Man Should Not Be Alone

There is a reason why the most tried-and-true punishment in prison is solitary confinement; we desperately crave conversation and connection. Mankind does not manage loneliness well. When we are alone, we tend to spin out of balance, becoming odder and odder as time passes. In time, depression becomes mental imbalance which in turns morphs into flat-out crazy. We need each other.

G-d recognizes this in Adam: The LORD God said, “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.” (Gen. 2:18)

But the story does not end there. Genesis does not stand alone: it forms the basis for all the books that follow. In this case, the Torah tells us that man’s loneliness can be satisfied through offerings.

The key word is the word for “alone,” levado. It appears for the first time when G-d identifies Adam’s loneliness: “it is not good for man to be levado.”

The grammatical root of that word, levado, appears much later in the Torah, in the perceived minutiae of the sacrifices. That root word is vad. It refers to linen garments that are brought during only two offerings: the olah and the kaparah. Here is why it matters: both the olah and the kapparah are unique among the offerings for their message: those offerings express our loneliness, and a desire for a connection with our creator.

The inventor of the olah was Noah. The world had been washed away. Noah’s was the last family in the world: everyone else had perished. What does he do? He takes animals, and offers them to G-d in an olah, an elevation-offering. This offering was so well received by G-d that there are 19 straight verses of praise for Noah and mankind. G-d wants us to reach out to Him. Admitting our loneliness, as scary as it can be, is a key step in forming new relationships of any kind, whether with man or with G-d. The olah is how a lonely person reaches out for G-d.

The kaparah is the national offering on Yom Kippur. Mistranslated as “atonement,” the word in the Torah actually means an insulating layer that allows incompatible forces to come very close to each other: Noah’s Ark was given a kaparah to keep the life within and the water out. In the case of Yom Kippur, the kaparah is to allow G-d to come as close to the Jewish people as possible, both on Yom Kippur and especially on the festival of Sukkos, when we believe that G-d’s presence descends to right above our makeshift roofs in our sukkah huts. We offer a kaparah in order to invite G-d to visit us.

Both the kaparah and the olah are about resolving loneliness! The former is about national desire for G-d’s company, and the latter is about the individual’s desire to reach out and connect with our creator. These are two different dimensions of our desire for a relationship with G-d.

Footnote: there is one other time the fabric vad is mentioned: the undergarments worn by the priests were made of this material as well. I believe this is for the same reason: priests should always feel G-d’s presence up against their skin, even if the garments are invisible to the outside world. The olah and kaparah are brought for others – while the service of the priest was personal to the priest himself. Thus the vad resolved loneliness for each priest through their vad undergarments, it resolved loneliness for individuals in the community using the olah, and it was fulfilled for the community with the kaparah.

[another @iwe and @susanquinn production]

Notes for those desiring the source text:

The olah, the individual offering to reach out to G-d:

Command Aaron and his sons thus: This is the ritual of the olah: The olah itself shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is kept going on it. The priest shall dress in vad raiment, with vad breeches next to his body; and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire has reduced the olah on the altar and place them beside the altar. He shall then take off his vestments and put on other vestments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place. (Lev. 6:2-4)

The kaparah, the national offering to allow the people to come closer to G-d on Sukkos:

Thus only shall Aaron enter the Shrine: with a bull of the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. He shall be dressed in a sacral linen tunic, with linen breeches next to his flesh, and be girt with a linen sash, and he shall wear a linen turban. They are sacral vestments; he shall bathe his body in water and then put them on. And from the Israelite community he shall take two he-goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. (Lev. 16:3-5)

Thus the goat shall carry on it all their iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness. (L. 16:10)

And Aaron shall go into the Tent of Meeting, take off the linen vestments that he put on when he entered the Shrine, and leave them there. (16:23)

The priest who has been anointed and ordained to serve as priest in place of his father shall make expiation. He shall put on the vad vestments, the sacral vestments. He shall kapar the innermost Shrine; he shall kapar the Tent of Meeting and the altar; and he shall kapar the priests and on behalf of all the people of the congregation. (16: 32-33)


Being Vulnerable: Gratitude

The word “Jew” comes from the name given to the patriarch Judah: “[Leah] conceived again and bore a son, and declared, ‘This time I will thank the LORD.’ Therefore, she named him Judah.” (Gen. 29:35)

So an entire people is named after this one verb: to thank. Saying “thank you” is a definitional part of Judaism. Indeed, we understand that while we can delegate just about any job or task to someone else, “thank you” always has to be done in person, not through an intermediary.

But why does “thank you” really matter?

“Why do you hate me? I have not done anything nice for you!” I heard this as a Chinese expression, but like so many great aphorisms, it clearly translates between cultures. There is something that happens when we feel like we owe someone else. It festers inside us, becoming a barrier to relationships.

That is because saying “thank you” does not come easy. We have to teach our children to do it, and they instinctively resist the urge. “Please,” “Thank you,” and “You are welcome,” form the tripod of a loving relationship, family, or society. Each of these phrases is a step forward.

“Please” is a way of revealing our own needs, exposing our limitations, our reliance on other people. It is an admission that we cannot do things ourselves, that we are asking for something that could be refused. Kids really push back from this one. You can always tell a poorly-raised kid by their manners.

The next step is often even harder. Years ago, when I was a young choral singer, I was taught by the choirmaster how to receive a compliment, even (or especially) if you felt it was not deserved. You do not say, “I wish I had done better,” or “It was nothing [not worthy of thanks].” These are answers that throw the “thank you” back in someone’s face, rejecting them and their overture. Instead, we were taught to simply say, “Thank you.” If we thank someone, we are making them important to us, and doing it in an open and loving way. It makes all the difference.

“You are welcome” seals the deal, acknowledging mutual need and appreciation. It is far better than “no problem,” for example, since “no problem” belittles the initial gratitude and appreciation, saying that whatever was done is really beneath our attention or concern. The most insecure people are those that have the hardest time learning how to receive the thanks of others.

The challenge is that none of these things come naturally, as we can see from the fact that children (and adults) need to be taught to say them. And if we fail to do them, then we live out that Chinese aphorism: nice acts that are not appreciated become the source of awkwardness or hatred. “No good deed goes unpunished,” is what happens when good deeds are not appreciated and acknowledged by everyone concerned. A kindness is an opportunity to build a relationship; if that opportunity is missed, it becomes a source of tension. The tension is resolved when we can express our needs, receive from others, and exchange words of appreciation.

My people may be called “Jews” after the act of speaking our appreciation, but it bears noticing that the word “thank” does not appear in the Torah prior to Leah using it. Adam, Noah, Avraham, Isaac… in the Torah, none of them say “thank you” to G-d or to anyone else. It took all these generations, and not a little emotional pain and suffering to bring Leah to the point where she could do it – and she was the first to do so!

The guidebook that is the Torah exists (at least in part) because when we did not have it, humanity was lost. The early parts of Genesis tell us of man, left to his own devices, in a state of nature. We gravitated toward evil and violence, self-aggrandizement and hedonistic narcissism without limit.

It took an evolution over many generations to achieve a single person with the greatness of Leah, a person who was willing to be openly vulnerable and needy, who was willing to do whatever could be done to grow in her relationships.

But because she was the first and so very rare, it was clear to G-d that mankind does not invariably arrive at “Thank you” by ourselves. To get there as a people, we needed the Torah, full of laws designed to help us see the good that G-d and others do, and to act out that appreciation. From bringing the first fruits to sacrifices, to commandments to love one another as well as the stranger… the Torah is all about institutionalizing gratitude, making it the foundation of what it means to be a good and kind person.

Out of the chaotic post-Eden mess came Avraham and then his descendants. Avraham is the first in the Torah to use the word “please” (when he asks his wife to lie about their relationship). When he does that, he shows his need. Sara acquiesces, but even so, Avraham does not thank her: the first “thank you” in the Torah comes only three generations later.

Indeed, it took the leadership of Judah, the man named for “gratitude,” to conclude the trials with Joseph and to reunite the family. Gratitude was the prerequisite – in name and in deed – for the Jewish people to go from a tribe to a nation.

The Torah shows us an entirely different dimension to appreciation. The very same word is used when Moses invests himself in his successor, Joshua. Such investiture is giving of oneself, and it is both the same word as “thanks,” and also connected with the word “samach” which is what Moses does by laying hands on Yehoshua. It is the same verb when we “invest” ourselves in our sacrifices, or the priests invest sins into the sacrificial animals on Yom Kippur. This is done through touch, making a physical connection, a transference from one to the other. It all adds up to a simple, rich meaning: When we show gratitude, we invest ourselves into the recipient. This helps explain why vulnerability is a two-way street, a connection between two people that is fraught with uncertainty and danger and risk – as well as reward.

Saying “thank you” is a liberational event, releasing the pressure from the persons who say “thank you,” allowing them to carry on their life without the resentment that leads to awkwardness and hate.

P.S. There is another form of gratitude in the Torah, one that predates Leah. Avraham bows many times, both in subservience and also in appreciation. This same action, of bowing in gratitude, is echoed when we bring the first fruits in appreciation to G-d for the harvest, as well as many other places.

<another @iwe and @susanquinn production>


Pour Out the Blood: Equal and Opposite

Humans are the change agents on our planet.  In this, eco-liberals and religious Jews can agree – we both see the natural world as essentially cyclically static, a system that, from a scientific perspective, is in a kind of autopilot. Since the days of open miracles are behind us, the only things in this world that are capable of altering the earth in any meaningful way are the actions of mankind.  

From a more mystical perspective, the Torah also sees mankind as the change agents for the world. It is through mankind, acting as G-d’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.

Think of the 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 submit 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 and opposite 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, we are at the same time preparing ourselves for holiness, and elevating the water and earth in which we are immersed.

The permissible and kosher killing of an animal leads to a symmetry as well: the spirit of the animal enriches the earth by bringing the physical earth higher on a 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. And I think the Torah is telling us that the pouring of blood and water are similar in this respect. The Torah tells us that we are to pour blood “like water,” but nowhere does it say that we pour water! So I would learn from this that the Torah is not telling us that we pour water, but instead that the pouring of blood onto the earth is like doing a mitzvah with water. The act of returning blood to the earth, in a kosher manner brings the earth ever-closer to uniting with the waters above, with shamayim.

This is explicit when the Torah talks about sacrifices: And you shall offer your burnt offerings, the meat and the blood, upon the altar of the Lord your God; and the blood of your sacrifices shall be poured out upon the altar of the Lord your God, and you shall eat the meat. (Deut. 12:27) 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 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 (after Noah). 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 Lord has given you, as I have commanded you, and you shall eat in your gates, to your heart’s desire. (Deut. 12:21) We are to eat whatever we want! 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.


Blundering Toward a Positive Relationship

Most good parents realize that children mis-behave, at least in part, because they crave attention. Negative attention is still attention, and if parents fail to provide attention to the kids who are well-behaved (but still react to naughty behavior), then they are training their children to act out in less productive ways.

This pattern is not limited to children, of course. Full grown adults are perfectly capable of craving attention, and doing stupid and even self-destructive things in order to feel something in a relationship, even if those feelings are painful.

I think this is at the heart of why people deliberately seek out risky and foolish and destructive behavior; we feel alive when we do something truly stupid.

The problem is that we have a very similar approach when it comes to questions of right and wrong. It is hard to be sure that a god exists if you live a boring life. But you can always see if you can attract some divine attention by doing something that would bring G-d’s wrath down.

Have a look at the stories in Genesis from this perspective. G-d talks to Adam – but He only seeks both Adam and Eve out when they do something wrong, when they eat the forbidden fruit. Next up are Cain and Abel, who bring G-d offerings. G-d gives Cain a pep talk about mastering his anger and defeating sin. Cain reacts by promptly going and killing his brother, which makes G-d come and seek Cain out again. In sum, all the conversations that Cain has with G-d come about not because Cain was doing anything right but as a direct result of doing something wrong.

G-d even ends up punishing Cain, but also protects him and his descendants for seven-generations. It is an act of divine mercy. But protecting someone who commits murder may have easily been seen by others as a kind of reward!

That 7-fold blessing was set to expire 6 generations later. Cain’s descendant Lamech proclaims that he has acted disproportionately by killing two people, one of them a child (perhaps even his own child). And he says, “Since Cain was protected 7 times, so I should be for 77!” Cain had sacrificed his brother, so Lamech sacrifices even more! Lamech even calls on his wives to bear witness, since it was the blood of Abel that called out to G-d after Cain committed murder: Lamech learned from Cain’s story that a witnessed murder gains divine protection.

It is a form of cargo cultism: recreate the original conditions, and expect the same result. Lamech learned the wrong lesson from Cain’s mark: instead of learning of G-d’s mercy despite sin, Lamech gleans that murder and human sacrifice means that G-d will protect you!


The result of the misunderstanding is disastrous; man’s misdeeds culminate with the flood that washes that entire line out. Nevertheless, seen in this light, Lamech may not have actually been guilty of evil intent: he simply misread what he was supposed to do.

Immediately after Lamech’s murders, Eve has another son, Seth, who then has a son, Enosh. The text then says the most peculiar thing (Gen 4:26): “Then [man] began calling out in the name of G-d.”

The problem with this is that mankind did NOT actually begin calling out in G-d’s name. Not even a little. But what DID happen is that G-d stopped coming down and talking to everyone who committed a sin. G-d chose a different parenting posture: instead of rewarding negative behavior, G-d decides he will only be with people who seek Him out. G-d changes his approach, just as a parent who realizes that the negative reinforcement is creating terrible children might do.

Instead, G-d decides that man must take the initiative. When we want G-d, we have to call out in His name, we have to seek the relationship. That will surely be healthier and more productive, we might think.

Except that nobody does – not for many years. And when they do (Avraham does it three times) it is only after G-d has sparked a conversation with Avraham, but not – as He had with Adam, Eve and Cain — on the basis of misbehavior or sin. Left alone, the generations between Enosh and Avraham do not reach out to G-d. Instead, mankind worships gods that we can see or feel, the gods of natural forces, the various elements of Mother Earth.

G-d stops waiting, and He takes the lead. He talks to Avraham, and builds the first constructive relationship between G-d and any man. Avraham responds by “calling out in the name of G-d” three times, and his son, Isaac, does so once. Positive steps, and a growing relationship.

The problem is that we, humankind, often misunderstand what G-d actually wants from us. We might not get it as colossally wrong as Lamech does, but like children who often test the limits of their parents just to make sure they are still there (or still paying attention), mankind often pushes to see if G-d is really there. When we do that, we often get it wrong, in both small and large ways.

One of the most famous examples is the episode of the Golden Calf, when the people err by building an idol. I do not doubt that most of them thought they were actually doing the right thing, that G-d would approve. But, like Lamech, sometimes we connect the dots the wrong way around, even with the best of intentions.

When the people sin with the Golden Calf, and all looks irretrievably lost, G-d explains that there is a pathway to divine mercy, and it comes through calling out in the name of Hashem, through finding positive ways forward. G-d does not want us to misbehave, to seek connection through wrongdoing. Instead, G-d wants us to reach out to him, to create a connection using our declaration: we call out in the name of G-d. G-d, in Exodus 33: 19-, says:

I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I [G-d] will proclaim before you the name LORD, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show. … The LORD came down in a cloud; He stood with him there, and called out the name LORD. The LORD passed before him and proclaimed: “The LORD! the LORD! God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.”

It all connects. The pathway to divine attention and blessing does not come about through the misbehavior of Adam, Eve, Cain, or Lamech. Instead it comes about by mankind seeking G-d out, saying these words – words that refer back to Cain and Lamech’s sins and consequences in the beginning of Genesis, seeking a healthy connection with G-d, one based on mankind searching for G-d and trying to please Him. Our declarations create a healthy divine relationship, even (and especially) when we have fallen short or made serious mistakes.

Near the end of the Torah and Moses’ life, Moses declares (Deut 32), in words that echo the words used by Lamech as he tells his wives to “give me your ears,” Moshe calls “Give ear, oh Heavens,” and Moshe reminds us “I call out in the name of G-d.” In this speech Moshe reminds us of all the blessings that come from heeding the voice of the Lord – and all the consequences from rejecting or ignoring G-d’s presence. When we call out in G-d’s name, we bring his mercy down to us, whether we erred just for attention, or even with the best intentions in the world.

It is all interconnected.

[An @iwe and @blessedblacksmith collaboration]


I’ll Eat the Fruit Again, Thank You

One of the things that makes mankind special is that we can – and do – take in data, make sense of it, assign it to categories in order to make it useful, and act accordingly. These categories, whether they are of the more scientific “mammal or not mammal?” variety or the softer stereotypes of, “Does that person pose an above-average risk to my person?” are not necessarily accurate – but they tend to be broadly helpful in going about our lives.

There are always dangers with categorization, as we know very well. Broad stereotypes lead to enhanced tribalism of all kinds (from xenophobia to racism). There is a reason the Torah tells us to have the same law for the stranger within our gates as for the citizen – we instinctively think otherwise. Nevertheless, the same text tells us that we must categorize and make judgments. We must be responsible for our actions and choices, because it is our choices that define who we are.

What amazes me is that there seems to be a broad push within the liberal world to remove all the classic categorizations: nobody in polite intellectual company uses the word “evil,” for example. Or, for that matter, asserts that people have souls. Of course, if we do not make moral decisions, then we are reverting to a more basic existence where nothing is “good” or “bad.” Such labels have no meaning to a mere animal.

When I wrote the first draft of this piece, I thought that we were seeing a reversion to the Garden of Eden – to a time before we ate the fruit of knowledge of good and evil, and learned to see the world in categories, with everything assigned a place along some kind of scale between opposites: beautiful and ugly; good and evil; man and woman; materialism and spiritualism; matter and energy. By eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, we learned how to make distinctions and judgments, to perceive that there are in fact moral differences that we can and should see.

But, as @susanquinn so delicately corrected me, I was wrong. Liberals are not actually keen to remove all categories, to put us back into a primordial mental state where we can no longer make useful distinctions.

Instead, they want to rewrite everything. Stereotypes are necessary to a liberal – it is just that all the ones we have from experience and tradition must be wrong by virtue of the fact that they come from that same experience and tradition. So liberals absolutely have stereotypes about whites and blacks, men and women, and even good and evil; it is just that everything we thought was right is, apparently, wrong.

We thought it was best to judge people by the content of their character: WRONG. We thought that men and women brought unique perspectives and value to relationships: WRONG. Heck, we even thought that there was such a thing as “men” and “women.” The joke is clearly on us. How could we have been so blind so as not to see that white people are bad, and gender is fluid, and humans are just animals? The world was SO wrong for so many millennia. Bad world.

Liberals do not want to eliminate distinctions. They just want to rewrite them all.

Still, my earlier thought that the liberals seek to revert mankind is not entirely incorrect. Because there was a key feature about living in the Garden of Eden: there was nothing productive to do there. Eden was a paradise – one with no mission, no tasks, no responsibility. All Adam and Eve could do was engage in hedonism, the ancient equivalent of endless orgies and Netflix-bingeing. They had no jobs, no children, nothing of what we would today call “real life.” Adam and Eve did not have to be adults.

And it seems to me that this is a key feature desired by the Left. Marx wanted everyone to have a job, but modern liberalism wants everyone to be given money with no obligations attached. Because there are no traditional roles, there is no traditional family. Because life is just about self-identity (and especially sexual identity), there is no investment in other people, and certainly no investment in a relationship with G-d. We fixate instead on how, in our deepest and basest fantasies, we want to deploy our sexual organs. Not for the sake of growth or reproduction, but just to scratch an itch. This was the Garden of Eden. It is also the liberal paradise.

In this – OK, I admit it, grossly overextended – analogy, then the thing that broke mankind’s stay in Eden was when Adam and Eve decided to do the one thing that made this paradise impossible: they ate the fruit, and deliberately chose to be able to make clear distinctions between good and evil – and every other dichotomy found in the world. Like the child who sees the emperor is naked, Adam and Eve’s eyes were opened.

Adam and Eve became hopelessly bored in the Garden, and they had no concrete sense of what would happen if they ate the fruit. We have an advantage over them: we do not need to act out of sheer boredom or blody-mindedness, because we have already tasted the fruit, and we see the value in family and relationships and creative work and an honest living from hard work. I choose not to be animal. I choose not to be the sum of my lusts. And I seek to always be able to tell good from evil.

Which means that if anyone can tell me what fruit I can eat that enables mankind to once again be able to distinguish between Good and Evil, please do so. Like Adam and Eve, I would much rather do the one thing I am told not to do, rather than endure another minute of this narcissistic pointlessness.


G-d’s (brief) Engagement to the Jewish People

It is very odd that the Torah takes time to tell us all about G-d’s plans for enriching the Jews with Egyptian gold.

G-d 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 (Ex. 3:21)

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. (Ex. 11:2)

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 (Ex. 12:35)

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 Rebekah (Gen. 24:53)

The gift matters! When G-d told the Jewish people to enrich themselves with silver, gold, and garments, he was recreating for them the engagement of Isaac 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 Isaac.

[In both cases, the messengers (Avraham’s servant and the Egyptians) were non-Jewish (and unnamed) agents acting on behalf of the principals – what really mattered was the promise of a marriage between the source behind the jewels, and the recipient.]

So far, so good. But then what happens to this jewelry? At Sinai, when Moshe does not come down when expected, Aharon tells the Jewish people to bring their gold – and it is made into the golden calf.

But Aharon does not merely tell the Jews to bring their gold. Instead, he uses a word only found one place earlier in the Torah:

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.’ (Ex. 32:2)

Where did this gold come from? It was the very same gold that G-d 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!

What has happened here? At the sin of the Golden Calf, the Jewish people took the rings that they had received as a betrothal gift – and instead of merely taking it off, they broke the rings off. Gold is not so easily repaired – once broken, it needs remaking from liquid form. The breaking of a ring is analogous to breaking a relationship, severing the link between two entities that is 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 “break” (Parak) is used was when Isaac tries to comfort a crying Esau, after Jacob stole his blessing. Isaac 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. (Gen. 27:40)

No more would things continue as they had done: once a ring is broken, whatever relationship had once existed, ceases. Breaking a ring is how one destroys a relationship – whether between G-d and man, man and wife, or even between brothers. Perhaps Aharon knew this; when he 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 G-d and the Jewish people.

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

With Ze’ev Hall, 2012


What Did Cain Do Wrong?

Many have speculated on Hashem’s reasons for accepting Abel’s offerings and rejecting Cain’s: using the text alone, Hashem’s rejection of Cain’s offering almost seems arbitrary. The differences in the text or the Torah are minimal: we know only that Cain brought from his fruits, and Abel brought firstlings from his flock.

What if the answer is that not offering the first fruit reveals a fundamental error in Cain’s desired relation with G-d? If this is true, then Hashem may have given us the commandment of bringing bikkurim (offering first fruits at the Mishkan or Temple) as a way to counterbalance Cain’s sin – a sin that led to hatred and murder, in contradistinction to bikkurim which are designed to generate joy, intimacy, celebration between ourselves, our community and Hashem. Let’s pursue this line of thinking by studying the story of Cain and Abel more carefully.

The human desire to insulate ourselves from the unknowable and seemingly capricious forces of nature (wind and rain and sun, etc.) has, from time immemorial, led to different forms of attempted appeasement. In the Torah, Cain is the first to bring an offering of any kind, and his offering, as described in the Torah, resembles something quite like a tax, a percentage, or even, in the vernacular, protection money. Paying a percentage of our winnings to a deity suggests that the deity actually desires the thing being offered. In other words, the deity is, in some way or another, subject to human physical cravings, and so can be won over by us sharing our winnings.

This is, in a nutshell, at the heart of pagan belief. And Hashem has been trying to cure us of this misperception, ever since Cain first offered from his fruits. As a result, Hashem refuses the offering. In contrast, he accepts the offering of Abel – the brother who brought from the first of his flock.

The difference between the first and the later fruits, as well as animals, is that the first animals and crops are NOT the best. They tend to be weaker and smaller and more fragile. They don’t taste as good, and they do not grow as well. So why does Hashem want them? Not because He is hungry or craves appeasement by mankind. Hashem wants us to offer our firstlings specifically because it is an acknowledgement that all creation ultimately is a gift from Hashem, and the first of every generation of animal or crop shows the power of new creation at work.

As such, Abel’s offering showed some connection to the underlying purpose of sacrifices as described in the Torah: we give to Hashem because the giving of gifts, done properly, is more instructive and meaningful for the giver than for the recipient. Hashem is not hungry, but He knows that mankind has a desire to find a way to show appreciation for the things we have been blessed with, and we also seek ways to move forward even after committing mistakes and errors. When we invest and then give, in order to further a relationship instead of merely buying divine protection, then we are sacrificing in a productive and good way.

In this sense, a sacrifice is not even necessarily expensive; giving the first fruits may well be a way of seeing that it is the thoughts that count. Giving token sacrifices (such as the first fruits) are sort of like Hallmark Cards; we acknowledge and appreciate, and do it as gracefully as possible.

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

Why are you angry, said Hashem to Cain, 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.[1]

Hashem was deeply concerned, not just because Cain misunderstood the purpose of a sacrifice but also because Cain was enraged at Hashem’s response. Hashem is telling him that if he doesn’t control his rage, “sin is crouching at your door.” This is, after all, the first sin named in the Torah, the sin of loss of control, of acting with animalistic fury.

With benefit of hindsight, we know that Cain is not in an educable mood. Clearly he was out of control: only someone who is not thinking straight would ignore advice from the Creator of the World! So Cain rejected that opportunity. As we know, Cain funneled his rage into a pre-meditated murder of his own brother.

Two enormously important and foundational principles come out of the story of Cain and Abel. The most obvious and famous one, of course, is that murder is bad, that we are indeed “our brother’s keeper.” This is so obvious to most people that the Torah never belabors the point beyond the Ten Commandments.

The other foundational principle sets the scene for much of the Law given in the Torah, those laws dealing with sacrifices, as well as many other edicts given to us that are designed for us to learn to relate to and love Hashem, as opposed to treating him as a Powerful but ultimately impersonal mafia don seeking his percentage.

Among all of these sacrifice laws, there is one that provides the greatest contrast with Cain’s offering: the commandments of the bikkurim, the first fruits offered at the tabernacle or temple. Indeed, we would argue that bikkurim were commanded specifically because of the first person who did NOT bring bikkurim – Cain himself.

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 Cain who did not offer first fruits, and may have gathered his offering without the proper intention, farmers would take the proper amount time with their process. 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 or temple 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.[2]

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, in Hashem’s providing this mitzvah of the bikkurim, He ensured that the people understood 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 commitment to and 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.

All of this is in stark contrast to Cain’s offering: Cain’s offering of “protection money” led to anger and jealousy and sin. It led to murder. The commandment to bring bikkurim, as well as the way in which the Jewish people followed this commandment, is almost exactly the opposite: we bring a token of our appreciation, and it leads to joy and sharing and blessings. Bikkurim are a time of festivity and shared joy between the Jewish people, as well as between ourselves and the source of all creative power, Hashem.

In contrast, we offer protection money when we are forced to, when we are afraid of what might happen if we fail to pay up. This is hardly surprising: power imbalances must be respected, and most people acknowledge that powerful people tend to abuse that power over others. So Cain’s offering was ultimately an acknowledgement that Hashem is powerful. From Hashem’s perspective, Cain’s offering clearly missed the entire point of mankind’s creation in the first place. Hashem did not create us to simply pay extorted divine taxes. He created us, as the Torah shows us time and again, to grow and love and seek relationships. Bringing the Hallmark Card “first fruits” is a way to do that. It shows our understanding of the power of symbols and consideration, as opposed to our fear and abject terror in the face of ultimate power. Hashem craves a relationship wherein mankind calls Hashem “husband and not master.”[3] Clearly, Hashem wanted us to acknowledge his power, but also to realize that we are His partners in the world of creation.

Thus, although Cain sinned, he provided Hashem with the opportunity to teach us the meaning of heartfelt sacrifices, and how to deepen our relationship with Him.

  1. Genesis, 4:6-7

  2. Deut., 26:5

  3. Hosea, 2:16


Cargo Cult Primitives

(this was written in 2018, long before Covid became its single best example)

One of the best Ricochet posts of all time was @DanHanson’s post on Cargo Cult Science. Among its other virtues, the article (which if you have not read, you really,, really should) was amazing because it helped us see how, even within the highest intellectual echelons of the scientific world, people revert to ways of thinking about the world that are, for lack of a better word, primitive and silly.

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 because they came bearing goodies.

Hanson wrote:

 [Science] requires excruciating attention to detail, and a willingness to abandon an idea when an experiment shows it to be false. Failure to follow the uncompromising rules of science opens the door to bias, group-think, politically-motivated reasoning, and other failures.

Hm. Bias, group-think, and politically-motivated reasoning are at the core of the #metoo movement, are they not? So are the notions of “sustainability”, “climate-change”, “The Religion of Peace”, “peak oil” and countless other sloppy shibboleths. We are in the midst of a rash of witch hunts and demonization that future ages will look back on and laugh, with the sophistication and smug superiority with which we were, not long ago, taught to laugh at the Salem Witch Trials and McCarthyism.

This kind of primitive inability to critically think is what allows the TSA and countless state licensing boards to flourish, that ensures the continued employment of people who slap “known to cause cancer in the State of California” labels on every product we can find. It has become so endemic that we have lost any tenuous connection we might have had to critically concluding that a rational person should not be forced to “grin and bear” such rank foolishness in everyday life. So we might smart under the latest TSA grope, well aware that despite billions of lost hours waiting in line and being searched, the TSA has yet to capture a single Bad Guy intent on doing Bad Things – but nothing changes. And we tolerate endless other bureaucratic demands on the most precious thing we have – time – and we manage to do nothing about them. Our society is as much in thrall to stupid people following stupid rules at the expense of our freedom as ever the ancients were in thrall to paying protection money to numerous deities in order to ensure good fortune. Actually, in some ways, we have it worse: the ancient pagan deities just demanded things that we possessed, but the modern deities of Mother Earth and Government and endless bureaucracies demand more than just money or things – they demand that we insinuate these idolatrous foolishnesses into every aspect of our daily lives, from being barraged with pro-pagan branding of “Organic” and “natural” and “non-GMO” goods when we purchase things to endless urges (sometimes enforced by the strong arm of the law) that even disposing of trash must be done according to senseless rules of recycling, ensuring that everyone spends hours of their lives sorting through their waste. There is so little curiosity about whether recycling even works (and such an obvious conclusion that it is hugely counterproductive) that academics no longer even ask the question. Bias, group-think and politically-motivated reasoning dominate.

In many respects, we hardly notice these countless miniature assaults upon our freedoms; we are inured to them, often able to immerse ourselves in our virtual worlds in order to avoid the ongoing and real indignities of regulatory overheads on every aspect of our daily lives. More often than not, this just further emboldens the assailants.

It is well worth mentioning that this dichotomy between a world enslaved to cargo-cult 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 G-d and each other, to create holiness. Instead of living in harmony with nature, G-d, 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 cargo-cultists 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 includes mankind’s contributions to the world, our partnership with G-d in improving the world around us.

This world, the one encircling us now, the #metoo world, is a world gone mad. The WSJ last week ran a story about how the “big” question today among new couples who might have been already copulating with each other for months, is “what is your last name?” Far too many of our species are not much better than ferrets. The concepts of “holiness” or even a “soul” are so far removed from common culture that they might as well be some obscure Shakepsearean reference, known only to a very few, understood by even fewer, and even by those precious few, often just as a historical or cultural curiosity.

It is our task, as difficult as it is, to keep finding ways to help people to gain perspective, to see how the thoughts of a Jordan Peterson are not reactionary or dangerous, but are in fact little more than common sense (as rare as that can be). We must keep trying to show people how their lives can and should have meaning, how each person’s life can uniquely contribute to their families and friends and the wider world, from a kind gesture to an angry word unspoken. This is a hard road to hoe, because people continue to senselessly revert, just as intellectual scientists do, to cargo-cult thinking, that, as Hanson tells us:

…have not passed the tests of true science. Thus they become little more than fads or consensus opinions of experts — a consensus that ebbs and flows with political winds, with the presence of a charismatic leader in one faction or another, or with the accumulation of clever arguments that temporarily outweigh the other faction’s clever arguments. …

In a cargo cult science, factions build around popular theories, and people who attempt to discredit them are ostracised. Ad hominem attacks are common. Different theories propagate to different political groups.

Quite so.

Let us be a light unto the nations.


The Meaning of Chometz

Why does it matter whether or not we have leavening (chometz) in our lives on Pesach? And how on earth did such a seemingly random thing end up being a defining characteristic of the Jewish people?!

Just think about it: In Israel, even the most secular, non-observant Jews have a Seder. A recent poll put it at 97% of the population. And most of those also do at least some cleaning to rid of chometz! To be Jewish is to celebrate Pesach. And part-and-parcel of celebrating Pesach is ridding oneself of chometz, and being careful not to consume it.


The stock answers make little sense, at least to me: not eating chametz has nothing to do with the speed with which we left Egypt – that only explains why we eat Matza. And it is a non sequitur to claim that we rid the house of chametz in order to rid ourselves of an inflated, leavened sense of self – after all, beer and pasta are just as forbidden on Pesach as is a loaf of bread, and neither of them is leavened.

Indeed, when identifying what we can and cannot eat, we don’t distinguish between the various biological agents that can cause leavening – it does not matter, according to Jewish Law, whether the dough was affected by yeast, bacteria, or fungi. It does not even matter whether or not the dough rose at all! Chametz is not identified with the product – it is identified with the process. Nobody can look at a matzo, and know whether or not the matza was made in 5 minutes, 18 minutes, or over the course of a few days. And yet according to halacha, that makes all the difference.

And what is this difference? The law is that when we combine flour and water, chametz is only created when we stop working it. In other words, the dough must be entirely passive. If we keep working the dough, by law it never becomes chametz.

What does it mean for dough to become passive? It means that the baker chooses to stop working, to let nature run its course. It is like abandoning the dough to its fate, to the inevitable product of the natural world. Chametz is what results from the baker ceasing to work on his creation.

We Jews are the exceptions. Alone among the world’s people, we have persisted for thousands of years without having a land of our own. We have existed as a minority among other nations, resisting the inevitable assimilation, defying the natural world. And why? Because once a year, in the most treasured tradition of our people, even the most secular Jew instinctively knows that he or she must slave away to clean out the chametz in our lives, to defy the statistically unavoidable fate that surely must have swallowed us up in exile – whether in Egypt, Babylonia, or for two thousand years in Europe, Arab lands, India and even China. Except that it didn’t.

This is the essence of chametz. We refuse to acknowledge the natural ways of the world, and of people. We always work the dough, and we never stop. And in so doing, we are an ongoing miracle, remaining the dough and never becoming the chametz.

There is a midrash that explains that when Hashem made Adam, he mixed earth and water together, and kneaded the dough. The language is explicit: Adam was the dough in G-d’s hands, and on Pesach we acknowledge the primacy of this relationship. Jews maintain this relationship, always being kneaded and worked and even beaten by G-d. He never stops, because he is never finished with us. In the finest tradition of imitatio dei, we do the same thing on Pesach – the Gemara talks about making matza even on Pesach itself, but we had better never leave the dough alone! We must prove that we are worthy of the attention we personally receive.

And this explains why the punishment for eating chametz on Pesach is Kares – having one’s soul cut off from a relationship with Hashem. If we reject the relationship with G-d that we have on Pesach, then we get our wish: G-d reciprocates, and severs ties with us.

Rabbi Porter adds that this explains why the Gemara says that Chametz is the Yetzer Hora – our evil inclination. Our alter egos prefer to act as if G-d is not in our lives, as if we can (and should) do the wrong things because we don’t really want that kind of a relationship.  Our yetzer horas, just like eating chametz on Pesach, serve to push Hashem away from us.

