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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]

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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!]

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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!

Oops.

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]

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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]

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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.

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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!

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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]

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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.

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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]

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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]

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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]

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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?

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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.

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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]

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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!]

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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]

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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]

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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.

Ingredients:

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.

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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.

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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!]

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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]

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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.

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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.

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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!]

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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.

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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)

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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!]

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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.

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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.

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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. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fUSdHB1R-W4)

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.”

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“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.

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Paying a Ransom?

https://youtu.be/d0LaT6qVRpg

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]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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]

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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]

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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.

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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)

and

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]

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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.

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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 Joseph did. And so the dance with his brothers had the added complexity of managing another audience entirely!

[another @iwe and @susanquinn production]

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What is the purpose of a Sacrifice?

People tend to think that sacrifices are very hard to understand today – after all, in our modern world, how on earth can it be right to take an animal, slaughter it, and then set it on fire? The practice sounds downright barbaric, and it makes for uncomfortable conversation, with most religious stalwarts falling back on “well, we may not understand it, but it is what the Torah commands, so….”

Of course, there is not even a consensus view among observant Jews that sacrifices are really what Hashem wants from us. Rambam famously argued that we have moved beyond sacrifices, and that the essence of a sacrifice, prayer, has remained as the substitute for the offerings themselves. His opinion, though respected, does not seem to be commonly held. It is difficult for us to directly contradict the words of the Torah that command us to bring sacrifices.

In my opinion, in order to really understand sacrifices, we need to get a sense of what they meant in the ancient world. Imagine, if you will, the life of a typical pagan man in the world before Avraham was born. The world is a collection of forces (sun/moon/stars/earth/water etc.) that can barely be comprehended, and while things like the seasons seem to have some regularity to them, a single oddity like a late frost, or an untimely rainstorm can have catastrophic consequences. Famines force people to remain adaptable, to be able to move short or long distances, carrying all their earthly possessions on their backs. Existence is by the skin of one’s own teeth, and families have to consider themselves fortunate if any of their children survive to reach child-bearing years.

In such a world, people would cling to anything that could possibly make a difference, because even the smallest break could be a life saver. And so sacrifice was born. The idea is simple enough: give up something of value, and the gods could be influenced to give us a better year. Sacrifice a goat for rain, sacrifice a child for a good harvest. The higher quality the goat or child,  the more the sacrifice would be valued by the deity in question.

Judaism’s great improvement over the basic idea of sacrifice is that Hashem forbade human sacrifice. No longer would it be acceptable to offer up those things that are actually most precious to us; G-d does not want our children on a pyre.

But Judaism preserved one key component: the Torah still commands us to offer up sacrifices to Hashem. We should, by rights, have a problem with this: sacrifices were meant to influence pagan gods, to bribe or otherwise sway them in our favor. But Hashem is not weak, and we don’t believe that He can be bribed. Indeed, we read, time and again, that Hashem does not actually care for our sacrifices: the sacrifice of first fruit or an animal is meant for our sake, not G-d’s! Unless we give up something, we have a difficulty having a connection with Hashem. Like the ancient pagans, we need to feel loss in order to have a connection to the divine – but unlike those same pagans, our loss is meant to ultimately benefit G-d only inasmuch as we ourselves improve as a result of the sacrifice.

Rambam, as a hyper-rational thinker, saw prayer as the replacement for that connection for Hashem. But I think he overestimated man’s ability to abandon our innate desire to somehow suffer. A modern screenwriter put it well, when he put the words in Agent Smith’s mouth in The Matrix:

Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world, where none suffered, where everyone would be happy? It was a disaster. No one would accept the program, entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world, but I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through misery and suffering.

There is little counterevidence.  Even a cursory review of news stories makes it clear that people instinctively need to worry about something; when times are good, we fret about acid rain, or global warming, or high fructose corn syrup. When times are bad, we revert to fundamentals: we worry about our homes and livelihoods. But all newspaperman know this instinctively: “when it bleeds, it leads.” People don’t trust good news. Like the pagans of old, we are always worried about how things can go wrong, how the forces beyond our control can somehow be influenced.

And so today, people find new quasi-religious obsessions to occupy their time.  These obsessions are seemingly rational, but if one scratches the surface, they are little different from the ancient methods of bribing the gods. Recycling is one famous example: study after study have demonstrated that almost all recycling is a waste of time and resources, but its advocates don’t care. Recycling is considered a moral good, whether or not it actually achieves anything that is beneficial. And so people are guilt-tripped or legally compelled to stay up late, using valuable time sorting their garbage to appease Mother Earth. And there are countless examples of similar obsessions: macrobiotic diets, hybrid cars, organic foods, etc. The followers don’t care whether or not their obsession makes sense; it makes sense to them on a subconscious level, because it introduces a degree of suffering and guilt – and a means of appeasing Science or Nature — in an otherwise too-perfect world.

What is the difference between these obsessions and Jewish sacrifices? Ultimately, the difference is that Jewish sacrifices are about improving ourselves, from the inside out. Sacrifices make us better people, in a truly moral sense. But obsessions such as recycling have an entirely different target – they are about introducing a little inconvenience in order to feel superior without actually achieving any net benefit. And so one ends up with the most nature-obsessed parts of the country becoming, in my wife’s priceless expression, “the land of Sodom and Granola.” As long as one lives a “natural” life, then absolutely any sin is defensible. Recycling does not make us love our neighbor, or follow G-d’s commandments – it just gives us carte blanche to consider ourselves good people even when we are not.

Jews are hardly exempt from these kinds of nutty quasi-religious obsessions; we are not only among the worst practitioners of Earth Worship, but religious Jews go out of our way to add extra religious sacrifices to our daily lives. In direct contradiction to the words of the Torah that we must not add anything to the Law, we insist on taking on additional stringencies (chumras) left right and center. Life is too easy, so we add chumras.

The Torah gives us a way to take on additional sacrifice: we can become a Nazir, with all of its stringencies and obligations. Those of us who absolutely must have more suffering are given the option to take it on, completely within a Torah framework. The Torah does not suggest we take on chumras. But of course we don’t become nazirites anymore.

So in response to the Rambam: as much as I’d like to think that Jews are able to grow and sacrifice solely through prayer, the facts on the ground suggest otherwise. Humans are not happy unless we are suffering, and if it is not imposed externally, then we go out of our way to find some way to impose it on ourselves, even when it is tantamount to idol worship in its own right. And so I look forward to the return of the Beis Hamikdash, and the kosher and legitimate way to make sacrifices for the sake of our relationship with Hashem, and as a means of improving ourselves!

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Safety First? A Textual Torah Analysis

When you build a new house, then thou shalt make a parapet for thy roof, that thou bring not blood upon thy house, if any man fall from thence. (Deut. 22:8)

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

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

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

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

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

Which would mean that the original verse should be understood in a broader context. It is not – really – about ensuring that roofs have parapets. Instead, the Torah is telling us that when we engage in a creative act, we need to think about and mitigate the potential downsides of that creative act.

In the Torah, creativity and productivity are good things in themselves. What this verse tells us is that we need to recognize that even good things will have unintended consequences and potential detrimental results. Be creative – but mitigate the downsides.

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When does G-d decide that it is time for a divine act of annihilation?

It is not as simple as suggesting that when people reach a certain (and low) level of goodness that G-d decides they no longer need to live. We have counter-examples: Rashi tells us that the generation of the Tower of Babel was more wicked than that of the Flood – yet the Flood generation was destroyed (save only Noach’s family), and the Tower generation was allowed to live. Is this some kind of divine caprice?

The most important data point is not the absolute level of sin, but whether or not there is room for improvement, for growth. In the generation of the Flood, the absolute best person who was a product of that society was Noach. The problem was that Noach, righteous as he was, was incapable of proselytizing, of helping to make other people better. In other words, society was in a death spiral. Even its leading lights had absolutely no hope of leaving the world a better place a better place than they found it in. 

G-d does not care about our lives for their own sake. He only cares about the choices we make, the potential we have to complete Briyas Haolam. At the point at which it is clear to Hashem that we are beyond the pale, then we have no further reason for existence: hence, the Flood.

The Tower generation, as evil as it was, was not beyond the pale. Terach and Avraham were born from it, and ended up leading the world out of the darkness of paganism and human sacrifice. So while the Tower builders may have been more evil then than they were during the Flood generation, there was still the possibility for improvement.

The next act of mass destruction at the hand of G-d was Sodom and Gomorah. These cities were famous for being hostile to guests – they were the very antithesis of Avrahamic kindness. There are no coincidences in the Torah; Sdom is destroyed immediately after the Torah describes in great detail how beautifully Avraham took care of his guests. It could be argued that Avraham’s acts raised the bar for all of humankind, and Sdom no longer made the minimum cut. This explains why Avraham pleaded with Hashem to save the city; he was aware at some level that if he, Avraham, was not so wonderful to guests, then the people of Sdom would not have been destroyed. In other words, Avraham had some indirect responsibility for the death of entire cities. When Avraham was good, the wickedness of others stood out in stark contrast.

The responsibility is only indirect, however. The cities of Sdom and Gomorrah were not just hostile to guests as a matter of custom. They had institutionalized the practise, making it illegal for anyone to care for a stranger. While this institutionalization may have been a reaction to Avraham, it also clearly shows that the society of Sdom had dug in its heels. Sdom was not destroyed just because it was wicked. It was destroyed because it had signaled its complete and utter unwillingness to even consider spiritual growth. In other words, once Sdom locked its wickedness into law, then by the divine logic applied at both Babel and at the Flood (and years later with Nineveh), there was no longer any reason for the city to continue to exist. It was incapable of producing goodness, now or in the future.

So when Avraham pleads for there to be at least ten righteous men in the city, he is making a very specific argument: that there is a critical number of people necessary to exert a positive influence from within a society, capable of bringing even the most evil society back into the light.

But how is this logically consistent? G-d did not destroy the world when Avraham was only one righteous man. If  Sdom needed ten men, then how was Avraham, alone, ever enough?

I’d suggest that these are separate case. When a society absolutely refuses to improve itself, as Sdom did, then it takes ten people to have a chance to redeem it. But Avraham was not born into such a world. His world was one in which there was plenty of evil, but it was not eternally preserved in the laws of societies. In an organized evil society, it takes ten men for there to be any hope of reform. But in a world where most people just do what is right in their own eyes, then a single holy couple can be (and clearly were) a light unto the nations.

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Settling Disputes – From Mediation to Strict Law

A great deal of ink – and blood – has been spilled trying to understand what law and justice are supposed to be. Do we believe in bringing disputing parties together, in mediation, regardless of underlying legal principles? Or do we believe that The Law Is The Law and that any concessions that stray from legal principles are in fact illegal?

This is hardly a small question; it is foundational for any civilization. Kafka wrote extensively on how different legal theories and systems can lead to increasingly perverse outcomes. One could compare, as he does, a legal system that only considers motive (where the desire to kill is considered murder) versus one that only considers outcomes (where “act of god” manslaughter is treated the same as premeditated murder). (Either of these extremes easily becomes farcical, but that is hardly surprising: any and every system has farcical outcomes as a matter of course.)

Within any “good” legal system we have the neverending quest to try to pin the judgment pin on the donkey, somewhere between its strict legal head, and merciful tail. Lady justice is blindfolded, after all, so the pin might end up just about anywhere. This is one of the reasons why trials are so risky; justice is inherently human, and so it is mercurial at best.

While law may be somewhat arbitrary (consider just how many different plausible legal systems there are in the world, and how their outcomes differ from each other), I’d like to argue that the ideal process of settling disputes may in fact be a surprisingly consistent solution, regardless of the law itself.

Instead of thinking of strict law and mercy as polar opposites, perhaps it might be helpful to think of them as part of a continuum. It is possible for a legal system to be BOTH merciful and just – just not at the same time and place. Here is how the Torah does it:

Thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, who fear G-d, men of good faith, hating unjust gain: and place such over them, to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. And let them judge the people at all seasons; and it shall be, that every great matter they shall bring unto thee, but every small matter they shall judge themselves (Ex. 18:21-22)

Adopting this system is more than a management reorg. And it is also more than the simple optics: that people would see justice was done, because there was a process. The biggest and most important outcome that came from this organizational structure was that dispute settlement became a process, and a process which would change and grow as a given case moved up through the courts. Here is how it works:

The first “judge” would be one man in ten – an everyday fellow who almost certainly had a personal relationship with the disputants in his group. In other words, this first judge was the farthest thing imaginable from a High Court in a Distant Tower. He was more likely to be Norm from Cheers than the Grand Inquistor. So when a dispute was brought to Norm, it is easy to understand that there was precious little actual law involved. Norm, after all, expects to have to live with the complainants as a neighbor – the last thing he wants to be is heavy-handed or take on airs. Instead, the approach would be “can’t we figure this out between us?”

If the parties could not be mollified in this way, then the case would be moved up, and as it worked its way up, the settlement method went farther away from the informal mediation between neighbors, and closer to a purer, absolute form of law that was handed down from On High. In other words, justice in this process was not about the law itself, but about a progression within the settlement of disputes that started with the language of relationships and mercy and mediation, and moved, step by step toward a much more impersonal judgement based on divinely-delivered legal principles. Ultimately, judgment from Moses (or the top court of the land) was unappealable, so if you insisted on taking a case all the way up, then you had to be prepared to accept whatever was handed down.

The Torah itself is quite light on the actual underlying law for any civil code, besides general statements of principles. But this specificity tells us what we need to know:

  • In order to be satisfied, disputants need to be heard
  • It is not enough that justice is done: it needs to be seen to be done.
  • The best resolutions are based on close relationships and mediation
  • Mutual satisfaction of the parties is more important than legal principles
  • Strict Justice (the cold hand of the law) is a last resort, when every mediation effort has failed.

This is not, of course, to suggest that mediation is ideal; it is to point out that the Torah reckons that mediation is a good place to start. Law From On High remained available for those who insist on it, if they were stubborn enough to make that demand.

One interesting corollary is that once a case is out of Norm’s hands, then he can shrug, with no hard feelings. After all, any ruling from a higher court was not his doing. Societal cohesion is thus reinforced through this process, in multiple ways.

Today, of course, our legal system tries, in its own way to achieve similar goals: judges invariably urge disputants to work things out themselves – though they don’t typically have the structure of judges which allows for multiple escalating steps. But the underlying Torah principle bears remembering: justice is about both mercy and law. But they do not apply at the same time.

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Why Seven and Two?

The seven day week is a Jewish creation (even Wiki seems to agree), and we Jews trace this number (which does not work well with either the moon or the sun) to the Torah itself, and the description of creation over a period of seven days. The number is thus quite meaningful to Jews – seven is the number of G-d’s creative acts, the number that culminates in the day we make holy, Shabbos.

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

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

For those who are still following, there is an interesting footnote as well. The Torah’s actual language regarding the pair of unfit animals is the word “two”, but the words for the seven pairs are “seven seven”. I think the “seven seven” refers to the notion that there are seven earthly levels, mirrored by seven levels of heaven (I described this in the past comparing the menorah to the corn in Pharaoh’s dream). The animals that are capable of spiritual growth have a spiritual mirror as well, hence the “seven, seven.” The unready animals are merely physical, isolated from spiritual potential in the same way that on the second day, G-d divided and cut off heaven from earth.

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Seven Sevens

As we see with the creation of the world, the number “seven” represents the physical creation of the world. The number is very common in the Torah – it is the number required to make something all anew, or to change something.

Just as it took G-d seven days to create the world, it takes mankind a period of seven to transform ourselves or others. Seven is the number representing the cycle of days to achieve Shabbos, the cycle of seven years to the land’s fallow year, and at other places in the Torah, the period of mourning, or shaming, or healing. Each of these things is compared, by the use of the same number, to the creation of the world.

So just as G-d changes the universe in seven days, when a person changes himself, he has changed his entire reality – it is as if he has built the world anew.

It works in the negative sense as well: G-d threatens to take “sevenfold” revenge on anyone who kills Cain; G-d is telling mankind that to take another life is like destroying the world.

In another prominent example: a Jewish servant works for seven years, and then he is free to go – but if he prefers, he can decide to stay in his new world, with his master, his house and his wife. After seven years he is allowed to lock in the rest of his life – he is now fit to commit himself.

Similarly, when Jacob bows seven times to his brother Esau when they reconcile, those seven bows (coupled with the presents, the repeated statement that Jacob is Esau’s servant and that Esau is “my lord”) can be understand as Jacob giving back the blessings that he had stolen. Jacob is making full restitution for wronging Esau in the first place.

So while the number “seven” is quite common in the Torah (and consistently carries the same symbolism), the combination of “seven” with another “seven” (or seven squared) are much less common, and reveal another dimension.

