Rabbi Rael Blumenthal

Participation Trophies are amongst the things that the internet loves to hate the most. A quick search reveals masses of people with a deep loathing of these tacky plastic awards that have been cluttering up bedroom shelves and mantelpieces for decades.

Perusing op-eds, blogs and memes, I have learned that there is no greater symbol of narcissism. In the hive-mind of the internet, these trophies are an over-hyped, misguided attempt at inflating self importance, all of which has slowly engineered a generation of entitled, whiny millennials. Reading all of this, I must concur – these things are so terrible, one wonders how anyone ever thought it was a good idea. What's not to hate?

I must confess, however, that I don't have much first hand experience. Growing up, I did not get many participation trophies. This is not because my team always won, or because South African sports leagues were so well grounded and down-to-earth.

The reason that I didn't get participation trophies is because I didn't participate. I was an overweight kid and I struggled athletically. My friends would get together to play, and I didn't want to because I wasn't good at it.

Sure, there was that one season of soccer in second grade when my mom begged me to play, hoping (praying?) that somehow I would start to enjoy it. Spoiler alert: I still hated it. But I did get a participation trophy, which I knew I did not deserve. I hated looking at it, and it was quickly shoved to the back of the closet.

In recent years, however, I have some experience from my kids, who are blessedly more athletic than I was. Conclusion: Anyone who has even been given a participation award will know that the entire discussion, all the loathing and rhetoric is silly, for one simple reason:

There's a tiny window of time in which a child is naive enough to appreciate a participation trophy. But the moment they know how to compete, the participation trophy quickly becomes, as one writer called it, “an exquisite shame.” Kids aren't idiots. They know the difference between winning and losing, and we're not fooling anyone.

We might try to trick our kids; telling them “it's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game.” But they all know, only losers say that. Winners know it's all about winning, and losers know that their parents are being disingenuous. As my kids have clearly told me “Abba, everyone knows that winning and losing are not the same, and I wanted to win...”

Critics often note that awarding mere participation is encouraging mediocrity and complacency. They make the leap from little league to academics and from academics to professional careers. I don't buy it. No one has ever met a kid who said “I'm not going to try to win because we're all getting a trophy anyway...”

The opposite, however, is far more common and far more destructive. I have met many children and teens who have given up on a sport, a musical instrument or an academic interest because they didn't feel like their achievements would be meaningful or successful enough.

Even more concerning, I have listened to countless talmidim (and adults) telling me how their history of religious failure has demotivated them into disinterest and disengagement. I've had students tell me that they put on Tefillin everyday since their bar-mitzvah, only to miss one day on vacation, and since then they've missed dozens. “Rebbe, once you break the streak, it's over.”

Let's hone in to an acute example which happened in my Halacha shiur this week. We were reviewing the halachos of Sefiras Ha'Omer; specifically, what to do when you've missed a day of counting. The Shulchan Aruch (אורח חיים תפ״ט) writes that on the subsequent days of Sefira, you should continuing counting, but without a bracha.

All of my students knew that you are no longer able to count with a bracha. None of them, however, knew that they are still obligated to continue counting. We then proceeded to learn that the rationale of the Shulchan Aruch centers around an understanding that all the days of Sefiras HaOmer might be one big mitzvah, in which case, missing a single day means that we've missed out on the whole mitzvah. That's the reason not make a bracha.

But there is another paradigm to consider. Perhaps the Omer is 49 separate mitzvos, and each day has its own independent obligation. In such a case, we should absolutely still be counting the subsequent days.

This second understanding (that every day is a separate mitzvah) is the majority opinion of the Geonim and Rishonim. At the very least, all of the Poskim agree that we should be all counting every day – all be it without a bracha if we missed a day.

I paused the shiur for that thought to sink in. One of the kids raised his hand and said, “So, what you're saying is that everyone agrees that just because I missed a day, it does not mean that I should miss every other day.” “Exactly.”

At this point, one of the guys threw his hands in the air and said “Rebbe! I missed the 5th day and I thought I was out! Now you tell me that I should still be counting?! It's not fair! How come no one ever told this to us before?”

It's a good question, and it's an inditement against our parental and educational systems. Not this specific Halacha, but the general sentiment. We are excellent at conveying the ideal, but we struggle to give appropriate meaning to anything other than total success. Our schools and communities have great programs for smart, successful and motivated kids. What do we offer for children whose skills are just average? How do we ensure that they continue to strive when first place is not a reasonable expectation?

Our problem is not that we award participation trophies. Quite the opposite; we all know that they are shameful and insufficient, and our kids quickly mature to understand that they are meaningless. The real issue that we have no system to appropriately educate the importance of continued participation and engagement when we fall short of the ideal.

This problem is wide reaching. Consider the Yeshiva bochur who loves learning and who can learn a great morning seder, but doesn't have the zitsfleysh to sit for more than those four hours a day. Rather than wasting his time in the Beis Medrash, he skips afternoon and night seder, spending his time on his side hustles, making money and volunteering for a local chessed organization. Is there any value to his being able to sit and learn for four hours? Absolutely. As an adult, learning four hours a day makes you a tzadik, and a schedule of learning, working and volunteering makes you an enviably serious and dedicated Baal HaBayis. But in Yeshivas across the world, that kid is a bum, and will be labeled as such.

We exhibit the same broken mindset when we dismiss opportunities to give tzedaka. We tell ourselves “I'm not the guy. I'm simply not wealthy enough make any real difference”. Of course, $18 is not going to solve anyone's financial crisis. It's not going to build a shul or support a Kollel. But it absolutely makes a difference to the individual who is learning the habit of giving, and it makes a difference to Hashem. Moreover, even tiny contributions from many people will add up over time.

The truth is that an action can be both small and meaningful. But the Yetzer Hara pervades our thoughts at every turn, convincing us to quit unless we're sure that we'll win.

The voices echo in our heads: “I'm not so close to them, they probably won't even notice if I don't pay a shiva call.” “They already got a minyan, no need for me to rush to shul.” “I'm not a doctor, Bikur Cholim is not my thing...” “I've never really been into learning Gemara...” “There's no ways we're ever going to be friends again, no use trying...”

We've noted before, that in order to fight this Yetzer Hara during Sefira, Rabbi Eizikel Safrin (חומש היכל הברכה ג עמ׳ רכ) writes that the custom of Komarna was to continue counting with a bracha even after missing a day. He explains: The drive to give up when you've missed a day is so strong, that we should rule like the majority opinion (against the Shulchan Aruch) and keep counting with a bracha. Recently, I discovered that this was also the opinion of the Divrei Chaim of Tzanz, and possibly the Beis HaLevi as well! (ע׳ מודעים וזמנים ס׳ רפט בשם בעל התורה תמיתה)

It's clear that these Tzadikim were far more concerned with the dangers of non-performance than mediocrity.

All of this is to say that perhaps our paradigm is skewed. We have already successfully created a culture of excellence. We know how to celebrate the winners in sports and in schools, and the kids who have surpassed their are recognized and are motivated to continuing acheieving. We now need to rethink how to encourage those who do not excel. How do we keep ourselves and our kids in the game when we know we are not going to win?

I'd like to suggest that we take a lesson from another sport – one that seems to get it right, at least for me. In the past few years, I have amassed a respectable collection of road running medals. I have never won a race, not even close, but I am proud of each and every one. But those medals are not for participation, they are for perseverance and completion. You only get it if you keep trying. Regardless of your speed, stamina or level of fitness, irrespective of whether you are sprinting or walking, every finisher is awarded a medal, because everyone crossing the finish line has fought their own battle and won. No one is ever ashamed of that victory.

These are kinds of trophies that Hashem awards. The ones that say “This was my struggle, this is where I succeeded.”

As we finished the week of Sefira dedicated to Netzach (victory), Hashem should help us to continue the fight; to win whenever we can, but more importantly, to find the motivation to continue even when we've failed.

No doubt you've seen this story somewhere:

It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, 2007, in the middle of the morning rush hour. A youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap emerged from the Metro L’Enfant Plaza in Washington. From a small case, he removed a violin; placing the open case at his feet. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces while 1,097 people passed by.

No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was Joshua Bell, one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities — as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?

Bell always performs on the same instrument, and he ruled out using another for this gig. Called the Gibson ex Huberman, it was handcrafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari during the Italian master’s “golden period,” toward the end of his career, when he had access to the finest spruce, maple and willow, and when his technique had been refined to perfection. It costs around $3.5 million.

In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run — for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.

