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

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

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

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

R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz cautions us against this superficial analysis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because our world will only sparkle when we do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s you, right here, right now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A fair amount of times, the Torah reports that the Jewish People conducted a census, breaking down how many men were in each tribe, and then adds up the subtotals for a total count. It occupies a lot of space in the Torah.

The Ramban explains that taking a census is a basic government function to organize logistics, safety, and military planning.

While that is accurate, the Torah’s lessons are timeless and eternal. Of what value to us is the level of detail in the raw statistical data from each census?

The Ramban explains that the information itself is more relevant to daily government, which is probably why it only covered military-age men. But the lesson isn’t in the data; it’s in the method of counting.

The way they counted was that every individual would have to appear before Moshe and Ahron, and God. The requirement to appear before the entire generation’s leadership tells us that those people were not just numbers; they were valuable individuals.

There is a constant interplay between individualism and collectivism. Individualism stresses individual identity and goals; collectivism focuses on group identity and goals, what is best for the collective group. The notion of collectivism and unity – אַחְדוּת – is all too often propounded to squash individuality, and we mustn’t tolerate that. You are not just a cog in a machine, with another human being at the ready to take your place. You are not the property of the state or any group or person.

And as the Lubavitcher Rebbe put it, people are not dollars. You are not fungible. You are not replaceable.

R’ Jonathan Sacks highlights the Torah’s choice of words for the count – שְׂאוּ אֶת־רֹאשׁ כָּל־עֲדַת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל / כִּי תִשָּׂא אֶת־רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל – literally, “lift the heads.” There are many ways to say “count” in Hebrew; this isn’t one of the naturally obvious ones. Again, the Torah seems to be saying that even among the crowd, lift your head up high and proud. To this day, Jews do not count people directly, but instead, count heads.

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

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

We cannot tolerate factionalism, where one subgroup splinters from the main group, but we cannot afford to exclude individuals. The Torah makes incredible demands of us, and we mostly fall well short, some a little more, some a little less.  We must hold ourselves to the highest standards, but we can never look down at our fellow.

To argue the other side, while we must celebrate individuality, we must not condone individualism. Our duty is to find a balance between being individuals while remaining part of the group. We need to maintain a tension between the need for individual freedom and the demands of others.

The whole idea of loving others is that they are not just like you; if you had to love people like you, that would just be loving yourself and would demand nothing of you. We must reinforce the notion of tolerance of heterogeneity, people not just like us.

Loving another is not that I care about someone in my circle who is just like me, and perhaps I have a duty to expand my conception of who is in the circle. That would be loving yourself and would demand nothing of you.  Loving another means that someone else’s problems bother me so deeply that I simply have to do something about it, and I will be lacking if I do not. The idea of loving another does not include circles – it has nothing to do with people’s similarity.

Evolutionary theory teaches that co-operation is as important for survival as competition. You’re irreplaceable and unique – but remember that we need you! The strength of the team is each individual. The strength of each individual is the team.

The idea that every Jew is worthy enough to be presented before God and the generation’s leadership, that every Jew must lift their head high, is timeless and eternal. Moreover, it teaches a broader lesson that is portable to all and covers women, children, and the elderly as well. The Jewish People are something massively monumental, yet we each have our own significant role to play. We must celebrate each other’s unique contributions while striving to do more ourselves.

This probably illuminates an interesting comment by Rashi, that the point of the census was to discern how many people had survived the plague that followed the Golden Calf debacle. The plague killed a small fraction of the total population figure given in the Torah, so it’s strange to talk in terms of “survivors” when only a few succumbed. But if we consider each individual as a core component of the Jewish People, then the Jewish People as a whole really is damaged by the loss of any single person, and the remainder truly are “survivors”.

The Baal Shem Tov taught that if the Jewish People are a Sefer Torah, then every Jew is a letter.

The Torah counts everyone. Because everyone counts.

You can be the best whistler in the world, but you can’t whistle a symphony. It takes an orchestra.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We see this played out in multiple ways.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wherever the Jewish People camped and traveled in the wilderness, the tribes were always positioned in a particular formation, which the Torah goes into lengthy detail about several times.

But we’re all Jewish! Why was there any kind of formation, and why does it matter to us?

R’ Norman Lamm notes that one of the times we read about the formation is before Shavuos when we celebrate receiving the Torah. We might think that we’re doing pretty great – we’re in the camp of Torah after all!

The Torah gently reminds us that that’s never been enough. The twelve tribes all had different characteristics, and each contributed in their own particular way. For example, Yehuda, the largest and strongest, and tapped for leadership and monarchy, was the first in the formation and the first into battle.

We all have particular skills and functions useful at a particular time and place. It’s not enough to be Torah oriented in general – what is your individual place and purpose in particular? What do you stand for?

We need only remind ourselves of Bilam, a man whose belief in God’s existence was as genuine and absolute as it gets, and yet, remained an awful human.

Believing is step one only. The formations matter because we need a reminder that we can’t hide in the crowd.

It’s what we do that matters.

One of the most bizarre and incomprehensible laws of the entire Torah is also one of the ancient world’s most important laws. It is the law of retaliation, also called lex talionis:

עַיִן תַּחַת עַיִן שֵׁן תַּחַת שֵׁן יָד תַּחַת יָד רֶגֶל תַּחַת רָגֶל׃ – An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a hand for a hand, a foot for a foot. (21:24)

The law of retaliation isn’t the Torah’s innovation; it appears in other Ancient Near Eastern law codes that predate the text of the Torah, such as the Code of Hammurabi. All the same, it appears three times in the Torah, and its words are barbaric and cruel to modern eyes, easily dismissed as unworthy of humane civilization.

People who wish to express their opposition to forgiveness, concession, and compensation, insisting on retaliation of the most brutal and painful kind, will quote “An eye for an eye” as justification, conjuring a vision of hacked limbs and gouged eyes.

This law is alien and incomprehensible to us because we lack the necessary context. We fail to recognize it’s contemporary importance to early human civilization. The human desire for revenge isn’t petty and shallow. It stems from a basic instinct for fairness and self-defense that all creatures possess, and also from a deeply human place of respect and self-image. When a person is slighted, they self-righteously need to retaliate to restore balance.

The trouble is, balance is impossible to restore, and instead, violence escalated, and early human societies endured endless cycles of vengeance and violence. In the ancient world, in a vacuum with no laws, revenge was a severe destabilizing force.

This is the context we are missing. In such a world, societies imposed the law of retaliation as a cap and curb violence by prohibiting vigilante justice and disproportionate vengeance. An eye for an eye – that, and crucially, no more. It stops the cycle of escalation, and tempers if not neuters, the human desire for retribution. Crucially, it stops feuds from being personal matters, subordinating revenge to law and justice by inserting the law between men, a key political theory called the state monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force.

This was familiar to the Torah’s original audience. We ought to reacquaint ourselves with this understanding – the law is not barbaric and primitive at all; it’s essential to building a society.

Even more importantly, our Sages taught that these words are not literal, and instead, the remedy for all bodily injury is monetary compensation. The Torah forecloses compensation for murder –  לא תקחו כופר לנפש רוצח. The fact the Torah chooses not to for bodily injuries necessarily means compensation is allowed. And since people are of different ages, different genders, and in different trades, with discrete strengths and weaknesses; mirroring the injury isn’t a substitute at all, so paying compensation is the exclusive remedy, in a sharp application of the rule of law – there shall be only one law, equitable to all – מִשְׁפַּט אֶחָד יִהְיֶה לָכֶם.

Before dismissing this as extremely warped apologetics, the overwhelming academic consensus is that the law was never practiced as it is written. Today, we readily understand that if we suffer bodily injury, we sue the perpetrators’ insurance company, and the ancient world understood that tradeoff too.

How much money would the victim accept to forgo the satisfaction of seeing the assailant suffer the same injury? How much money would the assailant be willing to pay to keep his own eye? There is most certainly a price each would accept, and all that’s left is to negotiate the settlement figure, which is where the court can step in. Even where the law is not literally carried out, the theoretical threat provides a valuable and perhaps even necessary perspective for justice in society.

It’s vital to understand this as a microcosm for understanding the whole work of the Torah. There is a much broader point here about how we need to understand the context of the Torah to get it right, and we need the Oral Tradition to get it right as well. The text is contingent, to an extent, on the body of law that interprets and implements it.

Without one or the other, we are getting a two-dimensional look at the very best and just plain wrong at worst. If we were pure Torah literalists, we would blind and maim each other and truly believe we are doing perfect like-for-like justice! After all, what more closely approximates the cost of losing an eye than taking an eye?! Doesn’t it perfectly capture balance, precision, and proportionality elegantly? It holds before us the tantalizing possibility of getting justice exactly right!

But we’d be dead wrong. Taking an eye for an eye doesn’t fix anything; it just breaks more things!

The original purpose of the law of retaliation was to limit or even eliminate revenge by revising the underlying concept of justice. Justice was no longer obtained by personal revenge but by proportionate punishment of the offender in the form of compensation enforced by the state.  While not comprehensive, perhaps this overview can help us look at something that seemed so alien, just a bit more knowingly.

There’s a valuable lesson here.

In the literal reading of lex talionis, it’s a vindictive punishment that seeks pure cold justice to mirror the victim’s pain and perhaps serve as a deterrent.

With our new understanding, compensation is not punitive at all – it’s restitutive and helps correct bad behavior. You broke something or caused someone else pain, and now you need to fix it.

There is nothing outdated about the law of retaliation. It’s timely as ever because we all break things. We hurt others, and sometimes we hurt ourselves too. The Torah urges us to remember that one broken thing is bad, and two broken things are worse. We can’t fix what is broken by adding more pain and hope to heal. But it is within your ability to fix it, and you don’t have to maim yourself to make it right!

Taking it further, there is a wider lesson here as well.

In seeking justice for ourselves, we needn’t go overboard by crushing our enemies and hearing the lamentations of their women. We can and should protect ourselves and our assets, but we needn’t punish our adversaries mercilessly such that they never cross us again. In a negotiation, don’t squash the other side just because you can. It’s about making it right, not winning. Channeling the law of retaliation, don’t escalate. Think in terms of restitution, not retribution.

Do all you must, sure, but don’t do all you could.

There are parts of the Torah that we all love, with fond memories of the wonder of learning them for the first time, like the Creation story, Avraham’s first encounters with God, the Ten Plagues, and Sinai. Some parts are a little less exciting, like the Mishkan’s design-build, the laws of sacrifices, and the 42 locations in the wilderness the Jewish People visited on their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land:

אֵלֶּה מַסְעֵי בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר יָצְאוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לְצִבְאֹתָם בְּיַד־מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן – These were the journies of the Jewish People who departed in their configurations from the land of Egypt, under the charge of Moshe and Ahron. (33:1)

It’s worth asking what the point of this is. The Torah is not a history journal; it exists to teach all people for all time. Here we are, 3000 years later, tediously reading about rest stops. Why does it matter at all?

