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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For a long time, there was a prevailing but now discredited theory that history is written by a few great men, and that these privileged few are driven to greatness through some intrinsic superiority, be it religious, economic, intellectual, or some other advantage.

The Torah has never taken this view:

אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם, לִפְנֵי האֱלֹהֵיכֶםרָאשֵׁיכֶם שִׁבְטֵיכֶם, זִקְנֵיכֶם וְשֹׁטְרֵיכֶם, כֹּל, אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל. טַפְּכֶם נְשֵׁיכֶםוְגֵרְךָ, אֲשֶׁר בְּקֶרֶב מַחֲנֶיךָמֵחֹטֵב עֵצֶיךָ, עַד שֹׁאֵב מֵימֶיךָ. לְעָבְרְךָ, בִּבְרִית ה אֱלֹהֶיךָוּבְאָלָתוֹאֲשֶׁר ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, כֹּרֵת עִמְּךָ הַיּוֹם – All of you are standing before Hashem your God today: heads; tribes; elders; officers; all the men of Israel; children; women; the strangers in your midst; the wood choppers and the water carriers; so that you should enter into the covenant and oath of Hashem your God, which Hashem your God makes with you today… (29:9-11)

One of Judaism’s great innovations is that our God is the God of all people, and cares about all people.

R’ Boruch of Medzhybizh teaches that the Torah’s call to action is not just to the wise and industrious, and instead requires each of us to participate in realizing its vision; from the most natural born leaders to the most marginalized groups as well – רָאשֵׁיכֶם שִׁבְטֵיכֶם זִקְנֵיכֶם וְשֹׁטְרֵיכֶם / טַפְּכֶם נְשֵׁיכֶם.

We believe that God’s call to action presents itself every day – אֲשֶׁר ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, כֹּרֵת עִמְּךָ הַיּוֹם – and that it emanates from Sinai itself – בְּכָל יוֹם וָיוֹם בַּת קוֹל יוֹצֵאת מֵהַר חוֹרֵב וּמַכְרֶזֶת.

We will make mistakes, we will stumble, and we will fail, and someone else would do it better. But it doesn’t matter.

Because whatever your talents and shortcomings are, you have a unique voice and contribution that you alone can offer – לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה.

The only person who will never make mistakes is someone who does nothing at all.

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

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

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

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

What does the repetition add?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is a widely held belief that when we sin, as everyone inevitably does, we corrupt ourselves in some fundamental and irredeemable way. The Torah strongly disagrees:

כִּי-יִהְיֶה רִיב בֵּין אֲנָשִׁים, וְנִגְּשׁוּ אֶל-הַמִּשְׁפָּט וּשְׁפָטוּם; וְהִצְדִּיקוּ, אֶת-הַצַּדִּיק, וְהִרְשִׁיעוּ, אֶת-הָרָשָׁע. וְהָיָה אִם-בִּן הַכּוֹת, הָרָשָׁע–וְהִפִּילוֹ הַשֹּׁפֵט וְהִכָּהוּ לְפָנָיו, כְּדֵי רִשְׁעָתוֹ בְּמִסְפָּר אַרְבָּעִים יַכֶּנּוּ, לֹא יֹסִיף: פֶּן-יֹסִיף לְהַכֹּתוֹ עַל-אֵלֶּה מַכָּה רַבָּה, וְנִקְלָה אָחִיךָ לְעֵינֶיךָ – If there is a dispute between men; they shall approach the court, and the judges will judge them, and acquit the innocent one and condemn the guilty one. If the guilty one has incurred lashes, the judge shall make him lean over and flog him in front of him, commensurate with his crime, in number. He shall beat him with forty lashes; he shall not exceed, lest he give him a much more severe flogging than these forty lashes, and your brother will be degraded before your eyes. (25:1-3)

Aside from the facts of the case the Torah describes, it is noteworthy that the very instant the crime is remediated, the Torah reclassifies the offender as “your brother” – רָשָׁע / אָחִיךָ.

From this, the Sifri derived the fundamental principle that we must rehabilitate offenders. Once a wrongdoer has made amends, he becomes your brother again. For example, he is permitted to be a witness like anyone else, and his testimony is no less credible. The stain on his character is temporary, not permanent. He is not an “ex-criminal” or “Baal Teshuva”; he is “your brother.”

