Stasis vs Dynamism: Why are Jews Merchants and Lawyers?

Lots of things in life rely on instability to thrive. Think of “Necessity is the mother of invention,” or even, “No pain, no gain.” But mankind (and womankind, especially) also have a deep and visceral fear of insecurity and risk. Stability is planning for the long haul, while instability means being able to improvise and function “in the moment.” No person can live a good and full life at either extreme – those who live to avoid all risks are not living, and those who embrace all risks will not live for long.

But for some reason, Jews are more risk tolerant than the average person. I think this is because the Jewish people are forever involved with sha’ar, gates. It is a blessing to Avraham:

I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore; and your descendants shall inherit the gates of their foes.

Gates? That is odd. After all, one might think that we are supposed to end up with land or possessions. But gates?

Gates are interesting places. Gates are a doorway into a new world (“This is the gate of heaven!”). Lot welcomes the angels at the gates. Avraham buys the burial place at the gates – that is where deals get done. Hamor and Shechem go to the gates of the city convince the men to become circumcised. Mordechai (and the blessed husband in Proverbs) “sits among the elders at the gates.” When a widow shames her brother-in-law for not preserving his brother’s name, she spits on him and throws a shoe at him “at the gates.” The gates of a city is where all the action happens: interaction with outsiders, the marketplace for goods, services, and ideas (the forum is in or near gates). Judges sit at the gates, and so do businessmen and traders of all kinds.

But unlike private property, gates are not owned, at least not by individual people. They are places of action and interaction, not ownership. And the events at the gates are the least predictable. By contrast, a farmer has a limited range of expected action and reaction based on what nature throws at him. But anything can go down at a gate – a new rumor, a riot, an invasion. Gates are sources and breeding grounds for chaos. In part this is because a gate is where people meet each other, and people, not nature, are always the X Factor in the world. Nature is cyclical, but people can actually change and grow.

Classical Jewish professions include dealing in law, finance, and commerce of all kinds. Indeed, outside of medicine, every stereotypical Jewish profession would be practiced at the gate of a city. There are historical reasons for this (for much of the last few thousand years, Jews were forbidden to own land in many countries). But I think there are temperamental reasons as well. Jews seem more comfortable in those worlds than are many other people.

Why? What makes Jews more willing to be traders or financiers?

I think the answer is found in the text, when G-d tells Avraham why he is getting this blessing.

Because you have done this and have not withheld your son … your descendants shall inherit the gates of their foes.

What is the connection? Why does being willing to sacrifice your son mean that your descendants will inherit the gates of their enemies?

I think the answer comes down to risk tolerance. Here is why: Avraham takes a huge risk when he trusts in G-d. He has no idea how it will play out, but he is willing to take that risk anyway. The word play reinforces this: the word for “withheld” is the same root word as “darkness.” In other words, Avraham’s decision was made in the dark. He was aware of that he had no idea what the future held, but he was prepared to do what he thought was best, and pray that G-d would sort things out.

This is an essential ingredient for Jewish businessmen. It is a reason why solo entrepreneurs in commerce and finance and real estate continue to succeed, long after corporations would logically have forced them from the field: Jews are willing to take risks that rational companies, companies who always need more information before they take a risk, will delay or outright avoid. Yet it is through businesses like that that wealth is created: trade allows for expansion, and Adam Smith observed that trade, each person’s desire to maximize their own assets, grows wealth much better than does keeping your wealth locked away. The Hebrew word for “gates” also means “to multiply,” a reminder that wealth is multiplied through trade.

Entrepreneurial business is a leap of faith, and the road never leads where you think it is heading. It is not for the faint of heart – or those without faith. Business risks are often unique and the waters are fouled with the mines of unknown, unforeseeable, and unintended consequences, just waiting to explode. Few people choose that kind of risk if a nice, safe options are at hand. But Jews do.

It all connects. Avraham is blessed to inherit the gates of his enemies – that Jews will prosper in the gates of sometimes-hostile host nations and peoples – because Avraham was willing to take a risk with inadequate information and faith. In both cases, we do all that we can, and then we believe that G-d will help everything turn out all right, somehow. Because that is precisely what has happened for thousands of years, and continues to happen to this day.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter collaboration]


The Shared Basis of Libertarian Free Will and Torah Fundamentalism

A Mormon friend called me the other day, and wanted to talk about the concept of redemption. He wanted to better understand the Jewish/Torah point of view on what, especially to Christians, is quite an important topic. After all, what does the end of the world look like? Are there End Days of some kind?

You might think that this is something Jews think about a lot, but if you did think that, you would be wrong. The Torah is focused on what we do in this world. The way we see it, if we always try to do our best, G-d will sort things out in the end.

So the question got me thinking. The Torah itself contains no hint of an afterlife. Similarly, there is no concept of an end to the world, or even end days. Yet the text IS very interested in helping us grow in this world. If we want to ask about redemption, it is is easily enough done: look at how the text discusses redemption.

We started with the word itself, the word for “redemption” in the text. In Hebrew the word is based on the root ga-al. It appears in the text no fewer than 37 times.

The vast majority of these examples deal with redeeming an animal that has been promised to be sacrificed, redeeming land from its current owners, and redeeming servants or slaves. In other words, they are all about achieving a degree of freedom, of autonomy, of separation from existing obligations.

The first time G-d uses the phrase, He says to Moses:

Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the LORD. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements.

And indeed, when the Exodus occurs, the people sing:

In Your kindness You lead the people You redeemed;
In Your strength You guide them to Your holy abode.

What is this redemption? The meaning seems clear: in this case redemption is freedom from slavery. But this is not a freedom merely from something: it is a freedom to something as well. Redemption in the Torah is tightly connected to the concept of free will, with all of its concomitant rights and responsibilities, including suffering (or enjoying) the consequences of our actions.

When the people left Egypt they were like children, still possessing a slave mentality, and much growth ahead of them. This was the most basic redemption, freedom from outright institutional slavery. But, like freed slaves throughout time, the mental and cultural changes to go from slavery to truly being free in one’s own mind can take many generations.

Yet it is clear that this is where the Torah goes. Torah redemption is not about a savior, or celestial angels effecting an end of time. It is instead deeply and profoundly earthy, dealing with buying back a sheep, relationships with servants, land defaults and even blood feuds (the person with a right to kill someone for a murder is called a “blood-redeemer.”)

Redemption is about daily freedom, including with one’s person and assets. It is about people being able to both have freedom, and possess the maturity to use it wisely.

There is an even-higher state of redemption in the Torah than merely freedom. It is not divine deliverance, but rather divine assistance! This divine assistance is explained the first time the word for redemption is used in the Torah, in the words of Jacob:

And [Jacob] blessed Joseph, saying,
“The God in whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked,
The God who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day—

The Angel who has redeemed me from all evil—

Bless the lads.
In them may my name be recalled,
And the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac,
And may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth.”

What is this angelic redemption? I think it connects back to Jacob’s life. Jacob took risks and he invested, time and again. Of all of the forefathers, it is Jacob who displayed the most initiative, who made bold choices. Those choices may well have had terrible consequences – Esau or Laban may well have killed him, for example – but those worst-case consequences did not happen. Jacob suffered, to be sure, but it could easily have been much worse.

Instead, Jacob was redeemed from evil. He gained divine favor to allow him to go through life and survive his own mistakes. This is the kind of redemption to which we are told to aspire, not a relationship with G-d in which G-d swoops in like a superhero to save the day, to get us out of jail free, but instead a relationship in which we do our best each and every day, where we work hard and try, and aim to always grow. And when we do that, in good faith and with good intentions, then G-d is involved with our lives, to save us from others and from the worst consequences we would otherwise have brought upon ourselves.

Redemption is thus not an open miracle, but a quiet and supportive partnership. Torah redemption is not a product or the End Days, but an ongoing process in which we are all invited and able to grow closer to one another as adults, making decisions as free men, and able to enjoy the fruits of our labor and appreciate the G-d who has blessed us.

In the ideal Torah society, people have both freedom and the maturity to use it well. This latter piece, maturity, is particularly difficult to attain. Being able to make our own decisions as free men is far beyond the Exodus, merely escape from institutional slavery. It is a development into partnership with G-d instead of merely servitude to G-d.

Redemption in the Torah in the Torah can mean freedom from others. But it does not mean freedom from ourselves. On the contrary! The freedom to act and to choose comes with responsibility, consequences and benefits from those choices. It is quite a lot like modern theories of free will and the role of a free man in a free society.

Redemption also does not mean freedom from G-d. Torah redemption comes with an involvement with G-d throughout the process, throughout our lives. Involving G-d is what separates religious libertarianism from libertinism. In the Torah, redemption leads to freedom and adulthood.

[An @iwe, @kidcoder, and @eliyahumasinter collaboration]


Why Does Esau Get Rewarded?

In the story of the rival twins, Jacob and Esau, Jacob emerges as the winner, the inheritor of the mantle of his fathers, the blessings that his seed will inherit the land.

But Esau is not actually a loser in the text. On the contrary, the Torah goes to great lengths to tell us of Esau’s lineage, and the fact that the Jewish people have no claim whatsoever to the land of Esau, that we must respect Esau’s boundaries and sovereignty.

The obvious question of course, is: why? What does Esau do that merits this treatment?

And I think the answer, like all of these answers, is in the text. In summary:

Jacob deceives his father to steal his brother’s blessing. Esau is enraged and wants to kill Jacob. Jacob flees, and stays away for a few decades, making no contact at all with his parents or brother.

Then, Jacob comes back. When he does, he proactively sends messengers to his brother, bearing gifts of all kinds. When they meet in person, he bows down many times to Esau, calling him “my lord,”, and finally says “My blessing is yours.” In other words, Jacob clearly tries to undo what he had done. Jacob is giving back what he had stolen.

At this point, Esau has a choice. He traveled to meet Jacob with four hundred men, so he was ready for anything. When Jacob placates him, Esau chooses to accept the gift – and in full. He even offers to escort Jacob to their parents, traveling at whatever speed suited Jacob’s family and herds. Jacob declines, and something is made clear: the future of the Jewish legacy belongs to Jacob, and Esau is not invited. The rejection is polite and it is gentle, but it is firm: Jacob seeks to have no more relationship with Esau, none at all.

And Esau is given another choice: how does he handle the rejection? The answer is that he acts like a perfect gentleman, a mensch. Whatever his feelings may have been, his words and actions are perfectly in concord with civil and cordial acceptance.

This is, as with all things in the Torah, a lesson to us. We are used to learning from Jacob, but the Torah is setting Esau up to be an example to follow as well: accept apologies. Respect the wishes of others if they have no intention of harming us. Be a mensch, even – and especially – when you are being rejected. And if you manage to do those things, then G-d will respect and reward you in turn.

[an @iwe and @susanquinn production]


Creating Value from Worthless Dust

I want to talk about dust. Regular, old-fashioned dirt. The stuff that has virtually no value in its raw form.

Why does this interest me? Because the way the word for dust, afar, is used in the Torah is fascinating, and worth exploring.

At first glance, dust does not seem to rated highly in the text:

On your belly shall you crawl
And dust shall you eat
All the days of your life. (Gen 3:14)

For dust you are, and to dust you shall return. (Gen. 3:19)

Abraham spoke up, saying, “Here I venture to speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes (Gen 18:27)

You made Your wind blow, the sea covered them / They sank like lead/dust in the majestic waters. (Ex. 15:10)

And the Philistines stopped up all the wells which [Isaac’s] father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham, filling them with dust. (Gen 26:15)

Dust is used for destruction!

But despite all of these examples, G-d also tells us that we are blessed to be like dust! And even that we should emulate dust!

I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, then your offspring too can be counted. (Gen. 13:16)

Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. (Gen 28:14)

Who can count the dust of Jacob? (Num. 23:10)

Why? Why is dust, the most uninteresting substance, something we should aspire to be?

The answer is also in the text, in the way the very same word is used elsewhere…

For starters, and most famously, man is made from dust:

The LORD God formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.

So dust can be an elemental building block. Admittedly, it is not, in itself, holy. But mankind is proof that with the right admixtures and behavior, dust can be holy. What needs to be added? This, too, is told to us:

By the sweat of your brow
Shall you get bread to eat,
Until you return to the ground—
For from it you were taken.
For dust you are,
And to dust you shall return.”

It is work that gives dust value. The sweat of our brow is what elevates us, temporarily, from being mere dust.

So with invested work, the dust that is otherwise snake food and a curse, can be a useful and good and even holy product.

There is another attribute of dust in the Torah. Dust is connected to faithfulness and truth. This is described a few places:

1: A woman who is suspected of adultery, bad faith with her husband, must drink a concoction that includes dust. If she is lying, she will die.

2: The people, after sinning with the Golden Calf, are made to similarly consume it after it has been ground into dust. Those who intended idolatry, bad faith with G-d, die.

3: Pharoah promises to let the people go after the frogs, but then he breaks faith and changes his mind (this is the first time Pharaoh breaks his word in the Torah). The next plague is as follows:

Aaron held out his arm with the rod and struck the dust of the earth, and vermin came upon man and beast; all the dust of the earth turned to lice (kinim) throughout the land of Egypt.

This very same word, kinim, is used by Joseph’s brothers to insist that they are not lying, that they are upright men. They protest that they are not lying or spies, instead they are kinim. The brothers do not realize that Egypt is not a land that is compartible with kinim. It is no accident that the word kinim is only used in Egypt, in the land that is harmonized with nature and with the natural and logical assertion that “might makes right.” The divine attribute of honor and fidelity are alien to the natural world, and so kinim, the higher evolutionary form of dust, is seen as a plague in Egypt.

But why does dust have this meaning, this connection to good faith? I suggest it connects back to dust’s first mention: to the fundamental relationship that is created when man’s dust is combined with G-d’s spirit. G-d’s spirit cannot abide coexistence with a person who cheats, breaks their word, commits adultery or idolatry. So dust, the stuff of physical earth, has this spiritual characteristic.

This helps us understand why the Jewish people are blessed to be like dust!

I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, then your offspring too can be counted. (Gen. 13:16)

We are to offer the positive attributes of dust to the world: honesty, uprightness, faithfulness to spouse and G-d.

And if we do that, then we end up helping the entire world:

Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth; you shall spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you and your descendants. (Gen 28:14)

Our contribution may be more than merely physical, of course. When we hunt a wild animal or bird, we are commanded to cover its blood with dust, in so doing to add its spirit to the earth, to make the earth symbolically elevated by trapping the once-wild blood into the earth.

We also use dust in the ritual of the Red Heifer where we remove the symbolic stain from coming in contact with the dead. In the ritual, the priest combines the dust of the burnt heifer with “living water” and recreates man’s state before death came into the world.

One of the first uses of the word for “dust” is as a curse:

But if you do not obey the LORD your God to observe faithfully all His commandments and laws which I enjoin upon you this day, all these curses shall come upon you and take effect … dust shall drop on you from the sky, until you are wiped out.

This last is a reminder that we cannot build with dust in a holy way without following G-d’s commandments; improvising in order to somehow elevate dust will cause it to be “returned to sender,” and with a vengeance. If we try to succeed without listening to G-d, then we would be killed by the very thing from which we are made.

Similarly, when we harm other people (which is a form of harming G-d), then our creations become contaminated and must be purged:

The house shall be scraped inside all around, and the dust (coating) that is scraped off shall be dumped outside the city in an unclean place. … They shall take other stones and replace those stones with them, and take other coating and plaster the house. … The house shall be torn down—its stones and timber and all the coating on the house—and taken to an unclean place outside the city. (Lev 14:41-45)

The text is telling us that we build with dust, that dust, the interior of homes, is our creation, just as surely as G-d used the same dust to make mankind. Indeed, just as no two people are identical, no two homes are the same, either (efforts to make peoples’ personal expressions identical are only exerted by totalitarian regimes). In these verses our actions have corrupted the dust so it must be disposed of, which means that our creative building acts may even be counterproductive.

In sum, the Torah is telling us that we can add value to anything in the world, even (and especially) mere dust. If we can make dust holy, then we can make anything holy, and so we are commanded to do precisely this. We are blown to the four corners of the world, commanded to bring the ideas of kinim, of uprightness, everywhere we go. When we do that, we provide uplift to the world, we are a blessing to others.

In its natural state, dust has no value. Philistines use it as landfill. But we are told that we must instead look to create value from everything in this world, no matter how insignificant it may seem

When we use dust productively and constructively, then we are improving nature, just as fidelity and honesty improve upon a “might makes right” godless society. Dust and its symbolic associations are both our charge and our blessing to others. We are commanded to emulate G-d’s creation of mankind using dust, to show the world that uprightness and faithfulness can be built and preserved with all that we do – even if all we have is the basest of substances.

[An @iwe, @blessedblacksmith, @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter production!]


The Errors that Come from Reading Stories Backward

One of the things the Greeks brought to the world is the concept of an oracle, a wizened predictor of the future whose mutterings invariably come true (albeit in perverse ways), making a mockery of those who think they can prevent fate.

If someone steeped in such a worldview were to read the biblical story of Rebecca asking G-d about the quarreling going on in her womb, they would come away with an understanding of the answer she receives that jives with what happens later in the story, to show that the oracle or prophecy came true. Indeed, such a reader might conclude that because she received this prophecy, she knew what she needed to know in order to make it come true.

In other words, a Greek reading of the text of the Torah would superimpose the end of the story on what was predicted in the beginning of the story. And in so doing, any original meaning in a prophecy could be changed, in order to square it all up, to make the story neatly resolve itself.

This is precisely what happens with every extant translation of the text into English. The King James translation, as good as any, reads:

And the LORD said to her: “Two nations are in your womb, Two peoples shall be separated from your body; One people shall be stronger than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.”

Readers immediately understand that this is a prophecy about Jacob and his brother Esau, that Esau is meant to serve Jacob. It may well be that Rebeccah herself understood it this way. But this is not what the words actually are!

In order to figure out what the Torah is saying, we need to understand each word by how it is used elsewhere in the text, and not take the shortcut of merely extrapolating the end of the story back onto its beginning. If we do an analysis like this, the answer is far more interesting and informative than merely reading it as a Greek tale of fate.

Here is a translation using the words themselves:

Two nations are in your womb

And two peoples will issue and branch out from you

One people will be more resolute than the other

And the multitude will be dependent on (cultivated by) the younger

Certainly not as pithy as the Greek-ish version. But there is treasure here, a prophecy that explains the Jewish people throughout history.

Here are the major changes from the “accepted” translation to one that is more faithful to the text:


From: One people will be stronger than the other

To: One people will be more resolute than the other.

The word in question is amatz. It is used in the blessings for Joshua, that he should be courageous – certainly not mighty. Courage is about state of mind, not physical prowess or strength. Indeed, the word is used other places to refer to persistence, stubbornness, what might today be called “grit.”

The text seems to be saying that one of these two nations will be more persistent and resolute, possessing more staying power, than the other. And thus you have a prediction about the entire history of the Jewish people, determined and stubborn from Jacob until the present day.


From: And the older shall serve the younger.

To: And the multitude will be dependent on (cultivated by) the younger

What has changed here? The first is whether or not one of the nations is older than the other or not. The word used universally in the Torah for older is bachur. Bachur is used to compare the daughters of lot, the birth order of the sons of Jacob. The word is paired with the word for “younger” in every single example in the Torah – except this one! Instead of bachur, the word used in this verse is rav, which means a multitude, a large quantity – and does not mean “the older” anywhere in the Torah! Rav is not used to describe a multitude of Jews – it always means a great quantity or great power of other peoples, such as Hagar’s descendants, or the “mixed multitude” of Egyptians who left Egypt with the Jews in the Exodus.

The other key piece is this word, “serve”, which I see instead as being connected to cultivation. This is because the word eved in the Torah is first used to discuss agriculture!

When no shrub of the field was yet on earth and no grasses of the field had yet sprouted, because the LORD God had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no man to eved the soil,

Consider this meaning. Man’s job is to till the soil, to cultivate and tend it, to invest his energy into the ground to produce useful and good produce. And in so doing, man is a partner with G-d – G-d brings rain, and man brings the elbow grease. Together we take raw and naked nature and turn it into something useful and productive.

This is the word used in our verse: the younger nation will cultivate, invest in, and produce goods from the multitude of humanity.

This is precisely what happens. But it does NOT happen to Jacob and Esau. Instead, it happens to Jacob writ large: the Jewish peoples’ impact on the world is likened to that first farmer: we take the world in a state of nature and invest in it. Judaism combats paganism and nature-oriented views of mankind’s place, and replaces it instead with a vision that promotes the value of each soul, the value of love and relationships. It is Jacob’s descendants, as Hitler grasped so well in Mein Kampf, who reject the idea that Might Makes Right, that the powerful should rule the weak. Where Jews invest, the world grows upward, both materially and spiritually. From Judaism came Christianity and Islam, the idea of monotheism and the concept of a golden age that lies in the future and not the past.

Seen in this light, the prophecy Rebecca receives is not a lesson about the inexorability of fate, but is instead a blessing that while her children will form different peoples, one of them will lead by dint of a stubborn refusal to abandon hope, and have the same spiritual impact on the peoples of the world that mankind had in an agricultural sense when we learned to cultivate crops.

[an @iwe and @susanquinn production!]


Why Me? Inquiring Minds Want to Know

My mother taught me from a young age that good questions are more important – and harder to create – than good answers. As I have grown up, her wisdom has been validated countless times: coming up with your very own question is something few people can do, while anyone can make a stab at an essay answering a question that someone else has posed.

The hardest questions – and answers – are the ones that are unique, the questions that help us find our own path in this world, whether in marriage or career, the ways in which we should invest in our friends, our children or our parents. And at some level, they sound self-centered, even bordering on narcissistic. But I think this is not the case: “Why me?” is a great question. You don’t have to take my word for it, of course: Rebecca (Rivka), Issac’s wife shows the way. She was pregnant, and the text tells us:

But the children struggled in her womb, and she said, “If this is the case, why do I exist?” She went to inquire (drash) of the LORD.

Look at her question! It is not “I want to know what G-d thinks.” Instead, she is asking about herself, in a personal way: “Who am I? Why is this happening to me?” The question seems to verge on the existential, which may not be what you would expect from a text dating from before the Greeks.

In some faiths, one is taught that whatever happens is destined to happen, written in some form in the stars, and that questioning what happens to us is pointless or even wrong. But in the Torah, Rivka demands an answer, and she receives it.

The way the Torah uses this word teaches us a great deal about the value of asking questions – especially of G-d.

If you search there for the LORD your God, you will find Him, if only you seek (drash) Him with all your heart and soul. (Deut. 4:29)

The key word is drash, which means to inquire or challenge, or seek. G-d clearly urges us to drash – but not merely to seek G-d, but to understand the relationship each one of us is capable of having with the Creator. This is a common question, but a question for which each person gets their very own answer!

Rivka’s question actually becomes the template for how Jews are meant to relate to G-d; the people take Rivka’s actions to heart. Much later in the text, after the Exodus, Moses tells his father-in-law what he does all day:

The people come to me to inquire (drash) of God.

Despite what you might think at first blush, drash is not the language of obedience or accepted subservience. It is the question of dogged and determined questioning. How do we know? Because G-d is the first to use the word in the text, and it is used to describe G-d’s response to murder. After the flood, G-d tells Noach:

But for your own life-blood I will require a drash: I will require it of every beast; of man, too, will I require a drash for human life, of every man for that of his fellow man!

G-d’s declaration that he will demand a reckoning of every murder is the very same word used to describe Rivka and Jewish queries to G-d. There is an equivalence here: we are meant to be just as zealous in questioning G-d and our connection to Him, as G-d is when he punishes murderers! The zealousness of our drash in questioning G-d is matched by G-d’s drash for addressing murder.

How can we compare the two? A murder is a life snuffed out, the opportunity to touch the infinite, lost. The text, by using the same word for human questions of G-d, is making an equivalence: an unexamined life, like a murder, is a terrible waste!

If you search there for the LORD your God, you will find Him, if only you seek (drash) Him with all your heart and soul. (Deut. 4:29)

It is extraordinary how personal this is – from Rivka’s deeply personal question about her pregnancy, to each person’s need to invest their own heart and soul – it is clear that G-d does not deal with mankind, or the Jewish people, as a group. Instead, the answers are found only if we seek them with every bit of ourselves – and the answer is different for each and every person, just as Rivka’s pregnancy was uniquely her own.

The result is an ageless characteristic of the Jewish people. From Rivka through holocaust survivors or parents of handicapped children, we are the people who drash. We push, we ask, we are not to be satisfied with bromides like “It is G-d’s will.” Because, after all, it may be G-d’s will that our challenges are there specifically to get us to ask the question! Our forefathers asked questions and challenged G-d, arguing when they thought they were right; the text is clear that we are to follow their lead.

Our questions, like Rivka’s, do not need to be channeled through a sage or a prophet. Though if Moses is handy, it is not hard to see the logic of asking him! In Rivka’s case we do not know precisely how she had her question answered, which I think is a key part of the point: she “went to drash G-d.” She stepped out of herself, and she sought answers.

When G-d asks the questions, drash seems to mean a divine reckoning, paying the price for our actions – as it was used with Noach, describing the consequences of murder. Similarly, when Joseph has been sold into slavery, his oldest brother berates the other brothers:

Then Reuben spoke up and said to them, “Did I not tell you, ‘Do no wrong to the boy’? But you paid no heed. Now will come the drash for his blood.”

Elsewhere in the Torah, we use drash in formal courts to describe making inquiries as part of a legal process to ascertain fact and determine consequences, while G-d uses drash to watch over the way we live in the Land of Israel: questioning whether we are making good choices. The word, at least in relation to G-d, is integrally linked with taking responsibility for our own lives, for choosing to have conscious and thoughtful agency over our own decisions.

We are forbidden, on the other hand, to drash of the dead, presumably because Judaism is always focused on what each person can do next, not living a recursive loop with our past. As we know from the civilizations that have worshipped the dead, that path leads to stasis, existence without actual living.

Similarly, we are warned against querying how people worship other gods:

Beware of being lured into their ways … Do not drash about their gods, saying, “How did those nations worship their gods? I too will follow those practices.”

A key feature with idolatrous religions is that people are individually insignificant and non-differentiated when the deity is Mother Earth or Baal or Zeus. All of these faith systems ultimately treat people like animals, measured and valued for their economic output or offerings or emissions, not because they each have their own unique soul and pathway to making the world better and holier. In a Green worldview, each person is a blight on the environment, and their worth can be measured according to their carbon footprint – as opposed to a divinely-gifted spark that has the power to connect heaven and earth.

So if we drash into paganism, we are discarding each person’s own ability to ask their own questions and find their own answers. Instead, we follow a profoundly egalitarian worldview, seeing each person as quite rightly having their own opportunities and pitfalls, their own path in this world, a path that is only discovered in conversation with G-d.

The Torah tells us that questioning our own lives and what G-d expects from us is not only acceptable: it is an essential quality of what it means to be a Jew.

P.S. The last time the word drash is used in the Torah, it forms a fascinating bookend:

When you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not put off fulfilling it, for the LORD your God will drash it of you, and you will have incurred sin. . .

Recall that the first time the word is used, it is post-flood, and G-d is telling Noach about the consequences of murder. And then at the end of the text, G-d is equally interested in mere vows! The text takes us from shedding blood to making a promise and not fulfilling it! The growth of mankind from the beginning of the Torah to the end is quite dramatic: we start as animals who kill, and we end as beings who recognize that our mere words have power to create or destroy. The spiritual power of a person to change the world using only words is connected to our ability to do violence and shed blood.

[an @iwe, @blessedblacksmith, @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter collaboration!]


Time, Money, and Priorities

It has been said that a young person invests time to gain money. But that same person, older and wealthier, will spend money to buy time.

I feel like that quite a lot these days; when I was younger I would go to extreme lengths to save a dollar. But now I am increasingly willing to spend money if it means I can spend my time doing the things for which I can be most productive.

I have noticed a common parallel in people discovering their roots. Most people who are interested in genealogy are older, while countless family stories have been lost because when those same people were younger, they were not interested enough to ask (or listen) to the oldest generation before their stories died with them.

As I age I value my relationships more and more. But of course, in the case of some of the most important relationships, damage that was done long ago can no longer be meaningfully repaired. Some of that damage was entirely my fault, damage that I caused when I was young and impetuous and – to put it nicely – had my priorities all wrong.

The Torah gives us a prominent example: when Avraham was younger, he sent his nephew away merely because they owned so many flocks and herds that their herdsmen were quarreling with each other. In a nutshell, Avraham valued his sheep more than he valued his nephew. The situation would have been neatly resolved if they had decided, instead, to shed some of their wealth and stay together.

Similarly, when Avraham goes to Egypt he saves his own life and receives gifts from Pharaoh when he lets his wife be taken to be a harem-slave. It is not obvious that his priorities are quite in order.

We all know people who have let their possessions (or lack thereof) ruin a marriage, a family, a friendship. Most of us, at one time or another, make similar mistakes by prioritizing material wealth over important relationships. And I suspect that most of us regret those mistakes later in life, at least those of who who mature and realize that happiness does not come from money or stuff; happiness is instead the byproduct of good choices and loving relationships.

Avraham similarly grows: he spends a fortune purchasing a burial place for his wife (and the future dynastic family). Avraham then spend profligately to obtain a wife for his son, Isaac, before finally giving his remaining wealth to Isaac before his own death.

The text is at pains to tell us that Avraham dies a very happy and content man. Whatever may have happened earlier, there is no doubt that it was worked out, as well as it could be, by the time his days on this earth had passed. It is an end to which all of us would heartily wish. As my Rabbi points out, the reason we live longer lives is because we are not done when we are twenty; life has an arc, and we should always look for opportunities to examine our priorities, to change ourselves and grow, and above all, to invest in our divine and earthly relationships.


Financial Abuse: Transactions or Relationship-builders?

If I do someone a favor, and they repay that favor, are we then equal? Take an extreme case: you save someone’s life, and then, somehow, they save yours. From a rational perspective, one might say that neither party owes the other anything. Each can go their own way, debt-free. But from a human perspective, everything has changed: you now share a common and strong bond.

Any transaction can be understood in this way. We can be cold and transact with others merely for the purpose of buying or selling something. Or we can see every transaction as an opportunity to grow together. In a nutshell, this also describes a key ingredient in successful marriages: those who keep score in a marriage are missing the entire point.

Finances, like anything else, are a way to either build a relationship or, if done in a certain manner, take advantage. When Avraham buys the cave of Machpelah to bury his wife, the seller charges a ridiculous price: Avraham described himself as a “resident alien” and the seller saw the opportunity to abuse a grieving and desperate purchaser.

Indeed, the text uses the phrase “resident alien” later on in the text specifically to refer to the prohibition of charging interest.

If your kinsman, being in straits, comes under your authority, and you hold him as though a resident alien, let him live by your side: do not exact from him advance or accrued interest, but fear your God. Let him live by your side as your kinsman.

It is no accident that the Torah’s prohibition against taking advantage uses the exact same phrase that Avraham uses to describe himself before the seller abuses him: just because you can take advantage of a buyer does not mean that you ought to do so!

From a relationship perspective, this goes back to how we handle (and lend) money in the first place. If we give someone money or food or lodging, and they pay it back with interest, then we have made a transaction. The loan-shark is never loved, to put it mildly. On the other hand, if we either make a loan without interest or we invest in another person by taking a share of their venture in return for the money, then we have created the conditions within which our relationships may grow and flourish. I am a businessman: my investors are dear to me, while my creditors are merely third parties that need to be managed.

The Torah makes the same point in the use of its language. The word used for “interest” is “neshech.” In the Torah it means only one of two things: interest, and a snake bite. The first usage of the word is in the blessing for Dan:

Dan shall be a serpent by the road,
A viper by the path,
That bites [Neshech] the horse’s heels
So that his rider is thrown backward.

Neshech is not only a snakebite, but a predatory and parasitic force that unhorses the rider and brings him to the ground. The same word is later used to refer to snakes that bit and killed the people. Every single usage of “neshech” to mean a “bite” includes the word for “snake” in the same verse, a reminder of all the symbolism regarding a snake: the snake in Eden, the deceiving, manipulating and untrustworthy attacker, delivering a slow venom that slowly kills the prey. Interest is analogous to a snake bite!

The laws against charging interest in the Torah are there for precisely this reason: we are forbidden from charging other Jews interest because our longer-term dealings should always be for the purpose of building relationships, not merely engaging in a transaction. We are permitted to charge “outsiders” interest, because in those cases relationship-building is much more fraught with danger given the differences in culture and the possible absence of good faith. (The first time the word for “outsider” is used is by Rachel and Leah describing how their father had turned on them. Gen 31:15)

We can, as we have said, opt to charge interest to non-Jews. But this is not required; if we choose, we can extend them the same courtesy of not charging interest or directly finding some form of investment or partnership. Jewish history contains plenty of bitter reminders that interest-bearing money-lending does not enable or grow positive and trusting relationships.

The Torah is a guide book for how to have relationships with other people and with G-d. In that, we have G-d Himself as a role model. Here’s how: G-d explains why we are forbidden to charge interest with the following: “I the LORD am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be your God.”

Wait. What does the fact that G-d gave us the land of Canaan have anything to do with charging interest? How does this explain the prohibition against charging interest?

The answer is simple: The Land of Canaan is not given to the Jews unconditionally. Our ability to live in it and keep it are dependent on our relationships – both with each other and with G-d. If we fail to have constructive relationships then, the text tells us, we will be vomited out of the land, expelled and oppressed.

This is precisely what happened to the Jewish people both times that the Temple was destroyed and the people expelled. In both cases, the Jews brought sacrifices, following the letter of the law. But, as is abundantly clear in our histories, the people did not practice loving-kindness, ignoring the entire spirit of the Torah. We dealt transactionally with each other, in naked self-interest. And we did the same with G-d: we brought sacrifices, but we did it by going through the motions, not actually seeking to become closer, to grow.

We have the land that G-d has given us. He does not charge interest, and we do not pay it. Instead, the conditions are very much like a co-investment where each party brings something of value in the hopes of building something together, in a partnership. The relationship is the entire purpose, and so G-d reminds of the Land of Canaan when he tells us that we cannot charge interest to our countrymen.

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


What Makes a Society Evil Beyond Salvation?

I am not the first person to wonder out loud about whether Western Civilization is heading toward its own destruction. But I’d like to take a step back and ask a basic introductory question: what makes a society evil in the eyes of G-d – so evil that it merits being destroyed outright?

Sodom is our case study, the only time post-flood when G-d destroys people because of their sinfulness. But it is not – of course — that simple.

Here is the outline of what happens:

Then the LORD said, “The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will know.”

Here is a key element: G-d has not decided in advance to destroy the city. Instead, He decides to actively test the city by sending in angels and seeing what will happen. It is clear in the text that if the angels had been treated well, then Sodom would not have been destroyed.

Here is what the people of the city do:

[The angels) had not yet lain down, when the townspeople, the men of Sodom, young and old—all the people to the last man—gathered about the house. And they shouted to Lot and said to him, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.” So Lot went out to them to the entrance, shut the door behind him, and said, “I beg you, my friends, do not commit such a wrong. Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them as you please; but do not do anything to these men, since they have come under the shelter of my roof.” But they said, “Stand back! The fellow,” they said, “came here as an alien, and already he acts the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” And they pressed hard against the person of Lot, and moved forward to break the door.

There is a lot in these few verses, but we can see the major elements of what dooms Sodom:

  1. The city acts as a mob. Every single person participated in encircling the house and making demands. There is no tolerance in the city for outliers, for individuals who make their own decisions. It is a majoritarian tyranny, and a cautionary tale about how crowd behavior can easily lead to wrongdoing. The mob are like the Borg: “You will be assimilated.” There is no room in Sodom for people who are different.
  2. The desire to “know” the travelers may be about judging them, or raping them. Either way, there is no right to be free from the oversight and judgement of the populace.
  3. There is no respect for private property, for the protection under a homeowner’s roof. Invasion of someone else’s space is clearly evil in the eyes of the Torah.
  4. Treating strangers as less than fully respected was the law and custom in the ancient world – but both Avraham and Lot had breached this principle by welcoming strangers and making them comfortable. Excluding and snubbing outsiders and strangers is considered evil.
  5. The decisive blow, the words of the mob that end G-d’s evaluation and trigger the destruction of the city, is the decision to reject Lot’s advice. The mob does this not because they consider his words on their merits. Instead, they reject the advice because of where the advisor came from. In other words, the people engage in an ad hominem attack on Lot as a recent immigrant who came as a stranger, instead of questioning whether or not his advice was sound and good.

This last part is important for a very basic reason: G-d wants a world that seeks to grow and improve, which means we must be open to hearing criticism, internalizing it, and then changing ourselves. Once people refuse to accept or consider good advice regardless of the source, they are irredeemable. If the purpose of our lives is to grow, then G-d may decide that a person who excludes good advice because of the person giving it, no longer deserves to live.

All of the above, of course, is extremely relevant today:

  1. We have a mob mentality governing far too much of our public “discourse.” Dissent is increasingly stifled or canceled.
  2. We have an assumption that nobody should have privacy any longer, that even seeking privacy makes someone somehow suspicious.
  3. Private property is increasingly under attack in a wide range of ways – from no-knock warrants to Child Protective Services and a host of other government overreaches.
  4. Xenophobia is really just a form of tribalism, of hating and fearing and mocking “the other.” In an increasingly fractured world, it has become increasingly rare for people to do anything other than excluding people who are not in their own “tribes,” whether political or geographical, racial or class tribes.
  5. Ad Hominem attacks, along with disregard of what another person is actually saying, are the rule, not the exception. Everyone seems to use labels about the opposing person as a conclusive reason to reject what someone else is saying, instead of actually discussing the underlying issue.

Using this scale, America today is not in a good place, and certainly is not going in the right direction.

What could have saved Sodom – and can still save us?

G-d identifies that if there are ten righteous men in the city, it will be spared. Note that this is an absolute number, not a percentage. It is seemingly OK if the majority of people are demonstrably evil, as long as there is potential for good ideas to overcome the bad, for good people to battle back.

But what makes such a “righteous” person? In the Torah, surprisingly, the Hebrew word for justice is not defined by a code of law. Instead, as I wrote here, :

Justice means hearing each person, making them feel valued and appreciated. A good judge is someone who cares about people, who is sensitive to their feelings and need for respect. That is the single biggest prerequisite for justice to be done.

I am not saying that a justice and a society do not also need laws (the Torah certainly gives us the principles for a detailed set of laws), but I am saying that the laws are ultimately only worthwhile if justice is seen to be done, if petitioners feel that they have been heard fairly.

That is why “justice” in the Torah is not given to us in the name of a Torah scholar. Instead, the two people associated with justice, Noah and Malchi-Tzedek were not even Jewish. The lesson in this is incredible to me: the Torah is not only telling us that we have to treat fellow-Jews and non-Jews the same under the law. It is also telling us that the torch-bearers of the concept of justice were indeed themselves not Jewish.  This is a shockingly egalitarian revelation to me, both for the ancient world and for the modern one. The Torah credits not G-d and not the forefathers for inventing justice, but two outsiders, thoughtful and empathic men, men who could hear a non-corporeal voice and who could see a situation through the eyes of other people.

For Sodom, then, “ten righteous men” would have been men who would have been able to see things from the perspective of a visiting stranger. In other words, a righteous man is a man who can put himself in the shoes of the stranger, hungry and alone, understand his perspective, and connect with that person on a human level.

Listening is the foundational aspect of justice: being able to hear G-d and man alike, being able to truly see things from the perspective of the other person. The Torah tells us that this is a critical virtue, one that we learned from non-Jews and in turn must apply it zealously within our own society as well as seeking to make it a universal virtue across all the lands and peoples of the world.

Had there been ten such men in Sodom, then “all” the people could not have gathered to form a mob. They would not have sought to invade privacy or property. Identifying with the strangers and with Lot, these ten righteous men would have been able to hear Lot’s argument and empathize with the plight of his family and the strangers alike. And then Sodom would not have been destroyed.

Which means there remains a path forward for us.

[an @iwe and @kidcoder work]


Remembering Lot’s Wife with Every Offering

Sodom is being destroyed. Lot and his family are fleeing, and they have been strictly instructed to not look back. But Lot’s wife, for one reason or another, cannot control herself, and she is famously turned into a pillar of salt.

It sounds like a tragic but odd, and perhaps even irrelevant, story. After all, what can we learn from this vignette?

