Rebuilding Family Relationships

It is the emotional highlight of the whole Joseph saga. After having sold Joseph into slavery and sending him to Egypt, the brothers lied to their father that Joseph had been eaten by a beast and was apparently dead. Jacob's mourning was intense and unending. The years went past and Joseph had no knowledge of his father, and vice versa.

Many question why Joseph never sent a letter. Some theorize that Joseph suspected his father may have known about the plot. Perhaps he refrained so as not to have to deal with his brothers again before they repented and begged forgiveness. That would explain why he strung them along after they came to buy food in Egypt and did not reveal his identity immediately.

Either way, a son loves his father and a father loves his son. At the moment when Jacob arrived at Joseph's palace, Joseph ran out to greet him. They embraced, a story which always brings a lump to my throat. However, the Torah says that only Joseph cried, not Jacob. One would expect some emotional reaction! What was Jacob doing?

Incredibly, he was reciting the Shema prayer, "Hear oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one."

At that moment? Couldn't it wait a few seconds? Please cry tears of joy, Jacob! What on Earth was he doing?

It is intriguing to investigate, as the police do during a corruption probe, "Who knew what and when?" Did Jacob ever find out just HOW Joseph got to Egypt? Did the brothers keep the cover up till the end? I wonder if all the brothers knew. What about Benjamin, Joseph's younger brother? He certainly would not have approved of the brothers sale of Joseph.

And what about Reuben? He was absent when they sold Joseph. In fact, he never wanted to harm Joseph. He urged the brothers to put Joseph in the pit so as to go back later and save him. When he did so, and found the pit empty, he was beside himself with guilt and fear. We don't see that the brothers ever told him. Indeed, later on, when they stood before Joseph to buy food, Reuben says, "I told you not to harm the boy (Joseph), and now his blood is being demanded." From this it seems that Reuben thought that Joseph was indeed dead. I'm betting he was never told either.

In fact, my main concern about the entire story and its aftermath is that there are too many tears, and no laughter. Yes, the tears make sense in that there was great trauma, and tragic things had been done. But still, there is no joy here, except in Jacob's heart. His "spirit lived". He's the only one. I am reminded of Romeo and Juliet, where, at the beginning, Romeo is enamored of a woman named Rosalind. He mopes and mopes from love. When he meets Juliet, all of a sudden he is the life of the party. Something was wrong with the love of Rosalind, and something was right with that of Juliet.

The place where the brothers AND Joseph went wrong was in never really talking and never really reconciling. They didn't talk. Reuben didn't know, wasn't told. I suppose Jacob and Benjamin also. And Joseph never really talked to his brothers either. Sure, he did comfort them and say that it turned out to be good that they sold him, but he never said to them "You hurt me, and even so I forgive you." He never expressly forgave them. He talked at them, not to them.

At the beginning of the story, the diagnosis was made, "They (the brothers) could not speak peacefully to him (Joseph)".

Why did they not talk? Perhaps because they were prey to the sin of Cain, to jealousy. They valued themselves in comparison to others, and could not brook that Joseph might rise above them. Now that it had happened, for them to apologize would be akin to admitting defeat. They couldn't get past it.

But Jacob reacted differently. Even if he wasn't told clearly how his son got to Egypt in the first place, he definitely understood that there was a lethal tension between the brothers, and that they did not communicate. He immediately sought the cure, and hoped it would bring back the joy of love. Shema, listen. God is teaching us that the primary rule of human relations is to listen. Cain did not listen, he struck. The brothers did not listen, they dismissed and hated.

When one values himself in God's eyes, and not in competition with others, he will listen to, care for, and rejoice with others. "The Lord is one." This is an obligation. We must be one, unified, as well. If we live to find favor in God's eyes, other humans are no longer competition but rather fellow travelers to whom we wish success.

Had the brothers, all of them, truly listened to each other, there would have been less tears, a true reconciliation, and smiles all around. Let's achieve that in our personal lives, it's much more fun.

The Shortcut to True Interpersonal Excellence

Joseph seems to repeat the judgment error of his father with regards to his brother, Benjamin. After he has identified himself to the brothers, he sends them back to the land of Canaan to bring Jacob to Egypt. As departing gifts, he gives them all jackets. Benjamin, however, gets five jackets! He also gets 300 coins, something that his brothers did not get. Joseph is clearly favoring Benjamin, despite the chance that, once again, the brothers will be jealous and perhaps try to harm him on their way back to the land of Canaan. Why do it? He saw what happened to himself when his father did, hasn't he learned?

He has absolutely learned! In fact, Joseph makes one nuanced change in his treatment of Benjamin and the brothers: he also gives the other brothers jackets. When his father made his famous coat of many colors, he was the only recipient of any coat whatsoever. The brothers saw this as favoritism for Joseph at their own expense. It became him or them, and when the opportunity arose, they chose them.

Joseph, however, sends a very different message. You are all of worth, you all deserve jackets. Benjamin has a special role to fulfill, so therefore he gets five jackets and 300 pieces of money. It's not to denigrate or diminish you, it simply to recognize him as having a special role for all of our benefit. This, it seems, was Joseph's message all the time. When he originally chose to tell the brothers his dreams, it was not to make them feel small, but to make them recognize that his father's treatment of him was for the general good.

