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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The concept of chosenness is widely known, yet widely misunderstood. It has been held up by some people as a sign of superiority, and by some of our enemies as a superiority complex.

As Rabbi Sacks put it, Judaism embodies a unique paradox in that it honors both the universality of the human condition and the particularity of Jewish faith. We believe that God is a universal creator who creates humanity in the image of God; yet also has a covenant with a particular chosen people.

This tension between universal and particular has caused issues between the Jewish People and others, and within Judaism itself:

הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה, ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מְצַוְּךָ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת-הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה–וְאֶת-הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים; וְשָׁמַרְתָּ וְעָשִׂיתָ אוֹתָם, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשֶׁךָ. אֶת-ה הֶאֱמַרְתָּ, הַיּוֹם: לִהְיוֹת לְךָ לֵאלֹהִים וְלָלֶכֶת בִּדְרָכָיו, וְלִשְׁמֹר חֻקָּיו וּמִצְו‍ֹתָיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו–וְלִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקֹלוֹ. וַה הֶאֱמִירְךָ הַיּוֹם, לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה, כַּאֲשֶׁר, דִּבֶּר-לָךְ; וְלִשְׁמֹר, כָּל-מִצְו‍ֹתָיו. וּלְתִתְּךָ עֶלְיוֹן, עַל כָּל-הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, לִתְהִלָּה, וּלְשֵׁם וּלְתִפְאָרֶת; וְלִהְיֹתְךָ עַם-קָדֹשׁ לה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֵּר – Today, Hashem your God commands you to perform these laws and statutes; to guard and keep them – with all your heart and soul. Regarding Hashem you have said today, that He will be a God to you; that you will walk in his ways, to keep his laws and statutes; and listen to His voice. Hashem has said of you this day, for you to be a Chosen People for Him, as He has said to you; and you will keep His mitzvos. And He will place you supreme, above all the nations He made; for praise, honor, and glory, that you would be a holy nation dedicated to Him, as was said. (26:16-19)

What does it mean to be “chosen”?

Rabbeinu Bachye teaches that being “chosen” is not a genetic status; it is an achievement that we each must earn.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch sharply notes that what the Torah literally says is that we become chosen on the day we observe the Torah and uphold its laws and ideals – הַיּוֹם: לִהְיוֹת לְךָ לֵאלֹהִים וְלָלֶכֶת בִּדְרָכָיו, וְלִשְׁמֹר חֻקָּיו וּמִצְו‍ֹתָיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו–וְלִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקֹלוֹ. וַה הֶאֱמִירְךָ הַיּוֹם, לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה.

Being chosen does not mean an intrinsic superiority, because there can be no intrinsic superiority when everyone is created in God’s image.

The only difference there can be between one human and another is the choices we make.

When our actions embody ethics and morality, we become a moral beacon for others to aspire to emulate, or put differently, “a light unto the nations” – עֶלְיוֹן, עַל כָּל-הַגּוֹיִם.

Improving ourselves, (and thereby, the world,) through our actions – is a consistent undercurrent of many fundamental concepts in the Torah. When a theme is recursive, it’s hard to deny.

Being chosen does not mean special privileges and free license; it means extra scrutiny on our obligations and responsibilities towards God and each other.

The Torah assures us that perfection of the world comes through the perfection of ourselves. With a little more humility, kindness and gratitude; and a little less materialism, your world will change.

We become chosen when we choose to live good lives.

At the end of Creation, before the first Shabbos begins, the concluding overview summarizes how all the component parts came together:

וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, וְהִנֵּה-טוֹב מְאֹד; וַיְהִי-עֶרֶב וַיְהִי-בֹקֶר, יוֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁי – And God saw all that He had done, and it was very good. With an evening and a morning, the sixth day. (1:31)

The Ramban notes how כָּל-אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה includes the  unpleasant aspects of creation which are nonetheless labeled טוֹב מְאֹד – excellent. With a greater perspective, everything turns out for the best.

The Netziv further adds that this was not just true of that individual moment. Within that moment, all potential and future moments were dormant, and all that latent potential was excellent as well.

Rabeinu Bachye notes how at the conclusion of every other day, the Torah describes it as כי טוב – it was “good”. But on the final day, where all the different aspects of existence had been formed and came together, it became something else; טוֹב מְאֹד – “excellent”. The creation itself was truly greater than sum of its parts; like a sophisticated machine, all the various levers, gears and cogs came together to become something utterly incredible.

