Honesty and trust are the basis of all healthy relationships. In the section of the Torah that charges the Jewish people to being holy, the Torah does not detail some ascetic, mystical ideal of inhibition. It talks about us. It talks about how we interact with each other:

לֹא תִשְׂנָא אֶת אָחִיךָ בִּלְבָבֶךָ הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ אֶת עֲמִיתֶךָ וְלֹא תִשָּׂא עָלָיו חֵטְא – Do not hate your brother in your heart. Reprove your neighbour again and again; but do not bear a sin on his account! (19:17)

In our respective circles, people respond differently to different things. Intentionally or not, people get upset. It’s an unavoidable part of life. The Torah calls on us to act on it.

There is also no shortage of people to denounce from our circles. People whose politics or religiosity offend us. The Torah reminds us that these people too, are our brothers, and calls on us to act on this too. It is okay to call people out on public desecrations, and draw a line. But they are still out brothers.

Rav Hirsch notes that there is is a dual aspect. לֹא תִשְׂנָא אֶת אָחִיךָ – Do not hate your brother, and בִּלְבָבֶךָ, in your heart. The hatred is bad; but keeping it to yourself is worse. Forget the wrong, or don’t keep it in. The way to let it out is הוֹכֵחַ תּוֹכִיחַ אֶת עֲמִיתֶךָ. It is a personal duty to directly bring a little more self-awareness to others, in our own way.

The duty is qualified by integrity and moral awareness. It is important for deliver the message properly, but it is equally important to hear the message properly. This duty reverberates with the fraternal relationship we have with each other אָחִיךָ and עֲמִיתֶךָ; to properly perform this mitzva, there can be no judgment or superiority. If they’ll never listen, you should not say anything.

Crucially, the Torah says that וְלֹא תִשָּׂא עָלָיו חֵטְא – Do not bear a sin on his account. If we say nothing, it is our fault, not theirs! If someone hurts you, and doesn’t understand or realise the extent of it, then the broken relationship is your own fault for not bringing it to their attention to fix.

Consider the gas tank indicator in your car. What if it didn’t want to bother you with an accurate measurement of precisely how long you have until you stall? Such “kindness” would defeat it’s very purpose. A measuring tool that isn’t accurate is completely useless.

It’s definitely frustrating that your car lets you know you need to make a twenty minute trip to then pump expensive fuel. But the kindness is not in the information. The kindness is in what you do with it.

Middos literally means measurements. And we are charged with being the measuring tools of each other’s behaviour.

All of us would do well accept constructive criticism more freely from those who truly care. But it’s important to sometimes offer it to friends too.

The integrity of your relationship can be measured by the amount of truth it can take.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the presentation was made, the twelve sets of gifts were delivered on six wagons:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have much to be proud of today, but make no mistake; we cannot launder or buy off mediocrity in one area with excellence in another. The people of that time were diligent and meticulous in their prayer and sacrifice, yet so awful at other things. The amount and scale of Torah study and charity in the world today is phenomenal, and unprecedented in history. But how much is it really worth if we do not act like God’s ambassadors on this world? God Himself addresses this:

לָמָּה-לִּי רֹב-זִבְחֵיכֶם יֹאמַר ה שָׂבַעְתִּי עֹלוֹת אֵילִים וְחֵלֶב מְרִיאִים וְדַם פָּרִים וּכְבָשִׂים וְעַתּוּדִים לֹא חָפָצְתִּי – “I am stuffed from your burnt offerings and sacrifices of rams and the fat of cattle. I get no pleasure from the blood of bulls, lambs and goats!” (1:11)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The word שנה, year, has the same roots as the words for secondary, and change. The way to another שנה is through שינוי – change. The most incredible thing we can ask for is a fresh start, a clean page – שתחדש. Retracing steps, something new on top of something old, isn’t progress. A drawing that is erased still leaves the paper smudged. We don’t ask for another year, but a “new” year. New year, new you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In contrast, mankind was told:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shavuos is very different to the other Chagim.

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

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

Shavuos is clearly different, but why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kotzker said it best.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The soul always remains free.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But why is it called Great – HaGadol?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

זכרינו לחיים

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

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

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

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

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

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

מלך חפץ ביים

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

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

למענך אלוקים חיים

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sfas Emes analyses their error.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later, we find this lesson lost:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

R’ Yosef Kaplan explains this differently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did he re-frame his outlook?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Rachel did not do that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What went wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eventually, the training wheels have to come off.

As part of Moshe’s final speech, he recounts what the Jews went through on their journey through the desert, and how central the Torah was to how they perceived reality:

וַיִּקְרָא מֹשֶׁה אֶל-כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם: אַתֶּם רְאִיתֶם, אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יְהוָה לְעֵינֵיכֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לְפַרְעֹה וּלְכָל-עֲבָדָיו, וּלְכָל-אַרְצוֹ. הַמַּסּוֹת, הַגְּדֹלֹת, אֲשֶׁר רָאוּ, עֵינֶיךָ–הָאֹתֹת וְהַמֹּפְתִים הַגְּדֹלִים, הָהֵם. וְלֹא-נָתַן יְהוָה לָכֶם לֵב לָדַעַת, וְעֵינַיִם לִרְאוֹת וְאָזְנַיִם לִשְׁמֹעַ, עַד, הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה – And Moshe called all the Jews, and said to them: “You saw all that Hashem did in Egypt, with your own eyes, to Paroh, his servants, and his land. The great miracles and signs; you saw. Hashem didn’t give you a heart to understand, eyes to see, nor ears to hear, until this day.” (29:1-3)

Rashi elaborates that עַד הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה refers when Moshe wrote the Torah in the form we have it, and give it to the Levi’im, who were the tribe entrusted with the responsibility of safeguarding and teaching Torah. What changed then, that he recognised in them understanding and perception?

Rashi explains that when Moshe gave his Torah to the Levi’im, the other Jews protested them being singled out for keeping it, with the worry that perhaps Levi could exclude the other tribes with their monopoly. When Moshe saw their passion and the esteem in which they held the Torah, he praised them.

R’ Leib Salomon inquires what the line of protest may have been. They couldn’t be be concerned that perhaps Levi would misappropriate the Torah for themselves; because how could they? Levi are clearly delineated for public service – would would they serve?

R’ Matisyahu Salomon explains that they were not concerned about an exclusive claim to mitzva performance, but the capacity to be a Torah scholar. When Moshe saw people fighting for the right to study the Torah, he understood how much the Torah meant to them.

R’ Matisyahu points out that “The great miracles and signs you saw” were not enough to persuade Moshe that they had לֵב לָדַעַת, וְעֵינַיִם לִרְאוֹת וְאָזְנַיִם לִשְׁמֹעַ – it was their desire and passion for Torah that precipitated this realisation.

Seeing miracles don’t makes someone a true ambassador of God; it is the struggle, the toil, that comes with intensive Torah study that transforms a Jew; which Moshe called the heart, eyes and ears.

Without it, we are dull, deaf, dumb, blind, and insensitive.

The Jews were assembled on two mountains, Grizim and Eival, for blessings and curses contingent on their observance of the Torah. The tribes were split and ascended the respective mountains as instructed. The people on each peak then answered in unison to the other peak, in a kind of very loud conversation spanning mountains:

אֵלֶּה יַעַמְדוּ לְבָרֵךְ אֶת-הָעָם, עַל-הַר גְּרִזִים, בְּעָבְרְכֶם, אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן: שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי וִיהוּדָה, וְיִשָּׂשכָר וְיוֹסֵף וּבִנְיָמִן. וְאֵלֶּה יַעַמְדוּ עַל-הַקְּלָלָה, בְּהַר עֵיבָל: רְאוּבֵן גָּד וְאָשֵׁר, וּזְבוּלֻן דָּן וְנַפְתָּלִי – These tribes will ascend to bless the people, from Har Grizim, (…), and these are the tribes that will ascend for the curse, on Har Eival (…). (27:12-13)

The instructions are not identical. The people blessing ascended “to bless” actively – יַעַמְדוּ לְבָרֵךְ אֶת-הָעָם, whereas the people answering curses ascended “for the curse” – יַעַמְדוּ עַל-הַקְּלָלָה – passively. Why the disparity?

The Kli Yakar explains that curses can only only result from human action. The nature of reality is that all order disintegrates into chaos; and God protects people from this. If people create a distance between themselves and God, bad things may well happen, but it is not a new reality; rather it is due to their protector being masked. The lack of blessing is the curse. When a person feels a distance between them and God, it is not God who has gone anywhere.

But this is not a fixed situation. In Moshe’s opening words to the people at the mountains, he says:

הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה, ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מְצַוְּךָ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת-הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה–וְאֶת-הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים; וְשָׁמַרְתָּ וְעָשִׂיתָ אוֹתָם, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשֶׁךָ – On this day, Hashem your God commands you to keep these statutes and laws, and you will guard them and perform them, with all your heart and soul. (26:16)

This is monumental in its context, but equally so today. Rashi notes the use of the present tense; indicating that the same obligations exist every day, no different to the day the Torah and mitzvos were first accepted.

The curse, or lack of blessing, is dynamic. Anything can change, so the commitment has to be constantly fresh – הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה – today is a new day. Be all you can be.

