Habits are a powerful thing – habits are how we live and function because motivation is fleeting. But there is a dangerous possibility of habitual religious observance:

רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה – I am giving before you today a blessing and a curse. (11:26)

Moshe does not call on us to view life’s choices through a black and white dualism of mitzvah versus sin. Instead, he counsels us to make choices through the nuance of blessing and curse, because the blessing is what matters, not the mitzvah itself. A mitzvah is simply a vehicle for what God wishes for each of us – a life of blessing.

But who would ever choose the curse?

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that by the curse finds us when we focus on the mitzvah instead of the blessing. It is all too easy to empty Judaism of its spirituality; meticulous observance can become mechanical rote – and without mindful intention and inspiration, it can look similar, but it’s not the same.

If we don’t consider an action before following through, we have not made a choice at all, and are simply following conditioning.

That’s where we need to discern the blessing from the curse. What can look like a mitzvah on the surface might not be serving God at all. It’s just robotic programming; it isn’t the path of blessing – it’s the other path. It’s not a path people choose; they find themselves there by not choosing at all!

In its ideal form, Jewish observance is conscious and mindful. We opt in because it matters to us and means something.

On the flip side of this, there is a problem with inspiration run wild.

In the laws that follow, Moshe warns the Jewish People not to co-opt the religious practices of the local Canaanites – because feeling inspired to serve God in ways we choose isn’t serving God at all.

When we blur the boundaries of inspired contribution and dutiful obligation, things can get dangerous.

The people had seen this tense dynamic play out with Nadav and Avihu, with a compelling point made about equality before the law: even the foremost spiritual elite are subject to the framework of the Torah. What had steered them wrong was misguided inspiration that was ultimately misguided folly.

So what are the guidelines of inspired observance that is welcomed with blessing?

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that we just need to apply our inspiration where it fits in. When we can and should follow our inspiration, and our actions have enhanced value.

But this can go too far. If someone decides that a white shirt is the most dignified way for them to dress, that is their prerogative. But if that thought process leads them to judge anyone else for not also opting to wear white shirts, that’s the path of mitzvah with no blessing. Our inspiration needs to fit.

Misplaced rigidity only alienates.

We can and should infuse our Jewish observance with mindful feeling. We must choose for it to matter. And we have to find the right place for it – choose the blessing, not the mitzvah. Because inspiration wrongly applied can backfire.

But if we are going through the motions without any inspiration at all, that might be worse.

One of the most beautiful promises ever made was the one God made to Avraham about his future descendants:

ויוצא אתו החוצה ויאמר הבט נא השמימה וספר הכוכבים אם תוכל לספר אתם ויאמר לו כה יהיה זרעך – He took him outside, and said, “Look at the heavens above. Count the stars, if you ever could! So will your offspring be.” (15:5)

This can be read literally, that Avraham’s lineal and intellectual descendants would be numerous – most religions count Avraham as their precursor.

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

Looking beyond the present, hoping and working towards a better future.

The book of Bereishis is about the evolution of human justice and the evolving dynamic of God’s relationship with people. Avraham is considered the first prototype of the kind of person God wanted people to behave like, and it is his descendants that would go on to receive the Torah.

But Noah was righteous too. Why is Noah not presented as a model of what a good person looks like?

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi explains that our role models never suspend their internal moral compasses, even when it brings them to the point of directly questioning God outright.

When Noah left the Ark, everything and everyone was gone. Noah properly took in the scale of desolation and loss, and questioned God – where was God’s mercy? The Zohar describes how God stunned Noah with a stinging reply – where was Noah’s mercy when God told him what was going to happen?

When God announced that Sodom would be destroyed, Avraham questioned God’s justice. When God threatened to destroy the Jewish people after they danced around the Golden Calf, Moshe questioned God’s justice. Throughout history, our heroes have challenged God when something is wrong.

Even if unsuccessful, they are still fundamentally correct. Avraham stood up for pagan barbarians, and said that if God is merciful and good, then that ought to be true even towards the wicked! Our heroes internal moral compasses tell them that something is wrong, and they follow through.

Noah simply accepted that his society was corrupt, and deserved annihilation. He did not question the course of events until it was much too late.

Accepting such things isn’t a feature – it’s a flaw. It meant that he agreed that everything and everyone was bad, and deserved what was coming. Reb Yisrael Salanter says that a hidden tzadik is no tzadik at all. Avraham went out into the world to show people a better way, whereas Noah just let his whole world fall into oblivion.

Maybe that’s why he never seems to make the list of truly righteous people. It may also be why he planted vineyards and turned to alcohol and solitude. The magnitude of his missed opportunity was enormous.

It is a Jewish characteristic to question everything, even of God. Just because God Himself says something, does not mean we must accept it. The entire point of prophecies of doom is that it spurs us to do something different and avert it so that God’s promise does not happen!

This may help explain the concept of prayer.

