At Sinai, B’nei Yisrael (the Children of Israel) encamped as one. To the eyes of the nations at the time, this massive throng of people, trekking through the desert, may have appeared to be a behemoth, compared to oxen that tear out the roots of the grass they eat, thus completely destroying a field, without its possibility of growing back; yet, from the vantage point of heaven, the people were a divinely chosen nation, being guided into their destiny, via the many tests and trials in the wilderness.
Thus, from an external perspective, based only upon outward appearances, the two-million-person multitude may have appeared somewhat disordered, and haphazard in its wandering through the wilderness. Yet, not so, from H’Shem’s perspective, nor from the understanding of Moses, the leader of this people.
The continual march of the Jewish people throughout history as well, has not been haphazard. The prophets foresaw our destiny, and paved the way for our understanding, so that we know that our return to Israel had a lot more to do with divine intention, than from political maneuverings. On Shavuot, we recall the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the same commandments that are in effect today, as our national constitution, so to speak, as a nation.
“And they shall say on that day, ‘Surely it is because our G-d is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us.'”
– Deuteronomy 31:17, JPS 1985 Tanach
“They will be intelligent enough to conclude that all the troubles which suddenly overtook them must be due to G-d having deliberately left their midst.”
– Or HaChayim on Deuteronomy 31:17, sefaria.org
The key word here in this commentary is “deliberately,” as if it is implied that the people realized that their own sins compelled G-d to abandon them. This is an important connection for them to make, whereas without recognizing their own complicity, would only have led to blame G-d for His abandonment of them, as if they had no part in the matter. Consider the attitude of some, in blaming G-d for harsh events in life, holding Him accountable for our suffering, without acknowledging the sins that created the distance between us and Him in the first place. The point being, that it is the wrong attitude to have, a spoiled mindset to think that we deserve better, despite our abandoning Him through our own misdeeds. And, yet, He is compassionate and merciful, inasmuch that hiding His face from us, He desires us to cry out with a heartfelt repentant stance, taking it upon ourselves, to return to Him, in all of our ways, in order to elicit His forgiveness. Thus, it may be seen in regard to what is sometimes called today “tough love,” for example when parents stop enabling their children who exhibit poor behavior, and, rather, deny them assistance, or any kind of monetary support until they correct their errant ways.
And, so, we do not understand G-d to be capricious: rather everything is ultimately designed for our benefit, even the chastisement that is placed upon us, when we go astray of G-d’s commandments. For nothing happens by chance in an ordered world, that is a world whose order is often above our own understanding. Any randomness that appears to occur is only based upon a perspective that does not have the type of faith in H’Shem that accepts His sovereignty over all events in the world, as well as those that occur to us on an individual level. To understand that everything happens according to G-d’s will, or is permitted by Him, is to recognize His absolute sovereignty in all realms of life. Surely, He is not to blame when bad things happen to good people, for man is responsible for his own sin against his fellow man, and if G-d permits something bad to happen to us, it is for a reason, that we are to attempt to understand. Otherwise, we will fall prey to a lack of faith in Him as sovereign. Furthermore, to be angry at Him for the bad things in our lives is to deny His sovereignty over us. We must return to Him, especially as we feel compelled to do on Shabbat Shuvah (the Sabbath of Repentance), so that we do not hold any grudges against the very one whose wisdom soars above our own.
“The L-RD your God has blessed you in all your undertakings. He has watched over your wanderings through this great wilderness.” – Deuteronomy 2:7, JPS 1985 Tanach
While journeying from place to place in the wilderness, the L-RD provided the Children of Israel with sustenance, in the form of water from the well, manna from the sky, and quails, on that one occasion, that they ate for a month. Over a period of forty years, the fledgling nation of Israel was guarded, guided, and provided for by the L-RD. Although, this time was also used to test them, when provisions seemed to run scarce, or they had growing temptations about returning to Egypt, where there was not only more variety of food, rather, also, security in knowing where food would come from every day to put on their table. Their provisions in Egypt, even as slaves, seemed more sure, than the day to day trust that they needed to place in the L-RD, who only provided for them on a daily basis, as opposed to provisions that could be stored, after procuring what seemed sufficient for a week or two.
