To be a Jew is to renew an ancient covenant, adding a link to the chain that bridges the ages.

For Jewish men, the covenant is expressed through the mitzvah of the circumcision, although the colloquial term בְּרִית literally translates as “covenant.”

What is the Jewish covenant?

When God engages Avraham to enter the covenant, God maps out a vision for humanity, blessing Avraham’s descendants with greatness, and the land of Israel. They just have to do one 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)

It doesn’t take long before one quickly realizes perfection is impossible.

But perfection is not in the ends but in the means. The Beis Halevi teaches that when we uphold the covenant to the best of our ability, we will find that we actually are perfect – הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי / וֶהְיֵה תָמִים.

Rabbi Akiva taught that in the same way we consider a loaf of bread a refined 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 must form this space for us to have any input.

The Malbim explains that our active participation is the essential theme of the covenant, which is by definition a bilateral agreement. Covenants typically have a sign, such as the rainbow signifying God’s promise not to flood the world. Bris Milah is different, as the sign is not extrinsic – our bodies are live 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 is that we can utilize and enhance our gifts and blessings to improve our world.

While we can’t be perfect, we can still be perfectly wholesome.

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 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Habits are a powerful thing – habits are how we live and function because motivation is fleeting. But there is a dangerous possibility of habitual religious observance:

רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה – I am giving before you today a blessing and a curse. (11:26)

Moshe does not call on us to view life’s choices through a black and white dualism of mitzvah versus sin. Instead, he counsels us to make choices through the nuance of blessing and curse, because the blessing is what matters, not the mitzvah itself. A mitzvah is simply a vehicle for what God wishes for each of us – a life of blessing.

But who would ever choose the curse?

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that by the curse finds us when we focus on the mitzvah instead of the blessing. It is all too easy to empty Judaism of its spirituality; meticulous observance can become mechanical rote – and without mindful intention and inspiration, it can look similar, but it’s not the same.

If we don’t consider an action before following through, we have not made a choice at all, and are simply following conditioning.

That’s where we need to discern the blessing from the curse. What can look like a mitzvah on the surface might not be serving God at all. It’s just robotic programming; it isn’t the path of blessing – it’s the other path. It’s not a path people choose; they find themselves there by not choosing at all!

In its ideal form, Jewish observance is conscious and mindful. We opt in because it matters to us and means something.

On the flip side of this, there is a problem with inspiration run wild.

In the laws that follow, Moshe warns the Jewish People not to co-opt the religious practices of the local Canaanites – because feeling inspired to serve God in ways we choose isn’t serving God at all.

When we blur the boundaries of inspired contribution and dutiful obligation, things can get dangerous.

The people had seen this tense dynamic play out with Nadav and Avihu, with a compelling point made about equality before the law: even the foremost spiritual elite are subject to the framework of the Torah. What had steered them wrong was misguided inspiration that was ultimately misguided folly.

So what are the guidelines of inspired observance that is welcomed with blessing?

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that we just need to apply our inspiration where it fits in. When we can and should follow our inspiration, and our actions have enhanced value.

But this can go too far. If someone decides that a white shirt is the most dignified way for them to dress, that is their prerogative. But if that thought process leads them to judge anyone else for not also opting to wear white shirts, that’s the path of mitzvah with no blessing. Our inspiration needs to fit.

Misplaced rigidity only alienates.

We can and should infuse our Jewish observance with mindful feeling. We must choose for it to matter. And we have to find the right place for it – choose the blessing, not the mitzvah. Because inspiration wrongly applied can backfire.

But if we are going through the motions without any inspiration at all, that might be worse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The kosher signs on a mammal are straightforward. It chews the cud, and has fully split hooves. Anything that meets the rule is kosher; anything that doesn’t meet the rule is not. It’s simple.

