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Parshat Chayei Sara: On Remaining Unperturbed

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s “Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Genesis” co-published by OU Press, Maggid Publishers, and YU Press; edited by Stuart W. Halpern


 On Remaining  Unperturbed*

Of all the names that have been given to the period of history through which we are currently living, the most appropriate and descriptive is the “age of anxiety.” Indeed, it is anxiety that most accurately describes the inner life of man in our era, his unceasing tension, and the whole range of psychosomatic ills which symbolize that tense inner life. Anxiety has even been incorporated into philosophy by some thinkers of the French Existentialist school. It is the mood which dominates all of modern man and is his most characteristic emotion.

What, if anything, does Judaism have to say about this phenomenon? It is true, of course, that Judaism should not be understood as an elaborate prescription for “peace of mind.” We, of course, do not conceive of religion as a “need” to be fulfilled. And yet, I do not doubt for a moment that Judaism has a definite judgment upon this, our problem. First, because Judaism is good for people, even though that is not the reason we ought to accept it. And second, it can be shown that ultimately a good part of the emotional life of man is based upon his ethics, his spiritual character, and his religious conception.

The teaching of Judaism that is most relevant to the problem of modern man’s anxiety is expressed in two words, hishtavut hanefesh – equanimity, stability, keeping on an even psychological and spiritual keel. This attitude of hishtavut hanefesh, of the constancy of personality, is eventually based upon a religious conception – that of faith. If a man has faith, he will not be upset either by very good news or by very bad news, he will yield neither to the temptations of affluence nor to the threat of adversity – for the same God is the source of both opposites. If he is a success in his endeavors and receives compliments, he will remain largely unimpressed with his own triumph. And if he is criticized until it hurts, he will remain largely unperturbed and unshaken in his faith.

This Jewish teaching was brilliantly expounded in the comments on our sidra by the Reszher Rav, Rabbi Aaron Levine of blessed memory, who was a great scholar, a great preacher, and a senator in the Polish parliament. The Torah tells us at the very beginning of our portion (Genesis 23:1) that Sara lived 127 years, and then repeats, in the same verse, “These are the years of the life of Sara.” Our rabbis wondered at this repetition and Rashi, quoting our sages, remarked: “All these years were equally for the good.” What Rashi meant is explained by the Reszher Rav as hishtavut hanefesh – the lesson of stability both of mind and of soul. Sara’s life had its ups and its downs, she reached very high points and very low points, there were sharp changes of fortune. In her early youth she found herself uprooted from her home, wandering from town to town and city to city following her husband. When she came to Egypt she was separated from her beloved husband, abducted by an immoral Egyptian potentate. Later, she rejoiced as she and her husband attained great wealth, and finally, at the climax of her good fortune, when God awarded her with a son in her old age, fully realizing the ambition of a lifetime. And yet, despite these vicissitudes, “All these years were equally for the good” – her basic character of goodness remained unchanged throughout. Her character was unaffected. She became neither arrogant as a result of her success and triumph, nor despairing and crushed by her failure. She knew and practiced the Jewish quality of hishtavut hanefesh.

Is this not a message that we moderns ought to seek out and observe in our own lives? Far too many people in our day and age have lost this capacity for psycho-spiritual stability. In conditions of adversity they have become demoralized, confused, and perplexed. They lose faith and blame their defeat upon God. And in times of prosperity, they turn arrogant, lose perspective, regard themselves as “self-made,” and decide that they no longer need faith. Perhaps that is why religion suffers most during times of great stress, when circumstances are either very good or very bad. Both war and famine, and conversely, economic prosperity and well-being, cause attrition in the ranks of religious people. How right, then, was Rabbeinu Tam, the grandson of Rashi, who wrote in his Sefer haYashar that true character comes to the fore only in times of crisis and violent change, whether the change is to the good or to the bad. For crisis is the litmus paper of character, and change in fortune the barometer of a man’s soul.

The rabbis of the Talmud saw this quality of hishtavut hanefesh as based upon and as a symbol of the final and greatest of the three requirements of man by God as enumerated in the famous verse by the prophet Micah: “It has been told to you, O Man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you – but to do justice and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8). And commenting upon that last requirement, the Talmud (Makkot 24a) tells us that “to walk humbly” refers to the two opposite occasions of accompanying the bride to the bridal canopy and accompanying the deceased on his last trip – at the funeral. What our sages meant to tell us is that if you want to know if a man is indeed devout, if he is indeed a religious personality, if he “walks humbly with his God” – then test his reaction, his attitude, and his strength of character at these crucial times of either great happiness or great grief, of great joy or great tragedy. To walk humbly with God means to achieve, on the basis of a religious outlook and profound faith, the quality of hishtavut hanefesh. This refers to the inner stability that is retained even when life moves us back and forth across the spectrum of experience from the deep blue of misery and depression to the bright red of cheery optimism, joy, and happiness. That is why at the occasion of a death, our tradition teaches us that we must mourn and weep, for otherwise, in the words of Maimonides (Hilkhot Avel 13:12), we are merciless and hardened. But at the same time, tradition teaches us that we must not overdo our mourning, we must not prolong it more than is necessary, for otherwise, again in the words of Maimonides, it is a sign of spiritual foolishness, a symbol and symptom of the lack of faith in God and a lack of hope in the future. That is why, too, at the occasion of a wedding, we break the glass in memory of the destruction of the Temple. At sad occasions we introduce a note of optimism, and at happy occasions a sobering note reminiscent of life’s harshness. In this manner we attempt to attain hishtavut hanefesh – of not being over-impressed by triumph and not being perturbed by defeat. And therefore, for the same reason, on Passover, the great holiday of liberation, we eat the maror – the symbol of bitterness, while on Tisha beAv, the day of great tragedy, we do not recite the Taĥanun prayer, for the halakha regards even this great day of tragedy as a mo’ed – a sort of holiday.

No wonder a great Hasidic teacher taught that every man must have two pockets; in one he must carry a note upon which are written the words of Abraham, “Behold I am only dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27), and in the other must be the statement of the rabbis in the Mishna (Sanhedrin 4:5), “For my sake was the world created.”

So if there is anyone who has had fortune smile upon him, who has achieved a degree of satisfaction and success – let him not forget that ultimately man is only dust and ashes; let him remember to walk humbly with his God. And conversely, if there is anyone who somehow suffers silently, whose heart is wounded with grief, and whose soul bears some painful sores, who perhaps has received criticism that hurts, let him not yield to self-pity or despair, let him not lose faith and submit to moodiness and especially not to the feeling of his own worthlessness. Let him remember that although he may walk “humbly,” nevertheless every man and woman still walks “with his God” – and what greater consolation is there for any human being than to know that he has the dignity of having been created in the image of God, and the hope that there is a God above who listens to the heartbeat of every human being as a father listens to the pleading voice of a child.

And as this is true of us generally as individuals, certainly ought this to be true of us as Jews. How beautifully our rabbis (Genesis Rabba 58:3) describe an incident which, in its inner meaning, refers to this quality of hishtavut hanefesh. Rabbi Akiba was preaching and found himself beset by an audience which was falling asleep – an occurrence not unknown in the life of a speaker, and an occupational risk generally anticipated by any preacher. And so he tried to awaken them by telling them: How comes it that Queen Esther ruled over 127 countries? The answer is that she was the great-granddaughter of Sara, who lived 127 years.

I believe our rabbis had a special message in this relation and in this narrative. Rabbi Akiba lived at a time when his people were in danger of “falling asleep.” This was the era of Hadrianic persecutions, when the Roman Empire forbade the study of Torah and the practice of Jewish observances. The people had only recently suffered the national catastrophe of the Temple’s destruction and the loss of independence. And so, our ancestors at that time were about to fall asleep, to yield to despair and to hopelessness and to a feeling of their own worthlessness. At a time of this sort, the great Rabbi Akiba tried to wake them up, he tried to stir them into activity, he tried to get them out of the sullen mood in which they found themselves. It was he, Rabbi Akiba, who was the patron and the organizer of the Bar Kokhba rebellion against the might of imperial Rome. So he tried to urge them into a happier frame of mind and a more activist approach by reminding them that they were the descendants of Esther, and that it was Esther who herself went through a great number of vicissitudes in her life. When she was young, very young, she was already an orphan – reared by an uncle much older in years, lacking the warmth of maternal love and paternal concern. Then suddenly she found herself with the crown of Persia upon her head, the absolute monarch of 127 lands. Shortly thereafter she was faced with the catastrophic possibility of her own and her people’s destruction by Haman, only to be saved at the last moment by an opposite edict by the king and the great triumph of Israel which resulted in the celebration of Purim. And yet, during all these extreme changes of fortune, our rabbis told us, “‘Hee Ester,’ ‘She is Esther’ (Esther 2:7); she remained the same Esther both when she was queen and when she wasn’t” – the same sweet, gentle, modest young woman who was only an orphan in her uncle’s home, retained her good character when she was the queen of Persia, of 127 lands. She did not change. She had acquired the quality of hishtavut hanefesh, of psychological, spiritual, and emotional stability. And where did she get this quality from? From Sara, of course, who was the model of such behavior.

Would that we, descendants of those strong personalities, would learn this marvelous faith. Like Sara, like Esther, like Rabbi Akiba – we must learn to take life in stride without at any time upsetting the apple-cart of character. We must never be insensitive, but we must be strong and powerful of faith. We must neither yield to wild abandon or relaxation of effort when we behold the victory and triumph of the State of Israel, nor submit to defeatism and pessimism as we ponder the bitter fate of Russian Jewry. We must not turn giddy with delight when some gentile scholar or politician praises us, nor ever submit to chagrin and turn apologetic when some gentile criticizes either our people or our faith.

Ashreinu ma tov ĥelkeinu, uma na’im goraleinu, uma yafa yerushateinu.” Happy are we not only that our lot is tov – good, ethical, true; but that in addition, our destiny is na’im, pleasant – it is satisfying and makes for a healthy mind and a healthy soul; and above all – happy are we that yerushateinu, our heritage, the great Jewish tradition, is so beautiful.


*November 27, 1959

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Parshat Chayei Sara: Words – Scarce and Sacred

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s “Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages – Genesis” co-published by OU Press, Maggid Publishers, and YU Press; edited by Stuart W. Halpern

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What is the value of a word? This is a most appropriate question on the first Sabbath after our national elections took place. Elections to the presidency are a wondrous thing to behold and a glory and tribute to a free people. Yet when the elections were done our countrymen across the land heaved a blessed sigh of relief, for many of us believed that the campaigns for the election did not do much to enhance the glory. Many of us suspected that they were largely an exercise in futility. The real issues, such as they were, could have been discussed much more quickly and conclusively. Most of the words that followed were not meant for clarification as much as for tools in the projection of “images.” There has been talk recently of the possible devaluation of the dollar. Much more thought should have been given to a more serious danger: the devaluation of the word. I believe the nation could have survived the election of either candidate. But we may properly doubt whether the nation could have survived another month of the endless, repetitive, meaningless torrents of words without seriously compromising its sanity.