For example, the kosher animals were saved “seven and seven”, in part to tell us, as I wrote here:

I think the “seven seven” refers to the notion that there are seven earthly levels, mirrored by seven levels of heaven (I described this in the past comparing the menorah to the corn in Pharaoh’s dream). The animals that are capable of spiritual growth have a spiritual mirror as well, hence the “seven, seven.”

So if this reading is correct, a pair of sevens represents a spiritual analogue to the physical.

We can see this in the story of Jacob and his wives. Jacob meets Rachel, falls in love, and ends up working seven years for her sister, Leah, and then seven more years for Rachel herself.

Leah seems to be an ideal wife. She dotes on her husband; the Torah makes it clear that she cares about his happiness, about earning his love, and providing him children.

Rachel, on the other hand, is a much more ambiguous character. She seems to subscribe to superstition (the episode with the flowers), and has separation issues from her father’s religion (when she steals his idols). But most peculiar of all is that the text calls Rachel, when we first meet her, a “yefas toar” – a phrase that occurs in Deut. 10, describing a beautiful (non-Jewish) woman who is captured in battle.

In the Torah, such a woman is clearly a longshot for marital harmony, but the Torah clearly allows a man to take that captive to wife (under specific conditions). (Fascinatingly, the only other time the same phrase is used is to explain Potiphar’s wife’s attraction to Joseph, which also did not work out particularly well). If being “attractive of form” is such a problem, then why is Rachel described that way?

I’d say that Rachel represents the counterweight to Leah’s loving desire to please her husband. Rachel’s first recorded words in the Torah are to demand, “Give me children – otherwise I am dead.” Rachel represents the challenge of unrequited love for the man who loves her (the text never says that Rachel loves Jacob). Rachel is, in her way, a proper yefas toar, a beautiful captive who provides intangible frustrations to her husband.

When Jacob earns his wives, he does not merely get a pair of women. Instead, he earns the entire possible range of temperaments that can be found in any relationship. The sisters represent the full spectrum – not merely one world, but all possible worlds. If Leah represents a happy and safe relationship, the combination of both Leah and Rachel gives Jacob a fully dynamic (and sometimes chaotic) family life.

Pharoah’s dreams are also combinations of sevens and sevens – ears of corn, cows, and famine. They, too, represent a full transformation of Egypt (and Israel) in all of its forms: the introduction of Jacob’s family (and all the culture and baggage that came with it) into Egypt, the transformation of Egypt wherein Joseph would end up purchasing all the land and people to be slaves for Pharoah, the wheels that were set in motion for the enslavement of the Jews and their subsequent violent Exodus. Egypt and Israel were transformed by that experience, both physically and spiritually: seven sevens.

“Seven and seven” (in this case, multiplied) is also the number of days between leaving Egypt and the events at Mount Sinai. After centuries of what could best be described as divine neglect, the Jews found themselves thrust into a crash course on how to be close to G-d, to receive the Torah. We relive this experience between Passover and the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot) every year, as we count seven sevens from the time of the Exodus until the time the Torah was given. (See Deut. 16:9)

Lastly: while every seven years the land must be left fallow, every seven seven years, all the land outside of a walled city reverts to its previous owner. It is called yovel, or Jubilee.

And thou shalt number seven sabbaths of years unto thee, seven times seven years; and there shall be unto thee the days of seven sabbaths of years, even forty and nine years. (Lev. 25:8)

As I have written before, the purpose of the Jubilee is to force each person, no matter how involved they become in matters of the tangible world to seek a relationship with G-d, to pray in the face of uncertainty.

Seven sevens perpetuates insecurity (and growth) in both a physical and a spiritual sense. Just as seven and seven made Jacob experience the full marital gauntlet, the Torah is telling us that from the animals in the ark, to descending to – and then rising out of – Egypt, when we encounter seven sevens, we undergo a complete reboot of ourselves and and our relationship with our creator.

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Why do Jews Drop Shavuos First?

Shavuos is the “forgotten” holiday, the Jewish festival that is not only uncelebrated by less observant Jews, but almost entirely forgotten by them!

There are several reasons why this is so – the most common explanation is that unlike Pesach, for example, there is very little ritual and work associated with Shavuos. Without strenuous ritual, customs fall by the wayside. So 97% of Israeli Jews have some kind of a seder, because even very unaffiliated Jews feel some connection to the hard work their ancestors put into cleaning for Pesach for thousands of years.

But there is an answer that speaks to the reason for the season itself. Pesach commemorates a national event, and a connection to the past – to the birth of the Jewish nation out of slavery. There is nothing denominational about it, nothing to feel insecure about one’s own relationship with G-d.

But Shavuos is different. Shavuos is given to us Hag ha-Katzir,  “Feast of the Harvest”, and Hag ha-Bikkurim “Feast of the First-Fruits.” And our sages associate Shavuos with the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.

The connection between all of these is that in sum, it is a day of thanksgiving, a day of appreciation.

Herein lies the problem. To start with, saying “thank you” is difficult for most people. It is especially difficult for Jews, who have a hard time being happy with what we have. The harvest? It could have been better. The fruits? The ones we had when I was a child were much better! We even employ superstition, warding off the evil eye, to keep us from saying how good things are. So on Shavuos we are supposed to triumphantly thank Hashem for our blessings?

But the problem gets worse when we consider the Torah. After all, most Jews in the world have a deeply ambivalent approach to the Torah. Ask any non-orthodox Jew, and he or she will cheerfully tell you their issues with the Torah – all of the stringent commandments, the simplistic-sounding story of creation, the “dated” or “irrelevant” traetment of slavery, homosexuality, sacrifices. We are Jews – our love of disagreement runs roughshod over even the living document that records our earliest contrary thoughts and actions.

And to top it all off, there tends to be an underlying sense of guilt, of disconnection from thousands of years of observant Jewish ancestors, perhaps looking down at us from Heaven. It is awkward to consider one’s great-grandparents, and how they would see us today.

In other words, the Torah is, to many Jews, a source of embarrassment – at least when it is brought up at all.

So Shavuos is the first festival to go, when Jews wander from following the Torah. Most Jews are not interested in Shavuos, because they would rather that the Torah itself did not actually exist. What they fail to realize is that if Shavuos is cast aside, then the rest of our heritage, sooner or later, will follow after.

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Shofar, Explained

Rosh Hashana is described as the yom teruah – and the word teruah is not common in the Torah. It is used to describe the beginning of the national march, as well as the kickoff of the war against Midian. Other than that, teruah is used for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – and one other place: Bilaam’s bracha: Bamidbar 23:21. “Hashem Elokav eemo, ooserooahhs melech boy” Hashem his G-d is with Israel, and the clamor for the King is in him.”

This is where we are today: we blow to show our clamor for the King, because this is the coronation of Hashem.

But why the shofar? What is it about the Shofar itself?

Many people connect it to the Akeidah – but that is not the complete story, since the Shofar can be made out of ANY flock animal – not just a ram. So there is a significance to the shofar. And I will argue that the Shofar, like most mitzvos, actually reflect the core purpose of klal yisroel.

The shofar comes from a group of tahor animals that the Torah tells us are capable of being spiritually elevated to holiness.

But the shofar is not merely the horn of an animal. By itself, a horn is solid. To become a shofar, it must be hollowed out, to allow the air to pass through it. The tahor animal’s horn has human work invested in it to make it capable of being blown.

The last step is the blowing itself. What is blowing of such a horn? It is not merely allowing air to enter the shofar. Blowing a shofar is hard work as well – it requires highly pressurized air, being forced by the blower’s lungs into the animal’s horn. In other words, the blower’s body must be focused on getting compressed air into the horn, in just the right way to achieve the desired effect.

“Hakol Hevel.” Breath is everything. Without breath, there is no life. But even more than this: we know that Adam’s very soul – our own souls – are sparks of the divine, on loan during our lives. Words are a reflection of the power Hashem demonstrated when he created the world using just words. We can create with words, too. Mere sound waves that pass in an instant, can be so very powerful. A single word can have more of an impact on a person than a physical blow.

But words are not raw breath: they are filtered by our mouth, which can render them impotent or empty. Sung notes, by contrast, are less filtered, which is why music can often touch our neshamas in ways that words cannot. But when we force our ruchniyus – the spirit on loan from G-d – through the ram’s horn, it is not filtered by our guf at all. It is as raw an expression of our spirit as we can achieve.

So we are to use our body to compress the spirit within us, and force it through the horn of a kosher animal. Why?

Because this is, in fact, a reflection of the purpose of Jewish existence. Our job is to infuse the world with rucniyus, to spread G-d’s spirit throughout nature. Blowing the shofar encapsulates all of these elements: using our body and soul in concert to push Hashem’s spirit into the natural world. Because the Torah does not tell us that G-d is in nature – it says, instead, that His spirit is in mankind. And then we are, through our thoughts and words and deeds, commanded to close the loop, to combine heaven and earth.

Ze’ev Hall adds that the act of blowing shofar is therefore emulating Hashem: He breathed His creative spirit into us and we honor and commemorate that creative act by, in turn, breathing our own spirits into the shofar. The creation of mankind is commemorated on Rosh Hashanah!

Which brings us to the sound that comes from blowing the shofar. A shofar that does not make a sound is useless. Why? Because the commandment is that we hear its sound. On the first day of the year, we remember and renew our relationship with G-d, starting with the fundamental building blocks of Judaism. The sound that a shofar makes pierces our hearts and souls, touching us in a matter that is so primal that it can be frightening. It is a reminder to all the Jewish people of our purpose on this earth.

And there is another audience: the King Himself. When we blow the shofar we are also broadcasting our allegiance to the commandments given to us. We are to be holy, to create holiness in the world around us. We can be holy by uniting our body and soul (as with tefillin) when blowing the shofar. And we create holiness when, with effort, we introduce G-d’s spirit into the animal kingdom, into the rest of the world. The sounds of the shofar pierce everything around us with the bugle call of the Jewish people.

The clamor for the King is in Israel.

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The Perils of Following our Eyes

Our eyes get us into a lot of trouble. From Eve’s first glimpse of the forbidden fruit, to the moth-to-a-flame attraction that makes powerful men chase trophy women, our eyes have gotten us into trouble. Indeed, the Torah warns that, “Ye shall not do after all that we do here this day, every man whatsoever is right in his own eyes.” (Deut. 12:8) Our judgments are flawed when we use our eyes, but fail to actually think about what we see.

Dave Carter mentioned this in passing:

Ours is the generation, as President Reagan’s speechwriter Peter Robinson recently pointed out to me, that saw first-hand the fact that when you reduce the size and appetite of government, the economy grows; and when you have a strong military you can face down the acquisitive threats of monolithic totalitarian regimes. Those lessons should have resonated.

But those lessons have not resonated, at least not with a great many people. People see but do not learn. Think, for example, of people who get fed up with the taxes and regulation of their state, and then move to New Hampshire or Texas – but still vote like they did when they lived in Massachusetts or California. People see that socialism fails, but they don’t actually internalize this information.

This is a source on ongoing surprise to those of us who try to think about things. Isn’t it obvious that in Cuba and Venezuala and North Korea and the USSR… and everywhere else socialism and communism have been tried, socialism failed, and did so in catastrophically evil ways? It may be obvious to us, but it is not obvious to the leading intellectual lights at the New York Times or all the brilliant academics in universities across the world.

In the Torah, G-d sees that light (and much else besides) is “good.” G-d can see and judge and get it right based just on visual appearance. But G-d is G-d. You would expect His vision and judgment to be, well, quite good, indeed. Still, it is clearly a disappointment for Him to learn that man’s visual judgment is poor. Eve is attracted to the fruit, and that might not have been the right call.

But if their eyesight got them into trouble, it was hearing G-d moving about in the Garden afterward (Gen 3:8) that really got the attention of Adam and Eve. It was hearing, not seeing, that made them consider what they had done, think through the consequences of having followed after their eyes.

The revelation at Sinai has precisely the same problem: the people experienced Sinai, a singularly glorious event. And then, just days later, they decide to construct and worship a golden calf. The visual spectacle of Sinai does not sink in, does not deeply affect the people. Nor, for that matter, did the Exodus from Egypt, when the people complain that they will die of thirst just a few days later. The visual does not, somehow, change us.

A Torah scroll has no pictures, and the commandment is to hear it, to let the words rumble around in your head while you try to make sense of it all, letting your imaginations fill in the missing visual bits. Your eyes are left entirely out of the loop. It is words – not visions — that can change us.

Instead, people in the Torah – and in the world – learn by listening and internalizing, thinking things through. The Hebrew word is “Shomeah,” and it does not quite mean hearing, or listening, or obeying. It really means something closer to “hearing and considering.” Eyes lead us astray. But when we think about what we have heard, we are much more likely to learn from our own experience, as well as history in general.

In some sense, there is an accomplishment to be had by considering and chewing over words and thoughts, an actual investment of energies instead of merely passively absorbing images. Hearing challenges our minds in ways that seeing does not. But even though G-d repeatedly struggles to make people do it, it seems to me that the challenge remains for us anyway: it is easy for people to chase what they see. But we have to keep trying to find ways to get people to think.

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Sukkot: The Festival of our Joy?

Any poet can tell you that language is so powerful in part because it does not simply translate. Words convey a whole spectrum of meanings, depending on context, prior use, and any of a range of associations.

Jews have always read the Torah in this way, and sought to live our lives accordingly. So, for example, the Sabbath is not merely a “day of rest” – it is, at one and the same time, a series of specific rules and commandments in contradistinction to the building of the tabernacle, as well as a commemoration of the first Sabbath, when G-d finished creating, and rested. Shabbos in letter, and Shabbos in spirit. Both are in the text of the Torah.

The current Festival, Sukkot, is called a festival of joy (“simcha”). The Torah uses this word for Sukkot more than any other time of the year, which prompts the question: what is this Hebrew word that we translate as “joy”?

A quick analysis leads to the following gem: the very first time in the Torah anyone is described as being joyful is when Aaron is coming to see his brother Moses, right after the episode of the burning bush. Aaron is looking forward to seeing his brother.

The importance of this cannot be understated. Cain killed his brother Abel. Abraham left his brothers. Isaac and Ishmael did not play well together. Jacob and Esau quarreled and then separated. Joseph’s brothers considered killing him before finally deciding to sell him into slavery. Even Ephraim and Menasseh, the first brothers who were not in competition with one another, were not described as being happy for the other. Brothers in the book of Genesis did not get on very well.

Aaron, however, set the standard for how we are to behave going forward. We are supposed to be happy for our brothers, and delighted when they do well. This is, of course, very difficult – and counter to basic nature (where offspring are always in competition for food, warmth, and love). It takes refinement to be able to stop thinking of oneself, and merely be happy for someone else. Think, for example, of how an older single woman feels when her younger best friend gets engaged. Or how a barren woman reacts when she learns her sister is pregnant. Overcoming our natural selfishness is extremely difficult to do – and the highest calling for a loving society. This is joy: not giddy happiness or lightheaded frivolity, but a feeling of deep and profound spiritual warmth.

Reaching this level is not easy, and on the Jewish calendar it comes immediately after Yom Kippur, the day when we spend the most time being introspective, examining our faults and resolving to be kinder to others, to seek to improve our world and that of everyone around us. Being able to be truly happy for someone else requires soul-searching and intense preparation.

But it also requires a highly developed sense of perspective and optimism. When Aaron comes to see Moses, he is a priest for a slave people, a people whose god has apparently deserted them. Prospects are not good – not at all. And yet Aaron is truly joyful. No matter how dark and dim things may be, reunification is a thing to be celebrated. And so, too, the Festival of Sukkot. It is a time when we reunify with family, with our shared history of living in the wilderness, and, thanks to the preparations of Yom Kippur that make it possible, with G-d. No matter what else is going on, these are the days of true joy.

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Slavery – From Institutional Slavery to Personal Growth

Every relationship we have is unequal in some respect – whether we are talking about a teacher or a friend or a spouse or sibling. One person always holds more cards than does the other one. That inequality is not, in itself, a bad thing. Indeed, I think it is a feature more than a bug: our individual limitations mean that we need other people. Man is not meant to be alone. Any person, left in social isolation for even just a few days will start to slowly lose his or her mind, fermenting, curdling, and finally rotting.

Inequality, of course, means that we are not level – we learn from some, just as we can teach others. Financially the ties that bind are even tighter: wealth is defined in no small part by the ability to exchange money for goods and services. And many of our financial exchanges are not arms-length transactions at all – we integrate with our nuclear families, and we informally give and share with others in a social network that is defined by its relationships and may never even discuss money.

Our labor, then, is often not a simple exchange. My children help the family; in return I feed and house them, and my wife ensures they have clothes. We resist keeping score between parents and children, and, even more importantly, between my wife and myself. Relationships, even those that involve a lot of labor, are neither equal nor compensated in any measured or “minimum wage” sort of way.

