One of the oldest debates in the history of psychology is nature versus nurture – whether we inherit ancestral personality traits; or whether learning environment and experience shape our identity.

As with almost all such questions, the answer is not binary and lies somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

When the Torah begins the next chapter of our ancestral history, it tells us exactly where we 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 of Padan-Aram, sister of Laban the Aramean, to be his wife. (25:20)

At this point, the Torah has only just introduced us to the kindly Rivka, and Eliezer has only just brought her back to Avraham; so why does the Torah specify in such painstaking detail who her family members are?

Rashi notes this peculiarity and suggests that the Torah is contrasting her kind heart with the environment of her upbringing as praise that she resisted their influence.

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that as much as the famous adage in Avos cautions us about the powerful influence of neighbors and environment on our personalities; in Rivka, we see the power of an individual to transcend their origins.

It’s a key theme of this story – we can contrast Rivka, growing up in a negative environment yet retaining her kind spirit; to Esau, growing up in the in the most righteous and moral home in the world – guided by no less than Rivka herself! Instead of becoming a full working partner in Avraham’s covenant, he loses his way entirely.

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that where we come from does not have to define where we are going; we always have the choice.

We must not simplistically shirk our duties by blaming peer pressure and environments for our choices; as influential as defaults settings are, we can still choose to be different all the same.

The surest way to forfeit free will is to believe you have no choice.

One of the recurring themes in Yakov’s life is deception – both as perpetrator and victim.

Yakov opportunistically buys the birthright from Esau and tricks his father into giving him Esau’s blessings. This sets a course of events in emotion, wherein Yakov must flee to Lavan, who deceives Yakov by substituting Leah in place of Rachel, causing lifelong tension between their children; culminating in the brothers kidnapping and cover-up of Yosef; the effects of which Yakov describes at the end of his life:

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 – And Jacob said unto Pharaoh: ‘The days of the years of my sojournings are a hundred and thirty years; few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained unto the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their sojournings.’ (47:9)

It is simplistic to hand wave and whitewash away Yakov’s responsibility for the events of his life. R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch teaches us to acknowledge the flaws our heroes proudly, so what we can learn that perfection is elusive, but excellence is not.

It’s easy to say Yakov did nothing wrong, but the Torah suggests that he might have:

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)

The Zohar remarks that Esau’s tears caused thousands of years of suffering, and R’ Jonathan Sacks notes that the Torah narrates emotions sparingly. The inescapable conclusion is that Yakov should not have gone through with his mother’s scheme.

At the very least, there is moral ambiguity in Yakov’s actions, if not outright error.

As Yitzchak neared his deathbed, Rivka knew that her husband could not see what Esau truly was, so instructed Yakov to misappropriate Esau’s blessing:

וְיִתֶּן-לְךָ, הָאֱלֹהִים, מִטַּל הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּמִשְׁמַנֵּי הָאָרֶץ וְרֹב דָּגָן, וְתִירֹשׁ יַעַבְדוּךָ עַמִּים, וישתחו (וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ) לְךָ לְאֻמִּים – הֱוֵה גְבִיר לְאַחֶיךָ, וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְךָ בְּנֵי אִמֶּךָ; אֹרְרֶיךָ אָרוּר, וּמְבָרְכֶיךָ בָּרוּךְ – May God give you of the dews of heaven, and of 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)

R’ Jonathan Sacks sharply notes that this blessing for wealth and power is not the blessing of Avraham’s covenant, which is about family and land. Yishmael received a blessing for power and wealth, and Esau could too.

In the aftermath of Yakov and Rivka’s deception, Yakov flees, and his father blesses him, transparent with who he is 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 – 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 orchestrated by Rivka and carried out by Yakov was entirely unnecessary, and the strife and deception that characterizes Yakov life began with an honest misunderstanding of God’s blessing.

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 they meet again years later, Yakov had learned this lesson:

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 – בִּרְכָתִי – and bowing to Esau was a return and submission to Esau’s power; acknowledging the great wrongdoing of his youth. Instead of trying to usurp Esau’s position in the family and taking 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.

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 calls out its heroes when they make mistakes, as all humans do. R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that this is a key element of the Torah’s credibility as a teaching instrument.

The story of Yakov and Esau is a fascinating case study of family dynamics:

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

Despite their sons’ different natures and latent abilities, Yitzchak and Rivka nurtured and raised the boys together – וַיִּגְדְּלוּ, הַנְּעָרִים – yet seemed surprised that they turned out differently – וַיְהִי.

Rashi criticizes this blanket parenting technique, citing the proverb in Mishlei advising parents to educate each child in his way; so that when he matures, he will not veer from it –  חֲנֹךְ לַנַּעַר, עַלפִּי דַרְכּוֹגַּם כִּייַזְקִין, לֹאיָסוּר מִמֶּנָּה.

R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that the proverb advises parents to raise a child in “his” way, not “your” way – דַרְכּוֹ – and that the result will be not that he won’t veer from the way you taught him, but that he won’t veer from his own way – מִמֶּנָּה.

The Malbim remarks that different people need different things; and all people are different, regardless of the magnitude of difference.

R’ Hirsch notes that only at the end of his life could Yaakov recognize the diversity of his twelve sons, and blessed each of them with a personalized yet cohesive future – the scholars of Levi; the warrior-kings of Yehuda; the traders of Zevulun; cooperating as one united nation.

It was and is a mistake to raise Yakov and Eisav in the same way. Esav was one man to his father, and another to the world; but he could never be his authentic self to his father.  Every moment Yitzchak spent lecturing Esau was a moment Esau couldn’t be himself – the man of the world – אִישׁ יֹדֵעַ צַיִד, אִישׁ שָׂדֶה.

It is a truism that parents need to be on the same page, and it should be equally obvious that it is the unruly children that need the extra love, acceptance, and embrace.

Yitzchak and Rivka were not on the same page about how to raise Esau, which may be why she orchestrated the ruse for the blessings, to show how easily Yitzchak could be fooled.

It is entirely possible that the miscommunication and parenting mistakes between the parents generated 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.

If your child grows up and goes down a path that you don’t approve of, trying to impose change will only cause alienation. Parents and teachers must always remember that as much as the Torah wants us all to be good people, the recipe, ingredients, and quantities are different for each of us.

We should not teach our children to be just like us. If we teach people to find themselves; they will never be lost.

There is a famous philosophical problem called The Problem of Evil. We believe that God is omnipotent and omniscient, yet we see evil all around us. It’s not just for philosophers; it’s a question we all ask ourselves:

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 somehow actually good, or that God is simply beyond understanding. There is some merit to these and similar arguments, but they are impractical.

Anyone who claims to have “the” answer to almost any philosophical question is undoubtedly obnoxious, and is probably wrong. The nature of such things is that they either have no single resolution or no resolution at all. The best we can say 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 response to the question is how we live in reaction to the existence of the problem. We ought to respond in kind when we see something is wrong and try to make it better. While this does not directly address the question, remember the question has no answer; at best, it can only spur a practical response in us.

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 formed quite a clan. Despite all God’s promises, Avraham has had to fight for everything he has; yet his brother seems to get everything from life easily.

But Avraham does not complain that God has been unfair. Because sometimes we just need to get on with it.

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.

We read the story of the Akeida and the news that follows on Rosh HaShana. The story recalls the merit of our heroes, but also the struggles they faced in their day to day lives.

Sometimes it just isn’t fair, and sometimes there is no answer good enough. All we can do is respond in the way we choose to live; we just have to get on with it and do the right thing.

One of Judaism’s treasured traditions is entertaining guests. We praise altruism and aspire to emulate role models who practiced it, Avraham foremost among them.

As Avraham recovers from circumcision, the mark on his body that symbolizes his family’s covenant with God, he receives 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)

More remarkable still is that no sooner has God just begun Avraham, that Avraham interrupts his visitor to welcome more guests!

 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 Hashem, and asked that He wait. The Gemara learns from this episode that hospitality is even better than welcoming God.

This teaching might seem remarkable. How can something be more important than God?

The Maharal explains that when we welcome guests, we are embracing the image of God in other people. In which case, loving human and loving God aren’t so different.

The Malbim explains that it is precisely by loving others that demonstrates how much we love God, which is why hospitality is subordinate to welcoming God. Avraham calls the men his masters, and ask them not to leave – אֲדֹנָי, אִםנָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָאַלנָא תַעֲבֹר, מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ. But this is also a name of God,  implying the moment Avraham asked Hashem to wait!

R’ Jonathan Sacks this story, God is happy to wait, to teach us 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; we show our love of God in our interaction with other humans.

The epitome of what Judaism teaches us is that holiness is not some abstract thing that transcends the trifles of mundane living. It is precisely in our day to day lives that we can encounter and create holiness.

God Himself teaches us that nothing is holier than making space in your life and home for others, and we honor God most by honoring those on His image, humankind.

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

The Torah is part of the source code for our morality, so when God asks Avraham to murder his son, the Torah confronts the reader with a fundamental question – can God ask us to do something that is wrong?

The story concludes with a retraction of the instruction, and that God would never ask us to do something wrong. Hashem is amazed by Avraham, but rejects the notion that Avraham might actually kill his son in God’s name.

But how we unpack the message until that point matters too. The story only makes sense if Avraham’s dilemma was a clash between his commitment to God and commitment to life.

To be sure, there is a diverse range of legitimate interpretations within our tradition, but we should consider their relative reasonableness regarding the values they teach. The ramifications of what we teach our children are enormous, so it’s important to understand the story correctly.

If we state that instead of struggling to come to terms with an immoral instruction that clashed with his commitment to life; and that Avraham truly wished to sacrifice his son, or that he regretted not being able to, then Avraham is a very problematic role model.

Of course, this interpretation makes no sense in the broader context of the story and the Torah. The Torah condemns explicitly people who sacrifice their children and warns against it many times. If Avraham had no issue murdering his son; there was no test for him, and more importantly, he does not deserve our respect. Aside from poor morals, this teaches, the story makes numerous references to Avraham’s difficulty coming to terms with the command. The story only makes sense if Avraham’s dilemma was a clash between his commitment to God and commitment to life.

How we think about God’s instruction matters too. If we explain that up until the final moment, God meant it, then it destroys our conceptualization of morality, and people who kill in God’s name might be doing something that could be considered sacred!

But this makes no sense either. The entire moral of the story is that this God is different – this God doesn’t want human sacrifice! By stopping Avraham from forcing himself to do something terrible, God drives home the point that there is no glory in human or child sacrifice. The God of life is committed to life absolutely.

To be sure, there are different methods of interpretation; surface; symbolic; similar; and secret – know as PaRDeS – פְּשָׁט / רֶמֶז / דְּרַשׁ / סוֹד.

There is an even more outlandish interpretation; that not only did Avraham have the requisite intent to murder his son, but that he actually did, and then Yitzchak was resurrected. It is not for us to say that this view is not legitimate; it is. There are some extremely esoteric explanations of what that could mean, but we must never confuse the surface explanation with the secretive.

The surface level of the story only makes sense if Avraham didn’t want to kill his son, and God never meant it.

We lose a lot by saying otherwise.

The Torah emphasis repeatedly that Avraham had to force himself to go through the simple motions of the story –  וַיִּשְׁלַח אַבְרָהָם אֶתיָדוֹוַיִּקַּח אֶתהַמַּאֲכֶלֶת.

We believe that on some level, our righteous men have a predisposition to do not only the right thing but in a certain sense, what God wants – כָּל עַצְמוֹתַי תֹּאמַרְנָה.

