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.

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.

One of the traits heralded by the Gemara as particularly Jewish is humility. Moshe emphasised that the people’s lack of stature was a good thing:

כִּי עַם קָדוֹשׁ אַתָּה, לה אֱלֹהֶיךָ: בְּךָ בָּחַר ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה, מִכֹּל הָעַמִּים, אֲשֶׁר עַל-פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה. לֹא מֵרֻבְּכֶם מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, חָשַׁק ה בָּכֶם–וַיִּבְחַר בָּכֶם: כִּי-אַתֶּם הַמְעַט, מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים. כִּי מֵאַהֲבַת ה אֶתְכֶם – You are a holy people to God. It is you He has selected, to be His chosen people, from all other nations on the face of the earth. You have not been chosen because you are mighty; in fact, you’re small. Purely because He loves you so… (7:6-8)

The Midrash says that this is a reference to humility – we are beloved because we make ourselves “small”.

The Sfas Emes says that the רֻבְּכֶם / מְעַט dynamic, of majority versus minority, frequently recurs. Jews have always been a minority; there are fewer Jews alive today than the margin of statistical error in the Chinese census! But in content, Jews contribute a disproportionate amount of knowledge and achievements to the world. This is our heritage from our ancestor, Yakov.

Yakov was so called because his name derives from being marginalised and disadvantaged, against all odds – or, מְעַט. He was Yakov because he was born clutching the heel – עקב – of the mighty Esav. He had to run away as Yakov. It requires shrewdness to overcome the challenges faced – shrewdness also being a derivative of the word עקב.

But after surmounting everything in his way, he is no longer the disadvantaged, shrewd Yakov. He is given a new name, Yisrael, a derivative of שר א-ל – a minister of God. The name שר indicates his mastery over all the obstacles he has overcome, to face the world and lead – or, רֻבְּכֶם.

The names linger on in our identity. But not everyone is equally gifted or talented; some people are predisposed to greatness with all the tools at their disposal. So is it not a level playing field?

The Sfas Emes explains that the מְעַט aspect of Yakov in everyone is the same. Everyone can do with reducing the mundane aspects if their lives. Everyone can display a little more gratitude and humility. Everyone would do well to not take their things or relationships for granted.

It is the מְעַט aspect that makes the difference, because that is what really makes the רֻבְּכֶם aspect. Yakov could only become Yisrael after dealing with the challenges that every ordinary Yakov has.

Not everyone can save the world, because not everyone is blessed with such ability. But everyone can certainly contribute that little more, to make the world that little bit better.

The Ramban says that Shmita and the Yovel cycle are fundamental mitzvos. Something is lost on us today – slavery has mostly vanished from earth, and Shmita and Yovel have long been missing large chunks of their key halachos for thousands of years.

Consider the fact that when the Ramban classified it as fundamental, Yovel hadn’t been properly marked for centuries. What about it is fundamental when the laws associated with it seems so antiquated, archaic, and arguably irrelevant?

The Pnei Yehoshua explains that Yovel is not just a time when slaves go free – it is a Yom Tov that celebrates freedom and liberty. The Sfas Emes notes that the nation was born by being liberated from the crucible of Egypt.

After millennia of exiles, restrictions on movement, bans, pogroms, genocide, and general oppression, society has developed to give all people human and civil rights; Jews can now practice Judaism relatively freely, to the extent that younger people today have little idea of what not being free means. While progress is undoubtedly a good thing, we must be vigilant not to take our rights for granted.

One of the brachos said daily is שלא עשני עבד – perhaps this alludes the principle that we do not take our unprecedented liberties for granted.

Yovel was dedicated to displaying our gratitude that we are always able to serve God – indicated by the shofar being blown. It becomes abundantly clear why it is classified a foundational mitzva; freedom is a wonderful thing that we are very grateful for. But moreover, perhaps it shows that even under oppression, slavery, and exile, we are nonetheless subjugated exclusively to God.

The soul always remains free.

Having delivered word of a fair few plagues already, Moshe is told to go see Paroh again, and the reason he is given is quite bizarre:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, בֹּא אֶל-פַּרְעֹה: כִּי-אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת-לִבּוֹ -Hashem said to Moshe, “Go see Paroh, because I’ve hardened his heart”. (10:1)

What is the cause and effect in the instruction? Why is the fact Moshe is sent related to Hashem hardening his heart?

The Sfas Emes explains that Paroh’s heart was hardened, meaning his resolve was given the endurance to withstand the plagues. This was the challenge Moshe was sent to address.

The Sfas Emes teaches that every Jew must know that every hurdle and obstacle they will ever face in life is a challenge straight from God. It is precisely because God is testing you that you must rise to the occasion. When a כִּי-אֲנִי הִכְבַּדְתִּי אֶת-לִבּוֹ is placed before us, is precisely when we receive the instruction of בֹּא אֶל-פַּרְעֹה.

Avraham spoke to God many times without incident. But just one time, in the conversation where God instruction Avraham to leave his birthplace, something unusual happens:

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

Avraham recoils as though he were burned. This sort of reaction to God’s presence is unique – nothing like this happens any other time.

What made Avraham fall?

In this conversation, Avraham got a glimpse of the future in store for his descendants, a covenant marked by the sign of circumcision.

R’ Chaim Soloveitchik explains that before something is required, there is no deficiency for not complying. But once the obligation exists, we are liable. Avraham didn’t have to circumcise himself before God told him – how could he know? But the very moment God gave the instruction, Avraham was physically 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 than absolute, perfect dedication, and diligent moral consciousness. Yet that standard is a long way away from anything humans are capable of.

But improvement is gradual and incremental. So long as you are not ready for more, it’s not your fault you’re not there yet.

But when the moment arrives that you can do more, and remain content to stay put, the burden counts against you – וַיִּפֹּל אַבְרָם, עַל-פָּנָיו.

