Dealing With Big Mistakes

The Torah epic of Jacob, Joseph and his brothers is an epic of tragic mistake after tragic mistake. Jacob showed favoritism to Joseph and gave him the (in)famous coat. Joseph dreamed of reigning over his brothers, of them all bowing down to him. He then had the political bad sense to actually tell them these dreams, which further fanned the flames.

Then, Jacob sends him alone to check up on the brothers working with the flocks near Shechem. He's appointed, it seems, Joseph to be his supervisor, and sends him unarmed to be with his already hate-filled brothers. And then they err in allowing their anger to dominate them and nearly kill Joseph, choosing at the last minute to sell him to slavery...

Lives are ruined, relationships never to properly recover, Jacob about to spend years in mourning for a son who is not dead, and jealous brothers refusing to admit their deed, comfort their father and do what they can to find Joseph and reunite the family.

Yes, these were all tremendous, life-changing mistakes that indeed did doom many of the participants to years of guilt.

And, yet, if one thinks about it, each of these mistakes was an inexorable part of Joseph's path to the premiership of Egypt, of the ultimate saving of untold thousands of souls from starvation during a famine, and of the literal fulfillment of Joseph's original dreams! In fact, had Jacob been a fairer parent, and had Joseph been more modest, this happy ending might not have ever come to pass!

To be sure, God has many ways to see His will fulfilled, so this was not the only scenario. Nonetheless, it is the way it happened, so how should we understand it?

I think that all of these deeds are the result of Jacob's mode of operation in his early life. He was, as you may recall, born clasping Esav's heel. He was a bit of a manipulator, from getting the birthright from Esav for some soup, to getting the blessings from Isaac by a ruse, to getting his wages and his way with Lavan.

Another fact to remember is Jacob's superhuman strength when he saw Rachel for the first time. It was more than just love that moved him, it was the confidence and the feeling of destiny when he saw God's providence and his future combined in Rachel's eyes. Whenever Jacob got confirmation from God that he was on the right path, he was always filled with inspiration.

But things got confusing for Jacob, as Lavan switched his bride at the ceremony and he married Leah instead. All of the children that were born to Leah and the two maidservants Bilhah and Zilpah were not part of Jacob's original desire. He had wanted to marry only Rachel. Thus, it was Rachel's son, Joseph, in whom Jacob saw the future confirmed again. It excited him, and he showed favoritism.

Joseph, too, had this awareness about himself. He knew he had a major part to play in God's running of the world, and it excited him. He could not keep his mouth shut, even when he should have sensed it politic to do so.

None of this is to make excuses, but to show something. Each person here made a mistake, and that mistake was a human one with Divine consequences. That is the meaning of "Remove the Satan from behind us." As the Talmudic sage Nachum of Gimzo was wont to say, "This, too, is for the good." We should stop beating ourselves up about the past, because we cannot change the past. We can only change our reaction to it, and our direction for the future. Guilt that does not motivate better behavior is unhealthy, and does not allow one to recognize the Divine gift of free choice to change our present and future.

We all make mistakes, and we should try to do better. But if, after the test was taken, we have failed, it is proper to look forward. What good can come out of this? How can I learn to do better next time? How can I deepen this ruptured relationship? May Hashem help us remove the Satan of helpless guilt from behind us, and help us look to the future. We may just see a tremendous opportunity sprouting in the ashes of a past mistake.

Israel's Power as the Jewish State

Jacob, as he prepared to return to the Land of Canaan after spending a couple of decades with his in-laws in Mesopotamia, was quite terrified. He had fled to Lavan in the first place because of his brother Esav's open musings about fratricide. Now, as he was about to return, he did not know what greeting his brother would give him. Would it be a hug, or a knife?

And so he prepared three different methods of ensuring his survival: Gifts, battle and prayer. He sent lavish gifts to Esav with an entreaty for brotherly forgiveness. He divided the camp up so that if battle should break out, they would be able to survive, if not prevail. And, finally, he prayed to God, "Save me from my brother Esav, for I fear he may try to smite mother and children."

And then, after Jacob had transported his family across a place called Maavar Yabbok, he returned alone to the other side. According to our sages, he had forgotten some small containers. It was there, when he was alone, that the mysterious "man", identified as Esav's guardian angel, fought with him until dawn. As the night ended, the "man" famously wounded Jacob's thigh, causing him to limp. Thus the Torah explains the future prohibition on eating an animal's sciatic nerve.

As the dawn breaks, the "man" wishes for Jacob to release him. Jacob refuses until the "man" blesses him. Obligingly, the "man" informs Jacob that his name shall henceforth be "Yisrael, for you have struggled (sarita) with God and man and prevailed."

Now, if I were a sports commentator, I would assume that the "man" had won, since he had seriously wounded Jacob. Yet we see that it was the "man" who begged to be released! Further, the "blessing" Jacob got seems to be nothing more than a name change. It's not a blessing that he should win the lottery or something. How is a name change a blessing?

The commentary Oznaim LaTorah points out that of Jacob's three plans of action, gifts, battle and prayer, it was only prayer that became practical. Jacob may have thought to rely on his wealth to appease Esav, but that wealth, in the form of the small containers he went back for, caused him to endanger his life. As King Solomon says, "There is wealth guarded for a man to his detriment."

