In the stories of the middle phase of Yakov’s life, the recurring theme is internal clashes within the family. There is a constant tension between Rachel and Leah, and it spills down to their children as well when the brothers hate Yosef for being the favorite.

To be sure, multiple moments mark them out as great humans, such as when Rachel recognized her father for the scoundrel he was and gave Leah the secret code signals on what was supposed to be Rachel’s wedding day so that Leah wouldn’t be discovered and humiliated; or when Yosef saved his family from starvation when he could have taken revenge.

But as much as we hold these individuals up as our righteous and saintly ancestors, and even bless our children after them, they seem to compete and fight rather often, vying for Yakov’s attention.

What are we supposed to make of it? Is it every man and woman for themselves? Utter ruthlessness to assert ourselves, whatever it takes?

R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz cautions us against this superficial analysis.

Some things are constant, like the characteristics of Avraham, defined by his loving outreach and warm, kind heart, and God promises that Avraham’s name would be the one we highlight in our prayers – מָגֵן אַבְרָהָם.

But past that common denominator, perfection looks different from person to person, and it doesn’t follow that what’s good for me will work for you. The correct perspective to understand these stories – and ourselves- is that we are all different people with different personalities and perspectives, with different responsibilities requiring different things.

The stories of Yakov’s family are of people vying to leave their mark, fighting to contribute, fighting to matter, fighting to leave an impact, and it’s something we should notice that our greats tend to do, raising their voices to draw out individuality and avoid homogeneity. These clashes are not about a winning ideology; they’re about making sure that different voices exist.

The notion of collectivism and unity – אַחְדוּת – is all too often propounded to squash individuality, and we mustn’t tolerate that. On the contrary, the Torah is indisputably tolerant of pluralism, the existence of different voices. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe put it, people are not dollars. Your voice and existence are not fungible. You are not replaceable, and we need you to shine.

There is a beautiful and uncommon blessing we say upon seeing a crowd of multitudes – חכם הרזים – the knower of secrets, which the Gemara explains as acknowledging God’s greatness in knowing each of us in our individual hearts, despite our different faces and minds. This is a subtle but vital point – God is great not because of the glory and sheer size of the crowd, but because God can see each of us as distinct within the sea of all too forgettable faces; God can see the individual within the collective.

It is a blessing in praise of the God who creates diversity in our world, rejoicing in our different minds, opinions, and thoughts. It is a blessing over Jewish pluralism. It is one thing to tolerate our differences; it is quite another to acknowledge them as a blessing. It is one thing to love Jews because we are all Jewish, that is, the same; it is quite another to love Jews because they are different from ourselves.

Sure, we have a group identity, but there is also individuality, and everyone expresses their sparkle in their own unique way.

As much as the world has gotten smaller in a certain sense, our world is also bigger today than it’s ever been, so it’s not zero-sum. Opportunities are abundant all around us, and we mustn’t be shy about shining in whatever way we do it best.

Because our world will only sparkle when we do.

One of the most formative and primeval moments in Yakov’s life was when he fled his parent’s home in the aftermath of obtaining Avraham’s blessing from Yitzchak. He could no longer be around Esau, and his mother Rivka told him to run away to her brother’s house, the devious trickster Lavan. Yakov left with nothing more than the clothes on his back, and he would never return home again. Alone and afraid, Yakov slept one night and had this stark vision of a stairway to heaven, with angels climbing and descending over him. When he wakes, he bargains with God to protect him, and which God promises.

It’s a powerful story about God’s presence and power transcending national boundaries, and the special and eternal covenant between God and Avraham’s descendants, and the everlasting gift of the Land of Israel. It also speaks to us by acknowledging the tensions that threaten us in exile, with its all too relatable hard-won struggle of trying to build and secure his family’s future in a hostile world.

The Sfas Emes notes that Yakov’s journey is one we all make, on a personal and national level. We all have to escape Esau’s clutches in one form or another, leaving the safety of our comfort zones, or more accurately, when we realize that the comfort and safety we once knew have eroded, and we need to go someplace else. Yet along the way, and in the darkness, God is there, perhaps even more than before, and we can shine brightest, more than we ever could when things were good.

The Torah tells us how Yakov left Beersheva – וַיֵּצֵא יַעֲקֹב מִבְּאֵר שָׁבַע וַיֵּלֶךְ חָרָנָה, which Rashi comments to indicate that when we leave somewhere, that place loses a bit of its sparkle. The Kedushas Levi teaches that what made it sparkle was us, and we take that with us. The Midrash suggests that the entire Land of Israel was folded up into Yakov’s pocket while he slept, illustrating that the greatness of a place is reflective of the great people who are there. We have got what it takes when we leave and when we arrive, and every step along the way – even in the middle of nowhere.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch highlights this story as critical to understanding what it means to be an upright Jew standing in the face of the adversity of exile. If Avraham’s great test was to leave his homeland – לֶךְ־לְךָ – then this was Yakov’s, and it’s more demanding than Avraham’s journey ever was. God asked Avraham to set out, and he set out with his family, wealth, and great renown. At this moment in Yakov’s life, God has not spoken to him, and he is alone and with nothing. When Yakov sets out, he is a true pioneer in absolute isolation and solitude – וַיֵּצֵא. When we read the story, we can feel Yakov’s loneliness and despair when he asks God to be with him.

At the end of Yakov’s life, he laments the difficulty and misery that every chapter of his life was blighted by. Yet even in what R’ Jonathan Sacks describes as the liminal space, the non-moments in between chapters of Yakov’s life when he was nowhere, he sees visions and grapples with angels, and God promises to keep him safe, watching over him like a parent.

Crucially, R’ Hirsch teaches that it is significant that Yakov has nothing and nobody and finds himself nowhere because Yakov doesn’t need any of that to become who he’s meant to be. He already has it embedded within him, and he carries it wherever he goes.

Moreover, God appears to Yakov and promises to protect him precisely at his lowest point, with nothing and nobody, in the middle of nowhere. Yakov has not yet undergone his transformation to Yisrael; he is not yet who he will become. At this point in the story, having just left his parents’ house, he has only just begun his journey into adulthood. But precisely then, at Yakov’s lowest, God appears and promises to keep him. The Torah tells us nothing about how Yakov earns this remarkable privilege, and perhaps a lesson for us is that not only is God also there in that rock bottom moment but quite arguably that moment most of all.

R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that this theme precisely tracks the trajectory of Yakov’s life story from a certain perspective. Yakov is born not just a twin, but literally holding on to his brother’s foot, and his childhood is defined by competition with Esau – his identity is in relation to his brother, he must be attached in order to get by, which might shed some light on why Yitzchak might have doubted Yakov in his youth. Yet years afterward, when Yakov and Esau meet up again, Esau offers Yakov to join forces, and Yakov declines in order to travel alone with his own family – Yakov’s ultimate victory over Esau comes when Yakov develops his ability to transcend competition and strife to stand on his own. Esau has no power over Yakov when Yakov can resist not only Esau’s strength but can gracefully decline his diplomatic overtures as well. The crowning struggle of Yakov’s life is in the enigmatic incident at the river, when Yakov fought a mysterious and shadowy figure we identify with Esau’s guardian angel – it’s about whether Yakov can stand alone. But he can hold his own, finally earning the title of Yisrael.

Yakov’s story is his quest to pave his own way, build his own home, and secure his family’s future in a hostile and turbulent dynamic environment. But the catalyst was him all along.

Taking the dream at face value, we might wonder why Yakov doesn’t think to climb the ladder to heaven. But the answer is the same – we don’t need to get to “there.” Because it’s right here, right now, and there is no need to climb the ladder. Yakov actually even goes back to sleep! Yakov can build his family, and they will impact the world through their actions, and he doesn’t need inherited wealth or renown, and he doesn’t need anybody’s help.

The legacy of Yakov is that we have what it takes, that spark within us. And wherever we go, we take it with us. If we’ve been anywhere great, we are a part of what made it so, and if we did it there, we could do it somewhere else. The model of Yakov’s life demonstrates that we can even do it in the middle of nowhere, that humans have a generative capacity to produce and contain sanctity.

The holiest person isn’t some saint, the holiest place isn’t the Beis HaMikdash, and the holiest moment isn’t on Yom Kippur.

It’s you, right here, right now.

After climbing and surmounting the monumental crescendo of the Akeida, Avraham descended with Yitzchak, and it must have been surreal. We can only begin to imagine the undoubtedly complex and fraught emotions and feelings they must have had coming down from such dizzying heights. Yet their reprieve was all too brief. No sooner as they got home, they learned the great Sarah, Yitzchak’s mother, and Avraham’s wife had just died.

Can we imagine what that must have felt like? After all that, now this? We just read about the Akeida! About circumcision and the covenant! About fighting with God to save innocent lives! About running after weary travelers to have someone to look after! And now that this great story is drawing to its close, his wife dies?! It’s all too easy to perceive it as a cruel gut punch, below the belt, and frustratingly unfair. Can they not get a break? A few moments of peace? Where is the happy ending that, of anyone who ever lived, these great heroes surely deserve?

If we expect life to be fair or balanced somehow, the question is far better than the answer. There is no real answer. It just doesn’t work that way, and if life is fair or balanced, it certainly doesn’t appear that way. We would do well to make our peace with that.

If nothing else, R’ Jonathan Sacks inimitably teaches that humans can never truly understand suffering because if we could, we would come to accept it. And we cannot accept it; we must not accept it. Because the question is better than the answer, no answer is good enough.

But although we can’t understand why it happened that way, we can take heed of what Avraham did.

Played this difficult hand, the Torah says Avraham grieved a little – וַיָּבֹא אַבְרָהָם לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ – but it doesn’t even record what he said about her. It doesn’t record Yitzchak’s grief at all! It gives us no information about the funeral. But it gives us a lot of information about the negotiation of the burial plot, about the cave and field our ancestors rest in.

Is that what mattered? Dealing with a crook and a shakedown, haggling over the price of the deal? The Torah goes on at length about the back and forth between the factions and parties, the strain and tension of the rounds of negotiations, far more than anything about the family grief or funeral information. The Torah is telling us that, of all things, this back and forth is the most important information we can have for posterity!

R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz highlights that the lesson isn’t in the grief – which is all too human and ordinary. The lesson is in the extraordinary greatness of Avraham’s response.

There can be no question that Avraham was emotional and that if he would only let it, sadness and grief would consume and overwhelm him. Sure, he grieved; he was not some stoic, unfeeling rock – וַיָּבֹא אַבְרָהָם לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ. But when it came to it, Avraham could manage his feelings and emotional state enough to do what needed to be done in the moment.

Like the heart has different chambers; we have to compartmentalize. Grieving and in pain, Avraham had to – and was able to – collect himself and live up to his responsibility to deal with the situation while dealing with his pain. This legendary figure, this hero of heroes, this icon of icons, could deal with his pain enough to do what needed to be done.

We are all in pain. Some more; some less. Pain is inevitable, and sometimes it comes with terrible ferocity and packs a bitter and cruel punch. When that day comes, it certainly doesn’t feel fair.

But R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that if you can’t figure out why something bad is happening and what the point is, there is literally no point, and it just wouldn’t happen. We can’t plumb the depths of the global why’s; why now, why like this, why to these people. We can’t begin to fathom, and anyone who tries is likely to be cruel because the question is better than the answer. But there is always a local why, if only we spend a moment to think.

We can find a reason in the hurt and give meaning to the hurt. It can be rocket fuel.

It’s true in our personal life, when someone gets sick, or when we lose someone. And it’s also true of our national life, whether it’s something as cataclysmic as the Holocaust or something as astonishing as the State of Israel blossoming into existence.

We need to ask ourselves why and think about what the duty of the moment is. If life goes on just the way it did before, then we missed it.

When pain comes, as it surely will, we have a chance to distinguish ourselves and live up to Avraham’s legacy. We must take responsibility, identify the duty of the moment, and do what needs to be done. Sure, the pain is real. Don’t ignore it! Experience it, feel it.

But don’t overreact. Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed. Focus on what you can do. Ask yourself, what has to get done? Who will do it for you? Where will it take you?

You can do it, and you have got what it takes. You’ve always had it.

Picture the scene: Avraham, the great iconoclast, the brave pioneer who spoke out against a cruel and pagan society and chose to pave his own path of love and kindness. Late in life, God appeared to him and confirmed his intuitions, agreeing to an eternal covenant, an unbreakable blood bond. No sooner than Avraham has finally made it, God tests Avraham and asks him to sacrifice his son. And then, after successfully passing this impossible test, Avraham and Yitzchak arrive home, only to find that the great Sarah is now the late Sarah – she died, quite possibly from learning what Avraham had set out to do:

וַתָּמָת שָׂרָה בְּקִרְיַת אַרְבַּע הִוא חֶבְרוֹן בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן וַיָּבֹא אַבְרָהָם לִסְפֹּד לְשָׂרָה וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ – And Sarah died in Kiryat-Arba – now Hebron – in the land of Canaan, and Avraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and cry over her. (23:2)

The Baal Haturim famously notes that the text of the Torah records Avraham’s crying with a little כּ – which denotes that he only cried a little for her – וְלִבְכֹּתָהּ.

Only cried a little? This is the great Avraham, dealing with the loss of the great Sarah, who shared in all he did, who hosted and taught all the women that came from near and far, whom God endorsed as having greater prophecy and wisdom than Avraham himself!

Yet Avraham only cried a little – the Torah doesn’t even record what he said about her! Given all they’d been through together, how could he only cry a little? How does a great man only cry a little on the loss of such a wife and partner?

We cry when we lose someone close to express grief and sorrow. We cry because we won’t see the person who has died again and will miss them.

There’s nothing sadder than the death of a young person, and the anguish and grief are over the unfulfilled potential, all the years unspent, a whole life that went unlived. But there is nothing sweeter than the culmination of a life well-lived. It has not been cut short; it has been stretched and squeezed to its fullest.

Death gives impetus to everything we do – the clock is ticking, and the time is now. Each tick, and every tock, asks one question of us. Will we make our lives matter?

But sometimes, death doesn’t come with grief and sorrow. Sometimes, death is not a tragedy, so much as it is peace and celebration.

We are talking about Avraham and Sarah. The positive impact of the lives they led touched the lives of so many in their day and continues to reverberate through today. How many tens of billions of the humans who have ever lived count Avraham and Sarah among their icons and role models? Is there a greater achievement a human can accomplish than to live the kind of life that touches people across eternity?

When that person dies aged 127, that person’s life must be honored and celebrated. It’s a loss, sure. It’s sad! But it’s only a little sad.

When the Torah’s greats pass on, there is no commotion, struggle, or turmoil. The imagery the Torah uses when Hashem collects the soul of the departed is hauntingly beautiful – they go with a kiss – מיתת נשיקה. There is no anguish or suffering; they just move on naturally, smoothly, peacefully, and perhaps even lovingly. They did all they could, for as long they could until it was time to move on; the Zohar says that Avraham died with all his days fully accounted for – וְאַבְרָהָם זָקֵן בָּא בַּיָּמִים – and Rashi says that every unit of Sarah’s life was brimming with fullness – שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה. Their lives were complete.

It wasn’t sad for Sarah, and it was only a little sad for Avraham.

Living life to the fullest is the secret – there is no room for regret. There was no person they should have helped, yet didn’t. There was no move they should have made but had been too afraid. There was no word left unspoken that should have been voiced. They lived with no regrets.

Parenthetically but relatedly, they also lived with no expectations. We never hear Avraham or Sarah complain that God promised so much and delivered so comparatively little. And not only were they content, but they also lived to the fullest!

The timing of Sarah’s death was Avraham’s last test – could he still live with no regrets? The Bikurei Avraham notes that regret can work before and after the fact; we can regret a missed opportunity, but we can also regret doing something after the fact – והסר שטן מלפנינו ומאחרינו. And Avraham’s resounding response was yes! He could live with no regrets, recognizing that his and Sarah’s life together had been worth it. So he only cried a little, and only we know how right he was.

Far too often, there is a price for the choices we have to make. We have to make costly investments and sacrifices for the lives we want to lead, and it’s hard. Very hard. But a life well lived is well worth it.

In the end, we only regret the chances we didn’t take, relationships we are afraid to have, and decisions we wait too long to make. At the end of the day, let there be no excuses, no explanations, and no regrets.

It’s troubling when we people we look up to make mistakes. Intuitively, the amount we are troubled will be tightly correlated to the perceived greatness of the person.

The Torah’s heroes are individuals of impeccable character and quality, entirely above reproach. All the same, the Torah tells us stories in a very particular way. While we don’t criticize the characters, we can certainly critique their characterization – how the Torah has elected to portray them.

Our ancestor Yakov was someone who had to struggle and fight to get what he was owed; nothing came easy throughout his life. We can take comfort and strength from his immense grit and perseverance throughout the difficulties and trials of his life. But some incidents give us pause. In particular, the incident where he masqueraded as his brother Esau to his blind and aging father to appropriate Esau’s intended blessing.

This should give us pause. The Jewish People are called the Upright Tribe – שבטי ישורון. We take our common name from Yakov himself, a person renowned for being straight – ישר-אל. How do we square that with what Yakov did?

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch highlights a close reading of the story that changes our perspective of how the story unfolded, noting that Rivka is the instigator of the entire course of events:

וְרִבְקָה אָמְרָה אֶל־יַעֲקֹב בְּנָהּ לֵאמֹר הִנֵּה שָׁמַעְתִּי אֶת־אָבִיךָ מְדַבֵּר אֶל־עֵשָׂו אָחִיךָ לֵאמֹר׃ הָבִיאָה לִּי צַיִד וַעֲשֵׂה־לִי מַטְעַמִּים וְאֹכֵלָה וַאֲבָרֶכְכָה לִפְנֵי ה’ לִפְנֵי מוֹתִי׃וְעַתָּה בְנִי שְׁמַע בְּקֹלִי לַאֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מְצַוָּה אֹתָךְ… – Rivka had been listening as Yitzchak spoke to his son Esau. When Esau had gone out into the open to hunt game to bring home, Rivka said to her son Yakov, “I overheard your father speaking to your brother Esau, saying, ‘Bring me some game and prepare a dish for me to eat, that I may bless you, with God’s approval, before I die.’ Now, my son, listen carefully as I instruct you…” (27:6-8)

Rivka tells Yakov to act as if he were Esau, and Yakov responds that he is uncomfortable doing so:

וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל־רִבְקָה אִמּוֹ הֵן עֵשָׂו אָחִי אִישׁ שָׂעִר וְאָנֹכִי אִישׁ חָלָק׃ אוּלַי יְמֻשֵּׁנִי אָבִי וְהָיִיתִי בְעֵינָיו כִּמְתַעְתֵּעַ וְהֵבֵאתִי עָלַי קְלָלָה וְלֹא בְרָכָה׃ – Yakov answered his mother Rivka, “But my brother Esau is a hairy man, and I am smooth-skinned. If my father touches me, I shall appear to him as a trickster and bring upon myself a curse, not a blessing!”

Our discomfort comes from the tension between honor for and loyalty towards a parent versus deception. Quite correctly, Yakov expresses his discomfort with Rivka’s idea, precisely because he is a straight person and not a deceiver – וְהָיִיתִי בְעֵינָיו כִּמְתַעְתֵּעַ. But at this point, Rivka pulls the proverbial ace:

וַתֹּאמֶר לוֹ אִמּוֹ עָלַי קִלְלָתְךָ בְּנִי אַךְ שְׁמַע בְּקֹלִי וְלֵךְ קַח־לִי׃ – But his mother said to him, “My son, any curse would be upon me! Just do as I say and go fetch them for me.” (27:13)

At this juncture, Rivka exercises her maternal authority to silence Yakov’s protest, and the story goes on. We can continue to look up Yakov because he is not a crook; he is obedient to his mother.

While this is a compelling reading, it doesn’t answer the crux of the problem. While it serves the purposes of salvaging Yakov’s image, Rivka becomes tarnished instead, and we must the same question of Rivka, only it looks substantially worse now – she has forced her son to trick her husband – his father – to take something intended for his brother.

To reinforce the question, what exactly is the point of the ruse here? It’s a reckless and short-sighted scheme because it is certain to be discovered! Moreover, why would we think it even works that way? The blessing is God’s to bestow – is God also taken by a silly disguise and feigning a gruff voice?!

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that the point of the deception was the deception itself. The story is not about Yakov stealing a blessing; it’s about Yitzchak’s blindness to who his children have become.

We must note the Midrash that suggests Yitzchak was blind ever since the Akeida, where his father bound him up and was ready to kill him. Perhaps the traumatic experience blinded him to Esau’s shortcomings, unable to contemplate discarding his son in the way he nearly was.

Be that as it may, Esau had disgraced the family legacy, marrying idolators, indulging in their pagan practices, and was a renowned killer. This was not the scion of his grandfather Avraham.