The Torah talks of evil slavery, and good slavery, and I think the distinction is simple enough: evil slavery is unfree and dehumanized. Good slavery may not be free (though it is often time-limited), but it is predicated on a personal relationship. In personal relationships, people help one another – even people who are quite obviously unequal. Personal relationships, with people or with G-d, are necessary in order for us to be able to grow.

I think this is the Torah lesson about leaving Egypt. The institutional and national slavery to Egypt robbed the Jewish people of their ability even to think for themselves. The Exodus was about leaving that dehumanizing servitude behind, to make it possible to enter into a personal relationship with G-d.

History shows us the result: the Jewish people have grown and grown since we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and it is the result of ever-developing relationships. The disproportionate capabilities of mortal and limited man as compared to an immortal and all-powerful G-d seems almost irrelevant: when we connect with G-d (just as with man), it is an opportunity to connect, to better ourselves, to grow.

There are countless real-world implications of this lesson. For example, today we take losers and we lock them in prison. Very few people who serve time in prison become success stories, in no small part because institutions do not fix people: prisons can occupy their time, but they do not connect with people on a level that helps them change who they are. Change requires relationships. So while I loved my Ivy League university education, it was the relationships with professors and students that made the difference to my life, not the august institution itself. Institutional solutions for human problems almost always fail. Prisons succeed at locking people away, but they fail at helping the dehumanized inmates.

Can you imagine what could be if convicted criminals were offered the opportunity to better themselves through servitude (essentially trading room and board for labor) with a family? What if the money the state paid for prison time was paid to host families, essentially through a voucher system? I am thinking, I suppose, of something like a halfway home, with a sentence to serve (and reparations to be made), but with the chance for role models, rehabilitation, and an actual future.

Do you think we could advance pilot programs based on this approach, essentially foster-family relationships with convicts, giving them the chance to rebuild their lives on new foundations?

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A Hand-Up Not a Hand-Out

In communities today, we suffer from a profound welfare problem. There are countless people who do not work, and who have never worked. Instead, they rely on handouts of one kind or another. And there is no prospect of ever achieving gainful employment. In some cases, it because they lack skills. In other cases, it is because of low expectations: society does not demand that they make a living without recourse to charity or welfare payments.

While the Torah wants us to practice loving-kindness, and we are especially commanded to care for the orphan and the widow, it is not a commandment to blindly give charity to those who are capable of work. Indeed, in the ancient world, it would have been fantastical that there would come a time when society would be so very wealthy that even those who are not willing to work do not starve to death.

There was a common solution in the ancient world for when people could not afford food. The Torah tells us that the Egyptian people, when faced by the famines in Joseph’s time, ended up selling themselves to Pharoah. In a nutshell, they chose to become slaves. And in so doing, they lived.

If we did not have welfare today, then people would do much the same: they would offer themselves as indentured servants in return for life’s necessities. But servitude can be much, much more than this, and on both sides.

Consider that among people who lack skills, often the best way to acquire skills is to work as an apprentice. Trade skills such as plumbing or electrical work (or even glass blowing) are widely taught in this way, and it works well. Classically, of course, a professional might take on one or more apprentices to help with his work.

The problem is that in today’s world, lazy people don’t even look for work. They are not prepared to look for things like apprenticeships, because they don’t actually need to acquire skills in order to feed and clothe and house themselves. It is easier to beg and/or collect welfare. Rock bottom today is not low enough to make people seek to better themselves.

Slavery in the Torah was designed specifically to help people out who had hit rock bottom. Limited to 6 years, and with very strict rules on the limits of the slaveowner’s authority, a Jewish person could offer up his or her services as a slave. And for a period of time, they would have food, and clothes, and shelter. They would also be able to learn from their more successful master – essentially, an apprentice program. And at the end of 6 years, the slave would be free, richer than when he came in, and armed with a new set of skills.

Think, then, of the Torah version of slavery not as a concession to the morés of the time. The Torah does not talk of slavery so that we would eventually outlaw it. The Torah talks of slavery because it is a much more positive vision than today’s welfare state of what to do with able-bodied people who need to learn professional or life skills in order to stand on their own two feet.

Nowhere in the ancient Jewish conception of slavery was the idea that people should be treated as anything less than people as completely in the image of G-d as any other. Instead, this six year apprenticeship program, through work instead of through begging, was a much more ennobling method of giving people a hand-up, helping them get back on their feet with an independent means of making a living.

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The Spirit must not Give Way to the Letter

Judaism has been misinterpreted for millennia. In no small part, it is because the purpose of the Torah itself is not widely understood. The commandments cannot be performed without the benefit of our Oral Tradition, which means that the Torah is not a how-to book of laws.

Instead, the Torah is a text that focuses on the “why”. It explains the commandments, connecting them to the origins of the world and the events of our forefathers. And so when we read the Torah, we take every word seriously as a guide to understanding the reasons behind the commandments, but usually not the commandments themselves.

Our Oral Tradition, our sages, have developed the extent to which we expand or contract the commandments in the Torah. For example, we are forbidden to engage in “baal tashchis”, gratuitous destruction. We are not supposed to chop down fruit trees, or throw food away, or even unnecessarily destroy buildings! And where do we get this idea? From Deut. 20:19:

When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by forcing an axe against them: for thou mayest eat of them, and thou shalt not cut them down, for is the tree of the field man, that it should be besieged of thee?

One narrow commandment is expanded in Jewish Law to encompass all manners of destruction!

On the other hand, the Torah is full of commandments about putting people to death for sinful actions: murder, adultery, violating the Shabbos, a rebellious son, etc. But for all of these, the Jewish court that wielded capital punishment very rarely actually put anyone to death. The Gemara tells us that such a court was called “bloody” if it ordered the death penalty once in 70 years!

How do we square these two things? How does it make sense to interpret the law so broadly that an injunction about fruit trees in time of war applies to food left on the dinner table, while we know that, while the Torah commands us to end of the life of a juvenile delinquent, no Jewish court ever ordered it to be carried out?

I think the answer lies in our opening statement: the Torah (the Written Law) shows us what is right and wrong: it is there to show us the principle. Murder is wrong. It is deserving of the death penalty. Everyone who contemplates murder should understand the magnitude and severity of what they are thinking of doing, and hopefully be deterred from doing so.

But once someone has actually committed murder: unless someone is at risk of doing it again, how often does society really need to put the murderer to death? The answer, at least in Jewish Law and history, is, “not very often at all.”

Similarly, commandments like “eye for an eye” have always been understood in Jewish Law as not be taken literally. Instead, personal injury was settled through financial penalties, scaled specifically to “cost” the wrongdoer as if they had lost the eye in turn.

Our sages implicitly understood that the Torah was meant to establish the principle, not spell out the actual conclusions of the court. This is why the commandment to chop down the fruit tree was expanded: the Torah goes to great lengths to explain the commandment, and so the explanation itself is understood as a commandment in its own right, independent of fruit trees in time of war. “Is the tree of the field man, that it should be besieged of thee?” We should not gratuitously destroy food. We are commanded to avoid collateral damage to all things good.

Many other commandments can thus be understood the same way. A child who is the product of a highly forbidden sexual activity, is called a mamzer, and they are forbidden to enter into the community with G-d for ten generations (Deut. 23:3). Why ten generations? The first sexual perversion in the Torah is when Noach’s son Ham takes advantage of his drunk father (Gen. 9:22). From that act, G-d does not talk with man again for ten generations – Avraham being ten generations after Noach.

How do we actually interpret the law of the mamzer? Rabbi Riskin says that in the previous generation the two great sages Ovadiah Yosef and Rav Moshe Feinstein never ruled that someone was a mamzer. The Torah tells us what is right and wrong, so we might be guided by its light. But the application of the laws is much, much more lenient.

In Jewish Law, we do not make the idealized principle of the Torah the enemy of the good.

Nor does G-d Himself do this! One might think, for example, that a relationship with Hashem is accessible only to great scholars, to the holiest of people. The Torah tells us otherwise! Bilaam was an idol worshipper, and he was given the gift of prophecy. Avraham’s first connection to G-d, according to the simplest meaning of the text, was that G-d says to him, “Lech Lecha” – Go out. There is no indication that Avraham was at that moment, a particularly righteous man. Taken to its absolute extreme: a man whose parentage was unclear, who dressed as an Egyptian, and married a non-Jewish woman while living away from any Jewish community was given the opportunity to speak with Hashem at the burning bush – and this man, Moshe, became the conduit for the entire Torah and our greatest leader. But at that first moment at the sneh, he was “just” someone who saw something off the beaten path – and investigated it.

The Torah seems to tell us that every person is given at least one opportunity to connect with Hashem, and the opportunity seems to be available to every person. (I suspect that the opportunities are much more frequent even than this – I see G-d’s hand in my life every day.)

But if this opportunity is open to all humanity, then the demarcation that answers the question “who is a Jew?”, a definitional question which is essential for keeping Jewish Law within a community, is not essential for a Jewish state of mind. Just as a convert who yearns for a relationship with Hashem could be said to have a yiddishe neshama (a Jewish soul), so, too, any person who wants to have a relationship with our Creator has an opportunity do so. We are driven by our spiritual hunger, our attraction to energy in all its forms (isn’t it odd that man is the only mammal who is obsessed with fire?).

Every person has their own story. We are not meant to be like everyone else – or even any other single person! These opportunities to connect with G-d and each other are individualized and unique. The common thread is that the Torah shows us the way, by explaining what it all means, helping us discern the moral path. But once a person makes a decision, for good or ill, the Torah moves on. While the text is strict, we can (and do) choose to be lenient, with no conflict. What is done is done. Peculiarly for a nation that is so old, we do not dwell on the past. We prefer, instead, to always focus on what we can or should do next. For as long as there is life, there is an opportunity to do good.

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Flexibility Beats Strength

Children often think that the best things are those with the most impressive attributes– from buildings to animals, they look for the strongest or the tallest or the fastest.

But as we learn from our experiences, we realize that adaptability is far more valuable than inelastic specialization. Man is not the largest, fastest, or strongest animal on earth. But we clearly are the most adaptable, capable of living in the widest range of conditions, from the arctic to the tropics, desert to rain forest.

Early builders used to construct buildings that were big and strong. And then, over time, they learned (and are still learning) how to build things that are flexible, that can move when the earth does, or when the wind blows.

This general principle is remarkably versatile, and it applies to cultures and faiths and ethnicities as well as to structures. And sometimes the structure itself is a metaphor for an entire people.

A sukkah is a temporary hut, built for an 8 day festival that comes after Yom Kippur (you can see images here). A sukkah is, itself, by definition a temporary structure, and so it is constructed quite poorly.

(Years ago, when I lived in London, our Sukkah would invariably be crippled at the end of the festival by one of the impressive wind storms that batter the British Isles from time-to-time, and which were particularly effective against small thatched structures on the 4th-story porch of an apartment. My five year-old son once earnestly explained to his parents that the reason the festival was only seven days long was because on the eighth day, the Sukkah would blow down. )

Jews have been building sukkahs wherever they live for thousands of years – the commandment is found in the Torah, and we have a highly developed code of laws that define what is (and is not) acceptable as a sukkah.

Sukkahs are also highly individualistic. They come in a vast range of shapes and sizes, with seemingly-infinite customization, all within the letter and spirit of the Law. In this, Sukkahs reflect the personal preferences and aesthetics of their makers. Each family makes our own Sukkahs, as a proxy for the way in which we choose to beautify the commandment and our relationship with Hashem.

And yet, these buildings are fragile. They cannot stand up to nature, or much (if any) external abuse, because (as required by Jewish Law) their roofs can offer little or no integral resistance to the forces around them.

So, too, the Jewish people. Outside of Israel, Jews have not effectively defended themselves in thousands of years. We seemingly have no real resistance to anti-semitism, the forces of assimilation, the allures of our host countries and cultures. And still, every year, we, like our sukkahs, stand up once again. We keep coming back.

This is by way of very strong contrast to a house – a house is something that is hard to build, and should last much longer than a sukkah. And it does – but not over the long run. We built two great houses for G-d, in the two Temples of Jerusalem. Though they lasted for hundreds of years, and used stones that weighed as much as 80 tons, the Temples were destroyed. They were bludgeoned and burned and plowed over and even, under the current Arab administration of the Temple Mount, dug out from under and dumped into landfills.

The great and holy temples are no more. What man creates, man can destroy. But Judaism is not contained in its edifices, rather in its people and in the Torah. The ideas of Judaism, unlike our buildings, are not the creation of mere mortals. So, like the Sukkahs that spring up every year all over the world wherever Jews live, the ideas and principles of the Torah continue to spring back.

When we rely on buildings, we decay. When we connect with living and dynamic ideas, then we remain capable of creative thought and growth. Judaism has certainly changed and adapted, but it has always sought to do so while remaining within the letter of the law. Like our Sukkahs, we certainly bend and flex and sometimes blow completely over. But we’ll keep rebuilding our sukkahs every year, once again demonstrating our belief that it is each person’s personal connection with G-d, as fragile and mortal as it is, that matters above all. The hardiest institutions are not made of bricks-and-mortar; they are made of our constantly renewed love and service.

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What are the Key Parts of a Relationship?

Some time back, it was popular to talk about the “Five Love Languages”, the ways in which a person shows his or her love to someone else. I was always kind of resistant, partially because I reflexively suspect categorization as being a somewhat fuzzy and lazy tool, especially when applied to relationships. Or as the Babylon Bee puckishly “reported,” Husband Declares His Love Language is Marathoning All the ‘Lord of the Rings’ Movies.

Still, there is no denying that people absolutely often express love through acts of service, affirming words, gifts, time, and touch. But that, at least to me, neither properly categorizes, nor even includes the most important language of love in a growing relationship: listening. Indeed, listening to the other person is not only important, but it is the gateway to having a successful relationship in the first place. Hearing the other person, and considering what she has to say, is the first and single most important step in any proper relationship. Everything that comes after that builds on that single foundation.

I would submit that the Torah offers us a different set of love languages, the things people do when they wish to grow a relationship. They are as follows: listening, expressing desire, exchanging gifts, and visits.

“Where,” you might wonder, “did he get THAT in the Five Books of Moses?” The answer is very simple: in the commandments relating to the ultimate and completing festival of the entire Jewish year: Sukkos. And it all starts with listening – most specifically, G-d listening to man.

Listening

The first time portable booths, sukkos are mentioned in the Torah, Jacob left the service toLaban and dangerous encounter with his brother Esau, and was on the road back home to Canaan. He built sukkos for his flock, and a house for himself. It seemed to bridge the gap for him on his journey, providing a transition from his time with Laban and his brother back to his home in Canaan.

Something amazing happens: Jacob built Sukkos and a house, and G-d, it seems, was listening!

When G-d took the Jewish people out of slavery in Egypt, we were also, like Jacob, on our way to Canaan. And then G-d imitated Jacob: He provided us, his flock, with booths, sukkos in the wilderness. He commanded us to build Him a home: the tabernacle. Commemorating the sukkos was enshrined in the Torah as one of the five festivals, which is why my family and I are dwelling in our Sukkah now. But the whole idea came to be because Jacob invented it, and G-d truly listened to Jacob. That provides the underpinning not only for Sukkos but for all of Judaism: G-d and man listening to each other.

There are four species that we bring together on Sukkos, and they represent Expressing Desire and Exchanging Gifts

Desire:

1: Tamar – the palm. Joseph Cox writes:

Tamar is also the name of a person. Tamar, when she put herself in Judah’s path, took things into her own hands. She did it in order to remain a part of the Jewish people and the divine relationship. The tamar we bring represents our desire to be with G-d.

2: Hadass, myrtle. Joseph writes:

This is also a gift, but the words are more obscure. The word עָבֹת is rare. It is used to describe the gold braid that wraps around the stones on the priest’s breastplate. Gold represents the divine. With this chain, G-d is embracing our people. The myrtle represents G-d’s mysterious desire to be with us.

Gifts:

1: Willow, described as the enriching stream. Joseph:

Bilaam describes us as Hashem’s nachal, watering the world. It is a theme that recurs again and again. We are G-d’s spiritual stream.

Erev, twilight, mixes night and day. Likewise, we mix our world with His. We mix the physical and the spiritual.

The willow thus defines our gift to Hashem, bringing His presence into the world like a spring waters its environs. We are G-d’s agents, and continuing to act in that role is our ongoing present to our Creator.

2: The fruit of the persisting tree, the citron.

The persisting fruit is G-d’s gift to us, a ready-made fruit that both resembles the Jewish people in that it is seemingly outside the natural order: a citron can still grow and survive even in seasons when nothing else can, and a gift showing that G-d has endowed in us these traits: survival and beauty and persistence even when all around is wintertime and seemingly lost.

Which leaves us with just one love language left: visits.