As for war, well, as a new cripple, this is no longer relevant. He's not the superhero who lifts huge stones by himself anymore. He can barely walk straight.

Which leaves prayer. This is the true power of Jacob. Earlier in his life, as he misled his father to get the blessings of the firstborn, Isaac had said "Your hands are the hands of Esav, but your voice is the voice of Jacob." Indeed, this was exactly Jacob's earlier way of interacting with the world, trying to be Esav. The name Jacob comes from "heel", and he was called this because he emerged from Rebekkah's womb grasping Esav's heel.

Jacob had always felt threatened, and was often fearful. His way of dealing with the challenges in this world was to do things in an earthly fashion. He used deception and raw strength. He planned to use wealth and power to survive the encounter with Esav. Those are the tools of a Jacob, who is grasping at the heel of an earthy Esav.

So, in fact, it was a great blessing that the "man" gave him. He changed his name, he changed his self-perception. No longer is he grasping at someone's heel and trying to make his way in a tough world. He has been turned upside down, he is now struggling with God and godliness, and only then with man and humanity. He has become a man of God, and his new weapon is the most powerful one of all, his Voice. His prayers.

Thus, even though on a physical sense the "man" had prevailed, the encounter had transformed Jacob. He was no longer going to rely on his strength or wealth, only on his voice. The voice of Jacob, the power of his prayer, is far superior to the strength of the "man", and thus it was the "man" who was vanquished.

And, anticlimactically, so was Esav transformed. According to the sages, he indeed had been intent upon attacking Jacob. But, for some inexplicable reason, he became merciful at that moment. The Torah has dots on top of the word "And he kissed him" to indicate that this was a special event that happened in that moment. How did it happen?

Simple. Esav had planned to kill Jacob. The man standing before him now was Yisrael. He had planned to attack his manipulative brother. Instead, he met a man of God.

Thus, I firmly believe that when the State of Israel behaves according to her name, Yisrael, people will see a nation of God.

Turning Everything Into Gold

The basic principle can be found in a seemingly insignificant detail of the story of Jacob and his reconciliation with his brother, Esau. Esau had proclaimed his intent to murder Jacob, so Jacob had fled to his relatives in Mesopotamia. While there, he married and had 12 children. Now, 20 years later, he was returning to the land of Canaan. He did not know if his brother had reconciled himself to Jacob's existence, or if he still harbored murderous intent. So Jacob makes a plan.

His plan is based on the concept of three things: appeasement, preparation for battle, and prayer. Let's focus on the first of the three, appeasement. Jacob takes "whatever animals came to his hand," and prepared to send them as a gift to his brother Esau. The commentary written by the sainted Chofetz Haim asks why he Jacob did not intentionally take the best of his flocks? Why only "whatever animals come to hand?" He answers that Jacob observed the Torah's laws, and among them are the laws of kosher slaughtering of animals.

Esau, on the other hand, did not observe these laws. Therefore, Jacob didn't want to hand his animals over willingly to his brother, who would slaughter them in a nonkosher method, and cause them to be on a lower level of holiness. Apparently, being slaughtered in the kosher fashion as a spiritual effect even on animals!

Jewish law puts an emphasis on kindness to animals, and avoiding cruelty to them. A Talmudic story about one of the great rabbis illustrates the point. The rabbi was standing, when an animal which was due to be slaughtered escaped from the shochet, the ritual slaughter, and hid between the rabbi's legs. The rabbi told the animal, "go and submit yourself, because this is why you were created." Even though he was technically right, the rabbi was stricken by illness and attributed it to his sin of being insensitive to that animal. Later, he corrected his sin and was healed.

Another detail in the appeasement efforts of Jacob makes a similar point. Jacob had sent all the animals with his servants and slaves. The Chofetz Haim explains that Esau might have thought that the slaves were also for him. Thus, Jacob specifically instructs them to say, "these (we) are belonging to Jacob your brother, and are sending this gift to you...". In other words, Jacob was not giving his servants to Esau. Why not? Because, the rabbi explains, as long as they were in Jacob's household, they also were observing the laws of the Torah. If Jacob would give them to his brother, their holiness would be diminished, as they would cease observing the Torah.

From both of these stories we see a unique responsibility upon Jacob. It is not enough that he is nice and respectful of his servants, and kind to his animals. It is not enough to treat others well, there is a stronger obligation. He must uplift them! He must enable them all to reach their maximum spiritual potential. Even the animals have spiritual potential, and being part of a Torah household means living on a higher level. Thus, Jacob would not single out the animals to be given to Esau, rather he left it to chance, to "whatever comes to his hand."

Similarly, even if Esau would provide his servants with the most wonderful accommodations and pampering treatment, it would still be a disservice for Jacob to give them to him. Why? Because he would be lowering their spiritual level. Jacob could not afford to be humble, he had to know that his way of life was superior because of its greater spirituality. He had a responsibility to his servants to help them achieve their highest possible level.

Sadly, many leaders in the world today lead by reading polls. They don't seek to improve their people, they seek to appease them and please them. Even when Jacob was appeasing Esau, he did not allow himself to compromise the spirituality of anyone, or anything, under his influence.