This, however, gives us a powerful insight into Joseph's psychology. It has been pointed out that the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers remained incomplete until the end. Joseph never said to them, "You hurt me, and I need you to apologize." Instead, he reassured him that everything that they did was part of God's plan, "do not let this bother you." As a result, the brothers could not apologize, since Joseph was absolving them of any guilt. Why would he do that?

Within a family, there are two main types of relationships: 1. Brother to brother, and, 2. Parent to child. The first relationship involves a feeling of "us." The brothers are all in it together, they identify with each other. They may fight, they may share, but they all feel a connection of commonality. The second relationship is more of a "you" relationship. The parent is above, in a teacher-guidance counselor role. Parents rarely feel insulted by their children, because their love is immune to that. Siblings, on the other hand, take everything deeply personally.

I believe that Joseph, whether consciously or subconsciously, was terrified of the emotional minefield of brotherhood. It makes sense! After having been sold by your brothers to be a slave, you'd be traumatized too. We all have emotional coping mechanisms, and I believe that Joseph chose the parental relationship model as his. Indeed, Joseph uses the word itself when he tells the brothers that God "has made me like a father to Pharaoh."

Now things make sense. A parent will try to comfort a child, not seek comfort from the child. Joseph comforts his brothers, he tells them not to worry or feel guilty. He does not request comfort, or, in this case, apologies, from them. He puts himself above, not among, his brothers.

It is a coping mechanism, but it is not the ideal. In truth, perhaps Joseph would have been better to attempt to cross that emotional minefield, and discover the joy of true brotherhood on the other side. Instead, he stayed beside, or above, the field.

The shortcut to interpersonal excellence is this concept of brotherhood. In Israel, there are two magic words that can defuse almost any situation. When I have found myself in an argument with an Israeli, and feel the heat rising in me, that Israeli may use two words that change everything: "Ach sheli, my brother." I immediately feel that heat disappear, without even consciously processing it. There is something tremendously powerful about seeing oneself as together with someone else.

A parent is a wonderful thing, giving us comfort and guidance. Trying to be a parent, however, to our brothers, entails risks. First of all, parents can sometimes judge, and even punish, their children. We should never do this with our brothers. Second of all, there is a division between a parent and the child, which is necessary in that relationship, but toxic in a sibling relationship. Brothers must be together. If we use the phrase "my brother" more often, and view all others (except our parents!) as brothers, we will become real pros in interpersonal relationships

Bragging and the Evil Eye

The Talmud says that if a person fears the evil eye, they should wrap their thumbs in the palms of their hands and say, "I, so-and-so the child of so-and-so, am a descendent of the seed of Joseph. The evil eye has no power over me." There then follows a verse from the Bible implying that Joseph was above the evil eye.

This is just strange. First of all, most Jews today are not the descendents of Joseph at all, but rather from Judah or Levi. Why, then, does the Talmud encourage every individual to claim Joseph's lineage?

But what puzzles me more is the assumption that Joseph, above all others, surpasses the evil eye. When reading the stories, it seems that he suffered from it more than anyone else. He bragged about his dreams, he flaunted his colorful coat, and the evil eye came back to haunt him. His brothers sold him off the slavery in Egypt. His master's wife framed him and had him thrown in jail. And when he gave a favorable dream interpretation to the king's butler, the butler forgot all about him and he languished in jail for two more years. That sounds to me like the consequences of evil eye, which draws its power from jealousy.

So how can Joseph be the ultimate evil eye conqueror? One answer lies in the idea that a person most truly possesses a trait that they have earned, not inherited. Joseph suffering at the hands of the evil eye caused by jealous people was in the first part of his life. Once he arrived at Pharaoh's throne, there was no more evil eye. From then on, Joseph was truly ascendant. He had earned his trophy for defeating the evil eye.

That is a possible explanation, however it doesn't give me the information I need to know. How did Joseph eventually transcend the evil eye? And why does Joe Israeli have the right to claim that he is a descendent of Joseph, when that is genealogically questionable at best?

In order to achieve a more resounding answer, I would like to raise another question. Joseph was a smart fellow. When he had his childhood dreams of the corn stalks and stars bowing to him, he must have known that this would inflame his brothers. He must have known that they were already deeply jealous of him for being his father's favorite son, and that they resented the favoritism. His colored coat made his brothers see red.

So why did Joseph insist on telling his brothers these dreams? Was he trying to make them even more jealous? And why did Jacob make the classic parenting error of showing favoritism to one child over the others?

The answer sheds light on Joseph's entire worldview, and a glorious one it is! Let's start with Jacob. Most parents wish for their children to be more successful than they. Isaac, for example, placed great hope in Esau, because he felt that Esau was more capable of succeeding in the world than he had been. Isaac had been a fairly passive person, and so Esau, the hunter and man of the world, gave Isaac hope.