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that Judaism believes in rehabilitation both spiritually and in civil law. Beyond the natural drive to protect the rights of those who have been wronged, the Torah also seeks to help wrongdoers rebuild and make amends.

When someone sins or stumbles, the Torah condemns the act, not the person. The moment a wrong has been made right, anyone can become “your brother,” once again.

Hate the sin, not the sinner.

As part of the functioning society the Torah seeks to create, the Torah requires us to have a judiciary to interpret the law, and an executive to apply it:

שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים, תִּתֶּן-לְךָ בְּכָל-שְׁעָרֶיךָ – You shall place judges and police within all your gates… (16:18)

As with many mitzvos, the Torah speaks to individuals here, and not the community. Does the Torah expect each of us to individually to create a roster of judges and a police force?

While the simple reading is about judges and police, it is not simply a law about the branches of government.

The Shelah instead reads it as Judaism’s source for the principle of personal development. Building a great society starts with individuals. The mitzvah is given to “you” (second person possessive) because nobody else could judge or police you in the way only you are able.

R’ Yisrael Salanter taught that our natural intuition is the only judge and policeman we ever need.

R’ Jonathan Sacks explains that this is a microcosm of the Jewish People’s mission. In our personal lives and in our communities, we have a duty to determine whether there is a gap between where we are and where we ought to be, then taking the necessary steps to bridge it.

Because if we’re tuned in, we know what’s wrong, and we know how to fix it too.

The Torah’s laws serve the purpose of forming a cohesive and fair society, where members of the community work together to build a better world. The Torah anticipates that sometimes we will fail. People will break the law, and there are remedies available.

But sometimes, there is no remedy, such as a cold case – a crime that remains unsolved and has no leads. Unsolved murders are particularly dangerous for society, for the obvious reason that the killer remains unknown and at large. Should such an event take place in or near a Jewish community, the Torah requires us to be vigilant, and prescribes a ritual to undertake.

The leaders of a city have to take a calf that has never worked, to land that has never been ploughed, break it’s neck, and make a public declaration:

וְעָנוּ, וְאָמְרוּיָדֵינוּ, לֹא שָׁפְכוּ אֶתהַדָּם הַזֶּה, וְעֵינֵינוּ, לֹא רָאוּ. כַּפֵּר לְעַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁרפָּדִיתָ, ה, וְאַלתִּתֵּן דָּם נָקִי, בְּקֶרֶב עַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְנִכַּפֵּר לָהֶם, הַדָּם.  וְאַתָּה, תְּבַעֵר הַדָּם הַנָּקִימִקִּרְבֶּךָכִּיתַעֲשֶׂה הַיָּשָׁר, בְּעֵינֵי ה – They shall speak and say: “Our hands did not shed this blood, and our eyes were blind. Hashem, forgive Israel, your redeemed people, and do not tolerate innocent blood to remain among Israel, your people.” And the blood shall be forgiven. Purge innocent blood from among you … (21:7-9)

The Torah doesn’t tolerate unsolved crimes. The imagery of asking God forgiveness for innocent blood is especially powerful.

It seems odd that the leaders have to publicly explain that they did not kill somebody – we don’t seriously entertain that possibility for a moment.

So what is the point of the ceremony?

The Chasam Sofer notes that when they say “Our eyes were blind,” it’s not simply saying that they didn’t witness the crime – it’s a confession that the crime happened on their watch.

The Ibn Ezra explains that the Torah expects standards in a community to come from the top. If a murder takes place on your doorstep, the Torah radically suggests there is a shortcoming in the community as well, having not done enough to prevent it.

In that case, the ceremony is not a declaration of innocence; it is a public declaration of guilt.

R’ Chaim Brown notes that while we don’t often have to deal with a literal murder, there are plenty of similar scenarios where the lesson is as relevant as ever.

Chazal often compares vulnerable classes to the dead; the poor and childless, among others.

There are vulnerable people in our circles. With no particular institution in mind, how many children don’t have schools to attend, or get bullied? How many families can’t bear the financial burden of living an observant Jewish lifestyle?

One of the central concepts this mitzva reinforces is that we have a covenantal obligation to each other, and the Torah does not look away when vulnerable people are ignored on our watch –  וְאַלתִּתֵּן דָּם נָקִי, בְּקֶרֶב עַמְּךָ.

