After a famine struck Canaan and the surrounding region, Egypt was the only place that could adequately sustain refugees. Yakov sent his sons down to Egypt to obtain provisions, where Yosef noticed them, and Yosef imprisoned Shimon for an extended period of time to make sure they brought Benjamin back with them. After releasing Shimon, Yosef had his goblet planted in Benjamin’s sack and claimed the right to enslave the framed thief. Believing their innocence, the brothers agreed, only to be crestfallen when the missing goblet was discovered in Benjamin’s personal articles, and Yehuda stepped forward with an impassioned plea, the turning point in the family’s story:

וַיִּגַּשׁ אֵלָיו יְהוּדָה וַיֹּאמֶר בִּי אֲדֹנִי יְדַבֶּר־נָא עַבְדְּךָ דָבָר בְּאָזְנֵי אֲדֹנִי וְאַל־יִחַר אַפְּךָ בְּעַבְדֶּךָ כִּי כָמוֹךָ כְּפַרְעֹה… כִּי עַבְדְּךָ עָרַב אֶת־הַנַּעַר מֵעִם אָבִי לֵאמֹר אִם־לֹא אֲבִיאֶנּוּ אֵלֶיךָ וְחָטָאתִי לְאָבִי כָּל־הַיָּמִים. וְעַתָּה יֵשֶׁב־נָא עַבְדְּךָ תַּחַת הַנַּעַר עֶבֶד לַאדֹנִי וְהַנַּעַר יַעַל עִם־אֶחָיו. כִּי־אֵיךְ אֶעֱלֶה אֶל־אָבִי וְהַנַּעַר אֵינֶנּוּ אִתִּי פֶּן אֶרְאֶה בָרָע אֲשֶׁר יִמְצָא אֶת־אָבִי׃ – Then Yehuda went up to him and said, “Please, my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord, and do not be impatient with your servant, you who are the equal of Pharaoh… Now your servant has pledged himself for the boy to my father, saying, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, I shall stand guilty before my father forever.’ Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me? Let me not be witness to the woe that would consume my father!” (44:1,32-34)

Rashi highlights that Yehuda is not simply begging; he makes a fervent and forceful appeal to save Binyamin. The Gemara suggests that Yehuda was willing to draw swords over this, meaning Yehuda was willing to sacrifice not only his liberty for his brother; but his very life. The Tosefta recognizes this moment as the singular deed that seals Yehuda’s eventual right to the crown.

Where once upon a time, Yehuda had advocated for the rejection of a sibling, he would not and could not tolerate the notion for even a moment, taking absolute responsibility for a planted goblet, something so completely beyond his control. With this bold step, Yehuda showed that he and his brothers had changed, and Yosef’s charade was no longer necessary, and it would be safe for Yosef to reveal his true identity.

Before proceeding, we should recognize that what Yehuda did was highly unusual.

There’s a common law doctrine called frustration. When an unforeseen event renders an agreed contractual obligation impossible, the contract or agreement has been frustrated and is set aside – אונס רחמנא פטריה. Any normal person would be well within their rights to disclaim any responsibility for the planted goblet – who could have foreseen it? There is no universe where it’s in any way Yehuda’s fault! Yehuda could so easily go home empty-handed to their father, broken-hearted and dejected, because what more could he have done to save Benjamin? Knowing that this nightmare scenario is theatrical because the goblet was planted, we know that the answer to what he could have different or better is nothing at all; it was nobody’s fault. Yet Yehuda rejected this tantalizing prompt to escape responsibility, choosing instead to endanger himself to save his brother.

Given the deep significance of this moment in the story, as accentuated by our Sage’s comments, what was the fuel that drove Yehuda to such an extreme extent?

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests that Yehuda’s behavior is characteristic of being a leader. Making mistakes is an occupational hazard of leadership, but it’s a feature of being in a role with no rules navigating uncharted territory. Yehuda had made his mistakes, advocating for getting rid of Yosef, and then with his judgment in the story with Tamar. But he had admitted his mistakes and taken responsibility, learning and growing from them to face another day. He was not debilitated by his past failures and would not fail again; the stuff kings should be made of.