One of the less understood laws of the Torah is that of the Ben Sorer u’Moreh, the rebellious son:

.כִּי יִהְיֶה לְאִישׁ בֵּן סוֹרֵר וּמוֹרֶה אֵינֶנּוּ שֹׁמֵעַ בְּקוֹל אָבִיו וּבְקוֹל אִמּוֹ וְיִסְּרוּ אֹתוֹ וְלֹא יִשְׁמַע אֲלֵיהֶם וְתָפְשׂוּ בוֹ אָבִיו וְאִמּוֹ וְהוֹצִיאוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל זִקְנֵי עִירוֹ וְאֶל שַׁעַר מְקֹמוֹ. וְאָמְרוּ אֶל זִקְנֵי עִירוֹ בְּנֵנוּ זֶה סוֹרֵר וּמֹרֶה אֵינֶנּוּ שֹׁמֵעַ בְּקֹלֵנוּ זוֹלֵל וְסֹבֵא. וּרְגָמֻהוּ כָּל אַנְשֵׁי עִירוֹ בָאֲבָנִים וָמֵת וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִקִּרְבֶּךָ וְכָל יִשְׂרָאֵל יִשְׁמְעוּ וְיִרָאוּ – If a man has a wayward and rebellious son, who does not obey his father or his mother, and they rebuke him, and he still does not listen to them; his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city, and to the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders of his city, “This son of ours is wayward and rebellious; he does not obey us; he is a glutton and a guzzler.”
And all the men of his city shall pelt him to death with stones, and he shall die. So shall you cast out the evil from among you, and all Israel will listen and fear. (21:18-21)

The underlying reason that a Ben Sorer u’Moreh would theoretically have a death sentence is that Chazal understood that such a child has no boundaries and will eventually murder an innocent person. It is better to die young and innocent than a guilty man later on. This is very difficult to understand, even setting aside the free will paradox implied.

The Torah sets impossible parameters and conditions: the parents have to be united in agreement in every regard for their son be sentenced to death – what parent would do such a thing, let alone both? Furthermore, the age at which Ben Sorer u’Moreh applies is limited to the three months after his 13th birthday; he needs to have stolen a certain amount of meat; itself cooked a particular way; he needs to have drunk a certain amount of wine; all the while on his fathers property. These conditions are so improbable that the Gemara in Sanhedrin writes it off as impossible. The Gemara states that a Ben Sorer u’Moreh never happened, and never will; it is in the Torah simply so that it will be analysed, and its students will be rewarded.

But what reward can the Gemara mean? It cannot be more Torah study, and it cannot be academic. Even without this section, in a hundred lifetimes a person could not hope to complete the entire Torah. The Torah is not lacking material that it needed “filler” content. So what does the Gemara mean that it should be analysed, and those who do so will be rewarded?

R’ Moshe Mordechai Epstein concludes that the laws of a Ben Sorer u’Moreh have a more subtle reward than the ability to study more Torah.

By studying this episode, one discovers the Torah’s approach to parenting, how to raise them properly; and how to prevent straying.

When a child is overindulged, it is detrimental to everyone – the word we use is “spoilt” – this person has literally been ruined. The Ben Sorer u’Moreh is someone who is out of control from adolescence, and the Torah tells us to recognise this characteristic. This is what the Torah means when it says ובערת הרע בקרבך, וכל ישראל ישמעו ויראו – So shall you cast out the evil from among you, and all Israel will listen and fear.

The Torah wants kind, balanced human beings; not wild, carefree and selfish people. This tasks us with preventing evil in our children, before it is too late. We are meant to learn from the Ben Sorer u’Moreh as the paradigm of what not to do – וכל ישראל ישמעו.

Perhaps the Gemara itself hints to this. The Gemara says that the function of Ben Sorer u’Moreh is דרוש וקבל שכר – analyse it and receive reward. The Gemara does not say למוד, to study it, but דרוש, analyse it. The reward is וכל ישראל ישמעו, how to raise balanced children.

A tree can be straightened with a splint while still a sapling. It takes twenty years to grow an oak tree, but just a few months to grow a cucumber.

The Torah affirms the importance of charity:

עשר תעשר – you shall tithe… (14:22)

A double statement means to repeatedly do it, an unlimited amount of times. The difficulty this poses is that the Gemara in Kesubos caps the permissible amount of charity at no more than 20% income. These are mutually exclusive concepts.

The Vilna Gaon deduces that if the Torah requires endless generosity, it can only be that the reward for charity is the ability to give more, without hindering the giver. The Gemara in Taanis therefore says that עשר בשביל שתתעשר – a person will never be limited in their ability to to give charity over time.

Before entry into the land of Israel, the people are warned that it is not like anything they have experienced:

וְלֹא תַחֲנִיפוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם בָּהּ כִּי הַדָּם הוּא יַחֲנִיף אֶת הָאָרֶץ וְלָאָרֶץ לֹא יְכֻפַּר לַדָּם אֲשֶׁר שֻׁפַּךְ בָּהּ כִּי אִם בְּדַם שֹׁפְכוֹ – Do not deceive the land in which you live, for the blood corrupts the land. The blood which is shed in the land cannot be atoned for – except through the blood of the one who shed it. (35:34)

The word חניפה means flattery, deception, corruption, and obfuscation. The term may seem highly odd in the context of land – these are distinctly human characteristics. But the land of Israel is no ordinary land.

R’ Moshe Feinstein draws a major distinction between contemporary international politics, and Jewish law. People concerned with saving the world will go to war, leaving incredible collateral damage and destruction in its wake. This is יַחֲנִיף אֶת הָאָרֶץ – the world has taken precedence over man. If people die are dying wantonly, the sanctity of life is being seriously underrated.

The only ideal to uphold is how precious every human life is – the prohibition of murder extends to every soul on earth, no matter what the circumstance. If a life must be taken, it must be precise. We know all to well that countries are scarred for years after being a battleground. This is not the way of the Torah.

The Torah tells us that the land is always secondary to man – the land is worthless if the people on it aren’t good people. חניפה is the disconnect between reality and an ideal – we must always know that we have to be honest with ourselves, always trying to improve. This is what the pasuk means when it says וְלֹא תַחֲנִיפוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם בָּהּ.

We must focus attention on our own actions and behaviour.

The Torah teaches that a man who kills someone accidentally – manslaughter as opposed to murder – is relocated to an עיר מקלט – a city of refuge. He must remain there for the rest of his life or until the Kohen Gadol dies. A relative of the victim is appointed to pursue the murderer, and if he ever meets the killer outside the עיר מקלט, he is meant to avenge his relative and kill the man.

The Steipler Gaon explains that the עיר מקלט saves the man, but is still a punishment.

The עיר מקלט saves the killer from being hunted down by the person who sets out to avenge his family member; but even under circumstances where the avenger would not kill him, he must still flee anyway as part of the punishment. He needs to stay there until he dies, and is buried there. Being buried there and not where his family choose is also part of the punishment – independent of someone chasing him.

The Gemara in Sanhedrin records that if no relative is willing to avenge the deceased, then the Beis Din must appoint someone, a stranger. Clearly then, this law is not predicated on revenge either.

The cities of עיר מקלט were publicly owned – it is where people of Levi lived – the teachers of Bnei Yisrael. Being confined there specifically would mean he would learn from them, and correct his life and mistakes that caused his predicament. If he ever left, he would not be the same man who walked in – he would emerge enlightened.

The Beis Din needs to ensure an avenger is appointed because people, and society must always be held accountable for actions. No one can get away with crimes. The Torah is explicit that he cannot bribe his way out – the killer will stay until the end. There must always be fair justice.

A man named Tzlafchad died in the wilderness with no male heirs, leaving his family’s assets and prospective plot in Israel in limbo. His daughters pointed out this legal grey area to Moshe:

לָמָּה יִגָּרַע שֵׁם אָבִינוּ מִתּוֹךְ מִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ כִּי אֵין לוֹ בֵּן תְּנָה לָּנוּ אֲחֻזָּה בְּתוֹךְ אֲחֵי אָבִינוּ – Why should our father’s name be eliminated from his family because he had no son? Give us a portion along with our father’s brothers. (27:4)

Rashi explains that this was not an emotional request, rather, a halachic one. If they would not inherit him, then their mother ought to perform yibum – levirate marriage, passing on the assets in this way. If they were considered progeny enough to avoid yibum, they ought to be progeny enough to inherit the plot in Israel. If they had had a brother, they would not have made a claim.

This seems very straightforward – what was so intelligent about this?

R’ Yehoshua Hartman explains that they demonstrated their understanding of property’s place in life, and the function of inheritance.

The conventional wisdom is that when someone dies, assets are transferred. It is a default process – assets cannot lie unclaimed. This is misguided.

What they understood was that all property is simply tools God grants a person to accomplish what they are meant to. The tools assigned are specific to an individual. Ownership means the use of an article to further the users goals. The Gemara notes that the righteous are meticulous with their possessions – for this reason.

When someone dies, the re-allocation of assets is only to perpetuate the name of the deceased, which lives on their property. The people who continue their legacy inherit, usually their children.

The daughters said if they weren’t continuations of their father’s legacy with regard to inheritance, then they ought not to be a continuation to absolve their mother of yibum. They understood that the function of both is the same – to continue the legacy of a father.

The association was so piercingly accurate, that Hashem told Moshe that they had intuited an unknown law. This displayed their intelligence.