On Yom Kippur, a mere 5 days before the festival of Sukkos starts, the high priest goes into the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle. There, the divine presence rests, separated from mankind only by a pair of angels, their wings, sochechim, providing both protection and an interference layer that allows man and G-d to be as close as possible without negating our very existence.

The odd thing is that those very angels, cherubim, are made by mankind, in gold. It is the house we made for G-d, and we provide the interface layer between us so that when we visit, we can coexist in almost the same space.

On Sukkot, the roles are flipped! The hut, the sukkah, is to remind us of the protections that G-d gave us to survive in the wilderness. He, not we, made the wilderness survivable. We just lived there. And an incredible thing happens on Sukkos: instead of man visiting G-d, He visits us! And when he does so, the angels are provided by the schach, the “wings” of the natural, G-d-made plants that we use for a roof. Angels in both cases, in both homes, and both used to provide a protective layer: but in the house we built (the tabernacle) man produced the angels, while in the house that G-d builds, the Sukkah, G-d provides the angels.

The idea is that on Sukkos G-d’s presence is on the other side of the natural schach, while on Yom Kippur, man’s presence is on the other side of the man-made schach, the wings of the golden cherubim. Reciprocity, sharing, and visits in our relationship with the divine.

There you have it: the love language of the Torah, shown in all its glory through the festival of Sukkot!

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G-d Does not Want Obedience

Recently, there was a terrible fire in a home in Israel. Two children, ages 2 and 5, were killed. Three older children in the same family, all girls, escaped. But at what cost?

Can you imagine their lives going forward? How many times will they ask themselves: “what could I have done?” “What if I had…?” “Why didn’t I try ….?” The mere thought of it shakes me to my core. Can you imagine going through your whole life with these kinds of regrets?

The psychological name for this is “survivor guilt,” and it can be crippling enough when you know there was nothing else to be done. But if you even imagine there was some other way you might have saved a life, but did not… it would be crushing.

Survivor guilt is what hammered Noah after the ordeal of the Flood – it led him to drunkenness and disgrace. Because the truth is that he actually should have felt guilt: he dropped the ball.

The Torah tells us that G-d did not merely tell Noah to build an ark. He told Noah why he was building it. More than once. Which means Noah was given an opportunity to protest, to question, to try to talk G-d down.

And then G-d even gave Noah one final opening, “In seven days I will cause it to rain….” (Gen. 7:4).  This was Noah’s last chance to try to change G-d’s mind!

What does Noah say to G-d? Nothing. Not a peep. “Noah did according to all that the Lord commanded him.” (Gen. 6: 22 and 7:5)

In other words, Noah did what he was told. He did not argue, or plead or negotiate. He did not go out to other people and try to get them to change their ways. His very name, meaning “repose,” suggests passivity, and so while Noah did what he was told, he did not do anything more.

Noah paid for it with survivor’s guilt – guilt that he had earned. Noah was righteous, in himself. And he saved his family and the animals, as G-d had commanded. But Noah was not willing to take on the responsibility for other people. It was a huge failing.

The great leaders in the Torah argued with G-d.  Avraham negotiated to try to save Sodom, and his conversations with G-d were seemingly always pushing for more – asking, querying, and even demanding.

Moshe’s first conversation with G-d started with a divine commandment (“Go talk to Pharoah”), but Moshe was not having it: he rejected G-d’s command outright. Moshe was not prepared to do it. Even more incredibly, Moshe won the argument – and went on to become our greatest prophet. He went one to argue with G-d, on more than one occasion, that G-d’s desire to destroy the Jewish people was an error. He won these arguments, too.

G-d does not want obedience. If we read the Torah carefully, G-d wants engagement. As Rabbis Sacks points out, Torah Hebrew does not even have a word for obedience.  G-d wants us to hear, to consider and think – but not to obey.

Avraham and Moshe did not blindly obey. They engaged: they prayed and questioned and tested.  This has formed the model for the Jewish people ever since: in the Torah G-d is not primarily a father or a king; as the Torah makes it abundantly clear, the closest analogue is G-d as spouse. 

Noah did not see it or act in this way.  And he had to live with the guilt, with the “what if?” questions, for the rest of his life. 

Our task is to learn, and not make the same mistakes: we are responsible for other people, even if that responsibility means questioning G-d’s plan. G-d Himself does not want us to merely do what we are told: He wants us, as full partners, to pull our own weight in the decisions about how to combat evil, and what to do with the world we inhabit.

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G-d Takes His Kid to the Office

Once upon a time, adults used to go to work, and kids went to school. But every so often, whether by design or necessity, adults would bring their kids to work with them. In some small part, it was an opportunity to provide a glimpse into the future, to help children understand what it is that adults do for a living. As children grow up, of course, it can even (depending on the profession) become a way of showing our kids the ropes, preparing them to step into our shoes, perhaps even to follow us into our own adult lives.

The conversation often goes something like this… “Some day, my child is going to grow up and inherit this business. I should show him how it works.”

Or even, if you happened to be G-d, it might go something like this:

Now the LORD said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Avraham is to become a great and populous nation and all the nations of the earth are to bless themselves by him?  For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his house after him to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is just and right, in order that the LORD may bring about for Abraham what He has promised him. Then the LORD said, “The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave!” (Gen 18: 17-20)

And then G-d explains that He is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.

Think about what this really means: G-d is sharing what it means to be in charge. The lesson is clear enough: whoever is in charge is morally obligated to judge evil, and carry out that judgement. And G-d is showing Avraham how He makes decisions, specifically because it is Avraham’s descendants who are to inherit that responsibility.

This story, perhaps more than any other in the Torah, is proof that it is our responsibility to deal with the evil in this world. We are not given the luxury of being able to turn a blind eye, to rationalizing away the bad things that happen in this world. We were shown, by G-d, how He handles things in the office, and we were shown it precisely because we are His agents on this earth, responsible for carrying out his work, “to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right.”

When Avraham learns G-d is about to do something which seems drastic, just like the child visiting at work, Avraham questions whether that drastic action is really necessary. A conversation ensues, and one in which G-d and Avraham negotiate, across the table. In the end, both sides give in, and a compromise is struck. G-d humors Avraham, but He changes his position nevertheless, in response to the feedback from His child. It is how a good boss treats a promising junior addition to the team.

G-d brought Avraham to the office, and then we his descendants, were given copies of the keys, as full partners in this enterprise. And as partners, we have to do what is just and right, walking in G-d’s path. Let’s not let Him down.

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Technology, Angels, and Mankind

In the modern world, we often avoid explicitly comparing our technological lives with our spiritual lives. After all, we have been praying the same way for a very long time indeed – what does it matter that now we have email and cars and running water? When we daven to Hashem, has anything really changed? Technology has changed the relationship we have to nature, but it has made any changes at all to the nature of man.

At least part of the answer is that no, of course the fundamentals have not changed since Avraham’s first prayer to Hashem. That kind of relationship has nothing to do with how technology has improved our standard of living, and our everyday lives.

On the other hand, we too often ignore a basic, underlying fact: we invented and developed and in all respects created technology, just as surely as Hashem created the world. For mankind, technology is a way of completing the creation of the world, of fulfilling our mission to finish G-d’s work.  To be sure, it is not the only way – there are many others – but it remains unique among all of these because technology is how we separate ourselves from, and in turn control, the natural world. We are walking in Hashem’s footsteps through the ways in which we use our ingenuity to shape and control the physical world around us.

Hashem does not use technology – he uses angels as his tools, to carry messages, to manage the workings of the natural world. The midrash tells us that every blade of grass has its own angel. Angels, like software programs, do as they are told, and all but the highest level of angel operates with no more autonomy than does a tool in our hands.  We are told that angels do not multitask – they can only do one job at a time.

Higher level angels seem to be almost human – Avram meets angels at his tent, but in the light of day, he recognizes them for what they are. When looking for his brothers near Shchem, Yosef meets an angel,  but the exchange is brief enough that Yosef thinks he is a man.  But in the dark Yaakov could confuse an angel with a man, just as, if we are confused, we can carry on electronic conversations with computers without realizing that our interlocutor has silicon for brains. Midrashic stories of angels that seem to have minds of their own are understandable for those of us with temperamental computers.

We should not rule out the possibility that just as we are meant to be seeking to emulate Hashem’s creation, and we build a mirror of the world in heaven (the beis hamikdash shel mala and the beis hamikash shel mata), that high technology is indeed meant to be an analog to the angels themselves. In terms of technology, we are in uncharted territory. But as we get closer to machines that think for themselves, perhaps we are just imitating the highest order angels that, when it is dark, can be confused with men.  In that sense, at least, mankind is elevating itself close to the highest level possible – for the first time our creations can, in limited conditions, be confused with angels themselves.

But these exceptions aside, angels are part of the natural world – the Midrash tells us that every  living thing in the natural world has its own angel. Hashem does not have angels because he is too busy, or is unwilling to be concerned with petty matters. The angels have a very specific job: to insulate the natural world from Hashem, thus allowing us to exist and have free will, operating in a world physics, chemistry and biology, natural laws that the human mind can grasp. G-d has no limits, but the world he created, large as it is, is not infinite. It is the angels that allow this to be possible, that allow man to live in a world created by Hashem without a short-circuit between the finite and the infinite that would destroy us as surely as hearing G-d directly at Har Sinai. For us to exist, we need that buffer of the natural world, of the angels that act as G-d’s computer programs in the world around us.

So while G-d made the natural world, he is not in it. When G-d gets involved, there are no laws of nature, no computer programs saying what is and is not possible. The supernatural splitting of the Red Sea was done by no angel: Hashem tells us “I, and no Seraph” did the deed. Splitting the sea, like creation itself, was never meant to be a natural act, in the sense that it was all part of the normal angelic program. Supernatural events in the Torah were not carried out by angels, but by G-d Himself. Similarly, in the Beis Hamikdash, where miracles were commonplace, there is no mention of angels as our interlocutors. It is the place where Cohanim and Hashem coexist, with no buffer on either side.

Technology is man’s way of imitating G-d. We, too, write computer programs and create tools that act to subdue, control and direct the physical world to do our bidding. And they are analogous to G-d’s creations – while our airplanes do not flap their wings like the birds Hashem made, there is no denying that both birds and airplanes fly through the air. It is a curious fact that while the natural world inspires our creation, we almost never end up doing things the same way Hashem does them: not only do airplanes not fly like birds, but our seaborne vessels use propellers instead of flippers, ground vehicles are wheeled or tracked, without legs and hoofs or paws.  Our solar power has nothing in common with photosynthesis, save only that both draw from the sun’s rays. In all of these cases, early inventors started by trying to do things G-d’s way, only to discover that they don’t work well for us. Ornithopters are inefficient for our needs, as is photosynthesis. G-d did not make the natural world so that we would go about things the same way he did. On the contrary; we are forced to innovate in new and different ways. When we walk in Hashem’s footsteps in the act of technological creation, imitatio dei is not a literal reflection of the G-d’s creation, but using his spirit to create in different and novel ways.

And just as birds and airplanes fly using different mechanisms, G-d’s creation and our own melachos are similar only in spirit and not in technique. But just because we don’t create in the same way that G-d does, does not mean that we don’t create at all: an airplane may not work like a bird, but it still flies. Our technology is different from Hashem’s, but they both serve their respective purposes.

But we are meant to restrain even our technological impulse. On Shabbos we create many things – we can procreate, we can learn and discover new concepts in Torah, by saying Kiddush we even create the reality of Shabbos itself! But none of these things are things that involve technology. None of them can be done by an angel. Shabbos is a time when G-d sets aside his tools, and we set aside ours. Both parties are meant to explore and grow without commanding our respective angels. The natural world continues on Shabbos, just as a building remains standing, or a light lit before Shabbos keeps burning.

The definition of what we are not allowed to do on Shabbos, of course, come from the 39 forms of work that we did to build the Mishkan, G-d’s home in our world. These are all technological acts, acts of technological creation. The 39 melachos are at the core of humanity’s skillset: in the ancient world they were the mechanical capabilities that separated us from animals, and allowed us to control the natural world. In a nutshell (and as widely commented on by Chazal), the technological acts of building G-d’s home, the Mishkan, are comparable to the divine acts of creating and directly manipulating the world.

This dovetails nicely into a machlokes in the Gemara about what a person should do if he loses track of time, and has no idea which day of the week it is. One opinion holds that he counts six days, and then has Shabbos. The other opinion is that he should have Shabbos first, then count six days. Rabbi Sacks explains this beautifully: the man who waits six days and then holds Shabbos sees things as G-d did – he worked for six days and then rested. But Adam had Shabbos first! So the answer to this question speaks directly to whether we imitate Hashem directly, or from man’s unique perspective. Direct imitation of G-d is making ornithopters; if we see it from Adam’s perspective, we invent airplanes. Only by making airplanes are we really imitating Hashem, because Hashem’s true creation was not the bird per se, but making something that did not exist before.[1]

This might explain why, though the Torah and Chazal discuss angels, there is virtually no curiosity about what they actually are or how they function. We really don’t need to know, because we have no obligation to create angels of our own. Thanks to technology, we have our own way of manipulating nature. The outcome of both is the same, which is why they share the same root: “melacha” is applied technology by mankind, and a “malach” represents Hashem’s technology.


[1] This might explain a good deal of halacha that suggests that truly artificial things are superior to natural ones – in things ranging from replacement organs to foodstuffs.

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Why Is the Temple Not Rebuilt?

Why wasn’t the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, twice destroyed by our enemies, rebuilt in the last 2,000 years?  We have had all those years to pray, to yearn. And yet we are somehow no closer to the rebuilding of the Temple than we were after the destruction of the Second Temple by Titus.

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

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

If we were “doing” the temple wrong the first two times, then perhaps we are not supposed to build the third Temple until after we understand why G-d commanded the tabernacle to be built in the first place!

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

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

and

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches. But let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the LORD who exercises lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness, in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith the LORD. (Jeremiah 9:23,24)

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

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

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On the Third Day, G-d Created….

Life and death. Until the third day of creation, everything was merely matter or energy. But when G-d created plants, he created life – and the inevitability of death.

G-d passed judgment on His own creations as he performed them. G-d calls the light “good”, but he refrains from calling the separation between the waters above and below “good” (from which we learn that our role involves unification). And the third day was special, because G-d labels it “good” two separate times: when the water gathers together (unifies) to form seas, and when the earth brings forth grass, herb yielding seed, fruit trees – and their seeds. Life was formed on the third day, concurrent with the necessity of death and the notion of regeneration.

Mortality is our greatest motivation: our lives are going to end, and while we may delay the inevitable, or make life more enjoyable while it lasts, the end will come for all of us. It is the fact of our deaths that drives us to make our lives meaningful and productive. “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart.” (Eccl. 7:2)

And so in the Torah, life and death are always twinned on the third day. Shimon and Levi dispensed their idea of justice on the inhabitants of Shechem on the third day by slaughtering them all. Pharoah disposed life and death to the butler and baker on the third day. “Joseph said unto [his brothers] the third day. ‘This do, and live; for I fear God.’” (Gen. 42:18). The plague of darkness lasted for three days, and the Torah seems to suggest that the decision to kill all the Egyptian first-born happened on the third day as well. And so, too, Sinai, where we received the Torah on the third day, was the place where the covenant of din, justice, was formed between the Jewish people and G-d. On the third day, Isaiah told Hezekiah that he would be healed. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish for 3 days, before returning to the world.

But the third day is about much more than just life and death, a day of judgment and the sword. The third day of creation, when when G-d created plants, was critical for what plants do. Plants live and die, it is true – but in their lives, they grow upward, toward the light that G-d had already called “good.” Elevating from the earth toward the heavens is the essence of kedusha, holiness. On the third day, the conditions are right for epochal events, events between man and G-d on the cosmic scale. It is a time when men can look up, and connect with G-d. The third day is a day for holiness.

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

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

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

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

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The Altar

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

Be Holy because I am Holy

When we make an altar, we are not supposed to use tools on it, to not contaminate it with our own action, but to keep it as basic and unimproved as a heap of ground or stones can be. The ground that we use for an altar should represent all ground, to be a thing in itself. A sacrifice has the explicit goal of connecting heaven and earth – both are things, nouns.

But the human addition to the altar is forbidden to be our physical substance: our part is one of action. Hashem tells the Jewish people that the altar should have a ramp, not steps, so that “you should not expose your nakedness,” suggesting that climbing steps requires another kind of separation between the legs.[1]

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

The Sacrifices of Cain and Abel

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

What Did Cain do Wrong?

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

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

So Hashem may have realized that the purpose underlying Cain’s offering was not proper, and He rejected it, and Cain became angry[2]:

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

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

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

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

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

So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, Lord, have given me.[3]

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

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

Prayer v. Sacrifices

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

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

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

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

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

[ Your thought about fear and our marriage to Hashem doesn’t seem to fit here. I think a separate section on fear and how it limits our relationships and connection to Hashem would be a good place to put it.]