Jacob had suffered hatred. Esau wanted to kill him. Laban tricked him and took advantage of him. He struggled with angels and men. He did not feel loved at all. So along comes Joseph, the son of his beloved wife Rachel. Joseph is a very good-looking boy. It is a known fact that people are positively inclined towards attractive people. Jacob wanted to enhance this, by giving his son a beautiful coat. He was doing everything he could to ensure that Joseph would succeed where he failed, being loved. Because, reasoned Jacob, if the world loves you, you can influence it. Joseph could be another Abraham, beloved, influential.

And Jacob was right. In the end, Joseph's grace won out and he was able to save an entire empire. He saved countless lives, and if some historical theories are to be believed, made monotheism a popular belief in pagan Egypt.

So why did he tell the dreams to his jealous brothers? According to the Or Hachaim commentary, he did it precisely so that they would not be jealous. Joseph understood why his father favored him. He was possessed with a sense of mission, and nothing will deter him from that mission. At the end of the episode, Joseph comforts his brothers with the assurance that their selling him into slavery merely fulfilled God's plan. They need feel no guilt. This is Joseph's life theme: everything that happens is God's plan. I put my personal feelings aside, and seek out God's mission in every life situation.

By telling them the dreams, Joseph was saying that their father's favoritism had God's sanction. God gave the dreams to prove it was part of the divine mission that he should be the powerful one. The brothers must rise above their personal jealousies and see the glory of God's tasks.

Joseph walked the walk. Everywhere he went, whether he was second to the king or just an anonymous prisoner, he devoted himself to helping all he could. During his years in prison, he served the other prisoners. This is where God put him, this is where he would serve. The only time that Joseph allowed himself to put his personal feelings in play brought about a punishment. He had asked the butler to tell Pharaoh about him so that he may be released. This amounted to Joseph questioning the value of his being in jail. As a result, the Torah stresses that the butler forgot, and Joseph languished two more years in that prison.

The evil eye is a result of jealousy. Jealousy is a feeling of "Him versus me." It is a win or lose mindset. Thus, when one boasts of their accomplishments and their possessions, those who have less hear in those words a claim of victory. They hear, "I have more than you, I win."

Joseph, on the other hand, says with his whole life, "I win, we win. No one loses." He was pleading with his brothers to recognize that his success was their success. Jacob was looking out for all of them by giving Joseph every opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Abraham and lead humanity, together, to God.

Thus, when we claim to be the descendents of Joseph, we are accessing this exact worldview. A parent is never jealous of their children. We are Joseph's children, meaning that we reject jealousy. The Talmud requires a physical gesture, wrapping our thumbs around each other and inside the palms of our hands. Without this gesture, the statement does not have power. The gesture, to my mind, indicates Joseph's worldview. It is saying a big, loud, "Us!" We wrap our thumbs around each other, we embrace each other. If I have success, it is yours as well. I live outward, not inward. When a person commits to this ideal, they become like the children of Joseph, immune to petty jealousy.

One third observation. I could say that Joseph did indeed suffer from the evil eye, but this Talmudic statement does not guarantee immunity. It guarantees that whatever the evil eye could wreak, it could not derail me from my mission. Whenever Joseph suffered, he used the opportunity to fulfill his mission. Whether in jail or the king's mansion, no evil eye could stop Joseph from trying to lead humanity together to God.

Jews and the Sometimes Antisemitic World

The Bible tells us that Rebecca was barren, so both she and her husband Isaac prayed to God for children. "And God accepted his prayer," says the Torah, "and his wife Rebecca became pregnant." The rabbis notice the nuance that it was Isaac's prayer that was excepted, not Rebecca's. In order to explain this seeming inequality, as Rebecca was a greatly righteous woman, the rabbis inform us that the prayer of a Tsaddik (righteous person) the son of a Tsaddik is more powerful than that of a Tsaddik the son of a rasha (evil person).

This, however, still seems to be quite unfair. If a person is righteous, what difference does it make what his parents were? Why should his prayer is not be as readily accepted?

I don't believe that this rule applies in every case. In the case of children, however, it very well may apply. After all, if the person praying is a Tsaddik the son of a Tsaddik, the odds are that the child will also be a Tsaddik. A pattern has been established. But if the Tsaddik is the son or daughter of a rasha, there's no guarantee what the child will choose for his life path. So, in this area, there is logic to accepting the prayer of a Tsaddik the son of the Tsaddik for children.

Indeed, Rebecca had twins. Their similarity, however, ended with the fact that they were born more or less together. Esav was a hunter, a man who functioned on the basis of violence and fighting. Jacob was a simple scholarly boy who "dwelled in the tents." Interestingly, it was Esav whom Isaac loved "because he was a hunter, in his parlance," while Rebecca loved Jacob. How did this come to be?

I believe the psychology here is very potent. First of all, it would seem that Esav came more from Rebecca's side of the family. How so? Both her father and her brother were deeply dishonest characters. About Laban, the brother, we will read much in the next sections of the Torah. His attempts to cheat and, ultimately, harm Jacob are clearly recorded. As for her father, Betuel, the Rabbis claim he sought to torpedo the match of Rebecca and Isaac by poisoning Eliezer, Abraham's servant, who had come to arrange that match.

