Inspiration and Perspiration
Family Edition

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icon the parsha in a nutshell

The Parsha in a Nutshell

This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks, available to read in full via the left sidebar (or below, if you are viewing this on your phone)

The ancient Hebrew word for hard work is avodah. This word also means “serving God.” Why? Because we believe that achieving any form of spiritual growth takes work – but with effort and regular action, it is possible.

There is a famous discussion between several great Sages, where they each suggest which is the most important line in the Torah – klal gadol baTorah.

Ben Azzai proposed the verse, “On the day that God created man; He made him in the likeness of God.” (Bereishit 5:1).

Ben Zoma preferred, “Shema YisraelListen, Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” (Devarim 6:4)

Ben Nannas said “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18) was even more fundamental to Judaism.

Then Ben Pazzi came up with a verse from this week’s parsha. He quoted the passuk, “One sheep shall be offered in the morning, and a second in the afternoon” (Shemot 29:39) – or, as we might say nowadays, Shacharit, Minchah, and Maariv. In a word: routine. In the end it was agreed that Ben Pazzi was correct.

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The meaning of Ben Pazzi’s statement is clear: all the high ideals suggested in the verses chosen by the other Sages – the human person as God’s image, belief in God’s unity, and the love of neighbour – count for little until they are turned into habits of action that become habits of the heart. We can all have great ideas, inspirations, the glimpse of a project that could change our lives. But what often happens is that a day, a week, or a year later the thought has been forgotten or become a distant memory, at best a might-have-been.

The people who change the world, whether in small or epic ways, are those who turn peak experiences into daily routines, who know that the details matter, and who have developed the discipline of hard work, sustained over time.

Judaism’s greatness is that it takes high ideals and turns them into patterns of behaviour. Halachah (Jewish law) involves a set of routines that – like those of the great creative minds – adapts the brain, giv­ing discipline to our lives and changing the way we feel, think, and act.

Much of Judaism must seem to outsiders, and sometimes to insiders also, boring and repetitive. We follow routines, we focus on tiny details, and sometimes this may seem like it lacks excitement, drama, or inspiration. Yet that is precisely what writing the novel, composing the symphony, directing the film, perfecting the killer app, or building a billion-dollar business is, most of the time. It is a matter of hard work, focused attention, and daily rituals. That is where all sustainable greatness comes from.

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These rituals have an effect. Doctors have now proven through scans and studies that repeated spiritual exercise reconfigures the brain. It gives us inner resilience. It makes us more grateful. It gives us a sense of basic trust in the source of our being. It shapes our identity, the way we act and talk and think. Just as tennis players need practice on the tennis courts and novelists need daily writing disciplines, we need daily rituals to lead us to spiritual greatness. Serving God is avodah, which means hard work, but it can lead to high achievement.

If you seek sudden inspiration, then work at it every day for a year or a lifetime. The more you seek spiritual heights, the more you need the ritual and routine of halachah, the Jewish “way” to God.

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  1. Do you find meaning in the everyday tasks of Judaism? Do they feel like work? 
  2. What can you do to make the daily mitzvot you do feel meaningful?
  3. Do you think religion should be more about intense spiritual experiences? Or do you agree with the point Rabbi Sacks made here, that ritual and routine can reconfigure the brain and change the way we feel, think, and act?

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A Story for Shabbat

A Gift Every Year

by Adv. Michal Cotler-Wunsh

Several years ago I was focused on a research project. My aim was to discover the impact of universities creating new rules to limit the freedom of speech that is so central to the mission of university education, and to principles of liberty and dignity. My curiosity especially piqued when I observed that even as well-intended “speech codes” were adopted to ensure inclusion, diversity, and equality on campuses, at the very same time there was growing evidence of antisemitism and targeted attacks on Jewish and Zionist students. Rabbi Sacks and I discussed the project.