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

* * *

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

Transcending our Physical Selves

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

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

Sweet Aroma and Moving in the Right Direction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Altar and Elevation to Holiness

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

One might ask, however: is it not problematic that the Land that is promised is named Canaan? After all, Canaan was the name of Ham’s son, and he was cursed by Noach for Ham’s sexual crime[4]. The Torah tells us that the Canaanites, guilty of sexual perversion, could not achieve holiness.

Ham’s sin explains why Avraham forbids his servant from finding a wife who is a Canaanite, why Esav earns the displeasure of his parents for marrying a local Canaanite. It is why the Torah tells us explicitly, “after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you, shall ye not do; neither shall ye walk in their statutes.”[5]

But even though the word “Canaan” (in one form or another) occurs ninety-three times in the Torah, the Torah does not use the name “Canaan” when referring to acts of holiness. The land itself, while named for its inhabitants, is not called “Canaan” by the Torah whenever we are charged with holiness, with doing Hashem’s will. Instead, the Torah goes to great lengths to avoid using the name “Canaan” when referring to the purpose of the land as the place where man is meant to connect with Hashem, to create holiness. Avraham is not told “Go to Canaan,” but instead, “Go to the land that I will show you.” When commanded to bring offerings, the Torah does not tell us to go to the Land of Canaan. Instead, the Torah phrases it otherwise: “. . . in the place which he shall choose to cause His name to dwell there.”[6] or “the Lord thy Hashem shall choose to set his name there.”[7].

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The answer is that the meal offering was brought by those who could not afford to purchase an animal. For such a person, even financing the meal offering was a substantial investment (and sacrifice) of his or her own meager possessions. The reason the Torah says, “And when any will offer a meal offering to the Lord,”[8] the Hebrew word used for “any” is nefesh or spirit. The Talmud tells us that a meal offering was not the spirit of the animal but represented the spirit of the person making the offering itself! Which might explain why the meal offering is given pride of place when the Torah lists the offerings:

This shall be yours of the most holy things, reserved from the fire; every offering of theirs, every meal offering of theirs and every sin offering of theirs, and every guilt offering of theirs, which they shall render to me, shall be most holy for you and for your sons.[9]

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

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

And among all of these contributions, it is when we actively choose to find ways to elevate the physical into the spiritual plane, that we are fulfilling the purpose of our existence in this world: Hashem wants us to be holy, and the greatest holiness is achieved when we serve Hashem by connecting the disparate worlds that He formed in the beginning of creation.

One beautiful and creative explanation of the sacrifices was made by Joseph Cox in a video he produced.[10]

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

Seven, Two and the Animals

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

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

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

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

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

And if a man come presumptuously upon his neighbor, to slay him with guile; thou shalt take him from Mine altar, that he may die.[11]

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

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

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

Now the serpent was more arum than any beast of the field which the Lord Hashem had made.[12]

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

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

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

Oil and Man’s Relationship with Hashem

Hebrew is a language with relatively few words, and so different words often share a common root. In the case of “eight” the word is composed of three letters: shin, mem, and nun, which spell shemen, or oil. And what is very cool (at least for a Torah geek like me) is that the very first time oil is mentioned in the Torah is when Yaakov, after awakening from the dream in which he sees angels ascending and descending from heaven, announces his realization that the place is the “gate of heaven.”[13] Yaakov takes the stone that he had used as a pillow, the resting place for his soul the night before, and sets it up as a pillar, a kind of altar. Then, to seal the deal, Yaakov poured oil on top of it.

This is not the first time that oil is mentioned in the Torah; it was also the first time anything is poured on any head. But it was not the last! Yaakov actually seems to set the trend. Hashem commands Moshe to pour oil on Aharon’s head[14], which he does.[15] (The language is the same in all three cases.)

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

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

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

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

The Mysteries of the Sacrifices

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

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

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

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

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

The Absence of Sacrifices Today

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

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

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

  1. Exodus, 20:23

  2. Genesis, 4:6-7

  3. Deut. 26:5

  4. Genesis, 9:25-27

  5. Leviticus, 18:3

  6. Deuteronomy, 14:23

  7. Deuteronomy, 14:24

  8. Vayikra 2:1.

  9. Bamidbar 18:9.

  10. He offers a comprehensive and concise explanation of all the of the symbolism involved in a sacrifice. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hxVB_Nv7h94&t=14s

  11. Exodus, 21:14

  12. Genesis, 3:1

  13. Genesis, 28:18

  14. Exodus, 29:7

  15. Leviticus, 8:12

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The Ark

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

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

Embracing Insecurity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is another vessel in the Mishkan and Beis Hamikdosh that renewed the connection between these two marriages, with Hashem and our spouse, each and every day. The kiyor or laver, was made “of bronze, and its pedestal of bronze, from the mirrors of the women [who bore those] who assembled at the door of the Tent of Meeting.”[1]

The clear meaning of the verse is that the laver was made from mirrors used by women in Egypt to incite desire, lust, in their husbands. How on earth can such an object be present in the Mishkan, let alone be a critical feature? The question is an obvious one, especially for those who tend to consider love and lust to be embarrassing.[2] Indeed, our sages tell us that Moshe had a hard time understanding this instruction.[3]

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

And the commandment concerning the laver tells us that marital love comes first, as a prerequisite to heavenly love.[4] The laver is the preparatory step for service to Hashem, and it is the only vessel in the Beis Hamikdosh that has its own base, that can stand by itself. Marital love inspires and reinforces our service to Hashem. Love between man and woman not only allows for the creation and nurturing of children, but it is the essential building block of society. Marital love is holy DO WE NEED TO SAY WHY?. Combination of physical and spiritual, doing something at the edge of human physical experience that can (and should) also be at the edge of spiritual experience. Fulfillment of commandments to cleave to spouse, to procreate. Also growth between very different people, stretching to make that connection possible is analogous to our relationship to HKBH. [steal from Torah Manifesto book]

The Torah describes the process of rapprochement between Hashem and the Jewish people in a dance of oscillating words: the people do X, and Hashem does Y. Then the people respond with Q, and Hashem moves onto P, and so on.[5] There is fluid movement on both sides, changes in posture and attitude and desires, sometimes flexing in toward each other, sometimes bending away or even—when things go very wrong—one of the dancers abruptly breaking it off and leaving the dance floor.

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

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

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

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

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

The Mating Call

Insecurity is the primary mover to our pursuing a marriage with Hashem and another human being, but loneliness can also be a powerful motivation.

In the last exchange in the Torah between Hashem and Avraham, Hashem instructs Avraham to offer Yitzhak as a sacrifice. This time, Avraham seems to understand. He does not argue or negotiate. He wakes up early in the morning, and goes off with Yitzhak. The Binding of Yitzhak culminates with Hashem being pleased that Avraham was willing to offer “thy son, thine only son, from me.” The love is not gone, but it is reprioritized. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?

After the would-be sacrifice (the Akeidah), the Torah tells us that Avraham left to go to Beer-Sheba, and he stayed there. But Yitzhak is not mentioned. The Torah does not tell us where Yitzhak was – and it does not say even that Avraham and Yitzhak 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, Yitzhak no longer had the same home to go back to (and any mere mortal would even have blamed his father for Sarah’s passing).

Yitzhak was alone. 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. I have heard countless stories of people finding faith when they were down and out, in places dark and lonely. And it THE TORAH tells us what to do in that situation: seek to connect. Pray. And look for love.

And so Yitzhak went to find Hashem, to go to the place where Hashem was known to talk to people, and give them guidance and hope. He went to Beer-lahai-roi[6]. He went to the place that was named because Hashem sees people there, and, based on Hagar’s experience, Hashem connects to people there.

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

Marriage exists for its own sake. If a marriage is blessed with children, it is a wonderful thing – but the marriage is supposed to be built first and foremost. And when we don’t prioritize our lives accordingly, then we, both as a nation and as individuals, end up paying the price.[7]

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

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

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

This is our Zikaron Teruah[8], remembrance through shofar-blasts. The remembrance is to recall that once again this part of the wheel is touching down, and we are repeating the connection to Hashem, the connection made through the millennia, stretching back to the blasts at Sinai, and the offering of the ram in place of Yitzhak. And the shofar blasts indicate our heartfelt desire to renew our commitments to Hashem, to both renew and grow our marriage to Hashem.

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

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

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

Engaging in the Dance of Marriage

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

The opposition between man and Hashem has always been framed as a kind of marriage, a national marriage to Hashem.[9] Marriages come in different varieties, exemplified by the examples the Torah gives us of our forefathers. We know that Avraham and Sarah had a partnership in which Sarah was not afraid to confront her husband when she thought he was making a mistake.

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

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

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

When you go, you shall not go empty. Every woman shall borrow from her neighbor, and from her who sojourns in her house, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and garments, and you shall put them upon your sons, and upon your daughters.[10]

And then, after all but the last plague:

Speak now in the ears of the people, and let every man borrow from his neighbor, and every woman from her neighbor, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold.[11]

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

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

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

The answer is that “jewels of silver and jewels of gold, and garments” are in fact part of Jewish lore: they come from the very first story of an engagement between man and wife – Avraham’s servant brings out “Jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and garments, and gave them to Rivkah.”[12]

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

So far, so good. But then what happens to this jewelry? At Sinai, when Moshe does not come down when expected, Aharon tells the Jewish people to bring their gold – and it is made into the golden calf. Where did this gold come from? It was the very same gold that Hashem had “given” the Jews via the Egyptians! Indeed, the text makes this quite clear when it uses the same phrase “your sons and your daughters” that He had used when promising the gold to Moshe in the first place! This was the very same gold taken from the Egyptians. “And Aharon said unto them: “Break off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me.”[13]

NOT CLEAR

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

And Aharon said unto them: “Break off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me.”[14]

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

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

And by thy sword shalt thou live, and thou shalt serve thy brother; and it shall come to pass when thou shalt break loose, that thou shalt break his yoke from off thy neck.[15]

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Hashem said to Moshe: “Cut two tablets of stone like the first; and I will write upon these tablets the words that were in the first tablets, which you broke.” … And Hashem passed by before him, and proclaimed, “The Lord, The Lord Hashem, merciful and gracious, long suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.”[16]

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

Making the Marriage Work

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

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

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

Speak to the people of Israel, that they bring me an offering; from every man that gives it willingly with his heart, you shall take my offering.[17]

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

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

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

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

And so, marriage itself must also be unique, and entirely dependent on what the couple chooses to create. Similarly, we can freely choose the degree of our relationship with Hashem – everyone has a different level of investment and passion.[18]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what is the return on his investment? With Leah, Yaakov enjoyed a richer and fuller marriage, and eternity spent together in Machpelah after their lives had passed.

The marriage with Rachel is also commensurate with Yaakov’s investment: she is not similarly blessed with children nor even with a notable love for her husband.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building the Ongoing Relationship

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

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

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

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

Hashem wants us to be free, so that, on an ongoing basis, we can choose to have and develop a relationship with Him. That freedom means that we can – and many do – decide to exercise our freedom and walk away from Hashem. That is a price Hashem is willing to pay, because He would rather that everyone who serves Him does so willingly, rather than do so because they feel they have no choice.[19]

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

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

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

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

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

And Judaism is profoundly personal. The Torah tells us that Hashem put his soul in us.[20] And so our prayers, our services, our blessings, have an internal audience: Hashem does not need your sacrifices, or even your blessings for their own sakes. What He really wants is for sacrifices and blessings to lead us to a closer and more intimate relationship with our own spiritual souls, and Hashem on the elevated spiritual plane. Prayer is directed both outside and inside, which is why it is so similar to meditation. The Torah has entire chapters dedicated to the spiritual illness of tzaraat , which occurs to people who treat others poorly, as Kayin treated Hevel. Seen in this light, every single law of the Torah, from sacrifices to divine services to the laws of kosher food and caring for the orphan is given to us for the purpose of correcting and improving ourselves.

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

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

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

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

We must accept the logic: there is, indeed, no external victim of a childless love between close relatives or homosexuals. Why, then, does the Torah forbid these relations for Jews? And even more than this: why does it put these laws right in the middle of the Torah, as a centerpiece of the entire Jewish legal code? To answer this, we must recall that the word “Torah,” as used in the text itself, is both an evocation and a guidebook.[21] The Torah is the roadmap, the recipe, for holiness, for a relationship between Hashem and man.[22]

And this explains the reason for the forbidden relations in the Torah. Those relationships are not inappropriate because of taboo – not really.[23] They are inappropriate because they are too easy. It is not properly challenging to be married to a woman who is closely related, or to a member of the same sex. Not enough divides people who come from the same household, or who, because of their physiology, see the world largely the same way. To have the possibility to grow, we must be uncomfortable.

Thus, the Torah praises marriage and condemns promiscuity, because promiscuity cripples our ability to connect to our spouse. This fact matters, of course, because relationships between husband and wife are the model for the relationship between Hashem and the Jewish people. Failed human relationships lead to failed relationships with our Creator, in this generation and in future generations. We take the long view, and keep the big picture in mind.[24]

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

And so, marriage itself must also be unique, and entirely dependent on what the couple chooses to create. Similarly, we can freely choose the degree of our relationship with Hashem – everyone has a different level of investment and passion.[25]

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

Hashem’s love for us is like marital love: the Torah is full of this kind of imagery, with The Song of Songs, Shir Ha Shirim, the most explicitly intimate of these. Consider, for example, the explicit instruction from Hashem to the Jewish people to “return to your tents”[26] after the giving of the Torah. Rashi tells us that this is a commandment that husbands and wives shall once again build their own holy houses, to once again unite and make homes suitable for Hashem’s presence. The goal of returning to our tents, to our marriages, is to ensure that the attitude and mindset we experienced when we were with Hashem at Sinai remains with us as a people forever. In other words, these are connected events: we seal in the magic of the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the national marriage to Hashem, by building our personal marriages with our spouses.

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

Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat, but of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, you must not eat thereof; for on the day you eat of it, you shall surely die.[27]

And then, right after this, the first of all commandments, which is, after all, Adam’s very mission statement, what does Hashem do? “Hashem said, ‘It is not good for man to be alone.’”[28]

It is a complete non-sequitur! One might think that having just received a command from the Source of all Existence, Adam would be very much un-alone: Hashem is standing right there with him!!!! Adam is the least alone being in creation! And yet, at the very moment Adam hears Hashem’s voice, Hashem determines that Adam simply cannot be allowed to live alone! Hashem is informing us as to Adam’s existential state: Adam is alone! Adam has heard Hashem’s voice, and he knows exactly what Hashem demands from him, with greater clarity than any human[29] since…. yet he is totally and utterly alone! That’s an amazing assertion! But Hashem states it:

And now, therefore, “Go back to your tents”![30]

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

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

Not for nothing does Bilaam use the poetic phrase “Ma Tovu Ohalecha,” “How Goodly are your Tents!”[31] Bilaam saw that the fundamental unit of the Jewish nation is found in its marriages, in its tents—and this is why he returns to advise Israel’s enemies to send their daughters into Israel’s camp as whores, to tear up the tents of Yaakov, to destroy the holy relationships between husbands and wives.

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

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

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

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

How challenging is the relationship between man and Hashem? Are there any limits to how radically different we can be from our Creator? The Torah specifically includes even the most extreme case of a marriage, and connects that to our relationship with Hashem. It tells us of seeing a beautiful woman, and capturing her in battle. This woman shares no culture or language or faith: she is simply attractive to the conqueror – and the Torah allows the soldier to marry that unsuitable woman – with not even a word of criticism or warning.[32]

The Jewish people are the beautiful, but wholly inappropriate, wife for Hashem. When we lived in Egypt, we too were captives. As Ezekiel says (and as we read every Pesach), “[the Jewish people] became very beautiful, your bosom fashioned and your hair grown long, but you were naked and bare…. I pledged Myself to you, entered into a covenant with you, and you became Mine, declares the Lord G-d.…”[33] So Hashem, who was engaged in a war with the deities of Egypt, desired us in all our long-haired and raw beauty. We, the Jewish people, are that beautiful woman, the spoils of Hashem’s war on Egypt and her deities.

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

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

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

Embracing Intimacy USED THIS HEADING EARLIER

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

This can also explain how Rashi emphasizes that intimacy, physical enjoyment, between a man and his wife was particularly important on Shabbos.[34] Elsewhere, Rashi advocates that not only scholars, but lay people also should engage in this practice on Friday night.[35] Every Jewish marriage aims to invite Hashem into the relationship, and if Shabbos is a path to the unification of heaven and earth, then the unification of a couple on Shabbos is doubly so.

