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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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 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.

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’.

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 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 woman accused of adultery without evidence is put through an ordeal, wherein she is made to drink an odd concoction:

וְלָקַח הַכֹּהֵן מַיִם קְדֹשִׁים בִּכְלִי חָרֶשׂ וּמִן הֶעָפָר אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בְּקַרְקַע הַמִּשְׁכָּן יִקַּח הַכֹּהֵן וְנָתַן אֶל הַמָּיִם – The cohen shall take water in an earthen vessel, some earth from the Mishkan floor, the kohen shall take and put it into the water. (5:17)

וְכָתַב אֶת הָאָלֹת הָאֵלֶּה הַכֹּהֵן בַּסֵּפֶר וּמָחָה אֶל מֵי הַמָּרִים – Then the kohen shall write these curses (containing God’s name) on a scroll and erase it in the bitter water. (5:23)

To recap, the ingredients she is made to drink are water, earth, and the ink of God’s name. Is there any significance to these components?

The Mishna in Avos (3:1) says:

עקביה בן מהללאל אומר, הסתכל בשלושה דברים, ואין אתה בא לידי עבירה–דע מאיין באת, ולאיין אתה הולך, ולפני מי אתה עתיד ליתן דין וחשבון: מאיין באת, מליחה סרוחה. ולאיין אתה הולך, למקום רימה ותולעה. ולפני מי אתה עתיד ליתן דין וחשבון, לפני מלך מלכי המלכים הקדוש ברוך הוא – Akavia the son of Mahalalel would say: Reflect upon three things and you will not come to the hands of transgression. Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgement and accounting. You came from a putrid drop of liquid – correlating to water; where you are going – the grave, a place of earth; and before whom you are destined to give an accounting – before the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.

This clearly correlates to God’s name. The Torah is like a prism – different parts reflect different levels, layers and sections, but they contain the same blueprint.

The princes of each tribe are identified in the census of the nation. But the lists are not identical, when they probably ought to be:

לְגָד אֶלְיָסָף בֶּן דְּעוּאֵל – For Gad, Elyasaf, son of De’uel. (1:14)

וּמַטֵּה גָּד וְנָשִׂיא לִבְנֵי גָד אֶלְיָסָף בֶּן רְעוּאֵל – The prince of the children of Gad was Elyasaf, son of Re’uel. (2:14)

His fathers name has changed. Why?

It is important to note that the names of the Nesi’im are not listed for historicity – all are written for deep rooted reasons – what follows is just one.

The Chida explains that the tribe of Gad merited Moshe Rabeinu being buried in their portion, as they kept silent in the face of Reuven’s instructions. Reuven and Gad were encamped next to each other, and Reuven was “Rosh HaDegel” – leader of their formation, in charge of all camp movements. Reuven was a firstborn of Leah, as was Dan of Bilhah, and both tribes were “Rosh HaDegel”, whereas Gad, a firstborn Zilpah was overlooked. The tribe of Gad did not protest to Moshe that they weren’t given this privilege, and as such merited for Moshe buried in their portion.

This trait is characterised in the saying of R’ Shimon Ben Gamliel in Pirkei Avos לא מצאתי לגוף טוב אלא שתיקה – I’ve not found anything better for the body than silence. Self sacrifice in the interest of the greater good was prevalent in Moshe’s personality too. Moshe is occasionally referred to as ריע א-ל – friend of G-d – the name of the ancestor of the Nasi of Gad – רְעוּאֵל.

There is a story told about the Sdei Chemed, who was already known for his diligence and sharpness as a young man. There were two young men who attempted to get into the yeshiva he studied in, but were rejected. Feeling bitter, one of them hatched a plot to get back at the institution, by disgracing its star student, the Sdei Chemed. The Beis Midrash was prepared every morning by a local village lady. Knowing that the Sdei Chemed was there by sunrise every morning, the plotter offered her money to falsely accuse the Sdei Chemed of molesting her one morning. She flatly refused, insisting that she would lose her job and income. The plotter assured he’d hire her if she lost her job, to which she agreed. Word got out that the Sdei Chemed had “molested” this woman, and the whole town was in outrage and uproar.