This story has been around the internet for the past two decades. You have probably heard it before. People have utilized it to highlight the importance of being present, aware, and learning to see the beauty all around us. But what most do not know, is that there is a sequel:

In 2014, seven years later, Bell returned to that same station, only this time, people were informed ahead of time.

This time, more than 1,000 fans and curious onlookers packed half of the station's cavernous main hall for the free 30-minute concert, which included selections by Bach and Mendelssohn.

It was the same virtuoso, the same violin, similar music, and yet this time, people paid attention. This time, it was precious. This time it was meaningful, this time it was beautiful.

What Changed?

This phenomenon exists in our own lives. Sometimes, we come to shul, come home from work, call our mothers, and we feel as if we are gaining nothing from it. It’s routine, rote, required. By all standards, it’s meaningless.

Yet from time to time, those same activities are transformative and transcendent. And I’d like to know why. What differentiates these two experiences, the two concerts, these two lifestyles?

Rav Moshe Feinstein in Drash Moshe (ד״ה בזאת) explains that it this question that the Torah is addressing in our parsha. The Torah details the process by which Aharon HaKohen would prepare to enter the Kodesh Kodashim – once a year, on Yom Kippur. But strangely, a full 29 pesukim go by before telling us that the day upon which all of this occurs is Yom Kippur!

Rav Moshe explains: the secret to entry into all Kedusha, meaning and purpose is in the preparation. Without the 28 pesukim explaining why this is important, it can never be experienced as such. Once Aharon is prepared, only then can his enter be meaningful.

The idea is echoed by the Seforno (16:12):

כִּי תֵּיכֶף שֶׁנִּשְׁחַט חַטָּאת וְהִתְוַדָּה וְסָר עֲוֹנוֹ, נַעֲשָׂה מוּכָן לֵיאוֹר בְּאוֹר פְּנֵי מֶלֶךְ. וְהִנֵּה הַמֶּלֶךְ יֵרָאֶה לַכֹּל מוּכָן לְאוֹרוֹ

As soon as the sin offering had been slaughtered and he had previously recited his confession so that his sins had been removed, he was now ready to face the “King,” who would look upon him with favor.

The difference between Joshua Bell’s first concert, and his second, was not his skill, or the inherent value of the music, it was whether or not people were ready to hear it.

Preparations and Priorities

The Chofetz Chaim teaches that the one can discern how important something is from how much time and effort one spends preparing for it. Something unimportant requires little serious preparation. If one wants to make a cup of tea, this takes very little effort because a cup of tea is not that important in the big scheme of things. Planning a vacation, a simcha, a wedding takes a lot longer because these are important events.

But preparing for a moment or event is not part of our daily routine. We “fall into” moments, rushing between netflix, work and obligations. We go through the motions, but we are not prepared for them. Our lives seem to be a constant stream of events, that we scroll through like a social media feed – with little time to prepare, connect or reflect.

My Rebbe, Rav Blachman told us once of a young man who called to say he had just had a son, and wanted parenting advice. Rav Blachman later told me, if that’s when you’re asking, you’re at least nine months too late.

Couples sometime complain that a few years after getting married, it feels like the spark is gone. What changed? We stop planning. We stop anticipating. We stop preparing, so the time we spend together feels just like a virtuoso playing masterpieces for harried commuters. She’s the same girl; he’s the same guy, but without the effort of preparation, we demonstrate a lack of importance.

The same is true in our Avodas Hashem. Are we ready for shul? Are we ready for Shabbos? Or do we arrive as if by accident?

Ready for Something...

Shavuos, more than any other Chag is characterized by this Hachana, this preparation. By applying the Chafetz Chaim’s idea: if the preparations for Shavuos and our acceptance of the Torah are more extensive than they are for any other holiday, it demonstrates that Shavuos has a unique importance not shared by any other day of the year. If Hashem commands us to count toward and long for the arrival of Shavuos for forty-nine days, it shows that we should value the Torah more than anything else. This preparation and the value we place on the Torah is therefore part and parcel of how we receive the Torah.

There is a profound depth to Minhagei Yisrael – the customs of our people. Somehow, despite omitting this text from the performance of most mitzvos, the official nussach of counting the Omer includes הנני מוכן ומזומן – I’m ready, I’m prepared. During Sefirah, more than any other time, we're trying to live lives that are not scrolling by.

The Beis Yaakov of Izbitz writes that the definition of Kedusha is ההפך של מה בכך – the opposite of 'whatever'. That's the goal for these weeks – living lives of planned importance.

Hashem should help us become מוכן ומזומן people – ready, prepared, anticipating that we too can achieve Kedusha.

Consider the following thought experiment: Imagine getting an email from a Modern Orthodox, Religious Zionist shul this week, with the following message.

“As our shul continues to expand, we are proud to offer more ways for Jews of all backgrounds to connect to Hashem. A number of our members have reached out to us noting that on 5 Iyar, Yom Ha'Atzmaut, our Shul's custom is to say Hallel.

Many of these members grew up in families and communities that do not celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut. In the interest of inclusivity, we are adding a Non-Hallel minyan to our Yom Ha'atzmaut schedule.”

How would such a message make you feel? Proud? Happy? Disappointed? Indifferent?

For those who would be incensed by such an email, I imagine it has something to do with your firm belief that Yom Ha'atzmaut is more than a celebration of independence. Part of our religious philosophy includes an understanding that the State of Israel is not simply a political invention of the 20th century, but that it is a clear indication of Hashem's Hand guiding us through history.

But herein lies the problem, and I am hesitant to write this... I fear that there are many more people who believe in the importance of a Shul saying Hallel, than the number that will actually be coming to shul to say it. And of those who are coming to say Hallel, how much of it will be a heartfelt experience of gratitude and praise?

(To be clear, the recitation of Hallel on Yom Ha'atzmaut is not the litmus test for ascertaining one's level of commitment to zionist ideology. Rav Solovietchik noted (Yahrzeit Shiur, February 1, 1968) that he, himself, was not so enthusiastic about saying Hallel for Halachik and lomdishe reasons. Instead, he recommended deepening our Kavanah in the many parts of davening that relate to Eretz Yisrael and redemption.)

Hallel aside, Yom Ha'atzmaut celebrations outside of Israel are often rushed affairs, paying homage to an idea. Or, they are designed as kids' events, designed to give our children a taste of celebrating Israel. We seem to have failed in capturing the excitement and joy of an authentic Yom Ha'atzmaut in Israel.

Of course, many of my friends, relatives and colleagues who have merited to make Aliyah will be quick to diagnose the problem: We're not really zionist at all. Real Zionism means living in Israel. The reason that people are so “parev” about Yom Haatzmaut in Chutz La'aretz is because our Zionism is inherently insincere.

But this is a gross oversimplification. There are many Jews throughout the Diaspora who are deeply involved in the State of Israel. Jews in Chutz La'Aretz contribute billions of dollars to Israeli causes, supporting both secular and Torah institutions. Many Jews from around the world support Israeli businesses, visit Israel as frequently as possible, and send their children to learn in Yeshivos and seminaries. We teach our children to love Israel, to support Israel online and on campus. Many of the children of our community have served in Tzahal, fighting for and defending our homeland.

Despite the fact that we are (still) living outside of Israel, we can still clearly love the Land; in the words of the Sefer HaCharedim:

וצריך כל איש ישראל לחבב את ארץ ישראל ולבא אליה מאפסי ארץ בתשוקה גדולה כבן אל חיק אמו Each person must Love the Land of Israel and come to it from the ends of the earth with great desire, like a child to the embrace of his mother.

Many people returning from Israel have described feeling the depth of this love of Eretz HaKodesh.

All taken into account, I do not believe that our community is lacking in Zionism. We are educationally, emotionally, intellectually and financially invested in the State of Israel. What is lacking, however, is our interest and involvement in Religious Zionism. Our “Zionism” is great. It's the “religious” part that needs works.

We do not enter Yom Ha'atzmaut with feelings of spiritual excitement, elation, and closeness to Hashem. We are not taking time during the day to talk to and thank the Master of the World for bringing us home after millennia of exile. For many of us, doing so might feel weird, forced and contrived.

But the truth is that this disconnect is not unique to our expressions of Zionism.

It seems to me that the spiritual, religious and Godly parts of our Zionism are suffering from exactly the same laxity and disconnect as the rest of our religious experience.

People are not showing up to sing and dance during Hallel on Yom Ha'atzmaut for the same reason that we fail to do so on Chol HaMoed, or Rosh Chodesh, or most of the days of Yom Tov. We're just not that into it.

