with Avraham, or humility, frequently associated with Yakov.

When Yakov arrived at Lavan’s house, he had just the clothes on his back and the staff in his hand. Yet, he left with a large family and entourage, thriving livestock, and serious wealth. Honestly evaluating himself, he determined that he was more fortunate than he could otherwise have expected:

קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים וּמִכָּל הָאֱמֶת אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ אֶת עַבְדֶּךָ – I am humbled by all the kindness You have done Your servant… (32:11)

The Ramban explains that Yakov felt that his blessings were grossly disproportionate, far beyond anything he could have deserved, and recognized that God had been generous with him.

The truth is, if we take similar stock of our blessings, most of us have to admit something similar. Do we deserve our families? Our friends? Our successes? Or even further, to be born into our family and the privileges that came along with it? Do we deserve to have been born in the most educated, healthy, and wealthy era in human history? Can we truly say that we didn’t equally deserve to be born to a poor peasant family in medieval China?

John Rawls sharply suggested 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 unearned, so gratitude should be our first and overwhelming response to our privilege. 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.

In mysticism, there is a paradox called the bread of shame – נהמא דכיסופא. If our souls had just stayed in Heaven, basking in the ethereal light, it would be a degrading handout. Our souls go into bodies so we can earn our way back, and it’s no longer a handout. But the thing is, the notion of earning anything at all is an elaborate illusion – the system itself is a gift, the biggest gift of all.

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that the Torah uses sevens for complete natural cycles, and the number eight restarts the cycle, an octave higher. For example, circumcision is performed on the day after one seven-day cycle; and the Yovel is the year after seven complete Shmitta cycles.

The notion of eighths concerning how to handle our blessings speaks to the idea that we are all blessed – we should be grateful for what we have and dedicate those talents, tools, and resources to make an impact. That’s one eighth.

But it’s entirely possible to get carried away. Sure, I’m fortunate to have received so many blessings, but why me, of all people? It’s not hard to think there’s an element of justice involved, that maybe you really do deserve it on some level. That’s the second eighth.

The Gemara cryptically teaches that everyone needs a dose of arrogant confidence to offset humility, and the proper amount is an eighth of an eighth – leaving the denominating unit unspecified. The Gemara doesn’t suggest that the unit is one sixty-fourth, and the Vilna Gaon notes that Yakov’s admission is the eighth verse in the eighth Parsha to hint at the model of handling our blessings.

When we realize how fortunate we are, we feel like Yakov, humbled by God’s generosity. Sure, there’s plenty that could be better, and we have very hungry ambitions for much more. But Yakov was self-aware enough to acknowledge those blessings long before he had stability or security. He could see his blessings for the good fortune they were even while on the run, yet again, escaping Lavan’s clutches while hoping to avoid getting slaughtered by his brother Esau and his forces. We can want lots more but recognize the blessings that have gotten us where we are.

Crucially, we should take note of where this self-reflection propelled Yakov.

Yakov knew he was blessed, and he knew he hadn’t earned those blessings. After escaping Esau, the first thing Yakov did was to buy land and install an altar to thank God.

It’s not enough to know that we’re blessed. We have to recognize that the fact we have any gifts is the greatest gift of all, and taking Yakov’s example, all we can do is pay it forward and make sure we use our blessings for the best purposes we can find.

Concession

4 minute read
Straightforward

As intelligent people, we understand that working towards a goal requires determination, effort, and investment to get what we want. As religious people, we understand that it includes prayer as well.

A recurring theme in the stories of our ancestors is that they do not have children easily or naturally. They are often infertile and repeatedly have to beg, fight, pray, and struggle to have the children God had promised.

When it was Yitzchak and Rivka trying for a long time, they prayed together:

‘וַיֶּעְתַּר יִצְחָק לַה’ לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ, כִּי עֲקָרָה הִוא וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ ה –  Yitzchak begged the Lord on behalf of his wife because she was barren; and God conceded. (21:25)

The Torah narrates this story with unusually heavy language – ויעתר. Rather than a word like “pray,” “request,” or something similar, he “begs,” an intensely emotive verb connoting earnest desperation; and the Torah uses another construct of the same word to indicate God’s almost reluctant acquiescence -‘ וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ ה.

We probably think that God desires our prayers, and the ebbs and flows of our lives present opportunities for us to reach out. This is actually an aspect of why our ancestors were frequently barren!

