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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Torah is an art, not a science.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But even then, it might not be enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What happens next is interesting and important.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the most basic and essential rules of hermeneutics is understanding that the Torah is written in language that is to for humans to read and understand – דיברה תורה כלשון בני אדם.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that this means that the Torah writes in terms of human understanding, not objective truths known only to God.

The Rambam takes this theme pretty far, to the extent he suggests that the Torah adopted animal sacrifices because they were culturally familiar methods of worship, and correctly speculated about certain similar practices in the Ancient Near East. The Ralbag also emphasized the value of understanding the ancient world the Torah was given in to give context and enhance our understanding of the Torah’s teachings.

One of these shared themes is the form of the covenant that spans large chunks of the book of Devarim.

In the Ancient Near East, kings would formalize their diplomatic relations with a treaty. These treaties were drafted between equals, and sometimes between a superior and an inferior state, or suzerain and vassal. The structure of the Torah’s covenant has striking parallels to a suzerain-vassal treaty. If we unpack the layers to the structure, we can unlock a deeper appreciation for it.

The main elements of the Hittite suzerain-vassal treaties are the identification of the treaty-maker (the superior); a historical introduction (prior beneficial acts done the superior has done for the inferior); the stipulations (the primary demand is for loyalty); a list of divine witnesses; and blessings and curses. The treaty was recited, a ceremonial meal eaten, and the treaty deposited at a holy site. There would be a public reading periodically to remind the public of their duties.

The similarity between the Torah’s use of the covenant structure and other treaties existing in the Ancient Near East isn’t just interesting trivia – it’s political dynamite.

For most of ancient history, the head of state was also the head of the cult – god-kings and priest-kings were standard. The king or the priestly class had a monopoly on the rituals of religion, and the common serfs were passive observers living vicariously through these holy men.

Contrast that with the Torah’s rendition of a covenant. The party God seeks to treat with is not Moshe, the head of state, nor Ahron, the Kohen Gadol. It’s not even the Jewish People. The party is every single individual, which is dynamite because it’s shocking enough that He would care for humans in general, let alone each of us in particular. And by making a covenant with us, God goes even further and asks us to be His partners.

A covenant between God and individuals also bestows a second facet to our identity – by elevating common people into vassal-kings, we are all royalty – מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ / כָל-הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים. This also echoes a broader ideological theme that idealized a community of educated and empowered citizens – וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ / וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ.

R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that we take self-identity for granted today, but historically, self-identity was subsumed to community and culture. In a world where the individual self barely existed and mattered very little, it’s radical to say that God cares for us individually, because it’s not obvious at all – בשבילי נברא העולם. This tension between God as distant yet close is captured in our blessings, where we call Hashem “You” in the second person, indicating familiar closeness, and then “Hashem”, with titles in the third person, indicating distance.

Striking a covenant with individuals democratizes access to God and spirituality, creating a direct line for everybody. Parenthetically, this echoes the Torah’s conception of creating humans in God’s image – everyone is, not just a few “special” people.

We are all royalty in God’s eyes, and we are all God’s partners.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hashem agreed:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A single candle can dispel a whole night of darkness.

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.

 

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.

Avraham sent his trusted steward, Eliezer, to find a suitable partner for his son Yitzchak from his ancestral home. Eliezer devised specific criteria that would be the identifying traits of the right candidate –  the ideal person would not only look after him but his whole entourage and camels as well.

When Eliezer approached Avraham’s hometown, there were many young women at the local well, one of whom was Rivka. Before any fanfare, introductions, or pleasantries, she drew water for him to drink, and then his thirsty camels, meeting Eliezer’s criteria.

The Midrash teaches us that when Rivka came to the well to draw water, the water rose to meet her, saving her the effort and endorsing her as a special individual.

Taking the Midrash at face value, this is clearly a remarkable young lady. Everyday miracles like that don’t happen every day! Even without Eliezer’s criteria, why wouldn’t a miracle be a good enough sign for him that this is the right person?

R’ Chaim Shmulevitz sharply notes that the fact of a miracle doesn’t speak to your quality as a human. At best, perhaps miracles speak to who you are, but not what you do. Miracles don’t make you a good person – good deeds make you a good person.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch highlights how Rivka only told Eliezer she would get him some water, and only later, once he had finished, did she say that she would feed the camels as well.

