Shaya Cohen -


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 done after the fact. Thus, na’aseh v’nishmah is a lesson in how mankind is supposed to create new things. Make it, test it, break it, then try again.

What does it mean that action precedes understanding? It teaches us that creating new things is actually a prerequisite for understanding Hashem’s creations. When we create, our actions allow us to appreciate at a whole new level what Hashem has done. We relate to Hashem in a completely different way, as human beings who are also creators, taking the risk of acting before we know exactly what will result from our actions! We can better appreciate the nature of Creation and the creative process, and understand how precious the opportunity is to partner with Hashem to continue His Creation.

The process of creation, failure and success, has been performed by countless people for millennia. Blacksmiths and coopers and glass blowers may be replaced by millions of independent software writers, but the principle remains the same. Emulating Hashem’s creative acts is not reserved for the brilliant few in their academies, but is, instead, a profoundly grass-roots activity. Anyone who is willing to try something new can invent. And anyone who is open to believing that their actions and inventions can be important, can take the time to document what they have achieved, and then share it with others.

It is increasingly clear that we do not have a world in which the elite few do the thinking for everyone else, but instead a world in which vast numbers of individual people and small teams can—and do—invent new things and debunk old and erroneous assumptions.

We know that Hashem wants us to create new things as a pathway to holiness, because we are commanded both to walk in His ways, and forbidden to make any image or thing of a plant or animal found in nature. That leaves us with needing to create things that did not exist before! The Torah does not tell us what that thing is, because if it did so, then the idea behind the creative act would not be fully our own! Hashem gives us the tools, but just as He conceived of and created the world, so, too, we are[22] to do the same to complete the world, Hashem’s creation.

Modern technology has done wonders for our lives. In everything from agriculture to transportation to electricity and domestic machinery like washing machines, the best outcome of all is that we have time. We have, in a sense, moved much closer to life in the Garden of Eden. In the Western world we may wear clothes, but they are inexpensive enough that even the poorest people own more than a single set. Food and housing are no longer a desperate concern.

In a nutshell (and as widely commented on and explained by our sages), the technological acts of building Hashem’s home, the Mishkan, are comparable to the divine acts of creating and directly manipulating the world. The Torah is telling us to be creative, and to embrace creativity – all in the service of holiness.

The Most Holy Offering

There are eight offerings for the consecration of the Mishkan, Hashem’s home among the Jewish people. Though we often tend to take commandments like offering sacrifices as things we are (or were) commanded to do, without much thought for what the offerings actually mean, those of us who read the Torah as divine in origin know that there are no coincidences.

The offerings used to consecrate the Mishkan are each different – but one stands out. The Torah tells us that of each of these offerings, only one of them is “most holy” – the last one, the offering of flour and oil.[23]

Why? Why, of all of these offerings, is the offering of meal and oil the holiest of them all?

The answer is as follows: of these eight offerings, seven are animal, and the eighth is vegetable in origin. But it is not merely vegetable. Both flour and oil require significant human investment into the natural world; wheat needs to be planted, weeded, harvested, winnowed, milled, etc. Oil requires both nature and man’s effort to extract the essence of the vegetable. Oil is thus an amalgam of both divine creation and mankind’s investment of time and energy. The end product is highly nutritious and energy rich, usable as a food and fuel. In the Mishkan and Temple, oil was used for both: an ingredient in edible offerings, as well as to light the menorah.

The reason the Torah says “And when any [soul] will offer a meal offering to Hashem,” [24] the Hebrew word used for “any” is nefesh or spirit. The Talmud tells us that a meal offering was not the spirit of the animal, but represented the spirit of the person making the offering itself!

In this case, the meal offering is connected to the eighth day—the day after Shabbos. What is special about the eighth day? Seven is the number of nature in the Torah (as the world was created in seven days). But the number “eight” is used to connect man and Hashem. So we have circumcision on the eighth day, as well as the offering of the first-born. Similarly, after seven days of inauguration of the priests, it was on the eighth day that the priesthood was consecrated and started active service between man and Hashem. Many sacrifices and festivals that were involved with establishing a connection between man and Hashem were also called for the eighth day. The day after Shabbos is the day in which we work, and build and grow in the physical world. It is the day where, by the sweat of our brow, we work to improve the natural world, to make flour from grasses, and oil from olives.

In this reading, the Shabbos is the completion of the world. But 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. Sunday is the day when we start preparing the showbread for the next Shabbos. The Sabbath day happened all by itself (and is never called “most holy” in the Torah). The work that we do to grow, create and preserve our relationship with Hashem is most beloved by Him, and is, like the meal offering, most holy in His eyes.

Another method to understanding of “most holy” is to look at “firsts.” 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. Making and offering the showbread is one important way to show appreciation for our creative blessings. These are called kodesh kedoshim, “most holy.”

Creativity and Its Constraints

It is the ability to work with the theoretical “What If?” that make us capable of changing ourselves, of growing beyond our nature and nurture, to become truly capable of exercising free will. People who exercise their free will are, in their way, the most powerful force in the universe. We are not hotter than the sun, nor do we exert more gravitational force than planets – our power lies in something much more elusive, something that might even be called magical. Coupled with our free will, we are endowed with the power of spiritual creation.

This is not a world in which we can paint by numbers. Life is messy and sticky. In any situation, we make decisions based on inadequate and subjective information, where there is very often no clear “right” or “wrong” answer. There are, instead, decision points that open up a range of possible outcomes, outcomes that cannot be accurately predicted by man or machine. This is the real world of people, as unpredictable and, well, human, as we are.

So Hashem makes the world, and he puts humans on it. Nature has its range of rules, and its complexities and homeostatic systems, but there is nothing within Nature that is like man: unlike anything else we can observe, man is capable of being a purely unpredictable force.

For much of the world, this is not actually the dominant model. In most cultures, man is in fact quite predictable, and we can reasonably accurately extrapolate from the past into the future for peoples across Asia and Africa for most of human history. This is a direct result of the religions and cultures that dominate those regions. These are cultures that reward the notions of harmony and subjugation of the self for the greater good.

It is Judaism and its children—Christianity in all its forms and even, at least in early days, Islam, that broke open the mold. The Torah gives us the prototype, Adam, a man who is capable of chaotic action, of doing things that are unpredictable and irrational. And Adam is infused with a divinely-inspired power to change the world with nothing more than his words: he names the animals and his wife; he and his offspring cultivate and herd and build and invent. The Torah tells us that the learning process was brutal: they were at least as likely to get things wrong as they were to get them right. Adam did not act for the greater good.

The Torah’s moral code starts with the basic rudiments of civilization, things like condemning murder and rape. But even with Kayin’s murder of Havel, every single story and lesson in the Torah is presented not simply as “right” and “wrong” but instead is told with nuance and depth, with full awareness that the players did not have all the information, and they made decisions without knowledge of the outcome. How, for example, was Kayin supposed to know that Havel would die?

In this, however, we have an advantage that the characters in the Torah lacked: the Torah itself. By studying the text, there is a great deal we can come to understand about our own lives, and the decisions that we make every day. We can learn, for example, that time spent reflecting or praying can be very valuable in avoiding making poor decisions. Imagine that Yaakov tells his mother, when she asked him to disguise himself as Esav, “I hear you, but I think I just need a few minutes to consult with Hashem first.” Rebekkah, the woman who sought advice when the twins in her womb were fighting, would hardly have rejected the request. A few minutes of Yaakov’s thoughtful prayer may well have led to a different outcome.

So, too, Aaron could have asked for the time to consult with Hashem, when the people demanded a golden calf. The people who were agitating for Aaron to do something were frightened, but they were not openly seeking idolatry. It may well have been that Aaron, after prayer, would have found a different path.

In the Torah, creativity and productivity are good things in themselves. The following verse tells us, however, that we need to recognize that even good things will have unintended consequences and potential detrimental results.

When you build a new house, then thou shalt make a parapet for thy roof, that thou bring not blood upon thy house, if any man fall from thence.[25]

This is common sense, right? “Be safe” is the message. And the example given is protecting people on flat roofs from falling off the edge.

Except that this is not reflective of a close reading of the text. We don’t believe that there are any extra (or missing) words. The issue is that the text does not read: “Thou shalt make a parapet for thy roof,” which is what it would say if the Torah is merely telling us to make sure our roofs are safe.

Instead, the verse starts with “When you build a new house.” Which begs a simple question: why are we commanded to make our roofs safe when a person builds a new house?

Indeed, the same Torah tells us to make an elevated altar for which there is no parapet – a priest might well fall off the edge. And so we have a related question: What is the difference between the altar and the new house?

I think there is a shared answer: building a new house, unlike buying one that already existed, or building an altar from divinely-delivered specifications, is a more creative act on the part of the builder.

Which would mean that the original verse should be understood in a broader context. It is not really about ensuring that roofs have parapets. Instead, the Torah is telling us that when we engage in a creative act, we need to think about and mitigate the potential downsides of that creative act. A modern analogue would be that engineers who build bridges or buildings should be careful to try to make them safe.

Our free will is meant to be a result of consideration, and some degree of consultation. Otherwise it can all slide into chaos and destruction. Decisions are not obvious, and life is messy.

What do most people do when faced with real free will? They run and hide. Consulting with others requires the ability to take criticism. Considering one’s own life forces each of us to acknowledge our failures. Doing this while still persevering is very challenging even for the greatest people.

While most people do not unlock their creative potential, those of us who are cognizant of just how powerful our thoughts and words and deeds truly can be, need to remain mindful of our own limitations: caught up in the moment, even the greatest people can do very stupid things.

As a reminder to use our creativity effectively, making the showbread reminds us that we are called to weigh our creative opportunities rather than run from them. We are to evaluate their potential rather than act willy-nilly, thereby making the most of our creative powers in the world.

Free will and creativity are such a huge part of our purpose in the world: we know that each person can be the reason for the creation of the world, and we ask ourselves: “How can I be worthy of that valuation?” It is at once an empowering and terrifying question.


The structure of the ark that holds the most central teachings of Judaism, the tablets that Moshe brought down from Sinai with the Ten Commandments, represents much more than Jewish law. It was built with cherubim, one on either side, a male and female, pointing to the significance of the love between man and woman as well as man and Hashem.

So what are the life conditions that move us toward seeking love with Hashem and with one another in marriage? Strange as it might seem, it is our own insecurity, the unpredictability of our lives, that motivates us to reach out. Once we begin to reach out, we discover that Hashem not only wants us to be in an intimate relationship with Him, but he also wants us to be in a loving, exclusive and intimate relationship with another human being. Once we’ve made the commitment to marriage, we are faced with new challenges: creating ways to work with the difficulties that always arise in our relationships; learning how to face them; committing to work through and resolve them. The first factor in seeking out others is to recognize our own insecurity.

Embracing Insecurity

Rational people love to make sure that we have good, secure and predictable lives. We want to have good pensions, to eliminate surprises, and especially avoid downside risks. The problem with our instinct to seek and attain security is that it is all, ultimately, an illusion. Death comes to us all: we cannot avoid it. More than this, the purpose of life is not merely to live, but to make our lives meaningful, to improve ourselves, our loved ones, and the world around us. So we must grow, or we have wasted the only opportunity we have to really live.

Our language is full of similar truisms: “Needs, must”; “Necessity is the mother of invention”; “No pain, no gain.” These are all fine in a vacuum, but they miss a key element: it is through relationships that we grow. The best teachers are not institutions, but people; people never remember the amazing school system, but they cherish the amazing teacher. The best marriages involve two different people who never stop investing in each other. And the best religions are those that require us to think about what Hashem wants from us, how we can grow and change to be better partners with the Creator in this all-important journey.

Relationships, however, are hard. They require soul searching, being subjected to criticisms that cut deep, being willing to consider and even embrace profoundly challenging changes. Relationships are so intimidating that many people give up on even trying to have deep relationships with other people, choosing to commit to their cats or dogs or even their cars or interior décor instead.

And here’s the rub: people who are secure and safe do not grow. The illusion of self-sufficiency (and security) is a major impediment to personal growth. We only reach out to others when we are not self-sufficient, when we are scared enough by the alternative that we have no choice but to hold hands and walk off that cliff. Without insecurity, we do not take the risks needed to initiate, sustain and grow relationships.

Our desire for permanence in a constantly-shifting world is understandable, but it is anathema for personal development. Ultimately, the world is not improved through huge buildings, or great institutions or enormous bureaucracies. Those things can all be useful implements for sustaining a way of life, but they are often impediments for personal or public growth. Static civilizations are dying civilizations, though that decline and death can happen so slowly that we miss it unless we look for large historical arcs—the decline of Greek intellectual civilization, or the extended quagmire of the Roman Empire. In the more modern world, we can see how government bureaucracies today, from public schools to the EPA, go from dynamic and proactive collections of earnest well-meaning people, to hide-bound institutions that only exist for the purpose of perpetuating themselves.

In the Torah the Jewish people complain that Moshe, “that man,” went up on the mountain, and they cannot handle the insecurity of not knowing what happened, or how to secure their future. They crave a permanent physical manifestation, something beautiful and great, something that, unlike leaders, is not capable of wandering off and disappearing from their lives. They want a leader who cannot die.

And so they make the golden calf and worship it. And they are so very happy with their creation that they celebrate the calf. They are comforted by this manifestation of Hashem. A golden calf, like nature, is much easier to understand than a deity, Hashem, who has no physical manifestation. In the calf, the people have found their permanence.

What they did not know is that Moshe, at the same time, was receiving precisely what the people said they wanted – the permanent tablets with the Ten Commandments inscribed by Hashem Himself. It was the ultimate symbol of an unchanging compact, a divine and eternal gift that would change the relationship between Hashem and man for all time.

What happens? When Moshe sees the Jewish desire for security, for predictable permanence, he destroys the tablets. He eliminates the very idea of a static relationship, of a symbol that can pass from generation to generation venerated by each in turn. Moshe makes it clear that the only way for Jews to exist in this world is if we stop trying to create a false sense of security, but instead embrace lives of insecurity, of uncertainty. Lives in which we are incentivized to grow and improve and make something of ourselves. So Moshe breaks the tablets and in so doing, incinerates the Jewish security blanket.

When people try to eliminate insecurity from their lives, my Rabbi says that they are trying to take Hashem out of their lives. A person who has everything, needs nothing. And if we do not need anything, then we do not reach outside ourselves to build relationships with others. Those relationships might be with other people, or they might be with Hashem—but they are risky either way.

Yet the Torah is full of commandments and reminders of the importance of insecurity: we are forbidden from the “safe” way to make money, by charging interest. Loving others, and especially strangers, are commandments to force us to stay outside of our comfort zone. The commandment to live in Israel is itself to force us to “look up” for our sustenance, as Israel lacks the dependable “clockwork” agriculture of Egypt. So personal and national growth are baked into the cake, and irrevocably tied to perpetuating insecurity.

Yet we learn of the servant who chooses safety with his master after the requisite number of years, instead of going out into the world for himself, chooses to have an awl driven through his ear: he no longer is open to listening to Hashem’s voice. The servant has chosen to listen only to his master. Freedom means uncertainty, risk, and responsibility for our own decisions. Most people don’t want that responsibility.

But Hashem wants us to want Him! One intriguing feature of the Torah it that it isn’t really telling us to merely trust in Hashem – that would be too easy, too pat. That way leads to fatalism, to believing that Hashem arranges all things, so all we have to do is be good little servants, and everything will work out for us in the end. This is clearly a feature of many religions: it is not Torah Judaism.

Instead, we are told to seek to be close to Hashem, in a myriad of ways. After the splitting of the Red Sea, the people sing a collective verse in the first person: “This is my Hashem and v’anveyhoo”—that last word is really two words: “Me and You.” “This is my Hashem,” and “Me and You!”

That “Me and You” is a statement of yearning, a desire to be close, in any way we can. And because it is put in the first person, we understand that each and every person has the opportunity for a personal and unique relationship. None of us are supposed to do things exactly like other people do them – otherwise, what am I here for?!

So Hashem has given us a world in which we are full of reminders that we need relationships. We need them when we are young and less capable. We need them when we are grown, and we rely on society to help meet our needs. We need other people when we are old and no longer able to do what we used to do. Death is itself the greatest reminder: our lives are finite. What will we achieve before the end? Any achievement worth its salt comes about as the byproduct (if not the primary product) of relationships: business, families, service to others.

Jewish history is full of Jews forgetting this basic lesson, and reverting to form. To take but the most prominent example: The Mishkan (Tabernacle) became the temple, and then Jews started building it bigger and bigger – even though the core components and features were the same ones that could be carried by hand and traveled through the wilderness. Did the Beis Hamikdosh (Temple) really need to be grand, or was it just a concession to misplaced human priorities? I suggest that making the Temple enormous and impressive was actually similar to the sin of the golden calf, and for the same reasons.

On the other hand, the Torah itself, as well as the corpus of Jewish Law, the Talmud and the commentaries over the millennia, are testaments to insecurity. Judaism is not a “paint by numbers” religion; it requires investment and involvement by each generation, parsing and arguing at every step of the way. If we are insecure enough so that we are forced to invest deeply in relationships with other people and with Hashem, then we are able to grow and make something of our lives.

There is another vessel in the Mishkan and Beis Hamikdosh that renewed the connection between these two marriages, with Hashem and our spouse, each and every day. The kiyor or laver, was made “of bronze, and its pedestal of bronze, from the mirrors of the women [who bore those] who assembled at the door of the Tent of Meeting.”[26]

The clear meaning of the verse is that the laver was made from mirrors used by women in Egypt to incite desire, lust, in their husbands. How on earth can such an object be present in the Mishkan, let alone be a critical feature? The question is an obvious one, especially for those who tend to consider love and lust to be embarrassing.[27] Indeed, our sages tell us that Moshe had a hard time understanding this instruction.[28]

Imagine the laver in use. The Cohen (priest) must wash his hands and feet in it before he approaches further to serve Hashem. As he is washing himself, he sees his reflections in the highly polished metal, the very same bronze that Jewish women had used to make themselves attractive to their husbands, to strengthen and grow their relationship. And then, having prepared by washing his hands and feet, the Cohen goes into the Beis Hamikdosh and does the very same thing—to strengthen and grow the relationship between mankind and Hashem. The priest is making himself desirable to Hashem, just as his mother did for her husband!

And the commandment concerning the laver tells us that marital love comes first, as a prerequisite to heavenly love.[29] The laver is the preparatory step for service to Hashem, and it is the only vessel in the Beis Hamikdosh that has its own base, that can stand by itself. Marital love inspires and reinforces our service to Hashem. Love between man and woman not only allows for the creation and nurturing of children, but it is the essential building block of society. Marital love is holy.

In fact, love within a marriage might even be considered more important than the marriage to Hashem. In Melachim (Kings) we learn that workers on the Beis Hamikdosh spent two months at home for every month they spent in Lebanon working. Why? R. Avin said that Hashem cherishes marital intimacy more than the Beis Hamikdosh itself. That the Mishkan and a marriage are even comparable tells us that they are on the same plane: they have the same goal! Intimacy between husband and wife is a union of holiness: the act of coupling with love takes something that would otherwise be a merely an animalistic act and joins it to heaven. That is why the keruvim atop the holy ark look like a man and woman, reaching to embrace one another. And that is why Hashem’s voice to Moshe comes from the space between the two: it is at the unification of man and woman where we can most tangibly feel Hashem’s presence and experience holiness.

The Torah describes the process of rapprochement between Hashem and the Jewish people in a dance of oscillating words: the people do X, and Hashem does Y. Then the people respond with Q, and Hashem moves onto P, and so on.[30] There is fluid movement on both sides, changes in posture and attitude and desires, sometimes flexing in toward each other, sometimes bending away or even—when things go very wrong—one of the dancers abruptly breaking it off and leaving the dance floor.

It is this sort of language that helps us understand that Hashem is not some kind of great static thing: a strong but silent gravitational force or a distant and proud king. On the contrary, the Torah’s words show us that Hashem is a full participant in this dance, able to be distant or near, equally capable of being inflamed with anger or with love.

The dance of the Jewish people with Hashem is, and always was supposed to be, a dance of desire and a dance of love. Our relationship is meant to contain every element found in a good marriage: love and respect and trust and desire. And like any good marriage, there are good times and bad, times of head-spinning romantic flight, and times of hard, but cooperative effort: and then there are times when it is sufficient and beautiful to merely sit together, to enjoy being close to each other after a hard day, or year, or life.

Most civilizations and cultures take their cue from the natural world, and conclude that the world is, and is supposed to be, inherently circular. The world, and the seasons, and so much of what we can see is cyclical in nature, and so it is easy to assume that this is in fact not only the way things are, but the way things should be.

Judaism has a different worldview. On a national as well as the most deeply personal levels, we Jews are on a journey, a historical quest of development and growth. So while the wheels of our wagon, seen in isolation, look like circles spinning in one spot, we are well aware that every time a certain point on that wheel touches the ground, it should touch down in a different and new place. Jewish history is not of a wheel spinning in space, but of a wheel traveling down a road. Every year we have the same Torah readings and the same festivals and the same commandments – but we accomplish and experience those things within the context of our growth, and within the new developments within our relationships with each other and with Hashem.

It has often been said that the opposite of love is not hate: the opposite of love is indifference. At least with hatred, a person still cares. With the emotion of love or hate comes the ability to think of others, to take an active interest in what happens to someone else. When we can think only of ourselves, we can never love or serve Hashem, the author of the guidebook text in which the verse at the very middle is, “love your neighbor as yourself.” It is through loving others that we become capable of loving Hashem. One is the gateway to the other.

The Mating Call

Marriage exists for its own sake. If a marriage is blessed with children, it is a wonderful thing – but the marriage is supposed to be built first and foremost. And when we don’t prioritize our lives accordingly, then we, both as a nation and as individuals, end up paying the price.[31]

Hashem is making it clear: the relationships within our generation are more important than even our connections to our children. Our marriage to our spouses and Hashem trumps everything else, because marriage is the pinnacle of fulfillment.

Judaism is not a transcendental faith: we believe in anchoring ourselves in the physical world through relationships, and then seeking to personally grow and also elevate the world around us. To this end, every physical act that mankind can engage in is something that we ennoble with blessings or prayers or rituals, infusing spirituality into even the most mundane acts. Everything we can do with our bodies can be done in a holy manner, in a way that makes the world a better place. Marital intimacy is the foremost example of how an animalistic act can (and should) be infused with spirituality and create holiness.

Animals call out to each other when they wish to mate. It is a necessary (though by no means sufficient) step in the propagation of their species. On Rosh Hashanah, Jews take this animalistic instinct, and we elevate it when we blow the shofar. Rosh Hashanah is called, “yom teruah” in the Torah, “a day of calling/blasting.” The sound of the shofar is the mating call of the Jewish people: Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the dance. Our spiritual analog to a mating call, blowing the shofar broadcasts our intense and profound desire to connect with Hashem, to renew and deepen the love between us.

This is our Zikaron Teruah[32], remembrance through shofar-blasts. The remembrance is to recall that once again this part of the wheel is touching down, and we are repeating the connection to Hashem, the connection made through the millennia, stretching back to the blasts at Sinai, and the offering of the ram in place of Yitzhak. And the shofar blasts indicate our heartfelt desire to renew our commitments to Hashem, to both renew and grow our marriage to Hashem.

This kind of mating call can be risky, of course. Every relationship is dangerous – even showing our interest in someone else exposes us, cracks the armor that protects us against the slings and arrows that cause so much pain. It is hard to do this, especially if we have been burned before.

And even with desire, of course, we do not have enough to sustain a proper marriage. Marriage to Hashem takes every bit as much of an investment as a marriage between man and woman. There is desire, but there is also risk, and commitment, and the profound difficulties of self-examination and personal growth in order to become the kind of person whom your intended can love and respect in return. Relationships take enormous effort; like Yaakov’s ladder if one stops climbing, then one is necessarily descending. As a result, each person needs to ask himself or herself: do I really have what it takes to make this work?

The journey down the road can begin at any moment. On Rosh Hashanah, we have a designated opportunity: the shofar blast is coming, and the dance is about to begin. Our partner is waiting, yearning to hear the teruah, the Jewish people re-initiating the dance. As the Torah makes clear, Hashem wants to dance. But before He can, He needs us to take the first step, to call out with the zikharon teruah, to simultaneously recall our shared mutual history, and to express our desire to begin the whirlwind love affair all over again.

Engaging in the Dance of Marriage

Once we have decided that we wish to actively pursue a loving relationship with our partner and with Hashem, that we are ready to be married to both, there are certain realities that will determine the nature of our relationship.

The opposition between man and Hashem has always been framed as a kind of marriage, a national marriage to Hashem.[33] Marriages come in different varieties, exemplified by the examples the Torah gives us of our forefathers. We know that Avraham and Sarah had a partnership in which Sarah was not afraid to confront her husband when she thought he was making a mistake.

We know that Rivkah’s marriage to Yitzhak was not equal: from the first time that she falls off her camel, we see that she is unwilling to confront her husband. The Torah never even has Rivkah speaking to her husband directly until she fears that Yaakov’s life is in danger.

The marriages in Genesis are a “sneak peek” of the relationships between man and Hashem in Exodus and beyond.

Hashem first tells Moshe, in their first conversation at the burning bush, that–

When you go, you shall not go empty. Every woman shall borrow from her neighbor, and from her who sojourns in her house, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and garments, and you shall put them upon your sons, and upon your daughters.[34]

And then, after all but the last plague:

Speak now in the ears of the people, and let every man borrow from his neighbor, and every woman from her neighbor, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold.[35]

And then what happens? The people do as they are told….

And they borrowed from the Egyptians jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and garments.

And here is an obvious question: why does it really matter that the Jews got gold and silver from the Egyptians? Are these material possessions really important, and if so, why? And what do garments have to do with anything?

The answer is that “jewels of silver and jewels of gold, and garments” are in fact part of Jewish lore: they come from the very first story of an engagement between man and wife – Avraham’s servant brings out “Jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and garments, and gave them to Rivkah.”[36]

The gift matters! When Hashem tells the Jewish people to enrich themselves with silver, gold, and garments, He is recreating for them the engagement of Yitzhak and Rivkah! In that final act before leaving their home in Egypt to travel and “meet” Hashem at Sinai, the Jewish people would be receiving the same engagement present that their foremother, Rivkah, had received before she left her home to travel to marry Yitzhak.

So far, so good. But then, what happens to this jewelry? At Sinai, when Moshe does not come down when expected, and the people were frantic, Aaron tells the Jewish people to bring their gold – and it is made into the golden calf. Where did this gold come from? It was the very same gold that Hashem had “given” the Jews via the Egyptians! Indeed, the text makes this quite clear when it uses the same phrase “your sons and your daughters” that He had used when promising the gold to Moshe in the first place!

But Aaron does not merely tell the Jews to bring their gold. Instead, he uses a much stronger word:

And Aaron said unto them: ‘Break off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me.’[37]

What has happened here? When the Jews sinned with the golden calf, the Jewish people took the rings that they had received as a betrothal gift – and instead of merely taking them off, they broke the rings off. Gold is not so easily repaired – once broken, it needs remaking from molten metal. The breaking of a ring is analogous to breaking a relationship, severing the link between two entities who are so close that it is impossible to tell where one person ends and the other begins.

How do we know the word can mean the end of a relationship? The very first time the word parak (break) is used is when Yitzhak tries to comfort a crying Esav, after Yaakov stole his blessing. Yitzhak says:

And by thy sword shalt thou live, and thou shalt serve thy brother; and it shall come to pass when thou shalt break loose, that thou shalt break his yoke from off thy neck.[38]

No more would things continue as they had: the destruction of an engagement ring between a man and a woman is an act that, even if they patch things up, will always be remembered as something that cannot be undone. Breaking a ring is how one symbolizes the destruction of a relationship – whether between Hashem and man, man and wife, or (as in the Torah precedent of Yaakov’s yoke) between brothers. Perhaps when Aaron used such a strong word, he may have been trying to signal that breaking off the engagement gold would be tantamount to ending the betrothal between Hashem and the Jewish people.

And so it proved. When Yitzhak was betrothed to Rivkah, their relationship continued for the rest of their lives. But both with Esav and the golden calf, once the engagement ring was broken, the relationships were never the same.

And in any case, none of these relationships was “equal.” Yitzhak was wise and enigmatic. Rivkah was a junior partner, cowed by Yitzhak’s evident holiness—so cowed, indeed, that when she seeks insight about the babies in her womb, she asks someone besides her husband for divine insight.

This makes sense. The marriage is unequal – as, one imagines, our marriage to Hashem must be. Rivkah was clearly subservient to her husband. And why not? Our sages tell us that Yitzhak embodied din, strict judgment. This is the model of our first marriage to Hashem, the first covenant at Sinai. We know that it is a marriage of strict judgment, of zero tolerance for sin. We were expected, initially, to become like Rivkah in her marriage to Yitzhak.

But we, as a nation, rebel. We do not trust that Hashem and Moshe know best, and in our fear, decide to take the initiative ourselves. And so we insist on the making of the golden calf, and in so doing, we break apart the engagement rings. This is a most un-Rivkah-like thing to do. And so Moshe and Hashem tear up the first contract. The marriage of din is over. It is replaced by the covenant of rachamim, of mercy.

With the second set of tablets, Hashem gives us the Attributes of Mercy, or Shelosh-‘Esreh Middos

And Hashem said to Moshe: ‘Cut two tablets of stone like the first; and I will write upon these tablets the words that were in the first tablets, which you broke.’ … And Hashem passed by before him, and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, The Lord Hashem, merciful and gracious, long suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.’[39]

And, like Sarah, we as a nation continue to question and challenge Hashem. Just as with the golden calf, we doubt that our leaders and Hashem Himself really knows what is best for us. As a nation and as individuals, we challenge Hashem at every turn. This has been the nature of our marriage for thousands of years.