When something feels wrong don’t just accept it. It’s a challenge! Do something, say something.

The flood story is a complex and layered story, with many different messages about right and wrong.

One of the messages that Chazal understood is the importance of careful speech. When the Torah talks about the different kinds of animals, it does not use the accurate and concise form of טהור and טמא, pure and impure. Instead, it uses the terms טְּהוֹרָה and אֲשֶׁר לֹא טְהֹרָה, pure and that which is not pure. Avoiding a word with negative connotations teaches the value of the words we use.

Yet the opening of the story is not overly complimentary:

נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹרֹתָיו – Noah was righteous; he was flawless in his day… (6:9)

Chazal detected ambiguity, and understood that this description could be interpreted favourably or unfavourably. Either he was absolutely righteous, and would have been considered righteous in any era, or he was only relatively righteous. In a degenerate age, he was the best person humanity could muster.

But how could Chazal teach the importance of speaking nicely, yet within the very same story interpret an ambiguous phrase unfavourably?

God spoke to Noah and said something similar:

כִּי־אֹתְךָ רָאִיתִי צַדִּיק לְפָנַי בַּדּוֹר הַזֶּה – I have found you alone to be righteous in this generation… (7:1)

The Zohar says that the Noah thought that he was being damned with faint praise, and God didn’t rate him. Therefore, Rabbi Shlomo Farhi explains, Chazal didn’t read it as a criticism – but Noah did! And his disappointment tarnished his subsequent choices and actions.

He didn’t try to save his community, influence them, or even pray for them, because he was only תָּמִים – flawless. There was only nothing wrong with him; in another time, that might not be enough. He could have been so much more, but believing that God’s ambiguous remark was a criticism destroyed him.

It is incorrect to be trite and small. Not only does it let yourself down; but far worse is that it lets the people who need you down too. It’s not wrong to believe in our ability to affect the people around us.

One of the messages of the flood story teaches that the opposite is true – there is a universal principle that every one of us would do well to believe that we can positively impact each other.

After Korach’s failed coup, Hashem reiterated the prominence that Ahron and his descendants would have. They would always be at the service of the Jewish people, guiding religious practice:

כל תרומת הקדשים אשר ירימו בני־ישראל ה נתתי לך ולבניך ולבנתיך אתך לחק־עולם ברית מלח עולם הוא לפני ה לך ולזרעך אתך – All the gifts that the Jewish people set aside for Hashem, I give to you, to your sons and daughters, as a due for all time. It shall be an eternal covenant of salt before Hashem and for you and your descendants as well. (18:19)

The covenant of salt is an expression of trust and friendship. Calling the covenant after salt calls to mind how the covenant is eternal.

But if it’s eternal, what does salt add to the expression?

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi explains that the comparison is literal as well.

The property of salt is not just that it never spoils, but that it enhances and draws out the properties of what it interacts with.

Ahron was the paragon of public service. What he did for others was he brought people together, and brought out what was best in them. Life in service of others is what made him so special.

The comparison to salt evokes a contrast to Korach, who was only in it for himself, not for others.

The mark of greatness is being there for others even when it’s a thankless task.

Korach’s coup failed when all the great men planted their staffs on the ground at the Mishkan, and of all of them, it was Ahron’s staff that blossomed with almonds and flowers, showing Korach’s people they were wrong. The story concludes with how Ahron’s staff became a symbol of what had happened, and the men took their staffs back and went back home.

But why is it worth mentioning that they took their staffs back?

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi teaches that the word for staff, מטה, is the same as the word for tribe. As much as Ahron’s staff was a symbol of victory, their staffs were a symbol of defeat, but they took them home all the same. The plain staff, with nothing special or remarkable, would remind them what they were willing to sacrifice in their bid for greatness.

The symbol of their loss was still something to be proud of. It was a reality check, but they could still take pride in second place. By owning it, they could resume their place in the hierarchy they had once rejected.

A person who never makes a mistake has never tried anything. Mistakes can often be as good a teacher as success.

When the spies returned, and delivered their pessimistic report, the people were distraught. Not knowing better, they lost faith in what would become of them, and by losing faith, they lost all they had going for them.

Disappointed in what the people had become, God told them that they would be a lost generation; they would wander for 40 years, and die in the wilderness. They did not deserve the privilege of the Land of Israel, but their children would.

When the people heard what their fate would be, they refused to accept it at first:

וישכמו בבקר ויעלו אל ראש ההר לאמר הננו ועלינו אל המקום אשר אמר ה כי חטאנו – They rose early the next morning, and set out toward the crest of the mountain, saying, “We are prepared to go to the place that Hashem has spoken of, for we were wrong.” (14:40)

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi explains that the language used in telling how this show of faith is a chiasm that echoes the story of Avraham.

Avraham’s ultimate act of faith was rising early in the morning, and going to the crest of the mountain in the place God spoke of. His faith is absolute, when he says הנני- Here I stand.