The fact that Rebecca remained righteous in such a negative environment is a huge testimony to her tremendous spirituality. (Apparently it ran in the women of the family, as Laban's daughters, Rachel and Leah, were similarly righteous.) Nonetheless, in order for her to maintain her spirituality, she had to constantly be on guard against the influences of her own family. In her own way, she had to fight back. Esav, clearly, was an extreme expression of that "fighting back." He took no garbage from anyone, and often initiated the violence.

Jacob, on the other hand, was clearly the son of Isaac and the grandson of Abraham. He was, simply, a good boy. That makes sense, because Isaac grew up in an environment of goodness and kindness. The one possible negative influence, Ishmael, had been sent away by his perceptive mother when he was still young.

Isaac suffered anti-Semitism. He was not a fighter, and he was taken advantage of. The story of the wells that he dug, some of which were from the time of his father Abraham, illustrates this. Each time he dug or cleared such a well, the Philistines came and filled it with dirt. They contested every well he dug, every place he settled. Only when he had distanced himself sufficiently did the Philistines leave him alone.

I suspect that this is what attracted Isaac to Rebecca, and what made him love her son Esav. He saw in Rebecca a woman who could hold her own against hostile others. He saw that even more in Esav. He knew that this was a weakness of his, and these dear people made him complete.

On the flipside, Rebecca yearned for the pureness and innocence that she saw in Isaac. Growing up in a home of crooked people, she deeply needed to experience a world of goodness. She saw that in Isaac, and even more so in their son, Jacob.

In the end, Rebecca won the battle. At her urging, Jacob used deception to secure the blessing of his father Isaac. And when Isaac realize what happened, he confirmed that blessing. At that moment, the true nature of his boys became apparent to him.

One wonders how and Esav could come out of a Rebecca and Isaac! The answer is, Esav was not intrinsically evil! He did, however, make one fatal flaw in his choice of a path in life. He chose to live reactively, and to see others as his main obstacle. He allowed the hostility of others to define himself.

Jacob, on the other hand, chose to set his own agenda. He was not afraid of the world, but he refused to let the world define who he would be. He was born into a home of goodness and kindness. He believed in a beautiful world, and he set about to live his life in such a world. Wherever and whenever that world didn't cooperate, he was capable of coping with it. That, he inherited from his mother. Not only inherited, but he learned it from her as well. When she instructed him to bring the meat into his father and claimed to be Esav, she was teaching him to not be passive in the face of wrongdoing.

But, at the end of the day, Jacob lived his life for the beauty of the world of the beauty of tradition. That, and only that, was how he defined himself, and the people he begat.

Hatred of Religion?

There is a curious verse in the Bible that refers to the time of Enosh, the son of Seth (Adam and Eve's third son). "At that time (people) began to call upon the Name of the Lord." What prompted this? Did Adam and Eve not call upon the Name of the Lord themselves? Why was this a new thing?

The medieval commentator, Rashi, translates the verse differently: "At that time, God's name was profane and used to call people." In other words, people would refer to each other, and perhaps to the natural world, with names of divinity. God was no longer special, he was now represented by the forces of nature and by human beings.

Other commentators stay with the original translation and attempt to put a context to the need to call upon God's Name. They say that this refers to the righteous people in the generation, who were proclaiming God's existence and power to all who would listen. These commentaries see a parallel to Abraham, who proclaimed God's Name to the unbelievers. This was a response to the rise of idolatry, which was causing people to forget about God. These righteous people wanted to stop that trend.

How was it that they were forgetting about God? Rabbi Solomon Sorotzkin explains that the earlier generations gave honor to the forces of nature as representatives of God, whom everyone knew about. As time went on, however, those forces of nature became more important in people's eyes, especially since they could not see God Himself. Thus, there came a time when God was no longer part of the religious equation. There was now a need for the righteous people to remind the masses and proclaim that it was God who created and rules the world.

Rabbi Meir Simcha of Divinsk offers a fascinating insight into this process. According to him, humans stopped bringing sacrifices to God in the aftermath of Cain's killing of Abel. They were so horrified by what the sacrifices of those two brothers had brought about that they abolished the practice. In a more modern terms, because some people are killing each other in the name of religion, other people want nothing to do with religion.

I believe that the cessation of bringing sacrifices accelerated the spread of idolatry among human beings. Had people continued to bring sacrifices to God, they would not have forgotten Him. Let's look deeper into this process.

Why did Cain kill Abel? Granted, Abel's sacrifice was excepted while Cain's was rejected by God, but that was not Abel's fault! He did nothing to hurt his brother, so why was he murdered? Is jealousy that powerful? If so, why?

The root cause may lie in the sacrifices they brought, and the perceptions behind them. Cain brought some of the fruits of the land, while Abel brought the firstborn of his flocks. Abel's was the better sacrifice, clearly. It shows a desire to become close to God, and that is why God accepted it. This was deeply important to Abel. Cain, on the other hand, brought a sacrifice to appease God, so that he should not be punished.