Making the Marriage Work

At first glance, we might think that the balance in a marriage really is to be found in some golden mean between selfishness and selflessness that allows for a proper relationship between man and Hashem and man and woman. A marriage is in trouble, however, when either spouse decides that he or she either does all the heavy lifting or none of it. When a married man or woman thinks that he or she is without an actual partner, then the relationship is doomed. So, too, in our relationship with Hashem.

So Shavu’os is the first festival that falls by the wayside when Jews wander from following the Torah. Most Jews are not interested in Shavu’os, because they are not particularly interested in the Torah. What they fail to realize is that if Shavu’os is cast aside, then the rest of our heritage, sooner or later, will follow. When one spouse starts to disregard the heartfelt gifts of the other, the marriage is in profound trouble. That is the state of the “national” Jewish marriage with Hashem.

Of course, our relationship with Hashem is not only national: it is also personal. And each marriage is, within the relationship, meant to be unique. Though the Torah lays down laws that, while always open to refinement and deeper understanding, are nonetheless ultimately unyielding: all of these laws are classified as an asei or a lo t’aaseh – “do this” or “don’t do that.” Others have pointed out that at Mount Sinai, Hashem did not give us the Ten Suggestions. But the Torah itself tells us otherwise – there are some commandments that depend on the individual’s preferences: When Hashem commands us to build the Mishkan, Hashem says to Moshe,

Speak to the people of Israel, that they bring me an offering; from every man that gives it willingly with his heart, you shall take my offering.[40]

And when we start talking about fuzzy things like relationships, the normal language of “do this” and “don’t do that” continue to govern most elements – but not all. We have plenty of rules within marriage, just as we have rules in our marriage with Hashem. But there is a key part of this relationship that is most definitely incompatible with strict legalities: the ability to open our heart to the other person.

And so Judaism tells us how to be married to our spouse, just as it tells us how to relate to Hashem in the Beis Hamikdosh. But it draws the line when it comes to telling us how much we have to emotionally commit to the relationship – how much we share our heart. We don’t criticize people who hold back their inner emotions in a marriage – that is what works for them. And Torah Jews don’t criticize people who go the other way, who dote on their spouses completely – that too is an option.

When the Torah tells us that the level of our contribution to building a home for Hashem in our hearts is up to us, we should learn that this is true when we build a home with our husband or wife as well. We are commanded to have a relationship – but we must freely make that decision, to make that choice. And even when we choose to connect, the emotional depth of that relationship is entirely up to us. When we build a home for Hashem or for ourselves, the relationship comes from whatever we freely give from our hearts. And so too, the contributions of intimate body jewelry from the married couples were freely given: the material investment in the Mishkan was given from the heart, and mirrors the material and spiritual investments that a married man and a woman make one to the other.

But the contribution of gold was not an imposed tax, nor did it come from any kind of national treasury. Instead, the people came: “vayavo ha-anashim al hanashim” which Rashi understands as “im hanashim” – when volunteering gold jewelry for the building of the Mishkan, men and women came with each other, as Simcha Baer says: as couples. The holiness of building the Mishkan was provided by married couples, volunteering their personal, even intimate jewelry of bracelets, nose-rings, rings, and body ornaments. These couples, by sharing their gold, were in effect sharing their personal connections to the Shechinah, to the holiness they nurture in their personal relationships with each other. Hashem’s home is built by the contribution from married Jewish couples. The link between the marriage of man and woman and between Hashem and mankind was explicit.

And so, marriage itself must also be unique, and entirely dependent on what the couple chooses to create. Similarly, we can freely choose the degree of our relationship with Hashem – everyone has a different level of investment and passion.[41]

For example, when we look at the marriage between Yaakov and Rachel, the Torah does not tell us that the relationship is, in any way, an equal one. At first glance, this might seem strange: after all Yaakov is often associated with love—he loves both Rachel and Leah (albeit the former more than the latter). He loves his son Yosef, and Benyamin.

But when we think about it, it becomes clearer. Yaakov falls in love with Rachel at first sight. She does nothing to earn it: she just has to be there, as the passive recipient.

After falling in love, Yaakov works for his wives—seven years for Leah, and seven more for Rachel. He invests many years of his life at back-breaking labor to gain their hands in marriage. Why does he have to work seven for both of them?

I would suggest that the Torah gives us a hint – that when it says that the seven years “seemed unto him but single days”, and then again, “Yaakov said unto Lavan: ‘Give me my wife, for my days are filled’” – that we are being told that it is not the years that matter, but the number “seven” itself. The years might as well be days, and that is how Yaakov feels them.

Hashem made the world in seven days. The Torah is telling us that a marriage, each marriage, is analogous to building the whole world. When a man marries a woman, they create their own world together, and then, just as with Adam and Chava, life begins anew, and together.

There is a very important corollary to this nugget. The two marriages are very different, and they yield different fruit. Leah bears six children directly (and more through her handmaid). She is also buried in the cave of Machpelah, in the ancestral family burial grounds.

But the marriage with Rachel is much less productive. Rachel has fewer sons, and is not buried at Machpelah, but is instead buried in a place along the side of the road, a spot that is not even marked.

The amazing thing is that Leah loves Yaakov profoundly and deeply, while the Torah never tells us that Rachel loved her husband at all!

The Torah is teaching us a lesson about marriage, work, and all of life. Our investments and their returns are connected. Things that are hard to achieve are worth far more than the things that come easily (compare the spending habits of a man who earned his bread versus one who wins it).

Yaakov’s investment for Rachel is easy—every year is like a day to him. He does not have to invest; it is painless. But the years Yaakov works for Leah are not called “like days.” They are full, hard years of labor.

And what is the return on his investment? With Leah, Yaakov enjoyed a richer and fuller marriage, and eternity spent together in Machpelah after their lives had passed. The marriage with Rachel is also commensurate with Yaakov’s investment: she is not similarly blessed with children nor even with a notable love for her husband.

The lesson is simple enough: the harder path may well be more fruitful. Our rewards, especially in relationships, are commensurate with the effort and energy that we pour into those relationships. Indeed, building a marriage is the way in which each of us creates the entire world.

In order to have a complete relationship with Hashem, one must first have a complete marriage with one’s spouse. Rachel’s marriage was incomplete in that she did not love Yaakov, and so her relationship to Hashem was also incomplete.

At the end of Rachel’s life, the loops all close. Her dying breath is to name her newborn son Ben-Oni, but Yaakov gives him the name Benyamin. This is the first child that Yaakov names, and he seems to do so as a way of separating from Rachel.

And then she is buried. But instead of being laid to rest at Machpelah, the burial place of all those who built the bridge between the worlds that enabled the Beis Hamikdosh, she is buried at the side of the road. Because she did not invest in her marriage (naming a son “the son of my sorrow” may have been about regrets), she did not build a house. Rachel did not love her husband, she wrestled with her sister, she retained a connection to her father’s idols, and even when she was blessed with children, Rachel connected it to herself, and not to her marriage. It was a life that ended in bitterness, perhaps all because Yaakov loved Rachel unconditionally, without any investment required on her part. In some sense, Yaakov’s abundant love may have enabled Rachel to not invest in the relationship!

Unlike Rachel, we must always be cognizant of the decisions we are making, and the fact that those decisions matter. There are no “happily ever after” stories in real relationships, whether with a spouse or with Hashem. Most people don’t realize this. Most of us think that we are somehow the exception: how come our marriage is not a fairy tale? Why does our relationship with Hashem not include the part where He showers us with infinite blessings? And why not? Is there something wrong with us?

But upon reflection, the surprising thing is not that we don’t have fairy tale relationships. It is that we are ever naïve enough to think that anyone does! In real relationships, the dynamic is always shifting, with opportunities for errors and corrections at every turn. But as long as there is a desire to be together – we can call it “love” – the relationship can grow and adapt, creating something extraordinarily beautiful.

The linchpin, of course, is love. And love is not something we can take for granted – after all, there is no shortage of people who claim they have never really experienced it! Love is rare enough, and often fleeting. And yet, we have an almost irrational desire to experience a vibrant love, to experience ongoing attraction and romance. How else can we explain why couples who have been married for decades still exchange gifts, have romantic dinners, and never want to be taken for granted by their opposite half?

We don’t want our spouses to stay with us because of simple inertia – we want them to want to spend time with us. How many times have we delighted in hearing people saying: “I would do it all over again”? We want to love, and be loved in return for who we are, and not because of some irrevocable decision that forced the other person’s hand.

In sum, it is all about choice. Not only do we want our spouse to have chosen to love us when they married us, but we also want them, even if we had somehow just met again for the first time, to still be crazy about us. Relationships are not just about the choice to get married in the first place; they are, just as much if not more, all about the ongoing choice to grow the relationship long after the wedding album has faded.

Building the Ongoing Relationship

Any relationship in which one party somehow compels the other to stay married is in some way crippled. Sure, two people may be technically married for some external reason (money, children, inertia, or fear), but those are not the kinds of marriages that anyone covets. The best marriages are those in which the man and woman happily married each other, and continue to choose that relationship.

But even once we commit to this relationship, there is no happily ever after. The decision to be married to Hashem does not end with the bar mitzvah ceremony. On the contrary! He wants us to choose to love Him every conscious moment of our lives. He desires a relationship that is as close and as intimate as we can handle. It is like a brand new and all-consuming infatuation: Hashem wants to be involved in every facet of our daily lives.

But there is a catch: Just as in human relationships, Hashem does not want us locked into the relationship, because if we are not free to walk away, are we really choosing to stay?

And here we find the prohibition in Judaism against making irrevocable decisions. We are forbidden, for example, to cut our flesh as idol worshippers do. A permanent mark on our bodies is the kind of thing that is difficult – if not impossible – to live down and reverse. And love must come with the freedom to walk away, or it is not the kind of love that Hashem cherishes.

Hashem wants us to be free, so that, on an ongoing basis, we can choose to have and develop a relationship with Him. That freedom means that we can – and many do – decide to exercise our freedom and walk away from Hashem. That is a price Hashem is willing to pay, because He would rather that everyone who serves Him does so willingly, rather than do so because they feel they have no choice.[42]

Our value to Hashem lies in the choices we freely make – not just once or twice, like at a pivotal coming-of-age ceremony, but every waking moment. There are no “happily ever after” marriages, because if both parties remain free to choose, then the relationship is always a challenge. Do we choose to serve Hashem, to grow our relationship? Or do we walk away?

Ours is not a religion of submission or appeasement. Hashem is not some remote force on a high mountain, or an impersonal and unknowable force like the sun. Ever since Adam was filled with the divine spirit, it has been necessary to discover Hashem in our very souls! The Torah wants us engaged with Hashem, with each other, and with ourselves – because, to a conscious mind, these are all facets of precisely the same thing!

But do we really need to go through all that work? To a simple or a lazy person, it would seem to make sense to shortcut the process. If the goal is ultimately to better ourselves, then all we have to do is to be mindful of being a good person. How hard could that be? By comparison, the rituals can seem silly, or a waste of time or energy.

But anyone in a good marriage knows otherwise. A man who marries a woman has not succeeded in marriage the moment the ring is on her finger. His success is a process, flowing through many years, as he has built a beautiful long-term relationship, one that weathers the impersonal forces of time and nature. Relationships require a never-ending stream of consideration and kindness and service, or they wither away. A husband and wife who are not constantly engaged with each other and continuing to improve each other, will fall apart as a marriage, as a relationship. Love that is not nurtured will die.

And so Hashem requires us to go through the motions – not, in the case of sacrifices, for the sake of the motions themselves, but because things like prayer and following commandments are both tokens of commitment, and required to keep the relationship fully engaging. Thus, visiting the sick, providing hospitality, and feeding the poor, all of which are commandments that connect us to other people, are, also, ways of serving Hashem directly. The audience for sacrifices is not a remote pagan deity demanding his cut, but the personal soul of the offeror, coming to grips with a connection between his actions and Hashem. When we invest in our relationship to Hashem by changing ourselves, we are acting in a way that is very different from the ways in which pagans serve their deities.

And Judaism is profoundly personal. The Torah tells us that Hashem put his soul in us.[43] And so our prayers, our services, our blessings, have an internal audience: Hashem does not need your sacrifices, or even your blessings for their own sakes. What He really wants is for sacrifices and blessings to lead us to a closer and more intimate relationship with our own spiritual souls, and Hashem on the elevated spiritual plane. Prayer is directed both outside and inside, which is why it is so similar to meditation. The Torah has entire chapters dedicated to the spiritual illness of tzaraat , which occurs to people who treat others poorly, as Kayin treated Hevel. Seen in this light, every single law of the Torah, from sacrifices to divine services to the laws of kosher food and caring for the orphan is given to us for the purpose of correcting and improving ourselves.

Jewish laws on marriage and sexual relations are quite specific for every Jew, priest or not. The Torah has a long and detailed list of forbidden relations – incest, homosexuality, and the like. Once upon a time, we did not even feel the need to explain these laws– after all, we felt a strong sense of the taboo, of what “feels” appropriate.

But in recent years, society has worked very hard to break down these barriers, these old-fashioned notions of limiting the sex or love lives of consenting adults or even children. What used to be “icky” is now mainstream. Traditional mores are in full retreat.

And, too soon, society will turn its attention to the rest of the relations that are forbidden in the Torah. “After all,” one might ask, “if there is no possibility of having children, then why cannot siblings or other close relations be ‘married’ to each other?”

It is hard to logically reject this argument, since, after all, if there are no genetic damages to a child, there is no victim if two people choose to be intimate with one another!

We must accept the logic: there is, indeed, no external victim of a childless love between close relatives or homosexuals. Why, then, does the Torah forbid these relations for Jews? And even more than this: why does it put these laws right in the middle of the Torah, as a centerpiece of the entire Jewish legal code? To answer this, we must recall that the word “Torah,” as used in the text itself, is both an evocation and a guidebook.[44] The Torah is the roadmap, the recipe, for holiness, for a relationship between Hashem and man.[45]

And this explains the reason for the forbidden relations in the Torah. Those relationships are not inappropriate because of taboo – not really.[46] They are inappropriate because they are too easy. It is not properly challenging to be married to a woman who is closely related, or to a member of the same sex. Not enough divides people who come from the same household, or who, because of their physiology, see the world largely the same way. To have the possibility to grow, we must be uncomfortable.

Thus, the Torah praises marriage and condemns promiscuity, because promiscuity cripples our ability to connect to our spouse. This fact matters, of course, because relationships between husband and wife are the model for the relationship between Hashem and the Jewish people. Failed human relationships lead to failed relationships with our Creator, in this generation and in future generations. We take the long view, and keep the big picture in mind.[47]

Marriage is meant to be the model for a relationship with Hashem. Marriage makes it possible for us to understand Hashem. If we can change ourselves enough to have a successful marriage with our spouse, then we have a chance to change ourselves enough to connect to Hashem! But if we marry someone who is too similar, with whom we have too much in common, then we are not challenged enough. Therefore, we do not grow. And so it means that we never have the opportunity to reach higher, to grow to a full relationship with our Creator.

And so, marriage itself must also be unique, and entirely dependent on what the couple chooses to create. Similarly, we can freely choose the degree of our relationship with Hashem – everyone has a different level of investment and passion.[48]

The problem with a relationship between Hashem and man is that it is hard. It is difficult to be close to Hashem because we are so different than He is. We are anchored in our physicality, hindered by our blinkered vision and finite lifespan. Our relationship with Hashem requires constant, off-balance change, never-ending nudges, encouragement, and disappointment.

Hashem’s love for us is like marital love: the Torah is full of this kind of imagery, with The Song of Songs, Shir Ha Shirim, the most explicitly intimate of these. Consider, for example, the explicit instruction from Hashem to the Jewish people to “return to your tents”[49] after the giving of the Torah. Rashi tells us that this is a commandment that husbands and wives shall once again build their own holy houses, to once again unite and make homes suitable for Hashem’s presence. The goal of returning to our tents, to our marriages, is to ensure that the attitude and mindset we experienced when we were with Hashem at Sinai remains with us as a people forever. In other words, these are connected events: we seal in the magic of the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the national marriage to Hashem, by building our personal marriages with our spouses.

This commandment to return to our tents is not the first time that Hashem says that we should be married. Indeed, the giving of the Torah at Sinai is an echo of the very first commandment Hashem ever gave mankind:

Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat, but of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, you must not eat thereof; for on the day you eat of it, you shall surely die.[50]

And then, right after this, the first of all commandments, which is, after all, Adam’s very mission statement, what does Hashem do? “Hashem said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone.’”[51]

It is a complete non-sequitur! One might think that having just received a command from the Source of all Existence, Adam would be very much un-alone: Hashem is standing right there with him!!!! Adam is the least alone being in creation! And yet, at the very moment Adam hears Hashem’s voice, Hashem determines that Adam simply cannot be allowed to live alone! Hashem is informing us as to Adam’s existential state: Adam is alone! Adam has heard Hashem’s voice, and he knows exactly what Hashem demands from him, with greater clarity than any human[52] since…. yet he is totally and utterly alone! That’s an amazing assertion! But Hashem states it:

And now, therefore, “Go back to your tents”![53]

Hashem is telling us that we must dive back into the personal! Our mission on this earth – just like Adam’s – will never be fulfilled if our family is not standing there with us. Just like Adam, at the moment of hearing Hashem’s voice, of experiencing a cosmic objectivity, so, too, Israel is only now required to dive into the murky oceans of relationships, interactions, emotions, interconnections and intimacy – the things that seem so prosaic and small, so difficult and so removed from an objective, sweeping Divine mission. Mitzvos do not exist in a vacuum; they are meant to be immediately applied to our marriages.

The unit of husband and wife are meant to be the atomic unit for all people, and especially for the Jewish people. The “tent” is the basic building block of a nation, representing the married couple, secure together. Judaism does not suggest that we abandon the self to a great mass of humanity, to a single cause. We suborn the self to the family unit, and then in turn we make up the nation of Israel.

Not for nothing does Bilaam use the poetic phrase “Ma Tovu Ohalecha,” “How Goodly are your Tents!”[54] Bilaam saw that the fundamental unit of the Jewish nation is found in its marriages, in its tents—and this is why he returns to advise Israel’s enemies to send their daughters into Israel’s camp as whores, to tear up the tents of Yaakov, to destroy the holy relationships between husbands and wives.

Our reliance on Hashem is discussed throughout the entire book of Bamidbar (Exodus), story after story of the Jewish people complaining: they complain about food, about water, about Israel, about leadership, about everything, seemingly, that they can think of. The pattern is a predictable one. There is a complaint. Hashem reacts. People die. Rinse and repeat.

And of course, we learn the obvious lessons – that Hashem is capable of taking care of us if we put our trust in Him. We learn that we must believe in our own capabilities to achieve the seemingly impossible, as long as Hashem is with us. And we learn a great deal about the kinds of repercussions which fall on us for our misdeeds.

Marriages are not very different from the “peace” Hashem created within each man, in the battle between body and soul. Marriages are not necessarily peaceful at all – many of the best marriages are highly dynamic and evolving, in a constant striving for coexistence between two people who are, at their very essence, opposites.

If Hashem’s creation of man was creating peace between heaven and earth within one person, then His subsequent acts of creation through each of us who tries to be married is the coexistence, peace, between man and woman. This is a dynamic peace, not necessarily easily distinguished from conflict and war. Just as our relationships with Hashem are meant to be challenging, so, too, are our relationships with our spouse.

How challenging is the relationship between man and Hashem? Are there any limits to how radically different we can be from our Creator? The Torah specifically includes even the most extreme case of a marriage, and connects that to our relationship with Hashem. It tells us of seeing a beautiful woman, and capturing her in battle. This woman shares no culture or language or faith: she is simply attractive to the conqueror – and the Torah allows the soldier to marry that unsuitable woman – with not even a word of criticism or warning.[55]

The Jewish people are the beautiful, but wholly inappropriate, wife for Hashem. When we lived in Egypt, we too were captives. As Ezekiel says (and as we read every Pesach), “[the Jewish people] became very beautiful, your bosom fashioned and your hair grown long, but you were naked and bare…. I pledged Myself to you, entered into a covenant with you, and you became Mine, declares the Lord G-d.…”[56] So Hashem, who was engaged in a war with the deities of Egypt, desired us in all our long-haired and raw beauty. We, the Jewish people, are that beautiful woman, the spoils of Hashem’s war on Egypt and her deities.

And so, on that Pesach night, as He passed over the Jewish homes, He was intimate with the Jewish people. That was the act in which we as a nation were taken by Hashem. Like the captive non-Jew, we did not deserve it because of our merits – on the contrary, we were saved from Egypt because Hashem wanted to save us, and not because we deserved it. Like the captive, we were uncouth and unready for a proper adult relationship.

And then, a most peculiar thing happens. Hashem takes us out of Egypt, and for the following month, the Torah does not tell us about anything that happens. It is a quiet period of adjustment, just as the beautiful captive adjusts to the loss of her parents. And at the end of that period, the Jewish people start to complain. We complain about water, and we complain about food. Our Sages tell us that our complaints begin when the matzos that we had baked in Egypt run out. And at that point, we have adjusted to the new reality of living in the wilderness, and started to interact once again with Hashem – just as the captive after a month can start her relationship with her husband.

And what does Hashem do to us, one month after he was first intimate with us? He gives us the commandments of the manna, and Shabbos. These are the building blocks of a Jewish home: sustenance and a connection to the holiness of Shabbos. It is at this point that Hashem starts to grow the relationship in earnest, about the six days we labor for our sustenance, and the one day we do not.

A Union of Holiness

Intimacy between husband and wife is a union of holiness. The mere act of coupling with love takes something performed by every animal, and joins it to heaven.

This can also explain how Rashi emphasizes that intimacy, physical enjoyment, between a man and his wife was particularly important on Shabbos.[57] Elsewhere, Rashi advocates that not only scholars, but lay people also should engage in this practice on Friday night.[58] Every Jewish marriage aims to invite Hashem into the relationship, and if Shabbos is a path to the unification of heaven and earth, then the unification of a couple on Shabbos is doubly so.

When effected with love and desire, both a marriage and the Mishkan invite the Shechinah inside. Of course, love and desire must be there, because without them, physical intimacy is merely earthy and animalistic. And the Ramban adds that without love and desire, then Hashem is not present.

The direct link between Hashem’s presence in a marriage and Hashem’s presence in the Mishkan is established when married Jewish couples contributed together to the building of Hashem’s home. Hashem understood this perfectly, sending the Jewish people right back to their tents to absorb and apply the Torah they have received, just as he gave Chavah to Adam so that Adam would follow Hashem’s sole commandment. Every marriage is unique, yet in a successful marriage, no matter how you practice Judaism, the differences are not found so much in the orthodoxy of our practice. The differences are found in the way we relate to Hashem.

There is a normative way of doing the holy deed, but there are many ways of hearing the holy voice, encountering the sacred presence, feeling at one and the same time how small we are yet how great the universe we inhabit, how insignificant we must seem when set against the vastness of space and the myriads of stars, yet how momentously significant we are, knowing that Hashem has set His image and likeness upon us and placed us here, in this place, at this time, with these gifts, in these circumstances, with a task to perform if we are able to discern it. We can find Hashem on the heights and in the depths, in loneliness and togetherness, in love and fear, in gratitude and need, in dazzling light and in the midst of deep darkness. We can find Hashem by seeking Him, but sometimes He finds us when we least expect it.

Working through Issues in a Marriage

No marriage is ever perfect, and it is not meant to be. For us to thrive and grow, we need to be fully engaged in our marriage, making sure that as issues arise, we deal with them promptly and honestly. When we try to ignore our problems, they rarely go away; rather, they fester and eat away at our loving relationships. We can choose to see working on our difficulties not as a fearsome task, but as an opportunity to take the relationship deeper. That is what Hashem calls us to do.

Facing Uncertainty

We can all benefit from letting go of the past and allowing ourselves and our spouses to move on. This is why gossip is so destructive: negative speech reinforces conclusions, making it hard for any of the parties to grow beyond their past.

But there are limits: there are certain kinds of problems in a marriage that we cannot, no matter how tolerant and forgiving we might be, simply accept and move on. These are not the kinds of problems that one can internalize, make adjustments, and keep living – these problems paralyze us, keeping us locked in a Hamlet-style morass of indecision and inaction. I speak, of course, of the same fundamental affliction that plagued Hamlet—indecision—caused by uncertainty, self-doubt, and soul-eating suspicion.

Is she faithful to me? That question, all by itself, makes it impossible for a marriage to grow. Without that kind of basic trust, two people cannot grow any further. If and when the basic fabric of our lives is in doubt, then people find themselves in a dangerous limbo. In Othello, Shakespeare explores the corrosive effects of suspicion within a marriage: Is my wife true? Asking that question, in Othello’s case, led to madness. And even in non-fictional characters, the mere suspicion that one’s partner in life is being unfaithful is paralyzing.

The crazy thing about this kind of problem is that it is not the knowledge that creates the impasse: it is the uncertainty. After all, if one is certain that their spouse is or is not faithful, then one can make plans, act accordingly, and move on. It is the doubt that gnaws at the soul, making people second-guess themselves and everything around them.

Suspicion of infidelity is entirely disabling – at least in the sense of being able to spiritually grow. Of course, Shakespeare did not invent the idea of the suspicious husband. The Torah deals with this issue.[59] The process for resolving this uncertainty is thick with symbolism, and designed to put the husband’s mind at ease: either his wife has been faithful, or she has not. Either way, the suspicion is put to rest.

The Torah tells us about a woman who is suspected of being unfaithful to her husband. She is called a sotah, and there is a ritual that involves drinking bitter waters, and the threat of a gruesome death if she has, in fact, been untrue. As with other incidences of bitterness, the issue is not unfaithfulness itself, but the dynamic between a husband and wife in the event that he suspects her of being untrue, but simply does not know for sure. The entire purpose of the ceremony is to reveal the truth, to end any lingering doubts either way.

One peculiar thing about the ritual is the timing of its description in the Torah: in the middle of the national story between the counts of the priests, the Levites, and the national dedication of the Mishkan and resumption of Hashem’s direct conversations with Moshe. And the lesson seems to be very interesting indeed: the Torah seems to be telling us that in order for Hashem to be among us, to have a deep and meaningful relationship with the Jewish people, we first must have no doubt that our spouse is faithful. In other words, removing fundamental doubts within our personal marriages is a precondition for a spiritual connection to Hashem.

As with so many other commandments, the origin of this commandment is also found earlier in the Torah, and in the relationship between the Jewish people and Hashem:

And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter; therefore, its name was called Marah.[60]

The waters were bitter because Hashem wanted to connect the Jewish people to the lack of fidelity to Him in their own past. The first time the word for “bitter” is found in the Torah is when Esav marries a Hittite woman. And they made life bitter for Yitzhak and for Rivkah.[61]

Bitterness is associated with infidelity – the act, like Esav’s marriages to non-Jews, that more than anything threatens the long-term survival of Judaism, the perpetuation and practice of the Torah. But bitterness is also associated with the mere suspicion of infidelity. And suspicion is acidic; as Shakespeare so ably shows, the mere suspicion of infidelity eats away at relationships and, if unchecked, destroys them.

And at Marah, where the waters were bitter, Hashem performs a very peculiar act:

‘. . . the Lord showed him a tree, which when he threw into the waters, and made the waters sweet;’[62]

A tree?! The first specific tree that Adam knew, of course, was the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It was the tree of certainty, the symbol of clear understanding. Hashem commands that the tree be cast into the water.

Why? Why is the water bitter, and the tree required to make it sweet again?

When the Jewish people were in Egypt, they were presented with other deities. They lived very similarly to Egyptians. Hashem wanted to make a clear point: one cannot be both a true Torah Jew, and an idol worshipper. Our relationship with Hashem is monogamous. We are to have no other gods before him! And so if there is even suspicion of infidelity between a man and wife, or man and Hashem, a relationship is poisoned.

Hashem makes the connection between the suspected wife and the Jewish people even more explicit, when he makes it about health:

And He said, ‘If you will diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your Hashem, and will do that which is right in his sight, and will give ear to his commandments, and keep all his statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon you, which I have brought upon the Egyptians; for I am the Lord that heals you.’[63]

The most relevant lesson for us to acknowledge is that relating to Hashem in Judaism is not merely a matter of obediently doing Hashem’s will. We are meant to be independent actors, freely choosing whether, and to what extent, we seek a connection with Hashem.

More than this: the Torah is telling us that when there are impediments to our relationship with our spouse and our Creator, we cannot merely wish them away, or ask Hashem to make them disappear on our behalf. We are the actors: in order to move on, the spouse has to tackle a suspicion head-on, discuss it and work to resolve it. Passive acceptance or wallowing in self-doubt doesn’t work, at least not if we want to make something of ourselves. When we are paralyzed, it is up to us to come back to the world, ready to move on and grow, partners with Hashem in improving the world in and around us.

Dealing with Life and Loss in Marriage

When we suffer the loss of trust or the loss of a relationship, it can be devastating to a relationship. We know that Sarah died when she heard the news that Yitzhak was offered up as a sacrifice; she was unprepared to continue to have a relationship with a man who would offer up their only son as a sacrifice.

Is the Holocaust so different? How many Jews ended their relationship with Hashem after He did not stop the Holocaust from occurring? We, as Jews, do not merely quietly sit and take what is given. Instead, we quarrel and argue – and when that fails, we certainly have been known to simply terminate the relationship, to refuse to have anything more to do with our spouse. Sarah’s death is analogous to the Jew who turned away from Hashem after the Holocaust. When we do not like what has happened, we leave the relationship.

The marriage of Avraham and Sarah is the national Jewish marriage with Hashem, and has been ever since the second tablets were given to us. Ours is a tumultuous and dynamic marriage which continues to yield unprecedented wonders.

Even death can be a trigger for growth. Sarah died, but Avraham then goes to very great pains to bury her with the highest honors. It is his act of redemption, one that heals the relationship for the Jewish people for all time going forward. Avraham establishes the cave, the foundational burial place, for all time.

