There is a famous philosophical problem called The Problem of Evil. We believe that God is omnipotent and omniscient, yet we see evil all around us. It’s not just for philosophers; it’s a question we all ask ourselves:

Why do bad things happen to good people?

The different approaches to this are called theodicy. Some try to explain how everything that we call bad is somehow actually good, or that God is simply beyond understanding. There is some merit to these and similar arguments, but they are impractical.

Anyone who claims to have “the” answer to almost any philosophical question is undoubtedly obnoxious, and is probably wrong. The nature of such things is that they either have no single resolution or no resolution at all. The best we can say is that different approaches work for different people.

We might learn one such approach from the story of Avraham.

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that the response to the question is how we live in reaction to the existence of the problem. We ought to respond in kind when we see something is wrong and try to make it better. While this does not directly address the question, remember the question has no answer; at best, it can only spur a practical response in us.

After passing the great test of the Akeida, the Binding of Isaac, there is a long denouement, where Avraham goes home and receives word that his brother had many children from his many wives and had formed quite a clan. Despite all God’s promises, Avraham has had to fight for everything he has; yet his brother seems to get everything from life easily.

But Avraham does not complain that God has been unfair. Because sometimes we just need to get on with it.

Imagine a world where good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. Who would be bad if you knew that every time you steal, you get cancer?

Everyone would be good all the time.

The only way it is possible to be authentically good is if you don’t know the consequences. If the consequences don’t look random, goodness cannot exist. But in a world where the greatest philanthropist can still die in a terrible car accident, goodness is real. You do it because it’s important, or because it’s the right thing; it’s intrinsic, and not out of an expectation that God’s bounty will immediately follow.

We read the story of the Akeida and the news that follows on Rosh HaShana. The story recalls the merit of our heroes, but also the struggles they faced in their day to day lives.

Sometimes it just isn’t fair, and sometimes there is no answer good enough. All we can do is respond in the way we choose to live; we just have to get on with it and do the right thing.

When Avraham pleads for Sodom to be spared, he speculates that perhaps fifty righteous people would make the city worth saving.

Hashem agrees:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה, אִם-אֶמְצָא בִסְדֹם חֲמִשִּׁים צַדִּיקִם בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר–וְנָשָׂאתִי לְכָל-הַמָּקוֹם, בַּעֲבוּרָם – Hashem said: “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous in the city, then I will forgive all the place for their sake.” (18:26)

The Ibn Ezra notes that the repetition of “in Sodom” and “in the city,” implies that these people are righteous in public – בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר.

R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch teaches that righteous people live among and interact with other people, leading by example and inspiring their communities, like Avraham himself. A righteous man is not hidden away with books but is part of a community -including its sinners – as a teacher and a neighbor.

This remarkable point teaches a tremendously portable lesson about Sodom’s destruction; Sodom was not doomed because of its evil, but because no one was willing to work for its salvation. If even 10 such people had been working with the public to improve the moral state of the community, the city might have been saved.

Nechama Leibowitz notes that Jeremiah mentions the same theme:

שׁוֹטְטוּ בְּחוּצוֹת יְרוּשָׁלִַם, וּרְאוּ-נָא וּדְעוּ וּבַקְשׁוּ בִרְחוֹבוֹתֶיהָ, אִם-תִּמְצְאוּ אִישׁ, אִם-יֵשׁ עֹשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט מְבַקֵּשׁ אֱמוּנָה–וְאֶסְלַח, לָהּ – Run through the squares of Jerusalem and search its streets; if you can find just one single man who practices justice and seeks the truth, I will forgive her! (5:1)

The Radak explains that no righteous men could be found in the streets of Jerusalem because they were too afraid to stand up for what they believed in publicly.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe said that our souls are candles God gives us to illuminate the world, like the Chanukah Menorah, which is ideally positioned by the front door or window, so that it lights up the inside of our homes, but outside as well. He famously dispatched followers to the ends of the earth based on the understanding that part and parcel of wholesome observance is seeking others out to help them find their own religious expression. The discomfort of swimming against the tide of popular culture is the sacrifice that validates how much we care about other people – if we abandon those who are wandering or lost, do we care about others at all?

R’ Mordechai Gifter taught that altruism is superior to empathy; because while empathy requires us to tune in to other people’s needs, whereas altruism requires positive outreach – Avraham had no-one to help, so he stood outside his home to find someone to take care of.

The few can save the many, so long as they care enough about their communities to get involved – בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר / בְּחוּצוֹת יְרוּשָׁלִַם / בִרְחוֹבוֹתֶיהָ.

A single candle can dispel a lot of darkness.

For all the time we spend learning Torah, we ought to orient ourselves with what we are trying to accomplish.

Two of the most frequently quoted yet misrepresented answers are to be holy and to dwell on Torah day and night – קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם / וְהָגִיתָ בּוֹ יוֹמָם וָלַיְלָה.

The instruction to dwell on Torah day and night is only a sentence fragment. After the Torah concludes with Moshe passing on, and Joshua’s succession to leadership, God’s first directive to him is instructive:

לֹא-יָמוּשׁ סֵפֶר הַתּוֹרָה הַזֶּה מִפִּיךָ, וְהָגִיתָ בּוֹ יוֹמָם וָלַיְלָה, לְמַעַן תִּשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת, כְּכָל-הַכָּתוּב בּוֹ כִּי-אָז תַּצְלִיחַ אֶת-דְּרָכֶךָ, וְאָז תַּשְׂכִּיל – This book of Law must not leave your mouth; you must dwell on it day and night, so you will observe and perform everything it says…

Echoing this instruction to learn in order to do, the Gemara lauds study that leads to action and teaches that wisdom’s purpose is to foster repentance and good deeds – תִּשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת.

