RETURN: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe — Day 10: Holiness

Excerpted from Erica Brown’s Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe

RETURN-- Teshuva -- cover design 7-5-12

Day Ten: Holiness

“For the sin we committed before You by desecrating the Divine name.”

“You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). Holiness is a mandate. We are obligated to be holy for without necessarily understanding what holiness demands of us. The German theologian Rudolph Otto (1869-1937) tried to analyze the component parts of the sacred in his book The Idea of the Holy, but Otto’s language is dense and opaque. Holiness, Otto believed, is a mystery, both terrifying and fascinating. He believed that holiness is a non-rational and non-sensory experience that he termed “numinous,” referring to its unknowable quality. As interesting and influential as Otto’s writing is, the book offers little practical guidance on what it could mean to live the lofty and ethereal demands of this call from Leviticus.

As we become more attuned to the sacredness of each day of the ten days of repentance, we confess when we have fallen short of this desideratum. Further on in Leviticus, sanctifying God and profaning God live right next to each other: “You must not profane My holy name, that i may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people, I the Lord who sanctify you” (22:32). The verse presents what looks like a causal relationship. If I do not profane, then I sanctify. But holiness does not strike us as a neutral state that demands no active striving. We wonder what it means to desecrate God’s name just as we try to understand what it means to make it holy in our act of vidui, confession. Is desecration a conscious act of minimizing God’s presence in our lives or even profaning it, or is it simply ignoring the sacred, pretending that transcendence is not relevant to us? A midrash on the book of Numbers hints at the second:

Entrances to holiness are everywhere.
The possibility of ascent is all the time.
Even at unlikely times and through unlikely places.
There is no place on earth without the Prescence.

There are portals to holiness everywhere, but we often walk in the world as if we have no map to them, as if they do not exist. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s interpretation of this midrash prods us to ask if we really strive for holiness on this day and every day after it:

You do not have to go anywhere to raise yourself. You do not have to become anyone other than yourself to find entrances. You are already there. You are already everything you need to be. Entrances are everywhere and all the time. “There is no man who does not have his hour, and no thing that does not have its place (Ethics of the Fathers 4:3).

As we move up the ladder of holiness on Yom Kippur, we realize that we have scaled the heights to arrive at this entrance but feel lower than ever before. We cannot access a way in to God. We gravitate between intimacy and distance. One minute we are close to imbuing everything we do with transcendence and the next we feel all of our inadequacies rising, filling us with dread and humility.

Our prayer moments parallel this experience, taking us up and down with their ascents and descents, mirroring this emotional rise and fall with uncanny unpredictability. We praise God’s name and God’s capacity for mercy, elevating us and giving us the promise to reach out and bridge the chasm. Then suddenly our prayers turn precipitously to human beings and throw us into existential crisis:

Man, his beginning is from dust and ends in dust; risking his life, he gets his brad. He is like a potsherd that cracks, like grass that withers, like the flower that fades, like the shadow that passes, like the cloud that vanishes, like the wind that blows, like the dust that flies, and like a fleeting dream…(Unetaneh Tokef prayer)

The impermanence of our condition renders our grasp for the sacred an anomaly. We are there and then we will go, sometimes without notice. We have the same ephemeral quality as shadows, dust, and dreams. We cannot achieve the sacred; we are as breakable as clay. And again, as we immerse ourselves in these doubts and anxieties, the prayer mood shifts again: “But You are the Kind, the Almighty, the living and the everlasting God.” Our frailty is contrasted to God’s stability, and we find ourselves once again on terra firma. We will hold on tightly to the Rock and gain strength from God’s presence.

To be holy in Hebrew is to consecrate or separate something so that it achieves distinction. We step out of our this-worldly experience and into another, one which exudes mystery and strangeness. When Moses experienced revelation at the burning bush, God him to remove his shoes, to take off his layer of this-worldliness so that he could enter another universe of discourse. He had to take off that which separated him from the ground to understand that he was not in a place ruled by expected norms: “Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). When Moses was called he answered, “Hineni.” I am in the moment. I am fully present. I have answered the call to holiness. Only in that state will the impossible become possible.

We are standing right now, at this moment in time, on the brink of infinite possibility. We stand here as individuals ready for change, enveloped and carried by the love of community. There are no divisions. There are no distractions. As we enter this, the holiest day of the year, we are saying with the setting of the sun that we have let go of the insistence that all is impossible, all the thoughts and intentions and motivations that tell us we can never change. For the next twenty-five hours, we will separate ourselves from this world in order to experience another world where all change is possible. The doors to possibility are opening. They are waiting for us to say hineni: I am fully present here, and I can achieve the impossible.

RETURN: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe — Day 4: Humility

Excerpted from Erica Brown’s Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Books

RETURN-- Teshuva -- cover design 7-5-12

Day Four: Humility

“For the sin we committed before You by haughtily stretching forth the neck.”.

The word humility is rooted int he Latin word for “grounded” or “low,” from the word “humus” or earth. To be a person of the earth is to realize that one is small. We come from the earth and will return to it, in Job’s immortal words; while we occupy it, we should take up a smaller spiritual footprint to make space for others. to be humble is to think modestly of one’s abilities and one’s place in the world. Being humble also means that we have the emotional bandwidth to make others feel good about themselves without believing that it detracts from our own sense of security. Humble people have the capacity to honor others. Arrogant people hoard all credit for themselves – as if complimenting others detracts from oneself.

A young man on the rise in his company shared his distress with me. One of his close colleagues, a man in a senior position, confessed to him out of the office when his guard was down that he hated hearing about his younger colleague’s successes. It frustrated him to no end that this rising star was sucking away attention from others, mostly from himself. He resented this man’s talent and was openly jealous. when we spoke about it, he was unsure what to do. Working hard was not enough. He had to learn to work hard and  not have anyone notice, since his success was taking away from the success of his superiors.

Elie Wiesel famously said that one of the lessons he learned from receiving the Nobel Peace Prize was who his friends were. They were the people who could feel genuine happiness for his success, not begrudge him out of envy or spite. A test of true friendship and support is not only whether others empathize with our travails, but also whether they are able to rejoice in our better moments and compliment freely and sincerely. Friends celebrate the success of others, as it states in Ethics of the Fathers, “Let your friend’s honor be as dear to you as your own” (2:10). The capacity to honor and recognize the goodness and achievement of others is a signature of personal humility and security. If it is hard to compliment others, to make others feel good, then we have to look in the mirror and ask ourselves why.

Humility is critical to the life of the spirit because it enables us accept a subordinate position in relation to others and God. If we take up every word in a dialogue it becomes a soliloquy. If we take up all the space in a room, there is no room for God.

We stretch forth our necks  in sin when we allow ourselves to sit in judgment over others. By making someone else inferior, we become more superior in our own eyes. Our necks metaphorically extend higher and then look down on others. Rabbi Luzzatto wrote about humility and arrogance throughout the pages of The Path of the Just, understanding that this battle preoccupies us all. It is a constant fight within.

Pride consists in a person’s pluming himself with his self and considering himself worthy of praise. There can be many different reasons behind this. Some deem themselves intelligent; some, handsome; some, honored; some, great; some, wise…When a man attributes to himself any of the good things of the world, he puts himself in immediate danger of falling into the pit of pride.

The pit of pride can swallow us whole. Rabbi Luzzatto believed that arrogance alone “stultifies the mind, which perverts the hearts of the highest in wisdom.”

Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum (1759-1841), the Rebbe of Ujhely, Hungary, and a convert to Hasidut through his son-in-law, told this story in notes he made on the dreams of his  youth. It is a good example of the pit of pride we must avoid. Rabbi Teitelbaum was looking out his window on the night of Rosh HaShana and watched as a throng of people hurried to the synagogue: “I saw that they were driven by the fear of the Day of Judgment.” He watched this with an outstretched neck and said to himself: “God be thanked, I have been doing the right thing all through the  year! I have studied right and prayed right, so I do not have to be afraid.” Watching the sudden rush to synagogue did not stir panic within him. His good deeds and character were all in check. Why hurry? With this confidence he examined his dreams to review all his good works. “I looked and looked: They were torn, ragged, ruined! At that instant I woke up. Overcome with fear, I ran to the House of Prayer along with the rest.”

We recognize Rabbi Moshe’s stability. It is the posture of an overconfident man entering the Day of Judgment. We have all been there. Rosh HaShana caches us by surprise. We are blessedly unprepared. We feel good about ourselves. And why shouldn’t we? But then we pause to think more deeply about the year past and our regrets and mistakes, and suddenly we are overcome with Rabbi Moshe’s panic. Humility gets the better of us. Get thee to a synagogue. Fast.

In the synagogue at this time of year, we take ourselves out of the pit of pride and throw ourselves willingly into the pit of humility. Our prayers are designed to help us acknowledge our smallness in the universe. One of the most famous of these in an evening piyut, an acrostic poem of anonymous authorship, sung during Kol Nidrei:

Like the clay in the hand of a potter
Who thickens or thins it at his will,
So are we in Thy hand, gracious God,
Forgive our sin, Thy covenant fulfill.

Like a stone in the hand of the mason
Who preserves or breaks it at his will,
So are we in Thy hand, Lord of Life,
Forgive our sin, Thy covenant fulfill.

Like iron in the hand of the craftsman
Who forges or cools it at his will,
We are in Thy hand, our Keeper,
Forgive our sin, Thy covenant fulfill.

The request for forgiveness stays the same, but the way we refer to ourselves and to God changes. We review the different ways that God relates to us with mercy and authority, giving us life and sustaining us, as would a craftsman. We are mere raw material. Any ingredient of uniqueness we may possess – our health, our wealth, good looks, or a good mind – is God’s doing and in God’s hands to mold. It has little to do with us.

But even as we raise our voices in song and lower our impulse of pride, we know the synagogue is no safe place to escape the ego, especially during the Days of Awe. People are interested in ladies’ hats and suits and expensive jewelry. People are interested in who sits in what row. People are interested in others who sway and bow, the piety of those the observe in their peripheral vision. People are interested in the food served in various homes at festive meals after services. The fear and reverance that should comprise our awe is often comprised by our curiosity over the material or perceived spiritual excesses in our midst.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin tells a story of his grandfather, also a rabbi. His grandfather served in the rabbinate for sixty years and told his grandson about a certain wealthy man in his congregation who was entitled to sit in a prime seat in the front of the congregation. He, instead, chose to sit in the back, watching others enter the sanctuary to see if they would notice that he was not sitting in the front. The elder Rabbi Telushkin finally confronted the wealthy man: “It would be better if you sat up front, and thought you should be seated in the back, rather than to sit in the back, and think the whole time you should be seated in the front.”

Sometimes we inherit the success of others, which we deem a cause for superiority: status, family wealth, or position in the community. Sometimes we work really hard to achieve material or academic success, and it happens, bloating us with pride. The sages of the Talmud pondered the question of why many Torah scholars have children who are not Torah scholars. Many of their answers have to do with arrogance. A scholar who regards himself as superior to others might make a child question whether religion matters. The child then opts out of religion.

Even in the arena of Torah study, a cardinal value of Jewish life, scholarship is riddled with battles for status. This problem was addressed outright in Ethics of the Fathers: “Do not give yourself airs if you have learned much Torah, because it is for this purpose you were created” (2:8). We are entitled to feel joy when we have discovered and are living our life’s purpose but joy is not the same as superiority. Superiority only brings down the spirit and ruins the reputation of the mind as a tool for meaning. It too often becomes a tool for status, even – and some could argue especially – among Torah scholars.

There is little in the world more insufferable than self-righteousness. Those who suffer from it believe that God is on their side, supporting the piety of the observant against the ignorance of those who are not. Self-righteousness lies at the very heart of the fundamentalist, making him police officer, judge, and prosecutor. In contract, God makes a small request through the agency of the prophet. “Act justly, lover mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Micah asks this of us as if it were easy and imposed no great burden. Yet the burden of humility is the very fact that we have to remind ourselves of it always.

Humility can be a result of the way we were raised, a character trait we come by easily – or it may have been conditioned by a change of circumstances. Tragic experiences often take a person from a place of pride to a place of humility. The person who stretches forth his neck above others becomes the very same person who sits with his head bowed because life suddenly took an unexpected turn for the worse. When all is well, we gives ourselves extra credit, believing that we are worthy of all our successes. But when a change of fortune sits in, it is not only that we lose something concrete – like a spouse or a job or our savings – but we also lose a self-image consonant with success. The captain-of-the-universe posture rusts a confusing, beguiling, and disappointing mess.

Just ask Job. There is no better story to illustrate this than the spiritual whiplash suffered by Job. Job had everything: a large family, wealth, and status born of his wisdom. And then Job became the unwitting victim in a wager between God and Satan: God believed that a faithful servant would be loyal in an circumstance; Satan believed that only those who are blessed stay true to God. God pointed to the person He deemed most successful in the ancient Near East: Job of the land of Uz.  Job is introduced as a man who was “blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil” (Job 1:1). He had ten children – seven of whom were boys, a sure sign of blessing in the days of old – and a vast estate. “The man was wealthier than anyone in the East” (1:3). But by the end of the first chapter, Job had lost all of his children, and his world quickly unraveled.

Later in the story, Job reflects on the man he had once been in his prime: “O that I were as in months gone by, in the days when God watched over me, when His lamp shone over my head, when I walked in the dark by His light” (29:2). At that time, Job says, his children surrounded him and his feet were “bathed in cream” (29:6). He had the attention of nobles; young men hid from him out of fear. He helped others who were unfortunate; men would listen for his words of wisdom. He describes his words as drops of dew to men who were thirsty for his counsel. But after calamity struck, he walked in the streets ashamed and denigrated, a man of little worth among friends.

It must have felt good to be regarded so highly, to walk into a room and have people  hang on your every word and enjoy “love like a king among his troops, like one who consoles mourners” (29.25). The one who consoles mourners extends pity to others; he never imagines himself as an object of pity to others.

In the very first chapters that follow his catalogue of woes, Job begins to understand his altered position and curses his very existence: “Perish the day on which I was born and night it was announced…May that day be darkness.  May God have no concern for it. May light not shine upon it” (3:4-5). Job never curses God; he only wonders at why he was ever brought into existence. The worst tragedy that could befall him struck. The nightmare of all nightmares was real:

My groaning serves as my bread;
My roaring pours forth as water.
For what I feared has overtaken me;
What I dreaded has come upon me.
I had no repose, no quiet, no rest.
And trouble came. (3:24-26)

A man of prominence has stopped eating. A mouth that once could afford any delicacy is filled with groaning. His  most dreaded fears have come true, leaving him without respite. And what happens in over forty chapters that follow is the total transformation of a man of success into a brittle version of his former self. His faith stays constant, but his pride is replaced with despondency.

The secret of Job’s humility was no secret at all. As his life shrunk in its capacity for blessing, Job questioned all the assumptions that lead to success, particularly the belief in human mystery. The mortal hubris of achievement was crushed in a single blow, leaving Job winded.

