Jews: The World’s Grasshoppers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grasshoppers are only mentioned one other time in the Torah:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caleb and Joshua were themselves the leftovers, described in the text with the same word for what grasshoppers do, the characteristic that makes them kosher. The joke is that the description of the people as grasshoppers had merit – but it was only applied to the true grasshoppers among them, the only two people there who were truly left over after the rest of the generation had died away.

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

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

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

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

[another @iwe, @susanquinn, and now @eliyahu-masinter production!]


The Evolution of Jealousy in the Torah

We think we know what jealousy and envy are. When we are envious, we want what someone else has, right?

But in the Torah, jealousy actually evolves. The first incidence of the word (K-N-H) is found when Isaac is successful. His neighbors, the Philistines, envied his flocks and herds and household, and so they acted in spite, filling his wells. This jealousy is basic: wanting something physical that belongs to someone else.

The next incidence is when Rachel is jealous that her sister, Leah, has had children while Rachel is barren. Rachel is worked up: she says that if she does not get children, she will die. In this case, Rachel is competing instead of coveting; she does not want her sister’s children, of course. Instead, she wants numerous children of her own (her first-born, Joseph, means “give me more”). This is a jealousy between siblings.

Similarly, when Joseph tells his brothers and father of his dreams, his brothers are jealous of him. They subsequently, as we know, take action to remove Joseph from the picture. Sibling jealousy is about status and rank, competing for favor.

Nevertheless, there is a transition in Genesis from the simplistic “I want what he has,” to, in the case of the siblings, “I want as much as she/he has.” Neither is a sentiment that we admire.

Here is the short form: envy within Genesis consistently divides people, causing discontentment, and destroying relationships.

Then the Torah changes tack. After Genesis, the word used for jealousy in the Torah never again refers to material envy or sibling rivalry! (The word for “covet” in the Ten Commandments is not the same Hebrew word at all.) The world had grown out of such relatively immature emotions, and moved on to a higher, more profound meaning of jealousy: the necessary guardrail for successful relationships.

You shall not bow down to them or serve them. For I the LORD your God am a jealous God (Ex. 20:5 and Deut 5:9)

For you must not worship any other god, because the LORD, whose name is Jealousy, is a jealous God. (Ex. 34:14)

Phinehas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his jealousy for Me, so that I did not wipe out the Israelite people in My jealousy. (Num. 25:11)

And there is a very clear parallel between idolatry and adultery, because a man who feels neglected by his wife, and in his spirit of jealousy suspects her, can bring her to the priest to try to save the relationship:

… a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about the wife who has defiled herself; or if a fit of jealousy comes over one and he is wrought up about his wife although she has not defiled herself (Num 5:14-30)

What follows is a lengthy and theatrical ritual, punctuated repeatedly by this word for jealousy. The husband is suspicious, and he seeks to reaffirm the fidelity of his wife, the sanctity and exclusive nature of their relationship.

The parallels to G-d’s own relationship to His people are undeniable. Marital fidelity is all-important in the Torah, and analogous to cheating on G-d.

But that religious marital exclusivity does not go both ways! Each person is commanded to not chase after other gods. But G-d Himself seeks that deep relationship with each person:

A youth ran out and told Moses, saying, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying acting the prophet in the camp!” And Joshua … spoke up and said, “My lord Moses, restrain them!” But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous up on my account? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD put His spirit upon them!” (Num 11:27-29)

Moses speaks for G-d: the entire nation should be comprised of prophets, people who hear G-d, and can express those words to others.

The path this single word takes in the Torah is breathtaking: from materialistic envy to sibling rivalry all the way to marital fidelity and the idea that each and every person should be able to share the kind of relationship with the divine that Moses himself achieved.

[another @iwe and @susanquinn production]


When Does G-d Give Up on Us?

The G-d of the Jews, the G-d of the Torah, is not infinitely patient or merciful. He does not love us “no matter what.” Indeed, when men simply take the women that they want (Gen 6:2), G-d shortens man’s lifespan so that men would be forced to value women as more than just a way to scratch an itch. When men persist in pursuing evil, G-d regrets having made mankind at all. This culminates in the flood, a rebooting of the world when it became clear that G-d’s initial plan has run into a brick wall. G-d gives up on the whole world, and unsentimentally killed it off. A scientist would call that a failed experiment.

Eventually there are people who seek to connect with G-d, and we are promised that He won’t bring any other apocalpytic events. It is clear that G-d seeks a connection. But it is also clear that the offer of G-d’s involvement in our lives is not automatic: when people do evil, then they are spiritually cut off, and sometimes lose their land (as the Canaanites do to the Jews). But there is more than this, something which speak to us even more today: when people despair, then G-d does, too.

There are numerous words in the Torah for crying out. The most common is “Za-ak/Tza-ak,” which is a cry for a purpose. Esau’s cry when he discovers his brother has stolen his blessing is immediately followed by a request for his own blessing. The word can also take on the meaning of a prayer, such as when Moses prays for his sister, Miriam to recover. “You must not mistreat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat him, when he cries out to Me, I will indeed hear his cry [kol].” Ex. 22:22 This word has strong emotions, and it is heard by G-d.

G-d also hears our voices or cries, with the Hebrew word “kol.” It is Abel’s blood that “cries” out to G-d from the earth, causing G-d to confront Cain.

Not so every expression. The other common word for “crying” in the Torah has “B-Ch” as its root (“ch” in Hebrew is pronounced like the end of “loch”, not like the “ch” in “to b-tch”, even though it would make my argument more entertaining). But when someone cries in this way, then it is not a prayer or a request. It is, instead, an expression of despair, of complaining for its own sake. In the Torah, G-d never positively responds to this human expression of emotion. (Num 11:10, 11:13, 25:6, etc.). When the people despair, G-d openly considers exterminating them. People who see themselves as hapless victims earn no divine mercy.

The first example of this word in the Torah is found when Hagar is sent away with her son (Gen. 21:14-16).

She wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. When the water was gone from the skin, she left the child under one of the bushes, and went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away; for she thought, “Let me not look on as the child dies.” And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears.

G-d responds. But not to her! Her cries are of despair. She has given up. Clearly G-d has no patience for mankind when we give up. Instead, the very next verse says:

God heard the cry (“kol”) of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.

It is clear that G-d had not heeded her cry, just that of her son. If Hagar had been alone, she would have perished. The voice of her son, on the other hand, was not despairing, and so G-d answered it.

Our mindsets matter. As long as we keep striving, G-d will work with us. When we quit, just sit down and cry, losing all hope in the future, then G-d will give up on us as well.

“of renown” in Genesis take women just because they can, G-d regrets having imbued man with his divine spirit.

In the Torah, G-d gives up when we do. There is a special word for “despair” in the Torah, though it is sometimes translated as “in tears” or “crying out.”

וְהִנֵּ֡ה אִישׁ֩ מִבְּנֵ֨י יִשְׂרָאֵ֜ל בָּ֗א וַיַּקְרֵ֤ב אֶל־אֶחָיו֙ אֶת־הַמִּדְיָנִ֔ית לְעֵינֵ֣י מֹשֶׁ֔ה וּלְעֵינֵ֖י כׇּל־עֲדַ֣ת בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְהֵ֣מָּה בֹכִ֔ים פֶּ֖תַח אֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵֽד׃ While they were gathering to execute judgment, a prince in Israel came and brought a Midianite women before his brethren, even in the presence of Moses, and in the presence of the entire community of the Children of Israel, while they were still weeping in despair over the plague at the entrance of the Tent of Assembly.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Understanding Death by Stoning

People are instinctively drawn to rituals, like those that fill our daily lives: how we make our coffee or read the newspaper or get ready for bed. There are a wide range of explanations for why we do this. To some extent, rituals give us the lines around our daily box, allow us to let repetitive words and actions free up our minds for other, perhaps more entertaining or valuable activities.

The next level of ritual are the common superstitious ones that we use as a way of handling uncertainty and trying to influence an outcome. Think of wearing a lucky jersey for a sports contest, or a mask during Covid: these rituals are ways of showing we are making a shared effort, as well as identifying with a larger tribe. There may be no larger meaning or efficacy at all, but there is perceived safety in numbers, in sharing a sports team, a cause, or even just an irrational fear with a crowd.

But some rituals are far more meaningful, because what they ask us to do has symbolic meaning that can connect us to the past or the future. Think of a christening or funeral, or the Jewish re-enactment of the Exodus at the yearly Passover Seder. These rituals are full of overtones and undertones meant for a purpose that arches over comfortable repetition or tribal belonging.

We can even go to the logical extreme: ritual symbolism without any actual ritual at all! In their purest form, the symbolic value of the ritual can be much more important than the ritual itself, when the doing of the ritual becomes immaterial compared to the lesson we learn when contemplating a ritual, even though it is not practiced.

The Torah is full of these. In theory, the text has no shortage of threats, different unpleasant ways to die as a result of bad choices. Yet we know from our own history that many of these punishments were rarely carried out, and in some cases, they were never enforced. Which means that the reason for the ritual was in the symbolic value of its description, in the concept of the ritual, even though it never happened. This is deterrence in its highest form: we don’t need to see a hanged man to know that we should not commit a heinous crime; it can be enough to know that such a punishment exists for that crime. It can even more valuable to realize that the punishment is itself meant to be a balancing corrective act for the initial crime.

I am aware that this sounds abstract – and it has been so far – but if I illustrate it, things should become simpler.

The Torah tells us of a rebellious son:

If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and who, when they have chastened him, will not heed them,  then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city, to the gate of his city. And they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’  Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death with stones; so you shall put away the evil from among you, and all Israel shall hear and fear. (Deut. 21:18-21)

The Torah tells us he should be stoned.

Harsh? Absolutely. But we also know from our history that it did not happen. Not once. So why does the Torah offer the commandment, and prescribe this ritual? As deterrent, certainly.

But there is more than this! Why does the Torah tell us to stone him, killing him that way, as opposed to any other? Indeed, the Torah could have just said, “put him to death.” But it does not.

Indeed, the commandment to stone someone in the Torah is not uncommon. Yet there is a common theme that draws them all together, giving the ritual of stoning meaning even if it is never carried out. That meaning becomes a teachable lesson, explaining what our mental priorities ought to be.

Let’s start with identifying all the times the Torah tells us that a person should be stoned. Each and every one of these events is triggered by idol worship, adultery, or an inability to keep our primary priority in mind: fidelity in relationship. If a man worships another deity, or a young woman whores, or a rebellious son is unable to form a relationship of any kind with his parents, then they are to be stoned. There is a common bond here, and it is all about remaining true to those we should never cheat on: in marriage, adultery; in worship, idolatry; for a son, his parents. And for a loose girl, her own soul.

Which still does not answer the initial question: why stoning?

The answer is found in the Torah itself. The first stones in the Torah are those which Jacob took when he slept and dreamt of angels connecting to heaven.

He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. … Early in the morning, Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. (Gen 28: 11, 18)

This is where Jacob dreamed a dream, and G-d made a promise:

Remember, I am with you: I will protect you wherever you go and will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Gen 28:15)

Jacob wakes and makes a corresponding vow: “If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, and if I return safe to my father’s house—the LORD shall be my God. And this stone, which I have set up as a pillar, shall be God’s abode; and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You. (Gen 20:20-22)

The stone is the central prop to a key event: the first time G-d and Man swear fealty to one another, exchanging promises and bonding the descendants of Jacob’s people to G-d evermore.

Now it starts to make sense. The first time stones are mentioned, they are used to symbolize the core relationship between man and his Creator, and the exclusive nature of that relationship. As the Torah says, the words recognizing G-d are to be said, “when you lie down and when you get up.” (Deut 6:7) Jacob lay down with the stone as his pillow, and rose up with it as well: the divine was on his mind.

The stones represent what we should desire: the constant and conscious presence of G-d in our lives. If we have that mindset, then all of the situations where the perpetrator would be stoned (entirely rejecting our parents, squandering our sexuality outside of a committed relationship, idol worship and adultery) should all be impossible. The symbolism retains all its power without requiring that the actual ritual act of stoning someone is performed.

The Torah consistently uses “stones” for building a relationship with the divine. The Tower of Babel, of example, is built using bricks in place of stones – telling us that the relationship was not authentic.

When Moses fights the nation of Amalek, the text tells us, “But Moses’ hands grew heavy; so they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur, one on each side, supported his hands; thus his hands remained steady until the sun set.” Moses’ foundation was the building block of the relationship between man and G-d. The ten commandments were similarly made of stone, with the same underlying connection to Jacob’s stone pillow.

The altar, which is used to connect man and G-d, must be made of raw stone unshaped by tools, such as those Jacob found lying on the ground at Bethel. (Ex. 22:2) So when we reach out to G-d with an offering, we do so while simultaneously connecting to Jacob’s covenant in both words and deeds. Our relationship with G-d is built on, and modeled after, the relationships our forefathers established.

P.S. There is a particularly interesting and relevant verse, just after a section discussing the need to be separate from other people:

A man or a woman who has an “ov” or a “yidoni” shall be put to death; they shall be pelted with stones. (Lev. 20:27)

As Joseph Cox points out, the root words of these mysterious nouns are common: the first means “father,” and the second means “knowledge.” The Torah is identifying false gods, specifically ancestor worship and the worship of knowledge without any reference to the moral obligation to use knowledge or science for good things. This last example is very common these days, and might be called “Scientism” – the view that the hard sciences—like chemistry, biology, physics, astronomy—provide the only genuine knowledge of reality. Scientism, like any worship of a form of knowledge that has no reference to, or is not checked by G-d’s laws, is itself a false god.

The Torah is concerned with not keeping G-d in our minds, close to our hearts. Our relationship was built with stones – and if we forget it, we will be reminded by those same stones.

[another @iwe and @susanquinn production!]


Confusions Over Leprosy

I think of myself as a capable thinker, but I am always worried about creating my own echo chamber, where I seek only affirmation of what I already think, and rejection of other ideas because they do not conform to the opinions I have already formed. The internet, of course, makes this risk even worse, because we can all much more easily find safe havens (like Ricochet) where disagreements are only kibitzing around the edges instead of at the heart of the matter.

And so I get this amazing thrill when I discover that something I thought I knew is actually wrong. That revelation confirms that I am still able to change my mind based on new information. More importantly, I have grown, spiritually and intellectually.

This happened to me this weekend, when contemplating a subject in the Torah that I thought I understood. The subject tends to make non-Torah readers’ eyes glaze over; what could possibly be interesting about the exhaustive discussion of what the King James Bible translates as “leprosy?”

This translation, you will not be surprised to learn, is not only wrong, but is also highly misleading. The physical ailment of having skin turn white in the Torah has nothing to do with medicine or bodily health or the disease called “leprosy.” It is instead described as a physical manifestation of a spiritual ailment, of something a person has done that is wrong and should be corrected after a period of reflection and soul searching. Let’s call it tzaraas, the transliteration of the Hebrew word.

So far so good. This has been my understanding for years. But what causes this ailment, tzaraas? The answer is partially found in the guide the Torah provides for its cure.

