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 moment a woman gives birth is the moment her life will never be the same again. After months of aches, pains, nausea, and emotions, the new mother can finally clutch her little piece of heaven to her chest, and a new chapter in her life begins.

Yet the Torah requires waiting periods before a new mother attains purity, who must then to offer a sacrifice. What is the purpose of this?

Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch teaches that the different kinds of impurities are about the death of moral freedom amidst life, to varying degrees.

Pregnancy and having a child is chaotic and wreaks havoc on the mother’s life, physically, mentally, and emotionally. It would be a surprise if under the circumstances, she didn’t lose the ability to choose clearly.

The words the Torah uses – אִשָּׁה כִּי תַזְרִיעַ – describes the physiological process of seed forming. The greatest of blessings can be reduced to a simple biological happening. It is this impurity that needs dispelling. The process is passive, painful, and everything revolves around it. But we are called upon for conscious living.

The periods of waiting correspond to the child and to the parent, and how both must consciously and constantly strive towards greater moral consciousness. Moral freedom and the ability to choose are the gift that distinguishes humanity.

This may why the waiting period for a boy and girls are different, as the covenant of circumcision teaches this same lesson.

The process the Torah prescribes a new mother serves to rededicate her to her calling as a wife, mother, and Jew, despite the painful experience she has undergone. Submission to the forces of nature is antithetical to what it means to be a Jew.

To be a mother is not simply to give birth. To be a mother is to create human beings.

In the early phases of Moshe and Ahron’s mission, they were God’s agents to Paroh. But at some point, they had to become agents of the Jewish people as well. That is the point of the first mitzva – Rosh Chodesh, the New Moon.

Rav Hirsch teaches the deep symbolism that belies the mitzva, far beyond a calculation of the calendar dates.

Rosh Chodesh literally means “beginning of renewals”. There were signs and miracles to try and persuade the Egyptians, and there would be a perpetual sign for the Jewish people as well. Rosh Chodesh was to be the recurring sign that would call for ever fresh rejuvenation out of the night and darkness, immunising the people from the corruption they’d find themselves immersed in, from Egypt to everywhere else.

The procedure for calling it is human-centric – it requires multiple witnesses, and multiple judges to form a court. For simple declarations, one of each is enough, but more is required for cases concerning relationships. Rosh Chodesh is not an astronomical phenomenon; it is solely dependent on human criteria. It is the court as representatives of the Jewish people that decide when it is or is not Rosh Chodesh.

The Chagim are all based on when Rosh Chodesh is. Rosh Chodesh is called a מועד, which means a designated meeting time. The מועדים are designated times for a meeting between God and the Jewish people. The meeting is voluntary between both sides, which is the timing is only general, with latitude on our part; the meeting will be by mutual choice.

It is for this reason that this is the first mitzva communicated to the Jewish people as a whole; the mitzva that binds the relationship between the Jewish people, Moshe, and God.

The natural phenomena are not the reason. Rather, as each time the moon reunites with the sun, receiving new light, the Jewish people too can find their way back, no matter where they may be, or what darkness they find themselves in. The natural phenomena are the symbol.

One of the central themes of Purim is קִיְּמוּ וְקִבְּלוּ – the people upheld and accepted the holiday. Chazal expound that this went beyond the context of the story – the people did not just embrace the holiday, but they embraced the Torah in a whole new way.

What happened on Purim that had never happened before?

The Sfas Emes teaches that what the people did on Purim, unprecedented, is that they unilaterally recognised that they needed to do teshuva.

What had never happened before was until then, there was always an external driving force, typically in the form of a prophet, warning the people to be better. In the face of obvious danger, they took responsibility for their futures, with the knowledge that when we become closer aligned to the way we ought to be, things get better for us. It’s a choice we can all make.

Until then, people just believed that things would turn out alright, with the exception of the really bad stuff, like idol worship, murder, and adultery. On Purim, the Jewish people recognised the spectrum – there’s plenty of other ways to fall short! In fact, the Megila opens with Jewish participation at a party celebrating their own downfall!

The story concludes with לַיְּהוּדִים, הָיְתָה אוֹרָה וְשִׂמְחָה, וְשָׂשֹׂן, וִיקָר –  The Jews had light, gladness, joy and honour. אוֹרָה is understood to mean Torah, which feed into the novel interpretation of קִיְּמוּ וְקִבְּלוּ. But if אוֹרָה is Torah, why not just say Torah?

The Sfas Emes continues along the same vein. That for the first time, the people recognised the Torah as light, and tha Chagim are happy times. They could literally see the Torah in a new light!

At Sinai, there was no choice presented. Confronting and accepting the awesome reality of God, versus immediate doom is no choice at all. Prophets offering teshuva or doom is no choice at all.

Choosing it freely is massive. The heroes of the Megila do not act out of fear. They do not act in order to control outcomes. They just try their best, because being proactive is the right thing to do. And being proactive is a key motif of Purim, encompassing everything it celebrates.

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.

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.

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!

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)

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

There is a dichotomy regarding the Matza on Pesach. Is it poor man’s bread, indicative of slavery; or is it because of the redemption, that they were freed before they had time to prepare bread?

The Sfas Emes explains that we cannot celebrate being freed from Egypt on it’s own; we must celebrate the fact we were enslaved as well. If we were capable of being a nation that could serve Hashem in freedom initially, we need not have been enslaved, and if we could serve Hashem in slavery, we weren’t in need of rescue. So being enslaved in Egypt was a key part of the process through which we became Hashem’s people. What transition took place in Egypt that created a nation capable of serving God?

The Sfas Emes goes on to explain that by being in crushing slavery, the people were far beyond their comfort zones, and pushed way past the extremes of what they thought they were capable of. This was a life lesson to the people that the arrogance and ego of man could be removed, and a person could devote his entire being to something. This was a key stage in becoming Hashem’s servants – the people knew what it meant to give their all; which would not have been the same thing without the ravages of slavery.

The Sfas Emes explains that this is what all evils and adversity in life are for – they educate us about our limits, and more than that, they show us the opposite extremes to which we can aspire, attain and transcend. This is the only purpose they serve, just like Egypt. If they weren’t there to help us become closer to Hashem, they would have no function, and therefore would not exist. This was the only way in people could have accepted Hashem as their King entirely; in the same way they had been entirely subjugated to Paroh, they could now subjugate themselves entirely to Hashem.

This was the critical moment the Jews were born as a nation. As we say in Shema every day: אשר הוצאתי אתכם מארץ מצרים להיות לכם לאלוקים – “That I took you out of Egypt to be for you a God” (Bamidbar 15:41). The causation is clear – we had to have been in Egypt before, in order to be taken out, to become everything we were meant to be. Being God’s people hinges on the need to have subdued arrogance and ego.

This is what טוב אחרית הדבר מראשיתו means – “the end is better than the beginning” (Koheles 7:8). It was far from pleasant to be in Egypt, but what followed was receiving the Torah. The Sfas Emes tells us that our celebration of leaving Egypt must hinge around the fact that we became better once we left – we accepted Hashem as our King and our God, and we received the Torah. The first thing we did on being freed was for Hashem – this is why there is a concept of firsts going to Hashem, for example the korban Omer (and Pidyon haBen, bikkurim etc). This is what is so vital on Seder night, to relive the Exodus from Egypt. It is when we became God’s people.

