The God of Broken Things: Thoughts on Maimonides and Rav Tsadok


As a general rule, we like it when things work the way they’re supposed to work, when things go according to plan. And yet, across the range of human experiences, this is not what actually occurs. In contemporary society, this perhaps most commonly takes the form of technology failing to live up to the expectations of its owners. Beyond the functioning of tools, this is a basic problem of human will, where we want to do one thing and yet end up doing another. In ancient Greek philosophy this was thought of as the problem of akrasia, and Freudian psychology has generated a massive theoretical discourse exploring this facet of human existence. In theology and religion this problem arises in terms of evil in the world and attempts at theodicy. If a good god made the world then why does it fail to be good? While the technological problems tend to be minor annoyances in our day to day lives, the anthropological and theological problems concern fundamental issues in how we think about God, reality, and what it means to be a person.

In this essay I want to explore three texts, one from Maimonides’ “Guide for the Perplexed” and two from Rabbi Tsadok Rabinowitz Hakohen’s (Rav Tsadok) “Tsidkat Hatsadik,” which touch on these issues. In doing so, these texts place God in the uncommon, and perhaps uncomfortable, position of the source of failure. These texts suggest that, in one form or another, God is the reasons that things don’t “work.”

Before launching into the texts, I want to make a methodological note. I am not going to attempt here to present a thorough and broad understanding of the theologies of either Maimonides or Rav Tsadok (with the former, at least, I’m not even sure that is possible); I am simply going to look at these texts in and of themselves. My goal is to examine the theological intuitions and ideas contained within the texts, rather than explain what Maimonides and Rav Tsadok think more broadly.

Guide II 32 – The Failure of Prophecy

Maimonides discussions of prophecy in the Guide for the Perplexed cover all of the traditional issues bound up in the concept: what it is, what type of information it conveys, who can get it, how they get it, are there different levels, etc. In one of his discussions of it, in Guide II:32, he suggests that there are three primary opinions about the nature of prophecy. Only the third is of relevance to us, but it must be understood agains the background of the first two.

The first is that of the people, including Jews, whom Maimonides calls “ignorant people”:

Among those who believe in Prophecy, and even among our coreligionists, there are some ignorant people who think as follows: God selects any person He pleases, inspires him with the spirit of Prophecy, and entrusts him with a mission. It makes no difference whether that person be wise or stupid, old or young; provided he be, to some extent, morally good. For these people have not yet gone so far as to maintain that God might also inspire a wicked person with His spirit. They admit that this is impossible, unless God has previously caused him to improve his ways. (Guide, II 32, Friedlander translation)

According to the first group, the ignorant people, prophecy is a totally miraculous event (notably, this group seems to include Rav Sa’adiah Gaon. See “The Book of Beliefs and Opinions” chapter 3). It occurs when God decides to impart it to a person, regardless of any other conditions. Moreover, it is entirely driven by God’s initiative, rather than man’s; it is entirely “top-down” as it were. Prophecy is, in this sense, entirely chaotic and arbitrary. There can be no question of prophecy “working” or going according to some plan, because there can be no plan.

This is in stark contrast to the opinion of the second group, the philosophers:

The philosophers hold that prophecy is a certain faculty of man in a state of perfection, which can only be obtained by study. Although the faculty is common to the whole race, yet it is not fully developed in each individual, either on account of the individual’s defective constitution, or on account of some other external cause. This is the case with every faculty common to a class. It is only brought to a state of perfection in some individuals, and not in all; but it is impossible that it should not be perfect in some individual of the class; and if the perfection is of such a nature that it can only be produced by an agent, such an agent must exist. Accordingly, it is impossible that an ignorant person should be a prophet; or that a person being no prophet in the evening, should, unexpectedly on the following morning, find himself a prophet, as if prophecy were a thing that could be found unintentionally. But if a person, perfect in his intellectual and moral faculties, and also perfect, as far as possible, in his imaginative faculty, prepares himself in the manner which will be described, he must become a prophet; for prophecy is a natural faculty of man. It is impossible that a man who has the capacity for prophecy should prepare himself for it without attaining it, just as it is impossible that a person with a healthy constitution should be fed well, and yet not properly assimilate his food; and the like. (Ibid.)