Perhaps, the adage, “one day at a time,” really seems significant, with respect to the way they lived their lives for forty years. And, the same adage can be applied to our lives today, with respect towards a trusting in the simplicity of life, when we focus on needs, as opposed to wants. For, only inasmuch that we can depend on the provision of the day, for both our material and spiritual nourishment, can we live in appreciation of each day, as a unique, unrepeatable basic unit of time, that brings certain opportunities for our growth as individuals. There is a teaching that each day has its potential that is offered in its own time. This is akin to the offerings of the moadim (appointed times), “each on its own day” (Leviticus 23:37). So, that in regard to the days of our lives, we may achieve what G-d’s expectations are for us, adding day upon day, in order to accumulate understanding, experience, and wisdom.
I believe that every situation requires a response. In reflecting upon, my own indecision, as well as my failure at times to respond at all, whether verbally to what someone else relates to me, or a situation that really requires my attention, I feel the need to articulate a stance. Towards the end of parashas Balak, the zealous Pinchas responds to a dire situation, whereof the Children of Israel were in the midst of being judged for idolatry and immorality; the plague was moving quickly amongst the people. Yet, Pinchas acted without haste, to protect G-d’s honor when a Prince of Israel and a Princess of Moab were flouting the moral integrity and directive of G-d’s divine commandments. In doing so, the plague was stopped, and Pinchas was given “a covenant of peace,” as delineated in parashas Pinchas.
Every situation requires an appropriate response. The Talmud emphasizes the commandment not to stand idly by, while others are in harm’s way. While on the one hand, it is not appropriate to act with zealousness in the manner that Pinchas did; on the other hand, it is necessary to assess every situation in order to reflect on the proper response. Keep in mind the following adage: “All that is required for evil to flourish is for good men [and women] to do nothing” (Elie Wiesel). Above all, discernment is necessary so that the best response may be made, after thoroughly thinking through the consequences of one’s own actions. If nothing else, prayer is paramount, as so many examples from scripture portray.
“And he took the Book of the Covenant and read it within the hearing of the people, and they said, “All that the Lord spoke we will do and we will hear.”
– Exodus 24:7, Tanach, chabad.org
The crux of avodah (service) is built on faith, as is mentioned elsewhere, “the righteous shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4, JPS). When the children of Israel received the commandments at Sinai, they responded, na’aseh v’nishmah – we will do and we will hear. In other words, we will first agree to perform the commandments; then, we will hear from you of what they consist.
Nishmah also translates as “to understand;” therefore, “we will do, and we will understand.” Rather than having to scrutinize the commandments, to get an idea of what was being received, they inferred that over time they will progressively understand the significance of the commandments. Thus, rather than blind faith, in accepting the commandments, they knew that understanding is secondary, to performing the commandments.
These concepts are oft fallen upon deaf ears, so to speak, because of how we are conditioned to think. Today, everything is subjected to the ego of the individual, because we feel compelled to decide for ourselves, whether a teaching, belief, or idea, is in accordance with our way of understanding, before incorporating any aspect thereof, into our overall framework of belief, ideology, or lifestyle. Thus, everything is relative in a postmodern world, where each person is compelled to see him or herself, as the ultimate arbiter of truth, thus relegating truth to being relative, and therefore a moot issue.
Amongst many who consider themselves to be spiritual, one key precept seems to be “mix and match,” in order to create a personally tailored practice, in agreement with the soul’s desires as to what feels right. The result being akin to the nature of the Israelites when they were without a king: “everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” A certain amount of objectivity, as well as agreement to the consensual realities of what creates a harmonious society is necessary. No man is an island unto himself, unless he deserts his fellow human beings, choosing a subjective reality, while remaining isolated in his own personal kingdom. This is not the way prescribed for us by H’Shem (the L-RD), the ultimate arbiter of truth, values, and justice.