The Malbim notes that Avraham had to force himself because his predisposition was facing a resistance he wasn’t familiar with because God didn’t want him to murder his son!

There are many ways to understand the story. But the story is very problematic if we entertain the possibility that God could ask us to ignore our moral instincts, and most problematic if we think we ever should.

When Avraham pleads for Sodom to be spared, he speculates that perhaps fifty righteous people would make the city worth saving.

Hashem agrees:

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 all the place for their sake.” (18:26)

The Ibn Ezra notes that the repetition of “in Sodom” and “in the city,” implies that these people are righteous in public – בְּתוֹךְ הָעִיר.

R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch teaches that righteous people 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.

This remarkable point teaches a tremendously portable lesson about Sodom’s destruction; Sodom was not doomed because of its evil, but because no one was willing to work for its salvation. If even 10 such people had been working with the public to improve the moral state of the community, the city might have been saved.

Nechama Leibowitz notes that Jeremiah mentions the same theme:

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 the streets of Jerusalem because they were too afraid to stand up for what they believed in publicly.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe said that our souls are candles God gives us to illuminate the world, like the Chanukah Menorah, which is ideally positioned by the front door or window, so that it lights up the inside of our homes, but 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 others out to help them find their own religious expression. The discomfort of swimming against the tide of popular culture is the sacrifice that validates how much we care about other people – if we abandon those who are wandering or lost, do we care about others at all?

R’ Mordechai Gifter taught that altruism is superior to empathy; because while empathy requires us to tune in to other people’s needs, whereas altruism requires positive outreach – Avraham had no-one to help, so he stood outside his home to find someone to 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.

A single candle can dispel a lot of darkness.

Philosophers debate the nature of altruism, the practice of being concerned with the welfare of others, and how self-interest can intersect with it.

Altruistically, Avraham is the first man to reach out to others about God’s ways; yet when God promises fame, family, and fortune, Avraham can hardly be considered selfless:

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 wants 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.

The conventional wisdom suggests that pure altruism requires one person to sacrifice for another with no personal benefit.

Yet in practice, we rightly admire people who create or contribute opportunities for our communities; and we don’t respect people who let others walk all over them, which amounts to lack of self-respect, not altruism.

Perhaps the difference between the two is motivation. When our motives are extrinsic, we end up manipulating our social environment and relationships and end up resentful when outcomes don’t turn out the way we hope.

As the famous saying in 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 for him.

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 – whether we win the deal, marry the person, or build the school, what happens then?

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; it is not an ingredient for 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 wasn’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 promoting our values; not other people’s approval.

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

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

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

What is the Jewish covenant?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Kedushas Levi notes that by necessity, God must form this space for us to have any input.

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

The symbolism of modifying our bodies as soon as we are born is a powerful visual metaphor we carry with us is that we can utilize and enhance our gifts and blessings to improve our world.

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

Abraham Lincoln famously said that any man can handle adversity; but if you wish to truly test a man’s character, give him power. Power and money are fungible, as both represent easy access to options.

It’s not unlikely that you know people whose zero-sum, all-or-nothing attitude became plain as day once they ”got ahead” after trying to hide it for a while; people who would forsake family, friends, respect, and integrity for a few more dollars reveal themselves when the opportunity arises.

People think that money and power corrupt, but more likely than the idea that it changes us, is the idea that it reveals our authentic selves by expressing our priorities.

Avraham and his family were blessed with tremendous wealth 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 in 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)

How do the Torah’s heroes handle the test of great wealth?

Upon Avraham’s return to Israel, the Torah makes it clear that his 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.

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 explains that people who can agree on principles can figure out a way to work together. Lot’s fortune had changed him, and Avraham’s had not. Avraham wanted to return to his roots, whereas Lot just wanted to accumulate more – there was no way for them to work together anymore. 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 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.

The Torah’s ideal is that good fortune will enhance good character, instead of unmasking mediocre priorities.

Avraham is called the Hebrew, meaning stranger. He is counter-cultural.

In his resistance to social trends and public opinion, he earns 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 brought him forth abroad, and said: ‘Look now toward heaven, and count the stars, if thou be able to count them’; and He said unto him: ‘So shall thy seed be.’

In his being different, God congruently treats him as of a different fate and can take him beyond the natural course of history – וַיּוֹצֵא אֹתוֹ הַחוּצָה.

What made Avraham different was that his belief in one God was that he expressed that belief by dedicating his life to kindness, justice, and education. On this basis, something remarkably unusual happens, and God has a soliloquy, where the Torah narrates God’s thoughts:

 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 remarkable incident takes place because God must tell Avraham; the implication is that if God did not tell Avraham, Avraham would wake up in the morning, and find two cities blown off the horizon, and, believing that innocent citizens of Sodom were swept away with the guilty, he would no longer able to teach that Hashem is just, which is how he 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 – that profanes You! Will the Judge of all the earth not act justly?” (18:25)

Hashem accepts Avraham’s premise that is unjust to punish collectively and destroy a whole group indiscriminately. Once God has shown Avraham that his principle is correct, Avraham negotiates how many innocents are worth saving:

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 we 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 destroys the city anyway, as God was going to, knowing that there were no innocents to save, aside from Lot and his family.

This 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.

R’ Jonathan Sacks explains that there is no answer to the question of injustice in the world, except that asking the question might cause us to live the response through our actions.

Avraham was loyal to God and committed to justice, but in this conversation, his loyalties were at odds. 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, which paradoxically validates Avraham’s loyalty to God. Thus, the story of Abraham testing God’s commitment to justice turns out to simultaneously be a story of God testing Abraham’s commitment to justice.

But he cannot teach what he does 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.

It is up to us as the bearers of Avraham’s legacy to stand up for what is right. Do not turn the other cheek when there is something that can be done to make it right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 the form of 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 the stories of our tradition are not about ordinary people like you and me; they are about perfect saints who were qualitatively different to us.

This is not a universally held position, and with good reason. If the stories are about holy people who are different to us, how can their stories relevantly guide our lives?

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that power of the Torah is that unlike other cultures, our heroes are not gods or demigods, they are mortal men. God is God, and humans are human.

God promised Avraham family, fame, and fortune; yet had to fight for them his whole life. When famine struck his new home in Israel, he decided that he could take better care of his family in the fertile land of Egypt. While this was an eminently reasonable decision to have made based on his assessment of the facts; he placed Sarah in a highly compromising situation that required divine intervention after she was taken by Paroh.

The Ramban criticizes Avraham for leaving Israel and not waiting for God’s promises; and by abandoning Israel, he risked the promises and endangered the family he was trying to protect.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that this very discussion is an essential feature of our rich heritage.

Our ancestors are the prototypes of what the ideal person looks like, but the Torah does not whitewash its heroes; they are still human.

Our role models cannot be idealized characters; because if they weren’t like us, they wouldn’t be relevant. 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 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 not born holy, and he did not possess some innate characteristic that gave him a holiness advantage.

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; it’s ok to be human.

The Maharitz Chajes notes that stories are the Torah’s medium for teaching us about morality because mature people understand that moral choices are often difficult, and rarely black and white. Only a story transmits the eternal turmoil of moral responsibility.

The Torah is replete with stories about how great people make mistakes. Perfection is ever-elusive, but greatness is not.

The perfect is the enemy of the good.

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.

When Eliezer set out to find a wife for Yitzchak, he devised very specific criteria. The right woman would not just look after him, but his whole entourage and animals as well.

The Midrash says that when Rivka went to draw water, the well rose towards her, saving her the effort.

Why was that not a good sign?

Rav Chaim Shmulevitz succinctly says that miracles don’t prove you’re a good person. What makes a good person are good deeds.

Rav Hirsch notes how in the conversation Rivka had with Eliezer, she said she would get him some water, and only once Eliezer had finished did she say that she would feed the camels as well.

Along similar lines, what you do says more about you than your words ever could. Rivka did not waste words promising about the good deeds she would do; she just did them! She helped him, and when he was done, she helped the rest. The story emphasises that her kindness was performed with haste – she ran in a hurry to quickly help.

Despite the fact that Eliezer was a stranger to Rivka, she treated him with incredible dignity, referring to him as “my lord,” even though Eliezer introduced himself as a slave.

The story showcases the characteristic of genuine chessed – loving-kindness. She would do, not talk. She showed extreme sensitivity to others. She treated ostensibly lower-class strangers with the dignity another human being deserves. This kind heart belonged in the house of Avraham.

It’s the kind of behaviour we would do well to emulate.

The Gemara in Kiddushin derives the halachic model of marriage from the transaction that took place between Avraham and Efron for the Mearas HaMachpela.

When students learn this, it is easy to misconstrue. How is getting married anything like buying a field?

Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that the analogy of the transaction takes place in a much wider context.

The land of Israel is indelibly woven into Jewish history and identity for eternity. This interaction was the first act, by the first Jew, on the land of Israel. The Mearas HaMachpela, and what Avraham went through to get it, is the first link in the eternal bond between the land of Israel and the Jewish people.

The Mearas HaMachpela was a double storeyed structure, and special in that it’s structure enabled our ancestors to be buried together privately as couples. Husband and wife, parent and child, remained together. The first act on the land of Israel was to secure the future of family ties.

The analogy to marriage makes far more sense in this context because it transcends a simple land transaction. 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 – most religions count Avraham as their precursor.

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi suggests a figurative approach. Perhaps כה יהיה זרעך means that just like Avraham would look heavenward and dream of something better, his children would be stargazers as well.

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.

The Sfas Emes finds this interaction, the first of it’s kind, instructive as to what it means to be a Jew.

There is no destination because to be a Jew is an ever-evolving mission. Being a good Jew calls for something different based on the scenario – a good Jew during the Inquisition does not look the same as a good Jew in New York today.

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 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 first prototype of the kind of person God wanted people to emulate.

One of the most beautiful parts of Tanach is God’s promise to never 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. Avraham was 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. God only spoke to him later on in his life.

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.

One of his greatest moments came when he was lame and exhausted, on a searing 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 how. He went out there and tried to make an impact. He tried to show other people the way to build a better world.

Maybe that’s what לך־לך means – a better world looks different to every generation. But the duty and commitment are the same.

To be a Jew is to be a tool of disruption.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What could you own better in your life?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the early phases of Moshe and Ahron’s mission, they were God’s agents to Paroh. But at some point, they had to become agents of the Jewish people as well. That is the point of the first mitzva – Rosh Chodesh, the New Moon.

Rav Hirsch teaches the deep symbolism that belies the mitzva, far beyond a calculation of the calendar dates.

Rosh Chodesh literally means “beginning of renewals”. There were signs and miracles to try and persuade the Egyptians, and there would be a perpetual sign for the Jewish people as well. Rosh Chodesh was to be the recurring sign that would call for ever fresh rejuvenation out of the night and darkness, immunising the people from the corruption they’d find themselves immersed in, from Egypt to everywhere else.

The procedure for calling it is human-centric – it requires multiple witnesses, and multiple judges to form a court. For simple declarations, one of each is enough, but more is required for cases concerning relationships. Rosh Chodesh is not an astronomical phenomenon; it is solely dependent on human criteria. It is the court as representatives of the Jewish people that decide when it is or is not Rosh Chodesh.

The Chagim are all based on when Rosh Chodesh is. Rosh Chodesh is called a מועד, which means a designated meeting time. The מועדים are designated times for a meeting between God and the Jewish people. The meeting is voluntary between both sides, which is the timing is only general, with latitude on our part; the meeting will be by mutual choice.

