Posts by: "Netanel"

When Eliezer set out to find a wife for Yitzchak, he devised very specific criteria. The right woman would not just look after him, but his whole entourage and animals as well.

The Midrash says that when Rivka went to draw water, the well rose towards her, saving her the effort.

Why was that not a good sign?

Rav Chaim Shmulevitz succinctly says that miracles don’t prove you’re a good person. What makes a good person are good deeds.

Rav Hirsch notes how in the conversation Rivka had with Eliezer, she said she would get him some water, and only once Eliezer had finished did she say that she would feed the camels as well.

Along similar lines, what you do says more about you than your words ever could. Rivka did not waste words promising about the good deeds she would do; she just did them! She helped him, and when he was done, she helped the rest. The story emphasises that her kindness was performed with haste – she ran in a hurry to quickly help.

Despite the fact that Eliezer was a stranger to Rivka, she treated him with incredible dignity, referring to him as “my lord,” even though Eliezer introduced himself as a slave.

The story showcases the characteristic of genuine chessed – loving-kindness. She would do, not talk. She showed extreme sensitivity to others. She treated ostensibly lower-class strangers with the dignity another human being deserves. This kind heart belonged in the house of Avraham.

It’s the kind of behaviour we would do well to emulate.

The Gemara in Kiddushin derives the halachic model of marriage from the transaction that took place between Avraham and Efron for the Mearas HaMachpela.

When students learn this, it is easy to misconstrue. How is getting married anything like buying a field?

Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that the analogy of the transaction takes place in a much wider context.

The land of Israel is indelibly woven into Jewish history and identity for eternity. This interaction was the first act, by the first Jew, on the land of Israel. The Mearas HaMachpela, and what Avraham went through to get it, is the first link in the eternal bond between the land of Israel and the Jewish people.

The Mearas HaMachpela was a double storeyed structure, and special in that it’s structure enabled our ancestors to be buried together privately as couples. Husband and wife, parent and child, remained together. The first act on the land of Israel was to secure the future of family ties.

The analogy to marriage makes far more sense in this context because it transcends a simple land transaction. The land is God’s eternal commitment to us, and marriage is our eternal commitment to each other.

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

ויוצא אתו החוצה ויאמר הבט נא השמימה וספר הכוכבים אם תוכל לספר אתם ויאמר לו כה יהיה זרעך – 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)

This can be read literally, that Avraham’s lineal and intellectual descendants would be numerous – most religions count Avraham as their precursor.

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi suggests a figurative approach. Perhaps כה יהיה זרעך means that just like Avraham would look heavenward and dream of something better, his children would be stargazers as well.

Looking beyond the present, hoping and working towards a better future.

When God reached out to Avraham to leave his homeland, Avraham never knew where he was going. Avraham was told לך־לך, and he just went.

The Sfas Emes finds this interaction, the first of it’s kind, instructive as to what it means to be a Jew.

There is no destination because to be a Jew is an ever-evolving mission. Being a good Jew calls for something different based on the scenario – a good Jew during the Inquisition does not look the same as a good Jew in New York today.

Without a singular focus on the outcome, Avraham could put his heart and soul into the process. Every step Avraham took brought him somewhere new. But the effort for every step was the same because each step could be the last. In a way, לך־לך is an instruction to go לך – within yourself. A lifelong journey of self-discovery. There is no destination because it’s a challenge – how deep can you go? The process is the purpose of the instruction, not the outcome. Each step compounds development.

We never control circumstances or outcomes, but we control our actions and ourselves. It was this desire and commitment to progress that mattered. This attitude was characteristic of Avraham, the first prototype of the kind of person God wanted people to emulate.

One of the most beautiful parts of Tanach is God’s promise to never forget the sacrifice and belief the Jewish people once showed:

כֹּה אָמַר ה’, זָכַרְתִּי לָךְ חֶסֶד נְעוּרַיִךְ, אַהֲבַת כְּלוּלֹתָיִךְ–לֶכְתֵּךְ אַחֲרַי בַּמִּדְבָּר, בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא זְרוּעָה – So says Hashem, “I remember the kindness of your youth; the love of your commitment. You followed me into the desert, into a barren land…” (Jeremiah 2:2)

The model for this is Avraham. Avraham was the first to put himself out there, long before God spoke to him. His entire life was about exerting himself to reach out to others. God only spoke to him later on in his life.

Avraham wasn’t born special. God’s call was always out there, and others heard it – there was Shem, Ever, Methuselah. But Avraham was the first to take the initiative and try to make his world a better place.

One of his greatest moments came when he was lame and exhausted, on a searing hot day. There was every excuse to take it easy, but that’s not what Avraham stood for. In his idiosyncratic way, he did the only thing he knew how. He went out there and tried to make an impact. He tried to show other people the way to build a better world.

Maybe that’s what לך־לך means – a better world looks different to every generation. But the duty and commitment are the same.

To be a Jew is to be a tool of disruption.

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 presented as a model of what a good person looks like?

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi explains that our role models never suspend their internal moral compasses, even when it brings them to the point of directly questioning God outright.

When Noah left the Ark, everything and everyone was gone. Noah properly took in the scale of desolation and loss, and questioned God – where was God’s mercy? The Zohar describes how God stunned Noah with a stinging reply – where was Noah’s mercy when God told him what was going to happen?

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 is 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.

Noah simply accepted that his society was corrupt, and deserved annihilation. He did not question the course of events until it was much too late.

Accepting such things isn’t a feature – it’s a flaw. It meant that he agreed that everything and everyone was bad, and deserved what was coming. Reb 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 fall 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. The entire point of prophecies of doom is that it spurs us to do something different and avert it so that God’s promise does not happen!

This may help explain the concept of prayer.

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

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.

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.

Korach’s coup failed when all the great men planted their staffs on the ground at the Mishkan, and of all of them, it was Ahron’s staff that blossomed with almonds and flowers, showing Korach’s people they were wrong. The story concludes with how Ahron’s staff became a symbol of what had happened, and the men took their staffs back and went back home.

But why is it worth mentioning that they took their staffs back?

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi teaches that the word for staff, מטה, is the same as the word for tribe. As much as Ahron’s staff was a symbol of victory, their staffs were a symbol of defeat, but they took them home all the same. The plain staff, with nothing special or remarkable, would remind them what they were willing to sacrifice in their bid for greatness.

The symbol of their loss was still something to be proud of. It was a reality check, but they could still take pride in second place. By owning it, they could resume their place in the hierarchy they had once rejected.

A person who never makes a mistake has never tried anything. Mistakes can often be as good a teacher as success.

When the spies returned, and delivered their pessimistic report, the people were distraught. Not knowing better, they lost faith in what would become of them, and by losing faith, they lost all they had going for them.

Disappointed in what the people had become, God told them that they would be a lost generation; they would wander for 40 years, and die in the wilderness. They did not deserve the privilege of the Land of Israel, but their children would.

When the people heard what their fate would be, they refused to accept it at first:

וישכמו בבקר ויעלו אל ראש ההר לאמר הננו ועלינו אל המקום אשר אמר ה כי חטאנו – 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)

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi explains that the language used in telling how this show of faith is a chiasm that echoes the story of Avraham.

Avraham’s ultimate act of faith was rising early in the morning, and going to the crest of the mountain in the place God spoke of. His faith is absolute, when he says הנני- Here I stand.

But it fails. What worked for Avraham does not work here, because Avraham was authentic, and this time it was not. Avrahams act of faith was corrupted into a show of faith.

Avraham had faith before he knew where he was going. The comparison they were trying to evoke was false. They could say הננו, but that’s not where they truly stood.
There is a difference between fracturing something, and breaking it. Each situation calls for something different. Their mistake was thinking that their mistake caused a fracture, and not a break.

Introspection requires intellectual honesty to understand how to move past our mistakes. Think of the last person you hurt. What would it take to move your relationship past it?

In the world we live in, politically charged topics make people shut down. Otherwise intelligent people turn intellectually dishonest to save face.

Yom HaAtzmaut is not something that comes from our books or tradition for a simple reason – it is in living memory. It needs to be discussed, because something unprecedented happened; yet through bankrupcy of leadership, it is not given a fair assessment.

I’m not going to tell you about the halachos or mitzvos because I’m not qualified to. Ever since the days of the Anshei Knesses Ha’Gedolah, there is no singular authority uniquely able to establish what Jews should or shouldn’t do, or what things do or don’t mean. But you can decide what it means. I want to contextualise what we mean when we say something is “meaningful.”

I want to contextualise what we mean when we say something is “meaningful.”

Meaning is not something to which the words “right” and “wrong” apply. Meaning is pluralist. There can be multiple positions that are mutually exclusive yet can coexist. Meaning is subjective, not objective.

We believe in providence, that God orchestrates everything. Sometimes it’s more clear than others. Sometimes it’s more true than others. Sometimes it happens involuntarily. Different people may attain different degrees of it. But we definitely see the guiding hand that writes history.

Our people have been persecuted for 2000 years, powerless, homeless, degraded in every possible way, and even systematically exterminated in the most grotesque way in human history. So when that narrative changed, to having a place to call our own, to be safe, to belong, it is not wrong for people to find meaning in that. And they chose a day to to mark the significance that they palpably felt.

A weary nation, exiled, dispersed and massacred with the most horrific persecution in history, fulfilling its ancient prophecies, returning to its homeland, to create a vibrant country. So many things had to happen in a tiny window. Something that under normal circumstances could never happen. Chanukah and Purim are Chagim that correlate to Exile, and both are about the invisible hand that writes history. It is not fantasy to suggest that that the emergence of a Jewish State shares a common motif.

People could not believe it. A nation united, singing and dancing in the streets evokes imagery only seen at the Red Sea so long ago.

What difference does it make if one leader or another was an atheist? What difference does it make if they didn’t have the right intentions? We can only judge what they did.

And what they did was create a place where Jews could be a little safer. Where Jews could belong. Where more Jews have learnt more Torah than any time in history. We should be proud to say that the Israeli government is the greatest supporter of Torah of all time.

We are called Jews after Yehuda, whose name is cognate to the foundational principle of gratitude. How can we not say thank you? When you close a business deal, or pass an exam, you should absolutely set some time to say a thank you prayer. To deny that thanks are due when something good happens is to deny a fundamental tenet of Judaism.

For some reason, some very good people are too blinkered to apply this every day reasoning. They’d show appreciation for finding a parking spot, but cannot bring themselves to say thank you for something of national, historical and existential significance.

Worse, there are people who will choose the day people set aside for this to disparage the government and its current or former leaders. But these people are obnoxious and insensitive. Obnoxious, because of all the days to tell them they’re wrong, today is the day they choose. And insensitive, because when a person tells you that something is important to them, it just is.

Open a history book and decide for yourself what you’ll call a miracle. The threshold isn’t so high. If you want to show your thanks, do it in your own way, whatever that may be.

People have gratitude for different things, and we all have our reasons to be grateful. You may not want to say hallel. Nothing will happen if you don’t. But you cannot pretend that the emergence of a Jewish State wasn’t important. You do not have to support the government of the day. You do not have to whitewash policies you do not like. But you cannot deny the gratitude that you owe, in whatever way it may be; yet remain intellectual honest.

Yom Ha’Atzmaut celebrates the Israel we have today, with all its complexities and shortcomings. It’s not the finished product. Far from it. But it’s something. It’s a whole lot more than the nothing that has defined our people for the vast majority of our history. And that’s something to show appreciation for.

A day becomes significant to people when people say it is significant to them.

The agricultural aspects of the Chagim are often forgotten in today’s world of finance and commerce. People would plant their fields around Sukkos; cut the crops at Pesach; and leave them to dry until Shavuos, when they would gather in the yield – hence the alternative name for Shavuos, Chag Ha’Asif – the Chag of Gathering. The main feature of Shavuos was the Omer offering, where people would bring the first two bushels they harvested to Jerusalem.

People nervously check their investments to see if they work out. It’s the same for crops, between planting and harvesting. Once cut, owners can be satisfied with the certainty of that year’s yield. Yet in Judaism, the freshly cut crops would be off limits until the Omer offering was brought. This then permitted consumption of the rest. Shmitta and Yovel govern land use so that people relinquish control and effective ownership of their land every few years, and the Omer serves a similar purpose.

Typically, communal offerings consist of a single animal or unit, representing the united Jewish people. Why is the Omer made up of two portions?

Rav Hirsch teaches how the laws regulating use of the Land of Israel instil a sense of gratitude and trust in a person. That little bit of doubt, that little bit of insecurity, are exactly the points at which a person can actionably show their dependence and gratitude for the blessings they have.

When a communal offering has more than one unit, it is for the component parts of the Jewish people. There are two portions to the Omer offering to remind us that we cannot enjoy our blessings unless others are able to as well. It’s part of the trust and thanks we owe for what we have.

We cannot say thank you for our blessings without sharing them as well.

The motif of community is central to Jewish identity. Beyond that, it is central to humanity as well. The final chapter of the book of Shemos, Sefer HaGeula, concludes with Moshe’s address to the people. וַיַּקְהֵל – he gathers them together, in an expression of Kehila, community, to tell them about the centrality of two things. Shabbos, and service through the Mishkan; both of which are expressions of community.

Rabbi Sacks teaches that Shabbos created a moment in time for community, and the Mishkan, which morphed into the Beis HaMikdash, which has morphed in the Beis HaKneses, our shuls. At these points, community is fully expressed, and individuals unite. Judaism attaches immense significance to the individual, and every life is its own universe. Each one of us, all in God’s image, is different, and therefore unique and irreplaceable.

Yet the first time the words “not good” appear in the Torah are at the beginning of Creation, “It is not good for man to be alone”. Much of Judaism is about the shape and structure of our togetherness. It values the individual but does not endorse individualism.

Rav Hirsch notes that at the point community was established, and the Mishkan was fully operational, Moshe withdrew, his task complete:

וַיְכַס הֶעָנָן אֶת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וּכְבוֹד ה מָלֵא אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן. וְלֹא יָכֹל משֶׁה לָבוֹא אֶל אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד כִּי שָׁכַן עָלָיו הֶעָנָן וּכְבוֹד ה מָלֵא אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן – The cloud covered the Tent, and God’s glory filled the Mishkan. Moshe could no longer enter the Mishkan, because the cloud rested upon it, and God’s glory filled the Mishkan. (40:34,35)

Rav Hirsch further notes that this mirrors a much earlier foreshadowing:

וַיִּשְׁכֹּן כְּבוֹד ה עַל הַר סִינַי וַיְכַסֵּהוּ הֶעָנָן  – And God’s glory rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it… (24:16)

Moshe was the ultimate agent to carry out the epic mission he was assigned, and this was the conclusion to an important chapter in the Jewish story. When the task was given, it came with a lofty ideal:

וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם – The should make me a sanctuary; and I will dwell among them. (25:8)

This was a task given the community, and it was for the community to take up. Moshe showed them how, but now the community had to step in and take over. It wasn’t about him; it was about the community.

Before establishing the Mishkan, there wasn’t a way for people to interact with God in a substantial way. But now and for all time, Torah, mitzvos, and prayers had a framework; a lens to see them through. These are things demanded of the community, from within the community.

Appropriately, it is on this note that book of Shemos, The Book of Redemption, concludes. The transformation was complete. From Egypt, a band of ragtag slaves were now united with liberty, identity, and freedom to serve God as one nation together.

From Egypt, a band of ragtag slaves were now united with liberty, identity, and freedom to serve God as one community. One nation together.

One of the core foundational elements of teshuva is the formula of the Thirteen Attributes. It is said in the build up to and the culmination of Yom Kippur.

The Gemara cryptically allegorises that in order to teach them to Moshe, Hashem put on a Tallis like a chazan and shliach tzibbur – a prayer leader. In this guise, Hashem instructed Moshe that if people said the Thirteen Attributes, forgiveness would be abundant.

But why does the allegory need God to dress up in order to forgive us?

R’ Moshe Einstadter explains that the function of the shliach tzibbur (literally – agent of the community) is to enable those who don’t know how to join in. People who don’t know how are dependent on people who do in order to participate.

But this is a one-way relationship – the chazzan does not need an audience to pray – he can do it perfectly well on his own.

Yet should people have need of him, he can take on a greater role and responsibility than otherwise.

The same relationship exists between man and God.

We can’t help ourselves. When we make mistakes, why should teshuva make a difference? Should feeling bad suddenly make right wrong actions?

Yet the allegory offers a powerful resolution.

Hashem can be our shliach tzibbur. And so He gives us this formula for teshuva. Because we need Him to.

Judaism is all about how to live a meaningful good life, through the Torah. One of the most revolutionary concepts innovated by the Torah is that everyone is special and important, and not just a ruling elite.

Beyond this empowering belief, is that the door is never closed to people who lose their way. There is always room for the wayward to come back. No matter what they’ve done, people can find peace and redemption.

One of the absolute worst things a human can do is to take a life. Murder, which means to kill another, with intent, is so bad that the murderer is subject to capital punishment:

מַכֵּה אִישׁ וָמֵת מוֹת יוּמָת – One who strikes and kills a man, must absolutely be put to death. (21:13)

Yet someone who kills another inadvertently, manslaughter through negligence or some other tragic mistake, has a different remedy:

וַאֲשֶׁר לֹא צָדָה וְהָאֱלֹהִים אִנָּה לְיָדוֹ וְשַׂמְתִּי לְךָ מָקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יָנוּס שָׁמָּה – But if you didn’t stalk him, yet God brought it about by his hand, I will make a place for you to flee. (21:14)

The straightforward meaning of this cumbersome construction is that this killer must flee to a city of refuge.

Yet the words lend themselves to a deeper interpretation as well. The Arizal teaches that אִנָּה לְיָדוֹ וְשַׂמְתִּי לְךָ is the acronym of Elul, the month that culminates in the days of atonement. This law also contains an aspect of teshuva: the impetus to do teshuva at all.

R’ Moshe Einstadter beautifully reads this back into the words.

אִנָּה לְיָדוֹ – Something awful has happened. Running away is part of the process, but once the killer gets there, he must live with his conscience for the rest of his days. How can the guilty person live with himself?

וְשַׂמְתִּי לְךָ מָקוֹם – Hashem reassures us that there is nothing irredeemable; there remains a place for all of us. There is hope; there is a future.

Perhaps it is worth nothing that אִנָּה לְיָדוֹ is a matter of passive inaction, and the solution is one of action –
וְשַׂמְתִּי לְךָ. It takes real action to make a change.

But if we do, there is a place for all of us.

In the times of Korbanos, Sukkos meant the festivities of Simchas Beis HaShoeiva. People celebrate it’s memory today with ecstatic parties, with music, singing and dancing.

It’s origins are from the time of the daily Tamid sacrifice, which was brought with wine. On Sukkos, it would be accompanied by water as well, the Nisuch HaMayim, to mark the beginning of the rainy season and it’s prayers. The water was drawn from Shiloach, a nearby spring. Before that, the people would celebrate through the night, and the water would be drawn at daybreak for the morning sacrifice.

It is said that someone who didn’t see the festivities of Simchas Beis HaShoeiva never witness true celebration.

What was so special about this celebration, and what was the meaning of the practice?

The Midrash teaches that Simchas Beis HaShoeiva is related to Genesis. The lower waters would be distanced from God and the upper waters, from which land emerged. For this apparent indignity, the lower waters benefit from a covenant that they would take pride of place in the happiest service at the Beis HaMikdash, the Simchas Beis HaShoeiva.

The Midrash is idiosyncratically cryptic. But broadly, it speaks of a distance between God and another, and the longing for closeness, which is bridged once a year.

How much of a consolation is this really; does a one off ceremony compensate for a lifetime of distance?

The Sfas Emes frames the Midrash differently. The ceremony is not a compensation at all. The fact that it’s place is in the Beis HaMikdash, at the happiest moment, indicates that the indignity of the distance is a mistake of perception. If it belongs on the Mizbeach, there was no issue to start with. It is this insight that was worth celebrating wildly.

Sometimes there is a dissonance between the things we see and how we think they ought to be. Simchas Beis HaShoeiva bridges the gap. Even the things we least understand are sacred and meaningful.

On Yom Kippur, towards the end of the day, we read the story of Yonah. What is Yonah’s particular relevance to the themes of the day?

Yonah is striking for it’s themes of disobeying God and repentance. Yonah refuses to betray the Jewish people by aiding their enemies, and flees. He run specifically because he knows that God forgives. His prophecy is that Ninveh has forty days til it is destroyed, yet he knows this is only true on the current facts. When the facts change, the results change. This is why we say that repentance, prayer, and charity can avert the evil of the decree.

Perhaps Yonah’s themes indicate a good model for how we think about teshuva. The sailors, who would do anything rather than cast an innocentt overboard, could do teshuva. The people of Ninveh, Israel’s enemies, could do teshuva. Even for pagan simpletons, teshuva is accessible.

Are our standards of what teshuva is, and who it is available to, overly complicated?

More importantly, they listened. Someone told them they had to step up, and they took this call to action seriously. Yonah knew what would happen when people listened. If Ninveh could do teshuva, at a time when the Jewish people would not listen to him, he knew they would attack Israel. He said just just five words, and the impact just five words made on Ninveh, and the impact on history, was massive. Five words that were listened to were more effective than a lifetime serving his own people, who wouldn’t listen, the reason he received his mission in the first place.

Our understandings may be sophisticated, but do we take calls to action so seriously?

Curiously, God never tells Yonah off for disobeying Him by running away. The nature of a warning prophecy is that it’s not supposed to come true. It is a warning not to continue the current path; the prophecy is a fork, showing the end of one road. A successful prophecy is one that doesn’t come true. This shows something powerful. Yonah’s prophecy shows that God doesn’t want to show justice. God wants to show mercy.

Yonah rejected his mission, because he foresaw that if he succeeded, the Jewish people would get justice for it’s sins and evil ways. When forced to complete the mission, he laments this.

God doesn’t tell him he shouldn’t have run. God uses a metaphor to teach Yonah a powerful concept called solipsism – a selfish point of view, where everything revolves around the view holder’s perspective.

Yonah was dying in the desert and wanted to die. A plant grew to shelter him; at which Yonah recovered, and rejoiced. The plant then died as quickly as it grew, and Yonah lamented his situation, and wanted to die again.

God then speaks to Yonah, and calls him out on his solipsism. God shows how selfish Yonah was being, and the same is true for us. It’s selfish and hypocritical to want mercy for ourselves on the one hand, and justice for our enemies on the other. To ask for forgiveness, yet deny it to our enemies is solipsistic.

Today is an opportunity to ask for mercy, not justice. For everyone, not just ourselves and those we love. This also poses a significant challenge about how we judge others; would our assessment be different if the tables were turned?

In all, the story leaves us with many pertinent challenges. Do we understand how easily everyone can improve? Do we take calls to action seriously? Do we judge others as favourable as ourselves?