According to the philosophers, prophecy is not miraculous but natural. It is a capacity with which all people are born, though they have to develop it properly. If someone does develop their moral and intellectual faculties properly, and they have the necessary imaginative capacity, then they inevitably attain prophecy. This might be characterized as a “bottom-up” approach. Prophecy “works” in the sense that I have been discussing; it goes according to plan. If you attempt to achieve prophecy, and you meet every condition, you will necessarily receive prophecy. In contrast to the divine chaos of the first opinion, there is an entirely natural order.

The third opinion, which Maimonides attributes to Tanakh and to the fundamental principle of Judaism, is a significant variation on the opinion of the philosophers:

The third view is that which is taught in Scripture, and which forms one of the principles of our religion. It coincides with the opinion of the philosophers in all points except one. For we believe that, even if one has the capacity for prophecy, and has duly prepared himself, it may yet happen that he does not actually prophesy. It is in that case the will of God [that withholds from him the use of the faculty]. (Ibid.)

Prophecy, according to this opinion, is achieved by way of a natural process wherein a person develops their moral and intellectual capacities to the point of perfection. As opposed to the opinion of the philosophers, however, achieving prophecy is not inevitable for the person who reaches the end of this process. A person could reach this peak of moral and intellectual perfection and still not attain prophecy, because God can prevent her from doing so. God intervenes in and disrupts the natural prophetic process.

To sharpen this a little bit, I want to correct a common misunderstanding about this text. I have often heard or read this third opinion explained as a combination of or midpoint between the first two. If the first is top-down and the second is bottom-up, then the third, it is said, is when the two sides meet in the middle; a person develops herself to a certain point and then God decides whether or not to bestow prophecy upon her. However, it is pretty clear from Maimonides’ words that this is not the case. The third opinion is not a midpoint or combination of the previous two, it is simply a variation on the second. Prophecy remains an entirely natural process; God only comes into the picture when the process fails.

This point is driven home in the continuation of the passage, where Maimonides expands this concept from prophecy to miracles.

According to my opinion, this fact is as exceptional as any other miracle, and acts in the same way. For the laws of Nature demand that every one should be a prophet, who has a proper physical constitution, and has been duly prepared as regards education and training. If such a person is not a prophet, he is in the same position as a person who, like Jeroboam (1 Kings xiii.), is deprived of the use of his hand, or of his eyes, as was the case with the army of Syria, in the history of Elisha (2 Kings vi. 18). (Ibid.)

According to the natural order, someone fitting to receive prophecy will necessarily do so. It is only through miraculous intervention that such people on in some instances do not receive prophecy. Moreover, this miraculous intervention is the same in form to all other miracles; they all consist of God interfering with and disrupting the natural order. Maimonides brings two proofs from Tanakh to show that this is how miracles work. Regardless of the existence of counter-examples, Maimonides could not have found better proofs if he wrote them himself. The first is from 1 Kings 13, when God saved an unnamed prophet from the Israelite king Jeroboam by causing the king’s hand to wither, and the second is from 2 Kings 5, when God blinded the Assyrian army. Maimonides argues that the withered hand and the blindness, rather than being direct acts of God, result from God disrupting the regular functioning of the natural order. Prophecy is a natural human capacity just like seeing and use of the hand, and God’s role in prophecy is solely causing it to fail.


Tsidkat Hatsadik 102 – “God sets up problems and obstacles for a person”

Rav Tsadok dedicates a good deal of his notebook, Tsidkat Hatsadik, to meditations on sin and repentance and their interplay with the divine will. In one piece on the topic, #102, he presents a creative reading of the rabbinic statement that people who have sinned and repented are on a higher level, in whatever sense, than people who have never sinned.

This is the meaning of the saying that in the place where repentant individuals stand, even the completely righteous cannot reach. God sets up problems and obstacles for a person, and the person must then repent and atone for his “sin.” Through this process he extracts treasure from garbage. (Excerpt from Tsidkat Hatsadik 102; translation is mine. [The linked version is missing a section that was censored out beginning with the second edition and only restored in more recent printings.])