In a sense, it’s the wrong question to ask, and it betrays the kind of thinking we are all guilty of.

We have this expectation and perception of linear progress, consciously or not, that our lives should be a straight road, leading directly and smoothly to our destination. What’s more, we are relentlessly focussed on the outcome, where we are going. And then we get frustrated and feel sabotaged when invariably, it doesn’t pan out that way!

But this is a stiff and unrealistic view of not only progress but life itself. Progress is incremental and organic, not linear or mechanical.

If you’ve ever driven long-distance, there are a few things you just know. You can’t go straight as the crow flies, so you know you’re going to have to follow the signs that guide your way carefully to get to the right place. You know you will probably miss an exit when you’re not paying attention, and it’ll cost you 15 minutes rerouting until you are back on track. You know you will need to stop for gas and bathroom breaks. You know there will be long stretches of open road where you can cruise, and there will be times you will get stuck in traffic. You know you will have to get off the highway at some point and take some small unmarked local streets. We know this.

We trivialize the journey, and we really mustn’t. Sure, there are huge one-off watershed moments in our lives; but the moments in between matter as well – they’re not just filler! While they might not be our final glorious destination, the small wins count and stack up.

The Sfas Emes notes how the Torah highlights each step we took to put Egypt behind us – מַסְעֵי בְנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר יָצְאוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם. We might not get where we’re going so quickly – but if Egypt is behind us, then that means we must still be moving forwards. As we get further away from our point of origin, we should keep it in the rearview mirror to orient us as a reference point to remind us that we’re headed in the right direction. However long it takes to get where we’re going, and however bumpy and curved the road is, it’s important to remember why we got started in the first place.

The 42 stops along the way were not the optimal way to get from Egypt to Israel. It doesn’t take 40 years to travel from Egypt to Israel. But it happened that way, and the Torah tells us this for 3000 years and posterity because that’s the way life is, and we can disavow ourselves of the notion that progress or life should somehow be linear. The process is not a necessary evil – it is the fundamental prerequisite to getting anywhere, even if it’s not where we expected, and it’s worth paying attention to.

We put Egypt behind us one step at a time. We get to the Promised Land one step at a time. Any step away from Egypt is a substantial achievement – even if it’s not a step in the physical direction of the Promised Land, it truly is a step towards the Promised Land.

The journey is anything but direct, and there are lots of meandering stops along the way. It might seem boring and unnecessary – I left Egypt, and I’m going to Israel! But that’s the kind of thinking we have to short circuit. It’s not a distraction – it’s our life.

Life isn’t what happens when you get there; life is every step along the way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Torah is an art, not a science.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We take the good with the bad.

Sukkos is the harvest festival. Nature and God have given their bounty; a year of stressful and messy work in the field has finally paid off, and the storehouses are full. In an agrarian society, it was probably the time of year where everyone got their best night’s sleep on a full belly.

And yet Sukkos is the festival of Hoshana – literally, “save us!” – הושע נא. Each day of the Sukkos prayers is marked by beautiful and moving liturgy tracing all the times and circumstances God has saved us, culminating in Hoshana Rabba, with the ultimate wish to please save us too. But it’s the time of year we probably ought to feel most safe and secure!

But the Hoshana prayers seem like they would fit better at calendar moments we were at our lowest and needed God’s salvation most. So why not say them on say, Pesach, when the Jewish People were mired in Egyptian slavery, or maybe the infamous day of mourning and loss, Tisha b’Av?

A recurring theme of the Torah is that challenging moments are obvious in the sense that we know how to respond. In a crisis, we know we have to do better, be better, pray harder, and perhaps fast. Don’t tell the poor soul mired in those unfortunate circumstances to have faith and believe – it’s unnecessary because that’s all they have.

Someone whose family is well and whose well-paying job is stable doesn’t feel the same desperation that the other guy does. How could he?

At the exact calendar moment of security, the Torah reminds us not to take our wins for granted, to count our blessings. We step outside our solid and warm homes into the flimsy and makeshift Sukka, which by definition, must be structurally defective for permanent habitation, reminding us how frail we are and how life is so temporary. That’s not a bad thing – that’s just what it means to be human. The Sukka is not built for inclement weather, and that’s just fine. It’s not supposed to. We don’t control the weather outside the Sukka; we only control what happens inside the Sukka. It’s not made of much, but the mitzvah is to make it as beautiful as possible on the inside.

We step away from the trappings of success to live in simplicity with God. We need to remind ourselves at the moment that we feel most blessed because that’s when we are prone to forget. So we beg for help – save us… from ourselves, from our own complacency.

We can forget that the difference between the successful and unfortunate person isn’t necessarily the effort and merit each puts in. We can forget that a whole lot of things we were desperate for a few years ago worked out quite nicely in the end. The Sukka is an excellent metaphor for the uncontrollable vicissitudes of life, a humbling moment amid proud successes.

It’s not about saying thank you for finally getting what you wanted; it’s about recognizing that you were always blessed. That maybe we don’t need the trappings of success to see our blessings; that in the moments we have deemed to be blessed, we need to remember not to take for granted all the other blessed moments as well.

We don’t control our circumstances, but we can find joy in life regardless.

Hopefully, we go into Sukkos on the back of an uplifting Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Resolved to do better and be better, we feel invigorated and full of life. Yet we leave Shul and go right back into the daily grind of everyday living, with the same habits and routines of yesterday.

What sort of change can we expect if we go right back to what we were doing?

Perhaps the mitzvah of Sukka can teach us.

The defining feature of the Sukka is that the roof has to be made from unprocessed raw plant matter and must create sufficient shade. The classic example is the waste product from the threshing floor and winery once you’ve extracted the useful resources. Instead of disposing of the refuse, the husks and stalks can be recycled and repurposed for the mitzvah – which is precisely what Teshuvah is.

It’s not accurate to say that we put the past wholly behind us and move on. Instead, we should carry the past forward with us. Past mistakes can become informative stepping stones for us to learn and improve. History need not repeat itself, and we can evolve.

The Esrog echoes this concept as well. It is the choicest of the four species and the metaphor for an ideal human, yet if you cut one open, the edible fruit is surpassingly small – the inedible rind makes up most of the mass. Even the ideal person has built up plenty of rind over time, yet it’s still a beautiful Esrog.

An old Chassidic saying highlights Sukka as the only mitzvah where a person enters with his muddy boots. Muddy boots are th mark of our journey through life, intimately interconnected with who we are and entirely inseparable; they are welcome in the Sukka.

This may also explain why the Zohar calls the Sukka the shade of God – God is with us in our dark moments too – צילא דמהימנותא. It may also explain why of all festivals, Sukkos, in particular, is the time of joy – the debits can turn into credits – זְמַן שִׂמְחָתֵנוּ.

There is a tangible Kabbalistic dimension here as well. The Hebrew word for husks and rind is קְלִפָּה. In Kabbalistic symbolism, souls are shining lights, and sins cloak the soul in layers of קְלִפָּה, sort of like an onion. Instead of discarding the קְלִפָּה, Teshuvah transforms it from a bad thing into a good thing.

It’s not a magic trick – sins and transgressions are treated differently based on Teshuvah’s motivation. The way you adapt your past mistakes materially affects the way you incorporate the lessons learned to be a better person.

So perhaps that’s why Sukkos comes right on the back of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. While we shouldn’t just sink back into the same routine as before, Teshuvah doesn’t need to look like such a radical departure from the past. Change is incremental – it isn’t so different from past habits and routines, maybe it’s quite similar, but with small improvements and modifications.

Sukkos teaches the holistic view of how we change.

We all make mistakes, but the only real mistake is the one we don’t learn from.

From Rosh Hashana through Sukkos, honey features prominently at the festive meals. If you give it a moment’s thought, using honey seems odd. Honey is produced by bees, which are not kosher and have a painful sting.

Why not use cane sugar, a naturally growing plant that metabolizes into the energy that fuels all living things?

The Midrash teaches that the idea of Teshuva is supernatural, in that it preexists the universe so that whatever nature is, Teshuva transcends.

The simplified idea belying Creation is that it is a sandbox for humans to make choices and thrive. Choices present tests, and the nature of a test is that it is pass or fail. As much as Hashem can want us to pass our tests, the fact remains that tests can and will be failed. This fact alone requires the existence of Teshuva – failure is not the end; a person can learn from their mistakes, put it behind them, and move on.

The universe operates on fundamental laws of physics that express empirical facts and describe physical properties about how nature works. One of these laws is the law of entropy, which is that natural states tend to undergo increasing decay and disorder over time. Eventually, all things break down.

R’ Nechemia Sheinfeld explains that the supernatural aspect of Teshuva is that it unwinds the effect of time and entropy; we can repair our mistakes, removing the decay, leaving only the lesson we have learned. Entropy is a byproduct of a finite Creation, whereas Teshuva is infinite because it predates time and space. Teshuva is not an after-the-fact solution; it’s baked into the fabric of the creation process, so redemption is structurally assured from the outset.

It’s’s like learning to ride a bicycle. The first time you lose your balance, you fall and hurt yourself. Maybe next time you wear a helmet and pads, and you slowly learn how to keep your balance. If you focus on how bad falling hurts, you’ll never learn to ride the bike. But once you learn to keep your balance, you forget about falling, and maybe you don’t need the pads anymore. You now know how to ride a bicycle.

Existence without Teshuva would be static and stagnant – it could never grow, which is why Teshuva necessarily predates existence. With Teshuva, we can change and become, vibrant and alive.

When a person does Teshuva, their sins and transgressions can be measured differently based on their motivation. When motivated by fear, they are downgraded to accidents and oversights; when motivated by love, they can become merits. It’s intuitive; the way a person adapts their past mistakes materially affects the way you incorporate the lessons learned to be a better person.

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that this why the Hebrew word for “year” – שנה – is cognate to the words שני and שנוי – “secondary” and “change” respectively. Today’s achievements are built on the foundations of yesterday; a repetition would be no different to what came first, and a fresh start can’t carry the lessons along the way. This may help explain why we temporarily behave more diligently day between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – a reliable foundation is the precursor of a strong building.

R’ Meir Shapiro explains that this is why specifically honey, not sugar, is the centerpiece of the holiday imagery. Kosher, despite being a product of a non-kosher source, and perhaps with a sting – it is exactly like Teshuvah.

All this is to say what R’ Nachman of Breslov taught straightforwardly: if you believe you can break, then believe you can fix.