The Chafetz Chaim notes that observing the commandments is only any good when it brings us to walk in God’s ways. The Mishna reiterates that the main thing is not the strategy, but the execution – וְלֹא הַמִּדְרָשׁ הוּא הָעִקָּר, אֶלָּא הַמַּעֲשֶׂה.

These extracts are a cross-section of a recurring theme – we study the Torah to live it. But how do we know we’re doing it right?

One of the Torah’s meta-principles is that we should emulate God:

כִּי תִשְׁמֹר, אֶת-מִצְות ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וְהָלַכְתָּ, בִּדְרָכָיו – You shall observe Hashem’s commandments, and walk in His ways… (28:8)

The Gemara and Midrash note that since we cannot replicate God’s perfect justice, we can only emulate God’s kindness and compassion. R’ Eliyahu Dessler teaches that the image of God we are created with is what allows us to be compassionate.

The Sifri teaches that to understand God, we should learn the stories in the Torah and come to act like God – with more kindness and compassion.

The commandment to be holy also echoes the instruction to emulate God – קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי. It is not some esoteric call for ethereal holiness. What follows are simple laws, and loving your neighbor is foremost among them – וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ אֲנִי ה.

It should be no surprise that Hill and Rabbi Akiva famously classified this as the Torah’s Golden Rule – we emulate a God who is kind and compassionate by loving others – אֲנִי ה.

The Baal HaTanya notes that we are not commanded to love humanity in the abstract; but individuals in particular – the fallible, flesh and blood person nearby who gets on your nerves. The Baal Shem Tov taught that we must accept others and their flaws as surely as we accept our own.

The moment we finish the Torah, we start over anew from the beginning. This ritual of perpetual cycles is powerfully symbolic of what the Torah is all about: the Midrash says that the beginning, middle, and end of Torah – the entire undercurrent – are about kindness.

The Gemara notes that the Torah opens with God caring for Adam by making his clothes, and closes with God caring for Moshe by burying his faithful lawgiver – God deeply cares for humans, to the extent that no work is menial.

The only litmus test of our engagement with Torah is whether it makes us kinder and more compassionate – דְּרָכֶיהָ דַרְכֵי נֹעַם וְכָל-נְתִיבוֹתֶיהָ שָׁלוֹם.

 

Sukkos is the festival of happiness. The two prominent mitzvos of Sukkos are sitting in the Sukka and shaking the Lulav and Esrog.

What do these laws have to teach us about happiness?

The Ishbitzer notes that the mitzvah of Sukka is passive, fulfilled by sitting or sleeping; whereas the mitzvah of Lulav and Esrog is performed by actively gathering the items and waving them.

We have innate abilities we are passively born with, but there are also things we actively acquire through perspiration and perseverance.

This active/passive framework sheds light on various nuances in how we observe these laws. A stolen lulav does not fulfill the mitzvah; whereas there is no such thing as a stolen Sukka – you cannot embezzle something innate. It similarly follows that on Shabbos, the day we curtail creative activity, we observe Sukka, but not Lulav – all our creative activity can only hope to succeed with God’s blessing.

R’ Chaim Brown notes that we must actively gather the Lulav and Esrog, which is traditionally understood to symbolize the different kinds of Jews – unity is not something innate that we can take for granted; we must create unity through our actions.

To the Ishbitzer, happiness is when we synthesize our active and passive skills and talents into one cohesive whole – when we appreciate the gifts we are born with, change what we can, and accept what we can’t.

While we don’t control our starting points, we do control our trajectories from there.

Judaism has several core beliefs that have have been adopted by mainstream culture. Some of them were once radical beliefs that we take for granted today, such as introducing the concept of monotheism to a pagan and polytheistic world.

The ramification of one God, as opposed to many gods, is that the one God must be the God of not just everything, but also everyone.

Unlike almost every other chag, particularly Shemini Atzeres, Sukkos has a pervasive characteristic of inclusivity that reflects this.

The Gemara teaches that the biggest celebration in the Jewish calendar was the famed water drawing ceremony that marked God’s judgment of rainfall for the entire world, for the entire year.

The Gemara also notes that the Sukkos sacrifices had a sequence of 70 animals, corresponding to the 70 nations of the world so that greater humanity might also enjoy a year of abundant blessing.

We may be the conduit of God’s blessing to the world at large, but we are not the exclusive beneficiaries.

Unsurprisingly, the God of all also has compassion for the most distant and lost Jews.

When we wave the lulav and esrog, the different species traditionally correspond to different kinds of Jew, from the most observant to the least. But even the least observant Jew is part and parcel of the Jewish people, and both the mitzvah and the Jewish people are deficient if the apparent “undesirables” are not actively included. Hoshana Raba has a dedicated ceremony specifically constructed around a bouquet of the undesirables.

The Sfas Emes reminds us that the God of all necessarily loves us all. God’s love and compassion is elemental; it is not reserved just for worthy Jews, or Jews at all. On Sukkos, all humans gather under God’s protection – חג האסיף. Sitting in a sukka acts out the simplicity of our relationship with the God of all –  צילא דמהימנותא

Of all Judaism’s special occasions, Sukkos is called the festival of celebration, perhaps because of the simple joy of God’s love for all human life.

One of the more forgotten laws is the mitzvah of Hakhel.

