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The Return to Zion: Recognition of the Present and Vision for the Future

Excerpted from The Return to Zion: Addresses on Religious Zionism and American Orthodoxy by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, co-published by OU Press and Ktav Publishing House

Recognition of the Present and Vision for the Future*

The Jews sanctified the Land of Israel twice, the first time in the days of Joshua and the second in the days of Ezra. When one compares the two eras from a secular-historical standpoint, from a political-economic perspective, the second entry into the land, Ezra’s sanctification, is no more than a pale reflection, a weak echo, of a great and glorious epoch, such that the comparison itself arouses gloom. In the days of Joshua, the nation was young, filled with an aggressive, militant spirit, and pounced on the Land of Israel like a youthful desert lion, defeating thirty-one kings, claiming one victory after another. Nature itself helped the young Jewish people forge its destiny: “Stand still, O sun, at Gibeon, O moon, in the Valley of Aijalon!” (Josh. 10:12). “They conquered the land in seven years and divided it among the tribes in seven years” (Zevaim 118b). They were proud and youthful, pugnacious and courageous, filled with all the romanticism of a nation stepping out onto the historical stage and enjoying the respect, awe, and admiration of its neighbors. “Dread of you has fallen upon us, and all the inhabitants of the land are quaking before you” (Josh. 2:9).

In the days of Ezra, the ten tribes were entirely absent, having been exiled to Halah and Habor (see I Chron. 5:26) or, in the words of the Jewish aggadah, “beyond the Sambation River” (Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 10:5). A segment of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin wanted no part in the return to Zion, the Second Temple, or the redemption. They were happy sitting by their fleshpots in Babylon, Persia, and Media. Cyrus, Darius, Ahasuerus, and the other kings altered their edicts seven times a day, each new declaration repealing the previous one: one moment immigration was allowed, the next, they issued a White Paper halting entry. Even with someone positioned as close to the monarchy as Esther, the Land of Israel could not be mentioned: “At the wine feast, the king asked Esther, ‘What is your wish? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to half the kingdom, it shall be fulfilled’” (Esther 5:6). “‘Half the kingdom,’ but not the whole kingdom, and not something that would serve as a barrier to the kingdom. And what is that? The building of the Temple” (Megillah 15b). “Sanballat and Tobiah, and the Arabs, the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites” (Neh. 4:1), Samaritans, enemies, informers, hateful broadsides, defamation and behind-the-scenes plots, fear of violent excesses and pogroms. “The basket-carriers were burdened, doing work with one hand while the other held a weapon. . . . that we may use the night to stand guard and the day to work” (Neh. 4:11, 16): with one hand, we have to extract water from the Negeb of the Land of Israel; with the other, we have to protect ourselves from Arab hooligans. And the internal situation? Economic hardship and spiritual impoverishment, intermarriage and ignorance, lack of language and tradition. And above all, “we have become a mockery” (Neh. 3:36): we have become objects of shame and derision.

Nevertheless, Maimonides, the great Jewish teacher, the pillar of the halakhah, comes along and rules that “the first sanctification . . . was in effect in its own time but not for all time,” whereas the “second sanctification is in effect forever, both in its own time and for all time” (Hilkhot Terumot 1:5). You hear? Joshua’s sanctification via capture and military victory, undertaken in an unbridled, gushing, enterprising spirit of conquest, when proud prophets, warriors, elders, students of our teacher Moses, and heroic legions seized the Land of Israel, was no more than a temporary phenomenon: Nebuchadnezzar abrogated it. But Ezra’s sanctification, which came about through daily, small-scale, unheroic, painstaking work, through disappointments and despair, intercession with and requests from the authorities, insults and humiliation – that remains forever: neither Titus nor Hadrian, neither Islam nor the Crusades, neither Turkey nor even the [British] Colonial Office can undo it.

Maimonides explains this halakhic paradox using the same philosophical idea: “Why do I maintain . . . that [the first sanctification] was not in effect for all time with respect to the rest of the Land of Israel vis-a-vis the sabbatical year, tithes, and so on? The reason is that . . . the requirement to observe the sabbatical year and the tithes depended on the land being conquered by the people, so that once it was taken away from them, their conquest was negated” (Hilkhot Beit ha-Beirah 6:16). Joshua’s sanctification was not the result of hardship but of historical success during glorious moments of Jewish history – none of which is forever. Ezra’s sanctification, by contrast, came about through occupation, settling the land, through the word of God, through adversity, martyrdom, spiritual pain and despair, mockery and derision. Ezra’s sanctification emerged from crisis, tribulation, and subjugation. Redemption born of suffering, the messiah born following birth pangs, are eternal – sanctification for all time!

How beautiful are the words we read in today’s haftarah: “The angel who talked with me came back and woke me as a man is wakened from sleep” (Zech. 4:1). The angel of redemption rouses Zechariah, the prophet of the return to Zion:

Prophet! Despair not, deliver your prophecy, spread the Torah of redemption, of the messiah, of the building of the Temple! Do not give up hope because of the pitfalls and obstacles on the road; because of the external Sanballats, Samaritans, and Arabs and the internal Satans dwelling in the houses of the Kohanim Gedolim; or because of the “filthy garments” (Zech. 3:3) worn by Joshua the Kohen Gadol, who was supposed to lead the people toward God! Deliver your prophecy, proclaim redemption, and awaken the people’s hearts so that they hear the steps of the messiah.

Look, Zechariah! “A lampstand all of gold, with a bowl above it. The lamps on it are seven in number, and the lamps above it have seven pipes; and by it are two olive trees, one on the right of the bowl and one on its left” (Zech. 4:2–3). You see such a great vision of light, anointing oil, priesthood, and kingship; you see the great drama of the End of Days that can result from this movement! Inform the people, tell them about the golden Menorah with its fount of oil, about the clear light radiating from its seven branches, about Jewish anointing oil, sanctity, purity, ethical ideals, and historical hopes. Talk to them, inspire them!

However, the prophet does not understand how the great light of the golden Menorah can be born of such modest circumstances, such political bankruptcy, such a disgraceful national condition, such a state of disintegration and disharmony. At most a small community will emerge, not any sort of epoch-making event. The angel asks him, “Do you not know what those things mean?” and he responds, “No, my lord” (Zech. 4:5): I do not understand! At that point, the angel reveals to him the great secret of suffering, adversity, and sacrifice. “This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power” (Zech. 4:6). For the Second Temple will be built not with happiness and joy, not with the support of neighbors and great kingdoms, but in spite of the enemies, insults, and disruptions, in spite of the enmity and disdain exhibited by the rest of the world. Through adversity and hardship will the holy light of the golden Menorah shine forth, and eternity will prevail.