We all have plenty to be thankful for, and in the time of the Beish HaMikdash and Mishkan, there were two forms of thanksgiving – the Korban Shelamim and the Korban Todah. The Shelamim was entirely voluntary, brought whenever someone felt the need to express gratitude for something. The Todah was offered when a person recovered from an illness, was released from jail, or crossed the ocean or desert.

The offeror would present the animal with 40 loaves of bread and crackers, and had to finish the entire feast within a day. No one should or could eat that amount in a day; you’d have to invite your friends and family to finish it before the evening. It then becomes a communal event where the offeror can celebrate publicly.

The 40 loaves of bread consisted of part chametz and part matza:

אִם עַל־תּוֹדָה יַקְרִיבֶנּוּ וְהִקְרִיב עַל־זֶבַח הַתּוֹדָה חַלּוֹת מַצּוֹת בְּלוּלֹת בַּשֶּׁמֶן וּרְקִיקֵי מַצּוֹת מְשֻׁחִים בַּשָּׁמֶן וְסֹלֶת מֻרְבֶּכֶת חַלֹּת בְּלוּלֹת בַּשָּׁמֶן׃ עַל־חַלֹּת לֶחֶם חָמֵץ יַקְרִיב קָרְבָּנוֹ עַל־זֶבַח תּוֹדַת שְׁלָמָיו׃ – If he offers it for thanksgiving, he shall offer together with the sacrifice of thanksgiving unleavened cakes with oil mixed in, unleavened wafers spread with oil, and cakes of choice flour with oil mixed in, well soaked. This offering, with cakes of leavened bread added, he shall offer along with his thanksgiving sacrifice of well-being. (7:12, 13)

The idea of matza is that it’s simple ingredients, simply prepared. When dough is allowed time to leaven, the naturally occurring yeast ferments sugars in the dough into carbon dioxide, puffing up the dough. Matza is dense, whereas chametz is quite literally full of air.

Mastery of the fermentation process in bread and wine is the quintessential hallmark that showcase human creativity and civilization, which is why chametz is typically associated with the ego.

Humans have a natural tendency to equate the quality of a decision with the quality of its outcome. In reality, we should be thinking about the probability distribution.

When you achieve or succeed at something, the world can look at you and be so impressed at the independence and skill it took. It’s natural to feel in control, self-sufficient, and like nothing can stop you. Whatever the obstacle was, it’s gone now, and what a great reason to throw a party!

To address precisely this hubris, R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that the Torah requires us to temper public thanksgiving celebrations with the simplicity of matza.

There’s an element of randomness to outcome distributions. People don’t always get what they deserve in life, for better and for worse – what about other people in the same circumstances who had different results? We know it’s true: people who worked 80 hours a week and couldn’t pay the bills; and people who were lazy with no brains who made fortunes. People who were lovely yet never got married, and people who were ugly inside and out yet settled down just fine. People who didn’t look after themselves and never got sick a day in their life, and people who obsessed with fitness and got sick anyway.

It might feel like you put in the work, spent the time, and analyzed the matter exhaustively to stack the odds in your favor and set yourself up for a win – that’s what you’re supposed to do!

But even then, it might not be enough.

The secret sauce is that the outcome distribution has to go your way – the element of mazel, chance, or luck, also known as סיעתה דשמיא. Many business titans echo the same refrain – they’d trade all of their skill for just a little more luck.

The circumstances a person brings a Korban Toda aren’t all that miraculous; they’re pretty run of the mill. Perhaps thinking of the ordinary as extraordinary is a little wonky, but even taking the minimalist position, being thankful for things we expect to happen should frame where we truly stand. Just because we expect something to happen doesn’t mean it is going to. And when the outcome goes our way, Heaven has smiled, and we mustn’t take it for granted – we should be humble about it.

While the matza is made of the same stuff as the chametz, it’s not the same at all.

When we stand before God, we need to know that all we have are the simple ingredients. By publicly announcing his dependence on Hashem, a person earns back their independence.

Success should breed humility but is liberated by a simple thank you.

The Golden Calf was a catastrophe of absolutely colossal proportions. You might expect that people who witnessed the most overtly supernatural public miracles before or since when God took them out of Egypt, followed by the cataclysmic Splitting of the Sea, might think that they were in safe hands and things would work out. And yet, Moses disappeared for a little longer than they expected, and they panicked. The mob cornered Ahron and demanded he come up with something to lead them:

וַיִּקָּהֵל הָעָם עַל־אַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו קוּם עֲשֵׂה־לָנוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר יֵלְכוּ לְפָנֵינוּ כִּי־זֶה מֹשֶׁה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָנוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לֹא יָדַעְנוּ מֶה־הָיָה לוֹ – The people gathered against Ahron and said to him, “Make us a god who will go before us, because Moshe, the man who brought us from the land of Egypt – we do not know what happened to him.” (32:1)

Especially seeing that those people had seen, it was a massive betrayal, and obviously, the aftermath was ugly. Moshe destroyed the Tablets containing the Ten Commandments, quite literally shattering the covenant between God and the Jewish People, and God sent a plague.

What happens next is interesting and important.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that this is the very first time the Jewish People have been on the receiving end of God’s severity. The only historical paradigm up this point is that God gets angry at you, it’s over. Destruction and annihilation wouldn’t be a surprise, and the Golden Calf was a close a call as any. But that’s not what happens.

Instead of just destroying them, God specifically tells Moshe how He’s feeling:

וְעַתָּה הַנִּיחָה לִּי וְיִחַר־אַפִּי בָהֶם וַאֲכַלֵּם וְאֶעֱשֶׂה אוֹתְךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל – “Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make you the great nation.” (32:10)

What’s so interesting about this is that God doesn’t need to threaten anyone or share how He’s feeling; He can just do things, and that’s why He’s called God. The idea of a threat is specifically to provoke the desired response in the person being threatened. Recognizing this prompt, Moshe successfully persuades God to forgive the people.

The very next thing that happens after the Golden Calf is God’s instruction to build the Mishkan. R’ Hirsch explains that even before the sinners could undergo rituals or offer sacrifices, Hashem had already paved a pathway forward for them.

For the first time, and on at least two fronts, God established plainly to humans that our relationship can withstand missteps. The Golden Calf was the first and worst thing the Jewish People could do, and we could still find our way because God is not only waiting, but inviting us back.

Whatever mistakes we’ve made, we can take heart that we can always make amends.

After the construction of the Mishkan was completed, it had to be consecrated. The Gemara explains that Moshe had originally been tapped to be the Kohen Gadol as well, but lost this privilege when he resisted God’s overtures to save the Jewish People at the beginning of the Exodus story.

So for one week, Moshe served as a sort of “soft opening,” effectively serving as the Kohen Gadol. After those seven days, God told Moshe to instruct Ahron how to perform the Kohen’s duties:

אַתָּה הַקְרֵב אֵלֶיךָ אֶת־אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ וְאֶת־בָּנָיו אִתּוֹ מִתּוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְכַהֲנוֹ־לִי… – You shall draw close your brother, Aaron, with his sons, from among the Jewish People, to serve Me as priests… (28:1)

Moshe had to serve in the capacity of Kohen Gadol for a short time, and then pass the methods on.

But why not just give the job directly to Ahron from the outset?

The Ohr Hachaim suggests that Moshe had to serve for a short time so that he would see what he lost by not eagerly grabbing the opportunity as soon as possible. Moshe had to gather Ahron’s family to teach them – הַקְרֵב אֵלֶיךָ – but the root of קרב is cognate to sacrifice. Moshe had to come close to see what he gave up – הַקְרֵב אֵלֶיךָ.

It’s worthwhile to note that when this transition period ended, the Torah marks Moshe’s final act in the cantillation marks with a Shalsheles, a rare note which translates as “chain.” The Shalsheles sounds like what it conveys, a wavering and faltering hesitation before finally letting go, breaking the chain as it were, and now Moshe had learned what a vital position Ahron held.

When it comes to essential things, it’s worth understanding what the opportunity is and what its associated costs and benefits will be before making a decision.

While we can’t say yes to everything, we can certainly give it some thought before saying no!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t be afraid.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the sanctity of life is not readily apparent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the most tragic characters in the Torah is Moshe – his entire life was defined by conflict. While conflict is part of being a statesman fighting for the freedom and establishment of his people; he repeatedly found himself at odds with his own people countless times, with his family at others; and even with God at certain moments.

It’s interesting to see how Moshe responded each time differently.

When the people complained that they were fed up with the manna and want to eat proper meat, Moshe didn’t fight them; he was utterly overwhelmed and told God he wished he was dead.

When God told him to appoint 70 elders, Moshe was relieved and glad to share the burden. When the two men left out of the new administration, Eldad and Medad, began a prophecy predicting Moshe’s downfall, not only was Moshe not offended, he wished prophecy on all the Jewish People.

R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that the fact that Moshe was no longer alone restored his spirit and confidence entirely because a good leader is not afraid of his students.

The role of a teacher and leader is to raise and empower the influence of those around him. One of Judaism’s most remarkable ideas is that teachers are heroes too – Moshe, R’ Akiva, Hillel, and Ezra.

Leadership isn’t about titles, status, or power; it’s about taking responsibility for those we care about and putting in the work to make their lives better, helping them and challenging them to do better and be better.

R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch writes that the highest achievement for a teacher is to make himself superfluous. When the student outgrows the teacher, it’s the highest achievement, not a failure or threat.

Seventy elders and Eldad and Medad were not a threat, but Korach and his failed coup were, and on that occasion, Moshe responded forcefully.

The episode’s opening gives the game away – Korach attempted a power grab – וַיִּקַּח קֹרַח. R’ Simcha Bunim of Peshischa teaches that you cannot seize power benevolently; you can only cultivate it through public service.

R’ Tzvi Meir Silberberg charges us to be excellent wherever we are. You can make the most of it, or make more of it, but excellence isn’t transferrable. A rebranding doesn’t change the fundamentals.

R’ Shai Held notes that Moshe is only miserable when people won’t accept his help and guidance; the moment he has his seventy elders and Eldad and Medad, he is calm and at peace once again.

Right after this episode, Moshe faces another conflict; his siblings start complaining about the woman he chose to marry. After fighting everyone, his own family turns on him. And immediately after that, the Torah describes Moshe as the most humble man who ever lived.

R’ Shai Held notes that this follows from the way people treated Moshe. When everyone turned on him, and his family betrayed him, he wouldn’t turn on them and, in fact, prayed to help them.

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that pain causes humility, but humility can sanctify pain when channeled to public service. Moshe was the most humble man because he could love and care for people who let him down. After aiding the debacle of the formation of the Golden Calf, Ahron defended his failure by blaming the people’s wickedness, but not Moshe. Moshe stood up to them, but critically, stood up for them.