In the same way that Avraham plants the foundation stone at Machpelah, Hashem does the same thing when he commands the creation of the Mishkan. Both exist to heal a profound rift between man and his spouse; the Beis Hamikdosh was a way to live in peace with the Jewish people after our actions of betrayal in the desert, just as Avraham’s burial of Sarah atoned for his offering of their only son.

Both the cave of Machpelah and the Beis Hamikdosh are eternal parts of the Jewish people and the land of Israel. They are, of course, necessarily separate. The cave of Machpelah is a place only for the dead, while the Beis Hamikdosh is only a place for the living. The two places are two sides of the same coin: the former unifies man and wife in death,[64] while the latter connects man and Hashem in life.

Death is inevitable, and is the final end to any relationship, but it is also a legacy for the living and a legacy for the world. From generation to generation – whether one pursues holiness through relationships or technology or spreading knowledge and wisdom… these are all ideals embodied in the Mishkan, goals and aspirations for every Jew’s life.

As Rabbi Tarfon taught, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.”[65]

Thus, the Ark in the Mishkan and eventually the Beis Hamikdosh represents one of the most rich and sacred aspects of Judaism. It reminds us of the importance of intimacy and marriage in our lives. It requires us to marry as a prelude to intimacy and marriage to Hashem. And calls to us to pursue this journey so that we may walk on the path of holiness.


As a modern reader, you may very well wonder about the purpose of the altar in the Mishkan for making offerings and sacrifices. You might allow your imagination to create all kinds of images of these rituals, because we are limited in knowing the reasons that sacrifices were made, what they actually looked like, who made them, and when they were offered. In this part of the book, we will offer an understanding of the origins of offerings in Judaism, and then bring a modern and reasonable understanding of the altar and the sacrifices and offerings.

Be Holy because I am Holy

When we make an altar, we are not supposed to use tools on it, as tools represent human ingenuity, and thus would contaminate the altar. Instead we are instructed to keep it as basic and unimproved as a heap of ground or stones can be. The ground under the altar should represent all ground, to stand in for the earth itself. A sacrifice has the explicit goal of connecting heaven and earth – both are things, nouns.

But the human addition to the altar is forbidden to be our physical substance: our part is one of action. Hashem tells the Jewish people that the altar should have a ramp, not steps, so that “you should not expose your nakedness,” suggesting that climbing steps requires another kind of separation between the legs.[66]

The altar and the offerings that were made were primarily about our connecting intimately with Hashem. We brought offerings and made sacrifices, because we either had acted in a way that distanced us from Hashem, or to express our gratitude to Him, or we were choosing to become ever closer to Him. But the earliest offerings may suggest the reasons for the commandments about offerings and how they ultimately were intended to support a relationship between people and Hashem.

The Sacrifices of Kayin and Abel

The story of the sacrifices offered by Kayen and Abel creates an intriguing framework for understanding the sacrifices. By looking at how Hashem responded to their sacrifices, particularly His rejection of Kayin’s sacrifice, we can begin to understand not only the role of sacrifices, but their purpose and relevance in our relationship with Hashem.

What Did Kayin do Wrong?

After Kayin and Abel made their offerings to Hashem, many people have speculated on Hashem’s reasons for accepting Abel’s offerings and rejecting Kayin’s: maybe Abel’s was acceptable because it was firstlings and Kayin’s was not the first fruits; maybe Hashem rejected Kayin’s offering on a whim. But what if the reason can be explained by recognizing the role of Kayin’s anger toward Abel, his misguided purpose of his offering, and Hashem’s goal in lecturing him after the fact? In fact, Hashem may have ensured through the mitzvah of offering bikkurim (first fruits) a way that we would understand the purpose of our offerings and how they would generate joy, intimacy, celebration between ourselves, our community and Hashem. Let’s pursue this line of thinking by studying the story of Kayin and Abel more carefully.

During the time of Kayin and Abel, it was still common among other peoples to make offerings to pagan gods. In spite of the teachings of Hashem, Kayin may still have believed that the gods needed to be bribed for them to provide wellbeing and productivity to the land and its people. In fact, Abel was the first of the brothers to make an offering, and Kayin followed his example—but Kayin may not have had a close relationship with Hashem or failed to understand the purpose of the offering: it was not meant to be a bribe to the pagan gods, but a symbol of gratitude to Hashem for the bounteous fields and trees, as well as a way to acknowledge Hashem for being inextricably involved with the fertile land and its fruits.

So Hashem may have realized that the purpose underlying Kayin’s offering was not proper, and He rejected it, and Kayin became angry[67]:

Why are you angry, said Hashem to Kayin, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you refuse to do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; you are its object of desire, but you must master it.

Hashem was deeply concerned, not just because Kayin misunderstood the purpose of a sacrifice and may have only been imitating Abel, but because Kayin was enraged at Hashem’s response.; He saw that Kayin might not choose to control his rage at Abel’s offering being accepted and his own being rejected. Hashem is telling him that if he doesn’t control his rage, “sin is crouching at your door”; Hashem knew that Kayin might do something terrible out of his anger. More than this fact, Kayin may not have understood Hashem’s instruction, and he acted rashly. As we know, Kayin funneled his rage into a pre-meditated murder of his own brother. This incident was not only the first time that an act was called “sin,” but it was the first fratricide in the Torah.

Did Kayin misunderstand Hashem’s cautionary words? Or had his rage grown too great to master it? We don’t know. We can surmise, however, that Hashem was distressed at Kayin’s murder of his brother, and that He was determined to make certain that in the future, the Jewish people would understand the purpose of sacrifices and offer them according to His commandments. The bikkurim were the epitome of how and why we make sacrifices to Hashem.

As we mentioned earlier, the bikkurim were the offering of the first fruits. The process of collecting first fruits demanded that the farmer examine his crop or fruit trees carefully, even daily, to be able to identify when the flower of the first fruit appeared, and he would tie a bow next to the blossom. Unlike Kayin who did not offer first fruits, and may have gathered his offering in haste to keep up with his brother, farmers would take the necessary time to examine their first fruits. We learn that there are reasons for us to take our time in following a process dedicated to Hashem.

Other reasons for the intense attention of the farmer to his crops was that the first fruits were not necessarily the most beautiful, or ripest, or largest; they only needed to be the first. The purpose of the offering was to acknowledge that Hashem, with the land, rains, sun and His blessings, had worked with the farmer to produce the crop, and the farmer wanted Hashem to know how very happy and grateful he was for the results of their shared work. The farmer would place the first fruits in a basket, present them to the priest at the Mishkan and make the following declaration:

So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, Lord, have given me.[68]

In addition, if the farmer had to sell his produce before reaching Jerusalem, Hashem instructed him to use the funds (as he would also do once he sold his produce in Jerusalem), to join with the community in celebration with food and drink.

Therefore, Hashem’s providing this mitzvah of the bikkurim ensured that His instructions would be clear, and we would understand a number of important premises of this offering: (1) that the offering was an expression of heartfelt gratitude to Hashem for his help in producing the crops; (2) that the bikkurim were not a payoff to Hashem for their good fortune; and (3) that the declaration they made when they arrived to give the offering to the priest reinforced their ownership of the process. Finally, we are reminded that all offerings were not for Hashem’s benefit, but for our own. We grow closer to Hashem when we acknowledge our love and gratitude to Him, and to those in the community who are also offering bikkurim and celebrating with us.

Prayer v. Sacrifices

Since we can no longer offer sacrifices without the Temple, some say that our prayers are a substitution for them. Although our prayers are significant, we have to wonder if they provide a direct substitution for them?

When we offer prayers, we are making a spiritual connection to Hashem. In a sense, it doesn’t require us to carry out a process; we can often do it “in place,” without having to necessarily travel anywhere. Our prayers are very important and can frame and our lives in a holy manner.

But sacrifices required something extra. We were reminded that our lives were connected to the seasons, and our food was not only connected to the earth, but to our work with Hashem. We were responsible for planting, raising and harvesting our crop and not to just rely on Hashem’s blessings, but in fact to work with him for our own survival. We must watch the crops and for the appearance of first fruits, which reminded us that the work we do to raise the crops is done in partnership with Hashem. And we must carry our first fruits (or the money from them) to Jerusalem.

So although prayer engages us as we stand facing Hashem, sacrifice called us to actively pursue through our actions a relationship with Hashem. Every step we took, every seed we planted, every fruit we picked, every trip we made to the Mishkan to offer sacrifices reminded us of our relationship with, and gratitude to Hashem. They engaged us in the physical, not just the intellectual. In fact, sacrifice, including the burning of the sacrifice, engaged all our senses, every part of us, in a way that prayer may not.

These observations in no way discount the significance of prayer. It’s difficult, however, to assume that prayer is a direct substitute for sacrifice. Still, until the Temple is rebuilt, we can pray as a way to ensure our closeness to Hashem, to become ever more holy, and the best opportunity to express our gratitude.

Since the idea of sacrifices or korbanot (which means “coming close”) seem foreign to us today, we’ll identify some of the sacrifices and offerings that were made and their purposes; provide a short vignette to provide an example that people might relate to in this day and age, and then summarize the reasons sacrifices were done but are no longer done.

Due to the number of korbanot that could be offered, we’re going to focus on six types: the bikkurim, or first fruits; the olah, or burnt offering; the zevach sh’lamin, or peace offering; the chatat, sin offering; the asham, or guilt offering; and tithing. Let’s begin with an example of offering the bikkurim.

* * *

Benjamin wiped the sweat from his brow, as he looked out over his field. He and his wife had toiled through blood, sweat and tears to come to this day; fortunately, Hashem had provided everything they needed to have a successful crop. Through hailstorms, flooding and cold they had worked the soil, and now the wheat was beginning to ripen. It felt like a miracle, just like bitter water being made pure by Moshe on the journey from Egypt. He was going to take the first ripe wheat to the Mishkan, to celebrate joyously all the blessings he and his family had experienced as they arrived at this day of reaping. He closed his eyes and said a prayer of thanks to Hashem for all His help, for the seeds, the rain and the ripening of the crops, and then set out to collect the bikkurim. He waved at his wife who was approaching with a knowing smile on her face. It was a good day.

* * *

The olah comes from the word, aliyah, the word that means “ascension”; it is a sacrifice that suggests that we are not only submitting to Hashem, but we are rising to meet and to become more intimate with Him, and in so doing, achieving holiness. This offering could be made for many different reasons. Depending on what the offeror could afford, the olah could be selected from cattle, sheep, goats, or birds. The offering would be burnt completely by the priest, as it was completely dedicated to Hashem.

* * *

I feel so blessed to have a hardworking husband and good children. But I feel alone and distant. I believe it is a good time to seek out Hashem wholeheartedly and completely. I want Him to know that even when life is hard, I am devoted to Him and want to experience him more deeply in my life. I will take an unblemished sheep to the Mishkan and ask the priest to make an olah, burning the offering as a full devotional act to Hashem. I will immerse myself in prayer and commitment through this holy act.

* * *

The zevach sh’lamim was a peace offering or one of expressing thanks or gratitude. The word sh’lamim has the same root as shalom: peace or wholeness. A part of the offering is burnt on the altar; a portion is given to the priests and the rest is eaten by the offeror and his or her family. Everyone has the opportunity to participate in this act of holiness and gratitude to Hashem.

* * *

He was still shaking his head in wonderment and appreciation, as he sat on the ground. His four-year old son had fallen from his cart and suffered what appeared to be a severe gash on his head. When he saw the boy fall, he rushed to his side, held him in his arms and put pressure on the wound. Although it had seemed serious at first, he realized that it was not as dangerous as it seemed. Once the boy opened his eyes, his father continued holding him in his arms, resolving that he would go to the Mishkan tomorrow with his family to make an offering, to express his gratitude that his son was saved from a catastrophic outcome.

* * *

The chatat is a sin offering, to ask for forgiveness for a sin a person has committed. The offering must be given in wholehearted sincerity to be acceptable; the sin must be one that is committed unintentionally, not maliciously. The sacrificial animal is to be commensurate with the sin committed, as well as the means of the one who has sinned.

* * *

Joseph paced the floor, angry at himself. He had just finished telling a neighbor that he had spent Shabbos afternoon taking a long walk; he had been pre-occupied with money problems and just needed to clear his head. As he was about to re-enter his house, he told his neighbor, Calev, where he had been. Calev looked surprised since, he explained in a kind voice, there is a mitzvah that states we are not supposed to walk long distances on Shabbat, and he had walked much more than the distance permitted; Calev assured him that as a new convert, it was understandable that he didn’t know. He suggested that Joseph take a chatat offering to the Mishkan, since he sincerely regretted breaking the mitzvah and was committed to not violating it again.

Joseph slowed his pacing, and suddenly realized that he had not only made a mistake that day, but might make many more as he strove to understand and embrace his new faith; he had also learned something new, and learning is a special blessing on Shabbat. He would choose an offering the next day and make his way to the Mishkan. He wanted Hashem to know that he was sincere in his devotion to Judaism, and would work even harder to keep the mitzvot.

* * *

The guilt offering, called asham, is offered when a person isn’t sure whether he or she has committed a sin, or for a breach of trust. The offering is eaten by the priests.

* * *

Rebecca’s friend Miriam confided in her that she was having troubles in her marriage. Miriam wasn’t sure what to do about it, and thought Rebecca might have a suggestion. The situation, as marriages often are, was complicated. Rebecca spent most of their time together just listening, but struggled about whether she could be helpful to Miriam or not. Since her friend asked her again what she thought she should do, she asked if she could think about the situation and talk to her tomorrow.

When Rebecca arrived home, her husband asked her about her visit, and Rebecca told him what she’d learned, and how she hoped she could be helpful to her friend; perhaps he could offer some suggestions. Later that night, however, she wondered if Miriam’s sharing was supposed to be confidential, at least meant to be limited in details shared, and whether she had betrayed her friend. At that point, she asked her husband not to share the information with anyone else; she also resolved to take an asham to the Mishkan, since she believed she may not only have disappointed Miriam by confiding the details of her situation, but disappointed and created a rift between herself and Hashem. Meanwhile, she would also be as good a friend as possible to Miriam, and pray for Hashem to forgive her for her own possible error.

* * *

You might be surprised to see “tithing” included in a section on sacrifices and offerings. But tithings were precisely those actions commanded by Hashem to the Jews.

Since the Levites were committed directly to Hashem, they were not included in the census to identify the people who could be in the military, nor were they assigned land; the Levites were tasked with caring for everything connected to the Mishkan and with moving the Mishkan and everything associated with it when it was time to travel. To compensate the Levites for their work and devotion, the Israelites were told to tithe one-tenth of their crops or income for the Levites’ service.

So these tithes were donated to Hashem and allocated to the Levites as the compensation for the service. Tithes were a portion of those efforts that connected the people to the Mishkan, to those who were dedicated to Hashem, and to Hashem himself. This interconnectedness allowed the people through their donations of oil, corn and wine to experience the holiness of giving and donating.

Hashem presents many different ways for us to recognize our sins and to atone for them, too. Each sacrifice is intended to be commensurate with the sin; each sin we commit can burden us in regret and guilt, and when we are pre-occupied with our own feelings, we have difficulty reaching out to Hashem. In every case, Hashem wants us to take responsibility for our actions, recognize the impact not only on ourselves but on those in our lives, and in our relationship with Him.

Transcending our Physical Selves

Mankind’s role in holiness is not to contribute our own bodies, nor to add our own physicality: we are not the sacrificial animal. Our role is to be the catalyst, the kinetic force that brings the nouns together. And when we do this, we have to make our entire bodies into verbs – climbing a ramp requires us to bow, engaging our entire bodies; when we climb steps, our upper bodies can remain erect and distinct from our legs. To create holiness, we have to be the motive force, while the earth and heaven are the static bodies that are connected through us.

The lesson is clear enough: when we define ourselves by our physical attributes, then we are limiting who we are. The Torah almost never tells us of a person’s physical appearances unless the person himself thinks it makes him limited in some way (such as Moshe’s speech impediment). Our lives are supposed to be lived and defined by what we choose to do, not by how we are born or raised, or even how others define us. While we live, we are supposed to be verbs, not nouns. Through our actions, we close the gap between heaven and earth, bringing them together. There will be plenty of time to be a mere hunk of matter when we are six feet under. We are not to be a part of the altar, but we use it to unify heaven and earth with holiness.

Sweet Aroma and Moving in the Right Direction

What is the substance of a smell? The scent of a delicious food does not provide any material comfort. Instead of satisfying our hunger, the smell of roasted coffee or baking bread has the opposite effect: it whets our appetite, adding to our cravings. Indeed, a sweet savor is not filling: it is something that makes us excited and anticipatory for the meal to come.

The very first time that Hashem refers to a “sweet savor” is when Noach offers an elevation-offering from the animals on the Ark. The aroma must have been sweet, indeed, because Hashem follows the offering with no less than 19 verses of promises and blessings for mankind.

Those blessings do not come because mankind inherently deserved them. (If we had, there would have been no need for the Flood in the first place.) The blessings come as a direct result of Noach’s sacrifices: of connecting the earth to the heavens by sacrificing kosher animals. It is that act of sacrifice (which seems to be Noach’s own invention) which shows that at least one member of the human race understood that the purpose of mankind is to seek a connection between man and Hashem, to elevate the natural world into the spiritual plane.

The sacrifices are not the purpose of mankind’s existence, which is why Hashem is not satisfied by Noach’s offerings, just as our hunger is not sated by the scent of tantalizing food. A sacrifice—any Torah sacrifice—does not complete our lives. The fact that Hashem finds our sacrifices to be “a pleasing aroma” tells us that Hashem views our offerings not as the meal, but as the anticipatory scent that promises wonderful things to come. It means that we are on the right track, not that we have reached the destination.

So when we make an offering because we have sinned, the offering does not make the sin “go away” – but it shows Hashem that we are contrite, and that we aim to do better in the future. The only part of the offering that goes “up” to the heavens is the smell, after all, and that is all that Hashem desires from it. Hashem benefits from knowing that we are seeking the relationship, that we are craving the connection, and that we understand that a fundamental purpose of our existences in this world is to dedicate ourselves toward spiritual ends. When Noach built the ark, he was saving life. But when he made elevation-offerings afterwards, Noach showed that the value of life is not inherent: life exists so that we can choose to connect with Hashem, to complete the creation of the world by connecting heaven and earth.

This point is hardly a side-note in the Torah: the phrase reiach nichoach, or “pleasing aroma” to Hashem appears 39 times in the Torah. And it is there to remind us that Hashem wants us, above all, to be moving in the right direction. An offering, like a pleasing aroma, is not a product in itself; it is a step in the process, a promise of even better things to come.

Thus, the altar gives us the opportunity to make offerings to unite heaven and earth, and to express our love and connection to Hashem.

Altar and Elevation to Holiness

The mission of the Jewish people is to be a light unto the nations, to elevate the physical world into the spiritual plane. And to do that, it was essential that the physical home of the Jewish people had to be capable of that elevation.

One might ask, however: is it not problematic that the Land that is promised is named Canaan? After all, Canaan was the name of Ham’s son, and he was cursed by Noach for Ham’s sexual crime[69]. The Torah tells us that the Canaanites, guilty of sexual perversion, could not achieve holiness.

Ham’s sin explains why Avraham forbids his servant from finding a wife who is a Canaanite, why Esav earns the displeasure of his parents for marrying a local Canaanite. It is why the Torah tells us explicitly, “after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you, shall ye not do; neither shall ye walk in their statutes.”[70]

But even though the word “Canaan” (in one form or another) occurs ninety-three times in the Torah, the Torah does not use the name “Canaan” when referring to acts of holiness. The land itself, while named for its inhabitants, is not called “Canaan” by the Torah whenever we are charged with holiness, with doing Hashem’s will. Instead, the Torah goes to great lengths to avoid using the name “Canaan” when referring to the purpose of the land as the place where man is meant to connect with Hashem, to create holiness. Avraham is not told “Go to Canaan,” but instead, “Go to the land that I will show you.” When commanded to bring offerings, the Torah does not tell us to go to the Land of Canaan. Instead, the Torah phrases it otherwise: “. . . in the place which he shall choose to cause His name to dwell there.”[71] or “the Lord thy Hashem shall choose to set his name there.”[72].

There is no real suspense – Avraham knows where to go, and he proceeds directly to Canaan. The Jews know that they will be offering sacrifices to Hashem in the land of Canaan. But the Torah avoids naming the place “Canaan.”

Names are important. Some names (such as Adam’s names for animals or the “Land of Canaan” are merely descriptive). They tell us the nature of the thing, or the names of its inhabitants. But when Avraham calls out in Hashem’s name, he is doing something very different: he is prescribing. The land may have been called Canaan in the past and present – but the future land will be the place where Hashem sets His name, the place which Hashem showed Avraham. The place of holiness.

Offering sacrifices is also a way of elevating the world and closing the separation between Hashem and man and making things holy. And even within the “most holy” category, the Torah plays favorites: the guilt offering, the sin offering, and the meal offering are called “most holy” more than anything else in the entire Torah. What makes these specific items worthy of such attention?

I would argue that the difference is that these are all voluntary offerings, in the sense that for someone to bring such an offering, they must be taking the initiative. A person who brings a sin offering is looking for an opportunity to bring an offering, above and beyond supporting the routine “housekeeping” offerings in the Temple. When one of those offerings is brought, it is as a result of the exercise of free will: we choose to do an action, and that choice gives the act more potency.

But there is more than this. While Shabbos and the burning bush were combinations of heaven and earth, physical and spiritual, they were really admixed in this way, directly by Hashem. Hashem creates mankind to reunify the split parts—it is our job—so that when Hashem reunifies heaven and earth, He does not do it “for keeps”; He only does it as a teacher would show a student how to solve a math problem: the burning bush is an example of holiness, teaching Moshe the definition. Hashem wants us to learn from Him, to choose to follow His lead and create holiness ourselves.

But a sacrifice, by contrast, is not a static thing, but a dynamic event. It is not merely the combination of two disparate elements. A sacrifice is an active event, elevating the physical toward the spiritual.

Consider the sacrifices: the guilt and sin offerings involve an animal. When the animal is sacrificed, the soul, nefesh, of the animal is released upward in fire. An animal is given an elevation, Aliyah, toward the divine. This is precisely what we want our own souls to do – to elevate toward Hashem. And the flesh of the sacrifices becomes most holy – to be eaten by the priests, elevating them in turn. Like kosher food, whose purpose is to allow us to elevate our bodies through consuming the kosher animal, so too the sacrifices to Hashem create a foodstuff that is most holy, elevating the priests as they consume the meat.

Animals, of course, have spirits, and the contribution of their spirits to the offering makes it most holy. But the meal offering is of flour and oil, not of an animal! Why is an offering that does not include an animal also repeatedly identified as being “most holy”?

The answer is that the meal offering was brought by those who could not afford to purchase an animal. For such a person, even financing the meal offering was a substantial investment (and sacrifice) of his or her own meager possessions. The reason the Torah says, “And when any will offer a meal offering to the Lord,”[73] the Hebrew word used for “any” is nefesh or spirit. The Talmud tells us that a meal offering was not the spirit of the animal but represented the spirit of the person making the offering itself! Which might explain why the meal offering is given pride of place when the Torah lists the offerings:

This shall be yours of the most holy things, reserved from the fire; every offering of theirs, every meal offering of theirs and every sin offering of theirs, and every guilt offering of theirs, which they shall render to me, shall be most holy for you and for your sons.[74]

It is the meal offering that comes first, because the people bringing the offerings put more of their spirit into their sacrifice—and the offering is meant to elevate people most of all: the offering is a human proxy.

The Torah’s words are telling us that Hashem values mankind’s contributions to this world above His own.

And 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 this world: Hashem wants us to be holy, and the greatest holiness is achieved when we serve Hashem by connecting the disparate worlds that He formed in the beginning of creation.

One beautiful and creative explanation of the sacrifices was made by Joseph Cox in a video he produced.[75]

Our acts through offerings, then, are of key importance.

Seven, Two and the Animals

Many parts of Judaism and the Torah are connected to the number seven, and the altar and sacrifices are no exception. The seven-day week is a Jewish creation, and we Jews trace this number (which does not work well with either the moon or the sun) to the Torah itself, and the description of creation over a period of seven days. The number is thus quite meaningful to Jews – seven is the number of Hashem’s creative acts, the number that culminates in the day we make holy, Shabbos.

It is not enough that we bring the physical and spiritual together in a cause. While there is an inherent potency in the combination, if we, Hashem forbid, are doing it for our own glory instead of Hashem’s, then we have misunderstood the entire purpose of the creation of the world.

In addition, Noach is commanded to bring seven pairs of the spiritually ready (King James translates as “clean”) animals into the ark. Why? I think it is because these animals, like Shabbos, are capable of spiritual growth: people can use them as kosher food or sacrifices, spiritually elevating both the animals and the people, and the world around us.

So why is Noach told to only bring two of each of the spiritually unfit animals into the ark? I think the number in this case refers to the second day of creation – the only day that Hashem does not call “good.” It is not a day of elevation (one form of holiness), but a day of separation and division of the waters above and below. The second day of creation was, essentially a stutter-step in the creative process. Thus, the animals that are brought on, in the words of the song, “by twosies, twosies,” are the animals that, like the second day itself, do not contribute to the spiritual growth and completion of the world.

One example of a distinction between the holy and the unholy animals comes from the story of the snake in the Garden of Eden:

And if a man come presumptuously upon his neighbor, to slay him with guile; thou shalt take him from Mine altar, that he may die.[76]

What a strange formulation! If you want to kill a murderer that is one thing: but what does Hashem’s altar have to do with it?

The answer lies in the word “arum,” which is translated here as “guile” – but also equally means being potentially self-aware. The kind of forbidden killing is not accidental manslaughter; it is premeditated and evil. Killing with “arum” is not a crime of passion, but one of design.

And the amazing thing is that this word, which is not very common in the Torah, is first found to describe the snake in the Garden of Eden –

Now the serpent was more arum than any beast of the field which the Lord Hashem had made.[77]

The snake sought to kill Chavah (and Adam) by persuading Chavah to eat the fruit, since Hashem had pledged that if they ate the fruit, then they would die. The snake, with premeditation, succeeds in his mission – once they ate the fruit, their consciousnesses were transformed, meaning that the “old” Adam and Chavah were no longer. So the snake in Genesis, with arum, kills.

In Exodus, Hashem tells us that if anyone kills with arum, then they should also be killed. But not simply killed. They must be “taken from the altar.” Why?

The answer is simple: it was the snake’s punishment. Because it killed with arum, the snake lost its legs, and was forced to eat only dust – to wallow in physical depths with no potential for spiritual growth. The example of the snake teaches us (among other things) that the purpose of the altar is to achieve growth and spiritual connection.

Oil and Man’s Relationship with Hashem

Hebrew is a language with relatively few words, and so different words often share a common root. In the case of “eight” the word is composed of three letters: shin, mem, and nun, which spell shemen, or oil. And what is very cool (at least for a Torah geek like me) is that the very first time oil is mentioned in the Torah is when Yaakov, after awakening from the dream in which he sees angels ascending and descending from heaven, announces his realization that the place is the “gate of heaven.”[78] Yaakov takes the stone that he had used as a pillow, the resting place for his soul the night before, and sets it up as a pillar, a kind of altar. Then, to seal the deal, Yaakov pours oil on top of it.

This is not the first time that oil is mentioned in the Torah; it was also the first time anything is poured on any head. But it was not the last! Yaakov actually seems to set the trend. Hashem commands Moshe to pour oil on Aaron’s head[79], which he does.[80] (The language is the same in all three cases.)

There is reciprocity here. Yaakov connected heaven and earth in the place where he experienced his dream, and he used the pouring of oil on the head of his pillar to seal the connection. So when it was time for the priests to be consecrated as the intermediaries between the Children of Israel and Hashem, then they were anointed with oil. Why oil? Perhaps we can say that oil was the embodiment of the relationship between man and Hashem, the meaning of the number eight, with which it shares the letters.

The natural world can be represented by a vegetable, but the creation of oil requires both nature and man’s effort to extract the essence of that vegetable. Oil is thus an amalgam of both divine creation and mankind’s investment of time and energy. The end product is highly nutritious and energy rich, usable as a food and fuel. In the Mishkan and Beis Hamikdosh it was used for both: an ingredient in edible offerings, as well as to light the menorah (the Chanukah version of which has eight lights). Food offerings could also be made from oil and flour; flour, also, is made from a combination of Hashem’s and man’s work.

So for Yaakov to pour oil on the altar was to both acknowledge the natural bounty that made oil possible, as well as to expressly connect mankind’s refinement of that bounty and its investment into the relationship between man and Hashem.

Man’s job in completing the creation of the world, is in fact to unify that which has been divided! We are meant to unify the dualisms in the world, and to do so in a holy manner: heaven and earth, man and woman, the waters above and the waters below (and countless others). But why, if Hashem merges that which is divided, is it destructive of life; whereas, if we succeed in our mission of doing the same thing, it is the ultimate act of holiness? Perhaps we could suggest an answer: If Hashem merges heaven and earth, we cease to exist (as seen with the giving of the first two commandments, as well, in a different form, is demonstrated by the Flood). But if we succeed in merging heaven and earth, then, it would appear, we are fulfilling our destiny!

The Mysteries of the Sacrifices

In all our explorations of the sacrifices and the altar, there are aspects that we haven’t yet discussed, in part because they challenge modern sensibilities, and in part, because we simply do not know the specific reasons for Hashem’s requiring them. For those who prefer to have a reason for everything, this situation can be very frustrating.

In particular, the priests are asked to drain the blood from the sacrificial animal after it is ritually killed. We know that blood is the fuel of life; that is why we are commanded to drain the blood from animals before we eat them. There is also the point that we are called to identify closely with this animal that represents us and who, like us, has blood flowing through its veins and whose blood represents its soul. The priests also sprinkled the blood on and around the altar, reminding us of the life-giving force of the blood, which represents our soul and the soul of the animal, which connects with Hashem. In a sense, however, this is all speculation.

