4/24/202323 min read



The vast majority of Jewish youth have been brought up estranged from a vibrant, spiritual Judaism. In North America, they have been brought up to view Judaism as ‘a bagels and lox religion.’ At best Judaism is viewed as a ‘social’ phenomenon, with quaint customs, a different diet, and lots of fundraising. At worst it is viewed as being totally incomprehensible, out of touch with the realities of modern day existence.

The reactions of our youth today are twofold: a) They lose themselves in the vanities of this world. b) They are so desperate for spirituality that cults and other ‘religions’ ensnare them.

Lost in Vanity - The Trap of Materialism

In Pirke Avot (4:16), our sages of blessed memory compare this world to a corridor before the palace. That is, this world is not permanent. It is just a temporary passageway to the next world.

We easily and frequently forget that this world is not everlasting, and we get caught up in the struggle for materialism that abounds around us.

On the one hand there is no mitzvah to be poor or to live in miserable circumstances. Riches are never scoffed at in the Torah. On the contrary, wealth is viewed as a blessing from God. The idea that wealth is a blessing is fundamental to Judaism. It is mentioned in the second paragraph of the Shema (Deuteronomy 11).

Maimonides (Laws of Teshuvah 9:1) further explains this idea:

“The blessing of wealth is not an end in itself, but a means that should be used for the performance of more good deeds. Fortunate are the people who view their material possessions as the instruments to perfect themselves and the world.”

On the other hand, wealth can be a test. We may build large houses and buy expensive furniture. Understandably, we want to live well, but we have to realize that we are just temporary and cannot take these things with us. This was the mistake made by the Pharaohs of Egypt. Their wealth was buried with them in magnificent burial chambers in enormous pyramids that are among the wonders of the ancient world. These massive mausoleums were built utilizing slave labor at great cost, both in terms of human lives lost in the construction, and in the financial expenses involved.

The Pharaohs thought that they needed all their wealth and belongings for their long voyage to the next world. We now know for sure that they were terribly mistaken. Obviously they could not take anything with them. Ironically, the vast majority of their great fortune was stolen by grave robbers. The rest, including their beautifully-preserved remains, ended up in important museums around the world. King Solomon summed up the physical prowess of even the greatest human beings in a few words; “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Kohelet 1:1.

There is a beautiful story of an American Jew who was touring through pre-Second World War Europe. He had heard a lot about the Hafetz Haim, and so on his way through Poland he decided to go and visit this famous Rabbi. Expecting the great Rabbi to be living a lifestyle in accordance with his fame, the tourist was taken aback when the door to the very humble dwelling of the great Rabbi was answered by the Hafetz Haim himself. He was overawed by the great leader’s simple demeanor and by his humble diminutive presence. When the wonder started to wear off, he started to look around the Rabbi’s dwelling. The first thing that struck him about it was the paucity of furniture. He was amazed and could not hold himself back from asking this question in great wonderment “Rabbi, where is your furniture?”

“Where is yours?” was the quick response.

“I’m just passing through here, Rabbi.” answered the tourist.

“So am I.” answered the Hafetz Haim with a small smile.

We forget this most important fact:

We are all tourists passing through this world, which is only a temporary state of being for us. Let us not make it the focus of all our energies.

b) Ensnared By Spiritual Falsehoods

In their search for spirituality and meaning, many of our young people have joined various cults, the majority of whose members in the United States happen to be Jews. They are unaware of the inner satisfaction and sense of purpose and mission that vibrant Judaism can give a person. They are searching in strange places and are being misled in droves by charlatans who play on their naiveté and their spiritual thirst.

There are two beautiful stories that illustrate this point:

A poor Jewish peasant had a dream that there was a pot of gold buried near a local bridge. Full of hope, he went to the bridge. A watchman was guarding the bridge. He observed the Jew circling around the area of the bridge as if he was looking for something. “Hey!” he shouted, “What are you looking for?” The poor Jew came closer and sheepishly explained his dream, his desperate situation, and his hopes of finding the gold. The watchman was a jovial fellow. He burst out laughing. “Don’t believe these silly dreams. Why, I myself had a similar dream last night. I dreamed that a poor Jewish peasant in a nearby town had a pot of gold buried under his fireplace. I am not going crazy worrying about these insane dreams.”