Yet the Torah specifies some animals which aren’t kosher, and why:

אַךְ אֶת זֶה לֹא תֹאכְלוּ מִמַּעֲלֵי הַגֵּרָה וּמִמַּפְרִסֵי הַפַּרְסָה אֶת הַגָּמָל כִּי מַעֲלֵה גֵרָה הוּא וּפַרְסָה אֵינֶנּוּ מַפְרִיס טָמֵא הוּא לָכֶם: וְאֶת הַשָּׁפָן כִּי מַעֲלֵה גֵרָה הוּא וּפַרְסָה לֹא יַפְרִיס טָמֵא הוּא לָכֶם: וְאֶת הָאַרְנֶבֶת כִּי מַעֲלַת גֵּרָה הִוא וּפַרְסָה לֹא הִפְרִיסָה טְמֵאָה הִוא לָכֶם: וְאֶת הַחֲזִיר כִּי מַפְרִיס פַּרְסָה הוּא וְשֹׁסַע שֶׁסַע פַּרְסָה וְהוּא גֵּרָה לֹא יִגָּר טָמֵא הוּא לָכֶם: – You may eat any animal with split hooves, that also chews its cud. Don’t eat animals that chew the cud but don’t have fully cloven hooves: The camel, since it chews the cud but doesn’t have a split hoof is not kosher for you. The hyrax, since it chews the cud but doesn’t have a split hoof is not kosher for you. The hare, since it chews the cud but doesn’t have a split hoof is not kosher for you. The pig, since it has a split hoof but doesn’t chew the cud is not kosher for you. (10:3-7)

It would seem unnecessary to explain that these aren’t kosher, because they don’t conform to the simple rule of kosher. But curiously, the Torah seems to say that the reason they are not kosher is because they only have one sign, not because they don’t fit the rule!

Why does the Torah go out it’s way to emphasise that one sign is different or worse than having none?

The Kli Yakar explains that having one sign is actually worse than none, because it can give the illusion of appearing to be something it is not. Only careful consideration dispels the facade. This hypocrisy is what the Torah takes such issue with.

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi teaches that with some sobering self-awareness, a lucid person knows exactly what they need to fix. But when a person has something to hold onto, they can deceive themselves, and prevent the real growth we need to prevent atrophy.

Rabbi Nathan Lopez Cardozo remarks that on a communal and personal level, each of us has blurred the lines between reality and illusion somewhat.

A little more openness and honest would be a big step forward in every way. It’s important to own our successes and failures equally.

What could you own better in your life?

Of all the curious laws of tzaraas, one stands out in particular. A person whose skin is entirely bleached white from the illness is not impure, and is not quarantined from the camp.

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that it is simply impossible for a Jew to be so absolutely in the wrong that he must be forced to leave.

Yet when such a person begins to heal slightly, they become impure under the regular laws of tzaraas.

This seems counter intuitive. Why does recovery make him worse off?

Rabbi Farhi teaches that so long as a person is completely covered, he’s well aware that there’s plenty to fix. When you hit rock bottom, the only way is up. Once there’s something else to hold on to, he can righteously cling to the little bit of goodness, but doing so will ultimately prevent him from acknowledging the need to improve in other areas.

In order to get better, it is essential to recognize our shortcomings.

Anyone could tell you that idol worship is anathema to Judaism. Some would tell you that idol worship doesn’t truly exist today. Fewer could tell you that it exists in certain forms in all our lives.

A sub-category of idolatry is superstition, which the Torah outlaws:

לֹא תְנַחֲשׁוּ וְלֹא תְעוֹנֵנוּ – Do not consult omens or lucky times… (19:26)

R’ Shlomo Farhi defines idolatry as losing grip on your intellectual approach to what it means to a human. What differentiates mankind from the animal kingdom is that we can control our choices and thought processes.

Rav Hirsch teaches that superstition divorces our God-given mental faculties from our choices, which is the exact definition of idolatry.

Superstition denies the order of science and nature, and denies free will and morality. The Torah is the lens through which we are charged with making choices, and superstition circumvents it.