*This excerpt is taken from an address delivered by Rabbi Soloveitchik to the Emergency Conference of the Mizrachi National Council on June 2, 1945.

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Birkat Yitzchak – Yitro (Shavuot)

Excerpted from Rabbi Menachem Genack’s Birkat Yitzchak Chidushim U-ve’urim al HaTorah

שבחן של ישראל

וכל העם רואים את הקולות (כ, טו).

איתא במכילתא: “רבי אומר להודיע שבחן של ישראל שכשעמדו כולן לפני הר סיני לקבל את התורה היו שומעין את הדבור ומפרשין אותו שנאמר יסובבנהו יבוננהו יצרנהו כאישון עינו שמכיון שהיה הדבור יוצא היו מפרשין אותו. ולהודיע שבחן של ישראל שכשעמדו כולן לפני הר סיני לקבל את התורה שלא היו בהן סומין שנאמר וכל העם רואים, מלמד שלא היו בהן אלמים שנאמר ויענו כל העם, מלמד שלא היו בהן חרשים שנאמר כל אשר דבר ה’ נעשה ונשמע”. עכ”ל.

והנה צ”ב כונת המכילתא, איזה שבח של ישראל אמור כאן, ולכאורה היה צריך לומר “להודיע שבחו של הקב”ה שריפא לכל הסומין ואלמים וחרשים”. והביאור בדברי המכילתא נראה, שהנה אדם קולט ידיעות דרך חושיו, ולכן אם היה חסר אחד מן החושים היה חסר בתפיסת דבר ה’ בסיני. וכיון שישראל קדושים לא רצו שיעכב שום דבר בתפיסתם את האמור בסיני, לפיכך זכו שנתרפאו בכך שדבר ה’ נכנס בתוכם וריפא אותם ונתרחב כח חושיהם להבין דבר ה’, וזהו “שבחן של ישראל”.

ולכן מאמרו של רבי במכילתא פותח בלהודיע שבחן של ישראל – שהבינו כל דבור וקלטו אותו מיד, וההמשך עוסק ברפואתם של בעלי המומין מישראל, כי רצונם של ישראל להבין דבורו של ה’ בכל תוקפו הוא זה שגרם לרפואתם, וגם זה הוא שבחן של ישראל.


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On the Look-Out

Excerpted from Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm’s Torah Beloved: Reflections on the Love of Torah and the Celebration of the Holiday of Matan Torah, co-published by OU Press and Ktav Publishers 

On the Look-Out*

Two mountains loom large in the history of our people and the traditions of our faith. One is Mount Sinai, from which Moses came down with the Ten Commandments. The other is Mount Moriah which Abraham ascended in order to bind his son Isaac and offer him up as a sacrifice until God bade him stop at the last moment. Both these mountains are prominent in the history of the civilized world. And yet one wonders at the difference between them. One wonders, why, when it came to building the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple, it was Mount Moriah which was so honored and which became sacred in Jewish law and life, whereas Mount Sinai retains only historic significance but is of no importance religiously. Why is it that Mount Moriah has become the geographic center of Judaism, the place to which we turn in our prayers, and Mount Sinai is just another little hill in the great barrenness called Sinai Desert?

In the answer to that question lies a whole philosophy, the essence of the Jewish approach to God and the kernel of the Torah world-view. The answer, in fact, can be expressed in a parallel study of two historic personalities whose names are associated with these mountains. They are Moses and Abraham. The name of Moses is inextricably bound up with Sinai, and Abraham with Moriah.

Moses, of course, is the prophet par excellence of Judaism. He is the lawgiver and the man whom God chose to redeem Israel from Egypt. He reached the highest rung any man can ever hope to reach. But the early history of Moses is one of ease and facility. There are struggles, but not great struggles. There are difficulties, but no tormenting ones. He was a man who was chosen to lead and to prophecy, and his very birth was accompanied by signs of greatness. He was tending his flock in the land of Midian one fine day when he heard a voice call out of a bush, which burnt but was not consumed. It was the voice of God summoning him to his great role in history. It happened so suddenly, so quickly. It seemed that he just “had it in him.” And when, years later, he assembled his people about the mountain called Sinai, they too seemed just “naturals” for the word of God. There is even a tradition that they slept late that historic day and had to be awakened to hear the Ten Commandments issued by the divine voice. With folded arms they stayed at the foot of the mountain, while the Torah was given to them. That is the character of Sinai – a passive awaiting of God’s word. Man waits while God seeks him out.

Abraham represents the exact reverse. He was a precocious tot of three – or, according to Maimonides, a man of 43 – when he first conceived of the idea of one God. God did not reveal Himself to Abraham. But Abraham, having come to the conclusion that there must be such a personal transcendent God, began to look for God. He spent the better part of his life trying to reach him. He braved the ridicule and the mockery of his idolatrous society because of his belief in and search for an invisible God. Not once in many years did God make himself available to the searching patriarch. Only after many heart-breaking decades did the word of God come to Abraham: lekh lekha. . . . and then he was 75 years old! It was a successful and vindicating venture, this search for God, but only because it was a search – difficult, hard, often frustrating.

But if this long search was a hard one, how much more so Abraham’s trek up Mt. Moriah. Here he was, in his old age, a father of one son born to him in his late years. And now God had called upon him to sacrifice this son atop the mountain. His religious nature responded affirmatively at once. His humanitarian side rebelled. His only real son, the one and only to his old mother. And yet, torn by this inner conflict, Abraham climbed the mountain, every step filled with pain and foreboding with a fire raging in his soul. He climbed up to God, and he finally reached the summit – he was going to follow the Godly voice! And he did, until the angel ordered him to desist, and told him that he had passed the test. That is the character of Moriah – a powerful looking for God, a dynamic active search by man for God.

That is what accounts for the holiness of Moriah and the religious insignificance of Sinai. Holiness is not a generous gift bestowed by God on prima-donna souls. It is wrested from God by the sweat of the brow and the mighty wrangling of the heart. A Temple is not built by religious wall-flowers. It is sanctified by searchers, by men always on the look-out for God. That is why Mount Moriah is crowned by the Holy Temple, whereas Sinai has nothing Jewish associated with it; on the contrary, on  its summit today there is a Christian monastery.