There is another way to look at sacrifices and the altar. The other day I heard a story that I think demonstrates that when we are sometimes called to do something we don’t understand, it is a worthy and holy act:

A woman told her husband that she wanted flowers for her birthday. He was perplexed at her request, but he assumed it was important to her. So on her birthday, he brought her a beautiful bouquet of flowers. As he handed the bouquet to her, she looked into his eyes, tears welling up in her own eyes, and said simply, “Thank you.” Now he understood.

Hashem asked us to perform sacrifices in particular ways that we cannot explain. Can we offer up our lives to serve Hashem, in the absence of detailed explanation, because Hashem wants us to do so? Can we offer up sacrifices because it is a way for us to be intimate with Him?

The Absence of Sacrifices Today

Once the Second Temple was destroyed, there was nowhere that sacrifices and offerings could be made. Jews believe that when the Messiah comes, a third Temple will be built. Whether sacrifices will be offered once again, we can only speculate.

Some of our sages say that our prayers are a replacement for the sacrifices; that is one reason that prayer is still central to Jewish life. Again, not everyone agrees that prayer is a substitute for sacrifices.

The key to understanding the altar and sacrifices is that Hashem has always wanted us to aspire to be intimate with Him, to serve Him, and to actively continue his creation. When we understand that we are called to be active, to be verbs, we fulfill our desire to be holy.


Throughout this book we have discussed the Mishkan, what it represents, why it demonstrates Hashem’s desire to be close to us and the ways that we can experience that closeness, and the meaning of the symbols of the Mishkan and how we can practice with them. Dwelling in the background of these ideas, however, is an especially significant question that connects to the Mishkan and the 1st and 2nd Temples: why wasn’t the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, twice destroyed by our enemies, rebuilt in the last 2,000 years?  We have had all those years to pray, to yearn. And yet we are somehow no closer to the rebuilding of the Temple than we were after the destruction of the Second Temple by Titus.

The question is especially pertinent when we accept that, for the first time during this period, the Jewish people are now in control of the land on which the Temple, the “Home of the Tabernacle,” stood. And so I used to think as many others do: that we simply lack the courage to do what needs to be done. If this is so, we could say that our medieval, ghetto mindset has not been updated by the existence of the State of Israel. I think this is part of the answer. But it is not a complete explanation.

Until we understand why the Temple was destroyed in the first place, there is no reason why Hashem should give us another chance. After all, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” (Rita Mae Brown). We had the first two temples. And we lost them both, which means that thinking that if we restore what we had in the past we would get a better result would be, in a word: insanity.

If we were “doing” the temple wrong the first two times, then perhaps we are not supposed to build the third Temple until after we understand why Hashem commanded the tabernacle to be built in the first place! Perhaps this elevates the significance of the why question to a whole new level.

The serious gap in our understanding rests with a major purpose of the Temple: to offer sacrifices. Yet, the prophets and psalms have no shortage of exhortations about Hashem NOT wanting the sacrifices that He told us to bring! Here is but a short sample:

For I desired mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of Hashem more than sacrifices. (Hosea 6:6)


   Do I eat the flesh of bulls
or drink the blood of goats? (Psalms 50:13)

Yet the Torah commands us to bring sacrifices! What were the prophets and the psalms trying to tell us? Why did they seem to contradict Hashem’s expectations for sacrifices? Does Hashem want sacrifices, or not?

I think the prophets were making a more subtle, but profound argument: Hashem wants us to understand that the commandments are a means to an end, not an end in themselves.  And what is that end? God wants us to behave and live in a holy manner: Mercy. Love. Justice. Growth, both personal and societal.

So, too, the Temple, the house of the Tabernacle where we bring our sacrifices, is also a means to an end. Each of the parts of the tabernacle is rich with symbolism and meaning, capable of guiding us through the ages – but only if we appreciate the importance of seeking understanding, as opposed to merely ticking the boxes.

The problem is that throughout history, the Jewish people have forgotten Hashem’s expectations and slipped back into mindset of Kayin (Hashem as a powerful entity requiring a payoff), Korach (Hashem as pagan deity who is ultimately uninterested in the affairs of men as long as He gets His own offerings), and countless Jews who see Hashem as nature and nature as Hashem. For all these deities, man merely has to go through the motions, and the god is assuaged. None of these gods requires the worshipper to seek personal spiritual growth, to find ways to love the widow, the orphan and the stranger – let alone one’s own neighbor.

But the Hashem of the Torah stands qualitatively apart from all pagan (and for that matter Greco-Roman, Norse and other) deities. Hashem is not nature or one of its forces. Nor does He want us to serve because we acknowledge His power: He wants us instead to acknowledge and emulate his mercy and justice.

Hashem also wants and craves a relationship with us, one in which we seek to understand and perceive His thoughts. He commands us to bring sacrifices not because He is hungry, but because sacrifices, given properly, can help us grow and move on in our personal development and deepen our connection to and our relationship with Him.

When we instead practice what I term “Rain Dance Judaism,” we are reverting to a kind of “fill in the blanks” service to Hashem that is much more pagan than Jewish. Instead of understanding why we have commandments, we think all we really need to do is follow the commandments, with slavish attention to detail. If we do things just right, then the Celestial Slot Machine will come up bells, and we’ll be rewarded with a cascade of quarters. This is precisely the same trap into which the Judaism of the Temple periods fell!

Instead of understanding why we brought sacrifices, people assumed that as long as they followed the letter of the law, Hashem would be happy. Instead of understanding why the Mishkan was commanded, we instead assumed that we didn’t need to know the reasons; we were only to show our devotion by doing precisely as we were told. And instead of understanding and internalizing the lessons contained within sacrifices, we mailed it in: give Hashem lunch, and He’ll bless us – or at least leave us alone! We have forgotten that all of these actions, these commandments were intended to bring us closer to Hashem and to emulate Him in our actions, words and deeds.

Until we come to understand what the commandments are for, we will not have the opportunity to practice them fully, to use them as a way to learn and understand Hashem. As we read on the day commemorating the destruction of the Temples:

Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches. But let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the LORD who exercises lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness, in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith the LORD. [81]

And it is in these things, lovingkindness, judgment and righteousness, that we have been given the Torah and all its commandments. The challenge for us is to try to understand how and why the commandments in the Torah, including all of those of the Mishkan, lead us to making ourselves and our societies more loving, just and righteous. As we do that, we grow in our understanding and knowledge of Hashem Himself.

When we meet that mental challenge, then we will no longer be doing the same thing over and over again, and we will be able to reasonably expect a different result. At that time, we will be ready for the Third Temple.

  1. Deuteronomy 30:9-14
  2. Deuteronomy, 30:14
  3. Exodus, 25:8
  4. Exodus, 25:10
  5. Exodus, 25:29-38
  6. Exodus, 27:20
  7. Leviticus, 24:2
  8. Exodus, 25:30
  9. Leviticus, 6:6
  10. Exodus, 25:31-40
  11. Genesis, 41:5
  12. Genesis, 14:19
  13. Deut. 16:9
  14. Lev. 25:8
  15. Deuteronomy, 16:20
  16. Leviticus 24:1-4
  17. Micah, 6:8;
  18. Deuteronomy, 6:17
  19. Exodus, 4:11
  20. Deuteronomy, 4:15-18
  21. David Nye, author of America’s Assembly Line (MIT Press). Quoted in Assembly Magazine, October 2013.
  22. 4 Exodus, 20:4
  23. Leviticus, 2:3
  24. Exodus, 22:29
  25. Deuteronomy, 22:8
  26. Exodus 38:8.
  27. As opposed to modesty, which is entirely appropriate.
  28. Which is also not surprising for Moshe, as his earthly marriage, alone among all the Jewish people, was entirely celibate from the time of his first encounter with Hashem, at the burning bush. Moshe’s was the only marriage that was not the model for a relationship with Hashem.
  29. This idea is from Rabbi Simcha Baer.
  30. Deuteronomy, 30
  31. There is a lesson here as well for those who are not, for whatever reason, blessed with children: marriage is holy in itself, a worthy endeavor even in the absence of progeny. Indeed, the fact that Rivkah was born after the Akeidah (and the Torah tells us this in the verses immediately following the Akeidah, suggesting causality) might tell us that a certain distance between father and son was necessary in order for Yitzhak to be ready to be married. The Akeidah divided Avraham and his son, as shown by their decision to live separately from then on.
  32. Leviticus, 23:24
  33. Every individual marriage is unique, and so, too, our individual relationships with Hashem. But it can help to identify the national trend line.
  34. Exodus, 3:21
  35. Exodus, 11:2
  36. Breishis, 24:53
  37. Exodus, 32:2
  38. Genesis, 27:40
  39. Exodus, 34
  40. Exodus, 25:2
  41. But whether or not we choose to be fully “invested” in a relationship with Hashem, it would be a mistake, as already discussed above, to suggest that marriage is supposed to be “balanced.” Of necessity, the relationship is unequal.
  42. Tattoos in the Torah do not, of course, only refer to forms of worship. They also apply to mourning rituals. Unlike other ancient peoples, the Jews were forbidden to cut ourselves in grief, or engage in the kinds of mourning activities that could be embarrassing after the fact. Mourning in Judaism is intensely private: shiva happens at home, and mourners do not broadcast their grief for the whole world to see. There is a connection between mourning and worship – they both have to do with the beginning or ending of a relationship. In both cases, the Torah forbids us from cutting ourselves to commemorate the relationship: we must retain our freedom to make new choices, and to do that, old choices cannot be so irrevocably public that we cannot select another path.
  43. Maya Angelou summarized this perfectly in her final communication: “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.”
  44. “And it shall be for a sign to you upon your hand, and for a memorial between your eyes, that the Lord’s Torah may be in your mouth; for with a strong hand has the Lord brought you out of Egypt. “ Exodus 13:9; and “I may test them, whether they will walk in my Torah, or not.” Exodus 16:4.
  45. For linguistic elegance, “man” in this kind of usage refers to both men and women.
  46. Taboo, after all, is not the same the world over. Taboo is, at least partly, an invented social construct, which means that it is not purely instinctive.
  47. The story of Yehudah and Tamar exemplifies this perfectly. Yehudah falls victim to his own short-term sexual desires, in contrast to the long-sighted Tamar who was trying to perpetuate her deceased husband’s name. Yehudah accepts the reproof on both counts: Tamar’s time horizon is correct, and he had been in error both in delaying Tamar’s marriage, and in falling prey to his desires.
  48. But whether or not we choose to be fully “invested” in a relationship with Hashem, it would be a mistake, as already discussed above, to suggest that marriage is supposed to be “balanced.” Of necessity, the relationship is unequal.
  49. Deuteronomy 5:27
  50. Genesis 2:16–17
  51. Genesis 2:18
  52. The direct instruction Adam receives from Hashem eliminates any doubt or ambiguity about what he is, and is not, supposed to do. Today every person experiences that kind of uncertainty on a daily basis.
  53. Deuteronomy 5:30
  54. Numbers, 24:5
  55. Deuteronomy, 21:10-15 
  56. Ezekial, 16:7-8
  57. Rashi – Ketubot 62b
  58. Rashi – Niddah 17a
  59. Numbers 5:11–31
  60. Exodus 15:23.
  61. Genesis 26:35.
  62. Exodus 15:24
  63. Exodus 15:26.
  64. Which also explains why they are in different places, and why, even after the Jews came back to the land and the Mishkan, the tabernacle that was the predecessor to the fixed temple in Jerusalem, traveled, it never resided in Hebron.
  65. Pirke Avot 2:21
  66. Exodus, 20:23
  67. Genesis, 4:6-7
  68. Deuteronomy, 26:5
  69. Genesis, 9:25-27
  70. Leviticus, 18:3
  71. Deuteronomy, 14:23
  72. Deuteronomy, 14:24
  73. Leviticus 2:1.
  74. Exodus 18:9.
  75. He offers a comprehensive and concise explanation of all the of the symbolism involved in a sacrifice.
  76. Exodus, 21:14
  77. Genesis, 3:1
  78. Genesis, 28:18
  79. Exodus, 29:7
  80. Leviticus, 8:12
  81. Jeremiah, 9:23,24

How Does Eve’s Punishment Address the Crime?

The Torah can be seen as a series of feedback loops between man and G-d, trying to find the most productive way forward. We see action and reaction in both directions: Man acts, G-d responds. G-d acts, man responds. And every loop creates ripples that are found later in the text, enshrined in the Law. The result, the text of the Torah, contains its own connections showing “how we got here.”

This great guidebook on how to build holy relationships with each other and with G-d thus comes with its own answer key. Although the “How?” of commandments are found in the Oral Tradition, the “Why?” of every commandment is invariably found earlier in the written text. The commandments can all be explained by events that are described in the Torah.

Once we understand that commandments have a causal source, it follows that each time G-d reacts to what man does, His decisions are to try to increase the chances that we will make good/holy choices. For example, when early men treat women like chattel to be possessed at will, G-d shortens human lifespan so that the value of women (as a path to a form of immortality) is increased. Men thus need women to achieve their own long-term goals. The result is that women are treated by men more as valued partners and less as weaker (and thus inferior) animals.

The text shows us that G-d is not interested in punishment for the sake of punishment. G-d’s actions are neither arbitrary nor punitive; they are directed toward the goals of the Torah itself: pathways to holy relationships.

The goal seems to always be toward moving forward, toward growing in holy and productive directions. So, for example, when Cain kills Abel in a fit of rage, G-d does not engage in “measure for measure” punishment and kill Cain in turn. Instead, He undercuts Cain’s self-assurance, the agricultural prowess that enabled Cain’s pride and innate sense of superiority over other people. G-d tries to fix Cain by removing the source of pride. Hence, “If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth.” The logic is that G-d’s reaction to Cain giving into his anger is to remove the underlying foundation that enabled his selfish rage: G-d severs Cain from his rooted and self-satisfied existence.

Chava (Eve) is even more interesting. She takes the first risk in the Torah, by taking and eating the fruit in direct violation of the injunction. Her actions, born perhaps of curiosity and boredom, lead to a whole host of outcomes. But the specific punishment/consequence Chava receives is also very much in line with the nature of her transgression:

The classic translation reads:

And to the woman [God] said, “I will greatly expand Your hard labor—and your pregnancies; In hardship shall you bear children.”

Chava acted without consideration for the long-term consequences of her short-term decision (both with the fruit and of claiming victimhood status instead of personal responsibility). The consequence of her action is that she can no longer act in this way, because her short-term decisions (i.e., seeking pleasure) or denying responsibility for her own decisions will lead (at least until the age of abortion), to the greatest consequences and obligations of all: pregnancy, labor, and raising children. G-d closes the loop between action and consequence, because he wants women to become more risk-averse, more concerned about long-term consequences.

Described in standard evolutionary language: women are generally weaker than men, especially when pregnant or trying to raise a baby. So in order to successfully procreate, women need, unlike men, to plan for the future, to worry about what might go wrong. Risky behavior in a woman makes her less likely to raise children to the age where they, in turn, will perpetuate her genes. The Torah is giving us an explanation for how and why this came to be.

It is clear that, in broad strokes, men and women have very different ways of seeing the world, assessing risks and rewards, and planning for the future. We see it in voting patterns (single women are far more likely to vote for a Big Government), we see it the relative rates of entrepreneurship, in patent applications (women are only 10-20% of listed inventors). All in all, there is a strong difference between the sexes when it comes to taking risks and going in new directions.

And I think this all is a result of Chava taking that first risk!

There is a deeper level to Chava’s consequence, and it is found in a play on words in the text. “I will greatly expand Your hardship and your pregnancies; In hardship shall you bear children.” The word for “your pregnancies” seems to be redundant – after all, “in hardship shall you bear children” certainly seems to include pregnancy! So why is the word included?

The word in this verse for “pregnancy” is not found in its exact form anywhere else in the Torah. In this verse, the root word is H-R-N, a noun (elsewhere in the Torah the verb “to become pregnant” shares two of the letters and is T-H-R). Though H-R-N is not found elsewhere in the Torah referring to pregnancy, it is found referring to a cautionary tale: Terach’s son, named Haran. Haran dies while his father still lives. Which means that the name Haran (­H-R-N) is linked to a specific meaning: the fear that your children will die before you do.

I think the text is giving us a specific and terrible clue: Womenkind are given the fear of “your Haran,” the fear of the kind of loss a mother can never recover from. (Terach also never seems to recover.) Which in turn gives us a biblical explanation of why women are much more focused than are men when it comes to at worrying about the future. Women are aware of and fear the terrible consequences from short-term errors or oversights.

When Chava took the fruit, she was fearless and carefree, insensitive to the long-term risks of making bold decisions. The consequence of her reckless abandonment is that G-d gave womankind fear and anxiety, with a constant eye toward the painful and potentially catastrophic outcomes that can come from short-term choices.

[an @iwe and @susanquinn work]

P.S. An unintended consequence of making women fearful is that women are in general more interested in anything that reduces fear: not only productive religion, but also unproductive superstitions and false religions. All of these are ways of calming our fears through pathways that helps us to deal with them.


We Could Always Try Reading the Text

As readers know, I like to study the actual text of the Torah. In no small part, this is because most people of all Judeo-Christian faiths tend to rely on what other people say the text says, instead of reading it themselves and trying to make sense of it directly.

Take, for example, the splitting of the Sea. Everyone knows the story: In view of all the people, Moses raises his staff, and G-d makes the sea split in two. The people walk through, marveling at what they see. The Egyptians, consumed with a battle lust that blinds their better judgement chase after the Israelites – only to be drowned. The entire event is a visual spectacle. It is at once a demonstration of G-d’s power and the symbolic birthing of a nation. The Exodus has been memorialized in cinematic glory and countless story books for children. Everyone knows this version of the story.

There is only one problem: this is not what the text describes.

Here is how it happened:

The Egyptians gave chase to them, and all the chariot horses of Pharaoh, his riders, and his warriors overtook them encamped by the sea. As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them.

This is consistent with the “known” version. But then events take a turn. The people complain, Moses gives them a pep talk, and

Then G-d said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.

But they do not do so. Not then. Instead, G-d rearranges the cloud and puts it between the Israelites and the following Egyptians.

The messenger of G-d, who had been going ahead of the Israelites, now moved and followed behind them; and the pillar of cloud shifted from in front of them and took up a place behind them, and it came between the Egyptians and Israelites. Thus there was the cloud with the darkness, and it cast a spell upon the night, so that the one could not come near the other all through the night.

Hold on! The cloud blocks the view of the Egyptians. But it happens at night.

Then, and only then:

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 dry ground. The waters were split, and the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

The splitting of the sea does NOT happen as a visual spectacle at all! There was no sunlight, no mention of any other light source. People could see, if at all, only by moonlight. It could not have been clear at all what was going on.

And there is no evidence the Egyptians knowingly walked into the seabed! Instead, they were following the cloud, blocked from any sight of the splitting of the sea ahead of them. They did not drive forward crazed with blood lust, or recklessly driven by a death wish, walking between walls of water. And we know it because of what happened afterward:

At the morning watch, G-d looked down upon the Egyptian army in/with a pillar of fire and cloud, and threw the Egyptian army into panic.

The Egyptian army panicked because they could finally see where they were! The Egyptians had followed the cloud, which had led them into the seabed. But they did not know it!

The whole crossing of the people was at nighttime. So the visual spectacle was not the splitting of the sea or the crossing of the people. The visual spectacle happened when day broke:

Moses held out his arm over the sea, and at daybreak the sea returned to its normal state, and the Egyptians fled at its approach. But G-d hurled the Egyptians into the sea. The waters turned back and covered the chariots and the riders—Pharaoh’s entire army that followed them into the sea; not one of them remained.

And then, at that point, the point of the Exodus – all of it – became clear to the Israelites. It is then – and not at any time before – that they sing songs of praise and gratitude to G-d for their salvation. The realization happened at the same time as the final keystone of the salvation: at daybreak.

Thus G-d delivered Israel that day [this word refers to day and night – see Genesis] from the Egyptians. Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the shore of the sea.

We saw them alive on one side of the sea, and dead on the other. But what happened in between was cloaked in darkness.

To my surprise, I only realized this week that the common understanding was wrong. Even though I have read the Torah for as long as I could read. And I celebrate the Passover Seder every year, with hours of critical discussion. And I still got it wrong.

So the question for you, Dear Reader: Did you know it actually happened at night? Am I the fool?

[an @iwe and @eliyahumasinter work]

P.S. I think the original plan for the splitting of the sea was that it was supposed to happen during daytime. But when the people did not move forward into the sea when they were told to do so, G-d improvised and conducted the Exodus at night, when nobody could be certain of what was going on.

P.P.S. I think it is very important that all through the time in Egypt, the people had no idea what was going on. They were buffeted by external forces, and never once really understood G-d’s Plan. Which is why at no time during any of the plagues did the people give thanks to G-d for helping them. It was only at the very end, with the benefit of hindsight, that the plan became clear and the reason for all the hardships could be understood and appreciated. And that is when the people express gratitude with the Song by the Sea. Hindsight is where we can most easily see G-d’s hand at work.


Herd Stupidity

A friend of mine was traveling in Europe some years ago, and a few feet away on a public sidewalk near a café, a large man started beating up a woman – quite possibly his girlfriend. He had her on the ground, and he was systematically whacking her head against the curb.

My friend looked around, and although people were watching, nobody was doing anything. So my friend, a tourist from Scotland, acted. Despite being physically small and relatively unimposing, he promptly put himself in the middle of the two people and stared the attacker down until he decided to walk away. (My friend was, quite understandably, terrified). The woman needed – and received – medical attention.

What would you do in that situation? The answer may depend on how many people are around you.

We know from many studies that the chances of anyone intervening in such a circumstance depends a great deal on how many people are there. A person in a crowd thinks, “why me?” or otherwise rationalizes a wait-and-see posture – because after all, there is an entire crowd of people there doing nothing, so they must have a good reason, right? Being around other people gives us an excuse for inaction (at best) or even outright collusion.

When you add a dollop of anger or fear to the crowd, then you get a mob, an entity that moves and swells and responds as a single organic entity, with virtually no individual thought or consideration. Indeed, the mob, once in motion, responds to what it sees – a pathway that, unlike words, can entirely bypass the thinking parts of the brain. There are no individuals – there are just bodies in motion, thoughtless herd or pack instincts. The mob surges toward things that are perceived as desirable, and shies away from perceived threats. In these actions, with little or no individual thought, the helpless and hapless can be trampled. I know of PTSD for people who knowingly and consciously killed in battle. I think people have a much easier time rationalizing or simply forgetting trampling other people in a mob.

History has no shortage of such mobs, both in physical space and in the modern witchhunts against whomever is out of favor on any given day. Mobs and the mob mentality exist in every society, and in every age. Being in a mob and acting as part of it may indeed be the best way to ensure survival. We saw plenty of this kind of instinctive thinking with the reaction to Covid. After all, there are probably no recriminations after the fact as long as you did what everyone else was already doing. (We are seeing this now with the most egregious actors telling us to “get over it”).

Indeed, we could argue that there is a rational safety in the mob, one that we inherit from the animal kingdom. There is safety in numbers.  All highly social animals (from schools of fish to sheep and cows to starlings and blackbirds) come together to form archetypal mobs, acting as a swarm instead of as individuals. And people are similarly social creatures, able to spread our basest emotions – fear, anger, blood-lust – like a contagious disease.

The earliest recorded mob that I am aware of are the children of Israel leaving Egypt. As Joseph Cox points out, they 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 unthinking animals created on the fifth day. A mob. Stimulus and response. Not a single person below Moses and Aharon is allotted even enough individuality to be named. Nobody stands out.

Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.”

The people were a mass, an unthinking bulk of people who responded to basest fear using only instinct.

Even in their speech, the people acted as one, as a mob:

And they said to Moses, “… what have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt?”

This is the herd mentality. Moses tried to defuse it:

But Moses said to the people, “Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which G-d will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again.”

But the people feared anyway. The Hebrew word for “fear” is the same one for “see.” Moses was telling the people to not trust their eyes. He wanted them to rise above the base animalistic stimulus-response cycle that drives masses of people. Our eyes can bypass higher-order cognition. We can – and do – react to visual stimuli without requiring any pathway through our thinking brains.

It is perhaps for this reason that the splitting of the sea and the people marching into the seabed happened at night – when vision is impaired, and confusion can be at its highest. G-d ordered the people into the water before nightfall, but nobody moved.

Instead of trusting their eyes (which bypass the need for words and thought), Moses was trying to get the people to stop acting like a mindless swarm. He wanted them to listen to him, to think. Animals cannot hear an argument, they cannot grasp abstract concepts. People can – but only if they want to. Only if they can overcome nature, and reject their instinct to follow the herd.

The people get there eventually – after Sinai they became increasingly capable of thinking for themselves and reject reflexively following the crowd (think of Pinchas’ solo action in front of everyone, or of the daughters of Tzelofchad arguing their legal claim with Moses). The Torah is unstinting with its praise for those who, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, were willing and able to do what they thought was right, even though they were alone in the world.

The story of the Exodus should be a cautionary tale for all times. The mob usually gets its way in the moment. But in hindsight, we know that a thoughtless mass of angry or afraid people very rarely gets things right.

[an @iwe and @eliyahumasinter work]


Manifesto – Unedited

The Torah


Table of Contents

Preface 5

Life: Never-Ending Choice 7

The Torah’s Stress on the Importance of Self-Awareness 8

Who is Responsible? 9

How Our Free Choice Coexists With and Displays Hashem’s Power 12

Metzorah and Moving Past Our Mistakes 17

Action, Eyes, and Spiritual Readiness 25

Choice and Relationships 28

Our Relationship With God: Based on Free and Renewing Choice 29

Adam Started with Only One Choice 30

Teshuvah: Hashem Shows us the Way 30

The Garden and the Fruit 33

Dualism and Holiness 36

Shame and the Key Role of the Sexual Commandments 37

Holiness and Intimacy: Why We Are Different from Animals 42

Are We Too Afraid to Ask? 51

Why Some Animals Are Kosher, Others Not 52

Why Eat Meat? 55

Meat and Milk 57

The Most Difficult Chok of All: The Red Heifer 58

The Role of Nazirites 60

Life, Death, and Time 62

The Torah Teaches Us to Take the Long-Term View 64

Shabbos 67

The Criticality of the Mishkan to Shabbos 72

Marriage: The Model 74

Intimacy With Humans Equals Intimacy With Hashem 77

Man and Wife Are the Building Blocks of the Jewish Nation 80

Restricted Relations 85

Why the Cohen Gadol Must Marry a Virgin 85

Forbidden Relations Are Too Easy to be Models for Marriage to Hashem 88

Marriage, Like Peace, is Creative Tension 91

Jealousy: The Bitterness of Suspicion 93

Wrestling As a Model for Love and Our Relationship With Hashem 95

Our Forefathers 102

The Corrupting Influence of Plato on Jewish Thinking 102

Avrahom’s Growth: Discovering the Divine in Mankind 104

Avrahom, Jews, and the Egyptian Option 106

Is Choosing Egypt Acceptable? 111

Chometz 113

Chometz: A Symbol of Our Resistance to Nature, Rejection of Egypt 114

Chometz in Israel: Required? 116

The Jubillee: Perpetuating Insecurity 117

Acknowledging Hashem’s Role: a Balance? 118

Acts of Consideration and Kindness 120

The Importance of Challenging Hashem 122

Sexual Imagery and Holiness 126

Why Hashem Hates Pillars 126

Post-Beis Hamikdosh, Where is Hashem in Our World? 129

Is Wearing Clothes a Form of Deception? 131

The Role of the Cohanim 132

Clothes 136

Clothes Project Our Souls 137

The Importance of Imagination 140

Our Relationship with Hashem is Direct: No Intermediaries Required! 142

Imagination Unlocks Words. Words Create Reality 143

Our Power to Shape Each Other and the Future 145

Hashem’s Plan For Us? 148

Jews Take Responsibility for the World … and Its Evil 148

Torah: Grow Towards the Light 151

Universal Torah Lessons 154

Divine Acts of Annihilation: Why? 158

Institutionalization of the Good 160

Incubation of a New Nation 163

Establishing Continuity 165

Self-Respect as a People 166

Longer Time Horizons, Yosef’s Dreams, & Failing to See the Future 169

Yehudah and Yosef: a Contrast, and a Lesson in True Leadership 174

Judaism and Other Deities 177

Judaism Has Nothing to Do With Humble Obedience 177

The Modern World and the Failure of Reason 178

The New Idolatry: Nature, Earth, Environment 180

The Torah: Technology and Man are Superior to Nature 183

Hashem Encourages Human Creativity, Art 185

Elevating Nature is the Calling Card of the Jewish People 186

Hashem in the Eyes of Man 189

Hashem’s Introduction to the World 189

Hashem’s Introduction to the Jewish People 190

Why is the Exodus so Central to the Commandments? 192

Jewish Confusion about Hashem’s Qualities: You Can’t Bribe Him 194

Why, Then, Does Hashem Want Sacrifices At All? 196

Time and Space 201

Jewish Calendar a Combination of Lunar and Solar 201

Space is to be Measured according to Man 204

Where is the Center of the World? 208

The Universe Exists For Us, and Truth Does Not Bend Before Power 209

The Non-Jewish World 213

The Crown of Torah 214

The Crown of Priesthood 214

The Crown of Kingship 216

What Makes Judaism Special? 219

There is No Reality Except the Reality We Create 220

Angels 223

Why We Need Angels 223

Technology is an Analog for the Angels 227

Yaakov’s Unique Power With Angels 229

How Do You Measure Your Life? 235

Action Comes First; Creation Precedes Understanding 236

Yonah, and Why Each of Us Has Job to Do in This World 240

Conclusion 241

Acknowledgements 242


When the Jewish people first received the Torah at Mount Sinai, from the very moment when they first said na-aseh v’nishma, “we will do and we will hearken,”[1] large numbers of the Jewish people have been neither doing nor hearkening.