It is for this reason that this is the first mitzva communicated to the Jewish people as a whole; the mitzva that binds the relationship between the Jewish people, Moshe, and God.

The natural phenomena are not the reason. Rather, as each time the moon reunites with the sun, receiving new light, the Jewish people too can find their way back, no matter where they may be, or what darkness they find themselves in. The natural phenomena are the symbol.

One of the central themes of Purim is קִיְּמוּ וְקִבְּלוּ – the people upheld and accepted the holiday. Chazal expound that this went beyond the context of the story – the people did not just embrace the holiday, but they embraced the Torah in a whole new way.

What happened on Purim that had never happened before?

The Sfas Emes teaches that what the people did on Purim, unprecedented, is that they unilaterally recognised that they needed to do teshuva.

What had never happened before was until then, there was always an external driving force, typically in the form of a prophet, warning the people to be better. In the face of obvious danger, they took responsibility for their futures, with the knowledge that when we become closer aligned to the way we ought to be, things get better for us. It’s a choice we can all make.

Until then, people just believed that things would turn out alright, with the exception of the really bad stuff, like idol worship, murder, and adultery. On Purim, the Jewish people recognised the spectrum – there’s plenty of other ways to fall short! In fact, the Megila opens with Jewish participation at a party celebrating their own downfall!

The story concludes with לַיְּהוּדִים, הָיְתָה אוֹרָה וְשִׂמְחָה, וְשָׂשֹׂן, וִיקָר –  The Jews had light, gladness, joy and honour. אוֹרָה is understood to mean Torah, which feed into the novel interpretation of קִיְּמוּ וְקִבְּלוּ. But if אוֹרָה is Torah, why not just say Torah?

The Sfas Emes continues along the same vein. That for the first time, the people recognised the Torah as light, and tha Chagim are happy times. They could literally see the Torah in a new light!

At Sinai, there was no choice presented. Confronting and accepting the awesome reality of God, versus immediate doom is no choice at all. Prophets offering teshuva or doom is no choice at all.

Choosing it freely is massive. The heroes of the Megila do not act out of fear. They do not act in order to control outcomes. They just try their best, because being proactive is the right thing to do. And being proactive is a key motif of Purim, encompassing everything it celebrates.

The Mishkan and Beis HaMikdash are central points in our belief system. It is not for Hashem, who doesn’t need a particular location to be in our lives; he is everywhere.

The initial instruction says what it’s for. its for us וְעָשׂוּ לִי, מִקְדָּשׁ; וְשָׁכַנְתִּי, בְּתוֹכָם-  It is for us, and lets us know that He is with us.

Rav Hirsch teaches that וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם is about God’s proximity to prosperity in all areas; national and personal. Just as in the Shema, the scope of the Jewish mission transcends the sum of it’s parts. It is not enough to tick off the laws we follow, the plans we carry out, or the animals offered.

The Mikdash represents the dedication to the collective mission that we build, as individuals and as a nation, and the result of carving out a dedicated space is God’s closeness. It is a mutual covenant.

Finding God and goodness requires action from us. Beyond sacrifices and rituals, what is required is a home in our lives. The space we turn into a Mikdash is the one that God will see as His Mishkan.

The Ark had a cover, from which two golden Cherubim were drawn out from either end, from one solid sheet of metal. Their wings swept out, meeting over the middle, symbolically shielding the Torah below, while simultaneously bearing the yoke of Heaven above, and yet neither are visible, only the act of safeguarding and load bearing.

Rav Hirsch compares this to what it means to be Jewish. The Cherubim are a part of the cover. By keeping the Torah, the keeper becomes one of the Cherubim; keeping the Torah protects it, and he becomes the bearer of God’s mission to the world. This is וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם manifest.

The two Cherubim face each other –  by mutually recognising each other, they can safeguard the Torah.

Rav Hirsch teaches that pairs are essential to every aspect of the Ark. The Torah (Object) consists of two Tablets; the Ark (Container) was made of two materials – gold, which is resistant to everything, and cedar wood, which is strong and never stops growing; and the safeguarding, which consists of שומר, observing, and עושה, carrying out.

Like the Cherubim, these dual aspects come together to fulfill the mission. One of the Tablets concerned mitzvos towards God, and the other Tablet concerned mitzvos towards mankind. Neither can do without the other, and neither may lose sight of the other. Guarding each must be equal, fully embracing the other. This is in the form of two Cherubim, emerging from two ends of once protective cover.

The Cherubim are the image of a united Jewish people fulfilling the mandate of being God’s ambassadors in this world.

The motif of community is central to Jewish identity. Beyond that, it is central to humanity as well. The final chapter of the book of Shemos, Sefer HaGeula, concludes with Moshe’s address to the people. וַיַּקְהֵל – he gathers them together, in an expression of Kehila, community, to tell them about the centrality of two things. Shabbos, and service through the Mishkan; both of which are expressions of community.

Rabbi Sacks teaches that Shabbos created a moment in time for community, and the Mishkan, which morphed into the Beis HaMikdash, which has morphed in the Beis HaKneses, our shuls. At these points, community is fully expressed, and individuals unite. Judaism attaches immense significance to the individual, and every life is its own universe. Each one of us, all in God’s image, is different, and therefore unique and irreplaceable.

Yet the first time the words “not good” appear in the Torah are at the beginning of Creation, “It is not good for man to be alone”. Much of Judaism is about the shape and structure of our togetherness. It values the individual but does not endorse individualism.

Rav Hirsch notes that at the point community was established, and the Mishkan was fully operational, Moshe withdrew, his task complete:

וַיְכַס הֶעָנָן אֶת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וּכְבוֹד ה מָלֵא אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן. וְלֹא יָכֹל משֶׁה לָבוֹא אֶל אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד כִּי שָׁכַן עָלָיו הֶעָנָן וּכְבוֹד ה מָלֵא אֶת הַמִּשְׁכָּן – The cloud covered the Tent, and God’s glory filled the Mishkan. Moshe could no longer enter the Mishkan, because the cloud rested upon it, and God’s glory filled the Mishkan. (40:34,35)

Rav Hirsch further notes that this mirrors a much earlier foreshadowing:

וַיִּשְׁכֹּן כְּבוֹד ה עַל הַר סִינַי וַיְכַסֵּהוּ הֶעָנָן  – And God’s glory rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it… (24:16)

Moshe was the ultimate agent to carry out the epic mission he was assigned, and this was the conclusion to an important chapter in the Jewish story. When the task was given, it came with a lofty ideal:

וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם – The should make me a sanctuary; and I will dwell among them. (25:8)

This was a task given the community, and it was for the community to take up. Moshe showed them how, but now the community had to step in and take over. It wasn’t about him; it was about the community.

Before establishing the Mishkan, there wasn’t a way for people to interact with God in a substantial way. But now and for all time, Torah, mitzvos, and prayers had a framework; a lens to see them through. These are things demanded of the community, from within the community.

Appropriately, it is on this note that book of Shemos, The Book of Redemption, concludes. The transformation was complete. From Egypt, a band of ragtag slaves were now united with liberty, identity, and freedom to serve God as one nation together.

From Egypt, a band of ragtag slaves were now united with liberty, identity, and freedom to serve God as one community. One nation together.

After the Golden Calf incident, Moshe’s asked Hashem to aid his reconciliation efforts, and Hashem taught him the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy by which God governs the world.

This formula is considered one of the core elements of teshuva, which is why it is a focal point of many prayers surrounding Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur.

When Hashem taught them to Moshe that he would forgive freely, the Gemara cryptically allegorizes that Hashem wore a Tallis, as though leading a prayer service – שליח ציבור.

What is the point of the imagery of God as a prayer leader?

R’ Moshe Einstadter explains that the function of the prayer leader is to be the agent of the community represents those who don’t know how to join in – quite literally, שליח ציבור.

In order to participate, the people who don’t know what they are doing must depend on the people who do.

The leader can pray just fine on his own, yet since people need him, his prayers have an enhanced capacity that serves his audience’s needs.

We have the same relationship dynamic with God.

We all make mistakes. We are human, and we can’t help ourselves. We are fallible! The natural state of the universe is entropy, a tendency towards disorder and chaos.

The imagery Chazal offer proposes a powerful resolution.

To save us from our own frailty and fallibility, Hashem acts exactly like a שליח ציבור by granting us the gift of being able to make amends.

Judaism is all about how to live a meaningful good life, through the Torah. One of the most revolutionary concepts innovated by the Torah is that everyone is special and important, and not just a ruling elite.

Beyond this empowering belief, is that the door is never closed to people who lose their way. There is always room for the wayward to come back. No matter what they’ve done, people can find peace and redemption.

One of the absolute worst things a human can do is to take a life. Murder, which means to kill another, with intent, is so bad that the murderer is subject to capital punishment:

מַכֵּה אִישׁ וָמֵת מוֹת יוּמָת – One who strikes and kills a man, must absolutely be put to death. (21:13)

Yet someone who kills another inadvertently, manslaughter through negligence or some other tragic mistake, has a different remedy:

וַאֲשֶׁר לֹא צָדָה וְהָאֱלֹהִים אִנָּה לְיָדוֹ וְשַׂמְתִּי לְךָ מָקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יָנוּס שָׁמָּה – But if you didn’t stalk him, yet God brought it about by his hand, I will make a place for you to flee. (21:14)

The straightforward meaning of this cumbersome construction is that this killer must flee to a city of refuge.

Yet the words lend themselves to a deeper interpretation as well. The Arizal teaches that אִנָּה לְיָדוֹ וְשַׂמְתִּי לְךָ is the acronym of Elul, the month that culminates in the days of atonement. This law also contains an aspect of teshuva: the impetus to do teshuva at all.

R’ Moshe Einstadter beautifully reads this back into the words.

אִנָּה לְיָדוֹ – Something awful has happened. Running away is part of the process, but once the killer gets there, he must live with his conscience for the rest of his days. How can the guilty person live with himself?

וְשַׂמְתִּי לְךָ מָקוֹם – Hashem reassures us that there is nothing irredeemable; there remains a place for all of us. There is hope; there is a future.

Perhaps it is worth nothing that אִנָּה לְיָדוֹ is a matter of passive inaction, and the solution is one of action –
וְשַׂמְתִּי לְךָ. It takes real action to make a change.

But if we do, there is a place for all of us.

In the times of Korbanos, Sukkos meant the festivities of Simchas Beis HaShoeiva. People celebrate it’s memory today with ecstatic parties, with music, singing and dancing.

It’s origins are from the time of the daily Tamid sacrifice, which was brought with wine. On Sukkos, it would be accompanied by water as well, the Nisuch HaMayim, to mark the beginning of the rainy season and it’s prayers. The water was drawn from Shiloach, a nearby spring. Before that, the people would celebrate through the night, and the water would be drawn at daybreak for the morning sacrifice.

It is said that someone who didn’t see the festivities of Simchas Beis HaShoeiva never witness true celebration.

What was so special about this celebration, and what was the meaning of the practice?

The Midrash teaches that Simchas Beis HaShoeiva is related to Genesis. The lower waters would be distanced from God and the upper waters, from which land emerged. For this apparent indignity, the lower waters benefit from a covenant that they would take pride of place in the happiest service at the Beis HaMikdash, the Simchas Beis HaShoeiva.

The Midrash is idiosyncratically cryptic. But broadly, it speaks of a distance between God and another, and the longing for closeness, which is bridged once a year.