I think that both brothers were looking back at their parents' sin with the Tree of Knowledge. The result of that sin was their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. There were two elements in this consequence, and each of the brothers emphasized one of them. Cain emphasized the aspect of punishment, of their expulsion from a good place and the suffering they would be forced to endure. Abel, on the other hand, emphasized the exile from God's direct presence, the distancing that their sin brought about. Thus, Cain brings a sacrifice to avoid punishment, while Abel brings a sacrifice to draw close to God again.

Now, when Cain sees that his brother's sacrifice was successful, he is fearful. He is afraid that he will appear in adequate by comparison, and that God will bring punishment upon him. "Abel is too good, he makes me look bad," Cain might say. Thus, his bitterness is directed foremost at his brother.

It goes deeper. God instructs humanity to not spill each other's blood, because "man was made in God's image." If we seek to become close to God, we must be close to our fellow man. "Love thy neighbor as thyself," is a core element of the Torah, and it includes and implies belief in God. The reverse is also true. If we are angry at our fellow man in a jealous fashion, we are, in truth, angry at God. This entire process comes as a result of fear of God's punishment, rather than love of God and desire to draw close to Him.

The power of speech is evident in the entire Genesis story. God created the world by speaking. He Eve was tempted to sin through speech, which was then rescinded from the snake. And notice how the Bible describes Cain killing Abel: "and Cain spoke to his brother Abel, and then when they were in the fields, Cain rose up and slew Abel his brother." It started with speech.

Speech is important, and powerful. Evil speech, slander and gossip, can kill. One needs to but read the news to know that this is true. When we look at other human beings as competitors for God's favor, we are attempted to harm them verbally, and sometimes physically. And when we do so, we limit God to being someone who plays favorites, whose favor is limited. By extension, then, gossip and slander are an attack on God's way of running the world.

Maybe that is what is meant by Rashi when he says that God's Name was profaned by its being applied to people and things. The generation of Enosh increasingly saw God as a, well, Greek god. A jealous, unfair, vindictive power that must be appeased. If someone else becomes God's favorite, it means that others will be punished.

This was a direct result of the cessation of sacrifices. Sacrifices are intended to draw man and God together, and not exclude anybody. The righteous tried to stop the trend by proclaiming God's Name, but it was too little too late. Parents are bonded to their children because of the sacrifices they make for them. Once man kind ceased bringing sacrifices to God, he became estranged from Him.

So to those who throw out the baby with the bathwater, I would say that Cain and Abel are not equal. Yes, some religions follow the pagan approach of seeing God as one who plays favorites. They ally with their God and kill all of the rivals. But there is a better way, the Abel way. See God as a loving, unlimited source of compassion and support. Seek to draw close to Him at every opportunity, and then you will seek to draw close to all of the amazing human beings that He has created.

The Four Secrets of Fulfilling Your Mission

There are two outstanding mitzvot (commandments) that Jews fulfill on Sukkot: 1. Sukkah (a booth that becomes a temporaya home recalling the booths of the Israeliotes in the wilderness) 2. The Four Species (a palm branch, willow branches, myrtle branches and a citron that are waved during a synagogue ceremony).

The Torah, regarding the Four Species, commands "And you shall take for you on the first day the fruit of ..". Why, asks the rabbinical commentary, does it say "the first day" when, in fact, it is the fifteenth day of the month? From here, they say, we learn that the first day of Sukkot is the first day of the "accountings of sins."

In other words, the five days from Yom Kippur until Sukkot do not count towards our "sin account". Does this mean that we have a free pass? And why, many ask, does this idea relate to mitzva number 2, the Four Species, and not mitzva number 1, the sukkah? What is it about the Four Species that re-activates our sin accounting, our repsonsibility for our actions?

The answer contains a beautiful insight to help us fulfill our missions. The name of the citron (etrog in hebrew) is given as "The fruit of a pleasant tree". Our tradition teaches us that the etrog and the tree that bears it basically taste the same. This is significant.

According to the midrash commentary on Genesis, God commanded all of the trees as he created them to be this way, with their fruits and their trunks, branches and leaves all sharing the same taste. All except one, the etrog, failed to accomplish this. They may have wonderfully tasty fruits, but would one eat the wood, it would be different.

How, we may ask, do the trees created by God not fulfill this Divine directive, and dare to have varying tastes? Perhaps this midrash is teaching us a valuable lesson in disguise. For what is the tree and what is the fruit in this equation? The mission and the fulfillment. All of the beautiful trees in the world save one do not fully complete their mission. The fruit, while it may be great, is not as great as it could have been, is not what it dreamed it would be.

Well, then, what is the etrog's secret? We all want to know!

I think there are four keys. Four elements of this mitzva may help us follow the etrog's example:

  1. The etrog is taken together with the branches of the palm, willow and myrtle trees. In other words, it realizes that any mission in life must be connected to, and with the support of, a community. We need famiy, friends, society. After all, hard-wired into our very existence is the need to fix the world, to contribute. No worthwhile mission does not improve the world, so how could one ever fulfill it without involving and inspiring others?