Quite a lot, it seems. Much later in the Torah, G-d instructs:

עַ֥ל כׇּל־קׇרְבָּנְךָ֖ תַּקְרִ֥יב מֶֽלַח׃ {ס}         with all your offerings you must bring salt.

Why salt? With every single offering? What possible meaning is there in it?

The story of Lot’s wife gives us the answer: she looked back. And therein is our answer, because every sacrifice is always about finding a way to move forward – whether in thanksgiving or in atonement or for any of the other reasons we bring sacrifices. The G-d of the Torah is always interested in the future, and commands us to do similarly: it is one reason, for example, we are barred from marking mark ourselves for the dead.

We can only grow if we are able to put the past behind us, focus on doing better, and keeping our eyes focused on the goal. And to do that, we have salt present at every offering, to remind us of what happens when we decide to copy Lot’s wife by looking back at where we come from, instead of staying focused on where we need to go.

Remember, of course, that sacrifices are not for G-d – they are for us. To G-d, sacrifices are mere gestures, symbols of what we are feeling. The purpose of a sacrifice is to be able to grow from the past, to build a relationship going forward. And for that, we need to be reminded to keep our eyes on the future. We have salt present at each offering to help us remember that when we instead choose to live in the past, we are choosing what is ultimately a dead end.

[an @iwe and @blessedblacksmith work]


The Problem with Perfect Heroes

In Plato’s Republic, Plato discusses 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 had any flaws. Instead, he said that it was necessary to paint them as perfect, and beyond all criticism.

One key problem with this approach is that heroes cannot grow – they have to be, in a sense, perfect for their entire lives. If that is the case, then we remove the possibility of character development, of a person maturing and learning and changing as they learn from their experiences. In other words, we lose the most important component of most good plots: how the hero overcomes his flaws and achieves redemption. So when we insist that our heroes were perfect, even when they were little children, then we make them so different from ourselves than we cannot relate to them in any way. Each of us, we would hope, are not the same person we were when we were children or teenagers.

Judaism, like any other belief system that has withstood the test of time, has not been immune to external forces. Some of those forces are openly recognized – and thus more easily rejected. But others are much more subtle, almost invisible. We think of Hellenism as an ancient idea, but many of the ideas of the Greeks (including concepts like Truth and Beauty and Perfection) have become core ideas of modern Western thought as well. Ancient Jews consciously and unconsciously adopted Greek ideas into our own worlds. It happened with language, and with philosophy, with culture and habit. And it certainly happened with Plato’s view of teaching that our heroes must be flawless.

Jews—and especially observant Jews—have a particular problem with thinking this way. The influence of Plato runs deep in our tradition. Plato, of course, comes after the Torah is given at Sinai. Though his worldview on education is not found in the Torah itself, it certainly is part of Judaism today.

The text of the Torah itself does not sugarcoat our origins. Our ancestors are presented in full, warts and all. But even though the Torah itself does not suggest that our forefathers were flawless, and indeed, it wants us to read the text in a straightforward manner: “It is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off,[1] normative Jewish tradition is to suggest that, because they are so far above our own level, we cannot actually learn very much of anything from our forefathers, except the vaguest notions such as being hospitable to guests. The text, if it conflicts with a Platonic interpretation, must be explained away.

But there is a way we can see the flaws of our forefathers without necessarily claiming that they were as flawed and limited as we are. My brother suggests what he calls “The Iceskater Analogy,” and it goes as follows: One may well be able to appreciate that a skater missed a jump or a landing without saying that we would do a better job. In other words, we can acknowledge when an historical or biblical figure makes a mistake without needing to also say that we would never have made such a mistake. Think, for example, of the countless missteps of generals in the heat of the moment when, years later and without any of the pressures of war, we can easily identify their errors. We may be right now, and they have been wrong then – but that does not mean we would have been better generals had we been in their shoes.

So it is not widely accepted that Jews are even able to point out when the biblical skater has missed a landing, even when it seems quite clear that he has done so. We have this peculiar situation: today’s traditional Jews would shy away, without explanation, from explicitly emulating our forefathers. Nobody would suggest that it is a good idea for me to save my own life by taking payment in exchange for handing over my own wife (as Avraham did), or deceive our father because Jacob deceived Isaac to steal his brother’s blessing. Instead, we are told that while the Torah tells us about these things, they are not actually meant to be understood the way the words present them! In other words, Hashem’s Holy Book cannot – and should not – be interpreted using its own words.

I would argue that since the Torah itself does not whitewash our forefathers, and indeed is clearly ambivalent about some of their actions, the ethical lessons of the Torah are meant to be learned the way they are described. Though we can explain away apparent errors with complex justifications, it is neither necessary nor, on the whole, beneficial to do so.

Let me give a single example: two years ago, I pointed out that we became slaves in Egypt because of something Avram did, when he arranged matters such that his wife would be taken in Pharoah’s harem:

Can you imagine how Sarai must have felt at that moment? She would have felt totally abandoned, and alone. The future looked dark indeed – was she really supposed to end up as nothing more than a harem-slave to a foreign king?

This, I think, is why G-d wanted us to feel the same thing when we were in Egypt, alone, oppressed, and seemingly abandoned by our G-d – the same way that Sarai must have felt about her husband, and perhaps even about G-d as well.

If this is right, then we were enslaved in Egypt so that we would learn how NOT to treat people – that we should always be able to empathize with the downtrodden. The Torah is full of commandments that explain themselves “because you were slaves in Egypt.” The experience of being in Egypt teaches us the very same thing Sarai feels in that moment: sheer terror and despair.

It was only after I wrote the piece that I discovered that a major commentator, Nachmanides (Ramban), said the very same thing! In his commentary on Gen 12:10:

Know that Abraham our father unintentionally committed a great sin by bringing his righteous wife to a stumbling-block of sin on account of his fear for his life. … It was because of this deed that the exile in the land of Egypt at the hand of Pharaoh was decreed for his children. In the place of justice, there is wickedness.

Which means that my piece was really not much more than explaining Ramban’s commentary in fuller form. Nevertheless, the crazy thing is that very, very few learned Jews are even aware of this Ramban citation, even though the Ramban is generally very well read. The reason why is not hard to parse: the very concept that Avram might have done something wrong – especially something as wrong as trading his wife for payment – makes people very upset. I got hate mail!

Yet if we are willing to read the text itself, and to see Avram and his relationships as a story in growth and development, then we can see that Avram great as he was – and far greater than we are – still did not nail every figure-skating routine. And we would do well to learn from our forefathers, not merely make excuses for them.

Start at Avram’s beginning: the text presents us with a man who hears G-d telling him to “Go out,” – and he listens.

Some of our sages argue that Avraham must have been a great intellect, a man who, at a young age, deduced the existence of a non-corporeal deity who created all the world, and so must have already had a full understanding of G-d by the time G-d spoke those first words to him.

On the other hand, others, like the Ibn Ezra, suggest that perhaps G-d talks to everyone. But unlike everyone else, Avram was receptive. In this reading, Avram did not necessarily know anything at all about G-d before he is told to “Go.” The Torah text itself has nothing on Avraham’s intellect or prior relationship with G-d.

In this plain reading, the text shows that G-d never introduces himself to Avraham, and never explains that he is the creator of the world. For all that “early” Avram has been told, G-d is merely one of countless tribal or familial deities. Which explains why Avram kept pushing G-d for “proof” that Avram would in fact be the father of many nations – after all, how could a familial deity make such grandiose promises?

It also explains why, when G-d tells an old Avram that he would still father a child with Sarai, Avram laughed – and, so too, did Sarai. In the ancient world, fertility had its own gods, separate from those representing other natural forces. There was no reason to think the Avram’s deity could also make an old woman capable of conceiving and birthing a baby.

It even better explains why Avram felt he had no choice but to take payment for Sarai from Pharaoh: G-d had not yet disclosed that He was powerful even in the land of the Nile, powerful enough to plague Pharaoh and his household. Had Avram known this, he may have behaved quite differently – possibly praying for the famine to end so that he did not leave the land, to not being afraid that his wife would be taken from him by force.

When we read it the way the text presents it, then the actions of our forefathers are much easier to understand. If we do not assume that they knew then what we know now, then their actions make far more sense. But first we have to accept the possibility that the text is able to stand on its own, free of Platonic requirements about the nature of our heroes.

  1. Devarim: 30:11.

Learning the Hard Way

(Pre-Script: After I wrote this, I discovered that the core idea is actually offered by Ramban….)

You know that brief, glorious and incredibly annoying phase in a young child’s life when they keep asking “why?” drilling down past parental layers of knowledge, guesswork and ignorance until they reach the rock bottom of “Because!”

Jews love questions. It is part of our annoying DNA. We like to question everything. One could even suggest that we create anti-semitism in part because we instinctively doubt whomever is in charge. But even Jews rarely go as far as I am about to….

I’d like to try the “WHY?” game with the Torah, for a simple reason: if we refuse to accept “because” as the answer, a lot of interesting things can be discovered.

So here goes… Famous Jewish Question: Why do we have a Passover Seder?

Famous Answer… our forefathers were slaves to Pharaoh, and G-d took us out with a mighty hand…. just as it appears in the Haggadah.

But why were we slaves in Egypt?

Answer: Um… because Pharaoh enslaved us.

OK. But why did G-d allow it?

Answer: He told Avraham that we were going to be slaves to a foreign power.

Why would G-d do such a thing like that?

Well… let’s see… we know from the war of the Five Kings and the Four Kings (Genesis 14) that G-d provided a miracle by making Avram victorious, and …. nobody noticed. Soon after, G-d promised a much more dramatic miracle, something that the rest of the nations could not pretend they did not see – the Exodus. So maybe that explains why we had to be a slave people whose deity overpowered the most advanced and powerful nation in the world at that time.

OK. But why did the Jewish people have to go through this experience? Why were we enslaved? Why did we have to wonder if G-d had abandoned us?

Here is an answer that surprised me: Avraham had been promised that we would be servants to a foreign land, so it means that G-d decided on our slavery generations beforehand! What did Avraham do so that his descendants had to be slaves?

I think the Torah tells us, in Genesis 12: 10-20

10 Now there was a famine in the land. So Abram went down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine was severe in the land. 11 When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance,12 and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.”


Is the Torah telling us that Avraham tried to pass off his wife as his sister? Yes, it is. And it gets worse.

14 When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. 15 And when the princes of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house. 16 And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels.

Can you imagine your husband pretending he is not married to you, and then accepting payment for you from another man without a peep of complaint? (Mind you, this is the Avram who refused to take even a shoelace from another man as spoils of war.)

It sounds crazy. It is crazy.

But think through the logic, because it is actually much worse than this: Avram knew the Egyptians would take her. Which means that Avram SOLD HIS WIFE OFF. For food during a famine. For his own survival. He just cut her loose.

Can you imagine how Sarai must have felt at that moment? She would have felt totally abandoned, and alone. The future looked dark indeed – was she really supposed to end up as nothing more than a harem-slave to a foreign king?

This, I think, is why G-d wanted us to feel the same thing when we were in Egypt, alone, oppressed, and seemingly abandoned by our G-d – the same way that Sarai must have felt about her husband, and perhaps even about G-d as well.

If this is right, then we were enslaved in Egypt so that we would learn how NOT to treat people – that we should feel the same way Sarai did. The Torah is full of commandments that explain themselves “because you were slaves in Egypt.” The experience of being in Egypt taught us the very same thing Sarai was feeling: understanding what sheer terror and despair feel like.

What happened next? G-d sent plagues against the Egyptian king in both cases –for Avram and Sarai, as well as for the Jewish people in Exodus. In both cases, Sarai and the Jewish people left Egypt, aided by those plagues, much enriched in material wealth, but profoundly emotionally bruised by the experience.

17 But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife. 18 So Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? 19 Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and go.” 20 And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him, and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had.

But there is a key, huge difference between the parallel exodus stories: When Sarai and Avram leave Egypt, they never look back. They don’t commemorate the day G-d saved Sarai from the Egyptians. They don’t even (at least in the text) say, “Thank you,” to G-d.

So perhaps, going back to our very first question:

Why do we have a Passover Seder?

And we have a different answer: Every year we remember the exodus from Egypt because Avram and Sarai did not recognize theirs. We must commemorate and show appreciation because otherwise the event is lost and forgotten.

Note, of course, that Avram’s motivation for lying about Sarai’s relationship was entirely unfounded: Pharaoh did not kill Avram to keep her. On the contrary, Avram and Sarai were sent out with increased wealth, basically an apology. So if G-d was prepared to extract Sarai from a harem, why would he not have been willing to keep them both alive, and free, in any case? This was the G-d who had delivered Avram in a miraculous battle, after all.

Yet Avram did not learn from his exodus from Egypt – he tries to pass his wife off as his sister another time (with Avimelech). Which means not commemorating the first exodus led to Avram not learning from the experience – he failed to understand that his wife should not be sold as chattel, to understand that G-d cares about what happens to both sexes.

So perhaps this is the reason we have a seder, why we were in Egypt, why we were enslaved and gave up hope. Without the benefit of experiencing these things, we lacked the perspective to understand how much people suffer and need kindness and love and respect. Avram did not understand it the easy way, so we, as a people, had to learn it the hard way.

The entire arc of Jewish history may have been determined by the way one man treated his wife, coupled with G-d’s determination to make sure we never do it again.

[Another iWe and @susanquinn production]


The Failed First Draft: Creation Until the Flood

Classic stories have beginnings, plot developments and endings. But realistic – human – stories are much more complicated, because they include the whole range of possible failures: false starts, ambivalent twists, people who fall short or may even overachieve.

The beginning of the Book of Genesis reads sort of like an artist’s first attempt at a major work. It starts well, might have a hiccup or two, and then, thanks to some unintended consequences, finds itself in a hopeless corner, a dead-end from which there is no clean way out.

I’d like to share a version of the story that is based entirely on the text – but is, as is always the case, not a complete picture. Still I found it fascinating to develop, and thought the change in perspective might intrigue others as well.

Here goes…

G-d makes the world.

God blessed [the living creatures] nd God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth.”

And they do!

All the animals, mankind included, did what we were told. We procreated and filled the world. But in so doing, we humans emulated the natural world: the biggest and strongest among us called ourselves supermen. Might made us Right, following the Law of the Jungle. And just like alpha males in any species, the supermen among us took, by force, any women we chose.

When men began to increase on earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of the god of nature saw how beautiful the daughters of men were and took wives from among those that pleased them.

We, after all, were the best of the best, the master race, self-definitionally “the fittest,” because we survived. The top men got to take whatever women they wanted.

But it seems that G-d underestimated man’s ability to ignore Him. Because we did all this without any relationship with the divine. Instead of leading nature upward, we followed it down.

Which is why the next time the word for “fill” is used, it refers to the world being filled with lawlessness, what happens when mankind seeks to emulate nature in all its facets. Such a world, of course, is “Nasty, Brutish, and Short,” – but not for whomever is on top, for however long they remain at that exalted position.

The earth became mashchiss [see below] before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness.

G-d had commanded a physical creation – and we complied, while perverting whatever spiritual goals G-d may have had in mind. We deeply, irretrievably wounded the entire world. And what is mashchiss?

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 (the fellow who spilled his seed rather than impregnate). 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. 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.

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 the local government.

Sodom could be– 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; life 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 whatever urge we have, 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.

Back to the flood generation: Men have made it all about ourselves, our fame, our power and glory, just like alpha males in any pack. G-d decides it is time to put the world through a gigantic reset, a “rinse-and-repeat” of the initial creation, but starting with a new family, that of Noach.

Why, of all people, is Noach saved?

The first clue is when he is born:

When Lamech had lived 182 years, he begot a son. And he named him Noah, saying, “This one will provide us relief from our work and from the toil of our hands, from the soil that the Lord cursed.”

What did Lamech do? Lamech is the first person in the Torah since Eve to invoke G-d. And he made Noach about the future. Not a “living in the moment” kind of glory, but a genuine hope for the future. Lastly, Lamech used words to bless a child. Lamech realized that words can change the world, just as G-d had used words to create the world.

In this blessing, Lamech was not emulating nature, like his contemporaries. Instead, he was emulating G-d. Noach reaps the benefits of this blessing. So when the rest of the world is too far gone to be saved, G-d retains the one person who has been linked to the power of words, to G-d’s existence itself, and to hope for the future: Noach.

Seen in this light, other decisions G-d makes are now clearer: Terach, the father of Avram, is the first to name a son after his father (Nahor) – to connect the past to the future, to see that mankind’s path in this world is a long game, intergenerational.

Avram means “the father of nations,” and he, too, is named for the future. G-d chooses him as well, to be the first person in the Torah who travels to a new place because he has a specific mission, a purpose beyond mere migration. The first three words in the Torah can be read as, “G-d created beginnings.” And Avram was the first man after Noach to live those words, to begin entirely anew.

Big picture: G-d wants a relationship with us. He wants to see us grow up, just like any proud parent wants to see their child GROW. Not just get big and healthy, but also develop mentally and emotionally and spiritually. That first, failed experiment with the world showed that humans, left to our own devices, became mankind in a state of nature, a chaotic tyranny of “might makes right.” And it needed to be destroyed so that at least some lives might actually be lived for a higher purpose.

The Flood generation was a godless society. Such societies are not burdened with the fanciful idea that each person has a divinely-gifted soul and thus deserves respect regardless of their frailties or limitations. In those godless societies, we don’t need a Flood to exterminate wide swaths of humanity: we can do it to ourselves with the guillotine, gas chamber, gulag, and a Great Leap Forward.

Investing in the long, intergenerational opportunities for mankind to grow and elevate ourselves and the world around us is the alternative G-d wants us to choose. These are the pathways pioneered by Noach, Terach, and Avraham.

[An @iwe, @susanquinn and @blessedblacksmith effort.]


Male and Female, He created them

Well, at least that is what the Torah says. But as should be patently clear to anyone with normal observational powers, one does not have to be Woke to recognize that even genetically, not quite everyone falls into being either male or female. There have always been androgynous people, those with abnormal chromosomal combinations and/or ambiguous organs.

Classifying everyone as either male or female is thus a handy categorization. Somewhere between 0.05% (1 in 2,000) or – to take a number claimed by woke warriors – 2% are physically not-quite-clearly-100% male or female. So we can wave our magic generalization wand, and say that outliers are outliers, and the world is thus comprised of men and women.

The problem I have with this is that such a categorization is not necessarily true – though it is clearly convenient, in the same way that we might say that people are born with two legs even though not everyone actually is.

A scientist might invoke Occam’s Razor: the simplest explanation is the right one. In which case, we can still use the shorthand of “male or female” to classify people. But Occam’s Razor is never about trying to be right – it is about trying to use the simplest means to make accurate predictions. Thus we can predict that babies are born male or female, even though there are surely exceptions and edge cases.


My problem is with the text itself: “Male and Female He created them.” (Gen. 1:27). As a statement of fact, it is lacking. I see a few ways we can try to understand this verse:

1: The text is merely generalizing. I suppose this is OK. It is how most people read the text. But I think it teaches us nothing, and the Torah is there for a purpose.

2: G-d created mankind “Male and Female” but then Nature or even mankind somehow messed things up and blurred the lines. This is also unsatisfying to me, in part because the text itself does not suggest that there was a time when the “pure” creation was confused.

3: The text is not describing, but prescribing. This is what I think is correct. Here is how I think of it:

As with many other things in the Torah (such as the story of creation itself, or the description of man as a partially-spiritual being), the text exists, by its own mandate, to teach and guide us. The Torah is not a literal historical document any more than it is a zoological treatise. The text has a purpose, and that purpose is learning how to grow healthy, productive, and ultimately holy relationships with each other and with G-d.

So when the text tells us something, we are not learning history or chemistry or biology. Instead, the text is fulfilling its purpose: an eternal guide book for a good life. Everything contained within it exists for this purpose, to teach and guide us.

If so, then the Torah is not telling us that G-d made two clear sexes. Instead, it is teaching us something: that each of us is to aspire to be either male or female. Wherever we may fall in the broad spectrum of both physical and mental identity and desire, we should each try to grow, within the limits of how we are created, toward these ideals.

I think this may be usefully understood when confronted by the large numbers of very gender-confused people in the world, people who, in a previous generation or age, may well have appeared pretty much normal in public, though with private lives that might well have been far off the path for most people.

The concept of “gender fluidity” contains within it the belief that people can and do change. My mother, a professor at a very liberal college, had students who changed their pronouns every single day! A person who can convince themselves that they are truly that fluid is also capable of convincing themselves, with a different environment and societal expectations, of being rather less fluid. I can think of no other reasonable explanation for why the numbers of gender-fluid people is higher now than at any other time in history.

If the Torah’s prescription, “Male and female He created them,” is indeed a prescription (and not merely a recitation of mostly-fact), then we can ask: “Why?” Why does the Torah – why does G-d – care?

I think the answer lies in the challenge of relationships. People are not meant to be alone. We are meant to be in relationships, and in relationships that challenge us even as they reward us. It is easy to be secure in our own skins. It is much harder to be in a dynamic and unpredictable relationship with someone who is very different than we are – differences that guarantee that men and women never consistently see things the same way.

Our relationships should be built not on commonality, but on differences – the kinds of differences found between men and women. In this way, they are models for the differences between mankind and G-d.



Jacob’s Legs

The word for “leg” or “foot” in the Torah is regel. Regel, one would suppose, would be used to represent movement – walking or otherwise journeying.

But the text does something quite instructive with this word. When it is used early in the Torah (the dove in the Ark, the angels visiting Avraham and then Lot, and Avraham’s servant when he sought a wife for Isaac), the usage is always about finding a place to rest, or sit, or repose. The foot is something its owner wants to have washed, and then rested.

This all changes with Jacob – the first person who lifts his feet, who gets moving. Jacob, going to the East and the house of Laban, lifts his feet and gets going. Subsequently the word is used by Jacob to describe how Laban prospered:

For the little you had before I came has grown to much, since the LORD has blessed you according to my regel.

Jacob carries Laban, using Jacob’s own feet. Regel has become identified with Jacob and how he acts. The usage continues after the meeting with Esau – Jacob resists the offer of an escort, and says that he will use his legs at his own pace.

Jacob is renamed Israel. And somehow, the power of the Jewish people is explained in these words: Jews are the change agents in the world. Even Pharaoh says so, when he invests Joseph with power: “Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I am Pharaoh; yet without you, no one shall lift up hand or regel in all the land of Egypt.””

The word next appears as a subset of a different word entirely – or so it seems. Joseph accuses his brothers of being meraglim, a word which contains the same root of regel, though usually translated as “spies.” It is a strange accusation (though it can be credibly explained because we know Pharoah had spies in Joseph’s house, and it would have been hard to otherwise explain why the Viceroy was spending so much time and energy on these few random foreigners).

Nevertheless, there may be a subtext here. Joseph keeps insisting that his brothers are “from those who walk.” He may have been trying to get them to step up, to represent their father’s legacy as men of action, from a people who are here to change history, not merely be passive responders and victims. “You are men of legs!” blasts Joseph, trying to goad them into assertive action.

And then there is a shift. When confronted by this accusation of being meraglim, Jacob, the forefather who first lifted his legs, who took positive action in the face of the unknown, becomes passive in turn. He does not decide to go down to Egypt to confront the Viceroy and his accusations. Instead, he begins to wallow:

Their father Jacob said to them, “It is always me that you bereave: Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you would take away Benjamin. These things always happen to me!”

By choosing this path, the path of inaction and reaction, Jacob becomes a shadow of the man he was. This is the start of his decline – and it eventually becomes the rise of the next generation.

But first, Joseph sets the scene. He makes a dinner, and one in which he emulates Avraham and Lot in turn – making his brothers passive.

Then the man brought the men into Joseph’s house; he gave them water to bathe their regel, and he provided feed for their asses.

The brothers, the should-be meraglim have become like the angels being waited on by Avraham and Lot, an audience, subject to whatever the actor onstage does next. They lose the initiative entirely. That is, until Judah confronts Joseph and forces an end to the farce.

In that moment, Judah inherits the mantle of his father.

It is no accident that the blessing Jacob gives to Judah includes the phrase: “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, Nor the ruler’s staff from between his regel.” Judah has shown the necessary initiative for being a change agent for his people and the world.

Jacob’s story ends with what seems like a poetic flourish, unless we are sensitive to the specific words used: “When Jacob finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people.”

When his feet left the ground, Jacob’s time was finished.

The Torah’s lesson is clear: the world, left to itself, seeks passivity, putting its feet up, doing as little as can be done to get through life. But that is not our mission, the actions defined by Jacob: we are to be proactive and not reactive. We lift our feet, as we are charged to be the change agents that use the time we have to do as much as we can.

Deut. 33:3:

Lover, indeed, of the people,
Their hallowed are all in Your hand.
They followed Your feet,
Lifting up Your words.

[An @iwe, @eliyahumasinter and @susanquinn effort]

Postscript: Jacob’s name itself comes from the word “heel” as he was grasping the heel of his brother. Definitely a “climber” from birth!


The Red Heifer, Simply Explained

The Torah is full of symbolism that cries out for explanation. As always, the answers are found in the text itself – if we read it carefully.

One of the most famous rituals is that of the red heifer (Num: 19). The problem is how to rid someone of the spiritual effects of having been in contact with the dead. Spiritually, a person who has touched the dead is unable to fulfill their potential, to resume a full relationship with G-d. Death taints us. And the Torah tells us how to wash that taint away.

In order to make this as easy as possible to explain, I am going to cheat by giving you the punchline first: the ritual of the red heifer is a way to symbolically travel back in time, to before there was death on the earth, to essentially recreate man just as G-d created Adam. Thus reborn, we can rejoin the living world and strive once again for holiness.

Here is the recipe as given in the Torah.


1: A red female cow who has never been yoked.

2: Cedar wood, grass, and something often translated as “crimson yarn”

3: Water of Life

Slaughter the cow, burn it, and add the cedar wood, grass, and crimson yarn. Collect the ashes.

Mix the ashes with the Water of Life and then sprinkle it on a person who has touched a corpse. Do it on the third day, and then again on the seventh day.

Voila! One spiritually reborn Jew.

How is this symbolic time travel back to the time of Adam? I’ll explain each element in turn, and how they connect.

1: The red heifer is, in Hebrew, a “parah adumah.” She is a heifer, because women are capable of incubating and birthing new life. And the word for “red” shares its root with the word for “earth”, “Adam,” and “blood.” All are connected to the concept of enormous potential to create and foster life. The red heifer is the antithesis of death.

She also can never have been yoked – because mankind yoked animals only after death existed. We are going back in time, remember, before animals were used as tools.

2: The cedar wood and grass represent the two opposites of the plant kingdom. The cedar is the oldest and tallest flora in the ancient Middle East, fixed in place. The grass, on the other hand, is small and rapid-growing, short-lived and adaptable. And both were created on the third day of creation – the day G-d made life itself. They are book-ends to represent the entire vegetable kingdom, everything created on that day when G-d made life.

Together the cow and the plants combine the items created in the first creation: all plants and animals, save only for mankind.

2b: The stuff described as “crimson yarn” is trickier. It is used together with the cedar and grass in another ritual, the one cleansing a person of another spiritual ailment; these three go together. But why?

The answer is found in the words themselves. The crimson yarn contains within its first root word the same root as the word in Hebrew for “time.” (Gen. 8:11, 24:11) And the second root word comes from the word for “second” – as in, “a second chance.” The crimson yarn is “Another/a second time.” Together with the plants, it represents time travel back to the birth of life on the earth. The person who receives the ritual is given a second chance, a do-over.

3: The Water of Life. The priest mixes the ashes with this water and puts it on a person. The language is very similar to the way G-d made Adam: the whole earth was watered. He took ashes from the earth, and infused man with life. (excerpted from Gen 2:6,7). The living water symbolically mirrors the creation of man.

The entire ritual then, is one of rebirth, calling us back to the time before there was death, to undo the contact we had made with the dead and allow us to once again move forward among the living.

This is done on the third day – the day G-d created life. And again on the seventh day – the day G-d first set an example for man to follow, keeping the Sabbath. The combination is what any would-be holy person needs: life, and a good role model to set us on our way.

P.S. The combination of cedar, grass, and crimson yarn is also found in Lev. 14, and it denotes symbolic time travel in that case as well, to the time before the first murder, to before Cain’s slaughter of Abel.


  New Age Peor

So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord. And he buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-Peor; but no man knows his grave till this day. (D 34:5-6)

This appears to be a contradiction. How can the Torah tell us where Moshe was buried, and in the very next phrase, say that we cannot know where that is!

The answer lies is the nature of the phrase “opposite Beth-Peor”.

In biblical Hebrew, there are two words for “opposite”. The first is “knegged”, which is used for the first time to define the marriage between husband and wife: the literal translation is that the wife “is a helper to oppose him.” This kind of opposition is similar to opposable thumbs: thumbs are only useful because they are able to physically engage with the fingers. This kind of opposition, like a marriage, requires active involvement. The same word, “knegged” is also used to describe the relationship between man and G-d: we are in opposition to each other in precisely the same way as a married couple: there is active interaction and plenty of give and take.

The other word used to define an opposite in Hebrew is “mul.” The Torah tells us no less than three times that we are “mul” Peor. What does this word mean? Mul is the same word as the core of the word for “circumcision” – a “mul” is a cut, an utter and irreversible disconnection. In other words, by saying that we are “mul” Peor, the Torah is telling us that we as a nation, and Moshe later in death, are in contradistinction with Peor. So who was Moshe? He was not Peor. And who are the Jewish people? We can be defined, in a nutshell, by what we are not: we are distinctly and clearly not Peor.

Well. It is good to have that settled. Except, of course, that in order to know that we are not Peor, it might be helpful to understand what, precisely, Peor actually was!

And Israel stayed in Shittim, and the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab. And they called the people to the sacrifices of their gods; and the people ate, and bowed down to their gods. And Israel attached himself to Baal-Peor; and the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel. (Num 25)

As Riskin points out, the Jews engage with Moabite harlots, but G-d does not get angry. And then we follow the harlots to sacrifice to idols – and G-d is still not wrathful. What clearly makes G-d furious is when we somehow take it to the next level: we start worshipping Peor.

The Torah is telling us that worship of Peor is worse than sexual crime – it is indeed the worst possible form of idol worship! Is it possible that there is something about Peor which is so much worse than worshipping “normal” pagan idols like the sun or the moon or the stars?


The Gemara tells us that the way to worship Peor was to defecate in front of the idol.

This is, of course, disgusting. But think about it, if you can, from a safe distance. What does it mean to consider the effluence of the body holy? What does it mean to consider feces to be a higher form of worship than praying to the sun?

It means that we think that the product of our body is the greatest form of holiness. It is to suggest that the human body is not only something that exists within nature, but that the natural functions of the human body are close to godliness.

Even praying to the sun is better! At least praying to a star requires one to look upward, to elevate one’s gaze if nothing else. But worship of Peor is service that, literally, wallows in filth. There is no possibility of elevating oneself when one identifies so completely with nature that feces are considered holy!

This can sound like an abstract notion, relevant only in the ancient world with a now-dead religion. But it is something that is very alive today. Consider that in some Jewish circles, girls now have “period parties.” See . It is becoming an acceptable way to “improve” the Torah – as many people do not understand what “tumah” (mistranslated as “unclean”) actually means. (I explain these at and .)

So with the best of intentions these Jews conclude, erroneously, that the Torah seeks to embarrass and belittle women for the functioning of their body. And their solution is to celebrate effluence, to pursue Peor. It is the very antithesis of Judaism.

Society as a whole continues to move in this direction. The notion that anything that is “natural” is good is rooted in the same worship of Peor – especially when talking about what the human body does, or desires to do. When we value the natural functioning of our bodies, our very waste, as more special than the spiritual elevation of our bodies and the world around us, then we are engaged in specifically the one thing that Moshe, even in death, has lain in opposition to for 3000 years. Such confused notions are no less than the most vile form of idol worship.


Perfection and its Discontents

Greeks promoted the notion of “perfection” – that there was such a thing as a perfect ratio, or a perfect body. And this word and concept has similarly entered our modern world: perfection has become the standard against whom everyone or everything is measured. Sadly, it is also part of our religious thinking as well: the concept that some people are “almost” perfect, for example.

The problem with the notion of perfection is that it is not only hard to achieve, but that it is, itself, a lie.

Take, for example, a simple physical object – a little cube. It might look like a perfect cube, but if you look closely enough, you will find that it is full of imperfections and impurities. The dimensions themselves can only be measured within certain tolerances, limited by instruments. There is nothing in this world that is “perfectly” any dimension at all, given that even a measurement is true only for a specific temperature and atmospheric pressure and composition of the ambient air… the list is endless.

People are attracted to the very idea of timeless perfection, which is one reason why diamonds are prized. Layer after layer of ordered carbon atoms, in existence since they were squeezed by enormous volcanic pressures seem like the antidote to a world of biological frailty and endless change. But while diamonds are closer to perfect, one of the ways in which they are proven to be natural is because they have certain kinds of impurities! Which means that they are not perfect at all.

The other thing about the idea of perfection is that it is inherently static. If a flawless diamond were to somehow be found to exist, it would be an unchanging and unchanged thing. A diamond is dead. So, too, a perfect Greek ratio, or what Greeks might call a perfect statue, all have this in common: they are much like a dead rock, and very unlike a living person.

Even our theoretical diamond can only be perfect in itself. Once it is exposed to people, or water vapor or even just air, then it will be affected and tainted by that exposure, even if only at the surface. Like a perfect military battle plan, all bets are off once contact is made.

We see this most clearly of all in the realm of human interaction. At every moment, the self-conscious person is making choices from a menu of potential actions. Each action will come with a host of potential outcomes, and the process and product are inherently messy and unpredictable. So decision-making is itself highly dynamic, with no options that can be said to be remotely perfect. Our decisions are always between things that we judge to have lesser or greater degrees of goods or evils, and those metrics are themselves necessarily highly subjective. Everyone assigns different values to goods – which is why even highly compatible married couples have much to discuss when living a life together. Even if everyone means to be a good person, we always have to accommodate our different tolerances for risk, for planning, for justifying one good work instead of another.

This makes a mockery of the notion that it is possible to live a perfect life.

Assume that the above is true. What then? Why is it wrong to have an ideal for perfection, to strive for something even when we know it is out of reach?

The answer is that if we believe in perfection, then we have confused the product with the process.

Life is a process. It is the way in which we make decisions and seek to improve ourselves and the world around us. That process inherently requires compromises and concessions, weighing certain goods above others, and above all, making decisions that choose one path that makes all the other paths impossible.

Think of it like marriage. There is no perfect marriage, just as there are no perfect couples. Nevertheless, any marriage requires commitment to one person, “forsaking all others.” The process is never simple but the result of a beautiful marriage can be absolutely incredible. It is, however, never perfect.

We live in a dangerous world. The world is clearly not perfect. Every suggestion that the world is, indeed, perfect, runs counter to all of human experience. We have death and illness and evil. Our world is populated by dangerous animals, and even the most friendly natural environments contain numerous risks to human health and life. The most dangerous of all, of course, are people themselves. People are extremely powerful, capable of creation – and destruction.

It is important to acknowledge that perfection should not even be a goal, because once we can eliminate perfection as a target, then we open the door to a whole new world of opportunities.

For example, people are often indecisive because they are trying to find the “right” answer to a question. This indecision can tie us in knots and even, in extreme (but far too common) cases, lead to a life that is hardly lived at all for fear of making the wrong decision. But if we acknowledge that decisions are inherently about life’s journey and not its destination (which will ultimately be physical death anyway) then it becomes much easier to keep taking steps forward.

We are not a state of being. We are what we do.

What does the Torah offer us about perfection? The word that most closely approximates “perfect” is “tam”, which is used to describe Noah (Gen. 6:9), and the injunction to Abraham to “walk before me and be tam.” (Gen. 17:1) It is the same word used to describe animals that are ready for sacrifice. So it can be translated as “wholehearted” or “without blemish.” But one thing is clear about the way tam is used in the Torah: it never refers to the end result. The story of Noah starts with the description of being tam, and Abraham was nowhere near the end of his story when he was enjoined to become tam. Animals that are fit to be sacrificed, of course, reach their fulfillment in the sacrifice itself – they are clearly not “perfect” beforehand because they have not reached their apotheosis.

The Beis Hamikdash (Temple) itself shows this. The building was improved from time to time (sometimes in very grand fashion), and the priestly services were themselves never static. Sacrifices were always a process, marking days and weeks and festivals, as well as individual offerings reflecting the lives of the Jewish people.


This speaks directly to our purpose. G-d created an imperfect world. Our task is to improve it. That is, and will remain, a process and not a product.


It behooves us to at least give honorable mention to a part of human endeavor that is, in itself, perfect in the Greek sense. Mathematics are attractive because they can be entirely consistent and complete, involving nothing messy like fudge factors and real-world conditions that often mask the difference between an accurate theory and one that, like Newtonian Mechanics, is useful but ultimately untrue.

It is, of course, mathematicians and its more numerate scientific descendants such as physicists who are considered the purest of truth seekers, the high priests of nature. On the other hand, it is engineers who dig deeply into all the muck of the real world in order to make things that actually work. Engineering is not just messy, but it also invariably prefers utilitarian knowledge (what works) to perfect theories that may be unmoored from reality. Yet modern progress owes far more to engineers and builders than it does to those who crave aesthetically perfect mathematical formulas. Engineers and builders, like people in a marriage or even a friendship, recognize that the processes themselves, whether they are perfect or not (or even whether or not they are true!), can lead to beautiful – albeit clearly imperfect – results.



Pesach: Our Choice Today!

From the first mention of Hagar, the Egyptian maidservant, through our lives in Egypt and even when the Jews regretted having left, Egypt embodies the comfort and safety of a relationship with the natural world.

Egypt is everything that people think they want from life. It is rich and abundant, predictable, and safe. Embodied by Hagar, Egypt is fertile and undemanding. It is the land where nature rules, where all mankind has to do to survive and thrive is to live in harmony with the natural cycles. In an uncertain world, it is nice to have the choice of an easy existence. Even as slaves, it is clear that the option of staying in Egypt was very attractive to many Jews.

And so it remains today. Offered the choice between a difficult and demanding life with Hashem, looking upward for an uncertain and unpredictable sustenance, compared to a life with nature, in which we can live the Good Life and build storehouses for all of our wealth, it is no surprise that Jews choose to be frei, non-religious.

And so Pesach is not just retelling and reliving the founding of the Jewish people. It is also a reminder that we, too, face the ongoing choice in our lives: do we, as individuals and as a nation, accept the statistically inevitable, the Laws of Nature, or do we purge ourselves of the inevitable, of chometz, and seek a relationship with G-d? Pesach is not just about history: it is about NOW.

G-d tells us this, in plain language: “I am Hashem who sanctifies you, who takes you out of the land of Egypt to be a G-d unto you.” (Lev: 22:32) The present tense is explicit!

And G-d tells us, “you shall not contaminate yourselves through any teeming thing that creeps on the earth. For I am Hashem who elevates you from the land of Egypt to be a G-d unto you.” It is no coincidence that the Jews, in the beginning of Exodus, are described with precisely the same word (shin-resh-tzadik): we, too, teemed on the ground!

And so, too, today. We can be One with the earth, if we want to. But G-d is telling us that not only did he take us out of the physical land of Egypt, but he continues to be available to all Jews, even today, to help lift us off the ground, and looking toward the heavens, to choose a challenging and ultimately spiritually rewarding relationship with G-d instead of the easy, comfortable choices offered to us by staying close to the ground.


The Essence of a Person

The Torah does not often describe physical attributes: we don’t know if Avraham was tall, or if Ephraim was handsome. What we know about them is what they accomplished with their lives – that, after all, is the measure of the man.

A physical description is just information about a person’s body. A body is a necessary but not sufficient component; we need to have one, and it helps a great deal if it is in decent working order. But deeds in Judaism are measured by the accomplishments of the spirit: we don’t wax rhapsodic about Torah greats who could really cut a rug, or great leaders who also played quarterback for an NFL team. Our physical characteristics don’t really matter in G-d’s eyes – how could they? We are, after all, composed merely of dust and ashes. G-d really cares about our souls – the spark of infinity that he places inside us. So why does the Torah tell us that Yaakov was smooth and Esau was hairy?

The answer is that while G-d may not care who is hairy or smooth, we are but people – and we notice and classify these things. More importantly, there is a great temptation for people to define themselves by their physical limitations or – in the case of Yaakov and Esau – their physical differences.