How much of a consolation is this really; does a one off ceremony compensate for a lifetime of distance?

The Sfas Emes frames the Midrash differently. The ceremony is not a compensation at all. The fact that it’s place is in the Beis HaMikdash, at the happiest moment, indicates that the indignity of the distance is a mistake of perception. If it belongs on the Mizbeach, there was no issue to start with. It is this insight that was worth celebrating wildly.

Sometimes there is a dissonance between the things we see and how we think they ought to be. Simchas Beis HaShoeiva bridges the gap. Even the things we least understand are sacred and meaningful.

On Yom Kippur, before the conclusion of the day, we read the story of Yonah, who is summoned by God to travel to Nineveh and warn its residents to repent of their sins or face divine wrath.

Instead, he boards a ship and runs away. Caught in a storm, he orders the terrified sailors to cast him overboard, and a giant fish swallows him. Three days later,  Yonah agrees to go to Nineveh, and the fish vomits him onto the shore. Yonah convinces the entire city of Nineveh to repent and regretting his mission, attempts to die in the desert. God grows a mysterious plant to shield him, then causes it to wither. When Yonah complains about the plant’s removal, God rebukes him.

What is this story’s particular relevance to the themes of the day?

R’ Jonathan Sack notes that the story tells us to recalibrate who we think is capable of teshuva. Pagan sailors could do teshuva, and even  Israel’s enemies could – the people of Nineveh.

When the input changes, the output changes – which is why repentance, prayer, and charity avert an evil decree. Yonah ran away specifically because he knew that God forgives when people listen.

God prefers mercy over justice, as Yonah himself says – כִּי יָדַעְתִּי, כִּי אַתָּה אֵל-חַנּוּן וְרַחוּם, אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם וְרַב-חֶסֶד, וְנִחָם עַל-הָרָעָה.

The nature of a warning prophecy is that it’s not supposed to come true. It is a call to action, warning against continuing in the current direction. A prophecy is a fork, showing the end of one road – a successful prophecy is one that doesn’t come true. The story is about hearing a call to action and taking it seriously.

Teshuva happens when we tune in and listen.

With just five words – עוֹד אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם, וְנִינְוֵה נֶהְפָּכֶת – he made an impact on the people of Nineveh that a lifetime of serving his own people had not. He knew what would happen if the people of Nineveh listened when the Jewish People would not – they would attack Israel, because the Jewish people had rejected the option of mercy, and would instead receive justice.

Yonah knew what would happen when Nineveh listened – God would forgive.

Depressed, Yonah went into the desert hoping to die, so God grew a plant overnight to shelter him; at which Yonah recovered, and rejoiced. The plant then died as quickly as it grew, and Yonah lamented his situation, and wanted to die again.

God then spoke to Yonah, and pointed out the egocentric solipsism of his selfish inability to understand a perspective other than his own:

אַתָּה חַסְתָּ עַל-הַקִּיקָיוֹן, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-עָמַלְתָּ בּוֹ וְלֹא גִדַּלְתּוֹ:  שֶׁבִּן-לַיְלָה הָיָה, וּבִן-לַיְלָה אָבָד: וַאֲנִי לֹא אָחוּס, עַל-נִינְוֵה הָעִיר הַגְּדוֹלָה–אֲשֶׁר יֶשׁ-בָּהּ הַרְבֵּה מִשְׁתֵּים-עֶשְׂרֵה רִבּוֹ אָדָם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדַע בֵּין-יְמִינוֹ לִשְׂמֹאלוֹ, וּבְהֵמָה, רַבָּה – You worry about a little plant, which you did not grow or cultivate, which came and went in a single night – should I not worry for the enormous city of Nineveh, home to 120,000 people who don’t know their right from their left, and all their animals? (4:10,11)

It is selfish and hypocritical to want mercy for ourselves but justice for our enemies. We cannot ask for forgiveness for ourselves, yet deny it to others.

With these provocative thoughts, we move into the crescendo of Yom Kippur’s finale.

It is the final opportunity to ask for mercy, not justice. For everyone, not just ourselves.

One of the most moving parts of the Yamim Noraim liturgy is u’Nesaneh Tokef.

It starts by setting the courtroom drama – כִּי הוּא נוֹרָא וְאָיֹם, וּבוֹ תִּנָּשֵׂא מַלְכוּתֶךָ – and tells us the the stakes are high – בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָּׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן, וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן, כַּמָּה יַעַבְרוּן, וְכַמָּה יִבָּרֵאוּן, מִי יִחְיֶה, וּמִי יָמוּת.

Yet the conclusion of the prayer is entirely incongruent with the beginning. We shout loudly:

וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה – But repentance, prayer, and charity avert the evil of the decree!

We believe there is hope and that nothing is set in stone.

Are we judged on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, or can we change it?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that the judgment of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is not exhaustively binding because we simply don’t believe in a rigid, preordained fate.

We cling on to the hope, that ultimately, we can influence and control our own destinies.

There is a very good reason we read the story of Jonah and Nineveh on Yom Kippur – Tanach is full of ominous prophecies that were averted when people decided to change.

More than we believe in fate, we believe in ourselves, and in our power to change.

Everyone has their own conception of what prayer is, and with good reason considering how personal it is.

While there are diverse philosophical schools of thought about precisely how prayer works and what it does, the Torah makes it emphatically clear that – at least on the surface level – when we pray, God listens.

What kind of prayers does God listen to?

The story of Yitzchak’s childhood recounts how Sarah saw Yishmael as a bad influence on Yitzchak and sent Yishmael and his mother Hagar away.

They eventually got lost in the desert and ran out of water, and Yishmael slowly dehydrated. No mother could bear to watch her child slowly die, and she cries in despair, looking at her hopeless situation, and prays – וַתִּשָּׂא אֶת-קֹלָהּ וַתֵּבְךְּ.

And Hagar had a vision of a nearby oasis and was able to save her son.

This probably seems to conform with a conventional understanding of prayer, yet the story does not credit her prayer as the reason Yishmael was saved:

וַיִּשְׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶת קוֹל הַנַּעַר וַיִּקְרָא מַלְאַךְ אֱלֹהִים אֶל הָגָר מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ מַה לָּךְ הָגָר אַל תִּירְאִי כִּי שָׁמַע אֱלֹהִים אֶל קוֹל הַנַּעַר בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם – God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called out to Hagar from heaven, and said to her: “Don’t worry, Hagar; God has heard the voice of the boy in his state.” (21:16)

The angel says that Hashem listened – but not to her. What moved Hashem was the voice of the dying boy – קוֹל הַנַּעַר.

The story never attributes an action to Yishmael; his suffering is entirely passive. Perhaps he cried or groaned in anguish, but whatever he did is not significant enough for the story to record as an action he took.

Yet that invisible moment of pain or sadness is what drives the story, and probably ought to shape our understanding of prayer.

The Midrash imagines that the angels didn’t want Hashem to save Yishmael because of the atrocities his descendants would commit.

But the Torah tells us that God sees the world differently. God judges circumstances as they are – בַּאֲשֶׁר הוּא שָׁם. The story of Yonah in Nineveh reaffirms this.

Our daily prayers affirm that Hashem is close to the people who call on Him truthfully – קרוב ה’ לכל קוראיו, לכל אשר יקראוהו באמת.

Hashem loves righteous prayers – הקדוש ברוך הוא מתאוה לתפילתן של צדיקים. R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that we specify righteous prayers, not prayers of the righteous – תפילת צדיקים / תפילתן של צדיקים.

Everyone is capable of a one-off, pure prayer.

The story of how Yishmael was saved teaches us that prayer isn’t confined to ritualized formal rote. Maybe that’s why we read this story on Rosh Hashana.

It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done; or whether you know how to pray or even understand the words.

Because Hagar’s “proper” prayers weren’t enough; just a single real moment of pain from a sad boy mattered a whole lot more.

Jews eat Matza because our ancestors left Egypt בחפזון – in a hurry, and we recall this by recreating the food that they couldn’t adequately prepare, leaving it in it’s simplest form. That it to say, the haste, the hurry, the speed, is a key element of one the main mitzvos of the Chag. The fact they left quickly is not incidental to their leaving at all; it is not just the way they gained their freedom, as seen in the way we remember the way they left. Why is there such focus with the way in which they left?

There is a character trait called Zrizus. Rav Hutner teaches that it is not just the speed with which a task is accomplished; that exists in every realm, good and bad equally. This is not an objectively “good” character trait in any way; it simply describes the intensity of the desire for a specific outcome, which in turn generates the alacrity and passion with which it is carried out. Yet it is ostensibly a key part to Jewish life.

We praise Hashem as ברוך אומר ועושה, ברוך עושה בראשית. Sometimes we refer to מעשה בראשית and sometimes just בראשית. The Vilna Gaon explains that מעשה בראשית refers to everything within creation; but this does not encompass everything. There is more that Hashem creates, which is not contained, per se, within creation. Time. מעשה בראשית appreciates the universe and all that is in it. But ברוך עושה בראשית refers specifically to the concept of time, a beginning. עושה בראשית. We express gratitude for the creation of time. For a beginning. For בראשית.

Time is important to all mitzvos, learnt from Matza. The Midrash teaches ושמרתם את המצות – “You shall guard the Matzot/Mitzvos” – ensure that they don’t become ruined by waiting; do it right away. The Midrash subtly indicates that speed is not just an extra credit to a mitzva. If the analogy is fully developed, any mitzva without the speed is ruined! Zrizus, the way we perform mitzvos, is a prerequisite. Why are mitzvos related to time at all?

The Midrash in Koheles allegorically teaches that when a poor peasant marries a noble princess, he will never be able to satisfy her, as she’ll always have better.

Our souls are the noble princess. Our souls do not interface with the mundane, common, physicality of life. Because it is not any of those things. Not mundane. Not common. Not physical. Not of life. It transcends all those things. Nothing of this earth can ever satisfy the needs of the soul. It speaks a different language.

The moment the Jews were selected to be God’s flag bearers, His ambassadors to show mankind a better way, they became connected to something that totally transcends all of creation. By connecting to the Creator, everything created became instantly mundane and beneath that connection. Not just מעשה בראשית. But even בראשית. Because time, too, is a creation.

No longer just beings who exist for a fixed amount of time. No longer actions with temporary magnitude. In that instant, בחפזון Jews became נצחי. Not simply forever, a lack of expiration date. Eternal. It is a fundamental change of essence; they transcend time. A change noticeable in every single frozen moment of existence.

They become this עם נצחי with their departure from Egypt. That transfer, that metamorphosis from beings existing within the system, to immortal souls operating on a plane above creation above time, had to happen בחפזון. Not just quickly. So much more than that. Ironically in that moment, they became above all moments.

Perhaps that is why the final plague happened כחצות, in a non-moment. In the space where נצחי, eternity, is forced to operate within the restricting confines of זמן, of time, the paradoxical result is חפזון. An expression of the attempt to transcend time.

R Shlomo Farhi explains that this reinforces the importance of the concept of Zrizus as a necessity, an absolute prerequisite without which the Mitzvah is left deficient. The lack of חפזון returns the Mitzvah, and ourselves to time and space. It becomes just another thing on the day’s activity list. Acting slowly is clips the wings of the Mitzvah, grounding it, limiting it, inhibiting it, stifling it.

Waiting during the food preparation generates Chametz. Chametz is food, but it wont feed or nourish us. It may be good enough for others; but to us, it is inedible.