The Torah’s vision is that we stand up for each other, and especially those who cannot stand up for themselves.

There is an almost universal survival instinct among living organisms for self-preservation, that can extend to children and family as well. As the degrees of separation erode familiarity, the protective instinct shrinks as well.

Whenever the Torah makes a point, it matters. But when the Torah is replete with the same recurring theme over and over, it matters a lot.

In the laws that deal with interpersonal conduct, the Torah says one thing time and again:

כִּי-יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן מֵאַחַד אַחֶיךָ / וְלֹא תִקְפֹּץ אֶת-יָדְךָ, מֵאָחִיךָ, הָאֶבְיוֹן / וְרָעָה עֵינְךָ בְּאָחִיךָ הָאֶבְיוֹן, וְלֹא תִתֵּן לוֹ / פָּתֹחַ תִּפְתַּח אֶת-יָדְךָ לְאָחִיךָ / כִּי-יִמָּכֵר לְךָ אָחִיךָ הָעִבְרִי / לְבִלְתִּי רוּם-לְבָבוֹ מֵאֶחָיו / וְנַחֲלָה לֹא-יִהְיֶה-לּוֹ, בְּקֶרֶב אֶחָיו / וְשֵׁרֵת, בְּשֵׁם ה אֱלֹהָיו–כְּכָל-אֶחָיו / נָבִיא מִקִּרְבְּךָ מֵאַחֶיךָ / וַעֲשִׂיתֶם לוֹ, כַּאֲשֶׁר זָמַם לַעֲשׂוֹת לְאָחִיו – When there will be a poor man among your brothers / Don’t withold your hand from your brother, the poor man / Should your eye turn evil towards your poor brother, and you don’t give him [what he needs] / Open your hands to your brother, and open them once more / Should your brother be sold as a slave / [Let a king] not be haughty over his brothers / [The kohen] shall not have an inheritance with his brothers [because of his extra benefits] / He will serve in God’s name, as his brothers / A prophet will come from among your brothers / Conspiring witnesses shall suffer what they conspired upon their brother. (Multiple sources)

The Torah has many interpersonal laws. But whether it’s about rich and poor, slaves or kings, prophets or priests; the Torah calls us “brothers” over and over again, to extend the self-concept definition beyond ourselves and foster a group identity.

There is a radical concept here.

The Torah wants us to be careful not to define people by their status as a lender, borrower, king, or slave. Our different social status or economics can describe us, but it is our common identity that defines us. We have to help each other, not because we are different, but because we are the same.

The theory of shared identity is presented as one of the foundational reasons we observe the Torah:

וְזָכַרְתָּ, כִּי עֶבֶד הָיִיתָ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, וַיִּפְדְּךָ, ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ – Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the Lord redeemed you (15:15)

The fact we were once oppressed is not just a reason to find empathy. It goes much further. It is a reminder that we mustn’t fall victim to hubris and arrogance by taking credit for our good fortune.

The modern professional world is optimized for commerce, not community. The Torah rejects the legitimacy of a culture that creates a permanent wealthy and poor class and obligates us all to look out for those less fortunate.

Reasonable people can disagree on what optimal social policy looks like. But the Torah is clear that we each have a personal obligation to do what we can to help others and foster a communal identity.

Because there, but for the grace of God, go I.

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.

One of the Torah’s recurring themes is that a community consists of individuals looking past themselves, and seeing the other:

לֹא תִרְאֶה אֶת שׁוֹר אָחִיךָ אוֹ אֶת שֵׂיוֹ נִדָּחִים וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ מֵהֶם הָשֵׁב תְּשִׁיבֵם לְאָחִיךָ – Do not see your brother’s ox or sheep straying and ignore them – you should return them to your brother. (22:4)

This law is in line with the Torah’s vision – but the way the Torah phrases it is instructive.

If the key message is not ignoring things, why does the law start with “Don’t see,” instead of “Don’t ignore”?

The Sfas Emes answers that “seeing” is not a purely a visual function. Seeing also requires the mental and emotional aspects of perception and understanding.

The Torah does not charge us with a simple instruction against ignoring – it charges us with changing the way we look at things.

לֹא תִרְאֶה … וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ – Don’t see […] and ignore!

The Torah demands that we free our vision of blindness. We must see, notice, feel, and respond in kind.

