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.


The Dynamism of Art


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

A 2×4 piece of wood is a static thing; it was made impersonally. That same piece of wood, worked over a lathe, lovingly handled by an artist, and crafted into a sculpture, is no longer a mere piece of wood. It is more.

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

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

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

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

This is not mere imitatio dei. G-d has already created the world. Remaking things that have already been made is not human progress; it is mere repetition, like marching in big circles (think of all the pagan conceptions of the world as nothing more than a wheel).  So when we make things, we are not supposed to imitate nature, G-d’s own work.

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.  (Deut. 4:15-18)

If we make these things, we would be stuck in a repeating pattern, an ultimately static existence.  And without dynamism, there can be no beauty. So true beauty requires us to do what G-d did: create things that never existed before.

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


Why did Esau Lose?

And [Esau] said: ‘… he hath supplanted me these two times: he took away my birthright [bechor]; and, behold, now he hath taken away my blessing.’

What is this “birthright” that Esau is talking about? The Torah tells us that Yaakov bought the birthright from Esau for a bowl of food, and that Esau spurned it by selling it. But what is the “it”? And how is this “birthright” Esau’s to sell?

We can rule a few things out. We know that the “birthright” is not the same thing as the blessing that Yaakov steals – or Esau would not have separated the two. We also know that it is not necessarily that which belongs to the firstborn – since the Torah makes it clear that a first born son (like Ishmael) does not necessarily inherit from their father, so it cannot really be a right that is bequeathed as a right of birth.

So what on earth did Yaakov think he was buying – and what Esau thought he was selling?

I think the answer can be found by seeing how the word for birthright, bechor, is used in the Torah. The first time it appears is with Abel’s offering:

And Abel, he also brought of the firstlings [from the bechor] of his flock and of the fat thereof. And the LORD had respect unto Abel and to his offering (Gen. 4:4)

So what is the bechor? It is the offering G-d loves, because of the driving desire of the offeror! The bechor is at least a token connection to someone who seeks to connect with G-d, and to receive G-d’s favor in return. More specifically, the bechor is a sacrifice, a dedication – much like Yitzchak himself had been designated as a sacrifice to G-d.

Yaakov, by seeking the bechor, is saying he wants to be offered to G-d, dedicated to Him. In other words, Yaakov seeks a reciprocal relationship with our Creator.

This explains why Esau could spurn the bechor, the birthright: he never sought a connection with G-d. But he does seek a connection with his father, whom he clearly serves, and who loves him in turn. That connection was supposed to come with the blessing that Yaakov stole. We can thus re-translate Esau’s plaintive: “he took away my birthright; and, behold, now he hath taken away my blessing,” as, “he took away my relationship with G-d, and now he has taken away my relationship with my father.”

The amazing thing is how very prescient this statement becomes. Yitzchak had favored and loved Esau, but at this moment, the father turns on the son! The ultimate blessing was to inherit the lineage of Avraham and Yitzchak, the blessing of “your seed shall inherit the land.” But this blessing was given, just before Yaakov leaves, to Yaakov and not to Esau!

What happened? What changed Yitzchak’s mind? Wasn’t Esau the wronged party?

Esau, in his own mind, becomes a victim. At the moment he cries out, he changes from the man of action to the man who has been wronged, who wallows in the injustice of it all. Esau becomes passive, resentfully complaining that his brother had done him wrong. Oblivious to the bigger picture, Esau never tries to reconnect with G-d, and even his half-steps to reconcile with his father (by taking on a non-Canaanite wife) do not manage to close the gap. Esau has assimilated with the peoples around him. He becomes a victim in his own mind, to avoid responsibility for his own actions, and conceding to the circumstances in which he finds himself.

In the eyes of his father, Esau has been transformed. Judaism must be carried by those who are proactive, who boldly do what they think is right – even when they might well be wrong! And that person was Yaakov, who seized the moment, even if he did it in error. Esau, by contrast, quit. And then he whined about it.

Esau’s statement “he took away my birthright; and, behold, now he hath taken away my blessing,” also tells Yitzchak something very important indeed: that Yaakov craves a relationship not only with his father, but has, for years, also craved that relationship with G-d! The purchased “bechor” is nothing more than a symbol, that Yaakov wants what Abel had, even if only briefly: G-d’s favor.


Searching for Meaning after Trauma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OK. What of it?

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

P.P.S. Why, if Avraham and Isaac were no longer living together, did Isaac have his mother’s tent? The question answers itself when we realize that Avraham remarries after Sarah dies. And what is the first thing a second wife does with the first wife’s things?


Wearing Our Identity – And Our Purpose

The High Priest had a full set of regalia, which may seem to be more-or-less irrelevant to our lives today. But the language of the text leads us to a different conclusion!

There is an uncommon word that comes up in the description of the garments – the word for “seal” chosam. It appears to describe just two of the garments – the breastplate (with the twelve stones on it) and the gold band on the forehead. Here is the text for the breastplate:

The stones corresponded to the names of the sons of Israel: twelve, corresponding to their names; engraved like seals, each with its name, for the twelve tribes.

And for the gold band:

You shall make a frontlet of pure gold and engrave on it the seal inscription: “Holy for G-d.”

Why does the Torah use the word “seal” in these verses? I think the reason is connected to the first time and place where this word is used: when Tamar bargains with Judah:

And he said, “What pledge shall I give you?” She replied, “Your seal and cord, and the staff which you carry.”

The seal that Judah carries is his legal instrument, the formal proxy for his office through which he can make his commitments even when he is not there in person. In other words, a letter that bears Judah’s seal is a letter in which Judah is symbolically and legally present, even though he may be nowhere near in person!

Which explains why the high priest had “seals” as well: the twelve seals of the stones mean that the high priest symbolically and legally carried the twelve tribes of Israel – the Jewish nation – with him wherever he went.

And the seal of the gold band, called the tzitz, was marked “Holy for G-d,” which symbolically and legally suggests that G-d’s presence was also carried on the person of the high priest.

So the high priest used these seals to wear the representation of both the Jewish people and G-d! But why does it matter?

In the larger sense, this idea is of central importance to Judaism. Our lives are a battle to elevate the physical toward the spiritual, to find ways to connect man and G-d, to unite, in a holy way, all the dualisms found in our world. The High Priest has to do this on the grand scale: not merely connect G-d and man, but instead connect G-d to the entire people. Yet the core concept remains the same either way.

In a single person, this closing of dualisms necessitates constantly reminding ourselves to guide our physical persons using our G-d-given souls: our thoughts, words and deeds should be guided, as much as possible, by the commandment to be holy. The Torah tells us how each man (because men have a harder time doing this than do women) is to be reminded: “Bind them as a sign on your arm and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead.” (Deut. 6:8)

Jewish prayer - Wikipedia Here is how it looks visually, as worn on a daily basis by observant Jewish men – next to the high priest:

Notice the similarity? Our heads and hearts are joined, unified to remind us both of our purpose, and the weight we carry, the obligations of our people through history to be ever-mindful of what it means to strive to be a holy people. The common garment is certainly much less involved and much less glorious than that of the high priest, but the underlying symbolic connection between the two is strong.

There is another connection as well. I wrote recently on the common garment commanded by the Torah for all Jewish males:

Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their begadim throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. (Num. 15:38)

This is the only reference to a beged that all Jewish males wear for all time. As such, the garment refers to a national identity, something that we all look at regularly and that makes us Jewish. Why, of all things, this garment? Because…

That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all G-d’s commandments and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus, you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God.

Because the “blue” reminds us of the skies, a reminder of the core Jewish mission, that when we look toward our more “animalistic” parts, we are reminded to look upward instead, and always seek to connect the waters below to the waters above, adding holiness to this world.

And the word translated as “corner” has a more usual meaning in the Torah: wings, just like the wings of birds and of the angels over the ark of the covenant. Wings remind us that we are meant, at least spiritually, to always seek to grow upward, to fly and connect to the heavens. Thus, the clothing we wear that reminds us of all things is rightfully a beged, an identifying garment. We Jews are commanded to constantly remember that we must always keep an eye on our higher purpose.

There is one word in this section that also must be discussed: the word for “fringes,” transliterated, is tzitzis. There are four fringes on the garment, one in each of the four corners.

This word is not found in the Torah for anything except these fringes, tzitzis. “That shall be your fringe.” Why does the text call it your fringe? I think because there is a tzitzis found elsewhere: the tztitz that is the gold band of the high priest! Which means there is a direct link between our prayer shawls (and a smaller garment we wear under our clothes that has the same fringes), and the garment of the high priest. Both of them are reminders of our higher purpose, that every Jew has a constant reminder to be “Holy for G-d.”

When we draw these connections, as roadmapped in the text, the garments of the high priest remain relevant for every Jew even today, over two millennia since those garments were last worn.

[an @iwe and @eliyahumasinter work!]

P.S. The word I translated as “for,” as in “Holy for G-d,” is a prefix formed by the letter “lamed,” which is first found as a proxy representative in the very first day of creation: “God called (for) light ‘day’ and called (for) darkness ‘night.’” Which means that when the same letter, the lamed, is used in the verse concerning the gold band, then “Holy for G-d” is really more of an equivalence than a mere connection, making the tzitz the proxy for G-d’s presence, in the same way that Judah’s seal represented his legal proxy.


Finding Identity Through Clothing

There is a joy in shared identity, like-minded people cheering on their sports team or political party or working together in their community. People very much want to be part of a larger group. They do this, in no small part, through visual display – through our possessions, tattoos, cars and homes. But most importantly, we use clothes as the single clearest self-identifier.

The Torah has a word for identity, too, though it is only found by looking at context. The word beged literally means “clothing.” But when we look at the way the word is used in the text, a beged is not a mere garment or loincloth, tunic or veil (all those words also exist in the Torah). Instead, it is a word that specifically and always is used to denote a person’s identity, their sense of belonging, their role in society. Indeed, the word, like self-identification in any way, is necessarily aspirational – so instead of describing a person in terms of what they are now, beged is used to tell us what they plan to be in the future.

The first time the word beged is found is when Rivkah (Rebekkah) becomes engaged to Isaac and Avraham’s servant gives her the engagement present: “The servant brought out objects of silver and gold, and begadim [the plural form of beged], and gave them to Rivkah.” She is transitioning from a single girl to a married woman, and so the clothes become a symbol of transformation.

As the first time beged is used it tells us of Rivka’s change in status, it is not surprising that she in turn uses her son’s clothes the same way. The word next appears in the text when Rivka seeks to make Yaakov (Jacob) into the first-born, in place of Esau. “Rivkah then took the best begadim of her older son Esau, which were there in the house, and had her younger son Yaakov put them on.” There is deception in this act, but the deception was secondary to the key goal, which was to transform Yaakov into the oldest son, to be the receiver of the blessing. The purpose of the beged that Yaakov wears is to aspire for the office and status of his older brother. He, too, is using begadim as a means to seek a change in identity.

Beged appears again when Yaakov is on the run from his angry older brother. Yaakov sleeps and dreams, and when he wakes, he strikes a bargain with G-d:

Yaakov then made a vow, saying, “If God remains with me, if He protects me on this journey that I am making, and gives me bread to eat and beged to wear… then if I return safe to my father’s house— YKVK shall be my God.

The key here is that Yaakov does not ask for clothing (the word simla is a functional garment), but instead asks specifically for beged. Why? Because Yaakov is alone and on the run. He is lonely and the future is entirely unknown.

What Yaakov is asking for is for G-d to give him not merely clothes on his back, but an identity he can cling to. The only identification Yaakov had adopted in the past was his brother Esau’s, and that clearly was not a long-term fit. So Yaakov is asking G-d for Yaakov’s own connection going forward, for a purpose to his existence.