Yes, chase more responsibility, learn more, and demand a higher standard of yourself. But the moral life is a marathon, not a sprint. One step at a time is an effective strategy too.

Don’t run before you can walk.

Hashem’s very first communication with Avraham was the immense challenge to abandon all he had ever known:

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

The instruction is quite odd because it doesn’t focus on where Avraham has to go, and the sequence of departure is counter-intuitive. First, you leave home, then the neighborhood, and then the country.

Why does the story emphasize leaving, and in such a strange way?

The Sfas Emes explains that the hallmark of great people is that they actively seek challenges and opportunities. Avraham was the first person to intuitively understand God’s vision for humanity of ethics and moral consciousness. But he couldn’t bring it about in the stagnant place he grew up.

You can forget your nationality quicker than the community you grew up in, and you can forget your community before you forget your family, but it is tough to forget what you learned at home. The Nesivos Shalom explains that the thrust of Hashem’s command is to discard the poor traits he might have picked up along the way.

Avraham was going somewhere new, to become something new. Old ideologies would have no place in this new vision, and they had to go.

Our environment is essential to our development as human beings. The more familiar the environment, the greater the effect it can have. The order of God’s instruction isn’t the order of how we leave home, but it’s the order of how home leaves us – מארצך וממולדתך ומבית אביך.

R’ Yitzchak Berkowitz teaches that greatness isn’t simply about going somewhere or doing something. It’s about leaving the comfortable, the familiar, and the supportive behind as well, what we’re letting go of. To get where we want to go, sometimes we need to let something go of something – לך לך.

The Mesilas Yesharim observes that the most natural default state for living things is laziness. When animals aren’t trying to eat or reproduce, they often won’t do anything at all because moving is a waste of energy. Even further, entropy is a law of physics that dictates that everything will sink to its most static state. Stagnation is natural!

It’s hard to move and think outside the comfort zone, and we develop a self-image, the story we tell ourselves of what we can and can’t do. After all, if you can’t do it, it’s not your fault, and it’s not your responsibility! We have to let go of that – לך לך.

The standard expected of all Jews is nothing less than absolute, perfect dedication, and diligent moral consciousness. Yet since that standard is a long way away from anything humans are capable of, we don’t even begin! We tell ourselves greatness is beyond us, so we don’t have to do anything.

That’s why more than God emphasizes the need to get somewhere; God emphasizes the need to get started – לך לך.

We need to get off zero and get going.

Before entry into the land of Israel, the people are warned that it is not like anything they have experienced:

וְלֹא תַחֲנִיפוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם בָּהּ כִּי הַדָּם הוּא יַחֲנִיף אֶת הָאָרֶץ וְלָאָרֶץ לֹא יְכֻפַּר לַדָּם אֲשֶׁר שֻׁפַּךְ בָּהּ כִּי אִם בְּדַם שֹׁפְכוֹ – Do not deceive the land in which you live, for the blood corrupts the land. The blood which is shed in the land cannot be atoned for – except through the blood of the one who shed it. (35:34)

The word חניפה means flattery, deception, corruption, and obfuscation. The term may seem highly odd in the context of land – these are distinctly human characteristics. But the land of Israel is no ordinary land.

R’ Moshe Feinstein draws a major distinction between contemporary international politics, and Jewish law. People concerned with saving the world will go to war, leaving incredible collateral damage and destruction in its wake. This is יַחֲנִיף אֶת הָאָרֶץ – the world has taken precedence over man. If people die are dying wantonly, the sanctity of life is being seriously underrated.

The only ideal to uphold is how precious every human life is – the prohibition of murder extends to every soul on earth, no matter what the circumstance. If a life must be taken, it must be precise. We know all to well that countries are scarred for years after being a battleground. This is not the way of the Torah.

The Torah tells us that the land is always secondary to man – the land is worthless if the people on it aren’t good people. חניפה is the disconnect between reality and an ideal – we must always know that we have to be honest with ourselves, always trying to improve. This is what the pasuk means when it says וְלֹא תַחֲנִיפוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם בָּהּ.

We must focus attention on our own actions and behaviour.

The Torah enjoins us to keep it’s laws, and good will come of it:

אִם בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ וְאֶת מִצְוֹתַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם – If you follow My statutes and observe My commandments and perform them… (26:3)

It is curious that the Torah predicts that good outcomes follow good actions, given that we are not meant to act for personal gain when performing mitzvos.

Rav Shach explains that it is not a reward, so much as it is a reality. הליכות עולם לו – the ways of the world are Hashem’s (Chabakuk 3:6). We say this when we say korbanos at the end of davening, and we quote the ma’amar Chazal that expounds אל תקרי הליכות אלא הלכות – Read it not as ways, but as laws. The הלכות, the Torah, that we bring in to the world, dictates the הליכות, the ways, of Hashem’s world.

Our actions are significant, and have a very real effect on the world – the extent to which we push ourselves influences how Hashem’s instructions trickle, filter, and amplify, ultimately developing into אִם בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ; that וְנָתַתִּי גִשְׁמֵיכֶם בְּעִתָּם, that וְחֶרֶב לֹא תַעֲבֹר. In this way, our actions affect our outcomes.

The Torah instructs us with verbs – תֵּלֵכוּ – we must follow the path, and then וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם. Judaism cannot be carried out passively.

The Alter of Slabokda would lament that people lack clarity and belief in this. He said that in the same way that people are certain that crop growth results from rain, they should be equally certain that rain is sent when society is dignified and kind. וְנָתְנָה הָאָרֶץ יְבוּלָהּ results from וְנָתַתִּי גִשְׁמֵיכֶם בְּעִתָּם, as much as וְנָתַתִּי גִשְׁמֵיכֶם בְּעִתָּם is a result of אִם בְּחֻקֹּתַי תֵּלֵכוּ.