Yet Yitzchak was blind, oblivious! Esau was a smooth operator, sure, but Yitzchak was taken in. He would not, or could not see him for what he was.

So if Yakov, the diligent student, could make himself seem like the great hunter, then perhaps the great hunter could also make himself look like the diligent student!

Deception for dishonest gain is wrong – at the beginning of the story, at the end, and throughout. One of the story’s conclusions is that blessings go where they’re meant to, and they’re not limited.

Indeed – R’ Shlomo Farhi sharply notes that Yakov’s concern is the appearance of trickery, not trickery itself – וְהָיִיתִי בְעֵינָיו כִּמְתַעְתֵּעַ, as opposed to וְהָיִיתִי מְתַעְתֵּעַ – because the story isn’t about stealing blessings!

There is no crime here, and this story should not give us pause about our greats’ greatness. Rivka‘s intention in getting Yakov to deceive Yitzchak was simply to show Yitzchak how easily he could be deceived.

Mark Twain famously admired the Jewish People’s survival through the ages. The empires of Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome all rose and fell, yet the Jewish People endured.

What, he wondered, was the secret to Jewish immortality?

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests a compelling answer. It’s about the desert wilderness the fourth book of the Torah is named for – במדבר – the location of three-quarters of the Torah’s stories, where the Jewish People accepted the Torah and formed a covenant with God, lived on miraculous manna and water, while sheltered under divine cloud cover.

For every other nation and culture in history, what brought people together was land, not law. People first formed settlements, then small groups, then villages, and then built towns and cities. As the groups grew, they became unstable and developed legal systems to resolve uncertainties – first the land, then the law. Unique to the Jewish People is the phenomenon that the law precedes the land, and it transforms the expected trajectory of Judaism by making it non-contingent. When a nation is exiled and dispersed, it doesn’t typically survive; Judaism has spent most of its history in the diaspora – not sovereign in Israel.

And it has a lot to do with the fact that the Torah was given in a deserted wilderness.

At that moment, the Jewish People were constituted, long before they ever saw the land; so they could survive, identity intact, without it. As only R’ Jonathan Sacks could put it – the law came before the land; so even when the Jews lost the land, they still had the law. Without geography, there was still history.

Pagan worship often revolves around natural life cycles and ecosystems, to which the desert wilderness is inhospitable, teaching the essential lesson that the One God exists in the emptiness too.

This understanding inverts our expectation of the exilic trope of the wandering Jew. We arguably don’t practice a majority of the Torah in exile – the laws of the Temple, the laws of the Land, the laws of government, or the laws of holiness and purity, among others. Exile is not ideal. And all the same, we can thrive.

We see this played out in multiple ways.

Our ancestor Yakov was the final prototype for the Jewish people and is the archetype for life on the run. When Yakov leaves home for the first time, Rashi comments that his even with his departure, and even in his sleep, the sanctity of the land went with him – it was contingent on him, not where he found himself. He fled from home, from Lavan, from Esau, and then from Israel. Yet he transitions ever upwards, and it all happens on the go, casting off a former identity and emerging anew, foreshadowing the journey his children through the ages would have to take.

The very notion of the Mishkan – a portable temple – embodies the idea that we can create holiness on the move, and it reinforces the idea that the law before the land means that the law without the land is not lesser. If we can live with God in the middle of nowhere, we can live with God anywhere.

It’s the underlying theme of the Purim story as well – in the moments we think we’re most alone, God is by our side every step of the way, no less than when He seems closer. You may have to search a bit, but God doesn’t vanish on us.

The law precedes the land. The model to survive, perhaps even thrive, is placed before us long before we are tested – the antidote before the venom. On a far deeper level, it even precedes Creation – it comes before everything else.

None of this is to say that it’s easy to persevere in difficult times – it most certainly is not. There is no shortage of moments in Jewish history where it took all people had only to scrape by, at times physically, other times spiritually, and on occasion both. There is no shortage of moments where people were lucky to make it out alive. Our circumstances can be cruel, and that pain is genuine, so we mustn’t callously dismiss it.

Yakov’s life was fraught with pain and strife, and mortal danger was a looming spectre over his family throughout. The Jews fought Moshe and struggled to live in the wilderness from beginning to end. The Jews in the Purim story came perilously close to a genocide that was averted at the very last. If anyone says it’s easy – it’s assuredly not.

We don’t choose our circumstances, and sometimes the odds can be stacked against us. On a national level, the exile has been going on for a while. But the law precedes the land. Sure, we yearn for redemption every day, hoping for a time we can practice the Torah in full. But this is where we are right now, and life today isn’t worth a smidge less than it could be – so long as we’re doing the best we can. If we’re doing everything within our power, what more could God possibly ask of us? Perfection describes a process, not an outcome.

Channeling our ancestor, the archetype of Yakov, we can shine through pain and exile – not just surviving, but perhaps even thriving.

There are times we feel lost, scared, and alone. Sometimes the only real choice we have is whether we can even keep going at all. It’s real, and it’s hard! But we do have the capacity – הַזֹּרְעִים בְּדִמְעָה בְּרִנָּה יִקְצֹרוּ.

Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says we’ll try again tomorrow. It’s up to us.

One of the painstakingly detailed aspects of the Mishkan’s planning and development is the process of materials procurement. Aside from the portions about the fundraising, the Torah includes a public ledger accounting for all sources and uses, recording where every single donation ended up.

While not exactly riveting stuff, there is a discrepancy in how the Torah accounts for the donated bronze:

וּנְחֹשֶׁת הַתְּנוּפָה שִׁבְעִים כִּכָּר וְאַלְפַּיִם וְאַרְבַּע־מֵאוֹת שָׁקֶל. וַיַּעַשׂ בָּהּ אֶת־אַדְנֵי פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְאֵת מִזְבַּח הַנְּחֹשֶׁת וְאֶת־מִכְבַּר הַנְּחֹשֶׁת אֲשֶׁר־לוֹ וְאֵת כָּל־כְּלֵי הַמִּזְבֵּחַ. וְאֶת־אַדְנֵי הֶחָצֵר סָבִיב וְאֶת־אַדְנֵי שַׁעַר הֶחָצֵר וְאֵת כָּל־יִתְדֹת הַמִּשְׁכָּן וְאֶת־כָּל־יִתְדֹת הֶחָצֵר סָבִיב – The donated bronze came to 70 talents and 2,400 shekels. From it he made the sockets for the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; the bronze altar and it’s bronze grating and all the utensils of the altar; the sockets of the enclosure and the sockets of the gate of the enclosure; and all the pegs of the Mishkan and all the pegs of the enclosure. (38:29-31)

The Abarbanel notes that there was another bronze vessel we know of that doesn’t feature on this list, the washbasin. It is categorized separately from the main bronze accounting because this bronze didn’t come from the regular bronze operating account; it came from a wholly separate source to the rest of the general fund:

וַיַּעַשׂ אֵת הַכִּיּוֹר נְחֹשֶׁת וְאֵת כַּנּוֹ נְחֹשֶׁת בְּמַרְאֹת הַצֹּבְאֹת אֲשֶׁר צָבְאוּ פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד – He made the washbasin and its stand of bronze, from the mirrors of the women who amassed at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. (38:8)

Rashi quotes a fascinating Midrash that the women of Israel wanted to donate their personal makeup mirrors to the Mishkan fund, and Moshe considered rejecting the mirrors since they are, on their face, used to satisfy the evil inclination. At that moment, God interceded and implored Moshe to readily accept the personal makeup mirrors, declaring them the dearest of all contributions. The subtext of this surprising dialogue is that when the enslaved men in Egypt were exhausted and spent after a day of backbreaking labor and abuse, they no longer wanted to be with their wives, the thought being that there would be no more children, and their misery would come to an end. To address this, the women would bring their husbands food and drink, and used these personal makeup mirrors to successfully attract their husbands back, directly resuscitating the imperiled future of the Jewish people. Rather than perceiving these actions as mere and mundane acts of the flesh, God recognized their heroic valor in the Jewish People’s great time of need.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch highlights the deep and symbolic significance of how as crucial a boudoir item as a personal mirror, which functions to draw attention to the human body as an object of sensual desire, can be co-opted and integrated into Divine service. Moreover, the washbasin these mirrors became specifically functions to consecrate hands and feet; our bodies are simple and mundane organic matter, yet we can elevate and refine our bodily movements and instincts by transforming our purpose. There is no separate track for holy things – we create holiness through our everyday actions and footsteps. The instruments of women trying to attract their husbands became the instrument that changes a person’s status from impure to pure. It is hard to overstate the significance of the directional flow – from impure to pure!

The discrepancy in the accounting of how the bronze was used teaches us an important and illuminating insight about the role of intimacy. It’s taboo to discuss, to the extent that it is not uncommon for people to write off the whole topic as forbidden and associate it with guilt and shame. But it’s accouterment became not just a central feature in the Mishkan, but quite plausibly the dearest donation of the lot!

It is imperative to separate what’s kosher from what’s not – and to get it right! The laws of איסורי ביאה and עריות‎ are extremely severe and have catastrophic consequences highlighted by, among others, Hoshea and Yirmiyahu. They really matter! But we must not forget that the very first commandment from God to humans is to be fruitful and multiply. The Sefer Hachinuch observes that the mitzvah’s nature is that God desires a world populated with life, which is intuitive, because we are designed to precisely that specification, along with every living thing. It’s actually a feature of being a living thing!

Judaism is extremely focused on the purity of our sexuality. Adam and Chava were created naked and felt no shame until much later in the story when they eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. There was nothing intrinsically bad about their naked bodies, and so no shame associated with it. They were living expressions of holiness in their natural state! It was only once they gained a deeper perception and understanding of good and evil that they lost this perfect clarity, and there was now a notion that sex could be immoral and so their nakedness could be shameful and embarrassing.

Nechama Leibowitz teaches that the same impulses which can lead us to destruction can just as equally lead us to sanctity – to building our families and perpetuating the future. Chazal recognized the need to serve God with our best and worse inclinations – בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ – literally, “hearts”, plural.

While desire is categorized as stemming from the evil inclination – תאווה – we must recognize its necessity as an essential precursor to life, to the extent that the Midrash labels the evil inclination as “very good”. Like eating or drinking, it is an essential biological driving force that is integrated and synonymous with being alive, and when controlled, and channeled appropriately at the proper time and place, it can be a mitzvah.

Critically, not just “another” mitzvah – the separate treatment of the women’s personal makeup mirrors teach us that intimacy and everything associated with it can be the dearest thing there is.

It is probably not hyperbole to say that the Torah’s Creation story is one of the most powerful and influential stories in human history.

But here’s a provocative question. Is it literally true?

Our first instinct might be an emphatic and outraged “of course it is!” and shut down all discussion. Instead, let’s consider the matter soberly.

The Creation story is a type of creation myth, a genre common to all societies across all human history.

A genre is a category of things characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter. Creation myths are symbolic stories that carry enormous influence on our lives and societies. The word “myth” itself doesn’t primarily mean false or fanciful; in the society in which it is told, a myth is regarded as conveying profound truths – not just literally, but metaphorically, symbolically, and historically.

A creation myth is potent and formidable because the ideas it contains express in narrative form what we experience as our basic reality – where we come from, how we find ourselves where we are, and crucially, where we are going.

The idea of a creation myth is not particular or unique to the Torah. It is a feature across all cultures in human history, and we probably each have our own personal creation myth about the direction.

To ask if a myth is literally and factually true is to miss the message entirely and is the wrong lens to understand it on any level.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch emphasized that the Torah is not a textbook of magic or metaphysics. The Torah is not a how-to manual of how God created the universe; it’s about how to ethically form and structure human society in general and Jewish society in particular.

The Creation story is about 34 verses long, whereas the Mishkan and its related laws and services occupy close to a quarter of the Torah. R’ Jonathan Sacks quips that while the Torah is clearly interested in talking about the natural universe, the home god makes for us; it is clearly much more interested in the home man makes for God.

Moreover, the Torah speaks in human language for humans to understand – דיברה תורה כלשון בני אדם. The Torah does not describe things in terms of objective truths known only to God but in terms of human understanding, which is, after all, the basis for human language and expression. There is literally no point whatsoever for the Torah to include information we could not comprehend.

The Torah is God’s handiwork. But godly as it may be, it must be read, understood, and practiced by imperfect humans. It’s not a deficiency in the medium, the Torah – it’s a deficiency in us, the audience.

Taking the entire Torah at literal face value only, we’d practice the law of the captive woman, the law of the rebellious son, and we’d all be blind from taking an eye for an eye.

Using just one example, the concept of “the image of God” literally means God has a form, an incorrect and possibly heretical belief. Taken non literally, it’s an astoundingly egalitarian concept and infinitely more consequential, to the extent that one sage, Ben Azzai, identified it as the essential principle of the Torah.

The Torah was given in the ancient world, where the available universe of ideas held that the ancient world’s gods were part of nature and often fought each other. For example, in Atrahasis, a contemporary Akkadian epic, there were different tiers of god, and the working class gods were tired of serving the upper-class gods. So they created humans from the dirt to be the new underclass and relieve the working gods of their labor. In this cosmic order, the gods are indifferent to humans at best, and humans don’t matter at all. Humans exist to be enslaved and serve the gods. Critically, this corresponded to the earthly social hierarchy, where people exist to serve the priestly class and king, who serve the gods best.

This entire hierarchy is utterly obliterated by the Torah when the One singular God, free and independent, creates humans out of love, and in God’s image, creates them free. This imagery completely delegitimizes the language of oppression and enslavement and reimagines humans as supremely valuable and completely free. Note also how the “formed from dirt” motif is inverted and elevated when God personally infuses the dirt with a soulful breath of life – וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים.

The Mishna learns from the imagery of the emergence of humanity by creating one individual that each life is its own universe, so when one person takes another’s life, it is like destroying a universe. When a person saves a life, it is as if he saved a universe.

R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that we take self-identity for granted today, but historically, self-identity was subsumed to community and culture. In a world where the individual self barely existed and mattered very little, it’s radical to say that God cares for us individually because it’s not obvious at all – בשבילי נברא העולם.

The motifs in the Torah’s creation story don’t need to be literal to be explosive. All this and more, from just one concept – the image of God.

The development of the scientific method created an inflection point in the trajectory of human knowledge, transforming our understanding of the world around us. We needn’t feel threatened by revolutionary ideas like evolution and the Big Bang, because once again, the Torah speaks in human language for humans to understand. Imagine explaining General Relativity and the age of the Universe to a band of barely literate slaves in the desert 3000 years ago. Dinosaur bones were only discovered in 1677 and were believed to belong to giants!

If we’re looking to the Torah to teach us empirical facts, or parsing the text for hints or rebuttals to an old or young universe, to evolution or dinosaurs, to arcane magic or General Relativity, we are going to come away disappointed because that is not a primary function of the Torah; how it all works is a wholly separate and parallel track to what it all means.

As R’ Jonathan Sacks explains, science speaks of causes, but only religion can speak about purpose; science can take things apart to see how they work, but only religion can put things together to see what they mean.

If science is about the world as it is, and religion is about the world that ought to be, then religious people need science because we cannot apply God’s will to the world if we do not understand the world.

Torah is an art, not a science.

In the introduction to the Flood story, the Torah introduces Noach as the righteous man of his day. This is famously taught to be an ambiguous description – that Noach was the greatest in his generation; or that his generation was so awful that being the best of the lot isn’t saying much.

This is the introduction to the hero of an important story. Noach is quite clearly a significant figure – why would we want to interpret him negatively at all?

In isolation, it might seem a little harsh. But in the context of the bigger picture the Torah wants us to learn; it matters that we notice Noach’s mistake. The Rambam notes that the Torah is leading us through the trajectory of human history; how people just couldn’t get it right, until eventually, someone did – Avraham.

The Midrash teaches that after God told Noach to start prepping for the Flood, Noach would tell everyone what he was doing and preach to them to abandon their corruption and lawlessness to embrace ethics and morality. His pleas fell on deaf ears.

In a sense, this reinforces the question. All we can do as humans is try, in the hope that God helps. Why do we hold Noach’s failure against him?

R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz teaches that Noach’s failing wasn’t in his efforts; it was his methods.

Noach didn’t attempt to understand his society; he separated himself from it. He insulated his family to the extent he couldn’t understand the people around him, and he couldn’t get through. The word “Noach” literally means “easy” – the easy way out.

We need to ask how we could consider ourselves righteous if we completely detach from humanity and society. How strong is our belief system truly if we don’t think it could withstand the slightest scrutiny?

The issues of Noach’s day weren’t ideological or philosophical because paganism isn’t a philosophy – it’s ad hoc. The issues of that day were lust, desire, greed, and selfishness.

The tragedy of Noach was that for all his efforts and personal righteousness, he didn’t put in the effort to understand the people around him.

Arguing with people rarely succeeds – and it rarely matters if you’re right.

In stark contrast, Avraham is lauded as someone who was very in tune with how to win hearts and minds. He fed people and washed them, caring for all people with genuine love and kindness. Pagans were not a threat to him because his beliefs and practices were strong enough to survive contact with them. The Raavad notes how Shem, Ever, and others are heralded as righteous, yet they don’t feature in our pantheon of greats because they never went out into the world.

R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch taught that righteous people are not scholars in ivory towers; they actively drive positive change in their communities by living out the Torah’s teachings – בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה בָּעִיר.

Noach, the best man his generation could muster, failed:

וַיִשָּׁאֶר אַךְ־נֹחַ – Only Noach was left… (7:23)

Instead of saying that Noach survived – וַיִשָּׁאֶר נֹחַ, the Torah emphasizes that “only” Noach survived, underscoring the utter devastation and loss in the story. R’ Meir Schapiro highlights that this is the moment Noach understood the cost of his failure, abandoning his peers to their fates without doing all he humanly could.

R’ Josh Joseph notes that we highlight Noach’s failure despite his efforts because the image of Noach alone is terrifying, which leads to the rest of his life with alcoholism and misery. R’ Shlomo Farhi notes how that Noach defining feature was that there was nothing wrong with him – תמים – which is to say that Noach was perfectly adequate, and yet that wasn’t enough.

R’ Jonathan Sacks contrasts this broken figure of Noach, who couldn’t save anyone, with the bold and staunch figure of Avraham, who tried to save everybody – when God informed Avraham that Sodom would be destroyed, Avraham passionately advocated for their survival – these people who stood for everything he stood against!

Whereas Noach walked with God – אֶת־הָאֱלֹהִים הִתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹחַ – we see Avrohom as someone who goes above and beyond – הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי.

We need to dig very deep to have a shot at saving others, lifting as we climb. So it resonates with us that Noach could have done more because perhaps we recognize that’s what it takes in order to live with ourselves.

A substantial chunk of people alive today are familiar with the story of Adam and Eve. The motifs and concepts evoked by its imagery are incredibly powerful, and the lessons it imparts convey deep meaning. Yet ask what those lessons are, and you’ll probably hear a lot of different answers.

Consider this. When Adam ate the fruit, the original sin (itself a gargantuan motif) – how did it change him?

It is hard to overstate how enormously consequential both the question and answer are.

In Christianity, the Augustine school taught that man’s original sin fundamentally corrupted the state of humanity from a state of innocent obedience to God to a state of guilty disobedience, the fall of man. Humans are bad and sinful, and we can’t do anything but hope God saves us.

To Judaism, the Augustine theory is untenable and poses insurmountable theological problems, and so it is critically important to reject it entirely. If a human is fundamentally sinful or bad by nature, then not only is sin inevitable, but the idea of religion or morality is a cruel joke. It turns God into a grotesque caricature – how could a just and fair God punish us for sinning if doing right is simply beyond our power? If humans can’t choose to be good, there’s no free will, and so no reward or punishment. If we can’t choose, our actions have no value as we don’t control them. If you are fundamentally bad, then it’s not your fault, because being good is impossible. Interestingly, a theologian named Pelagius noted these objections and was excommunicated as an arch-heretic for well over a thousand years.

The proper Jewish perspective is that humans are untainted by original sin and freely capable of choosing between good and evil. The idea of free choice underpins all the laws and stories of the entire Torah. Arguably, it underpins the entire idea of creation – as much as the almighty God could want anything from an as puny thing as a human, what could we even do for God if we don’t have the ability to choose?

More fundamentally, the idea that humans are bad and sinful in a perpetual state of evil that is somehow separate from God or God’s master plan, is a form of dualism. Dualism is the belief in two opposed powers, which borders on idolatry, contrasted with monotheism, the belief in one singular power.

As R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches, dualistic thinking is immature and dangerous, because it means all bad things are caused by a thing God hates, or the enemy of God, or Satan. In ourselves, it causes terrible and unwarranted guilt and shame, and in societies, it causes fractious rifts among people, who see each other as the enemy and the other.