Before the Jews entered the Land of Israel, Moshe gave a speech to the gathered people. One of the points he made was that just because some things seem less important; it doesn’t mean people should perform them half-heartedly:

וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם-וְשָׁמַר ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ, אֶת-הַבְּרִית וְאֶת-הַחֶסֶד, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע, לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ – When you finally listen (עֵקֶב) to the laws, observe and perform them; Hashem will safeguard you, and uphold the covenant sworn to your fathers. (7:12)

עֵקֶב is the word for “heel”; it denotes some definition of stepping. In other words: when you observe the things that are trodden on, God safeguards you more in some way.

R’ Shlomo Farhi observes that Moshe repeats the imagery of stepping on things once again:

כָּל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר תִּדְרֹךְ כַּף רַגְלְכֶם בּוֹ לָכֶם יִהְיֶה מִן הַמִּדְבָּר וְהַלְּבָנוֹן מִן הַנָּהָר נְהַר פְּרָת וְעַד הַיָּם הָאַחֲרוֹן יִהְיֶה גְּבֻלְכֶם. לֹא יִתְיַצֵּב אִישׁ בִּפְנֵיכֶם פַּחְדְּכֶם וּמוֹרַאֲכֶם יִתֵּן | ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם עַל פְּנֵי כָל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר תִּדְרְכוּ בָהּ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לָכֶם – Every place the soles of your feet tread will be yours… No man will rise before you; the Lord will cast fear of you and the dread of you on the land upon which you tread… (11:24,25)

This seems to say that the Land of Israel would become theirs by stepping on it. But this cannot be literal – Israel became theirs after a war!

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that the meaning here mirrors the figurative sense of treading on essential things. By be being careful what we step on, we measure our steps, and each safeguarded step takes us where we need to go.

But this is only true if we internalize the lesson – וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן.

What if we don’t get it?

Moshe addresses this in his very next sentence:

רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָֽה – Look and see how I place before you a blessing and a curse… (11:26)

Quite literally – רְאֵה – “Look and see! I need you to get this!”

The curse that comes along with not measuring our actions is actions that are not measured! We will inevitably tread on the important things, and our steps will take us nowhere.

With a singular focus of what matters and what doesn’t, we would have such singular focus that it would be impossible to go wrong. We have a crystal clarity that fire burns when you come too close.

If we had the same level of perception of right and wrong; that itself would be our safeguard, and every step would take us forward, and we would not fear a misstep.

Steps can take us forward, backward, sideways, and nowhere. We can step on important things, and important people along the way. It is always a good time to be mindful of the direction we are headed, why we’re doing it, and if what we’re doing is the best way to get there.

The speech was long ago, but the message is as true today as it was then. No one else can take the steps for us. We need to blaze trails of our own.

Our moral compasses can only navigate for us when they are switched on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is this Midrash about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How can we mitigate that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rivka had a difficult pregnancy and was often in pain from the unborn children fighting. 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)

What was so difficult for her to understand, that she had to seek out answers?

But we must remember that at this point in the story, Rivka did yet know she was having twins!

Of course, we have the benefit of knowing how the story would unfold. Chazal understand that each time she walked past a holy site, one child would agitate, and each time she walked past pagan idols, the other would stir.

R’ Chaim Brown suggests a fascinating resolution. When Moshe reviews the Torah in his final speech to the people, he tells 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 is that there is always a good and a bad choice, and we must choose wisely.

But there is a different implication from a closer reading. It is not just a choice of action, but a choice of identity – אָנֹכִי means the first person, the self, “I.”

What kind of אָנֹכִי do we each wish to be?

Tying this to Rivka’s problem, we can frame Rivka’s problem and resolution in a different light:

לָמָּה זֶּה אָנֹכִי – Where is the אָנֹכִי in this child? Does he want to go to holy places, or serve idols? This child is confused! And the prophet replied to her:

שְׁנֵי גֹיִים בְּבִטְנֵך – It is not one confused child, there are two children with two separate identities.

With this, she was comforted.

With our every each choice and action, we get to choose to align closer with one identity or the other.

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

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

Why not?

R’ Shlomo Farhi points out that the first word in the Torah is בראשית, and the last, ישראל. The first and last letters in the Torah spell out לב – heart. The Torah only wants an emotional investment from us – רחמנה ליבא בעי.

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

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

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

In other words, there’s no והגיענו!

