Shaya Cohen -


My Yom Kippur Speech

Jews are big on introspection. And Yom Kippur is the most introspective day of them all.

On this day, we consider the past year, and we dig deep to find faults, search to examine aspects of our behavior which could use correction or improvement. After all, we are told, repeatedly, that our lives can be for a blessing, or for a curse.

But what creates a curse?

In the Torah, curses come to those who interfere in someone else’s relationship.

How can I make such a claim? Because Jacob and his mother, Rivka, made it.

Here is the context: Isaac had asked Esau to go hunt and make Isaac food that he loved. And after that, Isaac had promised to give Esau a blessing.

When they discuss deceiving Isaac to steal the blessing Isaac meant for Esau, Jacob says:

אוּלַ֤י יְמֻשֵּׁ֙נִי֙ אָבִ֔י וְהָיִ֥יתִי בְעֵינָ֖יו כִּמְתַעְתֵּ֑עַ וְהֵבֵאתִ֥י עָלַ֛י קְלָלָ֖ה וְלֹ֥א בְרָכָֽה, וְהֵבֵאתִ֥י עָלַ֛י קְלָלָ֖ה וְלֹ֥א בְרָכָֽה

I shall appear to him as a trickster and bring upon myself a curse, not a blessing.” But his mother said to him, “Your curse, my son, be upon me!”

What were they doing? They were deceiving Isaac, to be sure. Deception is acting against good faith behavior, against emes. And that might bring a curse. But there is another facet here that may escape most peoples’ notice: Rivka and Jacob were also getting in the middle of the relationship between Isaac and Esau!

And when Rivka and Jacob get in the middle, they interfere with the relationship of father and son. They stopped Esau from honoring his father, and they stopped Isaac from blessing his son (in the way he had expected). They broke the family apart!

And a curse certainly resulted: Rivka’s death is unmarked. She is deprived of the son she loves for many years – and Jacob is similarly deprived of his own favored son, Joseph, for the same number of years. The family does not start to turn into a nation for another generation (Jacob’s sons were the first to choose to live with their father). In short, the decision to get in the middle of someone else’s relationship brought delay for some and ruin for others.

And I think the lesson here is one we should consider deeply in our own lives. How many times do we give flippant advice to others on how they should deal with their parents, or children or spouses? How many times do we assume we know what is best for someone else in their own world?

Too many.

Think of the popular trend these days of women complaining about men. People sit around, identify the negative, and tell others what they should be doing. Marriages are broken and ruined by people who are not even in the marriage, but whose advice or general demeanor corrodes and eats away at the best intentions of someone else. Imagine, if you will, the consequences of helping to push someone else to divorce their spouse? Consider that the weight of everything that happens after that, all the damage to the married couple and to children and society is, to some extent, your fault.

It is no better, of course, when men bad-mouth women. When we take an individual person, who has their own life and their own challenges, and submit them to facile categorization because of their sex or marital status or frankly, anything else, we are not treating them as a person: we are treating them as a statistic. That is not the Torah way.

I know that I have a lot of room to grow in this area. I know that it is always easy to tell someone else what to do. And I think that it behooves us, especially those of us whose advice is sought after or valued, to be profoundly aware of the weight that comes with that power. It is a great responsibility.

We are also told not to curse G-d, and especially our parents. This is, on its face, not too hard: we can avoid cursing our parents, surely!

But what if the meaning of the word klal is not necessarily a curse? What might it mean?

Then [Noach] sent out the dove to see whether the waters had decreased [klal] from the surface of the ground.


He cohabited with Hagar and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was lowered [klal] in her esteem.

If the word klalah really has the same meaning as it does elsewhere in the text, then perhaps “curse” is really just “diminishing?” In that case, “cursing” our parents is something we have all done, in some way, at some point. Perhaps we make excuses for our parents, or are embarrassed about them. Maybe we make light of them in some way, or even mock their limitations or ignorance. We might even have the most righteous complaint in the world – they might legitimately be awful parents – but the Torah does not care: we do not diminish our parents.

Yet another thing to keep in mind when contemplating how we can be better going forward.

So when we interfere with the relationships others, the consequence is that we are reduced in some way: in possessions, or stature, honor, or love. When we get in the way, we harm their lives, and, the Torah says, we reduce our own potential to attain blessing, increase in all things.

Food for thought. And food for repentance.

[Note that I am not reviewing a different word for “curse”, arur, but instead the word that is usually used as the opposite of a blessing. Arur, for example, is the word used against the snake and the land after eating the fruit. Arur seems to mean a specific harm, while klalah means a general reduction of some kind.]


Burial Part 8: Israel and Egypt?


If any party has sinned and is adjudged for death and is put to death, and you string up the body on a tree, you must not let the corpse remain on the tree, but must bury it the same day. For a strung-up body is a curse to God and you shall not spiritually block the land that your G-d is giving you to possess.

Why does the verse specify that not burying a body would block the specific land of Israel? Why does the choice of land actually matter?

Consider that in the Torah there is only one example of a person who is strung up on a tree: Pharaoh’s Baker, whom Joseph met in prison.

In three days Pharaoh will elevate your head and string you up on a tree; and the birds will pick off your flesh.”

This neatly summarizes much of the explanation of this verse: Egypt was a land fixated on death, where the existence of the living was centered around the preparation for death. Egypt was a land where bodies were strung up, and left there so the birds could eat the rotting flesh. Egypt is a land that cannot be elevated, that is perpetually spiritually blocked because of the way in which the living and the dead are treated.

But the Land of Israel is the land of connection and elevation: man to G-d, earth to heaven. Holy relationships are at the core of the mission of the Jewish people, as told to us in the Torah. Torah Judaism is all about doing what we can while we are alive. The dead cannot praise G-d.

We live for this world. And when we die, our bodies and souls are meant to return to their sources. Most critically: returning the body to the earth elevates it! In the Land of Israel, the land of the closest connection to the divine, it is essential that every person, through life as well as in death, has every opportunity to connect with G-d.

[Note that this is part of a series explicating a single verse: Deuteronomy 21:23. All work was done in collaboration with @susanquinn, @kidcoder, @blessedblackmith and @eliyahumasinter. The full series can be found on]


Burial Part 7: Spiritually Blocking the Land?

You shall not spiritually block the land [by leaving a body strung up on a tree].

What on earth can this last part of this verse mean? Why is leaving a body on a tree a spiritual block to the earth?

Let’s unpack the language:

The “spiritual block” is sometimes (mis)translated as “unclean.” But its meaning is that something is unable to be elevated, to reach toward heaven. Thus, a person who is blocked cannot engage in acts of holiness until they are spiritually unblocked, either through immersing in earthed waters, the elapsing of time, or some form of spiritual rebirth back to before death existed (the red heifer ritual). Some things, like animals we are forbidden from eating, are inherently incapable of spiritual elevation. But people can be in either state. So too, according to the text, the earth can either be capable of spiritual elevation, or it can be blocked from that elevation.

Why should man be buried? Because the Torah tells us so!

By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat, until you return to the ground. For from it you were taken. For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.

So Adam (and all of mankind) are told we are supposed to be returned to the earth. The body is, famously, “Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.” Perhaps this is more than just about mankind.

Perhaps, indeed, this is about the Bigger Picture: our purpose in this world seems to be connected to healing the rift in the world between its polar dualities, to elevating the physical toward the spiritual, bringing light to darkness, combining men and women in holy marriage, connecting man to G-d. And in this spirit, it seems that the earth is part of our mission: we are supposed to be elevating the world in our lives and in our deaths.

The soul has a symbolic physical existence: breath, and blood. The Torah tells us that the spirit of an animal or a person can be found in their blood: Abel’s blood calls out to G-d from the earth. Similarly,

If any Israelite or any stranger who resides among them hunts down an animal or a bird that may be eaten, that person shall pour out its blood and cover it with earth.

So an animal that is killed for a higher purpose (food), must have its blood released into the earth, to help take a step toward a world that is focused on connecting with G-d, of seeking positive and holy relationships with every action we do.

G-d made man partially from dust of the earth, and partially from a divinely-blown soul. And this verse seems to be telling us that after our lives, we are supposed to return to our constituent sources: the body goes back to the earth, and the soul goes back to G-d. Both our bodies and souls are on loan, and must be returned after use.

But returning a person to his sources seems to have to happen in order. The soul does not merely return to G-d unless the body/blood are first put back in the earth. There is an order to the operations, this verse seems to be telling us: the hung body must be buried to avoid cursing G-d, and blocking the land from spiritual elevation. A body decomposing in air cheats the earth of its elevation, and interferes with the relationship between each person and his Creator.

By binding the body and the soul together when a person is created, G-d is making an investment in each person. Perhaps that binding implies that the soul cannot be released back to G-d unless and until the body fulfills the “dust to dust” intonement.

[Note that this is part of a series explicating a single verse: Deuteronomy 21:23. All work was done in collaboration with @susanquinn, @kidcoder, @blessedblackmith and @eliyahumasinter. The full series can be found on]


Burial Part 6: Cursing G-d

A strung-up body is a curse of God.

What does this mean? How is a body that is strung up a curse of G-d? Indeed, the verse is so odd that translations cannot even agree if the curse is of the hanged man, or a curse of G-d, or by G-d, or under G-d… What is clear is that a curse is involved. But why?

We can start by understanding that the first time the word for “curse” is found in the Torah is with Rivkah and Jacob:

If my father touches me, I shall appear to him as a trickster and bring upon myself a curse, not a blessing.” But his mother said to him, “Your curse, my son, be upon me! Just do as I say and go fetch them for me.”

What did they do to bring the curse down? It might be for the willful deception. But I think in this case, it might also be for interfering in the relationship between a father and son, for getting in the middle of an opportunity for a relationship to grow. Esau serving his father was to be an act of honoring his father, a holy act of growth. Interrupting that act thus earned a curse.

This might explain why leaving a body strung up on a tree creates a curse. Each person is, after all, given a soul which is comprised of the divine breath: G-d formed the Human from the soil, blowing into his nostrils the breath of life: the Human became a living being.

But a body that is hung has its breath trapped within it (a noose stops breathing).

Perhaps the Torah is telling us that an unburied body, with its breath trapped within it, has a soul that cannot return to G-d?! And in that case, anyone who blocks the return of a human soul is acting just as Rivkah and Jacob did, by interfering with someone else’s relationship.

Each person has a soul on loan from G-d. When we die, the soul is meant to return to its source (what happens after that is not told to us in the Torah). And so we should be sensitive to the fact that G-d seems to want human souls returned, even for murderers who were justly executed.

The Torah seems to be making an even bolder and more general statement: that we, as people, are capable of creating a curse merely by interfering with the lives of others, with the relationships between other people, or the relationships between man and G-d.

If this is correct, then the meaning of this verse spawns thousands of ripples. It helps explain why Judaism is so careful about loshon horah, gossip or slander or negative speech of all kinds. It tells us that getting between a father and son, or a husband and wife, or two brothers, is analogous to getting between someone and their connection to G-d. A religion that seeks to foster holy relationships of all kinds is naturally keenly interested in not obstructing those very same relationships!


Burial Part 5: In That Day

You must bury it that day. This is a snippet of a verse that deals with a murderer who has been legally strung up to die. We are commanded in this snippet to bury the corpse that very day.

The impact of this verse on Jewish Law is broad and deep. We do not merely seek to bury in this one, outlier case. Instead, we learn that if we must bury a murderer the very same day, then surely that means we are supposed to bury every person in the day they die. So Torah Jews do not delay burial; funerals are held as quickly as possible, delayed only a little in order to allow family to get there. In Jerusalem there is not even that much delay; in our holiest city, an unburied body is considered entirely unacceptable for even moments longer than necessary.

But what is amazing about this verse is that it does not mean “being buried during the day.” The phrase for “that day,” bayom hahoo, is first found in a telling that does not even refer to daylight!

When the sun set and it was very dark, there appeared a smoking oven, and a flaming torch which passed between those pieces. In that day G-d made a covenant with Abram.

Which suggests that “in that day” really refers to a biblical day: “And it was evening and it was morning, the first day.” So if someone were to die after the sun sets and it becomes dark, then there would be 23 hours or so before a person would have to be buried!

There is another set of meanings to in that day. It is the logical response to a specific action.

And Pharaoh continued, “The people of the land are already so numerous, and you would have them cease from their labors!” That same day Pharaoh charged the taskmasters and overseers of the people…

The Torah seems to be telling us not only that the body should be buried in that same day (indeed, any dead body), but also the use of in that day means that it must be buried because it was hung on a tree. As discussed earlier, dead bodies on a tree create a short circuit

This connects to earlier installments on this topic, as to the short-circuit that is created when we hang a neveilah, a wasted life, on a living tree. In that day.

But this still does not directly answer the question! What is the problem with leaving a dead body for more than one biblical day (evening and morning)? The problem is explained in Genesis: G-d judges the world at the end of each day.

And God saw that this was good. And there was evening and there was morning, a third day.

Once something is judged or assessed, then it has formed its own, more substantive and concrete reality! So burial before that assessment takes place, allows it to be a fleeting, instead of an enduring, event. And so now we know why the verse tells us that the body must be buried in that day. The fleeting event must not be allowed to become an enduring one.

There are parallels to this concept in the Torah: if a woman utters a vow, for example, her husband or father can negate the vow if he does so promptly. If her father restrains her on the day he finds out, none of her vows or self-imposed obligations shall stand. But if he waits, the vow stands. Much like the dead man hanging on a tree!

[Note that this is part of a series explicating a single verse: Deuteronomy 21:23. All work was done in collaboration with @susanquinn, @kidcoder, @blessedblackmith and @eliyahumasinter. The full series can be found on]


Burial Part 4: Senseless Loss

“What a waste!” We hate it when potential has been ruined. The Torah has a word for it: neveilah.

The word is first used by G-d in his plans to deal with the builders of the Tower of Babel:

Let us, then, go down and neveilah their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.”

The people are irrevocably blocked from building their tower, and all their work is for naught. Their words, their speech, was turned by G-d into a wasted and misplaced effort, neveilah.

So, too, is the next use of the word in the text:

Meanwhile Jacob’s sons, having heard the news, came in from the field. The men were distressed and very angry, because he had committed a neveilah in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter—a thing not to be done.

Dinah was undone, ruined, as a result of this attack (her virginity was wasted, similar to Deut 22:21). There is a palpable sense of loss and regret when an entire promising life come down to one single (and awful) event. A neveilah is an event that annihilates potential, the opportunity for spiritual elevation. And so the word is commonly used to refer to an animal that has died in a manner (e.g. disease, predator, etc.) that renders it unusable for human consumption (according to the laws of the Torah). Kosher meat elevates the mind and body – and unkosher meat cannot achieve that spiritual result.

But neveilah?

Fat from animals that are neveilah or were torn by beasts may be put to any use, but you must not eat it.

Or when a person touches any [spiritually blocked] thing (be it the neveilah of an impure beast or the neveilah of impure cattle or the neveilah of an impure creeping thing) and the fact has escaped notice, and then, being blocked from spiritual elevation, that person realizes guilt;

Such an animal cannot be elevated through their death, and they cannot elevate the mind and body of a person. From a practical Torah perspective, such an animal is just wasted. (An animal that killed in an offering or in a kosher manner for food is not neveilah. That animal has, through its death, achieved a higher purpose.)

Which helps explain the use of the word in the verse that we are pulling apart, word by word:

If any party is guilty of a capital offense and is put to death, and you string the body on a tree, you must not let the neveilah remain on the tree, but must bury it the same day

A person who has been killed that way is no good to mankind any more. And so it is called a neveilah, because of the meaning of its death. And the dead man might even be called a neveilah because of his life, a life which could surely have been lived otherwise, with different and better choices and ending. A terrible waste.

[Note that this is part of a series explicating a single verse: Deuteronomy 21:23. All work was done in collaboration with @susanquinn, @kidcoder, @blessedblackmith and @eliyahumasinter. The full series can be found on]


Burial Part 3: Stringing Up

The bow in the Torah is originally meant to provide a visual connection between man and G-d, the rainbow that reminds us of a divine promise.

There is an overall theme in the Torah, a theme of connection of disparate elements. For example, Adam is made from the dust of the earth, combined with a divine soul breathed in by G-d. We have many other dualisms in the Torah: heaven and earth, Egypt and Israel, etc. But the overall goal of the text is to encourage and grow positive relationships between people (as well as between man and G-d): see the progression of brotherhood from Cain killing Abel through to Moses and Aaron’s teamwork. Similar themes can be seen between husband and wife, man and G-d and, of course, fathers and sons.

The earliest sons left their fathers, and even Terach, Avraham, Isaac and Jacob all left their fathers. Not until Jacob’s sons did sons and fathers choose to live together, enabling the creation of a nation.

But in order for any two people to live together, there must be acts of love and giving on both sides. Connections do not merely happen: they must be built.

So, in the case of Isaac and the son whom he loved, Esau, there was an opportunity for something very special to happen. Isaac tells Esau, Take your gear, your bowstring and bow, and go out into the open and hunt me some game. In this case, the bow was a preparation for an act that would have reinforced their relationship, a holy connection between a man and his son that not so different in kind from the original bow – the rainbow – that was designed to connect, using a promise, between the divine and the human.

But the process does not play out. Rivka and Jacob intervene, preventing Esau from fulfilling his father’s desire. Esau’s cry is one of bewilderment and shock: he cries out as if he entirely lost his place in the world; the ground has shifted under Esau’s feet.

Instead of a son serving his father, and being blessed, the family was ruined: many relationships were damaged or destroyed that day.

Rivkah and Jacob believed they had to do what they did. And they even knew that there would be consequences, that the deception might well lead to a curse:

If my father touches me, I shall appear to him as a trickster and bring upon myself a curse, not a blessing.” But his mother said to him, “Your curse, my son, be upon me! Just do as I say and go fetch them for me.”

Indeed, there seems to be some negative fallout. Rivkah’s death is not marked in the text, she is deprived of Jacob, the son she favors, for the rest of her life. And, measure for measure, Jacob loses Joseph for the same number of years. While Isaac does not curse his wife or son, it seems that there was a punishment or curse nevertheless, as we see from the consequences of their actions.

Is it the deception of Isaac that leads to the curse? Or is it perhaps the perversion of the “bow and string” that were meant to be used to build relationships, but instead were turned into negatives? Might it be both?

These are not random questions, because we have the same words, “string” and “curse” much later in the Torah: A strung-up body is a curse to G-d. (The word for “string” is the same from Esau’s bowstring to the string used to hang someone (both use a noose at one end).) This is the only verse in the Torah that suggests we can curse G-d!

When someone is strung up on a tree, that person, who is partially composed of dust from the earth, literally become disconnected from the ground. And it is part of what leads to their death. The combined dualities that make up mankind must remain in place, or a person dies.

More: the way in which a person was classically strung up (being pulled from the ground using a noose looped around a tree or gallows) killed them in a very specific way: hanging prevents a person from breathing. And recall that Adam is made from dust from the earth, and the breath of life that was blown in from G-d Himself. Being strangled undoes the connection of body and soul, separating the body from the ground while trapping the soul in the body. In other words, it is a kind of reversal of the creative act that made Adam – but without returning the constituent parts to their origins (the body is hung in the air, and the soul, the breath, is trapped in the body).

Perhaps this is why the text tells us that we must bury a strung-up person that same day. Perhaps we are meant, in some way, to restore the original purpose of a bow and bowstring: for connection and not for curses? Perhaps we are always to look for ways to restore and grow connections, even those that have been undone?

[Note that this is part of a series explicating a single verse: Deuteronomy 21:23. All work was done in collaboration with @susanquinn, @kidcoder, @blessedblackmith and @eliyahumasinter. The full series can be found on]


Burial Part 2: Why Is Hanging Someone On a Tree Problematic?

Trees are not simple in the Torah. We are forbidden from using trees to make idols. We are told to never worship trees, and indeed, nothing in the Tabernacle/Mishkan had visible wood at all. That all seems to suggest a negative symbolism for trees in general.

On the other hand, the first named trees are the Tree of Life, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. These trees were mystical source of knowledge and even immortality! Separately, we are forbidden to cut down fruit trees. Which all sounds pretty pro-tree. So which is it?

And why does the Torah tell us that someone hung on a tree, specifically, must be buried?

I think the answer is found by looking at trees in the text a little more carefully. Here is the first mention:

And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation: seed-bearing plants, fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it was so.

Trees are the first plants in the Torah that, we are told, contain their own seeds. Which tells us that trees are somehow special, because they are in it for the long haul. Trees are very long-lived (almost every kind of tree lives longer than a person does, and some can live for thousands of years!) But they also, thanks to the seeds they carry within their fruit, are inherently invested in future generations.

Indeed, I think we could logically argue that in a symbolic sense, trees are an early prototype for mankind ourselves! Consider:

1: Trees are anchored in the earth and reach for the sky – just as the Torah commands people to connect with the earth and then, using all our faculties, seek to form a relationship with heaven.

2: Trees feed others, supporting life within and without its perimeter – just as people are encouraged to support and promote life wherever we can.

3: Trees, thanks to their long life and seeded fruit, invest in the future, putting their own energies into the next generations – just as people are commanded to have children and teach them to be good and holy people.

4: Trees even change their environment. In the soil, in the wind and the rain and the sunlight, trees have an impact on nature and on other living things – just as people are meant to do.

Mankind has many capabilities beyond those of trees, of course. But the symbolic links are extremely strong and consistent with the Torah goals for mankind.

Which might help explain a verse that produces a myriad of questions:

If any party has sinned and is adjudged for death and is put to death, and you string up the body on a tree, you must not let the corpse remain on the tree, but must bury it the same day.

Why is the tree in this verse? After all, if you are supposed to bury a body anyway, surely it does not matter that it was hung on a tree, right?!

But the verse is specific, which raises the firm question: what is the problem with a dead body on a tree?

I think the answer connects to a number of other commandments in the Torah that forbid short-circuiting the natural world – just as cooking a kid in its mother’s milk provides a dead-ended loop and is thus forbidden. The laws of incest, as well as many others, could also be understood in this light.

If trees are prototypes for humans, then stringing a dead body up on a tree is also a short-circuit. Dead people go against the purpose and importance of trees. A tree and a dead person are not meant to be together, and so if it should happen that they are put together (even according to legal principles), such a thing must not be allowed to remain. Trees represent life in its finest forms, indeed, it, like man, symbolically seeks to reconnect heaven and earth! So hanging a body on a tree perverts both the dead man and the living tree, in a way that is similar to boiling a kid in its mother’s milk.

Consider, too, that fruit (and seeds) hang from trees already. And that fruit and seeds are committed to, and invested in, future life. Hanging a dead person is incompatible with that mission.

[Note that this is part of a series explicating a single verse: Deuteronomy 21:23. All work was done in collaboration with @susanquinn, @kidcoder, @blessedblackmith and @eliyahumasinter. The full series can be found on]


Burial Part 1: All Human Life Has Value – Even in Death

There is a verse in the Torah that has captivated me (and my study partners) for some time. It is as follows:

If any party has sinned and is adjudged for death and is put to death, and you string up the body on a tree, you must not let the corpse remain on the tree, but must bury it the same day. For a strung-up body is a curse to God and you shall not spiritually block the land that your G-d is giving you to possess.

There are a great many questions that this verse raises, and I intend to address many of them. But to make it more digestible, each topic will be discussed with more-or-less on a standalone basis.

So here’s the first one: why does it matter that the person in question was adjudged for death? Isn’t it enough to say that every person must be buried? Why does the Torah tell us that the person deserved the death penalty?

The only other time in the Torah that the same phrase for “adjudged for death” is concerning a person who kills another. In this case, it is in the negative:

Otherwise, when the distance is great, the blood-avenger, pursuing the killer in hot anger, may overtake him and strike him down; yet he would not be adjudged for death, since he had not hated him in the past.

In other words, the death sentence is not applied by society for accidental death, for manslaughter. It applies instead for murder, for a death that follows from what might be called, “malice aforethought.”

What is the link? The Torah is telling us that we must even bury the bodies of the very worst people in society: those who act out of hatred to kill another person. And if we bury the very worst people, then absolutely everyone else (who are surely better people) also must deserve to be buried.

Of course, we have the first murderer in the Torah, Cain, who clearly acted with malice aforethought, and indeed committed a sin (the word “sin” is not found with the eating of the fruit, but with Cain giving in to his anger, his animalistic jealousy – and it is found in this case as well). So there seems to be a strong match between Cain’s behavior and the case of this convicted murderer.

The Torah is telling us something quite important. The person who decides to murder someone else is the worst person we can imagine: they endanger all people and all societies, and they also endanger the ability for everyone concerned to grow positive relationships with G-d). Murderers are the worst of the worst.

But if we must treat even their bodies with a modicum of respect (we are not allowed, for example, to leave a body hanging in public to serve as a lesson to others), then it means that the Torah insists that each person has some redeeming value within their body and soul, a value that transcends even their actions.

Indeed, the word for “burial” in the Torah is first used to refer to Avraham and then his wife: You shall go to your ancestors in peace; You shall be buried at a ripe old age. / “I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial.” Burial in the Torah starts with the founders of the faith: burial is with honor, and with dignity. Even for murderers.

[@iwe with @susanquinn, @kidcoder, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter]


Creative Conundrums

Yom kippur

What is Kippur in the Torah?

Is there any example in the Torah of someone undoing the past? I don’t think there is. The best anyone seems to be able to do is try to find a constructive way forward.

If this is true, does it tell us that we, ourselves, can never undo something we have done, or unsay something we have said?

If this is the case, if we can never undo what we have done, then what is the meaning of Yom Kippur?

Perhaps we can look in the Torah to see what clues are found in the text.

The root word for kippur is found with the tar coating that Noach uses to insulate the inside of the ark from the water:

make it an ark with compartments, and cover it inside and out with pitch (kippur).

Kippur seems to be an insulation, making it possible for two incompatible forces (the killing water and the living within the ark) to come very close to one another without conflict!

What if Kippur, when applied to the relationship between G-d and man, means the same thing? What if a Kippur is a protective coating that allows G-d and man to be close to one another without man being extinguished merely through proximity? After all, man and G-d cannot fully coexist in the same space, but perhaps there are times when we can get closer than others?

If this is true, then isn’t kippur a way not to undo the past, but to protect us from the past (the sins that otherwise stain us beyond forgiveness) so that we might be able to approach G-d more closely than at any other time?

Does the text support this meaning? Pinchas stabs Cosbi and Zimri, and the Torah tells us:

וַיְכַפֵּ֖ר עַל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל

And [Pinchas] kippured on the children of Israel

As a result, G-d stopped punishing the people! Did Pinchas give the people a protective layer, making it possible to get closer to G-d without retribution for our sins!?

Pinchas’ acts surely did not undo the sins of the people, any more than doing teshuvah undoes the harm we have done in our lives. But isn’t it possible that kippur is not meant to undo the past at all, that what kippur is really about is finding a way to move on, to grow and move forward in our relationship with G-d?

When the Cohen Gadol has done his service, is the result as if the lid of the Aron is over each of us, allowing us to get closer to the Divine Presence than at any other time of year? Is that what kippur means?

If so, how might this change the way we think about our prayers on Yom Kippur? Does it change the meanings or intentions of our teshuvah, our prayer while we seek kippur?

But Why Do We Need Kaparah?

Consider the avodah, the service, of the Cohen Gadol, the high priest. At the pinnacle moment of the day of Yom Kippur, the High Priest goes into the Holy of Holies, G-d’s house.

A mere 5 days later, G-d reciprocates: He comes into our house, the Sukkah.

Is there really a connection?

The Gemara in Sukkah tells us that the height of the schach of a sukkah is connected to the height of the kapores of the Aron and/or the height of the wings, the sochechim of the keruvim. In other words, is the Gemara suggesting that the cover of the Sukkah, our abode for seven days, is analogous to the cover of G-d’s abode?

Might this suggest that the Gemarah is telling us that there is indeed a linkage between the High Priest on Yom Kippur, and G-d on Sukkos?

Let’s assume that angels are G-d’s way of controlling the natural world, so angels provide the life energy to plants and animals: Perhaps we can explore the symbolic links?

  • The Holy of Holies has angels, keruvim, with their sochechim (wings) over the Ark, along with a kaporet (same root as kippur) over the Ark.

    • The Sukkah has the schach (same root word as sochechim), over our heads. A mirror image?
  • The angels, the keruvim, in the Holy of Holies, are made by us of gold, using our knowhow.

    • The angels in the living schach were made by G-d, using nature, G-d’s knowhow.
  • The cover, kaparah, in the Holy of Holies protects the High Priest from being so close to the divine presence.

    • Is it possible that the schach of a Sukkah performs the same function?

If the above is correct, does it suggest that Yom Kippur is not a standalone holiday, that it is in fact a necessary preparatory step for Sukkos to occur? That the kapparah of Yom Kippur is to enable a closer relationship between man and G-d, despite the vast differences between us?

Of course, aren’t there opinions that G-d creates the angels on earth, but it is man that creates angels in heaven? We create angels as a result of our words and deeds: those angels plead our case, they echo us in our praise of G-d, they crown G-d during kedusha. While the angels on earth are created by G-d: they run the natural world, and are the buffer, the tzimtzum, between man and G-d?

Are there other symbolic links showing that Yom Kippur is the necessary precursor for Sukkos?

Why The Specific Offerings?

On Yom Kippur, two goats are offered for the people, and a bull is offered for Aharon.

Why these specific offerings? Might they relate to sins that happened in the Torah, but that were never made right?

After all, a bull is a grown up egel – and Aharon, pushed and threatened by the mob, helped create the egel. Is there a connection?

Similarly, Yaakov deceived Isaac (and deprived Esau) with two baby goats. While Jacob ended up reconciling with Esau, the text does not tell us that Jacob ever made things right with his father for the deception.

So is it possible that on a day when we remember the things we have done wrong, that, in addition to individual reflection and teshuvah, the offerings are there to remind us of wrongdoing committed by our ancestors?

P.S. Of course, these earlier events are described using different words: the younger forms of the animals. A calf for a bull, and two kids versus two goats. Does using different words mean the thesis is nonsense? Or might it suggest that the earlier errors were less “mature” because both Aharon and Jacob were under duress when they acted?

This parsha question sheet takes the approach of reading the Chumash very closely. It is assumed that every letter and word has meaning, and all questions can be answered (at least every one we have come up so far!) So you’ll find the questions offered every week are deeply textual, seeking relevance to our lives today from the foundational document for Judaism and indeed all of Western Civilization.

This sheet is distributed with the general approval of Rabbi Rose.

Our answers can be found at (use the search tool). Or email me at

  • A BJSZ member

What Makes a Life Forfeit: Rights-Based Elements In the Torah

Religion is not merely another facet of our lives. To someone who takes their religious belief and practice seriously, religion forms a complete worldview. That does not mean that, for example, all Jews share a similar set of political beliefs or worldview. But all Jews who take the text seriously must necessarily share key elements of the same worldview – in the much the same way that devout Catholics broadly believe in “Truth” and a logically derivable Natural Law.

Some elements of the text are pretty universally acknowledged: all who follow the Torah believe, for example, that murder is wrong, that the Sabbath day is important, that we are commanded to love others and show kindness to the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. But what if the text is actually more freedom-loving than one might initially imagine?

I believe that the Torah offers a profound sense of where mankind’s domain begins and ends.

Here is my argument: the Torah gives us red lines in the text. There are a number of things we might do that the Torah tells us are worthy of the death penalty. The specific language is mos yumoss, “you shall surely die.” This phrase appears no fewer than 22 times in the Torah (24 counting the future variant)! And yet the death penalty always seems to be the consequence for one underlying cause of action: invading a domain that is not yours!

I submit that this is a precursor to the more-modern notion of “your rights end where my nose begins.” Of course, given that this is the Torah (the guidebook to holy relationships between G-d and individual, as well as between people), the forbidden domain is predominantly taking the life of another. But the category also encompasses sexual relations with animals, as well as intruding into the realm not given to us by G-d (the forbidden fruit and Sinai).

Here we have limitations on mankind’s domain embedded in the text of the Torah. Which seems to tell me that the text of the Torah includes what could be seen as a much-more modern paradigm for rights and responsibilities.

[an @iwe, @eliyahumasinter and collaborators work!]

P.S. Note that a great many things that are forbidden (e.g. prostitution) do not trigger this same language.

In table form, here are the verses from the text, with my summary of relevance to the thesis:

But as for the tree of knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die.” G-d’s domain
[To Abimelech] Therefore, restore the man’s wife—since he is a prophet, he will intercede for you—to save your life. If you fail to restore her, know that you shall die, you and all that are yours.” Mos tamoos. Someone else’s wife. A direct warning.
You shall set bounds for the people round about, saying, ‘Beware of going up the mountain or touching the border of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death G-d’s domain
One who fatally strikes another party shall be put to death. Another’s life
One who strikes one’s father or mother shall be put to death. Parental domain
One who kidnaps another party—whether having sold or still holding the victim—shall be put to death. Stealing a person
One who insults one’s father or mother shall be put to death. Parental domain
Whoever lies with a beast shall be put to death. Separation from animals
You shall keep the sabbath, for it is holy for you. One who profanes it shall be put to death: whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from among kin. G-d’s domain – in time
Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, holy to G-d, whoever does work on the sabbath day shall be put to death. G-d’s domain – in time
And the Lord said to Moshe, The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp. G-d’s domain – in time (Shabbos violation)
Say further to the Israelite people: Anyone among the Israelites, or among the strangers residing in Israel, who gives any offspring to Molech, shall be put to death; the people of the land shall pelt the person with stones. Another’s life (murdering a child for idol worship)
If anyone insults either father or mother, that person shall be put to death; that person has insulted father and mother—and retains the bloodguilt. Invading space that is not for you
If a man commits adultery with a married woman—committing adultery with another man’s wife—the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death. Another’s wife / violating sacred boundaries
If a man lies with his father’s wife, it is the nakedness of his father that he has uncovered; the two shall be put to death—and they retain the bloodguilt. Another’s wife AND space that is not for you
If a man has carnal relations with a beast, he shall be put to death; and you shall kill the beast. Not your space
and one who also pronounces the name G-d shall be put to death. The community leadership shall stone that person; stranger or citizen—having thus pronounced the Name—shall be put to death. G-d’s domain. The power of the spoken Name.
No human being who has been proscribed can be ransomed: that person shall be put to death. G-d’s domain
Anyone, however, who strikes another with an iron object so that death results is a murderer; the murderer must be put to death. Another’s life
If one struck another with a stone tool that could cause death, and death resulted, that person is a murderer; the murderer must be put to death. Another’s life
Similarly, if one struck another with a wooden tool that could cause death, and death resulted, that person is a murderer; the murderer must be put to death. Another’s life
or if one struck another with the hand in enmity and death resulted, the assailant shall be put to death; that person is a murderer. The blood-avenger shall put the murderer to death upon encounter. Another’s life
You may not accept a ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of a capital crime; [a murderer] must be put to death. Another’s life

Creative Conundrums

Rosh Hashanah

Shofar: Re-enacting the Birth of Man?

What is it about the sound of a shofar that is so special?

Might it be connected to the creation of man? After all, G-d blows a living soul into Adam – and from then on, hakol hevel: breath is everything. We use breath when we create using words, just as G-d created the world using words. We use breath when we sing and when we pray. Our breath is the most important tool for building holy relationships. We use breath to express the ideas and ideals that stir in our souls.

And we use our breath to blow the shofar.

It is possible that blowing life into the Shofar, creating a sound, is analogous to G-d breathing life into Adam? Is the act of blowing the shofar an act of homage and connection to the creation of man?

If so, would it make sense to suggest that the birthday of the world connects to the birthday of mankind, a rekindling of the need for each of us to find a renewed spirit and purpose for our existences?

More than this: is blowing breath into what is otherwise an animal very much like how G-d created Adam by blowing a divinely-gifted soul into what is otherwise, ultimately, mere dust of the earth?

If this is true, is blowing the shofar a way to reconnect with our roots and ideal path: following the path G-d has laid out in front of us?

But why breath, instead of words? Aren’t words of prayer enough? Why is the shofar more special than tefillah?

Might it be that words are modified by our bodies, planned by our minds, while the breath itself is the rawest, most basic representative of the breath that G-d used to fill Adam with a soul?

Shofar: Ephemeral Immortality?

Sound is the least physical thing we can perceive with our senses: sounds comes and goes and leaves no trace behind except in our souls.

So why, when the sound of the shofar hits us, something in our souls resonate, changing and moving us, reconnecting us to who we are and whom we serve? And it all happens in the moment: there is an immediacy and vibrant power of being in that place, and in that time.

Is the Shofar a metaphor for being a Jew? Somehow both living in the moment and perpetuating the oldest extant civilization in the history of mankind? Is the shofar is our ever-present (and ever-passing) link to real immortality?

What Does the Torah Tell us About

Rosh Hashanah?

The only words in the Torah that are used to describe Rosh Hashanah that are not found to describe any other yomtov are zichron teruah. Do these three words tell us anything that helps us understand the meaning of this holy day?


The first time zichron is found in the Torah:

And G-d remembered (zichron) Noah, and every living thing, and all the cattle that were with him in the ark; and G-d made a wind to pass over the earth, and the waters assuaged. (Gen 8:1)

G-d remembers His creations, and he uses a wind to create a space for life to be renewed.

Is Rosh Hashanah an opportunity for us to reciprocate, to remember G-d and create a wind (blowing the shofar) to create a space for G-d in this world?!

Indeed, zichron is found only a few times in the Torah. Does each of them precede an action? Consider when G-d saves Lot for Avraham’s sake, giving Rachel a son, and delivering the people from Egypt. If this is right, is the Torah telling us that Rosh Hashana is when we (and G-d) first remember, and then act, creating space for the other in our world and our lives?


This word is only found with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – and for assembling and marching the nation.

What stands out here is that the Torah specifically tells us not to sound a “teruah” when the assembly is to be gathered but not to march (Num. 10:7).

So is Teruah is always a signal to start a journey, a march, or to go to war – but never to sit still and be inactive? Does that mean that teruah is a call to action? And if so, to what?


Though takah is not specifically used to describe Rosh Hashanah in the text, it is twinned with the word shofar elsewhere in the Torah.

Takah is a word of violent driving, installation:

Jacob had takah his tent into the mountain, and Laban with his brethern takah in the mountain of Gilead.

Indeed, when one considers that every other case of a tent being pitched in the Torah uses a different verb yate, takah gains a very specific meaning: it is an act of building that is defiant and forceful in its nature. It is the same verb used to describe Yael driving a tent-peg into Sisera’s temple.

When we blow, tekias shofar, we are driving our breath into the horn. It is not a natural act, nor is it easy. Indeed, the sound that comes out the other end is one that pierces us, touches us at the core of our being. It is a hard, defiant act. We are raging against the inevitable, using our breath to proclaim our lives and our vitality. And at the very same time, we are triumphally engaged in zichron teruah, triumphally engaging with our Creator. Takah is the state of each person during our lives, if we are trying to grow, to aspire to meeting challenging tasks and goals. Takah is like driving a peg into rock: doing that which is hard to do!

Our lives and our breath are here, now. It is hard to build and sustain them, just as it is hard to drive tent pegs into mountain rock (or Sisera’s temple). And both our lives and our tents are ultimately nothing more than temporary edifices.

Might this explain why the famous Unesaneh Tokef prayer tells us of the Great Shofar Blasting (takah). What follows? The still small voice…. if we listen for it. The voice of the divinely-shared spirit is there, a shadow reflection of the great takah. That voice is in the silence that follows, in the thoughts that run rings around each other in our minds.

In sum: Does our zichron connects with Hashem and all of the reconnections and remembrances between man and G-d since Noah? Just as He remembered us, so too, we remember Him and make room for Him in every facet of our lives? And as with the Children of Israel when the horns blew the teruah, we gird our loins, and march into the New Year, united and resolved, and ready for action.

Or is there a better explanation for how zichron teruah (and takah) explains the meaning of Rosh Hashanah?

This parsha question sheet takes the approach of reading the Chumash very closely. It is assumed that every letter and word has meaning, and all questions can be answered (at least every one we have come up so far!) So you’ll find the questions offered every week are deeply textual, seeking relevance to our lives today from the foundational document for Judaism and indeed all of Western Civilization.

This sheet is distributed with the general approval of Rabbi Rose.

Our answers can be found at (use the search tool). Or email me at

  • A BJSZ member

The Importance of Giving Mindful Gifts

Our personal obligation to help those who are less blessed than we are is not relieved merely because we pay taxes, and especially not because we vote for others to pay higher taxes to as to benefit the poor. Our obligations are not just monetary, and not just for pro forma purposes. Instead, they are supposed to be mindful and conscious. We should always seek to help other people by giving what matters most.

Indeed, even interpersonal gifts are best with they have been carefully considered and evaluated. We know the difference between a random gift and something that shows real thought has been invested.

This might help explain why the Torah requires every sacrificed animal to be absent any visible blemishes. G-d is not hungry, and He is not offended by smaller or weaker offerings. But He clearly does want us to always act with consideration and care. And if we are commanded to only offer animals that have no blemishes, then it forces us to carefully examine the animal, forces us to invest personal time and consideration in a gift which, if we are easily able to afford offering the animal, we might otherwise offer up without a second thought, sort of like ticking the boxes for the commandment in question.

This rebounds nicely: the purpose of an offering is not because G-d is hungry. The offering is to help the offeror grow, to move past an event or action in their life, and to focus on positive directions. So requiring the offering to be mindfully inspected in order to ensure that it makes the grade is a way to ensure that the person offering the animal is personally invested in the process: they are interested in growing.

[an @iwe and @susanquinn work]

P.S. The commandment to avoid blemishes does not include birds. Why not? Is it because birds are given by the poor, and as the cost is meaningful for them in itself, we do not wish to burden them further? Or is there a better reason?


Creative Conundrums


Heaven and Earth as Witnesses?

I call heaven and earth to witness (ahd) with you this day.

It does not really seem to make sense – how can heaven or earth be a witness?

The word in question is ahd, and it is found in use with other examples who cannot be witnesses in any legal sense, e.g.

Indeed, these seven ewe-lambs you should take from my hand, so that they may be a witness (ahd) for me that I dug this well.

Come, then, let us make a pact, you [Jacob] and I, that there may be a witness (ahd) between you and me.” Thereupon Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar. … And Laban declared, “This mound is a witness (ahd) between you and me this day.” That is why it was named Gal-ed;

Heaven, earth, sheep and rocks cannot be witnesses!

Could it be that “witness” is not the correct translation? Might “Mental reminder of a connection” be a much better (though unwieldy) fit?

If this is right, then when we look at heaven and earth, we are to remember the verses connected to them? Is this precisely what Avram and Jacob and Laban meant by their sheep and mounds and pillars: the ahd is a reminder of a connection, a meaning where there would not have been one otherwise?

If this is right, then does it explain what an ahdass is as well?

When people do something together, they are called an ahdass, using the very same root word. That assembly is not a unified body of people. Instead, it seems to be a group of people who are connected to each other by sharing something. It is different from am, nation, or kahal, congregation, other words to describe the Israelites. The difference is perhaps subtle, but it sems to be critical. The word ahd is never used to connect things that are the same – here is its first use:

By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat, until (ahd) you return to the ground.

The word connects things that are on their face different. Could it be that an ahdass is not a unified people: it is instead an agglomerated group who have chosen to do or believe something together?

Is the ahdass of the Jewish people on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur because, in that moment, despite our differences, we share common ideas and prayers?

Come and Go?

Near the end of Moses’ life, he says: I am now one hundred and twenty years old, I can no longer go and come. (Deut 31:2)

Why this turn of phrase? Could it be simply explained by Moses’ daily routine as given earlier in the Torah?

Whenever Moses went out to the Tent, all the people would rise and stand, each at the entrance of his tent, and gaze after Moses until he had come into the Tent. (Ex. 33:8)

As the Hebrew words match, is Moses merely saying that he can no longer manage his daily routine, that he could no longer fulfill his duties?

Where Do We Reach For G-d?

This seems like a simple question, right? G-d is in Shamayim, the heavens, right?

Well, yes. And then again, perhaps not.

Is it possible that we are not meant to look in the heavens? After all:

[The Torah] is not in the heavens [bashamayim], that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” … No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

And note that the word bashamayim is only found 9 places in the Torah (Gen 11:4, Ex. 20:4, Deut. 1:28, 3:24, 4:17, 4:39, 5:8, 9:1, 30:12). In almost all of those cases, bashamayim refers to the foolish quest of man to reach the sky!

And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens [bashamayim], to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.”

Hear, O Israel! You are about to cross the Jordan to go in and dispossess nations greater and more populous than you: great cities with walls in the heavens [bashamayim].

Babel and the Amorites reach for the sky, by building upward. Is that our path? In this week’s sedra we learn that, perhaps, we are not supposed to be physically reaching the sky, but instead spiritually doing so….

Compare a synagogue to a cathedral: Other peoples seek to climb to the heavens. The Jewish people do not. We are not competing on the basis of large buildings or physical proximity to the skies. The Torah tells us that we should not even seek to send an emissary to heaven!

[The Torah] is not in the heavens [bashamayim]

Isn’t the Torah telling us that the path to holiness is not to physically reach to heaven? Is it that we are not supposed to go upward, but instead to think upwards?


The clouds in the wilderness seem uniquely tied to Moses and his life:

And the LORD said to Moses, “I will come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.”

The cloud seems to be in-between, a mediator or buffer, a veil between G-d and the people. When G-d talks to Moses, He does so from inside the cloud.

Why a cloud? Is a cloud a metaphor for G-d, because we know it is there, but we cannot really see, touch, smell, or hear it? A cloud is neither solid not liquid; it is perceptible but indistinct.

Is a cloud in the wilderness a bit like the cover on a Sukkah, the Western Wall, or the veil of a prayer shawl? We can get closer to the spirit on the other side because of that intermediate layer that shields us, forcing us to reach out with non-physical sensitivity?

And yet we are warned to not think the cloud is, in itself, a source of knowledge!

You shall not practice divination or cloud-gazing. (Lev. 19:26)

Those nations that you are about to dispossess do indeed resort to cloud-gazers and augurs; to you, however, the LORD your God has not assigned the like.

Is this a command to Jews for all time: we are to find G-d in words, never in visual signs, in hearing and not seeing? And if so, does it suggest that the cloud vanishes when Moshe dies, because his level of connection to G-d was never replicated?

This parsha question sheet takes the approach of reading the Chumash very closely. It is assumed that every letter and word has meaning, and all questions can be answered (at least every one we have come up so far!) So you’ll find the questions offered every week are deeply textual, seeking relevance to our lives today from the foundational document for Judaism and indeed all of Western Civilization.

This sheet is distributed with the general approval of Rabbi Rose.

Our answers can be found at (use the search tool). Or email me at

  • A BJSZ member

The Underlying Purpose of Biblical Commandments

The Underlying Purpose of Biblical Commandments

To the casual reader of the Torah, there seem to be an awful lot of commandments that don’t seem to make much – if any – sense. Indeed, Christianity’s sub-selection of which commandments Christians follow seems to track pretty closely with this same division (e.g. forbidden relations are kept, while the laws regarding diet are not).

Yet for those who read carefully, there are numerous clues that explain the commandments, even the more obscure and less obvious ones. And sometimes there are clues that apply to all commandments that help us understand why they are there in the first place. There are a whole string of curses in Deut. 28. And in the middle of all of them, there is a verse, a clue, that explains why we get cursed:

Since you did not serve G-d with simcha … (28:47)

What is this word, simcha? Its usage is explained elsewhere (Ex. 4:14), when G-d tells Moses that his brother is coming: “He is simcha in his heart.”

Think on it. The brothers were separated for many years. We have no sure knowledge of the extent or depth of their relationship prior to this event. But we know that Aaron and Moses were to form a deep and dynamic bond that carried them both for the rest of their lives. And it all seems to start with this event, the feeling Aaron has for reunification with his brother: simcha.

And now we have it: simcha is the joy and anticipation one has for reunifying with someone, for investing into a relationship, for seeking and growing positive and holy connections. And so the word is used this way throughout the Torah – simcha is not merely “joy,” because it can only be experienced when someone else is in the picture. A simcha is when people (or people and G-d) come together, ideally sharing a common goal.

And this then beautifully explains the nature of the commandments and the Torah itself. We are not supposed to merely tick the boxes. As the prophets put it, speaking for G-d (paraphrased): “I don’t want your sacrifices: I want you to be nice to each other!” Because sacrifices are meant to change the offeror, not merely be seen as a means to buy G-d off while we refuse to build a holy society. And indeed, this is the case for all commandments, for the entire Torah, as this verse tells us: Commandments are there so we can use them to build holy relationships. Those relationships can be between man and G-d, husband and wife, brothers, or any two (or more) people.

So when we do what we are told, we are supposed to be mindful that everything we do is for the purpose of building connections, investing in relationships, investing in each other. That is why it is not enough that we do what we are told. We must do it while consciously growing productive and meaningful relationships with G-d and with man.

When we see Torah commandments in that light, it unlocks whole new levels of meaning.