Yet, in this instance, God “concedes” to the prayer, as though defeated by this unwelcome request to give Yitzchak and Rivka the family they so desperately want! It doesn’t quite align with the classical understanding of prayer or even our own basic expectations of what prayer looks like.

Why was this prayer so unwelcome?

R’ Shlomo Farhi suggests that this is a prime example of the right thing at the wrong time.

Rashi suggests that Avraham died five years sooner than he might have otherwise, as a kindness to spare him from watching his grandson Esau become a murderer. It follows that the sooner Esau was to be born, the sooner Avraham would die. This might help explain God’s difficulty in accepting this prayer – it’s the right thing, but it’s not yet the right time. While Gematria might not be the most serious analytical tool, R’ Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld noted that the value of ‘וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ ה is 748, equivalent to חמש שנים, the five years Avraham died too soon.

As far as Yitzchak’s desperate prayer, God wasn’t quite ready to bless them with children at the expense of letting Avraham go. But God allowed Himself to be persuaded and convinced, seduced by the tears of Yitzchak’s prayer, even though it wasn’t quite time yet.

The Gemara tells a similar story of how the people of King David’s day would mock his inability to build the Beis HaMikdash, wondering when he’d die, and David, thinking he was channeling what God wanted, wistfully hoped the joke would come true, quite literally wishing his life away. God corrected him and explained that David’s good deeds were worth more than any sacrifices; that what David had wanted for God wasn’t what God wanted at all.

We don’t always want the consequences of what we think we want, and they’re not always good.

We might find it disturbing to learn that our prayers can hurt us. If we can sabotage ourselves by wanting and asking for the wrong thing, then maybe we shouldn’t ask for anything at all and let destiny and fate play out! It’s a moot point because, in reality, we chase the wrong things all the time; but unsurprisingly then, hedging our ability to self-sabotage features prominently in our prayers. Sometimes the thing we need saving from is ourselves!

For example, you think you want something, but you’d much rather what’s good for you – ימלא כל משאלות ליבך לטובה. We ask for a good and sweet New Year – שָׁנָה טוֹבָה וּמְתוּקָה – because not everything sweet is good, and not everything good is sweet. God can grant our desires, and save us from them when they are the very thing that ends up hurting us – רְצוֹן-יְרֵאָיו יַעֲשֶׂה; וְאֶת-שַׁוְעָתָם יִשְׁמַע, וְיוֹשִׁיעֵם.

Yitzchak’s defining feature is seriousness – גבורה – he was someone who took things seriously. When God had asked for his life at the Akeida, he took it seriously and was at peace. So if God didn’t want him to have children, he could take it seriously and be at ease as well. R’ Shlomo Farhi sharply notes that Yitzchak prays opposite his wife, facing her – לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ – rather than with her, together, suggesting that he wasn’t doing it for himself, but for her.

Facing her, seeing her pain and anguish, he could do for her what he would not do for himself and grapple with Heaven on her behalf, explaining the force of the prayer. Yitzchak removed himself from a position he was comfortable with for a position he was not, mirroring the position he asked God to take, to upend a reality where Avraham lives his full life, in favor of a reality where Rivka has her children sooner, but Avraham dies early. The mirroring is literal – וַיֶּעְתַּר / וַיֵּעָתֶר.

It also highlights an essential component of prayer – meaning what you’re saying. Only exposure to Rivka’s anguish could make the words real enough for Yitzchak.

Generalities don’t move us; how could they? There is a chasm between hoping your career works out, in contrast with needing a sale to go through so you can put food on the table. What drives us is being specific; the purest prayers come from the heart.

We have to pray. It is possible that something would happen if we only put in the effort, and if we fail to pray, we could end up preventing something that was coming our way. But if we’re nervous about praying for the wrong thing, we might pray in generalities; but then we wouldn’t mean it! So we pray with precision and heart, hedging it with a hope for the best.

Most of the time, the things we want don’t end up cutting our parents’ lives short. But for most of what we want, it would be healthier to cultivate an attitude of outcome independence. We are often stuck on something because we mistakenly think what we want is scarce when the universe is actually abundant.

It’s also worth introspecting if what we are so desperate for isn’t a specific thing but rather an unmet underlying need. In which case, your headspace ought to be that if not this deal, this house, this job, or this relationship, help me find what I’m really looking for – dignity, fulfillment, happiness, and security.

We don’t really know how prayer works. It’s a key tool in our arsenal and features prominently in our heritage. We pray, and sometimes things work out just the way we hope – and sometimes not.

And that has to be okay too.