There are, of course, a range of reasons for why Jews who know of the Torah choose not to follow it, but those Jews invariably find themselves in one of two core camps:

–Some who refuse to follow the Torah simply want an easier life. They don’t actually think that the Torah is wrong, merely that it is too difficult, or not a good fit for their own circumstances. These are the Jews who have decided to take it easy, and their choices do not threaten Judaism itself. We sadly wish them well.

–It is the other kind of non-observant Jew who has always posed the most effective resistance to the Torah. From the revolt of Korach in the wilderness to early Christians to the majority of modern Jews, many have read the Torah and declared that it is limited and even crippled by its historical context, that it is an ancient document that is no longer relevant – and, most damning of all, that the Torah simply does not make sense.

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 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. If we can use our forefathers as a guide, 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 than 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.

I’d like to invite you to take a mental adventure with me. This adventure, like any good adventure, has but one ground rule. And if you can follow it, then the adventure can proceed apace.

The one ground rule is to assume, at least while reading this book, that, in fact, the text of the Torah is from Hashem. Every word, and every letter.

Once this ground rule is accepted, I will show that not only is there a set of consistent themes that can explain every commandment, found in the text itself, but that there is tremendous elegance and logical beauty contained within those themes.

As is commonly known, the Torah can be interpreted in a variety of complex ways, which are the basis of the massive complexities within Talmudic arguments. But much less well understood is the fact that the Torah can also be grasped and justified, on its face, without requiring any mental contortions. The Torah, in its plain text and meaning, is entirely self-consistent, true at every level of understanding.[2] And to grasp this, all that is required is respect for the text itself.

With that ground rule, I invite you to bring along your thoughtful and engaged criticisms. Because I aim to show you that sometimes the greatest depths and secrets of the text have been floating gently upon the surface all along.

Life: Never-Ending Choice

This book, like the Torah itself, starts at the beginning. At its very core, the Torah is not a history text or a science book. We don’t need the Torah for those purposes: we can use the world around us to learn about the physical laws of nature.

The Torah is, instead, Hashem’s way of telling us how to live, how to relate to each other and to the world around us. It tells us The Meaning of Life.

So when Hashem tells us how Adam was made, “And the L-rd Hashem formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul,”[3] it is not a description of reality, but a description of what we need to know about the essential nature of man, in order to come to understand ourselves: what makes us tick.

The Torah is telling us that we are formed of two, opposite forces. We are made from dust, and the breath of life –from Hashem’s spiritual energy.

This very idea can help explain the purpose of life. By accepting, at the same time, that we are mortal, and that we are capable of touching immortality, then we can understand why we are here. In our limited life-spans, we can harness our souls to achieve great things.

The Torah is not interested in reality, because reality is already in front of us; we can take it for granted without needing it spelled out by Hashem. Hashem is interested in people growing, becoming better, creating new realities. And so it is consistent that the Torah does not tell us that people come from animals, because that statement, true or not, does not help us decide what to do next. And so, for the purposes of the Torah and our lives, people are not animals.

Scientists tell us otherwise. After all, we share 75% of our DNA with dogs, 80% with mice, and 97%+ with chimpanzees. We have internal organs, and can be cut apart and examined like any animal. The physical reality is that people are animals, nothing more or less.

Animals are not good or evil. They follow their instincts, and they live their entire lives without any self-awareness or guilt. Animals simply act.

This, of course, is the most common explanation for immoral behavior. We have all been told that, biologically speaking, men are not meant to be monogamous. And so, when men follow hedonistic desires, they are only doing “what comes naturally.” We are doing what animals would do in the same situation: seek self-gratification at every turn with no thought for morality or consequences.

That is how animals behave. We already, instinctively, want to act that way. But the Torah tells us that our origins are different: “And the L-rd Hashem formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”[4]

The Torah is a forward-looking document, so it is not interested in objective reality. In plain English: people are not meant to act like animals, so any resemblance we may have to animals is a misunderstanding of why we are here.

Indeed, the Torah tells us that when we so much as grow in resemblance to animals, then we are blocked from spiritual growth. The spiritual illness of tzaraas is caused by treating other people poorly, thinking only of ourselves. And the key symptom of someone with tzaraas is that they have basar chay, “living flesh” on them.[5] This might be difficult to visualize, but the Torah makes the link explicit, because when Hashem identifies the animals that No’ach is to save, he uses the same core words, calling them the “hachay mikol basar”, “the living from all the flesh.” These are the animals that are not kosher, not spiritually capable of holiness. They are the lowest of the animal forms. And when a person starts to resemble an animal in his words and deeds, when he behave like a beast, then tzaraas strikes, giving visual confirmation that the person’s exterior resembles an animal as well.

The Torah’s Stress on the Importance of Self-Awareness

We are not supposed to be animalistic, guided by our instincts. The Torah wants us to be constantly self-aware. And so when a person acts like an animal by doing something without thought or awareness—known as b’shogeg—a sin has been committed. Take the example of starting a fire on Shabbos: it is an “accidental” sin if we didn’t know it was Shabbos, or if we did not know that starting a fire on Shabbos was forbidden. There is no willful wrong, no malice of forethought. On the contrary, the sin is that we committed an act without knowing. In other words, we committed an act precisely as an animal would have done it.

And that will not solve anything. The rift that was created by Hashem between light and darkness and the waters above and below was a positive creative act. Something that was done consciously cannot be fixed unconsciously. Mankind’s unconscious acts are not useful: we need to choose to act, one way or another.[6]

Once we become aware that we have done something wrong, we develop a most un-animal-like reaction. We experience guilt, remorse. And so the Torah gives us a prescription for covering our sin, to come closer to Hashem (the word for sacrifice is korban, from the same root as “coming close”), via the sin-offering. What are we doing when we offer up an animal? We are actually taking a step away from the entire animal kingdom.

When we bring a sin offering, we are making an explicit division between Jews and the animal kingdom. By acknowledging the error of acting without knowledge, we are saying that we are not animals at all. Every waking moment should be spent in awareness that we are made with a spiritual component, with free choice. And so the Torah is telling us that we must always act with deliberation.

Who is Responsible?

The seemingly simple idea that we are not animals, like a stone dropping into a still pond, leads to rings of fascinating ripples, moving ever-outward. Consider, for example, that today we live in a world where politicians and therapists and doctors and social workers tell us that “it isn’t your fault.” According to them, the blame actually lies with our upbringing, parentage, or environment; or it is the result of discrimination or our genetic makeup. It can be anything – as long as we do not blame ourselves.

We tend to think of this mindset as somehow being unique to modern life, part-and-parcel of the welfare state, with Freudian explanations of childhood trauma, or of children who have been spoiled by permissive parents for whom “No” is the hardest word of all.

But this mindset is not modern at all. It is in fact as old as man’s self-consciousness. Starting from the earliest pagan religions, man has found a way to resign himself to a certain level of accomplishment. All he has had to do is decide that his fate is the will of the gods.

And in a pagan world, this makes a great deal of sense. Deities after all live on a high mountain, or are forces of nature that no man could hope to stand against: the sun or the wind or the sea. Worship of pagan deities involves both acknowledging the forces of nature, and accepting whatever is doled out by those forces.

Life as a pagan means an existence wherein one excels by being in harmony with the natural world. And being “in tune” with nature means not fighting it. It is not even resignation, so much as finding “balance,” of being happy with what one has received. This kind of worldview is conventionally considered wise and experienced.

The end result of such a worldview is that men who worship nature wind up being enslaved to it.

So the history of mankind is one in which accomplishment is actually the exception, not the rule. Most societies, in most places, have advanced very little. Even today, the vast majority of people in the world are born, grow, live, and die without making a lasting impression on the world around them. Conformity is the dominant cultural desire, and it leads to mediocrity as the dominant result.

Modern America, which has recently slipped back into a culture that celebrates only our most earthly desires and dependencies, is in fact reverting to a mindset that has been dominant throughout history. We may use labels like “discrimination” or “the rich,” but the excuse remains as old as time: Ours is the fate doled out by the gods. Any other outcome “is not meant to be.”

All around us, humans are not change agents, but victims buffeted by impersonal deities who must be appeased through acts of sacrifice. In principle, there is no distinction between the island barbarian who sacrifices virgins to the volcano god and the modern American who self-sterilizes to “save the planet.” Both are expressions of the human desire to suffer in order to appease a larger, all-important “force.” And both are ways in which otherwise intelligent people adopt pagan worldviews in order to come to peace with their place in the world.

Enter, in the ancient world, and even today, the Torah. The Torah stands directly at odds with the pagan worldview. The Torah tells us that man is not from the animal kingdom, that our lives are not to be seen as merely going through the motions before our lives come to an end. When Adam and Chavah choose to eat the fruit, Hashem teaches them that they are free to make choices, and that those choices have consequences. When Cain kills Abel, Hashem teaches us that we are responsible for each other, that we are capable of mastering our own anger. And thereafter, from beginning to end, the Torah perspective stands in direct opposition, root and branch, to the pagan worldview.

When Hashem breathes his spirit into Adam, mankind becomes, not a victim of nature, but Hashem’s partner[7], imbued with the divine capability to make and shape and improve the world around us. And the Torah tells us that this is indeed what we are meant to do in the world: love Hashem as He loves us. We are to engage and love each other. Our relationship with each other and with Hashem is not meant to be the impersonal pagan relationship wherein we go through the motions, and get to be bad people. On the contrary! The lessons of the Torah are that Hashem profoundly wants, above all, for us to seek to better ourselves!

A loving wife does not really want her husband to bring her flowers every week. It is not about the flowers. What she wants is a husband who loves her, who remembers to think of her, who brings tokens of appreciation to show that he continues to have her in his heart.

Consider that the words of the prophets have a strong recurring theme: Hashem does not, actually, want our sacrifices for their own sake. When we go through the motions without changing ourselves, we are trying to treat Hashem like a pagan treats their deity, like a Gaia-worshipper dedicates himself to “sustainability”— without actually becoming a better person. What does Hashem actually want? He wants us to treat one another with loving-kindness, for us to guard our speech and our acts and our thoughts, to improve ourselves. He wants us to love Him, and to be mindful of our relationships at all times.

Ours is not a religion of submission or appeasement. Hashem is not some remote force on a high mountain, or an impersonal and unknowable force like the sun. Ever since Adam was filled with the divine spirit, it has been necessary to discover Hashem in our very souls! The Torah wants us engaged with Hashem, with each other, and with ourselves – because, to a conscious mind, these are all facets of precisely the same thing!

But do we really need to go through all that work? To a simple or a lazy person, it would seem to make sense to shortcut the process. If the goal is ultimately to better ourselves, then all we have to do is to be mindful of being a good person. How hard could that be? By comparison, the rituals can seem silly, or a waste of time or energy.

But anyone in a good marriage knows otherwise. A man who marries a woman has not succeeded in marriage the moment the ring is on her finger. His success is a process, flowing through many years, as he has built a beautiful long-term relationship, one that weathers the impersonal forces of time and nature. Relationships require a never-ending stream of consideration and kindness and service, or they wither away. A husband and wife who are not constantly engaged with each other and continuing to improve each other, will fall apart as a marriage, as a relationship. Love that is not nurtured will die.

And so Hashem requires us to go through the motions – not, in the case of sacrifices, for the sake of the motions themselves, but because things like prayer and following commandments are both tokens of commitment, and required to keep the relationship fully engaging. Thus, visiting the sick, providing hospitality, and feeding the poor, all of which are commandments that connect us to other people, are, also, ways of serving Hashem directly. The audience for sacrifices is not a remote pagan deity demanding his cut, but the personal soul of the offeror, coming to grips with a connection between his actions and Hashem. When we change ourselves, we are serving our personal, anti-pagan, Hashem.

And Judaism is profoundly personal. The Torah tells us that Hashem put his soul in us.[8] And so our prayers, our services, our blessings, have an internal audience: Hashem does not need your sacrifices, or even your blessings for their own sakes. What He really wants is for sacrifices and blessings to lead us to a closer and more intimate relationship with our own spiritual souls, and Hashem on the elevated spiritual plane. Prayer is directed both outside and inside, which is why it is so similar to meditation. The Torah has entire chapters dedicated to the spiritual illness of tzaraat , which occurs to people who treat others poorly, as Cain treated Abel. Seen in this light, every single law of the Torah, from sacrifices to divine services to the laws of kosher food and caring for the orphan is given to us for the purpose of correcting and improving ourselves.

Coming full circle, it becomes clear why those who are serious about “serving the planet” consistently give less charity than those who are serious about a Judeo-Christian religion. In a pagan world, gods merely need to be appeased. In turn, the inexorable progression of fate will determine whether someone is healthy or sick, lives or dies. One can look at India to see the result of that kind of worldview: it is believed that everyone has a destiny, and some destinies are luckier than others. If one fails to go through the motions to appease a deity, then one can expect retribution for failing to have proper respect, but the retribution is not because a person failed to better themselves or love others. Compassion is meaningless in such a world, and so is self-improvement. A person like Mother Teresa in India had no competition from pagan priests.

How Our Free Choice Coexists With and Displays Hashem’s Power

And the L-rd Hashem said, Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, what if he puts forth his hand, and takes also from the tree of life, and eats, and lives forever?[9]

The Torah gives us a world where we can strongly influence and change our own destinies. Humans are so powerful that only our mortality keeps us from being on Hashem’s own level.

Our power is huge – but it is not only limited by our mortality! Most important of all, our power is limited by whether or not we are aware of it in the first place! As and when we believe that we are masters of our own destiny, we can change ourselves and our world.

But when we feel that we are subject to the winds of fate, or to a master plan of an impersonal deity, then we easily regress to a lower human condition. In this lower condition, we are no longer aware of our own power; we are not even aware of the difference between good and evil—because, as animals do, we live in Gaia’s garden, in a world where nothing is our fault, because nothing is our responsibility.

Before they made that first choice, Adam and Chavah lived in harmony with nature, with every need provided for, and with no opportunity for growth or change in themselves or the world around them. This was an immature state, a world in which Adam and Chavah only needed to do nothing in order to succeed. But this is not the world that they left in their wake: after eating the fruit, it has all become about our choices and decisions.

We now live in a world with choices, and in a world with free will – but only if we acknowledge it and take responsibility for it. If we refuse to see ourselves as both responsible for ourselves and our world, and “like Hashem” in having the power to change the world around us, then we indeed are nothing more than victims, nothing more than intelligent but ultimately hapless animals in a state of nature. The knowledge (or ignorance) of our own power can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The Torah concurs. It does not suggest that we are powerless, or “only human,” while Hashem is all-powerful. Indeed, the Torah repeatedly tells us that our fate is in our own hands – the age of open miracles is behind us, and Hashem limits Himself.

Our choices and our freedoms are necessarily interconnected, as our free will gives us power. And this helps answer the question asked by everyone who has ever experienced tragedy: How could Hashem let it happen?

It is an age-old question, asked by people of every faith – and also by atheists trying to disprove the existence of Hashem. The dominant answer by Hashem-fearing people is that we are not party to His plan, and that when bad things happen, it is as often as not meant to be a challenge to our faith. What they’re saying, in other words, is that we cannot know the answer; and that, even more than this, that even presuming to try to answer fundamental questions of this kind betrays a profound and dangerous conceit.

I do not believe that any of these “answers” are correct. If we fail to ask (and in good faith, answer) such important questions, then we are hamstrung in our attempts to really understand the world we inhabit, and more importantly, to develop our relationship with Hashem.

For starters, it is self-evident that the natural world has its own rules, and that Hashem, in the normal course of events, does not choose to break those rules. Rambam classified this as something that is the outcome of natural events: if a tree falls on someone in a storm, it is certain to hurt, no matter how righteous the pedestrian may be. Accidents can and do happen.

The same applies for self-inflicted wrongs. If we jump out of a second-story window or play Russian roulette, then the outcome is not likely to be pretty. When we harm ourselves, we are in no position to plead, “Where was Hashem?” This seems obvious enough.

A more challenging question is posed by the things that people do to other people: the murder of innocents. How can we be religious and still justify Hashem’s permitting the murder of even one innocent child, let alone thousands or millions in events like the Holocaust, or ethnic cleansings, or Cultural Revolutions?

This question is often rephrased as the following argument: If Hashem was able to prevent the Holocaust, and failed to do so, then He is not good; but if He wanted to prevent it, but was unable to do so, then, not being omnipotent, He is not Hashem.

The short answer to this problem is that Hashem’s definition of “good” is necessarily different from ours.

We can see this better if we turn the question around: What would happen if Hashem did not allow bad people to act accordingly?

The answer is that such a result would give us an unrecognizable world. If good people were consistently rewarded, and bad people consistently punished, then Hashem’s hand at work would become undeniable, and the free will of humans would thereby be constrained.

Instead, the world we have is one in which a Hashem-fearing person sees Hashem’s hand at work – whereas the atheist sees coincidence, or hard work, at play. The classic example is Abraham’s victory in the war of the four kings against the five kings. The kings whom Abraham saves praise Abraham for his great military prowess. But just a few verses later, Malchi Tzedek meets Abraham and praises Hashem for the same victory. We see what we choose to see.

Hashem is evident in our world, to those who wish to see him. But today, Hashem will not step over the line, will not commit any act that would convince an avowed atheist that He in fact exists. Such an act would interfere with the core freedom that Hashem gave humanity when He first explained about the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil as well as the Tree of Life to Adam and Chavah: the freedom to choose.

Hashem values our freedom, because he ultimately values the choices that we make. It is those choices that allow us to choose to become servants of Hashem, to follow in his ways. Without choice, we are not men at all. And unless we can “logically” choose not to follow in Hashem’s path, we are not making a free choice. Unless we have free will, we are not human.

Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the L-RD, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the L-RD.[10]

And here we answer the original question. Hashem’s priorities are different than ours – His Good is not the same as our Good. We value life, because we don’t know what choices will be made, and because Hashem commands us to do so. But Hashem, who knows all possible futures, only values life inasmuch as it leads to people making good choices (including, in the above, repenting) and improving the world. His ways are not our ways, because for Hashem, the free will of human beings is more important than human life itself.

After all, life always leads to death: every life born in this world carries with it a certainty of death. The only thing that is not certain at the moment that our lives are created is how we choose to live, what we do with the brief life that is given to us We value life because of its potential, but Hashem values life when it leads to good results: what we make of the life we are given, the choices we make, and the way we beautify ourselves and the people around us.

And it all comes full circle. Not only do we have free choice, but we can exercise our free will to help others to make good decisions: we have the responsibility to reform or eliminate evil. It is up to us to make the world a better place. And when innocent people die at the hands of evil, it is not because Hashem wills it to be so, but because if Hashem were to interfere so blatantly in the affairs of our world that evil people are absolutely barred from carrying out their designs, the entire purpose of the world would be compromised.

In other words, the world exists so that mankind can make free choices, for good or ill. Those choices and their outcomes are more important to Hashem than life itself, no matter how innocent, or precious, or loved. “My thoughts are not your thoughts.”[11]All life comes to an end. But what we choose to do with our lives can change the world forever.

The Torah tells us that Hashem does not value every life, no matter what:

And he who blasphemes the name of the Lord, he shall surely be put to death[12]

Why? The very next verse provides the answer:

And he who kills any man shall surely be put to death.[13]

Adam is made, the Torah tells us, by the combination of earth and an infusion of the divine spirit. But along with that divine spirit came tremendous creative (and destructive) powers: we can, through words, create and destroy our own realities.

A man who blasphemes has denied the existence of his own divine soul – he has committed suicide. A man without a soul is incapable of free choice, incapable of creating holiness through the combination of his body and soul. And at that point, the man’s life ceases to have a purpose in the eyes of the Torah, and so the body is stoned, returned to the dust from whence it was made.

This is how the Torah tells us that Hashem views our lives. Hashem only cares about what we do with ourselves, not life itself. If we kill off our own souls, then we have made it impossible to do good.

The rebellion of Dathan and Aviram ended with the rebels being swallowed into the earth. During their rebellion, they showed no interest in connecting spiritually – they did not invoke Hashem, and they even refused to come to Moshe to discuss their complaints. In other words, their rebellion did not show any signs of holiness, or struggle for the sake of heaven.

So what happens to them is not necessarily even a punishment – at least not from Hashem’s perspective! After all, there was no investment in the relationship from Dathan and Aviram’s side, and Hashem only relates to those who seek a personal connection. The result is that death, which is inevitable for us all, came sooner to this particular group of people.

Hashem ends up dealing with them as one might with a bad batch of scrap metal: put it back into the recycling bin. The next batch with those same raw materials might well turn out better.

Of course, none of these (the blasphemer, Dathan and Aviram) received a second chance, while most of us are given a great many chances. And there is a strange tension between the choices we have already made that may have changed the world forever – and the choices we have yet to make. How is it possible that we are not hopelessly confined by our pasts, by the decisions we have made before now?

In other words: how can we, in our own lives, gain the opportunity to make a fresh start?

The Torah spends a great deal of time addressing precisely this question, but perhaps not where one might first look.

Metzorah, and Moving Past Our Mistakes

The Torah describes a condition which is named tzaraas, colloquially translated as leprosy. A person suffering from this condition is called a metzorah. And there is a cure for this condition:

Then shall the priest command to take for him who is to be cleansed two birds alive and clean, and cedar wood, and scarlet, and hyssop; And the priest shall command that one of the birds be killed in an earthen utensil over running water; As for the living bird, he shall take it, and the cedar wood, and the scarlet, and the hyssop, and shall dip them and the living bird in the blood of the bird that was killed over the running water; And he shall sprinkle upon him who is to be cleansed from the leprosy seven times, and shall pronounce him clean, and shall let the living bird loose in the open field. And he who is to be cleansed ….after that he shall come into the camp, but shall stay out of his tent seven days.[14]

The strange elements in the above are notable: nowhere else in the Torah is blood to be received in an earthenware vessel, for example. Most importantly, why two birds: one killed, and the other left to fly free, marked by the blood of the other?

Our sages teach us that tzaraas was caused by a wide range of offenses; most people think of it as being triggered by gossip (loshon hora), but the Gemara tells us that it was also caused by a range of antisocial activities, from evil speech all the way to shedding blood.

And here we have the answer: Cain and Abel. Cain’s first act against his brother was one of speech: “And Cain talked with Abel his brother”[15], which was swiftly followed by the most egregious act punishable by tzaraas: Cain killed his brother outright.

The two birds are the two brothers. Both start out pure, but one is killed. The blood of this bird, representing Abel, is kept in an earthenware vessel – as Hashem says to Cain, “the voice of your brother’s blood cries to me from the ground.”

The other bird, representing Cain, is then marked by the blood of the slain bird, just as Cain is marked for the rest of his life. And then the bird, just like Cain, is set free, to wander over the fields.

The hyssop and cedar are the two extremes of the plant kingdom; from the lowliest grass to the proudest tree. These represent the plant offerings that Cain originally brought as an offering to Hashem, the offerings that were rejected. (There are many good explanations for these choices of plants that explain them in terms of the sin that led to the tzaraas in the first place; they work well when connected to Cain and Abel.) And lastly, the scarlet may represent the anger that prompted Cain’s sin in the first place.

The last element in the “recipe” is the requirement that the metzorah must wait seven days before rejoining the people. This is a reflection of Hashem’s promise to protect Cain for seven generations, after which his descendants rejoined as normal members of the human race.

What does it all mean? It means that what Cain did to Abel could not be undone, and could not be fixed. Nevertheless, the Torah gives us a mechanism to achieve a fresh start! If and when we sin by slandering or otherwise harming someone, the Torah is telling us that by connecting to Cain, and the process through which his descendants were able to reenter mainstream society, then we can walk on that same path, in little more than a week.

In other words, the Torah is telling us that even though our choices matter – a great deal – we can find ways to start over, to heal the wrongs that are part of our own personal past, or even of the national past. There are mechanisms through which we can escape our past decisions and our errors.

Consider, for example, the first (mis)use of alcohol in the Torah. A midrash tells us:

When Noah took to planting, Satan came and stood before him and said to him: “What are you planting?” Said he: “A vineyard.” Said Satan to him: “What is its nature?” Said he: “Its fruits are sweet, whether moist or dry, and one makes from them wine which brings joy to the heart.” Said Satan to Noah: “Do you desire that we should plant it together, you and I?” Said Noah: “Yes.”

What did Satan do? He brought a lamb and slaughtered it over the vine; then he brought a lion, and slaughtered it over it; then he brought a monkey, and slaughtered it over it; then he brought a swine, and slaughtered it over it; and he watered the vine with their blood. Thus he alluded to Noah: When a person drinks one cup, he is like a lamb, modest and meek. When he drinks two cups, he becomes mighty as a lion and begins to speak with pride, saying, “Who compares with me!” As soon as he drinks three or four cups he becomes a monkey, dancing and frolicking and profaning his mouth, and knowing not what he does. When he becomes drunk, he becomes a pig, dirtied by mud and wallowing in filth.[16]

Without plumbing the depths of this midrash (or indeed, of wine itself), several key things need to be mentioned. First off, this midrash speaks of the first time wine is mentioned in the Torah, and makes the point that wine was not initially meant to be a corrupting influence. Hashem did not make it that way, even though Noach chose to act otherwise. And most importantly, Satan (to be understood as Noach’s yetzer horah) sacrificed four animals over the vine, representing four cups of wine.[17]

On Pesach, we are commanded to drink at least four cups of wine, as a reparation, or tikkun, for Noach’s four cups. Instead of Noach’s private and embarrassing drunkenness that leads to the worst kinds of sins, we specifically and meticulously drink our four cups of wine in the presence of others, celebrating the deliverance of the Jewish people from Egypt. Noach was delivered from an apocalypse into a new world, just as the Jewish people were delivered from Egypt and born as a new nation. By treating wine as a key component in the service of Hashem, we show that an intoxicating and potent beverage can and should be used for an entirely pure and elevating experience. Noach deferred to his yetzer horah when he involved alcohol, allowing the wine to lower him, instead of the other way around. But on Pesach, we do not shy away from the experience of wine, and we do not act in any way like monkeys or pigs; we act as Hashem’s people honoring their creator.

Noach used wine after the flood as a way to escape. His world had been destroyed, countless lives lost. It is clear that Noach is not ready to work constructively and move forward. He used wine, as mankind has done ever since, to escape reality.

On Pesach, we do something quite different. Instead of using it to escape reality, we drink wine on Pesach to help us connect to, and relive, the pivotal moments of our shared history. Wine helps us experience, anew, the events surrounding the Jewish Exodus from Egypt. Wine is used to make things more holy, not less.

And through the four cups, we see that Judaism gives us the means to take anything in this world that Hashem has given us, and to make it holier by using it for a holy purpose. But we also see that we are given the means to compensate for the sins of the past, by reliving those experiences, but changing what we do!

Sometimes, this is easier said than done. When Joseph’s brothers put him down in a pit,[18] the word used is shalach – they cast him away. And while the brothers personally repented, they never did any act for Joseph that could right that wrong – that could reverse the act of throwing him into the pit in the first place. The brothers were never again in a position where they were able to help their brother. They could not relive the experience and choose a different course of action.

So, before Joseph dies, he makes his brothers swear to bring his bones up – which Moshe, as the standard-bearer (and descendant of Levi, one of the two most action-oriented of the brothers), does.

I suggest that Joseph requires the act of his brothers so that they can expiate the sin of throwing him down in the first place. It is a method of righting that particular wrong, even though it happens after Joseph’s death.

Note that the word used, “shalach,” can mean “casting someone off,” making them unwanted. Joseph was cast away by his brothers, and was made ownerless, hefker. In that state, he could be “adopted” by anyone, as shown by his subsequent enslavement.

The same word, “shalach,” is used to describe Hagar, when she puts Ishmael under a bush. She casts him away, too, and is willing to leave the rest up to nature. Hashem, in that case, takes ownership of Ishmael, and raises him directly. Once a person is no longer wanted, someone can either step in and help that person, or they can be left to the cruel vagaries of fate.

This is the same word used by Pharaoh , when he commands that all newborn Jewish males must be “sent away” into the river. Pharaoh does not order their death directly. Instead, Pharaoh is really saying that the Jewish children must be cast away, made unwanted, and abandoned in a place where they were sure to drown.

The Torah is telling us that for every act of wrongdoing, there is a corrective act – either through a reversed action, or through a “measure for measure” punishment.

So, for example, there is a corrective act for Hagar’s act of abandonment: Basya, the Egyptian princess who rescues Moshe, reaches out to save his life, to bring him out of the water. The word used here is tikacheha, from the root Kach, or “take.” Taking is the opposite of casting away.

And when Moshe corrects the “casting away of Joseph” act of the brothers, the Torah says that Moshe “Vayekach” took Joseph’s bones. Taking somebody back is a cure for rejecting them.

But Pharaoh? His act of throwing the Jews into the water is not corrected by taking Jews back. So he ends up having to pay the price. Just as Pharaoh orders the Jewish boys to be drowned in the water, so, too, Hashem drowns the Egyptian army in the water. The male soldiers are no more able to swim than were the newborn babies. Our mistakes can be corrected. But if we fail to do so, then there will eventually be an accounting.

Hashem punishes Pharaoh for his other actions as well. Toyam Cox suggests that because Pharaoh limited the free will of the Jewish people (by refusing their request to leave Egypt) six times, Hashem limited Pharaoh’s free will[19], measure for measure, six times![20]

Consider the Yom Kippur offering, the famous “two goats.” One is consigned to Azazel and thrown down a cliff, and the other one meets a holy end as a sacrifice to Hashem. Like many other commandments in the Torah, the twin goats of Yom Kippur can be very difficult to understand.

I believe that Jonathan Joy provided the breakthrough when he noted that the idea of twin goats comes up much earlier in the Torah – Rivkah tells Yaakov to go and get two young goats from the flock, to serve to their father.