Rav Tsadok is working with an intuition very similar to that of Maimonides, but he is talking about human sin instead of prophecy. The way most people think of sin is that there is a theoretical list of things that people should not do, and sometimes people attempting to adhere to this list fail to do so. Rav Tsadok argues, in contrast, that sin is not simply a function of human failure to adhere to this list, but is in fact, or can be, God making a person sin (cf. Tsidkat Hatsadik, 40, 43). Much like Maimonides’ natural order, human willpower works. A person can decide to do or not do something, and follow through on that decision. Sometimes, however, a person will fail to follow through. While note ruling out other potential reasons for this failure, Rav Tsadok says that, at least sometimes, it is because God wanted the person to sin. In this passage, Rav Tsadok suggests that God wanted the person to sin because the process of repenting for this sin is itself valuable. In some of the passages that appear after this one, Rav Tsadok meditates on other possible reasons. He maintains throughout this basic idea that God directly causes a person to sin. Notably, this is a distinct step beyond Maimonides assertion that God merely keeps people from getting prophecy, though the basic idea is the same.


Tsidkat Hatsadik 101 – Nothing Works

Both passages that I have looked at so far, from Maimonides and Rav Tsadok, asserted that God causes systems or processes to fail, for whatever reason. This idea is built up on the assumption that there are systems or processes that, barring external intervention, work the way they are supposed to work. I want to turn now to a passage from Tsidkat Hatsadik, the one directly preceding the last one we looked at, and see how Rav Tsadok reads a famous rabbinic statement about the creation of the world in a way that direct challenges that assumption (there are ways of resolving the tension between these two pieces, but I’m not concerned about that in this essay). As it is somewhat shorter than the other pieces we looked at, I will quote it in full:

In practice it is impossible for a person to stay within the boundaries of the law (shurat hadin), as the verse says, “there is no righteous person on earth who does good and does not sin” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). A righteous person (tsadik) is careful not to stray outside the boundaries of the law [it is common knowledge that in the realm of practice (Olam Ha’Asiah) there are many kelipot, at all levels, but that is beyond the scope of this piece]. This only possible in thought, not practice, and in a person’s inner conscious will, where he decides in his mind that he will act in a specific way and not sin, only there is it possible for him to desire and think like this.

In truth, in the thought and will that transcend the worlds, that sinful act is also part of the plan and does not go outside the boundaries of the law, for everything is within the law (hadin).

This is what the rabbis meant when they said that initially God thought to create through his attribute of law [but God saw that the world could not exist like this, so he created it with compassion (rahamim) as well -LM]. Action therefore necessarily means going outside the boundaries of the law, while thought is the attribute of law, and does not exceed the boundaries of the law. In the verse, “God is righteous in all his ways, and pious in all his deeds” (Psalms 145:17), “his ways” means words of Torah, as the beginning of Tractate Kiddushin says and in line with the verse, “He made his ways known to Moses” (Psalms 103:7). God, too, behaves according to the Torah, but when it comes the deed he is pious, meaning not according to the strict boundaries of the law, as discussed in Tractate Shabbat (120a, and see Rashi there).

This is in line with the verse, “I will be gracious to anyone I want” (Exodus 33:19). This too is a verse in the Torah and is known to be one of God’s ways, just as “it is a time to act for God and reject the Torah” is an established halakhah, just as, when we get back to the level of thought, this too is part of the plan and the proper boundaries. (Tsidkat Hatsadik 101; translation is mine, as is the emphasis)

In this piece, Rav Tsadok argues that failure is built into the system. People and the world are not supposed to perfectly live up to their ideals. As a support for this, he references a rabbinic narrative describing how God intended to create the world such that it would function according to strict laws. However, God saw that such a world could not be sustained, and so he created the world with compassion instead. Compassion, Rav Tsadok claims, is just one form of exceeding the boundaries of the law, and now it is an inherent part of the world. People fail to live up to their ideals because that’s part of how people work. As opposed to the assumption underlying the passages we saw from the Guide for the Perplexed II 32 and Tsidkat Hatsadik 102, systems don’t work. Thinking that things work out the way they are supposed to work out is a mistake, verging on self-delusion. God does not directly cause failure, but God built a world that is broken, along with everything in it; none of it works as it ideally should, and that’s how it is supposed to be.


In this piece we have seen two different ideas positing God as the source of failure, built around two different intuitions about how whether people and the world “work.” The first says that things basically work, and God interferes with their functioning, causing things to fail. The second says that things don’t work, that failure is built into people and the world, and that God made it that way. These two ideas bear some significant implications for our religious lives.