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

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

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

Working through Issues in a Marriage

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

Facing Uncertainty

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

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

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

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

Suspicion of infidelity is entirely disabling – at least in the sense of being able to spiritually grow. Of course, Shakespeare did not invent the idea of the suspicious husband. The Torah deals with this issue.[36] The process for resolving this uncertainty is thick with symbolism, and designed to put the husband’s mind at ease: either his wife has been faithful, or she has not. Either way, the suspicion is put to rest.

ALL FROM VIEWPOINT OF MAN TOWARD WOMAN . . .

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

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

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

And when they came to Marah, they could not drink of the waters of Marah, for they were bitter; therefore, its name was called Marah.[37]

The waters were bitter because Hashem wanted to connect the Jewish people to the lack of fidelity to Him in their own past. The first time the word for “bitter” is found in the Torah is when Esav marries a Hittite women. And they made life bitter for Yitzhak and for Rivkah.[38]

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

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

‘. . . the Lord showed him a tree, which when he threw into the waters, and made the waters sweet;’[39]

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

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

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

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

And He said, ‘If you will diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your Hashem, and will do that which is right in his sight, and will give ear to his commandments, and keep all his statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon you, which I have brought upon the Egyptians; for I am the Lord that heals you.’[40]

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

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

Dealing with Life and Loss in Marriage

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

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

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

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

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

Both the cave of Machpelah and the Beis Hamikdosh are eternal parts of the Jewish people and the land of Israel. They are, of course, necessarily separate. The cave of Machpelah is a place only for the dead, while the Beis Hamikdosh is only a place for the living. The two places are two sides of the same coin: the former unifies man and wife in death,[41] while the latter connects man and Hashem in life.

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

As Rabbi Tarfon taught, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.”[42]

Conclusion on the Ark/Intimacy/Marriage/Path to Holiness.

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

We all do it. We read something, and instead of taking it at face value, we tell ourselves “that can’t be right,” and then we reinterpret the text to be more in line with our expectations. The interpretation is invariably far more revealing about the reader than it is about the text itself. And as a result, the true meaning of the text is cloaked, waiting for someone else to come along and read the actual words.

Exodus 34:10 is translated by Artscroll as the following:

He said, ‘Behold! I seal a covenant: Before your entire people I shall make distinctions such as have never been created in the entire world and among all the nations; and the entire people among whom you are will see the work of Hashem – which is awesome – that I am about to do with you.

This is a very odd verse, made odder by the translation. The translator, and commentators from Rashi to Ramban, have a big problem with the word “niflaot”, which literally means “wonders” – and so they translate it as “distinctions.’ Or as Artscroll puts it, quoting Ramban, “The word cannot mean wonders, as it usually does, because the future history of the nation did not show greater miracles than God had done in Egypt and at the Sea of Reeds.”

Really? This is an excellent example of putting the cart before the horse. Perhaps Ramban, living in a medieval world in which Jews were a comparatively insignificant nation in exile, could not see a bright future for the Jewish people. But today, we can see the words of this posuk as nothing less than a prediction: the best is yet to come.

And why not? Today, Jews represent a vanishingly small minority of the world’s population (13 million out of 7 billion), yet have made a larger single contribution to western civilization than any other: from monotheism to Einstein, from Nobel prizes to 20th century innovations – and even the spread of ideas from Marx and Freud that we now view as wrong (and even evil), but which still rocked the world. The contribution has not been uniformly positive, but nobody can doubt that we Jews continue to punch above our weight class.

If you ask a random person on the street what is miraculous about the Jews, they might answer that it might be that we exist at all – how many nations continue to exist in exile, let alone flourish? They might talk about Israel, surrounded and vastly outnumbered by hostile nations. They might talk about the disproportionate numbers of philosophers or physicists or engineers or even lawyers who are Jewish. But the Exodus from Egypt won’t make the list – the wonders we have seen in our own lives defy logic, and cast the Exodus from Egypt into the background.  So the posuk is prophetic, in telling us that the wonders that will befall our nation will dwarf the Exodus. We can read this verse literally.

But no verse in the Torah stands alone. It comes with context, and the context is critical to understanding the other errors that translators make. This verse occurs right after the second set of tablets were forged, and it comes at a critical moment at Jewish history.

G-d had given the Jews the first set of tablets, and even before they came down from the mountain, the Jews had sinned with the golden calf. As a result, G-d wanted to destroy us and Moshe intervened, pleading for mercy, and a second chance. This verse comes with that second chance – it is the New Deal, the agreement between the Jewish people and G-d going forward:

Before your entire people I shall make distinctions [wonders].

Except that the Hebrew is not “before”, or “lifnei” – it is “neged”, which means “opposed”. This verse does not only say that G-d will make wonders in our future, but it says that these wonders will come about as a result of conflict between Hashem and ourselves. The immediate parallel text is the creation of Chava, Eve: she is created as an “ezer knegdo”, a helpmate to oppose Adam. Men need a wife who helps and opposes, testing, questioning, pushing, even at the cost of domestic bliss.

The Torah is telling us that in the wake of the sin with the golden calf, G-d is recognizing that the Jewish people are not going to take G-d’s laws, behave perfectly, and live happily ever after. G-d pushes us, and we push back. G-d throws challenges in our path, and we pray, and question, and even sometimes rage at Him. We rebel and go off the path: as a nation we never fully break loose, and yet we never fully submit ourselves to His will either.

This verse turns the utopian vision of a “happily after” on its head: great things will come about as the direct result of the creative tension between G-d and his people. This is a verse that is saying that the Jewish people will sin. G-d now accepts that. And He will oppose us, and quarrel with us. The product of this oppositional engagement will be wonders that will make the Exodus from Egypt pale in comparison. Jews and our G-d will tussle throughout history, and as a result of that continued opposition, we produce great miracles – in every creative endeavor, including science, technology, politics, and thought. 

The verse ends with: and the entire people among whom you are will see the work of Hashem. This verse cannot apply in the wilderness, of course, for the Jews were not living among other nations. This prophetic verse is about the thousands of years of Jewish exile, and Jewish existence today among the nations of the world. It is the Jewish people who are the miracles and wonders that show G-d’s greatness – not because we are perfect servants of the King of Kings, but because we are a difficult and obstinate people, always questioning and pushing back, and even sinning. Marx and Freud may have been self-hating Jews, but these exceptions only prove the rule, as given by this verse: “In opposition to your entire people I will make wonders.”  

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The Consequence of Boredom

The entire book of Bamidbar (Numbers) is comprised of story after story of the Jewish people complaining; they complain about food, about water, about Israel, about leadership, about everything, seemingly, they can think of.

The pattern is a predictable one. There is a complaint. G-d reacts. People die. Rinse and repeat.

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

But we must not miss a key point: that the time we spent in the wilderness was actually a mutual learning experience. The Jewish people learned a great deal – but so did Hashem. As a result of our actions at Sinai, for example, G-d learned that we could not, as a nation, handle the strict judgment handed down in the first set of ten commandments. And so Hashem reacted accordingly, with a new set of commandments that emphasized mercy in place of judgment.

I think the single most important thing that G-d learned in the wilderness, through the repeated and incessant complaints of the Jewish people, was that we are not a people that handles boredom well.

Consider: in the wilderness we had all of our material needs taken care of. We did not lack for food or clothing or shelter. We were not seriously threatened by any invaders. We were, in a sense, cocooned by G-d’s presence from the real world. And we, a nation some 2 million strong, had basically nothing to do between the time we built the Mishkan, and when we started the conquest sequence leading to entering the land of Israel.

This was a recipe for disaster, and so it proved. Jews, when bored, get into no end of trouble. This is the repeated pattern in the Torah. Our complaints were not because we really wanted quail or fish or forbidden sexual relations. We did not demand that spies be sent into the Land of Israel because we were really concerned about the best military strategy. We had nothing to do, so we, as a nation worried and fretted. We invented woes, and we escalated minor inconveniences or fears into mass, mob-induced hysteria.

When one sees how often such hysteria led to bloodshed, the obvious question might be: why did the Jews keep getting hysterical? And the answer is that at some level, we preferred the cycle of complaint and death to one of no action whatsoever. If G-d was not going to challenge us, we were going to challenge Him, even if it was obvious at the outset that such challenges were doomed to fail.

So as much as we can learn from these episodes about how to relate to G-d, it is clear from Jewish history that G-d also learned how to relate to us. Not since the wilderness has G-d sheltered us from nature or outsiders, providing our every need. He knows that while we might say that such an arrangement would be wonderful, we actually have almost no tolerance for an existence without challenges, without mountains to climb and tasks to complete.

And so, ever since the wilderness experience, G-d has deliberately and explicitly chosen to interact with all G-d-fearing Jews on a confrontational basis. He does not coddle us, or provide for our every need. We are challenged at every turn, in every imaginable way. It is the nature of our relationship to Him that it never ends. Even the Jew with the greatest relationship in the world to G-d does not live a worry-free existence. We know from the Torah what happens when Jews get bored. So G-d no longer lets that happen.

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The Gemara and Science

[With Simcha Baer!]

When summarizing the Gemara’s understanding of the natural world, modern questioners often get hung up on how “unscientific” our sages were – after all, any quick perusal of the Gemara shows us that our medieval ancestors often regarded the sun as rotating around the earth!

The common reply to this is that it is equally arbitrary to declare that the sun is at the center, when any astronomer will tell you that the solar system is itself wheeling away from a notional center of the known universe.  In a world where there are no fixed points, there is no obvious “wrong” place to put a pin, and call it the center. So far so good – but we don’t actually learn anything from this answer, except perhaps a better appreciation for relative space.

A far more interesting answer can be seen by reading the Gemara more carefully, and setting aside our modern conceits. Everyone knows about Galileo and Copernicus and Kepler – we expect to see the medieval debate as between those who see the earth as the center of the world, and those who are aware that there is a larger solar system.

But this is NOT the perspective of the Gemara at all! On the contrary. Our sages (in stark contrast to the Greeks and Babylonians, to take two examples) were not fanatical trackers of stars and planets, and they were also not particularly interested in identifying the center of the world as the sun or the earth. By jumping to conclusions and not reading carefully, we fail to realize that the perspective of the Gemara is not earth-centric at all: it is invariably centered on the individual observer. Knowing full well that the horizon is entirely relative to the person looking for it, the halacha nonetheless does not aim for an absolute measure of time or space. Shabbos  begins when the individual perceives sundown, and it ends when the individual sees three stars.  The sun does not rotate around the earth – it rotates around each and every one of us.

Seen from this perspective, a lot of things become more clear. We already know from the Torah that the earth was created for the purpose of mankind. But we also learn through this insight how extremely egalitarian Judaism really is – each and every person is understood to legally have their own reality. And it is entirely legitimate for everyone to see that the world really was created for the sole purpose of their own existence.

In other words, when we say that someone who saves a life is as if he saved the whole world, we are supporting the core notion that every life has incalculable value, that G-d made the entire universe so that a single person could draw breath and choose whether or not to follow in Hashem’s path.

Both the sun and the earth are important, but they are not the reason Hashem made the world.  We are not pagans; we do not consider either the sun or the moon to be divine, or important in themselves. Whether the sun rotates around the earth or vice-versa, the universe exists for, and rotates around, every living human being.

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Aiming Too Low

The Jews in Egypt were enslaved. Their children were being murdered. And … they had to do a lot of work.

… and the people of Israel sighed because of the work, and they cried, and their cry came up to God because of the work. (Ex. 2:23)

Seriously? What is wrong with a people who, when oppressed in their bodies and souls, complain about the least of their problems?

The answer, of course, is that this reaction is all-too-common in oppressed people. When there is no hope, people only nibble at the margins of the real problem: instead of striving for freedom, they accept 99% of their lot, only begging for the smallest respite, for the merest crust of bread.

We were so far down the hole that G-d’s biggest challenge with getting the Jews out of Egypt was not the Egyptians, but the Jews. Miracles are easy for omnipotent G-d. But convincing Jews? That is a much tougher challenge.

Consider that when G-d tells Moshe that he is to lead the Jewish people. Moshe’s first question, as Rabbi Sacks perceptively points out, is to ask: “Who am I?” Even the man who was capable of leading us out of Egypt, receiving the Torah and leading the Jewish people in the wilderness did not have confidence that he could do it. G-d spent days trying to convince Moshe to take on the task, and even then Moshe dug in his heels on the issue of talking to Pharoah. Once someone says “I can’t”, even G-d Almighty is not able to change that person’s mind. And that was Moshe, the very best of us!

So the challenge for G-d was to convince the Jewish people that as long as G-d was with them, they could indeed hope for more than just reducing their workload. And given how difficult it was just to get Moshe to “buy in,” convincing the Jewish people to have hope was the real challenge. G-d can do anything, but His people are victims of our own perceived limitations.

Today we still suffer from precisely the same problem. G-d is clearly with us, as surely as He was with us in Egypt. And yet we nibble at the margins. As individuals and as a people, we consistently aim too low. While we may expect great things from other people, we consistently settle for less from ourselves. We don’t strive for greatness, out of a mistaken impression that G-d craves a non-Jewish sense of humility, that we really are supposed to fit in with the crowd, not make too big of a splash. Somehow, we think that “normal” is a virtue.

And nationally? 44 years ago, G-d not only miraculously made us victorious in the 1967 war, but he also delivered Jerusalem into our hands. What did our bold and fearless leaders do? They promptly give the Temple Mount back into the hands of those who defile it.

We have G-d with us! We can achieve anything! And the Torah shows us that when G-d gives us opportunities, the right response is not to ask, “Who am I?”

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Yom Teruah: The Mating Call of the Jewish People

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

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

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

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

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

It is in this context that we can understand the High Holy Days. Observed in pretty much the same way for millennia, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur might seem repetitive, a neverending sequence of repetitious turns of the wheel, until one stands back and appreciate the broader view – the grand historical arc of the Jewish people, superimposed on the personal and heartfelt arc of the life of a single person. These are the days where we realize how far we have traveled since the last time we were here: we take stock of our lives, and our loves, our commitments and desires.

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

Ours is not a transcendental faith: Judaism believes in anchoring ourselves in the physical world and then seeking to personally grow and also elevate the world around us. To this end, every physical act that mankind can engage in is something that we ennoble with blessings or prayers or rituals, infusing spirituality into even the most mundane acts. Everything we can do with our bodies can be done in a holy manner, in a way that makes the world a better place.

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

This is our Zikaron Teruah (Lev. 23:24), remembrance through shofar-blasts. The remembrance is to recall that once again this part of the wheel is touching down, and we are repeating the connection to G-d, the connection made through the millennia, stretching back to the blasts at Sinai, and the offering of the ram in place of Isaac. And the shofar blasts indicate our heartfelt desire to renew our commitments to G-d, to both renew and grow our marriage to G-d.

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

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

The journey down the road starts this very moment. The shofar blast is coming, and the dance is about to begin. Our partner is waiting, yearning to hear the teruah, the Jewish people re-initiating the dance. As the Torah makes clear, G-d wants to dance. But before He can, He needs us to take the first step, to call out with the zikharon teruah, to simultaneously recall our shared mutual history, and to express our desire to begin the whirlwind love affair all over again.

 

 

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Why Does the Moon Matter?

The Torah is within our grasp: “But the word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it.” And so I immediately distrust any Torah explanations for which the author ties themselves in knots trying to make a given case.

Take the comparisons of the Jewish people with the moon. The commandment to declare the first month, to essentially start the clock on the national Jewish calendar, is the first commandment given to the Jewish people. It must, therefore, be very important.

And so commentators discuss at length why the moon is so very important, contrasting the waxing and waning of the moon with the steadiness of the sun, discoursing at length about the Jewish people as the embodiment of the moon. Some go so far as to argue that the moon lends a sense of historical destiny that is not found in the sun – despite the rather obvious fact that the moon is no less periodic and repetitive than is the sun. These arguments are, despite the pretty poetry, ultimately unconvincing.

The real answer is much simpler, and just requires remembering a key fact: the Jewish calendar is NOT actually lunar! Ours is a combination of both the sun and the moon –months are lunar, but the length of the year is determined by a synthesis of the sun and the moon.

This is indeed the way G-d made the world – before the sun and moon were named, their purpose was identified: (Gen 1:14) And God said, Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years. The primary purpose of the sun and the moon was to allow people to mark time.

And why is our calendar a combination of the sun and the moon? Recall that every ancient culture thought of the sun and the moon as deities – so their calendars were typically solar or lunar depending on which deity they thought was watching over them. Since the sun is the most powerful natural force, it is the natural choice for pagan cultures.

Judaism is monotheistic – and we are not pantheists – we do not worship things in nature as deities. So our calendar combines both the sun and the moon as a profoundly theological statement that while we use the natural world to keep time, G-d is the master of the entire natural world, and we give no primacy to either the sun OR the moon.