The parallelism, once noted, opens us up to an entirely new understanding of Yom Kippur!

To review the story: Rivkah tells Yaakov to take the two goats, and to honor his father with them – make delicacies for Yitzchok’s enjoyment. But the act gets twisted. Yaakov and Rivkah plot to do more than merely serve Yitzchok his favorite food. Instead, they use the skin of those very same goats to both cloak Yaakov and deceive his father. One mitzvah turns out to have a forked outcome; the two goats serve both holy and unholy purposes.

The outcome is near disaster. Yaakov ends up fleeing for his life, and the fate of the Jewish people hung in the balance until he returned to Israel many years later. Rivkah, as some commentators have noted, suffered the consequence of not seeing her beloved son for the rest of her life. Yaakov, for the pain he caused his mother, lost his own son, Yosef, for the same number of years. And while he ends up making it up to Esau, Yaakov is never called to task for the act of deception against his blind father, and for the sin he committed in Hashem’s eyes by taking an opportunity to serve his father, and then perverting it.

The Yom Kippur goats are our way of nationally accepting this founding sin of Judaism, through an act of tikkun. Instead of taking two goats and using them for good and evil, we take two goats, and acknowledge the error of Yaakov in using them for evil as well as good. And instead of cloaking ourselves in their skins, and using the cover of those same goats to deceive our Father (as Yaakov did), we use the goats to cover ourselves, to achieve a national kaparah.” In so doing, we both acknowledge wrongdoing, and seek to be protected from the consequences that still hang over the Jewish people.

Note the key difference between the pairs of goats: In our nation’s infancy, Yaakov killed two young goats, but the goats we sacrifice on Yom Kippur are no longer kids; they are all grown up.

When Yaakov sinned, he did so because his mother told him to. He was unsure of himself enough to do what he was pushed into doing. His sin was, in a sense, less mature, less developed than it would have been had he hatched the plan himself. But ultimately, he was responsible for his actions.

So, every Yom Kippur, we have the opportunity to relive a founding national experience – but instead of having it cripple us, we use the sacrifice as a way to both acknowledge our sins and to secure Hashem’s blessings for another year—despite our failings. We gain mercy, because we “own up” to our wrongdoing

The sin of Aharon the Cohen was quite similar; the Golden Calf, like the slaughtered goats, also started with good intentions – the nation wanted an intermediary to replace Moshe as the go-between to Hashem. When the nation petitioned Aharon, events spun out of control, and he ended up making the Golden Calf. Like Yaakov, Aharon was unable to stand up against the pressure, and so he folded. The egel was also a disaster, and one for which Aharon, like Yaakov, was also never punished.

Just as the twin young goats of Yaakov’s youth translate into fully grown goats for the nation, so too Aharon’s sin with the calf translates into his own kaparah requiring a fully-grown bull. We are grown up now; we take full responsibility.

Yaakov and Aharon’s acts both changed history forever. They both almost led to the destruction of the Jewish people, and as such, simple repentance, teshuvah, is not possible. We do teshuvah to correct mistakes we have made, but the sins that change the course of history cannot be simply forgiven and forgotten.

It is fitting that on Yom Kippur, the day we ask Hashem to come close to us despite the sins we have committed, the Children of Jacob, as well as the Children of Aharon, gain Hashem’s grace by acknowledging even those unforgivable moments of weakness, and ask Him to refrain from punishing us for the times in which we yielded to the pressure to do wrong. We take the bull and goats, tokens of our sins, and use them solely for good. Instead of using them to try to fool Hashem, we limit ourselves to trying to do what Yaakov and Rivkah first set out to do: please Him.

A pattern is becoming clear: the “stories” in the beginning of the Torah actually become the explanation for, and the justification of, the commandments to the Jewish people that come afterward. But this is hardly in a vacuum! Our forefathers started the process themselves.

The first book of the Torah teaches us how to have relationships – between fathers and sons, husbands and wives, man and Hashem, and especially, brothers. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out, the progression from Cain and Hevel through to Ephraim and Menasseh (and then Moses and Aharon) is a journey from fratricide to coexistence and then mutual support. Within the Jewish family, the winnowing process of brothers from Ishmael and Isaac, and then Jacob and Esau, to Joseph’s generation was difficult at best. And the participants had no way of knowing when the process would stop: when all the sons would become inheritors of the blessings of Avrahom, so that their seed would inherit the land of Israel and continue to have a relationship with Hashem.

But the lack of specific knowledge did not stop anyone from taking a guess. Sarah decides that Ishmael is unsuitable, so he is unceremoniously removed from the scene. Avrahom does the same thing to all the sons he has with Keturah after Sarah’s death.

And then Rivkah decides, on her own initiative, to remove Esau from the inheritance. But instead of confronting her husband, as Sarah had done, Rivkah chooses a much more circuitous and devious path, one that leads to an avalanche of pain: she loses her beloved Yaakov for the rest of her life, the Jewish future for the world is cast into peril when Yaakov leaves, and Rivkah herself does not even have her death memorialized in the Torah. It is not recorded that Yaakov ever talks to his father again.

But clearly the fault was not Rivkah’s alone! Isaac did not talk to her of his plans; they were not united in deciding how to handle their sons. And so Esau ends up rejected, by his own mother, and Esau and Jacob have a very difficult and fraught reconciliation. It is no understatement to suggest that it does not end well.

So when, many, many years later, Yaakov finds himself in the same position as his father had been when Yitzchok asked Esau to bring him venison before receiving a brachah, he conducts himself so very differently! Yaakov blesses Ephraim and Menasseh at the same time, in the same room, and with the other influential person in their life (Yosef) in the room. The possibility for misunderstanding has been minimized. There is no intrigue, or confusion, or suspicion. Everyone hears the same blessing, and at the same time, to the same pair of sons.[21]

And then, when Yaakov blesses his grandchildren, he does not move the children around, to arrange to have the one he wishes the “stronger” blessing of his right hand to be on the right. Instead, Yaakov does something very odd, indeed. He crosses his arms. What does it mean?

Remember Yaakov’s history. Remember how the blessing for Esau and himself served as a divisive force, ripping the family asunder, never to reunify. It all started with a blessing, something that should be a happy and wonderful experience. But instead, it left repercussions for which the Jewish people still pay the price – we continue to be hated by Esau. And, as argued above, the two goats on Yom Kippur are a perpetual not-quite-atonement for the two kids that Yaakov uses to deceive his father.

So what Yaakov does by crossing his arms is to force the brothers closer to one another. A blessing with two straight arms can be given to two separate people, perhaps feet away from one another. A blessing with crossed arms forces the recipients to be touching one another. They are linked during the blessing, both one to the next, and through the nexus of the crossed arms. Yaakov is telling Ephraim and Menasseh that this blessing is constructive, unifying. He is correcting the errors that set off the chain of events that led Yaakov to describe the days of his life as “few and evil.”

This ties in nicely with a beautiful idea by Rabbi Sacks, that Ephraim (“for God hath made me fruitful in the land of my affliction”) and Menasseh (“for God hath made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house”) represent both kinds of Jews for evermore: the Jew who sees Hashem’s blessings wherever we are, and the Jew who is trying to forget, to assimilate. By crossing his arms, Yaakov is binding them together. We Jews, whatever our allegiances and kinds of devotion, are stuck with each other. Yaakov’s unifying blessing of Ephraim and Menasseh made sure of that.

And in so doing, Yaakov is also teaching each of us how to bless our own children. We do not bless the way Yitzchok did. Instead, we bless like Yaakov. “May Hashem make you like Ephraim and Menasseh.” The Torah is teaching us how to grow, and how to correct our wrongdoings. And if we are attentive, we can learn from it and thus avoid the mistakes of the past.

These are all different facets of the jewel that is free will, the idea that was created when Hashem gave Adam and Chavah the choice of whether or not to eat from the fruit. They received choice, and consequences; ultimately, they learned how to grow past even those choices they would rather have made differently.

Action, Eyes, and Spiritual Readiness

So we have free will, and we have choices. But the important thing is that we must choose how to use our gifts correctly, and never refuse to act.

Take, for example. our eyes. Eyes are like anything else: we can use them for good or for ill.

The wrong way to use one’s eyes is to do what Chavah did, and what people throughout history have done: use our eyes to fix on our desires.

And when the woman saw that the tree … was pleasant to the eyes… she took of its fruit, and ate.[22]


You shall not do after all the things that we do here this day, every man whatever is right in his own eyes.[23]


You seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, which incline you to go astray;[24]

On the other hand, the Torah tells us that the eyes can be used to assess, to judge and consider. And ultimately, our eyes allow us to acquire knowledge and understanding.

So even though Chavah does not use her eyes properly when she decides to eat the fruit, once she and Adam eat the fruit, “The eyes of them both were opened.”[25] They have gained knowledge of good and evil, of the way Hashem made the world!

Similarly, the Torah tells us that Hashem consistently makes things, and then “sees” whether they are good. Noach finds favor in Hashem’s eyes. Avrahom uses his eyes to scope the land around him. All of these are positive and constructive acts.

Indeed, as a prophylactic against being steered astray by our eyes, the Torah gives us the commandment of blue fringes on four cornered garments (tzitzit):

And it shall be to you for a fringe, that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them.[26]

It is right when eyes are used for knowledge, for assessment of what we have done, and to grow our knowledge of the world. This is the essence of learning. And it is wrong when we use our eyes merely to fix them on the objects of our desire.

The commandment of tefillin establishes how we are supposed to use our eyes.

And it shall be for a sign upon your hand, and for frontlets between your eyes; for by strength of hand[27]

And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.[28]

Why in this order? Why the hands, and then the eyes?

I think the answer is to be found in the classic Jewish response to the commandments of Hashem: Naaseh v’Nishmah![29] “We will do, and then we will understand.” The Torah is telling us that action comes first. Only after we act do we look at our actions, and decide if they were, in fact, good or not. Inaction is also a form of failure.

Besides, if we do it the other way around, if we see and then we act, then we have done it wrong. This is what Chavah and Adam did – she saw first, and then she acted. And it was backward!

The proof is found in the way that the Torah tells us that Hashem made the world. It does not say that Hashem decided it would be good to have light, and so he made light. Instead, it tells us that Hashem made light – and then decided that it was good. And then, with naaseh v’nishmah and with the order of the tefillin, the Torah is teaching us that we should act[30], and then we learn from what we have done.[31]

This, of course, is a very risky thing to do. If we act first, then we are certain to make mistakes! But the Torah does not seem to have a problem with mistakes, per sé. Where we fall down as people and as individuals is when we refuse to learn from our mistakes.

In a similar approach, the Torah is at great pains to tell us the laws of purity and impurity – but it never tells us that it is a sin to become impure. I think the explanation for this is similar: since impurity is the result of an act of incomplete or failed creation, and we are encouraged to always try to create (both biologically and in many other ways), impurity is inevitable. So, then, are mistakes. Hashem does not have a problem with the notion of mankind’s mistakes – after all, He made us inherently capable of error. But where Hashem is angry is when we refuse to consider our actions, use our eyes to assess and learn from what has happened, and then aim to do better next time.

For example, the Jewish people insist on Aharon making them the golden calf, the egel. He does it, and then he tells the Jewish people to sleep on it – that they should not do anything further until the next day. Hashem is not angry at this point. He does not tell Moshe anything. He waits, and watches.

Had the Jewish people woke up the next day, realized they had made a mistake, and corrected it, then history would have been very different. But they did not: they increased their efforts to worship the idol, and this is what angered Hashem, as he tells Moshe.

They have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed to it, and said, These are your gods, O Israel, which have brought you out of the land of Egypt… Now, therefore, let me alone, that my anger may burn hot against them, and that I may consume them.[32]

We had a chance, and we acted – which was proper enough, as long as we followed it with the proper use of our eyes. But we failed, not only by not realizing that the egel was not such a great idea, but also by not following the previous action with a corrective one.

So the process of “act and assess” only works if we get the opportunity to do things again, to recursively grow both from when we make mistakes, and when we do not. But what the Torah is telling us is that, just as Hashem does acts which he does not assess as “good” (such as separating the waters on the second day of creation), so, too, mankind can and will, with the best of intentions, do things that are not good. And that is okay.

After Hashem makes something that is not good, he creates mankind, and we are given the mission to heal the rift between the waters above and below. If we are to emulate Hashem, then we must also act, assess, and then keep driving forward, trying always to grow new things, and repair any damage we have done in the past. That is what the process of teshuvah, return, is all about. We always work to improve ourselves, by looking and considering what has happened in the last year, and getting it right next time.

But nowhere does the Torah suggest that teshuvah should never be necessary, because we have not sinned. Nor does it suggest that teshuvah should not be necessary because we have refrained from acting in the first place!

It may be bad to chase whatever our eyes desire, and to do whatever is right in our own eyes. But it is even worse to be so afraid of making a mistake that we are unwilling to take risks. Many people are afraid of making decisions, are paralyzed by not being sure of what to do. The Torah is telling us: Act– and then assess and grow. And then do it again, and again. This is the way to live our lives, from tefillin to the commandments as a whole. This is the way we improve the world.

Choice and Relationships

And then the Torah teaches even more about choice, especially in our relationships – that choice is not something we make once. It is something we keep doing, on an ongoing basis.

As long as we live, we must always be cognizant of the decisions we are making, and the fact that those decisions matter. There are no “happily ever after” stories in real relationships, whether with a spouse or with Hashem. Most people don’t realize this. Most of us think that we are somehow the exception: how come our marriage is not a fairy tale? Why does our relationship with Hashem not include the part where He showers us with infinite blessings? And why not? Is there something wrong with us?

But upon reflection, the surprising thing is not that we don’t have fairy tale relationships. It is that we are ever naïve enough to think that anyone does! In real relationships, the dynamic is always shifting, with opportunities for errors and corrections at every turn. But as long as there is a desire to be together – we can call it “love” – the relationship can grow and adapt, creating something extraordinarily beautiful.

The linchpin, of course, is love. And love is not something we can take for granted – after all, there is no shortage of people who claim they have never really experienced it! Love is rare enough, and often fleeting. And yet, we have an almost-irrational desire to experience a vibrant love, to experience ongoing attraction and romance. How else can we explain why couples who have been married for decades still exchange gifts, have romantic dinners, and never want to be taken for granted by their opposite half?

We don’t want our spouses to stay with us because of simple inertia – we want them to want to spend time with us. How many times have we delighted in hearing people saying: “I would do it all over again”? We want to love, and be loved in return for who we are, and not because of some irrevocable decision that forced the other person’s hand.

In sum, it is all about choice. Not only do we want our spouse to have chosen to love us when they married us, but we also want them, even if we had somehow just met again for the first time, to still be crazy about us. Relationships are not just about the choice to get married in the first place; they are, just as much if not more, all about the ongoing choice to grow the relationship long after the wedding album has faded.

And so any relationship in which one party somehow compels the other to stay married is in some way crippled. Sure, two people may be technically married for some external reason (money, children, inertia, or fear), but those are not the kinds of marriages that anyone covets. The best marriages are those in which the man and woman happily married each other, and continue to choose that relationship. “I would do it all over again” is an almost magical phrase.

Our Relationship With God: Based on Free and Renewing Choice

We are created in the image of Hashem, and He craves precisely the same thing. Hashem wants us to love him, and we are invited, both nationally at Sinai and chagim (holidays), as couples on Shabbos, and individually at our bar mitzvahs, to renew our marriage with Hashem.[33]

But even once we commit to this relationship, there is no Happily Ever After. The decision to be married to Hashem does not end with the bar mitzvah ceremony. On the contrary! He wants us to choose to love Him every conscious moment of our lives. He desires a relationship that is as close and as intimate as we can handle. It is like a brand new and all-consuming infatuation: Hashem wants to be involved in every facet of our daily lives.

But there is a catch: Just as in human relationships, Hashem does not want us locked into the relationship, because if we are not free to walk away, are we really choosing to stay?

And here we find the prohibition in Judaism against making irrevocable decisions. We are forbidden, for example, to cut our flesh as idol worshippers do. A permanent mark on our bodies is the kind of thing that is difficult – if not impossible – to live down and reverse. So someone who tattoos “I love Hashem” on his forearm no longer has the freedom to not love Hashem going forward. And love must come with the freedom to walk away, or it is not the kind of love that Hashem cherishes.

Hashem wants us to be free, so that, on an ongoing basis, we can choose to have and develop a relationship with Him. That freedom means that we can – and many do – decide to exercise our freedom and walk away from Hashem. That is a price Hashem is willing to pay, because He would rather that everyone who serves Him does so willingly, rather than do so because they feel they have no choice.[34]

Our value to Hashem lies in the choices we freely make – not just once or twice, like at a pivotal coming-of-age ceremony, but every waking moment. There are no “happily ever after” marriages, because if both parties remain free to choose, then the relationship is always a challenge. Do we choose to serve Hashem, to grow our relationship? Or do we walk away?

The Gemara tells us of a Cohen Gadol named Yochanan, who served for many years, and then disowned Judaism – he just walked away.[35] If this story had not happened, then we would have to invent it, because it is so essential to understanding the responsibility and choices we have.[36] Even someone who was Cohen Gadol can take off his robes and sever his relationship with Hashem. Failed relationships make every successful one all the more sweet.

Adam Started with Only One Choice

Choice was not always so open to mankind. Adam did not have real freedom, a real set of choices. His choices – what he wanted to eat, or what he would name that funny-looking animal – had no consequences to speak of. After all, while naming an animal changes how we see it, it does not change the animal itself. A not-tahor animal cannot be made tahor.

And so they were not real choices, because they did not really matter. Adam only had one choice: did he choose a life of choices, the opportunity to choose change for all mankind, or did he choose a perpetuity of mere existence? In this sense, the forbidden fruit was really similar to Pandora’s box. Knowledge of good and evil made it possible to see the differences between things, to make informed choices going forward. Eating the fruit opened up the world of choices that faces us today. Hashem accepted Adam’s choice, and gave him and his descendants a world of never-ending decisions that matter.

Teshuvah: Hashem Shows us the Way

And this is what makes teshuvah, repentance, so much more important. Teshuva gives us a way to grow beyond our mistakes, and have an opportunity to do better next time. Hashem wants us to choose, and then to be free to move forward from there.

Why do we have teshuvah? Arguably, teshuvah is actually the oldest complete concept in the world. It is, after all, the first thing that Hashem shows us how to do![37]

Start, again, at 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 was 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. 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 and gases and fluids that make up an otherwise-dead physical world. And 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. And 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.[38]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 not yet 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 Hashem’s own creative powers.

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 had healed the rift between heaven and earth that Hashem had created – because even now, we have not yet achieved it. But Hashem has put into place all the ingredients that could, acting on their own and with the desire to complete the world, do the job for Him. And so 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.

The Garden and the Fruit

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 Cain and Abel? 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 he makes the plants and animals and mankind capable of reaching between heaven and earth. 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 a program. We are given free will, just as Hashem has free will.

And part and parcel of that free will is that our minds, our understandings, create our own reality. What we choose to see is our reality.[39] 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 actually almost entirely 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. And 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.[40] And Adam and Chavah were not ashamed at all, since they had no knowledge of the dualisms!

Had we remained ignorant, then the purpose of our creation would have been fulfilled. The Garden of Eden was created so that our own perceptions would see a unified world, and the separation of waters above and below, and of light and darkness – indeed EVERY dualism created – would cease to exist.

But Hashem could not truly make mankind in His image if we did not also have the divine power to choose: Adam had to be free to choose to eat the fruit. Man without free will is nothing more than an angel. And so we needed to have the choice: did we want to see the world the way we were made, or did we want to see the underlying dualisms that exist? We could only truly heal the world if we chose to do so, if we had the fortitude to say, “I don’t want to know.”

That is why the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was so named. Every dualism would be revealed, including the ones that divide the world between good and evil, heaven and earth, man and woman, man and Hashem, body and soul.

Adam and Chavah made the choice to be aware of the underlying reality, of knowledge of things they had not seen before. So they ate the fruit. “And their eyes were opened.”[41]

In that moment, Hashem’s promise to them, that “in the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die,”[42] comes true. The old Adam and Chavah, blissfully unaware of the core facts of the world around them, ceased to exist. Those people died, replaced by a new Adam and Chavah whose newfound knowledge astonished and frightened them. Knowledge is power. It is so powerful, that a profound revelation can transform people beyond their own recognition.

And just as with Hashem’s separation of the waters above and below, the Torah tells us there is no going back. We cannot entirely undo an act, or unsay a word. We cannot un-eat the fruit, any more than we can wish away what we know to be true.

There is only forward. And so the rest of the Torah and human history became necessary. Adam and Chavah did not choose to believe that the schism was healed, and so, for millennia, we have been trying to do it the hard way, the way that embraces the knowledge of good and evil and every other dualism that came with the fruit: we are here to connect heaven and earth.

Dualism and Holiness

There are some things that are so instinctively obvious that we just take them for granted. Consider nakedness, for example. People are embarrassed to be seen without wearing any clothes. Being naked in public is reported as being one of the common subjects of nightmares.

In our tradition, nakedness was discovered by Adam and Chavah after they ate the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. While many commentators suggest that Adam and Chavah discovered nakedness as the first Evil, this explanation is inherently circular. After all, why should exposing our bodies be inherently evil? Just because covering ourselves “feels right” does not make it right – we desire to do many violent or antisocial or destructive things, but we suppress those urges. Those urges are wrong. Yet we indulge this one, the innate urge to cover ourselves. On the face of it, shame at being naked makes little sense.[43]

It is necessary to acknowledge that the desire to be clothed is not universal. Nudists would argue most strenuously with the assumption that nakedness “feels” wrong. After all, they would say, clothes are only a social invention, a way to show status, or ownership, or to gain protection from cold or the sun. Babies have no sense of shame, and little children love to run around without clothes on. We don’t really need clothes except for protection. In other words, beyond utilitarian purposes, clothes should not really exist.

The ancient Greeks would have agreed wholeheartedly. Greek men were usually unclothed. But both nudists and ancient Greeks have the same core assumption: that the human body is itself divine, a beautiful thing worthy of worship. Greeks painted and sculpted images of their deities – and Greek gods look like beautiful and perfect Greeks.

Needless to say, this concept is utterly foreign to Judaism. We are commanded to take care of our bodies, but we are not to worship them.[44]We are differentiated from apes by the spark of life and infinite potential that is loaned to us by our Creator.[45] It is our souls that make us capable of improving ourselves; Jews make better intellectuals than athletes, not only because of genetics, but also in large part because we seek to better ourselves through our minds, the part of ourselves capable of genuinely imitating Hashem – through innovation and creation. Our bodies are indeed from the animal world, and while we aim to elevate ourselves, it is by harnessing our minds and bodies together, fusing the body and soul in serving Hashem. The body is a vessel for the soul. Unlike the Greeks, we do not admire our bodies; we admire the possibilities expressed from within our souls.

Adam, before he eats from the fruit, was like the ancient Greeks. He does not distinguish between the body and the soul: to him, they were one and the same. Adam sees the whole world, and the Midrash tells us that he sees it all at the same time; all one beautiful picture of harmony and bliss. Adam’s was a unique perspective.

When Adam and Chavah eat from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, their perspective changes in an instant, as if a switch turns on in their brains. For the fruit does not merely make one perceive good and evil – for the first time, it makes Adam and Chavah understand differences: the dualisms inherent in the world that Hashem created. Hashem had made the world, after all, by separating the waters above and below, by creating disunity and schism. All of the world’s twinned pairs were created in this way – good and bad, matter and energy, heaven and earth, man and woman, materialism and spiritualism –and the most glaring of these to Adam and Chavah, as soon as they eat the fruit, is the enormous gap between the body (“dust to dust”) and the soul, which was breathed into Adam’s nostrils by Hashem Himself.

Shame and the Key Role of the Sexual Commandments

It is this last difference that makes Adam and Chavah ashamed; they are embarrassed by the inconsistency they see in themselves, the difference between the soul (which is a spark from Hashem) and the body (which is not profoundly superior to those of other animals). To cover (kaparah) this difference, they use a garment (beged) sewn of fig leaves to make the body look more holy, less like an animal. Hashem sees the garment they made, which was constructed of plant matter, and elevates it –by replacing them with garments made of animal skins. In Hashem’s eyes, Man achieves a higher status by eating the fruit, and the “upgraded” image of his body is meant to reflect that higher status.[46]

As Rabbi Sacks writes, a beged comes from the same root as “to deceive” – garments deceive the onlooker (and often the wearer himself), as they cloak the reality of the body underneath. Until Adam and Chavah eat from the fruit, they are simply ignorant of the separation in the world, and of their own inconsistency. This is the root of shame and embarrassment for all of mankind – when our self-images do not match others’ images of us. From the moment of revelation, the moment of eating the fruit, people have felt the need to deceive themselves and others about their appearance. We despise inconsistency in ourselves and others, and so we cloak the inconsistency between who we are and how we appear by dressing up, by changing our appearance to match our self-image. Indeed, for many people (and, if one believes advertising, the vast majority of women), altering appearance is one of the most important activities that people engage in. Huge swaths of our economy cater to clothes and cosmetics, on top of a vast industry focused on improving our underlying physical appearance. Altering one’s appearance is a way of dressing up the soul. And it all stems from seeing in ourselves the difference between how we see our own souls and what we actually look like.

As petty as fixating on appearance often is, it is far superior to the Greek or nudist solution to the inconsistency between the body and the soul: lowering the soul to the level of the body, by engaging in and justifying all manner of vile acts.

With this perspective, it is now easy to understand why the Torah puts so much emphasis on sexual commandments. The soul may be creative – but so is the body, for only the body can reproduce. Sex is a creative act, not just in terms of procreation, but also because it fuses two people, two souls, together. Sex is also a means to repair the defects in the world: the defects that we became aware of when we ate the fruit. But because it is such a powerful force, sex is especially potent, for both good and evil. The laws in the Torah are there to tell us which ways unify the world – and which further destroy it. Refusing to admit the dualisms in our world, including the differences between body and soul, is inherently destructive, because it makes it impossible for us to work to repair the breach and complete Hashem’s work in our world.

In other words, we must recognize what is broken before we can begin to fix it.

The Torah gives us a pivotal example of where the sexual force was at its most destructive, where the future of the Jewish people was balanced on knife-edge. When Cosbi mates with Zimri in public, the act itself is a rejection of the very first lesson Adam and Chavah learned. It is a denial that there is any difference between body and soul, between Jew and Midianite, between good and evil, and right and wrong. By rejecting this basic fact of creation, the fundamental understanding of the value of separation as a precondition to holiness, Zimri almost forces Hashem to wipe out the Jewish people. As a nation and as individuals, we have no purpose if we cannot improve the world, and achieve holiness. And eliminating the difference between right and wrong makes it impossible for us to be holy.

Intimacy, like nakedness itself, must be private, because modest conduct confirms, rather than rejects, the lessons of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Holiness is achieved when the act of sexual union is not merely physical (like the mating of animals), but also spiritual.

This is why the Torah explicitly connects nakedness with sexuality; sexual prohibitions in the Torah talk of “uncovering the nakedness,” and we understand it to mean sexual intimacy. In a Torah framework, rejecting the connection between nakedness and sexuality would be tantamount to rejecting the first revelation man and woman ever received, and so we are meant to see them as synonymous. Pretending, for example, that nudity does not matter, would be to reject the core lesson of the Garden of Eden, and the lesson upon which all of the world is built.

This also explains the halochos relating to the differences between people and animals. Animals mate to produce other animals, creatures of the physical world. Animals do not have the capability to improve the world, to complete Hashem’s work. People, on the other hand, have the potential to create new people – complete with souls from Hashem – and we are commanded to improve the world. So the Torah keeps telling us to emphasize the differences between mankind and animals. Anything (whether it is animals mating, or people behaving like animals) that makes us think of intimacy as a purely animalistic act is to be avoided because it confuses us into thinking that the two might be qualitatively similar.

This attitude to intimacy summarizes the differences between idol worship (Avodah Zoroh) and Judaism. Ancient pagan societies (including polytheistic Greece and Rome) all had the common theme of ignoring the basic dualism revealed by the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. These societies depicted their deities as finite creatures, comparable to fine athletes or warriors – and in so doing, denied the infinite nature of the divine. The only thing infinite about Greek and Roman gods was their immortality, which only goes to show the immaturity of those societies. The word “immortality” contains within it, its own root – mortality. Greek and Roman gods were born, just like people, but they do not die. Hashem on the other hand is not immortal – He is timeless.

And the ancient world celebrated sex as a way to blur the differences, to ignore or reject the schisms in the world. In that world, man has no constructive role to play, and hedonism reigns supreme. In the ancient non-Jewish world (and increasingly in the world around us today), a logical end-point is that people believe that pleasure is the only thing that is good for a person – the only good imaginable. This was not the conclusion of all such societies (or even of most Greeks), but it is a logical outcome of the belief that there are no fundamental differences between good and evil, naked and clothed, or man and woman. And we certainly see this kind of hedonism in the world around us. The modern and common belief that there is no soul, that everything in our minds can be explained using just chemistry and physics, that even our personalities are nothing more than an expression of electrochemical reactions, leads inexorably to maximizing the physical pleasure of the body, without concern or consideration for non-physical consequences. When we reject all absolutes, and reject the dualisms that we understood when we ate the Fruit, we insist that everything is a shade of gray. This takes us, at warp speed, to the ultimate conclusion that modesty is silliness and no act that pleases us is shameful.

And nothing could be further from the Torah.

So we have identified what holiness is not – the blurring [away] of the boundaries between the dualisms in the world, the physical and spiritual planes chief among them. But what is holiness?

We have no trouble understanding most words – everyone knows what a cat is, or whether something is beautiful – even if only in the eye of the beholder. But there are some words in the Torah that are much harder to pin down. Foremost among them is the word for holiness, kodesh.