How could Yaakov and Esau, great men as they were, be affected by something which is, ultimately, a minor distinction? Because their own father classified them this way. When Yitzchak is about to bless Yaakov, Yitzchak does not judge his son by the quality of his thought, but by the way he feels. And when presented with dissonant information (“The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau”), Yitzchak goes with the physical sensation.

So it is no wonder that Yaakov and Esau saw themselves as their father saw them – and acted accordingly. While there is surely a lesson here for all parents, instead of dwelling on it, I’d like to suggest that this theme is present every time the Torah mentions someone’s physicality.

Consider Yitzchak’s blindness. Yes, a blind man is limited to his senses. But Yitzchak had also internalized this limitation in himself, and instead of identifying his sons through word and deed, he categorizes by sense of feel, by using the most rudimentary of all of our senses. The Torah tell us that Yitzchak was blind because Yitzchak himself accepted that as a defining characteristic.

The Torah continues the theme with Moshe. The only thing we know about him physically (besides being capable of great strength at certain times), was that he had a speech impediment. But nobody else in the Torah ever refuses to speak with Moshe, or makes it an issue. On the contrary; they all seem perfectly capable of overlooking a speech impediment in someone of Moshe’s charisma and quality. But that is not how Moshe perceived himself! Moshe thought of his stuttering (if that is what it was) as a real handicap, as something that made certain tasks (such as high level negotiations) beyond his capability.  We don’t know that Moshe stuttered because it really mattered to the story, or to G-d, or even to Pharoah. We know that Moshe stuttered because it mattered to Moshe. Even when G-d objected, and told Moshe that he could lead the Jewish people, Moshe dug in. Because he had fully internalized his speech impediment, he was unable or unwilling to take even G-d’s word for it that stuttering was not a real handicap.

How are we supposed to see ourselves? We can use Yaakov’s sons as the model. None of them is described (save for Joseph) because their father saw them all as individuals, not as their body made them. And so the Torah does not tell us anything about what any of Joseph’s brothers looked like – we know full well from Yaakov’s end-of-life blessing of them that they were each unique, full of different qualities and ambitions. But not a single word of Yaakov’s blessing is about a physical aspect of one of his sons. It is their spirit that defines them, and so it is meant to be for each of us, and for our children in turn.

(Note that all of the examples I bring are of men, not of women. While women generally take appearance more seriously than do men, women are more likely to define their neshamas by their appearance. Men, on the other hand, have more of a disconnect between their body and soul. Men much more easily distance their soul from the actions of their body. As a consequence, Judaism has many more mitzvos for men than for women; giving us the obligation to spend much more time making the connection between body and soul (tefillin being the classic example).

So when the Torah tells us that Rachel was beautiful, or Leah’s eyes were “soft”, it is not meant, as it is in the case of men, to tell us about their perceived self-limitation or potential because of a weakness or strength in their body. Instead, Leah’s eyes are described because her soft eyes are a reflection of her very essence, not a physical limitation that she allows to handicap her soul.)


Create First

We have long heard that science is important because scientific discoveries enable technologies that make peoples’ lives better.

What is amazing about this assertion is that it is almost universally accepted – but it is not, on the whole, true.

Historian Phillip Glass points out that the general trend is in fact the other way around! Telescopes and spectacles were not invented by scientists but by craftsman who were experimenting. Scientists came along later and used the technological tools to study the skies.

Likewise the history of human technological innovation is dominated by human invention which then enables science – not science that enables invention! Running water and sewage systems and shoes all predated the germ theory of disease that, much later, would explain how people get sick. The history of medicine is full of examples of medicines that work, but nobody is quite sure why until much later (think of aspirin, and penicillin). And forces like gravity, which can be described and modelled very beautifully by science, are still not understood. That has not stopped anyone from harnessing gravity in countless human-made machines and mechanisms.

Technology is human creation for the purpose of doing something – not for the sake of knowledge itself.

Science, on the other hand, is often an investigation into the natural world, to understand and explain the energies and masses of the universe, from galaxies to single atoms.

We should not oversimplify: in developed form, science and technology can and do work together. And there are exceptions, such as nuclear fission, where science postulated something that was tested afterward, following the “accepted” version of how things are supposed to work. But these remain exceptions. Technology, by and large, has led the way. Engineers, those much-maligned junior cousins of “Scientists”, design and develop the computers that scientists use, the software that run those computers, the cars and trains and airplanes that scientists use to attend conferences. Humans were harnessing fossil fuels long before scientists posited that they came from fossils.

Henry Ford did not invent the assembly line. He appointed bright people, and then left them alone. Over the course of a few years, the moving assembly line popped up from the grass roots, such an egalitarian development that the official company magazine did not even recognize what had happened until well after the fact. And the process that was begun in the early part of the 20th century continues today. The most productive factories are not those that are designed by great minds on a clean sheet of paper; the best factories are those that involve every worker on the floor, each as free as possible to improve what they contribute to the whole. And then the great minds study what has worked, and they use it as the baseline for the next great factory.

Human creation, is typically not actually achieved through a great thinker in an iory tower. It is usually achieved through hands-on work: tinkering, crafting, active experimentation.[1] People do, and the doing makes it possible for people to understand.

When the Jewish people accepted the Torah, they said “na’aseh v’nishma”, “we will do and we will hearken.” And we find that this is the pattern that works best when it comes to other kinds of knowledge as well. WD-40, the ubiquitous machine spray, was not invented in the mind. Thirty-nine previous formulations were tried, and found wanting. The fortieth worked. And so much of life follows this process of trial-and-error.

Na’aseh v’nishmah. “We will do and (then) we will hearken,” is commonly understood to mean that it is obligatory on us to follow G-d’s commandments even before we understand them.

But, in the same way that G-d created things before he assessed whether they were good or not, and in the same way in which we are supposed to use our eyes not to lead us to what we want, but instead to evaluate what we have done after the fact, so, too, na’aseh v’nishma is a lesson in how mankind is supposed to create new things. Make it, then break it, then try again.

What does it mean? Creating new things is actually a prerequisite for knowing G-d’s creations, unlocking a window into the creations that preceded our own.

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

This may help explain why science in the last few decades has erected barriers against would-be posers who lack the proper qualifications, or have new ideas that have not been formally vetted. It is increasingly clear that we do not have a world in which the elite few do the thinking for everyone else, but instead a world in which clever people can – and do – invent new things and debunk old and erroneous assumptions.

[1] We see it in other forms of human creation besides technology, of course. Take art. Great experts on art don’t posit what would be beautiful. They look at what has already been created, and then they tell us why it is beautiful.


What is so Wrong with Pillars?

There is a most peculiar mitzvah in Parshas Shoftim: “You shall not erect for yourselves a pillar (a matzeva), which Hashem your G-d hates.” The context makes it clear that the problem is not the building of a structure itself, but specifically building it as a religious object, a way to worship Hashem. Pillars can be understood as the obelisks from the ancient world, like the one from ancient Egypt shown on the right (they all look alike – a straight tower with a pointy top). Obelisks were popular in the ancient world – so popular in Rome, for example, that the Romans imported and rebuilt Egyptian obelisks in Rome – at the height of the Roman Empire there  twice as many Egyptian obelisks in Rome than in Egypt!

Why does G-d so dislike pillars that they inspire hatred?

One possible answer is that building a pillar betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between man and G-d. This relationship, at its most intimate, is supposed to be like the relationship between man and woman. G-d’s love for us is like marital love: the Torah is full of such imagery, with Shir HaShirim the most explicit of these. But who is the man, and who is the woman?

Rabbi Eitan Webb points out that the language is consistent: Hashem’s is the masculine role, that of the giver, and the Jewish people have the feminine role, welcoming and receiving Hashem.[1]

So when worshipping Hashem, establishing a pillar, a phallic symbol like no other, shows a profound confusion about the nature of the relationship between man and G-d. It is forbidden because building a devotional pillar is a perversion.[2]

But there are deeper reasons. To find them we have to go back to first principles: what is the purpose of our existence? The short answer is that Jews are meant to complete the completion of the world, specifically by healing the divisions Hashem made when he separated the light and the dark, and the waters above and below. These are the same divisions that Adam and Chava became aware of when they ate of the Fruit of Knowledge of Good and Evil. G-d made the world of divided and irreconciled elements, and it is our job to find good, holy ways to reunify all these dichotomies: Jacob and Esau, man and woman, man and G-d, and heaven and earth.

Of these, the last is most fundamental. We are meant to admix the physical world and the spiritual world, combining them in holiness. To do this, among other things, we use words to say blessings, to thank Hashem for even the smallest physical gratifications. We dip ourselves in the water of the mikva to achieve a spiritual purity. Our souls combine with our bodies and work to fulfill G-d’s will. For all mitzvos, the spiritual and the physical must work together, and not independently. Just as we are not allowed to take the spiritual path, and separate our souls from our bodies in a mystic quest, we are equally forbidden to exist solely in the physical plane, acting only upon instinct and desires. We must always strive to fuse the two.

This explains why building a pillar is not acceptable. A pillar is just rock. Like the Tower of Bavel, it is a high structure pointing up to the heavens, but there is no spiritual component whatsoever. And like the Tower of Bavel, it is unacceptable in G-d’s eyes. Even symbolically, (and skyscrapers notwithstanding) we must never think that our goal is to reach the heavens by building towers that pierce the skies.

The obvious contrast, of course, is with an altar (mizbeach). Altars are part and parcel of the Torah – all the forefathers built them and made offerings on them, as did the Jewish people in the desert and in Israel. A mizbeach is similar to a matzeivoh, in that both are devotional structures, and both are made out of stone. But the difference is that in a mizbeach, an offering is made, so on top of the earth, there is a sacrifice (which was a living thing), and that is consumed in turn by fire. The resulting smoke blows up toward the heavens, an acceptable combination of matter and energy representing the melding of heavenly and earthly elements together, “a sweet savor unto the Lord.”

[1] Except, Rabbi Webb points out, in the Beis Hamikdash, where the roles are reversed, and Hashem’s Shechinah is in the feminine. (The Beis Hamikdash is the exception, and is not in any event a place where all Jews can have the same relationship as the Cohenim.)

[2] But didn’t our forefather set up matzevos as well? Rashi, in Parshas Shoftim, says that our forefathers erected Matzevos, but I do not see any references except to three incidences by Yaakov: Once was to mark the division between Lavan and himself, so it served a legal and not a religious function. Once was to mark the place Rachel was buried, so it served the same function as do the matzevos (tombstones) that we erect today.

And the third is when Yaakov, on his way out of Israel, set up a matzevo on the place where he had dreamed of the angels on ladders, to mark the spot as holy, and to commemorate his vow to build a house of G-d (a vow that Hashem reminds him of, but he never fulfills).  In this case it is clear that Yaakov aimed only to mark the spot, so that he (and others) would be able to use it to build a home for Hashem in the future. The highly spiritual nature of Yaakov’s vow in this episode may provide some counterweight to the fact of the physical matzevo itself. Additionally, I understand that Yaakov built a matzevo and not a mizbeach because he lacked anything to offer as a korban offering.


Poland and the Jews

My family, for as long as I can remember, has hated the Poles. My grandfather, who left Poland in the 1930s, refused to ever speak Polish again – at one time when I asked him about it, he said to me, “I am not Polish. I am a Jew who happened to come from Poland.”  As with any family who suffered devastating losses during the Holocaust, there were plenty of stories of Polish betrayal during the war, of Jews returning from the concentration camps after the war, only to be opportunistically murdered by Poles who had expropriated Jewish homes and were willing to murder concentration camp survivors to keep those homes.

So you can understand my ambivalence when I was invited to come and take part in the Jewish Cultural Festival in Krakow. Krakow! What kind of a Jewish Cultural Festival is held in Poland?! What kind of madness can explain going back to Poland for a Jewish festival of any kind?

And yet, it promised to be an interesting experience. We were going to Poland to sing, both on Shabbos and in a concert – and the audience would include hundreds or even thousands of non-Jews. If I was wondering about the sanity of Jews who voluntarily went to Poland, I was positively incredulous as to why any native Pole would form part of the audience! What could they be thinking?

My misgivings multiplied once we arrived in Krakow, and in ways that disturbed me. Poland is very beautiful from the air, and it was picturesque on the ground as well, with rolling green countryside, and friendly people. Krakow is full of sidewalk cafes, and cobblestoned streets; it is not hard to imagine the streets as a shtetl, with cheder-boys running in the streets and balabustas haggling over chicken.  Yet this is not a place with cheder boys and balabustas. Not anymore.

We landed, and had a rehearsal in the basement of the hotel. The room was all of stone, and it was clearly old. While we were rehearsing beautiful music, I could not help but think of the Jews who may have hidden here, or been murdered in this very cellar. The incongruity of it all disturbed me deeply, and I asked an older and wiser chorister for his opinion.

He explained, in vivid detail, that Poland and these buildings and cellars were not the Jewish people; they were mere vessels, and any connection we had to them passed when Jews no longer lived there. Judaism, as he put it, is in the Torah and in Israel, and in living Jews. As far as he was concerned, the descendants of the Poles who committed such atrocities during and after the war, were hosting and supporting the Jewish Cultural Festival (which attracts 85,000 people every year, and is partly televised on national television) as a matter of classic Kaporah – covering up. He made the analogy to the murder of Jews; they were forced to dig their own graves, and bury those who had already been shot. Then the ground was filled in, tilled, or trees were planted, so that there was a literal kaporah of the sin, covering it over as though it had never happened.

This answer contented me for a little while – I could understand that the Poles could see things this way.  Of course, for those of us who lost family members in the Holocaust, nothing has been covered over at all. Quite the contrary. In the hotel lounge, one of our number mentioned that  during his free time he would be taking a train to Auschwitz.  Someone else volunteered that it wasn’t generally a good idea for Jews to travel on trains in Poland. We do not forget.

And then Shabbos came. There we were, davenning in one of the most beautiful shuls I have ever seen (the Tempel Synagogue). There were a few dozen Jews, but the shul filled up with goyim as well. I looked at the faces, old and young, inscrutably observing us davenning, and could not get the question out of my head: “what are they thinking?” I cannot imagine going to a church service just to watch Catholics praying, so what inspired these people, patiently sitting, and soaking it all in: the chazan, the choir, the leining?

I started to piece the answer together Shabbos afternoon, when close friends of ours from  the UK, Professor Jonathan Webber and his wife Connie, offered to give me a private tour of Krakow. I have long known the Webbers as  warm and wonderful people, but clearly eccentric. For more than twenty years they have been involved in reviving the memory of the Jews in Poland.   They work tirelessly on Jewish-Polish relations, including being responsible for encouraging and facilitating the introduction of explanatory texts in Hebrew at Auschwitz, for  the reconsecration of Jewish cemeteries, and countless interfaith and holocaust-related initiatives. They have even owned a small apartment in Krakow since the early 1990s and and have explained to me in the past that there is a future for Jews in Poland.   I have often asked myself how can such good-hearted and intelligent and G-d-fearing Jews be so disconnected from reality? When we lived in the UK and spent time with the Webbers, we agreed to disagree on Poland, and found safer topics of conversation. But here I was in Poland, being offered an exclusive tour by the people who know Krakow from the inside  – how could I turn it down?

And what a tour it was! There are seven shuls within a few blocks of each other, each more beautiful than the last. They are built with stone; stone construction is far more expensive than wood, and its use in a shul means one thing: the Jews who built this shul expected Poland to be a home for Jews for a very long time.  Professor Webber pointed out some amazing features I would have missed on my own – for example, in this shul there was an inscription on the wall referring to Shabtai Zvi as Moshiach! He also pointed out that some of the shuls have small round windows up high. Apparently it comes from a kabbalistic tradition that Hashem should be able to see us davenning, and it is a common feature in Polish shuls, though we do not commonly have it in the US.

The highlight of the tour was the Jewish Museum built in the Old Shul in Krakow, which is the oldest shul in Poland. Dating from the fifteenth century, the shul features a bird cage bimah, and an ezras noshim that was added  hundreds of years later! Architectural historians guess that women did not originally go to shul, and the ezras noshim was added when there was demand.  The entire shul is now a gorgeous museum, dedicated to showing Jewish life and tefillah. While they charge admission, orthodox Jews are welcome for free on Shabbos.

Jonathan Webber introduced us to the museum director, who was very warm, and excited to see us! He wanted us to preview an exhibit that was about to open and get our opinion on its accuracy: why not? The exhibit was on Jewish learning, and it blew my mind. Display after display showed Jewish texts: a breakdown of a page of Mikro’os Gedolos, identifying each source in its historical and Jewish context; displays for gedolei hador from Rashi and the Rambam  downward. Each display was in Polish and English, with other languages thrown in for good measure. I was astounded. The attention to detail, and the amount of information was nothing short of staggering. Who on earth could possibly be this interested in Jewish learning? The answer is simple: the Polish people are. They, including regular parties of teenaged schoolchildren, visit this (and other) Jewish museums in large numbers, and soak it all in.

It became clear to me that Poles are interested in Jews, not because they hate us, and not because they use it as a way to pretend there was no national wrongdoing that must be disguised (though that may be a factor). Jews are fascinating to Poles because we are a part of Polish history. Jews constituted 25% of Krakow’s population in 1939; 33% of Warsaw’s. We lived in Poland for 800 years prior to that, making up a substantial part of their society and culture. The moment was captured for me by a Polish volunteer who explained to me that “we don’t want Jews to define their history in Poland by just six years.”

One building just off the neighborhood market square housed countless shteibels and Jewish offices and businesses. That single building, before the war, housed no fewer than four chedarim, with a sum total of *900* children, all of whom spent their lunch break in the central square.  Of those 900, 13 survived.

And during that tour I realized that I was seeing things the wrong way around. Jews should not primarily go and see Poland because of the Holocaust. We should be connected to Poland because of the 800 years before the Holocaust. 800 years of vitality, of Torah, avodas Hashem, and song and learning. The shuls and cellars of Krakow are not empty vessels that are devoid of Judaism because Jews were murdered by 1946; just being near them conveys a sense of sobriety, even of kedusha. Our hotel had, at one wall, the old cemetery of Krakow where the Rema and the Bach and many others are buried. Life and death, right next door. The shtetl is compact, and once my eyes were opened I realized that every street and alley had countless stories, laughter and tears alike. This is Jewish life.

After Shabbos we took part in a Melava Malka in the Tempel Synagogue. All these shuls are being restored to their former glory, at no small cost, by the Polish government (who are among the sponsors of the Jewish Cultural Festival which is under the honorary patronage of the president of the Republic of Poland). The Tempel is breathtaking, replete with gold leaf and gorgeous handwork. For the Melava Malka, they set up a very long table down the middle of the shul for the chazzanim and choir, laden with drinks and fresh fruit. The rest of the building was packed with sitting and standing Poles, there to soak up the atmosphere. It was unreal – we sang a few upbeat pieces, each Chazan sang a piece or two, and the audience was incredibly involved. At times it felt like a festive rock concert, with the Jews at the long table singing and enjoying themselves, and everyone else living vicariously through us. The choicest moment was when Chaim David Berson (whose grandparents live in Silver Spring) took to the stage, and with the voice of an angel, started to sing “Am Yisrael Chai”. Tears came to my eyes. Here we were in Krakow, 70 years after Jews started to be slaughtered in this very place, and we were all singing “Am Yisrael Chai”. Not just the Jews; the Poles caught on quickly, and joined in, especially when Chazzan Ben-Zion Miller sang Kol Ha’Olam Kulo Gesher Tzar M’od in Hebrew and Polish.

The next day was the big concert, officially kicking off the week-long Festival. The concert was live-broadcast on the Net, so my family in the UK and Baltimore watched it and sent comments back to me via email that I shared with the group during breaks. Many of the comments had to do with the 40 minutes of speeches that kicked off the concert itself. The shul was packed – maybe 1000 people in all – and there was no air conditioning. Still, the Cardinal was there, and the Mayor, and regional VIPs and the like. Everyone who was important came to this event, and the occasion was an opportunity to talk about Jewish revival in Poland, and the love between Poland and Israel (Poland is perhaps Israel’s biggest European ally), and promises to not have any more speeches — after the next one. My wife sent me an email: the children are impatient with the speeches: get on with it!

Eventually they did, and the singing began. The audience was transfixed; the heat forgotten. This was the music, the chazzanim and choir, that inspired the kavanah of Jews in Poland for hundreds of years. We lifted each other up that night, with praises sung to Hashem from both Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions. I no longer felt any reservations about being paid to entertain our hosts, about being on display. There was a palpable desire from the audience to not just see Jewish culture as one might observe an animal at the zoo, but to feel it, to be moved by its emotions and connections to Hashem. It was a beautiful evening, one of the finest musical events I have ever been a part of. And it was just getting better.

After the concert, the hotel put on a large and fancy buffet. After we had eaten, a few members of the choir retired outside, to a café-garden area on the street corner. And we started to sing. Led by Chaim David Berson on a guitar, we had an old-fashioned kumsitz. People drifted into the gathering, and we sang and sang – soft, sweet music, haunting melodies and harmonies. At its peak, maybe 40 or 50 people were sitting in the garden lending their voices and emotions. The sounds echoed and filled the street, and passers-by stopped to listen, to soak it in, to smile in appreciation. In all, we sang from 11 PM until almost 2:30 in the morning. Nobody asked us to keep it quiet. On the contrary, it was clear that we were there for a purpose.  Am Yisrael Chai.


The Opiate of the Masses? Or The Neverending Road?

To the extent that religion causes people to become docile and passive, Karl Marx had a point. Quite a few religions preach some version of quiet acceptance: “Be happy with your lot.” “Believe that there is a Plan, as you are but a leaf in a rushing stream.” “Surrender yourself to G-d and His Will, and He’ll sort it all out.” The drug may be different than opium, but the induced mental result is the same: a feeling of contentment which leads to inaction.

What is the opposite of such a drug? A belief system that gives each person a purpose, goals and quests; above all, personal growth. But the problem with this kind of belief system is that it promises only work: it never offers a “happily ever after.” Instead, this kind of approach tells us of a road that never ends, an orientation that is always future-oriented.

This might be why Judaism is so challenging. All the commandments are a bit like housework: it starts again, seemingly anew, every single day, there’s a fair amount of repetition (some of it quite taxing), and it never ends. The twist is that the commandments serve a real and positive purpose in a person’s life, so even though you are commanded to do them every day, the next morning you are at least a hair’s breadth ahead of where you started the day before.

Why would I suggest that Judaism requires just endless investment? Because so many of the commandments are about how to love other people – how to build and nurture relationships. “Love your fellow as yourself” (Lev. 19:18) is the central commandment in the entire text. There is no praise of hermits or solitude in the Torah. Relationships necessarily involve give and take on both sides, the possibility and likelihood of change, the vibrancy of a living and loving interplay between two people.

We are unable to predict our own future, so try to grasp how hard it is to predict the future for other people, and all the ways relationships change and warp in that interplay over time. This is what we are commanded to build – and not just with people. We are similarly commanded to grow our relationship with G-d, which is quite a daunting prospect. If we find it hard to understand other people, it is obviously not trivial to understand G-d. A proper relationship is not merely acceptance or surrender or obedience; a real relationship requires interplay and conversation and the willingness on both sides to take the risks necessary to find a way to grow together.

But the steps in this relationship are part-and-parcel of the ongoing commandments found in the Torah. Most of those commandments are really symbolic acts to remind us of what works better (or worse) in growing a holy relationship with man and G-d.

Christianity takes a very different direction, and I think it can be traced to a philosophical reading of the famous answer G-d gives Moshe when the man asks his Creator who He is: “I am what I am,” was understood by Christian theologians to mean that G-d is out of time, unchanging, perfect, in stasis. Augustine defines G-d as totally unchangeable.

The problem, for those who know Hebrew, is that the phrase is not translated as “I am what I am.” “Ehye asher Ehye” is in the future tense: “I will be what I will be.” In other words, G-d is, like mankind ourselves, understood, known and defined by what we will say and do in the future. As Sacks puts it, “Far from being timeless and immutable, God in the Hebrew Bible is active, engaged in constant dialogue with His people, calling, urging, warning, challenging and forgiving.” I would add that G-d is also adapting, based on our own actions.

In Christianity, as I understand it (and I may well have it wrong), all the commandments have been “fulfilled” on mankind’s behalf. The process of relationship, of endless growth, has been swapped for a product, the concept of salvation and grace, an “end of days.” In Christianity, G-d’s grace may well come regardless of a person’s actions. Christianity removes the drudgery of Jewish spiritual housework.

Last year I asked, “What if there is no Plan?” The answers from devout people, broadly speaking, was that G-d surely does have a plan. I think this is because Christianity offers a destination, a shining City on a Hill, the concept of salvation and grace and heaven.

Jews are not so sure about a divine plan. G-d in the Torah certainly develops a few Big Picture goals, but whether it had to be Avram who first listened to G-d instead of someone else is left wide open. Similarly, Moshe meets G-d after turning aside to question a burning bush: what if Moshe had not done so? After it, it did not have to be Moshe – it could have been someone else, anyone else, who had enough curiosity to try to figure out the bush. G-d was perhaps going to keep putting burning bushes of one kind or another out there until someone turned aside and questioned it, starting the conversation. (Indeed, I think we are all offered personal “burning bushes” from time to time.)

Even prophecies and blessings in the Torah are often nothing more than a way to give someone hope. Isaac’s blessings to Jacob that he would rule over his brother Esau? It never came to fruition. Nor did Joseph’s dreams, or Jacob’s blessings to his sons. With the exception of when G-d makes some very specific predictions (like the Exodus) or engaged in a covenant with the Jewish people, there seems to be no concept of a destiny or a Master Plan in the text. Instead, we have all those commandments: to tell us how to grow, how to love how to be holy. Those commandments do not tell us that everything becomes cleansed in a blaze of grace and salvation.

So we Jews don’t believe that G-d removes our free will, or that things in our lives, save for death, are inevitable. To the extent Jews accept that we are responsible for ourselves and our world, we are equally cognizant that whatever G-d might like us to do, we Jews are much more likely than not to simply screw it up. We might say that man plans and G-d laughs, but the Torah offers countless examples of G-d planning, and people doing whatever they feel like as if G-d was not even there. The laughter is not one-sided.

If Judaism is an always-future-oriented process, then the predictions in the Torah and offered by prophets are really signposts on that journey, the occasional traffic signal, speed limit or caution sign. The predictions are not the “shining city on the hill” at the end of that journey. So even inasmuch as the Exodus was about a kept promise to Avraham, the promise was never of a happily-ever-after story. The promises were, as Jeremiah puts it:

For I am mindful of the plans I have made concerning you—declares the LORD—plans for your peace, not for bad, to give you a hopeful future. (29:11)

Hope is something that triggers our minds toward growth. In Judaism, G-d’s plans are not for a end-goal or destination; they are for us to keep optimistically building and growing and loving and seeking holiness. “I will give you hope,” says G-d. And then the rest is up to us.

After Moshe turned to the bush, he did not get a grand prize or a ticket to heaven: he got an assignment, a pathway for his life. Even at the end of his road, there was no pot of gold waiting for him. Moshe was denied entry to the Promised Land, the thing he wanted most of all. It is a lesson to all of us: as the Ethics of the Fathers puts it: ““You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it (2:21).”

Nobody wants to get on a train that does not have a clear destination. Nobody wants to sign up for a life of endless process, for accepting that we cannot get everything that we want. There is a reason that Judaism does not “sell” as well as Christianity; indeed, Jews don’t even make the effort. Salvation is much more popular than toil.

Marketability notwithstanding, I think there is real value in realizing the nature of the challenge contained within the Torah’s commandments: to grow relationships with man and with G-d. This can only be done by recognizing that each person is unique, and so has a unique path: we are each different facets of an infinite gem. Respect comes through understanding that since each person has a divinely-gifted soul, none of us is inherently superior to anyone else: The task may be endless, but there is surpassing beauty to be found by applying ourselves to it.

[Another @iwe and @susanquinn production]


Projection is Reality

An atheist says that there are no deities.  One may not believe that Allah exists, but closing one’s eyes and saying, “Allah does not exist,” is not likely to be an effective way of dealing with an approaching suicide bomber. To the suicide bomber, Allah is very real. And that means that Allah exists in our world, because the force that Allah projects through his followers is, in every way that we can measure, a force to be reckoned with.

The Tet Offensive was, by any military metric, a devastating setback for the North Vietnamese. But American media decided that it was a defeat for US forces, and what “should have been” a victory led to a comprehensive defeat.  Merely being “right” is never, ever, enough.

People who are correct about What Really Happened, but who fail to make the case, always end up embittered and bewildered. It does not matter that Israel treats Arabs better than any other country in the region, if people do not believe it. And if people are not concerned, it does not matter that a government who targets of people for their political views is a tyranny.  

The vast majority of people in the world are merely consumers when it comes to beliefs. They act in relatively predictable ways. They believe it when the dictator says everything is the fault of the United States, or the Jews. They vote based on name recognition, which means that campaign spending directly correlates to success at the voting booth.  People care about what the media tells them to care about. They identify with a tribe, a region, a sports team if for no other reason than accident of birth. They can even be readily manipulated to support candidates and causes that are counter to their own interests.

People act based on their impressions, on their perceptions. But those perceptions did not just happen: they are created by someone else, someone with the force of will to project their own version of a story.  The people who shape and change the world are those who create the reality in which other people live. They do it with a variety of tools that are well understood by any student of propaganda: clever control of the Media, the Big Lie, flattering the audience, etc. The story can be told in such a way that up becomes down, that black becomes white.

I would even go so far as to say that this is not a bug, but a feature. The world in which we live is one where perception is, in the end, the only thing that matters for anything having to do with human interactions. Beliefs always trump “reality.” Every scandal is only a scandal if people believe it to be one.

A dictator tells a story, and people believe it. That dictator creates the reality in his own world, because he creates it in the eyes of the vast majority of his people. A War on the Worlds broadcast can induce panic across the land because words create reality in the minds of people, and people react to those perceptions.  

Whether we like it or not, marketing is much more important than any underlying set of facts.  And what is truly remarkable about this fact is that at the same time as it discourages truth-seekers, it also makes people, potentially, far more powerful and capable than they otherwise would be. The ability of man to create things in his own mind can cut both ways.

The Torah tells us that there is only One G-d. But it also tells us that we should not put any other gods first, which means that the Torah is telling us that something that we worship is a deity, even if it has no underlying power in itself beyond what we lend it. It is man who makes G-d powerful in the eyes of other men, just as Allah is a force with whom we must reckon, even if there is no “real” Allah.

For thousands of years people have believed in the famous allegory of Plato’s Cave. It tells us about the “Real” world, accessible not through observation, but through the mental exercises of extremely bright people. The reader, appropriately flattered, is sucked into the vision, the mirage that we call “Reality.” And so they believe, paradoxically, that their belief in Reality is independent of any religious faith.  [Usage note: “Reality”: the thing in itself; “reality”: what we think it is]

The joke, though, is that the tools developed through science and engineering tell us otherwise.  In every way we can measure, there is no Reality.  The observer always influences the observed, so that each person truly lives in their own world.

Science leads to engineering, and our lives are made better through technology.  And even as science and engineering lead us to advanced creations, advanced technologies that surely are “real” in the sense that we can use them to communicate and share knowledge as never before, they merely lubricate human interactions, accelerating the ways in which ideas and beliefs spread around the world. Our ability to predict how powerful people will behave has not improved at all.

And anything that cannot be proven or disproven through observation is a religion. Which means that Reality is, itself, a faith-system.  Those who worship Reality see it as the opponent of religion, when in fact they are merely practitioners of a competing worldview.

In a world without Reality, what do we have left? Beyond those things in the physical world that we can measure and manipulate, we are left with what we create in our own minds, our own specific realities. Religions are powerful because we can number their practitioners, measure the effects of the religion on literacy rates, or the creation of orphanages and hospitals, the number of scientific discoveries or engineering innovations. We can measure the impact and influence of suicide bombers.

There is only religion. And everybody has one. Greens worship Nature, and Atheists worship Reality just as surely as Muslims worship Allah. Only someone whose self-awareness is below that of a human child can have no religious belief.

And what is the goal of virtually every religion in the world? To get everyone else to acknowledge that it is True. So religions proselytize – Muslims and Catholics and Greens and Atheists all feel it is very important to convince other people to agree with them. Indeed, the success of the religion in the world is an objective measurement of the strength of those sets of beliefs. People instinctively understand that it matters whether other people agree with them. Even Plato, who would have denied it, sought to spread the religion of Reality even as he engaged in sharing his ideas. We spread our religion by convincing others to agree with us.

But we should not be confused into thinking that it does not matter to which religion one ascribes! The worldview that comes from a religion has a self-fulfilling component. People who believe that the world is governed by Fate (which includes both Hindus and Atheists who believe the future can be predicted from a present Reality with the use of sophisticated-enough computer models) are much less likely to be Creators in their own right. They tend to be reactive instead of proactive.

Those who think that a deity (whether Reality or Allah) is the only source of absolute truth and power tend to limit their ambitions. Those who read Ecclesiastes and believe that “there is nothing new under the sun,” won’t be inventing a time machine. Others who read Genesis and conclude that they are empowered with G-d’s own spirit, capable of emulating G-d by creating entirely new worlds, can do so.

Regardless of one’s religion, it is observationally and objectively true that people who aim high have a better chance of success.  The question one might ask is: which religions lead people to aim high?

To some extent, all people absorb the reality of others. Just as concepts of beauty have changed through the ages, women have considered themselves beautiful or ugly based on how they appear in their own eyes, as well as the eyes of others. It is rare to find someone who is secure in being beautiful when those around them are repelled by them.

But the differences between the few people in this world who can (and do) change it, and the 6+ billion people who will live and die without leaving more than a fleeting impression on the minds of those they knew, come down to this: powerful people change the way other people see the world. Projection is reality.


Purim – Fat Chance?

You do everything you can. But sometimes, stuff happens. And as much as we’d like to have some sort of rational explanation for it, stuff still happens. If it seems random, there may be a perfectly good explanation – the world plays dice with us. And we are encouraged by Hashem to do the same!

Think of the famous Yom Kippur scapegoats. One is sacrificed on the altar. The other is thrown off the cliff. Which is which? The poor goats don’t get a vote. The Cohen lets the lots decide.

There are plenty of other examples. We cast lots to determine liability when a dead body is found midway between two cities. And there are examples of rabbis deciding ambiguous halachic decisions by flipping a coin. In Jewish law, we use such methods as a way of accepting that when we are faced with complete doubt, flipping a coin (or some other quasi-random way of making a decision) is the only way to decide which course of action is correct. Humans always make decisions based on insufficient data, but most of the time we lean one way or another sufficiently to avoid relying on a coin toss.

There is no principle in Jewish law that says that Hashem gets involved in matters of statistical luck. In one example, the Cohen had the job of assigning land to the tribes in Israel. He used both the urim v’tumim (which are a source of divine information) as well as drawing lots – since he uses lots as well as  the urim v’tumim, it means that they are not divinely guided.

And so when Haman uses lots to decide on which day the Jews would be destroyed, he selected the date using a method that could not be influenced by Hashem. Lots are statistical creations. And while they cannot be purely random, they lead us nonetheless to a simple truth: Absent G-d (and humans in his image), the entire world can be described using statistics. The only anti-statistical forces we see in the world are people ourselves – it is people who challenge the odds, who achieve greatness despite the entirely dispassionate forces of the natural world.

But try as we might to improve the world (and we do!), on Purim and on Yom Kippur, we are forced to remember that, despite G-d and our unique role to improve the world, stuff still happens. Haman picks the data in Adar, and that is when all the action occurs. Purim is, after all, named after statistical chance! And on Yom Kippur, the poor unfortunate goat is selected to be thrown down a cliff.

None of this negates the reality that it is our job, as Jews, to improve the world, to triumph over evil. We are concerned mostly about other people, about elevating the world and reuniting the schisms in our souls and in our world. But even on Purim and Yom Kippur, two very holy days, we must not forget that the natural world is left to its own devices, that G-d created a universe that, to mangle Einstein, plays dice with us.  Good luck with that.


Forfeiting Love:

Our Greatest Heroes

[This is outside my normal stomping grounds of the Torah – the Five Books. It is also quite an early piece for me – from 2007. So feel free to read with even more than the usual amount of criticism!]

Great people shape the world around them, make pivotal decisions and change the course of history forever. These are the people who, in serving G-d, take the ultimate risks and pay the highest price of all. And contrary to conventional custom, the ultimate price is not one’s own life; after all, as Nathan Hale put it, “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” Giving one’s life is rather like a crash diet – most anyone can manage to starve themselves for a number of days. The real challenge is to live the rest of one’s life in constant hunger.

And so we can expect to discover that the greatest of our heroes were not necessarily those that gave up their lives for the sake of heaven. Instead, they were those that chose to spend the rest of their days with a constant unending and unfulfilled desire. I am speaking, of course, of making the decision to live the rest of one’s life without the one person we love more than anything.

The first and most obvious example was Avraham – in his willingness to sacrifice Isaac in service to Hashem, he was prepared to live out his days without his only son, and knowing that Isaac’s life was taken by his own hand. But Avraham in the end did not have to pay the price. Other Jewish heroes were not as fortunate.

Who are these heroes? Let’s compare Purim, and the giving of the Torah on Har Sinai. Chazal tell us that Purim was like a recreation of the giving of the Law! This is a very bold statement, and one that should give us pause. Can we really understand how this is so, and why Purim is often referred to as the second holiest day of the year, on par with Yom Kippur itself? It has everything to do with two great individuals, and the pivotal decisions and sacrifices they made.

If Sinai and Purim are, as Chazal tell us, intimately related, then we should find parallels between the leader of the Jewish people in the desert, and the leader of the Jewish people in Persia. And indeed we do.

Let’s take Megillas Esther from the top. The Gemara tells us that any reading of the Megillah is valid if it starts from one of three points: the introduction of Ahasuerus, Mordechai, or Haman.[2] These three are the foundation of the story, the players upon which everything rests. But in a sense, these players are constants, two-dimensional personalities: Haman begins and ends as a villain, Mordechai as a tzadik, and Ahasuerus as a powerful if suggestible monarch. None of these three undergo any kind of real growth; they form the unchanging bedrock, the platform on which the real intrigue occurs.

There are two other characters who make the play complete, whose commitment and conscious decisions save the Jewish people. They are Esther and Hashem. Esther we can understand, but where is G-d in the Megilla? The Gemara gives it to us time and again. While Ahasuerus is the Persian monarch who is so easily manipulated by those around him, many of the psukim referring to Ahasuerus are meant to be understood as referring to the King of Kings Himself. Is Ahasuerus angry, or is Hashem angry? Those who read the Gemara looking for specific answers to specific questions are led in circles, bewildered by all the secondary references and entendres.  But this confusion is deliberate, and meant to help us discover the allegory in the text. For there is considerable allegory and metaphor in Esther.   And Chazal set the example in the aggadeta, showing us how to employ allegory in order to make sense of the Megilla.

Let’s look at Megillas Esther as being allegorically linked to the giving of the Torah on Har Sinai.

Esther is an orphan. She is raised by a relative, and then, the Gemara tells us, is married to that relative. Esther is then taken away with threat of force to appear before the King. She is committed to living her life in the royal house from that time forward. When Esther appears before the King, he is delighted by her, and he chooses her from among all the maidens in the land. She then spends her formative years in the King’s house.

Moshe Rabbeinu had a very similar story to tell. He is separated from his parents, functionally orphaned to be raised in a royal house.[3] Then, out of all the Jews in Egypt, G-d chooses Moshe at the burning bush.

Esther has no real choice in the matter of serving Ahasuerus – she has been picked and that is that.  The Gemara does not speculate on whether or not Esther is actually coerced during relations with the King. Indeed, while the initial marriage was coerced, it seems that Esther does not have to have a sword hanging over her neck for the coercion to be real. So she pleases the King, and serves him well. And the King is infatuated with her. But in her heart, she does not have free choice in the matter. Either she cooperates, or her life is forfeit. And because Esther does not have free choice, she is not halachically denied to Mordechai; she can and does cohabit with both men.[4]  The Gemara tells us that she would go to the mikvah and return to Mordechai, living a double life. This was halachically acceptable because Esther was compelled to serve Ahasuerus on pain of death.