This is the why so much of the Chag centres upon the very deliberate חפזון manner in which we left Egypt. It’s what we recall, and it is the platform from which we learn how important and meaningful that even the way we do things can truly matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We think of the Ten Commandments as a monumental national event. Yet the opening words, of the very first time Hashem spoke to humanity, were not addressed to a wider audience. The words used are deeply personal. אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹקֶיךָ – not plural, everyone’s, but singular, yours. This is a very personal God, establishing intimate contact with individuals; not just to Judaism in general and greater humanity at large.

And yet through Chazal, this is understood slightly differently. Rashi understands that in this divine communication, Hashem spoke through Moshe, and in a sense, to Moshe exclusively. This personal communication was to and through Moshe, and relayed to everyone else. The Midrash understands that this was personal to Moshe to the extent that in the aftermath of the Golden Calf, he could avert catastrophe by saying that the Jews had not betrayed אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹקֶיךָ, to the exclusion of idols, and that this was said to him alone. The personal God of Sinai was Moshe’s only!

So how are we supposed to understand the events at Sinai; can God be personal with humanity?

When Yisro is introduced to us, we learn how he heard what happened to Moshe and the people of Israel:

וַיִּשְׁמַע יִתְרוֹ כֹהֵן מִדְיָן חֹתֵן משֶׁה אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה אֱלֹהִים לְמשֶׁה וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵל עַמּוֹ – Yisro heard what God had done for Moshe, and Israel, his people… (18:1)

That is, the Torah sets up Moshe not just as the leader of the nation of Israel, but as a separate category, on par with the rest of his entire people combined. The Maharal deduces that in doing so, the Torah recognises Moshe’s status and achievement as someone who had transcended everyone else and could not be grouped together with anyone. He was in a class of his own.

As someone who had transcended Israel, his soulmate came from beyond Israel too. His role was to shape and form a nation of poor, ignorant, downtrodden slaves into the image of the divine on this planet. It could not be done from within; it necessarily had to come from beyond; in the form of Tziporah. Together, they crafted Israel’s destiny.

But how does a human transcend? No man was like Moshe, but what happened to him that he could do it? How can a human survive forty days and nights without any basic necessities the human body requires?

The Maharal notes that forty days thematically indicates a new aspect of creation. It takes forty days for a foetus to take shape, and it took forty days for the era of the Flood to transition, and the new world to emerge. Forty days on Sinai is a cryptic allusion to a new aspect awakened in Moshe. He was no longer Moshe, a human. He had become Moshe, the prophet.

He had become the mouthpiece for God to reveal Himself to mankind.

But far more than a loudspeaker, he was the divine interface. He was the spring from which we could drink God’s word and be nourished and grow. The Torah was imbued with his energy, and through him we too could transcend. He was on the wavelength to absorb the Torah, and it was channeled to us.

This is the true meaning of Moshe’s riposte to Hashem after the Golden Calf, that Sinai was Moshe’s personal God, and the people did not deserve to be wiped out. They could not receive the full power or scope of God’s word; only Moshe could. This is the “out” that Sinai in the singular provides. Rav Tzadok teaches that the personal God of Sinai is always there for us to reach out to, to aspire to. Criticallly, it is not a standard against which the people who could not rise to the challenge were held. Moshe’s role was to help everyone get there. They weren’t yet, but that was ok. The personal God of Sinai is always there, waiting for us. And we learnt that from Moshe.

This is why he plays a central part in God’s revelation to mankind. He was instrumental. Moshe was truly Rabbeinu – our teacher. He taught us how to interface and connect to the Torah – it was not just a repetition of what he’d been told. It is a living, breathing thing, and it is Moshe’s life that it was imbued with. Through him, Judaism and mankind learned that God wants a personal connection to us, if only we reach out.

As Avraham enters into the covenant, he circumcises himself in his old age. The first we learn of him afterwards, the first act by the first religious person, is that as he recuperated in the blazing heat, he looked for guests:

וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו ה בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא וְהוּא ישֵׁב פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל כְּחֹם הַיּוֹם. וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה שְׁלשָׁה אֲנָשִׁים נִצָּבִים עָלָיו וַיַּרְא וַיָּרָץ לִקְרָאתָם – God appeared to him in Mamre, while he was sitting at the door in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men approaching, and he ran towards them. (18:1-2)

They were no ordinary guests. It turns out that they were angels, on a mission, who anticipated the birth of Yitzchak. Avraham then has an encounter with God, in which God tells him a secret:

וַהֹ אָמָר הַמֲכַסֶּה אֲנִי מֵאַבְרָהָם אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי עֹשֶׂה. אַבְרָהָם הָיוֹ יִהְיֶה לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל וְעָצוּם וְנִבְרְכוּ בוֹ כֹּל גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ. כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת בָּנָיו וְאֶת בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהֹוָה לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט לְמַעַן הָבִיא יְהֹוָה עַל אַבְרָהָם אֵת אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר עָלָיו – God said, “Shall I hide what I am doing from Avraham? Avraham will be great, and through him, the world will be blessed. I know he instructs his children, and their children after them, to preserve the way of God; to do what is right and practice justice…” (18:17-19)

Yet Avraham is the last person who needs to be instructed to avoid the ways of Sdom! The setting of the conversation is that in his weakest moment, he actively looks for tired travellers to feed, bathe, and take care of – the anathema of Sdom. So why warn him if he was above it?

Rav Hirsch explains that parsing Hashem’s thoughts carefully, Hashem wasn’t concerned for Avraham at all.

Hashem shared His plan with Avraham because he was someone who would teach his family to do the right thing. The conversation stands forever, for בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, to draw a stark contrast.

An old, sick, haggard, and weary Avraham, at his lowest and worst, is the benchmark of humanity, compared to Sdom, a vibrant, wealthy and successful commercial hub.

Rav Hirsch emphasises how this contrast is the very first lesson we learn after Avraham circumcises himself, entering the covenant that could set him apart, did not. He was in Mamre, land belonging to his old friends and allies. Yet he was out looking for pagan idolators to entertain; there was no-one else he could expect! He gave his mysterious guests incredible luxury, freshly prepared.

That is the first encounter the world has with people of the covenant.

Avraham himself was overjoyed that people would not think he was strange or different. His relationship with greater mankind was only enhanced.

Our role model was not someone who hid away from the world to focus on spirituality and mystical holiness. He went out into the world, engaged with it, and made it better through his interactions. The descendants of Avraham are charged with being the most humane of men – to show a better way to be; with open hearts, and open hands.

Personally speaking, the Four Species is one of the most downright bizarre and mysterious mitzvos in our tradition. The underlying principle is not stated in the Torah, which concludes the instruction with the general theme of the Chag:

וּלְקַחְתֶּם לָכֶם בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן פְּרִי עֵץ הָדָר כַּפֹּת תְּמָרִים וַעֲנַף עֵץ עָבֹת וְעַרְבֵי נָחַל וּשְׂמַחְתֶּם לִפְנֵי ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם שִׁבְעַת יָמִים – On the first day, [take the Four Species]; and you should celebrate and rejoice before Hashem for seven days. (23:40)

There is no obvious reason or ethic for doing this, and you won’t find many who can explain it. What significance can saving the Arba Minim have for us?

One of precious few explanations given is that it represents different kinds of Jews. The esrog has a pleasant taste and a pleasant scent, and represents Jews who have knowledge of Torah as well as performance of mitzvah performance. The palm branch, which produces tasty fruit and is itself a food, but has no scent, represents Jews who have knowledge of Torah but are lacking in mitzvah performance. The hadas, the myrtle leaf, has a strong scent but no taste, represents Jews who perform mitzvot but little Torah knowledge. The arava, the willow, has neither taste nor scent, represents Jews who have no knowledge of Torah or mitzvos. We bring all these together to remind us that every one of these four kinds of Jews is important and has their place. And such is life; real community is only found when all types of people can be together. The mitzvah, and society, fails when any part is excluded.

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi notes there is a general principle of hidur mitva, which means that the attitude to any mitzvah should be such that the mitzvah is done in an elegant way. With the esrog, the prescription of the mitzvah is that the mitzvah must be elegant, beyond the general principle of hidur mitzvah. There are people who will spend days on end inspecting their esrog so that the shape and shine are perfect; and this is what the mitzvah actually requires!

Why is this the only mitzvah where we must go above and beyond to search for something perfect, just to fulfil the basic premise of the mitzvah?

Rabbi Farhi explains that the taste and scent allegory applies to ourselves too. There are parts of our practice that we love, understand and are good at, and parts that we don’t like, do, or understand; and everything in between. The part of Judaism that I love, understand, and am good at is something that is worth spending time on, and it should be the focal point. That is worth putting effort into, and being proud of. That is a real achievement. The search for the perfect esrog shows the value we should place on that part of ourselves.

The agricultural element cannot be forgotten either – Sukkos is the harvest festival. The Rambam notes that the Jews complained in the wilderness:

וְלָמָה הֶעֱלִיתֻנוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם לְהָבִיא אֹתָנוּ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם הָרָע הַזֶּה לֹא | מְקוֹם זֶרַע וּתְאֵנָה וְגֶפֶן וְרִמּוֹן וּמַיִם אַיִן לִשְׁתּוֹת – Why have we been taken from Egypt to this awful place, with nowhere to plant, not figs, or grapevines, or pomegranates; nor water to drink! (20:5)

In contradistinction to their ingratitude, taking the Arba Minim, abundant in the fruitful and productive Land of Israel, is a symbolic refutation of their attitude to the care God took of them, and expresses our own gratitude at all we are fortunate to have. The Arba Minim are waved either axis of three dimensional space, vertical, horizontal, and lateral, to signify our awareness that this is the space in which God operates, in a way the desert generation did not appreciate. The plants we take, which require water, are waved at the beginning of the rainy season, as we call on Hashem “Hosha na”, to aid us.

The Rambam’s observation is critical to unlocking what the Arba Minim are. The mitzvah is a rejection of the attitude of the wilderness, and we embrace our reliance on Hashem for all things through it.

The mitzvah of Sukka requires that for 7 days, a large part of living, particularly eating, takes place in a somewhat flimsy hut, with some plant material as the roof. The primary reason is stated in the Torah:

בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים כָּל הָאֶזְרָח בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל יֵשְׁבוּ בַּסֻּכֹּת. לְמַעַן יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֲנִי ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם – Every resident of Israel will sit in huts for 7 days; so that the generations will know that I had Israel live in huts when I took them out of Egypt. (23:42,43)

What specific import does this have to us, other than recalling an ancient memory?

Arguably, it is a natural progression from Yom Kippur. We profess multiple times on Yom Kippur that we did not act in private the way we did in public. Perhaps the Sukka brings the two into synthesis. The Sukka is closed, yet anyone outside can hear whatever happens within it’s walls; a Sukka is not private. Perhaps sitting in a Sukka is a commitment to acting in private more like we are in public.

The Rambam explains that the exposure to the elements reminds us of the miracles experienced in the wilderness, the stated reason in the Torah. At the beginning of nationhood, when our people’s history began, and before anything remarkable occurred, we were completely looked after – just like we are surrounded completely surrounded by the Sukka. God is good to us just because, without qualification. Sukka reminds us that we are each taken care of in our own, personal way.