R’ Yitzchok Berkovits suggests that Yehuda understood that taking responsibility meant he could stop at nothing and could not allow for failure. Yehuda actually says as much to Yosef! One of the most fundamental premises of Judaism is that we have a duty to each other of mutual responsibility to look out for each other – כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה. The Hebrew expression goes quite a bit further than the notion of responsibility, articulating the legal concept of personal guarantee. There is just no such thing as a good person who minds their own business and leaves community and society to their own devices. That’s just not what a good person looks like! We are all fully responsible for living the Torah’s laws and ideals ourselves, but we are just as responsible for our fellow man and their responsibilities. The Torah teaches us that we don’t just owe God; we owe each other.

Yehuda’s example, and the example of any great leader, is that being responsible means stopping at nothing. If something goes wrong, leaders find another way, and there is no such thing as getting too discouraged.

It’s hard to overstate how monumental this moment is. Yehuda had rehabilitated himself fully, and it is what allows Yakov’s family to peacefully reunite, relocate, and reintegrate together after decades of hurt.

Cycle after cycle, generation after generation, families fought and went their separate ways. Cain killed his brother Abel. Lot had to separate from his uncle Avraham. Yishmael had to be separated from his brother Yitzchak. Esau had to be separated from his twin brother Yakov. In the book of Genesis, the stories of where we come from, families drifting apart is the natural course of events until this very moment – מעשה אבות סימן לבנים.

If the book opened with the haunting and existential question of “Am I my brother’s keeper?;” then the Torah’s answer is categorically and unequivocally that yes, you absolutely are!

Yehuda really is his brother’s keeper. With this essential lesson, the cycle has been broken, setting the scene for the epilogue of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus and the Jewish People.

The Gemara suggests that Yosef cried when he embraced Binyamin for the first time, not only for their emotional and tearful reunion after a lifetime apart; but because Yosef was crying for the two Batei HaMikdash in Binyamin’s territory that would be destroyed because of societies rife with internal hatred and animosity.

Perhaps the Gemara is communicating how hard it is for us not to hate our brother. Yosef and Binyamin had only just learned the lesson but knew that their descendants were doomed to repeat the same mistakes. Friction is part of what it is to be human – but we can be better than that. The stories of our history are about how hard it is to get along. It’s the story of our present. It’s the story of our future.

The Torah talks to us – it is written knowing exactly who we are, our shortcomings, and what we struggle with. And just the same, it calls on us to be our brother’s keeper, to take responsibility for one another, even, or perhaps especially, the ones it’s hard to get along with. It can heal a family, and it can alter the course of history.

We might fail, it might be hard, and the odds might be against us. But there is no avoiding it. It’s hard, but it can be done, and it’s the stuff greatness is made of.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s you, right here, right now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Torah counts everyone. Because everyone counts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We see this played out in multiple ways.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Torah is an art, not a science.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We take the good with the bad.

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

But the sanctity of life is not readily apparent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Torah characterizes his death similarly:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just do your best, and hope for the rest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet his good intentions never materialize:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The future is watching.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why give the Torah on a mountain at all?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But why don’t we just tell the story?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avraham continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We differentiate ourselves not by seed or creed; only by deed.

There is a widely held belief that when we sin, as everyone inevitably does, we corrupt ourselves in some fundamental and irredeemable way. The Torah strongly disagrees:

כִּי-יִהְיֶה רִיב בֵּין אֲנָשִׁים, וְנִגְּשׁוּ אֶל-הַמִּשְׁפָּט וּשְׁפָטוּם; וְהִצְדִּיקוּ, אֶת-הַצַּדִּיק, וְהִרְשִׁיעוּ, אֶת-הָרָשָׁע. וְהָיָה אִם-בִּן הַכּוֹת, הָרָשָׁע–וְהִפִּילוֹ הַשֹּׁפֵט וְהִכָּהוּ לְפָנָיו, כְּדֵי רִשְׁעָתוֹ בְּמִסְפָּר אַרְבָּעִים יַכֶּנּוּ, לֹא יֹסִיף: פֶּן-יֹסִיף לְהַכֹּתוֹ עַל-אֵלֶּה מַכָּה רַבָּה, וְנִקְלָה אָחִיךָ לְעֵינֶיךָ – If there is a dispute between men; they shall approach the court, and the judges will judge them, and acquit the innocent one and condemn the guilty one. If the guilty one has incurred lashes, the judge shall make him lean over and flog him in front of him, commensurate with his crime, in number. He shall beat him with forty lashes; he shall not exceed, lest he give him a much more severe flogging than these forty lashes, and your brother will be degraded before your eyes. (25:1-3)

Aside from the facts of the case the Torah describes, it is noteworthy that the very instant the crime is remediated, the Torah reclassifies the offender as “your brother” – רָשָׁע / אָחִיךָ.

From this, the Sifri derived the fundamental principle that we must rehabilitate offenders. Once a wrongdoer has made amends, he becomes your brother again. For example, he is permitted to be a witness like anyone else, and his testimony is no less credible. The stain on his character is temporary, not permanent. He is not an “ex-criminal” or “Baal Teshuva”; he is “your brother.”

R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that Judaism believes in rehabilitation both spiritually and in civil law. Beyond the natural drive to protect the rights of those who have been wronged, the Torah also seeks to help wrongdoers rebuild and make amends.

When someone sins or stumbles, the Torah condemns the act, not the person. The moment a wrong has been made right, anyone can become “your brother,” once again.

Hate the sin, not the sinner.

As part of the functioning society the Torah seeks to create, the Torah requires us to have a judiciary to interpret the law, and an executive to apply it:

שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים, תִּתֶּן-לְךָ בְּכָל-שְׁעָרֶיךָ – You shall place judges and police within all your gates… (16:18)

As with many mitzvos, the Torah speaks to individuals here, and not the community. Does the Torah expect each of us to individually to create a roster of judges and a police force?

While the simple reading is about judges and police, it is not simply a law about the branches of government.

The Shelah instead reads it as Judaism’s source for the principle of personal development. Building a great society starts with individuals. The mitzvah is given to “you” (second person possessive) because nobody else could judge or police you in the way only you are able.

R’ Yisrael Salanter taught that our natural intuition is the only judge and policeman we ever need.

R’ Jonathan Sacks explains that this is a microcosm of the Jewish People’s mission. In our personal lives and in our communities, we have a duty to determine whether there is a gap between where we are and where we ought to be, then taking the necessary steps to bridge it.

Because if we’re tuned in, we know what’s wrong, and we know how to fix it too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teshuva happens when we tune in and listen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Torah repeatedly emphasizes that we have the capacity and agency to choose how we live and act. With good reason, Maimonides identifies free will as a foundational principle underpinning the entire Torah, because if our actions are predestined, we are not morally responsible, and if we are not morally responsible, then there can be no justice, reward, or punishment.

Throughout, God tells Moshe that He has hardened Paroh’s heart, and Paroh then refuses to free the Jews. But if God had hardened his heart, Paroh’s free will was compromised; how could he then be punished?

Maimonides’s exposition of free will allows for the possibility to do so something so bad that the path of repentance and making amends is foreclosed, and the person can no longer turn back. In Paroh’s case, by enslaving, torturing, and murdering the Jewish People, justice required that he be prevented from making amends.

R’ Jonathan Sacks suggests this is fairly intuitive – we can become prisoners of our own pride. Paroh had obstinately blinded himself to his peoples suffering, to the point where his adviser pleas fell on deaf ears:

הֲטֶרֶם תֵּדַע כִּי אָבְדָה מִצְרָיִם – Do you not see Egypt is already lost? (10:7)

The Midrash warns us that sin is like a passing visitor, then a houseguest who overstays their welcome, and before long, it’s master of the house.

It is not difficult to imagine someone becoming so entrenched in their world view that they get tunnel vision and can’t change their course.

As much as we celebrate the prospect of freedom, it is something we must consciously choose for ourselves.