On the first day of Chol HaMoed Sukkos, two weeks after the end of the Shemitta year; every man, woman, and child would assemble to hear a public Torah reading from his personal Sefer Torah:

מִקֵּץ שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים, בְּמֹעֵד שְׁנַת הַשְּׁמִטָּה–בְּחַג הַסֻּכּוֹת בְּבוֹא כָל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵרָאוֹת אֶת-פְּנֵי ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בַּמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר יִבְחָר:  תִּקְרָא אֶת-הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת, נֶגֶד כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל–בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם: הַקְהֵל אֶת-הָעָם, הָאֲנָשִׁים וְהַנָּשִׁים וְהַטַּף, וְגֵרְךָ, אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ–לְמַעַן יִשְׁמְעוּ וּלְמַעַן יִלְמְדוּ, וְיָרְאוּ אֶת-ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, וְשָׁמְרוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת, אֶת-כָּל-דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת – Every seventh year, after the Shemittah year, on the festival of Sukkos… in the place that He shall choose, read the Torah before all of Israel, so they will hear it. Gather the nation – men, women, children, the stranger among you… so that they may learn and fear Hashem your G-d. (31:10-12)

It’s an unusual mitzvah, in that it is fulfilled by everybody – young and old, men and women, Kohen, Levi, and Yisrael. Children aren’t typically expected to observe the Torah like adults – yet the Torah not only includes them but adds additional emphasis that they are a part of this ceremony:

וּבְנֵיהֶם אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדְעוּ, יִשְׁמְעוּ וְלָמְדוּ לְיִרְאָה אֶת ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם – The children who do not yet know will hear and learn to fear Hashem your God… (31:13)

Why is it important that children are a part of this mitzvah?

The Gemara says that while a child does not have the mental capacity to technically fulfill a mitzvah, there is a pedagogical benefit to their inclusion nonetheless.

The reason children must attend is simple and powerful: the Torah is for everyone – even the king, and even the children. Today, we call this principle the rule of law.

R’ Shai Held considers Hakhel an orienting event that re-enacts the redemption and revelation the foundational moments of Egypt and Sinai that Judaism revolves around.

It takes place after the Shemitta year because Shemitta releases slaves and debts, and discharges mortgages and pledges.

It takes place on Sukkos because it is the time of year that everyone leaves the illusion of security and trappings of life behind, living with simplicity and vulnerability together – צילא דמהימנותא.

It is not enough that everyone attends; they must be there “together”.

The Shem Mi’Shmuel notes that to achieve the level where we can accept the Torah once more, it takes a whole year of living in liberty and equality, free from the obsession of increasing our private property.

The Sfas Emes teaches that the effort parents have to make to bring their kids teaches the children how important it is to understand this. While it may be difficult to explain to a  young child that something is important, they will understand when you show them.

The Hakhel ceremony reaffirms that beneath the details and minutiae of our lives, we cannot help but acknowledge our shared common identity and fundamental dependence on God. Accordingly, it is entirely fitting that the experience of the children is front and center.

The Torah belongs to everyone. The buildup to the moment at Sinai where the Jewish People could accept the Torah in sacred unity with one voice is reenacted every calendar cycle at Hakhel, and the Torah calls for a similar process to break the barriers down.

To build a community, you need a longer table; not a higher fence.

Rosh Hashana is a day of renewal, not just of our lives, but also of our relationship with God.

The unique prayer themes of Rosh Hashana are Sovereignty, Memory, and the Shofar – where we crown God as our King; recall the heritage of our relationship, and blow the shofar – מַלְכֻיּוֹת זִכְרוֹנוֹת וְשׁוֹפָרוֹת.

Judaism’s innovative concept of a God we can have a relationship with can seem absurd enough, but the idea of crowning God is stranger still. To some extent, maybe it defies explanation.

The Baal HaTanya notes that we can readily understand crowning a human; the Queen of England is not so drastically different to her staff and subjects.

But how can we “coronate” God, and how can that be something God “needs” from us?

Judaism’s answer is straightforward: because God loves us.

That’s what Memory is – זִכְרוֹנוֹת. We recall the stories of our heritage, showcasing the relationship our ancestors carved out, and that falls to us to take up the mantle.

This may seem circular – מי יצדק לפניך בדין – why should the stories make a difference either?

R’ Nechemia Sheinfeld answers that this is what the Shofar addresses. The Shofar is symbolic of crying – real and authentic emotion. Our relationship with God is irrational, and we simply embrace the absurdity of it.

God wants a relationship with each of us because He loves us, and like a father can’t resist his crying child, it is unconditional love.

We believe that we are judged on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur for the year gone by and the year to come.

If our forecast is inescapable, why would we spend the year hoping for anything different?

While we believe in a Judgment Day, we nonetheless believe that it is still only a snapshot in time and that with repentance, prayer, and charity; we can change our fates – וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe notes that the conventional translation of these words obscures their literal meanings.

The word for repentance means homecoming or return – because however lost we may be, we can find our way home – תְשׁוּבָה. The word for prayer means judging ourselves through earnest introspection – תְפִלָּה. The word for charity means justice – because it is something we dispense ourselves – צְדָקָה.

These are all aspects of ourselves that we have agency over.

R’ Micha Berger notes that they each parallel the three kinds of relationships we have – with God; with others; and with ourselves.

Reminding ourselves that there is a God who wants us to be more than sentient mammals; who watches over us, and what that means for the way choose to live are expressions of Tefila that we control.

Giving charity; volunteering; speaking kindly; helping a neighbor, and appreciating family and friends are all expressions of Tzedaka we control.

Improving ourselves; developing a more even temper; cultivating humility, and choosing to live an authentically Jewishly oriented lifestyle are all expressions of Teshuva that we control.

