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  • A Cover-Up of Biblical Proportions

    by Rabbi YY Jacobson

    The Truth, the Whole Truth and…

    Harry gets stopped by a police car. When the police officer gets to his car, Harry says, "What's the problem officer?"

    Officer: You were going at least 65 in a 50mph zone.

    Harry: No sir, I was going 50.

    Wife: Oh Harry, You were going 70.

    Harry gives his wife a dirty look.

    Officer: I will also give you a ticket for your broken brake light.

    Harry: Broken brake light? I didn't know about a broken brake light!

    Wife: Oh Harry, you've known about that brake light for months.

    Harry gives his wife a really dirty look.

    Officer: I am also going to book you for not wearing your seat belt.

    Harry: Oh, I just took it off when you were walking up to the car.

    Wife: Oh Harry, you never wear your seat belt.

    Harry turns to his wife and yells, "Shut your mouth!"

    Officer turns to the woman and says, "Madam, does your husband talk to you this way all the time?"

    Wife: "No, only when he's drunk…"

    Smooth or Problematic?

    In the Torah, the building of the Mishkan (Tabernacle)—culminated in the Torah portion of this week Vayakhel-Pekudei—is presented as a seamless flow of command, collection, and finally, construction. G-d commands Moses, Moses presents the people with the plans, the people respond over-enthusiastically, donating more than necessary (for the first and last time in Jewish history…), and all Moses has to do is tell them when to stop. The construction goes ahead according to plan, and in no time at all—six months in total (compare that with construction nowadays)—the Mishkan is up and ready to function.

    However, the student of Midrash—the Talmudic and Midrashic commentary to the Torah, transmitted orally throughout the generations till transcribed—makes aware of the “politics” behind the events. It was anything but smooth. The Midrash[1] tells us, shockingly, that there were those who suspected Moses of pocketing funds and they insolently demanded that Moses make an accounting for every ounce of every item. Moses conceded to their demands and humbly presented a detailed account of every “dollar” collected for the grandiose “building campaign.”

    The Midrash[2] also tells us that Moses actually forgot what he did with some of the silver, and the rumors began circulating… The Rabbi is driving a new BMW… Who paid for his cruise to the Bahamas… How did he manage to buy the 2 million dollar home for his daughte? How can he afford such a grandiose wedding?... Did you see his new kitchen?… Till Moses reminded himself that he used them for hooks on the pillars in the Tabernacle, and the Jews calmed down.

    There was another obstacle in the process. There were times—the Midrash tells us—when Moses struggled with understanding G-d’s directions, and G-d had to show him a detailed vision of what He wanted.[3] Once, during the formation of the Menorah, the sages relate, that too did not work. Moses completely gave up and G-d had to make the menorah Himself.

    Then the Sanctuary was completed much earlier than expected, and it had to remain idle for three months.[4]

    When the time came for the actual erection of the Mishkan, they again ran into a glitch: No-one could succeed in lifting the walls. Even collectively, it was impossible. Imagine the anti-climax, the fear that all was in vain. At the end, Moses miraculously lifted the beams alone.

    Yet all of these parts of the story are completely ignored in the biblical text itself. There are a few tantalizing hints, but overall, the story presented in the Torah is one of a holistic, pure, and ideal experience. No glitches, no politics, no accusations, no problems; a perfectly smooth ride.

    One wonders how do we reconcile the biblical and oral traditions? If the Midrashic traditions are presenting what happened, why are these details ignored in the biblical text? Is the Torah trying to brush over the disturbing truths? Is the Torah teaching us to repress uncomfortable facts; to ignore the real story, to make believe everything is “perfect” when in fact it’s far from it? And if so, why did the Rabbis in the Midrash “ruin the party” and “spill the beans”?

    Creation Cover-Ups

    This is not the only incident with this birthmark. We find this tendency twice more.

    The opening of Genesis records eloquently but concisely the facts of creation and it sounds like a pretty smooth sailing. “In the beginning G-d created heaven and earth…” Over the next six days, a universe is formed. The Talmud and the Midrash, however, tell us that even G-d ran into some seemingly unexpected delays and had to make some serious alterations. Each of the six days presented another challenge.