What we do says more than words ever could. Rivka did not promise the great thing she would do; she just went and did them! She helped him, and when he was done, she helped the rest. The story emphasizes that her kindness was performed with haste – she was in a hurry to help as quickly as possible.

We also see Rivka’s class in her blindness to class – Rivka treats Eliezer with dignity and respect when all she knows this stranger is that he introduces himself as a servant and yet still calls him “my lord.”

The only defining quality of a good person is what they do, not who they are.

Actions, not words. Underpromise, over-deliver. Sensitivity to others. Treats ostensibly lower-class people with the dignity any human being deserves. Compassionate to animals. This is the kind heart worthy of the legacy of the house of Avraham.

We don’t experience daily miracles. But miracles have never been what makes us great.

It’s about we do – and that’s up to us.

If you’ve ever paid close attention to the procedures at a Jewish wedding, you might notice a whole lot of theatre about witnesses, the rings, and the words the groom has to say. It’s not just for show, the formalities are actually essential, and we need to get them right. The source of the formalities is a Gemara in Kiddushin, which famously derives the halachic model of marriage from the transaction that took place when Avraham purchased the Cave of Machpela plot to bury his late wife, Sarah.

While the source is pretty familiar, the logic is not, and it is all too easy to misconstrue. Is a woman an object that is acquired? In what way is a man marrying a woman anything like a man buying some land?

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch explains that confining the analogy to a superficial level collapses it and highlights the importance of getting it right because a woman is not an object. The analogy only works in the wider context of what the transaction signified.

The Land of Israel is indelibly woven into Jewish history and identity for eternity. The promise of the Promised Land is that it has been a driving force of our prayers for thousands of years, the happily ever after we can dream of that gets us through hard times, with the hope that one day life will be better. It is so tantalizing because it speaks to a human need deep within us.

When Avraham bought this plot of land, it was the first interaction by the first Jew on that Promised Land. Negotiating this little cave’s purchase and the adjoining field forged the very first link in the chain of the eternal bond that ties the Jewish People to the Land of Israel.

The cave itself was a multichambered double-storeyed structure – the word מַּכְפֵּלָה literally means “doubled up.” This unique structure enabled each of our ancestral couples to be buried together in private quarters, husband and wife, and it allowed for parent and child to be buried near each other, father and son. Even after death, the family would remain together. Sure, Avraham bought a little cave and adjoining field, but in that “trivial” action -the first act by the first Jew on the Land of Israel – Avraham secured family ties together for eternity.

The analogy of marriage to Avraham’s land acquisition appears in a wider context. At a Jewish wedding, the couple is bonded by mirroring the steps our ancestor Avraham took. Because it was never about the simple land transaction, it was about preserving family commitment.

The land is God’s eternal commitment to us, and marriage is our eternal commitment to each other.

The agricultural aspects of the Chagim are often forgotten in today’s world of finance and commerce. People would plant their fields around Sukkos; cut the crops at Pesach; and leave them to dry until Shavuos, when they would gather in the yield – hence the alternative name for Shavuos, Chag Ha’Asif – the Chag of Gathering. The main feature of Shavuos was the Omer offering, where people would bring the first two bushels they harvested to Jerusalem.

People nervously check their investments to see if they work out. It’s the same for crops, between planting and harvesting. Once cut, owners can be satisfied with the certainty of that year’s yield. Yet in Judaism, the freshly cut crops would be off limits until the Omer offering was brought. This then permitted consumption of the rest. Shmitta and Yovel govern land use so that people relinquish control and effective ownership of their land every few years, and the Omer serves a similar purpose.

Typically, communal offerings consist of a single animal or unit, representing the united Jewish people. Why is the Omer made up of two portions?

Rav Hirsch teaches how the laws regulating use of the Land of Israel instil a sense of gratitude and trust in a person. That little bit of doubt, that little bit of insecurity, are exactly the points at which a person can actionably show their dependence and gratitude for the blessings they have.

When a communal offering has more than one unit, it is for the component parts of the Jewish people. There are two portions to the Omer offering to remind us that we cannot enjoy our blessings unless others are able to as well. It’s part of the trust and thanks we owe for what we have.