However, Jacob also failed to do this in one element of his repatriation with Esau. After the reunion, Jacob's daughter Dina is kidnapped and raped by the Prince of Shechem. Our sages claim that this was punishment for how Jacob treated Dina when he was approaching Esau. Basically, he hid her in a box so that his brother would not see her and desire to marry her. Now, he may have thought that he was preventing her from being brought to a lower level by marrying Esau.

In truth, however, Dina would have had the power and influence to reform Esau! Jacob prevented this, he missed an opportunity to uplift and inspire his brother, and what followed was a punishment for that. While the appropriateness of such a "punishment" can be debated, the principle we are discussing shines clearly through: we must do everything to uplift and inspire every human being upon whom we have influence.

So, if the Jews would rule the world, it would be their responsibility to protect and inspire all of humanity. Indeed, as the Jews control the state of Israel, they must work to educate and uplift all residents of the land. We have a duty to fight off the negative influences, to expel the preachers of hate and to put an end to the vile anti-Semitic incitement and brainwashing taking place. We need to throw our weight around and make sure that all children are educated in the ways of God, specifically in the seven basic Laws of Morality that mankind received in the time of Noah. "Thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal," are among the basics.

It is our job to make sure that everything we touch turns to spiritual gold.

The Life-Changing Perspective of Ecclesiastes

The rabbis wanted to keep this book out of the canon because of so many of the verses that give a wrong impression. However, when they saw the final verse of Ecclesiastes, they relented. What does this verse say? "At the end of the matter, after all has been heard, you should fear the Lord and observe His commandments, for this is the totality of man."

In other words, since the book ends on an unambiguous note of piety, it is okay for the masses to read. Really? Does one verse at the end undo all of the problematic verses that precede it?

A commentary, the Ketav Sofer, elucidates one verse which gives us the key to understanding all of these verses. "What advantage does one gain from all of his work that he will labor at under the sun?" He asks our question, that there is certainly benefit for work! No, because at the end of the day, King Solomon tells us, the wise man and the fool, the rich man and the pauper, will meet the same end. After life is over, no one has any advantage.

That is what happens when one labors "under the sun." But if one labors for "over the sun," for the sake of Heaven, there is tremendous benefit. This is hinted at by the use of the future tense, "that he will labor under the sun." It is not commenting on the work he has already done, but his intentions for the future. If his intentions are to collect earthly toys, he will never see that advantage last. But if he labors for the sake of Heaven, for that place which is above the sun, he will most certainly have an advantage.

Rabbi Norman Lamm, the former president of Yeshiva University, expounds on this book beautifully. King Solomon, according to the Aramaic commentator Yonatan ben Uzziel, wrote this book with an element of prophecy. There is a profound difference between wisdom and prophecy. The former can indeed give happiness! Knowledge demonstrably improves our quality and effectiveness in life. These are key elements in happiness, and this cannot be dismissed. King Solomon himself pursued wisdom to the end of his days.

Prophecy, on the other hand, contains the seeds of depression. Why? Because King Solomon saw that everything he had built in his kingdom would be squandered and destroyed in future generations. In his son's time, the kingdom would split in two. Centuries after, the entire nation would be exiled and afflicted. And, yes, every accomplishment one makes in this world eventually disappears after we are gone. Who knows if our great-great-grandchildren will even know the most basic things about us, let alone our talents, our accomplishments, our loves, our dreams.

Wisdom looks at our present and immediate future, while prophecy looks way down the road. Wisdom can give us short-term optimism in happiness. Prophecy shows us how futile everything is. Or so it seems...

Then comes that final verse, that magical conclusion to Ecclesiastes, "At the end of the matter, after all has been heard, you should fear the Lord and observe His commandments, for this is the totality of man." This verse is not just putting a kashrut certificate on a questionable work! It is giving us the whole context! And that is: if everything you do in this world is sanctified by dedication to the fear of the Lord, it is of value and will last forever.

One's great-great-grandchildren may not know the details of their life, but God certainly does! And God is eternal. All of the verses in the book that seem to make light of important values such as wisdom, piety, labor, joy and love, do so when they are dedicated to worldly success, to happiness "under the sun." All of that is vanity indeed. But when they are dedicated to God, when they are sanctified to heaven, which is "above the sun," they become eternal.

As I first contemplated the depressing aspects of this book, I found myself feeling down. I love to get excited about a new project, and here, King Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, is telling me to get depressed, not excited, because it's all vanity and worthlessness. And then I went to take a nap in my sukkah. It was there that I felt this answer to these questions.

The sukkah is the physical embodiment of the book of Ecclesiastes. Its walls are flimsy, its roof is porous. Nothing about it will last, except that it symbolizes the eternity of the Jewish people. And that is because it is dedicated to God. The Talmud tells us that God's Name is written into the very fiber of the sukkah. And then I cheered up, because I understood that by dedicating all of my exciting projects to fulfilling God's purpose in the world, happiness and love and wisdom and wealth have tremendous value.

Dealing with Failure (The Spies)

The Israelites chose what would seem to be repentance. They proclaimed, "Here we are, we shall go up, for we have sinned." They are ready to go into the Promised Land, they will follow God's command. But Moses warned them to cease, because "You should not be routed by your enemies, because God is not with you."