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

For most people, the most powerful liturgy in our prayers is u’Nesaneh Tokef. It’s the part that people most connect with.

The first part sets the scene:

כִּי הוּא נוֹרָא וְאָיֹם, וּבוֹ תִּנָּשֵׂא מַלְכוּתֶךָ – Awesome and frightening, today, Your kingship rises…

The second part sets what is at stake:

בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן, וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן, כַּמָּה יַעַבְרוּן, וְכַמָּה יִבָּרֵאוּן, מִי יִחְיֶה, וּמִי יָמוּת – Who lives, who dies…

The third part declares that we don’t believe in fate. There is hope! Nothing is set in stone, and we trust Hashem. We shout loudly:

וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה – But repentance, prayer and charity avert the evil of the decree!

Rabbi Sacks explains that this third part is a crystal clear paradigm of what we believe.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur might be about what will happen in our lives. But even that is not set in stone. We simply don’t believe in a rigid, preordained fate. More than we believe in fate, we believe in ourselves; in our power to change through prayer, improvement, and good deeds. We believe that ultimately, we can influence and control our own destinies. We hope.

We cling on to hope, always. How many prophecies of doom were averted when people changed? That’s what we read about on Yom Kippur, in the story of Yonah and Ninveh.

The Gemara teaches that with a sword on your neck, you still pray. Hope remains.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe notes that וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה don’t mean repentance, prayer, and charity. תְשׁוּבָה means homecoming and return; because we have lost our way. But hope is not lost; we just need to come back. תְפִלָּה means judging yourself. Where do you really stand? But there is hope. צְדָקָה means justice. It’s not just nice, it is the just thing to do. Because others need hope.

Together, they are מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה – because there is always hope. In the darkest of times, when the odds are stacked, hope remains.

The closing of u’Nesaneh Tokef says how אָדָם יְסוֹדוֹ מֵעָפָר וְסוֹפוֹ לֶעָפָר – man’s beginning and ending are earth and dirt. This recalls imagery of Yakov, who, at the lowest point in his life, dreams of a ladder on the dirt:

וַיַּחֲלֹם וְהִנֵּה סֻלָּם מֻצָּב אַרְצָה וְרֹאשׁוֹ מַגִּיעַ הַשָּׁמָיְמָה – It’s base was on the earth, but it reached the skies above…

We come from the dirt, but with hope, we can reach the skies.

On the first day of Rosh Hashana, one of the things we read about is how Hagar was sent away with Yishmael. They get lost in the desert, and run out of water. Yishmael dehydrates, and Hagar, like any mother, could not bear to watch her son slowly die. She cries in despair, looking at her hopeless situation, and prays.

And Yishmael is saved. Hagar has a vision, and she sees an oasis, and is able to save her son.

But this is not what it means to pray. That is not the model of prayer to take from this story. Look closer.

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 – The angel says to her that Hashem listened. But not to her! Hashem heard the voice of the dying boy!

Unlike with his mother, the story never says he cried, or prayed. He was dying, and perhaps let out a moan.

It is this moan that God listens to.

What it means to “pray” isn’t a formal kind of prayer. It’s that feeling of confronting a reality truthfully. It’s a feeling.

We believe that הקדוש ברוך הוא מתאוה לתפילתן של צדיקים – Hashem loves righteous prayers. R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that is not תפילת צדיקים, prayers of the righteous, just righteous prayers. Everyone is capable on a one off, pure prayer.

Every day we repeat that קרוב ה’ לכל קוראיו, לכל אשר יקראוהו באמת – Hashem is close to the people who call on Him in truth.

Think you’re not worth it?

Yishmael was dying. The Midrash says that the angels didn’t want him saved, for all the atrocities his descendants would commit. Yet they are wrong. Hashem looks בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם – where is he now, under these circumstance?

That one off moan, against all odds. That moan. That feeling. That’s truth.

That’s prayer.

After each set of shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah, we sing a poem that recalls the birth of the world. On it’s birthday, the universe gives an account of itself.

Yet we do not read Genesis; we hear nothing about the creation of the universe at all. We read about Sarah and the birth of Yitzchak; with the accompanying Haftara of Hannah and the birth of Shmuel. What does this have to do with judgment and Rosh Hashanah?

Everything. The meaning of existence is associated here with the imagery of a woman who desperate for a child, who would do whatever it takes to make the child great. This imagery is exactly the model of our relationship with God. In the poem recalling creation, we hope that we stand before God as His children.

The model is one of love – for one another, strangers, and God. Love is what it means to be Jewish.

Look closer, and see how relevant the details are to us, as we are judged.

Sarah and Hannah have so much love and goodness to give, and no child to give it to. It’s the same reason God created us; to have someone to give goodness to.

Sarah and Hannah never gave up their vision of what they hoped could one day be; that they would have their perfect child. It’s the same reason God will never turn you away.

They prayed, despite the physical impossibility of ever having a child – they were infertile. Our prayers are powerful. We don’t understand how it works; but we don’t need to. It just does. We pour our hopes, ideals, and pleas into something, anything; perhaps tears, or even a sob.

This is the model for prayer.

Sarah and Hannah were desperate for a child and would do whatever it took to make their child great. It was their circumstances, and the way they reacted to them, that transformed these women into these figures we read about. They never lost hope. They just focussed inwards.

When they got what they always wanted, it is instructive to see how they responded. What did they want it for? There is no ego when it comes to raising a child. You serve your child. You have to sacrifice, nurture, clean, care for, watch, and protect them. Having a child means sacrifice. But that’s what an amazing parent does for their child. Happily. Happily because it’s worth it. Worth it because you love them. Love them because it’s what you always wanted.

So on Rosh Hashana, as we are judged, remember this.

Because that’s exactly how God feels about you.

Jews eat Matza because our ancestors left Egypt בחפזון – in a hurry, and we recall this by recreating the food that they couldn’t adequately prepare, leaving it in it’s simplest form. That it to say, the haste, the hurry, the speed, is a key element of one the main mitzvos of the Chag. The fact they left quickly is not incidental to their leaving at all; it is not just the way they gained their freedom, as seen in the way we remember the way they left. Why is there such focus with the way in which they left?

There is a character trait called Zrizus. Rav Hutner teaches that it is not just the speed with which a task is accomplished; that exists in every realm, good and bad equally. This is not an objectively “good” character trait in any way; it simply describes the intensity of the desire for a specific outcome, which in turn generates the alacrity and passion with which it is carried out. Yet it is ostensibly a key part to Jewish life.

We praise Hashem as ברוך אומר ועושה, ברוך עושה בראשית. Sometimes we refer to מעשה בראשית and sometimes just בראשית. The Vilna Gaon explains that מעשה בראשית refers to everything within creation; but this does not encompass everything. There is more that Hashem creates, which is not contained, per se, within creation. Time. מעשה בראשית appreciates the universe and all that is in it. But ברוך עושה בראשית refers specifically to the concept of time, a beginning. עושה בראשית. We express gratitude for the creation of time. For a beginning. For בראשית.

Time is important to all mitzvos, learnt from Matza. The Midrash teaches ושמרתם את המצות – “You shall guard the Matzot/Mitzvos” – ensure that they don’t become ruined by waiting; do it right away. The Midrash subtly indicates that speed is not just an extra credit to a mitzva. If the analogy is fully developed, any mitzva without the speed is ruined! Zrizus, the way we perform mitzvos, is a prerequisite. Why are mitzvos related to time at all?

The Midrash in Koheles allegorically teaches that when a poor peasant marries a noble princess, he will never be able to satisfy her, as she’ll always have better.

Our souls are the noble princess. Our souls do not interface with the mundane, common, physicality of life. Because it is not any of those things. Not mundane. Not common. Not physical. Not of life. It transcends all those things. Nothing of this earth can ever satisfy the needs of the soul. It speaks a different language.

The moment the Jews were selected to be God’s flag bearers, His ambassadors to show mankind a better way, they became connected to something that totally transcends all of creation. By connecting to the Creator, everything created became instantly mundane and beneath that connection. Not just מעשה בראשית. But even בראשית. Because time, too, is a creation.

No longer just beings who exist for a fixed amount of time. No longer actions with temporary magnitude. In that instant, בחפזון Jews became נצחי. Not simply forever, a lack of expiration date. Eternal. It is a fundamental change of essence; they transcend time. A change noticeable in every single frozen moment of existence.

They become this עם נצחי with their departure from Egypt. That transfer, that metamorphosis from beings existing within the system, to immortal souls operating on a plane above creation above time, had to happen בחפזון. Not just quickly. So much more than that. Ironically in that moment, they became above all moments.

Perhaps that is why the final plague happened כחצות, in a non-moment. In the space where נצחי, eternity, is forced to operate within the restricting confines of זמן, of time, the paradoxical result is חפזון. An expression of the attempt to transcend time.

R Shlomo Farhi explains that this reinforces the importance of the concept of Zrizus as a necessity, an absolute prerequisite without which the Mitzvah is left deficient. The lack of חפזון returns the Mitzvah, and ourselves to time and space. It becomes just another thing on the day’s activity list. Acting slowly is clips the wings of the Mitzvah, grounding it, limiting it, inhibiting it, stifling it.

Waiting during the food preparation generates Chametz. Chametz is food, but it wont feed or nourish us. It may be good enough for others; but to us, it is inedible.

This is the why so much of the Chag centres upon the very deliberate חפזון manner in which we left Egypt. It’s what we recall, and it is the platform from which we learn how important and meaningful that even the way we do things can truly matter.

There are multiple occasions in the Torah requires that people respond to something:

לֹא תִרְאֶה אֶת שׁוֹר אָחִיךָ אוֹ אֶת שֵׂיוֹ נִדָּחִים וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ מֵהֶם הָשֵׁב תְּשִׁיבֵם לְאָחִיךָ – Do not see your brother’s ox or sheep straying, and ignore them. You should return them to your brother. (22:4)

The key ethic of the instruction is “don’t ignore”; it could perhaps be better phrased, “If you see x, don’t ignore it”. Why is the instruction and prohibition on the incidental seeing, “Do not see..,”, and not on the critical ignoring part?

The Sfas Emes notes that “seeing” is not a purely a a visual function. It also means perception and understanding.

There are different classes of mitzvos, and different reasons for them.

For example, tzedaka, authentic charity, is when the donor feel genuine empathy and affinity towards the recipient. If a person were to just give money away because it’s a mitzva, but didn’t feel empathy towards others, they’ve either done it wrong, or perhaps not at all!

That is precisely the point in this instruction. The prohibition is not just on ignoring over here; and the seeing element is not incidental at all. It is addressing the way we look at things.

לֹא תִרְאֶה… וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ – Don’t see… but ignore!

What the Torah truly demands is that our vision should be free from blindness. When seeing something, notice it, feel it, and respond to it with real feeling.

We think of the Ten Commandments as a monumental national event. Yet the opening words, of the very first time Hashem spoke to humanity, were not addressed to a wider audience. The words used are deeply personal. אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹקֶיךָ – not plural, everyone’s, but singular, yours. This is a very personal God, establishing intimate contact with individuals; not just to Judaism in general and greater humanity at large.

And yet through Chazal, this is understood slightly differently. Rashi understands that in this divine communication, Hashem spoke through Moshe, and in a sense, to Moshe exclusively. This personal communication was to and through Moshe, and relayed to everyone else. The Midrash understands that this was personal to Moshe to the extent that in the aftermath of the Golden Calf, he could avert catastrophe by saying that the Jews had not betrayed אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹקֶיךָ, to the exclusion of idols, and that this was said to him alone. The personal God of Sinai was Moshe’s only!

So how are we supposed to understand the events at Sinai; can God be personal with humanity?

When Yisro is introduced to us, we learn how he heard what happened to Moshe and the people of Israel:

וַיִּשְׁמַע יִתְרוֹ כֹהֵן מִדְיָן חֹתֵן משֶׁה אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה אֱלֹהִים לְמשֶׁה וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵל עַמּוֹ – Yisro heard what God had done for Moshe, and Israel, his people… (18:1)

That is, the Torah sets up Moshe not just as the leader of the nation of Israel, but as a separate category, on par with the rest of his entire people combined. The Maharal deduces that in doing so, the Torah recognises Moshe’s status and achievement as someone who had transcended everyone else and could not be grouped together with anyone. He was in a class of his own.

As someone who had transcended Israel, his soulmate came from beyond Israel too. His role was to shape and form a nation of poor, ignorant, downtrodden slaves into the image of the divine on this planet. It could not be done from within; it necessarily had to come from beyond; in the form of Tziporah. Together, they crafted Israel’s destiny.

But how does a human transcend? No man was like Moshe, but what happened to him that he could do it? How can a human survive forty days and nights without any basic necessities the human body requires?

The Maharal notes that forty days thematically indicates a new aspect of creation. It takes forty days for a foetus to take shape, and it took forty days for the era of the Flood to transition, and the new world to emerge. Forty days on Sinai is a cryptic allusion to a new aspect awakened in Moshe. He was no longer Moshe, a human. He had become Moshe, the prophet.

He had become the mouthpiece for God to reveal Himself to mankind.

But far more than a loudspeaker, he was the divine interface. He was the spring from which we could drink God’s word and be nourished and grow. The Torah was imbued with his energy, and through him we too could transcend. He was on the wavelength to absorb the Torah, and it was channeled to us.

This is the true meaning of Moshe’s riposte to Hashem after the Golden Calf, that Sinai was Moshe’s personal God, and the people did not deserve to be wiped out. They could not receive the full power or scope of God’s word; only Moshe could. This is the “out” that Sinai in the singular provides. Rav Tzadok teaches that the personal God of Sinai is always there for us to reach out to, to aspire to. Criticallly, it is not a standard against which the people who could not rise to the challenge were held. Moshe’s role was to help everyone get there. They weren’t yet, but that was ok. The personal God of Sinai is always there, waiting for us. And we learnt that from Moshe.

This is why he plays a central part in God’s revelation to mankind. He was instrumental. Moshe was truly Rabbeinu – our teacher. He taught us how to interface and connect to the Torah – it was not just a repetition of what he’d been told. It is a living, breathing thing, and it is Moshe’s life that it was imbued with. Through him, Judaism and mankind learned that God wants a personal connection to us, if only we reach out.

As Avraham enters into the covenant, he circumcises himself in his old age. The first we learn of him afterwards, the first act by the first religious person, is that as he recuperated in the blazing heat, he looked for guests:

וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו ה בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא וְהוּא ישֵׁב פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל כְּחֹם הַיּוֹם. וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה שְׁלשָׁה אֲנָשִׁים נִצָּבִים עָלָיו וַיַּרְא וַיָּרָץ לִקְרָאתָם – God appeared to him in Mamre, while he was sitting at the door in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men approaching, and he ran towards them. (18:1-2)

They were no ordinary guests. It turns out that they were angels, on a mission, who anticipated the birth of Yitzchak. Avraham then has an encounter with God, in which God tells him a secret:

וַהֹ אָמָר הַמֲכַסֶּה אֲנִי מֵאַבְרָהָם אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי עֹשֶׂה. אַבְרָהָם הָיוֹ יִהְיֶה לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל וְעָצוּם וְנִבְרְכוּ בוֹ כֹּל גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ. כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת בָּנָיו וְאֶת בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהֹוָה לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט לְמַעַן הָבִיא יְהֹוָה עַל אַבְרָהָם אֵת אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר עָלָיו – God said, “Shall I hide what I am doing from Avraham? Avraham will be great, and through him, the world will be blessed. I know he instructs his children, and their children after them, to preserve the way of God; to do what is right and practice justice…” (18:17-19)

Yet Avraham is the last person who needs to be instructed to avoid the ways of Sdom! The setting of the conversation is that in his weakest moment, he actively looks for tired travellers to feed, bathe, and take care of – the anathema of Sdom. So why warn him if he was above it?

Rav Hirsch explains that parsing Hashem’s thoughts carefully, Hashem wasn’t concerned for Avraham at all.

Hashem shared His plan with Avraham because he was someone who would teach his family to do the right thing. The conversation stands forever, for בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, to draw a stark contrast.

An old, sick, haggard, and weary Avraham, at his lowest and worst, is the benchmark of humanity, compared to Sdom, a vibrant, wealthy and successful commercial hub.

Rav Hirsch emphasises how this contrast is the very first lesson we learn after Avraham circumcises himself, entering the covenant that could set him apart, did not. He was in Mamre, land belonging to his old friends and allies. Yet he was out looking for pagan idolators to entertain; there was no-one else he could expect! He gave his mysterious guests incredible luxury, freshly prepared.

That is the first encounter the world has with people of the covenant.

Avraham himself was overjoyed that people would not think he was strange or different. His relationship with greater mankind was only enhanced.

Our role model was not someone who hid away from the world to focus on spirituality and mystical holiness. He went out into the world, engaged with it, and made it better through his interactions. The descendants of Avraham are charged with being the most humane of men – to show a better way to be; with open hearts, and open hands.

Personally speaking, the Four Species is one of the most downright bizarre and mysterious mitzvos in our tradition. The underlying principle is not stated in the Torah, which concludes the instruction with the general theme of the Chag:

וּלְקַחְתֶּם לָכֶם בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן פְּרִי עֵץ הָדָר כַּפֹּת תְּמָרִים וַעֲנַף עֵץ עָבֹת וְעַרְבֵי נָחַל וּשְׂמַחְתֶּם לִפְנֵי ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם שִׁבְעַת יָמִים – On the first day, [take the Four Species]; and you should celebrate and rejoice before Hashem for seven days. (23:40)

There is no obvious reason or ethic for doing this, and you won’t find many who can explain it. What significance can saving the Arba Minim have for us?

One of precious few explanations given is that it represents different kinds of Jews. The esrog has a pleasant taste and a pleasant scent, and represents Jews who have knowledge of Torah as well as performance of mitzvah performance. The palm branch, which produces tasty fruit and is itself a food, but has no scent, represents Jews who have knowledge of Torah but are lacking in mitzvah performance. The hadas, the myrtle leaf, has a strong scent but no taste, represents Jews who perform mitzvot but little Torah knowledge. The arava, the willow, has neither taste nor scent, represents Jews who have no knowledge of Torah or mitzvos. We bring all these together to remind us that every one of these four kinds of Jews is important and has their place. And such is life; real community is only found when all types of people can be together. The mitzvah, and society, fails when any part is excluded.

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi notes there is a general principle of hidur mitva, which means that the attitude to any mitzvah should be such that the mitzvah is done in an elegant way. With the esrog, the prescription of the mitzvah is that the mitzvah must be elegant, beyond the general principle of hidur mitzvah. There are people who will spend days on end inspecting their esrog so that the shape and shine are perfect; and this is what the mitzvah actually requires!

Why is this the only mitzvah where we must go above and beyond to search for something perfect, just to fulfil the basic premise of the mitzvah?

Rabbi Farhi explains that the taste and scent allegory applies to ourselves too. There are parts of our practice that we love, understand and are good at, and parts that we don’t like, do, or understand; and everything in between. The part of Judaism that I love, understand, and am good at is something that is worth spending time on, and it should be the focal point. That is worth putting effort into, and being proud of. That is a real achievement. The search for the perfect esrog shows the value we should place on that part of ourselves.

The agricultural element cannot be forgotten either – Sukkos is the harvest festival. The Rambam notes that the Jews complained in the wilderness:

וְלָמָה הֶעֱלִיתֻנוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם לְהָבִיא אֹתָנוּ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם הָרָע הַזֶּה לֹא | מְקוֹם זֶרַע וּתְאֵנָה וְגֶפֶן וְרִמּוֹן וּמַיִם אַיִן לִשְׁתּוֹת – Why have we been taken from Egypt to this awful place, with nowhere to plant, not figs, or grapevines, or pomegranates; nor water to drink! (20:5)

In contradistinction to their ingratitude, taking the Arba Minim, abundant in the fruitful and productive Land of Israel, is a symbolic refutation of their attitude to the care God took of them, and expresses our own gratitude at all we are fortunate to have. The Arba Minim are waved either axis of three dimensional space, vertical, horizontal, and lateral, to signify our awareness that this is the space in which God operates, in a way the desert generation did not appreciate. The plants we take, which require water, are waved at the beginning of the rainy season, as we call on Hashem “Hosha na”, to aid us.

The Rambam’s observation is critical to unlocking what the Arba Minim are. The mitzvah is a rejection of the attitude of the wilderness, and we embrace our reliance on Hashem for all things through it.

The mitzvah of Sukka requires that for 7 days, a large part of living, particularly eating, takes place in a somewhat flimsy hut, with some plant material as the roof. The primary reason is stated in the Torah:

בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים כָּל הָאֶזְרָח בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל יֵשְׁבוּ בַּסֻּכֹּת. לְמַעַן יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֲנִי ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם – Every resident of Israel will sit in huts for 7 days; so that the generations will know that I had Israel live in huts when I took them out of Egypt. (23:42,43)

What specific import does this have to us, other than recalling an ancient memory?

Arguably, it is a natural progression from Yom Kippur. We profess multiple times on Yom Kippur that we did not act in private the way we did in public. Perhaps the Sukka brings the two into synthesis. The Sukka is closed, yet anyone outside can hear whatever happens within it’s walls; a Sukka is not private. Perhaps sitting in a Sukka is a commitment to acting in private more like we are in public.

The Rambam explains that the exposure to the elements reminds us of the miracles experienced in the wilderness, the stated reason in the Torah. At the beginning of nationhood, when our people’s history began, and before anything remarkable occurred, we were completely looked after – just like we are surrounded completely surrounded by the Sukka. God is good to us just because, without qualification. Sukka reminds us that we are each taken care of in our own, personal way.

The Chagim all have an agricultural element to them, which is somewhat anachronistic today – yet the themes remain relevant. Sukkos is the harvest festival, a time of celebration and plenty – a farmer would literally reap what he had sown, finally seeing the fruit of his labour. Rav Hirsch notes that in this time of achievement, we are to walk away, and remember that in a physically and spiritually barren wasteland, we were helpless, yet cared for nonetheless. We retreat from our comforts and securities to a greater or lesser degree. Sitting in a Sukka is a mitzvah of simplicity.

This was more obvious when everyone had to journey to Jerusalem as part of the mitzvah. They would have to leave wherever they were from, whatever their professions, and the roads would be packed with people doing the same thing. By getting there, away from their busy lives, sharing with people doing the same thing, there would be a strong and shared sense of common identity.

The simplicity of Sukka reminds us that we are each taken care of in our own, personal way, no matter the circumstance or whether we deserve it. This realisation ought to cause a deep sense of gratitude for all the goodness we experience, as well as feelings of modesty and humility. Thinking about all this may even get us to act more like it too!

Moshe makes a point of telling the gathered people not to overlook things they aren’t keen on:

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. Keep the mitzvos that are neglected, and God safeguards you.