The peasant listened to the watchman’s dream with bated breath. He had just described his own house. He rushed home and dug under his fireplace. Sure enough, he found a pot of gold and became very wealthy.

The moral of this story is that many people are looking for spiritual satisfaction in distant, exotic lands and in strange religions that their forefathers never knew, but they are unaware of the treasures of their own religion and heritage.

The second story is about an elderly Jewish woman who joined an Indian cult in her neighborhood. The members of the cult were taken aback by the combination of her very Jewish appearance and her age. They questioned her about her seriousness and her realization of what was entailed in her joining. The woman attended all meetings religiously for six months. The cult planned a trip to India to visit the ‘holy’ man, who was the leader of the cult. Everyone was amazed to see that the old lady was the first one to sign up for this trip.

The group arrived in India and was taken to the massive temple of the ‘holy’ man. There were two lines of people waiting for admission to the holy man, one long and one short. The woman inquired as to the significance of these two lines.

“Well,” she was told, “The long line is for those who want to discuss matters at length with the ‘holy’ man. The short line is for those who are limited to saying four words.”

The old woman went and stood in the short line. When her turn came for an audience, she shocked all the onlookers, and the ‘holy’ man was visibly moved. “Moishele!” she cried bitterly, “Please come home.”

This anecdote illustrates the sorry state of Jewry today. We have lost tens of thousands of our spiritually-sensitive, searching young people to strange meaningless gods because we have not explained and reiterated enough the purpose, rationale and spirituality inherent in Judaism.


a) Individual Perfection

The first part of our mission is on the micro-scale: to perfect ourselves as individuals, spiritually and ethically, so as to emulate and draw close to our Creator and give good examples to the rest of humanity. By doing this we will also earn our portion in the world to come.

The basic components of society are individuals. If each individual is striving for moral, ethical, and spiritual perfection, then society as a whole will be enriched and elevated. But if, as is presently the case, imperfect societies are blamed for the most part, not on evil individuals, but on bad government, individuals will never strive for perfection and society will never realize this goal.

This, the perfection of each individual, is the secret of a perfect society. Ignoring this is one of the biggest mistakes made by present-day social architects. The brilliance of the Torah system is that it starts from the ground up. We are all responsible for our own individual perfection. Worldwide perfection will only come about if all individuals are perfect.

There is a famous Midrash which highlights the idea that individual perfection is one of the main goals of God’s Torah. The Midrash Tanchuma Shemini 7 quotes Rabbi Judah the Prince as asking rhetorically: “What does God care if the Jews eat without shechitah (ritual slaughter)?” He answered by expounding on a verse from Psalms 18 “The sayings of God purify. The mitzvot (commandments) were given to us to test and discipline each one of us, in order to purify us and make us better human beings.”

The Sefer Hahinuch (The Book of Education) in Mitzvah 16 gives us a perspective on the rationale of the mitzvot:

“Know that a person is formed according to his deeds. His heart and all his thoughts inevitably follow the path set by the activities in which he engages, whether for good or for bad. Even a consummate villain whose heart is filled with evil, and whose thoughts turn to nothing except evil, would find himself instantly drawn to good if he were to expend his energy and efforts constantly on Torah and Mitzvot, even if his motives were neither pure nor heavenly. For this reason, God chose to give us many mitzvot so that they could engage our thoughts and be the focus of our activities. Through these goodly deeds, we should become good and merit everlasting life.”

There is a relatively new branch of psychology entitled behavior modification that posits that our thoughts follow our deeds, and that it is possible to change the way a person thinks by first modifying his or her behavior. This seems to be the reason for the commandments advanced by the above.

The Vilna Gaon, in a small but immensely powerful volume entitled Even Shelema, states that the main function for a person in this world is to perfect his or her character traits. A person who learns the whole Torah, with all the intellectual stimulation involved and theoretical knowledge obtained, but does not perfect his or her character, has not achieved this goal.