P.S. A reader (YY) points out that the phrase  ושמח את אשתו, to “give joy to your wife” is used precisely this way:

כִּֽי־יִקַּ֥ח אִישׁ֙ אִשָּׁ֣ה חֲדָשָׁ֔ה לֹ֤א יֵצֵא֙ בַּצָּבָ֔א וְלֹא־יַעֲבֹ֥ר עָלָ֖יו לְכָל־דָּבָ֑ר נָקִ֞י יִהְיֶ֤ה לְבֵיתוֹ֙ שָׁנָ֣ה אֶחָ֔ת וְשִׂמַּ֖ח אֶת־אִשְׁתּ֥וֹ אֲשֶׁר־לָקָֽח׃ (ס)
When a man has newly taken a woman [into his household as his wife], he shall not go out with the army or be assigned to it for any purpose; he shall be exempt one year for the sake of his household, to give simcha to the woman he has taken.

In Judaism There is No Happily Ever After

In a classic feel-good story, a fraught or challenging situation resolves itself, one way or another. The end of the story is predictable and reassuring: “And then they lived happily ever after.”

And while we are consciously aware that such is the stuff of fairy tales – and not of real life – the notion still seeps into our lives. It is why weddings are more celebrated in the public eye than are marriages. Similarly, it is why many focus their careers on achieving a happy and contented retirement. Both are focused on the moment of arrival at the pinnacle, of having achieved the Great Goal, where everything else is a smooth and happy downhill ride. In the popular imagination, the coming of the Messiah is very much a “Happily Ever After” moment.

But is that what G-d really has in mind? Or indeed, ever had in mind?

Let’s start with the text:

When G-d is done creating the world,

God saw all that had been made, and found it very good.

Note the language. “Very good” sounds kind of like “perfect,” right? After all, G-d made it, so maybe it is supposed to be perfect?

We might think that, if the story ends there. But it does not. All that G-d made was “very good” – but that is not where the story ends – it is just the end of the beginning, where G-d rests. G-d then hands the world to mankind, and sees what we do with it. The entire Torah follows after this first chapter, and after that, the rest of human history to the present.

The declaration that something is “very good” seems to mean nothing more than the ingredients are in place, that there is enormous potential, ready to be unlocked. It means that G-d, having done His part, tells us to roll up our sleeves, and finish His creation. “Very Good” translates into “Hard Work.”

We have another clue in another verse in the Torah that includes the word “very” and “good.”

The maiden [Rebekkah] was very goodly of appearance.

Rebekkah was by no means perfect, or finished. Instead, she represented, like the world at its creation, enormous spiritual potential. Rebekkah was to become the mother of Jacob and Esau, two dynamic men, men who altered the world forevermore.

Interestingly, the combination of words only occurs three times in the entire Torah, providing a clear linkage. It also might help us better understand the episode of the spies. When Caleb and Joshua try to convince the people to not be afraid, they tell them:

הָאָ֗רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָבַ֤רְנוּ בָהּ֙ לָת֣וּר אֹתָ֔הּ טוֹבָ֥ה הָאָ֖רֶץ מְאֹ֥ד מְאֹֽד׃

“The land through which we have passed to scout it; that land is very, very good.

If we connect this to the story of creation and Rebekkah, we realize that the people are not being told that Canaan is perfect, or represents some kind of utopia or Shangri-La. On the contrary! They are being told that, just as with the world at the end of creation, mankind has to roll up our sleeves and take it from here. The land was not perfect, not at all! What it had was potential. (This may also help explain why the people were angered by the report: they did not want hard work – they wanted Happily Ever After).

In this way, Canaan is being described as a do-over for the creation of the world, another opportunity for people to try to start again to create a holy society, where people aspire to love others and G-d.

Which comes full circle: in the Torah, there is no static perfection, no promise of a “happily ever after.” Instead, “very good” refers to potential, the opportunity to achieve great things, but only after deep and sustained investment and risk by mankind.

It is up to us to continue G-d’s work and improve the world!


Are the Prayers of Women Superior?

I spend a lot of time in prayer, both alone and in a quorum (a minyan) of men. Prayer is a form of quasi-meditation, once likened by Rabbi Sachs to focusing on micro-adjusting a shortwave radio dial to tune into a very faint and elusive signal. The “still small voice” might be our souls, or it might be the voice of the divine, or it might just be our imagination. I think it might, at times, be none of them, or all three together.

In Judaism, men have a much stronger obligation to pray, especially in synagogue. There are various reasons given for this: women may have other obligations that make scheduled prayer impossible; men need the spiritual connection more than women do, etc. The net result is that many fewer observant women pray in synagogue. But there is a corollary: those few that make the effort radiate an undeniable spiritual energy and power.

My wife and I went to Israel recently, and we prayed at the Wall of the Second Temple a number of times. We also went to the burial place of Sarah, Abraham, Rebekkah, Isaac, Leah and Jacob, in Hebron. And my wife came away with a renewed sense of respect for those women who make the effort to pray at the holiest places available to Jews today.

What do people pray for? Judaism has set services and verbiage, but there is endless room for specific and personal appeals. People pray for health and blessings in sustenance and relationships. We pray for positive connections, and for the pain of our loved ones to be alleviated.

But the experience made me consider the likelihood that men and women not only pray for different things, but that the average prayers of women may be, in some sense, at a higher plane than the average prayers of men.

To me, the reason is that the prayers of women are generally less obviously selfish than the prayers of men. Women pray for children, for the welfare of their offspring and family and friends. Women come to the Wall with a list of people to pray for. The prayers of women form the links of the chains between people and between generations. Women are praying for posterity.

Men, on the other hand, more often pray for what we lack in the moment: present well-being of all kinds (from health to income). We pray that our lives will have meaning and value to G-d. The prayers are sincere and heart-felt. But they are also, in their way, less expansive in terms of love for others. And G-d wants us, above all, to love others. Loving others (and praying for them) is the keystone for a holy relationship with G-d

I realize that this is a gross overgeneralization. But when you see women of childbearing years pouring out their souls in appeals for children, or older women doing the same on behalf of their daughters or daughters-in-law, the net spiritual effect inspires awe in any passerby. This is the energy that inspires women to flock to the (assumed) burial place of Rachel in order to connect with the matriarch who desperately wanted children with all her heart. Nobody messes with a woman who is praying in this way. I have never seen a man pray with this kind of spiritual aura.

This is my impression, for what it is worth. I welcome other inputs!



Creative Conundrums


Does Wood Belong in a Shul?

We know that nothing in the mishkan had visible wood. Everything that was made of wood was clad in metal of some kind. So we could not see anything crafted of wood in the mishkan.

The Torah goes further than this:

You shall not set up a sacred post—any wood beside the altar of your G-d that you may make.

It seems clear that there is some risk of idol worship if we were to put any kind of wood in the Mishkan. After all, worshipping trees is common enough in other religions, especially those, pagan ones, that overtly worship nature.

If this is the case, why are so many arons in shuls today made of visible wood?

We could also ask why wood is inappropriate in the mishkan? Indeed, the verse comes right after commandments regarding justice. Why is worshipping wood (or nature) counter to proper justice?

Is it possible that the reason is because nature is ultimately about Might Makes Right? After all, nature is where the strong defeats the weak. There is no justice in nature at all. So is a reminder of nature a corruption of justice?

Isn’t acting out of raw self-interest the natural way for all of us to act? If so, might wood be forbidden because it is a symbolic reminder of the Law of the Jungle, instead of the Laws of the Torah?

What is Wrong With Magic?

Let no one be found among you who consigns a son or daughter to the fire, or who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead.

The Torah does not say that employing magic is false or worthless. It seems to say, instead, that these are not things for Jews to engage in!

But why? What is the Torah objection to this entire category of gaining knowledge?

Might it be because of the interest in what the dead have to say? Is it because Judaism is meant to be by and for the living?

Might it come from a human desire to not be held responsible for our actions? After all, if we follow such a path, then are we not sloughing off the responsibility for our actions onto someone else? The Torah is full of examples of people claiming that someone else is responsible for their own actions (starting with Adam and Chava), so is it not clear that G-d does not want people to behave that way?


Fruit seems to have a special place in the Torah.

Consider that fruit, unlike grain or animals, can be eaten without any preparation – no grinding or cooking or any of the other things necessary to prepare wheat or a cow for human consumption. Is fruit the only food for which man does not need to invest any work in order to achieve some benefit?

Could fruit thus be seen as a direct gift from G-d?

If so, does it help explain why fruit trees are especially protected in the Torah? After all, trees can be used in war to build siegeworks – but only if they are not fruit trees.

Might it also explain the treatment of fruit in the Garden? Might there even be a connection between a food that requires no work, and Chava’s attempt to shirk responsibility for her actions? In other words, does getting something for “free” make someone behave less responsibly?

If so, might the existence of fruit be a test of some kind? And what is the connection to the pri etz hadar, the fruit we hold as one of the arbah minim on Sukkos?

Responsibility for Death?

The elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall then take a heifer which has never been worked, which has never pulled a yoke;

The word for “pulled” is meshech, and it is only found in 4 other examples in the Torah. The first one is

When Midianite traders passed by, they pulled Joseph up out of the pit. They sold Joseph for twenty pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites, who brought Joseph to Egypt.

Might there be a connection?

Might this use of “pull” form a corrective for the events concerning Joseph?

That might sound far fetched. Yet whenever a dead body is found lying in the open, presumably because nobody cared enough to care for them, then it is a loss born by the closest town. They pay the cost of a young heifer, complete with declarations by the elders:

Absolve, G-d, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel. And they will be absolved of bloodguilt.  Thus you will remove from your midst guilt for the blood of the innocent, for you will be doing what is right in the sight of G-d.

Does this not seem connected to what happened to Joseph? Instead of using the blood of an animal to hide one’s guilt for the blood of the innocent (Joseph), is the Torah teaching us to do the opposite: use the blood of an animal to take responsibility even for something that we might not have done?!

The Torah wants us to always try to ensure that we take responsibility for everyone, even a random stranger who passes through? If so, that responsibility is born through a combination of expense, embarrassment to the town, and the symbolic meaning of the slain heifer: each loss of life is a loss of potential. Is it not the opposite of what the brothers do to Joseph?

Or is there a better way to explain the use of the rare word meshech in these two places?


We can understand why more than one witness is needed in order to establish fact in a court of law. That sounds practical, after all.

But perhaps there is a reason that has to do with the miscreant in question? After all, there is a difference between committing a forbidden act in secret versus doing it in public, doing it without shame. I think we can agree that it is better to be embarrassed by our failings instead of being proud of them?

Could this possibly be another explanation for why we need more than one witness? Could it be a reminder to would-be evil-doers that there is something particularly wrong with being seen doing wrong, acting with wanton disregard for what other people think?

This parsha question sheet takes the approach of reading the Chumash very closely. It is assumed that every letter and word has meaning, and all questions can be answered (at least every one we have come up so far!) So you’ll find the questions offered every week are deeply textual, seeking relevance to our lives today from the foundational document for Judaism and indeed all of Western Civilization.

This sheet is distributed with the general approval of Rabbi Rose.

Our answers can be found at (use the search tool). Or email me at

  • A BJSZ member

Stages In Learning: From Obedience To Intellectual Engagement

A child does what he is told, in no small part because he does not understand the world very well. We teach by example and by edict. For example, we instruct children to wash their hands, even though they do not know anything of germs and disease vectors. A young child assumes that the parents have the answers.

But as a child grows up, they start to ask – and we start to explain. We do it for little things, like personal hygiene, and big things, like public behavior and formal events. This is as it should be. By the time children have reached adulthood, they should have a solid understanding of the choices they make, and why they make them. “Mommy said so” is an explanation, but it is not a suitable defense for someone standing on their own two feet.

We do not, generally, respect people who do not at least try to understand why they do what they do. There is a story (apparently apocryphal, but still instructive) of a pack of monkeys who are sprayed icy water when they climb a ladder, so they learn not to do that. Then the monkeys are replaced over time, until not a single monkey that was sprayed remains in the pack. And yet the monkeys refuse to climb the ladder. Indeed, they will attack any monkey who tries.

We are not supposed to be those monkeys. We are supposed to keep asking and thinking. Indeed, human adolescence seems designed to always test, every generation anew, the established customs and precepts of the previous generations. We should always be able to ask, “why do we do this?” Why, indeed?

Some of the answers that are offered are glib at best. Tevye’s classic cry of “Tradition!” makes for great musical theatre, but terrible theology. The playwright, like many undereducated Jews, missed the point entirely. There are much bigger and deeper reasons for the things we do, and they are there for the gleaning. But first we, like the growing child, need to ask those questions and not be afraid of figuring things out for ourselves.

The Torah tells us of a similar arc to that of a child’s intellectual development. It moves from the simple to the more sophisticated and considered explanations. It does so in the text. At Sinai, we were like children:

[Moses] took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, “All that G-d has spoken we will do and hear!”

Sinai is the intellectual birth of the nation (following the physical birth of the Exodus). It is when we start to receive instruction. And at that point, the perspective of the people was similar to a small child: “We will do what we have been told.” There is absolutely nothing wrong with this declaration, but it is a milestone on the road rather than the destination.

How do we know this? Because the last book in the Torah, Deuteronomy, introduces a new word, a word that does not appear in the text before Moshe’s last speech. The word is lamed, or “teach.” The word lamed is peppered throughout the book, appearing 17 times. And this is not mere blind instruction – when the word lamed is used, it is usually paired with an explanation!

Here is the first appearance of lamed:

And now, O Israel, give heed to the laws and rules that I am instructing (lamed) you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that G-d, the God of your fathers, is giving you.

See the explicit connection? Education is not merely instruction. It is for a specific purpose, a means to an end! The learning is there for a reason, not merely an appeal from authority. This is how the word appears throughout the Fifth book of the Torah, typically paired with an explanation or a purpose.

Today we are not pining to relive life in the wilderness, or the experience of Sinai, and certainly not for the Exodus. While we regularly reconnect and re-engage with those moments in our history, we also recognize that we are meant to grow up, to enquire and to think and to learn, so that our actions and words are as mindful and considered as possible. The Torah describes an arc, a growing of understanding that echoes that of any child reaching adulthood.

Keeping a Torah Law, for example, is much more powerful as and when we come to understand the symbolic values of those things. But the vast majority of people do not seek to understand the symbolic meaning of biblical commandments. Instead, they assume that the commandments are all given like parental instructions to a young child: “Do it because I say so.”

But the commandments are not meant to be blindly and unthinkingly observed. Every commandment can be understood and explained. And so we should strive to do just that.

We are supposed to see the Torah as the beginning of our story – from the pre-history of the nation in Genesis, through the Exodus and the time in the wilderness. That story is meant to carry on, into adulthood in the land G-d has chosen, into a world in which G-d may be so hidden that there is an open question whether or not He really exists at all. This is the world in which we are meant to grow so that we can be full partners with G-d in advancing this world. G-d wants what every parent seeks in their heart of hearts: to be able to respect and admire their own children as adults in their own right. We want our children to grow into friends.

This is why Torah learning, for a Jew, is a lifelong endeavor. The more we understand, the more we can grow to love and grow holy relationships with each other and with G-d. But first we must explicitly seek to grow beyond the questions of a child. Do not ask merely what we are supposed to do, but why we are supposed to do it!

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter work]


The Criticality of Finding Common Ground


Religious fundamentalists are often accused of seeking to force our morality on other people. There is, of course, much truth in this: belief that there is right and wrong, as instructed by G-d Almighty, does tend to make us think that we really should not tolerate murder or assault. The question often seems to be not whether or not we should use government force to compel others to adhere to our moral code (since the answer is clearly, at least to some extent, “Yes!”), but instead, where the line should be drawn.

Most people can agree, for example, that murder is wrong, and we can and should punish murderers, even though it means forcing our morality on others. But by the same token, most Americans would not favor using the government to punish those who blaspheme or commit adultery.

The G-d of the Old Testament, the Torah, is often caricatured as being concerned with strict justice and theocracy, but the text itself, in some very subtle ways, seems to not only tolerate those who have no interest in elevating themselves toward a relationship with G-d, but goes so far as to enjoin us to reach out and include a wide range of people within our gatherings and festivities.

Where do I see this? Three times in Deuteronomy:

But whenever you desire, you may slaughter and eat meat in any of your settlements, according to the blessing that your G-d has granted you. The unelevatable and the elevatable alike may partake of it, as of the ram and the deer. (Deut.12:15)

… you may slaughter any of the cattle or sheep that G-d gives you, as I have instructed you; and you may eat to your heart’s content in your settlements. Eat it, however, as the ram and the deer are eaten: the unelevatable may eat it together with the elevatable. (12:22)

But if [the animal] has a defect, lameness or blindness, any serious defect, you shall not sacrifice it to your G-d. Eat it in your settlements, the unelevatable among you no less than the elevatable, just like the ram and the deer. (15:22)

The gazelle (or deer or hart or similar) is a kosher animal who cannot be offered as a sacrifice, because it is not capable of connecting heaven and earth in that way. It represents the “unelevatable” – a person who has not chosen to grow holy relationships.

By contrast, the ram is the quintessential sacrifice – used first in the binding of Isaac. It embodies that profound connection between heaven and earth, man and G-d. And it thus represents people who are both capable and interested in growing holy relationships.

When the text says something three times, it is understood both as an emphasis and to describe three different facets of the same commandment (e.g. “you shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk” is repeated three times, and is the foundation for Jewish dietary laws separating milk from meat).

In this case, we can suggest that the wild (but still kosher) animal is a reflection of the three men who were excluded by our forefathers: Ishmael, Lot and Esau. All three were focused on nature, on the lively action of hunting and an obsession (in Lot’s case) with fertility. Though they could have, perhaps, been kept in the fold, they were instead excluded – arguably making their resentful descendants the enemies of the Jewish people through eternity.

And I think that Moses, in Deuteronomy, is telling us that, going forward, we are instead to always seek to include those who make different choices than we do, that we should always seek common ground even with those who do not share our interest in building holiness within ourselves, our families and our communities.

The repetition of the phrase three times might suggest that we are specifically meant to include those who acted as Ishmael, Lot, and Esau did. It does not mean that we follow their lead, but instead that we always try to find common ground, to include these potential outcasts.

There is another verse that leads us to a similar conclusion – and it is also connected to eating meat. Kosher land animals must chew their cud – but the Hebrew is “olah gerah” which means to “elevate the gerah.” We translate gerah as “cud,” but it is used first in the Torah when talking about the national census:

This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight—twenty gerahs to the shekel—a half-shekel as an offering to G-d. (Ex. 30:13)

This conversion seems to be entirely extraneous and irrelevant, unless we link it to the places it is used elsewhere: a kosher animal. The text seems to be suggesting that a kosher animal, an animal that we are allowed to ingest, is symbolically linked to a periodic unification of the entire people. Much like the “ram and the deer,” all Jews are to come together to celebrate G-d’s bounty, to find ways to show gratitude through sharing our blessings and publicly proclaiming them together, even though each person is different from the next.

So when we eat a kosher animal, we eat animals that “elevate the polis” – that find ways to elevate the ways in which we have things in common, if only that we eat meat together and join in the same census.

The tension between people who make different choices are inevitable, and there is no such thing as a happy medium. Society can – and should – use homeostatic systems to keep hunting for acceptable balance points between individual freedom and a functioning and healthy society. I think it is helpful to keep in mind that the Torah seems to command us to always seek to keep a civil society in which people can break bread with those who make very different choices.

If we loop this back to the original question, we see that the Torah does not stint on what should be correct. The ideal is still there, shining in the sky for all to see. But we must not exclude those who choose not to reach for the same ideals that inspire us. Instead, we look for opportunities to include them whenever and wherever we can.


The Quest for Eternity

I am in Israel, and recently concluded a tour of the excavated tunnels and bridges of the Old City. Essentially, generation after generation built on top of the generations – and civilizations – that came before, leading to the accumulation of layers that correspond to historical periods. These layers include the stuff of everyday living, though preserved houses like Burnt House are relatively rare.

The things that are not rare are the buildings themselves. From Ancient Israel to Herodean times, the Destruction, subsequent layers from Mamluks or Crusaders, Byzantium and the modern period – it is all there.

And I got to thinking. Sure, most people live their lives and leave little behind. But in Jerusalem, there was an almost-irresistible urge to build. Kings and architects, tyrants and priests all seemed to want to leave their distinctive marks, their own buildings, each intriguing and impressive in their own ways. Stone generally has a pretty impressive quotient of inertia: once built, stone buildings and the blocks used for those buildings tend to stick around.

All of this made me reflect. Because just about every civilization has built buildings – some of them, like the Roman Colosseum or the Athenian Parthenon, are quite impressive or beautiful. Certainly Herod’s Temple was enormous and would be considered grand in any age.

But as much as buildings – especially big stone ones – persist over time, it is not the buildings that ultimately matter, at least not to me. Because Western Civilization (cathedrals notwithstanding) is not founded on big buildings. Our foundation is not built of rock. It is instead founded solely on ideas.

Jews do not build statues of revered sages; instead, we read their words. Better yet, we intellectually engage with what they have to say, wrestling with them to try to better understand them – and G-d.

I personally am a creative fellow. I invent new things. And I certainly am interested in having left the world a better place than I found it (albeit not for a healthy bunch of decades first). But ultimately the value I create in the world is found in the ideas I express and defend, the relationships I have invested in and nurtured, and the new ways in which I have tried to help people to see the world.

I think it is admirable when men seek to create a legacy. But for my money, the legacies of which any of us should be most proud are not the structures we have built, no matter how impressive and long-lasting they might be. Instead, we should continue to invest in holy relationships and ideas: there may be virtually no physicality to any of it, and yet the ideas from the ancient world matter more than every single ancient building put together.


What Are OUR Unexamined Assumptions?

I was educated to be an historian, which helps explain why I take the long view. It also helps explain why, like a moth to a flame, I am attracted to counterfactuals, the “what would have happened instead, if only…” that were based on what we now know to be bad assumptions.

History is full of these. Stalin and Hitler both assumed that wealth is found in resources, not people – and so they thought that killing people would make other people richer. They did not understand that people, not stuff, are the best source of wealth in the world. Those bad assumptions led to the Holodomor and the Holocaust and much else besides. Erroneous inputs lead to really terrible outputs.

The Jewish revolts against the Romans were built on the assumptions that the Jewish people were supposed to be an independent nation (instead of an essentially-federated vassal state). Those assumptions were not sourced in Judaism, but instead in mimicry of other peoples. And the results were catastrophic: countless lives were lost. The Jews went into exile for 2,000 years and were almost extinguished along the way (apparently all blood-line Ashkenazi Jews today are descended from a gene pool that, 1,000 years ago, was only 135 people).

Modern Israel is in a deep constitutional crisis. The forces of modern nationhood are trying to lock in veto power against a demographic tide that seeks majoritarian control. It is a battle for the soul of the nation. But both sides are relying on rotten assumptions, which means that “victory” for either side today will have deeply undesirable second and third-order effects. (Here is a quite-good proposed constitutional fix that would, in my opinion, be a superb solution).

All too often we try to be victims, to blame others, or circumstances, for the world around us. Far too many of us insist on being victims, when the solution is to change the path we are on, the choices we make.

I believe that we are responsible for ourselves, for our surroundings, for our communities and nations – and yes, ultimately, civilization itself. It sounds like a tall order, but the real challenge is always the mindset with which we approach things – the assumptions that underpin all of our thinking.

For example: is America for Americans? Or is it only for citizens who are willing to share its ideals? Indeed, might America, the idea, really be for any and all people in the world who share the American ideals?

This is a big question. And people tend to answer this question instinctively, without examining their own assumptions to see whether they are indeed correct.

Is America’s highest aspiration to be the country for the American people? After all, if a nation only serves its people, then what makes any nation better than any other?

The very same question can – and should – be asked about Israel. Is Israel a nation for Israeli citizens? Or is it a nation for Jewish/Torah ideals? What are the underlying assumptions about the value of human life and freedom that should form the foundation of any constitution or governmental system?

These seem like abstract questions: they are anything but. A nation that does not believe each person has a soul on loan from G-d has no problem treating people like commodities or chattel. These assumptions matter. Is there a bedrock that we should be anchored to, in order to keep from floating away along with passing fancies and the flotsam of convenient crises?

I look at myself, and have to honestly ask the question: if I flatter myself to think that my thoughts matter… who will look back at me and, with the benefit of hindsight, say, “That guy… if only he had examined his assumptions more carefully… he would not have made that serious misstep.”

I think the question is one we should all be able to ask ourselves, out loud. What are our misplaced priorities and assumptions that historians will later realize were our Achilles heel?

P.S. Similarly, the assumption that the Temple needed to be large and grand, was, I believe, a major error. The assumptions that underpinned the desire to be a Big Deal were, in hindsight, clearly not found in the Torah and should have had no part in the thinking of the Jewish people during the times of the Second Temple.


Creative Conundrums





Why Not Recreate Nature?

For your own sake, therefore, be most careful—since you saw no shape when G-d spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire, not to act wickedly and make for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness whatever: the form of a man or a woman, the form of any beast on earth, the form of any winged bird that flies in the sky, the form of anything that creeps on the ground, the form of any fish that is in the waters below the earth.

This injunction seems to apply even if the thing would never be worshipped. Does that mean that pasuk is not necessarily about idol worship? If so, why? Why do you suppose we are forbidden from making any images?

Could it be that our creativity is supposed to be dedicated to truly emulate G-d, by making things that never existed before (e.g. airplanes instead of ornithopters?)?

Or otherwise … perhaps the injunction against making things is really meant to encourage us to spend our energies thinking instead of physically crafting?

Is there a better way to explain the plain meaning of the text?

What Does Horeb Symbolize?

Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. … Moses returned to Horeb with the people after the Exodus, and it is where he ascended the mountain and was given the Torah.

Horeb is the place we received the Torah! So it must be good, right? Not so fast! That very same root word as Horeb, ch-r-v, can be used for violent things, too?!

Simeon and Levi use ch-r-v – their swords – to lay waste to Shechem. The Torah also uses the same word to describe how the Jewish people kill Bilaam. How is killing (even righteous killing) possibly linked to Sinai?

G-d similarly promises to destroy the cities of the Jews if we ignore G-d – if we ignore our own potential to spiritually grow:

I will lay your cities in ch-r-v and make your sanctuaries desolate, and I will not savor your pleasing odors. (Lev. 26:31) … And you I will scatter among the nations, and I will unsheath the ch-r-v against you. Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ch-r-v. (Lev. 26:33)

What is the possible connection between Mount Sinai and the ruination and destruction by the sword promised elsewhere?

Perhaps an answer can be found by examining the other uses of that root word? The word is used, for example, to describe the ground beneath the Sea of Reeds, the dry land that the people walked on in order to leave Egypt: Then Moses held out his arm over the sea and G-d drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and turned the sea into ch-r-v.

ch-r-v similarly seems to refers to dry land after the Flood: In the six hundred and first year, in the first month, on the first of the month, the waters began to ch-r-v from the earth; and when Noah removed the covering of the ark, he saw that the surface of the ground was ch-r-v.

What is the commonality?

Perhaps the word ch-r-v refers to potential? The earth, having been washed, is now ready for new life, for physical and spiritual growth. Similarly the Jewish people, walking out of Egypt are reborn in the midst of the waters, also ready for growth. In both cases, there was total ruin – but there was also life, the possibility of creating anew, hope for the future. Is this a plausible understanding for the potential of this word?

Indeed, is the word ch-r-v connected to fertility, to the potential that plants and animals offer? When Jacob complains to Lavan that he had labored to manage and grow Lavan’s flock, he says, I was consumed by ch-r-v by day. Was Jacob obsessed with his job, consumed by the need to make the sheep breed, to maximize their physical potential to grow and procreate?

But if this is true, connecting Sinai to the post-flood might suggest that the giving of the Torah was not the culmination of Jewish History, but the start of it, the place from which we were supposed to only grow from – not back toward?

Could this explain why G-d orders the people to leave Horeb: “Our G-d spoke to us at Horeb, saying: You have stayed long enough at this mountain.” The place of revelation is only the launching point, the place where we receive our mission: the execution of that mission is how we are meant to flourish?

Had the Jews at Sinai/Horeb not fulfilled their potential, at least not at that point?

Is this the pattern? Are we supposed to be at Horeb? Or is it merely a starting point? After all, Isaac’s blessing to Esau that by your sword (ch-r-v) you shall live, seems to prophecy that Esau’s existence would always be one of primal constraint, permanently kept in an unfulfilled state. This is the same unfulfilled state as that of all the men who perished in the flood, described as All in whose nostrils was the breath of life [mankind], all that was ch-r-v, died. The flood generation (and Esau) did not fulfill their potential?

So maybe Horeb is never meant to be the destination, but instead the point of origination?

The very first time in the Torah that the word ch-r-v is found is when it describes the angel on the path to Eden:

East of the garden of Eden were stationed the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword (ch-r-v), to guard the way to the tree of life.

Think of the imagery after what we now know of this word! The angel is the guardian of the potential that is within the tree of life, blocking us from the potential, the might-have-been, had we stayed in Eden. That ch-r-v is now barred from us, and that chapter closed?

But isn’t it equally true that, considering how often the word is used after Eden, human potential remains?! Is the Torah telling us that we need to remember that new things can come from the ashes of even divinely-inflicted ruination (note that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah never uses ch-r-v – those places are destroyed for eternity, becoming remembered as the Dead Sea)? Hence all the references to Horeb, the place where we received the revelation of the Torah, the starting point for the Jews as a single nation charged with a shared mission for ourselves and for the world?

Might Horeb, Ch-r-v, symbolize the starting gate, the moment and place of potential and possibility? Is it the way in which we can – and must – grow both physically and spiritually in order to connect with G-d and achieve everything that we can become?

Or is there a better explanation for all the ways this word is used in the text?

This parsha question sheet takes the approach of reading the Chumash very closely, and without reference to anything other than the Chumash itself. It is assumed that every letter and word has meaning, and all questions can be answered (at least every one we have come up so far!) So you’ll find the questions offered every week are deeply textual, seeking relevance to our lives today from the foundational document for Judaism and indeed all of Western Civilization. 

This sheet is distributed with the general approval of Rabbi Rose.

Our answers can be found at (use the search tool). Or email me at

  • A BJSZ member

The Process of Growing Up

The Jewish people were born as a nation during the Exodus, passing through split waters. After birth comes childhood and then adolescence – their time in the wilderness. Lessons, from the Golden Calf to the Korach rebellions to various plagues, were learned the hard way before they were learned at all. Like children, the people complained whenever things were not precisely as they wanted them.

Throughout the time in the wilderness, G-d functioned as a helicopter parent. The ever-present pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night meant we always knew He was there. Moses was His prophet, and every question we had could be answered, directly from the source. In the wilderness, we knew we were never alone. G-d’s presence (even if it came with strict instructions and discipline) was never in doubt.

But children do not grow into adults in such an environment. At some point, parents have to back away, and even – gently or not – deliver a swift kick in the backside to propel their children out the door and into adulthood. G-d knew that we cannot grow as individuals or as a people if the connection remains too strong and obvious, if open miracles are always available to us. So G-d needed to push us out of the wilderness and back into the real world.

This process is never an easy one, and, just as with young adults, it has its ups and downs.

Our first experiment with adulthood was when the people were still in the wilderness. The princes of each tribe were sent out of the protective wilderness canopy to tour the land, seemingly entirely on their own. Their reactions were the same as those of a young child in the mall at the moment she realizes that she cannot see her mommy: the spies freaked out. Even assurances that G-d would indeed never abandon the people could not quell their fears. And so an entire generation had to die, an additional forty years had to pass, before the next generation, a new people that had never internalized slavery in Egypt or understood the terror that was the Exodus, could replace the old. The lesson for all of us is to not flag or lose faith, even and especially in the face of adversity.

But G-d not only needed us to re-enter the real world; He needed us to learn how to rely on ourselves as well. When the daughters of Tzelofchad brought a question to Moses, He immediately consulted with G-d because, after all, G-d was there and available.

But this is not how things worked once we left the wilderness! Post-wilderness, G-d’s presence is sufficiently subtle that most people are not even aware of His existence. And so we have to make do with human guidance. Today, if someone has a question concerning Jewish Law, Rabbis engage with all the relevant sources, argue their cases, and make a ruling. Indeed, we have a principle concerning Jewish Law that “It is not in Heaven” – that once the Torah was in our hands, the responsibility for deriving the Law is also no longer determined by G-d.

But Moses did not seek his own counsel – he went and asked G-d. Is it possible that perhaps Moses should not have done so? Perhaps a leader who consulted G-d instead of making an argument himself may well have been the wrong leader for the time after the wilderness?

Today we have no direct and clear link to the divine. And we even lack the mystical Urim v’Tumim, the oracle-like devices that helped the High Priest to answer questions, perhaps as training wheels between direct prophecy and parental withdrawal, before the people and their leaders had to learn how to ride the bike without anyone else holding them up. Today, we are meant to stand up, to be full partners.

To get there, we have to grow into the role. The helicopter parent has to withdraw enough so that the child is forced to act as if the parent is not even there. Then, when the child has become an adult, then we are welcomed back into a full relationship with the divine. Not a relationship in which G-d is there through power, or through signs and wonders, but instead because we are able to simply know He is there.

Perhaps this helps explain why, to many Jews, the Golden Age still lies in the future and not the past. Not because G-d did not deliver in the past. But because we are not yet were we need to be.


The Quest for Easy

Everyone seems to want their lives to be as easy as possible. I cannot pretend I understand why: to me it seems self-evident that since this life is the only one we get, everyone should try to achieve as much as possible. But no: people choose the safest and easiest relationships and jobs and much else besides – and then, because they need excitement, they bungee jump, take drugs, and cheat on their spouses.

Paganism is back because it is all about the “easy” – that path requires no self-examination, no uncomfortable questions about whether we are being all that we can be. We just buy off the deity, and we can live however we like. Pride Culture is obsessed with navel gazing: What do I want? What do I feel? How do I obtain the things I lust after? Me, me, me.

Cheap relationships are an extension of this same idea. A hookup or escort makes no demands. When a man simply wants physical interaction, the “easy” woman is available, cheaper, and requires no long-term investment or soul searching. Above all, that same woman does not require us to changes ourselves. Easy women are paradise for self-centered shallow men – and somehow the women have been convinced in turn that they should try to emulate men in this respect. The results are disastrous.

There is an underlying philosophy to this societal rot. Most people do not believe that there is such a thing as a soul. They believe that the physical realm is all there is, which means that people can be treated like any consumable commodity, nothing more or less than the sum of their parts. If you can afford it, you trade in the old model wife for a newer one, with little more drama than one applies to retiring an older car. And you continue to pursue whatever you decide is going to please you in the moment. But we don’t call it what it is: short-sighted selfishness, or the fancier name of “hedonistic narcissism”. Instead, the language has been flipped on its head. People “live their best life” by being “true to themselves” and “living in the moment”.

In so doing, they are living a monochrome existence in a technicolor world. If you believe that people cannot change, then that belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and you are incapable of growth. Indeed, if you believe that people are nothing more or less than the sum of their nature/nurture, then people, being static, also become very uninteresting.

If you have never witnessed a deep and abiding marriage, then you cannot understand that treating women as chattel reduces both people to mere display models, non-functioning simulacrum of the real thing. You cannot understand that we are each supposed to change and grow, including and especially within a marriage.

Grown-up culture requires us to ask anti-selfish questions. Instead of making life about ourselves, we need to instead ask: How do I love others? How do I truly hear them? How do I please others in a way that builds us BOTH up?

We are losing this marketing campaign. It hurts how badly the forces of good are being routed. We are losing to the kinds of profound and thought-provoking philosophical slogans that come from Nike shirts and rainbow lawn signs.

Is it possible that we lost control of the battlefield when we lost control of the language? And that the way in which we should be marketing positive and redemptive life choices is by taking control of the language back, calling out the shallow and facile life choices that are corroding the fabric of our civilization and the nuclear family?

I wonder if this is so. And if it is, how we go about trying to fix it?

Because from where I am sitting, the problem is as old as time, and assails us anew in every generation. It might wear lycra instead of birkenstocks, but every generation, it seems, dallies with the “easy” choices, the superficial relationships and the single-minded pursuit of pleasure. When Judah contracted sex from Tamar, he knows she is for hire because she covered her face: she was saying that she was willing to have a purely physical relationship with no emotional connection. The ideal 21st century hookup.

When our children do it, parents agonize. And when a generation engages in it (as the Israelites did when whoring with the daughters of Midian), we know G-d is deeply distressed and angered. But neither parental concern nor divine wrath seem to make a big difference in promoting the Good Life. When given the choice, a substantial and growing number people choose short-term pleasure instead of marriage, pets instead of children, ease instead of challenges, safety instead of investment.

How do we fix it? Leading by example is not enough, because it is paradoxical to advertise those holy things that thrive in privacy. Most of us are too private to advertise the nature and depth of our marriages or our connections to the Creator. That is as it should be: exposing a marriage to the public eye destroys all the meaning that comes with spiritual and physical intimacy between two people who love each other exclusively.

We are in a marketing campaign for the sake of goodness, for the sake of civilization, for the sake of holiness. The Bad Guys control most schools, the media and government. The mere suggestion that people should be responsible for our own words and deeds is banned speech in many forums. Not only are we losing, the pagans are trying to rig the game (from elections to speech codes) to ensure that we cannot even make the case for the Good Life.

For me, the challenge is to help people to make positive choices, to take responsibility for themselves and their families and communities. To build a holy society. And to lose as few people as possible to the consequences of what happens when we follow their momentary passions.

How do we fix it?

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith, @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter piece]


Young and Dumb

When I was younger, I was much more prone to rage and other baser emotions and desires. And things could have very easily been quite different for me. Those brief instants of opportunity or vulnerability … the “why not?” questions that, but for the smallest nudge in one direction would have unalterably changed my life. Joseph was almost seduced by Potiphar’s wife: imagine how that would have changed the rest of the story!

It is common to understand that people might “sow their wild oats” for a time before they settle down. But of course, even sowing wild oats can have consequences, and very real ones. Meatloaf wrote one the greatest rock songs ever on this very topic. Not everyone gets out of “young and stupid” unscathed, and I think everyone is changed in some way by those experiences. 

I think that every generation faces precisely the same challenge in this respect. People want to do what they want, and they want it without long-term consequences. Eve wanted to eat the fruit and not take the blame. Leftists today want to follow their physical desires and never have to have consequential responsibilities to others or even yourself. Jordan Peterson has a fantastic 1 minute clip on this that I cannot recommend highly enough – here.

If following our sexual desires is the most important thing in life, then, like Eve, people don’t want to be held accountable. It is somehow unreasonable to even suggest people plan ahead and use birth control – no, that is not enough! If following your passion is the central goal in life, then abortion becomes sacrosanct. Abortion is not, in the eyes of its practitioners, about killing a life, or even reproductive freedom. For them, it is at the core of a life philosophy that goes all the way back to the forbidden fruit: they do not want there to be consequences for their actions. They do not want there to be any downside risks or damages that result from promiscuity. They want to rewrite the story: Eve gets to eat the fruit, and still carry on living in the Garden, rent-free.

Every generation’s youngsters relive this very same argument anew. As we move from shielded childhood into adulthood (with puberty coming on line in the middle), it is very hard for people to internalize that one does not have to be Spiderman to grasp that great responsibilities come alongside great power. The powers of adulthood are actually superpowers: many adults can create and destroy new life. And even those of us who cannot procreate can create and destroy people merely in the way in which we treat others and use our speech to talk about them. If we put our passions and desires first, then we are not living in the Garden. Instead, we have created hell.

Youngsters in the midst of these life-changing moments make some awfully stupid mistakes. But so did we, and so did many of our peers. And, given how many of my own decisions seemed to run along a knife edge before edging back from the precipice, I am in no position to occupy the moral high ground. “There, but for the grace of G-d.”

But we still have to try to guide others in positive directions, not because we necessarily did things right, but because hindsight has gifted us with the knowledge that what we do with our bodies changes our souls. We know that some paths are better than others, and we should do everything in our power to help younger people to understand that our choices always, always, have consequences.


Deliberate Ambiguity?

There are many proposed answers for why the incidence at Merivah disqualified Moshe from entering the land. If you review the sequence carefully, there are many possible answers:

The people complain: Moses and Aaron came away from the congregation to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and fell on their faces.

They could have confronted the people, but they left the scene.“You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes speak to the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.” Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank.  

Aren’t there many possibilities? Initially, couldn’t Moshe and Aharon have told the people to trust in Hashem – instead of fleeing from them?   Name-calling is not something Moshe had ever done before.

Isn’t it problematic to call the people “rebels”?   The most common answer is that Moshe struck the rock instead of speaking to it.   And I am sure there are other reasonable answers as well.  

But the text does not tell us that what Moshe did was wrong! G-d Himself is ambiguous!  

But G-d said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”   Here’s the question:

What if the ambiguity is deliberate?  

Here’s a possibility: kedusha, holiness, can take many forms. Some have argued that kedusha is defined by the mikdash, each item representing a different facet of how to be holy.

In simplest strokes:  

Menorah: Illumination of G-d’s presence

Altar: Elevating the physical into the spiritual

Table: Partnership in creation

Ark: Connection and intimacy  

Did Moshe’s actions reflect ALL of these?   He hit the rock instead of talking to it. He ran away from the people He criticized the people He failed to connect positively with G-d or the people.   Is it possible that the ambiguity is deliberate? That the text is vague because in sum, Moshe did not act to sanctify G-d? And that there never was supposed to be just one explanation?  

So instead of demanding only one answer when the text is ambiguous, perhaps the ambiguity is there to tell us that there are many facets of the answer?  

If this is reasonable, does it help explain other times the Torah is imprecise as to specifics?  


The Voices of Women Change Things – Even in the Ancient World

We often assume that in a world closer to a state of nature, women are necessarily weaker than men, are thus less forceful, and are comparatively disempowered. And so, the narrative goes, until we had Enlightened Modern Feminism, women were second-class citizens, weaker, ignored, often used and discarded by powerful men.

Except that this is not what is actually found in the text of the Torah, not at all.

In the text of the Torah, every single Hebrew woman with a speaking role acts according to her conscience, in opposition to a powerful male figure in their life:

The Woman Acts Against
Eve (Chava) By eating the fruit, she rejects both Adam, her husband, and G-d
Sarah She speaks against Avraham and eventually separates from him
Rebekkah She deceives and tricks her husband and works against her Type A son, Esau
Rachel She rails against her husband, Jacob. She lies and deceives her father concerning the idols.
Leah She deceives her new husband by pretending to be her sister.
Tamar She deceives Judah and manipulates him
Pharoah’s Daughter She saves Moses from death, rejecting Pharoah’s decree
Midwives Shifrah and Puah They lie outrageously to Pharoah to save the lives of newborns
Moses’ Wife, Tzipporah The “bloody bridegroom” episode where she separates from him
Miriam She speaks against Moses, her brother
Daughters of Tzelofchad Their arguments force a change in Jewish Law

These women were all far more than flotsam and jetsam in a man’s world. And the text helps explain why Judaism does not even pretend that women are (or even should be) obedient and submissive.

Note that the results were mixed; even with the best intentions, the results did not always pan out. Perhaps, in many cases, direct communication before action would have avoided a lot of the negative outcomes: what if Eve had talked to Adam before eating the fruit? Or Rebekkah had checked with Isaac to see what blessings he had in mind?

Indeed, the negative results shown in the text might go some way toward explaining why, in the laws on vows, men must listen to their wives, and consider “cancelling” the vows spoken by women. Women should be incentivized to confront men directly, and men need to be incentivized to listen!

P.S. I should note that there are also two women who are not Hebrews who also speak in the Torah: Potiphar’s wife, who tries to commit adultery and then, as a woman scorned, seeks to destroy Joseph. She was surely no force for good.

And there is Hagar, who is the only compliant woman who is given a speaking role. Note that Hagar was an Egyptian, and Egypt in the Torah is always symbolic of being in harmony with nature, and accepting external forces (including the Nile and more powerful men).

[An @iwe and @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter work]



The daughters of Tzelofchad seem to be the first people in the Torah to change Jewish Law after Sinai. And they do it in a particular way: they do not act like Nadav and Avihu (action), or Korach (rebellion). Instead, they start with a question: “Why?”

Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korah’s faction, which banded together against G-d, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons.

Why should our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son? Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!”

Are the daughters of Tzelofchad the first women in the Torah to plead their case to another person by asking a question?   

If so, given their success, do the daughters set the trend for Jews going forward: internalizing that knowledge, growth and external change should always come as a result of asking thoughtful and well-reasoned questions?

Isn’t this the classic Jewish approach to, well, just about everything?


The Meaning of Life

Anything in nature can be born, live its life according to its instincts, and die. Hierarchies are established by relative power, and the strong naturally take advantage of the weak. It is the law of the jungle.

Most human societies throughout history have sought to imitate nature. In those societies, animalism is praised. People deliberately drink the blood and eat the genitalia of powerful animals in order to absorb their spirits. Embracing the animal instincts of mankind is praised: berserker rage or unbridled lust or other unthinking instinctive desires are praised and even venerated. Romulus was right to kill Remus. In these societies, the vulnerable are used and discarded by the strong. Weak-minded people, including children, are led astray for the benefit (or merely just hedonistic amusement) of the superior class.

This is the way of nature. It is the way of human nature. You can see it on every playground, where pecking orders that are identical to those found in any chicken coop are first established, where children learn that others are faster or stronger, and that being nice to someone else is usually rewarded with embarrassment and pain.

We think it is easy to overcome our natures. It is not. Every single person on the internet who succumbs to the temptation to write a nasty post, every single person who gives into telling gossip about others, every person who leverages their intellect or beauty or strength or wealth to lord over someone else is acting according to the Law of the Jungle, to Might Makes Right.

Every time we find ways to divide, to hate, to make others feel bad, we limit ourselves and the good that we can do in the world in the limited time we have.

How do we fix this?

Well, if we wanted to counter our natures, to create sibling relationships of mutual support instead of competition, loving and kind marriages, communities where people lift each other up, and even an entire nation built on sensitivity to others and gratitude and the furtherance of mankind, then we would have to find ways to institutionalize the teaching and nurturing of positive words, thoughts and deeds. We would want to regularly prompt each of us to recognize our failures and weaknesses, and seek to improve, to grow and change.

That might look a lot like a set of unthinking rituals. Those rituals might include honoring everyone we meet with courtesy and a kind word. It might include constant expressions of gratitude – for the food we eat, for the kindnesses others show. We could add constant reminders that each person has a soul on loan from G-d, and is thus deserving of respect even if they themselves choose to act like mere animals. The rituals might also require us to show our vulnerability, and never take advantage of the vulnerability shown by others. We would try to make everything we do a statement in opposition to our natural instincts: we might have a diet, for example, that symbolically reminds us of our purpose. We could mandate acts of generosity and charity to others. We might even forbid gossip, shunning those who practice it, refusing to even be in the room when someone is dishing out dirt on someone else. Above all, we would be constantly reminded to reject all unthinking acts of passion, the grudges that break apart families, those comfortable tribal hatreds that ostracize outsiders so we can instinctively belong to our herd.

And if you add all those rituals together, you end up with something like Orthodox Judaism. But not nearly close enough. It is easier to “plug and chug,” to engage in rituals unthinkingly, rather than understand that they are there for a purpose. Even with every ritual in place, it is very, very difficult to accept our own failures and weaknesses and address them. So the trappings and the rituals often become unmoored from their very purpose. And if I follow the rituals but am still contemptuous of others, then I have missed the entire point!

This objection is, of course, a regular criticism of organized religions. And the criticism has merit. We are supposed to do the things the Torah commands us to do for a reason. And that reason is all about being better than our Nature, growing higher than our Nurture. It is about taking responsibility for our actions, for seeing that what we do matters, and that our choices have consequences that we cannot merely slough off as being “not my fault” or “I couldn’t help it.” The very earliest lessons of Genesis include learning that our decisions have consequences, and we must not blame others for our own choices.

There are surely other, largely parallel, paths to creating a kind and loving family, community, and nation. They are all to be commended, as ways of improving ourselves and thus everything we touch.

But all institutionalized practices to build and grow mankind away from nature are undermined by those who take the opposite view. Our enemies see nature as the ideal, and consequently praise giving in to our desires to riot with the other wildebeests, being true to our lusts and fetishes, taking advantage of weak-minded children for our own hedonistic pleasures, excluding and demonizing all outsiders.

We are in an existential battle for the future of mankind.


Symbolic Time Travel

How many times have you wished you could go back and “do over” something you did or said? I know that such regrets filled my childhood. And the fact that it was impossible to “do over” or even undo something once it had been done, helped define me, for better or worse. Our very identities are linked to our personal histories.

In the Torah, there is a specific material, often translated as a “crimson thread”, that is a linguistic pun for “second time,” suggesting that there is a possibility of a do-over where the crimson thread is mentioned. We may not be able to undo what has been done, but at least symbolically, we can find a way to move forward, and not be limited by the past. Mankind’s commitment to growth and connection is clearly very important to G-d.

