Connecting Body and Soul

We have long understood that people contain an essential dualism, referred to sometimes as “heart and mind,” or “mind and matter,” or “body and soul.” Most famously, Adam is created from two opposing ingredients: dust from the earth, and living soul blown in through his nostrils. Though I only really am sure of the Torah perspective, I think the dualism of “body and soul” may be an almost-universal understanding, spanning religions and cultures the world over (if I am incorrect, please enlighten me!).

An introductory identifier of any faith or culture is whether or not it seeks to combine body and soul, or to separate them. Separation of body and soul is well known. Think of the person who engages in meaningless sex, insisting that it does not taint their soul in any way. Acting out our animal desires “in the moment” is how we corrupt our future ability to have deep and meaningful relationships. Or the flip side: consider the Eastern Mystic, the guru on the mountain who swears off physical things and seeks to live solely in the spiritual realm. For both of these, the body and the soul are best kept far apart from each other.

The opposite case, combining the body and soul, can be done right – or very wrong. If we let the desires of the body govern our spiritualism, then we descend into animalistic behavior, dragging us into the gutter. Popular culture is full of this – just google any of the songs that fixates on genitalia. The ancient world had it, too – the deity Peor is all about celebrating raw physical functions such as expelling fecal waste.

On the other hand, if our souls, the desire for spiritualism, sets the agenda, then we can infuse our bodies with that spiritual element, and elevate our physical selves. The text of the Torah keeps dwelling on the theme that we should seek to use our divinely-gifted breath to elevate our bodies and the world around us. Hence, the prayer of Avraham’s servant is favored because he “speaks to his heart” – investing his spirit into his body.

Similarly, we are commanded to take key words of the Torah: “You are to tie them as a sign on your arm and they are to be totafos [tefillin] between your eyes.” Our arms are proxies for our bodies, the physical agent of our will. And “between your eyes” is, of course, where we are ensouled, where the nose (through which G-d blew our souls) connects to the skull.

This connection predates the actual commandment! The servant of Avraham commits Rebekah, when he finds her, by promptly giving her bracelets for her arms, and a ring which he places “on” (perhaps over) her nose – just as we wear tefilin! (Indian women wear jewelry high on their forehead in this manner.) Perhaps this is the inspiration for the idea of tefilin themselves! We bind ourselves in a relationship to G-d just as Rebekah becomes bound, promised, to marry Isaac. We even say the following verses from Hosea (2:21) when we finish binding the tefilin on our hands:

I will betroth you to Me forever.
And I will betroth you to Me with righteousness, justice, kindness, and mercy.
I will betroth you to Me with fidelity, and you shall know G-d.

Binding our bodies and our souls – and committing them to other people (and to G-d) is how we build and complete meaningful relationships.  

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


Filling the World

My study partners and I were curious about why, when Tamar is pregnant with twins, the verse starts with, “when her time came to give birth,” but when Rivkah is pregnant with Esau and Jacob, the text is different: “when her days were full to give birth.” They are parallel cases, but for some reason Rivkah’s verse uses the somewhat poetic expression instead of merely saying “it was time.” Which, of course, prompts the question: what we are supposed to learn from the different language which seems to make the same point?

One answer (we have others as well) can be teased out of the text if we examine a key word in the phrase: maleh, meaning “fill” or “complete.” We approach this in the same way we do any textual analysis: by looking at how the specific word is used elsewhere in the Torah.

The Torah starts with maleh, “fill,” in a straightforward meaning: The Torah tells us that G-d wants life to populate the world: fish are instructed to fill the seas, and man to fill the earth. But, as the text tells us not long after, man does more than merely procreate and fill the world: man in turn fills the whole world with power-centric “might makes right” behavior (the Hebrew word used is Hamas, explained here).  And then G-d repeats the expression, specifically saying that he will destroy the world:

God said to Noah, “I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the earth is filled with hamas because of them: I am about to destroy them with the earth.”

It seems that G-d’s initial desire that we fill the world was fulfilled – but not entirely for the good. While animals and mankind physically reproduced and populated the world, it was not spiritually positive overall. In terms of our actions, we filled the world with negative elements instead of positive ones! So the first draft of the world failed, and G-d declared it a failure and started all over.

Indeed, after the Flood, G-d tries again:

God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fertile and increase, and fill the earth.”

And this time, the word has positive spiritual content as well as physical. The word maleh, fill, is repeatedly (and positively) connected to drawing out water from wells: maleh is connected to people coming together around the well, and the use of water to sustain life. Water in the Torah is compared, by Bilaam, to the Jewish people spiritually watering the world.  

But the real core of the connection is to Jacob. He has to “fill” his years of service to earn his wives – showing a willingness for hard work and long-term planning in pursuit of relationships.  Jacob later decrees that his descendants will “fill the nations” (Gen. 48:19), which surely is intended not as a demographic prediction, but one of the influence of Torah ideas and ideals. Indeed, Jacob is connected to this word maleh more than anyone else in the text, suggesting that when G-d initially ordered man to “be fruitful and multiply” Jacob, with his twelve sons, was both the biological and spiritual realization of G-d’s ambition.

Jacob’s role is uniquely connected to the concept of filling the world in a spiritual sense: One specific word form of “fill”, וַיִּמְלְא֥וּ, is only found in four places in the entire Torah. They are:

 When her days were full (וַיִּמְלְא֥וּ) to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb.

(At the birth of Jacob)

Then Joseph gave orders to fill (וַיִּמְלְא֥וּ) their bags with grain, return each one’s money to his sack, and give them provisions for the journey.

(Sustaining food for Jacob’s family)

It required forty days, for such is the full (וַיִּמְלְא֥וּ) period of embalming. The Egyptians bewailed him seventy days

(The death of Israel (Jacob))

They filled (וַיִּמְלְא֥וּ) in it four rows of stones

The breastplate naming and connecting to the 12 sons of Israel (Jacob):

Connect them together: These four examples are the entire lifecycle of Jacob as it relates to the world: Jacob’s birth; Jacob’s life; Jacob/Israel’s death, and Israel’s eternal legacy to the world through his children and their connection to G-d (through the High Priest’s breastplate which delineates the twelve tribes).

The breastplate has stones in “four rows.” The number “four” itself represents, as I have written elsewhere, the connection to rebirth, the ability to completely change a person or, in the case of the Flood or Sinai, the whole world. That is the legacy of Jacob/Israel: to transform the world.

So the initial commandment from G-d to “fill the world” bears fruit with Jacob – not in a physical sense, but in a spiritual one. Jacob’s life and death represents the next stage of G-d’s people spiritually filling the world.  The rest, as they say, is up to us.

[an @iwe, @blessedblacksmith, @susanquinn and @eliyahumasinter work]


Maximizing our Blessings

It is clear to me that G-d does not answer all prayer. But it is also clear to me that G-d surely is involved in the lives of those who bring Him into our world; I feel G-d’s kisses on a daily basis, and I know many others who do as well.

Last night we watched It’s a Wonderful Life with a number of our kids who had never seen it before. Its core message is profound: the impact we make on others is what matters. Or, as seen on the wall of the Bailey Building and Loan: “All you can take you is that which you’ve given away.” If we extend the aphorism beyond mere mammon, we might be onto something!

Last week I wrote on what makes a successful prayer in the Torah. Simplified: the most divinely-favored prayer in the entire Torah is that of Avraham’s servant, in large part because the servant is praying for his master. The two dovetailed perfectly into a simple, yet fundamental logical progression:

1: If we want to matter to G-d, we must care about, and pray for, other people.

2: In order to maximize G-d’s blessings to us, then, we should deliberately arrange our affairs so that when others are blessed, we are as well.

In other words, a community in which people lift each other up and form an integral support network is one where G-d hears prayers.  So if we make choices that result in the success of other people leading to blessings in our own lives, then G-d will be with us when we call on Him.

A society blessed by G-d is more like capitalism, where a rising tide can boost all ships, where the pie can grow such that everyone can benefit from the success of others. This is the antithesis of a zero-sum game, in which for every win there must be equal-and-opposite loss.

In practical terms, then, I am talking of endeavors where we honestly and legitimately pray for others before ourselves: think of a doctor who prays for their patients, a mother who prays for her children, a businessman who prays for the welfare of his shareholders. Indeed, any person who prays for their friends, family, and neighbors is someone who sees their own success through the prism of the success and blessings of others.

All who are engaged in holy work (e.g. investing in other people, elevating the world in some way, spreading knowledge and wisdom, etc.), pray just as Avraham’s servant did: that our master (G-d Himself) should be blessed with a successful result for His endeavors in this world. The prayer and divine intervention becomes a positive feedback loop: If we seek to maximize the kindness we show to others (and pray for them), then the benefits reflect on us. The more we love, the more G-d loves us.

I am finding that changing my worldview in this way has changed my prayers and their success.

What do you think?


The Key Elements of Successful Prayer

The Key Elements of Successful Prayer

We often think of great characters in the Torah as being the forefathers, or perhaps Moses. But if we do that, we overlook someone who did something that nobody else in the Torah ever managed: he prayed for an extremely specific set of events, which began to emerge even before he finished praying.

And I think we can learn some very important and useful lessons about what kind of prayer is likely to find similar favor from G-d.

Here is the text:

And he said, “Oh G-d of my master Abraham’s [house], approach me this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham. Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townspeoplecome out to draw water. Let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’—let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master.”

He had scarcely finished speaking, when Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel, the son of Milcah the wife of Abraham’s brother Nahor, came out with her jar on her shoulder.

The maiden was very beautiful—[and] a virgin, no man having known her. She went down to the spring, filled her jar, and came up. The servant ran toward her and said, “Please, let me sip a little water from your jar.”

“Drink, my lord,” she said, and she quickly lowered her jar upon her hand and let him drink. When she had let him drink his fill, she said, “I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking.” Quickly emptying her jar into the trough, she ran back to the well to draw, and she drew for all his camels.

And then, after being welcomed into Laban’s house, the servant tells the story:

“I am Abraham’s servant,” he began. “G-d has greatly blessed my master, who has become rich—giving him sheep and cattle, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and asses. And Sarah, my master’s wife, bore my master a son in her old age, and he has assigned to him everything he owns. Now my master made me swear, saying, ‘You shall not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites in whose land I dwell; but you shall go to my father’s house, to my kindred, and get a wife for my son.’

And I said to my master, ‘What if the woman does not follow me?’

He replied to me, ‘G-d, whose ways I have followed, will send a messenger with you and make your errand successful; and you will get a wife for my son from my kindred, from my father’s house. Thus only shall you be freed from my adjuration: if, when you come to my kindred, they refuse you—only then shall you be freed from my adjuration.’

“I came today to the spring, and I said: ‘O G-d, God of my master Abraham’s [house], if You would indeed grant success to the errand on which I am engaged!

As I stand by the spring of water, let the young woman who comes out to draw and to whom I say, “Please, let me drink a little water from your jar,” and who answers, “You may drink, and I will also draw for your camels”—let her be the wife whom G-d has decreed for my master’s son.’

I had scarcely finished speaking to my heart, when Rebekah came out with her jar on her shoulder, and went down to the spring and drew. And I said to her, ‘Please give me a drink.’ She quickly lowered her jar and said, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels.’ So I drank, and she also watered the camels.

Notice how his prayer is so quickly and fully answered! This did not happen to David or Moses, Avraham or Isaac or Jacob. This servant somehow has hit on a form of prayer that G-d wants to reward!

Which leads us to the question: what makes his prayer so successful?

First off, as I have written before, the servant describes his prayer as “speaking to my heart.” This is the binding of our body and soul, captured symbolically in the “and you shall bind [these words] upon your hands, and as a sign between your eyes” of the tefillin that we are commanded to wear. When we use our divinely-gifted soul to elevate our physical selves (and the physical world around us), then it shows that we understand what G-d wants man to do in the world overall: inject spiritual energies into the physical plane, use our words to uplift everything. G-d loves it when we do this.

But there are so many more things that this prayer is and does that we can learn from!

It is clear, for example, that the servant is praying on someone else’s behalf. The prayer is not about himself, or his wants or needs or desires. He could have given up, declared failure, and gone home. He could even have taken the camels and stolen the wealth for himself! But he does none of these things: he acts with consideration and concern for someone else before himself. Caring about others, investing in what they need, is doing G-d’s work.

The servant, by putting his heart and soul into fulfilling his vow, is also investing in the long-term, as opposed to the short term benefit. He may have understood what all students of the Torah know: the results of his prayer were a critical link in the chain of the history of the world. Avraham’s nameless servant is enshrined for all time because of his prayer, a prayer that was more favored by G-d than any other we know. And so, even though finding a wife for his master’s son may have brought him no personal benefit (and indeed may have come at a cost, since failure in the mission would have left him wealthier), we read his story even now.  Torah Judaism reinforces the importance of setting aside short-term pleasures and distractions. Instead, we aim for the Big Picture, investing in intergenerational continuity and relationships.

The servant is also keeping his word. By fulfilling his vow to his master, he is being upright, validating the trust that Avraham invested in him. Acting honorably brings divine favor.

Lastly, it is clear that Avraham does not tell his servant to pray. The idea seems to be his own, born of desperation. When in doubt, he sought divine intervention.

If we tie it all together, we have the ingredients to effective prayer: seek to uplift ourselves and the world; pray for others at least as much as we pray for ourselves; invest our prayer in the timeless as opposed to what we perceive as short-term benefit; act with honor; seek out a connection with G-d whenever our path is unclear.

Avraham’s servant is famous in perpetuity, not for his name but for his deeds. We can – and should – learn from his example. G-d is our master, just as surely as Avraham was the master of his servant. If we seek to grow closer to G-d, then in this episode we are shown how best to achieve divine intervention and blessing. If we truly put G-d first, and dedicate our lives to his service, then G-d reciprocates and connects and answers us.

[an @iwe, @eliyahuasinter and @blessedblacksmith work]

P.S. In the Torah, the servant is not named. I think this is not to diminish his status, but instead to elevate it: he is the archetype of how a servant can and should please his master – how we can – and should – find favor in the eyes of our Creator. Ultimately, our lives are not about us. They are about what we choose to do.


Can We Institutionalize Kindness?

Remember orphanages? Orphanages used to be good places. Places that created a home for the homeless, structure for the parentless, love for the abandoned and lost. Alexander Hamilton was an orphan. His widow, Eliza, was rightly praised for founding the Orphan Asylum Society, the city’s first private orphanage, a home for hundreds of children.

And then, along the way, the orphanage, like so many institutions that are born with the best of intentions, became corrupted. It turned, over time, from its primary mission, and, slowly became a place for the administration and staff to assure their own futures. When the full weight of the inhumanity of orphanages became clear to all, they were phased out in favor of foster care and other approaches. (Note that Hamilton’s orphanage continues, in a different form, today).

We have seen this trend across virtually every institution that was designed to care for others. Public schools were once truly excellent. Then, as the institutions aged, they sought to do what all bureaucracies do over time: perpetuate themselves and maximize power. Teachers Unions are now about the teachers, not the students. And in recent years we have seen the corruption of the once great institution of public schools extend to include the promotion of transgenderism and grooming. The question of whether students are being treated kindly is laughably distant from reality: today’s children are being brutally used and manipulated to promote and expand specific ideologies.

It is clear that in the normal course of events, all institutions are subject to this kind of decay. In many respects, the history of the orphanage is not that different from any kind of organization that settles in and, over time, loses its way. (Private companies in a reasonably free market are subject to feedback loops that ensure they fail, sooner or later, if they take their eyes off the ball.) Government entities lack basic corrective feedback mechanisms, so we get the FBI, CIA, EPA, NSA, FDA, TSA (and countless others) that are so far away from the principles that spawned them that they are all worse at performing their missions than if they did not exist at all. It is clear that most older institutions, like the orphanages of yore, should be scrapped entirely in favor of something else, something that would be an improvement if for no other reason that it would be young, staffed by people who are attracted to the mission more than the pension. But even if we scrap the old and bring in the new, the reasonable best case result would be “rinse and repeat.”

If we are trying to institutionalize kindness, then, we end up with a bit of a paradox: any formal organization will, over time, atrophy — even if it started with the best of intentions. The key is that we need to de-emphasize the institutions themselves, and focus on the people themselves. We need to find a way to motivate generations of people to keep aiming higher.

Because ultimately, people should not be cogs in a machine. We are, each of us, individuals. And people are not “touched” by an institution: we are touched by other people. Everyone remembers a teacher who made a difference, for good or ill. The specific school that paid that educator was no more or less than an enabler for the human connection that leads to dedication and inspiration. It is the individual teacher who ultimately makes the critical connection to the student. The teacher who does this is, for lack of a better phrase, a “true believer.” Such teachers are not mere employees, going through the motions. They find meaning in their jobs, purpose that drives them as they go through their days, to go above and beyond the requirements and rituals of managing a classroom. The institution can help or hinder a great teacher, but the building and the bureaucracy can never replace that teacher.

Any and all institutions fail over time. This includes secular and religious orphanages and schools, as well as large bureaucracies originally designed to do things like eliminate poverty. Everyone ends up looking out for #1, sooner or later.

But all is not lost! Because there is a secret ingredient that perpetuates the mission of an institution: a touchstone document that is accepted as irrefutable. In the United States, we have the Constitution. When it is treated almost as holy writ, the Constitution has, by and large, done its job. Constant reference to it as the foundation of all governmental rights and limitations has kept America “free” for a very impressively long time, indeed. But in order for this to work, there has to be an ongoing process of nourishment and replenishment, constant reference to the text revitalizing old and failing institutional bureaucracies. As and when the text is no longer considered definitive, then the nation falters and fails.

The Constitution is not about kindness, so the example is a peripheral point. But it provides a useful reference for the ultimate document on kindness: the Torah. After all, why should any of us be kind to anyone else? Plenty of societies in the world do not share the belief in being nice to other people. I am aware of no kindness enshrined within paganism, or atheism- at least not when times are tough. Indeed, utilitarian “might makes right” societies like Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia measured a person by their value to the Greater Good. Consequently, the old or the frail or the unborn, with little or no measurable value in the near term, can be measured, found wanting, and eliminated.

The founding principles of unfree societies, after all, are inimical to human rights because they do not acknowledge one of the first things we learn about man in the Torah: Each person is endowed with a divine spark. And as such, honoring and respecting everyone we meet is doing no less than honoring G-d Himself. The belief in the inherent value of every human life, coupled with the central commandment of the Torah: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” (which is NOT the Golden Rule), is at the heart of the idea of kindness in a society.

But without a text to tell us so, it is all too easy to put kindness aside when it is in our way. Just as there are very few atheists in a foxhole, there are very few people who manage to be kind when such kindness comes at a real cost. And yet, it is during challenging times that kindness is most precious and most important.

It is easy to be nice when it costs you nothing, just as it is easy to vote for higher taxes for the other guy. The real test is the stress test. When it can come down to “me or you,” most people look out for #1, no matter what.

The only kind of institution that we know can persist, therefore, is the institution that withstood the test of time thus far: the foundational documents of Western Civilization. Whether through the Torah and/or the New Testament, the people who connect best to other people are consistently those who also try to connect most fully with their Creator. This is the magic ingredient without which every institution becomes self-serving and ultimately evil. Because without such a touchstone text, practitioners invariably end up putting themselves ahead of their mission, and there is no corrective mechanism to cure the corruption.

I find it interesting that the “ideal society” is not laid out in the Torah beyond the core principles given. The Torah requires and expects no institutions beyond a court system that exists to ensure that society pursue justice. No specific form of government is mandated; the priesthood is largely disseminated within the population (as teachers); and even the Temple, the tabernacle established in one place, has a very small staff and no natural pathway to expansion. And we learn from history that every institution that Jews (and others) have, across history, layered on top of the Torah requirements for society can be counterproductive just as easily as they can be forces for good (ask any Protestant for their view).

The Constitution or the Torah or the New Testament are all documents that have been shown to be able to keep a people from straying too far from foundational principles that help us find our way despite the corruption and atrophy that afflicts every institution, sooner or later. These documents have withstood the test of time, capable of speaking to people across centuries (and even many millennia). But they all, in their own way, have to be accepted on faith before they can work their magic.


The Symbolic Importance of Blood in the Torah

Nobody ever wrote a hot and dark romance novel centered around our forbidden lust for used fingernails. Or mucus. Now, blood… that is entirely different.

Blood is one of the most potent symbols the world has – and not just for vampires. Primitives and pagans drink the blood of animals whose spirits they want to acquire. Dionysian festivals equated blood with the soul of the G-d. Transubstantiation involves blood imagery. Heck, I stumbled on a really dumb Netflix show that considers the ultimate form of forbidden magic to be “blood magic.”

Blood symbolism in the Torah is largely unexplored (especially by observant Jews), precisely because the imagery makes us uncomfortable, and normative orthodox Judaism is focused on meticulous observance, not symbolic meaning. But as there is much in the text that deserves at least a summary… here goes!

First off, the Torah seems to agree with other cultures that blood represents life itself, the life-force of an animal in some way. The text explicitly tells us that the life force of an animal is in its blood – which is why we are to return it to the earth, and never consume the blood of an animal (we are not supposed to aspire to becoming more like an animal). The symbolism is that animals come out of the earth, and so we return their spirits to the earth as well. If we do so in some way that has given their existence purpose or meaning (e.g. food or an offering), then we seem to be elevating the earth. Our lives can spiritually uplift everything we come into contact with, and so blood from an animal that is given a higher purpose than merely dying in nature can, in turn, improve the world in some spiritual way.

I know that sounds awfully abstract and even mystical. But the text gives us contrasts through which we can understand it better: when the blood of people is absorbed within the earth, the Torah is telling us that something terrible has occurred, some wrong that needs to be righted. Animals come from dust, and return to dust. But people, the text tells us, are comprised both of dust and of a soul on loan from G-d. And that soul, inasmuch as it is symbolized by its blood, is supposed to NOT be absorbed into the soil, into the earth.

Cain kills Abel, and G-d asks:

What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground! … Therefore, you shall be cursed from the ground which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.

The imagery is rich and varied. The blood, the soul of the murdered man wants to reconnect with its source, with G-d. That is why it “calls out.”

And note that the ground receives the blood with its mouth (the Hebrew word fee) – the very same way in which man is ensouled by G-d. Physical absorption through the mouth, mirroring the spiritual absorption of the soul within the otherwise-earthly human body. The physical world, whether bodies or the earth itself, is inherently porous, capable of receiving and incorporating the spiritual essence of an animal or a person or even, in the case of the ensoulment of Man, of G-d Himself.

When we are buried in the earth, we are buried whole. We don’t spill blood out like we do for EVERY animal.

The difference is that when an animal dies, its life-force belongs back in the ground, back to its source. So we are commanded to separately and deliberately spill/cover the animal’s blood onto and with the earth. We let the life force out, and use it to enhance the earth. But we do not bury people that way; we do not trap the blood in the earth; it is instead absorbed by the body. And it seems that although our bodies, spiritually enhanced by the time they were occupied by a soul, are then buried back at their source (“Dust to dust”), our souls seek in turn to be reunified with their source – G-d Himself.

In the case of the Korach rebellion, however, the earth swallows the rebels. And we see in that imagery the finality of death, the terminal end of the rebels, bodies and souls. Being swallowed into the mouth of the earth is the extinction event for their unique and divinely gifted souls. We can imagine that the torture of those souls is analogous to that of Abel, the first murder victim, “crying out” to its creator. There is no possibility of an afterlife for trapped souls.

The Torah makes it clear that the responsibility of what happens to us, to our souls, and to the earth, is entirely dependent on our choices. The earth is a passive absorber of whatever comes its way. It is up to us to use the blood of animals, and the souls of man, for good and holy purposes. It is up to us to always seek to elevate the world around us, and then in turn to reunify mankind, in good time, with our Creator.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @kidcoder, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter work!]

P.S. When G-d gives the commandment to Noah: “Of humankind will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for his brother.” The injunction against murder directly connects to that first fratricide, sibling enmity being the prototype for every murder thereafter. The ultimate correction of Cain’s sin is epitomized by the wings of the angels on top of the Ark of the Testament, each angel “reaching out for his brother.” The ideal of brotherly love is set directly against man’s natural urge to murder their closest competitors.

Specific verses with additional notes:

וְעַתָּ֖ה אָר֣וּר אָ֑תָּה מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּצְתָ֣ה אֶת־פִּ֔יהָ לָקַ֛חַת אֶת־דְּמֵ֥י אָחִ֖יךָ מִיָּדֶֽךָ׃

Therefore, you shall be cursed from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.

(Negative inputs into the earth come with negative consequences)

וְאִם־בְּרִיאָ֞ה יִבְרָ֣א yy וּפָצְתָ֨ה הָאֲדָמָ֤ה אֶת־פִּ֙יהָ֙ וּבָלְעָ֤ה אֹתָם֙ וְאֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר לָהֶ֔ם וְיָרְד֥וּ חַיִּ֖ים שְׁאֹ֑לָה וִֽידַעְתֶּ֕ם כִּ֧י נִֽאֲצ֛וּ הָאֲנָשִׁ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה אֶת־yy׃

But if G-d brings about something unheard-of, so that the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, you shall know that those involved have spurned G-d.”

וַאֲשֶׁ֨ר עָשָׂ֜ה לְדָתָ֣ן וְלַאֲבִירָ֗ם בְּנֵ֣י אֱלִיאָב֮ בֶּן־רְאוּבֵן֒ אֲשֶׁ֨ר פָּצְתָ֤ה הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ אֶת־פִּ֔יהָ וַתִּבְלָעֵ֥ם וְאֶת־בָּתֵּיהֶ֖ם וְאֶת־אָהֳלֵיהֶ֑ם וְאֵ֤ת כָּל־הַיְקוּם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּרַגְלֵיהֶ֔ם בְּקֶ֖רֶב כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

and what [God] did to Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab son of Reuben, when the earth opened her mouth and swallowed them, along with their households, their tents, and every living thing in their train, from amidst all Israel

(note the two tellings of the earth opening its mouth differ: the first refers to “ground” or “soil”, the spring from which all (non-human) living things spring  – and that which was cursed as a result of the murder of Abel. The second refers to “earth,” the entire physical plane as created the first day.)

וַיֹּ֖אמֶר מֶ֣ה עָשִׂ֑יתָ ק֚וֹל דְּמֵ֣י אָחִ֔יךָ צֹעֲקִ֥ים אֵלַ֖י מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָֽה׃

“What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!

(Suggesting that the blood is, in some sense, alive.)

אַךְ־בָּשָׂ֕ר בְּנַפְשׁ֥וֹ דָמ֖וֹ לֹ֥א תֹאכֵֽלוּ׃

You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it.

וְאַ֨ךְ אֶת־דִּמְכֶ֤ם לְנַפְשֹֽׁתֵיכֶם֙ אֶדְרֹ֔שׁ מִיַּ֥ד כָּל־חַיָּ֖ה אֶדְרְשֶׁ֑נּוּ וּמִיַּ֣ד הָֽאָדָ֗ם מִיַּד֙ אִ֣ישׁ אָחִ֔יו אֶדְרֹ֖שׁ אֶת־נֶ֥פֶשׁ הָֽאָדָֽם׃

But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning: I will require it of every beast; of humankind, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of everyone for each other!

שֹׁפֵךְ֙ דַּ֣ם הָֽאָדָ֔ם בָּֽאָדָ֖ם דָּמ֣וֹ יִשָּׁפֵ֑ךְ כִּ֚י בְּצֶ֣לֶם אֱלֹהִ֔ים עָשָׂ֖ה אֶת־הָאָדָֽם׃

Whoever sheds human blood,
By human [hands] shall that one’s blood be shed;
For in the image of God
Was humankind made.

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֣ם ׀ רְאוּבֵן֮ אַל־תִּשְׁפְּכוּ־דָם֒ הַשְׁלִ֣יכוּ אֹת֗וֹ אֶל־הַבּ֤וֹר הַזֶּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בַּמִּדְבָּ֔ר וְיָ֖ד אַל־תִּשְׁלְחוּ־ב֑וֹ לְמַ֗עַן הַצִּ֤יל אֹתוֹ֙ מִיָּדָ֔ם לַהֲשִׁיב֖וֹ אֶל־אָבִֽיו׃

And Reuben went on, “Shed no blood! Cast him into that pit out in the wilderness, but do not touch him yourselves”—intending to save him from their hands and restore him to his father.

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר יְהוּדָ֖ה אֶל־אֶחָ֑יו מַה־בֶּ֗צַע כִּ֤י נַהֲרֹג֙ אֶת־אָחִ֔ינוּ וְכִסִּ֖ינוּ אֶת־דָּמֽוֹ׃

Then Judah said to his brothers, “What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood?

(Like one covers the blood of an animal.)

The Symbolic Importance of Blood in the Torah

Nobody ever wrote a hot and dark romance novel centered around our forbidden lust for used fingernails. Or mucus. Now, blood… that is entirely different.

Blood is one of the most potent symbols the world has – and not just for vampires. Primitives and pagans drink the blood of animals whose spirits they want to acquire. Dionysian festivals equated blood with the soul of the G-d. Transubstantiation involves blood imagery. Heck, I stumbled on a really dumb Netflix show that considers the ultimate form of forbidden magic to be “blood magic.”

Blood symbolism in the Torah is largely unexplored (especially by observant Jews), precisely because the imagery makes us uncomfortable, and normative orthodox Judaism is focused on meticulous observance, not symbolic meaning. But as there is much in the text that deserves at least a summary… here goes!

First off, the Torah seems to agree with other cultures that blood represents life itself, the life-force of an animal in some way. The text explicitly tells us that the life force of an animal is in its blood – which is why we are to return it to the earth, and never consume the blood of an animal (we are not supposed to aspire to becoming more like an animal). The symbolism is that animals come out of the earth, and so we return their spirits to the earth as well. If we do so in some way that has given their existence purpose or meaning (e.g. food or an offering), then we seem to be elevating the earth. Our lives can spiritually uplift everything we come into contact with, and so blood from an animal that is given a higher purpose than merely dying in nature can, in turn, improve the world in some spiritual way.

I know that sounds awfully abstract and even mystical. But the text gives us contrasts through which we can understand it better: when the blood of people is absorbed within the earth, the Torah is telling us that something terrible has occurred, some wrong that needs to be righted. Animals come from dust, and return to dust. But people, the text tells us, are comprised both of dust and of a soul on loan from G-d. And that soul, inasmuch as it is symbolized by its blood, is supposed to NOT be absorbed into the soil, into the earth.

Cain kills Abel, and G-d asks:

What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground! … Therefore, you shall be cursed from the ground which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.

The imagery is rich and varied. The blood, the soul of the murdered man wants to reconnect with its source, with G-d. That is why it “calls out.”

And note that the ground receives the blood with its mouth (the Hebrew word fee) – the very same way in which man is ensouled by G-d. Physical absorption through the mouth, mirroring the spiritual absorption of the soul within the otherwise-earthly human body. The physical world, whether bodies or the earth itself, is inherently porous, capable of receiving and incorporating the spiritual essence of an animal or a person or even, in the case of the ensoulment of Man, of G-d Himself.

When we are buried in the earth, we are buried whole. We don’t spill blood out like we do for EVERY animal.

The difference is that when an animal dies, its life-force belongs back in the ground, back to its source. So we are commanded to separately and deliberately spill/cover the animal’s blood onto and with the earth. We let the life force out, and use it to enhance the earth. But we do not bury people that way; we do not trap the blood in the earth; it is instead absorbed by the body. And it seems that although our bodies, spiritually enhanced by the time they were occupied by a soul, are then buried back at their source (“Dust to dust”), our souls seek in turn to be reunified with their source – G-d Himself.

In the case of the Korach rebellion, however, the earth swallows the rebels. And we see in that imagery the finality of death, the terminal end of the rebels, bodies and souls. Being swallowed into the mouth of the earth is the extinction event for their unique and divinely gifted souls. We can imagine that the torture of those souls is analogous to that of Abel, the first murder victim, “crying out” to its creator. There is no possibility of an afterlife for trapped souls.

The Torah makes it clear that the responsibility of what happens to us, to our souls, and to the earth, is entirely dependent on our choices. The earth is a passive absorber of whatever comes its way. It is up to us to use the blood of animals, and the souls of man, for good and holy purposes. It is up to us to always seek to elevate the world around us, and then in turn to reunify mankind, in good time, with our Creator.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @kidcoder, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter work!]

P.S. When G-d gives the commandment to Noah: “Of humankind will I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for his brother.” The injunction against murder directly connects to that first fratricide, sibling enmity being the prototype for every murder thereafter. The ultimate correction of Cain’s sin is epitomized by the wings of the angels on top of the Ark of the Testament, each angel “reaching out for his brother.” The ideal of brotherly love is set directly against man’s natural urge to murder their closest competitors.

Specific verses with additional notes:

וְעַתָּ֖ה אָר֣וּר אָ֑תָּה מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּצְתָ֣ה אֶת־פִּ֔יהָ לָקַ֛חַת אֶת־דְּמֵ֥י אָחִ֖יךָ מִיָּדֶֽךָ׃

Therefore, you shall be cursed from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.

(Negative inputs into the earth come with negative consequences)

וְאִם־בְּרִיאָ֞ה יִבְרָ֣א yy וּפָצְתָ֨ה הָאֲדָמָ֤ה אֶת־פִּ֙יהָ֙ וּבָלְעָ֤ה אֹתָם֙ וְאֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר לָהֶ֔ם וְיָרְד֥וּ חַיִּ֖ים שְׁאֹ֑לָה וִֽידַעְתֶּ֕ם כִּ֧י נִֽאֲצ֛וּ הָאֲנָשִׁ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה אֶת־yy

But if G-d brings about something unheard-of, so that the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, you shall know that those involved have spurned G-d.”

וַאֲשֶׁ֨ר עָשָׂ֜ה לְדָתָ֣ן וְלַאֲבִירָ֗ם בְּנֵ֣י אֱלִיאָב֮ בֶּן־רְאוּבֵן֒ אֲשֶׁ֨ר פָּצְתָ֤ה הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ אֶת־פִּ֔יהָ וַתִּבְלָעֵ֥ם וְאֶת־בָּתֵּיהֶ֖ם וְאֶת־אָהֳלֵיהֶ֑ם וְאֵ֤ת כָּל־הַיְקוּם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּרַגְלֵיהֶ֔ם בְּקֶ֖רֶב כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

and what [God] did to Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab son of Reuben, when the earth opened her mouth and swallowed them, along with their households, their tents, and every living thing in their train, from amidst all Israel

(note the two tellings of the earth opening its mouth differ: the first refers to “ground” or “soil”, the spring from which all (non-human) living things spring  – and that which was cursed as a result of the murder of Abel. The second refers to “earth,” the entire physical plane as created the first day.)

וַיֹּ֖אמֶר מֶ֣ה עָשִׂ֑יתָ ק֚וֹל דְּמֵ֣י אָחִ֔יךָ צֹעֲקִ֥ים אֵלַ֖י מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָֽה׃

“What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!

(Suggesting that the blood is, in some sense, alive.)

אַךְ־בָּשָׂ֕ר בְּנַפְשׁ֥וֹ דָמ֖וֹ לֹ֥א תֹאכֵֽלוּ׃

You must not, however, eat flesh with its life-blood in it.

וְאַ֨ךְ אֶת־דִּמְכֶ֤ם לְנַפְשֹֽׁתֵיכֶם֙ אֶדְרֹ֔שׁ מִיַּ֥ד כָּל־חַיָּ֖ה אֶדְרְשֶׁ֑נּוּ וּמִיַּ֣ד הָֽאָדָ֗ם מִיַּד֙ אִ֣ישׁ אָחִ֔יו אֶדְרֹ֖שׁ אֶת־נֶ֥פֶשׁ הָֽאָדָֽם׃

But for your own life-blood I will require a reckoning: I will require it of every beast; of humankind, too, will I require a reckoning for human life, of everyone for each other!

שֹׁפֵךְ֙ דַּ֣ם הָֽאָדָ֔ם בָּֽאָדָ֖ם דָּמ֣וֹ יִשָּׁפֵ֑ךְ כִּ֚י בְּצֶ֣לֶם אֱלֹהִ֔ים עָשָׂ֖ה אֶת־הָאָדָֽם׃

Whoever sheds human blood,
By human [hands] shall that one’s blood be shed;
For in the image of God
Was humankind made.

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֣ם ׀ רְאוּבֵן֮ אַל־תִּשְׁפְּכוּ־דָם֒ הַשְׁלִ֣יכוּ אֹת֗וֹ אֶל־הַבּ֤וֹר הַזֶּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בַּמִּדְבָּ֔ר וְיָ֖ד אַל־תִּשְׁלְחוּ־ב֑וֹ לְמַ֗עַן הַצִּ֤יל אֹתוֹ֙ מִיָּדָ֔ם לַהֲשִׁיב֖וֹ אֶל־אָבִֽיו׃

And Reuben went on, “Shed no blood! Cast him into that pit out in the wilderness, but do not touch him yourselves”—intending to save him from their hands and restore him to his father.

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר יְהוּדָ֖ה אֶל־אֶחָ֑יו מַה־בֶּ֗צַע כִּ֤י נַהֲרֹג֙ אֶת־אָחִ֔ינוּ וְכִסִּ֖ינוּ אֶת־דָּמֽוֹ׃

Then Judah said to his brothers, “What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood?

(Like one covers the blood of an animal.)


The Importance of Dreaming Big

It is statistically quite likely that a person on Planet Earth will be born, live, and die, without making much difference to the world around them. Indeed, to many people this almost seems to be the plan: they want to find the easiest or smoothest path from here to the grave.

Nevertheless, there are clearly at least some people who can – and do – make a difference, who leave this world better than they found it. This might be achieved through consideration for others, or through spreading ideas that help productively guide the choices that others make. Our heroes might do something that has never been done before, creating something new under the sun. Or they might be models for others to follow, exemplars of love or noble ideals. There are certainly more productive paths to choose from than there are living people!

But every single person who achieves such a positive result through their life will have something in common with every other person who also breaks out from the statistical norms: they consciously aim higher. They believe that they are capable of being more than the mere sum of their physiological parts.

Statistically speaking, of course, such a belief is foolish. Who am I to harbor the ambition that I – unlike the vast majority of the billions of people on this rock – can and will make a difference?

This is a perfectly reasonable question. When G-d first tells Moses to go to Egypt and save the people, Moses asks: “Who am I?” G-d is put in the ludicrous situation of explaining to a mere mortal that he needs to aim higher, that with G-d’s help he will become one of the most pivotal people in the history of the world. Despite the power imbalance, the argument was not an easy one to make! After all, Moses knew the score as well as anyone: up until that point, nobody in the world had every achieved such a breathtakingly ambitious undertaking.

This helps explain why, when Avram suffered a similar crisis of faith, the Torah tells us:

G-d took [Avram] outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. And he continued, “so shall your seed be.”

The symbolism of this one verse opens it all up: G-d is telling Avram to step outside his mere physical self. Instead of connecting with the physical world around you, consider the possibility that you and your offspring will have a cosmic impact, not merely in numbers, but in every way in which the stars shine on the world, providing light and hope, dreams and spiritual experiences.

In other words, G-d is trying to help Avram – and we, his descendants – understand that we are capable of achieving things that are far, far beyond our physical bodies. For the Jewish people – and each and every one of us – the sky’s the limit. The only real limit is our mortality, which means we need to get going now

I submit that this idea is at the heart of the success of Jews throughout the ages: we aim higher, because we believe that we are capable of achieving great things. And indeed, no people has done as much good (and perhaps as much bad (see Freud, Marx and Spinoza)) as the Jewish people throughout the history of the world, so far out of proportion to our population that it beggars belief.

We Jews dream big. But the goal is not merely that Jews should succeed: the stars are there, shining, for everyone. All of humanity is meant to dream in the stars, to set lofty ambitions, and to believe that we can get there.  


Light in Darkness

Some years ago my brother-in-law was telling a story to my children about an experience he had while flying a small private plane around Manhattan at night. It was a great story, masterfully told, and there were moments when it looked quite bad – like mid-air collision bad – for Our Hero.

My kids were riveted. My brother-in-law, relaying the moment when he realized that the two lights moving apart from each other did not represent two planes flying away from each other, but rather a single airplane flying directly at him, was hit with a surprise question from my young daughter. She simply could not wait to find out: She blurted out, “Did you make it? Did you survive?”

He looked at her solemnly, and gently pronounced, “You’ll just have to listen to the rest of the story to find out.”

That’s the thing about stories. They are best enjoyed and understood when we live them as they happen, instead of overlaying the conclusion on the story itself. And a lot changes when we learn to read stories from the perspective of the characters in their own time and place, instead of merely glibly explaining that because the story ends with a specific resolution, that meant that the characters knew that it would. It all becomes obvious in hindsight. Knowing how a story ends deprives us of insight and connection. It also means that the journey itself suffers.

We make the same mistakes when we read biblical stories, and we often do an even worse job because we think we know the glib moral lessons we think the text is teaching us. This is a lost opportunity, however, because if we try to get inside the head of Jacob when he is fleeing into the unknown to avoid being murdered by his brother, then the bargain he makes with G-d makes far more sense. The same is true across the text. At the moment Moses is called by G-d at the Burning Bush to free the people, he is truly at a loss. His first question is, “Who am I?” Who, indeed? We can each ask ourselves the same question: “Am I supposed to do something great or momentous or stunningly unique and beautiful with my life? Why me?” And if we can identify with Moses in that scene, then perhaps we might be able to see our own callings, to recognize that we can be more, do more, grow more.

We all know the story of The Flood and Noah in his ark. We all know that it rained for forty days and nights, and Noah had no way to see outside – except possibly a skylight looking up. But what people often don’t notice is that this was not the end of the Flood. Instead, the Flood continued for another 150 days before the ark came to rest on the Mount Ararat. But even then, the experience was not over!

For another 3 months, the Ark just sits there, water all around it. And we should try to understand what Noah is going through, seeing things through his eyes. The world had just undergone an apocalypse. G-d, who told Noah to build the ark in the first place, is not in communication with him. Noah must have been going nuts. Here he is, cooped up in a stinking boat surrounded by animals and people who are relying on his guidance while they slowly and steadily run out of food.

So he decides to send out birds to try to figure out what is going on outside… one went out and came back. No dice. He waits another seven days and sends another bird… and something that must have been almost miraculous occurs. The bird comes back with an olive leaf in her beak.

Think of what this one bit of olive tree must mean to Noah. The better part of a year he had been inside the ark, with no information. He was not merely “trusting” in G-d – for all Noah knows, G-d was not even paying attention. Noah, in the days leading up to the olive leaf, must have been in a terrible place. Are they all going to die in that horrible boat? Did it all really have a purpose? Were they really the only living souls still in the world? If so, for how much longer?

But then the bird brings back the olive leaf. And in that moment, even though the ark is still surrounded by water, the boat still surely is a horrible place to be… indeed, the physical hardships are entirely unchanged from what they had been before – in that moment, everything changed.

Hope enters the story. The realization that things are getting better, an explanation for why G-d has not been in communication (because it was all going to be “OK”). A tiny bit of knowledge changes everything for the better.

And there are repercussions in the Torah, meaningful ones. The menorah, books later, was commanded to be fueld specifically with olive oil, the product of the plant that first brought hope to mankind that the apocalypse was over, that there was going to be a future after all. Like that first olive leaf, the light from the menorah does not change anything physical. But the light from that oil changes everything about how we humans see the world: light erases darkness, new hope where hope had been fading. Knowledge, however tenuous and feeble, expunges ignorance.

Which is why even though Noah and his family and the animals stayed aboard the ark for more than an entire year, he no longer needed to send out birds or try to acquire more data. The olive leaf told him what he knew, and he was content to wait for G-d’s specific instruction to leave the ark.

Which helps explain, in turn, the specific biblical commandment, the symbolic value of olives and olive oil in the Torah. It all connects back to the Flood.

When we can read stories as they happen, and seek to understand the mindset of the characters at those critical moments, then there is much we can learn that we otherwise will miss!


Why “Heaven and Earth”?

I like to read the text of the Torah carefully: why are certain words or phrases used instead of others?

Take for example, the beginning of the poem near the end of the Torah:

Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;
Let the earth hear the words I utter!

Why is it written this way, instead of, perhaps, “Listen, heaven and earth!” Indeed, why are heaven and earth invoked at all?

An answer is found, as it invariably is, by looking at how the text uses these same words in other places. Most famously is the first verse of the Torah, “In the beginning, G-d created heaven and earth.” And if we go re-read the creation story, we’ll see that G-d created the physical world. Yes, He did it using words and divine power, but the creations themselves (from sea to stars) are composed of tangible matter. There is a clear separation between the physical stuff of creation, and the heavens themselves. The product is spiritually sterile: Man says nothing, invests in no relationships beyond naming animals, and nothing in the natural world shows any inclination toward connecting with the divine or even connecting with each other – beyond the act of mere procreation.

But while this is where the Torah starts, it is not at all where it ends up. The rest of the Torah between Genesis and Deuteronomy, is all about how people learn (or are taught) how to build relationships between themselves and between man and G-d. The Torah is all about finding ways to infuse spiritual energy into the physical plane, elevating our world far above and beyond its base, physical origins. This is necessary because, as we saw from the pre-Flood world, mankind, without divine guidance, establishes “might makes right” as the ideal: man as apex predator, king of the animal kingdom.