What then is the Jewish attitude to words? First let us understand that Israel’s greatness can benefit the world only through words. We have never been a numerous people. We have never, except in the most restricted sense, been militarily significant. We have usually been diplomatically weak. Therefore, our message to the world has been transmitted only through the power of the word. Ever since our father Isaac said, “The voice is the voice of Jacob and the hands are the hands of Esau” (Genesis 27:22), our tradition has maintained that “Yaakov koĥo bafeh” – that the strength and the might of Israel lies in its mouth, in its words. The message of Torah is referred to as “the words of the covenant” (Exodus 34:28). What the Western world calls the Ten Commandments our tradition refers to as “aseret hadibrot” – the “ten words.” And when Jews speak of a spiritual gem, they say in Hebrew, a “devar Torah,” “a word of Torah,” or, in Yiddish, “a gut vort” – “a good word.” The word is the medium of spiritual enlightenment, the medium for Israel’s message.

But words, in our conception, have an even more universal function. Words are the mortar that binds man with his fellow-men. Without the extensive use of words, human beings would never group themselves in a society. Without words there can be no communication, no study or schools, no society or social life, no civilization or business or commerce. Neither can there be any family life. When husband and wife are “not on speaking terms,” that is a real danger sign for domestic health.

Onkelos, the great Aramaic translator of the Bible, had that in mind when he offered an unusual translation of a familiar verse. When the Bible relates that God breathed the breath of life into Adam, it says, “Vayehi ha’adam lenefesh ĥaya,” which we usually translate as, “And the man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). Onkelos, however, translates it, “And it (the breath of God) became in man a speaking spirit.” The living soul of man is his speaking spirit. The uniqueness of man, his intellect, would be muted and silent were it not for his ability to use words and thus articulate his rational ideas and the feelings of his heart. A word has a life and biography and character and soul of its own. And the word can give life to or take life from the human being. A word can restore and a word can kill. One word can give a man the reputation for wisdom, one word can mark him in the eyes of his peers as a fool. The speaking spirit has a profound effect upon the living soul.

Because of this, Judaism regards words as more than mere verbal units, as more than just another form of communication. In Judaism words are – or should be – holy! When the Torah commands a man that he not break his word, it says, “Lo yaĥel devaro” (Numbers 30:3). Our rabbis noted (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 2:1) that yaĥel is an unusual word and so they explained it as “Lo ya’aseh devarav ĥullin” – he shall not profane his word, not desecrate it. Only that which is holy can be made unholy. Only that which is sacred can be desecrated. Man’s words therefore must be holy.

If our word is to be holy, we must keep it, honor it, and revere it. Indeed, the sanctity of a man’s word is a measure of the confidence he deserves, whether in business or within the family. If he keeps his word holy, people will confide in him and trust him. If he desecrates his word, if he makes it ĥullin, then he does not deserve the confidence of his wife, his partners, and his fellow-men. Many, many years after Ĥazal, Oliver Wendell Holmes was to put it this way: “Life and language are alike sacred…homicide and verbicide are alike forbidden.”

It follows therefrom that we must be careful and discriminating, not casual, in whatever we say. When the Israelites conquered the pagan Midianites and destroyed them, the Torah bade the Israelites not to use the Midianites’ vessels until they had been purified and cleansed, so that even the atmosphere or memory of paganism and idolatry would be banished from Israel’s midst. The Torah puts it this way: “Kol davar – any vessel – that is normally used over an open flame must be purified by passing it through fire” (Numbers 31:23). Our rabbis of the Talmud (Shabbat 58b) asked this interesting question: What of a metal megaphone, an instrument devised for magnifying the voice? Can that contract impurities, and if so how can it be purified? Yes, answer our rabbis, it can become impure, and must also be purified by passing through fire. They played cleverly on the phrase “kol davar.” Not only, they said, “kol davar,” but “kol dibbur” – not only every “object,” but every “word” must be passed through fire. Therefore, a megaphone, used to magnify words, is included in the laws of the impurities of Midianite vessels.

Our rabbis meant, I believe, to refer more than just to a megaphone. They meant “kol dibbur” – every word spoken by human lips must be passed through the fire of the soul before it is spoken to the world at large. Every word must be passed through the flame of integrity, of sincerity, of consideration for others, and for the effect that the word may have on them. A word untempered in the furnace of integrity and wisdom is like a table unplaned and unfiled: its splinters and rough edges can injure far more than the table can serve. A word not passed through the fire of consciousness is the master and not the servant of him who speaks it.

Furthermore, we must be not only discriminating in our words, but sparse as well. Our words must be few and scarce. In all of Judaism, the principle of kedusha is protected from the danger of over-familiarity. When man has too much free access to an object or a place, he gradually loses his respect and awe for it. That is why the Torah reader uses a silver pointer. It is not used for decorative purposes. It is employed because of the halakha that “Sacred texts make the hands impure” (Yadayim 3:2) – that we are forbidden to touch the inner part of the Torah scroll. The reason for this is a profound insight of the Torah into human nature: if we are permitted to touch it freely and often, we will lose our reverence for it. The less we are permitted to contact it, the greater our respect for it. Similarly, the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem was preserved in its sanctity by our tradition when it forbade any man other than the high priest to enter its sacred precincts; and even he might not do so except for one time during the year – on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

And so it is with words. The more we use them, the less they mean. When our rabbis investigated the first portion of Genesis, they discovered that the world was created by God “with ten ‘words’” (Avot 5:1). Only ten words to create an entire universe! And yet our rabbis were not satisfied. And so they asked, “Could not the world have been created with only one word?” Why waste nine precious words? Indeed, for with regard to words, quantity is in inverse relationship to quality. If there are so many words that you cannot count them, then no individual word counts for very much.

In our sidra we read, “And Abraham came to mourn for Sara and livkota, to weep for her (Genesis 23:2). If you read the portion carefully, you will notice something strange about the word livkota. The letter kaf is smaller than normal. It is a kaf ketana, a miniature kaf. Why is that?

The commentator known as the Ba’al haTurim explains that Abraham did not weep or speak too much. Of course Abraham said something. There had to be some weeping and mourning and eulogizing. He had to give some articulate expression to the grief that welled up in his breast. For a man who cannot speak out his grief is like a man who cannot sweat – the poison remains within. It can be psychologically dangerous not to mourn. But it must not be overdone. Abraham realized that too many words are an escape from the confrontation with reality. He realized that by using too many words he would dissipate the real feelings he contained within himself. He wanted something to remain, something deliciously private, painfully mysterious, some residue of memory and love and affection for his beloved Sara that he did not want to share with the rest of the world. And so the kaf ketana – indicating that he knew how to limit the outpouring of his words.

Oh how we moderns need this lesson of making our words sacred by making them scarce! How we need that lesson of the kaf ketana. How we must learn to pass our words through the flame of wisdom. Modern life seems centered so much about words. We are dominated by a communications industry. We veer constantly between meetings and discussions, symposia and forums, lectures and sermons, public relations and propaganda. We are hounded continually by radio and television, telephone and telegraph. We are the “talkingest” civilization in all of history. How desperately we need that kaf ketana!

It’s about time that all of us, and especially Jewish agencies, learned that we ought not to be dominated by the public relations machines. It’s about time that we learned to respect the kaf ketana. Moses himself was a stammerer and a stutterer, and so he spoke few words – but whatever he did speak was engraved in letters of fire upon the consciousness of the people. David told us, “Commune with your hearts upon your beds and be silent” (Psalms 4:5). Shammai reminded us, “Speak little, but do much” (Avot 1:15). Other rabbis told us that “The way to wisdom is through silence” (Avot 1:17). The Besht, the great Ba’al Shem Tov, meant the same thing in a comment upon God’s command to Noah, “You shall make a light for the ark.” The Besht pointed out that the Hebrew word for ark – teiva – means not only “ark” but also “word.” Make each word brilliant, alive, shining, sparkling, and illuminating. Use it to enlighten, not to confuse. All of these individuals knew the secret of Abraham, that of the kaf ketana.

Words are important and powerful; therefore they are sacred. Because they are sacred, they must be issued with great, extreme caution. They must be tempered in the fire of one’s character. And because they are holy and purified in fire, they must be few, choice, and scarce.When we will have learned this, we will have learned a great deal indeed. So that ultimately, we will be able to say to God, with David (Psalms 65:2), “Almighty God, our very silence is praise unto You.”


1. November 12, 1960

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Parshat Vayeira: Understanding A Test

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’sUnlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Bereishit‘, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

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Our confrontation with Akeidat Yitzchak, the classical example of nissayon (a trial administered by God to test man) in biblical literature, provides us with a perfect opportunity to explore the concept of nissayon within Jewish thought as a whole.

The rabbis delineate ten separate tests administered by God to Avraham over the course of the patriarch’s lifetime. Some are found in the biblical text, while others are only recorded in Midrashic literature. The most dramatic of these tests is Akeidat Yitzchak (the aborted sacrifice of Yitzchak). The very concept of God testing man, however, is very difficult to comprehend. A test is usually administered for the purpose of gathering information. God, however, is all-knowing. He knows in advance whether Avraham will or will not “pass” a specific test. Why, then, are these tests necessary at all?

Two distinct approaches are suggested by the classical commentaries:

  1. God tests man to enable man to become aware of his own capabilities and actualize his own potential.
    None of us knows before a moment of crisis exactly how we will respond. If a fire breaks out in a crowded theater, some of us will save our own lives without thought for anyone else, while others will be heroic. The quality of our actions, however, cannot be predicted in advance. Through the course of the tests that he experiences, man learns the full extent of his own capabilities.Even further, after that moment of crisis, we are no longer the people we were before. The very experience, and our corresponding reaction, changes us. Our potential for good or for bad is actualized and concretely shapes our further actions.An individual changes with each passing test.
  2. God tests an individual to proclaim that individual’s capabilities to others. As Avraham undergoes each test his greatness is recorded as an example for the world. That is why the word nissayon (test) is derived from the word nes (banner).
    A person’s true nature is revealed in the quality of his responses to the tests that confront him.In every generation, God will test man, say the rabbis, for each and both of these reasons.While these explanations help us understand the biblical concept of nissayon in general, a specific question emerges when we consider the text describing the Akeida. The answer to this question creates yet another layer in our understanding of this powerful test…


Avraham’s most dramatic test, the Akeida, is introduced in the Torah by four seemingly superfluous words, which appear from time to time in the biblical text: Va’yehi achar hadevarim ha’eileh, ”And it was after these things.”

These words seem unnecessary because, as a rule, the Torah follows chronological order. Unless we are told otherwise, by the text itself or by rabbinic interpretation, events occurred in their recorded sequence. [Note: Periodically, the rabbis will clarify a puzzling sequence of events in the text by explaining that the Torah is not written in chronological order. This leads to the common misconception that the whole Torah narrative is not generally sequential. As a rule, however, temporal order is maintained in the text except in unusual cases where the rabbis specifically note an exception – and, even in those cases, the issue is often subject to debate.]

Why then, if the text is generally sequential, does the Torah periodically find it necessary to introduce an event with the phrase “and it was after these things”?

In order, explain the rabbis, to draw a thematic connection between the event that just occurred and the event that is about to occur.

Therein, however, lies the problem. Immediately before the Akeida, the Torah relates that Avraham contracts a covenant with the king of the Philistines, Avimelech. This covenant is viewed in rabbinic tradition as a negative and dangerous step on Avraham’s part.