The Sfas Emes answers that this is why Matza correlates to both slavery as well as freedom – it is devoid of the ego, exemplified by chametz, yet it also correlates to the freedom – the process of freedom started when we were slaves. It is how we became truly free to serve Hashem. Our freedom stems from having not been free once.

In the Haggada we read; חכם מה הוא אומר? מה העדות והחוקים והמשפטים אשר צו ה’ אלוקינו אתכם– What does the wise son ask? “What are the testimonies, statutes and laws that God our Lord commanded you?”

The Sfas Emes understands that the wise son is asking the reasons behind the laws, not the laws themselves. Since he is the wise son, it is assumed that he knows the laws. However, how can he ask for a reason for the statutes? חוקים do not have reason, for example, the Para Aduma and sha’atnez. These mitzvos have no clear reason. So why does the wise son ask for the reason for these types of mitzvos?

In Tehillim, we say; “מַגִּיד דְּבָרָיו לְיַעֲקֹב חֻקָּיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו לְיִשְׂרָאֵל – He told his words to Yakov, His statutes and laws to Israel”. מַגִּיד implies a discussion – the implication is that חוקים is not just an instruction, but a talking point, something to be talked about. So חוקים have meaning as well – but how can discover these reasons? The Sfas Emes explains that the way to attain an understanding of the חוקים is by doing them even without understanding, but with the belief that what we are doing has a deeper significance. By performing these mitzvos without understanding why, we merit knowing the reason eventually.

The Sfas Emes explains that the mitzva of matza alludes to this. The matza is made of flour and water. It has no additional taste. In Hebrew the same word is used for taste and for reason – טעם. We specifically do not add any טעם to it to show that the command itself has enough טעם for us.

Through this, we develop a closer relationship with Hashem, a Naaseh v’Nishma of sorts, that we do as instructed even though we don’t understand.

The answer we give the wise son is, “We do not eat any dessert after the Pesach lamb.” He wants to know the טעם for the mitzvos including the חוקים . We tell him that the way to know the reasons is to do them, without knowing why, but with faith in Hashem’s command. We hint this when we tell him not to add to the טעם of the Korban Pesach.

It seems that asking the right questions leads to self discovery, and that it is most important to simply place one’s trust in Hashem .

In the set of laws pertaining to how sacrifices are conducted, is the set of laws about the Mizbeach – the altar:

אֵשׁ תָּמִיד תּוּקַד עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ לֹא תִכְבֶּה – A continuous fire shall burn upon the altar; it shall not go out. (6:6)

This is an instruction to the attendant Kohanim, that they need to constantly stoke and fuel the fire. The Mishna in Avos says that their job was made easier – עשרה ניסים נעשו בבית המקדש (…) ולא כבו הגשמים את עצי המערכה – Ten miracles occurred in the Temple, (… and) the rains did not extinguish the logs on the fire.

Miracles are supernatural events – they are deviations from the usual expected order of events. That being said, miracles are always as simple and natural as possible – it would have been simpler for it not to rain there at all, as opposed to having rainfall on the fire but not extinguish it. Why is the miracle unnecessarily complicated?

R’ Chaim Volozhin suggests a very powerful lesson. Our circumstances are fixed, our “rain” does not stop. All we can do is try our best; אֵשׁ תָּמִיד תּוּקַד עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ – the fire burnt continuously– even in the pouring rain, it would not go out.

We can have all the excuses in the world to stop and falter from what is required of us as Jews. But we have a clear model in how to conduct ourselves in the attendant Kohanim, who would fuel the fire in the pouring rain. The Mishna clearly states that God took care of what was beyond their control. Perseverance and perspiration are what it takes. People pray for miracles, when they don’t see that they need to their part – their hishtadlus. This hishtadlus is the part we play in solving our problems, and the solution is ever in our hands. Miracles don’t materialise on their own.

The fire on the Mizbeach was not activated by a miracle – it was only sustained miraculously. The fire wasn’t “magic”; it didn’t burn on it’s own. It required constant additional logs; with twenty-four hour work, over hundreds of years, it did not extinguish.

Perhaps it is worth considering that the Kohen Gadol went into the Kodesh Kadashim one single time per year, on Yom Kippur. He performed the service, and said one prayer. The sole prayer ever said in the Kodesh Kadashim was that Hashem should not listen to travellers and tourists who didn’t want rain, and that it should rain as much as possible. Literal and figurative.

Ask not for a lighter burden, but broader shoulders.

We are charged with an eternal war against Amalek:

וַיֹּאמֶר, כִּי-יָד עַל-כֵּס יָהּ, מִלְחָמָה לה’, בַּעֲמָלֵק–מִדֹּר, דֹּר – And God said, “Because there is a hand upon the throne of God; Hashem’s war with Amalek spans all generations,”. (Shemos 17:15)

This prominent statement, the conclusion of Parashas Zachor, cries out profusely for elaboration. Rashi points out that the word used for throne in this verse, כס, has a different spelling to the usual כסא. In addition, the Name of God that is used in this pasuk is י-ה , which contains only half of the letters that comprise Hashem’s full and ineffable four-letter appellation. Rashi concludes that this is part of the Divine oath; that neither God’s Name nor His throne can be complete until Amalek’s name is eradicated.

The Maharal probes the unique essence of Amalek and why he is such a formidable opponent of God, Truth and Yisrael. The Maharal states that unlike other nations, Amalek is an incessant enemy of the Jews, who opposes them across the ages. Indeed, it was revealed in Sefer Bereishis, through the inability of Esav and Yaakov to reside in the same womb, that Amalek and the Jews are incompatible, diametrically opposing entities. If one rises, the other must fall. This conflict was glaringly illustrated when Amalek attacked the Jews as they came out of Mitzrayim. As Rashi comments, Amalek is even prepared to commit suicide if it will dampen the flames of Jewish inspiration. The Amalekim are the original suicide attackers.

It is surely a fundamental Torah precept that God is omnipotent and infinite; his completeness is independent and indestructible. Yet how exactly does Amalek cause Hashem’s Name to be rendered incomplete? Furthermore, how does Amalek seemingly dethrone Hashem? The imagery of the Midrash appears to be equally baffling.

The Maharal explains that Hashem’s name reflects absolute oneness. Indeed, we declare thrice daily the mantra, שמע ישראל ה אלוקינו ה אחד – Hashem’s Name is One. Now, oneness is harmony’s partner and is undermined by discord and disunity, which is exactly what Amalek stands for. Because a partnership between Yisrael and Amalek is impossible, division enters the universe.

This broken world now becomes a place where unity and the Divine Name are concealed since oneness is blurred by Amalek’s obfuscation. Of course, Hashem is impeccably One and is utterly unaffected; it is just that our perception of Him and His oneness is diminished by Amalek’s divisive influence. The word Amalek, which has the numerical value of ספק – meaning doubt, brings exactly that into our realm. Amalek’s existence causes us doubt to ourselves and our better judgment. What was once a clear and vivid appreciation of God’s uniqueness becomes fragile, fractured and belittled.