We are in the driving seat – הליכות עולם לו.

The Chafetz Chaim would scold his students when they requested his blessing. We should be have enough faith that if we do the right thing with enough frequency, good will ultimately come of it.

If we are not performing our duties as Jews to the best of our abilities, do we have the right to complain? By taking care to speak to everyone gently and politely, is there any doubt that everyone you come in contact with will be politer and gentler for it? That’s how you begin to change the world.

The Torah details curses, of tragedy and atrocities, that occur when the Jewish nation strays from its course of bettering mankind. One of them stands out:

וְכָשְׁלוּ אִישׁ בְּאָחִיו – Each man will stumble over his brother (26:37)

The literal translation is incorrect. Rashi explains that this curse is the inverse of the famous maxim of כל ישראל ערבין זה לזה – all of Israel are accountable for one another. The curse is that Jews will stumble over other Jews sins.

The Maharal explains why the literal meaning is incorrect. Tripping over someone has nothing to do with brotherhood. When the Torah says וְכָשְׁלוּ אִישׁ בְּאָחִיו – the tripping is because of the brotherhood – the tripping is over the accountability that brotherhood engenders.

The root of the word ערבין is the word ערב – meaning mixture – it is the same root as the word for tasty, evening, guarantor, Arab and eruv. R’ Ezra Hartman explains that these are all mixtures; An eruv mixes property rights; tasty is the cuisine that “mixes” when digested; evening is twilight, in contrast to בקר which means “differentiate”, in twilight things are hard to make out. The name for ערבי – Arab, is a mixture too. The pasuk in Bereishis says of Yishmael, their ancestor, that יָדוֹ בַכֹּל וְיַד כֹּל בו – his hand will be upon all, and everyone’s hand upon him (16:12). Today, we see this as terrorism. Terrorism has no borders – it is potentially everywhere, in a school, a mall, a bus, a train or a plane.

Rashi saw fit to quote that the solution is כל ישראל ערבין – the nation is a unit, a brotherhood, with components accountable for one another – the Torah assures us that we will stumble on our brother’s problems it if we do not help them.

For that reason alone, we have to help them.

After the Golden Calf, Moshe gathers the people for a discourse:

וַיַּקְהֵל מֹשֶׁה אֶת כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה’ לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָם’ – Moses gathered the whole community of Israel to assemble, and he said to them: “These are the things that the Lord commanded to do” (35:1)

He tells them certain laws of Shabbos, and collection for and initiation of construction of the Mishkan.

This occurred the morning after the Yom Kippur Moshe returned with the second Luchos. It seems likely that his first public appearance upon his return would include a notable message regarding their conduct. Yet he gathered them together to discuss Shabbos and the Mishkan. The Nesivos Shalom notes out how usually, an act, speech or instruction initiate an episode; this is the sole instance where וַיַּקְהֵל , getting people together, starts a story.

The Noam Elimelech explains that mitzvos were given to the nation, not individuals. This means that when a person sins, it is an act of rebellion, splintering from the nation, albeit momentarily. Redemption and forgiveness is attained by blending back into the nation. In the same way a harmony is a beautiful sound where no single voice is discernible, a tzibbur, the collective, is safe because an individual does not stand out.

Moshe defended the Jews to God, and argued that the Golden Calf was the act of rogue individuals, not the nation. Sin is an individual act – how could the nation be held accountable, regardless of how many had indeed sinned?

On his return, he saw to it that what he said was indeed true. The nation was whole and not fractured – he united them – וַיַּקְהֵל. This makes וַיַּקְהֵל unique as an opening.

The Nesivos Shalom proves this from what Moshe told them. He said of the laws that לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָם – but the instructions for Shabbos that he mentions are to not light fire, and to not work. How is not doing something called לַעֲשֹׂת – to do?

Perhaps the instruction wasn’t discussing Shabbos at all; having conceded to Moshe’s argument, he received the instruction לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָם – to make them, the Jews, into a united nation once again – וַיַּקְהֵל. Moshe was told to back up his claim!

This concept recurs over and over. When the spies were sent, the nation could not be absolved. They were sent in the capacity of the people’s representatives, and the generation died out. The Purim rescue occurred once the divided nation fought stood as one לְהִקָּהֵל וְלַעֲמֹד עַל-נַפְשָׁם. Korach’s error was not believing that the nation was more potent than the individual, claiming כולם קדושים.

Not to say that the laws Moshe spoke about were incidental to the purpose of gathering them. Far from it. They were chosen as both are incumbent on the nation, serving the same function, in contrast to more personal mitzvos,

The Midrash says that Hashem said to Shabbos that כנסת ישראל is its pre-ordained. כנסת ישראל is the Jewish national identity and consciousness, the supersoul of the nation. Shabbos observance is not down to the individual alone – it requires everyone’s input. Shabbos intrinsically unites Jews.

The Mishkan was selected for the discourse for the same reason. Everyone was required to make donation, buying a small stake in it. Covering the project costs with a few individual sponsors would not have served it’s purpose.

Both demonstrate the potency of a group over an individual. The parts in a machine are unremarkable – but together they achieve complex and sophisticated goals. Note how many mitzvos require groups to be adequately performed. The Nesivos Shalom says that we refer to Hashem as אבינו – our father – conceptually, obviously. If we identify with the nation, we can say אבינו.

We say in the Amida every day: ברכנו אבינו כולנו כאחד באור פניך – when everyone gets along, we can proudly say אבינו.

