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  • Why We Value What We Make

    by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

     The behavioral economist Dan Ariely did a series of experiments on what is known as the IKEA effect, or “why we overvalue what we make.” The name comes, of course, from the store that sells self-assembly furniture. For practically-challenged people like me, putting an item of furniture together is usually like doing a giant jigsaw puzzle in which various pieces are missing, and others are in the wrong place. But in the end, even if the item is amateurish, we tend to feel a certain pride in it. We can say, “I made this,” even if someone else designed it, produced the pieces, and wrote the instructions. There is, about something in which we have invested our labour, a feeling like that expressed in Psalm 128: “When you eat the fruit of the labour of your hands, you will be happy, and it will go well with you.”[1]

    Ariely wanted to test the reality and extent of this added value. So he got volunteers to make origami models by elaborate folding of paper. He then asked them how much they were prepared to pay to keep their own model. The average answer was 25 cents. He asked other people in the vicinity what they would be prepared to pay. The average answer was five cents. In other words, people were prepared to pay five times as much for something they had made themselves. His conclusions were: the effort that we put into something does not just change the object. It changes us and the way we evaluate that object. And the greater the labour, the greater the love for what we have made.[2]

    This is part of what is happening in the long sequence about the building of the Sanctuary that begins in our parsha and continues, with few interruptions, to the end of the book. There is no comparison whatsoever between the Mishkan – the holy and the Holy of Holies – and something as secular as self-assembly furniture. But at a human level, there are psychological parallels.

    The Mishkan was the first thing the Israelites made in the wilderness, and it marks a turning point in the Exodus narrative. Until now God had done all the work. He had struck Egypt with plagues. He had taken the people out to freedom. He had divided the sea and brought them across on dry land. He had given them food from heaven and water from a rock. And, with the exception of the Song at the Sea, the people had not appreciated it. They were ungrateful. They complained.

    Now God instructed Moses to take the people through a role reversal. Instead of His doing things for them, He commanded them to make something for Him. This was not about God. God does not need a Sanctuary, a home on earth, for God is at home everywhere. As Isaiah said in His name: “Heaven is My throne and the earth My footstool. What house, then, can you will build for Me?” (Is. 66:1). This was about humans and their dignity, their self-respect.

    With an extraordinary act of tzimtzum, self-limitation, God gave the Israelites the chance to make something with their own hands, something they would value because, collectively, they had made it. Everyone who was willing could contribute, from whatever they had: “gold, silver or bronze, blue, purple or crimson yarns, fine linen, goat hair, red-dyed ram skins, fine leather, acacia wood, oil for the lamp, balsam oils for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense,” jewels for the breastplate and so on. Some gave their labour and skills. Everyone had the opportunity to take part: women as well as men, the people as a whole, not just an elite.

    For the first time God was asking them not just to follow His pillar of cloud and fire through the wilderness, or obey His laws, but to be active: to become builders and creators. And because it involved their work, energy and time, they invested something of themselves, individually and collectively, in it. To repeat Ariely’s point: We value what we create. The effort that we put into something does not just change the object. It changes us.

    Few places in the Torah more powerfully embody Rabbi Yohanan saying that “Wherever you find God’s greatness, there you find His humility.”[3] God was giving the Israelites the dignity of being able to say, “I helped build a house for God.” The Creator of the universe was giving His people the chance to become creators also – not just of something physical and secular, but of something profoundly spiritual and sacred.

    Hence the unusual Hebrew word for contribution, Terumah, which means not just something we give but something we lift up. The builders of the sanctuary lifted up their gift to God, and in the process of lifting, discovered that they themselves were lifted. God was giving them the chance to become “His partners in the work of creation,”[4] the highest characterisation ever given of the human condition.

    This is a life-changing idea. The greatest gift we can give people is to give them the chance to create. This is the one gift that turns the recipient into a giver. It gives them dignity. It shows that we trust them, have faith in them, and believe they are capable of great things.

    We no longer have a Sanctuary in space, but we do have Shabbat, the “sanctuary in time.”[5] Recently, a senior figure in the Church of England spent Shabbat with us in the Marble Arch Synagogue. He was with us for the full 25 hours, from Kabbalat Shabbat to Havdallah. He prayed with us, learned with us, ate with us, and sang with us.[6] “Why are you doing this?” I asked him. He replied, “One of the greatest gifts you Jews gave us Christians was the Sabbath. We are losing it. You are keeping it. I want to learn from you how you do it.”

    The answer is simple. To be sure, it was God who at the dawn of time made the seventh day holy.[7] But it was the sages who, making “a fence around the law,” added many laws, customs and regulations to protect and preserve its spirit.[8] Almost every generation contributed something to the heritage of Shabbat, if only a new song, or even a new tune for old words. Not by accident do we speak of “making Shabbat.” The Jewish people did not create the day’s holiness but they did co-create its hadrat kodesh, its sacred beauty. Ariely’s point applies here as well: the greater the effort we put into something, the greater the love for what we have made.

