Tu BiShvat: the Winter of our Redemption

Justice is rarely calm. As the Egyptians retrench themselves in iniquity and race forward to recapture their Israelite slaves, God sweeps them into the raging waters of the sea. Rashi on Exodus 14:27 explains:

כאדם שמנער את הקדרה, הופך העליון למטה והתחתונים למעלה, כך היו עולים ויורדים ונשברים בים,

Like a person stirring a pot, moving the top to the bottom and the bottom to the top, so were the Egyptians rising, falling, and breaking in the sea.

This image is a potent symbol of social justice. Raising the oppressed frequently involves lowering the oppressors. Fixing society requires shattering norms that reify injustice. We always read the story of this final showdown with the Egyptians close to the holiday of Tu B’shvat. 

Tu B’Shvat is described as Chag Hailanot, the Festival of the Trees. However, the word “אילנות” doesn’t appear anywhere in the Torah, Prophets, or Writings. Although the Torah speaks a lot about trees, the word generally used is עץ. The Rabbis observe that the constellation of letters in ”אילנות” only appears in one place in the Bible, in our verse from above, Exodus 14:27. Once the sea splits and the Israelites are on dry land the verse says: וַיָּ֨שׁב הַיָּ֜ם לִפְנ֥וֹת בֹּ֙קֶר֙ לְאֵ֣יתָנ֔וֹ – the sea returned to its normal state/power. For trees as well, this is a time of coming back to themselves. According to Rashi, this is the day where the sap of a tree starts to rise up inside of itself. 

This corrective resurgence is emblematic of the month Shevat, whose Mazel, or astrological sign,  is the bucket (d’li). It must first be lowered down in order to be able to draw up the water from the well. Life is filled with downs and ups as part of the meaningful struggle to be a healer in a broken world. Finding the balance of productive effort, as opposed to the avodos perech/the work of enslavement in Egypt, is alluded to in the role of the Tzadik, the righteous whose light is invested in the future, represented in the letter צ which corresponds to the month according to Sefer Yetzera. 

Bereishit Rabbah 66:4 teaches that the wicked are initially at peace and later experience suffering. This may be because if one is in a place of privilege not to need to struggle for oneself, one sins by not being proactive for others. The righteous, on the other hand, struggle at first and then are able to achieve and enjoy a better state of being. It is perhaps for this reason that Tu B’shvat is the only one of the four Rosh Hashanas that is halfway through the month and not at the beginning, modeling the work that first needs to be done in order to be worthy of celebration. 

According to the Ari Z”l, the 12 months of the year are reflected in the 12 possible permutations of the four letters of God’s name – ה,ה,ו,י. Each month has a corresponding verse that follows the same order of those four letters in that month’s permutation. The verse for the month of Shevat is הָמֵ֣ר יְמִירֶ֔נּוּ וְהָֽיָה־ה֧וּא (Leviticus 27:33), describing a sacrificial animal that has been improperly exchanged for another. The order of the letters in God’s name י-ה-ו-ה are at first presented out of order, with the ה and י switching positions. The final two letters, ו and ה are presented in the correct order of God’s name, alluding to the righting that happens in the middle of the month of Shevat.  

Indeed, the correcting that occurs in Shevat has been preordained since Creation. Yalkut Shimoni on B’shalach 225 offers a different understanding of the phrase, וַיָּ֨שׁב הַיָּ֜ם לִפְנ֥וֹת בֹּ֙קֶר֙ לְאֵ֣יתָנ֔וֹ – the sea returned to its original condition. The Hebrew word תנאי means a contingent condition. The midrash explains:

א”ר יונתן התנה הקדוש ברוך הוא תנאים עם הים שיהא נקרע לפני ישראל הדא הוא דכתיב וישב הים לפנות בקר לאיתנו [י”ד, כ”ז] לתנאו שהתנה הקדוש ברוך הוא עמו

Rabbi Yonatan said, the Holy Blessed One made a condition [at creation] with the sea, that it would split for Israel, as the verse says,  וַיָּ֨שׁב הַיָּ֜ם לִפְנ֥וֹת בֹּ֙קֶר֙ לְאֵ֣יתָנ֔וֹ – the sea returned to its condition that God had stipulated.

This midrash is curious. Why does God make a condition with the sea? God is all powerful and  could simply demand that the sea obey. The midrash asserts that God wants the salvation of Israel at the sea to be part of the natural order, not a sudden divine intervention.

As soon as Israel walks through on the dry land, they become truly free and the Egyptians lose their power over them. The sea naturally then returns to its original strength.  God programs this sequence of events into the natural order. Freedom will always lead to the disempowering of oppressors. 

Earlier, in Exodus 14:10, the Israelites looked up and saw the mighty Egyptian army, complete with horses, chariots and warriors, bearing down on them. They were trapped by the sea, with nowhere to run, and they were terrified. Their situation had never been more dire. As they explained to Moses, “it would have been better for us to be slaves in Egypt than to die here in the wilderness.” (Exodus 14:12). It was precisely at this dark moment, when they were too exhausted to visualize a path forward, that their ultimate salvation began.

Tu B’shvat is a yearly celebration of this kind of moment. It always falls in the dead of winter, when the trees appear lifeless and vulnerable. Tu B’shvat reminds us that even when we feel like we have nothing left in us, the process of regeneration and redemption may already have begun. When we reinvest in the fight for justice and equality, the disruption of systemic oppression will be as natural as the changing of the seasons.