We cannot say thank you for our blessings without sharing them as well.

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

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

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

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

The words the Torah uses – אִשָּׁה כִּי תַזְרִיעַ – describes the physiological process of seed forming. The most vital matters on which the future depends, marriage, the home, and family, can be reduced to a simple physiological process of biological happening, which can attest to the lack of moral freedom; this is the impurity that needs dispelling. The Torah calls on us to live consciously.

Moral freedom and the ability to choose are the gifts that distinguish humanity. The periods of waiting correspond to the child and to the parent, and how both must consciously and continuously strive towards greater moral consciousness, and this might help explain why the waiting period for a boy and girls are different, as the covenant of circumcision teaches this same lesson.

The process the Torah prescribes a new mother serves to rededicate her to her calling as a wife, mother, and Jew, despite the painful experience she has undergone. Submission to the forces of nature is antithetical to what it means to be a Jew. While the biological aspect is undeniable, the Torah calls the mother to the Mishkan, to exercise her moral freedom and dedicate physical life to a higher ultimate purpose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After living his life based on his intuition about the right way to live, Avraham was ultimately vindicated when God reached out to him in his old age. In this dialogue, God formed a covenant with Avraham, a contract for eternity, the sign of which was circumcision, an excruciatingly painful procedure.

The first thing we learn of the freshly circumcised Avraham, the very first act by the very first Jew, is that as he recuperated in the blazing heat, he was standing at the door looking for guests he could host and look after:

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

The three men were no ordinary guests; it turns out that they were angels on a mission! Part of the mission was predicting Yitzchak’s birth, after which Avraham has another encounter with God, in which God tells Avraham the divine plan, that Sodom is doomed and will be destroyed by morning:

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

It is important to notice how irregular and unusual this is. The Torah characterizes God’s internal thought process, narrating God’s discomfort with hiding something from a human! This should rightly strike us as absolutely bizarre – God is God and can do as God pleases, without human approval or intervention. That’s why God is God!

If we closely read God’s discomfort, there’s something that doesn’t quite add up. God warns Avraham about how wicked Sodom is as the reason for its demise. Yet Avraham is the last person who needs to be instructed to avoid the ways of Sodom!

We already know that Avraham already is someone who will always do the right thing- the very setting of the conversation is that in his weakest moment, in agonizing pain, he is out there looking for weary travelers to bathe, feed, and take care of! Avraham is already the anathema of Sodom. Is this a man who needs to be warned to avoid the ways of Sodom?!

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that Hashem wasn’t concerned for Avraham in this conversation. Hashem shared His plan with Avraham not so that he would do the right thing, but because he was someone who would teach his family to do the right thing – אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת בָּנָיו וְאֶת בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו. And Avraham argues with God to save Sodom!

This story presents a haggard, old, sick, and weary Avraham as the pinnacle of humanity – ethical and humane at his lowest and worst; in stark contrast to Sodom, a vibrant, wealthy, and successful commercial hub, yet so cruel to outsiders.

R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch highlights this contrast as the very first lesson we learn after Avraham circumcises himself. Entering into the covenant could set him apart, but it did not. He was still himself, living in Mamre, the land of his old friends and allies. He did not cloister himself away from the world or think he was above it all. He could abandon Sodom to their fate without a fight – a fight with God! This, even despite knowing of their cruel and wicked ways.

And even then, he was looking to the streets to bring in some pagan idolators to entertain; who else he could expect?! And he personally ran to give the mysterious guests luxurious and freshly prepared cuisine.

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

Avraham himself was only overjoyed that people would not think he was strange or different. His distinction only enhanced his relationship with humanity, and it must be the model for us – the בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו – God’s very purpose in engaging in the conversation.

Avraham is our hero and role model, the perfect man – the original “human.” He was not someone who hid away from the world to focus on his own holiness or mystical spirituality. He went out into the world, engaged with it, and made it better through his interactions.

As descendants of Avraham, we are charged with being the most humane of men – to show the world a better way, Avraham’s way. The way of open hearts and open hands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In contrast, mankind was told:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In contrast, mankind was told:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does it mean to be “chosen”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We become chosen when we choose to live good lives.