This is essential for Yaakov, because he was going into Lavan’s house, and his preservation of his identity was a substantial concern: would he assimilate and remain, or keep his clear sense of self and return to his father’s house? Note that he is not asking for an identity as a member of a group – but instead he is requesting an identity that is intertwined with a relationship with G-d. Yaakov teaches us that great men do not need or even seek to be part of a herd. They still require an identity, but they are content to receive it from just one being, G-d Himself.

The Jewish message from this is also clear: ultimately, while we may blend in with other Jews, the key goal of the way in which we dress is to aspire for a relationship with G-d.

In this, Yaakov foreshadows the priestly garments, described at length later in the Torah. As and when the priests wore their garments, they owned the identity that came with the garments: when dressed accordingly, the men and their office were one and the same. The begadim of the priests was more than a mere uniform; it was all about seeking the same relationship that Yaakov had. After all, it was Yaakov in his dream who first saw the ladder to and from heaven that represented the key function of the tabernacle: to connect heaven and earth, G-d and man.

We can see later in the text how this meaning of beged, as identity, is reinforced. “When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he rent his begadim.” Why? Because Reuven was the first-born, and his job was to take care of his own brothers. When he failed at this job, then his identity, his raison d’etre, his very self-perception, was damaged. It is notable that, just a few verses later when Yaakov mourns Joseph, Yaakov rips his simla, his garments. But he does not rip begadim – because ripping clothing is a sign of mourning and loss, but ripping begadim signifies an existential change in a person. Yaakov lost a son, but unlike with Reuven, Yaakovs’s very identity had not been threatened.

Joshua and Caleb also rip their begadim, at the moment they realize that the people they were supposed to lead and protect, are lost: “And they said to one another, “Let us head back for Egypt… And Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, of those who had scouted the land, ripped their begadim.” Like Reuven, these leaders realize that their very identity had been compromised because they were leaders who failed to successfully lead. Their identity, their beged, was damaged.

Beged is also found in the Torah with the episode between Tamar and Yehudah. He takes her for a prostitute, and procures her services accordingly. The relevant piece of this story is that Tamar does not put on the beged of a woman for hire.

So she took off her widow’s begadim, covered her face with a veil and, wrapping herself up, sat down at the entrance to Enaim, which is on the road to Timnah; for she saw that Shelah was grown up, yet she had not been given to him as wife.

She does not, unlike Yaakov’s use of Esau’s clothes, use the beged to deceive. Instead, she merely anonymizes herself, becoming nameless. Which is why, at the end of the episode, “Then she went on her way. She took off her veil and again put on her widow’s begadim.”

So when Tamar confronts Yehudah, she does it outside of her identity and her status. She does not wish to be a widow; she wanted Yehudah to fulfill his promise and give her Shelah to be her husband.

Beged is also consistently and widely used with the commandments regarding the spiritual malady known as tzaraas (popularly mistranslated as “leprosy”). The visible symptoms of tzaraas can be seen in one’s begadim. And I think the reason why this word, instead of simla is used, is because being plagued in this manner is a direct result of harming another person, either through words or deeds. And, as we have seen throughout the Torah, seeking to harm another is the antithesis of Torah Judaism, which commands, “Love your neighbor as yourself” as a core commandment. As such, a person who has tzaraas is endangering his identity as a Jew, as a partner to G-d. Which is why his begadim show the signs, a warning to change and grow beyond harming others. A person with tzaraas cannot elevate himself, cannot connect to G-d. Which in turn is a fundamental threat to his identity, as shown in the blemish on his begadim.

There is one verse that sums up the meaning of a beged better than any other:

Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their begadim throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. (Num. 15:38)

This is the only reference to a beged that all Jewish males wear for all time. As such, the garment refers to a national identity, something that we all look at regularly and that makes us Jewish. Why, of all things, this garment?

That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all G-d’s commandments and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus, you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God.

Because the “blue” reminds us of the skies, a reminder of the core Jewish mission, that when we look toward our more “animalistic” parts, we are reminded to look upward instead, and always seek to connect the waters below to the waters above, adding holiness to this world.

And the word translated as “corner” has a more usual meaning in the Torah: wings, just like the wings of birds and of the angels over the ark of the covenant. Wings remind us that we are meant, at least spiritually, to always seek to grow upward, to fly and connect to the heavens. Thus, the clothing we wear that reminds us of all things is rightfully a beged, an identifying garment. We Jews are commanded to constantly remember that we must always keep an eye on our higher purpose.

It seems, then, that Yaakov got his wish. G-d provided Yaakov with his beged, his identity, and we, in turn, wear a divinely-gifted beged as well, connecting both to Yaakov’s desire to belong in a relationship with G-d, and to the priests and their specific garments when they served in G-d’s house.

Beged vs. Simla (a normal garment)

To better understand the text, we need to also note the pivotal examples when the word beged is not used in the text, and why. In addition to Yaakov’s ripping of clothes, the garment that covers Noach after his naked and drunken exposure is a simla, not a beged. When Joseph is pulled from the dungeon to meet Pharoah and interpret his dreams, the text tells us: “Thereupon Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was rushed from the dungeon. He had his hair cut and changed his simla, and he appeared before Pharaoh.” They give him clean simla, because his status had not changed. But following his meeting with Pharaoh, Joseph receives a new identity: “And removing his signet ring from his hand, Pharaoh put it on Joseph’s hand; and he had him dressed in begadim of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck.”

The clothing of the defeated captive woman whom a soldier chooses to marry is similarly called a simla, because the clothing, while it identified her status, was not her aspiration – nobody wants to be in the ignominious and powerless position of war captive.

When we leave Egypt and G-d tells us to take the gold, silver and clothing of the Egyptians (an echo of the engagement present that Rivkah receives, telling her that she was to be married), the word is simla instead of the begadim that Rivkah received. The reason is simple enough: while both are clothing, we were not adopting the identity of the Egyptians. Instead we were merely taking their wealth.

G-d even promises to take care of those in need: “[G-d] upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and simla.” Why not begadim, as G-d did with Yaakov when he sought food and clothing? Because after the Torah is given, a Jewish identity is available to everyone through the text, and even through the Jewish people. But Yaakov had no Torah text, and he was utterly alone, so his clothing was more than merely functional. G-d gives people what they need. The normal stranger needs food and clothing, but Yaakov needed more than that in order to grow his relationship with G-d. He needed an identity.

The very last example of any word for clothing is found in this verse:

So he has made up charges, saying, ‘I did not find your daughter a virgin.’ But here is the evidence of my daughter’s virginity!” And they shall spread out the simla before the elders of the town.

As we have said, a simla is a functional garment, but not one that identifies status, office or aspirations. The word simla is found both in this last verse and in the first use (Noach’s sons covering him up with a simla) to provide basic functionality, coverage of nakedness and dignity.

P.S. A very popular explanation of the meaning of the word beged ties it to the word for “deceive.” The textual use of the word used this way is:

If she proves to be displeasing to her master, who designated her for himself, he must let her be redeemed; he shall not have the right to sell her to outsiders, since he beged with her.

It is understandable why this could be translated as deception, but I think the examples we have offered suggests a convincing alternative – that this verse suggests that the master gave her an identity – so he is forbidden to demote her from that office if he ends up changing his mind about staying with her. The giving of an identity is a gift that cannot be taken away without damages and consequences, so she must freed – instead of sold – in the event that her master changes his mind.

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


Female Roles in the Tabernacle

The tabernacle, the mishkan, was G-d’s home among his people. And the role of women, while easy to overlook, is detailed in the text. True, women did not serve in the functioning mishkan, but they contributed materials to it – and more.

The key hint is from the phrase when things are being connected: “אִשָּׁ֤ה אֶל־אֲחֹתָהּ֙”, or “each woman to her sister.” This is an off formulation when “each to each” is also available within the language. Indeed, even “each man to his brother” is found in the description of the mishkan, referring to the orientation of the cherubim on top of the ark. (I wrote about “each man to his brother” here, arguing that the cherubim are a corrective for the first man and the first brother in the Torah – Cain and Abel).

So why are these parts of the mishkan given in the feminine? Here are the examples:

Five of the cloths shall be joined each woman to her sister, and the other five cloths shall be joined each woman to her sister. (Ex. 26:3)

Make fifty loops on the one cloth, and fifty loops on the edge of the end cloth of the other set, the loops to be opposite each woman to her sister. (Ex. 26:5)

And make fifty gold clasps, and couple the cloths each woman to her sister with the clasps, so that the tabernacle becomes one whole. (Ex. 26:6)

What do they all have in common? Cloth. The women made all the threads used in the cloth!

And all the women that were wise-hearted did spin with their hands, and brought that which they had spun, both of blue, and of purple, and of scarlet, and of fine linen. And all the women whose heart stirred them up in wisdom spun goats’ hair. (Ex. 35:25-26)

And where is the cloth found? It is used to enwrap the tabernacle, to encircle it and surround it. The cloth the women make forms the cocoon within which G-d resides among his people. Women create the environment within which things can grow!

The cloth and the walls of the mishkan then, are analogous to a Jewish wedding ceremony, where the bride circles around the groom, starting to form the walls that make it possible for a Jewish family to form and grow, the conditions that turn a mere residence into a home.

This also explains why the phrases is “each woman to her sister.” The other time this phrase is found is Lev 18:18

Do not take [into your household as a wife] a woman as a rival to her sister and uncover her nakedness in the other’s lifetime.

But of course, we know of a man who married two sisters: Jacob. And those sisters were indeed rivals:

When Rachel saw that she had borne Jacob no children, she became envious of her sister; and Rachel said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die.”


And Rachel said, “A fateful contest I waged with my sister; yes, and I have prevailed.”

In which case, just as the “each man to his brother” can be understood as a corrective for Cain and Abel, the first brothers in the Torah, “each woman to her sister” can be seen also as a corrective for the rivalry of Rachel and Leah. In which case the beauty of the curtains of the mishkan are that they come from the hands of women who worked with each other, who built together, instead of competing with each other.

The simple lesson is this: G-d’s presence can be found in a home in which women work together, where they build beautiful things together in partnership.

This is validated elsewhere in the Torah as well: Moses’ sister, Miriam, clearly chooses to work with Pharaoh’s daughter in saving Moses’ life and ensuring he was sustained until he was weaned, even though Pharoah’s daughter knew full well that the child was supposed to be killed: “Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, ‘Shall I go and get you a Hebrew nurse to suckle the child for you?’” This cooperation saved Moses, and helped to save the Jewish people as well.

Similarly, the Jewish midwives who worked with each other to save lives and build Jewish homes were rewarded specifically: “It was, since the midwives held God in awe, that He made them homes.” This can be understood many ways – but one such way would be to suggest that the midwives who partnered to build Jewish homes were rewarded by being able to similarly make G-d’s own home!

P.S. There is one other “woman to her sister” in the Torah, and it is found not in the curtains but in the planks that, along with the curtains, formed the wall of the tabernacle. “Each plank shall have two tenons, parallel each woman to her sister; do the same with all the planks of the Tabernacle.” Though women did not necessarily supply the wood for the planks as they had spun the thread for the curtain, nevertheless the planks, together with the curtains, provided the enclosure for the entire mishkan, the walls of G-d’s home on earth.

[an @iwe and @susanquinn work]


Corrections from a Godless Age

The entire pre-Flood era in the Torah is described as one disaster after another. From the expulsion from the Garden to Cain killing Abel, from Lamech’s murders to the generation of the Flood, rooted as they were in “Might Makes Right” ethics, the Torah describes what happens when G-d leaves mankind alone and then observes what men, given unfettered freedom, decide to do. The answer is simple enough: in a state of nature, man is nothing more than a clever animal, doing all the things animals do, but, thanks to our mental capability and some physical advantages, we manage to outdo any other animal when it comes to our capacity for domination, hatred, and evil.

That experiment ends with the Flood. It is clear that G-d must be involved with the world in order for it to not slide back into the old ways. And so G-d talks to Avram, and tries building the world up from one person, one family. This, too, falls short. The forefathers were close to G-d, but their overall impact on the rest of creation was far too limited to make significant headway against the pagan, nature-worshipping peoples in every other civilization of the age.