R. Wendy Amsellem teaches at Yeshivat Maharat. R. Mike Moskowitz is a founding builder at Bayit.




Graceful Living / Graceful Masculinity: V’zos HaBracha

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

וַיָּ֨מת שָׁ֜ם מֹשֶׁ֧ה עֶבֶד־יְקוָ֛ק בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מוֹאָ֖ב עַל־פִּ֥י יְקוָֽק׃

And Moses, servant of Hashem, died there, in the land of Moab, by the mouth of Hashem.

Deuteronomy 34:5


Humanity comes into being with a breath from the Divine. The Torah begins the story of our interaction with a moment of intimacy between G-d and Adam, and its final verses of Deuteronomy with Mose’s death through a Divine kiss. These two events are deeply connected and an aspect of the relationship is alluded to in the verse 

וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים וַיְהִי הָאָדָם לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה

“and G-d breathed into his nostrils the soul of life; and Adam became a living soul”. 

In the Hebrew, the last letter of each word forms the phrase: “and Mose died” – וימת משה, another way of connecting the beginning and the end of the Torah.

In Sefer Yetzirah, the letter “ת” governs “חן” – grace, and corresponds to the “פה בנפש” – the mouth in the soul. The mouth is so powerful that King Solomon writes “Death and Life are in the power of the tongue – מָ֣וֶת וְ֭חַיִּים בְּיַד־לָשׁ֑וֹן”. The letter “ת” has a numerical value of 400, as do the words “יד לשון” – the power of the tongue. When a person misuses this power and speaks badly of another, literally a bad tongue, they are punished with the affliction of being a metzora, often translated as leprosy. Metzora – מצרע also has a numerical value of 400 and such a person is considered dead, until they go through the atonement process.

The Talmud further elaborates on the binary potential of the final letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the “ת”: Rav said “ ״תָּיו״ – תִּחְיֶה, ״תָּיו״ – תָּמוּת Tuv – will live – will die. However, even life and death turn out to not be a binary. For example, wicked people are called “dead” while they are still alive, while the righteous are called alive even after their souls are returned to their source. There is even a position in the Talmud that Moses never died. 

Moses is described as dying שם, there. The Talmud, using the exegetical principle of a gezerah shavah, connects the moment of Moses’ death to the moment when Moses received the Ten Commandments: “וֶהְיֵה־שָׁ֑ם וְאֶתְּנָ֨ה לְךָ֜ אֶת־לֻחֹ֣ת הָאֶ֗בֶן וְהַתּוֹרָה֙ וְהַמִּצְוָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר כָּתַ֖בְתִּי לְהוֹרֹתָֽם – wait there, and I will give you the stone tablets with the teachings and commandments which I have inscribed to instruct them”. The Talmud continues: “Just as there, he was standing and serving [before G-d]; so too, here” after his death.

Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk explains that it is angels who stand in a particular spiritual place, while people have the unique ability to grow and transcend their current location. It is this constant striving for greater perfection that gives us spiritual mobility. King David describes it as “My feet are on a straight path. In assemblies I will bless G-d”. The mystics understand this to be a reference to תיקון זה סוד התי”ו – the redeeming of the letter “tuv”, that without the “foot” at the bottom left, advancing the cause, it would be the letter “ח”. 

This also speaks to the positive impact that we all want to have in this world. The world shouldn’t, and can’t, be the same without us. Our ability to make a difference isn’t limited just to the time we are alive. The Rabbis teach:  גדולים צדיקים במיתתן יותר מבחייהן the righteous are even greater after their passing than while they are living.

Perhaps this is why the order of King’s Solomon’s teaching places life after death: “Death and life are in the power of speech”. This follows the Talmud’s assertion:

דאמר רבי יוחנן משום רבי שמעון בן יוחי כל ת”ח שאומרים דבר שמועה מפיו בעולם הזה שפתותיו דובבות בקבר 

Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai: Every scholar whose Torah is recited, their lips move in the grave. 

It is possible that the Torah is emphasizing our ability to live on through our teachings and good deeds with the placement of this verse, as Moses dies, while eight verses of the Torah remain to be written.

Moshe was worthy of dying through a kiss from G-d because he sanctified his body as a vessel for Divine service. We are also able to live with a constant intimacy and closeness that offers us the opportunity to partner with the Creator in improving and enhancing this world, and the lives of those in it. As we look forward to reading Genesis next week, we recognize that beginnings and endings are fluid, and that a life lived with grace will always overflow the physical boundaries of time.


R. Mike Moskowitz is a founding builder at Bayit and scholar-in-residence at CBST


Graceful Bar Mitzvah / Graceful Masculinity: Nitzavim

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

רְאֵה נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַיּוֹם, אֶת-הַחַיִּים וְאֶת-הַטּוֹב, וְאֶת-הַמָּוֶת, וְאֶת-הָרָע.

See, I set before you this day, life and goodness, death and evil. (Deuteronomy 30:15)


The word “HaYom” is famously understood to be an allusion to Rosh Hashanah – the day that humans were first formed and the birthday of the world where again it is held responsible for its actions. This is also true for “the day” that a Jewish boy is held accountable for his actions as a man. Psalms 2:7, the thirteenth verse in the book, is referencing this day of one’s Bar Mitzvah: אֲסַפְּרָ֗ה אֶֽ֫ל־חֹ֥ק ה’ אָמַ֘ר אֵלַ֥י בְּנִ֥י אַ֑תָּה אֲ֝נִ֗י הַיּ֥וֹם יְלִדְתִּֽיךָ׃ – I declare, as an obligation, that G-d said to me, My son I birthed you today.