Religion is in many ways about living up to certain ideals of action, belief, or both, something in which we are not always successful. We need to consider the degree to which we are really meant to succeed in this goal all of the time (Rav Tsadok says in piece 101, quoted above, that the system of halakhah includes its own violation). If we really are meant to succeed, if the system works, then failure might just mean that we didn’t do our part properly, and we have to work harder on our end. The real possibility exists, however, that we will find no fault of our own, and the fault for our failure must fall to God (cf. Bavli Berakhot 5a, “יסורים של אהבה”). In such an instance, we must reconsider how we understand failure. It shifts from being sin to “sin,” as Rav Tsadok put it, from failure to the first step of success.

If, however, failure is built into the system and success is never assumed, then it may be impossible to know why we failed in any given instance. However, failure also becomes less dramatic. It might not even be “failure” in the way we normally mean it. Failure is a part of what it means to be created by God, and humbly accepting our creatureliness means accepting the fact that we fail all of the time.

Finally, I would note that this is an issue of obvious significance for the days of Elul, when Jews have repentance on the mind. Both of these ideas take the edge off of sin, meaning that perhaps it should not be the focus of repentance. Instead, repentance should either focus on how the sin can be the first step in something better (the first approach), or in accepting the fact that we are not divine, and thus sin is to some degree an unfortunate inevitability. Either way, the primary emotion of repentance is not guilt but determination or humility.



[This post was influenced by lectures by Yishai Mevorach, a student of Rav Shagar and an editor of his writings, and an interesting thinker in his own right. An English interview with Prof. Alan Brill about Mevorach’s new book, “A Theology of Absence” can be found here, and Mevorach’s Hebrew lectures on a variety of topics can be found on his youtube channel here.]


Purim 5775 – Purim of Days to Come: A Derashah

This was an attempt to write more in the style of a Hasidic Derashah, and as part of the more associative style of the genre, the ideas and sources sort of flow one into the next. Getting caught up in that, I think the piece got away from me a little bit and is a little more postmodern than I had in mind, but I still think it’s worth sharing. An English translation follows the original Hebrew.

״וְלֹא יְלַמְּדוּ עוֹד אִישׁ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ וְאִישׁ אֶת אָחִיו לֵאמֹר דְּעוּ אֶת יְ-הוָה כִּי כוּלָּם יֵדְעוּ אוֹתִי לְמִקְטַנָּם וְעַד גְּדוֹלָם נְאֻם יְהוָה כִּי אֶסְלַח לַעֲוֹנָם וּלְחַטָּאתָם לֹא אֶזְכָּר עוֹד״ (ירמיהו לא:לג). זה פורים, שנאמר ״וּמִשְׁלֹחַ מָנוֹת, אִישׁ לְרֵעֵהוּ״ (אסתר ט:יט). פורים הוא חג של אחרית הימים, כמו שכתוב, ״שכל המועדים עתידים בטלים, וימי הפורים אינם בטלים לעולם, שנאמר (אסתר ט כח): “וימי הפורים האלה לא יעברו מתוך היהודים״ (מדרש משלי ט:א), שנאמר, ״לַיְּהוּדִים הָיְתָה אוֹרָה״ (אסתר ח:טז) זאת אורה שנגנז לצדיקים לעתיד לבוא (בר״ר יא:ב, חגיגה יב.), שלעתיד לבוא כלנו יראו בו. שלעתיד לבוא כלנו יראו שאין לומר דעו את י-הוה, כי כולם יודעים את י-הוה. אין ללמד, כי בלימוד יש מורה ותלמיד, יודע ואינו-יודע, וכולנו ידעו לכן לא שייך הכפייתיות של לימוד. אבל יש שליחת מנות, שבו אין מורה ותלמיד אלא איש ורעהו, ואין חטאתם הקודמים אלא ידיעת י-הוה. בפורים אנו בדרגה של האדם לפני חטא עץ הדעת, כמו שכתוב, ״עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי״ (מגילה ז:), ואין מקולל או מבורך אלא יודעי י-הוה. בפורים רואים באור ששת ימי בראשית, לפני שהנחש לימד את האדם לחטוא, לפני שבחרנו לדעת טוב ורע במקום לדעת את י-הוה.