If we don’t want Hashem in our life, then all we have to do is jump out of the kneading bowl and rise in peace, letting nature run its course. It is a much easier life, and countless Jews, tired of the beating we have received, have chosen that path. It remains a choice that remains open to each of us every year. We can stay on the treadmill, or we can step off it, walking away from Hashem, and choosing to live frei, free. In that alternative world, statistics and nature would govern our existence. It is an option.

But if we want to have any relationship at all – and even the most avowedly atheistic Jews do – then we celebrate Pesach. We rid our homes of chametz, and we embrace even the most tenuous link to our creator.  We acknowledge our exceptionalism, and our G-d-given potential to invent new things, to write new poems, to create. In the pantheon of those who do, and those who watch other people doing, we choose to be the actors and not the audience.  Like G-d Himself, we want to make things happen.

Of course there is an Egyptian component to this as well. Egypt is a land that gets almost no rain at all – just a few inches a year. Egyptian life is one in which the natural, inevitable, world is the only conceivable relationship. The river rises, and it falls. Crops are fertilized and they grow. Everything happens like clockwork, just as predictable as the sun or moon. It is no surprise that Egyptians pioneered bread ovens, and the separate cultivation of yeast. They ate and drank chametz (bread and beer) at every meal. Egypt is the land of fate, where to survive all one must do is synchronize with what the world has been doing for millennia, and will continue to do for millennia. For the Jews it was (except for the slavery) an easy life, and one in which our forefathers only barely managed to survive with any unique identity intact. The Midrash tells us that had the Jews stayed any longer than they did, then that last shred of national identity would have been lost, and our lives would have ceased to have any real meaning save for harmony with nature. In other words, it would have been a complete loss.

The Jews were commanded to leave Egypt, and to leave that world. As Leibtag points out, eating Matza is a commandment to not be Egyptian (since the Egyptians were known for bread). But the obligation to avoid chometz is similarly an obligation to recognize that we Jews are not meant to live as one with nature. We are instead meant to always improve and manipulate and even exploit the natural world, to work, and to leave as little as possible to fate.  To survive and thrive as G-d’s people, we must always vigilant against complacency, always on the move and pushing, pushing, pushing. We must demonstrate that we understand that G-d is not through with us yet, and that we can, both as individuals and as a people, be a force for change in the world, instead of merely a casualty of the change forced upon us.


Giving Destroys the Soul

The joke is told of a man who is drowning 50 yards off shore. There are countless variations on this joke, but the simplest political version I know is that the Democrat throws the man 200 yards of line, then drops his own end. And the Republican throws 40 yards of line, because even a drowning man has to learn to help himself.

We think that charity is easy to define: it is helping people by giving them things. At least, that is what we teach children. And it is what liberals think “charity” is when they make the argument that Big Government is doing nothing more than what the Bible prescribes.

But this is a big mistake, even by the most well-meaning conservatives. 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 your G-d.” [Leviticus 23:22].

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 one gets 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. Welfare reform came before welfare.

Note, too that the charity in this case is also interpersonal, not institutionalized. Bureaucracies are not capable of connecting on a human level. All they can do is give people things, creating a long-term, useless, and wallowing underclass. 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.


When is Incest a Kindness?

When the Torah says so!

If a man marries his sister, the daughter of either his father or his mother, so that he sees her nakedness and she sees his nakedness, it is a kindness; they shall be excommunicated in the sight of their kinsfolk. He has uncovered the nakedness of his sister, he shall bear his guilt. (Lev. 20:17)

Of course, nobody else translates the word as “kindness,” since such a translation is seemingly nonsensical. Instead, it is translated as a “disgrace” or as a “wicked thing” or merely “shameful.”

But the word in 20:17 describing incest is indeed the Hebrew word “chesed” which is never, ever used in the Torah (with this one exception!) as anything but something of an intervention, one that can save a life. Lot describes the angelic deliverance from Sodom as a chesed, and the Torah tells us that the search for Rivkah, Isaac’s wife-to-be, was full of acts of chesed, of divine intervention. So, too, G-d intervenes, acts with chesed, to promote Joseph when in prison – and Joseph asks the grateful butler to repay him with chesed by mentioning Joseph to Pharaoh. Jacob asks Joseph to interrupt the normal way of treating the dead, and to “do me the chesed” of not burying Jacob in Egypt. Moses praises G-d as acting with chesed, divine intervention, to all the descendants of our forefathers, as well as forgiving the people their iniquity. All of these verses use the same word, chesed, to mean a “life-saving intervention,” though the most common translation is, simply (perhaps too simply): “kindness.”

The word is much more than “kindness,” as it is used to describe changing the course of the future, like diverting what would otherwise be inevitable, creating a new timeline, new prospects. These acts of “chesed” alter the flow of events in unexpected and sometimes unlikely directions.  Chesed is one of the ways in which G-d intervenes in our lives and in which we can also intervene in the lives of others.

So why is incest described as a kindness? The answer shocked us when we discovered it, but it is in the text as plain as day. The first time the word “chesed” is used, Lot is appreciating the angels for delivering him from the destruction of Sodom. Divine intervention changes his life: this is divine kindness. So far so good.

But the second time the word is used, is speaking directly of incest:

“I thought,” said Abraham, “Surely there is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.  And besides, she is in truth my sister, my father’s daughter though not my mother’s; and she became my wife.  So when God made me wander from my father’s house, I said to her, ‘Let this be the kindness that you shall do me: whatever place we come to, say there of me: He is my brother.’” (Gen. 20:11-13)

The kindness is what Avraham requests from Sarah: that she should intervene because he thought it would save his life. He thinks this is a kindness, because it is, sort of, true.

Note the wording in Leviticus:

If a man marries his sister, the daughter of either his father or his mother, so that he sees her nakedness and she sees his nakedness, it is a kindness.

Isn’t it interesting that the Torah comes back to tell us that a forbidden incestual relationship can be with a half-sister, through either parent? When Avraham had specifically claimed that he was not really lying because Sarah was only his half-sister through his father?!?!

The Torah does not tell us that Avraham’s marriage was forbidden. But I think it is very much connecting these two verses through the use of common language (the detail about a half-sister), and most importantly, the use of the word “chesed” in both.

I think that when Avraham uses that word in asking his wife to stress their familial relationship, then he is sullying their marriage. While he asks Sarah to lie because he thinks it is an intervention that can save his life, the Torah is telling us that such an intervention is indeed a disgrace, a shameful act. Had Avraham instead stood up and claimed Sarah as his wife (and not as his sister) then the Leviticus verse would not have read this way, would not have included the statement that such a relationship is a “chesed.”

Avraham and Sarah, of course, suffer greatly from this so-called “kindness.” She is taken into other men’s harems, and the relationship is marred with harsh words and unhappiness. When Sarah dies, Avraham has to come to where she died, Hevron: she did not die in Avraham’s house, suggesting that Avraham and Sarah had in fact separated from each other sometime before her life ended.

When we ask others, either human or G-d, to intervene for us as an act of kindness, we are changing the course of history. It is a big ask. And we need to be careful when we ask for such interventions, to ensure that such requests become examples that are worth following, and not centerpiece examples of what we are forbidden to do.

P.S. In some ways the use of the word “kindness” here could be compared to the word for “holy” which appears once to describe a prostitute, someone who perverts the opportunity for holiness (marital intimacy). Similarly, “kindness” in the above might be translated as the inverse of kindness, as a human intervention that can change things for the worse as easily and as comprehensively as a divine intervention can change things for the better.

[Another @iwe and @susanquinn production]


The Seductive Choice

(Note this was written in 2010, when my thoughts were less mature than I believe they are when posting (2022). This was written with Ze’ev Hall and Jonathan Joy).

From the moment Adam and Chava eat from the fruit, through to the Exodus from Egypt, the dominant (though hidden) theme in the Torah is Choice.

It sounds banal, and even trite to say so. Of course our lives are subject, at least in part, to our individual and communal choices. And it is equally obvious that we are responsible for these choices.

But what is extraordinary about the choices presented in the Torah is that each of them is the same as the others! There is only one question each person has to answer, and in each case, it is binary, a straightforward yes/no decision. As we will see, it is the very same choice we face today.

Let’s take it from the top. The Garden of Eden is the scene of Original Choice: Adam and Chava are placed in a utopia, where all their needs are met. All they have to do is sit tight – they could remain in this perfect world, in harmony and flow with nature, and blissfully ignorant of what Might Be Out There…. or they could choose Plan B, and eat the fruit.

Adam and Chava knew that with the fruit came knowledge, and G-d-like power to create new things. And among the many revealed dualisms would be Good and Evil, and endless decisions to make. 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 actual birth of Adam and Chava into the world we inhabit today. It is a pre-existing condition of our existence that we can – and must – make choices. We have the G-d-given power of creation, as well as an almost-instinctive flair for destruction.  And it all happened because of Adam and Chava choosing to walk away from Eden.

Adam and Chava set the tone. But the choice they made does not rest there. On the contrary. Gan Eden may be barred to us, but its analogue in the ancient world was none other than Egypt. Egypt was beautiful, and as we have written before, it represented the easy life, the comfortable life that does not require any relationship with G-d. All one had to do in ancient Egypt was to synchronize with the natural world, and life would be as certain as night and day. Harvests were predictable and food was plentiful. Even as slaves, Egypt brought with it the enormous advantage of not having to make any risky decisions. Or as the Torah links Eden and Egypt explicitly: “like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt.” (13:10)

And so when G-d told the Jewish people to leave Egypt, they were faced with a simple decision: do I stay or do I go? The midrash tells us that only a minority of Jews chose to leave. The rest stayed, and quickly assimilated into Egypt. Like Adam and Chava could have done, the Jews who remained in Egypt chose the path of least resistance, the path where they would not longer have to make choices at all.

The decision for Adam and Chava was not merely whether they should pursue a new world – they were well aware that G-d 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 were a corrective, a tikkun for that of Adam and Chava, because the Jews who left Egypt followed G-d’s commandment while Adam and Chava did not.

If Adam and Chava were “born” when they left Eden, the Jewish people equally came into this world as a nation when they passed through the birth canal of the Red Sea.  So while the choice of the Jews who left Egypt was the opposite of the one made by Adam and Chava, the consequence of their choice was actually pretty similar. Both Adam and Chava, as well as the exiting Jewish people, chose to enter into the Big Bad World, with all of the uncertainties and dangers and excitement that came with it.  The Jews who left Egypt made the explicit decision to have a relationship with G-d, to stand apart from (and even in opposition to) the natural world.

But we must be careful not to condemn those who choose a safe life. Safety is always seductive – when we think about it, who does not want to have job security, stable relationships, predictable lives? And we know that we cannot condemn those who make that choice precisely because we do not condemn Avraham for doing precisely the same thing.

Avraham avinu, the man who first discovered G-d, is not given the choice of whether or not to stay in Eden or in Egypt – when he goes down to Egypt, Hashem afflicts Pharoah and makes sure Avraham left again. But though they leave Egypt in the rear view mirror, Avraham and Sarah bring the spirit of Egypt with them in the flesh – in the person of Hagar.  Hagar represents everything Sarah was not – while both women are beautiful, Hagar never argues, and she is fertile.  Hagar can be compared to the city of Tzoan in Egypt, which the Gemara tells us is the most beautiful city on earth. Hagar is beautiful and easy. Sarah is beautiful and challenging.

And while Avraham clearly chooses Sarah when his wife was alive, after the stress of offering Yitzchak as a sacrifice, and then burying his wife, Avraham essentially announces his retirement from an active relationship with G-d. Living apart from his son, Avraham marries Hagar (called Keturah), and has many children. The rest of  Avraham’s life was easy and contented. Having lived a lifetime of  hard work and anguish as Hashem’s servant, Avraham chooses to opt out, to keep the Egyptian wife. The Torah does not tell us that Avraham and Hashem ever spoke again. Avraham’s children become nations in their own right, but none of them inherits the mantle of Judaism, which has passed onto Isaac.

We don’t criticize Avraham for this choice.  And we don’t criticize the Jews who remained in Egypt, to assimilate to their native land. It is only natural to choose the easier life, and in most people’s minds, it is the rational path as well.  Now, thousands of years later, the majority of born Jews continue to walk away from G-d, to choose an uninvolved and safer life.   Breeding can only take one so far; we continue to be faced with the same choice that Adam and Chava had, that Avraham Avinu had, and that our forefathers in Egypt had: are we going to choose the safe, Eden/Egyptian life, or are we going to push the envelope, to seek the limits of man’s freedom and capabilities as servants of Hashem?

(The above also provides possible answers for two major questions:

1: Why did the Jews need to go down to Egypt? If the above is correct, then we could suggest that listening to Hashem when leaving Egypt was the Tikkun (correction) for the choice that Adam and Chava made when they ignored G-d’s will. This specific tikkun may have been necessary in order for the Torah to come down. 

2: How could the Jews have received the Torah under duress, and not with free will? One could argue that the Jews had free will – when they were in Egypt. When they chose to listen to G-d, receiving the Torah was part of the deal – it was a direct consequence of the initial decision of “na-aseh v’nishma (we will do and we will hear) to listen to G-d when the first commandments were given in Egypt. We did the mitzvos of the korban pesach, and we then heard the Torah at Sinai.


Misunderstanding Jewish Law

Throughout history, people have sought to explain the reasons behind the myriad of Torah laws, especially the dietary laws. After all, it seems to make no sense why Jews can, for example, eat grasshoppers but not pigs. And so a raft of reasons have been proposed, from health arguments (trichinosis) to the assertion that because G-d desires blind obedience, he gives us rules that are not even supposed to make sense.

Also common is the suggestion from both Jews and Christians that the reasons for Jewish dietary laws are social: if, because of specific dietary restrictions, you do not break bread together, then you are not going to mingle, which means that intermarriage is less likely. This helps explain why Jews have managed to stay distinct, one way or another, for thousands of years without a homeland of our own. But such a approach is arguing from historical result, not from the text itself. In other words, while it is true that separation reduces intermarriage, the text itself does not say that this is why we have the dietary laws.

What the Torah does do is describe itself as a guide or recipe for positive relationships with G-d and with man. To that end, all of the laws in the Torah have symbolic meaning that we can and should use to inform our own lives, to help guide us toward holiness in all that we do. That includes dietary rules, which are not difficult to explain using the text itself. Here is my explanation, which has nothing whatsoever to do with health, blind obedience, and especially not for social separation from outsiders.

Indeed, the text gives us counterexamples, favorably telling us of “mixed” meals.

These counterexamples are in the text itself. The Torah tells us that Avraham loved having and serving guests, sitting with them while they ate:

Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, “My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves; then go on—seeing that you have come your servant’s way.” They replied, “Do as you have said.” Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Quick, three seahs of choice flour! Knead and make cakes!” Then Abraham ran to the herd, took a calf, tender and choice, and gave it to a servant-boy, who hastened to prepare it. He took curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared and set these before them; and he waited on them under the tree as they ate. (Gen. 18)

And later in the text:

Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and sacrifices for God; and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to partake of the meal before God with Moses’ father-in-law. (Ex. 18:12)

In other words, breaking bread with a man who is elsewhere described as a priest for a pagan religion presents no problem at all – and everyone important comes to join in that meal!

There is an underlying facet of Judaism which can be seen both in the text of the Torah and in my contributions offered to the non-Jewish world on the internet: Judaism does not shy away from interactions with non-Jews. To be sure, we avoid assimilation risks, and we are strictly forbidden to engage in idol worship and pagan practices around us (within which I include Earth Worship in all its green forms). But Torah Judaism was never meant to be introverted; one cannot be a “Light Unto the Nations” if the light cannot be seen.

So, too, in the case of Jethro. He reunited Moses’ family, and then they caught up:

Moses then recounted to his father-in-law everything that the LORD had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardships that had befallen them on the way, and how the LORD had delivered them. And Jethro rejoiced over all the kindness that the LORD had shown Israel when He delivered them from the Egyptians. ‘Blessed be the LORD,” Jethro said, “who delivered you from the Egyptians and from Pharaoh, and who delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians.’

Suitably impressed, Jethro brought an offering to G-d (as a pagan priest, he would have been comfortable with practicing polytheism), they all shared a meal, and he went back to his home.

There is a lesson in this for modern Jews as well as all people: we benefit from positive interactions with others. We know, of course, that those interactions are not necessarily positive: when Jacob separates from his father-in-law, Laban, it is a negative experience from beginning to end. They exchange accusations and threats, and separate with a “don’t cross this red line” kind of truce. That is the kind of interaction and blocked relationship we must always seek to avoid, whether with fathers-in-law or anyone else.

It is worth remembering that the Torah continually contrasts Israel and Egypt, because they are meant to be opposites in so very many ways. Egypt chose the opposite path with outsiders: the Torah tells us that the Egyptians would not share meals with Joseph or his brothers, because to eat with a non-Egyptian was taboo. There are consequences for this kind of mindset: cultures that refuse to meaningfully interact with outsiders, with those who think differently than they do, necessarily stagnate and fail from the inside out.


The Reason for Kosher Food

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?

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. 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.” 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.372

Animals that eat green herbs for food are complete 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.

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). 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, 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 and are able to reach upward.

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.


What was Pharaoh Thinking?

Most of us learn Bible stories when we are young, and so we are taught very simplistic versions of what took place, of the nature of the characters involved. Above all, we learn to read the conclusions of the stories as neat morality tales that judge the players for their actions up to that point. In other words, we use hindsight to simplify the stories.

But people are not caricatures; they are real, with human complexities, strengths and weaknesses. To really understand the Torah, we need to actually use to the text to try to understand what they were thinking, how they made the decisions that they made. If we do it well, we do not only humanize our enemy, but we better understand the mistakes and pitfalls that await all of us when we fail to make critical mental leaps.

Let’s start with how Pharaoh views the Jewish people. The Hebrews are not merely a people who happen to be enslaved: it is intrinsic to their identity that they were slaves. This was hardly unusual: Pharaoh is on top of the ant heap, so the Torah tells us that even his officers were servants (using the exact same word that means “slaves”), To Pharaoh, there was no such thing as freedom or even free actors; Ancient Egypt was hierarchical, and he, Pharaoh, was at its pinnacle.

Leaders throughout time – and Pharaoh was no exception – understand that people cannot manage their own affairs. They need to be told what to do, how to spend their time. Otherwise, people just fall apart, unable to survive in a world where they were not micromanaged by those who are smarter and wiser than they are. Enslaving people is just noblesse oblige, the burden of greatness that falls on the ruling class.

We have, of course, typically blamed this mindset on Western Colonialism, but the sentiment and conceit are hardly Western in origin: every leader of every country or people in history has at least tasted what a superiority complex feels like. As Emperor Hirohito once put it, “You cannot understand the problems I had when I was God.”

When Moses repeatedly asks for the people to go serve G-d, Pharaoh sees this as a loss to his own prestige: why should his slaves go be slaves for another deity? Especially considering that this other deity is entirely new to Egypt, and does not seem to represent any natural force like the sun or moon, wind or sea. To lose your slaves to a lesser deity is a real reduction in one’s own power.

Still Pharaoh allows it (obviously under great duress). But then something happens: “The king of Egypt was told that the people had fled.” The word for “fled” is the same word used to describe a lost and lonely Hagar fleeing from her mistress; she almost dies for lack of ability to look out for herself. Fleeing is not an organized exit, a composed departure. It is what a desperate and lost person does when they don’t know what else to do. The signs are everywhere with the Jews: they failed to plan ahead by making bread for the next day; the Torah tells us the people were chamushim, like the animals created on the Fifth day of creation– lizards and bugs, instinctive animals that are not capable of thinking or planning, just responding to stimulus.

It seems that the use of this word, “flee” raises alarm bells for Pharaoh. Hold on! The people are not serving some other G-d? Instead, they seem to be out of control, a mindless rabble without any leadership. No leader allows his slaves to “flee.” Moses must be way out of his depth, and this elusive Jewish G-d is AWOL – if He ever existed in the first place.

The related problem is that the people are not likely to survive out there in the wilderness. What a waste it would be for a useful workforce to merely perish for want of a competent leader! The people clearly are like an inexperienced swimmer who starts to panic when he finds himself in the deep end.

So Pharaoh exclaims, “What is this we have done, releasing Israel from our service?” He decides to undo it.

Pharaoh mounts up, but his 600 chariots were not meant to attack the people. The Torah uses the word rodef for pursuit, a word first used to describe Avraham going to save Lot from his foreign captors. Pharaoh is not trying to massacre the people! He is engaged in a rescue mission, to save the people from themselves, poor lambs. If they weren’t serving this elusive G-d after all, then they were going to need help – and nobody else was there to step up.

Pharaoh is not, of course, clearly wrong in his assessment. The people also want to go back to Egypt! Coining the very first Jewish joke:

And they said unto Moses: ‘Because there were no graves in Egypt, hast thou taken us away to die in the wilderness? wherefore hast thou dealt thus with us, to bring us forth out of Egypt? Is not this the word that we spoke unto thee in Egypt, saying: Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians? For it were better for us to serve the Egyptians, than that we should die in the wilderness.’

Everyone it seems, wants the people to go back to Egypt, to be saved by Pharaoh and returned to his wise leadership. Everyone, that is, except Moses and G-d Himself. Which leads to the Big Reveal of the Exodus, when G-d comes out of nowhere to wipe out the Egyptians.

Pharaoh, of course, in his rescue mission, trying to readopt the poor, unguided and lost people, never saw G-d coming. Which makes a kind of sense: Pharaoh is not evil in his world or in his own eyes. He is a good guy (aren’t we all?!). The concept of a divinely-gifted soul and the value of human life are unknown to Egyptians, and in a rational world, people can quite reasonably be measured on the basis of their utilitarian value, the work that they can get done in their lives.

We should try to understand how Pharaoh thought, if only to ensure that we avoid those same thought patterns ourselves. The Exodus from Egypt is more than a geographical movement of a people: it is also an exodus from the Egyptian worldview writ large, a world in which people are defined by their status and valued by the work they do, a world in which there is no sense of personal freedom, merely people who live and work within the roles defined for them by the accident of birth.

The contrast of Egypt and Israel is the grand dichotomy within the Torah: Egypt represents the physical, practical, reasonable and realistic worldview. And Israel comes to represent the spiritual and unreasonably optimistic people who see things not as they are, but as they should be. Pharaoh and Moses are the embodiment of their nations.

[an @iwe and @eliyahumasinter work]


Hagar’s Experiences Mirror the Exodus

Things that go around, come around. The Torah exemplifies this concept writ large – events that are described in Genesis, end up having counter-events much later in the text.

Take, for example, Sarai’s maidservant, Hagar. She is described as being Egyptian, and she is in servitude to her mistress (the Torah connects, ad nauseum, her name with her status). Her mistress treats her badly, and Hagar first flees, and then is later sent away by Avraham himself.

The Torah describes mirror events, using the very same language, for the Jewish people regarding their time in Egypt! This time it is the Jews who are servants, and who are mistreated by their masters.

The Torah tells us that the Jewish people fled, barach, from Egypt. It uses the very same word to describe Hagar’s flight!

And there is a powerful comparison here as well:

Early next morning Abraham took some bread and a skin of water, and gave them to Hagar. He placed them over her shoulder, together with the child, and sent her away. (Gen. 21:14)

So the people carried their dough before it was leavened over their shoulders. (Ex. 12:34)

One balances the other. Considering that the Exodus was foretold to Avraham, it makes sense that the hardships undergone in Egypt were, to some extent, corrective for what Avraham and Sarai put Hagar through!


Time and Freedom

Most soldiers in history have been given very specific instructions, because without them, they are not as effective as they could be. But parts of the US Military were historically not told how to achieve an objective, but merely told what the objective was. The local officers (and even grunts) had the leeway to figure out how best to get it done. That kind of mindset requires a culture that cultivates freedom, that encourages individual responsibility, and so it was uniquely an American way of war.

The cultural relationships continue elsewhere, of course. Countries with lots of entrepreneurs are places where people are comfortable making their own decisions, finding ways to be productive with their time. Places without an entrepreneurial culture have a populace who really prefer to be told by others what to do, who want their lives to be “plug and chug.”

It seems to me that the autonomy or freedom of a person has a great deal to do with their leeway in arranging their own time.

Think of it this way: in a prison, all time is structured for you: waking, meals, exercise, work, rest, sleep, etc. The prisoner does not need to think about time at all; that is done for them, not so dissimilarly from public school.

In the adult world, time management tracks with responsibility (and income) overall: a regimented factory worker is not that much different from a prisoner (at least in terms of the working day), while professionals get increasing amounts of leeway, and CEOs are masters of their own schedule.

The problem with being in control of your own schedule is that most people are really not very efficient when they have the opportunity to procrastinate. And people who do not actually get things done should not be masters of their own schedule. They, like prisoners or students, need a more structured environment.

I think all this is well described in Exodus. The people were slaves, described as being animalistic in their “stimulus-response” behavior. And so the very first commandments are about time: the New Moon, when one can – and cannot – eat the paschal lamb, etc. G-d is trying to make the people grow up and become responsible, to start taking responsibility for their own lives.

In general, the attempt to rapidly teach responsibility to a slave nation fails. The Jewish people were told, for example, that they would be leaving the next day. Yet somehow none of them had enough presence of mind to bake bread in advance for the trip. The very most basic planning – dealing with the very next day – seemed to be too hard for them.

It takes a very long time for the time horizons to shift back outward again, to help people learn to take a long view. It is why so few cultures are suited to freedom; most people find planning for the future and being responsible for their own decisions to be very challenging; they actually prefer servitude.


The Symbolic Meaning of Leket

There are many commandments in the Torah that seem to fall under the “that sounds like a good idea” category, especially the ones dealing with forms of charity. But if we look at them carefully, we’ll see that they may really be about something else entirely! Here’s one:

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather (leket) the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather (leket) the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the LORD am your God.

The thing is, there are other words in biblical Hebrew that mean “to gather,” so why, in a language with so few unique words, is the word leket used? The answer helps explain what the commandment is really about!

The first time the word leket is used, Jacob is building a mound to divide the world between himself and his father-in-law, Lavan.

And Jacob said to his kinsmen, “Gather (leket) stones.” So they took stones and made a mound. (Gen. 31:46) … And Laban said to Jacob, … “this mound shall be witness … that I am not to cross to you past this mound, and that you are not to cross to me past this mound. (31:51-52)

The word is used to describe a division between people, a red line to keep people apart.

The next time the word is used:

Joseph gathered (leket) all the money that was to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, as payment for the rations that were being procured.

This event is the swing between the years of plenty and the years of famine. Leket is the dividing verb, marking the spot between the good years for Egypt and the bad years, years when the Egyptian people were progressively enslaved to Pharaoh because of Joseph’s policies.

Similarly, the text uses the word leket for the manna as well, to describe the difference between the six days, and the seventh day, the sabbath day:

And the LORD said to Moses, “I will rain down bread for you from the sky, and the people shall go out and gather (leket) each day that day’s portion… But on the sixth day, when they apportion what they have brought in, it shall prove to be double the amount they gather (leket) each day. … On the sixth day they gathered (leket) double the amount of food, two omers for each; and when all the chieftains of the community came and told Moses, he said to them, “This is what the LORD meant: Tomorrow is a day of rest, a holy sabbath of the LORD. .. Then Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a sabbath of the LORD; you will not find it today on the plain. Six days you shall gather (leket) it; on the seventh day, the sabbath, there will be none.”

The word leket is clearly used here to illustrate another division: the days of the week, and the holy Shabbos day of rest.

And now we can better understand the commandment of leket, of specifically not gathering grain or grapes that have fallen in the field. Certainly the commandment helps the poor, who are free to come and help themselves to that which has fallen (note that there is no obligation to simple give them grain). But you have to read all the way to the punchline:

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather (leket) the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather (leket) the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the LORD am your God.

The Torah forbids us to gather, to leket, telling us that we are forbidden to create a division between landowners and the poor and the stranger! Why? Because we are all under G-d, equally endowed in His eyes, whether we are rich or poor. “I the Lord am your G-d” is in the plural: the G-d of ALL the people.

The use of the word leket thus always marks a division, either between people or between the time of significant events. And thus the commandment to not engage in leket with our fields and vineyards is a reminder that we are all one people, and we must always seek to minimize division between us.


Changing the Inevitable: Nachum

There are relatively few words in biblical Hebrew, and many of them do double-duty, having multiple meanings that can only be sussed out in context. Or at least, that is the traditional explanation. It is, however, far more interesting to see how tying the different uses of a word together can teach us lessons about how different concepts are connected through a shared meaning.

For example, when G-d leads the people out of Egypt, the text reads (in a conventional translation):

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 problem with this translation is that the same word is used twice – but is translated differently both places! That word is nachum, which is used to mean “lead” and to mean “change of heart.” This is the text with that word, nachum, highlighted:

Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not nachum them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘Lest the people nachum when they see war, and return to Egypt.’

The problem becomes clear. If you read this verse as conventional translators do, then it requires a cognitive dissonance: how can the very same word in the very same verse mean different things?! Such dissonance is only acceptable if your goal is to simplify the text, or you just want it to say what you think it means – instead of trying to figure out what it actually is saying.

Traditional translators often read nachum as “comfort,” which may well be the result of the change – but is not the change itself. When studied using the text as its own contextual dictionary, nachum is actually all about resisting inevitability, about changing a previously-agreed plan or course of action. So, for example, when G-d is angry at the people, Moses pleads: “Turn from Your blazing anger, and nachum the plan to punish Your people.”

Which leads to G-d changing his mind! “And the LORD nachumed the punishment He had planned to bring upon His people.”

Similarly, though G-d had cursed the ground during Adam’s time, Noach (a derivative of nachum) is named with the hope that he can “nachum from our work and from the toil of our hands, out of the very soil which the LORD placed under a curse.”

G-d indeed hears the message, and ends up changing his entire plan for the world: “And the LORD nachumed that He had made man on earth. … The LORD said, “I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created—men together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I nachum that I made them.” (As we wrote here, this became a roundabout way for Noach to fulfill the promise of his name.) In both cases, nachum means a fundamental change in direction.

Applied to the verse in the Exodus then, G-d’s use of nachum shows an alteration from the “inevitable” decision of taking the people the shortest path out of the land. And He is trying to proactively prevent the people from countermanding the Exodus by losing heart and nachuming, choosing to return to bondage under Pharoah.

So when Isaac, after his binding and following the death of his mother Sarah marries Rebekah, the text tells us that, “Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and was comforted (nachumed) after his mother.” Well, yes, it is clear that marriage was a salve to Isaac’s pain at the loss of his mother. But the use of the word nachum suggests something more fundamental: Rebekkah’s entrance into Isaac’s world changed the course of his life. He was not going in a healthy direction, and nachum was a major change to his direction of travel. In this sense, moving on from death is a new vector, a shift from mourning and decline, to getting on with what we need to do.

We see this when Joseph disappears, and Jacob refuses to be comforted: “All his sons and daughters sought to nachum him; but he refused to be nachum, saying, “No, I will go down mourning my son in Sheol. Thus, his father bewailed him.” Nachum is not merely being comforted: Jacob is choosing to refuse to move on! And he becomes paralyzed as a result, suffering in his pain instead of finding a way forward. That we have learned from the other uses in the text that nachum means “change in direction” we glean Jacob’s state of mind when he refused to be comforted by his children: Jacob was not going to change.

We are given this contrast with Judah, Jacob’s son:

A long time afterward, Shua’s daughter, the wife of Judah, died. When he was nachumed, Judah went up to Timnah to his sheepshearers, together with his friend Hirah the Adullamite.

So yes, nachum refers to a period of mourning, to being comforted. But that is only the symptom of what is really going on from the Torah’s perspective: Judah moves on from the loss of his wife, and he goes back to work.

Similarly, when Jacob dies and Joseph’s brothers are afraid of what Joseph might do as a belated revenge, he says: “And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.” Thus, he nachumed them, speaking kindly to them. He surely comforted them – but more importantly, he changed the direction of the conversation, using words to alter the story and their relationship and to relieve their fear.

Nachum thus represents a shift in planning, and in attitude:

When the words of her older son Esau were reported to Rebekah, she sent for her younger son Jacob and said to him, “Your brother Esau is nachum himself regarding you to kill you.”

Certainly we could read this, as most translations do, as “comfort himself by killing you.” But if we see that the word really is connected to taking matters into your own hands, to altering the trajectory of a story, then it makes more sense: Esau has been wounded, and victimized, and he is deciding to change the outcome of this story by killing you – in the same way that G-d managed the outcome of the Exodus story by guiding the people the long way around.

Thus, we see that insisting that the word nachum means “comfort” or “lead” or “change of heart” or “regret” deprives us of understanding that it really can mean all of these things. But the core meaning must surely be the common threads among all those meanings, how the word is used in the text: nachum really means something more like, “to change the direction of the future.”

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


Learning From Experience

When Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, he sends them back, with the following injunction:

Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.

The word for “distressed” (ֽתְעַצְּבוּ֙) is quite rare in the Torah. It only appears in Genesis, and then only a few times (it is the same word for the pain Eve is cursed with in childbirth, and the pain Adam will have working the soil).

But I think Joseph had something specific in mind. When their sister, Dina, was raped, the Torah describes it as follows:

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

What did they do with their “distress” that first time? They murdered everyone in the city of Shechem.

Joseph knew quite well that his brothers were capable of cunning and brutal acts of violence when they got riled up. So Joseph is telling them, quite specifically, to stay calm, and avoid becoming distressed. Because we all know how the brothers handled being in that mental state!

[an @iwe and @blessedblacksmith piece]


Be Very Careful What You Wish For

My #2 son and I discovered something just now that changed our entire understanding of the Flood in Genesis. And it all has to do with how a human desire to change the world was fulfilled by G-d in a most unexpected way.

Here are the pieces: G-d curses the earth that man should suffer to extract food from it:

Cursed be the ground because of you;
By suffering shall you eat of it
All the days of your life: (Gen. 3:17)

Generations later, one of Adam’s descendants decides that he wants to change the status quo:

When Lamech had lived 182 years, he begot a son. And he named him Noach, saying, “This one will provide us nachum from our work and from the toil of our hands, out of the very soil which the LORD placed under a curse.” (Gen. 5:29-30)

This word, Nachum/Noach is usually translated as “comfort”. But that is not what it means in the text. A more accurate translation can be found by the way it is next used in the text:

And the LORD nachumed that He had made man on earth, and His heart suffered.

Nachum refers to a change in direction, a deviation from and earlier plan.

And what does He do after changing?

The LORD said, “I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created—men together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I nachum that I made them.”

Nachum is clearly a word that refers to changing one’s mind, to finding a resolution, a way forward. It may be good or bad – but it certainly is a big shift in approach.

Why does G-d need to change, to blot out the world? Certainly one answer is that mankind was iredeemably evil. But another answer is that mankind asked for this change, even named a person after the very concept of change. And Lamech did it to relieve or change the original curse, and to eliminate the suffering that came from it.

Here’s the kicker: Noach succeeded in fulfilling the expectations his father laid on him! Not because he removed the curse on the land, but because he removed the need for mankind to eat from the earth in the first place!

Why? Because G-d brings the Flood, Noach saves the animals, and as a result of saving the animals, mankind (who were previously commanded to only eat vegetation) gets to eat animals. As I wrote here,

Noach’s salvation of the animals changed the relationship between man and the animal kingdom. Originally, before the Flood, G-d tells both man and animals to eat plants:

God said, “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food. And to all the animals on land, to all the birds of the sky, and to everything that creeps on earth, in which there is the breath of life, [I give] all the green plants for food.” And it was so. (Gen 1:29-30)

Before the Flood, man was essentially in parallel with animals: we could shear sheep and milk goats, but we could not eat them. Not until Noach saved their lives.

When Noach saved the animals, he created a debt from animals to mankind, which resulted in a rearrangement of the food chain. Mankind saved animals, and so they owe their very lives to mankind. As a result, after the Flood, we are allowed to eat animals.

Which means that we no longer had to eat vegetation, and that we no longer needed to suffer to do so! There was another, better, food option. It is no accident that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the tribes and Moses were all shepherds!