An immediate consequence of reaching Jewish adulthood is that one can make new contributions to the spiritual collective. The Medreshcites the Prophet Isaiah”עַם־זוּ֙ יָצַ֣רְתִּ  – this nation I formed” as a nod to the shift from just being a person to being part of a people. ”זו – Zu”, the Rabbis point out, also has a numerical value of thirteen. These thirteen years also correspond to the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. The joy of this day is deeply connected to the power of the covenant of peoplehood י”ג מדו”ת ש”ל רחמי”ם = שמח”ת ב”ר מצו”ה (the joy of the Bar Mitzvah = thirteen Attributes of Mercy), both equalling 1091. 

Being obligated in commandments is the Divine expectation of accountability for others. Mitzvah is a language of connectivity and attachment. Saying the Shema and accepting the yoke of heaven is the first Biblical Mitzvah that one is commanded as an adult, and is why it is the subject of the first Mishna in the Talmud. It also opens with the instruction to cleave to the oneness (אחד) of G-d through love (אהבה); both which have a numerical value of thirteen.

This day marks the beginning of the journey, not its completion. Each and every day consists of choices; actions and inactions. Those decisions, to various degrees, bring us closer or further away from our ultimate goal of a perfected and intimate relationship with the Source of All Good.  We all want to choose life, but we don’t always realize that the path to get there is paved, in fact, with good deeds.

The Talmud tells the story of the great Rabbi Alexandri who would, like a merchant selling their wares, declare in the street: “מאן בעי חיי מאן בעי חיי – Who wants life? Who wants life?” Folks would gather around shouting “הב לן חיי – Give us life!” to which the Rabbi responded “מי האיש החפץ חיים … Who is the person who desires life …ס֣וּר מֵ֭רָע וַעֲשֵׂה־ט֑וֹב בַּקֵּ֖שׁ שָׁל֣וֹם וְרדְפֵֽהוּ  Remove yourself from evil and do good, desire peace and pursue it.” It is accessible to everyone but we must want it. As King David wrote גְּ֭דֹלִים מַעֲשֵׂ֣י ה’ דְּ֝רוּשִׁ֗ים לְכל־חֶפְצֵיהֶֽם, “Great are the deeds of G-d, available to all who want them.”

One way to achieve clarity of direction is to see the benefits that come from the good choices we make. King Solomon wrote about the Torah’s teachings, “My son . . .they will be life to your soul and a graceful [ornament] for your neck.” The Malbim understands this guarantee to be manifested during the study of Torah, in that grace is generated in the pleasantness of the experience both among people and G-d. This is also found in the teaching from Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa who posits that “one with whom people are pleased (chein), G-d is pleased. But anyone from whom people are displeased, G-d is displeased.

It is much easier to prepare for a particular day, than it is to show up and be present every day. Rosh HaShanah is one day but it sets the tone for the whole year. A boy’s bar mitzvah celebration is significant in that it projects an image of the kind of life he chooses to live. It can be difficult to sustain one’s vision across the long experience of time. Finding the sweetness and blessing in the work makes it sustainable. 

The Sifrei compares the learning of Torah to the presence of טל Tal-dew: just as the whole world rejoices with dew, so too with the Torah. This can be achieved in seeing the value of the choices we make day in and day out. The word ביום – with the day, equals חן – grace. Seeing ourselves as truly a bar mitzvah, a master of our holy destiny, empowers us to choose the good life – through a life of good deeds. 


R. Mike Moskowitz is a founding builder at Bayit and scholar-in-residence at CBST


Graceful Inheritance / Graceful Masculinity: Ki Tavo

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 וְהָיָה, כִּיתָבוֹא אֶלהָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה; וִירִשְׁתָּהּ, וְיָשַׁבְתָּ בָּהּ.

It will be when you enter the land that Hashem, your G-d, gives you as an inheritance, and you take possession, and dwell, in it.

Deuteronomy 26:1

Like the Israelites in the wilderness, we have all inherited a broken world in deep need of urgent repair. Each day brings with it new tragedies to add to the ones that came before. Our daily struggle to advance progress and healing, feels like an embraceable holiness that is modeled by our ancestors and tradition. It is dispiriting to know though, that while today will end, the chaos and loss will naturally continue tomorrow. The Medresh presents a different view and categorizes this verse as a language of simcha. The people are promised a land that will be healed and restored, an experience uniquely suited to erase the pain of the past.

This verse introduces the commandment of bringing the first fruits to the Temple, a commandment which only applies in the land of Israel. Yet the word “וְהָיָה“ (it will be), implying joy, doesn’t introduce the subsequent two words,  כִּיתָבוֹא” – (when you enter), where they appear in Leviticus 19:23 or in Numbers 15:2. It seems this happiness, and obligation to bring the first fruits, strangely are only achieved once the land is settled, but not simply by entering it. Additionally, why does the verse seem to make a distinction between Nachla and Yerusha, ostensibly synonyms for inheritance?

The Ben Ish Chai offers an insight that provides a broader outlook for the framing of this verse. He observes that when King David describes the Land of Israel he speaks of it in the plural: בְּ֝אַרְצ֗וֹת הַחַיִּֽים׃ in the lands of the living. Quoting the mystical tradition, the letter “ת”, spelled “תו”, alludes to Torah, תורה – that was received on הר -Mount Sinai. 

