Ethical will: Loving-kindness

In composing my ethical will, I usually find myself resistant to including entries that should, according to my sensibilities, be self-evident. That’s not to say that I personally exemplify any of these self-evidently positive traits; rather, it is to say that I wish I did.

On the other hand, my ethical will is, by default, a Jewish document, and it strikes me that no such ethical will would be complete without the traditional basics. In the ancient Jewish text called ‘Pirkei Avot’, which is known in English as ‘Ethics of the Fathers’ (but is more precisely translated as ‘Chapters of the Fathers’), the following text is broadly known among Jewish scholars and laypeople alike (Ch. 1:2):

… עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים: … The world stands on three things: on the Torah, on the Service [to God], and on [deeds of] loving-kindness.

This is, of course, hardly the only ancient Jewish text to highlight loving-kindness, and today’s Jewish scholars and religious leaders have certainly not abandoned this most basic of religious tenets either. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks zt”l (1948-2020) wrote:

Acts of kindness never die. They linger in the memory, giving life to other acts in return.

‘From Optimism to Hope p. 130

‘Loving-kindness’ as the cornerstone of successful marriage

According to Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

I found a beautiful vort (Yiddish for ‘word’ of Torah) shared by Rabbi Schorsch (1935-), which highlights the degree to which Jewish tradition emphasizes ‘loving kindness’. It spoke to me in particular because it highlights the profound significance of ‘loving kindness’ in marriage, which is exactly what first came to my mind when I chose to include this Jewish value in my ethical will.

I encourage you to read the entire vort, but following are the salient sections:

We don’t pick spouses for our children anymore. But if we did, what trait would we single out as the best indicator of a happy marriage?

This is the task that Abraham, feeling the increasing weight of his years, gives to Eliezer, the steward of his household. Isaac, the son of his old age, is still without a helpmate…

Eliezer… devises a character test that will identify a suitable wife for Isaac… He will rest his caravan of ten camels and ask a young woman for water for himself. If she responds by giving him a drink and then spontaneously watering his camels as well, she will have marked herself as a person worthy of his master’s son.

The first woman Eliezer confronts is Rebekah, the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother, and she indeed reacts with rare magnanimity. “Drink, my lord…. I will also draw for your camels, until they finish drinking (Genesis 24:18-19).

The Torah regards this cameo portrait as so important that it indulges in an exceptional threefold repetition – first Eliezer’s own musings, then the description of the event itself and, finally, its retelling by Eliezer to Rebekah’s greedy brother, Laban. Such lavish attention should not go unnoticed by us.

Maimonides (1138-1204) went so far as to posit that cruelty is utterly alien to Judaism. No Jewish community was to be without a society devoted to the fostering of deeds of loving kindness, cheering bride and groom, visiting the sick, burying the dead or comforting mourners…

The Torah begins and ends with striking examples of acts of loving kindness. God clothes Adam and Eve and buries Moses personally. In between we are treated to an incomparable feast of striving for self-transcendence. Every Jew is called upon to add to the sum total of divine sparks in the world.

-Rabbi Ismar Schorsch (1935-)

My good luck

My wife

It would embarrass my wife to know that I’m writing the following, but here goes anyway:

That which most attracted me to my not-yet-wife at the start of our relationship was her kindness, which she glows with. In fact, in the years previous to meeting her, I had spent some time contemplating which character traits I would most like my potential spouse to have, and I came to the conclusion that kindness was the most important to me.

Papa & Mama

I would also like to add the following:

After Papa died in 2018, I thought a lot about what I had most appreciated about him, and I must say that it was certainly his kindness. I have listed many of Papa’s most positive traits, but – his loving-kindness remains the one that first comes to my mind. His kindness was of the most simple, natural kind – and it informed his general selflessness.

It is my belief that Mama, being incredibly kind herself, was drawn in large part to Papa’s gentle kindness – I have come to consider this one of the pillars of their marriage. (I haven’t asked Mama about this thought of mine, but it is my strong impression.)


Loving-kindness ≠ charity

In writing about kindness from a Jewish perspective, it’s important to draw a distinction between the Jewish understandings of ‘charity’ and ‘loving-kindness’. In fact, the word ‘charity’ is an inexact translation of the Jewish word ‘tzedakah’.

‘Tzedakah’ is a word derived from the Hebrew root dq (צדק), which means: ‘Justice’. In Jewish tradition, you see, ‘tzedakah’ is an obligatory 10% of one’s earnings, as a matter of social justice. Even the poorest Jew is religiously mandated to give away 10% of their earnings to others. ‘Charity’, on the other hand, is voluntary. Not so ‘tzedakah’.