Those who pray carefully might sometimes wonder: we often refer to God as Elokei Avraham, never as Elokei Moshe. Why? Because it was Abraham, not Moses, who searched the harder. And Elokei Avraham means the God of Abraham in the possessive sense, that Abraham actually “owns” a part of God. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik offers an interesting halakhic explanation. The halakha discusses the case of one who finds an object in the street, an object of value but which has no identifying marks. In such case, the law is “finders keepers.” But what is the legal reason for the transfer of the property from the previous owner to the finder? The reason, according to the Talmud, is ye’ush baalim, the fact that the previous owners (knowing that it bears no identifying marks) renounce ownership because they despair of its return. In the same way, so to speak, did Abraham become possessive of God. There was no one who had any prior claim on God. Men had despaired of reaching Him. There was ye’ush baalim. But Abraham went on the lookout. He searched for this Divine metzia, and he found Him; hence, Elokei Avraham, the God of Abraham. Abraham looked for God, and so God was Abraham’s. But God was the one who looked for Moses and found him, and so he is known as Moshe eved Hashem, Moses the servant of God (Deuteronomy 34:5). Moses was found by God and hence belongs to God.

It was only long after Sinai, after the Tablets there delivered were broken, that Moses changed his approach to God, that he announced “har’eni na et kevodekha” (Exodus 33:18), God, I am out to discover Your glory. It was only then that Moses rose to his eminent position in the history of humanity.

It is the same in religion as in all life, except more so. You never get something for nothing. In Torah it is even deeper: you must work much harder, but the returns are much greater. Those who have not experienced true simḥa shel mitzva, the ecstatic joy of spiritual achievement, have not lived.

I sometimes wonder at some of our Jews. I wish they would take their business shrewdness into the synagogue proper, not only to board meetings. Which businessman would trust an agent who tries to sell him stock that supposedly requires very little investment, involves no risk and gives tremendous windfall profits, without a thorough examination? And yet, these same people, so circumspect in finances, come into the synagogue and expect to invest three or visits a year, no risks of spiritual creativity and hardship, and expect God to jump every time they snap their fingers, expect to be “inspired.” There is only one difference. In business, such speculative fly-by-night investment can cost you your shirt. In religion, you can lose your soul. Torah does indeed offer terrific spiritual profits, but not without heavy capital investment – investment of your time and energy and faith and money and prestige. It requires being constantly on the look-out for God, being a Mount Moriah Jew, not a Sinai Jew.

I wish people would not come into this synagogue to “be inspired” as one goes to a show to be entertained or to a steam-room to be massaged. This is neither a theatre nor a service agency. The rabbi is not an actor, nor does he aspire to be a masseur. This is a workshop, a workshop of the human soul where you are both the artisan and the vessel, where God is both the boss who demands and the customer who must be satisfied, and where the rabbi is just another poor, hard laborer who merely seeks to give some friendly advice. No one can find God without looking for Him, and it is just that the synagogue is the best place to look.

It is told of the great Hasidic teacher, Reb Baruch of Meziboz that his grandchild once came crying to him, and complained that he had been playing hide-and-seek with friends, and that he was hiding but his friend did not come to look for him. “Ahh,” exclaimed the Rabbi, “but God has the same complaint. No one comes to look for Him.”

If we religious Jews had taken that to heart fifty and sixty years ago in greater numbers and with more enthusiasm, the State of Israel today might have more genuine Jewishness in it, in place of the offensive secularism which sometimes tears at the heart. If only we had known then that Messiah would not come looking for us if we remained with folded arms. Messiah comes only when he is sought out, when he is looked for. Only then does one find atḥalta degeula. The Hebrew song, Yerushalayim, has one beautiful refrain: me’al pisgat har hatzofim shalom lakh Yerushlayim, from the summit of Mount Tzofim, peace unto you, O Jerusalem. Those who know Hebrew know that “tzofim” comes from the word which means to look, to search out. Only when Jews will begin to look for Jerusalem with love and devotion, when they will put their lives into the striving for the City of Beauty will peace come unto Jerusalem.

If parents would understand this difference between Moriah and Sinai, between Abraham and the early career of Moses, they would not be satisfied with the pitifully little they give their children. Parents who are happy with a three-day-a-week education for their children are not providing them with the equipment with which to undertake the long and tough search for meaningfulness and holiness in life. Those who give their children a two-hour-a-week fling in things Jewish are not only not providing them, but I dare say are blindfolding their own children; if one of these ever finds meaningfulness it is sheer luck. Those parents who give their children full, maximum education, those who give them – let us not be afraid to say it openly – a good day-school education if it is available, they are the ones who help their children. That kind of teaching means providing children with spiritual binoculars in the search for God.

“And from there shall you seek the Lord your God, and you will find Him, if you will search after Him with all your heart and with all your soul. In your distress, when all these things come upon you” (Deuteronomy 4:29–30), when man is troubled by the sheer emptiness of his life, when he is worried and pained, when he feels caught in a vise and tossed about recklessly in the tempests of life, when in distress, then God calls out, seek God, look for Him, and you will most certainly find Him. “For the Lord your God is a merciful God; He will not fail you, not destroy you, nor forget the covenant of your fathers which He swore unto them” (Deuteronomy 4:31).

*May 28, 1955

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With Liberty and Justice: Day 29 – Interpreting the Commandments

Excerpted from With Liberty and Justice: The Fifty-Day Journey from Egypt to Sinai by Senator Joe Lieberman with Rabbi Ari D. Kahn, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books

Day 29: Interpreting the Commandments

In the Book of Deuteronomy (4:2; 13:1), Moses twice instructs the Israelites and their descendants that they can never add to nor subtract from the words of God that he brought down from Sinai.

But the commandments were general statements of principle given more than three thousand years ago. From the outset, the people needed interpretation and guidance about how to apply them. In the years since, as the world has moved from the agricultural age to the industrial age and, more recently, to the information age, the need to adapt and change is even more acute. God, and Moses, understood there would be a need for a judicial process that would interpret and apply the law over time, as recorded in the Bible:

If you are unable to reach a decision in a case involving capital punishment, litigation, leprous marks, [or any other case] where there is a dispute in your territorial courts, then you must set out and go up to the place that God will have chosen, and appear before the Levitical priests [and other members of] the supreme court that exists at the time. When you present your case, they will declare a verdict. Since this decision comes from the place that God shall choose, you must scrupulously obey all their instructions to you, carefully following their every decision. [Besides this, in general,] you must keep the Torah as they interpret it for you, and follow the laws that they legislate for you. Do not stray to the right or left from their words. (Deut. 17:8–11)

A process was thereby established for permissible analysis and development of the law by credible authorities. What was prohibited was adding mitzvot, “commandments,” and claiming that these were the word of God transmitted at Sinai. Anyone who claims a divine mandate to add to or subtract from the law is, according to the Torah, a false prophet.