Knowing the Sdei Chemed’s character, the Rosh Yeshiva was adamant and refused to believe her, and she lost her job, and would hear no more of the matter. Not days after the incident, the plotter who had paid off the woman passed away. She saw the young man had gotten his come-uppance, and he had died without getting her anew job. Tearful and contrite, she approached the Sdei Chemed on his way home and begged forgiveness, and told him the truth of what had happened, and asked that he go to the Rosh Yeshivah and try to get her old job back. The Sdei Chemed accepted her apology on the spot; “I have no problem helping you get your old job back, I’ll sort that out. But I forbid you from disgracing the memory of the deceased by mentioning his involvement!”

Chazal say המעביר על מדותיו, מעבירים לו כל פשעיו. Overlooking personal inconvenience to preserve what’s right is a phenomenally difficult thing to achieve, but its worth it.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sections of the laws of sacrifices detail how to dispose of what is not eaten or burnt as part of the Korban. It opens:

צַו אֶת אַהֲרֹן וְאֶת בָּנָיו לֵאמֹר זֹאת תּוֹרַת הָעֹלָה – Command Aaron and his sons, saying, This is the law of the burnt offering. (6:2)

It is curiously referred to as תּוֹרַת הָעֹלָה – despite not being the burnt offe at all, which is discussed earlier in the Torah. It is the fats, leftovers and refuse! How is it תּוֹרַת הָעֹלָה?

The Midrash tells how the students of R’ Yosi bar Kisma asked him when Mashiach would come to which he cryptically responded “זֹאת תּוֹרַת הָעֹלָה”.

R’ Moshe Wolfson quotes the Satmar Rav in the name of his father, who explained. Disposal of the leftovers and undesirable parts at night seems mundane and inelegant; just something that has to be done. The Torah states that an attitude adjustment is called for – this work is not mundane at all, it’s תּוֹרַת הָעֹלָה – and therefore entirely holy!

By quoting this, R’ Yosi was telling his students that their question was fundamentally flawed. Their underlying assumption was that exile is a waste of time, but just has to be, like taking the trash out. His answer was that it is not a waste of time at all, it is a separate but equally important component in the bigger picture, just in a different form.

The origins of formal prayer can be pegged to two sources. They either correlate to the Temple sacrifices that are lost to us; or they symbolise the three times the Patriarchs prayed. The Torah records how Avraham stood in prayer in the morning, which we call Shachris; Yitzchak stood in the afternoon, which we call Mincha; and Yakov in the evening, which we call Maariv.

The Patriarchs were prototypes of the Jewish people, each generation refining and honing what was there, discarding undesirable traits; Yakov was the final version. It seems counter-intuitive that he is credited with Maariv, which is the least required of all the prayers. Shachris and Mincha have clearly defined Halachic requirements, and Maariv does not, to anywhere near the same degree. Arguably, it could even be said to be optional! So why is the least significant prayer attributed to our most significant ancestor?

The Sfas Emes answers along a similar vein. Yakov embodies and encapsulates the Jew in exile. There is an imprint in our national identity left by our ancestors footsteps. Forcibly displaced from his home in Israel, to a degenerate foreign soil, yet a remarkable model of quality, integrity, dignity, and class. Perfect in every way, he set the bar as high as possible. Maariv, and Yakov, are the Jew persevering against all odds, when it may even be understandable for not pulling through. This is why he was the final prototype, and why Maariv is attributed to him.

The slumps and downside of things have their key role too, and must be recognised as part of the greater web of events that lead us onward. The laws under discussion concern fats of the animal that are burned at night. Fat represent a lack of faith – it is stored energy, hedged against the possibility that the next meal may be hard to come by. Faith in the dark, in the hard times, is critical. This is what Yakov embodied, and that is what תּוֹרַת הָעֹלָה is.

It is pertinent to note that the Torah obliges us to burn the fat, this lack of faith, specifically at nighttime. להגיד בבוקר חסדיך, ואמונתך בלילות – at night, or when things seem unknown, cold, dark, when we feel most alone, that is precisely when we have to persevere most.

