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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The soul always remains free.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What went wrong?

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

צֵא, מִן-הַתֵּבָה–אַתָּה… כָּל-הַחַיָּה אֲשֶׁר-אִתְּךָ מִכָּל-בָּשָׂר, בָּעוֹף וּבַבְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל-הָרֶמֶשׂ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל-הָאָרֶץ–הוצא (הַיְצֵא) אִתָּךְ; וְשָׁרְצוּ בָאָרֶץ, וּפָרוּ וְרָבוּ עַל-הָאָרֶץ – Leave the Ark; you… and every creature with you. Every creature, bird, animal and insect that creeps on the earth, should leave with you. They will multiply and infest the earth. (8:16-17)

The Malbim explains that the partnership aspect was beyond the fact their survival was due to the fact they were physically with him.

Humans are created with the gift of free will. When Adam and Eve, as the only people in the world, corrupted their moral freedom, the consequences were dire, and the same almost happened once again; an entire generation collectively squandered their moral consciousness, defeating the purpose of their creation. The moral fabric of the world disintegrated to a point where the Torah  states that all hope was lost:

כִּי-הִשְׁחִית כָּל-בָּשָׂר אֶת-דַּרְכּוֹ, עַל-הָאָרֶץ – that every living creature had lost its way… (6:12)

Noach reclaimed and preserved decency, and “humanity” – in the true sense of the word, by exerting his moral freedom for honesty and goodness. As the sole creature not to lose his way, existence could linger on exclusively for his sake. The entire planet owed him a life debt, and this is the partnership the Torah refers to:

צֵא, מִן-הַתֵּבָה–אַתָּה… כָּל-הַחַיָּה אֲשֶׁר-אִתְּךָ מִכָּל-בָּשָׂר, בָּעוֹף וּבַבְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל-הָרֶמֶשׂ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל-הָאָרֶץ–הוצא (הַיְצֵא) אִתָּךְ; וְשָׁרְצוּ בָאָרֶץ, וּפָרוּ וְרָבוּ עַל-הָאָרֶץ – Leave the Ark – you… Every living creature with you. Every creature, bird, animal and insect that creeps on the earth, should leave with you, and they will multiply and infest the earth. (8:16-17)

Nature literally survived  through him – אִתְּךָ. It therefore follows that after this event, humanity is permitted to consume meat for the very first time.

By rising above a failing world, Noach set humanity aside as being the noblest of all creatures.

In Moshe’s parting words to the nation, having dispensed his duties, he informs them how they need to face their responsibilities:

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

The repeated emphasis on הוּא, that “He” will do it, seems strange. Why not just describe how God would take care of them in general?

The Ohr HaChaim explains that the Jews were worried that by losing Moshe, they would lose two advantages; first, that he could and would intercede on their behalf if they erred, such as with the Golden Calf, where his prayer ended the plague and prevented their annihilation; and second, that he would not be leading them in the wars they would inevitably fight on entry into the Land of Israel. They did not (could not?) lose a war with Moshe at the helm.

Moshe addressed the first concern by telling them that they were misplacing their trust – it had never been about him. הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ – the same word used to describe Hashem’s characteristic of forgiveness – עובר על פשע. Moshe explained that in reality, it had been Hashem all along, that He had planted the idea of praying for the Jews in Moshe, and that the desire to forgive would remain. Moshe had simply been a tool for forgiveness, and not the root cause.

Regarding the concern of losing battles, Moshe expressed the same idea – it had never been him leading them to victory – הוּא-יַשְׁמִיד אֶת-הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה – Hashem had been with them all the time, and would remain so evermore. They didn’t win wars because of Moshe, but because Hashem was orchestrating events.

Perhaps it also sheds light on the law that an army preparing for war did not enlist men who were frightened to fight. Someone who has done all they can to train and prepare must have proper faith in God – fear indicates a lack of belief, and such people cannot take up arms in His name.

The Seforno explains that the whole speech conveys this critical message – that they ought not get caught up in the medium. Hashem supervises and controls everything, and wanting a conduit is dangerous, and in parentheses, possibly idolatrous – this was precisely the rationale behind the Golden Calf. Moshe emphasised that every person alone has a relationship with Hashem, and that intermediaries are not valid representatives for the people themselves.

R Tzadok HaCohen notes how the whole Sefer Devarim – Moshe’s entire speech – can be read as speaking directly to the reader.