“And no more shall every man teach his friend, and every man his brother, saying: ‘Know ‘א’; for they shall all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says ‘א; for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more ” (Yirmiyahu 31:33). This is a reference to Purim, as it is said, “And sending portions, each man to his friend” (Esther 9:19). Purim is the festival of the End of Days, as it is written, “For all of the holidays with be nullified in the future, but the days of Purim will not be nullified, as it is said, ‘and these days of Purim will not pass from among the Jews’ (Esther 9:28).” (Midrash Mishlei 9:1), as it is said, “The Jew had light” (Esther 8:16), this is the light that was hidden for the Righteous of the future (Bereishit Rabbah 11:2, Bavli Hagiga 12a), that in the future everyone will see with. In the future, everyone will see that we shouldn’t say, “Know ‘א,” for everyone will know ‘א. We should not teach, because teaching requires a teacher and a student, now who knows and one who does not, and everyone will know. Therefore the imposition of teaching is irrelevant. However, one should send portions, for in this there is no “teacher” and “student,” just each man and his friend, and there is no previous sin, only the Knowledge of ‘א.  On Purim we are on the level of Man before the sin of the Tree of Knowledge, as it is written, “until you do not know [how to differentiate] between ‘Cursed is Haman” and “Blessed is Mordechai” (Bavli Megillah 7b), so there is no “cursed” or “blessed”, only knowers of ‘א. On Purim we see with the light of the six days of Creation, before the snake taught Man to sin, before we chose knowing good and evil over knowing ‘א.

Parashat Va’era 5774 – The God of Israel

הַמְדַבְּרִים אֶל פַּרְעֹה מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם

The entire Exodus narrative, and the story of the Ten Plagues in particular, is the first occurrence in Tanakh of the war against Idolatry[1]. Part of what made Judaism unique in the ancient world was not just the belief in one god but also the total rejection of any other gods. In Sefer Bereishit the Avot, and the Torah, seem perfectly content with the Idolatry of the other residents of Canaan. Only in Egypt, in the fight against Paroah and Gods of Egypt does it become clear that Idolatry is an unacceptable way of life for anyone and everyone. However, the Tanakh does not depict the drama of Egypt as a simple matter of one god versus many. The conflict happens on three levels and, in the end, it details the emergence of a new system for National and Religious Leadership based on a uniquely Israelite idea[2].

The obvious story of the Plagues is that of the tension between ‘א and Paroah. Now the idea of a human ruler defying the transcendent and unlimited ‘א seems odd, but that’s not how the Tanakh conceives of the relationship between Man and ‘א. “History is where God is defied.”[3]  The Tanakh shows that Man has the ability to go against the will of ‘א, but‘א will inevitably triumph. That idea, started earlier in Sefer Bereishit, here comes to total fruition in the fight against Paroah.

Paroah and ‘א are in many ways equated in the text of the Torah. Perhaps most obvious is the emphasis on their nations. In contrast to ‘א’s refrain of “Let My people go, that they may serve Me,” (Shemot 7:17, 26; 8:16; 9:13 the Egyptians are consistently referred to as “[Paroah]’s Nation”. ‘א has his nation and Paroah has his. Writ large, the torah creates a picture where Paroah and ‘א (via Moshe) face off in a battle for dominance. It’s ‘א’s will versus Paroah’s, with the decision consistently going to ‘א. Moreover, Egyptian rulers were not considered to be ordinary men of flesh and blood. They were considered to be divine, or close to it, and thus the defeat of Paroah is the defeat of Idolatry. When ‘א said, “and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD[4]”, He was also talking about Paroah, and when Paroah admits defeat it is a tacit admission of the supremacy of ‘א.

The second level of the story is that of the conflict between Moshe and Paroah. The idea is that of two kings facing off, which might be why some commentators have compared the Ten Plagues to the procedures for conquering a city. While not strictly-speaking a “King,” Moshe represents the leadership of a nation concentrated in one person, much in the manner of a monarchy. But as opposed to the conflict between ‘א and Paroah, Moshe’s fight is not for domination. Moshe’s fight is for the heart of the nation. Moshe brings plagues in order to demonstrate ‘א’s majesty and dominance before the people, that they might recognize His greatness[5]. Moshe as King rules not out of strength and not as a matter of personal right, but as an apostle of ‘א.