The rabbis of the Talmud drew a sharp distinction between ‘tzedakah’ and ‘loving-kindness’ (‘gemilut ḥasadim’), ultimately concluding that ‘loving-kindness’ is the superior act (Tractate Sukkah 49b):

ת”ר בשלשה דברים גדולה גמילות חסדים יותר מן הצדקה צדקה בממונו גמילות חסדים בין בגופו בין בממונו צדקה לעניים גמילות חסדים בין לעניים בין לעשירים צדקה לחיים גמילות חסדים בין לחיים בין למתים Our Rabbis taught, In three respects is gemilut ḥasadim superior to tzedakah: tzedakah can be done only with one’s money, but gemilut ḥasadim can be done with one’s person and one’s money. Tzedakah can be given only to the poor, gemilut ḥasadim both to the rich and the poor. Tzedakah can be given to the living only, gemilut ḥasadim can be done both to the living and to the dead.

It’s important to understand this fundamental point if we’re going to expound upon ‘loving-kindness’ from a Jewish perspective: this is not an entry about ‘charity’.


My daughter

As I watch my six-year-old daughter grow up, I am moved by her constant acts of kindness. Even when she was younger and less articulate than she is now, she was constantly warming the hearts of others will her love and sweet affection.

When we used to visit my Babushka (mother’s mother), for example, my daughter would climb up unto the couch next to her and smother the old woman with hugs and kisses; and this was at a stage in Babushka’s life when she was blind, weak, and generally unable to entertain her youngest great grandchild. Once, when Babushka felt her way down the hall to the bathroom, our little girl took her by the hand so that she wouldn’t bump into the walls.

I suppose that it’s actually an odd thing for me to be waxing didactic about ‘loving-kindness’ in my ethical will, which is ostensibly for my very kind & loving child… Really, I should be learning about it from her.

Ethical will: Patience

What do we remember of our departed loved ones?

In speaking to other mourners, I have noticed that people’s recollections of their deceased loved ones differ widely. Some people seem to remember only the most loving and tender of moments, whereas others recall a wider range of experiences. (I’ve also met widows who only spoke of dark and painful memories after their husbands passed away, even after decades of living peacefully with their spouses’ shortcomings.)

I miss Papa more than my words can express, but not all of my memories of him are positive. On one hand, I don’t want to besmirch Papa’s good name; on the other hand, I don’t think that focusing exclusively on my good memories does him any real honor.

If we’re being honest, I think all of us inevitably learn two ways from our parents – 1) we observe certain choices and ways of theirs that we hope to emulate, and 2) there are others that we consider less than ideal, which we deliberately attempt to approach differently than they did.

We empower ourselves and our children to best learn and improve ourselves by honestly reflecting upon our collective pasts.


A particular memory

After graduating from college, I lived at home for several years while my brother Eli was yet a child. One memory that has stayed with me to this day is that of babysitting him on a particular afternoon while our parents were away. The details are hazy in my mind, but I remember losing my patience with him, and I remember him bursting into tears (he was only four or five at the time).

I also remember myself immediately feeling terribly guilty and attempting to comfort the little boy, apologizing to him for my unreasonably irritable outburst. A thought followed, soon after I had calmed him down: “Oh, God. That’s the way Papa acts.”

Papa, you see, tended to be irritable and impatient with me, leading me to often approach him with hesitancy. It was a trait of his that I had never fully developed the tools to content with, other than to avoid him.


Just to be clear!

What I’ve written above bears clarification.

My Babushka (Mama’s mother), who very much adored my father (as did all of my mother’s family), no less than she might have adored her own son, put this to me in a way that rang deeply true. My Papa, as Babushka explained to me on more than one occasion, could be irascible (вспыльчивы), but he never stayed angry for long and never bore any grudges. He was irritable, yes, true, but he was also incredibly forgiving, and one of the kindest men to have ever lived.

Human beings are all so complicated, aren’t we?


Me, myself, and I

The memory I shared with you above is one of my own impatience, and it’s one which I have been trying to grow from in all the years since.

Nevertheless, the reality is that despite my best efforts to subdue this particular character trait of mine, my irritability still manages to occasionally find its way to the fore. I have been impatient at times with both my wife and my daughter, and that is not something to be proud of in the slightest. Such episodes have always left me feeling ashamed. Thus, it is my own limitations, rather than Papa’s, which have led me to write this blog post.

Reflecting upon this, I have decided to explore some traditional Jewish texts and lessons on patience and attempt to create something positive: another article for my ‘ethical will’.


Still waiting for the Messiah

The first thing that immediately strikes me regarding Jewish theology is that we Jews are still waiting for the Messiah’s arrival. Obviously, that’s not to say that all Jews believe in the Messiah, but, still, that’s the official party line: we have been praying for Redemption for thousands of years; and, even today, even with the establishment of the modern Jewish State of Israel (from which we were exiled for nearly two millennia), we continue to pray for the eventual coming of the Messianic Age.