Hence, we read the rest of the text and the journey from Noach through the forefathers, slavery in Egypt, and the existence in the desert, all to reach a jumping-off point for mankind going forward.

Which is why, when we reach the end of Moshe’s life, he uses these two lines of the text to summarize man’s mission on earth: we are to take the spiritual and divine energies that are ensouled within us, and spiritually infuse the earth, the physical world, in order to complement G-d’s initial act of creation. Here it is again:

Give ear, O heavens, let me speak;
Let the earth hear the words I utter!

The power of speech is gifted from the divine – our speech is the breath of G-d being exhaled, which is why speech can be such a powerful constructive – and destructive – force.  So when the heavens let us speak, it is a reminder that our power to speak is gifted from the spiritual realm, from G-d Himself.

And the earth, the physical world, is the target of our positive and constructive and even holy speech. This is why the Hebrew for this verse is so evocative. It is not merely “Let the earth hear the words I utter.” The Hebrew refers to “fee,” the word for mouth or nostrils. And this word also first appears very early in the text: when Adam is created!

And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils (fee) the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

See how the text makes a whole circle out of just these few words? The breath of life that ensouls us in the beginning of the Torah has become, by the end of the text, the very force that mankind uses to spiritually elevate the physical plane, the entire earth.

The power of speech is from the heavens, from our Creator. But the purpose of our lives is to use that gift to elevate the physical plane and seek to reconnect heaven and earth. The heavens and the earth in the Torah are not independent actors; man is the change agent, charged by G-d Himself to finish what G-d started. The Torah begins with physical creation and growth (“be fruitful and multiply”), but ends with the commandment that what G-d expects from us is to spiritually invest our powers into the physical plane.

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


The Evolution of a Society: From Men to Laws

The Founders were keenly aware of the dangers of a society governed by a king, and they were equally wary of any government that relies on an individual, no matter how great they may be, as the source of guidance and inspiration for a nation. This was a big issue in George Washington’s presidency: was he really a public servant subject to laws, or was he really the next benevolent tyrant in sheep’s clothing?

Judaism and Jews have long been associated with laws and texts, of course. We Jews do not accidentally become lawyers and judges. Certainly post-Sinaitic Judaism is all about the words and ideas, the laws that make up the fabric of Jewish life every day. Arguably our shared legal obsession is anchored in the holy core of all of Judaism: the Ark of the Testament, the aron, which housed within it the Ten Commandments.

But what surprised me in the text was discovering that the word for the ark, the aron of the tabernacle (and later the Temple) is found in the text only one time in the entire Torah, in just one earlier verse. I think there is a huge symbolic lesson in that verse:

Joseph died at the age of one hundred and ten years; and he was embalmed and placed in an aron in Egypt.

Huh? Why is this the only mention of an aron before the ark of the testament? Biblical Hebrew has other words for enclosures and graves … why this one, aron, specifically?

I think that the Torah uses the word aron to explicitly link the Ark of the Covenant to Joseph, because both were critical and potent symbols to the entire people. After all, the enslaved Children of Israel could always rely on the fact of Joseph’s existence as a deeply powerful source of hope: “We may be slaves, but Joseph used to rule Egypt!” Joseph’s body is a symbol, like a rallying flag. It meant that we were not necessarily meant to be slaves, but that maybe – just maybe – our future might hearken to a past where the people were independent and free.

In which case, the aron of Joseph surely had a talismanic effect on the people. Though they carried very different messages, to the slaves in Egypt, Joseph may have been every bit as important as the Ark was to be for the Jewish people for the hundreds of years following.

The covenant between Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was tribal, not national. And that covenant, critical though it was, was not founded on laws so much as on core ideals. When Joseph was living (and until Sinai), there was no Torah.  People came first; words came later.  Following the entrance of the people into Canaan, Joseph is fully buried, and the people gradually transition toward a new reality, one governed less by strongmen and much more by Torah Law.

Which in turns suggests that the progression of Jewish history in this period was analogous to the Founding Fathers in the United States: you start with charismatic and powerful and inspirational leaders. But for a society to develop and grow, it needs to understand that the true bedrock of a holy society is found in its lawbooks, critically reliant on the extent to which people respect and adhere to those texts. The Ten Commandments and the Constitution have this in common!

[an @iwe and @eliyahumasinter work]


The Preciousness of Relationships

We have all seen stories in recent years of adults “finding themselves” and then announcing to the world that they are really not who they had been before. In the wake of this disaster, trying not to drown in the turbulent waters, are countless wives, husbands, and children who have discovered that a parent’s need to be “true to myself,” is more important than the well-being of everyone else in their world. It is, of course, a tragedy of our age.

Relationships should be the most important thing we have. Not self-absorption. Not asking whether “we are comfortable in our bodies.” Not “living my best life,” or “living in the moment.” Relationships are how we grow, how we improve the world around us, how we best become fulfilled. And those relationships are in every direction: spouses, neighbors, G-d, children, strangers, etc.

The word “Torah” means “guide” or “recipe.” And the guide is for how to have positive relationships with man and with G-d. Boiled down to its essence, every lesson in the text relates to growing positive relationships within and between our families and neighborhoods, our broader society and our connection to the divine.

In the Torah there is a unique sequence where all the people are told, en masse, of a series of curses. All must answer “Amen,” showing their acceptance of the curse, the consequences for these specific forbidden actions. Here is that list, from Deut. 27:

Cursed be:

Any party who makes a sculptured or molten image, abhorred by G-d, a craftsman’s handiwork, and sets it up in secret.

The one who insults father or mother

The one who moves a neighbor’s landmark

The one who misdirects a blind person who is on a path

The one who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow

The one who lies with his father’s wife, for he has removed his father’s garment

The one who lies with any beast [devalues man, and real intimacy]

The [man] who lies with his sister, whether daughter of his father or of his mother

The [man] who lies with his mother-in-law

The one who strikes down a fellow in secret

The one who accepts a bribe in the case of the murder of an innocent person

Whoever will not uphold the words of this Torah and observe them

This is really quite a remarkable list – both for what it includes and what it does not mention. This list is quite different, for example, from the Ten Commandments. There is no mention of the Sabbath, or being envious of others.

The question asks itself: what is special about this list? Why is it called out?

I think an answer is that every single item in the list is centered on the things that are most corrosive for relationships within marriages, families, and society. And it also clearly does not suggest, counter to popular culture, that “anything consenting adults want to do is fine.” Why? I think it is clear: there are always other victims – whether other family members (either as collateral damage or opportunity cost), or in the case of perverting justice, society itself.

Indeed, if you look at that list, you’ll see another common thread. Each and every one of those curses is for something that someone thought they could do, and get away with it. They are all acts that undermine something or somebody: your parents, your neighbor, the blind man. These are not public acts but private ones. But they are called out in the text as a broad, societal pact, telling us that our private acts have public ramifications.

These acts are also irrevocable. Bearing false witness in a case about theft would not lead to the execution of the innocent would-be thief. But murder ends a life. Incest cannot be undone. Every single example in the text is for something that specifically undermines the possibility of redemptive growth. This is why they must be called out in public, and acknowledged by all.

This answer also explains all the commandments not mentioned in this list. The list of kosher animals or a reminder to keep the Sabbath or even not being envious of others are all not included because they are all ways in which we can grow.

But the items in this list are all there because they undermine and destroy the possibility of growth. In other words, most commandments are there to show us the way forward. But the curses in this list are for behavior that block the possibility of forward movement.

And that is why they are curses, and not mere prohibitions. The first cursed things in the Torah are: the snake (for inciting Eve); the ground for Adam’s sake in eating the fruit (so agriculture requires hard labor); the ground again for accepting Abel’s blood; and Noah’s son Canaan. All of these curses are permanent. There is no redemption for those who are cursed. There is no pathway to going back to the way things were before the accursed act was performed.

There are wounds that simply cannot heal, actions that can never be undone. The world around is full of people wrecking their lives, justifying acts that are cursed in the Torah. The text reminds us that not everything can be fixed, and that certain behavior, even if we think what we have done is private, or that nobody else will ever know, is so evil that it irrevocably taints a person, their relationships and indeed the whole world.

If we can but avoid these acts, then we have the opportunity to learn from the guidance in the rest of the text, and grow our relationships in healthy, beautiful and holy ways.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith, @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter work!]


What is the Symbolic Meaning of a Biblical Booth/Sukkah?

When Jews read the Torah, they often go straight for technical details, while the text may be making more than one point:

Say to the Israelite people: On the fifteenth day of this seventh month there shall be the Feast of Booths to G-d, [to last] seven days. You shall observe it as a festival of G-d for seven days in the year; you shall observe it in the seventh month as a law for all time, throughout the ages. In order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt—I, your G-d.

So a normal Jew reads this, and tries to fulfill this commandment: “Ok, I need to build a sukkah (a booth)… how big should it be? Can it have a tree overhead? Could I use a dead elephant as one of the walls? etc.” (the elephant question is in the Talmud).

But when we do this, we might miss a different question, entirely: why should we build a sukkah? What does it symbolize?

The answer the text leads us to is not immediately obvious, but it is there nevertheless. When we search for the word as it is found in the text, we get the following results:

• Jacob builds booths for his flock

• Sukkot is the name of a place, possibly where the people first had such structures

• Six times we are told of the festival of Sukkot, Booths, because G-d gave us these when we were in the wilderness.

This is simple enough, so there are some obvious answers here: After leaving danger and on the way to the land of Canaan, Jacob built the first booths for his flock (and a house for himself). And so G-d emulates Jacob when G-d’s own flock (the people) leave danger and are on the way to the land of Canaan. (I write more on this here.) A booth is a home made by someone else, to protect us.

We can also learn that a good shepherd not only protects the flock – he makes them feel protected, and loved. The sukkot in the wilderness were provided by G-d, just as Jacob provided them for his flock. Our sukkot we built today have a contribution from G-d as well, the covering on top must be natural, not artificial. G-d provides the key part of even the Sukkot we use now.

Both Jacob’s animal flock and the human flock belonging to G-d were carefully curated with the aid of angelic guidance. We are supposed to feel special because we are special.

But the text uses the word a few more places! And these give us the rest of the information we need to understand this meaning in full. Here are the specific verses:

Place there the Ark of the Covenant, and screen (sukkah) off the ark with the curtain.

OK, so a Sukkah is meant to block sight. That makes sense – even a flock animal is happier inside walls than standing in the open in full sight of potential predators. We fear being exposed. We like being cocooned.

And another:

Moses and the levitical priests spoke to all Israel, saying: Sukkot! [in verb form] And Hear, O Israel! Today you have become the people of your G-d.

Ah! And here it is. A sukkah is meant to shut off our ability to see, so that we emphasize our ability to hear.

We can put this all together now quite nicely. The Festival of Sukkot, Booths, is more than just recalling being in the wilderness. It is a reminder that G-d loves us. That he gifted us with a structure that cocooned and enwrapped us and made us feel safe and protected. It is a way to identify with the Ark of the Covenant, with the people in the wilderness, in a place and time where it is crucial to hear rather than see, to connect with G-d by turning off some of our senses so that we can focus on hearing/understanding – the form of communication that best reaches our souls instead of merely our bodies.

When we do that, when we focus on hearing, it forces us to internalize who we are, and who we are in relation to G-d. Cocooned in the sukkah that G-d provides for us, we are better able to be close to Him, to hear and grow from the “still, small voice.”

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


The Stranger, the Orphan and the Widow

We are repeatedly reminded (no fewer than eleven times!) in the Torah that we are to be kind to these three groups of people: the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. The general idea is easy enough to understand: we should not take advantage of those who are defenseless, who have no protective family members. We should go out of our way to avoid leveraging our own blessings against someone who does not share those blessings.

But why these three groups of people, specifically? I think the answer – and explanation – is found, as always, in the text itself.

The Widow

The first widow in the Torah is Tamar:

Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Stay as a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up”—for he thought, “He too might die like his brothers.” So Tamar went to live in her father’s house.

But Judah does not marry Tamar to Shelah. He is passive-aggressive, and does nothing. In sum: he takes advantage of her relative lack of power. And as even he admits later, Judah wronged Tamar with this abuse of power.

Perhaps, we are supposed to be kind to widows, because Judah was not.

The Orphan

In the Torah, the word for “orphan” does not really mean that at all! The first verse that uses that word is:

And when the money gave out [was lost] in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came to Joseph and said, “Give us bread, lest we die before your very eyes; for the money is gone!”

Where is “orphan”? It is buried in the mistranslation! The word refers not to children without parents, but to people who had money, and then lost it all, falling into distress and panic as a result! They are people who are consumed with the fact that everything they relied on had been lost!

And what does Joseph do? He takes financial advantage of them and the fact that he possesses all the wealth and all the food. He gradually impoverishes and then eventually enslaves the people of Egypt. He takes advantage of them all.

Perhaps, we are supposed to be kind to those who have suffered loss, because Joseph was not.

The Stranger

The word for “stranger” is ger, and there are two early strangers in the Torah: Cain, who says to G-d, “Today you have made a stranger from all across the face of the earth… anyone who meets me may kill me!” the lesson here is simple enough. If we are to be kind to strangers, then we should do so even if the stranger is like Cain, a man who has done evil. We should even be kind to people who have committed murder! (Though obviously Cain was at least partially reformed as a result of the consequences.)

And then Avram is told that his descendants will be strangers in a land not their own. I think the reason is given elsewhere in the text: that Avram did not demonstrate the empathy that G-d wants in a people who are to champion the poor. The best to learn empathy with strangers is to experience life as a stranger – as when they were slaves in Egypt.

But even Avraham got a taste of this: when he buys the cave in which he wants to bury his deceased wife, Sarah, he calls himself a “stranger.” What happens as a result? The seller of the field takes full advantage of Avraham’s desperation, and greatly overcharges him for the land.

So the lesson is simple enough: we are to be kind to strangers because G-d taught the world to be kind even to Cain, the ultimate stranger. And because we ourselves have tasted what it is like to be outsiders. Being kind to people in that situation is a requirement for anyone who wants to consider themselves one of G-d’s children.

There we have it! A reason, rooted in the text itself, for why this phrase keeps coming up in our commandments. We are to learn from those who were oppressed in Genesis – the stranger, the widow, and those who have suffered loss. We are always to love others, especially when we are better off than they are. It is natural to use our comparative power advantages to pursue our own interests. It is also wrong.

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


What do Women Bring to the World?

The Torah uses very few words, which can leave the casual reader confused or even misinformed about what any given verse means. Careful study links the uses of words together, which will invariably help open up new – and sometimes clearly more correct – ways of understanding the text.

Take, for example, the creation of woman. The Torah says, “G-d said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make a fitting counterpart for him.” Or, if you prefer the King James: “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.”

The problem is that the Hebrew words for “a counterpart/comparable” do not neatly translate into either of those meanings. The key word is neged, which is commonly translated – but only in this verse — as “comparable” or “opposed.” Everywhere else in the text, neged means something else. There are a few places where this word refers to being close to someone, in physical proximity (Ex. 19:2) or in someone’s presence (Ex. 34:10, Deut. 31:11), so it is reasonable to suggest that woman should be physically close to man. But that hardly tells us anything!

However, if we look at its dominant use in the text, we find another meaning entirely: neged means “to tell someone something,” something that they did not know beforehand.

So, for example:

Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father’s nakedness and told (neged) his two brothers outside. (Gen. 9:22)

Pharaoh sent for Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me! Why did you not tell (neged) me that she was your wife? (Gen. 12:18)

A fugitive came and told (neged) Avram the Hebrew [that Lot was captured] (Gen. 14:13)

In all of these cases, information is shared – information that was not known previously, and which changes how the hearer acts. It changes how the recipient of the information sees his world.

The key is that the very first use of this word comes from a pivotal episode in the Garden. Adam and Eve have eaten the fruit, and they realized that they were naked. G-d comes to them and asks, “Who told (neged) you that you were naked?”

At first, this seems like sarcasm – which it certainly is, at least in part. After all, G-d surely knows the answer before He asks it.

But there is another element here as well: by using neged, G-d is asking a real question, “who gave you a different perspective?” Adam and Eve now see the world differently than they did before – even though the world itself had not changed at all! All that happened was that they became able to view themsleves and their world in a completely changed way than they had before! The world neged is about gaining a new vantage point from which to understand things, understanding something that we did not know before. In the text, this happens more often than not through speech, imparting of information through communication.

This perspective explodes the simple translation of the purposes of a woman as being a “helper comparable to him.” What we see is far richer, and much more interesting: a woman helps a man to see things from a different perspective. And she usually does it through speech, neged.

This explains why Adam needed a wife: a single man is too set in his view of the world, too inflexible in thought (with a belief in his own correctness), to be able to properly grow, change and develop. Women, as any married man can testify, undermines that perspective, forcing a man to change, to listen, to adapt. Women force men to grow.

The consequences of this understanding change a great deal of our comprehension of the world: if the purpose of marriage is (as the Torah repeatedly alludes) to prepare us for a more complete relationship with G-d, then it makes sense that learning to see the world through someone else’s eyes would be a necessary precondition for trying to understand G-d Himself!

Notes: Here are a few of the questions that the above understanding answers:

Adam’s response to G-d.

Remember that G-d made woman to help Adam see things from a different perspective. When he replies to G-d’s accusation, he suggests that it all must have been G-d’s doing!

Adam said, “The woman You put at my side—she gave me of the tree, and I ate.”

In other words: Eve did precisely what she was created to do! Thanks to you giving me Eve, I now see things differently. I now see the world differently, thanks to your gift of the woman. She was a neged. She did her job.

Hagar’s Thoughts

When Hagar is evicted from Avram and Sarai’s home, she goes to the wilderness, and decides she is going to die. The verse is quite striking – as well as being odd.

And she went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away; for she thought, “Let me not look on as the child dies.” And sitting from neged, she raised her voice and cried.

That “from neged” is seemingly extra; it adds nothing to the plain meaning of the text. But if we see neged as being able to connect, to see something from someone else’s perspective, then the meaning is unveiled: Hagar is disassociating herself from her crying son’s perspective. She is keeping herself away from her son, where she cannot see things his way. That way she can wallow in her own loss, without turning into a mother who puts her son first. Hagar has chosen to block her maternal instincts, a mother’s ability to have empathy with her child. (I write on why a bowshot here.)

[an @iwe, @blessedblacksmith and @susan quinn work]


Judaism and Christianity

I was asked:

How is Moses’ “Thus says the LORD,” being the Word of God, is different from Isaiah’s “Thus says the LORD,” being something less than Moses’?

Why does this matter? It is actually at the very heart of the Jewish/Christian divide: Do earlier sources trump later ones?

The Jewish position is that the Torah from the wilderness was dictated by G-d to Moshe, and every word is divine in origin. All of Jewish law derives from that Torah. All subsequent sources, however illustrative and interesting, cannot overrule or otherwise rewrite the Torah in any way, since the prophecy was never as direct as it was with Moshe. Moshe took dictation. The Prophets approximated what they heard. And our Sages were inspired (the Hebrew phrase, amusingly enough, translates as a “holy spirit”) by G-d.

The Christian position, as I understand it, is that the New Testament is in some way an update to the Old, which means that newer prophets are at least as true as the older ones, and probably more so. Hence the commandments of the Torah can be fulfilled by Jesus and the events of his life.

This is, in fact, a fundamental point of disagreement. After all, Jesus is a newer prophet, so whether or not he could negate the commandments of the Torah is a question at the very foundation of both religions.

Augustine called me on this: Why is Moshe saying “Thus saith the Lord,” any more accurate than Isaiah saying the same? It is an excellent question. And at the time, I did not have an answer. It seemed to me that we had reached a situation where the Jewish tradition of older-is-better and the Christian tradition of newer-is-better are at loggerheads, with no help to be had from the text.

Which just goes to show how much I have yet to learn. Because the Torah itself addresses the question!

It turns out that Moshe only uses the phrase, “Thus Saith the Lord” (“Ko Amar Hashem”) three times.

Ex. 9:1: “Go in unto Pharoah and tell him: ‘Thus saith the Lord, the G-d of the Hebrews.’”

Ex. 10:3: “And Moses and Aaron came in unto Pharaoh, and said unto him, Thus saith the LORD God of the Hebrews, How long wilt thou refuse to humble thyself before me? Let my people go, that they may serve me.”

What do the above have in common? They are all statements given in a different language. The Torah is in Hebrew. Moshe spoke to Pharoah in his own tongue. When Moshe used the phrase “thus saith the Lord,” he was necessarily filtering and translating what G-d was saying, tailoring it for his audience.

It goes farther than this! There is one time Moshe uses the phrase in talking to the Jewish people. Ex 11:4 says, “Thus saith the Lord, About midnight will I go out [and kill the firstborn]” But we know from 12:29 that it happened at midnight, not about midnight. Our sages say that Moshe used “about” instead of “at” to avoid any misunderstandings in the event that, in a world without accurate clocks, someone might think that it was midnight before it actually had taken place, and erroneously thought that the plague did not occur as promised.

The phrase “thus saith the Lord” in the Torah means “G-d’s word, filtered or translated for the audience.” The Torah is telling us that any source that says “Thus saith the Lord” is not actually taking dictation like Moshe did. “Thus saith the Lord” is speech that has been altered or revised with human input.


Contagious Evil

The Torah has no shortage of “thou-shalt-not-do” commandments. But they are not created (or given) equally. There seems to be a differentiation given in the text, at least for a certain class of forbidden behavior.

There is a phrase that is found a few places that is seemingly randomly “stuck onto” some prohibitions. The phrase, as found in the King James is “So shalt thou put the evil away from the midst of thee.” A more literal translation from the Hebrew might be: “And you shall destroy the evil in your midst.” The phrase is only found in a few places in the text! They are: Deut. 13:6, 17:17, 19:19, 21:21, 22:21, 22:22, 22:23, and 24:7. Those verses they refer to: a false prophet who makes you stray; a false witness; a false witness; a rebellious son; a non-virgin girl who marries while claiming virginity; adulterers (two subsequent verses, covering different circumstances); and a kidnapper/slaver. A very similar verse in 17:12 is for contempt of court or priest in a judicial case.

So here is the mystery: why these verses, why these specific commandments (and not others)? What makes them specially deserving of this tagline? Indeed, if the person is being killed anyway, then why does the text say the redundant, “you shall destroy the evil in your midst”?

Here is an explanation:

The word that is translated as “in your midst” (mikirbecha) only appears two places before the verses we bring:

You shall not bow down to their gods in worship or follow their practices, but shall tear them down and smash their pillars to bits. You shall serve your G-d, who will bless your bread and your water. And I will remove sickness in your midst. (Ex. 23:25)


You saw with your own eyes what G-d did in the matter of Baal-peor, that your G-d wiped out every person who followed Baal-peor in your midst. (Deut. 4:3)

This phrase is specifically referring to actions and beliefs that spread. Idol worship, like sickness, is contagious. Which means that these verses, and the sins they discuss, are not specifically with the person who sins. The problem is with the sin itself, because there are certain sins that can propagate in society, becoming seen as somehow broadly acceptable. These sins are like the proverbial bad apple: some evildoers can end up corrupting the entire barrel. A false prophet can lead an entire nation astray.

We can compare the ‘50s and ‘60s, or just look around us today to see that “Everyone else is doing it” is an excuse for mass idiocy and worse. Everyone is at least partially a product of their generation and their environment, so the behaviors and ideas that define a decade or a society have a huge effect on most people.

This is true for lying to the court or ignoring its rulings – that kind of corruption spreads. So does sexual infidelity, and rebelling against parents. This is also why kidnapping and enslaving someone is one of these specific sins, while murder is not. There can be consistent profit in kidnapping, and one slaver role model encourages copycats in a way that murder, for example, does not.

So destroying evil in our midst is about stamping out the kind of sin that can become an epidemic, infecting society and breaking down its fundamental structures: G-d, marriage, the family, the courts, and respect for human freedom. These are all fundamental building blocks, the institutions on which any civil society must rely in order to maintain its structural integrity.

The other two words in the sequence (“destroy the evil in your midst”) support this argument as well:


The word given for “destroy” means to get rid of something entirely, as in this verse:

When a fire is started and spreads to thorns, so that stacked, standing, or growing grain is totally destroyed, the one who started the fire must make restitution. (Ex. 22:5)

The verse refers to making something disappear, entirely, removing it from sight. That is precisely what the Torah wants us to do to adultery and the other specific sins.


As a standalone word (as opposed to “knowledge of good and evil”), the word is found in Genesis when G-d decides to flood the world:

And G-d saw how great was human wickedness on earth—how every intent of the thoughts of man’s heart are evil all the time. (Gen. 6:5)

And after the flood:

And G-d resolved: “Never again will I curse the earth because of humankind, though the desire of the heart of man are evil from youth” (Gen. 8:21)

The next one is from Sodom:

Now the inhabitants of Sodom were very evil sinners against G-d. (Gen. 13:13)

See the trend? In all of these cases, evil is not reformed or reformable. It is something that merits destruction based on the deliberate and conscious behavior of the practitioners.

Wrapping it all up: the Torah tells us that anything identified as evil deserves to be utterly destroyed. And we learn that some evils are specifically dangerous because news of their existence or survival radiate outward throughout society, contaminating all who hear of it. The Torah uses the phrase “you shall destroy the evil in your midst” is thus identifying those specific evils, the ones that qualify for harsh justice, and why we must vigilantly eliminate them.

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


Voluntarily Marrying an Unsuitable Woman

The Torah vividly describes an extremely challenging situation: Picture the scene of a nice Jewish boy, looking over the spoils of war after fighting on behalf of his people. He sees among the captives a beautiful – but very inappropriate – woman. He finds her attractive and wants to marry her. Then, he brings her into his home, cuts her hair and lets her nails grow. Finally, after a month of adjusting to her new surroundings, they can start to build a life together.

Our Sages are extremely concerned by this. After all, is taking a beautiful captive nothing more than a capitulation to the power of lust? Our commentators bend over backward to explain that the Torah accepts that human desires cannot always be denied or deferred but that we should always understand this story as a worst-­‐case scenario. The evidence to support this is that the Torah follows the laws of the captive with the laws of not discriminating against hated sons, and the laws of rebellious children. When one sees these laws as a collective body, it is a clear warning: if a man goes ahead and takes a non-­‐Jewish captive, he is setting himself up for a difficult existence, a troubled marriage, and rebellious offspring.

But, for all of that, the Torah text itself does not suggest that the man should actually resist the urge to take the captive! Only our sages read this into the text. The Torah says that if the man wants her as a wife, he can have her! He just has to follow the rules in how he does it. And those rules are most specific in detailing the way that she has to lose the garments that she wore as a captive, and put her previous life behind her before she can begin anew as a Jewish wife.

Yet there is a very simple explanation for this commandment: we can marry such a woman because G-d has already walked this path.

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.”  So G-d, who was engaged in a war with the deities of Egypt, desired us in all our long-­‐haired and raw beauty.

Like the captive woman, we did not deserve G-d’s desire because of our merits – on the contrary, we were saved from Egypt because G-d wanted to save us, and not because we deserved it! Like the captive, we were uncouth and unready for a mature adult relationship.

And then, a most peculiar thing happens. G-d took 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 adjusted 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 (which has 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 G-d – just as the captive, after a month, can start her relationship with her husband.

And what does G-d 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 G-d starts to grow the relationship in earnest. And a Jewish man who marries a captive would naturally start at the same point: explaining where the family’s food comes from, and about the six days we labor for our sustenance, and the one day we do not.

There are linguistic parallels as well. When we leave Egypt, we are wearing the matzos like garments, “simlah,” on our shoulders. At the end of the month, the matzo -­‐ garments — are finished, and we need a new source of sustenance. And when the beautiful captive comes into our house, she has to take off her garments of captivity – and the same word, “simlah” is used, and her hair, which falls on and below her shoulders, is cut. When a captive is adopted into a home, she has to change, and prepare her appearance to make it more civilized and ready to adapt to a new relationship.

The soldier is described as “desiring” (chashak) the woman, and the very same word is used for G-d’s desire for the Jewish people! “G-d desired (chashak) you and chose you…  G-d freed you with a mighty hand and rescued you from the house of bondage, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” (Deut. 7:7-8)

Of course, our Sages are right to point out that a man who takes a beautiful captive as a wife is sure to have a very challenged existence! After all, marrying an undeserving but beautiful alien woman is the model of the relationship the Jewish people have with G-d! Since He took us out of captivity, the marriage has been one of incredible difficulty and turmoil and strife. We have rebelled, and fought. We have acted as rebellious children who deserve to be put to death. We question and challenge G-d at every turn.

But, just as it can happen with the beautiful captive, the marriage can endure and grow strong despite all of the reasons why it should have failed. Certainly a man who takes on such a challenge is not going to have it easy. Can anyone say that G-d has had it easy with us? And yet: can anyone say that G-d wishes He had chosen another nation to love?


Eating Meat to Unify Jews: Decoding A Hidden Message

Everyone in the world finds an excuse to reject others. Now, as well as throughout history, countless purists among us have said, “we don’t talk to those people – they are not suitable as friends or colleagues, or even as – [gasp] – family.” The Torah, in the verses I will discuss below, is telling us that we are commanded to not do that. We do not separate from others just because they are not as pure or good or holy as we think we are. In the Torah, being judgmental is entirely fine (within the limits of embarrassing others), but we are forbidden (here and elsewhere) from excluding in key cases.

How can I prove it? The Torah offers a very similar phrase repeated three different times in near-sequence:

But whenever you desire, you may slaughter and eat meat in any of your cities, according to the blessing that your G-d has granted you. The un-elevatable and the elevatable alike are to partake of it, as of the ram and the deer. (Deut. 12:15)

Eat [meat], however, as the ram and the deer are eaten: the un-elevatable are to eat it together with the elevatable. (Deut. 12:22)

Eat [meat] in your cities, the un-elevatable together with the elevatable, just like the ram and the deer. (Deut. 15:22)

What is fascinating about decoding this sequence is that every single word chosen connects to its usage earlier in the text. Together, it tells the whole story. The challenge is that there are so many strands in the story that it is hard to follow if built brick-by-brick. So instead I will first present the conclusion, and then show how it builds directly from the text.

Conclusion: The Torah is telling us that eating meat is something we must do to unify those who would otherwise separate from each other. The phrase appears three times because there were three great “separations” that we are to aim to never repeat: Avraham and Lot, Isaac and Ishmael, and Jacob and Esau.

It seems like a ridiculous leap in logic, does it not? Yet I think that when the evidence is laid out, it seems entirely obvious! Here goes:

Elevatable vs Un-Elevatable

This is my translation of the words tamei and tahor that are sometimes translated as “clean and unclean” or “pure and impure.” I choose my translation because of how the words are used in the text: one category (pure/clean/elevatable) are in a state that allows for one to reconnect, to strive for holiness, capable of spiritual growth or elevation. And those in the opposite category are not able to spiritually grow; they are unwilling or unable to do so.

The first “elevatable” are the animals of which Noach brings seven pairs. They are used in an “elevation” offering after the flood, and a connection between Noach and G-d is made in that process. The same “elevation” offering is what Avraham brings at the Binding of Isaac; the ram is an elevation offering.

The first mention of the opposite word, tamei, non-elevatable, describes Dinah when she is raped. Dinah is ruined by the experience; she has no meaningful future in the text. Being un-elevatable is not necessarily a permanent state in a person – the Torah later offers a way for us to repair our spiritual wounds from rape. But in many people, a lack of interest in spiritual connection is a feature of their personality or life choices, and may never change.

So the reference to the elevatable and the un-elevatable is about people who are not equally ready, willing or able to spiritually grow in a relationship with G-d.

Which People are Rejected for being Un-Elevatable?

Lot. Avraham comes into Canaan with his wife, Sarai, and his nephew, Lot. But they became rich in livestock:

And the land could not support them, to settle together, for their property was so great that they were not able to settle together. (Gen. 13:6)

So Avraham suggests that Lot goes his own way. In doing so, Avraham prioritizes his living animals over his living relatives. Perhaps he did this because Lot did not seem particularly inclined toward holiness. When offered a choice of where to go, Lot chooses Sodom because the land was thoroughly watered, satiated by drink. Lot is attracted to physical reproduction and potential, not spiritual potential. He was un-elevatable. And Avraham sent him away, for the sake of their mutual material interests.

Ishmael. Sarah sends Hagar and her son Ishmael away – she rejects Ishmael because he seems to be a negative influence on Isaac. Isaac is described in the Torah as a “wild ass of a man,” and he grows up to become an archer. Ishmael is more connected to the animalistic and physical plane than to the spiritual one. So he was rejected, in favor of Isaac.

Esau. Described as a “skillful hunter, a man of the fields,” Esau, like Ishmael, tends toward more of a loner existence, with man as the apex predator in the natural, wild world. He, too, is rejected, for the same reasons Lot was:

For their possessions were too many for them to dwell together, and the land where they sojourned could not support them because of their livestock. (Gen. 36:7)

Note that there are three people who are sent away by our forefathers – and our original phrase referring to the “elevatable and un-elevatable” also appears three times!

Eating Meat

In the Torah, we are told we can eat the plants (Gen. 1:29-30). But eating meat is only allowed after the flood.

Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these. (Gen. 9:3)

Why specifically then? Because Noach had saved his family, he had saved the animals, and he offered an elevation-offering (Gen. 8:20) – the very first in the Torah. Elevating to – connecting with – G-d is explicitly linked to eating “elevatable” animals (cloven hoofs making a break with the ground, etc.).

(This, by the way, is why the Torah stresses (with Noach as well as with our verses) that we are never to eat blood – just the meat. Blood is associated with the spirit of the animal, with the Esau or Ishmael qualities – and we are supposed to use meat to go more toward G-d and away from the animal-spirit world.)

Since Noach uses elevatable animals to make an elevation-offering – and then G-d permits the eating of meat – meat is thus always linked to a relationship with the divine.

But there is another, critical reason why the Torah wants us to eat meat to unify people: recall that Lot and Esau are sent away because there was not enough land to support all the living animals.

If Avraham and Lot, and Jacob and Esau had decided to eat some of their animals in order to stay together, all of history would have been different. Had they only eaten meat together, the elevatable and the un-elevatable, then some degree of unity would have been maintained.

I think the Torah is telling us a simple message: we must never put animals ahead of people. We must never put our material wealth ahead of our human relationships, above unity and connection with our family, even if we consider our family members to be beneath us, indeed even if they, like Ishmael and Esau, are not remotely interested in spiritual growth!

The Ram and the Deer

A ram, an ayil, is a deeply symbolic animal in the Torah: a ram is sacrificed in place of Isaac in an elevation offering, the sound of the ram’s horn pierces the air at the giving of the Torah at Sinai, and during Rosh Hashanah, the coronation of G-d as King. The ram is not merely a kosher animal. It is perhaps the very elite kosher animal. The ram and the Jew have a lot in common: they are both headstrong creatures, literally leading with their heads at every opportunity. And while they can be found in flocks, they can also (as in the case of the Binding of Isaac) be loners.

It is the ram that completes the argument: the ram is traded for Isaac in an elevation offering, which means it is associated with elevation, as well as with Isaac. The other animal, whether a deer or a hart or a gazelle (your translation may vary), is quite clearly distinct, because all of those animals, unlike a ram, are undomesticable: they are wild and they live in the forests and fields. When we catch them it is because they have been hunted, as Esau and Ishmael did. They symbolize a person who lives an unrestrained life, a free spirit, a person who may well be more focused on physical existence and physical pleasure than on climbing spiritual heights.

All of these animals are kosher, but the deer cannot be offered as a sacrifice – while rams are a key part of many offerings (including installing the priests). They were routinely part of elevation offerings, like those offered by Noach and Avraham at the Binding of Isaac. Jacob also explicitly raised rams, and gave them to Esau as gifts. Ram-skins were also used in the construction of the tabernacle, the mishkan.

So the ram reminds us of Avraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And the wilder animal reminds us of Lot (who sought green, well-watered fields above all else), Ishmael (the “wild ass of a man” who became an archer), and Esau (the hunter and man of the fields). The three “elevatable” men lead their own flocks, as rams seek to do. And the three “un-elevatable” men went their own loner paths. Even Lot, the only one of the three who moved to a city, clearly refused to submit to the rules of those around him. He, too, was un-domesticable.

Loose ends:

Noach’s Unifying Force

Noach is often criticized for not saving more people. But we sometimes fail to recognize the magnitude of what he did do: he saved his own family. He kept them together, even though his sons were not all equally good people (as we discover). Noach unifies, and he saves what he can. This is a contrast to the later characters, who allowed their families to spin apart. The verses we find in Deuteronomy directly echo the verses after the flood.

Together, As One

Within the initial three verses, the word “as one” or “together”, yachdav, appears only two times. This corresponds to the two times the word is used later – with Avram and Lot being unable to live together, and the same with Jacob and Esau. Ishmael was not rejected for the same reason, which explains why yachdav is not mentioned in all three verses.

The exemplar of “togetherness”, yachdav, is found at the giving of the Torah: “All those assembled answered as one [yachdav], saying, “All that G-d has spoken we will do!”


The first city was built by Cain, and the second was built in Babel. Neither distinguished themselves by being good places – quite the contrary. Cain’s actions divided people, and Babel, with its single-minded purpose, eliminated the individuality of mankind. Sodom and Gomorrah were cities that institutionalized evil. All of these cities were unable to spiritually elevate.

The cities referred to in our selected verses, by contrast, seek to bring people together, without pretending that all the people are the same. The text does not deny that there are people who are elevatable and un-elevatable, rams and deer. It merely tells us to seek the opportunity to unify when we can, to eat meat together. This vision of a Jewish city is a strong contrast from the cities found in Genesis. Our cities are not supposed to suppress the individual, forcing people to be the same. Instead, we bring people together, fully cognizant of the tension that results from that kind of uneasy unification. Nevertheless, we eat meat in your in your cities, the un-elevatable together with the elevatable, just like the ram and the deer.

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


The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Hebrews in the World

The story is told of a Jewish grandmother on a beach, screaming for someone – anyone – to help, because her hapless grandson has been caught in the undertow and is being swept out to sea.

A brave young man runs forward. Risking his own life, he dives into the ocean, swims out, and retrieves the waterlogged child. With his last burst of energy, our hero helps the child expel the ingested seawater and regain consciousness. And then he collapses on the beach.

The old woman sniffs. “He had a hat.”

We Jews like jokes. We have been telling them since the dawn of our people, because jokes somehow are better at catching precisely the right spirit than reams of academic explication. “What?!” the people fling at Moses upon finding themselves in the wilderness, “There weren’t enough graves in Egypt?” Humor may age, but sarcasm is timeless.

In recently studying the Torah carefully, we realized that there is a single word for this kind of chutzpah, a single word that really captures Jewish character, ambitions, achievements and failures. That word is the root for “Hebrew”, ivri. Because its usage in the text, across the entire text (182 appearances!), describes every aspect of a people who contain so many rewarding – and annoying – characteristics. All of them bundled out of this one word. (For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to the root word henceforth, as ivr.) And this word captures it all, the raw character of the Jewish people, warts and all.

IVR as Movement – Crossing

“Crossing” is the most commonly – and commonly understood meaning of ivr in the text. The Torah is full of descriptions of physical movements, especially in the last book, that use ivr as the verb for moving from place to place. Most prominently, Avram crosses (ivr) into Canaan, and Moses pleads with G-d: “Let me, I pray, cross over (ivr) and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon.” Both bring up the classic “Wandering Jew” archetype.

Avram sees a prophetic vision of the Exodus using this same word. In the Covenant Between the Parts where G-d tells Avraham that his descendants will serve another nation, and will be delivered by G-d:

When the sun set and it was very dark, there appeared a smoking oven, and a flaming torch which passed (ivr) between those pieces.

And much later in the text, the imagery and language echoes:

You know well that we dwelt in the land of Egypt and that we passed (ivr) through the midst of various other nations;

Wandering is part of our tribal DNA. But there is so very much more to how the word ivr is used in the text – and indeed, those examples help us better understand both Avram and Moses in their journeys.

IVR as Change

Ivr is first used in the Torah when G-d decides to stop the flooding of the world:

God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark, and God caused (ivr) a wind to blow across the earth, and the waters subsided.

The word ivr is connected to change! And not just random change: change that is sparked by thought and conscious decision. Changes to the world that lead away from death and toward life. Change that halts what is otherwise seen as inevitable (the end of all life from the flood), and starts to move things in a positive direction. Indeed, the use of the word in the text constantly hearkens back to different facets of this meaning.

The very next time the word ivr is found in the Torah, it is when Avram and Sarai enter the land of Canaan: “Abram passed through (ivr) the land as far as the site of Shechem, at the terebinth of Moreh.” This is a sparking event in the Torah, just like when G-d stopped the flooding. In both cases, nothing very discernable happened at first, but the fuse had been lit, history forever altered from one single act. Those actions triggered the rest of history. And in both cases, the actors who committed the act of ivr were not acting instinctively, the way a person usually behaves: instead, they were consciously acting in ways that are different than how a person naturally acts.

This ties back into what makes a Jew both so effective in the world, but also so very annoying to everyone else: Jews don’t stay put. We move around, crossing (ivr) barriers of all kinds. In the Torah, Jacob ivrs rivers and boundaries, he ivrs the sheep when he sorts them out for selective breeding. When he flees from Lavan, the text uses the word ivr. It gets so annoying that when Lavan catches up to Jacob, he underlines this very point:

This mound shall be witness and this pillar shall be witness that I am not to cross (ivr) to you past this mound, and that you are not to cross (ivr) to me past this mound and this pillar.

Lavan does not trust people who refuse to stay put – people who cross barriers, who ivr. He prefers boundaries that stay, and people who respect them. It is non-Jews who put up walls and respect them, non-Jews who crave stability above all else. Consider the Chinese and Egyptians in their river valleys for thousands of years, contentedly living out their days with little or no change from generation to generation – indeed, for thousands of years. In such a world and in those cultures, people who are not desperate for food stay where they are. Lavan’s words clearly reinforce and seek solidity.

Jews, on the other hand, are the people who ivr. I think our behavior unsettles other people in no small part because the way in which a Jew acts – always pushing, always moving – doesn’t really make sense to them. Ivr in the Torah is not driven by physical needs (such as would prompt a normal (non-Jewish) person to migrate), but by a spiritual hunger or restlessness. Most people only change when they have to. Jews change because we can.

Jacob sends messengers with presents for Esau to try to change Esau’s mind. We know this in part because the word used for sending those messengers is also ivr. It is all about changing the inevitable, altering the outcome. The word is used throughout the story. When Jacob’s family meets Esau and his armed men, Jacob once more seizes the initiative, and he ivrs. “He himself went on (ivr) ahead and bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near his brother.” Jacob, the ultimate change agent, the forefather who ivrs more than anyone else in the Torah, is the person at which the family branches out into a tribe and then a nation, a nation named in the Torah after Jacob/Israel: the Children of Israel. Jacob overcame and crossed, ivr, every barrier – physical topographical as well as familial and spiritual. Jacob imitated G-d, who used ivr during the flood to change history and for the better, for life and the possibility of physical and spiritual growth in the world.

Note that there is a wrinkle here as well. Jacob, with whom ivr is used the most, stops having that word associated with him as soon as peace is made with Esau. Then he becomes much more passive – for four entire chapters the word is not found in the text at all, and then the baton seems to have been passed, because it is only other people who then ivr. Jacob, no longer in a strange land or in fear of his life, no longer seems forced to innovate, to change, or to force change around him. The word never again is used to describe Jacob’s actions. (This may also help explain antisemitism, along lines similar to those I have explained before: it is fear that keeps us focused on being Jewish in the first place – both in customs and in spirit. The pressures Jacob was under caused him to lead the world in ivr. When those pressures eased, Jacob did, too. Which helps explain why G-d keeps pressure on His people; doing so delivers results. It compels us to ivr.)

IVR as Identity

Jews, from Avram to the present day, are often identified as being separate from the societies in which we live, quietly refusing to conform. Jews are called “Hebrews” – Ivrim in the text. (The word is a self-fulfilling description, since the Jews who seek to assimilate have, generation after generation, largely managed to do so, so only those who resist assimilation, who ivr, remain). Nevertheless, this ability to remain distinct in other nations is a well-recognized feature of the Jewish people in general – it is a core part of our reputation. It is also part of acting with ivr.

Even when we appeal to G-d we do so by pointing out that we are being true to that first calling to Avram that led to his act of ivr when he entered the land: “Lech Lecho”, “Go for yourself.” When Jacob prays in a night of fear before confronting an angry Esau, he says to G-d: “I am unworthy of all the kindness that You have so steadfastly shown Your servant: with my staff alone I crossed (ivr) this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.” Jacob is telling G-d that he explicitly identifies as one who crosses (ivr), as Avram did when G-d told Jacob’s grandfather to “go out” on nothing more than G-d’s say-so, the inheritor of the mantle of Avram. Indeed, they both entered the land at the same point, coming in through the Shechem gap in the hills to the West of the Jordan River. Jacob seeks the same blessings that his grandfather received, and for the same reason: “I crossed.” We know this is what G-d wants of us. Ivr is what Jews/Hebrews, do, and what we do defines who we are.