This is very different to how society values possessions today. People are measured by the size of their driveway and its contents, as though that is the measure of a man, and not their character. This episode clearly articulates that property is given to people as tools. All “stuff” is value neutral. A million dollars says nothing about you. What you do with it says everything.

At one point in the wilderness, people went to Moshe, and lamented that they were impure at the time the Korban Pesach was offered, and wanted inclusion in the mitzvah. Their feedback was legitimate, and the law of Pesach Sheni was revealed.

Yet Korach too sought more inclusion – that everyone ought to have access to the holy service, not just the Kohanim. His demise was swift.

What is the difference between what they wanted if their complaint was essentially the same?

There is a concept that all negative characteristics have a positive application – for example, it is permitted to be jealous of a tzaddik or great scholar. Such jealousy can foster aspirations, that if realised, transform a person. This operates on the stepping-stone principle that מתוך שלו לשמה, בה לשמה – misdirected thought can nonetheless develop into legitimate action and intent.

However, there is a caveat to this rule. Not all misguided actions are reparable in the long term – one type of action will never become legitimate – argument. The Mishna in Pirkei Avos 5:17 says כל מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמים, סופה להתקים. ושאינה לשם שמים, אין סופה להתקים.
איזו היא מחלוקת שהיא לשם שמים? זו מחלוקת הלל ושמאי. ושאינה לשם שמים? זו מחלוקת קרח וכל עדתו – Any argument for the sake of Heaven, will endure in the end. One that is not for sake of Heaven, will not endure. What is the paradigm of an argument for the sake of heaven? Hillel and Shamai. What is the paradigm of an argument not the sake of Heaven? Korach and his congregation.

Is it simply that an argument in Torah will endure, and that politics will not?

R’ Yaakov Minkus explains that there is more to it than that. Adding the mitzvah of Pesach Sheni was not a problem – the Torah was not closed canon yet. Korach however, was looking to cause issues and rifts.

Hillel and Shamai were looking to build halachos, and build a system to live by. From one’s point of view, we understand the other better. We need both to build and consolidate. A losing argument is included in the Gemara because it is a valid view that aids in understanding the issue.

Not so with Korach. His arguments were not constructive at all. His claims and goals were literally baseless and without foundation – note how the ground on which he stood collapsed beneath him – he was not fighting for anything real. The same is certainly not true of the Pesach Sheni crowd – therein lies the difference.

The Mishna says as much too. The paradigm of an argument not for the sake of heaven is “Korach and his congregation.”. If the parallel to Hillel And Shamai were correct, it ought to have said “Korach and Moshe”. Korach wasn’t really fighting anyone at all – it was just about causing a stir and breaking down the system that existed.

This is what Rashi and the Targum mean – ויקח קרח – “And Korach took” – What did he take? Himself, to one side.

It was never about Moshe. It was about causing a stir. The Pesach Sheni people wanted to be close to God – the parallel to Korach’s falls away swiftly.

Sefer Vayikra, called Toras Kohanim, or Leviticus, deals with kohanim, their roles and duties throughout. Sefer Shemos, or Exodus, deals with the Exodus and what followed. Sefer Bamidbar is known as Sefer Pikudim, the Book of Numbers. It is odd that the book takes its name of numbers, given that the numbers of the census after which it seemingly takes its name, appear only in Parshas Bamidbar and Pinchas.

So why is the whole book called Pikudim?

R’ Matis Weinberg explains that Bamidbar is not about numbers or countings; but logistics, or context. All the sections discuss the formation, establishment, and development of society, the Machane.

But if Bamidbar tracks how to build society, there are bits that don’t seem to fit.

Parshas Naso begins with the different families of Levi, and their respective roles. There are four interceding sections until the continuation of forming the camp, wherein the princes of each tribe bring the Korbanos for their tribe. The interceding mitzvos are about (1) how a metzora and zav, certain types of sick people, must leave the camp until rehabilitation, (2) what happens if a convert dies with no family, his assets are distributed to kohanim, (3) the law of Sotah and (4) the law of Nazir.

Why do these four mitzvos appear here, interrupting the flow of establishing the Machane?

R’ Weinberg explains that in truth, they aren’t. They help society deal with exceptions.

The laws of the metzora and zav appear in Parshas Metzora, but the laws appearing here don’t pertain to him, so much as ourselves, society. Our society, the Machane, is deficient while he is a part of it, and that is why he must leave.

The convert with no family poses a difficulty. Jews tend to have an integrated community setup – with common ancestry, a large enough family tree shows everyone to be related. Yet the convert has no one. This is a system failure; how do we deal with it? The Torah explains how his assets are distributed, and no one slips through the gaps.

The Sotah has trampled on society’s rules, and violated the sanctity of marriage by cavorting with men after warnings not to. How does society respond to people tearing it apart from within? The Torah explains the procedure.

The Nazir, whilst displaying admirable commitment, has deviated from what the norm too. Drinking wine and cutting hair are normal things to do; abstaining is abnormal. Is there a place for odd people?

Hashem does not ask for homogenity. The Torah tells us that in a developed society, everyone is part of the setup; even those who don’t seem to fit. The logical continuation of the princes offering korbanos is interrupted specifically to include these people too; an imperfect but ultimately complete society.

Regarding the Korbanos, all the princes brought the same selection, yet the Torah saw fit to repeat each group on its own. Why, given that they were identical?

The principle of numbers in Sefer Bamidbar is that being part of a number generates a speciality.

Each set of korbanos ends with זה – with a numerical value of 12, the number of tribes. Elsewhere, a number is impersonal; but here, the underlying theme is that speciality lies in being a part of the number, so much so that deviating from it is bad. זה is the collective, the Klal. The Torah tallies the total number of korbanos brought, because the Torah appreciates the community, wherein the total has greater speciality than the number of individual parts.

This principle of standing out by being part of something bigger is true of Birchas Kohanim too – it does not originate from the kohen; but from Hashem. It is for the whole Klal, but personalised.

The halacha is that before the kohanim start they clench their fists, and once they start they open their palms. When the fists are clenched, the fist is flat – everything is the same. But when the fingers protrude, they are all different, much as we all are.

It is evident that the way to express individuality is from within the Klal. The parts of an engine are not remarkable. But put them together and it makes the machine – remove a bolt or wire and it’s useless.

The Torah enjoins us to keep it’s laws, and good will come of it:

אִם בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ וְאֶת מִצְוֹתַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם – If you follow My statutes and observe My commandments and perform them… (26:3)

It is curious that the Torah predicts that good outcomes follow good actions, given that we are not meant to act for personal gain when performing mitzvos.

Rav Shach explains that it is not a reward, so much as it is a reality. הליכות עולם לו – the ways of the world are Hashem’s (Chabakuk 3:6). We say this when we say korbanos at the end of davening, and we quote the ma’amar Chazal that expounds אל תקרי הליכות אלא הלכות – Read it not as ways, but as laws. The הלכות, the Torah, that we bring in to the world, dictates the הליכות, the ways, of Hashem’s world.

Our actions are significant, and have a very real effect on the world – the extent to which we push ourselves influences how Hashem’s instructions trickle, filter, and amplify, ultimately developing into אִם בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ; that וְנָתַתִּי גִשְׁמֵיכֶם בְּעִתָּם, that וְחֶרֶב לֹא תַעֲבֹר. In this way, our actions affect our outcomes.

The Torah instructs us with verbs – תֵּלֵכוּ – we must follow the path, and then וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם. Judaism cannot be carried out passively.

The Alter of Slabokda would lament that people lack clarity and belief in this. He said that in the same way that people are certain that crop growth results from rain, they should be equally certain that rain is sent when society is dignified and kind. וְנָתְנָה הָאָרֶץ יְבוּלָהּ results from וְנָתַתִּי גִשְׁמֵיכֶם בְּעִתָּם, as much as וְנָתַתִּי גִשְׁמֵיכֶם בְּעִתָּם is a result of אִם בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ.

We are in the driving seat – הליכות עולם לו.

The Chafetz Chaim would scold his students when they requested his blessing. We should be have enough faith that if we do the right thing with enough frequency, good will ultimately come of it.

If we are not performing our duties as Jews to the best of our abilities, do we have the right to complain? By taking care to speak to everyone gently and politely, is there any doubt that everyone you come in contact with will be politer and gentler for it? That’s how you begin to change the world.

The Torah details curses, of tragedy and atrocities, that occur when the Jewish nation strays from its course of bettering mankind. One of them stands out:

וְכָשְׁלוּ אִישׁ בְּאָחִיו – Each man will stumble over his brother (26:37)

The literal translation is incorrect. Rashi explains that this curse is the inverse of the famous maxim of כל ישראל ערבין זה לזה – all of Israel are accountable for one another. The curse is that Jews will stumble over other Jews sins.

The Maharal explains why the literal meaning is incorrect. Tripping over someone has nothing to do with brotherhood. When the Torah says וְכָשְׁלוּ אִישׁ בְּאָחִיו – the tripping is because of the brotherhood – the tripping is over the accountability that brotherhood engenders.

The root of the word ערבין is the word ערב – meaning mixture – it is the same root as the word for tasty, evening, guarantor, Arab and eruv. R’ Ezra Hartman explains that these are all mixtures; An eruv mixes property rights; tasty is the cuisine that “mixes” when digested; evening is twilight, in contrast to בקר which means “differentiate”, in twilight things are hard to make out. The name for ערבי – Arab, is a mixture too. The pasuk in Bereishis says of Yishmael, their ancestor, that יָדוֹ בַכֹּל וְיַד כֹּל בו – his hand will be upon all, and everyone’s hand upon him (16:12). Today, we see this as terrorism. Terrorism has no borders – it is potentially everywhere, in a school, a mall, a bus, a train or a plane.