Indeed, the concept of suffering also seems to go away. At first, there is a parallelism: man suffers, and G-d later also suffers (as bolded in the earlier extracts):

By suffering shall you eat of it; and

And the LORD nachum that He had made man on earth, and His heart suffered.

But this same word is use two more times (to refer to interpersonal anguish, not agriculture) then vanishes from the text entirely. It is not found in any of the other books of the Torah.

Which means that Lamech’s blessing of his son Noach actually came true. Noach (who was named for “change”) relieved human suffering from the curse of the earth caused by Adam’s eating of the fruit. But he did it in an extremely roundabout way: after all, the Flood extinguished almost all life on earth.

Be careful what you wish for, indeed.

[An @iwe, @blessedblacksmith and @susanquinn production]


The Filters That Help us See Things G-d’s Way

Newborns are entirely confused by the world they enter; before they can use their senses, those senses have to be programmed, and then tuned and further optimized as the body grows. Without that programming, we are awash in so much data that we cannot perceive the signal for the noise.

So we start life by finding and honing the signal: making stories out of physical data, of understanding correlation and (sometimes) causation, of figuring out what we like – or don’t.

But people are not amoebas – a full life is not comprised merely of physical stimulus and response. The really interesting stories are the ones that also contain thoughts, and words and dreams. And those things are almost entirely only in the mind, with sometimes no measurable physical manifestation at all.

So when we have experiences – data – we invariably and necessarily run them through our constructed filters, to fit them inside the story lines we expect. Without those filters we would be as lost as newborns – but with the filters, we are often deceived. Our tribal allegiances and hidden biases come into play, so that very few people actually change what they think because they receive new data: instead, they subconsciously find ways to make the data fall inside the pre-existing storylines.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. A truly open mind would be paralyzed by all the choices. But it becomes clear that the storylines we use to filter information become much more important than we might otherwise think. A Hindu, Catholic, Atheist or Jew each find ways to interpret the very same information in radically different ways.

Take, for example, death. In cultures which believe that death is the end of all things, then death of a loved one is seen as an unmitigated loss. In cultures where people believe in an afterlife, there is a bittersweet nature to death – the living may experience the loss, but the dead are going on to their reward in the next world.

In both cases, the physical reality is the same, but the effects on the mourner and their communities are radically different – because the mourner subconsciously chooses to fit the death – and the life that came before it – into a given storyline. To the living, these stories change everything about their future decisions, even as the physical reality carries on either way.

This is where symbolism becomes important – really, the defining mark of any civilization. The symbolism we use to create stories becomes the filter for all new data. If, for example, we understand that we are nothing more than leaves in the wind, then our lives become unimportant and largely irrelevant. If, on the other hand, we see ourselves as G-d’s partners, building His world from generation to generation, then our lives become all-important. The symbolism becomes the filter through which our data, our experiences, are passed.

This, to me, helps us to understand all the symbolic commandments in the Torah, the commandments known as chukim. These commandments, while they surely can be followed blindly, scream out for us to understand their symbolic meaning. It is not hard to do so, once we appreciate that G-d created those commandments as way to provide the filters and stories through which we can understand and make sense of the world around us.

Symbolism allows us to create and supplement our stories, stories that are much more about spiritual arcs than they are descriptions of mere physical data. Our thoughts, our dreams and loves are all ways in which we connect the physical data with our own spiritual consciousnesses, a way in which each of us can come to understand our relationship with our Creator and our unique purpose in this world.


What Makes a Good Priest?

The cohen, or priest, is a special subclass within the Jewish people. The priestly class was descended directly from Aharon. And the duties of a priest are spelled out in great detail in the Torah.

Why? What does it take to be a priest?

To understand this, we must start (as always) with the words of the Torah itself. Basically, the tasks of a priest are to keep the divine home (including tasks such as lighting the menorah, and handling the showbreads), and act as an interlocutor between mankind and Hashem, primarily through the sacrifices.

But in order to be able to perform these tasks, the priest has to do some very specific things. For starters, he has to wear a uniform. And that uniform serves a purpose, as I have argued before, of helping the wearer to understand that, when serving, there is no room for individuality.  A priest has to be cognizant of the fact that he is supposed to be no more, and no less, than any other cohen before or after who has worn the same garments. There is no room for flair or style when serving in G-d’s House – a cohen can not add “a little something” to an incense offering, or improvise by altering how a sacrifice is made. Displaying individuality, leads, as in the case of Aharon’s sons, to an instant death.  The cohen wears a uniform to remind themselves at all times that they are working within an extremely defined role.

What is the problem with individuality? We know that, in order for Hashem to exist in the Beis Hamikdash, that he has to limit Himself – that it is a compromise even for Hashem to “be” in any given space. After all, G-d is infinite. Space, on the other hand, is definable: it is ultimately finite.

So for G-d to exist in the Beis Hamikdash, He limits Himself.

And the Torah tells us that cohanim also have to limit themselves. Specifically, a cohen has to limit a key attribute of humanity: he has to limit his creativity.

And so while outside the Temple, we would praise a chef who experiments with a recipe, with words like “flair”, or “creativity,” there is no room for creativity in G-d’s house.  Even more than this! The Cohen could not even be seen to be endowed with creative powers. And that is why the Torah tells us that a cohen has to wear a garment to specifically cover his private parts even from the view of the ground. Loins have creative power – which we are commanded to use – but not in G-d’s house!

And even more remarkably, in a religion which is all about words –  from the Torah itself to the nature of prayer – a religion that uses words to create festivals and Shabbos and all manner of blessings: the Torah itself never commands the cohen to speak. Speech is the recycling of G-d’s breath. It is the use of the divine spirit that Hashem breathed into Adam – creativity incarnate!  And the cohen serves in complete silence! He is not allowed to create anything new in the Beis Hamikdash!

Put all this together, and we see that cohanim have to be careful to limit themselves in order to coexist with the divine presence. They have to be exceptionally accommodating, willing to do whatever was necessary to themselves in order to please Hashem and keep the Beis Hamikdash peaceful.

And now we know why Aharon was the first high priest. Aharon, unlike Moshe, was phenomenal at seeking peace, and avoiding conflict. He did everything to avoid an argument. When tasked to speak for Moshe, Aharon accepts his role. Throughout his life, Aharon does what is expected of him. When the people demand the making of the egel, the golden calf, Aharon even accommodates those effectively heretical demands! Lastly, when Aharon’s sons are killed after bringing “strange fire” as an offering, Aharon performs the divine service without saying a single word.

Aharon’s traits are not universally praised or even desired! Moshe has a completely different character, arguing with G-d and man alike. But Jews come in all flavors, and what is most important is to have a job that matches the man. Aharon’s accommodating nature is dangerous when he is left to “lead” the people, as we know from the story of the golden calf. But that same desire to get along with others is an absolutely perfect fit to serve in G-d’s house, in a place where the demands on the self-denial of the priest are absolute.

And this is why it is Aharon who is the archetype for all high priests throughout the ages, and why every cohen has to be descended from the first. It takes a true rodef shalom, pursuer of peace, to be able to limit his very creativity in every respect, to serve G-d in silence at all times, even when he has just lost his sons. This is the greatness of Aharon – and why those of us who are not cohanim can and should appreciate that we are meant to serve G-d in other ways.


The Importance of Tokens

I know that showing consideration, even in the smallest of ways, works. Flowers can heal emotional wounds. Birthday cards show thoughtfulness. Bearing a box of chocolates helps make one feel more welcome. I understand that these things are effective, that they work.

But try as I might, I have never, until now, really understood why this is so. I go through the motions of showing appreciation, but I am almost entirely indifferent to whether or not someone thinks of me on my birthday, or Father’s day, or my anniversary.  Tokens just don’t matter very much to me. I don’t think that in this respect, I am all that different from a great many men in the world.

So why do we do these things? Because to women, tokens make a very considerable difference indeed. Without the input of women, there would be no greeting card industry, a much-reduced jewelry industry, and flowers would be almost invisible. So all properly-raised men learn, from a young age, to pretend. It just makes life easier.

Until now, I have always considered all of this a necessary evil. But re-reading Parshas Pinchas has made me come to an entirely new realization of the value of tokens. We need to care, if for no other reason than the fact that G-d cares.

Consider: Cohanim are the Jews in charge of etiquette. It is they who must observe all of the forms, behave in a precisely correct manner whenever serving G-d. And the offerings that they bring are, all of them, mere tokens of appreciation. We do not, as Jews, sacrifice to G-d things that are truly valuable – we are forbidden from engaging in human sacrifice, and we do not offer the bulk of our wealth or possessions to G-d. 

So a sacrifice is merely a token. And yet, like flowers, they make a big difference.  They show that we care.

Showing consideration is, of course, not enough. Bringing someone flowers does not help the recipient forget a transgression – but it does help them overlook it, to consign it to the past.

I would argue that this is the clear meaning of “kaparah” in the Torah, when applied between G-d and man. A Kaparah is often translated as atonement, but it is a poor translation – just as the giving of an “I’m sorry” gift does not erase the past.  A kaparah is a covering, allowing for a close relationship, even – and especially – when the raw, unalloyed essence of emotion would lead to the end of a relationship. A kaparah is a token, showing G-d that we care, and asking that he has a close relationship with us even though G-d and man are so different that such a relationship would ordinarily mean that we perish before the divine presence.

Which brings us to a different understanding of the significance of Pinchas’ action when he ran Zimri and Cosbi through with a spear. G-d praises him, saying that Pinchas’ act of vengeance created a kaparah for Hashem’s own act of vengeance. In other words, Pinchas proactive killing of the sinning couple stopped Hashem from destroying all the Jewish people.

But how can one act, by one man, save many thousands of people who had been engaged in evil acts? The answer, I think, is that G-d recognizes that nobody is perfect, and that we will sin – even heinously, as in this case. But when we do sin, Hashem needs to see that someone is willing to stand up and show G-d that even though we do wrong, we do not forget Him. Pinchas’ act was merely a token, but it meant everything. The Jewish people were saved because someone remembered to act with consideration for G-d’s presence. Pinchas showed that he cared, and in so doing, he created the kaparah, allowing G-d and the Jewish people to be intimate, without it necessitating our destruction.

And this is why Pinchas is changed from a normal Jew into a Cohen. The purpose of a Cohen is to create that barrier between man and G-d, to carefully and zealously observe and sustain the etiquette that is necessary in order to allow G-d’s presence to dwell among the Jewish people. This kaparah more normally happens during Yom Kippur, with the slaughtering of the goats. Those goats do not undo the sins of the Jewish people, any more than Pinchas’ act undo the sins of the Jewish people. But they are acts that show G-d that we care, that we take the time and effort to show proper consideration to the King of Kings. 

If man is made in the image of G-d, then Hashem possesses every emotion that can run through our heads. In order to fulfill the obligation to know Hashem, we have to both understand men and women. I would argue that the bringing of sacrifices is a concession to the feminine attributes of G-d. G-d cares that we do the little things.


Copper and Iron?

“I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper” (Lev. 26:19)

“Thy heaven that is over thy head shall be copper, and the earth that is under thee shall be iron. (Dev: 28:23)

We can appreciate that these are very evocative curses. Metals are unfeeling and unyeilding materials. Unlike the “waters” of the heaven and earth described in the beginning of the Torah, there is no fluidity in copper and iron.

This is important because we know that our mission is to unite, in holiness, the opposites of man and woman, humanity and Hashem, and, of course, heaven and earth. It is our job to bring these divided opposites together – and it is very difficult to do this when they are comprised of metals that are hard and resistant to whatever force we can apply to them.

But why, of all the metals known in the ancient world, brass and iron?

The answer is found in the first mention of the two metals: Tubal Kayin is the first person (Ber. 4:22) to use them to make cutting implements, like knives and swords.

Knives and swords are implements of division, of separation – the opposite of holiness.

When Hashem lays out the curses in the Torah, he is telling us that we, the Jewish people, would be so unable to create kedusha that the objects of our attention, heaven and earth, would themselves be made from materials that we use only for divisions! This is a curse indeed: that we would see no way to even make our lives meaningful according to the Torah itself.


Old Post on COVID

This was written April 4, 2020. I post it in full: judge for yourself how it has aged.

The Comeback of Ancient Superstition and Self-Flagellation

In the ancient world, people dealt with the unknown future by bribing the gods, offering up children and animals and crops in order to purchase a better outcome. In other words, they pre-emptively accepted punishment in order to limit the total damage. It sounds crazy and irrational, of course.  But I think we are seeing precisely the same thing right now.

I see people in my community, city, and across the world telling themselves and everyone else that what is needed most of all is self-sacrifice. The more we isolate, the more we become impoverished, the more we suffer and endure, the better the outcome will be. The bogeyman Corona will spare those who suffer the most.

To me, this is human nature reasserting itself after all these years. We make fun of ancient peoples, sacrificing virgins and goats and undergoing needless suffering just to appease the gods. But they were dealing with the unknown – and we have the very same fear right now. Whatever Corona may or may not be, the most repeated – and terrifying – phrase is “we don’t know.”  Indeed, even when we do know things, people insist on remaining in the dark: it makes the wallowing that much sweeter.

So we find ourselves in a situation very much like the Ancient Greeks: by all means claim that we are enlightened and logical and rational – but don’t forget to pay off the gods. Find ways to suffer, so that they do not strike us down.

To me, this helps explain why people are spending comparatively little energy focused on solutions, like treatments and mass testing and getting to Herd Immunity. Instead, we have a collective that is wallowing deep within the morass of our own misery and fear. In the streets I see people who are deeply afraid to show happiness or joy; any who stand out from the collective are inviting the Evil Eye, virtually begging to become struck by The Bug.

Indeed, the entire saga has become a massive opportunity for social shaming. I think at a primitive level, most people think they deserve the misery. Freedoms? Pshaw! Never in the history of America has the citizenry been more happy to accept a dictatorial government. We have it coming. The gods must be appeased. We must suffer, as enduring the suffering is our great test.

Perhaps if we are able to recognize the deeply irrational responses to Corona for what they are, then we can lift ourselves out of a self-inflicted situation. We are in the midst of a crisis of confidence, but it is more than that: The Corona Panic is rapidly becoming the case study in how people, faced with happiness and hope and prosperity, instead choose to give into their fears and, like a superstitious primitive tribe living in the shadow of the Volcano God, seek a safe and oppressed misery by suffering for the sake of not incurring the god’s wrath.

If we do not put a stop to this madness and soon, then we are threatening the future of our civilization. Thousands of years may have passed, but mankind is still haunted by the very same fears and superstitions that have always been with us.

In order to survive and prosper, we must deflect those fears and turn them into positive actions and outcomes.


Why are Trees a Problem?

“Justice, justice you shall pursue, so you may live and possess the land the LORD your God is giving you.” (Deut 16:20)

Simple enough. Justice is important. But this is the Torah, and when two verses are next to each other, some kind of a connection is implied. But the next verse is about trees!

You shall not plant for yourself any kind of idolatrous tree beside the altar of the LORD your God, which you shall make for yourself.  (Deut. 16:21)

Why? What is wrong with a tree?

Actually, the Torah has no problem with trees – qua trees. We like trees, in general. We are even forbidden by the Torah to cut down fruit trees. The problem is when a tree is located in a place where we pray and connect with G-d.

Among all of its notable features, it is a curiosity that there is no visible wood – no growing things at all – in the tabernacle. Everything that is made of wood is sheathed or covered in copper or silver or gold. Everything that we see of the tabernacle has to be manmade. Which leads to the same question: what is wrong with trees or wood in the tabernacle?

The answer, I feel, can be explained by the preceding verse, “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” And here is why: We go to a holy place for a connection to the divine, to reach out for inspiration, even for wisdom. We strain to hear the “still small voice.” Our gaze incorporates all that we see.

The presence of wood, or a tree, might lead us into thinking that trees can be a source of inspiration. This is hardly an odd idea when one considers that the first trees in the Torah (the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil) were described as having life-changing powers. If we had a tree next to the altar, we might be thinking about those early trees, the power inherent in trees, and the natural forces that they represent – nature itself.

Nature also clearly has its own laws. Nature is its own system, modellable (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.

In nature, might makes right. The young kill the old. Life has no intrinsic value, and events things 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.

Justice in the Torah values every human life, as the host for a spark of the divine spirit – even the newborn, or the old, or the infirm or handicapped – as well as the powerless widow or orphan. Eugenics is perfectly sensible in a rational world. 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.

“Justice, justice you shall pursue.” Because living in the Land of Israel does not mean becoming subordinate to and in service of nature; if we want to merit to live in G-d’s land we must seek our inspiration from a relationship with the divine, not with nature.


The Torah Value of Marketing

I used to think that marketing was silly: a better mousetrap sells itself, surely? Of course, I used to think that about libertarianism as well.

As I grew, I came to realize that if nobody knows about your mousetrap, then you can hardly expect them to beat a path to your door. So you need to Advertise.

This was still a pretty juvenile understanding, as I am sure you appreciate. After all, a great many successful things (whether mousetraps or religions) are sold not because they deliver a dead mouse or a ticket to heaven, but because the market is somehow tickled by the pitch. So marketing is not just about making noise: it is about finding a way to speak to your audience.

In general, this has been pretty hard for me to wrap my head around, but the data just keeps coming back: people value the packaging of a gift, the ambiance of a restaurant, the solidity of not worrying about the future – even though none of these things makes a whit of physical concrete difference to our lives. And even with this, marketing is so much more than these things!

Most things that are promoted or sold are not needed for human survival or even physical luxury, but they clearly fill human needs nevertheless. How else can we explain the appeal of fireworks or music or religion? And just as we are attracted to some things, we are repelled from others: the fear of the unknown and too much freedom (libertarianism’s Achilles tendon).

Marketing is also a central subject in the Torah.

When Ruben wants to save Joseph from the pit, he tries to command his brothers, but they ignore him; he did a lousy job of marketing, and it meant that his mission failed.

Judah, by contrast, cajoles the brothers, identifies with them, and sells them on the idea of selling Joseph for a profit. We have no idea what Judah was actually thinking! But we know what he said, and that it worked; his brothers listened to him because he was persuasive. He was engaged in marketing.

As Joseph Cox has pointed out, Biblical Joseph in his lifetime developed what we now call marketing: he went from telling people what HE wanted them to hear (his narcissistic dreams), to telling people what they needed to hear (the dreams of the butler and baker), to telling people what would achieve the purposes of everyone involved (the dreams of Pharaoh).

The amazing thing about marketing is that while it has to have at least some tenuous connection to empirical information (a beauty product should not make one repellent, for example), it does not – ever – seek to share all known information about a subject. Marketing is selectively choosing what you want the listener to think about; it does not seek to share Truth but merely useful information.

So when Joseph interprets the dreams of the butler and baker, he tells them what they want to know – how the dreams matter to them. But this is not merely a parlor trick; if it was, the Torah would have just said, “They had dreams, Joseph interpreted them, and they came true.” But the Torah does not merely summarize: the dreams are detailed and specific.

Again, as Joseph Cox points out, the dreams had another meaning as well: they presaged the future of Egypt and Israel (in 300 years, Egypt would be plagued and then beheaded, while Israel would grow fat and be delivered into the hands of G-d). But biblical Joseph does not say this out loud; we cannot even know if he was aware of this interpretation! Just as with Judah’s “how do we profit from killing him? Let’s sell him!” The Torah is telling us that what really matters is what Joseph said: he told the butler and baker what they needed to hear.

When Joseph is later brought before Pharaoh and asked to interpret the king’s dreams, Joseph tells Pharaoh what Pharaoh needed to hear, and what would work best for Joseph’s future as well: “Seven years of plenty, and seven years of famine.” This is marketing at its best. But what Joseph does not do is suggest that the seven alien ears of corn and cows represent Israel coming into Egypt and devastating the host!

Both interpretations are probable – or even, with the benefit of hindsight, certain. But the true marketer picks his words with care, selecting the part of the story that works best all around.

We must follow the path of Yosef. By seeking the achievement of others and the honor of G-d, we can be blessed with the stories that will make the world see our success, and not our destruction, as the pathway towards achieving their own dreams.

G-d grants Abram success in the battle of the kings, but the world ignored G-d’s miraculous role – so G-d doubles down by promising (and then delivering) a much more showy event in the Exodus, designed to force the world to acknowledge that G-d exists, to birth a nation through a grand spectacle.

At the same time as the plagues and the Exodus, G-d is conducting a parallel marketing campaign to the Jewish people, one with different goals. In other words, G-d knows his audience, and tailors his words and actions accordingly! G-d is marketing!

What Joseph and Moses and G-d are doing is not a lie – but it is certainly being selective with the truth. And I think the Torah is making this quite explicitly into a virtue.

Think of a marriage. What we choose to say matters: no marriage could survive if every passing thought was voiced. The best marriages are between people who choose to see the positive in the other person. This is how beautiful relationships are built, not on the bedrock of Complete and Absolute Truth. Those who insist on telling it as they see it are terrible at human relationships.

Recognizing the positive is only part of the proverbial elephant, but it remains a part of the elephant nevertheless – it is usefully true in itself. And the Torah’s descriptions of Joseph and Moses and G-d all make it clear that marketing is front and center in the campaign to grow and thrive and to build holiness.

As Rabbi Sacks put it: “For Jews, holiness lies not in the way the world is but in the way it ought to be.” And how do we “sell” what ought to be? By imagining and promoting a vision for the future – by marketing something that does not now exist! (There is a risk of being accused of charlatanism, of course.)

It seems to me that the line between marketing and lying has nothing to do with the visions themselves: a marketer is a crook when they knowingly act in bad faith. But if they believe in their vision themselves, no matter how adventuresome it might be, then they are honestly doing what mankind is supposed to do. When we market, we are trying to sell the world on a vision of how the world ought to be. And if that vision is consistent with holiness, then marketing is G-d’s own work – and we are His agents.


Defending A Woman’s Honour

The story of Dinah’s abduction and rape does not stand alone. Dinah was merely the third in a line of Jewish women who were presented as “sisters” – and then taken by non-Jewish men. The difference is that Dinah was actually the first of these women who was actually not married and thus, in the local customs, available.

Yitzchak and Avraham had deferred to the law of the land, which is why they lied about the true nature of their relationship.  And it never ended well: in all cases the lie was exposed – and the justification for the lie was also debunked, as Avraham and Yitzchak were not killed so Sarah and Rivkah could be freely taken by the local lord.  The Torah presents the story without commentary, but the events described show that the lies were both unnecessary and damaging.  The whole reason to lie was to avoid being killed – but when the lie was exposed, no harm befell them!

When Dinah was taken, had the family reacted just as Avraham and Yitzchak had done, then she would have married Shechem, and that would have been the end of that. After all, local customs cannot be ignored, and a person needs to be realistic about the power imbalances: a single family cannot survive by earning the enmity of an entire region. Or so our patriarchs, including Yaakov, thought.

But Shimon and Levi had different ideas, and they were crucial for the forming of the Jewish nation. Shimon and Levi made a decision: there is right, and there is wrong. And principle sometimes trumps realpolitik.  They were the first Jews to say that Jewish law and custom is more important than someone else’s law and custom.

See it from the perspective of Yaakov’s sons. Their grandmother had given her consent. Their father not only had Rachel and Leah’s consent, but he worked for 14 years to earn his wives. It is simply not acceptable for a man to seize a Jewish woman off the street. So they reacted with a sword, dividing the Jewish nation from the rest of the world. Their actions were ferocious, and they clearly let their anger get the better of them – but they got results.

I would go so far as to suggest that Shimon and Levi did what Avraham and Yiztchak failed to do: stand up for what they believe was right, by forcing other people to accommodate to the Jews, and not the other way around. This was an essential step for the Jewish people to grow into an independent nation: the confidence that our own laws and society are good and proper and true, even for other people. It was a corrective act on several levels; not only is this the last time the Torah tells us of a non-Jew taking a Jewish woman, but it is also the end of Jewish men lying about the identity of their wives. Once Jewish men learned to stand up for the honour of Jewish women, it became possible to start to build a nation.


Suspicion: Impediment to Growth

I have often, on these pages, written about how important it is to let go of the past, to allow ourselves and other people 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: certain kinds of problems 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 a person 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 in Numbers 5:11–31. 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.

One peculiar thing about the ritual is when it is described to us in the Torah: in the middle of the national story between the counts of the priests, the Levites, and the national dedication of the tabernacle and resumption of G-d’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 G-d 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 G-d.

The laws of Sotah, the suspected wife, are not alone in this section. They are paired with the laws of the Nazirite ( Numbers 6:1–21). The Nazirite laws, well summarized by wiki, are the mirror image of the problem of a possibly-unfaithful wife. The Nazirite is a person who doubts themselves so profoundly that they need to go back to an Eden-style life (no grapes, no vanity, and no contact with dead people) in order to find themselves, to once again discern and determine whether they are, in fact, able to serve G-d, to find their own reasons for existence. The Nazirite is, in many ways, like the person who goes on a spiritual retreat both to test their resolve, and to find their path. 

And when the status of the marriage is settled, or the Nazirite has come back from that spiritual retreat, then everyone involved can resume the relationship as described later in the same section of the Torah: dedicating the tabernacle, and reconnecting, as Moshe does, with G-d.

There are many other lessons in this, but most relevant to the idea of indecision is this: Relating to G-d in Judaism is not merely a matter of obediently doing G-d’s will. We are meant to be independent actors, freely choosing whether, and to what extent, we seek a connection with G-d.

More than this: the Torah is telling us that when there are impediments to our relationship with our Creator, we cannot merely wish them away, or ask G-d to make them disappear on our behalf.  We are the actors: in order to move on, the husband has to tackle the suspicion head-on, and the self-doubter has to challenge himself to a period of Nazirism. Passive acceptance or wallowing in self-doubt don’t work, at least not if we want o 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 G-d in improving the world in and around us.


A Brief History of Belief

A Brief History of Belief

Mankind has an instinctive, almost a desperate, desire to make sense of the world around us. We invent classification systems that are ultimately arbitrary, but which we invest with notions of truth – think of any zoological “line” between species as one example. Every classification system is burdened in the same way: there is always a gray area, boundaries that are necessarily fuzzy and flexible. Is a virus “alive”? Is Pluto a planet? Should sound be described using the octave system of Western music, or the sound’s physical frequency? How does one measure intelligence? The answers are themselves arbitrary, and necessarily so: The empirically knowable world is like a fractal, with seemingly-infinite levels of complexity all the way down.

So when we try to make sense of it, we are doing nothing more than overlaying a human construct on the data.  We admit as much when we invoke things like Occam’s Razor: “All else being equal, we go with whatever explanation seems simplest” is, after all, merely a rule of thumb.

Why do we classify, then, if the classifications are ultimately arbitrary? Because there is no need to claim absolute truth. Though these constructs may be imposed solely by our minds, they remain highly useful nevertheless. After all, the modern world is built on handy and useable classification systems. Technology is what happens when people actively work with the natural world, classifying and building, testing and operating.

I think that technology actually can form the template for evaluating other human belief systems as well. Just as a mechanic does not care that the steel he is working is, in the eyes of the physicist, almost all empty space, so, too, we can remain ignorant about any true nature of G-d without it making one whit of difference to our lives.

What does matter, however, is what the fruits of these belief systems produce. How are people changed by the beliefs that they hold?

I would argue that the belief system is the wellspring of all our decisions – or at least, it should be. If we think that G-d is on our side, then we might take risks that we otherwise would avoid. Nobody, of course, can prove that G-d is or is not on their side – at least not to anyone else’s satisfaction. But we most surely can convince ourselves of anything; most of the world holds beliefs that the rest of the world thinks are silly at best. But even at the most superficial level, our belief system dictates how we sort out the data that comes in. If we think we are doomed to a cursed existence, then everything in our lives can be seen through that lens. Similarly we all know people who see everything that happens to them through a looking glass of joy and good things. The belief system can, in turn, select our filter for us.

In my own arbitrary classification system, I distinguish between those faiths that believe in destiny, and those that believe in people creating their own futures: you are what you are born, versus you are what you do. The former is the belief system for those who see the world as a Great Wheel – the cycle of life, the cycles of nature with the daily and monthly cycles of the sun and moon and stars, complete with connections to astrology and the four elements and countless other circular patterns. And instead of being merely the backdrop for life, the Great Wheel often becomes the surrogate for life itself. For fate-based belief systems, the world is a great wheel, slowly rotating in space. Seasons, lives, births and deaths, “there is nothing new under the sun.”

Those of us who believe that we can create our own futures do not deny that the natural world has cycles, or even that human societies flourish best when we are connected to ritual. Even Judaism and Christianity are connected to the idea of a Great Wheel – but because we see human existence as an arc, as a story that has chapters yet to be written, the Great Wheel is not suspended in space, hanging on some metaphorical axle as it slowly rotates around. Instead, this Great Wheel is on the ground, rolling and bumping along to destinations unknown, toward the future. We believe that this world and its inhabitants are going somewhere, and this belief makes all the difference. As the wheel turns, it keeps connecting – but to people like me, there is a point to it all.

No one can say whether the wheel is “truly” in space or on the ground. Nobody can prove that people either are all capable of changing themselves and overcoming their nurture and nature, or are actually predestined by powers beyond their control – counterfactuals are by their very definition, mere fantasy. The practitioners make their own truth: if you believe in something, then that thing becomes your world view. And so our world views are prophetic – for ourselves. And we live our lives in fulfillment of them.

An atheist does not believe that G-d exists – and for that person, G-d surely does not exist. That is his reality. A religious person has their own, different understanding. There are as many possible belief systems as there are people in the world: we each have our own existences, our own lives.

This is not unreasonable. Occam’s Razor is handy because, for any set of data, there are at least two (and perhaps infinitely possible) explanations. The number sequence 1, 2, 3, 4, can be mathematically explained using any number of different equations. Given the very same data, people will come to different explanations.

That is in fact what happened when belief systems were first created in our world. Early pagan deities wielded the forces of nature, and those forces were far greater than man could hope to overcome: is it the right time to plant? Will it rain? Will good fortune keep my child from being in the wrong place at the wrong time? Mankind, left to its own devices, took in all the data from the natural world, and developed a belief system that was heavily connected to the image of the mounted wheel, slowly turning in place. Deities were impersonal forces, just like the weather or a mountain, and man was nothing more than another animal at the mercy of the elements and the gods. Except, of course, that surely “it could not hurt” to try to bribe the deity, to try to placate the gods. Indeed, to do otherwise was to tempt fate, and we all know what happens to people who tell the gods to go fly a kite. It is never pretty. To this day, superstitions form a substrate for human behavior across every culture, in every part of the world. Even avowed atheists rarely go out of their way to challenge superstitions, and the “lucky” relics or rituals of modern sports fans would be instantly recognizable to any practitioner of an ancient pagan religion.

But this is not, sports fans notwithstanding, the common vision of American Civilization today. In the Torah’s version (which is surely at least as definitive as any other), by ourselves, mankind did not discover or reason out the existence of a single deity, creator of the whole world. The Torah does not tell us that man found G-d. It tells us instead that G-d spoke to Avraham, initiating the birth of monotheism, the belief in a single deity who was both stronger than any natural force, but also qualitatively different from those forces.

Why does it matter? The difference has everything to do with the personal nature of the relationship. The G-d of Avraham was no remote deity; he spoke with Avraham, argued with him, shared visions and dreams and traumas. This is the G-d of the Jews: someone who is both greater than mankind, but also able to relate to us and connect with us in every aspect of our lives. It is a G-d who does not want us to sacrifice our virgins to him, but instead to seek to improve ourselves and others, to change as people, and to grow in turn.

This vision is different than the pagan belief, to be sure. But this does not prove that G-d – any deity – exists. For all we can prove, the existence of any deity may be nothing more than a mere construct; if we could establish otherwise, then there would be no free will. But even though there is no absolute proof for Judaism, there is certainly a defense of Judaism and Western Civilization as a whole to be found in the product of our shared beliefs.

Just as we can measure the “value” of technology, so, too, we can measure the “value” of belief systems. We can see that the vast majority of the human race achieves little new in their lives. And why should they? By their own admission, they are riding the Great Wheel as it rotates on its axis. They are nothing more than the result of their nature and nurture, locked into a plan that is greater than themselves and certainly greater than their abilities to withstand the impersonal forces of the world.

Atheists see themselves as more hard-headed. But this, too, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. A self-described rationalist will hesitate to begin a venture, especially if the likely outcome is failure. (I’d be curious to see the religious divisions between those, for example, who start restaurants, a business with an 80% failure rate.) A Jew or Christian might, instead, reckon that statistics don’t apply to them, that G-d is on their side – and begin that venture. The failure rate may remain the same, but the overall results would be quite different. After all, 20% of restaurants succeed. And in order to start a venture that is likely to fail, one must believe that, somehow, and in open defiance of all measurable data, a person can be more than an animal, more than a leaf in the wind – that a person can be blessed by a deity who takes a deep personal interest in our lives.

It might seem odd to 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 G-d, holding G-d’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 a G-d 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.

The Torah itself brings this tension out repeatedly. G-d 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 G-d see things from different perspectives: man must seek to preserve and grow life, because life represents the opportunity to do good. G-d, 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 G-d, the life of man is not necessarily a good thing in itself. The only thing that matters to G-d 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 G-d. 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. G-d, on the other hand, loans out souls at the beginning of their lives, and then brings them back in again at the end. 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.

Christianity generally seems to accept this state of affairs, and to go so far as to say that we must accept that everything that happens to us is part of a Master Plan to which we are not, and cannot be, privy.

Many strains of Judaism take the same path: they discount the value of free will and especially the ability of each person to  change the world for the better. Instead, we knuckle down, claim that even the Holocaust was G-d’s will, and wallow in our suffering. 

Thankfully, this is not true about all devout Jews. Many of us are inspired by Avraham and Moshe, who argued and quarreled with G-d 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. G-d’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. 

So I choose the scary path: the understanding of life and G-d 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, my G-d 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, which is how I came to write this piece down.


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 downside risks.

The problem with our instinct to seek and secure 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. 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 G-d 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 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 Moses, “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 by the creation that they celebrate the calf. It is comforting that they now have a manifestation of a G-d. Golden calfs, like nature, are much easier to understand than a G-d who has no physical manifestation. In the Calf, the people have found their permanence.

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

What happens? When Moses 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. Moses 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.

The Torah is full of similar commandments and reminders: 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.

Jewish history is full of Jews forgetting this basic lesson, and reverting to form. To take but the most prominent example: The 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 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 millenia, 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 G-d, then we are able to grow and make something of our lives.


The Relevance of the Temple – Today

It is too easy to disconnect from the Torah by “contextualizing” it, by limiting its scope and meaning to the time and place of its origin. But those of us who live by the Torah see in it guidance for all times and places – as applicable today as it was when the Children of Israel wandered in the Wilderness.

In Leviticus, there are two “eternal” commandments for the Temple, things that are supposed to always be present regardless of the season or of any individual who happens to be present. These are the Eternal Light and the Showbread.

What do they mean? They are commanded to us, in Lev. 24, as follows:

And the Lord spoke unto Moses, 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, 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 for ever in your generations. He shall order the lamps upon the pure candlestick before the Lord continually.

And thou shalt take fine flour, and bake twelve cakes thereof: two tenth deals shall be in one cake. And thou shalt set them in two rows, six on a row, upon the pure table before the Lord. And thou shalt put pure frankincense upon each row, that it may be on the bread for a memorial, even an offering made by fire unto the Lord. Every sabbath he shall set it in order before the Lord continually, being taken from the children of Israel by an everlasting covenant.

In order to understand the relevance of these commandments in the present day, we have to first understand them in the Torah itself. They can be explained as follows:

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 given above, by using the same words “from the evening unto the morning” tells us that there is a linkage from the eternal light to the days of creation. What is that connection?

On the first day of creation, G-d 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 to merely 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.  