What possible connection could there be, however, between the aborted sacrifice of Yitzchak, one of the most well known and significant episodes in the Torah, and this ill-fated covenant?



Some scholars, unable to find a connection between the two events, immediately turn to a Midrashic approach.

Rashi, for example, cites a Midrash quoted in the Talmud as his only explanation for the phrase in question. The Talmud interprets the introductory phrase of the Akeida to mean “And it was after these words” rather than “And it was after these things” (the root of the word devarim is considered in this case to be diber, “to speak,” rather than davar, “thing”).

Two possible sets of words, suggests the Talmud, set the Akeida in motion:

  1. The words of Satan, who turns to God and argues, “During the entire party that Avraham made on the occasion of the birth of his son he did not offer you one sacrifice.” To this accusation God responds: “Avraham’s entire
    celebration was in honor of his son. Were I to command him to sacrifice that son, he would not refuse.”
  2. The words of Yishmael who mocks Yitzchak by saying, “I was willing to undergo circumcision at the age of thirteen years; at the time of your circumcision you were but an infant.” Yitzchak responds: “You mock me on the basis of one limb? Were God to ask me to sacrifice myself entirely to him I would not refuse.”


Other scholars, such as the Ohr Hachaim, struggle to remain true to the flow of the text. They suggest that the phrase “and it was after these things” connects the Akeida not to the covenant directly but to the series of events that preceded it. These events included: Avraham and Sara’s long wait for a child, God’s promise that Avraham’s legacy would live on through Yitzchak, and Yitzchak’s birth and growth into manhood. These events, says the Ohr Hachaim, create the setting for the Akeida – a setting rife with deep trauma, conflict and tribulation.


A few other commentaries, however – Rashi’s grandson the Rashbam prominently among them – are bold enough to suggest what to Rashi was apparently unthinkable. The Akeida, they say, was, at least on one level, the direct result of Avraham’s covenant with Avimelech.

The Rashbam, a commentator who always adheres to the pashut pshat of the text, sees the connection between the two events as crystal clear. He points to one specific phrase in the narrative describing the covenant. The Philistine king turns to Avraham and states, “And now, swear to me by God if you will deal falsely with me or my son or my grandson.”

Avimelech is clearly suggesting a covenant in perpetuity. Avraham agrees.

The patriarch, says the Rashbam, endangers his progeny when he contracts an inter-generational covenant with the likes of Avimelech. While Avraham may make a personal agreement with Avimelech himself, he has no right to make a concrete covenant complete with commitments on behalf of his children and grandchildren. God is, therefore, moved to respond: “You were careless with the son I gave you. You contracted a covenant with them and with their children. Now take that son, offer him as a sacrifice and see what good the contracting of your covenant has done.”

The Rashbam’s suggestion is nothing short of mind-boggling. The Akeida, Avraham’s greatest test, emerges, at least in part, as a corrective for Avraham’s own behavior. Through the Akeida, God lets Avraham know that he is failing to pay enough attention to the effects of his actions upon his own son.

Once this door is opened, other tantalizing clues within the text create a pattern that would seem to support this thesis. After the birth of Yitzchak, for example, Sara recognizes the danger posed to her son by Yishmael, Yitzchak’s half-brother. She insists that Yishmael be exiled from the home. The text then testifies that Avraham, faced with this difficult decision, is “terribly troubled concerning his son.”

The Torah does not clearly specify which son; nor does the text tell us what actually troubles Avraham at this critical moment. Is the patriarch frightened by the danger posed to Yitzchak? Is he troubled by the idea of exiling Yishmael?

A surprising possibility is suggested by the Midrash Rabba and quoted by Rashi. What deeply troubled Avraham at this moment, says the Midrash, was that his son Yishmael had gone so far astray.

Where was Avraham until now? Can the Midrash be suggesting that, for years, the patriarch was unaware of the behavior of his son, Yishmael?

Obviously what prompts the Midrash to make this suggestion is the textual evidence that Sara was aware of what was happening within the home while Avraham was not. Avraham’s sights were on distant horizons, as he attempted to preach the word of God to a waiting world. He wanted to “save the world.” It remained for his wife to recognize the dangerous drama unfolding within their own home and to take the initiative to save her son from that danger. It is no accident, therefore, that God responds to Avraham’s hesitation by stating, “All that Sara says to you – heed her voice.”

Even more telling, perhaps, is the contrast in Avraham’s own behavior before and after the Akeida. Prior to the Akeida, Avraham’s activities are directed in the main towards an outside world. While he prays for a son and is clearly concerned about his familial legacy, on an active level his attention is overwhelmingly directed outward. He “creates souls” in Charan, interfaces with Pharaoh and Avimelech, contracts covenants, fights in a war to save Lot, welcomes guests and argues on behalf of Sodom and Amora. The very sentences prior to the Akeida describe Avraham planting a tree in Be’er Sheva and proselytizing “in the name of the Lord, God of the world.”

The Avraham who emerges following the Akeida is very different. His total focus turns inward, as in the next parsha, Chayei Sara, he occupies himself with two primary tasks: burying Sara, and finding a wife for Yitzchak. Past and future within his own family occupy his attention, and there is no mention of further preaching to the world.

Apparently Avraham, traumatized by the Akeida, learns the lesson that, according to the Rashbam, God wanted to convey. Avraham recognizes that his mission to the world remains of extreme significance and importance. His mission to his own family, however, and his responsibility to his nation’s future, become primary.

At the end of the patriarch’s life we do not know the fate of the many souls whom Avraham touched through his preaching to the world. We do know, however, that Avraham’s legacy is narrowed down to the life of one individual: his son Yitzchak. Avraham realizes that success or failure will depend upon Yitzchak and Yitzchak alone. Perhaps it takes the Akeida to teach the patriarch this lesson.

Points to Ponder

The Rashbam’s bold approach to the Akeida broadens the lessons that can be learned from this event.

On the one hand, we are reminded of the potential “covenants” that we make on a continual basis with an outside world. Particularly in our age, when that world invades our homes through television, computer and other venues, we must be ever vigilant concerning the environment that impinges upon our own as well as our children’s lives. Elements of outside culture that are counterproductive to their well-being must be actively rejected while other aspects must be nurtured. Only such proactive parenting can positively shape our children’s worlds and ensure the safety – both physical and spiritual – of generations to come.

Avraham’s personal journey surrounding the Akeida also serves as a clear reminder of our need to focus on what happens within our families. History is replete with the stories of successful individuals who somehow were not successful within the context of their own homes. Our involvements in our communities and in the outside world, as important as they may be, can never become our sole or even primary focus. Time and effort must be spent on what is most important: the education and the development of our children.

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Parshat Vayeira: Avraham’s Sudden Silence

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’sUnlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Bereishit‘, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers


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Two towering events serve as dramatic bookends within Parshat Vayeira: the destruction of the cities of Sodom and Amora and the Akeida (the aborted sacrifice of Yitzchak).

Avraham reacts to the first of these events true to expected form. Unable to accept an unacceptable reality, he argues, debates and struggles with his Creator. He is determined to change God’s mind.

When confronted with the commandment to sacrifice his son, however, Avraham is silent and obedient.

Why does Avraham react to the challenge of the Akeida with deafening silence? Where is the Avraham that we have come to know – the man who is unwilling to accept the world as it is; the man who, unlike Noach before him, struggles with his Creator at every stage of his life (see Noach 2, Approaches b, c)?



Clearly bothered by Avraham’s apparent silence in the face of the Akeida, scholars across the ages, in the Midrash and beyond, fill in the blanks of the biblical text. They claim that, at least internally, Avraham was not silent at all. These scholars paint a picture of an Avraham terribly torn by the task that lies before him. He is not only a father moved beyond measure by compassion and love for his son, but also a patriarch unable to reconcile God’s previous promises to him – of a nation to be created through Yitzchak – with the current commandment to sacrifice that very son.


The Midrash, for example, presents a detailed narrative in which Satan appears to Avraham in the guise of an old man. Step after step, along the journey to Mount Moriah, this old man argues with the patriarch: “Where are you going? Old man! Have you lost your mind? A child is given to you after a hundred years, and you go to slaughter him? Tomorrow God will accuse you of murder, of shedding the blood of your own son!”

When Satan sees that Avraham is not dissuaded from his path, he creates physical obstacles blocking the patriarch’s journey, to no avail. Avraham is determined to carry through with the sacrifice of Yitzchak in response to God’s command.

Using the beautiful picturesque method so characteristic of Midrashic literature, the rabbis detail the profound internal struggle that must have been taking place within Avraham’s soul. The old man who appears before the patriarch is clearly Avraham’s own alter ego as the patriarch wrestles with his powerful doubts: After waiting so long for a son, am I now to lose him by my own hand? How could a God who promised me yesterday that Yitzchak will be the progenitor of a great nation now command Yitzchak’s death? Will God change his mind again tomorrow?

Neither these doubts nor any physical obstacles, however, sway Avraham from his path. Against all odds, he will carry out the will of God.


Rashi, for his part, sees Avraham’s struggle reflected in the text itself as the Akeida begins. God’s commandment reflects a series of unwritten responses on the part of the patriarch. God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love, Yitzchak.”

At each stage of this commandment, claims Rashi, Avraham argued: When God said, “Take your son,” Avraham responded, “I have two sons.”

When God said, “Your only son,” Avraham responded, “Each one of them is the only son born of his mother.”

When God said, “Whom you love,” Avraham responded, “I love them both.”

Only then does God say, “Yitzchak.”

Rashi portrays Avraham fighting against the dawning realization that Yitzchak is to be the subject of God’s command. Step-by-step, the darkness closes in, until, finally, God makes his intentions crystal clear.


While the Midrash, Rashi, and other commentaries portray a complex picture of struggle on Avraham’s part, however, our fundamental problem remains.

Why is it left to the rabbis to paint this picture? As we have noted, the Torah does not shy away from detailing other occasions when Avraham grapples with his destiny and with his world.

Why then, within our own parsha, does the Torah clearly chronicle Avraham’s struggle concerning the evil cities of Sodom and Amora, yet leave him conspicuously silent as he confronts the Akeida?


The answer may lie in recognizing that the two events before us represent two separate realms within God’s relationship to man.

When it comes to Sodom and Amora, God is operating within the realm of din, “judgment.”

God’s commandment concerning the Akeida, on the other hand, takes place squarely in the realm of nissayon, “trial.”

When God relates to man in the realm of din, everything makes sense. There is clear cause and effect. God says, “The inhabitants of the cities of Sodom and Amora are evil; therefore they deserve to perish.”

As long as we remain within the sphere of din, we can argue and struggle with our Creator. God is, in fact, inviting us to do so. Perhaps there is a logical argument to be made that can sway God from His intended path; perhaps one more prayer, one more plea will tip the balance of judgment in our favor.

That is why Avraham argues with God in defense of Sodom and Amora.

When God brings us into the world of nissayon, on the other hand, nothing makes sense. God Himself is hidden from view, and there is no perceptible logic to his actions.

Here, argument and struggle are futile. Everything that is happening is beyond our ken. There are certainly reasons for God’s actions, but we cannot begin to understand them.