Rashi saw fit to quote that the solution is כל ישראל ערבין – the nation is a unit, a brotherhood, with components accountable for one another – the Torah assures us that we will stumble on our brother’s problems it if we do not help them.

For that reason alone, we have to help them.

The Torah states in numerous places that upstanding societies are predicated on justice:

בְּצֶדֶק תִּשְׁפֹּט עֲמִיתֶךָ – You shall judge your fellow with righteousness (19:15)

Rashi notes that this is not just the approach for formal legal systems and executors of justice; this is how people ought to conduct themselves on an individual level too. The Gemara in Shabbos states that הדן חבירו לכף זכות, דנין אותו לזכות – one who judges their fellow favorably is judged favorably in return.

The Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that when a person gets to Heaven, he is ushered into a courtroom, and is instructed to judge a case. The case is presented, the prosecution speaks, then the defense. The eager new-comer pounds the gavel and declares the defendant guilty. The angels pull him aside, and say, “Reb Yid, this case was actually about you. You are the defendant. Don’t you remember that time you…” He must then answer for all the times he was guilty.

R’ Yisroel Reisman points out that this is why we call this process דין וחשבן – a ruling and accounting. The ruling comes first.

R’ Reisman asks a poignant question – this mechanism will not work on people who already know this. When it is eventually and inescapably their turn to judge, will the people who know better declare everyone and everything innocent, and when informed that they are the defendants, will they feign surprise and be absolved?

The Beis HaLevi explains that the judgment in Heaven is not a new, independent decision.

The judgments we make in our lives will one day be applied to ourselves, and we will be held to the standards we expected of others. All a person truly is, is the decision they have made. Are we real? Do we match up to what we think we perceive to be in the mirror? When you judge another, you do not define them; you define yourself. If you are kind, you will be treated kindly. You project the values and beliefs you have, and one day, which will one day be shined on you.

בְּצֶדֶק תִּשְׁפֹּט עֲמִיתֶךָ is not exclusively about a court system. It is a way of life; a mentality. It is the way to create a community of fair, decent, and good people. Don’t treat people well based on their respective merit, or otherwise. Treat people well purely because you are someone who treats all people well.

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 .

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.

כל המתפלל בעד חברו והוא צריך לאותו דבר הוא נענה תחילה

One who prays for a friend, and needs the same thing, he is answered first – Bava Basra 92a

There is a very obvious question to ask on this famous and oft quoted Gemara. Why should the person davening take priority and be answered first? This is exacerbated  when we note that the person davening made no mention of himself at all.

There are several points in this Gemara that require clarification.

The Gemara used the phrase והוא צריך – the person praying must be facing the same problem – this is important to note. This is however, just a point to note, and not a reason for the Gemara’s statement.

We can suggest that in answer to the first part of the question, the reasoning for the Gemara, is that the person has performed a phenomenal act of chessed – commonly translated as loving kindness, but a good word for it is altruism. The definition of the term is that the person had no other motives for what they did – and here is a person who is in the same situation as  oneself, and the person praying has put himself on the side entirely and devoted a prayer to see someone else get helped. So we must say that it is the power of the underlying chessed, and not the power of the prayer itself, that is the reason behind the Gemara. As such, it would seem that one who prays for another person with this Gemara in mind is not really performing an act of chessed at all, and would find that this does not work. Undoubtedly the prayer is itself important, but one will not see the effects about which the Gemara speaks.

The second part of the question, where the person praying was mentioned that he would find himself answered first, in answered by what the general nature of any tefilla is. There is a concept that a תפלה של רבים – a group prayer – is more potent and powerful than a תפלה של יחיד– an individual’s prayer, and this has many reasons to it. Furthermore, there are many resultant halachos about davening with a minyan

When a person prays for another individual, they are adding to the pool of tefillos. To illustrate this: we say in Shemoneh Esrei every day the prayer of “ולירושלים” – that Jerusalem should be rebuilt in our days – what about the 2,000 years worth of our ancestors prayers requesting the same thing? They passed away before seeing their prayers answered, but could one suggest their prayers didn’t help? G-d forbid! The Beis Hamikdash will be rebuilt, one brick at a time. It is certain that our ancestors will receive their due credit for helping us get there.

This is why there is no such thing as a group prayer going to waste – a prayer for a member of the community’s recovery from sickness, a shidduch for a neighbour, success in business for a friend – even if we don’t see our prayers answered the way we would like, they still count to the pool of group tefillos. Like our ancestors will receive their reward for helping Jerusalem be rebuilt, we are credited for these prayers – so really, when praying for someone else, our name is on that prayer, so really, the person praying never needed to mention himself.

There will always be a tremendous value on davening for another Jew in need.

On Parshas Shekalim, various shuls have a custom to insert Yotzros, additional prayers and piyutim into the Shabbos davening. A recurring chorus is the phrase “ אור פניך עלינו אדון נשא – ושקל אשא בבית נכון – ונשא” – “The light of Your face, shine on us please, our Master, because I will raise a shekel in your glorified house.”

The question is obvious – the Jews were only ever commanded to give מחצית השקל – a  half-shekel – how does the prayer parallel what actually transpired?

The Gemara in Brachos 20b tells us that the angels queried Hashem regarding a contradiction: it is written that: כִּי ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם הוּא אֱלֹהֵי הָאֱ־לֹהִים וַאֲדֹנֵי הָאֲדֹנִים הָאֵל הַגָּדֹל הַגִּבֹּר וְהַנּוֹרָא אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשָּׂא פָנִים וְלֹא יִקַּח שֹׁחַד G-d does not show favour and does not accept bribes (Devarim 10:17), however, elsewhere (the bracha of Brichas Kohanim) it is written  יִשָּׂא ה’ פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם – “G-d will show you favor and give you peace” (Bamidbar 6:26).  Hashem answered them that  he must show favour to the Jews, because in the Torah it says that “וְאָכַלְתָּ וְשָׂבָעְתָּ וּבֵרַכְתָּ אֶת ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ” – “you should eat and be satisfied and bless your G-d” (Devarim 8:10), and yet the Jews recite Birchas Hamazon after a much smaller amount (k’zayis/k’beitzah). If the Jews go lifnim m’shuras haDin – above and beyond the letter of the law, how could Hashem not reciprocate?

The general attitude of a G-d fearing Jew is to perform mitzvos with zeal, and exceed the requirements necessary, as essentially all mitzvos are not defined by a legal quantity. But an exception would be the mitzva of מחצית השקל, regarding which the pasuk says that a rich person may not exceed, and a poor person may not claim his poverty as impeding his ability. How would a Jew possibly go lifnim m’shuras haDin? Read Full Dvar Torah →

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.

After the Golden Calf, Moshe gathers the people for a discourse:

וַיַּקְהֵל מֹשֶׁה אֶת כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה’ לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָם’ – Moses gathered the whole community of Israel to assemble, and he said to them: “These are the things that the Lord commanded to do” (35:1)

He tells them certain laws of Shabbos, and collection for and initiation of construction of the Mishkan.

This occurred the morning after the Yom Kippur Moshe returned with the second Luchos. It seems likely that his first public appearance upon his return would include a notable message regarding their conduct. Yet he gathered them together to discuss Shabbos and the Mishkan. The Nesivos Shalom notes out how usually, an act, speech or instruction initiate an episode; this is the sole instance where וַיַּקְהֵל , getting people together, starts a story.

The Noam Elimelech explains that mitzvos were given to the nation, not individuals. This means that when a person sins, it is an act of rebellion, splintering from the nation, albeit momentarily. Redemption and forgiveness is attained by blending back into the nation. In the same way a harmony is a beautiful sound where no single voice is discernible, a tzibbur, the collective, is safe because an individual does not stand out.

Moshe defended the Jews to God, and argued that the Golden Calf was the act of rogue individuals, not the nation. Sin is an individual act – how could the nation be held accountable, regardless of how many had indeed sinned?

On his return, he saw to it that what he said was indeed true. The nation was whole and not fractured – he united them – וַיַּקְהֵל. This makes וַיַּקְהֵל unique as an opening.

The Nesivos Shalom proves this from what Moshe told them. He said of the laws that לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָם – but the instructions for Shabbos that he mentions are to not light fire, and to not work. How is not doing something called לַעֲשֹׂת – to do?

Perhaps the instruction wasn’t discussing Shabbos at all; having conceded to Moshe’s argument, he received the instruction לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָם – to make them, the Jews, into a united nation once again – וַיַּקְהֵל. Moshe was told to back up his claim!

This concept recurs over and over. When the spies were sent, the nation could not be absolved. They were sent in the capacity of the people’s representatives, and the generation died out. The Purim rescue occurred once the divided nation fought stood as one לְהִקָּהֵל וְלַעֲמֹד עַל-נַפְשָׁם. Korach’s error was not believing that the nation was more potent than the individual, claiming כולם קדושים.