In Egypt, Ra, the sun god, was considered a supreme deity (and the year started with the flood of the Nile). Jews had been exposed to that world for hundreds of years, so Hashem’s commandment to mark the lunar month was not a statement that we are to consider ourselves as a “moon” people,, but rather as a counterbalance to sun-worship; to openly state that as a nation, we mark time using both the sun and the moon to acknowledge that both were made by a single Creator.

So the first commandment to the Jewish people, that we mark the first month, is a profoundly monotheistic statement. Like the first of the Ten Commandments (“I am the Lord your G-d”), marking the moon is an acknowledgement that there is a single G-d, who created the entire world.

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The Nature of an Arab

There is no doubt that Ishmaelites are the Arab peoples; the descendants of Ishmael are the traders who bring the chained Joseph to Egypt. Unlike in Europe or the Americas, there is no data that the Arabs were ever substantially replaced by an invading people. Surviving (and even thriving) in the desert is not trivial, there is not much threat from outsiders. In this way, the deserts of Arabia are quite like the Arctic: there is no invasion risk from those who are not already highly skilled and well-adapted for sustaining life in such a hostile environment.

It seems wrong to somehow have a national or ethnic stereotype. The Torah tells us that each person is created in the image of G-d, and that each person contains G-d’s own divine spirit. That tells us that every person deserves respect for that reason alone.

But the Torah also tells us about the nature of different nations. Most notably, the Torah speaks of Ishmael: “He shall be a wild ass of a man; His hand against everyone. And everyone’s hand against him; He shall dwell alongside of all his kinsmen.” (Gen. 16:12)

The Torah brings more imagery, that of a bowman. When Hagar wanders in the wilderness, she removes herself from her crying child, from Ishmael. The distance given is “a bowshot,” which is odd: this is the only time in the Torah where this unit is used.

The imagery continues: Ishmael grows up and becomes an archer. And I think that this continued imagery tells us a lot about Ishmael and his modern descendants, arabs.

Here’s why: Archery has two distinct characteristics: one can kill from a distance, impersonally; and an archer always keeps the option of retreat open.

The first, the idea of impersonal killing, is psychologically very important. A modern sniper watches his target die, through a scope that brings it all very close. Similarly, a swordsmen also has to kill up close and personal. But an archer can shoot a person (or into a crowd) from a distance. He is removed, both in time and in space, from the arrow piercing its target. An archer does not need personal commitment to murder in order to kill.

More than this: because there is less of a human connection when an archer kills, the archer can completely divorce themselves from the underlying nature of the deed. Someone who does not engage in close combat does not need to understand his opponent, to defeat him by getting inside his head. Archers do not need to empathize, to think like their targets in order to win. If empathy is not needed, it can be discarded. And you can end up with people who spend little to no time or effort trying to understand the other side. That person is an archer. That is the kind of person who can send a child in a suicide-bomber vest into a crowd.

Similarly, keeping retreat open always means lack of commitment. A person who is cornered will fight to the death. A person who can retreat, will do so when things start looking bad. This, too, is an Arab trait.

If we accept the Torah when it tells us that each person has a divinely-gifted soul, then we should also accept it when it tells us about the nature of different peoples. There is much to consider!

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What does “G-d is my Rock” Actually Mean?

Deut. 32 refers to G-d multiple times as “The Rock. And we think we know what “G-d is my rock” means. How hard could it be, after all? A rock is hard and firm, unyielding, and undeniably present. It is (at least in our normal time) unchanging and static.

Except that the word is not used this way in the Torah – and (to me at least) quite intriguingly so. The first time the Hebrew word from Deut 32 (“tzur”) is used is when Moses’ wife, Zipporah, performs an emergency circumcision (Ex. 4:25).

So Zipporah took a rock and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his legs with it, saying, “You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me!”

In so doing, she saves her husband’s life, enabling him to continue with his mission. So a “rock” in this case is an implement, a tool to be used by mankind in order to achieve higher spiritual heights.

Zipporah’s rock is not static; it is dynamic and kinetic. It cuts through flesh and changes our reality. The rock performs both a practical and a spiritual function.

The second time the Torah uses the word “tzur” is Ex. 17:6.

I will be standing there before you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock and water will issue from it, and the people will drink.” And Moses did so in the sight of the elders of Israel.

This rock is also not a static unchanging thing, but a source of potential sustenance. Water in the Torah, as with many other cultures, is symbolic of sustenance and prosperity, life and holy potential. The rock, as the source of this water, becomes the origin of all of these things.

So when, in Deut. 32 Moses calls G-d “The Rock,” we should understand it in this context: G-d is not cold and constant, but instead is a means to grow ourselves in holiness, the source of material and spiritual sustenance.

Yom Kippur starts tomorrow. May we all be sealed for a year of blessing and goodness, prosperity and health. May we always strive to grow to be better people, a people that grows in wealth and in holiness through our relationships to each other and to our Creator.

[another @iwe and @susanquinn work]

 

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The Sacrificing of Isaac

Stories often lend a dimensionality, or even an ambiguity, that cannot be captured through simple codes of law. It is through stories that we gain a sense of how real life events make it very difficult to gain moral clarity.

Take the relationship between Avraham and G-d. G-d says that He is going to destroy Sodom. What does Avraham do? He argues! He negotiates, pushing back against the divine decree with considerable success (the definition of a city worth keeping is dialed back from 50 to 10 righteous people). And we learn that it can be good – and fruitful – to make a stand for what we think is right, even when G-d is saying otherwise! It is, if you like, a celebration of chutzpah.

But when Avraham was told to offer his son as a sacrifice, there was no argument at all! Avraham does not quarrel or quibble.

Traditionally, we ask this question as a means to gain understanding how Avraham’s silent obedience was actually the right thing to do. But what if it was the wrong thing to do? After all, while G-d tells Avraham to sacrifice his son, it is the last time that Avraham speaks with G-d. At the offering of Isaac, G-d speaks through an angel. And that was the last communication with G-d (direct or indirect) that the Torah informs us about.

In other words, obeying G-d may have led to the end of the relationship between Avraham and G-d. Perhaps the test was to see if Avraham could sacrifice his son. Or perhaps the test was to see whether Avraham would, as he had done before, argue with G-d.

Where is the evidence in the Torah for Avraham perhaps making a mistake?

Right after the angel intercedes:

And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram, and it as a burnt offering in place of his son. (Gen 22:13)

So?

Consider the following: There are two sacrifices detailed in the Torah for which one brings a ram: For sinning concerning something holy, and for mistakenly violating a commandment.

Lev. 5:15

If any one commit a trespass, and sin through error, in the holy things of the LORD, then he shall bring his forfeit unto the LORD, a ram without blemish out of the flock

Lev. 5:17

And if any one sin, and do any of the things which the LORD hath commanded not to be done, though he was unaware, yet is he guilty, and shall bear his iniquity. He is then to bring to the priest a ram without defect

Both of these apply to Avraham. Isaac was holy, and Avraham sinned with him. And human sacrifice is forbidden, even though Avraham may have been unaware of it.

So when Isaac was not sacrificed after all, G-d arranged for a ram to be found stuck in the thicket, and Avraham offered it as a sacrifice.

But because the Torah is a story, the above is far from definitive. The angel praises Avraham for not withholding his son. Perhaps there were really no good choices.

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Showbread

At one time or another, children protest, “I can’t do it! I am ____________!”

How many times have we heard this complaint from children, and indeed from adults? How many times have we said it ourselves? This protest sounds reasonable, but it limits us in extremely dangerous ways.

The question often defines the answer. Worst of all is, “Who am I to do this?” implying that the task should fall to someone else. “Can I do this?” is better, but it still admits to the possibility of failure. The formulation I prefer – and which I try to use myself– is: “How do I do this?” If we are always looking for constructive solutions, we are much more likely to make progress.

The difference comes down to whether people think of themselves as a verb or a noun: are we defined by what we do, or are we defined by what we are? I submit that this issue is at the very heart of the differences between successful individuals, cultures and nations, and those who merely tick the boxes, the quiet billions who live their lives, exist within the boundaries of their nature and nurture, and leave this earth without making much of an impact either way.

It starts with the mind, and with childhood. Of all the bullying by students and categorization by teachers and well-intentioned adults, the most dangerous are the labels that become the excuse for inaction and for the status quo: “I am stupid” is the most obvious, but even simple adjectives describing body type or physical limitations are enough to sap ambition. Everyone remembers that offhand remark from a peer or teacher or parent – the statement about one’s limitations, of not being smart enough or attractive enough. These sorts of statements, which often are classified as loshon horah, “evil speech” in Judaism, inject a slow but crippling poison in the ears of the listeners. We are forbidden from speaking about other people in this way, because such speech constrains what the listeners themselves believe they are capable of achieving.

We are even forbidden to say them about ourselves! When tasked by Hashem to approach Pharaoh, Moshe claims that he cannot do it because of some speech impediment. Hashem replies: ‘Who hath made man’s mouth? Or who maketh a man dumb, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I the LORD?”[1] but Moshe will not budge. Once a man has it in his head that he is not capable of something, even Hashem Almighty, in a direct confrontation, cannot change his mind! Our own self-perception is often our greatest enemy. In this case, Hashem loses the argument, because he gives in, and Aharon is tasked with the speaking role.

In our own lives, we must take responsibility for not trying to imitate Hashem but to be creative in our own right. Rather than trying to imitate nature, we are called to make things that have never been made before. And it is the showbread on the altar that reminds us that we are partners in creation with Hashem. This section, then, will discuss how we can be creative partners with Hashem, as inspired by the holiness of the showbread.

The Relevance of the Showbread

Placing the showbread on the altar is a commandment that is linked to each week (as opposed to a day), placing the new bread (which was baked on Friday) on the altar each Shabbos. There are twelve loaves, corresponding to the twelve tribes – or perhaps the six days and six nights (or the physical and spiritual aspects of each of the six days).

Bread is also the food which requires the greatest amount of human interaction – bread, like money, does not grow on trees. Wheat must be sown on plowed earth, it must be weeded, tended, and then harvested. The grains must then be separated and milled, the resulting flour aged. Only then can water be added, the mixture is worked, and then the bread is baked. Thus, Hashem provided the materials for the showbread, but only we ourselves could produce (create) it. This assured that our offering was produced at the highest possible level for the altar: our own creative offering to Hashem.

But what does it mean to us today?

I think the answer connects back to the nature of bread itself. Among all foodstuffs, bread is quite different from meat (which can be found in the wild) or fruit, which can simply fall from a tree. This is the reason for the continuous offerings, the commandments incumbent on the entire nation. The showbread is to remind us that we are to see a weekly cycle of work and accomplishment, partnering with Hashem in all of our endeavors. We work with Him to make bread, life-sustaining food for the benefit of mankind. The showbread reminds us of the reasons for our existence: to be creative in the world.

In my home, we have the tradition every Friday night of each person recounting their greatest accomplishment of the previous week – the thing they did of which they are most proud. It could be a kind word or deed, a good grade on a paper, anything that they can look back on with satisfaction.

This is partly what Shabbos is all about: Hashem created the world, and then on Shabbos he rested. So, too, all week long we labor and create, and then on Shabbos we rest from those labors. The commandment of the showbread gives us continuity for each and every week, and then displaying the bread as the accomplishment for the entire people. Tie together a bit more? Flesh out?

Why There are no Pictures in the Torah

The Torah is an extraordinary text in no small part because it devotes many chapters to describing what things ought to look like, but never has so much as an accompanying sketch to help the reader along. It stimulates our own creative juices, rather than our needing to rely on specific instructions. A single picture certainly can be worth a thousand words, especially when conveying an architectural plan. But we are given no pictures or visual aids of any kind.

So when the text reads, “You shall erect the Mishkan according to its manner, as you will have been shown on the mountain,” we should read it as: “You shall erect the Mishkan guided by the inspiration that you have been shown on the mountain.” Which means that the Torah is explicitly inviting the builders of the Mishkan to tap into their own creativity.

The fact that the Torah uses words and not pictures tells us that we are enjoined to think for ourselves, to engage our imaginations, at every level. Being a Jew does not mean obediently going through the steps: it means engaging with Hashem and ourselves in order to jointly build Hashem’s home. The challenge of building is not the negation of the self: it is the responsibility and challenge of both understanding and interacting with a divinely-inspired internal vision and one’s own soul, and building something that is the synthesis of the vision of both Hashem and man.

The Mishkan is not merely holy because it exists: it is holy because we build it. The investment of human capital – both physical and spiritual—is required to build a home suitable for Hashem.

In this way, we can answer the original question: having the Mishkan (and much else besides) described using merely words is not a “bug”: it is a feature. Many of our sages compare the creation of the Mishkan by mankind to the creation of the world by Hashem: there are many deep and beautiful parallels, from the connections to Shabbos, to “man and woman” mirroring the angels on top of the ark, to a “measure-for-measure” partnership between Hashem and mankind. When we build the Mishkan, we echo Hashem’s own creative act.

The first words of the Torah begin with creation: Bereishis barah Elokim, usually translated as “in the beginning, Hashem created.” Hebrew is a rich language because of all the ways in which things connect one to the next. The word we translate as “in the beginning” shares the source word, the shoresh, with the word meaning “head”[2]. Which means that “in the beginning Hashem created” can also be read as, “In/with the head, Hashem created.”

The creation of the world was an act of imagination – Hashem’s imagination. And so when we create in turn, emulating Hashem’s creation of the world by building His home, the Mishkan, we are to involve our own imaginations, our inner visions. The Torah does not paint us a picture for a simple reason: the Mishkan is not fully designed in heaven. We are to be full partners in that act of creation, engaging both our physical bodies and our spiritual souls in the act of making something new and beautiful so that He may dwell among us.

So Hashem calls us to be creative beings, entrusts us with carrying out our creations with his guidance and our own imagination.

Desire to Create Beauty

The desire to create is embedded in our actions to produce something new. That desire quickens the heart, tickles the mind, and fires up the imagination. The object of our desire which is (at least in all the ways our instruments can measure) “merely” physical somehow engages with and attracts the soul. We want to revel in the experience, immersing in the object of our desire, through every sense we possess: sight, sound, taste, smell and touch.

The arts are one area that we think of when we think of creativity. A 2×4 piece of wood is a static thing; it was made impersonally by a faceless machine. But that same piece of wood, worked over a lathe, lovingly handled by an artist, and crafted into a sculpture, is no longer a mere piece of wood. It is more.

Beauty is necessarily dynamic. Ideally, beauty requires the engagement of two living souls, but it can also be the connection between one living soul and the object of a creative act. Beauty is alive, because desire is not a static thing – it must be constantly in motion, an ongoing swirling and fluxing attraction. Even if the beautiful object is static (think of the Mona Lisa), the observer is not. He studies her carefully, noticing different aspects, fascinated in turn by what happens under different lighting, or when he is in a different mood. More than this: I think the Mona Lisa is attractive because the painting has had its creator’s soul poured into it – and the ensoulment of the artist into the art is itself not static.

This is the power of art: something into which creators have poured themselves. We see in that thing the expression of the creators’ souls, their spirituality poured into something which, if it were to be described using purely physical language, may be nothing more than sound frequencies, the way a person moves his or her body, or the result of paint smeared on a canvas.

When someone invests in creating a poem or a piece of music or art, that creator has invested her soul into that object, creating something that can be deep and rich and hypnotically attractive; think of Hashem’s creations in the stunning world around us, as well as His creation of mankind. And man’s creations in partnership with Hashem are no less beautiful (albeit in a different way): think of a symphony, or a Mona Lisa, or a cheerful and engaging toddler.

Of course, not all creations are beautiful just because they have been created: we can make garbage at least as easily as we can create something that is attractive. The challenge is to keep growing, to use our creative powers to advance down a mystical path, instead of merely to create a graven image, a pale imitation of Hashem’s own creations. Our challenge is to make something that has never existed before. That thing is the best kind of beauty of all. It is the kind of art that can touch and inspire and enthrall millions.

This is not merely echoing Hashem’s creations: Hashem has already created the world. Remaking things that have already been made is not human progress; it is mere repetition, like marching in big circles (think of all the pagan conceptions of the world as nothing more than a wheel). When we make things, we are not supposed to imitate nature, Hashem’s own work.

And just as birds and airplanes fly using different mechanisms, Hashem’s creation and our own efforts are similar only in spirit and not in technique. But just because we don’t create in the same way that Hashem does, does not mean that we don’t create at all: an airplane may not work like a bird, but it still flies – and in its own way, very well indeed. Our technology is different from Hashem’s, but they both serve their respective purposes.

If WE SIMPLY DUPLICATE THINGS THAT HAVE ALREADY BEEN CREATED, we would be stuck in a repeating pattern, an ultimately static existence. And without dynamism, there can be no beauty. So true beauty requires us to do what Hashem did: create things that never existed before.