This also explains how Amalek limits God’s throne. The throne represents the concept of Malchus, Hashem’s undisputed kingship over the world and its inhabitants. This notion is also rooted in the idea of God’s oneness. Only when there is a unique and empowered monarch can true sovereignty reign supreme. That is the reason, writes the Maharal, why we say, ברוך שם כבוד מלכותו לעולם ועד – “Praise the glory of His Kingdom for eternity” immediately following the declaration of unity, ה אחד in Shema. This demonstrates that God’s Kingdom is predicated on His uniqueness as king. Amalek’s splinters, contaminates and ultimately destroys the clarity of this recognition.

The task on Purim is the alchemist’s charge: to turn the turpitude of Amalek into religious gold. When we blur the distinction between Baruch Mordechai and Arur Haman, between good and evil, we revisit a world in which Amalek no longer dulls our senses and numbs our hearts. We catch a glimpse of the Source of all, the King of kings, Whose existence is unlike any other and Who lovingly awaits our reaching out Him.

At Kadesh – we drink the first of the four cups of wine. Each cup symbolises a particular highlights of the seder: the first at Kadesh, the second at Maggid, the third at Barech and the fourth at Hallel.

The function of a kiddush is twofold.

Firstly, to distinguish between that evening and other evenings. The word itself means “to separate”. The way we do this is through remembering the Exodus – זכר ליציאת מצרים – in memory of the departure from Egypt. The reason we do this is because this is the very foundation of being Hashem’s people.

Secondly, the function of a kiddush is to express service and allegiance to Hashem. This is true of kiddush on every Shabbos and all Yomim Tovim. This is the first cup of wine that we drink.

The second is drunk after Maggid. Maggid’s place in the Seder is to perform the mitzva – exclusive to Seder night – of in depth discussion of the events of redemption from Egypt – סיפור rather than the זכר of Kadesh. The function of the mitzva of סיפור יציאת מצרים is to recreate and relive the events, rather than to remember. The wording of the halacha is “כל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאלו הוא יצא עתה” – a reliving.

To fulfill the mitzva of סיפור , there are three requirements. The first is the most basic – the educational engagement that occurs in question and answer form. It is dialogue that differentiates it from the monologue of a זכר.
The second requirement of סיפור is for the participants at the Seder to imagine Yetzias Mitzrayim. This is achieved through story telling. As with any story, it begins with a problem and ends with a solution.
The final, most demanding requirement of סיפור is the טעמי הצמוות – the rationale behind the mitzvos of the Seder must be explained and understood.

R’ Chaim Brisker says that these requirements distinguish the mitzva of סיפור from the regular mitzva of זכר . The mitzva of סיפור constitutes a key highlight of the Seder, and this is why the second cup of wine is drunk at the end of Maggid.

The third cup is consumed at the conclusion of Birchas Hamazon, Barech. The blessing gives thanks to Hashem for what we have eaten – including the Matza and Maror, as well as the meal. The Birchas Hamazon is the conclusion of all the mitzvos of the evening, and as such, the reason we drink the third cup of wine at this point.

The fourth cup is drunk at the conclusion of Hallel. Hallel is a shira, a song of praise and gratitude for all the kindness Hashem has done for us, which is what the entire Seder was about.

Wine is prestigious and indicates prominence – the reason it is used for any kiddush. We mark the prominent events of the Seder, at which point we drink, encompassing the entire evening.

As the newly liberated Jews flee Egypt, their former captors gave chase:

וּפַרְעֹה הִקְרִיב וַיִּשְׂאוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת עֵינֵיהֶם וְהִנֵּה מִצְרַיִם נֹסֵעַ אַחֲרֵיהֶם וַיִּירְאוּ מְאֹד וַיִּצְעֲקוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל ה – Pharaoh drew near, and the children of Israel raised their eyes, and Egyptians were pursuing them. They were terrified, and they cried out to the Lord. (14:10)

Although the Torah clearly intends to mean that he drew near i.e. that he and his army approached, it doesn’t actually say that at all. It says הקריב – a word used for sacrifices, meaning “he brought near”. The Medrash says that Pharaoh was indeed מקריב – what he “brought near” was the Jews, closer to Hashem.

Why does the Torah attribute such credit Pharoah and what is it he did which deserved such high recognition?

There is a Midrash that teaches that prior to the Jews leaving Egypt, there was a debate in Heaven as to whether they should be allowed to leave. The prosecution and defense, the Kategor and Sanegor, would keep going in circles; “The Egyptians worship idols,” was countered with “So do the Jews!” – no redeeming quality could be found in the Jews favour.

The decisive factor in allowing their departure to occur was the faith placed in Hashem through deciding to follow Moshe.

Egypt recognised that their departure would be a massive loss and pursued them. Suddenly, the Jews faith evaporated:

וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל מֹשֶׁה הַמִבְּלִי אֵין קְבָרִים בְּמִצְרַיִם לְקַחְתָּנוּ לָמוּת בַּמִּדְבָּר מַה זֹּאת עָשִׂיתָ לָּנוּ לְהוֹצִיאָנוּ מִמִּצְרָיִם – They said to Moshe, “Were there no graves in Egypt that you have taken us to die in the desert? What have you have done by taking us out of Egypt!?” (14:11)

Their attachment to Moshe was severed, their faith gone. They cried out to Hashem but didn’t mean it – the entire episode demonstrates a lack of belief in God’s providence.

Moshe prays for assistance, and Hashem replies: מַה תִּצְעַק אֵלָי – What are you crying out to me for? Now is a time for action! This is וּפַרְעֹה הִקְרִיב – Pharaoh brought the Jews close to Hashem; but to the exclusion of Moshe from the equation. It is no praise at all.

So Hashem responds:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל מֹשֶׁה מַה תִּצְעַק אֵלָי דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִסָּעוּ – The Lord said to Moshe, “Why do you cry out to Me? Speak to the children of Israel and tell them to go!”. (14:15)

Their salvation was not going to be based on Moshe’s prayers, or theirs, as that wasn’t the problem.

Moshe’s authority had to be re-established, so Hashem gave him the solution: דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִסָּעו – their salvation would be as it was on leaving Egypt – through displaying faith their leader.

As the Pasuk says upon their entering the Red Sea: וַיַּאֲמִינוּ בַּה’ וּבְמֹשֶׁה עַבְדּוֹ – They believed in Hashem and His servant Moshe. (14:31).

One of the most incredible miracles of all times occurs, the Splitting of the Sea, and it’s conclusion happens the same way it began:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל מֹשֶׁה נְטֵה אֶת יָדְךָ עַל הַיָּם וְיָשֻׁבוּ הַמַּיִם עַל מִצְרַיִם עַל רִכְבּוֹ וְעַל פָּרָשָׁיו – Hashem said to Moshe; “Stretch your hand over the sea, and the water will crash back onto the Egyptians, their chariots, and their horseriders. (14:26)

R’ Shimshon Pinkus wonders why it was necessary for him to lift his hand to “close” the sea, as he did when it came to splitting it. The miracle would be over when the last Jew went ashore, and the sea returning to its normal natural state would seem to be something that just ought to “happen”.

R’ Shimshon Pinkus explains that Hashem was trying to teach the Jews an essential lesson about “natural” occurrences. Quite understandably, splitting the sea requires an action of some sort because it was a miracle; but the returning of the sea to its natural state is equally miraculous!