    For starters, the Midrash relates[5] that the attribute of Truth opposed creation, and G-d had to cast Truth away in order to create our universe. The sages also relate that G-d attempted to create the world with the quality of Judgment and was forced to retract to Mercy when He saw that the world could not handle it.[6]

    Then: He created light on the first day, hoping it would serve all of creation, but it was too great and luminescent and He deemed it useless (and had to stow it away as a reward for only the truly meritorious.)[7]

    Next: On the second day, he constructed heaven and separated higher waters from lower waters. According to the Midrash, the lower waters “revolted” and are still weeping about their rejection.[8]

    Next: On the third say, G-d designed trees with edible branches, but the trees disobeyed and produced only edible fruit.[9] Next: On the fourth day, the sun and the moon were created to be equals, the moon complained that “two kings cannot serve with one crown,” and hence the luminaries were altered as the moon was diminished.[10]

    Next: On Thursday, G-d created the fish, including the Leviathan. Then, realizing that if the Leviathan would procreate, it would spell the end of the planet, He killed the partner of the Leviathan.[11] Next: On Friday, when He wished to create man, the angels in heaven complained it would be a fatal mistake.[12] Indeed, shortly Adam and Eve were created they disobeyed G-d commandment to refrain from eating the Tree of knowledge.

    Yet, none of these “glitches” or “issues” are recorded explicitly in the actual biblical text. There it is as smooth a process as can be. How can we make sense of this shocking discrepancy?

    Even more perplexing is the fact that following the six days of creation, the Torah sums it all up with these stunning words:

    וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וְהִנֵּה טוֹב מְאֹד וַיְהִי עֶרֶב וַיְהִי בֹקֶר יוֹם הַשִּׁשִּׁי.

    And G-d saw all that He made and it was very good.

    Very good? Really? Each day brought another headache, another melt down, and another crisis. What makes it so good?

    The Second Cover Up

    The Tanach describes glowingly and in minute detail the materials and construction and dedication of the First Temple built in Jerusalem without the hint of a glitch. Yet the Midrash adds the “problematic” information: During construction they hit a underground spring that threatened to flood the entire world;[13] at what was to be the climactic finale, the entering of the Ark to the Holy-of-Holies, the gates refused to open against all efforts.[14]

    According to the Midrash,[15] the entire dedication of the First Holy Temple was heavily delayed, because the night before King Solomon married the daughter of Pharaoh and he slept in! It was his mother, Bat Sheba, who had to enter his bedroom, wake him up and chastise him for over sleeping on the day the Temple was to be dedicated.

    We are left with a striking enigma: The biblical text ignores the disturbing details. Then the rabbis come and share with us “the rest of the story.” Why?

    What Is Your Story?

    The answer is a crucial and profound lesson in life. The Torah is not trying to hide anything (a general pattern in Torah is it tolerates no cover ups, for anybody), and that is why the Sages felt comfortable exposing all of the details. Rather, the Torah is telling us that when one develops a proper perspective at his or her life, the problems do not always deserve to be mentioned. Not because they don’t exist, but because they don’t define the story of our lives, and therefore we can decide not to make them part of the story.

    In each of these three series of events—creation of the universe; construction of the Sanctuary and the Jerusalem Temple—something awesomely cataclysmic and earth-shattering is occurring. The infinite fuses with the finite; the impossible becomes possible, Man meets G-d and G-d meets Man. Out of cosmological emptiness and infinite Divinity creation develops; something-ness is made out of nothingness. G-d “squeezes” his omnipotence and omnipresence into a Mishkan (sanctuary) of a few square cubits, into a building of stone, into the heart of mortal man.

    This, then, is THE story; this is what happened. The bumps on the road, true as they may be, do not constitute the story, not because they didn’t happen, but because they are not what really happened; they should not, they cannot, obscure or even dampen the majestic power and beauty of the events.