What, then, is the relevance of the Showbread? This is a commandment that is linked to each week (as opposed to day), placing the new bread 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).

But what does it mean to us today?

I 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. Bread requires a highly laborious process and dozens of steps from planting to harvesting, threshing, winnowing, milling, baking, etc. And of all the foods, it is bread that is explicitly a partnership between man and G-d, between our efforts and the fruits of the earth, G-d’s creation.

In my home, we have the tradition every Friday night of each person 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: G-d created the world, and then on Shabbos he rested. So, too, all week long we labor, and then on Shabbos we rest from those labors. The commandment of the showbread gives us continuity for each and every week, demonstrating it as the accomplishment for the entire people.

This is the reason for the continuous offerings, the commandments incumbent on the entire nation. We are to remember, thanks to the Eternal Light, that our task is to light up the darkness – in all of its forms. And the Showbread is to remind us that we are to see a weekly cycle of work and accomplishment, partnering with G-d in all of our endeavors. We work with Him to make bread, life-sustaining food for the benefit of mankind. Together, the Eternal Light and the Showbread remind us of the reasons for our existence.


Thinking before we Act  

Like everything else, we can use the gifts we have been given for good or for ill.

Take, for example our eyes. The wrong way to use one’s eyes is to do what Chava 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.[1]


You shall not do after all the things that we do here this day, every man whatever is right in his own eyes.[2]


You seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, which incline you to go astray;[3]

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.”[4] They have gained knowledge of good and evil, of the way Hashem made the world!

Similarly, Hashem consistently makes things, and then “sees” whether they are good. Noach finds favor in G-d’s eyes. Avraham 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:

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.[5]

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 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 [6]

And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.[7]

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 G-d: Naaseh v’Nishmah! “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.

If we do it the other way around, if we see and then we act, then we have done it wrong. This is what Chava 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 G-d decided it would be good to have light, and so he made light. Instead, it tells us that G-d 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, and then we learn from what we have done.[8]

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 use our eyes to learn from our mistakes as we aim to grow upward.

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. G-d 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. 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 doubled down, 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.[9]

We had a chance – we acted, which was proper enough, as long as we followed it with the proper use of our eyes. But we failed, not only not assessing whether the egel was really a good thing, 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 G-d 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.

After G-d 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.

  1. Gen. 3:5-6
  2. Dev. 12:8
  3. Bamidbar 15:39
  4. Gen. 3:7
  5. Bamidbar 15:39
  6. Ex. 13:16
  7. Dev. 6:8
  8. Indeed, this is what happens to Adam and Chavah: they acted and then they learned.
  9. Ex. 32:8, 10

Foreign gods

We are not allowed, according to Halacha, to give directions by saying “go up the road of Zeus, and take a right at the Temple of Aphrodite.” The language of avodah zorah must not be part of our speech.[1]

Yet this week’s sedra, has Hashem telling Moshe to turn the people back to camp between “Pi-HaChiros” and “Baal-Zephon.” The former means shrines of Horus (a major Egyptian deity), and Baal-Zephon, a version of Baal, a common Phoenician and Canaanite name for deities. How can the Torah give directions using foreign deities? We have never shrunk from renaming places before; the location of yetzias mizrayim could have been given using other landmarks, or other names for the same landmark.

The events up to and including the exodus from Egypt were the introduction of Hashem to the rest of the world. Never before had Hashem appeared on the world stage – he was the god of Avraham, or Isaac, or Jacob – in a polytheistic world, he would have been seen as a familial, or perhaps a tribal deity, not as a world power, so to speak. Indeed, unlike all the other deities, Hashem had no shrines, no physical representations – what proof was there that he existed? When Moshe first comes to Pharoah and asks him to let the Jews go, Pharoah asks “Who is Hashem… I do not know Hashem.” This is more than a statement that Hashem has no authority in Egypt; it is genuine confusion. The ancient world tracked their deities carefully, and Hashem was not found in the database. Moshe’s reply, that Hashem is “The G-d of the Hebrews,” was an attempt to help locate Hashem in Pharoah’s Deity Database, and allow Pharoah to save face and let the Jews go.[2]

The deliverance from Egypt was Hashem’s “coming out party.” And Hashem’s emergence on the world stage, with the unique claim to be greater than deities they worshipped. Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz has explained that if enough people worship a stick, that stick can perform miracles.[3] People are given, by Hashem, the power to create, both in words and deeds, so the worship of invented deities has imbued those deities with power. They exist and have some kind of reality, because all other deities, had two audiences: people, and the people worship them.

The answer to our question is found in the Song: “Mi Chamocah BaElim Hashem,” “Who can compare to you among the deities, Hashem!” G-d has demonstrated his unique superiority over all the other deities. That is achieved by demonstrating, for the Jewish people, that G-d triumphs over the foreign gods. And it is achieved by proving, to the deities themselves, that they have been bested by Hashem, the One G-d. The two foreign deities “present” at the Exodus are bearing witness to the destruction of Pharoah and the superiority of Hashem. Nobody can compare to you, Oh Hashem!

At the Exodus, Pharoah is killed. Pharoah is considered to be the human form of Horus – the very deity whose shrine overlooks the Red Sea. Horus is no minor deity; he is considered the patron deity of all of Egypt. Hashem’s triumph over Pharoah is a direct statement: Hashem is more powerful than Egypt herself. And Baal Zephon (merging semitic Baal with Greek Zephyros to mean power of the west wind) is the deity of Phoenician lands to the East and North of Egypt, so the second divine witness is the G-d of the neighboring lands. There is one witness from each land. The victory does not establish Hashem only as superior in the pantheon to Egypt’s gods, but also to any deity in the region.

This ties in nicely with the interpretations that the Ten Plagues were each meant to demonstrate Hashem’s superiority over the Egyptian deities: the Nile river in the plague of Blood, for example, or Ra, the sun G-d, in the plague of Darkness. Yetzias Mizrayim, and the complete annihilation of Pharoah, makes the emphatic case for Hashem as the One and True G-d, witnessed by man and deities alike.

This then answers the initial question: we cannot use the names of foreign deities when giving directions because such a use imbues them with meaning, or even authority. The Torah uses the names of foreign deities for the opposite purpose: that Horus was powerless to stop the ignominious death of his corporal being, Pharoah, shows the complete superiority of Hashem.

Note: For a more normative interpretation, see the daas zekanim on the pasuk and/or samach hil avodah zarah perek heh halacha yud aleph

  1. Sanhedrin, 63b
  2. I have not read the source directly; it is on the authority of Rav Shloimy Lax

Forty Days of Cleansing: Levitical Mysticism

Forty days of rain marked the rebirth of the world in the great flood. The number forty is also mentioned when a woman gives birth:

The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the Children of Israel: ‘A woman who conceives and gives birth to a male will be spiritually unready for seven days, as during the days of her separation shall she be spiritually unready. On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. For thirty-three days she shall remain in blood-spiritual readiness. (Lev. 12)

The total number of days is forty – which matches the rebirth period for the earth (in the flood) as well. But the Torah’s language is most peculiar (which is why many translations mangle it): instead of saying, “She is spiritually unready,” the text says that she is spiritually unready for seven days, and then she is in a state of spiritual readiness for another thirty-three. Why is she in opposite spiritual states in this period?

To answer this, we have to address the key language of this part of Leviticus: the meaning of “spiritual readiness”, tahor, or “spiritual unreadiness,” tamei. These words are so widely misunderstood that they have been translated, over the years, as corresponding to cleanliness, contamination, or impurity. But that is not how the Torah uses them. Being spiritually ready simply means that one is in a state that allows for one to reconnect, to strive for holiness. And being spiritually unready is the result of incomplete or failed creativity, such as sexual union, a menstrual cycle, or contact with death. Spiritual unreadiness is not dirty, or wrong: it is an inevitable part of life itself.

So when a woman gives birth, it makes sense that she becomes spiritually unready. She has engaged in an act of creation – imperfect creation. She has made a human child, one that lives, and then will surely, sooner or later, lead to death, as surely as night follows day. But the text does not say that she is, as a result of the birth, only “spiritually unready!” She follows seven days of spiritual unreadiness with thirty-three days of blood-spiritual readiness. What does it mean?

Rabbi Riskin makes a connection that allows the argument to fill in. It is true that bringing a child into this world brings the inevitability of failure, and eventual death. Every creative act is limited, but in the case of a new life, biological creativity is a zero-sum game: a person who is born is certain to die. And so giving birth to a new person means becoming spiritually unready, because a new mother, in her creative act, has brought a new body into the world, one that is sure, over time, to wither and die.

But a new mother does much, much more than this! It is true that each body will perish. But people are comprised of more than just a body: we have a soul, too! A soul that was breathed into Adam’s nostrils by G-d Himself. It is the soul, and not the body, that has all the power and potential of its source.

The text tells us as much. Gen. 9:4 “Only flesh with the spirit thereof, which is the blood, shall ye not eat.” The woman’s thirty-three days of “blood-spiritual readiness” are for bringing a new spirit into the world. Unlike the body, the spirit will not wither and die; our souls are capable of transcending our physical existences, just as our non-biological creativity is capable of leaving an everlasting impression on the world we leave behind. Our souls are inherently ready for spiritual growth, for holiness.

So there are seven days of spiritual unreadiness for the body that was brought into the world. The baby is then circumcised, and the rest of the forty day period is connected to the baby’s soul, a result of bringing a potentially-eternal soul into the world. For that, the woman is not “spiritually unready” at all – she is in a special state of spiritual readiness, for having brought G-d, through the soul of the child, more into our world. The division between the two periods is marked by the circumcision, the core Jewish connection between a physical and spiritual existence signified by blood.

The verses afterward tell us that when a woman has a girl, the time period is not forty days, but eighty. This connects back to the flood: “Forty days and forty nights,” the repetition of forty being the complete connection to the earth, the host for all life, just as Chava (Eve) was called “the mother of all life.”

This reflects the different contributions to new life between men and women. It may take contributions from both a man and a woman to bring a child into this world, but it is the woman who incubates that new life, who is capable of taking the fertilized egg all the way from conception to birth. The connection here is to the earth itself: life on earth was put here by G-d, but it is the earth, just like a fertile woman, who nurtures and sustains that life, making it possible for all life – physical and spiritual alike – to be born. The Torah makes the linkage for us, by connecting the forty/eighty days after of childbirth with the Flood.

Note: It makes sense that an act of creation, such as intercourse or birth, leads to becoming spiritually unready. Our creations are never complete or perfect; they are marked with trial and error, with lost opportunities, with endless variations of “what might have been.” Categorically, spiritual unreadiness in the Torah is connected with an inability to reach holiness: we cannot do achieve a holy result by harming others through our evil speech, for example. Even when intimacy leads to conception, millions of spermatozoa failed in their missions. When a life ends, so does its opportunity to improve the world, to achieve any other creative act. From top to bottom, when the Torah talks of being spiritually unready, it is connected to whether or not we are, in that state, able to achieve holiness – and then how we can become ready once again.

The Torah tells us that when we become spiritually unready in place, we need to reconnect to the primal (ritual) waters, to become reborn. (When we touch death, the reset mechanism is through the Red Heifer, which I have explained elsewhere). Either way, once we are reborn, like the earth washed in the flood, we are again in a spiritually ready state. And we can start reconnecting anew.


Limiting Free Will

The question of how G-d could have limited Pharoah’s free will is much discussed.

I once suggested that G-d does not limit man’s free will: but Pharoah considered himself a deity, so G-d treated him accordingly – G-d would not be bound by rules for the treatment of humans for someone who refused to consider himself to be a man like any other.

My #1 son suggests an alternative  – and perhaps far more satisfying –  answer: Pharoah limited the free will of the Jewish people, by refusing their choice to leave Egypt, six times. As a result, G-d limited Pharoah’s free will, measure for measure, six times!

This explanation not only shows why the numbers match, but it also is a stirring example of how G-d views freedom and liberty.  The Torah may be telling us that if a human takes away the free will of another, the G-d may do the same to us.

Indeed, the Talmud Yerushalmi says some Jewish tribes had slaves, and G-d told them that they had to free their slaves before they could be freed in turn. The lesson seems clear: you cannot be free if you do not grant freedom to others.  And G-d did not discriminate: all men pay the consequence for limiting the freedom of others, by having their liberty constrained in turn.


Does G-d learn from Mankind?

One of my personal obsessions is to try to read the Torah without the gloss of the ages, without blindly accepting the assumptions of Greeks, Christians, and critics about the text. Instead, I like to read the text for itself, in itself.  

One of the assumptions that has become dogma within Judaism more broadly (but has no textual support in the Torah at all), is that G-d is omniscient and timeless, so He knows the future. I won’t quibble with the possibility that G-d, in order to be G-d, is capable of being all-knowing and all-powerful. But the text itself makes it abundantly clear that, probably through an act of self-restraint (so that mankind can exist at all), G-d gave mankind free will. One result of mankind making our own choices is that G-d is frequently surprised by our choices. In other words, G-d does not know that Adam and Eve will eat the fruit. Nor did He know in advance that the generation of the Flood was going to choose to be evil and violent. Nor did he anticipate the Golden Calf, etc. etc.  This, to me, is so obvious and apparent from the text that it seems that everyone who denies it has to tie themselves in knots in order to try to square the circle. And all because they are not defending the Torah at all, but instead some Greek/Christian idea that G-d must be all-knowing, no matter what the Torah actually says.

What amazes me is how so many of what became commandments in the Torah were created not by G-d but by people. It is Noah who first invents the elevation-offering – and it later becomes a staple of the tabernacle. Jacob invents huts, sukkot, for his flock – and G-d later provides the same for His flock, the Jewish people. Avraham’s kindness to strangers becomes enshrined in Jewish law, as does Simeon and Levi’s intolerance for forcibly taking women. Even ways of dealing with death, guilt and reparations are all described early in the text, and then revisited and offered back to mankind as key guidelines for life. Man initiates, and G-d reacts, adapts, and sometimes even adopts.

Over time, the key principles of what would become Judaism and the laws of the Torah, are described in the text itself, as a way of understanding each of the commandments. And if we see things this way, then passages which really seem to make very little sense, can come into focus.

For example: 

“When a man shall clearly utter a vow of persons unto the LORD, according to thy valuation…” (Lev. 27) and what follows is 23 verses of how different people and houses and fields would all be valued.

This passage seems to make no sense!  Why does the Torah suggest that people want to pledge themselves, their loved ones, or their property to G-d?

The answer is in the Torah itself:

And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go … then this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth. (Gen:28:20)

Jacob’s vow is the first one found in the Torah, and he pledges that if G-d blesses him, then he will build G-d a house and share his wealth.

Jacob’s example seems to help illuminate the text from Leviticus: a person is not necessarily merely giving to G-d, but is instead, as in Jacob’s case, proposing a bargain, or even a transaction: If You, G-d, give me X, then I pledge to contribute Y to the building or the ongoing support of your house.

It suggests a transactional component to our relationship with our Creator, a method of negotiation and expressing gratitude for the blessings that we receive. By making a vow that is conditional upon certain outcomes being achieved, we are not behaving inappropriately: we are, instead, mimicking our forefather Yaakov. And G-d can accept our proposal, just as He accepted Yaakov’s.

This suggests that G-d does not merely learn from our forefathers: it suggests that the relationship between each of us and G-d is also dynamic and changing, and one in which both parties can keep adapting and growing and learning from the other. This thesis is, of course, directly contradictory to the idea of G-d as an unchanging entity, but I think it is far more concordant with the text of the Torah.


Is it REALLY G-d’s Plan?!

The end of the first book of the Torah contrasts Yosef and Yehudah. While they were not rivals, there is no doubt that Yosef was the leader of the moment in Egypt, but that Yehudah ends up holding the scepter of kingship. It is Yehudah’s line that leads to King David, and who will lead to Moshiach.

Recently I argued that the core difference between the two brothers is that Yehudah publicly repented for his error with Tamar, and then took responsibility for Benjamin. Yehudah showed that sometimes it is not the sin that is what matters: what matters is what we do after we sin. And having repaired his errors, Yehudah becomes fit to lead the Jewish people.

But what does Joseph say when he reveals himself to his brothers?

It was not you that sent me hither, but G-d (Gen 45:8)

It is G-d’s plan!

And Joseph is saying: And if it was G-d’s plan that I be sent to Egypt, then surely it was also G-d’s plan that I drove you nuts, and caused you to sell me as a slave!

Which means, of course, that Joseph is entirely unapologetic about having acted as he did in the first place! The old Joseph, the Joseph with the tin ear for how his brothers would hear his words, has made a comeback. He does not explicitly forgive his brothers as much as saying that what they did was part of a master plan from On High that Joseph can now reveal to them. The old arrogance surfaces, just a little.

Is it any wonder that Joseph’s brothers fear his retribution after Yaakov dies?

Unfortunately, people learn the wrong lesson from Joseph’s story. People learn a kind of fatalism, that whatever happens is what is meant to happen, that everything in the world is all part of G-d’s plan. And so sin and error are all perfectly alright, or at least understandable.

This seems to be the lesson Joseph learns as well. . Joseph says that everything that happens is G-d’s plan, but G-d does not seem to concur. Joseph is not rewarded; on the contrary, he is passed over for ultimate leadership of the Jewish people. After all, fulfilling the prophecy to Avraham that the Jews would serve others for 400 years in a foreign land could have been fulfilled in a myriad of other ways, ways that do not involve the sins that Joseph and his brothers committed against each other.

Joseph had the perfect opportunity to apologize to his brothers, and beg their forgiveness (giving his in turn). It would have been a true reconciliation, but Joseph does not do it. He never actually sees the error of his ways, and so he does not – cannot – correct them.

“It is G-d’s Plan” is not, after all, the whole truth. Certainly the story ends well enough, so what happened could well have been one on G-d’s plans. But there is no reason to think that there could not have been lots of other plans as well. It is the choices, the sins, of the brothers that bring this particular plan to fruition. And we cannot imagine that G-d requires us to do bad things in order to bring about G-d’s ultimate plans. Indeed, we are commanded by the laws of the Torah to do precisely the opposite!

Yehudah understands this. From the moment he apologizes to Tamar, he understands that it is the choices of mankind that change the world. And when Yehudah steps up to Joseph, taking responsibility for his brother, his father, and the entire family, he acts precisely as a Jew and a king acts: a king makes decisions and takes responsibility for those decisions, and constantly seeks to improve on what he has done before. Yehudah does this, and Joseph does not.

Our role model is not Joseph. We do not sin, and then say that everything that happens as a result is what G-d had in mind all along. Our role model is Yehudah – shaping the future by improving ourselves is our obligation.


Clothing Masks the Man

As Rabbis Riskin and Sachs have pointed out, the shoresh (root word) for a garment, beged, is the same as the shoresh for deception, bagad. And the Torah bears this out – the text has almost no descriptions of clothing at all for Avraham and Isaac and Moshe; the only times clothing is mentioned for Yaakov is when he is pretending to be Esau. Like the fig leaves for Adam and Chava or Tamar’s coverup, clothing in Judaism is seen as deceptive, as masking reality. What really matters is the man, not what he wears.

Megillas Esther is full of deception. From the temple-like adornments of Ahaverush to Esther’s bathing for 6 months in deceptive perfumes, it is all about how clothes hide the inner reality. Without exception, every mention of appearance or dress hides some subterfuge in which the intentions of the wearer does not match his garments.

The obvious exception would seem to be the garments of the Cohanim. The Torah tells us what the priests should wear, in great detail. But if a garment is deceptive, how can this be?

The answer is that garments are deceptive, and those of the cohanim are no exception. But while the garments of Yaakov were used to deceive Isaac, and the royal garments of Esther were to deceive Ahashverush, the garments of the cohanim were not there for G-d, or to fool the Jewish people. The garments of the cohanim were there to deceive themselves.

The role of a cohen is to serve Hashem in his home on earth – the Mishkan and Beis Hamikdash. In this role, every cohen must entirely subsume his individuality behind the requirements of his office; he must not deviate one iota from the prescribed role; this is the human tzimtzum that Rabbi Sachs identifies that was necessary in order to allow coexistence with Hashem’s shechinah.

The garments are there to deceive the neshamah of the cohen wearing them; to convince the neshama that its individual and unique flair is restricted and limited by the garments themselves. Every Cohen Godol must be the same as every other Cohen Godol. The garments deceive.

Note for Purim added by Zev Hall: If Ahaverush wore the garments of the Cohen Godol at his feast, then when Mordechai was dressed up “in the king’s clothes” as Haman led him, then Mordechai was actually wearing the garments of the cohen godol.  Since we know that Mordechai was a Benjaminite, the deception thickens! (Zev Hall)


“Gathered to Their People”?

Ancient texts have no shortage of epithets; think of Homer’s “rose-fingered dawn” or “swift-footed Achilles.” There is really not much depth of meaning to be found in such examples, as they are clearly there for the rhyme and the mnemonic.

I submit that the Torah’s use of similarly “styled” language is not an epithet or other normal literary device, that instead the text means something very specific and much more interesting. In this case, I’d like to look at a phrase found sometimes when someone dies: The text says that the person is “gathered to his/your/their people.”

This seems straightforward enough if it were an epithet or euphemism: someone has died. Simple, right?

It is not so simple. For starters, the text gives us the straight story anyway – that someone has died: “[Avraham] breathed his last and died, old and contented, and was gathered to his people.” (Gen. 25:8). Similar language is used for Isaac: “So Isaac breathed his last and died, and was gathered to his people, being old and full of days.” (Gen. 35:29) If “gathered to his people” means merely than Avraham and Isaac died, then why the extra phrase?

To make things more complicated: the two-words for “gathering” (asaf) and “the nation” (am) is used in one occasion about someone who is NOT dead: Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aharon, is gathered back to the people after a brief exile in Numbers 12:15. Which tells us that there is something else going on here. Indeed, it also suggests that “gathered back to the people” is not a way of describing an afterlife, either – since she was living.

The first place a word is used in the Torah tells us what it means. The word for “gathered,” asaf, is first found in the story of Noach.

For your part, take of everything that is eaten and gather it, to serve as food for you and for them. (Gen, 6:21)

The usage of the word here is also duplicative – if something has been taken, it has already been separated. But the context makes it clear: things that are “gathered” are afterward absorbed, to sustain life.

When we take this insight, and see where the word for “gathered” is twinned with “to the people” we see that the phrase is not used to describe many people: it is limited to the forefathers Avraham, Isaac and Jacob, and then Miriam (when she was living), Aharon, and Moses. What makes these particular people different than everyone else in the Torah? The answer is that these are the people who are most important to every Jew. To be a Jew is to learn the Torah that Moshe brought; to learn from and seek to emulate our forefathers Avraham, Isaac and Jacob; and to internalize the path to holiness that is shown through Aharon the high priest. And it is to experience the love that Miriam infused into the whole people, the embodiment of kindness and devotion.

In other words: through the Torah, each of these people gained immortality because their influence transferred upon their death (or during the life of Miriam), to all of their people in the future! Those who are “gathered to their people” are vested in each of us, providing spiritual sustenance just as surely as Noach provided sustenance for the occupants of the Ark. To be gathered to one’s people is not to die; it is to gain reputational immortality.

This is the only way I can otherwise explain why Avraham was also described as being “gathered to his people” when he died in Genesis 25:8. At the time he died, Avraham had no people! But every monotheistic faith came from him – he was the father of Judaism and Christianity and Islam and others. When he was “gathered to his people”, Avraham became vested in the future nations that claimed him as their forefather.

When Jacob died he knew that he would be gathered to his people, that his life of choices was over but that his influence over the Jewish people would be eternal – we describe Jacob as a candle that never goes out. So when the text tells us (Gen 49:33) that Jacob was “gathered to his people,” it does so before Jacob was buried, before anyone even mourned. The instant that Jacob died, his life and his soul became vested in all of the Jewish people.

When it comes to Aharon and Moshe, G-d does not even tell them that they are going to die: instead He tells them that they will “be gathered to his people.” (Numbers 20:24, 31:2). At the end of the Torah (Deut. 32:50), G-d says to Moshe, “You shall die on the mountain that you are about to ascend, and shall be gathered to your kin, as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and was gathered to his kin.”

“Being Gathered” is not a threat. Being gathered to your people, achieving immortal influence over countless descendants, is actually a promise – a promise of love and satisfaction in a life well lived. It is an aspiration for us all.

All the meanings and power of this phrase is encompassed the last time the phrase is used:

When Moses charged us with the Torah, as the inheritance of the congregation of Jacob. Then He became King in Jeshurun, When the heads of the people gathered, The tribes of Israel together. (Deut. 33:4-5)

The connection is multifaceted at this point. The “He” who became King in Jeshurun can refer to the previous nouns – Moses or Jacob – as well as to G-d, since Moses and Jacob are the core embodiments of Judaism. It is another timeless, invested promise of what happens when the nation gathers. When the heads of the people gathered, the unified nation at the receiving of the Torah becomes vested in all of the Jewish people for all time in the future.

Being gathered to one’s people in the Torah is no rhetorical device or euphemism. It is instead the highest form of praise, a statement that these few great dead men are more alive to us now than they were when their hearts were still beating.

[Another @iwe and @susanquinn production]


Genesis: The Development of the Family

The Torah tells us of a wide range of changes from the beginning of Genesis until the era of the Exodus from Egypt, and they are all connected to the types and meanings of human relationships, almost as if a certain kind of human marriage and family became prerequisites for the Exodus, the events at Sinai, and the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people.

In other words, Genesis is an arc, a progressive story showing changes from beginning to end.

Take, for example, the treatment of women. Before the flood, men “took” wives, whomever they chose (Gen. 6:2). 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 Isaac tolerated their wives being taken in turn by other men (such as Pharoah) 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, Jacob, unlike his fathers, did not “take” either of his wives or even his concubines; he was given them. Similarly, Joseph never takes his wife; he “comes in” to her. Moses similarly did not “take” his wife – and the verses describing their marriage are followed by G-d recalling the covenant, and starting the process that becomes the Exodus. (Ex. 2:21). 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 Noah’s time are not only chattel, but also have no speaking role.[1] Not so as the Torah progresses: Jacob 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 (Ex. 1:19), 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” (Ex. 1:20). Moses’ 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’” (Ex. 4:25). 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. Rabbis Sacks has traced the arc of how brothers go from fratricide (Cain and Abel) through every kind of competition and antipathy until Joseph’s sons, the first brothers who are not jealous of the other – and then to Moses and Aaron, 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 Isaac are given as if they were entirely passive: a child’s name was “X.” Isaac is named by his father, a father who cared a great deal about his son. But Isaac does not in turn name Jacob and Esau – they are seemingly named by others, perhaps the midwifes who called the children after their appearance at birth (Esau was hairy, and Jacob was grasping at his brother’s heel).

It is Leah who changes everything, going back to a custom that had been lost since Adam, Eve, and Seth: parents naming their children by way of reflecting their own relationship with G-d. Eve had said: “And the man knew Eve his wife; and she conceived and bore Cain, and said: ‘I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD.’” (Gen. 4:1), and then, with Seth, “’for God hath appointed me another seed instead of Abel; for Cain slew him.’” (Gen. 4:25)

In other words, between Eve and Leah mankind had somehow forgotten that G-d 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: Eve, not Adam, named their sons. Leah and Rachel both named their sons. The men (with the notable exception of Avraham naming Isaac) did not do so until Yaakov named his youngest, Benjamin. And then, just as with “taking” wives, it is as if a switch was flicked. Joseph names just as Leah and Eve had, in appreciation to G-d:

And Joseph called the name of the first-born Manasseh: ‘for God hath made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house.’ And the name of the second called he Ephraim: ‘for God hath made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.’ (Gen. 41:51-52)

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 G-d, that G-d reciprocates, by in turn being more involved with us.

“ [Moses] called his name Gershom; for he said: ‘I have been a stranger in a strange land.’” (Ex. 21:22) is followed, only two verses later, by:

And God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. 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 G-d 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 G-d into the family, connecting their own biological creativity to G-d’s investment in us. We have touched on all of these.

Lastly there is the desire for generations to be together, to connect across the ages. Terach left his father, and Avraham did the same. Isaac, after the Binding, seemingly separates from his father, going to Beer-lahai-roi, while his father goes to Beersheva. Jacob also left his father, and even when he could return beforehand, he spends years living elsewhere from his father: the Torah does not tell us of a reunification until Isaac’s death.

It is Jacob’s sons who want to live with their father, perhaps in no small part because Jacob was clearly a man who loved: the text tells us that he loved his wives, and his sons. While his love was uneven (which led to no end of trouble), there is no denying the text: Jacob is associated with love more than anyone in the Torah. There is a vulnerability to Jacob’s love: he is devoted to Rachel, a woman whom the Torah never says loved him back. The ability to love in this way made Jacob the father of all the tribes of Israel: children want to be with a father who loves them, and who loves and respects their mother.

It is love that creates the foundation for holiness, just as the word for “love” is found almost exclusively in the first and last books of the Torah: love is the necessary but not sufficient preconditions for a deep and abiding relationship with G-d.

  1. One might be so bold as to suggest that when the angels come to visit Avraham and they ask “’Where is Sarah thy wife?’” (Gen 18:9), it may be reproof: why is Sarai not with her husband? Why is she not also engaged in welcoming guests?

De-Greeking Judaism

In Plato’s Republic, Plato talks about the need to educate the populace about role models. As far as Plato was concerned, it was harmful to suggest that deities and heroes and great men were flawed – even if they were. Instead, he said that it was necessary to paint them as perfect, and beyond all criticism. This is essential because society must never be confused about what constitutes “the good.” Society must agree on a single morality scale. So role models must be perfect. Everyone must agree on the same definition of goodness.

If all this sounds vaguely familiar, it may be because this is how many Jews regard our forefathers, the great figures of the Torah. Instead of reading the text as it is, and learning from the experiences – and yes, the missteps – of our forefathers, most “traditional” Jewish educators suggest that we cannot actually learn very much of anything from our forefathers, except the vaguest precepts like being hospitable to guests. And at the same time, these “traditional” Jews would shy away, without explanation, from explicitly emulating our forefathers. Nobody would suggest that we can deceive our father or marry two sisters because Yaakov did, or that it is a good idea to acquire wives and horses and gold like Shlomo. Instead, we are told that while the Torah tells us about these things, they are not actually meant to be understood the way they are read! In other words, G-d’s Holy Book cannot be trusted to be telling us the unvarnished truth.

But the Torah does not say this. It tells us that the Torah is within our grasp. “It is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off.” (Deut: 30:11) And the text does not sugarcoat our past. Our ancestors are presented in full, warts and all.

By accepting that our forefathers were people who we can understand and emulate, then we can learn from the full lives led by our ancestors. We can see that Avraham and Yitzchak and Yaakov each had their own way to approach Hashem. We can see that only one (or two) of the twelve tribes was meant to study Torah as a profession – that there are competing, and equally valid, ideals of goodness. We can see that Moshe was in fact the greatest ideal of a Baal Teshuvah, one who starts with only a bare connection to Judaism, but comes to grow toward G-d, embodying the possibilities that can be unlocked if each person is willing to turn aside to see their own burning bush, and engage in a relationship with Hashem. This is what the Torah is to us, if we read it as a document meant to teach us how to live our lives.

But that is not what we hear from a great many “traditional” educators. They might say that

Since the objective of education is character building, and since [it] has a direct impact on the young, it is necessary to institute a censorship. Thus in order to protect children from negative influences [we] do not avoid open paternalism. We cannot allow our children to be exposed to inappropriate contents.

The only problem is that this excerpt is not Jewish thought at all. It is a summary of Plato’s arguments about education! (the excerpt is paraphrased from here).

And more:

The basic principle of education, in Plato’s conception, is that the soul, like the body, can have both a healthy and unhealthy state. As with the body, this state is determined by what the soul consumes and by what it does. Education determines what images and ideas the soul consumes and what activities the soul can and cannot engage in. Since the soul is always consuming, the stimuli available in the city must be rigidly controlled. Plato compares souls to sheep, constantly grazing. If you place sheep in a field of poisoned grass, and they consume this grass little by little, they will eventually sicken and die. Similarly, if you surround a soul with unwholesome influences, then gradually the soul will take these in and sicken. For this reason, Plato does not limit himself to dictating the specific coursework that will be given to the guardians, but also dictates what will be allowed into the cultural life of the city as a whole.

Plato, of course, came after the Torah was given at Sinai. His worldview on education is not found in the Torah itself, but it certainly seems to be part of Judaism today.

Still, a traditional reader may be agitated by the above. After all, many of our classic sources suggest that we must only read the Torah in a way that is consistent with Plato’s ideals. What is actually right?

I would argue that since the Torah itself does not whitewash our forefathers, and indeed is clearly ambivalent about their actions, the ethical lessons of the Torah are meant to be learned the way they are described. Though the Torah is infinitely deep and rich, it is just as true at the surface as it is at deep mystical levels. And this is how Jews in the ancient world understood it.

But along with the passage of time came the corrupting influence of Hellenism, the Greek ideals that became so much a part of the world around us, that we started to unconsciously adopt them into our own worlds. As I have documented elsewhere, this is what happened with the dilution of wine. It happened with language, and philosophy, and culture and habit. And yes, it even crept into Jewish Law itself.

Consider, if you will, the way the Talmud treats the Greek language. Despite the fact that “all the Torah was given at Sinai,” and that we know this means that the Law is unchanging through time, the Talmud says that Greek is the most beautiful language in the world. Rebbi Shimon ben Gamliel said:  “The sages did not permit books of scripture to be written in any foreign language other than Greek.” The Halacha is that a Torah scroll written in Greek is considered just as good as a Torah scroll written in the language used at Sinai! While the Gemara may have this position, I submit that no 21st century synagogue would read the Torah in Greek.

A proper reconsideration of Torah study would allow us to conclude that we should consider carefully whether Hellenistic – or Egyptian or American – or any other foreign influences should be allowed to get between a Jew and his pathway to a relationship with Hashem. Just as we need to be cognizant of the impact our environment has on us today, we should be willing to acknowledge the ways in which alien environments may have steered Judaism in the past away from the Torah.

And when we accept that Jewish heroes, unlike those of Plato’s fictional world, are not perfect, it becomes much easier to actually relate to those men and women in the Torah. We are all-too-flawed can relate to, and empathize with Sarah and Rachel and Moshe and David if we understand that they, too, were human and not Platonic heroes.


How Can G-d Allow Evil?

It is an age-old question, asked by people of every faith – and by atheists in an attempt to disprove the existence of G-d. The dominant answer by G-d-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. In other words: we cannot know the answer. And even more than this: even presuming to try to answer fundamental questions of this kind betray a profound and dangerous conceit.

As you might imagine, 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 Hashem, in the normal course of events, does not choose to break those rules. Rambam classified this as something that comes from 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.

And 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 G-d?” This seems obvious enough.

What interests me are the things that people do to other people: the murder of innocents. How can we be religious and still justify the murder of one innocent child, let alone thousands or millions in events like the Holocaust, or ethnic cleansing, or Cultural Revolutions?

This question is often rephrased as the following word play: if G-d was able to prevent the Holocaust and failed to do so, then He is not good,; and if He wanted to prevent it, but could not do so, then not being omnipotent, He is not G-d. The short answer to this is that G-d’s definition of “good” is necessarily different from ours.

Let’s go about answering this question the other way around: What would happen if G-d 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 G-d’s hand at work would become undeniable, and the free choice of humans would thereby be constrained.

Instead, the world we have is one in which a G-d-fearing person sees Hashem’s hand at work – and the atheist sees coincidence, or hard work at play. The classic example is Avraham’s victory in the war of the four kings against the five kings. The kings whom Avraham saves praise Avraham for his great military prowess. And just a few verses later, Malchi Tzedek meets Avraham and praises G-d 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 as the times of open miracles are far in our past, 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 Chava: the freedom to choose.

G-d values our freedom, because he ultimately values the choices that we make. It is those choices that allow us to choose to becomes 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, then we are not making a free choice. Unless we have free will, we are not humans.

