Torah Blog


A blog of Torah thoughts, poems and other random odds 'n' sods. For tag cloud click here.
(Sorry, the comments moderation for this blog is very clunky - if you want to ask me a question, better to use the contact form)



A new festival bursts forth from the darkness

Chiddush heard from Moshe-Mordechai van Zuiden: Why did the date of the decree to destroy the Jewish people fall on 13th Adar? Because that's the day furthest away from Pesach. The next day, 14th Adar, we already begin to plan towards the next Pesach as it says in the Shulchan Aruch, 30 days before the festival we begin to plan.

This tremendous idea got me thinking. From the very darkest place, where the light of redemption was the dimmest, a brand new festival broke through, an entire marvelous new festival of redemption (with yet more eating, of course!). From within the darkness the most amazing things are born.

Such born things may differ from their source in unexpected ways. The Purim energy is not by any means identical to the Pesach energy. The latter seems clean, clear and straight, while the former seems dark, concealed, twisting and turning.  I would go so far as to suggest that this world is divided into Purim people and Pesach people. (I know which one I am... which one are you?)

In any event it's good we have both. So thank you Haman - couldn't have done it without you.


The good that passed, the good that is yet to come

Bet Shammai hold that on Chanuka we light eight candles the first night, and one less every subsequent night. But in practice we follow Bet Hillel's view, that one candle is lit the first night, and we add another candle every night.

For me, Bet Hillel's position symbolizes the belief that you fight darkness by adding light, one small candle at a time. This is the position we choose to adopt in approaching the struggles and pain in our lives. This is why we follow this custom - Bet Shamai's position holding no such message. That has been how I have understood it in the past couple of years.

This year, however, I understood something new - and I think it is a function of the fact that I am now mid-way through my life. I always thought life gets better and better, and have lived for a long time with a sense of anticipation as if the truly good things are round the corner and in the future. But now I am understanding that some of the good things - the great things - that characterize my life have already happened and are past. Life is not a linear ascension of the good, it is ups and downs. Yes, much good undoubtedly awaits - maybe even more good than I can even imagine. But let me appreciate also the things that were, and understand that they were good too and are now gone, not to be held on to. The thrills of youth, all the first times, an age that was more innocent and less characterized by terrorism and suspicion...

Hence, both Bet Hillel (the good only increases as time goes on) and Bet Shamai (things pass and decrease) are correct - that is life. This year, while continuing to light as Bet Hillel, I will also light as Bet Shamai in my heart, symbolically, to thank for the past and its good, and most of all - recognise that it is important to really appreciate the present rather than waiting for that incredible future to show up.


Am I a chicken?

From Birdsong from Inside the Egg by Rumi* :

 ...A chicken invites a camel into her henhouse,

And the whole structure is demolished...


Coop by Yael Unterman

Rav Kook said that no one can

imagine the pain of the eagle

locked up in a chicken coop.


Was he cooped? I have felt

that entrapment in a life

that feels like a too-small jacket,

buttons popping off

Through the remaining holes

my life’s blood spills out onto the ground

cries out to God

I am here  I am here.


My professor added,

But what about the chicken

roaming senselessly in eagle’s domain?

Think what pain.


I could not listen further,

for wondering which one I was.

 * Rumi poem at



Seeing Elijah

"בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים"

"In every generation, each of us must see ourselves as if we ourselves emerged from Egypt."

I want to revisit the above statement in a bit of a chassidic way - I have adapted the following story:

The story is told of a young man who was pestering his rebbe. "I want to see Eliyahu at Pesach time, I want to really meet Eliyahu." He pestered him thus for days. Finally the rebbe said: "Not just anyone gets to see Eliyahu. You have to earn it. Here, take this food and medicine and walk a day and a half's journey to a Jewish family who live in a distant village."

Eagerly, the young man took the supplies and set off. The journey was difficult, he got lost, and when he finally arrived, he had trouble locating the Jewish family. He gave them the supplies. They gratefully asked him to stay for dinner, and even though he was running late and impatient to get home, he stayed and smiled with them so as not to ruin their joy. The next morning he had to get up extremely early and go back the way he came, getting lost again.

Finally he arrived home, irritated and exhausted."Rebbe, I did everything you said and I did not meet Eliyahu! You lied to me."

Calmly the rebbe said: "The reason you didn't meet him is because he is right here in the next room!"

The young man's face lit up, and he followed the rebbe's finger into the other room. "Look to the left as you walk in and you'll see him!" the rebbe called after him.

Disappointed, the young man came out again.

"Did you see him?"

"All I saw was a mirror!"

"Exactly! And when you looked in the mirror, what did you see? The Eliyahu Hanavi in yourself."

In every generation, each of us must see ourselves - for that is the very essence of leaving Egypt. To see the highest self we can perceive when we look in the mirror, and live in the knowledge of that expanded self.

(And כאילו is like כאליהו [thanks Ursula!])



Now I know the beauty

ספר בראשית פרק יב
(יא) וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר הִקְרִיב לָבוֹא מִצְרָיְמָה וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל שָׂרַי אִשְׁתּוֹ הִנֵּה נָא יָדַעְתִּי כִּי אִשָּׁה יְפַת מַרְאֶה אָתְּ:

Genesis 12:11. And it came to pass, when he came near to enter to Egypt, that he said to Sarai his wife, Behold now, I know that you are a pretty woman to look upon.

Had Avraham not been aware before of how his wife looked? Yes, but he was now looking at her through the eyes of Egyptian society and seeing her afresh.

For me, two important points emerge:

1) Let us use anything we can to refresh our eyes to the beauty of what is around us - even if it is Egyptian society. Even sources that are debased in some way might be able to teach us to see the beauty of G-d's world in a new way. The world of art, though flawed, can do this.

Let us always refresh our eyes to the beauty of the world. Every morning, press that existential F5 button, wake up, חדשים לבקרים, רבה אמונתך

2) Perhaps we may deduce that Avraham was used to looking at inner beauty, not externals. Perhaps he did not even know how attractive his wife was physically, for he was involved with her soul. Now he was forced pragmatically to reevaluate her physicality, so as to prepare for the dangers it might bring to them in this new land.

In the movie "Prelude to a Kiss," a lovely young bride switches bodies with an old man. The groom is in love with his new wife, but she now comes in a very unattractive wrapper. He struggles with this; there is a barrier between then. Then during one profound scene, we see him break through the externals, entirely aware of the person he loves within; able to love her and reach out to break through the barrier.

How much do and should externals mean to us, in the day to day, or in searching for a life partner? In Taanit 20b, an arrogant rabbi runs into a hideous man on the road, and says "How ugly you are! Are all the citizens of your town as ugly as you?" His fellow replies, "I do not know! Go and tell the craftsman who made me, How ugly is the vessel you have made!" Attempting to interpret this exchange could lead us down several paths, but what strikes me is that the ugly man is reminding the rabbi of G-d. "You are lacking in a sense of G-d at this moment, for were you mindful of G-d, you could not speak like this. Could you stand before G-d and speak of an ugly vessel? Ignoring inner parts? Go talk to G-d and let us see you speak in this fashion!"

Just as Hillel says, The bride is always beautiful. If you cannot see the beauty of a bride on your wedding day, clear out your eyes; employ your inner eye.

No, we are not built to ignore externals, they are a part of our lives. But let us, just for a moment, try to see what's inside, the beauty that shines within. We might be surprised.