But it fails. What worked for Avraham does not work here, because Avraham was authentic, and this time it was not. Avrahams act of faith was corrupted into a show of faith.

Avraham had faith before he knew where he was going. The comparison they were trying to evoke was false. They could say הננו, but that’s not where they truly stood.
There is a difference between fracturing something, and breaking it. Each situation calls for something different. Their mistake was thinking that their mistake caused a fracture, and not a break.

Introspection requires intellectual honesty to understand how to move past our mistakes. Think of the last person you hurt. What would it take to move your relationship past it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What could you own better in your life?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What kind of prayers does God listen to?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if we don’t get it?

Moshe addresses this in his very next sentence:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet it is anything but that.

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

The Simanim on Rosh Hashana are not frivolous games.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But why is it called Great – HaGadol?

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

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

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

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

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

On certain special occasions, we make a blessing called Shehecheyanu, expressing thanks for the opportunity of experiencing the event.

Finishing the Torah cycle on Simchas Torah is a significant milestone, yet we don’t say the Shehecheyanu blessing.

Why not?

R’ Shlomo Farhi points out that the first word in the Torah is בראשית, and the last, ישראל. The first and last letters in the Torah spell out לב – heart. The Torah only wants an emotional investment from us – רחמנה ליבא בעי.

But in the correct order, it also spells out בל, as in בלבל or מבלבל, meaning “confused” or “mixed up”. When we look at the ocean of Torah before us, it is בלבל – uncharted and unknown territory. But looking back, it is our לב.

A Torah cycle does not stand in isolation – every new cycle amplifies previous cycles.

This lends light to the old adage that the Torah never finishes, and why we immediately loop back to the beginning. There is no end, only a constant battle against בלבל by way of לב, finishing again. And again. And again.

In other words, there’s no והגיענו!

It’s not the Torah we complete every year, only the cycle.

Avraham and Hashem spoke many times. We find that after the instruction to leave his birthplace, something happens that never happened before:

וַיִּפֹּל אַבְרָם, עַל-פָּנָיו; וַיְדַבֵּר אִתּוֹ אֱלֹהִים, לֵאמֹר – Avraham fell on his face, and God spoke to him. (17:3)

Avraham learns a glimpse of the future; marked by the sign of the covenant of circumcision.

Avraham stumbles in recoil, as though he were burned. The stumble is unique to this command – Avraham doesn’t fall over at any other time Hashem speaks to him.

Why had it never happened before?

R’ Chaim Soloveitchik explains that until a command is delivered, there is no counter-deficiency in not complying. But once he received such an instruction,he was defective, and literally could not stand in God’s presence in such a state.

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that this cuts both ways.

The standard expected of all Jews is nothing less that absolute, perfect dedication and diligent moral consciousness. Yet the standard of absolute perfection is a long way away from anything less than that, and perhaps out of reach as well. It’s a big leap to make.

But improvements can be gradual and incremental. So long as a person is not ready to for more responsibility, it doesn’t count against them – it’s perfectly reasonable to not be ready.

But when the moment arrives that they are ready, yet they are content to stay put, the burden counts against them – וַיִּפֹּל אַבְרָם, עַל-פָּנָיו.

Always chase more responsibility, and demand a higher standard of yourself. Moral consciousness is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t run before you can walk. One step at a time is an effective strategy.

Humility is one of the defining features of what it means to be a good person, and it was a characteristic closely associated with Yakov. When Yakov took stock of the blessing he had received, he recognised that he did not deserve the extent of what he had:

קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים וּמִכָּל הָאֱמֶת אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ אֶת עַבְדֶּךָ – I am diminished from all the kindness You have done Your servant. (32:11)

Humility means having the measure of what you are and where you stand. Humility does not mean downplaying yourself or your achievements. There is a required dose of arrogance is absolutely necessary to have confidence and pride in yourself.

The tension between humility, arrogance, and confidence are ever-present. Curiously, the Gemara cryptically sets an oddly specific ratio of an eighth of an eighth. Yakov’s admission

The Vilna Gaon notes that Yakov’s admission is the eighth pasuk in the eighth parsha. Yakov does not believe his merits are worth what he was given, and our perspective should be the same.

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that the number eight is where natural and supernatural meet. Seven is a cycle, and eight is a restatement of what came before, an octave higher. It is a renewal of the wavelength of relationship. This is what Bris and Yovel signify. Eight makes the seven that come before meaningful.

We must not get carried away with what we have, and what we have achieved. All that we are exists for us to help those around us. But even if you do focus on everyone else, and acknowledge that your talents and achievements are from God, it is still possible to get caught up in why you specifcically have the gifts you do.

This is the second eighth. It is not enough to acknowledge your gifts. True humility is recognition that the fact of the gift is itself a gift, and not because you deserve it.

So pay it forward.