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

The concept of chosenness is widely known, yet widely misunderstood. It has been held up by some people as a sign of superiority, and by some of our enemies as a superiority complex.

As Rabbi Sacks put it, Judaism embodies a unique paradox in that it honors both the universality of the human condition and the particularity of Jewish faith. We believe that God is a universal creator who creates humanity in the image of God; yet also has a covenant with a particular chosen people.

This tension between universal and particular has caused issues between the Jewish People and others, and within Judaism itself:

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

What does it mean to be “chosen”?

Rabbeinu Bachye teaches that being “chosen” is not a genetic status; it is an achievement that we each must earn.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch sharply notes that what the Torah literally says is that we become chosen on the day we observe the Torah and uphold its laws and ideals – הַיּוֹם: לִהְיוֹת לְךָ לֵאלֹהִים וְלָלֶכֶת בִּדְרָכָיו, וְלִשְׁמֹר חֻקָּיו וּמִצְו‍ֹתָיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו–וְלִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקֹלוֹ. וַה הֶאֱמִירְךָ הַיּוֹם, לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה.

Being chosen does not mean an intrinsic superiority, because there can be no intrinsic superiority when everyone is created in God’s image.

The only difference there can be between one human and another is the choices we make.

When our actions embody ethics and morality, we become a moral beacon for others to aspire to emulate, or put differently, “a light unto the nations” – עֶלְיוֹן, עַל כָּל-הַגּוֹיִם.

Improving ourselves, (and thereby, the world,) through our actions – is a consistent undercurrent of many fundamental concepts in the Torah. When a theme is recursive, it’s hard to deny.

Being chosen does not mean special privileges and free license; it means extra scrutiny on our obligations and responsibilities towards God and each other.

The Torah assures us that perfection of the world comes through the perfection of ourselves. With a little more humility, kindness and gratitude; and a little less materialism, your world will change.

We become chosen when we choose to live good lives.

One of the sections of Moshe’s farewell speech opens with a reiteration on the importance of energizing actions with effort:

וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם-וְשָׁמַר ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְךָ, אֶת-הַבְּרִית וְאֶת-הַחֶסֶד, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע, לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ – When you will finally listen to the laws, observe and perform them; Hashem will safeguard you, and uphold the covenant sworn to your fathers. (7:12)

The c conditional protection raises an issue. We are not supposed to observe our duties as workers expecting compensation; we are meant to dedicate ourselves because it is objectively important.

So why is observance framed with the conditional incentive of protection?

The Alshich notes that the word עֵקֶב is very peculiar, and not frequently found. It also doesn’t seem to add anything to the message.

R’ Shlomo Ganzfried explains that the reward is not the outcome of observance itself; it is for the effort and exertion the word עֵקֶב implies.

The Gemara in Berachos tells of how R’ Zeira took a short break from his learning and left the study hall. He sat on the steps outside so that if a scholar walked by, he could stand up out of respect, gaining merit while being idle from his learning.

In other words, beyond any particular of set mitzvos and laws, his attitude was an independently valuable characteristic to display and exercise.

The Torah always requires witnesses to testify, without getting paid. However, they can be still be paid for their time or travel, because the payment is for the work and effort put in, and not the testimony.

The same is consistently true of the Torah’s affirmation of rewards. There may not be a reward for the actual mitzva in this world – but there might be tangible benefits to showing respect for the things the Torah considers important.

This might be why the word עֵקֶב – literally “heel” – appears here. Our legwork will safeguard us because effort makes all the difference.

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Moshe prepares for the end of his life, he tells the Jewish people to have no fear, and that God would look after them:

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

Instead of saying “God will cross you over and destroy your enemies,” Moshe adds extra emphasis that “God, He” will do it – הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ, הוּא-יַשְׁמִיד אֶת-הַגּוֹיִם.

What was Moshe adding?

The Ohr HaChaim explains that Moshe was speaking to people who were afraid to lose Moshe.

Moshe had rescued the Jewish People numerous times, even when they were at fault. After instigating the Golden Calf, a plague struck them that only Moshe’s prayer could stop. Who would save them from peril if not Moshe?

The few wars and skirmishes they’d fought were all won under Moshe’s command. Facing a campaign of conquest in Israel, who would lead them into battle?