This shall be the ritual for [one with tzaraas] at the time that he is to be cleansed…the priest shall order two live clean birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop to be brought for him who is to be cleansed. The priest shall order one of the birds slaughtered over fresh water in an earthen vessel; and he shall take the live bird, along with the cedar wood, the crimson stuff, and the hyssop, and dip them together with the live bird in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over the fresh water. He shall then sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the eruption and cleanse him; and he shall set the live bird free in the open country. The one to be cleansed shall wash his clothes, shave off all his hair, and bathe in water; then he shall be clean. After that he may enter the camp, but he must remain outside his tent seven days. (Numbers 14 2-8)

The parallel for this screams out, from after Cain kills his brother:

Then [G-d] said, “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground! …. The LORD said to him, “I promise, if anyone kills Cain, sevenfold vengeance shall be taken on him.” And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest anyone who met him should kill him. (Gen. 4:10,15)

Abel is the dead bird – his blood calls out from the ground (the earthen vessel), and Cain, the living bird, is marked. He wanders the earth, just as the marked bird does.

So my personal understanding of the origin of tzaraas comes from this understanding: that harming someone else is on the same continuum as Cain killing his brother. That case, of course, was physical violence. But we know that words are also a way to harm someone – at the very least words can dim a person’s spirit and hopes, and in extremis words can lead to someone’s death.

The common interpretation is that tzaraas comes from something so slight as gossip, of evil speech about someone. This is well supported in the text as well, by the only two documented cases of something actually receiving the ailment: Moses and Miriam.

In Moses’ case, G-d tells Moses at the burning bush to go tell the people that G-d has heard their cries, and Moses is acting as G-d’s emissary to free them from slavery to Pharaoh. Moses is skeptical:

And Moses answered and said: ‘But, behold, they will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice; for they will say: The lord hath not appeared unto thee.’ … And the LORD said furthermore unto him: ‘Put now thy hand into thy bosom.’ And he put his hand into his bosom; and when he took it out, behold, his hand was tzaraas, as white as snow. (Exodus 4: 1, 6)

Moses is punished here, not because he is prideful, but because he says something negative about the Jewish people. And G-d responds by giving him a “taste” of the punishment one receives for harming someone else by saying negative things about them. Moses contracts tzaraas.

So the traditional explanation remains: negative speech is murder writ small. When we gossip about others, we create a reality around that negative perception, in our own minds and in the minds of all who hear our words. That negative reality makes it harder for people to grow and improve. One could think of it as a child in school. If you tell a student that they are terrible at math, then you greatly diminish their ability to excel in that topic.

The other example of someone receiving tzaraas is when Miriam and Aaron speak about Moses:

Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married: “He married a Cushite woman!” They said, “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?” (Numbers 12:1-2)

G-d is incensed with their words, and Miriam is plagued with tzaraas.

This, too, supports the idea that negative speech is the cause of this ailment, of tzaraas.

But what happened this weekend is that I realized that this actually is confusing cause for effect, that the normal explanation, of negative speech, actually misses the point of the underlying problem. This is that point:

What the stories of Cain, Moses at the bush and Miriam’s criticisms all have in common is not negative speech itself, but the mindset that led to that speech: insecurity and lack of courage.

Cain does not merely kill his brother. Cain acts after he has his feelings hurt by G-d’s rejection of his offering. He acts in response to losing. His action is ultimately born of insecurity.

Moses’ statement that the people would not believe him was actually a statement about himself and even about G-d’s veracity! Yes, “they will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice; for they will say: The lord hath not appeared unto thee.” is negative speech about the people. But it is also negative speech about G-d’s own promise, as well. Perhaps most importantly, it is also negative speech about Moses’ view of his own capabilities and limitations! Moses was punished for not having confidence in himself.

Miriam’s negative speech is similarly born from insecurity about herself. She criticizes her brother for marrying an outsider (which is normal, if not admirable, xenophobia), and then she says, “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?” She calls for equivalence when there is none, and it sounds very much like Cain’s grievance when his brother’s offering is accepted when his own was rejected: “Am I not at least as important/valuable?”

If tzaraas is caused by lack of confidence, then it turns the classic explanation on its head. Gone are the ideas that somehow arrogance or lack of humility cause tzaraas. The opposite is true! Each of the people connected to this ailment acted from feelings of comparative inadequacy, of fear that they were not able to do the right thing. A secure and confident person is able to comprehend and appreciate his or her own worth without needing to compare to other people. A bully acts from a core fear, a need to dominate others. But a truly secure person can exist without feeling the need to make others feel small.

A part of the relevant commandments is the statement that buildings can also get tzaraas. But the only ones that do are buildings made of stone, buildings made to last a long time, much longer than a normal human lifespan. Why would a building, as opposed to a person, contract tzaraas? And I think the answer is found in the mindset of a person who lives in a grand stone home, one that is built to last through the ages. Such a home can be a place of love, of security and growth. But it can alternatively act as a closed fortress, a defensive wall behind which a person shields themselves from confronting their fears and insecurities. Buildings are funny that way; they truly do change how the people inside them view the world and their role within it. Buildings are connected to tzaraas because they can be the cause of the mental confusion of their inhabitants, in the same way that insecure middle-aged men need shiny cars and young women in order to avoid the reality of aging, of a life in its final laps. These props are not used by people who are comfortable in their own skins.

This new understanding turns the ailment of tzaraas on its head. If a person is put in isolation to consider what they have done wrong, then they should take that time to learn to appreciate themselves and their own, unique value to G-d – a value that has been validated by the fact that G-d has singled them out by touching them with tzaraas. (When tzaraas is diagnosed, it is called a nega, a “touch.”) Getting tzaraas is being touched by G-d, showing His desire for a connection. The ailment is itself proof that G-d cares about each person, and seeks a personal connection with that person, one that has no bearing on how G-d interacts with someone else, even if the other relationship is with one’s own brother, one such as Abel or Moses.

The entire sequence in the Torah is to remind us of the need to build our own, unique relationship with our Creator, to not feel the need to compare that relationship to one that anyone else may have. And it is a reminder that G-d punishes us for thinking less of ourselves, for doubting what we can achieve in our time on this earth. So when G-d touches us with tzaraas and we are forced into isolation to contemplate our lives and mistakes, the purpose of that isolation is not to emerge from that isolation by thinking less of ourselves, but instead to emerge with the newfound confidence that G-d expects us to be more confident and ambitious. If we truly see ourselves as G-d’s partners in this world, then as long as we live, we can wield enormous power.

P.S. The other elements in the ceremony to end tzaraas are the same as with the red heifer: a crimson thread, hyssop and some cedar-wood. The symbolism here directly connects with the reasons for the rituals in the first place: the crimson reminds us of the blood that is spilled in murder, the blood of Abel that “cried to G-d from the earth,” and indeed the blood of any dead body. Death is a loss and one that we should never take pleasure from.

The hyssop and cedar wood are the bookends for the plant kingdom: from a low grass to the tallest trees. They are a reminder that mankind’s task is to elevate the earth toward the heavens, overcoming the separation caused on the second day of creation, the day that G-d did NOT call “good”. (The word for the crimson thread is the same as the word for that day of creation, that day of not-good division). Plants seek to unify. But murder and damaging speech seek to separate people, to cause divisions.

The plant kingdom is also a reminder that the earth is supposed to used by people for the purpose of life (from the smallest to the tallest grasses), and NOT as the place from where Abel’s blood calls out. The earth is a source of life energies, and while the cycle of life includes death, the Torah tells us that in order to leave the state of tzaraas or the spiritual unreadiness that comes after contact with a dead body, we are supposed to accentuate positive, growing life, emerging from the earth as on the third day of creation. The day vegetation is created is the day when life is created on this earth, and life is the antidote to physical death as well as the small deaths that occur when people use negative speech.


Man Should Not Be Alone

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

G-d recognizes this in Adam:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[another @iwe and @susanquinn production]

Notes for those desiring the source text:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Understanding the Menorah… Breadcrumbs

All of the commandments in the Torah can be understood on multiple levels: there is the specific law itself which leads to the intricate thought and logic that helps us understand what we are supposed to do. There is also the origin and reason for the law, invariably found through word and theme association elsewhere in the text. These together help flesh out a commandment, so we can understand both what we are supposed to do, and why we are supposed to do it.

In the Torah, words are always interlinked to where they are used elsewhere… words form both the simple path and the breadcrumbs that help us connect different paths, to help understand the meaning of commandments by the stories and examples that led to the genesis of those same commandments.

The what and the why form a baseline within the experience of the revelation at Sinai, when the people said in response to a divine command: “We will do and we will ‘shma’.” (Exodus 24:7) The word “shma” does not specifically mean obey, or hear, or listen, or even comprehend. It is its own word that suggests both hearing and contemplating, thinking, chewing things over. The word “shma” forms the core of “Shma Israel! The Lord our G-d, the Lord is One,” the central mantra of Judaism. “Shma,” not seeing or doing, is the most important central verb of the Torah: it is absorbing and wrestling with ideas that are at the core of religious Jewish observance.

So when we have a simple-enough commandment like the Menorah, the Candelabra in the Tabernacle, we have a pathway to understanding. First, we need to know what to do. This is simple enough: the Torah tells us to make a Menorah and light it, keeping one light as a perpetual flame. The Menorah became, with good reason, the central image of Judaism, the official emblem of Modern Israel, present in every synagogue.

We know the what. So the next question is why. Why are we commanded to have a Menorah?

The “shma” of this commandment, like with all commandments, can have a variety of good answers, some more obvious than others. For example, the symbolism of a candelabra involves light, and all the things that come with it: illumination, clarity, the hypnotic nature of a flame. These are straightforward enough.

The Menorah is described using botanical terms, reminding us of the burning bush. That was the first place G-d called something holy, so we can also learn of an aspect of holiness: fire with matter but without consumption – spiritually uplifting the physical world. [we wrote a book on all the holiness themes in the Tabernacle].

But, in the words of Dr. Seuss: “But that is not all! Oh, no. That is not all….”

Because the text does more with the Menorah than just tell us to make it, and how to use it. The details, the words chosen, are the breadcrumbs to another, deeper meaning of the Menorah.

Almost everything in the tabernacle has physical dimensions, usually expressed in length and width (and sometimes height). Everything, that is, except the Menorah. The Torah does not give us a dimension for the Menorah at all, and it seems that both its dimensions and proportions are not specifically commanded.

There is one piece of material information given: the mass of the menorah was expressly commanded as being from one “talent” of gold. (The Hebrew word transliterates as kikar.) The craftsman is supposed to hammer the entire menorah (and its support vessels) from a single talent, kikar, of gold.

When this is pointed out, the questions appear in our minds: Why is there no dimension? Why is there only a mass? And why is the word used, kikar?

Kikar is our breadcrumb. Where else is it found in the Torah?

Lot looked about him and saw how well watered was the whole plain of the Jordan, all of it—this was before the LORD had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah—all the way to Zoar, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt. [Gen. 13:10]

It seems irrelevant. But the word used for the “plain” of the Jordan is none other than kikar (quite a different usage than a talent of gold). Which is really quite astonishing.

To understand it, we need to back up and see the context for this word: As we wrote here, Lot and Abram took a wrong turn. Here’s the Torah:

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

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

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

It seems to me that our forefather put his material wellbeing ahead of the relationship with his nephew, a relationship that could have led to a great future for the descendants of both, instead of the catastrophe for Lot that it became.

So why is this connected to kikar? Follow the breadcrumbs!

Abram and Lot put their material well-being ahead of their relationship. They thought that possessions trumped familial unity. The garden was thoroughly “Mashkeh,” or satiated by drink. This represents full materialistic or physical fulfillment. They were concerned with the physical aspects of living – and they ignored the non-physical, but still very important, aspects of life.

The menorah had no dimensions. It was not physically measured or defined. Instead, it was a source and projector of light, something that matters a great deal to us, but is also something that we cannot capture or hold in our hand. The light of the Menorah is symbolic of all the things in our lives that have no tangible physical presence, but are yet so very important: light and love and ideas and a sense of unity and harmony in a family and much else besides.

By giving us the only material specification of kikar, the Torah is telling us that the Menorah is a reminder that not everything that matters can be owned. That Abram and Lot’s decision to prioritize their material growth over their own family was an error, and a warning.

The Menorah is a reminder that there are things more important than our material wealth – specifically, our familial relationships. The connections between these two verses is a warning – the Menorah’s light is real and perceptible, even though the photons cannot be captured or held in our hands. Ephemeral things are also real, and also very valuable.

After all, the Torah takes pains to tell us, Lot chose a place that was like “the garden of the Lord.” It did not turn out well. G-d rains down fire and brimstone, destroying the cities, all of Lot’s possessions, killing most of his family. Family should still be more important to us than moving away to live in any garden, even G-d’s own beautiful garden.

The Menorah, made from a single kikar, is a reminder to all who see it: light matters. The things we cannot measure and feel are still important.

Sodom was fertilely nourished – in a materialistic manner. But the Menorah symbolizes spiritual nourishment. When mankind seeks only physical sustenance, divine fire follows – the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the entire kikar of the Jordan. By contrast, when we seek the Menorah, we get the burning bush – divine fire without consumption or destruction.

The commandment to always keep one light of the Menorah burning, a perpetual light, is a reminder of this quality. While the priests lit the menorah, the responsibility of the entire people was to ensure that the light was always on. The perpetual light was the job of everyone together, reminding us of the value and importance of togetherness.

P.S. The word for “hammered” in the instructions for the Menorah has the same letters as the word for “well-watered” in the kikar of the Jordan (with one flip of letters, they are identical). There are numerous parallels here as well, helping to explain why the menorah was hammered out, further helping us understand about misplaced priorities.

[Another iwe and susanquinn production!]


Manna – the Fulfilment of a Dream

Pharaoh’s dreams are of seven ears of corn, and seven foreign cows invading Egypt and gobbling it up. The dream, like the Torah itself, can be understood in a variety of ways – not merely the way Joseph interprets them (years of plenty and then famine).

I personally favor the understanding that these dreams were of the 70 (7×10) Israelites coming into Egypt, and then devouring the land – the dream was a message to Joseph that his family would end up triumphant, even though they entered the land looking like foreigners, and undernourished foreigners at that.

The word used to describe the thin corn and gaunt cows is, in Hebrew, “dak.” It appears in the Torah here for the first time. And when Pharaoh describes the ears and cows, he takes pains to point out that even though they consumed the Egyptian grain and bovines, they remained unchanged in the process!

The second episode in which “dak” is found is in the description of the manna:

When the fall of dew lifted, there, over the surface of the wilderness, lay a fine (dak) and flaky substance, as fine (dak) as frost on the ground. Ex. 16:14

The manna comes as the culmination of the dreams themselves  – those who came into the land as “dak” were sustained as they left the land with food described in the same way. The “dak” nation was unchanged in this characteristic from before and after Egypt. The Manna fulfilled Pharaoh’s dream.


The First Thief in the Torah

If the sun rises on him [a thief], he must make whole. [pay restitution]. (Ex. 22:2).

Is this phrase like Homer’s “rose-fingered dawn”? It might seem that way. But if we look at the text more carefully, an entirely different meaning comes out.

The first time in the Torah in which “the sun rises” on someone, it exposes Jacob, after he wrestled with the angel. Jacob was on his way to a confrontation with his brother Esau, who was supposedly waiting to meet Jacob as he crossed back into the land of Canaan.