Then, the Avrahamic family became an Israel tribe, and then a Jewish nation in the Exodus. At Sinai, the Torah, a set of laws and guides for mankind to use to learn to grow healthy and productive relationships with each other, and with G-d, is given. And at the center of the Torah, G-d instructs us to build and use the tabernacle, the mishkan, as a means for us to find G-d in our midst, to have constant symbolic reminders of who we are, and how we can seek holiness with the choices that we make.

All of the post-Exodus interaction between G-d and man can be seen in a very simple light: the commandments are here to help show us how to avoid all the mistakes that we made when G-d was not in our life, helping us to see the difference between right and wrong. The Torah and Tabernacle are a gift to keep us from reverting to pre-Flood animalistic humanity.

We can trace the vast majority of commandments back to the actions of our forefathers, of Noach, or even of Adam and Eve. The text provides all the signposts. But the commandments are not all simple, or as obvious as, “thou shall not kill.” Many of them are symbolic in nature, and so need to be understood in terms of their symbolic meaning. We can do this by seeing how the Torah links different elements together subtly, using shared language across the text, such as how a word may only be found in a few different cases. The word then is connective tissue, explaining how one episode much later in the Torah can be explained by an earlier one.

In the past, I have pointed out how the word for “thought” is contrasted between the Flood generation and the making of the tabernacle – here. The word for “heart” and “full” are similarly contrasted between the people of the flood and those who made the tabernacle – discussed here.

But I now believe that the parallels are so strong that it seems that the design of the tabernacle is more than a mere contrast to the past. It is instead meant to be a correction to the errors of humanity before we had a proper relationship with G-d. Here are some of the parallels that, to me, make this a strong case.

The Angels – the cherubim:

Make two cherubim of gold—make them of hammered work—at the two ends of the cover. Make one cherub at one end and the other cherub at the other end; of one piece with the cover shall you make the cherubim at its two ends. The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. They shall confront each other, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover …There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you—from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Covenant—all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.

Questions abound. One obvious one: what do cherubim look like? This is a common question, but I believe it is a distraction from the right ones! While there is considerable speculation and opinion about what the appearance of the cherubim was (opinions range from man and woman, to two children, to creatures with animal faces, etc.), the text does not tell us. By itself, that tells us what we need to know: it does not matter. The cherubim are symbolic characters, and they serve no function beyond simply being there, facing each other, with their wings covering the cover of the ark. So the real meaning of the cherubim is about the relationship between them, the fact that they are facing and reaching for each other. Our sages have spoken of the cherubim as representing man and G-d, as well as man and woman, suggesting that there are strong parallels between terrestrial marriage and a relationship with the divine. I have no argument with any of that. Indeed, the ambiguous appearance of the cherubim may well be a way to tell us that it refers to all relationships, writ large. And if so, then the message applies whether we are talking of marriage, friendship or our relationship to G-d.

But another way to try to better understand the cherubim is to use the words in the Torah itself. The text does NOT say that the cherubim are male and female, or children, or animals. Instead, the text itself says each “man is facing his brother.” Why is this important? Because these words are first found in Genesis, and in two adjacent verses referring to the very first relationship that went wrong!

Now Adam knew Eve his wife and she conceived and bore Cain. And she said, ‘I have acquired a man as did G-d.’ She then bore his brother Abel. (Gen 4:1-2).

The second time in the Torah where “man” and “his brother” is found is right after the Flood, where G-d reminds Noach of the prohibition against murder:

I require a reckoning for human life, of every man for his brother!

Which tells us that the cherubim are meant to represent Cain and Abel – how they should have been! Brothers who loved each other, instead of rivals. Brothers who love instead of kill. Note that Cain’s loss of self-control is the first named sin in the Torah. Hatred is easy, but love is hard.

It is no accident that the cherubim are described using this very same expression, of “man facing his brother.” And since the voice of G-d comes from the empty space between the cherubim, the obvious and simple conclusion is that G-d is found where people love each other, and where people seek to correct the wrongs of the past.


The wings of the cherubim stretch out over the cover of the ark – called a kapores. This is the same root word we use for Yom Kippur, and while it is often translated as “atonement,” if we look at context for this word, a more accurate meaning is a protective or insulating layer, allowing close proximity without direct exposure. And we learn it from the way Noach builds the first ark: “Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make it an ark with compartments, and kapar it inside and out with kapar.” The act of sealing Noach’s ark, and the sealant he used are both the same root word used for the cover of the ark of the covenant!

In which case, we can see the wings of the cherubim as representing the outside protective layer, and the cover of the ark as the inside protective layer. The goal is clearly to allow G-d’s presence to come as close to possible to the people – but without the direct exposure that no mortal flesh can survive. There is a direct parallel to the flood waters in this as well, of course. And the fact that all of the insulation layers (pitch on the inside and out of Noach’s ark, and the cover and angel wings on the ark of the covenant) are all made by mankind, for our own survival against what otherwise would kill us.

But the contrast between the flood and G-d’s presence in the ark is even more stark. The flood waters were designed to be toxic, whereas G-d’s presence in the tabernacle is meant to provide spiritual proximity, guidance and uplift. The kapar is necessary for both, but like the brothers who reach for each other in love, the kapar in the ark of the covenant may be a corrective for the Flood. After all, the Flood was the tragic death of an old era. But the tabernacle is the optimistic beginning of a promising new one.

The Torah continues the linguistic parallels. Noach’s ark had a skylight that we are told was a cubit “from the top” – and the cherubim’s wings are also “on top.” The windows of one ark and the wings of another, both being the last human interface between the physical world and the heavens.

And from this window, Noach dispatched birds to determine what was going on outside (his skylight did not, apparently, provide a view except for the sky). Birds, of course, with wings – the same word used to describe the wings of the cherubim.

Even the word used for the faces of the cherubim, u-fenayhem, is first found in the Torah in the Noach story:

Shem and Japheth took a cloth, placed it against both their backs and, walking backward, they covered their father’s nakedness; their faces (u-fenayhem) were turned the other way, so that they did not see their father’s nakedness.

These brothers, unlike Cain and Abel, were jointly engaged in a good purpose, and they used the way they turned their faces in order to shield themselves from their father’s humiliation.

Which leads us to the first time cherubim are mentioned:

And G-d sent them from the Garden of Eden to work the land from which he was taken. Man was banished, and from the east of the Garden of Eden were the cherubim with the fiery ever-turning sword to guard the way to the tree of life.

The first cherubim used a sword. But the cherubim of the tabernacle use their wings to shield. In both cases, the cherubim signify a demarcation, a change in state at the place where they are. But the cherubim in Genesis, while they succeeded in blocking the way to the tree of life, failed at a larger divine purpose, of elevating mankind, of showing us how to grow, or reminding us how we can have productive relationships with our creator.

By contrast, the cherubim over the ark of the covenant acted as did Noach’s righteous sons, by directing their faces and using their wings to shield, to protect, to bring us closer to G-d instead of farther away from Him.

In summary we can see that the angels on top of the ark existed very much as a contrast to G-d’s initial laissez-faire approach to the world, in the pre-Flood generations of man that sought violence and self-aggrandizement, and where G-d ended up killing almost everyone. The angels on top of the ark are a do-over for the failures of the Flood generation. In the tabernacle, we are reminded of G-d’s presence, of the constant need for productive and corrective relationships, of using shields instead of swords.

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

[note: The word for “man,” ish, is found in several instances earlier than 4:1 – but that verse is the first time it is a standalone word. The earlier cases are all attached to other letters]

P.S. It is widely understood in Jewish tradition that the tabernacle is like a re-creation of the world. The essence of my addition to that understanding is that the re-creation is not merely a spiritual proxy for the physical original, but it is also an improvement, a corrective secondary creation that turns many elements of pre-Flood humanity from negatives into positives.


Man in a State of Nature

The animal kingdom has no concept of equality. The Lion King, Hamlet reincarnated, demonstrates this quite well: every species occupies a spot in a hierarchy, and within the species, there are hierarchies for each person. It was only natural, then that Plato spoke of mankind being classified as gold, silver or iron/bronze, similarly understanding that we are not created equal. Such a conclusion is obvious by merely sampling the data; only an idiot (or someone who believes in a divinely-gifted soul) would think otherwise.

In such a world, a world without G-d, men establish their own hierarchies, unconstrained by any moral principles. We have seen the result throughout history: might makes right. The most powerful seize power and then do whatever is needed in order to hold it against anyone else who would like to rise to the top. Along the way, these strong men seem to invariably and instinctively seek to reduce others as well: it is not enough that they should rise – everyone else must also fall. So while a strongman may begin as just a leader among leaders (think of Lenin and his cohort), he soon finds ways to eliminate rivals. His power is dependent on others not having power. We can see it in Stalin and Putin, Mao and Saddam Hussein. The powerful men rose, but their countries always did worse than their freer contemporaries.

We also see it in the Torah, in the generation of the Flood. Gen 6:4, “when the sons of gods cohabited with the human women, who bore them offspring. Such were the mighty of old, the men of renown.” These were men – men who were greater than those around them, who took the women they wanted. Men who sought fame for themselves, under the justification of a lawless “Might makes Right” ethic. They were the tinpot dictators of their day, seeking aggrandizement at all costs, which included damaging their world enough so there was no prospect of a better future.

G-d’s reaction was grim: “G-d saw how great was human wickedness on earth—how every desire in the thoughts of man’s heart was nothing but evil all the time.” Indeed, “the world was filled with hamas [animalistic lawlessness – might makes right],” So G-d decided to destroy the world.

What strikes me is how some of these same words are contrasted later in the text – for the building of the tabernacle. The Flood generation has the first mention in the Torah of a man’s heart, a lev. In the Torah, the word for “heart” never actually refers to the human organ; it always refers to a person’s self, perhaps his consciousness. And in that generation, the heart was full of evil, all the time.

But when G-d commands the building of the tabernacle, the mishkan, the people are told that they can contribute, as much or as little as their hearts desire. In this case, the people give so much of everything that they have to be told to stop, that there is more than enough building material already. It is a stark contrast to the Flood times: people give to the whole, take part in a grander plan. Instead of making themselves greater by putting others down, they contribute alongside others, seeking to invest in a group project, one that will elevate the entire people by creating a home for G-d’s presence among the people. The heart, the lev, of the people could not be more different than during the Flood generation. Mankind has not changed, but G-d’s involvement in the world has.

Another word is also found in both sections: the word for “full”, maleh. In the Flood generation, the world was maleh with “might makes right.” But when the tabernacle is built, G-d has filled each person’s heart with capability, with chacham, the ability to create and fashion beautiful things for G-d’s house. But chacham, by itself, is also not a positive attribute. Pharaoh’s “wise men” were called chacham, yet they were foolish enough to seek to match Moses’ tricks, instead of trying to counter them (making more staffs into snakes, making more blood, etc.). It is the combination of chacham, lev, and G-d’s own spirit that makes man productive and constructive.

A simple reading of the Torah, then, suggests that it is G-d’s own presence, not the thoughts of mankind on our own, that makes it possible for humans to learn kindness, to come to an understanding about the value of each person, of each life. In a world where G-d stands back and lets people figure things out, we invariably revert to a state of nature, where man reverts to selfishness and hierarchy, to seeking greatness at the cost of others. It is only when G-d is closely involved are we able to fill our hearts and consciousnesses with the kinds of thoughts and desires that lead to growth and maturity, that lead to love and consideration instead of violence and tyranny.

P.S. The word maleh in the Torah is always about something that has been filled and primed, ready to be used. When time is full, Jacob gets to marry Leah and then Rachel. When a woman’s days of pregnancy are full, she gives birth. When water skins are filled, they are poured out for those in need. When a person’s heart is full of chacham, they need to act – to create, to build, even to write. Indeed, this expression best explains what personally drives me to write about Torah: I feel that I am full of a thought, and that I am compelled to write it down and to share it with others.