But wait: don’t we learn in Isaiah (55) that: “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD, 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 LORD.”

And here we answer the original question. G-d’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 pasuk, doing teshuvah) and improving the world. His ways are not our ways, because for Hashem, free will is more important than 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 days we are given. We value life, but G-d values 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 G-d wills it to be so, but because for Hashem to interfere so blatantly in the affairs of our world that evil people are absolutely barred from carrying out their designs, then 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.”


Everything is Neutral – Until we Use It

In a simplistic view of the world, everything can be classified on some kind of line, using one metric or another. What reasonable person would disagree that it is better to be beautiful than ugly, better to be smart than stupid?

Call me unreasonable. Because the very same logic that suggests that beautiful trumps ugly leads us toward the conclusion that some lives are more valuable or precious than others. Infanticide and euthanasia are logical extensions of the very rational argument than starts with a person’s capabilities and attributes, and ends with ranking them and deciding which ones are good and thus deserving of life, and which ones should be granted a thoughtfully merciful end.

This is straightforward enough when we consider a person: if every person is endowed with a divinely-gifted soul, then every life has value. Those who do not believe a person has a soul, ultimately do not believe in the underlying value of human life.

But it goes well beyond this – and it does so because life is merely an opportunity, it is not an end in itself. What ultimately matters are the choices we make with the life we have.

Take, for example, the value of thought itself. One might be tempted to argue that thoughts, since they separate us from and elevate us above instinct and animalistic mental reflexes, are inherently good. The Torah tells us otherwise, in the very first time the word for “thinking” is given in the text:

And the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Gen 6:5)

At least in this case, mankind’s thoughts make G-d regret having made the world, and are the cause of its destruction! Just because we can think does not necessarily make it a good idea!

The Torah gives us a startling contrast, though. When discussing the creation of the tabernacle, the place on earth where G-d can dwell among us, the Torah commands us to use an “skilful craftsman” – and the word for “skilful” is actually the very same word for “thought.”

Them hath He filled with wisdom of heart, to work all manner of workmanship, of the craftsman, and of the skilful [thoughtful] workman (Ex. 35:35)

The power that mankind possesses is, in the first example, good enough reason to cause a flood and for G-d to “reboot” the world and mankind’s place in it.

But that very same power, in the second example, provides the means for G-d to permanently dwell among the nation, to provide a constant holy presence among the people!

We could suggest that the making of the tabernacle, with thoughtfulness, is in direct contrast with the evil thoughts that led to the flood – that the latter is a corrective for the former. The thoughts that can lead to the end of the world can be used for the insertion of G-d into that same world!

All things are neutral opportunities. What we choose to do with them make the difference between constructive good and destructive evil.


Jews: The World’s Grasshopper Leftovers

There is a strange recurring theme in the Torah when it comes to sacrifices: the leftovers (noh-tar) are somehow holy, and must be either consumed by people or consumed by fire. There is something mystically and symbolically important about the sacrifices that were not finished in the main event.

The first time the word for leftovers is used, it refers to Lavan’s flock, after Jacob had removed all the spotted and speckled sheep and goats from the herd (he left them with his sons to tend). That which was left over was the flock that Jacob took aside and conducted a strange breeding experiment that generated more spotted and speckled sheep and goats.

It seems that the idea was that discolored sheep were somehow inferior, but Jacob used that to his advantage. He invested his own time and work into those animals, and was able to change their offspring into animals that he could call his own.

I think that Jacob invented this idea of making the remainder, the leftovers, into something special, something with significant symbolic meaning. Jacob was the master shepherd, of course, and we already know that G-d followed Jacob’s lead in other ways (e.g. when journeying to his ancestral home, creating huts for his flock and a home for himself). It seems at least possible that G-d similarly learned from Jacob in this respect: make something of the leftovers, of what is left after you remove what you want.

Jacob was the first person in the Torah to separate animals, to split a flock. He then invests in that breakaway group, creating something different. This is the precursor to G-d choosing a people, separating them from their environment in Egypt, and making them into His own people.

The leftovers are not necessarily any better – indeed, they would naturally be inferior to their source. A Passover lamb, for example, would have been eaten, with the best bits consumed first. The leftovers are least palatable… and yet they are assigned pride of place, they are given special attention. In the tabernacle the priests either ate those leftovers, the things that G-d had not already taken (thus absorbing them into their own bodies), or invested fire into incinerating the last vestiges of the offering. (Ex. 29:34, Lev. 2:3, 2:10, 6:9, 7:17, 8:32, 19:6), eaten on the day you sacrifice it, or on the day following; but what is left by the third day must be consumed in fire) In the case of oil, it was the leftover oil that fulfilled the primary function of protecting the person bringing a guilt offering. (Lev. 14:16-17, 29).

Even people can be referred to as the leftovers, as remainders. Aharon loses two sons after they offer a strange fire, and that very day both the offering and his other sons are both referred to as “remainders.”

Moses spoke to Aaron and to his remaining sons, Eleazar and Ithamar: Take the meal offering that is remaining from the LORD’s offerings by fire and eat it unleavened beside the altar, for it is most holy. … [Moses] was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s remaining sons (Lev.10:12, 16)

The sons are lumped together with the offering. They are what survive. They are most holy. And I think it is because they are the future. The other brothers may have been better, they might have been worse. But they are no longer living, so it is in the living, the remainders, that Moses and Aharon and G-d invest themselves. Eliezer and Ithamar are the future of the priesthood even if only by virtue of being alive when their brothers were not.

Even leftover time is given special consideration. When a jubilee year approaches, the value of consecrated land is prorated based not on how many years have elapsed since the last jubilee, but instead according the years leftover until the next jubilee. What is leftover is actually the future, because what has already been done is not something we can do anything about. This is another way in which we Jews do not focus on sin we did in the past, but instead on how best to grow and improve with the time we still have before we, too, pass from this world.

The parallels keep stacking up, of course. Jacob focused on the leftovers as well, because they represented the changeable future, the things that we can affect and improve.

The Jewish people are these remainders, these leftovers from the world. You don’t have to take my word for it – the text tells us so! The spies into the land of Canaan tell everyone that, “we were grasshoppers in our own eyes, so, too, we were in their eyes.” (Num. 13:33)

Wait! What does a grasshopper have to do with being a leftover, a remainder?

Grasshoppers are only mentioned one other time in the Torah:

But these you may eat among all the winged swarming things that walk on fours: all that have, above their feet, jointed legs to leap with on the ground. Of these you may eat the following: locusts of every variety; all varieties of bald locust; crickets of every variety; and all varieties of grasshopper. (Lev. 11:21-22)

This is very odd, of course. But bear with me, because it gets pretty cool, at least from my perspective. And it is cool because of a mistranslation. The word that is used for “to leap” is actually never used elsewhere in the Torah to mean “leap” or “jump” or any variant. It is instead to verb variant of the word used to describe a leftover or remainder.

The grasshopper does not leap. He separates from the ground. He makes himself into a leftover. He can touch holiness because he is no longer part of where he came from.

In so doing, he has a lot in common with Jews. Jews have wandered for thousands of years, always being on the outside, never fully connected to our host countries. The grasshopper leaps up and away from the earth, striving for elevation and a higher connection. And then… he falls back down again, like we all do. But as long as he lives, he keeps trying. Because he is a survivor.

Unlike the other kosher insects that have jointed legs, the grasshopper does not swarm (like locusts), and takes no refuge in numbers. Each grasshopper can be a loner, making its own solo impact on the world.

The grasshopper is also the smallest and most insignificant of any kosher animal. Yet its entire body serves as its voice, and pound for pound, it is far louder than any kosher mammal. We Jews certainly can make a racket! And we are called by the Torah to be contradistinct from the earth: every kosher animal has to have an incomplete connection to earth, to be symbolically capable of elevating. And so the food that we eat is to remind us of that divinely-charged purpose: to elevate ourselves and the whole world. And we do it not because we are numerous, or large or powerful in any conventional sense. Jews are powerful because, like the grasshopper, we refuse to stay down. We make our voices heard whether they are welcome or not. We make an impact.

The Torah closes the loop. Remember that the men who compared us to grasshoppers (and all of their generation), as a result of their lack of courage, were condemned to die in the wilderness. The only ones that survived to enter the land were the two who stood apart from the crowd, who refused to go along with the superior numbers. The Torah tells us

“They shall die in the wilderness.” Not one of them survived, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. (Num. 26:65)

And the word for survived? The very same one that means “leftover”, that describes what it is that grasshoppers do over the earth. The joke is that their description had merit – but it was only applied to the true grasshoppers among them, the only two people there who were truly left over after the rest of the generation had died away.

G-d considers the leftovers to be holy, to be special, to be the ways into the future. He tells us to eat animals that embody this concept, to respect the things that are, like us, survivors against the odds. The power of the Jew is found in that willingness – even eagerness – to ignore the odds, to refuse to accept that might makes right. Because we know that G-d, like Jacob, invests Himself into those who are separated, who are merely leftover from the bulk of the flock. Because that is what a true shepherd does.

We know that in the natural world, the firstborn is favored. It gets most food. In most societies, it inherits the lion’s share.

But in Judaism, everything is upside-down. None of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Joseph or Moses were the firstborns. Egypt was arguably the oldest nation, but G-d chose the late-arriving Jews instead. Jews are the leftovers, the less powerful. G-d invests in the grasshoppers of the world, accepts that His people have more in common with this insect than one might like to imagine.

P.S. There are many accompanying symbolisms, but I just wanted to point out the use of the number “three” when talking about enabling change. The Third Day of creation was when life was created. Yaakov removed himself and his “leftover” flock from everyone else by a three day journey, and then he invested in the flock. Similarly, Moses tells Pharaoh that he wants to take the Jews away for a mere three days to sacrifice to G-d. The leftovers from a freewill offering (Lev. 7:17) also needs to be consumed in fire on the third day. And the single most transformative event in Jewish history, the giving of the Torah at Sinai, also happened on the third day.

P.P.S. There is no shortage of analogies today. We are keenly aware that the wealthiest nations are in fact not in possession of a corresponding spiritual wellbeing. Bigger is not better. The history of the world has no shortage of stories of the fall of great countries who rotted out – not because of lack of numbers or physical wealth, but by a profound loss of meaning, of spiritual goals. Nations that lose a connection with the divine and instead pursue harmony with nature (as ancient Egypt did) are doomed to meaninglessness and destruction. It is these great nations who are the main body.


Gratitude Changes our World

We see what we choose to see. No set of data forces any rational thinker to accept that one theory or explanation is incontrovertibly true and all others are incontrovertibly false. This explains how good and intelligent and wise people can consistently arrive at different conclusions, even though we have access to the very same data. Whether we are talking of science or of politics, there is no objective inevitability to any of our arguments.

Instead, we are left with the things that we accept as true. Most people take our assumptions and presuppositions for granted, but some people (probably a very few), can and do freely choose to see things a certain way. And here we arrive at the nub of the matter, because 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 G-d. 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.

We see what we choose to see. When Abram fought the battle of the four kings, the King of Sodom attributed the victory to Abram, while another king, Malchizedek, credited G-d with the victory. There is no way to empirically prove whether it was Abram or G-d who deserved the credit – indeed, the Torah itself merely says that Avram was victorious. In other words, the Torah is telling us something that philosophers of science have long known: For any given body of data, there are always at least two equally plausible explanations.

I choose to see G-d’s hand in every aspect of my life. Jews have a phrase for seeing G-d’s involvement in the fortuitous, hashgacha pratis, which loosely translates as “divine providence” or “serendipity.”

I choose to see all data through the prism of what G-d wants from me. When a stray thought comes to my while I pray, I consider it as “the still, small voice,” and I give it serious consideration. When I find, to my surprise, that I have a little extra time, I see it as an opportunity to write my post on Gratitude. Whether it is sunny or it rains, whether I feel well or poorly, I choose to be grateful to G-d for the opportunity to learn and to grow, and to accomplish.

None of this denies the “facts” of the physical world, of statistical chance or meteorological patterns. But, just like the cargo culter, or a global warming theorist, or a committed atheist, I filter all the data I receive through my prism of understanding. The difference between me and those aforementioned groups, however, is that I know that I am choosing to do so. I don’t lie to myself and others, and claim that all data points to my explanation and worldview being correct after all. Instead, I fully embrace the fact that, given the same data, an atheist and I will reach different conclusions, and do so without any ill will. This is the way of the world, and it validates my core thesis: G-d gave us free will, and our choices matter.

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 G-d 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 G-d, 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 their 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 G-d, 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 each person must do for themselves. (here and here is my choir singing the two versions together – the choir with the personal, and the cantor with the communal. See the note at the bottom for the comparative texts.)

After the Flood, Noah offers sacrifices to G-d (Gen. 8:20). In return, there are 17 verses (17 is the numerical value of the Hebrew word for “good”) of blessings from G-d. Why? Because Noah had done something incredible: he showed his appreciation. More than this: he survived the destruction of the world, and he chose to say “thank you”! When we take the time and make the effort to be grateful even for things that are, on their face, simply awful, our blessings multiply. Gratitude is the option that is always available to us, even in the face of despair.

Holocaust survivors were among the most dynamic people mankind has ever seen (examples). They, too, saw their world destroyed. They lost their friends, and their loved ones, their towns and communities – their entire world was gone. And still: An amazing number of them picked themselves up, and got to work. They came up from the camps and dedicated themselves to growing and building with a frenetic energy that mankind has rarely seen.

Gratitude is not meant to be passive appreciation: the Torah makes it clear that Good Works, not mere belief, are what G-d craves. The best example of this is Abraham, widely credited in the history books as being the “founder of monotheism.” But the Torah does not tell us how or why Abraham discovered G-d. Nor does it discuss his internal or external philosophical arguments or even his beliefs. Instead, the Torah tells us what Abraham did with himself. G-d’s purpose for Abraham is “ that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right….” (Gen: 18:19) Abraham was valued by G-d because of his actions, not because of his thoughts.

Which is why gratitude forms the backbone of my faith, my marriage, my family, my business, and my life. I thank G-d 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.

Even in politics: others see a disaster, I see an opportunity – nay a challenge – to aspire to creating a better world. Every single piece of data can be seen through this prism: even terrible news can be seen a way for me to improve myself and everything I can touch.

So: there are a myriad of ways in which a win by either candidate can be parlayed into something that works out for the best, for at least those Americans who care about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I am resolved to be grateful for the things I cannot change, so that I can be proactive about changing everything that I can.

I make this choice: Every day I will wake up, give thanks to G-d and my loved ones, and get to work. Praise the Lord, and Pass the Ammunition.


Noach was not the first to be grateful (Cain and Abel also brought “presents” (mincha), but Noach “raised up offerings” (ya’al olot) that were received as “pleasing spirit’) to G-d. The nature, content, and consequences of the offerings were qualitatively distinct, and it was Noach’s offerings that formed the foundation of tabernacle and temple offerings detailed elsewhere in the Torah. The mincha of Cain and Abel, by contrast, are the same word used to describe a present or a bribe – such as Jacob’s presents to Esau and bribes to the Egyptian overseer. So a mincha is for appeasement, while an oloh is a proactive show of appreciation. By combining physical matter with energy (fire), Noah showed an understanding of man’s core task on this earth: elevation of the physical world, the combination of life and spiritual energy as embodied by the burning bush. The Torah teaches us that this is holiness.

Here is Jonathan Sacks’ translation of the twinned words of gratitude as referenced above. Note the text, in the personal version: “to do your will and serve you.” omparativemodim


What is the Problem with a Graven Image?

We read in the Torah that G-d’s anger is kindled when we do two things: make a graven image, and do evil.

“Doing evil” seems easy enough to understand – G-d 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, to 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?

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 manage 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 cost, in sacrificed foodstuffs and 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 religion fades, superheroes have come back into fashion. Some of them (Ironman or Batman) are ordinary men who harness their ambition to become extraordinary. But most have magical powers that make them better than mere mortals. Deities from ancient pagan worlds are coming back as superheroes: 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.

Beyond the silver screen we also have no shortage of idols. Chief among them is Gaia herself. Just as with ancient deities, she has many names: Mother Earth, Nature, Sustainability, The Planet, etc. And Gaia is mad. Through her priests, scientists, she threatens apocalypse and ruin, hurricanes and climate change and global warming and droughts and ozone holes. Independence from her clutches is wrong, so we are told that everything mankind does to improve the world is in turn evil, and sure to lead to our destruction. Thus we are supposed to condemn GMOs and effective pesticides and herbicides, and ban mysterious chemicals that somehow supposedly lead to reduced sperm counts. Even air conditioning and modern medicine are clearly wrong, and only serve to anger The Planet.

We placate Mother Earth’s appetites by sacrificing our lawns by not watering them, by sorting our trash into different piles, by spending more money for “organic” produce. We buy Toyota Piouses, and mount money-losing solar arrays on the shady street-side of the house so that everyone can see them. We pass endless regulations that make life more difficult, all for the sake of The Environment. Best of all, we get to signal our greater piety by sacrificing others. Just as liberals are in favor of raising taxes on Other People, so, too, Earth-Worship involves endless rounds of Making Other People Suffer.

Idols come in many shapes and sizes, of course. We worship Authorities and Experts, people who Know Better, by virtue of being Authorities and Experts and Scientists. Best of all, of course, are Experts in Government. Government, of course, has the power to coerce, which means it has the power to not merely convince us that they are right, but to shortcut the whole sticky persuasion thing and force us to accept their authority.

It is government that represents the worst combination of Gaia and superheroes and coercive scientists. Government does not have to convince people. It has the power to override the objections of us great unwashed idiots who are not convinced by the rhetorical flourishes and apocalyptic nonsense.

So when parents want to try to treat their son who suffers from an illness, government can step in and save the day, making sure, through endless processes and experts and authorities, that the child will surely die. And it will be for Charlie Gard’s own good, don’cha know.

It all comes together in the same problem: people who do not want to take responsibility for their own lives need to make themselves small, need to make excuses for why they have not personally tried to fix the world. So they vote for liberals, they drive their Prius to shop at Whole Foods, they believe in experts and other superheroes, and they expect government to solve every problem.

Death is not the enemy. Death comes to all of us, sooner or later. The enemy is a life that is not well lived, a life in which we avoid risk because we are playing it safe – only to die in the end anyway.

And here it comes full circle. The problem with graven images are they are external, shared images, but the spiritual path for each person must, in Judaism, be internal. Each person has their 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 opportunity for individual development. A graven image externalizes responsibility.

May we all make the most of our time on this earth, to take personal responsibility and grow, to create and do good.


Idolatry in our Day

[This was written and first posted in 2011]

People think that when the Torah speaks of idolatry, it is talking of an almost-prehistoric desire that we cannot really comprehend today. After all, whom among us worships the sun or the moon – or even has the slightest desire to do so?

And yet the Torah harps on this point repeatedly, that somehow idolatry is something that can seep into a culture, slowly gaining adherents who see it not as idolatry, but as something much more benign. Such idolatry can seem quite harmless, and is often billed as an improvement or refinement of the Torah itself.

I submit to you that, under the guise of reason and science, we are in the age of Earth Worship today, and that it fulfills every criteria we have of idol worship given in the Torah and by our sages.

Rambam’s definition of idolatry includes: To do an act of worship toward any created thing, or to believe that a particular created thing is an independent power. (Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim (Avodah Zarah) – The Laws of Strange Worship (Idolatry).

Let’s start by identifying the deity. It is called a variety of names: Mother Earth, Gaia, The Environment, and, most pervasively, Nature. But it all comes to the very same thing: worship of the unsoiled (by man) biosphere in which we live.

How can I say that Earth Worship is not merely science, or even just good sense? The answer is that the Green movement, in all its forms, ignores all facts to the contrary. Consider:

  • Man-Made Global Warming has become an article of faith despite all the facts to the contrary.
  • Recycling is considered a moral imperative, despite not having any real net benefit to either mankind or the earth.
  • People eat “natural” or “organic” foods despite no scientific evidence whatsoever that eating them (instead of similar amounts of refined foods) actually makes one healthier.

All of the above are actually expressions of religious devotion, entirely disconnected from reality – or indeed, any desire to be educated about reality.

And like all religions, followers of Nature are largely peopled by those who are in it for the sake of appearances – not for any demonstrated benefit.

  • People buy Priuses instead of Hummers despite the evidence that, if the owners actually cared, they would buy and drive the SUV instead.
  • Being seen as adhering to the religion is more important than actually practicing it. Indeed, this link shows that people preferentially put solar panels on the street side of their home, even when that is the shady side of the house, and therefore not likely to provide meaningful benefit.

So if Nature Worship is actually idolatry, then how is this religion practiced?

We can start with indoctrination schools. From the youngest age, children who are too young to know any multisyllabic words are taught that “The Environment” is the most important thing of all. And, the children are sanctimoniously informed, there are many things that we must do for the sake of the Environment. For example, it is essential that we go through a daily service to the idol, one in which we debase ourselves for the sake of the deity. I refer, of course, to sorting through our trash for the ritual known as “Recycling”. Mandatory recycling has been debunked , but nobody wants to know: recycling has become an article of faith.

In accordance with the prioritization of the Earth above G-d – and even mankind – people sacrifice their very fertility. Many thousands of earth-worshippers have surgically sterilized in order to avoid even the risk of putting more people on the earth. Again, nobody seems to want to know the facts – that the Earth could support many, many people than it currently does. Once something is an article of faith, questioning it is heresy.

This is the nature of our modern idolatry. Like the ancient worship of false deities, worshipping the earth is seen as entirely unobjectionable, even sensible. Like the old adage about the downside risks of becoming religious on one’s deathbed, the Precautionary Principle suggests that even if there is no evidence that something might hurt the earth, we should ban it “just in case”.

And just like serving ancient deities, people subject themselves to hardship to show their devotion to the cause. I am sure there are some people who truly prefer whole wheat bread, just as there must be children who actually don’t like to drink sugary drinks. And I know people who swear, up one side and down the other, that almost entirely inedible foodstuffs that most birds would not touch are in fact delicious. But on the whole, I think it is clear that refusing to eat refined foods and insisting that somehow “natural” foods are superior (again, despite the scientific evidence) is in fact just another way to show one’s devotion to the deity. And we take it to extremes that put even our own children at risk: we malnourish children by withholding essential proteins (meat) and brain-building cholesterols (found in butter and mayonnaise), as well as pressuring women to breastfeed because it is “natural” – even in those cases where, on the evidence, breastfeeding is more dangerous than giving formula.

If nature is good, and people are bad, then the worst thing of all is when people mess with nature! How else can we explain the irrational hysteria over giving animals antibiotics or growth hormones that help them grow and stay healthy and productive? Or the kneejerk opposition to genetically modified foods that have saved millions of people from blindness, and promise to produce healthy foodstuffs with less required resources – like improved fish . To True Believers, all GM foodstuffs are nothing less than dangerous and heretical attacks on the Deity Herself. Because, as common wisdom tells us, Nature is wonderful and perfect just as it is, and anything we do to alter it is, by definition, wrong. The reflexive belief that what mankind does must be worse than what Nature produces by itself is itself evidence of this idolatrous doctrine. Logically, we could turn this on its head, to suggest that what mankind does is better than Nature – after all, civilization and technology build complexity, pushing back against the natural entropic decay processes.

None of the above is to suggest that it is good to engage in gratuitous destruction of the natural world. Clean water and breathable air are wonderful things, but they are wonderful primarily because they benefit mankind – either through our consumption or other forms of enjoyment. The litmust test ought to be simple: if we do something that is Green because it truly benefits people, then we are following common sense. But when we are Green for other reasons, then it is not just irrational: it is wrong.


The Freedom to Fret

Most people are terrified of freedom. They don’t say they are, of course. But their actions speak louder than words. They work hard to limit their freedom, searching for an emergency burrow with the same quiet desperation of a rabbit that has found itself exposed in an open field. Most people like mandates, because slavishly following instructions makes them feel safe.

People who come from slavery or oppression are not ready for freedom. There is a reason slave rebellions don’t create democracies, and why people who have spent lots of time in prison find it so hard to re-acclimate to society: the road from serfdom is never easy, and it is certainly not quick. The fall of the Soviet Empire has given us no shortage of examples.

When the Jews were in Egypt, G-d never promises them freedom – indeed, the word for “freedom” is not found in the Book of Exodus until well after leaving Egypt. The entire Exodus is about a transference – from servitude to Pharoah to servitude to G-d. The people were not capable of handling the concept or the reality of freedom, and they remained servants the entire way through, guided and led by others, told what to do at every turn. When the people find themselves in a situation where they are not told what to do next, they immediately begin to despair, to cry out in fear and anger, rejecting the merest taste of actual freedom. They are simply not ready for adulthood, for responsibility.

Freedom as a concept is only broached in the text after the Exodus:

When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment.

And even then, slaves may well choose to remain as slaves; freedom is frightening.

But if the slave declares, “I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free,”

Why would a slave refuse freedom? Because freedom comes with responsibility for one’s own decisions. For example:

If a man has carnal relations with a woman who is a slave and has been designated for another man, but has not been redeemed or given her freedom, there shall be an indemnity; they shall not, however, be put to death, since she has not been freed.

The slave woman is not responsible for what happened to her! If she had her freedom, however, she would be held responsible for not rejecting the man’s approaches. There is real attraction to always seeing oneself as a victim, without responsibility.

The Torah itself supplies the reason why freedom is so frightening. The word for freedom, Chofesh, is the very same word that means “searching.” It is found in several key places in Genesis:

Lavan pursues Jacob, and accuses his son-in-law of stealing Lavan’s idols. The text tells us:

Thus [Lavan] searched, but could not find the household idols.

Think about Lavan’s search – and the searching that we all do. There is something you desperately want, something you feel the need to have. But you are not sure where it is, or even if you will find it at all. There is a hunger and fear in that search, a feeling of unfulfillment, and a complete ignorance of whether or not your search will be successful.

The Torah is telling us that freedom is the same as searching for something you need – it could be to figure yourself out, what decisions you are going to make about your own life. And it comes packaged with its own fear of responsibility, of making the wrong decisions. Freedom comes with frustration, with unrealized hopes and present fears, because in biblical Hebrew to be free means to be searching.

The search is frightening enough to most people in the Muslim world that they would rather be told what to do by an Imam than have to question whether or not they actually think any specific religious faith is right. There is a comfort in following instructions, in knowing that the bigger picture is never your problem. This is why communism and other tyrannies could not be trivially replaced with liberal democracies. It is why most people vote for strongmen, and rely on so-called “experts.”

[an @iwe and @eliyahumasinter production]


Guild Pride

Pharoah’s magicians take pride in their profession. When Moshe and Aharon make a rod into a snake, they do likewise. And then, when the Nile turns to blood, and then produces frogs, they demonstrate that they, too, can turn Nile water into blood, and create frogs.

But as Rabbi Sacks points out, this is ridiculous. Why would someone countering Moshe and Aharon’s creation of blood and frogs make more blood and frogs?! It just made a bad situation worse!

Instead of playing a game of “me, too!”, the magicians could have tried to counter, by trying to end the plagues. And when they failed to do so, then Egypt could have acknowledged that the Jews indeed had a powerful G-d, and they would be free to leave. The whole story could have been a lot shorter and less painful!

But the magicians did not try to counter Moshe and Aharon. They were playing for far smaller stakes, and so missed what was actually going on.

Imagine, if you will, being a court magician in ancient Egypt. You have prestige and pride, and you can do things that nobody else can.

One day, some amateurs with no pedigree walk in and show off their own set of tricks! This cannot be tolerated! It is no less than a threat to your professional status and job security! So instead of working on behalf of the client (Pharoah or Egypt), you immediately go on the defensive. Don’t try to get rid of the blood or frogs – show that you are just as good as those imposters. Otherwise you might be replaced by those walk-ons!

There was a big story going on, but the magicians could not see it. They were told why Moshe and Aaron were there, and what they said they were trying to achieve. But the court magicians simply could not believe it. They had, in the age-old practice of finding conspiracies under every rock (especially in a royal court), rejected the obvious, and sought instead to show the superiority of their own guild.

The Torah is teaching us a very important lesson about entrenched bureaucracies of every kind. While someone may work as a scientist or as a teacher or as a truck driver, once that professional class has organized, the scientist stops working for truth, the teachers no longer represent the children, and the truck drivers don’t work for the customer. Instead, the privileged working class aims to preserve and grow its own privileges and status, regardless of the longer term consequences or the larger story.

And so we have teachers’ unions who don’t educate children, and bakers’ unions who would rather be unemployed rather than accept a benefits cut. And it is hardly limited to those who work for a living: unemployment is apparently also a destiny worth defending. We have populations who will riot to protect their monthly welfare checks, immune to the reality that money does not grow on trees. There is almost always a bigger story, but when people see themselves as Pharoah’s magicians do, then there is no limit to their eagerness to add more blood and frogs to a disastrous situation rather than seeing the big picture.

The Torah is warning us of the dangers of a silo mentality, showing us that the wisest of Pharoah’s advisers plunged headlong into a seductive but foolishly self-destructive pattern. This is the mindset that has destroyed empires throughout time: Chinese, Egyptian, and Roman empires all succumbed to internal entitlement-seeking just as surely as did great corporations such as RCA and General Motors.

And it is the mindset around the world today that is dominating Europe and the United States. The majority no longer cares that the economy cannot persist and grow on infinite debt; they just want to defend their own privileges and entitlements. As the Torah teaches us through the magicians and the plagues, it never ends well.


Adversity and Reproduction: Why Hamas is a Gift to the Jews 

Some of the people who actually survived Hitler’s concentration camps would, had there been no Holocaust, have committed suicide. Adversity gives us a reason to care.

As we have seen throughout history, mankind either survives because survival is hard, thanks to natural forces or enemies, or because there is an overarching mindset that makes life meaningful and purposeful. In other words, to thrive, mankind either needs strong enemies or a strong religion. Without a good reason to live, we stop caring about what happens once we are gone.

When people have no real adversity or an enduring productive ethos, then, lacking real opposition, they lose the will to fight, doing nothing more with their lives than simply engaging in mischief out of sheer boredom. Can anyone say “BLM riots”, or “Karens”? We could just as easily argue that this explains why Eve ate the forbidden fruit. G-d had promised to kill Adam and Eve if they ate the fruit, but given the static nature of existence in the Garden, death may have seemed like something worth trying out, a new experience! And why not? Eve had no children, so she had no long term reason to care about anything else. Why not do something naughty and see what happens?

G-d responded both by making Eve a mother (giving her reasons to care and plan for the long term), and cursing the earth to ensure Adam had real adversity, making the lack of food a challenge to mankind’s very survival. Up until the 20th century, this usually worked: mankind was insecure about physical existence, and so every society, from primitive pagans to devout Muslims and Christians, battle for survival, using growth as a buffer against death.

But as we have seen in the last century, once religion is dead and nobody is starving, mankind reverts to life in the Garden of Eden: we become generally useless. The truly decadent societies, like the Roman Empire, are the model for 21st Century Europe and America: lacking any real enemies or a meaningful (non-pagan) faith, they turn inward and waste away. People in this situation lose the will to achieve, to triumph, and even to procreate. We have seen this around the world: every developed nation is in negative population growth territory, and most are basically in freefall – from South Korea to Japan to Germany and the United States, women are having far fewer than the 2.1 children it takes to even maintain a population.

Actually, not every developed nation. There is one exceptional outlier: Israel. Israel continues to grow organically, and women are still having many children – about 3 per woman. They do this in part because Israel has many religious people who find meaning and purpose in their lives through their religion, and so do not need adversity or enemies in order to reproduce.

But what is exceptional about Israel is that even the non-religious adults are procreating, and at high rates. The 2.6 rate among less religiously observant Jewish women is still far higher than the rate in any other industrial nation.

I submit that the reason for this is that Israel – and the Jews who live within it – are keenly aware that billions of people on the planet want their country destroyed, and would not shed a tear if every Jew on earth was murdered.

Jewish history is full of precedents: the relatively “free” tribe of Levi in Egypt did not grow compared to the other tribes who were all enslaved. Levi, lacking oppression, did not have the same instinctive need to breed as a defense mechanism. Having children is, after all, not unlike a post-Depression family’s instinctive need to always keep food reserves in the pantry.

Our human response to adversity is to rise to the challenge. Knowing that Jews are being attacked in America today makes me ready, willing and able to defend myself. Similarly, Israeli women under fire from rockets are both ready to fight, and happy to breed.

It logically follows, at least for this devout writer, that Israel’s enemies are actually a gift, and one wrapped and delivered by G-d Himself.

This is because our enemies do, indeed, perversely aid the Jewish people. Every time Jews start living comfortably in their adopted countries, a Haman or a Hitler arises to remind us that if we do not stick together and cleave to our common purpose, then we will perish. For much of recorded human history, Jews were charged, taxed, or banned outright from countries (such as in England, where Jews were banished from 1290 until 1655). Such treatment served to remind all Jews who lived elsewhere that they had something to fight for, as well as someone to fight against.

The more broad historical lessons of these simple conclusions may be fascinating: consider whether people who think they have enemies (such as those who own guns in America) have higher reproductive rates precisely because they are cognizant of the threats to their persons, possessions, and families. I suspect there is something this.

This conclusion might also offer a kernel of hope to conservatives in America: aware that we have no shortage of enemies, in the long run we are more likely to win the war demographically. Conservative women are invested in the long term, and are far more fecund and feisty than committed leftists who, by the time they figure out their genders and pronouns, are well past reproductive age.

Things are not what they seem. For those who lack a productive approach to life, it is our enemies who make our lives worth living, who lead us to strive, to procreate, and to achieve.


Why write the Torah on Mt. Ebal?

The Torah (Dev 27: 4-8) commands that we write every word of the Torah in plastered stone on Mt. Ebal.

Why? And why on this mountain, of all places?

I would suggest that the placement is critical to answering the question: Mt. Ebal is one of the highest peaks in Israel, and it overlooks Shechem. And Shechem is the first place Avram came when he entered the land, and the first place Yaakov came to when he came back into Israel from the East. Shechem is in the valley between two mountains, and the main road to the East comes out of it. In other words, Shechem is a primary gateways to the land.

If someone were to enter the Land of Israel, they would come to Shechem, and be naturally curious about what sort of people live there. The presence of the complete text of the chumash on the mountaintop over the town, in stone, would have provided a complete answer for any interested party.

There is a corollary here. Shechem, in addition to all of its other history with the Jewish people, was also the very first place when someone who was not already a member of the tribe sought to join the Jewish people – Yaakov’s family. As we know, they failed, because both their motives and means were unacceptable.

The Torah on the mountain was complete, including the cautionary tale of Shechem: if someone wanted to become Jewish, there were some pretty clear lines that had to be respected, including respecting Jewish women.

I would add as a footnote that the reason why the Torah was to be plastered was partially because plastered stone would be more visible from a distance. But plaster also weathers away much faster than stone, and needs constant maintenance to remain in good condition. When the Jews carved the Torah in stone, the people would have to remain engaged in Torah on a regular basis just to keep the letters in good condition.


Comparing Houses of Worship

#2 son is taking a class on the connections between architecture and prayer – how, for example, Christians designed churches around relics and rituals, while Muslims basically can use any large room – the focal point is a single wall that directs prayer toward Mecca.

The class has virtually nothing on Jewish holy architecture. There are a range of reasons for this, but one of them is that Jews tend to avoid building enormous houses of worship. This is possibly connected to our inherent distrust of unified authority, and possibly because we tend to be an itinerant people and so it would be a foolish bet to think that we will still be welcome in a given place in 50 or 500 years. The builders of Notre Dame or the other great cathedrals of Europe had no doubt that they were building for their posterity.

But I think there are deeper, and frankly, more interesting explanations than just culture or flight. I think the differences between Jewish and non-Jewish places of worship come down to what we think G-d actually desires.

Think of it this way: a devout Christian may want to build a grand cathedral to reflect the glory of God and the investment that people make into that building forms its own kind of worshipful service. The greater and more beautiful the building, the more a Christian can show investment and deep respect for the Creator.