Improving just a single characteristic constitutes a change substantial enough that we believe it can change the future.

You are the master of your fate and the captain of your destiny.

Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur always coincide with the end of the Torah cycle, which concludes with Moshe’s warnings that after receiving all our blessings, we must not forget God:

צוּר יְלָדְךָ, תֶּשִׁי; וַתִּשְׁכַּח, אֵל מְחֹלְלֶךָ – You were not mindful and forgot the Rock that bore you. (32:18)

The Kotzker Rebbe notes the dramatic irony of forgetting the very same God who bestows the ability to forget – it is short-sighted, self-serving, and selective.

The Dubner Maggid quips that when a business person can’t keep his obligations, he might hire a lawyer who would advise him to plead insanity to his creditors for a smooth settlement; but when it’s the lawyer’s turn to get paid, the lawyer will laugh if the businessman pleads insanity – he devised the strategy!

Socially and religiously, we sometimes need a little slack or leniency, but we must be careful not to take it too far, especially to people we owe a debt of gratitude to. It’s generally inadvisable to deny, deflect, or downplay the things we’ve done wrong.

Healing and forgiveness can only begin when we take responsibility for ourselves.

One of the most beautiful and innovative themes in the Torah is the concept of teshuva – return and repentance. Everything broken and lost can be found, fixed, and restored.

Whatever mistakes we have made, we believe that Hashem loves us and will accept us the moment we make up our minds:

וְשָׁב ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶתשְׁבוּתְךָ, וְרִחֲמֶךָ; וְשָׁב, וְקִבֶּצְךָ מִכָּלהָעַמִּים, אֲשֶׁר הֱפִיצְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, שָׁמָּה. אִםיִהְיֶה נִדַּחֲךָ, בִּקְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִםמִשָּׁם יְקַבֶּצְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וּמִשָּׁם יִקָּחֶךָ – God will return your captives and have compassion for you; and will return and gather you from all the nations, wherever God has scattered you. Even if you are displaced to the edge of the heavens; that’s where God will gather you from – He will fetch you from there. (30:3,4)

R’ Chaim Brown notes that Hashem promises to find us twice – וְקִבֶּצְךָ / יְקַבֶּצְךָ.

What does the repetition add?

Rav Kook teaches that the first promise is about a physical return to Israel, and the second promise is that God will also return us from the outer edge of the spiritual universe – קְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם.

The Sfas Emes teaches that Hashem makes this promise regardless of whatever it is that brought us there to that spiritual wilderness – whether it’s upbringing; bad choices; poor self-control – none of it matters – מִשָּׁם יְקַבֶּצְךָ / וּמִשָּׁם יִקָּחֶךָ.

An astounding number of people today believe they are irredeemable and have done terrible things. But if you’re not an adulterous, idol worshipping murderer, the odds are that you can make amends pretty easily. And even if you are, Hashem doesn’t give up on us!

So forgive yourself for yesterday; make amends today; all for a better tomorrow.

One of our core beliefs is the concept of teshuva. We believe in our ability to repent and make amends, both on a personal and a national level.

The majority of Jewish people are only loosely affiliated and are not well versed in our beliefs and traditions; so they certainly don’t know they might be doing something wrong.

How can we fix something we don’t even know we’ve broken?

Perhaps we really can’t fix it ourselves. But we don’t need to, because making teshuva doesn’t happen in a vacuum:

 וְשָׁב ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶתשְׁבוּתְךָ, וְרִחֲמֶךָ; וְשָׁב, וְקִבֶּצְךָ מִכָּלהָעַמִּים, אֲשֶׁר הֱפִיצְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, שָׁמָּה. אִםיִהְיֶה נִדַּחֲךָ, בִּקְצֵה הַשָּׁמָיִם מִשָּׁם יְקַבֶּצְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, וּמִשָּׁם יִקָּחֶךָ – God will return your captives and have compassion for you; and will return and gather you from all the nations, wherever God has scattered you. (30:3,4)

Teshuva is a gift of compassion, and wherever we find ourselves, however far we’ve fallen, God will find us and bring us back.

R’ Jonathan Sacks likens Teshuva to the waves of diaspora immigrants who escaped to Israel – when Europeans, Yemenites, Moroccans, Russians, and Ethiopians stepped off their planes into a land they’d never seen before, they still knew they were home – וְקִבֶּצְךָ מִכָּלהָעַמִּים, אֲשֶׁר הֱפִיצְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, שָׁמָּה

The Shem mi’Shmuel explains that God’s compassion amplifies the steps we take to make amends – ועֹשֶׂה חֶסֶד לַאֲלָפִים. A person who sinned their entire life can repent on his deathbed – כי לא תחפץ במות המת, כי אם בשובו מדרכו וחיה ועד יום מותו תחכה לו, אם ישוב מיד תקבלו.

The popular aphorism has it that home is the place that when you go there, they have to let you in. Teshuva is the return to a religious home – even if you’ve never been there before.

If God doesn’t give up on us, we shouldn’t judge ourselves worse according to some perverse higher standard.

Maybe no-one knows the exact “right” way to make amends and do better, but Hashem promises to help us.

As Rabbi Nachman of Breslev put it: if you believe you can break; believe you can fix. Just a few moments of real introspection goes a long way. We just have to take a step, because the perfect is the enemy of the good.

But even if we have given up and do nothing, God still won’t give up on us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What happened on Purim that had never happened before?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After the Golden Calf incident, Moshe’s asked Hashem to aid his reconciliation efforts, and Hashem taught him the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy by which God governs the world.