The Kli Yakar points out the contrast between the first five days of כי טוב, and the conclusion of events called וְהִנֵּה טוֹב מְאֹד. The Kli Yakar explains that כי is a term of clarification. It indicates a deliberation weighing towards טוב. But when everything comes together, it is unqualified – וְהִנֵּה טוֹב מְאֹד – it is clearly and absolutely good.

The Sforno explains that the conclusion of creation achieved an equilibrium; existence was literally “at rest” – precisely the definition of Shabbos. With the acceptance and absorption of the imperfections in the world, the Torah was in balance. The Torah calls this טוֹב מְאֹד.

Existence was whole, complete and in balance. On such a sixth day – הַשִּׁשִּׁי – “the” perfect sixth day, Shabbos can finally commence.

Perfection is seeing that there are countless components to the sophisticated machine that is life, some of which are tough, but all of which, together, make it work. It just takes a little perspective.

Hashem’s very first communication with Avraham is the immense challenge to abandon all he grew up with:

לך לך מארצך וממולדתך ומבית אביך אל הארץ אשר אראך – “Go for yourself, from your land, your birthplace, and the house of your father, to the land which I will show you”. (12:1)

The sequence of departure is counter-intuitive. First, you leave your home, then the neighborhood, and only then the country. Why does the story focuses on where is to leave, rather than where he is to go, and in a strange order? The Nesivos Shalom explains that Hashem’s actual command to Avraham was that he discard the negative characteristics endemic to these places. Our environment is instrumental to our development as human beings. The more familiar the environment, the greater the effect it can have.

The Nesivos Shalom explains that the essence of the command was to discard the negative influences he was exposed to in these environments. He was going somewhere new, to become something new. Old ideologies would have no place in this new vision.

The circles of our environments are central to our development. The closer the circle, the greater the effect of exposure.

The home environment is more influential than a neighbourhood, which itself is more influential than a country. The easiest to discard is the place. It’s harder to transcend where you come from. And it’s hardest to forget what you learnt from home.

The Sfas Emes explains that a mark of great people is to actively seek challenges and opportunities that test their qualities. Avram was the first person to intuitively understand the vision of moral consciousness humanity could exhibit. But he’d have to show it, and that couldn’t happen in the stagnant place he grew up.

Who and what we surround ourselves with have a key influence on our development. We need to actively make sure that they are good influences.

The  Flood narrative is complex. Human society had populated the world, and initially fulfilled its mission, until they lost their way, and degenerated to a point where things needed to start over.

What went wrong?

The Torah emphasizes Noach’s role as a partner with all living things:

צֵא, מִן-הַתֵּבָה–אַתָּה… כָּל-הַחַיָּה אֲשֶׁר-אִתְּךָ מִכָּל-בָּשָׂר, בָּעוֹף וּבַבְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל-הָרֶמֶשׂ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל-הָאָרֶץ–הוצא (הַיְצֵא) אִתָּךְ; וְשָׁרְצוּ בָאָרֶץ, וּפָרוּ וְרָבוּ עַל-הָאָרֶץ – Leave the Ark; you… and every creature with you. Every creature, bird, animal and insect that creeps on the earth, should leave with you. They will multiply and infest the earth. (8:16-17)

The Malbim explains that the partnership aspect was beyond the fact their survival was due to the fact they were physically with him.

Humans are created with the gift of free will. When Adam and Eve, as the only people in the world, corrupted their moral freedom, the consequences were dire, and the same almost happened once again; an entire generation collectively squandered their moral consciousness, defeating the purpose of their creation. The moral fabric of the world disintegrated to a point where the Torah  states that all hope was lost:

כִּי-הִשְׁחִית כָּל-בָּשָׂר אֶת-דַּרְכּוֹ, עַל-הָאָרֶץ – that every living creature had lost its way… (6:12)

Noach reclaimed and preserved decency, and “humanity” – in the true sense of the word, by exerting his moral freedom for honesty and goodness. As the sole creature not to lose his way, existence could linger on exclusively for his sake. The entire planet owed him a life debt, and this is the partnership the Torah refers to:

צֵא, מִן-הַתֵּבָה–אַתָּה… כָּל-הַחַיָּה אֲשֶׁר-אִתְּךָ מִכָּל-בָּשָׂר, בָּעוֹף וּבַבְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל-הָרֶמֶשׂ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל-הָאָרֶץ–הוצא (הַיְצֵא) אִתָּךְ; וְשָׁרְצוּ בָאָרֶץ, וּפָרוּ וְרָבוּ עַל-הָאָרֶץ – Leave the Ark – you… Every living creature with you. Every creature, bird, animal and insect that creeps on the earth, should leave with you, and they will multiply and infest the earth. (8:16-17)

Nature literally survived  through him – אִתְּךָ. It therefore follows that after this event, humanity is permitted to consume meat for the very first time.