  2. The etrog is held in the oposite hand as the other three. In other words, one must be a leader, one must have the ability to take one's one direction. If my mission is to write a Torah commentary, for example, I can't allow important distractions to keep me from fulfilling my mission though neglect. I need to know when to separate and say "no" if my mission is at risk. All the more, I should never allow the bad influence of others to weaken my resolve IF the mission is a worthwhile one.

  3. The Four Species must be shaken in six directions: East-South-West-North-Up-Down. In other words, we learn two things here. We must be in motion, we must always be a mover and a shaker. No mission gets fulfilled through laziness and sloth. Secondly, we must be thorough, hitting every possible angle. Once we start to compromise on the mission, we are finished.

  4. Each movement starts at our heart (chest), moves out, and returns back to our heart. Perhaps the most influential aspect, we must be emotionally invested in this mission, and we must renew that investment contstantly, with each movement of the Four Species. I believe the flow of success is hinted at here as well: When I am excited to start my mission, and I accomplish a small step, it returns to my heart and builds even more excitement and motivation. The sages say, "A mitzva brings along another mitzva..".

So there are the four lessons of the Four Species to show us how to fulfill our resolutions and our mission. Connection to others, leadership, constant and thorough motion, and emotional investment.

So it is not that we get a free pass from Yom Kippur till Sukkot at all. This midrash is referring to our mission fulfillment. We can't be held accountable until we have learned the message of the etrog and the Four Species. Once that has happened, the race has started. Thus, Yom Kippur is the time for registration. The days in between are when we are to arrive at the starting line. The moment we shake the Four Species on that First Day is when the call is heard:


The Jewish Secret of Success

Judaism makes a very strange statement about God and creation. "God looked in the Torah and created the world." This is a puzzling saying, since the Torah describes life IN the physical world, and even tells us historical events that occurred. How could that pre-date the existence of the world?

Well it doesn't, because the Torah that God looked in is the Torah of the spirit, before it was committed to physical words. What we have is just the This-World translation of spiritual essence that we are not able to fully grasp.

In other words, the Torah is the timeless truths that govern the Universe. If you wish to succeed in this Universe, you must live according to those timeless truths. You must live according to the Torah.

However there are many Torah observant people who are not successes in business and other important areas of life. Keeping the commandments is NOT the secret, and is no guarantee of a six-figure income and daily sunshine. Is there?

I think there may very well be, and it is hidden in the most mundane of sections of the Torah, the beginning of the Book of Numbers. As the name implies, there are a lot of numbers here. We have chapter after chapter of the names of the tribes, their leaders, exactly how many people were in each, where they camped, where they marched in the procession of Israel through the desert on their way to the Holy Land, etc... Very dry stuff and, seemingly, very unimportant except for perhaps a history trivia buff.

Isn't this the Book of the Law? Shouldn't we be focusing on how to live our daily and communal lives? Why should I care how many people were in the tribe of Gad and where they camped relative to the other eleven tribes?

A recent study was made testing the conditions of creativity.Two groups were given a task to come up with a creative idea in the area of communications, for example. One group was given free reign, and the other group had to meet certain criteria relating to cost, specific types of communication, and so forth. You might expect the first group to have an easier time coming up with great ideas, because they weren't so limited as the other group.

And yet, the latter group outdid the first. How? Because of a law of the universe. We may think of rules as limiting, but in truth, anarchy is more limiting. The worst enemy of brilliance is a lack of focus. A framework creates DIRECTION, which focuses energy and enable more intense achievement. In other words, ORDER is the fuel of excellence. Chaos is the fuel of failure. The Universe is orderly, the opposite of random. Live in harmony with that rule, and you harness the core power of the Universe.

There is a story of two sages who were about to depart the Land of Israel. When they came to the first town outside the Land, they saw people planting when they should have been plowing, harventing when they should have been pruning, and such. They cried, and returned to Israel, where people were planting when they should plant, harvest when they should harvest. In other words, the Land of Israel is a land of Order, and order is the fuel of growth and success. It is the frame that gives focus and energy.

Thus, at our nation's birth, we are told exactly who is where, how many, and when they each travel in succession. The details of the Order of the Israelites is not by accident. The Torah is telling us that if we wish to grow as a successful nation, we must be orderly. We must have rules and rituals. We must keep our space clean and our work sequenced. Instead of limiting us, they focus and empower us.

And remember, the ceremony we observe commemorating our nations founding takes place on Passover eve, and it is called a Seder. Seder means Order!

Believe in God and Do the Impossible

The Torah reading for the second day of Rosh Hashanah is the difficult passage of the binding of Isaac. Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his son, and he shows no hesitation in doing so. He takes the boy to Mount Moriah, ties him to the altar that he has fashioned, and is about to cut him with the knife when God's Angel calls out to him to stop. Abraham is told that he has passed the test, he must not harm the boy, and that many blessings are headed his way.

How could Abraham have been so willing to sacrifice his own child, for whom he had yearned all those years? Abraham didn't even argue, he just went! And why was this episode so powerful in granting merit and blessing to Abraham and his descendents?