Superstition places moral actions under external influences, destroying the relationship between Creator and creation. Rav Hirsch notes the common root of Nichush – superstition, and Nachash – the primeval snake. Like the snake, superstitious activity deceptively wriggles and slithers toward disaster.

The people most susceptible to superstition are vulnerable people struggling through something, desperate for a way forward. The Torah emphasises that cutting corners is not the way forward.

The Torah is supposed to guide us through the darkness. Doubt is normal. Uncertainty is expected. The Torah urges us to embrace the difficulty of the unknown, and challenges us to work through it without looking for a quick fix.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the aftermath of the Golden Calf, the Mishkan laws are delivered. Hashem calls to Moshe, before explaining the laws of the Avoda services:

וַיִּקְרָא, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיְדַבֵּר ה אֵלָיו, מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר – Hashem called on Moshe; and spoke to him from the Hall, to say… (1:1)

וַיִּקְרָא is a deliberate expression, indicating consideration and care. וַיִּקְרָא has a small א – Rashi quotes a Midrash that takes this to mean that while writing the words, Moshe was drawing an analogy to the prophecy of Bilam, of whom it is said ויקר אלוקים אל בלעם – that Hashem chanced a communication with, unplanned. That is, that Moshe was saying that he too was not worthy of being deliberately called, and that his prophecy was also chanced upon him.

There would seem to be a massive problem with this. One of the foundational tenets of Judaism is that Moshe Rabbeinu had perfect prophecy, which cannot be superseded, such that the Torah he delivered is unimpeachable. Surely, Moshe had to believe this too, with full confidence! How then, could he draw an analogy between himself and Bilam?

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that in fact, there is a large similarity. Bilam’s prophecy was incidental to the man, as Chazal state, that the nations were given a prophet to preempt the claim that if they had a prophet like Moshe, they might act differently. Bilam was a prophet for the people’s sake, not his own merits.

In fact, Moshe is told something very similar. Rashi notes that his instructions were win them over in the wake of the recent tragedy. צא ואמור להם דברי כבושים. בשבילכם הוא מדבר עמי – I am a prophet because of you!

The opportunities that the Jewish people keep getting are expressions of love from Hashem. Even the greatest of the prophets, and the holiest of instructions, come from that place. The entire book of Vayikra seems esoteric, but we just have to dig a little bit to find incredible riches expressing this central theme. He loves us, no matter what.

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

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

In contrast, mankind was told:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The soul always remains free.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Torah discusses an illness called Tzaraas. The Torah does not usually discuss diseases and maladies; but this is no ordinary illness which require isolation and quarantine. Consider that the man whose entire body was stricken was not quarantined at all. Chazal understand it to be a spiritual shortcoming that was biologically manifest. The diagnosis:

וְרָאָה הַכֹּהֵן וְהִנֵּה כִסְּתָה הַצָּרַעַת אֶת כָּל בְּשָׂרוֹ וְטִהַר אֶת הַנָּגַע כֻּלּוֹ הָפַךְ לָבָן טָהוֹר הוּא – The kohen should check the white mark. If it has cleared from his skin, it is purified. If it has spread and infected his entire body white, he too is purified. (13:13)

If the lesion or mark did not clear within a week, the man was sent away from the city for a week, after which he is reinspected.

The isolation is a central part of the rehabilitation and healing process, but why?

Chazal understand that the illness was strongly correlated to gossip, which the Torah is highly sensitive to. Gossip is a highly destructive force, tearing apart the fabric of society by planting harmful ideas, ruining perceptions and relationships. A mark on the arm or let can be disguised by wearing longer clothing. This is why a metzora must leave their community – the gossip has blended into a society he is actually destabilising. Such a person is not welcome – they are a fake, and not how they appear – and since he can blend, people are not on their guard. The isolation is not just for him, but for society.

The Rema notes that this could well be why the metzora whose entire body is stricken is not sent away; their physical condition matches their spiritual condition. When people see this metzora, they know to steer well clear just by looking.