By rising above a failing world, Noach set humanity aside as being the noblest of all creatures.

As Moshe prepares for the end of his life, he tells the Jewish people to have no fear, and that God would look after them:

ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ, הוּא-יַשְׁמִיד אֶת-הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה – “Hashem, your God; He will cross you over, He will destroy your enemies before you.” (31:3)

Instead of saying “God will cross you over and destroy your enemies,” Moshe adds extra emphasis that “God, He” will do it – הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ, הוּא-יַשְׁמִיד אֶת-הַגּוֹיִם.

What was Moshe adding?

The Ohr HaChaim explains that Moshe was speaking to people who were afraid to lose Moshe.

Moshe had rescued the Jewish People numerous times, even when they were at fault. After instigating the Golden Calf, a plague struck them that only Moshe’s prayer could stop. Who would save them from peril if not Moshe?

The few wars and skirmishes they’d fought were all won under Moshe’s command. Facing a campaign of conquest in Israel, who would lead them into battle?

Moshe recognized that people idolized him, figuratively and perhaps literally, and told them that they were misplacing their trust. It had never been about him. They had mistaken the agent for the principal.

It had been God all along.

Looking over the theatre of getting angry and sending a plague; God had wanted Moshe to pray; had planted the idea; taught him the words, and fundamentally, wants to forgive. That’s what God’s essence is, and Moshe evoked imagery of the same word used to describe God’s characteristic of forgiveness – עובר על פשע / הוּא עֹבֵר לְפָנֶיךָ.

It had never been Moshe winning the wars – God had been orchestrating events and would continue – הוּא-יַשְׁמִיד אֶת-הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה.

The Seforno explains quite simply, Moshe was telling his audience that the medium was not the message, and that that he was just a vehicle for God’s plans.

R’ Tzadok HaCohen notes how Moshe’s entire speech is addressed to “you” – the second person singular – because the message echoes through the ages.

Each of us has equal and direct access to God. We do not believe in intermediaries, however special they are.

Teachers and guides are critically important influences – עֲשֵׂה לְךָ רַב.

But outsourcing our faculties to a proxy is something else entirely.

Rain is a powerful symbol in the covenantal relationship between God and the Jewish people. Unlike Egypt, where the water comes up from one’s feet, Israel is a land where people must look to the heavens for rain. As a vital component of all organic matter, it symbolizes life itself.

The single time that the Kohen Gadol would enter the inner part of the Beis HaMikdash was on Yom Kippur to perform the Ketores service and say a single prayer. That prayer – the only prayer ever said at Judaism’s holiest site – requested that God ignore the prayers of travelers who hoped it wouldn’t rain.

The laws of sacrifices contain an interesting directive about the fire that had to burn in all weather conditions, even in the rain:

אֵשׁ תָּמִיד תּוּקַד עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ לֹא תִכְבֶּה – Burn a perpetual flame on the altar that never goes out… (6:6)

On its face, this instructs the attending Kohanim to consistently stoke and fuel the fire. But what would they do when it rained?

The Mishna in Avos says that a miracle aided their task, and the rain would not extinguish the fire – עשרה ניסים נעשו בבית המקדש … ולא כבו הגשמים את עצי המערכה.

What’s interesting is that Chazal understood the divine assistance as rain that wouldn’t put the fire out, as opposed to no rain at all. The Kohanim would still have to work the fire in adverse weather conditions, but God would make sure their efforts were successful.

R’ Chaim Volozhin powerfully suggests that while we don’t control our circumstances, we do influence our trajectory from there.

R’ Joseph B Soloveitchik teaches that it is our duty to broaden the scope and strengthen the intensity of our individual providence because everything is contingent on the effort we put in – השתדלות.

The fire wasn’t “magic” and it couldn’t burn on its own. It required the constant care and support of round the clock shifts year-round.

The miracle comes once we’ve exhausted our efforts.

We must not shirk the crucial role perseverance and perspiration play in solving our problems.

This eternal flame, perpetuated by sheer human determination, was the source of all the fires the year-round services required, including the Menorah, symbolizing the Torah’s as the world’s beacon; and the Ketores, the highpoint of the Yom Kippur services when the Kohen Gadol said his prayer for the rain.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch simply but powerfully teaches that the special moments of our personal and religious lives are only fuelled by the grit and consistency of our daily grind.