And so the text tells us how to overcome the inevitable impediments to that growth. One of the biggest ones is contact with the dead. If we have touched a dead person, we are spiritually blocked from connecting with the divine. But Judaism is about the living, not the dead – so in order to properly live, we must have a way to put contact with the dead behind us.

This way is a do-over ritual, that of the red heifer, moving back to the time before there was death in the world, all the way back to the Garden of Eden, to the creation of man.

I’ll use tables to show how this lines up:


Garden of Eden

Red Heifer

Before Agriculture

Animals were not worked by man

The red heifer has to be unyoked by man


The first, directly-created animals, lacked defects or blemishes

The red heifer must not have defects or blemishes

The natural world

The dirt/ashes represent the vitality of the freshly created earth

Adumah (red) is a pun with Adamah (earth)

Parah (cow) shares the root of Pri (fruit/procreation – also first mentioned on the third day). Together, they are the physical vitality of the earth (lacking the spiritual component which G-d/man provide). The cow is the elemental embodiment of the physical world.

Building Blocks

G-d uses the dust/ashes to create man, a building material

The red heifer is converted into a building block, through burning (saraf). Saraf first appears in the Tower of Babel Story: “They said to one another, Come, let us make bricks and burn them hard.” Burning is used as a constructive tool! The red heifer is burned (saraf), just as the bricks for the Tower of Babel were burned (saraf).

The burning transforms the

the cow into its essence. Those ashes then are stored to be used as needed, together with the “living water.”

Creation of Man

Man is made of “living spirit” and ashes

Man is anointed with “living water” and ashes

3 and 7

Physical life is created on the third day, and a connection with the divine is established the seventh

The living water and ashes are applied on the third and seventh days: physical and spiritual rebirth


When G-d created man, He limited Himself in so doing! The entire world, and the loaning of the soul to mankind, necessarily required G-d to restrict Himself in time and space. In other words, creating man required G-d to shrink, to contract.

The person who sprinkles the water and ashes, who symbolically makes the anointed person reborn, is themselves specifically made tamei, limited in spiritual growth.

The connection between Eden and the red heifer is thus pretty clear.

Other elements: the low grass, hyssop, is mentioned first at the Exodus:

Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and apply some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and to the two doorposts.

So the mention of the hyssop is to connect us back to the birth of the Jewish people as a nation. The Exodus was the founding event of the Jewish people, and so the hyssop reminds us of that national birth, the time when we publicly acted to show that the task of an Israelite is to bring the animal kingdom (the blood), the vegetable kingdom (the hyssop), upward toward G-d, through our own efforts and our own homes.

The last ingredient is the cedar tree. Trees are in Genesis as bearers of fruit, but also the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is this fruit which irrevocably changes Adam and Eve. So the eating of the fruit is the first instance of “rebirth” in the Torah, a change in a person similar to that of the Exodus or red heifer.

The cedar is part of Bilaam’s blessing, the idyllic description of the Jewish nation:

Like palm-groves that stretch out, Like gardens beside a river, Like aloes planted by G-d, Like cedars beside the water;

So the cedar tree is something of an aspiration for us: we would like to become as good as Bilaam describes us, a spiritual wellspring for the world.

P.S. For those who would like to check the above against the text, I include it here. Note for the sake of space that I keep “pure” and “impure” but those words are better understood as “spiritually able to elevate” and “spiritually blocked from elevation.” Questions are welcome!

G-d spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: This is the ritual law that G-d has commanded: Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid.

You shall give it to Eleazar the priest. It shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered in his presence.

Eleazar the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger and sprinkle it seven times toward the front of the Tent of Meeting. The cow shall be burned in his sight—its hide, flesh, and blood shall be burned, its dung included— and the priest shall take cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff, and throw them into the fire consuming the cow. The priest shall wash his garments and bathe his body in water; after that the priest may reenter the camp, but he shall be impure until evening. The one who performed the burning shall also wash those garments in water, bathe in water, and be impure until evening. Another party who is pure shall gather up the ashes of the cow and deposit them outside the camp in a pure place, to be kept for water of lustration for the Israelite community. It is for purgation. The one who gathers up the ashes of the cow shall also wash those clothes and be impure until evening. This shall be a permanent law for the Israelites and for the strangers who reside among them. Those who touch the corpse of any human being shall be impure for seven days. They shall purify themselves with [the ashes] on the third day and on the seventh day, and then be pure; if they fail to purify themselves on the third and seventh days, they shall not be pure. Those who touch a corpse, the body of a person who has died, and do not purify themselves, defile G-d’s Tabernacle; those persons shall be cut off from Israel. Since the water of lustration was not dashed on them, they remain impure; their impurity is still upon them. This is the ritual: …Some of the ashes from the fire of purgation shall be taken for the impure person, and fresh water shall be added to them in a vessel. Another party who is pure shall take hyssop, dip it in the water, and sprinkle on the tent and on all the vessels and people who were there, or on the one who touched the bones or the person who was killed or died naturally or the grave. The pure person shall sprinkle it upon the impure person on the third day and on the seventh day, thus purifying that person by the seventh day. [The one being purified] shall then wash those clothes and bathe in water—and at nightfall shall be pure. If any party who has become impure fails to undergo purification, that person shall be cut off from the congregation for having defiled G-d’s sanctuary. The water of lustration was not dashed on that person, who is impure. That shall be for them a law for all time. Further, the one who sprinkled the water of lustration shall wash those clothes; and whoever touches the water of lustration shall be impure until evening. Whatever that impure person touches shall be impure; and the person who touches the impure one shall be impure until evening.


Finding Fulfillment in Death

That sounds awfully dark. Who would want their life to have meaning only in their death? I know we have glorious (but dead) heroes, like the defenders of Masada or the Alamo. And martyrs are an example to others – but not one that sane people actually aim to imitate.

Normal people do not aspire to finding their fulfillment in battle or the gas chambers. Most of us want to make our marks through our lives, not our deaths.

Yet the Torah tells us about an entire generation who only reach their destiny when they are dead, as an example for all of our people to never, ever follow.

After the spies lose their nerve, G-d decrees:

But your carcasses shall drop in this wilderness, while your children roam the wilderness for forty years, suffering for your faithlessness, until the last of your carcasses is done in the wilderness.

The word I translate as “done” is tam, meaning completion or fulfillment. So the completion of the people was found in their carcasses. Which means that the ultimate value of their lives, in G-d’s eyes, was found in their death. That is pretty depressing.

The text makes this connection even darker. The word for “carcass” is rare in the Torah. In addition to its use in the story of the spies, it is found in a curse for not following G-d.

I will destroy your cult places and cut down your incense stands, and I will heap your carcasses upon your lifeless fetishes. I will spurn you.

Again – an example for others to follow.

But the first time “carcass” (peger) is found is at the mysterious and terrifying Covenant Between the Parts: Abraham is commanded to cut animals in half:

He brought all these and cut them in two, placing each half opposite the other … Birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away.

These animals were nameless, random beasts. They could have lived their lives. Until one day they were used in this way, and became an eternal lesson to the Jewish people. Like those who died in the wilderness because of their sins, these animals became an important lesson – but in their deaths, through their carcasses lying on the ground. The very best possible reading might be: “Sure, they died, and it was awful, but at least we learned something from their death, in the end.” They are a cautionary tale. And so were the generation of the spies, condemned to die like the animals, and to have the very purpose of their existence found in their dead bodies.

P.S. Secondary to the primary thesis, one obvious question remains: why does the text mention the vultures?

Birds of prey came down upon the carcasses, and Abram drove them away.

I think it is because nature was ready to recycle the carcasses. But Avraham knew they were there for a reason. He killed the animals, but he did not do it for food or whim: G-d had commanded it, and so they must have a purpose beyond mere vulture food. In the Torah, even carcasses are there for a reason!

As you may recall, the Covenant that involves the carcasses includes the prophecy that the enslaved people would go down to serve a foreign people, and then be brought out by G-d with great wealth. The Exodus itself describes something supernatural: a slave nation leaving its host in the manner of the Exodus defies normal existence and the natural workings of people and nations. The Jewish people, by being in Egypt and leaving, would be achieving something that could not be naturally assured or expected.

So by interrupting the vultures, Avraham is foreshadowing G-d’s salvation of the people: nature would not be allowed to simply run its course. The natural end of the carcasses was interrupted and managed by a higher power, just as the Exodus tells of a people who were about to be lost, but were saved by G-d.

The story of the Jewish people is the story of the natural world that contains a supernatural people, a people able to elevate themselves and the world around them, and a people that refuses to simply let nature take its course. Avraham stops the vultures because the carcasses are there for a bigger reason than simply recycling dead animals. So, too, G-d delivers the Exodus in violation of the natural “laws” of the world, because G-d wants the entire world to know that there are some things that are bigger, more powerful, and more important than the earth.


How Can Torah Be Like an Ogre?

You may recall the classic Disney movies that managed to speak to audiences at multiple levels: gags and themes that delighted children were presented alongside humor directed at adults. The kids did not need to understand the grown-up humor in order to grasp the movie, of course. But it always amazed and delighted me to watch some of those movies again as an adult and realize that there were plenty of goodies that I simply had to be older in order to notice.

I think this is true for many great works, but it is especially true for reading the Torah. The top level story can be understood by anyone who can grasp words. And many people simply read the text through, recognizing the version of the text that they can access while being oblivious to the fact that there are layers upon layers that are there as well, but can only be accessed via a “whole text” approach to reading and analysis.

Here is one such tidbit to illustrate my point.

Moses commands the representatives of each tribe to tour the land of Israel, and report back. He commands them with some particulars. And then the text tells us something:

And it was the season of the first grapes.

We can certainly read this snippet as color commentary: it was that time of year. Perhaps it helps explain how the land looked, or what the spies brought back with them. Simple enough, right?

Ah! But there is a deeper meaning that eludes the casual storybook reader. The clues are in the words themselves: “first” (bikkurim) and “grapes” (anavim).

The word “First” appears initially in the text in the story of Cain and Abel. Abel’s offering was accepted by G-d, while Cain’s offering was rejected. Why? Because while Cain tried to pay G-d off (like a pagan offering does), Abel brings a token, to show acknowledgement that it is G-d, not natural forces, that is the ultimate source of our prosperity. How do we know?

Because Abel does not bring G-d the best – instead, he brings the first of his flocks!

Why does Abel do this? After all, first fruit and animals are never the best (late harvest wines are sweetest, for example). The first fruits are not necessarily the most beautiful, or ripest, or largest; they only need to be the first. G-d is not hungry for fruit. He is hungry for connection, for appreciation. So Abel understood that G-d wants a relationship that includes gratitude, while Cain, by paying G-d off, was merely acknowledging G-d’s power.

For the purposes of understanding the season of the spies, we need to see the linkage to Cain and Abel, and understand that there was a clear risk that if the spies did not understand that the blessings of the earth are all ultimately from G-d, then the people would end up like Cain, wandering out their days because they failed to understand the difference between a pagan deity of power, and the Torah deity of connection.

So by using “first” in explaining the season, the text is telling us that the spies are being put back in the position of Cain and Abel, facing the very same test: do we recognize G-d’s role in this world? Do we understand what our relationship to G-d is supposed to be?

The Torah commands us later, in an echo of Cain and Abel, to bring the first-fruits (using the very same word, bikkurim). Bikkurim are a token of our appreciation, and bringing them leads to joy and sharing and blessings.

But the Torah is telling us that the story could have gone the other way. As indeed, with the spies, it did.

The second key word in this verse is “grapes.” And this one is even easier to discern, if we but look for it. Noach is the first person to plant grapes. He does it as a method of dealing with survivor guilt, and the story gets very dark as a result. Alcohol is a coping mechanism, especially for those who feel sorry for themselves, who choose to deny responsibility for their actions. Diminished capacity is an enabler for “it wasn’t my fault.” A drunk person is incapable, in that moment, of having a deep relationship.

But for all of this, grapes are not forbidden in the Torah. Indeed, the next reference in the text is that of the dream of the Butler:

Then the chief cupbearer told his dream to Joseph. He said to him, “In my dream, there was a vine in front of me. On the vine were three branches. It had barely budded, when out came its blossoms and its clusters ripened into grapes. Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes, pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand.”

The dream of the butler was the prophecy that in three (hundred years) the Jewish people would become ripe and fat, and delivered into G-d’s hand! Thus, grapes refer to redemption! They connect to promises being fulfilled, of divinely-decreed destiny that saves the people.

So on the one hand, grapes represent the potential for catastrophic danger, especially if we block our cognitive capabilities and choose instead to wallow in self pity. A person who chooses to not be responsible for themselves and their actions is, in the Torah, a tragedy, an overlooked golden ticket for holy relationships with G-d and with others.

And on the other hand, grapes can refer to our deliverance, to an ongoing and connected relationship in the hands of G-d. Quite a potent little fruit!

So when the Torah tells us the season, we can read it like an interesting story, and see the verse as setting the scene, helping us imagine what Canaan looked like.

But if we are adults, then we can also understand that we are being warned, by reference to the grapes, that there was great potential for triumph or disaster (depending on our ability to take responsibility and keep our wits about us). The Torah is telling us that the mission was always on a knife’s edge, capable of going either way.

And the reference to the “first” connects us right back to Cain and Abel’s offering: would the spies see things as Cain did, or as Abel did? If the latter, then the result of the mission would have been a triumph. But if the people saw things as Cain did, saw G-d as merely another powerful deity that needed to be appeased, then they would be unable to understand the core condition of living in the land of Canaan: being in the land is conditional, and it requires a relationship with G-d that is entirely different from the relationship Cain had when he brought a percentage of his fruits in an attempt to buy off (and thus distance himself from) G-d, instead

But in order to see any of this, we first need to appreciate that, in the immortal words of the eponymous hero in that great anti-Disney movie, Shrek, one must first understand that many things are not as they first seem: like onions – and ogres – the Torah has layers.


What Happens When the Mob Rules

As we know all too well these days, the mentality of the mob becomes its own inexorable force. Whether dealing with LGBT, Covid, Climate Change or any number of related Woke topics, it is the Received Wisdom that matters, not whether or not it is logical or sensible. Any and all who differ from the orthodox line are threatened, belittled, cancelled, and sometimes even killed.

But we would do well to appreciate that this is not a new phenomenon. Mob Rule is as old as time, older even than villagers with pitchforks and torches, hellbent on killing the Outsider. The pattern is consistent: arbitrarily define an orthodoxy, then attack all those who do not fully subscribe to it. In this world, there are no universally-held and blindly-applied legal principles, no sacrosanct institutions. Instead, the seemingly-mindless mob is like a school of fish, jerking its collective this way and that with no clear leader, but with one absolute conclusion: everyone must do what everyone else is doing.

In the Torah, the very same story plays out when the spies come back from Canaan. Foreshadowing Covid and Climate Change hysteria, the thought leaders start by sowing fear:

But the other men … said, “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we.” Thus, they spread calumnies among the Israelites about the land they had scouted, saying, “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are of great size … and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”

And the people, just like in our generation, freak out. The conditions are set to create a mob, unified by fear:

The whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept that night. All the Israelites railed against Moses and Aaron. “If only we had died in the land of Egypt,” the whole community shouted at them, or “If only we might die in this wilderness!” “Why is G-d taking us to that land to fall by the sword?” “Our wives and children will be carried off!” “It would be better for us to go back to Egypt!”

Two men stand up to the mob, proclaiming that there can be a great future – as long as the people are brave. But frightened people do not want to hear about bravery. Indeed, instead of merely ignoring the cooler heads, the mob prepares to kill them, stab the old leaders (who are now the new outsiders) with the proverbial pitchforks. Except that they use a different weapon:

The whole community threatened to pelt them with stones.

Stones in the Torah are deeply symbolic. Killing someone by stoning only happens in cases of a profound rift in what should be holy relationships: practicing witchcraft, worshipping Molech, incurable rebellion against parents, violating the Sabbath, and cursing G-d. Each and every one of these events is triggered by an inability to keep our primary priority in mind: the fidelity of our relationships.

The first time stones are used in the Torah was for Jacob’s dream – the first reciprocal connection between man and G-d. The stone is the central prop to a key event: the first time G-d and Man swear fealty to one another, exchanging promises and bonding the descendants of Jacob’s people to G-d evermore.

Stones are thus used as a penalty to remind everyone that relationships, going back to the first use of stones in the Torah, are of primary importance. Preserving key relationships can be even more important than life itself.

What does this have to do with the mob rule? I think the mob was going to throw stones at Caleb and Joshua and Moses not because they were trying to restore the relationship with G-d but because the mob were declaring that their former leaders were themselves being blasphemous by not acknowledging the innate power and correctness of the decision of the mob. In other words, the mob was doing precisely what our modern mobs have done: claim that any unbelievers are to be destroyed for lacking faith in whatever the mob happens to think on any given day.

Part of the cause of the mob’s unrest was actually provided by Caleb and Joshua. When you first read the text, it looks like reassurance:

If He desires us, G-d will bring us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey, and give it to us.

The problem is that the word used for “desires” (chafetz) is only found in four other verses in the Torah. In each case, it means to desire a lifelong marital relationship. So the leaders are telling the people that if G-d desires that relationship, they will be OK.

But if we look at those verses, we see something that must have been even more unsettling. Not one of the verses refers to a happy relationship! On the contrary, not one of them has anything like a
“happily ever after” ending. Here they are:

And the youth [Shechem] lost no time in doing the thing, for he desired Jacob’s daughter [Dinah].

[Shechem ends up dead, and there was no marriage]

Then, should you no longer desire her, you must release her outright.

[This is the beautiful captive, and it speaks of the negative case: where desire is lost]

And then there are two verses about levirate marriage:

But if the man does not desire to take his brother’s widow [to wife] … If he insists, saying, “I do not desire to take her,”

Not one of these verses is suggesting that relying on the desire for a long-term relationship is a winning formula. Which means that instead of placating the mob, the leaders end up inciting them to greater rage!

Caleb tells the mob that their fear is baseless:

Have no fear then of the people of the country, for they are our prey: their protection has departed from them, but G-d is with us. Have no fear of them!”

But as we have seen in our own times, pointing out that the mob is driven by senseless fear is not a winning argument. It just makes them less logical and more angy. Indeed, the leaders would have been killed, if it were not for a deus ex machina just before the first stones were thrown.

Where the Torah does not offer us an answer is the question we have today: without direct divine intervention, how do we defang the mob? How do we make people come to their senses?

What is clear to me is that G-d has no sense of humor for those who fall under the spell of the mob. In the case of the spies, the people were being offered a long-term relationship with Him – and the mob turned G-d down.

This would certainly help explain why the punishment they endure is that they all must die in the wilderness: if you do not jump at the chance for a deeper relationship with G-d, then you are not worthy of His love!

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith, @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter work!]


The Value of Putting on a Facade

I have often heard people complaining that they “cannot be themselves” in all situations. That we all grow these facades, these personae, that we use with different audiences. We speak to our siblings differently than to our parents – indeed, we have a voice for old people, another one for babies, yet another for foreigners… and somehow this is seen as a bad thing. After all, if you put on a façade for someone, are you then not being true to yourself?

I would make the opposite argument: relationships are hard precisely because they require accommodation, adjustment, growth and learning from experience. After all, those who insist on being the same person to all people are also insisting on being rude to others.

I write this as a contrarian, someone who consciously refuses to do what others do merely because others are doing it. But in my interactions with people, I try extremely hard to never be rude, to never offend. I try to engage with others using conversation and arguments that suit my goals, but using language and social sensitivities that make the other person as comfortable as I know how.

And there is, without a doubt, a profound value in having as broad and deep a relationship as is possible with everyone you meet. Going through the trouble of having different faces depending on the audience is a way of showing respect, and of building constructive relationships. Being multilayered is not a lie: it is a sign of growth and maturity.

Perhaps instead of worrying about being “true to ourselves,” we would be better off worrying if we are not being proactive enough in changing ourselves in order to accommodate others? After all, loving your fellow means you have to first try to see things from his perspective, to think as he does. Once you do that, then you try to find the best way to communicate – and that also involves changing yourself in order to make that possible.

So put me down as someone who believes that wearing different facades is the sign of a civilized and sensitive person, a person who changes myself for others precisely because I care about other people.

This is also at the heart of Judeo-Christian religious practice: we share the belief in personal growth and change and the opportunity for redemption. The person we present to the Creator is not our natural selves, but a highly refined and elevated version of our animal selves.


Judeo-Christianity: Stressing our commonality instead of our differences

Most of us, most of the time, have little tolerance for people who hold different beliefs than we do. In part, we are defensive about the choices we make, and insecure that others do not do as we do. And when it comes to religion, the problem can be even more stark: if you only believe in one “truth,” then everyone who believes differently than you must be false, and perhaps even doomed to hell.

As a result, among Christians (and sometimes Jews), inclusive terms are often rejected out of hand: the adjectival label “Judeo-Christian” for example is often rejected on the basis that there is no such thing as a Judeo-Christian! And only one path can be True – so whatever “those people” do must, of necessity, be excluded as having any validity at all. Either you are with The Truth, or you are the enemy.

Ah … but maybe there is a defense to be made in the text of the Torah for just such a fuzzy and inclusive worldview. A worldview that supports, for example, this freedom-loving Torah Jew living alongside others who hold quite different beliefs. In other words, there is an argument that relies on the text itself to support a wide diversity of thoughts within the broader boundaries of the text.

How could I possibly make such an argument? I think the text gives it to us. I think that the text embraces such an inclusive embrace of diverse opinions. This is because there is a shared word in the text that itself means “connection,” but also serves to connect everything.

This word is “ahd,” and it means a variety of ideas, each part of a larger meaning for this critical word. The word ahd serves to include things that are different from each other.

For starters the word can mean “until” – as in:

By the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat, until (ahd) you return to the ground.

But note what the word also does: it connects different things, in this case, sweat and death. It is broadly used in the text to indicate an inclusive range:

All existence on earth was blotted out—(ahd) humans, (ahd) cattle, (ahd) creeping things, and (ahd) birds of the sky;

This very same word is also the root word for a witness or testimony:

You shall not testify against your neighbor false ahd.

Can you see how this word also means “connection”? A witness acts to connect a person with an action, so the testimony is there to create a link between two disparate things.

The strangest use of this word is when it is used to connect things for which being a witness is impossible. Here are those examples, in table form:





Indeed, these seven ewe-lambs you should take from my hand,
so that they may be a witness (ahd) for me that I dug this well.

Sheep cannot witness anything.


Come, then, let us make a pact, you [Jacob] and I, that there may be a witness (ahd) between you and me.” Thereupon Jacob took a stone and set it up as a pillar. … And Laban declared, “This mound is a witness (ahd) between you and me this day.” That is why it was named Gal-ed;

Stones are inanimate; if anything, they are less qualified witnesses than are sheep!


I call heaven and earth this day to witness (ahd) against you that you shall soon perish from the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess; you shall not long endure in it, but shall be utterly wiped out.

Note the transition from specific “witnesses” to global ones.

Heaven and earth cannot be witnesses! So this needs explanation!


Now it shall be
if you forget, yes, forget your G-d
and walk after other gods,
and serve them and bow down to them, I call-witness (ahd) with you today

This seems to be co-witnessed by G-d AND the people. Like mutual accountability. But the word still seems wrong…


I call heaven and earth to witness (ahd) with you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your offspring would live—

Again, heaven and earth cannot be witnesses in any legal sense. The Torah is surely not implying that they are independent characters…


Take this Torah scroll and place it beside the Ark of the Covenant of your G-d, and it will be there with you for witness (ahd).

Note how we moved from physical things, to things that are merely a collection of words


Gather to me all the elders of your tribes and your officials, that I may speak all these words to them and that I may call heaven and earth to witness (ahd) with/in them.



Therefore, write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this poem may be My witness (ahd) within the people of Israel.

Moving into the spoken word makes the “witness” ever-less physical. And note that the object of the “witnessing” is not necessarily the people – it could be G-d.


Set your hearts toward all these words which I have made witness (ahd) with you today, that you may command your children to take care to observe all the words of this Torah.

Words are themselves witnesses?


The Ark of the Testimony, or the tablets that held the Ten Commandments (ahd)

Both are not witnesses – they are visual reminders!

When you put all of these together, you find an easily explainable common theme: “witness” is not the correct translation. “Mental reminder of a connection” might be a much better (though unwieldy) fit. Think of it this way: when we look at heaven and earth, we are to remember the verses connected to them. When we read the Torah, we are to remember its importance and meaning. This is precisely what Avram and Jacob and Laban meant by their sheep and mounds and pillars: the ahd is a reminder of a connection, a meaning where there would not have been one otherwise.

What does this have to do with “Judeo-Christianity”? Everything!

Let’s use the Ten Commandments. Admired and generally accepted by both Jews and Christians, the Big Ten are at the heart of a shared worldview. Indeed, they are so broadly pervasive that key tenets (thou shalt not kill, etc.) are considered obvious by so-called rational atheists (despite most of non-Torah human history suggesting otherwise)! So in that sense the Ten Commandments have succeeded in creating a shared worldview, loosely described as “Judeo-Christian.” Even though there are countless flavors of Jews and Christians, and little agreement on how one should observe, for example, the Sabbath, there remains these shared Ten Commandments. Similarly, Jews and Christians believe, in opposition to paganism, that G-d is not found in natural forces: the wind, the sea, or the earth.

Why does ahd mean a connection between people? This is also found in the text! In the Torah, when people do something together, they are called an ahdass, using the very same root word. That assembly is not a unified body of people. Instead, it is a group of people who are connected to each other. It is different from am, nation, or kahal, congregration, other words to describe the Israelites. The difference is perhaps subtle, but it is critical. The word ahd is never used to connect things that are the same – and in many cases it connects apples and oranges (the first example being the connection of sweat to death). An ahdass is not a unified people: it is an agglomerated group who have chosen to do or believe something together.

The ahdass, the community, exists because everyone in it shares something. So, for example, with the Ark of the Testimony/Tablets, the tabernacle itself forms the nexus, the hub, the shared connection for all the people. And that is why it is called an ahd.

But the Levites are to camp around the Dwelling of Testimony (ahd) … and the Levites are to keep the charge of the Dwelling of Testimony (ahd).

So we see that to the extent that there are shared beliefs or actions between Christians and Jews, then in the language of the Torah itself, we form an adass, an entity comprised of different people who nevertheless have something in common. I present you with “Judeo-Christianity.”

This understanding also supports a wide range of pluralism within Judaism itself: to the extent there are shared connections (and ideally boundaries), then there is an ahdass of Jews.

P.S. I think the progression of the use of the word ahd can teach us that the Jews are not a people of a temple, or even of a book. Ultimately, we are about words and thoughts, non-corporeal things to connect to a non-corporeal Creator.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith, @eliyahumasinter work!]


The Earth as a Litmus Test?

Vessels made of earth, kli cheres, absorb what goes into them. When the contents are not good (as with a sin offering), then we are commanded to destroy the contaminated vessel:

An earthen vessel (kli cheres) in which [the sin offering] was boiled shall be broken

The idea seems to be that once it has been touched by sin, the vessel cannot be saved: it must be destroyed. Sin causes damage that does not merely buff out.

The Torah tells us about this property of the earth at the very beginning. The first named sin in the Torah is that of Cain, who loses control of his jealousy and rage. And in so doing, he seems to contaminate the earth itself, in a verse that screams out the importance of symbolism in the text:

“Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!”

Indeed, when we echo the murder of Abel at Cain’s hand, in the ritual of a person contaminated with a spiritual ailment, we symbolically re-enact the blood contaminating the earth:

The priest shall order two live pure birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop to be brought for the one to be purified. The priest shall order one of the birds slaughtered over fresh water in an earthen vessel.

(after which the other bird is marked by the blood (as Cain was marked) and set free for a period of seven (as was Cain). The Torah is reminding us of the link between the earthen vessel and the earth – and how both are affected by what comes into contact with them.

When we sin and/or murder, the earth is spiritually lowered. By contrast, when we kill an animal for food or a sacrifice, we are commanded to pour it onto the ground, suggesting that blood spilled for a good reason can spiritually benefit the earth just as surely as the blood of murdered Abel harmed it.

Exposure to the dead also ruins things that we create from the earth:

And anything on which one of them falls when dead shall be impure: be it any article of wood, or a cloth, or a skin, or a sack—any such article that can be put to use shall be dipped in water, and it shall remain impure until evening; then it shall be pure. And if any of those falls into an earthen vessel, everything inside it shall be impure and [the vessel] itself you shall break.

See the contrast? The spiritual scar of death can be erased, with water and time, from most things. But not for something made from the earth. If we combine death with an earthen vessel, the vessel cannot be saved or re-used.

Similarly, the Torah talks about a person who has had an unspiritual seminal emission, a zav, which is linked to selfish and unproductive use of our creative energies. In that case, an earthen vessel touched by the (Lev 15:12) must similarly be broken.

Interestingly, the Torah gives three core categories that disqualify one from being spiritually able to elevate (tahor): death, sexual selfishness, and harming others (displayed via tzaraas, a condition which is mistranslated into English as “leprosy.”). (Numbers 5).

Instruct the Israelites to remove from camp anyone with an eruption [tzaraas, from harming others] or a discharge [zav, from selfishness] and anyone defiled by a corpse [death].

Each of these three categories is linked to an earthen vessel which, if contaminated, must be destroyed.

The earth also seems to offer a kind of spiritual “earth neutral”, similar to the electrical equivalent. We know this because in the ritual of the woman who is suspected by her husband of not being faithful, the ritual involves linking to the earth as part of the method of judging her actions:

The priest shall bring her forward and have her stand before G-d. The priest shall take sacral water in an earthen vessel and, taking some of the earth that is on the floor of the Tabernacle, the priest shall put it into the water.

This is using the earth as a measuring instrument for sin, like the blood of murdered Abel calling out to G-d. The difference between the person and the earth tells us whether the person is higher or lower that the earth itself: if she has been unfaithful, she is lower than the earth, and suffers for it.

The overall conclusion is that our actions create a spiritual rebound on the physical world. The ground seems to be a spiritual sponge of whatever is put into it – and indeed can be used as a baseline to judge whether a person can spiritually elevate, or is to be destroyed.

P.S. The verse kli cheres has another layer of related meaning: in the Torah a cheres is connected not only to the earth (and things made from the earth), but to silence, consideration, and evaluation – like the earth receiving blood, and judging it. Here are those verses:

The man, meanwhile, stood gazing at her, silently wondering (cheres) whether G-d had made his errand successful or not.

Jacob heard that he had defiled his daughter Dinah; but since his sons were in the field with his cattle, Jacob kept silent (cheres) until they came home.

G-d will battle for you; you hold your peace (cheres)!”

You shall not insult the deaf/dumb (cheres), or place a stumbling block before the blind.

…and her father learns of her vow or her self-imposed obligation and stays silent (cheres), all her vows shall stand and every self-imposed obligation shall stand. (4 similar verses)

This is consistent with the understanding of the earth as a silent judge: only G-d can hear the sound of the earth’s judgement, as He does with the blood of Abel.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @kidcoder, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter work]


Mind the Gap

The cherubim on the Aron are described as “each man is facing his brother.” Why is this important? Because these words are first found in Genesis, and in two adjacent verses referring to the very first relationship that went wrong!

Now Adam knew Eve his wife and she conceived and bore Cain. And she said, ‘I have acquired a man as did G-d.’ She then bore his brother Abel. (Gen 4:1-2).

The second time in the Torah where “man” and “his brother” is found is right after the Flood, where G-d reminds Noach of the prohibition against murder:

I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for his brother!

Which tells us that the cherubim are meant to represent Cain and Abel – how they should have been! Brothers who loved each other, instead of rivals. Brothers who love instead of kill. Note that Cain’s loss of self-control is the first named sin, cheit, in the Torah. Hatred is easy, but love is hard.

It is no accident that the cherubim are described using this very same expression, of “man facing his brother.” The voice of G-d comes from the empty space – the gap – between the cherubim. Why does this matter?

Because the first oseh, labor, in the Torah is of a gap:

G-d made (oseh) the expanse, and it separated the water which was below the expanse from the water which was above the expanse.

This creation is of the gap – the space in the world in which the physical can exist! It is the space in which mankind (and all of nature) exists. If G-d had not made that gap, there would have been no room for us! Or, indeed, for the coexistence of man and G-d in the Mikdash!

And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.

Which means that the mikdash, using the word oseh, is also created space. We emulate G-d’s own creative act by carving out space for the mikdash, just as He did in Genesis.

The Torah is very interested in spaces and gaps. There is a concept that G-d has to limit Himself in order for us to exist (in the Torah we cannot survive direct contact). Not only do we exist in a spiritual and physical gap between the waters above and below, but G-d’s presence is found in what seems to be empty space. We most easily find G-d in the wilderness. And G-d’s voice in the mikdash comes from the gap between the two angels. Gaps are a reminder that things may well not be what they look like: instead, they may be what we hear. So when G-d commands the mishkan, he is saying, “make a space for me of holiness, so that I may coexist in your midst.”

Just as G-d created the gap within which our world exists, we are to reciprocate by creating a gap for G-d to dwell within us. The gap between the Cherubim is the same as the gap that allows life in the world, and the coexistence of man and G-d. But only when we reach for each other, “each man for his brother.”


Creative Conundrums: Naso

Is Sotah A Marah Ritual?

The Sotah is tested with bitter waters because of doubts concerning her faithfulness. If she passes, she is blessed with children.

When the Jews leave Egypt we come first to Marah, “bitterness.” There they were put to the test. As a result, we are blessed to be healthy.

Is it possible that Marah is a national Sotah ritual? They have many elements in common. If this is the case, is Marah how the Jewish people proved we were not unfaithful to Hashem while in Egypt?

Immediately after, we come to Elim, populated by 12 springs and 70 palm trees. Could this be symbolically connected to the 12 tribes and 70 who descended to Egypt? In other words, might it have been a divine sign that our relationship was restored, in some sense to when the Jews first descended into Egypt? Like the Sotah’s renewal of a relationship with her husband?

The Number 5?

… that person shall make restitution for the remission regarding the sacred things, adding a fifth part to it and giving it to the priest. (Lev. 5:16) … that person shall repay the principal amount and add a fifth part to it. (Lev. 5:24) … if any such party eats of a sacred donation unwittingly, the priest shall be paid for the sacred donation, adding one-fifth of its value. (Lev. 22:14) … if one wishes to redeem [an animal], one-fifth must be added to its assessment. (Lev. 27:13) … if the one who has consecrated the house wishes to redeem it, one-fifth must be added to the sum at which it was assessed, and then it shall be returned. (Lev. 27:15) … if the one who consecrated the land wishes to redeem it, one-fifth must be added to the sum at which it was assessed, and it shall be passed back. (Lev. 27:19 … if [a firstling] is of impure animals, it may be ransomed at its assessment, with one-fifth added; (Lev. 27:27 … If any party wishes to redeem any tithes, one-fifth must be added to them. (Lev. 27:31)… When men or women individually commit any wrong toward a fellow human being, thus breaking faith with G-d, and they realize their guilt, they shall confess the wrong that they have done. They shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to the one who was wronged. (Num. 5:6)

Isn’t it interesting that the number five seems to be connected to property transfers?

Is it plausible that this comes from Joseph? After all…

And let Pharaoh take steps to appoint overseers over the land, and five the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty. (Gen. 41:34) … Portions were served them from his table; but Benjamin’s portion was five times that of anyone else. And they drank their fill with him. (Gen. 43:34) … Joseph gave them wagons as Pharaoh had commanded, and he supplied them with provisions for the journey. To each of them, moreover, he gave a change of clothing; but to Benjamin he gave three hundred pieces of silver and five changes of clothing. (Gen. 45:21) … Then Joseph came and reported to Pharaoh, saying, “My father and my brothers, with their flocks and herds and all that is theirs, have come from the land of Canaan and are now in the region of Goshen.” And carefully selecting five of his brothers, he presented them to Pharaoh. (Gen. 47:1) … Then Joseph said to the people, “Whereas I have this day acquired you and your land for Pharaoh, here is seed for you to sow the land. And when harvest comes, you shall give one-fifth to Pharaoh, and four-fifths shall be yours as seed for the fields and as food for you and those in your households, and as nourishment for your children.” (Gen. 47: 23-24)… And Joseph made it into a land law in Egypt, which is still valid, that a fifth should be Pharaoh’s; only the land of the priests did not become Pharaoh’s. (Gen. 47:26)

There might be another dimension to this as well, right? After all, those who have to pay a fifth (whether Jewish or Egyptian) were guilty of not planning for the long term, not thinking about the consequences of their actions?

In other words: people who pay a fifth have acted like animals with short time horizons? As Joseph Cox points out, the Jews are described at the beginning of Exodus as being like swarms of insects, filling the land. And they are similarly described when they leave Egypt as being chamushim, fivers – like the swarms of lower-order, instinctive animals created on the fifth day. A mob. Stimulus and response.

Selfishness. Unthinking behavior. Short-term planning. All connected to the number five? Is this why the consequences, middo k’neged middo, are also five?

If this is correct, did Joseph discover and use the number this way, or did he invent it, and thus the halacha follows him?

Might this also be connected to the Leviim?

This is the rule for the Levites. From twenty-five years of age up they shall participate in the work force in the service of the Tent of Meeting; but at the age of fifty they shall retire from the work force and shall serve no more.

Are not the Leviim responsible for some redistribution of property (korbanos), as well as teaching people to see the Big Picture and think of consequences and the long term results of our actions?

Nazir = Eden?

Consider the Nazir: no self-consciousness, no grape products, no death.

Is it possible the Nazir chooses to symbolically live as though still in Eden?

If so, might this explain the sin-offering? Adam and Eve lived in a static world, without human acts of creation. Has someone who chooses to put themselves in the static Garden of Eden also committed a sin by denying their powers of creativity?


As They Were Commanded, So They Did

I enjoy tracing the use of phrases in the text, and trying to understand what their placement might mean.

Take, for example, the phrase “So they did”, kein ahsoo. It seems to be a throwaway comment, suggesting that someone did what he was told to do. For example:

This Moses and Aaron did; as G-d commanded them, so they did (kein ahsoo)

“So they did” does not need to be there, because the previous phrase said it! The phrase is apparently redundant?

Not if we trace every incidence of this phrase. There are 12 of them – you can see them here. That number by itself should alert us, since 12 is the number of tribes, representing all of the people. But let’s look at the examples. They lay out as a lovely chiasmus. Here they are, in the order found in the Torah:

1: “Let My People Go!”

2: The Passover Offering

3: 3X Building the tabernacle

3: Order of the Camps/Levites guarding the Tabernacle.

4: The readiness of the people to be spiritually elevated

3: Assigning Levites

3: Initiating Levites

2: The Passover Offering

1: The daughters of Tzelophchad with the new inheritance law

Seen this way, the explanation presents itself: each of these steps is a preparation for something greater. And the phrase “so they did” lays out the map for the steps needed to be ready to spiritually elevate, to become holy and connected to G-d. Those steps are:

1: Let My People Go/Daughters of Tzelophchad: Both are a freedom stage – breaking away from the status quo that limits us.

2: Passover Offering: Choosing to seek G-d instead of assimilating with the people around us

3: Levites and Tabernacle: Both act to facilitate our connection to G-d, and to symbolically show the ways in which we can be holy (as represented by the tabernacle).

4: We are ready to grow! We are spiritually able to connect!

Note that in that central verse, the disqualifiers are anyone with a tzaraas (mark that comes from harming others) or a tzav (from harming oneself or acting selfishly), or contact with the dead. These are the three elements that are toxic to a relationship of any kind: Harming others, acting selfishly, and death.

We are ready after we have broken free from inertia, we have chosen to connect with G-d, we have been shown how to conduct that relationship, and finally, we have made ourselves sufficiently unlike animals (and our physical selves) to be ready to reach for spiritual heights.

This one phrase lays out for the Jewish people the journey: by listening to G-d, doing as He has commanded, we have a pathway to elevate and grow.

[an @iwe, @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter work]


Giving For the Sake of the Greater Good

The power of a Twitter feed is the number of followers. We see this across the world; influencers and stars are powerful because of the number of people who follow them. In the civil service, the more underlings one has, the more powerful that person is known to be.

But what if we were to turn this on its head? What if what really matters is the goodwill that can be created between people because we are kind and thoughtful, considerate about the needs of others?

The former – the Twitter follower count – is the measurement of the success of a mass movement, or even of a religion. The more Muslims there are, the stronger Islam is seen to be. A rap star is at least partially judged by the size of his entourage.

But the latter, where goodwill is the metric, is much more beautiful because it is not about the person. It is, instead, about the kindness invested in others, the ideas that are shared that might help someone else.

I am hardly the first person to suggest there is a shallowness to the modern social media landscape. But I am suggesting more than merely this. Perhaps the solution to this problem comes through the belief that if we invest in other people, then that is better than the person being dependent on us. Instead of a top-down dependency, the best society has people able to care for themselves: if you like, more people who have learned how to fish, instead of depending on fish from others.

The challenge is that we humans instinctively sense that being altruistic is not usually in our self-interest. Few people, in their guts, believe in a rising tide. Instead, they cling to the idea that “winning” means that one has achieved because one has trodden on others, clawing our way to the top of the heap. This is a dog-eat-dog view of things, and it is not wrong specifically – but it is also clearly not good. In the same way that capitalism should always be governed or bounded by one’s morality and an ethical code.

But we are not meant to be animals, striving to be the king of the jungle. We are instead supposed to build and grow ourselves as well as others. This is not an anti-competitive stance, but it clearly is supposed to moderate our avarice and turn it into something that benefits all the players.

If a fellow Hebrew man—or woman—is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall set him free. When you set him free, do not let him go empty-handed.

Someone spent time serving us – and we are bound to acknowledge that service with an extra gift. Not because it is in our economic interest, but because G-d told us to do so. Why? Because investing in relationships, in other people, is holy work.

In the Torah we even have a counterexample: Jacob works for 20 years, and, as he tells Laban, “Had not the God of my father’s [house]—the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac—been with me, you would have sent me away empty-handed.”

It is this phrase, empty-handed, reikam, that makes this case for us. Laban is the example, in every respect, of how not to behave. Lavan’s behavior teaches us not to be nasty, not to claim ownership of things that are not ours, not try to undermine other people or their marriages… basically to not manipulate others for our own ends and aggrandizement. And as we learn from the use of the word reikam here and elsewhere in the text, that when someone works for you, you owe them something even as they are leaving.

And so we see it in the rest of the Torah. When we serve Egypt, G-d makes sure that we do not leave empty-handed:

And I will dispose the Egyptians favorably toward this people, so that when you go, you will not go away empty-handed.

Similarly, when G-d invests in our creativity, by blessing our crops and our flocks (essentially serving us!), the Torah tells us:

Three times a year—on the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the Feast of Weeks, and on the Feast of Booths—all your males shall appear before your G-d in the place that [God] will choose. They shall not appear before G-d empty-handed.

You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread—eating unleavened bread for seven days as I have commanded you—at the set time in the month of Aviv, for in it you went forth from Egypt; and none shall appear before Me empty-handed;

Every first issue of the womb is Mine, from all your livestock that drop a male as firstling, whether cattle or sheep. … And you must redeem every male first-born among your children. None shall appear before Me empty-handed.

When we enjoy harvests and new life, we are to come to Jerusalem with bounty, sharing the blessings with G-d in very much the same way that we reward a servant who has helped us prosper.  

Of course, G-d is not hungry. And even though we come to Jerusalem with goodies, we – not G-d – are the consumers of those goodies. The token – the mere thought of a gift – still matters. G-d is trying to teach us to think in terms of reciprocal benefit and goodwill instead of power hierarchies. By sharing with G-d, we learn to share with those around us as well. G-d thus asks us to behave with our servants the same way we behave toward Him.

The moral of the story is simple enough: a core part of a holy relationship is in sharing our blessings, in always showing reciprocal gratitude even after we have already met our contracted obligations. This is a core part of realizing that a holy society is a rising tide, a growing pie. Only the small-minded, the Labans among us, insist on every “win” for the victor coming with a matching “loss” for the loser.

Reagan used to have a sign over his desk: “There is no limit to what can be achieved if you do not care who gets the credit.” Indeed, claiming credit is for the petty and insecure. Joy shared is doubled, so when we have something good, we are told to share it, to never be empty-handed.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter work]


Most People, Most of the Time, are Prey to Their Insecurity

I think that insecurity is at the heart of most of humanity’s failings.

Within social media, almost nobody wants to hear from those who hold different views. Few people are confident enough in themselves to not feel threatened or triggered when someone who disagrees with them speaks their mind.

Most people mindlessly follow the herd, even into terrified Covidsanity, thanks to insecurity. We join and reflexively defend tribes aligned along fault lines as silly as sports teams, driven by our need to feel like we belong. Sibling and marital rivalries are born from insecurity. So are bullying, gossip, and the exclusion of others.

In our modern world, insecurity is the reason why people feel the need to force others to conform to ephemeral and inconsistent nonsense about preferred pronouns or cultural appropriation. Insecurity is why feminists need to attack men, and why men tell misogynistic jokes. In religious circles, insecurity leads to teachers telling children which questions are good, and which are not good. Indeed, religion is itself a haven for the insecure, a way to manage anxiety about all the unknowns and things in the world that are beyond our control.

The thing is that we are all unique people. We are all meant to be unique people. Which means that our thoughts, words and deeds should differ from those of others. Our talents and inclinations and skills are all different, one from the next. Ideally, instead of being threatened by others, we should be big enough to embrace their unique qualities. And we should be able to accept, without criticism, all choices made by others that are found within the big tent of The Good.

People criticize religion as being among the worst offenders when it comes to intolerance, but such an assessment should only be made if we judge a religion on its practitioners rather than its founding text. If the foundational documents are good, then it is possible that the edifices built on that foundation can be good as well.

If we look at the Torah, we see a wide range of acceptable behavior. Judaism praises people like Ruth, who blaze new paths by dint of conviction and hard work. The text of the Torah itself acknowledges that marriages can fail, and so divorce is an option. The text sees that not everyone is meant to be a landowner or a leader; it provides for those who own no real estate, and it allocates for those who need to rely on others (a Levite, a Hebrew servant, etc.).

Indeed, in the example of the Hebrew servant, we have a superb example of managing insecurities in a constructive manner:

When you acquire a Hebrew servant, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment. … But if the servant declares, “I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free,” his master shall take him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall then remain his servant for life.

When we read this, we first think of piercing an ear, or a permanent change to a person because they choose servitude over freedom. But there is a deeper meaning in this verse.

Think further on the imagery: piercing the ear of the servant says that the servant will listen to his master forevermore. Freedom means choosing what we want to hear, making decisions based on weighing inputs from different sources. Piercing that ear means that the servant no longer has to weigh different options: he listens to his master.

The door or doorpost in use is that of the servant’s master’s home. Impaling the ear into the doorpost tells us that the servant’s blood is being infused into the symbolism of that door: the physical structure of the home as well as the spiritual structure of that particular family. The servant is choosing to become, for the rest of his life, part of what constitutes the structure that protects and houses the family within.

Going further: the word for “doorpost” is the very same one that we marked with the blood of the sheep at the Passover: identifying a Jewish home for the Destroyer so he would not kill the first-born within. Marking the doorpost with blood is a core identifier for the Jewish people: it advertises who we are, and what our mission on this earth is.

So to impale the servant’s ear means that the servant is identifying with that same mission, aligning himself with the sheep whose blood was used to mark the doors in Egypt. This aligns with the mezuzah (the same “doorpost” word) that Jews put on our homes, reminding us of the words of the Torah when we go out and when we come in.  Jews already constrain our lives with the mezuzah, because these scrolls are constant reminders of our shared background, and our aspirations to be G-d’s emissaries in this world.

Bringing it all together, it helps show how a servant who chooses to stay is doing more than merely choosing servitude over freedom. The symbolism tells us that the servant is choosing to be part of something greater than himself, the entire home and family within that structure, along with the mission that comes along with being part of a family dedicated to serving G-d.

And it takes the insecurity of the servant and finds a way to constructively direct it into something that can do more than a man can do by himself. Being a part of something larger than oneself is also an entirely legitimate form of self-expression.

The meta-lesson also applies: each person has their own path to walk. Before we assume that others should make the same decisions that we make, we should be quite sure that we are not projecting from our own insecurities.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, and @blessedblacksmith work]


Are We To Create Words or Images?

Stephen King writes, in Danse Macabre, on the most effective forms of horror. He identified a key issue: no matter how horrible a monster looked, some small part of the viewer would always breathe a sigh of relief: the hideous bug-eyed, child-eating creature could have had more eyes, or teeth, or drooled more. So a visual picture of a hideous terror is not the ultimate tool for terrorizing the audience.

Instead, King knows that words are far more effective. Unlike a picture, words engage our imagination. If we want to fear the worst, then we create it in our minds. Written – and ideally spoken – horror is, according to King, more effective than motion pictures.