As the newly liberated Jews flee Egypt, their former captors gave chase:

וּפַרְעֹה הִקְרִיב וַיִּשְׂאוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת עֵינֵיהֶם וְהִנֵּה מִצְרַיִם נֹסֵעַ אַחֲרֵיהֶם וַיִּירְאוּ מְאֹד וַיִּצְעֲקוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶל ה – Pharaoh drew near, and the children of Israel raised their eyes, and Egyptians were pursuing them. They were terrified, and they cried out to the Lord. (14:10)

Although the Torah clearly intends to mean that he drew near i.e. that he and his army approached, it doesn’t actually say that at all. It says הקריב – a word used for sacrifices, meaning “he brought near”. The Medrash says that Pharaoh was indeed מקריב – what he “brought near” was the Jews, closer to Hashem.

Why does the Torah attribute such credit Pharoah and what is it he did which deserved such high recognition?

There is a Midrash that teaches that prior to the Jews leaving Egypt, there was a debate in Heaven as to whether they should be allowed to leave. The prosecution and defense, the Kategor and Sanegor, would keep going in circles; “The Egyptians worship idols,” was countered with “So do the Jews!” – no redeeming quality could be found in the Jews favour.

The decisive factor in allowing their departure to occur was the faith placed in Hashem through deciding to follow Moshe.

Egypt recognised that their departure would be a massive loss and pursued them. Suddenly, the Jews faith evaporated:

וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל מֹשֶׁה הַמִבְּלִי אֵין קְבָרִים בְּמִצְרַיִם לְקַחְתָּנוּ לָמוּת בַּמִּדְבָּר מַה זֹּאת עָשִׂיתָ לָּנוּ לְהוֹצִיאָנוּ מִמִּצְרָיִם – They said to Moshe, “Were there no graves in Egypt that you have taken us to die in the desert? What have you have done by taking us out of Egypt!?” (14:11)

Their attachment to Moshe was severed, their faith gone. They cried out to Hashem but didn’t mean it – the entire episode demonstrates a lack of belief in God’s providence.

Moshe prays for assistance, and Hashem replies: מַה תִּצְעַק אֵלָי – What are you crying out to me for? Now is a time for action! This is וּפַרְעֹה הִקְרִיב – Pharaoh brought the Jews close to Hashem; but to the exclusion of Moshe from the equation. It is no praise at all.

So Hashem responds:

וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֶל מֹשֶׁה מַה תִּצְעַק אֵלָי דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִסָּעוּ – The Lord said to Moshe, “Why do you cry out to Me? Speak to the children of Israel and tell them to go!”. (14:15)

Their salvation was not going to be based on Moshe’s prayers, or theirs, as that wasn’t the problem.

Moshe’s authority had to be re-established, so Hashem gave him the solution: דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִסָּעו – their salvation would be as it was on leaving Egypt – through displaying faith their leader.

As the Pasuk says upon their entering the Red Sea: וַיַּאֲמִינוּ בַּה’ וּבְמֹשֶׁה עַבְדּוֹ – They believed in Hashem and His servant Moshe. (14:31).

In Moshe’s final speech to his people, he lets them know that whatever they do, they always have a stark choice:

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

The Vilna Gaon suggests that this principle reverberates through the ages, and is as relevant today as it was thousands of years ago. It is a personal, ever-relevant choice. Anyone, at any time, can choose to do better and be better.

Hashem “is giving” us a choice – in the present tense – נתן.

We can make the choice “today” – הַיּוֹם.

The time is now. Yesterday’s mistakes are today’s opportunities to make it right.

Chazal understand that repentance is like turning over a new leaf; to the extent that someone making amends is considered as innocent as a newborn baby.

Despite the niggling self-doubt in the recesses of our minds at the ability to change, Hashem assures that we are not alone. The choice is presented by the ultimate אָנכִי – “I am with you in the struggle”. God loves and is with us all, whatever mistakes we have made.

R’ Yitzchak Lande points out that the Torah frequently switches between plural and singular, to teach that every single Jew has to participate in building a better society. And if no one else is doing it, we do it anyway.

But God can only present the opportunity – אָנכִי נתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם. Teshuva is not foreclosed from anyone – God waits until the day we die to make amends if we only take that step.

But only we can take it.

In Moshe’s final address to the people, he tells them how each of them must take care to observe and uphold the law to earn God’s blessing:

וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם וְשָׁמַר ה’ אֱלֹ-ךָ לְךָ אֶת הַבְּרִית וְאֶת הַחֶסֶד אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֶיךָ – It will be because you listen to these ordinances, keep and perform them, that the Lord your God will keep for you the covenant and the kindness that He swore to your forefathers. (7:12)

Why does Moshe alternate between the singular and plural תִּשְׁמְעוּן / לְךָ?

Perhaps it serves to teach us how as individuals, we fit into a broader community.

The Gemara in Shabbos tells a story of a non-Jew who proposed that if Shammai could teach him how to observe the entire Torah while he was standing on one leg, he would convert to Judaism. Interpreting this as mockery, Shammai chased him away with a piece of construction material. When he made the same proposal to Hillel and stood on one leg, Hillel simply said, “Love your neighbor as yourself. The rest is commentary, now go and study.”

Clearly, the notion of learning anything on one leg is absurd, let alone the subject matter, or the stature of his audience. But the most interesting part of the story is Hillel’s response.

How does loving your neighbor incorporate laws such as Shabbos, lulav, and every other mitzvah?

Perhaps Shamma turned him away because it is simply impossible for an individual to observe every law in the Torah; many are mutually exclusive. Only a man can only do some, and only by a woman can do others; some only by a Kohen, some only by a Levi, and some only by a king! How could anyone learn to observe the whole Torah?

Shammai chased him away with construction material – the imagery of which alludes to a building that has many component sections – rooms, ceilings, walls, and floors. Without its parts, there is no building.

In the same vein, a lone Jew is incomplete. Shamai’s response indicates that the Torah is not for individuals; it belongs to the Jewish People as a whole.