One problem is that kodosh is sometimes a noun, and sometimes an adjective. As a noun, we have tithes, which the Torah tells us are kodosh – translated as “that which is holy.” Commentators traditionally do not link these tithes to the Levi’im or Cohanim[47] as being connected to the other times the same word is found in the Torah, such as when Hashem tells Moshe to remove his shoes at the burning bush, because “the place on which you stand is holy ground.”

Nevertheless, I would argue that every single incidence of the word kodesh in the Torah means precisely the same thing. The Torah does not use few words because it has a limited vocabulary; on the contrary, the Torah uses few words because every repetition of a word is there to teach us something about the shared meanings of that word.

Where do we start? The word “holy” is not found in the book of Bereishis at all (except as a preexisting place name and as the opposite of holiness).[48] The very first time the Torah uses the word “holy,” kodesh , is in the episode of the burning bush. The bush is burning – but is not consumed by the fire, meaning that the fire is itself so spiritual that it does not even feed on the material world. The burning bush is the confluence of earth and energy in which neither consumes the other. It is also where light illuminates matter that is otherwise dark: bringing light to darkness is the reunification of the separation of light and darkness that Hashem had effected during creation.

In this one incident, Hashem is defining for all Jews, and for all times, holiness. Holiness is not separation, and it is not, precisely, mere elevation. True holiness occurs when the spiritual and the material are brought together in the same place and time, and neither consumes the other.[49] This is the very first Torah lesson that Hashem gives Moshe. It is the building block for all of Judaism, and it helps us understand every single time the word appears again in the Torah – almost 200 times in all!

So when the Torah tells us of all the things that are holy, it is identifying for us situations in which we can identify, or even cause holiness to come into being. The identification is easier: Hashem tells us that the tabernacle is holy, and that makes sense, since it is the place where the spirituality of the divine presence resides on earth – the tabernacle is the burning bush writ large.[50]

The Mishkan has a holy place and a most holy place – the kodesh, and the kodesh hak’doshim. The holy place in the tabernacle or temple is where the divine presence can touch the mizbe’ach, to take the sacrifices that we offer, emulating the burning bush by combining earth and fire.[51] The most holy place is where Hashem’s divine presence itself rests here on earth. The coexistence of these two opposite forces, without the destruction of either, is the most holy thing we can contemplate.[52]

We can similarly understand all other identifications of holiness that the Torah tells us: the garments of the Cohen, for example, represent a similar combination of the human body (having been recently immersed in the waters below) and man-made clothes used for the service of the divine presence. We can understand other Mishkan-related articles precisely the same way; they all are the embodiment of the combination of spirituality and earthiness, the waters above and below.

Holiness and Intimacy: Why We Are Different from Animals

So too, are we meant to understand that holiness is antithetical to behaving like an animal. It is for this reason that Hashem tells us that we don’t eat flesh from living animals, or follow our animal passions for sexual sins – both food and sex are encouraged, but only in holiness, when there is a combination (and ideally even a balance) between the spiritual and physical elements of the acts. And while a young rooster will grow up to defeat and often kill the old rooster, its father, the Torah tells us specifically that honoring our parents is a holy act. 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.[53]

Holiness is not achieved easily, of course. For ourselves, we must first separate from impurity, then undergo ritual purification (tohoroh),and then elevate the material toward the spiritual. As we have said before, 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,[54] before we can elevate ourselves into the spiritual realm to seek holiness. This definition of holiness explains why Moshe has to remove his shoes. Just as with the mikvah, in order to achieve holiness, we have to have an active attachment to the earth, to be grounded.

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. For example, the festivals are mikroh kodesh, which is usually translated as a “holy convocation,” but which can be literally translated as “called-out holiness”. The phenomenon is not limited to times: when we separate tithes, the Torah does not designate the tithes as “holy” until we do: “Then you shall say before the Lord your God, I have brought away the holiness out of my house.”[55] We make things holy by declaring them to be holy, just as we declare the Shabbos holy when we make Kiddush on Friday night.

Humans are given the power to change the world around us. We can make holiness with the spoken word – and we can take Hashem’s name in vain merely by saying it out loud without a justified purpose. When we use our own bodies and souls to utter Hashem’s name, then we can achieve tremendous heights of k’dushoh – and we can just as easily profane His name.

So the above defines holiness as the coexistence of heaven and earth, of matter and energy, of man’s body and soul, and, importantly, of 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, the Temple, and within human beings.[56]

But there is a higher category of holiness: the “most holy,” the ultimate in what the Torah calls holy. And while Torah tells us that Shabbos is holy, and that the burning bush was holy, they are not kodesh kodoshim, most holy.

Shabbos is holy because, on that first seventh-day, Hashem blessed an otherwise normal unit of time and declared it to be special. His declaration is the essence of spiritual energy, combining with the seventh day to make Shabbos. And the burning bush was the combination of the lowly bush and divine fire. So we see that when something physical and mundane is combined with a spiritual energy, it is holy.

But, while such a combination may make something holy –it is not most holy. What elevates other things to a higher level of holiness than the divine declaration of Shabbos?

The Torah tells us of many things that are “most holy,” including numerous creations and designations: the place of the ark (aron), the incense, the atonement offerings, and the firstborn. All of these require an act of mankind, at the least a declaration, and at most, a full sacrifice. For all their variety, the lesson is consistent: The Torah never tells us about something that Hashem makes that is most holy! Instead, the highest level of holiness is something that we, and not Hashem, create!

And even within the “most holy” category, the Torah plays favorites: the guilt offering, the sin offering, and the meal offering are called “most holy” more than anything else in the entire Torah. What makes these specific items worthy of such attention?

I would argue that the difference is that these are all voluntary offerings, in the sense that for someone to bring such an offering, they have to be taking the initiative. A person who brings a sin offering is looking for an opportunity to bring an offering, above and beyond supporting the routine “housekeeping” offerings in the Temple. When one of those offerings is brought, it is as a result of the exercise of free will: we choose to do an action, and that choice gives the act more potency.

But there is more than this. While Shabbos and the burning bush were combinations of heaven and earth, physical and spiritual, they were really admixed in this way, directly by Hashem. They were not truly reunified, but merely stuck together. Hashem creates mankind to reunify the split parts – it is our job – so that when Hashem reunifies heaven and earth, He does not do it “for keeps”, He only does it as a teacher would show a student how to solve a math problem: the burning bush is an example of holiness, teaching Moshe the definition. Hashem wants us to learn from Him, to choose to follow His lead and create holiness ourselves.

But a sacrifice, by contrast, is not a static thing, but a dynamic event. It is not merely the combination of two disparate elements. A sacrifice is an active event, elevating the physical toward the spiritual.

Consider the sacrifices: the guilt and sin offerings involve an animal. When the animal is sacrificed, the soul (nefesh) of the animal is released upward in fire. An animal is given an elevation (aliyah) toward the divine. This is precisely what we want our own souls to do – to elevate toward Hashem. And the flesh becomes most holy – to be eaten by the priests, elevating them in turn. Like kosher food, whose purpose is to allow us to elevate our bodies through consuming the kosher animal, so too the sacrifices to Hashem create a foodstuff that is most holy, elevating the priests as they consume the meat.

Animals, of course, have spirits, and the contribution of their spirits to the offering make it most holy. But the meal offering is of flour and oil, not of an animal! Why is an offering that does not include an animal also repeatedly identified as being “most holy”?

The answer is that the meal offering was brought by those who could not afford to purchase an animal. For such a person, even financing the meal offering was a substantial investment (and sacrifice) of their own meager possessions. The reason the Torah says “And when any will offer a meal offering to the L-rd,”[57] the Hebrew word used for “any” is nefesh or spirit. The Talmud tells us that a meal offering was not the spirit of the animal, but represented the spirit of the person making the offering itself! Which might explain why the meal offering is given pride of place when the Torah lists the offerings:

This shall be yours of the most holy things, reserved from the fire; every offering of theirs, every meal offering of theirs and every sin offering of theirs, and every guilt offering of theirs, which they shall render to me, shall be most holy for you and for your sons.[58]

It is the meal offering that comes first, because the person bringing the offerings put more of their spirit into their sacrifice – and the offering is meant to elevate people most of all: the offering is a human proxy.

The Torah’s words are telling us that Hashem values mankind’s contributions to this world above His own.

And 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 this world: Hashem wants us to be holy, and the greatest holiness is achieved when we serve Hashem by connecting the disparate worlds that He formed in the beginning of creation.

Our acts, then, are of key importance.[59]

We can also understand the meaning of holiness when we read the Torah’s definition of its opposite state. The contrast to holiness is not, as we might expect, a defiled state.[60] The Torah tells us repeatedly that we, Hashem’s people, are to be holy, because Hashem is holy. But rarely does it contrast the word for “holy” with an opposite:

And that ye may put difference between the holy and the common, chol, and between the unclean and the clean; (Lev. 10:10)

Hashem is telling us that we are to separate between the holy and the common. But what is the meaning of the word chol? Though it is often translated as “common” or “mundane,” the principle is that the best source of translation is the Torah itself.

The root of the word, chol, is found in the beginning of the Torah, in several instances.

And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth (Gen: 6:1)

And Cush begot Nimrod; he began to be a mighty one in the earth. (Gen: 10:8)

Chol does not mean common or mundane at all! It actually means what came first.

The way the Torah defines chol in the verses above is a raw state, a state of nature, of pre-civilization. It is a world before mankind started to improve on it. It is the beginning state.

Indeed, chol is the world the way Hashem made it. So in the Torah, Hashem is telling us that the world, as He made it in the first six days, was chol, that it was the very opposite of holiness. Why? Because nature is unfeeling, unthinking. It has its own rules, and without any further input from Hashem or man, it merely exists. 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 of the world that we are meant to heal. The Torah tells us that a man should not defile himself, “to make himself chol,”[61] and two verses later, it repeats the injunction: “They shall be holy to their G-d and they should not make the name of G-d chol.”[62] And what is the middle of this sandwich of references to chol? “They shall not make bald any part of their head, nor shall they shave off the corner of their beard, nor make any gashes in their flesh.”[63] What all three of these things have in common is that they would be done with a knife. And a knife is a tool that creates separations! The Torah is telling us that we are forbidden to make unnecessary separations in the world, since holiness comes from healing separations, not creating them.[64] Chol is the opposite of kedushoh because it is comprised of divisions which are not, in themselves, good. Servants of Hashem, representing His name, should be seen even in their own bodies, as unifiers and not creators of spurious separations.

In order for the 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. Examples of such acts are sacrifices in the Beis Hamikdosh or through mankind’s direct act, as in the dedication of the firstborn. In these ways, we can create the most holy things identified in the Torah.

The Torah is telling us that the chol state must never be confused for holiness. Chol is a raw state.[65] The untrammeled natural state is not holy – they are to be kept separate, contrasted with each other! After all, worshipping something in nature is pure paganism: we are not supposed to confuse nature with its creator!

Judaism is full of hints about how we are supposed to view the natural world. For example, on Pesach, we eat moror, the “bitter” herb. But moror can be any one of a number of vegetables – many opinions hold that it does not even need to be bitter! And while we tell ourselves that the moror is to remind us that slavery was bitter, it turns out that this is not quite how our sages viewed the biblical commandment to eat moror! The Gemara suggests[66] that moror is also there to remind us of the Egyptians themselves.

So what is the purpose of moror, which we are commanded by the Torah to eat when we commemorate leaving Egypt, if it does not need to be bitter? The requirement in the Mishnah is that moror must be a raw vegetable, entirely unimproved from its natural state.

In addition to the common explanation (the bitter herbs are to remind us of slavery), it can thus also be suggested that moror exemplifies a key characteristic of Egypt itself, of living in harmony with the earth. It needs to remind us of natural produce, unimproved by any cooking, as close to the raw state as possible. Because, as we know, the opposite of holiness is the raw, natural state.

So we eat moror: to remind us of the choice our ancestors made when they left Egypt, to move away from a life in harmony with nature, and toward a marriage with Hashem. In order to complete the Hashem’s creation of the world, we are to improve the natural. So we reject the natural and the raw state. Instead we create, nurture, and reinforce the connections between the physical world and the spiritual world.

But before we can do that, before we can reach for holiness, the Torah tells us we must first immerse ourselves.[67]The ritual bath, or mikvoh, is an integral part of Jewish life and observance. It is closely tied to ritual purification, tohoroh, and is required by halochoh in conversions, by women before marital relations commence or resume, and before appearing before Hashem in the Beis Hamikdosh. It is also a common custom for people to go to the mikvoh before the festivals (when coming to the Beis Hamikdosh required ritual purity), and by some to go to the mikvoh before Shabbos, or indeed every day.

We understand the mikvoh is not about physical cleanliness, but about spiritual cleanliness. Indeed, while it is nice to have a clean mikvah, there is no obligation that the mikvoh be clean at all. Indeed, a mikvoh can be comprised almost entirely of liquid mud![68]

And there are a number of very curious elements about mikvo’os. For example, Rambam in hilchos mikvo’os notes a single mitzvah of mikvah, and presents it by saying that tohoroh follows teviloh – the implication is that purity does not come by dipping into the water, but by leaving it. By the same token, the Torah tells us many times that even when one goes to the mikvoh, in many cases one is not yet tohor until nightfall. If a mikvoh purifies us, then why is there a delay between going to the mikvoh and becoming purified?

Mikvoh water itself is commonly understood to be the ocean, but could be any natural still body of water (like a spring or lake or pond) above a certain size. And when we make an artificial mikvoh, we must be very careful to handle the water in such a way that it comes from the ground. Rainwater can be used, if it connects to the ground first: Halochoh does not allow for a shower of rain water, no matter how heavy, to be a mikvoh. Rivers and other moving bodies of water are not kosher mikvo’os. And the best mikvoh of all- the only kind that does not need to have a minimum volume[69] – is a mikvoh from a spring, where the water is actively moving upward.

It comes together when we recall that the purpose of mankind is to heal the separation of the world that Hashem effected when he created the world. We are meant to elevate the physical and unite it with the spiritual, to unify heaven and earth. We anchor ourselves with the seas, in order to draw them upward to a reunification with the waters above – heaven.

The earth itself is not capable of becoming impure, tomei (this is why, for example, we can purify knives in the ground). It is already 100% earth, and cannot be ritually contaminated. The earth is what it is, and we cannot change that. What we can do is build a bridge between the earth and heaven, connecting the two.

The reason we go to the mikvoh is not because the mikvoh makes us more holy. It does not do that. The mikvoh also does not make us more spiritually pure. The mikvoh does not connect us closer to heaven. It does the opposite – it renews the connection between us and the earth itself. It is a chance to reconnect ourselves with the physical and earthly.

Rabbi Yaakov Lipsky points out that if someone climbs a stairway, their feet have to go first – the lowest part of the body must rise before the head is able to follow. Judaism is not a mystical religion – we don’t believe in elevating our hearts and heads before our body. On the contrary: elevating the physical entails connecting to the physical world, and only then can we build ourselves up spiritually.

So, in order to unite the heavens and the earth, we leave the mikvoh to start making that connection. Women go to the mikvoh as a preparation for reuniting with their husbands, in holiness, to create new life or at least to beautify their relationship. All people go to the mikvoh before going to the Beis Hamikdosh, the closest geographical link between heaven and earth. And many go to the mikvoh before Shabbos, the temporal connection between heaven and earth.

In other words, the mikvoh is not holy in itself. It is holy as a preparatory step, a necessary but not sufficient condition for making the attempt to do something holy.

This also explains why there is often a requirement to wait after going to the mikvoh, and before one is considered tohor, fit to enter the Beis Hamikdosh. We are human beings, and we have to build this connection between earth and heaven. The bridge is not built in an instant, and it is not built simply by leaping from a mikvoh into Hashem’s house. We are commanded to let time pass, at least into the next day (which starts at evening), because the choices we make in life constitute the very bricks and mortar of the bridge we build.[70]Even with all the ritual baths in the world, Hashem needs us to live as holy people, to fill the gap between the waters above and below with our deeds, following Hashem’s will.[71]

Ritual impurity, tumoh, is the result of human actions, of a failed creative act that did not successfully achieve the bridge between heaven and earth, and so becomes an impediment to that bridge, and needs to be cleansed. Tumoh inhibits one from connecting to Hashem fully in the physical realm. Raising oneself out of the purely physical pool of water (mayim hatachtonim) allows one to break free from the suffocating limitations of a purely physical existence and orientation, and imbibe the ru’ach, spirit, that Hashem makes available to us in this world as he takes a breath of air.

It is when we rise from the mikvoh that we are once again prepared to attempt to bridge the gap, completing Hashem’s creation by reuniting heaven and earth, the waters below with the waters above. In other words, the mikvoh makes us ready to strive for holiness.

Are We Too Afraid to Ask?

There are a great many laws in the Torah. Surely, some might say, they are commandments (chukim) that are beyond our comprehension. What is wrong, for example, with eating sturgeon or clams, but right with eating salmon and tuna? To a great many people, the argument, “Because Hashem says so,” is not compelling in itself. And so those people may choose to accept certain ethical principles (like some of the Ten Commandments) because they seem like good rules with which to guide one’s life, but then reject those rules that do not seem to make sense.

Therefore, if we are not swayed by the argument that “Hashem’s word is the Torah, and the Torah says so,” then we don’t bother making the attempt to live our lives according to Jewish Law. Instead, we pick and choose; we do what is right in our own eyes. After all, we are all rational people, capable of making up our own minds!

And we do ourselves no favors by telling people that they just have to close their minds, and accept Jewish Law on faith: that the Torah is right simply because it is Hashem’s word. The Torah world often finds itself at an impasse when confronted by someone who is not prepared to simply accept Hashem’s authority.

Instead of opening up to questions, we retreat into the cave, insisting that while Hashem has His reasons, and there are surely good answers to all questions, such answers are entirely beyond our comprehension. “Only Hashem knows.” Mere mortals such as ourselves should know better than to even ask! In short: someone who questions the Torah’s laws simply needs to trust us when we say that it is Hashem’s will that we do so.

Is it any surprise that the secular world and the Torah world find it ever harder to find common ground? The Torah world cannot understand why others cannot accept the obvious beauty of the Torah, and a relationship with Hashem – while the secular world sees Torah Judaism as a belief system that does not even try to find a rational explanation for its laws. We are talking past each other, unable to find the common ground to allow for conversation.

Unless and until Jews become active in marketing Judaism, and using the language of the world around us to do so, we will lose. Orthodoxy is winning the demographic battle, but as it spins off on its own, it is finding it ever harder to connect to the rest of humanity. Instead of talking to those who express reasonable doubts about the Torah, we ensconce ourselves in communities where we only hear each other. In fear of contamination by the secular world, we are unwilling to even hear the questions of those who would be interested in Torah– if only someone would help them understand why there are certain laws.

Fortunately, the answer to any question, as the Torah tells us, “is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it.”[72]And to make it simpler for us to understand, every answer, like the lines radiating out from a central railway hub, leads back to one nexus: the single most dominant commandment of the Torah, “Be Holy!”We can pick up any strand – even one that seems to be too tangled or confusing – and follow it back to holiness.

Most prominent (and one of the most challenging) of all these laws are the ones that divide us from others the most in our day-to-day lives: those what define what is, and is not, Kosher.

For millennia, Jews have kept these laws for the most basic reason of all: Because the Torah tells us to do so. But we also need to start explaining the underlying philosophy behind kashrus, to show that there is both internal consistency and a higher purpose in being careful about the foods that we eat. What does kashrus have to do with holiness?

The Torah tells us which animals can be eaten, and which cannot – among mammals, we can eat animals that have split hooves and chew the cud; and, among others, we can also eat grasshoppers. Grasshoppers?! Where does that come from?

Why Some Animals Are Kosher, Others Not

Like the rest of the Torah, the answer is not far from us; the explanation for kosher animals can be found within the words of the Torah itself!

Firstly, we are commanded to be a holy people. As such, we are meant to be always seeking to connect the earth to the sky – unify the waters above and below. So holiness, as the coexistence of earth and spirit, requires the elevation of the products of the earth.

Indeed, the Gemara says that for an animal to be kosher, it must be able to rise up from the ground.[73] Kosher mammals must have split hooves – their connection to the earth is incomplete, incapable of properly bonding between the earth and the animal. It also partially explains grasshoppers, which are described in the Torah as having “legs above their feet, to leap with upon the earth.[74] Grasshoppers share that aspect with cows and sheep: they also can be described as partially connected to heaven, just by virtue of not being fully connected to the earth. So this explains the Torah’s commandment to notice the feet and legs of animals – for us to be holy, we can only eat animals whose bodies are not solidly in contact with the earth.

But the Torah does not just tell us to eat animals that have cloven hoofs. The second part of that commandment is that we must be sensitive to whether the animal chews its cud; in other words, the only mammals we can eat are ruminants.

Animals that chew their cuds are the only animals that can fully digest plants. By contrast, monogastric animals can only incompletely digest grain and vegetables. Key plant components that cannot be digested by unkosher animals such as dogs, minks, and pigs (among many others) include the plant compounds stachyose and raffinose. And so the Torah tells us that the animals that we, as a holy nation, can eat must be animals that fully digest plants. Grasshoppers, by the way, are also preferentially grain and cereal consumers, and they also digest plants in full.

Animals that cannot digest plants in full are, in a sense, incomplete. Raffinose and Stachyose are both sugars, so literally, the animals we can eat must be able to benefit from the sweetness of the land!

But this just leads us to another question: are we really saying that an animal Hashem created is somehow incomplete? We don’t have to: the Torah does it for us.

And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to every thing that creeps upon the earth, where there is life, I have given every green herb for food.[75]

Animals that eat green herbs for food are perfect in themselves: they completely fulfill the function of an animal by fully digesting plants.

So when Hashem made the cow, it was a complete act, because the cow could fulfill the Torah’s injunction for animals to live off of plants. But dogs are incomplete animals; because, while they are successful organisms, dogs cannot follow the Torah by subsisting on plant life. We can consume all animals that are made perfect according to the Torah, and which are already able to separate from the earth and make an aliyah. These animals allow us to fulfill our own mission in life.[76]

So much for animals. What about fish?

The Torah tells us that we may only eat fish that have fins and scales.

We, as a holy nation, start grounded in the earth (or waters of the Mikvah). And then we live our lives trying to elevate and combine those physical roots with the spiritual heights. As has already been explained, the land animals we eat must be fully products of the earth, but also must have started to grow away from it. They are the first step toward a higher plane.

Fish, of course, have different rules – but the same explanation! In order for a water creature to be kosher, it must have two things: fins and scales. And the Talmud explains that a fish with scales also has a distinct spinal column; in other words, it has bones.

Fish are already very well connected to the “waters below,” in that they can all exist in a kosher mikvah (ponds, lakes, and the ocean all qualify).[77] The requirement for fins and scales is a requirement that the animals, like the land mammals with cloven hooves, are sufficiently distinct from their environment so as to rise above it.

Fins are a method of propulsion, already allowing the fish (unlike, say, a clam) to start the journey toward spirituality, to move itself upward. The finned fish (unlike, for example a jellyfish) can readily move against the current, to separate itself from its medium.

The fins themselves also act as a means of separation. A fish with fins does not have to use its entire body like an eel or squid does, in order to move through the water. The fins are an intermediary, causing a further division between the fish and the water.

Scales are another form of separation from the water. The scales of a kosher fish can be detached, by hand or with a knife, without ripping the skin,[78] which means that the scales, like the split hooves of a cow, form another intermediary layer, separating the fish from its habitat.

Cartilage, which takes the place of bones in sharks, is essentially a hardened jelly-type substance, which is quite similar to water itself. Bones of a spinal column, on the other hand, are distinct from the water. The fish we can eat are the water creatures that are separate from the water, and can elevate themselves from within it.

It is often said that the secret to really great food is to start with the best ingredients. We could say the same thing about holiness: it is essential to start with the right ingredients. To be a holy people, striving to combine the physical and the spiritual, we must also limit our consumption to those animals that are also distinct from their environment.

The laws of Kashrus are entirely consistent with the rest of the Torah’s laws telling Jews how to be a holy nation. The answers are within reach.

Why Eat Meat?

The Torah charges mankind with the quest to change our world. The world, by itself, is essentially cyclically homeostatic, a system that, from a scientific perspective, is in a kind of autopilot, with shifting states of equilibrium. The only thing that can be “unnatural” in this natural world, is mankind itself![79] Since the days of open miracles are behind us, the only things in this world that alter the earth in any meaningful way are the actions of people – both in a measurable and in more mystical ways.

It is through mankind, acting as Hashem’s agents, that the earth can be elevated toward heaven, that the waters above and below can be unified. But connecting the mystical to the practical can be a challenge. How does day-to-day life translate into an elevation of the physical into the spiritual plane?

The Torah tells us that an animal has two parts: its flesh (bassar), and its spirit (nefesh). When we kill an animal, we are forbidden to consume its blood – because the Torah tells us that the blood of an animal is where the animal’s spirit resides. We are not supposed to take the spirit of an animal into ourselves, probably because we are not meant to compromise our human nature. Instead, we are told, no less than three times, that we must pour the blood onto the earth, just as we do with water.

Take a moment to consider this imagery! The spirit of the animal goes to the earth, while its flesh is consumed and absorbed by people. And the Torah tells us that we are permitted to fulfill our desire for meat, without limit, as long as we do it in a permissible manner. But why is it both proper and good to pour blood onto the earth?

I suggest that there is a symmetry in all of our acts. An act of kindness, for example, affects both the giver and the recipient. It is a variation on Newton’s Third Law: that every action has an equal reaction. When we wash our hands, the water changes us – but we also change the water. Instead of being mere water, it is now a liquid that has aided in the fulfillment of a mitzvah, for preparation to say Shema, or to eat bread. When we go to the mikvah, for example, we are at the same time preparing ourselves for holiness, and elevating the water in which we are immersed.

The permissible and kosher killing of an animal leads to a symmetry as well: the spirit of the animal, through its blood, enriches the earth by bringing the physical earth higher towards the spiritual plane. And the meat of the animal is used to elevate mankind as well, because we consume meat in a way consistent with the laws of the Torah, with blessings and appreciation to Hashem. The Torah is telling us that the pouring of blood and water are similar in this respect. While the Torah says that we are to pour blood “like water,” nowhere does it say that we pour water! Instead, water comes from the sky, and is absorbed by the earth, nurturing life within it, giving the earth an opportunity to grow. So we are to pour blood into the earth for the earth’s own spiritual benefit, just as water falls for the earth’s physical benefit. The act of adding blood to the earth, in a kosher manner, brings the earth ever closer to uniting with the spiritual waters above, with shamayim.

This explains why the Torah says

You shall not eat of any thing that dies of itself; you shall give it to the stranger that is in your gates, that he may eat it; or you may sell it to a foreigner; for you are a holy people to the L-rd your Hashem.[80]

It is not that there is something wrong with the meat, or that it would not sustain our bodies. We are forbidden to eat an animal that has died by itself, because that would be depriving the earth of the opportunity to be elevated through the blood of the animal. We Jews are not supposed to merely sustain ourselves – we are supposed to be holy in everything we do, and that means that we are not just about ourselves. The Torah is telling us that we are responsible, even when engaged in the most mundane activities, for finding ways to elevate the world around us. In order to be holy, when we eat meat, we must use the blood to elevate the earth just as surely as we use the body of the animal to strengthen ourselves.

The theme continues when the Torah talks about sacrifices:

And you shall offer your burnt offerings, the meat and the blood, upon the altar of the L-rd your Hashem; and the blood of your sacrifices shall be poured out upon the altar of the L-rd your Hashem, and you shall eat the meat.[81]

The highest possible purpose for an animal is to be used as a sacrifice; and even in this case, we are commanded to eat the meat, just as we are simultaneously commanded to add the blood to the altar, elevating the point of the solid rock of the earth that is closest to the spiritual plane.

Note that there is no hint of vegetarianism in the text. The Torah is telling us that we are welcome, without constraint or limitation, to indulge our desires:

…you shall kill of your herd and of your flock, which the L-rd has given you, as I have commanded you, and you shall eat in your gates, to your heart’s desire.[82]

We are meant to satisfy our gastronomic desires – within the guidelines! All we have to do is to eat a kosher animal, kill it in a permissible manner, and make sure that in the killing and eating, we allow the earth to be elevated by the blood as surely as we are elevated by the eating of the meat.

Meat and Milk

One of the most mystifying commandments in the Torah is also one that is repeated three times. The Torah says, “Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.”[83]

The halachic ramifications of this commandment are well hashed out in the Gemara and throughout Jewish law and custom. Our sages carefully examined how we should live our lives based on the Torah, and there is a consensus that is broadly accepted for how we follow this mitzvah.

But there are also philosophical underpinnings to this, as with all commandments. In other words, while the Gemara, and Shulchan Aruch and other texts explain how we follow this commandment, they do not delve into why Hashem thought this commandment was important in the first place.

And it is a peculiar one, indeed. After all, Hashem could easily have said, “do not eat meat with milk,” and it probably would not change the way we interpret and follow the law. The more poetic language of “cooking a kid in its mother’s milk” is not necessary for halachic reasons. And since we know that the Torah does not use extra words, this phrasing and its repetition cry out for explanation!

As with so many other commandments (chukim), the explanation is within our grasp. Consider: A female goat nurses for only a few months. The milk’s purpose is not human consumption, but the sustenance and growth of her offspring.

If we use that same milk to cook her kid, then we have used it as part of death, and not for the purpose it was created. In other words, the milk was created to grow life, not to destroy it. And the Torah is telling us that when something exists that is supposed to be used to grow life, we cannot use it as a means of ending life. It is ethically wrong to use life-sustaining forces to kill.

What is supposed to give life is not meant to be used to kill. Hashem does it once, with the Flood. And then He promises never to do it again.[84]

Water and rain are consistently identified with life in the Torah, and in our prayer and other traditions. And when we pray for rain, we pray that it be “for life and not for death.” Following Hashem’s lead, we cannot derive benefit from the use of life-sustaining milk in death.