God had told Moses not to allow the people to enter Israel. He had sworn an oath that they must wander in the wilderness for 40 years, until the adult generation that sinned with the spies had passed from the earth. Once God has taken an oath, there is no option for nullifiication. NOT precipitating an entry to the land becomes a Divine commandment. Thus, even though it would seem that the Israelites wanted to repent, by proceeding to attempt to conquer Israel they are committing a new sin.

This moves the goal posts, and brings the question on to God. Why did He swear that they must perish in the wilderness? Why not leave an opening for repentance, and why not embrace the children of Israel's desire to correct yesterday's wrong?

I would like to suggest two answers. The first relates to the manner in which the Israelites, newly freed slaves, connect to the rest of the world. Sovereignty requires maturity, and the ability to carefully weigh all options before making decisions. To run your own country, and run it stably, is not easy. It requires a steadiness and a commitment to foundational values.

The history of the Israelites in the wilderness was the opposite of this. Every time they camped, there was a crisis. When there was no water, people already cried out that they wished to return to Egypt. In the section prior to this story in the Torah, the Israelites resented the manna that was their food, and desired the delicacies of Egypt. Going back to the golden calf, the moment Moses seemed to delay his return, the people panicked and demanded that that calf be created. What is the common denominator of all of these stories?

A lack of stability, and emotional volatility. If this is the way that the people run their affairs, sovereignty will be a disaster for them. They will be completely vulnerable to fear and weakness, and to the seduction of the pagan ways of life surrounding them. In other words, they might quickly sin, thus forfeit God's protection, and hasten their exile.

Modern history has taught us the dangers of granting sovereignty to a volatile people that is not ready for it. When the United States invaded Iraq, many believe that by setting up a democracy, a Middle Eastern civil society would emerge. This naive approach ignored the deep ethnic hatreds and primitive ways of dealing with them that were prevalent in the lands of Iraq. By putting on the outer garment of free elections, the West fooled themselves into believing that the people wearing those garments would be transformed. It did not work that way, and Iraq today is an anarchic mess.

Perhaps for this reason God wanted the Israelites to remain in the desert, even if their next-day-repentance was sincere. God loves his people, and wanted them to be completely ready to enter the holy land. One could say that the spies episode was a test of that readiness. If the people had a steadiness of faith, they would not have been moved by the fear mongering of the 10 spies. They might have said, "It's a challenge, but God will be with us and we can meet that challenge." Had they done so, they would have proven that they were no longer subject to the winds of emotion.

A second, complementary reason for God's desire not to allow the Israelites to succeed on the day after is the lesson of the day after itself. In other words, God wanted to teach them how to deal with failure. After all, the entire exodus has been leading up to the entrance to the land of Israel, and the spies were the first part of making that dream a reality. It blew up in their faces. How do you deal with that?

God sees into the hearts of men, and knew that the repentance the people expressed on the day after was really Freudian denial. What had happened yesterday caused them such shame, that they wished to make believe it had never happened. They stood before Moses and said, "Here we are." Whatever happened yesterday was somebody else. We are here.

The danger of denial is that it prevents identifying and healing the flaw that is being denied. Something was fatally wrong with that generation, and had the Israelites been able to go into Israel the next day, that fatal flaw would have remained untreated. As we have said, that flaw was an instability, and emotional volatility.

King David said, "Yay though I walk through the valley of the shadow of deepest darkness, I fear no evil, for You are with me." There are two concepts that are crucial to the religious person's identity and success: Belief and Faith. Belief means knowing that God exists. The Israelites were certain of God's existence, their belief was complete. After all they had seen in Egypt and at Mount Sinai, it would've been nearly impossible to lack a strong belief.

Faith, though, is another story. Another word for Faith is Trust. Trust that God will protect, trust that God's instructions are good, thus that God has our interests at heart. King David was expressing trust, that no matter how terrifying the world around him became, he knew that God was with him. As a result, he concludes the psalm by saying, "Only goodness and kindness shall pursue me all the days of my life, and I shall sit in the House of the Lord for the length of days."

King David was the greatest sovereign of the entire monarchic era. That was thanks to his Faith, his trust. It was this kind of Trust that was missing from the desert generation. Without it, they would not have lasted as a sovereign nation in the land of Israel. God saw that they needed the time in the desert to gain this trust, to follow God wherever He led them.

"I have remembered the kindness of your youth, as you walked behind Me in the desert." God wanted a new generation to enter the land, a generation that had grown up with this level of Trust. Perhaps the word "youth" might be taken literally, to refer to the children of the Exodus generation, who would be the ones to enter and build sovereignty in the land of Israel.

A third, additional answer, thus emerges. God wished to show this new generation that His word, when accompanied by an oath, will be fulfilled no matter what. If his oath to keep them in the wilderness would be fulfilled, then his promise to bring them into the land of their fathers and bless them would certainly be fulfilled. With that faith, they would be ready to assume the responsibilities of sovereignty. They would be stable, they would be firm, they would be unafraid and unaffected by the threats and temptations of the peoples around them.