In the same way that Chazal understood the miracle of the eternal flame, the Kohen Gadol’s prayer on Yom Kippur is about the immaturity of a fair weather traveler, who does not understand that not only will it rain; it must.

Like a heartbeat, life itself has ebbs and flows, and we have to do all we can to make sure the blessing has a place to land.

Ask not for a lighter burden, but broader shoulders.

Throughout the sections detailing the construction and establishment of the Mishkan, the Torah repeatedly uses the phrase “כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה’ אֶת מֹשֶׁה” or variants. It would seem obvious that the construction of the Mishkan would take place as instructed – it’s not as though competing architects and interior designers had to pitch different ideas and blueprints. Why emphasise that they did what they were supposed to?

There is a prevalent view that holds that the Mishkan was only required to fix the problems created at the Golden Calf. The Beis Halevi explains that what caused the sin was the people’s own ideas about how best to serve Hashem, and this led them to the conclusion that they drew about how to serve God. By accepting God’s total authority, and marginalizing their own beliefs in order to complete the Mishkan, the Torah sees fit to emphasise “כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה’ אֶת מֹשֶׁה” – that was the actual point of getting them to build it.

The Ohr HaChayim elaborates that there were three components in forming the Golden Calf which required rectification – the idea of not believing in God or Moshe wholeheartedly; the speech to Ahron to find alternative forms of spirituality; and the donation and subsequent casting of material into the form it took. But when describing the Mishkan’s construction, the Torah merely states that they did as commanded – along with other such verbs referring to action. Where are the reparations for thought and speech reflected?

The chief architect and foreman of the Mishkan was Bezalel – to whom Chazal ascribe the ability to see the components of all things to the smallest possible detail. He truly understood the plans of the Mishkan, and they made sense to him. But he did not perform the tasks because he understood them. He did it because Hashem told Moshe. This counteracted their heretical intentions and thoughts.

The significance of Parshas Shekalim is that every individual had to make a personal contribution to the Mishkan fund. In so doing, they bought a stake in the project, undoing their donations and pressure to form the Golden Calf.

To initiate the actual construction, Moshe was not simply told to have the Mishkan built:

וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. בְּיוֹם הַחֹדֶשׁ הָרִאשׁוֹן בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ תָּקִים אֶת מִשְׁכַּן אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד – Hashem said to Moshe, to say: “On the day of the first month, on the first of the month, you shall set up the Mishkan of the Tent of Meeting…” (40:1-2)

Moshe had to explicitly say to them to to build it. They had to be told precisely what to do! This counteracted their clamouring for alternative forms of spirituality.

Although we don’t practice it today, our tradition treats the mitzvah of bikurim as foundational to almost everything else. Not prone to hyperbole, Rashi at the beginning of the Torah states that bikurim perpetuates the entire universe.

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

Every living thing has a self-preservation instinct, which among other things, means seeking food. Accordingly, almost every normal human’s first order of priority is to provide for their families.

But the work it entails is enormous.

In agriculture, a person would have to manually work a plot of land; weed it; plow it; sow it; prune it; weed it some more; reap the crop; dry it; process it; prepare it; and only then was the product edible.

It takes year-round labor and energy to support our families.

This mitzvah teaches us that we must celebrate the end product, but we must not take credit for it.

The first thing that sprouts is taken to Jerusalem, and given to the Kohen, and requires him to say, “Thank You, God, for the land and fruit that you have given me,”.

This touches on kindness, gratitude, faith, and humility. Judaism’s vision is a world of kind, humble, grateful, faithful people.

Perhaps in this light, it makes sense to classify bikurim is foundational. It arguably represents a microcosm of Judaism’s entire mission. No matter how much work we put in, or how successful we are; we don’t control the end product.

We just do our best and hope for the rest.

It should go without saying that war is terrible.

Apart from the carnage between opposing forces, one of its awful consequences is that local civilians are typically subject to collateral damage at best, and direct atrocities at worst. The Jewish people know this fact better than most, and students of history will know of many others.

For the vast majority of human history, men were massacred, and women were raped and possibly enslaved. Although international humanitarian law has considered wartime sexual violence as a war crime in the last century, it still occurs frequently in less developed parts of the world.