Because it was never about him; he only ever cared about helping them.

The Torah treats idolatry and pagan practices with extreme severity, condemning them repeatedly throughout the Tanach. In Moshe’s last address, he issues the same instruction to be weary of these foreign practices:

כִּי אַתָּה בָּא אֶל־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר־ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ לֹא־תִלְמַד לַעֲשׂוֹת כְּתוֹעֲבֹת הַגּוֹיִם הָהֵם׃ לֹא־יִמָּצֵא בְךָ מַעֲבִיר בְּנוֹ־וּבִתּוֹ בָּאֵשׁ קֹסֵם קְסָמִים מְעוֹנֵן וּמְנַחֵשׁ וּמְכַשֵּׁף׃ וְחֹבֵר חָבֶר וְשֹׁאֵל אוֹב וְיִדְּעֹנִי וְדֹרֵשׁ אֶל־הַמֵּתִים׃כִּי־תוֹעֲבַת ה כָּל־עֹשֵׂה אֵלֶּה וּבִגְלַל הַתּוֹעֵבֹת הָאֵלֶּה ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מוֹרִישׁ אוֹתָם מִפָּנֶיךָ׃ תָּמִים תִּהְיֶה עִם ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ׃ – When you enter the land that Hashem is giving you, you shall not learn to imitate the abominable practices of those nations. Let no one be found among you who sends his son or daughter to the fire, or who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead. For anyone who does such things is abhorrent to Hashem, and it is because of these abominable things that the Hashem is dispossessing them before you. You must be perfectly wholehearted with Hashem. (18:9-13)

While extremely difficult to reconcile with a modern understanding of how the world works, it would be obtuse to deny that a sizable portion of Jewish tradition incorporates magic and superstition as having some actual basis and realism – the book of Shmuel tells of an incident where years after the settlement of the Land of Israel, a Philistine army threatened the young state, and King Saul sought a witch out to consult with the ghostly spirit of the dead prophet Shmuel.

Be that as it may, there is a divergent rationalist school of thought more aligned with a modern understanding of the world, notably the Rambam, that does not treat these as genuine, but still equally forbidden.

Real or not, the Torah is explicit that seeking out future knowledge is taboo and, therefore, off-limits. Instead, we should embrace the future straightforwardly as it comes – תָּמִים תִּהְיֶה עִם ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ.

What’s so wrong about wanting to know the future?

R’ Yakov Hillel explains that someone seeking future knowledge yearns to eliminate doubt and uncertainty, which is antithetical to the human condition.

Humans hate uncertainty. It is stressful and makes us worry. Every day, we navigate over the shaky, uncertain, and constantly changing landscape of probabilities that lie before us.

We have natural pattern recognition abilities, which is why humans are prone to believe in magic and superstition. Doubt and uncertainty are fundamental and intrinsic to the human condition – we aren’t computer programs. Uncertainty is central to the Jewish conception of prophecy; counterintuitively, a prophet’s job is not to foretell an inevitable future – instead, their job is to warn people away from the path they are on. A prophet whose warning comes true has failed! The future is not set, which is also a central theme of the High Holy Days.

This is also the theme of Isaiah critique that is read before Tisha b’Av, where Isaiah calls his community to task, people who, instead of doing the work to alleviate poverty and suffering, and be good and kind to each other, would rather just slaughter a goat or two:

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 – “What makes you think I want all your sacrifices?”, says Hashem. “I am stuffed with burnt offerings and ram sacrifices and cattle fats. I don’t need 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)

It is normal to be scared of the future, but that fear can paralyze us from doing the work we need to do. By holding on to what we need from the future, we use shortcuts to hack the outcome.

Instead, the Torah advises us to be wholesome, to embrace the struggle the uncertainty and fear of the future straightforwardly as it comes – תָּמִים תִּהְיֶה עִם ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ.

Maybe there are religious hacks. But R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz notes that people who are wholesome and straightforward understand that shortcuts are no substitute for the real deal.

The human enterprise is trial and error, courage, and risk. R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that shortcuts are pitfalls – the bad and wrong ways to do things. We need to prepare for the future properly you can’t hack your way into being a decent human – you can’t ask for forgiveness before making amends; you can’t lose weight sorting out your diet; you can’t retire without saving.

When we are afraid of the future, there is something we want to avoid. Instead of avoiding the pain, confront it, put in the work, and take decisive action.

There’s an interesting discussion about what the Torah’s constitution might look like, and many famous scholars looked to the Torah as a source of political theory. One particular thread of that discussion is the role of a king. The Torah doesn’t particularly advocate for monarchy, and imposes many constraints:

כִּי־תָבֹא אֶל־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ וִירִשְׁתָּהּ וְיָשַׁבְתָּה בָּהּ וְאָמַרְתָּ אָשִׂימָה עָלַי מֶלֶךְ כְּכָל־הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבֹתָי׃ שׂוֹם תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בּוֹ מִקֶּרֶב אַחֶיךָ תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ לֹא תוּכַל לָתֵת עָלֶיךָ אִישׁ נָכְרִי אֲשֶׁר לֹא־אָחִיךָ הוּא׃ רַק לֹא־יַרְבֶּה־לּוֹ סוּסִים וְלֹא־יָשִׁיב אֶת־הָעָם מִצְרַיְמָה לְמַעַן הַרְבּוֹת סוּס וַיהוָה אָמַר לָכֶם לֹא תֹסִפוּן לָשׁוּב בַּדֶּרֶךְ הַזֶּה עוֹד׃ וְלֹא יַרְבֶּה־לּוֹ נָשִׁים וְלֹא יָסוּר לְבָבוֹ וְכֶסֶף וְזָהָב לֹא יַרְבֶּה־לּוֹ מְאֹד׃ וְהָיָה כְשִׁבְתּוֹ עַל כִּסֵּא מַמְלַכְתּוֹ וְכָתַב לוֹ אֶת־מִשְׁנֵה הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת עַל־סֵפֶר מִלִּפְנֵי הַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם׃ וְהָיְתָה עִמּוֹ וְקָרָא בוֹ כָּל־יְמֵי חַיָּיו לְמַעַן יִלְמַד לְיִרְאָה אֶת־יְהוָה אֱלֹהָיו לִשְׁמֹר אֶת־כָּל־דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת וְאֶת־הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה לַעֲשֹׂתָם׃ – If, after you have entered the land that Hashem has assigned to you, taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, “I want a king over me, like all the nations around me,” you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by Hashem. Be sure to select your king from your own people; you must not select a foreigner over you, one who is not your kin. Moreover, he shall not keep many horses… And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess. When he is seated on his royal throne, he must write a copy of this Torah written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel. (18:14-20)

The Gemara notes that the king actually must write two Sifrei Torah; one that remains in the royal treasury, and another that he carries with him wherever he goes.

The Rambam explains that during a king’s reign, he must write a Torah scroll for himself in addition to the scroll left to him in the treasury by his ancestors.

Even if the king inherits a treasury filled with beautiful Sifrei Torah from ancestors, the very act of writing the Torah scroll is a way of making the Torah, quite literally, one’s own. The act of doing that writing becomes a powerful pedagogy through which the king comes to understand what his moral position must be.

In political theory, this is called the rule of law, that all persons, institutions, and entities are accountable to the same body of law. In real day to day life, laws matter only as far as they command the collective loyalty of those in power; it requires a governing class that cares about law and government and tradition, rather than personal power and gain. By making the king go through this exercise, the Torah hopes and envisions that a king will understand the gravity of his office.

The Torah’s perspective is that all men are just men – in the very beginning, the Torah says that humans are formed “in the image of God,” which R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches to mean as destroying a divine right to oppress others. It is political dynamite, from which we can learn about the sanctity of life, the dignity of individuals and human rights, the sovereignty of justice and the rule of law, free society, all because God bestows his image on everyone, not just kings and emperors. It follows that we would expect a Jewish conception of a king to look qualitatively different.

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that the higher in stature and authority someone is, the closer scrutiny they can expect. Intuitively, a powerful person needs more humbling – not necessarily in a negative way, but more so that a successful leader is someone whose leadership exists to help his people.

Leadership is about being of service to others, not being served by others.

The Torah contains a litany of laws that pertain to every aspect of court procedures in general and testimony in particular. The proper procedure ensures the fair administration of justice, which is the underpinning of a just society. There are many prerequisites to accept witness testimony, and anything short is disqualified.

One of the most fascinating subtopics is about witnesses who present false evidence; then, another set of witnesses testifies that the first set of witnesses were with them elsewhere at the time, and so the original witnesses could not possibly have first-hand knowledge about the case. Under these circumstances, the Torah imposes the punishment that the liars attempted to implicate the innocent man with:

וַעֲשִׂיתֶם לוֹ כַּאֲשֶׁר זָמַם לַעֲשׂוֹת לְאָחִיו וּבִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִקִּרְבֶּךָ – You shall do to him as he plotted to do to his brother, and purge the wickedness from among yourselves. (19:19)

The Gemara suggests that the court will only carry this out when the court catches the liar before the plot succeeds, not after, because there is no brotherhood in death – כאשר זמם ולא כאשר עשה. If the plot succeeds, there is no punishment.

The Ritva queries that the law of Yibum is about brotherhood, but the whole concept of Yibum only arises to after the death of a brother; he further notes that Nadav and Avihu are referred to as brothers after death as well.

R’ Ezriel Hildesheimer explains that there is an obvious difference between biological and fraternal brotherhood. A biological brother remains so even after death – so it is natural to refer to brotherhood in those instances.

But the law of testimony specifically precludes blood relatives from testifying against each other, so any reference to brotherhood in the context of testimony can only mean the fraternal kind! We are brothers in identity and community, with a shared observance of Torah law and tradition, members of the Jewish People. But when we die, we are no longer bound to the Torah or each other – we move on into the beyond, and the imagery of brotherhood no longer makes sense.

While the interpretation is sound, the law itself is hard to understand. Why is it fair that if the conspiracy succeeds, that they get off scot-free, with no consequences?

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that there are plenty of times that people don’t get what they deserve, for good and for bad, and sometimes people do get away with it.

But the Torah’s embodiment of punishment isn’t “just dessert” – it’s about restoring balance, and sometimes, the scales just won’t balance, and the consequence will be ineffective.

When the court catches the conspirators in time, the court can punish their wicked intentions by giving them the pain of their attempt, and this squares off their debt.

But when the conspirators succeed, there is no remedy, because they have done something far worse than “only” harming an innocent person. In their success, the witnesses are not the tool that inflicts the harm on the innocent; their testimony exploits and weaponizes the court, it’s sages and the entirely legal system.