    Hence the life-changing lesson: if you want people to value something, get them to participate in creating it. Give them a challenge and give them responsibility. The effort we put into something does not just change the object: it changes us. The greater the labour, the greater the love for what we have made.

    Shabbat Shalom,

    Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

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  • The Power of Empathy

    by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

    William Ury, founder of the Harvard Program of Negotiation, tells a marvellous story in one of his books.[1] A young American, living in Japan to study aikido, was sitting one afternoon in a train in the suburbs of Tokyo. The carriage was half empty. There were some mothers with children, and elderly people going shopping.

    Then at one of the stations, the doors opened, and a man staggered into the carriage, shouting, drunk, dirty, and aggressive. He started cursing the people, and lunged at a woman holding a baby. The blow hit her and sent her into the lap of an elderly couple. They jumped up and ran to the other end of the carriage. This angered the drunk, who went after them, grabbing a metal pole and trying to wrench it out of its socket. It was a dangerous situation, and the young student readied himself for a fight.

    Before he could do so, however, a small, elderly man in his seventies, dressed in a kimono, shouted “Hey” to the drunk in a friendly manner. “Come here and talk to me.” The drunk came over, as if in a trance. “Why should I talk to you?” he said. “What have you been drinking?” asked the old man. “Sake,” he said, “and it’s none of your business!”

    “Oh that’s wonderful,” said the old man. “You see, I love sake too. Every night, me and my wife (she’s 76, you know), we warm up a little bottle of sake and take it out into the garden and we sit on an old wooden bench. We watch the sun go down, and we look to see how our persimmon tree is doing. My great-grandfather planted that tree …”

    As he continued talking, gradually the drunk’s face began to soften and his fists slowly unclenched. “Yes,” he said, “I love persimmons too.” “And I’m sure,” said the old man, smiling, “you have a wonderful wife.”

    “No,” replied the drunk. “My wife died.” Gently, he began to sob. “I don’t got no wife. I don’t got no home. I don’t got no job. I’m so ashamed of myself.” Tears rolled down his cheeks.

    As the train arrived at the student’s stop and he was leaving the train, he heard the old man sighing sympathetically, “My, my. This is a difficult predicament indeed. Sit down here and tell me about it.” In the last glimpse he saw of them, the drunk was sitting with his head in the old man’s lap. The man was softly stroking his hair.

    What he had sought to achieve by muscle, the old man had achieved with kind words.

    A story like this illustrates the power of empathy, of seeing the world through someone else’s eyes, entering into their feelings, and of acting in such a way as to let them know that they are understood, that they are heard, that they matter.[2]

    If there is one command above all others that speaks of the power and significance of empathy it is the line in this week’s parsha: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger: You were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 23:9).

    Why this command? The need for empathy surely extends way beyond strangers. It applies to marriage partners, parents and children, neighbours, colleagues at work and so on. Empathy is essential to human interaction generally. Why then invoke it specifically about strangers?

    The answer is that “empathy is strongest in groups where people identify with each other: family, friends, clubs, gangs, religions or races.”[3] The corollary to this is that the stronger the bond within the group, the sharper the suspicion and fear of those outside the group. It is easy to “love your neighbour as yourself.” It is very hard indeed to love, or even feel empathy for, a stranger. As primatologist Frans de Waal puts it:

    We’ve evolved to hate our enemies, to ignore people we barely know, and to distrust anybody who doesn’t look like us. Even if we are largely cooperative within our communities, we become almost a different animal in our treatment of strangers.[4]

    Fear of the one-not-like-us is capable of disabling the empathy response. That is why this specific command is so life-changing. Not only does it tell us to empathise with the stranger because you know what it feels like to be in his or her place. It even hints that this was part of the purpose of the Israelites’ exile in Egypt in the first place. It is as if God had said, your sufferings have taught you something of immense importance. You have been oppressed; therefore come to the rescue of the oppressed, whoever they are. You have suffered; therefore you shall become the people who are there to offer help when others are suffering.

    And so it has proved to be. There were Jews helping Gandhi in his struggle for Indian independence; Martin Luther King in his efforts for civil rights for African Americans; Nelson Mandela in his campaign to end apartheid in South Africa. An Israeli medical team is usually one of the first to arrive whenever and wherever there is a natural disaster today. The religious response to suffering is to use it to enter into the mindset of others who suffer. That is why I found so often that it was the Holocaust survivors in our community who identified most strongly with the victims of ethnic war in Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo and Darfur.

    I have argued, in Not in God’s Name, that empathy is structured into the way the Torah tells certain stories – about Hagar and Ishmael when they are sent away into the desert, about Esau when he enters his father’s presence to receive his blessing only to find that Jacob has taken it, and about Leah’s feelings when she realises that Jacob loves Rachel more. These stories force us into recognising the humanity of the other, the seemingly unloved, unchosen, rejected.