IVR at the Heart of Commerce

The Torah (as well as history) associates Jews with money – Avram is the first person in the Torah to accumulate money. He is also the first person to buy anything (Gen. 17), and he buys both people and property. Later in the Torah the word ivr explictly means a transfer of property: “The plea of Zelophechad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer (ivr) their father’s share to them. …Further, speak to the Israelite people as follows: ‘If a man dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer (ivr) his property to his daughter.’”

Jews using money makes sense, of course, because going from place to place, ivr, involves trade. Merchants travel, crossing (ivr) rivers and frontiers. They, too, make change wherever they go – spreading goods into new places, and, through their market knowledge, setting the price at which people sell their goods. Trade and economic activity are not that different from G-d withdrawing the flood waters or Avram entering the land: mixing people and goods up and trading them is a major wealth creation engine for the world. Maximizing economic activity in turn leads to more food, more creature comforts – ultimately the potential for more life. Whether seen as a negative or a positive, Jews have always been intrinsically linked with both money and commerce, at the heart of transactions wherever they are found – at every link in the transaction within the legal, corporate and mercantile aspects of trade.

When Avraham negotiates to buy Ephron’s cave, the text tells us: “Abraham accepted Ephron’s terms. Abraham paid out to Ephron the money that he had named in the hearing of the Hittites—four hundred shekels of silver at the ivr merchants’ rate.” The “ivr” seems superfluous at first read: why is ivr connected to an exchange rate?

I think it is because a core aspect of a trader’s world is that traders move beyond unwieldy barter and conduct business using money – so Avraham pays for the people and the burial cave using money instead of goods-in-kind. Money is a very useful tool, allowing for much more rapid commerce with a minimum of transactional friction. In the Torah, the role of the ivr is first linked to Jews. And it is no coincidence that the Jews are associated with money, commerce and trade, both in the Torah and throughout Jewish history.

Jews Seeking to Facilitate ivr and Change

For Jews, it is not even necessary to be the change agents ourselves: we are more than happy to facilitate it wherever we are. Facilitating trade or change is akin to being involved in commercial transactions (as an agent or lawyer) without being one of the principal parties.

When the three men appear to Avraham as he sat in his tent, he runs to them: “If it please you, do not go on past (ivr) your servant.” Why does he stop them? Avraham sees people engaging in activity that he himself approves of and identifies with – moving and changing – and he seeks to support that activity! So he says, “And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves; then go on (ivr) —seeing that you have come (ivr) your servant’s way.” Avraham wants to be where the action is, supporting it in any way that he can. He is more than willing to be a fulcrum for others who seek to change the world, in the same way that Jews facilitate trade and commerce the world over. We instinctively see a value in always being in the middle of a deal, or indeed, any action. Enabling others is inherent to our identification as a Jew, as an ivri.

These men go on to tell Avraham and Sarah that they will have a son, and then the men/angels go onto Sodom and Gomorrah on a mission to destroy the cities. They are indeed “change agents,” actively altering the world. Avraham saw that intention in them, and sought to support it, even though he did not know the nature of their mission in advance.

Our voices similarly can be used to assist others in changing – because ivr is, first and foremost, about the mindset one has:

Moses thereupon had this proclamation made (ivr) throughout the camp: “Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!” So the people stopped bringing.


Then you shall sound (ivr) the horn loud; in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month—the Day of Atonement—you shall have the horn sounded (ivr) throughout your land.

In both cases, ivr helps others to facilitate change, just as Avraham sought to succor the weary men/angels who were engaged in their mission of ivr. Both a proclamation and a shofar blast help change what listeners think.

IVR as an Insult

Ivr is not necessarily a positive attribute or action. In the mouths of non-Jews, the label is clearly meant to both describe and denigrate. A non-Jew refers to a Hebrew in the text, and means “someone who changes things that ought to be left alone.” Jews are pushy – the Torah tells us so. Avram immigrates, ivr, into the land of Canaan – a land that is not his. Potiphar’s wife refers to Joseph as ivr when she falsely accuses him of trying to seduce her. Everyone knows Jews are pushy. True then, true now. Joseph is clearly an ivr, a climber wherever he finds himself. Indeed, when Joseph is appointed viceroy by Pharoah the very first thing he does is ivr the land – he crosses all of it, surveying, planning, getting ahead of the famine. And when that famine comes, Joseph displays enormous (and unnecessary) chutzpah by forcibly repopulating the land of Egypt, moving everyone around. The verb used for that act? Ivr.

In the eyes of others, especially Egyptians, the Jews are always called ivr, and it is clearly a perjorative – the Torah tells us the Egyptians considered even socially mingling with ivr people to be taboo: “They served him by himself, and them by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves; for the Egyptians could not dine with the Hebrews (ivr), since that would be abhorrent to the Egyptians.” Many years later, the midwives who mock Pharoah and ignore his orders are also identified as ivr. It is a consistent, if often counterproductive Jewish talent: we annoy people, because we keep pushing. Others react by excluding and separating themselves from Jews; our very nature represents a threat to their well-ordered societies.

Of course, there is a flip side to being pushy. Jews get stuff done. That is why Potiphar promoted Joseph in the first place: he delivered results. Joseph also delivered for Pharoah, and while the repopulation and enslavement of Egypt was probably not a good idea overall, it may well have best-served Pharaoh’s interests. Jewish success is a historical fact as well, and I think it is identified with this aspect of our inherited personality, with ivr.

IVR: Sinning

There is a whole different side of this same word – from the downsides of change. When one changes too much, or, more commonly in the text, when one changes in the wrong direction.

This is because the word for committing a sin is also ivr. Key examples:

But Moses said, “Why do you transgress (ivr) G-d’s command?

Balaam replied to Balak’s officials, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, big or little, contrary (ivr) to the command of my G-d.

If there is found among you, in one of the settlements that your G-d is giving you, a man or woman who has affronted your G-d and transgressed (ivr) the Covenant—

I have neither transgressed (ivr) nor neglected any of Your commandments.

See how versatile this word is within the text! It makes it quite clear that the attribute of change, even though it is a name for the Jewish people, is certainly not always a good thing. Indeed, it can represent death directly:

Do not allow any of your offspring to be offered up (ivr) to Molech.

Let no one be found among you who consigns (ivr) a son or daughter to the fire.

The idea of “change” is a constant with this word. But change is clearly not always good or productive or right.

IVR Unleashed: Destruction and Death

Indeed, this change can be even more dramatic than merely transgression or even sin. Ivr can mean going out to kill:

Know then this day that none other than your G-d is crossing (ivr) at your head, a devouring fire; it is [G-d] who will wipe them out—subduing them before you, that you may quickly dispossess and destroy them, as G-d promised you.

He said to them, “Thus says G-d, the G-d of Israel: Each of you put sword on thigh, go (ivr) back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay sibling, neighbor, and kin.”

For that night I will go through (ivr) the land of Egypt and strike down every [male] first-born in the land of Egypt, both human and beast;

For G-d, when going through (ivr) to smite the Egyptians, will see the blood on the lintel and the two doorposts, and G-d will pass over the door and not let the Destroyer enter and smite your home.

How Much is Too Much?

Jacob, well after he himself is no longer associated with the word ivr, made it quite clear that there is such a thing as too much ivr. When he blesses/curses Simeon and Levi, Jacob says:

Cursed be their anger so fierce,
And their ivr so strong.
I will divide them in Jacob,
Scatter them in Israel.

The potency of Simeon and Levi is so great that they need to be diluted within the rest of the people! This is what transpires with Levi when they are settled in the land; the tribe is spread out across the land and within the people, seeking to maximize influence without having too many of the tribe living in any one place. Which suggests that it is possible for someone to be, well, too Jewish.

Joseph seemingly also acts in a similar way: the Egyptians will not eat with him because he is an ivri. Joseph seems to turn the tables – the Torah tells us that Joseph uses this same verb to forcibly relocate everyone in Egypt, moving everyone around. This was an act that seems entirely unnecessary – it looks like ivr for its own sake, as opposed to being for a holy or good principle. The Egyptians were the ultimate passive people, and Joseph forces them all to move. But he does not do so for any apparent higher benefit. Arguably the Jewish treatment at the hands of the Egyptians is a result of Joseph indiscriminately forcing change on others.

The Way to Temper ivr: Responsibility

There is a related word to ivr that shares the same root word and letters – but it seems to contain everything that ivr, with the emphasis on forcing change regardless of consequences, is lacking. This word is baavur, and it tells us what Jews are supposed to have to go along with our inclination to change everything we can lay our hands on. This word is always tied to responsibility, for consequences. For example:

To Adam [G-d] said, “Because you did as your wife said and ate of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’
Cursed be the ground baavur of you; By hard labor shall you eat of it All the days of your life:

The ground bears the responsibility for our actions. Our willingness to transgress will always have consequences.

But responsibility can also be positive! When Avram goes to Egypt, he says to his wife:

Please say that you are my sister, that it may go well with me baavur of you, and that I may remain alive thanks to you.”

Avram begs Sarai to be responsible for him, to save his life! And she does! The text says:

And baavur of her, it went well with Abram; he acquired sheep, oxen, asses, male and female slaves, she-asses, and camels.

Avram lives, and he acquires things as well. This is quite remarkable: that Sarai could save Avram’s life and materially benefit him suggests that her taking responsibility for his life is very powerful. Indeed, this is the first time in the Torah that any person takes responsibility, baavur, for someone else. And the text makes it clear that even if Avram was wrong to ask his wife to lie, there is an inherent value in her willingness to take responsibility for him.

G-d wants His people – all people – to be responsible for each other. Ivr can be good – but to really hit the mark, it needs to be twinned with responsibility, with maturity. Indeed, ivr in its developed form is not merely about moving, or physical change: it is about changing our minds, how and what we think!

So baavur in the Torah is also about the opportunity to learn new things, to understand G-d’s role in the world:

For this time I will send all My plagues upon your person, and your courtiers, and your people, in order (baavur) that you may know that there is none like Me in all the world.

Nevertheless I have spared you for this purpose: in order (baavur) to show you My power, and in order that My fame may resound throughout the world.

And you shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because (baavur) of what G-d did for me when I went free from Egypt.’

And later in the Torah, the word is used as a term of enrollment, of a person belonging to the nation (baavur) of Israel, as opposed to merely a tribe of Hebrews (Ivrim).

This is what everyone who is entered (baavur) in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight.

Everyone who is entered (baavur) in the records, from the age of twenty years up, shall give G-d’s offering:

Baavur is the culmination, the mature fulfillment of that elemental desire to ivr, to change things for the sake of change. This is always a challenge for anyone who seeks to serve G-d: to what extent are we willing to be brave, to go against others in our desire for ivr? And are we always trying to be cognizant of the consequences of our actions?

In some respects, the tension echoes the gap between those who love unfettered freedom (ivr), and those who appreciate that freedom without responsibility and consequences is mere libertinism (baavur).

We still need people who are willing to go against the flow, who are willing to act decisively and cross boundaries of every kind. But those people also need to embrace the responsibility that is supposed to be paired with that kind of superpower.

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

Post Notes:

• Jews are not the only traders named in the Torah!

When Midianite traders passed by (ivr), they pulled Joseph up out of the pit. They sold Joseph for twenty pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites, who brought Joseph to Egypt.”

These traders also change things, just as others associated with ivr do: all of history is changed by their action, whether we would consider it good or not. Midianites are also descended from Avraham – the first man to ivr in the text

• Change, of course, can be for all manner of things. From physical objects:

Any article that can withstand fire—these you shall pass through (ivr) fire and they shall be pure, except that they must be purified with water of lustration; and anything that cannot withstand fire you must pass through (ivr) water.

To covenants with G-d:

To enter (ivr) into the covenant of your G-d, which your G-d is concluding with you this day.

• The killing of the first-born of Egypt (which uses ivr) mirrors the setting aside of the first-born for all time:

You shall set apart (ivr) for G-d every first issue of the womb: every male firstling that your cattle drop shall be G-d’s.

• When G-d is angry at Moses for being too pushy about entering the Land of Canaan, the text tells us,

But G-d was wrathful (ivr) with me on your account and would not listen to me. G-d said to me, “Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again!”

This certainly accentuates the core point that ivr is not a good thing in itself, and that in excess, it leads to death – whether at the hands of Simeon and Levi, or G-d Himself.


Jewish Hell

  • All his sons and daughters sought to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted, saying, “No, I will go down mourning to my son in sheol.” Thus his father bewailed him.

This word, sheol, is often understood by Christians as referring to Hell (though why Jacob would be bound for Hell is not clear). And by Jews, “sheol” refers to burial, though why the word chosen is specifically “sheol” is also unclear.

I think there is a better understanding, and it comes directly from the Hebrew word itself. The letters for “sheol” are the letters that mean “question” in the text. For example:

I inquired (sheol) of her, ‘Whose daughter are you?’ (Gen. 24:47)

When the men of the place asked (sheol) him about his wife…  (Gen. 26:7)

Jacob asked (sheol), “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask (sheol) my name!” And he took leave of him there.

All of these are asking about the identity of a person. But the word also is used to question the purpose or intentions of a person. For example:

And they said, “Let us call the girl and ask (sheol) for her reply.” (Gen. 24:57)

The man asked (sheol) him, “What are you looking for?” (Gen. 37:15)

Which suggests the following idea: what if the Jewish idea of a miserable death is one in which we are left with unanswered questions? A death in which our soul is left unsure of our own identity, purpose, or ultimate worth in the world?

Think of Jacob and Joseph. His son has died, and Jacob has to be asking himself question after question: “Was this my fault?” / “Why did I send him away?” / “What could or should I have done differently?” / “How could G-d have let this happen?!” ad infinitum – a hell while living, and even worse if unresolved before death.

Now that is a specific kind of horrible end to a life, to be left unsure of the reason or purpose for our existence, with deep and important questions, but no answers.

This also helps explain a verse much later in the Torah:

And now, O Israel, what does your G-d ask (sheol) of you? Only this: to perceive your God, to walk in all of his paths, to love [those paths], and to serve your God with all your heart and soul.

The question is not performative. It is not what G-d wants us to do, specifically. Or it would have used another word rather than this one. Instead, the question is about understanding our identity, our purpose, and our value in G-d’s eyes. G-d is asking us to understand who we are and what we aim to achieve – just as the word sheol is used in the Torah. We are meant to comprehend G-d and our relationship to Him, to see ourselves as imitating G-d and to love doing so.

Lastly, we are to understand that understanding our identity and purpose is not found through navel gazing, but instead through our actions, through what we do: serving G-d and connecting with Him. All from understanding the selection of that one word: sheol. And in so doing, we can avoid the fate that Jacob feared worse than death.

[an @iwe and @eliyahumasinter work]


The Torah View on The Rights of Victims

From the Garden of Eden onward, the Torah is not supportive of those who seek to avoid responsibility for their actions. The mantle of victimhood that Adam and Eve tried on was ripped away by a G-d who seems just as angry about their attempts to blame someone else, than he was about eating the fruit in the first place!

But what if someone is truly a victim? Ah, that is different. The Torah stands firmly for the undertrodden and the oppressed – it is a core reason why we had to be slaves in Egypt, so that we could better understand what it is like to be powerless. We are always supposed to be considerate of others, especially those who have been wronged.

This is a consistent theme – so consistent that the Torah takes great pains to tell us to respect the rights of the people our ancestors victimized.

Here are the three key examples:

You will then be close to the Ammonites; do not harass them or start a fight with them. For I will not give any part of the land of the Ammonites to you as a possession; I have assigned it as a possession to the descendants of Lot. (Deut. 2:19)

Do not harass the Moabites or provoke them to war. For I will not give you any of their land as a possession; I have assigned Ar as a possession to the descendants of Lot. (Deut. 2:9)

You will be passing through the territory of your kin, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. Though they will be afraid of you, be very careful not to provoke them. For I will not give you of their land so much as a foot can tread on; I have given the hill country of Seir as a possession to Esau. (Deut. 2:4-5)

No other people get this special treatment, the language that says we get nothing of theirs. Ishmael, or Avraham’s other sons are all fair game. But not these peoples. There is something special about these three – really, these two: Lot (Ammon and Moab are his descendants), and Esau.

I think the answer is given to us plainly. Lot was sent away by his only family:

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)

Avraham sends Lot away because they both prefer to have their wealth than to keep the family together (I wrote about it here). 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.

Esau is a parallel case, with almost identical language:

Esau took his wives, his sons and daughters, and all the members of his household, his cattle and all his livestock, and all the property that he had acquired in the land of Canaan, and went to another land because of his brother Jacob. For their possessions were too many for them to dwell together, and the land where they sojourned could not support them because of their livestock. So Esau settled in the hill country of Seir—Esau being Edom. (Gen. 36:6)

The text seems to be telling us that if Jacob had wanted to accommodate Esau alongside him he had that option. But Jacob chose not to do it.

So both Lot and Esau were rejected, perhaps even victimized, by their family member who sent them to another land because they preferred their possessions to their relationship.

The Torah tells us that we cannot – must not – take any of the land that the rejected family members settled in after they were sent away. By expelling our family from us, we lost the right to harass or take anything more from them ever again.

[an @iwe and @kidcoder work]


Man in the Center: Space

In Judaism, time is an artificial construct, made “real” by our own declarations. Remarkably, the Torah teaches us a similar lesson with regard to space!

The key unit of length in the Torah is an “amah.”  How long is an amah?

The Torah does not tell us. We understand that an amah is the length of a forearm, but whose forearm, exactly? And where on the wrist or hand does the forearm end? Nobody can be sure.

Indeed, there are no objectively knowable measurements in the Torah at all. On the contrary – the only measurement we have that connects an amah to any one person is to the giant, Og, the king of Bashan. His arm, surely, was larger than most, and yet the Torah sees fit to tell us about the size of his bed: “Nine amahs was its length, and four amahs its breadth, according to the amah of that man.”

This leads us to an intriguing conclusion: the Torah is deliberately vague about this (and all) measurements. Precise measurements seem to be unimportant, and if Og can be the model of an amah’s length (since his is the only “sample” amah given in the Torah), then we can legitimately use any forearm in the world to build something described in the Torah.

In other words, the Torah does not give us an absolute calibration point on any length or volumetric measurement at all!

But then why does the Torah have measurements in the first place? Why say that something needs to have a height of X amahs, if the underlying unit of measure can be entirely subjective? Wouldn’t a vague measurement be almost entirely useless? And if that is so, then why does the Torah give us measurements in the first place?

The answer lies in the realization that there are (almost) no standalone measurements in the Torah! Every single measurement is given as a proportion, in relation to something else. X amahs long and Y amahs wide, or one “hin” of this, for a measure of that. Always there is a proportion given, a ratio.

Is there a broader lesson here that we can learn from? Before we can answer this, we first have to look at what the Torah is actually measuring when it uses units of measure.

To start with the Torah only gives measurements in Amahs when it describes enclosing something that is alive! Noach’s Ark is measured in Amahs. So is the Mishkan. The Torah also uses the amah (amah) to give the dimensions around a city, and for Og’s bed. All contain living things.

But the Amah itself is not based on anything that is merely physical. The measurement uses the arm of a man, the agent of Hashem in this world. The Torah tells us that mankind, not a stick or a rock or the sun or the moon, is supposed to be the measure of everything in the world. Man is the measure of all things having to do with housing the divine spirit whether inside people (as in the Ark), or for the Shechinah itself (in the Mishkan).

So why is an amah such a vague metric? The Torah uses the amah because such a metric tells us that there no “perfect” or “ideal” man. Indeed, the metric of an amah tells us that each and every person is capable of being the reference yardstick around which mankind can serve Hashem. We don’t need to use Moshe’s amah, or Avrahom’s amah. If Og’s amah can be used as a measuring stick, then so can the arm for any person on the earth. This is a profoundly egalitarian vision.

But if the amah is such a variable and individualistic measurement, then why does the Torah give so very many measurements? The answer can be found by realizing that, in almost every case, the Torah gives no measurements using only a single dimension. Each measurement is in two dimensions, not one: It is never “X amahs.” Instead, the measurements are “X amahs by Y amahs.”418 

Every one of these measurements was information given to mankind concerning a place for life. So we can conclude that man’s forearm is the measurement for all enclosures for Hashem and man. These measurements are fundamentally about man’s creation of a house or dwelling or bed: a single stick is not a building, but once we take a piece of (functionally) one-­‐dimensional wood or thread and build it with others into two dimensions, we have an actual product of human creativity. Working in two dimensions creates complexity from what had been a simple stick or thread beforehand. We use amahs to build things that emulate Hashem’s creation. Just as Hashem made the world to house life, so, too, we take from the natural world, and build houses and arks and the Mishkan that defines the space around a living soul.

Except for in the case of the flood, where the waters went fifteen amahs higher than anything else. Nechama Cox suggests this further reinforces the need for proportion in our lives. The Torah is giving us these guidelines to teach us the need for proportion, and brings the counter proof – when there is no proportionality, it leads to death and destruction.

Note that while people make houses that are in fact three-­‐dimensional, the Torah never gives a volumetric measurement of something built with amahs. Even when a volume can be computed, such as in the example of the length times the width times the height of Noach’s Ark, the Torah does not do so.

But the Torah does indeed have volumetric measurements! They are named as the hin for fluids, and the ephah and the omer for dry goods. But note what is actually measured: with the arguable exception of the manna, in every case the thing quantified by the Torah is a processed food product: olive oil, wine, grain and flour.

Why these products?

The things that are measured in each of the three dimensions are all used as offerings to Hashem. We are meant to make our sacrifices complete, as well-­‐rounded as possible, and that means using even measurements that are in three dimensions. Note too, that each of these things (oil/wine/grain) are themselves also perishable, so they could be said to be measured in the dimension of time as well (a possible fourth dimension). Lastly, and perhaps more importantly, they are all products of both the natural world and mankind’s effort, meaning that they are candidates for holiness – combining the efforts of Hashem and man, and offered to Hashem as part of a sacrifice.

Just as we do with other commandments, we measure things in the Torah for the purpose of elevating nature. We use natural components solely when we connect the world below to the world above, specifically in an offering to Hashem in His home. Nothing offered to Hashem is measured in amahs (a man-­‐centered metric), for it would be an egregious misunderstanding of our relationship with Hashem to think that we, the agents who bring about holiness in this world, are ourselves supposed to form part of an offering. Man connects the world below to the world above, but we are not supposed to consider ourselves part of that offering to Hashem. Instead of being the sacrifice, we are the middle-­men who bring the two together. And those offerings are measured using three dimensional, volumetric measurements.

But our buildings are all based on the amah – which is a measurement of a person’s arm. No animal or plant is the metric: “Man is the Measure.” Nature is then measured not by its own metric, but by mankind’s constructions, using man’s own arm as the reference point. Hashem does not give us any length measurements in the Torah which are based on anything in the natural world at all. 419 And so domiciles (whether Noach’s Ark, the Mishkan for Hashem, or Og’s bed) are all measured by amahs.

So the Torah is telling us that when we use our arms to build, we are making homes fit for men, kings (even one such as Og), and Hashem Himself. None of these things are meant to be offered up to Hashem; they are meant for improving the world in which we live. In this, we are emulating Hashem. That is why the Torah gives us no linear measurements using

Thus there is no reference in the Torah itself to any natural-­‐world yardstick except Og’s amah.

We build according to the metric of man, not the metric of nature. Our buildings are reflections of our own will, not reflections of the natural world. Which means that it is mankind’s job to make his imprint on nature, not the other way around. The connection between the earth and Hashem is made through man; everything is measured by the metric of a man. We do not elevate nature using natural forces but through artificial (literally “manmade”) efforts.

Which leaves us with one substantial – and unanswered question: why does the Torah give us indefinite measurements, but entirely specific relative measurements? We may not know how long a amah is, but we know the curtains for the Mishkan were specifically twenty-­‐eight by four amahs. Measurements may not be precise. But the relationships between those measurements are precise. The absolute dimensions of the Mishkan may be impossible for us to know, but the relative dimensions are fixed. In this respect the Torah does not discriminate between offerings and buildings, the work of nature or the work of man: precise proportions are given in every situation.

Chana Cox adds:

Relativity is true of any measure of space or time. We cannot have an absolute measure, and any number assigned to the measure is entirely dependent on the “yardstick” chosen. The measurement of the room I am sitting in is not absolute. It depends on my choice of measuring device. Imagine, if you will, that thing Newtonians called true and absolute space. Imagine a triangle in that space. Would there be any way of determining if the sides of the triangle were 5 feet or 5 miles? Not without putting something else into the picture. In a sense, then, no measurement is real in any absolute sense (Newton notwithstanding). But: ratios can be real. Virtually all the laws of physics are equations which express a ratio. The empirical work is always about determining precisely what that ratio is – what the constant or coefficient is. Whether the numbers are in meters or in yards is simply a matter of arithmetical convenience. The seemingly absolute number is totally arbitrary, but the ratio is not.

What is different about the Torah measurements is that they seem to be keyed to the forearm of a man – any man. They are not geared to a meter-­‐stick in a vault in Paris. Historically, the measures we use are always decided by convenience. Perhaps, like my example of the triangle, it doesn’t much matter how big the triangle is. That is not what establishes its true geometric qualities. It matters what the ratios are. Alternatively, it is likely that in any particular community of builders, someone decides whose forearm to work from. To us it seems inconvenient but it need not be. Everybody in the “building business” probably knew they would have to agree on a measure before the job began.

Finally, to measure anything or to count anything is, in a very real sense, to treat it as an object and therefore not as a person. We do not count people. I think, in a real sense, the Torah is reluctant to even assign a number to a part of a person such as a forearm. 


What if Abortion is Perfectly Natural?

In the animal kingdom, animals kill their offspring. I have seen it myself among housecats as well as chickens. I suspect cats of all sizes do this. Dogs, mice, pigs, bears, dolphins, and baboons practice infanticide pretty regularly. And they do it for reasons that are not illogical!

Males kill offspring because the offspring are a distraction for the mother of the newborn – and men like to be the center of attention. Ask any new father whether his wife remembers his existence, and it makes (some) sense. Killing the brat is a purely selfish act – and it is also entirely natural.

Women, on the other hand, are more practical. They will kill and eat their young when they are nutritionally deficient, but also if the young seem unlikely to be able to thrive because they are unusually small or deformed in some way. Female animals kill when food is scarce. Female animals kill for what people might call socio-economic reasons. It is also perfectly natural.

Abortion fits in quite reasonably with the above. Men are in favor of abortion because kids are a distraction for the mother, and reduce her sexual interest in the man.

Women, on the other hand, support abortion for the very same common-sensical reasons that motivate the animals who abandon or eat their young: babies are a major inconvenience, and they come with a multitude of costs. (Though at least in nature, the mother might kill or isolate a runt to enable the remaining litter to survive is still showing maternal instincts. Humans who kill babies because they are inconvenient are not being maternal at all.)

In which case, abortion is hardly unnatural. On the contrary, it is the dovetailing of normal animal instincts with the human technology to kill the unborn.

Animals also cull the weak or the sick newborn. Sometimes the newborn might just be… different. It can still trigger the same instinct that leads many species of animals to show hostility toward abnormal members of their species. Humans do the same thing, with state support. In Scandinavian countries Down’s Syndrome has been essentially eliminated, by killing the babies in the womb. Is it so different from how a mama bear, with a well-established fame for protecting her cubs, will kill and eat an abnormal newborn?

Killing our young is being more in touch with nature and our animal instincts! Indeed, suppressing our desire to exclude or harm those who are different requires us to suppress our natural instincts!

As with animals, the reasons we kill babies do not have to stem from desperation; it can merely be a matter of preference. The gender imbalance in Asian cultures is directly attributed to killing girls either through sex-selective abortion or after birth. “In China and India alone, an estimated 2 million baby girls go “missing” each year. They are selectively aborted, killed as newborns, or abandoned and left to die.“ Link Infanticide is commonly found in every primitive/native/pagan society known to man.

If the idea of infanticide or filial cannibalism fills you with horror, you might count the Torah among your holy texts:

And she who is most tender and dainty among you, so tender and dainty that she would never venture to set a foot on the ground, shall begrudge the husband of her bosom, and her son and her daughter the afterbirth that issues from between her legs and the babies she bears. She shall eat them secretly, because of utter want, in the desperate straits to which your enemy shall reduce you in your towns. (Deut. 28:56)

I cannot read even this passage out loud without loss of composure. On the day when we mourn our greatest failures, and the losses that resulted from them, the Ninth of Av, we read of women eating their children. It is our worst nightmare.

What on earth would bring this curse down on us?

Because you would not serve your G-d with connection/joy and goodness of heart over the abundance of everything. (Deut. 28:47)

Whoa. Now play it back. What are the dominant features of people who think abortion is a good idea? They have no relationship to G-d. They tend not to be happy. And they are deeply ungrateful for all the good that exists in their world. Which are more-or-less the traits you would need to have in order for parents to knowingly choose to kill their own child in a time when we are so rich by historical standards that nowhere in the Western World does having a baby mean that others will actually starve.

But, hey! At least they are being true to nature. Which might help explain why I understand that mankind’s job is always to try to overcome our instincts, and to be better than nature.

In the Torah, the woman who eats her afterbirth and young is deeply shamed – destroyed – by the act. She would be devastated by it. My mind boggles at the thought of doing the same thing with pride.

[an @iwe and @eliyahumasinter work]

P.S. I noticed that the mammals that kill their young tend to be not kosher. Though I think any non-human mammal with a large litter will still isolate and abandon the runt.


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 the responsibility we should be internalizing. 

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.


What is the Point of Deuteronomy?

The last of the Five Books of the Torah is almost entirely Moses’ speech, retelling and summarizing the history of the Jewish people in the wilderness.

A key problem is that the retold version of the story changes many significant “facts” that appear earlier in the text. I’ll share just a few examples:

1: In the first telling, G-d tells Moses to send the spies into the land, but in the second telling, the idea comes from the Jewish people.

2: The Torah makes it clear that Moses cannot enter the land because he sinned. But in the retelling, Moses says it is the fault of the people!

3: In the Ten Commandments we are commanded to “remember” the Sabbath, whereas the second version commands the people to “keep” the Sabbath.

What is going on?

There are many plausible explanations. One I have advanced before: that the Torah has no problem with multiple versions of a story, with the truth being multifaceted enough that even significant details can change without corrupting the moral or symbolic lessons.

But there are other explanations that also make sense, and here is one that I like: Moses retells the story in such a way that he is trying to help the people mature. He wants them to become more responsible, matching the gain in their freedom and ownership. So he tells the stories differently to achieve that purpose.

Here’s how:

In the first telling of the spies, the Jewish people are largely passive. G-d suggests the spies, and for the most part, the Jewish people act more as terrified rabble than as responsible adults.

In the retelling, Moses lays the blame for the whole thing on the people. He tells them they they, not someone else, are responsible for what has happened to them. No victimhood is allowed or entertained.

This trend continues for the rest of the book. Moses is forbidden from entering the land, and, according to the earlier telling, it was all Moses’ fault. But in the retelling: “Because of you G-d was incensed with me too, saying: You shall not enter [the land] either.” (Deut. 1:37)

Why does he shift the blame? I think he wants the people to feel responsible for everything that goes on around them, even if they do not actually deserve much of the blame!

In the last example cited above: we are told, in Exodus, to “remember” the Sabbath day. This word means something like “to take notice,” as in the first time it is used: “God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark.” (Gen. 8:1)

But in Deut., we are told to “guard” the Sabbath day. This word is found in Genesis as the positive command to “guard” the Garden of Eden, the Cherubim who guard the way to Eden, and Cain’s question: “Am I my brother’s guardian?” The difference between “notice” and “guard” is all about posture and intention to take action. The Jews in the wilderness were told to pay attention to the Sabbath – but in Moses’ speech we are commanded to be positively vigilant, able and ready to act the same way the guardian angels do – and Cain does not. “Remembering” the Sabbath is about the past. “Guarding/Keeping” the Sabbath is about the future.

Why does this matter?

The challenge for Moses is that the Jewish people were never again going to have a leader as strong as he was. Leaders can be a crutch for people to lean on, and they often cannot reach their full potential when there is no need to do so (think of the analogy for what can happen to a sports team when the star is out for the game – others “step up”). Moses is trying to leave the people in a mental state where they would be ready and able to “up their game,” to take responsibility as they had never done before. Freedom and responsibility are twinned, so as the people gain more freedom, they need to be aware and conscious of what it means for their mission.

In reading this last book of the Torah, the variations from the earlier telling fall in line with this understanding. The purpose of the speech is not a recitation of facts or rehashing history. It is instead a targeted message: you are responsible for your own actions going forward. And more than this: even the things you do not think you are responsible for (e.g., Moses’ sin at the rock), you are still responsible for. The message resonates through history, as the Jewish people consider themselves charged with improving everything, whether or not it seems “fair” that we should be held responsible for the entire world.

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


Maintaining Who You Are

We are all influenced by our surroundings, by our environment. And it is certainly a challenge for those of us who work with people who come from very different backgrounds and have made very different choices than we have. It is not uncommon, for example, for modern workplaces to include immodest dress, routine use of obscenities, informal conversations about topics that would be politely described as “not kosher,” and casual acceptance of the popular culture.

Orthodox Jews, who are almost always working in a non-Jewish environment, face this challenge all the time: we do not want the language and culture we are immersed in at work to corrupt who we are, and who we seek to become. We are always trying to find a balance, a way to interact without assimilating. In my case, I “present” to my industry as not Jewish at all. I quietly remain true to my behavioral norms, and always have a ready excuse for not eating, but not as a visible Jew.

But I always keep a touchstone, the part of my life that grounds and recenters me: my home, my marriage, my children, my synagogue and my community all make that work.

To my surprise, the Torah very cleverly identifies something that seems quite similar. Here is the passage:

Instruct the Israelite people to assign, out of the holdings apportioned to them, towns for the Levites to dwell in; you shall also assign to the Levites pasture land around their towns. The towns shall be theirs to dwell in, and the pasture shall be for the cattle they own and all their other beasts. The town pasture that you are to assign to the Levites shall extend a thousand cubits outside the town wall all around. You shall measure off two thousand cubits outside the town on the east side, two thousand on the south side, two thousand on the west side, and two thousand on the north side, with the town in the center. That shall be the pasture for their towns. (Numbers 35)

It all sounds straightforward and free of any deeper symbolic value. But there are a few red flags with this translation that change this passage entirely.

The first is the word that is translated as “pasture” does not mean “pasture” anywhere else in the Torah. Instead, it refers to expulsion, the removal of people from a place or relationship: Adam and Eve from Eden, Cain from the land, Hagar and Ishmael from Sarah’s house, the Jews from Egypt, the previous inhabitants from Canaan, and a divorced woman. The phrase suggests that a key purpose of this land is to be free of people, like a no-mans’s land, complete with its open space on all sides.

The second red flag is that the word for “dwell” is not one of the more common words found in the Torah: “gur, schakan, shev.” The word is instead “Shavet,” the same letters comprising “Sabbath” (in the Torah scroll, the vowels are not shown, so the same root letters can have different vowels).

The third red flag are the precise dimensions: why 2,000 amos in each direction? Curiously, this is the same limitation for the distance a person is allowed to walk outside of a city on the Sabbath.

Which leads to one simple conclusion: on the Sabbath, Levites could not leave their walled city. Everyone else was expelled for 2,000 cubits all around, so the city was designed specifically as a place for the Sabbath itself. I suggest, then, that these boundaries served to create the environment in which Levites separated from the rest of the people for one day a week to rest and reconnect. It was also an inducement for Levites to marry other Levites, since the day of rest was not an opportunity to mingle with those from other tribes. The Levites were the scholar-priest class, tasked with uplifting the other people throughout the land. But it seems they, too, needed regular time away.

In which case, the Torah is giving us all a suggestion for how to not stray too far from who we need to be: take a day a week to recenter, a day in which exterior interactions are limited, and in which we reconnect with our closest family.

[an @iwe and @susanquinn work]


Deep Dive: Ruin does not Extinguish Hope

I have often written on how the Torah shows that anything can be turned for good or bad – even the word for “holiness” is first used in the Torah to describe a prostitute. There is a flip side to every person, thing, act or word – and the difference is found in the choices we make.

Take, for example, the mountain on which the Torah was given. Sometimes it is called “Mount Sinai,” but it is also commonly called “Horeb.” (The root is ch-r-v.) This is the place at which Moses saw the burning bush and first talked with G-d:

Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.

Moses returned to Horeb with the people after the Exodus, and it is where he ascended the mountain and was given the Torah. Horeb is where the Jewish people received the Ten Commandments.

But the very same root word also means something quite different! Ch-r-v refers to the sword and destruction! Simeon and Levi use ch-r-v – their swords – to lay waste to Shechem in response to the rape of Dina. The Torah uses the very same phrase to describe how the Jewish people kill Bilaam, who had corrupted the Jewish people with the daughters of Moab. Death is dealt to those who leverage lust for selfish and evil ends.

G-d similarly promises to destroy the cities of the Jews if we ignore G-d – if we ignore our own potential to spiritually grow:

I will lay your cities in ch-r-v and make your sanctuaries desolate, and I will not savor your pleasing odors. (Lev. 26:31)

And you I will scatter among the nations, and I will unsheath the ch-r-v against you. Your land shall become a desolation and your cities a ch-r-v. (Lev. 26:33)

What is the possible connection between Mount Sinai and the ruination and destruction by the sword promised elsewhere?

One answer is found by examining the other uses of that root word – and the meaning will become clear. The word is used, for example, to describe the ground beneath the Sea of Reeds, the dry land that the people walked on in order to leave Egypt:

Then Moses held out his arm over the sea and G-d drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and turned the sea into ch-r-v. The waters were split,

ch-r-v similarly seems to refers to dry land after the Flood:

In the six hundred and first year, in the first month, on the first of the month, the waters began to ch-r-v from the earth; and when Noah removed the covering of the ark, he saw that the surface of the ground was ch-r-v.

What is the commonality? The word ch-r-v refers to potential. The earth, having been washed, is now ready for new life, for physical and spiritual growth. Similarly the Jewish people, walking out of Egypt are reborn in the midst of the waters, also ready for growth. In both cases, there was total ruin – but there was also life, the possibility of creating anew, hope for the future.

Which puts an entirely different understanding on the word “Horeb” for Mount Sinai. Perhaps the giving of the Torah was not the culmination of Jewish History, but the start of it, the place from which we were supposed to only grow from – not back toward?! This would explain why G-d orders the people to leave Horeb: “Our G-d spoke to us at Horeb, saying: You have stayed long enough at this mountain.” The place of revelation is only the launching point, the place where we receive our mission: the execution of that mission is how we are meant to flourish.

We are not supposed to remain stuck at ch-r-v. It is a passageway, a stepping stone to a higher plane. Isaac blesses Esau that “by your sword (ch-r-v) you shall live,” blessing him that Esau’s existence would always be one of primal constraint, permanently kept in an unfulfilled state. This is the same unfulfilled state as that of all the men who perished in the flood, described as “All in whose nostrils was the breath of life [mankind], all that was ch-r-v, died.” Horeb, Mount Sinai, is where we start, but not where we aspire to end – because those who are stuck at ch-r-v perish having never fulfilled their potential. They are the embodiment of wasted opportunity.

How do we grow past ch-r-v? We know that Noach did it because he heard G-d. So did Moses when he, at Horeb, saw the burning bush and talked with G-d. Both were spurred into action by the contact with the divine, just as the Jewish people were charged by G-d for all time when we received the Torah at Horeb (ch-r-v).

Indeed, the word ch-r-v is connected to fertility, to the potential that plants and animals offer. When Jacob complains to Lavan that he had labored to manage and grow Lavan’s flock, he says, “I was consumed by ch-r-v by day.” Jacob had been obsessed with his job, consumed by the need to make the sheep breed, to maximize their physical potential.

The Torah connects ch-r-v to an offering, a mincha:

Further, any mincha that is baked in an oven, and any that is prepared in a pan or on a griddle, shall belong to the priest who offers it. But every other mincha with oil mixed in and/or ch-r-v, shall go to the sons of Aaron all alike.

What is the difference? The cooked mincha is finished, elevated, and consumed by the priest who cooked it. But the uncooked mincha is comprised of fruit or grain – and is thus able to procreate and create more fruit or grain! This is indeed how the Torah describes the first minchas offered in the Torah: Cain and Abel both brought minchas, one from the flock, and the other from the fruit of the land. Both were theoretically able to reproduce.

The next mincha are the gifts Jacob sends to appease Esau:

[Jacob] selected from what was at hand these mincha for his brother Esau: 200 she-goats and 20 he-goats; 200 ewes and 20 rams; 30 milch camels with their colts; 40 cows and 10 bulls; 20 she-asses and 10 he-asses.

Note the pattern: Jacob gave a present that had maximum potential for procreation, for growth! It was a way to break the curse that Isaac had given, that Esau would live by his sword, his ­ch-r-v, remaining perpetually as a potential instead of someone able to grow. Jacob gave his brother the antidote – animals that were designed to maximize growth! Admittedly, the growth in this case was purely physical and not spiritual – but he was helping Esau to break his father’s blessing.

The Torah ties these all together: the ch-r-v speaks to potential for growth. And that potential, when in a mincha offering, is to be shared between all the priests equally, a renewal of their ability to grow ever-closer to both G-d and the Jewish people.

The very first time in the Torah that the word ch-r-v is found is when it describes the angel on the path to Eden:

East of the garden of Eden were stationed the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword (ch-r-v), to guard the way to the tree of life.

Think of the imagery after what we now know of this word! The angel is the guardian of the potential that is within the tree of life, blocking us from the potential, the might-have-been, had we stayed in Eden. That ch-r-v is now barred from us, and that chapter closed.

But human potential remains. The Torah is telling us that we need to remember that new things can come from the ashes of even divinely-inflicted ruination (note that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah never uses ch-r-v – those places are destroyed for eternity, becoming remembered as the Dead Sea). Hence all the references to Horeb, the place where we received the revelation of the Torah, the starting point for the Jews as a single nation charged with a shared mission for ourselves and for the world.

Ch-r-v is the starting gate, the moment and place of potential and possibility. It is the way in which we can – and must – grow both physically and spiritually in order to connect with G-d and achieve everything that we can become.


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



What is the Still, Small Voice?

“And lo, the LORD passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind—an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake—fire; but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire—a still, small voice. When Elijah heard it…” (1 Kings, 19:11-13)

We tend to read this as if G-d is surely found in the still, small voice. But this is not what the text says! Instead, it tells us that G-d is not found in nature, in the dynamism of the physical world, the things that our senses cannot deny.

And then, by telling us of the “still, small voice,” the text is telling us that G-d might be found there. Or – He may not. There is no way to be sure. That voice we hear when we are alone with our thoughts might be the sound of our own divinely-gifted souls, or it might be the voice of G-d. Or it just might be the results of some random synapses firing. We cannot know for sure.

So we can try to hear that voice. We can think of it as divine in origin. The choice of listening for G-d is one that each of us must make for ourselves.

Nevertheless, on the basis of the mere possibility that G-d is in that still, small voice, I, like Elijah, am listening.


Why The Story Matters

Jordan Peterson claims that we need stories because otherwise we cannot find any signal in the noise of existence. That signal lays out the pathway for how we think. Yet there is no provably “correct” signal in all the noise: if anything, the stories that people use to make sense of the world are diverging, not converging.

As a WSJ article over the weekend put it:

Why do audiences continue to flock to the 10th Star Wars movie or the 20th Marvel movie? What imaginative appetite or cultural need keeps us coming back for more? …

The answer may be that while narrative universes seem like a new development, having taken over the world in the 21st century, they actually represent a much older and more primal mode of storytelling. Like ancient myths and folk tales … today’s narrative universes also resemble myths in bringing us face to face with fundamental mysteries of human life. Was I born for a purpose, and if so, how do I discover what it is? Why does evil exist? What am I willing to give my life for? Traditionally, people looked to religious and patriotic stories to answer such questions. In 21st-century America, those kinds of narratives no longer have the power to unite us; they are more likely to ignite suspicion and division. Popular culture has stepped into the gap, offering new myths that are less fraught and easier to share.

Jesus and Moses have been replaced with… a woke Norse deity? If Star Wars and Marvel can take the place of religion in the popular mind, then it is clear that people will attach to just about any story, no matter how silly, that gives them an explanation for their lives. But think about the breadth of human stories that explain their worlds: Judaism and Christianity in all their forms, Islam, Buddhism… and now secularism, atheism and a healthy dose of soft paganism in Star Wars, the Marvel Cinematic Universe… and let’s not forget the earth worship that dominates the West today. All, including the “New Stories,” seem to work well enough at providing answers that people can cling to. But are they really interchangeable?

We are in an age where the “Ten Minutes of Fame” has been shortened to flashes in the pan, matching the attention span of a modern teenager. Perhaps this is where classic Burkean conservatism has a place; the belief that the institutions that have stood the test of time deserve the benefit of the doubt, and that any rapid and radical changes in society, like the Reign of Terror, must be opposed on the basis of the defense of inertia if nothing else. Maintaining some historical perspective is how we avoid mass hysteria events of one kind or another. I claim that New Stories are deeply injurious to our consciousness and our future.