An additional basis for ongoing human input into Torah law is found in Leviticus: “You shall safeguard My statutes” (Lev. 18:30). This command became a mandate to “erect a [protective] fence around the Torah” (Mishna Avot 1:1) and establish rules that keep people as far as possible from violating God’s commandments and statutes.

The seminal compilation of Jewish oral law known as the Mishna preserved hundreds of years of rabbinic discussions regarding the interpretation of law and the creation of “protective fences,” from the early years of the Second Temple until approximately the year 200. These rabbinic discussions were analyzed, supplemented, and reapplied by Torah scholars over the next three hundred years, and resulted in the Talmud, “learning,” or Gemara. Both the Mishna and the Talmud were transmitted orally for generations, until the vicissitudes of exile and persecution placed the entire system in jeopardy. Eventually, the Oral Law was transcribed and the rabbis of every generation were entrusted with making contemporary applications of ancient law. This serious subject has been the object of Jewish humor. There is a story of a rabbi of old who had been asked many questions about how to apply a particular provision of the kosher laws. He prays to God for assistance and is shocked to hear the Voice of God (VOG) respond:

VOG: How can I help you, my dear rabbi?
Rabbi: Almighty God, many of my congregants have asked me about the commandment in Your Law that we should not cook the meat of a calf in the milk of its mother. Does that mean we can never eat meat and milk together?
VOG: You shall not cook the meat of a calf in the milk of its mother.
Rabbi: Does that mean we have to wait hours after we eat meat to eat milk products?
VOG: You shall not cook the meat of a calf in the milk of its mother.
Rabbi: Does that mean we have to have separate milk and meat plates, utensils, pots, and pans?
VOG: (After a pause) OK. Have it your way!

This joke makes an important point. Without the interpretation of the law by scholars and rabbis that began after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, when the Jewish people were forced into exile, the Jewish people might not even have survived to return to Israel as they did in the last century. And if Ezra and Nehemiah had not stepped forward to lead, legislate, and apply the commandments during the Exile, the Torah would surely not be as vibrant and relevant as it is today.

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The Akeidah: Setting the Stage for the Akeidah

Excerpted from The Akeidah: The Epic Confrontation of Din and Rachamim by Michael Kaiser; co-published by OU Press and Ktav Publishing House

Setting the Stage for the Akeidah

וַיְהִי אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה וְהָאֱלקִֹים נִסָּה אֶת אַבְרָהָם וַיּאֹמֶר אֵלָיו אַבְרָהָם וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּנִי (בראשית כב:א)

In a nutshell, the Akeidah is the dialectical tension between the majestic forces of Din and Rachamim. This tension originates in the very first three words of the Torah – בראשית ברא אלקים – as Rashi there explains:

.(ברא אלקים – ולא נאמר י״י, שבתחלה עלה במחשבה לבראותו במדת הדין, ראה שאין יכול להתקיים, הקדים מדת רחמים ושתפה למדת הדין. היינו דכתיב: ביום עשות י״י אלקים ארץ ושמים (בראשית ב׳:ד׳

To encompass the colossal and far-reaching implications of this “partnership” between Din and Rachamim, the Torah coined a once-in-a-lifetime, never-to-be-used-again expression: וַיעֲַּקֹד. Neither the word ויַעֲַּקדֹ nor any derivation of it appears ever again in Tanach, which confirms its significance. The simple translation of עקד – bound – fails to capture its full import.

After establishing that the opening backdrop to the Akeidah story is Middas HaDin, we can resolve one of our first questions in this book: Rashi (21:33 ד״ה ויקרא) states that at every meal Avraham hosted, he strived to promote the idea of the Creator to his guests. Yet Rashi (22:1 ד״ה אחר) quotes the Satan’s accusation that Avraham ignored God’s presence by neglecting to make a sacrificial offering whenever he partook of a meal. How can we reconcile these two conflicting viewpoints stated by Rashi?

The solution to this problem lies in understanding the difference between perek 21 and perek 22, between Avraham who reached the pinnacle of Chesed and Avraham who now faced a final test at the height of Din. The end of perek 21 finds Avraham at the successful completion of nine nisyonos, ensconced at the apex of the Chesed pyramid. He is an undoubtedly a superstar in the realm of Chesed. But the Middas HaDin, in its realm, is unimpressed. The Middas HaDin contends that generosity with one’s possessions presents no challenge for some individuals. He demands that God intensely ratchet up the stakes to test Avraham’s faith; thus, the Satan’s charge: כל הנסיונות שנסית לאברהם היו בממונו. נסהו בגופו, יקריב לפניך בנו.

In Chapter 21, Rashi is discussing Avraham’s achievements in the realm of Chesed, represented by serving his guests and introducing them to the true Source of Chesed. But the Satan was after something else. And so begins the grand finale, the Akeidah, where Avraham must transform himself yet again, now under the auspices of Middas HaDin, to pass the tenth nisayon and finally prove his mettle.

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Bridging Traditions: 40 Days of Selihot

Excerpted from Rabbi Haim Jachter’s Bridging Traditions: Demystifying Differences Between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books

Forty Days of Seliĥot

One of the most well-known differences between Sephardic minhag and Ashkenazic minhag relates to when the recitation of Seliĥot begins. The Sephardic practice is to recite Seliĥot beginning the day after Rosh Ĥodesh Elul. The Ashkenazic practice, in contrast, is to start saying Seliĥot from the Sunday before Rosh Hashana, unless Rosh Hashana falls out on Monday or Tuesday, in which case Ashkenazim begin Seliĥot two Sundays before Rosh Hashana. What is the basis for the differing practices?

Geonim, Rishonim, Shulĥan Aruch, and Rama
The practice of reciting Seliĥot is not mentioned in the Talmud.1 The Rosh (Rosh Hashana 4:14) records that a number of Geonim had the minhag of reciting Seliĥot during the Aseret Yemei Teshuva, while others said them from Rosh Ĥodesh Elul because that is when Moshe Rabbenu was on Har Sinai receiving the second luĥot (see Rashi, Devarim 9:18). Although the Rambam (Hilchot Teshuva 3:4) follows the minhag of the Geonim, the Shulĥan Aruch (Oraĥ Ĥayim 581:1) writes that the Sephardic minhag is to say Seliĥot from Rosh Ĥodesh Elul. The Rama records that the Ashkenazic practice is to start saying Seliĥot from the Sunday before Rosh Hashana, unless Rosh Hashana falls on Monday or Tuesday.