Muslims desire a unified world, with all prayer focused on Mecca and all of mankind united in obedience. Mosques can be absolutely enormous to achieve that end. And when built in non-Muslim nations, these mosques are also deeply symbolic of surging Islamic power – both in the Middle Ages and today. Which makes sense because throughout history, Muslims were rarely actually the majority – so they had some posturing to do.

(Mosque in Damascus, built when Islam was Making a Statement. Notice how the building dominates the skyline.)

(It is a fact that the Islamic calls to prayer at all hours in Israel are extraordinarily loud, waking sleeping citizens in Jewish towns miles away, while in Saudi Arabia there are strict limitations on the volume of the muezzin. One Israeli Jew, in a fit of pique, once blasted an Arab neighborhood just to illustrate what it felt like.

With only one exception, Judaism is not found in buildings. Jewish orthodox synagogues tend to be rather small, and while they can be elaborate or fancy, the vast majority were not built for eternity. They were not particularly grand. Here is the famous – but quite small – Alt-Neu in Prague:

It was never imposing. It did not even harness the most fundamental element of cathedrals – the use of natural light.

The great Jewish Temple of the ancient world started out very small, because it was portable and designed to be carried on shoulders. The tabernacle in the wilderness was smaller than a modern tennis court:

And the famed gold Menorah, using the Torah’s description, could not be much more than 5’ high, resembling, appropriately, the burning bush. The tabernacle was also built entirely by a volunteer work force using donated materials.

The Torah tells us that the tabernacle was to come to a place in Israel where it would become permanently installed. But it does not tell us that it necessarily was supposed to grow.

When Solomon built the First Temple, he did not rely on volunteer labor and contributions; he deployed slaves. The resulting structure was larger than the tabernacle, and certainly more grand. But it was a piker compared to what came next.

The Second Temple, built after the Babylonian Exile, started small, but grew over centuries (585 years!) into an enormous, multilevel structure with a 35 acre / 144,000 square meter footprint, a showpiece for Herod’s ambitions.

This building was erected using heavy taxes and slave labor. And it had the perverse impact of making the Jews of the period think that there was a reason to become nationalistic, to seek an independent political existence and perhaps even boast an army that could turn back Rome.

In other words, the Jewish temple, having grown far beyond its design parameters, helped inspire the people into a bloody and horrific war that they could not win. A 2000 year exile resulted from this profoundly contaminated worldview.

The temple was always supposed to be small, not only because the tabernacle was small, but because every important element in the temple was within the tabernacle itself, with nothing up-sized from the components that were carried in the desert. And the reason for this is that buildings, in Judaism, are a source of confusion. The first building mentioned in the Torah was the Tower of Babel, a story of man’s arrogance and ambition; it did not end well.

Our forefathers were shepherds, and were thus regularly on the move. They predominantly lived in tents, not permanent houses. Dwellings in the Torah tend to be favored not because of their size or their grandeur, but because of their contents: the home is where the family shelters during Passover; the tents in the wilderness are not about physical structures but are instead all about the marriages contained within their walls.

There is no even a reference in the Torah to a permanent building for a temple – just a permanent place. Referred to numerous times in Deut. 12, the command concerns “a place that G-d will choose.” There is no mention of a building at all!

There are simple reasons for all of this: the G-d of the Jews is found in the “still, small voice,” inside our souls. The tabernacle is there not as the physical embodiment of G-d, but instead as an enabler, a way for each of us to connect, so that G-d can live “in” the Jewish people. The tabernacle was not an imperium: containing not even a single step, everything was on the level of the common man.

Building substantial temples was not only missing the key point: worse than this, it was counterproductive and born of confusion. Jews are not here to dominate any cityscape, or to score political or military victories. We are not great because we build big or beautiful buildings. Our temple should not be grand or imposing or impressive. Instead, it should be formed of the small tabernacle, established on that small hill in Jerusalem.

Our power is not measured in terms of physical clout; Jews are tasked to influence the world, not dominate it. Our places of worship serve no political or imperial ends. We are great only as and when we connect with our Creator, in a personal and intimate way.

When we forget who we are supposed to be, bad things happen.

P.S. There are a whole bunch of old beautiful synagogues in Europe that go by the name “Alt-Neu”, which is usually translated from Yiddish as “Old-New”. (I have led services in the Altneu in Prague, and sang a concert in the one in Krakow.) “Old-New” is a comical mistranslation from secular scholars. There is, by contrast, a Jewish talmudic phrase “Al-Tenai” which means “on condition.” Essentially, the builders of these buildings were keenly aware that the ultimate Jewish home was not in Krakow or Prague, but rather in Jerusalem. So the buildings were built as solid structures, but clearly named “On condition” so as to declare: “For as long as we cannot return to Jerusalem, this is our synagogue.”


How Do You Make Someone Love You?

Can you imagine being deeply in love with someone who does not share your feelings? I think it must be incredibly painful and lonely. If you cannot “move on,” then it becomes something of an obsession.

How could you fix it? How do you make someone love you? And by love, I don’t mean merely inspiring desire or companionship, I mean a deep spiritual and physical hunger, one that is only temporarily ameliorated – never entirely satisfied – even by being together.

Other relationships are more straightforward. If you are superior in some way, then I imagine that occasional reminders are enough to command respect. If you are powerful, it is not hard to inspire fear. Parents can achieve both with their children, but neither is the same thing as love.

I think of fear or awe, especially, as being responses to the visual. In part this is because the Hebrew for fear, “yirah”, shares the same root word as “sight”. When we see things we react to them, even though those things may be superficial – think of a gorgeous person or a terrifying monster. It is a reaction that does not require much (if any) thought. Every child can be afraid; it is an instinctive response.

Consider it this way: you can admire a picture or a vision or a person without any other interaction: just as watching television requires no feedback to the actors or producers of a show, so, too, we can be afraid of drought or an earthquake without any acknowledgement or requirement that the rain or earth are conscious of our fear.

By contrast, love requires a combination of factors, from respect to empathy to understanding. It requires interaction, not merely admiration from afar. Interaction between intellectual and spiritual beings is tied to thought – and we think about the things that we hear. Love is a thoughtful interactive thing, and so it is intrinsically tied to the idea of “hearing.”

The Hebrew for this is “shma” and it has no direct English equivalent. “Shma” in Hebrew really means to listen, to think about, to internalize, to chew over. Shma does not suggest obedience, but the acknowledgement that information has been received and will be considered. When we listen to someone we love, we may not agree, but we are engaged and thinking about what they have to say – and vice-versa.

The problem is that it is easier to scare someone than it is to make them think. In other words, if one is powerful, inspiring fear is easy. But inspiring love is much, much more difficult. All the things that a person does to show love to someone else, the thoughtful gestures, the gentle words, the small acts of consideration… these only reach the object of our desire if they are listening.

I think this is a key problem not only between people, but between G-d and man. The Torah is full of G-d’s desire for us to love Him, and providing the symbols and systems in the commandments through which that love can be nurtured and grown. But when we forget G-d’s presence, whether because of idleness or selfishness or simple risk aversion, then we no longer notice all the ways in which we are blessed and through which G-d is calling out to us for a relationship, and for conversation.

G-d’s problem is that the tools to inspire love in mankind are, as we have said, quite limited. Making someone love you is not trivial. But making someone fear you, if you are G-d, is easy enough. So the Torah is full of threats of consequences and punishments for when the Jewish people forget to fear G-d.

Can you imagine trying to make someone love you by threatening them, and punishing them? By making them suffer? It is, to put it mildly, a terrible way to show that you care.

And yet: what else works? What maintains some tenuous connection between man and our creator?

G-d has tried everything. Death. Suffering. Destruction. He has used people who hate Jews as tools to remind Jews of our connection and relationship (the entire Book of Esther is about this). Anti-semitism across the ages is, to me, nothing more than a divine reminder to the Jewish people of what happens when we are not engaging with G-d, loving him in hearing and thinking and speech, as well as through our deeds. Anti-semites are mere symptoms of the underlying disease: that we are not fully engaged in growing our relationship with G-d in love.

Holocausts are a terrible solution to this problem. But perhaps we gave G-d no other choice?

G-d appears to be stuck on the same question that I ask in the title: How can He make us LOVE him? How can he make us not only see and do, but also listen and think? G-d does not want automatons or servants; He wants mankind to be His partner. And that requires love.

How do you make someone love you?



How to Handle Foreign Sexual Influences

When the Jews were leaving the wilderness, there was the very unpleasant episode with the daughters of Midian. It was, at its core, a twinned assault of idolatry and adultery; the sexuality of the foreign women led Jewish men astray in their relationships with both their wives and with G-d .

What is unnoticed is how an infiltration of foreign influences was possible in the first place. After all, theoretically, the Jews were susceptible the entire time they were in the wilderness, but no such “attack” on the morals of the nation occurred in all that time.

The obvious answer is that, as the Midrash tells us, the clouds of glory accompanied the Jewish people in the wilderness, and protected them on all sides. They were a literal buffer for the nation, keeping us safely insulated from outside influences, able to mature and grow in a virtual bubble.

But when Aharon died, shortly before the events of the daughters of Midian occurred, the clouds of glory disappeared just as the Jews were entering more populated areas. The transition had begun; the Jews were going from being a protected nation to being a nation that had to learn how to interact with the rest of the world. The daughters of Midian were the first test, and one that the nation, save for Pinchas’ quick action, failed.

But note how G-d reacts. He does NOT tell the Jewish people to erect their own version of the clouds of glory, to find new ways to buffer and insulate ourselves from the outside world. Instead, he tells the Jewish people to go to war against Midian, and destroy them, men, women, and male children. Yet the virgins and chattels are kept and used.

There is a profound lesson in this, applicable to our lives today. We, too, are beset with foreign influences, and certainly by almost-unlimited sexual temptations from the outside world. It is directly analogous to the situation with Midian. But if we are to learn the lessons of the Torah, the answer is to engage with the enemy, to counter the negative elements that they bring. Nonetheless, in the end, as with the Midianite girls and chattel, we are safe to assimilate those items that we can harness to our purposes, both sacred and mundane.


How to Mess Up Your Child

Just tell them that they are not enough for you. Better yet: put it in their name, so they can never forget just how inadequate they really are. After all, if you are not good enough for your mother, then how can you be good enough for anyone else?

And she [Rachel] called his name Joseph, saying: ‘May the LORD add to me another son.’ (Gen. 30:24)

Is it any wonder that Joseph is an insecure child?


How Can G-d Murder?

Atheists, Humanists, and even the occasional Christian read the Torah and asks whether a deity who destroys the world in a flood and incinerates Sodom and Gomorrah is a G-d who values life for its own sake? In other words: why should we serve or worship a deity who commits mass murder?

Good questions!

To answer them, I’d like to show how the Torah uses a single key word to explain G-d’s point of view. The way the word is used helps us understand both how the text explains mass killings and what G-d expects from every peoples on earth.

The word the Torah uses for mass murder is mashchiss [for clarity I will use this word as the common expression even when the text uses a different form of the same root word]. Mashchiss is used to describe killing off an entire people, generations of people, a form of genocide.

In the Torah the word mashchiss almost always a descriptor for a society; it is only used to describe one individual: Onan. (Gen. 38:9-10) Onan spilled his seed into the earth instead of into Tamar, and in so doing, he denied the world his own descendants, those of Tamar, and his deceased brother.

But Onan, knowing that the seed would not count as his, mashchiss the earth whenever he joined with his brother’s wife, so as not to provide offspring for his brother.

Indeed, if the earth is supposed to be elevated through the acts of mankind, Onan’s act denigrated not only himself and Tamar, but also the earth itself.

Onan’s example is straightforward. The crucial next step is to understand that the Torah’s use of language is itself a way to link stories together. In other words, when we consider the different places where the Torah uses the word mashchiss, we’ll have comparable examples to the sin of Onan.

When are those times? The first and most prominent is the flood itself, when G-d maschiss the world. But mashchiss did not originate with G-d. It was, instead, a human innovation! The flood, which is an act of mashchiss by G-d, was in reaction to mankind first doing the same thing to the earth and all living flesh. Gen 6:11:

The earth became mashchiss before G-d; the earth was filled with lawlessness.

Note the use not only of the word mashchiss but also of the word for “earth.” The Torah tells us that what mankind does affects the world around us – not just in an environmental way, but also in a moral or spiritual way (which is why the Torah later promises that if man behaves immorally, the land will spit us out.) This is very clear with the flood story: if mankind is corrupting the earth with our violence and selfishness, instead of elevating it through holiness, then we have forfeited our right to life. It happened to Onan, and it happened to the flood generation.

It also happens, in the Torah, to Sodom and Gomorah. Those cities were not merely populated with evil people; they had institutionalized the practice of evil. As we see by Sodom’s response to Lot having guests, it was illegal to host guests, to be kind to others. It also seems to have been a place without true private property, with no legal right to close your door and be left in peace by your neighbors. Then, too, we have a widespread understanding that Sodom practiced sodomy, which agrees with the common use of mashchiss for Onan, a man who wasted his seed.

Sodom could – and was – destroyed not just because it was evil, but because it made evil a requirement. The city made it legally impossible to be good. That made Sodom irredeemable in G-d’s eyes.

Which starts to make some sense. . To G-d, life does not have intrinsic value; it only has value if people use it for good. In the long run, all the living will be dead, sooner or later. What matters is what we do with the opportunities we have. But if we are going to prevent human progress and waste opportunity to improve as individuals and as collectives, then in G-d’s eyes (as described in the Torah) we have forfeited our right to live.

The raw moral lesson is hard to handle in today’s hedonistic environment where the common culture is fixated on sexual self-discovery and realization. As much as we want to think that we have totally free choice to waste ourselves and our lives on drugs or selfish relationships or wasted time, the Torah is telling us that G-d does not, to put it mildly, approve. There comes a reckoning at some point after we no longer try to grow ourselves and our societies.

Mashchiss is a tool in G-d’s hands, a reactive tool that can be deployed when mankind commits evil. Mankind and nature corrupt the earth, and G-d wipes the world out in a global rinse cycle, the Flood. Onan performs mashchiss and he forfeits his life for it. The Sodomites practice it as well, and receive the same consequence.

The next incidence of the word is found describing the runup to the Exodus from Egypt. The Egyptians had mandated drowning Jewish newborn babies. G-d’s response is to mashchiss the firstborn of the Egyptians. Measure for measure, like for like, G-d retaliates only in response to mankind’s evil choices.

How do we avoid mashchiss? It is not merely by not sinning; there are positive acts that spare us:

And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you: when I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will mashchiss you when I strike the land of Egypt.

The word appears again in the same sequence!

For when the LORD goes through to smite the Egyptians, He will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and the LORD will pass over the door and not let the [mashchiss actor] enter and smite your home. (Translations suggest that this “mashchiss actor” is the Angel of Death, though if we see how the word is used earlier in the Torah, it is clear that while mashchiss is a destructive force, it is neither reserved for G-d, nor unique to this example.)

Got it. Blood on the doorpost. But exactly how does the blood protect us?

The answer is found by seeing that the marked doorposts represent the very opposite of mashchiss – if mankind’s mission is to elevate the earth (using grass for the vegetable kingdom dipped in the blood of the animal kingdom, and elevated upward to become part of the houses and homes that mankind has created), then it is symbolically contradistinct from the practices of the Egyptians. Mankind should choose to use our creative powers for good and not evil, for productive and constructive ends instead of wasted seed and rapacious violence. In other words, we counter mashchiss by engaging in precisely the opposite!

The Torah recognizes that every death affects potential future generations. Mashchiss is closely tied to procreative powers, from the implied sexual immorality of the flood generation and Sodom to the explicit sexual wrongdoing of Onan. Sexual creation is the single most potent biological power mankind has, and choosing to use it for evil denies that we have a productive purpose on this earth. Annihilating the future, as Onan did to his brother’s memory, and the Egyptians did to the Jewish people, means that we have made it impossible for society to improve.

The calling card for the Jewish people is to elevate the world and combine it with our own creative powers (the house and the family within its walls). Which beautifully connects to Onan (who had done the opposite by using biology to break a house), and also connects to the Sodomites who had acted in opposition to growing the world, who had sought to break down Lot’s door (Gen. 19:9). The door and the house are both symbols of building, and family and the modesty within a household. The symbolism of marking the door also counters the violence, rape, and the inability (or refusal!) to hear G-d’s voice characterized by the generation of the flood.

The Torah does not stop here! The central idea of mashchiss in Exodus is most commonly found connected to the golden calf, and the powerful animalistic and sexual symbolism of worshipping that idol:

The LORD spoke to Moses, “Hurry down, for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted [with mashchiss]. (Ex 32:7)

By worshipping the Golden Calf, we as a people started to regress, to lower ourselves to nature, rather than elevating it. The people had left the ultimate pagan society, Egypt, just a few weeks before. So choosing to worship the calf, and its natural sexual vitality, shows that the Jews had missed the central lesson of the Exodus and the revelation at Sinai.

As Moshe summarizes it later:

And the LORD said to me, ‘Hurry, go down from here at once, for the people whom you brought out of Egypt have acted [with mashchiss]; they have been quick to stray from the path that I enjoined upon them; they have made themselves a molten image.’ (Deut. 9:12)

To which Moshe replies, trying to break the proverbial cycle of violence (or mashchiss):

I prayed to the LORD and said, “O Lord God, do not mashchiss Your very own people, whom You redeemed in Your majesty and whom You freed from Egypt with a mighty hand. (Deut. 9:26)

I had stayed on the mountain, as I did the first time, forty days and forty nights; and the LORD heeded me once again: the LORD agreed not to mashchiss you. (Deut. 10:10)

For the LORD your God is a compassionate God: He will not fail you nor will He mashchiss you; He will not forget the covenant which He made on oath with your fathers. (Deut. 4:31)

The sexual connections for mashchiss are also found later in the Torah:

You shall not offer to the LORD anything [with its testes] bruised or crushed or torn or cut. You shall have no such practices in your own land, nor shall you accept such [animals] from a foreigner for offering as food for your God, for they are mashchiss, they have a defect; they shall not be accepted in your favor. (Lev. 22:24-25)

Once again, the Torah makes the connection between mere destruction and the potential for intergenerational loss – the testes of the animal.

The last references in the Torah to this word deal with another way of worshipping nature – creating an idol. The Torah tells us not to make an idol (as we had with the Golden Calf):

For your own sake, therefore, be most careful—since you saw no shape when the LORD your God spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire — not to act mashchiss and make for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness whatever. (Deut. 4:15-16)


When you have begotten children and children’s children and are long established in the land, should you act [with mashchiss] and make for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness, doing evil in the eyes of the Lord your G-d and arousing Him to anger. (Deut. 4:25)

It is an echo of the golden calf as well as the flood generation, and the quid pro quo nature of the commandments remains. Destruction comes to us when and if we make destructive choices, especially choices connected with intergenerational repercussions and corruption of the land.

Ultimately, the use of the word maschiss throughout the Torah is a constant reminder to us that G-d calls us to elevate ourselves and everything around us. When we do not live our lives in this way, there are serious consequences from G-d.

Notes: Other Incidences of mashchiss with explanation:

When a man strikes the eye of his slave, male or female, and mashchiss it, he shall let him go free on account of his eye. (Ex. 21:26)

The act makes it impossible to heal, to recreate. It has to be an enduring wound.

When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not mashchiss its trees, wielding the ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are trees of the field human to withdraw before you into the besieged city? (Deut. 20:19)

There is an environmental component to this destruction, but also a generational one. The commandment is not about grass, but about trees: it is the things that take time to grow and nurture that matter, that should not be carelessly destroyed. Mashchiss is about attacking intergenerational growth of all kinds. The Torah wants us to recognize the intrinsic value of the things that take time to build.

Only trees that you know do not yield food may be mashchiss; you may cut them down for constructing siegeworks against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced. (Deut. 20:20)

In this example, mashchiss is not absolutely, categorically forbidden. When it serves a positive purpose (such as winning a war), we can do it. Just as G-d used it as a tool to destroy His enemies among mankind. Indeed, the specific example is interesting: we can mashchiss a tree when we use the wood to build something.

Near the end of Moshe’s life, the word comes up again, echoing the story of the flood and the golden calf:

For I know that, when I am dead, you will mashchiss and turn away from the path that I enjoined upon you, and that in time to come misfortune will befall you for having done evil in the sight of the LORD and vexed Him by your deeds. (Deut. 31:29)

And the very last use in the Torah of the word, Deut. 32:5, tells us what happens ultimately when we practice mashchiss.

They mashchiss Him and are not His children: blemished, they are a warped and crooked generation.

This is the most radical of all: the text seems to telling us that our mashchiss, which initially (before the flood) filled the earth and all living flesh, can in extremis, even damage G-d Himself!

This is the power that G-d has bestowed upon mankind. We can elevate ourselves, the earth, each other, and even G-d. Or we can do precisely the opposite. This is our choice and our responsibility.

Of course, choices have consequences.

[another @iwe and @susanquinn production]


How to deal with “HOW!?!?!”

On the 9th of the 5th month of the Jewish calendar, we remember and mourn the losses and disasters and calamities that have defined Jewish history since we were wandering in the desert. The key word we hammer home as we read Lamentations is the first word, “Eichah”. Translated by some as “Alas,” or “Woe,” a more literal translation is a question: “How?!”

We ask “Eichah” when we question how the holy temples were destroyed, how the Spanish Inquisition occurred, how could G-d have allowed 6 million Jews to be annihilated in the Holocaust… how we are supposed to process death and loss and deep, abiding misery.

How, indeed?

The word “Eichah” has a deep history in Judaism. The first time it is found, G-d is looking for Adam after man and woman ate the fruit. G-d asks a one word question: “Eichah?” We translate it in this case as, “Where are you?”.

G-d asks Adam this question to give Adam the opportunity to explain himself, to own up, perhaps, or even to make a positive argument for why man and woman should have eaten the fruit. There is a chance here for a conversation, for perhaps even a mutual understanding to emerge. (Otherwise G-d would simply have dealt out punishment and moved on.)

But Adam chooses a different path. He evades. He blames Eve and G-d Himself for having provided temptation. Adam verbally dodges and weaves, proving that counter to popular myth, it is the practice of law and politics that is the oldest profession on earth.

G-d is, to put it mildly, not amused. Consequences ensue. But the end of that story and the consequences that Adam and Eve suffer is not merely (or even necessarily) because Adam and Eve ate the fruit. It is clear that the consequences are tied to an unwillingness to take responsibility, to make a proactive and positive case for a new relationship between G-d and man. Adam dissembles, and mankind has been dealing with the fallout ever since.

So we learn from their experience how NOT to respond to “Eichah.”

Here we are, remembering millenia of losses and death and tragedy, and we are once asking the question: Eichah?

The normal instinct, especially if we subscribe to the idea that we are but pawns that lack free will and initiative, is that we are supposed to wallow in misery and fear and despair. We have it so deeply ingrained that because this date is the worst in the Jewish calendar, that it is tempting to extrapolate, to somehow decide that wallowing is the only option open to us. It is safer to feel sorry for ourselves than to be roused to action.

But the Torah offers us another choice. The part of the Torah that is always read before the 9th is the beginning of Deuteronomy. And it includes Moshe asking a question of G-d and himself:

How [Eichah] can I myself alone bear your cumbrance, and your burden, and your strife? (Deut: 1:12)

The very next verses contains a practical answer:

 Choose wise, understanding, and knowledgeable men from among your tribes, and I will make them [aheads over you.’ And you [the people] answered me and said, ‘The thing which you have told us to do is good.’ (1:13-14)

What a contrast from Adam! Moshe has hit a roadblock, and he is stuck. He asks, “Eichah?” – and then he answers it with a practical solution (suggested to him by his father-in-law) which he then implements with great success.

I suggest that this year – and every year – when we sit on the ground, afflicting our souls, unwashed and mourning the calamities through the ages, and we cry out “Eichah!” we choose not to follow Adam’s example of claiming victimhood in the face of external pressures.

Instead, we should be following Moshe’s example. He did not wallow or abandon his post. He did not blame G-d or his wife. Instead he made a plan and executed it.

When we have problems, G-d does not want us to mourn and feel sorry for ourselves, or to blame other people or even ourselves. Instead, G-d wants us to do what Moshe did but what Adam patently failed to do: own up, square our shoulders, and march forward.

We are here not to wallow in self-pity, but to build and grow in every way we can.


Why Hyssop and Blood?

The Angel of Death is coming to town. How do you let him know that you are one of the good guys?

In the case of the Jewish people on that last fateful night in Egypt, this was not accomplished by waving a flag, or by saying tehillim. Instead Moses instructs the Jewish people to do a very specific act:

…kill the Passover lamb. And you shall take a bunch of hyssop, and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and strike the lintel and the two side posts with the blood that is in the basin; and none of you shall go out from the door of his house until the morning.   For the Lord will pass through to strike the Egyptians; and when he sees the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side posts, the Lord will pass over the door, and will not let the destroyer come into your houses to strike you. Ex 12:21-23

What does this mitzvah have to do with anything? How are the combination of hyssop, blood, and doorposts the symbol of the Jewish people?

The answer is that this particular commandment embodies our very essence!

Remember that the overarching mission of the Jewish people is to take elements from the physical world, those things made by G-d, and to elevate them to the spiritual plane. So in taking hyssop (which is a low grass), and dipping it in blood which is then smeared on the doorpost, the Jews were literally combining a living item from the plant world, and one from the animal kingdom, and then moving them up, to the doorpost and lintel. We elevated G-d’s creations to the spiritual plane – the height of the human head, where our soul resides.

The symbolism of the doorpost helps us understand this commandment even further. G-d respects the creations of mankind. In all of the plagues of Egypt, in none of them are the buildings harmed. G-d seems to show an inherent deference to human ingenuity and creativity, the things that we build. And human creation is not meant to stand alone: as this mitzvah tells us, we are supposed to elevate G-d’s creations by combining them with our own. We are meant to use technology as the vehicle for the elevated physical materials.

And of course a doorpost also represents the home, the relationship between husband and wife that mirrors our personal and national relationship with G-d. When we choose to protect our homes by publicly identifying as the people who know their role in this world, then we have identified ourselves as G-d’s people.

The commandment of using the hyssop and blood was only in force that one evening, but it is connected to the commandment of the mezuzah – the scroll containing the words of the shema that are also supposed to go on the doorpost. The scroll of the mezuzah is made of animal parchment, combined with vegetable ink – and then placed on our doorposts. The mezuzah is an exact parallel of that first doorpost commandment, reminding us and Hashem that we understand our purpose on this world, and are reminded of it every time we come and go.


“I have too much money” – No Jew, Ever.

Actually, as @susanquinn corrected me, nobody ever decides they have too much money. But this outspoken, red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalist thinks that maybe they should. Not because the idea occurred to me, but because the Torah seems to suggest it.

From Egypt, Abram went up into the Negeb, with his wife and all that he possessed, together with Lot. Now Abram was very rich in cattle, silver, and gold. …Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support them staying together; for their possessions were so great that they could not remain together. And there was quarreling between the herdsmen of Abram’s cattle and those of Lot’s cattle. … Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land before you? Let us separate: if you go north, I will go south; and if you go south, I will go north. (Gen. 13:6-9)

We know how well that worked out. Lot first has to be saved by Avraham, and then Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed. Lot ends up committing incest with his daughters, and his name becomes associated with ignominious failure.

Here’s the question: why didn’t Avraham think to solve the problem of limited land by reducing his assets? After all, if there were fewer cattle to graze, resources would not have been strained to the point of disputes within the family.

It seems to me that our forefather put his material wealth ahead of the relationship with his nephew. Had they stayed together, it could have led to a great future for the descendants of both, instead of the catastrophe for Lot that it became.

It does not appear that such a solution was considered by either Avraham or Lot. But the Torah seems to be leading us to ask “why not?”

Ideas are welcome!


Praise Discretion!

“If women could read men’s minds, they would run screaming from the room.”

We all have secret desires and fantasies, but we also have the ability to keep them to ourselves. For as long as there has been human speech, we have recognized that a filter between what we think and what we do or say is essential to the functioning of a civilized society. We do not indulge in every impulse that crosses our minds.

Today’s world, of course, is entirely at odds with this. Every special pronoun is an exercise in not only displaying a person’s sexual desires, but also forcing everyone else to recognize them, and applaud the deviant for their own special interests. We went from “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, to “You WILL recognize and use my pronouns!” Somehow that which is supposed to be private is now unavoidably, endlessly, in your face, and in the public sphere.

That private/public divide is not a new issue. The prophet Balaam praises the Jewish people: “How Goodly Are Your Tents” – the walls that surround a family, that provide privacy and discretion, separating the nuclear unit from society at large. The walls of these tents are what make the Jewish people special. They in turn form the bricks that combine to make a good society.

When Balaam advises his client to send in their women to seduce Jewish men and lead them astray, he was demonstrating that adultery that breaches marriage constitutes idolatry against G-d. But he was also doing much more than that.

In this case, a specific sinning couple decided to engage in the sex act in few of the entire camp, in a fully public display. It was the very antithesis of the “Goodly Tents.” That fornicating couple moved what belongs in the privacy of an intimate relationship, behind the walls of a tent, and they brought it out as a public display.

The achilles heel of the Jewish people is the same thing as that which makes us strong: the exclusive marriage within a tent comprises the essential building block for the national relationship with G-d. If we eliminate the exclusivity of the marriage (by engaging in adultery/idolatry) and eliminate the tent altogether by bringing what is meant to be reserved for intimacy into the public square, then G-d realizes that man is irredeemable, and our society utterly fails.

When we are forced to embrace the pride someone has in their sexual choices, it feels to me as if every bathroom door has been removed, and we are being forced to stand there and cheer people on as they vacate their bowels.

Please, please do not tell me your sexual orientation. I really do not want to know. And whatever you do, do not try to force to me applaud you for the choices you make that are meant to be, and remain, private.

[another @iwe and @susanquinn production]


Human Defense Mechanisms

We are afraid.

We are afraid of change, and so we are afraid of change itself. We fear having too many choices, or too few. We are afraid of the dark. We are afraid of what we do not know – which is, once you think about it, quite a lot!

Countless psychological studies have shown that people fear risk much more than they value reward. Wallowing in misery is so much more predictable, safe than taking risks that could lead to wildly different and unpredictable outcomes. This is why engineers manage risk but not reward. Irrational fear explains why a key metric for stocks is their volatility: people fear volatility, even though a volatile stock merely swings around more but often does, on average, produce higher returns.

We even fear success and happiness and good times, instinctively hiding behind superstition (like voiding the evil eye) so as to not appear to be doing well.

So how does mankind deal with this fear? In a lot of ways, most of which defy reason.

Take, for example, the Rain Dance.

It sounds stupid, right? The weather has been dry. You need rain. So you do this big dance to ask some deity in the sky to make it rain. There is lots of preparation and energy expended. You show your commitment by really getting into it. You might sacrifice a goat or even a child. It is a big investment.

What happens?

It rains. Of course it does. Because sooner or later, any inhabited place gets some rain. It is churlish to even ask whether the rain dance was the cause: how can you prove that it was not the cause?!

Today, of course, we live in Modern Times. We don’t have rain dances, that is silly stone-age paganism, the quaint practice of ignorant savages. Nor do we make offerings to the Forces of Nature like those Indians did. It is not as if we inconvenience ourselves every day by, say, taking time to sort out our garbage to show our obsequious devotion to some pagan life force deity like The Environment.

Oh, wait.

Lest you think I am just picking on ordinary citizens who worship at the altar of Sustainability, blind and deaf to whether or not rinsing out a tuna fish can will make any actual difference to whether the Rain Gods will strike us all with Climate Change, let me assure you that I am committed to being an Equal Opportunity Critic.

My own co-religionists have their own version of the Rain Dance: I call it Rain Dance Judaism. It comes from the belief that what G-d really wants, more than anything, is blind and unthinking and slavish attention to every possible tittle and jot of every law, custom and stringency in our entire, millennia-old, databank of laws, customs, and stringencies. And that, if we do it just right, then G-d will, in His way, Make It Rain. If, somehow, we are not blessed in return, then we obviously have failed by error or omission. We must redouble our efforts!

Why? Because we fear the unknown. We fear the realization that G-d is not there to be bribed; that he does not want sacrifices or rain dances or even blessings for His own sake: he wants us to internalize them, to improve and change ourselves and the world around us. He wants us to embrace life and living, complete with all its unknowns and fears, to reject the cocooning belief that if we slavishly go through the motions just so that All Will Be Well.

I don’t have to pick on Judaism, of course. There is an element of the Rain Dance in most people, found whenever rituals become ends in themselves, instead of means to a higher and holier end.

In the greater culture, I see a wide range of similar Rain Dance defense mechanisms against the unknown, against risks and good times, against being happy. These defense mechanisms are ways to seemingly insulate ourselves from risks, by somehow pre-emptively choosing to limit ourselves and suffer instead of having fear thrust upon us. And we somehow always acquiesce to the madness of these devotees, even – especially – when we are the afflicted.

I think this is a deep, instinctive human instinct in response to uncertainty. I think these fears are at the root of all kinds of good things, like marriage and family and community, and faith.

But the response to uncertainty is also the driving force behind a lot of bad things, too, like political and regional and dress tribalism as well as a range of self-limiting behaviors from crazy diets to faddish alternative medicines to all the aforementioned irrational nature-worshipping paganism that is now almost taken for granted in American society.

Our desire to be insulated from the Unknown throws up all kinds of defense mechanisms. People instinctively reject outsiders in a wide variety of ways, from labelling to openly dehumanizing The Other. Racism and Xenophobia and Anti-Semitism all keep coming back, attracted by enormous forces within the human psyche.

We are seeing it in today’s incredibly polarized political debate, where friends and families have been torn asunder merely because one person supports or rejects Trump and cannot handle anyone who has a different position. That, too, is a defense mechanism born from fear.

People love to revert to instinct. Associating with the herd provides safety. Anyone who disagrees with the herd deserves being righteously trampled by that same herd, protecting its own. Facebook’s witch hunts are reminiscent of villagers with pitchforks, the mindless mob seeking to crush the outsider (there is a reason the Torah tells us so many times to love the stranger).

There are all kinds of herds: they may have different beliefs, but the ways in which they defend themselves are invariably the same. Blacks or whites or Muslims may defend their own. But so do atheists, who reject faith out of hand, blind to their own irrational faith in Reason. The color of the spots may be different, but the instinctive and reflexive defense mechanisms against outsiders and their ideas are no different.

Religious people have their own defense mechanisms: we use faith not merely as a spur to personal growth, but we also use it as a defense against the things they cannot explain. In this form of pushing away our fears, everything that is not explainable becomes rolled into the “We Are Not Meant to Know” category, practiced by the devout. And that, too, is a way to find solace in the face of uncertainty.

It sounds very nice and pious: “God has a plan.” But if we don’t know what that plan is, then why does invoking the mantra somehow serve as an excuse for inaction? After all, who is to say that we are not meant to be actors or counteractors in that very same plan?! And yet, “God has a plan” invariably is like waiting for Superman or the Messiah to come in and save the day, while we applaud from the bleachers instead of taking the field.

“We cannot know” is itself a form of a Rain Dance: we express our devotion and faith (but no actual useful action), and leave the rest up to external forces. We have done our part by expressing our faith – our faith not truly rooted in G-d’s omniscience, but instead a deep and unshakeable faith in our surety that we are ignorant and helpless. In other words, this mantra is a drug that inspires nothing more than passivity.

A key challenge in building relationships with other people or with our Creator is that we have to step outside our comfort zone, we have to be willing to endure the fear of the unknown, accept that while we may not know the outcome, we are not free to simply stand aside and wait for someone else to do something. In other words, caring about other people requires us to accept risk. We must rise above our insulated thinking and actions, just as we must be willing to fight the instinctive tribalism in our hearts that tells us to reject other people because they are different than we are.