As the book nears its end, God speaks directly to Job, asking Job is had an inkling of understanding of how the world works. God moves Job’s ruminations from self-pity by asking him to contemplate the complexity of a world far beyond his comprehension:

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?
Speak if you have understanding.
Do you know who fixed its dimensions
Or who measured it with a line?
Onto what were its bases sunk?
Who set its cornerstone
When the morning stars sang together
And all the divine beings shouted for joy? (38:4-7)

God, the divine structural engineer, questions Job about the foundations of the universe and who set it all in motion. As if Job’s tragedies had not humbled him sufficiently, God in the next several chapters continues to question Job about seemingly every facet of the world: lightning, the ocean, clouds, snow, constellations, the hunting instinct of the lion, the season when mountain goats give birth, the way an ostrich beats its wings, the way the eagle soars. All of nature is governed by a force so vast that no person, however wise, can conceive of it all. We read Job and are reminded of the poem “Design” in which Robert Frost meditates on “a dimpled spider, fat and white.” He looks at it closely and marvels at its intricacies and its capacity to frighten human beings:

What but design of darkness to appall?–
If design govern in a thing so small

God asks Job if he can possibly understand the natural world, the design of each creature and its relationship to the ecosystem that God manufactured. To this, Job can  muster only silence and a weak response, the response of humility:

See, I am of small worth. What can I answer You? I clap my hands to my mouth. (40:4)

We, too, are small in God’s immense universe. Practice humility. Making ourselves smaller helps us appreciate the vastness of a world so much larger than we are.


Task 1: Imagine for a moment that are being honored or are receiving an award. Identify what you might be honored for at this moment. A friend of mine sets his professional achievement goals this way: he imagines what he woudl want to be honored for five years from now and works towards it. Think about what it would be like to stand in front of a podium and be recognized for that achievement.

Now imagine that there is no certificate, no award, no crystal plaque with your name on it. The award you will get instead has nothing to do with your profession or your academic achievements. It is awarded by your children or your parents or a friend because you set as your goal the honor and needs of someone else. We get that award long from now in eulogies that one day will be offered when we are no longer around to hear the. What would you like someone to say about you at your funeral?

Task 2: Think of someone in your life who is not expecting to hear from  you and who has just achieved something of importance. Go out of your way to celebrate his or her success in detail, letting him or her know how proud you are and why. In the spirit of Ethics of the Fathers, let your friend’s honor be as dear to you as your own.

Parshat Shoftim: Poetry or Practicality

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’sUnlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Devarim’, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers



We have previously noted and discussed the tension created by the multilayered character of the book of Devarim (see Devarim 1). On the one hand, as we have noted, Devarim chronicles the poignant human drama of Moshe’s farewell to his people. Within his public addresses, this great leader waxes eloquent as he searches for words that will remain with his “flock” long after he is gone. On the other hand, Devarim is an integral part of God’s eternal law. As such, this text is bound by the rules that govern the interpretation of the entire Torah. Every word is essential; each phrase is divinely chosen to convey a particular eternal message to the reader. While this dual unfolding is felt throughout the book of Devarim, there are times when it rises more clearly to the surface, complicating the nature of specific imperatives appearing in the text. Two powerful examples of such commandments are found in Parshat Shoftim:

Tzedek tzedek tirdof, “Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you will live and possess the land that the Lord your God gives to you.”
Tamim tihiyeh im Hashem Elokecha, “Wholehearted shall you be with the Lord your God.”

How are we meant to view commandments such as those quoted above? Are they general, spontaneous products of Moshe’s passion as he strives to penetrate the hearts of a listening people? Or are they mitzvot, or elements of mitzvot, divinely fashioned, like all other Torah imperatives, toconvey specific behavioral requirements across the ages? If the latter is true, what are those concrete requirements?

The first and most important answer to our questions is clearly “ all of the above.” As we often have noted before, the Torah text unfolds on multiple levels simultaneously.

The narrative in the book of Bereishit, for example, chronicles the birth of a nation through the stories of individual families. The national saga coursing beneath the surface of these personal tales does not in any way diminish the poignant private journeys described therein.

Similarly, any halachic requirements conveyed by Moshe’s imperatives to the nation in the book of Devarim should not blind us to the dramatic passion reflected in his words. To fully appreciate this book of the Torah, we must always keep the scene of its unfolding before our eyes. An aged, powerful leader bids farewell to the people that he has shepherded from slavery to freedom. Powerful sentiments course through each sentence as Moshe shares his personal regrets with the nation over his inability to join in entering the land; desperately tries to teach final, critical lessons before his death; and delivers, one last time, words of encouragement, warning, support, remonstration and so much more. Clearly Moshe’s eloquent choice of words mirrors a myriad of personal emotions.

At the same time, however, these are words of Torah text and, as such, transcend the moments of their delivery. Concrete, eternal instructions are contained within the commandments shared by Moshe throughout the book of Devarim. Every phrase uttered by this great leader, no matter how dramatic, is therefore fair game for halachic analysis by scholars across the ages.The two phrases before us provide telling examples of the varied rabbinic approaches to Moshe’s dramatic words in Sefer Devarim.

I. Tzedek tzedek tirdof


The phrase Tzedek tzedek tirdof…, “Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you will live and possess the land that the Lord your God gives to you,” appears at the end of the short opening passage of Parshat Shoftim. Serving as an introduction to the entire parsha, this three-sentence passage conveys the general admonition to establish a righteous system of governance upon entering the land.


While the scholars of the Talmud do not derive an independent mitzva from the words tzedek, tzedek tirdof, they do view this phrase as potentially broadening the Torah’s demand for justice in multiple ways. A number of interpretations in this vein are suggested in the tractate of Sanhedrin.

The rabbis open the Talmudic discussion by questioning the demands presented by two separate biblical verses. In the book of Vayikra, the Torah commands, “with justice shall you judge your fellow,”6 while the text in Devarim demands, “Justice, justice shall you pursue…” Perceiving seemingly contrasting requirements emerging from these verses, the rabbis ask: In which cases does “judging with justice” suffice? And in which cases must we “pursue justice, justice” with extra vigor?

Answering their own question, the scholars explain that through the use of these variations, the text challenges judges to follow their own instincts. In straightforward situations, where the facts match the judges’ internal perceptions; “judging with justice” will suffice. When the judges suspect deceit, however, they must dig deeper, moving past the apparent facts before them, as they “pursue justice” with further force. A judge cannot fulfill his task in pro forma fashion. He must always invest his full capacities as God’s agent in the administration of the law.


Rabbi Ashi demurs, negating the textual question raised by his colleagues. The two Torah passages are not in conflict, this sage argues, as the repetitive language in the phrase “Justice, justice shall you pursue” does not reflect a call for extraordinary effort in specific cases. At all times, a judge must apply himself fully towards the rendering of a just verdict. Instead, the reiteration “Justice, justice…” references the legitimacy of two distinct judicial paths: justice and compromise. Based upon the circumstances and the judgment of the bench, either of these paths can be followed.

Rabbi Ashi’s acceptance of compromise as a legitimate judicial path is carried one step further by another Talmudic scholar, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha, earlier in this same tractate, Sanhedrin. Rabbi Yehoshua maintains that, when possible, a judge is obligated to negotiate or arbitrate a compromise between two disputants. To buttress his position, this scholar quotes the pronouncement of the prophet Zecharia, “Truth and a judgment of peace shall you execute in your gates.”

How, Rabbi Yehoshua asks, is a “justice of peace” attainable? One could argue that these two terms are mutually exclusive. Is it not true that when a decision is determined through strict justice, peace has not been achieved? One of the disputants will inevitably be dissatisfied the verdict.

What, then, is the “judgment of peace” to which the prophet refers? Obviously, answers Rabbi Yehoshua, the prophet is referencing the path of compromise.

Rabbi Yehoshua’s embrace of compromise as the preferred legal path, however, is not without controversy. In the same passage of Talmud, Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Yossi the Galilean maintains that a judge is absolutely forbidden to arbitrate a compromise. While disputants can certainly find a middle ground between themselves, Rabbi Eliezer maintains, once they approach a court for a ruling, strict justice must rule the day.

Strangely enough, Rabbi Eliezer’s position prohibiting courtroom compromise would seem to find support from the very sentence that Rabbi Yehoshua quotes to buttress his own position in support of such compromise: “Truth and a judgment of peace shall you execute in your gates.” For while conciliation satisfies the need for both “peace” and “judgment,” it does not satisfy the third component cited by the prophet, “truth.” If a judge arbitrates a compromise between two litigants, he does not arrive at the truth. He creates, in effect, a legal fiction through which neither of the parties completely loses. Such a fiction is an acceptable settlement, Rabbi Eliezer argues, only before the court becomes involved. Once the legal process is engaged, a judge can only choose one path. He is obligated to strive for the truth through the strict application of Torah law.

In spite of Rabbi Eliezer’s compelling argument against judicial negotiation, however, the halacha, as codified both in the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah and in Rabbi Yosef Caro’s Shulchan Aruch,11 adopts Rabbi Yehoshua’s embrace of compromise as the preferred courtroom path.

In the words of the Rambam,

It is a mitzva [for a judge] to ask the litigants, at the onset of the legal process, “Do you wish a legal ruling or a compromise?” If they desire to compromise, [the court] should effect a compromise between them. And any court that consistently effects compromise is a laudatory court about which [the prophet] states: “Truth and a judgment of peace shall you execute in your gates.” What justice is accompanied by peace? Let us say that it is [the justice of] compromise.

The halachic support of judicial compromise, even at the expense of the truth, mirrors the powerful priority placed upon shalom, interpersonal peace, in countless other scholarly texts. Most telling, perhaps, is the rabbinic decision to close the entire Mishna and, arguably, the two most important prayers in Jewish liturgy, the Amida and the Kaddish, with paragraphs focusing on the theme of peace. Furthermore, in the fashioning of these prayers, the rabbis apparently take their cue from God Himself. The divinely authored Priestly Blessing, pronounced daily by the Kohanim over the nation at God’s command, culminates with the prayer “May the Lord turn His countenance towards you and grant you peace.

Halacha thus mandates that peace, the greatest of God’s blessings, must be aggressively pursued by God’s judicial agents in this world, even when that peace comes at the expense of truth.


Finally, yet another explanation for the phrase Tzedek tzedek tirdof is offered by the rabbis in the same Talmudic passage, based on the recognition that judges do not bear sole responsibility for the creation of a just society. As understood by the rabbis, the phrase Tzedek tzedek tirdof can be seen as the last in a series of directives issued by Moshe in Sefer Devarim concerning the essential reciprocal relationship between a society and its judges.

  1. Moshe opens his very first farewell address, recorded at the beginning of the book of Devarim, by recalling instructions he had previously given both to the nation and its judges concerning the establishment of a just society: As we left Sinai, he reminds the people, I instructed you to choose appropriate judges. And I admonished those judges to apply the law with justice.
  2. Now, as Moshe returns to the theme of governance at the beginning of Parshat Shoftim, he again sounds the call for respectful reciprocity: “Judges and officers shall you set for yourselves in all your gates.… And they will judge the nation with just judgment.” You, as a people, must do your part in creating a society built upon the administration of justice, while those whom you choose as leaders must administer that justice justly.
  3. He then continues by admonishing the judges directly: “You shall not pervert judgment, you shall not show favoritism and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe will blind the eyes of the wise and make the words of the righteous twisted.”
  4. Moshe closes with the declaration Tzedek tzedek tirdof, “Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you will live and possess the land that the Lord your God gives to you.”
    This last sentence, the Talmud suggests, is not directed towards the judges at all. Instead, with the phrase Tzedek tzedek tirdof, Moshe turns his attention back to the nation by raising the concept of societal judicial responsibility to a new level. For, at this point, Moshe addresses potential litigants.

Tzedek tzedek tirdof, “seek out an exemplary court.” Do not twist the process of jurisprudence to meet your own personal ends. Do not search for a court that is clearly predisposed to your point of view. There is more at stake here than your own personal concerns. Pursue justice; seek out an unbiased, exemplary court. Even as litigants, you play a pivotal role in maintaining the seriousness with which the law is taken and ensuring the proper administration of justice throughout the land.


Building upon these Talmudic suggestions, numerous other legal interpretations of the phrase Tzedek tzedek tirdof are suggested by commentaries across the ages.

It remains, however, for the eighteenth-century German scholar Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch to remind us not to lose sight of the forest for the trees. For while Hirsch himself quotes a number of the legal Talmudic references cited above, he also interprets Moshe’s passionate charge to the nation as a general directive meant to define the moral character of his people’s society:

“Justice, justice shall you pursue, so that you will live and possess the land that the Lord your God gives to you.”
As the highest unique goal, to be striven for purely for itself, to which all other considerations have to be subordinated, the concept, “Tzedek, Right, Justice,” …is to be kept in the mind of the whole nation. To pursue this goal unceasingly and with all devotion is Israel’s one task; with that it has done everything to secure its physical and political existence.

A loyal halachist, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch would be the first to acknowledge the importance of each legal detail gleaned by the Talmud from the verse Tzedek tzedek tirdof. At the same time, however, this visionary leader warns the reader not to overlook the power of Moshe’s words as a broad exhortation towards the overall establishment of a just society.

II. Tamim tihiyeh im Hashem Elokecha


The second of the verses before us, Tamim tihiyeh im Hashem Elokecha, “Wholehearted shall you be with the Lord your God,” appears in the middle of a paragraph in Parshat Shoftim prohibiting the practices of sorcery and divination.

Here the rabbinic divide becomes starker. For, as indicated above, although the rabbis debate the practical significance of the phrase tzedek, tzedek tirdof, they are united on one point. This dramatic statement does not constitute a new, unique mitzva. Moshe’s eloquent words convey, instead, an expansion on existing law.

When it comes to Moshe’s declaration Tamim tihiyeh im Hashem Elokecha, however, no such agreement exists. Instead, two fundamentally disparate approaches emerge from rabbinic literature.


At one end of the spectrum stand those authorities, such as the Ramban, who count the imperative Tamim tihiyeh im Hashem Elokecha as an independent positive mitzva, a separate one of the 613 commandments. This mitzva, these scholars maintain, obligates each Jew to recognize God’s sole awareness of and power over future events.

The approach of these authorities is based on consideration of the verse Tamim tihiyeh im Hashem Elokecha in context, as a positive iteration of the surrounding prohibitions against sorcery and divination. Through this declaration, the Ramban thus maintains, God commands the nation “to direct their hearts exclusively to Him; to believe that He, alone, is the Doer of all; that He knows the truth regarding the future; and from Him [alone] we should ask about that which is to come, from His prophets and pious ones.”

To buttress his approach, the Ramban cites biblical, Midrashic and Talmudic sources. Particularly telling is the parallel this sage draws between the verse before us and the opening imperative in a covenant between God and the patriarch Avraham at the dawn of Jewish history: Hit’halech l’fanai v’heyei tamim, “Walk before me and be wholehearted.” Here, too, God commands Avraham to remain steadfast in his rejection of the superstitious mores of the surrounding cultures. Be complete with Me, Avraham; recognize that I, and I alone, guide and control all that you see…

Puzzled by the Rambam’s omission of this obligation from his list of the mitzvot in Sefer Hamitzvot, the Ramban posits, “Perhaps the master [the Rambam] perceives this mandate as a general exhortation to perform the commandments and walk in the ways of the Torah…and therefore did not include it in his enumeration.”