The Chagim all have an agricultural element to them, which is somewhat anachronistic today – yet the themes remain relevant. Sukkos is the harvest festival, a time of celebration and plenty – a farmer would literally reap what he had sown, finally seeing the fruit of his labour. Rav Hirsch notes that in this time of achievement, we are to walk away, and remember that in a physically and spiritually barren wasteland, we were helpless, yet cared for nonetheless. We retreat from our comforts and securities to a greater or lesser degree. Sitting in a Sukka is a mitzvah of simplicity.

This was more obvious when everyone had to journey to Jerusalem as part of the mitzvah. They would have to leave wherever they were from, whatever their professions, and the roads would be packed with people doing the same thing. By getting there, away from their busy lives, sharing with people doing the same thing, there would be a strong and shared sense of common identity.

The simplicity of Sukka reminds us that we are each taken care of in our own, personal way, no matter the circumstance or whether we deserve it. This realisation ought to cause a deep sense of gratitude for all the goodness we experience, as well as feelings of modesty and humility. Thinking about all this may even get us to act more like it too!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if we don’t get it?

Moshe addresses this in his very next sentence:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the inauguration of the Mishkan, the princes of each tribe made a donation. The Torah records what each prince offered separately, despite being completely identical.

When the presentation was made, the twelve sets of gifts were delivered on six wagons:

וַיָּבִיאוּ אֶת קָרְבָּנָם לִפְנֵי ה שֵׁשׁ עֶגְלֹת צָב וּשְׁנֵי עָשָׂר בָּקָר עֲגָלָה עַל שְׁנֵי הַנְּשִׂאִים וְשׁוֹר לְאֶחָד וַיַּקְרִיבוּ אוֹתָם לִפְנֵי הַמִּשְׁכָּן – They brought their gifts before the Lord: six covered wagons and twelve oxen, a wagon for each two chieftains, and an ox for each one; they presented them in front of the Mishkan. (7:3)

The Sforno understands that the six wagons was a perfect act of achdus – understood to mean unity. This illustrates that each prince’s gift, while the same as the others in substance, retained individuality. Achdus cannot require an individual to be subsumed into a homogenous, uniform entity. This would entirely compromise the individual. It could not be that the way to accept another would be if they were just like you.

However, this begs the question; for the ultimate display of achdus, why not merge all the gifts into one wagon?

R’ Shlomo Farhi points out that something done as a display… is just a display! True achdus is not an ideological principle; it is a practical, grassroots, organic requirement. It is not institutional or societal; it is personal.

Simply put, an individual has to get on with another individual specifically! The example set by the princes is perfect.

Achus, true unity, means identifying and being one with that thing – not the display. You don’t truly care about something you’re not totally one with.

When things go bad and everyone prays together, no matter how intensely and authentically people care and pray, people are praying because everyone is getting together, and not for the thing itself.

Caring and achdus are not the same. You can really pray and care but that’s not achdus. It’s not achdus to support a sports team, just a deep caring.

Pure achdus means that I connect and relate to you because of you, exactly how you are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As the exodus reaches it’s climax, the Jews are cornered. They are on the beach among the reeds, Red Sea lying in front of them, with the cloud of the onrushing Egyptian army in the distance. Trapped, the people despair. Yet before Hashem’s talks to Moshe, Moshe knows how to fix the situation:

אַל-תִּירָאוּ–הִתְיַצְּבוּ וּרְאוּ אֶת-יְשׁוּעַת ה, אֲשֶׁר-יַעֲשֶׂה לָכֶם הַיּוֹם – “Do not be afraid! Stand and wait, and you’ll see God’s salvation…” (14:13)

How exactly did he know?

After they are saved, they sing the Song of the Sea. Curiously, Miriam leads a separate rendition of gratitude, and the Jewish women follow her. Curiously, because why was the Song of the Sea not enough? And curious, because the she is identified in a highly unusual way:

וַתִּקַּח מִרְיָם הַנְּבִיאָה אֲחוֹת אַהֲרֹן, אֶת-הַתֹּף–בְּיָדָהּ; וַתֵּצֶאןָ כָל-הַנָּשִׁים אַחֲרֶיהָ, בְּתֻפִּים וּבִמְחֹלֹת. וַתַּעַן לָהֶם, מִרְיָם … – Miriam the prophetess, sister of Aron, took an instrument in her hand, and led the women with instruments and dancing. And she sang to them… (15:21)

She needs no introduction; we know exactly who she is. The specific identifications, הַנְּבִיאָה – the prophetess, אֲחוֹת אַהֲרֹן – sister of Ahron, are odd. She was also sister to Moshe, and what of her capacity as a prophetess? וַתַּעַן לָהֶם means she was responding – but to what?

Sensitive to this, Rashi remarks that it was the prophecy she experienced when she was only Ahron’s sister; the prophecy of Moshe’s birth. In the buildup to his birth, foreseen by Paroh, he launched a campaign of infanticide agasint Jewish boys. The Midrash records how Amram and Yocheved, the Jewish leaders of the time, had separated, so as not to suffer this terrible fate. Miriam had this prophecy, and persuaded them by saying that they were worse than the decree itself, as they were preventing the birth of girls too.

When she fell pregnant, the Egyptian military kept tabs on her – but Moshe was born early. When he was born, the Torah describe his appearance as וַתֵּרֶא אֹתוֹ כִּי-טוֹב הוּא – which the Midrash says is the same כִּי-טוֹב as from the creation of light at the beginning of Creation – and the entire house lit up.

But in spite of such a sign – וְלֹא-יָכְלָה עוֹד, הַצְּפִינוֹ – she could not hide him any longer. After three more months, which would have been the full term, the Egyptians were looking for her, to see what she had given birth to. She had to abandon the child, prophesied about by her daughter. She placed the boy into a box, and placed him in the river. The Torah implies she could not bear to watch – and who could? What chances would one give a child in a box in a crocodile infested river, in the Egyptian heat, with the army looking for him no less:

וַתֵּתַצַּב אֲחֹתוֹ, מֵרָחֹק, לְדֵעָה, מַה-יֵּעָשֶׂה לוֹ – Miriam stood and waited from afar, to know what would be of him…(2:4)

The emphasis is on Miriam – Miriam stayed; when Yocheved would not. The thought process is very simple – she had not had a new prophecy, and she was but a child herself. But there is one pure, overarching thought that guides her:

“This cannot be how it ends..!”

And she is not wrong. The daughter of the Jew’s oppressors shows up, which would ordinarily be the absolute worst thing that could happen, but she displays compassion for the boy, and takes him in. The ultimate victory is clutched from the jaws of defeat itself.

Years later, Moshe knew what to tell the Jews, because it had happened before; it was the same story! One Jew and one Egyptian, among the reeds, by the water, hope fading; all the Jews and all the Egyptians, among the reeds, by the water, hope fading. It is the same. “This cannot be how it ends..!” He tells them that he has been in this exact situation before; so הִתְיַצְּבוּ וּרְאוּ – Just watch!

Now, so many years after her prophecy, Moshe has saved their people, and it is her celebration, more than theirs, because this is the conclusion of her prophecy.

It emerges why וַתַּעַן לָהֶם, מִרְיָם – it was her response, because it was her they were learning from.

They had to learn her faith – “This cannot be how it ends..!”.

Just watch.

Throughout the story of Egypt, we find that Paroh’s heart is hardened, after which he resisted overtures to release the Jews. How could Paroh have his free will compromised?

The question of Paroh’s free will is based on the presumption that Hashem hardened it – but this is not entirely accurate The Seforno explains that there are two verbs used in relation to Paroh – כבד, heaviness, and חזק, strength. Being described as חזק, strong, is not a bad thing by any stretch! A careful reading will show that – for the first seven plagues – all uses of כבד are in reference to Paroh acting in such a way. Where Hashem is acting directly, there is only חיזוק – Hashem gave him the strength to continue – but why

To understand what the story is truly about, ask yourself, what was the point of it all? To obliterate the Egyptians? Or to extract the Jews? Both events happened, but lots of other things happened too. Miracles are always as simple as possible, so why the extravagance of plagues that didn’t produce free Jews or defeated Egyptians? Why extend the Egyptian’s suffering

Hashem is very clear why, but 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 my hand over Egypt, and extract the Jews from among them. (7:17)

Hashem announces that this is about making something known. Consider that Hashem’s power to this point was entirely unknown. What miracles had been performed that more than ten people saw? People knew about the God of their fathers, but there had never been “outstretched hand” type miracles in history – yet. Egypt – and the world – would know soon enough

This is why Paroh needed the חיזוק – he could not release the Jews because of the beating Egypt was taking; he could not give in for the wrong reasons. He needed חיזוק as he grew to understand the nature of what he was up against.

But after the 7th plague, the task is seemingly complete; 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. Beseech Hashem, and bring an end to this fiery hail; I will release you, you will be here no more…” (9:27,28)

Egypt now knows, but the education is not complete. The subject changes subtly:

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 placed in 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. A generation of slaves could scarcely fathom what was taking place – see the troubles they gave Moshe even after all this – Hashem wanted to show His care to the Jews.

This is where stubbornness comes in. Once Paroh had conceded and submitted to God, he needed stubbornness to resist anew. This had nothing to do with his free will – Egypt’s understanding is not referred to again.

This is וּלְמַעַן תְּסַפֵּר בְּאָזְנֵי בִנְךָ וּבֶן-בִּנְךָ – for us to internalise how incredible the events were, how much Hashem did and does for us.

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

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

What is this Midrash about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Chagim are extensively detailed, earning their own books in the Gemara. All of them, except Chanuka.

The Midrash also states an opinion that when all the Jews are back in Israel, with a Third Temple, the Chagim may not be observed the way they are today – except Purim and Chanuka. What is Chanuka’s essential purpose, and why is it not clearly stated anywhere?

Rav Hutner explains that Chanuka and Purim were not direct interventions from God; they were events instigated by humans reaching out. At a time when tyranny sought to purge Judaism of what made it Jewish, a select few stood up to fight for spirituality and the oral Torah.

At its core, the Torah is what binds us to God, it is the place from where our commitment stems from. The nature of oral Torah is that largely unwritten. What is written is terse in style, and only a guideline for exploring larger topics. It is primarily learnt by word of mouth; it needs to be discussed to explore it fully. It reflects the underlying commitment – it is all-encompassing.

The Chanuka story was about a few people willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to show the value of the principle of commitment to God. People are needed to uphold the covenant, or there isn’t one. This is why Chanuka cannot have been fully explained. This explanation still does not do it justice; it cannot. It is the bigger picture of dedication that trumps everything.

The factual circumstances of the story reflect the spiritual circumstances; the little bit of unadulterated oil left was the few remaining unadulterated Jews. That so little oil lasted so long was the few Jews commitment being sufficient to reignite everyone else’s flame.

This is why Chanuka was the last of the Chagim to be established. With it, exile is not the end. No matter the odds, a handful of good people can turn it around in a heartbeat. Chazal say that Chanuka gave the powe to rescue light from darkness itself.

Darkness, and it’s corollary, forgetfulness, are setbacks that set the stage for comebacks. Torah, the instrument of our commitment, is practiced and studied, to develop and strengthen the relationship. All sincere discussion is Torah, even an incorrect opinion. Exile, the darkness of the unknown, can be faced with such an ability in our arsenal.

It speaks volumes that the Chag is called חנוכה, a derivative of the word חינוך, education. It is not called “Martyrdom”, or “Sacrifice”. Because it is about education. In a mechanical world, there can be a free choice of commitment. Note how the mitzva of Menora is always performed to its highest standard; no one does the basic mitzva of one candle per house – everyone lights progressively more. Excellence is the standard for such an important theme.