Teachers and guides are critically important influences – the Mishna in Avos requires it of us. But living vicariously through a proxy is something else entirely. Moshe was telling the Jews that after 40 years of maturation, they were finally ready to become what they left Egypt to be.

Eventually, the training wheels have to come off.

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.

Throughout the sections detailing the construction and establishment of the Mishkan, the Torah repeatedly uses the phrase “כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה’ אֶת מֹשֶׁה” or variants. It would seem obvious that the construction of the Mishkan would take place as instructed – it’s not as though competing architects and interior designers had to pitch different ideas and blueprints. Why emphasise that they did what they were supposed to?

There is a prevalent view that holds that the Mishkan was only required to fix the problems created at the Golden Calf. The Beis Halevi explains that what caused the sin was the people’s own ideas about how best to serve Hashem, and this led them to the conclusion that they drew about how to serve God. By accepting God’s total authority, and marginalizing their own beliefs in order to complete the Mishkan, the Torah sees fit to emphasise “כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה’ אֶת מֹשֶׁה” – that was the actual point of getting them to build it.

The Ohr HaChayim elaborates that there were three components in forming the Golden Calf which required rectification – the idea of not believing in God or Moshe wholeheartedly; the speech to Ahron to find alternative forms of spirituality; and the donation and subsequent casting of material into the form it took. But when describing the Mishkan’s construction, the Torah merely states that they did as commanded – along with other such verbs referring to action. Where are the reparations for thought and speech reflected?

The chief architect and foreman of the Mishkan was Bezalel – to whom Chazal ascribe the ability to see the components of all things to the smallest possible detail. He truly understood the plans of the Mishkan, and they made sense to him. But he did not perform the tasks because he understood them. He did it because Hashem told Moshe. This counteracted their heretical intentions and thoughts.

The significance of Parshas Shekalim is that every individual had to make a personal contribution to the Mishkan fund. In so doing, they bought a stake in the project, undoing their donations and pressure to form the Golden Calf.

To initiate the actual construction, Moshe was not simply told to have the Mishkan built:

וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. בְּיוֹם הַחֹדֶשׁ הָרִאשׁוֹן בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ תָּקִים אֶת מִשְׁכַּן אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד – Hashem said to Moshe, to say: “On the day of the first month, on the first of the month, you shall set up the Mishkan of the Tent of Meeting…” (40:1-2)

Moshe had to explicitly say to them to to build it. They had to be told precisely what to do! This counteracted their clamouring for alternative forms of spirituality.

At the inauguration of the Mishkan, there was a handover process where Moshe gave the post he had filled for 7 days to Ahron, where Ahron offered sacrifices as part of his new role:

וַיִּשָּׂא אַהֲרֹן אֶת [ידו] יָדָיו אֶל הָעָם וַיְבָרְכֵם וַיֵּרֶד מֵעֲשֹׂת הַחַטָּאת וְהָעֹלָה וְהַשְּׁלָמִים. וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן אֶל אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וַיֵּצְאוּ וַיְבָרֲכוּ אֶת הָעָם וַיֵּרָא כְבוֹד הֹ’ אֶל כָּל הָעָם – Ahron raised his hands towards the people and blessed them. He then descended from preparing the offerings. Moshe and Ahron then went into the Tent of Meeting; they came out and blessed the people, and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. (9:22,23)

There are two distinct blessings; one before and one after going into the Mishkan. Rashi explains that the first blessing was Birchas Kohanim, and the second was וִיהִי נֹעַם אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ עָלֵינוּ וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ כּוֹנְנָה עָלֵינוּ וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ כּוֹנְנֵהוּ – that our handiwork is an expression of godliness.

There is a difficulty with the word וַיֵּרֶד – that Ahron “descended”. The Torah does not emphasise “descent” from the Mizbeach anywhere else – so what does it mean here?

Perhaps Ahron experienced an emotional descent – his joy fell into sadness.

There is a tradition that some words are pronounced differently to how they are spelt; we read יָדָיו – his hands, plural, but the word is spelt ידו – his hand, singular. Ahron’s first offering was not accepted in Heaven, as he felt proud that he earned his office by his own hand (ידו). He lost sight of the fact that his hands were for the service of the people (יָדָיו).

When he saw his offering rejected, וַיֵּרֶד – he literally “became down”,i.e. miserable, at which point Moshe, who had already performed the duties for 7 days, took him aside to explain him how to perform the service properly. When they came out again, they blessed the people again – וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ כּוֹנְנָה עָלֵינוּ וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ כּוֹנְנֵהוּ – that we can only work properly when we clearly understand that our hands work exclusively to serve G-d; precisely what Ahron had just learned.