    The Torah is teaching us how to live. Life is tough. The really important things are even tougher. To raise and support a family requires strength and courage. To build a good marriage is often taxing and difficult. To develop a relationship with G-d may be frustrating and lonely. Many things will not work out as we hoped they would. We face adversity, grief and loss. There are inevitably times of pain and heartbreak. There are quarrels and squabbles, moments of anger and setbacks. We must confront depression, illness, mental challenges, financial stress, and spiritual confusion.

    But we have the choice not to make them THE story of our lives. Sure, raising children is challenging, but when you gaze into the loving and trusting eyes of your child—that is THE miracle of existence, not the challenges leading toward that moment. When you connect to your spouse in a truly meaningful way, in a moment of real camaraderie and respect—that is the miracle of love playing itself out in your life. A bad day at work, hours of frustration in running your business, all melt away before the power of something so much greater, so much more real—your growth as a human being and your ability to help others with your money and your experience.

    We must look at our lives and ask what is the real story happening here? Is my life a story of hardship and struggle, or am I part of something incredible: I am building a home for G-d; I am constructing a fragment of heaven on planet earth; I am building a Jewish family, a loving marriage; I am helping people; I have the privilege of studying Torah, of spreading Torah, of doing a mitzvah, of inspiring others to light up the world. This is my story; this is my life. The other parts are of course also true, and deserve to be acknowledged as such, much as the Midrash acknowledges the other side of the story with creation, the Mishkan and the Temple. I must deal with every challenge and I must attempt to repair it, but I cannot allow it to become THE STORY.

    Here we have the origin of what is known today as Narrative Therapy many thousands of years ago. Each of us has the choice to define and reframe the story of our lives.

    When I wake up in the morning, I know that I have fifty things to do today, most of them are not fun; some are difficult and frustrating. But that is not THE story. The real story is captured in the words a Jew says the moment he or she opens his eyes: “Modeh ani lefanecha… shehechezarta bi nishmasi…” I am alive; G-d gave me back my soul for another day. Gevald! How awesome is that. I can now talk to G-d face to face, learn Torah, pray, share my heart and love with another human being, give charity, and become an ambassador for love, light and hope. I can embrace an aching soul, and touch a bleeding heart. Now that’s a life!

    Yes, I got to pay my bills, I have to deal with headaches, I need to catch the bank, I have to fix my garage, I need to call my son’s principle, I have to pick up the cleaners, I need to go to the dentist, and I need to pay back the loan. But do not let that become the story of your life. Stay focused on the real story – that at every moment you can construct a home for G-d in your corner of the world and bring redemption one step closer.[16]

    My Dear Student

    This week we commemorated the yartzeit to a former student, Nadiv Kehaty. Only 30 years old, a loving husband, and the father of four young children, his sudden passing left a family and a community in shock.

    Nadiv’s very presence made you feel how much possibility life contained, if it was filled with laughter, love and innocence. For Nadiv, all of life consisted of one story: An opportunity to laugh and make others laugh.

    I was a teacher, sitting at my desk in the lecture hall, presenting a class to 25 students. I was focused, immersed and serious. But then, suddenly, one student leaped into the classroom, jumped over the tables, and after listening to a few sentences, exclaimed with his genuine giggle and pure selflessness: “Rabbi, you are awesome; I love you!”

    This was Nadiv on a regular day. I’d melt away. It was clear that his soul was sent to this world to teach us how to love and laugh.

    I love you too, Nadiv.

    To comment on this essay, please click here.


    [1] Shemos Rabbah 51:6
    [2] Ibid.
    [3] Shemos Rabbah 52:4
    [4] Shemos Rabbah 52:2
    [5] Bereishis Rabbah 8:5
    [6] Berishis Rabbah 12:15. Rashi Genesis 1:1
    [7] Talmud Chagigah 12a
    [8] Tikunei Zohar Tikun 5 (19b).
    [9] Rashi Genesis 1:12
    [10] Talmud Chulin 60b
    [11] Rashi Genesis 1:21
    [12] Midrash Tehilim 8:2
    [13] Talmud Sukkah 53a
    [14] Talmud Shabbos 30a
    [15] Bamidbar Rabbah 10:4
    [16] My thanks to Rabbi Avraham David Shlomo for his help in preparing this essay.