Every day in Shema, the section of tzitzis is read:

וְהָיָה לָכֶם, לְצִיצִת, וּרְאִיתֶם אֹתוֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם אֶת-כָּל-מִצְו‍ֹת ה’, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם; וְלֹא-תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם, וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם – You will wear these tzitzis. When you see them, you will be reminded of all God’s commands; and you’ll do them – and you won’t stray after your hearts and eyes. (15:39)

Beyond the obvious implication of not dwelling on inappropriate sights, the Sfas Emes notes that this mitzva is mentioned soon after the tragic incident of the spies. The juxtaposition charges us to not make that generations’ mistake – וְלֹא -תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם, וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם – where eyes and hearts literally “scout”, leading astray.

The Sfas Emes analyses their error.

What if their worst fears had been confirmed, and they indeed faced a barren land, inhabited by hordes of strong, ruthless, well armed, well trained men? Would Hashem’s assurances and promises have meant less than if they had no knowledge of the matter?

Certainly not. The scouting changed things from their perspective – but God certainly knew what lay ahead. This is שלח לך – for yourselves.

Taking things as they appear is a character flaw that is caused by a deficiency in faith and trust. If they had truly believed and trusted Hashem, the episode could not have taken place. They’d never have sent scouts in the first place. This why the very next following words are לְמַעַן תִּזְכְּרוּ, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֶת-כָּל-מִצְו‍ֹתָי – not “remind yourself” so much as “never forget” – by internalisation.

Ttitzis are said to protect a person. Perhaps by indicating that there is so much more than meets the eye – including the wearer!

A part of the tzitzis requirement is to have a thread of techeiles, a shade of blue-violet. Parenthetically, there is a lot of debate about the source of the correct type of techeiles. To illustrate the gravity of the mitzva, one opinion states that tzitzis without techeiles are not tzitzis at all!

Rav Hirsch notes that the spectrum discernible to our eye ends with the blue-violet ray – the same shade as techeiles; but additional magnitudes of light radiate unseen beyond the visible spectrum. Likewise, the blue sky is the end of the earth visible to us. Perhaps then, techeiles is the bridge that leads from the visible, physical sphere into the unseen sphere beyond. This again underlines the spies error.

Man’s goal is not to strive for spirituality to the exclusion of the physical, but rather to use the physical drives as tools for human growth – note how the thread of techeiles on the tzitzis is the thread wound around the white threads to make a cord of tzitzis. This reflects the duty of the Jew to unite and elevate all available forces and tools to God’s service.

The techeiles on tzitzis is the mini uniform reflecting the calling of the Jew – it should be no surprise that it is the standard colour of the Beis HaMikdash and Kohen Gadol’s clothing.

The entire mitzva of tzitzis screams out that the spies could not have been more wrong. It’s not what you look at that matters; but what you see. Through tzitzis, we are entreated to think bigger and become more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The miracle comes once we’ve exhausted our efforts.

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

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

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

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

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

Ask not for a lighter burden, but broader shoulders.

When Noach is warned of the impending flood, the first ever distinction is made between kosher and non-kosher animals. This was not practical dietary information yet, as humans were not yet permitted to consume meat. Yet there was still a certain degree of relevance to the people of the time – they were only allowed to bring sacrificial offerings from kosher animals.

When Noach is instructed how to populate the ark, he is to seek out the kosher animals, whereas the non-kosher animals would come to him. But why the distinction?

Kosher does not exist for bodily health.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that animals are  טהור if they are receptive to human influence; they are submissive to man without requiring to be tamed; they serve our purposes; their instincts do not overwhelmingly determine their behaviour. Animals which are not טהור  are unable to be controlled, and can only be tamed, if at all, through violence.

The word for kosher animals, טהור, is related to the word צהור meaning transparent, which describes a property that allows light to pass through something. Consequently, purity has the implications of being conducive and receptive.

This same property is relevant to sacrifices. The main function of a sacrifice is to symbolically dedicate or actions to God. Through its blood, we symbolically devote our own lifeblood to God’s will. Accordingly, only animals which closely align to this disposition are suitable. The characteristics of the kosher animals are what Jews should aspire to have within them – a controlled instinct.