Sure, we all believe in the importance of Pesach, but we're more than happy to outsource Divrei Torah at the Seder to our wonderful schools and teachers. How many of us are truly working on ourselves to feel like Hashem took us, personally, out of Mitzrayim? We love Channukah and Purim, but we rush through Al HaNissim all the same. Shavuos is about staying up and eating cheese cake. When exactly is the feeling of Kabbalas HaTorah? Where is Hashem in that experience?

Despite all of the miraculous success of our generation, we seem to fall short in one key area: Connecting it all to Hashem in a personal and intimate conversation.

I am not writing all of this to point fingers or give mussar. Chas V'Shalom. Indeed, I think it's quite the opposite. Our generation has finally arrived at the moment for which Chazal has been training us; we have been practicing for this moment for over two thousand years. It's a well known Halacha (שו”ע או”ח קי״א:א):

צריך לסמוך גאולה לתפלה ולא יפסיק ביניהם One needs to juxtapose “redemption” [i.e. the last blessing of the Sh'ma – “Ga-al Yisrael”] to “prayer” [i.e. the Amidah].

Every morning (and evening) of our lives, when we reflect on Geulah, we are obligated to capitalize on that experience and catapult ourselves into speaking with Hashem.

Rabbeinu Yonah (ברכות ב ב) explains that the moment we realize the magnitude of Hashem's kindness in choosing us, saving us and caring for us, we should want to speak to Him and ask Him for our needs.

We have no trouble screaming out to Hashem in times of pain or distress. It is when things are looking up that we have a tendency to ignore Him.

Apparently, Chazal understood that waiting even for a moment between Geulah and Tefillah means that we have already taken Geulah for granted; we are not longer able to or interested in speaking to Hashem. For over two thousand years we have practiced closing the gap between Geulah and Tefillah.

I dare say, but it seems to me that our generation is standing in that gap. Hashem has given us our Land; our own sovreign State. He has showered us with prosperity, success and comfort beyond the wildest expectations of our ancestors. They would be singing from the rooftops! But the Great Yetzer Hara before Mashiach comes is the desire to be unimpressed; to widen the gap between a good life and a Godly life. We are blinded by the light of Geulah, and Hashem is asking us to find Him here as well.

He has gifted us the great bracha of Zionisim, now it's up to us to make it religious.

Here's an easy template to begin. You can change it up and edit as you see fit.

Step One – Praise: Take a moment, this Yom Ha'atzmaut to speak to Hashem. Stand in awe of His Hand in history, and the miracles that we have witnessed in our own lifetimes. Step Two – Ask: Talk to Him about your hopes of Aliyah, your dreams and fears. Ask Him for help. Daven for the safety of our brothers and sisters and plead with Him to heal us from the pain of loosing so many to the horrors of terrorism. Step Three – Gratitude: Thank Him for the incredible gift of the State of Israel, and for bringing us to this moment.

Hashem should help us to find the means and the strength to leave this Galus and settle permanently in our Land. But until that day – and especially afterwards – He should help us to stitch together Geulah and Tefillah. That's Religious Zionism.

Rav Shmuel Aharon Yudelewitz, the son-in-law of Reb Aryeh Levin, was exceedingly careful in baking matzos.

Every year, a day before Erev Pesach, he would take a few students to a spring outside Yerushalayim to draw water for baking the matzah. This water would be cool and clear, and left over night as Mayim Shelanu.

In preparation, he would wake up early, go to the home of a local potter and purchase a large barrel that was brand new. To the top he would fasten new ropes from the shuk. The ropes would be used for carrying the water back to the bus – cabs were too expensive.

And so it happened one year that Rav Shmuel Aharon had woken up early, bought his new pot, affixed the ropes, drawn the water, shlepped it up the hill and onto the bus. From there he carried it to the bakery, where it would remain overnight.

The next morning, the rabbi arrived with his students to begin baking the matzos. But when they picked up the pot, to their great horror, it was empty.

The cleaning lady, the night before, had seen a new pot of water and without giving it much of a thought, had used the water to wash the floor.

The students were in shock. An entire day of effort in obtaining the water was wasted. There was no time to get more! How would their Rabbi have matzos to eat. The tension in the room was palpable as they looked to their teacher for his reaction.

Rav Shmuel turned to them and said: “You think that the reason I am so careful to bake my own matzos is because you think mine are the most kosher and everyone else's are not. Nothing could be further from the truth. Every Jew has kosher matzos, but I bake my own matzos because to be a Jew means to put in your best effort – that's all Hashem asks of us.”

He continued to explain to his students: “If it doesn't work out, that too is what Hashem wanted. I'll get matzos from someone else. There is no reason to get upset.”

It's an important message to keep in mind this Yom Tov. I am not a prophet, but I'm guessing that something in your home hasn't gone perfectly well this Yom Tov. A order that didn't arrive, an invite that didn't work out? Perhaps a recipe that flopped or a dish that didn't taste quite right?

It's never perfect, but Hashem isn't looking for perfection, He's looking for me and you.

The Bnei Yissaschar, explains that the primary difference between chametz and matzah is action. Matzah is never allowed to be left without someone working it. From the time the flour and water are combined, the dough is kneaded, promptly rolled out, perforated, and baked. Nothing happens to the matzah that is not the direct effect of someone handling it. Not so with chametz, where the ingredients are mixed and then set aside for a period of time to rise. Chametz is spontaneous, occurring without anyone's doing anything to make it rise.

Matzah and chametz, therefore, represent two opposing perspectives. Chametz represents the idea that things can happen by themselves, while matzah symbolizes that nothing happens unless someone makes it happen.

Reb Leibele Eiger would explain that this is the same reason we eat an egg at the seder. An egg represents that which cannot come to fruition without working at it. Without incubation, an egg is just an egg. But with incubation, with warmth, with time, with commitment, it'll hatch, it'll grow.

Likewise, Rav Kook paskened that one who uses horseradish for Marror should grate it before Yom Tov, allowing the majority of the sharpness to dissipate. So long as it still tastes a little bitter, he argues, you have eaten Marror. But if there's a way to reduce the bitterness through out actions, we are well within our rights to do so.

Let's ask a silly question: Which moments of sitting on the egg are the ones that make it hatch? Which foldings, rollings and kneading are the ones that prevent the matzah from becoming Chametz? At what point in grating the Marror does it lose its bite?

The absurdity of the question becomes apparent immediately. There is no one single moment, no one action that achieves the end result. There is no secret recipe, no magic moment.

Rav Pinchas of Koretz explained that on Pesach, when we renew our membership as Avdei Hashem, Hashem decides what our Avoda is going to be for the year ahead. It's an annual interview that we aught to pay attention to. Some are set up for a year learning, others for davening. Some are given the means to give tzedaka, and others with time to do whatever Hashem needs in His world. But Hashem is not looking to “get things done”, He is looking for people who are dedicated to His cause; people that care about the process.

This is the secret that Rav Shmuel Aharon understood: the process is far more important than a specific event or activity. Avodas Hashem is about the effort and process of drawing water for matzah, not the success of the result.

Pesach asks us: What do you want you Avoda to be this year? Hashem should help us to grow into the Jews we dream to be, that He needs us to become.

It's just one of those things that you learn in pre-school. The words are prepackaged, repeated from one generation to the next:

“Why is this Shabbos called Shabbos HaGadol? Because of the great miracle. When the Jews in Egypt took a sheep, which was the Egyptian god, they tied it to their bedposts and the Egyptians didn't kill them.”

That was the story that Temima told me, pretty much verbatim. Sounds good. Until I asked her “Temima, what's a bedpost?” “I don't know Abba. What's a bedpost?”

It seems like a silly detail to harp on, but everyone says it. So I got curious. Where does this whole bedpost story come from? Does it have a source? Why does every kid know that sheep were tied to bedposts, when none of have used the word before or even seen a bedpost?

It turns out that we don't need to dig too far. The source is a a Medrash (מכילתא דרשב״י יב):

ר' יוסי הגלילי אומר שיהיו קשורין בכרעי המטה Rabbi Yossi HaGalili says: They tied the Korban Pesach to their bedposts.

Ok. That solves the origin story, but it opens up another world of questions. When telling us about Korban Pesach, the pesukim in the Torah do not mention any bedposts. Neverthelss, Rabbi Yossi HaGalili is telling us that's this is what happened. Did they have to do it? Could they tie it up outside? Was this simply pragmatic or was there some deeper meaning?