After Jacob reconciles with Esau, bowing down to him multiple times, and giving him a myriad of “gifts,” the Torah tells us that Jacob was then “whole.”

The text is telling us, obliquely, that Jacob was the first thief to make restitution to the victim.  Interestingly, the text tells us that Jacob was the one who was “whole” – and if we look at Ex. 22:2 again, it is interesting that the text does not tell us which party – the thief or the victim – is made whole! Indeed, the text may be telling us that when someone steals from another person, the thief is also harmed.

As a result, when restitution is made, both parties are made whole.


Comparing Houses of Worship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was never imposing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”― Edmund Burke 

Actually, while Burke gets the credit for this great quote, he didn’t say it first.

When the people create the golden calf, G-d offers to destroy all the people and create a new nation just from Moses:

Now, let Me be, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them, and make of you a great nation.”

But G-d does not actually say “let me be.” This translation is very loose, while the text is quite specific: G-d uses a verb form of Noah’s name! He is telling Moses to “be like Noah, and let me do my thing.”

There are four major messages in this one word here:

1: G-d is telling us that Noah did not do anything to stop G-d from bringing the flood and destroying the world. Noah never advocated or argued. He just minded his own business. So, in using this word, the Torah is connecting Noah directly with passivity.

2: G-d is challenging or even tempting Moses: Should I start all over with you, just as I did with Noah? Or are you going to make yourself a better man than was Noah, “a righteous man in his generation”?

3: By bringing up a very old name and situation, G-d is telling not just Moses, but also each and every one of us, that we are offered the very same challenge that Burke identifies: when confronted with evil, do we do nothing?

4: In the outcome of this episode (where Moses persuasively argues that G-d should save the Jewish people), we are to learn another lesson: not only should Noah have argued, but we, too, should refuse to accept that any specific future is inevitable, ordained by G-d or man and so out of our hands. On the contrary: we are empowered to follow in Moses’ lead, ignore Noah’s passivity, and change the course of history. Even if G-d Himself proposes otherwise.

For evil to be defeated, we must act.


Paying a Ransom?

When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay the LORD a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled. (Ex. 30:12)

The questions spring out of the text: Why on earth is some kind of ransom needed because a census is being taken? What possible connection could there be between numbered in a census and being stricken with a plague?! The verse seems quite odd – though there is a rational and lovely explanation if we just read more carefully.

Let’s start by parsing the words a bit more carefully. For starters the Hebrew for the word “ransom” is actually the very same word, “kopher,” that is used in the Torah to describe the protective layer or buffer between Noah’s Ark and the waters of the flood just on the other side – as well as the buffer we grow between ourselves and G-d on the eponymous Yom Kippur. In all cases, this buffer protects life against strong forces which otherwise would kill us merely because of proximity.

So, the Torah is describing some kind of protection racket! We have to protect our souls because we have been involved in census?! Have we really gone any distance toward answering the question of why a ransom must be paid?

Actually, we have. And here is why: In Judaism, numbers of people do not matter. Each person has a soul on loan from G-d, so for a finite time only, we are capable of touching the infinite. Each and every one of us. And, for every person, there is a unique opportunity. No two people are supposed to lead the same lives. So being “one of two” is a way of diminishing our potential to touch the divine. It is a denial of what makes each person special: not our quantity, but our quality.

The Torah makes it clear that human life by itself has no ultimate value. What matters is not the fact that we are biologically alive; what matters are the choices we make. Or as Gandalf put it: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

So being involved in a census is dehumanizing, relegating a human soul to a mere equivalence. Considering any two people to be equivalent to each other is a threat to the unique quality of each person. Such an equivalence threatens our identities, our potential contributions to the world.

People are not numbers. We are all individual souls. So when we cease being individuals and we merely become numbers, then we endanger the purpose of our existence. Being part of a census denies our humanity. And all of that means that we have less of a reason to live: hence the plague. The plague is the means of culling out those who no longer have a purpose in life, who have been relegated to being nothing more than “one of many.”

So why does paying protection money save us from being deemed irrelevant and thus suitable for an early death? The answer is found in the purpose of those funds: they are used for the building of the tabernacle, G-d’s own home within the people. This was a unique and holy project, one that called for community-wide involvement and contribution. Which means there is another lesson as well: we are allowed to put aside our unique qualities when doing so serves a much higher purpose, a holy and universal goal such as building G-d’s house.

This is also the lesson behind the uniforms worn by the priests: when serving they were to subsume their personalities and quirks, hide anything that made them stand out from other priests, and then serve as functionaries. Priests were not free to improvise or add stylistic flair: when serving in the tabernacle, they had to do everything by the book.

But the rest of the time, individuality among priests was to be encouraged just as much as everyone else’s. Outside of very limited and special conditions, each person should offer a unique and valuable contribution. That is an integral part of the inherent value of each human soul.

We are not numbers. We are people.

[another @iwe and @susanquinn production]


What is Wrong with Laughter?

In the Torah, the episode of the Golden Calf describes the people creating an idol, sacrificing to it, feasting before it, and then dancing – or laughing – with it. There are countless questions that come out of this episode, but I want to focus on just one word: the word used to mean “to dance”.

Early next day, the people offered up burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; they sat down to eat and drink, and then rose to dance. (Ex. 32:6)

It is actually not an odd word, but it is used very differently elsewhere in the text: the word in Hebrew is “tzachek” which means laughter. It is first found when Avraham and Sarah are told she will have a son (Gen 17:17 and 18:12), and they both laugh, with some degree of disbelief. Lot’s sons-in-laws similarly do not leave Sodom because they think their father is “jesting” – the Hebrew is the same word. The word in this context refers to disbelief, to refusing to truly hear the speaker – whether G-d or another person.

There is another meaning of this word as well, referring to an intimate encounter:

When some time had passed, Abimelech king of the Philistines, looking out of the window, saw Isaac “tzachek” with his wife Rebekah. Gen 26:8

And again with Joseph: Potiphar’s wife accuses Joseph of trying to seduce her:

She called out to her servants and said to them, “Look, he had to bring us a Hebrew to “tzachek” with us! … Then she told [Potiphar[ the same story, saying, “The Hebrew slave whom you brought into our house came to me to “tzachek” with me. (Gen 39: 14,17)

Both of these meanings directly come to explain what was going on with the Golden Calf.

The first meaning, of disbelief, of refusing to take something seriously, of truly hearing the speaker, is all about trying to hear and grow, in good faith. The Torah considers good faith to be a primary virtue, and rejecting the words of G-d are a good way to kill a conversation.

So when the people laugh, it amounts to a blanket rejection of the giving of the Torah at Sinai: G-d had produced the incredible revelation at the mountain, and the people ended up laughing in disbelief, just as Avraham and Sarah and Lot’s sons-in-laws had done. “Tzachek” is a way of refusing to try to come to grips with what had just happened.

But the second meaning is even more profound and interesting. Recall that Isaac’s very name is the very same root word “tzachek” – so as a forefather, it tells us that this word is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, when Isaac “tzacheks” with his wife, he is engaged in marital familiarity or outright intimacy. This is the very same meaning of the word that is advance by Potiphar’s wife to refer to sex (though not love).

In other words, “tzachek” is what loving husbands and wives do with each other. It is personal and intimate and special. The word is strongly tied to a notion of fidelity.

So when the people “tzachek” in front of the golden calf, they are doing more than just dancing. They are taking what belongs in the privacy of a marriage, and exhibiting it in public. More than this: the people are committing adultery. We are married to our spouses and to G-d. So when we “tzachek” out of either marriage, we are committing both idol worship and adultery.

This is the linguistic potency of the Torah. In a single word, we are told that the people scoffed at the revelation at Sinai, preferring instead to frolic in escapist hedonism. And we are also told with that very same word that the private and intimate, loving relationship that belongs between two married people was instead made into a public and openly-adulterous spectacle, a betrayal of our marriage to G-d.

P.S. The Torah is also telling us that this idea, of laughter or intimacy, is not itself good or bad. “Tzachek” is a key part of a holy relationship, with Isaac himself having this word as his name. The word contains within it the potential to be either: like anything else, sex or dancing can be obscene or holy, deeply corrosive or profoundly beautiful.


Layers of Meaning Nakedness and Altars

Most commandments in the Torah are symbolic in nature, containing both a practical element and a symbolic one. For example, the animals that Jews are allowed to eat lead to direct dietary laws, but also can – and should – be explained for the symbolic meaning of those commandments as well. The prohibition against eating pigs can be understood both as a practical law as well as a symbolic instruction. So in accordance with the letter of the law we do not eat pigs, and in accordance with the spirit of the law, we try to understand why bacon is forbidden.

The symbolism is embedded in the text itself. For example, the tefillin that Jews wear are commanded to be worn “between the eyes.” While we do not wear them in this way (in practice, we place them higher on the forehead), the language that the Torah uses tells us about the symbolic meaning of the commandment. All the symbolic commandments can be understood, using the text of the Torah itself as the key.

Of course, symbolism comes in different layers; the very same verse can be reasonably understood in a variety of ways – over and above the practical commandment itself. Let’s take, for example:

Do not ascend My altar by steps, that your nakedness may not be exposed upon it. (Ex. 20:23)

Parsing this for the practical commandment is pretty easy: The altar has to be higher than ground level (because we are supposed to ascend). And the path upward should be via a ramp instead of steps. Simple enough, right?

But the text says none of those things directly! The Torah could have just said, “The altar should have a ramp and not steps.” But it does not. Instead, we infer the practical result, but the language that the Torah uses ignites our imagination about the deeper symbolic meanings.

Specifically: the Torah tells us that the prohibition is about “nakedness” – but it did not have to mention nakedness in order to have us build the ramp instead of using steps. Indeed, given that the priests wore clothing that blocked exposure in any case, then there should be no issue – nakedness would not have been exposed anyway!

Consequently, the verse screams out for symbolic interpretation. Here are a few of the meanings, some of them more widely known than others:

1: Aiming for holiness is inherently anti-animalistic. In Judaism, the two components (coming close to G-d via sacrifices / base organs) must be mutually exclusive. Judaism consciously de-emphasizes our animal parts when we are trying to grow a relationship with our Creator. This is in contradiction to pagan religions that involve excrement (Japan had entire pantheons of poop gods!) and/or sex (Dionysus, the connections between spring and orgies, fertility rites and the like) as necessary part of their rituals.

2: Clothing, though deceptive, is superior to “the underlying truth.”

Consider that all people can be described as members of the animal kingdom. And that we are all equipped with reproductive and waste systems. Yet we humans are masters of deception. We spend enormous amounts of energy deciding what our clothes, or cars, or houses or furniture or children say about us, because at some level we believe that those trappings make a difference to our real underlying selves, helping to define who we really are. The shocker is that the Torah agrees: the trappings do matter!

Clothing is an projected fiction: the clothes we wear show how we show ourselves to the outside world, even though underneath the clothing we are all naked animals. The Torah tells us that we are commanded to aim higher than our physical reality, to seek to have a relationship with the divine. Clothing is a way of creating a subjective truth, tools that we use to define ourselves and how others see us. We can see uniforms very much in the same light: uniforms tell both the wearers and third parties that the person in the uniform belongs to a certain group, or performs a certain task (whether nurse or police office, banker or trainee).

And so in service to G-d we concern ourselves with the way in which we project ourselves to G-d, other people, and even to inanimate stone steps. Our clothes and the way we walk matter. Not displaying our “objectively true” nakedness is a way of maintaining and supporting the idea that mankind is not only capable of creating our own reality: the Torah commands us to do so!

3: Connection to Noah. The first person who builds an altar in the Torah is Noah. He is also the first person to offer an “olah” – an elevation offering (sharing the same root word as “ascending” the altar). Noah is also the first person whose nakedness is exposed (the root word is shared with Adam and Eve after eating the fruit, but the same word used for the ramp, “ervah,” is first found with Noah). It seems pretty clear that the prohibition against exposing ourselves while engaged in elevating to G-d is a direct result of the fact that the first guy who elevated toward G-d (earning 19 verses of praise and promises from G-d in response!) degraded himself shortly afterward.

And it got us thinking: consider all the scandals of great, powerful and, yes, even holy men – men who ascended to the highest heights, and were brought low by entirely avoidable but deeply embarrassing personal failures. It is almost a cliché – CEOs of Boeing or GE who do not resist their basest desires. Hollywood power players are famous for it. So are most male politicians, and far too many religious leaders. The strongest men are, in silly and perverse ways, also the weakest. There seems to be an innate desire in mankind to keep a balance between our elevation and our debasement. In this sense the biblical verse about exposing our nakedness while we ascend the altar is a version of “the higher you climb, the harder you fall,” but its literal text foreshadows the less hallowed adage: “the higher you climb, the more ass shows.”

This trait seems to be part of the human condition. Noah was the first, but he was not the last, not in the Torah and not in human history. Our lives are invariably more like stock market charts – there are trend lines, to be sure, but every day is a collection of ups and downs. The more volatile the person, the more exaggerated his swings.

The practicality of this is shown in Jewish prayer: on the afternoon of Yom Kippur when we are presumably at our holiest and furthest from moral weakness and failing, the Torah reading contains the list of forbidden sexual relations. It is an admission and a warning that humans instinctively seek ways to self-destruct, especially when we should be at our most indestructible.

This is why the verse tells us to elevate to Hashem without exposing ourselves. It is a commandment from the Torah to constantly remind us to resist the urge to be idiotic, to resist the reflex of balancing our high thoughts and ideals with wasteful, selfish and sinful contrasting deeds.

Each of the interpretations of the symbolism complement one another; they are each valid and valuable ways to understand how we can elevate ourselves as we approach G-d.

[an @iwe and @susanquinn production]


Layered Levels of Understanding: Genocide in the Torah

A simplistic reading of the Torah suggests that G-d is commanding nothing short of genocide:

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Inscribe this in a document as a reminder, and read it aloud to Joshua: I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven!” (Ex. 17:14)

This is genocide, right? Isn’t the Torah describing the extermination of a people?

Not if we read the words and try to understand them. The verse does not say “I will utterly destroy Amalek.” Instead, it says, “I will blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.”

This is quite odd, and for two reasons. The first reason is that “blot out the memory” is not the same thing as “exterminating.” The second reason is that the Torah writes these words down, and we are commanded to learn and repeat them! How can we possibly blot out the memory of a people whom we keep remembering?! It is a laughable paradox.

Indeed, the Torah repeats the commandment, and again uses that strange language:

Therefore, when the LORD your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deut. 25:19)

The Torah is not employing euphemism. When the Torah commands us to kill someone, the words make that quite clear. So when the text tells us that G-d (and elsewhere “the people”) will “blot out the memory of Amalek,” then it is telling us NOT that we are to exterminate the people of Amalek, NOR that we will forget that they ever existed. We know the commandment, and we remember Amalek precisely because of the commandment.

It is deeper than this, because the Torah also tells us:

The LORD will be at war with Amalek from generation to generation. (Ex. 17:16)

How can G-d always be at war with Amalek, a nation that is long gone, that has no DNA trace or racial characteristics? Either the Torah lacks relevance to us today, or the simplistic understanding – genocide – is missing something critical.