This idea is highlighted by several very important midrashim. On several occasions Moshe is told to go meet Paroah along the river early in the morning. The midrash comments that the reason Paroah went for his walk early in the morning was in order to secretly relieve himself[6]. Due to the divine or semi-divine status of Egyptian kings, he could not be seen to do so by the public, and so for this purpose he used to go early in the morning to the river. Thus the divine status of Paroah is not only false but Paroah knows it is false and has to maintain it by deceiving his people. This midrash points to the way Egyptians conceived of their king as divine while simultaneously rejecting and ridiculing it. In stark contrast is the Tanakh’s depiction of Moshe.

In the middle of a discussion between Moshe and ‘א regarding Moshe’s ability to take Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt the Torah suddenly interjects with Moshe and Aharon’s genealogy. Whereas by Moshe’s birth his parents are anonymous, here the Torah says who they are explicitly, revealing something very interesting. The marriage of Avraham and Yocheved is what would after the revelation at Har Sinai become considered an inappropriate sexual relationship. The midrash not only points this fact out, it highlights similar relationships by Avraham and Sarah, Yaakov and his first wives, and several instances throughout David HaMelekh’s ancestry. The midrash points out that the leadership of Bnei Yisrael often comes from what we think of as inappropriate origins[7], and that this is intentional. Part of the problem with Kings historically has been that they often come to think of themselves as divine, that they are the be-all and end-all, and that is simply not so. The midrash states that this could never be an issue with these Israelite leaders because as opposed to being thought of as divine, they all have rather ignominious backgrounds. Thus the conditional nature of the Jewish King is made clear in the fight against the “divine” King of  Egypt[8]. Moshe rules Bnei Yisrael not as one entitled to do so by birth, but as the appointed messenger of ‘א.

Aharon’s position in the Torah is complex, and that is true right from the outset. It seems clear from ‘א’s words to Moshe that Aharon is simply meant to be a speaker for Moshe but Moshe seems to do plenty of speaking on his own. Moreover, Aharon is personally responsible for the bringing of several plagues, and is often referred to directly alongside Moshe throughout the duration of the Plagues. As much as he does serve as Moshe’s “mouth” and “prophet”, he really is his own character in the story.

Aharon’s purpose here is not simple. First and foremost, throughout the Torah Aharon is the High Priest of Israel. But noticeably, he doesn’t do anything specifically priestly here in Egypt. The one things he does that some might have argued is a priestly act is the performance of wonders, something that in other civilizations and Egypt in particular was a priestly function. But the lack of any other priestly functions here that instead of adopting the Egyptian idea of the Priest-Magician, the Torah is actually rejecting it[9]. Aharon performs wonders not as a priest who bends nature to his will, but as a prophet who bends nature to ‘א’s will.

In this role, Aharon has a very specific message to convey. He personally brings the first few plagues, often alongside Moshe, and the language there makes clear the purpose of those plagues. Aharon brings plagues in order to punish the Egyptians[10]. They enslaved and mistreated ‘א’s nation and their retribution is to come through Aharon’s hand. Thus any plague brought or wonder performed by Aharon has a much greater emphasis on the effect it has on the Egyptians than when Moshe brings a plague (As mentioned above, Moshe brings plagues for an entirely different purpose: teaching Bnei Yisrael about ‘א. Moshe performs plagues in order to show Bnei Yisrael who they are being redeemed by.) However, there is not a word in the whole section about Aharon performing a wonder or causing a plague by his own power or volition.

This idea, of the contrast between Prophet and Priest, is highlighted by a very similar story found in Sefer Shmuel I[11]. In Shmuel I 5 ‘א brings plagues on the Plishtim for having stolen the Aron and where Paroah consults his “magicians” the Plishtim consult their “priests and diviners” (Samuel I 6:2). Aharon, standing next to Moshe as the magicians stand beside Paroah, stands in clear contrast to this idea of “priests and diviners.” The Jewish Priest has a very specific function in context of the Mishkan/Mikdash and not beyond. The role of miracle-worker is reserved[12] for the messenger of ‘א.

The divine “conflict” between ‘א and the “gods of Egypt” serves to display ‘א’s uncontested authority in the world. Moshe’s face-off with Paroah shows how all leaders, no matter how great, are always human, and therefore are all subordinate to ‘א and His grace. Aharon’s position against the magicians rejects completely the concept of magic and wonders performed outside of the Divine Will, regardless of their accord with it, for nothing is outside the Divine Will.