I think Stephen King nails it, and the argument could be extended. Images work, but they don’t require higher order thinking. An image of delicious food provokes an instinctive reaction – the craving is almost instant. A description of that same food has to be read, processed, and then the imagination needs to engage in order to achieve the same result.

An animal reacts in a way that makes this very clear: a hungry cat sees or smells or hears the sounds associated with food, and they react immediately. But you won’t get that same reaction if you show Whiskers the ingredient list for Meow Mix. Cats can’t read words or think abstractly.

I think this helps explain a unique feature of the Torah: it has no pictures or images. Instead, it is a document that contains only words (and not even any vowels or punctuation). It is a document that refuses to tell the viewer anything unless and until the person learns Biblical Hebrew, and mentally engages in order to parse the text and then try to understand it on its own terms.

The text itself even gives a clue leading to this conclusion! We are forbidden to make a sculpted idol, a pesel, and commanded to destroy the idols of others (inside the Promised Land). We are even forbidden to create a three-dimensional representation of anything found in nature!

Here are all those verses (feel free to skip to the end):

You shall not make for yourself a sculptured/pesel image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth.

You shall not make idols for yourselves, or set up for yourselves sculptured/pesel images or pillars, or place figured stones in your land to worship upon, for I am your G-d.

You are not to act wickedly and make for yourselves a sculptured/pesel image in any likeness whatever: the form of a man or a woman,

Take care, then, not to forget the covenant that your G-d concluded with you, and not to make for yourselves a sculptured/pesel image in any likeness, against which your G-d has enjoined you.

When you have begotten children and children’s children and are long established in the land, should you act wickedly and make for yourselves a sculptured/pesel image in any likeness, causing your G-d displeasure and vexation,

Instead, this is what you shall do to them: you shall tear down their altars, smash their pillars, cut down their sacred posts, and consign their images/pesel to the fire.

You shall consign the images/pesel of their gods to the fire; you shall not covet the silver and gold on them and keep it for yourselves, lest you be ensnared thereby; for that is abhorrent to your G-d.

Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images/pesel of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.

Cursed be any party who makes a sculptured/pesel or molten image, abhorred by G-d, a craftsman’s handiwork, and sets it up in secret.—And all the people shall respond, Amen.

This seems pretty definitive, right? G-d does not want any pesel! Right?


Because the only other uses of this root word in the text are as a verb, and they are commandments from G-d to Moses to sculpt the second tablets to be used for the commandments.

G-d said to Moses: “Carve/pesel two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered.

So Moses carved/pesel two tablets of stone, like the first, and early in the morning he went up on Mount Sinai…

[and again] G-d said to me, “Carve/pesel out two tablets of stone like the first, and come up to Me on the mountain; and make an ark of wood.

I made an ark of acacia wood and carved/pesel out two tablets of stone like the first; I took the two tablets with me and went up the mountain.

What is the difference between a sculpted idol and the tablets? An idol is an image, while the tablets are the place where words are put. And although G-d made the world, he did it using words.

I think the difference is now clear: G-d is trying to always push us toward higher level thinking. Instead of worshipping nature, we connect with the Creator of nature. Instead of reflexively using violence, we first try to use words. Instead of creating images that require only animal-level mental processing, we create the canvas upon which words go, words that can only be read and understood by an educated person.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @kidcoder, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter work]

P.S. The tablets themselves, luchos, share a name with the poles that carry the ark of the covenant. Both function as holders of holiness and holy words.


Finding Ways to Restart

Inertia is a powerful force. It is the simple, most likely explanation for why a person, or a family, or a nation walks and acts in a repetitive way, unthinkingly doing what has been done before.

We all run the risk of falling into a rut. In some ways, this can be very healthy – if what we are doing is stabilizing or generally positive. But in so many ways, especially in relationships, we tend to settle back into old patterns and behaviors, instead of finding ways to grow in productive directions. And when we stop doing anything new or creative, then our lives run the risk of becoming pointless.

My Torah partners and I think we have seen this issue within the text of theTorah, specifically when trying to understand why the Torah calls for a yearling male lamb for a range of sacrifices. The specific sacrifices that mention a yearling lamb are: the paschal lamb (offering 1 animal), every morning and evening (1 each), purifying the altar (for each tribe: 1 elevation + 5 peace), Sabbath (2), New Moon (7), Rosh Hashanah (7), and Yom Kippur (7), the festival offerings (Pesach (7), Omer for elevation (1), Shavuos (7 + 1 Omer elevation + 2 peace), and Sukkos (14)).

Why a yearling male animal? One could argue from the first mention – the Passover lamb. That is the beginning of the Exodus, the transition from a large family to the birth of a nation of families. As such, every other offering connects back to Passover, to the beginning. We could thus see offering a yearling as a way to connect to our roots, to stay grounded in the past. This matches Jewish prayer, which includes, every day, the song that Moses and the people sang after leaving Egypt. The yearling could thus be a touchpoint to our origins.

I think this is part of the answer, but it can be extended further. The words for a yearling, ben shanah are found – separated – in earlier verses in the Torah:

After the birth of Seth, Adam lived 800 years and begot sons and daughters.

So the words connect to another beginning: the first man has children.

Then we have another milestone:

[Avraham’s] son Ishmael was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.

Circumcision, the initialization of a child into a relationship with G-d.

And then another son:

Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.

Each of these verses has these words: ben and shanah, in them. And we see a pattern: biological growth, spiritual connection, and the future through Isaac. It is an arc leading to a connection with one’s father and with G-d.

Seen in this way, the use of a yearling in sacrifices is to understand that every moment is a potential beginning. We do not have to be in ruts: we can see opportunities by seeing ourselves as reborn every morning and evening, every Shabbos and new moon, and every festival. The festivals use 7 yearlings: the number 7, of course, connects back to creation and the 7 pairs of animals brought onto Noah’s Ark: more new beginnings. And the double portion of yearlings on the festival of Sukkos is particularly appropriate, as Sukkos is at the very end of the spiritual cycle of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a time when we are closer to G-d than any other time of the year: the closer we are to G-d, the more able we are to be spiritually nimble. It is the single biggest opportunity to turn over a new leaf.

Similarly, an animal that has lived just one year has lived 365 unique days – there has been no repetition. Every day is new.

Perhaps, then, the yearling is always meant to remind us that we always have the opportunity to see things with fresh eyes, to change and to grow. We are only stuck in the past if we refuse to realize that we always have the option to begin again.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @kidcoder, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter work]


Does Anyone Worship a Powerless Deity?

Mankind is programmed from birth to respect power: it is The Law of the Jungle. Every animal instinctively understands that survival requires being afraid of those who are more powerful than you, and, in turn, instilling fear in every creature who is less powerful than you.

Absent a higher-order religion, humans are no different. When we follow our instincts, we, too, submit to forces that we cannot control (think of the leftist response to the homophobia of Islam), while seeking to dominate everyone whom we might be able to subjugate.

Thus primitive pagans made every mountain a god, every natural force a deity – because they were clearly more powerful than the people. And since people in a state of nature are necessarily always up against the Malthusian limits of population and not far away from starvation, death by exposure, or countless other natural threats, it never hurts to be careful and appease the god. If you fear it, then it is a deity.

Today’s enlightened secularists have discovered paganism anew. Society anthropomorphizes everything in nature: Gaia may be a single deity – but is still represented by Her constituent parts, the forces we can perceive: polar bears, tornadoes, the gulfstream, angry volcanoes. We even name passing weather systems!

All this is to help understand some of the more obscure verses in the text of the Torah.

You shall not set up … beside the altar of your G-d that you may make, and do not erect a stone pillar; for such your G-d detests.

Why does G-d detest a stone pillar in a place of divine connection? Well, what is such a stone pillar in the ancient world? It is an obelisk. Note the imagery: an obelisk is a large stone phallus. It is a raw acknowledgement of the power of masculine potency. An obelisk is a way to worship both male sexual power, and power in itself. It brings our animal masculinity (as opposed to our intellectual and spiritual sensitivity) into the open.

Indeed, in recognizing open power we acknowledge that the ultimate form of Might Makes Right is the ability to force another human being against their will: the obelisk is a symbol of the ultimate superiority of male lust over any other person’s autonomy. The obelisk triumphantly stands for the power of men to rape.

The G-d of the Torah has no problem with polytheists (like the Egyptians) seeing G-d as more powerful than their own deities: that was a stated purpose of the Exodus, after all. But G-d does not want the Jewish people to make the fact that G-d is powerful into the reason why we connect with Him. After all, if we think that power is itself evidence of divinity, then G-d is only one force among many. He may the most powerful, but that does not exclude other powerful forces from being considered gods in their own right.

If we worship power, then the G-d of the Torah is not unique! If we viewed power as divine, we would worship nature.

G-d does not want to be worshipped because He is powerful. The Torah makes it clear that from his people, G-d instead desires relationship, connection, and a partnership that can even be akin to marriage. And we know that displaying raw superior power into a partnership or a marriage is not a recipe for success. Marital rape is still rape. Power, in itself, should not be at the core of our relationship. Even – and especially – in an unequal relationship, stressing the inequality breeds resentment and misery.

Paganism is precisely the opposite. Nobody worships a powerless deity. So worshipping the earth or wind or fire is all about investing in the ideology of power.

The Torah keeps telling us that we are not meant to be animals, observing the Law of the Jungle. We are supposed instead to love the stranger, the orphan and the widow. We are supposed to care for those who in a state of nature would be below us. So any symbolism that promotes a power hierarchy, anything that openly trumpets animalistic urges by sporting our libidos in public, in antithetical to connecting with G-d.

P.S. Jacob sets up these pillars – and sometimes as displays of power (the separation between him and Laban), other times to mark a place, including Rachel’s grave. It is important to recognize he did this before G-d issued the prohibition, and indeed before G-d revealed himself as more than one deity among many.


Ancient Pagans were more forward-thinking than Modern Leftists

Consider the Astarte Figurine. Found in the thousands in Ancient Israel, these amulets were commonly worn by women to connect them to the core function of women: sexual reproduction and nurturing new life. Note the placement of the hands. These ancient idol worshippers worshipped nature itself (and so they missed the importance of relationships beyond physical requirements), but they at least understood the value of reproduction and new life.

Today’s leftist women prefer Tramp Stamps: they make it clear that pleasure without consequences or responsibility of any kind is their goal. Indeed, these women go to great lengths to limit or eliminate their very ability to procreate, from birth control to abortion. Who needs men? The vast majority of American women own the mechanical means to satisfy their animal urges, no icky man required.  Indeed, many boast about it!

Leftists want to enjoy the moment, and they’ll do so by abandoning the future. Conservatives, ironically, are invested in the future! That is why conservatives view sex as a way to bond a man and a woman, with a key benefit of  having children and then in turn growing and preserving bonds between the generations. We took the ancient pagan obsession with fecundity, and altered it to make it much more about the underlying relationships, in both physical and spiritual forms.

In the ancient world, pagan or monotheistic, children were all-important. Fecundity was the measure of a woman, just as masucilinity was the measure of a man. Children were also support for the parents in their old age, when several generations of families lived together. Judaism altered this understanding, seeing children as more than merely economically useful presently and in old age. For anti-pagan pioneers like Avraham, children were meant to carry on his legacy, keepers of the ideological flame. But for everyone, children were understood to be essential. Hence, the Astarte amulets.

But that was when families were units, and children were assumed to belong to their families, a continuation of their parents.

But today, children no longer are products of their parents or family. All children are instead components of Hillary Clinton’s Village. The State. Nobody owns them. Joe Biden can claim “There is no such thing as someone else’s child.”

That is certainly the belief of those who wish to use our children to satisfy their own sexual peccadilloes. And it helps explain why women today are told to not have children, and why abortion is so central to Leftist platforms. For socialism and the Village to succeed, the family must be undermined and ultimately replaced. Your children are our children.

The family is the biggest threat to Leftism, which is why it has been undermined for decades. Leftism seeks instead to preserve the status quo (no children, and a culture of narcissistic hedonism).  The fertility sought by women in the ancient world was, in a way, at least a hat-tip to the idea of change and investment in the future, in the value of populating the earth. Today’s leftist wants to depopulate the earth! They crave a mass orgy of licentiousness as a blaze of self-immolating glory before the lights go out on all of Western Civilization.

This is a core irony of the modern world. Fundamentalist Torah Jews (like myself) end up being obsessed by relationships (which are always in flux): marriage, children, and grandchildren. We are always trying to grow and change ourselves and the world around us. Which is pretty funny, because we are, in many respects as “conservative” as they come!

But secular leftists do the opposite! Modern progressives want to stop progress! This is even at the heart of their earth-worship: environmentalism seeks to preserve the status quo by stopping development of all kinds, by erasing the mark people make on the earth.

My interest in growth and change (both my own, and that of all those I come into contact with), is in direct opposition to the Leftist and pagan trope that people are essentially defined by their DNA and the group and culture in which they are raised. This innate racism comes from a common self-fulfilling belief: that we are only ever the product of our nature and nurture, and never the product of our conscious choices, acting through our free will.

That assumption feeds the self-fulfilling prophecy that we cannot grow, that we cannot change. On the contrary! We conservatives want to change ourselves:  our own circumstances, our families, our relationships, our own behavior). Leftists reject the need to change themselves, insisting instead on making others conform to their wishes, their pronouns, their whims. In so doing, they seal their own eventual doom by demographics: no sane person wants to marry, let alone have children with, a selfish pig.

Leftists are the modern Shakers. They sell out the future to create a utopia today, much as unions erect walls around their profession and pull up the ladder. So they have no interest in the next generation except as playthings for their own pleasures. If it wrecks someone else’s family, so much the better.

The ancient pagans got a lot wrong. There is a reason the Torah forbids idols like Astarte Figurines. But those pagans at least understood that there was still a basic and fundamental value to be found in creating, nurturing, and growing new life.

[an @iwe, @eliyahumasinter and @kidcoder work]


Yom Kippur in the Torah vs How It is Practiced

There seems to be a huge gap sometimes between what is described in the Torah, and what is practiced today by observant Jews.

Take, for example, Yom Kippur. Commonly seen as the Day of Awe, and understood to be a time of judgment and even foreboding, Yom Kippur is the weightiest day on the Jewish calendar.

But in the text of the Torah, there does not seem to be much for the common person beyond “afflict your souls.” We interpret that a variety of ways, but even with that, and the admonition that Yom Kippur is the Sabbath of Sabbaths, the day seems to lack very much depth or personality.

On the other hand, there is a lengthy ritual in the Temple, especially and most strikingly concerning two goats – one that is sacrificed, and one upon which the high priest lays the sins of the nation, and sends away. Much has been written on this, the origin of the concept of a scapegoat. But I think there is something else here – something that actually tells us about the flavor of Yom Kippur, albeit in a very subtle way.

The hint comes from a specific word, the word used for the land where the goat is sent: gezeirah.

וְנָשָׂ֨א הַשָּׂעִ֥יר עָלָ֛יו אֶת־כָּל־עֲוֺנֹתָ֖ם אֶל־אֶ֣רֶץ גְּזֵרָ֑ה וְשִׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־הַשָּׂעִ֖יר בַּמִּדְבָּֽר׃

Thus, the goat shall carry on it all their sins to the gezeirah land; and the goat shall be sent into the wilderness.

It is a rare word, indeed, found only in one other place: the Covenant Between the Parts. This is the event in which everything is dark and foreboding. G-d issues the decree that Avraham’s descendants will be slaves for 400 years, and then freed. There is even a visual effect foreshadowing the Exodus (the oven represents Egypt, and the torch the pillar of fire that led the way through the split waters of the Red Sea during the night):

וַיְהִ֤י הַשֶּׁ֙מֶשׁ֙ בָּ֔אָה וַעֲלָטָ֖ה הָיָ֑ה וְהִנֵּ֨ה תַנּ֤וּר עָשָׁן֙ וְלַפִּ֣יד אֵ֔שׁ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָבַ֔ר בֵּ֖ין הַגְּזָרִ֥ים הָאֵֽלֶּה׃

When the sun set and it was very dark, there appeared a smoking oven, and a flaming torch which passed between those gezeirah (pieces) [the cut up animals].

The word gezeirah is used in only these two places in the Torah! And it distinctly links the Covenant Between the Parts and Yom Kippur!

Which then fills in the rest of the meaning for Yom Kippur: It is a yearly opportunity to reconnect to the Covenant: a time of foreboding and judgment, a time of mystery and certainly some fear. The mysterious “the rest of your life starts now” feeling of Yom Kippur is analogous to the vision Avraham received. Smoke in the dark, a flaming torch amidst death.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith, @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter work]


It is not the Crime – it is the Coverup?

In the Torah, the cover-up can be the crime!

There is a requirement in the Torah that for a sin/offense offering, a male goat, a se’ir izim שְׂעִ֥יר עִזִּ֖ים must be brought. The phrase appears 26 times in the Torah, and 24 of them specifically says it is for a “sin offering” (one of the two other verses (Num 28:28) refers to “Kipur” – atonement or covering, which is also a feature of the sin offering).

What is the meaning of this requirement? It is found in the very first time se’ir izim, a he-goat is mentioned – the first of the 26 verses that mention this phrase:

Then [the brothers] took Joseph’s tunic, slaughtered a he-goat, and dipped the tunic in the blood.

The brothers define a sin for all time. Consider it! The brothers acted against their own brother, and then they conducted a careful cover-up, with the specific goal of deceiving their father while ignoring G-d’s sure knowledge of what they had done. The brothers created a national sin that requires acknowledgement and penance on an ongoing basis!

So bringing a he-goat as a sin-offering is a reminder both that the brothers never did penance to their father (or G-d) for their sin, and it provides the archetype for sin going forward, in all of the aspects:

1: Injury to another person – which is especially bad considering that Joseph was their brother.

2: Covering up for throwing Joseph in a pit, in an attempt to fool their father (it is not clear that the brothers sold Joseph into slavery – the only thing we are sure of is what is in the text).

3: Entirely ignoring G-d in planning and conducting their actions.

And unlike with Sodom, Abimelech and others (all of whom, the text tells us, sinned against G-d), G-d does not punish the miscreants in their lifetime.

As a result, any sin committed by anyone after this event harkens back to that uncorrected sin: when we bring a he-goat, we are to connect with that sin, and acknowledge that we, too, have done wrong. And we seek protection, kipur, for our sins so that we can still function in society and approach G-d in His house. Which neatly ties together the entire text using this one example.

P.S. The first named sin in the Torah is that of Cain, who gave into jealousy and rage (also against his brother). But it is not clear that Cain knew the consequences of his actions, and he acted in the heat of the moment, as opposed to the Brothers, who acted with cold deliberation. The sin of the Brothers was much more developed and thus worse than that of Cain. And, of course, Cain did pay a price, as a wanderer for his crimes. While the brothers suffered for what they had done, the suffering was at the hands of Joseph: there is never an indication that they apologized to their father (who may never have realized that the bloody coat was a ruse) or G-d.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter work]


The Worlds We Cannot See

Science has taught us that we are limited by our instruments: with the naked eye; we cannot see infrared or x-rays; our ears cannot detect entire frequency ranges; our noses are not tuned for a world of scents available to both animals and mass spectrographs. Within the physical world, we have long since accepted that our perceptions cannot capture the full range of data.

But there is more to the world than what can be physically measured. Indeed, even trying to use the tools of science to measure the value of a sonnet, a rousing speech, or the shared joy within a loving marriage is a fool’s errand. We need to accept that there is a world that is beyond the physical, a world that may be created by words and concepts – like those of love and freedom, a world that delivers its own reflection within the human soul. This is the world that gives us hope – or despair.  Just because we cannot see the spiritual plane does not mean it is not there – any more than the fact that we cannot see G-d does not prove that He is not there!

At some level, even for those who think the physical world is the only reality, it seems clear that people are guided or limited by their worldviews. If someone believes in the American Dream, that sense of optimism can lead to self-fulfillment. Alternatively, if someone believes in unalterable fate and destiny, there is a decided absence of imagination and hope, especially among those who are born into poverty.

For lack of a better term, allow me to henceforth refer to the measurable world as the “physical world,” and the non-measurable world as the “spiritual world.”

I want to go even further. And there are two propositions, both supported by the Torah:

1: Unwillingness to acknowledge and accept the existence of the spiritual world makes it impossible for us to rise above the level of mere animals.

2: The spiritual world is an echoing mirror of what we do in the physical world. In other words, we create and modify the spiritual world through the choices we make. As far as we know, we are the content providers for the spiritual realm.


Let’s start with the first adherent: a person who does not acknowledge the existence of a spiritual world. Such a person denies the existence of a soul (considering the concept to be something of a myth). To them, love can be described and explained using hormones in the brain, and essentially all human decision-making can be boiled down to an essentially deterministic set of inputs and outputs. To such a person, there is no real romance, no “true” love, and certainly no spiritual divinity beyond the things that can be seen in the world around us.  They claim that the entire world is only what they can see and feel – in other words, that humans are nothing more than animals, and that there is no spiritual plane at all!

I believe that this mindset is quite common today, especially in the “enlightened” atheist West. It leads to very poor relationship-building (since everything beautiful and mysterious is reduced to physical phenomena), and putting the natural world first and foremost. It also emphasizes that humans are animals – by which its practitioners suggest that we should be nothing more or less than animals, slaves to our instincts and desires, and incapable of unique creations, thoughts, or even relationships.


The second proposition is far more central to the Torah – and quite possibly, one of the concepts that exists in Judaism but not in Christianity.  This is the concept that mankind creates and modifies the spiritual world through the choices we make.

Where does my contention come from? An extensive set of commandments that have everything to do with a world that cannot be quantified or measured using any instruments we know: the spiritual mirror to the physical world.

The specific commandments include eating designated holy food while being spiritually unready (Lev. 7:20-1, 22:3), intimacy with a woman who is spiritually unready (Lev. 20:18), and choosing to remain spiritually unready when there is an option to be spiritually cleansed and become able to spiritually elevate (Num. 19:13). It all sounds very abstract, but it boils down to a simple core concept: the Torah is telling us that our words and deeds create results in the spiritual mirror-world.

This assertion runs directly counter to modern sensibilities.  People do all kinds of things with their bodies and declare that they don’t matter, because what we do with our bodies is not important in any larger sense. “It was only sex,” is a familiar refrain. This way of thinking is deeply, profoundly anti-Torah. If we deny that there is a spiritual plane, we deny that our lives matter, and that our choices matter.

These specific commandments are “red lines” within the Torah: violating them invokes being cut off from the people, being cut off from a relationship with G-d. Someone who fails to appreciate and understand that their actions have a massive mirrored impact in the spiritual world has reduced their life and impact on this world to that of an intelligent animal. A Jew must see ourselves as part of a much bigger and more ambitious picture: that everything we do, as small or large as it may appear, makes an impact on that spiritual world – even to the point of making an impact on G-d Himself. As the text makes clear, mankind can change G-d’s mind, which makes us potentially very powerful, indeed!

I submit that this way of seeing things also helps give meaning to what happens to this world after we are no longer alive. In a physical sense, dead is dead. When we are gone, we are – by definition – no longer here. This is true if the only way we can measure someone is by the space they fill, or the resources they consume or create – in other words, by their physical presence as living beings.

But we also know that great figures in history are still with us, because their thoughts and deeds influence our lives. It is true for not-famous people as well: those who loved us in our past have left an echo of themselves, even when they no longer live. When people – even those who did not procreate – leave this mortal coil, there is an imprint on everyone they interacted with while living, through every  kind word, gesture, or expressed thought. Some memories are specific and more tangible than others, but all interactions leave some kind of a mark, even a subtle one. In the spiritual mirror world around us, all the things we did while we were alive leave an impression that carries on after we have passed on. Our lives make a difference for having been lived.

A key definitional part of what it means to be a Jew requires each of us to embrace that what we say and do leads to a corresponding impact on the spiritual world.


There IS a Rational Reason to Castrate Children

There is no way to assess, say, the transgender movement with that mindset; policy papers don’t account for it – at all. If you have people who are saying, ‘I have an idea: let’s castrate the next generation; let’s sexually mutilate children,’ – I am sorry: that is not a political debate. … nothing to do with politics! What’s the outcome we’re desiring here? … I don’t think anyone could defend that as a positive outcome. … it’s irrational. – Tucker Carlson

I think Tucker is wrong. I think there is a perfectly rational explanation for why people castrate our children. And it comes from a religious belief in the underlying power dynamics found within nature: the powerful defeat the weak.

Hitler sought a Race War because he believed that the law of nature is that the strong must engage with the weak, defeat it, and thus move the world forward. His ideology was logical, if the goal is to allow better (stronger) things to triumph over inferior (weaker) things.

In which case, we might better understand what makes people sacrifice children: to truly serve power, you must emulate power, by killing those who are weak, we elevate the strong. It is Might Makes Right, like the ultimate race war that Hitler sought in order to help nature reach its logical culmination.

Which explains why human sacrifice and cannibalism are found in every primitive (pagan) society in the world. And child sacrifice is at the heart of those societies. You can only sacrifice children because you are stronger than they are. Sacrificing children is not merely idol worship. And it is not merely killing. It is about serving the ideology of power.

This helps us understand why the Chinese are bewildered when we are horrified that they execute criminals by removing their organs. Chinese murder in this way not only because it makes practical sense, but also because they can. For China and for Putin, power is its own justification. Worshipping power, by committing rape and war crimes in Ukraine, is just another way to worship Molech. These acts are not aberrations or exceptions: they are key components of a power-worshipping ideology.

What is “Molech” specifically? The letters for Molech are the very same as the letters for “Melech,” which is Hebrew for “king.” Molech is power. The Torah is not in favor of powerful monarchs (a Jewish king, should we choose to have one, has strict power limits (Deut. 17:15)). The very first king/melech named in the text is Nimrod (Gen. 10:8-9), who makes a sport out of hunting things that are weaker than he is – indeed, Nimrod is the first “hero” in the Torah, a man who makes everything about himself. Nimrod is the first to have a kingdom, and as a hero on the earth, he put himself ahead of all others. Nimrod is described as being “in front of/before G-d.” This has always been at the heart of Might Makes Right ideology – power is more important than G-d. Sacrificing children to Molech is sacrificing children on the altar of power. It is intrinsic to a Might Makes Right ideology, to the philosophy that eugenics and Hitler and today’s liberals all ascribe to.

Hitler correctly identified the Jewish people as dangerous to his work precisely because the ideology of Judaism is to see value in all people, to champion the weak, and to defeat the ideology of Might Makes Right wherever it is found.

In opposition to all things pagan, the Torah commands us to understand those who are not strong, and champion their cause. We insist that even the weak are valuable. It is why we had to be in Egypt – so that we can always understand how being oppressed feels. It is the core reason why we are commanded to love the stranger, the widow and the orphan, why we are commanded to do justice, to give charity and tithes. It is why “love your neighbor as yourself” is the central verse at the precise center of the entire text of the Torah. (Lev. 19:18)

The ideology of Might Makes Right is our enemy. All women are inherently vulnerable when exposed to men in a state of nature – as when a man who claims to be a woman insists on access to the girls’ locker room, and will fight or even kill for that access. The weak will pay the price. So too any woman who chooses to become pregnant is doubling down by committing the foolish error of making herself vulnerable. Having children at all is willingly embracing weakness for the sake of the future. Indeed, look at all the people who choose not to have children, because they want to enjoy life to its fullest, they do not want to be limited in their choices, or waste money on someone else. Practitioners of the new paganism, they do not want to weaken themselves when they can stay independent and strong.

It is true that when we invest in children, we weaken ourselves in the present in order to invest instead in the future. We surrender power today for possibilities tomorrow. This is the way of a healthy and holy society, one that is contradistinct from a society that lives in the moment, castrating children for the sake of glorifying power.

When we sacrifice our “seed to Molech”, it is also about giving up the future for the present. Seeds are the investment in the next generation, planning for the future. Indeed, every plant that puts energy into seeds – and every parent who chooses to have and nurture children – is giving up their own immediate pleasures and peaceful contentment for the sake of an uncertain future.

But today’s pagans are not interested in the future, or children. They fantasize about an earth that has washed away mankind without a trace. They are a death cult fixated on ending civilization in an Aztec-like orgy of murder and fire and cannibalism.

And we have to understand this in context. Tucker added:

Well, what’s the point of child sacrifice? Well, there’s no policy goal entwined with that. No, that’s a theological phenomenon.

Tucker is wrong because ultimately policy is a reflection of our world views. If we admire power for its own sake, then the theological phenomenon becomes a policy goal. The unfettered growth in power becomes, once restraints have been lifted, a voracious black hole of consumptive evil. Thanks to the growth in the technological powers of the state, the relative passivity of the populace when terrified by the Covid scare, and the self-serving ideology of Might Makes Right, we are at the turning point for humankind, at the very brink of losing all we hold dear. If we cannot save our children, then we cannot save our future.


Black and White: Torah Symbolism

Our actions change the world, and in ways that we usually cannot see. Take, for example, the spoken word. Moments after a word is spoken, all physical traces have vanished. And yet words are profoundly powerful. Words of criticism or praise, words of conciliation or command all leave a mark for all who hear them. So while the word may have vanished without a trace, the impact of the word can change someone for the rest of his or her life.

The Torah wants us to understand that there is an entire world that cannot be measured using physical instruments. This is the world in which the impact of our deeds and words can be found: it can be in the impact left by our words, or the result of interacting with things that are spiritually unable to be elevated. So, for example, touching a dead body renders us spiritually unready for elevation until we have been spiritually cleansed.

There are several chapters of the Torah that deal with the need to be cleansed, such as with a spiritual malady called tzaraas (KJV mistranslates as “leprosy”). This malady is caused by treating others poorly (in word or deed), and it is a diagnostic method by which we learn that the way we treat others changes them – and it changes us as well. G-d wants us to be kind. G-d wants us to be constructive and loving and helpful. And when we are not those things, we can be put on notice – afflicted with tzaraas.

The symptoms of tzaraas, however, are not obviously understood. The key word in all the descriptors is the word for “white,” lavan. If someone has a white spot, the priest can diagnose it as a case of tzaraas.

So how do we know tzaraas is cured? The simplified answer is that either the white vanishes, or a black hair is seen rising. White, and then black: first the ailment, and then the way forward.

Why? What is the symbolic meaning of all of this?

The answer is a simple linkage between the words as they are found earlier in the text. The malady is marked by appearing white, lavan. And it connects perfectly to the person Laban (spelled in the Hebrew lavan). Lavan was a piece of work. We know he deceived people and played games with them in order to build and cement his own power. He resisted anyone leaving his grip, even trying to gain their own freedom. Even when his daughters and grandchildren leave, Lavan insists that they belong to him and not Jacob. Lavan undermines others in every way imaginable. And so his name, Lavan became the main symptom of the spiritual ailment that marked treating others badly: the color white. Lavan, the man, becomes the prototype for lavan the symptom!

So much for being diagnosed with this spiritual malady. What is the evidence of being cured or cleansed? A black, shachar, hair. This word is found describing the revelations that come with the rising of the dark – the dawn:

As darkness lifted, the messengers urged Lot on, saying, “Up, take your wife and your two remaining daughters, lest you be swept away because of the iniquity of the city.”

Jacob was left alone. And a figure wrestled with him until the lifting of the darkness.. … Then he said, “Let me go, for darkness is lifting.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”

So the lifting of the darkness indicates a resolution of a situation: clarity and a clear path forward.

Note, too, that Jacob’s connection to shachar happened after he had left Lavan behind. The very sequence of the words in Genesis are a precursor to those same words describing the malady of tzaraas. The Lavan period ends, and the blackness rises, indicating clarity going forward. In this way, coming out of tzaraas can be compared to Jacob leaving Lavan. In both cases, the person who has left the lavan behind finds themselves in a state where they can spiritually grow and reconnect with G-d.

This all leads to a pretty breathtaking conclusion: the entire document that deals with this ailment is all about teaching us to not be like Lavan! And those who wish to exit that state should emulate Yaakov – wrestle with themselves until the rising of the dark, when they can emerge as new people, freed from the taint of evil.

P.S. I am aware that later sources reverse the meaning: Isaiah uses “white” for innocence. This is not how the Torah apparently sees the symbolic meaning of black and white.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn and @blessedblacksmith work]


Give Credit Where Due: Stories Matter

There was no distinctive Ukrainian nation, until there was. There were no real Palestinian Arab people, until there was.

What created Ukrainians or Palestinians? Nothing more or less than the stories that they told themselves. The Ukrainians did it in less than ten years; the Palestinians took a generation. But they both did it: they forged a national consciousness and identity where there had been none before.

Indeed, the same could be said for just about any self-identity one can name. Statistically, “trans” may be a very small minority in biological terms. But there is no denying that in mental self-perception, the “trans” population is much bigger than ever before. If we actually care about people, we must first accept that what we view as mental illness is the accepted reality for millions of lost and confused young people.  

We conservatives have to stop thinking that “my truth” is a bug – to be quashed by THE TRUTH – and instead think of “my truth” as a feature. There is a very long precedent for acknowledging that our stories form our reality. After all, even before the Israelites leave Egypt, G-d explains how they are to tell the story:

And you are to tell your child on that day, saying:  It is because of what G-d did for me, when I went out of Egypt. (Ex. 13:8)

And when, in time to come, a child of yours asks you, saying, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall reply, ‘It was with a mighty hand that G-d brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage. (Ex. 13:14)

Which tells us that the story of the Exodus could have been remembered and told in countlessly different ways. The way we choose to tell it shapes our reality and that of the listeners. This is what Passover, which starts this week, is all about: retelling, reliving our national birth story, creating it anew in our minds.

We are in a world of dueling stories. We need to tell our stories in ways that resonate, that speak to higher meaning and purpose in life. We need to help shape the reality that forms in peoples’ minds when they seek to understand themselves and the world around them.


Connect – but Don’t Combine: Diversity as a Path to Holiness

You could take the best 5-course meal in the world and ruin it. All you have to do is put all the food in a blender, and blend it together. Everything that made that food appetizing – appearance, smell, texture, and taste become compromised when the component parts are puréed together.

This is because there is beauty in the differences between things. Thanks to the gaps between men and women, marriage is an opportunity for both to grow and change. The magic happens in the gap, in the space between them (just as G-d’s voice in the tabernacle came from between the angels).

So there is an intricate and living dance whenever disparate parts come close and operate together. It has to remain in flux in order for growth to occur. But at the same time, you cannot allow things to actually meld together, to lose the distinctions between them. That way lies confusion, failure, and ultimately, death.

I think this general idea explains a great deal in the Torah that deals with the question of mixing different things. In the Garden of Eden, G-d expels man because we threatened to become too much like G-d himself!

“And G-d said, “Now that humankind has become like any of us, knowing good and bad, what if one should stretch out a hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever!” So G-d cast [men] out from the garden of Eden,

At the Tower of Babel, G-d faces a similar problem: men who seek to be in heaven, instead of on earth. They, too, are repulsed. G-d wants people to connect with Him, but not to seek to be Him. That is why we are forbidden to make any images of something that already exists in nature: G-d does not want us to aspire to pervert nature or recreate G-d’s work. Instead, G-d wants us to elevate the world and create holiness in everything we say, make or do – as people, not as wannabe deities.

In the text, this principle seems to apply at all levels. We are commanded to not permanently fuse animal and vegetable products to wear wool and linen combined. We are forbidden to cross-breed animals or seeds. We keep things diverse, because the Torah tells us that bridging differences, not erasing them, is how we grow.

This continues through the text: We are forbidden to drink blood – because it infuses us with animal spirits (the primary reason most cultures give for consuming blood!). Men and women are commanded to remain distinct in garments and other trappings, because men and women should be different.

And we cannot be too close to G-d – even Moses cannot see G-d’s face. The rules of the tabernacle are tight and unyielding so as to enable a form of coexistence in which neither G-d nor man makes it impossible for the other to be present. The tabernacle is the ideal form of connection; it is a place of renewal, a place for periodic spiritual elevation and connection. The contrasts between man and G-d are preserved and on display so that we can learn from them, be inspired, and continue to seek holiness through the relationship.

When we bring things together, it must always be for aspirational purposes, not to blend them together. So, for example, we bring animal blood and grass together in Egypt, when we mark the doorposts: a symbol of understanding our purpose in this world of elevating the animal and plant kingdom upward, through our own homes and creative energies. But note that this is a symbol – not a permanent combination like wearing wool and linen (also animal and vegetable). The former is commanded, while the latter is forbidden.

This is a key part of that intricate dance of our lives: to walk the line between connection and combination. If everything is blended into a single mass of sludge, we have nothing. But if we do not connect, then we are nothing.

For energy to exist, there must be differences. Entropy is our enemy, so maintaining and even enhancing the distinctions between everything in our world is the real way in which diversity can be our strength.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @kidcoder, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter work]


Cross-dressing and Self-Identity

When a boy walks down a street carrying a stick, you know exactly what he is thinking: “what can I whack?” In that moment, the boy is the stick. It is seemingly an inherent part of manhood: men identify themselves by the trappings of power, by those things that project force. It is why every little boy loves swinging sticks and makes-believe with toy guns. It is why my teenagers are inseparable from their knives and swords, and why hoodlums in the ghetto are identified by their bling, their rides, and their weapons. Seeing ourselves through the power we wield may not be the most attractive feature of being a male, but it is nevertheless a core part of masculine identity.

Girls don’t have the same relationship with weaponry; for women, a gun can just be a tool, just as for men, chocolate can be just a food. Instead, women tend to define themselves by how they appear to themselves and others. And the most versatile tool available for that self-definition is clothing: a woman who dresses like a lady is quite likely to be a lady. And a woman who dresses like a floozy sees herself that way.

This actually helps explain a verse that has long puzzled me: the Torah’s apparent prohibition on cross-dressing. My question is not with the concept of prohibiting cross-dressing – instead, my issue is with the odd construction of the verse.

Here is the verse:

לֹא־יִהְיֶ֤ה כְלִי־גֶ֙בֶר֙ עַל־אִשָּׁ֔ה וְלֹא־יִלְבַּ֥שׁ גֶּ֖בֶר שִׂמְלַ֣ת אִשָ֑ה׃

A common translation is something like:

A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing

But it is wrong. The Hebrew is not symmetrical at all! A more careful (but challenging) translation would be:

The stuff of gever should not be on a woman, and do not dress a gever with a woman’s garments.

I do not translate the word gever into “man” because the Torah has the word for man, ish, but does not use it here! Instead, a gever refers to someone with might or power – Nimrod was the first gever in the Torah, and G-d is also praised as being unrivalled for his gever. This verse in the Torah is not prohibiting women from wearing men’s clothes, but from having the overt trappings of physical power. Presumably this is because men define themselves by force projection.

This explains the asymmetrical nature of this verse.

Women have power: sexual power and soft power, both connected to self-identity through clothing. Men’s power is qualitatively different: men instinctively see themselves as a reflection of the might that they wield.

In this understanding, men and women are not two sides of the same coin. We are instead meant to be entirely different in the way we think and see the world. And the Torah clearly thinks that this diversity in thought is a good thing, that there is beauty and growth that come from our differences, not the erasure of that which makes us distinct.

P.S. There is one female gever in the Torah – Sarah is referred to as such three times, and each time in relation to the way she exerted overt authority over her maid, Hagar.


Institutionalizing Gratitude

Three times in the Torah, man is saved by a miraculous deliverance, and he bows in appreciation to G-d. A very specific word, kod is used, each of those three times. And three times the Torah uses this very same word kod to describe the eternal fire of the altar. The end result is a connection between the fire of the altar to gratitude for divine deliverance.

Here are the first three:

Avraham has sent his servant to find a wife for Isaac. The servant comes to the right general geographic area, and prays for a very specific outcome:

Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townspeople come out to draw water; Let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’—let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master.”

Somehow the deeply unlikely happens, and the mission is successful! The servant

Kod and bowed to G-d, and said, “Blessed be G-d, the G-d of my master Abraham’s [house], who has not withheld steadfast faithfulness from my master. For I have been guided on my errand by G-d, to the house of my master’s kin.”

His prayer was answered, and he is the first person in the Torah who is described using this verb, kod. But it also happens two more times!

When G-d is explaining to the people how they should remember the Exodus – before it happens! – Moses says:

“You shall observe this as an institution for all time, for you and for your descendants. And when you enter the land that G-d will give you, as promised, you shall observe this service. And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ You shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to G-d, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when smiting the Egyptians, but saved our houses.’ Those assembled kod, and they bowed.

Another miraculous deliverance. Another expression of gratitude. And the second kod in the Torah.

The third is found after the sin of the Molten Calf. Moses asks G-d for a revelation:

Now, if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor.

And [God] answered, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name G-d, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show,”

And then G-d delivers what we refer to as the 13 attributes of divine mercy, words that we invoke when we desperately need deliverance. Moses’ response?

Moses hastened and he kod the ground and he bowed.

Another divine and miraculous answer to prayer, and once again we find the word kod.

The word by itself seems extraneous to the meaning of the text itself – after all, once someone bows, then what does an additional word add to the meaning?

I think the answer is that kod, as shown in these three verses where it is found, is not merely bowing (an act that shows respect or deference). Its appearance marks an outpouring of gratitude, an acknowledgement of divine deliverance from failure or death.

So it is more than coincidental that the root word is next found in a group of verses describing the fire of the altar:

Command Aaron and his sons thus: This is the ritual of the elevation offering: The elevation offering itself shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is kod in it. (Lev 6:2)

The fire on the altar shall be kod, not to go out: every morning the priest shall feed wood to it, lay out the burnt offering on it, and turn into smoke the fat parts of the offerings of well-being. A perpetual fire shall be kod on the altar, not to go out.

Clearly the repetition of this commandment is to expressly link these three appearances of the word kod with the three mirrored appearances of this word earlier in the text.

Several possible explanations can be offered:

  1. The elevation offering is linked to kod in these verses because the very first elevation offering in the Torah is brought by Noah in appreciation for divine deliverance after the flood. Noah is the first person in the text to show gratitude. The elevation offering provides a spiritual link between heaven and earth. G-d returns his offerings with 19 verses of praise and the promise of never repeating the flood – teaching us that gratitude is a core building block for a relationship with G-d!
  2. Though Noah does not himself kod, he is the very first person in the Torah to build an altar. The altar is a tool to connect heaven and earth. The imagery is similar to that of the angels on the ladder in Jacob’s dream. If so, then the altar is not just where we show gratitude – it is also a pathway for the divine deliverance in the first place, just as we saw with the response to Noah’s elevation offering.
  3. In Jewish Law, something that repeats three times becomes the law, a chazakah. Three times, man expresses kod in gratitude to G-d. Kod becomes the chazakah, a perpetual institution of appreciation within the relationship between man and G-d. And so, too, does the divine deliverance and answer to prayer that makes the relationship reciprocal!

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith and @kidcoder work!]


My Irrational Failing – Rejecting Experts

I am often found criticizing others for not recognizing the assumptions and presuppositions that go into their thinking – the erroneous assumptions that then lead to erroneous conclusions. Garbage in, garbage out.

Today, I feel like fessing up. I, too, rely, in my arguments, on a basic assumption that is essentially a religious belief: I think every concept can be grasped by any normal person. Which means that I reject overly complex answers as being surely incorrect.

In part, I suppose, this is because I have always rejected the “High Priest” method of preserving status and authority. I have no special respect for experts, and I know full well that I am a reasonably competent electrician, plumber, writer, theologian, carpenter, handyman, father, husband, engineer, inventor, entrepreneur, speaker… even those things that take years of specialized training (e.g. brain surgeon) can and should be understandable in principle even to a layman.

So I have a simple BS-detector. If I cannot follow the argument of an expert, then they are wrong. Take CO2 and Global Warming. The ice record shows that Global Warming precedes rising CO2 levels by decades in every single case. But today we are told that rising CO2 drives climate change. Why? The answers are positively gobbledegook, and come down to, “we are smarter than you, shut up.” How do I know the answers are nonsense? Because I cannot make sense of them.

I should make it clear that I am not claiming that everything is simplistic. I am claiming that everything should be within our grasp: simple. The difference is important, because even things that we can comprehend require us to think, to be engaged with the topic. By way of contrast, simplistic answers seek to get to the end without respecting the need for process. Process has deep value, because it is the process, not the product, that invariably helps us to grow. Any process to gain understanding requires mental engagement, but that process is available to all of us, whether the topic is freedom or Covid, climate change or the Torah. “Shut up and trust me” is against my faith.

I find the High Priest school of thought is found in every area of human expertise and scholarship. Within Judaism there is a deep and abiding love for Talmudic Logic – so convoluted that mere mortals could never grasp it. For centuries, women were told they could not learn the Gemara (part of the Talmud), because it is just too challenging for the female brain. It IS complex. And it reinforces the expectation that we cannot know something unless we rely on an expert to answer every question.

I don’t believe in frontal assaults: they cost too much and they usually fail. They certainly fail at convincing people to change their minds, because people too-easily dig in their heels when they find themselves on the defensive. So my preferred approach is to make my contribution in the relatively untouched area of “why does the text say that?” And I work under the assumption that any explanation I offer for textual understanding has to be simple enough to be grasped – or it must be wrong. This assumption is itself an unprovable assertion.

I do, however, have some textual support for the assumption:

For this commandment which I command you this day is not concealed from you and it is not far off. It is not in the heavens, that one would say: Who will go up for us to heaven and take it for us and make us hear it that we might do it? And it is not across the seas, that one would say: Who will cross the seas for us and take it for us and make us hear it that we might do it? For the thing is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it.

If the Torah – the expression of G-d – is within our grasp, then I think everything else must be, too. But I accept that this could be false.

If, on the other hand, my assertion is basically correct, then I think mankind has much more potential for growth in holiness. Less reflexive respect for so-called “experts” means higher expectations for ourselves.


Why Greens Don’t Worry About Their Own Impacts on Mother Earth

When an indigenous tribe living in the shadow of a volcano is worried about an eruption, they might decide to throw a virgin child into the fiery maw. A price has to be paid to the god, to ensure that there are no extraordinary natural events that disrupt the life of the villagers.

Indeed, this is also how the Global Warming part of the Woke religion works. Greens seize on any out-of-the-ordinary weather as proof that Mother Earth is angry – even if that weather is well within the normal historical parameters. Every coastal storm surge or hurricane or forest fire, every variation in rainfall or sunlight, is obviously a result of an angry Mother Earth. And so we must sacrifice children in service to Mother Earth.

But who pays that price? Not the leader of the tribe. That would be silly. Any virgin will do. The deity merely needs to be appeased, and the appeasement can come from the Little People. (It is much like taxes: the rich make the right sounds, but a great many of the taxes are hidden in consumption taxes on food and energy and everyday transactions – and the poor pay a much higher proportion of those taxes. Taxes that are selected and coerced by the ruling classes, the leaders of the tribe.)

Similarly, when rich Greens fly to Davos to decry mankind’s stain on Mother Earth, they don’t feel guilty. Why should they? Thanks to them, Mother Earth will be appeased. But that hardly means that they should stop flying! No, they will make sure that other people will stop flying. Just as other people should not clutter up our roads by driving, so we should ban common use and ownership of inexpensive vehicles. Someone else’s virgin will do nicely, thank you.

This happens not because Greens are not True Believers. They are. They don’t see any hypocrisy, because there is none: the deity must be appeased, and they made sure it happened. Job done. And we can see their core beliefs in their actions. We can see it in their plummeting birth rates. We can see it in their zealousness to ensure that other people suffer in sacrificing to Mother Earth, through endless regulations and taxes.

Above all, we can see the Green belief system in their obsession with consuming only natural/organic/sustainable foods and medicines. They seek to internalize the natural world, to bring the energy of the planet and its plants (and sometimes animals) inside people. They seek to consume their god, bringing Mother Earth into their own bodies as a core component of their faith.

But they do not believe that man should be similarly welcomed by the earth. No: mankind and our cities and roads and inventions, our landfills and oil wells – all of it is evil. We are the scourge of the world. There is no reciprocity: we bring nature into our bodies, but we hate those who seek to make mankind’s mark on Mother Earth.

Indigenous, primitive people are the exception, of course. Those who harmonize with the natural world, as animals in their own right – those men can live. They are the “good” people, the nobility who live closest to the land, harmonizing with her cycles, sacrificing to her gods. It does not matter if the primitives lack systems of justice or indoor plumbing – indeed, those are features that prove how good they are! While Greens fly to Davos on their Gulfstreams, they praise natives who cling to life through subsisting on the land. Because those natives represent the idyllic and nature-loving past – and future – of mankind. Best of all, those natives and the Greens share the same belief system, that one must appease nature through sacrifice. They just go about it a little differently.

So what is the difference between Green sacrifices, and the offerings called for in the Torah? Are they not the same?

There are many facets to the answer. One is that G-d makes it clear that he rejects “protection money” when he rejects Cain’s offering. The G-d of the Torah does not seek appeasement. He also does not want human sacrifice. And He clearly wants people to thrive and succeed on this earth. The G-d of the Torah, unlike the god of the Greens, likes people, at least when they seek to have holy relationships.