The Classic Explanations for the Ashkenazic and Sephardic Customs
The Mishna Berura (581:6) explains that the reason for the Ashkenazic custom is that some had the custom to fast for ten days prior to Yom Kippur. However, since it is not permissible to fast on the two days of Rosh Hashana, Shabbat Shuva, and Erev Yom Kippur, to fulfill this custom, one begins Seliĥot four days prior to Rosh Hashana. The Mishna Berura offers another reason based on the halacha that four days are required to inspect a korban (sacrifice) for blemishes (Pesaĥim 96a). Since on Rosh Hashana we offer ourselves to Hashem as a metaphoric korban, we should “inspect” ourselves with the recitation of Seliĥot for a minimum of four days before Rosh Hashana.

The Vilna Gaon (Bi’ur HaGra, Oraĥ Ĥayim 581:1) notes an explanation presented by the Ran (Rosh Hashana 3a in the Rif ’s pages, s.v. b’Rosh Hashana): Although human beings were created on Rosh Hashana (according to the view of Rabbi Eliezer, cited in the Pesikta, piska 23), the world was created on the twenty-fifth of Elul. Therefore, Ashkenazim begin Seliĥot near this date.

The Vilna Gaon cites the Rosh’s explanation of the Sephardic practice to begin reciting Seliĥot on the second day of Elul as a reenactment of Moshe Rabbenu’s forty days of praying for forgiveness for the ĥet ha’egel. This is a most compelling reason, since Yom Kippur (as Rashi notes, Devarim 9:18) is the date upon which Moshe Rabbenu descended with the second luĥot, signaling that Hashem granted us atonement for this grievous sin.

A New Explanation for the Sephardic Practice
I would suggest another reason for the Sephardic practice based on Yona’s call to Nineveh, “In forty days Nineveh will be overturned” (Yona 3:4). Rashi (ad loc.) explains that the word overturned (nehepachet) has two potential meanings – it means that the city will either be destroyed or improved for the better. Yona is essentially communicating that if the residents of Nineveh do not change their ways, they will be destroyed.

I suggest that the Sephardic practice reflects this warning: Either we improve during the forty days between Rosh Ĥodesh Elul and Yom Kippur or Hashem will decree upon us an unpleasant future. Indeed, the Sephardic Seliĥot service begins by echoing the words of the captain of the ship upon which Yona sailed: “Ben Adam, mah lecha nirdam?!” (Yona 1:6). How can you be sleeping in the middle of a storm?! Wake up and cry out to your God! This liturgical poem also warns us, “ufĥad me’asonim,” to fear catastrophes that might (Heaven forfend) strike if we do not improve. Thus, the Yona motif certainly fits with the themes of Sephardic Seliĥot.

Why the Number Forty?
Why is the number forty chosen as the amount of time for the people of Nineveh – and for us – to do teshuva? Perhaps it is because the number forty evokes thoughts of the forty days of destruction during the Mabul and the forty years in the Midbar when the older generation was eliminated. The number forty is associated with total destruction and elimination, regarding which we are forewarned to repent and avoid.

Rav Zvi Grumet argues that the number forty in Torah literature expresses an opportunity for rebirth:

In the Bible, Moses is on the mountain for forty days and emerges as a man reborn with a radiant face. The spies enter the land as princes and forty days later return with the self-image of grasshoppers. The Israelite nation spends forty years in the desert and is transformed from a fractured nation of refugees into a unified nation of conquerors… In Rabbinic literature, there are forty minus one categories of prohibited (creative) work on Shabbat, a child is considered to be “alive” in the womb after forty days, and pregnancy lasts for forty weeks.2

We may add to this list that grape juice ferments into wine forty days after it is squeezed from the grape (Eduyot 6:1), and bet din administers “forty minus one” malkot, as they are intended to spur the emergence of a new personality after the traumatic experience. Similarly, the goal of Seliĥot is to emerge as a new and improved person by Yom Kippur.

The number forty conveys a similar message as the double-entendre word nehepachet: It can refer to utter destruction or rebirth. From Rosh Ĥodesh Elul until Yom Kippur, every Jew – like the people of Ninveh – is faced with the same stark choice as to which path we will choose – falling into the abyss or redeeming ourselves and restarting our lives.

  1. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik explains that although the Talmud does not mention this practice, this does not necessarily mean that Seliĥot were not recited in the time of the Talmud. It is possible that the Geonim did not institute Seliĥot, but rather recorded a practice that was existence already since the Talmudic era. Rav Soloveitchik argues that the fact that the Rambam (Hilchot Teshuva 3:4) mentions that all Jews maintain this practice indicates that this was practiced from Talmudic times. The Rambam (in his introduction to his Mishneh Torah) mentions that only the Talmudic sages enjoy unquestioned authority (in contrast to the Geonim), since the Amoraic sages were accepted by all of Israel, whereas the Geonim were not. Rav Soloveitchik asserted that whenever the Rambam uses the term “all of Israel,” the practice to which he refers dates back to the Talmudic era, when all of Israel was concentrated in a relatively limited geographic area and consented to the authority of the Talmudic sages.
  2. Genesis ( Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2017), pp. 86–87.
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Tisha B’Av: When We Try to Keep God in His Place

Excerpted from Rabbi Dr. Norman J. Lamm’s Festivals of Faith: Reflections on the Jewish Holidays 

When We Try to Keep God in His Place

If there is one word which symbolizes and characterizes this day of Tish‘ah be-Av—set aside for woe and anguish from the time of the Israelites’ obstreperousness toward Moses in the desert, through the destruction of the two Temples, and from the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 to Hitler’s extermination order in 1942 against Polish Jewry, all of which came on the ninth of Av, the Black Day of the Jewish calendar—that word is eikhah. It is a simple word, which means “how.” But the peculiar poetic construction of the word eikhah, instead of the more usual ekh, has a connotation of woe, of gloom and moroseness. It is the word with which Moses in today’s sidrah expresses his exasperation: eikhah essa levaddi? (Deut. 1:12), “how can I bear them alone?” Isaiah in today’s haftarah chooses this word to bemoan the sad fate of Jerusalem: eikhah, “how is the faithful city become as a harlot?” (Is. 1:21). And, of course, it is the refrain of Jeremiah’s dirges, his Lamentations, known in Hebrew as the Megillah of Eikhah.