“As is evident from the words of our sages, however,” the Ramban concludes, “the approach we have outlined [viewing this imperative as an independent commandment] is the correct one.”


At the other end of the spectrum can be found scholars such as Rabbeinu Bachya Ibn Pakuda who openly interpret the verse Tamim tihiyeh im Hashem Elokecha in general terms. In his introduction to his famous ethical work Chovot Halevavot (Duties of the Heart), Rabbeinu Bachya explains this biblical verse not as a unique mitzva, but as an overarching exhortation on Moshe’s part towards uniform ethical behavior throughout the life of each Jew: “And you should know that the intent and purpose of the precepts of the heart is to cultivate a complete harmony between our inner and outward actions in the service of the Lord.”

From Rabbeinu Bachya’s perspective, the imperative to be tamim (wholehearted) is a general one, mandating consistency between a person’s thoughts and actions. An individual whose words are at variance with his deeds, Bachya maintains, is not trusted by those around him. Similarly, if an individual’s service of God is marked by inconsistency and insincerity, if the intentions of his heart are contradicted by his words, if his inner convictions do not match his outward actions, his service of God will not be perfect.

Once again, we are reminded by a great luminary not to allow the details, important as they are, to blind us to the overarching power and passion of Moshe’s words. On a global level, Bachya argues, Moshe’s proclamation Tamim tihiyeh conveys a truth that courses through the entire Torah. An individual must be “wholehearted with God,” simply because God will reject insincerity.

Poetry or practicality? Passionate proclamations on the part of an aged leader, or concrete commandments to a people across time? Moshe’s eloquent declarations are both at the same time – text meant to be studied and taught on multiple levels at once. When we recognize this truth, the full beauty of the book of Devarim is revealed…

Birkon Mesorat HaRav: Essay on Birkat HaMazon

Excerpted from Birkon Mesorat HaRav: The Wintman Edition, edited by Rabbi David Hellman with commentary from the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

OU Birkon HaRav front cover


Birkat HaMazon: To Bless the Great and Holy Name


Birkat HaMazon, like our entire liturgy, exists on two planes. On the one hand, it is a standardized text instituted by the rabbis that we are obligated to recite after every meal. However, it is much more than a codified formulation; its specific words and language encapsulate ideas, themes, and concepts that we must extract, define, and elucidate. Fundamentally, we must ask, what is the telos of Birkat HaMazon and what religious experience does it capture? In other words, what is the essence of the mitzva that the Torah itself commands? To address these questions we must turn our attention to a few crucial Talmudic passages.

The Biblical Obligation

Before we can appreciate the theological and religious implications of Birkat HaMazon, we must clarify the different views regarding its halakhic definition. It is quite clear that the Torah requires some sort of blessing after we eat: “You shall eat and be satisfied and shall bless the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you” (Deut. 8:10). However, when it comes to the specific blessings we recite there seem to be two contradictory Talmudic passages regarding their origin and authority. One source, a beraita (Berakhot 48b), sees allusions to the first three blessings of the Birkat HaMazon in the above quoted verse: “Our Rabbis taught: Where is the saying of grace intimated in the Torah? In the verse, ‘You shall eat and be satisfied and shall bless’ – this signifies Birkat HaZan [the first blessing]…‘For the land’ – this signifies Birkat HaAretz [the second blessing]. ‘The good’ – this signifies Boneh Yerushalayim [the third blessing].” This source implies that the first three blessings of Birkat HaMazon are all Biblical obligations. (The last blessing of HaTov VehaMeitiv was established in response to the burial of the victims of the Betar massacre, and is clearly Rabbinic in origin. See Reshimot, p. 209 .) Yet, the Talmud (ibid.) also quotes Rav Naĥman as stating that these same three blessings were instituted by the courts of three different generations: “Moses established for Israel the blessing of HaZan at the time when the manna fell for them; Joshua established for them the blessing of HaAretz when they entered the land; David and Solomon established the blessing of Boneh Yerushalayim.” As opposed to the beraita, this second teaching implies that all of the blessings of Birkat HaMazon are only of Rabbinic origin.

Looking to the Rishonim (medieval authorities), we find two major approaches to harmonizing these sources. Rashba (Berakhot 48b) explains that the Biblical obligation requires expressing thanksgiving for the themes of the first three blessings: for sustenance, for the Land of Israel, and for Jerusalem. Every time one eats, he must acknowledge God who provided him with his food, and who gave the people of Israel the Land of Israel and her capital, Jerusalem. However, the Torah did not mandate a set formulation. Instead, each individual could express these motifs in whichever way he chose, using the language he found most fitting. Later, Moses, Joshua, and then David and Solomon instituted set texts for the nation to recite. Thus, the formulation and phrasing are a Rabbinic institution, but the themes and motifs of the first three blessings are all of Biblical origin.

Ritva and Shita Mekubetzet (ad loc.), following Rashba’s approach, point out a parallel as well as a distinction between Birkat HaMazon and the obligation of tefilla. Like the commandment of Birkat HaMazon, the Biblical obligation to pray also has no required text; originally, one would pray in his own words. Only because of the displacements and chaos of the exile, explains Maimonides (Hilkhot Tefilla 1:4), did the Rabbis compose a standardized text of the Amida to facilitate prayer for those who wouldn’t otherwise have the tools to express themselves properly. However, the difference between these two commandments is that the Biblical mitzva of tefilla does not require reciting any specific praises of God or making any specific requests. A person could recite any prayer to fulfill his obligation. In contrast, the Biblical blessing of Birkat HaMazon has a structure that requires the inclusion of three specific themes: that God has granted us sustenance, the Land of Israel, and the city of Jerusalem.

There is, though, another approach which understands that the Biblical commandment of Birkat HaMazon involves not three themes, but one simple, core idea. Naĥmanides, in his glosses to Maimonides’ Sefer HaMitzvot (Shoresh 1) discusses several different commandments which are Biblical in nature, but for which the Rabbis codified a standardized text. Discussing Birkat HaMazon, Naĥmanides says that although the commandment is clearly Biblical, “its text is not Biblical; rather, the Torah commanded us to recite a blessing after we eat, each person according to his understanding, as in the blessing of Benjamin the Shepherd who recited, ‘Blessed is the Merciful One, Master of this bread’ (Berakhot 40b).” This example of Benjamin the Shepherd proves that one can fulfill the obligation of Birkat HaMazon even with this simple blessing. Benjamin the Shepherd was not a scholar. He was a simple Jew who blessed God as best as he could, according to his meager understanding and capabilities. According to Rashba and his school, the Talmud means to say that Benjamin the Shepherd’s simple blessing would fulfill the first of the three Biblically-mandated blessings, but it would not have fulfilled the Biblical obligation to mention the Land of Israel and Jerusalem. However, Naĥmanides seems to imply that Benjamin the Shepherd’s blessing would fulfill the total Biblical obligation. In other words, according to Naĥmanides, the blessings for the Land of Israel and Jerusalem are Rabbinic in nature.

This opinion of Naĥmanides would also appear to be the position of Maimonides, who opens the first chapter of the Hilkhot Berakhot stating simply, “There is a positive commandment to bless after eating food, as it says, ‘You shall eat and be satisfied and bless the LORD, your God.’” In discussing the Biblical obligation, Maimonides makes no reference to the Land of Israel or Jerusalem; he mentions those ideas only in Chapter Two of Hilkhot Berakhot when he discusses the fixed text of Birkat HaMazon codified by the Rabbis. Like Naĥmanides, according to Maimonides we fulfill the Biblical commandment of Birkat HaMazon by reciting any blessing for the food we have eaten, regardless of its specific form or content.

But how can Maimonides and Naĥmanides maintain that there is no Biblical obligation to mention the Land of Israel when the verse states, “You shall bless the LORD your God for this good land that He gave you”? Seemingly, we find in this verse an explicit requirement to mention the Land of Israel. In fact, however, a dispute between the ancient translators on how to translate this verse will resolve this question.

Targum Onkelos translates the verse literally, that we are obligated to bless God “for the good land that He gave you.” Accordingly, there is a clear Biblical obligation to thank God for the Land of Israel every time we eat, as is the opinion of Rashba and others. However, Targum Yonatan ben Uziel translates the relevant phrase as “for the fruit of the good land that He gave you.” This reading sees the phrase “the good land” as an elliptical reference to the fruit of the land, and thus the Biblical commandment does not include an obligation to thank God for the land itself, but rather only for its fruit, i.e., the produce one has consumed. Thus the dispute between Rashba and his school, on the one hand, and Maimonides and his school, on the other, revolves around how one translates the words “for this good land.” The halakhic argument was clearly formulated only in the days of the medieval authorities, but the disagreement regarding how to understand the verse dates back to the ancient Aramaic translators.

Remembering God and Recognizing His Mastery

Returning our focus to Naĥmanides’ position, that one can fulfill his Biblical obligation by stating “Blessed is the Merciful One, Master of this bread” – we will recognize that not only does this reduce the number of Biblical themes in Birkat HaMazon from three to one, but it also offers a fundamentally different perspective on the mitzva. Intuitively, we would assume that Birkat HaMazon is a mitzva of hoda’ah, thanksgiving, of offering our appreciation for the food that we have just enjoyed. Yet Benjamin the Shepherd’s formula contains no trace of thanksgiving – his blessing does not thank God for the food at all. Rather, it is a statement of God’s mastery and kingship, that He is the master of this food and that I enjoy it only with His permission. According to Naĥmanides, the Biblical commandment of Birkat HaMazon is not an obligation to praise or thank God for the kindness of providing us with food; it is an idea even more basic, a recognition even more fundamental to Judaism’s worldview. Birkat HaMazon is a declaration of God’s lordship over the world, and in particular, His mastery and ownership over the food we have consumed.

Indeed, if we examine the first blessing of Birkat HaMazon, we come to the same startling conclusion: it too contains no elements of thanksgiving. In the first blessing we recognize God as the creator and sustainer of the natural world, the one who feeds all living creatures. Only with the second blessing, opening with “We thank you LORD, our God…” does the concept of thanksgiving enter Birkat HaMazon. According to Naĥmanides, one fulfills the Biblical obligation of Birkat HaMazon even without expressing any sentiments of thanksgiving. The mitzva requires recognizing God’s sovereignty, and no more. However, according to Rashba and his school, the themes of the first three blessings are all Biblical, and thus Birkat HaMazon includes both concepts, recognition of God’s mastery over the world, and expression of thanksgiving for sustaining us. Targum Yonatan ben Uziel translates the verse as “you shall thank and bless,” reflecting these two concepts, and in this regard, he parallels the position of Rashba.

In truth, when we look at the context of the verse, the approach of Naĥmanides is almost explicit in the Bible itself. The Bible commands, “You will eat and be satisfied and bless the LORD your God.” However, it continues, “Be careful lest you forget the LORD your God and not guard His commandments…Lest you eat and be satisfied…and your heart will grow haughty and you will forget the LORD your God…and you will think in your heart, my strength and the might of my hand made me all this wealth” (Deut. 8:10-17). The Torah doesn’t require man to thank God; rather, the Torah warns man lest he forget God. The purpose of Birkat HaMazon is to prevent the arrogance which creeps into a man’s heart and causes him to forget that God is the Creator. Fundamentally, Birkat HaMazon is not an act of thanksgiving or praise, but an act of remembering God, a fulfillment of the constant command to remember and be cognizant of our Creator in every aspect of our life. As the Torah concludes the section, “Rather you shall remember the LORD your God who gives you the strength to be successful.”

Thus, Birkat HaMazon is not simply a particular commandment regarding food and our satiation; it is instead an expression of the belief and commitment that underpins our entire religious life. Indeed, from the standpoint of the psychology of religion, the telos of Birkat HaMazon, to remember God, is the most important element in one’s religious experience. To offer praise before God is easy; to give thanks, one merely has to become sentimental. However, to remember God and ascribe everything to Him, to attribute the whole cosmic process of creation to God, and to know always that He is the Master, the LORD, and the Owner of everything, requires a mental discipline of the highest order, and it is in truth the fundamental religious experience.

Birkat HaMazon and All Other Blessings

Understanding Birkat HaMazon in this light – not as an expression of thanksgiving, but as an act of recognizing and remembering God’s kingship – also allows us to explain several passages in Maimonides’ Code that would otherwise be difficult to understand. In the beginning of Hilkhot Berakhot, Maimonides, as usual, begins with the Biblical commandment: “There is a positive commandment from the Torah to bless God after eating.” Maimonides then moves on to the Rabbinic obligations: “and there is a Rabbinic obligation to bless before a person enjoys any food…and to bless after anything a person eats or drinks.” Maimonides means to say that these Rabbinic obligations are not independent concepts, but extensions of the Biblical idea of Birkat HaMazon. However, the blessings that we recite before we eat are not expressions of thanksgiving, as they simply state, “Blessed is the LORD…creator of the fruit of the tree.” Moreover, the blessings before we eat couldn’t be expressions of thanksgiving, as thanksgiving is only appropriate after we have benefited from God’s kindness. Rather, the blessings that we recite before we eat are declarations of God’s mastery over this world, recognition that the food before us belongs to Him and that we enjoy it only with His permission. If Birkat HaMazon would have been an act of thanksgiving, it could not have been the conceptual basis for the Rabbinic blessings that we recite before we eat. Only because Birkat HaMazon is an act of recognizing God’s kingship and mastery over our possessions can it serve as the conceptual foundation for all blessings that we recite.

Maimonides continues, “Just as we recite blessings for all physical pleasures, so too we recite blessings before mitzvot and only then perform them. The Rabbis instituted many blessings as expressions of praise, thanksgiving, and request in order to constantly remember the Creator.” Maimonides groups the blessings that we recite before the performance of mitzvot with the blessings that we recite before we eat, and he understands that all blessings are based upon the Biblical blessing of Birkat HaMazon. How does Birkat HaMazon serve as the conceptual source for the blessings recited before performing a mitzva? Based on what we have explained, it is because fundamentally all blessings are statements of God’s authority. With birkot hanehenin we recognize His dominion over the natural order, and with birkot hamitzvot we similarly declare His dominion over the moral order. Just as He is the creator of the physical world and its laws, so too is He the author of the moral norm and the legislator of all religious laws. As Maimonides says explicitly, the common denominator of all blessings is to remember and fear the Creator.