Famously, the 12th of Maimonides’ (Spain, Egypt, 1135-1204) ‘Thirteen Principles of Faith’ is:

I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah; and even though he may tarry, nonetheless, I wait every day for his coming.


The most classic example of Jewish impatience

My second thought relates to the classic Biblical case of the Jewish people’s impatience. Stories of our collective impatience abound in our TaNaKh (Jewish Bible), but most people would agree that the story of the Golden Calf represented our greatest failure.

As the story goes, the Israelites were impatient for the return of their leader Moses from Mount Sinai after he ascended to receive the Torah from God. They felt he was tarrying too long. The Torah describes this impatience as the cause of the Israelites’ unrest, which ultimately resulted in their demand for a Golden Calf.

Descending from Mount Sinai, Moses witnessed the Israelites worshipping their Golden Calf. He became enraged and hurled the Ten Commandments, which he had just received from God, down to the ground. The stone tablets shattered into fragments. God then told Moses that he intended to destroy all of the Israelites (Exodus 32):

ט וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה: רָאִיתִי אֶת-הָעָם הַזֶּה, וְהִנֵּה עַם-קְשֵׁה-עֹרֶף הוּא. 9 And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people.
י וְעַתָּה הַנִּיחָה לִּי, וְיִחַר-אַפִּי בָהֶם וַאֲכַלֵּם; וְאֶעֱשֶׂה אוֹתְךָ, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל. 10 Now therefore let Me alone, that My wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them; and I will make of thee a great nation.’

It was only upon Moses pleading with Him that God finally relented:

יד וַיִּנָּחֶם, יְהוָה, עַל-הָרָעָה, אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לַעֲשׂוֹת לְעַמּוֹ. 14 And the LORD relented on the evil which He said He would do unto His people.

In fact, the Torah does not even suggest that God forgave the people for their impatience and lack of faith. Rather, it was Moses’ beseechment that moved Him, and the prophet’s plea to the Master of the Universe appealed only to A) God’s concern with His own reputation, and B) The promises He’d made to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (Jacob).

One can only imagine how differently the Jewish story might have unfolded if the Israelite people had exhibited faith in God and His chosen messenger.


Verses on wisdom

Beyond the above “big picture” examples, the TaNaKh, as one would expect, is very direct about the virtue of patience. Such verses include the following:

Ecclesiastes 7

ח טוֹב אַחֲרִית דָּבָר, מֵרֵאשִׁיתוֹ; טוֹב אֶרֶךְ-רוּחַ, מִגְּבַהּ-רוּחַ. 8 Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof; and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.

Proverbs 14

כט אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, רַב-תְּבוּנָה; וּקְצַר-רוּחַ, מֵרִים אִוֶּלֶת. 29 [He who has] long patience is of great understanding; but [he that is] hasty of spirit exalteth folly.

Proverbs 16

לב טוֹב אֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, מִגִּבּוֹר; וּמֹשֵׁל בְּרוּחוֹ, מִלֹּכֵד עִיר. 32 [He who has] long patience is better than a hero; and [better] he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.

These three verses speak to my point so I won’t belabor it any further, but a cursory review of Jewish source texts reveals others as well.


Patience… with myself

If I were to list my most self-destructive traits, impatience would rank in my Top 5. As much as I am drafting this ethical will of mine piece by piece for my daughter and future children, I find that it is also helpful to me to collect my thoughts and do some much needed introspection and self-work.

Coming from a traditional Jewish context, writing about patience is almost too easy because it stands out as a primary theme that is splattered all over the scored and stitched leather sheets of our Torah scrolls.

In this vein, I’ve been encountering a personal conflict in compiling my ethical will… some principles and values are so self-evident to me that I hesitate to write about them at all. Do I really need, I have asked myself, to write posts about being kind, being appreciative, being generous, etc.? Shouldn’t we naturally appreciate the truth and fundamentality of these values?

It seems to me that I must work on being more patient with myself.

Ethical will: Truth

Following my previous ‘ethical will’ entry on ‘listening’ and the profoundly divisive aftermath of the 2020 U.S. Presidential elections, which once again reveals a country broken jaggedly in half, I’ve been thinking a lot about the pervasive lack of trust that has come to typify today’s global politics.

Yes, we must listen to one another earnestly, but why don’t we?

Fundamentally, it comes down to a lack of trust. Americans don’t trust one another to have their best interests at heart, nor do they trust their public institutions, nor the fourth estate. Why were the pre-election polls so drastically wrong this year, particularly following the pollsters’ epic embarrassment of 2016? Whence the preposterous, gaping chasm between Americans, policymakers, and opinion-molders?