Faith Is Not What You Think

As the Israelites stood before the Red (Reed?) Sea, pursued by the Egyptians and cornered, Moses stood to give them a lecture on faith. God rebukes him and says that he must simply tell the people to walk forward, into the sea. There is only one taker, a man named Nachshon ben Aminadav, the prince of the tribe of Judah. He proceeds forward, and wades into the sea.

Nothing happens. The water gets up to his knees, waist, shoulders, and still nothing happens. Is he to commit suicide in front of the entire people? When he finally gets in up to his nostrils, his last chance for air, then the sea majestically splits.

Later, after the people have passed through, and then witnessed the drowning of the entire Egyptian army, the Torah tells us that the people "believed in God and in Moses, His servant."

Why now, after all they saw in Egypt with the ten plagues, do they finally believe in God? And why did the Torah not tell us so at the beginning, at the moment when the sea split? Why wait till after they had already crossed and seen the demise of Egypt? Thirdly, why did Nachshon have to get in up to his nose before the sea split? Was that really necessary? Of course it was. How so?

The Psalmist recites, in the paragraph beginning "When Israel left Egypt" that, "The sea saw and fled, and the Jordan withdrew backwards." The chapter continues with the question, "What, o sea, caused you to flee, and o Jordan River to withdraw backwards?" The answer, "From before the Lord, who initiated the world, and from before the Lord of Jacob."

One may ask, were not the Israelites destined to leave Egypt because of their ancestors' merit? The chapter implies that at the beginning, when it describes the exodus as being so that "Judah should be His holy one, and Israel [should be] His kingdom." That is why they left, so why wonder why the sea split and the Jordan, at the entrance to the Land of Israel, withdrew?

And the answer is, indeed, the ancestors' merit was not sufficient, and their own merit was also lacking. God had made a condition with the sea already at the time of creation. "You must split at the exact moment, many generations hence, when the Israelites arrive on their way out of Egypt". The sea split not because Israel deserved it, but because it was pre-programmed to. that is what the verse means when it says, "From before the Lord, Who initiated the world."

The next phrase, however, gives us more: "Before the God of Jacob." There are three names in this chapter: 1. Israel, 2. Jacob, and 3. Judah. Let's look at the first two, because therein lies the difference and the secret of true faith.

Jacob was promised by God that he would return safely to the land of his fathers after fleeing his brother's wrath. And yet, when he was about to cross the Jordan upon his return, he was seized by fear that his brother would annihilate him and his whole family. Why the fear, if he had a Divine promise?

I believe Jacob doubted himself, not God. He felt inadequate, and feared that God would withdraw his trust from him, thus abandoning him to his fate. And this is the faith that Jacob lost at that point, his faith in God's trust. Previously, about Abraham it was written, 'He believed in God, and God considered it righteousness." Just righteousness? Should belief be a fundamental?

Rather, Abraham believed in God's Trust, that even if his descendents aren't, at that moment, worthy of miracles, God will still show His trust to them and thus make them worthy in the future. Even if they are lacking in merit, God's trust will transform them, IF they believe in it.

This is what Nachshon accomplished. He was challenging God, and, in effect, saying "If You trust me to go forth and change the world, then you will let me cross this sea. If You do not extend trust to me, then my life is of no import and it will end here." Faith means believe in God's Trust, and walk through the sea.

So, too, the Israelites did not need to see the splitting of the sea to believe in God's existence. They needed to see that Egypt would not annihilate them as they emerged on the other side. They needed to see that their path was clear to the future. Only then, after they saw Egypt destroyed, did they believe that, warts and all, they had God's Trust.

And why does God extend His trust so? Because He knows that we are a nation of Judah, the third name in the list. This refers to Nachshon, who came from the tribe of Judah. He knows that we desire to go forth into the world and transform it. "Judah shall be His holy one." This refers to that which is said at Sinai, "You shall be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation."

Because Judah, and all Israel who follow his example, dreams of fixing the world, God gives His trust, and splits seas and rivers for him. Jacob had doubts about whether he deserved God's trust. After he struggled with the angel, his name was changed to Israel. Now he believed that God's trust was forever. Nachshon, therefore, had no hesitation about walking into the sea.

Ours is to have faith that God trusts us. That trust creates a responsibility on our part to live higher lives, and go forth into the world to fix it, piece by piece.

The Punishment Fits the Crime?

The major event in the Torah portion is the sin of the Golden calf. In that case, it is a bit easier to understand why a death sentence was brought upon the worshipers. After all, people have just received the 10 Commandments, and their entire identity was predicated upon true monotheism. To then, 40 days later, start running around worshiping a golden calf and proclaiming, "These are the gods who brought you out of Egypt," is certainly a terrible terrible sin. What caused the people to do it?

I believe it is hinted at in the way the people phrased their request to Aaron to make a God for them. They needed it, they explained, because, "We do not know what has happened to this man, Moses." The key word in that sentence is "Man".

Moses was certainly a man, so why emphasize his humanity? The answer is because they knew that, although Moses was as human as anyone else, he was not just a man. He was a man of God. They had seen him ascend Mount Sinai when God spoke, they saw him in Egypt being God's agent. This was no ordinary man. He had in him an abundance of an element that is crucial to human fulfillment and purpose: Holiness.