R’ Shlomo Farhi observes that the conclusion of that section evokes nearly identical imagery:

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 | יְהֹוָה 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 up before you; the Lord will cast fear of you and the dread of you on the land upon which you tread… (11:24,25)

The conquest of Israel is through תִּדְרֹךְ כַּף רַגְלְכֶם. But that is not actually a method of acquisition at all. R’ Farhi teaches that the meaning here mirrors that of earlier. The beginning and end of the parsha denote the entirety of a journey – by understanding the true sanctity of what is “stepped on” – you become someone who treads carefully, and grows and acquires through his steps.

However – this is only true if we internalise the lesson of וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן. What if we don’t get it?

The very next sentence, the opening of the next section, addresses this:

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

רְאֵה – “Look; see! I need you to get this!”

The definition of the curse is not having the crystal clarity of the lesson. It would be impossible to sin, the way you don’t put your hand in a fire. It’s about perception; like associating a cigarette as death.

Through not following everyone else’s footsteps you blaze a trail of your own.

At the inauguration of the Mishkan, the princes of each tribe made a donation. The Torah records what each prince offered separately, despite being completely identical.

When the presentation was made, the twelve sets of gifts were delivered 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 was a perfect act of achdus – understood to mean unity. This illustrates that each prince’s gift, while the same as the others in substance, retained individuality. Achdus cannot require an individual to be subsumed into a homogenous, uniform entity. This would entirely compromise the individual. It could not be that the way to accept another would be if they were just like you.

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

R’ Shlomo Farhi points out that something done as a display… is just a display! True achdus is not an ideological principle; it is a practical, grassroots, organic requirement. It is not institutional or societal; it is personal.

Simply put, an individual has to get on with another individual specifically! The example set by the princes is perfect.

Achus, true unity, means identifying and being one with that thing – not the display. You don’t truly care about something you’re not totally one with.

When things go bad and everyone prays together, no matter how intensely and authentically people care and pray, people are praying because everyone is getting together, and not for the thing itself.

Caring and achdus are not the same. You can really pray and care but that’s not achdus. It’s not achdus to support a sports team, just a deep caring.

Pure achdus means that I connect and relate to you because of you, exactly how you are.

It is common knowledge that the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred. Less talked about is the First Temple, which is surprising. Surprising, because the precursor to it’s destruction was well documented; the First Temple was still the era of prophecy. God Himself spoke in His own words about the problems of the era, lamenting through the prophets what had ruined the society of the time.

We are told that each generation that does not see the Temple rebuilt has participated in it’s destruction. This is very harsh, but logical. It means that were such a generation to have a Temple, it’s deeds would eventually lead to it’s eventual destruction. We are part of the problem if we cannot develop and sustain a society that is morally and ethically upright. 

The Shabbos before Tisha b’Av is Parshas Dvarim, known as Shabbos Chazon – named for the opening words of the Haftora, Chazon Yishaya. An extract:

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 whose stories did not make the canon of Tanach; the ones that were included were selected because of their resonance beyond their time.

The prophet goes too mention corrupt leadership and bribery. It is impossible to rid society of evil completely; even in the most ideal world, there would still be a justice system. This is a recognition of human choice and error. But this is when a society is challenged; when evil rears it’s ugly head, how do we respond? It ought to be forcefully and definitively dealt with. This is why perversion of justice may be the ultimate crime. If a society is too corrupt and bent to protect it’s citizens, people can be trodden on without ramification. That society, in a subtle, but very real way, endorses and protects criminals and predators. If only individuals care, that society is morally bankrupt. Where is the compassion?

How many of our vulnerable people are unprotected? Every year there is another scandal, another cover up, another aguna, another molester, another abuser. When our institutions and leaders fail to remove criminals or call them out for what they are, it is a betrayal at our expense. We are not a community if we do not protect and ease the burdens of our brothers and sisters. There is grave injustice when individuals proven dangerous beyond reasonable doubt are allowed to retain influence. That this could be a veiled reference to any one of numerous incidents says a lot about where we are.

A generation that does not see the Temple rebuilt has participated in it’s destruction. The prophet’s words echo, and it is chilling. 

Don’t misunderstand this. This is not a polemic against our leaders. This is a call to action directly to you. Don’t rely on other people for a job you could and should be taking on. We need you.

We have 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 diligent and meticulous in their prayer and sacrifice, yet so awful at other things. The amount and scale of Torah study and charity in the world today is phenomenal, and unprecedented in history. But how much is it really worth if we do not act like God’s ambassadors on this world? God Himself addresses this:

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. I get no pleasure from the blood of bulls, lambs and goats!” (1:11)

The lessons we ought to learn from history knock on our door, repeatedly, 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 fix enough of them. Praying more, with greater intensity, is not the solution that these problems require. We just need to fix them! If we had a Temple today, we would lose it; otherwise it would be here. How can we fast, weep, and pray when there are so many poor, hungry, abused, and other vulnerable people around us? Is it something to be proud of that we are in dire need of so many excellent charities and outstanding individuals? Such individuals and organisations lead the way for the rest of – but they do not remove our own obligations.

It is so easy to make that difference; resolve to be better, in a real, substantial, accountable way. 

Volunteer more. Give more charity. Give food and clothes away. Make sure no child is left without a school. Participate in your community. 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.

Our enemies label us as cruel; but they could not call us cruel, unless on some level, we are also cruel to our own. In 2014, some Jews killed someone; something unheard of. While there was a unanimous and load global outcry from our communities, something about the way we educate and raise young people generated that grotesque tragedy. They killed a person, another human being, who was so “other” in their minds that it did not matter that he was innocent. And we all think that way to some extent.

So read Chazon. Because it reads like it was written especially for us. If it’s too hard to motivate yourself to cry for what happened long ago, then cry for now; for how far we are from where we are meant to be, for the agony in our communities. Cry for the all the injustice around you that you can’t seem to do anything about; tears that burn. I know I will. 

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

Ahron’s two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, were great men who might one day have led the Jewish people. But we find that they were consumed by their fervour for the Temple service:

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

The stated reason for their death is that they were not commanded. What is so wrong with their voluntary service?

The introduction to the laws prohibiting certain sexual relationships, the arayos, is lengthy, but encoded in it is something very powerful:

וַיְדַבֵּר ה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם: אֲנִי, ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם. כְּמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ-מִצְרַיִם אֲשֶׁר יְשַׁבְתֶּם-בָּהּ, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ; וּכְמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ-כְּנַעַן אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מֵבִיא אֶתְכֶם שָׁמָּה, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ, וּבְחֻקֹּתֵיהֶם, לֹא תֵלֵכוּ. אֶת-מִשְׁפָּטַי תַּעֲשׂוּ וְאֶת-חֻקֹּתַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ, לָלֶכֶת בָּהֶם: אֲנִי, ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם. וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת-חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת-מִשְׁפָּטַי, אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם הָאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם: אֲנִי, ה – Hashem said to Moshe… Speak to the Jews and say that I am Hashem their God. Do not act like the Egyptians amongst whom you once lived; do not act like the Canaanites where you will one day live. Do not follow their customs; for it is My laws you should observe, My rules and justice which a man should do, and in so doing, he will live… (18:1-5)

Rashi notes that אֲנִי ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם echoes what was said at Sinai – אנכי ה אלוקיך. This statement appears throughout the Torah, and the construction is taken to mean that if Sinai was the acceptance of God as a king, then these are the laws of the kingdom. Sinai is woven into the fabric of the mitzvos, and the mitzvos into Sinai.

The Sfas Emes understands this seemingly ordinary introductory statement to be a prism through which to perceive and understand the nature of mitzvos.

Mitzvos can have a practical function. Mitzvos bein Adam l’chavero, the social, inter-personal mitzvos, by their nature build and develop a cohesive society whether intentionally performed as mitzvos or not. But entirely beyond from the practical function, there is a framework for doing mitzvos that brings God into our lives.

Volunteering in an unprescribed manner can work bein Adam l’chavero because the guidelines are straightforward – humans can learn and understand how best to relate to each other. Giving charity adds positivity, goodwill and brotherhood to the world, whether intended as the mitzva of tzedaka or not. But when it comes to the divine, volunteering can be very dangerous and destructive. An extreme example is the story of Lot and his daughters – the best intentions can twist and warp something beautiful into something gruesome.

A superficial analogy; imagine a newlywed man whose wife’s birthday approaches. He desires to give her an extravagant bouquet of flowers to show her a glimmer how special and important she is to him. Her favourite flowers are white tulips, which was why she had chosen them for their wedding. On her birthday, he surprises her with an ornate arrangement of red roses. How she responds is irrelevant, although parenthetically, one would hope she may appreciate them. The salient point is that although he certainly means well; and they may be beautiful; and they may express his feelings better; but a relationship is inherently mutual, and the type flower that she likes best is not a secret.

This may be the reason the lesson is taught by the laws of forbidden relationships – love and passion may seem so real, that they gloss over a fatal flaw. We cannot do what we feel like when we feel like – this is the ultimate form of narcissism and self-worship. Love is not a volunteer thing; it is a commitment. We are beseeched to not be like everyone else; we have very specific duties and instructions. An employee will work rain or shine; a volunteer can simply quit and it doesn’t matter!

The stated reason that Nadav and Avihu died takes on a very literal meaning in this context:

אֵשׁ זָרָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם – Alien fire they were not commanded…

The Torah allows people to volunteer sacrifices in the name of different things, but their type and class of offering was not one of them. This represents something foreign, sinister, and זָרָה – alien.

We cannot presume to know the workings of the metaphysical. Hashem is beyond our existence, and beyond our understanding; we cannot unilaterally reach out. But through the Torah, mitzvos and Halacha, we can earn the gift of a relationship with the Creator. All we know, and all we can know, about God, is what He tells us, because once, He reached in; so everything must fit into that framework. It is delusional to think that we can make God happy; we cannot change Him in any way. The small wisp of insight into how to relate to God is through Torah – literally, “The Instructions”.

The way to engage and develop the relationship for all it can be, is וָחַי בָּהֶם – to live a life committed to and imbued with Torah, being shining ambassadors and representatives of God in this world.

When people depart from interactions with you, is that what goes through their minds?

As the exodus reaches it’s climax, the Jews are cornered. They are on the beach among the reeds, Red Sea lying in front of them, with the cloud of the onrushing Egyptian army in the distance. Trapped, the people despair. Yet before Hashem’s talks to Moshe, Moshe knows how to fix the situation:

אַל-תִּירָאוּ–הִתְיַצְּבוּ וּרְאוּ אֶת-יְשׁוּעַת ה, אֲשֶׁר-יַעֲשֶׂה לָכֶם הַיּוֹם – “Do not be afraid! Stand and wait, and you’ll see God’s salvation…” (14:13)

How exactly did he know?

After they are saved, they sing the Song of the Sea. Curiously, Miriam leads a separate rendition of gratitude, and the Jewish women follow her. Curiously, because why was the Song of the Sea not enough? And curious, because the she is identified in a highly unusual way:

וַתִּקַּח מִרְיָם הַנְּבִיאָה אֲחוֹת אַהֲרֹן, אֶת-הַתֹּף–בְּיָדָהּ; וַתֵּצֶאןָ כָל-הַנָּשִׁים אַחֲרֶיהָ, בְּתֻפִּים וּבִמְחֹלֹת. וַתַּעַן לָהֶם, מִרְיָם … – Miriam the prophetess, sister of Aron, took an instrument in her hand, and led the women with instruments and dancing. And she sang to them… (15:21)

She needs no introduction; we know exactly who she is. The specific identifications, הַנְּבִיאָה – the prophetess, אֲחוֹת אַהֲרֹן – sister of Ahron, are odd. She was also sister to Moshe, and what of her capacity as a prophetess? וַתַּעַן לָהֶם means she was responding – but to what?

Sensitive to this, Rashi remarks that it was the prophecy she experienced when she was only Ahron’s sister; the prophecy of Moshe’s birth. In the buildup to his birth, foreseen by Paroh, he launched a campaign of infanticide agasint Jewish boys. The Midrash records how Amram and Yocheved, the Jewish leaders of the time, had separated, so as not to suffer this terrible fate. Miriam had this prophecy, and persuaded them by saying that they were worse than the decree itself, as they were preventing the birth of girls too.

When she fell pregnant, the Egyptian military kept tabs on her – but Moshe was born early. When he was born, the Torah describe his appearance as וַתֵּרֶא אֹתוֹ כִּי-טוֹב הוּא – which the Midrash says is the same כִּי-טוֹב as from the creation of light at the beginning of Creation – and the entire house lit up.

But in spite of such a sign – וְלֹא-יָכְלָה עוֹד, הַצְּפִינוֹ – she could not hide him any longer. After three more months, which would have been the full term, the Egyptians were looking for her, to see what she had given birth to. She had to abandon the child, prophesied about by her daughter. She placed the boy into a box, and placed him in the river. The Torah implies she could not bear to watch – and who could? What chances would one give a child in a box in a crocodile infested river, in the Egyptian heat, with the army looking for him no less:

וַתֵּתַצַּב אֲחֹתוֹ, מֵרָחֹק, לְדֵעָה, מַה-יֵּעָשֶׂה לוֹ – Miriam stood and waited from afar, to know what would be of him…(2:4)

The emphasis is on Miriam – Miriam stayed; when Yocheved would not. The thought process is very simple – she had not had a new prophecy, and she was but a child herself. But there is one pure, overarching thought that guides her:

“This cannot be how it ends..!”

And she is not wrong. The daughter of the Jew’s oppressors shows up, which would ordinarily be the absolute worst thing that could happen, but she displays compassion for the boy, and takes him in. The ultimate victory is clutched from the jaws of defeat itself.

Years later, Moshe knew what to tell the Jews, because it had happened before; it was the same story! One Jew and one Egyptian, among the reeds, by the water, hope fading; all the Jews and all the Egyptians, among the reeds, by the water, hope fading. It is the same. “This cannot be how it ends..!” He tells them that he has been in this exact situation before; so הִתְיַצְּבוּ וּרְאוּ – Just watch!

Now, so many years after her prophecy, Moshe has saved their people, and it is her celebration, more than theirs, because this is the conclusion of her prophecy.

It emerges why וַתַּעַן לָהֶם, מִרְיָם – it was her response, because it was her they were learning from.

They had to learn her faith – “This cannot be how it ends..!”.

Just watch.

Throughout the story of Egypt, we find that Paroh’s heart is hardened, after which he resisted overtures to release the Jews. How could Paroh have his free will compromised?

The question of Paroh’s free will is based on the presumption that Hashem hardened it – but this is not entirely accurate The Seforno explains that there are two verbs used in relation to Paroh – כבד, heaviness, and חזק, strength. Being described as חזק, strong, is not a bad thing by any stretch! A careful reading will show that – for the first seven plagues – all uses of כבד are in reference to Paroh acting in such a way. Where Hashem is acting directly, there is only חיזוק – Hashem gave him the strength to continue – but why

To understand what the story is truly about, ask yourself, what was the point of it all? To obliterate the Egyptians? Or to extract the Jews? Both events happened, but lots of other things happened too. Miracles are always as simple as possible, so why the extravagance of plagues that didn’t produce free Jews or defeated Egyptians? Why extend the Egyptian’s suffering

Hashem is very clear why, but it slips right under the radar. Hashem explicitly states the purpose of what is to come to Moshe, foreshadowing the first plague

וְיָדְעוּ מִצְרַיִם כִּי-אֲנִי ה, בִּנְטֹתִי אֶת-יָדִי עַל-מִצְרָיִם; וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִתּוֹכָם – Egypt will know that I am the Lord, when I stretch my my hand over Egypt, and extract the Jews from among them. (7:17)

Hashem announces that this is about making something known. Consider that Hashem’s power to this point was entirely unknown. What miracles had been performed that more than ten people saw? People knew about the God of their fathers, but there had never been “outstretched hand” type miracles in history – yet. Egypt – and the world – would know soon enough

This is why Paroh needed the חיזוק – he could not release the Jews because of the beating Egypt was taking; he could not give in for the wrong reasons. He needed חיזוק as he grew to understand the nature of what he was up against.

But after the 7th plague, the task is seemingly complete; Paroh concedes, completely:

יִּשְׁלַח פַּרְעֹה, וַיִּקְרָא לְמֹשֶׁה וּלְאַהֲרֹן, וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, חָטָאתִי הַפָּעַם: ה, הַצַּדִּיק, וַאֲנִי וְעַמִּי, הָרְשָׁעִים. הַעְתִּירוּ, אֶל-ה, וְרַב, מִהְיֹת קֹלֹת אֱלֹהִים וּבָרָד; וַאֲשַׁלְּחָה אֶתְכֶם, וְלֹא תֹסִפוּן לַעֲמֹד – Paroh sent for Moshe and Ahron, and said to them, “Now I have sinned. Hashem is righteous; my people and I are guilty. Beseech Hashem, and bring an end to this fiery hail; I will release you, you will be here no more…” (9:27,28)

Egypt now knows, but the education is not complete. The subject changes subtly:

וּלְמַעַן תְּסַפֵּר בְּאָזְנֵי בִנְךָ וּבֶן-בִּנְךָ, אֵת אֲשֶׁר הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי בְּמִצְרַיִם, וְאֶת-אֹתֹתַי, אֲשֶׁר-שַׂמְתִּי בָם; וִידַעְתֶּם, כִּי-אֲנִי ה – So that you tell over to your sons and daughters, how I toyed with Egypt, with my wonders that I placed in them, and you will know that I am the Lord. (10:2

Now it is about the Jews. The Jews needed to understand what Hashem would do for them. A generation of slaves could scarcely fathom what was taking place – see the troubles they gave Moshe even after all this – Hashem wanted to show His care to the Jews.

This is where stubbornness comes in. Once Paroh had conceded and submitted to God, he needed stubbornness to resist anew. This had nothing to do with his free will – Egypt’s understanding is not referred to again.

This is וּלְמַעַן תְּסַפֵּר בְּאָזְנֵי בִנְךָ וּבֶן-בִּנְךָ – for us to internalise how incredible the events were, how much Hashem did and does for us.

Midrashim are cryptic, and often misunderstood. They are metaphors, literary devices that encode how Chazal understood stories in the Torah.

There is a Midrash that teaches that before Creation, God went to all the nations that would one day be and offered them the Torah. Each time the offer was made, all the nations inquired what they would be bound to do. All the nations, except the Jews, who accepted without knowing what it entailed.

What is this Midrash about?

The Midrash does not say the Jews would not care what was in it. If they had been asked, perhaps the response would have been about gossip, and the Torah would be declined! The Midrash does not mean that the Jews do not care about the pitfalls. R’ Chaim Brown explains that the Midrash is about something else entirely – relationship. R’ Binyamin Finkel gives a simple analogy.

If a broker you do not know calls, and gives a half hour window to make a large investment that he assures you would give large returns, there would be a lot of questions to ask. It is perfectly reasonable to want to know what you’re getting yourself into – the Midrash is not speaking of a deficiency in the nations for their questions. The questions are fair. “What would this agreement require from me?”

Instead, consider that your parents, or in-laws, were the ones on the phone, offering a half hour window in which to join a venture of theirs. Undoubtedly there are risks, but with the love and trust of the relationship, there needn’t be any questions.

This is what the Midrash is about. Whatever duties the Torah requires are worth taking on, because it is our Father offering the package.

In the aftermath of the Golden Calf, the Mishkan laws are delivered. Hashem calls to Moshe, before explaining the laws of the Avoda services:

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

וַיִּקְרָא is a deliberate expression, indicating consideration and care. וַיִּקְרָא has a small א – Rashi quotes a Midrash that takes this to mean that while writing the words, Moshe was drawing an analogy to the prophecy of Bilam, of whom it is said ויקר אלוקים אל בלעם – that Hashem chanced a communication with, unplanned. That is, that Moshe was saying that he too was not worthy of being deliberately called, and that his prophecy was also chanced upon him.

There would seem to be a massive problem with this. One of the foundational tenets of Judaism is that Moshe Rabbeinu had perfect prophecy, which cannot be superseded, such that the Torah he delivered is unimpeachable. Surely, Moshe had to believe this too, with full confidence! How then, could he draw an analogy between himself and Bilam?

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that in fact, there is a large similarity. Bilam’s prophecy was incidental to the man, as Chazal state, that the nations were given a prophet to preempt the claim that if they had a prophet like Moshe, they might act differently. Bilam was a prophet for the people’s sake, not his own merits.

In fact, Moshe is told something very similar. Rashi notes that his instructions were win them over in the wake of the recent tragedy. צא ואמור להם דברי כבושים. בשבילכם הוא מדבר עמי – I am a prophet because of you!

The opportunities that the Jewish people keep getting are expressions of love from Hashem. Even the greatest of the prophets, and the holiest of instructions, come from that place. The entire book of Vayikra seems esoteric, but we just have to dig a little bit to find incredible riches expressing this central theme. He loves us, no matter what.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Eliezer was Avraham’s faithful attendant and steward. So trusted, that he was sent to find a suitable young woman for his master’s son and heir, Yitzchak. Avraham was a well established figure, presiding over a large community; having displayed his valour, skill, and bravery at war, in addition to his considerable generosity and integrity. Finding a match should have been straightforward, albeit a potentially drawn out process.

Yet Eliezer displays anxiety and worry throughout, and seems eager to complete the job as quickly as possible. He prays, as though the onus in entirely on him, as if Avraham and Yitzchak weren’t also concerned; his prayer consisted of a request that the intended girl present herself, rather than him searching for potential suitors as was his remit. But why was he so worried?

The Sochatchover teaches that when there is no pressure to succeed, a person can give up at the first sign of trouble. Every difficulty takes on epic proportions, and becomes “uncontrollable”. But if a person is challenged to succeed, he will persist and somehow manage against the odds. President Kennedy explained the goal of sending a man to the moon: “We choose to go to the moon… not because [it is] easy, but because [it is] hard, because that goal will serve to organise… the best of our energies and skills…” Working at easy things means never having to fail, but it also means never fully testing or exercising one’s potential. When a person is forced to work at something hard, he uncovers all kinds of hidden and latent ability that can make the impossible into the achievable.

Years later, when the disguised Yosef instructed his brothers to bring Binyamin before him, Yehuda went to Canaan, and told his father that he would take full responsibility and liability for him, no matter what. This included accidents beyond all control; Yehuda would still be liable. Why add such a condition?

If Yehudah was charged with being responsible for Binyamin “as best as he could”, he might not have stood up to Yosef because an “accident” absolved him. But when charged with returning Binyamin, no matter what, Yehudah knew he had to rise to the challenge. The added responsibility served to bring out the extra reserves of courage and perseverance that otherwise might have lain dormant and untapped.

The Shem MiShmuel explains that for similar reasons, Eliezer had a daughter of marriageable age. Every girl he met could be declined, and on his return, he could pass off his failure as beyond his control, and then suggestively note that his daughter was marriageable. Eliezer feared that his personal biases would disturb his focus.