Moshe recognized that people idolized him, figuratively and perhaps literally, and told them that they were misplacing their trust. It had never been about him. They had mistaken the agent for the principal.

It had been God all along.

Looking over the theatre of getting angry and sending a plague; God had wanted Moshe to pray; had planted the idea; taught him the words, and fundamentally, wants to forgive. That’s what God’s essence is, and Moshe evoked imagery of the same word used to describe God’s characteristic of forgiveness – עובר על פשע / הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ.

It had never been Moshe winning the wars – God had been orchestrating events and would continue – הוּא-יַשְׁמִיד אֶת-הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה.

The Seforno explains quite simply, Moshe was telling his audience that the medium was not the message, and that that he was just a vehicle for God’s plans.

R’ Tzadok HaCohen notes how Moshe’s entire speech is addressed to “you” – the second person singular – because the message echoes through the ages.

Each of us has equal and direct access to God. We do not believe in intermediaries, however special they are.

Teachers and guides are critically important influences – עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב.

But outsourcing our faculties to a proxy is something else entirely.

One of the less familiar laws in the Torah is that of the rebellious son:

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

The thinking was that such a child with no boundaries would eventually commit murder, and it is better to die young and innocent than old and guilty.

A predetermination like that shouldn’t sit right with you, and it apparently didn’t sit right with Chazal either. Chazal set very rigid parameters to meet the definitional requirements: the boy’s age is limited to the three months following his 13th birthday; he needs to have stolen impossibly large quantities of meat; cooked in a particular way; paired with a precise amount of wine; all while on his father’s property; and both had to agree that their son be sentenced to death, which no parent would, let alone both.

The concurrence of these conditions is not just improbable – the Gemara in Sanhedrin says it is impossible, and that no Sanhedrin ever observed this mitzvah. It’s in the Torah for us to study the law and merit its reward.

But the Torah does not lack substance such that it requires “filler” content. So what could be the particular reward be for the studying this law that we don’t have from the rest of the Torah?

R’ Moshe Mordechai Epstein concludes by studying this law closely, one discovers the Torah’s guidelines on good parenting.

When a child is overindulged, the word we use is “spoilt” – meaning the person has quite literally been ruined.

With this law, the Torah tells us to recognize when a child is growing out of control and to do something about it -“You cast out the evil from among you, and all Israel will listen and fear” – וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִקִּרְבֶּךָ וְכָל יִשְׂרָאֵל יִשְׁמְעוּ וְיִרָאוּ

If the Torah wants kind and balanced human beings, we must prevent selfishness and indulgence in our children, and this law is the paradigm of what not to do – וְכָל יִשְׂרָאֵל יִשְׁמְעוּ.

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

One of the key themes the Torah reiterates over and over is the importance of charity:

עשר תעשר – you shall tithe… (14:22)

In Hebrew, a double statement means to do something repeatedly.

How can the Torah expect us to keep giving charity over and over?

Recognising the issue with giving charity to the point we have nothing left, the Gemara in Kesubos caps charity at no more than 20% of our income.

While this is a sensible limit dictated by necessity, we still need to make sense of the fact the Torah expects us to keep giving repeatedly.

Taking this at face value, the Vilna Gaon concludes that if the Torah truly requires endless generosity without depleting the giver, it can only be that the reward for charity is the ability to give more!

Indeed, this could be why the Gemara in Taanis says that עשר בשביל שתתעשר – a person who gives generously will receive blessings of abundance.

Learning to take better care of others is a fundamental principle that underlies the entire Torah. Our long tradition reassures us that like a candle doesn’t lose anything by lighting another candle, we will never be worse off for helping others.

Although we don’t practice it today, our tradition treats the mitzvah of bikurim as foundational to almost everything else. Not prone to hyperbole, Rashi at the beginning of the Torah states that bikurim perpetuates the entire universe.

Why is presenting the first fruits considered so much more remarkable than almost all other Torah observance?

Every living thing has a self-preservation instinct, which among other things, means seeking food. Accordingly, almost every normal human’s first order of priority is to provide for their families.

But the work it entails is enormous.

In agriculture, a person would have to manually work a plot of land; weed it; plow it; sow it; prune it; weed it some more; reap the crop; dry it; process it; prepare it; and only then was the product edible.

It takes year-round labor and energy to support our families.

This mitzvah teaches us that we must celebrate the end product, but we must not take credit for it.