It is worth noting that even performing the actions correctly was not enough for the service to be accepted; even the intentions had to be perfect too.

My grandfather says that each day, we say הללוהו בנבל וכנור – they praise Him with a guitar and harp. A harp is called נבל – from the same root as the word “corpse”. My grandfather explains that the words are related in that a harp makes such a beautiful sound it makes other instruments sound bad in comparison. Chazal teach that someone who gains honour at someone else’s expense is a disgrace.

To engaged in public service, it is imperative not just to do the right thing, but to do it in the right way.

When Moshe started out, things did not go how he thought they would. Paroh was more cruel than he had been before Moshe appeared on the scene. He lamented this to God:

וַיָּשָׁב מֹשֶׁה אֶל-ה, וַיֹּאמַר: אֲדֹנָי, לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה–לָמָּה זֶּה, שְׁלַחְתָּנִי. וּמֵאָז בָּאתִי אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, לְדַבֵּר בִּשְׁמֶךָ, הֵרַע, לָעָם הַזֶּה; וְהַצֵּל לֹא-הִצַּלְתָּ, אֶת-עַמֶּךָ – Moshe replied to God, saying, “Master, why is more evil befalling this people; why have You sent me to do this? Since I came to Paroh to speak in Your name, he has been even worse to the people; and You have not saved them!” (5:22, 23)

To which he receives the reply:

וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אֲנִי ה. וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב–בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי; וּשְׁמִי ה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם – God said to Moshe, “I am The Lord. I appeared to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yakov as The Almighty, but with my name “The Lord”, I was not know to them.” (6-1,2)

Moshe receives reassurances that God has heard the Jews cries of suffering and plans to act.

The use of different names means to say that the Patriarchs understood that God existed, and that He had expectations of mankind, which they tried to live out. But they did not know God’s true name; or in other words, His abilities to help them. We do not find that the Torah records explicit miracles for them at any point – mankind had to reach out, and they were he first to do so. At no point in history yet had God directly interceded and interfered with the seemingly natural order of events for people. By revealing this to Moshe, everything was about to change.

The Gemara in Sanhedrin records that God gave Moshe examples of the challenges the Patriarchs faced, yet did not question G-d. When Avraham sought to bury Sarah, he could not bury her until he bought a plot of land for an extortionate price from Efron. Similarly, Yitzchak sought to use wells his father had dug, and was not allowed to until he paid off the people who had taken it. When Yakov was on the run, he had to pay people to pitch a tent ins field of theirs for the night.

The common thread is that they all got ripped off by people charging them for land they already owned.

These are the examples used of Moshe’s ancestors not questioning the nature of God. But these seem like terrible examples of faith! Tell how Avraham, finally blessed with a child in old age, was requested to sacrifice his son and heir, and was willing to carry it out. Tell how Yitzchak wasn’t told anything, yet did not question his father’s motives, and instructed him to bind his hands so he would not resist. Tell how Yakov reacted to the incident with Yosef! The stories are all ordinary, mundane stories, about business disputes. Why are these selected as the paradigms of faith?

The Sefer haChinuch says that mankind should know, and internalise, that anything that happens to him, from good to bad, is intended to happen to him. Crucially, no human being can harm him without it being God’s will. This is recorded in the laws pertaining to revenge.

What that means is that a person who works on themselves can understand that when they stub their toe on a table, it was “meant to be” and not get angry. But it seems quite different if your neighbour smashes your window!

It’s relatively easier to accept that all things come from God when you’re being contemplative. But when something happens involving a person exercising their free choice to harm you or your property, it doesn’t look like the hand of God so clearly any more.

That’s precisely why these examples were selected.

When Avraham thinks his test is over, he gets home only to find his beloved wife has died of the news at where her husband had taken her son. Then, mourning, when he attempts to bury her, he gets ripped off by Efron. Yitzchak, thirsty, can’t use wells his own father dug because a shepherd cartel see an opportunity to rip off a wealthy businessman. Yakov is on the run, and some people see fit to take advantage of him.

These mundane examples show how much faith they truly had. Under test conditions, it’s fairly straightforward put on the best display of effort possible. But when the test is over, do we stand by it still? These examples proved that under everyday conditions, they had the same faith they showed in their big tests.

These were examples to tell Moshe to believe that everything was under control.