R’ Chaim Brown notes that this explains Eliezer’s sense of urgency, and desire for certainty. Eliezer knew that when dismissing potential suitors, he would always doubt his motivations for doing so. Eliezer asked for the right girl to present herself to him immediately and asked for Hashem to remove any need for deliberation. He prioritised his mission so absolutely to the extent that we only find out about his daughter after he completes his task and Rivka has been selected. Ultimately, these efforts not only cleared his conscience; they left Lavan and Besuel with incontrovertible proof that Rivka was meant for Yitzchak.

Likewise, Yehudah took full responsibility for Binyamin to account for “uncontrollable” things.

The eyes can’t see anything if the mind is blind. Perception is so crucial to attitude, and by changing the way you think changes what you see. When adversity presents itself, consider that the gauntlet has been lain down, to provide the impetus to force more from you; and watch yourself rise to the challenge.

One of the sections of the Amida on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur is וּבְכֵן תֵּן פַּחְדְּךָ. Rabbi Shlomo Farhi explains that shouldn’t seem odd to request for awe and fear of God to spread – the world is messed up. A newspaper is considered something inappropriate. The news! How many hundreds of thousands of civilians are killed in wars they are not part of, every year? How many trillions of dollars are spent on new ways to kill and destroy, every single year?

This is why we say וּבְכֵן תֵּן פַּחְדְּךָ ה’ אלקינו עַל כָּל מַעֲשֶֹיךָ וְאֵימָתְךָ עַל כָּל מַה שֶּׁבָּרָאתָ וְיִירָאוּךָ כָּל הַמַּעֲשִֹים וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְפָנֶיךָ כָּל הַבְּרוּאִים וּבְכֵן תֵּן פַּחְדְּךָ ה’ אלקינו עַל כָּל מַעֲשֶֹיךָ וְאֵימָתְךָ עַל כָּל מַה שֶּׁבָּרָאתָ וְיִירָאוּךָ כָּל הַמַּעֲשִֹים וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְפָנֶיךָ כָּל הַבְּרוּאִים.

Let the world become united. Instead of spending trillions on warmongering and fashion, let them spend it on food and medicine. Consider that Costa Rica doesn’t even have an army – their Defense budget is now an education budget, and everyone gets a free education. The prophet Isaiah says that one day, war will be obsolete. Weapons will be converted from destructive tools into creative ones.

We pray that וְיֵעָשֹוּ כֻּלָם אֲגֻדָּה אֶחָת לַעֲשֹוֹת רְצוֹנְךָ בְּלֵבָב שָׁלֵם – let them truly unite. If all of humanity got together, on the same page, can you imagine how that would look? It is the vision of a perfect world, for noble reasons – לַעֲשֹוֹת רְצוֹנְךָ. The world would be perfect, the way we know we can make it – כְּמוֹ שֶׁיָּדַעְנוּ. If we acted perfectly, people would learn from our behaviour from their interactions with us. The world can change in a heartbeat, and Hashem can make it so. After the formation of the State of Israel, David Ben Gurion, an atheist, declared that anyone who said there were no miracles in the War of Independence was not a realist. כְּמוֹ שֶׁיָּדַעְנוּ ה’ אֱלקינוּ שֶׁהַשָּׁלְטָן לְפָנֶיךָ. We know how things could be.

This is followed by a prayer for the Jewish people – וּבְכֵן תֵּן כָּבוד לְעַמֶּךָ. תְּהִלָּה לִירֵאֶיךָ. וְתִקְוָה טובָה לְדורְשֶׁיךָ. וּפִתְחון פֶּה לַמְיַחֲלִים לָךְ. שִׂמְחָה לְאַרְצָךְ. שָׂשׂון לְעִירָךְ…

We pray that we get the spotlight to shine on the right things. What if headline news wasn’t about some degenerate’s new makeover, but instead, “Man helps lady across street”? תְּהִלָּה לִירֵאֶיךָ – if the people getting praised were God fearing individuals, would society look the way it does? This is not even confined to Judaism – what if in the secular world, children wanted to be Gandhi and Mandela, not rock stars?

If the world recognised the value of Torah-type, and mitzva-wavelength things, the world would be more than fine. Not everyone is at that level of earning such praise, but people can try – וְתִקְוָה טובָה לְדורְשֶׁיךָ. Some people are too far away even for that – but they recognise its value and yearn for it – וּפִתְחון פֶּה לַמְיַחֲלִים לָךְ. We are desperate.

We conclude by asking for the return and reestablishment of Jerusalem and its glory. שִׂמְחָה לְאַרְצָךְ – שָׂשׂון לְעִירָךְ. These are words used for weddings. Just a few years ago, Dr David Applebaum, and his daughter, Nava, were at a cafe, the day before her wedding. The cafe was targeted for a terror attack, and a suicide bomber detonated in the crowded cafe, murdering 7, and maiming many more. On her wedding day, her fiancé buried her, and buried her wedding dress alongside her. Hasn’t there been enough tragedy? Aren’t we owed some ששון ושמחה? Have we not suffered enough? וּבְכֵן תֵּן כָּבוד לְעַמֶּךָ.

When that day comes, evil will vanish, and everyone will rejoice – וּבְכֵן צַדִּיקִים יִרְאוּ וְיִשְׂמָחוּ וִישָׁרִים יַעֲלזוּ. וַחֲסִידִים בְּרִנָּה יָגִילוּ. The way we describe the evil disappearing is וְהָרִשְׁעָה כֻלָּהּ בֶּעָשָׁן תִּכְלֶה – evil will diffuse like smoke. Evil is not substantial, and has no roots. Smoke has the molecular properties of a solid, but it is as porous as could be. Hashem can just blow it away, because there’s nothing to it.

The world is quite a mess, and we need all the help we can get. We pray for help, but we need to make sure we help ourselves too.

During the course of the Rosh HaShana evening meals, there is a universal custom to consume the Simanim. Customs widely vary about what they are, from classic apple and honey, to the more exotic fish or lamb head, and everything in between. A small prayer is said, that contains some sort of pun or word play, based on what is being eaten. Apples are sweet, so we ask for a “sweet” year. We ask to be “heads not “tails. You can even make up your own – some French people eat bananas – which sounds like “Bonne Année”, the French greeting for “Happy New Year”.

These seem quite tenuous, and possibly silly. But the Gemara states that סימנא מלתא – it’s a legitimate endeavour. A Siman is an indicator that portends things to come. One maxim has it that מעשה אבות סימן לבנים – an ancestors actions indicate a possible future for descendants.

The Simanim on Rosh HaShana are not games. They make an impression, and indicate more than the words we say. Our speech and thoughts have already started to take shape in form of activity. When the prophets would warn the Jews of impending exile, they would lead an animal, and whip it, and the animal would run away. The prophet would say that in the same way, they would be exiled. It was not merely a restatement of his words; it was tangible action, that actualised what he was saying.

Talk is cheap. Note how many mitzvos have a symbolic action, concurrent to prayer. The Simanim are indicators that initiate action on our parts to actualise what we want.

Consider the apple, which is a staple of Rosh HaShana. The prayer we say is שתחדש עלינו שנה טובה ומתוקה – may the year ahead be good and sweet. Because not everything sweet is good, and not everything good is sweet.

The word שנה, year, has the same roots as the words for secondary, and change. The way to another שנה is through שינוי – change. The most incredible thing we can ask for is a fresh start, a clean page – שתחדש. 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. New year, new you.

We don’t have to deal with old problems; we can start again. There can and should be a reality check; a paradigm shift. What am I about? Where am I going? We say שתחדש with the apple in our hands. Instead of bringing old baggage, we should realise the choice is literally in our hands. We are already doing something.

There is a variation in custom on what food to consume when saying שנהיה לראש ולא לזנב – may we be heads not tails.

When looking at an animal, it may seem like they are essentially the same, the tail is just a body length behind. They ultimately get to the same place, so what’s the difference? To get there first?

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi suggests that actually, the tail never gets to where the head is. The head leads, and the tail follows. The tail is never where it wants to be, because it is slaved to the head. It can’t “want” anything!

We control very little in the variable and circumstances that make up our lives. What we do have control over is free will. In fact, at their core, all people truly are is the sum of all the decisions they’ve ever made. You can’t choose to be rich, or healthy. You can only choose to take steps that make it more possible. In other words, all you can choose is to choose.

If all you can do is choose, and you’re a tail, you’re nothing. By following other people, or letting others make your decisions for you, you’re a tail. Floating with the current is not the same as swimming. The tails seems like it gets to where head is, but it is only cosmetic.

Rav Shimshon Pinkus defines the prayer as לראש – let the year ahead be thought through, with mental input and striving higher; in the future tense, שנהיה – always looking forward; because if your actions today are based on yesterday’s decisions, you are your own זנב!

A fundamental precept of Teshuva is that it is not necessarily confined to the individual’s personal relationship with Hashem. The obvious examples are transgressions against other people, in the event of which their forgiveness must be sought; and acts of public disgrace – Chillul Hashem.

When Moshe exhorts the people to commit to being God’s people, he warns them not to ascribe any negativity to God, because it is only projection:

שִׁחֵת לוֹ לֹא, בָּנָיו מוּמָם: דּוֹר עִקֵּשׁ, וּפְתַלְתֹּל – Destruction is not His; it is His children’s defect, crooked and twisted generation. (32:5)

R’ Avrohom Shor points out that by saying this, Moshe was raising awareness of the realities people create. Transgressions and mistakes are genuinely bad – for you and the people around you. It’s quite simple – if you gossip a lot, the people you surround yourself with will gossip lots too. If you shout, people will shout at you, etc.

When a person wishes to change, although ideally, the slate is wiped clean, that is not always so simple. There are some things that can’t be taken back. Imagine the angry, rude, gossip around young children over a period of time. If, some time in the future, this person wished to change, he could change his behaviour – but what of all the young, impressionable people who observed and learnt from his conduct? The children don’t necessarily see the changed man, his Teshuva – they see the example that was set.

This was Moshe’s warning – שִׁחֵת לוֹ לֹא, בָּנָיו מוּמָם – wayward children are not God’s fault. We are the ones responsible.

In our prayers over the Yamim Noraim, we frequently say how only God truly knows the reality of all things as they are:

הַנִּסְתָּרֹת לַה’ אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ עַד עוֹלָם – What is hidden is for Hashem; the revealed things are for us and our children together. (29:28)

R’ Ahron Belzer would often remark in the buildup to the Yamim Noraim that sometimes, it’s ok to reveal certain hidden things. Let your family see the changes in you, and not go on thinking that you’re just the same. This is especially important regarding young children – make sure that who you really are is someone worth showing them.

There is a skill to receiving a compliment, and stating the truth of things, that does not have to be arrogance. There is nothing more arrogant than faux humility – always be proud to say you’ve work hard for something.

One of the traits heralded by the Gemara as particularly Jewish is humility. Moshe emphasised that the people’s lack of stature was a good thing:

כִּי עַם קָדוֹשׁ אַתָּה, לה אֱלֹהֶיךָ: בְּךָ בָּחַר ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה, מִכֹּל הָעַמִּים, אֲשֶׁר עַל-פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה. לֹא מֵרֻבְּכֶם מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, חָשַׁק ה בָּכֶם–וַיִּבְחַר בָּכֶם: כִּי-אַתֶּם הַמְעַט, מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים. כִּי מֵאַהֲבַת ה אֶתְכֶם – You are a holy people to God. It is you He has selected, to be His chosen people, from all other nations on the face of the earth. You have not been chosen because you are mighty; in fact, you’re small. Purely because He loves you so… (7:6-8)

The Midrash says that this is a reference to humility – we are beloved because we make ourselves “small”.

The Sfas Emes says that the רֻבְּכֶם / מְעַט dynamic, of majority versus minority, frequently recurs. Jews have always been a minority; there are fewer Jews alive today than the margin of statistical error in the Chinese census! But in content, Jews contribute a disproportionate amount of knowledge and achievements to the world. This is our heritage from our ancestor, Yakov.

Yakov was so called because his name derives from being marginalised and disadvantaged, against all odds – or, מְעַט. He was Yakov because he was born clutching the heel – עקב – of the mighty Esav. He had to run away as Yakov. It requires shrewdness to overcome the challenges faced – shrewdness also being a derivative of the word עקב.

But after surmounting everything in his way, he is no longer the disadvantaged, shrewd Yakov. He is given a new name, Yisrael, a derivative of שר א-ל – a minister of God. The name שר indicates his mastery over all the obstacles he has overcome, to face the world and lead – or, רֻבְּכֶם.

The names linger on in our identity. But not everyone is equally gifted or talented; some people are predisposed to greatness with all the tools at their disposal. So is it not a level playing field?

The Sfas Emes explains that the מְעַט aspect of Yakov in everyone is the same. Everyone can do with reducing the mundane aspects if their lives. Everyone can display a little more gratitude and humility. Everyone would do well to not take their things or relationships for granted.

It is the מְעַט aspect that makes the difference, because that is what really makes the רֻבְּכֶם aspect. Yakov could only become Yisrael after dealing with the challenges that every ordinary Yakov has.

Not everyone can save the world, because not everyone is blessed with such ability. But everyone can certainly contribute that little more, to make the world that little bit better.

Moshe tells the Jews that the Torah is the focal point of life and living, around which all other things revolve:

ה אֱלֹהֵינוּ דִּבֶּר אֵלֵינוּ, בְּחֹרֵב לֵאמֹר: רַב-לָכֶם שֶׁבֶת, בָּהָר הַזֶּה. פְּנוּ וּסְעוּ לָכֶם, וּבֹאוּ הַר הָאֱמֹרִי וְאֶל-כָּל-שְׁכֵנָיו, בָּעֲרָבָה בָהָר וּבַשְּׁפֵלָה וּבַנֶּגֶב, וּבְחוֹף הַיָּם–אֶרֶץ הַכְּנַעֲנִי וְהַלְּבָנוֹן, עַד-הַנָּהָר הַגָּדֹל נְהַר-פְּרָת – “Our God spoke to us at Sinai, saying, “You have dwelt long enough at this mountain. Travel to the mountain of Emori, and to all its neighbouring places, in the plain, on the mountain, and in the lowland, and in the south and by the seashore, the land of the Canaanites, and the Lebanon, until the great river…”” (1:6,7)

Sinai was a monumental event. Rashi notes how at that moment, the Jews were given Torah, mitzvos, the Mishkan, its utensils, government.

R Ahron Bakst notes that the opening mention of Sinai does not continue with further discussion of that incredible moment, but rather, that the Jews must move on. Moshe says that once Sinai is achieved and actualised, פְּנוּ וּסְעוּ לָכֶם – it’s time to get going.

The Torah is תורת חיים – instructions for living. R Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that the Torah is given in the desert – a bubble, a vacuum of civilisation. Their economy was suspended for forty years – everything was free, easy, and abundant. Life was elemental. Life was stripped of its grandeur, power and glory; they were in the womb, so to speak. This is how the Torah is earned and acquired.

This is also the function of exile – a return to the wilderness, a return to the womb to reacquaint ourselves with our duties.

Moshe told the people that if the heights of the Torah can be retained, going out into the world is not scary; it is natural. This is the shining light we can be.

When studying prayer, you’ll discover that Chazal use metaphors of “Gates” when discussing how prayer works. Anecdotally, the final prayer of Yom Kippur is called Neila – “Closing”. The gates of Heaven that open for Yom Kippur are closing, and we seize the opportunity to squeeze one final prayer in. The Gemara in Brachos says that the gates of prayer do not always stay open, but one does: the Gate of Tears. It never closes because crying is the potent form of prayer; it is invariably genuine and sincere.

But if it never closes, why is there a Gate at all? It’s just an open space!

Rabbi Moshe Sherer suggests that a Gate is required, because not all tears are equal. When Balak and Bilam schemed to entrap the Jews in immorality and licentiousness, they sent the young women of Midian into the Jewish camp to seduce the men, and there was not much resistance. Society collapsed, and this set off a plague. Right in the middle of the plague, with his brethren dying around him, one callous fellow, Zimri, also a senior member of Jewish government, was more brazen than anyone else:

וְהִנֵּה אִישׁ מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּא, וַיַּקְרֵב אֶל-אֶחָיו אֶת-הַמִּדְיָנִית, לְעֵינֵי מֹשֶׁה, וּלְעֵינֵי כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְהֵמָּה בֹכִים, פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד. וַיַּרְא, פִּינְחָס בֶּן-אֶלְעָזָר, בֶּן-אַהֲרֹן, הַכֹּהֵן; וַיָּקָם מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה, וַיִּקַּח רֹמַח בְּיָדוֹ. וַיָּבֹא אַחַר אִישׁ-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל-הַקֻּבָּה, וַיִּדְקֹר אֶת-שְׁנֵיהֶם–אֵת אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאֶת-הָאִשָּׁה אֶל-קֳבָתָהּ; וַתֵּעָצַר, הַמַּגֵּפָה, מֵעַל, בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל – A Jewish man approached, and paraded the Midianite woman before Moshe’s eyes, and before the eyes of all the people, and they were crying at the doors of the of the Mishkan. Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Ahron HaKohen saw this, and took up a spear… He approached the group and pierced the two of them… And the plague stopped. (25:6-8)

Clearly not all the Jews were involved. Unsure what to do, they went to Moshe and the then-holiest spot on the planet to cry and pray – וְהֵמָּה בֹכִים, פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד. These Jews who were strong enough to stand up the temptation of Midianite promiscuity; asked for help, and did not get it. The Torah clearly states that his assassination of the provocateurs stopped the plague, not their prayers. God attests to this by saying הֵשִׁיב אֶת-חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת-קִנְאָתִי – the Jews prayers are a non-factor, written off completely. Why weren’t their prayers answered, considering that tears are the most sincere form of prayer?

The Kotzker Rebbe says that the reason there is a “Gate” of Tears is because tears don’t work when it’s a time for action. They are crocodile tears – they are not “tears” at all. If circumstances call for action, being “religious” may not be enough.

When God created the universe, the life it contained was blessed. Yet the blessing was not given equally to all. The amphibians and birds were told one thing:

וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם אֱלֹהִים, לֵאמֹר: פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ, וּמִלְאוּ אֶת-הַמַּיִם בַּיַּמִּים, וְהָעוֹף, יִרֶב בָּאָרֶץ – God blessed them saying, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the waters of the seas, and multiply the land”. (1:22)

In contrast, mankind was told:

וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם, אֱלֹהִים, וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם אֱלֹהִים פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, וְכִבְשֻׁהָ – God blessed them; and God said to them to be fruitful and multiply; fill the land and conquer it… (1:28)

Both are blessed to be populous, yet man is given a personal instruction – וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם – spoken directly, and not just about them.

Rav Hirsch notes that nature serves God by its intrinsic existence. It cannot be otherwise because there is no deviation in how it relates to God; the laws of science and nature are fixed. Mankind however, is spoken to, and must choose to listen. Free will is the צלם אלוקים that distinguishes humanity from other creatures. Allowing instinct and nature to run wild is to surrender to the animal within, which is not the duty man is charged with; the charge is moral consciousness, and the freedom to choose to overcome the natural instinct:

The Netziv explains that the animal instinct within us must be channeled a particular way, as evidenced by the origin of humanity:

וַיִּיצֶר ה אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם, עָפָר מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו, נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים; וַיְהִי הָאָדָם, לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה – God formed man from the dust of the earth, and breathed into him a living soul, and the man became alive (2:7)

Animals are simply called נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה – they are living things. But mankind is made of more – a blend of matter, fused with soul. With this equilibrium, man becomes truly “alive”. The word חַיָּה means alive, but it also means happy. The happiness is found in the balance. This is the instruction– וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם.

This is reflected in their respective developments too; a newborn calf can stand not long after birth, and while it will get bigger, it is born as it will always be; whereas humans are born helpless, defenceless, and pretty useless for a relatively large part of their lives.

The body is the container of the soul. The soul has to operate the system, or it withers away. Our choices are what make us human. Are your choices wise?

When God created the universe, the life it contained was not equally instructed. The amphibians and birds were told:

וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם אֱלֹהִים, לֵאמֹר: פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ, וּמִלְאוּ אֶת-הַמַּיִם בַּיַּמִּים, וְהָעוֹף, יִרֶב בָּאָרֶץ – God blessed them saying, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the waters of the seas, and multiply the land”. (1:22)

In contrast, mankind was told:

וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם, אֱלֹהִים, וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם אֱלֹהִים פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, וְכִבְשֻׁהָ – God blessed them; and God said to them to be fruitful and multiply; fill the land and conquer it… (1:28)

The Netziv points out that while both are blessed to be populous, man had a personal instruction – וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם – it was said to them directly, and not just about them.

Rav Hirsch notes that nature serves God by its intrinsic existence. It cannot be otherwise because there is no deviation in how it relates to God. Mankind however, is spoken to, and must choose to listen. Free will is the צלם אלוקים that distinguishes humanity from other creatures. Allowing instinct and nature to run wild is to surrender to the animal within; the charge is to subjugate it and listen to God’s instruction.

The Netziv explains that the animal instinct within us must be channeled a particular way, as evidenced by the origin of humanity:

וַיִּיצֶר יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם, עָפָר מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו, נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים; וַיְהִי הָאָדָם, לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה – God formed man from the dust of the earth, and breathed into him a living soul, and the man became alive (2:7)

Animals are simply called נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה – they are living things. But mankind is made of more – a balance of mundane matter, pumped with soul. It is with this equilibrium that man becomes truly alive. The word חַיָּה means alive, but it also means happy. The happiness is found in the balance. This is the choice on offer – וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם.

This is reflected in their respective developments too; a newborn calf can stand not long after birth, and while it will get bigger, it is born as it will always be; whereas humans are born helpless, defenceless, and pretty useless for a relatively large part of their lives. Clearly, mankind are intended for greater aspirations than cattle.

The Torah is intended as instructions on how to live. The Gemara teaches that וָחַי בָּהֶם – in most circumstances it is better to violate the Torah and live than die for its sake, with the exception of three cardinal sins: idolatry, murder, and consummating forbidden relationships. Bizarrely then, the location of the principle וָחַי בָּהֶם is exactly where it doesn’t apply, in the opening portion of forbidden relationships:

כְּמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ-מִצְרַיִם אֲשֶׁר יְשַׁבְתֶּם-בָּהּ, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ; וּכְמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ-כְּנַעַן אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מֵבִיא אֶתְכֶם שָׁמָּה, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ, וּבְחֻקֹּתֵיהֶם, לֹא תֵלֵכוּ. אֶת-מִשְׁפָּטַי תַּעֲשׂוּ וְאֶת-חֻקֹּתַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ, לָלֶכֶת בָּהֶם: אֲנִי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם. וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת-חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת-מִשְׁפָּטַי, אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם הָאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם אֲנִי, יְהוָה – As Egypt did when you lived among them; do not do. And as Canaan do, when I bring you there, do not do; do not follow their ordinances. It is My law that you should do, and My ordinance that you should observe, and follow its ways; I am The Lord. Guard My law and ordinance, that you will do them, and live by them; I am The Lord. (18:3-5)

Literally anywhere else in the entire Torah would be appropriate to teach וָחַי בָּהֶם. Why does it appear here with respect to the section of forbidden relationships?