    Indeed, it may be that this is why the Torah tells us these stories in the first place. The Torah is essentially a book of law. Why then contain narrative at all? Because law without empathy equals justice without compassion. Rashi tells us that “Originally God planned to create the world through the attribute of justice but saw that it could not survive on that basis alone. Therefore He prefaced it with the attribute of compassion, joined with that of justice.”[5] That is how God acts and how He wants us to act. Narrative is the most powerful way in which we enter imaginatively into the inner world of other people.

    Empathy is not a lightweight, touchy-feely, add-on extra to the moral life. It is an essential element in conflict resolution. People who have suffered pain often respond by inflicting pain on others. The result is violence, sometimes emotional, sometimes physical, at times directed against individuals, at others, against whole groups. The only genuine, non-violent alternative is to enter into the pain of the other in such a way as to ensure that the other knows that he, she or they have been understood, their humanity recognised and their dignity affirmed.

    Not everyone can do what the elderly Japanese man did, and certainly not everyone should try disarming a potentially dangerous individual that way. But active empathy is life-changing, not only for you but for the people with whom you interact. Instead of responding with anger to someone else’s anger, try to understand where the anger might be coming from. In general, if you seek to change anyone’s behaviour, you have to enter into their mindset, see the world through their eyes and try to feel what they are feeling, and then say the word or do the deed that speaks to their emotions, not yours. It’s not easy. Very few people do this. Those who do, change the world.

    Shabbat Shalom,

    Rabbi Jonathan Sacks - Source

    [1] Adapted from William Ury, The Power of a Positive No, Hodder Mobius, 2007, 77-80.
    [2] Two good recent books on the subject are Roman Krznaric, Empathy, Rider Books, 2015, and Peter Bazalgette, The Empathy Instinct, John Murray, 2017. See also Simon Baron-Cohen’s fascinating book, The Essential Difference, London, Penguin, 2004, on why women tend to be better at this than men.
    [3] Bazalgette, 7.
    [4] Frans de Waal, ‘The Evolution of Empathy,’ in Keltner, Marsh and Smith (eds), The Compassionate Instinct: the Science of Human Goodness, New York, Norton, 2010, 23.
    [5] Rashi to Gen. 1:1.

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  • Time Management

    by Rabbi Avi Matmon

    Do you struggle with time management? Are you stressing out over all the things you have to do? Are you finding it difficult to juggle all your responsibilities? Would you like to accomplish more?

    Many of us are accustomed to starting are s'machot-happy occasions latter then the scheduled time. It has becoming quite ordinary to be fashionably late. However, perhaps no one realized how the person feels on the other side, the one who follows the invitation time literally. I came across an article by the great Rabbi Berel Wein which I found interesting and I would like to share an excerpt with my beloved readers.

    "All of us have experienced the discomfort of arriving at a wedding/chupah called for 6:30 PM and not having the actual ceremony begin till after 8PM or sometimes even later. I have never been able to fathom what it is within us that allows us to so abuse the time and patience of others. The fact that 'everyone does it' and that this is a common social malady in our circles in no way serves to justify this behavior. The wedding was called for 6:30 so I arrived at 6:10 to complete the necessary documents and prepare for the wedding ceremony. Imagine my consternation when I arrived at the hall and discovered that I was there before the bride and groom and their respective families, the photographer, the band and the catering staff! The wedding ceremony took place at 8:30 and I was vastly disturbed that no one thought that this was somehow not really acceptable behavior. Since then I try to avoid being the first person to arrive at the wedding hall though no matter how hard I try I always seem to come too early."

    My partner Aharon Ambalu and I were spearheading a rather formidable youth group, which was part of our Synagogue, back in the early 1990s in Queens. One of our first "breakout" events was a lecture by the pioneer of the lecture speaking circuit, Rabbi Berel Wein. This style, although now seems ancient, was innovative and very different. He was the first, the lone ranger in this new field and It was a first time such a powerhouse speaker was brought in to the Sephardic community in Queens.

    As Aharon and I were preparing before the crowd arrives, I noticed a lone car outside the shul. "It's not time for anybody to arrive," I said, scratching my head as my curiosity took the better of me. I approached the car, something that is dangerous to do in New York. Lo and behold, it was Rabbi Wein. "Rabbi you're early," I said. "Yes, I know" he answered back. "Why didn't you come in?" I said as a curtesy, offering my hospitality. He said "No, I'll just stay here till 7:00 if you don't mind." I was taken a back. Why does he want to wait in his car? I heard an incredible answer. Once, someone went for an interview to the Bryors Rav in Manhattan. The German Jews are very meticulous about punctuality. He was a few minutes early. Interestingly the Rav addressed the soon to be guest by sayings "a few minutes early is also not on time".