I believe it is clearly the latter, and here is how it unfolds in the text: We know why Amalek are a special kind of enemy:

For everyone who does those things, everyone who deals falsely, is abhorrent to the LORD your God. Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt; how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when the LORD your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget! (Deut. 25:16-19)

Fair enough. Amalek were bad actors. They fought dirty, by attacking the weak and weary, and by acting with falsity.

One possible interpretation is that when we are commanded to “blot out the memory of Amalek,” we are thus commanded to hate injustice in every generation, to always oppose those who have no fear of G-d and have no belief in the sanctity of human life. Humans who target and kill innocents are the enemy of all those who see that man is made in the image of G-d. In this reading, we are to attack Amalek-like behavior in every generation.

But this interpretation still avoids around the basic problem with understanding the language the Torah uses: the text does not tell us to fight everything that is “like” Amalek, and while we are commanded to love the stranger, the widow and the orphan, as well as to love our neighbors like ourselves, none of those verses are connected to Amalek. Nor are they about “memory.”

There is a piece missing.

My brother figured it out, some years ago. He points out that Amalek are found in the Torah much earlier, in Genesis. In the time of Avram, an alliance of four kings subdues a competing group of five kings. In time, the five kings rebel, and a war ensues.

And they returned … and smote all the country of the Amalekites (Gen 14:7)

The Amalekites were collateral damage in another war, innocent bystanders who were overrun and smitten by rival armies. They were the Belgium (or if you prefer, the Poland or Korea) of their age.

Avram did nothing. At least at first.

But then, after his nephew, Lot, was taken hostage, Avram goes to war and handily defeats the kings, freeing his nephew.

Now try to see it from the perspective of the Amalekites: they unjustly suffered as mere collateral damage, and Avram stood by and did nothing at all. That is, until it affected him personally, and then Avram swooped in and saved the day.

What if, my brother points out, Amalek held a grudge against Avram and his descendants?! They had a gripe, they nursed it, and then when they saw a chance for payback, they seized that chance, striking at the Jewish people after the Exodus.

If this is correct (and the text certainly supports it), then the commandment to “blot out the memory of Amalek” is not for us to blot out OUR memory of Amalek, but instead to always oppose grudges and feuds, especially those that span generations:

The LORD will be at war with Amalek from generation to generation. (Ex. 17:16)

The conclusion is that no genocide is planned or commanded. Nor is it only about the behavior of Amalek when they attacked the weak. In this understanding, the commandment to combat Amalek is not racial or national or tribal, but instead speaks directly to the kinds of toxic mindsets that eat a people out from the inside.

Indeed, it is not hard to draw conclusions to the modern day: everyone knows that they, either personally or as a class or a color or a people, were oppressed by someone else at some point. We are all descended from people who were conquered at some point. Many of us are descended from slaves. Most Americans fled from people whom they considered their oppressors, either in Poland or Africa or England or Vietnam. We can all find a way to hold a grudge, to see ourselves as victims, to cling to intergenerational feelings of victimhood.

But when we do that, we are reduced by it. People who wallow in their victimhood are reduced by that mindset, by seeing their own situation as “someone else’s fault.”

And the Torah uses the 400-year Amalekite grudge as a case study in how such a mindset poisons a nation. Amalek lived for revenge, nothing more. Revenge is not a positive goal. And G-d has commanded the Jews to seek to blot out these kinds of feuds in every generation.

It is one reason why I consciously and knowingly do business with people whose ancestors (perhaps only one generation ago), tried to exterminate my own family as if they were vermin. G-d tells me not to hold a grudge. Each person needs to be valued for themselves, and judged on their own merits. Similarly, when I find people who are living for the sake of an old grudge (whether blacks in America or Arabs in Israel or the Irish in Boston), I do what I can to try to help them see that we have to blot out the memory of those grudges in order to get on with having productive lives.

When we live our lives going forward, then we can achieve great things. But when we preserve the memory of perceived wrongs, we are preserving the memory of Amalek, locking ourselves in the prisons we have built in our own minds.

The Torah is clearly telling us that we, in every generation, must set ourselves against anyone who defines themselves by such inherited baggage. Our greatest enemies are not those who wronged us in the past. Our greatest enemy is ourselves.


Different Facets of a Single Verse

There is no one correct way to read the Torah. We have a tradition of “Seventy Faces of the Torah” suggesting that any verse can be understood a multitude of ways. Even “easy” stories (like the Garden of Eden) that tend to be read quite simplistically, can be understood in a myriad of ways.

The test of whether an interpretation has merit is whether or not it convinces the reader while remaining faithful to the text itself. Interpretations do not require any secondary or later commentators; the Torah’s symbolism can easily stand on its own.

Here is one verse that caught my eye today:

And so it shall be as a sign upon your hand and as a symbol between your eyes that with a strong hand the LORD brought us out from Egypt.

The commandment may be practical (Jews wear tefillin daily), but the meaning of this commandment, and why it appears in the Torah when it does, is deeply symbolic. So why is the commandment to wear what Jews call tefillin, paired with the Exodus?

The sign on our hand is connected to G-d’s strong hand (the verse uses the same word for both). So it means that the symbol between our eyes is meant as a complement or contrast to the sign on our hands. What could it mean?

One answer: The remembrance on our hands is of physical freedom, the relocation of the people outside Egypt caused by the G-d’s manipulation of the natural world. If so, then the symbol between our eyes may refer to the spiritual aspect of freedom from slavery. The hand led to a mental departure from servitude to Pharaoh, just as it led us away from the Egyptian worldview of harmony with nature, from their bread culture (hence the commandment to avoid leavening on Passover), the natural paganism of the Egyptian religion. Judaism, we are to remind ourselves every day with our tefillin, is a departure from not just Egypt the place (as symbolized by the hand) but also Egypt the mindset (as symbolized by the forehead). That mindset, of course, is inside us.

Another answer: The hand is for action, the eyes are for learning, absorption. G-d acted to take us out, and we connect that with the hand tefillin. The symbol between the eyes is there to help us learn and internalize the Exodus.

This idea is paired with the perspective that in Egypt the people were almost entirely passive, while G-d did all the work. That was when our nation was a baby in the womb. The Jewish people in the text are compared to mindless insects, merely capable of reaction, but not initiation or planning (we knew we were leaving, but could not even plan to bake bread in advance of our departure!). The eyes are passive, the hand is active. Thus the tefillin remind us of the Exodus.

But after leaving Egypt, we are to grow into full partners of G-d. He used His strong hand to bring us out – so we, too, wear a sign on our hands to not just commemorate the event, but also to emulate G-d’s own deeds. We are G-d’s emissaries in this world, so, with G-d’s example in Egypt always in our mind’s eye, it is incumbent upon us to address the wrongs that we see, and combat evil. Just like G-d in the first week of creation, we are to judge (using our eyes) the product of our creative energies. We create, and then we evaluate (is it “good?”) and decide what to do next. Hands, and then eyes.

There are many other aspects one could get from these verses, and as I said, Jewish tradition is that as long as the interpretations are faithful to the text, then they can add color and depth to our understanding. Why not add your own interpretation?!

[Another @iwe and @susanquinn production]


Fair Weather Fans

“When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse.”  (Osama bin Laden)

This is not just about horses, of course. Nor even about successful sports teams or countries. It is even true about deities.

The plagues struck Egypt, but in the nature of people everywhere, the attraction to strength overcame the natural rejection of outside influences. The evidence is found in the Torah itself.

Pharaoh’s courtiers said to him, “How long shall this one be a snare to us? Let the men go to worship the LORD their God! Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?” (Ex. 10:7)

This is a strange verse – what is the meaning of this word that is translated as “snare”? And why is Egypt “lost”?

When the Torah uses a word more than once, there is a connection between the incidences. And these connections can help us understand the meaning of the verse.

The word translated as “snare” (Transliterated, it is “Mokaish”) is only found three other places, but the meaning in each case is very clear:

They shall not remain in your land, lest they cause you to sin against Me; for you will serve their gods—and it will prove a snare to you. (Ex. 23:33)

Beware of making a covenant with the inhabitants of the land against which you are advancing, lest they be a snare in your midst. (Ex. 34:12)

You shall destroy all the peoples that the LORD your God delivers to you, showing them no pity. And you shall not worship their gods, for that would be a snare to you. (Deut. 7:16)

In each of these cases, the word clearly refers to a spiritual seduction, the attraction of other gods and other peoples.

If this is correct, then we can much more easily understand our original verse: Pharaoh’s advisers are telling him that the Jewish deity is attracting adherents from within the Egyptian people themselves! This would be an especial threat since Pharaoh himself was a deity!

The plagues served to become an attack on Egypt from within, an attractant for the hearts and minds of the Egyptians themselves, in the same way that living in Canaan would, in the future, threaten our connection to our own G-d.

And thus it proved. When the people left the land, many Egyptians came with them:

Moreover, a mixed multitude went up with them. Ex. 12:38

Osama bin Laden may not have been a good man. But he was not always wrong.

[another @iwe and @susanquinn production]


Did the Exodus Actually Happen? Did Jesus Live?

Short answer: It does not matter. The only thing that matters is that people act as if they did.

A “womb” in Hebrew is the same word as “mercy.” But the word for “womb” in Greek is the root word for “hysteria.” Greeks and Jews share the same definitional biological understanding of a woman, but while Hebrew emphasizes the feminine qualities of sensitivity and empathy, the misogynistic Greeks chose to define women by the flip-side of sensitivity: volatility. The perspective we choose, the stories we tell, matters.

There is a reason why, even before the people leave Egypt, G-d tells us, no less than three times, how to tell the story in the future! Because every event can be told an infinite number of ways – the way we choose to interpret – to tell – events, defines what we learn from that collective memory, and helps define our path going forward.

The Jewish people are defined by the Exodus; it is a constant reminder in the text. That is our story, and it has kept us for over 3,300 years. Telling that story every year on Passover is what keeps the story alive.

Similarly, Christians believe that Jesus lived. And while I am quite sure that the “facts” matter to both adherents and critics, they don’t matter to me, because I am keenly aware that what really matters is what people believe.

Our beliefs lead to our words and actions and deeds. And it is those deeds, not whether the founding beliefs are mythical or factual, that are the measure of any person or society or civilization.


The East Wind – A Niblet

The Torah refers to the East Wind just a few times – not surprisingly, they are connected to each other.

The first two are the dreams of Pharaoh:

But close behind them sprouted seven ears, thin and scorched by the east wind. (Gen. 41:6)

And in the retelling to Joseph:

but right behind them sprouted seven ears, shriveled, thin, and scorched by the east wind. (Gen: 41:23)

Pharoah’s dreams are just as much about the result of the invasion of the 70 Israelites as it was about 7 years of plenty and famine. And we see it in the result, because the “east wind” is only mentioned again when the Exodus is building:

So Moses held out his rod over the land of Egypt, and the LORD drove an east wind over the land all that day and all night; and when morning came, the east wind had brought the locusts. (Ex. 10:13)


Then Moses held out his arm over the sea and the LORD drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and turned the sea into dry ground. (Ex. 14:21)

The early dreams are the foreshadowing of what was to come, a matched set.

As a footnote: Canaan, the place both where Jacob’s family comes from, and to where his descendants leave Egypt, are both, at the crossing point, to the East of Egypt.

[another @iwe and @susanquinn collaboration, though I think the original concept – that Pharoah’s dreams referred to the immigration of Jacob’s family and the results – originated with Joseph Cox]


Mankind: Astronomically Insignificant

It is a common observation that man is profoundly insignificant in the universe – a mere mote of a speck living on a rock far from where the real action must surely be going on. It thus follows that our lives are similarly unimportant. We must be, therefore, ultimately powerless.

This is the view of many atheists, scientists, and others who measure the world using a physical yardstick. Their view is, in some ways, an echo of that of standard nature-worshippers: the deities are manifested in their natural forces: a sea god, and a sun god, and a god who controls the rain or the wind. No man can stand against a tornado or an earthquake. It therefore follows that mankind is nothing as compared to the forces of nature, let alone those of the galaxy.

They would not be wrong, of course, if the only data we had available is what can be measured or perceived using our instruments. But of course, there is a whole world that is not in the physical realm, but is no less available to our consciousnesses: ideas like love and fidelity and liberty. Our tribes and associations, relationships and rivalries all may have no physical manifestations whatsoever, but they are no less real for it.

I would go even further than this: we may be physically insignificant in the universe. But while we can detect galaxies and quasars and countless other things that are immeasurably larger than we are, we have yet to see any sign of actual intellect off-planet. And on planet Earth, it is our intellect, our ability to think, that has made our relative physical weakness against animals and even the elements a mere footnote. We can – and have – made ourselves highly resistant to the elements: housing, clothes, heat, air conditioning, food. Our modern world has even eliminated nature-caused famine. It is what lies between our ears, not any specific physical prowess, that has made this possible.

It is no accident that Western Civilization is founded on the Torah, a collection of nothing more than words, the ultimate lack of physical manifestation. The Jewish people have no ancient buildings, no colossus or cathedrals, not even a single enduring institution. Our religion lives only in our hearts and minds, constantly nurtured by the words of the Torah.

But that is not true for most people. So when the Torah talks of the plagues G-d levied on Egypt, those plagues are all physical attacks of one kind or another. The plagues were to show physical superiority over each of the Egyptian pantheon of gods, ending with Pharaoh himself. But in all of these cases, the audience was NOT the Jewish people at all – the audience for the plagues were the Egyptians themselves, and any other peoples who were paying attention.

For the Jewish audience, the message was only one of words: “G-d is going to fulfill the promise to your forefathers.” It is a message of hope, with no direct physical deliverance until the splitting of the sea, a one-time-only event. From then on, G-d’s hand is always far more subtle, found primarily and most importantly in the words and the text itself. In any way we can measure, G-d works most often through people: inspiring them to love and care, to seek and grow relationships with each other and with the divine. These are all inspired by words, in the text of the Torah, or in the words we use with each other.

So the world has no shortage of physical power: both within nature and even through the might of armies or construction teams, we can blast and build on a scale never imagined in the ancient world.

But what matters continues to be the power of ideas. Hope and freedom and love motivate mankind, the things for which we are willing to lay down our lives if we must. Mankind is also capable of being motivated by evil ideas: think of honor killings or wars of supremacy or scientifically-inspired eugenics. Either way, though, it remains true that the real power in this world is not, after all, found in natural forces. Real power is found in the ideas that inspire and guide us.

The Torah is consistent about this. Think back to the Garden of Eden. It is not merely that Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit: they ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. They ate the fruit, and gained the power to reason, to think, to assess and to judge. It is amazing to me that while mankind may be physically insignificant on a galactic scale, our intellect has yet to find something in the physical realm that we are unable to probe, challenge, and eventually understand. Eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil made us capable of understanding everything we direct our enquiries toward. They achieved the potential to become full partners with G-d.

Note that G-d then expelled mankind before we could eat from the Tree of Life: the fruit that would have made us immortal, to similarly stand above nature. The text says that if we had eaten both fruit, then we would have been similar to G-d Himself! Which tells us that eating the one fruit brought us halfway to a divine level: we are not immortal, but we possess the mental powers that allow us to comprehend everything that G-d has made, and all the ideas that He has given us.