Arguably, it makes the most sense to include it by its exception – it serves to prove the rule itself. God grants life – but life isn’t everything. What matters is the way the life is lived. The three exceptions contradict the essence of life.

The section וָחַי בָּהֶם is said of is not entirely limited forbidden relationships. Apart from incest, the end of the laws address homosexuality, bestiality, and sacrificing children to Molech, a form of idol worship.

They are not an acceptable way of life. All are squandering and snuffing out potential life for transient and questionable gain. Perhaps it could be said that the man has embezzled a part of himself as well – that is not the person God intended to create. וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם – there was meant to be a balance of the mundane dust of physicality married to the spiritual soul, and that couldn’t be further from these. They are the ultimate obfuscations and literal perversions; funnelled into narcissism and self pleasure. What sort of human being puts a child, his own flesh and blood, into a fire, for some sort of spiritual elevation?

וָחַי בָּהֶם is placed on these to indicate the requirement of a direction in life. Life does not trump everything. Because there is another exception to וָחַי בָּהֶם too – during Shmad, a time of persecution and genocide. Rather than violate even the smallest and most insignificant law, a Jew should sacrifice their existence. Because life has to be worth something.

And if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.

One of the mitzvos recited daily is the duty to love God:

וְאָהַבְתָּ, אֵת ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁךָ, וּבְכָל-מְאֹדֶךָ – Love Hashem your God, with all your heart, soul, and things… (6:5)

The question commonly asked is how exactly can emotion be commanded? Emotions are responses; they are there or they aren’t. How is the feeling of love demanded of us?

The Sfas Emes explains that the existence of the instruction can only mean that the emotion is not borne in a vacuum. The ability to love God is imbued in everyone, and is only dormant. The instruction is to find it.

The same is true of most (all..?) things. The Gemara says to believe someone who claims to discover something after hard work. Curiously, it says “discovers”, not “earns”. The word “discover” means dis-cover, or uncover. Electricity was discovered, not invented.

It is said that an angel teaches a child the entire spectrum of knowledge to a baby in the womb, but at birth, it is tapped on the face and forgets it all. This serves to illustrate that knowledge alone is not the goal. The curse of Adam is to toil and work hard. The Vilna Gaon points out that the knowledge is always there, but birth and life are a gift to enable the ability to earn it. Perhaps the curse of Adam isn’t really a curse at all then. The achievement has accrued value due to the effort put into its acquisition.

Perhaps then, the initial question is fundamentally flawed. Something has slipped under the radar. One of the Ten Commandments is לא תחמוד – Do not covet. Jealousy is an emotion too, yet there are no questions about commanding emotion.

The Ibn Ezra explains that emotions can actually be worked on – that is the subtext of the mitzva. The way to not be jealous of someone’s property is to view it as out of your league. Most normal people aren’t jealous that a billionaire owns a fleet of yachts or a private island in the Caribbean. The way to not be jealous is to understand that some people have yachts and islands, your friends have a house or car, and you have what you have. Jealousy is completely suppressed in this way – mitzva accomplished.

Working on this is deeply significant beyond the applications of jealousy. Simply put, is jealousy really one of the top ten laws of Judaism this top ten in Judaism? Consider then, that it appears in the Ten Commandments.

Perhaps the instruction is that emotional development is required of us. It starts with not being jealous, and can develop into וְאָהַבְתָּ, אֵת ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ

The men selected to scout out the land of Israel were no ordinary men. They were chosen because they held stature among the nation – they were great people, yet they gravely erred. One of the reasons Chazal understand to have motivated their plot was that life in the desert was simple and beautiful. God did everything for them, and the people were exposed at all times to the Almighty.

They had the manna to eat, which would be sent based on worthiness and potentially taste of anything they desired. They had a wellspring that moved with the camp. They had Clouds of Glory which marked travel movements and shaded them from the harsh desert sun; and according to Midrash, flattened obstacles, cleared wild beasts, and possibly cleaned their clothing too.

The spies concluded that this was an ideal way of life and engineered a report that would get the people to clamour to stay in the wilderness.

The Sfas Emes notes that immediately afterward the story of the spies concludes, three mitzvos are revealed: separating challa, Tzitzis, and nesachim – wherein all sacrifices require additions from the mineral water 0, among them salt and spring water.

The Sfas Emes notes that the sin of the spies was that they presumed to instruct God how things ought to be. These specific mitzvos show the flaw in their argument. God did not want us to live in the desert indefinitely, eating miraculous manna, drinking from the miraculous well, under the miraculous Clouds – the training wheels have to come off eventually.

What man is independently capable of is elevating the mundane and material into spiritual . These mitzvos capture the concept.

The manna was the bread that God sent to their doorsteps. The mitzva of challa requires that when baking a loaf of bread, a small section is set aside to remind that God is the true provider. The entire loaf is called “challa”, although the mitzva only pertains to the small bit set aside. The bread that has been planted, grown, cultivated and processed becomes more.

The Clouds surrounded sheltered them and reminded them of God’s immanence and presence. Similarly, tzitzis ensconce and shroud a person – the stated aim is to remind the wearer of all mitzvos. Physical shelter and protection become more.

The wellspring that followed them around was how they drank. Similarly, the nesachim of minerals and spring water accompanied every sacrifice. The literal translation of Korban is to draw close – things mundane as minerals become more.

God does not want to give things to us for free, as this makes them cheap. The spies presumed to know that a life devoid of physicality was perfect, but these mitzvos serve indicate otherwise.

Mankind has the potential to elevate everything into something spiritual – with just a little direction.

On Shavuos, it is customary to read the Book of Ruth. The subtext of the story is how crucial it is to pursue a personal stake in Torah and to want to be a part of the Jewish people. The story concludes with the genealogy of Ruth’s descendants, culminating in David – and therefore Moshiach too, the ultimate dream of Jewish hope.

But the story is not a happy one. Boaz died the morning after he took her in, leaving her a pregnant widow. She never saw the happy ending; neither did Boaz or Naomi see the vindication of their actions. David’s rise was generations after they had passed.

The story is explicit that God’s justice is not simple or immediate, but calculated over centuries and generations.

The Chasam Sofer notes that the story of Cain and Abel is included in the Torah, right at the beginning, to teach precisely this lesson. God favoured Abel, and Cain murdered him out of jealousy. Yet Cain lived for a full life with countless descendants. Where is the justice? It is not just to say that justice was when they died in the Flood, so long afterward.

The story shows that justice is complicated. It is curious to note that the end of the book, the genealogy of Jewish hope springs from some bizarre circumstances.

Boaz, a member of the house of Yehuda was descended from Peretz, born of the mysterious story of Yehuda and Tamar. The Gemara says that he lost his free will when he approached the crossroads and spotted her.

Boaz fainted at the sight of Ruth in his bed chambers. Everyone castigated him, supporting Ploni Almoni’s arguments. The day after adjudicating Ruth’s case, he died, which could certainly be labeled as divine retribution by his critics.

Ruth was descended from Moav, born of incest between Lot and his daughters. The other child born of this was Amon, whose descendant married King Shlomo.

The story of David and Batsheva is one of the great mysteries in our tradition. She was married, and David orchestrated her husband’s death. The Gemara declares that whoever says David sinned is mistaken; but whoever says he didn’t is as well!

Moshiach rises through bizarre circumstances. Incest, prostitution, adultery, and promiscuity.

The world needs a Moshiach. Judaism believes in a World to Come, but it alone is not enough. Otherwise, we could each just take care of ourselves as hermits, and leave the world to be damned, and passively watch it burn and unravel. Judaism staunchly disavows this. Judaism affirms that this world is ours, and it needs repair. We must do what we can to make it a better place – and Moshiach will finish the job. He emerges out of the ashes of a world which has started to rebuild.

Receiving the Torah is the moment we were chosen to be charged with this responsibility.

Perhaps we read Ruth to remind ourselves that we may fade long before we see success. But success is not why we started. We persevere and endure, fortified with the knowledge that’s what right isn’t always what’s easy.

A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.

Shavuos is very different to the other Chagim.

Each Chag celebrates something, but Shavuos does not explicitly recall a particular event; the Torah simply says that when the count from Pesach is complete, there is a Chag. There tends to be a specific thematic mitzva for each Chag, yet Shavuos has no such mitzva.

The Chagim require a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and each Jew who makes the journey must bring a sacrifice which can only be brought on the Chag. Yet Shavuos has a six-day window afterward in which people can still bring this offering. And unlike the other Chagim, the Jewish people had to prepare themsleves for three days before Sinai.

Shavuos is clearly different, but why?

The Chagim celebrate greatness and grandeur on God’s part. That He saved us; the He sheltered us; that He is particular in judgment; that He is benevolent in forgiveness. Shavuos is the exception, because it’s about us.

Moshe emphasised that people can never deserve God’s love, it is always a gift:

כִּי עַם קָדוֹשׁ אַתָּה, לה אֱלֹהֶיךָ: בְּךָ בָּחַר ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה, מִכֹּל הָעַמִּים, אֲשֶׁר עַל-פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה. לֹא מֵרֻבְּכֶם מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, חָשַׁק ה בָּכֶם–וַיִּבְחַר בָּכֶם: כִּי-אַתֶּם הַמְעַט, מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים. כִּי מֵאַהֲבַת ה אֶתְכֶם – You are a holy people to God. He has selected you to be his chosen people from all nations on the face of the earth. You have not been chosen because you are mighty; you’re not. Purely because He loves you so… (7:6-8)

It is not possible to earn something in a framework in which everything is from God. Yet God loved them all the same. Just like winning the lottery, we celebrate our good fortune. This is עצרת – “stopping” – to take stock of the monumental moment.

The Torah calls Shavuos שבועותיכם – “your Shavuos”. The Torah does not call any other Chag “yours” – not סוכותיכם, nor פתחיכם. Shavuos is the Chag of the Jewish people. It is for us and about us. . There is no mitzva, because the Chag is marked by just being ourselves. There is no mitzva, as it would confine the expression of love to a particular thing. The relationship cannot be adequately expressed through a ritual act. We simply celebrate and enjoy ourselves.

However, there is a caveat. To internalise what the Chag entails, it cannot simply be an experience. It demands an integral preparation that the others don’t; the three days of preparation. The six-day window afterward is the Char carried over to an ordinary, everyday life.

Shavuos was not the day the Torah was given. That was on Yom Kippur, when Moshe came down the second time and told them they’d been forgiven. The Midrash says that Shavuos is when Moshe ascended, and was confronted by angels, who could not abide for the Torah to be given to man, or in their parlance, “one borne of a woman”, an epithet alluding to his mundane, material existence. But God told them all that the Torah was always meant for mankind.

The speciality of Shavuos celebrates physicality because that is precisely what elevates the human being. We are holy because we are human, and our choices and achievements can mean something.

The Kotzker said it best.

God has plenty of holy angels. What He is after is holy people.

The Ramban says that Shmita and the Yovel cycle are fundamental mitzvos. Something is lost on us today – slavery has mostly vanished from earth, and Shmita and Yovel have long been missing large chunks of their key halachos for thousands of years.

Consider the fact that when the Ramban classified it as fundamental, Yovel hadn’t been properly marked for centuries. What about it is fundamental when the laws associated with it seems so antiquated, archaic, and arguably irrelevant?

The Pnei Yehoshua explains that Yovel is not just a time when slaves go free – it is a Yom Tov that celebrates freedom and liberty. The Sfas Emes notes that the nation was born by being liberated from the crucible of Egypt.

After millennia of exiles, restrictions on movement, bans, pogroms, genocide, and general oppression, society has developed to give all people human and civil rights; Jews can now practice Judaism relatively freely, to the extent that younger people today have little idea of what not being free means. While progress is undoubtedly a good thing, we must be vigilant not to take our rights for granted.

One of the brachos said daily is שלא עשני עבד – perhaps this alludes the principle that we do not take our unprecedented liberties for granted.

Yovel was dedicated to displaying our gratitude that we are always able to serve God – indicated by the shofar being blown. It becomes abundantly clear why it is classified a foundational mitzva; freedom is a wonderful thing that we are very grateful for. But moreover, perhaps it shows that even under oppression, slavery, and exile, we are nonetheless subjugated exclusively to God.

The soul always remains free.

The Cohanim are restricted over and above other Jews with regard to certain laws:

לֹא-יקרחה קָרְחָה בְּרֹאשָׁם, וּפְאַת זְקָנָם לֹא יְגַלֵּחוּ; וּבִבְשָׂרָם–לֹא יִשְׂרְטוּ, שָׂרָטֶת. קְדֹשִׁים יִהְיוּ – A razor may not pass over your head, nor may you remove your beard. Do not cut your skin. Be holy… (21:5-6)

The prohibition on men to remove all their hair is actually not specific to Cohanim, and pertains to all Jews. The Maharil Diskin explains why.

Jews are defined by their actions, not appearance. A Jew is recognised by their force of good deeds and quality of character. In popular culture however, we know all too well that in the age of “celebrity”, a makeover is somehow newsworthy. Appearances are deceptive; the same person is perceived differently by looking different, yet remaining the same.

But how is the principle that appearances aren’t all they seem, taught from the laws of a Cohen – who actually have a uniform they are required to wear?

Perhaps a distinction can be drawn. The uniform is not universal – that would truly be meaningless. The uniform is exclusive to Cohanim. An on-duty Cohen is serving God in the Beis HaMikdash – the clothing is for the office, not the individual.

The way you dress might not be appropriate for a monarch or head of state. They have to dress up out of respect for the office, not themselves – not a hair can be out of place. But as God’s people, as princes and princesses one and all, we have to dress for the office too. Not everyone has to have a suit and black hat; everyone is at a different place. But we have to respect who we are enough to dress with class and dignity.

Shabbos HaGadol – “The Great Shabbos” – is an anniversary of a one off event. The Jews were automatically safe from the first nine plagues; but for the tenth they had to do something to be saved – two things, to be precise: circumcision and the Korban Pesach. Through these mitzvos they were saved, earning freedom as a result.

The Korban Pesach was to be set aside on the Shabbos a few days before they left, the tenth of Nissan. Shabbos HaGadol memorialises that event.

It is highly unusual to mark a day of the week, and not the calendar date of an event. Yet the Shabbos before Pesach is when we remember that the Pesach sacrifice was to be set aside, and not the tenth of Nissan. Why?

The Sfas Emes expounds how Shabbos is the transition between the previous week and the next. It is the culmination of what came before, and sets the tone of what is to come. Particularly with regard to redemption, Shabbos has trappings of eternity and liberation, with an eye to the conclusion of Creation. As such, the pending Exodus required a particular investment on the people’s part to earn redemption the coming week. It was Shabbos that the instruction was particular to, and the calendar date was incidental – this is why it is remembered on the Shabbos before Pesach. Shabbos sets the tone for redemption and Geula.

But why is it called Great – HaGadol?

The Sfas Emes teaches that the “greatness” refers to the Jews. The Jews had little or no merit; they kept their names, clothing and language, but had literally nothing else. By following the instruction to prepare for the mitzva of Korban Pesach, they matured as a nation, and became capable of greatness, and worthy of redemption. The surrender to God’s will and removal of other influences, particularly Paroh’s, made the nation “great”. They became big, or adult – HaGadol.

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that the separation of the sheep, a sacred animal in Egypt, was not just symbolic of their intent to eat it. It correlated to the second commandment – that there be no other false gods or entities, including Paroh. This was actually a prerequisite to the first commandment, that Hashem is God, exemplified by the Korban Pesach a few days later. They couldn’t just add Hashem to the pile; they had to make a clear distinction.

The Sfas Emes notes that setting the animal aside wasn’t even a real mitzva – it was never replicated later on in any commandments. It was a one-off instruction in Egypt. It is not a mitzva that we remember then. Instead, the we remember that the Jews took a very tentative, but very tangible first step. The Gemara gives an analogy that if a person makes an opening the size of the eye of a needle, God can then turn it into a grand ballroom. It is Shabbos HaGadol because all subsequent greatness stemmed from that first baby step, that seemed like so little.

Shabbos HaGadol also parallels Shabbos Shuva, only from a different perspective. Shabbos Shuva is Teshuva from Fear, and Shabbos HaGadol is Teshuva from Love – and love is stronger than fear. The nature of Shabbos HaGadol and Pesach after is that the relationship between God and His people is so strong that the redemption comes without deserving it – the same is true of Teshuva and prayer. This is precisely how they were pulled out if Egypt – they were given access to so much by doing something so small.

That first step forward makes all the difference. Take the initiative!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Having delivered word of a fair few plagues already, Moshe is told to go see Paroh again, and the reason he is given is quite bizarre:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, בֹּא אֶל-פַּרְעֹה: כִּי-אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת-לִבּוֹ -Hashem said to Moshe, “Go see Paroh, because I’ve hardened his heart”. (10:1)

What is the cause and effect in the instruction? Why is the fact Moshe is sent related to Hashem hardening his heart?

The Sfas Emes explains that Paroh’s heart was hardened, meaning his resolve was given the endurance to withstand the plagues. This was the challenge Moshe was sent to address.

The Sfas Emes teaches that every Jew must know that every hurdle and obstacle they will ever face in life is a challenge straight from God. It is precisely because God is testing you that you must rise to the occasion. When a כִּי-אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת-לִבּוֹ is placed before us, is precisely when we receive the instruction of בֹּא אֶל-פַּרְעֹה.

To recap history; the fast of Asara b’Teves marks the beginning of the final siege of Jerusalem. On 17 Tamuz the walls were breached; and on 9 Av, the Temple was sacked and destroyed.

Asara b’Teves has a quirk to it in Halacha. The BeHaG, a late Rishon, ruled that the fast on the tenth if Teves is observed on Shabbos, and Friday too. This never occurs with our fixed calendar, but with the fluctuating calendar it could. The same is not true of any other fast, barring Yom Kippur – what is markedly different about Asara b’Teves that it could be observed in Shabbos?

A story is told of a sad old gentleman, one Shabbos afternoon in the city of Psyszcha. Noticing his despondency, R’ Simcha Bunim ambled over to him, and told him that sadness has no place on Shabbos. “Rosh Chodesh and Yom Kippur, Shabbos steps aside. But not for Tisha b’Av!”

Sadness has no place on Shabbos – so again, why does Asara b’Teves have the capacity to override regular Shabbos observance?

The Shulchan Aruch records the law that for certain types of bad dreams, a person can and should fast (if they are bothered by what they saw). Such a fast can be observed even on Shabbos, also overriding regular Shabbos observance. The reason for this is that for such a person, addressing his concerns and fears is his only way of having a peaceful Shabbos.

Dealing with such matters that require resolution is not sadness, and makes perfect sense.

There is a Gemara that states that if a generation fails to see the Temple rebuilt in their days, it is considered to have been destroyed in their days. The Chasam Sofer says that Halachically, the evaluation is very simple; if the Temple existed at that moment, would it continue to? If it is not built yet, it is because it would not last in such an environment.

The last time this evaluation generated a different outcome was Asara b’Teves – the generation failed and the siege began, setting into motion a chain of events. This lends an extra function beyond that of stirring a person to Teshuva, like a regular fast.

It then emerges why it overrides regular Shabbos observance; like the bad dream, the looming cloud disturbs and threatens us. It is a din Torah, a court case. It overrides Shabbos because it is detrimental to our Oneg Shabbos – our concern should be for its construction, may it come quickly.

Existence is a fusion of time, space and consciousness, and all have associations with light.

Hashem created time. Time is measured in increments of 7, culminated by Shabbos. Shabbos is welcomed with candles.

Hashem created the universe. Within it, the earth, within it Israel, within it Jerusalem, within it the Beis HaMikdash, containing the Menora. This relates to space.

Hashem created life. Within it, the human race, within it the nation of Israel, within it Levi, within it the Kohanim, and ultimately, the Cohen Gadol, whose job includes lighting the Menora.

The light is symbolic of Hashgacha Klalis, Hashem’s supervision in a general sense, over all things. But on Chanuka, we light individual lights, each person for themselves. The light is lit at the door, indicating that our comings and goings, our entire lives, are for the sake of Heaven.

What Chanuka changed was that we show that each person can have connection, a Hashgacha Pratis. We just have to seek it out.

In parentheses, the Ishbitzer adds that there are three mitzvos that are disqualified if they are too high; Sukka, Eruv and Menora. They respectively relate to space, time, and consciousness. They have to be related to in a personal, individual way, and Chanuka shows the way.

The Greeks began by banning three mitzvos in their attempts to secularise Judaism; Rosh Chodesh, Shabbos, and circumcision. Each is central to Jewish identity. Existence consists of a fusion of time, space, and consciousness.

Rosh Chodesh addresses time, and a Jew’s obligation to master it. Shabbos testifies to Hashem’s mastery of the universe, and a Jew’s obedience to His will. Circumcision is targeted at the soul, and a Jew’s entire way of life.

Without these three, Jewish identity in existence was lost, and ultimately doomed. The resistance out an end to that.

And as the Sfas Emes and Maharal observe, Chanuka references all these three; Chanuka is eight days long, when the mitzva of Mila begins. There is always a Shabbos in the middle of Chanuka, and a Rosh Chodesh too!

On Chanukah, two main miracles happened. First, the uprising against the Greeks; and secondly, the reestablishment of the Beis HaMikdash service, particularly finding the oil for the Menora, surviving despite attempts to sabotage, which subsequently lasted a week longer than it was meant to.

For the duration of Chanukah, an additional paragraph is inserted into our prayers. It’s contents discuss the incredibly unlikely military victory the Jewish rebels had, defeating a vastly superior Greek army. Yet the way we celebrate Chanuka revolves entirely around the second miracle, finding the oil which lasted an extra week.

Is there a discrepancy? Probably not.

However, a comprehensive military victory is miraculous, and while not entirely impossible, still fairly unlikely. But unlikely victories happen enough throughout history to downgrade it’s importance. Is it not a miracle at all then? Again, probably not.

As an isolated event, the successful war was not quite miraculous. But coupled with the oil, it was transformed. The quest to find uncontaminated oil was noble, but seemingly misguided. There is a premise in Judaism called טומאה הותרה בציבור – Purity isn’t necessarily required for public service. So why were they adamant to have it?