We don’t trust others to tell us the truth; or perhaps we no longer trust in those truths, which are most available. Access to information used to be conveniently provided to the people by big money interests and power brokers, which used to work for them beautifully, but the modern information age has left them nary a shadow to hide in.

Personally, I find myself increasingly turning to independent and conflicting news sources across the political spectrum to calibrate my impression of reality. More often than not, I remain unconvinced by them all.


Truth is a challenging subject for me because I am the sort who has to push through cowardice to speak it. Still, truthfulness is something that I admired in my father, continue to admire in my mother, and admire in all of my role models. Truth impresses, challenges, and scares me.

The first entry in my ‘ethical will’ focused on being true to one’s self… but what about being honest with others? While I am hardly the most qualified to expound upon this particular ideal, it would be negligent of me to omit it from my will.

What priority should we place on honesty, and what limits might we consider?


According to the Torah we are to distance ourselves from matters/words of falsehood, the only sin from which the Torah warns us to “distance” ourselves (Exodus 23:7):

מִדְּבַר-שֶׁקֶר, תִּרְחָק; וְנָקִי וְצַדִּיק אַל-תַּהֲרֹג, כִּי לֹא-אַצְדִּיק רָשָׁע. Keep thee far from a false matter; and the innocent and righteous slay thou not; for I will not justify the wicked.

Taking a different tack, the Book of Proverbs (a later book of the Hebrew Bible) provides practical counsel on the matter, rather than commanding us (12:19):

שְׂפַת-אֱמֶת, תִּכּוֹן לָעַד; וְעַד-אַרְגִּיעָה, לְשׁוֹן שָׁקֶר. The lip of truth shall be established for ever; a lying tongue is for a moment.

As expected, truth is a popular theme in Jewish tradition, as I imagine it would be in all faith traditions that lay claim to its mantle, which is to say: all of them. Another popular, oft-cited Jewish text on truth can be found in the Talmud (Tractate Shabbat, 55a):

… ור”ל אמר תיו סוף חותמו של הקב”ה דאמר רבי חנינא חותמו של הקב”ה אמת אמר ר’ שמואל בר נחמני אלו בני אדם שקיימו את התור’ כולה מאלף ועד תיו… … and [Rabbi] Resh Lakish said: [The letter] ‘tav’ [which is the final letter of the alphabet] is the end of the seal of the Holy One, blessed be He, for R. Hanina said: The seal of the Holy One, blessed be He, is emeth [truth] [which ends with a ‘tav’]. R. Samuel b. Nahmani said: It denotes the people who fulfilled the Torah from ‘alef’ [the first letter of the alphabet] to ‘tav’…

I won’t belabor the point further, for it’s the simplest of truths:

People of decency
ought to strive for truth.


But – are there limits? There must be some, right?

The Jewish textual tradition often impresses me with its good sense, which is one of the reasons that I remain drawn to it. One of the most famous examples of a lie, which is not only permitted but actually encouraged, arose from a dispute between the renowned ancient Houses of the Rabbis Hillel and Shammai, which the House of Hillel won (Talmud, Tractate Ketubot 16b-17a):

תנו רבנן כיצד מרקדין לפני הכלה בית שמאי אומרים כלה כמות שהיא ובית הלל אומרים כלה נאה וחסודה אמרו להן ב”ש לב”ה הרי שהיתה חיגרת או סומא אומרי’ לה כלה נאה וחסודה והתורה אמרה (שמות כג) מדבר שקר תרחק אמרו להם ב”ה לב”ש לדבריכם מי שלקח מקח רע מן השוק ישבחנו בעיניו או יגננו בעיניו הוי אומר ישבחנו בעיניו מכאן אמרו חכמים לעולם תהא דעתו של אדם מעורבת עם הבריות Our Rabbis taught: How does one dance before the bride? The House of Shammai say: The bride as she is. And The House of Hillel say: ‘Beautiful and graceful bride’! The House of Shammai said to the House of Hillel: If she was lame or blind, does one say of her: ‘Beautiful and graceful bride’? Whereas the Torah said, ‘Keep thee far from a false matter’ (Ex. 23:7). Said the House of Hillel to the House of Shammai: According to your words, if one has made a bad purchase in the market, should one praise it in his eyes or depreciate it? Surely, one should praise it in his eyes. Therefore, the Sages said: Always should the disposition of man be pleasant with people.