Without the fruit of the tree of life, mankind remains limited by one key natural limit: death itself. We cannot fully ignore nature. But neither must we be enslaved to it like primitive pagans. The difference comes down to our ability to discern. And that ability stems directly from eating the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

So mankind, even primitive mankind, has the ability to listen, to think, and to know. Which is why G-d’s interactions with Avraham, Isaac and Jacob were verbal. If G-d performed miracles for them, these interferences in the physical realm remained subtle, arguable, in the same way that there is no ironclad physical argument for the existence of G-d today – if there were, then we would have no intelligent atheists.

A non-corporeal deity is not easy to wrap one’s head around. Primitives cannot get there: for them, power IS reality. Pharaoh could argue that the god of an enslaved people must not be very powerful, and a deity who does not have his own physical manifestation does not, in any measurable way, even exist.

It is similarly no surprise that every primitive society is racist and sexist. After all, if we measure everything by their force and size, then larger/faster/stronger men are indeed superior to women, and different races can be usefully compared and judged. Not until the modern world and the technology unlocked by our mental efforts, did the physical differences between people become perishingly unimportant.

The basis of the Torah and Western Civilization alike are founded on the idea not that a person is valued because of their strength or beauty, speed or color or sex, but that each person is endowed by their Creator with a soul. And on that basis, we are all equal in the eyes of G-d. When we use that soul, and our ability to think, then there is rightly no hierarchy between people based on their physical characteristics.

In the physical world, mankind is indeed insignificant. But in the realm of ideas, we appear to have been gifted unrivaled capabilities, able to understand, communicate, and grow together with the Creator of the world.


Know Your Audience!

It is axiomatic that the message needs to be tailored for the audience. Preaching to the choir is not the same as preaching to the great unwashed masses: they deserve different messages, not only because of what they should be told, but also because of what they are able to hear.

Such an approach is widely derided as “spin,” but the derision is misplaced. No message has any value unless the audience is prepared to hear it. So if we have to strategically massage our line of argument and choice of words, then we are not lying. We are just being sensible. But when someone does not consider how the audience will receive his words, then we can be sure that the true audience is either someone else entirely (usually someone in the echo chamber), or the speaker is an idiot.

When Hamlet famously pretends to be mad (Act 3, Scene 1), the entire scene rests on one question: does Hamlet know that Claudius and Polonius are eavesdropping? If Hamlet does not think he is being overheard, then the scene is entirely different, even though the words are the same.

We were challenged this week by considering why Joseph, as Grand Vizier of Egypt, accuses his brothers of being spies. On the face of it, this is an odd accusation. After all, Joseph knows it is not true. The brothers also know it is not true. They can deny the accusation without hesitation, because whatever their other faults, they were not spies.

But of course, spies would have done precisely the same thing: deny the accusation. No real spy would admit being one, so the denial has no meaning.

The answer is found by understanding who is eavesdropping behind the curtain!

Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone withdraw from me!” So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.  His cries were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace. (Gen 45:1-2)

Pharaoh had informants among Joseph’s staff! Which makes perfectly good sense. There is no reason why the Number One guy would give a Number Two guy vast powers without having some staff whose job it is to keep the Big Boss informed as to anything … odd going on.

So Joseph’s accusation of his brothers being spies was not because either the brothers or Joseph would take it seriously. The condemnation of foreign spies was simply a recognition by Joseph that there was another audience who was paying very close attention: the men who were informing for Pharaoh. By making the accusation, Joseph had the perfect cover story for why he was spending so much time and energy dealing with these ten men out of the millions who were buying grain: these men, who might be spies, represented a potential national security threat, and so handling them could not be delegated. It explained why the great man was spending time interrogating, negotiating with, and then wining and dining these ten foreign men.

This also explains why Joseph could instruct his staff to engage in all manner of strange behavior with the brothers – seemingly-random arrests, engaging in favoritism, sending them out with their money, planting evidence… it all added up, to an Egyptian serving on Joseph’s staff, to the Master engaging in the counter-espionage subterfuge necessary to foil the evil plots of foreign operatives operating on Egyptian soil.

Joseph knew his audience. He knew Pharaoh had people listening in, noticing everything Joseph did. And so the dance with his brothers had the added complexity of managing another audience entirely!

[another @iwe and @susanquinn production]


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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)


   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.


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.


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.

  11. Exodus, 21:14

  12. Genesis, 3:1

  13. Genesis, 28:18

  14. Exodus, 29:7

  15. Leviticus, 8:12


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]


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.


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.


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

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.”  


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.


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.


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?”


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.




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.


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!


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]



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)


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.



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 about the eighth day? Seven is the number of nature in the Torah (as the world was created in seven days).7 But the number “eight” is used to connect man and Hashem. So we have the circumcision on the eighth day, as well as the offering of the first-born animal[8] on the eighth day. Similarly, after seven days of inauguration of the priests, it was on the eighth day that the priesthood was consecrated and started the active service between man and Hashem[9]. Many sacrifices and festivals that were involved with establishing a connection between man and Hashem were also called for the eighth day. The day after Shabbos is the day in which we work, and build and grow in the physical world. It is the day where, by the sweat of our brow, we work to improve the natural world, to make flour from grasses, and oil from olives.

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

Another understanding of “most holy” is to look at “firsts”: from first fruits, to firstborn children and cattle, the Torah makes it clear that the way to thank Hashem for our creative blessings is to dedicate our first creations to His name; making and offering the showbread is one important way to show appreciation for our creative blessings. These are called kodesh kedoshim, “most holy.”

Creativity and Its Constraints

It is the ability to work with the theoretical “What If?” that make us capable of changing ourselves, of growing beyond our nature and nurture, and become truly capable of exercising free will. And people who exercise their free will are, in their way, the most powerful force in the universe. We are not hotter than the sun, or exert more gravitational force than planets – our power lies in something much more elusive, something that might even be called magical: coupled with our free will, we are endowed with the power of spiritual creation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When you build a new house, then thou shalt make a parapet for thy roof, that thou bring not blood upon thy house, if any man fall from thence.[10]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

While most people do not unlock their creative potential, those of us who are cognizant of just how powerful our thoughts and words and deeds truly can be, need to remain mindful of our own limitations: caught up in the moment, even the greatest people can do very stupid things. [BRING IN SHOWBREAD?] MAKING THE SHOWBREAD REMINDS US THAT WE ARE CALLED TO WEIGH THOSE OPPORTUNITIES RATHER THAN RUN FROM THEM. YES!

This is such a huge part of this reason for Jews: we know that each person can be the reason for the creation of the world, and we ask ourselves: “How can I be worthy of that valuation?” It is at once an empowering and terrifying question.

  1. Exodus, 4:11
  2. Genesis, 3:15
  3. Deuteronomy, 4:15-18
  4. David Nye, author of America’s Assembly Line (MIT Press). Quoted in Assembly Magazine, October 2013.
  5. Lev. 9:12
  6. 6 Leviticus, 2:1

    7 Gen. 7:12, 21:4

  7. Exodus, 22:29
  8. Leviticus, 9:1
  9. Deuteronomy, 22:8

The Stars in the Sky

G-d promises Abraham that his descendants will “as numerous as the sands of the sea, and the stars of the heaven.”

But when Moses predicts the future of the Jewish people, he does not say that we will be as numerous as the sands of the sea. Instead, he tells us, three times, only that we will be “as numerous as the stars in the sky.”

Why? How did we lose the much larger (at least to the naked eye) quantity predicted to Abraham? What changed?

The answer is that nothing changed: sometimes we forget that Abraham had many descendants besides Isaac. He had Ishmael with Hagar and with his second wife, Keturah, he fathered six more: Zimram, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. These he sent away toward the East, where they became nations in their own right. It was those descendants who became numerically enormous, populating the world. They became as numerous as the sands of the sea, which is to say, countless.

But the Jews, under Isaac, were never quantitatively large. Our numbers have never formed the majority population anywhere in the world save for within Israel.

The word used for “numerous” in the Torah (“rav”) also can be understood qualitatively, as in “great” or “important.” (See Gen 6:5) Indeed, it is the same word in Hebrew as “Rabbi,” denoting someone of influence and import, a teacher.

When Moses tells us that the Jewish people will be “as great as the stars in the sky,” he is making an aspirational statement: like stars, we are supposed to be lights unto the world. We are meant to achieve and represents spiritual heights, to always be a directional guide to mankind. Moses’ prediction is thus not a descriptor, but a prescriptor: it is our job to aspire to be holy, to become guiding lights, to show how human animals can become holy.

Thus G-d fulfills Avraham’s blessing: his descendants become numerous as well as influential – but not necessarily through the same sons! And when Moses says that the Jewish people are not the most populous or large of nations but also compares us to the stars, he is making the point that influence and power are often unyoked from each other. Our task is to ignore the power of numbers: we are instead to aspire to be a holy nation.


When a Person Needs Killin’

My #4 son, who is twelve years old, pointed out a new way to read a verse in the Torah.

“He that smiteth a man, so that he dieth, shall surely be put to death. And if a man does not ambush [to kill], but God cause it to come to hand; then I will appoint thee a place whither he may flee.” (Ex. 21:12,13)

We usually read this as a sneak preview of the idea of Cities of Refuge. The Torah establishes places for people to go to escape vengeful relatives, and so to avoid the kinds of blood feuds that have splintered tribal societies since the dawning of time. The key idea is that accidental killings should not be treated the same as murder.

But my son pointed out that the phrase does not say that the killing “just happened” or was accidental. The phrase “G-d causes it to come to hand,” might refer to accident, but it might also refer to a providential killing. In other words: a person finds that the right thing to do in a certain situation is to take a life. In other words, the dead person “needed killin’.”

It sounds extreme, and perhaps it is. But it is not hard to imagine a scenario where circumstances lead you to needing to kill someone, especially in the many lawless or evil societies that exist throughout the world and in history. “Circumstances”, to a religious person, may well be equivalent to “G-d causes it to come to hand.”

As #4 told me, this is precisely the situation that Moshe finds himself in when he sees an Egyptian overseer beating a Jewish slave. The overseer needs killin’. Moshe looks both ways, kills the Egyptian, and then flees the country, in fear for his life. He finds a place to go, in Midian.

The Torah tells us that Moshe’s experience, rather than being the exception, may well have set the trend. If G-d puts you in a situation where killing is the right thing to do, then G-d will make sure there a place where you can flee.


“A Pleasing Aroma”

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 G-d 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 G-d 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 G-d, to elevate the natural world into the spiritual plane.

The sacrifices are not the purpose of mankind’s existence, which is why G-d 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 G-d finds our sacrifices to be “a pleasing aroma” tells us that G-d 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 G-d 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 G-d desires from it. G-d 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 G-d, 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 G-d appears 39 times in the Torah. And it is there to remind us that G-d 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.


The Value of People

People, in a free society, create wealth. We are, in fact, the source of wealth. Which is an astonishing thing, when one comes to think about it. After so-called scholars from Malthus to Paul Ehrlich, and world-changing dictators from Stalin to Hitler all understood that wealth is a function of natural wealth divided between the number of people. As such, the more natural resources there are per person, the richer the society should be.

The facts are very much otherwise. The richest places on earth are cities like New York and Amsterdam and Singapore and Hong Kong: places with virtually no natural wealth, but considerable wealth in people. Indeed, the richest states in the union have the highest concentrations of humanity (at least in the populated areas): DC, Maryland, New Jersey, Massachusetts… even California makes the Top 10 list, even though all of these places have been dominantly governed by Democrats pushing anti-business policies for decades. Why? Because they have people. And people are the greatest source of wealth that exists in the world.

I think the reason why this is so defies many of the common answers: more specialization, for example, is surely a good thing – but it does not really answer the question. I think, instead, that there is almost a spiritual energy contained within highly populated societies. This sounds almost kooky, but it still seems that way to me. Interacting with large numbers of other people keeps us mentally spry and agile. Economic wealth is one way to measure the result, but we can also see it when we see how creative cultural beacons, from orchestras to solo artists, also coalesce in dense urban centers.

When people are more reclusive, parts of their minds start to atrophy. I think this helps explain why people from cities talk and drive and indeed think more quickly.

All of this is hard for me to admit, because I am not a city dweller, not really. I cannot handle Manhattan. I fear groups of people. I shut down in cocktail parties and receptions. But I cannot but admit that these sorts of settings are highly productive.

Postulated: Online communities are reasonable facsimiles for cities in many respects. And in terms of intellectual depth and breadth, online communities can be far deeper, broader, and more versatile than any one physical location.


How Can we Move On?

Any self-aware person has regrets – for words spoken or unspoken, for things we did – or wished we had done. There is no way to take back a word spoken in anger, or an action that hurt someone.

Dealing with our regrets is a major industry in America, often becoming an obsession among people who see themselves as victims. People want to “fix” the past, but it is impossible to do so, because the past cannot be unravelled. Paying reparations or “checking your privilege” is usually counterproductive, perpetuating our memories, instead of allowing us to grow. So, too, does therapy, bringing events back to life, refreshing old events, memories that would in most cases be best left buried and slowly forgotten. In the minds of villain and victim alike, remembering wrongdoing is to relive it, to bind our present and future ever-closer to the past. This way lies Identity Politics.

Once a person starts to identify with their old grievances, then they become trapped by them, unable to grow in new directions, to find ways to make themselves better people.

It is very seductive to identify ourselves (and others) with the things we regret having done. If we are not careful, we get locked into becoming the person whom we were, not who we want to be – and we subject others to the same judgments. And we compound the error through our speech, when we describe others through the lens of our own judgmental memories. Even when a person is ready to “move on,” their family, friends and community may make that nearly impossible.

But how can we forgive ourselves, or anyone else? I think the answer lies in the idea of transformative change. A person who changes enough so that they see themselves as being different than they were is someone who can move on from the past, and whom others should also be willing to consider with fresh eyes.

This entire mindset is anathema, of course, to more common beliefs in destiny or fate, or the worldview that we are the products of our nature or our nurture, describable and predictable because of our biology or our upbringing. Deterministic judgments are self-perpetuating, and it batters the concept of free will into irrelevance.

In order to grow, we have to believe that people are capable of fundamental and meaningful change – and we have to believe it not only about ourselves, but also about others. Grudges feel good, but they make us prisoners in our own minds.

The Torah addresses this issue repeatedly, though the first example is the most famous: G-d tells Adam and Eve that if they eat the forbidden fruit, “on that day you shall surely die.” But they ate the fruit without dying! Was G-d lying to them?

I think G-d was making a different, and important point: because they ate the fruit, Adam and Eve were altered, irrevocably different from the people they had been before. And the change was purely in their minds – they saw the world differently after eating the fruit than they did before. By changing their worldviews, the “old” Adam and Eve died! They were never the same again.

In this sense, the Torah is telling us there is hope through our actions and deeds: we can become different people, killing off and burying our old selves within our lifetimes. This can be an active event, like committing to changing ourselves. Or it can happen through experience: we cannot “unsee” war or death, just as we cannot “unhear” hurtful words spoken by someone we trust or love. But if we are able to accept that we –and others – are capable of real change, then it makes it possible for true reconciliation. This path is more frightening, but it is, in my opinion, the best way to truly be able to move on and live our lives to the fullest.


Why Ask “Why?”

Have you ever met someone who is, at least narrowly defined, very good at their job – but somehow has no clue about why that job exists?