We know the Torah has its geographical source in Israel, as the verse testifies “For the Torah shall come forth from Zion” and this is the Lands of Israel that King David is referencing; ארצות a Torah centric Israel. The Ben Ish Chai continues that the plurality of the lands, and the living – חיים – is created by the different layers and levels of the Torah, particularly the Pardes. King Solomon writes: כִּ֤י לֶ֣קַח ט֭וֹב נָתַ֣תִּי לָכֶ֑ם תּֽ֝וֹרָתִ֗י אַֽל־תַּעֲזֹֽבוּ – for I give you good instruction…and the good – טוב – having a numerical value of 17, multiplied by the four categories of the Pardes, equals the 68 of חיים, the living.

This is further alluded to in the word “תבוא” – when the Torah comes – תו בא, the land will be for you. Only when the land is settled in a way that supports the Torah’s teachings will we be worthy of receiving the land that was promised to our ancestors. This is the inheritance that awaits us as a נחלה. It is the grace that is produced by the learning of Torah – חן לה that makes it a pleasant and peaceful gift from G-d. In the Midrash we find that the priestly blessing “ויחונך” is understood as connected to חינוך, education. The blessing means יחנך בתלמוד תורה   to be blessed with grace through the study of Torah.  

The word “תבוא” can also be arranged to form the word for ancestors, אבות. Rav Nosson Gestetner articulates the distinguishing feature of a Yerusha as being that which is inherited, as opposed to gifted. Gifts are discretionary, whereas an inheritance devolves regardless of merit. Like the Torah says about itself תּוֹרָ֥ה צִוָּה־לָ֖נוּ מֹשֶׁ֑ה מוֹרָשָׁ֖ה קְהִלַּ֥ת יַעֲקֹֽב – the heritage of the congregation of Jacob.

The settling referenced here is a mindset that contributes to our ability to be happy. Ramchal equates our capacity to recognize the temporary nature of being settled in this world, and the permanence of our spiritual existence, to living a happier life free from the worries that distract from our true inheritance – נחלה נחלת עולמים. 

Simcha (joy) has the same root as somach, to be supported. When a person feels that G-d is taking care of them, how could they not be overwhelmed with happiness? The Rebbe Reb Zusha parses the morning blessing thanking G-d for “who provides me with all of my needs” –  שֶׁעָשָׂה לִי כָּל־צָרְכִּי – as “everything that was provided for me, I need”. Knowing that G-d loves us and understanding that it is that love which motives all of the commandments causes us to be in relationship with G-d through joy. It is perhaps for that reason that we are warned later in the parsha of the negative consequences of not operating out of simcha, because it is an indicator of one’s lack of faith.

Bringing the first fruit offering requires the accompanying intention, and sensation, of gratitude for everything that has happened in the past until the present, including explicit mentioning of the oppression and hardships. Only when we are able to appreciate the Divine source of the land, and the expectations of dwelling in it, will we be able to fulfill the words of King David redemption of Zion הַזֹּרְעִ֥ים בְּדִמְעָ֗ה בְּרִנָּ֥ה יִקְצֹֽרוּ – those who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy.


R. Mike Moskowitz is a founding builder at Bayit and scholar-in-residence at CBST



Graceful Masculinity / Graceful Building: Ki Seitzei

כִּי תִבְנֶה בַּיִת חָדָשׁ, וְעָשִׂיתָ מַעֲקֶה לְגַגֶּךָ; וְלֹא-תָשִׂים דָּמִים בְּבֵיתֶךָ, כִּי-יִפֹּל הַנֹּפֵל מִמֶּנּוּ.

If you will build a new house, you shall make a fence for your roof, so that you will not place blood in your house if one who falls, falls from it. (Deuteronomy 22:8)


Our bodies house our souls and this verse from Deuteronomy is understood as referring not only to a new physical home, but also to a newly repentant body. As we prepare for Rosh Hashana we are tasked with repairing the mistakes of the last year, and in doing so we are rebuilding ourselves and creating a new ideal home for our soul. Old habits are hard to break and our tradition encourages us to generate positive momentum, through good actions, as the easiest way to shift our routines in the right direction. 

Just before the mitzvah of fencing in one’s roof, we are taught of the commandment to send away the mother bird prior to taking her young. Rashi explains the juxtaposition as “one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah.” When we habituate ourselves to doing good, it seems we are granted more opportunities to advance that cause. “Mitzvah” is a language of connectivity and brings us closer to G-d, the source of all goodness, and also manifests the goodness of our soul into this world. As an example, the Ramchal frames our ability to overcome laziness in relationship to our recognition of how good G-d is to us. Being roused to passionate acts of holiness is the natural consequence of removing the obstacles to that awareness. 

These commandments map our path of existence and accompany us along the journey. The Medresh applies the verse “for they are an adornment/accompaniment (לוית) of grace” to the mitzvah of building a fence on one’s parapet. King Solomon, the author of Proverbs, could have simply stated that the Torah guides us on our way –  what role does grace play in it?

In the mystical tradition, a person’s head corresponds to G-d’s Name, the shem Havaya and is alluded to in the fence, גגך, also having a numerical value of 26. Just as a person on the top of a building needs protection from falling, so too the Divine presence resting atop a person’s faculties also needs to be guarded.  

This natural resting place of the Divine was lost after the sin in the garden, but is restored through repentance. We now must be proactive in preserving this aspect of the Alufo Shel Alom, The One Source of the World, represented in the Aleph א of Adam אדם. The letter א is made up of two yuds “י” and a vuv “ו”, equalling 26. The mystics read this verse as a warning to protect our holiness or risk losing the aleph and again descending “to have blood” – dam דם – adam without the aleph.