Even more broadly, the Jewish tradition teaches us that we may “modify a statement” for the sake of peace, based upon God’s behavior in the story of Abraham and Sarah. The sage Rashi (1040-1105) picked up on a nuance in these two verses (Gen. 18:13-14):

יב. וַתִּצְחַק שָׂרָה, בְּקִרְבָּהּ לֵאמֹר: אַחֲרֵי בְלֹתִי הָיְתָה-לִּי עֶדְנָה, וַאדֹנִי זָקֵן? 12. And Sarah laughed to herself, saying: ‘After I am withered shall I have pleasure, my husband being old?’
יג. וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם: לָמָּה זֶּה צָחֲקָה שָׂרָה לֵאמֹר, הַאַף אֻמְנָם אֵלֵד–וַאֲנִי זָקַנְתִּי? 13. And the LORD said unto Abraham: ‘Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying: Shall I of a surety bear a child, old as I am?

Rashi pointed out that when speaking to Abraham, following His promise to Sarah, God changed Sarah’s words so her husband would not know that she had been laughing at his old age. The lesson derived from the distinction between these two verses was also underscored in the Talmud (Tractate Yevamot 65b):

וא”ר אילעא משום רבי אלעזר בר’ שמעון מותר לו לאדם לשנות בדבר השלום… דבי רבי ישמעאל תנא גדול השלום שאף הקדוש ברוך הוא שינה בו דמעיקרא כתיב (בראשית יח) ואדוני זקן ולבסוף כתיב ואני זקנתי: R. Ile’a further stated in the name of R. Eleazar son of R. Simeon: One may modify a statement in the interests of peace… At the School of R. Ishmael it was taught: Great is the cause of peace. Seeing that for its sake even the Holy One, blessed be He, modified a statement; for at first it is written, My husband being old, while afterwards it is written, And I am old.

It seems that the Jewish tradition approaches the ideal of speaking the truth very sensibly. After all, we are only human, and so few of our relationships in this world work out tidily. Telling the truth is an ideal that we should always aim for, and the acceptable exceptions to this rule are only for the sakes of other people. Even then, we ought to be wary, for in my personal experience, the road to hell is truly paved with good intentions.


My Papa was a man of the utmost integrity, but he was also a very practical man. Ultimately, I remember him prioritizing the golden rule above all else.

In my childhood, he was always disappointed in me for my falsehoods and deceptions, but mostly because of how my lack of consideration for others (including him and Mama) reflected upon my character. Suffice it to say that I wasn’t lying for the sake of peace, as the Talmud would have it.

Thinking through this now, I’m not at all sure of the best balance between truth and intention, which I suppose is ultimately a situational matter. Nobody ever said that being a moral person is easy.

I am wondering which of these is at the root of our increasing lack of trust in our leaders and institutions… perhaps a bit of both?

Ethical will: Listening

We find ourselves on the eve of the 2020 U.S. Presidential election, and voices across the world on both ends of the political spectrum are declaring that all we know as humankind will come to a devastating end if their preferred candidates don’t win.

What befuddles me is that I personally know well-intentioned and well-educated people with diametrically opposed political views, equally certain that the other side is utterly misguided (at best). The people I am referring to are my close friends, family, and mentors; they are among the most upstanding human beings that I have known. How can one side’s assessment be entirely wrong and the other side be right? How can they all be so sure of themselves?

Worse, both here in Israel and in the USA where my mother and brother still reside, it feels to me as though nobody has any interest in listening to those with whom they disagree politically.

And, regardless of who wins this election, I can’t imagine any scenario in which people on opposite sides of the aisle start heeding one another’s concerns.

I have truly never felt so disheartened.


I considered expressing my sentiments in a poem or a blog post, but instead I’ve decided to add a page to this ethical will of mine. This feels to me a productive use of my anxious energies.

While I follow U.S. politics very closely, having lived in Washington D.C. for three years after earning my graduate degree in public policy, I do not believe that I have anything valuable to contribute to the political discourse. Also, given the political climate, making any such attempt seems pointless, and I’m disinclined to churn out words simply for the sake of producing content.

Therefore, taking a 30,000 foot view, as they say, I would like to focus instead on my perspective on the root cause of the breakdown in our national and international discourses…

What follows is my personal attempt at lemonade:


In Jewish tradition, Moses was the greatest of our prophets, meaning that his relationship with God was closer than any other’s. Deuteronomy 34:10 reads:

וְלֹא-קָם נָבִיא עוֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, כְּמֹשֶׁה, אֲשֶׁר יְדָעוֹ יְהוָה, פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים. And there hath not arisen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face;

Famously, Moses protested to God that he was not fit to be His prophet. Why not? Because, as Moses himself put it, his lips were uncircumcised (Deut. 6:30):

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה: הֵן אֲנִי, עֲרַל שְׂפָתַיִם, וְאֵיךְ, יִשְׁמַע אֵלַי פַּרְעֹה. And Moses said before the LORD: ‘Behold, I am of uncircumcised lips, and how shall Pharaoh hearken unto me?’