    We Orthodox Jews are regulated by time. There is an interesting story told by a Baalat teshuva-someone who became observant which I found. "I'll never forget the first time I was invited to a Shabbat meal in the Old City of Jerusalem. I was told to be there no later than 6 PM. Well, as I am slightly time-challenged, I took "6 PM prompt" a bit figuratively, and showed up at 6:15, which was the most on-time I had ever been at that point. I noticed the Shabbat candles beautifully dancing, apologized for being late, and asked if I too could light the candles. "Better late than never," I said with a smile, reaching for the matches. To which I was told, "I'm so sorry, but you can't. It's too late." It's too late? What? But it was only 6:15. Really? That was it. Over. Done. I was so used to second chances, extended deadlines, one more opportunity . . . but this time there was no discussion. I wasn't going to get to light. Now, it wasn't as if I had lit candles for however many years prior to that. But being told I couldn't really bothered me. So much so that it prompted my decision to check out more about Judaism, and why being so on time in this particular situation actually mattered. It's been over 20 years since that one Friday night, and I have been lighting my Shabbat candles, on time."

    Lighting Shabbat candles at a very specific time teaches us how important it is to do what you need to do, when you need to do it. And sometimes, being ready just a tad too late, or even too early, is not really helpful at all. In this week's parsha, the children of Yisrael came to Mt. Sinai. There, Yitro, Moshe's father-in-law, joined the nation. Yitro observed that Moshe was overwhelmed by his leadership responsibilities. Yitro asked Moshe to explain his various responsibilities. Moshe replied that he has three basic tasks. First, the people come to him to seek Hashem. Second, he judges between the people. Third, he reveals to the nation the laws of Hashem. Yitro advised Moshe to appoint a hierarchy of magistrates and judges to assist him in the task of governing and administering justice to the people.

    We are often overwhelmed with tasks that can easily be allocated to other people. Furthermore, there is "time spent" on project and jobs that can be utilized in a more efficient and productive matter. Time is of the essence. We often neglect it, abuse it, or are not economical without time. We have to approach it shrewdly. Rabbi Bilus asks, "Where do you find the 25th hour? Get up an hour early!"

    We read three times daily the paragraph in the Amida called Modim Anachnu lach a prayer that acknowledges our appreciation towards G-d. In that prayer there is a phrase "for Your miracles that are with us every day and for Your wondrous deeds and favors at all times: evening, morning and noon". The Sages hint that if we carry that mindset of "At all times" we will have a great deal of success in building our lives. What exactly may that mindset be? How can we attain that mindset?

    There is a Gemarah where the great Sage Hillel was dancing in front of the Chattan and Kallah and he said, "All of me is here". If one reads the statement at face value, one might think Hillel is battling the evil inclination regarding an inflated ego. But we know the great Sage would never mean that or feel that. What exactly did he mean? Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (1080-1164) quotes: "The past is gone, the future is yet to be, and the present is only a split second. Adopting this philosophy leaves no room to worry." Learning to control our mind to be fully focused on the now is the most precious gift that we can give ourselves, our children and our loved ones. This is what Hillel meant. He is implying that you, Chattan and Kallah have my full attention. You have my dedication and devotion.

    What does the Torah say? What has been the secret of our great leaders and their ability to do so much in such a short amount of time. Here are just 2 examples. The Rambam, Maimonides, a royal doctor, a great scholar and writer, teacher, mentor, spiritual leader and family person. Published many books and all that before there were computers or internet. Or Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet, known as the Rashba (1235 - 1310). He became a successful banker and leader of Spanish Jewry of his time. He served as rabbi of the Main Synagogue of Barcelona for 50 years.
    The Rashba was considered an outstanding rabbinic authority, and more than 3,000 of his responsa are known to be extant. Questions were addressed to him from Spain, Portugal, Italy, France, Germany, and even from Asia Minor. His responsa, which cover the entire gamut of Jewish life, are concise and widely quoted by halakhic authorities.
    He also was a doctor, gave 3 lectures each day and managed to take a walk every day for health and relaxation.
    How did they do it? How did they manage their time? What is the secret?

    The very first mitzvah of the Torah, the first commandment that we received as a people, is to value time. "Ha'chodesh ha'zeh lachem.... G-d said to Moshe and Aharon - This month shall be for you the beginning of the months; it shall be for you the first of the months of the year." With this commandment comes the privilege and responsibility to control the Jewish calendar through testimony of the new moon and the determination of the human court of when the month begins and consequently when our holidays fall.

    For two hundred and ten years, as slaves in Egypt, our people had no control over their own time or their own destiny. Our taskmasters and oppressors determined how we spent every single moment. It is specifically at that point, when the Jewish people are on the cusp of attaining freedom, explains the Sforno, that we are given the commandment about time. At the core of freedom is the ability to be the arbiters and determiners of our own time. Freedom and time are intertwined. Rabbi Soloveitchik saw the freedom to control time as the very definition of a human being and the very essence of consciousness. The only creature that can experience time, that feels its passage and senses its movement, is man.

    Time awareness is at the core of our humanity and is the responsibility of freedom. Being relaxed about punctuality, running late, and having a casual attitude towards start times, is not Jewish time, it is the antithesis of the Jewish notion of time. Wasting time, bitul z'man, is tantamount to burning money, and killing time murders possibility and potential. The Lubavitcher Rebbe once asked what time a certain event would begin. He was told around 10:00 or 10:15. He asked which one it was, for he explained that there was an incredible amount that he could accomplish in fifteen minutes.