The Medresh tells the story about Adam’s ability to name all of the animals, based on their essential identities. After proving his skillset, G-d asks Adam: “And what is my name”? Adam answers with the Shem Havya as it says אֲנִ֥י יְקוָ֖ק ה֣וּא שְׁמִ֑י – I am Hashem, that is my name – because it is what Adam called me.The Medresh concludes by explaining that this name provides the condition for us to be in a relationship with G-d through the commandments.

This is the function of being guided by grace. When we move with the intention of healing the brokenness of the world, we are presented with a G-dly partnership to repair it all. King David writes יְחׇנֵּ֥נוּ וִיבָרְכֵ֑נוּ יָ֤אֵֽר פָּנָ֖יו אִתָּ֣נוּ סֶֽלָה May G-d be gracious and bless us, may G-d illuminate G-d’s countenance with us. It has been observed that G-d shines “with us” (אִתָּ֣נוּ), not “on us”. Grace is first given to us, and then we are blessed with the hidden light of the Torah to renew our body and spirit.


R. Mike Moskowitz is a founding builder at Bayit and scholar-in-residence at CBST


Graceful Acceptance / Graceful Masculinity: Chukas

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה, אֲשֶׁר-צִוָּה יְהוָה לֵאמֹר:  דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ פָרָה אֲדֻמָּה תְּמִימָה אֲשֶׁר אֵין-בָּהּ מוּם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-עָלָה עָלֶיהָ, עֹל.

This is the statute of the Torah, which Hashem has commanded saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and they shall take to you a perfectly red cow, which has no blemish, which hasn’t had a yoke on it. (Numbers 19:2)

An interesting, if counterintuitive, aspect of the laws of the red heifer is that while the ritual of sprinkling its ashes purifies one who is impure, the pure person performing the ritual becomes impure. The Talmud (Nidda 9a)  asserts that even King Solomon, the wisest of all people, was baffled by this law. The verse “All this I tested with wisdom, I thought I could fathom it [through wisdom], but it eludes me – כּל־זֹ֖ה נִסִּ֣יתִי בַֽחכְמָ֑ה אָמַ֣רְתִּי אֶחְכָּ֔מָה וְהִ֖יא רְחוֹקָ֥ה מִמֶּֽנִּי” is understood by the Tamud as King’s Solomon’s acknowledgement that wisdom alone could not assist him to comprehend these precepts.

We often have a hard time understanding identities or experiences that are not our own. The rabbis observe this lack of first person engagement as an inhibitor to completely grasping Torah concepts.  A person doesn’t understand words of Torah until they have stumbled [in them] – אין אדם עומד על דברי תורה אלא אם כן נכשל (Gittin 43a).

The Ohev Yisrael explains that we naturally think of ourselves as having a proper perspective on things and therefore assume we are going on the right path. However, when life happens and we fall down, we have an opportunity to acknowledge our mistakes, in light of the revealed truth of the matter, and to reorient accordingly. This is particularly true of folks who see themselves as “having no blemish.”

This, says the Chozeh Lublin, can only happen when a person “hasn’t had a yoke [of Torah] on them”. In other words, only a person who is unaware of the work that needs to be done in the world, and their role in it, can think that they have attained perfection.

Simply learning about a concept or idea doesn’t necessarily deliver the impact or proximity as a heart connection to those affected by the teaching. This is alluded to in the verse (Psalms 119:165) “There is an abundant peace to the lovers of your Torah, and they don’t have a stumbling block – שָׁל֣וֹם רָ֭ב לְאֹהֲבֵ֣י תוֹרָתֶ֑ךָ וְאֵֽין־לָ֥מוֹ מִכְשֽׁוֹל.” There is a particular grace and care that is achieved through the love that one has for another as a result of the investment of deep listening and learning. 

In Hebrew, the word for ear is ozen / אזן which has the same numerical value as grace, chein / חן  (AriZ”l). Listening is essential in learning the oral law and by toiling in it, we can broaden and develop our sensitivities to society. The role of grace in this is alluded to in the number of chapters of Mishnayos, 524, equaling the full spelling of the two letters in grace -חן-chein: חי”ת נו”ן. Additionally, תלמוד בבלי – Babylonian Talmud also has the numerical value of 524 (Seforim Hakedoshim). Through a deep engagement with the oral law, we train ourselves to listen carefully and internalize teachings, even when we do not completely understand them.

We always read and study this portion in preparation for the saddest time of the year, the three weeks leading up to the destruction of the Temple. Our rabbis teach that the Temple was destroyed, and we remain in exile, because of sinas chinam – meaning hating people without reason. One of the lessons from studying a law that we can’t understand, but nevertheless accept, is that it models how to do the same with people. 

We don’t need to understand another person in order to accept them. One shouldn’t have to get to know someone, and then find something positive in them to justify caring about them. We don’t need reasons to love people. G-d’s love for us isn’t dependent on anything. The unconditional love that G-d has for us as children should motivate us to extend that ahavas chinam – free love – to all of our siblings.

That which is seen as perfect, perhaps conveys impurity to remind us that our path towards perfection necessitates struggle, and that struggle is itself purifying.

By R. Mike Moskowitz.

The Graceful Lightness of Being / Graceful Masculinity: B’ha’alot’kha

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.


וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-יְהוָה, לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתָ לְעַבְדֶּךָ, וְלָמָּה לֹא-מָצָתִי חֵן, בְּעֵינֶיךָ:  לָשׂוּם, אֶת-מַשָּׂא כָּל-הָעָם הַזֶּה–עָלָי.

