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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.