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  • God Loves Those Who Argue

    by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

     I have become increasingly concerned about the assault on free speech taking place throughout the West, particularly in university campuses.[1] This is being done in the name of “safe space,” that is, space in which you are protected against hearing views which might cause you distress, “trigger warnings”[2] and “micro-aggressions,” that is, any remark that someone might find offensive even if no offence is meant.

    So far has this gone that at the beginning of the 2017 academic year, students at an Oxford College banned the presence of a representative of the Christian Union on the grounds that some might find their presence alienating and offensive.[3] Increasingly, speakers with controversial views are being disinvited: the number of such incidents on American college campuses rose from 6 in 2000 to 44 in 2016.[4]

    Undoubtedly this entire movement was undertaken for the highest of motives, to protect the feelings of the vulnerable. That is a legitimate ethical concern. Jewish law goes to extremes in condemning lashon hara, hurtful or derogatory speech, and the sages were careful to use what they called lashon sagi nahor, euphemism, to avoid language that people might find offensive.

    But a safe space is not one in which you silence dissenting views. To the contrary: it is one in which you give a respectful hearing to views opposed to your own, knowing that your views too will be listened to respectfully. That is academic freedom, and it is essential to a free society.[5] As George Orwell said, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

    John Stuart Mill likewise wrote that one of the worst offences against freedom is “to stigmatise those who hold the contrary opinion as bad and immoral men.” That is happening today in institutions that are supposed to be the guardians of academic freedom. We are coming perilously close to what Julian Benda called, in 1927, “The treason of the intellectuals,” in which he said that academic life had been degraded to the extent that it had allowed itself to become an arena for “the intellectual organisation of political hatreds.”[6]

    What is striking about Judaism, and we see this starkly in this week’s parsha, is that argument and the hearing of contrary views is of the essence of the religious life. Moses argues with God. That is one of the most striking things about him. He argues with Him on their first encounter at the burning bush. Four times he resists God’s call to lead the Israelites to freedom, until God finally gets angry with him (Ex. 3:1–4:7). More significantly, at the end of the parsha he says to God:

     “Lord, why have you brought trouble on this people? Why did You send me? Since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has brought trouble on this people, and You have not rescued Your people at all.” (Ex. 5:22-23).

    This is extraordinary language for a human being to use to God. But Moses was not the first to do so. The first was Abraham, who said, on hearing of God’s plan to destroy the cities of the plain, “Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” (Gen. 18:25).

    Similarly, Jeremiah, posing the age-old question of why bad things happen to good people and good things to bad people, asked: “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?” (Jer. 12:1). In the same vein, Habakkuk challenged God: “Why do You tolerate the treacherous? Why are You silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (Hab. 1:13). Job who challenges God’s justice is vindicated in the book that bears his name, while his friends who defended Divine justice are said not to have spoken correctly (Job 42:7-8). Heaven, in short, is not a safe space in the current meaning of the phrase. To the contrary: God loves those who argue with Him – so it seems from Tanakh.

    Equally striking is the fact that the sages continued the tradition and gave it a name: argument for the sake of heaven,[7] defined as debate for the sake of truth as opposed to victory.[8] The result is that Judaism is, perhaps uniquely, a civilisation all of whose canonical texts are anthologies of arguments. Midrash operates on the principle that there are “seventy faces” to Torah and thus that every verse is open to multiple interpretations. The Mishnah is full of paragraphs of the form, “Rabbi X says this while Rabbi Y says that.” The Talmud says in the name of God himself, about the conflicting views of the schools of Hillel and Shammai, that “These and those are the words of the living God."[9]

    A standard edition of Mikraot Gedolot consists of the biblical text surrounded by multiple commentaries and even commentaries on the commentaries. The standard edition of the Babylonian Talmud has the text surrounded by the often conflicting views of Rashi and the Tosafists. Moses Maimonides, writing his masterpiece of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, took the almost unprecedented step of presenting only the halakhic conclusion without the accompanying arguments. The ironic but predictable result was that the Mishneh Torah was eventually surrounded by an endless array of commentaries and arguments. In Judaism there is something holy about argument.