This formula is considered one of the core elements of teshuva, which is why it is a focal point of many prayers surrounding Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur.

When Hashem taught them to Moshe that he would forgive freely, the Gemara cryptically allegorizes that Hashem wore a Tallis, as though leading a prayer service – שליח ציבור.

What is the point of the imagery of God as a prayer leader?

R’ Moshe Einstadter explains that the function of the prayer leader is to be the agent of the community represents those who don’t know how to join in – quite literally, שליח ציבור.

In order to participate, the people who don’t know what they are doing must depend on the people who do.

The leader can pray just fine on his own, yet since people need him, his prayers have an enhanced capacity that serves his audience’s needs.

We have the same relationship dynamic with God.

We all make mistakes. We are human, and we can’t help ourselves. We are fallible! The natural state of the universe is entropy, a tendency towards disorder and chaos.

The imagery Chazal offer proposes a powerful resolution.

To save us from our own frailty and fallibility, Hashem acts exactly like a שליח ציבור by granting us the gift of being able to make amends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Yom Kippur, before the conclusion of the day, we read the story of Yonah, who is summoned by God to travel to Nineveh and warn its residents to repent of their sins or face divine wrath.

Instead, he boards a ship and runs away. Caught in a storm, he orders the terrified sailors to cast him overboard, and a giant fish swallows him. Three days later,  Yonah agrees to go to Nineveh, and the fish vomits him onto the shore. Yonah convinces the entire city of Nineveh to repent and regretting his mission, attempts to die in the desert. God grows a mysterious plant to shield him, then causes it to wither. When Yonah complains about the plant’s removal, God rebukes him.

What is this story’s particular relevance to the themes of the day?

R’ Jonathan Sack notes that the story tells us to recalibrate who we think is capable of teshuva. Pagan sailors could do teshuva, and even  Israel’s enemies could – the people of Nineveh.

When the input changes, the output changes – which is why repentance, prayer, and charity avert an evil decree. Yonah ran away specifically because he knew that God forgives when people listen.

God prefers mercy over justice, as Yonah himself says – כִּי יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי אַתָּה אֵל-חַנּוּן וְרַחוּם, אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב-חֶסֶד, וְנִחָם עַל-הָרָעָה.

The nature of a warning prophecy is that it’s not supposed to come true. It is a call to action, warning against continuing in the current direction. A prophecy is a fork, showing the end of one road – a successful prophecy is one that doesn’t come true. The story is about hearing a call to action and taking it seriously.

Teshuva happens when we tune in and listen.

With just five words – עוֹד אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם, וְנִינְוֵה נֶהְפָּכֶת – he made an impact on the people of Nineveh that a lifetime of serving his own people had not. He knew what would happen if the people of Nineveh listened when the Jewish People would not – they would attack Israel, because the Jewish people had rejected the option of mercy, and would instead receive justice.

Yonah knew what would happen when Nineveh listened – God would forgive.

Depressed, Yonah went into the desert hoping to die, so God grew a plant overnight to shelter him; at which Yonah recovered, and rejoiced. The plant then died as quickly as it grew, and Yonah lamented his situation, and wanted to die again.

God then spoke to Yonah, and pointed out the egocentric solipsism of his selfish inability to understand a perspective other than his own:

אַתָּה חַסְתָּ עַל-הַקִּיקָיוֹן, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-עָמַלְתָּ בּוֹ וְלֹא גִדַּלְתּוֹ:  שֶׁבִּן-לַיְלָה הָיָה, וּבִן-לַיְלָה אָבָד: וַאֲנִי לֹא אָחוּס, עַל-נִינְוֵה הָעִיר הַגְּדוֹלָה–אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ-בָּהּ הַרְבֵּה מִשְׁתֵּים-עֶשְׂרֵה רִבּוֹ אָדָם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַע בֵּין-יְמִינוֹ לִשְׂמֹאלוֹ, וּבְהֵמָה, רַבָּה – You worry about a little plant, which you did not grow or cultivate, which came and went in a single night – should I not worry for the enormous city of Nineveh, home to 120,000 people who don’t know their right from their left, and all their animals? (4:10,11)

It is selfish and hypocritical to want mercy for ourselves but justice for our enemies. We cannot ask for forgiveness for ourselves, yet deny it to others.

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

It is the final opportunity to ask for mercy, not justice. For everyone, not just ourselves.

One of the most moving parts of the Yamim Noraim liturgy is u’Nesaneh Tokef.

It starts by setting the courtroom drama – כִּי הוּא נוֹרָא וְאָיֹם, וּבוֹ תִּנָּשֵׂא מַלְכוּתֶךָ – and tells us the the stakes are high – בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן, וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן, כַּמָּה יַעַבְרוּן, וְכַמָּה יִבָּרֵאוּן, מִי יִחְיֶה, וּמִי יָמוּת.

Yet the conclusion of the prayer is entirely incongruent with the beginning. We shout loudly:

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

We believe there is hope and that nothing is set in stone.

Are we judged on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, or can we change it?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that the judgment of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is not exhaustively binding because we simply don’t believe in a rigid, preordained fate.

We cling on to the hope, that ultimately, we can influence and control our own destinies.

There is a very good reason we read the story of Jonah and Nineveh on Yom Kippur – Tanach is full of ominous prophecies that were averted when people decided to change.

More than we believe in fate, we believe in ourselves, and in our power to change.

Everyone has their own conception of what prayer is, and with good reason considering how personal it is.

While there are diverse philosophical schools of thought about precisely how prayer works and what it does, the Torah makes it emphatically clear that – at least on the surface level – when we pray, God listens.

What kind of prayers does God listen to?