Yet, as popular culture might answer, “who can prove that Christianity is ‘right’ and Disney’s Star Wars stories are ‘wrong’?” After all, anyone who pays attention to conversations and disagreements knows that there are always multiple ways to understand any given situation. It seems to be a feature to the world we live in. Two people – even those who share the same background – never see everything exactly the same way (see: marriage). It explains how the world can have hundreds of religions and cultures and languages without any of them sweeping all others away. Does it really matter that we have wildly divergent ways of looking at the world? Doesn’t the world, with all of its myriad of differences, function pretty well even if we don’t share common stories?

Well, yes. It functions well in certain respects. Our underlying explanations for the world may differ, but there is a whole other layer of human understanding that seems to function almost entirely independently from our stories. Medicine, engineering, physics… the tools that allow us to live comfortably in an otherwise-hostile natural word may have been almost entirely developed within a Judeo-Christian environment, but they seem to work well enough (and continue to develop) the world over, from secular Europe and China to Hindu India to every kind of worldview found in America.

This layer of understanding, though, is much more limited and even illusory than we think. Take, for example, the miracle of flight. I call it a “miracle,” but it is just physics, right? We can model an airplane, tweak those models, calibrate with physical testing and – voila! – an airplane. The models are very, very good. Surely they represent some form of “truth,” right?

Well, no. It turns out that there is no conceptually complete understanding of why wings work to provide lift to airplanes, thrust to propellors and rotors, etc.

How can this be?! After all, we can design superb wings and airplanes! They WORK! Yet it remains the case that no theory fully and thoroughly explains flight. We forget that engineering is a tool, not a full explanation for how or why things work.

And I got to thinking: maybe this is true about just about everything in the world. People find things that work, and that is enough. An expert woodworker does not need to know how a tree conducts its affairs with other plants, or how the plant’s molecular structure forms new fibrous material. To create something splendid, he only needs to know how the wood behaves under his hands. Exquisite woodworking predates the microscope or even the formal study of biology. He does not need to know!

Similarly, doctors don’t need to know how aspirin works. They just need to know that aspirin does certain things, and what dosages achieve what kinds of results in what sorts of people. Human interaction with the physical world is not predicated on understanding: it is built on usefulness.

The same is true across human experience: we can model systems, we can even model the behavior of crowds. But models are not a complete understanding. Indeed, models give us a false sense of both knowledge and wisdom: anything can be used for good or evil, and the experts who build these tools eventually lose the ability to tell the difference.

It is clear that excellent results can be obtained without comprehensive knowledge. Mankind has been raising flocks and growing crops for an awfully long time without ever being able to grow a sheep or blade of grass from elemental building blocks in a lab. We make do with what we have and know. And so we can accept any number of stories as the framework within which engineers engineer and doctors doctor. And totally normal people go about their daily lives. We share an acceptance for what is useful. Yet we differ on why it matters.

Let’s step back from the physical sciences. Ask yourself about something really important — Love. We know it when we feel it. We can build it. We can break it. We can encourage and grow love, or we can make it wither and die. We can even claim to measure it, either through endorphins in the brain, or acts of bravado or heroism, or even through the stamina of a marriage undergoing adversity. Every measurement is necessarily inadequate, because we do not understand Love. And we don’t need to! Does it matter whether love is a spiritual thing, or biochemicals in the brain? The mere fact that people argue about what love is, proves that there is nothing close to a unified and complete understanding. Indeed, would anybody believe any so-called “expert” who claimed to fully understand every facet of how love works?

Does it matter whether we can fully explain things? I think it does, because being aware of the limits of human knowledge opens the door to appreciating the central importance of stories.

Those who already accept their limitations know that they need to trust in something. Those people – not the majority by any means – will follow an authoritative source. The Torah, for example, commands us to be kind to each other, to productively direct our sexual energies, and not mix linen and wool. The Orthodox will seek to follow all the commandments, including the prohibition on linen and wool, whether they understand them or not. And they might justify their performance for the same reasons that support how a craftsman learns how to carve wood without deeper knowledge, or how an engineer can build a flying craft without really knowing how a wing works: we do what works, and we respect the limits of our knowledge. We accept the authorities upon which we rely. Perhaps most of the value is found in the act, in the doing – not in the understanding.

We may not understand how forbidden sexual practices corrupt the world (an assertion found in the Torah), but any survey of the world around us suggests that this certainly seems to have validity. It has become popular to see human life as nothing more than a biological accident, and we have seen a corresponding growth in simple hedonism: the purpose of life must be to pursue pleasure. We can see how relationships have been undermined by libertinism without fully understanding why people can’t just be understanding of their spouse’s desire for an “open” marriage. Those who think they can rationalize away the consequences of infidelity invariably crash against the primal rocks that do not give way just because we wish them to. Love – and its guardrails – is better understood through the Bible than through Biology.

But in this self-proclaimed Age of Reason, most people do not follow religious commandments. Instead, they pick and choose what commandments make sense to them. They choose to be kind, and maybe practice some token Sabbath observance – but because separating linen and wool is not self-explanatory, they give it a pass. The sexual commandments are similarly broadly discarded. People are told that they should “be true to themselves,” which really means, “follow your desires.” But because they do not really understand love – or respect the Torah as a guide – their lives become train wrecks.

New Stories have largely replaced the old. And this is dangerous because it turns out that the meta-stories are not merely window dressing within which all of human skill and knowledge can comfortably reside. It is, of course, foolish to suborn our understanding of the world to a popular celebrity or athlete or politician, just as it is to replace traditional religion with the soft-porn paganism of “The Force”. It is not an irrelevance whether we are Gaia-worshippers or Christians or Jews, atheists or scientists.

And that is because these stories are not mere curiosities or quirks. They tell us of our own potential: are we powerless civilians in a world controlled by people with superpowers, or are we docile subjects of Allah, or are we partners with G-d in completing the world? The story matters.

These really are the most important questions – the question of “what should I do?” is answered through seeing ourselves through the stories we have adopted to explain our existence and potential purpose in this world.

The other key ingredient to a proper religion is that it is always discovered in relationships, in arguments, in points and counterpoints. In some sense, religion is more like understanding how a wing works: we don’t fully understand it, but the more we argue, the closer we can get. And in the meantime, we can USE it to achieve success, even if we do not understand it. This is in fact a core belief in Judaism: the action (like keeping the Sabbath or not murdering), has value even if you don’t fully grasp why. But that is no reason not to keep trying to understand, and no reason not to teach others to follow the commandments even if neither party fully understands the value that is within them.

Human knowledge is never complete. The stories in which we wrap our lives, are very important, indeed. They guide us and protect us. They give us meaning, and they ground us when the popular world is losing its mind.

P.S. The Old Stories are not as easy to grasp. The Torah does not reduce to a meme. The arguments are complex and often nuanced. This is why there is an entire text, with fractalized complexity that is revealed, layer by layer, as one closely studies the text. But this is text, not multimedia; the Torah is not a delight to the senses like Disney creations are. In order to have a chance to win, we need to find ways to show people the vacuity of the New Stories, and the richness found in the Old.


How can we Explain Bilaam’s Behavior?

The story of the prophet Bilaam is a very odd one. Paid by the king Balak to curse the Jewish people, he ends up blessing the people instead.

But what on earth was he thinking? Why would he have thought that he would have been allowed to curse G-d’s own chosen people? Any rational person in that situation would merely have declined the assignment, since angering G-d does not seem like a very good career move.

I think the answer is that Bilaam does not know that “his” deity is the same god of the Jewish people! And here’s the evidence for it: Bilaam first treats G-d as his own personal deity. He refers to G-d as “my god.”(Num. 24:13) And he clearly seems to think that his deity would not mind cursing the upstart Jews – which is why he goes so far as to compare the Jewish people to the plague of locusts:

The [locusts] hid all the land from view (Exodus 10:15)

“Here is a people that came out of Egypt and hid all the land from view” (Bilaam to G-d, Numbers 22:11)

“Hiding the land” is only found in the Torah in these two verses, which makes this link very strong.

For Bilaam, it is more: the land is from where Bilaam gains his inspiration. He seeks “omens” – which are the same word as “snake” in the text – nachash. The snake crawls on the ground, so blocking the land is blocking natural omens from view. Yet Bilaam seeks omens, nachash when he prophecies the first two times.

The third time Bilaam prophecies, he has come to realize that G-d is not actually merely the deity of the natural world. This came from his prophecy, when G-d puts the words in his mouth that make him realize that the G-d of the Jewish people is also the god that Bilaam talks to!

This is the key text: “Their G-d [same word as Bilaam uses to refer to his god] is with them.” (Num. 23:21)

And it changes how he behaves:

Now Balaam, seeing that it pleased G-d to bless Israel, did not, as on previous occasions, go in search of omens [snakes], but turned his face toward the wilderness. (Num. 24:1)

The word for “wilderness” is taken from the root letters meaning “from the word.” The wilderness is not spectacular or beautiful; it is a place so devoid of features that we are not naturally attracted to it. It is a bit like praying from under a shawl, or Jacob and Bilaam talking to G-d at night: blocking out the visual makes it easier for us to focus on our listening, and find a way to connect with ourselves and with G-d. Separations from the natural world make it easier to commune and connect (which is also why G-d in the Torah almost never speaks to more than one or two people at a time – each person is unique, and each relationship is unique, so the religious experience even within a community is grounded in the connection each individual person has with G-d).

Bilaam’s understanding has grown from thinking G-d was merely the natural deity, to learning that G-d is found in words, in a place above nature. He discovers that his own private deity is not his very own – that G-d is also the G-d of the Jews. Bilaam also learns that to commune with G-d he needs to look past nature, not into it. And it means understanding that Jews are not about allowing people to commune with the natural world – Bilaam was right that we indeed “block” the view of the earth, because it is our task to help the world see that true prophecy and connection with G-d is found through words and relationships, not harmonization with nature.

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


Ten Making Amends

A quorum for Jewish communal prayer is ten men. We traditionally learn this from Avraham’s negotiation with G-d over the fate of Sodom, where G-d agrees that if a city has “ten righteous men,” then it can be spared divine wrath.  But I think there is also another way to understand why a quorum is ten men… here goes:

What makes a righteous man? In the words of the Torah itself, righteousness is always linked to be able and willing to listen to others (as well as to G-d). The ability to hear and internalize what others say is a necessary component to being righteous and growing. I wrote about this here, pointing out that the first two men who were called “righteous” in the Torah were great listeners – but they were not even Jewish!

There are only two examples of an actual collection of ten men in the Torah, and they were not famous for listening to G-d when they acted. The first were Joseph’s brothers, who disposed of Joseph (and lied to their father about it) without ever worrying about G-d’s judgement.

The second were the spies, representing ten tribes. They came back from Canaan discouraged, and their negativity meant that the entire generation of Jews had to die in the wilderness. All because they were unwilling to listen to G-d and His advocates who pleaded for them to see things in a positive light.

Neither the brothers nor the spies were able to hear others properly. The brothers blocked themselves from allowing Joseph’s cries, just as the spies refused to hear the words of Moses, Aaron, Joshua and Caleb. They closed their hearts and minds.

So we can see Jewish prayer, the collection of ten men that pray together, as a corrective for the two sets of ten men found in the Torah, the ten men from whom we learn what not to do. When we pray we are trying to the exact opposite of the brothers and the spies: we are trying to listen, and we are trying to grow.


The Value of Intermediaries

I am the CEO of a pretty flat organization; I like information to flow freely, so that we avoid the issues that happen when everyone lies to everyone above or below them in order to “manage expectations” and look good. I hate that corporations systemically encourage that kind of “finessing” in order for a person to succeed. Isn’t it better to directly link people, to reduce the chances of translation errors mucking everything up in the layers between the line worker and the CEO?

Well, yes. And, no. After all, most conversations are about gaining information and assessing. They are about bouncing ideas off of other people to see whether they make sense or not. And the “big picture” guy may not actually be the right person to speak to the employee who just wants a steady paycheck and no hassle. It helps to have someone in the middle.

That role is not for everyone, of course. The person in the middle has to be tolerant and thoughtful, providing a buffer between the incompatible layers of the organization. That person must be a superb listener, but also highly discrete. Deeply negative comments – in either direction – can poison a relationship, a corporate or community culture. So the person in the middle must, above all, never lose their cool. If they do, they lose the trust of everyone, and their usefulness comes to an end.

We realized that this is precisely how it works between G-d and the people in the wilderness. G-d almost never speaks directly to the people. Instead, He talks to Moses, and sometimes also to Aaron. Most of the time, G-d is giving instructions, ways for the people to interact with each other and with their creator.

But sometimes G-d actually loses his temper. He repeatedly threatens to destroy the Jewish people outright! And when He gets angry, it is Moshe’s job to absorb G-d’s anger, to defuse it, and above all, to not repeat it to the people below him. Moshe is the man in the middle. It is not an easy job, of course. But it is his job nonetheless: G-d vents at Moshe, and Moshe provides feedback to G-d and the people, at the same time as protecting the people from direct exposure to the divine voice.

And it worked. At least most of the time – up until Moses stops functioning as the go-between, and loses his temper.

Set the scene: Miriam dies, and there is no water. The people complain, and Moses and Aaron, at a loss, asks G-d what to do: G-d tells Moses to speak to the rock and produce water. Here’s what happens next:

Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?”

G-d immediately responds:

G-d said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”

What is the connection to G-d’s sanctity, His holiness? I think the answer is plain: Moses took the frustration that both he and G-d had had over several decades with the people, and he finally blew up. Moses communicates the anger downward. And losing your cool never contributes to the holiness, the sanctity, of a relationship.

The anger that we feel may need to be expressed; we may need to get it out, to talk it over, perhaps even to entertain the possibility of changing our mind. Sharing our frustration is a tool for management, a way to bounce our ideas and emotions off of someone before we commit it to action. But we have to be very careful about our choice of sounding board. There is an enormous value in not saying what one thinks!

Indeed, the specific word Moses uses, that is translated as “rebels,” is itself symbolically very significant in the Torah. The word is mara, which means bitterness, the kind of bitterness that comes from suspicion of disloyalty in a relationship. Esau’s choice of wives makes his mother mara because she doubts whether her son will remain connected to G-d. The Jewish people are tested with mara water after leaving Egypt, to judge whether they turned to worship Egyptian gods while they were in exile. The wife suspected of adultery drinks mara as a test of her fidelity. Mara is all about the corrosive doubts and mistrust that can destroy a relationship.

That Moses uses this specific word is thus freighted with meaning: the word is always used to acknowledge a wedge in a relationship, a gap that may never be closed. So calling the Jewish people mara is like a husband or a wife using the word “divorce.” Words like these, once spoken, can change the nature of a relationship forever more.

So perhaps it is the use of this word, above and beyond Moses losing his temper, that helps explain why Moses is told he cannot bring the people into the Promised Land. The Land is all about a permanent and tight relationship between G-d and His people. So anyone who casts doubt on the fidelity of the bond between G-d and man cannot be the same person whose job it is to introduce the Jewish people into the Land of Israel.

[This was an @iwe, @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter production]


What Makes a Complete Father?

Human history is full of absent fathers. One does not have to go to an extreme case like a Genghis Khan (thousands of children) to find “single mother” families: they fill our cities. In history, the pattern is also pretty consistent: a great many fathers take little or no interest in their children, so loyalty across generations is rare. Men create children. But they rarely fully invest in them as well.

In the Torah, we find similar patterns. Men tend to live for themselves, and before Avraham, “might generally made right.” Still, generations of men did not want to live together, for one reason or another. Avraham’s father, Terach left his father. Avraham in turn left his father, Terach. After the Binding, Isaac separated from Avraham. And after the debacle with the blessings, Jacob also left Isaac. The text does not record any of the sons choosingto live with their fathers after they came of age.

This all changed with Jacob and his sons. Jacob was the first father who not only clearly engaged with his children (from Simeon and Levi in Shechem to Joseph, to his decisions during the famine), but he invested in them. Jacob was referred to, uniquely in the Torah, as “One Man.” The expression ish echad, “one man,” is not common in the Torah. The first two times it is used as a stand-alone phrase, it is specifically referring to Jacob:

We are all of us sons of one man; we are being honest; your servants have never been spies!” (Gen. 42:11)

… And they replied, “We your servants were twelve brothers, sons of one man in the land of Canaan; the youngest, however, is now with our father, and one is no more.” (Gen. 42:13)

It is a peculiar phrase, and it is repeated only a few places in the Torah – yet each time it seems to refer directly back to the archetypal “one man”, Jacob! Each of the tribes corresponds to one of the sons of Jacob, the first “one man.” And the text seems to suggest that each tribe is meant to have been cast from that same mold – “one man from the bed of his father.”

Those are the enrollments recorded by Moses and Aaron and by the chieftains of Israel, who were twelve in number, one man from the house of his father. (Lev. 25:41)

Those are the enrollments recorded by Moses and Aaron and by the chieftains of Israel, who were twelve in number, they were one man from the house of his father. (Num. 1:44)

Send for you men to tour the land of Canaan that I am giving to the sons of Israel, one man, one man for the bed/staff of his father, you shall send for all a chieftain among them. (Num. 13:2)

I approved of the plan, and so I selected from among you twelve participants, one man from each tribe. (Deut. 1:23)

The word for “bed” or “staff” is only used to mean “bed” a few times in the text – but the only individual whose bed is ever mentioned is Jacob himself! Every other “bed” in the Torah is not this same Hebrew word, mateh! Somehow Jacob’s bed is special. The text tells us why:

When I lie down with my fathers, take me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial-place.” He [Joseph] replied, “I will do as you have spoken.” And [Jacob/Israel] said, “Swear to me.” And [Joseph] swore to him. Then Israel bowed at the head of the bed. (Gen. 47:30)

When Jacob was told, “Your son Joseph has come to see you,” Israel summoned his strength and sat up in bed. (Gen. 48:2)

And, most relevantly for the rest of the Torah, because this is where Jacob gives an “end of life” blessing to each of his sons in turn – and from his bed!

When Jacob finished his instructions to his sons, he drew his feet into the bed and, breathing his last, he was gathered to his people. (Gen. 49:33)

Jacob’s bed was intrinsically linked both with his authority, his conversations with his sons, and his investments into them and their future! He did not merely biologically create children (the text does not suggest that he used the beds of his wives, so they may all have been conceived in his bed). He also spiritually invested in them, giving them both body and purpose, physical existence and spiritual meaning.

The same word for bed, mateh, also is found in the text to mean a staff, as in an authority symbol. Yehuda gives Tamar his mateh, and the mateh of Aaron and Moses and indeed of each of the heads of the tribes are also mentioned in the text: the word even generically refers to the tribes, those invested with blessing from Jacob.

Mateh confers authority, referring back to the original sources of authority: Judah’s staff and Jacob’s bed. And I think the Torah’s use of this word as a pun is teaching us a crucial lesson: a father’s authority comes in part from his investment in his children. And those who are the representatives of Jacob’s authority are each called a mateh, in a complete sense coming from Jacob’s bed. That is how Jacob is described as the “one man,” and his sons, in turn are meant to be reflections of their forefather. They were, after all, the children of Israel.

Of all the forefathers, Jacob was the first to bind the generations together. That is what a father is meant to do, to create something that endures, both physically and spiritually. The tribes – and all of the Jewish people – are a testament to that first One Man.

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


World War II in Context

I have spent the last few days in Normandy with my wife and several kids. We rented an Airbnb right off Gold Beach, and we have also spent a fair amount of time at Omaha, Pointe du Hoc, Maisy Battery, the American Cemetery, and a wide range of fascinating and accessible museums featuring vast stores of recordings, equipment, paraphernalia, aircraft and artillery. We even flew in a C-47 simulator. I was amazed at how effective the curators were at helping to bring us back in time, to connect with that Longest Day.

And I got to thinking. There was something different about World War II, something that kept niggling at me as I marveled at all the stories of those who risked everything. But why?

After all, war is hardly new; conflict is as old as recorded time, and organized conflict between tribes or families dates back to their first incarnations. And yet, I would argue that conflict was really always about the family or tribe or nation that went to war: seeking to maximize resources and power. Wars were essentially sibling rivalry writ large; the winners got to lord it over the losers. It has, with few exceptions, always been thus. Winning contains its own justification.

World War II was different. Certainly there were elements of national tribalism, of people demonizing the Other, of national pride that was quite similar in product to Roman or Athenian or Persian nationalism. Indeed, I remember textbooks from my youth that referred to the 1930s as “The Rise of Nationalism,” which is actually missing the point that while the scale had changed, the principle of a people fighting for power was as old as the first time one village clashed with another.

There was something else in World War II, too. Something that was even emphasized at the time. As Eisenhower put it:

These men came here to storm these beaches for one purpose only, not to gain anything for ourselves, not to fulfill any ambition that America had for conquest, but just to preserve freedom, systems of self-government in the world.

He was right, of course. In the history of the world, America has been unique in not building an empire, not running Japan or Germany or countless other countries as provinces or puppets. But this is not the full story. While Eisenhower was close to putting his finger on it, I think the perspective of history might boil this conflict down not to nationalism, but instead to a fundamental clash of ideologies. Americans knew they were fighting for “Liberty” and “Freedom,” but it is hard to define either. Especially when one considers the irony that in order to fight for “freedom,” the US Government engaged in quite a lot of unfreedom (like the draft) in order to win. Hitler saw it coming:

“The great strength of the totalitarian state is that it forces those who fear it to imitate it.”
Adolf Hitler, September 1933

What was America and the allies fighting against? “Fascism” is a common answer, but it is neither accurate, complete, or even very helpful. After all, there is nothing in the textbook definition of “fascism” that requires conquering other nations, or killing all your Jews. (Indeed, insisting that fascism is “far right” is a bald-faced lie promoted by liberals who seek to promote their very similar form of governance under a different label)

What was the point of Hitler’s ideology? What was Hitler really fighting for? He tells us himself.

“The whole world has been built up in accordance with the principle that might makes right.”
Adolf Hitler, January 1942

The truth is that force creates right.”
Nazi broadcast to occupied Belgium, October 1941

Hitler was not just another dictator trying to maximize his power. Hitler was marketing something quite specific: a race war that would achieve the logical conclusion of the eugenics mindset that was accepted across all of Western Civilization: power is everything. The weak need to be destroyed. Anyone who defends the weak must, by extension, be eliminated. The ideologies that protect the weak, that claim that inferior specimens contain a divine spark worthy of respect and honor, those ideologies are directly counter to “might makes right,” and they must be destroyed.

Hitler understood this even better than most Jews do. He understood that the mere idea of mercy to those who are weaker, of empathy to the downtrodden and oppressed, was a fundamental threat to his own ideology. Indeed, as he put it: “If only one country, for whatever reason, tolerates a Jewish family in it, that family will become the germ center for fresh sedition.”

With this perspective, I think I am more comfortable understanding the undercurrent of what World War II may have been about. It was Hitler’s “Might Makes Right,” against the ideology that believes that every individual forms an atomic unit that has self-determination. Power versus Liberty. Top-Down versus Bottom Up. The State versus the Individual.

 There will be no licence, no free space in which the individual belongs to himself. The decisive factor is that the State, through the Party, is supreme.” Adolf Hitler, 1933

To me, this is what makes the ultimate sacrifice of all those who fought against the Axis powers so deeply precious. They were not merely doing as man has done since the dawn of time: fighting for their own. They were fighting for others. More than this: they were fighting for an ideological foundation that believed in the rights of each person, the primacy of the individual over the state.

I was reflecting, as one quite reasonably would when confronted by the emotional tidal wave of D-Day, how this makes me think about my own life, my own choices. And it made me better understand why I spend so much effort on Torah study; I understand that Hitler had a point: the power of the Jew is not found in our physical strength or power. It is instead found in the realm of ideas, of the stories that help us understand and make sense of the world around us, and what place we can make within it for ourselves and our loved ones.

To me, the relationships that we build in this world with each other and with G-d are critically important. The Torah is the guidebook to how to achieve and nurture those relationships. It tells us why we are here, what we are meant to achieve, and why G-d cares. And the Torah keeps hammering away at why we are never meant to define what is “right” using power.

So I have found Normandy to be a sobering reminder of the importance of my work for my own life. And the criticality of properly understanding and identifying what is really right and wrong, so that as and when the forces of evil, those who seek to crush liberty and freedom, rise up (as they do in every generation), we are not fooled. We must remain vigilant: evil must be dealt with sooner or later. Sooner is much better: D-Day tells us of the cost when we instead take a ”wait and see” posture, and allow those who advocate “Might Makes Right” to become mighty.

P.S. This Hitler quote made me think of the Covidsanity.

“Brutality is respected. Brutality and physical strength. The plain man in the street respects nothing but brutal strength and ruthlessness. Women too, for that matter, women and children. The people need wholesome fear. They want to fear something. They want someone to frighten them and make them shudderingly submissive.”
Adolf Hitler, 1933

I found it ironic that all the employees at the American Cemetery wore masks indoors, no doubt because of government edict.


What’s With the Trumpets?

The Torah briefly describes a pair of silver trumpets, and I thought I would explore what they mean through the text itself.

Have two silver trumpets made; make them of hammered work. They shall serve you to summon the community and to set the divisions in motion. …

… The trumpets shall be blown by Aaron’s sons, the priests; they shall be for you an institution for all time throughout the ages. When you are at war in your land against an aggressor who attacks you, you shall sound short blasts on the trumpets, that you may be remembered before your G-d and be delivered from your enemies. (Num. 10:9-10)

The text goes on to describe the various blasts and their purposes. But given that the trumpets are only mentioned here, and serve a functional purpose, is there any larger meaning within the Torah that speaks to us today? I think there is, and it is alluded to in the text.


For starters, unlike a shofar, the trumpets are made of silver. Silver is first mentioned in the Torah with Abimelech, who almost sinned with Sarah:

And to Sarah [Abimelech] said, “I herewith give your brother a thousand pieces of silver; this will serve you a covering of the eyes before all who are with you, and you are cleared before everyone.” Abraham then prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech and his wife and his slave girls, so that they bore children.

Abimelech’s silver is a way to clear possible wrongdoing, and it is also the doorway to a miraculous delivery. Applied to the trumpets, the silver represents the same thing: a clean slate, and the request for blessings from G-d.

Similarly, the trumpets were made of hammered work. The only other things in the Torah made with hammers are all used in the tabernacle, all used for a close divine relationship: the cherubim, the menorah, the gold threads in the curtains, and plates for the altar. Which tells us that the trumpets are also supposed to make us think of a close relationship with G-d.

The most interesting aspect, however, is what the trumpets do. They make a sound, for all to hear.

The Torah has a word for “sound”, kol. But kol is not really about sounds per sé, or even about voices. Instead, it refers to presence. And the proof is found where kol is first mentioned.

Adam and Eve eat the fruit, and they cover themselves.

They heard the kol of G-d moving about in the garden in the breeze of the day; and the Human and his wife hid from G-d among the trees of the garden.

Kol here is not a voice, or a commandment. It is clearly distinct from a natural sound – because if they had heard a natural sound, a sound that would have been expected in a garden, then they would not have known that the sound was that of G-d’s presence.

Kol is found in the plague of thunder (kol) and hail in Egypt, as well as in the thunder (kol) heard at Sinai. That is the same word as in Eden; the sound fills us, and tells us of the divine presence. It is also used to describe the sound of the pomegranate bells on the garment the high priest wore when he went in and out of the tabernacle, announcing his presence.

And I think this brings the entire idea together for us: the trumpets remind us of the possibility of miracles (Abimelech), of a close divine relationship (the tabernacle), and the presence of G-d as per Eden. And we know that this mattered because all through the wilderness the Jews were accompanied by pillars of cloud and of fire so that we would always know that G-d was with us.

But when we left the wilderness, G-d’s presence was no longer so obvious to us. The trumpets were there as a replacement, as a symbol of His presence even when the supernatural miracles were no longer obvious for all to see. They were to be a comfort to the people that G-d is with us, even when we cannot see him. As has often been pointed out, Judaism is not visual: the G-d of the Jews has always been the G-d that we hear.

Which now makes this verse essentially self-explanatory:

And on your joyous occasions, and your fixed festivals and your new moon days—you shall sound the trumpets over your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being. They shall be a reminder for you before your G-d: I, the LORD, am your G-d.

[an @iwe, @eliyahumasinter, @blessedblackmith and @susanquinn work!]

End Note:

Because I did the research, counting up every incidence of kol in the text, I thought I would share them. Note that with only the exception of the leaf (which is part of a curse), not a single use of kol refers to a sound found in nature. You may make of it as you will!

Eve Abel’s blood Lamech Sarai 2x Hagar Ishmael
G-d’s command/voice 33x Isaac 2 Rivka Jacob 2 Esau Rachel
Potiphar’s wife 3 Joseph 2 Moshe 4 Thunder/G-d’s thunder: 8 Yitro 2 Shofar
Messenger (Joshua? Moshe?) 2 Jewish People 13 Pomegranate bells Proclamation (stop giving) Public commandment Leaf’s sound
Wayward’s son’s parents 2 Levites Judah

Is the Number Five Arbitrary? Why is it Joseph’s Lucky Number?

In the Torah there is a repeated theme for whenever property changes hands from its rightful owner: the number “five.” Here are the verses:

… that person shall make restitution for the remission regarding the sacred things, adding a fifth part to it and giving it to the priest. (Lev. 5:16)

… that person shall repay the principal amount and add a fifth part to it. (Lev. 5:24)

… if any such party eats of a sacred donation unwittingly, the priest shall be paid for the sacred donation, adding one-fifth of its value. (Lev. 22:14)

… if one wishes to redeem [an animal], one-fifth must be added to its assessment. (Lev. 27:13)

… if the one who has consecrated the house wishes to redeem it, one-fifth must be added to the sum at which it was assessed, and then it shall be returned. (Lev. 27:15)

… if the one who consecrated the land wishes to redeem it, one-fifth must be added to the sum at which it was assessed, and it shall be passed back. (Lev. 27:19

… if [a firstling] is of impure animals, it may be ransomed at its assessment, with one-fifth added; (Lev. 27:27

… If any party wishes to redeem any tithes, one-fifth must be added to them. (Lev. 27:31)… When men or women individually commit any wrong toward a fellow human being, thus breaking faith with G-d, and they realize their guilt, they shall confess the wrong that they have done. They shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to the one who was wronged. (Num. 5:6)

Why this number?

I can offer a partial answer: the person in the Torah who uses the number “five” as a verb is also responsible for the biggest single transfer of property in the ancient world: Joseph. Joseph acquires grain from the Egyptian people, and then sells it back to them in exchange for all their worldly possessions and even themselves. And all along the way, he uses the number “five.” “Five” appears to be the number for transference of ownership. But more than that: it is also, apparently, Joseph’s “lucky” number. Look at how often he uses it!

When Joseph first advises Pharaoh, he says:

And let Pharaoh take steps to appoint overseers over the land, and five the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty. (Gen. 41:34)

The text does not tell us how Joseph obtained the grain during the rich years – it may have been purchased, taxed, or merely obtained for free because it was so plentiful that it had no value. Nevertheless, the word used for stockpiling the grain is “five” – as a verb.

But Joseph goes much further than this. When his brothers join him for a meal:

Portions were served them from his table; but Benjamin’s portion was five times that of anyone else. And they drank their fill with him. (Gen. 43:34)

After Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, he sends them back to get Jacob their father:

Joseph gave them wagons as Pharaoh had commanded, and he supplied them with provisions for the journey. To each of them, moreover, he gave a change of clothing; but to Benjamin he gave three hundred pieces of silver and five changes of clothing. (Gen. 45:21)

When the brothers return, Joseph continues!

Then Joseph came and reported to Pharaoh, saying, “My father and my brothers, with their flocks and herds and all that is theirs, have come from the land of Canaan and are now in the region of Goshen.” And carefully selecting five of his brothers, he presented them to Pharaoh. (Gen. 47:1)

Then, after the people come begging for a harvest, Joseph first acquires all they own, acquires the people themselves, and then he institutionalizes a permanent tax on the Egyptian people:

Then Joseph said to the people, “Whereas I have this day acquired you and your land for Pharaoh, here is seed for you to sow the land. And when harvest comes, you shall give one-fifth to Pharaoh, and four-fifths shall be yours as seed for the fields and as food for you and those in your households, and as nourishment for your children.” (Gen. 47: 23-24)

… And Joseph made it into a land law in Egypt, which is still valid, that a fifth should be Pharaoh’s; only the land of the priests did not become Pharaoh’s. (Gen. 47:26)

This is all really quite odd. What relationship does Joseph have with this number? And why does he only use it when he is taken out of prison and given the opportunity to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams?

The text gives us some clues, and perhaps we can argue they add up to an explanation.

1: We know that Joseph’s mother Rachel was in a rivalry with her sister Leah, and Joseph sided with the other brothers who were from mothers other than Leah. Joseph was fifth in that birth order, the fifth non-Leah son of Jacob.

2: Jacob’s fifth son is named by Rachel, Joseph’s mother. She names him Dan “because G-d has judged me and heard my voice.”  Perhaps this is precisely how Joseph felt when he was drawn from prison, given fresh clothes, and put in front of Pharoah!

3: Leah’s fifth son is named Issachar: “G-d has given me my reward.” (Gen. 30:18). Joseph’s promotion may well have been seen by him as a divine reward.

4: Joseph only lived in five fixed locations: Laban’s house, Shechem, Potiphar’s House, Prison, and finally – the fifth place – the house of Pharaoh. It seems that the fifth place Joseph lived was his arrival, his reward or clearest signs of success. This dovetails nicely with the other clues, as above.

Perhaps this helps explain Joseph’s connection of the number five to good things. He essentially seems to have chosen the number as his own, and he uses it as his default whenever some percentage is required, whether in taxation, in favoring (or trying to acquire?) his brother Benjamin, in trying to garner Pharaoh with bringing a subset of his brothers.

One might also suggest that the number five is associated with the lack of long-term planning. Redeeming a promised offering means one has changed one’s mind – and you have to pay a penalty. The Egyptian people did not plan ahead, which is how Joseph used a feast-famine cycle to nationalize the entire country and institute permanent taxation. The number even applies to a fruit tree: if you plan ahead, then you can eat the fruit in the fifth year.

So if we go back to those first examples, we see that “five” is used whenever a person changes their mind and wishes to change ownership of property. So perhaps the number “five” is a penalty in the Torah for a lack of accurate planning, for choosing to “live in the moment” instead of thinking about the long term.

Consider, for example, the typical Egyptian farmer. He watches over 7 years as Pharaoh’s Emissary, Joseph, builds a storage facility in the middle of each town and fills it with excess grain. Does he not even wonder why it is all being stored? Does he even think to perhaps stockpile some grain himself “just in case”? Apparently he does not. And as a consequence, he loses everything and is subjected to a 20% tax forever more. The person who lives in the moment, will pay for it.

The lesson seems to be that if we plan properly, we are exempt from this tax. Those who do not plan properly, whether Egyptians or Jews, are sure to pay the fifth tax.

There is another connection: Levites serve from the age of twenty-five until the age of fifty (the Hebrew for “five” is in both verses):

This is the rule for the Levites. From twenty-five years of age up they shall participate in the work force in the service of the Tent of Meeting; but at the age of fifty they shall retire from the work force and shall serve no more.

I think there is a common connection here as well. Levites help people bring sacrifices (change ownership), which means their tasks are connected to that number. Probably even more relevantly, the entire purpose of the tabernacle is to help people see the long view, to plan ahead, to think of themselves and the meanings of their lives write large. In other words, the connection with G-d is the connection with the timeless. The number “five” is used for the serving ages of the Levites for this purpose: a reminder at all times of the importance of trying to live our lives within a larger historical purpose, of seeing ourselves as relevant to the progression of history.

[an @iwe, @eliyahumasinter and @blessedblacksmith work, with an added clue from Mr. Jessum]


Are Jews in Rebellion Against G-d?

Some weeks ago, a commenter on Ricochet said that Jews today are clearly in rebellion, since we do not offer sacrifices as called for in the Torah. Either we follow the Torah or we do not, right?

And I can see it from his perspective. The Torah gives clear commandments to bring offerings, and Jews today, despite having possession of Jerusalem*, have not done so.

Let’s assume the Jews could bring offerings. Is the fact that it is not happening indeed Jewish rebellion against G-d’s commandments?

It is not. And the reason is simple: the text says:

Take the Levites from among the Israelites and purify them. This is what you shall do to them to purify them: sprinkle on them water of purification, and let them go over their whole body with a razor, and wash their clothes; thus they shall be purified. Thereafter the Levites shall be qualified for the service of the Tent of Meeting, once you have purified them and designated them as an elevation offering. (Num. 8)

So the waters of purification are a prerequisite for bringing offerings. And how do we get these waters? Well, we need to do the ceremony that requires a red heifer (see Num. 19).  There is a problem with this, because we don’t seem to have any red heifers today. These are rare: in Jewish history there have only been nine. And while there are efforts to breed a red heifer, none has yet made it to the required age while still meeting the requirements. Presumably, once one has been achieved, then there will be no Torah reason why we are not able to purify the Levites and start formal services in Jerusalem once again, after a 2,000 year hiatus.

The story is not quite this simple, because there is, according to many opinions, something we could – perhaps should be offering now – and it does not require the red heifer. This is the Passover Offering, the korban pesach. Here is a (poorly recorded, but understandable) recording of a lecture by a very knowledgeable rabbi on this very topic (he includes discussion of the other perceived obstructions as well).

Part 1 and Part 2.

(I should warn listeners: it is not easy to follow unless one is au fait with the relevant vocabulary.)

The upshot: it is plausible that we should be offering the korban pesach today. And perhaps if we make that effort, then we will deserve the red heifer that will enable the next step: resuming full service in the tabernacle in Jerusalem.

Which means that the commenter may be correct, but only in a much more limited sense: if there is no obstruction to bringing the korban pesach, then, if we truly seek to follow the commandments of the Torah, then we should be doing so.

*I should note that in at least the technical sense, Jews do not control the Temple Mount itself, the only place where we are even theoretically allowed to bring offerings. In 1967, Israel captured Jerusalem, but promptly handed the Temple Mount back to Muslims. Nevertheless, Israel could certainly take it back in full at any time, though such a move would probably stir up more than a little outrage from Muslims, Arabs, and liberals (not necessarily in that order). You may recall that moving the US-acknowledged capitol to Jerusalem was supposed to start a war, too.


The Case for Christianity

My formal education was as an historian, and so I tend to try to see things through historical perspective. I realized the other week that I need to overrule my instinctive desire to defend my own people, because the data points, quite strongly, in a different direction.  

By the time of the reign of Herod in Jerusalem, Judaism had essentially failed in the mission dictated by the Torah: to provide a light unto the nations, and to convince other peoples to aspire to goodness and holiness. Indeed, it could be quite reasonably argued that the Judaism of the age had been far more corrupted by Hellenism and Rome than Rome and Hellenism had adopted compassion and human rights from the Jews. Indeed, these were some of the criticisms of the Pharisees leveled in the New Testament, and I think that there is some substance to those criticisms.

A Judaism that was increasingly unmoored from the core lessons of the Torah, had lost its way. It could not market itself to outsiders effectively not least because it has also struggled, in the main, to sell itself even to an internal audience (there is a reason the number of Jews in history, despite an enthusiastic pro-child outlook among the observant, has been essentially flat – 8 million in the first century CE was only exceeded in the 20th century; apparently today’s Ashkenazic Jewish lineage sources to a mere 350 individuals from 1350CE). Jews are not great at marketing Judaism even to our own children.

History makes it very clear that Christianity, however unlinked it might be from much of the Torah, has been a far more effective marketing force to the world. The Christian message, from the perspective of this Torah Jew, has been incredibly powerful and effective. Unlike Judaism, Christian missionaries managed to spread the influence of core ideas to the four corners of the world. Ideas like the belief that within each person – friend or foe – lies a soul that is due respect if for no other reason than it was gifted by G-d. Ideas that stem from this; love, compassion, the notion that the “Other” is not subhuman. Key among these, especially for indigenous natives the world over, is that worshipping natural forces is wrong, and eating people is most impolite.

By spreading these ideas, Christianity has done a great service to the world and to G-d, bringing humanity away from the base paganism that attracts men in a state of nature.

This is not to suggest that Christianity has not engaged in evil as well. I have plenty of ancestors who suffered at the hands of Christians, and there are countless Jews who no longer exist thanks to being burned alive in auto-da-fés or in synagogues enthusiastically lit afire by crusaders.  Expulsions from European countries were brutal and evil. If my mother were still alive, I can picture precisely how she would react to this piece; her mother barely survived a pogrom that others she loved did not.

Nor is this to suggest that Christianity has itself not been corrupted by other peoples: it has. Deep and loving interaction with native peoples has led to compromises that have diluted or confused Christian principles. Like Jewish adaptations of Greek and Roman ways of thinking, Christianity is also a product of the ages and cultures it has lived through and within. Some of that is, of course, good. I would not care to live in a Jewish ghetto during much of European history, locked in and constrained by Christian overlords. So at least some of those more-modern corrupting influences have been very good, indeed. I am grateful that Christianity, led by the example set by the Founding Fathers, is tolerant of other faiths, and allows me to live as an observant Jew in this nation that I love and in whose principles I see G-d’s fervent hopes.

Alas, there are dark storms overhead. Just as Hellenism corrupted both faiths in the ancient world, today we face a more existential enemy, the oldest of them all. Paganism is back, disguised in the garb of environmentalism, and preaching unbridled self expression in service of our natural desires. Supported by anti-religious scientists, this paganism is in full attack mode on every principle and moral good that we hold dear. Today, both Judaism and Christianity are losing to an enemy that many of us refuse to even acknowledge is at war with us. In our desire to be considerate and tolerant, we keep finding compromises with the pagan ideals, compromises that, over time, make our faiths entirely disconnected from our founding principles. (I have been in synagogues where Shabbos can be casually ignored, while throwing a soda can in the garbage triggers a nuclear response.) This neo-paganism will, if it gets its way, suck all meaning and goodness from the faiths that derive from the Torah.

The Torah is a profoundly anti-pagan text. Countlessly it drives the message that we are supposed to improve the natural world, teach people that our natural urges must be focused toward good and away from narcissistic and hedonistic practices that, in every indigenous people we have records of, invariably lead to human sacrifice and cannibalism. This is no slippery slope fallacy: we have no shortage of data that tells us exactly what happens to peoples who do not acknowledge the value of every human life. In China, in the year 2022, they remove vital organs from still-living prisoners and think nothing of it.

As much as I work towards Judaism focusing more on the Torah and what it means for the world, I must also acknowledge that Christianity has a two-millennia track record demonstrating greater success in the war against darkness. That is, if Christianity is still able to distinguish the enemy and has within its numbers courageous leaders and practitioners who are willing to battle for what is good.


The Role of Nazirim

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

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

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

Adam and Eve in Eden Nazir
Grapes, vines, or wine No mention Not allowed
Haircuts Before Adam and Eve ate from the fruit, people were not self-conscious, which means that they would not have cut their hair Not allowed
The Dead Before Cain killed Abel, death had not yet taken place.[1] No contact allowed

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

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

The answer is that an essential part of being Jewish is to use our energies for the purposes of creation, for completing G-d’s work. Becoming a Nazir is not a destructive act – but by diverting their creative energies away from a constructive act, Nazirim are also not fulfilling their core purpose of being creative.[2]

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

  1. While the creation of life came twinned with the inevitability of death, the world did not experience the death of a man (or hatred between men) until Cain killed Abel.
  2. This is indeed, as Joseph Cox tells me, the problem with going back in time to the time before people had knowledge of Good and Evil (the result of eating the forbidden fruit). Adam and Eve lived in a static world, without human acts of creation. And this is the essence of Goodness – imitating G-d by doings acts of creation: intellectual, physical, and biological. Someone who chooses to put themselves in the static Garden of Eden has also committed a sin by denying their powers of creativity.

A Different Understanding of Sin

I started to title this piece “What is Sin?” and then something tickled in the back of my mind. Hadn’t I written on this topic before? Indeed, I had! I reread that piece. It is not bad, but it is also not – as I see it now – quite right. And the results can lead to significant misunderstandings of what the Torah means by sin.

The problem is that we have colored our understanding of this word with many concepts and implications that are not in the text of the Torah itself.

The word for sin, chet, is first found not in the Garden, but instead with Cain. G-d says to him:

Surely, if you do right,
There is nassa.
But if you do not do right
Sin (chet) couches at the door;
Its urge is toward you,
Yet you can be its master.

The text creates an opposite pair: “sin” is not contrasted with “good.” Instead, it is contrasted with the word nassa, which is much more perplexing to understand.

Nassa, unlike “sin,” is first found in the Garden. When Eve declaims responsibility, she says “the snake nassa me, and I ate.” This work may be translated as “duped,” or “fooled” or “deceived,” but its use elsewhere suggests a connection with carrying or lifting. And the way it is used other places in the Torah suggests a different meaning: “The snake took responsibility for me, and I ate.” Eve is trying to shuck the responsibility for her action onto the snake. G-d is not buying, and everyone in the story who tries to blame someone else for their own choices is punished for doing so. This is the first in an endless series of stories in the world of someone claiming victim status in order to absolve them of their responsibilities.