Our challenge within the realm of nissayon is solely to pass the trial, to respond to God’s will with dignity as we remain constant in our faith and loyalty to Him.

That is why Avraham is silent in the face of the Akeida. He realizes that he has entered the world of nissayon, and that his challenges have changed.


A beautiful possible textual allusion to God’s “hiddeness” at the time of the Akeida can be found in three words embedded within the text of the narrative itself. As Avraham approaches Mount Moriah, the site of the Akeida, the Torah states, Va’ya’ar et hamakom mei’rachok, “And he saw the place from afar.”

The rabbis wonder: How did Avraham know that he had reached his destination? God had never referred to Mount Moriah by name, but had simply said, “…raise him [Yitzchak] as an offering upon one of the mountains which I shall tell you.”

The Midrash responds that Avraham knew that he had reached his destination because he saw “a cloud tied to the mountain.”

The imagery of Mount Moriah enveloped in mist is particularly telling. God’s appearance in a cloud, a phenomenon that occurs on a number of occasions within biblical literature, always reflects the hidden element of God’s being, even at a time of revelation. By suggesting that Avraham is able to identify Mount Moriah by the cloud that surrounds it, the Midrash alludes to the hidden nature of God’s presence at this difficult moment in Avraham’s life.

An even more direct possibility lies in an alternative application of the word makom in this sentence. Makom is one of the titles given to God within our literature. This sentence may therefore read: Va’ya’ar et HaMakom mei’rachok, “And he saw God from afar.” As Avraham approaches the site of the Akeida, God is hidden and distant.In a similar vein, Jewish tradition mandates the formula of consolation recited at the home of a mourner: HaMakom y’nachem etchem b’toch she’ar aveilei Tzion v’Yerushalayim, “May God console you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”

God is, once again, referred to in this sorrowful ritual by the appellation HaMakom. We turn to the mourner and we say, “May God, who seems distant from you at this difficult time of your life, come closer and console you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.”

Points to Ponder

Avraham, through prophetic vision, was able to distinguish between the two realms of din and nissayon. He could clearly see the difference between God’s logical decision concerning Sodom and Amora, and the inexplicable commandment of the Akeida. The patriarch was, therefore, able to react to each of these major events in Parshat Vayeira in appropriate fashion.

We, however, are unable to make this distinction. We never know whether a particular challenge facing us in life is a reflection of din, of nissayon, or of a combination of the two. We are, therefore, meant to react to all challenges of life on both levels at once. We struggle, pray, plead and argue for Justice. At the same time, when all the prayers have been recited and all our arguments have been offered, we turn to God, and we accept his will. We then pray again; but this time we pray that God grant us the strength to pass the test.

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Parashat Noach: The Generation of the Tower and a Towering Generation

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages — Genesis, co-published by OU Press, Maggid Books, and YU Press; edited by Stuart W. Halpern

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In this sidra we read of the generation of Noah and the evil lives they led. Their punishment, as it is recorded in the Torah, was complete destruction – except for Noah and his family – in the great flood. Following that episode, we read of another generation following in the footsteps of the first. This is Dor haHaflaga – the Generation of the Tower. The people of this generation had evidently failed to learn from the tragic lesson that its predecessors had been taught. They were a people marked by arrogance and haughtiness.

The Torah does not describe merely poetic myths. We have substantial corroboration of that episode from the science of archeology. We know that the Mesopotamians of about 3,600–3,800 years ago began to dwell in big cities, and to build tremendous pagan temples in them. These temples were constructed as high towers as a sign of the equality of the builders with the pagan gods they worshiped. In their writings, some of which we still have, they boast of building into the heavens, even as is recorded in the sidra. At the turn of the present century, the very tower of which the Bible speaks was discovered, in ruins, by a German archeological expedition. It was clearly an impressive and imposing structure. These tremendous towers expressed the desire of the Babylonians to imagine themselves a superior race, a “herrenvolk.” Ultimately, the cities and the towers were destroyed, and all further construction was frustrated.

If you will reread the story of the tower, you will observe the terrific sarcasm with which the Torah describes the entire episode. Just one example: the name Bavel (or Babel or Babylon) given to that place by God. This is a sarcastic pun, as the Mesopotamians themselves called their city Babel because in their language the name was derived from the words bab-ili, meaning the Gate of the God – or in the plural, bab-ilani, the Gate of the Gods (hence: Babylon). However, in Hebrew the name bavel is similar to the root b-l-l which means: confusion. So the Torah tells us that what these mortals thought was the gate to their own divinity was nothing more than the confusion of their poor minds.

And yet, despite the sarcasm, bitterness, and ridicule which the Torah heaps upon the generation of the tower, the indictment of this generation is not complete. Just compare these two generations, that of the flood and that of the tower: the generation of the flood was, with the exception of Noah and his family, completely and utterly destroyed; the generation of the tower was not destroyed at all – it was merely punished by internal dissension and great exile and dispersion. Why is it that the generation of the tower was treated with such comparative leniency despite their sins of arrogance?

Our rabbis (Genesis Rabba 38:6) gave us the answer, based upon a clue in the Bible itself. Our Torah mentions that the whole world spoke one language, meaning of course that there was unity, cooperation, friendship. And therefore, “The generation of the flood, since they were steeped in theft, lo nishtayra mehem peleita – none of them remained. But the generation of the tower, since they loved each other, there remained from them a remnant.”

There is something that can be salvaged from the generation of the tower, something of lasting and permanent value, and that is: love, friendship. What our rabbis got from this episode of the generation of the tower was that every generation can become a towering generation if it learns to love; that even if people are arrogant and Godless and criminal, they can escape heavenly wrath if they will learn to love God’s creatures. The only way of nishtayra mehem peleita, of surviving a world of coldness and treachery and mass-production and bold projects which obscure the individual, is through love.

It is told that a Jew once asked his rabbi, “Why do we say “leĥayyim” to our friends before reciting the blessing over wine or schnapps? Isn’t it disrespectful to bless our neighbor before we bless God? The rabbi answered that the practice is valid since the Torah commands us to accept the mitzva of “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) before it tells us, “Love the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 6:5).

We frequently speak of the mitzva of neighborly love, and yet we usually fail to understand it – and therefore to practice it. The difficulty is a simple one: some people are simply unlovable. You ask me to have real affection for so-and-so? How can I, when I think he is repulsive? Or, how can I when I simply don’t approve of him and what he thinks and what he does? I am critical of so many things about him, and I refuse to surrender the right to be critical of him; it is part of a man’s rational makeup to be critical. And if I don’t approve of him and have no emotional ties to him, how can I possibly observe the commandment to love him?

That is a good question, which you have no doubt thought of, and which we must be able to answer if we will ever succeed in making of ourselves, who have so many of the faults and evil traits of the generation of the tower, a towering generation – if we are to manage to survive as decent human beings and good Jews.

A most profound and adequate answer is the one suggested by that great German Jew, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Hirsch makes the observation that regarding the verse, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” the Torah does not say “Ve’ahavta et reiakha,” but “lereiakha,” which is difficult to translate. But what does that actually mean? “Et reiakha” implies an emotional tie, a complete and uncritical love of your neighbor, which may be very good but is not usually possible. But “lereiakha” carries with it the meaning that you don’t have to approve of him or anything he says or wants, but what is required is empathy, meaning: put yourself in his place, so that you will participate in his feelings, in whatever happens to him – that is lereiakha; share in what happens to him. If great good fortune happens to him – be happy for him, as if it happened to you. Don’t begrudge it and don’t be indifferent. If tragedy occurs to him – share his sorrow and feel it as if it happened to you – “kamokha.” And when you can establish that identification and deeply participate in both his joys and his sorrows, then you will certainly be moved to increase the joys and alleviate the sorrows. You need agree to nothing he says and may even consider his personality faulty – but he is a human being with feelings and sensitivities, and the mitzva of neighborly love requires you to consider those feelings as if they were your own. The Torah asks nothing of us that is beyond our capabilities. It does not ask of us to be uncritical in accepting confidants or friends. It does not ask of us that we gush in sweetness over someone we loathe. It does say that no matter what our opinion of a person, we must have enough love in our souls that we feel not only for him – not only sympathy; but as if we were him – empathy.

This demand of the Torah that we practice neighborly love is not a demand to be an angel. It is a challenge to be human. Few of us find it possible to approve of any one person completely and uncritically. Few of us can form deep emotional attachments with everyone we know. But all of us were created in the image of God. And that means that we can practice neighborly love “lereiakha”; we can learn empathy, we can consider another’s feelings as if they were our very own. For that is the meaning of the Torah’s commandment – it is practicable, manly, and supremely human.

It is that and that alone which can make us the peleita, the survivors in this generation, which like the one mentioned in this sidra, is feverishly busy in building all kinds of structures and weapons and industries, and deriving therefrom the collective arrogance that makes us think we are supermen. The generation of the tower was a wicked one and therefore doomed to failure. But their one redeeming feature, love, is that which is able to make of us and every other generation a towering generation. May that be God’s will.


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Parshat Bereishit: And Kayin Said to Hevel, His Brother…

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’sUnlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Bereishit’, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

The tragic story of mankind’s second generation unfolds as Kayin and Hevel, the sons of Adam and Chava, each bring an offering to God. God accepts Hevel and his offering but rejects Kayin and his efforts.

Unable to accept a divine rejection which he feels is both without reason and unreasonable (see Bereishit 3, Approaches d), a despondent and enraged Kayin lashes out. He murders his brother, forever eliminating his perceived rival.

God decrees, in response to this horrific act of fratricide, that Kayin will spend the remainder of his life in exile.

A glaring textual omission emerges at the climactic moment of the Kayin and Hevel story.

The Torah states, “And Kayin said to Hevel his brother, and it was when they were in the field, and Kayin rose up upon Hevel his brother and killed him.”

What did Kayin say? Why does the Torah introduce a conversation which it then fails to record?

[Note: Had the Torah used the word va’yedaber, “spoke,” as opposed to va’yomer, “said,” to describe Kayin’s communication with his brother, we might have argued that God simply wanted to indicate that a conversation took place. Va’yomer, however, always refers to a specific verbal communication, and is invariably followed in the Torah by the text of that communication.]


The rabbis in the Midrash Rabba suggest three possible conversations which might have led to the fateful physical confrontation between Kayin and Hevel.

  1. The brothers determined to divide the world. One of them took possession of the land while the other claimed all movable items. As soon as the division took effect, one said to the other, “You are standing upon my land!” while the other replied, “You are wearing my clothes!”
    A struggle ensued, and Kayin killed Hevel.
  2. Their dispute did not center upon material possessions at all but, instead, upon the Beit Hamikdash, the Holy Temple (which would be built by the Jewish nation millennia later). After they divided both the land and the movables equally, Kayin and Hevel both claimed dominion over the Temple, each arguing that it should be built in his domain.
    A struggle ensued, and Kayin killed Hevel.
  3. The battle centered upon neither of the above. Kayin and Hevel actually fought over their mother Chava (or alternatively, one of their sisters).
    A struggle ensued, and Kayin killed Hevel.


The Midrash seems to raise more questions than answers.

Can the rabbis suggest that they know the content of a conversation concerning which the biblical text is completely silent? Are we to assume that the Midrash reflects prophetic vision or that the rabbis were somehow personally present at the scene of Hevel’s murder?