[an @iwe and @kidcoder work]


Power and the Glory?

Years ago I learned that the reason there are legal doublets (“breaking and entering,” “give and grant,” “keep and maintain,” etc.) is as a result of William the Conqueror (or as we called him in my childhood home, “Bill the Bastard”) invading England in 1066. His government wanted the law to apply both Natives and Normans alike – and so the legal doublet was born, one word in French and one in Old English, just to make sure everyone was covered. Though once the habit was formed, plenty such phrases can be found in just French (“Aid and abet”) or English (“Have and hold”), which means that even if we do not need to in order to cover our legal bases, people still like throwing in an extra word, perhaps because it makes us appear super-duper smart.

While certainly some legal doublets derived this way, we know that 1066 was not the starting line for linguistic doublets. The use of doublets is clearly much older, because similar word phrases were very common in both Homer and Virgil; meter, rhyme and fullness of meaning all contribute to the roundness of a phrase.

Even older than doublets are merisms – words which are paired to bring opposite examples together into a whole: “I searched high and low” is a modern example. Merisms offer up two contrasting words: think of Torah phrases, “it was evening and it was morning,” and, “heaven and earth.” A merism offers a range or a sum, encapsulating a meaning through polarity instead of through similarity.

So when I came across a biblical verse explaining the garments worn by the priests, I got to wondering what a certain doublet means. The common translation of this verse is:

Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for honor and adornment.” (Ex. 28:2)

The King James translation of this verse is even more colorful:

“And thou shalt make holy garments for Aaron thy brother for glory and for beauty.”

And it made me wonder. What do these words actually mean?

The word for “honor/glory” (kavod) is easy enough. It is used first to describe the reaction of Laban’s sons to Jacob’s successes:

“Jacob has taken all that was our father’s, and from that which was our father’s he has built up all this kavod.” Jacob has accreted wealth and reputation.

Similarly, in its second use, Joseph, the Viceroy of Egypt, wants his father to know of his status, so he commands his brothers:

“And you must tell my father everything about my kavod in Egypt.”

From there until the priestly garments are commanded, the word kavod refers only to the kavod of G-d as he leads the people. The word can cause fear, as with the rebuke: “In the morning you shall behold the kavod of the LORD, because He has heard your grumblings against the LORD.” Or it can merely refer to great power, as in “Now the kavod of the LORD appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain.”

But the meaning is consistent enough across all these meanings: kavod is the perception of power, of grandeur. The King James translation of kavod to mean “glory” seems pretty spot-on. The clothes of the priest are to somehow reflect G-d’s own kavod, to invest that presence and power into the wearers of the priestly garments.

If this is the case, then what is the purpose of this second word, translated as “adornment”? The root word in Hebrew is pa-er. But the first use of pa-er has nothing to do with “adornment” at all!

Egypt has been plagued with frogs, and Pharaoh begs Moses to get rid of them. Moses replies to Pharaoh,

“You may have this pa-er over me: for what time shall I plead in behalf of you and your courtiers and your people, that the frogs be cut off from you and your houses, to remain only in the Nile?”

What does this mean? Moses offers to give Pharaoh authority by deciding what day or hour the frogs should be removed? There is certainly an element of snark in Moses’ offer – try to play the scene out in your head, and you’ll see how the offer could not have been made without at least a little chutzpah.

But while Moses may have been baiting Pharoah, the use of the word remains, because Moses is doing something very specific: he is offering to act as the go-between between Pharoah and G-d, relaying communications between them, and in so doing, reducing Moses’ own role in the negotiations. In other words, this word pa-er seems to refer not to beauty or adornment, but to service.

If so, then the original phrase is not a legal doublet, or a rhetorical one. Instead, it is, like “heaven and earth,” a merism. The kavod or glory of G-d is one purpose of the garments. But the second purpose is an opposite one: the garments exist to allow the priest to serve man and G-d, to act not in his own interest, but as a facilitator to communication and the relationship between man and His Creator.

In this way, the priestly garments seem analogous to the official uniform of any high office: the wearer of the uniform represents the glory of his institution or master, but also, and at the same time, a devoted servant sworn to act in the interest of that master instead of seeking his own self-aggrandizement. This actually fits quite well for the described tasks and responsibilities of the priests in G-d’s house.

Understanding the original “glory and adornment” as a merism instead of a complementary doublet tells us much more about the dual nature of a priest, whose garments help him remember that he has to represent G-d, but while still serving man.

If this is correct, then it also allows us to reconsider some other verses in the Torah. Here is a big one:

He will set you, in fame and renown and glory, high above all the nations that He has made; and that you shall be, as He promised, a holy people to the LORD your God. (Deut. 26:19)

Is thus more properly understood as:

He will set you, in praise and reputation and service, high above all the nations that He has made; and that you shall be, as He promised, a holy people to the LORD your God. (Deut. 26:19)

Which really changes the meaning of the text. Instead of being aloof above the nations secure in our fame and glory, we are to act as G-d’s own intermediaries to the world, involved and invested in mankind as part of our service to G-d.

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

P.S. Besides these examples (including more discussion of the priestly garments), there is only one other case of the word pa-er in the Torah, and it is a curious one:

When you beat out your olives, do not pa-er them again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. (Deut. 24:20)

Making sense of this is not easy. This is the best I came up with: G-d wants to help the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, as the Torah says,

The Lord your G-d … upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. (Deut. 10:17)

So for these protected classes of people, G-d does not want us to get in the middle of G-d’s direct beneficence. Instead of serving as a go-between to the end, in this case we leave the olives on the tree for the people to help themselves. It is G-d who wishes to feed them, and we are to stand aside, to not be in the middle of that merciful act by G-d.

In other words, pa-er means to serve others but, as with Pharaoh, that service reduces the supplicant. But the stranger, orphan and widow are already reduced, and G-d wants them to rise up, to take more control of their own futures. He wants to empower them with olives (described here, symbolizing the light of knowledge in dark days). By stepping back by fully working over the tree, we are making it possible for the poor to harvest the olives themselves, to possess self-respect and agency in the process. Which means we refrain from fully acting as the go-between, the pa-er between the olive and the recipients.


Why Olive Oil?

You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting … from evening to morning. (Ex. 27:20)

Why, given the range of vegetable and animal oils available, does the Torah specifically command that we use olive oil to light the menorah?

The answer is, of course, found in the text. Let‘s start with the meaning of light: Light, created on the first day, was the first thing G-d makes that He calls “good.” Light, contrasted with darkness, represents intellect, and wisdom and knowledge and even beauty. Jews are called to be a “Light Unto the Nations.” Light banishes darkness, symbolizing the knowledge that casts out ignorance.

The first time the word for “olives” is found in the Torah, it is near the end of the Flood.

Set the scene: the world has been destroyed, and Noach and his family are in a rickety boat, surrounded by water, and they have no idea what is going on outside. Are they, too, consigned to a watery (albeit postponed) death as well? So what does Noach do? He sends birds out of the ark to try to gather some information.

The dove came back to him toward evening, and there in its bill was a plucked-off olive leaf! Then Noach knew that the waters had decreased on the earth.

The olive that is first mentioned brings that key element of the menorah – as darkness descended on the world, Noach receives information and knowledge through the olive leaf! And so it makes sense that every evening we light olive oil, reminding us that even in darkness we can find knowledge and the comfort that it brings in the face of the unknown night.

The other word, that for “leaf,” is the same letters as the word for “elevate.” The very first leaf in the Torah are the fig leaves that Adam and Eve use as loincloths – precisely when they, too, have acquired new knowledge (by eating the fruit of knowledge of good and evil):

Then the eyes of both of them were opened and they perceived that they were naked; and they sewed together fig leaves and made themselves loincloths.

These leaves, just like the leaf brought to Noach by the dove, serve to elevate mankind, moving mankind away from the un-selfconscious animal kingdom and toward human aspects of shame that come from the awareness that our bodies do not reflect how we would like to perceive our souls.

The word for “leaf” and “elevation” are the same (olah). Both are found with the olive leaf that the dove brings to Noach. The Torah ties it all into a bow for us: the Menorah’s light is described (Lev. 24:2) using the very same word: an olah, an elevation.

The combination of the olive and the leaf bring knowledge that leads to the continued enlightenment of man, an enlightenment that is enshrined and institutionalized in the menorah that lights G-d’s home and shines out to the world.

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

P.S. There are many other symbolic aspects of the menorah as well – I have written on them here, and here, and here.


Eye for an Eye?

One of the classic perceptions of the Old Testament is that it commands a strict and merciless justice. The showcase verse reads as follows:

If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done so shall it be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him. (Lev. 24:20) [NB: This is not to be confused with Exodus 21, which deals with damage to a newborn.]

Casual readers understand this verse as strict like-for-like justice – if you blind someone, you should be blinded in return, etc.  It sounds very harsh, to say the least.

Observant Jewish readers will immediately react: of course the verse does not mean that! Such a punishment has never been meted out in all of Jewish history! Instead, we know, from our oral law, that the law really means monetary compensation: the value of the damage should be paid.

The problem with this answer is that it does not properly address the original problem: regardless of how the law is carried out, why does the Torah word it this way, instead of clearly saying “pay compensation,” as it does so many other places? After all, the words are there, in black and white: surely, we are not meant to ignore them, and merely replace them with what we want them to say! If that were so, then the text would have no authority at all.

The answer is found within the Torah itself. The key is found in the word tachas, which we translate as the word between the nouns: eye for eye [eye tachas eye], tooth for tooth [tooth tachas tooth], etc. The problem, unsurprisingly, is that the word does not directly translate to mean “for.”

Tachas is very common in the text, and its usage is consistent. Tachas has two meanings in the Torah, and they are connected: the first means “under,” and the second means “in place of.” Except that once we see context, we find that these are inextricably linked concepts for a very simple reason: the substitutions that are used as tachas are the inferior, physical, and lower mirror images of superior, spiritual and higher things.

Here’s the proof:

The very first use of tachas shows us the waters below (oceans) mirroring the waters above (heavens).

God made the expanse, and it separated the water which was tachas the expanse from the water which was above the expanse.  

This encapsulates both meanings: “under,” and “instead of.”  The seas are the water below. They are physical and tangible. The heavens are the waters above – spiritual and impalpable.

And each and every time that tachas is used for a substitution, the replacement is always more like the physical waters below than the spiritual waters above.  Here are the most prominent examples in the text:

Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth, meaning, “God hasprovided me with another offspring tachas Abel,” for Cain had killed him.

 When Abraham looked up, his eye fell upon a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering tachas his son.

Jacob was incensed at Rachel, and said, “Am I tachas for God, who has denied you fruit of the womb?”

But Joseph said to them, “Have no fear! Am I tachas for God?

I hereby take the Levites from among the Israelites tachas all the first-born, the first issue of the womb among the Israelites: the Levites shall be Mine.

One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it: life tachas life. .. One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it.

For they are formally assigned to Me from among the Israelites: I have taken them for Myself tachas all the first issue of the womb, of all the first-born of the Israelites.

Now I take the Levites tachas every first-born of the Israelites;

And now you, a breed of sinful men, are tachas your fathers, to add still further to the LORD’s wrath against Israel.

How can we be sure that tachas always means an inferior replacement instead of a like-for-like swap? Because the word tachas is not found when the punishment is actually meant to be carried out!

וְאִ֕ישׁ כִּ֥י יַכֶּ֖ה כָּל־נֶ֣פֶשׁ אָדָ֑ם מ֖וֹת יוּמָֽת׃

If anyone kills any human being, he shall be put to death.

Murder comes with a death sentence; there is no substitution, no tachas.

Thus, we can answer our original question. Tachas means a more physical and tangible substitution, not a carbon-copy replacement.  