The key is that G-d wants mankind to take responsibility for our own actions. G-d is telling Cain (and us) that sinning is the opposite of nassa; it is refusing to be responsible for what we have done.

Before he sins, G-d tells him that doing good becomes a credit, a nassa, a responsibility. But then after he sins, the word appears again: “Cain said to G-d, “My punishment (nassa) is too great to bear!” Cain thinks he cannot bear the consequences of his actions. The entire story is framed around this word, this key question.

This may seem to be a bit abstract, but these two words pop up time and again in the text, and they make much more sense if we seem them in this light. For example, when G-d commands that a census be taken, the actual Hebrew is “nassa the heads of the people.” It can be understood as a census, or, as Rabbi Sacks does, a “lifting up.” And, given that this verse starts the book right after Leviticus (containing the lion’s share of commandments), it can also be understood as empowering the people with responsibility.

The commandments are indeed a challenging responsibility. A great many more Jews in history have decided to walk away from G-d rather than have tried to follow His Torah. I have heard from a great many people that the commandments in the Torah are simply “too hard.”

The text seems to address this all the way through. In the beginning, Eve declaimed responsibility for her actions and then Cain said the nassa was too much to bear. The text’s use of both words all the way through the Torah seems to consistently reflect this understanding centered around taking responsibility.

It is a subtle but important step away from the more conventional understanding of sin as an immoral action.

P.S. The biblical census is rarely repeated. There is a concept in Judaism that people should never be considered commodities, merely one person among many (one of the reasons the numerical Auschwitz tattoos are so meaningful to us). But it bears remembering that when the people left Egypt, they were compared to insects swarming over the land. Being a number in a census would have been a step up at that point. People were part of the whole, and had not yet begun to assert the individual independence that is now assumed. I think that G-d knew this, and “lifted the heads” in order so that each person might realize that they might be more than merely reactive organisms. Today, a census would be a reduction in our status – but in the wilderness, it was an elevation.

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


Levites: Housekeepers And Guidance Counsellors

There is an opinion that the Torah was created at the same time as the world, all part of a divine plan. In this approach – free will notwithstanding – the stories in the text are essentially inevitable and predestined in some manner. I tried to see things this way.

But when I read the text carefully, to see what the text itself says about its origins and purpose, it leads to an entirely different way of reading the text, but one that I believe is faithful to the words we have been given. In the Torah, history has an arc – an origin and a goal. The themes that are matured and developed over time include the relationships between men and women, brothers, fathers and sons. The theme includes – especially – the relationships that grow between man and G-d. I have written hundreds of pieces on these topics (380 in total on the Torah as of last count), but what continues to astonish me is how many entirely new discoveries keep popping up. There seems to be fractal-like depth in the words and letters chosen, and their connections to each other, each lending new dimensionality to the Torah and what it means for our lives today.

Along the way I have seen another clear pattern: G-d’s commandments seem to never be plucked out of thin air: they are explained in the text themselves, often from earlier examples. Sacrifices are sourced from those brought by characters in Genesis. It is Jacob who builds booths for his flock and a house for himself (presaging events in the wilderness). A very great deal is learned from the events of Cain and Abel, the Tower of Babel, the Flood, the Rape of Dina… all the events in Genesis are echoed later in the text, often as commandments to “do” or “don’t do.” The symbolism of the commandments all seem to draw from – or are at least connected to – events and themes from Genesis.

This week we looked at what at first appeared to be a very straightforward verse:

You shall put the Levites in charge (pakad) of the Tabernacle of the Pact, all its furnishings, and everything that pertains to it: they shall carry the Tabernacle and all its furnishings, and they shall tend (sharress) it; and they shall camp around the Tabernacle.

It all seemed very… functional. Boring, even.

Except that we noticed the presence of two words, “in charge” (pakad) and “tend” (sharress). And we saw something that was very cool: these two words only appear in two other verses in the entirety of the Torah. The first is with Potiphar, Joseph’s master:

And when his master saw that G-d was with him and that G-d lent success to everything he undertook, Joseph found favor in his eyes. He made him his personal attendant (sharress) and put him in charge (pakad) of his household, placing in his hands all that he owned.

Interesting! Potiphar made Joseph the head of his household, in charge of everything… just like G-d did with the Levites in Exodus! Except Potiphar did it first. And we can learn something from this, because Joseph’s attribute was always to seek to please his master (his father, Potiphar, the jailer, and then Pharaoh). He was the classic Number Two, taking care of everything so that the boss does not have to do it. It is intriguing that when G-d decided to appoint the Levites as the people responsible for maintaining G-d’s house, the language reflects the acts of Potiphar, of all people.

The other verse that uses both of these two words is not far after: the butler and baker are jailed in the prison where Joseph had been left to rot.

Pharaoh was angry with his two courtiers, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker and put them in custody, in the house of the prefect in the same prison house where Joseph was confined. The prefect assigned (pakad) Joseph to them, and he attended (sharress) them.

What was Joseph’s role? He acted as the intermediaries to these two jailed men, with responsibility but no clear power or authority. And in his role, Joseph listened to the men and interpreted their dreams. He acted as a counsellor.

Which might help shed a different light on why the Levites were selected; they were not just administrators or trusted functionaries (as Joseph was in Potiphar’s house). They were also counsellors and friends, building connections and giving hope to the people just as Joseph did for the butler and the baker.

The Torah does not make the connection more explicit than with the shared pair of words, but it does not have to: once noticed, the relationship between these verses is clear. And the implications are worth considering: does G-d learn to appoint administrators from Potiphar and Pharoah’s jailmaster? Is delegation a human (and not divine) invention? Should the Levites be inspired from Joseph’s example?

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


The Evolution of Tribalism

Tribes, groups of people, used to be simple. You were born into a group – which may identify by culture or language, geographical origin or status of some kind. You belonged to that tribe by virtue of birth, and you never had to do much beyond avoid outright acts of betrayal. Tribes were comfortable: they were a guarantee of a place in the world, of a support network.

Then, over time, things changed. We did not get rid of tribes: instead, we gradually replaced ancestral tribal affiliations with ideological tribes, tribes that could be joined if you showed the proper zeal for the cause. Once upon a time those tribes were connected to formal religious or national allegiances: rival Protestant movements in Reformation Europe, or Jacobite Scotsmen. These were able to organize bloody conflicts, because they each believed that there could only be one set of Truths. And so they set out to Make Things Right, to prove that everyone else must be wrong.

Out of that contentious cauldron came the idea of freedom and tolerance. Your neighbor who worships another deity might be both stupid and evil, but it is no longer necessary – or even considered polite – to kill him for it. This idea first budded in places like Amsterdam, but its full flowering was in the United States. The Founders tried to do away with the deeply insecure intolerance which treats every “other” person with self-righteous hatred. Make no mistake: being religiously tolerant is in direct contrast with virtually all of human history, and could even be described as deeply unnatural. People fear insecurity, and they do not trust outsiders; they never have. We are told by G-d to “love the stranger,” but few of us ever truly manage it, and none of us manage it consistently.

The road to tolerant tribalism has not been an easy one. Think of classic Irish vs Italian gangs in New York, the distrust between Hispanics and Blacks, atheists and religionists. Witch trials in the 17th century translating into #metoo hatred of men or today’s woke mob unleashed on “white privilege.” Rival tribes resist dissolving into the melting pot, rejecting the fundament of tolerance that built America into the least-ancestrally-tribal land in the history of the world. Though while ancestral tribes can cheerfully hate other groups (without trying to exterminate them), ideological tribes are far more vicious. Like Communists under Stalin or Mao, or those who check for purity of thought among the LGBTQ+, adherents always have to keep proving themselves, and no past performance, no matter how gallant or demonstrative, guarantees a safe position in the future of the movement.

Having lost the underlying core of the American ideology, that each person is endowed with their creator with a soul that is in the image of G-d and thus each person – even our enemy – always has some intrinsic value, we have simultaneously lost the ability to accept that the fact of the existence of other tribes does not threaten who we are, or what we believe. Few people who lack G-d in their lives try – or even feel any moral obligation – to love the stranger. Instead, “Smear the queer” is the order of the day, in every online forum ranging from breastfeeding mothers to climate science. The breakdown of our shared religious underpinnings has led to the breakdown of the tolerance that built America.

Indeed, we have even lost the ability to communicate with people with whom we disagree. Language, an incredible tool for connecting minds separated by culture, space, and time, has become so abused that most people do not even try to understand how other people think. It is so much easier to write off those who disagree with us as being stupid, wrong, or even plainly unacceptable. The last fortress, that of “free speech” is being overrun as I write this, with the term being overwritten to mean precisely the opposite of the sum of its words.

The problem with an ideological tribalism that is no longer moored to Judeo-Christian principles is that it is capable of going in just about any direction, with all aboard the train being carried along for the ride. Thus, we have heard in mainstream media the suggestion that the NRA convention should be bombed, that those who disagree with the climate ideology of the day should be put in concentration camps. And our public schools have become havens for narcissistic hedonists to groom small children by educating them to fixate on every manner of self-obsessive sexual variance. It is not enough that I believe something: I must convince or even coerce everyone else to reaffirm my decisions by joining my tribe and abusing all others.

Among the right, we have seen similar things happen. NeverTrumpers in the main probably never set out to betray the core principles of conservatism. But when they joined/formed the NeverTrump Tribe, Jennifer Rubin, David French and Jonah Goldberg simply lost the plot. Their desperation to be right at any cost has cost them whatever shreds of decency and respect they once possessed. Unmoored ideological tribalism does that to you: you abandon even foundational principles for the sake of remaining within your tribe.

I cannot stand the idea of living in a place and time where everyone who belongs to a different tribe is discounted out of hand. In part this is for purely selfish reasons: I am not ideologically flexible enough to be welcome within any given tribe for very long. But there are more profound reasons: I deeply believe that each person should seek their own relationships and always try to grow. Tribes help inasmuch as they provide a support structure. But tribalism also gets in the way, because it leads people toward compromising what they believe in order to remain accepted within the group.

We have to also acknowledge that the breakdown or corruption of traditional tribes – churches and fraternal organizations, boy scouts and chambers of commerce – has created a vacuum wherein people are truly adrift, desperate to cling to anything that might float past. This is where the transgender trend has been born: unhappy anti-religious narcissists who are desperate to find a sense of belonging that still reaffirms some kind of unique individual value without going so far as to suggest – gasp – that each person has a soul which entails finding value in people whom you know to be bad. The need to belong to a tribe remains, but since all the traditional options have been corrupted or otherwise shown to be morally unacceptable because of “privilege,” the options available are odd indeed – from “cake gender” to tribes based purely on skin color. Sports teams may be the only form of tribal identity that are still considered broadly acceptable, though affiliation with a sports team has no overarching moral benefit.

The dynamic tension between individual, tribe and nation is itself not a bad thing. But as we have seen, tribes are now defined by peculiarly self-centered forms of shared libertinism. The nation and its founding principles are rapidly being discarded. And woe betides any person who seeks a meaningful existence driven by classic notions of good and evil.

[an @iwe and @susanquinn work]


Contrasting Questions, Different Relationships

Rabbi Sacks has pointed out that Judaism is the only primary faith that encourages questioning and even arguing with G-d, as Avraham and Moshe did on multiple occasions.

My study partners and I were struck this week by the realization that the Torah uses a certain pun to illustrate the contrast between Judaism and the pagan faiths of the day – and it, too, centers around the issue of questions.

The word in question is bamah. A mere three letters, it appears only eight times in the Torah. And the first three are in the form of questions, because these three letters translate into “How?”

The first one is Avram querying G-d:

And he said, “O lord G-d, how [bamah] shall I know that I am to possess [the land]?” (Gen. 15:8)

G-d answers this question, but only in the murkiest of forms: The Covenant Between The Parts. Nevertheless, there is a question, and then there is some kind of an answer, as allegorical as it assuredly is.

The next time bamah is found is when G-d is commanding that we must be kind, even to someone who has put their shirt in hock for a debt:

If you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you must return it before the sun sets; it is the only available clothing—it is what covers the skin. In what else [bamah] shall [your neighbor] sleep? Therefore, if that person cries out to Me, I will pay heed, for I am compassionate. (Ex. 22:25-6)

Bamah in this case is used within a rhetorical question. It is also a connection – showing both the connection between G-d and man, as well as the importance G-d puts toward people being thoughtful and considerate to one another. Bamah is used to connect, not divide. The question leads to a closer relationship.

The third questioning bamah is a challenge Moses issues to G-d:

And [God] said, “I will go in the lead and will lighten your burden.” And [Moses] replied, “Unless You go in the lead, do not make us leave this place. For how [bamah] shall it be known that Your people have gained Your favor unless You go with us, so that we may be distinguished, Your people and I, from every people on the face of the earth?” (Ex. 33:16)

Like Avram’s use of bamah, Moses is using the word bamah to challenge G-d, to force Him to build up the relationship in order to gain assurances, a sense of confidence within the people that G-d is invested for the long haul. In response, G-d agrees to Moses’ demand that G-d will lead the people and not abandon us.

Note the theme: questions, with answers. Conversation, and building trust between the parties. And all of it is done with nothing more or less than words.

Then the Torah does a hard turn. Bamah from this point on refers to places of idol worship:

And I will destroy your high places [bamah]s, and cut down your images, and cast your carcasses upon the carcasses of your idols, and my soul shall abhor you. (Lev. 26:30)

For fire went forth from Heshbon,
Flame from Sihon’s city,
Consuming Ar of Moab,
The lords of the heights [bamah] of the Arnon (Num: 21:28)

You shall dispossess all the inhabitants of the land; you shall destroy all their carved and molten images, and you shall demolish all their cult places [bama]. (Num. 33:52)

It is not uncommon for words in the Torah to do double duty, but it is also never a coincidence. That the word for a constructive question that builds relationships is also the word for places for pagan idol worship is not accidental. The Torah is telling us something significant: that there is a fundamental contrast found in this word, a contrast between Judaism and the faiths that worship nature.

We might think of it this way: paganism relies on a hard separation between man and the gods, one that can never be breached. To a pagan’s thinking, the forces of nature are beyond our understanding, with power that must be acknowledged but cannot be understood (it is no surprise that studying chemistry, physics and biology were all pioneered in non-pagan cultures). The implicit question that is bamah is never answered, or even answerable within paganism, so instead of being made of words, a pagan bamah is a permanent physical space, a perpetual gap. To a pagan, there is no answer for the capriciousness of the gods: we must simply accept that we are like ants to them.

I mentioned that the word bamah is found eight times, but we have only discussed six so far. As we mentioned, the first three times are as questions, and the next three times refers to the relationship idolaters have with their deities. But the last two connect Jews to those pagan idolatries!

[God] set them atop the highlands [bamah],
To feast on the yield of the earth;
Nursing them with honey from the crag,
And oil from the flinty rock. (Deut. 32:13)


Who is like you,
A people delivered by G-d,
Your protecting Shield, your Sword triumphant!
Your enemies shall come cringing before you,
And you shall tread on their backs [bamah] (Deut. 33:29)

These examples put the Jewish people over the bamah. We supersede the barriers that pagans have put between man and the gods, because, as the Torah is telling us, we are able to cross the gap to properly connect with the divine.

Paganism is built on the unbridgeable gap between man and the gods. Judaism is built on the connection that can be built between G-d and man.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter work]


Jailing Our Own Minds: Being Governed by Fear

A life in which we cannot constructively live is, in its own way, a life of torture. After all, we don’t get much of a chance in this world. So if we knowingly waste the opportunities afforded us, then we are consciously wasting our lives. That prospect terrifies me; in the time afforded me, I want to get as much done as I possibly can.

I think this is a key reason why Freedom is so important to me: the more freedom we have to make positive choices, the better our lives can be. Nothing is more precious than the choices we freely make, thoughtfully understanding that there is far more to the world than is known by the hedonistic narcissist, living his best life, in the moment.

The problem is that most people, most of the time, are afraid of freedom. The Tyranny of Choice is a leading cause of instinctive tribalism, of people actively making choices that will reduce future choices – like electing autocratic governments. Above all, people want to be relieved of responsibility for their own decisions. It is a devilish part of human nature, as much as I wish it were otherwise. Freedom does not sell to most people, most of the time.

Being free takes courage. It requires us to embrace that we will have to act (sometimes alone) to combat evil. It requires us to take responsibility not only for ourselves, but for our loved ones and our community, and all that we hold dear.

But most people, most of the time, are not courageous. They aspire to normality and mediocrity, and often fall short of even that low bar.

But why?

I think we often underestimate the paralyzing power of fear. Even when we know it is irrational, we are often bound by it; fear is our jailer. It is even a biblical curse.

You shall flee though none pursues. (Lev. 26:17)

I will cast a faintness into their hearts in the land of their enemies. The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight. Fleeing as though from the sword, they shall fall though none pursues. (Lev. 26:36)

I have a radical thought about this, a thought that even I am unsure is defensible or even reasonable. In the Torah, these curses come about when we refuse to connect with G-d, when we close our minds to Him, when we lock Him out.

What if the text is telling us that in each person there is an open space for our general mindset, and that something has to go in that space? If we connect with G-d, then He can be in our hearts and minds, and we can live on that basis. But if we lock G-d out, then the space becomes a vacuum – and we all know what happens to vacuums. One way or another, something will move into that space.

What if, as per this biblical curse, irrational fear is what fills the hearts of those who lack a relationship with G-d?

Now, obviously, this is a gross overgeneralization. There are many nervous nellies among devout people, just as there are stalwart and brave atheists. But if I had to guess, I’d say that in America, religious people are much more likely to believe in optimism, investments in the future, and purpose-driven lives. They are less afraid, on the whole, than those who deny G-d’s existence or who consider Him largely irrelevant to their lives.

I’d say that entrepreneurs are most resistant to paralyzing fear than are most other groups of people. One study from 2013 concludes that “entrepreneurs prayed more frequently than other people and were more likely to believe that God was personally responsive to them.”

Society has long noticed that attention span has been consistently shortened over time; we now seem to live in a period of endless new fears, a sort of roaming hysteria, constantly trying to find something new to worry about. From Alar to Climate Change, Covid to Monkeypox, there is always something new, driven by a particularly anti-religious media. And the new terrors, in turn, clamp onto those who lack of their own spiritual or emotional constancy, and as a result literally crave fear. It is the biblical curse, to run in terror even when there is no pursuit.

Do the most fearful people you know also have relatively weak relationships with G-d?


Explaining Shabbos

Sometimes ideas do not “sell” because they are not very good. But sometimes they do not sell because they are poorly marketed. I would go so far as to suggest that even the foundational text of Western Civilization, the Torah, has not been broadly persuasive. As I have written elsewhere, G-d seems to delegate to mankind, as His junior partners, the task of making sense of the text.

Take the Shabbos (Sabbath). Observing the Shabbos is one of the Ten Commandments. The Torah tells us to keep it, “because G-d rested on the seventh day,” but to most people, “Do it because G-d did it, and He commands you to do it as well,” has been, based on the breadth and depth of Shabbos observance, a failure.

So it is not surprising that most people do not observe a Shabbos Day, at least not in the sense of careful observation like Orthodox Jews do. Indeed, the day appears to most people to be a nice idea, perhaps the day when one goes to church, but otherwise not truly a day of rest as the Torah describes, a day with specific prohibitions that lock out so much that we are commanded to do the rest of the week (“six days you shall work”).

I would argue that the Shabbos is generally observed only in the breach (even by most Jews) because the Shabbos has not been effectively explained.

So: why does the Shabbos matter? What is it really about? Is there deeper value than merely “G-d told us to?” or the more pragmatic (albeit accurate) observations that the Shabbos day recharges our proverbial batteries, is good for our families, reduces our burnout rate, etc?

I think there is. And I think the text shows us the way to this understanding. To see it, we have to read the words carefully. Here is an example of the word for Shabbos used:

So long as the earth endures / Seedtime and harvest / Cold and heat / Summer and winter / Day and night / Shall not rest [Shabbos]. (Gen. 8:22)

Nature runs on its own periodic systems, unchanging, with no concessions to anything else. Nature does not stop. Nature simply is. Shabbos is antithetical to nature!

Perhaps the Torah tells us that the world will never have a Shabbos so that we had better understand what the Shabbos means: it means stepping away from the physical world, from the world that, by itself, never rests. We are commanded to keep the Shabbos so that we realize that we are only partially in the world, only partially animals. We should never be confused enough to think that our person, our body, is the sum of who we are in life.

Similarly, we are told that G-d kept the Shabbos because we need to know that G-d is also not defined by the sum of His works. G-d created nature, just as we may write an essay or make dinner, but we are not defined solely by our works. On the seventh day, G-d rested from his work. And in so doing, He invested that Shabbos day with the absence of the physical; spirituality pours in to fill what would otherwise be a void.

Shabbos, then, is time carved out of time. The world goes on, but we pause our work, our labor frozen in amber while nature carries on without us. And while we are paused, we have an opportunity to value all the things that are not physically measurable: we think of love, and Torah; we sing songs and consider the nature of ideas and what it means to choose to connect with G-d, to seek relationships instead of merely transactions.

So keeping the Shabbos, the Torah tells us, is another way of injecting holiness into the world, building a bridge between the physical world upon which our bodies subsist, and the spiritual world that feeds our souls, because “man does not live on bread alone.” (Deut. 8:3)

This understanding in turn helps explain the Sabbatical year for the land. This year is the year where, in Israel, no active working of the land is allowed. The Torah tells us that taking the year off is a Shabbos for G-d, and it makes and keeps the land holy. We rest the land to make it holy to remind us that there is more to the world than the things we can perceive and measure, there is more than mere matter and energy. Remembering to rest every seven years when working the land, is a way to remember to look up instead of down, to remember that just because we labor away at the earth, there is always something above us, something that, if we strive, is just close enough to grasp with our minds and hearts.

The text similarly suggests that when we observe the Sabbatical year for agriculture, then we are also reminding the earth that it, too, is more than its physical sum. The land of Israel is meant to be holy, but it is our Sabbatical inaction that helps make it so! Holiness, ever since G-d made that first sabbath holy, has to have time set aside for extra-physical existence. Our job as Jews is to remind the world that there is always something higher, of greater purpose and meaning for each and every one of us, a lofty goal even for the natural world. There is a world beyond what we can see and touch and feel.

Sabbath: opportunity to connect to the world that is above nature.

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

P.S. In the text, “Shabbos of Shabboses” is more important than that first Shabbos, when G-d rested (it is linguistically similar to “the Holy of Holies”). (Shabbos of Shabboses is rare in the text: it twice describes a regular Shabbos, twice for Yom Kippur, and once for the Sabbatical year, the year we do not work the earth.) When we observe the Shabbos, it makes the day even more holy than G-d can make it by Himself. Which, obviously, is saying something.


Why is G-d so Bad at Marketing?

Does it bother anyone else that G-d’s texts do such a lousy job of convincing people to want to follow Him?

After all, if G-d is perfect, then surely his texts are perfect, too. And if they are perfect, then how come they are not particularly effective? Indeed, given all the competing religions and texts in the world, no one can make a ironclad case that their religion is obviously the “right” one based on the compelling nature of their holy texts.

For me, trying to answer this question leads into some pretty murky terrain. We have a world in which atheists and agnostics and followers of every manner of faith compete for attention, each claiming the one unique “truth,” some doing so on the basis of revelation, others on their own unique understanding of reason. Some, like Maimonidean Judaism and forms of Catholicism, claim to have both revelation and reason exclusively in their corner. But even if this is so, and one of them has the purest rational basis for their faith’s superiority, they have both largely failed to be bestsellers in the marketplace of human ideas. Which returns me to the original question: assuming there is indeed a G-d, why is He so bad at marketing?

One possibility is that the error is not found in heaven, but on earth. Maybe a lot of us are just not interested in learning and growing, are not actually seeking a relationship with the divine? If someone has no desire to connect, then perhaps there is no way to reach that person. Our free will allows us to turn down the offer of a relationship.

I believe that G-d reaches out to everyone. The first person who gave in to sin in the Torah (according to the use of the word “sin” in the text) was Cain. Before he sinned, G-d reached out to Cain:

And G-d said to Cain, “Why are you distressed? And why is your face fallen? Surely, if you do good, there is uplift. But if you do not do good, sin crouches at the door. Its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master.”

What is amazing is what does NOT happen next. Cain does not reply to G-d. He does not even show any sign that he heard G-d! We know that G-d spoke to Cain, but there is no acknowledgement or feedback. Instead, the text reads:

Cain said to his brother Abel, and when they were in the field, Cain rose up to his brother Abel and killed him.

What was Cain’s response to G-d’s warning?! The text does not say! We can very plausibly understand this to mean that Cain did not hear what G-d had to say.

Preposterous, no? Or is it? Leviticus 26 also mentions sin. It starts with all the blessings that come from following His commandments, and then it offers the opposite case:

But if you do not hear Me and do not observe all these commandments; if you reject My laws and spurn My rules, so that you do not observe all My commandments and you break My covenant… [horrible curses follow] I will discipline you sevenfold for your sins.

Notice where it starts: “If you do not hear me.” “Hearing” in the torah means to be mentally engaged, willing to listen to ideas and then cogitate on them. The refusal to hear was where it started with Cain as well. Cain, who committed the first murder, Cain, who gave into his rage, to sin. Cain who refused to listen. Cain, who, as with the curses in Leviticus, was also marked sevenfold for his crime.

Which might go some distance toward understanding an answer to the question: maybe G-d does not seek to be good at marketing to all of mankind. Our free will means that we do not have to pay attention. So maybe He only wants to reach those who are willing to listen.

Listening, of course, is only the first step toward growth and personal development. But it is the critical first step, the step that opens the doors in our minds.

From there, the answer develops further: we know from our own lives and from the lives of our ancestors and children, that most people do not become convinced of something merely because someone spoke at them. Temporarily this can work, especially if fear or coercion are employed to reinforce the message. But over the long term, a person does not change unless they are actually engaged in a relationship. That relationship could be with a spiritual guide, a spouse, a parent, or even with G-d during prayer or meditation. But without such a relationship, there is no revelation, and there is no growth.

Which tells us that the purpose of holy texts is not to provide end results. Texts alone will not “sell” most people. Instead, texts are there to provide the pathway for processes that allow and enable us to grow. We learn how to learn, we learn how to connect with others and with our Creator. We learn through these processes that what we do matters, that it is our choices, not our DNA or upbringing, that ultimately determines what we become and the impact we make on the world around us.

That G-d is bad at marketing is not a bug: it is a feature. He can only reach those who are prepared to listen. And the process of coming close to G-d is not meant to be trivial or simple, because personal growth requires us to shun isolation, and to instead grow through relationships, confronting our weaknesses and insecurities. Such a process cannot be rushed; there are no shortcuts. Growing to a full connection with G-d is a life’s work.

[an @iwe and @susanquinn work]


Man: Merely Another Animal

This is a basic assumption of today’s experts. And their assumption is not wrong, at least not on its face. We have bodies that are not so different from apes. The building block of our existence is the same as it is for all living things in this world.

Mankind is dominant, goes the theory, because Nature (or perhaps Chance) gifted us with opposable thumbs, larger brains, the ability to sweat, adaptibility, etc. Because of these physical traits, mankind became the ultimate apex predator. But apex or no, we remain firmly within the animal kingdom.

Therefore, there are those who believe that the most pure forms of humanity are obviously those which are closer to nature. The primitive, the indigenous, the natives. They are the true people, untainted by the idea that we can somehow be more than mere animals. To combat the incursions of Western Civilization, we battle for the acceptance of Mother Nature by reinforcing the importance of our desires at every turn. To be real animals, we need to reject what people tell us to think, and instead focus on whatever we really – deep down – desire. If we are true to ourselves, then we can live our best lives, one with our own natures, true to the way Mother Nature made us. Any act we wish to engage in, is, for no other reason except that we desire it, sacrosanct. Abortion, pedophilia, mutilation, suicide… the sewer is the limit.

We can go one better by willfully rejecting the silly trappings of Western Civilization. The best way to show that we are close to nature is to fill our speech with references to natural acts: fornication, defecation, and what prudes like me might refer to as “private” parts. This approach makes foul language a virtue because, if we must have language at all, it should reinforce our fundamentally animal natures. Emotion is “true,” so we are to be commended for expressing our emotions in the rawest ways possible.

This approach is, of course, pure tosh, but it is very popular tosh nonetheless. What fascinates me is that I think the Torah basically agrees: man, as he was created, is indeed merely another animal. G-d made man, and “the Human became a living being.” The words for “living being,” nefesh chaya, is precisely the same word pair used for describing other animals G-d made: “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures,” (Gen 1:20) “all the living creatures of every kind that creep,” (Gen: 1:21) and “God said, “Let the earth bring forth every kind of living creature,” (Gen: 1:24). In every case, the phrase is identical to the one describing man at our inception!

It is helpful that the Torah has much more than Creation within it. The same verse that contains the creation of man also says that we acquired a nishmas chaim, a “living soul.” But this soul does not – by itself – mean that we are qualitatively different than any other animal. It merely suggests that we have the potential to be more than other animals. Still, that potential only practically exists if we can recognize it. If we can see each person as being created in G-d’s image, endowed with a divine spark we call a “soul,” then it is the belief in a connection to G-d that can open the door in our minds, helping us to understand that while we are indeed animals, we are able to be so very much more than pur physical bodies and sum of our urges and desires.

Language remains a key part of this. All living things can communicate in some form or another. But the spoken and written tongues – whether nuanced or forceful – can be so much more sophisticated and beautiful than mere communication. That is, if we use it for higher purpose, instead of constantly referring to rutting and defecation and body parts. When we speak gently, when we subdue our natures for the sake of higher purposes, we prove that we are more than animals.

What happens when we rise above our nature? We can come to understand things that our animal natures cannot. We come to understand that all possessions are transitory, and that what really matters are the choices we make, and the impact those choices leave in the world around us, both now and long after our bodies have dissolved.

We can see ourselves not only living in the moment, but instead living as a vital but frail link in a chain between our ancestors, and our descendants. The chain is alive only for us, and everything that comes in the future depends on what we do in our present. What you do today will help shape what you leave behind.

And when we can see ourselves that way, then we are far away from animalism. We learn to restrain ourselves and our natures, never declaring that we are right merely because we are mighty. We do not push, as an animal does, to the limit of our power. We seek to treat others with respect even though, in any natural pecking order, hierarchy is a constant battle. We consciously limit ourselves in order to build others up, whether they be loved ones or complete strangers: “Love the stranger.”

Those of us who seek a connection with G-d, and see G-d in each person, aim to be holy.

We start as animals. But we should always try to be better.

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


Jewish Priests and the Dead

Most faiths wrestle with the concept of death and an afterlife. Indeed, as the ultimate unfalsifiable belief (since we cannot dispatch forensic teams to reconnoiter and report back), we are each free to believe whatever we want about what happens when we die.

In most religions, priests are considered critical for connection to the world of the dead. Pagan faiths have stories of the underworld, facilitated by priests. Ancient Egypt perfected spells, aided by priests, that would help the dead pass into paradise. Catholicism has Last Rites, a way to ease a person’s passage into heaven. Muslim Imams lead funeral services to achieve similar ends.

But not Judaism. At death, a priest is nowhere to be seen. “For a [dead] person, you must not render yourself spiritually unfit.” Jewish priests, Cohanim, are strictly forbidden to be anywhere near dead people or human remains (with only a very few exceptions).

Why is there such a substantial difference between the Torah and other faiths, even faiths that come from the Five Books?

We can start by answering this question in a limited way: priests exist to serve as the interlocutor between G-d and man, in G-d’s house, the tabernacle (mishkan). Cohanim serve the living. Becoming spiritually unfit, tamei, means that a person is unable to spiritually grow. Which is precisely where the dead are constrained: “The dead cannot praise You.” The dead are inert. Only the living can praise G-d, and can grow.

The mishkan itself, like mankind, is where G-d is found in this world: in each soul and in G-d’s house. It is the tying together of the physical and spiritual elements that makes holiness possible. And the cohanim are the timeless servants of that connection; their service is devoted to combining matter and energy (analogues for the physical and spiritual) in order to achieve and maintain a connection to the divine.

So in the Torah’s view of the world, there is no bridge between this world and what people call heaven (life after death). Instead, in the Torah heaven, shamayim, is where G-d dwells. But there is no explicit connection in the Torah identifying heaven as a place for life-after-death. Indeed, those in the Torah who “walk with G-d” do so while they are alive, not when they are dead.

So in the spatial dimension, priests cannot be in contact with the dead – because their core task is anathema to death. But this is also true for the temporal dimension. We see this in the word in the Torah that means “to mourn.” The word is avl, and it has the very same three letters as the word that is used for “alas.” Here is an example from the text:

Jacob rent his clothes, put sackcloth on his loins, and observed mourning (avl) for his son many days.

Think of how Jacob must have suffered with regrets – he surely blamed himself for sending Joseph away in the first place. A person who has lost a loved one and blames himself is always looking backward, always playing back what actually happened against what might have been. Mourning in that state is to live in a world of counterfactual misery.

The brothers use the same word when they are being tortured by Joseph in Egypt:

They said to one another, “Alas (avl), we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us. That is why this distress has come upon us.”

The brothers, who had caused their father to mourn, end up as mourners themselves!

Similarly, when the Jewish people are told they will perish in the wilderness for their sins:

The people were overcome by grief (avl).

We see more regrets, and “what-if.”

We mourn when we obsess about loss, about our errors. Mourning is a period in which we look backward.

But priests are barred (with a few exceptions) from mourning. Their job is not just in the place of G-d’s house – it is in the time of G-d’s house as well: a place where people bring sacrifices in order to move on with their lives (which is why salt is always present, a reminder that the person who insisted on looking backward, Lot’s wife, was turned into a pillar of salt). The tabernacle is where we put regrets away, when we stop looking backward and turn our faces toward the future. The priests are there to help people move on from where they were before, leaving the past behind. And so the staff, the priests who serve in the tabernacle, are similarly barred from living in the world of the dead, or dwelling on the past.

There is a wider aspect to this as well:

They shall not shave smooth any part of their heads, or cut the side-growth of their beards, or make gashes in their flesh.

These are similarly ways to mark a connection to the dead. But we understand them as universal Jewish commandments as well as for the priests. We mourn, but then we get up. We make no permanent changes to our bodies to mark those who have passed away.

The same core principle of always looking forward may help explain why priests cannot serve in G-d’s house if they are blemished:

No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his G-d. No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes. No man among the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a defect shall be qualified to offer G-d’s offering by fire; having a defect, he shall not be qualified to offer the food of his G-d.

A visible defect causes the priest – as well as those around him – to think on what caused the defect. It is another connection to living in the past, to living with avl, regrets. Priests are blocked from dwelling on what might have been.

Back to the original question: why is the Torah so very different from any other faith I can think of in this respect? Perhaps it comes from a human obsession with the unknown realm of the afterlife, an obsession that is a core part of almost every religion in the world. I can understand why: religions are asked to answer the questions that escape our reason and haunt our dreams.

Most Jews are similarly believers in some form of afterlife, though, as I have noted, the concept is not found in the Torah. From my personal perspective (shared with others), this tells us that even if there is an afterlife, we should live our lives as though this life is what really matters.

[An @iwe, @susanquinn, @kidcoder, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter work!]


The Perils of Asking the Wrong Questions

Think of all the kids who are perfectly normal until someone says, “If you are not 100% comfortable in your body, then you are transgender.” And, since no child is truly comfortable in a body that is still growing and changing and that – in any case – is never precisely the way they would like it to be, then that child is infected with a mind virus. The mind virus, as we see all around us, can destroy the individual’s ability to live a purposeful and productive life.

The problem is that what is in the mind does not need anything physical in order to be real for that mind. Think, for example, of the experiences that changed us not because we broke our leg or lost a tooth, but because those experiences changed how we think. We all remember books or movies that gave us nightmares and shaped us, for better or worse. There was no physical damage, yet I still remember the deep depression that left me in a funk for weeks after reading Flowers for Algernon as a young child. So if a trusted authority figure like a teacher suggests that, really, the important thing to do is to spend our lives in self-examination, then what defense mechanisms are really available? After all, even the suggestion of being transgendered, like reading Flowers for Algernon, makes an impact even though our conscious mind may insist it is not real.

People who insist that “you are not entitled to your own facts” are entirely defenseless against a teacher who implants the idea in our children that they are not who their parents think they are. Their “transgenderism” is, without a doubt, a fact. It may be a constructed and invented fact, but so are a great many of the ideas that provide purpose and meaning to most people most of the time (love/loyalty/faith etc.).

There is even a Torah basis to this: a priest is forbidden to come near a dead body. But in the event that the priest (and any surrounding people) is unaware that human remains are in a place, then the priest is not spiritually unfit. In other words, what the priest knows is what ultimately matters, not whether or not remains are present. This is not merely a Talmudic argument that sidesteps “reality.” Knowledge, not reality, is what makes the difference.

So the questions we ask can be dangerous. If we ask a person to obsess over alleged abuse (whether real or not), then we increase the chances that the abuse will cause lasting damage. Jacob’s daughter Dina is raped, and her father and brothers call her “tamei”, which roughly translates to “spiritually spoiled.”  That event makes her a victim forever more.  But Sarah and Rebekkah, her grandmother and great-grandmother, were taken by other men, and in those cases it made no such mark! Nobody in those stories thinks less of the women, and so they carried on their lives as if nothing had happened. The perception of what it means to be taken by a man who is not your husband changed the reality of what happened to the rest of those womens’ lives, just as surely as a child who is told he is transgendered stands an excellent chance of changing his life forever.

Imagine being able to gift selective amnesia on a victim of horrible trauma. That victim might have undergone rape or combat, or any manner of things that would cause any reasonable person ongoing PTSD. But if they were somehow able to erase the experience, then they would be as if they had never suffered. So in many ways, ignorance is a blessing. An event that might otherwise scar, will leave no mark if it was somehow forgotten.

A more realistic way to gift amnesia on someone who is asking the wrong question might be to change the question around. Instead of “Am I comfortable in my own body?” for example, we might challenge them to think of other people: “How can I help other people be more comfortable in theirs?” This opens up a world of possibilities for replacing endless narcissistic recursions with acts of kindness and thoughtfulness. And it would make the world a much better place.


Aesop’s Follies: Achieving Permanence Through Action  

My mother was, later in life, deeply worried about security: her own home, money in the bank, stability in all things. She was a brilliant woman, but she was also handicapped by the need to cling to things that were safe. She died too young, still obsessing about assurances for a future that she no longer could look forward to.

The Ant and the Grasshopper, one of Aesop’s fables, tells of the virtues of hard work and planning for the future. As the story goes, the grasshopper plays all summer while the ant works, storing up food. When winter comes, the ant is happily ensconced underground while the grasshopper perishes. The ant, who is clearly a conservative, gets to feel morally superior – and alive – while the more hedonistic and narcissistic grasshopper, who is clearly a liberal, gets to play the victim of the greedy and self-centered Antriarchy.

And yet, I think the grasshopper may not be all wrong. Though it is sensible to stockpile “extra” of practically anything, priorities can be easily confused. After all, “stuff,” even essentials like food and clothing, are not the purpose of existence: they are merely enablers. Once you have all you need, the extras become luxuries and then eventually become their own form of waste. After all, obsessing about permanence has its own opportunity cost: we are not living today when we are fixated on tomorrow (think on all the people who go on very low calorie diets specifically to live longer. You call that living?).

I was reminded of my mother – and Aesop – when I was trying to puzzle out some Torah verses. There are three verses in order, connected not only by proximity, but also by linguistic style – they all end with “I am the Lord your G-d.”. And I came to the conclusion that speaks directly to the challenge presented by Aesop’s insects.

Here they are:

Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, because holy I am the Lord your G-d.

You shall each fear/regard your mother and your father, and guard My sabbaths: I am the Lord your G-d.

Do not face natural deities or make molten gods for yourselves: I am the Lord your G-d. (Lev. 19:2-4)

Holiness is not directly defined in the text, though I assert that different aspects of holiness are found in the elements of the tabernacle, the Mishkan. In any event, it is clear that holiness is achieved through relationships. These relationships can be familial or marital or with G-d, but any way you slice it, being holy is about directing our energies toward positive and loving connections with others.

But if so, then what is the connection to the subsequent verses: revering one’s parents and G-d’s Sabbaths; and not facing deities?

I think the explanation connects to permanence, and Aesop and, yes, my mother. In these verses the Torah does not tell us (as it does elsewhere) to not make gods of bone or wood. Those idols are biodegradable, then decompose and waste away. Instead, we are told to avoid worshipping deities that represent natural forces, or manmade deities that can be permanent. People know that the sun will shine tomorrow, that the earth and wind and sea are always there. So, too, is an idol made of the strongest materials found in the natural world, metal. And I think people do this, in part, to find a piece of permanence to cling to and identify with. It may help understand why some people are happy to sterilize themselves for the sake of the earth: they do it because, to them, the earth is more important than future people.

But the verse in the middle – connecting to our parents and G-d’s Sabbaths – offers a different form of permanence. Instead of a physical object that will be here long after we are gone, the Torah is telling us to connect to our parents, to the generations that came before. Our parents, like it or not, are our roots. But they are also mental constructs as well – our parents exist in our minds, even if there is no current shared roof or umbilical cord.

The second part reminds us to guard the Sabbaths, the holy days that G-d has made. The word for “guard” is the same that describes the angel timelessly guarding the road to the Tree of Life after the expulsion. “Guard” refers to stasis, the kind of weathered persistence that sloughs off all adversity. And the Sabbaths are our spiritual superstructure, mere mental constructs we erect that make sense of an otherwise-meaningless physical plane. Sabbaths are invented carve-outs of normal time, time that we make special for holy purpose even though (or even because) the natural world has no such divisions.

In which case, the triple verses form a coherent morality tale: We must not be seduced by the exclusively physical – but empty – philosophy of Aesop’s ant. Being holy means an ongoing investment into relationships, a relatively impermanent and insecure existence. If, on the other hand, we get our priorities confused, and think that somehow connecting to an unchanging and amoral physical world (its natural forces) fulfills our purpose, then we are divorcing ourselves from G-d, because there is no morality or holiness to be found through serving a natural deity.

If we spend our lives connected to our past and to our G-d, then it is possible to look forward. In Judaism, holiness – and its own form of permanence – is achieved not through anchoring ourselves to something that is itself physically timeless, but instead continually and spiritually reinvesting our pasts into our futures.


P.S. The specific language in the verses is also quite intriguing. We are not told to “honor” our father and mother, but instead to perceive or be aware of them (translated above as “revere”). That is the same word used by Adam when he said to G-d: “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was aware that I was naked, so I hid.” Adam’s newfound self-awareness came from knowledge, not from any change in the physical reality of his world. So when we are commanded to be aware of our parents, the connection is to being self-aware from where we came, and understanding that this awareness is meant to help define who we are.

P.P.S. “Do not face natural deities or make molten gods for yourselves.” is a bit odd. The first four examples of “faces” in the Torah are:

The earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the face of the deep and the divine wind sweeping over the face of the water

God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and birds that fly above the earth across the face of the sky.”

God said, “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food.

Note the different faces of natural deities: water, sky, and earth. The only one missing from the classical pantheon of four elements is “fire.” Which is why the verse refers to “molten gods,” introducing that last element. In both Jewish midrash and Greek mythology, fire is not manmade – it comes from the divine.


[An @iwe, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter work]


Wrapping My Head Around Child Sacrifice

Of course, the perfectly reasonable reaction to this headline would be: “why would anyone want to understand the motivations for child sacrifice?” Just the thought of sacrificing children makes any good person nauseous. When I was a child and first learned of the practice, I was sure it was a joke – why, nobody would ever do such a thing! Right?

Wrong. But before I continue to go down this dark path, let me clarify. When I speak of child sacrifice, I do not mean casually killing the unborn (which is primarily about selfishness), or sending children as suicide bombers (which is about killing others, not “merely” sacrificing your own). I am referring to the stone-cold act of sacrificing children, a practice which has been performed by pagan tribes and civilizations throughout time. What could possibly inspire a mother or father to do such a heinous and evil act?

I only really tried to come to grips with this question when I realized that the Torah addresses it. The answer has several interlocking pieces, as follows.

Rejecting Power

We are told to never sacrifice our offspring to “Molech.” (Lev. 18:21, 20:2) The letters for Molech are the very same as the letters for “Melech,” which is Hebrew for “king.” The Torah is not in favor of powerful monarchs (a Jewish king, should we choose to have one, has strict power limits (Deut. 17:15)). The very first king named the text is Nimrod (Gen. 10:8-9), who makes a sport out of hunting things that are weaker than he is – indeed, Nimrod is the first “hero” in the Torah, a man who makes everything about himself. Nimrod is the first to have a kingdom, and as a hero on the earth, he put himself ahead of all others. Nimrod is described as being “in front of/before G-d.”

