One of the most basic and essential rules of hermeneutics is understanding that the Torah is written in language that is to for humans to read and understand – דיברה תורה כלשון בני אדם.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that this means that the Torah writes in terms of human understanding, not objective truths known only to God.

The Rambam takes this theme pretty far, to the extent he suggests that the Torah adopted animal sacrifices because they were culturally familiar methods of worship, and correctly speculated about certain similar practices in the Ancient Near East. The Ralbag also emphasized the value of understanding the ancient world the Torah was given in to give context and enhance our understanding of the Torah’s teachings.

One of these shared themes is the form of the covenant that spans large chunks of the book of Devarim.

In the Ancient Near East, kings would formalize their diplomatic relations with a treaty. These treaties were drafted between equals, and sometimes between a superior and an inferior state, or suzerain and vassal. The structure of the Torah’s covenant has striking parallels to a suzerain-vassal treaty. If we unpack the layers to the structure, we can unlock a deeper appreciation for it.

The main elements of the Hittite suzerain-vassal treaties are the identification of the treaty-maker (the superior); a historical introduction (prior beneficial acts done the superior has done for the inferior); the stipulations (the primary demand is for loyalty); a list of divine witnesses; and blessings and curses. The treaty was recited, a ceremonial meal eaten, and the treaty deposited at a holy site. There would be a public reading periodically to remind the public of their duties.

The similarity between the Torah’s use of the covenant structure and other treaties existing in the Ancient Near East isn’t just interesting trivia – it’s political dynamite.

For most of ancient history, the head of state was also the head of the cult – god-kings and priest-kings were standard. The king or the priestly class had a monopoly on the rituals of religion, and the common serfs were passive observers living vicariously through these holy men.

Contrast that with the Torah’s rendition of a covenant. The party God seeks to treat with is not Moshe, the head of state, nor Ahron, the Kohen Gadol. It’s not even the Jewish People. The party is every single individual, which is dynamite because it’s shocking enough that He would care for humans in general, let alone each of us in particular. And by making a covenant with us, God goes even further and asks us to be His partners.

A covenant between God and individuals also bestows a second facet to our identity – by elevating common people into vassal-kings, we are all royalty – מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ / כָל-הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים. This also echoes a broader ideological theme that idealized a community of educated and empowered citizens – וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ / וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ.

R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that we take self-identity for granted today, but historically, self-identity was subsumed to community and culture. In a world where the individual self barely existed and mattered very little, it’s radical to say that God cares for us individually, because it’s not obvious at all – בשבילי נברא העולם. This tension between God as distant yet close is captured in our blessings, where we call Hashem “You” in the second person, indicating familiar closeness, and then “Hashem”, with titles in the third person, indicating distance.

Striking a covenant with individuals democratizes access to God and spirituality, creating a direct line for everybody. Parenthetically, this echoes the Torah’s conception of creating humans in God’s image – everyone is, not just a few “special” people.

We are all royalty in God’s eyes, and we are all God’s partners.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because the good stuff happens outside your comfort zone.

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.

 

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.

In the agrarian world that the Torah was given in, there are many laws regulating land use. One of them was the mitzvah of bikkurim. After spending the best part of a year working a field, the farmer would identify the first fruit to sprout and tie a cord around the fruit. When ripe, he would present it in a grand and elaborate ceremony at the Beis HaMikdash.

Although we don’t practice it today, our tradition treats the mitzvah of bikkurim with critical importance. Not known for hyperbole, Rashi at the beginning of the Torah states that bikkurim perpetuates the entire universe.

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

Every living organism 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.

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 sole 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 bikkurim 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.

On Seder night, we read verses tracing our history to and from Egypt:

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)

What fascinating is that this exposition isn’t from the primary record in the book of Shemos. It’s from the end of the Torah, about the mitzvos pertaining to the Land of Israel, and this section is part of the prayer recited when a farmer would present the first fruit – ביכורים.

Why does the Haggada quote the paraphrased story and not the original story of the Exodus?

The Sefer HaChinuch explains that the mitzvah of Seder night is not accomplished just by telling stories; we need to express gratitude, which the historical sections do not have.

The sections about the mitzvos of the Land of Israel sharpen our appreciation for the Exodus, because having once been oppressed slaves in Egypt, we have a finer understanding of what it means to be free.

The most common sacrificial offering was for thanksgiving – the Korban Toda – which was brought if someone was released from jail; crossed an ocean or a desert; or recovered from illness. It provides a template for gratitude.

The offeror presented a sheep with 40 loaves of bread and had to finish the entire feast within a day. No-one could or should eat a whole sheep or 40 loaves of bread, let alone both; you’d have to invite your friends and family to finish it before the evening.

The Abarbanel notes that the Korban Pesach is essentially 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 sickness.

Accordingly, it makes a lot of sense that the Hagada quotes from the first fruits because the goal of Seder is to appreciate all our blessings publicly.

The blessing’s conclusion sums it up perfectly – וְשָׂמַחְתָּ בְכָל הַטּוֹב אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לְךָ ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ וּלְבֵיתֶךָ – you should rejoice in every single thing Hashem does for you.

Gratitude is a pervasive and recurring theme, not just in Judaism, but in a good life. Take each opportunity to count your blessings with your family and friends.