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

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

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

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

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

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

צדיק!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part of the laws intrinsic to the service include the uniforms, and regulations around them. The Kohen Gadol had extra clothing, with their own laws:

וְיִרְכְּסוּ אֶת הַחֹשֶׁן מִטַּבְּעֹתָיו אֶל טַבְּעֹת הָאֵפֹד בִּפְתִיל תְּכֵלֶת לִהְיוֹת עַל חֵשֶׁב הָאֵפוֹד וְלֹא יִזַּח הַחֹשֶׁן מֵעַל הָאֵפוֹד – They shall fasten the breastplate by its rings to the rings of the apron with a blue cord, so that it will be on the band of the apron; and the breastplate will not move off the apron. (28:28)

Although separate, the breastplate and rear-facing apron were fastened together at all times. Simply because the breastplate did not have a neck chain, and the apron had no shoulder straps – they would balance and offset each other. But the Torah is not giving logistical or fashion advice – if this is how they are worn, it need not be specified at all. Why emphasise that they are inseparable then?

The Gemara in Erchin explains how each of the garments the Kohen Gadol wore would atone for a different national deficiency. The apron atoned for idolatry, while the breastplate atoned for financial dishonesty, with regard to both business and judicial matters.

R’ Moshe Feinstein notes that this could very well be the reason that the breastplate and apron were inseparable – they share a common facet. Someone who worships idols does not believe that God controls all things. Someone who cheats, steals, distorts, or embezzles in their finances is guilty of the same crime!

Dishonesty, and all forms of financial impropriety demonstrate that the guilty party believes that both no-one is watching, and that they can get more than what ought to be coming their way. This is entirely heretical, antithetical to Judaism, and quite similar to idolatry.

R’ Moshe Feinstein explains that the root of both is the same – a belief that Hashem lacks control over the world. Therefore, since they are inherently similar, the Torah specifies that these two parts of clothing are inseparable- they are almost the same.

Among the first laws given after Sinai, are some interpersonal laws, particularly the laws requiring that the needy are taken care of:

אִם כֶּסֶף תַּלְוֶה אֶת עַמִּי אֶת הֶעָנִי עִמָּךְ… – When you lend money to My people, to the poor person with you…. (22:24)

Although not readily noticeable in a translation, the phrasing is quite cumbersome, particularly the word עִמָּךְ – with you – in the context.

The Alshich explains that everything is Hashem’s, and merely deposited with us. We are given the privilege of having money in order to distribute it. With this thought, the Torah is imploring us to remember that no matter what we do with our money – אִם כֶּסֶף תַּלְוֶה אֶת עַמִּי – that אֶת הֶעָנִי עִמָּךְ – it belongs to the poor; it is incidentally with you. We should therefore take great care and responsibility.

The Vilna Gaon explains that the Torah is alluding to a standard monetary law: loans are agreed before witnesses to prevent unscrupulous activity, whereas charity is done in solitude, and no-one needs to know. אִם כֶּסֶף תַּלְוֶה – When you lend money – אֶת עַמִּי – do so before My people; – אֶת הֶעָנִי – To the poor however – עִמָּךְ – do it alone. The Torah advises the correct way to give charity – in secret. There is a world of difference bee tween being good, and looking good – here the Torah stresses to be good, when no one will ever know.

The Kli Yakar explains that when a person gives charity or a charitable loan, all good deeds and benefits resultant from it are credited to the person who financed the good deeds and actions. The reading would then be – אִם כֶּסֶף תַּלְוֶה אֶת עַמִּי אֶת הֶעָנִי – If you lend/give money to my people or the needy – עִמָּךְ -all the merits that result are “with you” too!

All these novel teachings have a very simple underpinning; money is not meant to be accumulated and stockpiled for personal gain. If people are privileged enough to earn their daily bread, or even more, spread it around, with class. The word for charity, צדקה, literally means “justice”. By engaging in charitable pursuits, you are, in a very real way, dispensing a little more justice into the world.