The story of Yitzchak’s childhood recounts how Sarah saw Yishmael as a bad influence on Yitzchak and sent Yishmael and his mother Hagar away.

They eventually got lost in the desert and ran out of water, and Yishmael slowly dehydrated. No mother could bear to watch her child slowly die, and she cries in despair, looking at her hopeless situation, and prays – וַתִּשָּׂא אֶת-קֹלָהּ וַתֵּבְךְּ.

And Hagar had a vision of a nearby oasis and was able to save her son.

This probably seems to conform with a conventional understanding of prayer, yet the story does not credit her prayer as the reason Yishmael was saved:

וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶת קוֹל הַנַּעַר וַיִּקְרָא מַלְאַךְ אֱלֹהִים אֶל הָגָר מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ מַה לָּךְ הָגָר אַל תִּירְאִי כִּי שָׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶל קוֹל הַנַּעַר בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם – God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called out to Hagar from heaven, and said to her: “Don’t worry, Hagar; God has heard the voice of the boy in his state.” (21:16)

The angel says that Hashem listened – but not to her. What moved Hashem was the voice of the dying boy – קוֹל הַנַּעַר.

The story never attributes an action to Yishmael; his suffering is entirely passive. Perhaps he cried or groaned in anguish, but whatever he did is not significant enough for the story to record as an action he took.

Yet that invisible moment of pain or sadness is what drives the story, and probably ought to shape our understanding of prayer.

The Midrash imagines that the angels didn’t want Hashem to save Yishmael because of the atrocities his descendants would commit.

But the Torah tells us that God sees the world differently. God judges circumstances as they are – בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם. The story of Yonah in Nineveh reaffirms this.

Our daily prayers affirm that Hashem is close to the people who call on Him truthfully – קרוב ה’ לכל קוראיו, לכל אשר יקראוהו באמת.

Hashem loves righteous prayers – הקדוש ברוך הוא מתאוה לתפילתן של צדיקים. R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that we specify righteous prayers, not prayers of the righteous – תפילת צדיקים / תפילתן של צדיקים.

Everyone is capable of a one-off, pure prayer.

The story of how Yishmael was saved teaches us that prayer isn’t confined to ritualized formal rote. Maybe that’s why we read this story on Rosh Hashana.

It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done; or whether you know how to pray or even understand the words.

Because Hagar’s “proper” prayers weren’t enough; just a single real moment of pain from a sad boy mattered a whole lot more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How exactly did he know?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This cannot be how it ends..!”

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

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

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

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

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

Just watch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is this Midrash about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the highlights of most people’s Jewish calendar is the Rosh Hashana seder, at which we customarily eat foods we call Simanim – loosely, “Signals”.

Dipping the apple in the honey is the iconic classic, and every community has their own, be it beets; dates; leeks; pomegranates; pumpkins; beans; or even a whole lamb head.

What turns a quaint dish into a time-honored tradition is the small prayer that accompanies it, consisting of some sort of pun or wordplay: apples are sweet, so we wish each other a sweet year. Pomegranates are full of seeds, so we wish to be full of good deeds. The head is where the brain is, so we pray that we are the heads and not the tails.

You can even make up your own. Some French-speaking communities eat bananas – which sounds like “Bonne Année”, the French greeting for “Happy New Year”.

This all sounds like good fun, and possibly light-hearted.

Yet it is anything but that.

The Gemara states that Simanim are a legitimate thing – סימנא מלתא. History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes – our ancestors’ stories signal a possible future of ours – מעשה אבות סימן לבנים.

The Simanim on Rosh Hashana are not frivolous games.

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that the Simanim are supposed to make an impression, bringing our thoughts and aspirations into the world of action through this activity.

When Israel’s prophets would warn the Jews of impending exile, they would also have a visual cue symbolizing their approaching demise, offering an experience of the prophecy through actions, senses, and feelings rather than through the words of the prophet. Jeremiah wore a cattle yoke, signaling the burdens to come; Isaiah walked around nearly naked, signaling the people’s vulnerability and defenselessness; Ezekiel had to bake a bread substitute over manure, signalling the unclean foods the Jewish People would subsist on in exile. The action was not an eccentric restatement of the message; it was a key part of their duty to warn about the posible future,

The Simanim are indicators that initiate action, beginning the process of actualizing our hopes and dreams.

Breaking some of the common Simanim down shows the depth of their meaning.

For the apple and honey, staples at every Rosh Hashana table, the prayer we say is may the year ahead be good but also sweet. Because not everything sweet is good, and not everything good is sweet – תְּחַדֵּשׁ עָלֵינוּ שָׁנָה טוֹבָה וּמְתוּקָה

The word for “year” – שנה – shares a root with the words reiteration and change. The way to another year is through change – שינוי. Retracing steps, something new on top of something old, isn’t progress. A drawing that is erased still leaves the paper smudged. We don’t ask for another year, but a “new” year. The most incredible thing we can ask for is a fresh start and a new iteration – שתחדש.

Instead of bringing old baggage, we should realize the choice is ours.

Different communities differ on whether they eat a morsel from a fish head or lamb head, but the blessing is the same: may we be heads, not tails – שֶׁנִּהְיֶה לְרֹאשׁ וְלֹא לְזָנָב.

When looking at an animal, it may seem like they are essentially the same, just a body length apart.

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi suggests that actually, the tail can occupy the same space as the head, but it can never get to where the head is, because the head leads, and the tail just follows.

While we don’t get to control all circumstances, variables, and people that make up our lives; we do get to exercise our free will. All we really are is the sum of the choices we’ve ever made. While we can’t choose to be happy, healthy, or successful; we can choose to take steps those things more possible.