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



There are two root words used for “naked” in the Torah – the more famous refers to the nakedness of the snake and of Adam and Eve – the word is arum. I am going to focus on the other one – (gala). This is the word used in the text to refer to “uncovering the nakedness” of other people with whom physical intimacy is forbidden: incest, etc. It is first found in the episode with Noah: “He drank of the wine and became drunk, and he uncovered himself within his tent.” It did not work out well for him.

In general, this word is associated with forbidden acts, simply because not all relationships are supposed to have a facet which includes physical exposure or intimacy. “None of you shall come near anyone of his own flesh to uncover nakedness: I am the LORD.” The Torah gives a specific list, including – direct family members, other kinds of relations, and even with one’s wife during menstruation.

But, as is worth remembering, in Judaism no concept or act is good or bad in itself. Nakedness can be a deeply positive and spiritual thing! The proof is also found in the text; the first time the word is found is with Noah, but the second example speaks of Jacob’s dream in which he saw angels ascending and descending a ladder that reached to heaven.

There [Jacob] built an altar and named the site The G-d of Bethel, for it was there that God had revealed (gala) Himself to him when he was fleeing from his brother.

Nakedness displayed by G-d is revelation! Though the exposure is spiritual and not physical in this case, it is life-changing when G-d reveals Himself to us! Nevertheless, the word is the very same one that describes Noah’s drunken and disgraced state, which reminds us that the revelation is not the problem in itself. The problem with revealing oneself is the nature and purpose of that exposure.

G-d can reveal Himself to us, but we are forbidden from doing the same to Him: “Do not ascend My altar by steps, that your nakedness may not be exposed upon it.” This is also a reminder that Judaism, in contrast with many pagan religions, emphasizes our spiritual yearning for a connection. That connection to G-d should never involve physical elements that belong only within a marriage.

Clothing has a real purpose in relationships of all kinds: its purpose is not to show what is there, but instead to show what we choose to show. So in order to be more than just mere animals, we should choose to de-emphasize the fact that we are all, in purely physical terms, animals. 

We can think about G-d’s revelations to us precisely the same way. G-d is also cloaked in this world; we do not perceive Him directly. And even the revelation to Jacob was in a dream.

If Judaism is, as the Torah tells us, about building holy relationships with G-d and with our fellow man, then nakedness is actually an excellent case study for actions that can be either physical or spiritual, profane or holy.

P.S. When Bilaam prophecies, he twice uses the phrase, “Word of him who hears God’s speech / Who beholds visions from the Almighty / Prostrate, but with naked (gala) eyes.”

I think Bilaam was able to prophecy at that level because, earlier in the story, G-d opened his eyes!

The LORD uncovered (gala) Bilaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, his drawn sword in his hand.”

If so, then the episode with the angel and the donkey actually made Bilaam a better prophet, by uncovering his eyes so that he could see at a level that had previously been hidden from him!


Judeo-Christian Anti-Abortion Is Founded on a Mistranslation

What would you do if you discovered that a pivotal bible verse, one that has shaped, among other things, both Jewish and Catholic doctrine on abortion, has been, for thousands of years, mistranslated by Christians and Jews alike?

In my case, I’d write about it, because the very possibility of building core law on a mistranslation is pretty mind-blowing to me, as a person who takes the text of the Torah seriously.

Here’s the text, in the King James translation:

If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief (ason) follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.  (Ex. 21:22)

Now let me allow the great Rabbi Sacks to show what this verse has meant to Jews and Christians:

The text deals not with abortion per se, but with a fight between two people in which a bystander – a pregnant woman – is hit, with the result that she miscarries. What is the punishment in such a case? Here is the text:

“If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she has a miscarriage but there is no other fatal damage [ason], the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is fatal damage [ason], you are to take life for life…” (Exodus 21: 22-23).

The meaning of the law about fighting men, then, is this: If the woman miscarries but suffers no other injury, the person responsible must pay compensation for the loss of the unborn child, but suffers no other penalty. If, however, the woman dies, he is guilty of a much more serious offense. (The sages, in Sanhedrin 79a [The Talmud], disagreed as to whether this means that he is liable for capital punishment.)

One thing, however, is clear. Causing a woman to miscarry – being responsible for the death of a fetus – is not a capital offense. Until birth, the fetus does not have the legal status of a person.

That, in a nutshell is what Jewish Law takes from this verse. Yet, as I will show, it is clearly incorrect!

But before we go there, we should also understand what this very same verse means for Christians. Sacks tells us as follows:

At the same time that the Sages in Israel were teaching this law, there was a significant Jewish community in Alexandria, Egypt. A passage in the Talmud describes the great splendor of the synagogue there. The Alexandrian Jewish community – whose most famous member was the first century philosopher Philo – was highly Hellenized. It developed its own traditions, at times quite different from those of the rabbinic mainstream. In one of his works, Philo, explaining the main principles of Jewish law to a non-Hebrew-reading public, turns to the biblical passage under review, and paraphrases it in these words:

But if anyone has a contest with a woman who is pregnant, and strike her a blow on her belly, and she miscarry, if the child which was conceived within her is still unfashioned and unformed, he shall be punished by a fine, both for the assault which he has committed and also because he has prevented nature, who was fashioning and preparing that most excellent of all creatures, a human being, from bringing him into existence. But if the child which was conceived had assumed a distinct shape in all its parts, having received all its proper connective and distinctive qualities, he shall die; for such a creature as that, is a man, whom he has slain while still in the workshop of nature, who had not thought it as yet a proper time to produce him to the light, but had kept him like a statue lying in a sculptor’s workshop, requiring nothing more than to be released and sent out into the world. (The Special Laws, III: XIX)

Philo understands the word ason to mean not “calamity,” but rather “form.” The meaning of the two verses is now completely different. In both cases, they are talking about damage to the fetus only. The first case, “there is no ason,” means that the fetus was “unformed,” i.e., at an early stage of development. The second verse speaks of a fetus “that has form,” i.e., at a later stage of pregnancy. Philo puts this rather finely when he compares the developed fetus to a sculpture that has been finished but has not yet left the sculptor’s workshop. On this view, feticide – and hence abortion – can be a capital crime, an act of murder.

Note that the entire interpretation pivots on the meaning of one word: ason. More on this later, but first, what Philo meant to Christian understandings of abortion, again by Sacks:

Philo’s interpretation – and the views of the Alexandrian Jewish community generally – were to play a significant part in the religious history of the West. This was not because they had an impact on Jews, for they did not. Rather, they had an impact on Christianity. The decisive victory of the Pauline Church over the Jerusalem Church, headed by Jesus’s brother James, meant that Christianity spread among gentiles rather than Jews. The first Christian texts were written in Greek rather than Hebrew. They were, at the same time, intensely dependent on the Hebrew Bible. In fact, the one serious attempt to divorce Christianity completely from the Hebrew Bible – made by the 2nd century Gnostic Marcion – was deemed to be a heresy.

Christians were therefore dependent on Greek translations of and commentaries to Tanach [Torah], and these were to be found among Alexandrian Jewry. The result was that early Christian teaching on abortion followed Philo rather than the Sages. The key distinction was, as Augustine put it, between embryo informatus and embryo formatus – an unformed or formed fetus. If the fetus was formed, i.e., more than 40 or 80 days had passed since conception (there was an argument over the precise period) then causing its death was murder. So taught Tertullian in the second century. So, the law remained until 1588 when Pope Sixtus V ordained that abortion at any stage was murder. This ruling was overturned three years later by Pope Gregory XIV, but reintroduced by Pope Pius IX in 1869.

This is not to say that Jewish and Catholic views on abortion are completely different. In practice, they are quite close, especially when compared to the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, or the secular West today, where abortion is widespread and not seen as a moral evil at all. Judaism permits abortion only to save the life of the mother or to protect her from life-threatening illness. A fetus may not be a person in Jewish law, but it is a potential person, and must therefore be protected. However, the theoretical difference is real. In Judaism, abortion is not murder. In Catholicism, it is.

It is fascinating to see how this difference arose – over a difference in interpretation of a single word, ason.

I found Sack’s work fascinating and compelling when I first read it, years ago. But what I now understand now turns BOTH understandings on their head. The verse has been mistranslated from the beginning! This is because the word ason does not mean what either Philo or the sages thought it meant!

Sacks, Philo and I all agree that the meaning of the verse rides on this one word: Ason. But we do not have to try to translate this word in a vaccum, because the Torah tells us what it means, by the way the word is used earlier in the text!

וְאֶת־בִּנְיָמִין֙ אֲחִ֣י יוֹסֵ֔ף לֹא־שָׁלַ֥ח יַעֲקֹ֖ב אֶת־אֶחָ֑יו כִּ֣י אָמַ֔ר פֶּן־יִקְרָאֶ֖נּוּ אָסֽוֹן׃

For Jacob did not send Joseph’s brother Benjamin with his brothers, since he feared that he might meet with ason. (Gen. 42:4

וַיֹּ֕אמֶר לֹֽא־יֵרֵ֥ד בְּנִ֖י עִמָּכֶ֑ם כִּֽי־אָחִ֨יו מֵ֜ת וְה֧וּא לְבַדּ֣וֹ נִשְׁאָ֗ר וּקְרָאָ֤הוּ אָסוֹן֙ בַּדֶּ֙רֶךְ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תֵּֽלְכוּ־בָ֔הּ וְהוֹרַדְתֶּ֧ם אֶת־שֵׂיבָתִ֛י בְּיָג֖וֹן שְׁאֽוֹלָה׃

But he said, “My son must not go down with you, for his brother is dead and he alone is left. If he meets with ason on the journey you are taking, you will send my white head down to Sheol in grief.” (Gen. 42:38)

וּלְקַחְתֶּ֧ם גַּם־אֶת־זֶ֛ה מֵעִ֥ם פָּנַ֖י וְקָרָ֣הוּ אָס֑וֹן וְהֽוֹרַדְתֶּ֧ם אֶת־שֵׂיבָתִ֛י בְּרָעָ֖ה שְׁאֹֽלָה׃

If you take this one from me, too, [in addition to Joseph] and he meets with ason, you will send my white head down to Sheol in sorrow.’ (Gen. 44:29)

These are the ONLY other uses of this word besides in the verses that we use to apply to abortion, in Ex. 21:22-23. The context gives us the meaning, which is counter to both normal Jewish and Christian interpretations.

Ason clearly does NOT mean what Philo thought it meant: “formed.” Nor does it quite mean what the Jewish sages translate it as: “damage.” We have other words for damage, but ason is only used these few times in the text; its meaning is special, and obvious from Jacob’s use of it. Ason means “the irrevocable loss of a child.”

With this, we can – and must – look at the verse again, because there is another key mistranslation: there is no miscarriage:

The text is as follows (my translation):

וְכִֽי־יִנָּצ֣וּ אֲנָשִׁ֗ים וְנָ֨גְפ֜וּ אִשָּׁ֤ה הָרָה֙ וְיָצְא֣וּ יְלָדֶ֔יהָ וְלֹ֥א יִהְיֶ֖ה אָס֑וֹן עָנ֣וֹשׁ יֵעָנֵ֗שׁ כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֨ר יָשִׁ֤ית עָלָיו֙ בַּ֣עַל הָֽאִשָּׁ֔ה וְנָתַ֖ן בִּפְלִלִֽים׃

When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and the child emerges, but there is no ason, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may place on him, the payment to be based on reckoning.

The clear translation is NOT a miscarriage, but instead a premature labor and delivery of the baby! Indeed, if you look up alternative translations on Biblehub, you’ll see that many of the newer translations agree with me, and contradict both the King James and the normative Jewish translation! There is no miscarriage. The baby is born alive, albeit prematurely as a result of the trauma of the conflict.