Moreover, this seemingly innocuous detail makes it into the Tur (או״ח ס׳ תל), in his introduction to Shabbos Hagadol!

שבת שלפני הפסח קורין אותו שבת הגדול והטעם לפי שנעשה בו נס גדול שפסח מצרים מקחו בעשור כדכתיב בעשור לחודש הזה ויקחו להם שה לבית אבות שה לבית ופסח שיצאו ישראל ממצרים היה ביום ה' כדאיתא בסדר עולם ונמצא שי' בחדש היה שבת ולקחו להם כל אחד שה לפסחו וקשר אותו בכרעי מטתו ושאלום המצריים למה זה לכם והשיבו לשחטו לשם פסח במצות השם עלינו והיו שיניהם קהות על ששוחטין את אלהיהן ולא היו רשאין לומר להם דבר ועל שם אותו הנס קורין אותו שבת הגדול:

The Shabbos before Pesach is called “Shabbat HaGadol” (The Great Shabbos). And the reason is because a miracle occurred during the Exodus from Egypt. On the 10th [they took a sheep] as it says: “On the tenth of this month you shall take for yourselves a sheep into your homes.” And the year that the Exodus took place was on a Thursday as we see in Seder Olam, and therefore the “10th of the month” was Shabbos, and [on that Shabbos] every Jew took a sheep as a Paschal offering and tied it to their bedposts. And the Egyptians asked them “Why is this so [why do you have a sheep (the Egyptian god) tied to your bed]?” And they responded: “To slaughter for a Pesach offering for HaShem.” And they got upset that they were going to slaughter their gods, but they could not say anything due to the miracle. And thus it is called Shabbat HaGadol.

To further complicate matters, it doesn't stop at Yetzias Mitzraim. The Bartenura, in his commentary to the Mishna (כלים י״ט ב) explains that when Jews came to Yerushalayim for Pesach, they would tie their Korban Pesach to their bedposts! Seemingly, as a commemoration of the custom of our ancestors in Egypt.

Clearly, it seems, this bedpost business is not just a trivial detail.

To understand this, we need to consider that our ancestors in Egypt also worshipped sheep. They didn't tie up and slaughter the Egyptian gods. They did this to the deities which they had been worshipping as well.

The Shlah HaKadosh (מסכת פסחים, מצה עשירה ב׳) questions: How could the Jews in Mitzraim offer these sheep as a Korban? The Halacha in Korbanos is that an animal which was worshipped as Avoda Zara cannot be used as a Korban? To this, he answers:

אלא הענין הוא דאסור נעבד היינו לקרבן אחר, אבל להקריבו על ענין זה בעצמו, דהיינו להראות שעבודה זרה זו היא בטילה ואין בה ממש שרי... על כן פסח מצרים מקחו היה בו ולקשור בכרעי המטה, כדי לבזות אלהיהן...

An animal which was used as Avoda Zara cannot be offered as a Korban, but to offer in order to demonstrate that it is now worthless in our eyes, is certainly permissible... For this reason, they tied it to their beds, in order to denigrate their gods.

The purpose of Korban Pesach wasn't simply a rebellion against the Egyptian overlords. It was designed to help us reject Egyptian philosophy.

But why the bedpost specifically? The Shlah HaKadosh (מסכת פסחים, תורה אור טו) explains:

The word “bed” in Hebrew is מטה, which is also the word for “below”. There is a world of things that are למעלה – above us, and a world a things that are למטה – below us. For the duration of our slavery, the gods, priorities and ideals of Egypt were “above.” In order to escape Egypt, we needed to recognize that these things were beneath us. On Shabbos, we recognize that Hashem created the world, and thus, it was through our appreciation for Shabbos, that we were finally able to relegate our idol worship to the place it belongs, and declare: This is beneath me.

The way in which Klal Yisrael weaned themselves off of this Avoda Zara was both brilliant and frightening. In my minds eye, I can see tens of thousands of Jews shlepping sheep into their homes. Sheep which were previously untouched, venerated and worshipped.

Imagine the scene; four days living with a sheep in your bedroom. Eating with it, cleaning its mess, trying to sleep with its four legs traipsing all over you. That's all it'll take to stop thinking that a sheep is holy. It didn't take long to see that a beheima is simply a beheima.

It's easy to revere something from afar, but the moment we live with it, the truth comes our pretty quickly.

This experience was not a one time affair. Every year, on Shabbos Hagaol we have the obligation and opportunity to challenge the idols and ideologies we have adopted. The Torah invites us, once again, to examining them close up. To ask ourselves: these politicians and celebrities which we so revere, would we really want to live with them? How long would it take to stop holding them in such esteem. Perhaps it's time we leave them למטה – below, and raise ourselves above them. Perhaps the spaces that we make in our homes and in our minds could be reserved for family, friends and Hashem.

May Hashem help us this Shabbos HaGadol to realize and recognize what is truly Gadol, to live lives of purpose and meaning anticipating the Geulah that Pesach brings.

I have no doubt that this conversation occurs in every high school shiur. At some point in the year, a discussion about “Shomer Negiah” arrises.

Naturally, the talmidim and talmidos begin timidly; not wanting to reveal to their rebbe or morah the extent of their exposure or familiarity with the topic. Quickly, however, the conversation shifts as kids look around the room, exchanging knowing looks and making veiled remarks about each other.

When it happened this year, I waited for a moment of quiet, and stated as honestly as I could: “Despite what you think you have or haven't done, every one of you guys in this shiur is Shomer Negiah.”

That got a reaction. “Come on Rebbe!” One talmid exclaimed incredulously. “You can't possibly be that naive?”

“Far from it,” I explained, “however, to the best of my understanding, this classroom is single gender, and none of you are currently engaging in any activity prohibited by the Torah. Which means that all of you are – right now – shomer negiah.”

It took a minute for that to sink in. Right now no one is doing anything wrong. “But Rebbe, that's crazy. Right now we're not doing anything other than sitting here!”

That's the point. What ever we might've done, or will do later, is irrelevant to the moment. Right now, you are who you are, and you're doing whatever you're doing. This is you, nothing more, and nothing less. Most importantly, Hashem doesn't have a label for you. “I'm not Shomer Negiah” is not a heter.

The argument can, of course, be applied to every area of Halacha. “I don't keep kosher” is a nonsensical statement. Are you eating treif right now? Most likely not.

But even if the answer is “yes, I'm eating a cheeseburger right now,” that doesn't mean that you don't “keep kosher”. It simply means that in this moment, you're in violation a mitzvah of the Torah. There is nothing that can be gleaned or stated about your “keeping” or “breaking” of the Torah. There is nothing holding you back from eating kosher food for your next meal, and every meal afterwards.

Likewise, I'd argue, most Jews keep most of Shabbos, most of the time. Sure, driving a car is violating Shabbos. But sitting on the couch is not. And if we calculate the minutes of violation of Halacha as a percentage of the total time we spend on this planet, the statement of Reish Lakish (חגיגה כז א׳) becomes even more apparent:

פּוֹשְׁעֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל שֶׁמְּלֵאִין מִצְוֹת כְּרִמּוֹן, דִּכְתִיב: ״כְּפֶלַח הָרִמּוֹן רַקָּתֵךְ״, אַל תִּקְרֵי ״רַקָּתֵךְ״, אֶלָּא: רֵקָנִין שֶׁבָּךְ

The sinners of Israel are filled with good deeds as a pomegranate is full of seeds, as it is written: “Your temples [rakatekh] are like a pomegranate split open” (Song of Songs 4:3), which is to be expounded as follows: Do not read this word as rakatekh, rather read it as reikanin shebakh, meaning the empty, worthless people among you; even these people are as full of good deeds as a pomegranate is full of seeds.

Of course, none of this is to whitewash the nature or severity of Aveiros. Violating the mitzvos of the Torah and the Will of the Ribono Shel Olam is not trivial; the Torah is quite clear on this point. In every recitation of Keriyas Shema we acknowledge the reality of Schar V'Onesh (Reward and Punishment).

But what would you tell someone who was once unable to overcome their desire to eat Chametz on Pesach? It seems ludicrous to suggest that we would label them a “chametz eater” and expect them to spend the rest of the Yom Tov eating pizza.

What would you tell someone who “broke Yom Kippur?” That they shouldn't continue fasting? Of course they should! But why should they fast once they've “broken” Yom Kippur? Why should one decline a slice of pizza once they've “broken” Pesach?