We take the laws of nature and physics for granted – Hashem was expressing that we ought not to. There is no fundamental reason which causes things to happen; it is all Hashem. This was the underlying message of Hashem’s command for Moshe to stretch out his hand, in the same way, to both start and conclude the miracle.

They are the same from Hashem’s perspective.

The Gemara in Shabbos 21b teaches that the mitzva of lighting candles is to light them in the entrance of the house – in the doorway.

Rashi says that even in a house with a courtyard or driveway, one lights at the front door of his house, not the courtyard. Tosfos comments that a courtyard with two gates needs two menorahs. One at each gate – seemingly not at the ‘front doorway’ at all.

But the Gemara said ‘פתח’ – door, so although Tosfos say that the mitzva has nothing to do with a door, he also says that only in a house with no courtyard would one light at the door.

What’s is the basic logic that led Rashi and Tosfos to such opposite ideas?
They were arguing what the focal point of the statement in the Gemara was: Was it חוץ (outside), to accomplish the mitzvah of publicising the miracle as the key goal or בית (the house) to accomplish להדליק as the key goal.

So according to Rashi you should light inside a house as the primary mitzva, but lighting at the door satisfies the secondary mitzva of publicising the event.
Tosfos is of the opposite opinion in both aspects. The primary function of lighting a menora is to publicise the event – and as such Tosfos says that one should light as close to the public as possible, and the בית aspect is secondary.

The Beis Halevi asks: According to the respective views regarding the meaning of ‘פתח’ – do you light inside of door, or outside?
Again Rashi and Tosfos have opposite opinions:
Tosfos says that it means inside of the courtyard door while Rashi says it means outside of the front door.
Their reasoning being as follows:

Rashi says that lighting inside a house is not public at all, thereby serving a house’s primary function, but if so then there is no Pirsumei Nisa; to achieve this, lighting must be done outside.
Tosfos says that it needs to be inside the courtyard, as an outside courtyard is the public domain. It also needs to be connected in some way to the בית the Gemara referenced, and be lit on private property.

The Pri Chadash asks a new question: What if a house has a door and a window, and the house has no courtyard – where would one light their menora?
Yet again Rashi and Tosfos have converse opinions. According to Tosfos you do it at the window which is following the idea of Pirsumei Nisa as a window is more public than at the door. However, Rashi uses the idea of בית and says it should be by the door.

Next question: What would happen if one lit in the courtyard of their house? – Tosfos says that one has fulfilled the mitzva l’chatchila (the way it’s meant to be), whereas Rashi says one would not be fulfilling the mitzva at all.

There are 2 ברכות – להדליק נר (the Bracha on the mitzva to light), and שעשה ניסים לאבותינו (the Bracha commemorating the miracle).
In conclusion there are two concepts: First, lighting like they lit. With the lighting, we commemorate the chanukas habayis (re-inauguration event) of removing the impure foreign elements from the Beis Hamikdash, Second, is remembering the great miracle.
The miracle is a symbol of the Yom Tov’s historical re-inauguration event, but the main goal was lighting the Menora itself.

The question is asked: Was it, in fact, the lighting or was lighting the Menora special because of the miracle that occurred, demonstrating G-D’s valuation of our actions?

If we follow Rashi’s reasoning, the primary mitzva is commemorating the re-inauguration, and the main goal is ‘להדליק נר של חנוכה’ in your house and to light inside. Publicizing the miracle and the miracle itself is only a symbol of the main event of inauguration and as such Pirsumei Nisa is secondary to the mitzvah of actually lighting the Menorah.

If we follow Tosfos’s reasoning, the miracle was the main event of Chanuka – the re-inauguration – so publicising is essential, and done as closely as possible to the public domain. There was a secondary part that the miracle itself came about through the lighting of the menora, so we satisfy that aspect of it and light a menora too.

Every year, on Yom Kippur and 9 Av, we recall the death of the Asara Harugei Malchus – the Ten Martyrs

One of the reasons revealed about their death is in the prayer itself, quoting the Midrash that the Ten Martyrs died as an atonement for Yakov’s sons abducting Yosef. It’s a powerful notion; but the there were Ten Martyrs and only nine brothers who sold Yosef. Reuven had returned home, and Binyamin hadn’t left with them, and Yosef was not party to his own sale. What is the discrepancy; if the Martyrs were to absolve the brothers of their sin, there ought to only have been 9

R’ Shimshon Ostropolier answers that after the brothers sold Yosef they agreed a Cheirum – an excommunication order on anyone who revealed the truth to their father.

But, as mentioned above, there were only nine brothers present and for the order to come into effect there would need to be ten present – a minyan. The Midrash says that Hashem joined to be the tenth and to formalise the order. This is easily proven by the fact that Yosef’s outcome was withheld from Yakov, in spite of his prophecy.

Nine Martyrs gave up their lives as an atonement for the nine brothers. But one of the Martyrs gave up his life for the tenth member of the minyan to. R’ Shimshon tells us that it was R’ Akiva, but why was R’ Akiva in particular selected for this honour?

The Gemara in Bava Kama 41b discusses how there were two Tanaaim who expounded on all instances of the word ”את” appearing in the Torah. They hypothesised that את implies a secondary law. Their observation worked until they reached “את ה’ תראה” – ‘Hashem your G-d you shall fear’. They weren’t sure what to derive from this “את”. What is supplementary or secondary to God? They were unable to complete their project from lack of being able to expound upon this particular “את”.

Generations later Rabbi Akiva figured out the explanation. He said the “את” was including Talmidei Chachamim, that one must fear the Talmidei Chachamim as he fears G-d.

Rabbi Akiva demonstrably proved the importance of honouring Sages. Not that they are remotely equal or even similar, but to say that a Talmid Chacham must be revered just as we revere Hashem. By extending the honour of the Torah, he merited being the Tenth Martyr.

When a farmer presents bikkurim to the attending kohen, there is a prescribed dialogue that must take place, tracking the early history of the Jewish people:

וְעָנִיתָ וְאָמַרְתָּ לִפְנֵי ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי, וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה, וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט; וַיְהִי-שָׁם, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב. וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ הַמִּצְרִים, וַיְעַנּוּנוּ; וַיִּתְּנוּ עָלֵינוּ, עֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה. וַנִּצְעַק, אֶל-ה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ; וַיִּשְׁמַע ה אֶת-קֹלֵנוּ, וַיַּרְא אֶת-עָנְיֵנוּ וְאֶת-עֲמָלֵנוּ וְאֶת-לַחֲצֵנוּ. וַיּוֹצִאֵנוּ ה, מִמִּצְרַיִם, בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה, וּבְמֹרָא גָּדֹל–וּבְאֹתוֹת, וּבְמֹפְתִים. וַיְבִאֵנוּ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם הַזֶּה; וַיִּתֶּן-לָנוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת, אֶרֶץ זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ. וְעַתָּה, הִנֵּה הֵבֵאתִי אֶת-רֵאשִׁית פְּרִי הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַתָּה לִּי, ה; וְהִנַּחְתּוֹ, לִפְנֵי ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתָ, לִפְנֵי ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ. וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל-הַטּוֹב, אֲשֶׁר נָתַן-לְךָ – You will answer and say before your God, “The Aramean pursued my father, and he descended to Egypt, and dwelled there, where he became a nation, great and many. Egypt evilly afflicted us, and they gave us hard labour. We cried out to Hashem, God of our fathers, and He heard our cries, and saw our suffering and affliction.
He extracted us from Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with great wonders and miracles; and brought us to this place. He gave us this land, flowing with milk and honey. And now, see I have brought my first fruit, which God has granted me, and I place it before God,”.
He shall place it before God and bow, and rejoice at all the good he has been given. (26:5-11)

On Pesach, part of the above is quoted in the Haggada, which tracks the development of the Jewish people. This is odd – the actual events are recorded in Shemos, this is only a paraphrase of events there; and not about leaving Egypt at all!