But there is even a more critical element that needs to be understood. The word that is translated as “offering” in the Torah (karov) is not the same word as “giving.” It actually means something which is quite different. Karov is commonly translated as “sacrifice,” but in the Torah it never means “giving something to G-d.” Instead, it means “approaching” or “internalizing.” So, for example, karov refers to intercourse (Abimelech and Sarai), Sarai’s laughter within herself, the entrails of an animal, the twins within Rebekkah, etc.

Which means that the primary purpose of a Torah offering is NOT giving something up. It is instead to internalize something (the precise “something” being tied to the specific offering in question). I would argue that this internalization is reciprocal: when we make an offering, we bring that thing into ourselves (just as pagans do with “organic” food). But we also burn the rest, sending it up in smoke just as offerings were burnt on the altar of the tabernacle: the offering seeks to connect with G-d in heaven. This is the pattern as set with the first offering commanded to the people, the paschal lamb: we are to eat what we can, and burn the remainder.

We physically consume part of the lamb, and G-d symbolically consumes some! So the paschal offering is meant to be transformative to both man and G-d! Man, because it reminds us of the Exodus, and G-d because, from the first Passover, it helps mark our homes so that the Destroyer will Pass Over. We share, and we grow closer.

The paschal offering is the first offering in the Torah whose description uses the word karov, and so it is the template for all sacrifices. And herein lies the difference between a pagan offering and a Torah offering: the offerings are meant to be reciprocally internalized, to draw man and G-d closer together (not merely pay protection money, as Cain did).

The contrast with Greens and their childish paganism is thus strongly delineated. And it explains why we see hypocrisy from the left while they see none: the gods can be appeased without personal cost – as long as the price is paid by someone.

The G-d of the Torah approaches us, and we approach him. We internalize G-d when we make an offering, because it is all about helping us grow and change. In turn, G-d/heaven internalize us when we make an offering, because we are investing ourselves, our energies, our wealth into that relationship.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith, @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter full house!]

P.S. We inherently value the things that require investment, so there needs to be a sunk cost when we make an offering. Otherwise, we place no value on that thing, just as Adam and Eve placed no value on their relationship with G-d: it came easily, so they took it for granted. And for the same reasons, a newborn is more valued by the mother than by the father. Relationships that take no effort are not valued.


The Significance of Horns

Why does the tabernacle have horns? There are numerous references to horns, both in the construction and in the use of the altars (both the copper and the gold), e.g.

Make its horns on the four corners, the horns to be of one piece with it; and overlay it with copper.


You shall make an altar for burning incense; make it of acacia wood. It shall be a cubit long and a cubit wide—it shall be square—and two cubits high, its horns of one piece with it.

The Hebrew word for “horns” in these verses is specific, and it is distinct from the word, for example, for a shofar. The Hebrew word used in these verses is keren. What does it mean in the text?

The first use of keren is at the Binding of Isaac:

When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns (keren). So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering in place of his son.

Which answers the question neatly: the horns are the reason the animal is there – to provide us with a substitute sacrifice instead of our children or ourselves. And this is at the core of the concept of making a sacrifice: it is how we invest something in coming closer to G-d.

Which in turn reminds us that the sacrifice of that ram was the prototype for the altar in the temple: the horns are a common ingredient for both. If, when we offer a sacrifice on the altar, we are reminded of Abraham almost sacrificing his son, the meaning becomes deeper and more sobering.

There is a parallel elsewhere, too: the word for “horns” is found describing Moses after he came down from the mountain.

וַיְהִ֗י בְּרֶ֤דֶת מֹשֶׁה֙ מֵהַ֣ר סִינַ֔י וּשְׁנֵ֨י לֻחֹ֤ת הָֽעֵדֻת֙ בְּיַד־מֹשֶׁ֔ה בְּרִדְתּ֖וֹ מִן־הָהָ֑ר וּמֹשֶׁ֣ה לֹֽא־יָדַ֗ע כִּ֥י קָרַ֛ן ע֥וֹר פָּנָ֖יו בְּדַבְּר֥וֹ אִתּֽוֹ׃

So Moses came down from Mount Sinai. And as Moses came down from the mountain bearing the two tablets of the Pact, Moses did not know that horns were on the skin of his face, since he had spoken with God.

The first ram offered had horns. Moses was, like the horned ram, caught and committed to the service of connecting man and G-d for the rest of his days.  


Cloaking Our Animal Natures

G-d observes that “man’s inclinations are toward evil.” And it is true that, in a state of nature (as seen in the Flood generation), man becomes the Alpha Predator, defining Right as Might. Those who are powerful revel in their animalistic urges: rage, lust, the desire to show dominance over those less powerful.

The Torah solution is to direct mankind to cover and block the animal within us. We layer on all the trappings of a holy society: modest clothing, formal manners, and consideration for others. We strive to be more than just the sum of our body parts.

Yet there is no doubt that our natural inclinations are toward satisfying animal instincts, most prominently promiscuity and unfaithfulness. There is a specific word for adultery in the text: שְׂטֶ֥ה. It appears twice in the Torah:

וְאַ֗תְּ כִּ֥י שָׂטִ֛ית תַּ֥חַת אִישֵׁ֖ךְ וְכִ֣י נִטְמֵ֑את וַיִּתֵּ֨ן אִ֥ישׁ בָּךְ֙ אֶת־שְׁכָבְתּ֔וֹ מִֽבַּלְעֲדֵ֖י אִישֵֽׁךְ׃

But if you have gone astray while living in your husband’s household and have defiled yourself, if any party other than your husband has had carnal relations with you”

זֹ֥את תּוֹרַ֖ת הַקְּנָאֹ֑ת אֲשֶׁ֨ר תִּשְׂטֶ֥ה אִשָּׁ֛ה תַּ֥חַת אִישָׁ֖הּ וְנִטְמָֽאָה׃

This is the ritual in cases of jealousy, when a woman goes astray while living in her husband’s household, and defiles herself

It is an odd word, because this word, שְׂטֶ֥ה, is only used in two ways in the text: the word for adultery, and the name of a wood!

Not just any wood, either. Sheeteem, acacia, is specified as the wood used in the tabernacle! But why is everything made of wood specified as “acacia” in the text? Why not merely say “make it out of wood.”?

I think the answer ties together beautifully: we know the tabernacle is there to guide the people toward holiness. And while much of the tabernacle is made of acacia wood, none of that wood was visible. Indeed, any visible tree or wood was explicitly forbidden from being in the tabernacle. Everything that was made of wood was in turn covered in either copper, silver, or gold.

I think the tabernacle reflects us! We are, in part, animals. We seek crookedness, indulging our animal natures and passions. We are tempted by evil.

But the Torah is telling us, by naming the wood as the wood connected to adultery, that we cover that element of ourselves. That it is OK that we recognize how we are made, as long as we also recognize the obligation to cover and cloak our animal natures in the stuff of civilization: the most refined and processed materials known to the ancient world. In order to serve G-d, we cover our nature with artifice.

There is even a natural component to this. If you look at images of acacia trees in the Sinai you’ll notice that they were not straight and beautiful trunks like cedars. Instead, they are twisted and crooked. Both in word and in physical appearance, acacia represent the natural inclinations of man, the desire to go astray. But in G-d’s house, we cover nakedness of all kinds. The human body is that of a hairless ape – and so we dress it, and cloak its urges in manners and gentility and all the trappings of a holy society. We always aim to be better!

[an @iwe and @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter work]


The Quiet Desperation of a Pointless Life

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation…. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.” – Thoreau

I think Thoreau was onto something. Look at the misery of the Left and the Woke. They lead lives that are miserable, in no small part because they are told that everyone is merely an animal, at best a parasite sucking the life blood out of Mother Earth. The Left lack a higher purpose or meaning. They don’t invest in deep and sustainable romantic relationships, or in building families and investing in the next generation.

Indeed, I think this is necessarily part of “natural” religions overall. Nature is circular, and all lives are essentially pointless at best (and in the case of mankind, decidedly negative). If you worship a natural deity, you accept that you and your life has no deeper meaning, that when you die, the world will be no better for you having lived in the first place. Wouldn’t that conclusion make you desperate?!

This explains a difficult verse for me in the Torah. When Moses and Aaron come down from Sinai to confront the people who are worshipping a golden calf, Joshua first says, “There is the sound of war in the camp.” Moses replies:

“It is not the sound of the sufferings of victory, neither is it a sounds of suffering defeat, but sounds of suffering [alone] do I hear.”

I think Moses had a very sensitive ear. He heard what was below the surface, like the sadness of the clown. The people were “worshipping” the golden calf with outward appearances of joy and merrymaking. But those same people, in desperation and fear of the unknown, had just given up on their lives having a deeper or greater purpose. They had slid into the sadness that comes from the loss of hope, from accepting powerlessness in the face of far more powerful and uncaring natural forces. The people had locked themselves into a natural, circular world, a world with no exit. The world of quiet desperation and unconscious despair.

[An @iwe, @kidcoder, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter work]


Why A Calf, Specifically?

At the heart of paganism is confusing correlation with causality: the human mind is taught from a young age to see that what follows from something is likely because of that thing. Post hoc, ergo propter hoc may be a logical fallacy, but it is also how every human child learns.

And so are developed the faiths of Cargo Culters. Or Earth Worshippers. You see the storms or the ocean or the sailing ships as deities in themselves, instead of realizing there is ultimately something much more powerful – but abstract – behind those manifestations. Mankind naturally resists abstraction, especially when the evidence is so clearly in front of us!

I think this way of thinking might offer a novel explanation for an ancient question: why did the people stray at Sinai by making a molten calf? Why not a bull or a ram, or any other animal or representation of a natural force?

I think the text uses a play on words, a pun, to give us an answer!

The primary clue is found after the people make the calf. They say something both oddly specific and quite curious:

And they exclaimed, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!”

Why do they think it was a calf (the Hebrew is egel) that brought them out of Egypt? What possibly led them to this conclusion?

If we stick with the word for calf, egel, we can see that the text only uses it a few times before this moment.

The first time is when Abram is told in a dream-like prophecy that his descendants will descend to a foreign nation and serve there:

And [God] said to Abram, “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years; but I will execute judgment on the nation they shall serve, and in the end they shall go free with great wealth.

Where is the word egel found here? It is the first animal Abram brings at the beginning of this episode!

Came the reply, “Bring Me a three-year-old heifer (egelah), a three-year-old she-goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young bird.”

So there is a prophecy within the tradition of the people that they will come down and come back out, and it is connected, somehow, to an egel.

The trend continues! When Joseph retrieves his family, he does it with a very specific word: agalot, sharing the same root word as egel. Joseph instructs his brothers:

‘Do as follows: take from the land of Egypt wagons (agalot) for your children and your wives, and bring your father here.

The sons of Israel did so; Joseph gave them wagons (agalot) as Pharaoh had commanded, and he supplied them with provisions for the journey.

But when they recounted all that Joseph had said to them, and when he saw the wagons (agalot) that Joseph had sent to transport him, the spirit of their father Jacob revived. [Jacob may have been reminded of the egel prophecy]

So Jacob set out from Beer-sheba. The sons of Israel put their father Jacob and their children and their wives in the wagons (agalot) that Pharaoh had sent to transport him;

The descent to Egypt was symbolically marked with an egel, and agalot physically brought them down to Egypt! Which means that it is quite reasonably logical that the same deity that brought them down, connected to egel, was the very same deity that had promised to bring them back out – also connected, as per Abram’s prophecy, with an egel!

It is entirely logical from the perspective of a people who are quite reasonably looking for a physical explanation for a physical phenomenon. We know that people in general have a hard time grasping the concept of a non-corporeal deity – between pagan faiths and modern Western earth worship, paganism, idol worship, in one form or another is as popular as it was in the ancient world. So it makes sense that, given the links to egel within Genesis, that the people in Exodus reckoned that a molten egel was an honest representation of the deity who actually brought them down, and then brought them out again.


How Do we Know what “Work” is Forbidden on Sabbath?

Every faith that relies on the Torah has some form of Sabbath Day – a day of rest. But the way in which the Sabbath is honored varies a great deal, not least because of what seems to be a very flexible definition of “work.” Most people who say they observe a day of rest for the Sabbath tend to write their own definitions of “work.”

The text seems to be ambiguous.

Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of your G-d: you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements.

It just says “don’t do any work.” That seems pretty ambiguous, right?

Maybe not. Let’s look at what the word means in the text. And that is quite clear, indeed. The word used in the Torah for “any work” on Sabbath is kol-melacha, כָּל־מְלָאכָה֙, and it appears a mere 17 times. [click this link to see them]. Of those, 9 are as prohibitions: don’t do kol-melacha, “any work.” Which means that the meaning of kol-melacha is found in the other examples. And here they are, in order of appearance in the text:

I have filled [Bezalel] with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge and in ­kol-melacha

… to cut stones for setting and to carve wood—to make in kol-melacha

Thus the Israelites, all the men and women whose hearts moved them to bring anything for kol-melacha that G-d, through Moses, had commanded to be done, brought it as a freewill offering to G-d.

I have filled [Bezalel] with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge and in kol-melacha.

have been endowed with the skill to do kol-melacha —of the carver, the designer, the embroiderer in blue, purple, crimson yarns, and in fine linen, and of the weaver—as doers of kol-melacha and as makers of designs.

So the people stopped bringing: their efforts had been more than enough for kol-melacha to be done.

And when Moses saw kol-melacha [the people] had done as G-d had commanded, so they had done—Moses blessed them.

Fat from animals that died or were torn by beasts may be used for kol-melacha but you must not eat it.

With the partial exception of the last verse, every single example of kol-melacha – “work forbidden on the Sabbath” – applies solely and exclusively to the making of the tabernacle, the mikdash!

And so the Torah gives us a clear answer. Work that is forbidden on the Sabbath is not “doing” or “creating.” Nor is it “work” as someone today might choose to label something they consider to be work. It is instead nothing more or less than the labors necessary for constructing G-d’s house.

[an @iwe and @susanquinn work]

P.S. Conventional Orthodox Judaism reaches the same conclusion but in a different way. This tradition (thousands of years old) asserts that the definition of kol-melacha comes from the juxtaposition of the tabernacle instructions and the commandment to observe the Sabbath day, which follows immediately after (See Exodus 31). Note that the development of what was required to make the tabernacle is highly developed within the Jewish Oral Law. It can be researched here. My explanation from kol-melacha, shared above, is not a contradiction. To my knowledge, this explanation has not been discovered before now.

P.P.S. This post may have much deeper implications as much ink – and some blood – has been spilled over millennia over whether or not to accept the rabbinical explanation of the sabbatical prohibitions. Sadducees, for example, rejected rabbinical interpretations for Shabbos observance, because they did not see any textual support for it.


KitKat Appeasement

I know a man who keeps KitKats handy. When he approaches someone else, he pulls out the two-stick chocolate, opens the wrapping, and offers the other person one of the sticks. The technique works wonders, as indeed it should. Tokens matter. First impressions matter. And showing consideration is always a great way to start a conversation.

We can take this further: a peace offering is never a bad way to try to turn a tricky situation into a positive result. We can indeed change the outcome of an encounter if we curry favor first. Imagine that a person who has wronged you were to take the initiative, offering a chocolate and an apology … wouldn’t that positively influence your reaction?

The first example of this is found in Genesis. Jacob is coming back into Canaan. Esau, with a small army, is going to meet him. Esau, as you may recall, has a righteous case against his brother for impersonation and stealing the blessing from their father. Both brothers know it.

But Jacob decides to preemptively defuse Esau’s anger:

[Jacob] reasoned: “If I propitiate [kapar] him with presents in advance, and then face him, perhaps he will show me favor [naso].”

And it works! Esau’s anger is stilled, and the brothers meet and then part on cordial terms. Jacob invented the KitKat Method: give an influencing present to achieve protection [kapar], and thus naso ends with a positive result.

Why am I stressing these two words: kapar and naso? Because it is critical in this verse:

When you take a census [literally: when you naso the head] of the Israelite men according to their pakad, each shall pay G-d a kapar for himself on being pakad, that no plague may come upon them by being pakad.

There seem to be a direct connection – that G-d teaches us that when we are going to be confronted by the error of our ways, we should do as Jacob did. And if we do so, then G-d will forgive us just as Esau forgave Jacob!

Other linguistic parallels make this point even more concrete: the word used above, pakad, is the same word used for the first time in the Torah when G-d “recognizes” Sarah and fulfills His promise to give her a son. The word pakad means to gain attention, to be judged. And we all know that the result of raising (naso) our heads and gaining G-d’s judgement (pakad) may well be negative.

And so, just as Jacob brings a mollifying gift to Esau in the runup to them meeting up, the Torah tells us that we bring a mollifying gift (the half-shekel that is used to construct G-d’s House, the Tabernacle) so that when we are judged, G-d will do as Esau did. We are literally commanded to change G-d’s mind.

P.S. The possible negative result is found if we do not seek to placate G-d. The word negef, translated as “plague” is used to refer to a host of negative outcomes, starting with the plague of frogs, and applying to all the plagues against a Pharaoh who neither recognized G-d, nor deferred to him. In the Torah, negef is G-d’s response to people who work against G-d’s interests. And once started, a negef requires a kapar. The token action or gift makes a difference!

P.P.S. After I wrote this piece, I realized that I asked a very similar question a few years ago – and found a different answer! In the spirit of “70 faces of the Torah” I think both have some value. Here is that one!

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter work]


Invisibility? Inadvisable

When I was a kid, I used to ask people which superpower they would choose, between being able to fly, telekinesis, or invisibility. I found it was a great conversation starter, and the answers invariably gave some insight into the person answering the question.

What startled me was the number of people who immediately chose Invisibility. Because, come to think of it, invisibility is really only useful for doing things you should not do: thieve, eavesdrop, spy, peep – invading the privacy of others.

Humans are often fascinated with doing such a thing – catch a person au naturel in body and behavior, to see them as animals instead of as self-conscious individuals who have a chance to dress, comport themselves, and tailor their behavior and words for their audience. We want to peel away the layers for others, but not for ourselves. Any self-aware person is aware of the probability of embarrassment that would come from giving in to our unloosed angers and passions. Not for nothing does the Torah label rage to be the first sin. So exposing the animalistic nature and the sins of others is not very nice.

The Torah actually brings three connected stories that reinforce this point. We’ll start with the clothes of the High Priest. He had to wear a garment that had little tinkly bells that resembled pomegranates:

Aaron shall wear it while officiating, so that the sound of it is heard when he comes into the sanctuary before G-d and when he goes out—that he may not die.

The lesson seems simple enough – but why does it matter? After all, as G-d knows where we are, why does making noise everywhere we go matter?

The positive case is found in Genesis:

They heard the sound of G-d moving about in the garden at the breezy time of day; and Adam and his wife hid from G-d among the trees of the garden.

Why does G-d announce his presence before he confronts them? For the very reasons given above: G-d wants to give Adam and Eve a chance to consider how they are going to defend themselves after eating the fruit. G-d does not want to catch them unawares: he wants mankind’s response to be thoughtful and considered. He does not want to sneak up on them, or surprise them, or get an instinctive response.

In other words, G-d does not choose invisibility in the Garden where man is found! And so the High Priest reciprocates: the priest does not choose invisibility in the House where G-d is found!

The negative case is also found in Genesis: Joseph in Potiphar’s house is capable of moving without announcing his presence. As a result, he is compromised by Potiphar’s wife. Had Joseph moved everywhere “with bells on” then the situation could not have developed as it did. (The verse of the high priest and Joseph are linked through the common use of the word shor’ess שָׁרֵ֑ת.)

When working in an official capacity someone else’s home, it behooves us to emulate both G-d and the high priest (and not Joseph) by making sure our presence is known, and trackable. We want to maximize the opportunity for measured, non-animalistic, and thoughtful actions.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter work]

P.S. Note that in both stories, fruit (the forbidden fruit and the pomegranate bells) are also featured.)


Spices and Heaven: Torah Puns

One of the insurmountable challenges of working with translations is that various plays on words – alliteration, rhymes, onomatopoeia and puns – are necessarily cast aside for the sake of simple clarity.

For example, the Torah speaks of spices for the tabernacle. The word is besamim. Besamim, which appears only three times in the Torah, is not the only word used for spices in the text (which prompts a question we’ll leave for another time). But what makes besamim particularly intriguing is that it shares the very same Hebrew letters as the word bashamayim, which means “in the heavens.” They also are paired: bashamayim in this form appears three times in the text – and besamim also appears three times.

Why is this a pun, as opposed to a mere coincidence? The answer is revealed when we search for where the word bashamayim, in the heavens, is found in the text similarly to where besamim is found (without the word for “earth” also appearing):

The Tower of Babel:

וַיֹּאמְר֞וּ הָ֣בָה ׀ נִבְנֶה־לָּ֣נוּ עִ֗יר וּמִגְדָּל֙ וְרֹאשׁ֣וֹ בַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וְנַֽעֲשֶׂה־לָּ֖נוּ שֵׁ֑ם פֶּן־נָפ֖וּץ עַל־פְּנֵ֥י כָל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens [bashamayim], to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.”

Other powerful nations:

‘We saw there a people stronger and taller than we, large cities with walls in the heavens [bashamayim].

שְׁמַ֣ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אַתָּ֨ה עֹבֵ֤ר הַיּוֹם֙ אֶת־הַיַּרְדֵּ֔ן לָבֹא֙ לָרֶ֣שֶׁת גּוֹיִ֔ם גְּדֹלִ֥ים וַעֲצֻמִ֖ים מִמֶּ֑ךָּ עָרִ֛ים גְּדֹלֹ֥ת וּבְצֻרֹ֖ת בַּשָּׁמָֽיִם׃

Hear, O Israel! You are about to cross the Jordan to go in and dispossess nations greater and more populous than you: great cities with walls in the heavens[bashamayim]

See the commonality? Other nations seek to climb to the heavens. The Jewish people do not. We are not competing on the basis of large buildings or physical proximity to the skies. The Torah tells us that we should not even seek to send an emissary to heaven!

לֹ֥א בַשָּׁמַ֖יִם הִ֑וא לֵאמֹ֗ר מִ֣י יַעֲלֶה־לָּ֤נוּ הַשָּׁמַ֙יְמָה֙ וְיִקָּחֶ֣הָ לָּ֔נוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵ֥נוּ אֹתָ֖הּ וְנַעֲשֶֽׂנָּה׃

[The Torah] is not in the heavens [bashamayim], that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” … No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.

Our goals can be achieved right here. The path to holiness is not to physically reach to heaven: Babel and the Amorites reach for the sky, by building upward. But Jews connect to heaven by standing on the ground. We do not climb to heaven for the sake of getting closer to G-d that way.

Yet the Torah does not deny that mankind can, and should, reach upward –the pun for spices/heaven tells us that our journey upward is not meant to by physical. It is meant to be spiritual, in our imagination, closer to our souls than our body.

And that is the power of the incense. Smells ignite the imagination, dispossess us from physicality, help us realize that much that exists is not conventionally physical or tangible. Besamim are a reminder of the positive attribute of Babel, reaching upward – but altering it from a physical ambition to a spiritual goal. Heaven is a spiritual ideal, one that can be evoked by spices. We do not go upwards: we are to think upwards.

[an @iwe and @eliyahumasinter work]


Why Do We Need The Tabernacle?

In the Torah, G-d is not found in nature, in anything He creates outside of mankind. So properly connecting with G-d is not achieved by communing with nature – the G-d of the Torah did not place any of His divinity in the natural world.

But G-d clearly does want to meaningfully connect with humanity. G-d commands the people:

וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃

And make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell (sha’ken) among them.

Dwell among us? It is a lovely and poetic thought – but the concept is only skin-deep when assessed using this verse alone. But if we dig into the text and each of the words used that discuss the tabernacle (called mishkan or mikdash in the text, and this essay going forward), we’ll discover what the Torah actually means by this idea, and even where – and why – it was proposed by G-d. The answers surprised me, which means they are quite likely to also be a surprise to others!

Our first word is שכן, sha’ken, which is the word translated as “dwell.” This word is used in the text as “a dynamic coexistence or signpost.” It is the word used to described the angel guarding Eden, Japheth’s usurpation of Shem’s tents, Abram’s living with his allies, and Ishmael, the “wild ass of a man” living alongside his kin. It is even used when G-d tells Isaac not to leave the land because of famine, but to tough it out, sha’ken, in Canaan instead. This word, understood through its deployment, means much more than “dwell” – it is an active word, a far cry from merely “staying put.” Instead, sha’ken describes dissimilar parties occupying the same space with perhaps some shared goals. Sha’ken is not easy to do, and it is not all warm-and-fuzzies. There is tension, and the potential for conflict. G-d “dwelling” amongst the people is really an uneasy and challenging coexistence.

(And there is that connection to the Garden of Eden, suggesting that in some way the mikdash is a connection back to the beginning of Genesis. More on this later…)

Note that the idea of G-d coexisting with the people with a mikdash does not come in connection with Mount Sinai or the sin of the Golden Calf. Though it goes almost unnoticed, the mikdash is first mentioned in a non-sequitus verse found in the song that Moses leads the people in upon crossing the sea!

תְּבִאֵ֗מוֹ וְתִטָּעֵ֙מוֹ֙ בְּהַ֣ר נַחֲלָֽתְךָ֔ מָכ֧וֹן לְשִׁבְתְּךָ֛ פָּעַ֖לְתָּ י-הָ֑ה מִקְּדָ֕שׁ אֲד-֖י כּוֹנְנ֥וּ יָדֶֽיךָ׃

You will bring them and plant them in the mountain of your wellspring,
The place You made to dwell (shuv) in, G-d
The mikdash, O my lord, which Your hands established.

This is most odd! It is a single verse mention – while the detailed descriptions of the mikdash come many chapters later, after the revelation at Sinai. Why does Moses see the need for such an institution at this point?!

I think the question prompts a very simple answer: Moses had experienced G-d’s presence (the first time holiness, kedushah, is mentioned in the Torah) at the burning bush. And Moses grew a strong relationship with G-d from that episode. But Moses also knows from the demonstrated reluctance of the people up to the Exodus, that they lack the same conviction. Quite reasonably, the people lacked Moses’ faith because they lacked his same experience!

It is not natural, as we know from all of human history, for mankind to recognize the primacy of a non-corporeal deity. As G-d has no body, the next best thing is a source of connection and symbolic inspiration: guidance from a signpost (like the first sha’ken of the angel guarding Eden). Moses is calling, in the song as they left Egypt, for a national and permanent “burning bush” for the Israelites as a whole! In that way, G-d’s guidance can be accessible to all people, instead of being accessible only indirectly, through Moses.

The word for holiness, קּדש, kodesh, is first found in the burning bush. The second time is this verse at the sea. The connection is very strong: when Moses calls for a mikdash (same root as kodesh), he is calling for the burning bush’s holiness to be shared with the nation. In this way, the mikdash can become a touchstone – both for the Israelites and indeed, for all peoples. This verse is a promise of a spiritual beacon to the world.

The next key word is found in this same verse from the Song at the Sea: נַחל, nachal. This word is used in the text to mean two connected things: a source of water, and an inheritance. Isaac’s servants dig in the nachal to find a well; Rachel and Leah refer to the nachal that is their inheritance from Lavan. It is clear that a nachal is a source of sustenance. You can build a city or a civilization around such an asset, something that keeps on giving and supporting life.

Note that this verse, though, does not anticipate a moving mikdash; a nachal is fixed, not portable. Hence the ultimate promise of the mikdash, as anticipated at the Exodus, is for the permanent establishment of this spiritual beacon to be in a fixed place; the temporary version in the wilderness was for pragmatic expediency, not because a traveling mikdash is the ideal.

We know that it is meant to be fixed because the verse tells us so: “You will bring them and plant them in the mountain of your spring (nachal)” which connects beautifully with our next word: הַ֣ר, meaning “mountain.”

On its face, a mountain and a spring are contradictions in terms – water is found in valleys, not on top of mountains. So when the verse says that G-d will establish the people on “the mountain of your wellspring,” we should understand it in a spiritual, not a physical, sense. And what is the symbolic meaning of a “mountain” in the Torah?

The first mentions of mountains are in the Flood episode – the Flood itself being a “rinse and repeat” event, cleansing the world and rebooting it from scratch. The flood served to scrub away all the evil that had accumulated, and restart. The mountains are connected to a complete renewal cycle for the world, just as Mount Sinai is connected to the spiritual renewal for all the people. Which then fits in beautifully with the nachal, the wellspring from which an entire civilization can be nurtured and grown.

The flood itself, nevertheless, was only a temporary event, just as was Mount Sinai. There is yet another word in the verse describing the mikdash that ties them all together, helping us see the overall picture of the purpose of the spiritual crown jewel of Judaism. That word is שׁב, shuv.

(for those who would like to see these words in context now, here is that same verse again):

You will bring them and plant them in the mountain of your wellspring,
The place You made to dwell (shuv) in, G-d
The mikdash, O my lord, which Your hands established.

This word for “dwell” is not sha’ken (that word is used for the mikdash later in the text). This word, shuv, is used to mean a different set of things: the flood waters recede, the raven ceases to return, the angels return to Sarah, Avraham returns to his place, Avraham returns to settle the land, the anger of Esau against Jacob subsides.

Put all these together: G-d’s presence in the mikdash represents the return to a ground state, a place where people can go to become spiritually recentered, to find themselves in their connection to G-d and to holiness. The mikdash is the national burning bush. It is integrally linked to the meaning of mountain and wellspring: we come back to the source of spiritual connection in order to achieve spiritual cleansing and rebirth. The Torah even alludes to this earlier in the Torah, when G-d says to Jacob: “return (shuv) to your ancestors’ land—where you were born—and I will be with you.” When Jacob shuvs, he reconnects with his roots. When we shuv at the mikdash, we do the same, and enter into a regenerative state of dynamic coexistence sha’ken with G-d.

It is pretty surprising to realize that Moses, in a selfless act designed to reduce his own critical importance to the people, declared that G-d would make the mikdash for this purpose – and at the Splitting of the Sea.

There are just a few words left to explore. One of them is the word for “make”, oseh. Here is the verse, the one found later to describe sha’ken:

וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃

And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.

This word, oseh is not generic. The first time it is used in the Torah is in creation:

וַיַּ֣עַשׂ אלִ-ים֮ אֶת־הָרָקִיעַ֒ וַיַּבְדֵּ֗ל בֵּ֤ין הַמַּ֙יִם֙ אֲשֶׁר֙ מִתַּ֣חַת לָרָקִ֔יעַ וּבֵ֣ין הַמַּ֔יִם אֲשֶׁ֖ר מֵעַ֣ל לָרָקִ֑יעַ

God made (oseh) the expanse, and it separated the water which was below the expanse from the water which was above the expanse.

This creation is of the GAP – the space in the world in which the physical can exist! It is the space in which mankind (and all of nature) exists. If G-d had not made that gap, there would have been no room for us! Which means that the mikdash, using the word oseh, is also created space. We emulate G-d’s own creative act by craving out space for the mikdash, just as He did in Genesis.

The Torah is very interested in spaces and gaps. There is a concept that G-d has to limit Himself in order for us to exist (in the Torah we cannot survive direct contact). Not only do we exist in a spiritual and physical gap between the waters above and below, but G-d’s presence is found in what seems to be empty space. We most easily find G-d in the wilderness. And G-d’s voice in the mikdash comes from the gap between the two angels. Gaps are a reminder that things may well not be what they look like: instead, they may be what we hear. So when G-d commands the mishkan, he is saying, “make a space for me of holiness, so that I may coexist (sha’ken) in your midst.”

Oseh has a double meaning as well. Its second occurrence in the Torah is the creation of seed-bearing fruit – self-perpetuating sustenance and gifts from G-d to mankind. This is entirely compatible with the purpose of the mikdash we have explored above.

Just as G-d created the gap within which our world exists, we are to reciprocate by creating a gap for G-d to dwell within us. And just as G-d created the gift of fruit to sustain mankind, so, too, we create the gift of the mikdash to sustain both G-d and man in this dwelling together.

And lastly, we have the strengthened connection to Eden. That primary verse, “You will bring them and plant them in the mountain of your wellspring” uses this word for “plant.” The word is first used here: “And G-d planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and placed there the Man.” Which means that the mikdash is also reminiscent of the first creation of a home for man. Moses is calling for G-d to plant anew, but this time a spiritual touchstone for the people, a place not of merely divine gift from On High, but instead a place of partnership and coexistence between man and the Creator.

p.s. The idea that we have to “make space” to coexist with someone else speaks directly to every successful marriage and relationship.

p.p.s. The Torah uses two words for the tabernacle: mikdash is what is mostly described above: what the place is for, and what it does for us. It is a burning bush available for the people, a wellspring for spiritual water, the base from which we can build a spiritual civilization.

By comparison the mishkan has sha’ken as its core word. It is about G-d’s dynamic coexistence (sha’ken as described above) – from flaming angel guiding or barring the way, to the uneasy coexistence of allies.

p.p.p.s. Though I did not think of it while researching this essay, it occurs to me that when I go to the place where the mikdash was built, the kotel in Jerusalem, I feel all of these things – the sense of inadequacy when in the presence of holiness, of almost-violent spiritual scrubbing and rebirth. I now have a glimmer of what the burning bush meant to Moses. We work and pray for the rebuilding of the mikdash speedily in our days!

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter work]


Please Tell Comrade Stalin!!!

The story is told of a man who has been sentenced to time in the gulag. The prisoner cannot make sense of it all, but he still believes the propaganda that has filled his life. “Please!” he begs everyone he meets, “Please tell Comrade Stalin! I am sure he would free me if only he knew!”

The prisoner cannot wrap his head around the fact that it was Stalin himself, not some uninformed apparatchnik, who was ultimately responsible for sending people to the gulag. And the victim is entirely resigned – committed – to the ideology that has made him who he is, and that now dooms him.  There are no facts that will make him stop believing in Comrade Stalin. Entertaining the mere possibility of that mental dissonance would be his undoing.

I was thinking on how every liberal I know has no problem complaining about some government-run outfit or another – from the DMV to TSA – and yet their complaints make no impression whatsoever on their underlying belief system. Sure, the TSA may be useless at best – but the government is still there to protect us! It would be silly, of course, to throw out an entire belief system just because some middlemen made some errors in execution.

What intrigues me is how closely this way of thinking hews to a slave mentality. There is a biblical example that is very much like that of our unfortunate Russian: Pharaoh, annoyed by Moses’ petition to let the people go, orders the taskmasters to no longer provide straw for bricks to the Israelite slaves. He instructs, “Let them go and gather straw for themselves.”

What do the slaves, a broken people, do? They think there must be some kind of mistake! And they go right back to Comrade Stalin!

Then the overseers of the Israelites came to Pharaoh and cried: “Why do you deal thus with your servants? No straw is issued to your servants, yet they demand of us: Make bricks! Thus, your servants are being beaten, when the fault is with your own people.”

They cannot believe that Pharaoh, the all-powerful ruler, could possibly mean for them to suffer! Surely, if he was just informed, then the disloyal bureaucrats would be punished, and all would be right with the world. The more things change…

The Israelites share the very same worldview as the gulag-bound prisoner. They know they are mere flotsam in this world, and they put their faith in the Great Man to save them.

In the Torah, believing only in great men for salvation is the sign of an enslaved and ultimately broken people. When we fail to rise to a challenge, and instead only passively wait to be saved by heroes, then we are no longer free.

But wait: what is the difference between believing in Comrade Stalin/Chairman Mao / Pharoah and believing in G-d?

One can argue from results, of course. Judeo-Christianity created Western Civilization while Mao and Stalin and Pol Pot killed 100 million people. Yet this does not prove that our belief is right – merely that it is useful.

The real difference, as I see it, is found in our sense of responsibility: whether we see ourselves as victims or not. In a world dominated by powerful warlords and heroes of various kinds, everyone else is merely a pawn, if they are even on the board at all. But with the G-d of the Torah, we are called to be partners, not merely subjects. We are responsible for ourselves, and our actions actually matter. The Torah makes this abundantly clear: we can have leaders, and even heroes. But heroes or no heroes, we remain individually responsible for our own choices.

More than this: we are only helpless flotsam if we see ourselves that way. And if we believe that we are capable of agency, then we can consciously choose whether we are active agents, mere bystanders, or collateral damage in the goings-on of the world.

The tragedy of the gulag prisoner is not merely that he is simply unable to accept that Comrade Stalin is the cause of his suffering, not the source of his salvation. That is bad enough. But the far greater tragedy is that he is no longer a capable person, adult enough to make choices, take responsibility for those choices, and grow: he has surrendered his divinely-gifted ability to effect change on himself and his world.

Ultimately this is a core difference between freedom-loving societies and the communism / socialism / fascism that oppress the individual: the enemies of freedom attack the power we have to become more than our mere nature and nurture, DNA and upbringing. And victimhood seems inexorably tied to loss of liberty: the condition is essentially circular and self-perpetuating. In the Torah claiming victimhood (from Adam and Eve through to the Israelites in the wilderness) always earned a strong divine response. G-d does not want us to be passive.

The enemies of liberty seek for us to return to serfdom, to believe in the State as the source of security. Comrade Stalin, Pharaoh, or the instruments of the State surely always have our best interests at heart.

It is on us to break off those shackles, the mental prison in which we put ourselves whenever we believe that we are mere victims. It hardly matters whether we claim to be victims of our own natural limitations or circumstances of birth or upbringing, or whether we claim to be oppressed by others. The result is the same: the hopelessly oppressed and unfree invariably look outside, not inside, for their salvation. Comrade Stalin is not going to help.

[an @iwe and @eliyahumasinter work]


Wives Are NOT Meant to be Ruled by their Husbands?

I am blessed with six sons (and a pair of honorees), but #2 was the toughest nut. As a toddler he earned the reputation of the nastiest kid in the playgroup. Getting him to just stop biting other children was a challenge. He fought with me at every juncture; he would not even go to sleep unless and until I pinned him down and forced him to actually Lose. The. Fight. Every single bedtime. You can imagine how stewardesses handled the spectacle of a father smearing his hollering kid against the seat and bulkhead because the kid was exhausted and needed to sleep. #2 didn’t care if the odds were against him: for him, the fight was its own reward. My own brother threatened to call CPS on me.

Around third or fourth grade, #2 came around, at least in principle. But he still had a deep and instinctive need to smash things. When he was upset or just energetic, his self-designed therapy was to take a sledgehammer or an axe and to absolutely thrash some poor unfortunate stump.

Some people advised therapy. Most advised drugs. We rejected them all. We knew #2 just needed to find out how best to use his energy and his anger for positive ends. The smasher adopted the hobby of blacksmithing, and other ways of changing the physical world around him to suit himself. He learned how to become himself through his destructive energies. My violent son has grown into a fine young man, husband, and father – and friend. He still likes to smash things.

I was reminded of this when learning with #2 earlier today. We were trying to find the best way to explain what I consider to be a monumental breakthrough in understanding the text of the Torah, and #2 suggested that I use his own life as the example. It may be a good way to help illustrate the point we want to share: that two key verses in Genesis are mistranslated and thus almost entirely misunderstood. And they deal with the way the Torah wants each person to become their best self.

Let’s start with the verses as they are commonly understood:

If you do not do right, sin couches at the door; Its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master. [G-d to Cain, before Cain kills Abel]


Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you. [G-d’s words to Eve after she eats the fruit]

These are both rock-ribbed verses. They are widely quoted and viewed as foundational for both Judaism and Christianity. And they are not right.

How so?

Let’s start with the fact that the verses mirror each other. It works this way: The Hebrew phrase for “[sin] desires you, yet you can be its master” is almost identical to “your desire is for your man, and he shall rule over you.” Which means that they are related and connected to each other.

In both verses, the core words are the same. And yet neither is correctly understood. Neither of:

We are supposed to master sin.

Men are supposed to rule over their wives.

Is found in the words of the Torah! Both translations are, in fact, incorrect!

Isn’t my statement a chutzpah? How can I possibly argue that these verses have been misunderstood for millennia? Here is a core principle: when we read the Torah, we must never use it as a drunk uses a lamppost: for support and not illumination. The text is not there to agree with what we already think. The purpose of the Torah, by its own statement, is to illuminate G-d’s recipe for how we grow ourselves and build holy relationships.

Here is why I can say that these verses are mistranslated: if we look at how these words are used elsewhere in the Torah, the mistranslation – and a new and much more interesting and beautiful meaning – is revealed.

As we break this down, I will take it one word at a time. Here are the mirrored phrases (even those who do not read Hebrew should be able to see the strong resemblances between these two verses):

תְּשׁ֣וּקָת֔וֹ וְאַתָּ֖ה תִּמְשָׁל־בּֽוֹ


תְּשׁ֣וּקָתֵ֔ךְ וְה֖וּא יִמְשׇׁל־בָּֽךְ

We’ll start with the last word. The letter “b” is a preposition, and it means “within it.” The word is first found in the creation story:

And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation: seed-bearing plants, fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.”

So it can mean “in it.” “b” can also be “by it,” as in:

I will bless those who bless you, and curse the one who curses you; And all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.”

So in looking at these phrases… with Cain, sin will do something within or by him. And man will do something within or by his wife!

So what is the “something” we are talking about? The word is “M-Sh-L” and in the text it means a few things – but (unlike in Modern Hebrew) none of them means to “rule” as it is commonly understood. Here are the ways this word is used:

1: To illuminate or enlighten, an energetic infusion into the physical world. As in:

G-d made the two great lights, the greater light to “M-Sh-L” the day and the lesser light to “M-Sh-L” the night, and the stars. … And G-d set them in the expanse of the sky to shine upon the earth, to “M-Sh-L” the day and the night.

Things can only happen with light!

1b: A related similar meaning is to be influential, an example to others (for good or bad):

You shall be a consternation, a “M-Sh-L”, and a byword among all the peoples to which G-d will drive you.

2: To manage or steward:

And Abraham said to the senior servant of his household, the “M-Sh-L” of all that was his…

This word also used with Joseph, who is steward over the land of Egypt – but is never the actual ruler. The steward’s job is to coordinate and manage and keep everything operating nicely. But he is not the actual guy in charge.

3: To prophecy, describing Bilaam numerous times:

Taking up his “M-Sh-L”, he said: “Word of Balaam son of Beor; Word of the man whose eye is true.”

Your spiritual soul can take sin over from the inside. Prophecy is a way of putting spiritual energy into the physical world.

So we can put this all together: “M-Sh-L” means to illuminate, to channel G-d’s word, to nurture or steward… it is a word that tells us of development and spiritual growth, of shining over the world.

Now apply it to the desire sin has for Cain: Cain is told that sin’s desire can be turned to spiritual growth and development.

And if we look at the other verse: Eve is told that her desire for her husband leads to him spiritually growing through her.

This is not only a more accurate translation; it is much deeper, more interesting, and far more beautiful and insightful than merely telling us that husbands are to rule their wives. This more detailed understanding creates ties between man and woman, making his spiritual growth dependent on their relationship!

With regards to Cain and sin, this translation is much more detailed than the injunction that we are to master our baser impulses or desires. Instead, we see that the text is telling us to do with sin what #2 son did with his challenges: use his sinful urges for productive ends.

In both cases, it is desire that leads to a comparison to the illumination of the sun and moon, and prophecy from G-d. The desire of sin for Cain, and of Eve for Adam is not something to be avoided. Desire instead becomes the engine that can drive mankind toward higher and holier ends!


Which leads us to the last key word in the phrase, shared by both. This word is תְּשׁ֣וקְ “desire.” But the odd thing is that this word is only found in the Torah in these two verses. Which makes it different from other words translated as “desire” in the Torah.

The core word, the root, of תְּשׁ֣וקְ is שׁ֣וק, which we do find in the Torah. It only means one thing, though: it means the thigh of an animal – for which it is used no fewer than twelve times. This object, the thigh, is only used for the ordination of priests, or given to priests by ordinary people.

The meaning of the mention of the “thigh” given to the priests now becomes clear: if the desire sin has for each of us, and the desire of a woman for her man are actually meant to lead to higher and holier ends, then it makes sense that the symbol of those desires are contributed to the priests, the very people whose job it is to interact with G-d on our behalf, to facilitate our divine connections.

By giving the thighs, we symbolically contribute our desires to the Cohen, seeing our spiritual development and growth through the connection to G-d. It is a way of flipping our instinctive connection with animals toward holiness instead, and thus donating the thighs to the priests can be seen as a way of fulfilling G-d’s will – we take the thighs and aim toward holiness instead of the base alternatives of rage (Cain’s sin, unloosed) and animalistic lust. The priests are a means of making desire into a positive attribute.

This also ties in with our understanding that a man has a lesser connection with G-d if he is not married. This injunction applies to priests at least as much as to ordinary people: in order to perform the tasks of his office, the high priest has to be married. Because, as we see from G-d’s words to Eve, it is through the love of a woman that a man is able to spiritually grow, connect with G-d, and illuminate the world around him.

[an @iWe, @susanquinn, @kidcoder, and @eliyahumasinter work]


What Does the Torah Mean by “Freedom”?

The Torah has a word for “freedom.” It mirrors the modern meaning of the same word: freeing servants or slaves. Someone freed is thus out in the world, able to make their own decisions, and suffer their own consequences.

The word’s root letters are “Ch-P-Sh” and it is found eight times in the text referring to freedom.

The same root word has another meaning, too – and it tells us all we need to know about why freedom is so frightening for most people, why the vast majority of humanity prefer to be told what to do rather than have to handle the uncertainty of freedom. This is because the same word is used in the following two examples:

Thus [Laban] searched, but could not find the idols. (Gen. 31:35)

And Joseph’s steward similarly searched the bags of the brothers, discovering the goblet in Benjamin’s bag. (Gen. 44:12)

The word for search and the word for freedom are one and the same. Which makes a significant amount of sense: searching is frightening. Searching involves unpredictability, and the feared unknown. Our searching may succeed, or it may fail. We may not even be sure what we are searching for. These are the very same insecurities that come with freedom!

This Torah use of this one word explains why people instinctively fear freedom!

[an @iwe and @susanquinn tidbit]


Why Are Atheists So Angry?

A true atheist thinks of the gods constantly, albeit in terms of denial. Therefore, atheism is a form of belief. If the atheist truly did not believe, he or she would not bother to deny. – Terry Pratchett’s character Dorfl, Feet of Clay

I have been repeatedly struck by just how strident and angry atheists seem to be, both here on Ricochet and elsewhere (including many religious sites where atheists seem to go just to start fights). And it makes me wonder: “Why?” Unlike Jews or Catholics or any number of other Believers, atheists feel the need to belittle and abuse those who see the world differently than they do.  Why are atheists so much less willing (than are religious practitioners) to simply “live and let live”?

Is it because the belief in one’s own intellectual superiority requires that everyone else applauds that superior intellect?

Is it because atheists are, as per Pratchett, actually living a paradox?

Is it because the atheist worldview ultimately relies on life being pointless? If we are, statistically/rationally quite unlikely to make any difference in this world, does that not lead to depression and nihilism?

Or is it the fact that religious people seem to be genuinely kinder, more productive, and happier?


The Stuff G-d Leaves To Us

It has been pointed out that religion, understood in the fullest sense, can be all-inclusive. The Woke faith, to take the latest popular example, provides much more than a priesthood. It comes complete with a political system that defends a thorough corruption of democratic principles. Speech is controlled. Every aspect of life, from how we travel (electric/bicycle) to what we do with our nights (sorting garbage and watching indoctrinating shows) is mandated by our priesthood. Since Nature is the ultimate good, our desires, being natural, define the good. Even our sex is a matter to be decided only after we truly connect with our natural, animal selves.

Judaism, and its foundational document, the Torah, is nowhere near as ambitious. The Torah does not tell us what kind of government to have. The rules it lays out are for one purpose only: maximize the holiness of our relationships. Everything else is up to us. Which is why when Yisro (Jethro) offers organizational efficiency improvements to Moses, G-d offers no opinion. Judaism is highly pragmatic on these issues, which may go some way toward explaining its resilience over thousands of years.

On the other hand people seem to really crave being told what to do! Although the Torah is agnostic on many subjects, people seem to want to fill the hole, adding other “isms” to Judaism. As such Jews have been quite susceptible to passing fads – in the last century-plus we have seen strong influences of communism, socialism, zionism, feminism, and most recently, the Woke faith. Many synagogues – even Orthodox ones – have decided that being “organic” and “natural” and “sustainable” is essential to their mission and self-identity. Instead of recognizing that Woke is itself counter-Torah and thoroughly evil, they wrap it around Torah Judaism, obscuring and suffocating the opportunities to create real holiness between people, and man and G-d.

How do we know that Judaism is actually about the enduring power of symbolism and not the nuts-and-bolts of civil code? We know from how Moses explains his day job to his father-in-law, Yisro:

כִּֽי־יִהְיֶ֨ה לָהֶ֤ם דָּבָר֙ בָּ֣א אֵלַ֔י וְשָׁ֣פַטְתִּ֔י בֵּ֥ין אִ֖ישׁ וּבֵ֣ין רֵעֵ֑הוּ וְהוֹדַעְתִּ֛י אֶת־חֻקֵּ֥י הָאֱלֹ-ים וְאֶת־תּוֹרֹתָֽיו׃

When they [the people] have an issue, it comes before me, and I judge between a man and another, and I make known the laws of G-d and his Torahs.