The time comes, however, when Esther is called upon by Mordechai to appeal to the king to save the Jewish people – much as Hashem tells Moshe to go to Pharoah to plead to let the Jews leave Egypt. They are both Called to Serve.  But why should they answer the call? Both Esther and Moshe have reason to think that they are safe and insulated from any destruction of the Jews. Moshe is in Midyan at the time; he is no slave in Egypt, under oppression and in fear of his life. He does not have to answer G-d’s call. And neither does Esther. She is not known to be Jewish, and she is safely ensconced within the palace, well above the Haman-Mordechai fray. The urge to play it safe, to leave the risk to someone else who actually had something to lose, is irresistible. And that is precisely their first reaction. Both Esther and Moshe suggest that there must be a better way, that they are not really the right people at the right time. In other words: pick someone else.

Wrong answer. Both Esther and Moshe are punished for this decision, and in similar ways. Moshe’s sons lose the kehuna, the inherited right to serve Hashem in the Mishkan and Mikdash. Not only that, but Moshe does not directly raise his sons (he left that to his wife), and he dies knowing that his offspring were not to become the future of the Jewish people. Moshe loses a share in eternity.

Esther has a very similar punishment. She has a son by Ahasuerus, and he becomes the great king Darius. Great though he may be, he is no longer a part of the Jewish people. Esther, too, loses her share in the eternity of klal yisroel.[5]

And then Esther finds herself. She realizes that the fate of her people hangs by a thread, and she is the only person who can make a difference. She has to make not just the most important decision of her life, but one of the most important decisions anyone has ever had to make. She has to decide to commit to the King.

This is not just any kind of commitment. It is the kind of commitment that changes everything, both for the nation as a whole, but also at the most personal and intimate level.  The moment of commitment for Moshe Rabbeinu is when he ascends Har Sinai; he is going as an emissary of his people, but he is also going to get closer to Hashem than anyone ever did before, or ever would again.  Esther’s moment comes when she decides that she is going to see the King. And she issues instructions to Mordechai; she will prepare, and she wants the people to prepare with her.

Maamud Har Sinai is the moment at which the future of the entire people depends on the interaction between the national leader and the King. Such an event must not happen without preparation.  The Jewish people elevate themselves for three days, abstaining from the physical world, for their own sakes and for the sake of Moshe. Esther, certainly aware of the similarities, requires that the Jewish people do the same thing – unite as one people for perhaps the first time since the exile to Babylon, and fast for three days on her behalf. The people elevate themselves toward the spiritual plane to show their solidarity before the King, that their emissary should be successful.

For ordinary people, there is no conflict between our commitment to Hashem and our commitment to our spouses. We have long learned that our relationship with G-d is meant to be the archetype of our relationships with each other, and especially with our spouses.  And in this relationship, multiple partners is a fact of life; we are married to G-d as surely and in as real a sense as we are married to our spouses. There should be no conflict between the two.

But these two of our leaders in history had to go to an entirely different level of commitment to Hashem. Esther’s decision to go to the King for the sake of her people, has a very profound halachic consequence.  Esther has to go from being passive to being active. She has to choose to see the king, to serve him with love. Esther had received nothing from the King while she is coerced except her own creature comforts. Once Esther needs a favor from the King, she has to remove that last mental shield. She has to voluntarily go to Him, with all her heart. In so doing, she will be lost to Mordechai forever, since the Halacha is that a woman who willingly sleeps with two men is denied to her halachic husband.   

Moshe’s decision holds precisely the same risk. If Moshe commits fully to Hashem, by ascending Har Sinai, then his spiritual level will be such that he can no longer be married to his wife. Getting that close to G-d means Moshe severs his relationship with his wife, Tzipporah.

Esther is in the same position as Moshe Rabbeinu, and she makes precisely the same irrevocable decision. Both decide to commit themselves fully to G-d, forever denying themselves to their earthbound spouses. This act is what makes Purim, and kabbolos HaTorah what it is; it takes this kind of personal sacrifice to achieve an everlasting gift from the King.

As soon as Esther decides to go to the King, she has made the move voluntarily. At that very instant, the moment she took the first step to see Ahasuerus, she is no longer permitted to Mordechai as his wife. This is commitment indeed.

Marriage requires the consent of the woman; she must want marriage, and not be coerced. Esther takes the step of Kiddushin, even though she has done nothing more than take the first step outside her rooms. Eem Avad’ti, Avad’ti. If I perish, I perish. Esther knows full well that the decision to go to the King guarantees that at least on one level – that of Mordechai’s wife – Esther will certainly perish.

This step is analogous to the step Moshe took from his tent to ascend Sinai. From that moment on, Moshe ceases to have a relationship with his wife. His terrestrial marriage is over. His sacrifice and commitment to Hashem is at every level, and it is not something that anyone has matched – save for Esther. [6]

Both Esther and Moshe take this step in such a way that they know their lives were forfeit. Moshe did not ascend Sinai with cans of tuna and a full canteen; a midrash tells us that it took a miracle for Moshe to stay alive for 40 days without food. It could easily have been a one way trip.  Only the grace of the King saves Moshe. And Esther tells Mordechai that her life, too, is being put in the hands of the King. If Ahasuerus is not pleased, her life is forfeit. But risking their own lives is not the main sacrifice; losing their beloved spouses is.

Complete with witnesses Moshe ascends the mountain, and Esther enters the throne room. Both are going to the King to consummate the relationship. Meeting the foreknowledge, witnesses and privacy conditions of yichud, the marriage is completed. Esther has crossed the threshold of the throne room, and Moshe has climbed Har Sinai to join Hashem under a cloud-covered chupah. Once Moshe Rabbeinu enters G-d’s tent, his commitment is complete. Both Moshe and Esther are alone with their Beloved – having forsaken their natural spouses.

Then, and only then, does King Ahasuerus speak. The actions of Esther and Moshe are both only physical, not the verbal refusals they had uttered before. Neither Moshe nor Esther speak first to the King when they encounter Him; the King makes the first move. At this point, we have Nisuin. Both receive tokens of value: Esther touches the golden scepter, and Moshe is given the Torah in the corporal form of the luchos.

And what is gained by the steps Esther and Moshe take, their utter commitment to the King? The end result of Moshe’s commitment is that Moshe descends from the mountain the second time on Yom Kippur, bearing the second set of luchos. The tablets with Hashem’s edicts are made with Moshe’s own hand, with Hashem’s express permission. These luchos provide the cornerstone of our relationship with Hashem from that fateful Yom Kippur forward.  They are everlasting.

Purim k’Purim. Esther emerges from her fateful meetings with the King with edicts expressing the King’s will, in the King’s name, on the royal signet. Laws are being handed down from the King, an event that requires Jewish unity as at Sinai; indeed, the Gemara in Shabbos (88a) says that the Jews accept the Torah again during Purim.

Like the tablets that Moshe wrought, the edicts that Esther writes and seals are irrevocable – the Gemara says that Purim and Yom Kippur are the only days of the year that will remain unchanged after Moshiach has come, because the laws handed down by Esther and Moshe are promised to remain standing.  Esther and Moshe both make the ultimate commitment to Hashem. They paid the price of losing their piece of eternity through their children, and losing their love. But the laws they promulgated are the laws of the Jewish people for eternity.[7],[8]

[2] Rabbi Meir says: One is required to read the entire Megillah. Rabbi Yehudah says: From the verse [2:5]: A Jewish man. Rabbi Yosi says: From the verse [3:1]: After these things. (19a).

[3] It is hardly accidental that Moshe’s training in the house of Pharoah prepared him to eventually become a leader in his own right, just as Esther was perfecting the Jewish routine of starting out life as the court Jew and end up running the place.

[4] We are to understand that anything that happened in the bedroom was coercive by definition as long as the King made the first move. If the King called on Esther, she was to serve him and was not held responsible for anything that subsequently occurred.

[5] We ask that Hashem should answer us on the day that we call. On the day that Hashem calls, do we answer?

[6] This is a profound distinction of Judaism. The ultimate sacrifice in the Torah is not giving of one’s own life, but giving up our hopes and dreams in those we love. The most powerful story of all is that of the Akeidah; the greatest test of Avraham is not one of martyrdom but of giving up his own son. Moshe and Esther’s sacrifices are similarly to give up the relationship with the one they love.

[7] It is not accidental that the day after Yom Kippur the Jews are commanded to build the Mishkan, G-d’s place within the Jewish camp. Likewise,  as Menachem Leibtag points out, the active rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash followed as a direct result of the events described in Megillas Esther.

[8] Conventionally,  Mordechai is seen as the great leader, and Esther is little more than a puppet. The Megillah makes it clear that while Mordechai and Haman fulfill their roles of embodying good and evil throughout the story,  once she decides to assert herself, it is Esther who actually calls the shots. Esther has the power and the freedom to make her own choices. It is Esther who dictates that the Jews should fast for three days. Esther designs and executes the plan of how to influence Ahasuerus. It is Esther who wins the King’s favor and who writes the critical edicts in the King’s name and with the King’s seal. Mordechai gains Haman’s wealth – but only because Esther, having received it from the King, passes it onto Mordechai. And it is Esther’s order that establishes the festival of Purim for all time.

This understanding also explains a famous Rashi. Rashi tells us that Mordechai, when he became the administrator, actually went down in his spiritual level.  But he does not explain why. The Taz says that Mordechai, by becoming involved in the “real world” was leaving Torah Study, and so his madrega dropped. But how can this be? How can saving lives be less important than studying Torah? The answer is that Mordechai is not the one who saved lives; Esther made the decision and saved the Jews. Mordechai’s decision to become an administrator was not pivotal to saving lives, so it was a less holy activity than had he remained primarily engaged in Torah.


Purim and Amalek

[This is quite an old piece – from 2008! I post it unedited.]

We have a commandment to eradicate Amalek, even though the people of Amalek ceased to exist thousands of years ago. Yet the Torah, which is timeless, insists that this is a commandment which we must remember every day, to keep close to our heart.

Are we meant to live life and never fulfill this mitzvah? I don’t think so. There are many mitzvos in the Torah (such as sacrifices) that we have taken and internalized in our prayer, asking Hashem to accept as a substitute.  Indeed, the Gemara makes many references to Hashem’s Shechinah having moved from the mishkan into the daled amos of every man’s soul. After the destruction of the temple we have internalized the temple and its fixtures and elements. Indeed, each person can equal the value of the whole world because of our individual, almost infinite, potential. That potential comes in part from Hashem’s voice, the “still small voice” inside us that we can sometimes hear when we pray.

We are not just filled with good things, of course. Amalek is also inside us. When Yehoshua is tasked with leading the battle against Amalek, it is because Yehoshua’s own weakness was that while he knew what to do, he did not always enjoy the courage of his convictions. Moshe’s parting blessing to Yehoshua was “chazak v’amatz”, that Yehoshua should be strengthened and made courageous, in order that he should be able to carry out his mission in life as the leader of the Jewish people.

Amalek was once a people, an external force. But even then, Amalek had a component within the Jewish soul. Amalek has the gematria of 240, which is the same gematria as “Safek” – doubt, or uncertainty. Yehoshua had to attack Amalek not just to battle an evil nation, but also to counter his own achilles heel, the weakness of uncertainty.

Amalek resurfaces for Purim, where Chazal hold that Haman was also from the nation of Amalek, but perhaps the last of that evil nation, therafter assimilated into the nations of the world. Purim, of course, happens at the same time as several other critical changes in the Jewish destiny. The Megillah sets the blueprint for Jews living in exile up until the present day – Hashem’s hidden face or Hester Panim, Jews assimilating to some extent to blend in with the “modern” culture, Jews finding a way to bring value to our host nation and still retain our unique and critical identity.  Megillas Esther is also the time when our relationship with Hashem changes from one of prophecy – nevuah – to one of Rabbis. The difference between the utterances of a prophet and the words of a Rabbi are that while the words of a prophet can be difficult to understand, there is no doubt that they are the words of G-d. A Rabbi, on the other hand, knows what he says, and builds from Torah – yet he knows that there is an element of uncertainty. His ruling is from the mind of a man, not from the mouth of a prophet.

Esther, like Yehoshua, suffered from indecision as well. Esther is not sure what to do. She fights her own private Amalek while she dithers – and then she makes the decision to go see the King. From that moment on, Haman’s fate is sealed. Esther conquers the Amalek within her, and the Amalek that threatens the Jews from outside becomes collateral damage. Perhaps we can even say that Esther’s greatest battle was in making that decision, not in carrying it out. Once she had annihilated the Amalek within her soul, Esther did not hesitate again.

Purim sets the tone for all Jews in exile up until the present day. Hashem still hides his face from us. We have no certain nevuah, and our lives are torn by indecision.  But there is something quintessentially Jewish about our indecision. A “normal” person lives his life while making few conscious decisions. Jews are taught to understand that at every single moment we are making a decision that could change our lives forever. Do we remember to say a blessing at every opportunity? Do we work and/or learn? Sleep or wake? The little decisions, right or wrong, pass quickly. The big decisions, however,  can be paralyzing. When we come to a fork in the road, we like to think about it, to discuss it, to procrastinate until we have answered every uncertainty, settled all doubts. In other words, Amalek wins when we let Safek rule our lives. We are told that the roshei tevot of “Mazal” is makom, zman, and la’asot – good fortune comes to those who, at the right place and time, act.

The biggest single mistake we can make is in understanding that NOT making a decision is still making a decision. And we have a mitzvah to correct this very mistake every single day.  This is the mitzvah to remember Amalek itself! We are commanded to be aware of our own doubts, to be aware that at every moment we are making decisions. We must overcome our natural Jewish desire to rationalize, consider, weigh the evidence, darshun, and generally indulge in the intoxicating habit of cloaking our lack of decisiveness in words, words…  words.

From the time of the first Purim to the present day, Amalek has been gone from this world – but very much alive in the heart of every Jew. The quality of the Safek is the same as that which afflicted Yehoshua and Esther. Both of these great people knew what they had to do – yet they hesitated to make that huge step, the step into the unknown. There is a reason that we collectively shout “Chazak Chazak v’Nischazek” in shul when we finish a book of the Torah. We, as a people, need every reinforcement against Amalek that we can get.

This is not just an ancient enemy; we see it bringing down the Jewish people in Israel today. Israel outclasses its enemies in every respect; if Israel only had the will, rockets would not be raining terror and destruction down on innocent civilians.  The entire country knows in its heart that if Israel is to survive it must take a certain path. Yet we are witnessing a national paralysis. Amalek, our constant enemy, afflicts us from within, keeping us from defending our people and our land, doing our moral and halachic duty.

Three years ago, my family moved from England, where we were very happy. We did so because the demographics had become undeniable; European natives are not having children while muslims are reproducing rapidly and taking over whole swaths of European society. While not dominant in numbers yet, the writing is on the wall. In times of turmoil, history is never made by a silent majority but by those who are willing to put their lives on the line for what they believe in – and suicide bombers present a very strong case that while the meek may inherit the earth, Europe will belong to the muslims. There is no future in Europe for Jews.

We know that our dear friends remaining in England also realize this at some level, though the growing peril is not yet a common dining room conversation.  Jews in Europe are suffering from the same Safek as the Jews in Israel. They know full well that in three years or five or twenty, Jews will no longer be welcome except perhaps as dhimmis, oppressed second class citizens in a muslim state. Yet very few people are leaving. While the changes within England are not obvious to those who live it day-by-day, it is shockingly apparent to those of us who revisit every year. Like the lobster in a slowly heating pot of water, the Jews in Europe can always rely on the Amalek within themselves to find justifications for not getting out.

Yet, we have a mitzvah every day: Remember Amalek, and Destroy Amalek. I pray that the Jews of the world this Purim once and for all remove that doubt and uncertainty from within themselves, and act to save themselves and their loved ones.


My Debt to Rabbi Sacks

[I was asked to write a piece for the passing of the great Rabbi Sacks. Here it is]

I sang in the choir, but my connection to Rabbi Sacks was not particularly close; we exchanged few words of consequence. I suspect that my relative age and insecurity kept me from establishing much of a personal relationship.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Sacks continues to have profound impact on my life. He led me down paths I would not have ventured if our connection was only through his writing, as striking and remarkable as it was.

I first heard Rabbi Sacks speak when I was a teenager over from America. He spoke at Dunstan Road. It was the 1980s, and I was entranced by his speech. As it happens, the topic was not particularly holy; he was making a speech he would have never made later in life – a fire-and-brimstone condemnation of the wartime Catholic Church. But the punchy power of his rhetoric still rings in my ears, even though it was the messenger, and not the message, that impressed me.

It was only later, at St. John’s Wood, that Rabbi Sacks changed my understanding of Torah. I specifically recall one speech that shifted my world: He spoke of the value Adam found in Eve in the moment after the curses from Hashem: Adam was reminded of his own mortality, and heard of childbirth. In that instant, Adam lost his own selfish future, and found value through the mother of his children. As she became valuable to him, he did what he had already done for every other animal: he gave her a name.

The thought itself is lovely, of course, but what Rabbi Sacks did not explicitly say (but which was nevertheless implicit in this and so much of his work), was far more important: that it is possible for someone, thousands of years after the Torah was given, to find something valuable and new in the text. In this way, I learned from Rabbi Sacks that the Torah is a deeply personal, egalitarian text: “It is not far from you.”

This was the smashing impact Rabbi Sacks had on my life: that the text is calling to each of us, regardless of whether we had learned for decades or mere minutes. Of all his brilliant ideas and insights, this is what I consider the greatest: that new understandings based on close reading of the text are a key part of what it means to be a Jew. Rabbi Sacks shared that text can be read with fresh eyes, that there are secrets right at the surface that speak to all of us.

And so Rabbi Sacks is more alive to me now than when he was at the pulpit at St. John’s Wood: his approach to Torah and gorgeous turns of phrase continue to inspire me and my own writing, both in consonance and dissonance. I believe he has led a fundamental and wonderful change to the way the Jewish people approach the Torah and our relationship and partnership with Hashem.



We only Value that which is Hard to Achieve

The Torah does not tell us that Rachel loves Yaakov!

At first glance, this might seem strange: after all Yaakov is often associated with love – he loves both Rachel and Leah (albeit the former more than the latter). He loves his son Yosef, and Benjamin.

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

After falling in love, Yaakov works for his wives – seven years for Leah, and fourteen for Rachel. He invests many years of his life at back-breaking labor to gain their hands in marriage. And the things that come hard, that require effort, are always worth more to us. It is why people who make their own money are much more careful about spending it, than people who win the lottery: easy come, easy go.

Because Yaakov works harder for Rachel than he does for Leah, it is no surprise that he loves Rachel more. And because Leah does not have equal love from Yaakov, she in turn is dedicated to gaining it. Leah names her children partly in praise of Hashem, connected with her desire to help gain her husband’s love.

But Rachel has Yaakov’s love from the very beginning! She does not have to do anything, or give of herself. Rachel’s unhappiness comes from being childless, not from lack of love from her husband. Indeed, when she delivers Yosef, Rachel does not refer to her husband at all! Instead she says “G-d has taken away my disgrace,” and “May Hashem add on for me another son.” In stark contrast with Leah, Rachel does not make it about her husband, or even a reciprocal relationship with Hashem!

Marriage between man and woman is the model for marriage between ourselves and Hashem. And what was not complete in the relationship between Rachel and Yaakov appears to have been reflected in the relationship between Rachel and Hashem as well! After all, when the family left for the land of Canaan, Rachel took her father’s idols! Why? One might suggest that when she left , she had not fully separated from her father, that she wanted some remembrance and connection with her childhood home.

In order to have a complete relationship with Hashem, one must first have a complete marriage with one’s spouse. Rachel’s marriage was incomplete in that she did not love Yaakov, and so her relationship to Hashem was also incomplete. Hence she kept the idols of her father: clinging both to her father and his gods, instead of to Yaakov and Hashem. The way she arranges herself on top of the idols is also highly problematic.

At the end of Rachel’s life, the loops all close. Her dying breath is to name her newborn son Ben-Oni, but Yaakov, in his first disagreement with Rachel, gives him the name Binyamin. This is the first child that Yaakov names, and he seems to do so as his first (and last) disagreement with Rachel.

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

Note: If Rachel’s goal in stealing the idols had merely been to reform her father, then she could have destroyed the idols. No observant Jew today would dream of owning such things – which helps explain why Yaakov was so certain that no member of his family would have taken them.

Yaakov loved many people, but he was not always so perceptive about the effect that he had on other people. He did not imagine that anyone would have the idols, any more than the Torah ever tells us that Yaakov was aware of the repercussions of his uneven affections on those whom he loved less: Leah and Yosef’s brothers.

Another Note: Yaakov REALLY likes naming things. All over the place, he does this. Is it because he sees the connection between names and their underlying nature? Is it connected to his angelic point of view?


Making the Most of Selfishness

Before and After the Flood


We know the things that make G-d angry. The Torah tells us of men who simply “take” the women they want, of men “of renown” who selfishly put themselves ahead of all others, and of widespread theft and violence. It all amounts to a simple enough lesson, or so it seems: G-d does not want mankind to act in pursuit of selfish, greedy, short-term goals. Instead, we are supposed to treat others with respect, not as mere instruments for one’s own desires. And when we do not understand this, there is no longer any reason for the world to exist.

That was all before the Flood. In a time when G-d thought that making man mortal was enough to make us value our wives – Adam names Eve as soon as he learns she is the key to his immortality, through children (Gen. 3:2). But it was not enough. Men still treated women like chattel, taking whomever they desired (Gen. 6:2). G-d immediately responds by shortening mankind’s lifespan, clearly hoping that strengthening our awareness of our mortality would strengthen the bond between man and woman. This, too, fails. As shows us, we continue to descend. Men seek only selfish fame, seeing no higher calling. (Gen. 6:4). The Torah observes that this “Might Makes Right” mindset and behavior is of people who “seek evil continuously.” (Gen. 6:5). G-d decides to destroy the world by drowning it and starting all over again.

There is a word that recurs many times in the Torah, and despite a range of meanings, it is turned on its head by the Flood. The word in Hebrew is spelled “ayin, reish, beis,” and its transliterated English letters would be “[vowel]RV”. In the Torah, the most common use is “erev,” meaning “evening,” as in: “and it was evening and it was morning.” In the Creation, this word means “closure”, a finite ending to events, separating discrete occurrences. So “erev” before the Flood is a simple word that divides and disconnects.

But after the Flood, the word is used in a huge number of ways, all of which have a common thread. Here they are:

  • Angels came to Sodom in the evening to see Lot (19:1): Meeting, and redemption.
  • Abraham’s servant courts Rebekkah in the evening (24:11): Romance.
  • Isaac meets his wife for the first time (24:63): New love.
  • Jacob marries Leah, whom he does not “take” (29:23): Shared intimacy.
  • Leah buys her sister’s marital rights to gain more intimacy from their husband (30:16)
  • Tamar asks for a pledge (the word “erev” is also the root for a surety) from Yehudah, a way to extend a merely physical exchange into a commercial relationship than lasts for longer (Gen 38:17,18,20). He desired a short, physical relationship. She turned that into a commitment, extending and binding their relationship into other facets.
  • Judah guarantees that he will bring Benjamin back to his father. (43:9), and later tells the disguised Joseph (44:32) that he has done so. Commitment.
  • In Jacob’s blessing, Benjamin “is a wolf that devoureth the prey, and at the evening (erev) he divides the spoil.” (49:27.) Sharing with others.
  • One of the plagues on Egypt, one that filled every space and void, to ensure the Egyptians knew that G-d could connect with every bit of physical space. (Ex. 8:17-27)
  • The “mixed multitude” of Egyptians that left Egypt with the Children of Israel (12:38). Seeking connection.
  • And many, many examples follow, having to do with ritual events, opportunities to connect with G-d that are often reset or triggered in the evening. “Evening” becomes a bridge that connects days together, in direct contradistinction to the Creation, wherein it was used to divide them.
  • The word is used for the last time to describe the plains (ervei) of Moab where the people wept at the passing of Moses (Deut. 34:8). A final loving and spiritual connection with the man who connected all the people with G-d.

What changed? How did a limited word like “evening” become a word that symbolizes love and relationships and a desire for connections? How did every attribute that doomed mankind before the Flood get connected to this single, three-letter word that is connected with such holiness after the Flood?

The “orev” is a raven. Spelled in Hebrew the same way as “erev,” the raven is the bird that Noach sends out of the Ark, in a most peculiar verse: “And [Noach] sent forth a raven, and it went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from the earth.” (Gen. 8:7). It is an odd verse. What was Noach trying to achieve? The raven was seemingly given no purpose at all – by contrast the dove, which was sent out afterward, was sent “to see if the waters were abated.” What was the raven supposed to do, and why did Noach expel it from the Ark, from which it repeatedly flew back and forth?

I think the raven is a symbol. Our sages tell us that ravens are singularly selfish birds. They often will not feed their young until the young develop black feathers. And even then, “After the offspring leaves their nets, they get independent immediately. … Their parents won’t like to share foods with the offspring thus forcing them to feed on their own.” Ravens do not form large communities, and they embody some of the worst attributes such as an attraction to shiny, vain things. Ancient perceptions of the raven were not very nice. The raven symbolizes intelligent selfishness. In the Torah, the birds seem to be a proxy for the behavior of mankind before the flood.

The time on the Ark gave Noach time to think, to realize that a change in behavior could change mankind’s future. When Noach expelled the bird, he was sending a signal, something along the lines of: “I understand that the behavior of this bird is the reason for the Flood, and I choose to expel it from the place of the living.” Which means that the raven had a task after all: Noach was sending it out to show G-d that mankind had learned its lesson, that the waters could be withdrawn to allow mankind to try again.

More than this: the bird did not go out to die; it kept coming back, and Noach did not choose to kill it. Noach sends the raven out “until” the waters have dried up. It is like a sentence, or even a curse. The first time the same word “until” is found in the Torah is when G-d tells Adam that he will die: “By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread until you return unto the ground.” (Gen. 3:19). As a consequence for his actions, Adam is cursed to work until he dies. Similarly, as a consequence for the causes of the Flood, Noach sentences the raven to fly to and fro until the waters have receded. (Gen. 8:9)

While the bird may be selfish and deceitful and vain, the Torah is telling us there are no attributes that are good or evil in themselves. The question is merely what we do with them, how we choose to focus our energies. The raven is what it is (since leopards cannot change their spots) but mankind is capable of change, of taking any gift or desire we have, and using it for good or evil. Before the flood, man was like the raven: vain, selfish, and cruel. After the flood, the same word erev is used for times of love, a desire for connection, an opportunity to come together.


– Noah’s improvement in understanding was not instantaneous. Noach was a product of his generation, a generation in which men did not properly cleave to their wives. When he entered the Ark, the men were separate from their wives: “And Noah went in, and his sons, and his wife, and his sons’ wives with him, into the ark.” (Gen. 7:7) And “In the selfsame day entered Noah, and Shem, and Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah, and Noah’s wife, and the three wives of his sons with them, into the ark;” (Gen. 7:13). The men, and then the women.

G-d tries to steer Noah straight, telling him that marriage trumps family, that each man belongs with his wife: “Then God spoke to Noah, saying, “Go out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and your sons’ wives with you.” (Gen. 8:15,16) But Noah does not hear the instruction: “So Noah went out, and his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives with him” (Gen. 8:17). Raven or no raven, he missed this point.

– David is often compared to a raven. There are similarities between Noach sending away the raven (with overtones of wanting its mate for himself), and David sending away Uriah to gain Batsheva. The same desire that made David crave Batsheva led him to write the psalms and build such an incredible relationship with G-d. Any human desire can be used for good or ill.

– Eliyahu becomes very angry with Ahab, and the prophet bans the rain and runs away and hides in a cave. G-d supplies him with food – using ravens. Perhaps the birds were a message to Eliyahu that his actions, while driven by love, were counterproductive, like the natural tendencies of a bird who will not feed its own children. We are supposed to master even our righteous indignation.

– The twilight of our lives is a time when we connect with our own mortality, and with regrets for lost opportunities. If we are aware of this earlier, we can love more while there is still time. Our mortality is what makes us love, and seek to achieve the same immortality-through-children that led Adam to appreciate, and then name, Eve. We learn to respect others because we come to understand that we are, in fact, limited in ourselves – but that with the love and encouragement of others, we can achieve great things in our lives.


When Religion Fails

“Man is not a rational animal; he is a rationalizing animal.” (Heinlein) We can rationalize just about anything, and frequently do. It is how billions of people the world over, with access to approximately the same information, can each tell you, knowing that they are rational, why they act and believe differently than billions of other people. Sometimes this is a result of nationalism or tribalism, the belief that my team is superior because it is my team. There is security in being on a given team, but there is not necessarily any underlying superiority of one team over another. It is merely herd identity for safety in numbers.

Our rationalizing takes many forms, and it has little to do with empirical data. Instead, the foundation stones of our civilizations are entirely unprovable assertions about things that have no measurable physical data: the importance of one culture or society (team) over all others; The existence (or non-existence) of G-d – or gods; Whether there is a purpose to our existence, and what that purpose might be?

We all rationalize why we are here, but we invariably fail to make a case that is so convincing that all – or even most – of humanity is converted to any one point of view.

This tells me that, at least so far, no one belief system is actually succeeding. And that is a problem, at least if you would like to think that the course of human history has an actual point.

Here’s my summary of each dominant belief system, and its failures (please accept my apology in advance for very plain speaking: I am writing this because I want to understand, not because I want to avoid offense):

Rational Atheism: This faith always attracts intellectuals who are too clever to fall for conventional religions. But very few people are satisfied by the idea that we are all somehow just statistical accidents. And since without a Creator there is no ultimate reason why Might does not Make Right, human rights and freedom invariably are shredded in atheistic regimes like the French Revolution, fascism and communism. As a result, Rational Atheism rarely has staying power, either burning out, or acting as a way-station, over the generations, between other belief systems that make people feel more fulfilled.

Rabbi Sacks put it beautifully:

Of course an atheist might say – Sigmund Freud came close to saying this – that faith is simply a comforting illusion. That really is not so. It is far more demanding to believe that God summons us to responsibility, that He asks us to fight for justice, equality and human dignity, and that He holds us accountable for what we do, than to believe that there is no meaning to human existence other than ones we invent for ourselves, no ultimate truth, no absolute moral standards, and no one to whom we will have to give an account of our lives. Fifty years of reflection on this issue have led me to conclude that it is atheism that is, morally and existentially, the easy option – and I say this having known and studied with some of the greatest atheists of our time. That is not to say that I am critical of atheists. To the contrary, in a secular age, it is the default option. That is why now, more than at any other time in the past two thousand years, it takes courage to have and live by religious faith.

But not all religious faiths. The default human religious faith is, after all…

Paganism: Paganism is what the Torah referred to as idol worship. Paganism is making a comeback, to be sure. It is widely agreed, for example, that mankind is bad for Earth – and all data to the contrary is ignored. Earth-worship is on the rise, along with a host of associated practices, from wiccanism to environmentalism.

Most of the world that believes in fate, destiny and fortune (as opposed to a relationship with the divine) are ultimately following a pagan belief system. I believe that ultimately anyone who sees themselves as victims fall into this category, since they believe in nature or nurture, as opposed to possessing free will and responsibility. Paganism is what the aforementioned Rational Atheism most easily morphs into, especially in our society: everything that happens is someone else’s fault. This is the language of identity politics.

Islam: One of the three primary faiths that claim descent from Abraham, Islam is not a mere religion: it is an entire worldview. The dominant characteristic of Islam is the subjugation of the self to Allah’s will, obedience.

Islam appeals to the people who crave structure and are happy to follow authority figures. The biggest appeal Islam has to outsiders is that when it appears to be ascendant, many people act as bin Laden put it: they prefer the strong horse. As with the herd mentality, following the strong horse means that underlying questions about whether something is good or right is entirely beside the point. Most people would much rather follow a strong leader, even an incorrect strong leader, rather than strike out on their own.

In Islam the gap between man and any Creator is far too large to span. Intellectual curiosity is largely absent or punished, and as a result, Islam has failed in the modern era, since it lacks all notions of science or engineering or human progress beyond aspiring to a nonexistent golden age of a world governed by Allah’s servants.

Christianity views god as Father or King. Mankind’s starting state, given Christian understanding of Genesis, is sin. Jesus is the Savior, who provides atonement. Many of the underlying ideals within Christianity are not from the Torah, but from the ancient Greeks who were the intellectuals of that age: ideas like perfection and truth. Suffering is often seen as a way to be closer to Jesus, and divine grace is sometimes disconnected from good works: together, this makes Christian more passive then they might otherwise be.

Christianity is the most successful faith in the modern world. It has done a superb job of adapting to local tribes. It also has a deep sense of heaven and hell, as well as god as savior that both explain why the world appears unfair, and satisfy deep human insecurities about man’s place in the world, and what happens after life.

Judaism is the most intellectual of the faiths, though this is not always helpful. Observant Jews are much more connected to the deep and convoluted discussions about the intricacies of The Law than they are to why the law exists in the first place. Early Christian criticisms of the Pharisees were not necessarily incorrect, because Judaism, in its attention to the minutiae of Jewish Law, often misses the big picture.

Of the three major Abrahamic religions, Judaism has been the least successful by any numeric metric, but in terms of ideas, Judaism has been far more influential than the numbers would suggest.

Still, Judaism has been corrupted, over the ages, by exposure to other faiths: the idea of a messiah (from Christianity), Heaven (from paganism as well as Christianity), Natural Law (Aristotle, reformulated by Maimonides). And Judaism has increasingly become a High Priest faith, where access to deep understanding appears to be accessible only to an intellectual priesthood. Any who lack a lifetime of accumulated knowledge and Talmudic skills is therefore seen as unable to connect with Judaism itself.

Judaism, though strong in core communities, increasingly is locked away from the world, devolving in influence. Jews are fighting the noble fight – but it is a rearguard retreat, back into sheltered and closed ghettos of our own creation.

My Problem:

I believe that the Torah has been greatly misunderstood – certainly by Muslims and Christians, but also by Jews. Because people are blithely unaware of our own presuppositions and assumptions, we tend to read the document with confirmation bias: Christians read the Torah to find Christianity in it (as well as defects that suggest the need for later, and updated, texts). Jews read the Torah not to understand why we are here and what G-d wants from us, but to derive specific commandments with great precision, though without any awareness of what those commandments are supposed to do, and how and why they got there.

For me, the corruption of Judaism has been the idea that, even though the text says that it is self-explanatory, we insist that we cannot understand the commandments. Even though our role models Abraham and Moshe argued with and questioned G-d, doing so ourselves is seen as a lack of faith. Because of Christian influences we see G-d as an infinitely-superior King, while the text itself depicts G-d as our partner, spouse, and lover. Because of Greek influences, we insist, despite all the Torah to the contrary, that G-d is “perfect” – which means He is incapable of changing His mind. Many Jews even go so far as to adopt the Christian belief that eating the fruit was a sin – and thus Original Sin – despite the text not saying anything of the kind.

Jews are still here. The Torah is still here. But, theologically speaking, the world has stood still for a long time. If we want to move forward, we need to start to ask the basic questions that the Torah begs us to ask – and they all come together in the very same text: Why are we here? Why did G-d create us?


Searching for Meaning after Trauma

“There are no atheists in a foxhole.” Though the aphorism may date from the 20th century, the idea that we seek connections when we are most alone, afraid and even traumatized is not modern. It seems to be a hardwired human feature.

We can find comfort in our parents, spouses, and children – as well as belonging to extended families or communities, tribes, and nations. But that is not necessarily all that is asked of us. If, as I would argue, G-d wants us to seek a relationship with Him, then He made us needy, so that we would reach out for Him.

But it is when other people reject us that we are most alone and afraid. It is also when we are most capable of changing ourselves.

In the Torah, the handmaid Hagar, is driven away by Sarah, and she finds herself at a spring in the wilderness. Hagar is alone; far from her original home (Egypt), expelled by her adoptive family, and she does not even seem to have any plan or even hope.

It is in that place that the Torah tells us Hagar met an angel from heaven, who told her to go back to Avram and Sarai, that she would be blessed, and that she is expecting a child, Ishmael.

And then the Torah tells us something that seems entirely extraneous:

“And she called the name of the LORD that spoke unto her, Thou art a God of seeing; for she said: ‘Have I even here seen Him that seeth Me?’ Wherefore the well was called ‘Beer-lahai-roi” (Gen. 16:13-14)”

OK. What of it?

I think this name is actually a clue. The place name is not common in the Torah: Hagar’s experience gives it its first name. And then it is only mentioned two more times (Gen 24:62 and 25:11) – it is where Isaac, years later, chooses to live.


After the would-be sacrifice (the “Akeidah”), the Torah tells us that Avraham left to go to Beer-Sheba, and he stayed there. But Isaac is not mentioned. The Torah does not tell us where Isaac was – and it does not say even that Avraham and Isaac ever even lived together again. Which is, in its way, quite understandable: how could either the father or the son reconcile what had happened on the mountain and return to normal everyday life? Indeed, since Sarah died at the same time as the Akeidah, Isaac no longer had the same home to go back to (any mere mortal would even have blamed his father for Sarah’s passing).

He could not go home. There was no home. So what did Isaac do?! He went to Beer-lahai-roi. He went to the place that was named because G-d sees people there, and, based on Hagar’s experience, G-d connects to people there.

Isaac was alone. His mother was dead. He had separated from his father, he was not yet married. If he was a normal person, he was also deeply traumatized by the Akeidah. And so he went to find G-d, to go to the place where G-d was known to talk to people, and give them guidance and hope.

And it worked for him. One afternoon Isaac was praying in the field near Beer-lahai-roi, and his prayers were answered: his future wife came to him, creating a new home within his deceased mother’s tent. Isaac loved her; she was his consolation for the death of his mother. And she was his “hardwired” connection to G-d (for Jews, marriage is a prerequisite for a full relationship with the divine).

I have heard countless stories of people finding faith when they were down and out, in places dark and lonely. The Torah is telling us that Hagar and Isaac experienced this, too. And it tells us what to do in that situation: seek to connect. Pray. And look for love.

P.S. All of this, of course, suggests that one possible reason that G-d commanded the Akeidah in the first place was to find a way to connect with Isaac, by making him emotionally and spiritually vulnerable.


Laugh at Pagans?

The recent thread on Ecosexuals really disturbed me. I know from the comments that the topic amused many Ricochetti, since, on its face, it is ridiculous that women have intercourse with dirt or snow or trees. Nutjobs are nutjobs, right? Well… no. No at all. Not even a little. And here’s why:

Ecosexuality is merely the next step in the devolution of society, back to the basic pagan idol worship of the ancient world, back when people sought to live in harmony with nature, finding meaning in worshipping natural forces through rituals that, though they may start with words, sooner or later devolve to promoting baal peor celebration of defecation and animalistic/Dionysian sexual rituals, and then, eventually, end up with human sacrifice. And that is not all, of course. Pagan societies are inherently different from free societies, from Judeo-Christian ideas about morality and private ownership of property and personal and societal growth and change.

Pagan societies see the entire world as cyclical, all things as cycles. Only Judaism and Christianity chart an arc, believe in and are positive actors for the idea of historical progress. A society that worships nature necessarily condemns anything that improves upon nature. And it is thus a society that craves returning to the natural human-as-animal in every sense.

The signs are all around us, if we just take a step back and view things with a little historical perspective. Human life only has inherent value to Judaism and Christianity because our holy books tell us that we are made in the image of G-d, that each and every person contains within them a divine spark, unique to people, and in sole contradistinction from the rest of nature. Without the Torah’s illogical and counter-empirical assertion that all human life is valuable, eugenics is a perfectly rational way to order society. What started with abortion leads to euthanasia, and then the ability – nay, the virtue – of culling the herd just as nature does.

You might think that I am being a bit dramatic. Sure, there are pagan nature worshippers out there. But nobody really believes the sun or the earth is a deity, right?


Before you are quick to conclude that nut jobs really can be safely ignored, remember that even as Greeks made fun of their gods, and were not sure whether they really existed – they still killed and sacrificed people in the names of these deities. Remember that believing in a Star Wars-like “Life Force” is what drives so many within Asian cultures toward eating or drinking parts of animals so as to obtain their essences, or at least their sexual vigor. To this day, native tribes like Inuit prize still-beating caribou hearts as the ideal spiritual feast and physical delicacy. This is precisely why most native peoples ate parts of their conquered enemies: to absorb their spiritual energies along with their blood or other organs.

And look at the open and massive death festivals, on the rise across cultures around the world, orgiastic celebrations of everything that is dead. More cycles – the cycle of life, even especially death itself. This stuff is not harmless fun.