R’ Shimon Bar Yochai suggested that if God wanted to give the Torah to humans, then God might have created humans with two mouths; one for words of Torah and holiness, and one for talking and eating. The implicit presupposition of the question is that maybe dualism is the correct view, and we ought to protect good from evil. Yet we know we only have one mouth, for all the good and bad things we can do, because dualism is the wrong way to look at the world.

We’re not supposed to be angels – God isn’t short of them and doesn’t need our help making more. We might not be much, but we’re precisely what we’re supposed to be. Maybe we have an aspect or inclination to do the wrong thing sometimes or perhaps often – יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו. But it’s not that we are essentially and intrinsically bad; it’s still just an inclination – a יֵצֶר. This is arguably the point of the flood story, which begins and ends with God lamenting how bad people can be. It’s not that humans stopped being bad; it’s that God recognizes that human badness is inseparable from the other things God wants from us. We can learn to resist and even overcome this inclination, which is the entire point of creation, of Judaism, and the Torah.

In fact, one of the most influential ideas in Judaism, mentioned in the book of Job and popularized by the Baal Shem Tov, is the idea that our souls are a small fragment of godliness, and God as well in some sense – חלק אלוה ממעל. This motif is formidable – not only is God a piece of us but equally, we are a piece of God.

There is a part of the soul, whatever it may be, that is fundamentally pure and incorruptible – אֱלֹהַי, נְשָׁמָה שֶׁנָּתַתָּ‏ בִּי טְהוֹרָה הִיא.

Adam sinned, sin exists, and we make mistakes. But it’s not that we are bad because of dualism; it’s because of the duality of all things. What changed wasn’t that Adam became bad, but in eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, he became more knowledgeable and aware of good and evil.

There is a little bit of something in everything. In the good, there is some bad, and in the bad, there is some good. There is fullness in the emptiness, sadness in the happiness. They are complementary parts of a reciprocal interaction that are present in all things, including ourselves.

We take the good with the bad.

After Yosef revealed himself to his brothers, he invited their entire family to relocate from the famine-plagued Canaan to the fertile and prosperous land of Egypt under Yosef’s protection and influence. When Yakov discovered his long lost son was alive and well, he was overwhelmed at the prospect of reuniting the family before he died. But he had reservations, and God had to reassure him:

וַיֹּאמֶר אָנֹכִי הָאֵל אֱלֹהֵי אָבִיךָ אַל־תִּירָא מֵרְדָה מִצְרַיְמָה כִּי־לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשִׂימְךָ שָׁם – And He said, “I am God, the God of your father. Don’t be afraid of going down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation”. (46:3)

Undoubtedly, God was speaking to some nerves or anguish Yakov was experiencing at the idea of leaving the land of his fathers. Yakov was afraid of the unknown, leaving the safety, security, and comfort of the land his family had grown up. But fear makes us withdraw, and maybe this is the point God was addressing.

And God’s reassurance contains a powerful notion that reverberates through the ages. Difficulties don’t have to diminish – they can be the making of us. Strength and growth come with pain and sacrifice.

Of 3,000 or so years of Jewish history, perhaps 400 at best were sovereign and secure, with the rest in one exile or another. Yet the trajectory has only been upwards. There is no greater freedom than knowing we can thrive in exile.

It’s ultimately true of life itself – we build through overcoming adversity with self-sacrifice. So counterintuitively, outstanding achievements are not in spite of adversity; they are a product of it. Leaning into the challenge will be the making of you – כִּי־לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשִׂימְךָ שָׁם – that’s the only place it can happen.

When everything is easy, it’s hard to be our best, and Yakov’s life embodied this. His family could only be reunited in a foreign land, paving the way to slavery and eventual redemption. His life was truth and greatness, but always with pain and on the run.

R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz teaches that this theme is recursive – time and again, the resistance is not the obstacle – it’s the catalyst. The obstacle is the way. It’s the story of the matza on Pesach; it’s the story of Purim and Chanuka. Overcoming the challenge is what lets us become great.

That’s not to diminish in anyway the severity of the differnet ordeals life hurls our way – the struggle is indeed very real.

But we don’t have to be shackled by our shackles; the challenges can give us a siege mentality. The key to unlocking this superpower is God’s message to humans.

Don’t be afraid.

The vast corpus of laws about kosher food reflects the theme that the Torah deeply respects the life of all creatures. As such, while humans are permitted to eat meat for energy and nutrition, there are numerous laws about how we treat animals. Particular interesting are the rules of blood because the Torah identifies the essence and soul of vitality and personality in the blood – hence the similar term “lifeblood”:

אַךְ-בָּשָׂר, בְּנַפְשׁוֹ דָמוֹ לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ – Eat only the meat; do not consume the lifeblood… (9:4)

The imagery of the soul in the blood helps explain why blood is a central element of all the sacrificial rituals:

כִּי נֶפֶשׁ הַבָּשָׂר, בַּדָּם הִוא, וַאֲנִי נְתַתִּיו לָכֶם עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, לְכַפֵּר עַל-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם: כִּי-הַדָּם הוּא, בַּנֶּפֶשׁ יְכַפֵּר – For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that atones because of the life. (17:11)

כִּי-נֶפֶשׁ כָּל-בָּשָׂר, דָּמוֹ בְנַפְשׁוֹ הוּא, וָאֹמַר לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, דַּם כָּל-בָּשָׂר לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ: כִּי נֶפֶשׁ כָּל-בָּשָׂר דָּמוֹ הִוא, כָּל-אֹכְלָיו יִכָּרֵת – For as to the life of all flesh, the blood thereof is all one with the life thereof; therefore I said unto the children of Israel: Ye shall eat the blood of no manner of flesh; for the life of all flesh is the blood thereof; whosoever eateth it shall be cut off. (17:14)

One of Judaism’s lesser-known laws regulates what we do after slaughter with blood:

וְשָׁפַךְ, אֶת-דָּמוֹ, וְכִסָּהוּ, בֶּעָפָר – Pour out the blood, and cover it with dust. (17:13)

The Torah permits humans to be carnivores, but we must respect the life of God’s creations, man, and beast. Curiously, Nehama Leibowitz points out that the Torah only grudgingly grants permission to eat meat after the Flood. R’ Shlomo Farhi suggests that the Torah’s boundaries instill a sensitivity that our rights and choices as individuals don’t trump everything, and it is this sensitivity that allows us to make use of creation and use animals for our purposes.

The ability to distinguish between right and wrong, good and evil, pure and defiled, the sacred and the profane, is essential in Judaism. Imposing rules on what you can and cannot eat ingrains that kind of self-control, requiring us to learn to control even our most basic, primal instincts. The laws of kosher elevate the simple act of eating into a reminder and religious ritual. Rav Kook teaches that the undercurrent of kosher laws is a sense of reverence for life.

The Torah instituted the first systematic legislation prohibiting cruelty to animals and mandating their humane treatment. While we can utilize God’s creatures as much as necessary for our purposes, we may only do so in ways that show respect and avoid unnecessary harm. Animals do not respect each other’s sanctity of life, but people are not supposed to act like animals, and the Torah gives us laws to remind us that there ought to be a difference.

None of this is to suggest we need to become vegetarian environmentalists. It’s simply that the Torah recognizes a link between the treatment of animals and the treatment of human beings – a person who practices cruelty to animals will become cruel to people.

The Torah asks that we do not treat life casually; and that instead, we cherish and nurture life.

One of the Torah’s recursive themes is that all life is precious – and human life most of all.

But the sanctity of life is not readily apparent.

Across most of civilized history, societies readily understood that it is wrong to murder another; yet this obvious law didn’t apply equally. Without respect for the sanctity of all human life, not all humans were protected, and certain people could be dehumanized, such as slaves, who were seen as property.

When Noah emerged from the Ark, Hashem formed a covenant with Noah, which famously includes seven fundamental principles that form the bedrock of society. In a world of infanticide and human sacrifice, the Torah declares that humans must not kill, because God created all humans in His image:

שֹׁפֵךְ דַּם הָאָדָם, בָּאָדָם דָּמוֹ יִשָּׁפֵךְ כִּי בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים, עָשָׂה אֶת-הָאָדָם – Whoever sheds a man’s blood; by a man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in God’s image. (9:6)

Yet this principle is established already in the very first chapter of the Torah:

וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ: זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, בָּרָא אֹתָם – God created man in His image; in the image of God created He him – male and female, He created them. (1:27)

What does the Covenant of Noah add to our understanding of God’s image?

R’ Jonathan Sacks explains that the law in Noah develops the principle of God’s image by extending it from oneself to another. I am in God’s image, but so are you, my potential victim.

If all humans are in God’s image, then not only is murder a crime against humanity, it is also sacrilege – an offense against God. By outlawing murder, the Torah establishes a clear boundary, defining the moral limits of power; that just because we have the authority or ability to do something does not mean we ought to.

Among other key concepts of morality, the prohibition of murder gives expression the sanctity of life and the eminence of the human soul. Perhaps that’s why the prohibition of murder is repeated in the Ten Commandments.

The Torah values human life. To kill intentionally is to deny another’s humanness; perhaps the Torah believes that in doing so, the murderer has hopelessly compromised his own humanity as well.

Most of the second half of the book of Genesis is about Yakov’s children, with a strong focus on Yosef. Yet, right in the middle of the Yosef narrative, the Torah interrupts with a cryptic parallel side story about Yehuda. It’s commonly glossed over as it’s content is perhaps a little awkward.

Yehuda has a son who displeases God and dies. Presuming some form of levirate marriage, wherein marriage outside the clan is forbidden, Yehuda’s second son marries Tamar, but refuses to do his duty and have a child with her, so he dies as well. Fearing that Tamar was somehow killing his sons, Yehuda withheld his third son from her, leaving her in limbo as the first chained woman – aguna. The story continues that she pretended to be a harlot to seduced Yehuda, and became pregnant.

When word spread that Tamar was pregnant, the natural presumption was that she had violated the prohibition of staying within the clan, and she ought to be executed. Only at the last minute, she revealed her ruse, and Yehuda admitted fault.

What is this story doing in the middle of the Yosef story?

R’ Jonathan Sacks observes that this story mirrors the Yosef story, and illustrates that Yosef and Yehuda had a parallel rise and fall.

Both stories involve deception through clothing – Yosef with his blood-stained tunic, and Yehuda with Tamar’s seductive disguise.

The way the Torah begins this narrative is that Yehuda was isolated:

וַיְהִי בָּעֵת הַהִוא וַיֵּרֶד יְהוּדָה מֵאֵת אֶחָיו וַיֵּט עַד־אִישׁ עֲדֻלָּמִי וּשְׁמוֹ חִירָה. וַיַּרְא־שָׁם יְהוּדָה בַּת־אִישׁ כְּנַעֲנִי וּשְׁמוֹ שׁוּעַ וַיִּקָּחֶהָ וַיָּבֹא אֵלֶיהָ – And afterward, Yehuda descended from his brothers and camped near an Adullamite whose name was Hirah. There Judah saw the daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua, and he married her and lived with her. (38:1, 2)

Yehuda’s descent was both literal and figurative – וַיֵּרֶד יְהוּדָה מֵאֵת אֶחָיו – the Midrash teaches that the remaining brothers held Yehuda responsible for their father’s misery. He separated himself and did what no one else in the family had done – he married a Canaanite.

The turning point in this story is powerful, where Tamar reveals that she fulfilled her duty to the clan when the family would not fulfill theirs:

הִוא מוּצֵאת וְהִיא שָׁלְחָה אֶל־חָמִיהָ לֵאמֹר לְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר־אֵלֶּה לּוֹ אָנֹכִי הָרָה וַתֹּאמֶר הַכֶּר־נָא לְמִי הַחֹתֶמֶת וְהַפְּתִילִים וְהַמַּטֶּה הָאֵלֶּה. וַיַּכֵּר יְהוּדָה וַיֹּאמֶר צָדְקָה מִמֶּנִּי כִּי־עַל־כֵּן לֹא־נְתַתִּיהָ לְשֵׁלָה בְנִי וְלֹא־יָסַף עוֹד לְדַעְתָּה – As she was being brought out, she sent this message to her father-in-law, “I am with child by the man to whom these belong.” And she added, “Examine these: whose seal and cord and staff are these?” Judah recognized them and said, “She is more in the right than I since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he was not intimate with her again. (38:25,26)

As surely as Yosef and Yehuda hit their rock bottoms, they could both rise again.

Admitting his wrongdoing, he could now make amends, and the man who had proposed murdering Yosef could find his way back to become the man who would volunteer to stand in for Binyamin when Binyamin was in danger.

Parenthetically, it is worth noting that Tamar took an enormous gamble to avoid embarrassing Judah. Chazal hyperbolically liken humiliating someone to murder. R’ Jonathan Sacks quips that we cover bread at the Shabbos table so that we don’t embarrass the bread when we make kiddush first; if only we would be so careful with people with feelings!

R’ Jonathan Sacks notes throughout the Yosef story that it contains the first instances of teshuva – repentance and forgiveness, healing what would otherwise lead to permanent fractures in family relationships. Yakov’s family could find their way back once they could admit their mistakes to themselves and each other, and so can we.

Avraham was a powerful icon whose legacy has reverberated across the ages. The way the Torah sums up his life, you would think he had it all:

וְאַבְרָהָם זָקֵן בָּא בַּיָּמִים וַה’ בֵּרַךְ אֶת־אַבְרָהָם בַּכֹּל – Avraham was old, well advanced in years, and God had blessed Avraham with everything. (24:1)

The Torah characterizes his death similarly:

וַיִּגְוַע וַיָּמָת אַבְרָהָם בְּשֵׂיבָה טוֹבָה זָקֵן וְשָׂבֵעַ וַיֵּאָסֶף אֶל־עַמָּיו – Then Avraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an elderly man full of years; and he was gathered to his people. (25:8)

Along the same vein, Rashi notes that the Torah describes the years of Sarah’s life as equally good and full of life as well – שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה.

These serene descriptions have one flaw, however. They’re just not true!

Let’s recap. God promised Avraham and Sarah land and children – yet they had to fight tooth and nail to get anywhere! They were told to leave everything they had ever known for some unknown foreign land, but as soon as they’d arrived, they were forced to leave because of a devastating famine. Then, on their travels, Sarah was twice targetted by a despotic leader with unwanted sexual advances; and Avraham had to endanger himself to protect his family. They waited desperately for decades to have a child; then, when the child finally arrived, it caused bitter strife in the family between Sarah and Hagar, resulting in Avraham sending Hagar and Ishmael from home. And after all that, Avraham was asked to murder his precious child, the one he had waited so long for.

One way or another, when we think of God’s great promises of the children and the land, the reality fell far short of what Avraham and Sarah might have expected.

So why does the Torah sum up their lives as full of satisfaction and fulfillment?

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that happiness does not mean that we have everything we want or everything we believe we are due.

R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz notes that Avraham’s life is the origin story for the Jewish people, and it doesn’t go how we might expect. Avraham’s story seems so trivial – it’s about his business ventures, his travels, and his family disputes. It’s so ordinary!

Yet, R’ Berkowitz teaches, if our stories were about magical demigods riding flying unicorns wielding miraculous lightning bolts to vanquish their enemies and save the world from the clutches of evil, it couldn’t be more silly, and it couldn’t be less relevant. Avraham’s story matters precisely because it is so ordinary. It teaches us that God’s great mission for us comes without fanfare, with no red carpet and no grand celebration. Avraham is our heroic role model because the work God would have us do is in the mundane things of everyday living. It’s in making a living, marrying off a child, and living in harmony. The plain and mundane can be celebrated and sacred.

The Mishna in Pirkei Avos teaches that it is not for us to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it. It’s not your job to do everything from start to finish, but we have a duty to do all we can to pave the way before passing the baton on to the next person or generation.

As only Rabbi Jonathan Sacks can put it, God is waiting for us to act. We need God, and God needs us.

God can promise, but humans have to act. God may promise Avraham the land, but Avraham still had to buy his first field. God may promise Avraham countless descendants, but Avraham still had to identify a suitable partner for his son.

Despite all the promises, God does not and will not do it alone.

Avraham had taken those first steps. He did not need to see the entire land in Jewish hands, nor did he need to see the Jewish People become numerous. He had begun, and he had perfect confidence that his descendants would continue. Avraham and Sarah were able to die at peace not only because of their faith in God, but because of their faith, trust, and hope that others would finish what they had started.

It was enough for Avraham and Sarah, and it must be enough for us.

Just do your best, and hope for the rest.

After a turbulent relationship with his siblings that culminated in his abduction and exile, Yosef climbed his way from the gutter to Egyptian aristocracy.

Years later, his brothers came to Egypt to avoid a famine back home, and Yosef entrapped them in a drawn-out ruse.

Instead of identifying himself, he role-played as a meticulous bureaucrat. Noticing that Binyamin was absent, he apprehended and jailed Shimon until they returned with Binyamin, and then had his personal effects planted on Binyamin to make him look like a thief.

The story is a classic, albeit protracted, and theatrical. Why did Yosef act so strangely?

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch perceptively notes that Yosef’s goal must have always been to bring his family back together because if he’d wanted to forget his family, then when his brothers came to Egypt, he could have just let them be. They’d return to Israel none the wiser!

But to reunite the family, Yosef had several major obstacles to overcome. If he ever went home or wrote back to reforge the connection, it would not bring the family together; it would irreparably tear it apart. By exposing to Yakov the murderous cover-up and human trafficking perpetrated by his brothers, Yakov might regain a long lost son, but he’d undoubtedly lose the rest.

The only way to make it right would be for things to be different. The brothers would need to see that Yosef had changed, and Yosef would need to know that they had changed, and he has cause for concern.

Where was Binyamin? Had the same thing happened to Rachel’s last son?

Judah, who had once instigated Yosef’s abduction, would now take responsibility and endanger himself to protect Binyamin. Coupled with their admission of guilt and repentance – מַה־נֹּאמַר לַאדֹנִי מַה־נְּדַבֵּר וּמַה־נִּצְטַדָּק / אֲבָל אֲשֵׁמִים אֲנַחְנוּ עַל־אָחִינוּ – they had accomplished something remarkable – our very first encounter with teshuva in Jewish history.

Seeing how Yehuda courageously took responsibility for his family and stood up to take the blame, Yosef knew that they were not the reckless and impulsive young men they had been all those years ago. Seeing that they had grown, he revealed himself to them.

Once, they had feared Yosef’s ambition, believing he wanted them to serve him. Now Yosef had power over them; he could show that he didn’t want to take anything from them; he wanted to help them!

With all the theatrics, the brothers could learn more about each other than they ever could have with words, and it was the one way to tease out the insights that could bring their family together once more.

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that the stories of Bereishis are about families that could not learn to live together – it is one acrimonious falling out after another. But now there is a new paradigm – teshuva and forgiveness. Forgiveness brings Yakov’s fragmented family back together and forms the foundation of the Jewish people.

One of the most tragic figures in the Torah is Reuven. His haunting story is replete with squandered potential and the road not traveled. When he wanted to bring his mother flowers, he might have waited until Leah was alone. After Rachel’s death, he might have spoken directly to his father instead of moving the beds.

One of his defining missed opportunities is when the brothers resolved to dispose of Joseph, and Reuven convinced them to change their scheme:

וַיִּשְׁמַע רְאוּבֵן, וַיַּצִּלֵהוּ מִיָּדָם; וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא נַכֶּנּוּ נָפֶשׁ. וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם רְאוּבֵן, אַל-תִּשְׁפְּכוּ-דָם–הַשְׁלִיכוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל-הַבּוֹר הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְיָד אַל-תִּשְׁלְחוּ-בוֹ:  לְמַעַן, הַצִּיל אֹתוֹ מִיָּדָם, לַהֲשִׁיבוֹ, אֶל-אָבִיו – But when Reuven heard, he tried to save him from their clutches. He said, “Let us not take his life.” And Reuven went on, “Shed no blood! Cast him into that pit out in the wilderness, but do not touch him yourselves”—intending to save him from them and restore him to his father. (37:21, 22)

Yet his good intentions never materialize:

וַיָּשָׁב רְאוּבֵן אֶל-הַבּוֹר, וְהִנֵּה אֵין-יוֹסֵף בַּבּוֹר; וַיִּקְרַע, אֶת-בְּגָדָיו.  וַיָּשָׁב אֶל-אֶחָיו, וַיֹּאמַר:  הַיֶּלֶד אֵינֶנּוּ, וַאֲנִי אָנָה אֲנִי-בָא – When Reuven returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he rent his clothes. Returning to his brothers, he said, “The boy is gone! Where do I go now?” (37:29, 30)

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch wonders whether his previous failures might have crippled him, or that he felt threatened by Joseph; what is certain is that by deferring action to avoid the tension of confrontation, the moment fizzled out and disappeared.