Hillel went one step further – he proposed how people can transcend their individuality and become part of something bigger.

The ultimate expression of וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ is כאיש אחד בלב אחד – one man with one heart – disparate parts forming one holistic unit.

We do not have separate identities for our hands or our feet. They all belong to one indivisible “me”.

We can not observe the entire Torah individually. But by forming a group, we can observe the whole Torah collectively. Arguably, shaping this cohesive identity is one of the Torah’s expressly stated goals.

R’ Yitzchak Lande notes that the Torah switches from plural to singular throughout because although there is a communal responsibility, we each have an individual’s duty to pitch in.

Moshe says וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם וַעֲשִׂיתֶם – we must collectively keep and perform the Torah, and then וְשָׁמַר ה’ אֱלֹ-ךָ, Hashem will protect you – the individual.

Because even the most observant person cannot keep the whole Torah – we can each only do the best we can.

Adapted from a shiur by R’ Shlomo Farhi

The Gemara relates a story about a gentleman called Nachum. He was a man who had a a difficult life, but whenever something bad happened, he would say “Gam Zu L’Tovah – this also is for the good”, and this is what he later became known as – Nachum Ish Gam Zu. But why does the Gemara call him Nachum Ish Gam Zu, literally, “Nachum Also”? He was famous for saying “Gam Zu L’Tovah” yet he is not called “Nachum Ish Gam Zu L’Tovah”! One would think that “L’Tovah” would be the key part of what he is remembered as, as opposed to the seemingly extraneous ‘also’.

To understand the answer, we must be aware that there is a fundamental misunderstanding with regard to what he did, and consequently what he is remembered for until today. He wouldn’t pass a car crash and point and say it was “l’Tova” – one cannot label an inherently bad thing as “good”. “Good” is clearly not an applicable adjective. The depth behind his words is as follows: What he did was recognise the masterplan of Hashem, and the web in which events in our lives unfold. He attempted to see the bigger picture, the greater good which is hidden from our direct sight. That web, that bigger picture, is l’tova. Parts of it may not be, or may not obviously be but in recognising that bad events are part of a good web, we should be able to say  “Gam Zu L’Tovah!” So in fact ‘Gam Zu’ – his ability to see that this is “also (one more event)” is the key part of what Nachum said – it is the mechanism by which he could label bad as “also” being good. Not just “L’Tovah”.

It take a great inner strength to truly be able to say, in the face of a bad event ‘this too shall pass’ and to really believe in the bigger picture and the greater good. But by working on that strength, we will be able to get to the stage where we can say, as Nachum did, Gam Zu L’Tovah – This too is for the good. The word ‘also’ is the very mechanism that allowed him (and resultantly us) to state something was ‘L’Tovah’.

When the Jewish armies return from their attack on Midian, Moshe went out to check if his orders had been carried out:

וַיִּקְצֹף מֹשֶׁה עַל פְּקוּדֵי הֶחָיִל שָׂרֵי הָאֲלָפִים וְשָׂרֵי הַמֵּאוֹת הַבָּאִים מִצְּבָא הַמִּלְחָמָה וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶם מֹשֶׁה הַחִיִּיתֶם כָּל נְקֵבָה – Moshe became angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had returned from battle. Moshe said to them, “Did you allow all their women to live?!” (31:14, 15)

Moshe is the actor once the Torah states that וַיִּקְצֹף מֹשֶׁה. Why then, does the Torah reiterate that וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶם מֹשֶׁה – that Moshe spoke?

Rav Zalman Sorotzkin explains that the Torah illustrates here that if angry, avoid speaking until the anger settles. The reiteration indicates that there was a pause between his anger and his speech. They were two very separate acts.

The Peleh Yoietz compares keeping quiet when angry to spraying water at the base of a fire. It extinguishes the source. R Elya Lopian would never punish a student at the time of an incident. The Alter of Kelm had an “angry suit” that he would change into each time he was angry, delaying reaction and allowing himself to calm down.

Controlling emotions are hard – but it is required. It is a life-long struggle, but we can never let up. Each breakthrough makes it easier next time around, not to mention the mountain of reward for managing to do it.

Actions must be thought through – not based on impulse.

After assuaging God’s wrath and ending the plague, Pinchas is hailed:

פִּינְחָס בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן הֵשִׁיב אֶת חֲמָתִי מֵעַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּקַנְאוֹ אֶת קִנְאָתִי בְּתוֹכָם וְלֹא כִלִּיתִי אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּקִנְאָתִי – Pinchas, son of Elazar, son of Ahron HaKohen, has turned My anger away from the children of Israel with his zealously avenging Me among them, so that I did not destroy the children of Israel because of My zeal. (25:11)

Rashi notes that his ancestry is traced to his grandfather, which is unusual. People were and are normally identified as their father’s son. This is an exception as people mocked him taking action against Zimri, saying his mother’s father, Yisro, had been a pagan idol worshipper; so the Torah identifies him as being of good stock.

R’ Yonasan Eibshutz wonders what there was to mock. After the fact, the plague stopped and he was hailed as a hero, but even before taking action, no doubt any lucid person would identify that Zimri was liable to the death penalty. So why mock him?

R’ Eibshutz answers that they accepted that Zimri was guilty, but did not kill him themselves because they believed a simple person had to do it; they held themselves too great to carry out the execution. Their mockery was that the idolator’s offspring could!

The Torah identifies his heritage to Ahron – he actually was great. Their reasoning was simply an excuse. When circumstances call for action, someone has to stand up and be counted.