Rabbi Moshe Haim Luzatto, in his book The Path of the Just, discusses the topic of individual perfection in great detail. In his introduction he laments the fact that so few people, even from the so-called ‘religious’ element, focus themselves on this ideal of serving God and perfecting this service.

“There are many intelligent people who spend their time on their professions as lawyers, doctors, accountants, astronomers, scientists, and mathematicians. Others spend their time learning Torah: Talmud, Mishnah, Halachah, and Midrash. But few devote their thought and study to the perfection of serving God. They think it is so obvious they are doing so, that it does not require thought. Frequently, the idea of perfecting one’s service of God has been left to those of limited intelligence, so that when one sees someone engaged in saintly conduct, one cannot help but suspect them of lacking intelligence.

The wise lack perfection because they don’t spend enough time pondering it. Those of less intelligence lack perfection because of their limited ability to grasp concepts. The result is people think that perfection is achieved through reading the book of Psalms all day, or engaging in fasting and other kinds of self mortification. The truth is that saintliness is far from that concept.

King Solomon in Proverbs 2:4 states: “If you will seek it as silver and search for it as a treasure, then you will understand the fear of God.”

You know how much time, effort and money the oil companies expend in looking for oil, and how much time, energy and money the mining companies spend looking for precious natural resources. This is how much we should be spending on trying to achieve individual perfection.

b) To be Ethical and Moral Role Models for the Whole World

The second purpose of Judaism is explicit in the Torah and is an idea with which we end our thrice-daily prayers: ‘To perfect the world under the kingship of God.’ Our mission is to create an ethical, moral, monotheistic world civilization where there will be no hunger, poverty, lawlessness, or strife; a society in which people will be engaged in brotherhood and peace, and devote the greater part of their time to the pursuit of knowledge of God.

We talk about ourselves as being the children of Abraham and Sarah, whom we look up to as our ancestors, as opposed to the other nations of the world who are called the children of Noah. One of the aspects of being an ancestor is that of being a role model for progeny. Abraham and Sarah are the role models for us to emulate and not Noah, even though we are also descended from Noah.

Among many misconceptions that people have about Judaism is that Abraham was the first Jew. He wasn’t. Judaism as we know it did not exist before the Torah was given at Sinai, and hence there were no Jews.

Abraham and Noah were both on very high spiritual levels. They both communicated with God, but we have no record that Noah tried to reach out to others, or that he tried to improve society. When God told him that He was going to destroy the world and instructed him to build a boat for himself and his family, Noah’s response was silence. He didn’t plead with God to save the world. He didn’t try and change people’s attitudes. He minded his own business and built the ark. When people would come to him and ask him questions, he would answer them, but he wouldn’t go out of his way to reach out to others.

Let us contrast this with Abraham’s behavior. Abraham truly cared about other human beings. When God told Abraham that He was planning to destroy the city of Sodom and its environs, Abraham argued back spiritedly in defense of these people, even though the vast majority of them were evil.

Abraham also tried to change society by spreading his belief in an invisible, all-powerful, infinite Creator and Ruler of the Universe. The Torah hints at this in Genesis 12:5, when it mentions that Abraham and Sarah moved to Canaan with all the souls that they had made in Haran. Rashi explains that these ‘souls’ were people whom they had persuaded to accept an ethical, monotheistic way of life.

This is the second part of our mission, on a macro level, to be ethical and moral human beings and upright members of society who will be good role models for the rest of society, and will change society through osmosis, either by their interaction with others or just by spreading the lessons of the Bible. The Torah stresses (Exodus 19:6) that we are to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation - priests to whom? The answer is that we have to be role models like our forefather Abraham, and to help make this world more ethical, moral and spiritual.

Most people have a general idea of how the Jews originated how they won their land and established their kingdoms. However, most people do not realize the influence which the Torah, Moses the lawgiver, our poets, writers and religious teachers - the men and women known as the prophets have had on the world. Their words have resounded through the centuries and their thoughts affect our lives today.