We can now dispel a common misconception. Many believe that to bless God means to praise Him, and in fact, the English translation of berakha, benediction, comes from the Latin root words bene and diction, meaning to speak well of or praise. However, this understanding is simply incorrect. In Genesis we read “God blessed man, saying, ‘You shall be fruitful and multiply.’” God didn’t praise man; He blessed him: He instilled in him the ability to multiply, a new source of goodness and fortune in his life. So too, Rav Ĥayyim Volozhiner (Nefesh HaĤayyim 2:2) and Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the Ba’al HaTanya (Torah Or, Parashat Ĥayyei Sarah), both explain that the word “barukh” means expansion, and to bless God means to expand God’s presence in this world. How can a mortal human being, a frail and finite creature, accomplish such a thing? The answer is that man has the unique ability to recognize and declare God’s authority and mastery. By dispelling the mirage of nature’s independence and declaring the true Creator, the influence of God’s presence thereby increases in this world. Similarly, the Sefer HaĤinnukh (Mitzva 430) writes in his discussion of Birkat HaMazon that when we say God is “blessed,” we declare that all blessing and goodness flow from Him. The prayer that God should be blessed is a wish that all people should recognize God as the source of goodness. All blessings, like Birkat HaMazon, are meant to forestall the natural human arrogance that makes man forget God. Blessing God is not an act of thanksgiving, but an act of remembering God, of declaring Him the true master of our world and its fullness, which is the very essence of Birkat HaMazon.

“His Great and Holy Name”

Finally, we can understand a cryptic phrase that Maimonides uses in the heading to Hilkhot Berakhot, where he writes that the Biblical obligation is “to bless the great (gadol) and holy (kadosh) name after we eat.” What does Maimonides mean when he includes the divine discriptions “great and holy”? Maimonides is known for his precise language, and he should have simply written that we are obligated “to bless the name of God after we eat.” Moreover, elsewhere Maimonides attaches different attributes to the name of God. For example, regarding the prohibition to erase the name of God he writes (Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 6:1) that “anyone who destroys one of the holy and pure names of God is lashed,” and similarly, in another context he writes (Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 2:1) that “there is an imperative to love and fear the honored and exalted God.” Maimonides wrote with extraordinary precision, and he was even more careful in his use of divine attributes, as is evident by his discussions in the Guide for the Perplexed. If he uses “the great and holy name” to describe God in the context of Birkat HaMazon, it is because these two descriptions capture the essence of the commandment. How is this the case?

To understand Maimonides’ choice of words, we must first understand what we mean by describing God as “great.” We find this divine description in the Bible in the following verse: “For the LORD your God is God of gods, and LORD of lords, a great God, a mighty, and a terrible, who favors no person, and takes no bribe” (Deut. 10:17). In this verse we see that God’s greatness flows from His mastery, because He is the master of all other powers. Thus, to recognize God as great is to recognize Him as the authority of our lives, the master of our world. The appellation “holy” means that God is absolutely above and beyond all of creation, that nothing in this world can be compared to Him. Thus, Maimonides defines the commandment of sanctifying God’s name (Kiddush Hashem) as demonstrating our absolute commitment to God even to the point of loss of life – to publicize that we recognize no other authority and that no other person or force in the world could intimidate us to violate His will. It follows that when these two appellations are used together, the phrase “the great and holy God” means the God who is the absolute master and authority of all creation, totally unique and beyond all matters and powers of this world. It is in this sense that the prophet Ezekiel uses these descriptions when he writes that God declares that in the end of days, after the war of Gog and Magog, “I will make Myself great and holy, and I will make Myself known in the eyes of many nations, and they will know that I am the LORD.” God will be great and holy when the whole world recognizes His dominion, that He is master of the world. The Tur (Oraĥ Ĥayyim 56) writes that the opening phrase of Kaddish, “Let His name be made great and holy” (“yitgadel ve’yitkadesh”), is based on this verse in Ezekiel, and he explains that Kaddish is a prayer for that time when all nations will ultimately recognize the authority and kingship of the one true God.

In defining the Biblical commandment as “to bless the great and holy name after eating,” Maimonides underscores that by reciting Birkat HaMazon we acknowledge God’s mastery of the world, and that He is the provider for the food we have just eaten, or as Benjamin the Shepherd put it, “Blessed is the Merciful One, Master of this bread.” The mitzva of Birkat HaMazon is not to praise or offer thanksgiving, but to remove from our hearts the arrogance of material success that leads man to forget God and to declare “my strength and the might of my hand produced this wealth” (Deut. 8:17). By reciting a blessing after we eat and are full and satiated, we affirm that God is the source of our sustenance, of life, and of existence itself. The purpose of the blessing is to declare, as the whole world will in the end of days, that He is the one true “great and holy God.”


* This essay is based primarily upon a shiur delivered by the Rav in Boston in 1961, as well as Shiurei HaRav al Inyanei Tefilla, pp. 269-287, and Reshimot Shiurim, Berakhot, pp. 516-519. The essay also incorporates material from a shiur delivered in 1969.

Parshat Ekev: Anatomy of a Blessing

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’sUnlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Devarim’, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers




Towards the beginning of Parshat Ekev Moshe describes the land of Canaan’s physical bounty and warns the nation against taking God’s role in that bounty for granted:

“For the Lord your God is bringing you to a good land: a land of streams of water, of springs and underground pools emerging forth in the valley and in the mountain; a land of wheat and barley and grapes and figs and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey; a land where you will eat bread without scarceness; you will lack nothing within it; a land whose stones are iron and from whose mountains you will mine copper. And you will eat, and you will be satisfied, and you will bless the Lord your God upon the good land that He has given you. Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not observing His commandments, His laws and His statutes, which I command you today…and your hearts will become haughty, and you will forget the Lord your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery… And you will say in your heart: “My strength and the might of my hand has made me all this wealth!”

The Talmudic authorities identify one sentence from this passage as the source of a fundamental biblical commandment: “From where do we learn a Torah obligation to bless God? As it is said: ‘And you will eat, and you will be satisfied, and you will bless the Lord your God, concerning the good land that He has given you.’” Aside from the Priestly Blessing, this blessing, known as Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals), is the only blessing of uncontested biblical origin in Jewish tradition. Some authorities maintain that the recitation of Birkat HaTorah, the blessing recited before Torah study, is also commanded in the Torah text; while others consider the Bracha me’ein Shalosh, the blessing recited after foods containing at least one of the seven species associated with the Land of Israel, to be of Torah origin, as well. A myriad of other brachot are mandated by the rabbis, regularly punctuating the daily life of the Jew.


At first glance, the phrase “and you will bless” seems descriptive in nature, part and parcel of Moshe’s prediction concerning the nation’s eventual reaction to the bounty of the land. What, then, compels the Talmudic authorities to interpret the phrase “and you will bless” as an imperative, mandating a biblical obligation of Birkat Hamazon?

What is the nature of this commandment? Why would man be commanded to bless God? Clearly, man requires God’s blessing; God does
not require man’s. As Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher emphatically declares, “Given that God is the source of all blessing…were [man] to bless Him all day and all night, how would God benefit at all?”

How did the multi-paragraph Grace after Meals regularly recited by Jews today emerge from the vague commandment “and you will bless…”?



Immediately sensing the objections that might be raised to the derivation of a mitzva from this text, the Ramban refers the reader to other commandments derived from parallel phrases in the book of Devarim: “and you will make a fence for your roof,” “and you will perform the Pesach offering for your God,” “and you will take of the first of every fruit of the ground.”

At the same time, this scholar notes that the Torah is not consistent in its application of the formula “and you will…” While the phrase “and you will bless the Lord your God” constitutes a mitzva, the preceding phrases, “and you will eat, and you will become satisfied,” are clearly not meant to be seen as distinct imperatives themselves, but as helping to define the obligation to bless.


In spite of the Ramban’s observations, the question of context in our case still remains. Given the descriptive nature of the preceding text, why are the rabbis insistent upon interpreting the phrase “and you will bless…” not simply as part of Moshe’s narrative, but as a separate, distinct biblical imperative?

A rereading of the passage before us may provide an answer. This is a carefully structured presentation in which Moshe describes both the benefits and dangers presented by the natural resources of the land of Canaan. The very bounty meant to sustain you , Moshe warns the Israelites, could well prove to be your undoing.

The paragraph pivots on an apparent “cause-and-effect” structure established by the transition between three sentences:

A land where you will eat bread without scarceness; you will lack nothing within it; a land whose stones are iron and from whose mountains you will mine copper.

And you will eat, and you will be satisfied, and you will bless the Lord your God upon the good land that He has given you.

Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not observing His commandments, His laws and His statutes, which I command you today.

Sated and satisfied by the wondrous natural wealth of the land, and filled with pride over your own accomplishments, Moshe warns, you could easily forget your dependence upon God for the countless gifts that you have received.

A problem, however, emerges from the text. One phrase does not fit the otherwise seamless “cause-and-effect” structure presented by Moshe. The insertion of the words “and you will bless the Lord your God” in the second sentence strikes an incongruous note. Blessing God can hardly be seen as a step along the path towards abandonment of our dependence upon Him. In fact, the opposite would seem to be true. If upon reaching a point of comfort and satiation, we bless God for the bounty that we have received, we will be less likely to forget His role in our good fortune.

Perhaps that is exactly the point recognized by the rabbis. In their eyes, “and you shall bless the Lord your God” cannot be understood as part of Moshe’s description of the potential problem facing the nation, but instead must be seen as a corrective for that problem. In the words of the Meshech Chochma, “When one eats and is satisfied, one is likely to rebel. God, therefore, commands the nation to recall His name and to bless Him, specifically at the point of satiation, and to remember that He is the One Who gives man power to succeed.” Precisely because of the context in which it is found, the rabbis interpret the phrase “and you shall bless the Lord your God” as a commandment.



The above interpretation suggests an answer to another of our questions. Why does the Torah command man to “bless” God? What possible purpose could there be in such an act?

According to the approach of the Meshech Chochma and others, man blesses God for man’s sake, in order to enable man to achieve and maintain proper life perspective. The recitation of Birkat Hamazon, specifically at a point of contentment and satiation, serves as a critical reminder of man’s dependence upon God for sustenance and success. Similarly, all brachot, recited at various points during the daily life of the Jew, are designed to help an individual maintain proper spiritual balance.

Other authorities take this approach one step further. Brachot, these authorities maintain, do not only serve man’s spiritual needs, but his physical requirements, as well. When an individual, through the act of blessing God, testifies to God’s personal care for all life forms, God responds by increasing the bounty provided.14 This phenomenon, Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher maintains, explains the Talmudic assertion that if an individual eats without a prior blessing, “it is as if he steals from God and from the assembly of Israel.” He steals from God by denying the Almighty’s Providence over all living things, and he steals from the Assembly of Israel by denying them the physical benefit that would have accrued as a result of his blessing.


Swimming against the tide, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch argues that man actually possesses the power to bless God. As the only creature granted free will by his Creator, man is capable of furthering God’s purposes and wishes in this world or of retarding and thwarting them. Man blesses God when, through his actions, he increases God’s sanctified presence in the world around him. The bracha recited after eating, Hirsch continues, is to be understood as a verbal commitment, or even a vow, to bless God through action. “As often as you strengthen yourself with that which God has granted you…,” this scholar asserts, “you are to dedicate the whole of your being to His service, to [the fulfillment of] His purposes and to the realization of His Will on earth. And this promise of dedication you are to pronounce in the words of bracha, of blessing Him.”


Having established that the phrase “and you will bless the Lord your God” serves as the source of the mitzva of Birkat Hamazon, the rabbis proceed to derive basic details of this mitzva from the surrounding text.

1. Two positions emerge in the Mishna, for example, as to how much food must be consumed to obligate the recitation of Birkat Hamazon. These opinions, the Talmud explains, reflect a fundamental disagreement as to where the emphasis should be placed in the sentence “And you will eat, and you will be satisfied, and you will bless the Lord your God.”

The opinion of Rabbi Meir, recorded anonymously in the Mishna,18 emphasizes the word v’achalta (and you will eat). As the Torah clearly bases the mitzva of Birkat Hamazon on food consumption, Rabbi Meir maintains, the obligation should be gauged by the normative minimum food measurement throughout Jewish law: the amount equivalent to the bulk of an olive.

Rabbi Yehuda, however, disagrees. Focusing on the word v’savata (and you will be satisfied), this scholar maintains that the key condition governing the mitzva of Birkat Hamazon is not food consumption, but, instead, satiation. The minimum standard for this mitzva must therefore be higher than the normative halachic minimum. An individual must eat food equivalent to the bulk of an egg, Rabbi Yehuda insists, in order to incur the obligation to recite Birkat Hamazon.

Later halachic authorities disagree as to the parameters of the dispute between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda.

According to some, these Mishnaic scholars are not debating the Torah law at all. Both Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda agree that, on a biblical level, no objective minimum standard for the mitzva of Birkat Hamazon exists. The Torah obligation of Birkat Hamazon is literally delineated by the term v’savata (and you will be satisfied). Biblically, an individual is only obligated to recite the blessing after a meal that leads to his own personal satiation. The amount that must be consumed to trigger this obligation varies, dependent upon the person and the situation. Uncomfortable with this lack of practical definition, the rabbis later issue an edict designed to create a uniform minimum standard. Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda argue about the scope of this edict. Rabbi Meir maintains that the rabbinic obligation to recite Birkat Hamazon takes effect once an individual consumes food equivalent to the bulk of an olive. Rabbi Yehuda, in contrast, argues that the rabbinic obligation only “kicks in” upon the consumption of an egg-sized portion. The textual proofs from the Torah derived by these scholars in support of their respective positions fall into the category of asmachtot, biblical hints used by the rabbis to support later mandated rabbinic laws.

Other scholars adamantly disagree and insist that Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda disagree about biblical, not rabbinic, law. Their debate is straightforward, focusing on the minimum standard required for the biblical obligation of Birkat Hamazon.

2. The question of which foods give rise to the biblical obligation of Birkat Hamazon generates three opinions recorded in the Mishna and Gemara. Basing his position on the word v’achalta (and you will eat), Rabbi Akiva maintains that the Torah requires the recitation of Birkat Hamazon after the consumption of any food that an individual considers a meal. Rabbi Gamliel chooses a different path by noting that the biblical passage containing this mitzva specifically mentions the seven species associated with the Land of Israel, “a land of wheat and barley and grapes and figs and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey.” The blessing is obligatory, Rabbi Gamliel therefore argues, only after the consumption of a meal containing at least one of these seven species.

Finally, the majority rabbinic opinion insists that the obligation to recite the full Grace after Meals is limited to a meal containing bread. This opinion is based on the fact that bread is the foodstuff listed in closest proximity to the commandment itself: “a land where you will eat bread without scarceness…”

3. On a practical level, the law concerning these issues is codified according to the majority rabbinic opinion, that Birkat Hamazon must be recited after consumption of an olive-sized portion of bread or after a meal containing that amount of bread.


Moving into the area of the mitzva’s structure, the Talmudic scholars also discern references in the text to the number and content of the individual blessings meant to be incorporated into Birkat Hamazon.

The word u’veirachta (and you will bless), the Talmudists maintain, indicates that Birkat Hamazon must include a blessing referring to the physical sustenance provided by God to all living creatures; the phrase al ha’aretz (upon the land) mandates the inclusion of a blessing concerning the Land of Israel; and the reference to ha’aretz hatova (the good land) indicates that a blessing should be recited concerning Jerusalem.

According to some scholars, these biblical references indicate that the thematic structure and content of Birkat Hamazon are actually of biblical origin. Other scholars, however, maintain that the quoted textual allusions fall into the category of asmachtot (see above) and that the thematic structure of Birkat Hamazon is rabbinically rather than biblically mandated.