The problem with this verse is that the word for “laws” is not mishpatim, the laws given for practical civil disputes. The word is instead chok, a word that refers to symbolic commandments. Which seems to be entirely irrelevant for a civil dispute! If Bob and Mike are fighting over a cow, you might think that the judge should explain why Bob gets the cow, and Mike does not.

But Moses is not – really – teaching the civil code! Instead, the Torah uses the word for symbolic commandments! And I think I know why: Moses does not really want to spend his day adjudicating arguments or even teaching a civil code. Moses’ goals are much loftier: he is trying to create a lasting legacy for G-d’s Torah. The Torah says there should be a civil legal system and it should be impartial, etc. But the details of the law are not core, any more than is the kind of government we should have. What really matters, what really lasts, are the concepts enshrined in the symbolic laws: pursue holiness in all your relationships. That is what the Torah (also named in the verse) is all about, after all. It is the core of Judaism, all the symbolic laws wrapped into one. So Moses teaches those laws, even to people fighting over a cow.

In this way, the relative fuzziness of the commandments in the Torah makes sense. The spirit of the Law matters! The letter of the Law is in the Oral Tradition, capable of growth and flexibility over time, providing a means of compliance. It plays an essential role. But in the Torah itself, Moses is described as trying to explain what it all means. Even a dispute about a cow can be an opportunity to keep the big picture in mind as we move forward in life.

All the other details? The Torah offers no opinion – except to warn against other deities in all their forms. The pagan earth worship at the heart of Woke is a corrupting and corrosive influence. We fight it by studying and internalizing the symbolism of the Torah, of always prioritizing building holy relationships with each other and with G-d.

[an @iwe and @eliyahumasinter work]


Judaism: Playing Nicely with Other Religions?

The Torah seems to contradict itself. On the one hand, we are commanded to tear down idols (inside the Land of Israel) and never to engage in idol-worship. On the other hand, we have several key examples not only of G-d talking to prophets who are not only not Jewish, but are (like Laban and Bilaam) actually our enemies. It seems complicated. Precisely how are Jews supposed to interact with those of other – even pagan – faiths?

Well, it seems pretty clear that at least to some extent, Jews can learn from those of other faiths.

Avram wins his battle, and Malchi-Tzedek notices:

And Melchizedek, King of Salem (Wholeness) brought out bread and wine; he was a priest of God Most High. He blessed him, saying, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, source of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your foes into your hand.”

Avram not only shares with Maclhi-Tzedek – he seems to learn from him, because Avram soon after echoes the words of Maclhi-Tzedek:

Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I swear to G-d, God Most High, source of heaven and earth …”

The odd thing is that the words for “G-d Most High” are not found in the Torah anywhere else – except in a verse by Bilaam, a non-Jewish prophet. (Num. 24:16) The expression is not Torah Judaism. But Avram can still echo it.

What can we make of this? It seems pretty clear that Avram and Maclhi-Tzedek found common ground despite the differences that must have existed between them. We don’t have a problem with non-Jews having a relationship with G-d!

Malchi-Tzedek, we note, did not come to Avram until Malchi-Tzedek perceived a clear physical miracle. That is in the nature of paganism: the only things that are real for pagans are the things they can perceive. So the god of the Torah becomes real to them when – and only when – they see an open miracle.

Moses’ father-in-law, Yisro (Jethro), is also a pagan priest. And he acts just like Malchi-Tzedek: he perceives the physical miracle of the Exodus, and comes to pay tribute to the event (just as Malchi-Tzedek had done). Neither pagan priest was interested in hidden miracles, or communications with G-d or personal growth. Instead, they recognized and paid homage to open displays of power.

The Malchi-Tzedek/Yisro approach is, in many ways, the antithesis of Judaism, which stands firmly against Might Makes Right. Ours is a faith that believes in the importance of ideas and influence, not displays of force or coercion.

And yet: Moses finds common ground with Yisro. Yisro (like any good polytheist) offers a sacrifice to the G-d of the Israelites. They break bread together. Moses even gratefully takes the good advice that Yisro offers.

I think this offers a model for Jewish interactions with other faiths. As and when there is common ground, we are happy to interact! But we draw the line at proselytization: we do not expect or demand that others should do as we do. But we reject any attempts to lead us astray, toward other gods. And specifically in the Land of Israel – not elsewhere – we are bound, as a condition of living in the land, to destroy all idols. G-d’s House: G-d’s Rules.

[an @iwe and @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter work]


Text of Creative Judaism Book

Creative Judaism:

Partnering with G-d


Shaya Cohen & Susan Quinn

Copyright © 2019 Shaya Cohen

All rights reserved.



How We Came to Write this Book iv

Acknowledgements ix

Glossary xxi

1 What Does it Mean to b e a Jew 1
2 Asking Questions, Challenging Hashem 5
3 Being Part of Something Bigger 33
4 Timeless Stories 39
5 What it Means to be Holy 49
6 Improving the World 55
7 Loving Your Neighbor 64
8 Generosity 67
9 Give-and-Take 69
10 Responsibility 74
11 What Does it Mean to b e a Jew 5
12 Asking Questions, Challenging Hashem 20
13 Being Part of Something Bigger 33
14 Timeless Stories 39
15 What it Means to be Holy 49
16 Improving the World 55
17 Loving Your Neighbor 64
18 Generosity 67
19 Give-and-Take 69
20 Responsibility 74


This book started out as one person’s labor of love—for G-d, Torah, Judaism and the Jewish people. Shaya Cohen, a practicing Jew, had already written one book about Judaism, The Torah Manifesto, and had written many essays that reflected his deepening understanding of what G-d wants from us. He had decided to write another book, but in a different vein: deliver an approachable and intriguing book for Jews who had fallen away from, or been estranged from Judaism, and for anyone who wanted to understand the soul and spirit of Judaism. His desire to communicate his love, dedication and joy to other Jews was resolute.

One day a friend of Shaya’s mentioned that if he ever had a project that needed editing, he should call her. To Shaya, the message was clear: Susan Quinn, that friend, would be the quintessential Jew to partner with him on this new project. Although Susan was doubtful at first, Shaya explained that she was a profoundly talented and engaging writer who had returned to Judaism and was embracing her nascent faith with enthusiasm and curiosity. Who better to partner with him than a person with her limited training in Judaism, who could offer a beginner’s perspective?

The project could have been challenging for both of us—two strong-minded, opinionated people. But our effort seemed to be blessed with camaraderie, dedication and the love of learning. But there was one hurdle to overcome: what would be the best way to have two people contribute, who were actively engaged in the book, without confusing the reader? We decided to take the following approach:

Since Shaya was the Torah expert, having studied Torah his entire life, he had many stories and experiences to relate based on his relationship to Judaism. It made sense for the book to be written in one voice, his voice. In no way do I want to lessen my (Susan’s) own contribution, the challenging task of integrating over 100 essays and an already published book, and making sure that I understood not only the content, but the message that Shaya meant to share. I learned a great deal about Torah! And I also learned a lot about partnering with someone who could have been wedded to his own wording or content, but was willing repeatedly to take my input graciously, often voice his appreciation, and also incorporate my suggestions.

In addition to the process, we modified our format and organization of the book several times. We decided that the booklet format would allow us to make meaty yet “bite sized” volumes. Due to our determination to be helpful to the process and to each other, idea exchanges were fluid, cordial, even funny at times as our joy for doing this work permeated our work.

We also needed to address how to write the words and names that often appeared in other publications in English but whose origins were Hebrew. I suggested that we could use this opportunity to share the original Hebrew names and words as part of the learning process, and as a way to connect to the characters and places in the Torah; Shaya agreed. We also agreed on writing a glossary so that people could easily translate from the Hebrew to the more familiar (in most cases) English. We hope using this approach will deepen the reader’s experience.

Finally, we hope that anyone who reads this book, whether tenuously connected to Judaism or looking for an engaging heartfelt approach to the faith, will be rewarded for his or her effort.

And anyone who is simply interested in understanding the devotion of two very different Jews to this faith who have the desire to make a spiritual connection to this 3,000-year-old religion, will find themselves intrigued and delighted.

We hope that this work helps communicate our enthusiasm for the Torah and how it can guide our lives in meaningful, good, and holy ways.

Shaya Cohen Susan Quinn


Building up to a work like this takes many, many years. At least, it has taken me that long.

I wish to thank Yoram Hazony for first positing to me that it was possible for a person today to add to the etz chayim that is the Torah, in midrashic explication. Until that moment, as a fresh high school graduate in 1989, such a thing had never crossed my mind. An epiphany can be sparked by a single word. This one took a long time in germinating, but it made an indelible impression on me.

Some years later, in 1994, my wife and I moved to London fresh out of college, and were adopted by a little Chassidic community known as Sassov. If you asked us, we would tell you that we “grew up” in Sassov. It was the place where I realized that the Torah was not merely a framework for our lives, but is also a source of spiritual and intellectual sustenance for myself, a Princeton graduate who lacked many basic Torah skills and a background in learning. While the realization of the “living” nature of the Torah did not come quickly, and it did not come without considerable resistance from my naturally stubborn personality, it came nonetheless. And I remember precisely when the spark of Torah was ignited, and by whom.

There was a man there, a little younger than myself, who really impressed me. Those who know me know that I am not easily impressed, but he had an incredible demeanor. He was at the same time magnetic and profoundly humble. He was the kind of guy who personifies the ideal Torah Jew.

I am not sure how it started, but Akiva Ehrenfeld and I began learning together. We were learning Rambam’s Hilchos Beis haBechirah, the laws of the building of the Beis Hamikdosh, which was accessible to me because it was available in translation, and because building (of all kinds) has always held a special interest for me. We thought that perhaps this text would be something that I could connect to.

And it did. We learned slowly, and I kept asking questions. Some of them were easy, some of them were stupid, klutz kashas, and some of them Akiva said he could not answer. And he suggested that perhaps there were no answers that we were capable of understanding. In other words: we cannot know.

I took Akiva’s statement as a challenge, and I came back the following week with ideas for answers to these questions. I’ll never forget the way he looked at me and said, “That is a really interesting idea!”

It seems like such a simple thing to say. But it changed my life. The right word at the right time can change a person forever.

Akiva was the first person to ever suggest that I was capable of original Torah work at any level. And though we did not learn often, the impact was real, and has continued to the present day. I learn every day, and I write new ideas, chiddushim, as and when they occur. When I have an idea, I have tried to imagine what Akiva would think of it, how he would respond – though I know full well that he and I were worlds apart when it came to our approach to Hashkafah, Jewish philosophy.

And I fully expected to get a chance to see him and share some of these ideas with him, to see what he actually thought. I knew that he might like some, and might very much dislike others – but even a rejection by Akiva Ehrenfeld was a warm and loving thing. He just was that kind of man.

But Akiva died recently, suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving behind a wife and many children. I know now that I will not get the chance to thank Akiva in person for changing my life, and for changing forever my relationship to Torah and Hashem, although his neshama gets zechus (merit) from the learning that he helped to inspire, and the fact that we named a son after him. And may his neshama have an aliyah from this work.

I was also greatly inspired by the work of David Gelernter, who wrote a series of essays in Commentary magazine. Gelernter writes a great many things about a wide range of subjects. But those essays were not of this world. They shone with divine inspiration, every word delectably plucked and placed. I realize, as I read his words, that when we aim to understand Hashem, He helps us get where we are going.

It is one thing to have an idea. And entirely another to do something about it. And for this, I owe an eternal debt of gratitude to my rebbe, Rabbi Shaya Milikowsky. I do not, in this text, talk about how important it is to have a close and personal relationship with a rav, but that is in part because I am not able to explain just how much he has changed my life through his profoundly empathic and individualistic approach to Judaism.

It was through Rabbi Milikowsky that I came to understand that every Jew has their own arc, their own unique relationship to Hashem, and that the answers to questions have to be understood in the context of the questioner. In other words, each person’s relationship to the Torah, and to Hashem, is unique and personal.

And this work only started being written when Rabbi Milikowsky told me to start writing. He has guided me from the beginning, especially teaching me how to write positively. Thanks to Rabbi Milikowsky, this work is not interested in quarreling, or drawing stark divisions between myself and others. Nor am I interested in labels and categories. Emes (truth) is emes, and I pray that all Jews seek it. We should be vigilant to avoid using the Torah as a drunk uses a lamppost: for support, and not illumination.[1]

I must also acknowledge a true giant in the Torah world, a man who is singularly the most brilliant and creative Torah mind I have ever met, and the inspirer of many of the ideas contained herein: Simcha Baer. Rabbi Baer has sometimes been a muse, and sometimes a collaborator. He is an exemplar of what the human mind, infused with ruach hakodesh, can achieve. I wish that I could grasp all that he has to share!

The ideas in this text were subjected to an almost-constant loop of inspiration, test and refinement. And, of course, just as one does not improve by playing chess against inferior players so, too, a new idea has not been tested unless it has been critiqued by those who are far more knowledgeable and/or who bring valuable perspectives. I must thank Shlomo Lax and Nosson Moore for providing the “first-pass” filter. Thanks to them, I have avoided descending down countless unproductive rabbit holes. Nevertheless, while they have been worthy foils, please do not assume that they agree with anything in this text!

Avrahom Pellberg Z”L was a source of enormous encouragement to me. So, too, have been the Rowe family. There is nothing so precious as a dear friend who is there when you need them, but can still tell you, with the most refined and delicate grace and sensitivity, that you are absolutely and completely wrong. Relationships like these have made me understand just why it is ahavas yisroel (love of our fellow Jew) that brings the divine presence into our communities.

The kindest and warmest person I know, Rabbi Avigdor Brunner-Cohen, has also been an incredible source of encouragement for me. I cannot adequately express my love and appreciation for the ways in which he has touched my soul over the years.

Because I am a contrarian, I must also acknowledge individuals such as Mayer Wohlman, and Elie Weinstein (and countless others), whose words of discouragement and dissuasion also led me to much of my work. And I must also thank an unnamed, but highly learned someone who once beautifully and pithily told me that I must not write these words, lest I be considered “an utter nincompoop.” Some people get the best lines.

I must also thank ZH, a wonderfully creative mind and sometime chevrusa. Jonathan Joy has been a font of creativity combined with tremendous knowledge and experience. And I must thank Joseph Cox, who so immensely creative and passionate about his learning. I have cited all of them numerous times in this work, and they have each made a massive contribution to some of the key ideas here.

My sons Toyam and Asher have also been very important collaborators in this work. I bounce ideas off of them all the time, and they have not only acted as sounding boards, but also as originators of some truly beautiful chiddushim of their own. The greatest blessing a father can have is to be surpassed by his children, and I pray, with all my heart, that each of my children, in their own unique way, outshines me.

I also acknowledge, with thanks and praise, the influence of Jonathan Sacks. His writing is poetry itself, and his ideas have often provided a jumping-off point for my own. Whether we agree or disagree, his weekly words on Torah have been a source of inspiration to me.

And I must thank my editors: Stanley Cohen, Nechama Cox, and Richard Crasta.

I must thank, on bended knee, my wife Nechama, the very embodiment of an ezer knegdo. Words cannot express my love and appreciation and devotion to the woman who has inspired me, and shown me both the enormous gap between a man and his spouse (in heaven and on earth) – and to revel in the surpassing beauty that is produced in the bridging of that gap.

From first fruits, to firstborn children and cattle, the Torah makes it clear that the way to thank Hashem for our creative blessings is to dedicate our first creations to His name. These are called kodesh kedoshim, “most holy.” And so this work is dedicated to our Creator. May His Name reign supreme, forever and ever.


Aharon Aaron

Akeidoh The binding of Isaac

Amorrah Gomorrah

Avraham, Avram Abraham

Beis HaMikdosh Temple

Chavah Eve

Chol what came first

Esav Esau

Hashem G-d

Hevel Abel

Yosef Joseph

Kayen Cain

Korach rebelled against Moses during the Exodus

Mishkan Tabernacle

Mishnah collection of Oral Tradition

Mitzvos precepts and commandments from Hashem

Moshe Moses

Rivkah Rebecca

Sarai Sarah

S’dom Sodom

Shiksa gentile

Talmud Ancient Rabbinic writings composed of Mishnah and Gemara

Teshuvah confession, repentance and promising

not to repeat the deed

Tzaraat a spiritual affliction, affecting the skin

Yaakov Jacob

Yitzhak Isaac

1 what does it mean to be a jew?

Do you ever wonder why Western Civilization – the birthplace of capitalism, industrialism and modern medicine—is one of the most advanced civilizations in the world for technology and innovation? How persecuted religious people who fled England happened to be the people who brought their ideas for innovation and risk-taking to the United States?

And how the seeds they planted in the U.S. have supported our becoming the world’s leader almost since our inception? There are reasons for these accomplishments.

This country was founded by people who wanted to escape oppression and strike out on their own for religious freedom. From the start, we were guided by principles that were used to create a civilization that was entirely new. Those principles promoted the ideas of religious freedom (and with it, tolerance), independence and creativity. We believed from the start in possibilities and opportunity. The Founders crafted our government based on ancient texts, but particularly on Judeo-Christian principles and the Jewish Bible—the same Bible that teaches us that we are free agents with divine spirits, created in the image of Hashem. And because Hashem creates, we know that we have the power to create, and are commanded to be creative beings.

If you are reading this book, the idea of creation speaks to you specifically and to your own life. That’s why this book is about you.

You have decided, for your own reasons, to take the journey of a lifetime. You may be viewing it with trepidation, excitement and curiosity, but you’ve decided to at least look into the life-changing potential that this trip offers.

The personalities in the Torah are a mixed bunch: they are heroes and villains; they are generous and greedy; they are risk-takers and reluctant to join in. At first, you may think you know them, but you will discover that they have much more depth and complexity than you ever imagined. You will realize that they are not strangers at all, but that you are connected to each and every one of them in some way.

The guidebook we will use on this expedition is thousands of years old and has stood the test of time. It will provide you with rules to live by, profound spiritual inspiration, and opportunities for growth. The degree to which you decide to dive in to this experience will be up to you.

By now, you likely realize that I am describing Torah and the Jewish people. Whether you are an observant Jew, a fallen-away Jew, a skeptical Jew or a Jew hungry for a deeply spiritual life, you have come to the right place.

For some, Judaism is something of a tribal faith, joined by accident of birth or a mutual attraction to bagels and lox (!) For others, Judaism is far more rigorous and demanding. Nevertheless, this book contains much that will surprise every reader and all Jews are welcome here; questions and curiosity are encouraged, as we explore what it all means.

We will look at this query, “what does it mean to be a Jew?” through a number of stops on our journey: asking questions; being part of something bigger; timeless stories; our role in improving the world; and what it means to be holy.

2 asking questions, challenging hashem

Some religious traditions discourage their faithful from asking questions. Not only does Judaism encourage us to ask questions, but we even see our forefathers arguing with Hashem!

Since we are Jews, it is the critics, and not the lazy, who dominate the conversation. Nobody wants to think of themselves as being in the wrong, or as being merely weak: it is much “stronger” to make a principled argument.

And so, for the critics, it is not enough to merely say that we should follow the laws of keeping kosher, for the reason given by so many devout Jews, “because the Torah and our Sages say so.” After all, we are a thinking people, and thinking leads to critical thinking. And, arguments like “Hashem says so” aside, it seemingly makes no sense that we are allowed to eat a grasshopper, but not a hare; a cow, but not a pig.

As a result, Jews throughout time have followed the Torah by picking and choosing their commandments, or deciding not to follow the Torah at all. Korach who rebelled against Moshe’s leadership made these arguments, as did Jesus’ followers, and so have thousands of years of very intelligent critics and independent thinkers up to the present day. So today’s critics are in very good company.

The critics are not necessarily wrong. At least, they are not wrong to ask. We are meant to ask questions. Following in the footsteps of our forefathers, we Jews are meant to ask questions—and demand answers—not only of ourselves but also of Hashem Himself. Being Jewish means more than just being carried along by the social and traditional forces that envelop and propel us. It means choosing one’s own path in life. And Jews of every stripe should be as self-aware of their choices as possible. That means asking the Big Questions, even arguing with Hashem.

Unfortunately our modern world is so very capable and technologically advanced that it is hard to credit the possibility, or even the probability, that most people, most of the time, remain as rudimentary in their thinking as were our pagan ancestors. I would go so far as to suggest that the vast majority of people are, when it comes to making sense of the world, as simple-minded as those island primitives who worshipped American soldiers in World War II because they came bearing goodies.

It is well worth mentioning that this dichotomy between a world enslaved to primitive thinking and a world in which mankind tries to aspire to greater meaning and accomplishments is by no means a modern creation. This dichotomy is at the heart of the Exodus from Egypt.

Egypt was the home of nature-worship. Its idols were the things these ancient scientists could touch and feel – the sun, the Nile… every physical force was its own deity in some way or another. All mankind had to do was to live in harmony with nature, and life would be predictable and safe. It would also, of course, be as meaningful as the lives of any animal that lives in harmony with nature. Which is to say, entirely without any meaning at all.

Torah Judaism was so enormously different in qualitative ways than other religions that even its adherents had (and still do have!) a hard time wrapping their heads around what it all means. Judaism has no shortage of laws or rules or regulations – but they are all either practical (as in matters of society and law), or symbolic, to show us how to connect with Hashem and each other, to create holiness. Instead of living in harmony with nature, Hashem, in the Ten Plagues, shows His superiority over the simple-minded ancient Egyptian scientist who sees only Nature, and not its creator, as the measurable forces in this world. The Torah keeps telling us, from beginning to end, that we have free will: there is no destiny unless we believe it to be there. Nature is as false and uncaring a god as were the logistics personnel who brought food into Pacific islands.

What primitive thinkers of every kind fail to understand in their guts is that externalizing our understanding of the world to Mother Earth or Fate or Destiny or superheroes or the Nanny State is outsourcing our own lives. When we do that, we are not really alive, and our lives are no more valuable, in the scheme of things, than the lives of any animals on this planet. Everything that lives will die; the question is whether or not we make our lives matter, whether we live by the 6 days of physical creation (Egypt), or the 7 days of creation that includes our Creator (static monotheism), or the 8 days that include mankind’s contributions to the world, our partnership with Hashem in improving the world around us.

Even while Hashem expects us to make our own contributions, He allows us to find our own path and create our own story. One might think, for example, that a relationship with Hashem is accessible only to great scholars, to the holiest of people. The Torah tells us otherwise! Bilaam was an idol worshipper, and he was given the gift of prophecy. Avraham’s first connection to Hashem, according to the simplest meaning of the text, was that Hashem says to him, “Lech Lecha” – Go out. There is no indication that Avraham was at that moment, a particularly righteous man. Taken to its absolute extreme: a man whose parentage was unclear, who dressed as an Egyptian, and married a non-Jewish woman while living away from any Jewish community was given the opportunity to speak with Hashem at the burning bush – and this man, Moshe, became the conduit for the entire Torah and our greatest leader. But at that first moment at the sneh, he was “just” someone who saw something off the beaten path – and investigated it.

Every person has their own story. We are not meant to be like everyone else–or even any other single person! These opportunities to connect with Hashem and each other are individualized and unique. The common thread is that the Torah shows us the way, by explaining what it all means, helping us discern the moral path. But once a person makes a decision, for good or ill, the Torah moves on. While the text is strict, we can (and do) choose to be lenient, with no conflict. What is done is done. Peculiarly for a nation that is so old, we do not dwell on the past. We prefer, instead, to always focus on what we can or should do next. For as long as there is life, there is an opportunity to do good.

As we work to clarify our path and continue to ask questions, we debate within ourselves and with Hashem. When Hashem decided to destroy Sdom, and told Avraham his plans, Avraham not only argued with him, but tried to negotiate with him. (You probably know that Hashem won that argument, though Avraham certainly gained ground.) When Hashem asked Moshe to lead the Jewish people from Egypt, Moshe refused to do it, pleading a speech defect; Moshe said Hashem should choose someone else to do the job. Finally Hashem became angry and told Moshe that his brother, Aharon (whom Moshe loved) would speak on Moshe’s behalf. At Mt. Sinai, after the Jewish people built the golden calf, Hashem was prepared to destroy them, but Moshe argued with Him and convinced Him not to kill the people.

Hashem states going forward: Before your entire people I shall make distinctions [wonders]. Except that the Hebrew is not “before,” or lifnei, it is neged, which means “opposed.” This verse does not only say that Hashem will make wonders in our future, but it says that these wonders will come about as a result of conflict between Hashem and us. The immediate parallel text is the creation of Chavah, Eve: she is created as a helpmate to oppose Adam. Man needs a wife who helps and opposes, testing, questioning, and pushing. There is not always domestic bliss in the Torah. Indeed, domestic bliss might even be a sign of a dysfunctional relationship!

The Torah tells us that in the wake of the sin with the golden calf, Hashem recognized that the Jewish people were not going to take Hashem’s laws, behave perfectly, and live happily ever after. Hashem pushes us, and we push back. Hashem throws challenges in our path, and we pray, and question, and even sometimes rage at Him. We rebel and go off the path: as a nation we never fully break loose, and yet we do not fully submit to His will either.

The verse ends with, “. . . and the entire people among whom you are will see the work of Hashem.” This verse cannot apply to our time in the wilderness, of course, for the Jews were not living among other nations. This prophetic verse is about the thousands of years of Jewish exile, and of Jewish existence today among the nations of the world. It is the Jewish people who are the miracles and wonders that show Hashem’s greatness—not because we are perfect servants of the Creator of the world, but because we are a difficult and obstinate people, always questioning and pushing back, and even sinning. Marx and Freud may have been self-hating Jews, but these examples only prove the rule, as we can now translate the verse: “In opposition to your entire people, I will make wonders.” A very great many of the Jews who changed the world were not obedient servants of Hashem, but they were Jews nonetheless. Even rebellious Jews, in opposition to Hashem, could and did create wonders.

The referenced verse turns the utopian vision of a “happily ever after” on its head: great things will come about as the direct result of the creative tension, the wrestling match, between Hashem and his people. This verse is forecasting that the Jewish people will sin. Hashem, after the destruction of the first tablets at Mt. Sinai, now accepts this ingrained facet of the Jewish personality. And He will oppose us, and quarrel with us. The product of this oppositional engagement will be wonders that will make the Exodus from Egypt pale in comparison. Jews and Hashem will tussle throughout history, and as a result of that continued opposition, we produce great miracles—in every creative endeavor, including science, technology, politics and human relationships.

Whether through partnership with Hashem or in opposition to Him, we are making choices, exercising our free will. Our decisions, of course, are often made in ignorance – people make choices for all kinds of reasons that may not be rational or well-informed. Nevertheless, as Jews, it seems reasonable that before we choose not to follow Hashem’s suggestion, that we at least familiarize ourselves with the choices in the first place. Free will without knowledge is little more than instinct, after all. Even Adam and Chavah heard the arguments of the snake before deciding to eat the forbidden fruit! And what they heard led them to choose to disobey Hashem’s command!

Hashem told Adam and Chavah not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They knew that with the fruit came knowledge and a divine power to create new things. Before they ate the fruit, Adam had named the animals. But once Chavah arrived, the pair of them stopped creating at all! And among the many revealed dualisms would be Good and Evil, and endless decisions between which to choose. In other words, the one choice that they made led all of humanity into a world where we are confronted with decisions every waking moment.

Eating from the fruit triggered the entry of Adam and Chavah into the world we inhabit today. It is a pre-existing condition of our existence that we can—and must—make choices.

Just as Adam and Chavah had to make a choice, Hashem told the Jewish people to leave Egypt, so they were faced with a simple decision: do we stay or do we go? The midrash tells us that only a minority of Jews chose to leave. The rest stayed in Egypt. Just as Adam and Chavah could have done, the Jews remaining in Egypt chose the path of least resistance, the path where they would no longer have to make choices at all.

The decision for Adam and Chavah was not merely whether they should pursue a new world—they were well aware that Hashem had told them not to eat the fruit. The question was whether to listen to Hashem or not. They chose to rebel. Many generations later, the Jewish people in Egypt were faced with the very same choice, and the actions of the minority who left were a corrective act, a tikkun, for the choice of Adam and Chavah, because the Jews who left Egypt chose to follow Hashem’s command, while Adam and Chavah did not.

To some extent, Judaism is about being willing to ask questions – and being willing to find different answers than other people. There is no more a universal “right answer” to a deeply personal question than there is a universally ideal husband or wife. But the key to finding good answers is to keep asking questions!

It is the asking, the yearning to know and understand deeply, that is at the heart of each thinking Jew.

All of these stories, through events and people, relate great truths: that we can make choices between good and evil; how we connect spiritually with Hashem; whether we listen to Hashem; and the power of the choices we make in life, as well as many other lessons I haven’t discussed here. So the stories are not just stories: they are guidelines, signposts, examples and at the deepest level, spiritual messages for us to integrate into our lives and assist us in developing our understanding of what it means to be a Jew and what our role is in the world.

So whatever your beliefs and attitudes about Judaism, Hashem expects us, wants us, to interact with Him. Our forefathers challenged Him: and we, in our prayer, can also call out to him in our questioning, in our sorrow, in our confusion. Practicing Jews study Torah and much of the Written and Oral Torah ask and answer (with many options to choose from) about the reasons behind the commandments and the actions of the people in the Torah. For now, it is an opportunity for you to put aside judgments, criticisms and disappointments, of Judaism and yourself, and present those questions that you wish to be answered. And if you persevere and listen closely, answers will come to you.

3 being part of something bigger

It’s interesting that early on, our forefathers seemed to want to live together, but none of them actually did.[2] And there was no complaint; they did not seem unhappy, nor consider it untoward that once children discovered their independence–when Avraham discovered Hashem, when Yitzchak survived the Akeidoh (Avraham’s attempt to sacrifice him), and when Yaakov left Israel, knowing he might never see his father again, they all acted willingly.

But this practice changed with Yaakov. While he may not have been interested in living with his parents, Yaakov certainly wanted to live with his children, and his children reciprocated. By Yaakov’s sunset years, the family united in one place. Once Yaakov and his sons developed these types of relationships, they were ready to grow into a nation.

I think that there is a progression of these relationships within Genesis that mirrors the book as a whole: by the end of the book, the older generation is clearly investing their own selves and even extending the relationships that they have with Hashem, with the younger generation. Women do it first, but the men get there a generation later – and we know children need both parents to be involved.

When fathers started spiritually investing in their children, it became possible for people to move forward, from generation to generation. Building upon the previous generation is the most essential building block for a changing

civilization – and more than this, the essential ingredient for historical progression.

From this point on, the pattern is set, and the Jewish nation can gestate in Egypt and be born in the splitting of the waters of the Red Sea. All of the trends that advanced in Genesis have reached a level of maturity wherein it is possible to grow and nurture a nation, a nation ready to institutionalize these lessons and grow lasting and binding relationships with each other and with Hashem. They needed to see themselves as the nation of Israel, a nation of love, a nation where the fathers and sons loved one another, and wanted to be near each other, and where the people developed bonds across families, around the world, and to Hashem.

Being part of something bigger is more than connecting between people: it also means connecting with ourselves, with our divinely-gifted souls. We are supposed to be driven by our spiritual hunger, our attraction to energy in all its forms.[3]

In addition, we are called to take responsibility for our lives, not be victims of it. For instance, in the story of Yaakov and Esav, Yaakov convinced Esav to sell his birthright to Yaakov in exchange for a bowl of soup. Even later, Yaakov convinced their father, Yitzchak, that he was Esav (due to his father’s poor eyesight) and Yitzchak gave Yaakov a special blessing. Later, when Esav realized the loss he had brought on himself, he saw himself as a victim, and cried out to his father; at that moment he changes from the man of action to the man who has been wronged, who wallows in the injustice of it all. Esav becomes passive, resentfully complaining that his brother had done him wrong. Oblivious to the bigger picture, Esav never tries to reconnect with Hashem, and even his half-steps to reconcile with his father (by taking on a non-Canaanite wife) do not manage to close the gap. Esav has assimilated with the peoples around him. He becomes a victim in his own mind, to avoid responsibility for his own actions, and conceding to the circumstances in which he finds himself.

In the eyes of his father, Esav has been transformed. Judaism must be carried by those who are proactive, who boldly do what they think is right – even when they might well be wrong! And that person was Yaakov, who seized the moment, even if he did it in error. Esav, by contrast, quit. And then he whined about it.

Esav’s statement “he took away my birthright; and, behold, now he hath taken away my blessing,” also tells Yitzchak something very important indeed: that Yaakov craves a relationship not only with his father, but has, for years, craved that relationship with Hashem! This story tells us that we must be forthright and responsible in our relationships with each other, as well as in pursuing our relationship with Hashem.

Since we are made from Hashem’s own spirit, you might think we would easily recognize our potential for having a relationship with Him; unfortunately, mankind seems bent on forgetting it or is blissfully unaware of it. Across the world most people don’t realize their connection to Hashem; even in the West, secularists insist on thinking of man as merely another animal. We have a soul, but it is only active, if and when we seek it.

As the Torah relates, before Avraham, mankind kept forgetting that Hashem even existed. The Jewish tribe managed to keep a flame alight, but it failed to convert or otherwise improve the rest of the world. The Torah tells us of a progression – a necessary one – to a nation capable of serving as a light unto the rest of the nations. And that progression came with the understanding and acceptance of the idea that Hashem lives AMONG the Jewish people – the ever-present reminder of the divine presence that people somehow lose track of in their everyday lives. A simple but profound way to understand Hashem living among us is with the building of the sukkah.

A sukkah is a temporary hut, built for an eight-day festival that comes after Yom Kippur. A sukkah is, itself, by definition a temporary structure, and so it is constructed quite poorly. sukkahs are also highly individualistic. They come in a vast range of shapes and sizes, with seemingly-infinite customization, all within the letter and spirit of the Law. In this, Sukkahs reflect the personal preferences and aesthetics of their makers. Each family makes its own sukkah, as a proxy for the way in which we choose to beautify the commandment and our relationship with Hashem.

And yet, these buildings are fragile. They cannot stand up to nature, or much (if any) external abuse, because (as required by Jewish Law) their roofs can offer little or no integral resistance to the forces around them. Yet we can look up through those roofs and invite Hashem to be present with us in our humble abodes.

So, too, the Jewish people can be seen as fragile. Outside of Israel, Jews have not effectively defended themselves in thousands of years. We seemingly have no real resistance to anti-Semitism, the forces of assimilation, the allures of our host countries and cultures. And still, every year, we, like our sukkahs, stand up once again. We keep coming back.

When we rely on buildings, we decay. When we connect with living and dynamic ideas, then we remain capable of creative thought and growth. Judaism has certainly changed and adapted, but it has always sought to do so while remaining within the letter of the law. Like our sukkahs, we certainly bend and flex and sometimes blow completely over. But we’ll keep rebuilding our sukkahs every year, once again demonstrating our belief that it is each person’s personal connection with Hashem, as fragile and mortal as it is, that matters above all. The hardiest institutions are not made of bricks-and-mortar; they are made of our constantly renewed love and service.

Once we move forward and realize we can take charge of our lives and are free to relate to Hashem, the formal way Hashem reminds us of His presence within the Jewish people, within the world, and within each soul, is the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, that we are commanded to make. The Mishkan exists to not only remind us that Hashem is there, but also to serve as a reminder of why WE are here! The Mishkan became a key to accessing and using our divinely-inspired souls for good.

Like the five curtains on each side of the Mishkan, each curtain had a breadth of four amos: the same dimension as one human being! So we know where Hashem resides today: within the four corners of those who seek to have a relationship with Him. Hashem is inside us, as and when we choose to connect with Him. And the awareness of Hashem within us is a common bond that we share with every other Jew.

In spite of the call to invite Hashem into our lives, and our opportunities to do so, we become distracted by the dilemmas of our everyday lives. We complain—a lot. Letting life happen to you is something people who suffer silently do quite well. If you believe in the fates or the stars or other beyond-our-control influences that dictate our lives, then complaining serves no function whatsoever. This goes quite some distance toward explaining why billions of people in places like India and China and Africa whose faith is fate and quietly accepting their lots in life. Apathy is worse than kvetching.

But complaining may be a necessary step forward in growing up – it is a rejection of the status quo, and a desire to improve one’s lot in life. In other words, not being happy with the cards that have been dealt you is the first step in learning how to take charge of your own life.

Being part of something bigger does not mean that we are meant to be like ants in a colony; Judaism is all about individuality. Every person has his or her own story. We are not meant to be like everyone else – or even any other single person! These opportunities to connect with Hashem and each other are personal and unique. The common thread for Jews is that the Torah shows us the way, by explaining what it all means and by helping us discern the moral path.

4 timeless stories

We began this booklet with the comment, “This book is about you.” We made this statement because the stories in Torah show us people who are heroic, determined, and courageous—in other words they are in some ways greater than each of us individually, but they are also just like us: wanting love, desiring justice, opportunities, success, and perhaps most importantly, wanting a relationship with Hashem.

When we first read the stories of Torah, it’s easy to take them at face value, perhaps unintentionally ignoring or skimming over the reasons for actions and behaviors of those in the stories. We may not have the tools to read beyond the obvious, to meditate on their meaning or determine the underlying messages. Much is lost when we assume we understand Torah only from within our modern context. We are limited by sometimes reading the Torah as if it were a lightweight work to be skimmed cursorily. But if we are willing to take a little more time, we can dive deeper. Because these stories and their players have much to teach us about what it means to be a Jew.

Let’s take an example of diving deeper, of where the “obvious” answers are either more complex or indeed, simply wrong: Exodus from Egypt.

The story of the enslavement of the Jewish people in Egypt is a fundamental story of slavery and freedom in Judaism. In many ways, this story has much more to teach us than these simple events; it tells us ways that Hashem calls us to live our lives, what it means to be free and creative human beings. We annually relive the Exodus from Egypt, family by family, year after year – and we have been doing it for well over 3,000 years! Pesach is the annual touchstone for the Jewish people, the single most observed festival of every living Jew.

When we study the story of the 400 years in Egypt, we realize the Jews had become accustomed to much of the Egyptian culture. They were surrounded by idol worship, imbued with the ideas of fatalism and victimization, believing that they had no choice but to live within the Egyptian culture as slaves. So when Hashem commanded them to leave Egypt, even accepting this choice seemed impossible. Egypt had accustomed them to accepting life as it was, not to expanding their world and obeying the words of Hashem. Whether the Jews chose to stay or leave, they realized the consequences of their choices: they were free to choose.

And yet, as my sons argued during the Passover seder it seems that the Jewish people, for over 3000 years, have been getting a basic fact about our slavery in Egypt wrong. And we have done it because, although Jews are incredible change agents everywhere we go, we fall short when it comes to changing ourselves, and especially our victimhood culture.

Who enslaved the Jews? It is a simple, patently foolish question. The Egyptians did, of course. Everyone knows that! The Haggadah tells us so. We were innocent victims, oppressed by a stronger nation that believed that Might Makes Right.

But my sons pointed out that this “obvious” answer is entirely unsupported by the Torah itself. Not only does it lack support, but the Torah gives us another explanation entirely. Nowhere does it say that the Egyptians enslaved the Jews. Sure, they assigned us taskmasters, ramped up the demands, and tried to kill our newborns. But the Egyptians did not enslave us in the first place.

Here’s the punchline: The Jews enslaved themselves.

We study the story of Yosef and his brothers in Egypt, and after their father, Yaakov, died, the brothers were panicked, and they begged for Yosef’s forgiveness. But they also went one step too far:

“[Yosef’s brothers] went and fell down before his face, and they said “Behold we are your servants.”[4] [the Hebrew word for “servant” and “slave” are identical]

The Jewish people enslaved themselves to the senior administrator of the kingdom of Egypt. And they did so for reasons that are entirely familiar to frustrated modern libertarians: fearful in the face of volatile uncertainty, they opted to restrain their freedoms in exchange for a predictable future.

What does Yosef say in response? He does not say “On the contrary! You are free men!” He does not avow the declaration in any way. Instead, his response is the same as that of every well-meaning government employee ever since:

“Have no fear… I will sustain you and your little ones.”[5]

In other words, Yosef could be trusted, because he was an angel. And we don’t need to worry about our freedoms when we are governed by angels. Alas, as James Madison put it, “If angels were to govern men, [no] controls on government would be necessary.”

Yosef may have been a wonderful man; but the enslavement and welfare dependence of the Jewish people, once the first step down that slippery slope had been taken, had an almost-unavoidable conclusion: the complete elimination of the Jewish people. The road to serfdom is the easy path and it is almost always a one-way trip. Only direct divine intervention saved us just before the end.

But even though Hashem delivered us from Egypt, we never quite grew out of the classic Jewish slave-and-ghetto mentality. Like Yosef’s brothers, we are too quick to shed the robes of freedom when offered the chance to wallow in perpetual victimhood, too quick to prefer dependable servitude over unpredictable–risky–freedom. By surrendering ourselves to Yosef, we opened the door to walking away from independence and free will, and we became capable only of biological multiplication and hard labor for a capricious overlord.

But we must never forget: we did this to ourselves. And while Hashem took us out of Egypt, something for which there is no limit to the gratitude we should show, He did not do it just because He wanted us to be grateful: He did it so that we could make our lives productive and creative, to partner with Hashem, to ignite and spread holiness throughout the world.

And we work hard at it, handicapped because too rarely do we remember that we have to also heal ourselves, to realize that we are almost always our own worst enemies. External threats to the Jewish people, in Egypt and throughout time, are rarely diseases in their own right: they are symptoms of our own cowardice, unwillingness to tackle the flaws in ourselves and in the world for which we were given responsibility.

In order to grow, to become better and more complete people, we have to conquer our fears. In order to spread freedom, we need people to seek bravery, to eschew “safety.” We must stop blaming other people, and playing the Victim Identity Game. In order to grow relationships and holiness with mankind and with Hashem, we need to confront the terrifying insecurities that define our human existence.

We can learn other lessons from that time of exile. In one sense, this has been about internal development: maybe – just maybe – Hashem exiled us from our land so that we would be forced to grow. And grow we have! The number of texts that Jews produced (and preserved) from before the destruction of the Temple was a very, very small fraction (much less than 1%) of the creative work that has been produced since then, in the gigabytes and gigabytes of Jewish texts on law and thought.

And our growth has come in connection with others: Judaism “cast upon the waters” may have achieved far more than we could have ever done had we remained in one country, in one environment. Jewish contributions to innovation and creativity in every manner of human endeavor speaks for itself, but it is more than just, “Did you know that a Jewish person invented X?”

Jews do not seek to convert others to Judaism, but merely to inspire other people to be creative and productive in their own ways. Leadership is good, but partnership is good, too. So is merely identifying and applauding all the good things that others do; showing appreciation goes a long way toward overcoming the natural envies and fears that make it harder for people to take their own risks.

That connection can be (and usually should be) through personal connections, through conversations. In addition to the commandments and the testimonies and the statutes, we Jews are always enjoined to push forward – to engage with each other and with Hashem and with the world around us. And we must always seek to create positive things, things that, like light itself, had never existed before. The Torah is commanding us to be imitation dei, to imitate our Creator by creating in turn, and connecting with the world.

Perhaps Jews are out here in the world because one cannot be “a light unto the nations” from faraway shores; we need to constantly interact and work with everyone, to help people find their own productive ways to contribute to the world around them: “what is right and good in the eyes of the Lord.”

Just like the preservation of freedom, conquest over fear is a never-ending battle. The shared reward is the sweetest thing of all: satisfaction that we have not squandered the opportunities that lie before us, that we have lived our lives to the fullest.

That is what the Exodus from Egypt has to teach us: the lessons go far beyond the obvious.

Similarly, critics of the Torah often wonder about a Hashem who sometimes commands the obliteration of an entire people, or even directly causes the destruction of a city. Here is one of the most famous examples – and why it matters: S’dom and Amorrah (Sodom and Gamorah).

The cities of S’dom and Amorrah were not hostile to guests as a matter of custom: they institutionalized the practice, making it illegal for anyone to care for a stranger. While this institutionalization may have been a reaction to Avraham’s hospitality to strangers, it also clearly showed that the society of S’dom had dug in its heels. S’dom was not destroyed just because it was wicked: it was destroyed because it signaled its complete and utter unwillingness to even consider spiritual growth. In other words, once S’dom sealed its wickedness into law, by then the divine logic applied to them as it had at both Babel and the Flood (and years later with Nineveh), and there was no longer any reason for the city to continue to exist. It was incapable of producing goodness then or in the future.

So when Avraham pleaded for the city to be saved if there were at least ten righteous men in the city, he made a very specific argument: that even institutional evil could be overcome if there are enough good people. And Hashem even agreed with Avraham’s principle argument, so the question was simpler: how many people does it take to fix a society?

When a society absolutely refused to improve itself, as S’dom did, it would only take ten people to have a chance to redeem it. But Avraham was not born into such a world. His world was one in which there was plenty of evil, but it was not eternally preserved in the laws of societies. In a society that is organized along evil lines, it took ten men for there to be any hope of reform. But in a world where most people just did what was right in their own eyes, acting with simple selfishness, then a single holy couple, such as Avraham and Sarah, could be (and clearly were) a light unto the nations, but were unable to save S’dom.

The lesson of S’dom came from a time when Hashem directly intervened in the world – a time when Avraham represented one family in the entire world. But after the Torah was given, the responsibility was handed to the Jewish people: we, as Hashem’s only emissaries in this world, are directly responsible for combating evil.

How are we doing at selecting the good, at transforming bad societies and cultures to better ones? Ultimately this is not just a national or group effort: it always comes down to the individual.

When we look at our own society and its morality (or lack thereof), what do we see? What is our role in being a part of a society that is lacking morality? Do we yield to others’ expectations? Do we try to maintain our own beliefs under the pressure to fit in with everyone else? And what are the ways we can take those steps? Some of those answers live in Torah, with Hashem and the Jewish people, as we try to fulfill our mission to bring light and justice to the world.

5 what it means to be holy

We live in a world where the mundane is elevated: movie stars, fashion, glamour, ultimate fighting, race car driving, fancy cars, bigger houses and activities and experiences that set us apart from everyone else. The more daring, exciting and extreme a pursuit is, the more we admire it. And the more we want of it.

But at some point we realize the emptiness of those activities, how excitement is transient and true fulfillment is missing. And so we may not be able to

name what we seek. But I – and the Torah – would call it holiness.

So what is holiness? Where does holiness fit into this world? And why do we desire it?

We can study the Tabernacle/Mishkan with its four primary components: the Menorah, the Altar, the Show-bread, and the Ark: I believe they represent the four forms of holiness, of connection to Hashem:

Menorah: the menorah is a reminder to us of the burning bush (the first time holiness is named), as well as a reminder of light (of every kind – truth, revelation, clarity, etc.).

Altar: When sacrifices were offered to Hashem on the altar, man showed appreciation to Hashem, connecting heaven and earth. It was a way of elevating the physical into the spiritual plane, a holy act. The altar represents our role in improving the world by infusing everyday items and even trivial rituals with the transcendent and beautiful. Although the Sabbath is the completion of the world, the eighth day, Sunday, is the day that is “most holy” because it is the day when we roll up our sleeves and work, investing our own souls in our labors. The Sabbath day happened all by itself (and is never called “most holy” in the Torah). The work that we do to grow and preserve our relationship with Hashem is most beloved by Him, and is, like the meal offering, most holy in His eyes.

Showbread: The showbread represented the partnership between man and Hashem in sustaining life, and in creating new things, manifestations of the holy. The showbread is today showcased by man’s incredible technological achievements.

Ark: The ark housed the tablets of the commandments, and it was crowned by male and female angels, showing the love between man and Hashem, as well as man and woman.

To the extent that we internalize these aspects of holiness (Light, Elevation, Partnership/Creation, and Love), Hashem dwells within us.

This view of the Tabernacle is that it, like the Torah, is not descriptive: it is prescriptive. We are to make our lives into lights, elevating ourselves and the world around us, and partnering with Hashem in creating new things to sustain life. If we do those things, then in the Holy-of-Holies, we are able to properly and fully love Hashem and each other.

In a sense the Ark (and the love embodied in it) is the result of a life devoted to the other aspects of holiness, in the same way that happiness is not something one achieves by directly seeking it, but is rather the byproduct of a life well spent. Judaism does not believe that there are shortcuts to this kind of love: one must actively choose to engage in spiritual growth in order to enjoy the resulting relationship with Hashem.

Holiness is antithetical to behaving like an animal. We are supposed to be connected to the earth and our animal passions, but we must be the master of these desires, not the servant.

Holiness is not achieved easily, of course. For some holy acts, we must first separate from impurity, then undergo ritual purification, and then elevate the material toward the spiritual. All the laws of purity and impurity are there to help us achieve holiness.

Holiness is the combination of heaven and earth, and so we must be anchored in the waters of the earth, the mikvah (ritual bath), before we can elevate ourselves into the spiritual realm to seek holiness. This definition of holiness explains why Moshe had to remove his shoes at his encounter with Hashem: he would be stepping on holy ground, and so he was to connect with the earth in order to speak with Hashem.