The opening of Yirmiyahu perfectly illustrates this:

וָאֹמַר אֲהָהּ ה’ הִנֵּה לֹא-יָדַעְתִּי דַּבֵּר כִּי-נַעַר אָנֹכִי. וַיֹּאמֶר ה אֵלַי אַל-תֹּאמַר נַעַר אָנֹכִי כִּי עַל-כָּל-אֲשֶׁר אֶשְׁלָחֲךָ תֵּלֵךְ וְאֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר אֲצַוְּךָ תְּדַבֵּר – I said, “Alas, God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am just a kid!” And the Lord said to me; “Do not say to me Me “I am just a kid,” because wherever I send you, you will go, and whatever I command you, you will say”. (1:6-7)

R Nosson Vachtvogel remarked how many great people fell by the wayside by not internalizing אַל-תֹּאמַר נַעַר אָנֹכִי. The Gemara teaches that every individual must walk through life believing that the entire universe was created exclusively for their sake.

There is a time and place for everything; there is a time to be humble and keep your opinion to yourself; but there may be a time to stand up and change the world. It’s as simple as recognizing an issue, and being ready to something about it.

When introducing the story of Miriam, Rashi notes that it is juxtaposed with the story of the spies speaking ill of the land because the spies saw what had happened to Miriam, yet failed to learn a lesson about evil speech.

The association is bizarre, and very problematic as a source for the lesson of not speaking negatively. Miriam spoke out against a human being – and the greatest to walk this earth to boot. Why would they apply the lesson to insentient, inanimate land?

The Rambam teaches that the greater a person is, the greater exercise of humility required. The character appraisal the Torah gives of Moshe is emphatic:

והאיש משה עניו מאד מכל אדם אשר על פני האדמה – Moshe was more humble than any person on the face of the earth.

This may seem a little bit hyperbolic – but actually, indicates his level of humility – he made himself impervious to personal sensitivity – like the ground.

The lesson they could have taken on is suddenly not bizarre at all. They ought to have taken heed that Miriam spoke ill of someone who was totally detached, and genuinely did not care – not only did he completely forgive her, he immediately prayed for her recovery. This being the case, we are able to grasp the juxtaposition of the two events.

There is a phenomenally difficult, but very important lesson about sensitivity in speech here. In both cases, the error in speech was much more subtle than a straightforward, nasty piece of gossip. Yet Tisha B’Av and all tragedies in Jewish history have since ensued as a consequence.

That the level required here is beyond us may be a valid observation, but think of the reverse; what with how powerful our speech clearly is, what could be achieved with dedication and perseverance?

A woman accused of adultery without evidence is put through an ordeal, wherein she is made to drink an odd concoction:

וְלָקַח הַכֹּהֵן מַיִם קְדֹשִׁים בִּכְלִי חָרֶשׂ וּמִן הֶעָפָר אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה בְּקַרְקַע הַמִּשְׁכָּן יִקַּח הַכֹּהֵן וְנָתַן אֶל הַמָּיִם – The cohen shall take water in an earthen vessel, some earth from the Mishkan floor, the kohen shall take and put it into the water. (5:17)

וְכָתַב אֶת הָאָלֹת הָאֵלֶּה הַכֹּהֵן בַּסֵּפֶר וּמָחָה אֶל מֵי הַמָּרִים – Then the kohen shall write these curses (containing God’s name) on a scroll and erase it in the bitter water. (5:23)

To recap, the ingredients she is made to drink are water, earth, and the ink of God’s name. Is there any significance to these components?

The Mishna in Avos (3:1) says:

עקביה בן מהללאל אומר, הסתכל בשלושה דברים, ואין אתה בא לידי עבירה–דע מאיין באת, ולאיין אתה הולך, ולפני מי אתה עתיד ליתן דין וחשבון: מאיין באת, מליחה סרוחה. ולאיין אתה הולך, למקום רימה ותולעה. ולפני מי אתה עתיד ליתן דין וחשבון, לפני מלך מלכי המלכים הקדוש ברוך הוא – Akavia the son of Mahalalel would say: Reflect upon three things and you will not come to the hands of transgression. Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgement and accounting. You came from a putrid drop of liquid – correlating to water; where you are going – the grave, a place of earth; and before whom you are destined to give an accounting – before the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.

This clearly correlates to God’s name. The Torah is like a prism – different parts reflect different levels, layers and sections, but they contain the same blueprint.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sections of the laws of sacrifices detail how to dispose of what is not eaten or burnt as part of the Korban. It opens:

צַו אֶת אַהֲרֹן וְאֶת בָּנָיו לֵאמֹר זֹאת תּוֹרַת הָעֹלָה – Command Aaron and his sons, saying, This is the law of the burnt offering. (6:2)

It is curiously referred to as תּוֹרַת הָעֹלָה – despite not being the burnt offe at all, which is discussed earlier in the Torah. It is the fats, leftovers and refuse! How is it תּוֹרַת הָעֹלָה?

The Midrash tells how the students of R’ Yosi bar Kisma asked him when Mashiach would come to which he cryptically responded “זֹאת תּוֹרַת הָעֹלָה”.

R’ Moshe Wolfson quotes the Satmar Rav in the name of his father, who explained. Disposal of the leftovers and undesirable parts at night seems mundane and inelegant; just something that has to be done. The Torah states that an attitude adjustment is called for – this work is not mundane at all, it’s תּוֹרַת הָעֹלָה – and therefore entirely holy!

By quoting this, R’ Yosi was telling his students that their question was fundamentally flawed. Their underlying assumption was that exile is a waste of time, but just has to be, like taking the trash out. His answer was that it is not a waste of time at all, it is a separate but equally important component in the bigger picture, just in a different form.

The origins of formal prayer can be pegged to two sources. They either correlate to the Temple sacrifices that are lost to us; or they symbolise the three times the Patriarchs prayed. The Torah records how Avraham stood in prayer in the morning, which we call Shachris; Yitzchak stood in the afternoon, which we call Mincha; and Yakov in the evening, which we call Maariv.