Solitary exile may seem a little extreme, but R’ Yisrael Salanter explains that the punishment fits the crime; the gossip – if telling the truth – is exacting over the finer details of other peoples lives. Such an expert is forced to introspect and confront his own character flaws, by being on his own for a week.

Tzaraas also affects clothing, and the Torah details the laws. The Torah specifies how the clothing is fit for regular use:

וְרָאָה הַכֹּהֵן … וְהִנֵּה לֹא הָפַךְ הַנֶּגַע אֶת עינו – The kohen should check… if the eye of the mark had not normalised… (13:55).

The central part in the personal recovery of tzaraas is הָפַךְ אֶת עינו – for the eye to revert. Figuratively speaking, the character flaw that causes tzaraas is the intrusive eye. By the end of his isolation, his eyes should be fixed firmly inward.

When the State of Israel declared independence, the newly born state was overwhelmingly attacked, and Jews were fighting and dying daily. A student remarked to the Brisker Rov how, “It’s the secular people’s fault! If they kept Shabbos surely no one would die!”

The Brisker Rov dismissed such foolishness, “The prophet Yonah fled from God, rather than cause any negative outcome for the Jews. He preferred to write himself off rather than betray his brothers. When God sent a storm after him, he blamed himself and preferred to be thrown off a boat – בשלי הסער הגדול הזה! Even if the entire nation were idol worshippers like then, we don’t look to others for accountability, we say בשלי הסער הגדול הזה – this great storm is all my fault.

We do not judge our fellow’s actions, we only say, “How can I make it better?””

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are in the driving seat – הליכות עולם לו.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For that reason alone, we have to help them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pasuk says:

וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת־חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם הָאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם – You shall observe My statutes and My laws for when a man performs them, he will live by them. (18:5)

The Sfas Emes wonders what the prescribed manner to live by the mitzvos might be.

On the one hand, the Mishna in Avos (2:1) says הֶוֵי מְחַשֵׁב הֶפְסֵד מִצְוָה כְּנֶגֶד שְׂכָרָהּ – Consider the loss through a mitzvah against its reward; on the other hand, the Mishna earlier on (1:3) says אַל תִּהְיוּ כַּעֲבָדִים הַמְשַׁמְשִים אֶת הָרַב עַל מְנַת לְקַבֵּל פְּרָס – Do not be like servants who serve their master in order to receive reward.

This poses a dilemma – are we meant to value the reward, or not?

In order to reconcile these contradictory Mishnayos, we need to gain an understanding of what the ultimate reward for performing mitzvos. The Sfas Emes explains that the reward for a mitzva is not related in any way to anything we can experience. The next world is not physical. The next world is not even a place; it is a state. It is the state of our soul being close to God, something we cannot being to relate to, as everything we know is entirely physical.

In fact, the word for world – עוֹלָם – has the same root as the word for “concealed” – הָעֳלַם. The next world is concealed from us because it is beyond our life experience. In this world, the physical hides God from us. The truth is concealed by the illusion that there is no reality other than this physical world. This is why metaphors such as lies and darkness are applied to this world. In exactly the same way that God is hidden from us in this manner, so is the World to Come. It is the world of light, truth and reality – we have no grasp of understanding what is beyond the illusion.

The reward of a mitzva is being close to Hashem – we cannot relate to Hashem on this World, so intrinsically, the reward cannot be in this world. Performing mitzvos in order to come close to God is the reason we have the mitzvos, and the reason the world was created. It follows that the purpose of the mitzvos and their reward is one and the same. Accordingly, Chazal ask us to consider our loss from performing a mitzvah against the reward. The reward is closeness to God, which is the purpose of the mitzvah, and ultimately, life itself. We thus see that הֶוֵי מְחַשֵׁב הֶפְסֵד מִצְוָה כְּנֶגֶד שְׂכָרָהּ refers to the spiritual reward in the World to Come.

