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.

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.

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.

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.