    It is so easy and so cliché to say that we should use our time well
    and take advantage of every day. But it is true. For what a shame and
    waste that a twenty-four-hour period can pass, and we might feel that
    during our day we did "nothing." All the more so if we let that day
    turn into a week, or even longer. Steve Jobs has been famously quoted
    as saying: "Live each day as if it is your last. One day you will be
    right." We can't live in the past, and we don't know what tomorrow
    brings, but we can determine how we want today to be.

    Rabbi Elya Lapian teaches us an amazing insight of the mindset one should be in. "The world says that time is money. But I say time is life! He went on to say that we all allow ourselves to become busy, and busyness detracts from life.

    Referring to the teaching by the 18th century mystic, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, known by the initials of his name as the Ramchal, said in his name no one knew this powerful method none other than the Pharaoh, king of Egypt himself.

    In the second chapter of his widely studied ethical treatise, Mesillat Yesharim, Path of the Upright, Ramchal writes of the tactics of the yetzer, the evil urge of man which is buried within each of us:

    "A man who goes through life without taking the time to consider his ways-to reflect on his life is like a blind man who walks along the edge of a river... This is, in fact, one of the cunning weapons of the evil yetzer, who always imposes upon men such strenuous tasks that they have no time left to note wither they are drifting. For he knows that, if they would pay the least attention to their conduct, they would change their ways instantly...

    "This ingenuity is somewhat like that of Pharaoh, who commanded, 'Let the heavier work be laid upon the men, that they may labor therein, and let them not regard lying words' (Exodus 5:9). For Pharaoh's purpose was not only to prevent the Israelites from having any leisure to make plans or take counsel against him, but by subjecting them to relentless never ending work, to deprive them also of the opportunity to reflect." For if one reflects long enough he will discover and appreciate G-d and the love-family -his own skills that are occurring morning afternoon and evening.

    To become so busy and have no time to reflect, no time to really live, is bondage. Ramchal's insight into Pharaoh's scheme epitomizes the essential nature of our years of exile in Egypt. Incredibly, our ancestors problems is currently and alarmingly ours! To have no time, that is slavery. He proposes to take a deep breath. One should not get sucked into a system where we are similar to "horses riding without paying attention of their travels, not looking to their left or right". One should have a diary, as the Ramchal suggests, where he can reflect of what transpired throughout the day. This process will help him organizing the future. Then, he will devote full attention to the events and people in his life

    How farsighted were the words of Rav Elya Lapian. Time is life. And how applicable is his teaching for contemporary man, who despite the "time-saving" technological devices which surround him is even busier than those who came before him. Contemporary man has no time for himself, certainly no quality time, no quality time for his love ones and thus no life.
    Time is life.

    Millennia ago, an Egyptian tyrant knew this secret.....and perhaps Rabbi Wein knew it too.

    Rabbi Avi Matmon

    This article was constructed with the help of either writings, lectures or shiurim of Rabbi's Berel Wein, Yissachar Frand, Asher Hurzberg, Yossi Bilus, Bernie Fox, Zalman Marcus, Yaacov Lieder and Sarah Esther Crispe

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  • The Bond of Loyalty and Love

    by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

    In the course of any life there are moments of awe and amazement when, with a full heart, you thank God shehecheyanu vekiyemanu vehigiyanu lazeman hazeh, “who has kept us alive and sustained us and brought us to this day.”

    Two that particularly stand out in my own memory were separated by almost ten years. The first was the Lambeth Conference at Canterbury in 2008. The conference is the gathering, every ten years, of the bishops of the Anglican Communion – that is, not just the Church of England but the entire worldwide structure, much of it based in America and Africa. It is the key event that brings this global network of churches together to deliberate on directions for the future. That year I became, I believe, the first rabbi to address a plenary session of the conference. The second, much more recent, took place in October 2017 in Washington when I addressed the friends and supporters of the American Enterprise Institute, one of the world’s great economic think tanks.

    The two gatherings could not have been less alike. One was religious, Christian, and concerned with theology. The other was secular, American, and concerned with economics and politics. Both of them, though, were experiencing some kind of crisis. In the case of the Anglican Church it had to do with gay bishops.[1] Could the Church accommodate such people? The question was tearing the Church apart, with many of the American bishops in favour and most of the African ones against. There was a real sense, before the conference, that the communion was in danger of being irreparably split.

    In Washington in 2017 the issue at the forefront of people’s minds was quite different. A year earlier there had been a sharply divisive American Presidential election. New phrases had been coined to describe some of the factors involved – post-truth, fake news, flyover states, alt-right, identity politics, competitive victimhood, whatever – as well as the resurfacing of an old one: populism. It all added up to what I termed the politics of anger. Was there a way of knitting together the unravelling strands of American society?