The next mention of kings are those who, in Avraham’s time, battle each other (Gen. 14). Along the way they capture and harm innocents around them. Avraham gets involved to save those who have been captured –

He brought back all the possessions; he also brought back his kinsman Lot and his possessions, and the women and the rest of the people. (Gen. 14:16)

But Avraham conspicuously refuses to ally himself with either set of warring kings – he will not take even a shoelace from the King of Sodom. The Torah is telling us to reject human power that is used to oppress others. The lesson is basic: we reject power that is used to aggrandize ourselves or oppress others. Killing our children for the sake of power is prohibited.

Refusing to see G-d in each person

There is an odd connection in the text between child sacrifice and what most translators think refers to G-d’s name. Here is the “normal” translation of these two verses:

And I will set My face against that party, whom I will cut off from among the people for having given offspring to Molech and so defiled My sanctuary and profaned My holy name. (Lev. 20)

Do not allow any of your offspring to be offered up to Molech, and do not profane the name of your God: I am G-d. (Lev. 18:21)

What does G-d’s name have to do with offering children to a deity who is not G-d?! I think there is a word play here – because the word for “name”, shem, is also the same letters as the word for “there,” or “placement,” sham. Indeed, the core of the word for “soul” or “spirit”, neshama, is the same as “name/there/placement.”

G-d formed the man from the soil’s humus, blowing into his nostrils the soul [neshama] of life: man became a living being. (Gen 2:7 – also Deut. 20:16)

The Torah is referring to the placement of G-d’s soul in each person! (Gen. 6:3)

So think of those verses like this:

And I will set My face against that party, whom I will cut off from among the people for having given offspring to Molech and so defiled My sanctuary and profaned my spirit/placement.

Do not allow any of your offspring to be offered up to Molech, and do not profane the spirit/placement of your God: I am G-d.

Which then makes a lot more sense: if we take innocent human life, then we are attacking or profaning G-d Himself. Killing a person is a rejection of the divine quality of each human soul.

And it dovetails beautifully with the rejection of power for its own sake. Because after all, G-d is in each person, not merely in those who are more powerful. So when we honor the strong instead of the weak, we are rejecting a core principle of the Torah, that every person is equally endowed by the Creator.

Indeed, one of G-d’s biggest punishments of mankind comes when people start treating the weaker sex like chattel:

When humankind profaned greatly on earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of the powerful saw how pleasing the daughters of men were, and took the ones they chose… and G-d [limited human lifespan] to one hundred and twenty years. (Gen. 6)

In other words: When men took women without concern for their own free will and choices, it profaned G-d because it offended the divine quality of women’s souls. G-d hates it when we treat each other poorly simply because we are more powerful than others are.

Which then helps us understand why sacrificing offspring to Molech is specifically called out: You can only sacrifice children because you are stronger than they are. You FORCE them! Giving up children goes to the fundamental anti-Torah principle of celebrating the strong at the cost of the weak. And that is why doing so profanes G-d. Offering offspring to Molech is not merely idol worship. And it is not merely killing. It is about the ideology of power – worshipping great men like Nimrod and the kings who don’t care about those who are weaker–and rejecting the placement of G-d’s own spirit in each person.

In which case, we might better understand what makes people sacrifice children: to truly serve power, you must emulate power, by killing those who are weak, we elevate the strong. It is Might Makes Right, like the ultimate race war that Hitler sought in order to help nature reach its logical culmination.

The Torah commands us to understand those who are not strong, and championing their cause. We insist that even the weak are valuable. It is why we had to be in Egypt – so that we can always understand how being oppressed feels. It is the core reason why we are commanded to love the stranger, the widow and the orphan, why we are commanded to do justice, to give charity and tithes. It is why “love your neighbor as yourself” is the central verse at the precise center of the entire text of the Torah. (Lev. 19:18)

And it helps us understand why the Chinese are bewildered when we are horrified that they execute criminals by removing their organs. Chinese murder in this way not only because it makes practical sense, but also because they can. For China and for Putin, power is its own justification. Worshipping power, by committing rape and war crimes in Ukraine, is just another way to worship Molech. These acts are not aberrations or exceptions: they are key components of a power-worshipping ideology.

There is one other aspect in this text which provoked a question: why does the Torah reject sacrificing offspring, but not specifically our children? An answer may be found by the way the word “offspring” is used in the Torah. The specific word is actually zera, which is used in the text to describe seeds as well as ongoing generations – used in the Torah to describe the seeds of fruit-bearing trees (Gen. 1:11), the children of Eve (Gen. 3:15, 4:25), and the potential found within Noah’s Ark (Gen. 7:3). Seeds represent the investment in the next generation, planning for the future. Indeed, every plant that puts energy into seeds – and every parent who chooses to have and nurture children – is giving up their own immediate pleasures and peaceful contentment for the sake of an uncertain future.

In other words, when we invest in children, we weaken ourselves in the present in order to invest instead in the future. We surrender power today for possibilities tomorrow.

We see the two sides of this trade in Jacob and Esau. Jacob invests in the long term – wives, children, and flocks. But Esau is a hunter, someone who kills animals without having to invest in them first. It is no coincidence that Esau is happy to sell his future for a mess of pottage right now. (Gen. 25:30)

So when we sacrifice children, we put power today ahead of the potentials found in the future. This is evil because we are always meant to live for the future! The Torah is a body of commandments designed to help us always look forward, to grow from the past, to learn from our mistakes and always seek to improve.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith and @kidcoder work]

p.s. There are other viable ways of understanding the verse that tells us that allowing child sacrifice would “profane G-d’s name” (instead of reading it as “the placement of G-d” as I do above).

When mankind murders children, it is murder most foul. So sacrificing a child to Molech also impugns G-d’s good name – because the murder has happened in the world G-d created. How can a G-d who allows children to be burnt alive be called “good”? How can G-d allow innocent children to be burnt alive?

Merely posing the question is enough to give Him a bad reputation – a bad name! The text acknowledges this, and commands us, G-d’s partner in this world, to never stand by and allow child sacrifice.

p.p.s. Nimrod is echoed in a much later commandment:

And if any Israelite or any stranger who resides among them hunts down an animal or a bird that may be eaten, that person shall pour out its blood and cover it with earth. (Lev. 17:13)

In the Torah you can hunt and eat kosher animals – but because the hunt is inherently a “might makes right” exercise (as opposed to, say, culling flocks or herds who have co-dependent relationships with their owners), the Torah gives us a way to hunt while still explicitly acknowledging G-d’s role and authority over the hunter.


An Orthodox Jew Goes Into an LDS Temple…

One of the great challenges of anyone’s life is to be able to understand how other people think. We cannot hope to change this world unless and until we are able to see things from the perspective of others, even – and especially – people who are quite different from ourselves.

I had quite an extraordinary day this week, and I needed to write on it… an old college friend, “Wayne”, who is a deeply thoughtful and inquisitive member of the Latter-day Saints* mentioned that the prominent LDS Temple on the DC Beltway has completed renovations and is hosting tours – first for invited guests, and afterward the general public. Thanks to Wayne, we were invited!

What was incredibly serendipitous is that of all the possible tour guides (they start 1 hour tours every 5 minutes), ours was no other than one of the LDS Church’s twelve apostles, Elder Gong. Wayne was humbled. I, on the other hand, was delighted; it was a great opportunity for me to learn and connect.

A little background is in order: I was raised in Idaho and Oregon, so I have always known members of the LDS Church. Without exception, up until college every LDS member I ever met was always friendly and lovely to be around. By contrast with my own family (which considered verbal combat to be the noblest of all bloodsports), LDS folks are bland to a fault. But they never – ever – tried to get us to become like them, which always made an impression. I was raised within a single orthodox Jewish family which never properly connected to a community, so we were constantly aware that we were different from everyone we knew. My childhood included other kids asking why I killed Jesus, and certainly people who tried to influence me in a myriad of ways. But not the LDS people. They were the nicest people that we knew.

Wayne explained it to me as follows: according to LDS doctrine, Judaism – Torah Judaism – must be able to stand on its own, and remain a viable faith within itself. They are waiting for the “sons of Levi to offer up an offering in righteousness”, which in their minds means observant Jews have to be here, partners with Christians, but with their own distinct role to play. Which means that Latter-day Saints are not supposed to actively proselytize among observant Jews (though apparently not everyone who tries to convert people knows it, and they might need a reminder).

The LDS Church see Christianity as an extension of the covenant with Israel to the larger world which is, oddly enough, compatible with Torah Judaism. After all, we do not proselytize at all, but we hope that our actions and words will influence the world in a positive way so that everyone will seek to have a positive relationship with G-d and with each other. In other words, as long as it does not seek to undermine or harm Judaism, then the LDS faith is – from my perspective – a perfectly acceptable religion for the rest of the world. There is no idolatry involved, no worship of images or natural forces, no paganism. And one cannot argue with the results: LDS are the antithesis of a “holy war” kind of faith, and truly practice what they preach. LDS people are deeply, sometimes even a bit creepily, nice. That is no small accomplishment. After all, “Love your neighbor as yourself” is at the core of the Torah, and the LDS do it as well as anyone.

On the drive down, Mrs. iWe and myself had a lengthy conversation with Wayne, walking through what actually goes on in the Temple (to the limits he is allowed to disclose to those who are not within the church). And we were constantly reminded of the differences between Jews and others when it comes to the nature of questions that we ask. I have found, through years of conversations with Jews and others that Jews simply think about things differently: we obsess over details, the “right” ways to do things. This is reflected in the incredibly detailed oral law that helps us understand how to perform the commandments. I’d wager that if you proposed to a typical orthodox Jew that “G-d wants, more than anything, that we meticulously learn and observe His commandments,” you would find very broad agreement.

Not so for non-Jews, even (or especially) those who consider their faith to be ultimately sourced from the Torah – all of Christianity. Non-Jewish faiths tend, in my experience, to be more focused on the forest than on the trees – very interested in symbolism, but without any of deep reading of text that underpins orthodox Jewish practice.

Actually, I should walk that back, somewhat. Orthodox Judaism’s deep reading is into the oral tradition itself – but less so the Torah, the Five Books. Our scholars learn the Torah at a young age, and usually move on to the oral law still while children. As a result, careful textual analysis of the Torah (beyond reading and repeating the words of the commentators) is not common. Most of the mental effort among Jewish scholars – which includes the vast majority of practicing Jews – is devoted to the oral law, to the commentators like Rambam and Rashi, and to very focused understanding of precisely how we are meant to perform the commandments that G-d has given us.

In my own work, I have focused considerably on the Torah itself, seeing in its text endless detail and dimensions that have never been fully explored. I am interested, above all, in studying G-d’s words to understand why we have the commandments that we do. I do this because the answers astonish me, and help me see things that nobody else – Jew or Christian – has seen. Which suggests, in turn, that the normal Jewish answer of “G-d wants us to meticulously obey Him in every observance,” is not wrong – but it might be incomplete.

[Note: Everything I write in this piece about “how Jews think” is really how I think (though many may share my views): Jews come in a wide range of approaches to Torah and to G-d. My approach is what I understand to be correct, and I try to be as true to the Torah as possible. But please understand that even though I may say “Jews think,” that statement is never universally correct.]

All of this background is to help explain my perspective as I walked through the LDS temple, guided by one of their Apostles. Because the LDS are, like all of Christianity, a faith that holds the Torah, the Five Books, to be within their canon. That single text has led to the creation of countless different religious branches, each trying to make sense of the Torah within their own worlds, along with subsequent texts and the yearnings of the human heart.

So, for example, Latter-day Saints trace their Temple to the tabernacle, the mishkan, which the Jews built in the wilderness after leaving Egypt. The mishkan ended up finding a permanent form in the temple of Solomon – which is what the LDS use as inspiration. It surprised me that they did not seem to use the Second Temple of the Jews, the one of the time of Herod and Jesus – perhaps because they see that Temple as already corrupted in some ways.

I have more than a passing interest in the Jewish Temple – I wrote a book on the underlying meaning of its core, the Mishkan. Jews have tried, for millennia, to better understand the function of the Temple. And though most have simply concluded that as long as we perform the commandments, we are doing our job, there has always been at least a quiet curiosity about what each feature and sacrifice is actually supposed to mean – why G-d commanded them in the first place. One answer is broadly accepted because it is in the plain text of the Torah: the Mishkan was created so that G-d can dwell among us, His people. So there is broad acknowledgement that the purpose of the Mishkan and the subsequent temple was always to help bring man and G-d closer to each other.

That much, I think, is an understanding that is shared between Jews and Christians, including Latter-day Saints. But between all of them, only the LDS actually still have temples today! (Conservative and Reform Jews often see their synagogues as ‘temples’ that negate the need for the original.) Torah Jews want the temple to be rebuilt, though sometimes only in an abstract sense, and with a general unspoken reluctance about animal sacrifices. While most Christians, as I understand it, consider that Jesus fulfilled the purpose of a temple, rendering the actual structure and its practices essentially obsolete.

But LDS take an entirely different tack: they agree with other Christians that Jesus’s suffering, death and resurrection complete the requirement for any of the physical offerings of the Temple, but they believe that a Temple remains important for its role in reconnecting us with G-d. They see the journey of growing to a connection to G-d to be an essential journey. So within their temple, they start with a symbolic birth through baptism, in a stunning baptismal room, with the bath (which looks like an exquisite hot tub, with a viewing gallery) mounted over 12 oxen representing the twelve tribes; an anointing of the body for holiness, the Garden of Eden, the choice of Eve, and onward in a journey of connection with G-d. The goal, as they see it, is to enable every person to be able to connect with G-d. And here’s the kicker: it is integral to LDS faith that a key purpose – the “work” – of an LDS believer, is to take each and every person through this process, either in person as an LDS member, or by a living proxy for the dead. Which is why the LDS have the best genealogy databases in the world; they want everyone to have this opportunity – billions of people. They believe that if they could do this for every person who ever lived, then Jesus would return and the world would be fulfilled.

And this is where the deviation from Judaism becomes most prominent (all specific practices aside): LDS are really and truly interested in what happens after death. It is, in a nutshell, an essential purpose of life – to secure eternity for people to be together and with G-d in the afterlife. They believe that to be dead and not connected to G-d or family is excruciating; as a spirit you retain free will – agency – but lack the body that has the means to exercise that agency. So the living have to do it for you. Which means that the living are spending much of their spiritual time thinking about the afterlife.

From my Jewish perspective, it feels alien. The Torah itself is entirely silent on the subject of what happens after death, and the obvious explanation for this is that we are supposed to live in and for this world – not the next. Whatever might happen after we die should not be the motivation for what we do here: our relationship with G-d is tied to what we do. We do know that each person has a divinely-gifted soul – so presumably our souls revert to G-d after our bodies expire – where any number of things might occur. But lacking specific information from the Torah, Judaism is very explicitly about not dwelling on the possibilities. Our jobs are in front of us, now.

But we also know that there was one civilization that was even more obsessed with death than are LDS: the ancient Egyptians poured every ounce of their excess wealth and time into investing in the afterlife: pyramids and all they contained. We often underestimate how long and deep that tradition was: Cleopatra lived closer to the time of the first Pizza Hut than she did to the first pyramid – by almost a thousand years.

And there is nothing in the Torah that is more explicit than the division – the opposition – of Israel to Egypt. In every respect, Egypt is the mirror image of Israel, the paragon of what we are not supposed to be. So the concept of aligning ourselves with a more-Egyptian mindset about the afterlife reflexively pushes this Jew away; it just feels wrong.

There are other, broader, differences as well – differences that the LDS also share with other Christians. The god of Christianity is a father figure, perhaps a king. To Christians, we are G-d’s children, with all that entails. This allows us to feel sheltered, secure even though we may not know very much. It is a comforting (if perhaps infantilizing) perspective.

The Judaism of the Torah has a different goal: Though there are elements in the Torah of the Jewish people as G-d’s children, in general G-d has created the world for us to be his partner, and even, for those who are married, G-d’s spouse. And in any such relationship there is give and take between the partners, and there is a sense of an equilibrium, albeit a dynamic and frightening one. Judaism has enshrined, unlike any other faith I know of, both questioning and challenging G-d. Those questions and challenges are part and parcel of every conversation we have, especially when we are in perilous situations. We never simply throw our hands up and proclaim that whatever spot we are in is “Allah’s will,” or pray that, “Jesus take the wheel.”

This is because we Jews have learned, both from the text and from history, that G-d will not always intervene to save us from peril in this world; it is incumbent upon us to be change agents in our own rights, to take responsibility for the world G-d has given us.

One result is shown through how we were shown marriage at the LDS Temple. They have altars (nice plushy ones) across which a couple can gaze into each other’s eyes – and through the mirrors behind them, see an infinity of reflections of the two of them projecting a sense of endless time together. LDS have a ceremony for “sealing” people together, ensuring their connection for eternity. This sealing happens after a person has gone through the spiritual journey and baptism. There is a very distinct sense of “happily ever after,” in that room, because couples that are sealed to each other (not everyone chooses this!) are specifically not “till death do us part.” Their marriages are eternal, continuing on for an infinite time after death.

Judaism turns this on its head. For us, all of life is a journey, and marriage is a gateway to a maximized relationship with G-d – not the other way around. Without trying to understand another person – one who is quite different from ourselves – then we cannot try to grasp a connection with the divine, who is surely at least as different from people as man are different from women. This ties back to the underlying assumptions: are we children of G-d, or are we G-d’s partners? If the latter, then marriage comes first. In the LDS Temple, the baptism precedes marriage.

Then, too, if we are children, then the text can be read simply, with straightforward moral lessons. On the other hand, if the text is shared within a marriage or partnership, then there are endless wrinkles and different perspectives that can be considered.

So the Celestial Room in the Temple, which is an absolutely stunning and glorious gold-and-filigree room that continuously draws the eye upward, is a room that makes you feel like you are in a perfect, quiet space within which we commune with “the still, small voice”. It is meant to connect people to a feeling of being connected with G-d, and it is indeed quite an incredible feeling.

My wife made an interesting observation which I shared with the group: that in prayer we seek to hear the “still, small voice,” but within Judaism we try to tease that signal out of the ambient environment – not with a complete absence of other sound. For us, G-d is found in communal prayer, and even the quietest parts don’t hold a candle to the Celestial Room where I could (and did) literally hear when someone across the room turned their neck with a faint joint-popping sound. If the Celestial Room is like heaven, then heaven is – to me at least – disturbingly uneventful.

Indeed, LDS members do not argue with each other about doctrine, at least in any way that I can discern. There might be something along the lines of, “That is very good. I have also heard it a slightly different way…” But there is nothing at all like the raging arguments that have dominated Jewish scholarship through history. Indeed, all of the Talmud (Mishna and Gemara) is a recorded series of arguments between people. Argumentation is the way in which we figure out what is more correct. And while Judaism wants people to be nice to each other, when it comes to an argument, as long as we are doing it “for the sake of heaven” and not for ego and the desire to be right at all costs, then all bets are basically off. This is antithetical to an LDS worldview. And it might help explain why Jews find G-d amidst a noisy synagogue or Western Wall, while LDS perceive the experience of connecting with Him as a room that is as quiet as anywhere I have ever been.

The entire building has virtually no windows, letting in almost no exterior light. It was disorienting, probably by design: the space is out of normal space, so you have no idea which way is North or South. Though we climbed 6 flights, I could not have told you at any time which floor we were on. Time does not seem to run along like normal, nor did I feel any impatience – I did not so much as glance at my watch the whole time. We had no idea how long we were there; it was really a timeless place. The architects did an astonishing job; I have never been in another building like it.

The Temple inside was extremely well lit; it was lovely and impressive in every place and in a myriad of ways. Elder Gong asked me for my impression and I demurred, saying that I needed to think on it some more. What I did not say is that, to a Jewish sensibility, the Temple screamed “goyish.” I am not quite sure why; it may have been the feeling that somehow, the building is an institution above all else. The building itself lends importance and majesty to a relationship with G-d, but people seem to remain far enough below G-d’s level that it seemed to me to block an accessible relationship based on partnership (rather than as nameless children).

Perhaps my reaction was to the insistence that everyone is equal in the eyes of G-d, so everyone has to dress exactly the same (all wearing simple white garments), stripping off their individuality – when I think of the Jewish people as aspiring to quite the opposite goal, each of us trying to connect to G-d in ways that are deeply personal. Indeed, I am quite sure that mankind is not equal in the eyes of G-d: we are commanded to love each other, but it is empirically obvious to me that G-d Himself does not love each person equally (the Torah clearly shows G-d showing specific favor). G-d values us based on our choices, even though we are commanded find value in each person by loving them.

But perhaps the biggest “goyish” flag for me was the color scheme. Gold filigree and a fantastic multi-arch theme was all impressive – but the wall-to-wall carpets were all very light, almost-white colors, colors that no Jew would ever put in their house or place of worship. There is something deeply impractical about white carpets, something that immediately made me know that I was far away from a place that felt like home. I know that sounds silly, but it jumped at me.

Yet a lot of the architecture resonated beautifully. With every detail, the constant desire to look and reach upward was impressive and deeply consonant with Torah imagery. Light came from everywhere; Elder Gong approvingly shared an observation by a CBS film crew: that at most places in the building there are no shadows, not even cast by a person as they walk across a room. In a great many respects, I can see and appreciate LDS as a faith that truly seeks to expand awareness of a covenant relationship with G-d to the entire world, as opposed to the Jewish lighthouse concept – distinct from the world, but as a light unto the nations. And I appreciate that the LDS, as well as more mainstream forms of Christianity, are developments from the Torah even though Christianity was formed, to some extent, in reaction to the Judaism of that age.

Nevertheless, I generally feel that the LDS suffer from having read the Torah too superficially, without careful attention to the symbolism within the text itself, the tensions and themes that have been there, but unearthed, for thousands of years. This is a criticism I would level at Christianity in general, of course, which often seems to stop reading the Torah after Eden (even though neither the expulsion from Eden nor Original Sin are ever mentioned in the text again). But my fellow religionists are equally guilty, albeit in a slightly different way. We Jews tend to internalize the versions we teach children, and then go to great lengths to defend those approaches to the text, even to the point of ignoring the words that the text actually uses. The arguments can be quite sophisticated and intricate, but they are built on a foundation of a child’s understanding, which is far more handicapped than we need to be.

I sensed the deep enthusiasm LDS practitioners have for living with your loved ones for all eternity in the afterlife; it is very real. And although I adore my loved ones, I admit that even I am taken aback by the concept of eternal coexistence, even in resurrected form; eternity seems like quite a long time, does it not? Indeed, to my understanding, this is both a core attraction of LDS faith, and the reason why some choose to leave it: what if you don’t want to be with your spouse or extended family for all eternity?

I spoke with Elder Gong several times on our tour. He was a profoundly impressive man, displaying the kind of inner serenity that I have perceived with other holy men I have known. He was, nevertheless, quietly defensive about the work of the Temples (170 active LDS temples worldwide now), in front of Christians who were not obviously at peace with baptizing the dead. He picked his words quite carefully, as anyone in that position surely must.

LDS baptisms of dead Jews should be an irrelevant curiosity to most Jews (though some see it quite differently than I do). But I understand that among many others in the world, this is a sore subject, to put it mildly. Anti-LDS actions by government in America who have feared and hated the LDS have been outrageous, even tyrannical. In 1890 the Supreme Court upheld the complete dissolution of the LDS Church, and the seizure of its properties. There was clearly an expectation that this would be the end of the LDS, which has manifestly not happened. But many of the institutions that Jews have built in order to keep our educational system strong are absent within the LDS community. There are, apparently, no dedicated LDS schools until you get to college and BYU (and a few affiliates). The Latter-day Saints have consistently and quietly gone about their business, taking the hits and keeping on. I say “quietly,” but it has always been clear to me that the location and magnificence of the DC Temple is there to extend a prominent middle finger to a federal government that tried to destroy them time and again.

There are about 16 million LDS at the moment, meaning people alive today who at some time in their lives identified themselves as Latter-day Saints, or whose parents, when they were children, asked for their names to be included on the church’s records. Apparently, even among practicing LDS members, as many as 50% of each generation becomes less active or leaves the faith outright. There were only 2 million Latter-day Saints in the world in the 1960s, mostly in Utah. Now the majority live outside the United States (and only about 1/8th in Utah). Latter Day Saints have many children, but they also proselytize very actively. It is a community that’s undergoing constant change, which you might think would be more concerned about holding on to its traditions. Given the growth and turnover it seems likely that only a small fraction of Latter-day Saints worldwide have an LDS grandparent. So Latter-day Saints are still a community of relatively little deep tradition.

When I talked about our visit and this piece with others, they suggested that there is something “cultish” about LDS. I don’t see it. Seen from the outside, I think that all non-pagan faiths are somewhere between kinda nuts and outright kooky; for those who do not understand a faith on its own terms, everything that is different must be wrong. And we are all, to some extent, defensive about what we do, so it is understandable, though surely not commendable, that outsiders often label other faiths as cults.

I have written before on how every person has their own G-d, in some way, because our conception of G-d is formed through our own unique relationship with the divine. G-d is formed in our consciousness and lives in our hearts – and since no two people are identical, no two conceptions of G-d are truly identical. Nevertheless, there is enough commonality within a given faith that we can say that we are connected to the same deity, albeit, perhaps, to different aspects of that same proverbial elephant. The G-d of the Jews connects to all Jews in ways that are different, but common enough that we are pretty sure we really share the same G-d.

But it struck me that the further one moves away from the Torah, the more different the deity really is from the G-d of the Torah (the G-d I yearn for). The alien nature of the LDS Temple made my wife and I both realize the gap between the G-d we know, and the G-d that others know. We should take every opportunity to reinforce commonality between all “good” faiths, of course, but whether or not we actually share a deity is very much an open question.

There is a paradox implicit in the LDS faith: their Temple is only for their practitioners (going to the Temple, especially if it is not nearby, may only happen a few times in a typical life – while churchgoing is weekly). What goes on inside is a closely-held secret, and revealing it to outsiders is forbidden. Non-believers are not welcome except, as in this case, where the building is “deconsecrated” so it is not an operational Temple. This is for the LDS Church, which seeks to be essentially a universal faith.

Judaism, on the other hand, does not aspire to be a universal faith. But our temple was meant to attract people to it, even those who are not Jews, and whom we do not even expect to become Jews. “For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.” (Isaiah 56:7) It is paradoxical to me that LDS, which seeks to be universal, are exclusive about their practices, while Judaism, which is meant to be only for people who choose that specific kind of relationship with G-d, nevertheless opens its playbook (the practices and sacrifices in the temple) to be available to all the world. Go figure.

It was a most informative and fascinating day!

*“Mormon” is not a welcome moniker, so even though I was raised using it, I am respecting their preference by using “LDS” instead.


The Paschal Lamb: Reaffirming the Value of Each Person

Judeo-Christian creed values each human life. We often forget that this principle is not shared by everyone. A “rational” person treats people as the sum of their utilitarian value, and thus is mystified why anyone should care about what happens to Uighurs or Hutus or even Ukrainians. 

But even as we can trace the idea of each life being valuable to Genesis and man created in G-d’s image and with a divinely-gifted soul, the text makes it clear that people need to be regularly reminded of how important it is to be considerate of all other people, from family members to nameless transients who might just be passing through.

There is a “breadcrumb” word in the Torah that links four distinctly different stories, showing us that there is a common connection between them – and I think it helps us see the korban pesach, the paschal lamb, in an entirely new light.

The four instances are as follows (the common word highlighted):

1: When Midianite traders passed by, they pulled Joseph up out of the pit. They sold Joseph for twenty pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites, who brought Joseph to Egypt.

2: Moses then summoned all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go, pull out lambs for your families, and slaughter the passover offering.

3: When the ram’s horn pulls [sounds a long blast] they must approach the mountain.”

4: The elders of the town nearest to the corpse shall then take a heifer which has never been worked, which has never pulled in a yoke;

This word, meshech, is not found anywhere else in the Torah. And in every one of the above verses, the word is either seemingly extraneous, or not-quite-right. These words jump out as odd choices if the goal is merely to relate a story. Which tells us that they are meant to be connected to each other. 

The connection is quite something, because it shows us how we grow, and then how we institutionalize the lessons we were supposed to have learned when Cain killed Abel.

Joseph’s brothers cast him into a pit – and out of the family. They do this from selfishness, and they do it without any consideration in advance for what their father – and G-d – would think about their act.

The paschal lamb is a corrective for what happens to Joseph. We are commanded to do it by G-d, and to fulfill the commandment in a household, with nobody allowed to leave all that night. Instead of casting someone out, the paschal lamb keeps everyone in.

When the brothers covered up for Joseph, they used animal blood on his coat to deceive their father. The paschal lamb’s blood is daubed on the door frame prior to living Egypt, to publicly declare our consideration for G-d’s commandment, to make a public stand, and to affiliate ourselves with a people trying to build a relationship with G-d, instead of how the brothers used blood to try to extinguish a relationship.

Indeed, Joseph’s extraction from the pit was the beginning of the Jewish people’s insertion into Egypt. And the paschal lamb forms a tidy bookend: used constructively, the blood marks the beginning of the Exodus from Egypt. Only those who performed the action with the paschal lamb were allowed to leave Egypt. When we offer the paschal lamb, we are admitting that the brothers were wrong, and we mark the corrective action on every doorpost.

There are other parallels between just these two cases as well: Joseph insists that his bones be taken back to Canaan, and we are expressly forbidden from breaking the bones of the paschal lamb (there is a hint here to resurrection). Both Joseph and the paschal lamb are investing in the timeless, in the eternal relationship between G-d and the people – which is in direct contrast to the brothers, who disposed of Joseph both to shed a relationship, and with a complete dearth of long-term planning.

The third verse, that of the ram’s horn “pulling” at Sinai brings G-d into the frame more directly, and makes the familial into the national. The paschal lamb was eaten within a household, all the people under one roof. The reference to the ram’s horn blowing (pulling) happened at a time when all the people were together – the nation replacing the family – under one roof, at the mountain.

Indeed, the word used to suggest the ram’s horn blowing is yovel, the same word as the Jubilee. The Jubilee is a Torah-decreed restoration of assets on a 50-year cycle, a legal means to ensure that everyone remained insecure, dependent either on continued connections to G-d or man (more on this here.)  So the call of the ram’s horn is the way we know it is time to approach the mountain (as we did at Sinai), the announcement that we as a people are supposed to reach out to G-d. It is not just about a few brothers quarreling, or even each household coming together with the paschal lamb: the blowing of the ram’s horn at Sinai is a collective desire to connect to G-d.

The last example of this word for pull forms a perfect restorative for the story of Joseph. Whenever a dead body is found lying in the open, presumably because nobody cared enough to care for them, then it is a loss born by the closest town. They pay the cost of a young heifer, complete with declarations by the elders:

Absolve, G-d, Your people Israel whom You redeemed, and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among Your people Israel. And they will be absolved of bloodguilt.  Thus you will remove from your midst guilt for the blood of the innocent, for you will be doing what is right in the sight of G-d.

This is a perfect contrast to what happened to Joseph! Instead of using the blood of an animal to hide one’s guilt for the blood of the innocent (Joseph), the Torah teaches us to do the opposite: always try to ensure that we take responsibility for everyone, even a random stranger who passes through. That responsibility is born through a combination of expense, embarrassment to the town, and the symbolic meaning of the slain heifer: each loss of life is a loss of potential.

In this way, the Torah subtly ties all four of these episodes together. Though each episode deals with a different animal (Joseph/Lamb/Goat/Heifer) we learn from this that it is not the specific animal that matters – it is any wasted life is a loss of opportunity, an echo of the damage the brothers did when they threw Joseph into that pit.

We learn that our goal should always be to build families, relationships between the generations, the relationship between man and G-d and even – in the case of the heifer – the relationship that we should have even with a random stranger who is in need.

This approach helps reinforce the idea that eating karpas at the beginning of the Seder reminds us of the multi-colored coat that Joseph wore, and which his brothers dipped in blood. Just as the brothers put us into Egypt, then it is the paschal lamb that helps bring us out. Caring for one another is the pathway to freedom.

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


Freedom’s Bane

It is almost axiomatic that rural voters vote red, and urban voters vote blue. Single women are much more likely to vote for Democrats, while married women are more like to vote for Republicans. And I think there is a single, profoundly important explanation for all of it.


Rural voters know how to fix things, and get things done. They depend on themselves, on their families and communities, and in their faiths. Their bedrock is a sense of self, and the people upon whom they know they can rely in times of need.

Urban voters, on the other hand, live in a dehumanizing world, one in which people are treated like cogs. Mass transit, apartment buildings, clogged freeways… urban citizens do not rely on people – they rely on systems, on institutions. And institutions do not give us a fundamental sense of security. Institutions, whether orphanages, public schools, or hospitals, do not provide the kind of human companionship that exists in a close marriage, a loving family, or a supportive community. No bureaucracy can give you a heartfelt hug. Single women in cities vote blue because even a governmental promise is better than no promise at all. Insecurity is the reason people trade liberty for security/safety – and inevitably lose both.

Insecurity on the individual level does far more harm than merely incentivizing us to vote for Democrats. We erect walls to protect ourselves, and those walls prevent us, in turn, from living our lives fully. In a marriage, insecurity makes it hard to fully commit, because we are afraid to truly open up to another person. Born of insecurity, hookups first replace and then preclude real relationships. Insecurity makes us desperate to belong to something – practically anything. Insecurity feeds the LGBT craze, the need for tattoos, the desire to participate in mass hysteria events, to join the mob and share in the outrage of the day.

Insecurity then is a massive impediment, stopping us from growing, from reaching our potential, both as individuals, as groups and even as nations. Because the fruits of insecurity undermine every facet of a good society. Insecure people need other people to validate their own decisions. They gossip and put down others, using words or other forms of bullying. And insecure people live their own lives with self-imposed limits, afraid of those leaps into the unknown – from marriage to new ventures – that may well fail.

I came around to this point of view while looking at a biblical concept, known as tzaraas (mistranslated as leprosy). Tzaraas is something that only happens to insecure people, as a direct result of acting in such a way that curtails individual ambition, and harms the fabric of society. Tzaraas occurs to only two people in the text:

Moses spoke up and said, “What if they do not believe me and do not listen to me, but say: G-d did not appear to you?” … And the Lord said furthermore to 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, like snow. (Ex. 4: 1-6)

Moses was punished because he was insecure both about the people, and about his own ability to convince them! Given the opportunity to change the world, Moses demurs. G-d responds by directly punishing Moses’ self-doubt.

The only other case of someone contracting tzaraas in the text is when Miriam expresses both racism (in her criticism of Moses’ foreign wife), and insecurity about her own relationship with G-d:

Miriam and Aaron spoke concerning Moses on the matter of the Cushite woman that [Moses had married]. … They said, “Has G-d spoken only through Moses? Has [God] not spoken through us as well?” G-d heard it.

G-d calls Miriam and Aaron out, and explains why Moses has the position that he does. Then,

As the cloud withdrew from the Tent, there was Miriam stricken with tzaraas like snow.

Miriam had slandered her brother and his wife. But she also expressed her own deep insecurities about her own position in the world. The fact that it happened not to two random people but instead to two of the three leaders of the entire nation, tells us that insecurity is not limited to the general populace: leaders are insecure, too. And when they are, that insecurity threatens the entire fabric of a society.

The leading symptom of tzaraas is a breakout of a color – white. The word for “white” is first found in the Torah as the name of a certain character, Lavan (the origin of the word “albino” BTW). Lavan’s key personality trait in the text is basic neediness: he rushes toward rich men, he tries to bring everyone into his home to enrich himself, and he consistently works to never let people leave (both Rebekkah and Jacob manage to leave only under considerable pressure to remain). Lavan is insecurity incarnate, a person who openly seeks the validation of others, his own aggrandizement, and is terrified of losing anything – whether a goat, a daughter, or his idols. Seeking attention for its own sake is a poor proxy for real success or real respect from others. Worse than that: when we act in needy ways, then we invariably limit other people, putting them down while we try to boost ourselves up.

By identifying Lavan with tzaraas and the errors of both Moses and Miriam, the Torah is telling us in great detail (Lev. 13 and 14) that we must always be alert to the risks of thinking too little of ourselves. After all, we are all created with a divinely-gifted soul – should we really be aiming low? The key is that thinking more of ourselves and our own opportunities and responsibilities leads to a profoundly positive outcome: if we are not insecure then we can invest in turn in other people, building them up instead of putting them down.

The Torah’s remedies for insecurity are to force a person to re-examine themselves, their position (their clothing/beged denotes their status), and their relationships with others. By learning to value our own thoughts, and the community and even G-d’s presence, we are able to gain confidence in what we are able to achieve.

We are not here to be passive. We should not be mere pawns on a board, or cogs in a machine – that way leads to society and everyone in it being institutionalized, no more able to think for ourselves than an automaton in an assembly line.

All of that said, I am genuinely stumped as to how we could best address this societal rot, the widespread insecurities that lead to so many of the problems in our world today. How does one help a confused and sad person find a productive path forward? How do we help people to help themselves? This is not about giving people money or stuff – we need to change the way people think.

The Torah provides a model for how to address insecurity: rely on others for the diagnosis; time alone to ponder; take control of our own lives, etc. That works fine if the problem is really just in a specific person, as with the cases in the Torah. But in the 22nd Century we have erected manmade impediments that make it so hard for people to come into their own. In the woke world, we have propagated Eve’s initial victimhood (“the snake made me do it!”) and made it the default excuse for everything that happens, whether that thing seems to happen to us, or we do it to ourselves, or we do it to others. Nothing is our fault. We have infantilized everyone, so, like babies, nothing is really anyone’s fault.

How do we fix it? I suppose that at least in some sense we have to make the remedy fit the ailment: fixing people requires people, not just systems or institutions. It requires time and patience and interpersonal investment. Communities and families are built with generations of investment and love. For each person, solutions require, to some degree, a leap of faith. After all, we never know that we can do something – until we have already done it. G-d calls on us to take risks, to stretch for things that seem out of reach, to never be so insecure that we need to put others down.

What we can do is remove the systemic problems that led to our current challenges: we can deconstruct the institutions and systems that have replaced families, homes and communities. We can deeply reform all government assistance programs, shifting rights and responsibilities back to individuals, their families and the voluntary community organizations that seek to do good. Across the board we need to foster and encourage the foundational concepts of helping people take back control of their own lives, helping them grow confidence from their own accomplishments. The result would be to turn insecure people into more capable, happier, and more successful – secure – versions of themselves.

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


Spiritual and Physical Fires

Fire is fire, right?

Actually, in the Torah, there are different kinds of fire. And the differences illustrate some interesting lessons, as well as offering an explanation for one of the odder stories in the Torah – the one about the snake on the stick.

There is a word for “burning” – saraf. And there is a word for “fire” – eish. In the text they represent two different kinds of burning. The word saraf refers to the physical act of burning, while eish represents fire with a spiritual component. I know this sounds abstract, but if we look at the text, we’ll see that it is not abstract at all.

Saraf first appears in the Tower of Babel Story: “They said to one another, Come, let us make bricks and burn them hard.” The word saraf is repeated – while the word eish is not present. In this example, burning is used as a constructive tool! And I think G-d approves – He does not seem to have any problem with the brick-making itself – He only becomes involved when they decide to use the bricks to glorify themselves by seeking to reach heaven and achieve enduring fame.

Much later in the Torah, “the people” come together with a single voice, much as they had in Babel. But instead of proposing a constructive solution, they just want to complain:

And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why did you make us leave Egypt to die in the wilderness? There is no bread and no water, and we have come to loathe this miserable food.”

G-d’s response is… odd.

G-d sent saraf snakes against the people. They bit the people and many of the Israelites died.

Then G-d reinforces the point, by having Moses make a saraf and when people looked at it, they were cured.

Then G-d said to Moses, “Make a saraf and mount it on a standard. And anyone who was bitten who then looks at it shall recover.”

There are many rich symbolic explanations for this episode, but it is intriguing to consider that there may have been a lesson in the choice of the word, saraf. It is a simple lesson: complaining is not productive. When the generation of Babel used their words, they used them to decide to build together, to use saraf productively. So when the Jews in the wilderness used their words to complain, they were sent a reminder of a preferable alternative: find ways to build, and to make things, instead of just complaining about them. When they looked at the saraf, then they could remember that saraf can be used for good.

Note that saraf is not about fire that aims for – or achieves – spirituality. When the Torah uses saraf it generally refers to simple, or even inglorious, application of fire. Judah planned to saraf Tamar for loose morals. Saraf is a technical burning, not a spiritual connection – so the red heifer is prepared with saraf, as it is not an offering itself. Saraf, like most things in the Torah, is not good or bad in itself – and as we saw with the bricks, even burning can be a positive tool.

Eish, on the other hand, is a spiritual fire, and it comes in two flavors.

Eish from G-d:

When G-d delivers eish, there is a distinctly destructive or at least power-projecting aura – G-d’s fire destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, the pillar of fire guiding and protecting the people, the fire on Sinai etc. (a representative sample is in the footnotes). When G-d wields fire, it is destructive, power unleashed – something that frightens us and makes us keep our distance.

Eish from Man:

It is well known that the letters comprising eish are the only letters that appear in both the Hebrew word for “male” and “female,” suggesting that there is some shared spiritual quality that mankind has. And so it is for every example in the Torah in which people bring eish:

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and put it on his son Isaac. He himself took the fire and the knife; and the two walked off together.

And many, many examples of when we bring an offering, which the text identifies as: “a pleasing odor, an offering by fire to G-d.” Similarly, the Levites are meant to live on spiritual food – the offerings to G-d by fire. Even the golden calf is consumed in fire (to make it akin to a sin offering) before it was ground up.

In the hands of mankind, the fire is meant to reach upward, to create a spiritual link either with G-d or with false gods (through child sacrifice). Either way, eish is connected to our desire for a spiritual connection.



Verses with divine fire (every “fire” is, in the original Hebrew, the word eish):

When the sun set and it was very dark, there appeared a smoking oven, and a fiery torch which passed between those pieces.

G-d rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah sulfurous fire from G-d out of heaven—

A messenger of G-d appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed.

And G-d sent thunder and hail, and fire streamed down to the ground, as G-d rained down hail upon the land of Egypt.

G-d went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, that they might travel day and night. The pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night did not depart from before the people.

Now the Presence of יהוה appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain.

The people took to complaining bitterly before G-d. G-d heard and was incensed: a fire of G-d broke out against them, ravaging the outskirts of the camp.

That place was named Taberah because a fire of G-d had broken out against them.

You came forward and stood at the foot of the mountain. The mountain was ablaze with flames to the very skies, dark with densest clouds.

G-d spoke to you out of the fire; you heard the sound of words but perceived no shape—nothing but a voice.

For your own sake, therefore, be most careful—since you saw no shape when G-d spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire—

For your God is a consuming fire, an impassioned God.

And a fire went forth from G-d and consumed the two hundred and fifty men offering the incense.

Has any people heard the voice of a god speaking out of a fire, as you have, and survived?

From the heavens [God] let you hear the divine voice to discipline you; on earth [God] let you see the great divine fire; and from amidst that fire you heard God’s words.

Let us not die, then, for this fearsome fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of our G-d any longer, we shall die.

For a fire has flared in My wrath
And burned to the bottom of Sheol,
Has consumed the earth and its increase,
Eaten down to the base of the hills.


Why Did G-d Make the World?

After many years, I think I have a plausible answer to this question. And it comes straight out of the text, directly from observing what G-d does in Genesis (and the rest of the Torah).

First off, we have to appreciate that G-d creates separation in the world: He separates the waters above and below. Then He separates Himself (by blowing his spirit into man). And then He separates Adam to create Eve.

And in every case, G-d does so because he wants there to be a process of reunification. It is that process that is beautiful, a love story that encompasses all life in the world. And it all stems from the fact that the separation itself is never called “good” – but the reunification of heaven and earth, the connections between people and man and G-d are all repeatedly called “good” and “holy.”

Indeed, G-d is found in the gap. G-d’s voice comes from the gap between the angels on the ark. G-d is found in the love between men and women as well as the love between any two people. And G-d is found when mankind reaches out to Him, trying to span the gap between our divinely-gifted souls and their source.

Here are the specific cases, from a high-level view:

Separation in Creation

The Torah tells us of all the things G-d made that He deemed “good.” But several things were, quite conspicuously, NOT called “good”:

God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day and called the darkness Night. And there was evening and there was morning, a first day.  God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the water, that it may separate water from water.”   God made the expanse, and it separated the water which was below the expanse from the water which was above the expanse. And it was so. God called the expanse Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.

None of these are called “good” – because they are not. They create a lack, a vacuum, something missing. But what is amazing is that so much of the Torah is dedicated to bridging this gap, naming the connections “holy.” So we have the Menorah and all its symbolism: bringing light into darkness, reinforcing the power of light, ideas, and all intangible goodness.

We also have the Altar, designed to span the gap between the physical and spiritual planes, with its core offerings, that of Elevation. (I have written quite a lot about this here.) This includes reunifying the waters above and below, as well as explaining the ritual bath. That we are here to reunify the world is shown through the laws concerning kosher (and non-Kosher) animals. It is why we pour out blood – always aspiring upward, never toward the animal kingdom. The tabernacle, the Mishkan, embodies all the ways in which we can work to add holiness to the world by reconnecting.