Ason, losing a prematurely born child, would be just like Jacob losing Benjamin – the text tells us so. And the fact that the Torah compares the death of a prematurely-born baby to Jacob losing fully-grown Benjamin actually makes a much stronger argument that the Torah really views a forced abortion to be much more like murder than Rabbis Sacks and normative Jewish law suggest. Philo’s translation may have been entirely incorrect, but the resulting conclusion does not change much, if at all. Indeed, the more faithful reading of the text leads us closer to the idea that the death of an unborn baby is indeed to be compared to the death of Jacob’s beloved Benjamin: murder most foul.

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

P.S. There is another clue in this same verse: the father of the prematurely born child places a fine on the perpetrator. The word for “places,” is only found two other places in the Torah:

I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back; and Joseph shall place his hands on your eyes. (Gen: 46:4)


When Joseph saw that his father was placing his right hand on Ephraim’s head, he thought it wrong; so he took hold of his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s. (Gen. 48:17)

The word for “placing” is connected to intergenerational blessing and continuity! Which means that the father of the prematurely-born infant can place a fine because his own intergenerational connection to the next generation has been put in risk because of the health risks to a child who is born through trauma-induced labor. But if the baby is lost, like Benjamin could have been, then the “like for like” penalties apply.


Torah Tort

When men quarrel and one strikes his fellow with stone or fist, and he does not die but has to take to his bed; he then gets up and walks outdoors upon his staff, the assailant shall go unpunished, except that he must pay for his idleness and his cure.

Laws like these in the Torah always seem to be easy to understand and interpret. After all, assaults must have consequences, and it stands to reason that if two men willingly fight each other, then the injured party is owed some recompense from his assailant. Simple enough, right?

Well, no. Not simple at all. The underlying law might be straightforward enough. But the language that is used to describe it tells us much more about the origin of this commandment, and how it came to be. In other words, by tracing the words used in the verse, we can learn the “why” of the commandment.

To start with, the word used for “fellow” is the very same word as the one in the commandment, “Love your fellow as yourself.”  (This commandment is the central verse in the entire text.) Which tells us that quarreling is itself exactly what we are commanded to avoid, because a physical altercation makes love impossible.

Adding to this, the use of the word “stone” as a weapon (as opposed to, say, “his hands” or a knife or a flint) is equally evocative. The word “stone” in the Torah refers to the building block of a core relationship between G-d and man or between man and his fellow, described more here. For our verse, the use of the word “stone” suggests a weapon that should have been used to build, to love, but is instead used to injure and wound. It is a betrayal of what we should be doing, bludgeoning what should be a foundational relationship.

For all of that, the damage is not irrevocable, the injured person recovers. The word for “recovery” is interesting in itself, because in the Torah the illnesses and ailments from which one recovers are inflicted not by nature but by G-d. No character in the Torah gets a disease other than a spiritual illness that they have inflicted on themselves through their own words or actions (from Avimelech to leprosy). And the recovery from these illnesses is similarly effected through reparative words and actions.

If two people are supposed to love one another, but instead quarrel, how are outsiders supposed to make it better? There is a lesson here as well, because G-d tries doing precisely this:

The LORD saw that Leah was unloved and He opened her womb; but Rachel was barren. Leah conceived and bore a son, and named him Reuben; for she declared, “It means: ‘The LORD has seen my affliction’; it also means: ‘Now my husband will love me.’” (Gen. 29)

Jacob loves his wives unequally, and Leah is unhappy. G-d tries to make it better, giving Leah children as a consolation prize.  But G-d’s actions do not make things better.

Reuven, named for the word play of “G-d seeing my affliction,” and “My husband will love me,” is also a word play for the word “quarrel” (reev). And a quarrel is what everyone gets. Reuven is the pawn in the unhappiness between the sisters, and he spends his days always getting things wrong, making every quarrel worse. (Reuven brings flowers to his mother and creates an incident, he fails to keep the peace between Joseph and his brothers, he fails to appease Jacob over sending Benjamin to Egypt, and most especially he violates his father’s trust by bedding Jacob’s concubine.)

The results are seen in our opening verse and its reference to a bed: Reuven corrupts the foundational relationship he should have had with his father:

While Israel stayed in that land, Reuben went and bedded Bilhah, his father’s concubine;

Leading to Jacob’s curse:

Unstable as water, you shall excel no longer;
For when you mounted your father’s bed,
You brought disgrace—my couch he mounted!

So Reuven, who “used a stone” on his father, cannot be healed, because he had deeply disrespected his father, and did not somehow make reparations.  His actions are similar to disobeying G-d and never correcting our actions, for which there is similarly no way to heal or recover from the resulting disease:

But if you do not obey the LORD your God to observe faithfully all His commandments and laws which I enjoin upon you this day, all these curses shall come upon you and take effect: …. The LORD will strike you with the Egyptian inflammation, with hemorrhoids, boil-scars, and itch, from which you shall never recover.

Instead, it plays out over time. Indeed, as per the opening verse, Reuven owes recompense for the damage he caused. He loses his status as the first-born. His tribe eventually loses because they end up not inheriting land within Israel itself. Reuven pays for his sins.

The quarrel between Rachel and Leah is settled by Rachel getting an extra portion (Ephraim and Menasseh, Joseph’s sons, get “full tribe” status), and the rivalry is eventually made good in full when Judah and Benjamin split Jerusalem, G-d’s home, between them.  

All of this goes some distance toward explaining why the original commandment did not assign blame to either party: the quarrel is mutual, and so there is no question of blaming an instigator. Instead, the damages are limited to the physical damage inflicted on the wounded party.  The Torah tells us, through the story of Reuven and the sisters, that the best we can hope for is to make things whole, sooner or later.

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


Curious Challenge: Clouds in the Torah

In the Torah, the cloud represents a fascinating symbol. For example, the word for “cloud” is not found in the creation story or even during the flood. Instead, “cloud” first appears after the flood, when G-d says that, in the future, when the bow appears in the cloud, He will remember not to destroy mankind.

But then the word for cloud does not appear again in the text – not until the Exodus is underway, when the Jews are led by a pillar of cloud. And then the cloud – whether in the sky or formed from incense – remains with us through the end of Moses’ life. And it carries a fascinating symbolism, because the cloud never rains. It is never a mere cloud; it is always something else. In all cases it is never about rain but is instead about supernatural events: the Flood and the Exodus, survival in the desert, and the delivery of G-d’s words to Moses.

Instead of physical rain, the cloud offers something quite different: spiritual rain. For within the cloud is G-d’s presence, with His words resonating from within. These words are our Torah, the spiritual sustenance that has kept the Jewish people for 3500 years. The cloud delivers what Jews need to make our lives meaningful: words, ideas, thoughts, concepts and hope. These words guide us toward a spiritually fulfilling life just as surely as rain clouds help people achieve a materially-rich one.

The cloud seems to be a way for the people to comprehend G-d’s existence, even though He, as opposed to all other known deities in the ancient world, had no apparent physical manifestation (e.g. sun, moon, water, etc.). The cloud seems to be a crutch, training wheels for people who by themselves are resistant to hearing Moses or G-d any other way. So the cloud is explained to Moses as an aid for his own efforts to share G-d’s words:

And the LORD said to Moses, “I will come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.”

We know that the Torah never tells us of G-d having a physical form. But the cloud seems to be in-between, a mediator or buffer, a veil between G-d and the people. When G-d talks to Moses, He does from inside the cloud. But even that buffer seems insufficient for others: when the elders prophecy, they do it from a spirit that Moses lends them from his access to the cloud. The only time G-d in the cloud speaks to anyone else, he criticizes Aharon and Miriam for speaking ill of Moses’ wife – and the result is that Miriam is stricken with a spiritual illness. Nobody but Moses could handle the proximity to G-d’s voice. Even the incense cloud in the tabernacle is used to protect the priests from the proximity to G-d:

The LORD said to Moses: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at any time into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover. … He shall put the incense on the fire before the LORD, so that the cloud from the incense screens the cover that is over [the Ark of] the Pact, lest he die.

Why a cloud? A cloud is a metaphor for G-d: we know it is there, but we cannot really see, touch, smell, or hear it. A cloud is neither solid not liquid; it is perceptible but indistinct. It makes sense that when connecting the divine presence to mankind, there needs to be something in between, something that masks the senses and allows for us to be in close proximity. The cloud is a bit like the cover on a Sukkah, the Western Wall, or the veil of a prayer shawl: we can get closer to the spirit on the other side because of that intermediate layer that shields us, forcing us to reach out with non-physical sensitivity. Above all, the meaning of the cloud is found because of the words that come from it.

We read of a cloud with Noah, and then again at the Exodus: the cloud in the Torah is always connected to the divine, to a relationship between man and G-d. The first cloud, after the Flood, contains a promise. And so does the cloud in the Exodus and the wilderness: a repeated promise of G-d’s intention to protect the people. Indeed, when G-d at one point wants to destroy the people and start over, Moses reminds Him of this specific attribute of the cloud: a promise of G-d’s power and protection:

Moses said to the LORD, “When the Egyptians, from whose midst You brought up this people in Your might, hear the news, they will tell it to the inhabitants of that land. Now they have heard that You, O LORD, are in the midst of this people; that You, O LORD, appear in plain sight when Your cloud rests over them and when You go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. If then You slay this people to a man, the nations who have heard Your fame will say, ‘It must be because the LORD was powerless to bring that people into the land He had promised them on oath that He slaughtered them in the wilderness.’ (Num. 14)

The cloud used in the first promise to mankind is a reminder to both man and G-d, of G-d’s promises.

But the text also comes with a warning: the cloud is not meant to be studied. The text tells us to avoid divination, and the word used is the very same as the word for cloud (in a verb form). Ancient (and modern!) pagan seers and priests have all kinds of ways to make sense of the world: divination includes everything from reading palms and tea leaves, to interpreting bundles of sticks, ink in water or crystal balls. Cloud gazing is a method of scrying using clouds in the sky. And the Torah tells us emphatically that we should never do that.

You shall not practice divination or cloud-gazing. (Lev. 19:26)

Why not? Because the cloud is meant to be heard and not seen! G-d’s words are here to interact with our souls, to make us closer to G-d. But cloud-gazing is trying to see G-d in nature, where He is not found. The spiritual value we can derive is by listening, not by seeing.

Those nations that you are about to dispossess do indeed resort to cloud-gazers and augurs; to you, however, the LORD your God has not assigned the like. The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet from among your own people, like myself [Moses]; him you shall heed.

This is a command to Jews for all time: we are to find G-d in words, never in visual signs, in hearing and not seeing.

When Moses dies, the outdoor cloud goes when Moses does. Nobody else ever hears G-d as distinctly again, so there is nobody who could work with a cloud in the first place. More than this: if the wilderness was a training session to wean us from slavery to freedom, then the cloud was a crutch, divine training wheels that helped us become comfortable with a G-d who had almost no discernable physical manifestation. The post-wilderness relationship is with a G-d who has no physical manifestation at all, not even a cloud. From Moses’ death to the present, G-d in the world resides in the tabernacle and in each person’s soul – we can hear Him only in those two places.

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

P.S. Note that the first command not to eat blood is given to Noach (Gen. 9:4) the same time the first cloud is mentioned – and the prohibition on eating blood is paired with the prohibition on cloud-gazing: “You shall not eat anything with its blood. You shall not practice divination or cloud-gazing. (Lev. 19:26)

There is a connection here: the cloud is meant to be a source of spiritual sustenance through the words that emanate from it, not physical sustenance. Animal blood is the inverse: we eat them for physical sustenance, but we must not bring their spirits, in the form of their blood, into our bodies.

The Torah tells us the spirit of an animal is in its blood. Pagan religions largely agree – which is why pagans deliberately consume the blood of animals. But the Torah is telling us to stay in our lane: we are meant to aspire to change, but that change is not toward becoming more like an animal, or in any other way farther away from G-d. We must not eat blood, and we must not cloud-gaze. Even the rainbow is supposed to be seen by G-d and not necessarily by man: “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures, all flesh that is on earth.”