The Patriarchs were prototypes of the Jewish people, each generation refining and honing what was there, discarding undesirable traits; Yakov was the final version. It seems counter-intuitive that he is credited with Maariv, which is the least required of all the prayers. Shachris and Mincha have clearly defined Halachic requirements, and Maariv does not, to anywhere near the same degree. Arguably, it could even be said to be optional! So why is the least significant prayer attributed to our most significant ancestor?

The Sfas Emes answers along a similar vein. Yakov embodies and encapsulates the Jew in exile. There is an imprint in our national identity left by our ancestors footsteps. Forcibly displaced from his home in Israel, to a degenerate foreign soil, yet a remarkable model of quality, integrity, dignity, and class. Perfect in every way, he set the bar as high as possible. Maariv, and Yakov, are the Jew persevering against all odds, when it may even be understandable for not pulling through. This is why he was the final prototype, and why Maariv is attributed to him.

The slumps and downside of things have their key role too, and must be recognised as part of the greater web of events that lead us onward. The laws under discussion concern fats of the animal that are burned at night. Fat represent a lack of faith – it is stored energy, hedged against the possibility that the next meal may be hard to come by. Faith in the dark, in the hard times, is critical. This is what Yakov embodied, and that is what תּוֹרַת הָעֹלָה is.

It is pertinent to note that the Torah obliges us to burn the fat, this lack of faith, specifically at nighttime. להגיד בבוקר חסדיך, ואמונתך בלילות – at night, or when things seem unknown, cold, dark, when we feel most alone, that is precisely when we have to persevere most.

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.

In the Hagada, one of the four questions asked is that שבכל הלילות, אנו אוכלין חמץ ומצה, הלילה הזה כולו מצה – Why on other nights do we eat chametz and matza, whereas tonight we only eat matza?

The Abarbanel explains that this question has an additional subtle nuance to it. The Korban Pesach is essentially a Korban Toda, a thanksgiving offering, for having been saved. With an ordinary thanksgiving offering, the sacrifice is brought with chametz loaves and matza crackers as part of the offering. The question therefore becomes; why is the thanksgiving offering on Pesach only supplemented with matza?

The Chasam Sofer explains that chametz is a metaphor for negativity. It is symbolic of the inflation of the ego, among other things. Matza is synonymous with the positive and pure – it is representative of things the way they ought to be, in their simple, distilled, natural state.

When we offer a regular thanksgiving sacrifice, we are thanking Hashem for the good He has done, but equally, the bad from which we learn to appreciate the good.

But on Pesach there is no such thing as bad; even being enslaved served a “good” purpose – it certainly wasn’t a punishment for anything the slaves had done! If the Jews could achieve perfection without going through Egypt, they wouldn’t have had to – therefore it served a constructive purpose. The purpose was so that when they were offered the Torah the Jews would be able to understand and accept the concept of service – they had been pushed to the limit and beyond in Egypt; they could do the same for Hashem. We answer how Pesach is a night where כולו מצה – there is no such thing as bad, there is only good.

The Chafetz Chaim wonders why Moshe was unable to build the Menorah, a problem he had not had when building everything else, and had to ask many times for the instructions to be repeated. The answer parallels the above. The Menorah is compared to to the Torah – hence the phrase “the light” of Torah – and it’s eternity. Moshe’s problem was that he did not understand how he could make something that was meant to reflect the infinite and eternal. Homiletically, how could the Jews keep the Torah forever? Wouldn’t there be evil? Exiles, wars, Holocausts, Inquisitions, expulsions and pogroms?

Hashem’s answer to Moshe illustrates this concept perfectly. “Put it in the fire, and see what comes out”. In reality, there is no negativity, and challenges are not bad. It is only a trial from which there is potential to grow. Adversity builds character.

Part of the laws intrinsic to the service include the uniforms, and regulations around them. The Kohen Gadol had extra clothing, with their own laws:

וְיִרְכְּסוּ אֶת הַחֹשֶׁן מִטַּבְּעֹתָיו אֶל טַבְּעֹת הָאֵפֹד בִּפְתִיל תְּכֵלֶת לִהְיוֹת עַל חֵשֶׁב הָאֵפוֹד וְלֹא יִזַּח הַחֹשֶׁן מֵעַל הָאֵפוֹד – They shall fasten the breastplate by its rings to the rings of the apron with a blue cord, so that it will be on the band of the apron; and the breastplate will not move off the apron. (28:28)

Although separate, the breastplate and rear-facing apron were fastened together at all times. Simply because the breastplate did not have a neck chain, and the apron had no shoulder straps – they would balance and offset each other. But the Torah is not giving logistical or fashion advice – if this is how they are worn, it need not be specified at all. Why emphasise that they are inseparable then?

The Gemara in Erchin explains how each of the garments the Kohen Gadol wore would atone for a different national deficiency. The apron atoned for idolatry, while the breastplate atoned for financial dishonesty, with regard to both business and judicial matters.

R’ Moshe Feinstein notes that this could very well be the reason that the breastplate and apron were inseparable – they share a common facet. Someone who worships idols does not believe that God controls all things. Someone who cheats, steals, distorts, or embezzles in their finances is guilty of the same crime!

Dishonesty, and all forms of financial impropriety demonstrate that the guilty party believes that both no-one is watching, and that they can get more than what ought to be coming their way. This is entirely heretical, antithetical to Judaism, and quite similar to idolatry.

R’ Moshe Feinstein explains that the root of both is the same – a belief that Hashem lacks control over the world. Therefore, since they are inherently similar, the Torah specifies that these two parts of clothing are inseparable- they are almost the same.