By erasing Moses's holiness, the people demonstrated a rejection of the Torah's holiness, and perhaps even of God's. They sought to bring religion down into the physical world, rather than elevate the physical world towards heaven. Moses was a man, a great one, but a man in this world. If he can't be with us, we want something else physical, in this world. Why did the people not turn to Aaron to lead them if Moses was now missing? Because Aaron oozed holiness, and the people were not interested. They wanted something physical that they could control, a golden god would do just fine.

Holiness is the key ingredient in our lives, or it should be. I remember, as a child, asking a theoretical question. Can a person steal religion? What if a person observes the Sabbath perfectly, but claims they do so not because of God, but because they like it. Do they get credit for this Mitzvah? A friend suggested that one can, indeed, be guilty of theft in so doing. The Talmud tells us that a person should fulfill the Commandments for the sake of heaven. If given the choice between fulfilling the Mitzvah not for the sake of heaven, or not doing it at all, one should do the Mitzvah, because it will help them eventually grow to fulfilling Commandments for the sake of heaven.

In other words, the only value of keeping the religion without God in it is the hope that by continually doing so, God will become part of the picture. On its own, it has no value. I believe this is hinted at in one of the rules of the daily prayer service. The central prayer, the Silent Devotion, contains a series of 19 blessings. The first three are considered a group, and can not be separated. For example, if one omitted a crucial phrase in the third blessing and remembered it later in the prayer, they cannot just go back to that third blessing. They must go back to the beginning of the prayer, since the first three cannot be separated. What are those first three?

The first blessing is about the heritage of the Jewish people, describing our relationship with God, and his relationship with the patriarchs. The second blessing deals with our faith in God, how He sustains all life, heals the sick, revives the dead, brings us rain and sustenance. The third blessing describes God's Holiness. It would seem that the first two are sufficient, since they outline our belief in the Jewish people being chosen, and our faith in God running the world.

And, yet, it is not enough. Even if you believe perfectly, and practice perfectly, but do not have a sense of Holiness, your life is deeply lacking. So much so, that it may not even be worth living. If religion is just a higher form of mundane, and does not touch the mysteries of heaven, our life is simply a biological fact. With no deeper spiritual meaning, we are as dead people, having no lasting influence.

This is why the Priests must wash their hands and feet before entering the sanctuary. It is because of Holiness, it is because they will be in the presence of the Lord. A person's hands represent the deeds they do in their life. Their feet represent the places they travel through during their existence. Both of these must be sanctified before coming into the Tabernacle. By doing so, the Priests recognize the Holiness of the presence of God in His house.

To not wash hands and feet implies erasing the sense of Holiness from the Tabernacle. It becomes another job, to make sure that the religious services are properly delivered, and nothing more than that. It is going beyond "Moses, the man," is saying "this building, the Tabernacle." A life without Holiness is a life bereft of meaning. The Talmud says that there are two sins that ignorant people die from: 1. They call the Ark (where the Torah is kept) a "chest." 2. They call a synagogue a "community center." In other words, by erasing Holiness from religion, life loses its meaning.

It is forbidden to touch the Torah scroll with one's bare hands. The Talmud states that whoever "holds the Torah while naked (meaning that their hands are not covered), will be buried naked." The Talmud asks how this can be? The answer given is that the person, while not physically naked, will be buried without reward for this deed of touching the Torah -- presumably to honor the Torah by tightening or supporting it. They will be "naked from that Mitzvah." What does this mean?

It means that the person who does so, who grabs the Torah with their bare hands, fails to show respect to the Holiness of the Torah scroll. Now it would've been sufficient for the Talmud to say that they will not get reward for having honored the Torah by touching it and fixing it. Why go to the funeral and state, "they will be buried without this Mitzvah?" Because a life without Holiness is akin to death. Even when a person observes a technically perfect religion, if they do not honor the Holiness and strive for it, the religion is simply a mundane mode of living. It is only physical, and the physical perishes in the end.

A Jew washes their hands in the morning, first thing after awakening. Why so? One explanation is because a person might have scratched themselves during the night and got in their hands dirty. Cleanliness is next to godliness, and they say. Another explanation is because the person was one sixtieth dead during the night. Sleep is considered 1/60 of death, and death is impurity. Thus, we purify our hands in the morning when we return to life and have our full soul reinstated in our bodies.

To me, this goes beyond just cleanliness. By washing our hands in the morning, we are embracing Holiness for the entire day. We are dedicating the day to the pursuit of heaven, just as the Priests prepare themselves to enter the Tabernacle by washing. The Talmud says that a person who fails to wash their hands in the morning will be fearful the entire day long. Fearful of what? Well, as King David says, "though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for Thou art with me." When we are dedicated to Holiness, our souls sense God's presence and protection. Without it, we are afraid of what the physical world might bring.

To truly live, a person must seek out and strive for the mystery of Holiness in everything they do. In the words of a song I once wrote, "I would take a piece of heaven, and with my piece of heaven, I would transform the world."

Charity and Wealth in Judaism

As God prepares to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, He gives them two important commandments. The first one is to offer up the firstborn of the animals to God. The second is to put the phylacteries on our arms and heads. This latter commandment is known in Hebrew as "Tefillin." Religious Jews wrap two boxes on themselves that contain chapters from the Bible. One is wrapped around the arm, the other is wrapped around the head.