Not to say that the laws Moshe spoke about were incidental to the purpose of gathering them. Far from it. They were chosen as both are incumbent on the nation, serving the same function, in contrast to more personal mitzvos,

The Midrash says that Hashem said to Shabbos that כנסת ישראל is its pre-ordained. כנסת ישראל is the Jewish national identity and consciousness, the supersoul of the nation. Shabbos observance is not down to the individual alone – it requires everyone’s input. Shabbos intrinsically unites Jews.

The Mishkan was selected for the discourse for the same reason. Everyone was required to make donation, buying a small stake in it. Covering the project costs with a few individual sponsors would not have served it’s purpose.

Both demonstrate the potency of a group over an individual. The parts in a machine are unremarkable – but together they achieve complex and sophisticated goals. Note how many mitzvos require groups to be adequately performed. The Nesivos Shalom says that we refer to Hashem as אבינו – our father – conceptually, obviously. If we identify with the nation, we can say אבינו.

We say in the Amida every day: ברכנו אבינו כולנו כאחד באור פניך – when everyone gets along, we can proudly say אבינו.

Moshe’s name does not appear as part of the narrative of the Kehuna – Parshas Tetzaveh – when he probably ought to have been; what with his overseeing the entire construction and dedication of the Mishkan. Why does his name not appear?

On seeing the fallout from the Golden Calf and the ensuing plague, Moshe pleaded for mercy for the dying nation:

וְעַתָּה אִם תִּשָּׂא חַטָּאתָם וְאִם אַיִן מְחֵנִי נָא מִסִּפְרְךָ אֲשֶׁר כָּתָבְתָּ – … forgive their sin; otherwise, erase me from Your book! (32:32).

The Ba’al HaTurim explains that although this succeeded in ending the plague, a righteous man’s word is always fulfilled.

But of all the sections in the Torah, why is this specific section the one his name is redacted from?

Tetzaveh largely deals with the Kehuna, which was given to Ahron and his descendants. R’ Yakov Minkus explains Moshe and Ahron had very different personalities. Moshe brought the Torah down from Heaven, to mankind’s level. Ahron embodied humanity attaining greater status through their own cultivation, as the ultimate “people’s person”. He was a lover and pursuer of peace. This is what the entire Kehuna was given for – bridging relationships; between people, and between people and God – elevating them.

Similarly, the Gemara in Sanhedrin concludes that there are two equally valid ways to settle litigation; judgement, or compromise. The fact that each are valid settlements shows that both are independently potent at achieving their goal. Moshe represented strict justice, and issued rulings for disputes, whereas Ahron represented compromise.

The role of the kohen is to play the arbiter, the middle man and mediator. As a man of the people, he is meant to feel their emotions, guide them through the services in the Beis HaMikdash.

If the two ways are equally valid, it is fair to say that they should not impinge each other, and when introducing the validity and importance of Ahron’s method, the inclusion of Moshe and his methods would actually devalue it somewhat.

Various times where Ahron and Moshe are involved, the Torah alternates who is mentioned first – illustrating their equality. Granted that Moshe was the greatest man to walk this earth – but their approaches in resolving problems people had with each other and with God was equally important.

There were four utensils that were kept inside the Mishkan – the Shulchan, the Aron, the Mizbeach, and the Menora – the Table, the Ark, the Altar, and the Menora.

Regarding the Aron:

וְצִפִּיתָ אֹתוֹ זָהָב טָהוֹר מִבַּיִת וּמִחוּץ תְּצַפֶּנּוּ וְעָשִׂיתָ עָלָיו זֵר זָהָב סָבִיב – And you shall overlay it with pure gold; from inside and from outside you shall overlay it, and you shall make upon it a golden crown all around. (25:11)

Regarding the Shulchan:

וְצִפִּיתָ אֹתוֹ זָהָב טָהוֹר וְעָשִׂיתָ לּוֹ זֵר זָהָב סָבִיב – And you shall overlay it with pure gold, and you shall make for it a golden crown all around. (25:24)

Regarding the Mizbeach:

וְצִפִּיתָ אֹתוֹ זָהָב טָהוֹר אֶת גַּגּוֹ וְאֶת קִירֹתָיו סָבִיב וְאֶת קַרְנֹתָיו וְעָשִׂיתָ לּוֹ זֵר זָהָב סָבִיב – You shall overlay it with pure gold, its top, its walls all around, and its horns; and you shall make for it a golden crown all around. (30:3)

The Aron, Shulchan, and Mizbeach all had “crowns”, a gold design that bordered their edges, whereas the Menora is the odd one out, it had no crown. What is the cause of this discrepancy?

The Mishna in Avos 4:17 says רבי שמעון אומר, שלושה כתרים הן–כתר תורה, וכתר כהונה, וכתר מלכות; וכתר שם טוב, עולה על גביהן – R’ Shimon said, “There are three crowns – the crown of Torah, the crown of Kehuna (priesthood), and the crown of royalty – but the crown of a good name is better than all.”

The Aron represents the crown of Torah, as that was where the actual physical Torah was kept. The Mizbeach represents the crown of Kehuna, as the Avoda was the Kohanim’s job. The Shulchan represents the crown of royalty, as a table represents prestige and prosperity. But what is the crown of a good name, the כתר שם טוב, and why is it better than the other three?

And if it were an actual crown (to the degree the others are), why didn’t R’ Shimon say “There are four crowns” instead of three?

Koheles 7:1 teaches that טוֹב שֵׁם, מִשֶּׁמֶן טוֹב – A good name is more precious than good oil. The Shem Mi’Shmuel notes that the comparison indicates their similar operations; the nature of oil is to diffuse and spread out, which is exactly what a good name does.

The Menora’s function was lights fuelled by oil – by it’s very nature it must diffuse. The Menora could not have a crown, as a crown’s power and sphere of influence are confined to within the crown’s empire, and if it were to have a crown, it would limit the function the Menora served – to show the “light” of Torah and Judaism.

This is what R’ Shimon actually said too – the כתר שם טוב is not an actual crown – it diffuses, and spreads further than the three crowns. Like the Menora, a crown would inhibit it.

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.

When Noach is warned of the impending flood, the first ever distinction is made between kosher and non-kosher animals. This was not practical dietary information yet, as humans were not yet permitted to consume meat. Yet there was still a certain degree of relevance to the people of the time – they were only allowed to bring sacrificial offerings from kosher animals.

When Noach is instructed how to populate the ark, he is to seek out the kosher animals, whereas the non-kosher animals would come to him. But why the distinction?

Kosher does not exist for bodily health.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that animals are  טהור if they are receptive to human influence; they are submissive to man without requiring to be tamed; they serve our purposes; their instincts do not overwhelmingly determine their behaviour. Animals which are not טהור  are unable to be controlled, and can only be tamed, if at all, through violence.

The word for kosher animals, טהור, is related to the word צהור meaning transparent, which describes a property that allows light to pass through something. Consequently, purity has the implications of being conducive and receptive.

This same property is relevant to sacrifices. The main function of a sacrifice is to symbolically dedicate or actions to God. Through its blood, we symbolically devote our own lifeblood to God’s will. Accordingly, only animals which closely align to this disposition are suitable. The characteristics of the kosher animals are what Jews should aspire to have within them – a controlled instinct.

The animals designated as kosher inform humanity of our mission. Consequently, it is understandable why Noach was commanded to actively seek out the animals that showed the characteristic missing in his generation.

Moral consciousness is an active choice.

 

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.

Bikkurim is a fundamental mitzva. Rashi at the very beginning of the Torah notes that one of the ways the world is perpetuated is through this mitzva.

This is probably quite surprising to learn. Why is it so fundamental?

The answer is exceedingly simple: it is a microcosm of the entire corpus of Judaism.

Someone acquires a plot of land; weeds it; ploughs; sows; prunes; weeds some more; reaps; dries; processes… And so on. A phenomenal amount of labour and energy is expended to produce something to eat or sell. This mitzva teaches that credit is not due to the farmer. The first thing that flowers and sprouts is taken to Jerusalem, and given to the Kohanim, and part of the presentation ceremony requires him to say, “Thank You, God, for the land and fruit that you have given me,”.

This illustrates that no matter what mankind’s status is; whatever it took to bring home the daily bread; ultimately everything is sourced from Above.

This incorporates kindness, gratitude, faith and humility. If the world was full of kind, humble, grateful, faithful people; wouldn’t the world be magnificently beautiful? It shouldn’t be so surprising then, that bikkurim is one of the reasons justifying the entire Creation.

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.

One of the terrible realities of war is that civilian populations are often subject to atrocities. Women are particularly at risk from invading forces – such savagery has only recently been recognised as a war crime.

The Torah demands more of its adherents – that all wars be fought with minimal harm and collateral damage to civilians, but recognises the desperation of armies at war. Under such a reality, the Torah introduces a law called Yefas Toar – the captive woman:

כִּי תֵצֵא לַמִּלְחָמָה עַל אֹיְבֶיךָ וּנְתָנוֹה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּיָדֶךָ וְשָׁבִיתָ שִׁבְיוֹ. וְרָאִיתָ בַּשִּׁבְיָה אֵשֶׁת יְפַת תֹּאַר וְחָשַׁקְתָּ בָהּ וְלָקַחְתָּ לְךָ לְאִשָּׁה – If you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord, your God, will deliver them into your hands, and you take captives. If you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her, you may take her for yourself as a wife. (21:10,11)

Rashi explains that this is not a command, but permission. Soldiers are not required to take captives home; rather, the Torah addresses mankinds evil inclination. But note that the following laws after Yefas Toar are the case of a despised wife, and then a rebellious son. Chazal understand that the juxtaposition means that if the returning solider married the Yefas Toar, he will come to hate her, and their children will be rebellious.