Further, each of the rabbinic suggestions seems more bizarre than the next. How can we seriously consider, for example, that Kayin and Hevel actually argued about the Temple? The very concept of the Beit Hamikdash would not be introduced into human experience until centuries after their death. Similarly, no clue is found in the biblical text to support the contention that Kayin and Hevel argued either about material wealth or about a woman.

Simply put, how are we to understand the Midrashic approach to the struggle between Kayin and Hevel?

This seemingly strange rabbinic passage actually provides us with a perfect entrée into the world of Midrash.

There is a vast difference between pashut pshat (straightforward explanation of biblical text) and Midrash (rabbinical exegesis).

When we operate within the world of pashut pshat, we search for the direct meaning of the text before us. In this realm, everything is literal and concrete.

When we enter the world of Midrash, however, the rules change completely. Midrashim are vehicles through which the rabbis, using the Torah text as a point of departure, transmit significant messages and lessons. As such, Midrashim are not necessarily meant to be taken literally; nor are they are to be seen as attempts to explain the factual meaning of a specific Torah passage.

By using the vehicle of Midrash to convey eternal lessons and values, the rabbis connect these values to the Torah text itself. They also ensure that the lessons will not be lost and will always be perceived as flowing directly from the Torah.

Our task, therefore, when we enter the world of Midrash, is to determine the global lessons that the rabbis intend to convey.


In the Midrash before us the rabbis are not simply explaining the Kayin and Hevel story. They are, instead, viewing this first violent event in human history as the prototype of physical confrontation across the ages. True to Midrashic style, they express significant global observations in concrete, story-like terms.

Fundamentally, the rabbis make the following statement in this Midrash: We were not present when Kayin killed Hevel. Nor can we glean any information directly from the biblical text concerning the source of their dispute. Were you to ask us, however, what these brothers were struggling about, we would be forced to suggest one of three options. Over the course of human history, man has killed his brother for material gain, over religion, and because of lust. All bloodshed and warfare can be traced to these three basic primary sources. We are, therefore, certain that one of these issues served as the basis of the confrontation between Kayin and Hevel at the dawn of human history.

This rabbinic commentary serves as a sobering reminder that mankind has not moved one inch off the killing field of Hevel’s murder. In spite of perceived social progress, nothing has fundamentally changed. The causes of human conflict have remained remarkably constant across the face of time.

The Midrash remains sadly relevant, centuries after its authorship.

If the twentieth century gave lie to any assumption at all, it was to the assumption that scientific and technological progress would automatically be accompanied by moral advancement as well.

The century that gave us the Holocaust serves to remind us that in many ways we have simply gotten better at killing each other.

So far, as we confront the pandemic of Muslim fundamentalism, the twenty-first century isn’t looking much better.


As perceptive and as fascinating as the Midrash may be, however, it fails to answer the original textual question that we raised. Once again, why doesn’t the Torah tell us what Kayin said to Hevel? Why introduce a conversation and then deliberately leave its content unrecorded?

On one level, we could simply answer that God wants us to fill in the blanks. Sometimes, a portion of the Torah is left unfinished in order to make us partners in the text. God challenges us to read into that text the myriad of possible lessons that are relevant to our lives.

Had the Torah told us the content of Kayin’s dialogue with Hevel, the questions would not have been asked, the Midrash would not have been written and its fundamental lessons would have never been conveyed.


There may, however, be an even deeper and more powerful reason for the Torah’s omission in the text before us.

The Torah edits out the content of Kayin’s words to Hevel because God wants us to understand that those words, whatever they might have been, were of no ultimate consequence. Sometimes an act is so depraved that its cause and motivation is unimportant; no valid excuse can be offered.

Perhaps Kayin had justifiable grievances against his brother. We, however, will never know. Kayin loses all claims upon our empathy and understanding the moment he murders his brother. Nothing can explain that heinous act, and certainly nothing can justify it.

Once again, the eternal Torah text, this time through omission, delivers a message that is frighteningly applicable to our time. No matter what their cause, acts of terror, mayhem and murder perpetrated against innocent victims are inexcusable. The perpetrators of these crimes, through their very actions, render their own potential grievances irrelevant.

God wants us to know that Kayin said something to Hevel. He also wants to us to know, however, that what Kayin said ultimately doesn’t matter. The text conveys this lesson in the most powerful way that it can. We are told that a conversation took place, but we are not told the content of that conversation.

Sometimes the Torah teaches us not by what is included in the text, but by what is left out.

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Parshat Bereishit: Good and Evil — Who Decides?

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’sUnlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Bereishit’, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

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God places Adam in the beautiful Garden of Eden, surrounded  by a bounty of natural sustenance. Two exceptional trees are also planted in the garden: the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. God exhorts man to enjoy all the fruits of the garden, but specifically prohibits the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Seduced by the serpent, Chava consumes the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and convinces Adam to do so as well. Adam and Chava are punished and exiled from the Garden of Eden.

Questions abound concerning this familiar story: What “knowledge” is represented by the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? Why are the consumption of that fruit and the attainment of that knowledge prohibited? Why does God plant the tree in the first place? What kind of knowledge did Adam and Chava possess before eating of the tree? Can free will exist without knowledge? If not, how can Adam and Chava be held culpable for the crime?

Finally, the whole episode seems to be a recipe for predetermined failure – a setup. Take a child and place him in a room surrounded by an array of attractive toys. Place in that room as well a sealed package with the instructions that all the toys may be used with the exception of the object in the sealed package. It won’t take long before the child gravitates to that one sealed package.

How could God expect Adam and Chava to ignore the lure of the one prohibited tree in the garden?

Compounding the problem, of course, is the fact of God’s omniscience. God knows from the outset what will occur. Why doom man to predetermined failure?

The relationship between prescience, preordination and free will has occu-pied the attention of philosophers and scholars across the centuries. While a full examination of their conclusions remains outside the scope of our discussion, a few observations must be made. We believe in three philosophical concepts:

1. Prescience, God’s knowledge of the future.
2. Free will, man’s inherent ability and responsibility to choose the path his life will take.
3. Preordination, the predetermination by God of specific aspects of our lives.

In simple terms, the complex relationship between these three concepts can be summarized as follows: God’s knowledge of the future does not control our present actions. Each step of the way we choose the path we wish to take. God’s knowledge potentially affects our choice only on the rare occasions when He informs us of the future before it happens. Such exceptional occasions (for example, God’s prediction to Avraham that his children will, centuries later, become strangers in a land not their own) must be examined on a case-by-case basis.

As a rule, free will remains an essential component of our lives. Without personal choice, we cannot be held responsible for what we do – for better or for worse.

There are, however, elements of our existence that remain outside of our control and are thus preordained. When we are born, to whom we are born, our personal gene pool, etc., are all elements of our lives that are predetermined by God. Each of us is born into a set of defined circumstances that comprise the box in which we live. Our responsibility is to make the most of those circumstances, to determine the quality of our lives. Our task is to push our personal envelope as far as it can be pushed.

Who we are as people and what we accomplish in life remains our choice.

The Talmud underscores this reality with a beautiful description of the inception of life:

The angel appointed over birth brings each potential soul before God and says: ‘Master of the universe, what shall be with this drop [of life]? Will he be strong or weak? Will he be wise or foolish? Will he be rich or poor?’

Will he be good or evil, however, is not asked.

That determination remains in the hands of the individual about to be born.

From time to time, the Torah will speak of tests administered by God upon man. Given our belief in prescience, the purpose of these tests cannot be the determination of information by God. God already knows from the outset whether man will “pass” or “fail” each test.

Why, then, are the tests administered at all?

Two fundamental approaches can be found in the classical commentaries. These approaches are not mutually exclusive and will be discussed in greater detail at a later point (see Vayeira 4):
1. God tests man so that man can gain information about himself and actualize his potential.
2. God tests man so that future generations can learn from his success or failure.

Each of these approaches can be applied to the story of Adam and Chava in the Garden of Eden.

While the above discussions help define the general parameters of the story of Adam and Chava, the specifics of the tale remain perplexing. At the core of the narrative lies the mystery of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil
and the nature of its forbidden fruit.

Across the ages, a variety of approaches are suggested by the rabbis in their attempt to unravel this ancient puzzle.


The Abravanel, for example, suggests that the knowledge represented by the forbidden fruit is not the basic moral knowledge of good and evil. Moral awareness, he maintains, is essential for free will, and has existed from the
moment that God created man “in His image.”

Instead, suggests the Abravanel, the fruit of the tree represents the quest for physical pleasure and material gain.

When Adam and Chava eat from the tree, they turn their back on man’s original, God-ordained mission. They leave behind the search for spiritual perfection and begin to immerse themselves in worldly indulgence. The biblical narrative of the sin of Adam and Chava challenges us, according to the Abravanel, to maintain proper perspective within our own lives by resisting the temptations of the physical world and by dedicating ourselves to spiritual perfection.

Following in the footsteps of the Abravanel, the Malbim offers a fascinating insight into the biblical text.

Man, he says, was created of body and soul. The soul was meant to be central, while the body was created to serve as protection, or “clothing,” for the soul. When Adam and Chava eat from the forbidden tree, they turn their bodies, rather than their souls, into the central component of their lives. In the aftermath of the sin, the Torah tells us that Adam and Chava recognize their physical nakedness. Now the body, originally meant to be “clothing” for the soul, has itself become central and must be clothed.


Other scholars, such as the Ramban and Rabbeinu Bachya, take a totally different approach. They suggest that free will first enters human experience when Adam and Chava eat of the forbidden fruit. Before that fateful act, maintains the Ramban, “Man, by his very nature, simply did what was right, as do the heavens and all of their hosts.” With the consumption from the tree, desire and free will are born. Man no longer automatically follows the will of God.

This approach, however, leaves open a series of serious questions.

How can Adam and Chava be held culpable for their actions if they did not possess free will before eating from the tree? How, for that matter, could they have disobeyed God’s command if it was in their very nature to blindly follow God’s will?

Numerous scholars attempt to explain the approach of the Ramban.

Harav Chaim of Volozhin, for example, suggests that man did indeed possess a degree of free will before eating of the Tree of Knowledge. Before the sin, however, evil remained external to man. To sin, Adam had to first make the decision to “enter evil,” consciously, as one might enter fire. After the sin, however, the propensity for evil becomes a part of man, and his ability to discriminate between right and wrong is severely weakened.


Finally, it is the Rambam who, with a comment in his Guide to the Perplexed, suggests what may be the most meaningful and relevant approach to the story of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Maimonides maintains that, before eating from the tree, man existed in the realm of “Truth and Falsehood.” After the sin man enters the realm of “Good and Evil.”

These two worlds are very different.

Truth and falsehood are objective terms. Good and Evil can be seen as subjective phenomena.

God turns to man as He plants him in the Garden of Eden and says: Your task is to follow my Will. Good and evil remain my prerogative. I will determine what is right, and what is wrong.

The serpent attacks this divinely ordained structure and tempts Chava by saying: If you eat from the tree, then you will be as God. You will decide, you will determine good and evil.