The Maccabees were motivated by a pursuit of fundamentalism. They were literally the extremists resisting modern interference in their lives, and did not want to compromise. So they looked for an uncontaminated pitcher of oil, and found one. But this too is only unlikely, and not impossible.

But something incredible happened, the quintessential Chanuka miracle. It lasted for eight days, not one. This marked something incredible – Hashem approved of their campaign! They were totally vindicated, and their achievements were framed in a new light – they were miracles!

During the famine in Canaan, Yakov sent his sons to Egypt to obtain provisions for their family. But they were arrested and imprisoned. Unbeknownst to them, their captor was their long lost brother Yosef. While in prison, they speculated how they’d wound up in their precarious situation:

וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל-אָחִיו, אֲבָל אֲשֵׁמִים אֲנַחְנוּ עַל-אָחִינוּ, אֲשֶׁר רָאִינוּ צָרַת נַפְשׁוֹ בְּהִתְחַנְנוֹ אֵלֵינוּ, וְלֹא שָׁמָעְנוּ; עַל-כֵּן בָּאָה אֵלֵינוּ, הַצָּרָה הַזֹּאת – The brothers lamented to each other, “We are guilty! For what we did to our brother… We saw his suffering! He pleaded with us, and we ignored him. We have brought this on ourselves!” (42:21)

But reviewing the entire episode as it unfolded, the story is simply about what they did to him. There is no record of Yosef saying anything to them, let alone pleading!

What were they talking about?

R’ Shlomo Freifeld powerfully suggests a frightening resolution.

Vision has two aspects. There is a physical aspect, governed by our eyes. But there also the mental aspect, governed by our minds. Lacking the physical aspect will result in literal blindness, lacking the mental aspect will result in figurative blindness. But the result is the same. You do not perceive.

In the brothers eyes, Yosef was trouble, and he had to go. It was settled in their minds. They were single-mindedly focussed solely on the task at hand of exiling Yosef. As the story unfolded in their minds eye, he was an object to be removed.

But is there any doubt that a third-party observer to this traumatic episode would have witnessed the victim crying and pleading? But the Torah records the story from the actor’s perspective. Powerful emotions had dulled their sensitivity. Caught up in the heat of the moment, he hadn’t made a sound in their eyes.

Only in hindsight, sitting in jail years later, could they take stock of the terrible ordeal as it truly happened.

It’s scary because our minds corrupt our vision to conform to our biases.

And your eyes are useless when your mind is blind.

Rivka had a difficult pregnancy and was often pained. One particular time, she lamented:

וַיִּתְרֹצְצוּ הַבָּנִים, בְּקִרְבָּהּ, וַתֹּאמֶר אִם-כֵּן, לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי; וַתֵּלֶךְ, לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת-ה.
(25:19-20)

Chazal understand that each time she walked past a holy place, one child would agitate, and each time she walked past a place of idolatry, the other would agitate.

Not yet knowing it was twins, she could not understand what she was experiencing – לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי – (Literally) “Why is this happening to me?”.

She inquired her about her condition, and learned she was expecting twins, calming her:

וַתֵּלֶךְ, לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת-ה וַיֹּאמֶר ה לָהּ, שְׁנֵי גֹיִים בְּבִטְנך – She went to a prophet, and he said to her, “There are two nations within you”.

But if what bothered her was the children moving around, how does the new information that she was expecting twins address the issue?

R’ Chaim Brown suggests a fascinating resolution. When Moshe reviews the Torah in his final speech to the people, he tells them:

רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָֽה – See how I place before you a blessing and a curse… Good and Evil. (11:26)

The obvious meaning is that there is a choice between two archetypes: good and evil, and we are implored to choose wisely.

But there is a different implication. אָנֹכִי means the first person, the self, “I”. What kind of אָנֹכִי do we each wish to be?

Tying this to Rivka’s problem, R’ Brown frames her problem and resolution in a different light:

לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי – where is the אָנֹכִי in this child? Does he want to go to holy places, or serve idols? This child has no אָנֹכִי – he is confused! And the prophet replied to her:

שְׁנֵי גֹיִים בְּבִטְנֵך – It is not one confused child, there are two distinct אָנֹכִי archetypes. With this, she was comforted. In a sense, this is the choice laid before us each and every day. With each choice and action, we get to choose to align closer with one way or another. Let’s make it count.

On certain special milestones, a blessing called שהחיינו is made, that thanks Hashem for the opportunity of living to see the momentous event. The completion of the Torah cycle on Simchas Torah seems to fit the criteria of such a milestone event, yet it is not said. Why not?

It isn’t said on Shavuos either, which commemorates the Torah being received, because the blessing of שהחיינו is only said at conclusions – Shavuos is only the beginning.

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 the anagram לב – heart. The Gemara says that what God wants from us is an emotional commitment.

But in the correct order, it also spells out בל, as in בלבל or מבלבל, meaning “confusion” or “mixed up”. When we look at the ocean of Torah looking forwards, it is בלבל – uncharted and unknown territory. But looking back, it is לב. A cycle is never isolated – every new cycle lends further light on previous cycles, and new insights abound.

Truly, this lends light on the adage that the Torah never finishes, and we immediately start again from the beginning. There is truly no end, only a constant battle against בלבל by way of לב, finishing again. And again. And again.

The job is never done, never finished, and as such, no שהחיינו is made – or in other words, there’s no והגיענו!

Avraham and Hashem spoke many times. We find that after the instruction to leave his birthplace, something happens that never happened before:

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

Avraham learns a glimpse of the future; marked by the sign of the covenant of circumcision.

Avraham stumbles in recoil, as though he were burned. The stumble is unique to this command – Avraham doesn’t fall over at any other time Hashem speaks to him.

Why had it never happened before?

R’ Chaim Soloveitchik explains that until a command is delivered, there is no counter-deficiency in not complying. But once he received such an instruction,he was defective, and literally could not stand in God’s presence in such a state.

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that this cuts both ways.

The standard expected of all Jews is nothing less that absolute, perfect dedication and diligent moral consciousness. Yet the standard of absolute perfection is a long way away from anything less than that, and perhaps out of reach as well. It’s a big leap to make.

But improvements can be gradual and incremental. So long as a person is not ready to for more responsibility, it doesn’t count against them – it’s perfectly reasonable to not be ready.

But when the moment arrives that they are ready, yet they are content to stay put, the burden counts against them – וַיִּפֹּל אַבְרָם, עַל-פָּנָיו.

Always chase more responsibility, and demand a higher standard of yourself. Moral consciousness is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t run before you can walk. One step at a time is an effective strategy.

The Gemara in Rosh HaShana identifies the festival of Shmini Atzeres as a separate festival in its own right to Sukkos.

Why then, do we refer to the three festivals, when there are in fact four? The other festivals also have clearly stated reasons, commemorating specific events. What is Shmini Atzeres? What is the function of atzeres a chag?

The Nesivos Shalom explains that there are several unique aspects to the day. The Gemara in Sukka teaches that after the 7 day festival of Sukkos, Hashem says “stay a little longer so that I can enjoy your company some more”. In Kabbala, it is identified as the day where the final judgement is delivered and carried out. We also make it the day where we complete and restart the Torah cycle and dance and rejoice.

Why do these events happen on Shmini Atzeres particularly, marking it as different from other festivals, deserving its own category?

The answer can be found in exploring what the significance of the number 8 is. The Maharal explains that the number seven includes everything cyclical, physical and natural. There were 7 days of creation, corresponding to all of the nature contained within. The number 8 supersedes what comes before, 7, and refers to the metaphysical and spiritual, anything supernatural. It is a state above nature.

Anywhere the number 8 is mentioned it refers to a supernatural event. The Mishkan entered regular use on its’ 8th day, which the Gemora in Shabbos discusses as being a day where the prescience of God was so palpable that the whole area shone. Circumcision is done on the 8th day after a child is born. He becomes a fully fledged Jew.

So Shmini Atzeres isn’t like the other 3 festivals. It’s a day of supernatural exposure to God that it can’t be categorised together with the other festivals – all of which are 7 days or less, indicating their operation within nature. It is a day where we mark the completion of God’s gift to us, the Torah.

The other festivals celebrate a particular event in history, such as leaving Egypt. But Shmini Atzeres is a day of such joy that the Sages compared it to the happiness one experiences on their wedding day. All the festivals are a build up to the culmination that is Shmini Atzeres.

Starting at Selichos, the prayers of Ellul, we open the Ark for prayer. On Rosh HaShana this develops into opening the Ark many times, and on Yom Kippur, this develops further at to taking several Torah scrolls out and parading them, and the concluding service has the Ark kept open the entire time. On Hoshana Rabba we take out all the scrolls and stand at the front.

But then comes the crowning moment: Shmini Atzeres and Simchas Torah. We all dance with the Torah. It’s a day of such ecstasy and celebration that it is supernatural and thus categorised by the number 8, hence it’s name. It is truly in a category of its own, completely separate to the other festivals.

The Midrash teaches that the idea of Teshuva predates the universe, and that Teshuva does not wipe the slate entirely clean, but a small root of the transgression remain with the individual.

Teshuva is the flipside of the same coin as being tested. Hashem wants us to pass tests, but tests can be failed. In that case, there is Teshuva. Genuine Teshuva enables someone to learn from their mistakes, and move on.

When learning to ride a bicycle and you lose your balance; you fall and hurt yourself. You need to learn how to keep your balance – focussing on the fall doesn’t teach anything. After hard work, you learn to keep your balance, and you now know how to ride a bicycle.

This is why Teshuva cannot mean wiping the slate clean – a fresh start necessarily means no history, and therefore nothing learned from mistakes made. This is also why Teshuva predates the creation of the universe; Hashem did not create a static world, He created a world that is meant to grow. Teshuva enables people to move on from their mistakes.

When a person does Teshuva, their sins and transgressions can be measured differently based on their motivation. If motivated by fear, they are downgraded to accidents and oversights; if motivated by love, they become merits. This should seem perplexing, but should now be perfectly logical – a person adapts their past mistakes and uses them to become a better person.

This explains why a year is called שנה – similar to the words שני and שנוי – “secondary” and “change” subjectively. These are not mutually exclusive terms. It is from the past, the foundations one lays, that anything later comes. A fresh start wouldn’t be secondary, and nor would a repetition. It only through change, growth, that one can move on. This is ראש השנה – and also why we temporarily act more stringently during the Aseres Yemei Teshuva. From reliable foundations comes a strong building.

Perhaps this is why we read about the Akeida on Rosh Hashana. Without any of this information, it is obviously a monumentally important story, a watershed moment in Jewish history. It cemented Avraham into Avraham Avinu. But perhaps there is something more.

The story is not one where he willingly goes along with Hashem’s instruction; he begrudgingly conceded to Hashem. His life was predicated in kindness and being good; this is why Hashem displayed an interest in him. Yet here he was was, being asked to commit the ultimate of selfishness and cruelty, stifling out someone else’s very existence. It simply made no sense, and he struggled to come to terms with what he was told to do.

The Nesivos Shalom points out that Torah subtly references the turmoil he faced. We are told that as Avraham approached the area, וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם–מֵרָחֹק – Avraham lifted his eyes, and saw הַמָּקוֹם from a distance. (22:4)

Classically, this means that he literally “saw the place”. But הַמָּקוֹם is also a name of Hashem – He is “The Place”, He is everywhere, the Omnipresent. As we say on Pesach; ברוך המקום ברוך הוא.

In this context, וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם–מֵרָחֹק means that Avraham evaluated the situation, and felt a distance between himself and Hashem. It tore him apart – he’d spent his whole life fighting idol worship and sacrifice, and yet here he was, about to sacrifice his son, throwing away his entire future, and Hashem had not even demanded it. וַיַּרְא אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם–מֵרָחֹק – Avraham looked around, and felt a distance between himself and Hashem.

When it comes to follow through, we are told how וַיִּשְׁלַח אַבְרָהָם אֶת-יָדוֹ, וַיִּקַּח אֶת-הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת – Avraham sent his hand, and picked up the knife.
The Torah disembodied the action from the actor – his hand was not doing what he wanted it to – he didn’t want to do it at all!

And in the end, he was vindicated. He was right the whole time! Every fibre of his being told him what he was doing was wrong, and he was proven right.

This is the comparison to Teshuva; the vindication of a struggle. It’s hard, and we don’t understand everything, but at the end of the tunnel, it all fits into place.

During the Aseres Yemei Teshuva, we insert the following plea into our prayers:

זכרינו לחיים, מלך חפץ בחיים, וכתבינו בספר החיים למענך אלוקים חיים – Remember us for life, our King who desires to grant life, and inscribe us in the book of life, for Your sake.

זכרינו לחיים

We grow up learning about the “Books” of Life and Death, which are essentially the books that categorise one as righteous or evil. So how can we implore Hashem that זכרינו לחיים – that He should give seemingly give a biased judgment? It would seem a fairly simple evaluation; are we or are we not worthy? The judgment should be impartial, so what are we asking for?

One doesn’t transform into a tzaddik because they pray or ask for something; and this isn’t a plea despite our sins. This is a prayer for us to be found righteous. How does it work, if we don’t deserve it?

Being a tzaddik is multi-faceted. Our sages teaches that one can be righteous in certain aspects of their lives.

Does a Paralympian athlete not deserve a gold medal if there is an Olympic athlete who can perform better? No – because the lines are drawn between able-bodied and disabled athletes.

We say זכרינו לחיים – see us as people worthy of life, so treat us individually, separately, in our own category. Let our accomplishments be foremost in our own unique category.

If a child does their best, but fails a test, will the parent get angry? They shouldn’t. Disappointment should only be manifest when the child is capable of more.

מלך חפץ ביים

It’s impossible to be perfect, and no one can stand comparison to objective perfection – the Gemara says that even Avraham would wither in the face of this comparison. But Hashem is kind, and does not expect this of us.

A tzaddik is someone who does their best, which is entirely subjective. What we’re good at can be evaluated externally, and crumble in the face of analysis, or can be evaluated on a personal level – מלך חפץ ביים – that Hashem wants to and can find a way to judge us as being good in our own way.

למענך אלוקים חיים

Why should Hashem give us things we don’t necessarily deserve?

If a person is looking for a house, and the real estate agent asks for a million dollars, is there a problem handing it over? The agent is acting for you; of course there’s no problem!

Hashem has no problem giving us things that help us serve Him better – למענך אלוקים חיים – they’re free! We can ask Hashem for things to help us serve Him better even when we don’t deserve it.

During the Selichos, Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur prayers, we regularly mention that Hashem is ותיק ועושה חסד – He is old, and kind.

We’re probably not paying enough attention when saying this, but this clearly sounds very odd. What is the intent of the prayer by labelling Hashem as “old”, and what effect does that on His kindness? My father explains with a parable.

If someone gets pulled over for speeding on a particular road, and the police officer is in a particularly good mood, perhaps a very good explanation about a family emergency or what have you, will get them off the hook.

But if the same person gets pulled over by the same cop the next day, will the same excuse work? Absolutely not.

Every year, we make the same promises, and make the same excuses. Hashem is ותיק, that same “old” judge as last time, and yet ועושה חסד – nonetheless, He will act kindly with us.

Moshe reiterates to the people the responsibility they took on when they agreed the covenant at Sinai:

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

The former part relates to our commitment to the relationship, and the latter, Hashem’s commitment to us. The transition though, is quite difficult: וַה הֶאֱמִירְךָ הַיּוֹם, לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה, כַּאֲשֶׁר, דִּבֶּר-לָךְ; וְלִשְׁמֹר, כָּל-מִצְו‍ֹתָיו – Hashem has said of you this day, for you to be a Chosen People for Him, as He has said to you; and you will keep His mitzvos.

The opening is clearly Hashem speaking of us, but the ending is clearly back to our commitment. How is adherence to Torah related to being called עַם סְגֻלָּה? Whose commitment is this about? And what is the supremacy granted as a result?

Rabbeinu Bachye teaches that being called עַם סְגֻלָּה – “chosen” – is not what it seems at face value. It is not a status we are born with; it is a title earned, an achievement, that we have to strive towards.

In a similar vein, a man does not make the blessing שעשני איש the way a woman says שעשני כרצונו – because איש – to truly be a “man” – is what we spend our lives striving towards.

So too with circumcision, the first mitzva a newborn is party to, is a microcosm of the Jewish mission; perfecting what we have with everything we are given, working towards the ultimate goal of perfection.

Rabbeinu Bachye says that the entire verse pertains to our commitment – לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה, כַּאֲשֶׁר, דִּבֶּר-לָךְ; וְלִשְׁמֹר, כָּל-מִצְו‍ֹתָיו – we just have to earn it.

So being chosen is in fact a bestowing of responsibility, but is in turn rewarded with being עֶלְיוֹן, עַל כָּל-הַגּוֹיִם – supreme over the other nations.

R Shamshon Refael Hirsch writes how when the responsibilities are met, the world becomes a better place. The world is damaged, and being better people bring harmony back, repairing it.

Adam was commanded to “conquer” the world, when he was still all alone. His conquest would be through exercising his free will to listen to God; this is how all the animals knew to come to him to be named – they perceived godliness in him.

The same is true of Yakov – the Torah emphasises how he left Beersheba and went to Charan. The former seems redundant – it should only matter that he arrived somewhere. Clearly, his departure does matter. When someone righteous leaves or goes somewhere, the environment and atmosphere of the place fundamentally change.

There is a story told of a young Chafetz Chaim, who saw the ills of the world, and decided to change the world. Seeing that the task was too monumentally large, he changed his mind, and set out to change his community. After seeing that this too was impossible, he downgraded his ambitions again, and decided that if he could not make them better, he’d start with the man in the mirror.

And by making himself better, he really did change the world.

R Hirsch teaches that by being better people, the world becomes a better place. There is famine, war, child slavery and kidnapping in the world, and while people attempt to deal with the symptoms, it is ultimately futile if humans aren’t more humane.

This is also what we mean when we make brachos, when we say אשר קדשנו במצוותיו; and what we mean we say אתה בחרתנו on Yomim Tovim – וקדשתנו במצוותיך.

The Torah assures us that perfection of the world comes through perfection of ourselves. Introduce a little more humility, kindness and gratitude into your life; and a little less being mundane and materialistic. The world around you may just change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Towards the final stage of the journey in the desert, after Miriam’s wellspring dried up upon her death, Moshe is instructed to provide a new source of water for Jews:

קַח אֶת-הַמַּטֶּה, וְהַקְהֵל אֶת-הָעֵדָה אַתָּה וְאַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ, וְדִבַּרְתֶּם אֶל-הַסֶּלַע לְעֵינֵיהֶם, וְנָתַן מֵימָיו; וְהוֹצֵאתָ לָהֶם מַיִם מִן-הַסֶּלַע, וְהִשְׁקִיתָ אֶת-הָעֵדָה וְאֶת-בְּעִירָם – Take your staff, gather your brother Ahron, and the entire nation, and you should speak to the rock before their very eyes, and it will provide its water. Extract water from the rock for them, and make them drink, and their animals too. (20:8)

But Moshe did not do this:

וַיָּרֶם מֹשֶׁה אֶת-יָדוֹ, וַיַּךְ אֶת-הַסֶּלַע בְּמַטֵּהוּ–פַּעֲמָיִם; וַיֵּצְאוּ מַיִם רַבִּים, וַתֵּשְׁתְּ הָעֵדָה וּבְעִירָם – Moshe raised his hand, and struck the rock with his staff, twice. Water gushed out, and the people and their animals drank. (20:11)

Immediately after this, Hashem berates Moshe, and informs him that he will not be permitted to enter the land of Israel.

R’ Shimon Schwab notes that the Mishna in Avos assures that someone who causes the public to improve and better themselves is saved from sin. Why was Moshe – “Rabbeinu”, ultimate teacher extraordinaire – not saved from stumbling?

R’ Schwab explains that it was no mistake. It was a calculated decision.

There is something in Hashem’s command that doesn’t seem to fit – וְהִשְׁקִיתָ אֶת-הָעֵדָה – making them drink. If there was water, they would drink of their own accord; what was the role Moshe and Ahron played in “making them” drink?

Perhaps Moshe made an alarming connection between what he was told, and what he’d experienced earlier in their travels. Moshe knew had heard this sort of instruction before:

וְהִשְׁקָה, אֶת-הָאִשָּׁה, אֶת-מֵי הַמָּרִים, הַמְאָרְרִים – The woman is made to drink the bitter water… (5:24)

וַיִּקַּח אֶת-הָעֵגֶל אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ, וַיִּשְׂרֹף בָּאֵשׁ, וַיִּטְחַן, עַד אֲשֶׁר-דָּק; וַיִּזֶר עַל-פְּנֵי הַמַּיִם, וַיַּשְׁקְ אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל – He took the Golden Calf they had made, burnt it, ground it finely. He scattered it in water, and made them drink (32:20)

The sota – a woman suspected of adultery – is made to drink a concoction that would identify if she were guilty or not, resulting in her gruesome death if guilty. The Golden Calf water similarly clarified allegiance, causing a plague that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths too, as per the Gemara in Avoda Zara.

Moshe made a decision here. He identified what would happen if וְהִשְׁקִיתָ אֶת-הָעֵדָה were to take place, and wanted no part in it. They were on the cusp of entering Israel, and he did not want to see another plague take place. Another generation ripped apart! So he took the initiative, and engineered a way around וְהִשְׁקִיתָ אֶת-הָעֵדָה – which was וַיַּךְ אֶת-הַסֶּלַע בְּמַטֵּהוּ–פַּעֲמָיִם; וַיֵּצְאוּ מַיִם רַבִּים, וַתֵּשְׁתְּ הָעֵדָה. There was no making them drink, because וַתֵּשְׁתְּ הָעֵדָה. He had saved them.

In his farewell speech, he reminds them of the terrible price he paid for them:

גַּם-בִּי הִתְאַנַּף יְהוָה, בִּגְלַלְכֶם לֵאמֹר: גַּם-אַתָּה, לֹא-תָבֹא שָׁם – Hashem was also furious with me, for you! He said, “Neither will you enter”. (1:37)

Moshe did it בִּגְלַלְכֶם – for you! – he did what he felt to be right for the greater good, even though it violated what he was told, and bore a terrible price for it.

It takes a lot of knowledge to be able to weigh up the data to make this kind of decision, and should not be made lightly. The decision would still be legally wrong, and the perpetrator would be hounded and vilified; a vigilante. And the critics would be correct – the decision should not really have been made.

But a hero will sacrifice everything with no guarantee. That’s what sacrifice is; and what a hero does.

One of the sections of Moshe’s farewell speech opens with a reiteration on how important it is that people put in real effort:

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

The Alshich points out the peculiarity of the word עֵקֶב – it is very infrequently found. In addition to which, it doesn’t even seem to change the basic message in the context – were it not to say עֵקֶב, the meaning would remain the same – it hasn’t even been translated above, for this reason.