Why were these two commandments given at this particular point in time? What is their relevance to leaving Egypt?

The Israelites were enslaved in Egypt. They were now on the cusp of freedom. And yet, even though they were leaving Egyptian slavery, they might not fully achieve freedom! Freedom is more than the lack of a task master beating you. It is a spiritual state as well. These two commandments point the way towards true freedom. How so?

Going back to Genesis, we recall the story of Cain and Abel. Cain brought an offering of "some of his fruits." Abel brought an offering of his firstborn flocks. God accepted Abel's offering and did not accept Cain's. What was the difference between them?

Simply, it was their entire concept of serving God. Abel served God because he understood that through God comes all meaning in life. Cain served God so that God shouldn't smite him. The true servant of God realizes that the lifelong quest to cleave to the Divine provides all meaning and all worth. Every individual has their own unique gifts, and by channeling them to doing God's will we achieve fulfillment.

The pagan servant of God, or gods, believes that divinity must be appeased. We can pursue our own aims, chase our own pots of gold, as long as we give God his due. In more mundane terms, the gods must be bribed. Then they will leave us alone, or even give us good fortune.

That was Cain. He kept the best for himself, and tried to get away with giving some of the rest to God. Abel, on the other hand, got it right. He knew that by giving the best to God, he could properly fulfill his existence in this world. That's why he gave the firstborn of his flocks.

That is what these two commandments signify. The giving of the firstborn shows that true freedom is the pursuit of the divine. Otherwise we become enslaved by our pursuit of worldly wealth, power, glory. One look at celebrity train wrecks will show how empty that is, how enslaving that is.

The tying of the phylacteries on the arm and head symbolizes dedicating our deeds (the box on the arm symbolizes doing things) and our thoughts (the box on the head) to the pursuit of the divine. Otherwise, we become enslaved by our passions and ego demands.

The amazing story of Nathan Strauss illustrates this. Nathan and his brother Isadore were fabulously wealthy, the co-owners of Macy's and Abraham and Strauss. They were brought to Palestine in 1912 by the Jewish community to get their financial support. There were shown all over the country, and hit up for money. Nathan was especially taken with the Jewish settlements, and chose to remain after their appointed day of departure came. Isadore and his wife made their way back to England, and from there as set forth to return to New York.

They never made it. Their ship struck an iceberg in the middle of the night, and despite its being touted as the "unsinkable ship," the Titanic went down with the Strausses aboard. Nathan's fascination with helping the Jews of Palestine literally saved his life. He would give two thirds of his fortune to building up the future state of Israel.

Nathan understood that charity, that pursuing God's will, is what really matters in life. It's not making millions and then giving charity to make it look good or to feel better. It's seeing charity and kindness as the goals of life. That is true freedom, that is true worth.

Why Slavery?

The Israelites were commanded to have a Passover offering, a lamb, on that fateful night of liberation. Part of that command involves their wardrobe while eating the sacrifice. "Your loins shall be girded, your staves in hand and your shoes on your feet." Why specify what they Israelites were to wear?

My teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik, explained the singular historical fact that Jewish liberation never followed the pattern of many other liberation movements. The French Revolution, for example, was followed by a bloodbath of all those who were deemed enemies of the regime. The same happened in many other countries throughout history. When one group rebelled and took control, they usually became equally barbaric to those whom they had just defeated.

Not so the Jewish people. The Israelites were commanded to "love the Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land." On the surface, one would think they should avenge all of the suffering they were put through! Certainly on a natural level, the Israelites should have desired to smash a few Egyptian faces. Nothing of the sort happened. How is that possible?

I believe there were two critical reasons for the Israelites to be enslaved in Egypt. They both relate to God's ultimate purpose for this world -- Tikkun, correcting. Fixing that which is broken takes precedence, in God's hierarchy of priorities, over rewarding that which is already fixed. As they say, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. We are all part of the chain of humanity and human history, and as such, must make sure that the weakest links will still hold under pressure.

God's main tool for fixing the world is none other than the nation of Israel. I believe that's why our history has been what it's been. All of that oppression prepared us to go forth and fix the world. How so?

First of all, I believe we were enslaved in order to impress upon us the urgency of this mission. By experiencing suffering, by experiencing the worst injustice in this world, we become sensitized to the need to rid the world of such things. The people of Israel are always in the forefront of the fight for human rights and human welfare. We simply can't stand suffering, and dedicate ourselves towards its alleviation. Jews are always working to find the cure to the worst diseases, marching for the rights of the oppressed, contributing huge amounts of charity to help the poor, to strengthen education, to fix the world! This sensitivity is a direct outgrowth of our having "been there".

The nation that left Egypt marched forth with a sense of mission. We were headed for Mount Sinai, we were headed to receive God's law and finally understand how to make this world a beautiful place for all those who live in it. But still, why was that not also the case in the French Revolution? Why did those who rebelled for equality and brotherhood become oppressors who denied the equality and brotherhood of others?

This question brings me to the second reason for the Egyptian slavery. It was so that we do not become overly attached to this material world. It was so that we disdain physical things, and elevate spiritual purpose above all else. Egypt was a deeply materialistic society. It was hedonistic, licentious. Wealth and power were the highest attributes one could aspire to.