Moses said to Hashem: “Why have you done evil to your servant, why haven’t I found favor in your eyes, that you place the burden of the entire people upon me?” (Numbers 11:11)


When we sense G-d’s closeness, our struggles feel holy, not heavy. As the clarity of our purpose increases, the internal resistance decreases – until the only opposition is coming from outside of us. When Adam and Eve were first created there was no doubt about who they were, in relationship to G-d. Then the snake came along and deceived them. By ingesting the forbidden fruit, they internalized the evil inclination and then needed to battle within themselves, to purge that voice of distraction that tries to divert our power away from goodness.

As G-d spoke this world into existence, through different utterances, the verses confirm “and it was so” “כן”, except for the creation of light where the word “כן” is missing. The rabbis explain that G-d was concerned that the light would be misused and so although G-d said “Let there be light”, G-d concealed and separated it for the righteous in the future (Chagigah 12a). This primordial light finds expression when Aharon lights the menorah and it is marked with the word “כן” (Emunas Eticha).

In the Genesis narrative, the word “light” (אור/ohr) is mentioned five times in the process of its formation. As a reference to that hidden light, we also find the word “ohr” five times in this week’s Torah portion. The light of the menorah also represents the light of the Torah and its wisdom, as the Talmud says: “the one who wants to be wise should face south” (Bava Basra 25b) for that is where the menorah was placed (Maharsha).

This wisdom, a consequence of the original light, is alluded to in the letter aleph (HaTzvi V’ Hatzadik) as the verse says (Job 33:33)  וַאֲאַלֶּפְךָ֥ כְמָֽה. The letter aleph “א“ is formed with two pairs of a yud and a vuv – יוי – one on top and one on the bottom (Megaleh Amukos 164) having a numerical value of 32 and corresponding to the 32 paths of wisdom and the heart (lev לב), the source of this understanding.

Moses had a light that shone from his face, and according to Tikunei Zohar (Genesis 36b), it originated in the light from the garden. Moses achieved this by correcting the sin of Adam and replacing the ohr (skin עור) with ohr (light אור) restoring the prelapsarian partnership with G-d. 

The Israelites had also acquired an elevated level, above the natural physical order, and were sustained by the mana. However, when they asked for meat, they no longer wanted to subside in such a spiritual plane and desired more physicality. They lowered themselves and created a separation from G-d, just as Adam and Eve did in the garden; desiring the desire for choice.

It is in this moment that Moses, as their teacher, feels the absence of this light and the subsequent weight of carrying the people without the same Divine assistance (R’ Vulli). The word for “found” in the phrase “Why haven’t I found favor in your eyes –וְלָמָּה לֹא-מָצָתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ ” is missing the aleph (Iben Ezra). It was the people’s desire for meat that once again forced the exchange of the light for skin, and is alluded to in the word following “grace” “eynecha” literally “your eyes” but also meaning “your letter ע” (Yeytev Lev).

Having grace makes it easier for others to become close to us, and for us to be close to others. Knowing with certainty that G-d expects us to take care of one another, makes the desire for anything else no longer an option to choose from. While the work is still challenging, it is not burdensome. Feeling this partnership with G-d reminds us that with G-d’s help, nothing is impossible.


By R. Mike Moskowitz.


Graceful Flags / Graceful Masculinity: Bamidbar

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

אִישׁ עַל-דִּגְלוֹ בְאֹתֹת לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם, יַחֲנוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:  מִנֶּגֶד, סָבִיב לְאֹהֶל-מוֹעֵד יַחֲנוּ.

The Children of Israel shall encamp, each man at his banner according to the signs of their father’s house, at a distance surrounding the Tent of Meeting shall they encamp. (Bamidbar 2:2)


Our collective pursuit of unity requires the expansion of our individual identities, not an erasure of them. These forty nine days of counting the Omer correspond to the forty nine different ways that Moshe expounded on the Torah and encourage us to harvest the good that exists in the paths of others as a way of advancing our own development. The Medresh (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:3) finds support for this from the verse (Song of Songs 2:4) “[G-d] brought me to the banquet room and [G-d’s] banner of love was over me -הֱבִיאַ֙נִי֙ אֶל־בֵּ֣ית הַיָּ֔יִן וְדִגְל֥וֹ עָלַ֖י אַהֲבָֽה׃”. Banner / ודגלו has a numerical value of forty nine, an allusion to the various pairings of attributes – מדה – (also 49) with each other.

We are taught (Sanhedrin 90a) that all of G-d’s attributes are applied measure for measure – Midah K’neged Midah שכל מדותיו של הקב”ה מדה כנגד מדה. The Code of Jewish Law, (428:4) instructs us to always read this portion before Shavuot and it is seen as part of our preparation for the annual re-experiencing of Mt Sinai. The Munkatcher Rebbe points out the word “Neged” is a reference to the giving of the Torah (Exodus 19:2) where Israel was “opposite the mountain.” Neged is a contranym, a word that has contradicting meanings, and here means both corresponding to and also in opposition.

We first find this when G-d forms a “helpmate” – ezer k’negdo – for Adam (Genesis 2:18). The Talmud (Yevamos 63a), sees this strange phrase as conditional: if one is worthy, then they will have a partner; if not – an opponent.

Rashi also deploys this word “k’neged’ to describe the arrangement of the different tribes that Bilam observes when he comes to curse the people of Israel (Numbers 24:2). However, when he sees “the openings of the tents were not aligned/k’neged to each other” (and therefore there is privacy between them) he offers the blessing of Ma Tovu – “How goodly are your tents.”