The Midrash laments the missed opportunity, saying that if Reuven had known that the Torah would record for posterity that “when Reuven heard, he tried to save him from their clutches”, he would have carried Joseph back to his father on his shoulders; and the Midrash concludes with the lesson that we should do everything wholeheartedly.

But if you think about it, that’s the wrong message. If Reuven would act because of his audience, he wouldn’t be saving Joseph because he cared at all! Isn’t the Midrash honing in on the wrong point?

R’ Elya Meir Bloch observes that since the Torah spans centuries and generations, it has time skips. The stories and sagas that make the cut resonate not just in the protagonist’s lives, but in the lives of their readers for all time.

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that we can never know which moments in our lives are the inflection points. The Midrash is not about insincerity; it’s about indecisiveness. If we knew which moments would be the ones that mattered, we’d be fully present and engaged to give our all.

If Reuven had only known, says the Midrash. If he’d known that the future was watching that moment, he might have found the conviction to follow through. But Reuven could not know. He had not read the story. None of us can read the story of our life – we can only live it.

As R’ Jonathan Sacks notes, it is impossible not to recognize in Reuven a person of the highest ethical sensibilities. His heart is in the right place and he only means the best. But though he had a conscience, he lacked courage and conviction. He knew what was right, but dwelling on his mistakes had robbed him of the resolve to act boldly and decisively; and in this particular moment, more was lost than Joseph. So too was Reuven’s chance to become the hero he could and should have been.

The feeling of regret is the pain of what could have been. To minimize regret, engage in every moment wholeheartedly and fully present.

The future is watching.

Yakov had a difficult life. In childhood, he was overlooked by his father and had to flee from his murderous brother. In the place he took refuge, he was an indentured servant to his swindling father in law and was betrayed by his firstborn son. Later on in life, he lost his great love in childbirth and lost one of his sons under acrimonious circumstances.

Yet the Torah says that Yakov lived the best years of his life as an elderly man in Egypt – וַיְחִי יַעֲקֹב בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם / וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט.

After a life of pain and misery in exile, how could his final years turn out to be the best years of his life?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that like exercise, resistance can do a world of good. By adapting to resistance, we have become stronger. Yakov could be in exile and still recognize that his life had come full circle, and he could live out his days in peace and tranquility – even far from home.

At Seder, after quoting Yakov’s happy years in Egypt, we eat Maror sandwiched between Matza. Matza is the bread of freedom, which is also the bread of affliction; they complement each other. The Sfas Emes explains that we cannot celebrate being free without owning the fact we were slaves as well.

Setbacks and comebacks are the ebbs and flows of life. It’s simplistic to put a label on things in a vacuum, because life is rarely black and white, and mostly a long continuum of grey.

There is no such thing as a life without its share of problems, and it’s no good waiting on one trouble to end in order to move on to something else. The multitude of events in our life form one cohesive canvas, and we have to be present for each moment.

The Jewish People have been in exile for far longer than they haven’t. We hope for a World to Come, a utopian epoch of peace and wisdom. And yet, we don’t need that time to come in order to live our best lives. There is beauty and goodness in the daily grind of today – if we only look for it. So get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Because the good stuff happens outside your comfort zone.

One of the oldest debates in the history of psychology is nature versus nurture. Nature is what people think of as pre-wiring and is influenced by genetic inheritance of ancestral personality traits and other biological predispositions; nurture is generally taken as the influence of external environmental factors and learned experience. As with most such questions, the answer is probably non-binary and lies somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

When the Torah begins the story of the adult Yitzchak’s family, the next chapter of our ancestral history, the Torah specifies in explicit detail where his wife Rivka came from:

וַיְהִי יִצְחָק, בֶּן-אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה, בְּקַחְתּוֹ אֶת-רִבְקָה בַּת-בְּתוּאֵל הָאֲרַמִּי, מִפַּדַּן אֲרָם–אֲחוֹת לָבָן הָאֲרַמִּי, לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה – Yitzchak was forty years old when he took Rivka – daughter of Besuel the Aramean from Padan-Aram, sister of Lavan the Aramean – to be his wife. (25:20)

The thing is, the Torah has literally only just introduced us to the kindly Rivka a few lines up! Eliezer has only just encountered her and brought her to Avraham and Yitzchak’s home, and nothing else has happened. We know exactly who Rivka is! Why does the Torah restate who her family was and where she came from?

Rashi notes this peculiarity and suggests that the Torah is contrasting her gentle, kind, and warm heart with the callous selfishness and greed of the environment she grew up in, illustrating with praise that she resisted their influence so completely to the extent that she fully earned a place in Avraham’s famously open home.

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that as much as the famous adage in Pirkei Avos gives a cautious warning about the powerful influence on our personalities of bad neighbors and a poor environment, Rivka clearly and unequivocally demonstrates the power of an individual to transcend adverse circumstances and surroundings.

We can contrast Rivka, who grows up in an environment with bad people and negative influences, yet retains her generous and kind spirit – with Esau, who grows up in a home with not just Yitzchak and Yakov, but under the guidance of no less than Rivka herself! Yet instead of Esau becoming a full working partner in Avraham’s covenant, as his father had hoped, he lost his way entirely. It’s actually a key theme in each generation of these chapters of our ancestral history; Avraham can resist a cruel and pagan society, and Yakov can resist Lavan’s conniving ways.

Where we come from does not need to define where we are going; it’s not exclusively down to nature nor nurture. It doesn’t have to be definitive and exhaustive; we can always change our direction, all we have to do is make that choice, and it cuts both ways! Rivka could ignore the bad influences in her life and become a wonderful human, and Esau could ignore the good influences in his life and lose his way.

Claiming nature versus nurture is a simplistic copout to avoid taking responsibility and shirk a duty by blaming instinctive behavior or cultural environment and peer pressure. At the end of the day, our choices and our lives are ours, and ours alone. At best, we can say that nature and nurture combine to provide us with default or factory settings, our starting point. But the trajectory of your life isn’t defined by the hand you’re dealt – it’s about how you play the hand.

The surest way to forfeit your free will is to doubt that you have a choice.

Deception is one of the recurring themes in Yakov’s life story – both as perpetrator and victim.

Yakov opportunistically bought Esau’s birthright and masqueraded as Esau to get Yitzchak to give him Esau’s blessing. This set a course of events in motion, wherein Yakov had to flee to his cunning uncle Lavan, who deceived Yakov by substituting Leah in Rachel’s place, causing lifelong tension between them and their children; culminating in the brothers’ abduction of Yosef and the subsequent cover-up of Yosef; which ultimately led the family and the Jewish People to the mire of Egypt. Yakov recognized this constant struggle at the end of his life when he met Pharoh:

וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב, אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, יְמֵי שְׁנֵי מְגוּרַי, שְׁלֹשִׁים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה:  מְעַט וְרָעִים, הָיוּ יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיַּי, וְלֹא הִשִּׂיגוּ אֶת-יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי אֲבֹתַי, בִּימֵי מְגוּרֵיהֶם – Yakov said to Pharoh: ‘The days of the years of my journey are a hundred and thirty years; few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, they have not approached the days of the years of the life of my fathers in their days.’ (47:9)

Yakov recognized his difficulties, and we ought to as well. It is simplistic to dismissively hand wave and whitewash Yakov’s responsibility for the way his life unfolded. R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch teaches how important it is to acknowledge how the Torah characterizes our heroes’ flaws proudly, so what we can learn that although perfection is elusive, excellence is not. The Torah suggests that Yakov bore some blame for hurting Esau:

כִּשְׁמֹעַ עֵשָׂו, אֶת-דִּבְרֵי אָבִיו, וַיִּצְעַק צְעָקָה, גְּדֹלָה וּמָרָה עַד-מְאֹד – When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried with an extremely great and bitter cry (27:34)

R’ Jonathan Sacks highlights that the Torah narrates emotions sparingly, and the Zohar suggests that these tears alone were responsible for thousands of years of suffering.

When Yitzchak was on his deathbed, Rivka knew that Yitzchak could not see Esau for the man he truly was, so she instructed Yakov to act like Esau, and Yakov got Esau’s blessing:

וְיִתֶּן-לְךָ, הָאֱלֹהִים, מִטַּל הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּמִשְׁמַנֵּי הָאָרֶץ וְרֹב דָּגָן, וְתִירֹשׁ יַעַבְדוּךָ עַמִּים, וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְךָ לְאֻמִּים – הֱוֵה גְבִיר לְאַחֶיךָ, וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְךָ בְּנֵי אִמֶּךָ; אֹרְרֶיךָ אָרוּר, וּמְבָרְכֶיךָ בָּרוּךְ – May God give you of the dews of heaven, and the fats of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine. Let people serve you, and nations bow down to you. Lord over your brother, and let your mother’s sons bow down to you. Cursed be every one that curses you, and blessed be every one that blesseth you. (27:28,29)

This is the big blessing of the story that Yakov fought for, and it is a little underwhelming. R’ Jonathan Sacks sharply notes that this blessing for wealth and power is clearly not the blessing of Avraham’s covenant, which is about family and the Promised Land. Yishmael received blessings of power and wealth, and Esau could as well.

If we read the story closely, once Yakov and Rivka’s ruse was discovered and had Yakov had to flee, his father Yitzchak blessed him one last time, transparent with who he was speaking to:

וְאֵל שַׁדַּי יְבָרֵךְ אֹתְךָ, וְיַפְרְךָ וְיַרְבֶּךָ; וְהָיִיתָ, לִקְהַל עַמִּים. וְיִתֶּן-לְךָ אֶת-בִּרְכַּת אַבְרָהָם, לְךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ אִתָּךְ–לְרִשְׁתְּךָ אֶת-אֶרֶץ מְגֻרֶיךָ, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַן אֱלֹהִים לְאַבְרָהָם – May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful, and multiply you, that you may be a congregation of people; and give you the blessing of Avraham – to you, and your children together; that you may inherit the land of your residence, which God gave to Avraham. (28:3,4)

By imparting Avraham’s blessing to Yakov with no pretenses, the Torah suggests that the entire ruse and struggle was entirely unnecessary, and the strife and deception that characterized Yakov’s life began with an honest misunderstanding.

God’s blessing is abundant; not exclusive or zero-sum. Yishmael and Esau can also have Gods’ blessing; it will not detract from our own.

Perhaps when Esau and Yakov met again years later, Yakov had learned this lesson, and that was why they could reconcile:

קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּרְכָתִי אֲשֶׁר הֻבָאת לָךְ, כִּי-חַנַּנִי אֱלֹהִים וְכִי יֶשׁ-לִי-כֹל; וַיִּפְצַר-בּוֹ, וַיִּקָּח – “Please take my blessings that I gift to you; because God has been gracious with me, and I have enough,” he urged him; and he took it. (33:11)

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that the material gifts to Esau were the literal return of the material blessing – קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּרְכָתִי – and bowing to Esau showed his deference to Esau’s place; acknowledging the wrongdoing of their youth. Instead of trying to usurp Esau’s position in the family and take his blessings; Esau could be Esau, and Yakov could be Yakov – וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו, יֶשׁ-לִי רָב; אָחִי, יְהִי לְךָ אֲשֶׁר-לָךְ.

Only once Yakov fights off the specter of trying to be like Esau does he earn the name and title of Yisrael, which has a connotation of straightness.

Perhaps the lesson is straightforward. We each have our own blessings, and we mustn’t seek our brother’s blessing. His blessing is his, and yours is yours.

Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.

One of the Torah’s features is that it doesn’t whitewash its heroes. It presents them as real people, which R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes is a key element of the Torah’s credibility as a moral guide.

The story of Yakov and Esau’s childhood and upbringing offers an illuminating masterclass on family dynamics:

וַיִּגְדְּלוּ הַנְּעָרִים, וַיְהִי עֵשָׂו אִישׁ יֹדֵעַ צַיִד, אִישׁ שָׂדֶה; וְיַעֲקֹב אִישׁ תָּם, יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים – The boys grew up together; and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Yakov was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. (25:27)

Yitzchak and Rivka raised their twin boys together – וַיִּגְדְּלוּ הַנְּעָרִים – yet express some surprise that they turned out differently – וַיְהִי.

Rashi criticizes this blanket parenting technique, citing the proverb in Mishlei that advises parents to educate every child in their own way; so that when they grow up, they don’t lose their way – חֲנֹךְ לַנַּעַר עַל פִּי דַרְכּוֹ, גַּם כִּי יַזְקִין לֹא יָסוּר מִמֶּנָּה.

The Malbim intuitively notes that different people need different things, and all people are different!

It seems obvious that parents need to be on the same page, but it’s not so easy.  And it should be even more obvious that it is the unruly children who need extra love, acceptance, and embrace, which is certainly the hardest of all.

It was and is a mistake to raise a Yakov and an Esau in the same way with their different abilities and aptitudes. It should not surprise us that one size does not fit all. Whatever Yitzchak might have hoped for Esau, history has borne out that he did not live up to the family legacy, but we can only wonder what might have been if there had been some way for a man of Esau’s talents to channel his talents for the better – אִישׁ יֹדֵעַ צַיִד אִישׁ שָׂדֶה.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch wonders if Yitzchak and Rivka not being on the same page about how to handle Esau might have contributed to the environment of competition and strife between their children, preventing them from being themselves, resulting in the jealousy and rivalry that defined the relationship between Esau and Yakov for most of their lives. This disagreement was likely why Rivka orchestrated the ruse for the blessings, to show Yitzchak how he could be fooled.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch suggests that one of Yakov’s greatest blessings was that he could recognize the value of the diversity of his twelve sons – even if only at the end of his life – and blessed each of them with an individualized yet still cohesive and complementary future – the scholars of Levi would teach the rest; the warrior-kings of Yehuda would lead in peace and war; the traders of Zevulun would support the scholar of Yissachar, and so on. Each child had different predispositions, and he foresaw a way for them to come together.

All too often, a child will grow up and go down a path one or both parents don’t approve of. But attempting to impose change will only backfire and cause deeper alienation. All parents and teachers must remember that however much the Torah requires us to be good people, the recipe is different for each of us, and it will look different from person to person.

R’ Shlomo Farhi sharply notes that the proverb advises parents to raise every child in the child’s way, not the parent’s way – עַל פִּי דַרְכּוֹ, not דרכך. Even more pointedly, the proverb doesn’t even predict that he won’t veer from the way you taught him, only that he won’t veer from his own path.

We should not teach our children to be just like us; we would do well to follow the proverb, so they never lose their way – חֲנֹךְ לַנַּעַר עַל פִּי דַרְכּוֹ, גַּם כִּי יַזְקִין לֹא יָסוּר מִמֶּנָּה.

If we teach our children to find themselves, they will never be lost.

There is a famous philosophical problem called The Problem of Evil. Seeing evil all around us, it challenges our belief that God is omnipotent and omniscient.

It’s not a problem isolated to philosophers; it’s a question we all find ourselves asking from time to time. 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 actually good or that God is simply beyond our understanding. There is some merit to these and similar arguments, but they are impractical.

Anyone who claims to have the one true answer to almost any philosophical question is almost invariably wrong. The nature of such things is that they either don’t lend themselves to a single resolution and sometimes to any resolution at all. The best we can muster 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 answer to the question is how it challenges us to live in response to the existence of the problem – when we see something is wrong, do we try to make it better? While this does not directly address the question, remember the question has no answer; it can only prompt us to respond.

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 built a formidable clan. Despite all God’s promises, Avraham has had to fight tooth and nail for every single thing; yet his brother seems to get it all oh-so-easily.

But Avraham never complains that God has been unfair. He just gets on with it.

He could do that because he didn’t live with the expectation or entitlement that life would turn out just the way he wanted if he lived a moral life.

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.

Bad things happen to good people all the time. Good things happen to bad people all the time. Bad things happen to everyone, and good things happen to everyone!

We read the story of the Akeida and the news that follows on Rosh HaShana. The story recalls the merit of our heroes and the struggles they faced in their day to day lives. They did not live with the expectation that life would be fair and appear fair, and we must dispel that notion as well.

Because sometimes it really isn’t fair, and no answer or explanation will do. It just isn’t fair! We’d best make our peace with it, and all we can do is respond in the way we choose to live. Like Avraham, we just have to get on with it and try to live as best we can.

One of Judaism’s most treasured traditions is gracious hospitality. We rightly praise altruism and kindness, aspiring to emulate the role models who practiced it so well, Avraham first and foremost among them.

There is one story that encapsulates the generous and loving warmth that so characterized Avraham, the first man to correctly intuit the right way to live.

After circumcising himself, an excruciatingly painful procedure to be performed as an elderly man with no modern anesthetic or medicine, he faced an agonizing recovery. While recuperating from the procedure that marked his body with the symbol of his family’s new covenant with God, he parked himself at the door, and received a remarkable visitor – no less than God Himself:

וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו ה’, בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא; וְהוּא יֹשֵׁב פֶּתַחהָאֹהֶל, כְּחֹם הַיּוֹם – Hashem appeared to him on the plains of Mamre, as he sat by the tent door in the heat of the day. (18:1)

No sooner has this unusual visitor appeared that something even more remarkable happens. No sooner as God arrives, Avraham interrupts this extraordinary visit to chase some passing travelers and bring them home to rest with some food and drink!

 וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו, וַיַּרְא, וְהִנֵּה שְׁלֹשָׁה אֲנָשִׁים, נִצָּבִים עָלָיו; וַיַּרְא, וַיָּרָץ לִקְרָאתָם מִפֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל, וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ, אָרְצָה –  He lifted his eyes and looked, and, saw three men standing nearby; and when he noticed them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed down to the earth, (18:2)

The Midrash imagines that Avraham quite literally interrupted God, and asked God to wait a few minutes! Assuming that Avraham did the right thing, the Gemara concludes that hospitality is even more important than welcoming God.

We are religious people. We believe in God, we serve God, and live our lives according to our best understanding of God’s law. How could anything be more important than God?!

The Maharal explains that when we honor guests, we honor the image of God in the other person. Accordingly, loving a human and loving God are close, if not identical.

The Malbim explains that the yardstick for measuring our love for God is how much we love others, which is why even welcoming God is subordinate to hospitality. Avraham calls the men his masters, and ask them not to leave – אֲדֹנָי, אִםנָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ אַלנָא תַעֲבֹר, מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ – but this also reads as the moment Avraham asked God to wait – it’s one of God’s names!

R’ Jonathan Sacks highlights that in this story, God appears happy to wait, endorsing the essential lesson that we don’t show our love of God by fasting, retreating into the mountains, vowing silence, or abstaining from earthly things. God’s approval of Avraham’s choice illustrates that we show our interaction with other humans is what proves our love of God.

Nothing is holier or more sacred than making space in your life and home for others. We honor God most by honoring those in His image – other humans.

The Binding of Isaac, the Akeida, is one of the most challenging stories in the Torah. Our sages and philosophers have grappled with it since time immemorial, and with good reason.

The Torah is the source code for what we understand to be moral. Yet God asks Avraham to murder his son, and the Torah confronts the reader with a fundamental question: Can God ask us to do something immoral and wrong?

The story concludes with a retraction of the notion that Avraham would need to follow through and kill his son in God’s name. God is impressed that Avraham doesn’t withhold his son, and we come away understanding that God would never ask us to do something unethical. In stopping Avraham at the very last moment, God drives home the point that there is no sanctity in child sacrifice and death; this God is different. This God is committed to life, absolutely.

But while the ending is illuminating, the way we interpret the story up until the reversal matters as well.

To be sure, there is a diverse spectrum of legitimate discourse; we should evaluate their relative standing with regards to the values they teach. The ramifications of what we teach our children are enormously consequential, so we need to get it right.

If we think about God’s instruction and say that up until the final moment, God truly meant it and only then changed His mind; then, it destroys our conceptualization of ethics and morality because they are ad hoc – fluid and not universal.

And if we think that Avraham truly and simply desired to obey God and sacrifice his son and that he regretted not being able to obey God’s command, then the whole story makes no sense. Child sacrifice was common in that era – if Avraham was all too willing to murder his son, what exactly is the test? It destroys the entire notion of his “sacrifice”!  Furthermore, if Avraham is all too willing to murder his son, what kind of role model is he, and why would we teach children that this is what greatness looks like?

And of course, apart from the fact this interpretation leaves us in moral turpitude, it also makes no sense in the broader context of the Torah, which explicitly condemns child sacrifice on multiple occasions.

By necessity, we need to reject the notion that Avraham truly and simply wished to sacrifice Yitzchak. The story only makes sense if it was hard – really hard.