“And the boys grew; and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents.”
– Genesis 25:27, JPS 1917 Tanach
Jacob received his name, from the root word eikev meaning “heel,” because when born he was grasping onto Esau’s heel. “Jacob’s holding on to the heel of Esau may symbolize that values which Esau would stamp his foot on would be the very ones Jacob would cherish” (Akeidat Yitzchak). The comment points toward the differences that appeared in the personalities of Jacob and Esau as they grew up. Esau was an ambitious hunter who spent all of his time in the field, while Jacob is described as an ishtam (wholesome man), who quietly devoted himself to raising sheep, and reflecting upon the nature of G-d.
The two were somewhat diamatrically opposed to each other. Thus their relationship can be seen as representative of the two opposing spirits of man: the yetzertov (good inclination), and the yetzerhara (evil inclination). These two inclinations battle against each other within the soul of every human being. Yet, not everyone may be aware of the prolific conflict that occurs, especially if leeway is constantly being given to the less moral impulses of one’s character. Only when opposing baser instincts, does an individual begin to feel the tension between doing what is right, or giving in to inferior behaviors.
Yet, to consistently take the path of least resistance, permitting inertia to influence the soul to the point of sluggishness, and simply “going with the flow,” without considering where the course of one’s path will lead, is to remain subject to what is otherwise referred to as “the animal soul,” the part of ourselves that favors our natural inclinations. Rather, true “spirituality,” in accord with the quest for perfection, and the human endeavor to excel, must be focused on uplifting our souls, above the realm of commonality with animals. We breathe, eat, and sleep; yet, our purpose of existence goes beyond the mundane; true happiness can only be derived from pursuing a “higher goal” in our lives.
“And the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years; [these were] the years of the life of Sarah.”
– Genesis 23:1, The Complete Jewish Tanach
What an interesting way to denote the years of Sarah’s life. Commentary notes that there is a specific reason that the word “years” appears after each component number of the total number of years of her life. Inasmuch that each time frame of her life is to be understood in a certain manner, the following rendering is given: her childhood, young adulthood, and adulthood were all equally good (based on Rashi). Imagine an equanimity of identity, intention, and purpose spanning the entirety of a life – this was the life of Sarah.
This may be contrasted with the lives of many people in modernity. The language, currently describes different formative years in a negative way, for example, the terrible twos, the rebellious adolescence, and the task of “finding onself” given to the young adult. Otherwise, consider the pressure of higher level education, and earlier, placing the burden of choosing an area of interest upon the student, before he or she may be ready to decide upon a profession. In like manner that so many teenagers and young adults change their image, interests, and friendships; college bound students and university freshman change their majors.
And what of the often turbulent years of the teenager, as well as the young adult, if one’s formative years were actually not so formative? “Train a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6, JPS 1917 Tanach). While there is a continuum, expressed by Erikson, between “identity cohesion and role confusion,” especially during adolescence; perhaps, a cohesive identity may be formed as the result of parental instruction and role modeling. Each child should be brought up in accordance with his or her own personality, as well as learning styles. This is not a task that can simply be relegated to the teachers where the child attends school.
My personal opinion is that unless an individual embarks upon a steady path, replete with a moral component, then how can one navigate the vicissitudes of life? Too often, the formula of permitting the youth to experience life for himself, without providing any clear guideposts, is the one taken by parents who have been influenced by the permissiveness of liberalism, that has given sway to a subtle form of nihilism. There is still something to say for those throughout the world who are brought up in a more traditional framework of life. This would include those within societies that embrace traditionalism, as well as those families and communities that uphold certain religious values.