R’ Asher Rapshitz (Ohr Yeshie) explains that each one of us has a unique “opening” to spiritual practice. He understands the obligation to ask ourselves “when will my actions reach those of my ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?” (Tana D’bei Eleyahu) not to mean that we should try to imitate our ancestors and simply act as they did, but just as our forefathers were each unique and brought new attributes to Divine service like kindness and strength, so too should we bring a new blend of ourselves.

This is also alluded to in the Talmudic principle (Succah 11b) of תַּעֲשֶׂה וְלֹא מִן הֶעָשׂוּי – We should prepare [the sukkah], and not just use that which has already been prepared (Rav Tov). A posture of creative production is not unique to building a sukkah, rather it generates the holiness of our spiritual contributions. They are offerings of our unique makeup.

Exploring who we are and how we are meant to be in the moment is the core of being human. Asking oneself “what is the right thing for me to do now?” is essential in creating the best outcome, particularly for a pleasant coexistence. The word for encampment – machene – is composed of the words מה חן ma chein, “what” and “grace.” Understanding what makes us different allows us to relate appropriately and come closer to each other as our distinct selves.

The way G-d spoke to Moshe at the burning bush was different from the way G-d spoke to all of Israel at the giving of the Torah. The Sifra (Parshat Vayikra), in comparing and contrasting the two languages, says that we can learn the teaching from the hermeneutical exegesis known as a binyan av. These thirteen Midos, or principles, correspond to the thirteen Midos HaRachamim, or Attributes of Mercy. According to Reb Lev Yitchak of Berditchev (Kidushas Levi Exodus Ki Sisa) the binyan av corresponds to chein – grace. When we can learn from each other and incorporate that knowledge into building better relationships, we develop more gracefulness. 

Each one of us has our own flag and special purpose in this world. Sometimes it is to be in support of those around us, and other times it is to be in opposition. The important lesson is to be thoughtful and deliberate in harnessing what is unique about us to improve the world for everyone. 


By R. Mike Moskowitz.


Graceful Fluidity / Graceful Masculinity: Behar

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.


אֶת-שַׁבְּתֹתַי תִּשְׁמֹרוּ, וּמִקְדָּשִׁי תִּירָאוּ:  אֲנִי, יְהוָה.

My Sabbaths shall you observe and My Sanctuary shall you revere – I am Hashem. (Leviticus 26:2)

Shabbat is in invitation for a time of deep and personal intimacy with G-d. It is also a time of great expansiveness to support the multifaceted spectrums of connectivity. We are told that on the shabbat we are given an additional soul to accommodate the soul’s dominance over the body, particularly in an arc of gender sensitivities.1

Although there is a dispute about which day of the month the Torah was given, “According to everyone it was given on the shabbos.” Shavuot is seen as the wedding between the Jewish People and G-d, that we prepared for by counting seven weeks from the blood of Passover (Zohar).  The two tablets were given to affect the kiddushin under the chuppah of Mount Sinai (Haflah).  Tradition also teaches that this is re-experienced every week with the shabbat (Igeres Hatyul). The Ari Z”l says it is reflected in the unique blessing in the Friday night prayer “Atah Kedashta” – which can either mean “you sanctified,” or “you betrothed.”

G-d’s identity in this relationship, like the People of Israel’s, is gender fluid. We find the Jewish people as a bride אֲרוּסָתוֹ שֶׁל הַקָּבָּ”ה יִשְׂרָאֵל – G-d’s bride is Israel (Rashi Exodus 34:1), and the tablets are the Shtar – marriage document (Baal Haturim Exodus 19:4) to the bride. Even the standard structure of the wedding blessing today, “Who sanctified your people Israel though chuppah and kiddushin,” is referring to the wedding between us and G-d at Sinai (Sheta Mekubetzes).

We also find that the Jewish People are referred to as the groom, marrying the Torah (Pesachim 49b), where G-d is the father of the bride (Shemot Rabbah 33:1), and the Mikdash – sanctuaries that we are commanded to build – are quarters for G-d, as G-d is our in-law who just wants to be close to us, wherever we are.

Unfortunately, the honeymoon is short lived. Just forty days later, we sinned against G-d in an adulterous act with the golden calf (Rashi Exodus 32:20 and Avodah Zarah 44a). G-d’s identity as the Creator necessitates our exclusivity in faithful monotheism. It also translates into the validation of this identity through the celebration of the Sabbath. The Rabbis go so far as to equate observing the Sabbath as a fulfillment of the entire Torah (Ohr Hachaim 26:2).

Maimonides, in concluding his laws of forbidden relationships, writes that “the greatest antidote to acting inappropriately is to turn oneself and one’s thoughts to words of Torah and immerse their mind in wisdom, because inappropriate thoughts do not rule in one’s mind except in the mind of one whose heart is turned away from wisdom. Regarding wisdom it is said, ‘It is a beloved hind, arousing grace. . . You shall be obsessed with her love (Proverbs 5:19).”

The Talmud (Eruvin 52b) explains the comparison teaching that “matters of Torah are cherished by those who study them each and every hour like the first hour.” Each part of this verse, according to the Vilna Gaon, refers to one of the four layers of the Torah’s פרדס – Pardes, and their corresponding levels of physical, and intellectual, intimacy.