Obvious Symbolisms: Awls in Ears

When you acquire a Hebrew servant, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment. … But if the servant declares, “I love my master, and my wife and children: I do not wish to go free,” his master shall take him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall then remain his servant for life.

When we read this, we first think of piercing an ear, or a permanent change to a person because they choose servitude over freedom. But there is more provocative meaning in just this one verse alone.

For starters, we are talking about someone who chooses servitude over freedom. We used to think such a choice would be rare, or at least unlikely. But we see in the safety-first culture around us a great many people who would rather have a secure life where they are told what to do, rather than have to make their own decisions, suffer their own consequences, and deal with the vagaries of risk. The decision to remain a servant does not seem quite as unusual as it did before Covid.

But think further on the imagery: piercing the ear of the servant says that the servant will listen to his master forevermore. Freedom means choosing what we want to hear, making decisions based on weighing inputs from different sources. Piercing that ear means that the servant no longer has to weigh different options: he listens to his master.

The door or doorpost in use is that of the servant’s master’s home. Impaling the ear into the doorpost tells us that the servant’s blood is being infused into the symbolism of that door: the physical structure of the home as well as the spiritual structure of that particular family. The servant is choosing to become, for the rest of his life, part of what constitutes the structure that protects and houses the family within.

Going further: the word for “doorpost” is the very same one that we marked with the blood of the sheep at the Passover: identifying a Jewish home for the Destroyer so he would not kill the first-born within. Marking the doorpost with blood is a core identifier for the Jewish people: it advertises who we are, and what our mission on this earth is.

So to impale the servant’s ear means that the servant is identifying with that same mission, aligning himself with the sheep whose blood was used to mark the doors in Egypt. This aligns with the mezuzah (the same “doorpost” word) that Jews put on our homes, reminding us of the words of the Torah when we go out and when we come in.  Jews already constrain our lives with the mezuzah, because these scrolls are constant reminders of our shared background, and our aspirations to be G-d’s emissaries in this world.

Bringing it all together, it helps show how a servant who chooses to stay is doing more than merely choosing servitude over freedom. The symbolism tells us that the servant is choosing to be part of something greater than himself, the entire home and family within that structure, along with the mission that comes along with being part of a family dedicated to serving G-d.

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


Biblical Symbolism: A Bow

In principle, understanding Biblical Hebrew would seem to be at least as difficult as grasping modern poetry in a foreign language, but in reality translation is much easier, and for a very simple reason: the ways a given word or phrase is used is itself a contextual dictionary, available for all who care to read.

The Torah uses very few words, but their interconnections contain a wealth of information. Take, for example, the word used for “bow,” as in “bow-and-arrow.”

The word is first found in the text when G-d makes a promise:

God further said, “This is the sign that I set for the covenant between Me and you, and every living creature with you, for all ages to come. I have set My bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds, I will remember My covenant between Me and you and every living creature among all flesh, so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures, all flesh that is on earth. That,” G-d said to Noah, “shall be the sign of the covenant that I have established between Me and all flesh that is on earth.” (Gen. 9)

Recall that the flood was not caused solely by rain – G-d releases the barriers from below and above:

All the fountains of the great deep burst apart,
And the floodgates of the sky broke open. (Gen. 7:11)

Telling us that the flood was not merely about rain, or the clouds that produce rain. So this reference to a “bow” is not merely about rain, or even a rainbow. The bow is given symbolic weight; it is the reminder of a divine promise, of an ongoing obligation from G-d to man. In shape, a bow connects two points across a gap (though not in a straight line) – in this case, connecting man to G-d.

The word for bow, keshet, is thus defined as a connective promise, and it helps explain the other uses in the text as well. When Sarai’s servant, Hagar, runs away from her abusive mistress, Hagar gives up:

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 thus afar, she burst into tears.

Why a “bowshot”? The answer is explained by G-d’s promise to Noah: since a bow is a reminder of a promise, then Hagar seeks to break the maternal bond. She wants nothing to do with her obligation to save her son’s life. She separates specifically by a “bowshot” to abandon her son.

Which helps explain why her son, Ishmael, ends up in a certain profession:

G-d was with the boy and he grew up; he dwelt in the wilderness and became a bowman.

Why a bowman? The text is telling us that Ishmael, rejected by both his mother, Hagar, and his father, Avraham, was left insecure by the abandonment. A bowman seeks to connect things at a distance, to span the gap. Symbolically, Ishmael seeks to repair his parental relationships and reconnect. G-d may have raised him (as above, “G-d was with the boy”) but there was still no replacement for the genuine articles.

The same theme with the word for “bow” continues through the text (the word is only found in Genesis, and not afterward). The next example is when Isaac seeks to bless his son, Esau:

And he said, “I am old now, and I do not know how soon I may die. Take your gear, your quiver and bow, and go out into the open and hunt me some game.

The bow would once again be used to establish and grow a relationship, the reciprocity between father and son, growing ties between them, just as G-d did with the first bow after the Flood.

The last person to refer to a “bow” is Jacob, and he does it specifically when blessing Joseph:

And now, I assign to you Shechem more than to your brothers, which I wrested from the Amorites with my sword and bow. (Joseph’s tribe inherited the city of Shechem – Jacob’s other sons Simeon and Levi conquered it.)

Joseph is a wild ass,
A wild ass by a spring
—Wild colts on a hillside.

Archers bitterly assailed him;
They shot at him and harried him.

Yet his bow stayed taut,
And the arms of his hand were made firm
By the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob—
There, the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel—

The meaning of “bow” is now clear to us, making this blessing easier to understand. Joseph sought to reconnect the family, the connections, obligations and promises within his family. Jacob says that Joseph’s bow stayed taut: Joseph’s desires to achieve this reunification with his father and brothers overcame every extreme adversity. Joseph maintained and delivered on longstanding promises and relationships between man and G-d, parents and children.

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


Man Should Not Be Alone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[another @iwe and @susanquinn production]

Notes for those desiring the source text:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Being Vulnerable: Gratitude

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

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

But why does “thank you” really matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<another @iwe and @susanquinn production>


Pour Out the Blood: Equal and Opposite

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

From a more mystical perspective, the Torah also sees mankind as the change agents for the world. It is through mankind, acting as G-d’s agents, that the earth can be elevated toward heaven, that the waters above and below can be unified. But connecting the mystical to the practical can be a challenge. How does day-to-day life translate into an elevation of the physical into the spiritual plane?

The Torah tells us that an animal has two parts: its flesh (bassar), and its spirit (nefesh). When we kill an animal, we are forbidden to consume its blood – because the Torah tells us that the blood of an animal is where the animal’s spirit resides. We are not supposed to take the spirit of an animal into ourselves, probably because we are not meant to compromise our human nature. Instead, we are told, no less than three times, that we must pour the blood onto the earth, just as we do with water.

Think of the imagery! The spirit of the animal goes to the earth, while its flesh is consumed and absorbed by people. And the Torah tells us that we are permitted to fulfill our desire for meat, without limit, as long as we do it in a permissible manner. But why is it both proper and good to pour blood onto the earth?

I submit that there is a symmetry in all of our acts. An act of kindness, for example, affects both the giver and the recipient. It is a variation on Newton’s Third Law: that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.  When we wash our hands, the water changes us – but we also change the water.  Instead of being mere water, it is now a liquid that has aided in the fulfillment of a mitzvah, for preparation to say Shema, or to eat bread. When we go to the mikvah, we are at the same time preparing ourselves for holiness, and elevating the water and earth in which we are immersed.

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

This is explicit when the Torah talks about sacrifices: And you shall offer your burnt offerings, the meat and the blood, upon the altar of the Lord your God; and the blood of your sacrifices shall be poured out upon the altar of the Lord your God, and you shall eat the meat. (Deut. 12:27) The highest possible purpose for an animal is to be used as a sacrifice, and even in this case, we are commanded to eat the meat, just as we are commanded to add the blood to the altar, elevating the point of the solid rock of the earth that is closest to the spiritual plane.

Note that there is no hint of vegetarianism in the text (after Noah). The Torah is telling us that we are welcome, without constraint or limitation, to indulge our desires:  you shall kill of your herd and of your flock, which the Lord has given you, as I have commanded you, and you shall eat in your gates, to your heart’s desire. (Deut. 12:21) We are to eat whatever we want! All we have to do is to eat a kosher animal, kill it in a permissible manner, and make sure that in the killing and eating, we allow the earth to be elevated by the blood as surely as we are elevated by the eating of the meat.


Blundering Toward a Positive Relationship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is all interconnected.

[An @iwe and @blessedblacksmith collaboration]


I’ll Eat the Fruit Again, Thank You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

G-d first tells Moshe, in their first conversation at the burning bush, that

When you go, you shall not go empty.  Every woman shall borrow from her neighbor, and from her who sojourns in her house, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and garments, and you shall put them upon your sons, and upon your daughters (Ex. 3:21)

And then, after all but the last plague:

Speak now in the ears of the people, and let every man borrow from his neighbor, and every woman from her neighbor, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold. (Ex. 11:2)

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

and they borrowed from the Egyptians jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and garments (Ex. 12:35)

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

The answer is that “jewels of silver and jewels of gold and garments” are in fact part of Jewish lore: they come from the very first story of an engagement between man and wife – Avraham’s servant brings out

Jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and garments, and gave them to Rebekah (Gen. 24:53)

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

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

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

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

And Aaron said unto them: ‘Break off the golden rings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me.’ (Ex. 32:2)

Where did this gold come from? It was the very same gold that G-d had “given” the Jews via the Egyptians! Indeed, the text makes this quite clear when it uses the same phrase “your sons and your daughters” that He had used when promising the gold to Moshe in the first place!

What has happened here? At the sin of the Golden Calf, the Jewish people took the rings that they had received as a betrothal gift – and instead of merely taking it off, they broke the rings off. Gold is not so easily repaired – once broken, it needs remaking from liquid form. The breaking of a ring is analogous to breaking a relationship, severing the link between two entities that is so close that it is impossible to tell where one person ends and the other begins.

How do we know the word can mean the end of a relationship? The very first time the word “break” (Parak) is used was when Isaac tries to comfort a crying Esau, after Jacob stole his blessing. Isaac says:

And by thy sword shalt thou live, and thou shalt serve thy brother; and it shall come to pass when thou shalt break loose, that thou shalt break his yoke from off thy neck. (Gen. 27:40)

No more would things continue as they had done: once a ring is broken, whatever relationship had once existed, ceases. Breaking a ring is how one destroys a relationship – whether between G-d and man, man and wife, or even between brothers. Perhaps Aharon knew this; when he used such a strong word, he may have been trying to signal that breaking off the engagement gold would be tantamount to ending the betrothal between G-d and the Jewish people.

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

With Ze’ev Hall, 2012


What Did Cain Do Wrong?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why are you angry, said Hashem to Cain, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you refuse to do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; you are its object of desire, but you must master it.[1]

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

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

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

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

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

The process of collecting first fruits demanded that the farmer examine his crop or fruit trees carefully, even daily, to be able to identify when the flower of the first fruit appeared, and he would tie a bow next to the blossom. Unlike Cain who did not offer first fruits, and may have gathered his offering without the proper intention, farmers would take the proper amount time with their process. We learn that there are reasons for us to take our time in following a process dedicated to Hashem.

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

So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, Lord, have given me.[2]

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Genesis, 4:6-7

  2. Deut., 26:5

  3. Hosea, 2:16


Cargo Cult Primitives

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

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

Our modern world is so very capable and technologically advanced that it is hard to credit the possibility, or even the probability, that most people, most of the time, remain as rudimentary in their thinking as were our pagan ancestors. I would go so far as to suggest that the vast majority of people are, when it comes to making sense of the world, as simple-minded as those island primitives who worshipped American soldiers because they came bearing goodies.