    The reason these two events are connected in my mind is that on both occasions I spoke about the same concept – the one that is central to this week’s parsha, and to biblical Judaism as a whole, namely brit, covenant. This was, in the seventeenth century especially, a key concept in the emerging free societies of the West, especially in Calvinist or Puritanical circles.

    To grossly simplify a complex process, the Reformation developed in different directions in different countries, depending on whether Luther or Calvin was the primary influence. For Luther the key text was the New Testament, especially the letters of Paul. For Calvin and his followers, however, the Hebrew Bible was the primary text, especially in relation to political and social structures. That is why covenant played a large part in the (Calvinist) post-Reformation politics of Geneva, Holland, Scotland, England under Cromwell, and especially the Pilgrim Fathers, the first European settlers in North America. It lay at the heart of the Mayflower Compact (1620) and John Winthrop’s famous “City upon a Hill” speech aboard the Arbella in 1630.

    Over time however, and under the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the word “covenant” was gradually supplanted by the phrase “social contract.” Clearly there is something similar between the two, but they are not the same thing at all. In fact, they operate on different logics and they create different relationships and institutions.[2]

    In a contract, two or more people come together, each pursuing their self-interest, to make a mutually advantageous exchange. In a covenant, two or more people, each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other, come together in a bond of loyalty and trust to do together what neither can achieve alone.[3] It isn’t an exchange; it’s a moral commitment. It is more like a marriage than a commercial transaction. Contracts are about interests; covenants are about identity. Contracts benefit; covenants transform. Contracts are about “Me” and “You”; covenants are about “Us.”

    What makes the Hebrew Bible revolutionary in political terms is that it contains not one founding moment but two. One is set out in 1 Samuel 8, when the people come to the prophet Samuel and ask for a king. God tells Samuel to warn the people what will be the consequences. The king will take the people’s sons to ride with his chariots and their daughters to work in his kitchens. He will take their property as taxation, and so on. Nonetheless, the people insist that they still want a king, so Samuel appoints Saul.

    Commentators have long been puzzled by this chapter. Does it represent approval or disapproval of monarchy? The best answer ever given was provided by Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Chajes, who explained that what Samuel was doing at God’s behest was proposing a social contract precisely on the lines set out by Thomas Hobbes in The Leviathan. People are willing to give up certain of their rights, transferring them to a central power – a king or a government – who undertakes in return to ensure the defence of the realm externally and the rule of law within.[4] The book of Samuel thus contains the first recorded instance of a social contract.

    However, this was the second founding moment of Israel as a nation, not the first. The first took place in our parsha, on Mount Sinai, several centuries earlier, when the people made with God, not a contract but a covenant. What happened in the days of Samuel was the birth of Israel as a kingdom. What happened in the days of Moses – long before they had even entered the land – was the birth of Israel as a nation under the sovereignty of God.

    The two central institutions of modern Western liberal democracies are both contractual. There are commercial contracts that create the market; and there is the social contract that creates the state. The market is about the creation and distribution of wealth. The state is about the creation and distribution of power. But a covenant is about neither wealth nor power, but rather about the bonds of belonging and collective responsibility. As I put it in The Politics of Hope, a social contract creates a state. A social covenant creates a society. A society is the totality of relationships that do not depend on exchanges of wealth and power, namely marriages, families, congregations, communities, charities and voluntary associations. The market and the state are arenas of competition. Society is an arena of co–operation. And we need both.

    The reason that the concept of covenant proved helpful to the Anglican bishops on the one hand, and the American Enterprise Institute on the other, is that it is the supreme example of a bond that brings together, in a single co-operative enterprise, individuals and groups that are profoundly different. They could not be more different than the parties at Mount Sinai: God and the children of Israel, the one Infinite and eternal, the other, finite and mortal.

    In fact the very first human relationship, between the first man and the first woman, contains a two-word definition of covenant: ezer ke-negdo, meaning on the one hand “a helper” but on the other, someone “over-and-against.”[5] In a marriage, neither husband nor wife sacrifice their distinctive identities. At Sinai, God remained God and the Israelites remained human. A symbol of covenant is the havdalah candle: multiple wicks that stay separate but produce a single flame.

    So covenant allowed the Anglican Communion to stay together despite the deep differences between the American and African churches. The American covenant held the nation together despite, in Lincoln’s day, a civil war, and at other times, civil and economic strife, and its renewal will do likewise in the future. In Moses’ day it allowed the Israelites to become “one nation under God” despite their division into twelve tribes. Covenants create unity without uniformity. They value diversity but, rather than allowing a group to split into competing factions, they ask each to contribute something uniquely theirs to the common good. Out of multiple Me’s they create an overarching Us.

    What made these two experiences in Canterbury and Washington so moving to me was that they showed how prophetic Moses’ words were when he told the Israelites that the Torah and its commands “will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people’” (Deut. 4:6). Torah continues to inspire not only Jews but all who seek guidance in hard times.

    So, if you find yourself in a situation of conflict that threatens to break something apart, whether a marriage, a family, a business, a community, a political party or an organisation, framing a covenant will help keep people together, without any side claiming victory or defeat. All it needs is recognition that there are certain things we can do together that none of us can do alone.