Until this point in Avraham’s life, his commitment to life and commitment to God were in perfect harmony – God wanted Avraham to be good to others. Now that God asked him to sacrifice his son, he had a dilemma because his two great commitments were no longer aligned. At no point does the story suggest that this is easy for Avraham, and actually, quite the opposite. Let’s read the story closely:

וַיֹּאמֶר קַח־נָא אֶת־בִּנְךָ אֶת־יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר־אָהַבְתָּ אֶת־יִצְחָק וְלֶךְ־לְךָ אֶל־אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם לְעֹלָה עַל אַחַד הֶהָרִים אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ… בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת־עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת־הַמָּקוֹם מֵרָחֹק… וַיִּשְׁלַח אַבְרָהָם אֶת־יָדוֹ וַיִּקַּח אֶת־הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת לִשְׁחֹט אֶת־בְּנוֹ – And He said, “Please take your son, your favored one, Yitzchak, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you…” On the third day, Avraham looked up and saw the place from afar… And Avraham sent his hand and picked up the knife to slay his son. (22:2,4,10)

The Ran highlights out that Hashem never instructed Avraham to sacrifice his son; Hashem only requested it – “Please” – קַח-נָא. This is not a command that must be obeyed; this is a request that does not mandate compliance.

As Avraham struggled with turmoil about the position he was in, he looked up and saw the mountain in the distance –  וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם–מֵרָחֹק. The Nesivos Shalom notes that הַמָּקוֹם is one of God’s names, the Omnipresent, the attribute that God is everywhere, and “the place” of all things – הַמָּקוֹם. This whole affair did not feel right to Avraham. He’d opposed human sacrifice pagan worship his whole life, and yet here he was, about to destroy his life’s work and snuff out his family legacy. He felt a distance from God – וַיַּרְא אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם–מֵרָחֹק.

Then, at the story’s dramatic crescendo, the Torah uses remarkable imagery to characterize what took place. Avraham does not “pick up” the knife; he must “force his hand” – וַיִּשְׁלַח אַבְרָהָם אֶת-יָדוֹ, וַיִּקַּח אֶת-הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת. The Torah dissociates Avraham from his disembodied hand because Avraham was resisting what he was doing. The Malbim notes that Avraham had to force himself because his natural predisposition had always been aligned with God, so this resistance was unfamiliar because murdering his son was something God didn’t actually want!

The Kotzker suggests that even to the musculoskeletal level, the cumbersome description of Avraham’s belabored muscle movements truly expressed and mirrored God’s desire that Yitzchak would remain unharmed – כָּל עַצְמוֹתַי תֹּאמַרְנָה.

Lastly, R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that Avraham’s entire characterization in this story is lethargic, illustrating the slow heaviness with which he moves through the story. But lethargy runs counter to everything we know about Avraham up to this point! He is introduced to us as someone who eagerly and enthusiastically goes where God tells him, who runs after guests to invite them in, and who hurries to feed them. In this story, he is in stark contrast with his energetic fervent self because he faces the greatest challenge of his life, and it is antithetical to his very being.

Of course, we know how the story ends. God would never ask us to do something unethical. But how we tell the story matters just as much as how it ends.

This gut-wrenching story of moral turmoil is held in the highest esteem by humans and by God. And that’s because it wasn’t easy. It is not a story about blind faith and obedience, but the exact opposite.

Quite tellingly, we read this story on Rosh Hashana. Sure, we recall the great merit of our ancestors. But perhaps we can also remind ourselves that the greats also grappled mightily with unclear choices between right and wrong.

Will we tell the truth and be personally honest when confronted, or keep a secret and loyally honor a promise? Will we prioritize individual needs and do something that greatly helps a few, or communal needs and do something that adequately helps many? Will we be just, fair, and equal with our friends and family, or will we be compassionate and merciful based on each circumstance? Will we prioritize the present or the future? Short term or long term?

It is all too rare that we face a moral choice that is truly black and white. Most of the time, it’s not a starving orphaned widow with cancer whose house burned down, knocking on the door asking for help. Far more often, we face a difficult choice between competing ideals, none of which will resolve the situation in a manner that perfectly aligns with an established code of ethics or norms.

We would do well to remember our role models. They weren’t primitive people – they were refined humans doing their best to ethically navigate a world of murky choices. And while society may have changed in form, it hasn’t changed in substance, and humans haven’t changed much at all.

Doing the right thing is plenty hard enough; but you first have to identify what the right thing truly is, which is far harder. It gets to the core of our mission in life, and we must take strength from the stories of our greats – this is the way it’s always been, and we must persevere all the same.

Before God destroyed Sodom, He discussed it with Avraham. Avraham pleaded for Sodom to be spared and speculated that perhaps fifty righteous people would be worth saving the city for.

Hashem agreed:

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 the whole place for their sake.” (18:26)

The Ibn Ezra notes that God requires these potential saviors to be righteous in public – בִסְדֹם / צַדִּיקִם בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר.

R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch teaches that righteous people are not scholars in ivory towers; they actively drive positive change in their communities by publicly living out the Torah’s teachings. They 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.

R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz highlights Avraham as someone concerned and compassionate for the people and world around him – even people who stand against everything he stands for.

This leaves us with a remarkable lesson about Sodom’s destruction; it was condemned because of its evil, but it was only doomed because it had no one willing to work for its salvation. If even 10 such people had existed, working with the public to improve the community’s moral fiber, the city would have been saved.

Nechama Leibowitz notes that Yirmiyahu mentions a similar theme when warning of the fall of Jerusalem:

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 Jerusalem’s streets because they were in their houses. They were too fearful to publicly stand up for what they believed in, so Jerusalem fell. 

The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that our souls are candles that God gives us to illuminate the world, like the Chanukah Menorah, which is positioned by the front door or window, so that it lights up the inside of our homes, but ideally, the 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 out others to encourage their own religious expression.

The discomfort of swimming against the tide of popular culture is the sacrifice that validates whether or not and how much we care about other people. If we concentrate solely on ourselves, abandoning those who wander or are lost, can we say we care for others at all?

R’ Mordechai Gifter taught that altruism is superior to empathy; empathy only requires us to tune in to other people’s needs, whereas altruism requires positive outreach.  When Avraham had no-one to help, he literally went outside to find someone to bring in and 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.

The Jewish People are a candle in the dark of the world. If you care for the vision the Torah has for us; you’re in small a subset of candles that can burn especially bright. If you cared enough to live accordingly, how many people’s lives could you touch?

A single candle can dispel a whole night of darkness.

Philosophers debate the nature of altruism, the practice of being concerned with others’ welfare, and how self-interest can intersect with it. We laud Avraham as the first man to reach out to others about the way humans ought to live; yet when God speaks to him, it is not with the language of altruism:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ. וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, וַאֲבָרֶכְךָ, וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ; וֶהְיֵה, בְּרָכָה. וַאֲבָרְכָה, מְבָרְכֶיךָ, וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ, אָאֹר; וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ, כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה – Hashem said to Avram: “Go for yourself; from your land, from your neighborhood, and from your father’s house; to the land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those that bless you, and those that curse you I will curse; and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” (12:1-3)

Rashi explains that Avraham must go for his own sake; he must seek family, fame, and fortune because he desires them – לֶךְ-לְךָ / לַהֲנָאָתְךָ וּלְטוֹבָתְךָ.

Why does God command Avraham, the paragon of altruism, to pursue self-interest?

Perhaps our understanding of altruism is slightly skewed. We think it’s a good question because the conventional wisdom suggests that pure altruism requires one person to sacrifice for another with no personal benefit; that self-interest and altruism are antithetical.

Yet, in practice, we rightly admire people who create or contribute opportunities for our communities. We have no respect for people who let others walk all over them, which amounts to a lack of self-respect, not altruism.

As the famous saying in Pirkei Avos goes, if I am not for myself, what am I…? Rabbeinu Yonah explains that extrinsic motivation is fleeting; we need to pursue our goals for our own purposes – אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי.

Hashem tells Avraham to go on the journey for intrinsic purposes because it will be personally rewarding. The Rambam says that wise people do the right thing because it is the right thing to do; any optimistic hopes about what may follow will always be secondary to doing the right thing.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches that only once we value ourselves can we learn to value others.

For Avraham to open his home to the world, he needed to have a house large enough to share with others and something to share with them. He had to establish himself in order to help others – וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי.

The how and why are everything. It is perfectly ok to have lots of money, for example, but the qualifier is what we do with it.

Avraham is altruistic, but he is not selfless, which is extrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is outcome-oriented, so it cannot last – when we win the deal, marry the person, or build the school, what happens then? And what happens if we don’t get the outcome we hoped for?

In contrast, intrinsic motivation is process-oriented, which is more reliable in the long run because it is objectively fulfilling.

The Torah does not expect or condone selflessness. Selflessness is not sustainable, and it’s not an ingredient that leads to a lasting legacy. Hashem says to Avraham that he must take the journey for his own sake, not for God and not for others. His approach would only endure if it weren’t contingent on something extrinsic.

The Seforno notes that Hashem promises Avraham that on this journey of self-fulfillment that takes care of others, he will not only be blessed; he will literally become a blessing – וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ; וֶהְיֵה, בְּרָכָה.

As the saying in Mishlei says, a kind man cares for his wellbeing, and a cruel man afflicts himself – גֹּמֵל נַפְשׁוֹ, אִישׁ חָסֶד; וְעֹכֵר שְׁאֵרוֹ, אַכְזָרִי. Altruism is possible, and altruism is real, although, in healthy people, it intertwines with the well-being of the self; our actions express and promote our values; they do not seek other people’s approval.

It’s ok to establish and stand up for yourself. The balance to strike is that we utilize our blessings to help others.

The concept of covenant is a central theme of Judaism. Covenants typically have a sign, such as the rainbow signifying God’s promise not to flood the world. In Jewish men, the covenant is expressed through the practice of circumcision – בְּרִית – literally, “covenant.” A covenant is defined as a bilateral agreement of mutual commitment between two parties.

What is the agreement of the covenant?

When God engaged Avraham to enter the covenant, God mapped out a vision for humanity, blessing Avraham’s descendants with greatness, and the land of Israel. They just had to do one small thing:

וַיֵּרָא ה אֶל-אַבְרָם, וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי-אֵל שַׁדַּי–הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי, וֶהְיֵה תָמִים – Hashem appeared to Avraham, and said to him; “I am The Omnipotent…. Walk before me, and be perfect ”. (17:1)

All the covenant requires of us is… to be perfect. It doesn’t take much trying before you quickly realize that perfection is impossible. How can God ask us to do the impossible?

The question betrays the kind of defeatist thinking we are prone to. Perfectionism can be paralyzing – if we can’t do it perfectly, then why try at all?

We need to learn that perfection is not the outcome but the process. The Beis Halevi teaches that when we do our best, we will find ourselves becoming more perfect – הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי / וֶהְיֵה תָמִים.

Rabbi Akiva taught that in the same way we consider a loaf of bread an improvement from raw stalks of wheat, humans can and must improve the world around us.

The Gemara teaches that the name Hashem introduced Himself with, אֵל שַׁדַּי, expresses the concept that the Creator withdrew from creating so that life had space to be and grow – שאמר לעולמו די.

The Kedushas Levi notes that by necessity, God forms this space for us to have any input because our input is precisely what God desires from us.

The Malbim explains that our active participation is the essential theme of the covenant. Circumcision is not an extrinsic sign; it is the covenantal mark on our bodies, living expressions of the covenant itself.

The symbolism of modifying our bodies as soon as we are born is a powerful visual metaphor we carry with us, teaching us that we can our everyday lives can be elevated and refined to improve the world around us.

We can’t be perfect. But the perfect is the enemy of the good.

Abraham Lincoln famously said that anyone could handle adversity, but to test a man’s character truly, give him power.

Power is the ability to do something or act in a particular way or the capacity to influence others’ behavior or the course of events.

Today, more than ever, power and money are almost inextricably linked, as wealthy people are typically powerful. Wealthy people have the resources and the means to make things happen. In some cases, they can buy all the lawyers, politicians, and institutions they need to protect them from meaningful consequences. We certainly know that having a lot of money gives someone an aura of success, as well as a platform, because of the tremendous respect people have for their money.

We probably know Machiavellian characters who would forsake family, friends, respect, and integrity for a few more dollars. They tend to reveal themselves when the opportunity to make more money arises, people whose zero-sum, all-or-nothing attitude becomes plain as day if they can get ahead. As the Mesilas Yesharim writes, exploiting people in business is sadly all too common.

Yet the Torah doesn’t tell us outright that money is bad. In fact, many of the heroes in our stories are blessed the fabulous wealth and success, like Avraham when they left Egypt:

וַיַּעַל אַבְרָם מִמִּצְרַיִם הוּא וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וְכָל-אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ, וְלוֹט עִמּוֹ–הַנֶּגְבָּה. וְאַבְרָם, כָּבֵד מְאֹד, בַּמִּקְנֶה, בַּכֶּסֶף וּבַזָּהָב. וַיֵּלֶךְ, לְמַסָּעָיו, מִנֶּגֶב, וְעַד-בֵּית-אֵל–עַד-הַמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר-הָיָה שָׁם אָהֳלֹה בַּתְּחִלָּה, בֵּין בֵּית-אֵל, וּבֵין הָעָי. אֶל-מְקוֹם, הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה שָׁם, בָּרִאשֹׁנָה; וַיִּקְרָא שָׁם אַבְרָם, בְּשֵׁם ה – Avram went up from Egypt; him, and his wife, and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the South. And Avram was very rich in cattle, in silver, and gold. And he went on his journeys from the South to Beth-el, to the place where his tent had originally been, between Beth-el and Ai, and to the site of the altar, which he had made earlier; and Avram called there in the name of Hashem. (13:1-4)

Given the obvious dangers and pitfalls that wealth poses, how do our heroes model the proper way to wield influence and wealth?

The Torah gives us some clues on how to conduct ourselves, and we see it play out in Lot’s contentious departure from Avraham.

Upon Avraham’s return to Israel, the Torah makes it clear that wealth hasn’t changed him; he returns to his old home, and his renowned altar on the mountainside – עַד-הַמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר-הָיָה שָׁם אָהֳלֹה בַּתְּחִלָּה / אֶל-מְקוֹם, הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, אֲשֶׁר-עָשָׂה שָׁם, בָּרִאשֹׁנָה.

In stark contrast, Lot’s attitude to wealth alienates him from the family, which causes the dispute:

וְלֹא-נָשָׂא אֹתָם הָאָרֶץ, לָשֶׁבֶת יַחְדָּו:  כִּי-הָיָה רְכוּשָׁם רָב, וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לָשֶׁבֶת יַחְדָּו.  וַיְהִי-רִיב, בֵּין רֹעֵי מִקְנֵה-אַבְרָם, וּבֵין, רֹעֵי מִקְנֵה-לוֹט; – The land was not able to bear them dwelling together; because their assets were so great. There was strife between the herdmen of Abram’s cattle and the herdmen of Lot’s cattle… (13:6,7)

The Torah implies from the beginning that money is what stands between Avraham and Lot – וַיַּעַל אַבְרָם מִמִּצְרַיִם הוּא וְאִשְׁתּוֹ וְכָל-אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ, וְלוֹט עִמּוֹ. In this imagery, what stands between Avraham and Lot is literally their wealth – כָל-אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that they drifted apart not because of a shortage of land but because of such an abundance that they couldn’t figure out how to jointly manage it – כִּי-הָיָה רְכוּשָׁם רָב וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לָשֶׁבֶת יַחְדָּו.

The Malbim observes that people who can agree on basic fundamental principles can figure out a way forward. Avraham wanted to return to his roots, whereas Lot wanted to accumulate more – there was no way for them to work together anymore. Lot’s fortune had changed him, and Avraham’s had not. The assets had become a burden – כָּבֵד מְאֹד, בַּמִּקְנֶה, בַּכֶּסֶף וּבַזָּהָב.

The tension between the family leads them to separate, and Avraham magnanimously offers his young nephew the first choice of where he will go, and Lot chooses Sodom and the fertile Jordan Valley. The Torah lets us know what it thinks of Lot; he has literally and figuratively descended into the evil environment of Sodom, whose destruction is imminent – in contrast to Avraham, thanking Hashem with sacrificial offerings high in the hills and mountains of Israel.

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that tribulations unite us, but our real test comes in times of plenty and security.

In any relationship, whether business, personal, or romantic, it just won’t work if each partner is only out for themselves. Keeping score will create a mutual incompatibility and is a sure way to lose. The only way everyone wins is when partners look out for each other and let small things pass.

Relationships are always a binary choice of working towards the vision or division. The Torah teaches us that families and relationships disintegrate when individuals lose sight of the bigger picture of common goals and let money get in between them.

People think that money and power corrupt, but more probable than the notion that it changes us is the idea that it reveals our authentic selves by expressing our priorities. When we don’t need to keep up a facade to get what we want from others, our truest self can express itself, which is how the Torah’s heroes wielded influence and power. The Torah’s ideal is that good fortune will pair with good character, rather than unmasking mediocre values.

Money and power aren’t inherently bad; they don’t change you. But they do reveal who you are.

 

Avraham was counter-cultural, resisting the religious and social trends of his day, earning the blessing of being a father of multitudes:

וַיּוֹצֵא אֹתוֹ הַחוּצָה, וַיֹּאמֶר הַבֶּטנָא הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וּסְפֹר הַכּוֹכָבִיםאִםתּוּכַל, לִסְפֹּר אֹתָם; וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ, כֹּה יִהְיֶה זַרְעֶךָ – And He took him outside, and said: ‘Look at the heavens, and count the stars as if you could ever count them’; and He said to him: ‘So will your children be.’

By living differently, he earned a different fate, transcending the natural course of history – וַיּוֹצֵא אֹתוֹ הַחוּצָה.

What made Avraham different was his belief in the One God, which manifested in him dedicating his life to education, kindness, justice, and outreach. On this basis, before destroying Sodom, something remarkably unusual happens.

The Torah describes a soliloquy, characterizing God’s internal thought process, telling us of God’s discomfort with hiding something from a human:

 וַה אָמָר: הַמְכַסֶּה אֲנִי מֵאַבְרָהָם, אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי עֹשֶׂה. וְאַבְרָהָםהָיוֹ יִהְיֶה לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, וְעָצוּם; וְנִבְרְכוּבוֹכֹּל, גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ. כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו, לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶתבָּנָיו וְאֶתבֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ ה, לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּטלְמַעַן, הָבִיא ה עַלאַבְרָהָם, אֵת אֲשֶׁרדִּבֶּר, עָלָיו  Hashem said to Himself: “Shall I hide from Avraham what I am about to do? Avraham will become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed through him. I know him; he will command his children and his house after him, that they may observe the way of Hashem, to do what is right and just; so that Hashem will bring upon Avraham that which He spoke of him.” (18:17-19)

This whole episode takes place because God, remarkably, feels obligated to talk to a human. The flow of the story implies that without this conversation, Avraham would wake up in the morning to smoldering ruins on the horizon, and, believing that innocent citizens of Sodom were swept away with the guilty, he would no longer be able to teach that God is just. We know this would have been Avraham’s thought process because this is precisely his line of questioning when he, again, remarkably, challenges God:

וַיִּגַּשׁ אַבְרָהָם, וַיֹּאמַר הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה, צַדִּיק עִםרָשָׁע – Avraham approached and said: “Will you really sweep away the righteous with the wicked?!” (18:23)

Avraham continues:

 חָלִלָה לְּךָ מֵעֲשֹׂת כַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה, לְהָמִית צַדִּיק עִםרָשָׁע, וְהָיָה כַצַּדִּיק, כָּרָשָׁע; חָלִלָה לָּךְהֲשֹׁפֵט כָּלהָאָרֶץ, לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט. – “It profanes You to do such a thing – to slay the righteous with the wicked so that the righteous should exactly be the same as the wicked – it profanes You! Will the Judge of all the earth not act justly?!” (18:25)

Fascinatingly, God accepts Avraham’s fundamental premise that collective punishment is unjust and that it truly would be wrong to destroy a whole group indiscriminately. Once God has validated that this principle is correct, they negotiate how many innocents would be worth saving the city for:

וַיֹּאמֶר אַלנָא יִחַר לַאדֹנָי, וַאֲדַבְּרָה אַךְהַפַּעַםאוּלַי יִמָּצְאוּן שָׁם, עֲשָׂרָה; וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אַשְׁחִית, בַּעֲבוּר הָעֲשָׂרָה. – And he said: “Please, don’t be angry, Hashem, and I will speak just once more. Perhaps ten innocents can be found there?” And Hashem said: “I will not destroy the city for the ten’s sake.” (18:32)

Of course, God did rescue the innocents, in the form of Lot and his family, and then God destroys the city anyway, as God was always going to.

The seed for this entire highly unusual dialogue is for the stated reason that Avraham is going to teach his descendants about justice and integrity – לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶתבָּנָיו וְאֶתבֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ ה, לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט.