The Rabbis of the Midrash were intrigued by the word, and what they say throws light not only upon the word itself but upon the broader concept which informs this day and the historic events it commemorates. Indeed, they see eikhah as part of a structure which expands Tish‘ah be-Av from a day of national mourning into a symbol of the most crucial universal significance. They tell us: Kol mah she-ira le-Adam ira le-Yisra’el, “everything that happened to Adam happened to Israel” (Yalkut Shim‘oni, Eikhah, 1001). Adam was placed by God in the Garden of Eden; Israel was brought by the Lord to Eretz Yisra’el, a Paradise in its own right. Adam was given a commandment; Israel was given 613 commandments. Adam sinned; Israel sinned. Adam was sent away and expelled; Israel was sent away and expelled into a long and bitter exile. What the Rabbis intend by this parallelism is the teaching that Israel’s exile issues from a human failing rather than a specifically Jewish weakness. By pointing to the identical pattern in the life of Adam and of Israel, they underscore the universal dimensions of Tish‘ah be-Av.

And the final example of the parallel developments that the Sages of the Midrash offer is the climax of each of the two epics. In the case of Adam, the Almighty konen alav ayyekkah, wails over Adam, calling out ayyekkah, “where art thou?” And in the case of Israel, konen alav eikhah; He wails over Israel’s fate, Eikhah, how could all this have come to pass? Both words, ayyekkah and eikhah, are essentially the same. Without the vowel signs, they are spelt the same way. God’s query to Adam, ayyekkah, “where art thou?” bears an intimate relationship to the prophet’s lamentation, Eikhah, “how has this come to pass?” For indeed, the hurban ha-Bayit, the destruction of the Temple, recapitulates the tragedy of man in the face of God. Adam, having eaten of the Tree of Knowledge and supposedly grown more sophisticated, now flees to the cluster of trees in the midst of the Garden—and attempts to hide from God! His illegitimate grasp for knowledge has gained for him the idiotic illusion that he can set boundaries for God, keeping Him away from his own areas, and that he can erect impenetrable barriers between the domains of God and man. Adam thus invites the response of the Almighty, in syllables of searing sarcasm, “Ayyekkah— where art thou?” Adam, where do you think you are that you can hide from Me? What makes you think that you can declare any place in the world out of bounds for God?

Was not the Temple destroyed for the same reason? Our tradition enumerates some of the moral causes of the tragedy visited upon the Sanctuary. But all of them add up to one basic idea: the people imagined that God’s presence dwells only in the Temple; elsewhere, one may do as he pleases. A man may hate his brother, so long as he prays in the Beit ha-Mikdash. He may exploit the worker and drive his slaves; does he not bring his sacrifices regularly to Jerusalem? This was the blasphemy of which the generation of the hurban was guilty; they conceived of God as imprisoned in His reverent House, and imagined that as long as one appeased Him there, He would not interfere elsewhere. But that whole philosophy is pagan, unholy, and unwholesome. That is why Isaiah, in the haftarah we read this morning, pours out his bitterness against those who  so piously corrupt the whole vision of Torah: Mi bikkesh zot mi-yedkhem remos hatzerai? (Is. 1:12), “who asked this of you [to visit the Temple]? You are but trampling My courtyard underfoot!” When you restrict God only to the synagogue, then He refuses to dwell even in the synagogue. When this is how you undermine the meaning of a Temple, then as a sign of divine displeasure, that very Temple, symbol of your profane misunderstanding, must be destroyed! For God, whether man likes it or not, peers into man’s “exclusive” preserves— his office and home, his bank and theater, his marketplace and hotel—and acidly asks, ayyekkah, where do you think you are? You have failed to look for Me, and so I shall seek you out. And when the Almighty grimly poses the ayyekkah, then man must whimper in return, Eikhah.

Modern man repeats the same syndrome—with even more tragic results. We have eaten of the Tree of Knowledge like no generation before us—and we have found the fruits bitter; for such is the taste of radioactive ash. We have developed science and technology at an incredible pace. Yet we have become what in Jewish literature is known as hakham le-hareia, “wise for our own hurt.” Our genius has proved an evil genius. With our increase in knowledge has come a shrinkage of wisdom; with the conquest of the universe, we have discovered that we have let our own lives lie fallow; learning to make a living, we have forgotten how to live; exploring outer space, we have ignored the thunderous silence of our inner space and inner void.

For what has all this learning and sophistication led us to? To an ever stricter seclusion of God from life. Like Adam and like our ancestors two thousand years ago and more, we have determined to incarcerate God in His reverent jail and we have declared the rest of the world forbidden to Him. What is to God is to God, but all the rest is to Caesar.

What is the name of this ideology which “respects” religion so long as it does not venture out of its prescribed sphere? It is the theory and practice of secularism. Secularism is not atheism. It is something else, though equally as
bad. It agrees to the practice of religion, provided that the limits are set and that beyond them life and experience are hermetically sealed off from the influence of faith. Secularism characterizes the overwhelming majority of religions and religionists today. It accepts God—but equally as much accepts that one can hide from Him, that in some little clump of trees one can surround himself with cool shade and be free from the searing gaze of the Deity who has clumsily been permitted to escape from His House of Worship. Modern secularist man gets even with God; once He expelled us from Paradise, now we shall build ourselves a little Paradise and keep Him out!

But God won’t go away. He won’t abide by the rules that secularism has put down for the game of religion. God’s a poor sport. He doesn’t like to be locked up and is annoyed with those who test His claustrophobia. To the self-important secularist—the Jew who worships God in the synagogue but rejects His judgment (Halakhah) elsewhere, the man who opts only for “ritual” but  ignores ethics and morality, or vice versa—God appears in all His awesome might and poses His devastating question: Ayyekkah, where art thou that thou thinkest to exclude Me? And when that happens, Man can but answer, from the shambles of his supermodern Paradise-playground, Eikhah.

The Temple is the Beit ha-Mikdash, the House of Holiness. And the opposite of kedushah, or holiness, is hol, the profane. The antonym of kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God’s Name, is hillul Hashem, the profanation of the Name. Rabbi Hayyim of Volozhin once explained the origin of hillul: the word derives from halal, a void, empty space. For when man acts as if God were elsewhere, not here; when his demeanor and conduct are such as to indicate his inner belief that right here and now is a halal, a void where God’s omnipresence is countered and entrance denied Him; when man believes, or his deeds bespeak the belief, that there are places where God is and places where He is not—that is the vilest and basest profanation of His Name. It is the hillul Hashem, the spiritual obscenity of secularism. That is why the Beit ha-Mikdash must be destroyed if men distort its purpose and abuse it in the service of hillul rather than kiddush.