Why does the Haggada quote from bikkurim and not from its proper historical place?

The Sefer HaChinuch explains that the mitzva on Pesach of reciting the story of the exodus is not limited to just telling the story; it must be contextualised with an angle of gratitude, which the historical sections do not have.

Bikkurim is self-evidently about gratitude for the Land of Israel, which has extra special value in the context of liberation from Egypt. So, in reality, discussing Egypt makes a lot of sense in the context of how appreciative we are for the Land; and it also makes sense for the Haggada to quote from somewhere out of place to display gratitude.

Proper gratitude can be learned from the laws of the thanksgiving offering – the Korban Toda.

Along with the animal offering, there were 40 accompanying loaves of bread, with very little burnt or taken by the kohen. They are essential parts of the offering, and are subject to the laws of leftovers – if not consumed by the following morning, they must be destroyed.

This is an impossible task for the owner. Clearly, he is not meant to eat an entire animal and 40 loaves of bread on his own. This is a feast – one he needs to invite many guests to.

The aspect of gratitude this evidently imparts is the innate requirement to publicise it. The Korban Pesach is identical – an entire roast animal that is to be consumed after a full meal, in a tiny amount of time, before midnight. To avoid issues with leftovers problems you need to invite lots of guests and tell them about Egypt – which is precisely how the Seder begins.

The Korban Pesach is essentially a national Korban Toda – brought on release from jail; crossing a sea; crossing a desert; and recovery from illness. The Jews were in bondage and released from Egypt; went through the sea; through the desert, and when the Jews stood at Sinai, they were cured from all ailments.

To really contextualise what gratitude entails, the concluding pasuk in Bikkurim says that וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל הַטּוֹב אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ וּלְבֵיתֶךָ – you should rejoice in all Hashem does for you. One just one blanket ‘thank you’, but thank Him בְכָל הַטּוֹב – for each thing individually!

Gratitude means so much more when it is spelled out properly.

The Clouds of Glory marked travel movements for the Jews in the desert, and according to Midrash, flattened obstacles, cleared wild beasts, and possibly cleaned their clothing too. The Chag of Succos is dedicated to commemorating them. There is no equivalent display of appreciation for the manna or Miriam’s well, which are all along the same line of supernatural providence for the nation. Why are the Clouds remembered, and not the well or manna?

The Chida explains that food and water are the basic requirements for survival. Taking the Jews into the wilderness of the desert necessarily meant God would provide nourishment from somewhere; what could otherwise be expected? The Jews had their own shelter through tents and huts. But Clouds that protected the camp from the harsh sun, and according to Midrash even more, is far beyond what could have been expected – לפנים משורת הדין.

Secondly, they were a gift that showed God’s love for the people. This is proven by the fact that people outside the camp – such as the Egyptian stragglers and people forced out due to tzaraas – did not benefit.

Thirdly, the Clouds were appreciated far more than the manna and the water. The Jews complained and gave orders regarding the food and drink on offer in the desert – but they never complained about the Clouds. The Clouds were the perfect gift.

The Chida notes that perhaps these are hinted to:

לְמַעַן יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֲנִי הֹ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם – In order that your ensuing generations should know that I had the children of Israel live in booths when I took them out of the land of Egypt. I am the Lord, your God. (23:43)

לְמַעַן יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתי – I gave it to you as a gift; and they were enjoyed perfectly
אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל – I gave it to the Jews; not the Egyptian stragglers.
בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֲנִי ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם – I took you out of Egypt; so I fed you, but didn’t have to provide the Clouds.

The Clouds were an incredible, and totally unwarranted display of affection to the Jews. This is commemorated on Succos.

The Torah never refers explicitly to Shavuos or Rosh Hashana by their primary themes of the Torah and the day of judgement. Why does the Torah overlook this?

The Kli Yakar explains that the themes transcend a particular moment.

Torah each day is a new experience, bringing fresh understanding and enhanced insights with it. The Torah is on offer every day, and we choose through our actions whether to accept or decline. Calling Shavuos “Torah Day” is a disservice to our responsibilities.

Likewise, is described as the day to blow the Shofar, because our actions are under scrutiny every day. We are accountable always. Calling Rosh HaShana “Judgment Day” is a disservice to our accountability.

 

The Maharal observes that all halachos of Korban Pesach pertain to unity; roasted in one piece, the bones have to be kept whole, eaten in one group, in one place, at one time etc. All these are meant to reflect that ה’ אחד – that G-d is One, and His unity is everywhere.

However, this would seem to be at odds Korbanos in general, that are meant to reflect the person bringing it. If the Korban Pesach displays Hashem’s unity, how does it relate to the people bringing it?

R’ Yehoshua Hartman explains that as a nation, we reflect the אחדות of Hashem. We have nothing to rely on but Hashem, with no fall back option. This is true across the spectrum of Judaism. In Egypt if it doesn’t rain for years, it’s not a problem, as the Nile provides water. If Israel has a poor rain season one year, there are serious shortages, and people start worrying(and when people start worrying, they start praying). We can place our faith in Hashem alone.

When the Jews said נעשה ונשמע – we will do and we will listen – what they were effectively meant was that they did not enter the equation. When Hashem asks something of us, that is all that matters.

This explains why so many Jews in history were willing to be מוסר נפש – display self-sacrifice – rather than cause a desecration of Hashem’s name. The rationale behind this is that Hashem doesn’t want something done, and if it is done, it’s removing oneself from godliness, as it is antithetical to what God wants.

In reality then, there is no contradiction. We say in Aleinu that אין עוד – which means there is no other reality other than what G-d wants. No one symbolises this more than the Jews. The Korban Pesach reflects both Hashem’s unity and the people bringing it.

In the Haggada, the Rasha asks a question, and the father rebukes him, and the Haggada remarks that the father should הקהה את שניו – knock out his teeth – and rebuke him that אלו היה שם לא היה נגאל – if he had been in Egypt at the time, he would not have been redeemed.

What do his teeth and potential non-redemption from Egypt have to with each other, as part of a cogent reply?

R’ Shlomo Freshwater explains that prior to Matan Torah, people who were evil stayed that way – Yishmael, Esav, all the Jews who died during the 9th plague. Before Matan Torah, the only people God would choose to save were the people who chose God.

After Matan Torah, this changed – Hashem had chosen us unconditionally! This enabled everyone to be saved – even if they weren’t righteous – and any and everyone could do teshuva, as opposed to falling by the wayside like Yishmael, Esav etc.