But it is more than this: deciding that We Cannot Know is actually an excuse to stop thinking. When we hide behind blind faith and belief in The Divine Plan, then we use it as an excuse to not think about the hard questions, the challenging and frightening questions that open doors into the dark.

If We Cannot Know, then there is no point in asking the question, and all potential answers are never more than empty speculation. Such thinking leads to theological sloth and then slumber.

I am not opposed to ritual – not at all. I follow the commandments, and I try to be a strictly observant Jew. But I do it knowing that the purpose of the Laws of the Torah and Moses are really to provide the STRUCTURE that allows us grow. To the extent that the routine and ritual and structure helps us grow, then we are freed up to do beautiful and creative things. But when those rituals become their own purpose, then we have entered Rain Dance territory.

Praying in the morning kicks off my day, and everything works better with the rituals that I engage in throughout my working and Sabbath days. The ongoing rituals frame and allow for freedom and creativity everywhere else. BUT when those commandments become an obsession in themselves, then they can go too far, and suck out our lives rather than nurturing them.

So we can believe that G-d Has a Plan. And that belief is not necessarily bad in itself, as long as it does not become an excuse for becoming a spectator instead of G-d’s own agent in this world. As an agent, I can consider myself part of G-d’s plan. But as a spectator, I have made myself irrelevant and useless to our creator.

The Torah describes early mankind as being either evil or merely directionless. The world was not improving. And while there were occasionally righteous people, they had a very limited impact on the world around them.

Maybe G-d gave us the Torah after He realized that we do not function without the skeleton of commandments, within which we can be productive and creative. So that would mean that early man, lacking those rituals and structures, were aimless and wasted – which is exactly what the Flood Generation was, as well as Avraham’s contemporaries.

This may be why G-d went through the trouble of giving us the Torah, of giving us commandments. We need ritual, we need those structures that allow us to learn how to deal with the fear of the unknown. We need commandments that remind us of the importance of loving each other and seeking a relationship with G-d – and the rituals that help keep us on track, with our eyes on the ball.

There can be no argument with the historical accomplishment of the Torah: it is the single most foundational text for all of Western Civilization. But I do not think its work is done even these thousands of years later, because we keep instinctively seeking to avoid fear and uncertainty and risk, seeking refuge in rain dance ritual observance or groupthink that shields us from engaging emotionally and spiritually and intellectually.


Forbidden Relations

The Torah has a long and detailed list of forbidden relations – incest, homosexuality, and the like. Once upon a time, it was easy to explain these – after all, we have a strong sense of the taboo, of what “feels” appropriate.

But in recent years, of course, society has worked very hard to break down these barriers, these old-fashioned notions of limiting the 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?”

There is no “logical” way to 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, as much as it may curdle our stomachs: there is, indeed, no victim of 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?

The word “Torah” as used in the text itself, means a “recipe.” The Torah is the roadmap, the recipe, for holiness, for a relationship between G-d and man.  

The problem with a relationship between G-d and man is that it is hard. It is difficult to be close to Hashem because we are so different than He is. Being married to G-d requires constant off-balance change, neverending nudges, encouragement and disappointment. 

And this explains the reason for the forbidden relations in the Torah. Those relationships are not inappropriate because of taboo. 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.

Marriage is meant to be the model for a relationship with G-d. 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 be married to G-d!

But if we marry someone who is too similar, with whom we have too much in common, then we are not challenged enough. 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.


In Defense of Subjective Reality

Mrs. iWe lives in a much more colorful world than I do. She sees thousands of shades of every color, filled with rich chromatic consonance and dissonance – whereas I, as a normal male with normal eyeballs, am clearly impoverished by comparison. I would go so far as to say that our relative color sensitivity gives her life meaning (such as through her museum-quality quilts) that I can only understand by feeling the joy that quilting brings her.

Pick any two people, and you will find different realities. Twins raised in the same home can have wildly divergent ideas about the nature of their home or their parents’ marriage. 2+2 might equal 4 in arithmetic, but humans are rationalizing animals, and we have no problem making all of our perceptions match what we have decided is our own reality.

I think this is not a bug – it is one of life’s features. And it is one that is divinely approved! The Torah tells us what happened in Egypt and the wilderness – and then the final book, Deuteronomy, is Moshe’s summation of those events. His summation is not merely Cliff’s Notes, and his words do not, in all cases, leave the reader with an identical impression about what happened.  

The lesson is simple enough: G-d approves of different versions of reality. The Jewish people heard things one way at Sinai – and then, years later, they heard a different version from Moshe’s perspective. Both are interesting and useful and valid (think of different aspects of the same elephant).

As you may know, I consider the idea of an Objective Reality to be part of Plato’s religious faith, since it is impervious to empirical data: it cannot be proven or disproven.  

The Torah endorses, by contrast, each person’s own thoughts and perceptions and sense of what is “real.”   To the extent that two or more people agree, then shared perceptions are useful. But the fact that different people have different perceptions is a celebration that each person has value, and, to at least some extent, is capable of creating, in their minds, their own reality.


Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!

In Shakespeare’s Othello, the poison of suspicion eats steadily away at Othello’s soul, making him mad. The problem is not infidelity, per sé, but the not knowing. It makes a person crazy when they are standing on shifting ground, when it is impossible to simply agree on the facts and move on.

This kind of limbo state is poisonous, as it consumes all of our thoughts over time, locking us into a state of indecision. It is that little voice of doubt, gnawing away at us.

Jews are quite familiar with it. Our sages refer to living in the Diaspora, in these times without the Temple, as Galus Hamarah Hazos, “This bitter exile.” The bitterness is not because we are not in our land; it is the bitterness of those nagging doubts: in the post-Temple era, G-d’s involvement in our lives has always been plausibly deniable, at least one some level. And while that doubt may not afflict all of us, Jewish history and the Torah makes it clear that the doubt has certainly afflicted a great many Jews through the ages.

Rivkah and Esau are described as being marah when Esau marries a local girl instead of one from the family. What does the intermarriage mean? Will it block Esau’s ability to have a complete relationship with G-d? The uncertainty eats at them, and it leads to the deception of Yitzchak by Rivka and Yaakov.

Bitterness builds on itself. Esau in turns expresses his bitterness when Yaakov’s deception is discovered. “ [Esau] cried with an exceeding great and bitter cry, and said unto his father: Bless me, even me also, O my father.’” (Gen. 27:34) Esau is bitter because the one relationship that he was certain of, the one with his father, is now in doubt. How much damage had Yaakov done? As it happens, more than enough, as Esau is not subsequently given the Avrahamic blessing.

It was this same doubt that caused Mordechai in Megillas Esther to cry out for the Jewish people. Haman had just sealed the deal to kill all the Jews, and Mordechai “went out in the midst of the city and cried loudly and bitterly.” (Esther 4:1)

Esther is the first story in Jewish history in which G-d is found in this world as He is today – cloaked, and hiding His face. And it is the very same problem that we face today: how absolutely certain are we that G-d is there, that G-d has been faithful to us even though we have often faltered in our reciprocal service? Do we even deserve His love?

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 the 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.

Bitter waters also afflict the Jewish people as a nation when they leave Egypt. They came to a place where the water was bitter, and, the Torah tells us, G-d “tested” the nation. (Ex. 15:25) What was the test? I think it is a test of the fidelity of the Jewish people, ourselves. We had been in Egypt for hundreds of years. Had we, in fact, remained true? Had we “cheated” on G-d? The answer is found after Moshe throws a tree into the waters, which became sweet.

The symbolism of the tree is, of course, connected to the first tree: the tree of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil. In other words, the clarity is found through knowledge, through understanding the difference between good and bad, the difference between fidelity and adultery. The bitterness is expunged because G-d is satisfied that we have not cheated on Him.

But the amazing thing is that this is actually a reciprocal test. Just as Mordechai doubted how G-d could let the Jewish people be condemned to death by Haman, and Jews throughout the ages have asked why, after all these years, are we still a diaspora people, so, too the Jews had been asking the very same question! And they started in Egypt, when Miriam was born. Her name contains the same root – and our sages tell us that she was named “bitter” because she was named when the Jewish people were enslaved. “How,” the people must have asked, “Can this really be what is supposed to happen to us?! Where, indeed is G-d?”

It is the same word that crops up in Megillas Ruth, when Naomi returns from her sojourns overseas, a chapter in her life in which she lost her husband and her sons, retaining only Ruth. She tells the townspeople “call me Marah.” Bitter. Naomi wants to know where G-d was, in her life. And she is not punished for doing so – it is clearly a perfectly legitimate question.

Every Passover Seder Jews gather and eat Matzo and Bitter Herbs – maror. We eat the maror to remind us of being enslaved, which was bad enough. But the underlying problem with the enslavement was not the physical abuse, since clearly the Jewish people weathered it and our numbers multiplied despite the oppression. The enormous underlying challenge was to be in that state, and yet somehow keep faith. Like Jews in the Holocaust or during a pogrom, the question is asked: WHERE IS G-D?! That is the meaning of the bitterness.

The proof of it is found in the actual requirement in Jewish Law for what constitutes bitter herbs. The Gemara does not require that the bitter herbs actually taste bitter (many people use Romaine Lettuce instead of horseradish). The core requirement is merely that the herbs (or leaves or roots) must be raw and natural, entirely unprocessed and unimproved. In other words, they are foodstuffs the way animals would eat them. It describes a world of nature, a world of animalistic behavior and the kind of “might makes right” pecking order that is the rule in the animal kingdom. In other words: a purely natural world is a world that has no G-d. A world that is unimproved is a world that is the antithesis of everything that Judaism stands for.

Those bitter herbs we eat, the maror, are to bring us back to the time when we wondered if G-d had chosen another people. To remind us that, as a nation, we dealt with the uncertainty and the lingering doubts… has G-d been faithful? And if He is faithful, then why are we suffering as slaves in a foreign land?

The Torah tells us that G-d made it all right, clearing up this basic question: When we leave Egypt, and see what G-d did to the Egyptians, “Israel saw the great hand that G-d did in Egypt [in other words, His kindnesses to us there]; and the people feared G-d, and they had faith in G-d.” (Ex. 15:31) We discovered that G-d had been there all along! Like the child who hates receiving shots at the doctor’s office – but understands after he grows up why it had to happen – the Jewish people came to understand why G-d hid His face for so long in Egypt. Faith is restored.

The word for “faith” here is the same word as “Amen,” and it has a very specific meaning: wholehearted agreement. What does it mean to be wholehearted? The Torah uses the very same word to describe a suckling child. (Num 11:12) Nursing is an act that is so very beautiful because there is complete bond and love between a mother and the nurseling. It is the moment in someone’s life where there is no doubt at all, no lingering questions. The resumption of that connection is the cure for the bitterness of Egypt.

It is that connection that makes it possible for the most important event in Jewish history: the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the bridal canopy between the Jewish people and G-d. When two people get married, there cannot even be the hint of a shadow of any suspicion about infidelity. So, in turn, at Marah the Jewish people proved that they had stayed true. And the Torah tells us that G-d similarly restored our faith in Him in the crossing of the sea.

But just because we have moved forward does not mean that we fail to reconnect to the past, to relive being slaves in Egypt as we do every Pesach. We remember being raw and unimproved, like the bitter herb – coupled with the haunting questions about G-d’s presence in our world. And we remember how it all worked out, and faith was mutually restored. Just as it happened in Egypt, in Mordechai’s Persia, Naomi’s Israel, Daniel’s world after the destruction of the First Temple, and countless times ever since.


In the Midst of the Water

The Torah uses a specific word to describe the passing of the Jewish people through the Red Sea:  “passed through the sea into the wilderness” (Num 33:8). The word for “through” is transliterated as “b’soch,” and it would seem to be an odd choice.

But if we look at the way the text uses that word earlier in the Torah, we see it is first found on the second day of creation: “God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of (“b’soch”) the water, that it may separate water from water.” (Gen 1:6)

The connection between these two uses of the same word tells us a great many things. G-d separated the waters (heavens and oceans) to create the world; he separates the waters of the Red Sea to create the Jewish People. Life is created in the gap between those waters, both at the creation of the world and at the Exodus. In the first b’soch the gap is created vertically. In the Exodus b’soch the gap is created horizontally. It is a different creation, in a different dimension – but the parallels are undeniable.


The Benefits of Being in Exile

#2 Son was in the Arctic this past week, spending time in an Inuit settlement of a few hundred people. It was an eye-opening experience in many ways (and I have encouraged him to write on it himself). But one thing in particular stood out to me: he spoke of a people that live a life without meaning.

Decades ago, the Canadian government, with the best of intentions, decided to ensure that Inuit no longer had to kill their babies or expect their old to walk out into the cold in order to ensure that the rest of the family could survive. So they offered the Inuit homes, and all the material comforts that a person needs: heat, food, clothing, etc. In other words, the Inuit were put on welfare.

The results have been as disastrous as they were predictable. An indigenous people holding on by their fingernails on the very edge of the world at least had a common goal: survival. But once that went away, so did the accompanying customs and various ways of making sense of the hostile environment – all the trappings of a primitive pagan existence. When the Inuit no longer had to spend all their time worrying about making it through the winter, they no longer had anything to worry about at all.

#2 Son reported that what is left is depressing beyond words: girls get pregnant as soon as they reach puberty. Alcoholism and drug use and suicide are rampant. There is no industry, no work ethic. In short: life holds no meaning beyond whatever might be considered hedonistically interesting in the short term.

It occurs to me that this is hardly unique to native Inuit. Native Americans in the United States have similarly blown their minds on drugs and alcohol – so much so that the Ivy League schools like Cornell and Dartmouth which were chartered on the basis of educating native Americans find it next to impossible to find any able-minded candidates to admit. (I also know this from personal experience. Out of curiosity, I ticked “Native American” on one of my PSATs many years ago, and was offered automatic admission and full tuition, regardless of need, to Dartmouth, Stanford, West Point, and Cornell.)

Indeed, 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.

Inner city Black Americans, just like poor dysfunctional white people dosing themselves with meth, enjoy more material wealth than have 99% of humanity through all recorded history. We have eradicated true poverty in the West – starvation has been unknown in the US for well over a century now, and the last major plague was in the aftermath of WWI. But there is no doubt that our underclass are not so different from the Inuit: lacking the desperate fight to survive and any framework to their lives that give them meaning, there no longer is much purpose.

People don’t understand what is wrong with their world, so they blame anything else that presents itself – 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 Torah is the founding text of Western Civilization, the enabling document for worldwide societal and technological development.

As Rabbi 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”[4] with our God.

Which brings me to exile. Two thousand years ago, the Temple was destroyed, and Jews were exiled into the world, into the diaspora, which is what we call galus. We have mourned this exile ever since it took place. Surely we are supposed to be in Israel, connecting with G-d through temple service?

Well, yes and no. It is nice to be a shining city on a hill. But it is also good – and important – to be spread out around the world.

Perhaps, before we were exiled from our land, Jews and Judaism had reached a point of stagnation (it was an environment from which both Sadducees and Christianity had emerged, after all). Personal and familial and national growth in Torah and achievements were demonstrably higher after the destruction of G-d’s own home in Jerusalem than before.

In one sense, this has been about internal development: Maybe – just maybe – G-d 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?” (For those who may not know, here is a list.)

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 makes it harder for people to take their own risks.

That connection can be (and usually should be) through personal connections, through conversations. The gap between observant Jews and 14 year-old Inuit welfare queens may seem impassable, but 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 God, 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… (Deut: 6:17)

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 Jacob strove with the angel).

And the first time something is called “good” is when G-d 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 G-d 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 imitatio dei, to imitate our Creator by creating in turn, and connecting with the world.

Indeed, Judaism surely 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 of once-pagan indigenous people who otherwise end up like the Inuit or inner city gang members. 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 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.”


Insecurity: A Feature, not a Bug

We seek security in every way imaginable; our choices of jobs, the healthy market for insurance and pensions, how we seek stability, predictability, and a boring life. We even do it when we fit in with the herd, conform to societal norms, follow various fads to be like others.

My Rabbi says that when people act like this, they are trying to take G-d 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 G-d – but they are risky either way.

The Torah is full of reminders that we are not supposed to think of ourselves as complete: G-d wants us to want Him! And so the levy of a half a shekel (not a full one). So, too, 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 G-d’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.

The snake who convinces Eve and Adam to eat the fruit is consigned to the earth where he will always be able to eat dust. The snake’s punishment is that he won’t need anyone else for his sustenance – he is self-reliant! And because he is self-reliant, the snake can never rise above his state.

One funny feature is that the Torah is not really telling us to merely trust in G-d – that would be too easy, too pat. That way leads to fatalism, to believing that G-d 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 G-d, 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 G-d and v’anveyhoo” – that last word is really two words: “Me and You.” “This is my G-d, 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 G-d 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.

There is, of course, no shortage of tragedies that come with the world in which we live. Only if there is emotional loneliness can there be the need for relationships, and then the solution found in love. There are those who are outsiders: the Torah tells us, dozens of times, to love the stranger. The text also repeatedly tells us to love and protect orphans and widows. Widows and orphans are, alas, collateral damage for a world with death, for a world that has true insufficiency and insecurity.

G-d gave mankind the means to fix the physical faults of the natural world, to promote productive human life. And he gave us the Torah to remind us that we must always be thinking of others; that the insecurity that makes us get up in the morning, take risks, and create new and wonderful things, also gives us lonely people, people who have loved and lost. We are enjoined to love them in turn, as surely a holy act as any other.



Fathers Investing in Sons

Torah: Investing in the Next Generation

The Book of Genesis is best understood as a story of early relationships and their growth, and as such the lessons it holds (unlike, say, specific commandments for priests) are universal for humanity.

The trajectories cover a range of themes: women’s rights (from pre-flood rape to the cessation of taking women one covets after Simeon and Levi); brotherly love (from Cain killing Abel, though Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and finally Ephraim and Menasseh as the first brothers who were not in conflict with each other); fathers and sons (Terah, Avraham, Isaac and Jacob all leave their fathers after they come of age and never return – Jacob and his sons are the first to choose to live together); G-d’s involvement in each individual person’s life; and the primacy of ideas and knowledge over every form of power (from the Tower of Babel as G-d’s demonstration of this, to Joseph’s interpretations as the first human example).

Little noticed, however, is the degree to which fathers invest in their sons. Think of it this way: Adam seemingly has nothing to do with Cain and Abel. Noach brings his sons along for the ride, but they do not even seem to help build the ark. Terach also brings Avram along with him on his journey, but that seems to be the limit of their interchange. Avraham in turn loves Isaac, but nothing much else is said. Isaac enjoys Esau’s venison, but otherwise there does not seem to be much communication. Yaakov is the first to give something to his a son, by clearly favoring and gifting Joseph.

Joseph changes the trend. Not only does he name his sons, he does so by clearly associating them with his own life, and with his relationship to G-d.

And Joseph called the name of the first-born Manasseh: ‘for God hath made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house.’ And the name of the second called he Ephraim: ‘for God hath made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.’ Gen. 41:51-52

This is extraordinary. Before Joseph, only Leah had done the same in the same way (with Yaakov and Rachel arguably naming their children as well, albeit to a lesser extent). I think that there is a progression in this 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 relationship that they have with G-d, 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 G-d.

P.S. It is amazing that, if one reads the Torah carefully, Joseph does not even introduce his sons to his father, Jacob, until he hears that Jacob is ill (and may be dying). I think it is possible that Joseph, realizing that his father’s unequal love had done so much damage to his own family (Leah and Rachel, as well as Joseph and his brothers), kept his children away from Yaakov in fear that Yaakov would somehow introduce discord between brothers who had none.

But when Yaakov finally meets the sons, he crosses his arms to bless them – which forces them to touch each other (try sitting with your arms crossed, and try to cover the head of two grown men with your palms – they will have to be very close, indeed). The resulting blessing, though it has some elements of favoritism, is more unifying than any other in the Torah up to that point. And so Yosef’s sons are then adopted by Yaakov and presumably join the rest of the family in Goshen, where they grow together from then on.


It Is Right In Front of You!

For this commandment which I command you this day, is not hidden from you, nor is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it? Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it? But the word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it. (Devarim 30: 11-14)

This is one of the most beautiful and enigmatic paragraphs in the entire Torah. It evokes images of messengers going to heaven, or across the seas, on some quest for an elusive mitzvah. This mitzvah, which G-d commands us to do everyday, is in fact a very difficult one to pin down. Plenty of commentators have tried to do just this – some identify it as repentance (teshuvah), others the studying of Torah itself.

I think the most common understanding is that the word “commandment” actually refers to the Torah itself. It is the Torah that is near to us, that is ultimately an egalitarian, democratic document: But the word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it means that the Torah is accessible to each and every one of us, and merely saying the words of the Torah allows us to internalize it, and then act accordingly.

One can take this further, in a profoundly anti-establishment direction. The Torah does not require us to have some great leader or Rabbi who goes off on a quest to heaven or across the world, and then returns to us so that we may hear it and do it. Not at all! The Torah connects to every soul, and we all can access it in one form or another.

While I think the democratic angle is correct, there is a problem with the above. The Torah does not tell us For this Torah which I give you this day – it says For this commandment which I command you this day. Words have meanings. We cannot wish away the clear meaning of the text just because it does not fit our expectations. This paragraph is indeed democratic, but it is not talking of repentance, nor of Torah study, nor even the Torah itself. The mitzvah is unnamed because we are not all the same – we are, each of us, unique individuals. And so our “special” commandment is unique to us. We each have our own mission in life; no two people are meant to live the same life, to make the same choices.

And that is why the paragraph is written entirely in the singular. G-d is talking to each of us as individuals – this is a message to us. And so the mitzvah is in your mouth and in your heart, not in your mouths and in your hearts.

So let’s bring it full circle. This paragraph, in a few words, is telling us that our relationship to G-d is unique, and that we must not rely on intermediaries who come back and tell us what to hear and what to do. Instead, we must realize that our special mitzvah, perhaps even our destiny, is something that we can start to discover just by giving voice to it. Then we commit to that mitzvah and do it.

The Torah is never vague by accident. This paragraph is as specific as it possibly can be: it tells us that we, as individuals, are commanded every day to do a certain mitzvah, and that the knowing and the doing are both things that we can – and must – discover by ourselves. This is really an astonishing, and highly anti-authoritarian idea. It calls on the imagination of the individual to discover his or her own special mission in life.

Imagination is, of course, the limiting factor. We tend to speak of imagination as this great force for freedom, for dreams and limitless horizons. But this stands reality on its head, because our limited imaginations are in fact our greatest weaknesses. Danny Gershenson once explained that the reason there were so many composers in Mozart’s day is because every parent within a certain social milieu expected their children to become composers! Today, nobody dreams that their child will emulate great classical composers, and so it is no surprise that our society, for all its diversity and numbers, produces none.

The same thing is true for any schoolchild. No sane person really thinks they can do anything that anyone else can do – we all have intellectual and emotional limits, and we are all-too aware of them. This kind of self-awareness can be crippling.

Think of Moshe himself. When G-d first talks to him, at the burning bush, Moshe is told that he will go and talk to Pharoah. Moshe demurs – he says he has a speech impediment, and so cannot have a speaking role. G-d insists that Moshe can do it, but Moshe stands his ground, facing G-d’s wrath. The lesson is simple: if we don’t think we can do something, we cannot do it. Even when G-d Almighty insists, in direct and open speech even to the very best of us, that we can – we don’t believe it.

And that is why our imaginations are so crippling. Once we don’t think of ourselves as having a certain skill, we are virtually incapable of achieving that skill. And the same thing is true in our relationship to G-d and other people. If we do not think of ourselves as being uniquely special, as having a role in this world that nobody else can fill, then we indeed become nothing more than another drone.

Prayer provides a good example of this. A few weeks back I wrote about listening to G-d when we pray. The most consistent feedback I received from that piece was that I could not be serious – who hears G-d when they daven?! There must be some kind of clever joke here.

For my part, I was equally astonished. I had no idea that people davenned without hearing G-d! It did not occur to me that in order to hear G-d, we first have to believe that it is possible. We have to believe that having that kind of relationship does not require an intermediary, that the word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it.


Why Questions Matter

Is it possible to make New Things without asking Questions?

I often marvel at the differences between cultures and civilizations. Dynamic cultures celebrate asking questions even (or especially) at the price of argument and ideological conflict, while passive cultures are passive even at the individual level: accept your fate, your lot in life, the will of the gods. Don’t rock the boat or generate strife; instead, seek stillness of the soul and harmony with ancestors and others.

So I wonder: do we have to ask questions in order to create something new?

After all, if you make something new by accident, but do not ask what it is, what it might be for, etc., then you didn’t make anything new at all. While many inventions were accidental, there were questions before and after the accident occurred that were truly the triggers for those creations to become real in our minds.

Questions seem to lead to change. The first question ever asked in the Torah was that of the snake: “Did G-d say that you should not eat of any tree of the garden?” The question leads to a conversation, and then an action – Eve eats the fruit. And everything that was static starts to change. In short order (in the text), mankind invents lying, clothing, procreation, shepherding, offerings, murder, guilt, , tents, harps, pipes, cities….  And all from one pointed question! Can you think of an invention that was not enabled or triggered or discovered by


The Torah’s Opinion on Covid-19

Many have commented on how Covid has paralyzed mankind with fear. The fear is necessarily vague and indistinct, incapable of being pinned down, hiding out in such clichés as “better safe than sorry,” and “we just don’t know!” We seem to accept the resulting paralysis, being guided by our fears instead of our hopes.

The Torah actually opines on this topic, through its use of the word “darkness.” During creation, darkness (choshech) is divided from light. And it is the light, and not the dark, that is called “good.”

What is not good about darkness? We get a glimpse when Avram experiences what is called “The covenant between the parts.”

As the sun was about to set, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a great dark dread descended upon him. (Gen. 15:12)

With that dread came the news that Avram’s future was going to be constrained, limited by divine decree that his descendants would be enslaved in a foreign land. Darkness brings limitation. Which certainly can make sense: If one’s awareness or knowledge stretches as far as the eye can see, then darkness, by blocking our ability to see, terminates that very same awareness.

The text uses darkness consistently to describe the restriction in mankind’s horizon that comes from not being able to see.

The plague of locusts limits the earth, obscuring it from view:

They hid all the land from view, and the land was choshech; (Ex. 10:15)

The plague of darkness keeps everyone where they are, the original Covid Lockdown:

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Hold out your arm toward the sky that there may be choshech upon the land of Egypt, a choshech that can be touched.” … Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick choshech descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was. (Ex. 10:23)

And just before the splitting of the sea…

… and it came between the army of the Egyptians and the army of Israel. Thus there was the cloud with the choshech, and it projected upon the night, so that [Egyptians and Israelites] could not come near the other all through the night. (Ex. 14:20)

In all of these cases, choshech, darkness, is twinned with the incapacity that comes from being aware of our ignorance. Darkness keeps us paralyzed, inactive, afraid to go anywhere for fear of doing something wrong. Even the armies are unable to move when darkness descends.

The irony, of course, is rich. There is much in the world that we do not know (and many things we think we know are actually wrong), but we usually go about our days without dwelling on that fact: when it is light we think we know, and we can move forward based on that perception alone.

The challenge the Torah gives us is being able to act despite being in darkness, when we are aware that we do not know what the future holds.

Thus, at the Binding of Isaac, G-d praises Avraham for binding Isaac even though he cannot have known what would happen next:

I know that you fear God, since you have not chosheched your son, your favored one, from Me. … Because you have done this and have not chosheched your son, your favored one… (Gen. 22:12)

Avraham does as he is told, even though he cannot see what will happen next. Note that this same word for “darkness” is used here to mean “withheld.”

The Torah wants us to move forward even when we are terrified of the unknown. At Sinai,

You came forward and stood at the foot of the mountain. The mountain was ablaze with flames to the very skies, choshech with densest clouds. (Deut. 4:11)

When you heard the voice out of the darkness (choshech) … you came up to me, all your tribal heads and elders, (Deut. 5:20)

We are clearly instructed by the Torah to emulate Avraham and the people at Sinai: do what we need to do despite our very natural terror at the darkness, of the unknown, the bogeyman in the night who would paralyze us and limit what we seek to accomplish with our lives. Choshech is an impediment, but one we must overcome in order to elevate and grow, in order to live fully. We are called to overcome our fear.

[an @iwe and @blessedblacksmith production]


What if Our Superpowers are on a Spectrum?

What if our Superpowers are on a Spectrum?

Sometimes when can see the sun, it’s not there. This clip is one of the all-time funniest unscripted things I have ever seen:

Imagine that you have a superpower, something really great, like the ability to fly in the air like Superman. The only catch is that you don’t know that you can fly– in which case you don’t have anything at all. Not really. In both cases, our perceptions are our reality.

I was thinking along these lines when I read a piece by Jonathan Sacks on Free Will, when he pointed out that free will is not really a binary attribute: a hard addict might have very little or no free will when it comes to stopping his addiction on his own. That same person had much more ability to choose when he was just starting drugs.  

The logical result is that we can only have free will if we think we do – and that as we consciously focus on our free will, it becomes more extensive. Indeed, this is one of the first lessons G-d tells Cain:

Sin crouches at the door;
Its urge is toward you,
Yet you can be its master. (Gen. 4:7)

We can – and should – master our own inclinations. But the extent to which we are capable of overcoming the desire to act instinctively depends very much on whether or not we think we have the ability to do so.  Free will is a self-fulfilling belief.

It is hardly the only one. Do you believe that people can change? If you do, then you may be capable of it. If, on the other hand you know in your bones that people really are incapable of changing themselves in any real way, then you are surely right that you cannot change.

But even such ideas as “change” or “free will” are not binary – it is not as if you have it or you do not. Instead, they are a spectrum. Some people can change a little, others a great deal. Some people have much more free will than others – I very much doubt that anyone can be said to have absolutely no free will: even the addict can, in extreme cases, end his addiction. And, just as likely, nobody can be 100% free of our nature and nurture.

I think the difference between 1% and 99% can be found in the ways in which one chooses to exercise those particular mental muscles. Because mental strength and flexibility really are like muscles: unused, they will atrophy and weaken. Worked out regularly, they will become fit and capable.

Intrinsic to both of these ideas is our own belief in the way mankind is made. If we are mere animals in nature, then we are bounded and limited by our environment, the result of some combination of nature and nurture. If, on the other hand, we see ourselves as possessing a divinely-gifted soul, then we can redefine our perception of ourselves: we can be partners to G-d, capable of choosing to change ourselves, others, and the world.  It comes down to what we think we are made of.

The corollary is that the nature and degree of our capabilities are irrevocably linked to how much we invest in them. The muscles that let us grow our ability to freely choose our own path are the same that let us connect to the divine. The more we do it, the better we become. The more we invest in growth and change, the more we are able to do both.

We know our perceptions cannot be “true.” All perceptions are by nature limited by the quality of the instrument and the filtration mechanism, e.g., your eye does not see x-rays, and it discerns both color and light levels differently than the eyes possessed by other people. So our perceptions cannot be telling us the truth, at least not in any absolute sense.

Similarly, since no two people thinks exactly the same thing, our beliefs are extremely unlikely to be entirely correct either. The closest we can come is to say that each of us blind men accurately feels and competently understands a piece of the elephant. So it remains that I do not have to deny the reality of Christians, Muslims, or even other Jews in order for my reality to be intact, productive, and even holy.

Whether or not the sun in the BBC skit is actually there does not matter in the slightest: my beliefs have created my reality.

[An @iwe and @susanquinn production]


Biblical Beauty

Our society very much values beauty, even though it can be hard to define in any timeless way. It is hard to step away from what we now think of as beautiful, and try to understand what the concept might have meant in other cultures and time periods. In no small part, this is because the Greek ideals of symmetry and proportionality have, in one form or another, been broadly accepted ever since, even as the ideal size of women has varied considerably, all the way from anorexic to obese.

It will come as no surprise that I am interested in what the Torah has to say on the subject of beauty, just as I am interested in understanding the text in its own words, instead of using modern concepts.

There are a couple things that jump out immediately. Nothing in the Torah is ever described using an expression for beauty except a few people and – in the case of Pharaoh’s dream – cows. There are no beautiful rivers or mountains, no attractive trees or valleys. Instead, all such features are described by their utilitarian features, e.g.,

For your God is bringing you to a good land, a land with streams of water, springs and groundwater that emerge in valley and hill. A land of wheat and barley, and grapes and figs and pomegranates; a land of olives and honey. A land where you will not eat bread in poverty, you will lack nothing there; a land whose stones are iron, and from whose hills you will mine copper. You will eat and be full, and you will bless your G-d for the good land He has given you. (Deut. 8:7-10)

All these wonderful attributes – but beauty is not among them. The obvious question is “why?” After all, people do perceive beauty in nature.

And I think the answer brings us directly back to the purpose of the Torah itself. It is not a text that teaches us what is beautiful. Instead, it is a guidebook for building good relationships with G-d and with man. That the Torah never describes nature as beautiful tells us that admiring natural beauty is not a way to grow in our relationships or in holiness! At best, appreciating nature is irrelevant to living a holy life – and at worst, it leads us to serving nature – think Sierra Club.

Indeed, it is not even obvious what Hebrew word translates into what we call “beautiful” today. There are two candidates: yefas mar’eh, and yefas to-ar.

Yefas Mar’eh is the most obvious of the two. We have it in the text:

As he was about to enter Egypt, [Abram] said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a yefas mar’eh woman you are.” And so it proves: “When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw how very yefas mar’eh the woman was.” So they take her for Pharoah’s harem.

This phrase, yefas mar’eh, clearly refers to being physically attractive, “pleasing to the appearance.” The phrase applies to only three people in the Torah: Sarai, who is taken into a harem, Rachel (who Jacob promptly falls in love with and seeks to marry), Joseph, who attracted the adulterous interest of Potiphar’s wife.

The absence of this phrase in any of the books of the Torah after Genesis tells us something very profound: physical beauty has no role, is not considered important or even positive for loving other people or G-d, for being a holy people. Beauty, being pleasing to the eye, should have no intrinsic value for the Jewish people.

That the phrase yefas mar’eh is never applied to mountains or rivers, the moon, stars or wind, tells us even more. The beauty within nature does not help us connect to G-d – indeed, it is usually a distraction. It is not accidental that the biggest concentrations of Torah Jews in the world have always historically been in ugly cities. The beautiful ones, like San Francisco or Seattle or Sydney, have always held other allures far from holiness. When someone looks out at sunset over the San Francisco Bay, Sydney Harbor or Puget Sound, they think they are having a spiritual experience – whether they connect with G-d or not. A mountain may well be beautiful, but it is the perceptions of the local tribes that have made every local mountain, at one time or another, into a deity. Which means that natural beauty subtracts from our ability to have a full relationship with the One G-d. All this goes to explain why the text does not praise beauty, or tell us to seek it or admire it.

But wait! There is a second expression that is also used in the Torah: yefas to-ar. It means attractive in some way – but what does to-ar actually mean? The first clue we get is with its first usage. In addition to being called yefas mar’eh, Rachel is also described as being yefas to’ar. What else do we know about Rachel? She was a shepherdess. Indeed, she is the only solo shepherdess in the entire Torah: Moshe’s wife Zipporah also tended the flock – but it was a group effort involving all seven daughters. The task of managing sheep is a man’s job, and for a simple reason: a shepherd needs to be able to not only tend the sheep and goats, but also, when needed to carry them. Neither goats nor sheep are particularly light animals – though modern adult sheep weigh 100-300 pounds, the sheep in the ancient world still weighed 40-70 pounds. Not many women now – or then – can lift and carry such a weight for the distances that were sometimes required. Yet Rachel could. Perhaps this is what to’ar means?

We have another clue with Joseph, the next person described as yefas to’ar. We know that he was physically capable, that he ran a grand household, and then a prison.