    Why so? First, because only God can see the totality of truth. For us, mere mortals who can see only fragments of the truth at any one time, there is an irreducible multiplicity of perspectives. We see reality now one way, now another. The Torah provides us with a dramatic example in its first two chapters, which give us two creation accounts, both true, from different vantage points. The different voices of priest and prophet, Hillel and Shammai, philosopher and mystic, historian and poet, each capture something essential about the spiritual life. Even within a single genre, the sages noted that “No two prophets prophesy in the same style.”[10] Torah is a conversation scored for many voices.

    Second, because justice presupposes the principle that in Roman law is called audi alteram partem, “hear the other side.” That is why God wants an Abraham, a Moses, a Jeremiah and a Job to challenge Him, sometimes to plead for mercy or, as in the case of Moses at the end of this week’s parsha, to urge Him to act swiftly in defence of His people.[11] Both the case for the prosecution and the defence must be heard if justice is to be done and seen to be done.

    The pursuit of truth and justice require the freedom to disagree. The Netziv argued that it was the prohibition of disagreement that was the sin of the builders of Babel.[12] What we need, therefore, is not “safe spaces” but rather, civility, that is to say, giving a respectful hearing to views with which we disagree. In one of its loveliest passages the Talmud tells us that the views of the school of Hillel became law “because they were pleasant and did not take offence, and because they taught the views of their opponents as well as their own, indeed they taught the views of their opponents before their own.”[13]

    And where do we learn this from? From God Himself, who chose as His prophets people who were prepared to argue with Heaven for the sake of Heaven in the name of justice and truth.

    When you learn to listen to views different from your own, realising that they are not threatening but enlarging, then you have discovered the life-changing idea of argument for the sake of heaven.

    Shabbat Shalom,

     Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

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  • Bad Acting


    When the spies returned, and delivered their pessimistic report, the people were distraught. Not knowing better, they lost faith in what would become of them, and by losing faith, they lost all they had going for them.

    Disappointed in what the people had become, God told them that they would be a lost generation; they would wander for 40 years, and die in the wilderness. They did not deserve the privilege of the Land of Israel, but their children would.

    When the people heard what their fate would be, they refused to accept it at first:

    וישכמו בבקר ויעלו אל ראש ההר לאמר הננו ועלינו אל המקום אשר אמר ה כי חטאנו – They rose early the next morning, and set out toward the crest of the mountain, saying, “We are prepared to go to the place that Hashem has spoken of, for we were wrong.” (14:40)

    Rabbi Shlomo Farhi explains that the language used in telling how this show of faith is a chiasm that echoes the story of Avraham.

    Avraham’s ultimate act of faith was rising early in the morning, and going to the crest of the mountain in the place God spoke of. His faith is absolute, when he says הנני- Here I stand.

    But it fails. What worked for Avraham does not work here, because Avraham was authentic, and this time it was not. Avrahams act of faith was corrupted into a show of faith.

    Avraham had faith before he knew where he was going. The comparison they were trying to evoke was false. They could say הננו, but that’s not where they truly stood.

    There is a difference between fracturing something, and breaking it. Each situation calls for something different. Their mistake was thinking that their mistake caused a fracture, and not a break.

    Introspection requires intellectual honesty to understand how to move past our mistakes. Think of the last person you hurt. What would it take to move your relationship past it?


    The men selected to scout out the land of Israel were no ordinary men. They were chosen because they held stature among the nation – they were great people, yet they gravely erred. One of the reasons Chazal understand to have motivated their plot was that life in the desert was simple and beautiful. God did everything for them, and the people were exposed at all times to the Almighty.

    They had the manna to eat, which would be sent based on worthiness and potentially taste of anything they desired. They had a wellspring that moved with the camp. They had Clouds of Glory which marked travel movements and shaded them from the harsh desert sun; and according to Midrash, flattened obstacles, cleared wild beasts, and possibly cleaned their clothing too.

    The spies concluded that this was an ideal way of life and engineered a report that would get the people to clamour to stay in the wilderness.