This then is the relevant message of Tish‘ah be-Av and Eikhah: we must learn to avoid the mistakes of the past and the present and to acknowledge God in all existence—personal, national, and international. Even as the Temple was destroyed by hillul, we must rebuild it through kiddush.

Then, in place of Eikhah, will come the pirkei nehamah, the chapters of consolation. For instead of hiding from God and inviting His ayyekkah, our generation will seek Him out: zeh dor doreshav. And the divine answer will be: Anokhi anokhi hu menahemkhem, “I, yea I, will be your Consoler” (Is. 51:12).

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Day One: 17 Tammuz – Fast of Shiva Asar B’Tammuz

Excerpted from In the Narrow Places: Daily Inspiration for the Three Weeks by Dr. Erica Brown, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books

Seeking God

Do we achieve holiness, kedusha, through seeking God or through finding God? To answer this question, we turn to one of our sacred texts. The haftara for Minĥa, the afternoon service, on a fast day is an excerpt from Isaiah 55. It begins mid-chapter, at verse six and closes in the next chapter, verse eight. It contains some of the most religiously inspiring language in all of prophetic literature.

“Seek God where He can be found. Call to Him while He is near” (Isaiah 55:6). Isaiah offers wise, spiritual advice that is no less applicable to God than it is to all of our relationships. Reach out to God in a place where holiness can be found, when God feels near. Use the fast day as a mechanism for the contraction of the material and physical to create a greater space for the Shekhina, the Divine Presence. The tone of the day invites greater awareness of God. But Isaiah did not utter these words for a fast day; its incorporation into the service was a later adaptation
of a text to enhance the day’s emotional demands.

What did the prophet mean when he pronounced these words? Perhaps Isaiah spoke from his awareness that God’s presence was not always apparent during the average working day of an Israelite. Busy with harvesting fields, winnowing on the threshing floor or finding a fertile place to graze sheep, our ancestors could have spent their days preoccupied with the demands of family and making a living, not making a place for God. If this was a challenge for those who worked outside in nature every day, imagine how much greater an obstacle today’s work environment
presents to those of us who sit in offices all day. Without creating a clearing for God, a time and place for thinking above and beyond life’s prosaic cares, how can we expect to find Him? If we are not searching, then that which we do not look for can hardly be expected to make itself known. It is like playing hide-and-seek and then not looking. The Kotzker Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Morgensztern (1787–1859) once poignantly remarked, “God is where you let Him in.”

Isaiah continues to exhort his listeners, offering them both a reason that God may seem hidden and some sound advice about creating room for God:

Let the wicked give up his ways, the sinful man his plans. Let him turn back to the Lord, and he will pardon him to our God, for He freely forgives. For My plans are not your plans, nor are My ways your ways – declares the Lord. But as the heavens are high above the earth, so are My ways high above your ways and My plans above your plans. (Isaiah 55:7–9)

God is not like human beings – “My plans are not your plans” – in that God grants true forgiveness. If we genuinely make room for God, God will make room for us.

Human relationships do not always offer that degree of reciprocity. They are more like the gazelles of the Song of Songs. When one is ready to mate, the other cannot be found. One appears at the door to find the other asleep. When the sleeping one wakes, the other is already gone. This back-and-forth game of emotional hide-and-seek can prove exceptionally frustrating. Our own willingness to start afresh, to forgive, to seek forgiveness, may or may not be matched in the mind and heart of someone else. God, on the other hand, is poised and waiting for us when – and only when – we finally make room for God in our lives; when we are compassionate, forgiving, thoughtful people.

Among commentators, there is a division between those who regard seeking God as a challenge of time and those who consider it a challenge of space. Either certain times create the possibility of holiness, or certain places do. Rashi, citing a midrash, identifies a moment in time that is ripe for relationship with God: “Before the verdict takes place, when He still says to you, ‘Seek Me.’” Seek God before life gets difficult, when God is reaching out to you, do not wait till things go wrong. There are always moments of tenderness in a relationship that should be enlarged, leveraged, expanded. Respond to those moments. Sometimes we let go too soon. We had the chance to say something that needed to be said, and the moment presented itself, but we let it go. There was a kind word or a compliment that should have been uttered, but wasn’t. It’s true in sacred times with others and also with God. There was a word of praise or gratitude we could have said in our tefillot, prayers, that we let slip away, or an apology that might have brought us closer to God, but we weren’t seeking and so we lost it. If you’re not looking then you won’t find God.

The second-century Aramaic translation of the text, Targum Yonatan, embellishes this reading in its paraphrase: “Pray to God while you are still alive.” Repent while you can, not when it is too late to fix what is broken. And so much is broken.

In an interesting Talmudic interpretation, King Manasseh, who ruled in Isaiah’s day, challenged this prophecy, saying that it contradicted something that Moses himself taught. In Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people that God responds whenever people call to Him. Should we seek God where God is or does God respond to us where we are? The Talmud reconciles this contradiction by saying that Moses was referring to communal repentance which is always accepted, whereas Isaiah’s pleas are for individual repentance, which has greater effectiveness during the ten days between Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. There are specific times in the calendar year that nurture repentance. Seek God during those times, when the very air seems ready for transformation. But if you are part of a community then any time works since the power of seeking God in community is stronger.

The readings above interpret “where He is found” as a reference to time, but there are also readings that relate the search to place. According to the great medieval commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra, the verse refers to a changed historical reality: Once Isaiah predicted salvation from Babylon and the removal of the bonds of exile, the people could finally imagine finding God back in the land of Israel. Exile wears us down, leaving little time or mental space to engage in spiritual pursuits. Israel becomes the place to search for God.

The Jerusalem Talmud, in contrast, sees the place-of-finding as referring to synagogues and study halls. There are spaces that are specifically designated for spiritual behaviors and rituals, and these locations stir us to seek God. In the kinetic energy of a room full of genuine religious feeling or of people exchanging ideas, you can find God more easily. In between the pews of a synagogue, among people immersed in prayer, in the lofty sanctuaries that we build, we can make more room for God. Imagine being in a synagogue at night when all the people are gone and only the eternal light – the ner tamid – is alight. There is something holy about that place: the small flame in the big space, the darkness that removes visual distractions, the weight of silence – all of it signals transcendence.

It is not easy to predict where God is to be found, so sometimes we can fulfill Isaiah’s demand by identifying where God is not in our lives. We know that there are specific times when we feel too anxious to pray or too preoccupied with mundane chores and the needs of others to seek God. There are also places where it seems impossible to focus. There is too much going on, or too many people talking, or too much havoc for us to find God. Seek God in places not only where God is likely to be found but also where you are most receptive to God’s presence. Receptivity can happen in the least likely of places. An open heart helps the spiritual seeker keep all possibilities present and ready. We may never find God, but the search brings us closer.