Separation of Man and Woman

When Eve is created, “G-d cast a deep sleep upon Adam; and, while he slept, and closed up the flesh there.” The word for “flesh” is basar, and it is used in this separative act, an act that G-d does because, as He said, “It is not good for Man to be by himself.” So G-d does not give Adam a wife who is made from an independent source. Instead, Eve came from Adam.  They were a unified whole, and G-d separated them from each other, just as He had the light and darkness, and the waters above and below. G-d separates things on purpose.

And what is man supposed to do? “Hence a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, so that they become one flesh.” Man and woman are created in an act of separating the flesh – and then they are meant to reunify back into one flesh?! This seems kind of crazy – after all, Adam was first a unity. If man and wife are supposed to be unified, then why not just make them that way in the first place, instead of deliberately cleaving them apart?

G-d does not want everything to be unified merely because He makes it so. (Indeed, when the Flood happens, G-d opens the spigots above and below, reunifying the waters, and killing everything in its path). Instead, G-d creates the void between heaven and earth. He creates the void between man and woman. G-d wants us to not be self-contained, to feel that we are missing something important. Then, and only then, are we urged to seek connection, reunification.

The challenge is that this reconnection is not meant to be between dominant men and subservient women. The Torah makes it clear that when “Might Makes Right” in the pre-Flood world, where men merely take the women they want, and seek to maximize their own fame, then G-d will destroy the world. When we fail to reconnect in a holy manner, then the entire reason for the existence of life loses its purpose, and G-d can extinguish all life on earth before starting again. Respecting each other is the key in all relationships. Men must seek a partner, not a trophy. And there is a key reason why…

Separation Within G-d

G-d’s creation of man is different than the creation of anything else in the world. Because when G-d makes Adam, “God formed Adam … blowing into his nostrils the spirit of life: thereby Adam became a living being.” (Gen. 2:7) The text is even more specific later on, when G-d is regretting having made mankind: “My spirit shall not remain in humankind forever.” (Gen. 6:3)

G-d is within us. Which means that when G-d made mankind, He split himself just as surely as He split the waters above and below, and he split Eve from Adam. G-d created a lack in Himself when He makes man. Which explains so very much about the Torah and our world! It explains why G-d yearns for us – and also why He wants us to yearn for Him.

G-d deliberately split Himself to make it possible to create a love story with each and every person on earth. True, our love stories (unlike G-d) have real deadlines. They are not open-ended opportunities, because our chance to grow toward G-d, to find His presence in the gap between us when we reach for other, is for only as long as we live. Once our bodies die, our souls return to their source.  But while we live, there is the possibility of a love story.

The Torah dedicates considerable text explaining how we can seek to grow a relationship with G-d, including ways to get close to G-d without being consumed by close proximity. This reunification path dovetails beautifully with growing terrestrial marriages and friendships, as well as with working to connect heaven and earth.   

In every case, reunification is the journey of a lifetime. Any close relationship requires incredible and selfless investment, self-improvement and change – growth in all of its positive meanings.  

“It is not good for man to be by himself,” says G-d. But the text does not tell us that Adam was complaining! He was self-contained. He needed nothing, did not have to feel or risk anything… he was just fine where he was. Indeed, by creating Eve, G-d made Adam capable of loneliness!

G-d could have remained self-contained, too. G-d is G-d: He needs nothing. But He clearly wants something He did not have before the world was created, before Adam had Eve, before G-d invested a part of Himself in mankind.

Which is why, I think the text is telling us, G-d created the world, split the waters, split Adam and Eve, and even split Himself – G-d was making Himself capable of loneliness, capable of longing for something outside Himself. Capable of love that only comes from missing something, missing a part of yourself.

The world is a love story. Not just romantic fluff, of course! We all know hardships and tragedies, agony and delight, euphoria and jealousy… G-d created the world in order to have – and share – this love story with each one of us.

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


A Short Thought on Animal Skins

Mankind is unlike other animals in that we need external protection from the elements: we have no fur or feathers or hide to protect us from the cold or wet or sun. More than this: we have a sense of shame, an extremely important characteristic that spurs us to change and self-improvement.

I think this is a feature, not a bug. After all, when Adam and Eve discover that they are naked and they make themselves loincloths, G-d supplements their existing clothing with tunics made of ohr, skin. “And G-d made garments of skins for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.” Initially, nature does not protect us or cover us; G-d does that.

We are called to imitate G-d. So it is no coincidence that, even after the Garden of Eden, the principle of covering each other remains, but the responsibility shifts from G-d to mankind:

If you take your neighbor’s garment in pledge, you must return it before the sun sets; it is the only available clothing—it is what covers the skin. In what else shall [your neighbor] sleep? Therefore, if that person cries out to Me, I will pay heed, for I am compassionate. (Ex. 22:26-27)

G-d provides skin for mankind. And He calls on us to do it for each other going forward.

It is noteworthy that skins are also used in the text to protect the tabernacle from weather. The Torah has a simple lesson: animal skins are used to protect things that are capable of holiness. Nevertheless, both the tabernacle and people need to be separate (and cloaked) from nature in order to become holy.

P.S. The garments we made ourselves were from plants – and the garments G-d gave us were from animals. This is a foreshadowing of Passover grass+blood, and the mezuzah we use on doorposts which is also achieving holiness through combining animal, plant, and our own efforts.


Why are certain parts of an offering burnt outside the camp?

The Torah tells us of two offerings when parts of a sacrificed animal are separated from the rest, and then burnt outside:

The flesh and the skin were consumed in fire outside the camp. (Lev. 9:11)

The rest of the flesh of the bull, its hide, and its dung shall be put to the fire outside the camp; it is a sin offering.(Ex. 29:14)

Why is this done – and why only in these two cases?

The answer seems apparent enough. These are both sin offerings.  Other offerings are not designed to make us suffer – they are all different ways to connect to G-d, and they do not necessarily require that we feel bad about ourselves. Instead, other (non-sin) offerings are ways to grow a relationship with G-d.

But a sin offering is for when a person is supposed to feel regret and loss, resolving to not committing that sin again. The first named sin in the Torah is that of Cain – G-d warns Cain that, though “sin crouches at the door,” it is within Cain’s ability to master it. Cain fails to do so – teaching us that at the root of sin is the desire to surrender ourselves to our anger, our desire to give into our basest instincts, using violence to dominate. Sin is loss of self control. In the worst case, that of Cain, the ultimate sin is to murder someone.

Which means that an offering that is meant to atone for sin must speak to us at the most fundamental level; we have to feel as though we are suffering in kind for the sin we have committed. We have to try to understand what it would be like to be on the other side of Cain’s rage. And we do that by identifying with the offering.

Herein lies the challenge: If we sacrifice a calf or an ox, we see them as animals, not similar to people. But on the inside, people look much more like animals than they do on the outside – we share all the same organs.  And so, unlike every other offering in the Torah, the sin offering requires that the parts of the animal that make it recognizably not human, should be removed and burnt elsewhere, leaving the offeror a view of an offering that they can see as being more – rather than less – human.

[An @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith, @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter tidbit]


Endorsing Lust Leads to Earth Worship

If there is any single principle of Judeo-Christian belief, it might be this: You must always try to rise above your basest desires. We might rephrase it as “don’t be an animal,” or “always try to grow,” or “love your neighbor as yourself,” but they are all different aspects of the same core ideals: that we are meant to be responsible for our decisions, and that our lives should be lived for more than our own short-term pleasure.

As free agents, we are thus meant to be as libertarian as possible – without being libertines. This is not easy today, in an age that validates – and indeed demands that others applaud – every choice we make that is “true to ourselves.” And being “true to ourselves” really means aspiring to unadulterated narcissism.

Today, in the era of birth control and abortions, the classic practical reasons to not merely follow our urges (like the unwanted pregnancy that comes from extra-marital relations) are no longer relevant. Sex no longer comes with consequences – no obvious visible ones, anyway. So, the argument goes, we can shed all those silly old rules.

But what if the Torah was not written to achieve purely utilitarian ends? What if there is a bigger picture, one that remains relevant even if babies are no longer born out of wedlock, or even if society has agreed that “consenting adults” should be encouraged to pursue consequence-free promiscuity?

Tonight, I came across a perspective in the Torah that I had not comprehended before, and which may shed some light on the other results of putting our desires first.

The Torah has a word, zona, that is translated as a “harlot” or in verb form, as “lust” or “desire.”

It should be noted that in the text, zona does not necessarily suggest a woman who sells sex (though Judah thinks Tamar is a zona and contracts with her in Gen. 38). Zona is first used when Shechem takes Dinah, and her brothers take revenge, explaining to their father: “Should our sister be treated like a harlot/zona?” (Gen. 34:31) In this first use of the word, Dinah’s comparison to a zona suggests that she is treated as a loose woman, as someone who has either surrendered to her own desires, or those of the man. In other words, a zona is not in control of herself or of her situation.

When you make someone else feel powerless, you are destroying their ability to have holy relationships. Dinah’s opinions are not recorded after she was raped, because they were irrelevant at that point: she had lost her agency, and was permanently scarred by the rape, as victims often are.

Telling someone else “you are a victim” is indeed a crime similar to rape: it removes that person’s ability to consciously be in control of her own life. This is the catastrophe – and evil –  of modern liberalism.

Seen in this light, the Torah’s injunctions against being governed by lust are meant to empower people to be in control of themselves, to govern their animal instincts and not the other way around. This is the commandment of the fringes (which men – not women – wear):

That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of G-d and observe them, so that you do not follow after your heart and after your eyes that lead your zona.

When we look down at our own bodies, we are meant to be jolted back toward what we should be thinking about. We are supposed to use our minds to control our bodies, not the other way around. Because when we allow desire to guide our thoughts, then we are down the path toward a form of lust that leads us far away from a connection with G-d.

The Torah describes zona as not merely physical lust, but also the desire to worship external gods, the gods who never demand that you change or grow or accept responsibility:

I will cut off from among their people both that person and all who zona in going zona after Molech. And if any person turns to ghosts and familiar spirits and goes zona after them, I will set My face against that person, whom I will cut off from among the people.” (Lev. 20:5-6)

This kind of zona is about spiritual desire toward natural deities, worshipping natural forces, and it is integrally linked with celebrating our own unfettered lusts:

You must not make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, for they will zona after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and invite you, and you will eat of their sacrifices. And when you take [wives into your households] from among their daughters for your sons, their daughters will zona after their gods and will cause your sons to zona after their gods. (Ex. 34:15-16)

While Israel was staying at Shittim, the menfolk profaned themselves by zona with the Moabite women, who invited the menfolk to the sacrifices for their god. The menfolk partook of them and worshiped that god. (Num 25:1-2)

Note the connection between sexual attraction and the slippery slope into paganism. It sounds awfully familiar to us today: the sexual liberation of America was followed with growing pagan earth-worship. Once we accept that it is our nature, not our conscious morality, that is in charge of our lives, then we end up honoring and worshipping nature. Hedonism and paganism go hand in hand.

Indeed, the Greek ideal of Pan, a goat deity even makes an appearance in the Torah: “So that they may no more offer their sacrifices to the goats after whom they zona.” (Lev. 17:7) The goat-god Pan stood for reckless abandonment of mature responsibilities in favor of emulating an animal pursuing his pleasures in nature.

So to be Jewish means to always try to be better than our desires, and to see narcissism and hedonism as antithetical to all that is good and holy. We must always try to build people up, not diminish them: “Do not degrade your daughter and make her a zona, lest the land fall into zona and the land be filled with depravity.” (Lev. 19:30) When we succumb to our animal selves, we preclude having real relationships. This, my brother points out, is why the Torah forbids offering the price of a zona to G-d: a zona is a false relationship, a soul-sucking proxy in place of a real human connection.

Dinah was considered as a zona because, once raped, she no longer believed that she had agency and free will. A person who sees themselves as a helpless victim, as the inevitable collateral damage of more powerful forces, has endangered their ability to connect with G-d. The Torah’s use of this word makes this explicit: zona means a loss of faith, a loss of confidence that we are meant to be capable of making our own decisions and bearing the consequences for our actions. When the people do not believe that they can, with G-d’s help, conquer the land, when they lose courage in the face of unfavorable odds, G-d accuses them of behaving like people who give in to zona behavior – behavior in which we are governed by our animal instincts and not our relationship to G-d, where we are managed by fear and not faith.

While your children roam the wilderness for forty years, suffering for your zona, until all of your corpses are [buried] in the wilderness. (Num 14:33)

Seen this way, zona is the precisely the opposite of the behavior needed in order to connect with G-d.

This people will thereupon go zona after the alien gods in their midst, in the land that they are about to enter; they will forsake Me and break My covenant that I made with them. Then My anger will flare up against them, and I will abandon them and hide My countenance from them. (Deut. 31:17-18)

When people decide to be “true to themselves,” and pursue their lustful urges, they then become governed by those lusts, and they become helpless victims. Once a person concedes that they are not in charge of their own lives, then they instinctively seek to appease the great natural deities who control the fates of mere mortals, devolving directly into classical paganism. The consequences of applauding whatever “consenting adults choose,” is that our world becomes corrupted as well; people turn to worship Mother Earth in all its forms, and abandon what the Torah tells us should be the real purpose of our lives: bettering people, building holy relationships, and creating a loving and supportive society.


Honoring Investment and Purpose

When, as little children, we learn about death, we also learn about the cycle of life. People, as well as animals, are born, age, and die; it is the way of the world. Nothing in our mindsets changes the underlying physical reality of the life cycle.

But the way we think about life can – and should – change how and when we can create value – or even holiness – by seizing hold of a piece of the natural world and directing it toward a higher ideal. Our worldview can make the difference between man being merely another animal, and aspiring to be better than animals.

Take, for example, growing away from one’s parents. Independence from our parents is inevitable in the way of the world, especially because parents usually predecease their children. But just because something is inevitable does not mean that it cannot be deeply meaningful on a spiritual level as well.

We start with motherhood. Creating and nurturing new life is what mothers do, so when children grow up, it is always bittersweet when they become more independent. But, as the Torah tells, us, the purpose of growing up is not independence per se, but instead investing in the next generation of productive relationships.

Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife so that they become one flesh. (Gen. 2:24)

Marriage is not naturally inevitable. As we know, men are not instinctively monogamous; in a state of nature, powerful men accumulate women as subsidiary possessions, not as life-partners. So the Torah’s assertion that man is meant to leave his parents reflects the natural way of things, but “cleaving to his wife and becoming one flesh” is a prescription for what mankind should strive for, because in the Torah, partnership in marriage is also a prerequisite for partnership in a marriage with G-d. The Torah approach takes an animalistic desire and repurposes it toward a higher goal.

So it perhaps comes as no surprise that the next two times the word “his mother” is found in the Torah not only refers to the role of a mother as a nurturer, but also as the person who helps their son find a new relationship, a relationship where the son marries:

[Ishmael] lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother [Hagar] got a wife for him from the land of Egypt. (Gen. 21:21)

This is motherhood beyond merely nursing a child until he is weaned; this is motherhood that continues to invest the son has a new woman in his life, his own life partner.

Indeed, in the Torah, that kind of motherly investment can stretch from beyond the grave:

Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rebekah as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother’s death. (Gen. 24:67)

Think of how amazing this is – that the ideal mother is able, even well after she has died, to welcome a daughter-in-law into the family. In so doing, she nurtures both her son and his wife even after she no longer lives and breathes.

This is the richest kind of investment in human relations. Just as we say that the highest form of charity is helping someone become capable enough to not require charity any more, the highest form of motherhood is raising a child to the extent that they can, in turn, invest in their own relationships. The bonds to one’s mother need not be broken when one marries, of course, but the exclusive dependence on one’s mother rightfully should diminish when a man marries.

The Torah is all about intergenerational investments, of seeing that every small thing we do today can contribute toward the Big Picture, a future that is measured in days or in generations. So while motherhood certainly involves giving birth, nursing, and caring for a child, the Big Picture for a good mother is to encourage children down a path toward the rest of their lives – toward maturity, adulthood, relationships and, above all, toward purpose. Because if we are to be more than mere animals, we need to invest in outcomes and goals that are far more than the animalistic physical cycle of life.

The Torah commands a number of ways in which we are taught to honor a mother’s investment. The text repeatedly commands us to never strike or curse our parents, and we are also commanded to directly honor/glorify them as well. And I think this is specifically because of the investment that parents make to their children.

In keeping with the idea that we are always supposed to find ways to elevate nature, to find ways to make the mundane holy, the Torah tells us of a mother bird and her eggs:

If a bird’s nest chance to be before thee in the way in any tree, or on the ground, whether they be young ones, or eggs, and the mother bird sitting upon the young, or upon the eggs, thou shalt not take the mother bird together with the young: but thou shalt surely let the mother go, and take the young to thee; that it may be well with thee, and that thou mayst prolong thy days. (Deut. 22:6-7)

The idea is that we should always preserve and elevate the ideal of motherhood, even when we, for our own needs, have to change the outcome. We do not make a mother suffer through the loss of her profound investment in her young.

I think this also helps explains a specific verse which is repeated three times in the Torah: “do not cook a kid in his mother’s milk.” Jewish Law understands that the reason for the repetition is to provide each of the facets of the law that we practice when we do not mix meat and milk. But the specific language used in the text is far more poetic and symbolic than merely, “don’t mix meat and milk.” The imagery is of motherhood, and the investment that a mother makes in her offspring. So if a mother’s job is to help her young reach their mature purpose in this world, then if we choose to alter that purpose, then we must do so while still respecting the mother’s investment of herself into her young.

The word for “cook” is another clue. The root word for “cook”, bshl, really is used in the text to mean, “converting something edible into readiness for a higher purpose.” You can see this everywhere the word is used in the text:

[the butler’s dream] On the vine were three branches. It had barely budded, when out came its blossoms and its clusters bshl into grapes. Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes, pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup, and placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand.” (Gen. 40:10-11) [making mere grapes into a king’s elixir]

Tomorrow is a day of rest, a holy sabbath of G-d. Bake what [of the manna that] you would bake and bshl what you would bshl; and all that is left put aside to be kept until morning.” (Ex. 16:23) [making normal food ready for the Sabbath]

[ordaining the priests] You shall take the ram of ordination and bshl its flesh in the sacred precinct; and Aaron and his sons shall eat the flesh of the ram, and the bread that is in the basket, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.

The same word is used for converting an animal into a sin offering, and of converting a Nazirite back into a normal (holier) existence. In all cases bshl refers to changing the value of a thing, and making it fit for a higher purpose. This is a key concept, because the mother goat has made a kid, which she nurses. When we seek to eat that goat, we are indeed giving it a higher purpose than it first had – but it is still a different purpose than the one the mother goat had in mind!

And we can certainly do that. We can kill an immature animal for food. But when we do, we must still take care to honor the mother who invested in her kid in the first place, to not use the milk of a mother’s sustenance for the purpose of prematurely ending a life.

Why is there so much in the Torah supporting this deep respect for motherhood? I think that ultimately, it is because G-d has invested in us in much the same way as a mother invests in her young! G-d willed us into existence, but he also shaped us and invested his own spirit in each of us to form our souls, in much the same way as we perceive that mothers pour themselves into their young. What does G-d – or a mother – ask for in return? Gratitude. Connection.

Which in turn explains another key linguistic challenge. The words for “milk” in the Torah and for “fat” are the same root word: chlv. We can only tell whether the text means “milk” or “fat” based on the context in which the word is found. Yet this understanding of milk as an investment in a relationship helps us understand why animal chlv is the same word as a mother’s milk:

You shall eat no chlv of ox or sheep or goat. Chlv from animals that died or were torn by beasts may be put to any use, but you must not eat it. If anyone eats the chlv of animals from which offerings by fire may be made to G-d, the person who eats it shall be cut off from kin. (Lev. 7:23-25)

So we cannot disrespect motherhood by cooking a kid in his mother’s milk. And we do not disrespect the maternal contributions of G-d by consuming the chlv that He contributes to the animal. Instead, we are commanded to always burn the fats on the altar, as they are not for us. They are gifts to G-d.

Why? Because the very first fats in the Torah were those of Abel’s offerings:

Abel, for his part, brought the firstlings of his flock and from their fats (chlv). G-d paid heed to Abel and his offering,

Abel’s offering is then echoed, in its way, by Avraham, who also gives chlv to others, the angels whom he perceived as being connected to G-d.

He took curds and chlv and the calf that had been prepared and set these before them; and he waited on them under the tree as they ate.

We are not permitted to eat fat because fat is meant to be a gift, appreciation for the blessings we are given. We cannot repurpose fats to eat them, because when we repurpose it must be for a higher purpose, and a gift is already the highest possible purpose that the fat can achieve. This is what Abel showed us: the fats of the animals are the highest and best thing from the animal, and so we do not disrespect the ultimate maker of all things by trying to use those fats for something other than as a gift.

This connection explains yet another conundrum: Three times the text tells us: “You shall not cook (bshl) a kid in its mother’s milk.” But the text immediately preceding these words is – in two of those cases – “The choice first fruits of your soil you shall bring to the house of your G-d.” This verse directly confirms the connection between Abel’s offering of the firstlings, and the fact that he also brought chlv, from the fats of the animals. We show gratitude to G-d, the creator of all life, just as we honor motherhood. Acknowledging that the first fruits are gifts from G-d is human gratitude, just as we respect motherhood and its gifts to the next generation. Both are using everything for the highest possible purpose: furthering holy relationships.

Though the text tells us three times “you shall not cook (bshl) a kid in its mother’s milk,” the third time it is found (Deut. 14:21) the text does not refer to the first fruits. Instead, that phrase is immediately preceded by, “For you are a holy nation to the Lord your G-d.” When we show appreciation and gratitude, when we connect with G-d and honor his gifts, then we become holy. Holiness is all about elevation of the natural world toward positive and healthy relationships based on gratitude for the personal investment that G-d – and mothers – make into their own.

The natural world has a cycle of life. When we add the holy ingredient of ongoing gratitude mixed with the understanding that our investments are meant to be both “in the moment” and connecting generations, we come to understood a core identity of the Jewish people and the relationships that we are commanded in the Torah to have with G-d and with Man.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith and @eliyahumasinter joint venture!]


Destiny? Not for the Brave!

Today is the festival of Purim, named after the “lots” used to decide the date when the Jews would be destroyed. There is certainly a widespread belief in the idea of fate and destiny, sometimes revealable through the use of oracles or divining or – in this case – the drawing of lots.

The Book of Esther is the story of how people refused to accept the inevitable, defeating the fate-driven plans of our enemies. Esther and Mordechai work to change fate at every level, showing that a determined minority can defend itself even against overwhelming odds.

Our world is full of similar stories. Everyone knew the Ukrainian military would fold when the Russians rolled in. Everyone, apparently, except the Ukrainians who refused to accept their fate.  Everyone “knows” all kinds of things that, when actually tested, may prove to fail. Though fate only fails if people have the will to write their own future.

And this is the story of Jewish survival from our very first expulsion into foreign lands – once Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Rome, and now all over the settled globe. It makes no sense that the Jews should both remain distinct and still survive – and even thrive. And thrive we do, in the face of unstoppable odds, because we are living proof that we can, with G-d’s help and blessing, create our own future.

There is a lesson here for all mankind: if we are conscious of our own potential, the future is not written. It is not pre-ordained. It is not governed by the laws of inevitability. Instead, the future is within our grasp, to shape, change and craft for the benefit of all that we hold dear.


Is G-d In or Out of Time?

How hard could this question be to answer?

It stands to reason that if G-d “experiences” time as we do, then He would be junior to time itself – and thus would not be G-d, creator of the world and all that is in it (including time). So, of course G-d must be outside of our flow of time!

But the Torah suggests this is not correct. It is crystal clear that when mankind does something G-d does not expect, then He is, in fact, surprised – which is impossible if G-d is simultaneously present across all of time. A G-d who is always outside of time would not experience regret, or get angry, or react to what we do – it would be senseless. The G-d of the Torah is, at least in the text, usually experiencing events and the flow of time alongside humanity. He changes His mind, on a regular basis, based on what mankind does.

Note the word “usually,” because it is critical. At certain moments G-d tells us the future, and delivers timeless commandments. At these moments, G-d is clearly outside of our time.

It sounds confusing, but I think it is actually quite simple: G-d is capable of being outside time, but He, being capable of anything, is also capable of limiting Himself (both spatially and temporally) to allow mankind to exist and to have a real relationship with us, one in which both parties can grow together. Which means He is capable of experiencing time as we do.

It is a nice theory, but is there any textual support for it in the Torah itself?

To our delight, this week my study partners and I came to understand that the text actually telegraphs when G-d is outside of time, when He exercises unnatural control and tells us what will happen in the future. And in the process, we come to understand that G-d does not normally choose to do this. The default seems to be that G-d experiences time alongside humanity; this is His preference.

Here’s the evidence: the very first open miracle G-d does for post-Flood mankind is the miracle of giving 90-year-old Sara a child. G-d predicts the future (even the name of the child):

“But My covenant I will maintain with Isaac, whom Sara shall bear to you at this season next year.” (Gen. 17:21

What is interesting is that G-d discusses this a number of times:

Is anything too wondrous for G-d? I will return to you at the same season next year, and Sara shall have a son.” (Gen. 18:14)

Sara conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the season of which God had spoken. (Gen. 21:2)

There is a word in common for all of these… the word translated as “season.” The word in the Hebrew is moed. But as we shall see, while the word may refer to “a time of year,” in the Torah it is always linked to when G-d acts as an omniscient G-d, a G-d who knows the future and who clearly is willing to manipulate the world to achieve the future He has in mind.

The next time the word is used in the text is when G-d is telling of an upcoming plague:

But G-d will make a distinction between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of the Egyptians, so that nothing shall die of all that belongs to the Israelites. G-d has fixed the moed: tomorrow G-d will do this thing in the land.’”

G-d is here again predicting the future, acting outside of time.

There is a “book-end” quality to the use of this word that contains wisps of Ecclesiastes, because these initial appearances of the word moed are about Yitzchak being born, and the animals dying – “a time to be born and a time to die.”

Yet, unlike in Ecclesiastes, both of these times are actually supernatural events. Neither the birth of Yitzchak nor the death of the animals is when nature would have done it. G-d uses this word to tell us that he is deliberately meddling with the natural order of things.

To understand what moed really means, we have to go back to the beginning: literally the fourth day of creation.

God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate day from night; they shall serve as signs and for moadim [plural of moed], and for days and years.

One of these does not belong with the others. A day is clearly delineated by the sun and moon. Months, too, can be shown using the phases of the moon. And a year is a set number of moon cycles (or solar days).

But the word moed does not fit in this group, because the Torah never uses the word to mean a simple natural season like Spring or Summer or an obvious set time. Instead, it refers to something far more interesting – the creation of the word moed, when G-d decided to create time in the first place! A moed is nothing more or less than a mental construct, an invention of G-d or man that has no hard link to the natural world at all.

This is a massive mental shift for our understanding of the world. We already know that in the Torah, when G-d is not involved, mankind slides toward a Might Makes Right society. That was the world between the expulsion from the Garden and the Flood. Mankind became so evil that G-d decided to destroy the world and start over.

So how is G-d involved with the world post-Flood? He starts with a conversation with Avram, but eventually G-d does something that separates His power from that of the natural world: G-d miraculously allows a woman who is too old to bear children, to do just that. That is when G-d speaks of a moed, of being both outside time and outside of nature.

But we should not get the idea that moed is only a power that G-d has! Because He very specifically, and repeatedly tells us to emulate Him: to create and perpetuate a mental construct that spans time, and has no natural justification.

Throughout the seven days unleavened bread shall be eaten; no leavened bread shall be found with you, and no leaven shall be found in all your territory.   And you shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what G-d did for me when I went free from Egypt.’ ‘And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead in order that the Teaching of G-d may be in your mouth—that with a mighty hand G-d freed you from Egypt.  You shall keep this symbolic commandment at its moed from year to year.’


You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread—eating unleavened bread for seven days as I have commanded you—at the moed of Abib, for in it you went forth from Egypt.


You shall keep this symbolic commandment at its moed from year to year.

Think of how crazy this sequence is. Before the Exodus had even occurred, G-d was telling us how to remember it, how to teach our children, and even how we should recreate the experience every year! THAT is G-d truly being outside of time! And he does it while invoking the word moed, a word the people already knew connected to miracles and accurate prophecies.

The first Passover was a supernatural event (like every moed before it): G-d meddled with time and with nature, doing something that established His presence in the world in the eyes of mankind as never before. The birth of Yitzchak was the first open miracle after the flood, but Passover was the biggest miracle in the history of the Jewish people.

But after that first Passover, why is moed – a word suggesting being outside of time – invoked? Because while the Exodus is thousands of years in our past – it is also always in our present! Passover is indeed another mental construct, a creation in our minds that we then apply thoughts and words and deeds in order to morph it into a hard reality in our lives. Passover is a mental re-invention by each Jew every year, just as surely as G-d’s creation of lights in the first place was G-d using His mind to invent time out of thin air!

Of course, the first such mental invention was the seven-day week itself. As I wrote here:

There is nothing intuitive or obvious about a 7-day week – if we were to divide the moon’s 29.5-day cycle into weeks, then a 5 or 6 day week would neatly subdivide into 30 days, much more neatly than does a 7 day week. Indeed, plenty of other “weeks” have been tried in history; Napoleon and the early Soviets both tried, and failed, to impose a shift to longer or shorter weeks.

The earliest source known to historians for a regular 7-day week is the Torah, containing the commandment by G-d to the Jewish people.

The number “seven” in the Torah refers to the days of creation, but more as a prescription than a description – after all, the world was created in six days, but the seventh day, the day of rest, was a divine addition. We might say that it is a moed – and we would say it because the Torah does, too.

And Moses instructed them as follows: Every seventh year, in the moed of the year set for agricultural rest, at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before your G-d in the place that [God] will choose, you shall read this Torah aloud in the presence of all Israel.

Look at the confluence: moed, the seventh year of the ground, and the reading of the Torah. It is a trifecta of what makes Judaism above and outside nature! The fallow year for the harvest is itself for spiritual (not agricultural) reasons, the moed denotes a mental construct with no physical justification. And the Torah itself, a book containing nothing more than words, is a guidebook for building unnatural relationships – relationships within society that practice loving-kindness instead of Might Makes Right, and relationships between man and an invisible, non-corporeal G-d. The G-d with no body or natural force, a G-d who only exists in our world when He is found in our minds.

Every seven years we, as a people, revalidate that the real power in the world is found in the intangible. Our reality is defined by and found within our beliefs. And if we choose to believe that a week is seven days, or even seven years the land should lie fallow, or that we can span all of time by experiencing a Passover Seder – then that is within our power. This, our ability to project our understanding on the world around us, is a power that stands apart from nature.

In a natural, pre-Flood world, there is no Torah. G-d is not apparent. And mankind reverts to a smart animal, where Might Makes Right dominates.

But in the post-Exodus world, G-d commands us to reinforce His presence and his miracles by recreating a moed: we walk in His ways, consciously recreating thoughts and experiences that we can use as a prism through which we see the world. Because the way in which we see the world helps guide us toward what we do next: if the Torah is our world, then we seek to grow ourselves and our relationships.

This is why the meaning of moed is so critical for understanding the Torah and what G-d wants us to understand. Let’s start with the first time the word is found after the Exodus:

You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly.  Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Moed, outside the curtain which is over [the Ark of] the Pact, [to burn] from evening to morning before G-d. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages.

The Tent of Moed is usually translated as “tent of meeting,” but as we have seen, the word moed is not really about “meeting” at all. Instead, it is a word that denotes when G-d steps outside of our time, when he connects with the future and performs obvious miracles. The connection to creation is very strong: G-d put the lights in the world to indicate the passage of time – and the lights in the tabernacle echo that creation of light, as well as its initial purpose.

Lights are quite a lot like ideas and other mental constructs. A light does not change (in any appreciable way) what something is, or whether it is even there! Instead, a light is an illusion; it helps us think that we know something, even though whether something is there or not should not be dependent on whether we can see it!

The projected light of the Menorah, in front of the Tent of Moed, is a lot like ideas and ideals: 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. The Torah, through moed and much else besides, teaches us that ephemeral things are both very real and incredibly important.

The importance of intangible things is at the core of the Torah, of G-d’s presence in this world, and in moed. The assertion that our ideas can triumph over mere reality. The understanding that a person can live forever if his thoughts live on after he dies. That our Passover Seder creates its own reality, despite being separated from the original events by over 3,500 years. That we can thus emulate G-d by stepping outside of time just as He did, by creating and preserving and renewing ideas like the Exodus.

Which in turn helps us understand why the place where G-d talks to Moses is called the Tent of Moed. It is the place from which G-d delivers timeless words, the words of the Torah, the commandments that we use to guide our lives, both thousands of years ago, and today and tomorrow.

Why is it a tent? Because in the Torah, the word for tent, ohel, always denotes a home, the place where someone is. Tents are where people interact, where families grow. “How goodly are your tents, oh Jacob!” In this case, the Tent of Moed is the place where G-d’s presence is evident, where G-d is openly miraculous and outside of time.

But note that G-d is never apparent to the Jewish people this way after Moses’ death – the open miracle withdraws. This is analogous to a person’s lifetime: Egypt was the womb, the Exodus was birth, and the wilderness was where we grew up, cocooned by G-d’s presence and in His home. But we were not yet adults, and so G-d, as the ultimate helicopter parent, hovered over and among us the entire time in the wilderness, present through his words emanating from the Tent of Moed. From that place, G-d handed down the timeless commandments that apply to all Jews for all time in the future.

The overt presence, the cloud, vanishes when Moses does. Moses was the connection to the miraculous presence of G-d in the moed. Moses and the Tent of Moed are a signpost for the developmental stage of the people, and the Jewish people could not achieve adulthood while G-d was still helicoptering.

What this means is that G-d reduced his miraculous presence when Moses died. Which is one of the reasons why Judaism does not accept anything after the Torah (the Five Books) as a source text for Jewish Law: Moses was the only prophet who “took dictation” directly from G-d. When Moses passed, G-d’s presence also withdrew from being so obviously with the people.

And we, like every adolescent, needed to be put in a position where we had to take direct responsibility. It is only when we sense a lack in ourselves that we have the desire to seek relationships and to grow. This is Jewish history from leaving the wilderness through to the present day – it is a core purpose of the Torah.

Today, of course, there is no Tent of Moed. And the people are all grown up, warts and all. The Torah is there, available to us. G-d no longer needs to step outside of time: the world is in our hands, and we have free will. So G-d interacts with us, but only in such a way that there is no moed, no open and undeniable miracle or prophecy. At least not one from G-d: our mental constructs are powerful and real, emulating G-d’s own creation of the lights in the world. As partners of G-d, the responsibility of maintaining those mental constructs, the Passover and indeed all of the Torah, falls to us. Which means that we can assume that in our lives, G-d experiences time along with us, that He withdraws Himself from being omniscient so that we can interact with Him as full partners.

But while G-d may be out of sight, the Torah intends that He will always maintain a presence among the people – the mishkan (tabernacle). That presence would never be the source of any new commandments (G-d, when outside of time through the moed, gave us those). But as the pre-Flood world showed that if people are not aware of G-d’s existence, they eventually revert to a state of nature; the mishkan is there to help us perpetuate the awareness that G-d is always among us, even if there are no open miracles in our personal lives.

I think at least in some sense, Jews have outperformed expectations. After all, we have kept an allegiance to G-d and His Torah even though we have not had a mishkan for two thousand years. We are far away from the “helicopter” parent-child existence in the wilderness yet, generation to generation, we continue to perpetuate the Torah and its commandments, keeping Judaism in a moed­­-like existence out of time. We continue to seek to follow the path that G-d laid out for us.

[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith, @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter work!]


Judaism: The Unnatural Faith

From the 7 day week to its refusal to recognize any deity within the forces of nature, the Torah gave us the idea that G-d is not found within nature. G-d is not in the ocean or the sun, or any physical force. G-d in this world can be found, not within nature, but inside each person.  So when Adam was created, he was not described as being an animal (though physiologically we are, indeed, animals)– but was instead described as being made of dust, but also ensouled by the divine breath. The Torah is telling us what we should aspire to be.

As Rabbis Sacks points out in a brilliant piece,  the descendants of Avraham who were not selected to be members of the covenant gong forward were similarly described as being like animals, great men of nature. In any other culture, being a passionate man who was a great archer would make one a hero; not in Judaism. The archer, Ishmael, was likened to a wild donkey, while the great hunter in the forest, Esau, was described as having “game in his mouth,” evoking the image of a cat with a bird in its teeth.  

G-d does not want a people who are in sync with nature – He had that in  Ancient Egypt, a people completely in harmony with the Nile and all the natural pagan deities. The god of the Torah wants people who seek to have a relationship with Him. This is why, as Sacks points out, our matriarchs were largely infertile, and they had to seek a relationship with G-d before they were able to bear children. For Jews, the things that come naturally to most people do not happen automatically for us; G-d wants us to ask, to pray, to engage with Him. And so He challenges us accordingly.

The contrasts with animal behavior run deep. Animals are not thinkers; even animals that prepare for winter do so as a matter of instinct, not strategic planning. So, too, the ancestors that were excluded from the covenant: Ishamel was guided by his angers: “He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.” (Gen. 16:12) And Esau was perhaps even worse.  Esau’s desperation to obtain lentil soup, a desperation that caused him to sell his birthright shows us that Esau truly met the aspirations of 21st century millennials: Esau lived in the moment. 

The Torah is telling us that to be a Jew, one must aim to be more than an animal, to see nature as something to improve, not something to emulate.  This runs counter to the entire pagan world within which Judaism was born, and finds new relevance today, in a world that is so obsessed with neverending obeisance to Mother Earth that we have taken to giving proper names to every passing weather system.

Within nature, time horizons are necessarily short. In the “might makes right” violent perspective of Ishmael, or the hunter of game, intangible long-term belongings are unimportant. After all, as Esau says, “I am on the road to death, of what use to me is the birthright?” We are all on the road to death. The question is whether or not we value the things we do in our lives, and understand that our accomplishments and relationships live on in the people and institutions and things we build in the time we have. We are all on the road to death; it is what we do along the way that matters.

It is natural for man to seek pleasure, to live in the moment, to have as much fun as possible before he dies. None of these are Torah virtues. For Torah Jews, happiness is the byproduct of a life of good choices. But we take the long view; as links in the chain between the past and the future, our responsibilities go back hundreds of generations, and stretch forward into the generations to come. Anything we do to jeopardize our relationship to G-d means that we jeopardize the investment and dedication and suffering of all who came before us, and risk making our children and children’s children disconnected from G-d and His Torah, which would make them and us irrelevant to G-d, no longer divinely-inspired agents capable of improving the world.


Focusing our Natural Gifts: Pinchas

Kehuna, or priesthood, was defined as descendants from Levi. But Pinchas, after he killed Cosbi and Zimri, was given Hashem’s “covenant of peace” and converted into a Cohen. Some of his descendants became Cohen Gadol, so in effect, Pinchas’ act of taking a spear and literally skewering sinners in the middle of public intercourse directly led to his descendants having the highest spiritual post among all Jews.

The key to understanding this sequence can be found in Hashem’s covenant of “peace” (shalom). The word “shalom” is written with a slash in the middle of the vav, making what is midrashically acceptable almost explicit in the text – the word “shalom”, peace, can also be read as “shalem”, whole, or complete.

The Torah uses the word “shalem” with respect to an individual to refer to when a defect has been corrected in someone’s character. For example, Yaakov is “shalem” after he wrestles with the angel, and appeases his brother, Esau. And Pinchas also, by the act of killing Zimri and Cosbi, has corrected a defect in himself. But what defect could possibly require such violent action?

The answer is found in Pinchas’ own history. Pinchas’ grandfather (through his mother) was Putiel, one of many names of Yisro himself. Yisro represented the ultimate form of non-Jewish spirituality – the Midrash says that he visited every idolatrous shrine in the world (Deut Rabbah I:5). More than that – he was an expert practitioner: (Eccl. Rabbah III:13): “For R. Ishmael learnt: Reuel, i.e. Yisro, did not omit a single form of idolatry in the world without turning to it and serving it.”

So Yisro represented all the spirituality to be had outside the Jewish people. Judaism has no lock on spirituality – we freely acknowledge the prophetic power of Bilaam, for example.  We do not deny that there are holy, or even prophetic, people who are not Jewish. But we do believe that Judaism is not lacking any good spiritual elements.

And this is where Pinchas comes in. Pinchas, as Yisro’s grandson, brings with him his ancestry. Yisro’s spirituality is brought into Judaism through Pinchas – and not just as any Jew, but as a Cohen Gadol, as the ultimate “point man” between the Jewish people and G-d. Pinchas has value to bring to the Jewish people.

The problem with all the other forms of worship that existed outside of Judaism is that they had a heavy component of sexual impropriety (to put it mildly) as part and parcel of their rituals. What Judaism refers to as “gilui arayos” covers the entire gamut of these acts, but it boils down to a single essential kernel: Judaism recognizes that G-d is involved in the intimacy between husband and wife, as part of a loving, modest, and private act.  All other sexual behavior is condemned as a misuse of the procreative desires that Hashem has given us – the rank physicality of such acts debases, instead of elevates, our bodies and souls.

When Pinchas spears Cosbi and Zimri, he is literally cutting out that part of himself. And by correcting this defect in himself, he becomes “shalem”, whole. His spirituality is then at the level where he and his descendants qualify to become Cohen Gadol. (This also explains why Pinchas is selected to lead the battle against Midian).


Focusing our Natural Gifts: Lot and Ruth

Avraham’s nephew, Lot, represents the search for gashmius, for fertility beyond all else. It is the fertility of Egypt that attracts Lot, and that same fertility is what brings him to Sdom.  As Lot’s very essence, the desire for fertility in all times and all conditions leads him to impregnate his daughters, even after the cautionary tale of his wife, who changes from a fertile woman to the very essence of infertility — salt, which was well known in the ancient world as the key ingredient to poison the soil.

So Lot’s kids get a double dose of Lot’s Gashmiyus, and we get Moav and Ammon. Moav’s concern in the beginning of Balak is Lot’s concern, too: “the greenery of the field.” And in the ancient world, the land to the south and east of Ammon (the origin of the modern city of “Amman”) is distinguished by its fertility. Both Moav and Ammon are lands characterised by natural wealth, and ironically (considering the fate of Lot’s wife), Moav’s economy benefits from the trade in salt from the dead sea region.

Then there is the sexual element. Lot represents the desire for fertility above all else, and his descendants represent the most basic, animalistic elements of sexual desire and even perversion, hence the cult of Baal Pe’or. The daughters of Moav being used to corrupt Jewish males is Lot’s attempt to sway Avraham back off course, toward rampant hedonism.

What possible claim did Lot have to the inheritance of Israel? Arguably he had the same claim as did Sarah herself. While we consider ourselves the ancestors of Avraham, that is only part of the story. As Leibtag points out, all Jews are actually descendants of Avraham’s *father*, Terach, and the reason for this is because 3 of the 4 mothers, Rivka, Leah and Rachel, were not descendants of Avraham but were descendants of his brother: Nahor. So we see the importance of the phrase “These are the generations of Terach,” not “These are the generations of Avraham”.

But Terach did not have only two sons: he had three. And the third son was Haran, whose children included Sarai (Iscah) – and Lot.

It would not be unreasonable, therefore, for Lot to expect an inheritance. He was descended from Terach, and all the other male offspring from Terach were members of the tribe, so to speak. Perhaps Lot was never meant to be rejected from the birthright of Avraham, that had he stayed with Avraham, his descendants might have been equal members of the nation of Israel.

Lot gets his inheritance. In the right time, and in the right way, we have the “two doves” of Ruth, the Moabite, and Naamah, the Ammonite — each responsible for becoming a part again of the Davidic line of Israel: Ruth’s descendants include David, and Naamah’s child with Solomon is Rehoboam. These two women represent the healing of Lot’s sin, the folding back of Lot into the Jewish fold and inheritance of Avraham.

Why Ruth and Naamah? We don’t know as much about Naamah, but Ruth is a wonderful contrast to the daughters of Moav as seen in parshas Balak and Matos. Instead of being a voracious, animalistic sexual creature, Ruth is no less sexual — but is demure and modest, the very model of how to take the appetites we are given, and to direct them toward holiness. She has the same fertility of Lot’s daughters (one incident leads to offspring), but everything about her scene with Boaz is beautiful and infused with holiness. Ruth takes the sin of Lot and his daughter, and is a tikkun for it. Or as Boaz puts it when he welcomes her to his field, “G-d should recompense thy deed, and make a full reward.” In the Hebrew, both recompense and reward come from the same root: shalem. G-d should make Ruth whole, that He should recognize that Ruth is correcting the Moabite defect in her past.

This may explain why Ruth and Naamah are referred to in the Gemara as the “two doves” – when a woman brings an offering after she gives birth, that offering can be a pair of turtle-doves, showing an acknowledgment that fertility comes from Hashem, and has been, in turn, properly directed in the paths of Hashem. 

Ruth’s materialism is also a contrast to that of Lot. She turns away from  the trade in salt offered in richer Moav, and works in the field, taking charity from others. She then, again in contrast with Lot, shares the fruits of her labor generously with her mother-in-law. Lot, his defects corrected, receives his inheritance and becomes folded into the Jewish people.