However, the Rambam codifies it as a mitzva, not just permission.

If it’s a mitzva, why does a negative outcome result from it? There is a principle that people doing a mitzva are protected from harm. Secondly, if it is a mitzva, how does it address the evil of mankind?

Perhaps this mitzva demonstrates that the Torah guides the way even when things aren’t going smoothly – בשעת הירידה. The Torah does not say to “marry” her, but to “take her” – as an emergency measure. The laws continue that for 30 days she must shave her head bald, be unkempt, in mourning, and dressed in black rags. This is not meant to be a romantic, attractive and happy marriage. Perhaps the intent of these laws is that the man will realise precisely who he has brought into his house – and will send her home.

Perhaps then, the “evil of mankind” remark is isolated to the heat of the moment. The Torah recognises the impulse and permits the indiscretion, albeit temporarily. He is meant to get rid of her after 30 days. If he marries her after the 30 day window, the Yefas Toar “loophole” expires, and he is, in fact, committing a sin. He is certainly not doing a mitzva, and Chazal identify that marrying this captive non-Jew will cause marital strife and discord, and the offspring of this relationship will not be model Jews.

This is implicit in the statement that it is specifically “if the returning solider married the Yefas Toar, he will come to hate her, and their children will be rebellious,” – if he gets rid of her, he is safe – but after 30 days he is doing no mitzva.

The Torah is the guiding light under all circumstances. This mitzva illustrates that assistance is available to people in need – but people have to take responsibility eventually – there are consequences of not living up to expectations.

One of the laws of a witness who presents evidence in a capital crime, is that if he is caught lying under certain circumstances, he is subject to the punishment he attempted to implicate the innocent man of:

וַעֲשִׂיתֶם לוֹ כַּאֲשֶׁר זָמַם לַעֲשׂוֹת לְאָחִיו וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִקִּרְבֶּךָ – You shall do to him as he plotted to do to his brother. (19:19)

Rashi notes that the Gemara in Makos deduces that this only occurs if the liar is caught before his plot succeeds, and the innocent man has not yet been framed and killed. The underlying assumption is that the word ‘brother’ implies the innocent man still lives, as ‘brotherhood’ refers to living people.

The Ritva queries out that Yibum references brotherhood, and can only exist when a brother has died, and that Nadav and Avihu are also referred to as brothers after their deaths.

Clearly the answer lies in the definition of brotherhood. What is the difference?

R’ Ezriel Hildesheimer explains that there is a difference between a biological brother and a fraternal brotherhood. A biological brother remains so after death – the relationship is in the blood. It then makes sense for the Torah to refer Yibum and Ahron’s sons as brothers after death.

However, witnesses intrinsically cannot have any blood relationships to people they testify about, as a condition of testimony. The brotherhood then, can only mean the ideological kind – they are brothers in being bound to observe the Torah, the fraternity of the Jewish people. However, once deceased, they are free from the mitzvos – there is nothing binding them as brothers.

This can only mean that כַּאֲשֶׁר זָמַם לַעֲשׂוֹת לְאָחִיו refers to a still living person!

The people are presented with a very clear choice regarding their futures:

רְאֵה אָנכִי נתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה – Behold, I am giving before you today a blessing and a curse. (11:26)

Curiously, there is transition from singular – רְאֵה – to the plural – לִפְנֵיכֶם. The choice presented is clearly by God – why specify אָנכִי then; who else would be speaking? It is also given in the present tense – נתֵן – when it ought to say נתתי – ‘I have given’, and with emphasis on הַיּוֹם – today. Further, why is the choice לִפְנֵיכֶם – ‘before you’, and not לכם – ‘to you’?

The Vilna Gaon explains that the choice is not a general stand alone principle; it is a personal, ever-relevant choice. Anyone, at anytime, can become something more, and can repair past misdeeds. Hashem is נתן – ‘giving’ us the choice – in the present tense. The opportunity is always there.

This is accentuated – הַיּוֹם – ‘today’; forget about yesterday. Chazal understand that a Baal Teshuva is like a newborn; a new person by turning over a new leaf.

Despite the niggling self-doubt in the recesses of the mind at the ability to change, Hashem assures that you are not alone – אָנכִי – “I am with you in the struggle”. The Gemara teaches that the evil inclination seeks to consume and destroy mankind, and without God’s help we would be powerless to resist. God is with us.

But the choice remains ours. We have to exercise our free will and make the decision. God can only present the opportunity – אָנכִי נתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם.

R Yitzchak Lande points out that the Torah frequently switches from plural to singular, to teach that although there is an expectation of society – every single Jew has to participate. And if society aren’t doing it, you have to do it on your own.

In a world of fugitives, the person taking the opposite direction will appear to be running away.

In Moshe’s final address to the people, he tells them how each one of them is important:

וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם וְשָׁמַר ה’ אֱלֹ-ךָ לְךָ אֶת הַבְּרִית וְאֶת הַחֶסֶד אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ – It will be because you listen to these ordinances, keep and perform them, that the Lord your God will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers. (7:12)

When addressing the audience, Moshe alternates between תִּשְׁמְעוּן, the plural, to לְךָ, the singular. Why?

The Gemara in Shabbos records how a non-Jew approached Shamai and offered to convert if Shamai would teach him the entire Torah, standing on one leg. Interpreting the gentile’s words as mockery, Shamai threw a piece of building rubble at him. The gentile approached Hillel and proposed the same. Hillel said, “Love your neighbor as yourself. The rest is commentary, now go and study.”

What was the premise of the man’s request? Clearly, the request to learn Torah on one leg is absurd, let alone to ask it of the greatest rabbis of the era. Hillel’s response is curious too. How does his answer incorporate mitzvos such as Shabbos, tefilin, tzitzis etc.?

Moreover, it is simply impossible to accomplish all 613 mitzvos, ever; many are mutually exclusive. Some are specific to gender, age, caste eg Kohanim and Levi’im, kings, during the time of the Temple and so on. One cannot possibly hope to do so.

Shamai spurned him with construction material. The imagery alludes to a building that has many sections, rooms and floors. Without multiple components, it’s not a building. In the same vein, the Torah has many levels, and many mitzvos. Without them all, the Jew is incomplete – there is no “Jew” without “the Jews”. Shamai’s response indicates that the Torah cannot be actualised by an individual; it is paradoxically impossible to fulfill each and every mitzva, one must simply recognise their place in the nation.

Hillel proposed that individuals can associate with all mitzvos – a cog in the machine is inseparable from the machine itself. His directive of וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ means that with unity, the rest of the Torah is innately there. The benchmark of unity is כאיש אחד בלב אחד – one man with one heart. A hat belongs to you, not your head. Similarly, if a Jew performs a mitzva, the entire nation tap into it. With a few simple words, Hillel explained to the gentile how to contextualise Torah directives.

Back to Moshe’s speech, he says וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם – keep and perform them in the plural form, which is said to the entire nation. But nonetheless, in spite of the inability of being able to actually do them all, וְשָׁמַר ה’ אֱלֹ-ךָ, Hashem will protect you – the individual. That is, each person should keep what they are truly able, and will be rewarded as such.

This explains why it was necessary to be united at Sinai; without unity, there would be no point in receiving a Torah that could not be fulfilled.

R Yitzchak Lande points out that the Torah switches from plural to singular many times, because although there is a communal responsibility, this doesn’t assuage the individual’s duty to pitch in – even if the job is done!

Everyone has to pull their weight – leave apportionment of credit to God.

Adapted from a shiur by R’ Shlomo Farhi

The Gemara relates a story about a gentleman called Nachum. He was a man who had a a difficult life, but whenever something bad happened, he would say “Gam Zu L’Tovah – this also is for the good”, and this is what he later became known as – Nachum Ish Gam Zu. But why does the Gemara call him Nachum Ish Gam Zu, literally, “Nachum Also”? He was famous for saying “Gam Zu L’Tovah” yet he is not called “Nachum Ish Gam Zu L’Tovah”! One would think that “L’Tovah” would be the key part of what he is remembered as, as opposed to the seemingly extraneous ‘also’.

To understand the answer, we must be aware that there is a fundamental misunderstanding with regard to what he did, and consequently what he is remembered for until today. He wouldn’t pass a car crash and point and say it was “l’Tova” – one cannot label an inherently bad thing as “good”. “Good” is clearly not an applicable adjective. The depth behind his words is as follows: What he did was recognise the masterplan of Hashem, and the web in which events in our lives unfold. He attempted to see the bigger picture, the greater good which is hidden from our direct sight. That web, that bigger picture, is l’tova. Parts of it may not be, or may not obviously be but in recognising that bad events are part of a good web, we should be able to say  “Gam Zu L’Tovah!” So in fact ‘Gam Zu’ – his ability to see that this is “also (one more event)” is the key part of what Nachum said – it is the mechanism by which he could label bad as “also” being good. Not just “L’Tovah”.

It take a great inner strength to truly be able to say, in the face of a bad event ‘this too shall pass’ and to really believe in the bigger picture and the greater good. But by working on that strength, we will be able to get to the stage where we can say, as Nachum did, Gam Zu L’Tovah – This too is for the good. The word ‘also’ is the very mechanism that allowed him (and resultantly us) to state something was ‘L’Tovah’.