So what the father tells his son is that if he had been in Egypt, he simply would not have had the merit to be redeemed. But after Matan Torah, anyone can do teshuva – even a Rasha! But a puzzle remains – we just have to “knock out his teeth” – what does this mean?

רשע is gematria 570. If we “knock out” שניו – gematria 366 – we are left with 204. What is gematria 204?

צדיק!!

The 4 sons are meant to be allegorical, but clearly this section of the Haggada is an inpirational piece about teshuva – no matter what we have done, we can always make amends, we just need to want it and remove the negativity.

Looking at the 15 steps of the Seder, ורחץ – “and we wash our hands” – is out of step with the rest. It is evidently linked to the previous step of Kadesh, hence the conjunctive “and”. But this results in a problem – the order makes no sense!

A doctor sanitises his hands before seeing a patient – similarly shouldn’t we cleanse ourselves of the negative, symbolised by washing our hands, before sanctifying ourselves with positive, through kiddush?

The same can be asked about Matza and Maror; shouldn’t we get the negative slavery out of the way before commemorating the positive liberty?

R’ Moshe Feinstein answers counterintuitively that sometimes we are in so deep that we can’t cleanse ourselves of negativity. We have to jumpstart the process of growth by diving in and doing positive acts despite the fact we still have negative baggage. Then we build up the spiritual strength to be able to cleanse ourselves of and be rid of that baggage – which is exactly what happened in Egypt.

There is a Chassidic analogy of a man with dirty boots in a muddy field. He must walk to the end of the field before he can clean his boots; stopping in the middle to wipe his boots is a exercise in futility.

This is an exceptionally deep parable, but on a basic level, what it means is that when we have a problem that we can’t avoid, the proverbial “dirty boots”, we must change the situation we are in, by “leaving the field”. Once we have changed and developed, when we find ourselves with “muddy boots” we will no longer be in the “muddy field”. People can look at the world as a muddy field and wonder how they can have faith when there is so much evil, in the world. The answer is that the muddy field isn’t the problem – their boots are bringing mud everywhere!

The reason we start the Seder in this way is to show us that we just need to take the initiative – Kaddish – and then ורחץ – we will be cleansed!

The Korban Pesach is meant to commemorate the miracle of the Jewish households being “passed over” in Egypt.

But why were they ever at risk? The plagues were punishments for enslaving the Jews. If the first nine plagues were targeted at Egyptians, why should the tenth have been any different, requiring being “passed over”?
Why is the salvation of the Jewish firstborn different that it required spreading blood on their doors, and later generations then had to commemorate this act by eating the Korban Pesach?

R’ Yitzchak Blaser explains that the Gemara in Yuma 86a teaches that even though repentance alone does not usually atone for a violation of a negative commandment; nevertheless, on Yom Kippur the flood of mercy is so great that if a person repents, he can have attain forgiveness – even if they might not deserve it!

The Midrash says: Woe to the wicked, who convert Divine mercy to strict justice – מדת הדין into מדת הרחמים.

R’ Yitzchak Blaser explains that what the Midrash is the reverse application of the Gemara – if a person had a chance to erase sins they couldn’t get rid of an entire year, and turned their back on such an opportunity, the disdain shown for the mercy offered rebounds, and it becomes strict justice.

Although the Jews had served the Egyptian idols, it hadn’t been out of choice. But with the slavery effectively over, they had the chance to throw off any trace of idol worship and show their commitment and dedication to Him by taking a lamb, an Egyptian deity, and publicly display that they did not accept

If they turned their backs on this ideal opportunity they would have incurred Hashem’s wrath and מדת הדין.

The other plagues were specific punishments that the Jews were not deserving of, but the 10th plague was not “just” a punishment for the Egyptians, unlike the previous plagues, it had a secondary function. The first nine plagues were punishments that they revealed Hashem’s hand in nature; the Jews had done nothing to be punished in this way – they were victims. But here they had an opportunity to throw off the yoke of idol worship, and had they not taken their chance, they would have incurred a מדת הדין – putting themselves in danger.

The Korban Pesach we take is a remembrance of the kindness we were shown, that led to us being saved. The Targum actually translates ופסחתי (Shemos 14:13) as a word meaning “compassion”.

Matza symbolises that the redemption took place with such haste that the dough did not have time to rise. The Maror symbolises the bitterness of the slavery.

Obviously, the slavery took place before the redemption. Yet we eat Matza before the Maror – why don’t we reflect the historical order that events unfolded, and commemorate the affliction with the Maror first, and then appreciate the redemption with Matzah? The Chiddushei HaRim explains with a parable.

There was a king who had one child, the crown prince. One day, the prince got involved in a national scandal and embarrassed the royal family greatly, for which he was banished. Over time, and as he aged, the king’s grief grew at what he’d done – he’d banished his only son and heir! He sent scouts across the kingdom to locate the prince and bring him back. A scout found the prince, dishevelled and a mess, working as a lumberjack deep in the middle of distant forests, with worn clothes and covered in dirt. The scout verified his reports and could not believe his eyes, yet approached the former crown prince; “My lord, the king has requested your immediate return to the palace. Before we get going, what do you need?”.

“I’m not sure about going back, I like it here… But you know, what I really need is a better axe; this one is getting blunt. Could you possibly get me another?”.

The scout was bewildered – when presented with the opportunity to return to his royal heritage, the heir to the throne refused. He had forgotten what it meant to be the prince, he had become a peasant; a simple laborer, who just wanted a better axe to be a better lumberjack.

The Chiddushei Harim explains that we couldn’t understand how terrible the slavery was until we’d experienced redemption and liberty.

If you put your face an inch from this text you can’t read it, you can only see the word right in front of you. To appreciate something for what it is, we need to step back from it. From darkness we understand what light is, and vice versa. Light is brightest coming in from the dark, and dark is darkest when the lights go out.

We need to start with redemption, ultimate freedom to serve Hashem – to illustrate how awful anything else is.

In the Hagada, one of the four questions asked is that שבכל הלילות, אנו אוכלין חמץ ומצה, הלילה הזה כולו מצה – Why on other nights do we eat chametz and matza, whereas tonight we only eat matza?

The Abarbanel explains that this question has an additional subtle nuance to it. The Korban Pesach is essentially a Korban Toda, a thanksgiving offering, for having been saved. With an ordinary thanksgiving offering, the sacrifice is brought with chametz loaves and matza crackers as part of the offering. The question therefore becomes; why is the thanksgiving offering on Pesach only supplemented with matza?

The Chasam Sofer explains that chametz is a metaphor for negativity. It is symbolic of the inflation of the ego, among other things. Matza is synonymous with the positive and pure – it is representative of things the way they ought to be, in their simple, distilled, natural state.

When we offer a regular thanksgiving sacrifice, we are thanking Hashem for the good He has done, but equally, the bad from which we learn to appreciate the good.

But on Pesach there is no such thing as bad; even being enslaved served a “good” purpose – it certainly wasn’t a punishment for anything the slaves had done! If the Jews could achieve perfection without going through Egypt, they wouldn’t have had to – therefore it served a constructive purpose. The purpose was so that when they were offered the Torah the Jews would be able to understand and accept the concept of service – they had been pushed to the limit and beyond in Egypt; they could do the same for Hashem. We answer how Pesach is a night where כולו מצה – there is no such thing as bad, there is only good.