The other Mishna that warns us not to perform mitzvos in order to receive a reward does not mention שָׂכָר; it mentions פְּרָס. Here, Chazal are not referring to the ultimate reward and purpose of the Torah, mitzvos and life. Rather, they are referring to performance of mitzvos for personal gain.

The reason this is so is because the word word פְּרָס is related to פְּרוּסָה – a piece – which implies a separation. Personal benefit and gain are separations and distinctions between ourselves and others. Chazal thus warn us that it further separates a person from the source of life, from God. This is the opposite of וָחַי בָּהֶם – to live through them – as the point of life was to become close to God, but this causes a seperation.

The Sfas Emes has explained that the Mishnayos were not contradicting each other at all – the World to Come is where we become close to God, the point of existence. Everything we do should revolve around that end goal. If personal goals corrupt our actions, we become corrupt and this is what we are advised against.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The miracle comes once we’ve exhausted our efforts.

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

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

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

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

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

Ask not for a lighter burden, but broader shoulders.

There is a pithy saying, that if you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day; but if you teach him how to fish he’ll eat for the rest of his life. This is an ideal, that requires the beneficiary to make the most of what he is being offered. Yet the ideal is not always the case.

Sometimes the recipient is unable, unwilling, unfortunate, or a combination. It’s disheartening to fight a losing battle, and to try and help someone who just can’t help themselves. The Torah charges us as benefactors with a lofty goal:

וְכִי יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ וּמָטָה יָדוֹ עִמָּךְ וְהֶחֱזַקְתָּ בּוֹ – When your brother languishes, and his hand falters, you must steady and support him (25:35)

Rav Hirsch teaches that it is incredibly easy to give up on people who just attract calamity and misfortune. It would be far better to cut them loose, and just let them figure it out alone. The Torah reminds us that he is your brother, you were equals once. His existence is not a failure, it is וּמָטָה יָדוֹ, his hand that has failed. You must help steady him until once more he is עִמָּךְ, with you, equals once again.

If you are more fortunate than others, it’s better to build a bigger table than a bigger fence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a very basic question, and there are many approaches to take. The Ramban on Vayikra 1:9 discusses various approaches we will analyse, and is widely considered one of the fundamental parts of the Ramban’s commentary on the Chumash.

The Ramban quotes the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim as the first approach. The Rambam writes there that the idea of Jews using animal sacrifice was necessary for the people as they needed a physical method of worship, having been a part of the pagan culture in Egypt and other such places. To battle and rectify the idol worship in the world, the Jews would do the same action for a sacred purpose.

The Ramban disagrees strongly with this on many facets. If we base an entire method of service to Hashem on the actions of fools and sinners, why would Hashem gain anything from it at all? Vayikra 1:9 says that the korban creates אשה ריח ניחוח ליהוה – Hashem “enjoys” the fact that we bring korbanos. The implication of the Rambam is that the korbanos are more for man than Hashem, but  if the korbanos were for man, why would Hashem enjoy it? We must find a suitable explanation for bringing korbanos that also explains why Hashem instructs it of us, rather than why why we ought to do it.

The Ramban points out that if the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim is correct, that Jewish animal sacrifice only exists to battle idol worship, then we would not find instances of korbanos before an instance of idol worship. But this is not so – Adam was the first human – there were obviously no other people around to worship idols – yet he brought korbanos nonetheless, and so too with Noach; his family were the sole survivors of the Flood – so again, there could be no idol worshippers – and we find that nonetheless he did bring korbanos. How would the Rambam explain these instances where there was no idol worship to fight?

He further asks why the solution to idol worship would be to do the same thing in a different way – this seems to lend credibility to the idolatry the korbanos are trying to fight, chas v’shalom. It would seem that it would be better to just eat animals and not have sacrifices at all if we were indeed trying to fight the credibility of idol worship, as eating them shows we don’t consider them to be worthy of special attention.