‘Uncircumcised lips’ has been interpreted in a number of ways throughout the centuries, but, most fundamentally, it meant that Moses could not speak well. Despite this (and some suggest: because of this), he heard God’s voice more clearly than anyone in history.

This may be contrasted with the prophet Jeremiah’s criticism of the ancient Israelites (Jer. 6:10):

עַל-מִי אֲדַבְּרָה וְאָעִידָה, וְיִשְׁמָעוּ–הִנֵּה עֲרֵלָה אָזְנָם, וְלֹא יוּכְלוּ לְהַקְשִׁיב; הִנֵּה דְבַר-יְהוָה, הָיָה לָהֶם לְחֶרְפָּה–לֹא יַחְפְּצוּ-בוֹ. To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear? Behold, their ear is uncircumcised, and they cannot attend; behold, the word of the LORD is become unto them a reproach, they have no delight in it.

In fact, this theme of the Israelites not heeding God and His prophets went all the way back to the start of Moses’s own endeavor to serve as God’s prophet. In Exodus 6:12, Va’eira, Moses complained as follows:

וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה לֵאמֹר: הֵן בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֹא-שָׁמְעוּ אֵלַי, וְאֵיךְ יִשְׁמָעֵנִי פַרְעֹה, וַאֲנִי עֲרַל שְׂפָתָיִם. And Moses spoke before the LORD, saying: ‘Behold, the children of Israel have not hearkened unto me; how then shall Pharaoh hear me, who am of uncircumcised lips?’

Here, again, we see Moses’ concern regarding his ‘uncircumcised lips’, but in Exodus this greatest of all prophets is underscoring something beyond his own human limitations: Moses is highlighting the Israelites’ failure to heed him.

The Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, Poland, 1847 – 1905) deftly tied these two strings of thought together, and the renowned modern-day Torah scholar Aviva Zornberg (1944-) explicates the Chassidic Rebbe‘s teaching for us as follows:

Moses refers to his lips as ‘uncircumcised’ because “Speech… normally creates listeners… it is the listener who creates the act of speech… As long as there is no one to listen to God’s word, language impotently stutters” (The Particulars of Rapture, p. 84).

Simply, if we truly hearken to one another, we will find ourselves able to express ourselves more eloquently; and I have been finding this to be particularly true during children’s formative years:

The more we make a sincere effort to listen to our daughters and sons, the more articulate they will become.

Ethical will: Impartiality

Judgmentalism has always come easily to me.

-Me, ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish 45’, May 30, 2019

During my kaddish journey following Papa’s death, I struggled with being judgmental of myself. In fact, this was one of the primary impetuses behind that yearlong writing project… Frankly, I had been feeling FAKE by going through the motions of communal mourning rituals with my religious community, while lacking faith in a personal Higher Power. I knew that that Papa would never have wanted that, nor respected it, and I couldn’t stand it either… so I began to share my truth.

It has been my experience that those of us who are most judgmental of ourselves also tend to be judgmental of others. A particular acquaintance of mine struggles with this more than anyone else I’ve known, and while many of the sentiments that he articulates are off-putting to me, my own inclination towards stinging judgmentalism permits me to empathize with and pity him. In his brutal judgments of others, I hear his impossible expectations of himself. His harsh judgmentalism puts my own into perspective.

The funny thing about [my] judgmentalism is that there’s always somebody for me to judge.

When I was more committed to Jewish tradition as an expression of God’s will, when I was praying three times daily and very careful never to eat any food that wasn’t certified kosher, when I felt more certain of my faith… I found myself having to withhold many a comment about those who were less observant.

On the other hand, now that my personal commitment to daily religious observance has slipped, now that I have strongly embraced my skepticism and doubts, now that I see tradition as almost entirely an expression of human needs and experiences… I find myself judging those who believe in Something that they cannot prove.

This reminds me of a popular adage I’ve oft heard in Jewish educational circles:

Anyone to my right is a zealot; anyone to my left is a heretic.


Now, the Torah, as I’ve written elsewhere, is a legal tradition at its core. The ancient Israelites lived their lives according to what they believed to be God’s Word, and they established judicial courts accordingly to adjudicate the inevitable disputes.

Somewhat as an aside, it was Moses‘ father-in-law Jethro, a non-Israelite, who first suggested the establishment of a hierarchical court system, rather than leaving Moses to shoulder the burden of adjudication on his own. Notably, according to Jewish doctrine, only Jews are obligated to live their lives according to God’s Torah, but gentiles are still considered obligated to abide by the seven Noahide laws, one of which is: the establishment of courts of justice.