The Bible has influenced the mind and happiness of the Western world more than any battle ever fought, any invention ever made, or any idea ever expressed. It has inspired the religion, the language, the arts, the conduct, the fears and the hopes of almost every nation on earth. Over the last sixty or so years, one of the most consistently prominent issues on the world stage has been Israel and Jews. Many nations, more populous and with much greater land mass, have hardly been heard about. However, Jews are news. God’s plan is to keep us at center stage. Judaism is by far the smallest of the major world religions and is the mother religion of both Christianity and Islam. It is considered a major world religion not because of the number of its adherents, but because of its impact on world morality and ethics. Ironically, the biggest enemies of the Jewish people have been the ones who recognized the power of the message of Judaism.

The test of a people’s greatness is not the number of its citizens, nor the size of its cities, nor the wealth of its millionaires. The real test lies in a people’s effort to improve the mind, the character and the well-being of humanity, to give life new directions, and to extend justice in human society. This is why the small Jewish people are of such interest and importance to the world.

The prophecies of the future by Isaiah the prophet are well-known, so well-known that the United Nations headquarters in New York has an Isaiah wall. In Chapter 2, Verses 2-4, Isaiah gives a universal message of hope and purpose:

“It will happen in the end of days: The Mountain of the Temple of Hashem will be firmly established as the head of the mountains, and it will be exalted above the hills, and all the nations will stream to it. Many people will go and say, ‘Come let us go up to the mountain of Hashem, to the Temple of the God of Jacob, and He will teach us of His ways and we will walk in His paths.’ For from Zion will the Torah come forth, and the word of Hashem from Jerusalem. He will judge among the nations, and will settle the arguments of many peoples. They shall beat their swords into plows and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift sword against nation and they will no longer study warfare.”

Again in Chapter 11 he predicts, in parable form, that there will be universal peace and brotherhood.

“A staff will emerge from the stump of Jesse and a shoot will sprout from his roots. The spirit of Hashem will sprout from his roots. The spirit of Hashem will rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of knowledge and fear of God. He will be imbued with a spirit of fear for Hashem, and will not need to judge by what his eyes see nor decide by what his ears hear. He will judge the destitute with righteousness, and decide with fairness for the humble of the earth. He will strike the wicked of the world with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be the girdle round his loins.

The wolf will live with the sheep and the leopard will lie down with the kid; and a calf, a lion’s whelp...will walk together...They will neither injure nor destroy in all of my sacred mountain; for the earth will be as full of knowledge of God as water covering the sea bed.”

Judaism is broad and universal. This is the reason the Rabbis point out that the Torah was given in the wilderness. It was given in a no-man’s land, a place open to everyone, all persons, of all races, so that people should not say that the nations of the world have no portion in the Torah.

However, when it comes to where Jews should live, the Torah is very specific. Why do we have to live in a specific location? This is an idea unique to Judaism that is not found in any other religion.

The reason, I think, is that:

God wants the Jewish nation on its own land, in its own state to build a perfect, moral, ethical society that will serve as a role model for the rest of the world, a society to be based on the triple foundations of monotheism, righteousness and justice.

This was the case in the heyday of the Jewish commonwealth in the days of King Solomon.

How to Spread Ethical Monotheism in the World

Kind David, toward the end of his life, had a desire to build a dwelling place for God’s Ark. (Samuel 2:7, 13) The Bible tells us that he was not allowed to do so. The reason usually given is that his hands were full of blood. He was constantly engaged in warfare to protect his kingdom and people.

The second reason given is implicit in the verses. He built himself a lavish palace and only then expressed concern that there was no permanent dwelling for the Ark. His priorities were skewed and should have been reversed.

The third reason is a rational one that has been advanced from a social perspective. His kingdom was not sufficiently established from a social and economic perspective to undertake the massive spiritual project of building a house of God. These three reasons represent different ideas.

Let us assume that the building of a house for God symbolizes spreading the word of God in the world.

a) This cannot be achieved in a violent manner. A person whose hands are full of blood cannot build the house of God. A similar idea is also mentioned by the Torah at the end of Parashat Yitro (Exodus 20:22) after the ‘Ten Commandments’ are mentioned.