    The Sfas Emes notes that immediately afterward the story of the spies concludes, three mitzvos are revealed: separating challa, Tzitzis, and nesachim – wherein all sacrifices require additions from the mineral water 0, among them salt and spring water.

    The Sfas Emes notes that the sin of the spies was that they presumed to instruct God how things ought to be. These specific mitzvos show the flaw in their argument. God did not want us to live in the desert indefinitely, eating miraculous manna, drinking from the miraculous well, under the miraculous Clouds – the training wheels have to come off eventually.

    What man is independently capable of is elevating the mundane and material into spiritual . These mitzvos capture the concept.

    The manna was the bread that God sent to their doorsteps. The mitzva of challa requires that when baking a loaf of bread, a small section is set aside to remind that God is the true provider. The entire loaf is called “challa”, although the mitzva only pertains to the small bit set aside. The bread that has been planted, grown, cultivated and processed becomes more.

    The Clouds surrounded sheltered them and reminded them of God’s immanence and presence. Similarly, tzitzis ensconce and shroud a person – the stated aim is to remind the wearer of all mitzvos. Physical shelter and protection become more.

    The wellspring that followed them around was how they drank. Similarly, the nesachim of minerals and spring water accompanied every sacrifice. The literal translation of Korban is to draw close – things mundane as minerals become more.

    God does not want to give things to us for free, as this makes them cheap. The spies presumed to know that a life devoid of physicality was perfect, but these mitzvos serve indicate otherwise.

    Mankind has the potential to elevate everything into something spiritual – with just a little direction.


    Every day in Shema, the section of tzitzis is read:

    וְהָיָה לָכֶם, לְצִיצִת, וּרְאִיתֶם אֹתוֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם אֶת-כָּל-מִצְו‍ֹת ה’, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם; וְלֹא-תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם, וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם – You will wear these tzitzis. When you see them, you will be reminded of all God’s commands; and you’ll do them – and you won’t stray after your hearts and eyes. (15:39)

    Beyond the obvious implication of not dwelling on inappropriate sights, the Sfas Emes notes that this mitzva is mentioned soon after the tragic incident of the spies. The juxtaposition charges us to not make that generations’ mistake – וְלֹא -תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם, וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם – where eyes and hearts literally “scout”, leading astray.

    The Sfas Emes analyses their error.

    What if their worst fears had been confirmed, and they indeed faced a barren land, inhabited by hordes of strong, ruthless, well armed, well trained men? Would Hashem’s assurances and promises have meant less than if they had no knowledge of the matter?

    Certainly not. The scouting changed things from their perspective – but God certainly knew what lay ahead. This is שלח לך – for yourselves.

    Taking things as they appear is a character flaw that is caused by a deficiency in faith and trust. If they had truly believed and trusted Hashem, the episode could not have taken place. They’d never have sent scouts in the first place. This why the very next following words are לְמַעַן תִּזְכְּרוּ, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֶת-כָּל-מִצְו‍ֹתָי – not “remind yourself” so much as “never forget” – by internalisation.

    Ttitzis are said to protect a person. Perhaps by indicating that there is so much more than meets the eye – including the wearer!

    A part of the tzitzis requirement is to have a thread of techeiles, a shade of blue-violet. Parenthetically, there is a lot of debate about the source of the correct type of techeiles. To illustrate the gravity of the mitzva, one opinion states that tzitzis without techeiles are not tzitzis at all!

    Rav Hirsch notes that the spectrum discernible to our eye ends with the blue-violet ray – the same shade as techeiles; but additional magnitudes of light radiate unseen beyond the visible spectrum. Likewise, the blue sky is the end of the earth visible to us. Perhaps then, techeiles is the bridge that leads from the visible, physical sphere into the unseen sphere beyond. This again underlines the spies error.

    Man’s goal is not to strive for spirituality to the exclusion of the physical, but rather to use the physical drives as tools for human growth – note how the thread of techeiles on the tzitzis is the thread wound around the white threads to make a cord of tzitzis. This reflects the duty of the Jew to unite and elevate all available forces and tools to God’s service.