Chazal often tell us that in the time near moshiach, chutzpah will be very common and apparent. Together with the negativity of chutzpah, comes a chutzpah associated with kedusha (holiness); a chutzpah that we should strive for that will be the final help to bring moshiach.

For example, a type of chutzpah is to not back down even when one has failed. This can be used for avoidas Hashem (service of God). Another chutzpah would be to attempt to speak up in discussions that involve people or matters that are above oneself. This type can also be used for our avoidas Hashem.

Hashem (God) loves us more than we can imagine and ‘appreciates’ our every bit of effort amazingly. We can achieve tremendous amounts with our little actions, if we just have the chutzpah to try. Some matters seem to be only for our gedolim (Torah giants) to achieve, or even for gedolim of previous generations, but we only think so because we don’t understand our own true powers.

The Kemarna relays a story of a person on Rosh Hashanah, who looked on shockingly as his neighbour picked up a box of snuff that had dropped on the floor during
the tefilla (prayer). Just by looking disgustedly at his friend, it was decreed immediately that his friend should die that coming year. We don’t realize how much power we actually have.

In similar vein, the Kozmir said that when a person sees another person in a good light, and thinks of him in positive way, he achieves for that person, and for himself, and for all klal yisroel (the Jews), more than 10,000 tzadikim (righteous men) in the next world can achieve. Because it’s us on this world that truly make a difference. It’s amazing how we can have such effects on people around us.

R’ Mordeche Gifter zt’’l was planning to fly with eight of his talmidim (students) to another talmid’s (student’s) wedding, but there were extremely strong winds and their flight was pushed off for a few days. They left when they were able to, and arrived for one of the sheva brochos (parties in the seven days after the wedding). Rav Gifter got up to speak and said, “Although we don’t know why Hashem does things, He has shed a little light as to why, at least partially, there were these past major winds. When we eventually landed, it was late, and we asked a janitor at the airport for a room to daven maariv (the evening prayer). After maariv he asked us if there wasn’t another small tefilla to say. We explained that we need ten people to say kaddish and we were only nine, to which he asked why he couldn’t be our tenth man. Trying to be as polite as possible, we explained that we need someone Jewish. And of course he replies that he was, in fact, Jewish. He relayed the following episode, “My father passed away recently. Last week, he came to me in a dream saying that we are Jewish and that it wasn’t easy for him up there and he wanted me to say a kaddish. After appearing to me a few times I told him that I don’t know anything about Judaism, I don’t even know where there’s a synagogue. My father asked me, “If I bring you a group of Jewish people to the airport, will you say kaddish?” To which I said yes, just to stop the dreams. “That was last night”, the janitor said, “and here you guys are!’’

Imagine the kaddish that this fellow said, completely broken, misspronounced words, without any kavana (concentration). Yet Hashem arranged the world to fit perfectly into this man’s life to hear this one broken kaddish! Hashem really loves and takes note of our good deeds and tefillos (prayers), and they really have amazing effect.

When the Jewish armies return from their attack on Midian, Moshe went out to check if his orders had been carried out:

וַיִּקְצֹף מֹשֶׁה עַל פְּקוּדֵי הֶחָיִל שָׂרֵי הָאֲלָפִים וְשָׂרֵי הַמֵּאוֹת הַבָּאִים מִצְּבָא הַמִּלְחָמָה וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶם מֹשֶׁה הַחִיִּיתֶם כָּל נְקֵבָה – Moshe became angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had returned from battle. Moshe said to them, “Did you allow all their women to live?!” (31:14, 15)

Moshe is the actor once the Torah states that וַיִּקְצֹף מֹשֶׁה. Why then, does the Torah reiterate that וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶם מֹשֶׁה – that Moshe spoke?

Rav Zalman Sorotzkin explains that the Torah illustrates here that if angry, avoid speaking until the anger settles. The reiteration indicates that there was a pause between his anger and his speech. They were two very separate acts.

The Peleh Yoietz compares keeping quiet when angry to spraying water at the base of a fire. It extinguishes the source. R Elya Lopian would never punish a student at the time of an incident. The Alter of Kelm had an “angry suit” that he would change into each time he was angry, delaying reaction and allowing himself to calm down.

Controlling emotions are hard – but it is required. It is a life-long struggle, but we can never let up. Each breakthrough makes it easier next time around, not to mention the mountain of reward for managing to do it.

Actions must be thought through – not based on impulse.

After assuaging God’s wrath and ending the plague, Pinchas is hailed:

פִּינְחָס בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן הֵשִׁיב אֶת חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת קִנְאָתִי בְּתוֹכָם וְלֹא כִלִּיתִי אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּקִנְאָתִי – Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Ahron HaKohen, has turned My anger away from the children of Israel with his zealously avenging Me among them, so that I did not destroy the children of Israel because of My zeal. (25:11)

Rashi notes that his ancestry is traced to his grandfather, which is unusual. People were and are normally identified as their father’s son. This is an exception as people mocked him taking action against Zimri, saying his mother’s father, Yisro, had been a pagan idol worshipper; so the Torah identifies him as being of good stock.

R’ Yonasan Eibshutz wonders what there was to mock. After the fact, the plague stopped and he was hailed as a hero, but even before taking action, no doubt any lucid person would identify that Zimri was liable to the death penalty. So why mock him?

R’ Eibshutz answers that they accepted that Zimri was guilty, but did not kill him themselves because they believed a simple person had to do it; they held themselves too great to carry out the execution. Their mockery was that the idolator’s offspring could!

The Torah identifies his heritage to Ahron – he actually was great. Their reasoning was simply an excuse. When circumstances call for action, someone has to stand up and be counted.

The opening of Yirmiyahu perfectly illustrates this:

וָאֹמַר אֲהָהּ ה’ הִנֵּה לֹא-יָדַעְתִּי דַּבֵּר כִּי-נַעַר אָנֹכִי. וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֵלַי אַל-תֹּאמַר נַעַר אָנֹכִי כִּי עַל-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר אֶשְׁלָחֲךָ תֵּלֵךְ וְאֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר אֲצַוְּךָ תְּדַבֵּר – I said, “Alas, God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am just a kid!” And the Lord said to me; “Do not say to me Me “I am just a kid,” because wherever I send you, you will go, and whatever I command you, you will say”. (1:6-7)

R Nosson Vachtvogel remarked how many great people fell by the wayside by not internalizing אַל-תֹּאמַר נַעַר אָנֹכִי. The Gemara teaches that every individual must walk through life believing that the entire universe was created exclusively for their sake.

There is a time and place for everything; there is a time to be humble and keep your opinion to yourself; but there may be a time to stand up and change the world. It’s as simple as recognizing an issue, and being ready to something about it.

When Bilam attempts to curse the Jews, he is foiled, and attempts to bless them, which is accepted.

It is not clear why his failed curse compels him to bless them. Rashi explains Bilam’s situation with a metaphor – it is best to avoid a bee’s sting and it’s honey too. The parable and dialogue are not readily understood; honey is great if you can avoid getting stung! What is wrong with his blessing?

The Giznei Yosef explains that people’s speech is powerful. A righteous person’s speech is potent, but an evil persons too, albeit for a different reason. Rivka was blessed by Lavan to have many descendants – and she became barren. An evil person’s blessings are not only not fulfilled, but as a result are potentially a curse.

This is the metaphor of the bee. Bilam’s blessing was not as noble as it seems – it had a “sting” in its tail. This sheds light on the dialogue. Hashem had already chosen and blessed them, so Bilam‘s “blessing” couldn’t not supersede it or take affect.

This sheds light on what Hashem had told him at the outset:

לֹא תָאֹר אֶת-הָעָם, כִּי בָרוּךְ הוּא – Do not curse this people, for they are blessed.

It was not a warning – it simply noted the futility of the journey. The sting and the honey were of no use!

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.

In the topic of Kodshim – the section of Torah that addresses Beis HaMikdash protocol, sacrifices, priesthood and the like – there is a procedure for designating utensils and tools for service. This made them Hekdesh – separate, and not for personal use or benefit. Historically, the procedure was done with שמן המשחה – anointing oil. It is said that the flask of oil that Moshe first used never ran dry, and the same oil was used to coronate kings of Israel.

Before the Second Temple, however, this oil was lost, along with numerous other artefacts. The Gemara in Menachos queries how they brought new utensils into service if they hadn’t been properly designated by the oil, and concludes that their use as holy items intrinsically made them holy – “avodoson mechanchosom”.

This was necessitated by circumstance. But perhaps there is a source in the Torah.

Ahron, Korach and his followers, all men of great stature, were instructed to take brand new pans, put on the same incense recipe, and God would display preference. Ahron’s was accepted, and Korach and the lead revolutionaries fell into the earth, while the remaining revolutionaries were consumed by a fire. The pans used for the test fell to the ground. Korach’s property went down into the void with him, but the pans of the great men, who had righteous intentions, remained. Their memory was not destroyed, because they truly wanted all Jews to have equal access to the holiness of the service.