Three more commandments were given to Moses on Sinai that are not as well-known and hardly ever mentioned, which govern Temple worship. One of them is the following:

“And if you will make the altar out of stone, do not build it from hewn stone, because you have swung your sword over it and desecrated it.”

God does not want his altar to be built from stones that were cut by implements made from the same materials as those used in implements of war and killing.

Violence has no part or role in the spreading of God’s word in the world. God’s word has to be spread through conviction and role-play.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary on the Bible, puts this concept very eloquently:

“Not destruction, not sacrifice, nor giving up life, is the meaning and purpose of the altar...right and humanity must build the altar, and the realms of right and humanness, not the mastery of the sword, is to spread from it. In the ‘Hall of Stone’ adjoining the altar of stone, the Supreme Court (Sanhedrin) was housed…the altar is the symbol of Jewish Justice.”

Contrast this idea with the mass conversions under threat of death, that were carried out in the name of religion by two major religions in previous years and today by ISIL in the name of Islam.

b) The second idea, that David built his lavish palace before he thought about a dwelling for God, represents the importance of priorities in life. David would have been excused, had he built himself the simplest dwelling fit for a king. But he went overboard materialistically and was thus not worthy of building a spiritual dwelling. This teaches us that even though a certain amount of materialism is necessary for our physical well-being we must not lose sight of our spiritual goals and drown in a sea of physicality. The Mishnah (Avot 3:17) sums up this idea with its dictum “If there is no flour, there can be no Torah study, and if there is no Torah study, there can be no flour.” Flour represents physical and material wealth. This must go hand in hand with the spiritual endeavors of man.

c) The third reason advanced was the fact that the Kingdom of Israel at that time was not sufficiently stable from an economic and social perspective for such a massive spiritual undertaking. It was constantly in a state of war.

On an individual level, a person cannot attain a high level of spirituality unless he or she is physically healthy, mentally stable and wise, and economically sound. These three things must be attained before high spiritual aspirations can be reached.

The Talmud quotes Rabbi Yochanan as saying that God only rests his spirit on a person who possesses the following: wisdom, physical might, and financial wealth. Rambam, the great Rabbi, doctor and philosopher, discussed this concept in the Laws of Prophecy. He describes a lower level of prophecy as requiring the following traits: Wisdom, total control over desires, and an extremely broad intellect. A prophet is a person who sanctifies himself or herself to be in tune with the spiritual world.

This connects to our forefather Jacob’s dream (Bereshit 28:12): Jacob was on his way to his uncle Lavan’s house. While camping out in the fields one night, he saw a vision of a ladder, with its base resting firmly on the ground and its head in the heavens, angels were climbing up and down the ladder.

There are many interpretation of the symbolism of this dream:

1. The angels are spiritual entities that accompanied Jacob to protect him on his travels. Rashi explains that there are different angels for different areas of the world i.e. different states of Divine providence depending on where one lives. When a person leaves a certain place their spiritual auras also change some for the better and some for the worse.

2. The ladder represents the timeline of Jewish history. The angels climbing up and down the ladder represent the nations who will become great and ultimately fade away. God was on top of the ladder as He ultimately watches over human history.

3. This ladder also represents human beings. We are a synthesis of the material and the physical worlds. Our feet must rest firmly on the ground, we need to be practical.

Our physical existence is important and has to be provided for, but our visions and aspirations - the angels - should be directed upwards to God. We need to realize that we can go either up or down the spiritual escalator of life.

Sanctifying God’s Name in Public / Kiddush Hashem

We can influence our surroundings most by being positive role models to those around us. This form of behavior has been traditionally called Kiddush Hashem (sanctifying God’s name). The sanctification of God’s name is achieved when an individual known to be a believer in God is familiar to everyone around for his or her meticulous adherence to God’s law, both in the spiritual realm and in those laws that affect relations with his or her neighbors.