    The techeiles on tzitzis is the mini uniform reflecting the calling of the Jew – it should be no surprise that it is the standard colour of the Beis HaMikdash and Kohen Gadol’s clothing.

    The entire mitzva of tzitzis screams out that the spies could not have been more wrong. It’s not what you look at that matters; but what you see. Through tzitzis, we are entreated to think bigger and become more.


    There is a dichotomy regarding the Matza on Pesach. Is it poor man’s bread, indicative of slavery; or is it because of the redemption, that they were freed before they had time to prepare bread?

    The Sfas Emes explains that we cannot celebrate being freed from Egypt on it’s own; we must celebrate the fact we were enslaved as well. If we were capable of being a nation that could serve Hashem in freedom initially, we need not have been enslaved, and if we could serve Hashem in slavery, we weren’t in need of rescue. So being enslaved in Egypt was a key part of the process through which we became Hashem’s people. What transition took place in Egypt that created a nation capable of serving God?

    The Sfas Emes goes on to explain that by being in crushing slavery, the people were far beyond their comfort zones, and pushed way past the extremes of what they thought they were capable of. This was a life lesson to the people that the arrogance and ego of man could be removed, and a person could devote his entire being to something. This was a key stage in becoming Hashem’s servants – the people knew what it meant to give their all; which would not have been the same thing without the ravages of slavery.

    The Sfas Emes explains that this is what all evils and adversity in life are for – they educate us about our limits, and more than that, they show us the opposite extremes to which we can aspire, attain and transcend. This is the only purpose they serve, just like Egypt. If they weren’t there to help us become closer to Hashem, they would have no function, and therefore would not exist. This was the only way in people could have accepted Hashem as their King entirely; in the same way they had been entirely subjugated to Paroh, they could now subjugate themselves entirely to Hashem.

    This was the critical moment the Jews were born as a nation. As we say in Shema every day: אשר הוצאתי אתכם מארץ מצרים להיות לכם לאלוקים – “That I took you out of Egypt to be for you a God” (Bamidbar 15:41). The causation is clear – we had to have been in Egypt before, in order to be taken out, to become everything we were meant to be. Being God’s people hinges on the need to have subdued arrogance and ego.

    This is what טוב אחרית הדבר מראשיתו means – “the end is better than the beginning” (Koheles 7:8). It was far from pleasant to be in Egypt, but what followed was receiving the Torah. The Sfas Emes tells us that our celebration of leaving Egypt must hinge around the fact that we became better once we left – we accepted Hashem as our King and our God, and we received the Torah. The first thing we did on being freed was for Hashem – this is why there is a concept of firsts going to Hashem, for example the korban Omer (and Pidyon haBen, bikkurim etc). This is what is so vital on Seder night, to relive the Exodus from Egypt. It is when we became God’s people.

    The Sfas Emes answers that this is why Matza correlates to both slavery as well as freedom – it is devoid of the ego, exemplified by chametz, yet it also correlates to the freedom – the process of freedom started when we were slaves. It is how we became truly free to serve Hashem. Our freedom stems from having not been free once.


    When introducing the story of Miriam, Rashi notes that it is juxtaposed with the story of the spies speaking ill of the land because the spies saw what had happened to Miriam, yet failed to learn a lesson about evil speech.

    The association is bizarre, and very problematic as a source for the lesson of not speaking negatively. Miriam spoke out against a human being – and the greatest to walk this earth to boot. Why would they apply the lesson to insentient, inanimate land?

    The Rambam teaches that the greater a person is, the greater exercise of humility required. The character appraisal the Torah gives of Moshe is emphatic:

    והאיש משה עניו מאד מכל אדם אשר על פני האדמה – Moshe was more humble than any person on the face of the earth.

    This may seem a little bit hyperbolic – but actually, indicates his level of humility – he made himself impervious to personal sensitivity – like the ground.

    The lesson they could have taken on is suddenly not bizarre at all. They ought to have taken heed that Miriam spoke ill of someone who was totally detached, and genuinely did not care – not only did he completely forgive her, he immediately prayed for her recovery. This being the case, we are able to grasp the juxtaposition of the two events.