Even those scholars who view the structure and general content of Birkat Hamazon to be of biblical origin acknowledge that the actual texts of the blessings recited today are of later prophetic derivation.

Originally, each individual fulfilled the mitzva of Birkat Hamazon through his own blessings, in his own words. As time went on, however, the paragraphs of Birkat Hamazon were standardized by pivotal Jewish leaders at critical moments in Jewish history:

Moshe established the blessing concerning sustenance when the manna began to descend [for the Israelites in the wilderness]; Yehoshua established the blessing concerning the land upon the [Israelites’] entry into the land; David and Shlomo established the blessing concerning the building of Jerusalem, with David authoring the words “upon Israel Your nation and Jerusalem, Your city” [reflecting the conquest of Jerusalem during David’s reign] and Shlomo authoring the words “upon the great and sanctified House” [reflecting the construction of the Holy Temple during Shlomo’s rule].

The Talmud explains that a fourth blessing, over and above those alluded to in the Torah, was added to Birkat Hamazon in response to a series of dramatic events roughly fifty years after the destruction of the Second Temple. At that time, Shimon Bar Kosiba, renamed Shimon Bar Kochba by Rabbi Akiva, led an ultimately unsuccessful and costly revolt against continuing Roman rule. So devastating were the results of this failed rebellion that many authorities mark Bar Kochba’s final defeat, the fall of the city of Beitar, as the true onset of the Jewish nation’s exile from their land. For a period of time following the fall of Beitar, the Roman authorities prohibited the Judeans from burying those killed in the city’s siege. When this ban was finally lifted, the sages of Yavneh (see Vayikra: Emor 5, Approaches E–H) established the fourth blessing of Birkat Hamazon, Hatov v’Hameitiv, “He Who is good and bestows goodness.” This blessing was instituted in gratitude to God for the lifting of the Roman ban and for the miraculous preservation of the bodies of the victims, allowing for their proper burial.

Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk explains that the events surrounding the fall of Beitar delivered a profound message to a shattered people: God’s providence will extend to the nation even during tragedy and exile. This message, Rabbi Meir Simcha explains, warranted the addition of a fourth blessing to Birkat Hamazon, a prayer built entirely upon the concept of God’s providence towards man.


The mitzva of Birkat Hamazon emerges from Moshe’s farewell messages to his people, only to accrue a myriad of halachic, philosophical and historical subtexts as it travels across the generations. The richness of Jewish experience is thus mirrored in the blessing that a Jew offers to his God.

Headlines: Shooting Down a Hijacked Plane – Killing a Few to Save the Lives of Many

Excerpted from Dovid Lichtenstein’s Headlines: Halachic Debates of Current Events

Headlines cover-page-001

Shooting Down a Hijacked Plane:  Killing a Few to Save the Lives of Many


The devastating tragedy of 9/11 introduced to the world a frightening new form of terrorism — the use of hijacked planes as torpedoes to blow up crowded buildings and skyscrapers, רחמנא ליצלן. The dreadful prospect of another 9/11-style attack gives rise to the difficult and ever so painful moral and halachic question of whether a hijacked plane may be blown up to save the civilians in the targeted building. If it is certain that the hijackers are steering the plane toward a building, would it be permissible, forbidden, or obligatory to fire a missile at the plane, killing the innocent passengers on board for the sake of saving the lives of the people down below?


I. Killing One to Save Many

Our point of departure in addressing this question is the Mishna’s discussion in Terumos (8:12) regarding a case in which enemies demand that the Jews in a town hand over a woman for them to rape, warning that they will otherwise rape all the women in the town. The Mishna rules that in such a case, the towns-people should refuse; they may not hand a woman over to the enemy even at the expense of the defilement of all of the town’s women.

The Tosefta in Terumos (7:23) addresses the similar case of enemies who demand that the Jews hand over one person to be killed, warning that they will otherwise kill all of the townspeople. In such a case as well, the Tosefta rules that the townspeople should refuse and submit themselves to murder rather than hand over a fellow Jew. However, the Tosefta then proceeds to note a critical distinction: “אבל אם ייחדוהו להם כגון שייחדו לשבע בן בכרי יתנו להן ואל יהרגו כולן.” The Tosefta rules that if the enemy identifies a particular Jew by name and demands that he or she be handed over to be killed, then the townspeople should acquiesce. The Tosefta points to the example of Sheva ben Bichri, a man who led a failed revolt against King David. Sheva sought refuge from David’s forces in the town of Avel Beis Maacha, and Yoav, David’s general, demanded that the townspeople hand him over. In such a case, the Tosefta rules, the townspeople should hand over the wanted person in order to spare the rest of the city.

The Tosefta then cites Rabbi Yehuda as clarifying that this applies only if the wanted person is in the city and would also be killed along with the rest of the townspeople if they refuse to hand him over. If, however, the situation is such that the townspeople would be killed instead of the wanted person and not along with the wanted person, then they may not hand him over to save their lives. It is only when the wanted individual is condemned to be killed regardless of the townspeople’s decision that they are permitted to hand him over to the enemy.

Rashi cites this Tosefta in his commentary to Sanhedrin (72b) in the context of a discussion regarding a woman whose life is threatened by a difficult labor. The Gemara establishes that if the infant had not yet exited the woman’s body, it may be killed to save the woman’s life, but once the head has emerged, the baby is considered a full-fledged living human being, and may not be killed to save the mother’s life.(1) Rashi raises the question of why this case differs from the situation in which townspeople are permitted to hand over a wanted individual in order to save their lives as long as the wanted individual was specifically identified by the enemy. Seemingly, in the situation of childbirth, there is also a “named’ individual — the newborn — who threatens the life of another person (the mother). Rashi explains that in the Tosefta’s case, the wanted individual would be killed regardless of whether the townspeople choose to hand him over. In the case of the newborn, however, the infant’s life is not at risk, and it is thus forbidden to kill the newborn to rescue the mother. (2)

This halacha is also addressed by the Talmud Yerushalmi (Terumos 8:10), which presents a debate between Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish on the issue. Reish Lakish maintains that even if the enemy specifies a particular person by
name, the townspeople may not save their lives by handing that person over. According to Reish Lakish, the people of Avel Beis Maacha were allowed to hand over Sheva ben Bichri only because he was guilty of treason and thus deserving of death. Barring such exceptional circumstances, a town may not, according to Reish Lakish, hand over a person to the enemy to save their lives, even if the enemy demands specifically that person.

At first glance, it would seem that the question of torpedoing a hijacked plane hinges on this debate among the Amora’im. According to Rabbi Yochanan, although the passengers are innocent and certainly not deserving to die, their lives threaten the lives of the hundreds or thousands of people in the targeted skyscraper. Thus, just as in the case in which the enemy requests a particular resident of the town, where — according to Rabbi Yochanan — the people may hand him over since he would die either way, in our case, in which the passengers are bound to be killed regardless of whether the plane is shot down, the plane may be destroyed to spare the people below. Reish Lakish disagrees with this ruling and forbids killing a person to spare others even if he would in any event be killed.

This analysis, however, does not help us in our quest for a halachic conclusion, as no consensus has been reached among the halachic authorities on this issue. The Rambam (Hilchos Yesodei Ha-Torah 5:5) codifies Reish Lakish’s ruling and forbids handing over a wanted individual to save the other townspeople’s lives unless that wanted person is guilty of treason, as in the case of Sheva ben Bichri. The Hagahos Maimoniyos, as well as the Beis Yosef (Y.D. 157), question why the Rambam accepts Reish Lakish’s view, in light of the fact that the Halacha always follows Rabbi Yochanan’s rulings in his disputes with Reish Lakish. Indeed, as the Beis Yosef notes, the Rash and the Ran follow Rabbi Yochanan’s view. (3)  Both opinions are cited by the Rama (Y.D. 157:1), leaving this debate unresolved. (4)


II. Whose Blood is Redder?

However, we may find a basis for allowing blowing up the plane in the Hagahos Ha-Ramach, who, commenting on the Rambam’s ruling, questions the rationale underlying the unanimous ruling regarding a case in which no particular person is named. He notes the Gemara’s comment in Sanhedrin (74a) that the reason why one may not kill to save his own life is מאי חזית דדמא דידך סומק טפי. Loosely translated, this means that one may not assume that his “blood his redder” — that is, that his life is more valuable — than that of his fellow. Killing another person to save one’s own life reflects the presumption that his own life is worth more, and since no person can make such an assumption, the Torah forbids rescuing oneself at the expense of another human being’s life. The Ramach notes that this rationale clearly does not apply in the case in which townspeople must decide between handing over one person and being killed. Under such circumstances, we can indeed determine which misfortune is graver, as whomever the people choose to hand over to the enemy would otherwise be killed along with the rest of them. This is not a decision of whose blood is redder, but rather a decision between having one person killed or having him and many others killed. Thus, since the rationale of מאי חזית דדמא דידך סומק טפי does not apply, we should seemingly apply the standard principle allowing the suspension of Torah law for the sake of saving human life.

The Kesef Mishneh answers that in truth, the rationale of מאי חזית דדמא דידך סומק טפי does apply even in such a case. Any individual selected to be handed over could legitimately argue that his blood is no less “red” than that of any others, and there is thus no justification for choosing him to die over any other person in the town. As such, the townspeople have no right to choose any one person over others if he was not singled out by the enemy.

The Kesef Mishneh then acknowledges that his answer does not resolve the Ramach’s question as it applies to Reish Lakish’s view — that even if the enemy specifies the person whom they want to kill, the townspeople may not hand him over (unless he is deserving of execution for a crime he committed). In this case, it seems, since the individual will in any event be killed, the rationale of תיזח יאמ does not apply and the townspeople should be allowed to save themselves by handing over the named individual. The Kesef Mishneh suggests that according to Reish Lakish, the rationale of מאי חזית is not the real reason that one may not save himself by killing another; rather, this law was in truth transmitted through oral tradition and is therefore relevant even when the reasoning of מאי חזית does not apply. (5)

We may also suggest an additional answer. As mentioned earlier, the Mishna applies this ruling even to situations in which the enemy demands not a life, but a woman to defile. Even in such a case, if no particular woman is named, the townspeople are forbidden from choosing a woman, even if this means that all women in the town will be defiled. This would seem to prove that this halacha has nothing at all to do with the issue of מאי חזית דדמא דידך סומק טפי, of whose blood is “redder.” Apparently, the Mishna and Tosefta deal here not with the prohibition of רציחה (murder), but rather with a more general prohibition against assisting an enemy by handing a fellow Jew over to them to be killed or raped. Thus, even if an argument could be made to permit handing over a fellow Jew on the grounds of פקוח נפש (saving human life), as the Ramach contends, it is nevertheless forbidden due to the separate prohibition against assisting enemies bent upon killing Jews.

This analysis directly affects the question concerning a hijacked airplane. In such a case, the enemies are not demanding any action on our part, and thus there is no issue of assisting a foe. Rather, there is simply the question of whether we may kill a small number of people who are bound to die anyway in order to save a larger number of people. As the Ramach observed, it seems clear that this would be permissible, and there is thus room to argue that the plane can and should be shot down in order to save the people in the building below.

III. Killing a Fetus to Save the Mother

Another basis for authorizing shooting down the hijacked aircraft is the ruling of the Panim Meiros (3:8) concerning a case that appears to involve the precisely identical question. He addresses the situation in which a fetus’ head has already exited the mother’s body and the doctors have ascertained that the infant is bound to die, and the mother will die as well if she completes the delivery. The Panim Meiros rules that this situation is akin to the case described in the Tosefta in which the enemy specifies a particular person whom they seek to kill and the townspeople are allowed to hand over the wanted individual since he is going to die in any event. Similarly, if the newborn is bound to die regardless of what happens to the mother, then it may be killed so that the mother may continue living. (The Panim Meiros concludes on an ambivalent note, however, writing, וצ״ע להתישב בדין זה.)

Surprisingly, the Panim Meiros here appears to assume the view of Rabbi Yochanan — that it is indeed permissible to hand over a person wanted by the enemy if he is specified by name and would be killed either way. As noted, however, this issue is subject to a debate among the Rishonim and the Rama cites both opinions, seemingly leaving this question unresolved. (6) In truth, however, we might contend that even Reish Lakish would agree in such a case that the infant may be killed for the sake of rescuing the mother.

The basis for this claim is the approach taken by the Chazon Ish (Sanhedrin 25, ד״ה ירושלמי תרומות) to explain the debate between Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish. He claims that according to Rabbi Yochanan, if the enemy names a person whom they want handed over, that individual attains the status of a רודף (“pursuer”), as his life poses a direct threat to the rest of the townspeople. As such, he may be handed over to the gentiles, just as any רודף may be killed for the purpose of rescuing his victim. Reish Lakish, however, maintains that the wanted person cannot be considered a רודף unless there is a particular reason why he was chosen, such as in the case of Sheva ben Bichri, who was wanted because he instigated a rebellion. Whereas Rabbi Yochanan views the wanted person as a רודף under all circumstances, since he in effect threatens the towns-people, Reish Lakish contends that he cannot be considered a רודף if he was selected arbitrarily. He attains this status only if there is a substantive connection between him and the enemy’s threat. Thus, if the enemy randomly selects one person to be handed over, that person does not, in Reish Lakish’s view, obtain the status of רודף.

According to this approach, it would appear that the ruling of the Panim Meiros could follow even Reish Lakish’s view. The newborn’s existence directly threatens the mother’s life, and as such, it has the status of a רודף and may therefore be killed. This is not a random connection, but a natural, physical reality; the woman’s life is endangered by the infant, and under such circumstances, even Reish Lakish would agree that the infant should be killed to save the mother’s life.

Accordingly, in the case of a hijacked plane as well, Reish Lakish would agree that the passengers are regarded as a רודף with respect to the people in the building. They were not randomly selected to die in place of the others; rather, they pose an immediate threat in light of the fact that the plane is headed toward the building and threatens its occupants and the people in the area. In this case, there is a clear and direct connection between the passengers and the threat posed to the people below, and thus according to all opinions, they have the status of רודף and it would be permissible to destroy the plane to save the people on the ground.