It is all creeping back. And I wish I could really find it funny. Paganism is dangerous and evil and against everything that Judaism and Christianity have spent millennia fighting against. Left unchecked, it threatens progress and civilization.

Here’s the thing: there is no simple way to fix the world. But I can share what I do personally to fight back against this creeping unholy spiritual revolution, and I mean this in all seriousness:

1: I treat animals like animals. Not people. Thinking that there is a soul in an animal (when in fact any animal is nothing more than whatever spiritual energy we invest in it) makes people crazy. When people care more about pets than humans, the world is in danger. I know people who have mortgaged their homes for a kidney transplant for a 14 year-old cat. It is more than eccentric: this kind of behavior tells us that something is very, very wrong.

2: I deliberately and publicly throw trash in the recycling and vice-versa. Recycling is nothing more than a religious ritual, and I only have One G-d. I buy plastic straws on principle. I avoid all “natural” “non-GMO” and “organic” products. I generate as much CO2 as I can (CO2 is plant food, and I am in favor of more life).

2b: In keeping with promoting life, I absolutely adore children, and revere mothers. I am writing this from an airplane seat, sitting next to a 5-month old babe in arms whom I stole from her mother under the pretext that I could make her stop crying. I could, and did: but I really just love kids, and I was glad for the excuse.

3: That Rico-thread on ecosexuality got one thing very right: we must use ridicule as well as logic when we want to defeat stupid ideas. We must laugh at everything that deserves our derision, and we must do it in a way that attracts more laughter and fun. Anyone who cannot take a joke needs to be smothered in them.

4: I treat every new idea, especially things like health scares, natural diets and “new discoveries” with deep suspicion. Society is being swept by popular idiocies, and it is only a matter of time before the villagers with pitchforks start re-enacting classics like the Salem Witch Trials, Edward Scissorhands, and pogroms. “Smear the Queer” is the most popular social game in human history, and all it needs right now is one spin of the bottle. Every new idea is a fad until it passes the test of time. Don’t owl or plank or selfie. Get off my lawn!

Most people do not do something because they think it is the right thing to do: they do it because someone else is doing it. This is because most people are followers, and both crave and need the security of believing that the Truth resides in the safety of numbers or of authority figures or experts. It is human nature to follow the herd. But seeking holiness requires us to figure out what is right, to understand that we, not our herds, are responsible for our own actions.

And in my opinion, it would be a terrible shame to throw away this incredible civilization by letting it be pulled, gripped by humanity’s instinctive need to find meaning in all things, back into pagan earth-worship, back into cyclical conformity with the natural world. Ecosexuality is not just silly – though it is that – it is another step toward child sacrifice and open barbarism.


Rivka’s Tent

When Yitzchak receives Rivka, he famously brings her to his mother’s tent. But where did that tent come from? After all, we know that Avraham and Yitzchak went their separate ways after the Akeidah – Yitzchak went to Lahairoi, in the Negev, and Avraham, after burying Sarah in Hevron, went back to Be’er Sheva. Indeed, Yitzchak lived separately from his father for the rest of Avraham’s life – Yitzchak was not even there when Sarah was buried at the cave of Machpelah!

So how did it come to be that Yitzchak, and not Avraham, had Sarah’s tent?

Rashi tells us that Yitzchak left the Akeidah, and went to find Hagar (Keturah), to reunite her with Avraham.

Some things are universal: what is the first thing a new wife does with the old wife’s things? Out they go! Hagar, who was not a huge fan of Sarah in life, surely had no interest in keeping Sarah’s tent around after she had died. Yitzchak “inherited” the tent of his mother, and set it up to be near his own, away from Avraham and Hagar’s new family.

Footnote: We already know that Rivka was born when Sarah died, and from the above we know that unless Avraham disposed of Sarah’s tent before he needed to, Hagar was already established as Avraham’s new wife when Yitzchak married. We can infer from this that Avraham reunited with Hagar within three years of Sarah’s passing.


Role Reversal on Har HaBayit

The relationship between Jews and Hashem revolve around the pivotal events on Har Moriah, the mountain on which Avraham offered Isaac to Hashem, the same mountain where Yaakov had his dream of angels ascending and descending on ladders, and the very same spot where the mizbeach, the altar, of the Beis Hamikdash was built.

In the Akeidah. Avraham brings the fire, and as he explains to Isaac, “Hashem will provide the offering,” which he eventually does in the form of a ram.

But in the Beis Hamikdash, the roles are reversed. Man brings the offering – but Hashem brings the fire. What happened to invert the relationship?

I have argued previously that G-d hates pillars, matzeivos, because they represent a misunderstanding of the relationship between man and G-d. Everywhere in the Torah where man and G-d are spoken of as man and woman, mankind is feminine, and Hashem is masculine. Everywhere, that is, except in the language of the Beis Hamikdash – where the Cohen is male, and the divine presence, the shechinah, is given in the female. The roles in the Beis Hamikdash are reversed.

One possible explanation is that the only pivotal event on Har HaBayis between the time of the Akeidah and the Beis Hamikdash being built was Yaakov’s dream. Following that dream, Yaakov built the only matzeivo ever built by the Avos for devotional purposes (the other two were built as landmarks). That matzeivo, presumably shaped as it was in the classic phallic shape of all ancient obelisks, and expressly built for the purpose of marking the spot where Yaakov’s descendants would build a House of G-d, the Beis Hamikdash, allowed for an inversion of the normal relationship between Man and G-d. Our role as a nation is feminine; but on that spot, Yaakov (for better or worse) turned things on their head. Instead of the Akeidah, where Avraham brought the earthly fire and G-d supplied the masculine ram as the offering, we have the Beis Hamikdash, where the Cohen brings the offering, and Hashem provides divine fire.


What is Rosh Hashanah in the Torah?

In the past, I have connected the blowing of the shofar to G-d’s blowing of his spirit into Adam; by blowing the shofar we are connecting to Hashem’s creation of mankind, showing that we understand our mission is to imitate Hashem in elevating the world around us, contributing our focused energy into the world, and thus raising it to a higher level.

But blowing on Rosh Hashanah is so very much more than this, and the Torah, using only a few words, tells us why.

What are these words?

  1. A memorial of horn-blasting (Zichron Teruah) (Lev. 23:24). Note that these are the only words used in the Torah for Rosh Hashanah that are different from the words used for any other holiday.
  2. The action word takah, which means doing something with great force.

So that is all we have. Three words that somehow are supposed to tell us what Rosh Hashanah is all about? And yet, they do. All we have to do is understand these words, and connect the dots.


Usually translated as “a memorial”, the word zichron comes from the verb “to remember.” Remember what?

The first time the Torah uses the word, it tells us of Noah, in the Ark:

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

Do you see the connection between G-d remembering, and the subsequent use of wind?

G-d remembers His creations, and he creates a wind, creating space for life to renew. And what do we do on Rosh Hashanah? We reciprocate: we remember Hashem our G-d, and we blow, making space for G-d in this world. On Rosh Hashanah we invite Him into our world, into our bodies and souls, just as He invited Noah and all life back into the renewed world after the flood.

While the recession of the floodwaters made a physical place for mankind’s existence, our blowing of the shofar creates a spiritual place for Hashem within our own hearts. The sound penetrates us, and fills us with awareness and with awe.

The word “to remember” is found a few other places in the Torah as well – but only a few: G-d remembers Noah, and then Avraham, and then Rachel, and lastly He remembers His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when the Children of Israel are slaves in Egypt. In each case, the word “remember” precedes an action. It is like recalling a debt, and then paying up. The remembrance causes Hashem to act to restore and grow life: He saves Lot for Abraham’s sake, he gives Rachel a son, and He delivers the Children of Israel from Egypt.

We are tied by these remembrances to Hashem. We don’t live our lives in a vacuum; we are part of a tradition that goes back thousands of years, generation after generation. This grounds us, because zichron (a word which is also used for the other festivals) is a way for mankind to ritualize the historical ties between the present, and the relationship and experiences that our ancestors had with Hashem. It is a way for us to recognize our debts and, just as G-d did with Noach, Avraham, Rachel and the entire people, we do as G-d did, by restoring and growing life.

So on Rosh Hashanah, the “zichron teruah” is the day when our remembrance of Hashem precedes action, just as Hashem remembered his relationships, and delivered on them. We take these two days in the middle of the season of repentance to remember G-d – and then we do just as He did: we act. We engage in life-restoring acts in the runup to Yom Kippur, to repair all the damage we have done in the previous year between us and Hashem, as well as between each and every person.

First we remember, and then, after Rosh Hashanah, we act. And even in the blowing itself, we recall G-d’s act of making room for resumed life on earth when he blew the waters away, reciprocating in turn by inviting G-d back into a renewed existence in our hearts and souls.


Teruah, a blast or horn blow, is an easier word to define than zichron because it only appears a few times: concerning Rosh Hashanah and then Yom Kippur. And then teruah is used to describe how the horns should be blown for assembling and marching the nation (Numbers 10:6 and 31:6).

What stands out here is that the Torah specifically tells us that when we are not marching, we can blow to assemble, but we must not blow a teruah. (Num. 10:7).

What does this mean? It teaches us specifically that the word teruah is associated not merely with alarm or assembly (both of which are found in the Jewish people on Rosh Hashanah), but that a teruah is the signal to start a journey or to go to war. We do not merely huddle together and tremble. We go out and we do something about it. The teruah is, among other things, a call to action, a call to arms. So, too, on Rosh Hashanah. When the shofar blows, we unify, and then we march.


Takah is not used in the Torah directly with Rosh Hashanah itself; the word is found elsewhere when blowing a teruah is mentioned, and our sages use it to explain the longer sounds we blow on Rosh Hashanah. So takah is integrally linked with the day throughout Jewish history and tradition.

What does it mean? This word is fascinating, because though takah is only found a few places, it is used in different ways almost every time. (For the curious, it is used Gen. 31:25, 32:26, Ex. 10:19, Num 10:3-10 – the last being when it is twinned with “teruah” to link with blowing.) Working with the principle that a word in the Torah is defined by its first usage, takah is defined in the standoff between Jacob and Laban as Jacob is going back to Canaan with his wives, children, and possessions.

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

The word here is one of deliberate, hard action: a strong driving force. Indeed, when one considers that every other case of a tent being pitched in the Torah uses a different verb yate, takah gains a very specific meaning: it is an act of building that is defiant and forceful in its nature. Yate is used when people pitch tents in a normal, peaceful way. Takah, by contrast, is a physically powerful act. It is the same verb used to describe Yael’s action of driving a tent-peg into Sisera’s temple.

So what does it have to do with Rosh Hashanah? I think the answer is found in the notion that our breath is the expression of our souls, the recycling of the spirit breathed into Adam. Solomon said, “All is vanity” but the word for “vanity” is the same word as “breath.” For mankind, everything is breath. And breath is everything. Our breath, our spirit, is at one and the same time our vitality and our mortality. It is our life force, and yet it is sure to be snuffed out.

When we blow tekias shofar, we are driving our breath into the horn. It is not a natural act, nor is it easy. Indeed, the sound that comes out the other end is one that pierces us, touches us at the core of our being. It is a difficult, defiant act. Takah is doing that which is hard to do! We are raging against the inevitable, using our breath to proclaim our lives and our spiritual energy. And at the very same time, we are triumphally engaged in zichron teruah, joyfully engaging with our Creator.

When we takah on Rosh Hashanah, we are driving our own tent pegs into the hard rock of a mountain: we are making our own stand, building an edifice against all the assaults of nature. And our takah is embued with the fierce pride of being Hashem’s people, for as long as we or our descendants draw breath.

Our lives and our breath are here, now. It is hard to build and sustain life, just as it is hard to drive tent pegs into mountain rock (or Sisera’s forehead). And our breath, just like Jacob’s tent, will ultimately have nothing more than a temporary existence. Nevertheless, we takah.

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

The only sure thing about the future is that we do not know it. Nevertheless, we do not flag, we must not lose courage. And that is a challenge. We are frightened by the unknown. Despite our best attempts to limit uncertainty, we don’t know what awaits us tomorrow or next month, let alone next year. Our Zichron Teruah is a remembrance of history and our relationship with Hashem, allowing us to extrapolate from our distant and near past and continue to take blind steps into the unknown. Going forward in life is an act of faith. We often are pretty sure that we know where we are, but we are never certain of where we are going.

What do we do? With simultaneous joy and trepidation, we blow the shofar. Tekiyas teruah is an act of faith. Anchored to zichron, we know that there must be a future for us, because there most surely has been a past. Our zichron bonds with Hashem and all of the reconnections and remembrances between man and G-d since Noah. Just as He remembered us, so too, we remember Him and make room for Him in every facet of our lives. And as with the Children of Israel when the horns blew the teruah, we gird our loins, and march into the New Year, united and resolved, and ready for action.

Footnote: Yate is also the word for planting a garden (Hashem yates the Garden of Eden, Noach does the same with his vineyard and Avraham with a tree) It is an organic act, an act of living in harmony. The word is even used with Yehudah’s intimacy. Yate is the comfortable way.


Why is Sex at the Core of Judaism?

Hold on! What an outrageous and ridiculous thing to say! The premise must be flawed. How does the Five Books of Moses make sex front and central?

Riddle me this, Batman: why is the first commandment given to Abraham his circumcision? Why is this a life-and-death commandment for our people – including Moses himself, whose life was endangered when he failed to circumcise his son?

The answer is that sex is, of course, really very important indeed. Focusing and channeling our sexual energies is somehow a prerequisite for channeling our spiritual energies. There is no such thing in the Torah (or in life) as “just sex.” Sex is either a Big Deal (for good or ill), or it has been cheapened, animalistically, to the point of removing the very value of a spiritual human existence.

The Torah describes and refers to deep links between idolatry and sexual immorality. This can be understood in both positive and negative ways.

Positively, there are countless references large and small: preparations for marital intimacy (the copper mirrors that were repurposed to be used for priestly washing) are the model for the preparations for the priestly service in the tabernacle. The High Priest is required to be married in order to possibly serve in his office. We are commanded to be circumcised before manhood, and regularly reminded that to connect with G-d we must similarly circumcise our hearts. I’ll spare you an exhaustive list – but it is quite extensive (details available upon request!).

Negatively, the picture is even more dramatic. The punishments and consequences for adultery and idolatry are consistently paired. Indeed, the single biggest danger the Jewish people suffered in the wilderness was when the daughters of neighboring peoples entered the camp with the explicit goal of sexually corrupting Jewish men, and to do it as flagrantly and publicly as possible. Not surprisingly, at least some of the men are seduced. G-d reacts by almost destroying the entire nation in His jealousy and wrath.

There is an odd word that is used in the text to ties both circumcision and the sexually corrupted Jewish men together – and it also connects to the protection and love that comes in a relationship with G-d. That word is Tzur. It is a strange word, because it is usually translated as “flint” or “rock,” but tzur clearly has much more symbolic value in the text than as a raw material. Indeed, in its verb form, tzur is not a rock at all, but usually refers to a belligerent act.

The Torah’s vocabulary is quite small, so when there are multiple words, they do not mean the same thing as each other. There are other words in the text that also translate as “rock.” The altar is made of ehven, just as Jacob dreams of angels on a ladder while resting his head on an ehven. Moses, on the other hand, strikes the selah instead of speaking to it. So what is a tzur?

The first time the word is used is in the dramatic and odd circumcision scene which I explain here. (Ex. 4:24). The text is simple enough: G-d threatens Moses’ life. In response, Tzippora, Moses’ wife, takes a tzur and cuts off the foreskin of her son. It is a transformational scene, separating husband and wife (in some ways, forever). And Tzippora’s action protects Moses. The tzur, which is the circumcision tool in this case, somehow provides some kind of inoculation against being destroyed by G-d.

All of this is odd, but it gets odder even as matters resolve: Consider that the father of the woman who had intercourse in the middle of the camp, the man who instructed his daughter to go and offer her body for the cause of destroying the Jewish people’s connection with G-d, was a man named “Tzur.”

This conclusion is simple enough: Tzur is both a sexually-symbolic enabler for divine protection (circumcision), as well as a sexual means to destroying our relationship with G-d (sexual immorality).

But it is also much, much more. The rock that Moses was commanded to strike, in full view of the people, was a tzur.

Who led thee through that great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water; who brought thee forth water out of the flinty tzur. (Deut. 8:15)

The words the Torah uses tells us not that Moses struck the tzur, exactly, but that he struck into the tzur to find that liquid salvation. And out of the tzur gushed water, sustaining the nation, protecting them from thirst and death in the wilderness.

So tzur means some kind of divine protection or connection. Striking the tzur is not the only time Moses is somehow embedded in a tzur. When Moses asks to see G-d’s face, G-d’s response is that Moses would die if he saw the divine directly. Instead, Moses will be protected:

And the LORD said, “See, there is a place near Me. Station yourself on the tzur. And, as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the tzur and shield you with My hand until I have passed by.

The rock constrains Moses’ view, and simultaneously is a place of protection, a means of getting closer to G-d than at any other time without being destroyed.

We can think, perhaps, of tzur as a “home base” in a game of tag. When we are on base, we are afforded protection. We are in the relationship, and should cling to it. Moses’ speech late in Deuteronomy is full of references to tzur: “The Rock [tzur]! His deeds are perfect.”

But there are several other ways in which tzur is found in the Torah.

In many verses, tzur means “waging war” or “destroy.” (See examples in footnote). It is even used to describe when Aharon destroyed the intimate jewelry of the people in order to make the Golden Calf, harming both marriages (the men “ripped” the jewelry from their wives’ ears) and the peoples’ relationship with G-d at the same time. (Ex. 32:4)

On the other hand, tzur suggests embracing or renewing the relationship with the divine. For example, when we bring agricultural tithes: “You may convert them into money. Tzur the money into your hand, and take it with you to the place that the LORD your G-d has chosen.” (Deut. 14:25) In the case of tithes, the word tzur reminds us of the value of connecting with G-d. Tithing is an investment, and it sustains the tzur protection that is first created with every circumcision.

This overall impression is one of something like a protective dome around the people and our relationship with G-d – a dome that is both built with sexual fidelity, and is equally threatened by sexual infidelity. Tzur is our home base, the ways in which we build our relationship with G-d, and, with His support, defeat our enemies.

The Moabite prophet Bilaam remarked, as he surveyed the people:

As I see them from the tops of the tzurs,
Gaze on them from the heights,
There is a people that dwells apart,
Not reckoned among the nations, (Num. 23:9)

The text does not say, as it might, that Bilaam sees the people from the top of a mountain. Instead it uses tzur. Bilaam is telling us that his view is outside of the bubble the people share with G-d, above and outside both the protections and rules of the Jewish relationship. He can see clearly, because he has the advantage of distance and separation.

Moses refers to G-d, several times, as tzur, translated as “The Rock.” We think we know what that means, because we have a certain understanding of what a rock is – a rock is solid and unchanging, a constant tether or anchor in an uncertain world, a refrain in a Simon and Garfunkel song. This has been a common understanding of what G-d is supposed to be for us. But this is not the Torah’s usage.

Instead, the relationship, the tzur in the Torah is inherently dynamic, living and reacting: G-d as Rock in this case is not an unchanging, unmoving, unfeeling thing, but is instead a connection and protection. We bond with G-d as we bond with our spouse: the ground surely will shift, but we seek to move together, and even transform together. This is in the final promises of the text of the Torah. Deut. 32 uses the word many times:

He fed him honey from the crag,
And oil from the flinty tzur

He forsook the God who made him
And spurned the tzur of his support….

You neglected the tzur that begot you,
Forgot the God who brought you forth….

How could one have routed a thousand,
Or two put ten thousand to flight,
Unless their tzur had sold them,
The LORD had given them up?

For their tzur is not like our tzur…

He [G-d] will say: Where are their gods,
The tzur in whom they sought refuge…

Moses’ relationship with G-d (and the end of his “normal” relationship with his wife) happens with a tzur, the life-saving circumcision. In turn, Moses refers to G-d in this chapter, near the very end of his life, using that same word, referring to G-d as our protection, our refuge, while trying to illustrate that the other nations lack this kind of special relationship, a relationship built on exclusive monotheism, just as sacred and as thirsty for constant renewal as the bonds of marriage.

[An @iwe, @eliyahumasinter and @susanquinn collaboration!]

Examples not brought in the essay:

And the LORD said to me: Do not tzur the Moabites or provoke them to war.

You will then be close to the Ammonites; do not tzur them or start a fight with them.

If it does not surrender to you, but would join battle with you, you shall tzur to it;

When in your war against a city you have to tzur it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy 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 tzured city?

Only trees that you know do not yield food may be destroyed; you may cut them down for constructing tzur [siegeworks] against the city that is waging war on you, until it has been reduced.


Go and Come: A Short, Simple Explanation

Sometimes Torah explanations are simpler than they seem.

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

Commentators have wrapped themselves in knots trying to explain why this phrase is used, why “go” happens before “come,” ad infinitum.

The explanation is actually trivial: Much earlier in the Torah, we are told that, “Whenever Moses went out to the Tent, all the people would rise and stand, each at the entrance of his tent, and gaze after Moses until he had come into the Tent.” (Ex. 33:8)

The Hebrew words match: Moses would “go” and then he would “come.” This was his daily routine!

So when he says “I can no longer go and come,” he is saying that he can no longer manage his daily routine, that he could no longer fulfill his duties. There is no obvious mystery in the phrase.

[An @iwe and @eliyahumasinter tidbit]


Ties That Bind

Some obligations, like a financial debt, can be paid back. Other things that we might do for someone else, on the other hand, can have far-reaching impacts, and change the nature of a relationship forever.

This is a central tension in the parent-child relationship. Parents invest in our children. That investment cannot be repaid – instead we ask our children to pay it forward, to invest in the next generation in turn. The debt is real, but it is an investment for which no sensible parent expects repayment beyond honor and, ideally, love.

The classic example of saving someone’s life is quite rare – but it remains the gold standard for an obligation that can never really be repaid, that even if it is somehow balanced by the previous savior’s life saved in turn, the result is not no relationship, but instead a deeper and stronger one! The things we do for other people bind us together, and reciprocity is not repayment: it is an additional connection and a reinforcement of the love we show each other.

The Torah uses a single word to describe this kind of permanent connection and obligation between two parties, and it is first described using a zoological reference: the crop of a pigeon or dove.

Pigeons and doves secrete what is called “crop milk,” a nutrient and fat-rich fluid generated in the crop of the bird. These birds, like human parents, do not merely feed their young; they invest of themselves into the next generation. As the only birds that invest intergenerationally in the same way that mammals do, Joseph Cox points out that they are qualified to be offerings in the Tabernacle or Temple. The crop thus represents a permanent investment in the next generation, a life-giving feature that creates a permanent indebtedness.

The word for “crop,” mara or מֻרְאָ, is found only once in the Torah in describing how we offer these birds. But the word itself appears a few other times in the text, each time referring to a symbolically similar event: a lifesaving act.

Mara is also used to refers to the Exodus. Usually (mis)translated as “awesome” or “dreadful” the word is found as follows:

Or has any god ventured to go and take for himself one nation from the midst of another by prodigious acts, by signs and portents, by war, by a mighty and an outstretched arm and great mara, as the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes? (Deut. 4:34)

No man shall stand up to you: the LORD your God will put the dread and the mara of you over the whole land in which you set foot, as He promised you. (Deut. 11:25)

The LORD freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and great mara, and by signs and portents. (Deut. 26:8)

And then in the very last verse of the Five Books of Moses:

and for all the great might and great mara that Moses displayed before all Israel.

While translators often opt to translate the word as “power” or “dread,” I think they miss the point of the pigeon’s crop, mara. The point is that each of these usages represents the result of a life-saving obligation, one that is analogous to the first time the word is used, after the Flood, when Noach has saved all the animals:

And your mara and your chit shall be upon all the beasts of the earth and upon all the birds of the sky—everything with which the earth is astir—and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hand. (Gen. 9:2)

By saving their lives, Noach did just as a pigeon does: he invested himself in saving the animals, just as the pigeons invest in saving their young, just as G-d did when he saved us from Egypt, and as Moses did when he saved the people time and again.

Those acts created an indebtedness between the Jewish people and G-d. We owe Him, though we cannot repay the obligation. Instead, as with any parent and child, we can pay it forward, to commit to growing our relationship, to investing in other people and our own children in turn. Our lives were saved, and we are changed because of it.

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 an obligation 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.

Similarly, after being saved from Egypt, we have an obligation to G-d. We acknowledge that obligation by seeking to follow His commandments, most of which are anchored in reminding us of this central fact: G-d saved us from Egypt, and so we owe a debt for which we can only pay the interest. And just like a parent, G-d wants us to acknowledge the debt not by trying to save G-d in turn (which would be impossible), but instead by investing in each other and in a relationship with our Creator.

P.S. Even the Deut 11:25 case works with this understanding: the mara is not from the inhabitants, but from the land itself – we are bound to the Land of Israel and it to us, saving each other in turn.

[an @iwe, @kidcoder, @eliyahumasinter and @susanquinn collaboration!]


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 meas 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]


What is Death?

There are all kinds of definitions of death, of course. We have physiological definitions: brain death, heart-death, and others that often are very important as a matter of procedure and law. There is certainly a general consensus that death is the absence of life, however hard it may be to define what life really is. This, of course, ignores the impact that someone may have on others long after they are no longer on the topside of the turf – think of prophets or artists or writers whose deeds or words continue to change the world long after the creators are buried.

As a religious person I am always interested in what the Torah has to tell me about anything – and that includes death. The answer is clear: not much. The Torah promises no heaven or hell, no afterlife at all. People matter because of what they do or say when they are alive, and while clearly Avraham and Moses and many others continue to have an outsized impact on our world, the text does not suggest that they are anything but physically dead, with no reincarnation or resurrection promised or implied.

What the text does say, nevertheless, is intriguing. We are told that mankind is made when G-d breathes the spirit of life into him, and we are also told that this soul is nothing else than G-d’s own spirit (Gen. 6:3). In other words, we each contain a divine spark which we might call our soul.

Mankind is an uneasy tension between body and soul – physical and spiritual, our earthly desires and our divinely-gifted soul. Our choices often can be boiled down to what we do with our body and our soul: do we separate them like an eastern mystic might? Or do we try to combine them – we can, like Mozart, use our creative souls to elevate the physical realm, or we can let our bodies make the call: reduce the soul by subsuming it to the body’s basest desires.

So what happens when we die? The text is, with almost no exceptions, entirely unromantic about death. One of two words are usually used, transliterated as: mais, and gava. They seem interchangeable (though they are surely not; I might explore this another time). Both mean “death” as we understand it today: biological life ends.

But there is one very intriguing verse, and it comes when Rachel dies (Gen. 35:18). She is giving birth to her second son, and the text describes something quite evocative: “And it came to pass, as her soul was departing, for she was dying…”

The text is giving us a few elements here. First of all, the word for “departing” is the same word used for the Exodus from Egypt, for the freeing of a servant, and for Moses’ daily departure from his tent to go visit with G-d. The word implies both freedom and elevation, the opportunity for spiritual growth.

Secondly, the text is making it clear that death is indeed the separation, the freeing of the soul from the body. It is then presumably free to go elsewhere, but based on the “departing” word used elsewhere in the text, the soul is free to travel toward a closer connection with G-d.

The obvious question follows: why, of all the people in the text of the Torah who are described dying (and there are a great many), is Rachel the only person described in this way? Everyone else simply… dies. But Rachel is given this beautiful, even inspiring epitaph: “As her soul was freed.” Why her?

I think the answer is found in the rest of the verse: “…that she called his name Ben-oni, but his father called him Benjamin.”

Why does this matter? I think the answer is simple: Rachel used her dying breath to do what we are all supposed to do: she was creating. She was using the divinely-gifted power of a soul, of breath, to create in turn. She named her son, and giving a name is a creative act. It is an act, like those of G-d during the creation of the world, that can be done with nothing more or less than a spoken word.

Nobody else in the Torah does this. They might speak their piece (as both Jacob and Moshe did before they died), and then quietly breathe their last. But only Rachel takes that very last opportunity of her life to still create. And it does not even matter that her husband vetoes the name – her creative act remains in the text, for all eternity, a testament to her final choice, her final creation.

[an @iwe and @eliyahumasinter production]


An Early Embedded Image

Think of a seed.  A single seed can grow into a mighty tree, and so the seed, which may be invisible to the naked eye and appears entirely passive and uninteresting, holds enormous transformative energy. This image is poetic; the idea that each fruit contains the little seed, potential for new life, for reproduction and continuity.

The location of that seed is indicated by a single word in the Torah: “in it,” or bo. This word is also found in a verse having to do with the power of an idea in each person: “Their King’s teruos are bo.” This verse is found in a blessing by the prophet Bilaam, much later, describing the Jewish people.

A teruo is a horn blast, connected to national assembling, marching and war and – in this case – coronation. Tonight starts Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, described in the Torah as primarily a day of teruos, a day of shofar blasts.

The Torah, through this description from Bilaam, connects the blasts into the yearly coronation of G-d. The blasts of the King are in the people – the teruos of the King are bo —  just as the seed which can transform into a massive tree is embedded in the fruit, ready, when the time is right, to burst forth.

This is part of what shofar blasts are supposed to mean to us: they should embed into our souls just as a seed is buried in the fruit. And once we have received them, the blasts should contain the power to transform us, and the world around us, to issue forth in a pageant of life and blessing and growth.


The Power of Rootlessness

Ancient Egypt was obsessed with immortality – after death. The Book of the Dead, countless pyramids and tombs and crypts… they wanted to “live” forever, and they meant to do it using materials and structures designed to withstand whatever time could throw at them.

The Torah never stops contrasting the Jewish people to Egypt, because the differences help define who we are: we look up to heaven and not down to the Nile for our blessings; we are called to be spiritually-minded instead of merely materialistically satisfied; Egyptians harmonized with nature, creating bread and beer, while we seek instead to improve nature (going so far as to specifically reject natural aids when we avoid chometz and eat matzo); we Jews are here for the living, while the Egyptians lived for the dead. Egypt saw the world’s as inherently repetitive and cyclical, while the Torah gives us a linear sense of mission, of a pathway to a destination.

But we share Egypt’s interest in immortality. Instead of investing in buildings, however, we have, for thousands of years, invested in mere words: the words of Torah. And those words teach us in turn to spend our energies on relationships with G-d and man. We pray and try to improve ourselves. We invest into visiting the sick, making others feel better, avoiding gossip and trying to be good. We invest all that we have, all our energies, into our children and into the children of others.

Unlike the Ancient Egyptians, or, frankly, any decently half-bred people, we Jews barely have institutions at all. For the vast majority of our history we have had no grand buildings or idols or temples, no central synagogue or court or even a single leader. We built no pyramids, and we certainly have avoided the kinds of national symbols and tribal markers that usually allow a country or a society to identify themselves almost instinctively. Jews have no flag, no sports team, no national colors. In every generation, there is nothing to fall back on besides the ideas that we communicate to the next generation. Which sounds like an awfully thin and tenuous thread upon which to hang thousands of years of continuous Jewish existence as strangers in strange lands.

What is amazing, though, is that this is the secret of the Jew. We do not live in stasis: there is no rock-solid thing to fall back on. We Jews do not stay in any one place long enough to pretend that we have “ancestral” land. (Even the Land if Israel is merely “on loan” for as long as we behave ourselves.) We have no pyramid to fall back on, no safe identity or border. We ultimately have nothing but words and ideas.

Ironically for a people who existed without a land of our own for almost 2,000 years and who have taken the very longest view of the world in the history of humanity, we Jews are forced to “live in the moment.” This is the secret of being Jewish. Every single moment is an opportunity to grow, to connect with others, to choose holiness. If the world was created for each one of us, then it follows that the world may well have been created for the very next decision that you make. We live and act as if our mere moments may in fact be momentous. Because they might be.

And this is why the sounds of the shofar are so important. Sound is the least physical thing we can perceive with our senses: sounds comes and goes and leaves no trace behind except in our souls. But when the sound of the shofar hits us, something in our souls resonate, changing and moving us, reconnecting us to who we are and whom we serve. And it all happens in the moment: there is an immediacy and vibrant power of being in that place, and in that time. This is being Jewish – somehow both living in the moment and perpetuating the oldest extant civilization in the history of mankind. The shofar is our ever-present link to real immortality.

Good yomtov!


Unhewn Stones

Part of the fun of studying the Torah seriously is that the text contains a kind of shorthand; the connections between words can contain a wide range of ideas, each of which might be an equally valid way of illustrating the text.

For example, the Torah tells us that we cannot make an altar with hewn stones, with stones that have had iron tools used on them. Which leads to an obvious question: why unhewn, raw stones?

Here are three answers that I have not seen elsewhere:

1: The first time the word for “stone” is found in the Torah is when Jacob, with night falling, decides to sleep. He finds some stones. He chose one, and went to sleep, during which he dreamed of angels ascending and descending on a ladder.

The connection is simple enough: the altar is a remembrance of those first stones, a place where there was connection up and down from heaven to earth. When Jacob woke, he swore fealty to G-d, which would suggest that when we use an altar, we are similarly strengthening our connection to G-d. So we use the same kinds of stones Jacob did.

2: An offering is a reminder that we are to elevate the physical into the spiritual, sort of like adding energy to matter. An offering contains all these elements: an altar (representing raw earth), the offering and our will, representing man’s involvement and investment, and the smoke and fire, connecting ever-upward in our elevation-offering. Earth, man’s offering, and fire.

As such, the altar cannot represent the raw earth unless its elements have not been assembled with man-made tools. Using a cut stone would blur the distinctions, eliminating the clarity of the process.

3: The commandment to make an altar of unhewn stones is in Deut. 27, immediately after a reminder to keep all of G-d’s commandments. The connection is important. We sometimes think that our own expertise and capabilities make us wise. They do not. Technology makes us capable, but it gives us no direction on how to apply those capabilities. Advanced technology can be used to cure cancer, or power the gas chambers.

The Torah encourages our own creations, but we should never be confused into thinking that wisdom and guidance is of our own making. The laws are NOT from man. They are from G-d. So when we build an altar to connect with our origin and our Creator, we must not include physical elements that suggest that the altar is really man’s idea. This is all a reminder that the words of the Torah do not come from our own intellects, and so are not derived from logical principles from some great thinker. We too easily are swayed by “experts” and “leaders” – Hashem is telling us that the Torah was NOT a product of mankind’s intellect, no matter how brilliant we might be. When we connect to heaven, we are reminded of the wisdom and sanctity of G-d.

[An @iwe and @susanquinn production]


Poverty of the Soul

It is well established that today, in America, we do not have real poverty. Outside of edge cases (like those who are very sick), nobody starves to death. We live in the wealthiest time in the history of the world.

The incredible uniqueness of our situation in history is rarely appreciated. Once upon a biblical time, a gift of a few changes of clothing was a present given by a king. But now everyone can get a coat in the winter, or find shelter in the summer. Modern amenities like running water (hot AND cold!), sewers, electricity, comfortable transportation, air conditioning and heating were uncommon two generations ago, and unheard of not long before that.

So it makes sense that in the ancient world, people cared a great deal about not starving to death. But even then, some few, exceptional people stepped away from their daily routines and pressures, and asked fundamental questions: “What is the meaning of life?” More specifically, “What is the purpose of my life?”

The easy answer to that question, then and now, is that most lives are wasted opportunities. The vast majority of people really will live and die without making a meaningful contribution to the world. It is a refrain that supports the hedonistic contention that the purpose of life is merely to “seek happiness,” to have as much fun as possible before the lights go out.

The more common alternative, especially in non-Western societies is the attitude of acceptance, of the belief that fate and external forces control our world so comprehensively that the chances of any person making a difference are as good as stopping a tornado by throwing stones at it. This, of course, is the predominant viewpoint of many Eastern religions, the idea that the race or caste in which we are born, along with the stars and fortune, determines our future, and that there is no realistically plausible free will.

I think that both of these perspectives – hedonism and fate – are a form of poverty. It is a poverty of the soul, a belief that the only thing that really matters is the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the things we see – the passive enjoyment of externally-generated experiences and pleasures. This spiritual poverty leads to decadence and corruption, the twin destroyers of great civilizations in history. The patina of a sophisticated technological world, when scratched, reveals a primitive spirit of “might makes right,” where the ends always justify the means, where nothing matters except what we want, and the extent we can get it.

It comes down to what, in our hearts, sustain us as people and as a society and civilization. What do we live for, and why? Because if we live for nothing more than our pleasure, or our transient gender identity, then we are living for nothing at all.

The contrast of ancient civilizations is worth keeping in mind. Egypt was, for thousands of years, the most reliable breadbasket in the world. It was incredibly prosperous in its day, sustaining the highest density populations ever known. Egypt’s armies were technologically superior, capable of producing chariots and breeding horses.

But it was also spiritually bankrupt. Egyptians lived, and they died. For all its wealth, Egypt was the source of no great ideas that swept the world, no philosophies that founded Western Civilization, no great armadas or an overarching vision save for ongoing sustenance. Even Egypt’s greatest legacies to the modern world were merely grand tombs to the past, pyramids for the dead. Egypt was materialism incarnate. Fed by the reliable Nile, Egypt was the petri dish that innovated and perfected bread and beer, creating an insular society that was profoundly uninterested in the world around it.

There is a verse in the Torah that sums up Egypt – and Israel – perfectly.

When Joseph was taking over all of Egypt for Pharaoh (thanks to the famines), he purchased all the privately held land – except the land owned by the priests. The language is as follows:

רַ֛ק אַדְמַ֥ת הַכֹּהֲנִ֖ים לֹ֣א קָנָ֑ה כִּי֩ חֹ֨ק לַכֹּהֲנִ֜ים מֵאֵ֣ת פַּרְעֹ֗ה וְאָֽכְל֤וּ אֶת־חֻקָּם֙ אֲשֶׁ֨ר נָתַ֤ן לָהֶם֙ פַּרְעֹ֔ה עַל־כֵּ֕ן לֹ֥א מָכְר֖וּ אֶת־אַדְמָתָֽם׃ Only the land of the priests he did not take over, for the priests had an allotment from Pharaoh, and they lived off the allotment which Pharaoh had made to them; therefore they did not sell their land. (Gen. 47:22)

What is this “allotment”? The word, transliterated as chok appears for the first time in the text here (which means its definition is found in this incidence). It is not a usual word for such a purpose, it is instead a word found later in the Torah, and in those later cases we generally understand that it means “A law given by G-d.” More subtly, it also refers to a law that would not be logically derived from rational principles (such as: “do not steal”).

But not in this – definitional – case. In this verse, a chok is something given by the king that sustains a people, that they can eat. This chok also allows them to be separate from everyone else.

This is also the core definition of the word for Jews. The difference is found in the contrast between Egypt and Israel.

The Egyptian priests are sustained by the chok, which they eat. Egypt was all about material prosperity. Indeed, Pharoah gives the Jewish slaves a chok, too: a required amount of bricks that needed to be made. The measure of a man was the physical product he produced.

The Jewish people are also sustained by a chok, but all such gifts from G-d are inedible, and they have nothing to do with work. They are, instead, all symbolic laws, like remembering to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt on Passover (which is the first time the text tells us of a chok given to the Jews). Egypt is the counterpoint, the mirror image of what Jews are supposed to aspire to.

Which leads us to a very simple, yet profound idea: Jews are not sustained by bread or wealth. Our sustenance is through the Law, as given by G-d. Not – we should emphasize – the kinds of normal civil laws that any rational society might derive. But instead, we are sustained by the laws that are uniquely Jewish, the laws given to us by our king that feed our souls, and allow us to be apart from all other peoples.

It is no coincidence that in that specific verse it refers to “Cohanim”, the Hebrew for “priests.” In virtually every case, “priests” in the Torah are Aaron or his descendants – but not here. The text is drawing a parallel for us, because we Jews are commanded to “be a nation of priests.” Our chok, our portion, sustains us and keep us from the spiritual poverty that plagues the entire world, the world that measures wealth through material possessions.

We know from history that this is not mere fancy. A purpose-driven life is one in which our ancestors, for hundreds of generations, found spiritual meaning. We are the next links in the chain, essential for the future, but also integrally connected to the past. Jewish Law has not sustained us because of all the “normal” kinds of laws, like our civil code (which exists, in some recognizable form, in most societies). Those laws are given a different name in the Torah: mishpat. A mishpat is recognizable anywhere, dealing with adjudication between parties, or torts.