All of these concepts are manifestations of a larger, infinitely simple idea: ‘א is Primary[13]. Pagan conceptions of their deities always give them secondary places in reality. The deity is always born of some other creature, or made of some primordial-stuff. The existence of reality before and beyond divinity makes its power necessarily limited. The nature of divinity as created puts it in the same category as other creations, such as man, and allows for the possibility of divine, or semi-divine, kings, and for apotheosis. The idea that divinity is created means that its power must come from somewhere rather than being inherent in it, and this is the power that it uses for its works, but this power can also be used by others for the aid or detriment of divinity. Yitziat Mitzraim rejects all of these conceptions. ‘א is Primary. He has no origin and there is nothing that He did not create. All is subject to His Will and there is no power beyond it. The God is Israel is the God of All Existence and there is none beside Him.


Here is a helpful chart from Nahum Sarna’s Exploring Exodus on the breakdown of the Plagues:

Plague - Breakdown

[1] Yehezkal Kaufmann, The Religion Of Israel, Chap. 2-3

[2] This is why the story of the Plagues starts with the Parshiyah of Shemot 6:2-8, a sudden recap of ‘א’s relationship to the avot and the nation.  The chiastic structure of this section is clearly highlighting the idea of ‘א’s special relationship to Bnei Yisrael and ‘א as the only god, and those concepts point directly to this idea.

[3] A.J. Heschel, The Prophets, (Harper, 1969) Vol.1, p.168

[4] All translations are from

[5] R’ Amnon Bazak, Nekudat Petihah, Parashat Va’era, The Staff of Moshe and the Staff of Aharon (Hebrew)

[6] Rashi Ad Loc., Shemot Rabbah 9:7

[7] Hizkuni on story of Yehuda and Tamar; Yeshayahu Lebovitch, Seven Years of Speeches on the Parashah (Hebrew), Parashat Vayeshev

[8] Yeshayahu Lebovitch, Seven Years of Speeches on the Parashah (Hebrew), Parashat Vaera

[9] Yehezkal Kaufmann, The Religion Of Israel, p. 85

[10]  R’ Amnon Bazak, Nekudat Petihah, Parashat Va’era, The Staff of Moshe and the Staff of Aharon (Hebrew)

[11] R’ Amnon Bazak, Parallels That Meet (Hebrew), Chap. 4

[12] Yehezkal Kaufmann, The Religion Of Israel, p. 82, 85

[13] Yehezkal Kaufmann, The Religion Of Israel, Chap. 2-3

Parashat Behukotai – Holiness Inside and Out – Redux

כֹּל אֲשֶׁר יִתֵּן מִמֶּנּוּ לַי-הוָה יִהְיֶה-קֹּדֶשׁ


The large part of Parashat Behukotai is taken up by Vayikra 26, known as the תוכחה, the Rebuke. It is essentially a description of the consequences for following or disobeying the Law of ‘א, and as such is a fitting end for Sefer Vayikra. It even ends with a verse which clearly summarizes a much larger section, “These are the statutes and ordinances and laws, which the LORD made between Him and the children of Israel in mount Sinai by the hand of Moses” (Vayikra 27:46). This organizes Vayikra into a collection of laws and a motivational speech about the importance of following them[1], a wondrous and logical construction, which is absolutely ruined when you get to the end of chapter 26 and discover chapter 27. Vayikra 27 is known as Parashat Ha’Arakhin, “the passage of values”, and contains laws regarding personal vows and consecrations to the Mishkan/Mikdash. While a very important set of laws, this section completely destroys the previously beautiful structure created by ending the book with chapter 26. However, a closer analysis of the chapter and its role in Sefer Vayikra will reveal that it replaces the original plan with an altogether more important structure, closing the book and highlighting its most important values.[2]

Parashat Ha’Arakhin is one of two bookends to Sefer Vayikra.[3] It is matched, on several counts, by the first few chapters at the beginning of Sefer Vayikra that discuss the animals brought to the Mishkan as Korbanot. The sections share a basic structure. The early chapters first discuss the Voluntary korbanot, the Olah and Shlamim, followed by the Obligatory korbanot, the Hatat and Asham. This same pattern of Voluntary-Obligatory is mimicked in parashat ha’arakhin, which starts off by discussing the monetary values of people, animals, and land that someone could voluntarily donate to the Mishkan, and then discusses first-born animals and produce-tithes that a person is obligated to give. More important than the structural similarity is the thematic one. Both parshiot involve people bringing things (animals, produce, money, etc.) to the Mishkan. Sefer Vayikra opens and closes with people taking what is theirs and giving it to ‘א. This focus on the Mishkan defines Vayikra, with it’s lengthy descriptions of the laws of Korbanot, Purity/Impurity, etc. However, as chapter 27 reminds us, it is not the only important theme of Vayikra.