The law of conspiring witnesses is not just an interpersonal crime against another, but against the entire system that Judaism builds, and there is no way to make up for that. You can get a sense of the Torah’s indignance at this, because, unusually, it labels this crime as “wicked” – בִעַרְתָּ הָרָע מִקִּרְבֶּךָ.

When someone corrupts the entire legal system, there is no remedy for that, and we leave it to the heavens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Torah characterizes his death similarly:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just do your best, and hope for the rest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet his good intentions never materialize:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The future is watching.

One of Judaism’s recursive themes is peace as an ideal. While the idea of peace has taken off, it’s not a trivial thing.

R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that peace as a utopian ideal is one of Judaism’s revolutionary original ideas. For most of history, the utopian ideal most religions and cultures strived for was domination, subjugation, and victory.

Judaism’s religious texts overwhelmingly endorse compassion and peace; the love and the pursuit of peace is one of Judaism’s fundamental principles – בקש שלום ורדפהו. Avos d’Rabbi Nosson remarks that the most heroic act is not in defeating your enemies, but turning them into friends.

The Midrash intuitively teaches that the world persists only with peace, and the Gemara expounds that the entire Torah exists to further peace – דְּרָכֶיהָ דַרְכֵי-נֹעַם; וְכָל-נְתִיבוֹתֶיהָ שָׁלוֹם.

Aside from multiple mentions in our daily blessings and prayers, peace features prominently, among others, in the Priestly Blessing, and the vision of peace and prosperity in the Land of Israel – וְנָתַתִּי שָׁלוֹם בָּאָרֶץ / יִשָּׂא ה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם.

There is a tension between peace in the visions of Isaiah, and peace as the best we can do today. On the one hand, our God is not the god of strength and power; God is the god of liberty and liberated slaves, who loved Patriarchs because of their goodness, not strength; who commands us to love the stranger because we know what it’s like to be strangers, teaching the dignity of difference.

On the other hand, in the utopian visions of Isaiah, the world governments melt down their weapons and disband their armies. Yet in a world of pacifists, one bully would rule the world.

Of course, peace is important as an abstract concept; but how do we get there practically?

Being weak and harmless is not good morality, and it doesn’t make you a good or peaceful person. It may seem noble to refuse to fight, but when the fight comes to you, then your family and community are vulnerable, and the Torah does authorize some forms of violence as just and necessary – עֵת לֶאֱהֹב וְעֵת לִשְׂנֹא, עֵת מִלְחָמָה וְעֵת שָׁלוֹם.

When you know you can bite, you’ll rarely have to.

It’s vital to be capable of aggression and only to exercise it when absolutely necessary. That doesn’t mean you go around bullying people; but it does mean that when someone threatens the people you care about, you can do something about it. Carl Jung called this integrating the shadow, which is poignantly about making peace with a darker part of yourself. It’s what Pirkei Avos tells us; if I don’t stand up for myself, what am I…?

Strength is essential; it’s arguably a prerequisite to the Jewish model of peace – ה’ עֹז לְעַמּוֹ יִתֵּן, ה’ יְבָרֵךְ אֶת עַמּוֹ בַשָּׁלוֹם.

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that peace is more than a state of non-violence. Peace is a state mutual respect, and acceptance; which requires cultivating inner strength and courage to allow others what they need even if there’s a cost to us.

Ralph Waldo Emerson quipped that nobody can bring you peace but yourself. A legendary comedian once said that the only time you look in your neighbor’s bowl is to make sure that they have enough. When you feel secure, there is security. But that takes benevolence, confidence, and unshakeable strength.

We have a responsibility to regulate ourselves and free ourselves from looking at our neighbors with grudges, grievances, and jealousy. When other people’s success and achievements no longer threaten us, we can develop constructive relationships.

As the Ohr HaChaim puts it, the word for peace is related to the notion of wholesomeness and harmony – שָּׁלוֹם / שלמות – which evokes the concept of harmonious symbiosis.

Isaiah’s vision is not that states will be too meek and weak to defend themselves – a kind of negative peace with no violent conflict between or within states; it’s a vision of positive peace, where there is also equity, justice, and growth. With mutual respect and tolerance, we can resolve conflicts and struggle for justice non-violently.

But that dream for the world starts with you, and perhaps that’s the step that bridges the world of today with the ideal vision of tomorrow.

When our lives are in balanced harmony, it gradually expands to include our families, our communities, and ultimately everyone you meet; and maybe one day, the whole world. That’s what we pray for so many times a day.

As the Gemara says, there is no greater container of blessings than peace.

When you think about the most exciting parts of the Torah and Judaism, the cold hard truth is that the book of Vayikra probably isn’t on too many people’s highlight reels. It’s hard to get too worked up about the census; the architecture, construction, and layout of the Mishkan; the sacrifices; the holidays; Shemita and Yovel; and the other miscellaneous sections that don’t seem to fit anywhere else.

Of course, that’s not to say that they’re not important – they absolutely are. But unlike, say, most of Bereishis and Shemos, it’s not story or character driven, so the lessons and morals are much less obvious.

The Torah offers a beautiful exposition of blessings and bounty that follow from observing the Torah, and a gruesomely detailed description of all the terrible things that might befall the Jewish People should they fail to uphold the law properly.

What immediately follows this grim reading is an abrupt change of tone, a ponderous section about the valuation of pledges – Parsha Archin.

When the Mishkan and Beis HaMikdash stood, they maintained a public fund for operations and maintenance, which people could contribute to. Aside from cash, people could pledge property; animals; and interestingly, humans. There are volumes of tomes that discuss the exact parameters of how it works, but essentially, all individuals have a particular value, so donating a person would entail calculating their value, and simply redeeming that value by contributing the equivalent amount to the public fund.

We could make peace with the notion that the Torah is like all things; some parts are more interesting, and some less. Some parts are impactful stories, and some parts are technical and arcane laws. But what if it isn’t, and there is a flow to the apparently miscellaneous appendices?

The Ishbitza suggests that if we find the technical details of the census, architecture, and sacrifices riveting, the Torah showers us with blessings, which is great.

But if instead, our eyes glaze over, and we become disenchanted with the arcane technicalities the Torah charges us with, the intimidating future the Torah predicts for us is that our world will fall apart with curses and suffering.

It is precisely this doom and misery that the Torah addresses by giving us the laws of valuations here.

The Ishbitza suggests that the idea of redemption should be understood more broadly. Faced with a disheartening list of punishments, the Torah tells us that all is lost; people are still worth something.

All humans have a fundamental and intrinsic inalienable worth that can never be destroyed.

We take for granted that humility is an admirable virtue, but it’s worth taking a moment to consider what humility is, and also what it is not.

Humility is commonly understood to means a low estimate of oneself and one’s accomplishments. The Oxford English Dictionary defines humility as “the quality of being humble: having a low estimate of one’s importance, worthiness, or merits.”

But this doesn’t ring true with what Judaism teaches us about the value of humility.

The Midrash famously teaches that Mount Sinai was only a little mountain to show how instrumental humility is.

But if the educational purpose of giving the Torah in such a place is to illustrate the value of humility, then you’d assume a valley would be a more appropriate geological feature to teach the lesson!

So why give the Torah on a mountain at all?

The Shem M’shmuel states that to accept the Torah and live its ideals, you need to be a mountain, not a valley; or as Avos puts it, if I don’t stand up for myself, what am I?

As important as the quality of humility is, people who accept the Torah upon themselves must consider themselves important and deserving of the Torah.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks teaches that humility is an appreciation of our talents, skills, and virtues. It is not meekness or self-deprecating thought, but the dedication of oneself to something higher.

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi notes that the Torah labels Moshe as the most humble of all men. If humility is simply a low view of oneself, then Moshe, the Lawgiver and single greatest authority on the Torah, would meekly cave to any challenge – which he obviously couldn’t and didn’t. But if humility is about being of service, then Moshe truly was the most humble of all men – his entire life was singularly dedicated to public service. His achievements were never about him or his status; they were all in furtherance of rescuing and building the Jewish people.

It was no lack of humility for Moshe to acknowledge his own authority and leadership. When a person believes they are nothing, then ultimately the Torah itself will have little effect in elevating him. Although pride is a dangerous vice in large quantities, a small amount is still an essential ingredient to living a good life.

So perhaps humility is not that you are nothing; it’s that you are intellectually honest with yourself. Pride is about competing – that you are “cleverer” or “richer”; humility is about serving. Humility isn’t the opposite of narcissism and hubris; it’s the lack of them. In the absence of pride, you find humility, which sees no need for competition. In humility, you are no more and no less than other people. Humility is not about hiding away, becoming a wallflower or a doormat; it is about the realization that your abilities and actions are not better or less. They simply are.

Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.

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.

The Seder is replete with strange customs and rituals to encourage questions that we answer with stories.

But why don’t we just tell the story?

R’ Tzadok Kohen explains that the perpetual mitzvah of remembering the Exodus is not enough on Seder night. The goal of the Seder is not a simple history lesson. The goal is engagement, the vehicle for which is questions – וַאֲפִילוּ כֻּלָּנוּ חֲכָמִים כֻּלָּנוּ נְבוֹנִים כֻּלָּנוּ זְקֵנִים כֻּלָּנוּ יוֹדְעִים אֶת הַתּוֹרָה מִצְוָה עָלֵינוּ לְסַפֵּר בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that the Hebrew words for inheritance have two very different meanings – נַחֲלָה / יְרוּשָׁה. The root נחל means a river that naturally flows, and the root רשת is the word for conquest or capture.

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that tradition will not flow like a river – we cannot make the grave error of assuming our children will just follow their heritage. Tradition is secured through conquest because when you invest in something, you have earned your stake. Questions are central to the Seder because by asking questions, the children make what is ours into theirs.

When the wise son asks what the point of it all is, we answer that we don’t eat anything after the Korban Pesach. Rav Kook understands this as an allegory we shouldn’t dilute the lingering taste of our traditions.

We all grew up sharing a table with extended families, and we don’t just tell stories. We taste the strange foods, the Matza, Maror, and Charoses, talk about what it means to be free, and sing songs to celebrate our blessings. Everyone remembers being the one to ask the four questions and steal the afikoman. As we grow up, we become the one to answer the questions, and it’s our afikoman getting taken. The Seder’s enduring power is its way of transmitting our memory and identity across generations.

That’s the power of ritual, simple things we do as children because it’s fun, and as adults, because we know that our identity is one of the most precious things we can pass on.

We can’t just tell stories at the Seder because it would miss the point entirely. The Seder rituals are the things we do together as an expression of collective memory and shared ideals. It should be no surprise that more people go to a Seder than to shul on Yom Kippur.