The monotheism embraced by both Abraham and Sarah served as a rallying cry for their newfound beliefs, whereof each were committed to a high degree of sanctity in their lives, despite the idolatry and diminished moral sphere, of the surrounding peoples of that time. Eventually, the three Abrahamic faiths influenced the world in a manner, whereby many people were called to a higher standard. Comparatively speaking, as the standard of the world seems to decline in more recent times, it is even more important to plan a trajectory for our own lives, those of our children, and the future of society, even in the midst of societal breakdowns. Having steered a little bit off topic, I would encourage that there be a return to an unadulterated life of stability, purposeful intent, and commitment; instead of the rampant nihilism, experimenting, and seeking of entertainment, so common in modern society. May the pure, devoted, and moral life of Sarah serve as an example to anyone seeking meaning and the upmost good for their own lives, as well as the lives of others.
“Where there is no vision, the people cast off restraint; but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.”
“Now the L-RD said unto Abram: ‘Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto the land that I will show thee.”
– Genesis 12:1, JPS 1917 Tanach
Abraham was called out from his environmental mileu, in order to start a new life, free from the shackles of the past that had chained him to a world of idolatry. In modern psychological terms, he broke free of the conditioning that kept him from pursuing his own identity. Specifically, the term, “individuation” seems apropos in more ways than one.
First of all, Abraham is described as an “ivri,” meaning that he was from ” the other side” of the Euphrates River. The English transliteration would be “Hebrew.” The word also connotes that he was on one side of the moral sphere, while those from Ur Chasdim, whom he left behind were on another.
Today, while many remain entrenched in their familiar environs, others decide to move on to another place, both geographically, as well as spiritually. Part of individuation includes “separating out” what is right for ourselves as individials, from what can no longer be maintained within the framework of our personal worldview.
Additionally, Abraham was called for a specific mission in life: “And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and be thou a blessing” (Genesis 12:2). Chassidus, a mystical component of Judaism, teaches that every individual has a mission in life. Abraham was given a good idea of his mission in life. However, for those of us living in this modern world, we are challenged, perplexed and sometimes flummoxed at the thought of finding our mission in life.
Our journey to the destination that G-d may ultimately have in mind for us, is often beset by many trials and errors, as well as false starts and wrong paths. Yet, at some point we may be able to reflect upon our past, and be able to see how everything actually led to exactly where we stand today. As the saying goes, “hindsight is golden.”
“And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights.” – Genesis 7:12
“And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high mountains that were under the whole heaven were covered.” – Genesis 7:19
A predetermined time was given for the floodwaters to cover the earth.
No one escaped the devastation that G-d sent upon the earth, except for eight people intended to repopulate the earth, and an array of animals meant to rebuild the animal kingdom. Even the seeds of many different types of herbs, plants, and other vegetation were preserved on the Ark built by Noah. In order for the renewal of G-d’s creation to take place, every effort was taken to preserve the necessary elements of life that would provide a second chance for humanity.
In our own lives, we are also given second chances: G-d designed the means for our own renewal to take place, even under the most dire of circumstances. When the flood waters in our own personal lives seem to prevail, inundating all that we know, and are familiar with, we may turn to Him with all of heart, soul, and might, seeking Him as our place of Refuge.
“Save me, O G-d; for the waters are come in even unto the soul” (Psalms 69:2, JPS). The churning, chaotic waters of our lives that threaten to engulf us, if we are not wearing a life preserver, so to speak, are those that enter our mind, manifest as cares and worries. Yet, we can guard the gates to our most precious treasure – the soul – thereby preventing negativity to seep in to our “inner sanctum.”
Also, noteworthy to mention is that, concerning the door to the Ark, as the waters began to build up around ark, G-d Himself closed the door (see Genesis 7:16). Concomittantly, once we make our own best efforts, if we fully place our trust in Him, our soul will be sealed. This is necessary in order to block out the tumult of the world, for our place of secret refuge within will provide comfort and safety, throughout the storms of life. Instead of getting drenched, the soul will be cleansed. Figuratively speaking, our boat will not capsize; nor, will we ever fear drowning in a sea of chaos and confusion.