Hanson wrote:

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

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

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

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

It is well worth mentioning that this dichotomy between a world enslaved to cargo-cult thinking and a world in which mankind tries to aspire to greater meaning and accomplishments is by no means a modern creation. This dichotomy is at the heart of the Exodus from Egypt.

Egypt was the home of nature-worship. Its idols were the things these ancient scientists could touch and feel – the sun, the Nile… every physical force was its own deity in some way or another. All mankind had to do was to live in harmony with nature, and life would be predictable and safe. It would also, of course, be as meaningful as the lives of any animal that lives in harmony with nature. Which is to say, entirely without any meaning at all.

Torah Judaism was so enormously different in qualitative ways than other religions that even its adherents had (and still do have!) a hard time wrapping their heads around what it all means. Judaism has no shortage of laws or rules or regulations – but they are all either practical (as in matters of society and law), or symbolic, to show us how to connect with G-d and each other, to create holiness. Instead of living in harmony with nature, G-d, in the Ten Plagues, shows His superiority over the simple-minded ancient Egyptian scientist who sees only Nature, and not its creator, as the measurable forces in this world. The Torah keeps telling us, from beginning to end, that we have Free Will: there is no destiny unless we believe it to be there. Nature is as false and uncaring a god as were the logistics personnel who brought food into Pacific islands.

What cargo-cultists of every kind fail to understand in their guts is that externalizing our understanding of the world to Mother Earth or Fate or Destiny or superheroes or the Nanny State is outsourcing our own lives. When we do that, we are not really alive, and our lives are no more valuable, in the scheme of things, than the lives of any animals on this planet. Everything that lives will die; the question is whether or not we make our lives matter, whether we live by the 6 days of physical creation (Egypt), or the 7 days of creation that includes our Creator (static monotheism), or the 8 days that includes mankind’s contributions to the world, our partnership with G-d in improving the world around us.

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

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

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

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

Quite so.

Let us be a light unto the nations.


The Meaning of Chometz

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Giving Destroys the Soul

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

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

But this is a big mistake, even by the most well-meaning conservatives. Charity is not “giving people things.” Charity is about helping people. And there is a very simple proof:

“And when you cut the harvest of your land, do not remove the edge of the field when you cut it, and do not gather the leftovers of your harvest. Leave them for the poor people and the strangers – I am your G-d.” [Leviticus 23:22].

Simple enough, right? Command Peter to leave his assets in the field, for Paul to come along and help himself.

But if it is so simple that Peter should help Paul, why doesn’t the Torah just say, “when you cut the harvest of your field, give 10% (or 20%) to the poor people and the strangers.”?

The answer is simple enough: because it is not charitable to sap people of their own work, the pleasure and sense of accomplishment that one gets for working for our own crust, even if it is from someone else’s field.

The Mishnah (in Pei’ah) goes one step farther: one who does not let the poor people gather the produce in the field but rather collects it himself and distributes it to them is guilty of stealing from the poor.

Isn’t that amazing? The realization that, many thousands of years ago, societal laws were passed down specifically to help people help each other – by raising each other up, by growing each person’s sense of accomplishment and purpose. Welfare reform came before welfare.

Note, too that the charity in this case is also interpersonal, not institutionalized. Bureaucracies are not capable of connecting on a human level. All they can do is give people things, creating a long-term, useless, and wallowing underclass. When we want to do real charity, we connect people with each other. Peter’s field is available; Paul will come and work the corners. And both people become better for it.


When is Incest a Kindness?

When the Torah says so!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note the wording in Leviticus:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Another @iwe and @susanquinn production]


The Seductive Choice

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

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

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

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

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

Adam and Chava knew that with the fruit came knowledge, and G-d-like power to create new things. And among the many revealed dualisms would be Good and Evil, and endless decisions to make. In other words, the one choice that they made led all of humanity into a world where we are confronted with decisions every waking moment.

Eating from the fruit triggered the actual birth of Adam and Chava into the world we inhabit today. It is a pre-existing condition of our existence that we can – and must – make choices. We have the G-d-given power of creation, as well as an almost-instinctive flair for destruction.  And it all happened because of Adam and Chava choosing to walk away from Eden.

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

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

The decision for Adam and Chava was not merely whether they should pursue a new world – they were well aware that G-d had told them not to eat the fruit. The question was whether to listen to Hashem or not. They chose to rebel. Many generations later the Jewish people in Egypt were faced with the very same choice, and the actions of the minority were a corrective, a tikkun for that of Adam and Chava, because the Jews who left Egypt followed G-d’s commandment while Adam and Chava did not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Misunderstanding Jewish Law

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

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

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

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

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

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

And later in the text:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Reason for Kosher Food

For millennia, Jews have kept these laws for the most basic reason of all: Because the Torah tells us to do so. But we also need to start explaining the underlying philosophy behind kashrus, to show that there is both internal consistency and a higher purpose in being careful about the foods that we eat. What does kashrus have to do with holiness?

The Torah tells us which animals can be eaten, and which cannot – among mammals, we can eat animals that have split hooves and chew the cud; and, among others, we can also eat grasshoppers. Grasshoppers?! Where does that come from?

Like the rest of the Torah, the answer is not far from us; the explanation for kosher animals can be found within the words of the Torah itself!

Firstly, we are commanded to be a holy people. As such, we are meant to be always seeking to connect the earth to the sky – unify the waters above and below. So holiness, as the coexistence of earth and spirit, requires the elevation of the products of the earth.

Indeed, the Gemara says that for an animal to be kosher, it must be able to rise up from the ground. Kosher mammals must have split hooves – their connection to the earth is incomplete, incapable of properly bonding between the earth and the animal. It also partially explains grasshoppers, which are described in the Torah as having “legs above their feet, to leap with upon the earth.” Grasshoppers share that aspect with cows and sheep: they also can be described as partially connected to heaven, just by virtue of not being fully connected to the earth. So this explains the Torah’s commandment to notice the feet and legs of animals – for us to be holy, we can only eat animals whose bodies are not solidly in contact with the earth.

But the Torah does not just tell us to eat animals that have cloven hoofs. The second part of that commandment is that we must be sensitive to whether the animal chews its cud; in other words, the only mammals we can eat are ruminants.

Animals that chew their cuds are the only animals that can fully digest plants. By contrast, monogastric animals can only incompletely digest grain and vegetables. Key plant components that cannot be digested by unkosher animals such as dogs, minks, and pigs (among many others) include the plant compounds stachyose and raffinose. And so the Torah tells us that the animals that we, as a holy nation, can eat must be animals that fully digest plants. Grasshoppers, by the way, are also preferentially grain and cereal consumers, and they also digest plants in full.

Animals that cannot digest plants in full are, in a sense, incomplete. Raffinose and Stachyose are both sugars, so literally, the animals we can eat must be able to benefit from the sweetness of the land!

But this just leads us to another question: are we really saying that an animal Hashem created is somehow incomplete? We don’t have to: the Torah does it for us.

And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to every thing that creeps upon the earth, where there is life, I have given every green herb for food.372

Animals that eat green herbs for food are complete in themselves: they completely fulfill the function of an animal by fully digesting plants.

So when Hashem made the cow, it was a complete act, because the cow could fulfill the Torah’s injunction for animals to live off of plants. But dogs are incomplete animals; because, while they are successful organisms, dogs cannot follow the Torah by subsisting on plant life. We can consume all animals that are made perfect according to the Torah, and which are already able to separate from the earth and make an aliyah. These animals allow us to fulfill our own mission in life.

So much for animals. What about fish?

The Torah tells us that we may only eat fish that have fins and scales.

We, as a holy nation, start grounded in the earth (or waters of the mikvah). And then we live our lives trying to elevate and combine those physical roots with the spiritual heights. As has already been explained, the land animals we eat must be fully products of the earth, but also must have started to grow away from it. They are the first step toward a higher plane.

Fish, of course, have different rules – but the same explanation! In order for a water creature to be kosher, it must have two things: fins and scales. And the Talmud explains that a fish with scales also has a distinct spinal column; in other words, it has bones.

Fish are already very well connected to the “waters below,” in that they can all exist in a kosher mikvah (ponds, lakes, and the ocean all qualify). The requirement for fins and scales is a requirement that the animals, like the land mammals with cloven hooves, are sufficiently distinct from their environment so as to rise above it.

Fins are a method of propulsion, already allowing the fish (unlike, say, a clam) to start the journey toward spirituality, to move itself upward. The finned fish (unlike, for example a jellyfish) can readily move against the current, to separate itself from its medium.

The fins themselves also act as a means of separation. A fish with fins does not have to use its entire body like an eel or squid does, in order to move through the water. The fins are an intermediary, causing a further division between the fish and the water.

Scales are another form of separation from the water. The scales of a kosher fish can be detached, by hand or with a knife, without ripping the skin, which means that the scales, like the split hooves of a cow, form another intermediary layer, separating the fish from its habitat.

Cartilage, which takes the place of bones in sharks, is essentially a hardened jelly-­‐type substance, which is quite similar to water itself. Bones of a spinal column, on the other hand, are distinct from the water. The fish we can eat are the water creatures that are separate from the water, and can elevate themselves from within it.

It is often said that the secret to really great food is to start with the best ingredients. We could say the same thing about holiness: it is essential to start with the right ingredients. To be a holy people, striving to combine the physical and the spiritual, we must also limit our consumption to those animals that are also distinct from their environment and are able to reach upward.

The laws of Kashrus are entirely consistent with the rest of the Torah’s laws telling Jews how to be a holy nation. The answers are within reach.


What was Pharaoh Thinking?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[an @iwe and @eliyahumasinter work]


Hagar’s Experiences Mirror the Exodus

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

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

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

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

And there is a powerful comparison here as well:

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

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

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


Time and Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Symbolic Meaning of Leket

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next time the word is used:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Changing the Inevitable: Nachum

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

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

Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Learning From Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[an @iwe and @blessedblacksmith piece]


Be Very Careful What You Wish For

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what does He do after changing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By suffering shall you eat of it; and

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

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

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

Be careful what you wish for, indeed.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What Makes a Good Priest?

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

Why? What does it take to be a priest?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Importance of Tokens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Copper and Iron?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Old Post on COVID

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

The Comeback of Ancient Superstition and Self-Flagellation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Why are Trees a Problem?

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

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

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

Why? What is wrong with a tree?

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

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

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

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

Nature also clearly has its own laws. Nature is its own system, modellable (at least to some extent) using the natural sciences of biology and chemistry and physics. As attractive as those sciences are, and as comprehensive and seductive as the mathematics that describes those sciences can be, any law we can derive from nature ends where humanity begins.

In nature, might makes right. The young kill the old. Life has no intrinsic value, and events things like sunlight or storms or avalanches or rainfall all seem to happen for no moral or underlying reason that is connected to mankind. The Torah is telling us that we must not look to nature to help us define justice.

Justice in the Torah values every human life, as the host for a spark of the divine spirit – even the newborn, or the old, or the infirm or handicapped – as well as the powerless widow or orphan. Eugenics is perfectly sensible in a rational world. It is Torah Justice that rejects the way in which nature seems to pick winners and losers, that says that each person, no matter how fast or strong or smart they might be, is equal in the eyes of the law.

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


The Torah Value of Marketing

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

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

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

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

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

Marketing is also a central subject in the Torah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Defending A Woman’s Honour

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

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

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

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

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

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


Suspicion: Impediment to Growth

I have often, on these pages, written about how important it is to let go of the past, to allow ourselves and other people to move on. This is why gossip is so destructive: negative speech reinforces conclusions, making it hard for any of the parties to grow beyond their past.

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

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

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

Suspicion of infidelity is entirely disabling – at least in the sense of being able to spiritually grow. Of course, Shakespeare did not invent the idea of the suspicious husband. The Torah deals with this in Numbers 5:11–31. The process for resolving this uncertainty is thick with symbolism, and designed to put the husband’s mind at ease: either his wife has been faithful, or she has not. Either way, the suspicion is put to rest.

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

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

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

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

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


A Brief History of Belief