Because we all know that at its core, the Torah cannot be broken. The Torah is, and will always remain whole and intact. Pesach is still Pesach. Yom Kippur is still Yom Kippur. Torah is absolute and true, as true as the laws of nature. We cannot “break” the laws of gravity; we can only hurt ourselves trying. Likewise, we cannot break Halacha. We can only break ourselves against it.

To understand this breaking, and how to fix it, we need to know that each and every one of us, in the deepest recesses of our souls and identities, is trying to connect to Hashem. The Rambam paskens this truth L'Halacha (גירושין ב:כ), and Rashi learns it from a Pasuk in our parsha. When the Torah instructs us to bring a Korban – יַקְרִיב אֹתוֹ לִרְצֹנוֹ – “He shall bring it willingly,” Rashi comments:

מְלַמֵּד שֶׁכּוֹפִין אוֹתוֹ, יָכוֹל בְּעַל כָּרְחוֹ, תַּלְמוּד לוֹמַר “לִרְצוֹנוֹ”, הָא כֵּיצַד? כּוֹפִין אוֹתוֹ עַד שֶׁיֹּאמַר רוֹצֶה אֲנִי: The Beis Din must put pressure upon him to bring it if he is remiss in bringing the sacrifice he had promised. One might think that this means that they shall force him against his will! The Pasuk, however, states, לרצונו “he must bring it willingly”. How is this possible? They press him until he says, “I wish to do it”.

The Divrei Yechezkel explains simply: When we are pressured into doing a mitzvah, we are revealing the part of ourselves that always wanted to do it.

All this is to say that inside of each of us, there are conflicting desires and priorities. We have a “higher self”; one that identifies with Ratzon Hashem, the purpose of our existence and the interests of Klal Yisrael. And then we have all the stuff. We want to live our best and most meaningful lives, but we don't always succeed in making the best choices when faced with conflicting desires.

When we fail at living up to our higher selves we experience that breaking. We feel shame, frustration, weakness and vulnerability.

We don't break the Torah. Instead, we break the value and importance of Torah inside of ourselves. We break our self confidence to observe Ratzon Hashem.

When the Beis HaMikdash stood in Yerushalayim, there was direct path for a person to fix themselves. They would bring a Korban. The Rikanti (פ׳ נח) explains how this activity would help:

ודע כי הקרבן מקרב רצון השפל ומייחדו ומקרבו ברצון העליון. Know, that the Korban raises up our “lower will”, and unifies it will the “Upper Will” of Hashem.

In a visible, visceral and physical sense the Korban took the “animal” inside of us, and raised it up to Shamayim. Jews would leave the Mikdash with a renewed sense of connection to the higher parts of themselves, and to their mission in life.

Chazal tell us that in the absence of Korbanos, we achieve similar results by learning the Parshiyos of the Korbanos. But how could that possibly help?

The Beis Yaakov of Izhbitz (אחרי מות מו) explains:

שעיקר החטא הוא רק לפי תפיסת אדם, שמצד תפיסתו נראה לו שנתרחק מהשי”ת, כי מצד השי”ת הוא כעניין שנאמר (איוב ל״ה:ו׳) אם חטאת מה תפעל בו Sin is a problem that arises from human perspective, in that we experience that we are now further from Hashem. From Hashem's perspective, however, no sin affects Him.

When we learn the about Korbanos, we realize that Hashem desperately wants us to experience the reunification of ourselves. That's the whole point of the Korban experience; and knowing that Hashem wants us to un-break ourselves is the purpose of the Limmud.

Sefer Vayikra is often glossed over in schools and shuls. We are far more excited about the stories of the Avos and Yetzias Mitzraim than we are about the details of the Mizbeach. But the Medrash (ויקרא רבה ז׳) disagrees without methodology:

אָמַר רַבִּי אַסֵּי מִפְּנֵי מָה מַתְחִילִין לַתִּינוֹקוֹת בְּתוֹרַת כֹּהֲנִים וְאֵין מַתְחִילִין בִּבְרֵאשִׁית, אֶלָּא שֶׁהַתִּינוֹקוֹת טְהוֹרִין וְהַקָּרְבָּנוֹת טְהוֹרִין יָבוֹאוּ טְהוֹרִין וְיִתְעַסְּקוּ בִּטְהוֹרִים. Rabbi Asi says: Why do we begin our educational curriculum from Sefer Vayikra rather than Bereishis? Children are pure, and Korbanos are pure. Let those who are pure engage in that which is pure.

Imagine an education that began with “You are perfect and wonderful... and even when you mess up, you can always return to this state of purity. Jews have been failing for centuries, but Hashem already gave us a way to fix it. Come, let's learn how you can take the animal side of you, and raise it up to be a part of the learning and growing process...”

This is what Sefer Vayikra has to offer: A world of connection and closeness. A world of redemption and repair. A world where right now I'm not doing anything wrong, and there is no need to label myself or identify with my past Aveiros.

Hashem should help us to delve into this Sefer and the purity it provides; that we should live it in our own lives, teach it to our children and arrive at the festival of freedom with a renewed desire to be free.

It was the morning after Yom Kippur. Moshe Rabbeinu had just descended from Har Sinai carrying the second set of Luchos. He gathered the people and told them: We're going to build a home for Hashem in our world.

With the anxiety of their destruction, and the fear of Hashem abandoning them finally quelled, they gave like no other capital campaign in history:

וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר מַרְבִּים הָעָם לְהָבִיא מִדֵּי הָעֲבֹדָה לַמְּלָאכָה

And they spoke to Moshe, saying: The people are bringing much more than enough for the needs of the work...

Imagine the elation, the palpable excitement. Finally, there was something to do. In place of the worrying, pontificating and regret, they would be building.

Through giving and donating, building and constructing, carpentry and tapestry, they would make a place for Hashem in their lives. Through our actions, we will bring Hashem into the world once more!

But beyond the incredible desire to bring the building materials, the Ramban (35:21) describes how each person found within themselves new abilities to craft and construct; skills that they never had before:

וטעם אשר נשאו לבו לקרבה אל המלאכה (שמות ל״ו:ב׳) – כי לא היה בהם שלמד את המלאכות האלה ממלמד, או מי שאימן בהן ידיו כלל, אבל מצא בטבעו שידע לעשות כן, ויגבה לבו בדרכי י״י (דברי הימים ב י״ז:ו׳) לבא לפני משה לאמר לו: אני אעשה כל אשר ה׳ דובר

They were not trained, but found within their nature that they knew what to do... They came to Moshe and declared “I will do what Hashem had commanded.”

Imagine the hislahavus – the passion, drive and devotion.

It is then all the more perplexing that once each and every piece of the Mishkan was finally completed, the entire structure was packed up and put into storage, not to be touched or assembled for another few months.

It's Never Going to Happen

The Medrash (תנחומא יא) relates that during these months, the ליצני הדור, the clowns and the scoffers, were having a good time making fun of the entire effort:

והיו ליצני הדור מרננין ומהרהרין ואומרין: למה נגמרה מלאכת המשכן ואינו עומד מיד

The scoffers of the generation were celebrating and musing and saying: Why is it taking so long for the Mishkan to be standing? Why not put it up now?

The wording of the Medrash is telling: They're not asking “why are we waiting?” They're saying it. It's not a question, it's a statement. We all know that voice; the one asks rhetorically: “Why is it taking so long?” The voice that “knows” it's never going to happen. The voice that is convinced that once you've messed it this badly, there is no chance it's ever going to work out again. No matter what we do, we'll never be able to fix...

As loud as it might be, we know that voice is wrong. The Mishkan was eventually completed; it stood for forty years in the desert, and for three centuries in Eretz Yisrael.

The question, however, is still a good question; but instead of scoffing, let's ask the question honestly: Why, in fact, did Hashem delay the final completion of the Mishkan?

The Medrash (שם) explains:

אֶלָּא מִפְּנֵי שֶׁחָשַׁב הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְעָרֵב שִׂמְחַת הַמִּשְׁכָּן בְּשִׂמְחַת הַיּוֹם שֶׁנּוֹלַד בּוֹ יִצְחָק אָבִינוּ, לְפִי שֶׁבְּאֶחָד בְּנִיסָן נוֹלַד יִצְחָק. אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, הֲרֵינִי מְעָרֵב שִׂמְחַתְכֶם שִׂמְחָה בְשִׂמְחָה.

Because Hashem wished to combine the festivities of the building of the Mishkan with the celebration of the birthday of Yitzchak Avinu. Yitzchak was born on the first day of Nisan. Hashem, said to Himself: I will combine these celebrations.