Kavana for the Day
Seeking is about discovery. Isaiah tells us to seek God where God is to be found. Think about where you might find God. People have a custom to pray and study in a “makom kavua,” a fixed location or place, every day. The idea is that we create spaces that are receptive to spiritual activities, where we have all that we need: the right light, the right balance of privacy and companionship, the right amount of noise or silence to induce spiritual behaviors. Think hard. Where does God seem most apparent in your life? What times and places seem more open and receptive to spiritual seeking and finding? Recreate those times and spaces and make your own makom kavua.

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Foundation of Faith: Chapter 5, Verse 1

Excerpted from Foundation of Faith: A Tapestry of Insights and Illumination on Pirkei Avot based on the Thought and Writings of Rabbi Norman Lamm, The Gibber Edition, edited by Rabbi Mark Dratch, co-published with Ktav Publishing

Chapter 5

The world was created with ten utterances. What does this teach us? Certainly, it could have been created with a single utterance. However, this is in order to make the wicked accountable for destroying a world that was created with ten utterances, and to reward the righteous for sustaining a world that was created with ten utterances.

This positive value of confrontation has been expressed in a beautiful symbolic manner by a great sage of modern times. Our rabbis of the Talmud categorized the entire period from Creation to Sinai, the revelation of the Torah, as tohu, chaos. What they meant was that the world as created by God was only physically complete but had not actualized its moral potential. It came of age morally only with the giving of Torah at Sinai. Now, what is the catalyst that helped in this transformation? What is it that helped the world overcome its amoral character and rise to the level of Sinai? The great Gerer Rebbe identifies this catalyst as the Ten Plagues of which we read today. In epigrammatic fashion, he tells us that the transition from asarah ma’amarot to aseret hadibrot was effected by eser makkot. The world was created through Ten “Words” of God, such as “Let there be light,” etc. Creation is therefore symbolized by the Ten Words, and its moral maturity by the Ten Commandments. But it was the Ten Plagues that made this possible. The confrontation of Moses with Egypt succeeded in uprooting the corruption of Egypt, exposing the vacuousness of its nefarious paganism, and therefore allowing Israel to emerge from within it and receive the Torah. Without the Ten Plagues, the Ten Words would never have become the Ten Commandments.

Ten Words
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 Kedushah is protected from the danger of over-familiarity. When people have too much free access to an object or a place, they gradually lose respect and awe for it. That is why the reader of the Torah will use a yad, a silver pointer. That is not used for decorative purposes. It is because of the Halakhah that kitvei kodesh metamin et hayadayim – 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 person 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 the Day of Atonement.

And so it is with words. The more we use, the less they mean. When our rabbis investigated the first portion of Genesis, they discovered that the world was created by asarah ma’amarot, ten “words.” 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 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.

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With Liberty and Justice: Day 36

Excerpted from With Liberty and Justice: The Fifty-Day Journey from Egypt to Sinai by Senator Joe Lieberman with Rabbi Ari D. Kahn, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books

Day 36 “Reward and Punishment”

The biblical laws are not merely precatory invocations for good behavior. They include a system of rewards and punishments that lend internal force to the specific laws and commandments. The Ten Commandments themselves contain several mentions of rewards and punishments, including the broad promise of the Second Commandment that God will show kindness to thousands of generations of those who love and obey Him. This indeed is a strong incentive to live according to the Law.

This concept of reward and punishment established a standard for all systems of law that followed. Both biblical and secular laws since then include specific penalties to dissuade people from violating them.

But when it comes to rewards for obeying the laws, the biblical and secular systems are very different. The rewards for not violating secular laws are indirect: you avoid the penalties that result from illegal behavior, and you have the satisfaction of knowing you did the right thing. In the biblical legal system, there are significant rewards for following the commandments and the law. They range from the earthly and agricultural to the messianic and eternal.

These rewards are enumerated in the Bible, with some repeated in our daily prayers. For example, twice daily, we follow the recitation of the Shema Yisrael declaration of monotheism from Deuteronomy chapter 6, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One” (v. 4), with a paragraph from Deuteronomy chapter 11, which delineates the biblical rewards for following the law and living by the values of the commandments:

If you indeed heed My commandments with which I charge you today, to love the Lord your God and worship Him with all your heart and with all your soul, I will give you rain in your land in its season…and you shall gather in your grain, wine, and oil. I will give grass in your field for your cattle, and you shall eat and be satisfied. (Vv. 13–15)

The most basic rewards for loving God and heeding His commandments are agricultural. From the time the Torah was given through the period of the two Temples in Jerusalem (and again today in modern Israel), agricultural blessings were existential blessings.

The Shema continues with the penalty for failing to obey God’s commandments:

Be careful lest your heart be tempted and you go astray and worship other gods…then the Lord’s anger will flare against you and He will close the heavens so that there will be no rain…and you will perish [or, be banished] from the good land that the Lord is giving you. (Vv. 16–17)

But the Torah, and the Keriat Shema which quotes it, also teach how to avoid this terrible fate: by instilling the word of God in our hearts and souls, binding them on our arms and foreheads (tefillin), teaching them to our children, and writing them on our doorposts (mezuzot). The general reward for upholding God’s laws in these ways is “that you and your children may live long in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give them, for as long as the heavens are above the earth” (Deut. 11:21).

The prophets describe additional otherworldly rewards for following the commandments. These are embedded in the traditional prayer service in the prayer “U’Va LeTziyon Go’el,” “A Redeemer Will Come to Zion,” recited both in the daily service and on the Sabbath and holidays:

Blessed is our God who gave us the Torah of truth, planting within us eternal life. May it be Your will that we keep Your laws in this world, and thus be worthy to live, and inherit goodness and blessing in the Messianic Age, and in the life of the World to Come.

This uplifting vision of the rewards that will accrue to the followers of God’s Law compellingly speaks to some of our most profound and perplexing questions: How should I behave? Does anyone care? What are the consequences of good and bad behavior? Is there anything after life on earth?

This dream of heavenly and eternal blessing is the Jewish people’s destiny, toward which the entire Bible narrative is directed. Realizing it, however, depends on the way we behave. The kabbalists suggested that the etymology of the word “mitzva,” usually translated as “commandment,” is actually from the word betzavta, which means “together.” The secret of the commandments is having a relationship with God, of walking together with God, by observing His law and doing good deeds.