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I talked of my worry that I needed to make my research and insights public as soon as possible. But the process of diagnosing, writing, and publishing these issues, especially as they are unfolding, is neither quick nor easy, and it was taking a lot of time. Among the incredible moments of inspiration that I carry with me and cherish is the humility and generosity with which Rabbi Sacks opened up about his own experience. He shared that he wrote his first book at the age of 40. I still marvel at the thought that from that year onwards, he published a book a year. It is testament to his incredible commitment to live what he preached, echoing this week’s parsha lessons.

Admirably, it is the tenacity of his daily routines, discipline, and hard work, and his commitment to be the bridge linking past and future, that allowed him to produce a gift every year. This is the inspiration that he left for each of us, with the responsibility of working at it every day, leaving a legacy of life-changing ideas that enable and empower us as individuals and a collective: to identify challenges as opportunities; to continue the journey he began; to apply the gift of his teaching in order to transform and heal our fractured world, one day at a time.

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The new series of Covenant & Conversation: Family Editions features one new voice each week. We hope that this will further illuminate the ideas of Rabbi Sacks and encourage others to continue these conversations with the next generation, as we share the stories and ideas of Rabbi Sacks scholars.

Michal Cotler-Wunsh is a lawyer, research fellow, and policy and strategy advisor. She served as an MK in Israel’s 23rd Knesset, and she is also a Trustee of The Rabbi Sacks Legacy.

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A Closer Look

Michal Cotler-Wunsh now shares her reflections on Rabbi Sacks and his writings.

What is your favourite quote from Rabbi Sacks’ essay this week?

“We can all have great ideas, inspirations, the glimpse of a project that could change our lives. But the people who change the world, whether in small or epic ways, are those who turn peak experiences into daily routines, who know that the details matter, and who have developed the discipline of hard work, sustained over time.” This one passage captures many of the challenges I face as a parent, a spouse, and a public servant.

What does this quote mean to you?

On a personal level, this quote equips me with an important message for my children as they experience their own personal challenges, whether in school or serving in Israel’s Defence Forces. It reminds us of something which can often be taken for granted, glossed over, or forgotten: the importance of valuing people of hard work, constancy, and action, which are qualities I find in my own partner, and which I deeply respect and cherish. This quote also emboldens and deepens my commitment to complete and publish my own first book.

How will you take this idea forward in your own life, and how should we?

Professionally and as a public servant, in particular at an intersection in which it is at times difficult to hear and rise above the clamour, it serves a critical reminder of hope, requiring action and courage. That we are on a continued nation-building journey; at a miraculous moment of Jewish return to sovereignty in Jerusalem, eternal city of hope; at the heart of our ancestral homeland after millennia of exile and persecution committed to equality. That it is, indeed we are, a work-in-progress – requiring avodah – discipline, habits of action, regular, mundane, repetitive routine, obsessed with details and hard work, sustained over time. That, committed to transcend and connect time and space, we must continue to pursue our generation’s role and responsibility with resilience, recognising and celebrating 75-year young imperfections, alongside tremendous accomplishments.

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Torah Trivia

Question: How many connections can you find between Aharon, the Kohen Gadol, and Achashverosh, the King of Shushan?

This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1500 Torah riddles, available worldwide on Amazon. For the answer, please head to the Education Companion section (directly below, in grey).

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Educational Companion

Torah Trivia: this week’s answer

Both Aharon and Achashverosh were leaders. They each married women with connections to royalty; Aharon married Elisheva bat Aminadav, who was from the tribe of Yehudah, whose descendants would later form the Kingdom of David, and Achashverosh married Vashti, who was the granddaughter of King Nebuchadnezzar.

Their names begin with the same letter (aleph).

They both married women whose names also begin with an aleph (Elisheva and Esther).

They both wore the bigdei kahuna (the priestly vestments that were worn exclusively by the Kohen Gadol), and they both used the vessel of the Mishkan/Beit HaMikdash. Maybe you can find some other links as well!

Covenant & Conversation Family Edition

Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.

With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.

“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks

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