Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was a great teacher because five of his students became giants in their own right. The mishnah is telling us how he did it: with focused praise.
The real contrast here, though, is the difference between Aaron and his two sons. They were, it seems, opposites. Aaron was over-cautious and had to be persuaded by Moses even to begin. Nadav and Avihu were not cautious enough. So keen were they to put their own stamp on the role of priesthood that their impetuosity was their downfall.
There are times when each of us has to decide, not just “What shall I do?” but “What kind of person shall I be?”
Politics involves difficult judgments. A leader must balance competing claims and will sometimes get it wrong.
So the Torah is a unique combination of nomos and narrative, history and law, the formative experiences of a nation and the way that nation sought to live its collective life so as never to forget the lessons it learned along the way. It brings together vision and detail in a way that has never been surpassed.
There are times when you need someone with the courage to stand against the crowd, others when you need a peacemaker.
The Priest was “holy” and therefore set apart from the people. He had to eat his food in a state of purity, and had to avoid contact with the dead.
That, I believe, is what the Sages meant when they said, “Call them not ‘your children’ but ‘your builders’” (Brachot 64a). People have to become builders if they are to grow from childhood to adulthood.
Torah means “law.” But it also means “teaching, instruction, guidance,” or more generally, “direction.”
Israel can learn practical politics from a Midianite but it must learn the limits of politics from G-d Himself.
Look down at the difficulties and you can give way to despair. The only way to sustain energy, individual or collective, is to turn our gaze up toward the far horizon of hope.
Moses’ insight was profound. He knew that you cannot change the world by externalities alone, by monumental architecture, or armies and empires, or the use of force and power.
Leadership, even of the very highest order, is often marked by failure.
Wherever leadership depends on personal qualities and not on office or title, there is no distinction between women and men.
Joseph had, in double measure, one of the necessary gifts of a leader: the ability to keep going despite opposition, envy, false accusation and repeated setbacks.
Both said chattati, “I have sinned.” But their fates were radically different.
He did so for the butler and baker in prison and, in this week’s parsha, for Pharaoh. His interpretations were neither magical nor miraculous.
No one has all the strengths. Sufficient if we have one. But we must also know what we lack.
It is as if the Torah were telling us that so long as there is a conflict within us, there will be a conflict around us.
It is at these points of maximal vulnerability that he encounters G-d and finds the courage to continue despite all the hazards of the journey.
Isaac never intended to give the blessing of the covenant to Esau. He intended to give each child the blessing that suited them.
Noah fails the test of collective responsibility. He is a man of virtue in an age of vice, but he makes no impact on his contemporaries.
Abraham is the supreme example in all of history of influence without power.
This is a tale of decline. Why?
Kayin does not deny personal responsibility. He does not say, “It was not me,” or “It was not my fault.” He denies moral responsibility.
Sukkot celebrates the dual nature of Jewish faith: the universality of G-d and the particularity of Jewish existence.
This is a doctrine fundamental to Judaism and its understanding of evil and suffering in the world: G-d is just.
It follows therefore that if vengeance is wrong, it could not have been commanded by G-d – not to Christians, and not to Jews. If it was commanded, we must be able to make some moral sense of it, whether we are Jews or Christians.
Note the inclusivity of the event. It would be anachronistic to say that the Torah was egalitarian in the contemporary sense.
For me, one of the gifts of this strange, difficult time has been the ability to slow down the prayers so that I am able to listen to them speaking to me. Praying is as much about listening as speaking. And faith itself is the ability to hear the music beneath the noise.