I believe that the terrible cruelty of the Egyptians made the Israelites reject them and their materialistic culture. One rabbi, a Holocaust survivor, once commented that he expected the Jewish people to forever reject all Western culture after the second world war. It should have been seen as being worthless, if such "high culture" could not prevent the countries that practiced it from becoming barbarians. It would've been expected for the Jews to throw out the German poetry and music that covered over the deep hatred that resided in their souls.

In truth, it is not the culture that was to blame. It was the elevation of that culture above all else. It was the stress put on the pleasures, physical or emotional, of this material world. The Israelites learned to put this world in its place. They learn to keep physical things subservient to spiritual things. When you are a slave, this physical world holds no attractions for you. A piece of bread is the most precious thing in the world to a man who is starving.

Rabbi Soloveichik stresses that there were two elements of liberation at the time of the exodus. First, there was the physical liberation from slavery. If that were all there was, though, we probably would have descended into vengeful behavior. After all, if this world is about feeling good, then we should want to punish those who made us feel bad. That, in and of itself, would probably feel good.

So there was a need for another element of liberation. Spiritual freedom. Spiritual freedom is only possible when we are not enslaved by our physical desires. That is the meaning of the wardrobe requirements of the liberation evening. Girding our loins means subjugating our physical drives to the spiritual goal of reaching Mount Sinai. We did not leave Egypt to feel good. We left Egypt in order to fix the world. That is the highest spiritual goal anyone could set.

In a sense, one could say that without the spiritual liberation, there really was no freedom. Yes, we would be losing the Egyptian taskmaster, but gaining the taskmaster of our own uncontrollable drives. Spiritual liberation, which is only possible through controlling our physical desires and de-emphasizing the material world, is what really set us free.

Thus, we gained two crucial tools for our job of fixing the world. We gained a sensitivity to all human suffering, and we gained an understanding that the spiritual, not the physical, is the key to true freedom. Without both of those elements together, you could not succeed in our mission. With them, we are and we will.

Music and Judaism

Music is very powerful. According to Jewish tradition, as stated by the great Gaon of Vilna, music is the highest form of wisdom, after the Torah itself. And the Torah itself is described as a "song" in the section of Ha'azinu. When the Red sea split, the people sang, and in that song were elevated to highest levels of prophecy.

Yes, music is very powerful indeed. It is an international language, that speaks to the human on the emotional level. Music expresses tension and relief, mystery, holiness, drama, resolution. Music is an absolute requirement in a movie, for it provides the "soundtrack of our lives".

So what music is forbidden? Well, as with anything so powerful, it can be perverted for the bad. Music also accompanies the worst of orgiastic sins. It can lead the thoughts and emotions to lust. Thus, a lot of contemporary music, with its sexual innuendo - and sometimes overt content - is not acceptable to religious Jews.

Songs that urge us to "Come on and do the fill-in-the-blank", when whatever fill-in-the-blank referred to is forbidden, should not be listened to. Period. Despite what Spock says, Harold Robbins steamy novels are not great literature. Music can create a HUGE emotional drive to do something, so we have to be careful that it's for the good.

Fortunately, there is so much good music out there that no sacrifice is necessary. I've heard of an occasional rabbi criticizing classical music, but I can't accept that. He reasoned that military marches advocate warfare and bloodshed, which are not Jewish values. In my opinion, that's an extreme point of view. I doubt someone will go kill someone after listening to Tchaikovsky.

But after listening to some of today's hip-hop stars, I can definitely see murder as a possibility, God forbid. Recall the connection between a certain singer and the Columbine High School killers. Scary. and something to take warning from.

Music is required on Shabbat and festivals. We are to sing special songs for Shabbat, starting with Lecha Dodi and Shalom Aleichem, and continuing through the zemirot. These songs, sung at the meal, are an extension of the Biblical commandment of Kiddush, of sanctifying the day. They should be sung, and thus we fulfill a greater level of mitzva.

Synagogue services require music. In fact, I have an old German prayer book that has printed the traditional melody required in a number of places for some ancient prayers. The cantor's job is to inspire the congregation. Without music, that would be impossible. Even the Torah is read to a singsong melody.

Judaism NEEDS music, of the uplifting quality.

And that is why a lot of so-called Hasidic music is so very wrong. Yes, wrong. Verses from the Torah should not be set to tunes that could be played in a disco. It cheapens them. I've heard too many songs where the words don't even fit, yet the composer insisted on creating some "dance" style pop hit.

If you want to write a pop hit, by all means do so. Write your own lyrics, that are in the same spirit as your pop-dance-whatever melody. Keep it clean, and go for it. Don't take some poor pasuk-verse and twist it into a twisted creation.

Look at Carlebach. His tunes are lively, joyful, and in complete harmony with the words of the verse he chose. That must always be the goal. What is more uplifting than singing the same Carlebach or similar REAL Hasidic tune over and over as you dance with the joy of the festival?

Also, what is more uplifting than Beethoven's Ode to Joy? They are all examples of how important music can be to us. It must be used, not abused. Remember, our Messiah will descend from David, who was the "Sweet Singer of Israel". The more we sing, the better the world!