It seems to be a conditional term, but this raises an issue – in Judaism, we do not perform our duties like workers with the expectation of reward at the end. We are meant to dedicate ourselves regardless. So what is the implication of the conditional incentive clearly stated?

R’ Shlomo Ganzfried explains that the reward is not actually for the net result of the action performed.

The Gemara in Berachos tells how R’ Zeira took a short break from his learning, left the study hall, and decided to sit on the steps outside; so that if a rabbi walked by, he could stand up out of respect and deference, gaining merit while nonetheless being idle from learning.

This evidently indicates that positive attitude and care are independently valuable characteristics to display and exercise, outside of the set mitzvos and laws.

Similarly, the Torah requires anyone who witnesses an event to not withhold testimony. This also means that a witness can not be paid to testify – they are already obligated. However, if someone is hired to investigate something, and they find evidence or the like, they can be still be paid, not violating the above requirement.

This is because they are not being paid for the testimony or presentation of evidence. The payment is for the work and effort put in.

The same is true of the Torah’s affirmation of the reward, exemplified by the story of R Zeira. There may be no reward for the actual mitzva in this world – but showing respect for the accoutrements of Torah is very different.

This is why it is specifically here that the word עֵקֶב – literally “heel” – appears here. It is not conditional on performance at all; indeed, the Torah must be observed under any and all circumstances.

But the legwork, the walking, the effort, are what matters. That makes all the difference. This is the imagery of עֵקֶב.

The entire book of Devarim is one long event – Moshe’s parting words with the nation. It begins with Moshe listing the locations they travelled through, which Rashi notes are thinly veiled hints to the sins and tragedies that took place at each of them.

But if Moshe goal was to rebuke, the way to do that ought to have been through subtle references to the events. The locations were incidental to the events that took place – so why list the places at all?

Perhaps it is because the places themselves are central to understanding how they went wrong.

Teshuva – as delineated by the Rambam – is only fully achieved when the same person, in the same situation, in the same place, do not make the same mistake. The specification of the place is important – sin harms the atmosphere it occurs in, which is then rectified through repentance.

Moshe referenced the locations because they had been damaged by the impact of their behaviour. The Jews were on the cusp of entering Israel – he pleaded with them not to make the same mistakes that they had in the desert. The desert events had been bad, but not catastrophic. Israel would not be like anything they had experienced though, and their actions would have an effect on the environment. We testify this every day in the third paragraph of Shema.

The land of Israel is sensitive to the actions of its residents – Moshe hinted to them to take care of it.

Bilam was a prophet who had the abilities and potential to match Moshe, but usurped his skills and talents for personal gain and celebrity. He was hired by Balak to curse the Jews because his utterances were famously effective.

Chazal understood that he could identify a certain moment of the day in which God is “angry”, and in that moment, release God’s anger on his target.

What does that even mean?

The Midrash teaches that originally, God sought to create the world through a prism of strict justice; evil would be instantly punished, and good would be instantly rewarded. But existence would be untenable this way, and could never last. It was decided that an equal measure of mercy would be fused to creation, and the two balanced into equilibrium.

What Bilam could identify was the moment of indignance and outrage at the literal “injustice” of existence not being held to account.

Tosfos in Brachos wonder how much someone could really manage to squeeze in to a brief and transient moment, answering that he could cast his gaze on targets and say “כלם” – “Destroy them”. This was the curse he would have attempted to lay on the Jews..

The Maharal analyses how potent this curse would truly be. כלם is the reverse anagram of מלך – king, a critical function in Judaism; in Devarim, Moshe’s final speech to the people, he tells them the mitzva of appointing a king when they settle the land of Israel – שׂוֹם תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ – Appoint a king over yourselves (17:15). The function of the king is a hierarchy that organises and implements a governmental structure. He organises the system.

The Maharal explains that מלך is the initial letters of מח, לב, כבד – brain, heart, liver. These are metaphors for the procedure and development of action. There is a thought, a feeling, and an instinct. The order is critical – the intellect has to operate the system, and everything follows suit. This is the charge of every Jew – to become a master of the self – מלך – like an actual king, to perfect the structure of the self and surroundings.

In the book of Shmuel, the prophet is approached and asked for a king “like the tribes and nations have”, and the people are rebuked. But weren’t they correct; was it not one of things Moshe told them?

What the Jews asked Shmuel was not for such a king – they wanted a king “like the tribes and nations have”. This is not the monarch function that is critical to Jewish makeup.

What Bilam tried to do was invert this capacity – he wanted to curse the Jews with “כלם” – the reverse of מח, לב, כבד, and the order would degenerate into כבד, לב, מח – where the instinct is dominant, and intellect and soul are enslaved to it – the antithesis of the Jews’ charge, and truly the ultimate curse.

Every day in Shema, the section of tzitzis is read:

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

Beyond the obvious implication of not dwelling on inappropriate sights, the Sfas Emes notes that this mitzva is mentioned soon after the tragic incident of the spies. The juxtaposition charges us to not make that generations’ mistake – וְלֹא -תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם, וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם – where eyes and hearts literally “scout”, leading astray.

The Sfas Emes analyses their error.

What if their worst fears had been confirmed, and they indeed faced a barren land, inhabited by hordes of strong, ruthless, well armed, well trained men? Would Hashem’s assurances and promises have meant less than if they had no knowledge of the matter?

Certainly not. The scouting changed things from their perspective – but God certainly knew what lay ahead. This is שלח לך – for yourselves.

Taking things as they appear is a character flaw that is caused by a deficiency in faith and trust. If they had truly believed and trusted Hashem, the episode could not have taken place. They’d never have sent scouts in the first place. This why the very next following words are לְמַעַן תִּזְכְּרוּ, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֶת-כָּל-מִצְו‍ֹתָי – not “remind yourself” so much as “never forget” – by internalisation.

Ttitzis are said to protect a person. Perhaps by indicating that there is so much more than meets the eye – including the wearer!

A part of the tzitzis requirement is to have a thread of techeiles, a shade of blue-violet. Parenthetically, there is a lot of debate about the source of the correct type of techeiles. To illustrate the gravity of the mitzva, one opinion states that tzitzis without techeiles are not tzitzis at all!

Rav Hirsch notes that the spectrum discernible to our eye ends with the blue-violet ray – the same shade as techeiles; but additional magnitudes of light radiate unseen beyond the visible spectrum. Likewise, the blue sky is the end of the earth visible to us. Perhaps then, techeiles is the bridge that leads from the visible, physical sphere into the unseen sphere beyond. This again underlines the spies error.

Man’s goal is not to strive for spirituality to the exclusion of the physical, but rather to use the physical drives as tools for human growth – note how the thread of techeiles on the tzitzis is the thread wound around the white threads to make a cord of tzitzis. This reflects the duty of the Jew to unite and elevate all available forces and tools to God’s service.

The techeiles on tzitzis is the mini uniform reflecting the calling of the Jew – it should be no surprise that it is the standard colour of the Beis HaMikdash and Kohen Gadol’s clothing.

The entire mitzva of tzitzis screams out that the spies could not have been more wrong. It’s not what you look at that matters; but what you see. Through tzitzis, we are entreated to think bigger and become more.

When Ahron is instructed to light the Menora, we find that the Torah emphasises something seemingly out of place:

דַּבֵּר, אֶל-אַהֲרֹן, וְאָמַרְתָּ, אֵלָיו: בְּהַעֲלֹתְךָ, אֶת-הַנֵּרֹת, אֶל-מוּל פְּנֵי הַמְּנוֹרָה, יָאִירוּ שִׁבְעַת הַנֵּרוֹת. וַיַּעַשׂ כֵּן, אַהֲרֹן–אֶל-מוּל פְּנֵי הַמְּנוֹרָה, הֶעֱלָה נֵרֹתֶיהָ: כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה, אֶת-מֹשֶׁה – Speak to Ahron, and say to him; “When you rise to kindle the lights on the Menora, light seven,”. And Ahron did so; he lit the candles on the Menora, just as Hashem had commanded Moshe. (8:2-3)

Rashi notes that וַיַּעַשׂ כֵּן – that the person commanded did as directed, is not regularly found in the Torah; it is assumed that when God speaks to you, you do as told. Rashi explains that it appears here to praise Ahron. The Sfas Emes takes the praise to mean that Ahron was meticulous to light the Menora every day himself, when in fact, it could have been done by any member of his family. That is to say, he retained the initial enthusiasm for the job his entire life – וַיַּעַשׂ כֵּן as though that were the day he was instructed.

Later, we find this lesson lost:

וַיִּסְעוּ מֵהַר ה’ דֶּרֶךְ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים – They travelled from the mountain of God a three-day journey. (10:33)

The Gemara in Shabbos teaches that this alludes to the Jews straying from their closeness to Hashem. They literally left where God was. Rashi notes that it was their departure from Sinai that cultivated their craving for meat – the manna was not enough. The Ramban compares their attitude to leaving Sinai to a child running out of school. They left Sinai – the place where they were exposed to God and the Torah – in excitement that the “class” was over.

The Chasam Sofer explains that had they not thrown off the yolk of Torah and fled like a child running from school, they never would have developed their infamous craving for meat. The Mishna in Avos says: “Whoever throws off the yoke of Torah, they place the yoke of drech eretz upon him,”. There is a fixed amount of input that must be channeled one way or another. Derech eretz here refers to physical desires.

This catalysed an unfortunate chain of events. The Jews were supposed to go straight from receiving the Torah into Eretz Yisrael. Yet, because of the attitude with which they left Mount Sinai, they developed their craving for meat. Because of their craving for meat, they were delayed for 30 days while many were lost to plague. This delay allowed the opportunity for Miriam to slander Moshe, causing a further delay of seven days while waiting for her purification. The episode of the spies followed, deduced from the juxtaposition of the episodes of Miriam next to the episode of the spies; due to which the fate of that generation was sealed. They were to die out over the course of the next 40 years, never to reach Eretz Yisrael.

It was during that time that Moshe Rabbeinu himself was denied the opportunity to enter Eretz Yisrael because of the incident wherein he struck the rock. Had Moshe Rabbeinu entered Eretz Yisrael, there never would have been a destruction of the Holy Temple, and the ensuing exile. History would have been drastically different.

What emerges is that Judaism is not exclusively about learning Torah and doing mitzvos, regardless of one’s intentions and attitude. Chovos halevavos, duties of the heart and spirit, are critical. It is because of poor attitude to how we relate to Torah and mitzvos that we find ourselves in galus to this day.

The Torah discusses an illness called Tzaraas. The Torah does not usually discuss diseases and maladies; but this is no ordinary illness which require isolation and quarantine. Consider that the man whose entire body was stricken was not quarantined at all. Chazal understand it to be a spiritual shortcoming that was biologically manifest. The diagnosis:

וְרָאָה הַכֹּהֵן וְהִנֵּה כִסְּתָה הַצָּרַעַת אֶת כָּל בְּשָׂרוֹ וְטִהַר אֶת הַנָּגַע כֻּלּוֹ הָפַךְ לָבָן טָהוֹר הוּא – The kohen should check the white mark. If it has cleared from his skin, it is purified. If it has spread and infected his entire body white, he too is purified. (13:13)

If the lesion or mark did not clear within a week, the man was sent away from the city for a week, after which he is reinspected.

The isolation is a central part of the rehabilitation and healing process, but why?

Chazal understand that the illness was strongly correlated to gossip, which the Torah is highly sensitive to. Gossip is a highly destructive force, tearing apart the fabric of society by planting harmful ideas, ruining perceptions and relationships. A mark on the arm or let can be disguised by wearing longer clothing. This is why a metzora must leave their community – the gossip has blended into a society he is actually destabilising. Such a person is not welcome – they are a fake, and not how they appear – and since he can blend, people are not on their guard. The isolation is not just for him, but for society.

The Rema notes that this could well be why the metzora whose entire body is stricken is not sent away; their physical condition matches their spiritual condition. When people see this metzora, they know to steer well clear just by looking.

Solitary exile may seem a little extreme, but R’ Yisrael Salanter explains that the punishment fits the crime; the gossip – if telling the truth – is exacting over the finer details of other peoples lives. Such an expert is forced to introspect and confront his own character flaws, by being on his own for a week.

Tzaraas also affects clothing, and the Torah details the laws. The Torah specifies how the clothing is fit for regular use:

וְרָאָה הַכֹּהֵן … וְהִנֵּה לֹא הָפַךְ הַנֶּגַע אֶת עינו – The kohen should check… if the eye of the mark had not normalised… (13:55).

The central part in the personal recovery of tzaraas is הָפַךְ אֶת עינו – for the eye to revert. Figuratively speaking, the character flaw that causes tzaraas is the intrusive eye. By the end of his isolation, his eyes should be fixed firmly inward.

When the State of Israel declared independence, the newly born state was overwhelmingly attacked, and Jews were fighting and dying daily. A student remarked to the Brisker Rov how, “It’s the secular people’s fault! If they kept Shabbos surely no one would die!”

The Brisker Rov dismissed such foolishness, “The prophet Yonah fled from God, rather than cause any negative outcome for the Jews. He preferred to write himself off rather than betray his brothers. When God sent a storm after him, he blamed himself and preferred to be thrown off a boat – בשלי הסער הגדול הזה! Even if the entire nation were idol worshippers like then, we don’t look to others for accountability, we say בשלי הסער הגדול הזה – this great storm is all my fault.

We do not judge our fellow’s actions, we only say, “How can I make it better?””

During the Seder we recite that every person has to feel as if their very selves left Egypt.

Why is not enough to recall that it historically took place?

We say that מתחלה היה עובדי עבודה זרה, ועכשיו קירבנו המקום לעבודתו – At first, they worshipped strange idols, but now Hashem drew them near, in His service. This is of huge significance. This is when the transition occurred; we ceased to be slaves, and became a nation free to serve Hashem. But what is ועכשיו קירבנו המקום לעבודתו – but ״now״ Hashem drew them near, in His service?

It is precisely for this reason that we are enjoined to feel like we personally left Egypt. In the same way our ancestors had an Exodus that transitioned them into servants of God, we each need to experience our own personal exodus, every year, and renew our own commitment.

At the end of Maggid, we say the opening two paragraphs of Hallel, and yet no Bracha is said on it. The Emek Bracha concludes that there is no bracha because it is not a Hallel at all! A Hallel commemorates a past event; but this is the “present”! In the names of the parts of the Seder, Hallel is after the meal – the opening two paragraphs take place during Maggid, because they are actually a Shira – a song of praise, like לפיכך – the Shira at the miracle we have to see ourselves as going through!

On the Seder plate, there is a designated section for an egg. All the sections have a more obvious role; but the egg’s place is less clear.

The Ishbitzer teaches that the egg is symbolic of the nascent Jewish nation; like an egg requires nurturing and warmth to hatch, so the newly formed nation was, on its way to “hatching” at Mount Sinai, upon receiving the Torah.

The Rema says that this is the very same egg as on 9 Av, and points out that the fast of 9 Av will always be on the same day of the week as the first night of Pesach. But there is more to it than that.

Avraham was told his descendants would be enslaved in Egypt. When they left Egypt, the Torah recounts how וּמוֹשַׁב בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר יָשְׁבוּ
בְּמִצְרָיִם שְׁלֹשִׁים שָׁנָה וְאַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה – the settlement of the Jews in Egypt lasted 430 years (12:40). Not commonly cited, is that “only” 86 of the years spent in Egypt were spent in slavery, which Miriam’s birth marked (hence her name, meaning “bitter”). The early departure was forced because the Jews were mired in the depths of decadence, the 49th level of impurity, beyond which they could not be saved. They had to leave early, if they were ever to leave.

But this means that only one fifth of the prophesied 430 years of slavery was spent in actual slavery. This is slightly hinted to when Yosef interpreted the butler’s dream, where he described how he’d squeezed grapes for Paroh. In the dialogue, the word כוס appears four times. Figuratively, Yosef announced that when the cup was squeezed into, he would walk free, and the same with the Jews in Egypt, that when they were “squeezed” into the כוס – 86 – they walked free. That only one fifth of the time was served is one the explanations of the bizarre word וחמושים – also a source that many Jews did not live to escape Egypt, perishing in the darkness.

The deficit in time is 344 – the word כוס multiplied four times, the numerical value of שמד – disaster. On 9 Av, the Torah portion we read berates us and says שָּׁמֵד תִּשָּׁמֵדוּן – we owe for our early, forced departure from egypt. And on the eve of 9 Av, we eat an egg, in memory of the destruction and imperfection of the world.

As the Rema says, this is the very same egg as on 9 Av. We left early, but leaving Egypt was not the perfect redemption, which we still await. We remind ourselves of this with the egg we eat before 9 Av.

We begin the story telling aspect of the Seder, Magid, with a short prayer, הא לחמא עניא – This is poor man’s bread… But next year, may we have liberty in Jerusalem.

It is classically understood that angels gather prayers and transport them to Heaven. This particular prayer is not in the usual Hebrew, but in Aramaic, and this presents a thorny issue. It is similarly understood that angels do not relate to Aramaic, and so cannot present or transmit prayers in Aramaic; as such, prayers are not meant to be said in Aramaic. Why then, is this portion in Aramaic?

Perhaps there is a way around this issue. There are times when an emissary is not required. There is a Gemara that teaches that Hashem’s presence is manifest in the room of an ill person. Prayers are more effective – there are no angels required; Hashem is right there.

The Shaagas Aryeh points out how the same is true on Yom Kippur – the Kohel Gadol goes into the Kodesh HaKadashim, and utters a prayer in Aramaic. How is that the prayer can pray in Aramaic? It is because he is in the Kodesh HaKadashim, in front of the Ark, where Hashem’s presence is most manifest. No angels necessary.

Most of the year round, we are subject to the influence of the Satan. But not all year – השטן has a value of 364, a year, less one day – that is one day per year that the Satan does not influence us – Seder night; it is a Leil Shimurim. When we are enjoined to keep Pesach, we are told that וְשָׁמַרְתָּ אֶת הַחֻקָּה הַזֹּאת לְמוֹעֲדָהּ מִיָּמִים יָמִימָה – the word ימימה is very odd; this is it’s only appearance in the Torah. It has the same initial letters as the second part of Tehillim 93:3 – כִּי הוּא יַצִּילְךָ מִפַּח יָקוּשׁ מִדֶּבֶר הַוּוֹת – Hashem Himself will save us, ימימה. This is why there is no Satan on Seder night – Hashem is there. We don’t say Shema for this reason.

Just like on Yom Kippur. Which is one reason for a kittel. But it goes deeper – the animal used for the korban Pesach is set aside on the tenth of the month, the tenth of the month that Yom Kippur is. ימימה is a 24 hour day, but it is not the same day.

It is the combination of the evening of Seder and Yom Kippur day that Hashem is in front of us, and therefore we wear a kittel and pray in Aramaic.

It is famously said that Yom Kippur, also known as Yom Kippurim, can be read Yom k’Purim – the day that is like Purim. In this vein, Yom Kippur is only a reflection of what Purim is. It would also be evident that if Yom Kippur is about atonement and teshuva, then Purim would be too, albeit in different manners on the respective days.

All year round, we are meant to give charity, but on Purim, there is a more particular emphasis than usual, so much so that the Rambam codifies it as כל הפושט ידו נותנים לו – whoever holds out his hand, give him.

There are people who say that Purim is therefore a highly auspicious time to pray, as if we reach out to Hashem – פושט ידו – then Hashem will be compelled to respond – נותנים לו.

R’ Yosef Kaplan explains this differently.

We say of Hashem that His יד is פושט to us – His hand is extended to welcome back people who do teshuva. The Halacha on Purim is כל הפושט ידו נותנים לו – if Hashem’s hand is out, how could we not give Him what He seeks, that we return to Him?

The first law after Sinai addresses a Jew who steals, and cannot afford to repay the theft. Such a person is sold into temporary slavery, and the value of his labor accrues until his debt has been paid off. The laws after Sinai open with ואלה המשפטים – And these are the laws… Rashi points out how ו – “and” – continues what was previously said; in this case that these laws are a direct continuation of Sinai.

This is very perplexing. Should the first instructions on becoming fully fledged Jews not be to charge us with being good, kind and responsible for society? The subsequent laws address charity and social responsibility; why aren’t they first? Why does the first law the Jews need to know concern a cheating thief?

The Beis Halevi explains that the Torah has a prerequisite for kindness, charity, and social responsibility. The money has to be kosher, and the ingredients properly sourced.

The Jew who steals becomes a slave. He must be treated exceptionally well, and he is not the permanent property of his owner; but nor is he a fully fledged Jew for the duration of his slavery. He is devoid of responsibility to Hashem, and is responsible to his owner. He is allowed to marry a non-Jew in this state, and create a family of slaves who do belong to his owner. Consider that this is what the Torah proscribes as the solution to theft. The Torah terms renouncing Judaism, marrying a non-Jew, and having a family of slaves as being less bad than stealing!

It should be very clear why a law concerning theft comes before the laws regarding Jewish duties and obligations for bettering society and the world at large. The Torah demands high standards of its adherents – the integrity of the individual is paramount to being capable of aiding society.

Yakov had a difficult life. He had fled his childhood home to live in hiding from his brother; he’d been cheated and overworked by his father in law; he’d been denied marriage to the love of his youth; he’d been betrayed by his firstborn son; he’d seen the rape of his daughter; he’d seen his children fight; he’d lost a son, missing and presumed death for 22 years; he’d seen his great love Rachel die in childbirth. This was not the future he had sought for his family.

When Yakov meets Paroh for the first time, he comments on how old Yakov appears, and Yakov laments his life:

וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה, אֶל-יַעֲקֹב: כַּמָּה, יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיֶּיךָ. וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב, אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, יְמֵי שְׁנֵי מְגוּרַי, שְׁלֹשִׁים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה: מְעַט וְרָעִים, הָיוּ יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיַּי, וְלֹא הִשִּׂיגוּ אֶת-יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי אֲבֹתַי, בִּימֵי מְגוּרֵיהֶם – Paroh said to Yakov, “How many have been the days, the years of your life?” Yakov said to Pharaoh, “The days of the years of my journies are one hundred thirty years. The days of the years of my life have been few and miserable, and have not reached the days of the years of the lives of my forefathers, in the days of their journeys.” (47:8-9)

A good life is one of peace, understanding, and love. With such misfortune, he was understandably bitter. Yet once his family resettled in Egypt, his perspective changed:

וַיְחִי יַעֲקֹב בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, שְׁבַע עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה; וַיְהִי יְמֵי-יַעֲקֹב, שְׁנֵי חַיָּיו–שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים, וְאַרְבָּעִים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה – Yakov lived in Egypt for seventeen years, and Yakov’s days, the years of his life, were a hundred and forty seven years. (47:28)

Just 17 years after Yakov bemoaned his miserable life, Yakov had lived life to it’s fullest – וַיְחִי.