    Covenant lifts our horizon from self-interest to the common good. There is nothing wrong with self-interest. It drives economics and politics, the market and the state. But there are certain things that cannot be achieved on the basis of self-interest alone, among them trust, friendship, loyalty and love. Covenant really is a life- and world-changing idea.

    Shabbat Shalom,

    Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

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  • The Splitting Of The Sea and the Concept of Hidur Mitzvah

    “This is my G-d and I will glorify Him (Zeh Keli v’Anveyhu); the G-d of my fathers and I will exalt him.” [Shmos 15:2] The Talmud derives from here the idea of “beautifying ourselves before Him though our aesthetically pleasing performance of mitzvos: Acquire a beautiful Esrog, make before me a beautiful Succah, a beautiful Sefer Torah, beautiful Tefillin, and so forth.” [Shabbos 133b]. This is the source for the general concept of “Hidur mitzvah”.

    Not only does the Torah expect us to fulfill the mitzvos, there is an additional aspect of fulfillment that involves carrying out the mitzvah in the most beautiful way possible. Even though one can buy a pair of Tefillin for $300 – $400 that are in fact kosher, buying an exceptionally nice pair of Tefillin with exquisite batim [housings] and exquisite writing on beautiful parchment can cost upwards of $1000. We have spoken in the past that there is an obligation to spend up to 1/3 more to do mitzvos in a more beautiful way than what would be the bare minimum way of fulfilling those same mitzvos. All this is learned out from the above cited pasuk from Shiras HaYam: Zeh Keli v’Anveyhu.

    One may ask: Why here? Why is specifically this, the time and place that the Torah decides to inform us of this concept of beautifying oneself before Him with our performance of mitzvos? It does not seem that it really fits into the context of Shiras HaYam.

    I saw a very beautiful answer in the name of Rabbi Tzvi Cheshen from Eretz Yisrael. The Mishna teaches that 10 miracles were done for our fathers at Yam Suf [Avos 5:4]. In other words, the events at the Red Sea did not only involve one miracle – the splitting of the water – but rather there were 10 distinct miracles that happened there. The Bartenura and Tosfos Yom Tov proceed to list the 10 different miracles referred to by the Mishna. I am not going to go through the entire catalog. But just to cite a few examples — besides the basic splitting of the sea — they enumerate the following: The sea became like a tent (with protection from above) and the Jews entered into the midst of it; the sea bed was dry and firm without being muddy; as soon as the Jews crossed through, the sea bed turned back into mud and quicksand to trap the pursuing Egyptians. The list of miracles goes on…

    The question is, why where all these miracles necessary? With the Egyptians on their tails and nowhere to go, Klal Yisrael would have been perfectly satisfied with the “mere” splitting of the sea! No one would have complained if there was not a tent of protective water over their hands or if the ground was still a little muddy. Nine of the ten miracles were most likely superfluous. All they really needed was “split the Sea and let’s get out of here”. Why did G-d add all these flourishes to the basic miracle? They were basically a form of “hidur mitzvah”. “When I do something for My Nation, I want it to be first class! I do not want to just ‘get by.’ I want it to be as nice as possible.”

    Therefore, it makes a tremendous amount of sense why this is the source from which we learn that when you do a mitzvah, you do it right; you make it beautiful. It is because that is how the Ribono shel Olam treated us. When we buy someone a present, it is a sign that we appreciate them and like them. Typically, when we buy a person a present, we put it in a beautiful box. We want the presentation to be as nice as possible. When we buy our wives jewelry, we do not just take the necklace out of our pocket and say “here is the necklace!” We get a nice box which itself costs a few dollars. We have it wrapped really nicely – with a ribbon and a bow — which costs a few more dollars. Who cares? She cares!

    These extra flourishes beyond the basic gift are done to demonstrate how much we love the person to whom we are presenting it. The splitting of Yam Suf showed us how much He loved us. Hiddur Mitzvah – the beautiful Tefillin, the beautiful esrog, etc. – are intended to show Hashem how much we love Him!

    In Search Of Something New To Have Faith In

    The second idea I would like to share, I saw in the Sefer of the Tolner Rebbe in the name of the Chiddushei HaRim. Chazal point out the grammatical problem with the pasuke “Az yashir Moshe u’Bnei Yisrael es haShirah hazos l’Hashem” [Then Moshe and the Children of Israel WILL sing this song to Hashem] [Shmos 15:1], which seemingly is speaking in the future tense, when in fact the past tense should have been employed in describing what took place. The Rabbis cite this pasuk as one of the Biblical allusions to the Resurrection of the Dead (Techiyas haMeisim).

    Here too, we can ask the same question we raised regarding Hidur Mitzvah: Why here? Why is specifically this used to provide a hidden allusion to the concept of Techiyas haMeisim in the Torah?