Among the first laws given after Sinai, are some interpersonal laws, particularly the laws requiring that the needy are taken care of:

אִם כֶּסֶף תַּלְוֶה אֶת עַמִּי אֶת הֶעָנִי עִמָּךְ… – When you lend money to My people, to the poor person with you…. (22:24)

Although not readily noticeable in a translation, the phrasing is quite cumbersome, particularly the word עִמָּךְ – with you – in the context.

The Alshich explains that everything is Hashem’s, and merely deposited with us. We are given the privilege of having money in order to distribute it. With this thought, the Torah is imploring us to remember that no matter what we do with our money – אִם כֶּסֶף תַּלְוֶה אֶת עַמִּי – that אֶת הֶעָנִי עִמָּךְ – it belongs to the poor; it is incidentally with you. We should therefore take great care and responsibility.

The Vilna Gaon explains that the Torah is alluding to a standard monetary law: loans are agreed before witnesses to prevent unscrupulous activity, whereas charity is done in solitude, and no-one needs to know. אִם כֶּסֶף תַּלְוֶה – When you lend money – אֶת עַמִּי – do so before My people; – אֶת הֶעָנִי – To the poor however – עִמָּךְ – do it alone. The Torah advises the correct way to give charity – in secret. There is a world of difference bee tween being good, and looking good – here the Torah stresses to be good, when no one will ever know.

The Kli Yakar explains that when a person gives charity or a charitable loan, all good deeds and benefits resultant from it are credited to the person who financed the good deeds and actions. The reading would then be – אִם כֶּסֶף תַּלְוֶה אֶת עַמִּי אֶת הֶעָנִי – If you lend/give money to my people or the needy – עִמָּךְ -all the merits that result are “with you” too!

All these novel teachings have a very simple underpinning; money is not meant to be accumulated and stockpiled for personal gain. If people are privileged enough to earn their daily bread, or even more, spread it around, with class. The word for charity, צדקה, literally means “justice”. By engaging in charitable pursuits, you are, in a very real way, dispensing a little more justice into the world.

We would all do well to internalise that we do not get rich off the sweat of our brows alone; that we should care for the needy, away from the spotlight too; and that the effects of charity continue to compound long after. If everyone knew that, the world might look quite different.

It starts with one.

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

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

To which he receives the reply:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s precisely why these examples were selected.

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

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

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

The Torah does not introduce us to Moshe as an adult, ready to save the Jewish people. The Torah tells us of his birth and adoption by the Egyptian royal family.

Moshe’s childhood contains subtle descriptions of his nature that resulted in his eventual leadership. It is clear throughout that although brought up in the palace, he was aware that he was a Jew:

וַיְהִי בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם וַיִּגְדַּל מֹשֶׁה וַיֵּצֵא אֶל אֶחָיו וַיַּרְא בְּסִבְלֹתָם וַיַּרְא אִישׁ מִצְרִי מַכֶּה אִישׁ עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו – It came to pass in those days. Moshe grew up, and went out to his brothers and saw their burdens. He saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man of his brothers (2:11).

He recognised the slaves as his brothers, which distressed him. His kin were suffering, but he was a prince of Egypt!

When he came across an Egyptian bully abusing a Jew, it was too much to ignore:

וַיִּפֶן כֹּה וָכֹה וַיַּרְא כִּי אֵין אִישׁ וַיַּךְ אֶת הַמִּצְרִי וַיִּטְמְנֵהוּ בַּחוֹל – He looked this way and that way, and saw that there was no-one; he attacked the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. (2:12)

He made the decision to stand with his people and killed the Egyptian. An outlaw, he committed a crime against the people and land that had raised and nurtured him.

R’ Nathan Lopez Cardozo explains how this pasuk is also true of Moshe’s internal conflict. He was a walking contradiction; Egyptian and Jew, yet neither as well! He looked within, this way and that way, and saw that there was no-one. So he left the Egyptian inside him in the sand, rejecting Egyptian culture and values.

This all fits into the picture we have of Moshe before he became a leader. He was someone who would put his neck on the line for others.

That’s leadership takes.

The Midrash teaches that when a person arrives in Heaven, he is put on trial to account for how he spent his life. The experience is said to be as mortifying and humiliating as when Yosef revealed himself to his brothers.

The dramatic way the story unfolds is instructive.

Yosef planted stolen property on Binyamin and imprisoned him, to determine if his brothers had changed over the years. Yehuda stepped forward to persuade their captor with a heart-rending plea on behalf of their old father, that to return home without his youngest son would be the death of him. Yehuda begged him that out of mercy to their elderly father, he would release Binyamin.

Seeing how they would stick up for each other, Yosef knew that things were different. This was the moment to reveal his true identity:

וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל אֶחָיו אֲנִי יוֹסֵף הַעוֹד אָבִי חָי וְלֹא יָכְלוּ אֶחָיו לַעֲנוֹת אֹתוֹ כִּי נִבְהֲלוּ מִפָּנָיו – Yosef said to his brothers, “It is I, Yosef. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer because they were so shocked.

His brothers were talking about their obviously living father moments ago. What was his question?

The Beis Halevi explains that this was rhetoric picking up on their new found concern for their poor old father. This completely ironic question is heartrending. “Is he not my father too? Didn’t you think of his pain then? Is he only alive to you now that you are the victim?”

With such a turn of events, of course were shocked into silence. Not just because of the surprise, but because he was completely correct. They were hypocrites!

Yet what happens next shows the calibre of the men this story is about. Without a hint of malice, he simply embraced them all.

This is what the Midrash is about.

It is worth noting that until the point he revealed himself, Yosef was a threat, and they were dangerous too. Shimon and Levi were known killers!  Yosef sent out all his staff, risking his life, rather than humiliate them any more than necessary,

The story is a paradigm for how to mend a broken relationship. It is comprehensive but concise when delivered, and accepted when received.

We all have relationship struggles for far less. Whichcould be mended with a few well chosen words?