One of the consequences of the breaking of the first set of tablets, at the sin of the Golden Calf, is the necessity for the oral law (Shar Yissaschar). The Torah is referred to as both  male and female, even in the same verse (Exodus 12:49). It is also understood that the written skews masculine while the oral towards the feminine (Kiddushin 2b Ben Yehoyada). Reb Tzadok (Dover Tzedek) teaches that, although the entire Torah is from G-d, the written represents G-d’s wisdom while the oral is from Israel’s. The Zohar’s (3:73a) famous teaching that G-d, Torah, and Israel are one, can be understood as the process of G-d and the Jewish people sanctifying their union at Sinai through the written Torah, and then, coming together with the Oral Law (R’ Eliyahu Baruch). 

There is no grace like the fulfillment of the Torah – אין חן כקיום התורה (Shevet Mussar). However unlike the Shabbat, that comes every 7 days with or without us, we are responsible for showing up to do our part in furthering the acceptance, understanding, and production of Torah. The more we revisit it, the newer, deeper, and more personal it becomes. As we prepare for Shavuot, let us feel empowered and embodied to expand our connectivity to it beyond just our lived experience, by experiencing it as part of the collective whole. 


1. [See Shabbos as an All Gender Experience]

By R. Mike Moskowitz.

Graceful Progress / Graceful Masculinity: Emor

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם, מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת, מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם, אֶת-עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה:  שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת, תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה.

You shall count for yourselves, from the morrow of the rest of the day, from the day when you bring the omer of the waving, seven weeks, they shall be complete. (Leviticus 23:15)


We find the “Exodus of Egypt” mentioned fifty times in the Torah (Gra), just as the world was created with fifty gates of wisdom (Rosh Hashanah 21b). We also find that when the Israelites left Egypt they were on the 49th level of spiritual impurity (Zohar P’ Yisro) and on the brink of reaching spiritual annihilation.  Remarkably, only 7 weeks later when they stood at Mount Sinai, they had reached the 49th level of holiness. (Rokeach

Every year we re-experience the transition, from going out of Egypt to receiving the Torah, by counting the 49 days of the Omer. It is intended to be a deeply personal and individualized process of really working on one’s own evolution and development. The Talmud (Menachus 65b) understand the word “לכם” you, as “each and every one” shall count for yourselves. 

These seven weeks are described in the verse as temimot, perfect and whole. Rashi explains temimot as meaning complete, in that we must begin counting on the second night of Passover, so that the first day of counting isn’t deficient. The midrash though understands temimot not as a technically complete count, but as complete in a spiritual sense. The midrash explains:

אֵימָתַי הֵן תְּמִימוֹת? בִּזְמַן שֶׁיִּשְׂרָאֵל עוֹשִׂין רְצוֹנוֹ שֶׁל מָקוֹם 

“When are these [seven weeks] complete? When Israel is doing the will of the G-d”. 

Clearly something about the verse is bothering the midrash that it was moved to reframe it. What does doing the Divine will have to do with counting to 49? Additionally, the task of this period of time is specifically to shift the negative into the positive. Rav Vachtfolgel Z”tl observes that this is why the word “שבתות” Shabbats are used as opposed to shavuot, meaning weeks – because it is about sanctifying oneself like the shabbos. How then are we meant to see the past as perfect if we are invested in changing it for the future?

The Ksav V’kabala explains temimut as an indicator of quality, not quantity. When a person is focused on doing their best, whatever that might be, it is called complete. It is so specific to the moment that even the same person should be seen differently, depending on where they are holding. 

Our rabbis also see an allusion, in the verse, to Abraham who is told lech-lecha, go for yourself. The midrash points out that G-d said those words to Abraham earlier in his spiritual journey, when he first left his father’s home, and again many years later, when he is commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac. The midrash continues by saying “and we don’t know which was a greater test.” An explanation is given, by the Slonimer Rebbe, that both of these tests were equally challenging because they reflected where Abraham was at the time. Comparing the two doesn’t help in evaluating the degree of difficulty of the moment.

We find a similar framing of the tam, the “simple son” in the Haggadah. The Vilina Gaon sees him as the counterpoint to the wicked son in that they are each equally focused on either coming closer or further away from G-d. Jacob too is described (Genesis 25:27) as a “simple man who sat in tents.” Jacob was simple in that there was no complexity of competing interests besides just doing the right thing.

Perhaps this is what the midrash is coming to answer: How can you claim that the seven weeks are tam – pure, perfect, and pristine – when it is clearly a work in progress? The important lesson being taught here is that the ideal is in flux. As we do our best to grow and change, every point along the way is tamim, or perfect. As we grow, so does the goodness, but those advancements don’t minimize or cancel the past.

It is for this reason that we find in Psalms (84:12) “Grace and glory does Hashem bestow; G-d withholds no goodness from those who walk in perfect innocence (בְּתָמִֽים).” Two people can do or say the same thing, but it can land very differently (Pele Yoetz). Chein, grace, is the difference in the way the action is perceived and it is determined by the intention and effort of the person in the moment.

If we can’t appreciate the changes that we are making for the good, because the comparison to the past highlights our shortcomings, we inhibit and deter future development. In repenting for unintentional transgressions we acknowledge that “had I known then what I know now, I would have acted differently.” When we are trying as hard as we can to develop into the best version of ourselves each moment, we immediately come to learn that the ceiling quickly becomes the floor. In reflecting back on earlier times “when we just didn’t know any better,” we need to be critical of society and the factors that contributed to that environment, but knowing better, and acting differently because of that wisdom today, is a holy accomplishment.


By R. Mike Moskowitz.