    There is a phenomenally difficult, but very important lesson about sensitivity in speech here. In both cases, the error in speech was much more subtle than a straightforward, nasty piece of gossip. Yet Tisha B’Av and all tragedies in Jewish history have since ensued as a consequence.

    That the level required here is beyond us may be a valid observation, but think of the reverse; what with how powerful our speech clearly is, what could be achieved with dedication and perseverance?


    The spies returned from their expedition on the 9th of Av, culminating in what became the crucible and precursor of Jewish tragedy. The Gemara in Taanis teaches that when the Jews began to cry at the “reports” of what they were heading towards, Hashem pledged that the calendar date would be designated for genuine reasons to cry, for all generations.

    Moshe sensed that they would plot some kind of scheme – evidenced by the foresight to change his disciple’s name and pray for him:

    אֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת הָאֲנָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר שָׁלַח מֹשֶׁה לָתוּר אֶת הָאָרֶץ וַיִּקְרָא מֹשֶׁה לְהוֹשֵׁעַ בִּן נוּן יְהוֹשֻׁעַ – These are the names of the men Moshe sent to scout the Land. Moshe called Hoshea, son of Nun, “Yehoshua”. (13:16)

    The people who were sent were not the average rank and file; they were leaders of their respective Tribes – senior members in the camp. The Zohar says that what motivated them to exaggerate was the fear of losing their positions and office on entry into Israel. The perceived threat distorted their perception of Israel, and everything they saw was cast under a negative shadow.

    This poses a difficulty. Note that when Eldad and Medad started prophesying that Yehoshua would take up the leadership, Yehoshua exclaimed that they should be imprisoned – he was furious at the mere suggestion that he would become leader.

    If the spies false reports were predicated on a desire to lead, and Yehoshua had no interest in leading the Jews, then he would not lie to preserve the status quo. So what danger was he in, that Moshe changed his name and prayed for his well-being?

    The Kozhnitzer Maggid explains that whilst Moshe intuited that the spies may manipulate what they saw out of a desire to retain their position, he was equally concerned that Yehoshua would see things the way they did for the opposite reason; Yehoshua might try to delay entry into Israel, to avoid Moshe’s death and his own resultant rise to leadership. His humility could be his undoing!

    It doesn’t take too much to notice that negative traits cloud perceptions, and murk clarity, decisions and outlook. But perhaps positive traits can be equally harmful if imbalanced. The idea that a person can also be affected negatively by a positive characteristic is counterintuitive – and therefore frightening.

    An agenda is an agenda, no matter how altruistic the underlying motivation may be. If a person’s traits – whether humility, kindness, love of peace – create a preconceived parameter of how something out to transpire, then their vision is clouded, and facts will be perceived out of context. There is a figure of speech “rose-tinted spectacles…”. People often say “Personal interest aside…”, under the impression that such a thing can be done – but the Torah teaches that this is not so:

    לֹא תִקַּח שֹׁחַד כִּי הַשֹּׁחַד יְעַוֵּר עֵינֵי חֲכָמִים וִיסַלֵּף דִּבְרֵי צַדִּיקִם – you shall not accept a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts just words.” (Devarim 16:19).

    The bribe referenced is not necessarily cash – the Torah takes injury not at the bribe itself, but the result. Anything that clouds an objective view of reality, whatever “blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts just words,” is called a bribe.

    R’ Yissocher Frand notes that a person with perfect vision still won’t be able to see through frosted glass. Similarly, an agenda, even as noble as keeping Moshe Rabbeinu in power, could distort reality.

    If Yehoshua was susceptible to error due to personal agenda, it speaks volumes of us. But avoiding it is as simple as following Yehoshua’s lead – his teacher’s foresight saved him from succumbing to sin.

    The Mishna in Avos (1:6) says: עשה לך רב, וקנה לך חבר – Assume for yourself a master, acquire for yourself a friend. We are enjoined to seek out a teacher or friend who sees through ourselves and our self-interest.

    Someone who can analyse and break down something complicated into its components is a worthwhile person to have around. They will remove many pitfalls.

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