From that moment on, a struggle is joined which in many ways defines the course of human history. At the core of this struggle lies a simple question: Are good and evil to be determined objectively or subjectively? Or to put it somewhat differently: Does each society have the right to define good and evil for its own citizens and within its own parameters?

Let us postulate for a moment an ancient civilization which determines that weak newborns should be put to death because they cannot contribute to the community and will instead be a drain upon precious resources. Is that determination moral or not? Do we have the right, looking in from the outside, to criticize the morals of any civilization?

What if a particular community determines that the elderly should be executed at a specific age, because they will no longer be contributing members of society? Is that decision moral or not?

And, of course, once we embark upon that slippery slope…

If the Nazis determine that the weak and the infirm shall be put to death as a prelude to the extermination of whole ethnic groups, can we criticize a decision considered moral within the context of the Nazi world? What gives world society the right to conduct the Nuremberg Trials, to define “crimes against humanity”?

Once we accept that each society can determine its own morality – define good and evil within the context of its physical and philosophical borders – morality no longer effectively exists. There is no objective standard for good and evil. Everything is subjective.

Judaism maintains that an objective morality was determined and mandated by God at the dawn of human history.

God creates the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil but forbids its fruit to man. By doing so, God reminds Adam and Chava and all of their descendents that the determination of Good and Evil must remain within divine control.

The problems emerge, whether in the Garden of Eden or across the face of history, when man attempts to usurp God’s prerogative.

How much pain has been perpetrated across the ages, because we have claimed the right to define Good and Evil?

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RETURN: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe — Day 10: Holiness

Excerpted from Erica Brown’s Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe

RETURN-- Teshuva -- cover design 7-5-12

Day Ten: Holiness

“For the sin we committed before You by desecrating the Divine name.”

“You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). Holiness is a mandate. We are obligated to be holy for without necessarily understanding what holiness demands of us. The German theologian Rudolph Otto (1869-1937) tried to analyze the component parts of the sacred in his book The Idea of the Holy, but Otto’s language is dense and opaque. Holiness, Otto believed, is a mystery, both terrifying and fascinating. He believed that holiness is a non-rational and non-sensory experience that he termed “numinous,” referring to its unknowable quality. As interesting and influential as Otto’s writing is, the book offers little practical guidance on what it could mean to live the lofty and ethereal demands of this call from Leviticus.

As we become more attuned to the sacredness of each day of the ten days of repentance, we confess when we have fallen short of this desideratum. Further on in Leviticus, sanctifying God and profaning God live right next to each other: “You must not profane My holy name, that i may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people, I the Lord who sanctify you” (22:32). The verse presents what looks like a causal relationship. If I do not profane, then I sanctify. But holiness does not strike us as a neutral state that demands no active striving. We wonder what it means to desecrate God’s name just as we try to understand what it means to make it holy in our act of vidui, confession. Is desecration a conscious act of minimizing God’s presence in our lives or even profaning it, or is it simply ignoring the sacred, pretending that transcendence is not relevant to us? A midrash on the book of Numbers hints at the second:

Entrances to holiness are everywhere.
The possibility of ascent is all the time.
Even at unlikely times and through unlikely places.
There is no place on earth without the Prescence.

There are portals to holiness everywhere, but we often walk in the world as if we have no map to them, as if they do not exist. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s interpretation of this midrash prods us to ask if we really strive for holiness on this day and every day after it:

You do not have to go anywhere to raise yourself. You do not have to become anyone other than yourself to find entrances. You are already there. You are already everything you need to be. Entrances are everywhere and all the time. “There is no man who does not have his hour, and no thing that does not have its place (Ethics of the Fathers 4:3).

As we move up the ladder of holiness on Yom Kippur, we realize that we have scaled the heights to arrive at this entrance but feel lower than ever before. We cannot access a way in to God. We gravitate between intimacy and distance. One minute we are close to imbuing everything we do with transcendence and the next we feel all of our inadequacies rising, filling us with dread and humility.

Our prayer moments parallel this experience, taking us up and down with their ascents and descents, mirroring this emotional rise and fall with uncanny unpredictability. We praise God’s name and God’s capacity for mercy, elevating us and giving us the promise to reach out and bridge the chasm. Then suddenly our prayers turn precipitously to human beings and throw us into existential crisis:

Man, his beginning is from dust and ends in dust; risking his life, he gets his brad. He is like a potsherd that cracks, like grass that withers, like the flower that fades, like the shadow that passes, like the cloud that vanishes, like the wind that blows, like the dust that flies, and like a fleeting dream…(Unetaneh Tokef prayer)

The impermanence of our condition renders our grasp for the sacred an anomaly. We are there and then we will go, sometimes without notice. We have the same ephemeral quality as shadows, dust, and dreams. We cannot achieve the sacred; we are as breakable as clay. And again, as we immerse ourselves in these doubts and anxieties, the prayer mood shifts again: “But You are the Kind, the Almighty, the living and the everlasting God.” Our frailty is contrasted to God’s stability, and we find ourselves once again on terra firma. We will hold on tightly to the Rock and gain strength from God’s presence.

To be holy in Hebrew is to consecrate or separate something so that it achieves distinction. We step out of our this-worldly experience and into another, one which exudes mystery and strangeness. When Moses experienced revelation at the burning bush, God him to remove his shoes, to take off his layer of this-worldliness so that he could enter another universe of discourse. He had to take off that which separated him from the ground to understand that he was not in a place ruled by expected norms: “Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). When Moses was called he answered, “Hineni.” I am in the moment. I am fully present. I have answered the call to holiness. Only in that state will the impossible become possible.

We are standing right now, at this moment in time, on the brink of infinite possibility. We stand here as individuals ready for change, enveloped and carried by the love of community. There are no divisions. There are no distractions. As we enter this, the holiest day of the year, we are saying with the setting of the sun that we have let go of the insistence that all is impossible, all the thoughts and intentions and motivations that tell us we can never change. For the next twenty-five hours, we will separate ourselves from this world in order to experience another world where all change is possible. The doors to possibility are opening. They are waiting for us to say hineni: I am fully present here, and I can achieve the impossible.

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RETURN: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe — Day 4: Humility

Excerpted from Erica Brown’s Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books

RETURN-- Teshuva -- cover design 7-5-12

Day Four: Humility

“For the sin we committed before You by haughtily stretching forth the neck.”.

The word humility is rooted int he Latin word for “grounded” or “low,” from the word “humus” or earth. To be a person of the earth is to realize that one is small. We come from the earth and will return to it, in Job’s immortal words; while we occupy it, we should take up a smaller spiritual footprint to make space for others. to be humble is to think modestly of one’s abilities and one’s place in the world. Being humble also means that we have the emotional bandwidth to make others feel good about themselves without believing that it detracts from our own sense of security. Humble people have the capacity to honor others. Arrogant people hoard all credit for themselves – as if complimenting others detracts from oneself.

A young man on the rise in his company shared his distress with me. One of his close colleagues, a man in a senior position, confessed to him out of the office when his guard was down that he hated hearing about his younger colleague’s successes. It frustrated him to no end that this rising star was sucking away attention from others, mostly from himself. He resented this man’s talent and was openly jealous. when we spoke about it, he was unsure what to do. Working hard was not enough. He had to learn to work hard and  not have anyone notice, since his success was taking away from the success of his superiors.

Elie Wiesel famously said that one of the lessons he learned from receiving the Nobel Peace Prize was who his friends were. They were the people who could feel genuine happiness for his success, not begrudge him out of envy or spite. A test of true friendship and support is not only whether others empathize with our travails, but also whether they are able to rejoice in our better moments and compliment freely and sincerely. Friends celebrate the success of others, as it states in Ethics of the Fathers, “Let your friend’s honor be as dear to you as your own” (2:10). The capacity to honor and recognize the goodness and achievement of others is a signature of personal humility and security. If it is hard to compliment others, to make others feel good, then we have to look in the mirror and ask ourselves why.

Humility is critical to the life of the spirit because it enables us accept a subordinate position in relation to others and God. If we take up every word in a dialogue it becomes a soliloquy. If we take up all the space in a room, there is no room for God.

We stretch forth our necks  in sin when we allow ourselves to sit in judgment over others. By making someone else inferior, we become more superior in our own eyes. Our necks metaphorically extend higher and then look down on others. Rabbi Luzzatto wrote about humility and arrogance throughout the pages of The Path of the Just, understanding that this battle preoccupies us all. It is a constant fight within.

Pride consists in a person’s pluming himself with his self and considering himself worthy of praise. There can be many different reasons behind this. Some deem themselves intelligent; some, handsome; some, honored; some, great; some, wise…When a man attributes to himself any of the good things of the world, he puts himself in immediate danger of falling into the pit of pride.

The pit of pride can swallow us whole. Rabbi Luzzatto believed that arrogance alone “stultifies the mind, which perverts the hearts of the highest in wisdom.”

Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum (1759-1841), the Rebbe of Ujhely, Hungary, and a convert to Hasidut through his son-in-law, told this story in notes he made on the dreams of his  youth. It is a good example of the pit of pride we must avoid. Rabbi Teitelbaum was looking out his window on the night of Rosh HaShana and watched as a throng of people hurried to the synagogue: “I saw that they were driven by the fear of the Day of Judgment.” He watched this with an outstretched neck and said to himself: “God be thanked, I have been doing the right thing all through the  year! I have studied right and prayed right, so I do not have to be afraid.” Watching the sudden rush to synagogue did not stir panic within him. His good deeds and character were all in check. Why hurry? With this confidence he examined his dreams to review all his good works. “I looked and looked: They were torn, ragged, ruined! At that instant I woke up. Overcome with fear, I ran to the House of Prayer along with the rest.”

We recognize Rabbi Moshe’s stability. It is the posture of an overconfident man entering the Day of Judgment. We have all been there. Rosh HaShana caches us by surprise. We are blessedly unprepared. We feel good about ourselves. And why shouldn’t we? But then we pause to think more deeply about the year past and our regrets and mistakes, and suddenly we are overcome with Rabbi Moshe’s panic. Humility gets the better of us. Get thee to a synagogue. Fast.

In the synagogue at this time of year, we take ourselves out of the pit of pride and throw ourselves willingly into the pit of humility. Our prayers are designed to help us acknowledge our smallness in the universe. One of the most famous of these in an evening piyut, an acrostic poem of anonymous authorship, sung during Kol Nidrei:

Like the clay in the hand of a potter
Who thickens or thins it at his will,
So are we in Thy hand, gracious God,
Forgive our sin, Thy covenant fulfill.

Like a stone in the hand of the mason
Who preserves or breaks it at his will,
So are we in Thy hand, Lord of Life,
Forgive our sin, Thy covenant fulfill.

Like iron in the hand of the craftsman
Who forges or cools it at his will,
We are in Thy hand, our Keeper,
Forgive our sin, Thy covenant fulfill.

The request for forgiveness stays the same, but the way we refer to ourselves and to God changes. We review the different ways that God relates to us with mercy and authority, giving us life and sustaining us, as would a craftsman. We are mere raw material. Any ingredient of uniqueness we may possess – our health, our wealth, good looks, or a good mind – is God’s doing and in God’s hands to mold. It has little to do with us.

