The word “Torah” means “teaching” or “instruction,” and it is difficult to teach ethics through stories whose characters are fraught with complexity and ambiguity.
If you are prepared to learn something new, you can be 103 and still young. If you are not prepared to learn something new, you can be 23 and already old.
It is almost as if Sukkot were two festivals, not one. It is. Although all the festivals are listed together, they in fact represent two quite different cycles.
It is that power of hope, born whenever G-d’s love and forgiveness gives rise to human freedom and responsibility, that has made Judaism the moral force it has always been.
We are a hyper-verbal people. We talk, we argue, we pontificate, we deliver witty repartee and clever put-downs. Jews may not always be great listeners but we are among the world’s great talkers.
Our faith – Moses is telling us – is not like that of the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, or virtually every other civilization known to history.
Gardner’s argument is that what makes a leader is the ability to tell a particular kind of story – one that explains ourselves to ourselves and gives power and resonance to a collective vision.
The Egyptians enslaved the Israelites, planned a program against them of slow genocide, and then refused to let them go despite the plagues that were devastating the land. Are these reasons not to hate?
Maimonides holds that the appointment of a king is an obligation, Ibn Ezra that it is a permission, Abarbanel that it is a concession, and Rabbenu Bachya that it is a punishment.
Do not think that we can survive as a nation among nations, worshiping what they worship and living as they live. If we do, we will be subject to the universal law that has governed the fate of nations from the dawn of civilization to today.
The tension between the counselors and the rabbis grew almost to the point of crisis, so much so that we had to stop the course for an hour while we sought some way of reconciling what the counselors were doing with Torah.
What happened to all the promises of Bereishit, that Abraham’s children would be numerous, uncountable, as many as the stars of the sky, the dust of the earth, and the grains of sand on a seashore?
Other nations, says Moses, will recognize the miraculous nature of the Jewish story.
Moses succeeds not because he is weak, not because he is willing to compromise on the integrity of the nation as a whole, not because he uses honeyed words and diplomatic evasions, but because he is honest, principled, and focused on the common good.
This means: a leader must lead from the front, but he or she must not be so far out in front that when they turn around, they find that no one is following.
Bilaam was a man with great gifts, a genuine prophet, compared by the Sages to Moses himself, yet an evil-doer mentioned in the Mishnah as one denied a share in the world to come.
Moses intervenes on Miriam’s behalf with simple eloquence in the shortest prayer on record with five words: ‘Please, G-d, heal her now.’
Moses represents the birth of a new kind of leadership. That is what Korach and his followers did not understand. Many of us do not understand it still.
The antidote to fear, both of failure and success, lies in the passage with which the parsha ends: the command of tzitzit
Power works by division, influence by multiplication. Power, in other words, is a zero-sum game: the more you share, the less you have.
In the Torah, God summons His special people, Israel, to take the first steps towards what might eventually become a truly egalitarian society – or to put it more precisely, a society in which dignity, kavod, does not depend on power or wealth or an accident of birth.
Is counting the people an expression of love or does it arouse Hashem’s anger?
In what sense were the Jews in France and the Jews in Spain responsible for one another? What constituted them as a single nation?
When Jews are defeated and sent into exile, it is not only a tragedy for them. It is a tragedy for G-d.
All the high ideals in the world count for little until they are turned into habits of action that become habits of the heart.
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.