It’s clear that judgment has an important place in Judaism. Indeed, Deuteronomy 16:19-20 is written as follows:

לֹא־תַטֶּ֣ה מִשְׁפָּ֔ט לֹ֥א תַכִּ֖יר פָּנִ֑ים וְלֹא־תִקַּ֣ח שֹׁ֔חַד כִּ֣י הַשֹּׁ֗חַד יְעַוֵּר֙ עֵינֵ֣י חֲכָמִ֔ים וִֽיסַלֵּ֖ף דִּבְרֵ֥י צַדִּיקִֽם׃ You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.
צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙ וְיָרַשְׁתָּ֣ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ׃ Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

These two verses, I find, are very instructive for us. For me, they are something to aspire to.

On the one hand, verse 20 makes it clear that we Jews ought to pursue justice. This is part and parcel of Torah. Through this lens, I am able to recognize and appreciate that judgmentalism isn’t inherently bad, although it certainly may be painful for me.

Verse 19 serves to clarify the ideal of judgment for me. Yes, we must pursue justice, but how does one do so? The answer: ‘you shall show no partiality’.

In other words, yes, we are creatures of judgment, and, yes, this may be not only natural but correct. However, we must always recognize and acknowledge our biases, and these biases are more than likely to shift over time, further highlighting their subjectiveness. So we must, of necessity, ask ourselves, “How would I describe my perspective? Who do I perceive to be different than myself and in what ways? And- how am I intuitively inclined to regard them?”


On a personal note, I am finding that the struggle of being judgmental has not gotten any easier for me emotionally over the years. However, the more I have been able to recognize and acknowledge my own mistakes and failures, the more I find myself capable of understanding the human failings of others.

Ethical will: Raising individuals

Given that I put a premium on being true to one’s self, one would be correct to assume that this value fundamentally informs my parenting priorities. As is nearly always the case with my ethics, this is no novel notion of mine.

Let us look at Proverbs 22:6 together:

חֲנֹ֣ךְ לַ֭נַּעַר עַל־פִּ֣י דַרְכּ֑וֹ גַּ֥ם כִּֽי־יַ֝זְקִ֗ין לֹֽא־יָס֥וּר מִמֶּֽנָּה׃ Educate a youth according to his way; he will not swerve from it even in old age.

Perhaps I should end this post here. What have I to contribute of substance to this ancient wisdom? Should it not be obvious that all children have their own strengths, weaknesses, personalities, and ways of understanding? That they deserve the same opportunities to grow into and actualize themselves, which every single parent would like to have for themselves?

* * *

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808-88) did, in fact, illustrate this idea in the context of the Torah’s tale of the twins Esau and Jacob. Why, he wondered, did one twin follow their parents’ path and the other (Esau) go astray? Rav Hirsch suggested that this was due to a grave mistake perpetrated by the brothers’ parents Isaac and Rebecca.

[A BRIEF ASIDE: Something I profoundly appreciate about our Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) is that it doesn’t shy away from or attempt to smooth over the shortcomings and failings of our matriarchs, patriarchs, kings, prophets, and heroes. Rather, we are to derive life lessons from their terrible mistakes.]

Rav Hirsch was bothered by something in Genesis 25:27. Let’s take a look:

וַֽיִּגְדְּלוּ֙ הַנְּעָרִ֔ים וַיְהִ֣י עֵשָׂ֗ו אִ֛ישׁ יֹדֵ֥עַ צַ֖יִד אִ֣ישׁ שָׂדֶ֑ה וְיַעֲקֹב֙ אִ֣ישׁ תָּ֔ם יֹשֵׁ֖ב אֹהָלִֽים׃ And the youths grew up, Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the field; but Jacob was a mild man who sat in tents.

Why, wondered Rav Hirsch, does the verse say that the twins were different only after they grew up? Was it not obvious that their natures were very different long before they came of age? Based on this verse, the great rabbi deduced that Rebecca and Isaac raised the twins in exactly the same way. Their childhoods had been identical. He wrote:

כל עוד היו קטנים, אף אחד לא העניק תשומת לב להבדלים בפנימיותם (עיין פסוק כד); נתנו להם אותו גידול ואותו חינוך. הוריהם שכחו כלל גדול בחינוך: ״חֲנֹךְ לַנַּעַר עַל־פִּי דַרְכּוֹ״ וגו׳ (משלי כב, ו). As long as they were little, No one paid attention to the differences in their inner natures (see verse 24); they gave them the same upbringing and the same education. Their parents forgot a big rule in education: ‘Educate a youth according to his way…’ (Proverbs 22:6).