We would all do well to internalise that we do not get rich off the sweat of our brows alone; that we should care for the needy, away from the spotlight too; and that the effects of charity continue to compound long after. If everyone knew that, the world might look quite different.

It starts with one.

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

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

To which he receives the reply:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s precisely why these examples were selected.

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

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

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

The Torah does not introduce us to Moshe as an adult, ready to save the Jewish people. The Torah tells us of his birth and adoption by the Egyptian royal family.

Moshe’s childhood contains subtle descriptions of his nature that resulted in his eventual leadership. It is clear throughout that although brought up in the palace, he was aware that he was a Jew:

וַיְהִי בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם וַיִּגְדַּל מֹשֶׁה וַיֵּצֵא אֶל אֶחָיו וַיַּרְא בְּסִבְלֹתָם וַיַּרְא אִישׁ מִצְרִי מַכֶּה אִישׁ עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו – It came to pass in those days. Moshe grew up, and went out to his brothers and saw their burdens. He saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man of his brothers (2:11).

He recognised the slaves as his brothers, which distressed him. His kin were suffering, but he was a prince of Egypt!

When he came across an Egyptian bully abusing a Jew, it was too much to ignore:

וַיִּפֶן כֹּה וָכֹה וַיַּרְא כִּי אֵין אִישׁ וַיַּךְ אֶת הַמִּצְרִי וַיִּטְמְנֵהוּ בַּחוֹל – He looked this way and that way, and saw that there was no-one; he attacked the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. (2:12)

He made the decision to stand with his people and killed the Egyptian. An outlaw, he committed a crime against the people and land that had raised and nurtured him.

R’ Nathan Lopez Cardozo explains how this pasuk is also true of Moshe’s internal conflict. He was a walking contradiction; Egyptian and Jew, yet neither as well! He looked within, this way and that way, and saw that there was no-one. So he left the Egyptian inside him in the sand, rejecting Egyptian culture and values.

This all fits into the picture we have of Moshe before he became a leader. He was someone who would put his neck on the line for others.

That’s leadership takes.

The Midrash teaches that when a person arrives in Heaven, he is put on trial to account for how he spent his life. The experience is said to be as mortifying and humiliating as when Yosef revealed himself to his brothers.

The dramatic way the story unfolds is instructive.

Yosef planted stolen property on Binyamin and imprisoned him, to determine if his brothers had changed over the years. Yehuda stepped forward to persuade their captor with a heart-rending plea on behalf of their old father, that to return home without his youngest son would be the death of him. Yehuda begged him that out of mercy to their elderly father, he would release Binyamin.

Seeing how they would stick up for each other, Yosef knew that things were different. This was the moment to reveal his true identity:

וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל אֶחָיו אֲנִי יוֹסֵף הַעוֹד אָבִי חָי וְלֹא יָכְלוּ אֶחָיו לַעֲנוֹת אֹתוֹ כִּי נִבְהֲלוּ מִפָּנָיו – Yosef said to his brothers, “It is I, Yosef. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer because they were so shocked.

His brothers were talking about their obviously living father moments ago. What was his question?

The Beis Halevi explains that this was rhetoric picking up on their new found concern for their poor old father. This completely ironic question is heartrending. “Is he not my father too? Didn’t you think of his pain then? Is he only alive to you now that you are the victim?”

With such a turn of events, of course were shocked into silence. Not just because of the surprise, but because he was completely correct. They were hypocrites!

Yet what happens next shows the calibre of the men this story is about. Without a hint of malice, he simply embraced them all.

This is what the Midrash is about.

It is worth noting that until the point he revealed himself, Yosef was a threat, and they were dangerous too. Shimon and Levi were known killers!  Yosef sent out all his staff, risking his life, rather than humiliate them any more than necessary,

The story is a paradigm for how to mend a broken relationship. It is comprehensive but concise when delivered, and accepted when received.

We all have relationship struggles for far less. Whichcould be mended with a few well chosen words?

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the blessings you take for granted?