R’ Yakov Minkus explains the solution to this issue. The Rambam in his magnum opus, the Mishneh Torah (Hilchos Me’ila 8:8) writes explicitly that the yesod – the distilled, fundamental, reason to bring korbanos is a חוק – there is no reason to do it other than the fact we were told to. The Moreh Nevuchim explains the inverse of this – once the mitzva exists, there is a spillover effect that we can relate to more, but the underlying reasoning remains a חוק. With this knowledge at hand, of course Noach could bring a korban, and the question about the non-existence of idol-worship falls away. Battling idol worship isn’t why there are korbanos as a starting point, rather, it helps explain it after the fact.

With this knowledge of the Rambam’s true approach to korbanos, we can suggest an answer to the question of why the countering of idol worship would take a similar form, rather than denigrating it, by simply eating all animals regularly, without any sacrifices at all.

Korbanos have their blood sprinkled on the Mizbeach, by a kohen, in the Beis Hamikdash. The Korban Pesach had none of these key functions, so why is it called a korban at all? R’ Moshe Shapiro explains that the key to understanding this issue is that idol worship is not nothing. Paganism and idol worship have a כח הטומאה – they usurp and corrupt spirituality. Eating an animal doesn’t battle the the negative of idol worship, it just nullifies it. The nullification does not require the Beis Hamikdash, or sprinkling of blood by the kohen.  This is why the Pesach could be brought publicly in Egypt. The Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim was saying that all korbanos have this nullifying the negative aspect to which we can relate, but we now see this isn’t the full spectrum of his opinion.

The Ramban then offers a second approach. There is an intrinsic good on man’s part in having korbanos. The idea of a korban is that a person should see the animal as being his substitute, and really, he ought to be sacrificed. The animal takes his place and atones for his sins, and this is the reason to have korbanos.

There is a mighty flaw with this approach too however. Most korbanos are donated, rather than obligated of people, so the Ramban’s approach doesn’t explain the existence of donated korbanos at all.

The Ramban offers a third solution, that is beyond the scope of this site to explain properly. The word קרבן, the root of which is the word קרב, means “closeness”. Offering a korban engenders closeness with Hashem. This is a difficult concept to explain, let alone understand, but to illustrate: we perform mitzvos to emulate Hashem’s ways, but we are not emulating Hashem by bringing korbanos – we are doing something else: we are interacting with Hashem. We are provoking a reaction in Hashem, as the pasuk says; “אשה ריח ניחוח ליהוה” – on which Rashi remarks “נחת רוח לפני, שאמרתי ונעשה רצוני”. This is difficult to illustrate, but there is a difference between doing Hashem’s will, and making it. When we bring a korban, we bring more of Hashem’s will into the world. One could suggest there is an element of creation here.

The Ramban brings a proof from Isaiah 60:7 that says: יַעֲלוּ עַל רָצוֹן מִזְבְּחִי וּבֵית תִּפְאַרְתִּי אֲפָאֵר – the Mizbeach is the expression of Hashem’s will.

So in bringing a korban, a person intentions are going to correlate to how they have extended G-d’s will in the world. This is why there is a concept of pigul, (a lengthy concept regarding what happens in the event that all the actions of a korban were carried out correctly, but someone in the porcess was thinking about something mundane, like the weather. Around 40 pages of Meseches Zevachim are devoted to this) – because the physical animal isn’t what matters – there is a transfer of spirituality here, from potential/theoretical to physical in this world. It’s a very big deal. The improper thoughts mean one can’t interact with what he’s trying to, and the korban has served it’s purpose, as the whole idea is not the physical at all.

So in answer to why we bring korbanos: there is the simple Moreh Nevuchim approach that we are counteracting paganism, the Ramban’s simple approach that we can atone our sins, and the Ramban’s esoteric Kabbalistic approach. We can suggest though, that perhaps the חוק aspect that the Rambam referred to was this third approach, and perhaps all the opinions harmonise together. Admittedly, this doesn’t answer why we bring korbanos, but it does explain what the function of the korban is.