But even as we raise our voices in song and lower our impulse of pride, we know the synagogue is no safe place to escape the ego, especially during the Days of Awe. People are interested in ladies’ hats and suits and expensive jewelry. People are interested in who sits in what row. People are interested in others who sway and bow, the piety of those the observe in their peripheral vision. People are interested in the food served in various homes at festive meals after services. The fear and reverance that should comprise our awe is often comprised by our curiosity over the material or perceived spiritual excesses in our midst.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin tells a story of his grandfather, also a rabbi. His grandfather served in the rabbinate for sixty years and told his grandson about a certain wealthy man in his congregation who was entitled to sit in a prime seat in the front of the congregation. He, instead, chose to sit in the back, watching others enter the sanctuary to see if they would notice that he was not sitting in the front. The elder Rabbi Telushkin finally confronted the wealthy man: “It would be better if you sat up front, and thought you should be seated in the back, rather than to sit in the back, and think the whole time you should be seated in the front.”

Sometimes we inherit the success of others, which we deem a cause for superiority: status, family wealth, or position in the community. Sometimes we work really hard to achieve material or academic success, and it happens, bloating us with pride. The sages of the Talmud pondered the question of why many Torah scholars have children who are not Torah scholars. Many of their answers have to do with arrogance. A scholar who regards himself as superior to others might make a child question whether religion matters. The child then opts out of religion.

Even in the arena of Torah study, a cardinal value of Jewish life, scholarship is riddled with battles for status. This problem was addressed outright in Ethics of the Fathers: “Do not give yourself airs if you have learned much Torah, because it is for this purpose you were created” (2:8). We are entitled to feel joy when we have discovered and are living our life’s purpose but joy is not the same as superiority. Superiority only brings down the spirit and ruins the reputation of the mind as a tool for meaning. It too often becomes a tool for status, even – and some could argue especially – among Torah scholars.

There is little in the world more insufferable than self-righteousness. Those who suffer from it believe that God is on their side, supporting the piety of the observant against the ignorance of those who are not. Self-righteousness lies at the very heart of the fundamentalist, making him police officer, judge, and prosecutor. In contract, God makes a small request through the agency of the prophet. “Act justly, lover mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Micah asks this of us as if it were easy and imposed no great burden. Yet the burden of humility is the very fact that we have to remind ourselves of it always.

Humility can be a result of the way we were raised, a character trait we come by easily – or it may have been conditioned by a change of circumstances. Tragic experiences often take a person from a place of pride to a place of humility. The person who stretches forth his neck above others becomes the very same person who sits with his head bowed because life suddenly took an unexpected turn for the worse. When all is well, we gives ourselves extra credit, believing that we are worthy of all our successes. But when a change of fortune sits in, it is not only that we lose something concrete – like a spouse or a job or our savings – but we also lose a self-image consonant with success. The captain-of-the-universe posture rusts a confusing, beguiling, and disappointing mess.

Just ask Job. There is no better story to illustrate this than the spiritual whiplash suffered by Job. Job had everything: a large family, wealth, and status born of his wisdom. And then Job became the unwitting victim in a wager between God and Satan: God believed that a faithful servant would be loyal in an circumstance; Satan believed that only those who are blessed stay true to God. God pointed to the person He deemed most successful in the ancient Near East: Job of the land of Uz.  Job is introduced as a man who was “blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil” (Job 1:1). He had ten children – seven of whom were boys, a sure sign of blessing in the days of old – and a vast estate. “The man was wealthier than anyone in the East” (1:3). But by the end of the first chapter, Job had lost all of his children, and his world quickly unraveled.

Later in the story, Job reflects on the man he had once been in his prime: “O that I were as in months gone by, in the days when God watched over me, when His lamp shone over my head, when I walked in the dark by His light” (29:2). At that time, Job says, his children surrounded him and his feet were “bathed in cream” (29:6). He had the attention of nobles; young men hid from him out of fear. He helped others who were unfortunate; men would listen for his words of wisdom. He describes his words as drops of dew to men who were thirsty for his counsel. But after calamity struck, he walked in the streets ashamed and denigrated, a man of little worth among friends.

It must have felt good to be regarded so highly, to walk into a room and have people  hang on your every word and enjoy “love like a king among his troops, like one who consoles mourners” (29.25). The one who consoles mourners extends pity to others; he never imagines himself as an object of pity to others.

In the very first chapters that follow his catalogue of woes, Job begins to understand his altered position and curses his very existence: “Perish the day on which I was born and night it was announced…May that day be darkness.  May God have no concern for it. May light not shine upon it” (3:4-5). Job never curses God; he only wonders at why he was ever brought into existence. The worst tragedy that could befall him struck. The nightmare of all nightmares was real:

My groaning serves as my bread;
My roaring pours forth as water.
For what I feared has overtaken me;
What I dreaded has come upon me.
I had no repose, no quiet, no rest.
And trouble came. (3:24-26)

A man of prominence has stopped eating. A mouth that once could afford any delicacy is filled with groaning. His  most dreaded fears have come true, leaving him without respite. And what happens in over forty chapters that follow is the total transformation of a man of success into a brittle version of his former self. His faith stays constant, but his pride is replaced with despondency.

The secret of Job’s humility was no secret at all. As his life shrunk in its capacity for blessing, Job questioned all the assumptions that lead to success, particularly the belief in human mystery. The mortal hubris of achievement was crushed in a single blow, leaving Job winded.

As the book nears its end, God speaks directly to Job, asking Job is had an inkling of understanding of how the world works. God moves Job’s ruminations from self-pity by asking him to contemplate the complexity of a world far beyond his comprehension:

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?
Speak if you have understanding.
Do you know who fixed its dimensions
Or who measured it with a line?
Onto what were its bases sunk?
Who set its cornerstone
When the morning stars sang together
And all the divine beings shouted for joy? (38:4-7)

God, the divine structural engineer, questions Job about the foundations of the universe and who set it all in motion. As if Job’s tragedies had not humbled him sufficiently, God in the next several chapters continues to question Job about seemingly every facet of the world: lightning, the ocean, clouds, snow, constellations, the hunting instinct of the lion, the season when mountain goats give birth, the way an ostrich beats its wings, the way the eagle soars. All of nature is governed by a force so vast that no person, however wise, can conceive of it all. We read Job and are reminded of the poem “Design” in which Robert Frost meditates on “a dimpled spider, fat and white.” He looks at it closely and marvels at its intricacies and its capacity to frighten human beings:

What but design of darkness to appall?–
If design govern in a thing so small

God asks Job if he can possibly understand the natural world, the design of each creature and its relationship to the ecosystem that God manufactured. To this, Job can  muster only silence and a weak response, the response of humility:

See, I am of small worth. What can I answer You? I clap my hands to my mouth. (40:4)

We, too, are small in God’s immense universe. Practice humility. Making ourselves smaller helps us appreciate the vastness of a world so much larger than we are.


Task 1: Imagine for a moment that are being honored or are receiving an award. Identify what you might be honored for at this moment. A friend of mine sets his professional achievement goals this way: he imagines what he woudl want to be honored for five years from now and works towards it. Think about what it would be like to stand in front of a podium and be recognized for that achievement.

Now imagine that there is no certificate, no award, no crystal plaque with your name on it. The award you will get instead has nothing to do with your profession or your academic achievements. It is awarded by your children or your parents or a friend because you set as your goal the honor and needs of someone else. We get that award long from now in eulogies that one day will be offered when we are no longer around to hear the. What would you like someone to say about you at your funeral?

Task 2: Think of someone in your life who is not expecting to hear from  you and who has just achieved something of importance. Go out of your way to celebrate his or her success in detail, letting him or her know how proud you are and why. In the spirit of Ethics of the Fathers, let your friend’s honor be as dear to you as your own.

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Parshat Shoftim: Poetry or Practicality

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’sUnlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Devarim’, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers


Poetry or Practicality 

We have previously noted and discussed the tension created by the multilayered character of the book of Devarim (see Devarim 1). On the one hand, as we have noted, Devarim chronicles the poignant human drama of Moshe’s farewell to his people. Within his public addresses, this great leader waxes eloquent as he searches for words that will remain with his “flock” long after he is gone. On the other hand, Devarim is an integral part of God’s eternal law. As such, this text is bound by the rules that govern the interpretation of the entire Torah. Every word is essential; each phrase is divinely chosen to convey a particular eternal message to the reader. While this dual unfolding is felt throughout the book of Devarim, there are times when it rises more clearly to the surface, complicating the nature of specific imperatives appearing in the text. Two powerful examples of such commandments are found in Parshat Shoftim:

Tzedek tzedek tirdof, “Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you will live and possess the land that the Lord your God gives to you.”
Tamim tihiyeh im Hashem Elokecha, “Wholehearted shall you be with the Lord your God.”

How are we meant to view commandments such as those quoted above? Are they general, spontaneous products of Moshe’s passion as he strives to penetrate the hearts of a listening people? Or are they mitzvot, or elements of mitzvot, divinely fashioned, like all other Torah imperatives, toconvey specific behavioral requirements across the ages? If the latter is true, what are those concrete requirements?

The first and most important answer to our questions is clearly “ all of the above.” As we often have noted before, the Torah text unfolds on multiple levels simultaneously.

The narrative in the book of Bereishit, for example, chronicles the birth of a nation through the stories of individual families. The national saga coursing beneath the surface of these personal tales does not in any way diminish the poignant private journeys described therein.

Similarly, any halachic requirements conveyed by Moshe’s imperatives to the nation in the book of Devarim should not blind us to the dramatic passion reflected in his words. To fully appreciate this book of the Torah, we must always keep the scene of its unfolding before our eyes. An aged, powerful leader bids farewell to the people that he has shepherded from slavery to freedom. Powerful sentiments course through each sentence as Moshe shares his personal regrets with the nation over his inability to join in entering the land; desperately tries to teach final, critical lessons before his death; and delivers, one last time, words of encouragement, warning, support, remonstration and so much more. Clearly Moshe’s eloquent choice of words mirrors a myriad of personal emotions.

At the same time, however, these are words of Torah text and, as such, transcend the moments of their delivery. Concrete, eternal instructions are contained within the commandments shared by Moshe throughout the book of Devarim. Every phrase uttered by this great leader, no matter how dramatic, is therefore fair game for halachic analysis by scholars across the ages.The two phrases before us provide telling examples of the varied rabbinic approaches to Moshe’s dramatic words in Sefer Devarim.

I. Tzedek tzedek tirdof


The phrase Tzedek tzedek tirdof…, “Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you will live and possess the land that the Lord your God gives to you,” appears at the end of the short opening passage of Parshat Shoftim. Serving as an introduction to the entire parsha, this three-sentence passage conveys the general admonition to establish a righteous system of governance upon entering the land.


While the scholars of the Talmud do not derive an independent mitzva from the words tzedek, tzedek tirdof, they do view this phrase as potentially broadening the Torah’s demand for justice in multiple ways. A number of interpretations in this vein are suggested in the tractate of Sanhedrin.

The rabbis open the Talmudic discussion by questioning the demands presented by two separate biblical verses. In the book of Vayikra, the Torah commands, “with justice shall you judge your fellow,”6 while the text in Devarim demands, “Justice, justice shall you pursue…” Perceiving seemingly contrasting requirements emerging from these verses, the rabbis ask: In which cases does “judging with justice” suffice? And in which cases must we “pursue justice, justice” with extra vigor?