The Midrash relates the story of Rabbi Shimon Ben Shetach, a famous leader of the Sanhedrin, the highest court in Israel, some two thousand years ago. The Rabbi sent students to acquire a donkey on his behalf. They bought one from a gentile. It came fully equipped with a saddle and bridle. On the way back from the market the students discovered a very precious stone hidden under the saddle. They rushed to the Rabbi with the good news. He was now an extremely wealthy man. The Rabbi’s response was totally unexpected. “I purchased a donkey; I did not purchase a jewel. Return it to its rightful owner.”

The students hastened to do their teacher’s bidding. The gentile former owner of the donkey was very grateful. “Praised is Rabbi Shimon Ben Shetach and praised is the God of the Jews.” was his emotional response. Rabbi Shimon Ben Shetach’s behavior was a sanctification of God’s name and a good example for all of us to follow.

Distractions from Purpose - The Human Rat Race

We are all busy, always on the go, trying to earn a living and achieve all the modern-day trappings of success. The rat race never ends. The Jew in worldly activity faces frequent challenges to his or her fidelity to Torah values and mitzvah observance. He or she may be struggling to make a mark on a particular field of endeavor, a goal which may appear to be threatened as a result of his or her adherence to Torah guidelines. The time and energy devoted to ‘making it’ also subtracts from time available for striving for perfection.

A wealthy landowner once wanted to reward one of his loyal followers, whose name was Sam. The landowner told Sam to come to him the next day and he would give him as much land as Sam could run around in one day.

The following day, punctually at sunrise, an eager and excited Sam came to the landowner to begin his run, which he had to complete by sunset.

Sam started off at a good pace. On the way he passed his beloved wife. She tried to stop him to ask him to do an errand for her. “Later, later,” he cried, barely pausing, “Can’t you see that I am very busy right now?”

It was midday already. He had covered ground, but the pace was getting to him. “You know?” he said to himself, “If I run just a bit faster, I can cover more ground.” He accelerated his pace.

“Dad!” he heard a small voice crying “Dad, can you help me with my homework?”

“No time, son, no time.” the father muttered “Can’t you see I’m busy?”

His son was crestfallen. “You always say that dad. You never have time for me.”

Sam felt sorry for his son. “Poor boy, I’ll make it up to you later. After all, I am doing this for you.”

“Sam!” the Rabbi shouted with desperation in his voice. “Sam, can you please help us? We need one more man for the minyan.”

“I’m sorry Rabbi.” puffed Sam, running away, “I can’t make it today. I’m real busy, but call me tomorrow. I can’t promise, but I’ll try.”

Close to sunset, a small crowd had gathered around the landowner. Everyone was amazed. Sam had covered a tremendous amount of ground. He came into view, puffing and panting. Everyone cheered. “Sam,” the landowner said, “congratulations! You have really achieved a great deal.”

“Thanks,” muttered Sam and then, clutching his chest he fell down and died of heart failure.

“Give him six feet.” said the landowner.

This is a parable of our lives. We are always running around, trying to make ends meet. We don’t have, or rather; don’t make enough time, for the important things in life, like family, community and God.

The trick used to divert people’s attention from their mission in this world is thousands of years old. It was used by Pharaoh to try and destroy the Jewish people in Egypt. “And the Egyptians made the Children of Israel work with vigor.” (Exodus 1:13) It is called hard work or earning a living. On the one hand, earning one’s own living is a tremendous mitzvah as is stated in Psalms 128:2, “By the toil of your hands you will eat. Praised are you and it will be good for you.” On the other hand, it is a tremendous diversion of resources from one’s main purpose.

Balance Between Spiritual and Material Activities

The balance between one’s spiritual and material activities is the subject of a well-known debate between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in the Talmud Berachot 35b. The second paragraph of the Shema, as we have already mentioned, contains blessings from the Almighty. One of the blessings is that: “You will gather your grain.” Rabbi Yishmael understands this verse to mean that people should earn their own living.

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai asks a logical question: “If we are to be concerned with the harvest and our agricultural needs, when will we ever have time to learn Torah?” He therefore explains the verse as referring to a low-level blessing. We will be blessed with sustenance but only through the sweat of our hands. The higher-level blessing, however, is that, others will provide for us so that we can engage totally in spiritual growth.