IV. Diverting a Missile

We might also approach this issue in light of the question addressed by the Chazon Ish (שם ד״ה ויש לעיין) concerning the permissibility of diverting a missile away from a large group of people toward one person, so that only one life is lost. In discussing this case, the Chazon Ish observes that handing over a Jew to an enemy is inherently an act of cruelty which, under the circumstances, has the effect of rescuing a large number of people. In the case of a missile, the precise opposite is true — the act of diverting its path is fundamentally an act of rescue, which happens in this situation to result in a person’s death. In light of this distinction, the Chazon Ish suggests, even Reish Lakish would agree that one may divert a missile off course to save the lives of a large group of people, even if this would cause it to kill somebody else. (7)

The Chazon Ish cites in this context the story of Lulinus and Papus (which appears in Rashi’s commentary to Ta’anis 18b), two men who falsely confessed to a murder in order to save the Jews from the government’s decree. The Gemara lauds Lulinus and Papus for their selfless act, setting a clear precedent for killing a small number of people for the purpose of rescuing the lives of a large number of people. In the situation of the missile as well, we might conclude that it would be permissible to divert a missile toward one individual for the sake of rescuing the lives of many. It should be noted, however, that a clear distinction exists between the story of Lulinus and Papus and the case under discussion. Lulinus and Papus were condemned to execution along with the rest of the Jews, and thus they would have been killed even if they had not made their false confession. Their willingness to sacrifice their lives thus does not set a precedent relevant to the case of a missile, in which rescuing the large group requires killing someone who would not have otherwise been killed. (8)

It is not entirely clear how the Chazon Ish’s distinction would affect the question concerning the hijacked aircraft. On the one hand, shooting down the plane is an act of הצלה, rescuing the targeted building, much like diverting a missile is an act of rescuing the targeted group of people. On the other hand, one who diverts the missile does not directly kill the victim, whereas in the case of the hijacked plane, the passengers are killed directly through the firing of a missile. We thus cannot reach any definitive conclusions regarding our question on the basis of the Chazon Ish’s discussion.

V. חיי שעה

Another consideration that must be taken into account is the fact that shooting down the plane will cause the passengers to die several minutes earlier than they would otherwise have died. While it is true that they are going to die regardless of whether the plane is shot down or allowed to continue to its target, allowing the plane to continue flying grants them an additional few minutes of life. Do these extra moments warrant forbidding shooting down the plane, compelling us to allow it to continue into a skyscraper and to kill hundreds or thousands of civilians?

This issue appears to be subject to debate among the halachic authorities. The Yad Avraham commentary to the Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 157:1) asserts that the Tosefta’s ruling allowing the townspeople to hand over a wanted person applies only if the enemies would otherwise kill the entire town immediately. In this case, since the wanted individual would die at the same time regardless of whether he is delivered to the enemy, we allow the townspeople to rescue themselves by handing him over. If, however, refusing to hand him over will result in the townspeople’s deaths at a later time, then the Tosefta’s ruling does not apply, and the people may not hand the person over to be killed, as they would thereby be denying him short-term survival.

The Yad Avraham’s ruling is predicated on the assumption that we may not sacrifice a person’s חיי שעה — the brief period he still has to live — even for the sake of the long-term rescue of others. According to the Yad Avraham, no distinction is drawn between short-term and long-term rescue. Thus, just as it is forbidden to kill one person to save another, it is forbidden to deny a wanted individual the brief period in which he could still remain alive by handing him over to the enemy.

By the same token, it would be forbidden to blow up a hijacked plane in order to rescue the people below, even according to the ruling of Rabbi Yochanan. Since destroying the plane would end the passengers’ lives several moments before they would otherwise be killed by the plane’s collision with the building, this would amount to killing some people for the sake of rescuing others, which is clearly forbidden.

However, the Chazon Ish (Sanhedrin 25, ד״ה ומש״כ בגליון) disputes the Yad Avraham’s view and maintains that once the enemy singled out a particular person for execution, it makes no difference whether he would otherwise be killed immediately or at some future point.

This debate hinges on the question of how to classify חיי שעה — whether or not it is equivalent in all respects to long-term survival. A number of Acharonim address this question in the context of the famous debate between Rabbi Akiva and Ben Petura (Bava Metzia 62a) concerning the case of two people traveling in a desert, one of whom has no water while the other has enough water to sustain only one of them. Ben Patura rules that the fellow must share his water with his companion, even though they will then both die, rather than drink his entire ration to sustain himself at the expense of the other man’s life. Rabbi Akiva, however, citing the verse וחי אחיך עמך (“Your fellow shall live with you”— Vayikra 25:36), establishes the rule of חייך קודמין לחיי חברך, which means that one’s life takes precedence over his fellow’s life. In his view, the traveler with the jug of water may drink as much as he needs to sustain himself, even if this results in his fellow’s death.

Several Acharonim note that Ben Petura appears to fully equate חיי שעה with long-term survival. In his view, one may not ensure his own long-term survival at the expense of his fellow’s short-term survival, and the traveler with the jug must therefore share the water with his fellow so that his fellow can live for another few moments. Although Rabbi Akiva disputes this ruling, he does so only due to the inference from the verse, וחי אחיך עמך, indicating that were it not for this inference, he would accept Ben Petura’s position and require sharing the water. This discussion thus perhaps lends support to the Yad Avraham’s view equating short-term survival with long-term survival, such that one may not save a life by killing someone who will in any event die later.

By contrast, the Shevus Yaakov (3:75) asserts that long-term survival indeed overrides short-term survival, drawing proof from the Gemara’s ruling in Avoda Zara (27b). The Gemara there establishes that although it was considered dangerous to seek medical treatment from idolaters (as they were regarded as potential murderers), it was permissible to seek medical treatment from them for a terminal illness. Since the patient in any event is certain to die, he may risk his life by seeking treatment from a dangerous physician. The Gemara explains, חליי שעה לא חיישינן  — meaning, we do not take into account the short-term survival that one potentially forfeits by taking this risk, as this brief period of life is not significant. Based on this, the Shevus Yaakov proves that short-term survival is not deemed halachically equivalent to long-term survival, and in some respects is considered insignificant. (9)

Clearly, however, we may distinguish between the Gemara’s ruling in Avoda Zara and the discussion between Rabbi Akiva and Ben Petura. In Avoda Zara, the Gemara addresses the question of whether an individual may put his own short-term survival at risk for the sake of possible long-term survival. In such a case, it indeed stands to reason that the prospects of long-term survival warrant risking the patient’s short-term survival. Rabbi Akiva and Ben Petura, however, address the question of whether one’s long-term survival overrides another person’s short-term survival, and the answer, in principle, is that it does not. With regard to our question, then, we might indeed draw proof from Rabbi Akiva and Ben Petura that one may not sacrifice another person’s short-term survival to secure his own long-term survival, as the Yad Avraham claims.

As mentioned, however, the Chazon Ish disputes this ruling. In his view, we may indeed apply Rabbi Yochanan’s ruling to our case to allow shooting down a hijacked airplane to save the people on the ground, even though this means ending the passengers’ lives several minutes earlier than they would have otherwise ended. (10)

VI. Conclusion

Based on what we have seen, there is room to allow and even require shooting down a hijacked plane to protect the people in the targeted building. In addition to the fact that several Rishonim accept Rabbi Yochanan’s view, allowing handing over a wanted person to rescue a town, we noted that even Reish Lakish would allow shooting down the plane, as the passengers have not been randomly “selected.” Moreover, since this situation does not involve the issue of assisting an enemy threatening the Jewish people, it is likely that the entire discussion between Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish does not apply and the rationale of מאי חזית is likewise inapplicable, thus warranting killing the few to rescue the many.



1. The infant is not considered a רודף (“pursuer”), who may be killed to save the person being pursued, because, as the Gemara states, משמיא קא רדפא לה— it is God, and not the newborn infant, who threatens the woman’s life.
2. See also Rashi’s commentary to Shmuel II 20:22.
3. The Meiri in Sanhedrin also appears to accept Rabbi Yochanan’s ruling.
4. The Bach writes that the Rama appears to side with the Rambam’s ruling, but the Chazon Ish (Sanhedrin 25, ד״ה והר״ש) notes that the Bach’s claim has no basis.
5. This answer is also given by the Chemdas Shlomo (O.C. 38). The question of whether or not this halacha is based upon מאי חזית has been discussed at length by numerous Acharonim and yields several important ramifications. For example, the Meiri (Sanhedrin 72b) rules that if the enemy did not name a particular person, the townspeople may save themselves by handing over a טריפה (a person suffering from a terminal illness who is certain to die). He clearly works with the assumption that it is the rationale of מאי חזית that would prevent them from handing over someone to be killed and that this rationale does not apply to a טריפה. Similarly, the Minchas Chinuch (295–296:24) rules that one may kill a fetus (in a manner that does not endanger the mother) in order to save his own life. (See also Chazon Ish, Hilchos Rotzei’ach 1:9; Tiferes Yisrael, Boaz, Ohalos, end of chapter 7; and Iggeros Moshe, C.M. 2:69:4, ד״ה וגם לענין אונס) By contrast, the Noda Bi-Yehuda (Tanina, C.M. 59) rules that one may not save his life by killing a טריפה or a fetus. See below in our discussion of חיי שעה.
6. This may be the reason for the ambivalence expressed by the Panim Meiros at the end of his discussion.
7. The Chazon Ish then acknowledges that the reverse argument could be made: those who hand over a Jew to the enemy do not commit a direct act of murder, whereas when one diverts a missile away from its target towards a person, he directly kills the person who is ultimately struck by the missile. When the question is viewed from this angle, we might conclude that to the contrary, even Rabbi Yochanan would agree that it would be forbidden to divert the missile.
8. This point was made by Rav Eliezer Waldenberg in Tzitz Eliezer (15:70).
9. The context of the Shevus Yaakov’s discussion is the case of a gravely ill patient who, according the doctors’ prognosis, cannot survive in his condition for another day or two, but there is a procedure that could cure him of his illness, but might also kill him within an hour or two. The Shevus Yaakov draws proof from the Gemara’s discussion in Avoda Zara that the patient may take the risk and undergo the procedure, since in any event he is going to die and the חיי שעה that he may be forfeiting is insignificant.
10. One might examine the possible relevance of the Chazon Ish’s ruling with regard to the controversy surrounding organ transplants, which can generally be performed only when a patient is brain dead but still breathing. Contemporary halachic authorities have debated whether or not brain death constitutes halachic death such that organs may be removed from a brain dead patient. One might perhaps argue that regardless of this question, the organs may be taken because the donor’s חיי שעה does not override the recipient’s long-term survival. Even if we consider the brain dead patient halachically living, he is at very least a הפירט and has only a short period of time left to live, in which case his short-term survival should not take precedence over other patients’ long-term survival according to the Chazon Ish’s ruling.
In truth, however, we must distinguish between the situation addressed by the Chazon Ish, in which the enemy has stated their intent to kill the person in question, and the case of an ill patient. Clearly, it is inconceivable that we may remove the organs of any elderly hospital patient since in any event he or she has only חיי שעה in contrast to the young patients in need of a transplant. The Chazon Ish’s ruling was said in reference to a case in which the person is condemned to death, and thus allowing him some extra moments of life should not, according to the Chazon Ish, come at the expense of the lives of all the townspeople.

Parshat Pekudei: Time, Space, and Man

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages — Exodus, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Publishers

In our traditional Jewish literature, especially our Kabbalistic literature, all of life, experience, and existence are conceived of as consisting of three dimensions: olam, shana, and nefesh. Literally, these mean world, year, and soul. Actually, what is intended by these terms is Space, Time, and Man.

One of the distinguished rabbis of the State of Israel, Rabbi Shelomo Yosef Zevin, sees this triadic structure in the opening verses of today’s sidra. We read, “vayak’hel Moshe et kol adat Benei Yisrael,” that Moses assembled the entire congregation, and there he taught them the commandments of the Shabbat and Mishkan, the construction of the Tabernacle. The act of assembling all of Israel represents the element of nefesh of Man. The Mishkan is that which occupies a specific place. And Shabbat recurs every week, and hence represents the dimension of time.

It should be understood that this is not merely a way of describing the world or experience. It is a framework that has high spiritual significance, for it means that Judaism considers that these three elements interpenetrate each other and are interdependent.

This view teaches that, on the one hand, man needs the awareness of time and space; that is, he needs the spiritual implications and the consciousness of the spiritual potentialities, of both history and geography, the realms of shana and olam. Thus, Judaism speaks of kedushat hazeman, the sanctity of time, as in the celebration of Shabbat and the various festivals. And Judaism speaks too of kedushat hamakom, the holiness of place, as, for instance, the Mishkan or, today, the synagogue.

On the other hand, both time and space are significant in the divine economy only because of man, because of nefesh. Thus, Shabbat, which is a symbol of time, requires the participation of man (nefesh) in order to make it meaningful. According to the Torah, on the seventh day of Creation, God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it; nevertheless man was commanded, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” i.e. man too must sanctify the seventh day. It is not enough that time be sacred on

its own; it requires the affirmation of man, the participation of his nefesh.

The same holds true of the category of space. The holiness of the Sanctuary is contingent upon the initiative of man. In the very commandment in which God makes known His will that we make a sanctuary for Him, we read: “ve’asu li mikdash veshakhanti betokham,” “and let them make Me a Sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” Rabbi Moshe Alshikh observed that the expression is “betokham,” “among them,” and not “betokho,” “in it.” In other words, God did not want a Sanctuary because He was homeless and needed someplace to live. Rather, the Sanctuary, symbol of the sanctity of space, is important only because it allows man the opportunity to have God dwell within him, “betokho.” Thus, both time and space depend upon man. Olam and shana require nefesh.

This same pattern of Time, Space, and Man may be observed not only in our regular Torah reading for today, but also in the special reading for Parashat haĤodesh. We read this morning, “haĥodesh hazeh lakhem rosh ĥadashim,” that this month of Nisan is to be for us the chief of months. This means that Nisan is Rosh HaShana.

But do we not have another Rosh HaShana, one which begins on the first day of Tishrei? What then is the difference between the Rosh HaShana of Nisan and the Rosh HaShana of Tishrei?

The answer is that Rosh HaShanah of the fall, of Tishrei, is that of olam or Space, whereas the Rosh HaShana of spring, of Nisan, is that of shana or Time. In Tishrei we celebrate the anniversary of creation, of geography; this is the day on which God created the natural world. In Nisan we celebrate the Exodus from Egypt. We commemorate a great historical event, something that occurred in time and that made a difference for all time.

In both of these, Man, the possessor of nefesh, plays a crucial role. The two Rosh HaShana’s are not merely birthdays of mute nature, or anniversaries of some impersonal historical event. Rather, the Rosh HaShana of Tishrei emphasizes the element of din in which man is brought to the bar of divine justice. At this occasion we are told that man has within himself the capacity to overcome the limitations of the natural world, to transform the inexorable fate determined by the blind laws of nature. Thus, at the height and climax of our Rosh HaShana service in Tishrei, we proclaim, “uteshuva utefilla utzedaka ma’avirin et ro’a hagezera,” that by the exertion of his moral nature, by repentance and prayer and charity, man can actually change the decree of his future, the natural result of his conduct and misconduct in the past. So too, the Rosh HaShana of Nisan is not mere mechanical memorialization of some remote detached occurrence. It is a time of redemption, and therefore a signal for us that we are to strive for redemption during this month. Perhaps that is why we recite the “mi she’asah nisim” every Sabbath that we welcome or bless the new month. For the regular appearance of the new moon, on any month, now becomes the occasion to recall human redemption. Moreover, as the Rabbis pointed out, the Torah specifically tells us that, “haĥodesh hazeh lakhem rosh ĥadashim,” this month is “lakhem, “to you,” that is, the human court has the right to set the calendar and therefore to determine when the month of Nisan will fall. This is symbolic of the fact that the human element prevails, that man can determine what to do with his time, and hence with his fate and with his destiny. He can fashion his own history. In Judaism, Time, Space, and Man are inextricably bound together. This thesis has received remarkable confirmation by one of the most brilliant men alive today, Prof. R. Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome, in a recent address reprinted in the latest issue of The American Scholar. Prof. Fuller points out that for many years now scientists have maintained that the entire universe is running down. The energy within the world is dissipating into a kind of randomness, which means that everything is becoming successively more disorganized and chaotic and therefore the world, physically, must come to an end. Prof. Fuller points out, however, that there is an opposite tendency to this physical dissipation of the world, this “increase in entropy” – that is the activity of men on earth, and intelligent beings elsewhere in the universe, who by their intellectual and spiritual capacity constantly organize their lives, their thought, and their experience more and more sharply. This tendency to organize runs counter to the disorganization tendency within the material universe. Man, by his systematic intellect and his creative spirit, represents the opposite of the chaotic and the destructive. Hence, even from the point of view of a distinguished scientist, Man, through the exertion of his nefesh, may yet be the one who will save and redeem the world of olam and shana, of Space and Time!