Vayikra 27 also closes a smaller section at the end of the book, beginning with chapter 25. Chapter 25 deals with issues of God’s ownership, both of the land and the nation of Israel, and the legal manifestations of that.[4] This does not in and of itself seem to be similar to chapter 27, which deals with evaluation and donations. However, reading the two chapters side by side, one is struck by the numerous repetitions of conjugations of the word “גאל” (redeem, redemption, etc.) in both chapters. With 18 appearances in chapter 25 and 10 in chapter 27, Redemption is not only a common theme to both chapters, but also a fairly dominant theme in each chapter individually.[5] However, the word “redemption” here is not intended in the manner people usually use it; it has no spiritual, national, or historical, connotations. Rather it refers to the return of a person or their property to their own, personal, ownership.[6] In chapter 25 it refers to the redemption of a person, or their property, that was sold to avoid bankruptcy. In chapter 27 it refers to persons or properties that are dedicated to the Mishkan, either by default or intentionally, and their redemption from that state. This connection, between redemption in Vayikra 25 and redemption in Vayikra 27 affects how we view chapter 27. Redemption in chapter 25 is obviously positive, but in chapter 27 it’s not clear. One could suggest that redeeming items intended for the Mishkan is something only meant to be done when absolutely necessary, permitted but far from positive. The similarities to chapter 25 (Particularly 27:16-24, dealing with redeeming land in relation to the Yovel) indicate that the redemption of chapter 27 is the same as the redemption in chapter 25. Redeeming things from the Mishkan must then be seen as similarly positive to redeeming the destitute from slavery. While this seems perhaps a little strange, with all the focus on the Mishkan in Sefer Vayikra, and the simple fact that the Mishkan is where Bnei Yisrael could most easily feel ‘א’s presence, it makes perfect sense when one takes into account the second half of Sefer Vayikra, which deals almost exclusively with life outside the Mishkan.

Parashat Ha’Arakhin was chosen to finish off Sefer Vayikra because it encompasses what are perhaps the two most important values of the sefer: the Mishkan and life outside of it.[2] Bnei Yisrael brought dedications and Korbanot to the Mishkan the same way we dedicate our lives to ‘א. We are pulled towards the presence of ‘א, and in embracing this, in taking the rest of our lives and dedicating them to this, we are wrapped up in His majesty. But the is life outside the Mishkan. The Torah lays down laws for a holy society, but a society needs people to do the work and maintain it (Bereishit 2:15). The Holy Society idea is in direct tension with the Mishkan. Instead of bringing ourselves to ‘א, building a holy society requires bringing ‘א to the rest of our lives. That’s why the Torah lays down laws for agriculture and property ownership, because then the observance of those laws is innately godly.[7] This tension does not have a resolution, it’s something we have to live and struggle with on daily basis. How much of our day is just for ‘א? How much is for ‘א’s world? There’s no set method for determining this, but that doesn’t excuse us from the question. Each day we must ask ourselves anew, and each day we must do our best dedicate ourselves to ‘א while still dedication ourselves to building His world.


[1] It’s worth noting that their is a large debate among the commentators regarding which laws the Rebuke is giving consequences for.

[2] For more on this, see my discussion of it here:

[3] Ideas found in this paragraph are from Jacob Milgrom’s Commentary to Vayikra, Yale Anchor Bible Series, Vole. 3 Ch. 27, Comment B; and form R’ Menachem Leibtag’s commentson Parashat Behukotai, found on

[4] For more on that, see my discussion here:

[5] This paragraph is also largely based on Jacob Milgrom, Op cit.

[6] This has a lot in common with a more national-historical form of redemption, but it’s not quite the same thing.

[7] This is the greatness of the rabbinic requirement of דינא דמלכותא דינא, “the law of the land is law” (תלמוד בבלי, מסכת בבא בתרא, דף נ”ד, עמוד ב’. תלמוד בבלי, מסכת גיטין, דף י’, עמוד ב’.). It give halakhic weight to any civil law, and essentially makes it a mitzvah to eva good citizen.