Chanuka was the final piece of the jigsaw that lets us choose to be resolute; able to withstand crushing circumstances.

There is a Midrash that holds that the regular Chagim as we know them will be modified, scaled back or otherwise abolished completely. The Midrash provides an analogy that it would be like a candle in the daytime to remember miracles in an era of miracles. The Midrash stipulates that the exceptions will be Chanuka and Purim.

This is disputed; but whether or not this will be the case, such an opinion in Chazal is worth analysis.

Something about the Jews relationship with God radically changed after the Purim story. Chazal understand that as daytime ends the nighttime, so did Esther end the age of miracles.

The analogy is not clear. Should it not then be that as night ends the day, the era of miracles ended with Esther? Do we not think that the exile we are in is analogous to darkness? Why then, is exile held to be the daytime?

R’ Yonasan Eibeshutz explains that the Chagim record how God directly interceded on the Jews’ behalf at a particular time. The Purim story, along with Chanuka, are exactly the opposite. There is no direct interference on God’s part whatsoever; only behind the scenes, invisibly conducting and orchestrating events.

Purim and Chanuka will be celebrated in the era of Redemption, long after the other Chagim are superseded, because they record how in the exile, we were never alone.

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that when you realise God is with you, always; you are never lost, alone, or in the dark, ever again. The analogy of “as the daytime ends the nighttime” is deliberate, because in the exile, we see that God is truly with us, illustrated most clearly by the Purim story. It set the tone for the entire exile, that no matter how it looked, God would be there for us, always.

Perhaps this is what is meant by King David, when he said ה׳ שומריך, ה׳ צלך על יד ימינך. ה׳ ישמור צאתך ובואך מעתה ועד עולם – God is your guardian; God is your shadow. Hashem will protect your arrivals and departures; now and always! (Tehilim 121). The chapter is about a dawning realisation that God has always been with you, as if your shadow, “shadowing” you everywhere you go, and have been.

Here’s the kicker. You see shadows in the daytime.

Eliezer was Avraham’s faithful attendant and steward. So trusted, that he was sent to find a suitable young woman for his master’s son and heir, Yitzchak. Avraham was a well established figure, presiding over a large community; having displayed his valour, skill, and bravery at war, in addition to his considerable generosity and integrity. Finding a match should have been straightforward, albeit a potentially drawn out process.

Yet Eliezer displays anxiety and worry throughout, and seems eager to complete the job as quickly as possible. He prays, as though the onus in entirely on him, as if Avraham and Yitzchak weren’t also concerned; his prayer consisted of a request that the intended girl present herself, rather than him searching for potential suitors as was his remit. But why was he so worried?

The Sochatchover teaches that when there is no pressure to succeed, a person can give up at the first sign of trouble. Every difficulty takes on epic proportions, and becomes “uncontrollable”. But if a person is challenged to succeed, he will persist and somehow manage against the odds. President Kennedy explained the goal of sending a man to the moon: “We choose to go to the moon… not because [it is] easy, but because [it is] hard, because that goal will serve to organise… the best of our energies and skills…” Working at easy things means never having to fail, but it also means never fully testing or exercising one’s potential. When a person is forced to work at something hard, he uncovers all kinds of hidden and latent ability that can make the impossible into the achievable.

Years later, when the disguised Yosef instructed his brothers to bring Binyamin before him, Yehuda went to Canaan, and told his father that he would take full responsibility and liability for him, no matter what. This included accidents beyond all control; Yehuda would still be liable. Why add such a condition?

If Yehudah was charged with being responsible for Binyamin “as best as he could”, he might not have stood up to Yosef because an “accident” absolved him. But when charged with returning Binyamin, no matter what, Yehudah knew he had to rise to the challenge. The added responsibility served to bring out the extra reserves of courage and perseverance that otherwise might have lain dormant and untapped.

The Shem MiShmuel explains that for similar reasons, Eliezer had a daughter of marriageable age. Every girl he met could be declined, and on his return, he could pass off his failure as beyond his control, and then suggestively note that his daughter was marriageable. Eliezer feared that his personal biases would disturb his focus.

R’ Chaim Brown notes that this explains Eliezer’s sense of urgency, and desire for certainty. Eliezer knew that when dismissing potential suitors, he would always doubt his motivations for doing so. Eliezer asked for the right girl to present herself to him immediately and asked for Hashem to remove any need for deliberation. He prioritised his mission so absolutely to the extent that we only find out about his daughter after he completes his task and Rivka has been selected. Ultimately, these efforts not only cleared his conscience; they left Lavan and Besuel with incontrovertible proof that Rivka was meant for Yitzchak.

Likewise, Yehudah took full responsibility for Binyamin to account for “uncontrollable” things.

The eyes can’t see anything if the mind is blind. Perception is so crucial to attitude, and by changing the way you think changes what you see. When adversity presents itself, consider that the gauntlet has been lain down, to provide the impetus to force more from you; and watch yourself rise to the challenge.

One of the highlights of most people’s Jewish calendar is the Rosh Hashana seder, at which we customarily eat foods we call Simanim – loosely, “Signals”.

Dipping the apple in the honey is the iconic classic, and every community has their own, be it beets; dates; leeks; pomegranates; pumpkins; beans; or even a whole lamb head.

What turns a quaint dish into a time-honored tradition is the small prayer that accompanies it, consisting of some sort of pun or wordplay: apples are sweet, so we wish each other a sweet year. Pomegranates are full of seeds, so we wish to be full of good deeds. The head is where the brain is, so we pray that we are the heads and not the tails.

You can even make up your own. Some French-speaking communities eat bananas – which sounds like “Bonne Année”, the French greeting for “Happy New Year”.

This all sounds like good fun, and possibly light-hearted.

Yet it is anything but that.

The Gemara states that Simanim are a legitimate thing – סימנא מלתא. History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes – our ancestors’ stories signal a possible future of ours – מעשה אבות סימן לבנים.

The Simanim on Rosh Hashana are not frivolous games.

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that the Simanim are supposed to make an impression, bringing our thoughts and aspirations into the world of action through this activity.

When Israel’s prophets would warn the Jews of impending exile, they would also have a visual cue symbolizing their approaching demise, offering an experience of the prophecy through actions, senses, and feelings rather than through the words of the prophet. Jeremiah wore a cattle yoke, signaling the burdens to come; Isaiah walked around nearly naked, signaling the people’s vulnerability and defenselessness; Ezekiel had to bake a bread substitute over manure, signalling the unclean foods the Jewish People would subsist on in exile. The action was not an eccentric restatement of the message; it was a key part of their duty to warn about the posible future,

The Simanim are indicators that initiate action, beginning the process of actualizing our hopes and dreams.

Breaking some of the common Simanim down shows the depth of their meaning.

For the apple and honey, staples at every Rosh Hashana table, the prayer we say is may the year ahead be good but also sweet. Because not everything sweet is good, and not everything good is sweet – תְּחַדֵּשׁ עָלֵינוּ שָׁנָה טוֹבָה וּמְתוּקָה

The word for “year” – שנה – shares a root with the words reiteration and change. The way to another year is through change – שינוי. Retracing steps, something new on top of something old, isn’t progress. A drawing that is erased still leaves the paper smudged. We don’t ask for another year, but a “new” year. The most incredible thing we can ask for is a fresh start and a new iteration – שתחדש.

Instead of bringing old baggage, we should realize the choice is ours.

Different communities differ on whether they eat a morsel from a fish head or lamb head, but the blessing is the same: may we be heads, not tails – שֶׁנִּהְיֶה לְרֹאשׁ וְלֹא לְזָנָב.

When looking at an animal, it may seem like they are essentially the same, just a body length apart.

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi suggests that actually, the tail can occupy the same space as the head, but it can never get to where the head is, because the head leads, and the tail just follows.

While we don’t get to control all circumstances, variables, and people that make up our lives; we do get to exercise our free will. All we really are is the sum of the choices we’ve ever made. While we can’t choose to be happy, healthy, or successful; we can choose to take steps those things more possible.

In other words, all we can choose is what we choose.

If choices define you, and you are a passenger to someone else’s choices, you are their tail.  Floating with the current is not the same as swimming.

Rav Shimshon Pinkus explained it as a wish for a year that is intentional – לראש; with constant course corrections going forward – שנהיה; because if your actions today are based on yesterday’s decisions, can end up being your own tail!

There is a reason that the Simanim are beloved in every Jewish home. They bring our hopes and dreams from the realm of thought into the sensory world we can touch and feel.

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

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

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

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

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

How can we mitigate that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When studying prayer, you’ll discover that Chazal use metaphors of “Gates” when discussing how prayer works. Anecdotally, the final prayer of Yom Kippur is called Neila – “Closing”. The gates of Heaven that open for Yom Kippur are closing, and we seize the opportunity to squeeze one final prayer in. The Gemara in Brachos says that the gates of prayer do not always stay open, but one does: the Gate of Tears. It never closes because crying is the potent form of prayer; it is invariably genuine and sincere.

But if it never closes, why is there a Gate at all? It’s just an open space!

Rabbi Moshe Sherer suggests that a Gate is required, because not all tears are equal. When Balak and Bilam schemed to entrap the Jews in immorality and licentiousness, they sent the young women of Midian into the Jewish camp to seduce the men, and there was not much resistance. Society collapsed, and this set off a plague. Right in the middle of the plague, with his brethren dying around him, one callous fellow, Zimri, also a senior member of Jewish government, was more brazen than anyone else:

וְהִנֵּה אִישׁ מִבְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בָּא, וַיַּקְרֵב אֶל-אֶחָיו אֶת-הַמִּדְיָנִית, לְעֵינֵי מֹשֶׁה, וּלְעֵינֵי כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְהֵמָּה בֹכִים, פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד. וַיַּרְא, פִּינְחָס בֶּן-אֶלְעָזָר, בֶּן-אַהֲרֹן, הַכֹּהֵן; וַיָּקָם מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה, וַיִּקַּח רֹמַח בְּיָדוֹ. וַיָּבֹא אַחַר אִישׁ-יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל-הַקֻּבָּה, וַיִּדְקֹר אֶת-שְׁנֵיהֶם–אֵת אִישׁ יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאֶת-הָאִשָּׁה אֶל-קֳבָתָהּ; וַתֵּעָצַר, הַמַּגֵּפָה, מֵעַל, בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל – A Jewish man approached, and paraded the Midianite woman before Moshe’s eyes, and before the eyes of all the people, and they were crying at the doors of the of the Mishkan. Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Ahron HaKohen saw this, and took up a spear… He approached the group and pierced the two of them… And the plague stopped. (25:6-8)

Clearly not all the Jews were involved. Unsure what to do, they went to Moshe and the then-holiest spot on the planet to cry and pray – וְהֵמָּה בֹכִים, פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד. These Jews who were strong enough to stand up the temptation of Midianite promiscuity; asked for help, and did not get it. The Torah clearly states that his assassination of the provocateurs stopped the plague, not their prayers. God attests to this by saying הֵשִׁיב אֶת-חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת-קִנְאָתִי – the Jews prayers are a non-factor, written off completely. Why weren’t their prayers answered, considering that tears are the most sincere form of prayer?

The Kotzker Rebbe says that the reason there is a “Gate” of Tears is because tears don’t work when it’s a time for action. They are crocodile tears – they are not “tears” at all. If circumstances call for action, being “religious” may not be enough.