There are obvious examples, of course: most TSA, DMV and other government-related jobs, where the rules are always the ultimate refuge. Employees even get to make up the rules as they go along because no smart “customer” calls out the gatekeeper for being slow, lazy, incompetent, or otherwise hopeless. Sometimes the results are positively criminal.

Members of the media and government employees are similarly almost entirely blind to the reasons we have the press or government services, and why those reasons are largely incompatible with political activism. With a straight face a reporter can tell you that Trump must be impeached while Obama’s administration was scandal-free, and Comey can give advice to fellow Democrats while blithely maintaining what is almost a sociopathic belief that he is non-partisan. Because we find it so very hard to believe that people can be quite that incompetent, we often err by thinking there must be malice in it.

But it is not malicious to simply be unable to see the bigger picture. The problem is far more widespread than we might think, and it has nothing to do with evil intent. Highly educated “professionals” are also usually stuck deep inside their own silos. For example, I know renowned and decorated physicists who are entirely unaware of any of the philosophical underpinnings of science or of what “knowledge” might actually be. They do not, for example, understand that for any set of data there are always at least two reasonable explanations (no data demands that there is only one answer). Similarly, it is very hard to get an astrophysicist to think intelligently about the different natures of different scientific fields: the Scientific Method that may work well for a controlled experiment in a lab can fall woefully short when talking about astronomy or geology, where there are really no experiments at all – just data as it comes. And even that data, as with all data, is only able to tell us what instruments and our own senses can see. Our answers are always limited by the questions that we ask.

The problem seems to extend to every profession and hobby. Most people “plug and chug” – they want to be told what to do, what rules to follow, and then they can turn off whatever capacity they had for critical thinking, and just perform their allotted tasks. And they may do these things very well – but without critically thinking, they are unable to adapt, to innovate, to improve and grow.

There is, of course, a strongly social component to this kind of non-thinking. As has been extremely well documented, most people really prefer to follow rather than lead, and they are just as happy to imitate their neighbors or peer group or even the mindless mob, as they are to seek out truly impressive leaders. There is safety in numbers, even if there is no wisdom in them.

I see this in religious people as well. An ever-present danger in religion is veering into theurgy: the quasi-magical belief that if you perform a ritual just right, that you have somehow perfectly picked heaven’s complex lock, and blessings will rain down, like the payout from a celestial slot machine. This is how paganism works, but neither Judaism nor Christianity are supposed to be this way: the purpose of ritual is to have an impact primarily on the practitioner, helping us to grow and change, to overcome and surpass our animal desires. And yet the fixation on doing things “just right” because that somehow makes everything all better, is often dangerously close to magical and pagan belief systems. Along the way, we forget that G-d does not benefit directly from the rituals we perform; He seeks for mankind to use rituals to come closer to Him.

Some of the brightest people I know are devout Jews, who spend their lives poring over the pages of the Gemara, investigating and rehashing ancient and medieval questions, learning the ins and outs of highly complex arguments. But the vast majority of them think that the purpose of learning Torah is to find answers to those questions – when it is obvious to any outside observer that the process of asking questions and wrestling with possible answers is the real point of the exercise. Being intellectually and emotionally engaged in Judaism – in a relationship with G-d – is the actual goal. Finding good answers is sort of like finding happiness; both are the byproduct of good choices, not the end-goal in itself. Anyone who directly seeks happiness or honor or “the right answer” for its own sake will be frustrated in that quest, because it is the process, not the product, that truly matters.

To me, being able to ask piercing and new questions is the difference between someone who is good at what they do, and someone who can actually change the world around them.

Alas, too many people find solace in the cop-out. Instead of trying to grapple with hard questions, they fall back on the excuse that some questions are not meant to have answers, or that we are commanded to obey, and that there are things we are unable to understand – so we should not even try. This excuse is the refuge of the TSA employee, not of someone who is partnered with our Creator in improving the world.

Don’t get me wrong – I have no problem with rules per sé, or ritual or learning Torah. Quite the contrary! My issue is with failing to even try to understand the underlying purpose of rules, rituals, and Torah, with failing to stick our heads enough out of the silos to see how our lives and choices affect us, and everything around us.

Just as we are not supposed to be dumb animals, we are also not meant to be automaton machines, executing task after task without knowing – or even asking – “Why?”


Celebrate Our Enemies

They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat!

On Purim, we celebrate our enemies.

No, really! Who would remember Haman or Nebuchadnezzar or Amalek if they were not something that we Jews insist on commemorating every single year? In the case of Amalek, the Torah commands us to remember them (and not forget them) every single day. Even though Amalek have been gone for thousands of years.

On Purim, when we publicly make a raucous noise every time we hear Haman’s name, as if to blot it out, the net effect is that Haman is celebrated more than ever.

This is the twisted, topsy-turvy world in which we live. The bad guys are celebrated. The good guys are forgotten. Most importantly, in the book of Esther which we read on Purim, G-d’s name is not mentioned at all.

This is because the events of Purim created the post-prophetic world for the Jewish people. A world in which G-d is found only by those who look for Him, in which no miracle is so overt that an unbeliever is compelled to believe. A world of unintended consequences, the results of which leads us to see that, while it all may look like unbridled chaos and the reign of evil, G-d is here, and watching, and involved. The Purim story is our story.

On Purim Jews often drink – until they do not know the difference between the hero Mordechai and the villain Haman. That is because Mordechai (named after a Babylonian Deity) is the picture of assimilation, until Haman’s anti-semitism forces the Jews to unite and save themselves. The villain turns out to be the hero.

And this is why we celebrate our enemies. They keep us together. And every time we remember them (and their descendants do not), we get to twist the knife, just a little bit more. We celebrate our enemies because we know that, were they not already dead, the sight of millions of Jews raucously partying at the mere mention of their name, would kill them all over again.



Do Not Fear!

Do you know how, after going to a funeral, life seems that much sweeter? We often step away and resume our daily lives with renewed vigor and a focus on what really matters. In the back of our minds, we are often thinking about our own funerals, and what we will leave behind when we have gone. Did we fulfill our potential? Did we leave the world better for our having lived in it?

We Jews have a national day of mourning. We mourn the loss of our temple, 2000 years ago – and a great many other tragedies besides. But the purpose is not merely to wallow, but, as with a national funeral, to emerge from mourning reinvigorated, ready to make more of our lives.

The tragedies of the Ninth of Av have a common thread: they were all avoidable. Unlike death (which is truly inevitable), Jews do not believe that the temples needed to be destroyed, or that the Holocaust was something G-d wanted to happen. Nor do we believe that some external force or demon is the reason for our suffering. Instead ultimately, we lay the blame on ourselves.

  • The first major tragedy was that of those who went ahead of the Children of Israel to “spy out the land”. They came back reporting that the land was, indeed good – but that there was no hope of conquering it.
  • The second major tragedy was the destruction of the First Temple. We ascribe its loss to widespread idol worship.
  • And the third major tragedy was the destruction of the Second Temple. Many different explanations are given for it, but a dominant theme is that Jews had ceased being kind to one another.

I would argue that each of these tragedies has a single common cause: cowardice.

The Jews in the wilderness lacked the courage of their convictions. We did not believe that we were capable of victory. As any marine will tell you, if you allow doubt to creep in, then you have lost. Convictions matter.

The First Temple was destroyed because of Idol Worship – which seems very foreign to us today. But it is not foreign at all. People worship idols when they find it difficult to accept that G-d has no physical manifestation. The sun and the sea and the storm are here and immensely powerful. We can wrap it all together and call it “The Environment.” And so people engage in all kinds of meaningless and empty rituals in order to appease Gaia, to mitigate what liberals assume is man’s unrelenting war on The Planet. Some of these rituals are downright evil: Save the climate through birth control, and worse.

“Support for family planning is the most effective way to check population growth and relieve pressure on the planet’s environment accordingly.” Or, in a nutshell, “Save the Earth, Don’t Give Birth.”  It is, in fact, Environmentalism taken to its logical conclusion

Idol worship is alive and well, and contaminates the world around us. It celebrates a morally ambivalent natural world, and condemns mankind not as nature’s salvation but instead as an affliction. And idol worship stems from cowardice, an inherent fear of and respect for the physical world, instead of the frightening (and scientifically unsupportable) idea that G-d cannot be touched in this world except through the human soul.

Which leads us to the destruction of the Second Temple. The Talmud commonly ascribes its loss to what translates as “causeless hatred.” People were unkind to each other, finding and maximizing divisions instead of unity.

Unkindness, too, comes from cowardice. When we block other people out, either through name calling or simply excluding them from being “like us”, we are acting through our insecurity. It takes courage to love people who make different choices than we do. It is difficult to accept that each person has their own arc, and that no two people are supposed to be the same. Instead, we too-easily separate into forms of tribalism, if not by bloodlines then by politics or culture or religion. It is insecurity, cowardice, that causes the gaps between people.

The Ninth of Av is a time to connect with our history, to understand what has gone so tragically wrong in our past, and what we can do to make the future brighter. Ideally, we take these lessons and, as we leave the funeral home and blink in the sunlight, we are focused on how best to improve and grow ourselves and the world around us. We are here to build and grow and soar, without fear that our goals might falter, without the fear that comes with accepting that there is only One G-d and that He is not found in the forces of nature, and without ever forgetting that each person contains a divine spark, and is to be accorded love and respect on that basis alone.

Each life contains a wealth of opportunities: Do not be afraid!


Being Vulnerable: Gratitude

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

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

But why does “thank you” really matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<another @iwe and @susanquinn production>


When is Incest a Kindness?

When the Torah says so!

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

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

But the word in 20:17 describing incest is indeed the Hebrew word “chesed” which is never, ever used in the Torah (with this one exception!) as anything but something of an intervention, one that can save a life. Lot describes the angelic deliverance from Sodom as a chesed, and the Torah tells us that the search for Rivkah, Isaac’s wife-to-be, was full of acts of chesed, of divine intervention. So, too, G-d intervenes, acts with chesed, to promote Joseph when in prison – and Joseph asks the grateful butler to repay him with chesed by mentioning Joseph to Pharaoh. Jacob asks Joseph to interrupt the normal way of treating the dead, and to “do me the chesed” of not burying Jacob in Egypt. Moses praises G-d as acting with chesed, divine intervention, to all the descendants of our forefathers, as well as forgiving the people their iniquity. All of these verses use the same word, chesed, to mean a “life-saving intervention,” though the most common translation is, simply (perhaps too simply): “kindness.” The word is much more than “kindness,” as it is used to describe changing the course of the future, like diverting what would otherwise be inevitable, creating a new timeline, new prospects. These acts of “chesed” alter the flow of events in unexpected and sometimes unlikely directions. Chesed is one of the ways in which G-d intervenes in our lives and in which we can also intervene in the lives of others.

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

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

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

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

Note the wording in Leviticus:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Another @iwe and @susanquinn production]


What is Sin?

We think this is a stupid question. It must be a stupid question, right? After all, “sin” must be doing what G-d tells you not to do. Right?

Not necessarily! And certainly not if you read the Torah carefully. For example, Adam and Eve did not, using the words of the Torah, actually sin when they ate the forbidden fruit. And even though, after they were expelled, G-d told Adam to “work the land,” it is Abel and Abraham and Isaac and Jacob who gained divine favor: they were all shepherds, not farmers. It appears that sin is not – after all — defined as “disobeying G-d.”

The word is first used when Cain is angry at Abel, and, smoldering in that fixation, deciding what he should do next. G-d says to Cain,

Surely, if you do good, there is uplift. But if you do not do right, Sin crouches at the door; its urge is toward you. Yet you can be its master.”

What is sin in the case of Cain? It is following his baser instincts: jealousy and rage. Sin is that voice inside our heads urging us to do what we want to do. It is about giving in to animalistic desires to murder in the service of selfishness and greed, pride and lust. It is what leads us to harm others.

Later in Genesis, when Jacob is pursued by Laban, Jacob shows us that a “sin” is not necessarily just something that just offends G-d:

Now Jacob became incensed and took up his grievance with Laban. Jacob spoke up and said to Laban, “What is my crime, what is my sin that you should pursue me? (Gen. 31:36)

Sin happens when we do something unacceptable, something that is so bad that its act calls out for a response, some kind of mitigation. Sin must be dealt with.

Still later, Joseph’s brothers also invoke the word. Terrified that Joseph will, now that their father has died, take revenge on them, they claim that their father made a deathbed request:

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him!” So they sent this message to Joseph, “Before his death your father left this instruction: So shall you say to Joseph, ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and sins of your brothers. (Gen 50:15-17)

Joseph’s brothers are admitting that they gave in to their selfishness and pride when they conspired to sell him. They are openly associating their actions with those of Cain and Sodom, accepting that sin has consequence. They even propose the consequence, a punishment for their sins: “His brothers went to him themselves, flung themselves before him, and said, ‘We are your slaves.’” (Gen 50:18)

Joseph’s reply, fascinatingly, was not that he forgave his brothers, OR that they should not be his slaves, but that dealing with sin was above his pay grade: “Am I a substitute for G-d?” (Gen 50:19). Joseph’s response underwhelms. If there was any time to openly and completely forgive a sin, this would have been that time. But the opportunity was missed.

The process in the Torah appears to be that after someone sins, there is a need for correction, a cry that forces a response, either from man or from G-d. Cain did not master Sin, the animalistic voice in his head, and so he killed his brother. The murder of Abel could not be overlooked: it demanded a response. The Torah tells us:

The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to me from the earth. (Gen 4:10)

This phrase sounds poetic, but it is much more than that. The “cry” in the Torah is the same word used the very next time the word for “sin” is mentioned:

Then the LORD said, “The cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! (Gen 18:20)


[The angels tell Lot] For we are about to destroy this place; because the outcry against them before the LORD has become so great that the LORD has sent us to destroy it.” (Gen. 19:13)

The message here is straightforward: when someone does something that is egregious, there is a “cry” – and that cry demands that G-d – or even His people – responds. Sodom was a place of selfishness and greed (and possibly also sodomy), and human cruelty, like the murder of Abel, leads to cries that reach G-d.

The use of the word is consistent, and it actually helps show us the conditions through which G-d intervenes in our world. The presence of a “cry” also shows the conditions in which we, G-d’s people, are also meant to roll up our sleeves and take action.

Through the rest of the Torah, the pattern remains: an outcry, such as Esau’s in Gen 27:34, the Egyptians in the famine in Gen. 41:55, and especially that of the people in Egypt (starting with Ex. 3:7), always prompts a response. Cries cannot be ignored. These are the cries of injustice, the cries of those murdered, wronged, or otherwise oppressed by people who give in to their baser instincts, who give in to sin.

In the Torah, sin is something that needs to be addressed, either by the sinner or by an external responsible party. We must always keep in mind that while sin crouches at the door, we can – and should – master it and the baser instincts that would turn us from a holy people into a mere collection of high-functioning animals.


My Eulogy for Rabbi Sacks

8 Nov 2020

A great thinker, speaker, scholar and leader passed away yesterday, at the young age of 72. Rabbi Sacks has left this mortal coil. If you do nothing else today, please watch this.

I knew Rabbi Sacks, but not closely: I sang in the choir at St. John’s Wood for many years, and I heard him speak there countless times. I have read his writings for years, and engaged him a few times in conversation. Usually, of course, I argued. Rabbis Sacks was often very great. But I learned more from him by the arguments he got wrong, and the holes in his writing which begged to be filled. 