Unlike Noah, who accepts God’s condemnation of his world, Avraham establishes a precedent followed by Moshe, Jonah, and many others of brazenness towards Heaven, for Heaven’s sake – חוצפה כלפי שמיא. And we must not think this is sacrilege – it’s the exact opposite! Hashem very literally invites and prompts Avraham into the argument. There is a reason Avraham is known as the Hebrew, the stranger standing alone on the other side – אברהם העברי.

Avraham was committed to God and committed to justice, but his loyalties were at odds in this conversation. The test is that God would appear unjust to see whether Avraham swayed towards justice or to God. By appearing to lose the staged argument, God demonstrates a commitment to justice, paradoxically validating Avraham’s loyalty to God. Thus, the story of Avraham testing God’s commitment to justice turns out to simultaneously be a story of God testing Avraham’s commitment to justice.

But he could not teach what he did not yet know! R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that God orchestrates the whole conversation simply so that Avraham and his descendants – we the readers – can learn that there is nothing sacred about accepting suffering or wrongdoing.

R’ Jonathan Sacks explains that it is beyond human comprehension to understand suffering in the world; because if we could understand it, then we would accept it. There is no satisfactory answer to injustice in the world, except that asking the question might cause us to live the response through our actions.

It is up to us as the bearers of Avraham’s legacy to stand up for what is right. When there is something you can do to make it right, do not close your eyes and turn away.

Humans are the apex predator on Earth. We possess superior intelligence, which we communicate through speech in order to cooperate with other humans, giving us a considerable advantage in forming groups, as we can pool workloads and specializations. Speech is the tool through which we actualize our intelligence and self-awareness.

Through speech, we have formed societies and built civilizations; developed science and medicine; literature and philosophy. Crucially, we do not have to learn everything from personal experience, because we can use language to learn from the experience of others.

The Torah holds language and speech in the highest esteem because words are tangible. Indeed, they are the fabric of Creation – וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, יְהִי אוֹר; וַיְהִי-אוֹר.

R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that the concept of covenant is a performative utterance that creates a relationship between two people – a mutual commitment created through speech. Whether it’s God giving us the Torah, or a husband marrying his wife; relationships are fundamental to Judaism. We can only build relationships and civilizations once we can make commitments to each other.

We make important decisions based on thoughts and feelings based on words on a page or a conversation with someone. It has been said that with one glance at a book, you can hear the voice of another person – perhaps someone dead for thousands of years – speaking across the millennia clearly and directly to you.

Given the potency of speech and language, the Torah emphasizes in multiple places: the laws of the metzora; the incident where Miriam and Ahron challenged Moshe; and even the Torah’s choice of words about the animals that boarded the Ark:

מִכֹּל הַבְּהֵמָה הַטְּהוֹרָה, תִּקַּח-לְךָ שִׁבְעָה שִׁבְעָה–אִישׁ וְאִשְׁתּוֹ; וּמִן-הַבְּהֵמָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא טְהֹרָה הִוא, שְׁנַיִם-אִישׁ וְאִשְׁתּוֹ – Of every clean creature, take seven and seven, each with his mate; and of the creatures that are not clean two, each with his mate. (7:2)

The Gemara notes that instead of using the more concise and accurate expression of “impure,” the Torah uses extra ink to express itself more positively – “that are not clean” – אֲשֶׁר לֹא טְהֹרָה הִוא. The Lubavitcher Rebbe preferred to refer to “death” as “the opposite of life”; and hospital “infirmaries” as a “place of healing.”

The Torah cautions us of the power of speech repeatedly in more general settings:

לֹא-תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ, לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ:  אֲנִי, ה – Do not allow a gossiper to mingle among the people; do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor: I am Hashem. (19:16)

The Torah instructs us broadly not to hurt, humiliate, deceive, or cause another person any sort of emotional distress:

וְלֹא תוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת-עֲמִיתוֹ, וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱלֹהֶיךָ: כִּי אֲנִי ה, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם – Do not wrong one another; instead, you should fear your God; for I am Hashem. (25:27)

It’s interesting that both these laws end with “I am Hashem” – evoking the concept of emulating what God does; which suggests that just as God speaks constructively, so must we – אֲנִי ה.

The Gemara teaches that verbal abuse is worse than financial damages because finances can be restituted, but words can’t be taken back.

The idea that words impact the world around us belies the extensive laws of vows, which are so important that addressing them is how we begin Yom Kippur at Kol Nidrei.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that as much as God creates with words, so do humans.

Of course, one major caveat on harmful speech is the intent. If sharing negative information has a constructive and beneficial purpose that may prevent harm or injustice, there is no prohibition, and there might even be an obligation to protect your neighbor by conveying the information – לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ.

Language distinguishes humans from other animals. It’s what makes us human. God creates and destroys with words, and so do we.

Rather than hurt and humiliate, let’s use our powerful words to help and heal; because words and ideas can change the world.

The Torah is written in the language of humans, and storytelling is one of humanity’s most powerful tools. Some parts of the Torah are communicated in the forms of laws, and others in stories.  Integral messages can be passed through the ages, each generation filtering it through its wisest minds, gleaning new insights in each telling.

Some authorities say that our tradition’s stories are not about ordinary people like us; they are about perfect saints who were qualitatively different from us.

This is not a universally held position, and with good reason. If the stories are about holy people who are different from us, how can their stories be relevant guidance for our lives?

The Maharitz Chajes notes that stories are often the Torah’s medium for teaching us about morality because mature people understand that moral choices are often difficult and rarely black and white. While the law is made of words, those words have to be lived, and only a story transmits the turmoil and weight of how those words and values interface with real life.

 When famine struck Avraham’s new home in Israel, he decided that his family would have better food security in Egypt’s fertile land, and they left Israel. While this was an eminently reasonable decision to have made based on his assessment of the facts, the way it worked out was that he placed Sarah in a highly compromising situation that required divine intervention after Paroh took her.

The Ramban criticizes Avraham for leaving Israel and not counting on God’s promises, and not only that but by abandoning Israel, he jeopardized and risked those very promises and endangered the family he was trying to protect.

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that the Torah’s enduring hold is that our heroes are not gods or demigods; they are mortal men. God is God, and humans are human – and humans make mistakes.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that this kind of discussion is an essential feature of our rich heritage. Our ancestors are prototypes of what the ideal human acts like, but the Torah does not whitewash its heroes; ideal humans are still human.

Our role models cannot be idealized characters; they wouldn’t be relevant if they weren’t materially like us. What makes them great is precisely the fact that they weren’t so different from us. They faced the same kinds of problems we do: how best to protect and provide for their families; and how to maintain their beliefs and practices while trying to do the right thing.

Avraham was not born holy and perfect, nor under extraordinary or supernatural circumstances. Avraham did not possess some innate characteristic that gave him some sort of holy advantage. Avraham is first and foremost in our pantheon of great figures because, throughout his struggles, he maintained his integrity and persevered – sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly. He was great because of the things he did, not because he was born that way.

The Torah speaks in whole truths to give a three-dimensional view of the people we look up to. The Torah is for and about humans; because it’s ok to be human.

The Torah is replete with stories about how great people make mistakes – it’s arguably a unifying theme of every story in the Torah! Adam eats the fruit. Noach doesn’t save a single person from his generation. Avraham compromises Sarah. Yitzchak favors Esau. Yakov cheats his father. Yosef’s brothers are human traffickers. The generation that comes out of Egypt is doomed to wander and die in the wilderness. Moshe doesn’t get to the Promised Land. The Promised Land doesn’t result in the Final Redemption. If there’s an exception, perhaps Chanoch or Binyamin, it proves the rule because we know nothing at all about them!

So crucially, here we are 3000 years later, still trying. Perfection and the finish line are ever-elusive. But the Torah’s stories guide our way across the ages because they matter to us. They teach us that, although perfection is out of human reach, greatness is not.

What makes us great isn’t what we are; it’s about what we do.

The Torah isn’t so much about God as it is about humans and how we ought to behave. This is in large part because we cannot comprehend what God is, only what God does.

One of Judaism’s fundamental beliefs is that we can change, through the ability to repair and repent – Teshuva – which presupposes that to some extent, God can also change. While this may sound absurd at first, it’s quite benign. We believe that with prayer, repentance, and charity, God might offer compassionate mercy in lieu of strict justice.

This transition from strict justice to compassionate mercy ought to be instructive to how we exercise judgment in our own lives.

The stated reason for the Flood was a human tendency towards evil:

וַיַּרְא ה, כִּי רַבָּה רָעַת הָאָדָם בָּאָרֶץ, וְכָל-יֵצֶר מַחְשְׁבֹת לִבּוֹ, רַק רַע כָּל-הַיּוֹם –  Hashem saw the great evil of humans on Earth, and that every imagination of his heart’s intent was only ever evil. (6:5)

After the Flood, God laments the destruction, and promises not destroy life ever again:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל-לִבּוֹ לֹא-אֹסִף לְקַלֵּל עוֹד אֶת-הָאֲדָמָה בַּעֲבוּר הָאָדָם, כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו; וְלֹא-אֹסִף עוֹד לְהַכּוֹת אֶת-כָּל-חַי, כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתִי – Hashem said in His heart: “I will not curse the ground again for humanity’s sake; because the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every living thing, as I have just done.” (8:21)

What changed between the beginning and end of the Flood?

Quite remarkably, it seems like nothing at all changed. Humans were bad before, and they are still bad after – יֵצֶר מַחְשְׁבֹת לִבּוֹ, רַק רַע כָּל-הַיּוֹם / כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו.

This non-change also happens when the Jewish People misguidedly craft the Golden Calf, upon which God states He can longer tolerate their obstinate rigidity:

כִּי לֹא אֶעֱלֶה בְּקִרְבְּךָ, כִּי עַם-קְשֵׁה-עֹרֶף אַתָּה פֶּן-אֲכֶלְךָ בַּדָּרֶךְ – I will not go up with you; because you are a stiff-necked people; otherwise I might destroy you on the way! (33:3)

Yet Moshe appeals for God’s compassion and mercy based on that very same characteristic:

וַיֹּאמֶר אִם-נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ, אֲדֹנָי, יֵלֶךְ-נָא אֲדֹנָי, בְּקִרְבֵּנוּ:  כִּי עַם-קְשֵׁה-עֹרֶף הוּא, וְסָלַחְתָּ לַעֲוֹנֵנוּ וּלְחַטָּאתֵנוּ וּנְחַלְתָּנוּ – And he said: “If I have found favor in your sight, Hashem, please go in our midst; because this is a stiff-necked people; and forgive our error and sin, and take us as Your inheritance.” (34:9)

While we cannot know God, we can learn to understand God a little better by imitating what He does. In both instances, humans do not earn forgiveness through Teshuva, because they have not, or perhaps cannot change. We are prone to error and don’t always learn from our mistakes.

In the story of Noach, God does something extremely unusual and talks to Himself – וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל-לִבּוֹ. The power of this soliloquy teaches us that how we frame a characteristic can be the difference between strict justice and compassionate mercy. The self-same flaw God can condemn can also be excused on the same basis – כִּי.

We can’t change other people. But we can change the lens we use to scrutinize them. In the same way that God can choose to judge favorably out of a commitment to life, we can do the same.

A judgmental attitude helps neither ourselves nor others.

Thousands of years ago, the Torah set the world upon a revolutionary path, drastically steering world history and modern civilization, on a trend that continues to this day.

When the Torah describes the creation and emergence of humans, it bestows a defining characteristic that has reverberated through the ages:

וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ, בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ: זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה, בָּרָא אֹתָם – God created man in His image; in the image of God created He him – male and female, He created them. (1:27)

Different sages from our tradition have taken differing views on Judaism’s defining characteristic; there need not need to be one single foundational principle. The range of principles is sufficiently indicative of what they held to be the Torah’s meta-principles or golden rules that underpin the rest.

Ben Azzai labeled the concept of man in God’s image as the most important principle in the Torah.

Since Judaism believes that God has no shape or form, what can it mean to be the image of a God who has no image?

Traditional explanations of the precise definition range from the more conventional to the more outlandish; but the consequence as R’ Saadia Gaon understands it is that we represent God as ambassadors in a way that animals and plants do not.

R’ Jonathan Sacks explains that the defining feature of the Creation story is God choosing and selecting what to create and how to create it – so to be created in God’s image is to share the godly characteristic of free will. Whereas animals are driven by instinct; humans can make choices.

The language of God’s image was not new to the ancient world, whose leaders were seen as divine. God-kings were once common, such as Egypt’s Pharaoh thousands of years ago, but this concept persists to this day in some places, such as North Korea’s Supreme Leader. The ramification of a god in human form is that he does not answer to mere humans and deserves to be worshipped by his subjects.

The political structure of god-kings is based on the instinctive assumption that the strong have a right to dominate the weak. This logic was and is the justification for all sorts of evils, including slavery, sexism, racism, eugenics, and genocide.

The Torah dismisses the worldviews of a divine right to dominate others out of hand with a simple but elegant statement that humans are fundamentally the same. Whatever objects people believed worthy of worship, from sky and stars to seas and serpents, one God created them all, and that one God created all humans in one image. We all answer to God equally – and no one else.

R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that God grants humans dominion of the beasts, the birds, and the earth; but tellingly, not other humans. Humans are created free and must respect the dignity of other humans to preserve that freedom.

The Exodus story tells of the birth of the nation as slaves liberated from a powerful ruled by a god-king to show that our God does not respect powerf and that humans must not dominate each other.

These powerless Jews were called upon to accept the Torah and live out its principles as role models for humanity. Strength and superiorirty have not carried Judaism through the ages; only adherence to the Torah.

Tellingly, the Torah commands the Jewish People not to hate the Egyptians, but to love the stranger and protect the widows and orphans. The Torah describes not a God of the powerful, but a God of everyone. The Torah’s utopian vision is not apocalypse or victory, but peace and security for all.

The Torah planted the idea of fundamental human equality thousands of years ago, and human history has only trended away from domination and subjugation ever since.

It is all too easy to abuse power, and to hate those not like us. If we love God, we must love the godliness in others.

We differentiate ourselves not by seed or creed; only by deed.

For whatever reason, many people today believe in a God that is angry and out to get people. Instead of understanding that sins are mistakes that can be fixed, some people believe that they are irredeemably bad and broken, and God hates them. They wish that God loved them, and don’t see God’s blessing in their lives. Instead, they believe that their lives belong to Satan or the devil, or some other dualistic entity.

We grow up reading the same stories, and we can become desensitized to the context of the lessons our stories are trying to convey. Moreover, worldviews can become entrenched and force their perspectives into ours.

A classic example is the story of creation.

To some, it’s the story of a God who makes arbitrary rules and creates sinful and irresponsible humans that are doomed to fail.

That’s certainly one way to read the story.

But that’s a lopsided and myopic perspective, laden with pain and blame.

The Meshech Chochma notes that when our tradition reads the story, we see neither people who are doomed, nor a distant God who sets arbitrary and impossible rules.

The first two rules God gives are “Be fruitful and multiply – the entire world will be yours,” and “From every tree shall you eat…”.

To be sure, the second rule finishes with a qualification – “From every tree shall you eat, except this one.”

Without context, it seems so tantalizing and cruel – “You can’t enjoy this delicious tree over here!” We can hear the language of prohibition and denial.

With context, we can understand that it is a limitation in the broader context of a positive command.

Many people see the world and our tradition the negative way. Perhaps it’s a problem with the way we educate people, or maybe the popular worldview is irresistibly strong. But it’s just plain wrong.

To be sure, Judaism has some restrictions. Some do seem more arbitrary than others. But none exist to impede our enjoyment of life.

On the contrary, they exist to regulate our wholesome enjoyment of life, to prevent us from running wild with greed and hedonism. The commandment to enjoy comes before the commandment to refrain. The regulation gives a context and meaning to all the countless things that we do get to experience.

A husband who remembers or forgets to buy his wife flowers on their anniversary isn’t instantly a good or bad husband. It matters as one data point in the context of their entire relationship.

Shabbos is not just a Saturday not spent working – the concept of Shabbos elevates our time by giving it context, making it sacred and valuable. Not just “Saturday,” but our entire week building up to it as well. It’s all about the context. And the same goes for everything else we believe.

The story of Creation speaks for itself. It rejects the worldview of a God who wants to create stumbling blocks for people, and of people who are intrinsically evil.

Our God is the God who loves life, creates life, and wants that life to learn to love and enjoy as well.

Our lives are surrounded by blessings and abundance, and our tradition is rich and full of meaning.

But not everyone can see that.

We just have to look for the context every day. Because it’s there.

Avraham sent his trusted steward, Eliezer, to find a suitable partner for his son Yitzchak from his ancestral home. Eliezer devised specific criteria that would be the identifying traits of the right candidate –  the ideal person would not only look after him but his whole entourage and camels as well.

When Eliezer approached Avraham’s hometown, there were many young women at the local well, one of whom was Rivka. Before any fanfare, introductions, or pleasantries, she drew water for him to drink, and then his thirsty camels, meeting Eliezer’s criteria.

The Midrash teaches us that when Rivka came to the well to draw water, the water rose to meet her, saving her the effort and endorsing her as a special individual.

Taking the Midrash at face value, this is clearly a remarkable young lady. Everyday miracles like that don’t happen every day! Even without Eliezer’s criteria, why wouldn’t a miracle be a good enough sign for him that this is the right person?

R’ Chaim Shmulevitz sharply notes that the fact of a miracle doesn’t speak to your quality as a human. At best, perhaps miracles speak to who you are, but not what you do. Miracles don’t make you a good person – good deeds make you a good person.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch highlights how Rivka only told Eliezer she would get him some water, and only later, once he had finished, did she say that she would feed the camels as well.

What we do says more than words ever could. Rivka did not promise the great thing she would do; she just went and did them! She helped him, and when he was done, she helped the rest. The story emphasizes that her kindness was performed with haste – she was in a hurry to help as quickly as possible.

We also see Rivka’s class in her blindness to class – Rivka treats Eliezer with dignity and respect when all she knows this stranger is that he introduces himself as a servant and yet still calls him “my lord.”

The only defining quality of a good person is what they do, not who they are.

Actions, not words. Underpromise, over-deliver. Sensitivity to others. Treats ostensibly lower-class people with the dignity any human being deserves. Compassionate to animals. This is the kind heart worthy of the legacy of the house of Avraham.

We don’t experience daily miracles. But miracles have never been what makes us great.

It’s about we do – and that’s up to us.

If you’ve ever paid close attention to the procedures at a Jewish wedding, you might notice a whole lot of theatre about witnesses, the rings, and the words the groom has to say. It’s not just for show, the formalities are actually essential, and we need to get them right. The source of the formalities is a Gemara in Kiddushin, which famously derives the halachic model of marriage from the transaction that took place when Avraham purchased the Cave of Machpela plot to bury his late wife, Sarah.

While the source is pretty familiar, the logic is not, and it is all too easy to misconstrue. Is a woman an object that is acquired? In what way is a man marrying a woman anything like a man buying some land?

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that confining the analogy to a superficial level collapses it and highlights the importance of getting it right because a woman is not an object. The analogy only works in the wider context of what the transaction signified.

The Land of Israel is indelibly woven into Jewish history and identity for eternity. The promise of the Promised Land is that it has been a driving force of our prayers for thousands of years, the happily ever after we can dream of that gets us through hard times, with the hope that one day life will be better. It is so tantalizing because it speaks to a human need deep within us.

When Avraham bought this plot of land, it was the first interaction by the first Jew on that Promised Land. Negotiating this little cave’s purchase and the adjoining field forged the very first link in the chain of the eternal bond that ties the Jewish People to the Land of Israel.

The cave itself was a multichambered double-storeyed structure – the word מַּכְפֵּלָה literally means “doubled up.” This unique structure enabled each of our ancestral couples to be buried together in private quarters, husband and wife, and it allowed for parent and child to be buried near each other, father and son. Even after death, the family would remain together. Sure, Avraham bought a little cave and adjoining field, but in that “trivial” action -the first act by the first Jew on the Land of Israel – Avraham secured family ties together for eternity.

The analogy of marriage to Avraham’s land acquisition appears in a wider context. At a Jewish wedding, the couple is bonded by mirroring the steps our ancestor Avraham took. Because it was never about the simple land transaction, it was about preserving family commitment.

The land is God’s eternal commitment to us, and marriage is our eternal commitment to each other.

One of the most beautiful promises ever made was the one God made to Avraham about his future descendants:

ויוצא אתו החוצה ויאמר הבט נא השמימה וספר הכוכבים אם תוכל לספר אתם ויאמר לו כה יהיה זרעך – He took him outside and said, “Look at the heavens above. Count the stars, if you ever could! So will your offspring be.” (15:5)

This can be read literally, that Avraham’s lineal and intellectual descendants would be numerous, and this certainly came to pass – most religions count Avraham as their precursor.