Answering their own question, the scholars explain that through the use of these variations, the text challenges judges to follow their own instincts. In straightforward situations, where the facts match the judges’ internal perceptions; “judging with justice” will suffice. When the judges suspect deceit, however, they must dig deeper, moving past the apparent facts before them, as they “pursue justice” with further force. A judge cannot fulfill his task in pro forma fashion. He must always invest his full capacities as God’s agent in the administration of the law.


Rabbi Ashi demurs, negating the textual question raised by his colleagues. The two Torah passages are not in conflict, this sage argues, as the repetitive language in the phrase “Justice, justice shall you pursue” does not reflect a call for extraordinary effort in specific cases. At all times, a judge must apply himself fully towards the rendering of a just verdict. Instead, the reiteration “Justice, justice…” references the legitimacy of two distinct judicial paths: justice and compromise. Based upon the circumstances and the judgment of the bench, either of these paths can be followed.

Rabbi Ashi’s acceptance of compromise as a legitimate judicial path is carried one step further by another Talmudic scholar, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha, earlier in this same tractate, Sanhedrin. Rabbi Yehoshua maintains that, when possible, a judge is obligated to negotiate or arbitrate a compromise between two disputants. To buttress his position, this scholar quotes the pronouncement of the prophet Zecharia, “Truth and a judgment of peace shall you execute in your gates.”

How, Rabbi Yehoshua asks, is a “justice of peace” attainable? One could argue that these two terms are mutually exclusive. Is it not true that when a decision is determined through strict justice, peace has not been achieved? One of the disputants will inevitably be dissatisfied the verdict.

What, then, is the “judgment of peace” to which the prophet refers? Obviously, answers Rabbi Yehoshua, the prophet is referencing the path of compromise.

Rabbi Yehoshua’s embrace of compromise as the preferred legal path, however, is not without controversy. In the same passage of Talmud, Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Yossi the Galilean maintains that a judge is absolutely forbidden to arbitrate a compromise. While disputants can certainly find a middle ground between themselves, Rabbi Eliezer maintains, once they approach a court for a ruling, strict justice must rule the day.

Strangely enough, Rabbi Eliezer’s position prohibiting courtroom compromise would seem to find support from the very sentence that Rabbi Yehoshua quotes to buttress his own position in support of such compromise: “Truth and a judgment of peace shall you execute in your gates.” For while conciliation satisfies the need for both “peace” and “judgment,” it does not satisfy the third component cited by the prophet, “truth.” If a judge arbitrates a compromise between two litigants, he does not arrive at the truth. He creates, in effect, a legal fiction through which neither of the parties completely loses. Such a fiction is an acceptable settlement, Rabbi Eliezer argues, only before the court becomes involved. Once the legal process is engaged, a judge can only choose one path. He is obligated to strive for the truth through the strict application of Torah law.

In spite of Rabbi Eliezer’s compelling argument against judicial negotiation, however, the halacha, as codified both in the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah and in Rabbi Yosef Caro’s Shulchan Aruch,11 adopts Rabbi Yehoshua’s embrace of compromise as the preferred courtroom path.

In the words of the Rambam,

It is a mitzva [for a judge] to ask the litigants, at the onset of the legal process, “Do you wish a legal ruling or a compromise?” If they desire to compromise, [the court] should effect a compromise between them. And any court that consistently effects compromise is a laudatory court about which [the prophet] states: “Truth and a judgment of peace shall you execute in your gates.” What justice is accompanied by peace? Let us say that it is [the justice of] compromise.

The halachic support of judicial compromise, even at the expense of the truth, mirrors the powerful priority placed upon shalom, interpersonal peace, in countless other scholarly texts. Most telling, perhaps, is the rabbinic decision to close the entire Mishna and, arguably, the two most important prayers in Jewish liturgy, the Amida and the Kaddish, with paragraphs focusing on the theme of peace. Furthermore, in the fashioning of these prayers, the rabbis apparently take their cue from God Himself. The divinely authored Priestly Blessing, pronounced daily by the Kohanim over the nation at God’s command, culminates with the prayer “May the Lord turn His countenance towards you and grant you peace.

Halacha thus mandates that peace, the greatest of God’s blessings, must be aggressively pursued by God’s judicial agents in this world, even when that peace comes at the expense of truth.


Finally, yet another explanation for the phrase Tzedek tzedek tirdof is offered by the rabbis in the same Talmudic passage, based on the recognition that judges do not bear sole responsibility for the creation of a just society. As understood by the rabbis, the phrase Tzedek tzedek tirdof can be seen as the last in a series of directives issued by Moshe in Sefer Devarim concerning the essential reciprocal relationship between a society and its judges.

  1. Moshe opens his very first farewell address, recorded at the beginning of the book of Devarim, by recalling instructions he had previously given both to the nation and its judges concerning the establishment of a just society: As we left Sinai, he reminds the people, I instructed you to choose appropriate judges. And I admonished those judges to apply the law with justice.
  2. Now, as Moshe returns to the theme of governance at the beginning of Parshat Shoftim, he again sounds the call for respectful reciprocity: “Judges and officers shall you set for yourselves in all your gates.… And they will judge the nation with just judgment.” You, as a people, must do your part in creating a society built upon the administration of justice, while those whom you choose as leaders must administer that justice justly.
  3. He then continues by admonishing the judges directly: “You shall not pervert judgment, you shall not show favoritism and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe will blind the eyes of the wise and make the words of the righteous twisted.”
  4. Moshe closes with the declaration Tzedek tzedek tirdof, “Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you will live and possess the land that the Lord your God gives to you.”
    This last sentence, the Talmud suggests, is not directed towards the judges at all. Instead, with the phrase Tzedek tzedek tirdof, Moshe turns his attention back to the nation by raising the concept of societal judicial responsibility to a new level. For, at this point, Moshe addresses potential litigants.

Tzedek tzedek tirdof, “seek out an exemplary court.” Do not twist the process of jurisprudence to meet your own personal ends. Do not search for a court that is clearly predisposed to your point of view. There is more at stake here than your own personal concerns. Pursue justice; seek out an unbiased, exemplary court. Even as litigants, you play a pivotal role in maintaining the seriousness with which the law is taken and ensuring the proper administration of justice throughout the land.


Building upon these Talmudic suggestions, numerous other legal interpretations of the phrase Tzedek tzedek tirdof are suggested by commentaries across the ages.

It remains, however, for the eighteenth-century German scholar Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch to remind us not to lose sight of the forest for the trees. For while Hirsch himself quotes a number of the legal Talmudic references cited above, he also interprets Moshe’s passionate charge to the nation as a general directive meant to define the moral character of his people’s society:

“Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you will live and possess the land that the Lord your God gives to you.”
As the highest unique goal, to be striven for purely for itself, to which all other considerations have to be subordinated, the concept, “Tzedek, Right, Justice,” …is to be kept in the mind of the whole nation. To pursue this goal unceasingly and with all devotion is Israel’s one task; with that it has done everything to secure its physical and political existence.

A loyal halachist, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch would be the first to acknowledge the importance of each legal detail gleaned by the Talmud from the verse Tzedek tzedek tirdof. At the same time, however, this visionary leader warns the reader not to overlook the power of Moshe’s words as a broad exhortation towards the overall establishment of a just society.

II. Tamim tihiyeh im Hashem Elokecha


The second of the verses before us, Tamim tihiyeh im Hashem Elokecha, “Wholehearted shall you be with the Lord your God,” appears in the middle of a paragraph in Parshat Shoftim prohibiting the practices of sorcery and divination.

Here the rabbinic divide becomes starker. For, as indicated above, although the rabbis debate the practical significance of the phrase tzedek, tzedek tirdof, they are united on one point. This dramatic statement does not constitute a new, unique mitzva. Moshe’s eloquent words convey, instead, an expansion on existing law.

When it comes to Moshe’s declaration Tamim tihiyeh im Hashem Elokecha, however, no such agreement exists. Instead, two fundamentally disparate approaches emerge from rabbinic literature.


At one end of the spectrum stand those authorities, such as the Ramban, who count the imperative Tamim tihiyeh im Hashem Elokecha as an independent positive mitzva, a separate one of the 613 commandments. This mitzva, these scholars maintain, obligates each Jew to recognize God’s sole awareness of and power over future events.

The approach of these authorities is based on consideration of the verse Tamim tihiyeh im Hashem Elokecha in context, as a positive iteration of the surrounding prohibitions against sorcery and divination. Through this declaration, the Ramban thus maintains, God commands the nation “to direct their hearts exclusively to Him; to believe that He, alone, is the Doer of all; that He knows the truth regarding the future; and from Him [alone] we should ask about that which is to come, from His prophets and pious ones.”

To buttress his approach, the Ramban cites biblical, Midrashic and Talmudic sources. Particularly telling is the parallel this sage draws between the verse before us and the opening imperative in a covenant between God and the patriarch Avraham at the dawn of Jewish history: Hit’halech l’fanai v’heyei tamim, “Walk before me and be wholehearted.” Here, too, God commands Avraham to remain steadfast in his rejection of the superstitious mores of the surrounding cultures. Be complete with Me, Avraham; recognize that I, and I alone, guide and control all that you see…

Puzzled by the Rambam’s omission of this obligation from his list of the mitzvot in Sefer Hamitzvot, the Ramban posits, “Perhaps the master [the Rambam] perceives this mandate as a general exhortation to perform the commandments and walk in the ways of the Torah…and therefore did not include it in his enumeration.”

“As is evident from the words of our sages, however,” the Ramban concludes, “the approach we have outlined [viewing this imperative as an independent commandment] is the correct one.”


At the other end of the spectrum can be found scholars such as Rabbeinu Bachya Ibn Pakuda who openly interpret the verse Tamim tihiyeh im Hashem Elokecha in general terms. In his introduction to his famous ethical work Chovot Halevavot (Duties of the Heart), Rabbeinu Bachya explains this biblical verse not as a unique mitzva, but as an overarching exhortation on Moshe’s part towards uniform ethical behavior throughout the life of each Jew: “And you should know that the intent and purpose of the precepts of the heart is to cultivate a complete harmony between our inner and outward actions in the service of the Lord.”

From Rabbeinu Bachya’s perspective, the imperative to be tamim (wholehearted) is a general one, mandating consistency between a person’s thoughts and actions. An individual whose words are at variance with his deeds, Bachya maintains, is not trusted by those around him. Similarly, if an individual’s service of God is marked by inconsistency and insincerity, if the intentions of his heart are contradicted by his words, if his inner convictions do not match his outward actions, his service of God will not be perfect.

Once again, we are reminded by a great luminary not to allow the details, important as they are, to blind us to the overarching power and passion of Moshe’s words. On a global level, Bachya argues, Moshe’s proclamation Tamim tihiyeh conveys a truth that courses through the entire Torah. An individual must be “wholehearted with God,” simply because God will reject insincerity.

Poetry or practicality? Passionate proclamations on the part of an aged leader, or concrete commandments to a people across time? Moshe’s eloquent declarations are both at the same time – text meant to be studied and taught on multiple levels at once. When we recognize this truth, the full beauty of the book of Devarim is revealed…