The animals designated as kosher inform humanity of our mission. Consequently, it is understandable why Noach was commanded to actively seek out the animals that showed the characteristic missing in his generation.

Moral consciousness is an active choice.

 

There is a pithy saying, that if you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day; but if you teach him how to fish he’ll eat for the rest of his life. This is an ideal, that requires the beneficiary to make the most of what he is being offered. Yet the ideal is not always the case.

Sometimes the recipient is unable, unwilling, unfortunate, or a combination. It’s disheartening to fight a losing battle, and to try and help someone who just can’t help themselves. The Torah charges us as benefactors with a lofty goal:

וְכִי יָמוּךְ אָחִיךָ וּמָטָה יָדוֹ עִמָּךְ וְהֶחֱזַקְתָּ בּוֹ – When your brother languishes, and his hand falters, you must steady and support him (25:35)

Rav Hirsch teaches that it is incredibly easy to give up on people who just attract calamity and misfortune. It would be far better to cut them loose, and just let them figure it out alone. The Torah reminds us that he is your brother, you were equals once. His existence is not a failure, it is וּמָטָה יָדוֹ, his hand that has failed. You must help steady him until once more he is עִמָּךְ, with you, equals once again.

If you are more fortunate than others, it’s better to build a bigger table than a bigger fence.

While the Seder is about transmitting memories and identity to our children, the Haggada wisely acknowledges that there is no one size fits all when it comes to education.

When the wise son asks what the reasons behind our observance are, we give part of an answer, just a law really – אֵין מַפְטִירִין אַחַר הַפֶּסַח אֲפִיקוֹמָן. The Sfas Emes explains that the starting point of observance is that the Torah is ours, and there needn’t be a loftier reason than that.

And yet, R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch quipped that if you perform symbolic acts without bothering to understand the symbolism, you end up doing a bunch of strange things for literally no reason at all.

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that we need to engage with the wise son, and stimulate his thinking. There are many reasons for everything that we do, and different reasons speak to different people. But the reasons are secondary to why we choose to be observant. There is no one reason, and he can find the ideas that speak to him.

To the wicked son, the Haggada offers an incredibly harsh rebuke – blunt his teeth and remind him that if he’d been in Egypt, he never would have left – הַקְהֵה אֶת שִׁנָּיו וֶאֱמוֹר לוֹ: “בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה’ לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם.” לִי וְלֹא־לוֹ. אִלּוּ הָיָה שָׁם, לֹא הָיָה נִגְאָל.

While our parents’ generation might have taken this very literally, it’s not necessarily as harsh as it seems.

R’ Shlomo Freshwater observes that before Sinai, people who went bad tended to stay that way, for example, the Flood generation, Yishmael, and Esav. So he’s fortunate to live in an era where he can make amends – אִלּוּ הָיָה שָׁם, לֹא הָיָה נִגְאָל.

As far as blunting his teeth – רשע has a numerical value of 570. Remove שניו – numerical value 366; and the result is 204, the numerical value of צדיק. Behind the cutesy numbers game lies a fundamental truth that the wicked son harbors bitterness and negativity, but if we just neutralize his bite and dig past the surface, there is a good person in there waiting to be recognized.

The simple son can’t get past shallow simplicity – “What is this?”. Yet we don’t talk down to him, and the Hagadda has us patiently explain the answer in a way he can process.

The Haggada tells us to say something to each son, but not to the son who doesn’t know how to ask. Instead of saying something in particular – the Hagadda just says to give him an opening – אַתְּ פְּתַח לוֹ.

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that creating an opening means cultivating curiosity – the entire Seder is full of strange customs and rituals to help do just that. The most wonderful and profound speech just doesn’t matter to someone who doesn’t get it, but it is also possible to nurture with silence.

Whatever challenges the wise, wicked, simple, and quiet sons all pose, at least they are at the Seder. They’re present and engaged in different ways, and we can work with that. The Lubavitcher Rebbe wonders about a fifth son – the one who isn’t at the seder because he’s given up.

We can recognize these archetypes in our friends and family, but they’re even true of ourselves at different times in our lives. Know yourself, know your family, and know how to tailor what needs to be said under the circumstances.