Rav Hirsch brought his point home as follows:

״ויגדלו הנערים״: רק לאחר שהבנים גדלו והפכו לאנשים, הופתעו כולם לגלות, ששני האחים, שמרחם אחד יצאו, ואשר קיבלו את אותה השגחה, התחנכו באותה הדרך, ולמדו אותם לימודים; היו כה שונים בטבעיהם ובפעולותיהם. “And the youths grew up”: Only after the boys grew up and became adults was everyone surprised to discover that the two brothers, who had come out of one womb, and who had received the same supervision; been educated the same way; and been taught the same studies, were so different in their natures and actions.

According to Hirsch’s lengthy exegesis, the upbringing and education received by the twin brothers suited Jacob but not Esau, which explains why Esau did not grow up to become a righteous man.

* * *

One of the amazing aspects of watching our daughter grow up is our ever-developing familiarity with her temperament and personality.

When she was yet a baby and even a toddler, I harbored skepticism regarding the extent to which her actions and reactions were anything more than behaviors common to most, if not all, children at those ages. Now I know that I was very wrong.

I recall a video from her daycare when she was but a one-year-old, in which she vehemently shook her head and rejected a pair of maracas offered to her during a holiday celebration. Every other child seated in that little circle was happy to grab some maracas from the music teacher and shake them. At the time, this incident mostly amused me.

Since then, based upon my and my wife’s observations, and based upon the feedback that we’ve received from multiple daycare and preschool teachers, I have come to recognize that our daughter often likes to play independently from other children and come up with activities for herself. She does not always want to play with others, and she does not always want to do what others are doing. She doesn’t have problems socializing with her peers; she is simply aware of her need for personal space. Now, given our worldviews, we’ve never needed reassurance that this is anything other than perfectly healthy behavior, but multiple teachers have felt the need to underscore: “Don’t worry, this is totally fine!”

The above is but an example of a character trait, which exhibited itself in our daughter’s behavior at a very early age. There are, of course, many, many others – and, as Rav Hirsch expounded upon in his Torah commentary, this is true for all children.

It is for parents to observe their children and fathom them. Our approaches to rearing and education must be adapted accordingly.

Ethical will: Realize your creativity

The first verse of the Torah (Gen. 1:1) is as follows:

א בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ. 1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

Here, at the outset, the Torah’s very first mention of God is as a Creator.

Now, fundamental to Jewish theology is the idea that humankind was created in God’s image. The phrase ‘image of God’ occurs three times in the Book of Genesis: 1:26–28, 5:1–3, and 9:6.

God’s incorporeality, of course, is also fundamental to Judaism, suggesting that His “image” cannot have anything to do with humankind’s physical attributes. Further to the point, the Hebrew word for ‘image’ used in this Biblical phrase is ‘tselem’ (צלם), which is not the Torah’s term for forms and bodies. Rather, in describing such three-dimensional shapes, the Torah uses the words ‘toar’ (טואר) and ‘tavnit’ (תבנית).

Therefore, as Torah scholars have given much thought to over the centuries, human beings must possess other traits that reflect God’s own. One proposition that resonates with me deeply is that of Rav A. I. Kook (1865-1935). In his opus ‘For the Perplexed of the Generation’, he writes at the very beginning (1:1):

(א) שהאדם נברא בצלם אלהים זה הוא יסוד התורה. עיקר הצלם הוא החופש הגמור שאנו מוצאים באדם שעל כן הוא בעל בחירה. (1) The foundation of the Torah is that man was created “in the image of God”. The essential meaning of “the image” is the complete freedom we find in man, [which means] that man must have free will.

Free will.

What shall we do with it?

* * *

Without free will, we would essentially be robots, programmed to live out our lives in particular ways, rendering morality irrelevant. On a basic level, free will empowers humans to choose between right and wrong, imbuing the concepts of “Good” and “Bad” with meaning.

These choices are primarily reactive. How to most properly react to other people in different situations? To animals? To nature? To the world? This facet of free will is inherently contextual.

Here I would be remiss not to admit that mine is not the traditional Jewish view, which defines a moral Jewish life as one which is lived according to the Torah’s (i.e. God’s) precepts. Jews must pray to God regardless of context, just as they must observe the Sabbath, wear special fringes on each corner of their four-cornered garments, and refrain from eating non-kosher food, etc., etc. Such religious commandments are not reactive, and, for me, neither are they matters of morality.

* * *

The other aspect of humankind’s free will, I believe, is our creativity. Unlike other animals, we have the capacity to create things that are entirely new to the world; in fact, it has been by virtue of this special human attribute that we have conquered the earth (for better or worse).

It is my belief that genuinely being true to ourselves calls for exploring and actualizing our unique creative drives. The fulfillment we receive from creating that which is uniquely ours is among the most precious experiences that make our human lives worth living.