We see, therefore, that converts to Judaism, by correcting the defects within their own past, have brought essential elements into the highest levels of Jewish society and service to Hashem.


Curses: Ten Women

One of the most vivid curses in all of the Torah is as follows:

26:23… And if you behave casually with me … ten women shall bake your bread in one oven, and they shall deliver you your bread again by weight; and you shall eat, and not be satisfied.

This is a mystifying curse: what on earth could it mean?

#2 son suggested an answer that I think answers this beautifully. Think back to Joseph and his brothers. When the brothers disposed of Joseph, they were concerned with evading guilt, and, to a lesser extent, cushioning the blow for their father. But they gave no consideration whatsoever to what Hashem might want: they behaved casually with G-d.

There are consequences to all of our actions.

And what was theirs? The 10 brothers (ten women) took their money down to Egypt (the oven), and came back with grain that was apportioned, measured by weight. And after Yaakov and his sons had eaten, they found themselves back at square one all over again – they were not satisfied.  Joseph’s brothers lived this curse.


Destructive Fire: Bittersweet

We know that the prohibitions on the Ninth of Av are lifted in the afternoon – and that the fire that destroyed the Beis Hamikdash was started at that time.

But if the destruction began before the 9th of Av, isn’t our mourning greatest when the fire raged, destroying our connection to G-d? In other words, why do we relax prohibitions from the time the fire was lit? Indeed, R’ Yochanan says that he would have declared the 10th of Av to be the day of mourning, because that is when most of the destruction happened.

I would suggest there is a good reason why the Rabbis instituted the 9th, and not the 10th, as the chief day of mourning. The 7th to the 9th were days when the Temple was physically desecrated. These were acts that debased the holiness of G-d’s house, by introducing idol worship, debauchery and perversion. It was lowering G-d’s own house.

But fire is not base, or physical. Instead, fire is one of the core components of serving Hashem, and is a symbol of holiness. The fire of an offering, like the fire of the Menorah and the fire of the burning bush, serves to elevate the physical world into the realm of the spiritual.

In this sense, there was a bittersweet element to the Beis Hamikdash on fire. On the one hand, it was being destroyed. But on the other hand, destruction by fire was at least the addition of energy, of the spiritual plane. The entire Temple was elevated in the act of destruction. And so while we mourn the loss of the Temple, our grief is lessened that its final end was through an aliyah.


Gratitude to Those who Helped Shape Me

[written in 2013, when my first book was published]

Building up to a work like this has taken many, many years.

I must thank my parents, who, throughout my childhood, provided an environment where lively arguments about Big Questions were always welcome: where the substance of an argument mattered regardless of the identity of the arguer. I learned from them that, when hunting the truth, weak assertions are worse than useless. It is crucial to erect a strong and clear thesis, and then see how well it stands up to sustained assault. My mother helped me respect the power of intellect, while my father showed me how intellect and reason melt away when confronted by sheer force of will.

I wish to thank Yoram Hazony for first positing to me that it was possible for a person today to add to the etz chayim that is the Torah, in midrashic explication. Until that moment, as a fresh high school graduate in 1989, such a thing had never crossed my mind. An epiphany can be sparked by a single word. This one took a long time in germinating, but it made an indelible impression on me.

Akiva Ehrenfeld changed my Torah life in a similar way: he made me understand that not only is it possible for a person to add to our understanding of the Torah, but that the person in question could be yours truly. It happened on the day he said to me, “That is a really interesting idea!”

It seems like such a simple thing to say. But it changed my life. The right word at the right time can change a person forever.

I was also greatly inspired by the work of David Gelernter, who wrote a series of essays in Commentary magazine. Gelernter writes a great many things about a wide range of subjects. But those essays were not of this world. They shone with divine inspiration, every word delectably plucked and placed. I realize, as I read his words, that when we aim to understand Hashem, He helps us get where we are going.

It is one thing to have an idea. And entirely another to do something about it. And for this, I owe an eternal debt of gratitude to my rebbe, Rabbi Shaya Milikowsky. I do not, in this text, talk about how important it is to have a close and personal relationship with a rav, but that is in part because I am not able to explain just how much he has changed my life through his profoundly empathic and individualistic approach to Judaism. It was through Rabbi Milikowsky that I came to understand that every Jew has their own arc, their own unique relationship to Hashem, and that the answers to questions have to be understood in the context of the questioner. In other words, each person’s relationship to the Torah, and to Hashem, is unique and personal.

And this work only started being written when Rabbi Milikowsky told me to start writing. He has guided me from the beginning, especially teaching me how to write positively.

Thanks to Rabbi Milikowsky, this work is not interested in quarreling, or drawing stark divisions between myself and others. Nor am I interested in labels and categories.   We should be vigilant against using the Torah as a drunk uses a lamppost: for support, and not illumination.

I must also acknowledge a true giant in the Torah world, a man who is singularly the most brilliant and creative Torah mind I have ever met, and the inspirer of many of the ideas contained herein: Simcha Baer. Rabbi Baer has sometimes been a muse, and sometimes a collaborator. He is an exemplar of what the human mind, infused with ruach hakodesh, can achieve. I wish that I could grasp all that he has to share!

My sons Toyam and Asher have also been very important collaborators in this work. I bounce ideas off of them all the time, and they have not only acted as sounding boards, but also as originators of some truly beautiful chiddushim of their own. The greatest blessing a father can have is to be surpassed by his children, and I pray, with all my heart, that each of my children, in their own unique way, outshines me.

I also acknowledge, with thanks and praise, the influence of Jonathan Sacks. His writing is poetry itself, and his ideas have often provided a jumping-off point for my own. Whether we agree or disagree, his weekly words on Torah have been a source of inspiration to me.

I must thank, on bended knee, my wife Nechama, the very embodiment of an ezer knegdo. Words cannot express my love and appreciation and devotion to the woman who has inspired me, and shown me both the enormous gap between a man and his spouse (in heaven and on earth) – and to revel in the surpassing beauty that is produced in the bridging of that gap.


Jewish Humility and Ambition

There is a common misunderstanding that the Jewish path to repentance (teshuvah) requires us to reduce our goals, to aim for simpler, less ambitious lives. This idea of humility means considering ourselves small and unimportant.

But true Jewish humility does not imply that we should be meek in front of Hashem. On the contrary: G-d created us, and he expects us to achieve great things with our lives. Jewish humility has everything to do with realizing that all people are blessed with neshamas from Hashem, and that true service of Hashem means always considering and assisting those less fortunate than ourselves, especially strangers, widows, orphans, and the poor. R’ Meir said “hevei shefal ruach bifnei kol adam,” “we should be humble before every man.” Jewish humility is not about denying our capabilities – how can servants of the King of Kings consider ourselves powerless? – on the contrary, humility is about being considerate and caring about others.

In the period from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Hoshanah Rabbah, we are being judged by Hashem, and the decrees and blessings of the new year are meted out. In this period, we are at our most introspective, trying to examine our faults and correct them. We are setting our goals for the new year, taking on new obligations, and trying to become better people in thought, word and deed. And it is this time of year in which we ask G-d to answer our prayers, to decide that our desires and ambitions are indeed for His sake, to achieve the purposes for which the whole world was created. It has often been said that if we want G-d to bless us with something, then we need to explain first to Him why that blessing is for the sake of Heaven. In the most dramatic example, we read on Rosh Hashana of Chana’s oath that if G-d blesses her with a baby, she will give him over to be Hashem’s servant. G-d grants her wish, and she fulfilled her vow. G-d answers our prayers when those prayers, and our ambitions that drove them, are not for ourselves, but for the sake of Heaven.

In this season, we add a single psalm to our prayers twice a day: Psalm 27, which begins, “G-d is my light and my salvation.” I once heard a fascinating analysis of this psalm by Dayan Binstock that put this whole season in perspective. David wrote Psalm 27 when he had been turned out of the king’s house, and he was rightly in fear for his life. David was on the run, a wanted man.

In this time he wrote this psalm, including the phrase, “One thing I ask of Hashem, that shall I seek: That I sit in the House of Hashem all the days of my life.” What does it mean?

The House of Hashem is, of course, none other than the Beis Hamikdash – the House of G-d that Yaakov first swore to build more than six hundred years previously. So David,  a poor shepherd who was raised as a bastard, and, at the time he wrote this psalm, a man whom the King was trying to kill, was aiming to do no less than fulfill Yaakov’s open vow. That is breathtaking ambition.

But David was not finished. Not just anyone can “sit” in G-d’s house. Even the Cohen Gadol cannot sit down in the Beis Hamikdash. According to Halacha, the only person who is allowed to sit in the Beis Hamikdash is the King.

So this is the meaning of “One thing I ask of Hashem, that shall I seek: That I sit in the House of Hashem all the days of my life.” David was saying that he wanted to be King, and he wanted to build the Beis Hamikdash!

David did not let adversity dial back his desires to grow his relationship to Hashem, to achieve everything that a man could possibly achieve in the life span allotted to him. 

So in this season of introspection, of setting our goals for the new year, we are reminded twice a day of the true meaning of humility: we are humble if we serve G-d with everything we have, and never forget that all other people also are blessed with neshamas from Hashem, with near-infinite potential. But we must also remember that we are meant to follow David’s example, to look beyond the everyday barriers, and to try to achieve great things, to reach our fullest potential. True Jewish humility demands no less.


David, of course, became king. But he was denied the honor of building the Beis Hamikdash. It could be suggested that one reason comes from this very pasuk: David asked for “one thing” (sit in the house of Hashem) that was really two (become King, and build the Beis Hamikdash). G-d answered his prayer for one thing, not both.


Gratuitous Destruction

The vocabulary in the Torah is paradoxical: the number of words is relatively small, but the ways in which the words are used (and the contexts in which they appear) are splendidly multifaceted.  One particular word came to my attention this week, because the way it is used is so illustrative of a provocative range of meaning.

The word is comprised of three letters, transliterated it would read as “nvl”, meaning “carcass”. The use of this word “nvl” is different from the word the Torah usually uses for the dead, “meis” (which is the same word we find in the game of chess: “mate”). “Nvl” has a special meaning, and the text explains it to us as we walk it back in the Torah to its earliest uses.

Most commonly in the Torah the word “nvl” is simple: it means a carcass, like an animal that is found dead on the side of the road. Jews are forbidden to eat an animal that died by itself or was torn apart by another animal. We cannot eat or touch such a carcass; contact renders us incapable of becoming more holy. (Lev.11:8)

Odd use of a word, right? But still straightforward enough.

It gets deeper. If we look at Deut. 21:23, we see that the word “nvl” refers not to an animal, but to the body of a man who has been hanged for his sins. And that same verse says that we are supposed to bury the man because otherwise it makes it impossible for the earth to be spiritually elevated. Now that is interesting, because in order for an animal to be killed for food, we must return the blood to the earth before the animal can be kosher. (Lev. 17:14) Which means that putting a body/blood into the earth enables holiness for both the earth, an animal and even the person who eats that animal.

We see a shared connection: the dead must be united with the earth to allow for a productive outcome. Burying a man gives his death some glimmer of redemption. I think people have an almost instinctive understanding of this; it is part of the urge to “give a proper burial,” or perhaps as per Gen. 3:19: “For dust thou art, And unto dust shalt thou return.” 

Ex. 18:18 has advice from Moses’ father-in-law: “you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.” The word for “wearing yourself out,” is the same “nvl”! Jethro tells Moses to learn to delegate, because arbitrating every single case is exhausting and not a productive use of Moses’ time. “Nvl” in this case means “a waste,” or even, “an opportunity cost.”

Well, that puts things in a new light. If we take this use of the word and look again at the carcass by the side of the road, we see it as a lost opportunity. An animal that died naturally was an opportunity lost. An animal that was killed for food, by way of contrast, had a higher purpose – both a physical component (sustaining life) and a spiritual component (giving life a meta-meaning), and gets a different word to describe it! (This, by the by, might be a Torah argument for eating meat.)

In the case of the criminal, this means even more: a man who earned the death penalty is the ultimate “nvl”, the ultimate lost opportunity. A man whose accomplishment in life was to incur the ultimate penalty rightfully inflicted by society is compared by the Torah to an animal that died by itself.  Wasted life is wasted opportunity.

There is an understanding that the definition of a word in the Torah is when it first appears. And the first use of this word “nvl” is not for a carcass, or a corpse, but for something else entirely!  

The very first time the word “nvl” is mentioned in the Torah is the rape of Dina, the daughter of Jacob. Gen 34:7 “The sons of Jacob had come in from the field as soon as they heard of it, and the men were indignant and very angry, because he had committed an outrage in Israel by lying with Jacob’s daughter, for such a thing must not be done.” The word that is translated as “outrage” is the same “nvl”. And this connection suggests that the crime of raping a girl was not just rightfully anger-inducing: raping Dinah was a terrible loss of opportunity, a waste of potential that she otherwise possessed. Indeed, the connection to the way the word is used elsewhere in the Torah suggests that rape is like being torn apart by a wild animal; rape causes irreversible damage to a life.

All this from a single word!

[Another @iwe and @susanquinn production!]


The Torah: Basic Libertarianism

Jonathan Sacks reminded me on this in his discussion on “Consent of the Governed,” a stunningly libertarian argument from a committed progressive.

“This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots . . . He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants . . . and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the Lord will not answer you in that day.” (Samuel 8)

In other words, if you choose to have a government, you are sure to regret it. And this warning was with a 10% tax rate!

Judaism is far more ambivalent about government than is Christianity. We have no “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” We have the Torah, which allows us to have a king, if we want to be like everyone else. And then it warns us of all the downside risk that having a king entails.

The Torah’s approach is profoundly libertarian: ideally each person has their own relationship with G-d. The religious/civil state is required to provide a legal system, and defend the people. There is no necessity that there be a king, or a democratic state. But the text gives us the choice. If, because we are insecure, or just want to keep up with the Hittites next door, we want a king or a parliament or a President, we are free to choose that way. But, the text tells us, government must be limited.

In the Torah, that limit is to restrict the number of horses, wives, or wealth that the king (or government) can acquire, and the king must remind himself every day of the limits of his power, of the fact that every person is equally endowed with the divine spirit (the way Adam was created).

He is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and . . . not consider himself better than his brothers, or turn from the law to the right or to the left. (Det. 17:18-20)

Government must be freely chosen, limited, and faithfully administer justice. And in an ideal world, the foundational text of Western Civilization is telling us, we have no sovereign but G-d, no coercive civil authority besides courts of law and our own consciences.


Why Does the Day Start at Night?

There is a tension between those who understand the Torah literally, and those who choose instead to interpret the words of the Torah as allegory, a symbolical narrative.

The problem with both of these understandings is that they miss the point. The Torah is not a history textbook, but its words are similarly not indirect poetic references to be understood as a child’s fable. The words of the Torah are from G-d, which means that every word has a purpose, that every letter contains a world of meaning.

Take, for example, the very first day of creation. The section ends: “And it was evening, and it was morning, the first day.” 


A day is entirely arbitrary. There is no reason why a day cannot start at noon, or midnight, or sunrise or sunset. The Torah, by telling us that the first day was measured by “evening and morning” was not telling us a historical fact: it was telling us a spiritual truth. And what truth would this be?

The answer, as with so much else in the Torah, is right in front of us. 

And God said: ‘Let there be light.’ And there was light.

And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness.

And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day. 

Light is used to see things, to understand and perceive. Light is energy – darkness is the absence of energy. And light is good.

G-d is not telling us, in the very opening phrases of the Torah, the physics behind the creation of light. Nor is he spinning a riddle whose meaning is too deep for comprehension. 

Likewise, saying that a day starts with evening is not a statement about an underlying physical fact, and it is not impenetrable poetry. 

Instead, G-d is using the Torah, here, and everywhere else, to teach us, to tell us how to live our lives. Saying that the day is counted from evening through morning has a very simple lesson: We who follow G-d are to live every day as if morning follows evening, that light follows darkness.  

And so as we live out each day, we should see ourselves as starting in the dark, and move toward the light – toward the rise of the sun in the morning. We should grow, every day toward light, for all that it represents: truth, perception, understanding, and energy.  And we should grow each day toward the light because the Torah tells us, “And God saw the light, that it was good.”

Light is not merely the visible energy spectrum. Light is something we use to perceive something else. As our instruments improve, we have more light in the world – because we can see things that could not be seen before. In a way, we are bringing the world of infrared and X-rays into the visible spectrum we call light because we can now perceive those things. 

The Torah tells us that light came into the world before the sun – again, not because the Torah is a physics textbook, but so that we are not confused into seeing the sun – which is, after all, merely generating light as an agent of its Creator – as a deity in itself.  Light, of all kinds and from all sources, is Good.


Angels and Goats

AngelsYaakov had a unique strength: unlike anyone else in the Torah (or in all of history), Yaakov saw angels, recognized them immediately for what they were, and – in the case of the angels he met and dispatched when returning to Esau – was even able to order them around. As Simcha Baer explains ( ) when Yaakov wrestles with an angel and prevails, the angel specifically concedes that Yaakov has the authority to reprogram angels, and use them as his messengers.

Yaakov’s skill required more than mere authority and discernment. It required an intimate understanding of how angels function. We know that high order angels can resemble humans – but we also know that every living thing on earth, down to a single blade of grass, has its own angel.  These would be less sophisticated – the Midrash tells us that such an angel’s job is to tell the blade of grass to grow!

When we consider Yaakov’s angel-talent, it explains one of the great mysteries in the Torah: how, starting with “pure” sheep and goats, Yaakov managed their procreation so they would give deliver generations of goats that were spotted, speckled, and streaked.

Yaakov stripped the exterior bark away from the living branches of almond, poplar, and plane trees, and put them in water (perhaps to keep them alive, and perhaps because water is a symbol of fecundity in general), so that the animals would be looking at the rods when they drank and when they procreated.

We believe that thoughts are important: that the very essence of a child can be defined in part by what the parents were considering during conception.

Consider that Yaakov, master of angels as he was, was merely exposing the angel underneath the exterior surface of the tree bark, so that it would be seen (and considered) by the angel assigned to the animal. And voila! The resulting offspring, resemble the tree bark themselves.

After all, we have:

Young poplar (speckled),           Plane (spotted),             and Almond (streaked)

Simple, really.


Succos and Yom Kippur: An Angelic Perspective

As we have discussed before, angels on earth are Hashem’s interface to the natural world. And the angels in heaven are our connection to Hashem. We see this idea amplified on Yom Kippur and Sukkos.

S’chach must be from a plant, and the Midrash tells us that every blade of grass has its own angel, telling it to grow. So the s’chach we put over our heads represents the angels G-d makes to control the natural world.

The succah is, for the seven days of the festival, our house. And the roof of our house is made from grass or trees with their own angels – in other words, by the products of Hashem’s technology. S’chach only requires one manual step: we must disconnect it from the earth, bringing it to a higher madrega. It is a human act; the minimum interaction. Indeed, rabbonim hold that wood that is processed is not kosher for s’chach; we should not add too much human content.  These angels are, to the maximum extent possible, made by Hashem, and they are Hashem’s contribution to our house. The angels are, in a manner, a house-warming present that the guest supplies his host.

But Sukkos does not stand alone. It is a holiday in which Hashem reciprocates for Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, the house-warming present is symbolized by the golden keruvim (the angels on top of the Aron) built by mankind, using the highest form of human technology known in the ancient world: the purification and shaping of metal. As we have said before, human technology is the human equivalent of angels – they are both ways to control and shape the natural world. The keruvim are one of mankind’s contributions to the House of G-d. We make the keruvim so that they form the buffer between man and Hashem. The keruvim, being representations of divine angels, are angels in heaven, the ones that praise G-d in our name, that plead our case before Him.

So on Yom Kippur, the Cohen Gadol enters Hashem’s holy home, complete with man-made angels. And five days later, Hashem reciprocates, by entering our outdoor homes, our Sukkahs, complete with angels crafted by Hashem. The reciprocity is complete.

But what is the mechanism, the connection between the two? Why is Yom Kippur a prerequisite for Sukkos?

For commentators such as Menachem Leibtag, Yom Kippur is not primarily a day of atonement, but a day during which our sins are “covered over” with a protective coating – for this is the biblical meaning of the root word “k-p-r”. And this coating is required for Sukkos, where the Shechinah is said to descend as closely to us in our Sukkahs as it did in the Beis Hamikdash. This explains why Sukkos is just a few days after Yom Kippur.

The Gemara is more explicit in the linkage between the Aron and Sukkos. The Gemara gives the Keruvim (the angels on top of the Aron) as a source that s’chach must cover an airspace ten tefachim high. The Keruvim resting on the kapores (the cover of the ark) stood ten tefachim high. The pasuk says that their wings were “sochechim” (providing “s’chach”) over the kapores. The s’chach is considered analogous to the wings of the angels over the kapores of the Aron itself.

“Kapparah”, of course, is given by Hashem to Israel on Yom Kippur, the one day in which the Cohen Gadol goes into the kodesh hakedoshim (holy of holies) in the Beis Hamikash. As a result of Yom Kippur, we enter Sukkos capable of coming close to Hashem’s Shechinah.

But the critical role of the angels remains for both the Beis Hamikdosh and our Sukkos; the angels are an interface between man and G-d. The angels in heaven are created by ourselves, as a result of our words and deeds: they plead our case, they echo us in our praise of Hashem, they crown Hashem during kedusha. The angels on earth are created by Hashem: they run the natural world, and are the buffer, the tzimtzum, between man and G-d.

Yom Kippur is the day when the Cohen Gadol enters into the private chamber of the Shechinah, where the wings of the keruvim protect the aron (representing Torah as the etz chaim, the tree of life). His primary goal is to achieve  the protection for the nation, the kapparah. When the Cohen Gadol has done his service, the result is as if the lid of the Aron is over each of us, allowing us to get closer to the Divine Presence than at any other time of year. But we still need the angels, the final buffer of the angels’ wings, the s’chach in our Sukkah.


Who is in Charge of Your Life?

We live in a world where politicians and therapists and doctors and social workers tell us that “it isn’t your fault:” the blame actually lies with our upbringing, or parentage, or environment, or discrimination, or genetic makeup. It can be anything – as long as we do not blame ourselves.

We tend to think of this mindset as somehow being unique to modern life, part-and-parcel of the welfare state, with Freudian explanations of childhood trauma, or of children raised in a spoiled environment where parents find “no” the hardest word of all.

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

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

An end result is that men who worship nature wind up being enslaved to it; life as a pagan means an existence wherein one excels by being in harmony with the natural world.  And being “in tune” with nature means not fighting it. It is not even resignation, so much as finding “balance”, of being happy with what one has received.  This kind of worldview is conventionally considered wise and experienced.

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

Modern America, which has slipped back into a culture that celebrates only our most earthy desires and dependencies  is in fact reverting to that dominant human meme throughout history. We may use labels like “discrimination” or “the rich”, but the excuse remains as old as time: Ours is the fate doled out by the gods. Any other outcome “is not meant to be.” All around us, humans are not change agents, but victims, buffeted by impersonal deities, who must be appeased through acts of sacrifice. In principle, there is no distinction between the island barbarian who sacrifices virgins to the volcano god and the modern American who self-sterilizes to “save the planet.” Both are expressions of the human desire to suffer in order to appease a larger, all-important “force.” And both are ways in which otherwise intelligent people adopt pagan worldviews in order to come to peace with their place in the world.

Enter, in the ancient world, and even today, the Torah. The Torah stands directly at odds with the pagan worldview. When Adam and Chava choose to eat the fruit, G-d teaches them that they are free to make choices, and that those choices have consequences. When Cain kills Abel, G-d teaches us that we are responsible for each other, that we are capable of mastering our own anger.  And then, from beginning to end, the Torah perspective stands in direct opposition, root and branch, to the pagan worldview.

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

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

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

Ours is not a religion of submission or appeasement. G-d 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, G-d has been found in our very souls! The Torah wants us engaged with G-d, with each other, and with ourselves – because they are one and the same!

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 once she takes the ring. He succeeds after many years, after 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 engaged with each other, continuing to improve each other, will fall apart as a marriage, as a relationship. Love that is not nurtured will die.

And so G-d 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. And of course, following commandments of visiting the sick, or providing hospitality or feeding the poor are, in themselves, ways of serving G-d directly. When we change ourselves, we are serving our personal, anti-pagan, G-d.

And it is profoundly personal.  The Torah tells us that G-d put his soul in us. And so our prayers, our services, our blessings, have an internal audience: G-d 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 G-d on the elevated spiritual plane.  Prayer is directed both outside and inside, which is why it is closely linked to meditation.  The Torah has entire chapters dedicated to the spiritual illness of “tzaraat” (translated as leprosy), which occurs to people who treat others poorly, as Cain treated Abel. Seen in this light, every single law of the Torah, from sacrifices to divine services to the laws of kosher food and caring for the orphan is there for the purpose of correcting and improving ourselves.

Coming full circle, it becomes clear why those who are serious about serving “the planet” consistently give less charity than those who are serious about a Judeo-Christian religion. In a pagan world, gods merely need to be appeased, and they, through fate, will determine whether someone is healthy or sick, lives or dies. One can look at India to see the result of that kind of worldview: it is believed that everyone has a destiny, and some destinies are more fun than others. If one fails to go through the motions to appease a deity, then one can expect retribution for failing to have proper respect, but the retribution is not because a person failed to better themselves or love others. Compassion is meaningless in such a world, and so is self-improvement. A person like Mother Teresa in India had an unlimited market.

The Torah gives us a world where we can strongly influence and change our own destinies. Humans are so very powerful that only our mortality keeps us from being on G-d’s own level: “And the Lord God said, Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, what if he puts forth his hand, and takes also from the tree of life, and eats, and lives forever?” (Gen: 3:22)

Our power is huge – but it is not only limited by our mortality! Most important of all, our power is limited by whether or not we are aware of it in the first place!  As and when we believe that we are masters of our own destiny, then we can change ourselves and our world. But when we feel that we are subject to the winds of fate, to a master plan of an impersonal deity, then we easily regress to an lower human condition, a condition where we no longer are aware of our own power, where we are not even aware of the difference between good and evil because we live in Gaia’s garden, in a world where nothing is our fault because nothing is our responsibility. Before they made that first choice, Adam and Chava lived in harmony with nature, with every need provided for, with no opportunity for growth or change in themselves or the world around them.   If we refuse to see ourselves as both responsible for ourselves and our world, and ”like G-d” in having the power to change these things, then we indeed are nothing more than victims, nothing more than primitive barbarians in a state of nature, lifelong beneficiaries of a welfare state.


Aspects of The Truth – or Individual Truths?

An engineer, a physicist, and a mathematician were on a train heading north from England, and had just crossed the border into Scotland. They saw a single black sheep grazing outside the train.

  • The engineer looked out of the window and said “Look! Scottish sheep are black!”
  • The physicist said, “No, no. At least some Scottish sheep are black.”
  • The mathematician corrected, “In Scotland, at least one side of one sheep is black.”

None of these men are wrong, necessarily. But their statements are also on top of a mountain of assumptions and presuppositions that may well not survive close scrutiny. Even the pedantic mathematician is guilty of not questioning numerous assumptions about what constitutes a sheep or the color black. 

In other words: they each have their own individual “truths.” I wonder: is a complete “Truth” the sum of individual truths?

In another parable, we have blind men and an elephant. Each man feels a different part of the elephant and claims to know what the elephant is – a wall or a trunk or a tail. This is used to advance a classic notion that we each may be able to perceive a piece of Reality without necessarily being able to grasp all of it. Like the passengers on the train, each man perceives a part of the underlying reality.

Of course, part of the humor of the metaphor is the conceit that if the blind men could only see, then they would see the elephant and they would get the full picture. Or would they? An elephant is itself a mental construct, a shorthand label for what, to a mouse or an astronaut, is very different indeed, than the same elephant is to an African pygmy who has to live with the beasts.   In other words, the full “truth” of the elephant involves everything from zoology to physiology to biology to physics and environmental science, a study of the parasites that live on the elephant, the fables and art and religions about elephants… it is truly an endless list.

If the understanding of “elephant” contains endless iterations and permutations then is it even meaningful to claim that there is a single basic Truth about the elephant, or anything else?  Would there be any point to trying to achieve it?

I came to this question after thinking on Deuteronomy. The Torah has Moses retelling the story of the Jewish people from the Exodus until the day of the speech. But this retelling is not the same versions we heard before; indeed, the Moses-specific version comes with very substantial differences! In Numbers, G-d orders the people to send representatives to assess the land of Canaan. In Deuteronomy, those same people were labeled spies – and instead of G-d commanding them to go, it was driven by the agitated people themselves, driven by their fear of the unknown and the human need to avoid risk and plan the future. In other words, the two versions are actually wholly incompatible with the other.

Yet the Torah presents both. Neither version says the other is actually wrong.

I think there is a lesson in this, but it is not an easy one for most religious fundamentalists to handle: Moses’ version was true – for him. And the Torah’s earlier version was also true. There was not just one way to tell this story. There was not only one true rendition. This is true about ALL stories, of course. The story itself actually becomes much less important than what the participants and later listeners decide to make of the story!

The Torah seems to be telling us that it does not really matter how many sheep in Scotland are black, or whether the elephant is a wall. Instead it is telling us that what WE think of sheep and elephants is what actually matters. Moses’ version was entirely legitimate because that is how he saw it and retold it. In the Torah, “spin” is not only acceptable; it is an important life skill. Being able to find ways to see things from different perspectives in a constructive and positive light is a key part of being able to grow as individuals and as society.

There may – or may not – be an actual “Truth.” I think such an objective reality is itself an unprovable religious belief, but more dangerously, it is also a distraction from what really matters. G-d in the Torah makes it clear that He cares, very much indeed, what people think! It really matters how people choose to act based on what they think. Our thoughts and assessments and decisions matter, to us and to G-d and to the world – even if what we think must be wrong!  

We can laugh at the physicist or the blind man, but if we do so, it is we who are the real fools. Because while we are snickering at their foolishness, they are proceeding into the world based on what they think they know. And, the Torah is telling us, that is good enough. There is beauty in the breadth of human experience and belief; our different understandings are a feature, not a bug.  We don’t all need to synchronize our knowledge and work in lock-step like angels or automatons; all we need to do is find compatible parallel stories that allow us to work together and achieve great things. Thanks to the Torah, we have a touchstone to keep us from straying too far afield.

[another @iwe and @susanquinn production]


Athens and Jerusalem – or Israel and Egypt?

There is a conventional philosophical wisdom that Western tradition stands on two pillars: Athens and Jerusalem. This theory sees Jerusalem as obedience to revealed divine law, and Athens as the power of reason and free inquiry.

For much of Western Civilization, it is easy to see why this general pattern would seem true. After all, Greece was the origin of so much human creativity, and of logical “truths” in everything from geometry to philosophy. It certainly was the petri dish for dueling schools of thought on the nature of so much of our world, in addition to being a source of so much sculpture and architecture.

And yet.

The first problem is that the idea of Jerusalem as “humble obedience” is nothing more than a straw man. Judaism is not about humble obedience; it is a marriage between G-d and man, an ever-flowing dynamic of arguments and passions founded on the energies of our forefathers and of the Jewish people in the wilderness. Not a single marriage in the Torah would fall under the description of “humble obedience.”[1] A husband or wife in a Jewish married couple today cannot even say the words “humble obedience” with a straight face.

The second problem is that Athens, as an explanation for life, has fallen far, far short of its billing. Reason does not discover truth! At least not a truth that anyone actually is willing to stake their lives on. Instead, reason has become merely a tool to be used by anyone seeking to justify their self-interest. Reason is a mercenary that can be called into service to support any philosophy under the sun.

In other words, Athens is not a viable alternative. Lacking a foundation of its own, reason has often wiggled far beyond a search of truth. In the times of the ancient Greeks, and again in the modern age, “reason” has become nothing more than an apologist for the most heinous crimes, ranging from infanticide to euthanasia to genocide.[2] Reason was the defining cry of Marxism and the philosophes who justified the French Revolution and the following Reign of Terror. There is no moral truth to be found within its walls.

Nevertheless, 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 through the insights of revelation, but 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 can be used to build good or ill. It really depends on the choice of the foundation-stone itself.

But modern philosophers have it at least partially right: there IS a basic dichotomy which contrasts with Jerusalem, with the Torah. That contrast is not with Greek or Roman thought. Instead, the Torah tells us, from the life on Avraham onward, that the choice of every person is between Israel and Egypt.

Egypt represents the natural world. It is a place where one succeeds merely through harmonizing with the world, of making peace with the natural cycles. It, like all primitive pagan societies, is a place in which no personal or technological growth is required, and so that growth rarely takes place. After all, in such a world view, reaching higher is presumptuous to the gods – presumptuous to nature. In an Egyptian world view, man is a human primate, one animal among many, with no claim to supremacy over the animal and vegetable and mineral kingdoms.

Today, we live in a world where reason has utterly failed. Not only is it unable to tell us what is good (morality has been discarded like your father’s Oldsmobile), but it has even failed to make a convincing argument for any sort of governing principles at all. And so in our enlightened press, people call for the emulation of China’s totalitarianism, for seeking autocratic solutions to what should be democratic challenges. Reason has been exposed: it has no moral code of its own, and conforms to fight on behalf of whomever happens to be wielding it at the moment.

This claim is not justified through revelation or the Torah, but on simple observation of the 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 wisdom. On the contrary: technology, the product of vast amounts of scientific inquiry and engineering development, is itself agnostic on good and evil, unable to lend any moral insight at all. Morality remains only in the hands of people, who now have more power than ever before, but less guidance in how that power should be used.

So in a world of Reason, morality defaults to one of two options: Torah, and Egypt. Those who follow at least the most basic Torah ideas believe in the sanctity of human life (for each soul is from G-d), and they believe that G-d wants us to do more than merely appease Him – he wants us to improve ourselves.

In today’s “modern” age of rational atheism, the new gods are the very same old ones, with only-slightly-updated names: Nature, Sustainability, Mother Earth, the Planet, the Environment. And the underlying message would be instantly recognizable to a citizen of Athens or the Nile River Delta:

“Recycle that soda can, or the gods will punish you with hurricanes!”

“Kill the unborn, to save the planet from overpopulation!”

These appeals to emotional, pseudo-religious words like “sustainable” and “organic” and “natural” are all appeals to Egypt, to the part of us that craves to live as an animal, to coexist with the planet and synchronize with its cycles. And in this world, everything that is “Natural” becomes a good in itself. Our basest desires – especially the most hedonistic ones – become justified on the simple basis that because we want something, that thing must be good. And thus Good and Bad are defined by our choice of deity. Logic is a mere hired hand, defending whatever morality we select.

  1. Think of Avraham or Sarah. Or the circumcision of Moshe and Tziporah’s sons
  2. Only in the abstract and self-referential fields such as mathematics has Greek thought truly led to truth.

Changing Ourselves

What made Avraham great?

The Lord appeared to Abraham.  He looked up and saw three men standing over against him. And he perceived. He hurried from his tent door to meet them…

What did Avraham perceive?  He had a huge insight at that moment: Faced with the direct comparison between G-d’s presence and those of other men, Avraham sees that mankind is infused with an element of the divine. This means G-d can connect to us through other people. It was at this moment that the man who discovered G-d Himself realized that there is a divine spark in mankind, that there is the potential in every man to reflect his inner essence, the divine spark that is his soul.

This interpretation may also change our understanding of Avraham’s growth as a person. We know that Avraham’s greatest attribute was welcoming guests, because this passage leads to Avraham and Sarah going to a great deal of trouble to put on a great feast for these men. But perhaps what was really Avraham’s greatest attribute was that the same person who heard G-d’s voice also discovered that G-d is found within mankind – and then, without delay, he changed his behavior on a dime.

Think on this incredible idea. What if Avraham did not chase after potential guests until this very moment? And then, in that moment, he perceived. He understood that G-d, for whom he had changed his life, was reflected in each living person. And in that instant, Avraham grew. He became the very embodiment of chesed, of kindness. Avraham gained a new understanding and he upgraded his behavior right then and there.

If there is any verb that is identified with Avraham, it is this one: “Vayeira” – and he saw, or perceived. Avraham perceived the existence of our Creator, and acted accordingly; he changed his entire life around what he deduced to be true. And Avraham then, years later, perceived at a deeper level, and discovered that G-d can be found in mankind. Then, without delay, he changed. He acted on this new realization, and treated all potential guests like royalty. This is much more than just having the courage of one’s own convictions. This is about living a lifetime with a certain set of logical conclusions based on a set of deduced facts. And then, one day, those facts change, leading to an entirely new set of conclusions. In that moment, Avraham changed his whole life to reflect what he now knew to be true.

Avraham discovers that mankind is, in fact, G-d’s representative in this world. And so we are to learn from Avraham and from the Torah, and treat each person as if they contain a soul from G-d – as indeed they do. This is at the essence of the commandment to welcome guests: we treat even people we have never met before as if they are emissaries from the king of kings. The Torah is telling  us that when someone knocks at your door, you should treat them as if they are made in the image of G-d. Because they are.

And if we are to emulate our forefathers, then there is a simple lesson to be learned: when we come to understand that something is true, it is a sign of true greatness when we change ourselves to be consistent with that truth.  This ability to change is at the heart of every Jew who grows their relationship with Hashem, because it was at the essence of Avraham our father.


Relationships Trump Children

When G-d commands Avraham to offer Isaac, He refers to Isaac as “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac.” (Gen. 22:2)

But after the Akeidah, G-d says, “You have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me (Gen. 22:12).

What happened to the love?!

I believe the answer to this question helps explain the Akeidah itself.

From the first time Avraham speaks to G-d, he is insistent that he needs children to carry on his legacy. G-d assures him that he will, indeed, have children – but Avraham continues to push, asking for proof and guarantees.

At the same time, Avraham essentially neglects his wife. When the family leaves to go to Canaan, Lot (a possible successor) is mentioned twice, and Sarai only once.  To make matters worse, when on his way to Egypt during a famine, Avraham significantly diminishes the status of his wife. He instructs her to tell the Egyptians that she was Avraham’s sister. She does as she is told, and Pharoah ends up taking Sarai for himself, paying Avraham richly in the exchange. Avraham essentially sells his wife, and cashes the check.

Had G-d not intervened, would the marriage have been over forever?

In Judaism, the ideal relationship with G-d is through our relationship to our spouse.  When Avraham is married to Sarai, he has a relationship with G-d. But after his wife dies, then Avraham loses that connection. It is by cleaving to one’s spouse that we connect with G-d. But when Avraham downplays his relationship with Sarai, and diminishes her status in the eyes of the world from wife to sister, he basically has sold her for material possessions!

As a consequence, the marriage suffers.  Sarah begins as a woman who does what she is told, but after she is pawned off as Avraham’s sister two times (the second time in Gen. 20), she grows into a woman who openly confronts her husband, who has grown cynical (and laughs) even about promises from G-d.  There is pain.

G-d tries to tell Avraham how important the marriage is. G-d tells Avraham to listen to Sarah (Gen. 21:12). G-d even, in the Bris bein habesarim, the “Covenant of the Parts”  (Gen. 15) shares a dark vision of what happens when things are split apart, a world or a marriage torn asunder.

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.

So in the last exchange in the Torah between G-d and Avraham, G-d instructs Avraham to offer Isaac 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 Isaac. The Binding of Isaac culminates with G-d being pleased that Avraham was willing to offer “thy son, thine only son, from me.” (Gen. 22:12). The love is not gone, but it is reprioritized.

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 Isaac to be ready to be married.

G-d 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 our G-d trumps everything else, because it is the pinnacle of fulfillment.

Footnote:  After Sarai has been taken by Pharoah, G-d plagues the Egyptians, and Pharoah sends Avraham out with much material wealth.

But there is an enormous cost! The famous (and mysterious) “Covenant between the Parts” (Gen. 15) includes the statement that Avraham’s descendants will be enslaved for 400 years, and then be brought out by G-d, albeit with great wealth.

So let’s assume that Avraham’s experience in Egypt was a preview of what was to come. But what happens if we go a step farther, and ask: did Avraham cause the future enslavement and redemption of the Jewish people?

Arguably, this is so.  Avraham may well have made a mistake when he left Canaan in the first place. G-d had not told him to leave (though He had told Avraham to go to Canaan in the first place). The Torah does not tell us whether or not the famine even necessitated that he flee. Perhaps he was just seeking to preserve his wealth.

And there is a consequence. After the Jewish people went down to Egypt, the Torah does not tell us that G-d talks with Yaakov or his sons in Egypt at all. For all the time we were enslaved there up until the revelation to Moshe, G-d is entirely silent, as if He was not there at all. Avraham broke off his relationship with his wife, and so G-d does precisely the same thing to us.


Don’t Seek Balance – Be Grateful

How balanced must a relationship be?

We always hear about how the really important thing to have is “balance.” Balance is somehow the way to navigate between extremes, to keep our lives, like some canoe shooting down rapids, from tipping over into the drink.

And a cursory reading of the Torah suggests that the Torah believes in balance as well. For example, the Torah tells us that there are two easy ways to forget G-d’s role in our lives – through “Me”, and through “Not-Me”.

“Me” is easier to identify. There is a great temptation to view one’s success personally, to think that we should get all the credit for what we have achieved. Self-made men and surgeons often share a “god complex”, believing that they have worked miracles and wonders through their own hands. This, of course, leaves no room for G-d.  “And you say in your heart, My power and the might of my hand has gotten me this wealth.” (Deut. 8:17)

“Not-me” is not as obvious, but no less dangerous. The Torah tells us that when we “find” wealth, or earn things that we do not deserve, then we are also at risk: “… And houses full of all good things, which you did not fill, and wells dug, which you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees, which you did not plant; when you shall have eaten and be full;  Then beware lest you forget the Lord.” (Deut. 6:11). In other words, when we don’t work for what we have, we can lose sight of the big picture.

And so we think that the balance really is to be struck between “me” and “not-me”, that there is some golden mean between selfishness and selflessness that allows for a proper relationship between man and G-d.

We could think of it in terms of a marriage. A marriage is in trouble when either spouse decides that they either do all the heavy lifting or none of it. When a married man or woman thinks that they are without an actual partner, then the relationship is doomed.  So, too, in our relationship with G-d.

Or so it seems.

But this is not actually what the Torah says! On the contrary!

And houses full of all good things, which you did not fill, and wells dug, which you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees, which you did not plant; when you shall have eaten and be full; Then beware lest you forget the Lord

Does not mean that G-d won’t give us everything! It does not say, for the “Not-Me” case, that the problem is that G-d gives us everything. Instead, what it says is that when G-d DOES give us everything, the key is to remember G-d’s role in that giving!

In other words, winning the lottery or finding lost millions, while frequently challenging to faith, is not necessarily a crippling blow to our connection to Hashem. Any blow is self-inflicted, and has nothing to do with reality. Remembering G-d is, in the end, nothing more or less than a state of mind. We can become wealthy through no act of our own, and still be devout servants of the King of Kings. All we have to do is desire it.

And the “Me” conclusion is true as well. The Torah does not have any problem with Jews who work hard, and achieve great things. Indeed, it is a great thing when a man lives in a house he has built, harvests the grapes from his vineyard, and lives with the woman he has wooed!

For the Lord your God brings you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths that spring out of valleys and hills;  A land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of olive oil, and honey;  A land where you shall eat bread without scarceness, you shall not lack any thing in it; a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you may dig bronze.  When you have eaten and are full, then you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land which he has given you.  Beware that you forget not the Lord your God. (Deut. 8:7)

G-d has no problem with people who strive, and achieve, and know that they have done it as a result of their own hard work – as long as we always remember that G-d has played a crucial role.

So in the end, it is not about a “balance” between doing all of the work, or none of it. In any kind of relationship it may be easier to find a balance between doing everything and doing nothing, but it is not truly necessary to find this balance in order to have a successful relationship. After all, at various times in our lives we are sure to depend entirely on others, or have them depend on us. It is not a moral failing to be a baby, or a parent, or in a wheelchair. These are things that happen to us with others, and happen to us in our relationship with G-d.

But the key is to always recognize and appreciate and remember that in good times and in bad, both when we seem to make things happen and when things are happening to us, G-d is with us every step of the way. And so are the people we love, and who love us. The Torah does not tell us to seek balance. It tells us to always be grateful, to find ways to appreciate everyone around us.


Be a Verb, not a Noun

“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 ask everyone on my team to use as a default – is: “How do I do this?” If we are always looking for answers, we are much more likely to make progress.

The difference comes down to whether a person thinks 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 G-d to approach Pharaoh, Moshe claims that he cannot do it because of some speech impediment. G-d 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?” (Ex. 4:11) but Moshe will not budge.  Once a man has it in his head that he is not capable of something, even G-d Almighty, in a direct confrontation, cannot change his mind! Our own self-perception is often our greatest enemy. In this case, G-d loses the argument, because he gives in, and Aharon is tasked with the speaking role.

The Torah tells us that the world itself is, indeed, a thing, a noun. We are to accept it, and use it. 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. G-d 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 more separation between the legs (Ex. 20:23).    

Mankind’s role in holiness is not to contribute our own bodies, not 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 it is something that the person themselves thinks makes them 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. There will be plenty of time to be a mere hunk of matter when we are six feet under.