The Torah is sensitive to the moral challenge of this baseline reality, and steps in to regulate it with the law of the captive woman:

כִּי תֵצֵא לַמִּלְחָמָה עַל אֹיְבֶיךָ וּנְתָנוֹה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בְּיָדֶךָ וְשָׁבִיתָ שִׁבְיוֹ. וְרָאִיתָ בַּשִּׁבְיָה אֵשֶׁת יְפַת תֹּאַר וְחָשַׁקְתָּ בָהּ וְלָקַחְתָּ לְךָ לְאִשָּׁה – If you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord, your God, will deliver them into your hands, and you take captives; if you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her, you may take her for yourself as a wife. (21:10,11)

This mitzvah flies in the face of what we today consider to be moral and ethical. How can the Torah endorse such a barbaric act?

Rashi immediately explains that the Torah does not command, endorse, or approve this; instead, the law speaks to mankind’s baser inclination in the heat of the moment, and grants a discretionary permission.

R’ Daniel Rowe expounds that a law’s inclusion in the Torah doesn’t have to be an endorsement at all.

If we scrutinize the context, the laws continue that for 30 days she must be shaved bald, mourning her family in unkempt black rags. This “marriage” is not meant to be romantic or attractive, perhaps precisely so that the soldier regrets forcing this poor stranger under his roof, and will return her home.

The next two laws that follow are the laws of a despised wife and the rebellious son, which Chazal understood to mean that by taking advantage of this permission, a man would come to hate his wife, and their sour relationship would produce bad children.

While the Torah contains lofty ideals, it also contains certain threshold requirements that elevate baseline morals and norms for the moments we are not at our best.

With this law, the Torah requires a total departure from thousands of years of normalized slavery and rape. Instead of conforming to the convention that classified women as spoils of war like other property to be exploited, the Torah demands that a woman’s personhood is acknowledged and respected, and her dignity preserved.

This is a radical polemic that represents a total paradigm shift.

Recognising that is what the mitzvah really is.

The Torah demands more of its adherents. When we wage war, we are supposed to fight justly and ethically, with minimal harm to others, in the same way that we are supposed to live our daily lives.

The Torah is not some distant ideal that is beyond the reach and understanding of humans – לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם, הִוא.

The Torah is written for humans, with all our fallibility – דיברה תורה כלשון בני אדם.

The Torah talks about rape and slavery. But just because they are in the Torah, that does not mean they are ideals that we aspire to practice ever again.

Because if we study a little closer, the Torah is actually steering us away from a world that tolerates such rampant immoral practices, and towards the more civilized world we are familiar with today.

At the inauguration of the Mishkan, there was a handover process where Moshe gave the post he had filled for 7 days to Ahron, where Ahron offered sacrifices as part of his new role:

וַיִּשָּׂא אַהֲרֹן אֶת [ידו] יָדָיו אֶל הָעָם וַיְבָרְכֵם וַיֵּרֶד מֵעֲשֹׂת הַחַטָּאת וְהָעֹלָה וְהַשְּׁלָמִים. וַיָּבֹא מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן אֶל אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וַיֵּצְאוּ וַיְבָרֲכוּ אֶת הָעָם וַיֵּרָא כְבוֹד הֹ’ אֶל כָּל הָעָם – Ahron raised his hands towards the people and blessed them. He then descended from preparing the offerings. Moshe and Ahron then went into the Tent of Meeting; they came out and blessed the people, and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. (9:22,23)

There are two distinct blessings; one before and one after going into the Mishkan. Rashi explains that the first blessing was Birchas Kohanim, and the second was וִיהִי נֹעַם אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ עָלֵינוּ וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ כּוֹנְנָה עָלֵינוּ וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ כּוֹנְנֵהוּ – that our handiwork is an expression of godliness.

There is a difficulty with the word וַיֵּרֶד – that Ahron “descended”. The Torah does not emphasise “descent” from the Mizbeach anywhere else – so what does it mean here?

Perhaps Ahron experienced an emotional descent – his joy fell into sadness.

There is a tradition that some words are pronounced differently to how they are spelt; we read יָדָיו – his hands, plural, but the word is spelt ידו – his hand, singular. Ahron’s first offering was not accepted in Heaven, as he felt proud that he earned his office by his own hand (ידו). He lost sight of the fact that his hands were for the service of the people (יָדָיו).

When he saw his offering rejected, וַיֵּרֶד – he literally “became down”,i.e. miserable, at which point Moshe, who had already performed the duties for 7 days, took him aside to explain him how to perform the service properly. When they came out again, they blessed the people again – וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ כּוֹנְנָה עָלֵינוּ וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ כּוֹנְנֵהוּ – that we can only work properly when we clearly understand that our hands work exclusively to serve G-d; precisely what Ahron had just learned.