All of this is perplexing. What does Yitzchak's birthday have to do with the Mishkan?

The Pain of Waiting

To understand this, we should consider circumstances that led to the Egel HaZahav: A deep fear that Moshe wasn't coming back. Despite Aharon's attempt to calm the nation, their fears couldn't be contained.

The Shem Mishmuel (פרשת דברים) explains:

Their failure was not that they made an Egel. The sin here was simply a lack of patience. If only they would have waited a few more minutes, they would have seen that Moshe was returning.

The Arizal (ע׳ שם משמואל ויקרא שמיני תרע”ט) explains that the very first חטא of humanity, the sin of Adam and Chava was, likewise, the inability to wait. Hashem always intended for mankind to taste from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil... but not yet. In essence the root of all failure was a lack of patience.

Perhaps then, it was not the Mishkan itself that provided atonement, but instead, this “mandatory waiting period”. If we erred by lacking patience, then Hashem would ensure that we fix our mistakes by learning to wait.

Why is impatience source of all failure? The Kotzker explained:

“What is the different between a patient person and a lazy person? The lazy person acts impulsively, because they do not have the patience to think things through.”

Impulsiveness, the Kotzker explains, is the willful abandoning of reason. If we're honest with ourselves, almost all bad decisions could've been avoided with a moment of rational thought. Before doing anything, take a step back and realize that Hashem is in change; that He runs the world, and that we are here because he wants us here.

Imagine the mistakes we would avoid. Imagine the fights that might never have started. The anger that might never have flared. The temptations that we might never act upon.

A patient person might still ask “why is this taking so long?” But the answer is always the same: “I don't know – but He does, and which means it's ok, even if I don't understand it.”

Patience is the ultimate acquiesce to Hashem's ownership of the world.

In this lesson, there are no greater role models than Avraham and Sarah, who waited an eternity for the birth of Yitzchak. The joy of his birth was far beyond that of other parents.

On the one hand, Yitzchak represented Hashem's desire to reach beyond the curtain and “break the rules” of nature for Klal Yisrael.

But on the other hand the great simcha of Yitzchak's birth was that for the first time in history, Avraham and Sarah were patient. This is the power that they bestowed upon all future generations: the ability to realize that Hashem is in the driver's seat.

Shabbos or Mishkan?

To this end, the Torah introduces the building of the Mishkan with the obligation to keep Shabbos. Chazal explain: To teach us that Shabbos overrides the construction of the Mishkan.

By this point we can appreciate why keeping Shabbos is more important than the Mishkan: The Mishkan teaches us that through our actions we can bring Hashem into our world. But Shabbos educates us כי ששת ימים עשה ה׳... In six days, Hashem made the world. He did, and we didn't. Every Shabbos, we're tapping into the understanding that we're the junior partner in this joint venture called our lives.

The experience of Shabbos, of disconnecting from being in charge of our lives, makes a little more space for Hashem to be present.

Hashem should help us to spend our weeks building the Mishkan. But also, to make some room and wait for Him to fill our lives; with the Tefillah that it should be soon.

Please forgive my irreverence. I am bothered by the sequence of events that culminated in the Egel HaZahav, and I think Hashem is to blame.

Quick recap: Moshe is at the top of the mountain. The people down below are getting restless. These rabble-rousers are lead by the Erev Rav, a collection of slaves that escaped Egypt with the Jews during Yetzias Mitzraim.

They come to Aharon and demand that He assist them in creating some leader-god-idol to replace Moshe. But Aharon is smart. He knows it's just a matter of time before Moshe comes down the mountain and puts an end to this insanity. So he delays, declaring: “Give me your gold!”

Somehow, the nation (or, at least the men) get on board. They hand over their jewelry. Aharon needs to delay further. He tosses it into a fire, and then, miraculously, a golden calf emerges.

Aharon, builds a mizbeach and announces: “Tomorrow will be a festival for Hashem.” He's hoping that by then, Moshe would return. (The Abarbanel adds: The Mizbeach was a Tefillah, a message to Hashem to send Moshe down the mountain.)

Indeed, Moshe does return, but just a little too late. Apparently, his Shiur with Hashem didn't conclude in time for him to stop the nation from worshipping the Egel.

But here's the problem: Hashem tells Moshe “לך רד” – go down because your nation has sinned. While all of this was taking place, why didn't Hashem tell Moshe to go down a few hours earlier? All of this could've been avoided with a little 'heads-up'?!

Moreover, the story of the “emergence” of the Egel from the fire is peculiar. Rashi (לב:ד) quoting the Medrash Tanchuma tells us that:

מִיכָה הָיָה שָׁם... וְהָיָה בְיָדוֹ שֵׁם וְטַס שֶׁכָּתַב בּוֹ מֹשֶׁה “עֲלֵה שׁוֹר” “עֲלֵה שׁוֹר” לְהַעֲלוֹת אֲרוֹנוֹ שֶׁל יוֹסֵף מִתּוֹךְ נִילוּס – וְהִשְׁלִיכוֹ לְתוֹךְ הַכּוּר וְיָצָא הָעֵגֶל

Micha (the idolator mentioned in שופטים פרק י״ז), was there, and he had in his possession a “supernatural name” (שם) and a plate upon which Moses had written: “עֲלֵה שׁוֹר” “Come up, ox, come up, ox!” in order to raise the coffin of Yosef (who was compared to an ox) out of the Nile, and he cast the plate into the melting pot of gold and the calf (a young ox) came out.

Now, I understand that sometimes Hashem allows the natural world to operate according to the rules which He set in motion as He created the universe. We do not have the right to questions why Hashem doesn't “get involved” in a supernatural way. But this Medrash is suggesting the opposite. The Egel HaZahav was not a natural occurrence; it was a miracle! Hashem made it happen.

Which leads me to conclude that Hashem did so intentionally. Not only did He allow the Cheit HaEgel to happen, He enabled it!

And now we need to understand why? Why did Hashem help Micha and Erev Rav in making the Egel? Why didn't He send Moshe down to stop it? What's really on here?

I Get It – And So Do You

In the forty days that Moshe was on Har Sinai, the nation waited below. It had been barely two months since leaving Egypt, seeing the miracles of the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea. But now they were camped in a desert, relying on more miracles in order to survive.

But what might've happened if, Chas V'Shalom, that miracle-bread from heaven stopped falling? What might've happened if the miraculous well of rock dried up? Most disastrously, what options would be if Moshe, their great leader and savior, were to disappear? In whose merit would they continue to survive?! Rashi (לב:א) tells us that this was exactly what they feared:

כְּמִין דְּמוּת מֹשֶׁה הֶרְאָה לָהֶם הַשָּׂטָן, שֶׁנּוֹשְׂאִים אוֹתוֹ בַּאֲוִיר רְקִיעַ הַשָּׁמָיִם The Satan showed them something that looked like Moses being carried on in a coffin in the air high above in the skies.

Right now, they reasoned, the Manna was still falling, the rock was still flowing. But all of that could cease in an instant if Moshe has died. How long can a person live in the wilderness without a plan for sustenance?

Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky (פ׳ כי תשא) writes empathetically about our ancestors. They were anxious, frustrated and out of options. If Moshe was not coming back, they were a few short days, if not hours away from certain death.

It all makes sense. When the people amassed and began rioting in front of Aharon's tent, they were not looking for another god, but a solution to their food and water scarcity.

The Arizal (ליקוטי תורה פ׳ כי תשא) explains that this is the meaning behind the Medrash of עלה שור:

They cast “Rise up ox” in the fire, because they were looking for a different kind of leadership – the leadership of Yosef HaTzadik – the great ox. Whereas Moshe provided them with miracles, Yosef gave his brothers food, clothing and shelter.

Consider for a moment, that the Egel HaZahav was the paradigmatic emblem of financial stability. It was constructed of pure gold; the symbol of wealth and social power. It takes the form of a calf: a young plow animal; the engine of agriculture and economic prosperity.

“These are your gods, Israel!”, is the cry of a slave nation, desperate to know that they will survive the desert if their miraculous leader were to disappear as suddenly as he arrived.

The root cause of the Egel HaZahav was not idolatry, it was insecurity: “What will we do without Moshe?”

Or, to put it simply: There is no ways that Hashem will do these miracles for me. I don't deserve it. If there's some great tzadik around to draw down some heavenly sustenance, that's wonderful. But what about me?

These are the מקטרגים – voices of accusation – that challenge the value and purpose of the Jewish people. They have echoed since our years of slavery in Egypt, and we still hear them today, from inside of our nation and from the outside world.