God recognised this:

אֱמֹר אֶל אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן וְיָרֵם אֶת הַמַּחְתֹּת מִבֵּין הַשְּׂרֵפָה וְאֶת הָאֵשׁ זְרֵה הָלְאָה כִּי קָדֵשׁוּ. אֵת מַחְתּוֹת הַחַטָּאִים הָאֵלֶּה בְּנַפְשֹׁתָם וְעָשׂוּ אֹתָם רִקֻּעֵי פַחִים צִפּוּי לַמִּזְבֵּחַ – Say to Elazar son of Ahron that he should pick up the pans from the burned area and throw the fire away, because they have become sanctified. The pans of these who sinned at the cost of their lives; they shall make them into flattened plates as an overlay for the altar (17:3)

Their use had sanctified them, excluding the possibility of anyone using them privately ever again. They were Hekdesh – personal benefit was prohibited, and they necessarily had to become part of the Mishkan as a result.

But all things considered, they didn’t really become part of the service – they weren’t used in a capacity of pans. Is the cover for the altar part of the service? Is this a Torah proof of the concept that using an item inaugurates it?

Probably not. But there is one pan which has been overlooked – Ahron’s. Korach, Dasan and Aviram’s plunged into the depths of the earth, and the 250 men’s became a cover for the altar, but what of Ahron’s?

Ahron’s was fine where it was and did not need instruction. It was in the Ohel Moed, right where it belonged – in the Mishkan – and became a part and parcel of the service. Conclusive.

After the story of Korach, all the pans that were used for the incense test were smelted into a cover for the Mizbeach, with an accompanying warning:

וְלֹא יִהְיֶה כְקֹרַח וְכַעֲדָתוֹ – Do not be like Korach and his congregation.

Rashi understands that this served as a reminder to avoid spurious argument. The Yereim classifies such argument as a sin God, but not to mankind.

But argument is observably detrimental to relationships; why does argument and strife come under the category of sins against Heaven – בין אדם למקום?

Perhaps it stems from not understanding people’s role and specialities.

The Chinuch notes that a Levi who performs the service of a Kohen is subject to the death penalty. Not because of a higher sanctity – because the inverse is also true; a a Kohen who performs the service of a Levi is also punishable by death.

Moreover, abandoning a designated role is also punishable by death. If a duty is as simple as guarding the gates, and the Levi leaves his post to for the singing which is he is allowed to do as a Levi, he is also subject to the death penalty for not doing what was required of him.

Perhaps this explains what the warning is. Everyone is put on this world for a particular reason and function. Everyone has their own abilities and potential that does not infringe on any one else’s – nor anyone else on yours. Missing this is a fundamental mistake and underrates yourself and your abilities.

A Korach claim that everyone is homogenous and ultimately the same, treads all over the speciality of individuals. Like a Kohen who doesn’t appreciate that his work is specific to him, and feels that he can also serve as a Levi, there is a fatal flaw in their understanding of God’s providence, and arguably a certain degree of heresy and apikorsus – perhaps the reason this is punishable by death!

Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.

When introducing the story of Miriam, Rashi notes that it is juxtaposed with the story of the spies speaking ill of the land because the spies saw what had happened to Miriam, yet failed to learn a lesson about evil speech.

The association is bizarre, and very problematic as a source for the lesson of not speaking negatively. Miriam spoke out against a human being – and the greatest to walk this earth to boot. Why would they apply the lesson to insentient, inanimate land?

The Rambam teaches that the greater a person is, the greater exercise of humility required. The character appraisal the Torah gives of Moshe is emphatic:

והאיש משה עניו מאד מכל אדם אשר על פני האדמה – Moshe was more humble than any person on the face of the earth.

This may seem a little bit hyperbolic – but actually, indicates his level of humility – he made himself impervious to personal sensitivity – like the ground.

The lesson they could have taken on is suddenly not bizarre at all. They ought to have taken heed that Miriam spoke ill of someone who was totally detached, and genuinely did not care – not only did he completely forgive her, he immediately prayed for her recovery. This being the case, we are able to grasp the juxtaposition of the two events.

There is a phenomenally difficult, but very important lesson about sensitivity in speech here. In both cases, the error in speech was much more subtle than a straightforward, nasty piece of gossip. Yet Tisha B’Av and all tragedies in Jewish history have since ensued as a consequence.

That the level required here is beyond us may be a valid observation, but think of the reverse; what with how powerful our speech clearly is, what could be achieved with dedication and perseverance?

The spies returned from their expedition on the 9th of Av, culminating in what became the crucible and precursor of Jewish tragedy. The Gemara in Taanis teaches that when the Jews began to cry at the “reports” of what they were heading towards, Hashem pledged that the calendar date would be designated for genuine reasons to cry, for all generations.

Moshe sensed that they would plot some kind of scheme – evidenced by the foresight to change his disciple’s name and pray for him:

אֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת הָאֲנָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר שָׁלַח מֹשֶׁה לָתוּר אֶת הָאָרֶץ וַיִּקְרָא מֹשֶׁה לְהוֹשֵׁעַ בִּן נוּן יְהוֹשֻׁעַ – These are the names of the men Moshe sent to scout the Land. Moshe called Hoshea, son of Nun, “Yehoshua”. (13:16)

The people who were sent were not the average rank and file; they were leaders of their respective Tribes – senior members in the camp. The Zohar says that what motivated them to exaggerate was the fear of losing their positions and office on entry into Israel. The perceived threat distorted their perception of Israel, and everything they saw was cast under a negative shadow.

This poses a difficulty. Note that when Eldad and Medad started prophesying that Yehoshua would take up the leadership, Yehoshua exclaimed that they should be imprisoned – he was furious at the mere suggestion that he would become leader.

If the spies false reports were predicated on a desire to lead, and Yehoshua had no interest in leading the Jews, then he would not lie to preserve the status quo. So what danger was he in, that Moshe changed his name and prayed for his well-being?

The Kozhnitzer Maggid explains that whilst Moshe intuited that the spies may manipulate what they saw out of a desire to retain their position, he was equally concerned that Yehoshua would see things the way they did for the opposite reason; Yehoshua might try to delay entry into Israel, to avoid Moshe’s death and his own resultant rise to leadership. His humility could be his undoing!

It doesn’t take too much to notice that negative traits cloud perceptions, and murk clarity, decisions and outlook. But perhaps positive traits can be equally harmful if imbalanced. The idea that a person can also be affected negatively by a positive characteristic is counterintuitive – and therefore frightening.

An agenda is an agenda, no matter how altruistic the underlying motivation may be. If a person’s traits – whether humility, kindness, love of peace – create a preconceived parameter of how something out to transpire, then their vision is clouded, and facts will be perceived out of context. There is a figure of speech “rose-tinted spectacles…”. People often say “Personal interest aside…”, under the impression that such a thing can be done – but the Torah teaches that this is not so:

לֹא תִקַּח שֹׁחַד כִּי הַשֹּׁחַד יְעַוֵּר עֵינֵי חֲכָמִים וִיסַלֵּף דִּבְרֵי צַדִּיקִם – you shall not accept a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts just words.” (Devarim 16:19).

The bribe referenced is not necessarily cash – the Torah takes injury not at the bribe itself, but the result. Anything that clouds an objective view of reality, whatever “blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts just words,” is called a bribe.

R’ Yissocher Frand notes that a person with perfect vision still won’t be able to see through frosted glass. Similarly, an agenda, even as noble as keeping Moshe Rabbeinu in power, could distort reality.

If Yehoshua was susceptible to error due to personal agenda, it speaks volumes of us. But avoiding it is as simple as following Yehoshua’s lead – his teacher’s foresight saved him from succumbing to sin.

The Mishna in Avos (1:6) says: עשה לך רב, וקנה לך חבר – Assume for yourself a master, acquire for yourself a friend. We are enjoined to seek out a teacher or friend who sees through ourselves and our self-interest.

Someone who can analyse and break down something complicated into its components is a worthwhile person to have around. They will remove many pitfalls.

A puzzling event takes place, wherein people start prophesying in the main camp when the ‘spirit of Hashem rests on them’. Two men in particular continue after the others stop. A lad runs to Moshe to report that אלדד ומידד מתנבאים במחנה – “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp”. Yehoshua leapt up and advised Moshe to imprison them. Moshe retorted that he wished everyone were a prophet. End of episode.

What exactly is the issue? Moshe’s reaction seems like a no-brainer? What is wrong with prophecy? And why the extra word במחנה – where else would they be?

Rashi quotes the Gemara in Sanhedrin that re-frames what transpired. They foresaw that משה מת, יהושע מכניס – “Moshe will die and Yehoshua will take the lead into Israel,”. Yehoshua took great umbrage at their outrageous claim, and Moshe calmed him by pointing out the prophetic nature of their words.

But where does the Gemara get the idea that these were the words of Eldad and Medad?

The Maharil Diskin explains that a look at Moshe’s beginning hints at his downfall. When the abandoned Moshe is found by Pharaoh’s daughter, she names him Moshe – כי מן המים משיתהו – “for I drew him out of the water”. There is an emphasis on the definite article – “the water”. Naming him משה was contingent on משיתהו – it wasn’t specific to “the” water. In other words, she could well have said ממים משיתהו – “for I drew him from water,”. The letters נ and ה seem extra as a result.

Returning to Eldad and Medad, the Torah stresses their prophecy was במחנה – which can literally be rendered מח-נ-ה – “erase the נה”. Erase the נה from how Moshe was named, and it says ממים משיתהו – the word ממים has the initial letters of משה מת יהושע מכניס. The emphasis of במחנה perhaps explains how Chazal understood what they truly foresaw – re-framing our understanding of the episode.