The Talmud concludes this debate with the following comment: ‘Many did like Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, but were not successful. Many did like Rabbi Yishmael and were successful.’ We have to try and follow the medium path of Rabbi Yishmael and balance the material and physical components of our lives.

The Code of Jewish Law written by Rabbi Joseph Karo in the sixteenth century formulates the law that a person should work for a living and also engage in learning Torah, the Torah learning being his main preoccupation.

In Orach Haim Chapter 156:1, he states the following:

“After one’s breakfast, one should go to work, because any Torah that is not accompanied by work will eventually lead to sin because poverty will make a person transgress God’s will. Nevertheless a person should not make their work the main thing and their Torah learning the minor thing, but the Torah study should be the main focus and earning a living should be the minor focus. In this way a person will be successful in both.”

In Parashat Terumah, God commanded the Jews to build Him a sanctuary and vessels, which included the Table and Menorah. We know that symbolically the Table in the Sanctuary represented the ability of the Jewish people to sustain themselves physically and materially. The Menorah, however, symbolically represented Torah. The light of the Menorah symbolized the Light of the Torah. “Why is it then,” asks the Siftei Cohen, “that the Table was placed first, before the Menorah? After all, the Menorah is more spiritually significant than the Table?”

The Mishnah (Avot 3:17) states that “If there is no flour there is no Torah.” If there is no livelihood there can be no Torah. Therefore, first we place the Table, representing a livelihood, and then we put out the Menorah, representing Torah. But then, the Mishnah continues, “If there is no Torah, there is no livelihood. So why give the Table priority over the Menorah?

The Gaon of Vilna, in his commentary on Proverbs, comments on another Mishnah in Avot. The Mishnah states that “If there is no wisdom, there is no fear of God,” and then it continues “If there is no fear of God, there is no wisdom.” The Gaon explains this glaring dichotomy as follows: When we speak of chronological priorities, then wisdom has to precede fear of God because ‘the ignoramus cannot be pious.’ (Avot 2:5) Simply put one who doesn’t know anything cannot be observant of God’s laws. However, in terms of goals, priority is given to fear of God. In other words, if wisdom is not going to lead to action in the form of deeds, the wisdom is worthless. If a person learns Torah but does not have any other virtuous qualities, his learning is not worth much. The same is true here as well. In terms of chronological priorities, unless one establishes a viable means of supporting oneself there can be no Torah study. If one has to go around begging, he is not able to sit and learn. On the other side of the coin, if the physical welfare achieved doesn’t lead to Torah (spiritual growth), if one is just accumulating money for the sake of physical growth only, then the money is worthless.

This is what the Torah is telling us: In the sanctuary, we first put the Table because ‘If there is no food, there is no Torah.’ Then we put the Menorah opposite the Table, because we have to realize that the Table’s reason for being is to support the Menorah.

The Talmud in Shabbat 31a states that when a person reaches the world to come he is first asked the following three questions:

1. Did you fix times for Torah study?

2. Were you honest in business?

3. Did you look forward to the redemption?

These questions reflect the values that we are meant to prioritize.

The three questions listed reflect the ideals that we are to hold dearest: Study for personal and societal growth. Sanctify God’s name and show your faith in God by being honest in business. Be a positive, cheerful person who lives with faith even when times are rough.

These are not quantitative questions but qualitative ones: One is not asked how many pages of Torah we have studied or how many topics we have mastered, but whether we were steadfast and committed to learning and made the Torah a fixed part of our lives. We are not asked how much money we earned or how vast a fortune we acquired, but whether we conducted our business with honesty. We are not asked how long we spent yearning for the redemption to come, but whether we hoped for the future redemption. Were we optimistic and hopeful about the future?

Judaism teaches us intense concern for the quality of our lives. It tries to distinguish between peripheral matters and those that truly determine the significance of our lives, and it tries to keep us focused on the ultimate significance.


There should be two main purposes in a Jew’s life. They are:

1. To strive for individual perfection, in our character traits, in our relationship with God and in our relationships with fellow men.

2. To strive for societal perfection.

These two approaches have been the backbone of Jewish philosophy for millennia.