The Chafetz Chaim wonders why Moshe was unable to build the Menorah, a problem he had not had when building everything else, and had to ask many times for the instructions to be repeated. The answer parallels the above. The Menorah is compared to to the Torah – hence the phrase “the light” of Torah – and it’s eternity. Moshe’s problem was that he did not understand how he could make something that was meant to reflect the infinite and eternal. Homiletically, how could the Jews keep the Torah forever? Wouldn’t there be evil? Exiles, wars, Holocausts, Inquisitions, expulsions and pogroms?

Hashem’s answer to Moshe illustrates this concept perfectly. “Put it in the fire, and see what comes out”. In reality, there is no negativity, and challenges are not bad. It is only a trial from which there is potential to grow. Adversity builds character.

The Midrash Mishlei states that after Moshiach comes, we will cease to observe all the Yomim Tovim, except Purim. Many commentators have asked why this should be. Was Purim as momentous as the Exodus from Egypt, or the giving of the Torah at Sinai? Furthermore, Purim is a rabbinically instituted, so why should it be celebrated when Yomim Tovim in the Torah are not?

The Sfas Emes asks another question. The Megilla clearly states that Purim is עַל-שֵׁם הַפּוּר – because of the lottery performed by Haman.

Why do we refer to it in the plural form – Purim – to refer to this Yom Tov which celebrates a single lottery? Secondly, the lottery was hardly the primary part of the miracle of Purim. Why would we name the Yom Tov after an un-miraculous and perhaps even incidental event?

The Sfas Emes explains that we would only use the name Purim if the “pur” was an integral part of the nes. When Haman cast his lots, it was “לְהַשְׁמִיד לַהֲרֹג וּלְאַבֵּד” – to utterly destroy the Jews. Yet, as the eternal nation, the Jews cannot ever be completely destroyed, meaning that Haman’s plot was doomed to fail from the very beginning. The “pur” therefore was dual in nature. On the surface it appeared to be detrimental for the Jews, yet by it’s very design condemned Haman to fail and thus lead to the Jews’ salvation. To reflect this duality, we refer to Purim in the plural to underline that even events that seem ‘bad’ are a part of Hashem’s plan and turn out for the good of Klal Yisroel.

The Vilna Gaon in his commentary on Esther explains that this is why we will celebrate Purim after Moshiach. Previous miracles where Hashem has revealed Himself and performed supernatural miracles will be eclipsed by the miraculous events surrounding the coming of Moshiach. The Yomim Tovim commemorating these events will no longer be celebrated because the events they recall will be of secondary importance in comparison to those we will witness in the future. Purim however, occupies a unique space amongst the other Yomim Tovim. It recalls that Hashem’s hand guides our lives and that all events are controlled by Him even if we do not openly see Him. Thus we will continue to celebrate this unique Yom Tov that offers us a glimpse of His master plan that guides nature even when Yomim Tovim celebrating supernatural events are no longer celebrated.

Humility is one of the defining features of what it means to be a good person, and it was a characteristic closely associated with Yakov. When Yakov took stock of the blessing he had received, he recognised that he did not deserve the extent of what he had:

קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים וּמִכָּל הָאֱמֶת אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ אֶת עַבְדֶּךָ – I am diminished from all the kindness You have done Your servant. (32:11)

Humility means having the measure of what you are and where you stand. Humility does not mean downplaying yourself or your achievements. There is a required dose of arrogance is absolutely necessary to have confidence and pride in yourself.

The tension between humility, arrogance, and confidence are ever-present. Curiously, the Gemara cryptically sets an oddly specific ratio of an eighth of an eighth. Yakov’s admission

The Vilna Gaon notes that Yakov’s admission is the eighth pasuk in the eighth parsha. Yakov does not believe his merits are worth what he was given, and our perspective should be the same.

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that the number eight is where natural and supernatural meet. Seven is a cycle, and eight is a restatement of what came before, an octave higher. It is a renewal of the wavelength of relationship. This is what Bris and Yovel signify. Eight makes the seven that come before meaningful.

We must not get carried away with what we have, and what we have achieved. All that we are exists for us to help those around us. But even if you do focus on everyone else, and acknowledge that your talents and achievements are from God, it is still possible to get caught up in why you specifcically have the gifts you do.

This is the second eighth. It is not enough to acknowledge your gifts. True humility is recognition that the fact of the gift is itself a gift, and not because you deserve it.

So pay it forward.

In the Hagada, one of the four questions asked is that שבכל הלילות, אנו אוכלין חמץ ומצה, הלילה הזה כולו מצה – Why on other nights do we eat chametz and matza, whereas tonight we only eat matza?

The Abarbanel explains that this question has an additional subtle nuance to it. The Korban Pesach is essentially a Korban Toda, a thanksgiving offering, for having been saved. With an ordinary thanksgiving offering, the sacrifice is brought with chametz loaves and matza crackers as part of the offering. The question therefore becomes; why is the thanksgiving offering on Pesach only supplemented with matza?

The Chasam Sofer explains that chametz is a metaphor for negativity. It is symbolic of the inflation of the ego, among other things. Matza is synonymous with the positive and pure – it is representative of things the way they ought to be, in their simple, distilled, natural state.

When we offer a regular thanksgiving sacrifice, we are thanking Hashem for the good He has done, but equally, the bad from which we learn to appreciate the good.

But on Pesach there is no such thing as bad; even being enslaved served a “good” purpose – it certainly wasn’t a punishment for anything the slaves had done! If the Jews could achieve perfection without going through Egypt, they wouldn’t have had to – therefore it served a constructive purpose. The purpose was so that when they were offered the Torah the Jews would be able to understand and accept the concept of service – they had been pushed to the limit and beyond in Egypt; they could do the same for Hashem. We answer how Pesach is a night where כולו מצה – there is no such thing as bad, there is only good.

The Chafetz Chaim wonders why Moshe was unable to build the Menorah, a problem he had not had when building everything else, and had to ask many times for the instructions to be repeated. The answer parallels the above. The Menorah is compared to to the Torah – hence the phrase “the light” of Torah – and it’s eternity. Moshe’s problem was that he did not understand how he could make something that was meant to reflect the infinite and eternal. Homiletically, how could the Jews keep the Torah forever? Wouldn’t there be evil? Exiles, wars, Holocausts, Inquisitions, expulsions and pogroms?

Hashem’s answer to Moshe illustrates this concept perfectly. “Put it in the fire, and see what comes out”. In reality, there is no negativity, and challenges are not bad. It is only a trial from which there is potential to grow. Adversity builds character.

There is a concept called hidur mitzva, which means that we enhance mitzvos we do to make them beautiful. Examples of this principle include using beautiful esrogim on Succos, using larger tefillin and arranging for a megillah to be written by the best scribe.

The basic mitzvah of Chanukah is that the householder will light one candle each night on behalf for all the residents. The next stage is where another candle is progressively lit as the holiday progresses. The ideal method of performance is where each resident lights progressively

The Brisker Rav quotes the Rambam as codifying the act of lighting in the singular, indicating his view that there is no such step as the final one mentioned above, and that therefore the best mitzvah one can do is for the householder (but not each member of the house) to light progressively, which Sefardi Jews do.