But a chok is different. These laws are sometimes resistant to ready explanations, but they always contain deep symbolism that speaks directly to meaning, to our connections to other people and to G-d – such as the Exodus and the yearly commemoration that keeps the Jewish people connected through a shared common memory. “You shall observe this as a chok for all time, for you and for your descendants.” (Ex. 12:24) Egyptians lived and died by their allotments from the king. Jews live (and can spiritually live long after our bodies have perished) through the laws given to us by our king.


The Tragedy of – and Exit Strategy from – Rape

One of the challenges of adulthood is coming to recognize that there are any number of situations that just cannot be helped. Bad things happen. They may – or may not – have been avoidable, but either way, once they have happened, the only thing left to do is to decide what to do next.

Rape is a worst-case example. Being taken against your will causes damage that may never heal, both for the victim and, if the matter is generally known, in the eyes of others. A feedback loop between victim and bystander helps to perpetuate the shame and other damage.

There are no obvious remedies to the damage caused by rape. Vengeance may bring some satisfaction, but it does not undo what has already been done: A woman who has been raped has to live with it for the rest of her life.

To understand possible remedies, we need to better understand the nature of the damage. A raped woman may quickly heal from any physical abuse she has withstood. The real damage has no physical component at all; pity, guilt, shame, self-esteem problems all can attach to the victim, and make the rest of her life considerably more unhappy than it might have been otherwise.

This means that any possible remedy for rape must be something that in some way mirrors or mitigates the damage: the remedy must contain symbolic value that helps a person find a way to move on, both in their eyes, and in the eyes of others.

The first outright rape in the Torah is the story of Dinah. She is the daughter of Jacob, with twelve brothers. When the traveling family is settled in, in a place called Shechem, she goes out to talk with the daughters of the land, presumably for some female companionship – hardly a crazy thing for a girl with twelve brothers to do.

The local prince sees her, desires her, takes her by force, and then humbles her. And here the Torah uses a word never found heretofore in the Torah: in the eyes of her family, that prince defiled her, which means that he changed her status to that of a person who is unable to spiritually grow (in the King James version, the word is translated as “unclean.”) The Hebrew is tamei.

Dinah’ story is an unmitigated tragedy. The text tells us that her brothers ended up annihilating the guilty party and all his kinsmen. But the vengeance makes no difference to the victim’s life. In the Torah, Dinah does not remarry or have children. She lives out her days, even entering into Egypt with the family, but she remains defiled, tamei. She is forever known to readers of the text as nothing more than a rape victim, yet another example of how bad things can happen to good people.

Nobody’s life should be defined and constrained by a single tragedy. And I think G-d agrees. I think G-d saw Dinah’s pain and suffering, and decided to find a mechanism that would allow a person to regain their equilibrium as a person, to put the past behind them.

Why do I think this? Because the word, tamei, is first found with Dinah. Indeed, the word appears three times in the Dinah episode, and then it is not mentioned again until deep in Leviticus. The Torah’s usage of the word clearly connects the specific laws of spiritual limitation with the episode of Dinah. Like so much in the Torah, the instances in Genesis help explain and justify the laws found further on.

I think G-d realized that, for one reason or another, people feel somehow wrong when they undergo certain experiences. It may be, for example, that they have come in contact with something that is tamei – a dead animal or person, or specific bodily emissions. It might be something big (like rape) or something small, like touching a lizard. There are connotations affiliated with tamei, with things that remind us of our mortality or animal physiology; the things in life that tell us that we are ultimately not purely spiritual beings, that we can be hurt and that we will eventually die.

Fixating on our weaknesses, failures, and mortality is not, of course, healthy. When we are in that tamei state, we can no longer elevate and connect with the spiritual, holy goals that G-d commands us to aspire to. That is the challenge with so much of life: focusing on making the most of our opportunities, instead of obsessing on our background and events that we can do nothing about. Dinah was not necessarily ruined because she was raped, but between herself and her family, it seems she never was able to move beyond it. A dead animal and Dinah are both tamei because both lose their potential.

But in Leviticus, G-d describes ways to move on. Waiting a preset amount of time is usually a key element in shedding the status of being tamei, as is the use of the ritual bath, to feel reborn and newly tasked in the service of G-d. In the case of being in contact with death, we use the Red Heifer ritual to symbolically reconnect to life before death, to the recreation of mankind in the Garden.

These rituals are all, of course, only useful to the extent that they help us move on from whatever it is that damaged our potential in this world. I think the evidence is pretty clear that these rituals usually achieve this goal, at least with those of us who believe that they do. That is one of the powers of ritual: if we commit to it body and soul, then it works.

And note, too, that there is not necessarily any whiff of sin involved in becoming tamei. The status is not about having done anything wrong (indeed, there is no sin in becoming newly aware of our mortality or weaknesses), just as Dinah did nothing wrong. Ridding ourselves of the spiritual burden of tamei allows us to enter G-d’s house, to re-engage in seeking holiness and growth in every aspect of our lives. It does not undo what has been done, but it does allow us to put the past behind us and move on.

Remember that the origin of this concept is found within the reaction of Jacob and his sons, the father and brothers of Dinah:

Jacob heard that he had [made tamei] his daughter Dinah; but since his sons were in the field with his cattle, Jacob kept silent until they came home. … Jacob’s sons answered Shechem and his father Hamor—speaking with guile because he had [made tamei] their sister Dinah … The other sons of Jacob came upon the slain and plundered the town, because their sister had been [made tamei].

If we read this carefully, we can see that the entire concept of being tamei was possibly even invented by Jacob and the brothers. After all, both Sarah and Rebekkah had been taken by other men – but in those cases, their husbands had allowed it to happen, they – not their wives – were the guilty parties. Sarah and Rebekkah were not raped: they were abandoned. But Dinah’s violation was seen through a different lens by the men in her family, creating a kind of shame and lasting damage that had never occurred before.

But if man invented tamei, then it is G-d who decided how it must be addressed, who reminds us through all the relevant laws that there is always a way outward and upward, a way to put even a terrible past behind us, a way to make our lives holy. See: Leviticus.

[An @iwe, @susanquinn and @blessedblacksmith triple-collaboration]


What Do Your Taboos Say About You?

I fear that today’s political environment has made all open enquiry and freedom of speech the ultimate taboo. We have become openly reactive against any idea we do not already agree with, any thought or language that contradicts the “acceptable” norms – like the “N” word.

At the same time, popular culture is destroying the classic Judeo-Christian taboos, the actions that are found entirely unacceptable within society. Even in our hyper-permissive world today, I would like to think that there remain some taboos that most people reflexively recoil from: incest, bestiality, child pornography, and cannibalism come to mind. I might be wrong about all of these.

Because while we often think of things that are taboo as somehow baked into the human psyche, we should know better. Every documented primitive people has, at one time or another, eaten other people. Ancient Egyptian royalty married within the nuclear family. The Greeks loved their boys – and their goats. Even researching the prevalence of bestiality for this post made me wish I had not. Some are really shocking.

I do not think this is a topic we should shy away from, even though my gut clenches at the thought of man-boy “love”, bestiality, or child sacrifice.

Given that taboos can be quite different between cultures, it seems to me that what a culture finds to be taboo tells us a great deal about that specific society. For example, in the first use of this word (toeva) the Torah tells us that the Egyptians found it taboo to break bread with non-Egyptians. Refusing to mingle with outsiders is a form of self-love or at least self-affirmation. The corollary is that the culture rejects other ways of thinking, other ways of looking at the world. Which might help us understand why Ancient Egypt was consistently an insular country, content to gaze inward instead of colonizing or reaching outward to the rest of the Mediterranean.

Torah taboo subjects are centered on sexual misconduct. The word is first used to describe homosexuality, a form of self-love. Homsexuality starts with the premise that men are beautiful, and then copulating with other men as extensions of that perception. It is no surprise that the Greeks were all about the homoerotic: they thought gods looked like men, after all. So it is only natural to worship and fornicate with other men, the physical exemplars of all the world.

Homosexuality is more than this, of course. Homosexuality keeps us within a comfort zone: it is much harder to forge a relationship with an unrelated woman than with another man. Torah Judaism contrasts sharply against all the principles of the ancient pagan world. So the Torah goes on (Lev 18) to include incest, bestiality and child sacrifice, adultery and idolatry among those things labeled taboo. All of these things interfere with a relationship with G-d, a relationship that is built from marriage: a man loyal to a woman who challenges him, a “helpmate to oppose him.” (Gen. 2:19)

In a nutshell: Egypt’s taboos are things that allow for intellectual challenge or diversity to what you already are. Judaism is not afraid of other ideas or cultures, but we are definitely repulsed by the actions that leads away us from a full connection to our Creator.

What are the taboos that will still be around in a decade or two? Right now it seems that everything we use to reject is becoming acceptable, and then rapidly transforms into compulsory behavior. There is always a cost. Will normal love, marriage, and having kids become taboo? Have they already?

[an @iwe and @blessedblacksmith production]


The Injustice That Comes From Making Sex All-Important

It is no accident that Vladimir Putin went to great lengths to advertise his manly prowess in all things: strongmen invariably attract followers of both sexes, while, like a pack of hyenas, our society tears apart men who show the slightest weakness.

We have an analogous response to women, of course. Women who project great sexual potency play the pivotal roles in the creation – and destruction – of families and societies. In the ancient world, many thousands of “Ashtarte” figurines have been unearthed, symbols of great sexual power and fertility.

It is thus no surprise that symbols of both male and female sexual potency are instinctively attractive to native peoples the world over. And it is similarly no surprise that the Torah rails against these very symbols:

You shall not set up an Ashera pole beside the altar of the LORD your God that you may make, or erect a stone obelisk [phallic symbol]; for such the LORD your God detests.

That is predictable enough: Judaism does not celebrate sexual potency in the public square. What intrigues me is why this verse immediately follows verses on an entirely-different topic:

You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the LORD your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

What does pursuing justice have to do with mixing the worship of sexuality with a relationship with G-d?

I think the answer is highly relevant today, in this hyper-sexualized LGBTQ+ world where everyone obsesses about their sexual identity, putting their sexual desires above all other qualities: if we value people by their sexual potency, then there can be no justice.

A society that revels in sexual power also celebrates the loss of control associated with uncontrollable desire, of giving in to animalistic lust. Justice cannot be served when our faculties are overwhelmed by our more basic urges. If you become a slave to your desires, you cannot be holy. You serve only those desires, and you are manifestly unable to serve other people.

Since no two people share the same magnitude of desire and attractiveness, making favoritism on the basis of sex appeal is nothing more or less than “Sight Makes Right.” Neither the immature nor the old can reproduce, so if we think that sexual power is a valid metric of human worth, then both the very young and the old must be considered inferior to those who are vibrant and fecund. So, too, would be a widow, who as a result of her circumstances may be in no position to procreate.

This is antithetical to the Torah. If we value life because each living person hosts a soul on loan from G-d, then it means we must seek to appreciate every human, whatever their age or infirmity. The Torah insists that it is our relationship to each other and to our Creator that makes us who we are – not our sexuality or ability to make offspring.

The elements of the tabernacle, the mishkan, are object lessons in how to be holy. And the tabernacle contains some suggestive imagery – the two angels reaching for each other above the ark of the convenant. But this imagery – which reflects both male and female desire for the other, as well as the desire between G-d and mankind – is not animalistic, or even about reproduction. The two angels are yearning for each other, desiring to become close, to become whole.

Real intimacy is meant to be holy, but mere intercourse does not require any non-physical connection at all. Judaism seeks to create and promote relationships; reproduction can be a happy byproduct of such relationships, but our sexual desires or success are not the measure of a holy society. And prioritizing the metrics of sex makes it impossible to create and sustain a truly just society.

[another @iwe and @susanquinn production]


How Can a People Survive without a Land?

How is your Hittite cousin?

Today we don’t know any Hittites. Or Amorites, Jebusites or, for that matter, Mycenaeans. Time does that to most peoples. Over time, borders and human barriers shift, mingle and mix. Absent visible distinctions that make it impossible for a minority to blend in, most peoples assimilate into their host countries sooner or later.

In a pagan world, this happens more quickly, since pagan cultures are connected to the deities they create and rely upon: a sea god is central in a Viking society, but not relevant to someone living on the Snake or Salmon River. Similarly, mountains (which are invariably deified in primitive and modern societies alike – see “Denali”) can only be important if they are close enough to be seen. So a nation anchored to a certain deity loses its moorings if it is dispossessed and moves away from that same deity. It is not just deities, of course. In a generation or two, an ex-Englishman’s emotional connection to the monarchy fades. Our landmarks and institutions and relics are what help keep us who we are.

Judaism is the exception to the rule that minorities eventually assimilate, that removed from their host land, a people eventually loses their original culture. We Jews have lived for thousands of years as strangers in strange lands, lands that were often hostile. When expelled from one nation we would move to others, somehow retaining whatever it is that allows us to remain distinct.

How? I think a part of the answer is that the Torah refuses to call any specific place holy. When Moses dies, the burial place is not noted or remembered. When G-d promises the land of Israel/Canaan to the Jewish people, He does not call the land holy, and our possession of it is entirely conditional on our behavior, on whether we make good choices. (G-d does not even give us the land – he set it before us, using the same word used in Gen 1:17 for setting the sun and the moon in the sky.) The Torah avoids connecting the people to any specific place.

Indeed, the holiest place in the world for Jews, the Temple Mount, is not even named in the Torah. Instead, it is referred to repeatedly as “the place where the Lord your G-d will choose.”

Why is the text coy about the location? We know that place is Jerusalem. We know it was the same place the Binding of Isaac took place, and where Jacob dreamed of angels on a ladder… and yet the Torah declines to name it. Why?

I think the reason why this is so, is because the purpose of Judaism is not, unlike with pagan religions, tied to any specific place, or even to a specific land. Our connection to the Land of Israel and to the Temple Mount are not because they are intrinsically holy places, but only because G-d chose them. It was the choice, not the actual location, that matters.

In other words: the Temple Mount is important because it is the gateway to a relationship – not because the place is itself meant to be a shrine. Similarly, Moses’ burial place is not named because our path to a relationship with G-d is through His Torah, not through His servant. We are each meant to find a way to connect that does not rely on any holy relic, or prayer at any given place.

In that sense, then, the Jewish people are uniquely equipped to exist anywhere, unconnected from any specific place. G-d is not found in a certain mountain or seashore or canyon. He is found where we connect with Him.

The Torah reinforces this message by explaining that pagan faiths must be rejected:

You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshiped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree. Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site. (Deut. 12:2-3)

The Torah is telling us that a connection to a god who is synonymous with a specific place is inherently wrong. G-d is not in or of the natural world, and religions that worship Mother Earth or any of the forces contained within nature (mountain, wind, sun, or sea, etc.) are opposed by Judaism, root and branch.

This is how a people can survive without landmarks or specific shrines or sacred relics. They need the touchstone, to be sure – but that touchstone is not the land. It is the Torah itself, a portable text that lives in the mind instead of in any one holy place.

I should note that the Temple Mount today resonates with enormous spiritual power. I believe that this is because it has absorbed millennia of prayers from Jews both in that place and around the world. It is special not because it was created that way by G-d, but because we invested in it after G-d chose it. The Torah makes it clear that the things that man and G-d both invest in, are the things that become holy as a result of our investment.

It is undeniable that Israel has remained in the prayers and dreams of the Jewish people ever since we were first expelled, over 2,500 years ago. But we must remain careful and vigilant to not confuse the end with the means: what makes Israel special is that the land is a gateway to a full relationship with G-d (and each other). (This is similar to the sentiments expressed by many of the prophets when they told us that G-d does not want our offerings. They made it clear: the purpose of the Temple was not for its own sake or for sacrifices, but instead as a way for people to grow closer to G-d and to the rest of society.)

Because Judaism is grounded in texts and not places, it has been possible to live – and even thrive – in strange lands with inhospitable hosts. You may not know any Hittites, but thanks to the power of the text of the Torah, you certainly might know some Jews!


Man Does Not Live by Bread Alone

This (Deut. 8:3) is actually one of the most famous aphorisms from the Torah; it is repeated in the New Testament as well (Luke and Matthew 4:4). “Man does not live by bread alone” reminds us that when people receive nothing more than their physical needs, they are somehow not fulfilled. Perhaps the text is telling us that man is not just an animal who requires sustenance; we also need freedom, or perhaps a higher purpose, or even a dose of spiritualism.

This week I was studying this verse with @EliyahuMasinter, and we decided to try to figure out, using the Torah itself, what the verse is actually saying. The results delighted and amazed us, and I wanted to share them.

Let’s set the scene. I think it is well understood that languages are not perfectly translatable into other languages. Translating the Torah today suffers from this problem perhaps more than many others, because Biblical Hebrew (which can be understood on its own terms) has been largely supplanted by Modern Hebrew, the language spoken in Israel. As a result, modern translations can unthinkingly superimpose a modern meaning that may be completely absent in the Torah itself.

The fascinating thing to me is that all the interesting words found later in the text of the Torah invariably are first used in (and defined by) a usage earlier, usually in the Book of Genesis. This repeated usage ties the entire document together, both explaining and defining the commandments and phrases found later in the text by the stories and examples found earlier in document, in much the same way that our childhood experiences forms the basis through which we cope with adulthood. This means that the Torah is an entirely self-referential document, and we can understand what a word means solely from the way it is used in the text itself, by its earlier context.

So let’s look at this verse, and identify the key words, the words that need to be understood in order to understand what the text is telling us.

We’ll start with the King James translation; it is never a bad place to start:

…man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live. (Deut. 8:3)

By way of contrast, let me share a present-day Orthodox Jewish translation that illustrates how what we may want the text to say, somehow replaces what it actually says:

… man does not live on bread alone, but that man may live on anything that the LORD decrees.

The differences between these two translations of the end of the verse are pretty stark, suggesting that the translators did not have a clear path to an unambiguous meaning. Such verses are full of potential for clarification.

Let’s start with the most obvious word: the one translated as “to live.” It sounds simple enough – “living” suggests biological life itself, right? But the Torah’s use of this word, יִחְיֶ֣ה, does not mean biological life at all, but instead something far more important.

Here’s the first time the word is found in the Torah: G-d promises Avraham that he will have a son with Sarah. Avraham responds: “O that Ishmael might live by Your favor!” (Gen. 17:18).

While Ishmael will be blessed and successful, G-d rejects Avraham’s request. Instead, it is Sarah’s son who will continue the divine covenant. Which tells us that the Hebrew “to live” is connected not to biological life, but instead to a certain feature of life, a connection to G-d. This use of “life” is about intergenerational destiny and overarching purpose, about much more than mere physical existence. Avraham does want to live forever. He wants to carry on through his son, his legacy.

The same usage is repeated in the very next time the word is used. After Jacob leaves Lavan’s house, Lavan pursues him, knowing that someone has stolen Lavan’s idols. The text 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!” Or as the late Jackie Mason may have put it, “Worshipping an idol? Pheh! You call that living?!” The entendre is easy to miss. But it is there.

In other words: The Torah is telling us that merely doing well (as Ishmael did) is not real living. Neither is having an encounter with pagan deities. Real living comes through encounters with the real G-d.

In this way “Man does not live on bread alone,” can be understood literally and not just as a figure of speech. The Torah is telling us that what we translate as “living” means more than just a biological existence. Bread does not substitute for a connection with the divine.

Which leaves us with the rest of the verse: if man does not live on bread alone, what does he live on? The King James gives us: “but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the LORD doth man live.” (Deut. 8:3) We flagged the Hebrew for “proceedeth” and “mouth” as words that are not clear at first reading, not until we see how the Torah uses these words elsewhere.

“Matza” is the Hebrew that the KJ translates as “proceedeth.” In Modern Hebrew it means “find.” But in the Torah, “Matza” (not the same word as the flat bread), is first used when Cain worries that since he is a murderer, he will be killed: “Anyone who meets (matzas) me may kill me!” The next time is later in Genesis: Judah was told, “Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the harlot; in fact, she is with child by harlotry.” “Bring her out,” said Judah, “and let her be burned.” She was brought out (matza)…”

Both of these examples are not merely about being found, or discovering an object. They are about a life-or-death meeting with another person. The meeting is important in its own right, definitionally important to their lives.

And the same root word for “matza” is the word for the exodus from Egypt, which is another life-or-death situation with everything at stake.

Bringing it back to our verse: “Man does not live by bread alone. But he will live on all the important life-or-death encounters with the “fi” of G-d. This is the word the KJ translates as “mouth.” But how is it used in the text?

The first incidence is to refer to the mouth of the well, off of which Jacob rolls a stone. The “Fi” is the mouth of that well, the gateway to life-giving water in a parched region.

The second incidence refers to the mouth of the sacks that Joseph’s brothers carry to and from Egypt.

To call this the “mouth” of G-d is to miss that the text uses “Fi” not as a source of words (as with a mouth on a person), but as a source of good things: the mouth of the well is the way to water; the mouth of the bag is the way to grain or money or even a special goblet.

Much later in the Torah, the word is used when the people are castigated for listening to the fears of the spies:

Yet you refused to go up, and declined the “Fi” of the LORD your God.

We rejected the contents of the goodie-bag, refusing G-d’s gift of the land of Canaan to us.

Which then allows us to propose a much more full (though ungainly and wordy) sense of what this verse means:

“Man does not have a meaningful existence through bread alone. But he will achieve that purpose through the important life-or-death intersections with the cornucopia contained through G-d’s portal.”

Connecting with the divine is real living. And it is hardly a one-size fits-all solution: both in the Torah and in life we see that each person has their own unique relationship with G-d, that no two of us are even supposed to seek an identical relationship with the divine. As with Cain and Tamar, there is risk in that connection, but there is also all the richness that comes from doing more than merely living on bread.


The Value of Going Your Own Way

The path of righteousness is never fully aligned with any mass movement or popular belief. Indeed, over time, we learn an almost instinctive contrarianism: the pack has not been right in the past, so we distrust it going forward.

It occurred to me that there is actually a perfect vignette in the Torah that validates this approach. It runs as follows (Gen. 29):

There before [Jacob’s] eyes was a well in the open. Three flocks of sheep were lying there beside it, for the flocks were watered from that well. The stone on the mouth of the well was large. When all the flocks were gathered there, the stone would be rolled from the mouth of the well and the sheep watered; then the stone would be put back in its place on the mouth of the well.  Jacob said to them… “It is still broad daylight, too early to round up the animals; water the flock and take them to pasture.” But they said, “We cannot, until all the flocks are rounded up; then the stone is rolled off the mouth of the well and we water the sheep.” While he was still speaking with them, Rachel came with her father’s flock; for she was a shepherdess. And when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of his uncle Laban, and the flock of his uncle Laban, Jacob went up and rolled the stone off the mouth of the well, and watered the flock.

Consider this story from this perspective: a stranger shows up, and is informed of the local custom. Any normal person in that situation respects his potential hosts, and tries not to alienate them. He would also be influenced by the peer pressure of the crowd; we know that such pressure is substantial.

But when he sees a girl he wants to impress, Jacob ignores everyone who is standing around and waiting, and he does what he thinks is right anyway. He rolls the rock off the well, feeds the flock, and, eventually, he also gets the girl.

Here’s the question that brought this episode to mind: why does G-d in the Torah repeatedly say that He is helping the Jewish people in order to fulfill a vow He made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? For that matter, why did G-d make such vows in the first place?

And I think the answer is right in front of us: the forefathers were willing to do what they thought was right even though they were strangers in a strange land, and even though a relationship with G-d was entirely alien to all the pagan religions and societies that surrounded them. They were willing to consistently follow their own path.

Note that our forefathers were not unaware of the crowd or ignored their way of thinking.  Even in the above story, Jacob first engages in the men in conversation to understand what they were doing and why.  Then he did what he thought was right even though it was different.  And it was this repeated willingness to pursue what they thought was right that made them great men, men to whom G-d would swear a vow. And that is how our forefathers became the backbone of a society and religion that seeks what is right, not merely what is convenient or safe.

The world is facing a pandemic of groupthink and pitchfork-wielding mobs. It needs more of us, people who are willing to stand out. It is clear to me that G-d puts a great value on this attribute.


Here is a related thought: in the ancient world, men simply took women they fancied. We make fun of boys and men showing off to impress women, as if it is somehow childish and juvenile. But the Torah does no such thing. On the contrary: trying to earn the admiration of a woman is far nobler than merely throwing her over the saddle and riding off. The episode with Jacob “showing off” by rolling the rock off the mouth of the well is the first time the Torah tells us of a man trying to gain favor in a woman’s eyes, instead of merely imposing his will on her.

This matters. A relationship in which both people invest and try to impress the other is the backbone of any proper relationship with G-d.


The Priceless Value of Empathy

Empathy, “the capacity to place oneself in another’s position,” is one of the hardest things for anyone to achieve. It is almost impossible to change someone’s mind unless you first understand how they think, what makes them tick.

One of the hardest things in the world to do is to set our own perspective aside, and see things from someone else’s point of view. A true friend is someone who listens. A great salesman is someone who knows what you want – even need – to hear. A writer can be great if they can truly get inside the mind of the reader, and pre-emptively understand how their words will be read.

A failure to communicate stems from the failure to have empathy. Engineers usually do not fall short because they are bad at engineering; they fail when they cannot put themselves in the minds of their audience to understand how their words and powerpoint presentations will be received. An engineer who cannot communicate effectively is worse than useless.

Rabbi David Fohrman offers a brilliant analysis of our foremothers Rachel and Leah. He explains that Rachel’s greatness is found when her sister rebuffs childless Rachel’s request to share in a precious moment when a child comes home with flowers for his mommy. Leah fires back: “You first took my husband, and now you take my son’s flowers?”

Rachel replies: “Therefore he shall lie with you tonight, in return for your son’s flowers.”

What’s going on here? Fohrman explains that Rachel, who was obsessed with the fact that she had no children, and that her sister seemed to be getting all the good things in life, was immediately struck by an epiphany: from her sister’s perspective, it is Leah, not Rachel, who is the victim in the relationship. In contrast to Leah, Rachel was shapely and beautiful. It was Leah who had to pretend to be someone else on her own wedding night. It was Leah who had to be married to a man who hated her, a man who openly preferred her sister.

But in that moment, Rachel managed to flip her perspective, and see it from her sister‘s point of view instead of her own viewpoint, barren and bitter that it was. Fohrman puts words in her mouth: “How could I ask you to share the joy of your child, without me sharing in return with you?” She declared a truce, and gave her husband to her sister in return for the flowers. Rachel gave Leah and Jacob a do-over for the wedding night. The child that was conceived that night is named for “reward” – the reward both sisters get for that moment of empathy, for that truce between them.

It is the first act of empathy in the Torah. And it tells us a lot about much more than this. The entire episode is a validation that BOTH sisters have valid points of view. There is no single “truth” of the matter, and anyone who has empathy has to be able to validate someone else’s point of view, complete with different notions of what is important in life, and even of the facts themselves. To even ask which version is “true” would be to miss the entire point.

In every human interaction there is a clash of perspectives, of different versions of what is true or accurate. The Torah does more than accept this: it endorses it. It is through understanding other people that we learn to grow. Having empathy does not invalidate your own version of reality, your own truth. But it tempers it with the knowledge that there are other valid ways of looking at a situation.

Every proper marriage is an ongoing test in this regard: marriage forces us to wrestle with trying to come to grips with a different point of view. No good marriage can be built on a perfunctory dismissal of your spouse’s way of seeing things. And it is why the High Priest had to be married – if we are not confronted with the challenge of understanding the perspective of a wife, we have no chance at being able to understand the perspective of G-d Almighty. This is not because G-d necessarily sees things as a woman does, but because G-d sees things differently than we do, forcing us to question our perspectives in order to wrestle with the divine.

The Torah is full of examples of different facts emerging. Jacob names a place – but the Torah takes pains to tell us what other people name that same place (e.g. Gen. 28:19 – “Bet-El” versus “Luz”; Gen 31:47 “Jegar-sahadutha” versus “Galeed.” Both names exist and are used. A similar thing happens when Rachel names her son “Ben-Oni”, and Jacob renames him “Benjamin.” Neither name is “true” – each perspective is validated. The names are the way in which we choose to label our world, the prism through which we see it. And if we use different names, then we have accepted that each person has their own version, their own truth. The Torah seems to be telling us that this is perfectly fine.

The text goes much farther than merely different names for places and people, though. The entire last book of the Five Books of Moses, the text I refer to as “The Torah,” is a radical departure from the earlier texts. Deuteronomy is, except for a few verses at the end, a set of speeches given by Moses. These speeches are radical for a very simple reason: the version of events described in them can be very different from how the same event is described earlier in the Torah. Deuteronomy contains Moses’ perspective, and he can present an entirely different set of facts.

Numbers 13:

And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying, “Send thou men, that they may spy out the land of Canaan, which I give to the children of Israel: of every tribe of their fathers shall you send a man, every one a ruler among them.”

But in Deuteronomy (1:22), Moshe tells the people:

Then all of you came to me and said, “Let us send men ahead to reconnoiter the land for us and bring back word on the route we shall follow and the cities we shall come to.” I approved of the plan, and so I selected twelve of your men, one from each tribe.

See the enormous disconnect? In the first telling, the idea is G-d’s. In the second, the idea of sending the spies comes from the people!

I am well aware that one can try to square the circle and try to make both versions somehow true, though such an attempt flies in the face of the actual words. Nevertheless, that is not nearly as interesting as understanding why the text gives us an entirely incompatible set of explanations for who decided to spy out the land!

We can understand why Moses might have changed the story: he was not inclined to blame G-d, and he wanted the people to own their own history and be able to consciously grow past it. He wanted the Jewish people to take responsibility and grow even from their failures. Even if it did not really happen that way!

Yet however we parse it, we have the text with BOTH versions. Which means that the Torah is teaching us, the readers, a very explicit lesson: It is OK to have different – even incompatible – versions of the same story. The purpose of the story is, after all, to grow connections and relationships, to help people make sense of their past, and find the pathways into the future. One could even argue that the Torah’s purpose in telling us the story for a reason easily explains why different explanations of the origin of the world are offered by geologists , physicists, chemists, and, of course, founding religious texts for different religions. There can, thanks to the prism selected, indeed by a vast range of accounts of the creation of the world – with none of them necessarily being wrong.

And so the purist ideal of “one version,” or perhaps even “one true version,” becomes collateral damage, sacrificed when the purpose justifies it. We can – and should – customize the story for the listener, always seeking to find ways to constructively move forward. It is why it is good and right and proper to find ways to compliment others instead of insisting on “telling it as I see it.” The latter is an act of supreme selfishness and indifference, while the former shows sensitivity and consideration.

I fear this lesson is often missed by those who insist that there are somehow no inconsistencies in the Torah, that everything dovetails and aligns perfectly. I take the text seriously, so when there are differences within it, then we are to learn from those differences as well.

The lesson seems evident: there is a deep and inherent value in each person’s perspective. And the notion of a single “true” version of an event is antithetical to the purposes of the Torah. Empathy is a higher goal, because it allows us to build a common vision, an understanding between each other, and between man and G-d.

It is no accident that the Torah gives us different and contradictory versions of events. It is on purpose, to teach us that, as long as we act in good faith, validating different perspectives, names, and even events, it is an act of love, constructively building relationships. That is what the Torah is all about.


A Trifecta of Torah Tidbits

Torah Tidbit: A Single Word of Connection

@SusanQuinn asked me why 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.

Torah Tidbit: Cleaving

And you, who cleave to the LORD your God, are all alive today. (Deut. 4:4)

The first time that Hebrew word for “cleave” is found in the Torah is

Hence a man … cleaves to his wife, so that they become one flesh. (Gen. 2:24)

Another of the hundreds of connections in the text between marriage and a relationship to G-d.

Torah Tidbit: Torah in a Nutshell

Or what great nation has laws and rules as tzadik as all this Teaching that I set before you this day? (Deut 4:8)

The first tzadik in the Torah refers to Noah. And the first thing we know about him is that when G-d spoke, he listened. Indeed, this becomes a necessary ingredient for every time tzadik is mentioned: the ability to listen, to see things from the perspective of another person.

We can see from this that the symbolic laws and judgments that form the laws of the Torah are designed to be a petri dish in which we learn to hear each other, to be sensitive and open to seeing things from the perspective of G-d and other people. The Laws are there to create the possibility of a relationship founded in growth and development. This is what the Torah – the guidebook for our lives – is all about.


The Greatest Lesson of Moses’ Life

The greatest lesson we learn from Moses is found in his biggest disappointment, his primary failure. G-d tells Moses that he cannot enter the land – he can only see it. Moses can see the land – he has the vision of what can be in the future.  But it is Joshua, his lieutenant, a man who needs to be invested by Moses’ strength and courage, as well as by his vision of the future, who will actually lead the

Charge Joshua, and imbue him with strength and courage, for he shall go across at the head of this people, and he shall allot to them the land that you may only see.” (Deut. 3:28)

The underlying lesson is huge: Judaism is not something accomplished by one man, one time. Ours is an intergenerational challenge, a task that spans the history of the civilized world. Not even Moses could do all he set out to do; the task falls to his successor. Just as my goals in life will be achieved even if it is those who come after me who actually get it all done.

G-d may have prevented Moses from completing his goals just to teach this lesson: None of us gets to finish the job. We always have to pass on something to the next generation, to share our vision and carry things forward.

Moses did what he could. And he had to be satisfied that others would carry it on. There is no higher calling.

“You are not obligated to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirke Avot 2:21)


A Brief History of The World: From G-d’s Perspective

G-d creates the world, and is on speaking terms with the first human couple… but after a few generations everyone starts to ignore G-d. And then humanity starts doing all kinds of bad things. G-d tries to adjust the conditions to try to fix the problem, but then He gives up on fiddling around the edges. Instead, he decides to wash it all away and reboot all life on earth. The “seed corn” for this reboot is the family of Noah, the only man in his generation who was receptive enough to hear G-d’s voice.

The post-Flood world is better than before the Flood, but while there is less evil, there is also no divine connection. G-d reaches out to one man, Avram, and the relationship begins. Despite becoming the poster child for a relationship with G-d, Avraham attracts not even one lasting adherent. So G-d keeps adapting.

G-d performs an outright miracle, helping Avram win a war against a number of kings. But almost nobody notices that G-d was even involved, and the world still ignores G-d’s presence. As a coming-out party for G-d, it was a bust.

G-d tells Abraham that the road is going to be much longer than either of them hoped. That road is going to require a massive buildup much, much bigger set of miracles. Avraham’s descendants will be servants to another people for 400 years, and then G-d will deliver them out in a glorious, triumphant explosion. Everyone in the world will understand that G-d is in the world, and greater than all other gods (defined as any entity that people believe in).

So it happens. Generations later, Pharaoh enslaves the descendants of Avraham, and then G-d gets involved, inflicts plagues, and delivers the people of Egypt in a grand finale, complete with the splitting of the sea. The world is suitably impressed. The G-d of the Jews came from nowhere (since he had no physical manifestation) to become a known and recognized force in the world.

G-d goes even farther. In the wilderness he feeds the people Manna, and continues to perform open miracles, culminating at Mount Sinai where, in another fantastic display of divine power, He gives us the Torah, a time-defying institution in its own right, one that will guide the Jewish people for thousands of years to come.

The next stop is to conquer Canaan, the future Land of Israel. G-d wants the people to anticipate this grand finale, so he tells us to send princes to check out the land, and report back, to make the people as excited and optimistic as possible. The princes go out, and return…. And they decide that they would rather do anything except conquer the land. They lose their collective nerve.

Imagine how G-d felt in that moment! Hundreds of years of building to this amazing climax, and the people decide they would rather opt out at the end?! Moses is crushed. And G-d is hurt. The people somehow missed the purpose of all of their history up to that point. And we rejected this incredible gift, somehow forgetting that there is a much bigger point to all of history, and that we are meant to grow and become pivotal players in the world going forward.

This disaster became a national day or mourning for all time. The opportunity we lost on that day – to enter the land triumphant, to grow in our relationship with our creator, to validate all the things G-d had done up to that point! We blew it. Everyone in that generation except for the two princes who never lost faith, had to die in the wilderness. Only their children would be allowed to enter the land.

And I think G-d also learned a hard lesson: miracles don’t help. All the incredible miracles that G-d did for us in Egypt and afterward? They made no lasting positive impression whatsoever. Indeed, we could argue that the net result was quite negative: the people became dependent on miracles. Having our own constant deus ex machina meant that we were infantilized because we did not have to be responsible, or grow up.

I refer to this as the problem with superheros. Superman is not aided by Joe the Plumber on the street; the mere thought is laughable; Superman is Superman! No ordinary mortal can help him. Which turns ordinary mortals into passive spectators, reduced to cheering the superhero as they do things on our behalf.

Superheros are not helping people grow up; they remove responsibility from our shoulders. We don’t have to step up to combat evil; that is what superheros are for. And the very same logic applies when our G-d does open miracles: we did not free ourselves from Egypt; G-d did it for us. And He did it because he made promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not because we deserved it.

It all turned to dust when the princes come back, and, like any immature child who is told to do something he has never done before, reply, “It is too hard for us. We are not able to do it.”

Where was their faith? They did not have it, because they had not really needed it before this moment. G-d or Moses had taken care of everything. They were children who never had to lift a finger.

The people learn the lesson in a similar manner to the generation of the Flood; they will perish for their cowardice, never entering the land. But G-d also learns a lesson: if the Jewish people are supposed to be G-d’s partners in this world, elevating it and working to make it holy, then He cannot do it all for us: we are going to have to carry the visible load. We must invest in the process all along the way. G-d will help – but always invisibly, always shying away from performing open miracles that makes us think that we can just step aside and applaud as G-d/Superhero solves the problem for us.

G-d does miracles in this world: I know it and experience it on a daily basis. But I also know that He will not save me if I do something incredibly stupid, nor will He do miracles if and when I rely on those miracles as an alternative to me finding up my courage and doing everything I possibly can.

This is much more than merely suggesting that G-d wants people to do Good Works. In Judaism, we are called to be full partners with G-d. And this view of the History of The World, which I believe accurately reflects one of the dimensions of the text of the Torah, suggests that G-d is fully justified in resisting the desire to bail us out of the problems that exist in and around our lives and the lives of all who live on our planet.

I do not want to be another Jew who disappoints G-d. It is clear to me that we have done more than enough of that already. So I am resolved to not rely on G-d as a superhero, to sit around and devoutly wait for something to happen. The task falls to us.

If not me, then who? If not now, then when?


When – and How – Jews Fail

The Ninth of Av is this coming Sunday, and it is a day of mourning for the Jewish people the world over. The day is connected to the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem, as well as a string of catastrophes for our people throughout history, from the First Crusade (1095), expulsion from England (1290), France (1306), and Spain (1492), multiple events connected to the Holocaust and even the disengagement from Gaza.

The temptation is to commemorate this day with a renewed sense of victimization, wallowing in the helplessness of the Jewish people against superior forces throughout history. Not surprisingly, I think this is precisely the worst lesson we can draw from calamities, not only because wallowing is never what G-d wants from us, but because it serves no constructive purpose except to make us even more pathetic than we were before. In other words: How can re-enacting the risk-aversion and passivity that got us into trouble in the first place somehow be the way to grow and move forward? After all, it was our lack of courage and misplaced priorities that allowed the tragedies in our history to happen in the first place.

The very first event on the Ninth of Av was the episode in the wilderness, when the Jewish spies returned from scoping out the Promised Land – and the people decided that they could not possibly succeed. They melted down, losing their courage, and they refused to believe that they, with G-d’s help, could achieve what looked to be impossible.

This was the event that sets the tone for this date going forward. The Jews did not want to engage with the world, taking responsibility for themselves and the world around them, secure in the knowledge that with G-d’s help, we can achieve the things we are here to achieve.

There are three separate ways in which we failed then and now: Loss of courage, Disconnection from the non-Jewish world, and Erroneous goals.

Courage: We lack courage when we are unwilling to do what G-d wants – commands – us to do, because we fear we will not succeed. That was a key failure of the generation of the spies. When we refuse to do what needs to be done, we are denying that G-d is in the world.

Disengagement: We disconnect from the non-Jewish world, assuming that if we leave it alone, it will leave us alone. Similarly, Jews could have been engaging with our host nations before the numerous expulsions, instead of passively sitting tight. We could have even proactively chosen to flee. What did not work was keeping our heads down and trying to wait it out. Most of the six million who died in the Holocaust were not agents of change; they were victims. But this was not mere accident: at some level, and at some point, becoming a victim was the result of not choosing to engage.