I started writing on the Torah because my Rabbi told me to do so. But the content of my writing has been inspired by Rabbi Sacks, perhaps more by him than by anyone else. For years I have read Sacks’ work every week, bringing it to the Shabbos table either with praise or criticism. I will miss those new works; their absence leaves a hole in my heart. And I know that Rabbi Sacks would have been very proud of my work, even in opposition, because he definitely believed in the goodness of argument for the sake of heaven. 

May his memory always be for a blessing.


G-d Shows Us His 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.


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:

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.

Ideas are welcome!

[another @iwe and @susanquinn production]


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

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

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

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

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

It seems to me that our forefather put his material wealth ahead of the relationship with his nephew. Had they stayed together, it could have led to a great future for the descendants of both, instead of the catastrophe for Lot that it became.

It does not appear that such a solution was considered by either Avraham or Lot. But the Torah seems to be leading us to ask “why not?”

Ideas are welcome!


Terror In Our Souls

Do you remember when, as a child you were separated from your parents in a busy place? The bottom falls out of your world. All of a sudden, there is nothing except sheer, abject, panic.

My eyes fail with tears, my insides churn; my liver spills on the ground at the shattering of my people (Lamentations 1:11)

Your pulse races, vision blurs, and all you can think of is the enormous hole in your world. There is no rationality to it, no calm and collected reflection on how, surely, you will find your mother or father, or on how the world is not that bad. All we have is all-consuming terror.

Gone is my strength and my expectation from G-d. (2:18)

This is how the Ninth of Av feels to the Jewish people. We cry out, “How!?” How, on this day, were the First and the Second Temples destroyed? How did the Spanish Inquisition or the Holocaust happen?

But the Ninth of Av is not about the destruction of buildings or temples or even the deaths of our people – not really. The Ninth of Av is about that gaping void in our hearts when we, like that panic-stricken child in a mall, feel that the one person we have relied upon at all times, the person who has always been there for us has, in fact, abandoned us. We are all alone.

Alas! She sits in solitude… There is no one to comfort her (1: 1, 9)

Today we connect with how it feels to be abandoned. Because we need to be reminded of that feeling. We need to know what it tastes like.

The Ninth of Av is not mandated by G-d in the Torah. The seminal Ninth of Av was when the spies returned from Canaan and lost their courage, lost their faith in G-d’s support. As @SonofSpengler wrote:

According to Jewish tradition, the Israelites received a second punishment that night as well. “You weep for no reason,” the Talmud (BT Sanhedrin 104b) relates God saying, “so I will fix this as a night of weeping for you, for the generations.”

Measure for measure. We did not hold troth with G-d, and so he was not there for us. This is the theme of the Ninth of Av: “We had it coming.”

Jerusalem sinned greatly; she has therefore become a wanderer (1:8)

The story of the Jewish people and G-d is a love story, a story of a relationship for which our closest analog is marriage. Parents may love their children unconditionally. But the G-d of the Ninth of Av is not our father: he is a wife who burns with the wrath of discovering that her beloved has been unfaithful.

While it may (and should!) be difficult to imagine the monstrosity of a parent murdering their own children, but it is not difficult at all to imagine a wife who, discovering her husband has been unfaithful, pulls a knife or a gun and murders him with a rage that matches the intensity of her previous love.

He burned through Jacob like a flaming fire, consuming on all sides. (2:3)

The Lord became like an enemy. He consumed Israel: He consumed all her citadels, He destroyed its fortresses. (2:5)

Reading Lamentations leaves us with an inescapable conclusion: G-d’s love is not unconditional. We have words to speak and deeds to do that require the courage of our convictions, the ability to overcome our fears. Because unlike the child in the mall, we Jews are all too aware that when G-d seemingly abandons us, and we are left all alone, it may be our fault.

All my enemies heard of my plight and rejoiced, for it was You who did it. (1:21)

We may rationalize our plight all we like – and we often do just that – but the fact remains that in this world, it is we who are responsible for our lives, for the lives of others, and even for dealing with evil as and when we find it. We do not get to rely on a deus ex machina to get us out of any situation in which we may find ourselves. When evil emerges, it is our task, as G-d’s emissaries, to do battle. We do not have the option of merely quitting – that way, the way of those who lost their nerve at the prospect of claiming Israel as the national birthright, is what created the Ninth of Av as a national day of mourning for all time. No. As long as we draw breath, we must struggle.

The joke is told of an announcement from heaven that in 6 months, the world will be entirely submerged in water:

The various religious leaders go on worldwide television.

The leader of Buddhism pleads with everyone to become a Buddhist; that way, they will at least find salvation in heaven.

The Pope goes on television and entreats the audience, “It is still not too late to accept Jesus!” he cries.

The Chief Rabbi of Israel approaches the podium…stands silent for what seems to be an eternity…looks directly into the lens of the center camera and slowly but solemnly states, “My people”…he pauses once again and continues…”We have six months to learn to live under water”…

From the Jewish perspective, this is how we have survived 2,000 years of exile, of always being strangers in a strange land. When we are unfaithful, G-d is angry. But we resolve to do better:

Let us search and examine our ways and return to Hashem. (3:40)

Nevertheless, it is a terrifying thing to realize that G-d is not, as a father or a mother might, going to take care of us no matter what we may do. Our relationship is a partnership, a marriage. And marriages rely on fidelity and trust and growth, the desire to always grow into the person that our spouse wants to love. It means that we always have to make an effort, or the love dies:

I called on your name, G-d, from the depths of the pit. (3:56)

This is a much harder burden than merely being a child. The road is uncertain and challenging.

Nevertheless, like that child in the mall, the reality is that, however dire the situation, however awful and dark the world has suddenly become, it usually is not quite as bad as it first seemed. Which is why the Ninth of Av is not the whole year round.

Yet this I bear in mind; therefore I still hope: G-d’s kindness surely has not ended, nor are his mercies exhausted. (3:21)

Today we mourn, and cry in fear and loss, and shake with the terror.

Hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became food when the daughter of my people was shattered. (4:10)

And then, tomorrow, we will get up, and get back to the work of building our marriage with G-d.


Identity vs Actions

When Rivkah introduces herself to Avraham’s servant, the text contains a very strange artifact, which I highlight:

And she said unto him: ‘I am the daughter of Bethuel the son of Milcah, whom she bore unto Nahor.’ And she said unto him: ‘We have both straw and provender enough, and room to lodge in.’ (Gen. 24:24-5)

Why does the Torah repeat the phrase “And she said unto him”? I think the answer is that Rivkah herself is making a distinction. She first identifies who she is by her lineage. But her actions are not determined by her background. There is a clear and important break between who we are, and what we do.

So Rivkah identifies who she is. And then she separately (and subtly) separates the two. Regardless of her birth and her upbringing, she chooses to invite the guest into their home. We can choose to not be defined by our past: we are defined by our choices.


How Can Jews Advance?

Here’s the problem: Judaism (the way it is practiced today) is not – quite – getting the job done. And it has not been managing it for thousands of years.

How so?

Ever since G-d gave us the Torah in the wilderness, the core ideas of Judaism have made quite an impression on the world. All the major Western religions claim ancestry to Abraham, after all. The Torah is the single most foundational text for all of Western Civilization.

And we are clearly doing something right, after all. Jews are still here, against all the odds. We have our own country, after thousands of years as strangers in strange lands. There are grounds for optimism.

But we, the keepers of the Torah, have so far not succeeded in our mission. If anything, Torah principles are in retreat in both the Western and the non-Western worlds. More than this: we are sliding back into widespread pagan nature-worship, into a world that no longer seeks holiness, populated by people who do not believe that a soul even exists, let alone that each soul contains a spark of the divine.

Jews still exist – and even, within enclaves, thrive. But on balance we have precious little to show for thousands of years of effort. Even those religions which spring from Judaism started with a deep ignorance of what the Torah is telling humanity – though they are hardly to blame for that: Jews ourselves are generally ignorant of Judaism!

I am not speaking of the core of Jewish Law – Halacha. We have a detailed and amazing mesorah that delves deeply into how we can and should do mitzvos, G-d’s will. We are good at that – our scholars have mastered deep and thoughtful recursive loops, starting from tests, and going through generations of opinions by gedolim. And I think, by and large, we have always been good at that. This is our Oral Torah, telling us, with incredible precision how one should do a mitzvah.

But where we have failed the world, other Jews, and, most importantly, Hashem Himself, is in asking why. Why does the Torah tell us about two rivers in Eden? Why can we eat grasshoppers? Why are all the commandments as they are? We shy away from that question, even though there are answers. And the answers are critically important, because they are the only way in which the Torah can be explained to the rest of the world, as well as to Jews ourselves.

In other words: we do not have a third bayis in Jerusalem, and we have not achieved national or worldwide geulah, and we remain depressingly inconsequential for most of the world because we have failed to read and share the Torah in a way that resonates with mankind.

Indeed, we have, for thousands of years, resisted even the idea of explaining the Torah, as if trying to understand G-d’s will is itself a sign of lack of faith. So the Jewish people who famously said na’aseh v’nishmah, “we will do and we will [seek to understand] have excelled at doing the mitzvos, and completely dropped the ball on understanding a key facet of the commandments: why they exist in the first place!

Our “nishma” failings are fundamental: we no longer ask the questions “WHY” for the mitzvos. Indeed, we have a strong intellectual tradition that insists that there are no answers we can understand. We criticize or even ostracize those who try to find those answers.

So we are left as a nation holding a very strange position: we do mitzvos because G-d says so, but we are completely in the dark about why He might have commanded those mitzvos. And because we are in the dark, we fail to effectively spread the ideals of Judaism to the world, as well as to our own people. “Because the Torah says so” is a limited argument that attracts only a pretty small subset of humanity. It is not getting the job done. And even with those who are shomer mitzvos, leaving the entire nishma problem out of the equation means that we are doing mitzvos “blind,” without any comprehension of what they are supposed to mean and achieve.

Think of it this way: We have a comprehensive instruction manual for building something new and wonderful, but we are so deeply involved in the particular details of each instruction that we do not know what we are even trying to build!

The irony is that the Torah tells us that the commandments are not far from us – they are not only accessible to learned scholars who have spent a lifetime mastering Halachic minutiae. Instead, they represent symbolism and concepts that can be relevant for any person. One just needs to take a step back, and see the Torah as a whole. For example, a “The Torah explained in one simple package” approach can be found here – and it is brilliant. I would – and do – quibble with many of the suggested explanations, but I concur wholeheartedly with the overall argument that the Torah sets out two options for mankind starting with Adam, and is consistent about that basic choice throughout the entire text. Indeed, my own work has trended in that direction for a long time – from arguing that the acts of our ancestors in Genesis provide Hashem with the mechanisms for core commandments like sacrifices and that the same approach even explains more peripheral commandments like returning the pillow of a servant at the end of each day. Similarly, for example, while understanding the precise actions necessary to bring a specific offering might take a lifetime of study, the reason for the offering itself – indeed, for all of the items of the tabernacle, are an explanatory primer for the meaning of holiness.

It is not that these ideas must be right – I am sure that even the best of them could use improvement, and the worst of them may be entirely incorrect. That is not the main point, which is considerably more basic: the only way in which we save this world is if we unpack the Torah so it can speak to each person who looks to find meaning in their lives and in this world.

Our other beliefs, of course, are also sometimes part of the problem. We have, to take two prime examples, the “superhero” Moshiach problem, and the “Olam Habah” problem.

The SuperHero Problem

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 any mere mortal? People instinctively love the idea of superheroes, because people fear risk. Superheroes allow us to be passive, to cheer from the sidelines instead of taking the field.

Other societies take the idea of the superhero to even greater lengths, of course. Christianity’s superhero literally suffers for and atones for everyone’s sins. One result of this kind of superhero is that Christians are inherently more passive, uncreative, and risk-averse than are Jews.

Judaism has its own superheroes. One of the most obvious was the golem of medieval Prague, capable of doing things that mere mortals could not.

The ultimate Jewish superhero is, of course, Moshiach. The vast majority of observant Jewry believes that if they follow the mitzvos, then at some point, Moshiach will come and set the whole world straight, and all will be good. It sounds very nice – a deus ex machina at the end of days.

But if this is really how events are supposed to play out, then why doesn’t the Torah say so? Why, instead, does it keep insisting that we are responsible for ourselves and our world?

We know what happens when we refuse to engage with evil, when we do not take responsibility for the problems in the world: evil wins. Hitlers and Stalins and North Korea and Iran happen. Hashem does not stop these horrific events or the bad men or ideologies who are behind them; the task is ours, whether we embrace it or not.

The Torah makes it abundantly clear that it is the Jewish people who are to spread Torah in the world in both word and deed. The commandment to eradicate Amalek does not fall to our heroes or even to Moshiach: it falls on each and every one of us.

The Olam Habah Problem

Some claim that the reason the Torah itself never mentions Olam Habah, or indeed any afterworld at all, is because we are not meant to live our lives for the purposes of any world but this one. The Torah is a guide to life – not planning for death.

Nevertheless, it is quite common to hear people explain that they expect their reward in olam habah, the world to come. And because of hopes for a reward in olam habah, they can bear whatever suffering comes their way.

There are two key aspects to the olam habah perspective that are concerning. The first is, of course, that someone who has olam habah in mind is not actually living in, and for, the world we inhabit together.

The very fixation on Olam Habah leads to passivity, the belief that whatever Hashem sends our way is something we should accept “for the sake of the next world.” And so people risk less, and suffer more, but do so secure in the knowledge that it surely will work out for them eventually – even though believing in fate or destiny is not commanded at or suggested in the Torah itself. Our greatest leaders did not accept G-d even at His own word – Avraham and Moshe argue with G-d, and often even changed His mind. They set the tone for resistance to the idea of a divinely-set Fate. We should be following their example.

The second is the problem of selfishness. So many of our mitzvos have to do with caring for others, for gratitude and appreciation towards other people as well as toward Hashem. Whether this is done in a marriage or as aids for all of society, the Torah does not seem to see people as hermits in individual bubbles. People are meant to interact, to build holy families and communities and even nations.

Yet Olam Habah seems to be a place of individual reward. It is a strange idea that a lifetime of being involved with others should come with a reward that is unique for a single neshama.

Together, the Superhero and Olam Habah problems make it much harder to spread Torah into the world.


Man Leads the Dance

Think of all the things man creates and G-d learns from. Noah’s offering invents a key form of sacrifice. Avraham’s servant invents prayer (“speaking to my heart”), and is rewarded for it!. Countless other examples I have brought over the years of “measure for measure.”

The radical idea is that G-d may not have known how we would relate to Him – we figured out methods by ourselves! So many laws come from what happens in Genesis – things that G-d did not expect.

I think this is quite a neat theme. It puts so much responsibility on mankind in the driver’s seat.


As Many “Truths” as there are Souls

I attack the idea of an objective reality, and I use the example of a glass that is half full (or an infinite myraid of other possible descriptions that are all “true”). There is no comprehensively accurate way to describe such a glass – or anything else. So any “truth” is highly limited and filtered by our instruments, perceptions, etc.

I realized that this is actually a great explanation for the “seventy faces of the Torah” as well as each person’s relationship with G-d. Every relationship is unique. And just because each person only has a limited ability to connect with G-d, that does not make it untrue or even incomplete.