Rabbi Solomon Sorotzkin claims that the binding of Isaac was a pre-atonement for the sin of the spies. The spies tried to prevent Israel from going where God told them, and so Abraham went to where God told him without question. A pre-atonement. What, exactly, is a pre-atonement? Perhaps it is a spiritual preparation for a future salvation. Perhaps, without Abraham's precedent, the spies would have succeeded completely. As we know, both Caleb and Joshua prevented the spies from having a unified front. Perhaps they gained the strength to do that by contemplating Abraham's binding of Isaac.

The Hasidic Rabbi, the Rabbi of Wurka, asked the opposite question. Why is Abraham's deep so special? If God spoke to him directly, and was crystal clear about what he was to do, Abraham was simply doing what anyone would do in that situation.

He answers that Abraham was probably being tempted by the Satan. Satan would point out that Isaac was Abraham's only son, and that Abraham's legacy will live through Isaac. Isaac was the sole gateway to the future of the Jewish people. If Isaac were to be killed, before he had any children of his own, there would be no Jewish people in the future! The whole legacy would be cut off!

And, so, Abraham had ample reason to protest. What's more, he was under no obligation to prevent Isaac from running away. But that's not what he did. He made sure Isaac accompanied him to Mount Moriah. He tied him up so that he could not run away. This was his great merit, that binding of Isaac. That showed Abraham's 100% commitment to do what God had told him. According to the Rabbi, Abraham basically said that the future of the Jewish people coming through Isaac was God's problem. His job was to fulfill this commandment, and God would figure out a way to carry out His promise.

In other words, Abraham taught us to believe in God, and do the impossible. Let's think about this. Abraham must have been 100% certain that it was God talking to him. He also needed to be 100% certain that he understood the message. Abraham knew that all of humanity was watching him. If he wavered, if his faith wasn't perfect and crystal-clear, his legacy would not endure. Perhaps he understood that his legacy going through Isaac was not biological, but spiritual. Perhaps he thought that, by sacrificing Isaac, he will ensure that faith in God will take root in all humanity. Maybe that's what God meant. And so Abraham was prepared to follow through, because this was bigger than him, or his son. All of mankind hung in the balance.

Not everyone comes to Abraham's level of faith, but because of his precedent, we have the potential for it. Sometimes we may waiver. Abraham was only tested with the binding of Isaac after a long life of consistent tests, some of which certain commentaries claim that he failed. The Legend of Rabbi Amnon, author of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, is a case in point. When pressured by the Bishop of his city to convert to Christianity, Rabbi Amnon had said he will think about it for three days. His answer was intended to push the Bishop away, for he obviously had no intention of ever abandoning the Jewish faith. Nonetheless, he felt tremendous guilt about having given the impression that he would actually think about it.

After the three days were up, the Rabbi told the Bishop that he regretted having even said he would think about converting. As a result, he was maimed and tortured. Shortly thereafter, The High Holidays came around. Rabbi Amnon was brought into the synagogue in his bed, and recited his original prayer. The central word in it is, "Truth." It expresses faith in God's judgment, and urges us to pursue repentance, prayer, and charity in order to be judged favorably by God.

As long as a person is alive, they have an opportunity to get it right. This is where the Satan comes into our story. He is telling us that we are not able. He is telling us that we are imprisoned by our past. He is telling us to give up the fight, we have no hope. The spies expressed the Satan's message, "We cannot go into the land."

The rabbis explain the significance of 100 sounds as being the sounds of childbirth. The woman in labor utters 99 cries of suffering, doubt, hopelessness. And, then, the child is born. The 100th sound she orders is a cry of great joy! This is a source for the especially long note, the tekiah gedola, sounded as the 100th note of the shofar.

The Satan, who wants us to give up, here's these 100 notes, and knows that we will do nothing of the kind. We will persist. Abraham persisted, Caleb and Joshua persisted, the mother in childbirth persists, and eventually that baby is born. Against the people that refuses to give up hope in God, and refuses to stop trying to do the impossible, the Satan has nothing to say.

Stop Desecrating The Name

Judaism believes that every man has the ability to transcend his animal nature and live off to the Torah's demands. We do not accept that man is doomed to sin. We do, however, understand that there's something called the Evil Inclination, and every human being is subject to one temptation or another. Nobody is perfect, and we all slip up at one time or another. Not every sin involve desecrating God's name, but some common ones do.

The medieval scholar, Rabbi Eliezer of Metz, teaches that any time a person denigrates one of God's commandments, that is a desecration of God's Name. The great Chofetz Haim explains that one whose sins from a natural lust does not necessarily desecrate God's Name. Rather, one who habitually sins those transgressions that do not bring some physical gratification DO desecrate God's Name. That is because the people who see them do not attribute their misbehavior too out of control passions, but rather to a casual disregard of God's Word.

Therefore, says the Chofetz Haim, speaking ill of others is also a desecration of God's Name. Why? Because unlike eating non-kosher food, or having an illicit affair, the pleasure to the speaker slandering his fellow is minimal. Therefore, those who hear these injurious words see that the speaker does not take God's commandments very seriously, and thus they themselves will have less respect for the Torah. That is a desecration of God's Name.