It is a pity that we do not recognize that fact with sufficient force in our daily experience. Too often we underestimate the role of man in the world, the significance of nefesh in our universe. Symbolic of this failure is what happened a couple of years ago in Copenhagen, Denmark. A television station received many protests when it scheduled a program of bull-fighting. Many irate citizens wrote in that this was an example of cruelty which they resented. Thereupon the television station substituted for the bull-fighting program a film on war, consisting of naval battles. This time no one called in to protest!

The same is true of many of our humane societies who agitate for public acceptance of human laws – which is as it should be. Unfortunately, however, the same people who are so concerned about the welfare of animals, are totally oblivious to man’s cruelty to man – especially when the man who is the victim happens to be a Jew.

A more heartening example of the creative role of man in the world came in recent weeks when an Israeli citizen decided to make a dramatic gesture for peace by flying a small plane to Egypt to see President Nasser, and thereafter proceeding to Rome to see the Pope, then to Paris for President de Gaulle, and then probably on to the United States. It matters little whether or not his effort was motivated

by self-glorification, cheap publicity, or a general flair for self-projection. The important thing is that in this terrible Cold War, with great power blocks and stubborn nations locked in deadly hostility, controlled by giant bureaucracies, one single human individual was able to emerge from anonymity and obscurity to make his presence felt and move the hearts of his fellow men. The nefesh somehow prevailed, even momentarily, over the olam and the shana.

The time is long past for us to take a good, long, and deep look at Jewish education from the point of view of this triadic structure of Time, Space, and Man. I believe that the failure of so much of Jewish education to date is a result of the fact that there is olam and shana, but no nefesh. There is a place called “school” to which children are sent, and a certain time limit which they must serve, generally to Bar Mitzva. But there is all too little of the one element which can redeem the entire procedure and make it more meaningful and effective; the child, his nefesh, his own interest and heart and soul. Too often children feel that they merely “take up space” and “do time” as if they were juvenile convicts condemned to the agonizing boredom of Jewish education. What is needed is nefesh – and that can be provided by parents who understand that school is not a place to send children but to bring them, and that the home must serve not as a counter-pressure to school, but as a model laboratory where the principles and ideals taught in the Jewish school are carried out in practice. The teachers, too, must re-emphasize as never before the elements of the child’s own nefesh. A great deal of research is needed in Jewish education if all the investment we have put into it and all the dreams we have dreamed for it are to come true. Much too much of Jewish education today is irrelevant. It is simply a matter of relearning and re-teaching new techniques of instruction and pedagogy. What a pity if in this age of technological and methodological progress in so many fields Jewish education should remain backward and retrogressive. Parents, teachers, and the community at large must bring back nefesh to the Jewish educational world of olam and shana.

Finally, all three elements merge together in one paean of praise to Almighty God as we welcome the new month of Nisan this coming week. Man, indeed, has a positive function as a new season of the year comes about in which nature is aroused to life once again. The Talmud put it this way: When a man goes abroad in spring, and notices the trees blossoming and the first green blades of grass pushing their way through the crunchy earth, he ought to make a blessing to his God. He should say, “Blessed are thou O Lord, King of the Universe, shelo ĥisar be’olamo kelum, uvara bo beriot tovot ve’ilanot tovot, lehitanot bahen benei adam, who has made His world perfect, lacking nothing, creating therein beautiful creatures and wonderful trees, in order to grant thereby pleasure and joy and benefit to the children of men.”

With the coming of Nisan and spring, the fullness of God’s beautiful world, His olam, and the onset of the most delightful of His regular seasons of the shana, must be sanctified by the dedication and gratitude of human beings who, each possessed of a true nefesh, will offer to Him a berakha, and themselves be blessed thereby.

Parshat Ki Tisa: Stubbornness

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages — Exodus, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Publishers


It was Rabbi Simcha Zissel, one of the giants of the Lithuanian Mussar movement, who pointed out an unusual aspect of God’s reaction to the worship of the Golden Calf by the Israelites. The divine wrath

was kindled at the people of Israel not for idolatry, not for faithlessness, but because “hinei am keshei oref hu,” “because it is a stiff-necked people.” Evidently stubbornness is, in God’s scheme, more deserving of anger than idolatry. The Torah regards an obstinate character as more evil than a pagan soul. The calamities that followed the Golden Calf were due more to bad character than bad theology.

Certainly this is a valid point. The man with the stubborn streak has a rigid will. His mind is frozen, and so he cannot learn. His soul suffers from a rigor mortis which prevents him from communing with the Source of all life. Brazenness, ignorance, a closed mind, and a dead spirit – these are the prices of obstinacy and the casualties of stubbornness. A stubborn people will persist in its evil ways and never learn the ways of God. A stiff-necked people cannot raise its head above the Golden Calf.

And yet the matter cannot be dismissed so simply. A blanket condemnation of stubbornness does not fit in with the complicated facts of today’s sidra. For while, on the one hand, God points to stubbornness as the root of the sin of idolatry, and while he blames obstinacy for His withdrawal from Israel (“I will not go amongst you because you are a stiff-necked people”), on the other hand, it is this very characteristic that Moses presents as a reason why God should rejoin the camp of Israel! In his second prayer of intercession, Moses says “Let God go with us because we are a stiff-necked people!” The very reason God gave for abandoning Israel is the one Moses presents for His accepting them! If stubbornness is an unconditional evil, an absolute sin, then how can Moses point to Jewish obstinacy as a virtue deserving of God’s attention?

Obviously, then, stubbornness is a virtue as well as a vice, a mitzva as well as an aveira. To be unbendingly evil is worse than idolatry; to be unbendingly Godly is the greatest virtue. What is dogged obstinacy in the service of a bad cause, is valorous constancy in the service of a good one. Stubbornness depends upon what you do with it and how you wield it. There is an immoral stubbornness that insists, despite all signs of divine faithfulness, that “halo tov lanu shuv Miztrayima,” that it is better to live like an Egyptian slave than to die free under God in the desert (Numbers :). But there is a moral stubbornness that, despite all reports to the contrary, doggedly insists with Caleb that “alo na’aleh veyarashnu otah,” we can reach the Promised Land and build it up. Our Arab cousins practice an immoral stubbornness when they refuse to face the facts of a divinely guided history and recite daily over Radio Cairo the banal nonsense about pushing the Jews into the sea. But there is a moral stubbornness which refuses to concede that Jews behind the Iron Curtain are lost, and so it waits and prepares until they start to come; a moral obstinacy that will fight tyranny on the beaches, landing grounds, fields, streets, and hills; a lofty stiff-neckedness that will not let freedom’s light darken.


Patriots in peace, assert the people’s right

With noble stubbornness resisting might.

( John Dryden, Epistle the Thirteenth)


This lovely and blessed tenacity which made the quality of “keshei oref” worthy of divine pleasure, is that which enabled the Jew to face up to the countless challenges thrust upon us by our persecutors throughout the ages. We are a stubborn, stiff-necked, obdurate people. We will not give up our national existence, our faith, our Torah, our God.

That is why we are alive to this day. That same quality that made us insensitive to the word of God and caused us to dance about a Golden Calf has been sublimated, and has made us strong, powerful people of God. That is what Moses meant in his prayer to God. The same characteristic that made them blind to you, O God, will keep them a holy nation though trial and temptation, through persecution and pogrom once they have accepted You. In every condition and under every circumstance, though ridiculed and laughed at, they will say proudly and stubbornly, “asher baĥar banu mekol ha’amim” – God has chosen us, and we must teach His word to the world. With principled obstinacy we shall bend the world toward God.

And if we need to convince ourselves further of the worthiness of the right kind of stubbornness, let us turn to the haftara where we are given the immortal picture of the prophet Elijah on Mount Carmel, challenging the priests of the idol Baal, swaying his people to him and away from Baal by the miraculous fire from heaven which consumes his sacrifice. What was Elijah’s purpose in this dramatic moment? To prove God’s existence? Is it possible or even proper to prove God by this kind of histrionics which could possibly be duplicated by a skilled magician? Not at all. What Elijah proposed in his sudden appearance out of the desert was to change the character of the people from the spiritual flabbiness of fence-sitting religiosity and wishy-washy faith back to the toughness of “am keshei oref.” Remember the challenge the prophet flung at this uncertain people, wavering ’twixt God and Baal? “Ad matay atem posĥim al shetei hase’ipim,” how long will you waiver between two opinions, how long will you keep jumping from one branch to the other like a bird that cannot decide where it wants to go? How long will you postpone the hard and tough choice: either God or Baal? The prophet was tired with the softness of the Jewish spirit of his day. He wanted to do away with the jelly-fish spirit. He longed for the “am keshei oref,” for a flint-minded, stiff-necked people whose head could not be turned by the glitter of golden idols and whose heart would not be turned to the temptations of petty pagan customs.

How interesting is the biblical idiom for stubbornness – “keshei oref,” “a stiff neck.” A man who has a stiff neck finds that his body and head must face in the same direction. In the evil, wrong kind of stubbornness, his head follows his body and his mind justifies his material cravings. In the right kind of stubbornness, his body follows his head, and he disciplines himself to follow his principles. When there is “posĥim al shetei hase’ipim,” when there is flabbiness, then head and body face different directions – the mind expresses the best of intentions, while the body indulges in the worst kind of deeds. God condemned the wrong kind of stubbornness. Elijah condemned all kinds of moral flabbiness. Moses praised the right kind of stubbornness – where the principles prevail and body must follow mind.

That this teaching of Judaism is as important today as always goes without saying. Our fight for freedom against tyranny, for Jewishness against assimilation, for the moral life against degeneracy – all these depend, in the end, on how properly stubborn we are. But today allow me to mention very briefly but one element of Jewish obstinacy that we must reaffirm urgently. We are a people who have never allowed our poor and unfortunate to become public charges. We have always taken care of our own. It is a wonderful tribute to our stiff-neckedness that we New York Jews, in keeping with this tradition of tzedaka and caring for our fellow Jews, have always supported the central, over-all agency for such purposes: The Federation of Jewish Philanthropies. The Federation cares for people in our city, through hospitals, orphanages, family and vocational guidance, summer camps, and Jewish education. It is the source of percent of Jewish sponsored care in this city. Last year, the Federation suffered a $2 million deficit. This year it faces the alarming deficit of $4 million. The Federation now faces a crisis in maintenance – it needs no less than $18 million this year just to continue its work without any expansion or improvement. We are called upon, we of the Jewish Center, to show our moral and ethical strength, to rally to the call of tzedaka, to reaffirm our insistence that we take care of our own, that no Jew ever be forced into the humiliation of the public ward. It is a peculiar feeling, and we are stubborn about it – but it is part of our moral heritage. Let us not stand accused of Elijah’s jibe “ad matayatem posĥim al shetei hase’ipim.” How long will we remain ambivalent and uncertain whether we will practice tzedaka or not? Let us brace ourselves, and support the Federation even if it hurts a bit. For we are “am keshei oref.”

The Halakha teaches us that an animal whose spine is broken is tereifa – it is not kosher. And if we are in doubt, the Halakha prescribes this interesting test: grasp the spine at its base. If it leans over at the side, that is the sign of a fracture, and the animal is a tereifa. If it stands erect, then the spine has its natural hardness and it is kosher.

If we want to be kosher Jews, Jews who are genuine and authentic heirs of the Torah tradition, we must possess strong backbones and stiff necks. We must show spine and stubbornness in the face of adversity and challenge. We must not bow before persecution; we must not bend the knee for any of the modern idols. We must stand proudly and straight upon our sacred principles. Then we shall be kosher Jews. Then we shall not have reason to fear Elijah’s taunt. Then we shall prove worthy of Moses’ prayer and God’s affirmative answer to that prayer: “yelekh na Hashem bekirbenu ki am keshei oref hu” – let God go amongst us, for we are a stiff-necked people.

Parshat Tetzaveh: Channeling Change

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages — Exodus, co-published by OU Press and Maggid Publishers


One of the main and most fundamental contentions of all moralists of all ages is that human nature is not basically unchangeable.Ask any teacher of religion whether change is possible in Man, and his answer is inevitably “certainly.” And yet, my friends, if you were to ask me that same question I would have to qualify that assertion. Is change possible? Yes and no. If by “change” you mean the transformation of the entire character essentials, the metamorphosis of the basic qualities of the soul, the God-given talents and personality attributes, the answer is “no.” there are certain properties of the soul with which you were born, and which you cannot change, willy nilly.

Yet that is not the end of the matter. Because if by “change” you mean not the basic change of the koĥot hanefesh, the powers of the soul, but the salvaging of them; not the scrapping and subduing of the fundamental drives of Man, but their redirection and channeling, the answer is a resounding and wholesome “yes.” A man may not be able to rid himself of the trait of stubbornness, but he can certainly direct his stubbornness to desired and beneficial directions. Simpler still, a man may not be able to cure himself of insomnia. But he can himself determine whether these waking hours be spent counting sheep or studying Torah.

The Jewish ethical literature has two names corresponding to these two types of change, and there are two schools propounding these opposing theses. One group claims that the highest goal is shevirat hamidot, the breaking and crushing of the evil drives of man. The objectionable trait must be broken and destroyed. The other group believes this unnecessary and impractical. Rather, it proposes tikun hamidot, the correction and redirection of these dark forces, the channeling of them from the destructive ends for which they had been employed to new and constructive ends. Redirection, not breaking and destruction, is the highest aim of ethical development. And Hasidim, who were great believers in tikun hamidot, used to object to the other school’s theory and say that shevirat hamida, the breaking of one evil trait, often results in two new evil traits.