But beyond the identification of that which is holy, the Torah tells us of another sub-category of holy things: that which we call, using the spoken word, “holy.” Words are powerful—Hashem created the world with the spoken word alone. And we have the power to create holiness just by naming something as holy. We make things holy by declaring them to be holy, just as we declare the Shabbos holy when we make Kiddush (bless the wine) on Friday night. When we use our own bodies and souls to utter Hashem’s name, then we can achieve tremendous heights of k’dushoh (holiness)—and we can just as easily profane His name.

What, then, does “unholy” mean? Unholy does not mean defiled; instead the opposite of holy is the word in Hebrew, chol. This word is often defined as common or mundane, but it actually means what came first. Indeed, chol is the world the way Hashem made it, because nature is unfeeling, unthinking, and has its own rules. Nature, the way the world was created, is essentially a very large and complex automaton. And that automaton, a universe in which neither Hashem nor man is involved, does not fulfill any useful–holy—function, because it is incapable of improvement by itself. It merely is. And more than this: chol is the divided state, the way the world was created on the second day, the world we are meant to heal.

The Torah tells us that we are forbidden to make unnecessary separations in the world, since holiness comes from healing separations, not creating them. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says, “For Jews, holiness lies not in the way the world is, but in the way it ought to be.” The way the world is, is chol.

In order for chol to be improved, it needs the addition of creativity, the application of Hashem’s creative powers, expressed directly from Hashem—or even better, through a combination of Hashem and man.

So the above defines the absence of holiness, and how we can create holiness, as the co-existence of heaven and earth, of matter and energy, of man’s body and soul and, importantly, man and woman. When we bring opposites together and still promote spirituality in that act, then we have created holiness on earth. This might explain why we say that Hashem Himself is holy!

On the face of it, Hashem is pure spirituality, the opposite of the limited and finite physical world. And this is so—except that we cannot ignore the power of perceptions. We call Hashem holy because in every respect we can perceive, Hashem is connected to us. We are the combinations of the dust, and life in which Hashem’s spirit resides. And so we don’t relate to Hashem in the purely ethereal realm that we cannot even imagine. We relate to Hashem on this earth, in his manifestations in the Mishkan and within human beings. Among all of these contributions, it is when we actively choose to find ways to elevate the physical into the spiritual plane, that we are fulfilling the purpose of our existence in the world.

6 improving the world

It isn’t enough to be a good person or a good Jew. We are called to reach out to the world, to be a light among the nations, to be an example of the many ideas for which we stand. We have many ways to carry out these actions, whether they are with our friends and families, our communities, our country, or the world. To take these actions, we must continually be improving ourselves. The underlying question for all Jews throughout all of our history has always been whether we choose to grow or not. And by “grow,” I mean taking our corporeal existence and aiming upward, always seeking to improve. Ideally, it is our mission to complete the creation of the world by healing the divisions that Hashem created when he separated the waters above and below.

In our own world, quite a few people think that the purpose of life is to be comfortable or stress-free. They aim to play things safe whenever possible. And for excitement, they seek experiences: sight-seeing, exotic cuisine, extramarital relationships, endless television, and even video games. These experiences are things that happen to us, but they do not necessarily change us, nor do they improve the world around us.

The things we accomplish with our lives are much, much more important than our experiences. A wedding is nice, but the experience of a wedding falls away in comparison to the accomplishment of a good marriage. So the one-time experiences of the Jewish people that we constantly remind ourselves of (the Exodus and receiving the Torah) are there to remind us of the accomplishments of Hashem, and to help to guide and direct our thoughts, words and deeds to His service.

Receiving of the Torah at Sinai was a seminal moment, but the challenge to us is not remembering it (after all, we deliberately “lost” the location of the mountain), but bringing the Torah “back into our tents,” incorporating the Torah into our lives. Receiving the Torah required little personal development, but using the Torah to grow and improve ourselves and our world, to make something of our opportunities, is the essence of our purpose in this life.

An example of embracing this mission to improve the world is near the end of Yom Kippur; we have made our peace with our fellow man, and we have made our peace with Hashem. United in prayer, we have also formed a union with all our fellow Jews. Late in the afternoon of Yom Kippur is when we begin to prepare to exit the national cocoon and connect with our individuality. At this time we have to recognize that it is not enough that we do mitzvahs and merely go through life by putting one foot in front of the other. We must consciously decide that we are going to bend our will towards serving the Creator by focusing all of our individual energies on our unique and holy potential to make the world a better place. It is the time for us to decide to harness our creative powers at both ends of the spectrum—from the choice of what we do with our reproductive talents to the choice of what we do with our mental talents—in our individually unique and beautiful service to Hashem.

“But,” I hear you saying, “what about Hashem’s will? Aren’t things preordained?”

The Torah tells us they are not! Yet we have customs that suggest otherwise. Take, for example, the fast of Tisha B’Av that commemorates the destruction of both the First Temple and Second Temple in Jerusalem, which occurred about 655 years apart, but on the same Hebrew calendar date.) During those days, we mourn and many avoid engaging in normal levels of business. It seems like an inauspicious date, somehow a date that is fated to be bad luck for Jews.

Is that so? I ask this because I am reminded of the opinions of Rabbi Yochanan and Rav, that there is no mazal (luck) in Israel. Astrology, according to these opinions, is only for the non-Jewish world. We Jews are to look to Hashem for favor and blessings, and we do that by seeking and growing a relationship with our Creator, not by falling into astrology and superstition.

One might well counter, of course, that given the historical prevalence of tragedy on and around the Jewish date of the Ninth of Av, the time seems to be somehow unlucky, a time when Hashem has reserved His favor or otherwise hidden His face from us.

But here’s the problem with the argument that Hashem caused all these events to happen: Hashem did not create the Ninth of Av: we did. It was the Jewish people, in the episode of the spies, who lost their nerve and lost their willingness to appreciate that our mission in this world is not just to be molly-coddled by Hashem in the wilderness, but to go out and bravely step up as Hashem’s partners in this world. We are responsible for combating evil wherever we find it and promoting holiness at every opportunity. And when we failed to do it, we paid the price.

The Ninth of Av is a time to connect with our history, to understand what has gone so tragically wrong in our past, and what we can do to make the future brighter. We can focus on how best to improve and grow ourselves and the world around us. We are here to build and grow and soar, without fear that our goals might falter, without the fear that comes with accepting that there is only One Hashem and that He is not found in the forces of nature, and without ever forgetting that each person contains a divine spark, and is to be accorded love and respect on that basis alone.

Every tragedy in the world since then has been one that Hashem has allowed – not because Hashem is evil, but because He endowed all of humanity with free choice and the responsibility to make good choices. Pestilence and destruction and evil in this world are our responsibility. The Ninth of Av, and the days preceding it, are opportunities to wallow in loss, but to realize that we must do better, that we must right the wrongs of the past, by stepping up to our responsibilities as Hashem’s partners in improving this world. We are not supposed to be passive actors; on the contrary!

Seen in this light, the fact that so many events happened on the same day are not meant to teach us that the beginning of the month of Av is a time of misfortune. Each tragedy is on the same date to reinforce, event by event, a lesson that we continue to stubbornly resist: we are not at liberty to shuck the immense responsibility riding on our shoulders. We are Hashem’s people, and that means we must summon the courage to act like it: we must partner with Hashem to improve the world.

Later on I will

discuss how you can apply your creative talents, even in the simplest ways, to improve the world.

The Torah tells us that we are not animals, we have free will, and we have (for a limited time only!) creative power from Hashem. Hashem created an imperfect world. But before He rested, He gave it the means to repair itself: mankind. We are all commanded to choose whether (and how) to improve nature: to bring light into darkness, to spiritually elevate the physical, to choose relationships and love.

The Torah gives us the canvas and the paints, and at every moment, the choices are open to us.

These ideas are not meant to be a comprehensive description of what it means to be a Jew, but they are some of the most important aspects of leading a Jewish life, and can provide much of life’s meaning. We are not only part of a family, a community, a country: we are part of a religion and tradition, whose roots are 3,000 years old. We not only can practice the religion, but we are never separate from it. Even when we don’t practice it or relate closely to Hashem, Hashem is always with us for us to experience, love and serve Him. He delights in our relationship with Him, even when we lose our way. And he’s always available to re-connect actively with us.

Hashem is also our partner. He takes an interest in us, expects us to nurture the relationship so that He may reciprocate and connect with us. He welcomes, even expects our questions, anticipates our willfulness and confusion, and if we are patient and open, He will remind us that He is always nearby. Unlike other traditions where Hashem is distant, angry or to be feared, Hashem wants us to seek Him and be with Him. Whether we are celebrating or upset, Hashem can comfort and strengthen us, through good times and bad.

Through the stories of Torah, we can relate to and identify with the victories, hardships, disappointments, accomplishments, joy and sadness of our ancestors. We recognize ourselves in their life dilemmas, identify with their challenges and know that the mistakes they make mirror our own. When we dive deeply into the stories, we see that their life experiences are no different than our own: deceptions, conflicts, annoyances, and impatience; anxiety about responsibilities, outcomes and resolving dilemmas, joys, victories and love. We relate to the choices they must make; if we study, we see them in our everyday lives, because they are us—our friends, families and co-workers.

We are a nation of many, yet inseparable.

Living in a mundane and secular world, we have the power, given to us by Hashem, to elevate the world and everything around us. We identify and name the sacred, bringing everything about our lives closer to Hashem, and He works with us to make that happen.

Opportunities to create holiness are all around us; we only need to open our eyes and take responsibility for naming the holy to be embraced by heaven.

And finally, we are here to improve the world. At first reading, that sounds like a huge task. But our everyday lives give us chances daily to make improvements, when we look around ourselves. Improving comes in many different forms: some are small, some are great, some are simple, and some are complex. But Hashem has asked us to continue His work of creation, to partner with Him with this significant ask.

All of these, and more, describe what it means to be a Jew.


What is meant by the phrase, “Love your neighbor”? It seems like a simple statement, but in fact it tells us much about what Hashem expects us to embrace in ourselves, in others and in our relationship with Him.

We live in times where the extremes of self-love and self-hate seem to be battling with each other. Narcissism permeates social media, where people seem to think that the world centers on their lives in great detail. In contrast, the paradox also exists where people demonstrate their self-hate, even revulsion, for themselves; they deface their bodies, damage social norms, denigrate others and their ideas. They crave the attention of others, even though they send the message that they are unworthy of our consideration or respect.

In Judaism, Hashem demands we take a completely different direction in our lives. We are called to love ourselves, not in a narcissistic way, but in a generous way – as much as we can love others. Hashem believes we are worthy not only of our love for ourselves, but His love as well. As we learn to love ourselves, we open our worlds to others, and learn to appreciate their gifts, realizing that they, like us, are created in Hashem’s image. They carry the divine spark within them, as do we.

Finally, when we learn to love ourselves, our friends, families and others in our universe, we are strengthened in our desire to love Hashem, too. We are, in fact, Hashem’s servants and partners, humbled by the tasks He sets for us and also empowered to carry them out, with an even deeper love and commitment.

So this is an expression of how loving ourselves, our neighbor and Hashem are intertwined; how nurturing one deepens our relationship within every case, and strengthens our resolve to be a devoted Jew, a good human being.

We will take this journey by looking at the many qualities that make up love, particularly with Loving our Neighbor (or all those who touch our lives), remembering that those actions are not separate from loving ourselves and Hashem. The qualities of love are generosity, give-and-take, responsibility, respect, gratitude, co-existence, happiness for others, fidelity, mercy and justice, joy, needing others, courage and the benefit of the doubt. We all possess these characteristics to different degrees and with various abilities to access them in our relationships with others. Still, focusing on each one of these deepens all of our relationships, suffuses our life with joy and enriches our connections with all that we say and do.


We think that charity is easy to define: it is helping people by giving them things. At least, that is what we teach children. But this is a big mistake, even by the most well-meaning people. Charity is not “giving people things.” Charity is about helping people. And there is a very simple proof:

“And when you cut the harvest of your land, do not remove the edge of the field when you cut it, and do not gather the leftovers of your harvest. Leave them for the poor people and the strangers – I am Hashem.”[6]

Simple enough, right? Command Peter to leave his assets in the field, for Paul to come along and help himself.

But if it is so simple that Peter should help Paul, why doesn’t the Torah just say, “When you cut the harvest of your field, give 10% (or 20%) to the poor people and the strangers”?

The answer is simple enough: because it is not charitable to sap people of their own work, the pleasure and sense of accomplishment that we get for working for our own crust, even if it is from someone else’s field.

The Mishnah (in Pei’ah) goes one step farther: one who does not let the poor people gather the produce in the field but rather collects it himself and distributes it to them is guilty of stealing from the poor.

Isn’t that amazing? The realization that, many thousands of years ago, societal laws were passed down specifically to help people help each other – by raising each other up, by growing each person’s sense of accomplishment and purpose. When we want to do real charity, we connect people with each other. Peter’s field is available; Paul will come and work the corners. And both people become better for it. These charitable acts are loving acts.


It might seem odd not try to “prove” the veracity of any religion over another, and merely measure those faiths by their fruits. But it can also be quite liberating to do so, because if we can accept that people often end up with the lives that they choose, then we can see religions (including the religious belief in an objective reality) through a utilitarian lens. And that lens is not merely about technological progress or new restaurants – it is also about morality. The Torah tells us that each person is made in the image of Hashem, holding Hashem’s divine spirit within us. That is an article of faith, surely. There is no proof of any such thing, and rationalists throughout history have argued that society would be better off if we did not allow cripples or ignoramuses to procreate or even, in some cases, to live. Buck vs Bell, the evil Supreme Court decision that permitted compulsory sterilization of the unfit, including the intellectually disabled “for the protection and health of the state,” remains the law of the land. The fruits of such a morality can righteously be called “evil.”

There is a problem, however, at the heart of all personal-based religious systems. That problem is the inherent tension between Hashem who supposedly loves us – and at the same time, allows us and our loved ones to suffer and die. The very same data about the world that leads to pagan religions can also lead us to worshipping the Jewish or Christian deity – or even death itself. After all, death is at least as inevitable as life, and much easier to bring about. This is a central question within Judaism and Christianity that does not trouble those who simply make peace with living on the Great Wheel of life.

The Torah itself brings this tension out repeatedly. Hashem wants to destroy Sodom, but Avraham argues with him – to save the city for the sake of those few who are righteous within it. Rather than seeing this as a problem with religion itself, the Torah is making it clear that it is both right and proper that man and Hashem see things from different perspectives: man must seek to preserve and grow life, because life represents the opportunity to do good.

Hashem, on the other hand, created death as well as life, and He barred the entrance to the Garden of Eden so as to keep man from becoming immortal: to Hashem, the life of man is not necessarily a good thing in itself. The only thing that matters to Hashem is what that life chooses to do, whether in fact we are actively seeking to improve the world, to keep the Great Wheel bumping along, and toward better places.

To me, the tension is not a bug: it is a feature. That tension keeps us on our toes, keeps us from being merely passive actors, placidly chewing our cuds as we go through life and await the inevitable date with the executioner. But it means that we are, in a real and tangible way, at odds with Hashem. The system is rigged, because we are both biologically and spiritually programmed to seek life, to seek to extend and preserve our own existences, even in the face of a world where death is the only guaranteed conclusion.

Hashem, on the other hand, loans out souls at the beginning of their lives, and then brings them back in again at the end. We live in a relationship of give-and-take with Hashem—He gives us life, and ultimately limits our time on this earth. Like planted seeds, the value of each life is in what they do while they are alive, even though the harvest is sure to come for all of us.

The story of Yosef and his brothers in Egypt demonstrate this idea of give and take. Early in his relationship with his brothers, Yosef proved to be immature, self-centered and emotionally distant from his brothers. As a result, even when they were re-united and Yosef took care of his brothers, they feared him and didn’t trust him. Love was the missing ingredient. Without it, Yosef’s “giving” led to distrust and resentment.

There is nothing wrong with being a “taker,” as Yosef was for many years. We are all, in some ways, and at some times, takers. Indeed, I have argued that the Jewish version of slavery is nothing more or less than a patron/client relationship for when the client has fallen very far, and needs a mentor. Unequal relationships are just fine – but they require both the giver and the taker to respect the other, to invest in the relationship such that both sides benefit as a result.

Many devout Jews demonstrate this understanding and are inspired by Avraham and Moshe, who argued and quarreled with Hashem when it came to how human life should be treated. We are in no hurry to reach that “game over” moment, and recognize that, as with any good marriage, there is considerable give and take between the spouses. Hashem’s priorities are not our priorities, just as a husband and wife usually apply different priorities to everything from home décor to how one should spend leisure time. But the

conversation that ensues in that disagreement is itself usually fruitful, and brings both parties together.


No matter where we are on our path, we are always aware of the great responsibility we have for leading a life of virtue and for being willing to take risks. A Jew’s life is not always an easy one; it requires us to pursue a level of introspection about our lives, our faith, our relationships with others, and our connection to Hashem.

At the same time, we are empowered to not only take charge of our own lives, but to shine Hashem’s light on the world. We do that through not only our faith, but through our actions and behaviors. The challenges will be many, but the rewards will be life-changing.

So I choose the scary path: the understanding of life and Hashem that gives me the most power – and the most responsibility for my own actions. It is a worldview that does not allow me to placate an impersonal deity with sacrifices or to submit to a personal deity by deciding that “whatever happens is all part of the Plan.” Instead, Hashem is profoundly involved in every aspect of my life, and we talk several times a day. Sometimes I do all the talking. Sometimes I mostly listen. And sometimes we grapple with the issues together. Ultimately, though, when we are done, I am called to act in the world and to be responsible for the actions I take and the choices I make.


When we read the book of Genesis, we realize it is an arc, a progressive story showing changes from beginning to end, and is a treatise on respecting others.

Take for example the treatment of women. Before the flood, men “took” wives, whomever they chose[7]. G-d immediately responded by limiting man’s lifespan in an attempt to make men value women more. It was not enough, because even after the flood, women were primarily treated as chattel: Avram “took” Sarai. Sarai even “took” Hagar to present her to her husband. Both Avram and his son Yitzhak tolerated their wives being taken in turn by other men (such as Pharaoh) merely because those other men were more powerful. The “might makes right” ethos of the ancient world clearly dominated.

This ended when Dinah was taken by Shechem – and her brothers stood up and put an end to rape from that point onward; there are no more examples in the Torah of a woman being taken by a man against her will. But even before then, Yaakov, unlike his fathers, did not “take” either of his wives or even his concubines; he was given them. Similarly, Yosef never takes his wife; he “comes in” to her. Moshe similarly did not “take” his wife – and the verses describing their marriage are followed by Hashem recalling the covenant, and starting the process that becomes the Exodus.[8] Marriage grows from away from violence, and toward respect.

The power of women in the Torah similarly grows as the story unfolds. The women in Noach’s time are not only chattel, but also have no speaking role.[9] Not so as the Torah progresses: Yaakov consults his wives before deciding to leave their father’s house. And there is an even more striking contrast when one considers the midwives who, when summoned by Pharoah[10], lie to his face in order to save lives. These are women of courage and conviction, who accelerate the growth in the population, “and the people multiplied, and waxed very mighty”[11]. Moshe’s wife, similarly is a woman of action and force, “Then Zipporah took a flint, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet; and she said: ‘Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to me’”[12]. And when Miriam leads the women in song after the splitting of the sea, the journey is complete: women have a voice, a parallel and sometimes-independent role in the service and praise of G-d. The Jewish people have risen to the level where they could merit the revelation at Sinai.

Families, of course, are often more than just the pairing of husband and wife. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has traced the arc of how brothers go from fratricide (Kayin and Hevel) through every kind of competition and antipathy until Yosef’s sons, the first brothers who are not jealous of the other – and then to Moshe and Aharon, the first brothers who are genuinely happy when the other succeeds.

But it is with the treatment of children that we see most starkly how far the world came from Noach until the Exodus. The Torah gives us an indication of how parents invested in their children, from a young age: by how the children were named.

Names before Yitzhak are given as if they were entirely passive: a child’s name was “X.” Yitzhak is named by his father, a father who cared a great deal about his son. But Yitzhak does not in turn name Yaakov and Esav – they are seemingly named by others, perhaps the midwives who called the children after their appearance at birth (Esav was hairy, and Yaakov was grasping at his brother’s heel).

It is Leah who changes everything, going back to a custom that had been lost since Adam, Chavah, and Seth: parents naming their children by way of reflecting their own relationship with Hashem. Chavah had said: “And the man knew Chavah his wife; and she conceived and bore Cain, and said: ‘I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.’”[13], and then, with Seth, “. . . for Hashem hath appointed me another seed instead of Hevel; for Kayin slew him.”[14]

In other words, between Eve and Leah mankind had somehow forgotten that Hashem was a partner in the act of creating children. We no longer credited the ultimate Creator’s role in our own creativity.

Women came first: Chavah, not Adam, named their sons. Leah and Rachel both named their sons. The men (with the notable exception of Avraham naming Yitzhak) did not do so until Yaakov named his youngest, Benyamin. And then, just as with “taking” wives, it is as if a switch was flicked. Yosef names just as Leah and Eve had, in appreciation to Hashem:

And Yosef called the name of the first-born Manasseh: ‘for Hashem hath made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house.’ And the name of the second called he Ephraim: ‘for Hashem hath made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.’[15]

Fathers do not, of course, as a matter of biological necessity have to be very involved with their children. The Torah is telling us something else entirely: that when fathers connect with and relate to their children, and see their children in the context of the overall relationship between man and Hashem, that Hashem reciprocates, by in turn being more involved with us.

“ [Moshe] called his name Gershom; for he said: ‘I have been a stranger in a strange land.’”[16]is followed, only two verses later, by:

And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Avraham, with Yitzhak, and with Yaakov. And God saw the children of Israel, and God took cognizance of them.

The Torah is telling us, through the proximity of the verses, that there is a causal link between fathers loving their sons and ashem in turn taking an interest in His children. The Exodus from Egypt follows.

Families are complex, and the Torah tells us about all of the various kinds of relationships. There is the nucleus, the relationship and respect between husband and wife, which is connected to whether women are seen as independent voices in their own right. There is the way in which brothers treat one another. There is the way that parents bring Hashem into the family, connecting their own biological creativity to Hashem’s investment in us.

The Jewish people learned over time the importance of respect in developing loving relationships, and we follow their example today.


Of all the things that we can choose to accept or deny, gratitude is both the most optional, and also the single most important for our state of mind, the state of our families and our society.

Indeed, gratitude is probably even more important, at least in terms of concrete results, than whether or not someone believes in Hashem. After all, there are good and bad believers, just as there are good and bad atheists. But people who consistently choose to be grateful and appreciative of all that they are and all that they have, are invariably better people for it.

Still: gratitude remains nothing more or less than a choice, a state of mind. Even more than this, feeling grateful is something that we can induce entirely within our own thoughts; it is artificial. In other words: whether we are grateful or not is a choice that we make; it is proof that free will exists.

I choose to see all data through the prism of what Hashem wants from me. When a stray thought comes to me while I pray, I consider it as “the still, small voice,” and I give it serious consideration. Whether it is sunny or it rains, whether I feel well or poorly, I choose to be grateful to Hashem for the opportunity to learn and to grow, and to accomplish.

Why, if I could choose another path, do I choose this one? In part, because my life is much more productive when I choose to be grateful for all that I have, for all that I and my loved ones have accomplished and achieved. I waste no energy stressing out about the things I cannot change; I do my part, with all my body and soul, and I am enormously grateful to know that Hashem will take care of the rest. He always has, and I pray that He always will.

I also choose to be grateful because it makes the world so much more wonderful. Nothing blesses a marriage like a husband and wife who, on an ongoing basis, express their gratitude for all that the other person does. Nothing makes a child feel more love than a parent who is grateful for their contributions to the family and all that it needs. Gratitude is a recursive loving loop, feeding back on itself. But in order to “work,” gratitude must be personal.

The centerpiece of Jewish prayer is a silent prayer, Amidah, or Shemoneh Esreh. In it, we praise Hashem, and we pray for numerous good results. After each person has prayed silently, the prayer is repeated out loud by the leader, in every particular, except one. The section on gratitude is said by each person, on his or her own. It stands out. And the reason, our tradition tells us, is a simple and profound one: we can delegate our prayers. We can delegate our praise of Hashem, and our entreaties to Him. But the one thing we cannot ask another to do for us is to say “thank you.” That is something all people must do for themselves.

Thus, gratitude forms the backbone of my faith, my marriage, my family, my business, and my life. I thank Hashem with every thinking breath. I see all data through this prism: if something that looks bad happens, I choose to see it, as hard as it can be, as an opportunity for something better to happen as a result, or as a spur for me to get smarter or see things differently. Rebuilding the world requires an appreciation for being alive, gratitude for the opportunity to work and act and live.

Gratitude is the foundation of everyone and everything I love.


The Torah tells us[17] that when land is given over to a new owner to satisfy a debt, the Jubilee year comes into play. The underlying reason behind the Jubilee is that this same land must revert to the original owner every fifty years. Reversion of land did not make the poor rich or the rich poor, but it did remind everyone both that the land was ultimately a gift from Hashem, and that nobody can take their assets for granted. A rich man, for example, would have transferred his land rights to animals or storehouses for the Jubilee year–but unlike land, animals get sick, and storehouses can catch fire or the contents could rot or be stolen. A rich man who holds all his assets in non-land form for a year learns how to pray.

So the Jubilee was a way to make sure that everyone would periodically become “re-grounded” in an understanding that Hashem is in our world, and that we need that relationship. There is no real security in this world—and insecurity is what drives people into marriage, and brings people to connect with Hashem.

But there is an exception.

.. A house that is in the walled city passes permanently to its purchaser throughout his generations; it does not revert in the Jubilee.[18]

Why is there an exception for a walled city?

I suggest that there are two parts to the answer. The first part is that Hashem very much wants mankind to build and create. Our creations are always respected by Hashem—because our creations are, in a sense, extensions of Hashem’s own power, funneled through our bodies and souls. We are here to improve upon the natural world, and providing an exception to the Jubilee would guarantee that people, seeking their self-interest, would build walled cities.

But the exception is not given for a walled home, no matter how impressive or expansive! No: the only property that does not revert is property inside a walled city. And a city requires quite a lot more than a single person can provide. A city must have a means of making decisions and settling disputes. Above all, a walled city must have some degree of unity, a community. People have to agree that they want to live in such a place, walled in with other people. And walls are not built or maintained by themselves: they are expensive and time-consuming.

In other words, a walled city is a place where people coexist with others.

When connected to the Jubilee, this is huge. It means that Hashem is saying that if a person would like to go without all the insecurity of relying on a relationship with Hashem during the Jubilee, then he can, instead, rely on other people—that people are, themselves, a suitable proxy for a relationship with Hashem. The archetypal walled city in ancient Israel was, of course, Jerusalem – a name that refers to “shalem”, meaning completeness. The Torah considers life in a unified community to be fulfilled and whole. After all, every person has a soul on loan from Hashem, so relating to others is relating to their divine souls. And when we find sufficient common ground within an entire city so that we are able to build together, we have achieved a direct relationship with Hashem.

The Torah reminds all of us that we need that connection, community and unity, as a fundamental aspect of building love with others.


One of the hardest things to do is to be happy for other people.

Morally, the founding document of Western Civilization (the Torah) tells of one brother killing another (Cain and Hevel). Then brothers who go their separate ways (Yitzhak and Ishmael), and show open hatred of one another bordering on violence (Yaakov and Esav). Yosef is sold into slavery by his brothers. The situation improves as Yosef’s sons, Ephraim and Menasseh are the first brothers in the Torah who are not jealous of the other’s success.

Finally comes Moshe and Aharon, brothers who are openly joyous when their sibling has done well. And it is with these two brothers that an extended tribe is ready to become a people that openly aim to be a Light unto the Nations.

The message is simple enough, and yet seemingly has to be relearned time and again: we should reject schadenfreude, and instead always root for everyone to do well. This is bitterly hard to do, especially when others have achieved where one might have failed – in marriage or children or business or any other endeavor in life.

Economically, celebrating the successes of others is equally important. Capitalism requires the freedom to exchange money, goods and services on terms that are acceptable to both parties. Which means that in any transaction, both sides reckon they got a good deal. When people start worrying that the other side got “too good a deal,” then it becomes a barrier to smart business. In actuality, what should matter is whether a transaction is acceptable to each party. But once people start worrying about the other guy doing too well, then envy leads us to prefer doing nothing at all.

Economic envy, just like jealousy between brothers, is a slow and sure poison. It

leads to a society that justifies “Might Makes Right,” a road that starts with crony capitalism and ends with forcible redistribution of wealth, sold to the masses as “equality” but somehow always locking in the material, social and cultural exclusivity of those who get to decide what, exactly, “right” is.

Those of us who seek growth are not worried about other people doing well. On the contrary – we want them to do well! I want a successful China and Mexico and Africa. The richer other people are, the richer I will end up becoming as well, even if I might be poorer in comparison to those who work harder or make better decisions. In a world of freedom, a world in which the invisible hand and comparative advantage can come out to play, there are productive options for every person who is willing and able to work.

The Torah’s tells us about brotherhood, and the lesson it is equally true for all of mankind. We win at all levels when we choose to celebrate the achievements of others. When we maximize freedom, we maximize the economic, social, and moral fruits that come when we realize that life should not be a zero sum game, and that when someone does well by dint of hard work and ingenuity and persistence, we should be happy for them.

When we celebrate the successes of others and share their joy, we open ourselves to love.


Labels are powerful things. We – certainly I – scoff at the idea of microagressions, but I don’t doubt for an instant that a teacher can build up or devastate a student using nothing more than words of praise or criticism. By their very nature, labels are dangerous things: they lock both the accuser and the accused into the past, instead of looking toward the future.

Destructive comments are particularly harmful because we should want people to have every opportunity to improve and grow and change.

Yet there are times when labels are absolutely necessary. Someone who murders is a murderer. As much as we want people to grow, there are red lines that we cannot simply ignore. The goal of much of society’s customs is to keep people from getting too close to the red lines.

For example, in Judaism one of these red lines is infidelity. In Jewish Law, a man cannot stay married to a woman who he knows has cheated on him – the word the Torah connects the suspected adulteress is marah–bitter. To try to limit even the opportunity to cross such a line, we avoid seclusion and even casual contact with unrelated members of the opposite sex.

Bitter ideas eat away at the soul, giving us suspicion, and distrust. In its ultimate form, bitterness becomes rebellion, an open and unapologetic rejection of all that we are supposed to love. And while suspicion can–and should–be sorted out, open rebellion is a red

line that destroys the exclusive love within a relationship.


What role do mercy and justice play in the support of love? In the absence of these two qualities, applied in balance and fairness, anger, frustration and estrangement can result, with no room for the emergence of love.

When there are legal disputes, a system needs to be in place to resolve them. Instead of thinking of strict law and mercy as polar opposites, perhaps it might be helpful to think of them as part of a continuum. It is possible for a legal system to be both merciful and just – just not at the same time and place. Here is how the Torah does it:

Thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, who fear G-d, men of good faith, hating unjust gain: and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. And let them judge the people at all seasons; and it shall be, that every great matter they shall bring unto thee, but every small matter they shall judge themselves.[19]

Adopting this system is more than a management reorganization. And it is also more than the simple optics: that people would see justice was done, because there was a process. The biggest and most important outcome that came from this organizational structure was that dispute settlement became a process, and a

process which would change and grow as a given case moved up through the courts. Here is how it works:

The first “judge” would be one man in ten – an everyday fellow who almost certainly had a personal relationship with the disputants in his group. In other words, this first judge was the farthest thing imaginable from a High Court in a Distant Tower. He was more likely to be Norm from Cheers than the Grand Inquisitor. So when a dispute was brought to Norm, it is easy to understand that there was precious little actual law involved. Norm, after all, expects to have to live with the complainants as a neighbor – the last thing he wants to be is heavy-handed or put on airs. Instead, the approach would be “can’t we figure this out between us?”

If the parties could not be mollified in this way, then the case would be moved up, and as it worked its way up, the settlement method went farther away from the informal mediation between neighbors and closer to a purer, absolute form of law that was handed down from On High. In other words, justice in this process was not about the law itself, but about a progression within the settlement of disputes that started with the language of relationships and mercy and mediation and moved, step by step, toward a much more impersonal judgment based on divinely-delivered legal principles. Ultimately, judgment from Moshe (or the top court of the land) could not be appealed, so if you insisted on taking a case all the way up, then you had to be prepared to accept whatever was handed down.

The Torah itself is quite light on the actual underlying law for any civil code, besides general statements of principles. But this specificity tells us what we need to know:

  • In order to be satisfied, disputants need to be heard.
  • It is not enough that justice is done: it needs to be seen to be done.
  • The best resolutions are based on close relationships and mediation.
  • Mutual satisfaction of the parties is more important than legal principles.
  • Strict justice (the cold hand of the law) is a last resort, when every mediation effort has failed.

Note that a primary goal for the process to be successful is the closeness of the relationships and the desire to work out the issues. It requires a degree of caring, empathy and a commitment to maintaining the relationship. Ultimately when people learn to participate in a process that encourages these qualities, love has the opportunity to grow.


Hashem calls to us to be joyful; He knows that we have choices about how we feel, how we experience the world, and how we treat others. The best example of a celebration of joy is Sukkot, called a festival of joy, simcha. The Torah uses this word for Sukkot more than any other time of the year, which prompts the question: what is this Hebrew word that we translate as “joy”?

A quick analysis leads to the following gem: the very first time in the Torah anyone is described as being joyful is when Aharon is coming to see his brother Moshe, right after the episode of the burning bush. Aharon is looking forward to seeing his brother.

The importance of this cannot be understated. Cain killed his brother Hevel. Avraham left his brothers. Yitzhak and Ishmael did not play well together. Yaakov and Esav quarreled and then separated. Yosef’s brothers considered killing him before finally deciding to sell him into slavery. Even Ephraim and Menasseh, the first brothers who were not in competition with one another, were not described as being happy for the other. Brothers in the book of Genesis did not get on very well.

Aharon, however, set the standard for how we are to behave going forward. He demonstrated the essence of simcha when he reunified with his brother, teaching us that coming together with other people and with Hashem is itself a joyous event.

We are supposed to be happy for our brothers, and delighted when they do well. This is, of course, very difficult – and counter to basic nature (where offspring are always in competition for food, warmth, and love). It takes refinement to be able to stop thinking of oneself, and merely be happy for someone else. Think, for example, of how an older single woman feels when her younger best friend gets engaged. Or how a barren woman reacts when she learns her sister is pregnant. Overcoming our natural selfishness is extremely difficult to do – and the highest calling for a loving society. This is joy: not giddy happiness or lightheaded frivolity, but a feeling of deep and profound spiritual warmth.

Reaching this level is not easy, and on the Jewish calendar. Sukkot comes immediately after Yom Kippur, the day when we spend the most time being introspective, examining our faults and resolving to be kinder to others, to seek to improve our world and that of everyone around us. Being able to be truly happy for someone else requires soul-searching and intense preparation.

But it also requires a highly developed sense of perspective and optimism. When Aharon comes to see Moshe, he is a priest for a slave people, a people whose god has apparently deserted them. Prospects are not good—not at all. And yet Aharon is truly joyful. No matter how dark and dim things may be, reunification is a thing to be celebrated—as can life in general. When we are joyful, love presents itself in our relationships. We only need to open to it—with joy!


Every relationship we have is unequal in some respect – whether we are talking about a teacher or a friend or a spouse or sibling. One person always holds more cards than does the other one; sometimes this imbalance shows up in one characteristic, sometimes in others.

That inequality is not, in itself, a bad thing. Indeed, I think it is a feature more than a bug: our individual limitations mean that we need other people. Man is not meant to be alone. Any person, left in social isolation

for even just a few days will start to slowly lose his or her mind, fermenting, curdling, and finally rotting.

Inequality, of course, means that we are not level – we learn from some, just as we can teach others. Financially the ties that bind are even tighter: wealth is defined in no small part by the ability to exchange money for goods and services. And many of our financial exchanges are not arms-length transactions at all – we integrate with our nuclear families, and we informally give and share with others in a social network that is defined by its relationships and may never even discuss money.

Our labor, then, is often not a simple exchange. My children help the family; in return I feed and house them, and my wife ensures they have clothes. We resist keeping score between parents and children, and, even more importantly, between my wife and myself. Relationships, even those that involve a lot of labor, are neither equal nor compensated in any measured or “minimum wage” sort of way.

When we recognize our differences with each other, and acknowledge that we all have a contribution to make, a special connection among us can evolve; that connection is created from appreciation, synergy, interdependence and commitment; these are the nourishment for love.


When we are in difficult straits, we may rationalize our plight all we like – and we often do just that – but the fact remains that in this world, it is we who are responsible for our lives, for the lives of others, and even for dealing with evil as and when we find it. We do not get to rely on a deus ex machina to get us out of any situation in which we may find ourselves. When evil emerges, it is our task, as Hashem’s emissaries, to do battle. We do not have the option of merely quitting—that way, the way of those who lost their nerve at the prospect of claiming Israel as the national birthright, is what created the Ninth of Av as a national day of mourning for all time. No. As long as we draw breath, we must struggle.

The joke is told of an announcement from heaven that in 6 months, the world will be entirely submerged in water:

The various religious leaders go on worldwide television.

The leader of Buddhism pleads with everyone to become a Buddhist; that way, they will at least find salvation in heaven.

The Pope goes on television and entreats the audience, “It is still not too late to accept Jesus!” he cries.

The Chief Rabbi of Israel approaches the podium…stands silent for what seems to be an eternity…looks directly into the lens of the center camera and slowly but solemnly states, ‘My people”…he pauses once again and continues…”We have six months to learn to live under water’…

From the Jewish perspective, this is how we have survived 2,000 years of exile, of always being strangers in a strange land. When we are unfaithful, Hashem is angry. But we resolve to do better:

Let us search and examine our ways and return to Hashem.[20]

Nevertheless, it is a terrifying thing to realize that Hashem is not, as a father or a mother might, going to take care of us no matter what we may do. Our relationship with Hashem is a partnership, a marriage. And marriages rely on fidelity and trust and growth, the desire to always grow into the person that our spouse wants to love. It means that we always have to make an effort, or the love dies:

I called on your name, Hashem, from the depths of the pit.[21]

Nevertheless, the reality is that, however dire the situation, however awful and dark the world has suddenly become, it usually is not quite as bad as it first seemed. Which is why the Ninth of Av is not the whole year round.

Yet this I bear in mind; therefore, I still hope: Hashem’s kindness surely has not ended, nor are his mercies exhausted.[22]

When we persevere, in spite of not knowing what lies ahead, we can remind ourselves that our love of Hashem, and His love of us, are always available and present.


When we judge that someone has behaved badly or inappropriately, the easiest route to take is to judge them accordingly. Yet, Aharon’s story and how the sages interpreted his actions teach us a different lesson.

In Torah, Aharon is not fleshed out as a three-dimensional personality; he usually shadows Moshe, and he does what he is told, even when the situation is very challenging (such as serving in the Temple without complaint after his sons have died). But there is one very considerable exception: at the insistence of the people who have become fearful after Moshe had not come down from Mount Sinai when they expected him, Aharon colludes with the people and helps to create the golden calf.

Our sages could have excoriated Aharon for the sin of the golden calf. But they did not. What they did instead was to see his act in the best possible light: our tradition is not that Aharon was worshipping an idol, or that he was weak or afraid in the face of an angry mob! Instead, he was called a pursuer of peace, a man who wanted others to be happy so much that he was willing to compromise fundamental principles if that is what it took to make people happy.

The “reality,” the data input, is the same either way: Aharon helped make the golden calf. The historical Jewish interpretation of that underlying fact is really a critical lesson for us, especially when tempers run high. Even an act that is tantamount to idolatry can be done for the right reasons.

It is hard to assume that others mean well, to give people the benefit of the doubt. But when we fail to do so, jumping to angry and bitter conclusions, our society suffers. But when we seek to find the good, when we refrain from anger and nastiness, then we create the conditions in which people are most able to grow, to find common and positive ground, to reconnect with each other in holiness. And in love.

Thus, all of these qualities are connected to love in one way or another: they create the conditions for love, plant the seeds of love, enhance and deepen love. Love can bloom without them, but each quality provides a unique incentive and opportunity for love to emerge in our lives. Although we may not be strong in each area, life seems to provide us with many opportunities to stretch ourselves and grow; the opportunities to become a loving person, or a person who loves ever more deeply, are endless—learning to love ourselves, to love others, and to love Hashem.

  1. The concept is from Andrew Lang, though he applies it to statistics.
  2. Terach left his father. Avram left Terach, Yitzchak separated from Avraham after The Binding, and even Yaakov left his father and did not rush to return.
  3. People are the only “animals” that are instinctively attracted to fire.
  4. Genesis, 50:18
  5. Genesis, 50:19-21
  6. Leviticus, 23:22
  7. Genesis, 6:2
  8. Exodus, 2:21
  9. Genesis, 18:9 –One might be so bold as to suggest that when the angels come to visit Avraham and they ask “Where is Sarah thy wife?” it may be reproof: why is Sarai not with her husband? Why is she not also engaged in welcoming guests?
  10. Exodus, 1:19
  11. Exodus, 1:20
  12. Exodus, 4:25
  13. Genesis, 4:1
  14. Genesis, 4:25
  15. Genesis, 41:51-52
  16. Exodus, 21:22
  17. Leviticus, 25
  18. Leviticus,25:30
  19. Exodus, 18:21-22
  20. Lamentations, 3:40
  21. Lamentations, 3:56
  22. Lamentations, 3:21

Text of Mishkan Book

Seeking Holiness:

The Mishkan as Your Guide

Shaya Cohen

Creative Judaism Series, Vol. 2

Copyright © 2019 Shaya Cohen

All rights reserved.


Cover Design: Veronika Vana

Quilt: Nechama Cox

The quilt has a series of overlaid patterns numbering “eight,” which is deeply connected to the Mishkan itself, and a reminder that the number 8 is the human bridge between Hashem (9) and the natural world 7). A brief list:: The Mishkan was inaugurated on the eighth day; after Moshe and Aaron and Aaron’s sons perform the priestly service in the first Mishkan ever built, for seven days; the Divine Presence then descended and revealed itself there through the priestly offerings on the eighth day; newborn animals could only be brought as offerings from their eighth day of life onward; there were also eight types of offerings which could only be brought on eight specific days; the High Priest wore eight holy vestments; the High Priest changed garments eight times on Yom Kippur; eight varieties of spices, four for the oil of ointment and four for the incense, were used; eight poles were used to carry the objects of the sanctuary (two for the ark, two for the table, two for the golden altar, and two for the copper altar).


1 The “Why” of the Mishkan 1
2 What is the Mishkan 18
3 The Menorah 20
4 The Showbread 50
5 The Ark 106
6 The Altar 186
7 Final Words 234


For the Lord will again delight in your well-being, as He did in that of your fathers, since you will be heeding the Lord your God and keeping His commandments and laws that are recorded in this book of the Teaching—once you return to the Lord your God with all your heart and soul.

Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.[1]

While we were writing this book, Shaya Cohen pointed out this quotation; it was like another door opened for me! I have loved studying Torah and making my contributions to this series of books, and suddenly I realized that Hashem didn’t want to provide me with an education that was obscure and difficult, but one that was accessible and engaging. The very foundation of Judaism—the Torah—and the Mishkan in particular, are meant to show us the path to holiness, and to reassure us that these teachings and Hashem Himself is present and available for guiding and deepening our lives. My motivation to explore and write grew as I embraced this understanding.

For most people, however, Hashem, the Mishkan and the Torah are obscure and inaccessible. Many observant Jews learn from a young age that meticulous performance of the mitzvot is the path to holiness, the means to being a good Jew and to living an honorable life. They are also taught the symbols of Judaism and what they represent. Life is filled with holy observances, praying to Hashem, and following the customs and laws.

For Jews who are at the other end of the practice spectrum, those who may have only a secular identity as a Jew (for a multitude of reasons), Judaism only provides an ethnicity, sometimes an appreciation of the Ten Commandments, and perhaps a mix of practices of holiday observances, whether they attend a Seder or go to synagogue once per year at Yom Kippur. For ethnic Jews, Hebrew school enables the students to gain a sense of identity as a member of a “club.” And of course, there are many Jews within and between these extremes who determine on their own the degree and depth to which they will live as Jews.

As different as the two extremes of observance seem to be, they have one thing in common. Few people ask one simple question: why. Why do we offer certain prayers? Why do we follow certain practices? Why do we have designated holidays? Why do we have any of the accoutrements of the Jewish religion?

In asking this question, we are reaching for more than the common answer given in Fiddler on the Roof: “Tradition!” We are not content to merely rest on historical repetition, or the answer one might give an inquisitive but simple child: “Because!”

Instead, we’d like to ask the questions of the Torah itself: why is there a Menorah in the Mishkan? Or why are we commanded to offer sacrifices? Or the ark that was built to protect the tablets of the Ten Commandments—why was the ark built as it was, and why are we instructed to put the tablets inside the ark, and not somewhere else? And the twelve showbreads represent the twelve tribes, but why are we told to make them and place them in the Mishkan?

We might be tempted to pull back from pursuing the “why” question for a myriad of reasons, including our lack of confidence in our ability to discover the answers, as the opening quotation of this chapter suggests. After all, isn’t that question part of the mystery of Hashem? Is it appropriate to want to know the mind of Hashem? Aren’t these the kinds of questions we are supposed to accept on faith?

But Moshe assures us that the “why” question is significant: (1) Hashem wants us to explore these questions; (2) Hashem has written the Torah so that it is not beyond our understanding; (3) An understanding of Torah is available to everyone. He says, “No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.”[2] The words that reflect our grasp of Torah rest on our lips, ready to be articulated, and in our hearts, to be experienced. They are always available to us and are part of our very being.

Ultimately in this book we will talk about the meaning of the symbols of the Mishkan, why Hashem wanted us to build the Mishkan, the place where He would reside among us. But before we take that journey, let’s explore the “why” of the Mishkan and Torah and why they are so valuable.

How “Why” is Different from the Symbolism of Practice

When we look at the “why” of Jewish practice, we are suggesting in this book that the Mishkan and everything it includes provides us with the opportunity to understand what Hashem wants us to know, how we can most fervently experience our lives, our relationship with others and our connection with Hashem. Certainly, the symbolism of practices provides that connection to some degree. For example, we mentioned the Menorah earlier, which, when lit, illuminates the world around it; it allows us to see the world more clearly, and reminds us that we are to be a light to the world.

But the question “why” asks us to take that understanding even further: why are we called to light the Menorah in particular? Hashem provided light through Creation, and we know that He wants us to continue his creativity. So how do we use light to be creative, and what does it mean to bring light to, or enlighten, the world? Perhaps it means that we are to be instrumental in offering wisdom in a time of global depravity: we can offer hope to those who are suffering; we can teach others alternatives to evil action; we can model how to be in relationships, how to treat others, how to handle life’s difficulties, how to demonstrate resiliency. When we offer these kinds of wisdom and teachings, we are indeed shining a light within the world. We also, through our actions, remind ourselves that we are to live our own lives in these same ways.

We want to emphasize that when you ask “Why,” your own answers might be entirely different than ours. Or you may identify a preliminary answer at first, if you are new to this process, and build on it or refine it over time. The key here is not to come up with the right or perfect answer. Rather, we want to suggest that it is a spiritual journey in taking your practice to a deeper level. Asking “why” takes you on a path of curiosity, exploration and learning. It enlivens your practice, allowing your observance to expand and be enriched, and will strengthen your relationship with others and with Hashem. You will be fulfilling Hashem’s call to be creative and to be intimate with Him, to understand your place in the world, and to pursue your life with delight and love.

The “why” question can be applied to any aspect of Judaism; remember, Hashem delights in our love of learning and our pursuit of the holy. And since Hashem argued and discussed concerns with our forefathers, Hashem certainly is not surprised if we argue with Him. We only need to remind ourselves that we are encouraged to ask questions and not to take things, ideas, or teachings for granted, but to embody them as we learn them. That kind of dedication requires us to be open, curious, and willing to be surprised; we never know what we will discover! But Hashem is waiting for us to show up, to be inquisitive and not be afraid. As Jews, He calls us to be present, open and available in our relationships and in our lives.


To many readers, the Mishkan, the tabernacle, is at best a mystical artifact, lost in the fog of time and with no relevance to our lives today. Nevertheless, the description of the Mishkan, its construction, and its uses (from bread and flame to sacrifices and angels) takes up a very significant amount of the Torah, suggesting that it is really quite important to the Jewish people.

But why? What role does the Mishkan fulfill? Why is it such an important part of the foundational text for all of Western Civilization?

We think the answer is available to us, if we keep asking the right questions.

First of all, we should understand how the Torah tells us the Mishkan came to be – it was a direct result of the loneliness and fear that the Jewish people felt when Moshe went up Mount Sinai and seemingly wasn’t returning. The people were still in a relatively primitive state, and it took them many years to be able to understand that Moshe and Hashem were in fact different entities, that Hashem was ready, willing, and eager to have a relationship with each person directly, and did not necessarily require an intermediary like Moshe.