When God created the universe, the life it contained was blessed. Yet the blessing was not given equally to all. The amphibians and birds were told one thing:

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

In contrast, mankind was told:

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

Both are blessed to be populous, yet man is given a personal instruction – וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם – spoken directly, and not just about them.

Rav Hirsch notes that nature serves God by its intrinsic existence. It cannot be otherwise because there is no deviation in how it relates to God; the laws of science and nature are fixed. Mankind however, is spoken to, and must choose to listen. Free will is the צלם אלוקים that distinguishes humanity from other creatures. Allowing instinct and nature to run wild is to surrender to the animal within, which is not the duty man is charged with; the charge is moral consciousness, and the freedom to choose to overcome the natural instinct:

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

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

Animals are simply called נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה – they are living things. But mankind is made of more – a blend of matter, fused with soul. With this equilibrium, man becomes truly “alive”. The word חַיָּה means alive, but it also means happy. The happiness is found in the balance. This is the instruction– וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם.

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

The body is the container of the soul. The soul has to operate the system, or it withers away. Our choices are what make us human. Are your choices wise?

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

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

In contrast, mankind was told:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The men selected to scout out the land of Israel were no ordinary men. They were chosen because they held stature among the nation – they were great people, yet they gravely erred. One of the reasons Chazal understand to have motivated their plot was that life in the desert was simple and beautiful. God did everything for them, and the people were exposed at all times to the Almighty.

They had the manna to eat, which would be sent based on worthiness and potentially taste of anything they desired. They had a wellspring that moved with the camp. They had Clouds of Glory which marked travel movements and shaded them from the harsh desert sun; and according to Midrash, flattened obstacles, cleared wild beasts, and possibly cleaned their clothing too.

The spies concluded that this was an ideal way of life and engineered a report that would get the people to clamour to stay in the wilderness.

The Sfas Emes notes that immediately afterward the story of the spies concludes, three mitzvos are revealed: separating challa, Tzitzis, and nesachim – wherein all sacrifices require additions from the mineral water 0, among them salt and spring water.

The Sfas Emes notes that the sin of the spies was that they presumed to instruct God how things ought to be. These specific mitzvos show the flaw in their argument. God did not want us to live in the desert indefinitely, eating miraculous manna, drinking from the miraculous well, under the miraculous Clouds – the training wheels have to come off eventually.

What man is independently capable of is elevating the mundane and material into spiritual . These mitzvos capture the concept.

The manna was the bread that God sent to their doorsteps. The mitzva of challa requires that when baking a loaf of bread, a small section is set aside to remind that God is the true provider. The entire loaf is called “challa”, although the mitzva only pertains to the small bit set aside. The bread that has been planted, grown, cultivated and processed becomes more.

The Clouds surrounded sheltered them and reminded them of God’s immanence and presence. Similarly, tzitzis ensconce and shroud a person – the stated aim is to remind the wearer of all mitzvos. Physical shelter and protection become more.

The wellspring that followed them around was how they drank. Similarly, the nesachim of minerals and spring water accompanied every sacrifice. The literal translation of Korban is to draw close – things mundane as minerals become more.

God does not want to give things to us for free, as this makes them cheap. The spies presumed to know that a life devoid of physicality was perfect, but these mitzvos serve indicate otherwise.

Mankind has the potential to elevate everything into something spiritual – with just a little direction.

Shavuos is very different to the other Chagim.

Each Chag celebrates something, but Shavuos does not explicitly recall a particular event; the Torah simply says that when the count from Pesach is complete, there is a Chag. There tends to be a specific thematic mitzva for each Chag, yet Shavuos has no such mitzva.

The Chagim require a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and each Jew who makes the journey must bring a sacrifice which can only be brought on the Chag. Yet Shavuos has a six-day window afterward in which people can still bring this offering. And unlike the other Chagim, the Jewish people had to prepare themsleves for three days before Sinai.

Shavuos is clearly different, but why?

The Chagim celebrate greatness and grandeur on God’s part. That He saved us; the He sheltered us; that He is particular in judgment; that He is benevolent in forgiveness. Shavuos is the exception, because it’s about us.

Moshe emphasised that people can never deserve God’s love, it is always a gift:

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

It is not possible to earn something in a framework in which everything is from God. Yet God loved them all the same. Just like winning the lottery, we celebrate our good fortune. This is עצרת – “stopping” – to take stock of the monumental moment.

The Torah calls Shavuos שבועותיכם – “your Shavuos”. The Torah does not call any other Chag “yours” – not סוכותיכם, nor פתחיכם. Shavuos is the Chag of the Jewish people. It is for us and about us. . There is no mitzva, because the Chag is marked by just being ourselves. There is no mitzva, as it would confine the expression of love to a particular thing. The relationship cannot be adequately expressed through a ritual act. We simply celebrate and enjoy ourselves.

However, there is a caveat. To internalise what the Chag entails, it cannot simply be an experience. It demands an integral preparation that the others don’t; the three days of preparation. The six-day window afterward is the Char carried over to an ordinary, everyday life.

Shavuos was not the day the Torah was given. That was on Yom Kippur, when Moshe came down the second time and told them they’d been forgiven. The Midrash says that Shavuos is when Moshe ascended, and was confronted by angels, who could not abide for the Torah to be given to man, or in their parlance, “one borne of a woman”, an epithet alluding to his mundane, material existence. But God told them all that the Torah was always meant for mankind.

The speciality of Shavuos celebrates physicality because that is precisely what elevates the human being. We are holy because we are human, and our choices and achievements can mean something.

The Kotzker said it best.

God has plenty of holy angels. What He is after is holy people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The soul always remains free.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbos HaGadol – “The Great Shabbos” – is an anniversary of a one off event. The Jews were automatically safe from the first nine plagues; but for the tenth they had to do something to be saved – two things, to be precise: circumcision and the Korban Pesach. Through these mitzvos they were saved, earning freedom as a result.

The Korban Pesach was to be set aside on the Shabbos a few days before they left, the tenth of Nissan. Shabbos HaGadol memorialises that event.

It is highly unusual to mark a day of the week, and not the calendar date of an event. Yet the Shabbos before Pesach is when we remember that the Pesach sacrifice was to be set aside, and not the tenth of Nissan. Why?

The Sfas Emes expounds how Shabbos is the transition between the previous week and the next. It is the culmination of what came before, and sets the tone of what is to come. Particularly with regard to redemption, Shabbos has trappings of eternity and liberation, with an eye to the conclusion of Creation. As such, the pending Exodus required a particular investment on the people’s part to earn redemption the coming week. It was Shabbos that the instruction was particular to, and the calendar date was incidental – this is why it is remembered on the Shabbos before Pesach. Shabbos sets the tone for redemption and Geula.

But why is it called Great – HaGadol?

The Sfas Emes teaches that the “greatness” refers to the Jews. The Jews had little or no merit; they kept their names, clothing and language, but had literally nothing else. By following the instruction to prepare for the mitzva of Korban Pesach, they matured as a nation, and became capable of greatness, and worthy of redemption. The surrender to God’s will and removal of other influences, particularly Paroh’s, made the nation “great”. They became big, or adult – HaGadol.

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that the separation of the sheep, a sacred animal in Egypt, was not just symbolic of their intent to eat it. It correlated to the second commandment – that there be no other false gods or entities, including Paroh. This was actually a prerequisite to the first commandment, that Hashem is God, exemplified by the Korban Pesach a few days later. They couldn’t just add Hashem to the pile; they had to make a clear distinction.

The Sfas Emes notes that setting the animal aside wasn’t even a real mitzva – it was never replicated later on in any commandments. It was a one-off instruction in Egypt. It is not a mitzva that we remember then. Instead, the we remember that the Jews took a very tentative, but very tangible first step. The Gemara gives an analogy that if a person makes an opening the size of the eye of a needle, God can then turn it into a grand ballroom. It is Shabbos HaGadol because all subsequent greatness stemmed from that first baby step, that seemed like so little.

Shabbos HaGadol also parallels Shabbos Shuva, only from a different perspective. Shabbos Shuva is Teshuva from Fear, and Shabbos HaGadol is Teshuva from Love – and love is stronger than fear. The nature of Shabbos HaGadol and Pesach after is that the relationship between God and His people is so strong that the redemption comes without deserving it – the same is true of Teshuva and prayer. This is precisely how they were pulled out if Egypt – they were given access to so much by doing something so small.

That first step forward makes all the difference. Take the initiative!

Two of the mitzvos particular to Purim are Mishloach Manos, and Matanos L’Evyonim – giving gifts to people, and distributing charity freely. The Sfas Emes explains that the function of these mitzvos as they relate to Purim is that they increase unity and brotherhood.

Unity is the anathema of Amalek, who Haman was descended of. His complaint to Achashverosh:

יֶשְׁנוֹ עַם אֶחָד מְפֻזָּר וּמְפֹרָד בֵּין הָעַמִּים בְּכֹל מְדִינוֹת מַלְכוּתֶךָ וְדָתֵיהֶם שֹׁנוֹת מִכָּל עָם – There is one nation, scattered and dispersed among all the regions of your kingdom, and they are different from everyone else. (3:8)

Even in exile, Jews must maintain identity, and resist assimilation. Haman points out their refusal to integrate, they remain עַם אֶחָד – one nation; this in spite of how the Purim story begins with the Jews attending Achashverosh’s party celebrating their own downfall with the parading of the sacked Temple’s artefacts. The Jews lost their identity and it paved the way for Haman’s nefarious plans to destroy them all – the moment they let their guard down.

The resolution came at the hand of Mordechai and Esther. She tells him to unite the people and impress on them the severity of their futures:

כְּנוֹס אֶת כָּל הַיְּהוּדִים הַנִּמְצְאִים בְּשׁוּשָׁן וְצוּמוּ עָלַי וְאַל תֹּאכְלוּ וְאַל תִּשְׁתּוּ שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים לַיְלָה וָיוֹם – Gather all the Jews in Shushan. Fast for me; don’t eat or drink for three days and nights. (4:16)

The threat is faced when they gather once more, when the Megila tells us that וְעָמֹד עַל נַפְשָׁם – it does not say ועמדו in the plural, that they stood for their lives, but in the singular. Their national identity had discovered. The Jewish nation had united and defended itself from attack.

It is famously expounded in Chazal that Purim also celebrates קימו מה שקיבלו כבר – the Jews had no choice to accept the Torah at Sinai, but after Purim they accepted the Torah afresh, voluntarily. A prerequisite to the Torah is unity; ויחן שם נגד ההר – The nation camped by the mountain, in the singular – not ויחנו – like one man with one heart. The Sfas Emes teaches that וְעָמֹד עַל נַפְשָׁם is directly parallel to ויחן שם נגד ההר.

Unity is fortified with acts of ואהבת לרעך כמוך – loving ones fellow as oneself. If people identify with the nation, they have a very direct connection to the Torah and Sinai. It is quite reasonable to suggest that due to this, it is taught that זה כלל גדול בתורה.

The Gemara says that Mordechai is identified as an איש יהודי. It asks that he was not from Yehuda, but from Binyamin, and answers that we do not read it יהודי, but יחידי – from the root אחד. He brought unity and identity back to Jews who had lost it, cementing their faith, culminating in a new acceptance of the Torah. All mitzvos of the day will reflect unity and friendship to some degree.

The way to fight Amalek is a constant quest for unity and understanding our identity, and the closer we get, the nearer we get ultimate truth and redemption.