    The Tolner Rebbe answers this question based on a second question. If you study the text of the Shira, you see that the opening pasukim speak of G-d in the third person: “A horse and its rider He threw into the sea”; “Pharaoh’s chariots and army He cast into the sea.” Then, suddenly in pasuk 6, the style switches and G-d is addressed in the second person: “Your right hand, Hashem, is majestic in might;” “…You devastate your opponents; You send forth Your wrath…”

    Why does the Torah switch from third person to second person? The Zohar states that Klal Yisrael went through a transformation here. The transformation was that they started Kriyas Yam Suf with a basic belief (Emuna) in the Master of the World. However when they experienced Kriyas Yam Suf and they saw the Revealed Hand of G-d, their belief changed into a reality! [The Rabbis comment that a common handmaiden on Yam Suf saw visions greater than the great prophet Yechezkel.] Previously, belief was just a concept. It was “third person” (detached). By the time they experienced Krias Yam Suf and saw the Hand of G-d, it was a reality: I can point: This is my G-d.

    If that’s the case, at this time Klal Yisrael was devoid of Emuna. There was no question of belief anymore. It was reality. The Master of the Universe said “I want to still give you the opportunity to believe – to use faith to believe in something you have not yet witnessed! What’s that? Techiyas HaMeisim – the fact that everyone will die but everyone will also come back!” That was not yet reality, it was still in the realm of Emuna.

    When BELIEF in the Almighty was no longer possible because it became REALITY, the Jewish people were given the promise of Resurrection (Az Yashir Moshe U’Bnei Yisrael…) to provide them with a concept about which they could have Emuna (belief).

    A second answer to this same question comes from the Belzer Rebbe, zt”l, cited by Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetsky. When the Belzer Rebbe tried to gather his people together after World War II, he saw that the Chassidim — most of them Holocaust survivors who had lost large portions of their families — were in no mood to sing Zemiros on Shabbos.

    The Belzer Rebbe posed this question to his Chassidim: Why specifically now at the time of the splitting of the Sea were the Jewish people taught the Biblical allusion to the concept of Resurrection (Techiyas haMeisim)?

    The Belzer Rebbe explained: Realize that when the Jewish people sang the Song of the Sea, the entire nation was not present. How many people did not survive the enslavement of Egypt? How many survivors had lost the majority of their families in Egypt who had never lived to see the day of the Exodus? According to Chazal, 80% of the Jews died in Egypt. It is safe to say that everyone who did make it out of Egypt had lost relatives and could not therefore fully celebrate the miracles they were witnessing at that time.

    Moshe Rabbeinu told them “It is time to sing.” But they responded, “Sing? How can we be happy? Eighty percent of Klal Yisrael is missing!” Moshe then explained that we have an allusion to the resurrection of the dead from this very place in the Torah: We will get your relatives back! The knowledge that the dead will rise and come back is very consoling.

    Not long ago, I read the story of a woman who lost her only son in the War (Shalom HaGalil) in Lebanon. She was inconsolable. She refused to go to any family simchas. She would only go to funerals. She was a widow who lost her only son, “what joy is there any more in life?” She once went to a family levaya. A woman accompanied her to the cemetery. Following the burial, they stopped at the grave site of Reb Aryeh Levine (The Tzadik of Yerushalayim: A Tzadik In Our Time) to say Tehillim. On Reb Aryeh Levine’s tombstone, she saw the following written: Anyone who comes to pray at my grave should first say ‘I believe with a complete faith that Resurrection of the dead will transpire when it is the Will of G-d, blessed be He that this will happen.’ The woman read that and it touched a chord. Suddenly, it became a reality to her that “one day I will get my son back.” From that moment on, she began to live her life again because the hope that there will be Techiyas haMeisim consoled her.

    Last Sunday, I had to fly to St. Louis for a wedding. I was sitting in the aisle seat with the seat next to me empty. The window seat was taken by an older woman with a box of tissues. She kept on blowing her nose. I was thinking to myself “I am going to catch a cold after this flight.” The plane took off and I noticed that the woman was wiping her eyes also. I thought to myself, maybe she doesn’t have a cold, she’s crying!

    The stewardess came down and sat in the middle seat and started talking with her, at which point the woman broke down and cried loudly. The stewardess tried to console her. Apparently Southwest Airlines was alerted that this woman had some kind of problem. The stewardess left. The woman continued to cry the whole time.

    I said to her, “This is none of my business, but what is bothering you?” She told me, “I found out this morning that my daughter was killed in a car crash and I am on the way to her funeral. My only other child, my son, was killed in Iraq two months ago!” She was inconsolable. I asked her, “Is there anything I can do for you?” She said, “Just pray for me.”

    The knowledge of “From here there is a Biblical allusion to Techiyas HaMeisim” – the idea that one day we will again see the relatives whom we so dearly miss, is a very consoling thought. That is what rejuvenated the Belzer Chassidim who were Holocaust survivors and that is what consoled the woman at the grave site of Reb Aryeh Levine — one day she will see her son again and she can therefore go on living her life.


    Rabbi Yissocher Frand and

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