Often, of course, these future victims lacked the strength of character to make their own decisions. Instead, they delegated their decisions, relying on community leaders to tell them what to do. The advice received was usually to passively wait, instead of taking direct action. It would have sounded entirely reasonable to the people who lost their nerve in the wilderness.

In the wilderness we needed to be willing to leave the cocoon of the wilderness and return to the world; the generation of the spies were afraid to do so. Today, isolation is the best protection against assimilation, so interacting with the outside world, even in normal conditions, introduces risk. Nevertheless, nothing ventured, nothing gained:

When we think we can keep to ourselves and just mind our own business, G-d reminds us that there are consequences for not doing our part. It is the obligation of the Jew to do more than just take care of our own: we are here to elevate the entire world.

Erroneous Goals: G-d is not shy; he tells us what he wants from us. Justice. Loving-kindness. Constructive relationships between man and G-d and within society.

Nowhere in this list is national aggrandizement, or the same goals that motivate other nations. I think it is no coincidence that Jews lost the genetic lottery: we are not faster, stronger, or in any other way even the equal of other peoples when it comes to our bodies. We are not meant to strive to win the wrong contests. So when the Jewish people decided to assert their national power and went toe-to-toe with Rome in the era of the Second Temple, it was a colossal error, born of misplaced priorities. Our power is not meant to be in arms or political power, but in influence. And we can meet our obligations to G-d perfectly well if we are a tributary nation.

Today these lessons continue to need to be emphasized, so that we do not repeat the errors of the past.

We must be courageous, knowing that G-d is with us, and together we can achieve things that often seem to be impossible.

We must never turn inward, but continue to interact with the world and always seek to improve it in any way we can. We must always seek to engage with the societies in which we live, with the leadership of those nations.

And we must always try to calibrate our goals with those of G-d. The Ninth of Av is not tragic because a building was destroyed. The Temple was only important inasmuch as it represented the way we could fulfill the commandments and grow our relationship with G-d. It is not buildings or possessions or even our bodies that ultimately matter, because none of those things survive in the long run. It is our relationships, and the good that can come from them that enrich the whole world, are a credit to G-d, and elevate our souls. We are commanded to be holy, and in this time and all others, striving for holiness requires courage.


Incentives Matter: Getting Women and Men to Talk

Thomas Sowell famously points out that if you want to change the outcomes, you merely have to change the incentives.

I find it fascinating that the Torah takes this very same approach. Genesis tells us of many bad outcomes. We see that the Torah itself engages in changing incentives in order to avoid repeating the past.

Many of these bad outcomes are the result of men and women not talking enough to each other. Adam and Eve do not properly communicate with each other about the whole forbidden fruit issue: G-d tells Adam not to eat the fruit, but somehow Eve understands that she is not supposed to touch the fruit. They do not discuss anything to reach a consensus, and so it is not even clear that when Adam eats the forbidden fruit, that he is aware that this is the specific one he was told not to eat. Had there been full and clear communication between them, the story could not have unfolded as it did.

Abraham and his wife Sarah also suffer from communications problems: for some reason the wives accept it when their husbands suggest they should pretend they are not married. The situation becomes so bad that when Sarah dies, she was separated from her husband; he has to travel to where she died just to help ensure she is buried properly. In every case this leads to a terrible outcome, and certainly does not help their respective marriages grow. The Torah tells us that a woman is supposed to be an “ezer k’negdo,” a “helper to oppose him.” When the women does not challenge her husband, both suffer as a result.

When Isaac decides to bless his son Esau, Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, makes plans of deceit and subterfuge in order to achieve a certain outcome. She does not talk to Isaac, nor he to her. The result is a disaster, with one son, Esau, alienated and the other fleeing for his life. The parents are left without Jacob’s companionship for the rest of their lives. Secrets kept lead to terrible outcomes.

Rachel similarly hides the fact that she has stolen her father’s idols – she hides it from her husband, and lies outright to her father. Rachel dies in childbirth and in pain, and is not buried in the hallowed cave where all the other forefathers and foremothers were buried, but instead on the side of the road.

Even Moses has a problem with his own wife which leads them to separate – a separation that in some respects lasts for the rest of ther lives. One poor result is that Moses’ own sons are deprived of their father for critical years, and they never experience the Exodus, the central event of the Jewish people. Moses’ sons, perhaps as a consequence, do not amount to much, and they fade into obscurity. His wife, Tzipporah, is really collateral damage in the whole story. Did it have to necessarily work out that way? Could the result have been better if there was better communications between them?

We do know that when communications work well between husband and wife, then the outcomes are much better. The last thing Jacob does for his parents before he leaves home is that he does not depart until his mother talks to his father, and they both agree and tell him that he should go. Leah wears her heart on her sleeve and makes her goals and plans crystal clear to her husband; she is blessed with six sons as a result. Her husband, Jacob, reciprocates: he consults with Rachel and Leah before deciding to go back to his ancestral home. The result is that this family was the first generation to stay together and remain as a complete unit.

The daughters of Tzelofchad appeal to Moses about inheritance law: their claim is clear and involves no deceit. They, also, achieve a positive result.

Thomas Sowell’s adage about altering incentives was a distillation of how the world works, an observation about mankind and how we respond to the forces around us. But one can find plenty of historical examples of leaders altering incentives with a hope of changing the outcome. Within the Torah, there are new incentives given later in the text, incentives that specifically encourage communications between men and women, reducing the chances of secrets destroying relationships. Numbers 30 contains 17 verses dedicated to the laws of vows. The text explains that a person is responsible for the choices they make: a man is responsible for what he promises, and a woman is also responsible for her promises – unless, that is, she tells the man of the house of her words. In that case, her husband or father can cancel out her words, and she is free of tha obligation, that vow.

The incentive contained within of all of these laws about vows is that women are strongly encouraged to make sure their men know what they have planned. And men are similarly encouraged to listen – with a critical ear – to what their wives or daughters say. Both should try to keep the other out of trouble. Neither is able to skate through by merely expecting the other person to read their mind, or intuit what the other person is thinking.

One might ask why the law treats women and men differently – after all, the man does not have to share his vows with his wife. I think the explanation is also found in the text: in the Torah, it is the women who are keeping secrets, not the men. The men surely could – and did – make mistakes. But the men were not hiding their decisions from their wives. On the other hand, Eve and Rebekah and Rachel were guilty of manipulating their husbands by not explaining what they were doing and why.

In view of this, we might go back and explain a classic question from Abraham and Sarah: Sarah decides to expel the maidservant, Hagar, and her son, Ishmael, putting them at risk of their lives. Avraham is distressed by this command, and consults with G-d – who tells him to listen to his wife. G-d then independently saves Hagar and Ishmael from dying in the wilderness.

It is hard to understand that the Torah is really teaching us that if a wife tells her husband to kill someone, that he should do it. On the other hand, the lesson may be something else entirely: what if G-d was telling Avraham to listen to his wife just because she was the first woman in the Torah to openly confront her husband and tell him what she wanted? G-d did not want to punish Hagar and Ishmael (whom he saved); instead, he wanted to make Abraham (and everyone else) understand that we need our women to speak out, and we need to strongly consider what they have to say. There is a virtue in a woman telling her husband what is on her mind, especially if it involves future planning (such as vows).

The phrase G-d uses to tell Avraham to “hear” his wife’s voice is the same one to describe Adam and Eve hearing G-d in the Garden after they eat the fruit: when you truly hear someone’s voice, you are changed by the event: you are compelled to react in some way. A specific outcome is not required – you do NOT have to do what you are told, after all – but some considered reaction is necessary. A good husband or father must listen to his wife or daughter, and he must evaluate what she has to say, and react either by acquiescing to her words, or by vetoing them – and then be asked by the woman to explain his thinking.

In so doing, the incentives are toward more communications, and hopefully, fewer of the avoidable errors and calamities that come when people hide their plans and words from their life partner.

[Written by @iwe and @eliyahumasinter]


Why is the Torah Obsessed with Vows?

In a text filled with all kinds of laws, there seems to be a special emphasis on vows:

You must fulfill what has crossed your lips and perform what you have voluntarily vowed to the LORD your God, having made the promise with your own mouth. (Num. 30:3)

The Hebrew word for vow, neder appears in one form or another no fewer than 48 times in the text, which seems all out of proportion to the relative importance of a promise that a person may speak. The natural question is: why?

The short answer is that vows are important to G-d because Jacob demonstrated that vows are important to mankind. Jacob is the first person to make a vow, swearing that if G-d protects him on his journeys, that Jacob will make G-d his god, and he will build a house for G-d and tithe to him. (Gen. 28:20-23).

The story is much thicker than this, however. The laws of vows are quite strenuous, repeating that a person should always keep their vows, and do it without any delay and without any short shrift. I suggest that this is so because Jacob does not appear to remember his own vow to G-d, and G-d has to remind him of it.

I am the God of Beth-el, where you anointed a pillar and where you made a vow to Me. Now, arise and leave this land and return to your native land.’” (Gen. 31:13)

Left alone, man procrastinates, which we should never do on fulfilling our promises. Indeed, Jacob himself never entirely fulfills his vow; he does not build G-d’s home, for example. The laws of vows stress, time and again, the more rigorous requirements for fulfilling any vow, as a corrective against Jacob’s demonstrated performance.

When you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not put off fulfilling it. (Deut 23:22)

Jacob puts off fulfilling his vow, hence the reminder in the law.

Note that the text in the above verse uses the word “shalem” for fulfillment, meaning “to make whole.” Which in turn explains another mystery: when Jacob does what G-d tells him, and he returns to the land of Canaan, the text says:

“Jacob arrived whole in the city of Shechem which is in the land of Canaan” (Gen 33:18)

By answering G-d’s prompt to remember his vow and return to the land, Jacob is credited with fulfilling the vow as soon as he returns to the land.

And the connections multiply from this!

Late in the Torah, G-d is talking about sacrifices being made in the land of Canaan, but exclusively in one place. It is a long discourse (Deut 12:5-26). This is a repeated phrase: “Only in that place.” The word for place, makom, is found for the first time in the Torah as the very same place where Jacob rests his head, dreams of angels, wakes up, and then makes the very first vow. The place where we bring offerings (and especially vow-offerings) is the place where the first vow was made.

But such sacred and vow-donations as you may have shall be taken by you to the site that the LORD will choose. (Deut. 12:26)

Then it all comes full circle. Because the place where we are to make our sacrifices is Jerusalem (note the “shalem” in the name, connecting to fulfillment of vows). We put the tabernacle there, as G-d’s house­, fulfilling Jacob’s vow to build G-d’s house. We bring our tithes to that place, recognizing that all of our blessings come from G-d, just as Jacob said he would. The place where we are to fulfill our vow-offerings is the very same place where the first vow was made!

We value vows because Jacob did. We must keep them punctually and without short shrift because Jacob did not. We must bring vow offerings to the very same place where Jacob made that first vow. And when we do so, we will be complete, just as Jacob was complete when he listened to G-d by returning to the land of Canaan. When we put it all together we, the Jewish people, are bound by Jacob’s vows: we are to build G-d’s house, and bring tithes at that place to fulfill the vow that Jacob made to G-d.

[another @iwe and @susanquinn production!]


The Symbolism of Bracelets

I am especially intrigued by words that are found relatively rarely in the Torah, because the connections between those examples are always illuminating.

This week, for example, I was struck by a phrase in the text, that the Jewish people had somehow “become attached” to the gods of Baal Peor (Nu, 25:3). The actual Hebrew word for “become attached” is quite odd: it is the verb form of the word “bracelet,” tzimid.

That word is first found when Abraham’s servant decides that Rebekah is the person Isaac is supposed to marry. He gives her two bracelets, as something of a pre-engagement gift. Bracelets, of course, are worn on the wrists, so they are connected with our actions and choices. These bracelets can be seen as a way to connect Rebekah to Isaac, or at least like a modern engagement ring: with the heavy bracelets, Rebekah is promised to Isaac, and thus is denied to other men.

The other thing Jewish men use to bind our hands are tefilin, which we use in daily prayer to recommit to G-d. A bracelet is a connection to another person, just as tefillin are a connection to our Creator.

Which means that when some of the Jewish people became “braceleted” to the idol Baal Peor, they had chosen to exclude G-d from their lives. They committed idolatry just as an engaged woman who slept around would be committing an offense against her relationship.

The other key time this word is found in the Torah is when discussing whether a vessel is contaminated by a dead body:

וְכֹל֙ כְּלִ֣י פָת֔וּחַ אֲשֶׁ֛ר אֵין־צָמִ֥יד פָּתִ֖יל עָלָ֑יו טָמֵ֖א הֽוּא׃

and every open vessel, with no lid [bracelet] fastened down, shall be unclean.

This example reinforces this understanding: a lid/bracelets separates a thing from its environment, preserving the state of its object from any non-designated influences. That could be good (in Rebekah’s case) or not good (as with the seduced men).

By using these words in this way, the Torah reinforces the countless parallels between adultery and idolatry: marriage between man and wife is due the same sanctity and exclusivity as the relationship between mankind and our Creator.

[@iwe and Eliyahu Masinter]


In Your Face

“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]


The Red Heifer, Simply Explained

The Torah is full of symbolism that cries out for explanation. As always, the answers are found in the text itself – if we read it carefully.

One of the most famous rituals is that of the red heifer (Num: 19). The problem is how to rid someone of the spiritual effects of having been in contact with the dead. Spiritually, a person who has touched the dead is unable to fulfill their potential, to resume a full relationship with G-d. Death taints us. And the Torah tells us how to wash that taint away.

In order to make this as easy as possible to explain, I am going to cheat by giving you the punchline first: the ritual of the red heifer is a way to symbolically travel back in time, to before there was death on the earth, to essentially recreate man just as G-d created Adam. Thus reborn, we can rejoin the living world and strive once again for holiness.

Here is the recipe as given in the Torah.


1: A red female cow who has never been yoked.

2: Cedar wood, grass, and something often translated as “crimson yarn”

3: Water of Life

Slaughter the cow, burn it, and add the cedar wood, grass, and crimson yarn. Collect the ashes.

Mix the ashes with the Water of Life and then sprinkle it on a person who has touched a corpse. Do it on the third day, and then again on the seventh day.

Voila! One spiritually reborn Jew.

How is this symbolic time travel back to the time of Adam? I’ll explain each element in turn, and how they connect.

1: The red heifer is, in Hebrew, a “parah adumah.” She is a heifer, because women are capable of incubating and birthing new life. And the word for “red” shares its root with the word for “earth”, “Adam,” and “blood.” All are connected to the concept of enormous potential to create and foster life. The red heifer is the antithesis of death.

She also can never have been yoked – because mankind yoked animals only after death existed. We are going back in time, remember, before animals were used as tools.

2: The cedar wood and grass represent the two opposites of the plant kingdom. The cedar is the oldest and tallest flora in the ancient Middle East, fixed in place. The grass, on the other hand, is small and rapid-growing, short-lived and adaptable. And both were created on the third day of creation – the day G-d made life itself. They are book-ends to represent the entire vegetable kingdom, everything created on that day when G-d made life.

Together the cow and the plants combine the items created in the first creation: all plants and animals, save only for mankind.

2b: The stuff described as “crimson yarn” is trickier. It is used together with the cedar and grass in another ritual, the one cleansing a person of another spiritual ailment; these three go together. But why?

The answer is found in the words themselves. The crimson yarn contains within its first root word the same root as the word in Hebrew for “time.” (Gen. 8:11, 24:11) And the second root word comes from the word for “second” – as in, “a second chance.” The crimson yarn is “Another/a second time.” Together with the plants, it represents time travel back to the birth of life on the earth. The person who receives the ritual is given a second chance, a do-over.

3: The Water of Life. The priest mixes the ashes with this water and puts it on a person. The language is very similar to the way G-d made Adam: the whole earth was watered. He took ashes from the earth, and infused man with life. (excerpted from Gen 2:6,7). The living water symbolically mirrors the creation of man.

The entire ritual then, is one of rebirth, calling us back to the time before there was death, to undo the contact we had made with the dead and allow us to once again move forward among the living.

This is done on the third day – the day G-d created life. And again on the seventh day – the day G-d first set an example for man to follow, keeping the Sabbath. The combination is what any would-be holy person needs: life, and a good role model to set us on our way.

P.S. The combination of cedar, grass, and crimson yarn is also found in Lev. 14, and it denotes symbolic time travel in that case as well, to the time before the first murder, to before Cain’s slaughter of Abel.


Show Me The Fruit

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 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.


Jews: The World’s Grasshoppers

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 this word meaning “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 leftover 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 a 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 copied from Jacob in this respect: make something of what remains when you pull the chaff away from the wheat. In other words, make something of the chaff.

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 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). In the case of oil, it was the leftover oil, not the initial application, that fulfilled the primary function of protecting the person bringing a guilt offering. (Lev. 14:16-17, 29).

Even individuals 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 may have done 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. Leftovers cannot dwell on what was, or what might have been. We have to focus on what can still be.

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

The Jewish people are these second-class 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 the 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. 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.

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 from the inside – 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 from these great nations that Jews keep separating, leaping away, trying to connect with something higher.

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, who themselves separated. The Torah tells us

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

Caleb and Joshua were themselves the leftovers, described in the text with the same word for what grasshoppers do, the characteristic that makes them kosher. The joke is that the description of the people as grasshoppers 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 think at first.

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. The Binding of Isaac occurred on the third day. 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. It is the number needed for profound change, for growth toward a relationship with our Creator. It is a part of the formula for how something normal can become something special.

[another @iwe, @susanquinn, and now @eliyahu-masinter production!]


The Evolution of Jealousy in the Torah

We think we know what jealousy and envy are. When we are envious, we want what someone else has, right?

But in the Torah, jealousy actually evolves. The first incidence of the word (K-N-H) is found when Isaac is successful. His neighbors, the Philistines, envied his flocks and herds and household, and so they acted in spite, filling his wells. This jealousy is basic: wanting something physical that belongs to someone else.

The next incidence is when Rachel is jealous that her sister, Leah, has had children while Rachel is barren. Rachel is worked up: she says that if she does not get children, she will die. In this case, Rachel is competing instead of coveting; she does not want her sister’s children, of course. Instead, she wants numerous children of her own (her first-born, Joseph, means “give me more”). This is a jealousy between siblings.

Similarly, when Joseph tells his brothers and father of his dreams, his brothers are jealous of him. They subsequently, as we know, take action to remove Joseph from the picture. Sibling jealousy is about status and rank, competing for favor.

Nevertheless, there is a transition in Genesis from the simplistic “I want what he has,” to, in the case of the siblings, “I want as much as she/he has.” Neither is a sentiment that we admire.

Here is the short form: envy within Genesis consistently divides people, causing discontentment, and destroying relationships.

Then the Torah changes tack. After Genesis, the word used for jealousy in the Torah never again refers to material envy or sibling rivalry! (The word for “covet” in the Ten Commandments is not the same Hebrew word at all.) The world had grown out of such relatively immature emotions, and moved on to a higher, more profound meaning of jealousy: the necessary guardrail for successful relationships.

You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I the LORD your God am a jealous God (Ex. 20:5 and Deut 5:9)

For you must not worship any other god, because the LORD, whose name is Jealousy, is a jealous God. (Ex. 34:14)

Phinehas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his jealousy for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My jealousy. (Num. 25:11)

And there is a very clear parallel between idolatry and adultery, because a man who feels neglected by his wife, and in his spirit of jealousy suspects her, can bring her to the priest to try to save the relationship:

… a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about the wife who has defiled herself; or if a fit of jealousy comes over one and he is wrought up about his wife although she has not defiled herself (Num 5:14-30)

What follows is a lengthy and theatrical ritual, punctuated repeatedly by this word for jealousy. The husband is suspicious, and he seeks to reaffirm the fidelity of his wife, the sanctity and exclusive nature of their relationship.

The parallels to G-d’s own relationship to His people are undeniable. Marital fidelity is all-important in the Torah, and analogous to cheating on G-d.

But that religious marital exclusivity does not go both ways! Each person is commanded to not chase after other gods. But G-d Himself seeks that deep relationship with each person:

A youth ran out and told Moses, saying, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying acting the prophet in the camp!” And Joshua … spoke up and said, “My lord Moses, restrain them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous up on my account? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD put His spirit upon them!” (Num 11:27-29)

Moses speaks for G-d: the entire nation should be comprised of prophets, people who hear G-d, and can express those words to others.

The path this single word takes in the Torah is breathtaking: from materialistic envy to sibling rivalry all the way to marital fidelity and the idea that each and every person should be able to share the kind of relationship with the divine that Moses himself achieved.

[another @iwe and @susanquinn production]


When Does G-d Give Up on Us?

The G-d of the Jews, the G-d of the Torah, is not infinitely patient or merciful. He does not love us “no matter what.” Indeed, when men simply take the women that they want (Gen 6:2), G-d shortens man’s lifespan so that men would be forced to value women as more than just a way to scratch an itch. When men persist in pursuing evil, G-d regrets having made mankind at all. This culminates in the flood, a rebooting of the world when it became clear that G-d’s initial plan has run into a brick wall. G-d gives up on the whole world, and unsentimentally killed it off. A scientist would call that a failed experiment.

Eventually there are people who seek to connect with G-d, and we are promised that He won’t bring any other apocalpytic events. It is clear that G-d seeks a connection. But it is also clear that the offer of G-d’s involvement in our lives is not automatic: when people do evil, then they are spiritually cut off, and sometimes lose their land (as the Canaanites do to the Jews). But there is more than this, something which speak to us even more today: when people despair, then G-d does, too.

There are numerous words in the Torah for crying out. The most common is “Za-ak/Tza-ak,” which is a cry for a purpose. Esau’s cry when he discovers his brother has stolen his blessing is immediately followed by a request for his own blessing. The word can also take on the meaning of a prayer, such as when Moses prays for his sister, Miriam to recover. “You must not mistreat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat him, when he cries out to Me, I will indeed hear his cry [kol].” Ex. 22:22 This word has strong emotions, and it is heard by G-d.

G-d also hears our voices or cries, with the Hebrew word “kol.” It is Abel’s blood that “cries” out to G-d from the earth, causing G-d to confront Cain.

Not so every expression. The other common word for “crying” in the Torah has “B-Ch” as its root (“ch” in Hebrew is pronounced like the end of “loch”, not like the “ch” in “to b-tch”, even though it would make my argument more entertaining). But when someone cries in this way, then it is not a prayer or a request. It is, instead, an expression of despair, of complaining for its own sake. In the Torah, G-d never positively responds to this human expression of emotion. (Num 11:10, 11:13, 25:6, etc.). When the people despair, G-d openly considers exterminating them. People who see themselves as hapless victims earn no divine mercy.

The first example of this word in the Torah is found when Hagar is sent away with her son (Gen. 21:14-16).

She wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. When the water was gone from the skin, she left the child under one of the bushes, and went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away; for she thought, “Let me not look on as the child dies.” And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears.

G-d responds. But not to her! Her cries are of despair. She has given up. Clearly G-d has no patience for mankind when we give up. Instead, the very next verse says:

God heard the cry (“kol”) of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.

It is clear that G-d had not heeded her cry, just that of her son. If Hagar had been alone, she would have perished. The voice of her son, on the other hand, was not despairing, and so G-d answered it.

Our mindsets matter. As long as we keep striving, G-d will work with us. When we quit, just sit down and cry, losing all hope in the future, then G-d will give up on us as well.

“of renown” in Genesis take women just because they can, G-d regrets having imbued man with his divine spirit.

In the Torah, G-d gives up when we do. There is a special word for “despair” in the Torah, though it is sometimes translated as “in tears” or “crying out.”

וְהִנֵּ֡ה אִישׁ֩ מִבְּנֵ֨י יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל בָּ֗א וַיַּקְרֵ֤ב אֶל־אֶחָיו֙ אֶת־הַמִּדְיָנִ֔ית לְעֵינֵ֣י מֹשֶׁ֔ה וּלְעֵינֵ֖י כׇּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְהֵ֣מָּה בֹכִ֔ים פֶּ֖תַח אֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵֽד׃ While they were gathering to execute judgment, a prince in Israel came and brought a Midianite women before his brethren, even in the presence of Moses, and in the presence of the entire community of the Children of Israel, while they were still weeping in despair over the plague at the entrance of the Tent of Assembly.


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.


Understanding Death by Stoning

People are instinctively drawn to rituals, like those that fill our daily lives: how we make our coffee or read the newspaper or get ready for bed. There are a wide range of explanations for why we do this. To some extent, rituals give us the lines around our daily box, allow us to let repetitive words and actions free up our minds for other, perhaps more entertaining or valuable activities.

The next level of ritual are the common superstitious ones that we use as a way of handling uncertainty and trying to influence an outcome. Think of wearing a lucky jersey for a sports contest, or a mask during Covid: these rituals are ways of showing we are making a shared effort, as well as identifying with a larger tribe. There may be no larger meaning or efficacy at all, but there is perceived safety in numbers, in sharing a sports team, a cause, or even just an irrational fear with a crowd.

But some rituals are far more meaningful, because what they ask us to do has symbolic meaning that can connect us to the past or the future. Think of a christening or funeral, or the Jewish re-enactment of the Exodus at the yearly Passover Seder. These rituals are full of overtones and undertones meant for a purpose that arches over comfortable repetition or tribal belonging.

We can even go to the logical extreme: ritual symbolism without any actual ritual at all! In their purest form, the symbolic value of the ritual can be much more important than the ritual itself, when the doing of the ritual becomes immaterial compared to the lesson we learn when contemplating a ritual, even though it is not practiced.

The Torah is full of these. In theory, the text has no shortage of threats, different unpleasant ways to die as a result of bad choices. Yet we know from our own history that many of these punishments were rarely carried out, and in some cases, they were never enforced. Which means that the reason for the ritual was in the symbolic value of its description, in the concept of the ritual, even though it never happened. This is deterrence in its highest form: we don’t need to see a hanged man to know that we should not commit a heinous crime; it can be enough to know that such a punishment exists for that crime. It can even more valuable to realize that the punishment is itself meant to be a balancing corrective act for the initial crime.

I am aware that this sounds abstract – and it has been so far – but if I illustrate it, things should become simpler.

The Torah tells us of a rebellious son:

If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and who, when they have chastened him, will not heed them,  then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city, to the gate of his city. And they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’  Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death with stones; so you shall put away the evil from among you, and all Israel shall hear and fear. (Deut. 21:18-21)

The Torah tells us he should be stoned.

Harsh? Absolutely. But we also know from our history that it did not happen. Not once. So why does the Torah offer the commandment, and prescribe this ritual? As deterrent, certainly.

But there is more than this! Why does the Torah tell us to stone him, killing him that way, as opposed to any other? Indeed, the Torah could have just said, “put him to death.” But it does not.

Indeed, the commandment to stone someone in the Torah is not uncommon. Yet there is a common theme that draws them all together, giving the ritual of stoning meaning even if it is never carried out. That meaning becomes a teachable lesson, explaining what our mental priorities ought to be.

Let’s start with identifying all the times the Torah tells us that a person should be stoned. Each and every one of these events is triggered by idol worship, adultery, or an inability to keep our primary priority in mind: fidelity in relationship. If a man worships another deity, or a young woman whores, or a rebellious son is unable to form a relationship of any kind with his parents, then they are to be stoned. There is a common bond here, and it is all about remaining true to those we should never cheat on: in marriage, adultery; in worship, idolatry; for a son, his parents. And for a loose girl, her own soul.

Which still does not answer the initial question: why stoning?

The answer is found in the Torah itself. The first stones in the Torah are those which Jacob took when he slept and dreamt of angels connecting to heaven.

He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. … Early in the morning, Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. (Gen 28: 11, 18)

This is where Jacob dreamed a dream, and G-d made a promise:

Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Gen 28:15)

Jacob wakes and makes a corresponding vow: “If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house—the LORD shall be my God. And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God’s abode; and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You. (Gen 20:20-22)

The stone is the central prop to a key event: the first time G-d and Man swear fealty to one another, exchanging promises and bonding the descendants of Jacob’s people to G-d evermore.

Now it starts to make sense. The first time stones are mentioned, they are used to symbolize the core relationship between man and his Creator, and the exclusive nature of that relationship. As the Torah says, the words recognizing G-d are to be said, “when you lie down and when you get up.” (Deut 6:7) Jacob lay down with the stone as his pillow, and rose up with it as well: the divine was on his mind.

The stones represent what we should desire: the constant and conscious presence of G-d in our lives. If we have that mindset, then all of the situations where the perpetrator would be stoned (entirely rejecting our parents, squandering our sexuality outside of a committed relationship, idol worship and adultery) should all be impossible. The symbolism retains all its power without requiring that the actual ritual act of stoning someone is performed.

The Torah consistently uses “stones” for building a relationship with the divine. The Tower of Babel, of example, is built using bricks in place of stones – telling us that the relationship was not authentic.

When Moses fights the nation of Amalek, the text tells us, “But Moses’ hands grew heavy; so they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur, one on each side, supported his hands; thus his hands remained steady until the sun set.” Moses’ foundation was the building block of the relationship between man and G-d. The ten commandments were similarly made of stone, with the same underlying connection to Jacob’s stone pillow.

The altar, which is used to connect man and G-d, must be made of raw stone unshaped by tools, such as those Jacob found lying on the ground at Bethel. (Ex. 22:2) So when we reach out to G-d with an offering, we do so while simultaneously connecting to Jacob’s covenant in both words and deeds. Our relationship with G-d is built on, and modeled after, the relationships our forefathers established.

P.S. There is a particularly interesting and relevant verse, just after a section discussing the need to be separate from other people:

A man or a woman who has an “ov” or a “yidoni” shall be put to death; they shall be pelted with stones. (Lev. 20:27)

As Joseph Cox points out, the root words of these mysterious nouns are common: the first means “father,” and the second means “knowledge.” The Torah is identifying false gods, specifically ancestor worship and the worship of knowledge without any reference to the moral obligation to use knowledge or science for good things. This last example is very common these days, and might be called “Scientism” – the view that the hard sciences—like chemistry, biology, physics, astronomy—provide the only genuine knowledge of reality. Scientism, like any worship of a form of knowledge that has no reference to, or is not checked by G-d’s laws, is itself a false god.

The Torah is concerned with not keeping G-d in our minds, close to our hearts. Our relationship was built with stones – and if we forget it, we will be reminded by those same stones.

[another @iwe and @susanquinn production!]


Confusions Over Leprosy

I think of myself as a capable thinker, but I am always worried about creating my own echo chamber, where I seek only affirmation of what I already think, and rejection of other ideas because they do not conform to the opinions I have already formed. The internet, of course, makes this risk even worse, because we can all much more easily find safe havens (like Ricochet) where disagreements are only kibitzing around the edges instead of at the heart of the matter.

And so I get this amazing thrill when I discover that something I thought I knew is actually wrong. That revelation confirms that I am still able to change my mind based on new information. More importantly, I have grown, spiritually and intellectually.

This happened to me this weekend, when contemplating a subject in the Torah that I thought I understood. The subject tends to make non-Torah readers’ eyes glaze over; what could possibly be interesting about the exhaustive discussion of what the King James Bible translates as “leprosy?”

This translation, you will not be surprised to learn, is not only wrong, but is also highly misleading. The physical ailment of having skin turn white in the Torah has nothing to do with medicine or bodily health or the disease called “leprosy.” It is instead described as a physical manifestation of a spiritual ailment, of something a person has done that is wrong and should be corrected after a period of reflection and soul searching. Let’s call it tzaraas, the transliteration of the Hebrew word.

So far so good. This has been my understanding for years. But what causes this ailment, tzaraas? The answer is partially found in the guide the Torah provides for its cure.

This shall be the ritual for [one with tzaraas] at the time that he is to be cleansed…the priest shall order two live clean birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop to be brought for him who is to be cleansed. The priest shall order one of the birds slaughtered over fresh water in an earthen vessel; and he shall take the live bird, along with the cedar wood, the crimson stuff, and the hyssop, and dip them together with the live bird in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over the fresh water. He shall then sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the eruption and cleanse him; and he shall set the live bird free in the open country. The one to be cleansed shall wash his clothes, shave off all his hair, and bathe in water; then he shall be clean. After that he may enter the camp, but he must remain outside his tent seven days. (Numbers 14 2-8)

The parallel for this screams out, from after Cain kills his brother:

Then [G-d] said, “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground! …. The LORD said to him, “I promise, if anyone kills Cain, sevenfold vengeance shall be taken on him.” And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest anyone who met him should kill him. (Gen. 4:10,15)

Abel is the dead bird – his blood calls out from the ground (the earthen vessel), and Cain, the living bird, is marked. He wanders the earth, just as the marked bird does.

So my personal understanding of the origin of tzaraas comes from this understanding: that harming someone else is on the same continuum as Cain killing his brother. That case, of course, was physical violence. But we know that words are also a way to harm someone – at the very least words can dim a person’s spirit and hopes, and in extremis words can lead to someone’s death.

The common interpretation is that tzaraas comes from something so slight as gossip, of evil speech about someone. This is well supported in the text as well, by the only two documented cases of something actually receiving the ailment: Moses and Miriam.

In Moses’ case, G-d tells Moses at the burning bush to go tell the people that G-d has heard their cries, and Moses is acting as G-d’s emissary to free them from slavery to Pharaoh. Moses is skeptical:

And Moses answered and said: ‘But, behold, they will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice; for they will say: The lord hath not appeared unto thee.’ … And the LORD said furthermore unto him: ‘Put now thy hand into thy bosom.’ And he put his hand into his bosom; and when he took it out, behold, his hand was tzaraas, as white as snow. (Exodus 4: 1, 6)

Moses is punished here, not because he is prideful, but because he says something negative about the Jewish people. And G-d responds by giving him a “taste” of the punishment one receives for harming someone else by saying negative things about them. Moses contracts tzaraas.

So the traditional explanation remains: negative speech is murder writ small. When we gossip about others, we create a reality around that negative perception, in our own minds and in the minds of all who hear our words. That negative reality makes it harder for people to grow and improve. One could think of it as a child in school. If you tell a student that they are terrible at math, then you greatly diminish their ability to excel in that topic.

The other example of someone receiving tzaraas is when Miriam and Aaron speak about Moses:

Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married: “He married a Cushite woman!” They said, “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?” (Numbers 12:1-2)

G-d is incensed with their words, and Miriam is plagued with tzaraas.

This, too, supports the idea that negative speech is the cause of this ailment, of tzaraas.

But what happened this weekend is that I realized that this actually is confusing cause for effect, that the normal explanation, of negative speech, actually misses the point of the underlying problem. This is that point:

What the stories of Cain, Moses at the bush and Miriam’s criticisms all have in common is not negative speech itself, but the mindset that led to that speech: insecurity and lack of courage.

Cain does not merely kill his brother. Cain acts after he has his feelings hurt by G-d’s rejection of his offering. He acts in response to losing. His action is ultimately born of insecurity.

Moses’ statement that the people would not believe him was actually a statement about himself and even about G-d’s veracity! Yes, “they will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice; for they will say: The lord hath not appeared unto thee.” is negative speech about the people. But it is also negative speech about G-d’s own promise, as well. Perhaps most importantly, it is also negative speech about Moses’ view of his own capabilities and limitations! Moses was punished for not having confidence in himself.

Miriam’s negative speech is similarly born from insecurity about herself. She criticizes her brother for marrying an outsider (which is normal, if not admirable, xenophobia), and then she says, “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?” She calls for equivalence when there is none, and it sounds very much like Cain’s grievance when his brother’s offering is accepted when his own was rejected: “Am I not at least as important/valuable?”

If tzaraas is caused by lack of confidence, then it turns the classic explanation on its head. Gone are the ideas that somehow arrogance or lack of humility cause tzaraas. The opposite is true! Each of the people connected to this ailment acted from feelings of comparative inadequacy, of fear that they were not able to do the right thing. A secure and confident person is able to comprehend and appreciate his or her own worth without needing to compare to other people. A bully acts from a core fear, a need to dominate others. But a truly secure person can exist without feeling the need to make others feel small.

A part of the relevant commandments is the statement that buildings can also get tzaraas. But the only ones that do are buildings made of stone, buildings made to last a long time, much longer than a normal human lifespan. Why would a building, as opposed to a person, contract tzaraas? And I think the answer is found in the mindset of a person who lives in a grand stone home, one that is built to last through the ages. Such a home can be a place of love, of security and growth. But it can alternatively act as a closed fortress, a defensive wall behind which a person shields themselves from confronting their fears and insecurities. Buildings are funny that way; they truly do change how the people inside them view the world and their role within it. Buildings are connected to tzaraas because they can be the cause of the mental confusion of their inhabitants, in the same way that insecure middle-aged men need shiny cars and young women in order to avoid the reality of aging, of a life in its final laps. These props are not used by people who are comfortable in their own skins.

This new understanding turns the ailment of tzaraas on its head. If a person is put in isolation to consider what they have done wrong, then they should take that time to learn to appreciate themselves and their own, unique value to G-d – a value that has been validated by the fact that G-d has singled them out by touching them with tzaraas. (When tzaraas is diagnosed, it is called a nega, a “touch.”) Getting tzaraas is being touched by G-d, showing His desire for a connection. The ailment is itself proof that G-d cares about each person, and seeks a personal connection with that person, one that has no bearing on how G-d interacts with someone else, even if the other relationship is with one’s own brother, one such as Abel or Moses.

The entire sequence in the Torah is to remind us of the need to build our own, unique relationship with our Creator, to not feel the need to compare that relationship to one that anyone else may have. And it is a reminder that G-d punishes us for thinking less of ourselves, for doubting what we can achieve in our time on this earth. So when G-d touches us with tzaraas and we are forced into isolation to contemplate our lives and mistakes, the purpose of that isolation is not to emerge from that isolation by thinking less of ourselves, but instead to emerge with the newfound confidence that G-d expects us to be more confident and ambitious. If we truly see ourselves as G-d’s partners in this world, then as long as we live, we can wield enormous power.

P.S. The other elements in the ceremony to end tzaraas are the same as with the red heifer: a crimson thread, hyssop and some cedar-wood. The symbolism here directly connects with the reasons for the rituals in the first place: the crimson reminds us of the blood that is spilled in murder, the blood of Abel that “cried to G-d from the earth,” and indeed the blood of any dead body. Death is a loss and one that we should never take pleasure from.

The hyssop and cedar wood are the bookends for the plant kingdom: from a low grass to the tallest trees. They are a reminder that mankind’s task is to elevate the earth toward the heavens, overcoming the separation caused on the second day of creation, the day that G-d did NOT call “good”. (The word for the crimson thread is the same as the word for that day of creation, that day of not-good division). Plants seek to unify. But murder and damaging speech seek to separate people, to cause divisions.

The plant kingdom is also a reminder that the earth is supposed to used by people for the purpose of life (from the smallest to the tallest grasses), and NOT as the place from where Abel’s blood calls out. The earth is a source of life energies, and while the cycle of life includes death, the Torah tells us that in order to leave the state of tzaraas or the spiritual unreadiness that comes after contact with a dead body, we are supposed to accentuate positive, growing life, emerging from the earth as on the third day of creation. The day vegetation is created is the day when life is created on this earth, and life is the antidote to physical death as well as the small deaths that occur when people use negative speech.


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 was fulfilled for individuals in the community using the olah, it was fulfilled for the community with the kaparah, and it was fulfilled for each priest through their vad undergarments.

[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)


Understanding the Menorah… Breadcrumbs

All of the commandments in the Torah can be understood on multiple levels: there is the specific law itself which leads to the intricate thought and logic that helps us understand what we are supposed to do. There is also the origin and reason for the law, invariably found through word and theme association elsewhere in the text. These together help flesh out a commandment, so we can understand both what we are supposed to do, and why we are supposed to do it.

In the Torah, words are always interlinked to where they are used elsewhere… words form both the simple path and the breadcrumbs that help us connect different paths, to help understand the meaning of commandments by the stories and examples that led to the genesis of those same commandments.

The what and the why form a baseline within the experience of the revelation at Sinai, when the people said in response to a divine command: “We will do and we will ‘shma’.” (Exodus 24:7) The word “shma” does not specifically mean obey, or hear, or listen, or even comprehend. It is its own word that suggests both hearing and contemplating, thinking, chewing things over. The word “shma” forms the core of “Shma Israel! The Lord our G-d, the Lord is One,” the central mantra of Judaism. “Shma,” not seeing or doing, is the most important central verb of the Torah: it is absorbing and wrestling with ideas that are at the core of religious Jewish observance.