In other words, all we can choose is what we choose.

If choices define you, and you are a passenger to someone else’s choices, you are their tail.  Floating with the current is not the same as swimming.

Rav Shimshon Pinkus explained it as a wish for a year that is intentional – לראש; with constant course corrections going forward – שנהיה; because if your actions today are based on yesterday’s decisions, can end up being your own tail!

There is a reason that the Simanim are beloved in every Jewish home. They bring our hopes and dreams from the realm of thought into the sensory world we can touch and feel.

There core components to Teshuva are remorse and making amends. A prerequisite to these is taking ownership of our actions.

Before Moshe died, he warned the Jewish People not to deny or avoid their mistakes:

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

R’ Avrohom Shor teaches that our actions shape our realities: anger creates fear and withdrawal, greed alienates partners, gossip erodes trust, and laziness hinders results.

Sometimes making amends is as easy as apologizing, but not always. For example, years of anger and abuse cannot be undone by suddenly turning soft and gentle; we might genuinely want to change, but the resentment caused by years of negativity will linger for quite some time, and we are responsible – שִׁחֵת לוֹ לֹא, בָּנָיו מוּמָם.

How can we mitigate that?

R’ Ahron Belzer remarked that we should allow those our nearest and dearest to see more of our inner lives. It can only be a good thing for them to know that we too are flawed and just trying our best.

It can only be a good thing for our families to know about our good deeds and community work, most especially young children, who learn from example:

הַנִּסְתָּרֹת לַה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ עַד עוֹלָם – The hidden things are Hashem’s; the revealed things are for our children and us for eternity. (29:28)

Those close to us see more than we think. So if you are committed to improving and making amends,  put it on display, so your loved ones can learn and participate – וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ עַד עוֹלָם.

When it’s authentic, they should only be supportive and encouraging, and your example will have a ripple effect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shavuos is very different to the other Chagim.

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

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

Shavuos is clearly different, but why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kotzker said it best.

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

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

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

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

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

But why is it called Great – HaGadol?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there a discrepancy? Probably not.

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

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

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

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

On certain special occasions, we make a blessing called Shehecheyanu, expressing thanks for the opportunity of experiencing the event.

Finishing the Torah cycle on Simchas Torah is a significant milestone, yet we don’t say the Shehecheyanu blessing.

Why not?

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 לב – heart. The Torah only wants an emotional investment from us – רחמנה ליבא בעי.

But in the correct order, it also spells out בל, as in בלבל or מבלבל, meaning “confused” or “mixed up”. When we look at the ocean of Torah before us, it is בלבל – uncharted and unknown territory. But looking back, it is our לב.

A Torah cycle does not stand in isolation – every new cycle amplifies previous cycles.

This lends light to the old adage that the Torah never finishes, and why we immediately loop back to the beginning. There is no end, only a constant battle against בלבל by way of לב, finishing again. And again. And again.

In other words, there’s no והגיענו!

It’s not the Torah we complete every year, only the cycle.

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

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

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

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

Why had it never happened before?

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

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that this cuts both ways.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

During Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Selichos prayers, we refer to Hashem as old and kind -ותיק ועושה חסד.

While we readily understand the benefits of kindness, it’s an odd thing to call someone “old” and mean in a good way. How does being “old” modify God’s kindness?

Imagine speeding your car down the road and getting pulled over by the police.

Maybe you could talk your way out of it by saying you had a family emergency, and if the police officer is in a good mood, he’ll let you off with a warning.

But what if the very next day, the same police officer pulls you over in the same place for the same offense, and you then give the exact same excuse?

Every year, we make the same promises and the same excuses.

Yet Hashem never tires of us, and that’s the quality we admire here.

That the same old judge from yesterday and a year ago can still bear to listen kindly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

R’ Yosef Kaplan explains this differently.

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

One of the most prominent and enigmatic stories in the entire Jewish tradition is the Binding of Isaac – the Akeida. It is a textbook starting point for discussions of right and wrong; and it cemented Avraham from wandering nomad into the pantheon of Jewish Patriarchs.

Reasonable people have long disagreed over precisely which part of the story constituted the test, but what’s interesting is the way the Torah subtly describes Avraham’s struggle to comply:

קַחנָא אֶתבִּנְךָ אֶתיְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁראָהַבְתָּ, אֶתיִצְחָק, וְלֶךְלְךָ, אֶלאֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה; וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם, לְעֹלָה – Please take your son, your only son whom you love – Yitzchak – and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him up as a sacrifice… (22:2).

The Ran points out that Hashem never instructed Avraham to sacrifice his son; Hashem only requested it – קַחנָא.

Framing it as a request colors the turmoil Avraham faced – we can conceivably imagine Avraham exercising his choice and refusing – which some commentators argue he should have.

As Avraham approached the mountain, he found his task getting harder:

וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶתעֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶתהַמָּקוֹםמֵרָחֹק – Avraham lifted his eyes, and saw the place from a distance. (22:4)

The Nesivos Shalom notes that הַמָּקוֹם is one of Hashem’s names, describing the attribute of immanent omnipresence, that God is everywhere, and “the place” of all things – הַמָּקוֹם.

Something did not feel right. He’d opposed human sacrifice his whole life, and yet here he was; about to destroy his life’s work and his family legacy, so he felt alienated –  וַיַּרְא אֶתהַמָּקוֹםמֵרָחֹק.