The Haggada is the story of the Exodus from Egypt. But there’s a strange section towards the beginning that doesn’t quite fit the theme:

צֵא וּלְמַד מַה בִּקֵּשׁ לָבָן הָאֲרַמִּי לַעֲשׂוֹת לְיַעֲקֹב אָבִינוּ: שֶׁפַּרְעֹה לֹא גָזַר אֶלָּא עַל הַזְּכָרִים, וְלָבָן בִּקֵּשׁ לַעֲקֹר אֶת־הַכֹּל – Go learn what Lavan from Aramean sought to do to our father Yakov; Paroh only oppressed the males, whereas Lavan tried to destroy it all

Paroh was a cruel despot who enslaved an entire race and ordered childen to be cast into the Nile; Lavan was a swindler who gave Yakov a home, a family, and tremendous wealth.

In what universe can we say that Lavan was worse than Paroh?

Before Moshe’s death, he warned the people about a mistake they and we would repeatedly make:

הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ, פֶּן-תִּשְׁכַּח אֶת-ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לְבִלְתִּי שְׁמֹר מִצְותָיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו וְחֻקֹּתָיו, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם. פֶּן-תֹּאכַל, וְשָׂבָעְתָּ; וּבָתִּים טֹבִים תִּבְנֶה, וְיָשָׁבְתָּ.וּבְקָרְךָ וְצֹאנְךָ יִרְבְּיֻן, וְכֶסֶף וְזָהָב יִרְבֶּה-לָּךְ; וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר-לְךָ, יִרְבֶּה.וְרָם, לְבָבֶךָ; וְשָׁכַחְתָּ אֶת-ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, הַמּוֹצִיאֲךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים – Take care that you don’t forget the Lord your God and fail to keep His commandments, rules, and laws, which I instruct you today: when you have eaten and you are satisfied, and built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, be careful that your heart does not grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God—who freed you from the land of Egypt, home of slaves… (8:10-14)

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that Lavan appears in the Haggadah as a powerful warning that the story does not end with Pesach. When calamity strikes, we kind of know what to do; across the ages, the more the Jews have suffered, the more they studied, prayed, and improved their observance – וְכַאֲשֶׁר יְעַנּוּ אֹתוֹ כֵּן יִרְבֶּה וְכֵן יִפְרֹץ. 

The danger of Lavan is more insidious – that Yakov would forget who he was – לַעֲקֹר אֶת־הַכֹּל. The most significant threat to Jewish continuity may well be affluence and freedom.

Affluence, no less than slavery, can make us forget who we are and why.

It is one thing to believe in God when you need His help. It is another thing entirely when you have already received it. The antidote was presented long ago – we remember our history and where we come from, so we do not lose ourselves. 

The Exodus story is plain on its face that just as much as the Jewish People must understand there is a God, Egypt must also know and understand – וְיָדְעוּ מִצְרַיִם כִּי-אֲנִי ה.

In the Exodus story, why is it important for Egypt to know that God is God?

Egypt was pagan and polytheistic, and the plagues were an exhibition on monotheism, demonstrating a higher unified force controlling all the underlying elements that Egypt deified. The plagues were all delivered using media the Egyptians well understood – they worshipped nature, and nature turned on them. 

Yet, when the Egyptian army drifted in the waves of the Red Sea and the Jews celebrated, God would not – “Shall angels sing while my creations drown?!”

This parallels the conclusion of the book of Jonah as well, where God admonishes Jonah for only caring for his narrow corner of the world – וַאֲנִי לֹא אָחוּס עַל־נִינְוֵה הָעִיר הַגְּדוֹלָה אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ־בָּהּ הַרְבֵּה מִשְׁתֵּים־עֶשְׂרֵה רִבּוֹ אָדָם אֲשֶׁר לֹא־יָדַע בֵּין־יְמִינוֹ לִשְׂמֹאלוֹ וּבְהֵמָה רַבָּה.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe shrewdly noted that שְׁפֹךְ חֲמָתְךָ אֶל־הַגּוֹיִם is only on אֲשֶׁר לֹא יְדָעוּךָ. 

The Torah’s vision, from it’s earliest moments, is not just that the Jews have a national redemption; the utopian future we hope for is one where all will recognize God. While the Lubavitcher Rebbe and his followers have certainly taken outreach to it’s furthest conceivable limits, it is worth dwelling on the principle.

The Torah is not a pathway to personal joy and reward just for us. When the Torah is properly lived, it is supposed to influence and impact the people and world around us.

At multiple points in the Exodus story, the Torah narrates that God hardens Paroh’s heart, prolonging the Jewish People’s eventual exit.

If the goal was to get out of Egypt, what was the point of hardening his heart?

The Sforno offers a compelling reading.

The key to understanding the Exodus story is understanding that just getting out of Egypt was not the goal. It wouldn’t be hard to magically flatten Egypt, and it wouldn’t be hard to just magic the Jews out. But instead, lots of other things happened that weren’t reducible to the goals of a defeated Egypt and a free Jewish People. Like Creation, Exodus was a multistep process, and deliberately not instantaneous.

There are two words the Torah uses to describe Paroh’s heart: strength and heaviness – כבד / חזק. Where Hashem acts directly, there is only חיזוק – Hashem gave him the strength to continue.

The story is very clear why, and it slips right under the radar. Hashem explicitly states the purpose of what is to come to Moshe, foreshadowing the first plague:

וְיָדְעוּ מִצְרַיִם כִּי-אֲנִי ה, בִּנְטֹתִי אֶת-יָדִי עַל-מִצְרָיִם; וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִתּוֹכָם – “Egypt will know that I am the Lord when I stretch My hand over Egypt and take the Jews from them.” (7:17)

We’ve read this story a few times, and our minds glaze over because we know it a little too well. At this point in the story, no one knows what God can do. Not Moshe, and certainly not Paroh. Even the Jewish People only knew they were descended from Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yakov; and that they believed in the One God of their ancestors. But that’s really it – no one knew God had actual power; no one had ever seen or heard of a miracle. Arguably, there hadn’t been a miracle since the Flood. So not without good reason, Paroh mocked Moshe:

מִי ה אֲשֶׁר אֶשְׁמַע בְּקֹלוֹ לְשַׁלַּח אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא יָדַעְתִּי אֶת־ה וְגַם אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחַ – “Who is this Lord that I should heed Him and let Israel go?! I don’t know this Lord, and I won’t let Israel go!” (5:2)

So when God flexed a strong and outstretched arm on Egypt, people would rightly be terrified. So Paroh needed strength. If he gave up to save Egypt, that would be the wrong reason!

After the 7th plague, the task is seemingly complete; and Paroh concedes, completely:

יִּשְׁלַח פַּרְעֹה, וַיִּקְרָא לְמֹשֶׁה וּלְאַהֲרֹן, וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, חָטָאתִי הַפָּעַם: ה, הַצַּדִּיק, וַאֲנִי וְעַמִּי, הָרְשָׁעִים. הַעְתִּירוּ, אֶל-ה, וְרַב, מִהְיֹת קֹלֹת אֱלֹהִים וּבָרָד; וַאֲשַׁלְּחָה אֶתְכֶם, וְלֹא תֹסִפוּן לַעֲמֹד – Paroh sent for Moshe and Ahron, and said to them, “Now I have sinned. Hashem is righteous; my people and I are guilty. Beg the Lord to bring an end to this flaming hail; I will free you; you will be here no longer…” (9:27,28)

Mission accomplished, and Egypt has been educated. With three more plagues to come, Hashem tells Moshe that the audience to be educated has changed:

וּלְמַעַן תְּסַפֵּר בְּאָזְנֵי בִנְךָ וּבֶן-בִּנְךָ, אֵת אֲשֶׁר הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי בְּמִצְרַיִם, וְאֶת-אֹתֹתַי, אֲשֶׁר-שַׂמְתִּי בָם; וִידַעְתֶּם, כִּי-אֲנִי ה – So that you tell over to your sons and daughters how I toyed with Egypt, with my wonders that I cast on them, and you will know that I am the Lord. (10:2)

Now it is about the Jews.

The Jews needed to understand what Hashem would do for them. It was understandably mind-bending for them to comprehend what was taking place, and they fought against a life of miracles for the rest of their days. But even if that generation wouldn’t see it, their children would.

God cares about the slaves, and God cares about the victims. God cares about us all, and God will do something about it.

The Haggada is the story of the birth of the Jewish people and their liberation from Egypt and slavery.

But the elephant in the room needs addressing, without which the entire Seder is irreparably compromised with no contemporary relevance at all.

R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that Jews have celebrated this throughout the highs and lows of our history, in ghettos and concentration camps, under conditions similar or worse than Egypt.

But that begs the question, what’s the point of talking about redemption that happened long ago when we’re not yet redeemed today?

The Exodus was imperfect – it did not lead to a full and final utopian life in Israel. The freed slaves fought God and Moshe for the rest of their lives, yearning to go back to Egypt.

Yet, however flawed that generation’s ability to embrace a new path might have been, the seeds of redemption were planted in the blueprint of our DNA. Humans are not robots, and we are all perfectly imperfect in our own way.

We don’t have a Seder to mark the anniversary of an ancient generation’s ages past liberation; we have a Seder to celebrate what germinates from the seed planted by the Exodus – the innate ability to redeem ourselves.

Remarkably, the Torah and Haggada openly embrace the notion of an imperfect redemption; both subvert our expectation of a happy ending resulting in the Jewish people living happily ever after in peace and prosperity in Israel.

R’ Shai Held notes that the Haggada is powerfully suggesting to us that the journey is more important than the destination. The Gemara warns against believing someone who says they have searched for answers but found nothing. As R’ Menachem Mendel of Kotzk put it, the search for Torah is itself Torah, and in that search, we have already found.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that the goal of the Seder is not just to remember that an Exodus happened once; but that an Exodus could happen at all.

Every generation must feel as though they personally experienced the great departure from Egypt, to remind ourselves that whatever troubles we face, the tools of redemption are already there, and salvation could be a day away.

The redemption story of the Haggada opens with Matza, the bread of affliction – הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא. It’s what our ancestors ate, and we invite whoever is hungry to join – כָּל דִכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכֹל.

If you think about it, it’s a strange invitation. It’s one thing to invite someone to a lavish banquet; what sort of invitation is it to share in my bread of affliction?

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that what transforms the bread of affliction into the bread of freedom is the willingness to share with others.

The Maharal notes that the reason the Exodus is so fundamental is that it associates Judaism with an essential quality of fundamental freedom – we can act as we choose with no external coercive influence.

Freedom is oxygen for the soul – and freedom is a state of mind.