The first thing that sprouts is taken to Jerusalem, and given to the Kohen, and requires him to say, “Thank You, God, for the land and fruit that you have given me,”.

This touches on kindness, gratitude, faith, and humility. Judaism’s vision is a world of kind, humble, grateful, faithful people.

Perhaps in this light, it makes sense to classify bikurim is foundational. It arguably represents a microcosm of Judaism’s entire mission. No matter how much work we put in, or how successful we are; we don’t control the end product.

We just do our best and hope for the rest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He is supposed to invite all his friends and family.

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

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

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

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

A Jewish expression of gratitude is public and spelled out.

It should go without saying that war is terrible.

Apart from the carnage between opposing forces, one of its awful consequences is that local civilians are typically subject to collateral damage at best, and direct atrocities at worst. The Jewish people know this fact better than most, and students of history will know of many others.

For the vast majority of human history, men were massacred, and women were raped and possibly enslaved. Although international humanitarian law has considered wartime sexual violence as a war crime in the last century, it still occurs frequently in less developed parts of the world.

The Torah is sensitive to the moral challenge of this baseline reality, and steps in to regulate it with the law of the captive woman:

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

This mitzvah flies in the face of what we today consider to be moral and ethical. How can the Torah endorse such a barbaric act?

Rashi immediately explains that the Torah does not command, endorse, or approve this; instead, the law speaks to mankind’s baser inclination in the heat of the moment, and grants a discretionary permission.

R’ Daniel Rowe expounds that a law’s inclusion in the Torah doesn’t have to be an endorsement at all.

If we scrutinize the context, the laws continue that for 30 days she must be shaved bald, mourning her family in unkempt black rags. This “marriage” is not meant to be romantic or attractive, perhaps precisely so that the soldier regrets forcing this poor stranger under his roof, and will return her home.

The next two laws that follow are the laws of a despised wife and the rebellious son, which Chazal understood to mean that by taking advantage of this permission, a man would come to hate his wife, and their sour relationship would produce bad children.

While the Torah contains lofty ideals, it also contains certain threshold requirements that elevate baseline morals and norms for the moments we are not at our best.

With this law, the Torah requires a total departure from thousands of years of normalized slavery and rape. Instead of conforming to the convention that classified women as spoils of war like other property to be exploited, the Torah demands that a woman’s personhood is acknowledged and respected, and her dignity preserved.

This is a radical polemic that represents a total paradigm shift.

Recognising that is what the mitzvah really is.

The Torah demands more of its adherents. When we wage war, we are supposed to fight justly and ethically, with minimal harm to others, in the same way that we are supposed to live our daily lives.

The Torah is not some distant ideal that is beyond the reach and understanding of humans – לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם, הִוא.

The Torah is written for humans, with all our fallibility – דיברה תורה כלשון בני אדם.

The Torah talks about rape and slavery. But just because they are in the Torah, that does not mean they are ideals that we aspire to practice ever again.

Because if we study a little closer, the Torah is actually steering us away from a world that tolerates such rampant immoral practices, and towards the more civilized world we are familiar with today.

In Moshe’s final speech to his people, he lets them know that whatever they do, they always have a stark choice:

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

The Vilna Gaon suggests that this principle reverberates through the ages, and is as relevant today as it was thousands of years ago. It is a personal, ever-relevant choice. Anyone, at any time, can choose to do better and be better.

Hashem “is giving” us a choice – in the present tense – נתן.

We can make the choice “today” – הַיּוֹם.

The time is now. Yesterday’s mistakes are today’s opportunities to make it right.

Chazal understand that repentance is like turning over a new leaf; to the extent that someone making amends is considered as innocent as a newborn baby.

Despite the niggling self-doubt in the recesses of our minds at the ability to change, Hashem assures that we are not alone. The choice is presented by the ultimate אָנכִי – “I am with you in the struggle”. God loves and is with us all, whatever mistakes we have made.

R’ Yitzchak Lande points out that the Torah frequently switches between plural and singular, to teach that every single Jew has to participate in building a better society. And if no one else is doing it, we do it anyway.

But God can only present the opportunity – אָנכִי נתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם. Teshuva is not foreclosed from anyone – God waits until the day we die to make amends if we only take that step.

But only we can take it.