They ring in our ears, our hearts and our minds: Who says we're the chosen people? What right to do have to Eretz Yisrael? Does Hashem even care about the mitzvos that we do, or chose to neglect?

On a deeper, personal and communal level, we question if we are worthy of Hashem's love and concern. Perhaps we have failed Him too many times to be redeemable? Perhaps our faults and flaws have made us undesirable?

There isn't a Jew in history who hasn't contended with these voices.

The Egel HaZahav did not represent a lack of faith in God, but a lack of faith in ourselves. Hashem is all-powerful, He can do anything. But there's no way He'll do it for me. I am unworthy.

Why Did Hashem Let Them Do It?

Now, imagine that Hashem sent Moshe down the mountain a moment before the Egel was made. The people would've clapped and cheered and celebrated. Aharon would've breathed a great sigh of relief. But deep down, they all would know that if not for Moshe they would all be doomed. Their feelings of worthlessness in Hashem's eyes would be confirmed.

The Kedushas Levi (ליקוטים חדשים פ׳ כי תשא) thus explains:

When a child is feeling deeply insecure about themselves and questioning their parents' love, it's not enough to say “you're so wonderful, of course I love you.” The child wants to know “What happens if I'm not wonderful? Do you still love me then? What if I disappoint you? Will you still hug me then?”

The only way to convince someone that you love them, no matter what, is to allow them to fail. And then to say “I still love you. I forgive you. There is nothing you could do to make me leave you.”

Of course, that doesn't absolve the need to fix the mistakes that were made. There is deep Teshuva that we need to do after testing the extent of Hashem love, and indeed, the Chumash does not shy away from telling us that the aftermath of the Egel was painful.

But knowing this premise, we can now understand why Moshe commands the Levi'im to go from camp to camp; rooting out and executing all those who built the Egel. The Torah's position is clear: The only people who needed to be eradicated were the instigators. The people who made other Jews question their own self-worth.

For the rest of us, for all time, the Egel HaZahav serves as a reminder that there is nothing a Jew can do to make Hashem not love us. Indeed, it was through this saga that the Thirteen Middos of Mercy were revealed.

Chazal (סנהדרין ק״ב א) tell us that every bit of pain and punishment that comes into the world has a little bit of the Chet HaEgel in it. Which means to say, that we still have work to do. We still need to convince ourselves that we're worth it; that Hashem loves us, that there is nothing we can ever do to change that.

Hashem should help us to finally rid ourselves of the Egel; to learn once and for all that Hashem has no regrets choosing us. He believes in us, and time we do the same.

Reading the news from Israel this week has been tough. It's tough to hear of the murder of another pair of brothers. To see the tears of their families, and to know that our enemies are still trying so hard to hurt us. It's tough to see the riots and hear the vitriol of our brothers and sisters. It's tough to hear the relentless and disproportionate condemnation from the rest of the world.

For full disclosure, I do not believe that I am nearly educated enough to understand the nuances of the Israeli legal policy, and I don't know how best to punish and deter murderous terrorists. As someone who is living in Chute La'Aretz (for now), I'm not going to offer my unqualified opinions.

What I do know is that we, as a people and as a nation are in pain. For all of the immense success and progress we have achieved in the past 75 years, it feels like we still have so much further to go. Our story, thousands of years in the making, has not yet arrived at “happily ever after.”

Sometimes, it's hard to dispel the cynicism and pessimism. But the Kohzniter Maggid (פרשת זכור) gives a name to this negativity: Amalek. It's the destructive nature of Amalek; alive and well inside of each us. It's those feelings of ego, hatred, divisiveness, laziness and anger that pull us away from who we want to and need to be.

But the greatest Yetzer Hara of Amalek is believing that there is no meaning to our story; or perhaps, that there is no story at all. As Rashi tells us: אשר קרך בדרך. לְשׁוֹן מִקְרֶה – “Amalek happened upon you on your way” – He made it seem random.

The world of Amalek is one of happenstance. Nothing is inherently meaningful, there is no story. And if there's no story, then there's nothing for me to do. There are no heroes, no villains, no good, no evil, no purpose.

Amalek doesn't only feature in on the center stage of Jewish history, and it's not only a danger when watching the news. If we're honest with ourselves, we've all felt this way from time to time about ourselves. It's that powerful (and deviously useful) Yetzer Hara which allows us to take certain liberties: “Who says this matters anyways...? Do you really think Hashem cares? Is it really such a big deal?!”

It's that part of us that we need to take note of, remember and destroy. Contending with this Yetzer Hara is a life of work, but there is a shortcut to victory – a unique tool in our national spiritual arsenal – and it's available this week only: Purim Goggles.

Amalek looks at the world, and at people, as random events, thrust together in the hurricane of history. Purim Goggles allow us to see people, history and the universe as having direction, purpose and destiny.

The News Headlines of the Megillah

Imagine the scene – someone rushes into Shul in the middle of davening to tell you that the king got angry with his wife, has had her killed, and wants to find a new one.

It's fantastic gossip, but little more than a terrible interruption in davening. Someone might turn around and shush who ever is making the noise.

Imagine they whisper that the new wife is a Jewish girl from the neighborhood. Now people are listening. It's tragic, upsetting, and it's also probably Lashon Hara; definitely not a conversation for shul.

Now, imagine someone tells you that two people were plotting to kill the king, and were stopped by some Rabbi in the capital. Perhaps you'd be intrigued, perhaps you might tell them to stop listening to these crazy conspiracy theories.

But amazingly, all of these stories together are read out in Shul, and we ensure that we hear each and every word. It's called Megillas Ester.

The Chiddushei HaRim (על התורה ע׳ קכז) explains: When Mashiach comes, each and every event in the history of humanity will be understood as part of the story. All of the complexities, difficulties and challenges will be seen as culminating in the great redemption of our nation, and our world.

Seeing in the Dark

This is wonderful in theory and it's nice to be hopeful, in retrospect. But in the darkness of our world, of Galus, with anti-semitism on the rise, divisiveness amongst our people stronger than ever, knowing that Purim had a happy ending does little to help us now. We are not at the end of the Megillah, we're in the middle. It might be more beneficial to ask how we did it back then?

The Megillah tells us: As the plot against the Jewish people formed, our desperation grew. Fasting, prayers and sackcloth.

And then it all began to change.

People started to understand that something special or different was happening when they saw Mordechai on the horse being let through the streets of Shushan. This scene, frozen in time, is in fact, the theme with which we conclude the reading of the Megillah:

שושנת יעקב צהלה ושמחה בראותם יחד תכלת מרדכי

The rose of Yaakov was thrilled and filled with joy when they saw Mordechai wearing – Techeles – royal blue.

Of course, the scene is powerful – Mordechai on the horse, and Haman leading him through the crowds, proclaiming “This is the reward for one whom the King wishes to honor.” Perhaps, indeed, this is the most hopeful event in the story. But of all the details to focus on, the Techeles is a strange thing to be happy about. What is the significance of seeing Mordechai wearing blue?

The Mishna (ברכות א:ב) tell us that there is a time in the morning called משיכיר “the time when one can recognize...” At this moment, we can recognize the difference between white and blue, Techeles and Lavan on Tzitzis. It's around this time that we could also begin distinguishing a friend's face in the early morning darkness.

Why Techeles and Lavan? Rashi (בראשית ט:כג ומזרחי שם) explains that Techeiles and Lavan came to us from difference sources. Shem ben Noach, who covered his father, gave us the whiteness – the pure and uncomplicated understanding that Hashem is the King of the Universe. But Avraham introduced us to the world of Techeles; the connection between heaven and earth, as Chazal (סוטה יז א׳) teach us:

שֶׁהַתְּכֵלֶת דּוֹמֶה לַיָּם וְיָם דּוֹמֶה לָרָקִיעַ וְרָקִיעַ דּוֹמֶה לְכִסֵּא הַכָּבוֹד

Techeles-Blue is similar to the sea, and the sea is similar to the sky, and the sky is similar to the Throne of Hashem.

In the darkness of night, we cannot recognize Hashem's involvement in the world. We know He's there, but we cannot understand it. As dawn breaks, however, we might begen to see His hand reaching out, moving history along, connecting Heaven and Earth.

The truth is, however, that משיכיר is little more than a halachic reality. Anyone that's stood outside in real darkness trying to discern colors or faces, knows that at משיכיר it's practically impossible to see anything with any certainty. We know that it's theoretically possible, but most importantly, we know that more light is coming.