It is worth noting that even performing the actions correctly was not enough for the service to be accepted; even the intentions had to be perfect too.

My grandfather says that each day, we say הללוהו בנבל וכנור – they praise Him with a guitar and harp. A harp is called נבל – from the same root as the word “corpse”. My grandfather explains that the words are related in that a harp makes such a beautiful sound it makes other instruments sound bad in comparison. Chazal teach that someone who gains honour at someone else’s expense is a disgrace.

To engaged in public service, it is imperative not just to do the right thing, but to do it in the right way.

When Moshe started out, things did not go how he thought they would. Paroh was more cruel than he had been before Moshe appeared on the scene. He lamented this to God:

וַיָּשָׁב מֹשֶׁה אֶל-ה, וַיֹּאמַר: אֲדֹנָי, לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתָה לָעָם הַזֶּה–לָמָּה זֶּה, שְׁלַחְתָּנִי. וּמֵאָז בָּאתִי אֶל-פַּרְעֹה, לְדַבֵּר בִּשְׁמֶךָ, הֵרַע, לָעָם הַזֶּה; וְהַצֵּל לֹא-הִצַּלְתָּ, אֶת-עַמֶּךָ – Moshe replied to God, saying, “Master, why is more evil befalling this people; why have You sent me to do this? Since I came to Paroh to speak in Your name, he has been even worse to the people; and You have not saved them!” (5:22, 23)

To which he receives the reply:

וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אֲנִי ה. וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב–בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי; וּשְׁמִי ה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם – God said to Moshe, “I am The Lord. I appeared to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yakov as The Almighty, but with my name “The Lord”, I was not know to them.” (6-1,2)

Moshe receives reassurances that God has heard the Jews cries of suffering and plans to act.

The use of different names means to say that the Patriarchs understood that God existed, and that He had expectations of mankind, which they tried to live out. But they did not know God’s true name; or in other words, His abilities to help them. We do not find that the Torah records explicit miracles for them at any point – mankind had to reach out, and they were he first to do so. At no point in history yet had God directly interceded and interfered with the seemingly natural order of events for people. By revealing this to Moshe, everything was about to change.

The Gemara in Sanhedrin records that God gave Moshe examples of the challenges the Patriarchs faced, yet did not question G-d. When Avraham sought to bury Sarah, he could not bury her until he bought a plot of land for an extortionate price from Efron. Similarly, Yitzchak sought to use wells his father had dug, and was not allowed to until he paid off the people who had taken it. When Yakov was on the run, he had to pay people to pitch a tent ins field of theirs for the night.

The common thread is that they all got ripped off by people charging them for land they already owned.

These are the examples used of Moshe’s ancestors not questioning the nature of God. But these seem like terrible examples of faith! Tell how Avraham, finally blessed with a child in old age, was requested to sacrifice his son and heir, and was willing to carry it out. Tell how Yitzchak wasn’t told anything, yet did not question his father’s motives, and instructed him to bind his hands so he would not resist. Tell how Yakov reacted to the incident with Yosef! The stories are all ordinary, mundane stories, about business disputes. Why are these selected as the paradigms of faith?

The Sefer haChinuch says that mankind should know, and internalise, that anything that happens to him, from good to bad, is intended to happen to him. Crucially, no human being can harm him without it being God’s will. This is recorded in the laws pertaining to revenge.

What that means is that a person who works on themselves can understand that when they stub their toe on a table, it was “meant to be” and not get angry. But it seems quite different if your neighbour smashes your window!

It’s relatively easier to accept that all things come from God when you’re being contemplative. But when something happens involving a person exercising their free choice to harm you or your property, it doesn’t look like the hand of God so clearly any more.

That’s precisely why these examples were selected.

When Avraham thinks his test is over, he gets home only to find his beloved wife has died of the news at where her husband had taken her son. Then, mourning, when he attempts to bury her, he gets ripped off by Efron. Yitzchak, thirsty, can’t use wells his own father dug because a shepherd cartel see an opportunity to rip off a wealthy businessman. Yakov is on the run, and some people see fit to take advantage of him.

These mundane examples show how much faith they truly had. Under test conditions, it’s fairly straightforward put on the best display of effort possible. But when the test is over, do we stand by it still? These examples proved that under everyday conditions, they had the same faith they showed in their big tests.

These were examples to tell Moshe to believe that everything was under control.