R’ Shlomo Farhi suggests a further figurative approach, that perhaps כה יהיה זרעך means that just like Avraham would look heavenward and dream of a better future, his children would be stargazers as well.

Living and looking beyond the present, hoping and working towards a better future.

When God reached out to Avraham to leave his homeland, Avraham never knew where he was going. Avraham was told לך־לך – and he just went!

Why wouldn’t God say where he’d be going?

The Sfas Emes finds this interaction, the first of its kind, instructive as to what it means to be a Jew. There is no destination because it is a dynamic mission that evolves along the way. Being a Jew calls for different things at different times – a good Jew during the Inquisition looked different to a good Jew in New York today, and a good Jew 500 years from now will look different still.

Perhaps that’s why Rashi notes that every step brought its own reward. It’s not about extrinsic rewards of Paradise and eternal bliss – it’s about the intrinsic blessing that each step reveals.

Without a singular focus on the outcome, Avraham could put his heart and soul into the process. Every step Avraham took brought him somewhere new. But the effort for every step was the same because each step could be the last. In a way, לך־לך is an instruction to go לך – within yourself, a lifelong journey of self-discovery. There is no destination because it’s a challenge – how deep can you go? The process is the purpose of the instruction, not the outcome. Each step compounds development.

We never control our circumstances or outcomes, but we control our actions and ourselves. It was this desire and commitment to progress that mattered. This attitude was characteristic of Avraham, the prototype of the kind of person God wanted people to emulate.

One of the most beautiful parts of Tanach is God’s promise never to forget the sacrifice and belief the Jewish people once showed:

כֹּה אָמַר ה’, זָכַרְתִּי לָךְ חֶסֶד נְעוּרַיִךְ, אַהֲבַת כְּלוּלֹתָיִךְ–לֶכְתֵּךְ אַחֲרַי בַּמִּדְבָּר, בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא זְרוּעָה – So says Hashem, “I remember the kindness of your youth; the love of your commitment. You followed me into the desert, into a barren land…” (Jeremiah 2:2)

The model for this is Avraham, the first to put himself out there, long before God spoke to him. His entire life was about exerting himself to reach out to others.

One of his greatest moments came when he was lame and exhausted on a searingly hot day. There was every excuse to take it easy, but that’s not what Avraham stood for. In his idiosyncratic way, he did the only thing he knew. He left his home and went out into the scorching heat because there was another human he might be able to help.

Avraham wasn’t born special. God’s call was always out there, and others heard it – there was Shem, Ever, Methuselah. But Avraham was the first to take the initiative and try to make his world a better place.

Maybe that’s what לך־לך means – a better world looks different to every generation, but our duty, and the commitment it requires remain the same.

We can always do more; it’s just one step away.

The book of Bereishis is about the evolution of human justice and the evolving dynamic of God’s relationship with people. Avraham is considered the first prototype of the kind of person God wanted people to behave like, and it is his descendants that would go on to receive the Torah.

But Noah was righteous too. Why is Noah not presented as a model of what a good person looks like?

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi explains that our role models never suspend their internal moral compasses, even when it brings them to the point of directly questioning God outright.

When Noah left the Ark, everything and everyone was gone. Noah properly took in the scale of desolation and loss, and questioned God – where was God’s mercy? The Zohar describes how God stunned Noah with a stinging reply – where was Noah’s mercy when God told him what was going to happen?

When God announced that Sodom would be destroyed, Avraham questioned God’s justice. When God threatened to destroy the Jewish people after they danced around the Golden Calf, Moshe questioned God’s justice. Throughout history, our heroes have challenged God when something is wrong.

Even if unsuccessful, they are still fundamentally correct. Avraham stood up for pagan barbarians, and said that if God is merciful and good, then that ought to be true even towards the wicked! Our heroes internal moral compasses tell them that something is wrong, and they follow through.

Noah simply accepted that his society was corrupt, and deserved annihilation. He did not question the course of events until it was much too late.

Accepting such things isn’t a feature – it’s a flaw. It meant that he agreed that everything and everyone was bad, and deserved what was coming. Reb Yisrael Salanter says that a hidden tzadik is no tzadik at all. Avraham went out into the world to show people a better way, whereas Noah just let his whole world fall into oblivion.

Maybe that’s why he never seems to make the list of truly righteous people. It may also be why he planted vineyards and turned to alcohol and solitude. The magnitude of his missed opportunity was enormous.

It is a Jewish characteristic to question everything, even of God. Just because God Himself says something, does not mean we must accept it. The entire point of prophecies of doom is that it spurs us to do something different and avert it so that God’s promise does not happen!

This may help explain the concept of prayer.

When something feels wrong don’t just accept it. It’s a challenge! Do something, say something.

The flood story is a complex and layered story, with many different messages about right and wrong.

One of the messages that Chazal understood is the importance of careful speech. When the Torah talks about the different kinds of animals, it does not use the accurate and concise form of טהור and טמא, pure and impure. Instead, it uses the terms טְּהוֹרָה and אֲשֶׁר לֹא טְהֹרָה, pure and that which is not pure. Avoiding a word with negative connotations teaches the value of the words we use.

Yet the opening of the story is not overly complimentary:

נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹרֹתָיו – Noah was righteous; he was flawless in his day… (6:9)

Chazal detected ambiguity, and understood that this description could be interpreted favourably or unfavourably. Either he was absolutely righteous, and would have been considered righteous in any era, or he was only relatively righteous. In a degenerate age, he was the best person humanity could muster.

But how could Chazal teach the importance of speaking nicely, yet within the very same story interpret an ambiguous phrase unfavourably?

God spoke to Noah and said something similar:

כִּי־אֹתְךָ רָאִיתִי צַדִּיק לְפָנַי בַּדּוֹר הַזֶּה – I have found you alone to be righteous in this generation… (7:1)

The Zohar says that the Noah thought that he was being damned with faint praise, and God didn’t rate him. Therefore, Rabbi Shlomo Farhi explains, Chazal didn’t read it as a criticism – but Noah did! And his disappointment tarnished his subsequent choices and actions.

He didn’t try to save his community, influence them, or even pray for them, because he was only תָּמִים – flawless. There was only nothing wrong with him; in another time, that might not be enough. He could have been so much more, but believing that God’s ambiguous remark was a criticism destroyed him.

It is incorrect to be trite and small. Not only does it let yourself down; but far worse is that it lets the people who need you down too. It’s not wrong to believe in our ability to affect the people around us.

One of the messages of the flood story teaches that the opposite is true – there is a universal principle that every one of us would do well to believe that we can positively impact each other.

Prayer is deeply personal, and everyone prays in their own way.

While there are different approaches to precisely how prayer works or what it affects, we assume that the omnipresent and omniscient God is listening, and we know that not every prayer is answered in the way we might hope.

What kind of prayers does God listen to?

Some people expect that we need righteous men and saints to pray for us, and they might be surprised.

In the story of Yitzchak’s childhood, the Torah recounts how Sarah saw Yishmael as a bad influence on her son Yitzchak, and so she sent Yishmael and his mother Hagar away from home.

The Torah tells how Hagar and Yishmael wandered, lost in the wilderness, until they ran out of water, and Yishmael slowly dehydrated. Knowing no-one was coming to the rescue, and with certainty that her son would die suffering, she cried out in utter despair – וַתִּשָּׂא אֶת-קֹלָהּ וַתֵּבְךְּ – she raised her voice and wept.

Miraculously, Hagar is given a vision of a nearby oasis and rushes to get the water she needs to save her son.

While this seems to conform with our conventional understanding of prayer, the mother crying for her child, the Torah does not credit Hagar with the prayer that saved Yishmael. The angel says that Hashem listened – but not to her:

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 Torah never ascribes an action or a word to Yishmael; he is entirely passive. He is the object in the story, the object of his mother’s prayers, the acted upon, and not the actor.

The mother’s tears for the dying son did not move the heavens. What the great prayer that moves the heavens was the voice of a dying boy – קוֹל הַנַּעַר – and he never says a word! Perhaps, in his suffering, he cried or sighed; but whatever it was, it is not significant enough for the Torah to record it as an action he took!

Yet that literally invisible moment of pain or sadness is what drives the entire story and goes on to shape all of history. Perhaps it can 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 God sees the world differently. God judges circumstances as they are – בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם. The story of Yonah in Nineveh reaffirms this – it doesn’t matter how bad they are or might one day be – if they’re innocent and suffering, God cannot abide that.

We don’t have to be perfect to produce one perfect prayer. Our daily prayers affirm that God is close to the people who call on Him truthfully – קרוב ה’ לכל קוראיו, לכל אשר יקראוהו באמת. It is not beyond us to ask for help and really mean it – יקראוהו באמת.

From the stories of our ancestors, we know that God loves righteous prayers – הקדוש ברוך הוא מתאוה לתפילתן של צדיקים. R’ Shlomo Farhi highlights that God loves righteous prayers, not prayers of the righteous – תפילתן של צדיקים, as opposed to תפילת 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 formalities. And maybe that’s why we read this story on Rosh Hashana. Because it doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done; or whether you know how to pray or even understand the words.

Just a single moment of pain from a suffering boy moved the heavens. It is not beyond us.

After living his life based on his intuition about the right way to live, Avraham was ultimately vindicated when God reached out to him in his old age. In this dialogue, God formed a covenant with Avraham, a contract for eternity, the sign of which was circumcision, an excruciatingly painful procedure.

The first thing we learn of the freshly circumcised Avraham, the very first act by the very first Jew, is that as he recuperated in the blazing heat, he was standing at the door looking for guests he could host and look after:

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)

The three men were no ordinary guests; it turns out that they were angels on a mission! Part of the mission was predicting Yitzchak’s birth, after which Avraham has another encounter with God, in which God tells Avraham the divine plan, that Sodom is doomed and will be destroyed by morning:

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 ה לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט לְמַעַן הָבִיא ה 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)

It is important to notice how irregular and unusual this is. The Torah characterizes God’s internal thought process, narrating God’s discomfort with hiding something from a human! This should rightly strike us as absolutely bizarre – God is God and can do as God pleases, without human approval or intervention. That’s why God is God!

If we closely read God’s discomfort, there’s something that doesn’t quite add up. God warns Avraham about how wicked Sodom is as the reason for its demise. Yet Avraham is the last person who needs to be instructed to avoid the ways of Sodom!

We already know that Avraham already is someone who will always do the right thing- the very setting of the conversation is that in his weakest moment, in agonizing pain, he is out there looking for weary travelers to bathe, feed, and take care of! Avraham is already the anathema of Sodom. Is this a man who needs to be warned to avoid the ways of Sodom?!

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that Hashem wasn’t concerned for Avraham in this conversation. Hashem shared His plan with Avraham not so that he would do the right thing, but because he was someone who would teach his family to do the right thing – אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת בָּנָיו וְאֶת בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו. And Avraham argues with God to save Sodom!

This story presents a haggard, old, sick, and weary Avraham as the pinnacle of humanity – ethical and humane at his lowest and worst; in stark contrast to Sodom, a vibrant, wealthy, and successful commercial hub, yet so cruel to outsiders.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch highlights this contrast as the very first lesson we learn after Avraham circumcises himself. Entering into the covenant could set him apart, but it did not. He was still himself, living in Mamre, the land of his old friends and allies. He did not cloister himself away from the world or think he was above it all. He could abandon Sodom to their fate without a fight – a fight with God! This, even despite knowing of their cruel and wicked ways.

And even then, he was looking to the streets to bring in some pagan idolators to entertain; who else he could expect?! And he personally ran to give the mysterious guests luxurious and freshly prepared cuisine.

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

Avraham himself was only overjoyed that people would not think he was strange or different. His distinction only enhanced his relationship with humanity, and it must be the model for us – the בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו – God’s very purpose in engaging in the conversation.

Avraham is our hero and role model, the perfect man – the original “human.” He was not someone who hid away from the world to focus on his own holiness or mystical spirituality. He went out into the world, engaged with it, and made it better through his interactions.

As descendants of Avraham, we are charged with being the most humane of men – to show the world a better way, Avraham’s way. The way of open hearts and open hands.

When God created the universe, the life it contained was blessed. Yet the blessing was not given equally to all. The amphibians and birds were told one thing:

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

In contrast, mankind was told:

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

Both are blessed to be populous, yet man is given a personal instruction – וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם – spoken directly, and not just about them.

Rav Hirsch notes that nature serves God by its intrinsic existence. It cannot be otherwise because there is no deviation in how it relates to God; the laws of science and nature are fixed. Mankind however, is spoken to, and must choose to listen. Free will is the צלם אלוקים that distinguishes humanity from other creatures. Allowing instinct and nature to run wild is to surrender to the animal within, which is not the duty man is charged with; the charge is moral consciousness, and the freedom to choose to overcome the natural instinct:

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

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

Animals are simply called נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה – they are living things. But mankind is made of more – a blend of matter, fused with soul. With this equilibrium, man becomes truly “alive”. The word חַיָּה means alive, but it also means happy. The happiness is found in the balance. This is the instruction– וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם.

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

The body is the container of the soul. The soul has to operate the system, or it withers away. Our choices are what make us human. Are your choices wise?

During the famine in Canaan, Yakov sent his sons to Egypt to obtain provisions for their family. But they were arrested and imprisoned. Unbeknownst to them, their captor was their long lost brother Yosef. While in prison, they speculated how they’d wound up in their precarious situation:

וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל-אָחִיו, אֲבָל אֲשֵׁמִים אֲנַחְנוּ עַל-אָחִינוּ, אֲשֶׁר רָאִינוּ צָרַת נַפְשׁוֹ בְּהִתְחַנְנוֹ אֵלֵינוּ, וְלֹא שָׁמָעְנוּ; עַל-כֵּן בָּאָה אֵלֵינוּ, הַצָּרָה הַזֹּאת – The brothers lamented to each other, “We are guilty! For what we did to our brother… We saw his suffering! He pleaded with us, and we ignored him. We have brought this on ourselves!” (42:21)

But reviewing the entire episode as it unfolded, the story is simply about what they did to him. There is no record of Yosef saying anything to them, let alone pleading!

What were they talking about?

R’ Shlomo Freifeld powerfully suggests a frightening resolution.

Vision has two aspects. There is a physical aspect, governed by our eyes. But there also the mental aspect, governed by our minds. Lacking the physical aspect will result in literal blindness, lacking the mental aspect will result in figurative blindness. But the result is the same. You do not perceive.

In the brothers eyes, Yosef was trouble, and he had to go. It was settled in their minds. They were single-mindedly focussed solely on the task at hand of exiling Yosef. As the story unfolded in their minds eye, he was an object to be removed.

But is there any doubt that a third-party observer to this traumatic episode would have witnessed the victim crying and pleading? But the Torah records the story from the actor’s perspective. Powerful emotions had dulled their sensitivity. Caught up in the heat of the moment, he hadn’t made a sound in their eyes.

Only in hindsight, sitting in jail years later, could they take stock of the terrible ordeal as it truly happened.

It’s scary because our minds corrupt our vision to conform to our biases.

And your eyes are useless when your mind is blind.

Rivka had a difficult pregnancy and was often in pain from the unborn children striking out at each other. One particular time, she lamented:

וַיִּתְרֹצְצוּ הַבָּנִים, בְּקִרְבָּהּ, וַתֹּאמֶר אִם-כֵּן, לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי; וַתֵּלֶךְ, לִדְרֹשׁ אֶת-ה – The children struggled within her, and she said, “This is what it is? Why is this happening to me?” And she went to inquire of the Lord. (25:22)

People have difficult pregnancies; it’s not so uncommon. What was so difficult for her to understand that she had to seek out answers?

Of course, we have the benefit of knowing how the story unfolds. At this point in the story, Rivka did not yet know that she was having twins!

Our sages understand that each time Rivka walked past a holy site, she would feel her belly stir, and each time she walked past a site of pagan worship, she would feel more stirring. Without knowing it would be two children with different dispositions, this seemed like one very confused individual!

R’ Chaim Brown suggests a compelling reading. When Moshe reviewed the Torah in his final speech to the people, he told them:

רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָֽה – See how I place before you a blessing and a curse… Good and Evil! (11:26)

The simple meaning in context is that there is always a good and a bad choice, and we must be careful to choose wisely. But there is a different implication from a closer reading.

It is not just a choice of what we want to do, but who we want to be. What identity will we take up? What kind of אָנֹכִי, literally the first person “I,” will we choose to become?

Porting this interpretation to Rivka’s lamentation, she cried – לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי – where kind of the אָנֹכִי is this promised child? He wants the holy places, and he wants the pagan places! This child is broken and confused!

Understanding the depth of her question, we can plumb the depths and meaning in the answer when the oracle replied to her, that שְׁנֵי גֹיִים בְּבִטְנֵך – it is not one confused child, there will be two children with two separate identities! And she was comforted, and the story continues.

We must remember that every choice shapes our identities. We must root out confusion or mixed messaging and proactively choose who we want to be with what we do because every choice aligns us closer one way or the other.

Avraham spoke to God many times without incident. But just one time, in the conversation where God instruction Avraham to leave his birthplace, something unusual happens:

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

Avraham recoils as though he were burned. This sort of reaction to God’s presence is unique – nothing like this happens any other time.

What made Avraham fall?

In this conversation, Avraham got a glimpse of the future in store for his descendants, a covenant marked by the sign of circumcision.

R’ Chaim Soloveitchik explains that before something is required, there is no deficiency for not complying. But once the obligation exists, we are liable. Avraham didn’t have to circumcise himself before God told him – how could he know? But the very moment God gave the instruction, Avraham was physically 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 than absolute, perfect dedication, and diligent moral consciousness. Yet that standard is a long way away from anything humans are capable of.

But improvement is gradual and incremental. So long as you are not ready for more, it’s not your fault you’re not there yet.

But when the moment arrives that you can do more, and remain content to stay put, the burden counts against you – וַיִּפֹּל אַבְרָם, עַל-פָּנָיו.

Yes, chase more responsibility, learn more, and demand a higher standard of yourself. But the moral life is a marathon, not a sprint. One step at a time is an effective strategy too.

Don’t run before you can walk.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did he re-frame his outlook?

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

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

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

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

During Yakov and his family’s escape from Lavan’s house, they had to navigate their way across a river. During the crossing, some of the family’s articles had been left on the wrong side, so he sent his family ahead in the dwindling light while he stayed back to retrieve what been left behind. Alone as darkness fell, he was accosted by and fought with a mysterious figure, whom we identify as Esau’s guardian angel, one of the defining moments in Yakov’s life:

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

The imagery of this iconic battle is that it takes place in the dark of night until dawn’s early light. Darkness is not just a description of the battle environment; it’s a description of the battle itself. Most humans are afraid of the dark, at least to some degree; our sight is the sense we depend on the most, and we cannot see well in darkness; therefore, a lack of light makes us feel very vulnerable to danger.

The Mesilas Yesharim says the trouble with darkness is not just that you won’t see something dangerous, but that you can mistake something dangerous for something safe!

In the darkness, we are surrounded by the sea of the unknown, with all sorts of hidden threats lurking in the shadows in the corner of our eye. But when dawn comes, and it surely will, the darkness dissipates, and the shadows disappear. The light of reality dispels the darkness of the unknown, and the shadowy figures can’t stand to be caught in the daylight.

When Yakov asks the figure for his name, Yakov gets an evasive non-answer, “Why is it you ask for my name?” R’ Leib Chasman intuitively suggests that this the nature of the formless enemy we fight in the battles of our minds. The Gemara teaches how at the end of days, Hashem will slaughter the Satan, and the righteous will cry because it was this gargantuan mountain they somehow overcame, and the wicked will cry because it was a tiny hair they couldn’t even blow away. The very idea of the Satan is a shorthand for what we really fight – a flicker of our reflection, constantly in flux.

The Steipler teaches that the battleground of our struggles is in our minds. Whether we’re dealing with fear or fantasy, our minds can paint such vivid pictures that do not correlate with reality. Our fears amplify how bad things can be, and our fantasies amplify how good things will be; neither include any of the pathways, tradeoffs, or consequences of reality. When someone returns home after a long time away, they might hope to finally get along peacefully and happily with their family; a newlywed couple might hope it’ll be plain sailing to happily ever after, but we all know how naive that is. Reality is much harder than the illusion of fantasy, but the difference is that it is real.

We should expect to trip, stumble, and make mistakes along the way, and we might even get hurt too. But we should remember that as much as Yakov was permanently injured in his encounter, he still emerged as Yisrael, the master. It is the human condition to fight and struggle, but we can win.

The Hebrew word for grappling is cognate to the word for dust because the fighter’s feet stir up dust when fighting for leverage and grip – וַיֵּאָבֵק / אבק. The Midrash suggests that the dust kicked up from this epic struggle rose all the way to the Heavenly Throne.