It is a remarkable fact that considering the contemporary emphasis on education, our parents and grandparents, who were probably more successful than us in this field, rarely mentioned that word. Education in Hebrew is “ĥinukh.” And that word was uncommon in the homes and academies of the most learned and devoted elements of European Jewry. Rather, the emphasis was always on “hadrakha.” That word comes from “derekh,” which means “way,” and “hadrakha” therefore means direction, guidance, and channeling. Take, for instance, that characteristic known as kina – jealousy, or envy. In its usual manifestations it is a terribly destructive and antisocial expression. How many homes have been broken and how many reputations ruined all because of jealousy! And Solomon properly exclaims “kasha khiShe’ol kina,” “jealousy is as hard and cold as the grave.” And yet, surprisingly, the Talmud exclaims with equal conviction “kinat sofrim tarbeh ĥokhma,” “The jealousy of scribes increaseth wisdom.” Well, which one is it – leading to the grave or leading to wisdom? Obviously, it is a matter of direction. If you express it by envying your friend’s Cadillac or his home or his wife’s mink coat – then it is “kasha khiShe’ol.” If, however, you envy his learning, his piety, his sincerity, or honesty, then “tarbeh ĥokhma.” The same jealousy, the same envy. Only the direction has changed.

The Talmud tells a remarkable story which is a sharp illustration of our theme. The great sage Rabbi Yochanan was bathing in the Jordan one day when there suddenly appeared a man known and feared, by the name of Resh Lakish, a man who was the head of a gang of robbers. He was a man of uncommon strength and determination. With one huge leap he spanned the Jordan and came to the side of Rabbi Yochanan intent upon either robbing or kidnapping him. When the sage witnessed this remarkable demonstration of power, he exclaimed “ĥelekh le’orayta,” meaning, “O, if only such power were used for the study of Torah.” This Herculean bandit subsequently turned to Torah and, as the student and later the brother-in-law of Rabbi Yochanan, redirected and rechanneled this extraordinary might so that he ultimately became the great and beloved sage Resh Lakish, second only to Rabbi Yochanan himself. You see, Resh Lakish originally knew that he could never rid himself of this extreme expression of power, and thought himself doomed to a life of banditry. It was Rabbi Yochanan who introduced him to the idea of tikun hamidot, direction and channeling.

In more recent times there is also such a case. My teacher of Talmud at the Yeshiva, the great scholar Rabbi Soloveitchik, recently told of an interesting conversation between his grandfather, the worldfamous sage and eminent talmudist, Rabbi Chaim Brisker, and his son, Rabbi Soloveitchik’s father, Reb Moshe. Said Reb Chaim to Reb Moshe, “My son, I was not always the person you know me to be. I was born with mean and destructive tendencies. I was granted diabolic powers, and I have had to struggle all my life to turn these very powers to constructive ends, to redirect these urges and drives from the evil to the good.”

And in a way, my friends, the holiday of Purim commemorates this very element of tikun hamidot. Mordecai, the hero of the Megilla, was not heir to pink-cheeked angelic qualities. He was a hard, practical man, a man who had tasted exile, who was intimately familiar with the intrigues of the court of Ahaseurus and who had a staunch, unbreakable spirit. Mordecai’s refusal to bow to Haman, his brilliant execution of the plan to ensnare the anti-Semitic tyrant and his adamant refusal to concede defeat mark him a bold spirit. Now boldness is a thing which is not always good. Mordecai’s boldness was an inheritance from his ancestor, Shimi. Shimi was the bold and disrespectful insurrectionist who disparaged King David to his face and publicly accused him of being a bloody murderer. It was boldness indeed, and a libelous, false, evil type of boldness, for he besmirched the good name of the saintly author of the Divine Psalms. Yet this same boldness which he transmitted genetically to his descendant Mordecai was used by Mordecai for entirely different purposes. It was used to vanquish a Haman, not to insult a David. It was not the boldness of empty invectives, not the effrontery of disrespectful vituperation; but it was nevertheless boldness. Only it was used in the service of God, in the saving of a persecuted people, in the altruistic service of a high and glorious ideal. No wonder the Rabbis applied to him the verse from Job, “mi yitein tahor mitameh,” “who can bring a clean thing from an unclean thing?” Mordecai was the clean one who came from the unclean. He inherited a certain set of dynamic qualities which had been used for evil, but which he redirected and channeled to holiness.

Our national scene today could learn a bit from Mordecai’s determined boldness in the right direction. The two paramount issues in our national capitol these days are the issues of Communism in government and corruption in government. The main ire of our elected representatives has been spent trying to dig up incontrovertible proof that certain individuals, who once were distantly related to the government, wrote poison pen letters of a leftist nature when they were in knee pants. The witch-hunt has been marked by the parallel features of uncontrolled boldness and increasing stupidity. Meanwhile, the search into vital matters of national morals and ethics has gone unattended except for occasional blasts of publicity. What is needed is a shift in emphasis, a redirection. We must switch our emphasis from the silly boldness of the McCarthys and the McCarrans² to the boldness of seeking out corruption, or, if I be permitted the pun, a new boldness supporting Mr. Newbold Morris in his determined drive to seek out the sources of ethical degeneration in our government.

And, my friends, not only destructive urges, but also talents and gifts wasted unnecessarily must also be channeled, must also experience tikun hamidot. Many of us, thank God, are not possessed of exceptionally destructive tendencies. But many of us have been blessed with natural abilities which we often allow to go to waste. These two must be captured and harnessed to productive ends. To our talents we must also say, as Rabbi Yochanan said, “ĥelekh le’orayta,” let this strength be for Torah. Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher and social critic, tells that he never plays chess, because when he was a child he was fanatically devoted to the game, and he came to realize that if he were to pursue it he would eventually become the world’s greatest chess-player. But then he pondered, and saw that his life would thus be wasted, for chess is, no matter how respectful a game, only a game. Harmless – but of no great benefit to humanity. And so Russell stopped playing chess and instead went into mathematics and logic and philosophy and so was ultimately able to become the co-author of Principia Mathematica. Modern man, because of his increased leisure time, has taken to hobbies on a grand scale. There is no doubt a criminal negligence involved in the human genius utterly wasted on golf, football, crossword puzzles, and bridge. A hobby is good up to a certain point. Then it becomes waste. Athletics is wonderful, hygienic. But after a certain limit it becomes a travesty. We must learn to channel and direct these forces and use them profitably and constructively.

The experience of Mordecai from Shimi is a universal one and an eternal one. Its message transcends the provincial borders of ancient Persia of that century and like a beacon whose rays are a blessing to those in the distance, we of today bask in the enlightening thoughts of yesteryear which prove an inspiration and lesson to us.

Parshat Bereishit — Reflections on the Divine Image

Excerpted from Rabbi Norman Lamm’s Derashot Ledorot: A Commentary for the Ages — Genesis

Parashat Bereshit teaches us one of the most fundamental concepts of our faith. It is something we speak of often, and that is perhaps why we frequently fail to appreciate its depth and the magnitude of its influence. The concept of man’s creation betzelem Elohim, in the image of God, is one of the most sublime ideas that man possesses, and is decisive in the Jewish concept of man.

What does it mean when we say that man was created in the image of God? Varying interpretations have been offered, each reflecting the general ideological orientation of the interpreter.

The philosophers of Judaism, the fathers of our rationalist tradition, maintain that the image of God is expressed, in man, by his intellect. Thus, Sa’adia Gaon and Maimonides maintain that sekhel, reason, which separates man from animal, is the element of uniqueness that is in essence a divine quality. The intellectual function is thus what characterizes man as tzelem Elohim.

However, the ethical tradition of Judaism does not agree with that interpretation. Thus, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, in his Mesilat Yesharim, does not accept reason as the essence of the divine image. A man can, by exercise of his intellect, know what is good – but fail to act upon it. Also, the restriction of tzelem Elohim to reason means that only geniuses can truly qualify as being created in the image of God. Hence, Luzzatto offers an alternative and perhaps more profound definition. The tzelem Elohim in which man was created is that of ratzon – the freedom of will. The fact that man has a choice – between good and evil, between right and wrong, between obedience and disobedience of God – is what expresses the image of God in which he was born. An animal has no freedom to act; a man does. That ethical freedom makes man unique in the creation.

But how does the freedom of the human will express itself? A man does not assert his freedom by merely saying “yes” to all that is presented to him. Each of us finds himself born into a society which is far from perfect. We are all born with a set of animal drives, instincts, and intuitions. If we merely nod our heads in assent to all those forces which seem more powerful than us, then we are merely being passive, plastic, and devoid of personality. We are then not being free, and we are not executing our divine right of choice. Freedom, the image of God, is expressed in the word “no.” When we negate that which is indecent, evil, ungodly; when we have the courage, the power, and the might to rise and announce with resolve that we shall not submit to the pressures to conform to that which is cheap, that which is evil, that which is indecent and immoral – then we are being free men and responding to the inner divine image in which we are created.

The late Rabbi Aaron Levine, the renowned Reszher Rav, interpreted, in this manner, the famous verse from Ecclesiastes (3:19) which we recite every morning as part of our preliminary prayers. Solomon tells us, “Umotar ha’adam min habehema ayin,” which is usually translated as, “And the preeminence of man over beast is naught.” Rabbi Levine, however, prefers to give the verse an interpretation other than the pessimistic, gloomy apparent meaning. He says: “And the preeminence of man over beast is – ayin, ‘no.’” What is it that gives man his distinction? What is it that makes man different from the rest of creation, superior to the rest of the natural world? It is his capacity to say ayin, his capacity to face the world and announce that he will not submit to it, that he will accept the challenge and respond “no”. An animal has no choice – no freedom – and therefore must say “yes” to his drives, to the world in which he lives. But a human being can say “no” to that which is unseemly and beneath his dignity. And when he says “no” to all that is ungodly, he is being Godly. He is showing that he was created in the image of God.

Adam and Eve had to learn this lesson, and their descendants forever after must learn from their failure. We are nowhere told in the Torah that the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was in any way different from the fruit of the other trees in the Garden of Eden. Yet when she was tempted by the serpent, Eve looked at the fruit, and in her mind’s eye its attractiveness grew out of all proportion to reality. It looked more luscious, it looked more juicy, it looked more appetizing. She even imagined that this was some kind of “intelligence food.” Her instinct bade her to do that which was in violation of the divine command. But counter to this she had the capacity, as a free agent created in God’s image, to say ayin, to say “no” to her instinct and her temptation. But she forfeited her opportunity. The first human couple did not know how to say “no.” This was the beginning of their downfall.

Abraham was a great Jew – the first Jew. Yet in our tradition he is not famous so much for saying “yes” as he is for saying “no.” Abraham was the great iconoclast. It was he who said “no” to the idolatries of his day, who said “no” to his father’s paganism, who was the one man pitted against the entire world, shouting “no!” to all the obscenities of his contemporary civilization.

Moses was a great teacher. He gave us 613 commandments. When you investigate the commandments, you find that only 248 are positive – commanding us what to do. But 365 of them are negative – they say “no” to our wills and our wishes. For when we learn to say “no,” we are being free men and women under God. The famous Ten Commandments have only three positive laws; the other seven are negative. Indeed, it is only through these negatives that we can live and survive and thrive at all. Without “You shall not murder,” there can be no society. Without “You shall not steal,” there can be no normal conduct of commerce and business. Without “You shall not commit adultery,” there can be no normal family life. Without “You shall not covet,” the human personality must degenerate and man becomes nothing more than an animal, a beast.

“And the preeminence of man over beast is ayin” – it is this which gives man greater dignity and superiority over the animal – his power to say “no.” It is this freedom of the human personality taught by our Jewish tradition that we Jews must reassert once again in our own day.

The author Herman Wouk told me some time ago that a number of years earlier he was boarding a ship to go on a trip overseas. Several hours after he boarded, a cabin boy brought him a note from the apostate Jewish author Shalom Asch, asking Wouk to come to his cabin. There Asch complained to him and said, “I don’t understand you, Mr. Wouk. You are a young man – yet you are observant and Orthodox. When my generation of writers was young, we were rebels, we were dissenters. We rejected tradition, we rejected authority, we rejected the opinions of the past. What happened to you? Why do you conform so blandly?” Wouk gave the older man an answer that I believe is very important for all of us to know. He answered, “You are making a terrible mistake, Mr. Asch. You seem to forget that the world we live in is not a paradise of Jewishness. You seem to forget that the world we occupy has become corrupted, assimilated, emptied of all Jewish content. In a world of this sort, one does not have to be a rebel at all in order to ignore the high standards of Judaism. If you violate the Sabbath, if you eat like a pagan, if you submit to the cheap standards of morality of the society in which we live, then you are being a conformist; you are merely allowing your own animal instincts to get the better of you. Today, if I and some of my contemporaries are observing the Jewish tradition, then it is because we are the dissenters, the nein-sagers. For we are the ones who say ‘no’ to the desecration of the Sabbath, ‘no’ to the creeping assimilation that ridicules all of Judaism and threatens its very life, ‘no’ to all the forces that seek to degrade our people and diminish the uniqueness of Israel that is its dignity and its preeminence. You are the conformist.”

This is the kind of force, the kind of courage, the kind of conviction that has sustained us throughout the ages. It is that which has given us the power to say “no” to the threats of Haman, the cruelties of Chmielnicki, the genocide of Hitler, as well as the sugarcoated missionizing of more enlightened enemies of Judaism. We demonstrated the image of God when we exercised our freedom and said “no” to all this.

I am not suggesting that we ought to be destructively negative. It is, rather, that when we fully exercise our critical functions and faculties, then the good will come to the fore of itself. It is because I have confidence in the innate powers of the good that I suggest we concentrate on denying evil. “Depart from evil and do good” (Psalms 34:15). If you put all your energies into negating evil, then good will be done of its own accord.

It is this power to say “no” that we must exercise in our relations with our fellow Jews in the State of Israel. For, in addition to all our constructive efforts on behalf of the upbuilding of the land, we must also be able to call a halt to the creeping paganism that plagues it.

When we find that in our own Orthodox community in Israel certain things are done which serve only to desecrate the name of God, we must not be shy. We must rise and as one say “no” to all those forces which would compromise the sanctity of the Torah and the sanctity of the Holy Land.

In our own American Jewish community, we must, here too, be the critics. And when, to mention just a seemingly trivial matter, certain artists and entertainers who are Jewish, and who rely upon the community as such for acceptance of what they have to offer, elect to entertain on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, we must say “no.” We must realize that it is no longer the domain of one’s own conscience, when the matter is a public demonstration of contempt for American Jewry. “And the preeminence of man over beast is ayin” – we must not sheepishly go along with everything that “famous people” are willing to tell us. We must be men, we must be human beings, we must use the freedom that God gave us when He created us in His image, and learn when to say “no.”

I conclude with the statement by one of the greatest teachers of Judaism, a man who indeed showed, in his life, that he knew the value of “no.” It was Rabbi Akiba, the man who was able to stand up to the wrath and the might of the whole Roman Empire and say “no” to tyranny and to despotism, who taught us, “Beloved is man that he was created in the image of God” (Avot 3:18). Beloved indeed, and precious and unique and irreplaceable is man when he has the freedom of will that is granted to him by his Creator. And furthermore, “Hiba yeteira noda’at lo shenivra betzelem” – a special love was given to man by God, it is a special gift when man not only has that freedom but when he knows that he has that freedom – and therefore uses it to combat evil and to allow the great, constructive forces of good, innate in himself, to come to the fore so as to make this a better world for all mankind.