This is at odds with the Rema, whom Ashkenazi Jews tend to follow, who maintains that each person lighting is ideal.

What is the disagreement over?

The Gemara in Shabbos discusses a Bris Milah, where the Mohel realises afterwards that he has left a small piece of skin. There are two possibilities with this surgical error; one that leaves the baby considered uncircumcised, and the other does not matter, meaning the mitzvah has been fulfilled. The Gemara concludes that there is no need for the Mohel to repeat the Bris if it is the type which does not matter.

Rashi explains that it is only when the circumcision takes place on Shabbos that the Mohel does not return, but that on weekdays he would. The Rambam disagrees, and says the Mohel would not perform the operation again even on a weekday.

The Brisker Rav sheds light on the issue: after the time of the mitzvah has past, the mitzvah cannot be improved. There is no doubt that this is the case on Shabbos, where there is universal agreement that one does not break it for the hidur of removing the leftover skin, but the Rambam says that once the Mohel has finished the Bris, he cannot make it any more beautiful than it was, as the mitzvah has been completed and therefore gone.

The Rema and Rashi disagree, and say that yes, you can! This is the same difference with regard to lighting menorahs. The Rambam says that once the householder has lit, there is no further possibility for the rest of the household to perform a hidur, as the basic mitzva was already completed when the householder had lit the first light, so the hidur stops once he has lit additional lights. Any further attempts at beautification by doing more, eg everyone else lighting, are after the mitzva has passed, so are redundant.

Ashkenazim follow the opinion the Rema and Rashi, that we can enhance something after the main mitzvah has been completed, which is why each of us lights our own menorah.

The miracle of Chanuka was that a bunch of rebels fought off an experienced and well armed occupying force to earn freedom and self-determination. One of the firs things they did was recapture the Beis HaMikdash and rededicate the daily service, including the Menora. The Menora was best lit with pure and sacred olive oil, but there was only enough to last one day. Yet what should have lasted a day lasted for eight.

But the miracle was only for the extra seven days, so why celebrate eight days of Chanuka?

Eight days frames the concept of gratitude, in a way that turns the question into nonsense.

The Midrash identifies Leah as the first person to properly show thanks to Hashem. She calls her fourth son Yehuda because הפעם אודה – by having a fourth child, she had taken more than her quarter share of twelve sons, and had to show her thanks. Yet plenty before her had thanked and praised God, such as Avraham at the Akeida and Noach after the flood.

R’ Yaakov Hillel explains that her realization was not just that thanks that were due for the extra. By getting more than made sense to her, it contextualised everything she’d been given until then. She had been wrong to expect anything at all, or that 3 was her “fair share.”

This is the type of thanks that no-one had ever done before. What we take for granted is still something to show gratitude for. R’ Yaakov Hillel teaches that this is the lesson of the eighth day of Chanuka.

Jews are called יהודים, after Yehuda. The hero of Chanuka was named Yehuda. We are named for the principle of gratitude. The first words of the day a Jew is supposed to utter are מודה אני – I am thankful. For something as trivial as waking up!

What are the blessings you take for granted?

After experiencing the incredible miracle that was the Red Sea splitting, the people collectively sang Az Yashir:

זה קלי ואנוהו אלקי אבי וארוממנו – This is my God, and I will glorify Him – the God of my father – and I will exalt Him. (15:2)

The Mechilta observes how any maidservants at the sea saw things that even Yechezkel ben Buzi, who had the most vivid prophecies, did not.

Who were these maidservants? How were there any servants among the Jews, a newly liberated people?

The commentaries wonder how Chazal derived their statement. The Vilna Gaon, the Maharil Diskin and the Maskil L’David accept essentially the same view. Rashi writes that there are two parts to the passuk. The second half, that of “אלקי אבי וארוממנו”, is a reference to Hashem being the God of their fathers, illustrating a relationship begun earlier than those saved at the Sea. The above commentaries explain that the word “זה” refers to both clauses; once for “זה קלי ואנוהו” and then for “זה אלקי אבי וארוממנו”. However, the Jews did not leave Egypt alone. Non-Jewish servants and maidservants, a.k.a. the Eirev Rav, came along in order to convert. Unable to refer to their relationship with Hashem as beginning with their forefathers, substituted “זה קלי ואנוהו” instead. Did the Jews say both statements? Maskil L’David says they did, whereas the Eirev Rav said only “זה קלי ואנוהו”. The Vilna Gaon and Maharil Diskin teach that this passuk was truly split; with the Jews saying”זה אלקי אבי וארוממנו” , and the non-Jewish servants and maidservants saying “זה קלי ואנוהו”.

The commentaries explain how Chazal understood that the maidservant saw “more” than Yechezkel. The word “זה” – “this here” – was used at the Sea to connote something concrete and direct, as opposed to the general “ואראה” – “I was shown” – used in the later prophesies. Chazal saw from this that even this maidservant, essentially any non-Jew who was there, was able to point and say “זה קלי ואנוהו”; and truly saw a greater revelation than even the greatest of the prophets; the Presence of Hashem was manifest in such a great way that one could simply point and say, “This is my G-d”.

Interestingly, there is discussion amongst the Rishonim regarding the nature of Hashem’s “revelation” at the Sea. Rabbeinu Bachayei writes that Chazal do not mean to say that the maaidservant had greater ability to grasp such things, nor were they wiser than Yechezkel. Hashem simply “showed” Himself more at the Sea than He ever did to Yechezkel. The Rambam disagrees; in describing the lofty levels reached by the Jews in the generation of the Exodus and the Desert travels, he writes: “The lowest of them was like Yechezkel, as Chazal say. This seems to be a reference to the statement of Chazal under discussion. Apparently Rambam understood this statement to be descriptive of the nation’s spiritual heights, which enabled them to have as remarkable a revelation as they did.

According to the Rambam, two insights would appear. Firstly, that even the “lowest” Jew at that time was indeed greater than Yechezkel. Secondly, it appears that we need not understand that the maidservant was at least originally non-Jewish. In context, the Rambam is discussing the great level of the Jewish nation at the time, and yet he uses this statement of Chazal as a proof. This leads one to surmise that the Rambam understood that the maidservant in question was Jewish. If this is the case, our original question returns; why is there a “maidservant” in this newly liberated nation?

The Gemara in Sota 11b tells the story of how the pregnant Jewish women in Egypt would go out to the fields to give birth, and would leave their newborns there. To take them home would mean their being captured and tossed into the Nile. Hashem took care of these newborns, sending angels to clean, feed and care for them. When the Egyptians found out about these children living in the fields, they came to kill them. A miracle occurred; the earth would swallow these children deep enough to protect them from Egyptian plows. After the Egyptians left, the children sprouted out of the ground like plants. When they grew up, herds of them would return to their homes. And when Hashem revealed Himself at the Sea, these children “recognized” Him first having been raised in His presence and said: “זה קלי ואנוהו”. Clearly this Gemara understands that the Jews too said “זה קלי ואנוהו”. Now according to the Maskil L’David, that “זה קלי ואנוהו” was also said by the Jews, this Gemara can be congruent with the Mechilta. However, according to the Vilna Gaon and the others, this Gemara too needs reconciliation with the word usage of the Mechilta: “maidservant,”, and we are left with our question.

Food for thought.