So when Moshe went up, and did not come back when expected, the people panicked for want of leadership. Aaron was still there, but he was pliant and almost never initiated action: it was the people, not he, who insisted on the creation of the golden calf.

We know that Hashem nearly destroyed the people when He realized what they had done. Still, the problem remained: how could the Jews be persuaded that Hashem was always with them, that there was a place where He would “dwell among them.”[3] In this way, even if we did not recognize the divine component within our souls, we would have an external connection to remind us of Hashem’s presence among our people.

So the Jews created an incredibly beautiful structure[4] and ritual items[5] based on the specific directions and plans of Hashem.

Eventually the Mishkan was essentially rooted and expanded as the temple planned by King David and built by his son, King Solomon. But the Temple was really just the Mishkan with a permanent structure around it.

So the Mishkan maintains its significance and holiness as given to us in the Torah.

What Does the Mishkan Teach Us Today?

The Mishkan and its holy items represent many beliefs in today’s Judaism. Many of the items, with their accompanying significance, appear in our homes and synagogues. The holiness of the Mishkan is eternal, and as Hashem’s home, it reminds us not only of Hashem’s presence in our lives: Hashem will forever reside in our hearts. Hashem not only exists in our hearts, but He regularly meets us there in prayer, on special holy days, with our families, and in our synagogues. He wants us never to forget that He will always be with us, never abandon us, and that we are to seek holiness by being close to Him. That is the mission of the Mishkan: to remind us of Hashem’s love and devotion to us and how we can serve Him and nurture our devotion to Him.

To the casual reader, the Torah can seem like little more than an odd ancient historical text, documenting the perspective of a tribal people wandering in the wilderness. But a lot depends on our assumptions. If we, for example, see the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) as a single document with a common theme, then a great many things “pop out” of the text.

One example: in the Six Days of Creation, the Torah tells us of the separation of the waters above and below, and of the light from the darkness. Uniquely for Hashem’s creations, the Torah does not tell us that these separations were “good.”

Indeed, one could read every subsequent act of creation as a means for Hashem to “fix” the previous not-good “oops”: plants reach upward, animals reach even more upward, and finally mankind is created, capable of spanning the gap between earth and heaven, connecting physicality and spirituality. And with that, Hashem stops creating. The rest, seemingly, is up to us.

Fast forward… all the way to the Book of Exodus, where Hashem is describing the home—the Mishkan—that we are supposed to build, so that He might “dwell among us.” And look specifically at the items that Hashem tells us are supposed to be tamid, perpetual. What are the items that are necessary for a home that is suitable for Hashem?

We have the “perpetual light,” the ner tamid. [6] What does it do? Using pressed olives, the perpetual light achieves two goals that tie back to the first days of creation: by taking the physical oil and converting it to light, we are taking something that is material and converting it into energy: the light, like the burning bush, shows the fusion of matter and energy, the connection between the waters above and below, as well as the spreading of light into darkness. Which helps explain why the light[7] is described as being an olah, an elevation. The perpetual light mitigates Hashem’s own acts of separation.

There are also perpetual sacrifices: a pair of lambs and a meal-offering. If one recalls that plants and animals are described as being created on subsequent days, it is easy to see that when we offer both flora and fauna in the Mishkan, we are also furthering the goals of those first days of creation: we take from living samples of the natural physical world and elevate them by offering them to Hashem. We acknowledge that our purpose in this world is to engage in actively lifting the natural world, making our lives and our world connected to spirituality. (The concept is connected to many other biblical commandments as well, like the grass (hyssop) and blood of Passover).

But there is so much more. The Torah continually reminds us of parallels between Hashem’s home and our homes, our marriage to Hashem, and our relationships with each other. And this is where the descriptions of the Mishkan come alive in telling us what, specifically, we are supposed to be doing in our own homes, in our own marriages.

The first use of the word tamid, “perpetual,” references the showbread in the Mishkan[8]. Why bread? Perhaps in part because when Adam and Chava are banished, Hashem tells them, “By the sweat of your brow you should eat bread.” Bread represents hard work. More than that: bread requires more joint effort between Hashem and us than any other thing mankind could make in the ancient world. Wheat must be sown on plowed earth; it must be weeded, tended, and then harvested. The grains must then be separated and milled; the resulting flour must be aged. Only then can water be added, and bread baked. Unlike, for example, refined metal, bread requires both active natural and human involvement throughout the process. In other words, bread represents partnership. The kind of partnership that forms the very best marriages, where both partners are fully committed, each contributing toward a common goal.

In Hashem’s home, as in ours, it is that kind of partnership for the sake of holiness that makes the home fit for the divine presence.

What are the other perpetual elements in the Mishkan? Leviticus tells us of a perpetual fire on the altar. [9] The symbolism in this case is quite clear: the fire looking for an offering represents the desire that we have for each other. Hashem seeks man, and man seeks Hashem, just as man and woman cleave together.

So, in a nutshell, Hashem’s home is both a reminder of our mission in this world, and of the essential components of a home fit for a good and holy marriage: partnership, desire, and mystery all together pledged toward the common cause of completing Hashem’s creation of the world.


The Menorah is a holy symbol from the Temple, and it was the centerpiece of Titus’ triumphant arch (and the tragic destruction of the Second Temple). For thousands of years, this has been the image used in synagogues and Jewish homes (as well as the emblem of Modern Israel) as a representation of Judaism. But why? What does it actually mean?

A common answer is that the menorah represents light, in all its forms: truth, knowledge, and even goodness. One thinks of “A light unto the nations.” And this is a good first step. But why, for example does it have seven arms on one stalk? Why is it described in botanical terms?[10]

In parallel, both Christian theologians and Jewish thinkers like Joseph Cox, and Christian theologians have recently connected the menorah to the burning bush where Moses first meets Hashem. The burning bush was a plant that was on fire without being consumed, just like the menorah. And the bush represented not just heat and light, but also holiness. The burning bush, just like the body and soul, are the unification of the physical and spiritual. So, too, the menorah can be seen as a physical object being used for spiritual ends.

My son made a delightful and novel connection that I have never seen before. He connected the menorah to something else entirely, something that predates the burning bush in the Torah.

In the story of Pharaoh’s second dream[11], which he asked Joseph to interpret, he dreamt of seven heads of grain growing on a single stalk. These represent Egypt herself. Seven on one, just like the menorah.

I would suggest that the menorah and Pharaoh’s corn are mirror images of the other, representing the mirror images of Egypt and Israel – and indeed, the mirror image of heaven and earth. Both the menorah and the grain have seven arms. Both are on a single stalk.

The word for “stalk” is first found in the Torah[12] when Hashem is described as the maker of heaven and earth. “Maker” is the same word as “stalk” in Pharaoh’s dream and for the menorah. So, the “stalk” is a metaphor for Hashem.

So here we have it: heaven and earth come from the same source, the same Creator. And they are mirror images of each other, made at the same time, formed from the waters that are divided on the second day in Genesis.

The Torah frequently contrasts Egypt and Israel. Egypt was the breadbasket of the ancient world and its sustenance came through harmonization with the waters below (the Nile) and not from rainfall. Consequently, its symbol comes from the Nile and represents agricultural wealth. Egypt is Nature and the celebration of mankind’s physical existence and connection to physical water.

Israel, in contrast, is meant to be a spiritual light unto the nations, gaining its sustenance through a relationship with Hashem. Israel exists because of heaven and seeks to connect mankind through our souls.

The language reflects this nicely. The word used for Nile in the Torah is constructed from the Hebrew letters Yud-Alef-Vav-Reish, which means the source of irrigation. But that same word has, within it, the word Alef-Vav-Reish—ohr, or “light”—the very same as the light enunciated in, “let there be light” in the creation. So, just as the source of Egypt’s blessings come from the waters below, Israel’s blessings come from the light above.

The exegesis writes itself from here. The number seven (as both the menorah and the corn have seven “fruits” on each stalk) can be explained in a host of related ways: seven is the number of the days of creation, the number of Nature. The Torah uses seven names for heaven, so we say it has seven levels. And seven spiritual giants were buried at the cave of Machpelah that Avraham purchased (Adam, Avraham, Sarah, Leah, Rivka, Yitzhak, Yaakov).

Corn comes from the earth, while the menorah is described as being like almonds, which come from trees that reach upward as long as they live. The contrast is clear: the Torah divides the world between those who seek to look down, to live in harmony with Nature, and those who seek to connect to the spiritual plane, to look up to the heavens and the lights of the menorah, seeking to perceive and understand those things that are well beyond the reach of our physical bodies.

Menorah as Change: Seven as the Number of Creation

As we see with the creation of the world, the number “seven” represents the physical creation of the world. The number is very common in the Torah – it is the number required to make something anew, or to change something. It is also the number of “arms” of the menorah.

Just as it took Hashem seven days to create the world, it takes mankind a period of seven years to transform ourselves or others. Seven is the number representing the cycle of days to achieve Shabbos, the cycle of seven years to the land’s fallow year, the period of mourning, shaming, and healing. Each of these things is compared, by the use of the same number, to the creation of the world.

Just as Hashem changes the universe in seven days, when a person changes himself he has changed his entire reality—it is as if he has built the world anew.

It works in the negative sense as well: Hashem threatens to take “sevenfold” revenge on anyone who kills Kayin; Hashem is telling mankind that to take another life is like destroying the world.

In another prominent example, a Jewish servant works for seven years, and then he is free to go—but if he prefers, he can decide to stay in his new world, with his master, his house and his wife. After seven years, therefore, he is allowed to lock in the rest of his life—he is now deemed able to commit himself.

Similarly, when Yaakov bows seven times to his brother Esav when they reconcile, those seven bows (coupled with the presents, the repeated statement that Yaakov is Esav’s servant and that Esav is “my lord”) can be understand as Yaakov giving back the blessings that he had stolen. Yaakov is making full restitution for wronging Esav in the first place.

So while the number “seven” is quite common in the Torah (and consistently carries the same symbolism), the combination of “seven” with another “seven” (or seven squared) is much less common, and reveals another dimension.

For example, the kosher animals collected for Noah’s ark were saved “seven and seven”: I think the “seven, seven” refers to the notion that there are seven earthly levels, mirrored by seven levels of heaven (as described earlier). A kosher animal is one that has the seven spiritual levels that are also mirrored, so it has the potential for being elevated into the spiritual world as well.

If this reading is correct, a pair of sevens represents a spiritual analogue to the physical.

We can see this in the story of Yaakov and his wives. Yaakov meets Rachel, falls in love and ends up working seven years to receive her sister, Leah, and then seven more years for Rachel herself. We believe that the seven, seven signifies the deeply spiritual relationship that Yaakov had with both Rachel and Leah. Unlike his predecessors, Yaakov consulted with his wives and there was a reciprocity that they shared. Yaakov and his relationship with his wives represented the kind of marriages that Hashem wants us to have with Him; he wants our terrestrial marriages to mirror our celestial marriages with Him. Yaakov was also blessed with the most children, a manifestation of his efforts to have reciprocity and sharing in his marriages. He was blessed in all things because he talked and he listened.

Other examples are Pharaoh’s dreams, which are also combinations of sevens and sevens – ears of corn, cows, and famine. These prophetic dreams, too, represent a full transformation of Egypt (and Israel) in all of its forms: the introduction of Yaakov’s family (and all the culture and baggage that came with it) into Egypt, the transformation of Egypt wherein Yosef would end up purchasing all the land and people to be slaves for Pharaoh, the wheels that were set in motion for the enslavement of the Jews and their subsequent violent Exodus. Egypt and Israel were transformed by that experience, both physically and spiritually: seven, sevens.

“Seven and seven” (in this case, multiplied) is also the number of days between leaving Egypt and the events at Mount Sinai. After centuries of what could best be described as divine neglect, the Jews found themselves thrust into a crash course on how to be close to Hashem, to receive the Torah. We relive this experience between Passover and the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot) every year, as we count seven sevens from the time of the Exodus until the time the Torah was given.[13]

Lastly: while every seven years the land must be left fallow, every seven, seven years, all the land outside of a walled city reverts to its previous owner. It is called yovel, or Jubilee:

And thou shalt number seven sabbaths of years unto thee, seven times seven years; and there shall be unto thee the days of seven sabbaths of years, even forty and nine years.[14]

The purpose of the Jubilee is to force each person, no matter how involved they become in matters of the tangible world to seek a relationship with Hashem, to pray in the face of uncertainty of the Jubilee year itself.

Seven sevens perpetuates insecurity (and growth) in both a physical and a spiritual sense. Just as seven and seven made Yaakov experience the full marital gauntlet, the Torah is telling us that from the animals in the ark, to descending to—and then rising out of—Egypt, to the lights of the menorah, when we encounter seven sevens, we undergo a complete reboot of ourselves and our relationship with our Creator.

Menorah as Inspiration

When we look for spiritual inspiration, we will not find it in Nature, even if we find nature moving and satisfying. Nature has its own laws. Nature is its own system that can be modeled (at least to some extent) using the natural sciences of biology and chemistry and physics. As attractive as those sciences are, and as comprehensive and seductive as the mathematics that describes those sciences can be, any law we can derive from Nature ends where humanity begins. The menorah, signifying stalks of corn, represents both Nature and its counterpoints.

In Nature, might makes right. The young kill the old. Life has no intrinsic value, and events like sunlight or storms or avalanches or rainfall all seem to happen for no moral or underlying reason that is connected to mankind. The Torah is telling us that we must not look to Nature to help us define justice, and the menorah reminds us to look beyond Nature and look upward for our morality and for justice.

Justice in the Torah values every human life as the host for a spark of the divine spirit—even the newborn, the old, the infirm or handicapped—as well as the powerless widow or orphan. It is Torah Justice that rejects the way in which Nature seems to pick winners and losers, that says that each person, no matter how fast or strong or smart they might be, is equal in the eyes of the law.

The illumination of the menorah shines a light on the divine nature of justice: “Justice, justice you shall pursue.”[15] We must seek our inspiration from a relationship with the Hashem, not with Nature.

Menorah is Re-Unification

When Hashem gave Moshe instructions for building the tabernacle, He gave him specific instructions for building the menorah:

And the Lord spoke unto Moshe, saying: Command the children of Israel that they bring unto thee pure oil olive beaten for the light, to cause the lamps to burn continually. Without the veil of the testimony (outside of the curtain), in the tabernacle of the congregation, shall Aaron order it from the evening unto the morning before the Lord continually: it shall be a statute forever in your generations. He shall order the lamps upon the pure candlestick before the Lord continually.[16]

In order to understand the relevance of this commandment in the present day, we have to first understand it in the Torah itself.

In the first week of creation, the phrase “and it was evening and it was morning” is used to provide “bookends” for each of the days. The verses written above, by using the same words “from the evening unto the morning” tells us that there is a linkage from the menorah’s light to the days of creation. What is that connection?

On the first day of creation, Hashem separated the light and the darkness. He called the light “day” and the night “darkness.” Note, however, that He does not call this separation good. This is a key point, because it indicates to us that our own specific task is to fix that separation!

Our job in this world is to help reunify this gap, to bring light into darkness. And that is why the light is lit “from the evening unto the morning,” to ensure that every person understands that we are not merely to allow darkness to swallow every day. Mankind is not a passive force; we have an active role to play. We are to elevate matter into energy, lighting the oil, healing the chasm between night and day.

Menorah as Enlightenment

If one looks around the world, it is striking just how few people actually seek, and find, meaning in their existences. Modernity, along with its material wealth, has exposed this gap. When you give people whatever they need to live, they find themselves unable to explain why they exist. And so they then need to find outlets for their natural energies – from spectator sports to drug use to gang violence.

Not only do people lack meaning, but they don’t understand what is wrong with their world, so they blame anything else—white people, “the system,” free trade, global corporations. Any target will do, as long as it does not require hard work and sober self-assessment. Constant sensory inputs from music and media, combined with physical distractions like drugs and pornography all serve to help the person avoid the cold, hard truth: their lives are a wasted opportunity.

Religion, on the other hand, has played a profound role in human history. By providing a reason for each person’s existence, religion has guided and shaped our decisions and the resulting outcomes. In times of scarcity and plenty, the non-pagan religions have given people a sense of purpose, an understanding that the good life is not futile or empty. The menorah shines a light on the importance of our identifying purpose in our own lives so that we may help others bring the light into their own.

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it:

Our vocation is to be God’s ambassadors to the world, giving testimony through the way we live that it is possible for a small people to survive and thrive under the most adverse conditions, to construct a society of law-governed liberty for which we all bear collective responsibility, and to “act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.”[17]

Jews do not seek to convert others to Judaism, but merely to inspire other people to be creative and productive in their own ways. Leadership is good, but partnership is good, too. So is merely identifying and applauding all the good things that others do; showing appreciation goes a long way toward overcoming the natural envies and fears that make it harder for people to take their own risks.

We can create those bonds through personal connections, through conversations. Every opportunity we have to connect with others, to show them that life can be so very much more than empty loneliness punctuated by drugs and sex, is an opportunity to reach out to mankind:

You shall diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your G-d, and His testimonies and His statutes, which He has commanded you. And you shall do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord.[18]

Why, if we do all that we are commanded to do, does the Torah also need to add that we should do “what is right and good”? In the Torah, the word we translate as “right” forms part of the word for “Israel” and it comes from a word that means to “strive” or “engage” (as when Yaakov strove with the angel). And the first time something is called “good” is when Hashem creates light.

In addition to the commandments and the testimonies and the statutes, we Jews are always enjoined to push forward—to engage with each other and with Hashem and with the world around us. And we must always seek to create positive things—things that like light itself—have never existed before. The Torah is commanding us to be imitatio dei, to imitate our Creator by creating in turn, and connecting with the world.

Indeed, Judaism is a precursor to Christianity, and Christianity has done far more than any other faith to bring the notion of a meaningful life to the world. Religion is powerful: The world has been profoundly changed for the better through the power of nothing more than disseminated ideas.

Perhaps Jews are out here in the world because one cannot be “a light unto the nations” from faraway shores; we need to interact constantly and work with everyone, to help people find their own productive ways to contribute to the world around them: “what is right and good in the eyes of the Lord.”

Menorah as Empowerment

The vast majority of people in the world are merely consumers when it comes to beliefs. They act in relatively predictable ways. They vote based on name recognition, which means that campaign spending directly correlates to success at the voting booth. People care about what the media tells them to care about. They identify with a tribe, a region, a sports team if for no other reason than accident of birth.

The menorah shines a light on the nature of perceptions and reality. It reminds us about how we see the world and how our perceptions are created. It also represents how we can study our own perceptions and determine if they limit us or empower us. It shows us how we have the power to make a difference in the world by enlightening ourselves and those whose lives we touch. Here is why that matters.

People act based on their impressions, on their perceptions. But those perceptions did not just happen: they are created by someone else, someone with the force of will to project their own version of a story. The people who shape and change the world are those who create the reality in which other people live. They do it with a variety of tools that are well understood by any student of propaganda: clever control of the Media, the Big Lie, flattering the audience, etc. The story can be told in such a way that up becomes down, that black becomes white.

I would even go so far as to say that this is not a bug, but a feature. The world in which we live is one where perception is, in the end, the only thing that matters for anything having to do with human interactions. Beliefs always trump “reality.” Every scandal is only a scandal if people believe it to be one.

A dictator tells a story and people believe it. That dictator creates the reality in his own world, because he creates it in the eyes of the vast majority of his people. A War of the Worlds broadcast can induce panic across the land because words create reality in the minds of people, and people react to those perceptions.

Whether we like it or not, marketing is often more important than any underlying set of facts. And what is truly remarkable about this fact is that at the same time it discourages truth-seekers, it also makes people, potentially, far more powerful and capable than they otherwise would be. The ability of man to create things in his own mind can cut both ways.

The Torah tells us that there is only Hashem. And it also tells us that we should not put any other gods first, which means that the Torah is telling us that something that we worship is a deity, even if it has no underlying power in itself beyond what we lend it. It is man who makes Hashem powerful in the eyes of other men.

For thousands of years people have believed in the famous allegory of Plato’s Cave. It tells us about the “Real” world, accessible not through observation, but through the mental exercises of extremely bright people. The readers, appropriately flattered, are sucked into the vision, the mirage that we call “Reality.” And so they believe, paradoxically, that their belief in Reality is independent of any religious faith. [Usage note: “Reality” is the thing in itself; “reality” is what we think it is.]

The joke, though, is that the tools developed through science and engineering tell us otherwise. In every way we can measure, there is no Reality. The observer always influences the observed, so that each person truly lives in his or her own world.

In a world without Reality, what do we have left? Beyond those things in the physical world that we can measure and manipulate, we are left with what we create in our own minds, our own specific realities. Religions are powerful because we can number their practitioners, measure the effects of the religion on literacy rates, or the creation of orphanages and hospitals, the number of scientific discoveries or engineering innovations.

There is only religion. And everybody has one. Greens worship Nature, and Atheists worship systems or an idea of objective reality just as surely as Muslims worship Allah. Only someone whose self-awareness is below that of a human child can have no religious belief.

And what is the goal of virtually every religion in the world? To get everyone else to acknowledge that it is True. So religions proselytize – Muslims and Catholics and Greens and Atheists all feel it is very important to convince other people to agree with them. Indeed, the success of a religion in the world is an objective measurement of the strength of those sets of beliefs. People instinctively understand that it matters whether other people agree with them. Even Plato, who would have denied it, sought to spread the religion of Reality even as he engaged in sharing his ideas. We spread our religion by convincing others to agree with us.

But we should not be confused into thinking that it does not matter to which religion one subscribes! The worldview that comes from a religion has a self-fulfilling component. People who believe that the world is governed by Fate (which includes both Hindus and Atheists who believe the future can be predicted from a present Reality with the use of sophisticated-enough computer models) are much less likely to be Creators in their own right. They tend to be reactive instead of proactive.

Those who think that a deity (whether Reality or Allah) is the only source of absolute truth and power tend to limit their ambitions. Those who read Ecclesiastes and believe that “there is nothing new under the sun,” won’t be inventing a time machine. On the other hand, those who read Genesis and conclude that they are empowered with Hashem’s own spirit, capable of emulating Hashem by creating entirely new worlds, plausibly have it within their power to do so.

Regardless of one’s religion, it is observationally and objectively true that people who aim high have a better chance of success. The question one might ask is: which religions lead people to aim high?

To some extent, all people absorb the reality of others. Just as concepts of beauty have changed through the ages, women have considered themselves beautiful or ugly based on how they appear in their own eyes, as well as the eyes of others. It is rare to find someone who is secure in being beautiful when those around them are repelled by them.

But the differences between the few people in this world who can (and do) change it, and the 6+ billion people who will live and die without leaving more than a fleeting impression on the minds of those they knew, come down to this: powerful people change the way other people see the world. Projection is reality. It is our mission as Jews to help them see their lives more clearly. That is the purpose of the menorah—to illuminate Hashem’s version of reality, a version in which mankind is a powerful partner with Hashem, and charged to be holy because Hashem is holy.

Thus, we receive many powerful messages from the symbolism of the menorah. In so many ways it is the light of the Jewish people, a people who seek to create a light both in the world and within other people.


At one time or another, children protest, “I can’t do it!” And they name a seemingly-inherent limitation that prevents them from completing their goal. How many times have we heard this complaint from children, and indeed from adults? How many times have we said it ourselves? An adult version of the same excuse might be, “I am only human,” or “I am only one person.” This protest sounds reasonable, but it limits us in extremely dangerous ways.

The question often defines the answer. Worst of all is, “Who am I to do this?” implying that the task should fall to someone else. “Can I do this?” is better, but it still admits to the possibility of failure. The formulation we prefer—and which we try to use ourselves, is— “How do I do this?” If we are always looking for constructive solutions, we are much more likely to make progress.

The difference comes down to whether people think of themselves as a verb or a noun: are we defined by what we do, or are we defined by what we are? We submit that this issue is at the very heart of the differences between successful individuals, cultures and nations, and those who merely tick the boxes, the quiet billions who live their lives, exist within the boundaries of their nature and nurture, and leave this earth without making much of an impact either way.

It starts with the mind, and with childhood. Of all the bullying by students and categorization by teachers and well-intentioned adults, the most dangerous are the labels that become the excuse for inaction and for the status quo: “I am stupid” is the most obvious, but even simple adjectives describing body type or physical limitations are enough to sap ambition. Everyone remembers that offhand remark from a peer or teacher or parent – the statement about one’s limitations, of not being smart enough or attractive enough. These sorts of statements, which often are classified as loshon horah, “evil speech” in Judaism, inject a slow but crippling poison in the ears of the listeners. We are forbidden from speaking about other people in this way, because such speech constrains what the listeners themselves believe they are capable of achieving.

We are even forbidden to say them about ourselves! When tasked by Hashem to approach Pharaoh, Moshe claims that he cannot do it because of some speech impediment. Hashem replies: ‘Who hath made man’s mouth? Or who maketh a man dumb, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I the LORD?”[19] But Moshe will not budge. Once a man has it in his head that he is not capable of something, even Hashem Almighty, in a direct confrontation, cannot change his mind! Our own self-perception is often our greatest enemy. In this case, Hashem gives in, and Aaron is tasked with the speaking role.

In our own lives, we must take responsibility for not trying to imitate Hashem but to be creative in our own right. Rather than trying to imitate nature, we are called to make things that have never been made before. And it is the showbread on the altar that reminds us that we are partners in creation with Hashem. This section, then, will discuss how we can be creative partners with Hashem, as inspired by the holiness of the showbread.

The Relevance of the Showbread

Placing the showbread on the altar is a commandment that is linked to each week (as opposed to a day), placing the new bread (which was baked on Friday) on the altar each Shabbos. There are twelve loaves, corresponding to the twelve tribes – or perhaps the six days and six nights (or the physical and spiritual aspects of each of the six days).

Bread is also the food which requires the greatest amount of human interaction – bread, like money, does not grow on trees. There are many time-consuming steps between plowing fields, harvesting grain, and the baking of bread. Wheat must be sown on plowed earth, it must be weeded, tended, and then harvested. The grains must then be separated and milled, the resulting flour aged. Only then can water be added, the mixture worked, and the bread baked. Thus, Hashem provided the materials for the showbread, but only we ourselves could produce (create) it. This assured that our offering was produced at the highest possible level for the altar: our own creative offering to Hashem.

But what does it mean to us today?

We think the answer connects back to the nature of bread itself. Among all foodstuffs, bread is quite different from meat (which can be found in the wild) or fruit, which can simply fall from a tree. This is the reason for the continuous offerings, the commandments incumbent on the entire nation. The showbread is to remind us that we are to see a weekly cycle of work and accomplishment, with Hashem our partner in all of our endeavors. We work with Him to make bread, life-sustaining food. The showbread reminds us of the reasons for our existence: to be creative in the world.

We have the tradition every Friday night of each of us recounting their greatest accomplishment of the previous week – the thing they did of which they are most proud. It could be a kind word or deed, a good grade on a paper, anything that they can look back on with satisfaction.

This is partly what Shabbos is all about: Hashem created the world, and then on Shabbos he rested. So, too, all week long we labor and create, and then on Shabbos we rest from those labors. From one week to the next, we share the results of our labor with each other and then commemorate those actions with the showbread. We experience a link between the past, present and future, as we labor, then rest; the commandment of the showbread gives us continuity, and displaying the bread honors the accomplishment for our entire people.

Why There are No Pictures in the Torah

The Torah is an extraordinary text in no small part because it devotes many chapters to describing what things ought to look like, but never has so much as an accompanying sketch to help the reader along. It stimulates our own creative juices, rather than our needing to rely on specific instructions. A single picture certainly can be worth a thousand words, especially when conveying an architectural plan. But we are given no pictures or visual aids of any kind.

So when the text reads, “You shall erect the Mishkan according to its manner, as you will have been shown on the mountain,” we should read it as: “You shall erect the Mishkan guided by the inspiration that you have been shown on the mountain.” Which means that the Torah is explicitly inviting the builders of the Mishkan to tap into their own creativity.

The fact that the Torah uses words and not pictures tells us that we are enjoined to think for ourselves, to engage our imaginations, at every level. Being a Jew does not mean obediently going through the steps: it means engaging with Hashem and ourselves in order to jointly build Hashem’s home together. The challenge of building is not the negation of the self; it is the responsibility and challenge of both understanding and interacting with a divinely-inspired internal vision, and building something that is the synthesis of the vision of both Hashem and man.

In this way, we can answer the original question: having the Mishkan (and much else besides) described using merely words is not a “bug,”; it is a feature. Many of our sages compare the creation of the Mishkan by mankind to the creation of the world by Hashem.

The Mishkan is not merely holy because it exists; it is holy because we build it. The investment of human capital – both physical and spiritual—is required to build a home suitable for Hashem.

In this way, we can answer the original question: having the Mishkan (and much else besides) described using merely words is not a “bug”: it is a feature. Many of our sages compare the creation of the Mishkan by mankind to the creation of the world by Hashem. There are many deep and beautiful parallels, from the connections to Shabbos, to “man and woman” mirroring the angels on top of the ark, to a “measure-for-measure” partnership between Hashem and mankind. When we build the Mishkan, we echo Hashem’s own creative act.

The first words of the Torah begin with creation: Bereishis barah Elokim, usually translated as “in the beginning, Hashem created.” Hebrew is a rich language because of all the ways in which things connect one to the next. The word we translate as “in the beginning” shares the source word, the shoresh, with the word meaning “head.” Which means that “in the beginning Hashem created” can also be read as, “In/with the head, Hashem created.”

The creation of the world was an act of imagination – Hashem’s imagination. And so when we create in turn, emulating Hashem’s creation of the world by building His home, the Mishkan, we are to involve our own imaginations, our inner visions. The Torah does not paint us a picture for a simple reason: the Mishkan is not fully designed in heaven. We are to be full partners in that act of creation, engaging both our physical bodies and our spiritual souls in the act of making something new and beautiful so that He may dwell among us.

So Hashem calls us to be creative beings, entrusts us with carrying out our creations with his guidance and our own imagination.

Desire to Create Beauty

The desire to create is embedded in our actions to produce something new. That desire quickens the heart, tickles the mind, and fires up the imagination. The object of our desire which is (at least in all the ways our instruments can measure) “merely” physical somehow engages with and attracts the soul. We want to revel in the experience, immersing in the object of our desire, through every sense we possess: sight, sound, taste, smell and touch.

The arts are one area that we think of when we think of creativity. A 2×4 piece of wood is a static thing; it was made impersonally by a faceless machine. But that same piece of wood, worked over a lathe, lovingly handled by an artist, and crafted into a sculpture, is no longer a mere piece of wood. It is more.

Beauty is necessarily dynamic. Ideally, beauty requires the engagement of two living souls, but it can also be the connection between one living soul and the object of a creative act. Beauty is alive, because desire is not a static thing – it must be constantly in motion, an ongoing swirling and fluxing attraction. Even if the beautiful object is static (think of the Mona Lisa), the observer is not. He studies her carefully, noticing different aspects, fascinated in turn by what happens under different lighting, or when he is in a different mood. More than this: I think the Mona Lisa is attractive because the painting has had its creator’s soul poured into it – and the ensoulment of the artist into the art is itself not static.

This is the power of art. It is something into which creators have poured themselves. We see in that thing the expression of the creators’ souls, their spirituality poured into something which, if it were to be described using purely physical language, may be nothing more than sound frequencies, the way a person moves his or her body, or the result of paint smeared on a canvas.

When someone invests in creating a poem or a piece of music or art, that creator has invested her soul into that object, creating something that can be deep and rich and hypnotically attractive; think of Hashem’s creations in the stunning world around us, as well as His creation of mankind. And man’s creations in partnership with Hashem are no less beautiful (albeit in a different way): think of a symphony, or a Mona Lisa, or a cheerful and engaging toddler.

Of course, not all creations are beautiful just because they have been created. We can make garbage at least as easily as we can create something that is attractive. The challenge is to keep growing, to use our creative powers to advance down a mystical path instead of merely to create a graven image, a pale imitation of Hashem’s own creations. Our challenge is to make something that has never existed before. That thing is the best kind of beauty of all. It is the kind of art that can touch and inspire and enthrall millions.

This is not merely echoing Hashem’s creations. Hashem has already created the world. Remaking things that have already been made is not human progress; it is mere repetition, like marching in big circles (think of all the pagan conceptions of the world as nothing more than a wheel). When we make things, we are not supposed to imitate nature, Hashem’s own work.

And just as birds and airplanes fly using different mechanisms, Hashem’s creation and our own efforts are similar only in spirit and not in technique. But just because we don’t create in the same way that Hashem does, it does not mean that we don’t create at all. An airplane may not work like a bird, but it still flies – and in its own way, very well indeed. Our technology is different from Hashem’s, but they both serve their respective purposes.

If we simply duplicated things that have already been created, we would be stuck in a repeating pattern, an ultimately static existence. And without dynamism, there can be no beauty. So, true beauty requires us to do what Hashem did: create things that never existed before.

Holy creation is creating something that opens up doorways, growing in new areas of personal or communal or even technological development.

Art and Making Graven Images

On the Ninth of Av in the Jewish calendar, we read in the Torah that Hashem’s anger is kindled when we do two things: make a graven image, and do evil.

“Doing evil” seems easy enough to understand—Hashem wants us to do good. It is not hard to see why acts of kindness and holiness are what we need in order to improve the world and make the most of our lives.

But why are graven images – idols—such a problem? Of all things we can do or make, why is this one singled out?

Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. [20]

Man is insecure. There are many powerful forces beyond our control and our understanding. These forces seem to hold our lives in their hands, and they are fundamental forces like wind and rain and sea and volcano and sun. In turn, they may be influenced or managed by what might be called “higher order gods” – Luck, or Fate, or any of a number of named deities in the Greek, Norse, or other pantheons.

In a primitive world, people simply worshipped the natural force itself. Slightly more advanced societies named deities as being in charge of their respective natural component. But it really all amounted to a “cargo cult” of sorts; paying off the appropriate deity by means of sacrifice and suffering would do the trick.

Note that idol worship was tightly connected to doing evil: buying off the deity had a cost, in sacrificed foodstuffs, children, and virgins, not to mention the hearts of vanquished enemies. And if the god was satisfied, then he did not care what men did between them. Might made right. Once the volcano deity got his virgin, the powerful people in the village could go back to whatever it is they liked doing, which usually involved being unkind (to say the least) to others.

This all seems so deliciously unconnected from our modern, technologically advanced world. After all, even the words “graven image,” and the concept of idol worship, sound like a quaint notion from an ancient past. But think about it: are people today really so secure about the Big Bad World that they won’t seek out an idol?

Think, for example, about superheroes in film and television. As organized religion fades, superheroes have come back into fashion. Some of them (Ironman or Batman) are ordinary men who harness their ambition to become extraordinary. Most, though, have magical powers that make them better than mere mortals. Deities from ancient pagan worlds are coming back as superheroes, including Thor and Loki and others.

Why are we attracted to superheroes? For the same reason the ancients worshipped idols: Superman gives us an alternative to taking responsibility for our own world. Who are we to change the world, when there are superheroes out there who are so much more capable than a mere mortal? It is all an excuse for passivity, for choosing to become a cheerleader instead of taking the field.

And here it comes full circle. The problem with graven images are that they are external, shared images, but the spiritual path for each person must, in Judaism, be internal. Each person has his or her own unique path, with a conversation—words—at the heart of that internal quest. The Torah has no illustrations and the prophets never painted. Words engage with each person’s soul.

It is words—the spoken word—that is at the heart of the Torah. Words talk to the soul, not, as do graphics, to the eyes. People perceive the same words differently, each engaging with their own imagination to give the words life.

Idol-worship represents wasted opportunities for individual development. The graven images do not require us to act in holy ways or to study Torah; we come to rely on them to fix our lives, bring us benefits, make us happy, and solve our problems. We only need to sit back, offer a few mantras, and let the god represented by the idol take care of the rest. The idols don’t expect us to stretch ourselves, to pray, to build our relationships with other people and with Hashem. They don’t expect us to be creative, take risks or expand our horizons. If we worship idols we can live a passive existence without growing.

The problem with being a cheerleader is that standing on the sidelines (rather than engaging in the game), living a life in which we avoid risk because we are playing it safe, does not grant immortality. We will all die anyway; the question is whether or not we achieve while we are alive.

May we all make the most of our time on this earth, to take personal responsibility and grow, to create and do good, not through graven images, but through our relationship with Hashem.

Creativity and Technology

There is nothing about the Torah that excludes reason or inquiry from our lives—on the contrary! Jerusalem does not stand for the view that truth is delivered solely through revelation, but on the view that revelation provides the hard rock upon which any kind of edifice can be built. Revelation is the launching pad for mankind’s hopes and dreams. Reason, and scientific enquiry, technology and engineering, are all useful tools and change the world. But whether medicine is used to kill the unborn or heal the sick depends not on medicine itself, but on the principles that guide it, on the foundation-stone that is selected. This is what Torah provides for us.

When we study Torah, we realize that the amorality of reason has been exposed: reason has no moral code of its own, and conforms to fight on behalf of whomever happens to be wielding it at the moment.

We can see the weakness of reason merely by looking at our modern world, a world in which mankind’s technological marvels have accomplished so very much, but all the computational logic available to billions of people has not done anything to advance human morality.

To the contrary: technology, the product of vast amounts of scientific inquiry and engineering development, is agnostic about good and evil, unable to lend any moral insight at all. Morality is, and remains, a matter to be determined by people alone, and not by computers. People now have more power than ever before, but in an age where people are in love with Reason as a source of answers, we are entirely rudderless in how that power should be used. Indeed, by thinking that we can intuit the Good from what makes us feel good, or by using logic to define the Good, we end up just fooling ourselves. Absolutely any atrocity can be justified in the name of logic.

The Torah approach is to turn this premise on its head; to argue that what mankind does is better than Nature – after all, civilization and technology build complexity, pushing back against the natural entropic decay processes. Modern society considers “pure” physicists or biologists or chemists to be at a higher level than a mere engineer—the “intellectual” fashion is to think that scientists are learning about nature, while the latter merely manipulate it for man’s selfish desires.

And who thinks that pure scientists are superior? Anyone who worships the earth itself, thinking of Mother Earth as some kind of deity. Those who feel the “pure” sciences are at a higher level are trumpeting their allegiances – they believe that earth and nature are not just created by Hashem, but are Hashem “Herself.” That form of idol worship leads us to the situation in which we find ourselves today: pure scientists are considered the de facto high priests of the earth-worshipping religions, while those who have learned to improve the natural world through technology, such as engineers, are ridiculed and excoriated for destroying the environment.

Engineers and technologists are not focused on learning about nature, about what Hashem made. Instead, using knowledge gained from the natural world, they emulate Hashem by inventing and creating entirely new things. They may not be scholars of Hashem’s creation, but their work is an elevation of mankind itself, raising humanity through imitatio dei. Just as Hashem created the world, we are meant to imitate Him and complete His creation.

We are supposed to respect human creativity and creations, because Hashem does. When the Jews are slaves in Egypt, we are forced to build the storehouses of Pit’om and Ramses. But in all the punishments of Egypt and its people, these storehouses and their contents are never touched by a plague. Indeed, while everything outside is destroyed by plague after plague, Hashem leaves the buildings entirely alone. There are a lot of similarities between the building of storehouses and the Tower of Babel. A key commonality is the fact that Hashem does not destroy the Tower, or the store houses, or indeed any home that is built by man. Even with the mitzvoh of destroying Amalek, the Torah does not tell us to destroy their buildings or their physical creations.

And throughout the Torah, this seems to be the rule: Hashem may punish people, but He rarely destroys our physical creations, even when our edifices are not built with any holy intention in mind at all. Hashem approves of people building—and creating—things. And He does everything possible to avoid destroying anything made by human hand.

How Technology and Creativity Work: Experimentation

People do not learn new things in a vacuum. Most commonly, we learn to appreciate them by doing them (think of etiquette or Shabbos), but even valuing something is not the same thing as understanding that thing. When the Jews daub blood on their doorposts in Egypt, it is unlikely that they understand the meaning of the act: they are told what to do, not why it is important. Action precedes understanding.

What is not well understood is that the secular world often works the same way. We often assume that life is like a standard laboratory experiment: we theorize and then test the theory. Invention and creation come after study and knowledge.

This assumption is wrong. Historian Phillip Glass points out that innovation often works the other way around! Telescopes and spectacles were not invented by scientists, but by craftsman who were experimenting. Scientists came along later and used the technological tools to study the skies.

Likewise, the history of human technological innovation is dominated by human invention, which then enables science – it is not science that enables invention! Such enormous advances for human health as running water, sewage systems, and shoes all predate the germ theory of disease that much later explained how people get sick. The history of medicine is full of examples of medicines that work, but nobody is quite sure why until much later (think of aspirin and penicillin). And forces like gravity, which can be described and modeled very beautifully by science, are still not understood. The lack of understanding has not stopped mankind, from ancient times to the present day, from harnessing gravity in countless human-made machines and mechanisms.

Technology is human creation for the purpose of doing something—not for the sake of knowledge itself. Science, on the other hand, is often an investigation into the natural world, to understand and explain the energies and masses of the universe, from galaxies to single atoms.

We should not oversimplify; in developed form, science and technology can and do work together. And there are exceptions, such as nuclear fission, where science postulated something that was tested afterward, following the “accepted” version of how things are supposed to work. But these remain exceptions. Technology, by and large, has led the way. Engineers, those much-maligned junior cousins of scientists, design and develop the computers that scientists use, the software that run those computers, the cars and trains and airplanes that scientists use to attend conferences. Humans were harnessing fossil fuels long before geologists declared that they came from fossils.

Henry Ford did not invent the assembly line. He appointed bright people, then left them alone. Over the course of a few years, the moving assembly line organically germinated and grew from the grass roots. The assembly line was such an egalitarian development that the official company magazine did not even recognize what had happened until well after the fact.

It is quite telling that Ford’s executives didn’t even have a name for the assembly line at first, and that the term ‘assembly line’ was hardly used even in the technical press in 1913 and 1914. The Ford innovation wasn’t a research and development goal, nor was it first developed as a theory and then put into practice.[21]

The process that was begun in the early part of the 20th century continues today. The most productive factories are not those that are designed by great minds on a clean sheet of paper; the most productive and nimble factories are those that involve every worker on the floor, each as free as possible to improve what they contribute to the whole. And then the great minds study what has worked, and use it as the baseline for the next great factory.

From Alexander Graham Bell to the modern discovery of how to extract natural gas from shale, it is not perfect understanding that leads to breakthroughs, but rather accidents and errors (though often aided by persistence).

Human creativity is typically not actually a result of a great thinker in an ivory tower. It is usually achieved through hands-on work: tinkering, crafting and actively experimenting. People do, and the doing makes it possible for people to understand.

When the Jewish people accepted the Torah, they said “na’aseh v’nishmah”, “we will do and we will hear.” And we find that this is the pattern that works best, not just with the Torah, but with many other kinds of knowledge as well. WD-40, the ubiquitous machine spray, was not invented in the mind. Thirty-nine previous formulations were tried, and found wanting. The fortieth worked, hence the name. So much of life follows this process of trial-and-error. And Hashem was our model for experimentation!

Trial and Error

Arguably, teshuvah is the oldest complete concept in the world. It is, after all, the first thing that Hashem shows us how to do, through his own creative acts. Teshuvah in our own lives can be defined as confession, repentance and promising not to repeat the deed. Why do we observe teshuvah and how is it related to Creation?

From the beginning. Hashem makes the heaven and the earth, but it was tohu v’vohu, “formless and void.” Hashem does not say that what he made was good. But then He makes light, and the light is good.

Then Hashem divides the light from the darkness, and then He separates the firmament and the waters above and below – heaven and earth. But the Torah does not tell us it is good!

So there appears to be a problem. A separation has occurred. And what is done cannot, apparently, be directly undone – the creation and separation has already happened. Hashem does not undo it! So we learn a simple lesson in how to follow Hashem: when we do teshuvah, we have to actually fix the problem, not merely wish it away.

We know this both from our human experience, and because this is what Hashem then does. He starts creating the conditions for the reunification of the waters. First, He pools the heavens and the dry land, so that there are “anchor” points through which the world can be reunified. That is declared good. And then He creates plants – the first things that start in the land, and reach upward toward the skies. This is life, a force that perpetuates, and can persevere against the rocks, gases and fluids that make up an otherwise-dead physical world. Hashem sees that this, too, is good.

But it is not enough. Plants cannot, by themselves, reunify that which has been divided. They are good, but it is only a step in the right direction. So Hashem makes the sun and moon and stars, to provide cycles, and begin movements (such as tides) in the right direction. In some respects, it is like a swing, going back and forth. When there is a push to help it along, the swing can reach ever-higher. Hashem provides the daily and seasonal cycles that can put everything on the swing into motion. Then, too, the sun and moon shine their light, their energy, downward. It is a way to share the energy of heaven with the earth, to start to bridge the gap between them. This, too, is good.

But it is still not enough. So Hashem keeps going. He makes creatures of the ocean, and flying things, providing more upward force for the water and land below. Every kind, and every variety. This too is good. But Hashem is not yet done.

On the fifth day, Hashem does something extraordinary. He starts to combine the growing things. He creates animals designed to eat the product of the earth, to grow from the grasses that already grow upward. This is also good! The combined effect of the sun and the moon, the grasses, and the animals are able to start to achieve the effect of reunification.

But Hashem is still not done. He then makes mankind. Mankind has the power to combine all of the elevating elements. Man eats both the grasses, and the animals that are “pure” (fully digest plants and elevate themselves). And then Hashem gives mankind the incredible gift of His own creative powers. Mankind then has the power to reunite that which was divided – the heavens and earth.

And now Hashem is done, and He can rest. It is not that He has finished the creation of the world (it is up to us to do that). And it is not that mankind has healed the rift between heaven and earth that Hashem created – because even now, thousands of years later, we have not yet achieved it. But Hashem has put into place all the ingredients that could do the job for Him, even though the actions would be up to mankind. And He rests.

In the beginning of the Torah, Hashem has given us the blueprint for our own lives: that we are supposed to create and do, and then stand back and judge whether what we have done is good or not. And while we cannot “unmake” the mistakes we have made, we can and should work diligently to improve and, if need be, to fashion the tools that will eventually repair the rifts in the world. In a nutshell, the purpose of our existence is given to us in the first chapter of the Torah.

If mankind’s job is to heal the rift between heaven and earth, why then does the Torah not go straight from the creation of Adam and Chavah to Kayin and Havel? What would have happened if Adam and Chavah had not eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil? What was Hashem’s purpose in putting Adam and Chavah in the Garden, and giving them the choice of eating of the fruit?

Hashem had made a rift, a division. And he wants to heal it, but He never unmakes something that He has made – any more than we can “unsay” something that we should not have said. And so as a corrective to the rift that He created, Hashem makes things that will grow upward: plants and animals and mankind. And he gives man His own powers – we are made in His image, with Hashem’s own spirit in us. This is essential: we are neither animals, who must act within their natures, nor are we angels, who must adhere to Hashem’s program. We are given free will, just as Hashem has free will. But the outcome of both divine angels and human technology is the same, which is why the Torah uses the same grammatical root: “melochoh” is mankind’s technology, and a “malach” represents Hashem’s version of technology.

Part and parcel of that free will we have is that our minds, our understandings, create our own reality. What we choose to see is our reality. And so if we choose to see Hashem, then He is there in our lives. And if we do not see Hashem, then we can just as easily explain the world as a series of fortuitous events and coincidences, entirely subject to the laws of physics. We live our lives according to our beliefs: religious people sometimes make different decisions than atheists do, because religious people are guided by the reality that their beliefs create for them.

This is not dissimilar to the question about whether a glass is half full or half empty. Both are objectively true statements, but they may lead to radically different decisions. Someone who chooses to see nature, for example, as beautiful and majestic is much more likely to go on holiday in the Alps than someone who sees nature as a powerful yet impersonal force, cruelly indifferent to whether someone lives or dies. Both sets of observations are true, but they lead to very different choices.

Indeed, our beliefs allow us to discern patterns, picking them out from an ocean of vast data. Though it may be true that a table is, to a physicist, virtually comprised entirely of empty space, only loosely knitted together by atoms that are themselves bonded with spinning and tunneling electrons, nevertheless, for our mundane purposes, the table is a solid and stable surface which we can use. Our beliefs help us make sense of all the data, and to extract what we think we need to know in order to make decisions. We start with our senses, but it is our thoughts, words, and deeds that form the world in which we live.

As Hashem made us in His image, the reality we construct using our divinely borrowed power of creation becomes our reality.

Hashem made a world that was divided, that was comprised of dualisms. He put in place the living things that could unify those dualisms, and mankind was given the divine power to see the world, and to create our own reality. Adam and Chavah were not ashamed at all by their actions, since they had no knowledge of the dualisms!

Hashem created things before he assessed whether they were good or not; in the same way, we are supposed to use our eyes not to lead us to what we want, but instead to evaluate what we have