I would expand that to any behavior which is hurtful to another. The victim of such abuse by a person who wears the mantle of Torah cannot be expected to increase their religious devotion as a result! A person who cheats another, slanders another, harasses another damages them twice. There is the damage of the act itself, and the damage of causing them to become distant from God. I believe that most people leave religion do so because of a failed interpersonal relationship. Someone who represented Judaism to them hurt them.

If that is the case, then the opposite must certainly be true. God's name may be sanctified by exemplary behavior. Imagine, for a moment, that you are sitting with friends discussing your neighbors. One of the people there strongly dislikes them, and begins to tell some highly critical things about them. You are tempted to join in, because they aren't your favorite people either.

Now imagine that you feel something in your stomach telling you to be careful with your words. Just as you are about to relate a really juicy piece of negative gossip about them, you catch yourself. You say to your friends, "You know, I think we should change the topic." What effect will that have on those who are listening? They will understand why you change the topic, and they will gain new respect for you. What's more, by seeing how important the laws of the Torah are to you, they will gain respect for the Torah and more desire to learn it and keep it.

Sanctification of God's Name was the hallmark of one of the darkest periods in Jewish history. When the Crusaders, in the year 1096, set forth to "redeem the holy land," they perpetrated a number of pogroms and massacres in the Jewish communities of the Rhine Valley first. In tragic scenes repeated throughout the period, Jews chose to take their own lives rather than give up their religion and accept the beliefs of the Crusaders. They chose to die rather than convert. They are called Kedoshim, holy ones, for they committed the ultimate act of sanctification of God's Name. Those who saw such devotion could not help but believe that only believers in a true religion would have the strength of character to make the ultimate sacrifice.

King David, in the Psalms, says, "I shall not die, rather I shall live and tell the deeds of God." My teacher, Rabbi Ahron Soloveitchik, of blessed memory, emphatically states that this versus telling us the best way to sanctify God's Name. Dying for God's Name is unbelievably holy, and we should be spared the need. But we can also, and even more so, achieve great holiness by living for God's Name. Making sure that everything we do oozes respect for Torah, and that everyone was only have contact leaves a bit elevated by that contact.

And so the path of life is clear. One must do all in one's power to avoid causing hurt or injury to a fellow human being. One must never slander or gossip, because by doing so one causes a desecration of God's Name. Instead, one must go out of one's way to live ethically, to be kind and loving to all people. In other words, realize that people look at you and see God, so you should act in a godly matter.

Why Be Religious?

Is it better to be nonreligious than to be religious for the wrong reasons? Judaism says no, that it is better to observe the religious commandments even for the wrong reasons. Our tradition says, "It is better to observe the commandments for other reasons, because the person will come to observe them for the right reasons."

In other words, when one lives the religious lifestyle, one's heart will eventually find the right place.

It is implied, therefore, that being religious for the wrong reasons is not a healthy or sustainable situation. The person must grow into the right reasons, rather than stagnate in a damaged relationship with religion. So what are the right reasons, and what are the wrong reasons?

I had an interesting conversation recently. The person I was speaking to told me that they have great respect for religious people. He is not religious himself, but understands how religious people truly enjoy the religious lifestyle. He told me that his version of the Sabbath, where he does creative work and goes on family outings, gives him lots of pleasure. He is sure, though, that religious people enjoy their version of the Sabbath, complete with Synagogue, ritual, and refraining from weekday labors, no less than he enjoys his.

In other words, from a consumer perspective, some consumers prefer Kmart and others prefer Wal-Mart. You, as a consumer, he implied, enjoy a religious version of the Sabbath, while he, as a different consumer, enjoys a more secular style Sabbath. It all depends on "What do I enjoy more."

That's the unhealthy approach to religion. I reminded him that religion implies belief in God. God makes demands. While it is certainly true that the religious Jewish life is deeply fulfilling and deeply joy-inducing, that is not the reason we follow it. We observe the Torah out of a sense of faith and responsibility. We are commanded to enjoy it, for sure, but our own enjoyment is not the yardstick by which we judge the religion. We don't pick and choose only those commandments which we like.

The test is when a ritual observance is not so pleasant. For example, if somebody were to describe how they would observe the most important day of the year, I'm sure they would not choose to fast, to stand on their feet for long hours in the synagogue, to not wash their face or hands, to not wear comfortable shoes and so forth. Rather, there would be some beautiful ceremony or performance, a toast, a feast, a celebration.

And yet, Jews choose Yom Kippur. When we choose to observe the religion properly, even when it is not pleasant, we are stating that our devotion is to God, not just our own consumer pleasures. When one has the ability to deny oneself a more pleasant experience in order to fulfill a religious duty, then one has achieved the healthy relationship with religion.

And that feeling and devotion creates an even deeper spiritual joy. As the sages say, "Do not be as servants serving the boss in order to get a bonus, but rather do it in order not to receive a reward." Don't refrain from speaking evil speak today because you have a big baseball game that you need to win, and you want to score points with God. Rather, refrain from speaking evil speak even if God will make sure that the other team hits three grand slams and beats you 12 to nothing.

In other words, be a godly person. That's why to be religious, to sanctify and elevate your life and this world.