Get Your Goggles

There's a great beauty to the Mitzvos of Purim: They're all shrouded in mystery and obscurity, and yet, we still able to celebrate. Purim comes to tell us: Ok, you know that you can start to see, but it's still really hard. Here's some suggestions to make it better:

  • Read the Megillah. It's the only book of Tanach missing the name of Hashem and yet, it all made sense in the end.
  • Give gifts to your friends, include them in your celebration. Mishloach Manos is best given through a messenger (שו״ת בנין ציון ס׳ מ״ב). Why not face to face? Perhaps it's because in this way you are telling your friends that you are sending them your love, your thoughts, even when they are not with you. Even when I can't see you, I know that you're there.
  • Give tzedaka to those less fortunate – לכל הפושט יד – to anyone who asks, without an interrogation. Give without needing to know. (And like all tzedaka, Matanos L'evyonim are best given anonymously שו״ת בית אבי.)
  • And once you've done all of that, have a Seudah where you try to get out of your own head. עד דלא ידע means we realize that we're not so smart after all...

This is the Avoda of Purim, and there is no greater refutation of the Amalek inside of us, and outside in the world.

Taken together, these mitzvos give us Purim Goggles; eyes to see the Greatness of Hashem and the beauty of His people, even in confusion and darkness. Eyes to see that our story is still being written. With His help, we should keep on writing the final chapters before Geulah together.

There was one morning, a while back that I had the opportunity to daven with a group of middle school students. (City and school undisclosed – but it could've been anywhere.)

The kids were rambunctious, finding it difficult to maintain their composure throughout the Tefillah. This is not uncommon for boys that age. At one point, as the noise level was getting out of hand, a rebbe approached the front of the room and motioned for silence and attention. When the room finally quieted down, he began:

“I understand that many of you don't feel like there is anything for you to daven for today. You are healthy and well, your lives are happy and successful. Hashem has taken care of your daily needs. You are well fed, your homes are safe. But please, even if you have no need to daven for yourself, think of someone who needs your tefillos. Is there someone you know who is ill? Someone that needs help on a test? Or making friends? Even if you have nothing to ask from Hashem, ask Him to help your friends.”

The feeling in the room changed, and the rebbe returned to his seat.

I don't know if his message made much of an impression on the kids that morning, but they were certainly a little quieter for the remainder of Shachris. (Though I have no way of knowing if they actually began to daven for themselves or others.)

I've thought a lot about the message that the rebbe shared that morning. On the one hand, it's important and beautiful. We believe in the power of Tefillah to help others. But on the other hand, there was something deeply unsettling in his argument, something profoundly flawed in the underpinnings of his instructions.

What if Life was Perfect?

Take a moment and imagine your life if you were currently living as Jew in the Midbar. Every morning, you wake up to a breakfast of Manna delivered miraculously from Shamayim. Your water comes from a rock. Ananei HaKavod surround your home, protecting you from the heat of the sun and the coldness of night. The requirements of your physical existence are all completely taken care of by Hashem Himself.

There are no Yeshiva admissions, no tuition bills. Your children are taught by Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon HaKohen, and you feel Hashem's presence in your life in a tangible way; He's holding your hand, guiding you from camp to camp; from station to station.

Throughout the forty years in the desert, there was quite literally, nothing that anyone needed to do. With one exception: Building the Mishkan.

The Mishkan was constructed with Jewish hands, Jewish labor and Jewish money. Every part of it painstakingly crafted and assembled according to the specifications that Hashem commanded. This project spans four entire Parshiyos in the Torah.

The Sefer HaChinuch (צ״ה) explains that this entire endeavor was not, because Hashem needs a physical home – He fills all worlds at all times completely. The purpose of constructing the Mishkan is to create a space that serves our interests:

כי בנין בית לשם יתברך לעשותנו בה תפלות וקרבנות אליו, הכל להכין הלבבות לעבודתו יתעלה.

The building of a Home for Hashem, for us to pray and offer sacrifices to Him in it – it is all to prepare our hearts to His service.

But why on earth would we build a Mishkan in which to daven if all of our needs are taken care of already?

The message of the Torah is quite clear: Through the process of donating to, building and frequenting the Mishkan, our lives and perspectives would change. We don't daven because we need something. We daven because we want to speak to Hashem. We want to realign our value system to the values of Hashem.

Rebbe Nachman (ליקוטי מוהר”ן קמא ע׳:ב׳) explains the purpose of the Mishkan:

כִּי מִשְׁכָּן הָיָה לוֹ כֹּחַ הַמּוֹשֵׁךְ, לְהַמְשִׁיךְ אֱלֹקוּת לַמָּקוֹם שֶׁהָיָה עוֹמֵד שָׁם, בְּחִינַת (שיר השירים א׳:ד׳): מָשְׁכֵנִי אַחֲרֶיךָ נָּרוּצָה.

The Mishkan (מִשְׁכָּן) had an attracting force (מּוֹשֵׁךְ) for drawing Godliness to the site in which it stood, as in “Draw Me; we will run after You”.

The obligation to build a Mishkan serves to teach us that the Ribono Shel Olam is not, Chas V'Shalom, a celestial Jewish Santa Claus. We do not wait on a long line to ask for the things we want in life, nervously anticipating His determination as to whether we have been good enough to receive it. Hashem is also not a bureaucrat insisting that the paperwork of our requests is filled out correctly.

Instead, we create a space, a place and a time to cultivate our relationship. This doesn't only begin when life gets tough, it permeates our lives every moment of every day.

Making Space

Even in the absence of a Mishkan and Beis Hamikdash, we are still obligated and invited to make space for Hashem. The Izhbiter writes (מי השלוח חלק ב, תרומה):

ויקחו לי תרומה שצוה הש”י שכל אחד יפריש לעצמו שעה מובדלת לה' בכל יום ולהתבודד בעבודת הש”י.

“And you will take for a me a Terumah” means that Hashem is commanding each and every Jew to separate for themselves an hour every day, dedicated to to being alone with Hashem.

The purpose of our grand national Mishkan building project was to make Yiddishkeit more meaningful, and less transactional. The only way to do it is by carving out time and attention to nurture our relationship with Hashem.

Likewise, we are also charged with designating space to do so. Chazal tell us that we are obligated to find a מקום קבוע – a set place in which to Daven.

Of course, this goal is not accomplished exclusively by Tefillah. The Alter Rebbe writes in Tanya (פרק ל״ד):

וּמִשֶּׁחָרַב בֵּית הַמִּקְדָּשׁ – אֵין לְהַקָּדוֹשׁ־בָּרוּךְ־הוּא בְּעוֹלָמוֹ מִשְׁכָּן וּמָכוֹן לְשִׁבְתּוֹ, הוּא יִחוּדוֹ יִתְבָּרֵךְ, אֶלָּא אַרְבַּע אַמּוֹת שֶׁל הֲלָכָה... אֵי לָזֹאת, אֶעֱשֶׂה לוֹ מִשְׁכָּן וּמָכוֹן לְשִׁבְתּוֹ, הוּא הָעֵסֶק בְּתַלְמוּד תּוֹרָה כְּפִי הַפְּנַאי שֶׁלִּי, בִּקְבִיעוּת עִתִּים בַּיּוֹם וּבַלַּיְלָה

Ever since the Temple was destroyed, “the four cubits of the Halachah”, the study of Jewish law — is the only sanctuary and abode which Hashem has in His world... (A person should therefore think) “This being so, I will make Him a sanctuary and an abode by studying Torah at fixed times by day and by night, to the extent of my free time.”

Therein lies the key: בִּקְבִיעוּת עִתִּים בַּיּוֹם וּבַלַּיְלָה – creating fixed times of the day and night. Fixed times, and fixed places.

Hashem, in His infinite wisdom, knows that most of us do the things that are urgent long before the things that are important. Without making a time and space, we drift from day to day, never getting to the activities and relationships that make life meaningful.

To avoid this pitfall, Hashem asks us to preempt it by putting in the big rocks first as Stephen Covey explained.

Of course, we should certainly still daven for things that are urgent. We should learn Torah when we need to know the Halacha. But all of that is in addition to the constant endeavor to live our lives in the presence of Hashem.

Parshas Terumah charges us to begin constructing our own sacred spaces and times. Making the important, important. With Hashem's help, we too will merit to fulfill the the famous words of Rav Hutner:

בלבבי משכן אבנה – In my heart I will build a Mishkan...

Enter your email to subscribe to updates.