R’ Tzvi Meir Silberberg highlights that the Midrash doesn’t say that the victories go up to Heaven, perhaps because our victories are personal and not always within our control.

It’s important to note that Yakov doesn’t even really win – he holds out for a stalemate while seriously injured. The victory – וַתּוּכָל – is in staying in the fight and not giving up – וַיַּרְא, כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ. Our biggest tests, if not all of them, are when we are alone. This theme repeats itself with Yosef, home alone with Potiphar’s wife. About to give in to an almost irresistible temptation, he sees his father’s face, reminding him that his family heritage is that he has what it takes to stand alone and not give up. This characteristic is also highlighted in Bilam’s reluctant blessing to the Jewish People – הֶן־עָם לְבָדָד יִשְׁכֹּן.

It’s our lonely struggle that ultimately endures and carries the day.

If we try to imagine the cunning and devious Lavan’s house, it can’t have been a particularly nurturing and safe environment to grow up in. All the same, that environment produces quality individuals in the forms of Rachel and Leah. Moreover, it is the place where our ancestor Yakov comes into himself and where all his sons were born.

However, there is a palpable strain and tension between Rachel and Leah, which repeatedly surfaces. Yakov loved Rachel, but Lavan substituted Leah in her place at their wedding, and Rachel only married Yakov a little later. Rachel was loved, but could not give Yakov children, whereas Leah, who gave Yakov his sons, was hated. One day, a young Reuven picked some flowers for his mother Leah, which the Midrash suggests might have been a fertility supplement. All the same, we recognize it for what it is, that joyful moment in a parent’s life when a child does something sweet.

Rachel asked Leah to share that moment with her, and Leah bristled at the suggestion:

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

This is a very terse and complex interaction, and there is typically a lot of focus on Rachel’s grace and dignity in not destroying Leah with a fiery response. Knowing the story as we do, we know that Yakov served Lavan faithfully years to marry the love of his life, Rachel, only for Lavan to cruelly substitute Leah in her place at the wedding ceremony with a phony excuse.

R’ Shalom Schwadron teaches that while it was great enough for Rachel to want to prevent Leah from public humiliation, the ability to refrain from embarrassing her even in a private conversation between sisters shows the extent of Rachel’s greatness. R’ Mordechai Druck highlights that Rachel refused to keep the score, despite the pain she lived with.

But, admirable as that may be, how can Leah have the audacity and gall to suggest that Rachel was taking Leah’s husband when it was Leah who had taken Rachel’s husband? Leah is living Rachel’s life! Leah is married to her love, took her place at her own wedding, and is now giving her husband the children that she herself cannot. Doesn’t Leah have it precisely backward? What was she thinking?

R’ Shlomo Farhi suggests that Leah was saying that it was bad enough that Rachel deprived Leah of the companionship of having a husband – הַמְעַט קַחְתֵּךְ אֶת-אִישִׁי; all Leah had going for her was the kids! And now Rachel wanted to take the only thing Leah had over her by giving Yakov kids – וְלָקַחַת, גַּם אֶת-דּוּדָאֵי בְּנִי.

From Leah’s perspective, what was she supposed to have done? Lavan was a trickster and a powerful man; do we expect that she had much choice in the matter? She did what she had to do in the moment and tried to get on with her life and make the best of it. As the Seforno puts it, why did Rachel still have to marry Yakov after that happened and sabotage Leah, so she was hated? It’s Rachel’s fault!

This reading makes sense, and it fits.

R’ David Fohrman suggests a compelling and explosive reading based on Midrash.

This story about the flowers is a re-enactment of the wedding night, recreating the past and healing the hurt. And there was a lot of hurt.

The night of the flowers’ story, it was Rachel’s night to be with Yakov, like the first wedding night. There, Leah was substituted in secret, but this time, Rachel engineered it to be Leah’s with everyone’s consent, no longer Lavan’s victims. Rachel willingly gave Leah that night, letting go of years of pain, sharing what should have been her exclusive relationship with Yakov. Rachel hears Leah’s pain and perspective, that to Leah, Rachel stood in the way of Leah’s companionship, and Rachel acts on this and stops obstructing Leah.

Once Rachel does this, the Torah never describes her as jealous ever again because she’s healed and given Leah permission to be in the relationship.

Moreover, Leah boldly goes out to greet Yakov – וַתֵּצֵא לֵאָה לִקְרָאתוֹ וַתֹּאמֶר אֵלַי תָּבוֹא, כִּי שָׂכֹר שְׂכַרְתִּיךָ, mirroring Yakov’s bargain with Lavan – מַה־מַּשְׂכֻּרְתֶּךָ / שָׂכֹר שְׂכַרְתִּיךָ. The subterfuge of the wedding night is undone and quite literally unveiled. Leah can present herself as she truly is, burying Yakov’s resentment for good as well – the Torah never describes Leah as hated ever again.

Right after this moment of healing, God remembers Rachel and blesses her with children:

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

Rashi explains that God remembered was Rachel’s kindness to Leah on the night of the wedding. Rachel could have ruined the wedding but chose not to, saving her sister from humiliation, playing a vital role in ensuring that Lavan’s scheme wasn’t discovered until it was too late.

God remembers Rachel, not because of her pain, but because of her healing. When things were hardest for her, she could hear the perspective of the sister she’d turned into her rival and dug deep to make peace.

On Tisha b’Av, we read Jeremiah’s consolation, where God listens to Rachel:

קוֹל בְּרָמָה נִשְׁמָע נְהִי בְּכִי תַמְרוּרִים רָחֵל מְבַכָּה עַל־בָּנֶיהָ מֵאֲנָה לְהִנָּחֵם עַל־בָּנֶיהָ כִּי אֵינֶנּוּ… מִנְעִי קוֹלֵךְ מִבֶּכִי וְעֵינַיִךְ מִדִּמְעָה כִּי יֵשׁ שָׂכָר לִפְעֻלָּתֵךְ נְאֻם־ה וְשָׁבוּ מֵאֶרֶץ אוֹיֵב – A cry is heard in Ramah; wailing, bitter weeping Rachel is weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted over her children; they are gone… “Restrain your voice from weeping, your eyes from shedding tears! For there is a reward for your labor, declares Hashem, they shall return from the enemy’s land…” (31:15,16)

Jeremiah tells us that beyond the tears and prayers, which Avraham, Yitzchak, Yakov, and Moshe could provide as well, God listens to Rachel because she did something – יֵשׁ שָׂכָר לִפְעֻלָּתֵךְ. She heroically fixed things for herself.

Better than being sad is to be our own hero. In our greatest moments of pain, can we take a step back from our hurt and ask what the situation might look like from our opponent’s point of view? The ability to ask that question is nothing short of heroic, but it’s the way out of conflict.

Hashem’s very first communication with Avraham was the immense challenge to abandon all he had ever known:

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

The instruction is quite odd because it doesn’t focus on where Avraham has to go, and the sequence of departure is counter-intuitive. First, you leave home, then the neighborhood, and then the country.

Why does the story emphasize leaving, and in such a strange way?

The Sfas Emes explains that the hallmark of great people is that they actively seek challenges and opportunities. Avraham was the first person to intuitively understand God’s vision for humanity of ethics and moral consciousness. But he couldn’t bring it about in the stagnant place he grew up.

You can forget your nationality quicker than the community you grew up in, and you can forget your community before you forget your family, but it is tough to forget what you learned at home. The Nesivos Shalom explains that the thrust of Hashem’s command is to discard the poor traits he might have picked up along the way.

Avraham was going somewhere new, to become something new. Old ideologies would have no place in this new vision, and they had to go.

Our environment is essential to our development as human beings. The more familiar the environment, the greater the effect it can have. The order of God’s instruction isn’t the order of how we leave home, but it’s the order of how home leaves us – מארצך וממולדתך ומבית אביך.

R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz teaches that greatness isn’t simply about going somewhere or doing something. It’s about leaving the comfortable, the familiar, and the supportive behind as well, what we’re letting go of. To get where we want to go, sometimes we need to let something go of something – לך לך.

The Mesilas Yesharim observes that the most natural default state for living things is laziness. When animals aren’t trying to eat or reproduce, they often won’t do anything at all because moving is a waste of energy. Even further, entropy is a law of physics that dictates that everything will sink to its most static state. Stagnation is natural!

It’s hard to move and think outside the comfort zone, and we develop a self-image, the story we tell ourselves of what we can and can’t do. After all, if you can’t do it, it’s not your fault, and it’s not your responsibility! We have to let go of that – לך לך.

The standard expected of all Jews is nothing less than absolute, perfect dedication, and diligent moral consciousness. Yet since that standard is a long way away from anything humans are capable of, we don’t even begin! We tell ourselves greatness is beyond us, so we don’t have to do anything.

That’s why more than God emphasizes the need to get somewhere; God emphasizes the need to get started – לך לך.

We need to get off zero and get going.

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

What went wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The books of the Torah transition into each other, beginning new phases in the Jewish people’s development.

The book of Shemos is known as Sefer HaGeula – the Book of Redemption, or Exodus, named for how the Jewish people achieved liberty and independence, culminating in Sinai. But only the first quarter addresses this. The remainder addresses the Mishkan and its requirement.

What does the Mishkan have to do with redemption the book is named after?

The Ramban explains that the book measures the full spectrum of redemption. Redemption of the body is incomplete without redemption of the soul. The nation only had a purpose once the Torah was given a home among the community, and the community could carry the Torah into their lives.

The conclusion of Bereishis concludes with the same theme.

The Ksav Sofer explains that Yaakov descendants bless their children to be like Efraim and Menashe, who were excellent Jews worthy of being considered as if they were Yakov’s own, while simultaneously aiding Yosef with the administration of Egypt’s government.

The story of Bereishis ends in the rise of the Jew in both spiritual and earthly pursuits on a personal level, and the story of Shemos extends that to the national scale.

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

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

Kosher does not exist for bodily health.

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

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

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

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

Moral consciousness is an active choice.

 

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.

Some communities have a lovely custom that parents bless their children before the Friday night meal; the father blesses his sons to be like Efraim and Menashe and blesses his daughters to be like the Matriarchs.

Of all the potential role models in our heritage, why are Efraim and Menashe the figures we want our sons to emulate in particular?

Hierarchies are inherent to family dynamics and structures. It is highly irregular to see “generation jumpers.” From the entire generation of Yakov’s grandchildren, they alone were considered equivalent to their uncles a generation earlier.

My Zaide explains that to excel as a Jew while born into Egyptian aristocracy is a hard thing. In comparison, it’s easy to be Yakov’s son in Yakov’s house.

Perhaps the blessing is about our hope that our children overcome everything in their way, no matter the odds.

My father explains that part of the family dynamic in the Torah is that brothers jealously compete with each other. The first pair of brothers who get along are Efraim and Menashe. Neither objected when Yaakov crossed his hand, predicting the younger son for greater things. Each was content for himself as well as his brother.

Perhaps the blessing is about their relationship with family, that they build each other up, instead of tearing each other down.

The book of Genesis is full of stories of jealous siblings whose strife tore their families apart. The book concludes with a family that broke the mold, with a story of siblings who accepted that life bestows different degrees of talent, ability, and opportunity.

It’s also possible that this was a trait exhibited by Rachel when she gave Leah the signs, dooming herself to years of solitude.

A family that can accept their differences is one that has a peaceful future ahead, and it’s a fitting blessing for our children.

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

The dramatic way the story unfolds is instructive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is what the Midrash is about.

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

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

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

 

Oftentimes in the Torah, people’s and place’s names are a play on words describing some event or feeling of the moment – Avraham, Yitzchak, Yakov, Yisrael, Moshe, and many more. Quite arguably, it might even be the rule, with only a few exceptions. Leah named each of her children in keeping with this theme, describing what each child’s arrival introduced into her life. When she had her fourth child, Yehuda, she described how his birth precipitated the arrival of gratitude into her life:

וַתֹּאמֶר הַפַּעַם אוֹדֶה אֶת־ה עַל־כֵּן קָרְאָה שְׁמוֹ יְהוּדָה – And she said, “Now I have to thank God,” so she named him Yehuda. (30:35)

Curiously, the Gemara identifies this moment as significant for being the first time in history that a human had properly thanked God.

But we know from reading the stories up to this point that that’s not true! Noach thanked God for saving him after the flood, Avraham thanked God for averting Yitzchak’s sacrifice, and Yakov thanked God for saving him from Esau and Lavan, among others.

Moreover, Leah had been showered with blessings! Coming from Lavan’s house, she married Yakov and was already the mother to three of the great Tribes of Israel. She had so much to be thankful for! With the arrival of Yehuda, her fourth son, what newfound conception of gratitude did she discover? What was so fresh and unique about this particular expression of thanks, such that the Gemara says had never been done before?

Rashi addresses this, citing the Midrash that Yakov’s wives might have expected to have three sons each out the twelve he was destined to have, and the arrival of a fourth son confounded this expectation.

R’ Yaakov Hillel highlights that the arrival of a fourth son didn’t just confound the expectation that she would have three sons; it confounded the very notion of expectations!

When Leah acknowledged that what she had already received was not just her fair share, but rather a gift and blessing, it cast her entire life in a new light, and no one before her had ever recognized that before. R’ Avraham Pam notes that up until that moment, people thanked God for discrete, particular things, often with a sacrificial offering on an altar. But Yehuda’s name was totally different perspective – it was a generalized, global “thank you,” an everyday appreciation recalled every time she would say her own son’s name.

Leah was the pioneer of gratitude in the world, and Jews are called after Yehuda, mirroring Leah’s play on words. As R’ Yitzchak Hutner notes that very word has a secondary embedded meaning of concession, and the Hebrew word means both – להודות. As humans, we deeply wish to be free and independent, and at the moment we appreciate another, we concede our frail weakness in having required the assistance of another. The culmination of this expression can be found in the Thanksgiving Offering, where a person would publicly announce their gratitude and dependence on God – the Korban Toda, accompanied by many loaves of Matza, itself reflecting similar motifs.

This new understanding of every gratitude also offers an answer to the famous question of why there are eight days of Chanuka if the miracle was for the seven extra days – the question presupposes taking the first day for granted.

R’ Shai Held highlights that the very first word of the day on a Jew’s lips is מודה אני, expressing thanks for waking up to a new day, subordinating the self to the existence of gratitude. A powerful lesson, from something as trivial as waking up!

When we feel entitled to something, we often don’t fully appreciate it, even once we have it. It takes practice and a conscious effort to change that thinking, but it’s life-changing if we can get there.

We would do well to learn from Leah’s example and live up to the charge of Judaism, proudly carrying Yehuda’s name, which calls us to express our gratitude for all the blessings we are fortunate to have, from the biggest to the smallest.

A recurring theme in the stories of our ancestors is that they do not have families easily or naturally. They repeatedly have to beg, fight, and struggle to have the children God had promised. Once such time this happened with Yitzchak and Rivka:

‘וַיֶּעְתַּר יִצְחָק לַה’ לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ, כִּי עֲקָרָה הִוא וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ ה –  Yitzchak begged the Lord on behalf of his wife because she was barren; and God conceded. (21:25)

The Torah tells this story with unusually heavy language – ויעתר. It’s a powerful verb for prayer, connoting earnest desperation; and the Torah uses another construct of the same word to indicate God’s almost reluctant acquiescence – ‘וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ ה.

This isn’t really congruent with the classical understanding or even our basic expectation of what prayer looks like. We would probably think that God desires our prayers and the vicissitudes of life present opportunities that we might reach out. This is actually an aspect of why our ancestors were frequently barren!

Yet in this instance, God “concedes” to the prayer, as though defeated by this unwelcome request to give Yitzchak and Rivka the family they so desperately want!

Why was this prayer so unwelcome?

R’ Shlomo Farhi suggests that what we have here is a prime example of the right thing at the wrong time.

Rashi suggests that Avraham died five years sooner than he might have, as a kindness to spare him from watching his grandson Esau become a murderer. It follows that the sooner Esau would be born, the sooner Avraham would die. This might help explain the difficulty God has in accepting this prayer – it’s the right thing, but it’s not yet the right time. While Gematria probably isn’t the most serious analytical tool, R’ Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld noted that the value of וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ ה is 748, equivalent to חמש שנים, the five years Avraham died too soon.

The Gemara in Shkalim tells a similar story of how the people of King David’s day would mock his inability to build the Beis HaMikdash, wondering when he’d die, and David, thinking he was channeling what God wanted, wistfully hoped the joke would come true, quite literally wishing his life away. So God corrected him and explained that David’s good deeds were worth more than any sacrifices, educating David that what thought he had wanted for God wasn’t what God wanted at all. We don’t always want the thing we think we want, and it’s not always good to get it.

As far as Yitzchak’s powerful prayer, God wasn’t quite ready to bless them with Yakov and Esau at the expense of letting Avraham go, so God allowed Himself to be persuaded and convinced, seduced by the tears of Yitzchak’s prayer because it wasn’t quite time yet.

R’ Shlomo Farhi sharply notes the mirroring of Yitzchak’s prayer to God’s response – וַיֶּעְתַּר / וַיֵּעָתֶר. Yitzchak prays opposite his wife, facing her – לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ, as opposed to with her, together, suggesting he wasn’t doing it for himself, but for her. Yitzchak’s defining feature is seriousness – גבורה – someone who accepts and takes thing seriously. If God doesn’t want to give him children, he is at peace; when he thought God had asked for his life, he was at peace! He is not on the same page as Rivka, not with her.

But facing her, seeing her pain and anguish, he could move himself to pray, and if he couldn’t do it for himself, he could do it for her – לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ. This might go some way toward explaining the force of the prayer, and the mirroring of the words – וַיֶּעְתַּר / וַיֵּעָתֶר – Yitzchak is removing himself from a position he is comfortable with specifically for a position he is not, precisely mirroring the position he asks God to take, to upend the status quo where Avraham lives his full life, in favor of a reality where Rivka has her children sooner, but Avraham’s dies early.

We might find it disturbing to realize that our prayers can hurt us, and if we can sabotage ourselves by wanting and asking for the wrong thing, then maybe we shouldn’t ask for anything at all and let destiny and fate play out as they will! But in truth, outside of prayer, we consistently chase and want the wrong things in our lives all the time.

If you want something, you figure out the price and pay it. It sounds trivial and obvious but packs extraordinary power. As intelligent people, we understand that it means the determination, effort, and investment it takes to get what we want; and as religious people, we understand that it means prayer as well.

Which brings us back to Yitzchak’s prayer.

Yitzchak could pray for Rivka, but undisturbed and unphased as he was by God’s apparent decree of childlessness, only exposing himself to Rivka’s pain could make it real. You can’t mean it if you just don’t care enough, and caring is why we pray at all – we don’t throw up our hands and leave things to destiny and fate. There’s a monumental difference in the mentality of just hoping business sort of works out, in contrast with “Lord, I need this to work so I can feed my family!” Generalities are accurate, but they don’t move us. How could they? What moves us is being precise, so our prayers have to be precise so that it can come from the heart.

If we are supposed to get something if we put in the efforts but fail to pray, we could end up foreclosing something that was coming our way. And if we’re nervous about praying for the wrong thing, we might pray vaguely; but if we pray vaguely, then we wouldn’t mean it! So we pray with precision and with heart and hedge it with a hope for the best.

The hedge of hoping for the best is for when we are so stuck on an outcome that we just need it to work. And sometimes it really is that way! No matter what, Yitzchak needed Rivka to have children. But far more often, the things we want don’t end up cutting our parent’s lives short. For most of what we want, it’s probably healthier to have an attitude of outcome independence, and it’s worth introspecting if what we are looking for isn’t just this specific thing but an underlying need we think we need this thing for. Maybe if the thing I want isn’t the answer, then help me get closer. If it’s not this deal, or this house, or this job, or this relationship, I hope to find what I’m really looking for – dignity, fulfillment, security, and happiness. We are often stuck on something because we have a scarcity mentality when the Universe is actually abundant.

Hedging our ability to self-sabotage is a surprisingly regular feature in our prayers, like ימלא כל משאלות ליבך לטובה – I think I want this thing, but I’d prefer what’s good for me; please don’t give it to me if it’s not good for me! It’s why we ask for a good and sweet New Year – שָׁנָה טוֹבָה וּמְתוּקָה – because not everything sweet is good, and not everything good is sweet. God can grant our desires and save us from them when they are the very thing that ends up hurting us – רְצוֹן-יְרֵאָיו יַעֲשֶׂה; וְאֶת-שַׁוְעָתָם יִשְׁמַע, וְיוֹשִׁיעֵם. Sometimes the thing we need saving from is ourselves!

We don’t really know how prayer “works,” just that we do it, and sometimes things work out just the way we hope! It’s the ultimate tool in our arsenal and features prominently in our traditions. But we’re just children playing games on a board far bigger than any of us can fathom, and we have no real clue what’s truly best for us.