Until now, I have ignored the large mammal in the room: while yefas mar’eh and yefas to’ar are not used to described mountains or rivers, they ARE used to describe cows – specifically, the cows in Pharaoh’s dream. Curiously, when Pharoah has his dream, we are told that the cows are yefas mar’eh, but when he tells it to Joseph he changes this detail (and the underlying meaning) to yefas to’ar. Why would he do this? Perhaps it was not becoming for a ruler to admire the attractiveness of an animal – but it was entirely reasonable to reflect on the value or usefulness of that same animal. Indeed, in both the dream and the retelling, the animals are also described as “the creator of meat/flesh” – these were big animals. Cows, as opposed to bulls, were connected with fertility and motherhood, biologically primed to grow fat and make more cows – creating flesh. (Some Egyptian myths describe a cow goddess giving birth to the sun out of primeval waters – not so different from Pharoah’s dream of the cows emerging from the Nile.) Such cows were described as yefas to’ar by Pharoah: these were what we might delicately refer to as “big boned,” certainly not lithe and willowy!

Pharaoh goes so far as to call the ugly cows “bad” or “evil.” His view seems to equate beauty (in both appearance and capability) with goodness – but the Torah does not itself agree that beauty is a virtue, since “attractive” (yefas mar’eh) does not even appear in the other books of Moses.

The very last reference in the Torah to yefas to’ar is as follows:

When you take the field against your enemies, and the LORD your God delivers them into your power and you take some of them captive, and you see among the captives a yefas to’ar woman and you long for her and would take her to wife, you shall bring her into your house, and she shall trim her hair, pare her nails, and discard her captive’s garb. She shall spend a month’s time in your house lamenting her father and mother; after that you may come to her and possess her, and she shall be your wife. (Deut. 21:10-14)

If this captive is a woman like Rachel, she is physically strong (the phrase used here is not yefas mar’eh, attractive to the eye). If she is like Joseph, she is capable. And if she is like the cows in Pharoah’s dream, then she is large and her physique advertises fertility. The conquering soldier has a practical eye: the woman has the ideal physique for an ideal wife!

If so, then why the commandment to cut her hair, nails, and change her clothes? I think the precedent is established by another person described as a yefas to’ar: Joseph himself! Joseph was called yefas to’ar, and when he goes to elevate his status to go from a captive to a powerful position in Pharoah’s house, he must first have “his hair cut and changed his clothes.” Which means that Joseph’s experience informs the later commandment: when a person is elevated from captivity, he should cut their hair, change his appearance and become more presentable, just as Joseph did.

That the Torah does not call anything in nature beautiful is a reminder that we should be attracted to things that grow our relationships, that it is our choices, not our appearance or physique, that makes us virtuous. Indeed, beauty is clearly described as a dangerous attribute since in two of the three examples given, the beauty of Sarai and Joseph leads to immoral acts. This is a reminder that what really matters is not beauty, but the choices that people make, what we decide to do.


Levi: Standing Apart

The tribe of Levi is excepted from the initial counting in Numbers: it is kept apart from the others. Levi is not one of the tribes designated by flags, nor is it counted with the others. Clearly, Levi stands, to some extent, outside the normal hierarchy.

We know that Levi’s tasks required a certain self-limitation. A normal Jew has a very wide range of ways in which he can choose to serve G-d, to express his personal relationship. A Levi, on the other hand, has a much more limited set of options. He cannot choose to improvise; he must serve G-d, and do so according to the specific and unforgiving rules governing the treatment of the tabernacle and all its appurtenances.

Levi’s role was to provide an interface layer between G-d and the rest of the people. Levi was named by Leah “so that my husband will escort me” (Gen. 29:34), and Levi’s job is to act as an escort for the divine presence. An escort’s task is quite distinct: just as a bodyguard or mourners accompany and guard their charge, an escort walks alongside, shadowing without losing themselves. Levi must stand apart from both G-d and the Jewish people, capable of sufficient distance that they were able, in the time of the golden calf, to slay their fellow Jews.

It is interesting that at the Golden Calf, the tribe of Levi do not take the initiative by destroying the false worshippers before Moshe calls on them to do so. I think the reason for this is closely linked to their role: an escort does not lead – he follows. Just as the massacre of Shechem was described as being done by “Simeon and Levi”, so, too, the tribe of Levi did not act until Moshe called for supporters. Levi are not afraid of action, but they are followers, not leaders. Serving G-d in the tabernacle is no place for individual style or initiative. It is a place for superb followers.


Top Down or Bottom Up?

The Torah shows how events affect every layer of a hierarchy. For example, G-d says that he will destroy, “all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the first-born of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the first-born of cattle.” (Ex. 12:29)

In death, so, too, in life. We are commanded to consecrate our first-borns– not only the first-born people but our livestock and even the first fruits of the harvest. From the largest to the smallest, the same principle applies: what is true for the nation is true for each person.

Similarly, the Torah tells us that we should have flags (Num. 1 and 2) for the Jewish people when we camped and marched in the wilderness. What possible importance would come with rallying under a tribal flag? I think the answer remains the same – there were not only flags for our tribes, but also for each group of tribes, and for each clan. Depending on the translation, it can even represent each individual: “And the children of Israel shall pitch their tents, every man with his own camp, and every man with his own flag, according to their hosts.” (Num. 1:52)

The message is quite simple: Just as there is a Jewish nation, so, too, there are different groups of tribes, each serving G-d in their way. And what is true at that level continues all the way down, to each and every person. Each person has their own relationship with G-d, just as does each clan and tribe. No two people are supposed to be the same, just as each tribe is different from another.

The flags, then, do not serve as a means of reinforcing mindless tribalism, but instead mindful connections between each person and G-d at every level. It is a reinforcement of the equally important individual and group identities, each Jew being simultaneously connected at the personal level, and at the familial level, all the way up. This might also go some way toward explaining why the G-d tells Moshe to count the Jewish people – to tell us that within every grouping (no matter how large), each person still matters and is counted.


The Torah, however, describes all of the events of Sinai and the receiving of the Torah  from the top down. It starts on a mountaintop, with the commandments brought down from On High. The priests and Levites were shown as a higher level. The tabernacle itself, the holiest place on earth, radiated its power outward from a source, just as the people grouped themselves around it.

But if the Torah is given at Sinai, and meant to be applicable at every level, then we have a problem. After all, the Torah was not given equally at every level. So where is the bottom up? Where is the focus on each person growing upward, the mirror image of the events at Sinai? How do we see equality within the layers of society if the Torah is given in a purely hierarchical way?

The answer is found in the events after Sinai. Every generation, every marriage, every child who learns how to read the Shema, is another brick in the growth of the Jewish people in this world, trying to reach back to Sinai, echoing the glory of the initial revelation. The rest of Jewish history after the wilderness is the Jewish people connecting back to G-d, and from the bottom up.

This is reflected in the yearly cycle as well. Pesach happened to us – we were essentially passive recipients, with G-d doing all the heavy lifting. The Jews had to do the barest minimum in order to be redeemed. But the counting of the Omer, the days up to Sinai and the festival of Shavuos, represent the first step of the Jewish people trying to climb upward and connect to G-d. That was the template for the rest of Jewish history, a history that started in the wilderness, at the bottom. The growth from the bottom up continues in every generation, and with each and every person.


Why Does the Tribe of Levi have Few Children?

The Torah gives us census numbers for the tribes after they left Egypt. Among them, Levi is a standout, with far fewer people than any other tribe. The obvious question is, of course, “why?”

Using the text itself, I have one answer that seems to make sense. When Levi is born, his mother, Leah, says, “’This time my husband will become yilaveh to me, for I have borne him three sons.’ Therefore he was named Levi.”

What does this word mean? Elsewhere in the Torah, it is found in only a few places. Twice it specifically refers to the duties of the Levi:

You shall also associate with yourself your kinsmen the tribe of Levi, your ancestral tribe, to be attached to you and to laveh to you, while you and your sons under your charge are before the Tent of the Pact. (Num. 18:2)

They shall be laveh to you and discharge the duties of the Tent of Meeting, all the service of the Tent; but no outsider shall intrude upon you. (Num. 18:4)

We learn from this that the job of Levi is to be Levi. The name describes their task, their raison d’etre. Levi is because Levi does laveh. So what does the word actually mean? The above suggests some kind of helping or facilitating role, helping the priests fulfill their jobs in building and growing the relationship between G-d and the people.

Another time the word is used in the Torah (besides identifying the tribe itself) it is as follows:

If money you laveh to My people, to the poor among you, do not act toward them as a creditor; exact no interest from them. (Ex. 22:24)

This gives us our meaning. A moneylender is a facilitator, someone who helps someone do what they want to do, without actually being a direct party in the transaction. The bank, for example, may help buy your house, but they do not get to live in it. Instead, the bank facilitates what you already want to do.

In a section of curses, G-d tells us:

The stranger in your midst shall rise above you higher and higher, while you sink lower and lower. He shall be your laveh, but you shall not be his laveh; he shall be the head and you the tail. (Deut. 28:43-44)

Which tells us that a laveh is not a subsidiary role.

In all, we have our definition, the reason for Leah’s name-choice: a Levi is someone who helps others, from a position of leadership or guidance, not as an underling. We can think of numerous comparative words: an escort, or mentor or tutor.

Note the repetition of a theme that is found time and again in the text of the Torah: terrestrial marriages parallel, and even lead, the marriage between the people and G-d. Levi is there to help Leah and Jacob, just as his descendants exist to facilitate and guide the Jewish people in their relationships to G-d.

And in this, we can understand why Levi does not have children at the same rate of other people. Leah named her son in the hopes that Levi’s existence would facilitate her marriage to her husband. And forever more, Levi becomes the person who helps other people with their relationships. Levi becomes the teacher, the guide, and counselor. In the Mishkan, Levi is there to help the people connect with G-d, facilitating and guiding the connection.

The problem with helping other people is that it always comes at a cost. Investing in other peoples’ relationships is that you lack the time and energy to invest as much in your own. And so it proves in Egypt. The tribe of Levi acted in accordance with their name, so they helped other people, but at the cost of their own marriages. Which means they had fewer children while helping the other tribes to have more.


The Insecurity of Relationships

We live in a “me-first” culture. Our needs, our wants, our expectations are our top priorities, and we demonstrate our commitment to them all the time. If you suspect that you focus on yourself too much, you might not be surprised to learn that the Torah tells us that serving others, such as the widow, the orphan and the stranger is a top priority. But not for the reasons you might think!

In fact, G-d wants us to offer love to others for many reasons. To understand them, we have to understand what motivates us to form and grow relationships in the first place:

We rely on Nature, Nurture and Choices. Our tribal (Nurture) relationships are easy, because they are built on commonality. Our Nature (or DNA/family) relationships are also relatively easy because we are born into them. But the Choices we make in our relationships can be challenges: marriages, for example, are built on differences; to be successful, they require us to wholeheartedly engage with our spouse, to share our love with them, to bridge the divide between people who are inherently different both in nature (sex) and nurture (different backgrounds).

Why should we work to love people who are different – to love people whom we might not naturally gravitate toward? Because relationships are hard. And developing relationships with people in difficult life situations is especially hard, because to be genuine and helpful to them, we must empathize with them.

For example, G-d directs us to love the widow, orphan and stranger. If you’ve ever been around a widow, you may have realized how difficult it is, even if you are not a widow. Can you imagine how devastated you would feel if you lost your spouse? How would you relate to other people as a widowed person? What would it be like to be alone, managing on your own?

Or think of the orphan: if you are not an orphan, how would you feel about being completely alone in the world, with no parents to guide, comfort and love you? And we probably all know, from some time in our lives, what it’s like to be the stranger: to be somewhere where you know no one, are truly on your own, and realize how uncomfortable and disorienting it might be to become acquainted with others.

In order to reach out to the widow, orphan or stranger to love them and comfort them, you must stretch beyond your own comfort zone. You need to sense what they are feeling and experiencing in their life situations. You must balance reaching out without discounting their need to get their bearings and to heal from their loneliness. And you are called to offer them the seeds of a loving relationship, above all else.

Taking these steps is very hard. And that is precisely the reason that G-d demands that we take them. In reaching out, we must leave our cocoon of predictability and ease. We are called to make ourselves vulnerable and touch the lives of others who likely feel even more vulnerable than we do. But that vulnerability is the very emotional state that we share with others. Done right, it doesn’t separate us, it brings us together. It is the place where we meet and recognize each other. Paradoxically, then, stretching ourselves is not only hard, but it is rewarding, and perhaps most importantly, it forces us to grow.

We must also be willing to build a unique and loving connection with others, according to where they are in their journey. It is like learning an intricate dance for which the steps are not taught, but the dancers work it out between themselves, learning as they go. It can be a risky business—will the other person be tentative and shy, keeping you at a distance, or will that person be bold, crushing your toes in his enthusiastic efforts?

So G-d calls us to offer love not only to benefit those who are alone, but because we grow and gain so very much ourselves. In bridging the gap between ourselves and others, we discover that we are stronger and more resilient than we might have believed. The more we reach out to others and learn to love them, the more we discover that G-d lives in the midst of those relationships, too. And so our love of G-d deepens as well.

Not only are we called to love those who need us in order for us to grow, but these efforts also lead us on the path of the Torah.

Outside of orthodox Judaism, most people do not realize that the Torah itself does not give us specific instructions on commandments – only very vague guidelines. I would suggest two reasons why the Torah is not explicit about how we are supposed to perform commandments: (1) we are supposed to think about, learn, and engage in what G-d wants from us; and (2) each person has, and must find or create his or her own path to holiness. No two persons’ paths will be identical. The path is intimately tied to each person’s unique connection to G-d along that path.

The next time you are faced with a difficult relationship, you might ask yourself: am I better off not getting involved with this person, extricating myself from the relationship?

Or can I take the risk of making myself vulnerable, investing in others even (and especially) when those investments are costly?


The Land’s Future – not its Present – can be Holy

What is so special about the land of Israel?

The land itself was at the heart of the ancient world. At the crossroads of three continents, Israel was the inevitable waystation for land traffic between Europe, Africa and Asia. Traders were a continuous feature, coming and going with their goods, cultures, and languages.

Though in one sense merely one organ among many, the heart is the organ through which all the blood, sooner or later, is driven. For thousands of years, people and goods and ideas have flowed in and out of Israel. Isolation is essentially impossible in a land without topographical barriers, and with every incentive for overland commerce and other forms of exchange.

Mixtures of people create a more stimulating and vibrant environment. Just as a high density of people often creates more wealth in cities than those same people in suburbs, so, too, increased opportunities for relationships between different people creates more opportunities for acts of kindness, for goodness to flow. Magic can happens when people work and live and grow together.

So we could argue that Canaan/Israel was not necessarily a holy land – at least not at first. Instead, we might say that Israel’s location at the epicenter of human relationships consequently also made it the place with the highest potential for relationships between man and G-d.

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 is 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 is named Canaan? After all, Canaan was the name of Ham’s son, and he was cursed by Noah for Ham’s sexual crime (G. 9:25-27). The Torah tells us that the Canaanites, guilty of sexual perversion, cannot achieve holiness.

Ham’s sin explains why Avraham forbids his servant from finding a wife who is a Canaanite, why Esau 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.” (L. 18:3)

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 G-d’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 G-d, to create holiness. Avraham is not told “Go to Canaan,” but instead, “Go 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.” (D. 14:23) or “the Lord thy G-d shall choose to set his name there.” (D. 14:24).

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 G-d 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 G-d’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 G-d sets His name, the place which G-d showed Avraham. The place of holiness.

The land is good – the indigenous people are not. The distinction is clear.

The Jewish people are supposed to elevate the physical world through an infusion of spirit – this is holiness. The Land represents the physical piece, and the Jewish people are the spiritual infusion that combines with the land (including through all the agricultural festivals and offerings) to establish and grow a relationship with G-d. When G-d tells Avraham, “Go to the land which I will show you,” he is bringing a family that is spiritually inclined into a land that is able to be elevated.

And by saying, “The land which I will show you,” instead of “The Land of Canaan,” G-d is telling Avraham that the future of the land is not its present: Canaanites are merely transient inhabitants; the land’s proper future is as a place where people will do as our forefathers did before the Jews went down to Egypt, and as the Jewish people have done ever since we first entered the Land from the wilderness: at the epicenter of the world, we call out in the Name of G-d and seek to create holiness.


Corrective Blessings

The first book of the Torah teaches us how to have relationships – between fathers and sons, husbands and wives, man and G-d, and especially, brothers. As Rabbi Sacks points out, the progression from Cain and Hevel through to Ephraim and Menasseh (and then Moses and Aharon) is a journey from murder 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 Avraham, 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 making their best guess. Sarah decides that Ishmael is unsuitable, so he is unceremoniously removed from the scene. Avraham does the same thing to all the sons he has with Keturah, after Sarah died.

And then Rivkah decides, on her own initiative, to do the same thing to Esau. 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 he asked Esau to bring him venison before receiving a bracho, 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 the same time, to the same pair of sons.

Imagine how differently the Torah would have gone had Yitzchak decided to do the same thing with his own sons! It is possible that Esau (who is never described in the text as being evil), would have remained within the fold, that the winnowing process would have stopped, and the Jewish people would have started expanding at that point.

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 I have argued elsewhere, 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 are 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 G-d’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 like Yitzchak, we bless like Yaakov. “May G-d make you like Ephraim and Menasseh.”


Jacob’s Contribution to Halacha

What if Genesis Explains Jewish Law?

One of the disadvantages of the way in which people read the Torah is that we often fail to see connections that span the entire text – connections that greatly enrich our understanding of what the document is trying to tell us.

I have written, for example, on how fathers become increasingly interested and involved in their children from Abraham to Jacob to Joseph – and, indeed, how the younger generation that was first rootless (Terach and Avraham) increasingly come, with the sons of Jacob, to choose to live with their fathers. Binding the generations together becomes an essential facet of Jewish life, a necessary precondition for a nation designed to survive and thrive for thousands of years.

But this is not just something that happens in Genesis. The connections span the entirety of the Five Books, and there is much we can learn from them.

“One wife loved, and the other wife hated,” describes Jacob and his wives, in 29 Genesis, and Jacob’s resulting favoritism of Joseph over Reuben. The resulting law, forbidding favoring the son of the loved wife over the firstborn son from the hated wife, appears in Deut. 21. The language of the latter echoes the former, and it is clear that we are instructed to make different choices than Jacob did. It is not hard to explain why that is so – favoring Joseph did not lead to domestic tranquility.

Linguistic parallels provide the signposts for when a law given in the Torah is explained by what happened to our forefathers in Genesis. Some of these signposts, such as “Love ye therefore the stranger; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deut. 10:19)” are explicit. Others are more subtle.

For example, the phrase “when the sun sets” is used only a handful of places in the Torah. The first examples talk about times of dread and fear – Avram’s covenant between the parts (Gen. 15), and the night when Jacob, fleeing from his brother, sleeps and dreams of ladders and angels and blessings from G-d (Gen. 28).

Imagine the scene. Jacob flees, alone and afraid. He has no pillow, so he uses a rock. It is a time of uncertainty – so much so that when Jacob wakes, he makes a vow to G-d, trying to ensure that he has food to eat and a garment to wear.

There is an amazing echo in Deuteronomy, when a commandment is expressly given:

Thou shalt surely restore to him the pledge when the sun sets, that he may sleep in his garment, and bless thee; and it shall be righteousness unto thee before the LORD thy God. (Deut. 24:13 – echoed also at Ex. 22-25)

Jacob took G-d’s rock, and used it to sleep – and then he woke, turned the stone upright to anoint it and mark the spot, and then Jacob blessed G-d, the divine presence that provided a rock for a pillow, inspired and comforted Jacob in his sleep, and then soothed his fears and loneliness. The restoration of a man’s pledge-garment by sunset is connected to G-d’s comforting of Jacob when the sun set, and provision of a rock-pillow. And in both cases, the benefactor is blessed by the man who was able to sleep at night.

(There is another story of a rock and the sun setting at Ex. 17:12, but I’ll save that digression for another time.)

There is much more to this story. When the sun sets, something extraordinary happens. The Torah does not say that the sun rises until, many years later, a returning Jacob, wrestles with the angel. So when Jacob leaves, the the world is cast into metaphorical shadow and doubt (similar to the first time in the Torah when it says that the sun sets, when Avram experiences the Covenant between the Parts). Which means that the sun set on Jacob, and there were many dark years until he returned to the land and the sun rose upon him.

What happened in the meantime? Jacob worked for Laban, a man who changed the pay scale many times, played a switcheroo with brides, and was a genuine scoundrel when it came to fulfilling his pledges. Jacob refers to working “for a week” when he meant a full 7 years – and yet Laban refused to compensate him honestly.

In Deuteronomy “the sun sets” is signposted to tell us that

… You shall give the day laborer his hire before the sun sets. (Deut. 24:15)

We learn from Laban’s mistreatment of Jacob that we must pay as agreed. We are command to pay the day-laborer on time, because a day-laborer is depending on that payment in precisely the same way that Jacob was depending on Laban honoring his pledge.

There are many other examples, of course. All of these help us to understand the “why” of the commandments themselves. But they also show us how the Torah was iterated as a result of the interactions and even partnership between man and G-d. The experiences of our forefathers seem to be clearly linked to the commandments that subsequently became part of Jewish Law.


If Angels were to Govern Men….

James Madison was a very wise man, but if classical liberals have any failing, it is that we assume that other people are like us, that most people want to be free, that we desire maximized choices.

It is not so.

We flail about when we have too many choices. Offer any child the choice between chocolate and vanilla ice cream, and they make a decision pretty easily. Offer them a choice of dozens of flavors, and the challenge can be so intimidating that they can end up opting to have no ice cream at all! So while we claim to want free choice, most of us really want someone else to make it all simpler.

Behavioral studies have shown us that people consistently prefer predictable (but unremarkable) lives, to lives that may be more dynamic; we even use volatility as a perjorative when discussing the stock market. Our fears, not our dreams, are what guide most of our choices in life.

Mankind consistently seeks limits, either externally or internally imposed. We fear the unknown so much that we tend to embrace anything that promises to reduce uncertainty and quell our fears. It is the intoxicating elixir of modern liberalism.

This is why most societies who try elections for the first time invariably elect strongmen, tyrants. Sure, these larger-than-life tough guys may be bad people, but they seem to know what they are doing, and that gives comfort to the insecure. They make our lives easier by reducing the number of choices, even at the cost of limiting the range of these choices.

This explanation has also historically explained religious faith. Religion quiets the soul in no small part because it offers answers to the Big Questions: “why are we here?” and smaller questions: “How do I find peace?” Every successful religion, whether we would consider that faith to be “true” or not, works in part because it quells the fears that beat in every breast.

People are created insecure, and the natural world does nothing to ease that insecurity by itself, so we find ways of coping. Formal religion is one method, but when people eschew traditional faiths, they seem to invariably turn to placebos – at the minimum reflexive and irrational reliance on habits. Over time, without a religious bulwark, most people will descend still further into superstitions, tribalism, and neo-pagan worship practices like tattooing and recycling – all to limit the choices that modern life has laid before us. In the modern age, the single most popular religion of all, the most consistent way to ease our insecurities by limiting our freedom, is liberal government.

So while it sounds great to blame someone else for what is wrong with our lives, it is rarely accurate to do so. It is we who let our fears limit our choices. But we hate to admit it! When we don’t like how things turn out, we love to blame other people. And then the cycle feeds itself, keeping us in a perpetual state of pickled adolescent immaturity.

My people are no exception. 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.

And yet, as my sons argued during the 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 stupid 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.

After their father, Jacob, died, the brothers were panicked, and they begged for Joseph’s forgiveness. But they also went one step too far:

“[Joseph’s brothers] went and fell down before his face, and they said “Behold we are your servants.” (Gen. 50:18 [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 Joseph 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 welfare state big government bureaucrat ever since:

“Have no fear… I will sustain you and your little ones.” (Gen. 50:19,21)

In other words, Joseph 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.” Joseph 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 inevitable 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 G-d delivered us from Egypt, we never quite grew out of the classic Jewish slave and ghetto mentality. Like Joseph’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 volatile freedom. By surrendering ourselves to Joseph, 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 G-d 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 G-d 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 G-d, we need to confront the terrifying insecurities that define our human existence.

Just like the preservation of freedom, conquest over fear is a neverending 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.


You Call That Living?

The origins of Jewish humor are found in the Torah: “What?! There weren’t enough graves in Egypt?” is a repeated refrain of the people complaining in the wilderness. But it goes back from there – Rabbi Sacks points out that when the Tower of Babel was built, mankind built the largest building they could – so the text tells us that G-d had to come down just to be able to see it. Perspective can be hard to find.

The snark was more personal between Jacob and Lavan, his father-in-law. Jacob had fled to Lavan’s house after poaching his older brother’s blessing. So when Jacob complains that he was married to the wrong daughter – that Lavan had unfairly switched Leah for Rachel on the night of the wedding – Lavan’s retort was classic: “It is not our custom for the younger to come before the first-born.”

Jacob’s retort is much more fundamental. After Jacob leaves Lavan’s house, Lavan pursues him, knowing that someone has stolen Lavan’s idols. The text’s entendre is easy to miss. It is usually translated as: “anyone with whom you find your gods shall not live.” But if you read the text carefully, it just as reasonably reads: “Anyone who encounters your gods is not living!”

The connection to the famous verse: “Man does live by bread alone” is startling. The rest of that verse is, “man lives on all that is found through connection with G-d.” The word for “encounters” in the Genesis story is the same one as “connection” in the Deuteronomy verse.

In other words: The Torah is telling us that living on physical sustenance is not real living – and neither is connecting with pagan deities. Real living comes through encounters with the real G-d.


Jewish Therapy

Therapy is funny. I don’t mean “hah, hah” kind of funny, but instead a cocked-head quizzically peculiar kind of funny.

After all, therapy deals only with what is in the mind. It does not address anything that could claim to be objective reality; it is, instead, purely about the things inside a person’s head that limit the way they think or grow going forward. Therapy is, at least partially, about helping people become more mainstream, to find common ground with others in order to overcome one’s own challenges (think of twelve-step programs, or Weightwatchers). There is no doubt that much of it works – indeed, AA and Weightwatchers are among the most successful behavioral modification programs in human history.

The danger, of course, is when therapy goes off the deep end and become a form of naval-gazing, when one indefinitely treads water in one’s own mental muck. Therapists often help prolong the agony, of course: I remember an Onion headline from decades ago: “Psychologist Heals Someone.”

So there is the trick: how do we find ways to sort out what we feel, act in a manner that allows us to move beyond that thing, and then grow into the future? Therapists will make all manners of suggestions. But I’d like to make a more radical and yet deeply traditional suggestion: the Torah provides a healthy and constructive mechanism for therapy, and it happens through what we commonly translate as sacrifices.

Sacrifices are not, as we know from the prophets, something that G-d needs. They are what we need – in order to get our minds straight. Just like normal therapy, sacrifices are not there to change any external reality; they are all about finding a pathway to fulfillment and meaning.

The word the Torah uses that is usually translated as a “sacrifice” actually comes from the root meaning “come closer.” The first times it is found in the Torah are for geographical nearness (Gen. 12:11), then referring to Sarah laughing inside (Gen. 18:12): the word is all about proximity and even intimacy (Gen 20:3, when Abimelech had not “come near” Sarah).

The purposes of sacrifices are to find ways to get closer to G-d, and each of the “personal” sacrifices offered are there for therapeutic purposes. They each are there for reasons that we nowadays might use as part of marriage counseling:

  • Olah – an elevation offering. Expressing the desire to come nearer.
  • Shelamim – named after the word for “whole”, expressing gratitude.
  • Chatas – a sin offering, recognizing error and resolving to do better.
  • Asham – I might have done something wrong, and if I did, I am sorry!
  • Food/Drink – dedicating part of our labor and creativity to G-d.

This approach might help explain why an offered animal could not have a recognizable blemish: therapy ultimately seeks for people to see themselves not as uniquely troubled or blessed, but instead sharing our troubles or blessings with other people. Nobody had a special offering: when we offer gratitude or express our yearning or apologize for our sins, we see it as a way to find common ground with others, to see ourselves as individuals within a larger whole. It is a way of avoiding the mental muck of endless narcissistic naval gazing.

Indeed, Torah therapy is quite unlike tow worst modern therapies because the Torah requires a person to be involved within society; a sacrifice was a communal offering. In this way, sacrifices actually have more in common with marriage counseling, Weightwatchers and Alcoholics Anonymous: when we connect with others in our therapeutic process, then we are better able to get our minds straight, grow, and get one with our lives!


Walled Cities

It is an awkward fact that we tend to build relationships when we are lonely. But as people become increasingly independent (both emotionally and financially), we often decide that others are inconvenient or simply unnecessary – and we cast them away. When people are more able to afford divorce, divorce rates go up. When people no longer feel a void in their lives, they tend to sever ties much more easily. People who are highly secure do not tend to pour the same emotional and financial capital into their relationships.

The Torah warns us against taking things for granted. When we stop realizing how much we owe other people, then we care less about them. And when we think that we are entitled to all the good things that come our way, then we lose our sense of appreciation for the sources of those good things. In a nutshell: we get comfortable, and then we stop realizing how much we owe to other people and to our Creator.

This is the underlying reason behind the Jubilee: the reversion of land ownership every fifty years that is commanded in the Torah (Lev. 25). 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 G-d, 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 G-d is on 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 G-d. The Torah law is there to remind all of us that we need that connection.

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. (Lev. 25:30)

Why is there an exception for a walled city?

I suggest that there are two parts to the answer. The first part is that G-d very much wants mankind to build and create. Our creations are always respected by G-d – because our creations are, in a sense, extensions of G-d’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 G-d is saying that if a person would like to go without all the insecurity of relying on a relationship with G-d during the Jubilee, then he can, instead, rely on other people – that people are, themselves, a suitable alternative to prayer. 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 G-d, 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 G-d.

The Jubilee is an antidote to wealth-enabled independence from other people: if we want to be secure in our wealth, then we must work to be secure in our relationships.


Judaism and Christianity

Is Moshe saying “Thus saith the Lord” different from Isaiah saying “Thus saith the Lord.”? Why does this matter?

It is actually at the very heart of the Jewish/Christian divide: Do earlier sources trump later ones?

The Jewish position is that the Torah from the wilderness was dictated by G-d to Moshe, and every word is divine in origin. All of Jewish law derives from that Torah. All subsequent sources, however illustrative and interesting, cannot overrule or otherwise rewrite the Torah in any way, since the prophecy was never as direct as it was with Moshe. Moshe took dictation. The Prophets approximated what they heard. And our Sages were inspired (the Hebrew phrase, amusingly enough, translates as a “holy spirit”) by G-d.

The Christian position, as I understand it, is that the New Testament is in some way an update to the Old, which means that newer prophets are at least as true as the older ones, and probably more so. Hence the commandments of the Torah can be fulfilled by Jesus and the events of his life.

This is, in fact, a fundamental point of disagreement. After all, Jesus is a newer prophet, so whether or not he could negate the commandments of the Torah is a question at the very foundation of both religions.

A reader criticized me on this, with the above quote: why is Moshe saying “Thus saith the Lord,” any more accurate than Isaiah saying the same? It is an excellent question. And at the time, I did not have an answer. It seemed to me that we had reached a situation where the Jewish tradition of older-is-better and the Christian tradition of newer-is-better are at loggerheads, with no help to be had from the text.

Which just goes to show how much I have yet to learn. Because the Torah itself addresses the question!

It turns out that Moshe only uses the phrase, “Thus Saith the Lord” three times:

Shmos. 9:1: “Go in unto Pharoah and tell him: ‘Thus saith the Lord, the G-d of the Hebrews.’”

Shmos. 10:3: “And Moses and Aaron came in unto Pharaoh, and said unto him, Thus saith the LORD God of the Hebrews, How long wilt thou refuse to humble thyself before me? Let my people go, that they may serve me.”

Shmos 11:4 says, “Thus saith the Lord, About midnight will I go out [and kill the firstborn]”

What do the above have in common? They are all statements given in a different language. The Torah is in Hebrew. Moshe spoke to Pharoah in his own tongue. When Moshe used the phrase “thus saith the Lord,” he was necessarily filtering and translating what G-d was saying, tailoring it for his audience.

It goes farther than this! In that last example, “About midnight,” we know from 12:29 that it happened at midnight, not about midnight. Our sages say that Moshe used “about” instead of “at” to avoid any misunderstandings in the event that, in a world without accurate clocks, someone might think that it was midnight before it actually had taken place, and erroneously thought that the plague did not occur as promised.

In other words, Moshe deliberately changes the meaning of the words when he says “Thus saith the Lord.”

The phrase “thus saith the Lord” in the Torah means “G-d’s word, filtered or translated for the audience.” The Torah is telling us that any source that says “Thus saith the Lord” is not actually taking dictation like Moshe did. “Thus saith the Lord” is speech that has been altered or revised with human input. It is not G-d’s word itself. And it explains why Judaism does not view post-Chumash (the Five Books of Moses)  texts as superior to, or even on par with, the Five Books of Moses, what this blog refers to as “The Torah.”



The Unnatural Faith

From the 7 day week to its refusal to recognize any deity within the forces of nature, the Torah gave us the idea that G-d is not found within nature. G-d is not in the ocean or the sun, or any physical force. G-d in this world can be found, not within nature, but inside each person. So when Adam was created, he was not described as being an animal (though physiologically we are, indeed, animals)– but was instead described as being made of dust, but also ensouled by the divine breath. The Torah is telling us what we should aspire to be.

As Rabbis Sacks points out in a brilliant piece, the descendants of Avraham who were not selected to be members of the covenant going forward were similarly described as being like animals, great men of nature. In any other culture, being a passionate man who was a great archer would make one a hero; not in Judaism. The archer, Ishmael, was likened to a wild donkey, while the great hunter in the forest, Esau, was described as having “game in his mouth,” evoking the image of a cat with a bird in its teeth.

G-d does not want a people who are in sync with nature – He had that in Ancient Egypt, a people completely in harmony with the Nile and all the natural pagan deities. The god of the Torah wants people who seek to have a relationship with Him. This is why, as Sacks points out, our matriarchs were largely infertile, and they had to seek a relationship with G-d before they were able to bear children. For Jews, the things that come naturally to most people do not happen automatically for us; G-d wants us to ask, to pray, to engage with Him. And so He challenges us accordingly.

The contrasts with animal behavior run deep. Animals are not thinkers; even animals that prepare for winter do so as a matter of instinct, not strategic planning. So, too, the ancestors that were excluded from the covenant: Ishamel was guided by his angers: “He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.” (Gen. 16:12) And Esau was perhaps even worse. Esau’s desperation to obtain lentil soup, a desperation that caused him to sell his birthright shows us that Esau truly met the aspirations of 21st century millennials: Esau lived in the moment.

The Torah is telling us that to be a Jew, one must aim to be more than an animal, to see nature as something to improve, not something to emulate. This runs counter to the entire pagan world within which Judaism was born, and finds new relevance today, in a world that is so obsessed with neverending obeisance to Mother Earth that we have taken to giving proper names to every passing weather system.

Within nature, time horizons are necessarily short. In the “might makes right” violent perspective of Ishmael, or the hunter of game, intangible long-term belongings are unimportant. After all, as Esau says, “I am on the road to death, of what use to me is the birthright?” We are all on the road to death. The question is whether or not we value the things we do in our lives, and understand that our accomplishments and relationships live on in the people and institutions and things we build in the time we have. We are all on the road to death; it is what we do along the way that matters.

It is natural for man to seek pleasure, to live in the moment, to have as much fun as possible before he dies. None of these are Torah virtues. For Torah Jews, happiness is the byproduct of a life of good choices. But we take the long view; as links in the chain between the past and the future, our responsibilities go back hundreds of generations, and stretch forward into the generations to come. Anything we do to jeopardize our relationship to G-d means that we jeopardize the investment and dedication and suffering of all who came before us, and risk making our children and children’s children disconnected from G-d and His Tora