How did he re-frame his outlook?

The Nesivos Shalom explains that to tolerate suffering, it needs to be worth it. Yakov going to Egypt was the beginning of a dark period in the nascent Jewish people’s history, and he believed that he had failed. But reunited with his family, in harmony, he could look back and see that there had been a point, and it was worth it.

The butterfly effect describes the concept that small causes can have large effects. Every wrong turn down the broken road still led them to this point.

The maturity and introspection it took to recognise this could only happen once Yakov attained some form of peace. It gave value to everything he had been through, and he could finally be content and fulfilled.

The hand that writes history sometimes holds our hands too; if we only looked closer.

During Yakov and his family’s journey, they had to cross a river. During the crossing, Yakov noticed some missing baggage, and Yakov remained behind in the night to retrieve it. While alone, he is accosted by a mysterious figure:

וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב, לְבַדּוֹ; וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ, עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר. וַיַּרְא, כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ, וַיִּגַּע, בְּכַף-יְרֵכוֹ; וַתֵּקַע כַּף-יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב, בְּהֵאָבְקוֹ עִמּוֹ. וַיֹּאמֶר שַׁלְּחֵנִי, כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר; וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחֲךָ, כִּי אִם-בֵּרַכְתָּנִי. וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, מַה-שְּׁמֶךָ; וַיֹּאמֶר, יַעֲקֹב. וַיֹּאמֶר, יַעֲקֹב לא יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ–כִּי, אִם-יִשְׂרָאֵל: כִּי-שָׂרִיתָ עִם-אֱלֹהִים וְעִם-אֲנָשִׁים, וַתּוּכָל. וַיִּשְׁאַל יַעֲקֹב, וַיֹּאמֶר הַגִּידָה-נָּא שְׁמֶךָ, וַיֹּאמֶר, לָמָּה זֶּה תִּשְׁאַל לִשְׁמִי; וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתוֹ, שָׁם. –  Yakov was alone, and a man grappled with him until daybreak. When he saw that he could not overcome him, he struck his hip, and dislocated it, as he grappled with him. He said, “Let me go, dawn is breaking!” – but Yakov said “I will not let you go, until you bless me”. He said to him, “What is your name?”, and he replied, “Yakov.” He said, “No longer shall your name be Yakov, for your name is Yisrael, because you have mastery with God and men, and you have prevailed.”  Yakov asked, and said, “Now tell me your name” and he replied, “Why is it you ask  my name?”‘ and blessed him there. (32:25-30)

The word וַיֵּאָבֵק – to wrestle/grapple, is cognate to the word אבק, named for the dust that is kicked up when fighting for leverage. There is a Midrash that the dust kicked up from this epic struggle rose all the way to Heaven.

R Tzvi Meir Silberberg explains this is true of our own struggles as well. It was the not the victory that went up to Heaven. That remained Yakov’s alone. It was the struggle, the dust kicked up, went straight up to Hashem.

No one is perfect. We are human, and we make mistakes. It is the human condition.

This iconic struggle takes place in the darkness of night, which symbolizes the unknown. When dawn comes, the darkness dissipates and the figure can not remain. Confronted with the light of truth and reality, the unknown is dispelled.

The Steipler teaches that this is like someone who hasn’t seen their family in a while, and is certain that when they meet, all will be well, and there will be no fights or arguments. But it will never last. We idealise how things could be, and reality will always disappoint, because it makes the fantasy disappear.

The angel had to leave when caught in daylight, and Yakov asks his name. The angel is evasive, “Why is it you ask for my name?”

The Gemara teaches how at the end of days, Hashem will slaughter the Satan, and the righteous will cry because they will see it as a mountain they somehow overcame, and the evil will cry because it will be as a hair they couldn’t surmount. The Evil Inclination is subjective. It is adaptive to circumstance.

R’ Leib Chasman explains that this is the essence of what it is – formless. It’s a trick of the mind. It’s a flicker of our own reflection, constantly in flux. There is no answer to what is. All it is is what we turn it into.

Growing up together, there was competition between Rachel and Leah, over which man each would marry. Years on, they clashed over whose tent Yakov was to sleep in one night:

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)

Immediately after this perplexing exchange, Rachel’s life changes forever:

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

She finally becomes a mother. Rashi explains that what Hashem “remembered” was Rachel’s kindness to Leah. The day Rachel was to be married, Yakov had given her a signal to confirm he had not been tricked. Had Leah not known them, she would have been humiliated. Rachel gave Leah the signal, condemning herself to not being with Yakov, playing a key role in ensuring that Lavan’s scheme was not discovered until it was too late.

But years had since passed since then – why remember Rachel’s kindness only now?

R’ Ezra Hartman explains that this episode contains an incredible principle about kindness. How could Leah so ironically accuse Rachel of taking her husband? Without the codes, Leah could not have married Yakov; Rachel was the sole reason that Leah was not discovered! So in fact, Leah had taken Rachel’s husband! Such a reply would have been utterly devastating.

But Rachel did not do that.

R’ Ezra Hartman explains that sometimes, people like to keep a record that they’ve done someone a favour, and now they’re owed something. Genuine kindness is not something you keep track of. In fact, it is possible to dress up the favour so the recipient is not even aware. Rachel mentioned the signal in passing, something like, “You should know that Yakov’s favourite thing is X and Y,”. Leah was completely oblivious to what Rachel had done for her.

Rachel did not say a word about what had happened years earlier, and just talked about the flowers. By holding her tongue, and declining the perfect opportunity to silence Leah forever, her silence was rewarded. It is specifically at this juncture that Hashem remembers Rachel’s incredible kindness. It had transformed.

It’s one thing to do a good deed. It’s another to do a good deed at personal expense. It’s a whole other dimension to do a good deed while suffering injury for it.

Avraham’s ultimate test of faith was Akeidas Yitzchak. The way we teach children, the challenge was to overcome his attachment to his son, even though this very same son was supposed to be heir to the covenant.

The Ran explains that there is a major subtlety into what was asked of Avraham. Hashem says: קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר-אָהַבְתָּ, אֶת-יִצְחָק, וְלֶךְ-לְךָ, אֶל-אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה; וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם, לְעֹלָה – Please take your son, your only son, whom you love, Yitzchak, and go, for yourself, to the land of Moriah, and sacrifice him, as a burnt offering. (22:2).

The Ran points out that Hashem said קַח-נָא – “please take”. This was a request. It was not an instruction. It is quite possible that if Avraham had refused, he would not have violated Hashem word, as Hashem did not require it, and Avraham did not “need” to go through with it. It remained Avraham’s choice.

The Slonimer Rebbe adds a further dimension to the turmoil he faced. As Avraham approached the mountain:

וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם–מֵרָחֹק – Avraham lifted his eyes, and saw הַמָּקוֹם from a distance. (22:4)

Classically, this means that he literally “saw the place”. But הַמָּקוֹם is also a name of Hashem – He is “The Place”, He is everywhere, the Omnipresent.

In this context, וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם–מֵרָחֹק means that Avraham looked at the situation he was in, what he was about to do, and felt a distance between himself and Hashem. Avraham was doing what Hashem had requested, but he knew that what he was doing did not feel right. It tore him apart – he’d spent his entire life up to that point fighting human sacrifice, and yet here he was, about to sacrifice his son, throwing away his entire future. וַיַּרְא אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם–מֵרָחֹק – Avraham felt a distance between himself and Hashem.

At the crescendo, the Torah records that וַיִּשְׁלַח אַבְרָהָם אֶת-יָדוֹ, וַיִּקַּח אֶת-הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת, לִשְׁחֹט, אֶת-בְּנוֹ – Avraham sent his hand, and picked up the blade, to slaughter his son. The Torah doesn’t say that “He picked up the knife,”; but that he “sent his hand”. There is a disembodiment, dissociating his hands action from him. He could not believe what he was forcing himself to do!

We read this on Rosh Hashana, and apart from the obvious merit the story recalls, perhaps we can relate to this on a personal level. Things aren’t always clear cut what the right thing to do is. We don’t always “feel it”. Even the greatest of us was torn once.

Hashem’s very first communication with Avraham is the immense challenge to abandon all he grew up with:

לך לך מארצך וממולדתך ומבית אביך אל הארץ אשר אראך – “Go for yourself, from your land, your birthplace, and the house of your father, to the land which I will show you”. (12:1)

The sequence of departure is counter-intuitive. First, you leave your home, then the neighborhood, and only then the country. Why does the story focuses on where is to leave, rather than where he is to go, and in a strange order? The Nesivos Shalom explains that Hashem’s actual command to Avraham was that he discard the negative characteristics endemic to these places. Our environment is instrumental to our development as human beings. The more familiar the environment, the greater the effect it can have.

The Nesivos Shalom explains that the essence of the command was to discard the negative influences he was exposed to in these environments. He was going somewhere new, to become something new. Old ideologies would have no place in this new vision.

The circles of our environments are central to our development. The closer the circle, the greater the effect of exposure.

The home environment is more influential than a neighbourhood, which itself is more influential than a country. The easiest to discard is the place. It’s harder to transcend where you come from. And it’s hardest to forget what you learnt from home.

The Sfas Emes explains that a mark of great people is to actively seek challenges and opportunities that test their qualities. Avram was the first person to intuitively understand the vision of moral consciousness humanity could exhibit. But he’d have to show it, and that couldn’t happen in the stagnant place he grew up.

Who and what we surround ourselves with have a key influence on our development. We need to actively make sure that they are good influences.

The  Flood narrative is complex. Human society had populated the world, and initially fulfilled its mission, until they lost their way, and degenerated to a point where things needed to start over.

What went wrong?

The Torah emphasizes Noach’s role as a partner with all living things:

צֵא, מִן-הַתֵּבָה–אַתָּה… כָּל-הַחַיָּה אֲשֶׁר-אִתְּךָ מִכָּל-בָּשָׂר, בָּעוֹף וּבַבְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל-הָרֶמֶשׂ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל-הָאָרֶץ–הוצא (הַיְצֵא) אִתָּךְ; וְשָׁרְצוּ בָאָרֶץ, וּפָרוּ וְרָבוּ עַל-הָאָרֶץ – Leave the Ark; you… and every creature with you. Every creature, bird, animal and insect that creeps on the earth, should leave with you. They will multiply and infest the earth. (8:16-17)

The Malbim explains that the partnership aspect was beyond the fact their survival was due to the fact they were physically with him.

Humans are created with the gift of free will. When Adam and Eve, as the only people in the world, corrupted their moral freedom, the consequences were dire, and the same almost happened once again; an entire generation collectively squandered their moral consciousness, defeating the purpose of their creation. The moral fabric of the world disintegrated to a point where the Torah  states that all hope was lost:

כִּי-הִשְׁחִית כָּל-בָּשָׂר אֶת-דַּרְכּוֹ, עַל-הָאָרֶץ – that every living creature had lost its way… (6:12)

Noach reclaimed and preserved decency, and “humanity” – in the true sense of the word, by exerting his moral freedom for honesty and goodness. As the sole creature not to lose his way, existence could linger on exclusively for his sake. The entire planet owed him a life debt, and this is the partnership the Torah refers to:

צֵא, מִן-הַתֵּבָה–אַתָּה… כָּל-הַחַיָּה אֲשֶׁר-אִתְּךָ מִכָּל-בָּשָׂר, בָּעוֹף וּבַבְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל-הָרֶמֶשׂ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל-הָאָרֶץ–הוצא (הַיְצֵא) אִתָּךְ; וְשָׁרְצוּ בָאָרֶץ, וּפָרוּ וְרָבוּ עַל-הָאָרֶץ – Leave the Ark – you… Every living creature with you. Every creature, bird, animal and insect that creeps on the earth, should leave with you, and they will multiply and infest the earth. (8:16-17)

Nature literally survived  through him – אִתְּךָ. It therefore follows that after this event, humanity is permitted to consume meat for the very first time.

By rising above a failing world, Noach set humanity aside as being the noblest of all creatures.

In Moshe’s parting words to the nation, having dispensed his duties, he informs them how they need to face their responsibilities:

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

The repeated emphasis on הוּא, that “He” will do it, seems strange. Why not just describe how God would take care of them in general?

The Ohr HaChaim explains that the Jews were worried that by losing Moshe, they would lose two advantages; first, that he could and would intercede on their behalf if they erred, such as with the Golden Calf, where his prayer ended the plague and prevented their annihilation; and second, that he would not be leading them in the wars they would inevitably fight on entry into the Land of Israel. They did not (could not?) lose a war with Moshe at the helm.

Moshe addressed the first concern by telling them that they were misplacing their trust – it had never been about him. הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ – the same word used to describe Hashem’s characteristic of forgiveness – עובר על פשע. Moshe explained that in reality, it had been Hashem all along, that He had planted the idea of praying for the Jews in Moshe, and that the desire to forgive would remain. Moshe had simply been a tool for forgiveness, and not the root cause.

Regarding the concern of losing battles, Moshe expressed the same idea – it had never been him leading them to victory – הוּא-יַשְׁמִיד אֶת-הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה – Hashem had been with them all the time, and would remain so evermore. They didn’t win wars because of Moshe, but because Hashem was orchestrating events.

Perhaps it also sheds light on the law that an army preparing for war did not enlist men who were frightened to fight. Someone who has done all they can to train and prepare must have proper faith in God – fear indicates a lack of belief, and such people cannot take up arms in His name.

The Seforno explains that the whole speech conveys this critical message – that they ought not get caught up in the medium. Hashem supervises and controls everything, and wanting a conduit is dangerous, and in parentheses, possibly idolatrous – this was precisely the rationale behind the Golden Calf. Moshe emphasised that every person alone has a relationship with Hashem, and that intermediaries are not valid representatives for the people themselves.

R Tzadok HaCohen notes how the whole Sefer Devarim – Moshe’s entire speech – can be read as speaking directly to the reader.

Teachers and guides are critically important influences – the Mishna in Avos requires it of us. But living vicariously through a proxy is something else entirely. Moshe was telling the Jews that after 40 years of maturation, they were finally ready to become what they left Egypt to be.

Eventually, the training wheels have to come off.

As part of Moshe’s final speech, he recounts what the Jews went through on their journey through the desert, and how central the Torah was to how they perceived reality:

וַיִּקְרָא מֹשֶׁה אֶל-כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם: אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם, אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יְהוָה לְעֵינֵיכֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לְפַרְעֹה וּלְכָל-עֲבָדָיו, וּלְכָל-אַרְצוֹ. הַמַּסּוֹת, הַגְּדֹלֹת, אֲשֶׁר רָאוּ, עֵינֶיךָ–הָאֹתֹת וְהַמֹּפְתִים הַגְּדֹלִים, הָהֵם. וְלֹא-נָתַן יְהוָה לָכֶם לֵב לָדַעַת, וְעֵינַיִם לִרְאוֹת וְאָזְנַיִם לִשְׁמֹעַ, עַד, הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה – And Moshe called all the Jews, and said to them: “You saw all that Hashem did in Egypt, with your own eyes, to Paroh, his servants, and his land. The great miracles and signs; you saw. Hashem didn’t give you a heart to understand, eyes to see, nor ears to hear, until this day.” (29:1-3)

Rashi elaborates that עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה refers when Moshe wrote the Torah in the form we have it, and give it to the Levi’im, who were the tribe entrusted with the responsibility of safeguarding and teaching Torah. What changed then, that he recognised in them understanding and perception?

Rashi explains that when Moshe gave his Torah to the Levi’im, the other Jews protested them being singled out for keeping it, with the worry that perhaps Levi could exclude the other tribes with their monopoly. When Moshe saw their passion and the esteem in which they held the Torah, he praised them.

R’ Leib Salomon inquires what the line of protest may have been. They couldn’t be be concerned that perhaps Levi would misappropriate the Torah for themselves; because how could they? Levi are clearly delineated for public service – would would they serve?

R’ Matisyahu Salomon explains that they were not concerned about an exclusive claim to mitzva performance, but the capacity to be a Torah scholar. When Moshe saw people fighting for the right to study the Torah, he understood how much the Torah meant to them.

R’ Matisyahu points out that “The great miracles and signs you saw” were not enough to persuade Moshe that they had לֵב לָדַעַת, וְעֵינַיִם לִרְאוֹת וְאָזְנַיִם לִשְׁמֹעַ – it was their desire and passion for Torah that precipitated this realisation.

Seeing miracles don’t makes someone a true ambassador of God; it is the struggle, the toil, that comes with intensive Torah study that transforms a Jew; which Moshe called the heart, eyes and ears.

Without it, we are dull, deaf, dumb, blind, and insensitive.

The Jews were assembled on two mountains, Grizim and Eival, for blessings and curses contingent on their observance of the Torah. The tribes were split and ascended the respective mountains as instructed. The people on each peak then answered in unison to the other peak, in a kind of very loud conversation spanning mountains:

אֵלֶּה יַעַמְדוּ לְבָרֵךְ אֶת-הָעָם, עַל-הַר גְּרִזִים, בְּעָבְרְכֶם, אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן: שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי וִיהוּדָה, וְיִשָּׂשכָר וְיוֹסֵף וּבִנְיָמִן. וְאֵלֶּה יַעַמְדוּ עַל-הַקְּלָלָה, בְּהַר עֵיבָל: רְאוּבֵן גָּד וְאָשֵׁר, וּזְבוּלֻן דָּן וְנַפְתָּלִי – These tribes will ascend to bless the people, from Har Grizim, (…), and these are the tribes that will ascend for the curse, on Har Eival (…). (27:12-13)

The instructions are not identical. The people blessing ascended “to bless” actively – יַעַמְדוּ לְבָרֵךְ אֶת-הָעָם, whereas the people answering curses ascended “for the curse” – יַעַמְדוּ עַל-הַקְּלָלָה – passively. Why the disparity?

The Kli Yakar explains that curses can only only result from human action. The nature of reality is that all order disintegrates into chaos; and God protects people from this. If people create a distance between themselves and God, bad things may well happen, but it is not a new reality; rather it is due to their protector being masked. The lack of blessing is the curse. When a person feels a distance between them and God, it is not God who has gone anywhere.

But this is not a fixed situation. In Moshe’s opening words to the people at the mountains, he says:

הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה, ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מְצַוְּךָ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת-הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה–וְאֶת-הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים; וְשָׁמַרְתָּ וְעָשִׂיתָ אוֹתָם, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשֶׁךָ – On this day, Hashem your God commands you to keep these statutes and laws, and you will guard them and perform them, with all your heart and soul. (26:16)

This is monumental in its context, but equally so today. Rashi notes the use of the present tense; indicating that the same obligations exist every day, no different to the day the Torah and mitzvos were first accepted.

The curse, or lack of blessing, is dynamic. Anything can change, so the commitment has to be constantly fresh – הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה – today is a new day. Be all you can be.

One of the less understood laws of the Torah is that of the Ben Sorer u’Moreh, the rebellious son:

.כִּי יִהְיֶה לְאִישׁ בֵּן סוֹרֵר וּמוֹרֶה אֵינֶנּוּ שֹׁמֵעַ בְּקוֹל אָבִיו וּבְקוֹל אִמּוֹ וְיִסְּרוּ אֹתוֹ וְלֹא יִשְׁמַע אֲלֵיהֶם וְתָפְשׂוּ בוֹ אָבִיו וְאִמּוֹ וְהוֹצִיאוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל זִקְנֵי עִירוֹ וְאֶל שַׁעַר מְקֹמוֹ. וְאָמְרוּ אֶל זִקְנֵי עִירוֹ בְּנֵנוּ זֶה סוֹרֵר וּמֹרֶה אֵינֶנּוּ שֹׁמֵעַ בְּקֹלֵנוּ זוֹלֵל וְסֹבֵא. וּרְגָמֻהוּ כָּל אַנְשֵׁי עִירוֹ בָאֲבָנִים וָמֵת וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִקִּרְבֶּךָ וְכָל יִשְׂרָאֵל יִשְׁמְעוּ וְיִרָאוּ – If a man has a wayward and rebellious son, who does not obey his father or his mother, and they rebuke him, and he still does not listen to them; his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city, and to the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders of his city, “This son of ours is wayward and rebellious; he does not obey us; he is a glutton and a guzzler.”
And all the men of his city shall pelt him to death with stones, and he shall die. So shall you cast out the evil from among you, and all Israel will listen and fear. (21:18-21)

The underlying reason that a Ben Sorer u’Moreh would theoretically have a death sentence is that Chazal understood that such a child has no boundaries and will eventually murder an innocent person. It is better to die young and innocent than a guilty man later on. This is very difficult to understand, even setting aside the free will paradox implied.

The Torah sets impossible parameters and conditions: the parents have to be united in agreement in every regard for their son be sentenced to death – what parent would do such a thing, let alone both? Furthermore, the age at which Ben Sorer u’Moreh applies is limited to the three months after his 13th birthday; he needs to have stolen a certain amount of meat; itself cooked a particular way; he needs to have drunk a certain amount of wine; all the while on his fathers property. These conditions are so improbable that the Gemara in Sanhedrin writes it off as impossible. The Gemara states that a Ben Sorer u’Moreh never happened, and never will; it is in the Torah simply so that it will be analysed, and its students will be rewarded.

But what reward can the Gemara mean? It cannot be more Torah study, and it cannot be academic. Even without this section, in a hundred lifetimes a person could not hope to complete the entire Torah. The Torah is not lacking material that it needed “filler” content. So what does the Gemara mean that it should be analysed, and those who do so will be rewarded?

R’ Moshe Mordechai Epstein concludes that the laws of a Ben Sorer u’Moreh have a more subtle reward than the ability to study more Torah.

By studying this episode, one discovers the Torah’s approach to parenting, how to raise them properly; and how to prevent straying.

When a child is overindulged, it is detrimental to everyone – the word we use is “spoilt” – this person has literally been ruined. The Ben Sorer u’Moreh is someone who is out of control from adolescence, and the Torah tells us to recognise this characteristic. This is what the Torah means when it says ובערת הרע בקרבך, וכל ישראל ישמעו ויראו – So shall you cast out the evil from among you, and all Israel will listen and fear.

The Torah wants kind, balanced human beings; not wild, carefree and selfish people. This tasks us with preventing evil in our children, before it is too late. We are meant to learn from the Ben Sorer u’Moreh as the paradigm of what not to do – וכל ישראל ישמעו.

Perhaps the Gemara itself hints to this. The Gemara says that the function of Ben Sorer u’Moreh is דרוש וקבל שכר – analyse it and receive reward. The Gemara does not say למוד, to study it, but דרוש, analyse it. The reward is וכל ישראל ישמעו, how to raise balanced children.

A tree can be straightened with a splint while still a sapling. It takes twenty years to grow an oak tree, but just a few months to grow a cucumber.