Holy creation is creating something that opens up doorways, growing in new areas of personal or communal development. So we are to create things that never existed before, or to procreate, making new people who can in turn improve their lives, the lives of their families and friends, and the world at large.

Art and Making Graven Images

On the Ninth of Av in the Jewish Calendar, we read in the Torah that Hashem’s anger is kindled when we do two things: make a graven image, and do evil.

“Doing evil” seems easy enough to understand—Hashem wants us to do good. It is not hard to see why acts of kindness and holiness are what we need in order to improve the world, to make the most of our lives.

But why are graven images – idols—such a problem? Of all things we can do or make, why is this one singled out?

Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. [3]

Man is insecure. There are many powerful forces beyond our control and our understanding. These forces seem to hold our lives in their hands, and they are fundamental forces like wind and rain and sea and volcano and sun. In turn, they may be influenced or managed by what might be called “higher order gods” – Luck, or Fate, or any of a number of named deities in the Greek, Norse or other pantheons.

In a primitive world, people simply worshipped the natural force itself. Slightly more advanced societies named deities as being in charge of their respective natural component. But it really all amounted to a “cargo cult” of sorts: paying off the appropriate deity by means of sacrifice and suffering would do the trick.

Note that idol worship was tightly connected to doing evil: buying off the deity cost, in sacrificed foodstuffs and children and virgins, not to mention the hearts of vanquished enemies. And if the god was satisfied, then he did not care what men did between them. Might made right. Once the volcano deity got his virgin, the powerful people in the village could go back to whatever it is they liked doing, which usually involved being unkind (to say the least) to others.

This all seems so deliciously unconnected from our modern, technologically advanced world. After all, even the words “graven image,” and the concept of idol worship, sound like a quaint notion from an ancient past. But think about it: are people today really so secure about the Big Bad World that they won’t seek out an idol?

Think, for example, about superheroes in film and television. As religion fades, superheroes have come back into fashion. Some of them (Ironman or Batman) are ordinary men who harness their ambition to become extraordinary. But most have magical powers that make them better than mere mortals. Deities from ancient pagan worlds are coming back as superheroes: Thor and Loki and others.

Why are we attracted to superheroes? For the same reason the ancients worshipped idols: Superman gives us an alternative to taking responsibility for our own world. Who are we to change the world, when there are superheroes out there who are so much more capable than a mere mortal? It is all an excuse for passivity, for choosing to become a cheerleader instead of taking the field.

And here it comes full circle. The problem with graven images are they are external, shared images, but the spiritual path for each person must, in Judaism, be internal. Each person has his or her own unique path, with a conversation—words—at the heart of that internal quest. The Torah has no illustrations, and the prophets never painted. Words engage with each person’s soul.

It is words—the spoken word—that is at the heart of the Torah. Words talk to the soul, not, as do graphics, to the eyes. [hearing versus seeing] People perceive the same words differently, each engaging with their own imagination to give the words life.

Idol-worship represents wasted opportunity for individual development. We must take responsibility for our own lives, whereas a graven image externalizes responsibility. Needs more development.

The problem with being a cheerleader is that standing on the sidelines, living a life in which we avoid risk because we are playing it safe, does not grant immortality. We will all die anyway; the question is whether or not we achieve while we are alive.

May we all make the most of our time on this earth, to take personal responsibility and grow, to create and do good, not through graven images, but through our relationship with Hashem.

Creativity and Technology

There is nothing about the Torah that excludes reason or inquiry from our lives—on the contrary! Jerusalem does not stand for the view that truth is delivered solely through revelation, but on the view that revelation provides the hard rock upon which any kind of edifice can be built. Revelation is the launching pad for mankind’s hopes and dreams. Reason, and scientific enquiry and technology and engineering, are all useful tools, and change the world. But whether medicine is used to kill the unborn or heal the sick depends not on medicine itself, but on the principles that guide it, on the foundation-stone that is selected. This is what Torah provides for us.

When we study Torah, we realize that the amorality of reason has been exposed: reason has no moral code of its own, and conforms to fight on behalf of whoever happens to be wielding it at the moment.

We can see the weakness of reason merely by looking at our modern world, a world in which mankind’s technological marvels have accomplished so very much, but all the computational logic available to billions of people has not done anything to advance human morality. To the contrary: technology, the product of vast amounts of scientific inquiry and engineering development, is agnostic about good and evil, unable to lend any moral insight at all. Morality is, and remains, a matter to be determined by people alone, and not by computers. People now have more power than ever before, but in an age where people are in love with Reason as a source of answers, we are entirely rudderless in how that power should be used. Indeed, by thinking that we can intuit the Good from what makes us feel good, or by using logic to define the Good, we end up just fooling ourselves. Absolutely any atrocity can be justified in the name of logic.

The Torah approach is to turn this premise on its head; to argue that what mankind does is better than Nature – after all, civilization and technology build complexity, pushing back against the natural entropic decay processes. Modern society considers “pure” physicists or biologists or chemists to be at a higher level than a mere engineer—the “intellectual” fashion is to think that scientists are learning about nature, while the latter merely manipulate it for man’s selfish desires.

And who thinks that pure scientists are superior? Anyone who worships the earth itself, thinking of Mother Earth as some kind of deity. Those who feel the “pure” sciences are at a higher level are trumpeting their allegiances – they believe that earth and nature are not just created by Hashem, but are Hashem “Herself.” That form of idol worship leads us to the situation in which we find ourselves today: pure scientists are considered the de facto high priests of the earth-worshipping religions, while those who have learned to improve the natural world through technology, such as engineers, are ridiculed and excoriated for destroying the environment.

Engineers and technologists are not focused on learning about nature, about what Hashem made. Instead, using knowledge gained from the natural world, they emulate Hashem by inventing and creating entirely new things. They may not be scholars of Hashem’s creation, but their work is an elevation of mankind itself, raising humanity through imitatio dei. Just as Hashem created the world, we are meant to imitate Him and complete His creation.

We are supposed to respect human creativity and creations, because Hashem does. When the Jews are slaves in Egypt, we are forced to build the storehouses of Pit’om and Ramses. But in all the punishments of Egypt and its people, these storehouses and their contents are never touched by a plague. Indeed, while everything outside is destroyed by plague after plague, Hashem leaves the buildings entirely alone. There are a lot of similarities between the building of storehouses and the Tower of Babel. A key commonality is the fact that Hashem does not destroy the Tower, or the store houses, or indeed any home that is built by man. Even with the mitzvoh of destroying Amalek, the Torah does not tell us to destroy their buildings or their physical creations.

And throughout the Torah, this seems to be the rule: Hashem may punish people, but He rarely destroys our physical creations, even when our edifices are not built with any holy intention in mind at all. Hashem approves of people building, creating things. And He does everything possible to avoid destroying anything made by human hand.

How Technology and Creativity Work: Experimentation

People do not learn new things in a vacuum. Most commonly, we learn to appreciate them by doing them (think of etiquette or Shabbos), but even valuing something is not the same thing as understanding that thing. When the Jews daub blood on their doorposts in Egypt, it is unlikely that they understand the meaning of the act: they are told what to do, not why it is important. Action precedes understanding.

What is not well understood is that the secular world often works the same way. We often assume that life is like a standard laboratory experiment: we theorize and then test the theory. Invention and creation come after study and knowledge.

But this assumption is wrong. Historian Phillip Glass points out that innovation often works the other way around! Telescopes and spectacles were not invented by scientists, but by craftsman who were experimenting. Scientists came along later and used the technological tools to study the skies.

Likewise, the history of human technological innovation is dominated by human invention, which then enables science – it is not science that enables invention! Such enormous advances for human health as running water, sewage systems, and shoes all predate the germ theory of disease that much later explained how people get sick. The history of medicine is full of examples of medicines that work, but nobody is quite sure why until much later (think of aspirin and penicillin). And forces like gravity, which can be described and modeled very beautifully by science, are still not understood. The lack of understanding has not stopped mankind, from ancient times to the present day, from harnessing gravity in countless human-made machines and mechanisms.

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

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

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

Henry Ford did not invent the assembly line. He appointed bright people, then left them alone. Over the course of a few years, the moving assembly line organically germinated and grew from the grass roots. The assembly line was such an egalitarian development that the official company magazine did not even recognize what had happened until well after the fact.

It is quite telling that Ford’s executives didn’t even have a name for the assembly line at first, and that the term ‘assembly line’ was hardly used even in the technical press in 1913 and 1914. The Ford innovation wasn’t a research and development goal, nor was it first developed as a theory and then put into practice.[4]

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 most productive and nimble factories are those that involve every worker on the floor, each as free as possible to improve what they contribute to the whole. And then the great minds study what has worked, and use it as the baseline for the next great factory.

From Alexander Graham Bell to the modern discovery of how to extract natural gas from shale, it is not perfect understanding that leads to breakthroughs, but rather accidents and errors (though often aided by persistence).

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

When the Jewish people accepted the Torah, they said “na’aseh v’nishmah”, “we will do and we will hear.” And we find that this is the pattern that works best, not just with the Torah, but with many other kinds of knowledge as well. WD-40, the ubiquitous machine spray, was not invented in the mind. Thirty-nine previous formulations were tried, and found wanting. The fortieth worked, hence the name. So much of life follows this process of trial-and-error. And Hashem was our model for experimentation!

Trial and Error

Arguably, teshuvah is actually the oldest complete concept in the world. It is, after all, the first thing that Hashem shows us how to do, through his own creative acts. Teshuvah in our own lives can be defined as confession, repentance and promising not to repeat the deed. Why do we observe teshuvah and how is it related to Creation?

From the beginning. Hashem makes the heaven and the earth, but it was tohu v’vohu, “formless and void.” Hashem does not say that what he made was good. But then He makes light, and the light was good.

Then Hashem divides the light from the darkness, and then He separates the firmament and the waters above and below – heaven and earth. But the Torah does not tell us it is good!

So there appears to be a problem. A separation has occurred. And what is done cannot, apparently, be directly undone – the creation and separation has already happened. Hashem does not undo it! So we learn a simple lesson in how to follow Hashem: when we do teshuvah, we have to actually fix the problem, not merely wish it away.

We know this both from our human experience, and because this is what Hashem then does. He starts creating the conditions for the reunification of the waters. First, He pools the heavens and the dry land, so that there are “anchor” points through which the world can be reunified. That is declared good. And then He creates plants – the first things that start in the land, and reach upward toward the skies. This is life, a force that perpetuates, and can persevere against the rocks and gases and fluids that make up an otherwise-dead physical world. And Hashem sees that this, too, is good.

But it is not enough. Plants cannot, by themselves, reunify that which has been divided. They are good, but it is only a step in the right direction. So Hashem makes the sun and moon and stars, to provide cycles, and begin movements (such as tides) in the right direction. In some respects, it is like a swing, going back and forth. When there is a push to help it along, the swing can reach ever-higher. Hashem provides the daily and seasonal cycles that can put everything on the swing into motion. Then, too, the sun and moon shine their light, their energy, downward. It is a way to share the energy of heaven with the earth, to start to bridge the gap between them. And this, too, is good.

But it is still not enough. So Hashem keeps going. He makes creatures of the ocean, and flying things, providing more upward force for the water and land below. Every kind, and every variety. This too is good. But Hashem is not yet done.

On the fifth day, Hashem does something extraordinary. He starts to combine the growing things. He creates animals, designed to eat the product of the earth, to grow from the grasses that already grow upward. This is also good! The combined effect of the sun and the moon, the grasses, and the animals are able to start to achieve the effect of reunification.

But Hashem is still not done. He then makes mankind. Mankind has the power to combine all of the elevating elements. Man eats both the grasses, and the animals that are “pure” (fully digest plants, and elevate themselves). And then Hashem gives mankind the incredible gift of Hashem’s own creative powers. Mankind then has the power to reunite that which was divided – the heavens and earth.

And now Hashem is done, and He can rest. It is not that He has finished the creation of the world (it is up to us to do that). And it is not that mankind has healed the rift between heaven and earth that Hashem created – because even now, thousands of years later, we have not yet achieved it. But Hashem has put into place all the ingredients that could do the job for Him, even though the actions would be up to mankind. And so He rests.

In the beginning of the Torah, Hashem has given us the blueprint for our own lives: that we are supposed to create and do, and then stand back and judge whether what we have done is good or not. And while we cannot “unmake” the mistakes we have made, we can and should work diligently to improve and, if need be, to fashion the tools that will eventually repair the rifts in the world. In a nutshell, the purpose of our existence is given to us in the first chapter of the Torah.

If mankind’s job is to heal the rift between heaven and earth, why then does the Torah not go straight from the creation of Adam and Chavah to Kayin and Havel? What would have happened if Adam and Chavah had not eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil? What was Hashem’s purpose in putting Adam and Chavah in the Garden, and giving them the choice of eating of the fruit?

Hashem had made a rift, a division. And he wants to heal it, but He never unmakes something that He has made – any more than we can “unsay” something that we should not have said. And so as a corrective to the rift that He created, Hashem makes things that will grow upward: plants and animals and mankind. And he gives man His own powers – we are made in His image, with Hashem’s own spirit in us. This is essential: we are neither animals, who must act within their natures, nor are we angels, who must adhere to Hashem’s program. We are given free will, just as Hashem has free will. But the outcome of both divine angels and human technology is the same, which is why the Torah uses the same grammatical root: “melochoh” is mankind’s technology, and a “malach” represents Hashem’s version of technology.

Part and parcel of that free will we have is that our minds, our understandings, create our own reality. What we choose to see is our reality. And so if we choose to see Hashem, then He is there in our lives. And if we do not see Hashem, then we can just as easily explain the world as a series of fortuitous events and coincidences, entirely subject to the laws of physics. We live our lives according to our beliefs: religious people sometimes make different decisions than atheists do, because religious people are guided by the reality that their beliefs create for them.

This is not dissimilar to the question about whether a glass is half full or half empty. Both are objectively true statements, but they may lead to radically different decisions. Someone who chooses to see nature, for example, as beautiful and majestic, is much more likely to go on holiday in the Alps than someone who sees nature as a powerful yet impersonal force, cruelly indifferent to whether someone lives or dies. Both sets of observations are true, but they lead to very different choices.

Indeed, our beliefs allow us to discern patterns, picking them out from an ocean of vast data. Though it may be true that a table is actually almost entirely empty space, only loosely knitted together by atoms that are themselves bonded with spinning and tunneling electrons, nevertheless, for our mundane purposes, the table is a solid and stable surface which we can use. Our beliefs help us make sense of all the data, and to extract what we think we need to know in order to make decisions. We start with our senses, but it is our thoughts, words, and deeds that form the world in which we live.

As Hashem made us in His image, the reality we construct using our divinely borrowed power of creation becomes our reality.

Hashem made a world that was divided, that was comprised of dualisms. And He put in place the living things that could unify those dualisms, and mankind was given the divine power to see the world, and to create our own reality. And Adam and Chavah were not ashamed at all by their actions, since they had no knowledge of the dualisms!

Hashem created things before he assessed whether they were good or not; in the same way, we are supposed to use our eyes not to lead us to what we want, but instead to evaluate what we have done after the fact. Thus, na’aseh v’nishmah is a lesson in how mankind is supposed to create new things. Make it, test it, break it, then try again.

What does it mean that action precedes understanding? It teaches us that creating new things is actually a prerequisite for knowing Hashem’s creations. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN? Our own creativity unlocks a window into the creations that preceded our own.

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

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

We know that Hashem wants us to create new things as a pathway to holiness, because we are commanded both to walk in Hi ways, but forbidden to make any image or thing of a plant or animal found in nature. That leaves us with needing to create things that did not exist before! The Torah does not tell us what that thing is, because if it did so, then the idea behind the creative act would not be fully our own! Hashem gives us the tools, but just as He conceived of and created the world, so, too, we are[5] to do the same to complete the world, Hashem’s creation.

Modern technology has done wonders for our lives. In everything from agriculture to transportation to electricity and domestic machinery like washing machines, the best outcome of all is that we have time. We have, in a sense, moved much closer to life in the Garden of Eden. In the Western world we may wear clothes, but they are inexpensive enough that even the poorest people own more than a single set. Food is no longer a desperate concern, nor is housing.

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

The Most Holy Offering

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

The offerings used to consecrate the Mishkan are each different – but one stands out. The Torah tells us that of each of these offerings, only one of them is “most holy” – the last one, the offering of flour and oil.[6]

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

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

The reason the Torah says “And when any [soul] will offer a meal offering to Hashem,”[7] the Hebrew word used for “any” is nefesh or spirit. The Talmud tells us that a meal offering was not the spirit of the animal, but represented the spirit of the person making the offering itself! NOT CLEAR—WHY ANY IS NEFESH

And in this case, the meal offering is connected to the eighth day: the day after Shabbos. What is special