At the story’s dramatic crescendo, the Torah doesn’t simply record that Avraham attempted to murder his son. He has to force his hand to pick up the knife –  וַיִּשְׁלַח אַבְרָהָם אֶתיָדוֹ, וַיִּקַּח אֶתהַמַּאֲכֶלֶת.

The Torah dissociates Avraham from his disembodied hand because Avraham wanted to resist what he was doing.

After this gut-wrenching struggle, an angel comes to stop him, and the test is thankfully over.

This story is held in the highest esteem, which is one of the reasons we read it on Rosh Hashana.

Not because it is a story about blind obedience and faith, but arguably, the exact opposite.

The lines between right and wrong are not always clear-cut, even for the greatest among us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rain is a powerful symbol in the covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people. Unlike Egypt, where the water comes up from one’s feet, Israel is a land where people must look to the heavens for rain. As a vital component of all organic matter, it symbolizes life itself.

The single time that the Kohen Gadol would enter the inner part of the Beis HaMikdash was on Yom Kippur to perform the Ketores service and say a single prayer. That prayer – the only prayer ever said at Judaism’s holiest site – requested that God ignore the prayers of travelers who hoped it wouldn’t rain.

The laws of sacrifices contain an interesting directive about the fire that had to burn in all weather conditions, even in the rain:

אֵשׁ תָּמִיד תּוּקַד עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ לֹא תִכְבֶּה – Burn a perpetual flame on the altar that never goes out… (6:6)

On its face, this instructs the attending Kohanim to consistently stoke and fuel the fire. But what would they do when it rained?

The Mishna in Avos says that a miracle aided their task, and the rain would not extinguish the fire – עשרה ניסים נעשו בבית המקדש … ולא כבו הגשמים את עצי המערכה.

What’s interesting is that Chazal understood the divine assistance as rain that wouldn’t put the fire out, as opposed to no rain at all. The Kohanim would still have to work the fire in adverse weather conditions, but God would make sure their efforts were successful.

R’ Chaim Volozhin powerfully suggests that while we don’t control our circumstances, we do influence our trajectory from there.

R’ Joseph B Soloveitchik teaches that it is our duty to broaden the scope and strengthen the intensity of our individual providence because everything is contingent on the effort we put in – השתדלות.

The fire wasn’t “magic” and it couldn’t burn on its own. It required the constant care and support of round the clock shifts year-round.

The miracle comes once we’ve exhausted our efforts.

We must not shirk the crucial role perseverance and perspiration play in solving our problems.

This eternal flame, perpetuated by sheer human determination, was the source of all the fires the year-round services required, including the Menorah, symbolizing the Torah’s as the world’s beacon; and the Ketores, the highpoint of the Yom Kippur services when the Kohen Gadol said his prayer for the rain.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch simply but powerfully teaches that the special moments of our personal and religious lives are only fuelled by the grit and consistency of our daily grind.

In the same way that Chazal understood the miracle of the eternal flame, the Kohen Gadol’s prayer on Yom Kippur is about the immaturity of a fair weather traveler, who does not understand that not only will it rain; it must.

Like a heartbeat, life itself has ebbs and flows, and we have to do all we can to make sure the blessing has a place to land.

Ask not for a lighter burden, but broader shoulders.

We are charged with an eternal war against Amalek:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The function of a kiddush is twofold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Hashem responds:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They are the same from Hashem’s perspective.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mitzvah of bikurim included going to the Beis HaMikdash, presenting the first fruits to the attending kohen, and reciting a prescribed formula recounting the origins of Jewish People:

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

On Pesach, the Hagada quotes from this portion, which is odd, because the actual primary record is in the book of Shemos. This section is a secondary paraphrase; and is not about leaving Egypt at all!

When we remember leaving Egypt, why does the Hagada quote from bikkurim and not from its proper historical place?

The Sefer HaChinuch explains that the mitzvah of reciting the story of Exodus is not limited to the history; we must also contextualize it through a lens of gratitude, which the historical sections do not have.

The bikurim section has a context that the historical sections do not. The whole theme of bikurim is about gratitude for the Land of Israel, because having once been oppressed slaves in Egypt, we have a finer appreciation for liberty and freedom.

We can comprehensively learn the rules of gratitude from the thanksgiving offering – the Korban Toda – which was brought if someone was released from jail; crossed an ocean or a desert; or recovered from illness.

The offeror presented an animal offering, of which only a small portion was burnt or taken by the kohen, and with it, 40 accompanying loaves of bread. These were essential parts of the offering and had to be consumed within the day, and were otherwise subject to the law of leftovers and would have to be destroyed.

The Torah’s treatment of gratitude consistently includes an intrinsic requirement to publicise it. One man is not supposed to eat an entire animal and 40 loaves of bread on his own.

He is supposed to invite all his friends and family.

The Korban Pesach and bikurim share this quality – an entire roast animal that is to be consumed after a full meal, in a tiny amount of time, before midnight. You need to have a lot of people at the Seder and tell the story of Egypt.

In a certain sense, the Korban Pesach a national Korban Toda. The Jewish People were liberated from slavery; crossed an ocean and a desert; and when they stood at Sinai, were healed of all illness.

Accordingly, it makes a lot of sense that bikurim and the Hagada do not quote from Shemos, and instead tell a story about gratitude and appreciation.

The concluding statement in Bikkurim says it all – וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל הַטּוֹב אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ וּלְבֵיתֶךָ – you should rejoice in all Hashem does for you, for each thing individually – בְכָל הַטּוֹב.

A Jewish expression of gratitude is public and spelled out.

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

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

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

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

The Chida notes that perhaps these are hinted to:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

צדיק!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So pay it forward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the disagreement over?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the blessings you take for granted?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food for thought.