Rav Kook explains that the difference between a slave and a free man is not solely defined by physical liberty. There can be an enlightened slave whose spirit is free; and a free individual whose whole life is slavishly lived on other people’s terms.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe writes that Elazar ben Azariah discovered Ben Zoma’s teaching to recall the Exodus at nights on the day he became a leader; because a leader must be a beacon of hope during times of darkness and difficulty.

God physically freed the Jews of that time, but mentally, they never left. The people who walked out of Egypt and through the Red Sea to stand at Sinai spent 40 lost years pining to go back “home” to Egypt.

God can save you from Egypt, but not even God can save you from yourself.

Even in the worst of times, we can choose to share with others, and in doing so, we become partners in redemption.

Jews have a daily duty to recall the Exodus.

Remembering the Exodus is a perpetual mitzvah, and is ever-present in our daily prayers and blessings – זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם. It is pervasive to so many commands and rituals, to the extent that we could miss the point entirely.

It is essential to understand first principles because they are the foundational concepts that permeate the systems built upon them. So what do we mean when we say that we remember that God took the Jews out of Egypt?

It’s not the historic event that we have to recall; it’s that every single last one of us is worthy of God’s unconditional love.

If we unpack the story, the Jews in Egypt didn’t deserve to be saved because they were so good or so special; in fact, quite the opposite.

The Zohar imagines the angels arguing whether or not God should save the Jews, and the argument was that “this lot are just a bunch of idol-worshippers, and so are those!”. The Haggada admits as much – מִתְּחִלָּה עוֹבְדֵי עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה הָיוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ.

When Moshe told the Jews to set aside and take one sheep per family, the Midrash says that “set aside” meant setting aside their idols before taking the sheep for the mitzvah!

When even Moshe, already well on his way to greatness, saw Yisro’s daughters getting bullied and got involved in the dispute to protect them, the onlookers mistook him for just another Egyptian!

Moreover, the generation that left Egypt and stood at Sinai fought Moshe the rest of their lives, begging to go back to Egypt, and was ultimately doomed to wander and die in the wilderness.

The Zohar goes so far as to say that the Jews were on the 49th level of spiritual malaise, just one notch off rock bottom, the point of no return. Rav Kook notes that this adds a particular dimension to the imagery of God’s outstretched arm – it was a forceful intervention, an emergency rescue of a nation that had stumbled and was about fall off a cliff – בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה.

That is to say that on a fundamental level, the Jews didn’t deserve rescuing at all.

And yet crucially, as R’ Chaim Kanievsky notes, God responded to their cries all the same – וַנִּצְעַק אֶל־ה’ אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ, וַיִּשְׁמַע ה’ אֶת־קֹלֵנוּ.

The Divrei Chaim notes that the very first Commandment is no command at all; God “introduces” himself as the God who took us out of Egypt – אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים. It’s not a command – it is just a simple statement of fact. We might not deserve redemption, yet God redeems us all the same.

R’ Tzadok haKohen writes that to remember Egypt is to remember God’s first declarative sentence; our God rescues people from Egypt, whoever they are.

The Ropshitzer quipped that תְּחִלָּה לְמִקְרָאֵי קדֶשׁ זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם – the first step towards holiness is remembering that the same Exodus that rescued people from the abyss once before could be just a moment away.

So when we remind ourselves about Egypt, it’s not just that it happened once, but that, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe put it, God’s redemption is not contingent on our worthiness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not a problem isolated to philosophers; it’s a question we all find ourselves asking from time to time. Why do bad things happen to good people?

The different approaches to this are called theodicy. Some try to explain how everything that we call bad is actually good or that God is simply beyond our understanding. There is some merit to these and similar arguments, but they are impractical.

Anyone who claims to have the one true answer to almost any philosophical question is almost invariably wrong. The nature of such things is that they either don’t lend themselves to a single resolution and sometimes to any resolution at all. The best we can muster is that different approaches work for different people.

We might learn one such approach from the story of Avraham.

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that the answer to the question is how it challenges us to live in response to the existence of the problem – when we see something is wrong, do we try to make it better? While this does not directly address the question, remember the question has no answer; it can only prompt us to respond.

After passing the great test of the Akeida, the Binding of Isaac, there is a long denouement, where Avraham goes home and receives word that his brother had many children from his many wives and had built a formidable clan. Despite all God’s promises, Avraham has had to fight tooth and nail for every single thing; yet his brother seems to get it all oh-so-easily.

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

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

Imagine a world where good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. Who would be bad if you knew that every time you steal, you get cancer? Everyone would be good all the time!

The only way it is possible to be authentically good is if you don’t know the consequences. If the consequences don’t look random, goodness cannot exist. But in a world where the greatest philanthropist can still die in a terrible car accident, goodness is real. You do it because it’s important or because it’s the right thing; it’s intrinsic, and not out of an expectation that God’s bounty will immediately follow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hashem agreed:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה, אִם-אֶמְצָא בִסְדֹם חֲמִשִּׁים צַדִּיקִם בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר–וְנָשָׂאתִי לְכָל-הַמָּקוֹם, בַּעֲבוּרָם – Hashem said: “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous in the city, then I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” (18:26)

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

R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch teaches that righteous people are not scholars in ivory towers; they actively drive positive change in their communities by publicly living out the Torah’s teachings. They live among and interact with other people, leading by example and inspiring their communities, like Avraham himself. A righteous man is not hidden away with books but is part of a community – including its sinners – as a teacher and a neighbor.

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

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

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

שׁוֹטְטוּ בְּחוּצוֹת יְרוּשָׁלִַם, וּרְאוּ-נָא וּדְעוּ וּבַקְשׁוּ בִרְחוֹבוֹתֶיהָ, אִם-תִּמְצְאוּ אִישׁ, אִם-יֵשׁ עֹשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט מְבַקֵּשׁ אֱמוּנָה–וְאֶסְלַח, לָהּ – Run through the squares of Jerusalem and search its streets; if you can find just one single man who practices justice and seeks the truth, I will forgive her! (5:1)

The Radak explains that no righteous men could be found in Jerusalem’s streets because they were in their houses. They were too fearful to publicly stand up for what they believed in, so Jerusalem fell. 

The Lubavitcher Rebbe taught that our souls are candles that God gives us to illuminate the world, like the Chanukah Menorah, which is positioned by the front door or window, so that it lights up the inside of our homes, but ideally, the outside as well. He famously dispatched followers to the ends of the earth based on the understanding that part and parcel of wholesome observance is seeking out others to encourage their own religious expression.

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

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

The few can save the many, so long as they care enough about their communities to get involved – בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר / בְּחוּצוֹת יְרוּשָׁלִַם / בִרְחוֹבוֹתֶיהָ.

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

A single candle can dispel a whole night of darkness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is the agreement of the covenant?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avraham continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What changed between the beginning and end of the Flood?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A judgmental attitude helps neither ourselves nor others.

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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sukkos is the festival of happiness. The two prominent mitzvos of Sukkos are sitting in the Sukka and shaking the Lulav and Esrog.

What do these laws have to teach us about happiness?

The Ishbitzer notes that the mitzvah of Sukka is passive, fulfilled by sitting or sleeping; whereas the mitzvah of Lulav and Esrog is performed by actively gathering the items and waving them.

We have innate abilities we are passively born with, but there are also things we actively acquire through perspiration and perseverance.

This active/passive framework sheds light on various nuances in how we observe these laws. A stolen lulav does not fulfill the mitzvah; whereas there is no such thing as a stolen Sukka – you cannot embezzle something innate. It similarly follows that on Shabbos, the day we curtail creative activity, we observe Sukka, but not Lulav – all our creative activity can only hope to succeed with God’s blessing.

R’ Chaim Brown notes that we must actively gather the Lulav and Esrog, which is traditionally understood to symbolize the different kinds of Jews – unity is not something innate that we can take for granted; we must create unity through our actions.

To the Ishbitzer, happiness is when we synthesize our active and passive skills and talents into one cohesive whole – when we appreciate the gifts we are born with, change what we can, and accept what we can’t.

While we don’t control our starting points, we do control our trajectories from there.

Judaism has several core beliefs that have have been adopted by mainstream culture. Some of them were once radical beliefs that we take for granted today, such as introducing the concept of monotheism to a pagan and polytheistic world.

The ramification of one God, as opposed to many gods, is that the one God must be the God of not just everything, but also everyone.

Unlike almost every other chag, particularly Shemini Atzeres, Sukkos has a pervasive characteristic of inclusivity that reflects this.

The Gemara teaches that the biggest celebration in the Jewish calendar was the famed water drawing ceremony that marked God’s judgment of rainfall for the entire world, for the entire year.

The Gemara also notes that the Sukkos sacrifices had a sequence of 70 animals, corresponding to the 70 nations of the world so that greater humanity might also enjoy a year of abundant blessing.

We may be the conduit of God’s blessing to the world at large, but we are not the exclusive beneficiaries.

Unsurprisingly, the God of all also has compassion for the most distant and lost Jews.

When we wave the lulav and esrog, the different species traditionally correspond to different kinds of Jew, from the most observant to the least. But even the least observant Jew is part and parcel of the Jewish people, and both the mitzvah and the Jewish people are deficient if the apparent “undesirables” are not actively included. Hoshana Raba has a dedicated ceremony specifically constructed around a bouquet of the undesirables.

The Sfas Emes reminds us that the God of all necessarily loves us all. God’s love and compassion is elemental; it is not reserved just for worthy Jews, or Jews at all. On Sukkos, all humans gather under God’s protection – חג האסיף. Sitting in a sukka acts out the simplicity of our relationship with the God of all –  צילא דמהימנותא

Of all Judaism’s special occasions, Sukkos is called the festival of celebration, perhaps because of the simple joy of God’s love for all human life.

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 is a day of renewal, not just of our lives, but also of our relationship with God.

The unique prayer themes of Rosh Hashana are Sovereignty, Memory, and the Shofar – where we crown God as our King; recall the heritage of our relationship, and blow the shofar – מַלְכֻיּוֹת זִכְרוֹנוֹת וְשׁוֹפָרוֹת.

Judaism’s innovative concept of a God we can have a relationship with can seem absurd enough, but the idea of crowning God is stranger still. To some extent, maybe it defies explanation.

The Baal HaTanya notes that we can readily understand crowning a human; the Queen of England is not so drastically different to her staff and subjects.

But how can we “coronate” God, and how can that be something God “needs” from us?

Judaism’s answer is straightforward: because God loves us.

That’s what Memory is – זִכְרוֹנוֹת. We recall the stories of our heritage, showcasing the relationship our ancestors carved out, and that falls to us to take up the mantle.

This may seem circular – מי יצדק לפניך בדין – why should the stories make a difference either?