So when we have a simple-enough commandment like the Menorah, the Candelabra in the Tabernacle, we have a pathway to understanding. First, we need to know what to do. This is simple enough: the Torah tells us to make a Menorah and light it, keeping one light as a perpetual flame. The Menorah became, with good reason, the central image of Judaism, the official emblem of Modern Israel, present in every synagogue.

We know the what. So the next question is why. Why are we commanded to have a Menorah?

The “shma” of this commandment, like with all commandments, can have a variety of good answers, some more obvious than others. For example, the symbolism of a candelabra involves light, and all the things that come with it: illumination, clarity, the hypnotic nature of a flame. These are straightforward enough.

The Menorah is described using botanical terms, reminding us of the burning bush. That was the first place G-d called something holy, so we can also learn of an aspect of holiness: fire with matter but without consumption – spiritually uplifting the physical world. [we wrote a book on all the holiness themes in the Tabernacle].

But, in the words of Dr. Seuss: “But that is not all! Oh, no. That is not all….”

Because the text does more with the Menorah than just tell us to make it, and how to use it. The details, the words chosen, are the breadcrumbs to another, deeper meaning of the Menorah.

Almost everything in the tabernacle has physical dimensions, usually expressed in length and width (and sometimes height). Everything, that is, except the Menorah. The Torah does not give us a dimension for the Menorah at all, and it seems that both its dimensions and proportions are not specifically commanded.

There is one piece of material information given: the mass of the menorah was expressly commanded as being from one “talent” of gold. (The Hebrew word transliterates as kikar.) The craftsman is supposed to hammer the entire menorah (and its support vessels) from a single talent, kikar, of gold.

When this is pointed out, the questions appear in our minds: Why is there no dimension? Why is there only a mass? And why is the word used, kikar?

Kikar is our breadcrumb. Where else is it found in the Torah?

Lot looked about him and saw how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan, all of it—this was before the LORD had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah—all the way to Zoar, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt. [Gen. 13:10]

It seems irrelevant. But the word used for the “plain” of the Jordan is none other than kikar (quite a different usage than a talent of gold). Which is really quite astonishing.

To understand it, we need to back up and see the context for this word: As we wrote here, Lot and Abram took a wrong turn. Here’s the Torah:

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 the angels, 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 Abram 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 wellbeing ahead of the relationship with his nephew, a relationship that could have led to a great future for the descendants of both, instead of the catastrophe for Lot that it became.

So why is this connected to kikar? Follow the breadcrumbs!

Abram and Lot put their material well-being ahead of their relationship. They thought that possessions trumped familial unity. The garden was thoroughly “Mashkeh,” or satiated by drink. This represents full materialistic or physical fulfillment. They were concerned with the physical aspects of living – and they ignored the non-physical, but still very important, aspects of life.

The menorah had no dimensions. It was not physically measured or defined. Instead, it was a source and projector of light, something that matters a great deal to us, but is also something that we cannot capture or hold in our hand. The light of the Menorah is symbolic of all the things in our lives that have no tangible physical presence, but are yet so very important: light and love and ideas and a sense of unity and harmony in a family and much else besides.

By giving us the only material specification of kikar, the Torah is telling us that the Menorah is a reminder that not everything that matters can be owned. That Abram and Lot’s decision to prioritize their material growth over their own family was an error, and a warning.

The Menorah is a reminder that there are things more important than our material wealth – specifically, our familial relationships. The connections between these two verses is a warning – the Menorah’s light is real and perceptible, even though the photons cannot be captured or held in our hands. Ephemeral things are also real, and also very valuable.

After all, the Torah takes pains to tell us, Lot chose a place that was like “the garden of the Lord.” It did not turn out well. G-d rains down fire and brimstone, destroying the cities, all of Lot’s possessions, killing most of his family. Family should still be more important to us than moving away to live in any garden, even G-d’s own beautiful garden.

The Menorah, made from a single kikar, is a reminder to all who see it: light matters. The things we cannot measure and feel are still important.

Sodom was fertilely nourished – in a materialistic manner. But the Menorah symbolizes spiritual nourishment. When mankind seeks only physical sustenance, divine fire follows – the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the entire kikar of the Jordan. By contrast, when we seek the Menorah, we get the burning bush – divine fire without consumption or destruction.

The commandment to always keep one light of the Menorah burning, a perpetual light, is a reminder of this quality. While the priests lit the menorah, the responsibility of the entire people was to ensure that the light was always on. The perpetual light was the job of everyone together, reminding us of the value and importance of togetherness.

P.S. The word for “hammered” in the instructions for the Menorah has the same letters as the word for “well-watered” in the kikar of the Jordan (with one flip of letters, they are identical). There are numerous parallels here as well, helping to explain why the menorah was hammered out, further helping us understand about misplaced priorities.

[Another iwe and susanquinn production!]


Manna – the Fulfilment of a Dream

Pharaoh’s dreams are of seven ears of corn, and seven foreign cows invading Egypt and gobbling it up. The dream, like the Torah itself, can be understood in a variety of ways – not merely the way Joseph interprets them (years of plenty and then famine).

I personally favor the understanding that these dreams were of the 70 (7×10) Israelites coming into Egypt, and then devouring the land – the dream was a message to Joseph that his family would end up triumphant, even though they entered the land looking like foreigners, and undernourished foreigners at that.

The word used to describe the thin corn and gaunt cows is, in Hebrew, “dak.” It appears in the Torah here for the first time. And when Pharaoh describes the ears and cows, he takes pains to point out that even though they consumed the Egyptian grain and bovines, they remained unchanged in the process!

The second episode in which “dak” is found is in the description of the manna:

When the fall of dew lifted, there, over the surface of the wilderness, lay a fine (dak) and flaky substance, as fine (dak) as frost on the ground. Ex. 16:14

The manna comes as the culmination of the dreams themselves  – those who came into the land as “dak” were sustained as they left the land with food described in the same way. The “dak” nation was unchanged in this characteristic from before and after Egypt. The Manna fulfilled Pharaoh’s dream.


The First Thief in the Torah

If the sun rises on him [a thief], he must make whole. [pay restitution]. (Ex. 22:2).

Is this phrase like Homer’s “rose-fingered dawn”? It might seem that way. But if we look at the text more carefully, an entirely different meaning comes out.

The first time in the Torah in which “the sun rises” on someone, it exposes Jacob, after he wrestled with the angel. Jacob was on his way to a confrontation with his brother Esau, who was supposedly waiting to meet Jacob as he crossed back into the land of Canaan.

After Jacob reconciles with Esau, bowing down to him multiple times, and giving him a myriad of “gifts,” the Torah tells us that Jacob was then “whole.”

The text is telling us, obliquely, that Jacob was the first thief to make restitution to the victim.  Interestingly, the text tells us that Jacob was the one who was “whole” – and if we look at Ex. 22:2 again, it is interesting that the text does not tell us which party – the thief or the victim – is made whole! Indeed, the text may be telling us that when someone steals from another person, the thief is also harmed.

As a result, when restitution is made, both parties are made whole.


Comparing Houses of Worship

One of my sons 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.

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.”


“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”― Edmund Burke 

Actually, while Burke gets the credit for this great quote, he didn’t say it first.

When the people create the golden calf, G-d offers to destroy all the people and create a new nation just from Moses:

Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation.”

But G-d does not actually say “let me be.” This translation is very loose, while the text is quite specific: G-d uses a verb form of Noah’s name! He is telling Moses to “be like Noah, and let me do my thing.”

There are four major messages in this one word here:

1: G-d is telling us that Noah did not do anything to stop G-d from bringing the flood and destroying the world. Noah never advocated or argued. He just minded his own business. So, in using this word, the Torah is connecting Noah directly with passivity.

2: G-d is challenging or even tempting Moses: Should I start all over with you, just as I did with Noah? Or are you going to make yourself a better man than was Noah, “a righteous man in his generation”?

3: By bringing up a very old name and situation, G-d is telling not just Moses, but also each and every one of us, that we are offered the very same challenge that Burke identifies: when confronted with evil, do we do nothing?

4: In the outcome of this episode (where Moses persuasively argues that G-d should save the Jewish people), we are to learn another lesson: not only should Noah have argued, but we, too, should refuse to accept that any specific future is inevitable, ordained by G-d or man and so out of our hands. On the contrary: we are empowered to follow in Moses’ lead, ignore Noah’s passivity, and change the course of history. Even if G-d Himself proposes otherwise.

For evil to be defeated, we must act.


Paying a Ransom?

When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the LORD a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled. (Ex. 30:12)

The questions spring out of the text: Why on earth is some kind of ransom needed because a census is being taken? What possible connection could there be between numbered in a census and being stricken with a plague?! The verse seems quite odd – though there is a rational and lovely explanation if we just read more carefully.

Let’s start by parsing the words a bit more carefully. For starters the Hebrew for the word “ransom” is actually the very same word, “kopher,” that is used in the Torah to describe the protective layer or buffer between Noah’s Ark and the waters of the flood just on the other side – as well as the buffer we grow between ourselves and G-d on the eponymous Yom Kippur. In all cases, this buffer protects life against strong forces which otherwise would kill us merely because of proximity.

So, the Torah is describing some kind of protection racket! We have to protect our souls because we have been involved in census?! Have we really gone any distance toward answering the question of why a ransom must be paid?

Actually, we have. And here is why: In Judaism, numbers of people do not matter. Each person has a soul on loan from G-d, so for a finite time only, we are capable of touching the infinite. Each and every one of us. And, for every person, there is a unique opportunity. No two people are supposed to lead the same lives. So being “one of two” is a way of diminishing our potential to touch the divine. It is a denial of what makes each person special: not our quantity, but our quality.

The Torah makes it clear that human life by itself has no ultimate value. What matters is not the fact that we are biologically alive; what matters are the choices we make. Or as Gandalf put it: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

So being involved in a census is dehumanizing, relegating a human soul to a mere equivalence. Considering any two people to be equivalent to each other is a threat to the unique quality of each person. Such an equivalence threatens our identities, our potential contributions to the world.

People are not numbers. We are all individual souls. So when we cease being individuals and we merely become numbers, then we endanger the purpose of our existence. Being part of a census denies our humanity. And all of that means that we have less of a reason to live: hence the plague. The plague is the means of culling out those who no longer have a purpose in life, who have been relegated to being nothing more than “one of many.”

So why does paying protection money save us from being deemed irrelevant and thus suitable for an early death? The answer is found in the purpose of those funds: they are used for the building of the tabernacle, G-d’s own home within the people. This was a unique and holy project, one that called for community-wide involvement and contribution. Which means there is another lesson as well: we are allowed to put aside our unique qualities when doing so serves a much higher purpose, a holy and universal goal such as building G-d’s house.

This is also the lesson behind the uniforms worn by the priests: when serving they were to subsume their personalities and quirks, hide anything that made them stand out from other priests, and then serve as functionaries. Priests were not free to improvise or add stylistic flair: when serving in the tabernacle, they had to do everything by the book.

But the rest of the time, individuality among priests was to be encouraged just as much as everyone else’s. Outside of very limited and special conditions, each person should offer a unique and valuable contribution. That is an integral part of the inherent value of each human soul.

We are not numbers. We are people.

[another @iwe and @susanquinn production]


What is Wrong with Laughter?

In the Torah, the episode of the Golden Calf describes the people creating an idol, sacrificing to it, feasting before it, and then dancing – or laughing – with it. There are countless questions that come out of this episode, but I want to focus on just one word: the word used to mean “to dance”.

Early next day, the people offered up burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; they sat down to eat and drink, and then rose to dance. (Ex. 32:6)

It is actually not an odd word, but it is used very differently elsewhere in the text: the word in Hebrew is “tzachek” which means laughter. It is first found when Avraham and Sarah are told she will have a son (Gen 17:17 and 18:12), and they both laugh, with some degree of disbelief. Lot’s sons-in-laws similarly do not leave Sodom because they think their father is “jesting” – the Hebrew is the same word. The word in this context refers to disbelief, to refusing to truly hear the speaker – whether G-d or another person.

There is another meaning of this word as well, referring to an intimate encounter:

When some time had passed, Abimelech king of the Philistines, looking out of the window, saw Isaac “tzachek” with his wife Rebekah. Gen 26:8

And again with Joseph: Potiphar’s wife accuses Joseph of trying to seduce her:

She called out to her servants and said to them, “Look, he had to bring us a Hebrew to “tzachek” with us! … Then she told [Potiphar[ the same story, saying, “The Hebrew slave whom you brought into our house came to me to “tzachek” with me. (Gen 39: 14,17)

Both of these meanings directly come to explain what was going on with the Golden Calf.

The first meaning, of disbelief, of refusing to take something seriously, of truly hearing the speaker, is all about trying to hear and grow, in good faith. The Torah considers good faith to be a primary virtue, and rejecting the words of G-d are a good way to kill a conversation.

So when the people laugh, it amounts to a blanket rejection of the giving of the Torah at Sinai: G-d had produced the incredible revelation at the mountain, and the people ended up laughing in disbelief, just as Avraham and Sarah and Lot’s sons-in-laws had done. “Tzachek” is a way of refusing to try to come to grips with what had just happened.

But the second meaning is even more profound and interesting. Recall that Isaac’s very name is the very same root word “tzachek” – so as a forefather, it tells us that this word is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, when Isaac “tzacheks” with his wife, he is engaged in marital familiarity or outright intimacy. This is the very same meaning of the word that is advance by Potiphar’s wife to refer to sex (though not love).

In other words, “tzachek” is what loving husbands and wives do with each other. It is personal and intimate and special. The word is strongly tied to a notion of fidelity.

So when the people “tzachek” in front of the golden calf, they are doing more than just dancing. They are taking what belongs in the privacy of a marriage, and exhibiting it in public. More than this: the people are committing adultery. We are married to our spouses and to G-d. So when we “tzachek” out of either marriage, we are committing both idol worship and adultery.

This is the linguistic potency of the Torah. In a single word, we are told that the people scoffed at the revelation at Sinai, preferring instead to frolic in escapist hedonism. And we are also told with that very same word that the private and intimate, loving relationship that belongs between two married people was instead made into a public and openly-adulterous spectacle, a betrayal of our marriage to G-d.

P.S. The Torah is also telling us that this idea, of laughter or intimacy, is not itself good or bad. “Tzachek” is a key part of a holy relationship, with Isaac himself having this word as his name. The word contains within it the potential to be either: like anything else, sex or dancing can be obscene or holy, deeply corrosive or profoundly beautiful.


Layers of Meaning Nakedness and Altars

Most commandments in the Torah are symbolic in nature, containing both a practical element and a symbolic one. For example, the animals that Jews are allowed to eat lead to direct dietary laws, but also can – and should – be explained for the symbolic meaning of those commandments as well. The prohibition against eating pigs can be understood both as a practical law as well as a symbolic instruction. So in accordance with the letter of the law we do not eat pigs, and in accordance with the spirit of the law, we try to understand why bacon is forbidden.

The symbolism is embedded in the text itself. For example, the tefillin that Jews wear are commanded to be worn “between the eyes.” While we do not wear them in this way (in practice, we place them higher on the forehead), the language that the Torah uses tells us about the symbolic meaning of the commandment. All the symbolic commandments can be understood, using the text of the Torah itself as the key.

Of course, symbolism comes in different layers; the very same verse can be reasonably understood in a variety of ways – over and above the practical commandment itself. Let’s take, for example:

Do not ascend My altar by steps, that your nakedness may not be exposed upon it. (Ex. 20:23)

Parsing this for the practical commandment is pretty easy: The altar has to be higher than ground level (because we are supposed to ascend). And the path upward should be via a ramp instead of steps. Simple enough, right?

But the text says none of those things directly! The Torah could have just said, “The altar should have a ramp and not steps.” But it does not. Instead, we infer the practical result, but the language that the Torah uses ignites our imagination about the deeper symbolic meanings.

Specifically: the Torah tells us that the prohibition is about “nakedness” – but it did not have to mention nakedness in order to have us build the ramp instead of using steps. Indeed, given that the priests wore clothing that blocked exposure in any case, then there should be no issue – nakedness would not have been exposed anyway!

Consequently, the verse screams out for symbolic interpretation. Here are a few of the meanings, some of them more widely known than others:

1: Aiming for holiness is inherently anti-animalistic. In Judaism, the two components (coming close to G-d via sacrifices / base organs) must be mutually exclusive. Judaism consciously de-emphasizes our animal parts when we are trying to grow a relationship with our Creator. This is in contradiction to pagan religions that involve excrement (Japan had entire pantheons of poop gods!) and/or sex (Dionysus, the connections between spring and orgies, fertility rites and the like) as necessary part of their rituals.

2: Clothing, though deceptive, is superior to “the underlying truth.”

Consider that all people can be described as members of the animal kingdom. And that we are all equipped with reproductive and waste systems. Yet we humans are masters of deception. We spend enormous amounts of energy deciding what our clothes, or cars, or houses or furniture or children say about us, because at some level we believe that those trappings make a difference to our real underlying selves, helping to define who we really are. The shocker is that the Torah agrees: the trappings do matter!

Clothing is an projected fiction: the clothes we wear show how we show ourselves to the outside world, even though underneath the clothing we are all naked animals. The Torah tells us that we are commanded to aim higher than our physical reality, to seek to have a relationship with the divine. Clothing is a way of creating a subjective truth, tools that we use to define ourselves and how others see us. We can see uniforms very much in the same light: uniforms tell both the wearers and third parties that the person in the uniform belongs to a certain group, or performs a certain task (whether nurse or police office, banker or trainee).

And so in service to G-d we concern ourselves with the way in which we project ourselves to G-d, other people, and even to inanimate stone steps. Our clothes and the way we walk matter. Not displaying our “objectively true” nakedness is a way of maintaining and supporting the idea that mankind is not only capable of creating our own reality: the Torah commands us to do so!

3: Connection to Noah. The first person who builds an altar in the Torah is Noah. He is also the first person to offer an “olah” – an elevation offering (sharing the same root word as “ascending” the altar). Noah is also the first person whose nakedness is exposed (the root word is shared with Adam and Eve after eating the fruit, but the same word used for the ramp, “ervah,” is first found with Noah). It seems pretty clear that the prohibition against exposing ourselves while engaged in elevating to G-d is a direct result of the fact that the first guy who elevated toward G-d (earning 19 verses of praise and promises from G-d in response!) degraded himself shortly afterward.

And it got us thinking: consider all the scandals of great, powerful and, yes, even holy men – men who ascended to the highest heights, and were brought low by entirely avoidable but deeply embarrassing personal failures. It is almost a cliché – CEOs of Boeing or GE who do not resist their basest desires. Hollywood power players are famous for it. So are most male politicians, and far too many religious leaders. The strongest men are, in silly and perverse ways, also the weakest. There seems to be an innate desire in mankind to keep a balance between our elevation and our debasement. In this sense the biblical verse about exposing our nakedness while we ascend the altar is a version of “the higher you climb, the harder you fall,” but its literal text foreshadows the less hallowed adage: “the higher you climb, the more ass shows.”

This trait seems to be part of the human condition. Noah was the first, but he was not the last, not in the Torah and not in human history. Our lives are invariably more like stock market charts – there are trend lines, to be sure, but every day is a collection of ups and downs. The more volatile the person, the more exaggerated his swings.

The practicality of this is shown in Jewish prayer: on the afternoon of Yom Kippur when we are presumably at our holiest and furthest from moral weakness and failing, the Torah reading contains the list of forbidden sexual relations. It is an admission and a warning that humans instinctively seek ways to self-destruct, especially when we should be at our most indestructible.

This is why the verse tells us to elevate to Hashem without exposing ourselves. It is a commandment from the Torah to constantly remind us to resist the urge to be idiotic, to resist the reflex of balancing our high thoughts and ideals with wasteful, selfish and sinful contrasting deeds.

Each of the interpretations of the symbolism complement one another; they are each valid and valuable ways to understand how we can elevate ourselves as we approach G-d.

[an @iwe and @susanquinn production]


Layered Levels of Understanding: Genocide in the Torah

A simplistic reading of the Torah suggests that G-d is commanding nothing short of genocide:

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Inscribe this in a document as a reminder, and read it aloud to Joshua: I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven!” (Ex. 17:14)

This is genocide, right? Isn’t the Torah describing the extermination of a people?

Not if we read the words and try to understand them. The verse does not say “I will utterly destroy Amalek.” Instead, it says, “I will blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.”

This is quite odd, and for two reasons. The first reason is that “blot out the memory” is not the same thing as “exterminating.” The second reason is that the Torah writes these words down, and we are commanded to learn and repeat them! How can we possibly blot out the memory of a people whom we keep remembering?! It is a laughable paradox.

Indeed, the Torah repeats the commandment, and again uses that strange language:

Therefore, when the LORD your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deut. 25:19)

The Torah is not employing euphemism. When the Torah commands us to kill someone, the words make that quite clear. So when the text tells us that G-d (and elsewhere “the people”) will “blot out the memory of Amalek,” then it is telling us NOT that we are to exterminate the people of Amalek, NOR that we will forget that they ever existed. We know the commandment, and we remember Amalek precisely because of the commandment.

It is deeper than this, because the Torah also tells us:

The LORD will be at war with Amalek from generation to generation. (Ex. 17:16)

How can G-d always be at war with Amalek, a nation that is long gone, that has no DNA trace or racial characteristics? Either the Torah lacks relevance to us today, or the simplistic understanding – genocide – is missing something critical.

I believe it is clearly the latter, and here is how it unfolds in the text: We know why Amalek are a special kind of enemy:

For everyone who does those things, everyone who deals falsely, is abhorrent to the LORD your God. Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt; how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the LORD your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deut. 25:16-19)

Fair enough. Amalek were bad actors. They fought dirty, by attacking the weak and weary, and by acting with falsity.

One possible interpretation is that when we are commanded to “blot out the memory of Amalek,” we are thus commanded to hate injustice in every generation, to always oppose those who have no fear of G-d and have no belief in the sanctity of human life. Humans who target and kill innocents are the enemy of all those who see that man is made in the image of G-d. In this reading, we are to attack Amalek-like behavior in every generation.

But this interpretation still avoids around the basic problem with understanding the language the Torah uses: the text does not tell us to fight everything that is “like” Amalek, and while we are commanded to love the stranger, the widow and the orphan, as well as to love our neighbors like ourselves, none of those verses are connected to Amalek. Nor are they about “memory.”

There is a piece missing.

My brother figured it out, some years ago. He points out that Amalek are found in the Torah much earlier, in Genesis. In the time of Avram, an alliance of four kings subdues a competing group of five kings. In time, the five kings rebel, and a war ensues.

And they returned … and smote all the country of the Amalekites (Gen 14:7)

The Amalekites were collateral damage in another war, innocent bystanders who were overrun and smitten by rival armies. They were the Belgium (or if you prefer, the Poland or Korea) of their age.

Avram did nothing. At least at first.

But then, after his nephew, Lot, was taken hostage, Avram goes to war and handily defeats the kings, freeing his nephew.

Now try to see it from the perspective of the Amalekites: they unjustly suffered as mere collateral damage, and Avram stood by and did nothing at all. That is, until it affected him personally, and then Avram swooped in and saved the day.

What if, my brother points out, Amalek held a grudge against Avram and his descendants?! They had a gripe, they nursed it, and then when they saw a chance for payback, they seized that chance, striking at the Jewish people after the Exodus.

If this is correct (and the text certainly supports it), then the commandment to “blot out the memory of Amalek” is not for us to blot out OUR memory of Amalek, but instead to always oppose grudges and feuds, especially those that span generations:

The LORD will be at war with Amalek from generation to generation. (Ex. 17:16)

The conclusion is that no genocide is planned or commanded. Nor is it only about the behavior of Amalek when they attacked the weak. In this understanding, the commandment to combat Amalek is not racial or national or tribal, but instead speaks directly to the kinds of toxic mindsets that eat a people out from the inside.

Indeed, it is not hard to draw conclusions to the modern day: everyone knows that they, either personally or as a class or a color or a people, were oppressed by someone else at some point. We are all descended from people who were conquered at some point. Many of us are descended from slaves. Most Americans fled from people whom they considered their oppressors, either in Poland or Africa or England or Vietnam. We can all find a way to hold a grudge, to see ourselves as victims, to cling to intergenerational feelings of victimhood.

But when we do that, we are reduced by it. People who wallow in their victimhood are reduced by that mindset, by seeing their own situation as “someone else’s fault.”

And the Torah uses the 400-year Amalekite grudge as a case study in how such a mindset poisons a nation. Amalek lived for revenge, nothing more. Revenge is not a positive goal. And G-d has commanded the Jews to seek to blot out these kinds of feuds in every generation.

It is one reason why I consciously and knowingly do business with people whose ancestors (perhaps only one generation ago), tried to exterminate my own family as if they were vermin. G-d tells me not to hold a grudge. Each person needs to be valued for themselves, and judged on their own merits. Similarly, when I find people who are living for the sake of an old grudge (whether blacks in America or Arabs in Israel or the Irish in Boston), I do what I can to try to help them see that we have to blot out the memory of those grudges in order to get on with having productive lives.

When we live our lives going forward, then we can achieve great things. But when we preserve the memory of perceived wrongs, we are preserving the memory of Amalek, locking ourselves in the prisons we have built in our own minds.

The Torah is clearly telling us that we, in every generation, must set ourselves against anyone who defines themselves by such inherited baggage. Our greatest enemies are not those who wronged us in the past. Our greatest enemy is ourselves.


Different Facets of a Single Verse

There is no one correct way to read the Torah. We have a tradition of “Seventy Faces of the Torah” suggesting that any verse can be understood a multitude of ways. Even “easy” stories (like the Garden of Eden) that tend to be read quite simplistically, can be understood in a myriad of ways.

The test of whether an interpretation has merit is whether or not it convinces the reader while remaining faithful to the text itself. Interpretations do not require any secondary or later commentators; the Torah’s symbolism can easily stand on its own.

Here is one verse that caught my eye today:

And so it shall be as a sign upon your hand and as a symbol between your eyes that with a strong hand the LORD brought us out from Egypt.

The commandment may be practical (Jews wear tefillin daily), but the meaning of this commandment, and why it appears in the Torah when it does, is deeply symbolic. So why is the commandment to wear what Jews call tefillin, paired with the Exodus?

The sign on our hand is connected to G-d’s strong hand (the verse uses the same word for both). So it means that the symbol between our eyes is meant as a complement or contrast to the sign on our hands. What could it mean?

One answer: The remembrance on our hands is of physical freedom, the relocation of the people outside Egypt caused by the G-d’s manipulation of the natural world. If so, then the symbol between our eyes may refer to the spiritual aspect of freedom from slavery. The hand led to a mental departure from servitude to Pharaoh, just as it led us away from the Egyptian worldview of harmony with nature, from their bread culture (hence the commandment to avoid leavening on Passover), the natural paganism of the Egyptian religion. Judaism, we are to remind ourselves every day with our tefillin, is a departure from not just Egypt the place (as symbolized by the hand) but also Egypt the mindset (as symbolized by the forehead). That mindset, of course, is inside us.

Another answer: The hand is for action, the eyes are for learning, absorption. G-d acted to take us out, and we connect that with the hand tefillin. The symbol between the eyes is there to help us learn and internalize the Exodus.

This idea is paired with the perspective that in Egypt the people were almost entirely passive, while G-d did all the work. That was when our nation was a baby in the womb. The Jewish people in the text are compared to mindless insects, merely capable of reaction, but not initiation or planning (we knew we were leaving, but could not even plan to bake bread in advance of our departure!). The eyes are passive, the hand is active. Thus the tefillin remind us of the Exodus.

But after leaving Egypt, we are to grow into full partners of G-d. He used His strong hand to bring us out – so we, too, wear a sign on our hands to not just commemorate the event, but also to emulate G-d’s own deeds. We are G-d’s emissaries in this world, so, with G-d’s example in Egypt always in our mind’s eye, it is incumbent upon us to address the wrongs that we see, and combat evil. Just like G-d in the first week of creation, we are to judge (using our eyes) the product of our creative energies. We create, and then we evaluate (is it “good?”) and decide what to do next. Hands, and then eyes.

There are many other aspects one could get from these verses, and as I said, Jewish tradition is that as long as the interpretations are faithful to the text, then they can add color and depth to our understanding. Why not add your own interpretation?!

[Another @iwe and @susanquinn production]


Fair Weather Fans

“When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse.”  (Osama bin Laden)

This is not just about horses, of course. Nor even about successful sports teams or countries. It is even true about deities.

The plagues struck Egypt, but in the nature of people everywhere, the attraction to strength overcame the natural rejection of outside influences. The evidence is found in the Torah itself.

Pharaoh’s courtiers said to him, “How long shall this one be a snare to us? Let the men go to worship the LORD their God! Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?” (Ex. 10:7)

This is a strange verse – what is the meaning of this word that is translated as “snare”? And why is Egypt “lost”?

When the Torah uses a word more than once, there is a connection between the incidences. And these connections can help us understand the meaning of the verse.

The word translated as “snare” (Transliterated, it is “Mokaish”) is only found three other places, but the meaning in each case is very clear:

They shall not remain in your land, lest they cause you to sin against Me; for you will serve their gods—and it will prove a snare to you. (Ex. 23:33)

Beware of making a covenant with the inhabitants of the land against which you are advancing, lest they be a snare in your midst. (Ex. 34:12)

You shall destroy all the peoples that the LORD your God delivers to you, showing them no pity. And you shall not worship their gods, for that would be a snare to you. (Deut. 7:16)

In each of these cases, the word clearly refers to a spiritual seduction, the attraction of other gods and other peoples.

If this is correct, then we can much more easily understand our original verse: Pharaoh’s advisers are telling him that the Jewish deity is attracting adherents from within the Egyptian people themselves! This would be an especial threat since Pharaoh himself was a deity!

The plagues served to become an attack on Egypt from within, an attractant for the hearts and minds of the Egyptians themselves, in the same way that living in Canaan would, in the future, threaten our connection to our own G-d.

And thus it proved. When the people left the land, many Egyptians came with them:

Moreover, a mixed multitude went up with them. Ex. 12:38

Osama bin Laden may not have been a good man. But he was not always wrong.

[another @iwe and @susanquinn production]


Did the Exodus Actually Happen? Did Jesus Live?

Short answer: It does not matter. The only thing that matters is that people act as if they did.

A “womb” in Hebrew is the same word as “mercy.” But the word for “womb” in Greek is the root word for “hysteria.” Greeks and Jews share the same definitional biological understanding of a woman, but while Hebrew emphasizes the feminine qualities of sensitivity and empathy, the misogynistic Greeks chose to define women by the flip-side of sensitivity: volatility. The perspective we choose, the stories we tell, matters.

There is a reason why, even before the people leave Egypt, G-d tells us, no less than three times, how to tell the story in the future! Because every event can be told an infinite number of ways – the way we choose to interpret – to tell – events, defines what we learn from that collective memory, and helps define our path going forward.

The Jewish people are defined by the Exodus; it is a constant reminder in the text. That is our story, and it has kept us for over 3,300 years. Telling that story every year on Passover is what keeps the story alive.

Similarly, Christians believe that Jesus lived. And while I am quite sure that the “facts” matter to both adherents and critics, they don’t matter to me, because I am keenly aware that what really matters is what people believe.

Our beliefs lead to our words and actions and deeds. And it is those deeds, not whether the founding beliefs are mythical or factual, that are the measure of any person or society or civilization.


The East Wind – A Niblet

The Torah refers to the East Wind just a few times – not surprisingly, they are connected to each other.

The first two are the dreams of Pharaoh:

But close behind them sprouted seven ears, thin and scorched by the east wind. (Gen. 41:6)

And in the retelling to Joseph:

but right behind them sprouted seven ears, shriveled, thin, and scorched by the east wind. (Gen: 41:23)

Pharoah’s dreams are just as much about the result of the invasion of the 70 Israelites as it was about 7 years of plenty and famine. And we see it in the result, because the “east wind” is only mentioned again when the Exodus is building:

So Moses held out his rod over the land of Egypt, and the LORD drove an east wind over the land all that day and all night; and when morning came, the east wind had brought the locusts. (Ex. 10:13)


Then Moses held out his arm over the sea and the LORD drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and turned the sea into dry ground. (Ex. 14:21)

The early dreams are the foreshadowing of what was to come, a matched set.

As a footnote: Canaan, the place both where Jacob’s family comes from, and to where his descendants leave Egypt, are both, at the crossing point, to the East of Egypt.

[another @iwe and @susanquinn collaboration, though I think the original concept – that Pharoah’s dreams referred to the immigration of Jacob’s family and the results – originated with Joseph Cox]


Mankind: Astronomically Insignificant

It is a common observation that man is profoundly insignificant in the universe – a mere mote of a speck living on a rock far from where the real action must surely be going on. It thus follows that our lives are similarly unimportant. We must be, therefore, ultimately powerless.

This is the view of many atheists, scientists, and others who measure the world using a physical yardstick. Their view is, in some ways, an echo of that of standard nature-worshippers: the deities are manifested in their natural forces: a sea god, and a sun god, and a god who controls the rain or the wind. No man can stand against a tornado or an earthquake. It therefore follows that mankind is nothing as compared to the forces of nature, let alone those of the galaxy.

They would not be wrong, of course, if the only data we had available is what can be measured or perceived using our instruments. But of course, there is a whole world that is not in the physical realm, but is no less available to our consciousnesses: ideas like love and fidelity and liberty. Our tribes and associations, relationships and rivalries all may have no physical manifestations whatsoever, but they are no less real for it.

I would go even further than this: we may be physically insignificant in the universe. But while we can detect galaxies and quasars and countless other things that are immeasurably larger than we are, we have yet to see any sign of actual intellect off-planet. And on planet Earth, it is our intellect, our ability to think, that has made our relative physical weakness against animals and even the elements a mere footnote. We can – and have – made ourselves highly resistant to the elements: housing, clothes, heat, air conditioning, food. Our modern world has even eliminated nature-caused famine. It is what lies between our ears, not any specific physical prowess, that has made this possible.

It is no accident that Western Civilization is founded on the Torah, a collection of nothing more than words, the ultimate lack of physical manifestation. The Jewish people have no ancient buildings, no colossus or cathedrals, not even a single enduring institution. Our religion lives only in our hearts and minds, constantly nurtured by the words of the Torah.

But that is not true for most people. So when the Torah talks of the plagues G-d levied on Egypt, those plagues are all physical attacks of one kind or another. The plagues were to show physical superiority over each of the Egyptian pantheon of gods, ending with Pharaoh himself. But in all of these cases, the audience was NOT the Jewish people at all – the audience for the plagues were the Egyptians themselves, and any other peoples who were paying attention.

For the Jewish audience, the message was only one of words: “G-d is going to fulfill the promise to your forefathers.” It is a message of hope, with no direct physical deliverance until the splitting of the sea, a one-time-only event. From then on, G-d’s hand is always far more subtle, found primarily and most importantly in the words and the text itself. In any way we can measure, G-d works most often through people: inspiring them to love and care, to seek and grow relationships with each other and with the divine. These are all inspired by words, in the text of the Torah, or in the words we use with each other.

So the world has no shortage of physical power: both within nature and even through the might of armies or construction teams, we can blast and build on a scale never imagined in the ancient world.

But what matters continues to be the power of ideas. Hope and freedom and love motivate mankind, the things for which we are willing to lay down our lives if we must. Mankind is also capable of being motivated by evil ideas: think of honor killings or wars of supremacy or scientifically-inspired eugenics. Either way, though, it remains true that the real power in this world is not, after all, found in natural forces. Real power is found in the ideas that inspire and guide us.

The Torah is consistent about this. Think back to the Garden of Eden. It is not merely that Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit: they ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. They ate the fruit, and gained the power to reason, to think, to assess and to judge. It is amazing to me that while mankind may be physically insignificant on a galactic scale, our intellect has yet to find something in the physical realm that we are unable to probe, challenge, and eventually understand. Eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil made us capable of understanding everything we direct our enquiries toward. They achieved the potential to become full partners with G-d.

Note that G-d then expelled mankind before we could eat from the Tree of Life: the fruit that would have made us immortal, to similarly stand above nature. The text says that if we had eaten both fruit, then we would have been similar to G-d Himself! Which tells us that eating the one fruit brought us halfway to a divine level: we are not immortal, but we possess the mental powers that allow us to comprehend everything that G-d has made, and all the ideas that He has given us.

Without the fruit of the tree of life, mankind remains limited by one key natural limit: death itself. We cannot fully ignore nature. But neither must we be enslaved to it like primitive pagans. The difference comes down to our ability to discern. And that ability stems directly from eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

So mankind, even primitive mankind, has the ability to listen, to think, and to know. Which is why G-d’s interactions with Avraham, Isaac and Jacob were verbal. If G-d performed miracles for them, these interferences in the physical realm remained subtle, arguable, in the same way that there is no ironclad physical argument for the existence of G-d today – if there were, then we would have no intelligent atheists.

A non-corporeal deity is not easy to wrap one’s head around. Primitives cannot get there: for them, power IS reality. Pharaoh could argue that the god of an enslaved people must not be very powerful, and a deity who does not have his own physical manifestation does not, in any measurable way, even exist.

It is similarly no surprise that every primitive society is racist and sexist. After all, if we measure everything by their force and size, then larger/faster/stronger men are indeed superior to women, and different races can be usefully compared and judged. Not until the modern world and the technology unlocked by our mental efforts, did the physical differences between people become perishingly unimportant.

The basis of the Torah and Western Civilization alike are founded on the idea not that a person is valued because of their strength or beauty, speed or color or sex, but that each person is endowed by their Creator with a soul. And on that basis, we are all equal in the eyes of G-d. When we use that soul, and our ability to think, then there is rightly no hierarchy between people based on their physical characteristics.

In the physical world, mankind is indeed insignificant. But in the realm of ideas, we appear to have been gifted unrivaled capabilities, able to understand, communicate, and grow together with the Creator of the world.


Know Your Audience!

It is axiomatic that the message needs to be tailored for the audience. Preaching to the choir is not the same as preaching to the great unwashed masses: they deserve different messages, not only because of what they should be told, but also because of what they are able to hear.

Such an approach is widely derided as “spin,” but the derision is misplaced. No message has any value unless the audience is prepared to hear it. So if we have to strategically massage our line of argument and choice of words, then we are not lying. We are just being sensible. But when someone does not consider how the audience will receive his words, then we can be sure that the true audience is either someone else entirely (usually someone in the echo chamber), or the speaker is an idiot.

When Hamlet famously pretends to be mad (Act 3, Scene 1), the entire scene rests on one question: does Hamlet know that Claudius and Polonius are eavesdropping? If Hamlet does not think he is being overheard, then the scene is entirely different, even though the words are the same.

We were challenged this week by considering why Joseph, as Grand Vizier of Egypt, accuses his brothers of being spies. On the face of it, this is an odd accusation. After all, Joseph knows it is not true. The brothers also know it is not true. They can deny the accusation without hesitation, because whatever their other faults, they were not spies.

But of course, spies would have done precisely the same thing: deny the accusation. No real spy would admit being one, so the denial has no meaning.

The answer is found by understanding who is eavesdropping behind the curtain!

Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone withdraw from me!” So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.  His cries were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace. (Gen 45:1-2)

Pharaoh had informants among Joseph’s staff! Which makes perfectly good sense. There is no reason why the Number One guy would give a Number Two guy vast powers without having some staff whose job it is to keep the Big Boss informed as to anything … odd going on.

So Joseph’s accusation of his brothers being spies was not because either the brothers or Joseph would take it seriously. The condemnation of foreign spies was simply a recognition by Joseph that there was another audience who was paying very close attention: the men who were informing for Pharaoh. By making the accusation, Joseph had the perfect cover story for why he was spending so much time and energy dealing with these ten men out of the millions who were buying grain: these men, who might be spies, represented a potential national security threat, and so handling them could not be delegated. It explained why the great man was spending time interrogating, negotiating with, and then wining and dining these ten foreign men.

This also explains why Joseph could instruct his staff to engage in all manner of strange behavior with the brothers – seemingly-random arrests, engaging in favoritism, sending them out with their money, planting evidence… it all added up, to an Egyptian serving on Joseph’s staff, to the Master engaging in the counter-espionage subterfuge necessary to foil the evil plots of foreign operatives operating on Egyptian soil.

Joseph knew his audience. He knew Pharaoh had people listening in, noticing everything Jos