In Moshe’s final address to the people, he tells them how each of them must take care to observe and uphold the law to earn God’s blessing:

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

Why does Moshe alternate between the singular and plural תִּשְׁמְעוּן / לְךָ?

Perhaps it serves to teach us how as individuals, we fit into a broader community.

The Gemara in Shabbos tells a story of a non-Jew who proposed that if Shammai could teach him how to observe the entire Torah while he was standing on one leg, he would convert to Judaism. Interpreting this as mockery, Shammai chased him away with a piece of construction material. When he made the same proposal to Hillel and stood on one leg, Hillel simply said, “Love your neighbor as yourself. The rest is commentary, now go and study.”

Clearly, the notion of learning anything on one leg is absurd, let alone the subject matter, or the stature of his audience. But the most interesting part of the story is Hillel’s response.

How does loving your neighbor incorporate laws such as Shabbos, lulav, and every other mitzvah?

Perhaps Shamma turned him away because it is simply impossible for an individual to observe every law in the Torah; many are mutually exclusive. Only a man can only do some, and only by a woman can do others; some only by a Kohen, some only by a Levi, and some only by a king! How could anyone learn to observe the whole Torah?

Shammai chased him away with construction material – the imagery of which alludes to a building that has many component sections – rooms, ceilings, walls, and floors. Without its parts, there is no building.

In the same vein, a lone Jew is incomplete. Shamai’s response indicates that the Torah is not for individuals; it belongs to the Jewish People as a whole.

Hillel went one step further – he proposed how people can transcend their individuality and become part of something bigger.

The ultimate expression of וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ is כאיש אחד בלב אחד – one man with one heart – disparate parts forming one holistic unit.

We do not have separate identities for our hands or our feet. They all belong to one indivisible “me”.

We can not observe the entire Torah individually. But by forming a group, we can observe the whole Torah collectively. Arguably, shaping this cohesive identity is one of the Torah’s expressly stated goals.

R’ Yitzchak Lande notes that the Torah switches from plural to singular throughout because although there is a communal responsibility, we each have an individual’s duty to pitch in.

Moshe says וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם – we must collectively keep and perform the Torah, and then וְשָׁמַר ה’ אֱלֹ-ךָ, Hashem will protect you – the individual.

Because even the most observant person cannot keep the whole Torah – we can each only do the best we can.

When Moshe anticipated the need to transfer leadership before his imminent death, he selected Yehoshua to succeed him.

Out of all the possible candidates, Yehoshua was apparently the most suitable candidate, as he had been Moshe’s faithful steward for many years, and had been entrusted to scout the land of Israel, and resisted the conspiracy that led to the lost generation that would wander the desert for 40 years.

Yet we find that someone else actually led the resistance to the conspiracy and tried (and failed) to dissuade the people from overreacting: Moshe’s brother in law, Caleb.

So why was Yehoshua chosen to lead?

Perhaps it is because Yehoshua embodied a quality of humility that Caleb did not.

The scouts were senior members of their tribes, and the Zohar says that the conspiracy was motivated by perceiving the Land of Israel as a threat to the status quo, and they would lose all their influence.

The Kozhnitzer Maggid explains that while Yehoshua would have no interest in retaining power per se, he could have joined the conspiracy to avoid his succession in the wake Moshe’s death.

To protect the integrity of the scouting mission, Moshe blessed his steward that God would safeguard him; and changed his name from Hoshea to Yehoshua before he set out.

R’ Menachem Mendel of Rimanov cautions a leader who is too humble to stand up for what is right for the sake of avoiding conflict.

R’ Yissocher Frand notes the remarkable lesson that while negative traits like anger are damaging on their face; positive traits like humility can be insidious when imbalanced too. Any agenda – however noble – can cloud our judgment.

R’ Shai Held notes that the humility that was almost Yehoshua’s undoing on his first journey to Israel would be the making of him on his second.

While Caleb was fearless in the face of an angry crowd; that is not a feature in military strategy. A moment of pause for deliberation is a good thing for planning, and Yehoshua would be better at that than Caleb.

Some moments require decisive action; others require reflective contemplation. It is not always clear which is called for under the circumstances, but the example set by Yehoshua is exhaustive – in the face of danger he wasn’t aware of, his mentor’s foresight protected him – עשה לך רב.

One of the best pieces of advice in any field is to seek an experienced perspective from someone looking out for us who is impartial to our self-serving biases.