R’ Nechemia Sheinfeld answers that this is what the Shofar addresses. The Shofar is symbolic of crying – real and authentic emotion. Our relationship with God is irrational, and we simply embrace the absurdity of it.

God wants a relationship with each of us because He loves us, and like a father can’t resist his crying child, it is unconditional love.

We believe that we are judged on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur for the year gone by and the year to come.

If our forecast is inescapable, why would we spend the year hoping for anything different?

While we believe in a Judgment Day, we nonetheless believe that it is still only a snapshot in time and that with repentance, prayer, and charity; we can change our fates – וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe notes that the conventional translation of these words obscures their literal meanings.

The word for repentance means homecoming or return – because however lost we may be, we can find our way home – תְשׁוּבָה. The word for prayer means judging ourselves through earnest introspection – תְפִלָּה. The word for charity means justice – because it is something we dispense ourselves – צְדָקָה.

These are all aspects of ourselves that we have agency over.

R’ Micha Berger notes that they each parallel the three kinds of relationships we have – with God; with others; and with ourselves.

Reminding ourselves that there is a God who wants us to be more than sentient mammals; who watches over us, and what that means for the way choose to live are expressions of Tefila that we control.

Giving charity; volunteering; speaking kindly; helping a neighbor, and appreciating family and friends are all expressions of Tzedaka we control.

Improving ourselves; developing a more even temper; cultivating humility, and choosing to live an authentically Jewishly oriented lifestyle are all expressions of Teshuva that we control.

Improving just a single characteristic constitutes a change substantial enough that we believe it can change the future.

You are the master of your fate and the captain of your destiny.

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.

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

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

A classic example is the story of creation.

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

That’s certainly one way to read the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But not everyone can see that.

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

When the spies got back from Canaan and delivered their bleak report, the people mourned and cried. They cried that they’d ever left Egypt; that the arduous journey was a waste if they were just going to die in the desert; and that they want a new leader who would take them back to Egypt.

The aftermath of the story resulted in an entire lost generation, aimlessly wandering the desert for 40 years until they all died, and only their children would merit the conquest and establishment of the Land of Israel.

It is normal to react negatively to bad news. Yet what triggered the punishment is the people’s reaction and not the conspiracy itself – which was the actual catalyst for where things went wrong in this story!

What was wrong about their reasonably typical reaction to receiving bad news that meant they could not build the Land of Israel?

It might be that their response belied a fundamental attitude defect that was a prerequisite.

There are many nations and many states. The Jewish People in the Land of Israel is not just one more. It is supposed to be fundamentally and qualitatively different. It is the culmination of a centuries-old hope and vision, with careful stops along the way, in Canaan, Egypt, and Sinai, which pave the way to build something never seen or done before.

In the face of adversity, so many miles and months from Egypt, these people show they never really left at all. They want to right back!

Perhaps it’s not something that they did that was so wrong, but that they completely lacked the attitude to achieve their divine goals. Building a new model for what a religious society should look like requires pioneers with hope and vision. These people didn’t have it. If that’s what it takes to establish the Jewish People in the Land of Israel, how could they ever hope to succeed?

You will never realize a vision executed half-heartedly. You need to believe to achieve.

One of the most tragic incidents in the Torah is when the Jewish people complain one too many times for Moshe:

וְלֹא-הָיָה מַיִם, לָעֵדָה; וַיִּקָּהֲלוּ, עַל-מֹשֶׁה וְעַל-אַהֲרֹן – There was no water for the people, and they assembled against Moshe and Ahron. (20:2)

In his anger and frustration, he berates the Jewish people, and hits a rock he was supposed to speak to:

וַיַּקְהִלוּ מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן, אֶת-הַקָּהָל–אֶל-פְּנֵי הַסָּלַע; וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם, שִׁמְעוּ-נָא הַמֹּרִים–הֲמִן-הַסֶּלַע הַזֶּה, נוֹצִיא לָכֶם מָיִם – Moshe and Ahron gathered the people together before the rock, and Moshe said to them: “Listen you rebels! Shall we bring you water from this rock?’ (20:10)

In the aftermath, he is denied the ability to complete his life’s purpose of saving and resettling the Jewish people.

The Jewish People had complained many times during their existence in the desert, subsisting on miracle clouds, miracle food, and miracle water. Each time, they were made to suffer tremendously, through one plague and another. Whatever they’d experienced, they just wanted to get back to normal, to Moshe’s irritation.

Why was this time so different, that Moshe could not see his purpose through to the end?

It’s possible that it had something to do with Moshe hitting the rock he was supposed to speak to, but that doesn’t seem so egregious that he couldn’t enter the Land of Israel.

R Shai Held contends that it is possible that when Moshe saw the people gathering and complaining, he assumed that history was repeating itself, and calls them rebels. But perhaps there was actual merit to what they were complaining about this time.

The Jewish People were traveling through the desert, and the water had run out. They were thirsty. What were they supposed to do?

Moshe wrote them off and thought this was just like all the other times. But what’s interesting is that while Moshe grew furious, Hashem did not:

קַח אֶת-הַמַּטֶּה, וְהַקְהֵל אֶת-הָעֵדָה אַתָּה וְאַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ, וְדִבַּרְתֶּם אֶל-הַסֶּלַע לְעֵינֵיהֶם, וְנָתַן מֵימָיו; וְהוֹצֵאתָ לָהֶם מַיִם מִן-הַסֶּלַע, וְהִשְׁקִיתָ אֶת-הָעֵדָה וְאֶת-בְּעִירָם – “Take the rod, and assemble the people, you and Ahron your brother, and speak to the rock before their eyes, that it will produce water. Bring water out of the rock so you can give the people and their cattle their drink.” (20:8)

Being thirsty in the desert is eminently reasonable. It is arguable that Moshe was so disillusioned and frustrated with the people he had led for so many years that he couldn’t hear them properly anymore.

If that’s a fair reading of the story, then the story does not teach us that hitting the rock was such a terrible thing to do; it shows us that when a leader stops believing in his people, what mandate does he have to lead them a moment longer?

There are leadership moments in our lives every day. It is crucial that we nurture those moments by tuning in with sensitivity to the people looking to us for guidance.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This may help explain the concept of prayer.

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

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

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

Yet the opening of the story is not overly complimentary:

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

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

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

God spoke to Noah and said something similar:

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

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

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

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

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

After Korach’s failed coup, Hashem reiterated the prominence that Ahron and his descendants would have. They would always be at the service of the Jewish people, guiding religious practice:

כל תרומת הקדשים אשר ירימו בני־ישראל ה נתתי לך ולבניך ולבנתיך אתך לחק־עולם ברית מלח עולם הוא לפני ה לך ולזרעך אתך – All the gifts that the Jewish people set aside for Hashem, I give to you, to your sons and daughters, as a due for all time. It shall be an eternal covenant of salt before Hashem and for you and your descendants as well. (18:19)

The covenant of salt is an expression of trust and friendship. Calling the covenant after salt calls to mind how the covenant is eternal.

But if it’s eternal, what does salt add to the expression?

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi explains that the comparison is literal as well.

The property of salt is not just that it never spoils, but that it enhances and draws out the properties of what it interacts with.

Ahron was the paragon of public service. What he did for others was he brought people together, and brought out what was best in them. Life in service of others is what made him so special.

The comparison to salt evokes a contrast to Korach, who was only in it for himself, not for others.

The mark of greatness is being there for others even when it’s a thankless task.

Korach’s coup failed when all the great men planted their staffs on the ground at the Mishkan, and of all of them, it was Ahron’s staff that blossomed with almonds and flowers, showing Korach’s people they were wrong. The story concludes with how Ahron’s staff became a symbol of what had happened, and the men took their staffs back and went back home.

But why is it worth mentioning that they took their staffs back?

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi teaches that the word for staff, מטה, is the same as the word for tribe. As much as Ahron’s staff was a symbol of victory, their staffs were a symbol of defeat, but they took them home all the same. The plain staff, with nothing special or remarkable, would remind them what they were willing to sacrifice in their bid for greatness.

The symbol of their loss was still something to be proud of. It was a reality check, but they could still take pride in second place. By owning it, they could resume their place in the hierarchy they had once rejected.

A person who never makes a mistake has never tried anything. Mistakes can often be as good a teacher as success.

When the spies returned, and delivered their pessimistic report, the people were distraught. Not knowing better, they lost faith in what would become of them, and by losing faith, they lost all they had going for them.

Disappointed in what the people had become, God told them that they would be a lost generation; they would wander for 40 years, and die in the wilderness. They did not deserve the privilege of the Land of Israel, but their children would.

When the people heard what their fate would be, they refused to accept it at first:

וישכמו בבקר ויעלו אל ראש ההר לאמר הננו ועלינו אל המקום אשר אמר ה כי חטאנו – They rose early the next morning, and set out toward the crest of the mountain, saying, “We are prepared to go to the place that Hashem has spoken of, for we were wrong.” (14:40)

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi explains that the language used in telling how this show of faith is a chiasm that echoes the story of Avraham.

Avraham’s ultimate act of faith was rising early in the morning, and going to the crest of the mountain in the place God spoke of. His faith is absolute, when he says הנני- Here I stand.

But it fails. What worked for Avraham does not work here, because Avraham was authentic, and this time it was not. Avrahams act of faith was corrupted into a show of faith.

Avraham had faith before he knew where he was going. The comparison they were trying to evoke was false. They could say הננו, but that’s not where they truly stood.
There is a difference between fracturing something, and breaking it. Each situation calls for something different. Their mistake was thinking that their mistake caused a fracture, and not a break.

Introspection requires intellectual honesty to understand how to move past our mistakes. Think of the last person you hurt. What would it take to move your relationship past it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The words the Torah uses – אִשָּׁה כִּי תַזְרִיעַ – describes the physiological process of seed forming. The most vital matters on which the future depends, marriage, the home, and family, can be reduced to a simple physiological process of biological happening, which can attest to the lack of moral freedom; this is the impurity that needs dispelling. The Torah calls on us to live consciously.

Moral freedom and the ability to choose are the gifts that distinguish humanity. The periods of waiting correspond to the child and to the parent, and how both must consciously and continuously strive towards greater moral consciousness, and this might help explain why the waiting period for a boy and girls are different, as the covenant of circumcision teaches this same lesson.

The process the Torah prescribes a new mother serves to rededicate her to her calling as a wife, mother, and Jew, despite the painful experience she has undergone. Submission to the forces of nature is antithetical to what it means to be a Jew. While the biological aspect is undeniable, the Torah calls the mother to the Mishkan, to exercise her moral freedom and dedicate physical life to a higher ultimate purpose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What could you own better in your life?

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

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

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

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

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

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