The Most Difficult Chok of All: The Red Heifer

A chok (or chukim in the plural) in the Torah is a straightforward commandment from Hashem to people. Traditionally, we are meant to understand that chukim are not mitzvos we can explain – and the archetype of all chukim is the red heifer, the parah adumah.

It is, at least at first glance, a very difficult commandment to understand. A red heifer that has never been yoked must be slaughtered and burned, and its ashes used to purify those who have been in contact with a dead human body. What does this have to do with anything?

The answer, like the Torah itself, is within our grasp. We start by reviewing the purpose of purification in the first place.

Ritual purification is not, in itself, holiness. Purification is nothing more or less than a preparatory step for doing something in holiness – women go to the mikvah before joining with their husbands in an act of potential biological creation, for example. The Torah is full of mitzvos requiring such purity, especially when approaching or serving in Hashem’s house on earth, the Mishkan.

Purification in the ritual bath is to reconnect us to the earth, specifically through water itself. Since our lives are committed to elevating the physical into the spiritual realm, which can also be seen as connecting the waters below with the spiritual waters above, it is necessary to first anchor ourselves to the world below in order to bring it with us as we ascend into the spiritual plane. Judaism is all about elevation; elevation is the essence of holiness.

So, for almost every kind of impurity, the Torah tells us to immerse ourselves in the mikvah, and we are then ready to spend the rest of our day doing Hashem’s commandments to connect with the spiritual side of the world. But not for the worst kind of impurity: contact with a dead human body. For that impurity, immersion in a mikvah will not suffice. To serve Hashem in His house after contact with the dead, we must be sprinkled with the ash of the parah adumah, combined with water: the Torah calls it mayim chayim, usually translated as “spring water.”

Herein lies the first clue. The name for the parah adumah is “Red Heifer.” The color red represents blood, the essence of the life force itself. And adumah, “red,” shares the very same root word as “land” and indeed “Adam” the first man. Nothing in the Torah is a coincidence! And neither is the fact that the word for ashes that the heifer is turned into, affar, is spelled ayin-peh-reish when the ashes are sprinkled on someone to remove the spiritual unreadiness caused by contact with a dead person.

Consider: if the mikvah is to return to a ground state in place, then the red heifer is a way of returning to a ground state in both place and time. Time is important, of course, because every living thing was once alive, if we could but dial back the clock to before there was any death in the world, when everything was alive. And the mitzvah of the parah adumah allows for precisely this to take place.

This is why the animal must never have been yoked. In order to take the person back to the time before death, to the moment of the creation of mankind itself, we must recreate the world of the sixth day of creation. In the moment that Adam was created, animals were free from the yoke of humanity.

Hashem made the first man, Adam, by taking ashes from the earth and blowing the soul of life into his body. But note the language. Hashem makes Adam from affar, spelled “ayin-peh-reish.” And then he blows life (chayim) into his nostrils.

In the case of the parah adumah, we also take the ashes from the earth (for the animal’s very name contains “earth”), and we combine those ashes with mayim chayim which we can now translate as “living water.” When we use the ashes and water to restore the purity of a person who has touched a corpse, we are doing nothing less than recreating the fundamental act of mankind’s creation, taking us back to the time before there was such a thing as death.[85]

Connecting across time explains much in the Torah beyond the Red Heifer as well as the Metzorah.[86] But it also helps to explain the Nazirite.

The Role of Nazirites

We have, of course, always had malcontents. They tend to be young men, with plenty of energy that needs to be directed and focused in order to avoid becoming a chaotic destructive force.

So the laws of the Nazirite make a lot of intuitive sense: the Torah provides a “kosher” outlet for those energies. The laws of the Nazirite are, in a sense, a safety valve. But why laws about grapes and haircuts and the dead?

The obligations that a Nazirite takes on are unique, and not readily explained as a mere safety valve or diversion of energies. I would suggest instead that they match up with a very specific time and place: the Garden of Eden.

Adam and Chavah in Eden Nazirite
Grapes, vines, or wine No mention Not allowed
Haircuts Before Adam and Chavah ate from the fruit, people were not self-conscious, which means that they would not have cut their hair Not allowed
The Dead Before Cain killed Hevel, death had not yet taken place.[87] No contact allowed

The Nazirite, by taking on these prohibitions, was trying to relive a “Golden Age.”

The problem, as the Torah tells us, is that a Nazirite must bring a sin offering, which means they have done something wrong. What is the crime in deciding to take on extra obligations?

The answer is that an essential part of being Jewish is to use our energies for the purposes of creation, for completing Hashem’s work. Becoming a Nazirite is not a destructive act – but by diverting their creative energies away from a constructive act, Nazirites are also not fulfilling their core purpose of being creative.[88]

We live in a world where we are meant to unite the physical and the spiritual realms – where, by being cognizant of the dualisms that were unlocked by the forbidden fruit, we seek to complete the world by, in a spiritually pure way, reuniting the opposites in our world. When someone decides to become a Nazirite, they opt out of the post-Eden obligations on mankind. This diversion of the excess energies of youth is safe, but our lives are meant to be more than safe: we are supposed to be productive.

Life, Death, and Time

Our lives are inseparably linked to our deaths. Both were created on the third day, when Hashem created plants. At that moment, He created life – and the inevitability of death. Until the third day of creation, everything was merely matter or energy.

Hashem creates, and He judges those creations. Hashem calls the light “good,” but He refrains from calling the separation between the waters above and below “good” (from which we learn that our role involves the unification of those waters). And the third day was special, because Hashem labels it “good” on two separate occasions: when the water gathers together (unifies) to form seas, and when the earth brings forth grass, herb yielding seed, and fruit trees – and their seeds.[89] Life was formed on the third day, concurrent with the necessity of death and the notion of regeneration.

Mortality is our greatest motivation: our lives are going to end, and while we may delay the inevitable, or make life more enjoyable while it lasts, the end will come for all of us. It is the fact of our deaths that drives us to make our lives meaningful and productive.

It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart.[90]

And so, in the Torah, life and death are always twinned on the third day. Shimon and Levi dispensed their idea of justice on the inhabitants of Shechem on the third day by slaughtering them all. Pharaoh disposed life and death to the butler and baker on the third day. “Joseph said unto [his brothers] the third day. ‘This do, and live; for I fear Hashem.’”[91]The plague of darkness lasted for three days, and the Torah seems to suggest that the decision to kill all the Egyptian first-born happened on the third day as well. And so, too, Sinai, where we received the Torah on the third day, was the place where the covenant of justice (din), was formed between the Jewish people and Hashem. On the third day, Isaiah told Hezekiah that he would be healed. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days, before returning to the world.

But the third day is about much more than just life and death, a day of the sword of judgment. The third day of creation, when Hashem created plants, was critical for what plants do. Plants live and die, it is true – but in their lives, they grow upward, toward the light that Hashem had already called “good.” Elevating from the earth toward the heavens is the essence of kedushoh, holiness.

On the third day, the conditions are right for epochal events, events between man and Hashem on the cosmic scale. It is a time when men can look up, and connect with Hashem. The third day is a day for holiness.

And so Moshe tells Pharaoh, repeatedly, that he wants to bring the Jews to a place that is a three days’ journey away, in order to sacrifice to Hashem. The opportunity to grow is strongest on the third day.

It was on the third day of travel that Avrahom lifted up his eyes, and saw the mountain where he was to sacrifice his son. And on that mountain, Isaac was so close to Hashem that he nearly died. This experience was so powerful that many Midrashim suggest that Isaac was actually sacrificed, and then brought back to life. Life, connection to Hashem, and death, all occur on the third day.

And so, too, at Sinai, at the end of another three-day period, the midrash tells us that the Jews were so overpowered by Hashem’s presence that we touched death, and were returned to life. Sinai was the ultimate “out of body” experience – the setting was surreal, and our bodies and souls were overpowered by the experience.

The starting date for Sinai is particularly intriguing. Why did the Jewish people have to be apart from their spouses for three days? We could suggest that Hashem was re-enacting the creation of the world: the Jewish people, following in the path of Hashem, would not engage in making living (and dying) things until the third day. Imitation of Hashem’s infinite greatness would allow us to appreciate the magnitude of the events at Sinai, the importance of receiving the greatest creative gift of all, and one that echoes the creation of the world itself. For it was on the third day that we received the tree of life called the Torah.

By connecting events that all happened at the same time interval (in this case, three days), the Torah is telling us that connections across time are important. Sometimes, this is because we need to understand the historical context for commandments, and other times, because the Torah is telling us, through its version of history, profoundly important lessons for our own lives.

Take, for example, Avrahom’s father, Terach. He is only mentioned in a few verses, and surely seems to be of little direct significance.

But as others have pointed out, Terach must have been someone quite important. We know that Terach had three sons: Avrahom, Nahor, and Haran. All of those sons ended up becoming part of the Jewish people: Avrahom was, of course, the founder of Judaism; Nahor’s offspring included Rivkah, Rachel and Leah; and Haran led to Ruth and Naama. So every one of Terach’s children had Jewish offspring!

Why? What made Terach so special? Why is he such a great man that, in a world before Judaism even existed, he merited that every one of his children had descendants that became part of the Jewish people?

The answer is found in the text of the Torah itself!

And Nahor lived twenty-nine years, and fathered Terah; And Nahor lived after he fathered Terah a hundred and nineteen years, and fathered sons and daughters. And Terah lived seventy years, and fathered Abram, Nahor, and Haran.[92]

Terach does something nobody had ever done before: he gave his son his father’s name.

We must not underestimate the magnitude of this. Look at a line of gravestones in any Jewish cemetery in the world. Every family line shows the connection between the past and the future through the repetition of names: from grandparent to grandchild, great-grandparent to great-grandchild. We use names as the link between the past and the future, the anchoring of new life in the solid foundation of those who have come before us. It is how we, as Jews, keep the flame and memory of our ancestors alive, by giving them an ongoing stake in the future.

And this is the very first thing the Torah tells us about Terach. He may have been, in all other respects, an idol-worshipper, but this single act made all the difference. It is why Avrahom, and then Isaac and Rivkah, insist on their children marrying other descendants of Terach. Because to be a Jew means to be connected to thousands of years of our ancestors, and to be their link in the chain to the future. By giving a name that comes from our past, we proclaim that our lives, and our mission, do not stand alone.

This is why the first book in the Torah ends with the beautiful story of Yaakov blessing his grandchildren, Ephraim and Menasseh. The story of the Jewish family starts with a man naming his son after his father. And the end of this story, just before the Jewish people start to become a nation, is marked by the grandfather bonding to his grandsons. Judaism is about building a link across the generations.

The Torah Teaches Us to Take the Long-Term View

Indeed, while we can read the first book of the Torah entirely as a series of stories, doing it this way can lead us to miss the grand connections that arch through the entire book. In part, this is because of the way we learn: we read the Torah from week to week, which means that we often miss connections that exist in the text, but in very different sections.

And so, beyond the obvious moral lessons one can draw, we are not usually taught, for example, about what Avrahom’s life has to do with the rest of the written and oral Torah.

We have already shown that Bereishis serves to provide the foundation for the commandments to the Jewish people, given after the Jewish experience in Egypt. Bereishis can be used to readily explain the laws of mikvah, ritual purity, kashrus, and even the red heifer. And so it is possible, and even desirable, to see Bereishis as very important because it explains the rest of the commandments in the Torah.

But all this may still be missing the forest for the trees. Sure, we can explain a particular commandment given late in the Torah, by a reference to text in Bereishis. And that is instructive and useful. But is there an overarching theme in the first book of the Torah, the entire panorama in one glance, one that helps us understand the underlying process of the breeding and selection of the Jewish people, a people designated as having a unique relationship with Hashem for the rest of human history?

Modern sociologists like Banfield identified the single biggest differentiator between upper class Americans and Americans from the lower classes. The difference can be found in a simple concept: time horizons.[93]

Think of it as “perspective.” In inner-city America, people will fight and die over a passing fancy. The news is full of stories of people killed over a television set, or even a pair of sneakers. Consequences that are not immediate (like jail time or even a death sentence) do not even enter the consciousness. People who live in the moment are capable of theft, rape or violence on a whim.

Certain upper-class Americans, on the other hand, date their pedigrees back hundreds of years. Upper class people are not only aware of the past: they plan for the future by investing in long-term education, an investment (such as graduate school) that may not even recoup the invested capital. And they care a great deal about the legacy that they leave behind. To be upper class is to see a long chain behind us, and see ourselves as links in the chain, stewards of the past, and planning for the future.

The Torah in Bereishis divides Jews from non-Jews along this very chasm. Avrahom obsesses about his legacy, about generations to come. Rivkah risks her marriage and the son she loves in return for hope that the Jewish legacy will be properly perpetuated. The midrash even tells us about Rivkah’s commitment to the Beis Hamikdosh, even though it was not to be built for a thousand years. Yaakov plans for the future – always deferring the “now” in return for the greater reward down the road. And Yosef is the consummate planner, singlehandedly managing Egypt’s long-term strategy for grain stockpiling and consumption. Esau, by contrast, uses the word zeh – a word meaning “this.” Esau is all about the here and now. And this is seen in his trading of his birthright for a pot of soup when he is hungry.

Short time horizons result in decisions that only take the immediate future into account. Just as Esau was willing to sell his birthright to ease his pressing hunger, so, too, people who put their instinctual urges and cravings first can ruin their lives. Examples abound, of course, from addictions to drugs or gambling, but also in the sexual realm.

The Torah praises marriage and condemns promiscuity, because promiscuity cripples our ability to connect to our spouse. This matters, of course, because relationships between husband and wife are the model for the relationship between Hashem and the Jewish people. Failed human relationships lead to failed relationships with our creator, in this generation and in future generations. We take the long view, and keep the big picture in mind.

The story of Yehudah and Tamar exemplifies this perfectly. Yehudah falls victim to his own short-term sexual desires, in contrast to the long-sighted Tamar who was trying to perpetuate her deceased husband’s name. Yehudah accepts the reproof on both counts: Tamar’s time horizon is correct, and he had been in error both in delaying Tamar’s marriage, and in falling prey to his desires.

Even in the interpersonal relationships between fathers and sons, Bereishis is a story moving in a single direction – toward longer time horizons: Avrahom leaves his father, Terach; Avrahom and Yitzchok live apart after the Akeidoh; Yaakov delays seeing his father until the end of Yitzchok’s life. The “refining” process of Bereishis ends with Yosef and his brothers, the first generation of Jews who voluntarily choose to live together, fathers and sons. This is the building block of a nation: the long-term closeness not only between husband and wife, but also between generations. Terach secured that foundation stone when he named his son after his father, but the process did not complete until the Jews were able to transition from individuals who had relationships to Hashem, to a unified family that could grow together, for each other and for the future.

So I submit that if one is looking for an overarching theme of Bereishis, a common ideal that shows why the Jewish people are unique and important, it is that we as a people take the long view, invest and love with our thoughts, words and deeds for the sake of ourselves and generations to come.

We, the Jewish people, are distinct, because in every aspect of our lives, we are meant to always be building for the future. In this way we cheat time: by perpetuating life through death. We forego the here-and-now, and instead use our lives and our loves to build another link in the bridge between mankind and Hashem.


There is nothing remotely elegant about the history of the Jewish nation’s relationship with Hashem. From the time of the national birth (through the waters of the Red Sea) up to and including the present day, we have been engaged in an ongoing and seemingly endless pattern of taking steps forward, backwards, and sideways. Seemingly at random, we have periods of closeness, periods where we find entirely new tangents to explore, and others where the connection becomes tenuous and almost invisible. If we were to plot this marriage graphically, one would see the relationship ebb and flow, move in new directions beautiful and strange, grow strong, and then weaken again. Seen this way, Judaism is bereft of key moments that clearly and unambiguously set the precedent for the future.

Consider, as a prime example, the covenant between the Jews and Hashem. It happened, of course, at Sinai. But there was, actually, no “it”: there was a first revelation of Torah (that of din), which was shattered along with the stone tablets. Then there was a second revelation (that of rachamim), which included the new tablets, and new accommodations for the limitations of the Jewish people as a nation. But even that is not the defining covenant under which we live: arguably it was the covenant in Nitzavim, decades later, that bound the Jewish people in perpetuity.

But we remember and record all of these covenants as a way of understanding how we got here, as an insight into the patterns of behavior that characterize our troubled relationship with Hashem. Knowing of commandments that no longer apply[94] may not have any effect on the laws that govern our daily existence, but understanding how those laws came to be can have a profound effect on our understanding and motivation in our personal and national courtship with Hashem. In other words, understanding this aspect of the Torah does not change the laws themselves – but it can and should change why we choose to observe them. And in this manner, improving our understanding changes us – which may be why it is a commandment to both learn Torah and to use it as a means to grow our knowledge of Hashem. The Torah, in essence, is thus not a mere law book. All of the history and stories and context are there to help us grow in our understanding, in our connection to Hashem – even outside the commandments!

So let’s take an example of a halochoh that everyone knows and thinks they understand, and see how it actually developed: Shabbos.

Shabbos is at the very core of Judaism. But why? What is the purpose of Shabbos?

The common answer is that we rest on the seventh day, just as Hashem rested on the seventh day. And this answer is transparently true: we repeat the Torah’s words as part of Kiddush every Friday night.[95]

But while the above is true, we would be committing a disservice if we did not recognize that the commandment to keep the Shabbos was not initially connected to the creation of the world! And indeed, even though the Torah links Shabbos to the building of the Mishkan, the commandment to keep Shabbos was given before there was even a hint of a Mishkan at all. In other words, when Shabbos was first given to us, it was a standalone commandment that had no connection to the Mishkan, or to the creation of the world, or any of the other things that we instinctively link to Shabbos today!

The common answer actually is not connected to what the Torah itself tells us!

Shabbos had an early existence, one that had to make sense by itself when it was first commanded. But if we neglect to see Shabbos the way the Jewish people first received it, then we are liable to miss the first kernel, the underlying reason why Hashem considered Shabbos such an important commandment. There is a meaning to Shabbos that has nothing to do with the Mishkan, and nothing to do with the creation of the world.

And he said to them, This is what the Lord has said, Tomorrow is the rest of the holy Shabbos to the Lord; bake that which you will bake today, and boil what you will boil today; and that which remains over lay up for you to be kept until the morning.…And Moses said, Eat that today; for today is a Shabbos to the Lord; today you shall not find it in the field. Six days you shall gather it; but on the seventh day, which is the Shabbos, in it there shall be none… And the Lord said to Moses… See, because the Lord has given you the Shabbos, therefore he gives you on the sixth day the bread of two days; abide you every man in his place, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.[96]

We must be careful not to cheat and use hindsight. These events occurred before the Torah told us of the Mishkan, before the revelation at Sinai, even before Hashem tells the Jews that he created the world in seven days! This commandment, to the Jews at the time, stood entirely alone.

Take a look at the text again. What is the actual commandment given? What is the essence of Shabbos at this point in the Jewish existence? Abide you every man in his place, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.

This is most peculiar! Shabbos observance (as we now know it) is full of “dos” and “don’ts.” Why, of every possible aspect of Shabbos, does Hashem command us to stay home?[97] Note that, at least on the face of it, this is not even one of the 39 melachos that form the things we may not do on Shabbos! In other words, in this pre-Sinaitic version of Shabbos, there is an entirely unrelated commandment, one that seems entirely untethered to what we view as Shabbos today. After all, today we leave our places to share meals with others, to visit, and to pray – or even just to take a stroll. There is no halachic reason not to do so. But not for the Jews on that first Shabbos! They had to stay put!

Why has the Shabbos law changed? What does it mean?

The answer is to be found by putting ourselves in the shoes of our ancestors, understanding what Shabbos meant to those Jews who had just crossed the Red Sea. There was a connection between Abide you every man in his place, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day and something in Jewish lore that would explain what the essence of Shabbos was about.

Toyam Cox suggests that the key word is “place.” For six days the Jews foraged for Manna, but on the seventh day they were supposed to stay put in their place. But what kind of places did Jews wandering in the desert have? These were huts or tents, mere shades from the sun that were not important for any underlying reason. The dwellings did not matter. The only thing that mattered was that the Jew occupied that spot. The Jew is not defined by his place; the place is defined by the Jew.

And the Jews in the desert could relate to this idea. Hashem had told Moshe that the place where he stood was holy – it was holy, as Simcha Baer points out, because any place Moshe stood was elevated by his presence into holiness! And the first book of the Torah, which was surely in the oral tradition of the Jewish people, was rich with what it meant to be in a place. Avrahom appeals to Hashem to save Sodom – but not for the sake of the land itself! Avrahom asks why Hashem why He will not spare the place for the fifty righteous who are in it?[98]Hashem replies: “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous inside the city, then I will spare the whole place for their sakes.” The Torah is telling us something fundamental: people can elevate a place just by being there.

And when we are grounded in a spot, the language of the Torah tells us that it is possible to establish a spiritual connection to Hashem. Avrom calls on the name of Hashem “from his place.”[99] Yaakov has fateful conversations at key locations.

And God went up from him in the place where he talked with him. And Jacob set up a pillar in the place where he talked with him, a pillar of stone; and he poured a drink offering on it, and he poured oil on it. And Jacob called the name of the place where God spoke with him, Beth-El.[100]

The single most famous example of one of our forefathers being in a place is when Yaakov had his dream. The Torah’s repetition of the word for “place,” for emphasis, is nothing short of amazing.

And he lighted upon a certain place, and remained there all night, because the sun was set; and he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie, to you will I give it, and to your seed; And your seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south; and in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. And, behold, I am with you, and will keep you in all places where you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you, until I have done that about which I have spoken to you. And Jacob awoke from his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How awesome is this place! this is no other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put for his pillows, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon its top. And he called the name of that place Beth-El.[101]

And note in the above that not only does Jacob help create this spot, it was the spot where he laid his head: he stayed in one place! The lesson is clear: when we stop, it is possible for us to achieve a spiritual connection with Hashem. When we plant our bodies in one spot, even if only for a day at a time, it gives our souls a chance to grow and elevate toward the heavens.

This is something that would have been obvious to the Jews who left Egypt. They knew the history of their forefathers. They knew that there were moments in which it was possible to have a special connection to the heavens, through dreams and elevated thoughts. And they could know that, by being ordered to stay in one place for one day a week, Hashem was giving them the repeated opportunity to recreate Jacob’s experience, to form a temporary but spiritual bridge between the earth and the sky.

This, then, was what Shabbos meant to our ancestors before the episode of the golden calf. It was a gift from Hashem to the Jewish people as an opportunity to recreate the spiritual connections of our forefathers – both awake and asleep. This version of Shabbos stood alone, absent all the connections to the origins of the world, to the building of the Mishkan. And through understanding the mitzvah of staying in one place, we can help understand the essence of Shabbos, the way Hashem first gave it to us.

That was, of course, the first national Jewish Shabbos. But after Sinai and the Mishkan, it all changed, and became far more complex.[102] This makes sense, of course – the preparations for Sinai had to link to the collective Jewish past, while the commandments in the Torah for the rest of Jewish history had to provide a pathway for the Jews for thousands of years to come.

But these commandments are, without a doubt, complicated and not transparently obvious to explain. And so, for thousands of years, Jewish skeptics have challenged what we are – and are not – allowed to do on Shabbos.

The conventional translation of Shabbos as the “Day of Rest” has not helped with general confusion on this issue. The vast majority of non-observant Jews understand that Shabbos is a day when work is forbidden, and so they aim to retain the spirit of the day by not doing something that they decide is work.

More educated Jews know that in halochoh, “work” is actually defined by 39 melachos, the forbidden labors of Shabbos, including a wide range of constructive and destructive acts. These acts are the ones that were required for building the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.

Yet this does not go any distance in explaining why there is this connection between the Mishkan and Shabbos. And so we are left with a big gap between Jews: Observant Jews explain that there are 39 melachos, etc. – but we essentially follow these laws because that is what we are told to do. Nobody decides to observe Shabbos because they are impressed by the beauty of its connection to the Mishkan. Those of us who are Shabbos observant often fall back on the English translation – we define “work” as the 39 melachos, even though, if we think about it, there are plenty of things we can do on Shabbos that are not forbidden within the 39 melachos.

For example: on Shabbos, one is permitted to pick up a heavy stack of bricks in one’s home, move it 10 feet, then move it back again, ad infinitum. One is permitted to learn the Torah, as well as to come up with new Torah ideas. We spend a lot of effort on family, and guests, and festive meals, building new relationships. We use the spoken word to sanctify and bring in Shabbos itself – a creation through words. We can visit the sick, give an eight-day-old boy a bris, or a host of other things that require concentration or work up a sweat. We are even encouraged to engage in the ultimate physical creative act: procreation. None of these acts is forbidden on Shabbos!

The Criticality of the Mishkan to Shabbos

We are only – and specifically – forbidden to do acts that were done in the making of the Mishkan. Shabbos has nothing to do with “work” – the answer is in the Mishkan!

The Mishkan (and by extension, the Beis Hamikdosh) is Hashem’s “permanent” home among the Jewish people. The making of the Mishkan is part of the fulfillment of our role on this world: to make the world a place where Hashem is welcome, to create a structure where Hashem feels at home.

Building the Mishkan is a necessary and critical step for the reunification of heaven and earth, to undo the separation of the waters above and the waters below. It is, in a nutshell, essential to our Jewish destiny. Preparing the groundwork to make the Mishkan possible was the core accomplishment of pre-Egyptian Judaism,[103] and building the Mishkan (and then the Beis Hamikdosh) was the core accomplishment of the Jews in the wilderness and then Ancient Israel. Building a home for Hashem is what Judaism is all about.

All well and good: but what does the Mishkan have to do with Shabbos? To answer this, we have to think of them as different dimensions. The Mishkan is holiness in place, and Shabbos is holiness in time. Shabbos is the time in which we are barred from performing the acts used to build the physical Mishkan. All week long we should strive to do the things that make a home for Hashem on this earth. But on Shabbos, by contrast, anything that smacks of making a physical home for Hashem is forbidden to us.

Shabbos is called a taste of the World to Come. It is a time when we experience the unification of heaven and earth, and the holiness within it.[104] As a time carved out of time, Shabbos is our link to what the world should become after we have finished the weekday efforts of building a physical home for Hashem.[105]

On Shabbos, we cannot do melachos that were used for the Mishkan, because on Shabbos, building the Mishkan is unnecessary. If we did melachos on Shabbos, we will have missed the point of Shabbos entirely. If we do a melacha on Shabbos, we are rejecting the power of Shabbos itself to bring Hashem into our homes and lives!

An analogy might be spousal and parental love. In both forms of love, we care deeply about the other person. But that which is specific to parental love (discipline and assertion of authority, for example) would be immediately toxic in a married relationship. And so, too, sexual interest in one’s children or parents would make it impossible to have a proper parental relationship ever again. A single act of molestation, for example, would destroy an otherwise constructive parent-child relationship. And rightly so.

So, too, with a melacha and Shabbos. Building the Mishkan is an act of love. And so is Shabbos. But they must remain separate in order not to contaminate and destroy the other. We cannot build the Mishkan on Shabbos, and inside the Mishkan, Shabbos prohibitions do not apply. Neither is allowed to conflict with the other. They must be kept separate in order to be effective in their own rights.

On the other hand, while melachos are forbidden, other things that might be called “work” by the ignorant are not actually work at all. For example, on Shabbos, we create. We bring Shabbos in with mere words, and we take its leave the same way. Within Shabbos, we are free to talk, to pray, to think, to learn and to love – and all are acts of creation, sometimes of the highest order.[106]

The holiness of Shabbos is not achieved by observing it as a laundry list of “thou shalt not” laws. Shabbos is holy because we carve it out from our week: we separate it in every respect that we can from the building of Hashem’s physical home; we give Shabbos unique capabilities to achieve holiness by achieving a temporal home for us to share with Hashem.

Marriage: The Model[107]

Hashem created a world of dualisms that we are meant to bring together in a holy way. The first of these dualisms actually preceded Adam and Eve, and even Hashem’s first words to Adam. The first human dualism is the way that Adam was formed: from the oppositional forces of dust and spirit.

And the Torah tells us of the power of self-unification. The most successful prayer in all of the Torah is not that of Chanah or Moshe, or of our forefathers or even of a Jew! It was uttered by Avrahom’s servant, who prayed to Hashem for a very specific sequence of events. And even before he had finished asking, his prayer was answered. There was no delay, or angst, or tests: Hashem simply granted the servant’s request, in all its detail:

And he said, O L-rd Hashem of my master Abraham, I beseech you, send me good speed this day, and show kindness to my master Abraham. Behold, I stand here by the well of water; and the daughters of the men of the city come out to draw water; And let it come to pass, that the girl to whom I shall say, Let down your water jar, I beg you, that I may drink; and she shall say, Drink, and I will give your camels drink also; let the same be she whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac; and thereby shall I know that you have shown kindness to my master. And it came to pass, before he had finished speaking, that, behold, Rebekah came out who was born to Bethuel, son of Milcah, the wife of Nahor, Abraham’s brother, with her water jar upon her shoulder. And the girl was very pretty to look upon, a virgin, and no man had known her; and she went down to the well, and filled her water jar, and came up. And the servant ran to meet her, and said, Let me, I beg you, drink a little water from your water jar. And she said, Drink, my lord; and she hurried, and let down her water jar upon her hand, and gave him drink. And when she had finished giving him drink, she said, I will draw water for your camels also, until they have finished drinking. And she hurried, and emptied her water jar into the trough, and ran back to the well to draw water, and drew for all his camels.[108]


What was so magical about this prayer that it seems to be at even a higher level than any of the requests of the other giants in the Torah? After all, this servant is not even considered worthy of being named!

The answer tells us about the very essence of prayer. As the servant relates the story to Lavan (Rivkah’s brother), he says that his prayer to Hashem was lidaber el libi: “I was speaking to/with my heart.” This seems nonsensical: first, the servant says that he was talking to Hashem, and then he says that