I can explain a verse in the Torah. Someone else can explain it differently. Just like the glass, the different understanding does not, in itself, make either of us wrong.


What if there is no plan?!

What if there is no plan?!

I know a lot of people are convinced that G-d Has A Plan. For many people, this is a core part of their faith, and it is a comforting thought: no matter what we see, somehow it will all work out in the end.

But what if there is no plan? After all, the Torah tells us that G-d acts – and reacts – in response to what we do and say. The text is full of examples: Adam and Eve, by eating the fruit, force G-d to react. Cain is only branded after he chooses to kill Abel. The Flood only happens because people choose violence; if they had not done so, then the Flood surely would have been averted. Avraham argues with G-d and changes His mind. So does Moshe.

G-d acting and reacting to mankind is not consistent with some divine plan. Instead, the Torah is telling me that G-d created this world, He put himself in human beings (but not in nature), and then He limited Himself (in time and space) to allow mankind to have free will, to give us the opportunity to independently create and grow and love and – above all – choose.

The ability to choose means that we are free agents. G-d, admittedly, only gives us a few short years on this earth, so our potential is limited. But that hardly makes it any less potent: if anything, mortality makes us much more likely to take risks. And since our choices matter, He gave us the great power along with the great responsibility.

If G-d does not actually Have A Plan, then being religious is fraught with challenges and responsibilities. This kind of religious faith is no opiate; it drives us to action, not passivity. After all, if we can change G-d’s mind, then don’t we have an obligation to try to do so, on behalf of ourselves and our loved ones? Isn’t this an aspect of prayer, as well as good deeds of all kinds?

Am I wrong? If you think G-d has a plan, how do you know?


Tidbit: Jacob and Esau

 Now the first came forth red, all over like a hairy garment; and they named him Esau. Afterward his brother came forth with his hand holding on to Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob (Gen. 25:25-6)

The Torah is telling us something very important here. Esau is defined by his appearance – because others see him that way, and he ultimately also sees himself the same way.

The Torah never tells us what Jacob looks like. It only tells us what he does. Right or wrong, Jacob is a man who is the sum of his actions, of his decisions. Jacob always dedicates himself to whatever course of action he has chosen.

This, of course, is necessary to any Torah life: to be someone who is known for their choices and actions, not their mere appearance..


Torah Language: A Hidden Barrier

One newton is the force needed to accelerate one kilogram of mass at the rate of one metre per second squared. F=M*A


The Einstein force is the apparent force acting on a particle of mass m in the S ‘ frame, and is defined by

Both of these definitions of “force” are useful, in their own way. Neither is necessarily “true” in any absolute sense, but they can certainly be “true” in the sense of coming from within a self-consistent set of mathematics.

But what is most amazing – and relevant for this post – is that the words for “Force” do not cleanly translate from Newtonian to Einsteinian Mechanics. They are two different languages. And so any conversion from one to the next is kludgy and imprecise, which is useless for anyone trying to seek some kind of absolute meaning.

We have this problem when reading the Torah. The underlying words are all in Hebrew – but have been translated into other languages that come with their own extensive baggage.

I have written before on the notion of Perfection, as well as on so-called Objective Reality. Neither concept is found in the Torah, and so those who believe in Perfection and Reality are imposing Greek ideals on a different text, language, and – at least with respect to Judaism – religion. (I have also, in other posts, shown that the same is true with the concepts of Peace, Humility and, most controversially, Love. The common understandings of what those mean are not found in the Torah, and are instead superimpositions of alien concepts that are added by the inherent limitations of translation.)

So naturally, when a Jonathan Sacks says, as quoted in a recent Member Feed post, that in the Torah, Peace trumps Truth, I take issue with both sides of the equation. In the Torah, positive relationships are more important than words and actions that cause pain and embarrassment. But Sacks, by taking the Greek understandings of these concepts, manages to reach conclusions that sound warm and fuzzy, but are in fact not at all supported by the text.

It would be analogous to calculating the velocity and mass using Newtownian mechanics, and concluding that the result is “force” as defined by Einstein. The language matters.

If we search for the word that we translate as “truth” in the Torah (the word is, in Hebrew, E-M-T, pronounced “Emet” – here is a tool that does it for you), the result is incredibly illustrative. For starters, the word is first used to describe a maidservant – a loyal maidservant. In the text, Hagar does everything that her master and mistress ask of her; she is loyal.

The word is also used to describe nations – people bound by common loyalties. Jacob thanks G-d for G-d’s Emet, His loyalty or consistent refusal to abandon Jacob. If you reread the Torah and substitute “Loyalty” for “Truth”, it makes a lot more sense.

And this usage is consistent in the text. With almost no exceptions (see below), nowhere in the Torah does the word that is usually translated as “truth” actually mean “truth” in the Greek and English definition of the word, to wit: “conformity with fact or reality; verity:” Which, if you think about it is not so crazy. If the Torah has no notion of objective reality, how could it have a notion of conformance to that reality?

When we strip out the superimposed meanings that came from translations into other languages and cultures, the text can shine out. Closely reading the Torah shows us that Judaism is not a religion interested in truly conforming to an objective reality; it is about growing relationships of all kinds, between our bodies and soul, between people, and between people and G-d.

P.S. There are three possible exception: Deut. 13:15, 17:4. If you read them, note the following word, “nachon” paired with the “emes.”The former translates more as “correct” or “certain” – a word which is closer to the Greek Truth, than Emet. So the combination means “loyal to the established/certain understanding.” You can search for how this much rarer word is used in the text at this link.

I would argue that the combination of “Emet” and “Nachon” (meaning “correct”) form a compound meaning: “And behold, if it be loyally correct that such abomination…”

The only real exception to the argument that “Emet” does not mean “Truth” the way we understand it, is a single usage: Deut. 22:20. “But if this thing be true, that the tokens of virginity were not found in the damsel;” is an argument from inference: there is no evidence of virginity, so we have to conclude that the woman was not a virgin. Even this is a logical argument leading to a conclusion, not an assertion of an underlying real truth about her virginity. Nevertheless of the 53 instances of they three-word root word Emet in the Torah, this is the only one that can be read using the meaning that we now take for granted as being, somehow, a Judaic invention.


The Bright Side to Facilitating Idol Worship

Speech is an ephemeral thing: mere sound waves that cross a short distance and then vanish, as if they had never existed. People who insist on only recognizing things that are physically substantial tend to discount sound waves, and their effects on the world.

And yet our words define us, and our entire society. Our speech forms a critical link between our perceptions and how we share those perceptions with others. In a nutshell, our speech creates our own reality. Our speech is both a reflection of our worldview, and a projection that helps shape everything around us.

As a result, a polite society is built on civil speech. Those who insist on putting others down, on name-calling, invariably propagate negative views that redefine the reality of all the people with whom they come in contact. In Judaism we call this loshon hora, evil speech, and it encompasses a range of gossip and unproductive speech, speech that wears people down even when it stops short of outright character assassination.

This is one variation of a common idea: hate the sin, not the sinner; play the ball, not the pitcher, etc.

But there is another way of doing it as well, and I discovered it recently when reading about the death of Aaron the High Priest. In Jewish literature, Aaron is known as one who always pursued peace, in Hebrew a rodef shalom. He was someone who did everything he possibly could to avoid conflict and make people happy.

And yet, the Torah itself never calls Aaron by that title, or tells any story that suggests that he was a “pursuer of peace.” So why did our sages call him a rodef shalom?

The answer I discovered amazes me.

Aaron is not fleshed out as a three-dimensional personality; he usually shadows Moses, and he does what he is told, even when the situation is very challenging (such as serving without complaint after his sons have died). But there is one very considerable exception: at the insistence of the people who have become fearful after Moses had not come down from Mount Sinai when they expected him, Aaron colludes with the people and helps to create the Golden Calf

Our sages could have excoriated Aaron for the sin of the Golden Calf. But they did not. What they did instead was to see his act in the best possible light: our tradition is not that Aaron was worshipping an idol, or that he was weak or afraid in the face of an angry mob! Instead, he was called a pursuer of peace, a man who wanted others to be happy so much that he was willing to compromise fundamental principles if that is what it took to make people happy.

The “reality”, the data input, is the same either way: Aaron helped make the Golden Calf. The historical Jewish interpretation of that underlying fact, is really a critical lesson for us, especially when tempers run high. Even an act that is tantamount to idolatry can be done for the right reasons.

It is hard to assume that others mean well, to give people the benefit of the doubt. But when we fail to do so, jumping to angry and bitter conclusions, our society suffers. But when we seek to find the good, when we refrain from anger and nastiness, then we create the conditions in which people are most able to grow, to find common and positive ground, to reconnect with each other in holiness.

P.S. After the incident of the golden calf, G-d announces that Aaron would serve forever more within the Tabernacle, which makes sense: if someone is so eager to please that they can be corrupted, then it is best that they are in an environment where the only leader they serve is G-d’s own presence.


Tying Torah Together Murder and the Snake

And if a man come presumptuously upon his neighbour, to slay him with guile; thou shalt take him from Mine altar, that he may die. (Ex. 21:14)

What a strange formulation! If you want to kill a murderer, that is one thing: but what does G-d’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 God had made. (Gen. 3:1)

The snake sought to kill Eve (and Adam), since G-d 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 Eve were no longer.

So the snake, with arum, kills. This happens in Genesis.

In Exodus, G-d 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 altar’s purpose is to elevate one’s soul, to connect the physical world with the spiritual one. An altar is a means of growth upward. The snake lost his pathway upward, so any murderer who kills in the same way that the snake did, suffers a similar fate.

The Torah ties it together neatly, with words that seem to stick out, but in fact are markers to show us that the laws of the Jewish people as expressed later in the Torah are drawn directly from the events described in the very beginning.

[this idea was developed in chevrusa with Toyam Moshe)


Mankind’s Hunt for Irresponsibility

We know that people find making choices to be stressful, even when those choices are between attractive options: which candy in all of the candy store do you want? Adding options invariably makes things worse and not better. Decisions stress people out. Want to freak out a college student? Suggest they write an essay on any topic they like.

People want to be handed one or two options on a platter; having too many choices is bewildering and daunting. I think in some part this is why most people do not really want to be #1 in most organizations. In corporations generally, the “glass ceiling” is often the line above which many people are not happy venturing. There are very few people who want both to have a wide range of choices and be held responsible for the choices that they make.

The irony, of course, is that every single human being ultimately has this challenge, no matter how much we may want to avoid it. The options are dizzying, if we but allow ourselves to think of them. And we are all held responsible, sooner or later, either by other people, by our Creator or – most frighteningly of all – by ourselves.

The way we deal with this problem is that we make life choices to avoid decision-making. We self-limit. We find ways to restrict and close our social circles. Most people seek “plug and chug” work instead of “blue sky” kinds of endeavors. We find ways to claim that we really had no choices along the way; we are merely leaves swept along in the current created by our parents or peers or schools.

In other words, mankind has an almost-instinctive desire to reduce our responsibility. It is all part of risk reduction. As we have seen with the Covid crisis, people would rather suffer in the name of reducing risk than actually getting on with life. As with most things, mindset becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we see ourselves as responsible and decisive actors, then we can achieve that. If, on the other hand, we believe in fate, wherein we are hapless victims of our circumstances, then that is what we become.

One of the unpleasant aspects of decisions, of course, is that a single bad one can destroy a lifetime of good judgement. It only takes one Chappaquiddick to cripple a career or end a life. Or one collision by a drunk driver.

One of the key imprints of the Torah is the notion of individual free will and responsibility, and the parallel rejection of fate and destiny. And I noticed that this theme is found not only in the Garden of Eden and Cain and Abel (where the stakes were high, but the players made informed choices), but it is also found when dealing with the subject of diminished capacity.

As Paracelsus put it: “All things are poisons, for there is nothing without poisonous qualities. It is only the dose which makes a thing poison.” It is tautological that too much of anything is bad – that is what “too much” means. On the other hand, everything can be beneficial if both the application and the dose are good. This world presents us with a myriad of choices, but one of the most perilous choices is found in alcohol.

The primary moral danger of alcohol, poisonous though it is in sufficient quantity, is not the physical impairment or the liver damage. The problem with alcohol is its primary application: diminishing our capacity to make good choices. As we have said above, people crave ways to avoid responsibility, and alcohol offers a handy solution: we can take it so that we have an excuse as and when we do something stupid. Not that we meant to end up doing something stupid when we started drinking – perish the thought!

Alcohol lends even our excuses the extra excuse of diminished capacity. This may not be alcohol’s sole advantage, but it certainly is a key unconscious allure. Alcohol allows our choices to take on the passive voice: I don’t even remember the sequence of events that led up to that car crash or the surprise pregnancy. But I did not seek those outcomes, and I am surely not responsible for them! I was just unwinding with my friends, and might have had a few too many…

Alcohol, like our parents and the circumstances of our birth and upbringing, becomes an excuse through which we stop being responsible for choices we should be making.

The Torah gives us two primary examples: Noah and Lot.

Noah spends his life building an ark, and he saves life on the earth to begin rebuilding. But after getting through all of that, he suffers from some kind of survivor’s guilt: he grows a vineyard and makes himself as drunk as he can. The text says he “debased” himself, using a word that elsewhere suggests a raw, as-created, animalistic state (the opposite of holiness). Noah chose to reject his own responsibility for his own actions, to act instinctively and not thoughtfully.

If anything, this is using alcohol as a post-facto ablution: drown all the guilt and doubts and grief in wine. The result is disastrous; he engages in incestuous sex with his son, and his reputation is ruined. Reverting to animalism is not a winner in the Torah’s eyes.

Lot similarly escapes from Sodom, with his two daughters. His daughters believed that the entire world had been destroyed, and they were somehow the only survivors, responsible for repopulating the world. They get their father drunk, and then got themselves impregnated by him. Lot, while a victim (he did not bed his daughters while sober), clearly was not blameless. He let them get him drunk, after all. The children of Lot’s incestuous affair are cursed because of the circumstances that brought them into the world.

For both Noah and Lot, cases, alcohol lends diminished capacity, reversion to animalistic lusts, and single events that eternally tarnish their reputations. The alcohol is the gateway, the means through which people can follow their need to cut loose and plausibly deny whatever happens next. Alcohol behind the wheel turns murder into manslaughter, though if the outcomes are just a bit altered, such an event might even be described as mere youthful indiscretion.

The Torah’s lesson is blindingly obvious: mankind may want to avoid making decisions. But G-d is not having it: our lives are ultimately judged by our decisions, including those that enable more disastrous outcomes. As we know from the expulsion from the Garden (which happened not necessarily because Adam and Eve ate the fruit, but because they each denied personal responsibility), G-d gives us choices. We must not only make the choices, but we must also not shirk from owning those choices and the consequences that stem from them. Anything we do to reduce our capacity and agency invariably will do more harm than good.

In other words, man must act against our natural impulses, the desire to revert to animalism and to blame that reversion on something – anything – other than ourselves. We might be daunted by the prospect of choices, decisions, and consequences. Nevertheless, the Torah tells us, we are charged with overcoming our natural fears, eschewing avoidance or excuses, and rise to handle the challenges offered to us.


Science, Engineering and the Meaning of Life